Every day, some Christian somewhere is in the depths of a crisis of faith created by a weight of doctrine that they are not obliged to bear. In this article, I will briefly summarize some of the main culprits.
1. Young Earth Creationism and a worldwide flood
When I was in high school, I lent my copy of It’s a Young World After All to my science teacher. I insisted that gopher wood had been found embedded in a glacier on Mount Ararat (and that the outline of a ship had been spotted by satellite!). We just needed more time for the science to be confirmed. (For more on that sad chapter in my life, read my book.)
If Adam wasn’t historical then why think Jesus is? A classic example of the slippery slope fallacy, but once many people buy the dubious assumptions they keep on sliding into atheism.
2. Literal-historical readings of biblical genocides
Many Christians cope by ignoring texts like Deuteronomy 20, Joshua 6, and 1 Samuel 15. Or they focus on a spiritual lesson: e.g. We must trust the Lord and give everything to him in our lives. Or they attempt to defend the genocide: that entire society — from elderly to infants — were so wicked that they needed to be eradicated in a mass slaughter!
Needless to say, once one takes the bull by the horns with the third option, the cognitive dissonance begins to build for many. But no Christian should be told that their orthodoxy is contingent upon a literal-historical reading of the genocides in the Old Testament. Christianity does not require the sacrifice of conscience, as Martin Luther rightly recognized. And the rock of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus, not historical genocides.
3. What about those who have never heard?
You must believe in Jesus in order to be saved. As for all the peoples who lived around the world for millennia without ever hearing a shred about Christianity, they’re lost. That’s why evangelism is so important: Romans 10:9 and 13. And if Jews died rejecting Christianity in Auschwitz, well, maybe they accepted the Gospel with their dying breath. But otherwise…
In fact, Christians have always had a diversity of views on these complex questions. It’s a travesty that anyone should lose their faith over a narrow and half-baked soteriology predicated on propositional profession in this life.
4. Penal Substitution
Can the guilt of one person be transferred to another? Did God’s wrath need to be placated with a sacrifice? Was our guilt transferred to Jesus so that he could be sacrificed to satisfy the wrath of the Father? This picture, deeply influential in Protestantism, certainly runs afoul of some deeply-seated assumptions about the nature of guilt and punishment. What is more, it seems to appeal to some deeply problematic assumptions about the divine being that frame God as akin to the wrathful volcano deity who needs a virgin sacrifice or he’ll smite the Pacific village below with molten lava.
At least, that’s the way some people see it. The good news about the good news is that there are many other interpretive frameworks for the reconciling work of the cross than this one.
5. Eternal Conscious Torment
Why would God resurrect people only to subject them to an eternity of torture in body and mind? What actions could warrant a punishment so extreme? In a society that is increasingly gravitating toward non-punitive and retributive models of jurisprudence, this venerable doctrine appears year by year more out of step, retrograde, medieval.
So it is worth keeping in mind that back to the early centuries of the church, many Christians have endorsed other doctrines of posthumous punishment, including models that are restorative rather than punitive. Suffice it to say, nobody should be kept out of Christianity because they cannot reconcile their faith with a punishment of infinite duration and unimaginable intensity.