Reading to the End: Why Most Christians Would Be Atheists if They Knew Only a Little More

Bryan John Appleby’s debut LP, Fire on the Vine, opens with “Noah’s Nameless Wife,” a deeply disturbing personal portrait of Noah’s Flood. If you haven’t listened to it before, go ahead and do that. I’ll wait.

Imagine the tumult of countless men, women, and children crying, moaning, and groaning into the air above the rising waters. Have you ever considered this? I’m not talking about loss of life. I am talking about the loss of lives—the actual creatures and humans that were cut off in those moments and days.

If you had been on the Ark (and in some way, you were if you are alive today) would not the cries of the dying earth ring in your ears for the rest of your life? When your “feet hit the [dry] ground,” would you not have a deep comprehension of the precious fragility of your life and the fearful cost of divine satisfaction? Even in the presence of the rainbow, would not the still ringing cries of the countless dead be a seed for doubt in your heart?

Bryan John Appleby was raised in the church, but visions like this one waylaid him in the city of doubt. He remains there to this day as far as I can tell. You can add to his number countless other artists (e.g., David Bazan) and sensitive souls who could not reconcile the concreteness of their doubts with the vagaries of their faith.

And to combat the apparent attrition of our youth, the church has attempted to construct a bypass around the city of doubt. You can see it even concerning Noah’s Flood. We paint emotionally neutralized, even cute, murals of it on the walls of our nurseries. We publish caricatures of the big brown boat and its crowded throng of Precious Moments animals—with at least one smiling giraffe, his perpetual neck poking out a wooden skylight.

Painting of Noah's Ark

We avoid the terror. We don’t want to picture the sky crumpling into the exploding earth with the pitch-black seed box of the Ark suspended between destructions in the waves as dark and hot as blood. We don’t want to imagine the subwoofer grumbling of the earth below the waters or the unrestrained thundering of the sea, the confusion of having no reference point that isn’t being uprooted and tumbled, the lightning flashes in the darkness that illuminate the bloodshot whites of the at once wide-open eyes of every spirit-enlivened creature brought together into the most primal and desperate community screaming out for and expending just one more breath.

That mural would never get approved for your church’s nursery, let me tell you.

But by straining to avoid—rather than confront—concrete doubt, the church has cut off one of the only paths to truly grounded hope. I firmly believe that an authentic hope cannot bypass doubt, but must pass through it. It may never really get entirely beyond it, actually. Sometimes doubt sticks with us like the hitch in Jacob’s hip—a constant reminder of our need. A hope that is not willing to harbor and process the harsher existential realities is simply not a real hope—it is at least not a mature or believable hope.

And it’s no wonder so many people leave the church when they start to internalize the doubt-inducing realities that any honest inquiry into the human condition will yield.  We can’t combat this by offering sugar-spoon-fed answers and a shoulder-shrugging disposal of thorny questions. When we remain ignorant of all the challenges—intellectual, emotional, philosophical, personal—to our faith, we leave faith like a rootless plant tender in the morning just waiting to be burned out at high noon.

Francis Bacon famously said, “A little knowledge of science makes man an atheist, but an in-depth study of science makes him a believer in God.” I would remove “of science” from that. It’s true of any field of inquiry. It stands to reason then, that most Christians would be atheists if they knew only just a little more. But knowing only a little more is not at all what God wants for us.

If your knowledge of divine satisfaction and the consequences of sin ends at the Flood, I can see how you would end up thinking God is a monster. I don’t even blame you. In fact, your atheism might be out of charity: it’s more charitable to not believe in God at all than to think him vicious and cruel. This is like cosmic Pride and Prejudice, but you didn’t get to the part where cosmic Darcy is revealed as a hero rather than a jerk. You closed the book too soon. Or maybe you fell asleep. In Ezra Stiles’s words, you succumbed to the “weariness of half-discussed unfinished inquiries.”

But I must be honest: I believe it is better to have cracked the book if only for a few pages than to continue to allow the eyes of your faith to stay closed to the details of what you say you believe. The end of God’s story has not been written yet, but that doesn’t excuse us from looking into what’s already there. This isn’t a show that you should wait to binge-watch after the finale. This is one to pay attention to as it develops. The solution to this dilemma of doubt is not to stubbornly hold on to ignorance. It is to dedicate ourselves, no matter how troubling it is, to look at these things: to trust the Author and to read all the way to the end.

Because it’s not just about you. It’s about the doubters stuck in the pub at Doubt City, talking to each other about why they lost faith in the Author and stopped watching the series or closed the book. They’re reassuring themselves that they’re not missing anything. And you come in, and maybe you listen for a while, and you say, “Yeah I felt the same way about that episode, too.” Because you really know what they’re talking about. Their hang-ups are not unjustified. This story is brutal at many points, but it’s also not over yet. So we should be able to continue: “But I’m telling you, I’m watching the newest season, and I can understand a little better why the Author needed to do that in season 2. He’s really turning the whole thing around. I can see it now. You should give it another chance.”

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That was part two of a discussion of the sublime and infinite. Part one is here: Training Wheels for the Infinite. I promise I’m going somewhere with all of this. Stay tuned for part three.

6 responses

  1. Thank you for enriching my vision of the flood with the imagery of my own neighbors—faces I know—screaming in terror; of the heat of the water and the noise of the earth’s crust splitting open beneath; of being storm-tossed in a creaky vessel that had never been tested, while the light of the sun is obscured. And enduring this day after day for weeks (maybe months). The idea that all points of reference — every known landmark — was unrecognizable after the waters retreat. All this denied by scientists who won’t interpret the evidence of the flood and subsequent ice age and a globe that may still be warming according to the words and timetable of the ancient scriptures. “Science” has already given us the impression that we “know” a little bit more [more than God knows?]—and enough to doubt. And tries to shut out the discussion of those scientists who find the evidence does support the ancient historical accounts.

    And more than this, how if this describes a watery earthly hell in a way we can understand, how terrifying and totally destructive the final hell of fire. What a great salvation is foreshadowed here in Noah’s faithful response to God’s call to trust Him!

    Yet it will take more than science to satisfy those sensitive souls you describe who cannot reconcile the fierce judgement against sin with the evidence of human love around them that points to a divine origin. What an unfathomable God! No wonder He tells us to fear Him as well as love him. I had to try to explain the marvel of this to my mother-in-law in her final years as she read through the Bible several times. She knows much more now than I do.

    I have a deep concern for the doubts that cause our young ones to leave the church, leave the faith. Thank you for giving me greater food for thought.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that it will take so much more than science to convince doubters. It’s not a matter of different evidence, after all, it’s a matter of different interpretations. Dealing with alternate interpretations of the same evidence requires us to open our ears and hearts in ways that are often uncomfortable. I appreciate your spirit. You love God obviously. I sometimes forget that what one praises and endorses often has a greater impact on the world than what one criticizes.

  2. A disclosure statement: I am a lesbian, a feminist, staunchly pro-choice, socialist, anti-racist, and firmly against colonialism and imperialism. But, I am also someone who was raised very, very, VERY Christian. Specifically, evangelical Protestant, very legalistic in a sort of space in between Southern Baptist and Presbyterian. I was also partially raised by staunch pentecostals (Assemblies of God). AWANA, youth group, children’s church, VBS, I was homeschooled using ABEKA and Bob Jones…all of that was a huge part of my upbringing.
    This was interesting…but it still seems to implore you to sit and wait instead of wrestling with the horrors of Christianity. I think this important to talk about, when evangelicals are villainizing Islam while refusing to acknowledge Christianity’s own atrocities, calling out all the horrible things in the Quran while in denial about everything in the christian Bible. Like the Noah situation. Or the prophet who told to kill a prostitute, cut her body up, and send those parts to the tribes of Israel. During a women’s bible study meeting once, while they were discussing how feminist they found the Bible, I mentioned that the Bible tells us that women are saved through childbearing. They told me no, that was a “Muslim thing.” And then, “But it’s in the Old Testament.” It’s not. So I pointed out the verse and the context in the New Testament in their own bibles. I was raised incredibly conservative, I know the Bible inside and out. I’ve read it countless times, memorized it, went to church more days out the week than not, and was homeschooled Christian. I grew up in an area saturated with missionaries; and even now, in Christian circles people tell me they’ve “always wanted to be a missionary there!” (My parents were not missionaries). I know all the sugarcoated responses to deep questions by heart. I no longer subscribe to Christianity because yes, there are far too many unanswered questions, and I don’t want to blindly follow something that is so unclear, or to worship a God who, at the end of the day, according to the Bible, is responsible for any and all pain that has ever happened in this world. It’s not that I’m impatient. I’m just not interested in complacency. I, and most people like me, don’t have a reason to hope for a change in the lack of clarity and in the painful truths that can’t be explained away or justified in any good way. I don’t know. I like how this starts, but then yeah, it just implores you to accept all the loose ends and the horrible truths. How is that better than refusing to acknowledge the doubts? Both require a certain amount of cognitive dissonance that is problematic and harmful.
    For the record, I like to ask questions. It’s truly the core of my being. I ask a lot of questions, about a lot of things. I like knowing things. I like figuring things out. I am not content to simply accept something when too many loose ends exist. How do we know, for instance, that the “one true religion” wasn’t snuffed out by the genocides carried out under the guise of “missions”–the reason Latin America is Christian, the reason that the US and much of Canada is Christian, the reason that gay and gender-nonconforming people are being jailed, tortured, and murdered in many countries in Africa. The bowed up answer “because Christianity is the only religion that doesn’t require you to work for your salvation” is disingenuous because we don’t know the meat of all of the religions that have existed on this earth throughout history. Or, why I should accept that the Bible as I know it (in English) is inerrant? It was translated by some pretty horrible people and in such a way as to keep the ruling class in total control. Not only that, but the Bible was originally written in multiple archaic languages or archaic forms that are fundamentally distinct from their modern counterparts. Predestination and free will can’t coexist, on a fundamental level. Not only that, but if God is truly all power, omnipresent, and all-knowing, he is truly responsible for every horrible thing that has happened, ever. Including, but not limited to, rape, child molestation and abuse and torture and neglect, genocide, etc. And, he picks and chooses he gets to go to heaven and who has to burn in fiery hell. That very much does not sound like someone I’d like to worship. It also goes against the concept of love and goodness, of purity and “righteousness.” But I digress.
    So, no, I’m not willing to sit in this state of complacency. I seek truth. I seek knowledge. I seek understanding. I’m not okay with picking and choosing parts of something to fit our comfort level. You know, like clinging desperately to Jeremiah 29:11 when it really just wasn’t written for you and very honestly doesn’t apply to every life (I mean, serial killers. Or tortured and murdered children. Etc). Or skimming over the “women are saved through giving birth” thing and the “slaves, obey your masters!” that was used to keep slavery in place in the South for centuries while zeroing your sights on “But the Bible says gays are going to hell!”
    I realize this is very long.

    • I’ll be addressing some of these things in the next two (yeah, things got a little out of hand over here) posts. I don’t think I could address all of this though. This is a lifetime of questions, and I don’t actually desire to have good answers for all of them. Because I’m still seeking and wrestling too, and I think a lot of questions are best left unextinguished. The thing is, deciding to still believe in God and the Bible or deciding to _not_ still believe in God and the Bible are both evidence-altering decisions. It is only because you have decided to not believe in God that you believe any continuing belief in him is “complacency.” But if that were true, it seems like that shoe would fit on the other foot.

      It takes a lot of courage to speak your mind, and I deeply value a robust diversity of perspectives. So thank you for including yours here!

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