On Being Questioned About Matters of Faith
I've been studying Genesis for the past year and have found the book's emphasis on violence rather striking. After Cain kills his brother, he worries that marauders in the regions of his exile will kill him. A few generations later, Cain's descendant Lamech brags about his own murderous exploits. Soon the earth is so "filled with violence," as God explains to Noah, that God decides "to put an end to all people" (6:13) in a great flood.
What struck me as I squirmed through the horrific flood account was God's violence in response to human violence. However evil the people of that time may have been—and surely they were no more evil than the people of today—I couldn't erase from my mind the resulting image of that genocide, the plaintive cries from high places, the gurgling screams and thrashing that must have horrified Noah and his family as all the world drowned. How could a loving God have done such a thing? I wondered. I struggled to understand what God's violence says about his character, and how it's relevant to my own life.
I made the mistake of putting my question before some Christian friends, and it unsettled them. Outraged them even. "God made those people," they explained, "so God had every right to destroy them."
My friends were right. Certainly God had every right to destroy the humans he'd created, just as I have every right to delete the words on my computer screen, as I often do when I write, and start over with just a fragment. And, from the imagined perspective of the Creator, destroying his creatures wasn't exactly on the same order as his creatures' destroying one another. One of my friends even coined the word unmake to differentiate God's violence from human violence.
Nevertheless, the answer rankled. It's one I've often received, in many variations, in response to my questions. "We won't understand this until we get to heaven," dedicated believers tell me. Or they remind me of God's supremacy. Such responses sidestep—or unmake—the question altogether. And, although I know God himself famously answered Job in the same vein—"Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?" (38:2)—I feel unjustly silenced. These believers are really saying, "I don't want to talk about this, and you shouldn't either." Few things bother me more than feeling squelched.
Students at the Christian university where I teach frequently report similar experiences. Though most of these students are lifelong believers, they're struggling—often for the first time—with matters of faith, considering new ideas unfiltered by parents or churches, and learning independent decision-making. Naturally they have questions, often unsettling ones, about God. When mature believers shut such strugglers down with pat answers or refuse to entertain these questions as legitimate, they grow frustrated. Some turn away from faith altogether.