He was a man passionate for God. In his late teens, Charles was rescued from a life of rubbish and filled with the Holy Spirit. His conversion dramatically changed the course of his life. Eager to put his new found faith into practice, Charles poured his life into evangelism. In his early twenties, he became close friends with Billy Graham. They hit the spotlight almost simultaneously. Their sincerity and fervent, yet thoughtful invitations to Christ were an effective combination. Charles’ success continued into his thirties. After attending Princeton Seminary, he carried on his evangelistic mission. A sought-after speaker and an able debater with a very compelling personality, he persuaded many to go to the mission field or to attend seminary. He also hosted a weekly show on CBS and was a rising star in the Presbyterian denomination. If you were looking for a hero of the faith, Charles Templeton was your man.
Despite his outward fervor and success, Charles was haunted by intellectual doubts about his faith. He simply could not reconcile what the Bible had to say with his own intuition and the “facts” of history and science. Charles judged the God of the Old Testament as a “petty, jealous, inept, vindictive, unjust, tribal god.” This god repented from making men and then killed them with a flood, hardened the heart of Pharaoh so he could murder all of Egypt’s firstborns, and ruthlessly commanded the slaughter of entire people groups. To Charles, this god simply was not compatible with the God of love he had been told about. Regarding the story of Job, Charles asked “How would you feel if God killed all your children just to make a point in an argument?” He denounced the story and the god as “immoral.” Finally, Charles shocked his congregation by saying he could no longer believe Christianity to be true, and walked away.
I once was blind but now I see?
I read about Charles Templeton’s spiritual derailment in his book, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith. People like Templeton pique my curiosity. Like a moth drawn to a candle flame, I am attracted to atheist websites. I want to understand how “the other side” thinks so that I know how to reach them. I also want to better equip young people to respond to the objections of agnostics like Templeton. But as I read the writings of former Christians and “ex-apologists,” my faith is shaken and my heart is saddened. The website, www.ex-christians.net, has the testimonials of hundreds who have abandoned the faith.
In my earlier years, I was naïvely optimistic about the facts of Christianity. The evidence was so clear, I reasoned, and the arguments so compelling, that anyone who walked away from the faith must have been simply uninformed. If only these people would read The Case for Christ or, I Don’t have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, then they would be able to see! But I was deeply disturbed to hear about former apologists walking away. “What ominous information have these people discovered that caused them to lose faith?” I feared that I too would discover some dark secret revelation and my own de-conversion process would some day be chronicled online. I had to dig deeper. As I read the arguments and reasons given by those “un-born-again,” I realized I wasn’t as equipped to answer their objections as I had thought. Here I encountered the “bitter root of unbelief that defiles many.” (Heb 12:15 NLT)
What is this compelling case against Christianity?
It isn’t well-documented historical details, or airtight logical proofs against God and Jesus Christ. Rather, it is bitter emotional attacks on the character of God. These writers question the idea of a God who sends billions to eternal conscious torment in hell: Hitler burned Anne Frank for an hour and we call him a despot, but God will burn her for all eternity! I also found several variations on the basic problem of evil: A God who stands by while cancer destroys a little girl and while another girl is raped and beaten can’t be good. If any father just stood there and let his son be run over by a truck, we all would call him cruel and immoral, yet God sits on His hands and lets tragedy after tragedy ruin those He is supposed to love! A God who once condoned slavery and commanded genocide, a God who leaves the fate of the billions of un-evangelized in the hands of a bumbling, self-centered church… To the sensitive “de-converted,” such a God is blatantly immoral and cannot exist.
God, are you there?
Reading these charges against the God that I thought I knew battered my faith. In some ways I felt betrayed and disappointed. As a bitter root of unbelief sprang up, I began to resent God. I fired my own accusations against Him, “Is picking up sticks on the Sabbath really worthy of death? Why do You create people against their will, put them where they won’t even have a chance to hear about Jesus, withhold Your grace from them so they cannot choose You, and then punish them for all eternity? Why don’t You just show Yourself to those who doubt? Your appearing didn’t violate Paul’s free will!” The residue of these bitter accusations formed a dark cloud of doubt over my soul. The doctrine of hell especially began to gnaw at me. After years of studying apologetics, I was shocked to find myself doubting His existence.
Just, Hold your Emotions…
Thankfully, God in his grace prompted me to step back from the emotional weight of these arguments. I decided to evaluate them critically. I soon realized that none of them could refute the overwhelming scientific and philosophical proof that there is a God. Just because a person doesn’t like God is certainly no proof that He doesn’t exist! Among these atheist writings, I saw no historical disproof of Jesus’ miracles or resurrection – only unfounded dismissals.
I felt a wave of relief when I realized that, as an apologist, I didn’t have to answer why God does what He does (a nearly impossible task) but rather show that these arguments do not refute the strong case for God’s existence. In fact, if there is a God, you would expect Him to do things beyond our comprehension.
What about the charge that God is immoral or cruel?
The question is begging to be asked, “By what standard can God be judged immoral?” The standard of man? Hardly! The irony is that if there is no God, there is no standard of morality. If there is no standard of good, then there is no rule for the way things should be. Morality would be nothing more than a changing description of what is. Slavery, genocide, and rape, in the atheist’s naturalistic worldview, can’t be called immoral because there is nothing outside of nature by which we can measure moral or immoral. So the atheist has no logical footing to call God or Christianity “immoral.”
How much do you really know?
As for the doctrine of hell and other charges that call God’s character into question, I recognized a critical fact. I am in no position to judge God. What percent of all knowledge do I possess? Far less than even one percent! I could never judge the plot of a book or the mind of the author from one phrase in that book. I could never judge the master plan of a blueprint if all I saw was a fragment that contained intersecting lines. Yet, here I was – a mere man – judging the plan of God from my extremely limited vantage point! Something that appears to be an act of cruelty can turn out to be an act of kindness when more information is revealed. A man plunging steel into another man has the appearance of cruelty – until you discover that the steel is a scalpel and the man is a surgeon removing a cancerous tumor.
Who am I to judge God? I don’t know who will be saved or who won’t be. I don’t know all the factors that prompted to God ask His people to wipe out the Canaanites. I don’t know what happens to someone after they die, so how can I accuse God of being unjust? I have insufficient data to make an accurate judgment! When Job began to chew the root of unbelief, he spit out the same questions that continue to be hurled at God today. God answered by putting Job in the hot seat. A few simple questions and Job was repenting in the dust, very much aware of little he really knew. God is not finished with the story.
Find Refuge in His Goodness
I don’t know the whole plan of God, but I do know His heart. Jesus Christ is the clearest revelation of God’s character. In Jesus, we find someone who longs to free the captives and to heal the broken-hearted, Someone who forgave His enemies while on the cross, and laid down His life for His sheep. Revealed in Christ, we see that God is pure goodness – there is nothing evil in Him. This should bring us comfort, but it should also alarm us. The wrath and jealousy of God flow from this uncorrupted goodness. Because we are corrupt, we don’t get upset with sin and can’t comprehend the wrath of God. We turn a blind eye to the destructive power of sin… until it affects us with its deadly sting. It is easy to wink at lust until your wife is raped. Then sin’s destructive power is suddenly abhorred. But the omniscient God knows in detail the destructive power of Evil. His love fuels His wrath.
We also have an enemy who complicates the problem. For millennia, Satan has been using his power of deception to cast doubt on the goodness of God. He causes men to sin, tempts them to destroy themselves, sabotages the paradise that God has given us, and then blames God!
God is not the problem!
He is the solution to our problem. If you walk away from God, you reject the only source of goodness. Yes, in this tiny piece of the picture, we see decay and misery and injustice, but we also see an abundance of goodness. If you are going to blame God for the evil in the world, at least thank Him for His goodness while you’re at it. Think about your own life. He has showered you with pleasure and joy and the hope of heaven where every wrong will be made right.
I have chosen to trust the character of God. He is the source of life and goodness. Apart from Him, words like goodness, justice, and morality are only illusions. Sure, there are some really tough questions when it comes to God’s plan and all the evil in the world. But how can I stop believing in the God who gave us the good gifts in life and instead put my faith in man, who is responsible for all this misery and pain? If I walk away from God, my problems only increase.
Comfort Amidst the Questions
In Christ, I don’t find all the answers to my intellectual problems, but I do find soothing comfort in the midst of my struggles. Only in Christ do I find hope and assurance. I cannot grasp God’s purposes for why He does what He does. But I know with confidence that the One who is defines goodness is good, and that the One is the standard of justice will do justly.
If you are someone who has walked away from God because of the objections mentioned above, you may be wondering if I have chosen the route of intellectual suicide in order to keep my faith. Am I letting my emotions override my mind? Absolutely not! Rather than be blinded by emotional rhetoric, I choose to think critically. When one encounters difficulties in his faith or worldview, it is easy to give up and walk away. But what will take its place? Yes, as a Christian, I struggle to reconcile the loving God revealed in Christ with the evil and suffering in the world, but if were to walk away from God; my intellectual problems would only increase. Can I really believe that the complex human body is the result of nothingness exploding? If matter is all that is, then thinking is nothing more than a chemical reaction – and the idea of truth disappears. For if someone disagrees with me, I can’t call his ideas untrue. His brain is merely having a different interaction of atoms. For an atheist, the intellectual problem of evil dissolves but the actual problem of pain and suffering still remains: the amputee is still missing their limb, the raped woman is still scarred, only now there is no hope of a solution, no hope of final healing.
Admitting that I only see a miniscule fraction of the big picture is not turning my brain off. Intellectual honesty means intellectual humility. Far from intellectual suicide, I choose to remain faithful to the One who makes thought valid and reason possible.
Where else are you gonna go?
I don’t see how it is foolish to take the word of the Man who conquered death and who has had more impact on this world than any dynasty or dictator. What would be foolish, is to take the word of mortal man over the word of God in the flesh. When you begin to doubt the character of God or if God is even there, meditate on how little you know, then look to Jesus. Ask yourself: Who are you going to believe? Another human who also only sees a tiny piece of the picture? Or someone who confirmed His claim to be God by rising from the dead? Who else has the words of life?
Charles Templeton remained agnostic till he died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2001. His life is a sober warning of the danger of putting our faith in limited and misinformed reason, rather than in the God of the universe, the One revealed in Jesus Christ. Don’t waste your life by making the same costly mistake. God is so worthy of our trust. When all is revealed, I believe that we will be consumed with awe and gratitude, at the beauty of His master plan. All doubt will vanish as we fall down in worship at His majesty and kindness.