At 20 years old, I applied for and was accepted into a local bible college.  I was slated to begin studying at the beginning of September 1994 but due to some difficult life-circumstances, I had to delay my start-of-study date until January 1995.

In the meanwhile, I furnished myself with theology books by H.A. Ironside, cassette tapes by John Hagee, whatever fiction or theology I could find by C.S. Lewis, and any theology primer I could scrabble together from used book stores, the local library, and the church bookshelves.

I became a reading and listening machine.  I wrote a journal reflecting on things I was learning.  I kept notes in pages of books.  I took notes during sermons and recorded materials.  I conversed with anybody and everybody who was willing to take on the difficult and often inflammatory topics of religion and God.  And by the end of my foray into all things theological, I landed squarely on the start of the January 1995 semester, enrolled in 5 classes, and began to soak-in as much as I could from my professors.

I would be lying if I were to say that I was diligent, that I applied myself methodically to learning and gaining the skills expected of me for my programme (bachelor of religious education).  Two very real distractions came about almost immediately:

  1. I was absorbed into a ready-made community of people who were like-minded and, as I thought then, progressive and intellectual.  Just that much alone was enough to explode my social interests, and I soon found myself talking at length with all sorts of people, going out and experiencing para-church gatherings (events and organisations sponsored by churches, but not taking place in church), and rallying with large smatterings of other Christians at the nearby "secular" universities to watch debates about the existence of God.  Essentially, I let myself get carried away with socializing while neglecting my studies.  In a sense, I was okay with that because I found the subject matter quite easy, overall.  But my marks suffered, regardless, due to the resulting lack of time to memorize what I needed to for exams, and because I ended up having to skip classes to catch up on sleep: my term papers were usually written overnight the night before they were due.

  2. I met a young lady toward the end of my first semester and fell in love.  It goes without saying (but I'll say it, anyway), that my mind was not at all in my studies at that point.  And when that relationship ended (10 months later), I was unable to concentrate on anything.  I was a wreck, and struggled to keep an interest in anything, even my own personal hygiene.

Mid-way through my programme, I enrolled in a class called "Radical Evil In Soul and Society."  The course was an extended look into a particular issue in theology: theodicy (the justification of divine goodness in the face of earthly evils).  That class gave voice to some very deep, distressing issues about the reality of evil in the world alongside my personal faith-claims to God's omnimax attributes (omnibenevolence, omniscience, omnipotence).  And while it is that I had already come to question how God's alleged goodness could continuously allow for evil and suffering, learning various theodicies further opened my eyes to the difficulties in reconciling God's goodness with earth's suffering.

The end of that class concluded two very distinct but, to my mind, horrid conclusions.  The first conclusion, to quote Shakespeare, was that "all's well that ends well."  If God's will is that there is evil in the world, then he has a certain purpose for its daily allowance.  Suffering now will be justified by rapturous union with God later.  

Such a conclusion, to me, was a full breach of trust: I was required to have faith in a God who was prepared to let me and every other human being on the planet suffer all on the premise that one day everything will be better.  Union with God will somehow justify and make better all the evils endured during our short, mortal lives, before we "shuffle-off this mortal coil" (Shakespeare, Hamlet).  How could I trust (i.e., have faith) in a God that was content to watch everyone suffer while claiming, all the while, that he was good and powerful enough to destroy evil (cf. Jer. 32:27Rev. 19:6)?

The second conclusion was that God allows suffering because his ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).  In a nutshell, because God is omnimax, everything he attends to necessarily exceeds human understanding.  This is not to say that common human understanding cannot apprehend anything, but it does state quite clearly that God understands everything better than people, no matter how smart people are.  The implication then is that questioning the continuance of evil and suffering despite God's alleged capacity to end it is unfaithful, or untrusting toward God.

In other words, God's motives and reasons are a mystery, and people should be quiet and trust him.  Your suffering, my suffering, anyone else's suffering in this line of thinking is justified on the basis of a muzzle: shut your mouth and trust God.  God's ways are mysterious, or higher, or beyond our ways, however, only necessitates a muzzle if questioning brings with it an implicit threat of action against the questioner.  And in the case of Christianity, too much questioning of God, too much distrust of God is sinful and worth of hellfire.  So the end result of questioning God's reasons for evil and suffering is the implicit threat of eternal suffering.

Nothing is solved in such a convoluted, and cock-eyed manner of thinking.  God gets of the hook by being superior and slippery, and human suffering continues on schedule.  The mystery of God's ways, and the muzzle on humanity both directly compound the problem of suffering by contributing to it through intellectual, emotional, and psychological abuse.  A father who beats his children and refuses to explain why is not let off the hook for being more knowledgeable about life than the children he beats.  He is put in court, examined, found guilty and placed in prison, no matter how much good he did in other areas of his life.  But God gets a free pass, a get-out-of-jail card because why?  Because he's God.  And how could I possibly understand his ways.

My confidence in God was significantly shriveled by the conclusions reached in that class.  Although it was not the professor's intention to diminish the confidence of his students that God was good, loving, and trustworthy, the final conclusions of his class and the material examined led to the very real possibility that the Christian deity may, in fact, be false, dangerous, even evil.

One of the strongest characteristics of religious faith, however, is that it is a quality nurtured in irrational biases.  There is always a reason -- more likely, an excuse -- to have faith, to trust, to believe in the surpassing nobility and goodness of God regardless of the evidence otherwise.  As Jason Long put it in his 2008 publication The Religious Condition: Answering and Explaining Christian Reasoning:

"The opinions of individuals with ego involvement, emotional investments, or vested interests in the outcome of a debatable issue are less likely to change when confronted with new information because people have an innate inclination to seek only evidence that confirms their pre-established beliefs.  We can describe this phenomenon, termed confirmation bias, as the tendency to seek out answers that will confirm our beliefs and ignore the answers that will not" (p. 24).

I certainly had all three elements of Long's prescription involved.  I was personally involved (had ego-involvement) with my chosen religion, was emotionally invested (my church/faith life was my substitute family), and was dedicating my life to the vindication and truth of Christian faith-claims (I was in bible college to study theology, after-all).  Naturally, with such powerful biases undergirding my religious faith, I was not so easily going to give-up my faith.  There had to be counterevidence that gave some solidity to the shadows of my faith.

And there was!  Or, at least, so I believed.  And the evidence that kept my faith buoyed despite my swell of doubts was one simple thing: miracles.  I'll explain more in part 4...

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