“I am a former Christian minister who is now an agnostic—not an atheist, not a theist, not a sceptic, and certainly not indifferent.(1) So begins the story of Charles Templeton, one time rousing evangelist, friend and counterpart of Billy Graham, turned renounced believer, professed agnostic. He is quick to clarify the meaning of such a title. “The agnostic does not say, as is commonly believed, ‘I do not know whether or not there is a God.’ He says, ‘I cannot know… He asserts that a combination of historic circumstances has made Christianity the dominant religion of the Western world but that it is not unique, there being a host of other religions and a variety of other deities worshipped or revered by millions of men and women in various parts of the world.”(2)
In his final book, Farewell to God, Templeton describes the unraveling of more than twenty years of ministry and a faith that was steadily besieged by doubt. His objections range from scathing frustrations with biblical stories to pained confusions with the ways of the world and the God who supposedly cares for it. One question in particular remained with me throughout the book: “If God is a loving Father, why does he so seldom answer his needy children’s prayers?” he asks. The question isn’t new to me, and like Templeton, I can rattle off an explanation based on a scriptures I know by heart. But the picture that comes to life within this question is far more personal than any routine answer would satisfy. Many wrestle through this question similar to the way we had to wrestle with the presence and absence of our own parents.
Elsewhere, Templeton critiques the world and what he sees as its “abundance of gods,” though he treats each one with the curious requirement of unquestioning obedience as if it was the only god that mattered. He describes it a point of contention—even a point of absurdity—that in the vast sea of divine beings on this planet, Christianity proposes the idea that there is only one God. Across history, there are more gods than any of us can keep track of, and they seem to come with as many descriptions as the people who created them. On top of this, he argues, a great number of these gods come with qualities that leave much to be desired in the first place; they are jealous, hierarchical, vengeful, and demanding—and very much a product of our predecessors.
Many of these observations are troublingly undeniable. I was listening recently to a collection of interviews on the subject of spirituality. They asked hundreds of people the same question: simply, “Who is God?” But the answers were as diverse as the patches on a quilt, and the finished product was not at all a comforting blanket of great divinity, but little more than a mat of troubled chaos, gapping holes, and contradiction. Coming to the end of that message, I sighed deeply—how can anyone muddle through such a mess? We seem to make gods in our own images as fast as we can get them off the assembly line.
Templeton and the many who echo him are absolutely right to point out as troubling the sheer number and seeming characters of these divinities, who “hate every people but their own…[who] are jealous, vengeful…utter egotists and insist on frequent praise and flattery.”(3) In fact, the prophet Jeremiah made a similar point. He called it a “discipline of delusion” to chase after these gods and their demands, but particularly as if it were all a matter of preference and not a matter pertaining to what is real. “They are altogether stupid and foolish,” he wrote of these individuals. “In their discipline of delusion—their idol is wood” (Jeremiah 10:8). The world of gods is indeed a chaotic place. And yet, isn’t it somewhat hasty to reject every divinity in the room simply because there is more than one? In doing so, it would seem we use our own complaint against Christianity (it is arrogant to say there is only one God) as the reason to reject it (it is ridiculous that there is more than one god).
But the description of angry gods in abundance brings me back to the question raised at the beginning. “If God is a loving Father, why does he so seldom answer his needy children’s prayers?” The reason this question demands more than a pat answer is because it deals with disappointment, neglect, silence, and heartache. The question pulls on the very shirtsleeve of a vital relationship. Perhaps it is subtle, but the question itself seems to point to something inherently different about this God—something that sets this Father significantly apart from the sea of divine and impersonal chaos. The gods Templeton and many others describe do not at all seem like gods we would miss if they were far away. They are not the kind of gods we would be saddened by if they were silent, or dare to be angry with if they disappointed us. Like all children with parents that we do not always understand, sometimes we ask questions that aren’t entirely fair (or even sensible). And sometimes we ask questions that give away the relational presence of the one we wrestle with under the surface.
I believe it is more than helpful to recognize the human capacity to create gods and chase after delusion. But so I think it is vital to recognize that not all gods are created equal, and there is reason to believe there might be one who isn’t created at all.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Charles Templeton, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996), 18.
(3) Ibid., 22-23.
A note from Ravi Zacharias
Hello to all our friends and supporters. I have a special prayer request for two programs I have been invited to do with commentator and broadcaster Glenn Beck at his studios in Dallas, Texas, on Monday, November 10. I met with Glenn recently, and he is a delightful person to know and talk with. He is on his own spiritual journey. He would like to interview me on my latest book, Why Suffering?, and also on my spiritual journey.
I am grateful for this unique opportunity, but it will be a tough one. I am a deeply committed evangelical Christian. Glenn is a member of the LDS church. So in that sense we have deep distinctives. I firmly believe in the finished work of Jesus Christ and his exclusive claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. I believe in the Old and the New Testament as the sufficient and final word for faith and conduct. So any addition or detraction from those truths would be in contravention of our Lord’s words.
Therefore, the challenge when I am speaking with another from a different belief (a situation I find myself in often) is to navigate carefully and wisely. At the same time, as a Christian apologist, I must be in arenas where there are counter-perspectives and clearly present what I believe. That is our field of calling, whether talking to skeptics or those of other beliefs. Unfortunately, in this day of mass communication, my words and my presence can be taken out of context or misrepresented. So please pray for me as I handle a worthy opportunity with wisdom to present the truth and the book that touches on the most painful malady facing all of humanity: “Why Suffering?”
One of the most important purposes in such interviews is to talk to people about the slow moral death of our culture. A moral soil is needed for anything worthy to flourish. With that goal in mind I talk with those who share that common concern. Moral soil and truths in our worldview are not the same. But that moral soil is indispensable for truth to stand a chance. It is that soil that I seek to prepare so that the truth of the gospel may be planted.
Thank you for your prayers. Need I say that a lot of conversations in such settings are very private? I will honor that and pray that the truth will triumph and that which was come to terms with in private will come to public fruition. I will never compromise my belief in the final and sufficient work of Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior. May every conversation bring others to that same conviction. Only the Holy Spirit of God can bring that change in any heart.
As RZIM celebrates our 30th year as a ministry, we are reminded that our goal must always be the glory of God. Please do pray for wisdom for me and for our team as we navigate these challenging times in our culture. We are grateful for your continued support as we seek to articulate the beauty and credibility of the gospel of Jesus Christ in influential settings across this country and around the world.
Ravi Zacharias will be interviewed by Glenn Beck on Monday, November 10, at The Blaze studios in Dallas, Texas. You can listen to Ravi on The Glenn Beck Radio Program from 10:00am-11:00am CST. Check your local listings or listen online at: http://www.glennbeck.com/. You can watch Ravi on Glenn Beck’s TV show at 5:00 p.m. CST on various cable networks and online at: http://www.theblaze.com/tv/.