Apologetics: Why The Questions Matter More Than The Answers

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Recently, I got a question from a reader who asks,

"If God was a loving God, why did he destroy large groups of people, such as the Egyptians in the time of Moses, many of whom were innocent children?"
The typical response you'll find to this question in apologetic works and biblical commentaries is to try to explain why it is somehow "loving" to do this. I discuss this in my book Disarming Scripture and note that as a result we find that otherwise good and compassionate people find themselves justifying moral atrocities in a misguided attempt to defend the Bible and their faith.

I don't want to do that. I'm convinced that Jesus does not want us to do that. Jesus did not ever seek to justify hurting people. He did just the opposite. He confronted the religious leaders of his time who were using the law to justify shutting people out from God's love. 

So what I would want to say here is that this is a really good and important question to ask. It's a question motivated by compassion. It's the kind of question the prophets and Jesus asked. Getting to the answer for this question has a lot to do with understanding that the Old Testament is a multi-vocal book. But much more importantly I would want to affirm this question as a good question to ask. That is, I would want to say, never stop questioning suffering, never stop protesting it.

The real faith-based answer to the classic question of theodicy "why would an all-powerful and loving God allow suffering and evil?" is not to offer a justification, but to recognize that when we question suffering and evil, when our hearts cry out "No!" to human suffering, we are crying out for compassion and love and Jesus-shaped restorative justice. We should never stop doing that. We should never stop asking questions motivated by compassion.
It's often said that the questions we ask are more important than the answers, but what does that actually mean? It certainly doesn't mean that the answers don't matter. After all, why bother to ask a question in the first place if the answer doesn't matter? 

The reason asking questions is important is because that's how we learn and grow. The goal therefore is not to get to a point where we stop asking questions and have all the answers. That may be how children idealistically view their parents, but we grown-ups know it is not the reality of actually being a parent or an adult. Instead the goal is to learn how to ask, and seek, and knock. Asking questions is a healthy characteristic of a person who is growing and maturing. If we shut down those questions we shut down that growth. That's why the questions are so important.

So I always want to encourage people to ask questions. Learning how to do this is not a problem to be overcome, it's the means to growth. That's something Christians have a really hard time getting. Often the goal is to give answers in order to stop you from asking questions. The questions are seen as a threat to faith. They are seen as doubt. 

There's a world of difference however between the kind of answers that are intended to get you to stop asking questions, and the kind of answers that are intended to help you to work through your faith in an honest way leading to maturity and character. One is just a form of spin. It's a slight of hand that gives you a clever answer that really just dodges the issue. The other is born from someone who really has struggled with the same questions themselves, sharing what they have found, and inviting you into the journey with them. 

In short, there are two kinds of apologetics: honest apologetics, and spin apologetics. Sadly more and more our culture is characterized by spin and not by honesty. In a recent interview, Peter Enns commented that in mainstream Evangelicalism you can ask anything, but there are only certain answers you are allowed to arrive at. That's because the desire is not to actually seek truth, but to uphold the ideological/doctrinal party-line. That's spin-apologetics.

I don't know about you, but I want to seek truth, even if it is hard and uncomfortable. I want to have a faith that is rooted in reality, not in wishful thinking. But it's not just bare facts we are talking about here. Theology is about figuring out what is good, and what leads to life. When I speak of seeking "truth" I'm really talking about seeking what is good. 

When Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life" I see all of those as integrally tied together. It's about that way of Jesus, which is rooted in reality, and which leads to life. That's what I am seeking. When I question it is in order to pull me closer to that, like a moth drawn to a flame. I hunger and thirst for that life-giving truth. That's why I question. I question so I can grow.


At 4:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is the fathers job to keep the cancer at bay ..He alone carries that burden otherwise evil would flourish .. Jesus teaches his flock how god wants them to be .. it is not necessary for them to get there hands dirty ...

At 4:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is the fathers job to keep the cancer at bay ..He alone carries that burden otherwise evil would flourish .. Jesus teaches his flock how god wants them to be .. it is not necessary for them to get there hands dirty ...

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you worship the father you just get the father no one gets to the father except 50 rough the son who judges .. If you worship the son you get the father and the son because the fathers job is to kill the cancer and he is the king of kings ... The father and his kingdom will help Jesus to establish his own kingdom

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You cannot serve two masters ...

At 5:22 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Once again a very insightful and prescient post. I agree very much with you, Derek, and I think a focus on continual questioning and not accepting anything as set in stone is a very appropriate and healthy approach to theology. This is what science does (as you know) and I like how you incorporate the idea of empirical evidence for harm or lack of harm into our moral framework. I for one am continually questioning what I believe and the evidence for believing that. There is much that stays steady but some aspects are less well supported and change frequently. The foundations that hasn't changed is Jesus and more recently, enemy love.

At 6:48 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Christina, your comments honestly sound kind of crazy. We'd be happy to have to be part of the conversation but this is not the place for doctrinal rants. Please pull it together

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"There is much that stays steady but some aspects are less well supported and change frequently. The foundations that hasn't changed is Jesus and more recently, enemy love."

Yes, I share those same "fundamentals" too. Funny how our "fundamentals" are not doctrinal formulations, but rather have to do with how we experience love and redemption.

At 12:21 PM, Blogger Paul Sherland, IX Brand SEO Services said...

Derek, I've read Disarming Scripture twice now and one of the insights gained from your book was that we should let our sense of morality inform our questions and help us judge the answers. Perhaps that sense of morality or "the better angels of our nature," as Lincoln put it, is a gift from God and is as much nature as nurture. If you think about it, the development of a sense of morality or empathy is hard to explain with a "survival of the fittest" view of evolution. That sense of morality can help us respond to tough questions and apply the teachings of Jesus in our current time.

At 6:57 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Very solid as always Derek. In thinking about what you say here, it made me recall the phrase, *God is not a problem or riddle to be solved, but a Person to be known* I think the ancient Greek thinking style as well as that of the Enlightenment fogs up our ability to see and think with the eyes you describe here. I see in the Psalms, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes alot of questioning which truly never gets answered, and i don't think a logical,reasonable intellectual answer would ever suffice. I think an experience of Gods love,presence,comfort and peace is the real answer being sought in the questions. It is why I alwayus come back to trhe Cross when my soul is seeking and hurting for relief and help.

At 8:11 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes when we cry out "why!?" we are not so much seeking an explanation, as we are seeking a hug... seeking comfort, assurance, closeness as you say. That's where the theology of the cross comes in, the idea of the suffering God who is with us in our pain and struggle.

At 9:35 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Good thoughts. For what it's worth, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson had some stuff to say about the development of human compassion that I fond fascinating. He explained that humans becoming more social-- including caring for the weak--was a later stage of evolutionary development. That is, as a society where things are not "dog eat dog" we can accomplish much more than we can when we are in the "every man for himself" mode. In short, we humans through being social, through working together, can adapt to our environment at an exponentially faster rate than by genetic evolution. That's cultural evolution.

At 2:42 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

One can also think of such episodes as the Exodus and of the Conquest of Canaan as God in His all-knowing wisdom allowing what was temporally necessary at a particular point in human history and cultural development in order to not undermine human freedom of the will (including the freedom to reject His ways and the natural temporal consequences that ensue from such choices) while at the same time intervening in response to the prayers of the faithful in order to preserve the race through which the Messiah, who was to be the Savior of the whole world not just the Hebrew race (and even, some say, of those who had already died without hearing the gospel), would come. In other words, God allows temporal defeat (death/judgment, "winners" and "losers" in certain earthly battles) in order to ensure His winning of the ultimate spiritual war against death and hell on behalf of all humankind (which for some of us includes, at least potentially, the salvation of all those who perished in such temporal judgments as are under discussion here, for Christ is said in the NT to have preached the gospel even to those imprisoned in Hades after His death, anticipating His glorious Resurrection). I am, myself, I confess, based on the overarching message of the NT and the faith of the early Church, a hopeful Orthodox Trinitarian universalist.

I cannot agree more with Derek, it is a false hermeneutic and spiritually dangerous to draw conclusions about what those OT historical accounts claim about the will of God only within the immediate historical context and its anthropomorphisms and not from the perspective of the fullness of the revelation we have been given in Christ, much less to extract prescriptions from their literal content for Christian engagement in the world today (which view would have horrified the moral sensibilities of the early Fathers of the Church).

At 3:31 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


"...in order to not undermine human freedom of the will"

What I have had to conclude is that God simply does not prevent anything. God can work for our good, even in the midst of evil, but God does not prevent evil.

The Old Testament struggles with this idea, at times claiming that God causes everything including evil, then saying God does not cause evil or unjust suffering, then complaining that God actually is not preventing unjust suffering.

With the NT we see that idea taken further where God in Christ suffers unjustly. Still God does not stop unjust suffering, but is with us in that suffering and somehow with Christ we can overcome that unjust suffering too.

"... in order to preserve the race through which the Messiah"

This part I want to object to. That argument of "preserving a race" by the means of attempted genocide sounds too much like the arguments used throughout human history to justify genocidal slaughter. It makes all of my moral alarm bells flash red. I hope you know I really appreciate and respect you, and say this with love.

My stance of seeing God on the cross is that this shows us that God would rather stand on the side of the victims and be accused of being weak and powerless, than have us seek to justify God's actions and in so doing make God a participant in harm.

At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

I am really liking the comment that God allows, as opposed to causes, everything. This removes God from being responsible for evil, allows us to maintain our freewill and ability to choose which is needed for love. I think the Psalms and Ecclesiastes make very solid points as well in showing peoplecrying out with their whole being to God for His help. I wonder how Job, with all that happened to him, was able to maintain such an attitude of acceptance and not complain or get angry with God?? I think Jesus in living the life He did as a human but in complete obedience to the Father demonstrates the life God calls us too. It is so easy i think for anyone to want circumstances to be changed, to want to have no problems, no pain, no issues that annoy us. God shows that it is just not reality and even He goes through all of it, but with love that never fails. Why do all of you think we struggle with perfectionism so much as if for us it were even remote;ly possible??

At 10:45 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

"This part I want to object to. That argument of "preserving a race" by the means of attempted genocide sounds too much like the arguments used throughout human history to justify genocidal slaughter. It makes all of my moral alarm bells flash red. I hope you know I really appreciate and respect you, and say this with love."

Derek, I find myself mostly agreeing with you here, and rest assured I understand any challenge you would offer to my thinking when those inner alarms start sounding as an act of love. :-) But the question occurs to me, what if God knew the Egyptians/Canaanites would have completely assimilated and/or wiped out Israel and its worship of Yahweh? I agree with you God does not prevent evil--except perhaps insofar as His intervention is invited by human prayer and cooperation--so isn't this a logical possibility? And, what of His plan of salvation then? I'm just wondering out loud here. I also don't like where rationalizations like this can go, but I think it is more likely such an explanation could be misinterpreted and misapplied where the whole of the Bible is viewed in a fundamentalist manner with a flat literalism where all parts are seen as equally binding in the same way at all points. For those of us who don't read the Scriptures in that manner, I'm not sure it necessarily follows we could justify our own participation in genocide on the grounds of Israel's ancient history. Viewed as a temporary provision only to preserve the advent of Christ and fulfillment of Christ's work in the midst of a developmental cultural reality of a fallen world, I don't know why we would need to consider such historical events prescriptive for all believers everywhere and even after the advent of Christ (which it would need to be in order to justify genocide in the Christian era). That said, this is only my own wondering. I'm not aware that any Orthodox nor any considered a Father in the Eastern Orthodox tradition has ever thought to offer such a rationalization for OT genocide. All the early Christians were pacifists. This is my Western rationalistic American speculation talking. I think Dostoyevsky would have little to do with such a rationalization (referencing here David Bentley Hart's use of, the character, Ivan Karamazov's arguments presented in The Brothers Karamazov in his critique of sub-Christian theodicy in The Doors of the Sea).

That God overcomes evil, not by thwarting human (or angelic) freedom and preventing it, but by entering our world and taking evil's consequences fully on Himself in complete solidarity with those oppressed by it (all of us), even entering our death to destroy it from within, thereby robbing evil of its ultimate power is such a heartrendingly beautiful truth of the gospel, I am utterly undone by it! Yes, I totally agree, God doesn't either prevent or cause evil, much less (as the Calvinist suggests) need it to fully manifest His glory of fulfill His purposes in creation! Neither, praise God, will He suffer defeat in the face of it. Ultimately He will consummate its destruction begun in Christ.

At 6:42 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


I disagree that it would be a plausible explanation because it would be evil for God to do that. If the God of the universe can't think of a better way to solve a problem than attempted genocide, then he is unworthy of the job title of "God" and needs to resign. Heck, I can think of lots of better solutions, and I'm certainly not qualified for the job. Is God less wise, and less creative, and less good than me?

Note that the assumption being made is that if the OT says something, there must be a legitimate and good reason for it, it must be right somehow. However the reality is the OT is multi-vocal. That means it has some stuff that is right about God, and some stuff that is wrong. It has some stuff that is good, and some stuff that is bad and immoral. Once you allow this possibility, the simple explanation is that when the OT says "then God commanded this horrifically evil thing" that the authors here are dead wrong, and God did no such thing. That is not how our God overcomes evil. The OT does not always reflect a true picture of who God is.

At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- I think what you are saying is very true. God created us, we are not perfect inerrant and infallible. WE- meaning humans- wrote the Bible. Why then should it be unlike us??? If God wanted a *perfect book* why would He use imperfect people to write it??

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Laura said...


I'm currently reading your book and appreciate your insights. I have a question, though, about your comment where you said that it would be evil for God to have wiped out people groups to save the Israelites. I sometimes wonder, why do people assume God is good in the way we think of good? When we think of good we think Mother Teresa or Ghandi, someone who is peaceful and loving and always forgiving. But why do we think God's goodness is like that? And why do we think he's perfect? Is it because the Bible says he's perfect? But what if the Bible is wrong? How does any human know whether God is perfect and good and all-loving?

Do we just make these assumptions because we think that God should be perfect, loving, all-powerful? But what if there is a higher being, but he's not perfect and loving and all powerful? Why is that never considered?

Thanks! Sorry, I'm not trying to be argumentative, but those thoughts always come to my mind!!

At 6:01 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Well I suppose if God were not good, then God would be the devil and it would be our moral imperative to defy and oppose him.

Actually, it was common for the ancient people at the time of the OT to think of their gods as not being good, but rather as petty celestial tyrants who would cause human suffering because of a bad mood. So they sacrificed (both animals and people) to appease these tyrannical gods so so they would not have disease or famine or plagues. Slowly the Hebrew conception of God developed away from this understanding (god = raw power) towards the idea that God was characterized by righteousness (i.e. by goodness) including especially, the prophets stressed, care for the widow and orphan.

At 6:43 PM, Anonymous Laura said...


Thanks for your answer. It definitely does seem like, as you say in your book, that peoples' view of God changed over time. But how do you know that the New Testament version of God embodied in Jesus is closer to what God is truly like? And what do you make of Paul's sayings in Romans 9, where he talks about God having mercy on those whom he wills to have mercy on? Also, you say in your book that we need to look at what Jesus says to find out what God is really like, but doesn't Jesus also talk about hell and judgement? And why does he advocate forgivness of enemies and yet it seems like Judas, who is the ultimate betrayer, received no forgiveness in the end? And what do you make of the book of Revelation and what it says about Jesus destroying nonbelievers during the second coming?

At 1:52 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Laura- great questions you ask. I have asked many of the exact same things. i am sure Derek will answer you but i just wantedto share a few thoughts. The word so often translated *hell* is actually gehenna, it refers to the valley of hinnom which was a garbage dump outside jerusalem where bodies were burned and incinerated. The jews Jesus was speaking too would have known clearly what he was referring to as far as judgment. Also, in the OT Gods jusgment was mostly historical and carried out on Israel for breaking the covenant with God. Jesus judgment was really on Israel and not about all people in the afterlife. We don't know if Judas wasn't forgiven. He took his own life God did not kill him. As far as Revelation, it is written in hyperbolic and allegorical language alot and is seen as referring to israel and the destruction of the temple in AD70. i will leave derek to handle Romans 9 :D Hope some of this is helpful laura

At 8:39 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Let me address your first question in my next blog post. Look for it later today.

At 10:20 PM, Blogger Dan said...

A thought. I have often struggled with this whole idea of the Old Testament God being one that some how was responsible for all sorts of death. But I took a quantum leep back and looked again. What I saw and maybe I am simply in educated was that the entire population of the world according to Christian beliefs started from a single couple. And then a single family (post flood) would they not have all at one point been gods chosen people. Would they not at one point all have believed and loved the same god. if this is the case then the law that was handed down to the Israelites was actually for all people. And I believe that tho we only adhere to one line of story telling God would have been active and speaking to all people. And the failure to believe and act and repent would result in what we see as a separation from God. Tho from our stand point of Israel it looks like genoside. I think about Ninova God sent Jonah to them to tell them to repent they were not gods chosen people yet they did and were spared. I actually see a just God who would have given the same amount of grace equally to all people. Jesus came to introduce a new system of relationship because the one that was in place was to difficult for man kind. Any way just a thought and from the looks of it I am not as educated as you guys.

At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


One way to read the story of Jonah and Nineveh is self-critique via humor. That is, in the story God shows his love to the hated Ninevites. Many other OT stories tell of how God destroys enemy nations. This is what Jonah wants to see happen. Jonah wants vengeance, but God wants to see restoration -- even the restoration of our enemies. This points us away from the story of destroying the bad, which is typical of the OT, and towards the story of redeeming the bad, which is at the heart of the Gospel message. It represents a shift, found in the OT away from the way of wrath as the means of making things right (by hurting the bad), and towards the way grace as the means of making things right (by restoring the bad -- which we find includes us).

We can see hints of God revealed in Christ in the OT, like in Jonah, but generally, as Paul says, the true nature of God is veiled in the OT. Only in Christ is the veil removed.

At 3:52 PM, Blogger Dan said...

Ya I get that. But my point is why does our view of the entire world and history need to be only from the point of the bible. If you look at native Americans some of their stories actually talk about Jesus appearing out of no where. And there are stories like that across the planet of secluded people groups actually knowing Jesus before missionaries show up and almost every people group has some sort of dieity that is all supreme. So what if God actually came for all people in the Old Testament like we see in the new with the inclusion of Gentiles. What if God had shown up to the other people groups given the same commands as he did to Israel and the same list of consequences of they didn't follow him and that's what we see play out.

I actually have no idea what you are talking about in your response to me. Sorry.


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