I somehow had the urge, on Christmas day, no less, to review this... maybe as explanation for why I'm not sitting in church right now... a "bah, humbug" review, I suppose. I used to identify as Christian. I read this book. I'm now agnostic. Obviously, losing faith isn't that simple, correlation doesn't imply causation, and this book may be great for some people, but I want to add my reaction because I'm concerned for anyone who reads this book while troubled about their faith...it may be a really, really bad idea.

I grew up in the church, but I've always had doubts. I'm a logician at heart, and there are a lot of direct contradictions in the Bible. There are also a lot of teachings which have been discarded in light of our culture(e.g. the role of women, most of the Old Testament laws, etc) and my very tautological mindset has issues with pick-and-choose precepts. Anyway, growing up in the church, I learned quickly that hard questions were not welcomed. (Yes, this includes those alpha groups. I tried a few--after getting questions shut down, I tried contacting the leaders and asking if it was ok for me to come...I was gently told that my concerns might "contaminate" others.) That "don't confuse me with the facts" mentality is what eventually made me give up. And this book has it in spades.

I was given this book (as a Christmas gift, incidentally) quite a few years ago by a truly kind and compassionate member of my church who hadn't read it but thought it might help me with those "hard questions." As it turns out, it didn't, and in fact helped to kill most of my remaining faith. I found Strobel's God to be one much more interested in righteousness and justice than forgiveness or compassion. He felt to me like the other side of the coin of C.S. Lewis's God of joy and love.

Strobel sets out a bunch of "laws" and "rules" dogmatically, not all of which (I felt) are biblically supported. Take, as one example, the fun parts of the Old Testament where God orders pillage, rape, murder and genocide. I sort of developed a comfort with the "continuing revelation" view of the Bible--that God first reveals himself to Abraham as in some ways a god of the mountain, and that as he continued to reveal himself, people understood more clearly about mercy as opposed to hard justice. Strobel doesn't agree. I also never believed in inerrancy--it's the whole direct contradiction issue--and Strobel does. So that means he actually had the fun task of arguing that the genocides and rapes and slaughters,of, say, the Canaanites in the Old Testament were justified. Strobel's response: they were bad people, so they--and their children and camels--deserved what was coming to them.

Another section that bothered me was about exclusivity. I've always believed (I know, I know, this automatically shows why I couldn't survive in the church) that God must be bigger than the labels and regimented doctrine of Judeo-Christianity. Why would he limit himself to only one small group? What happened to people born before then? What happens to someone who never learned of Jesus? Why could God not have been continually revealing himself to people throughout time, to people who never fully grasp Him and therefore splinter themselves into various religions? (I know, it's heresy. But then, I'm no longer Christian...maybe I never really was.) Strobel asks some of these in his interview...but comes up with neatly packaged answers supporting exclusivity. He argues that God being God, God must somehow give everyone the opportunity. And apparently, all other religions are "wrong" and "arrogant" for "daring" to consider their religion better than Christianity. I cannot reconcile with a God who sends backbiting Christians to Heaven because they jump through some hoops and get all their names right while sending, say, faithful, righteous, and compassionate Muslims to Hell.

And speaking of Hell...there's an entire chapter devoted to it. It is actually possible, if you're careful, to read what Jesus says about Hell, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, as simply ending rather than eternal torment. For me, that was OK. I'm comfortable with ending and becoming nothing. Eternity scares me. Eternal Hell also seems to me to contradict the argument that God uses earthly pain as a teaching tool like a parent making a child do his homework. (Speaking of which, apparently children get a free pass--Strobel "saves" the children from Hell via the "age of accountability" doctrine--apparently there's a mystical cutoff at which point you become responsible and can go darkside. I don't understand this, and I see no biblical support.) What parent, no matter how sick, twisted, and bad, could ever send their child to eternal time-out, let alone Hell? How could God? According to Strobel and his interviewee, God thinks we each have "intrinsic value", so shoving us in hopeless Hell from which there is no chance of redemption somehow "saves" that "value", whereas nonexistence would destroy it. That sounds dangerously close to a sociopathic viewpoint to me. And how could anyone be happy in Heaven knowing anyone--no matter how bad--was being eternally tormented? Apparently, they're just dandy with that "value" thing. Look, if Strobel's right, I'm headed straight to Hell without passing go or collecting $200. I can't picture my parents feeling happy knowing that I'm eternally tormented. They'd rather I was just gone. The only reason to keep us there would be the CS Lewis Great Divorce style redemption--where even after death, people could be reconciled to God. No chance, says Strobel, because if God is infinitely wise, how could anyone die without having sufficient opportunities? This touches home, as (like most people) I know people who have committed suicide due to serious mental depression (and possibly poor medical treatment for it). According to Strobel, they're downstairs being tortured right now, and will scream in Hell for all eternity.

The last section is about how it's OK to have doubts. But before you start feeling better, they have to be the "right" doubts. And of course, they will be magically resolved via prayer and supplication and a relationship with God. To be honest, I've tried and agonized. I've never felt God. I've never had a relationship. And I still have (pardon the pun) a Hell of a lot of doubts.

I'm no longer Christian. This book isn't the only reason why, but it certainly was a contributing factor to my sense of alienation from the church and the community. I want to dismiss it, ignore it, erase it from my mind, but I never can. Much of it also has a significant amount of biblical support. This book scares me, and while it promises me eternal torment for not towing the line, it also makes me physically unable to do so. I worry that for doubters like me, this book is dangerous and toxic to faith. But again, everyone reacts differently; maybe some people will benefit from it. If you are firm in your faith, it may be a very interesting read to contrast with C.S.Lewis.