One of the criticisms levied against churches on occasion is that they are not good about allowing free inquiry. That is, people are encouraged not to ask questions, and if you do ask a question, there’s a good chance that you will not only not have your question answered, you’ll be criticized or condemned for having asked it.
I read an interview by a well-known author where he explained his move away from the Christianity of his childhood by giving an example of how he had asked a question regarding the Trinity and gotten the answer that “God made hell for people who asked that question.” And the answer was not intended to be a joke; the response was quite serious. And other questions he had about various aspects of Christian belief were similarly rebuffed with responses that intimated that he shouldn’t be asking questions; rather, he should just “believe.”
Once in the adult Sunday School class that I teach one of the students wondered how the prophet Elisha had accomplished something.
“Well, it was just a miracle,” said an older woman, who kept repeating that phrase even as the rest of us speculated about possibilities. She was not interested in knowing how God might have accomplished the action through his prophet. In her mind, it was a miracle and that was sufficient answer for her—and she found the whole discussion the rest of us had disturbing.
I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw several years ago, which shows a scientist writing on a blackboard. There is a mass of complicated mathematical formulas on the left side of the board, and a similar mass of calculations on the right side of the board. In the center, between parentheses, one reads a scribble: “A miracle happened.” Another scientist, looking at the board, points at the scribbled words and comments “I think you have some more work to do here.”
Simply stating “a miracle happened” may be descriptive, but it is not an answer, any more than telling someone, “You just need to have faith,” is an answer, either. It is something easy to say that solves nothing. The New Testament author James wrote:
“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)
Simply encouraging someone to believe, telling them that it’s “just a miracle” does not put food in their belly, warm them when they are cold, remove doubts, or satisfy curiosity.
The early church father, Augustine of Hippo (a city in northern Africa) is credited with the phrase “God made Hell for people who asked that question.” However, Augustine was not the one who came up with that phrase—it was something he had heard—and he didn’t think it was a reasonable response:
Behold, I answer to him who asks, “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” I answer not, as a certain person is reported to have done facetiously (avoiding the pressure of the question), “He was preparing hell,” saith he, “for those who pry into mysteries.” It is one thing to perceive, another to laugh,—these things I answer not. For more willingly would I have answered, “I know not what I know not,” than that I should make him a laughing-stock who asketh deep things, and gain praise as one who answereth false things. (Augustine, Confessions, XII)
People should not only be free to ask questions in church, they need to know that it is commendable. Puzzles should not be feared, but rather should be embraced. It’s okay to speculate. It’s okay to never get a satisfying answer. And just because you haven’t found an answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
For instance, I spent years wondering why the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke were different. The four different answers I got from different people and sources were deeply unsatisfying to me. So I wondered about it for years and years until one day a thought occurred to me. So I wrote a short, academic paper and submitted it to one of the better known academic journals for biblical studies.
My thought turned out to be the first new explanation for the problem in more than four hundred years. Since then, every commentary on the books of Matthew and Luke published since that article appeared has referenced my idea and attributed it to me.
Do not fear to ask questions about God, the Bible, or your beliefs. Don’t let those who would tell you to stop asking questions make you stop. They can’t send you to Hell. God never told anyone not to ask questions. In fact, most of the great characters of the Bible asked questions and challenged God. The name “Israel” means “wrestled with God” not “kept his mouth shut.” Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t be discouraged if you can’t find the answer right away. And never, ever imagine that there isn’t an answer.
One last and very important thing: understand that you might not always like the answer you finally get—and the answer may force you to change your mind or your opinion. Facts have a way of doing that.