Skip to main content

Unbelievable a book by John Shelby Spong - A Review



Why Neither Ancient Creeds    

Nor the Reformation

Can Produce a Living Faith Today


  John Shelby Spong

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey W. Sutton (

Spong provides examples of Unbelievable doctrines of the church and calls for a second reformation. He presents 12 challenging theses as foundational to building a new understanding of the Bible by relying on a more rational appreciation of the metaphorical and meaningful truths of the scriptures rather than the implausible literal interpretations that obscure a meaningful spiritual life.

His presentation appears focused on educated adults who have not lost their interest in Christian spirituality but are not satisfied with current presentations of Christianity found in Protestant or Catholic pulpits. He is particularly concerned with the distortion of faith found in those who present simplistic and literal, or near literal, views of creation, biblical violence, and miracles as well as church traditions of teachings like a trinitarian view of God.

His reformation ideas reflect a summary of what Christian scholars have learned about science and the Bible in the past century as well as experience in trying to communicate a coherent message of Christianity to educated audiences.

Following introductory comments, Spong invites readers to reconsider the character of God with a focus on God as Being. Next, he addresses the difficult teaching about the incarnation and the nature of Jesus as a person and as Christ. He challenges beliefs in original sin, the virgin birth, and many miraculous stories from ancient Israel to the works of Jesus and his followers.

Other teachings re-examined include atonement theology, beliefs about Easter, and the ascension of Christ. Matters of practice include two theses on Ethics and the relevance of the Ten Commandments as well as a new understanding of prayer. He closes with discussions on life after death and universalism.


A sample of quotes from Unbelievable may help you get a sense of Spong's challenges to traditional Christian doctrines.

About God: "God is. Because God is, I live, I love, I am. Does that mean that God exists? I do not know what that question means. I experience God; I cannot explain God. I trust my experience."

Jesus and the resurrection: "So the first step that those of us who wish to explore the meaning of resurrection must take is to recognize that the founding moment of the Christian story is not about either an empty tomb or the resuscitation of a deceased body. Its original proclamation asserted that in some manner God had raised Jesus into being part of who God is. Jesus was raised by God into God."

The Virgin Birth: “There is no possibility that the virgin birth was ever meant to be literally believed."

On miracles: “We do not have to twist our brains into first-century pretzels in an effort to believe the unbelievable. We can read the miracle stories as the symbols they originally were…”

About the “Fall” of humanity: “If Christianity is to have a future, the paradigm must shift from being saved from our sins to being called into a new wholeness from our sense of incompleteness.”

The resurrection: “Whatever it was that constituted the Easter experience, the obvious fact is that there was enormous power in that moment that cries out for explanation. That power changed lives…”

Some Thoughts

I'm a psychologist and not a theologian so I do not have the background in theology and biblical studies as seminarians would have. I have seen a lot of young people from conservative backgrounds upset with the way fundamentalists and evangelicals write and speak about their faith in social media posts. Some have come out as having left Christianity and some have moved on to other churches. Whatever form a reformation takes, Christian teachings are surely due for an update in language understood by contemporary young people.

As a clinician, I am reluctant to attack a person's understanding of faith when that understanding provides comfort and support that promotes their wellbeing. However, Spong offers some helpful perspectives for those disenchanted with traditional dogma. For example, those who notice their traditional prayers have not been answered may find his discussion of divine presence encouraging.

As a psychological scientist and a Christian, I find some of Spong's ideas make it easier to integrate Christianity and Psychological Science because Spong does not attempt to minimize scientific findings about the age of the earth and its origins, human evolution, natural disasters, disease, and mental illness.

I suspect even liberal thinkers will be reluctant to embrace some of his speculations, which are unbelievable in a different way. For example, although he makes a reasonable case for distorted views about God, Spong's philosophical musing about God qua being doesn't offer a persuasive alternative. 

In Unbelievable, Christians find a way to be spiritual and not religious.

Books by John Shelby Spong 

Reference (I listened to the unabridged audio version and looked at the eBook, which is where I obtained the quotes.)

Spong, J. S. (2018). Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today. New York: HarperCollins.

Related book reviews

You can find a few lectures by Spong on YouTube. Here is one example.

I write books and articles- please checkout the following links and sign up for updates.

 Links to Connections

My Page


My Books  AMAZON          and             GOOGLE STORE


FOLLOW   FACEBOOK   Geoff W. Sutton   TWITTER  @Geoff.W.Sutton




Articles: Academia   Geoff W Sutton   ResearchGate   Geoffrey W Sutton 





  1. Hey Geoff, Thanks for going through this. I think you're right that many will have problems with Spong's thinking, but he's not entirely wrong about the paucity of spirituality in modern Christianity, so tied to problematic interpretative methods and twisted foci of past decisions about dogma. Your reference to miracles and the virgin birth being "not literal" seems a bit hasty, but I would be interested in exploring his rationale on it. However, it sounds like a naturalist's suggestion instead of one with a full-featured spirituality I would hope for. I think there's a contradiction in that suggestion. But Spong has been right in the past, and I wouldn't want to toss his suggestion out without a read.

    Though I agree it is simple to get caught in a cul de sac on the "what is God" issue, (atheists congregate there,) that doesn't seem to be reason enough to stop thinking theologically. Yes, we've gotten it wrong so often as to be near to throwing our hands up, but I don't think we have to toss our logic out over past mistakes, just acknowledge that our theologies are limited, not leading us to certainties.

    I think he's right about the fall, but the text of Scripture, and the errors of dogmatics, logic, and experience are enough to convince me of that.

    I know you offer the "I am not a theological expert" caveat in front of you theological musings, but you have long experience in the Christian world. I would wager that your humble theological musings are more reliable than those of some recent graduate of theological education. As Dr. McCoy said to Spock, "The captain trusts your guess more than the certainties of anyone else."



Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

WILLPOWER Setting & Reaching Goals- Book Review by Sutton

WILLPOWER Rediscovering the Greatest    Human Strength By Roy Baumeister & John Tierney Reviewed by Geoffrey W. Sutton I go to a gym, which is crowded in January. Regulars know the early Happy-New-Year commitments to fitness will weaken sometime in February. Roy Baumeister has spent a good part of his career studying self-control. His book, Willpower   written with Tierney,  entertains and informs us with an organized set of findings explaining factors that influence self-control. Two critical factors weaken our judgments: food and sleep. We need glucose and sleep to be at our best when it comes to making wise decisions and marking progress toward our goals. A pretty woman can loosen a man’s grip on his career--we hear these news stories from time to time as one political group takes aim at each other's leaders--men who failed at sexual self-control and sadly blame women for their lack of self-control. Fat shaming happens. T

A Christmas Carol offers lessons in Psychology and Faith A Book Review

A Christmas Carol By Charles Dickens A Review by Geoffrey W. Sutton My copy of A Christmas Carol was a gift on Christmas day, 1963. Two Christmases before I had walked the cold, fog-laden, smog drenched streets of Old London with my dad whilst my mother visited with her family. It was a grey day and a grey week. We took turns warming parts of our body by fireplaces here and there. After five years in the U.S. we had returned home to London on the occasion of my maternal grandmother’s death.  Dickens’ story paints a familiar tale textured by my early memories and enriched today by having watched my favourite rendition of A Christmas Carol ( 1984 ) with my wife on Christmas eve. My interest in reviewing the book is not just for a pleasant walk about the old streets of London but I'm motivated by a sense of appreciation for the poetic and colourful artistry with which Dickens plumbs the hopes and fears of humanity. So, follow

Gender Identity & Faith—A Review

  Gender Identity & Faith Clinical Postures, Tools, and Case Studies For Client-Centered Care   By   Mark A. Yarhouse &   Julia A.   Sadusky Reviewed by   Geoffrey W. Sutton Gender Identity & Faith is not for everyone. Yarhouse and Sadusky have written a guidebook for mental health professionals who need a resource to help patients and their families who are seeking assistance with two identity issues—gender identity and religious identity. The authors are not focused on changing gender identity. Instead, they provide readers with specific ideas to help their patients explore their perceived conflicts between gender and religious identity. Although the authors use the words religious and conventionally religious , the book is focused on Christian patients who perceive a conflict between two salient components of their self-identity. Most Americans are religious and most Americans identify as Christian. It is generally known that some Christians are m