Not so strange bedfellows

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I don’t have much to say about this week’s freak show. One wonders why Justin would bother with such a topic. After all, it does not forward any particular theological position. The Christian guest was espousing ideas that are well outside of mainstream orthodoxy. The atheist guest, well… Bless her heart.

I felt this same sense of weirdness from the show back when we had the guest that suffered from sleep paralysis and saw blue streaks running up her arm and was physically touched by the hand of Jesus. You know the one. The thing is, her experience did not lead her to becoming a Christian. If anything, her testimony harmed the Christian cause. So I was left wondering what the show was all about.

There have been a number of shows like that between then and now. And I finally think I understand why Justin is doing it. Orthodox Christianity and metaphysical claptrap seem like strange bedfellows coming from a person with my particular religious background. But taking a step back and reconsidering the situation, I have come to believe that they are not such strange bedfellows after all. Here is my theory:

Any shelter in a storm

From Justin’s perspective, Christianity is under siege like never before. There was a time when opponents of the faith knew their place and stayed in it. Now, they speak out boldly. They are making points that the average Christian is not equipped to counter.

Even the professional apologists aren’t doing too well against atheist arguments. The best apologists can hope to do is stop the bleeding. There is little hope for reversing the tide.

What Christians are being forced to do is band together with others that they normally would never endorse. They need alliances with likeminded people even if the similarities are not that strong. They need shelter from the atheist keyboard warrior onslaught. And any shelter in the storm will do.

Since the Christian faith is based on people believing in unsubstantiated metaphysical claims of supernatural intervention, people like Justin are willing to ally with other mystics regardless of religion. This is especially true with regard to pseudoscience. Any scientific backing for mystical claims helps the Christian cause because they can always add their religious spin on supernatural events.

The devil is in the details

I fully expect Justin to endorse mediums because it would show that supernatural powers exist. Also, it aligns with the biblical claim that the spirits of dead people live on, and can be contacted by the living. Necromancy was a real thing in the bible, and was a death penalty offense. The bible just looks stupid if necromancy is not real. Therefore, mediums aid, not harm Christian truth claims.

The way Christians deal with it is to say that the power is real, but that it comes from the devil. Mediums are consorting with evil spirits. This also explains the miracles done by people who are not Christians. It is better for them to confirm all miracle claims than to expose frauds. The same methods they use to expose false miracle claims could be used against them. So by accepting all miracle claims, they can just say that some are not from god.

Sathya Sai Baba raised people from the dead. And we have the testimonies of one or two who were raised. Yet Christians discount these miracles as meaningless while claiming the resurrection of Jesus is meaningful. They suggest that only the miracles from their god really count.

So it is that we have a Christian guest who believes that stars have consciousness, and rocks and piles of poop. He believes in spooky action from a distance. That’s fine with Justin because his worldview also depends on a belief that people are endowed with some magical inhabiting force that holds our consciousness apart from the body.

Christianity is a mess. This brand of wacky Christianity practically parodies itself.

Conclusion: Some other material

The anti-materialist stance of Christians seem to suggest that they can’t argue for god if classical material such as matter and energy are all there is. So they are in a desperate search for evidence of some other material, any other material. God and his dark materials can’t be found on this plain of existence. But Christians insist that it must be there.

If a dog seems to sense the presence of an owner, it must be evidence of some other material. If our human thoughts can travel to the realm of god via prayer, there must be a supernatural substrate. If dead people go on living in another realm, then humans are composed of some other material.

Christians are desperate to find it because they have to believe in it. Materialism is the death of Christianity. So it is easy to understand why some Christians happily embrace the pseudoscience of even supernaturalist crazies. And that suits me just fine. I am happy for the world to hear more Christians droning on about the spirit consciousness of stars and poop.

David Johnson

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Spiritual Warfare

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Image from Charisma Magazine

Posted on May 29, 2017 by David Johnson

This is a sample chapter from an upcoming response book of which I am a part. The final project is very close to release. Enjoy.

David Johnson

 

One of the reasons Justin gives for suffering is that we live in a spiritual war zone. I do not know what it is like to live in a war zone, spiritual, or otherwise. I am guessing that Justin also has no personal experience in a war zone. So when he says that we are living in a spiritual war zone, I would like to think he is speaking hyperbolically. He is not.

Justin, along with many other Christians, believes quite literally that we are not only in a hot war zone, but that we are uniformed combatants in that war. The Christian is dressed from head to toe in spiritual garb. It is not a modern uniform. It is from a time when there were breastplates and swords.

These Christian soldiers sing songs like, Onward Christian soldier, marching as to war, and they imagine themselves as literal soldiers marching and fighting in a literal war. But, and here’s the kicker, they are not fighting against flesh and blood opponents:

For we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against persons without bodies—the evil rulers of the unseen world, those mighty satanic beings and great evil princes of darkness who rule this world; and against huge numbers of wicked spirits in the spirit world. Eph. 6:12

This passage reads like something out of a dystopian fantasy, or the manifesto of a crazy person. It does not read like something well-adjusted people should take seriously. Christians take this both seriously and literally.

They literally believe that this world is under the power of people without bodies who have some type of royal lineage on the dark side of the spirit world. They imagine winged creatures with cursed visage dominating the air and taking refuge within the bodies of atheists. Here, again is the writer of Ephesians, this time, chapter 2, verse 2:

You went along with the crowd and were just like all the others, full of sin, obeying Satan, the mighty prince of the power of the air, who is at work right now in the hearts of those who are against the Lord.

Those who are against the Christian god are like the devil’s mobile offices. He is at work in their hearts. And what kind of work might he be doing? Whatever it is, he is not alone. He has an entire administration of evil rulers, mighty satanic beings, and princes of darkness. He is well staffed, and very much in charge. Paul once referred to him as the god of this world.

That is some enemy and some war. Not only does this sound like nonsense to atheists, it should sound like nonsense to Christians as well. Here’s why:

The God of This World

The god who rules this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers. They cannot see the light, which is the good news about our glorious Christ, who shows what God is like. 2 Cor 4:4

Paul imagines a world where unbelievers got that way as a result of being blinded by Satan: the prince of the power of the air who is at work in their heart. The Satan Paul imagines is no ordinary evil spirit that can be prayed out by an exorcist. This is the Lord of the Flies himself, the one and only god of this world.

Remember when Jesus was tempted by Satan, and Satan offered to give Jesus the kingdoms of the earth? The rule of this earth was apparently Satan’s to offer. Jesus did not say that he had no need to bargain for what was already his.

Questions are bubbling to the surface. When did Satan become god? And When did the earth fall under his jurisdiction? Who signed this treaty? When was this decided?

Christians believe in only one god. But Paul sees Satan as having the elevated role of a god. In the Old Testament, Satan has no power. He hardly exists. In the New Testament, Satan is the god of this world, possibly capable of deceiving the very elect.

In the Old Testament, there are no other gods, certainly none who could contend with god. In the New Testament, Satan rules the world. What happened? In the Old Testament, there was no such thing as spiritual warfare. YHWH blew away false gods with contempt. In the New Testament, YHWH is fighting for his life, and has already lost earth.

The spiritual warfare model gives god too powerful a foe.

Not So Omnipotent

If god is not all powerful (omnipotent), then god is not god. Omnipotent is a word so tied to the idea of god, that it has no popular usage in any other context. It is practically synonymous with god. But if there is spiritual warfare, god is not omnipotent.

Spiritual warfare is a self-defeating idea. War cannot be waged against an all powerful being. Such a being could stop you before you fired the first shot. Either that, or he could let you fire all of your bullets and cause them to fall harmlessly without doing any damage.

The moment an all powerful being fires a shot, the war is immediately over. For who could withstand the firepower of one with infinite power? Such a powerful being could never experience war, not even for a nanosecond.

If the spiritual war is between beings that are not all powerful, then it is not a war about which we need concern ourselves. It is a war among lesser beings that does not involve the infinitely powerful god of the Bible.

If god is omnipotent, there is no war. If there is a war, then god is not all powerful. He is limited. The devastating consequences of that idea render the Christian faith position irrecoverable. A limited god is indistinguishable from powerless. And a powerless god cannot be trusted to save anyone, not even himself.

Limited Power

Sometimes, the best running back is tackled for a loss. And the best quarterback throws an interception. At these moments, great athletes are rendered powerless against their opponents. This comes as no surprise because as powerful as they are, they have limited power.

But we never expect to see god lying flat on his back with a concussion after fumbling the ball and being hit prior to reaching the line of scrimmage. This is a shocking image that Christians will have trouble conjuring. But under the limited power doctrine, that is exactly what happens much of the time.

Sometimes god takes a hit for a loss because he can’t be expected to win them all. He needs blockers, and prayer warriors, and other spiritual fighters on his side. And if all goes well, they will prevail. If not…

Spiritual warfare, as an explanation for suffering, requires god to have limited power where sometimes, he loses, or at least, is stopped from winning. He’s got his hands full. So if Satan enters your child’s heart and blinds him from the truth, that is only because god has limited power. Sometimes he loses.

If your prayer for travel safety goes unanswered and you lose your partner in a 6-car pileup, sometimes he loses. If your daughter is abducted and sold into sex slavery, if the cancer doesn’t remit, If you lose your job unfairly, If you didn’t pass the test despite studying hard, if your favorite team you prayed for doesn’t win, hey, sometimes he loses.

What do you expect from a god with limited power? Now Satan is equally tied up in the same battle. Yet he somehow has time to plant bombs in teenybopper concerts. But god is unable to stop it because he is not getting enough prayer support. How exactly does that work?

Winning

If there is a spiritual war, who’s winning? How can we tell? In every game, there is a way to assess the outcome, as well as the progress leading up to the final outcome. In checkers, it is a matter of brute force. Just count the pieces on the board. The game is determined by the one who takes all the pieces. Simple.

Chess also has a simple goal. But it is often more difficult to assess the progress. Regardless of any other factors, taking the opponent’s king wins you the game. Assessing king safety is one way of determining who is winning at any given moment. A rough way of determining points is the value of the pieces remaining on the board.

Another way to win a game of chess is for the opponent to run out of time. Regardless of what pieces remain on the board, or how safe your king is, if you run out of time on the chess clock first, you lose. In both checkers and chess, there is a way for the game to be deadlocked. I’m not referring to a stalemate. I am referring to a situation where neither side can make any progress against the other.

Tic-tac-toe is a game that should end in a tie every time. The only way one person can win is for the opponent to make a mistake. Once two players know the patterns, there is simply no way to win the game regardless of the number of times you play it.

There are a handful of ways to win a war. You can capture the leader of the opposing country. You can kill all the soldiers of the other side. One side can surrender. You can win by attrition where one side simply runs out of supplies and can no longer carry on the fight. Or you can call a truce if neither side likes their prospects of an outright win.

No matter what game theory you adopt, there is no way to determine the progress of the spiritual war, or what it means for one side to win it. You only need to go through a few possibilities in your mind to see the truth of this proposition.

The one with the most souls wins – It is a popular notion that god and the devil are fighting for souls. This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. In absolute numbers, we already know the devil wins. Jesus tells us that most people will end up in hell and only few in heaven. If that is the game, then the game is already over. Also, new souls keep being made. So as long as that is happening, the game can never be over.

The most valuable souls – A variation on the theme is that absolute numbers don’t matter because most people are just minor game pieces for both sides to use as they please. There are only certain souls at the center of the battle. And the one with the highest point value of souls wins. The obvious problem with this idea is that it renders most life as worthless as slugs.

Times up – Another theory is that the war will not end as much as it will run out of time. God has a big timer counting down the time. When it reaches zero, the war just ends without any particular rhyme or reason. This capricious clock theory fails on the grounds that if god could just end this bloody war whenever he likes, why hasn’t he ended it already?

Capture the king – Is god really trying to capture Satan and put him in jail? I would say that if your opponent has managed to allude capture for a few billion years, you need a new strategy.

No win scenario for either side – It might be that the devil does not have to win. He might only have to avoid losing. It is possible in chess for one side to have slightly higher-value pieces in the endgame, and still not be able to capture the opponent no matter what. If the spiritual war is in that state, god has no hope of winning. All the prayers in the world won’t help.

Attrition – This one doesn’t seem possible because both sides keep making new soldiers. According to the census, as many as 400,000 people are born every day. It seems most of those are ending up on the dark side. The forces of the god of this world grow stronger every day. The devil is not just holding his own. He is gaining ground.

As you can see for yourself, there is no way to tell who is winning, or what winning even looks like. There is too much about this war we don’t know, especially the rules of engagement. So before examining the human role in this war, let us consider how we even know such a war is taking place:

Apocalypse Now

Some Christians are eagerly anticipating Armageddon: the final battle between good and evil. They envision this as a real battle experienced in the real world replete with angels and demons and humans, along with swords and guns and silver crosses.

On the side of the angels will be Jesus leading the fight as general. He will overtake the strongholds of the god of this world, and physically occupy a physical throne for a literal thousand years. It will be the apocalypse. And for many, it can’t come soon enough.

There is a brand of Christian for which it really can’t come soon enough. They want their apocalypse now. And that is what they imagine is going on. We are not waiting for the end times, we are in the end times. Armageddon has already begun. And it is raging in realms unseen, but also in this realm in a very real sense.

Beyond a few passages in a book written by people who believed animals used to talk, what evidence do we have that such a war is raging just behind the scenes, or anywhere else? I have never had a Christian provide me an answer when asked. Let’s see if I can help them out:

Demon Possession

By far, demon possession is the biggest sign of spiritual warfare to many Christians. Not all Christians believe in ongoing demon possession. But they all, for the most part, believe that demons are active in some way, as are angels. Those who don’t believe in demon possession likely believe in some form of demon oppression.

Possession involves completely taking over a person, and fully inhabiting their body. It is a literal indwelling. You are being worn like a disguise by a demon. Oppression involves being harried by a demon. A demon may cause you harm such as blindness and other thorns of the flesh. It may cloud your mind and judgement. But oppression does not involve complete inhabitation.

As with many Christian ideas, demon possession is surrounded by mystery. Before we can determine if demon possession is a sign of spiritual warfare, we must be certain that there is even a such thing as demon possession.

Identifying Demons

Apparently in the gospels and Acts, it was very easy to make a positive identification of demons and their work. If a person was behaving strangely, it must be demon possession. If a person is blind or mute, demon oppression or possession is a likely candidate.

There is a pericope in Matt 22 and Mark 9 about a man, blind and mute, who was possessed by a demon. After healing him, some said Jesus was the messiah. Some said he was the devil. Jesus launches into a speech about how a person cannot cast out demons without binding Satan first.

One cannot rob Satan’s kingdom without first binding Satan. Only then can his demons be cast out!

Note that Jesus referred to this world as Satan’s kingdom. Jesus is taking it back. This seems to be the objective of the spiritual war. One way of doing that is to cast the demons out of this realm so that they can no longer harm people.

But this narrative has too many problems for us to take seriously. Jesus says he could not cast out demons until Satan was bound. So if Jesus has already bound Satan, why is there still a war? Satan seems to be walking free and doing everything he wants to do.

Another problem is that even under the limited power doctrine, god should be strong enough to knock out Satan’s forces if he has been captured and tied up. All Jesus had to do was tell demons to leave, and they left. How long would it have taken him to clear this realm of demons if that is what he really wanted to do?

In addition to the enthroned messiah having the power to banish all demons with a single command, he has an army full of human recruits whom he has given power over demons. The devil is tied up and under god’s control.

Jesus is in heaven with all his power. And he has a workforce of empowered minions who can handle the cleanup. Why are there still demons in the world in the face of all that?

These days, modern Christians are in agreement with modern medicine. Blindness and the inability to speak is not the result of demons inhabiting a body. One is forced to wonder what use a demon has with a body that can’t see or speak. Wouldn’t a demon be more affective in a strong, healthy, good looking body?

So if physical infirmities are no longer how we tell if demons are possessing people, how do we tell?

Bad Fruit

Jesus said we would know people by their fruit, similar to a fruit-bearing tree:

Beware of false teachers who come disguised as harmless sheep, but are wolves and will tear you apart. You can detect them by the way they act, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit. You need never confuse grapevines with thorn bushes or figs with thistles. Different kinds of fruit trees can quickly be identified by examining their fruit. A variety that produces delicious fruit never produces an inedible kind. And a tree producing an inedible kind can’t produce what is good. So the trees having the inedible fruit are chopped down and thrown on the fire. Yes, the way to identify a tree or a person is by the kind of fruit produced. Matt. 7:15-20

Before progressing, I need to pull out a part of this quote for closer examination:

A variety that produces delicious fruit never produces an inedible kind. And a tree producing an inedible kind can’t produce what is good.

This is not only wrong, but completely wrong.

Not every apple on a tree is good. One bad apple does not constitute a bad tree. But it is most wrong when it comes to people. Just because a person does some good things, that does not make them a good person who can do no wrong. And just because a person does some bad things, that does not make them a bad person who can do no good. The very idea is dangerously absurd.

If that was the case, there would be no one left to occupy the church pews. All Christians sin. Just ask them. Their lives are lousy with sin. They openly admit that their lives are not as pure as some nonbelievers. So much for sniffing the fruit.

But how can that be? If we are to know people by the fruit they produce, then Christian fruit ought to be sweeter, better in a tangible and obvious way. This passage makes no sense of the indisputable fact that many atheists produce good fruit while many Christians produce bad fruit. Human behavior is not a way of determining where the demons are.

The Ones Getting Punished

Another way some Christians will try to identify demonic activity is by determining who god is actively punishing at the time. Around the time of the AIDS crisis, Christians were proclaiming that god was punishing demonic behavior. Clearly, homosexuals were demon possessed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the promised land. Good, decent, even Christian men and women started contracting AIDS. All of a sudden, it was a lot more difficult to claim that homosexuality was a sign of demon possession as the punishment had spread.

When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 31, 2005, many Christians crowed that it was the lord god taking vengeance on the wicked in that evil place. But while the saints were marching in, they failed to notice that the notorious French Quarter was mostly spared from damage, while the fine churches were devastated.

Oops!

What this should tell us is that Christians cannot distinguish between god punishing the wicked, and nature taking its course.

Miraculous Powers

A top o’ the hat to Hollywood for cluing us in to the magical powers possessed by demon possessed people. For instance. If you see a person whose head is spinning all the way around, that has to be a demon. And let’s not forget that old standby, levitation. If you see someone levitating, that is clearly a demon.

The Bible does get in on some of the fun by adding super strength to the list. Demons turn people into Superman, or one of the Klingons. Yes… that explains those forehead ridges. Nevermind adrenaline. If a person possesses super strength, they are carrying a demon.

There is also the power of divination. This is something we saw in the book of Acts after Jesus had rose from the dead and ascended. Assuming that the witch of Endor was possessed by a demon, she used that power to wake the prophet, Samuel from death for a consult with King Saul. I think we can go ahead and ad necromancy to the list.

So it would seem that fortune tellers, mediums, and ridiculously strong people are all demon possessed. Unfortunately, there is no way to distinguish these people from frauds, the mentally ill, and the adrenaline infused.

No matter how we try to spot a demon possessed person, we can’t do it. There are good, naturalistic explanations for all the bad things that happen to us. So if we cannot identify a demon, or the work of a demon, then we have no way of verifying there is even a war.

That makes it all the more awkward to mention the warriors, all those Christians who are convinced they are in an invisible war with an invisible enemy.

Soldiers of Christ

As a church music director, I was always fond of the song that starts with, “Soldiers of Christ arise and put your armor on.” Having a soft spot for medieval fiction and middle-earth fantasies, I could easily picture myself as one of those soldiers tightening his chainmail in preparation for a battle.

I wanted to square off with a demon in the worst kind of way. My glistening sword raised high, shined with the light of a thousand alien suns. Despite the number of dark beasts I had dispatched into the pit of sorrows, my sword and armor shown spotless and pure. Not a drop of putrid black blood of the enemy spawn could attach itself to anything blessed by the lord god of ages evermore.

I was certifiably insane.

I worry about the sanity of anyone who thinks this way. And there are plenty who do. They are Christian soldiers. And everyday when they put on their work clothes, they are mentally putting on chainmail. They grab their bag and their sword. And they engage in immortal combat from dusk to dawn.

If you are not a Christian, or not a Christian who grew up in that tradition, you might wonder what it is they imagine themselves doing. Here is some of what they see in the invisible realm overlaid with ours, and what they are doing about it:

Praying in the Spirit

Praying in the spirit means different things to different Christians. For some, it is just prayer. For them, all prayer is praying in the spirit. For others, it is a special kind of prayer that involves the speaking of unknown tongues. But however you formulate it, praying in the spirit is the number one resource the Christian has in their spiritual war chest.

If you ever watch someone do it, you might think them mad. But the true madness lies in the ideas behind it. Christians believe that prayer is a weapon in the invisible war against the evil spirits in high places. When they pray, an angel swings into action and engages in battle.

Your prayer provides strength to your spirit soldier. He suffers less damage in the battle based on the amount of prayer cover he has. When the Christian prays this way, she is like a general giving orders to the foot soldiers.

Sometimes these prayers are spoken as if directly to demons. It is not uncommon to hear one say something to the affect, “I rebuke you demon of fear and panic! In the name of Jesus, I rebuke you and cast you out. I demand that you leave this place! All the saints agree. In the name of Jesus…

It can go on this way for a very long time, interspersed with incoherent noises. The prayer warrior imagines that this type of prayer is literally affecting the ability of a demonic force to operate in this reality. The conceit is that because of this command delivered in faith, and in the name of Jesus, the demon will cease what he was planning and run for the hills.

But all one really needs to do is notice the amount of fear and panic in the world to know that prayers against that particular demon are not especially effective. The same goes for demons of lust, alcohol, illicit drugs and other addictions, over-eating, laziness, unemployment, and all the other issues plaguing humans under the control of a demon.

By the way, this class of Christian literally thinks this way. It is not clear if Justin does. He comes from a charismatic background. And the idea that human problems are the domain of demons responsible for that problem. There would be a demon of infidelity, and a demon of greed, and so on.

What we notice by casual observation is that rebuking these demons, or praying in the spirit, or any other formulation of prayer is profoundly ineffective. The way the spiritual warrior defends the practice is by narrowing the scope of that particular battle. They are not praying away all the demons of fear, just the one they perceive is causing mischief in their lives at that particular moment.

They can claim a very narrow, temporary, local victory over a minor demon. But that victory is short-lived. That battle must be fought throughout the day, all day, everyday. Otherwise, the demon will come back stronger than ever, and have his evil way with them.

But judging by the number of prayer warriors who lose those local skirmishes on a daily basis, it seems evident that even at this level, the battle does not go well. Praying in the spirit is not effective. Fortunately for the Christian, it is not the only weapon they have.

Reading Scripture

The Bible is not just a bunch of words. It is a talisman against the forces of darkness. Fill your mind with god’s word, and the demons can’t get in. The more of the Bible you know in your heart, the sharper your sword when it is time for battle.

For the purposes of spiritual warfare, bible reading has nothing to do with academic study. Textual criticism does not enter into the picture. It is all about mining the text for passages that can be hurled at the enemy like weapons of incantation. The Bible is also used as passages of defense.

If a person feels particularly beset by the enemy, they might say as a mantra, “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.” This is a direct quote from the Bible. Demons hate the Bible as much as they hate crosses. Quoting this and other passages causes them pain and discomfort. Throw enough bible at them, and they will flee.

At any given church, the one who knows the Bible better than anyone is the preacher. Quite apart from any other factor, the preacher has to read it several hours a day for sermon and bible class preparation. In many cases, the preacher also has an extra layer of education and training where the Bible is concerned.

So it is rather curious that so many preachers are destroyed by demons and lose their spiritual battles. Just consider the number of preachers who get fired for mundane things like failure to grow the membership fast enough. Then, there are the ones caught in some embarrassing sin. You can be sure that long before those acts of misconduct became public knowledge, the church leadership knew about them.

It seems inconceivable that someone regularly praying in the spirit, and who knows the Bible better than anyone in the community could fall in battle. But the excuse would be that this person is beset by more demons who are more powerful than the ones faced by the rank and file. If only Christian soldiers had a good shield to go with their sharp sword…

Shield of Faith

Christians are not just tossed onto the battlefield with a suit of armor and a sharp sword. They are also provided an impenetrable shield. It is the shield of faith mentioned in Eph. 6. the Bible does not explicitly say it is impenetrable. That is my embellishment. But what good is a war shield if it is full of holes? Here is what the Bible says about the protective armaments:

Last of all I want to remind you that your strength must come from the Lord’s mighty power within you. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand safe against all strategies and tricks of Satan.

So use every piece of God’s armor to resist the enemy whenever he attacks, and when it is all over, you will still be standing up.

In every battle you will need faith as your shield to stop the fiery arrows aimed at you by Satan. Ep. 6:10-11, 13, 16

The Christian armor is supposed to be even better than military grade. It protects against all of Satan’s strategies and tricks, all of his fiery arrows aimed at you. And at the end of the battle, you will still be standing. Between the armor and shield of faith, nothing should get through. If the Bible is true, the Christian should win every spiritual battle.

So it is impossible to account for all the losses suffered by Christians on the battlefield. The only excuse the Christian can offer is that the warrior did it wrong. They put on the armor incorrectly. They didn’t sharpen their sword enough. Their shield did not have enough faith to repel the flaming arrows.

This is the same type of excuse Christians give for why prayer so often doesn’t work. But in this case, the excuses will not do. Verse 10 specifically says that it is not our power, but the power of god within us.

That suggests that human weakness and frailty should not be an excuse. Obviously, humans would fail were they fighting on their own. If god’s power does not override human weakness, then there is no need for the battle. Humans have already lost.

The best armed warriors have been casualties in this conflict, from ordinary foot soldiers to Catholic bishops. No one can stay in this war very long clad in the armor of Ephesians 6. In fact, there is no evidence that Christians do any better against the strategies of the devil than atheists.

What Christians call spiritual warfare is indistinguishable from ordinary human challenges. We don’t need demonic forces to explain why certain harmful things spike the brain’s pleasure center. We don’t require a spirit world to explain sickness and disease. The human genome is a mess. That is explanation enough.

We know a great deal about mental illnesses, emotional disorders, and even the root of some criminal tendencies. We can diagnose psychopaths, and sociopaths, and sadists. Kleptomania is not the result of greed demons any more than diabetes is caused by sugar demons. Excessive fear is a treatable, emotional disorder not a demonic oppression.

People who think in this prescientific way should be barred from certain positions of responsibility. Even most Christians want a doctor who practices medicine, not exorcisms. Christians want pilots who have eyes open and hands on, not eyes shut in spirit prayer, letting go and letting god.

Conclusion: A Manufactured War

Spiritual warfare for the Christian reminds me of the movie, “Wag the Dog”. For political reasons, the president needed a war. But there was no war to be had. So on his behalf, his advisors manufactured a war. They faked news, reports, video, even music related to the war. They successfully created a war by manufacturing all the details, and selling them to a gullible public.

Spiritual warfare is the plot of “Wag the Dog” writ large.

The early church needed a way to cover for the fact that none of the expected promises came true. Jesus was supposed to go and prepare a place for his disciples in heaven. He was going to be right back. The expectation was that he would be back in their lifetimes.

There was also a problem with suffering. Jesus was supposed to have suffered for us so that we wouldn’t have to. But the reality was that Christians were suffering. So Christianity had to adopt a suffering servant doctrine that included the individual believers as well as the leader. Christianity became a religion of suffering.

The two problems had to be addressed. Why are Christians suffering? And why has Jesus not returned for his people? The answer had to be interference from the evil one. If not for Satan, Jesus would have returned for his people without the need for so much suffering.

For this to make any sense, the devil had to become a lot more powerful than he was in the book of Job. To contend with god, he had to be a god. But even this was not enough. In single combat, one expects god to be able to defeat Satan. But Satan took a third of the angels. That still leaves god with the other two-thirds. So the war still doesn’t make sense. More explanation has to be manufactured.

Satan has used his dark magic to make minions out of most of the humans. That makes up for his deficiency in troops. But god evens the score by recruiting Christians into this spiritual war where we are currently deadlocked. Look at all that had to be manufactured to keep from admitting that Jesus was never coming back with a heavenly reward.

We had to manufacture powerful demons who could wield dark magic, and inhabit humans at will. We had to imagine a spiritual spacial dimension that would serve as an invisible battlefield for the invisible battle. We have to manufacture invisible armaments such as spirit prayer, bible swords, and faith shields.

We also have to imagine human soldiers made up of angsty teens, bored housewives, and old priest who like to prey on angsty teens. These are the troops on the front lines against battle-hardened demons. Note that some of these demons were too strong for the disciples to cast out. But sister Mary Martha is going to send them running by waiving her bible in the air with Jesus on her lips.

Not only is there much we have to manufacture for this imaginary war, there is much for us to ignore. As modern people who know better, we have to pretend that injury and disease are caused by demons rather than accidents and germs. We have to adopt a medieval view of mental illness. We have to believe that natural distress are blows served up from another spacial dimension.

Primarily, we have to convince ourselves that we are surrounded by invisible people who do things that affect us in the real world. We also have to pretend that things we do in the real world have an effect on those invisible people.

And the biggest thing we have to ignore is the fact that if there is a war, it does not go well for the home team. God’s best efforts are not getting the job done. You are not going to get the eternity you were promised until this war is finally won. And there is no sign of your side winning.

The Christian god is so bad at war, he had to recruit you, and others like you. He has given you armor that cannot protect you from anything. He has given you a shield full of holes. You have to fancy yourself a hero and a martyr in a war that is only real inside the mind of Christians, and not even all of them.

I am no longer a Christian. I have put all my toy soldiers away. In my mind, I no longer cosplay as the commander general in the Southern theatre. I am just one of 7 billion people navigating through life and doing the best I can.

But I agree with Paul in one narrow respect: Our battle is not against flesh and blood. But I happily take up the fight against disease, and mental illness, and hunger, and poverty, and discrimination. There are some battles worth fighting. They are very real, and require all hands. And when Christians are done playing with their toy soldiers and fighting their imaginary wars, we could really use their help.

Harvey: How Christians Contextualize Disaster

hurricane-harvey-rescue-boats-ap-jt-170827_16x9_992Christianity is a disaster. And that fact is never more apparent than when disaster strikes. If you want to see Christians dance, just ask them about the actions, or inactions of god in the face of a devastating storm. It all comes off the rails, and reveals itself as the crazy train it is.

But first…

For what it is worth, my thoughts and best wishes go out to the victims of hurricane Harvey. They were indeed victims, both the ones who survived and the ones who didn’t. They were all innocent of crimes worthy of death and devastation by storm. This serves up justice to no one.

My thoughts and best wishes are only meaningful in letting you know that I consider myself a part of the human family. And when you suffer in such an extreme way, I also feel your pain. We all need to do more than hold the victims in our thoughts.

They need food, dry clothes, safe shelter, and a fresh start. So I want you to know that I do not mistake my thoughts and best wishes for actually providing something useful.

And now, back to the regularly scheduled polemic:

Thoughts and Prayers

I don’t remember if it was 911 or some other event that brought this issue to the forefront of my mind. I just remember the parade of important people who couldn’t wait to get in front of a camera and talk about how all those suffering from the tragedy were in the thoughts and prayers for whomever it was seeking attention at the time.

It was utterly nauseating.

First, the event was a world-changing event. Of corse it was in their thoughts. It was in all our thoughts. There was no way for that not the be the case. Adding prayers seemed gratuitous. Considering that most Americans self-identified as churchgoing, religious Christians, there was not a church in the country not featuring the tragedy in all of their prayers.

To say that a thing is in one’s thoughts and prayers seemed like just another way of saying, “I’m religious. I’m a part of the club. Look at me!” It is ultimately a self-serving thing to say. Consider all that is not messaged in that pronouncement:

It does not suggest that much needed emergency food, shelter, clothing, and other personal items will be on offer. It does not suggest that a large infusion of cash is on the way. It does not mean that you are about to get invited to stay with some well-to-do believer in a part of the country unaffected by the disaster. This is what you being kept in their prayers s doesn’t mean.

So it has zero benefit for the victim, while making the person saying feel pious. When you say that, you are announcing that you are doing something useful, without actually doing anything useful.

It also smacks of a certain arrogance. The whole world of religious people, not just Christians, are praying over the same people. But somehow, the fact that you will be praying for them will somehow make the difference.

Thank goodness you are on the case. I’m cold, wet, and all my belongings are ruined. But I have finally been rescued now that the good lord has sent me a prayer warrior such as yourself to get this handled. Thoughts and prayers should never be used as a substitute for something useful. All too often, they are used in just that way.

The Wind and the Waves Will Obey Thy Will

Does anyone remember that scene in the gospels where the storm was overtaking the ship. And the disciples were afraid for their lives. Jesus was sleeping peacefully because after all, it was just a deadly storm at sea.

To show his mastery over the elements, he calms the storm. It is a heartwarming story until you take a second look at what it seems to be saying. There are no storms that god cannot handle. If we surveyed the boasts of god in the Old Testament, he also causes the storms.

Stay with me, it gets a little hard to keep up with.

Hurricanes are the exact and perfect repudiation of that story, and every other bible story that suggests that god cares about storms, or is able to do anything about them. Before Harvey was as much as a tropical storm, god saw it coming, and had already noted the death tole that would follow.

No doubt, humans were able to track this storm long before it hit land. Prayers were already wafting beyond the storm clouds and into the ether. God was processing the prayers for deliverance before the rain began to fall.

God had already decided that he wanted that storm to hit. And he already decided who would live and who would die. This is not one unanswered prayer. It is hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.

So which is it? Did god cause the hurricane or not? If he allowed it, who or what caused it? Nature, you say? I thought Jesus could stop natural storms. He did for his disciples. Were there no worthy disciples in Huston? Did the devil cause the storm? Is this the work of leviathan? I thought god was supposed to be mightier.

Exactly who’s will was the wind and the waves obeying?

The Affectionate, Fervent Prayers of the Righteous

If this subheading was a Jeopardy question, the answer would be, “What is, availeth much?” That Daily Double under the category, “Useless sayings and broken promises of the Bible” would have made you a rich person.

We have already considered the fact that the prayers of the righteous did no apparent good. But I think the situation is worse. What is it that the person praying is hoping to get now that the damage is done? Moreover, who exactly are they praying to at this point?

Remember, the god of the Old Testament boasts that he is the one who brings the storm. Why would you pray to that guy to stop it? The god of the New Testament is a bit more useless and empathizes with your suffering. But he has already proven himself incapable of stopping the storm.

He could not or would not stop the deaths of the innocent, the destruction of lives and livelihoods of survivors, or the financial devastation that is to come to that region. Why the heck would you want to pray to the one who did this to you, or who saw fit to allow it, or who tried his best but couldn’t help? How exactly do you spin that story?

If one person survives, you sing the praises of a god who oversaw the killing of the rest? Really? That’s your good news? If the others are now in a better place, then why let one survive and not get to that better place? Spin on…

And what is it that we are praying for. The people who saw the storm coming prayed that it would be dissipated. It wasn’t. The people who saw that it would not be dissipated prayed that it wouldn’t be deadly. It was. The people who saw that it would be deadly prayed that it wouldn’t be costly or destructive to property. It was.

Now, people are praying that the survivors be comforted. There are no more prayers for the dead. So how are those prayers for comfort going? How about the prayers that their lives be rebuilt? That is going at the pace of what one should expect if there was no god, and only other humans provide comfort and the tools to rebuild.

So tell me again. What are we praying for? How does any prayer you offer in the face of this storm, and every other storm, not make you feel stupid, and maybe a little sick in the pit of your stomach?

It is in times like these when it is obvious that there is no god in control of anything. And we create our god story dynamically based on the situation, and what cognitive dissonance will allow. Perhaps there was a time when there was a god whose will was obeyed by the wind and the waves. But it should be clear to us now that the god of the storm is dead. And if he is not, he should be.

David Johnson

Washed in the blood: a closer look at the cult ritual of baptism

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I was baptized at age 7 in my underwear by my father in a bathtub at a neighbor’s house in front of a small audience of onlookers. To put it mildly, baptism has always been a little weird to me.

Of the many questions I have about baptism, this is the biggest: What was a 7 year old doing getting baptized in the first place?I love that question. Thanks for asking. You might be a little disturbed by the answer.

My earliest memories start at about 3 years of age. I cannot remember a time when I was not in church on a regular basis. In my case, that would be some form of church assembly at least 3 times a week, and sometimes more. For most of those early memories, my father was a preacher. I was born a preacher’s kid.

My story was never going to progress any other way. It was not enough that we went to church. My father taught weekly bible classes at home to me, my 2 older brothers, and my mother. I knew the doctrine of my denomination more thoroughly than the vast majority of adults sitting in the pews. And I knew exactly why I needed to be baptized.

It hit me all at once. Everyone in my family had been baptized except for me. Their sins were forgiven. Obviously, mine were not. They would not go to hell when they died. I would. I was lost in my sins. I was not a member of the church. I was just an attendee.

I became overwhelmed with the heavy burden of my sinfulness. Yes, a 7 year old can be weighed down with sin. Don’t ask me exactly what sins I was burdened with. I was a good kid. My mother will attest to that. But it didn’t matter. I knew I was guilty of the greatest sin of all. I was not baptized. And that means that I had not obeyed god. I was living my life in defiance of god. And something had to be done about it right away.

I went to my dad that very day of my awakening and begged to be baptized. It was a Wednesday bible class night. So he made me wait until the alter call. We called it the time of invitation. All that day, I was frightened that something was going to happen to me, and I was going to die, unsaved. At that point, I would lift up my eyes in hell just like the rich man in that bible story.

You have no idea what terrors a 7 year old can conjure, especially one who was raised on all those bible stories. I had a vivid imagination. And it was no problem for me to smell my burning flesh as the flames that would never die, cooked me for all eternity.

Sure, my father asked me a few questions. Did I love Jesus? Oh yes! You bet I did. Of course I would have loved anyone who stepped forward to get me out of my predicament. Did I understand that baptism was to wash away my sins? You bet I did. I couldn’t imagine a heavier burden then my sins.

Did I understand the sacrifice Jesus made for me on the cross? Did I understand that taking on baptism meant dying to myself, and allowing the Holy Spirit to take control of my body and my life? Did I ever!

So there I was with my clothes off and the gawkers waiting expectantly. My father put one hand on my back, another on my face, and backward I surrendered to the watery grave of baptism.

I came up wet.

I didn’t feel like I had been inhabited by a spirit, holy or otherwise. I just felt wet, cold, and embarrassed. I suppose I did feel a brief sense of my sins being lifted. But that would only last until I had piled up more. My life would always be debt service for that pile of sin that never seemed to diminish.

I directed the closing hymn for that night’s bible class. And thus began my career as a churchman. I would go on to preach my first sermon 4 years later. And I didn’t stop preaching until I left the church entirely.

I thought it important to provide some of this biographical information so that you could understand what baptism meant to me. It was the gateway to my inevitable life as a preacher. My oldest brother started preaching at 12. Hell was a clear and present danger all the time. And others in my church community had been baptized around my age. I really had no choice, nor did I want one.

Baptism was the most natural thing in the world to me. From the perspective of my denomination, baptism was a requirement for salvation. There were no exceptions. There was no other way to receive remission of sins.

Before going further, I want you to stop and think about this from a different perspective: Take Christianity out of it. If a child came up to a school teacher and told her that he had just been washed in a pool of blood to remove his taint of evil, and he had also died so that a spirit from another realm could inhabit his body, what would you make of it? Would you not insist on an investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services?

Say all that in the context of Christianity, and it is just baptism. Does that make baptism any less of a cult ritual? I don’t think so. Here’s why:

Necessary

Back in the days of yore, the Jews were required to be circumcised. It was neither an option nor a debate. It was not a matter of misunderstanding. There was no choice. Failure to comply with the order carried lethal consequences.

So necessary was this ritual, god almost killed Moses for his lack of compliance. See Exodus 4, starting with verse 18. Baptism in the New Testament is spoken of in the same way. While we do not get an official introduction to baptism. We do get the direct message that baptism does save us. See 1 Peter 3:21:

And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The image is clear. Only 8 people were saved by water. The rest were drowned by the terrible flood. Today, we can either be saved by the water, or drowned in the lake of fire. I know many Christians read it differently. But I personally believe they’re wrong. The Bible does not make baptism any more optional than was circumcision. And the consequences of noncompliance are the same.

All cult rituals are necessary, not optional. Failure to comply is to be rejected by the group. Once you know the rituals, they take a dim view of you backing out. Baptism is a lot like that. If you happen to be in the baptism part of Christianity, it is compliance or hell.

Blood

Dark cults are obsessed with blood. That is one of the ways we used to identify a particularly scary cult. It would have some kind of blood ritual associated with it. It hardly got more cultish than Judaism. If it was worth doing, it was worth slaughtering an animal and using its blood for some ritual.

Christianity picked up where Judaism left off. If it is worth doing, it’s worth doing with blood. And if real blood runs afoul of cultural mores, invisible blood will do.

Christianity has two blood-soaked rituals that partially define the religion. One requires members to drink the blood. Don’t worry. It is just either grape juice or wine. But in their minds, it is the real blood of Jesus, at least for Catholics. For everyone else, it is a symbol of the blood of Jesus.

The other ritual is washing in the blood. Some Christians sprinkle it. Some pour it. And others are immersed in it. Though the medium of the blood is mere water. They believe they are coming in contact with the literal blood of Jesus. It is not merely a pantomime. It is the real thing.

Death

It is not just a matter of wallowing and bathing in blood to cleanse you of your sins. Baptism is a full-on death ritual. I come from a group that believes immersion is the only acceptable form of baptism. Part of the reason is that immersion mimics being buried in a grave. We even used the language of being buried in the watery grave of baptism.

The burial represented the fact that one was dying. We embraced death as a form of spiritual suicide. We had to die both to sin and to ourselves. Being lifted up from the water was rising into the newness of life. The old person was dead. An new person was born.

We would talk of being dead in the flesh and alive in the spirit. Baptism is the culmination of that death and rebirth. One could not be born again just by imagining they were born again. They couldn’t just change their perspective on life and decide they were born again. They had to be baptized into the lord’s death in order to be born again.

Rejection

Baptism is the gateway into the kingdom of god. To be baptized is to voluntarily walk through that narrow gate. But to do that you have to simultaneously leave everything from your old life behind. Baptism is a symbolic rejection of the old life you used to live.

This is another one of those behaviors that are strongly associated with cults. You don’t just join the cult. You reject everything and everyone you left behind. Jesus says that if you do not hate your father and mother, you are not worthy of him. You cannot use excuses tied to your old life such as having married a wife, or that you have to burry a parent. Let the dead burry the dead.

Once baptized, your concerns are no longer of this world. It doesn’t matter what you will eat or drink. Saving money and building bigger storehouses for the future is for those still in love with this world. Sell all your possessions and get rid of the money. That’s your new life. You must utterly reject everything about the old one, even despise it.

Conclusion: Wet

At the end of the day, baptism makes you wet, typically, cold and wet. What it does not make you is preternaturally peaceful. It does not make you wiser, luckier, more financially stable, more attuned to what is right or true, more moral, or better in any way. It mostly just gets you wet.

It does offer at least one social benefit: it makes you more accepted within your in-group. It provides entry into the cult. It is an initiation offered both to children and babies, depending on which branch of the cult you are entering.

However, it is telling that the cult ritual of baptism is administered to children and infants. As a bloody requirement for sin removal, one wonders how that can possibly apply to those so young. What sins do a 7 year old have that need to be washed away.

The god of this cult is so exacting in his standards, that even children and infants need to be covered in blood for the murderous death angel to pass. This tells you everything you need to know about this ritual, and the god of this ritual.

What I wish for is an un-baptism ceremony and certificate. People can be Re-baptized. We can even be baptized for the dead. But there is no ceremonial way to be un-baptized. Well I declare myself un-baptized. And I further declare un-baptism for the dead on behalf of all those who died unbelievers, but who had experienced baptism at some point in their lives.

Finally, I invite all those who have entered the church via this cult ritual to un-baptize themselves. Stop wallowing in the blood, death, burial, and rejection of a long-dead sage. Follow good teaching wherever you find it. But leave the cult rituals behind. And leave behind any group that requires them for entrance.

David Johnson

Do We Miss It?

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On the discussion page under the latest Unbelievable podcast (a place I spend way too much time), a Christian asked the atheists on the board if they miss their relationship with Jesus. I had some thoughts about that, and wrote a lengthy post that might show up here at some point in the future. But the best answer came from Sarah, whom I have featured hear in the past. I will post her answer in its entirety with her permission:

The remainder of this post is written by Sarah. As always, Sarah, thanks for your contribution.

Hi Joyce,

This is a fair question to ask which I pondered when seeing ex Christians. Surely, their lives lost meaning and there was a great void at their core, one they willfully suppressed? Surely, right?

Belief is often something many of us have grown up with. In my case, at least 3 generations of family on both sides were protestants. It is tied in to identify, family ritual, traditions, our everyday talks and actions. As a child it is all you know and you learn to filter everything through that lens.

Leaving it is a wrench and costly. It hits at the core of who you are as a person, what you believe and your entire world view. It is not easy or taken lightly, save maybe for those who were just “nominal Christians”.

However, if you were invested heavily, a real believer, it is hard work. I wonder what you as a Christian make of apostates? I would have trotted out the usual – drifting away (backsliding), the need to sin and willful disobedience, deception, laziness as being some of the reasons. Implicit in my evaluation was ALWAYS that the person still knew there was a god, but they preferred their sinful life.

In reality, this couldn’t be further from what I found to be the case when I read people’s ex-testimonies. They were honest non resistant unbelievers. Most wrestled and pleaded with god for faith and assistance. Furthermore, they did not go on mass killing sprees after de-converting. Why, they even seemed happy. It was intriguing to the point of me wanting to learn why they had left. This unexpectedly set me on the path of deconversion, as these people spoke my language but could articulate without shame all their disappointments. So be careful Joyce what you ask! 😉

Yes, I do miss certain aspects. It’s nice (though I discovered not essential, to healthy self esteem) to believe an all powerful Being who loves and cherishes you. It makes some logical sense and appeases are hungry cry for purpose driven explanations (the world was made this way for us, God is the reason!). The promise of an afterlife is reassuring no matter how bad things get down here on earth. In some ways this can foster such qualities as perseverance, patience and delayed gratification, which are not bad traits.

I miss that feeling of, no matter where you go, you have people who believe the same thing. There’s a type of complicity no matter where you travel around the world, that’s bonding. That said, it was often countered by suspicion of another group who had slightly different doctrines.

I am not one for traditional practices, be they secular or religious, neither for singing and organised groups in general, so I don’t miss in the slightest, the services and worship. I was usually bored, being told things that were quite obvious and with hindsight quite annoyed at myself for giving up huge swathes of my time on a Sunday. I left church long before I deconverted and I’m sure that this plays right into the Christian’s view of someone backsliding and pulling away. I had to do it for my own sanity though.

The inner dialogue with god is something you miss in the sense that you don’t do it anymore. It’s absent and there’s no longer that conversation with the divine who ‘speaks’ into your life through thoughts and what you read. But that’s the point, there never was. I still have to catch myself automatically sending a prayer up when things start to go pear shaped. It’s such a reflex, and actually very revealing how much we abdicate our responsibilities and hope to a higher power. Now, I stop myself and re-centre around what can I do about this, what can I learn and grow from this, and I’ve found the lack of prayer has made not the slightest of differences either way in outcomes.

It’s easier in some ways to express what you don’t miss or the positives you’ve gained from throwing off the shackles of faith:

  • There’s no master plan, no cosmic intervention. This life is it. It’s down to us and we need to roll up our sleeves and tackle population growth, poverty, climate change etc.
  • There is so much less cognitive dissonance. You no longer have to twist yourself into pretzels to reconcile the irreconcilable. Nor be grateful that you’ve grasped some nonsensical issue as being your own personal revelation of god’s ‘mystery’. It is all a muddle when it comes to god. And I found it does not serve you well to interpreted this as mystery.
  • Generally I am more at peace, more motivated to help mankind, less judgmental, more accepting and free to explore everything. There was no way I would look at yoga or eastern religions for fear of being assailed by some demon or deception. My soul was in constant danger. There was a cosmic spiritual war raging. There is a never ending need to discern and evaluate; Is this from god? is it just me? is it looking like god but masking as the angel of light? It’s a minefield of which you’re never free.

I appreciate, this might not be everyone’s experience unless they were in a charismatic setting, but most people will talk of feeling led/called, prompted to something and attribute it to god. I have seen it go badly wrong, time and time again. Hearing from Him is fraught with problems. It needn’t be if there was a god, of course. And occasionally Christians tackle the hiddeness of this Being, but retreat quickly into interpreting it as great mystery, something which is to be revered. It’s not. In fact it is one of the crueler aspects.

I’m slowly getting freed from this and it has been nothing but a good, mind expanding thing. But yeah, sometimes I’m nostalgic for the old days.

Hope that gives you an insight.
Sarah

Atheists in Foxholes

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Christians tell us there are no atheists in foxholes. They say this without embarrassment, as if they do not see the inherent problems with this particular boast. First, it is an acknowledgment that the driving force behind Christianity is human terror. Frighten us enough, and we will reach for even the most unlikely lifeline.

That is bad enough. It gets worse. The aphorism is not even true. There are plenty of atheists in foxholes. It would be closer to the truth to suggest that there are no Christians in foxholes. We know this because of two things that are hard to dispute:

First, everyone in a foxhole is scared. Why should Christians be scared. Second, everyone in a foxhole is in a foxhole, not out in the open charging the enemy with two clips of ammo and a prayer on their lips.

Pick any of your favorite bible heroes. It is hard to imagine any of them cowering in a foxhole. If god is on your side, you and 299 others can take on any army of any size. When David faced Goliath, he took his armor off. He didn’t put more of it on.

So I observe, as did J. Anderson Thompson, atheists, or those that behave as atheists are the only ones you will find in a foxhole. To put it another way, we shouldn’t find Christians in foxholes. Look a little closer, and you will find a number of other places you shouldn’t find Christians, but do:

Christians in Doctors Offices

Jesus was known for healing miracles. And his closes disciples were known to be healers, to the point of being able to raise the dead. Even today, many Christians fervently believe in the power of miraculous healing, even regarding some in their churches as apostles.

The last place we should ever find any such people is the doctors office. It is understandable that atheists should go there because they have no other place to go for healing. All they have is science and medicine. But Christians are supposed to have something much more potent. Yet we atheists can’t get an appointment for all the Christians in front of us.

Christians in Loan Offices, and Other Places of Financial Aid

Why would a Christian need a loan from a bank? Does not their god own the cattle on a thousand hills? That’s got to be worth something? Why do they need to go to atheist bankers with hat in hand to borrow money? Why are they borrowing money at all, let alone, from outsiders?

It is even harder to explain why so many Christians find themselves in the welfare line applying for food stamps, and other state services for those who are incapable of taking care of themselves financially. It happenes – to atheists.

It shouldn’t happen to the faithful. Jesus said not to worry about what you will eat or wear. Next thing you know, is followers are begging for handouts as if they didn’t have a father who takes care of their daily needs.

We also see an awful lot of Christians consulting with bankruptcy lawyers. With god on their side, how on earth did they go bankrupt? And if god wanted them to be bankrupt, why are they seeking relief from these non-Christian institutions? There should be no Christians in any of these places. Yet there are, and in abundance.

Christians in Therapy

I’m using therapy synonymously with counseling. I am envisioning the sage professional getting paid $70 – $200 an hour (more like 50 minutes) to listen to your problems, and perhaps give some type of advice. Why would Christians ever be in that office on either side of the desk?

Christians are supposed to have a direct line to the maker of the universe. He charges no money. And you get as long as you like, as often as you like to talk to him about anything you like. Furthermore, he has perfect knowledge of all your problems, and can fix them with a word. Yet Christians still end up in therapy with atheists. How is this even possible?

It is obvious that having a little talk with Jesus is about as affective as talking to one’s self. There is no scenario where having an actual conversation with god could leave one needing to have that same conversation with a therapist.

While we’re on the subject, there is the matter of depression. Why are Christians being medicated for depression? I know it is a physical illness. But that is how an atheist would look at it. Christians claim to have a supernatural source of peace in the person of the Holy Spirit living inside them.

What of peace like a river, peace, perfect peace, and peace that passes understanding? When Christians and atheists are taking the same kind and amount of anxiety medicine, that’s a problem. Isn’t it?

I could go on this way for a long time. But I think you get the point. Not only do Christians seem out of place in foxholes, they seem out of place in a number of locations. They seem out of place weeping over graves of loved ones who died as believers. Grief counselors should never see a Christian. But they do. Suicide hotlines should never take calls from Christians.

Abortion clinics should never see Christian teens desperate for a solution not forthcoming from other quarters. I find it ironic that AA meetings are conveniently located in churches where all of them profess belief in a higher power. And many of them are lifelong Christians. Drug rehab centers are overflowing with sincere Christians who found no help any place else.

So if indeed there are no atheists in foxholes, it is because there is no room left after all the Christians have filled it in, cowering for their lives.

David Johnson

Atheism: The More Difficult Path

 

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I have been in a lot of online discussions and debates on theism and atheism. I have interacted with hundreds of people, and encountered thousands of nuanced opinions on the subject of god and gods, their existence, and the lack thereof.

Assuming their existence, the debate is barely begun. What does this god want from us, if anything? How are we to know? How do we sort out true revelation from false? To debate these things, we must presume to know what exactly is meant by a god in the first place, which we don’t.

One truth has emerged for me as a result of all these discussions: The Christian position is the one with more epistemic certainty. Christians are more certain of their position because they have to be.

Their position is faith-based. True faith leaves little room for doubt. That means that one must be absolutely certain of her theism, or at the very least, behave as if she does. There is a narrow window when one might question her core beliefs. But at a certain point, they are pressured to decide. They either believe or they don’t.

For the atheist, all epistemic options remain open. They can question and doubt anything and everything. They never have to come to a dogmatic conclusion about anything. But that means they are less certain about big questions. And uncertainty is uncomfortable.

No one wants to admit that they do not know when it comes to the big questions. But that is the position the atheist is in more often. This is just one of the reasons why atheism is the tougher path. Here are a few others:

Minority Report

When two out of three people believe one thing, you do not want to be the third. Confirmation bias often leads to the wrong conclusion. But it is a wrong conclusion that puts us all in the same boat. Even if you are right, it is lonely to be a minority.

For inconsequential matters, it is just uncomfortable. But for more important matters, it could be crucial to survival. In a situation where there is strength in numbers, you want to be a part of the larger number. Go against the group, and they may find you eccentric, but tolerable. But defy the group on a core issue, and you may be ostracized from the group, left to fend for yourself.

Atheism is the minority position. In some parts of the world, you can be locked out of major parts of society by not going along with the religious majority. This is a very uncomfortable place to be. But more than uncomfortable, it can be deadly.

Burden of Proof

Logically, the one making the positive assertion is the one with the burden of proof. But practically, the one with the burden of proof is the one with the minority position. In this way, the atheist always inherits the burden of proof even when it is not his to bear.

That constant burden is bad enough. But it gets much worse for the atheist, as one cannot prove a negative. Even if the atheist’s position is that he is simply not convinced of the existence of any gods thus presented, he must prove that the existence of any god is impossible. This simply cannot be done. So it is an impossible burden the atheist is forced to bear.

Opponents of Straw

The atheist never know’s with whom she is arguing from one moment to the next. She crafts an airtight case against one version of god, only to discover that her opponent also rejects that version of god. She has attacked a straw man.

If an atheist is in discussion with ten different Christians at once, at least nine will accuse her of attacking straw men. There is no single idea of what god is, and what Christianity is. Quoting the bible simply does not help since there are as many views on what the bible says as there are denominations. For the atheist, it is straw men all the way down.

Conclusion: Playing Defense

The atheist is forever on defense. It is not just a matter of the false burden of proof. It is everything. The atheist does not go door-knocking in an attempt to convert believers to atheism. No one is lobbying to have atheism taught in school. Science, yes. Atheism, not at all.

Politicians might begrudgingly admit to being atheist. But no politician runs on a platform of atheism. There is no atheist money that say we do not trust in gods. And it is still the case that atheists are the least trusted people in America.

This is an uphill battle.

All of this is quite apart from the arguments of the position. Atheist apologetics are far easier to argue than Christian apologetics. When it comes to atheism, one can appeal to reason and experience more credibly.

I have never experienced a miracle of which I am aware. I have never experienced the presence of a god. I have no reason to believe that prayer to any god under any circumstances is effective. The sick remain sick. The poor remain poor. The dead remain dead. And mountains remain unmoved. Religious claims do not resonate with me, or comport with my experience of reality. In short, I have no reason to believe religious claims. So I don’t.

No matter, atheism is still the minority report, carries the burden of proof, against opponents of straw.

It reminds me a bit of the Matrix. I always get the red pill and the blue pill mixed up. But one of those pills allows you to stay in a comfortable fantasy. The other pits you in direct conflict with the controlling machines. The fantasy is easier. And so is faith.

Taking the wrong pill insures a life of conflict. That is atheism. Unlike Neo, I didn’t choose. But it is my path nonetheless.

David Johnson

Why We Believe

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For some time, I have been in discussion with a number of Christians on matters of faith. One of the questions I explore at least a couple of times a year is why Christians believe the things they believe.

Talk to them long enough, and you will always get two sets of reasons. The first set of reasons are the ones they use to try and convince you to believe. The second set of reasons are the real reasons why they believe?

The reasons in the first set are usually based on evidence or philosophy. They will bring up their favorite apologetic arguments. After that, they might talk about fulfilled prophecy, the empty tomb, and the historical fact of the resurrection.

And while these things might serve to support a flagging faith, or provide reasonable talking points for communication with unbelievers, they are seldom the reasons anyone initially comes to faith. Those reasons are usually rather more subjective.

The real reason most people believe can be traced to where they were born and raised. It is also determined by the belief system of the parents and culture surrounding the individual. But notice that these are never the reasons given when a Christian is waxing poetic about why they believe. They understand that to be credible, they need better reasons. Thus, apologetics.

The apostle Paul is my goto example. Before becoming a Christian, he was a persecutor of the church. He literally murdered Christians for a living. He seemed to be doing so on behalf of the Jewish leadership. And he had the finest Jewish education.

All of this is to say that he had access to all of the evidence for a risen Jesus. And he had training in all of the messianic prophecies. None of that convinced him to be a Christian. What actually convinced him was that he had a religious experience: a vision.

But there lies the problem. You can’t just go around trying to convert people on the strength of your religious experience. You can’t just tell others to have their own religious experience. You have to use something else to convince them. So in typical fashion, Paul used the same scriptures he rejected, to try and convert others.

This is a similar path to where I normally go with this topic. But I decided to expand the question to why atheist believe what they believe. Because I have been both a believer and nonbeliever in my adult years, I started by questioning myself. Do I believe differently as a nonbeliever than I did as a believer?

I think about how I came to beliefs before versus how I come to beliefs now. And there does seem to be a difference. I wanted to know if I just believed what I wanted to believe. Did I believe in Christian things when I wanted to be a Christian, then believe in atheist things when I wanted to be an atheist? Is it all just wish fulfillment?

I don’t believe it is. One reason is that when I gave up faith in god, I didn’t want to. I was doing everything I could do to maintain faith. When I was a Christian, I really wanted to believe in Christian things.

So examining why I stopped believing has provided me insight on the different methods and mechanisms for belief depending on whether one holds to a faith-based system, or if one is a skeptic. There is yet another major difference in how believers and skeptics come to believe things:

When anything is possible

One of the main reasons Christians believe differently is because for them, anything is possible. And when anything is possible, everything is possible. Atheists tend to have a smaller set of things that are possible. Their possibilities are usually limited to the laws of nature.

Christians have a builtin mechanism for infinite possibilities. They believe in an infinite god who can do anything at all. There are a few things he can’t do such as lie, or sin, or anything that Christians don’t really believe in. But otherwise, his capabilities are boundless.

Atheists have no such mechanism. Nature is vast, but limited. It functions based on rules that can be learned and understood. A lot is possible, including many things we cannot explain. But we would not subscribe to the notion that anything is possible, because it isn’t.

Believers take a lot of things on faith because even if they don’t know how it is managed, they have an underlying belief that it is possible, whatever it happens to be. It is very hard to believe in something that you think is impossible to begin with. Therefore, one of the prerequisites for belief is that you have some belief mechanism that renders the proposition possible, if not probable.

Probability assessment

Not only do believers tend to believe more things are possible, they believe that those possibilities are far more probable than they really are. Even if they know that causing a cancerous tumor to disappear via prayer is only marginally possible, they nonetheless convince themselves that it will happen because god is not limited by probability. In other words, they have a builtin defeater for probability.

In this way, the least likely thing can become highly likely. They use a type of faulty reasoning that informs them that the least likely thing, as long as it is mathematically possible, is just as likely as any other possibility.

The believer has the same issues with probability as the gambler. The gambler buys 10 lottery tickets instead of 1, thinking that he has increased his chances from improbable to very probable. He might also rub a lucky rabbit’s foot, and wish upon a star to increase his chances even further.

While more tickets help mathematically, out of hundreds of millions of tickets purchased, 10 tickets does not really help. If it did, millionaires would spend a million dollars a week on tickets to win a hundred million. They don’t. They tend to be better at math.

The believer does similar things. If one prayer makes it probable, 10 makes it likely. In addition to prayer, the believer can do many good deeds, and give money to charity. They will not only pray more often, but more fervently. Surely these things improve their chances. But they don’t.

The atheist has no such fallback. There is only cold, unyielding probability. If the odds aren’t very good, we see no reason to play them. We tend not to place our bets on the least likely possibility. We deem many possible things to be implausible. And there is nothing we can do to improve the plausibility of the least likely event.

Testimonial evidence

Believers tend to place a lot of weight on testimonial evidence. There is something to be said for a good, personal testimonial. But it is not exactly the same as other types of evidence. Not all types of evidence are the same. But Christians tend to treat all types of evidence as the same while atheists don’t.

Even in a court of law, testimonial evidence is rarely enough. When two disputants disagree on the facts, other evidence has to be considered. Even a confession of guilt would not be admissible if that confession was that a person committed a murder via magic. The confession might get a person time in a psych ward, but not prison.

Christians tend to believe that stories written in the Bible are the same as carefully vetted history. They also tend to believe that miracles happened to others on the bases of their testimony alone. When evaluating extraordinary claims, atheists tend to put less faith in testimonial evidence.

A lack of proof

Another major difference between Christian and atheist belief systems is that for the Christian, a lack of proof is not a problem. Believing a thing hard enough, itself, becomes a sort of proof. This works alongside testimonial evidence. If the person presenting the testimony believes it enough, their belief adds credence to the testimony.

They think that if the earliest apostles were martyred for their beliefs, then their beliefs must have been true. The martyrdom argument is made by the most notable apologists. No less than C. S. Lewis made the case that because Jesus actually believed what he said about himself, we should too. He was either liar, lunatic, or Lord. Lewis sees not other options. And Christians eat this logic up. Atheists don’t.

Conclusion: Supernatural

At the end of the day, believers always have the supernatural to fall back on, while as a general rule, unbelievers do not. Everything about Christianity that makes it interesting is heavily steeped in the supernatural. That includes the information delivery system by which we learn of it.

It comes telepathically from the mind of god, to the hand of writers, in a way that leaves the message uncorrupted. We are given aid to read and understanding it courtesy of the Holy Spirit. By that same spirit, we are granted a gift of faith in that message. The truth of the message cannot be accessed without help from the supernatural. For the Christian, it is supernatural all the way down.

Do I have some confirmation bias? Of course. But it is also held in check by many checks and balances I have in place. I read and follow Christian thinkers as well. I never stopped reading the Bible. I still probably read it more than the average Christian. I routinely engage in online conversation with theists. I test my arguments before making them, and change them if they turn out to be bad.

Since becoming a nonbeliever, I have been to church, prayed the seekers prayer, was open to religious experience, made arguments in favor of god and faith, just to see if I could, and did all the things Christians suggested I do to find god. He remains unfound. And I remain unconvinced.

Now compare what confirmation bias I might yet have to the absolute certainty of the supernatural held by believers. That is so much worse than confirmation bias fueled by skepticism. For the record, I am skeptical about everything. But the believer always carries a trump card that can overcome anything, any objection, any scientific fact, any logical necessity. The supernatural is not confirmation bias. It’s confirmation crack.

My bias can be proved wrong. But the supernatural can never be proven wrong. It is unfalsifiable, completely immune to skeptical inquiry. Because it cannot be proven wrong, the supernatural explanation is always as good as any other explanation.

Unfortunately, the supernatural is a place where inquiry goes to die. Your supernatural explanation can be trumped by someone else’s unfalsifiable, supernatural explanation. Rational inquiry is barred from entering the arena.

Because the Christian believes in the supernatural, there is no objection that can stand. Because there is no way to test the supernatural with natural means, every theory that includes the supernatural is confirmed by the supernatural. As you can see, confirmation bias is a minor issue compared to that.

Expect another post in the near future exploring why we skeptics think the way we do.

David Johnson

Because Jesus

jesus-christ-widescreen-wallpapers-01There is a new apologetic from the new apologists that attempts to sweep all faith challenges under the Jesus carpet. Under that carpet goes the problem of evil, and all failed theodicies, biblical contradictions, god-ordained war crimes, holy atrocities committed by god himself, the eternal torture chamber known as hell, and every other difficulty they routinely face.

Rather than offer a vigorous apology for these individual challenges, they shift the focus to Jesus, claiming that nothing else matters as long as Jesus died and was raised for our sins. Because Jesus, Christians need never face or be stuck wrestling with difficult questions that challenge their faith.

These Jesus-only Christians even go as far as to use a sort of Jesus hermeneutic. They interpret everything in the Bible through a lens of Jesus. Want to understand the 10th plague? Jesus. Remember when god sent those she bears to rip apart those kids? Jesus. You know that passage about not suffering a witch to live? Jesus.

This even works in day to day life. Remember that storm that wiped out tens of thousands of people at once? Jesus. That poor child being brutalized even as you read this? Jesus. You were injured in an accident caused by a drunk driver? Jesus.

It is as if Jesus has become a shield of faith, a talisman, a mantra. No matter what challenge you face, Jesus is your hermeneutic, your proof against doubt, your incantation. Everything is going to be just fine because Jesus. Here are a few challenges that cannot be resolved by falling back on Jesus:

Suffering

Jesus is not an answer to the problem of suffering, which itself is slightly different from the problem of evil. Under Jesus, suffering is just as bad. Some Christians try to make the problem go away by suggesting that Jesus also suffered. So he understands what you are going through. They even go as far as to say that in some sense, when you suffer, he suffers along side you.

But I fail to see the point of a god who suffers with you. I don’t need a god who feels my pain. I need a god who stops my pain. I don’t desire empathy. I desire relief. If god is suffering with me, then he can’t do anything to help me. If you find yourself drowning at sea, you don’t look to the person drowning next to you for help. You look for the rescue helicopter.

Some people look to Jesus to make sense of suffering. But that doesn’t make sense either. People without Jesus can invent false meaning for random bad events. Jesus does not make the suffering okay. This is especially true since Jesus supposedly has the power to make it go away.

In the Bible, he healed the blind quite a lot. But what he did not do is eliminate blindness. For every blind person he supposedly healed, he left a million without sight. That leads one to ask what was so special about the ones he healed, and why doesn’t he heal you. One is left with the answer the Jesus has a reason for your suffering.

If Jesus has a reason for your suffering, then at some level, suffering is good. Birth defects are good. Accidents that leave one without the use of their legs are good. This is a sick and twisted view of suffering that only makes sense if Jesus is the answer. Hint: He’s not.

Poison passages

I could fill many pages listing the Bible’s most poisonous passages. But I will only point out one to represent them all:

“Put to death any woman who does evil magic.

“Put to death anyone who has sexual relations with an animal.

“Destroy completely any person who makes a sacrifice to any god except the Lord. Ex. 22:18-20

Okay. I promised 1. But the other 2 were right there. I couldn’t help it.

You might be more familiar with the rendering, Suffer not a witch to live. Notice in the rendering I provided, it is only women put to death for evil magic. Also notice the death penalty for imaginary crimes. In the writers worldview, magic was as real as physics. Apparently the good magic was okay.

Quick question: How does one go about killing a person capable of performing bad magic? It seems such a person could kill you and any mob at will. If she were not in a killing mood, she could just disapparate, Harry Potter style.

Second question: Does all this focus on witches make the Bible seem more like fantasy fiction than ever? Or is it just me? OpenBible claims there are 49 verses in the Bible about witches. That seems like a lot of ink spilled over something that doesn’t exist.

That’s really too bad for all those women killed over the centuries because of the command of Jesus/god not to suffer a witch to live. It is odd that despite the fact that he made revisions and clarifications to many Old Testament laws such as divorce and eye-for-an-eye justice, He saw nothing to amend about putting witches to death. An appeal to Jesus/god does not make these poison passages go away.

Jehovah/Jesus/god

Many Christians align themselves with Jesus as if he is a firewall from the excesses of Jehovah. But if Jesus is Jehovah as claimed by mainstream Christianity, then there is no refuge in treating Jesus as a distinct entity.

That means we can literally do a word swap throughout the Old Testament and replace words referring to god with Jesus. It is Jesus who committed the atrocities in Egypt. It was Jesus who ordered all those war crimes involving the slaughter of the innocent, and child slave wives.

One way these Christians try to dodge this problem is by saying that the people who wrote the Old Testament were confused. They often were not relaying clear messages from god, but confusing their own ideas with the word of god. But Jesus came to clear all that up.

The problem is that Jesus does not repudiate those poison passages from and about god. He cites them, and builds other doctrines on top of them, leaving them as foundational. Jesus does not start a New Testament. He seems quite content with the old, telling some seekers to keep the law and the prophets. In other words, suffer not a witch to live.

Conclusion: Resurrection

Some Jesus apologists like Gary Habermas believe that Christians can avoid all the above problems by retreating to a single aspect of the Jesus story. He believes that if he can prove that Jesus rose from the dead, that would make all other questions moot.

For me, the only thing a resurrection would prove is that something unexplained happen to someone a long time ago. Even if a person was raised from the dead by some mysterious force, that would not mean he was worth worshiping. It would not suggest anyone should devote their lives to such a person.

What if someone else rose from the dead? Should we give our lives to that person? How does the resurrection of Jesus eliminate the possibility that his benefactor was an evil god? Should our own desire to be raised from the dead trump our moral intuition about all the other problems previously mentioned?

No! Appealing exclusively to Jesus is not a winning strategy for the Christian. That particular flavor of Christianity should be disavowed by even mainstream Christians.

David Johnson

Merry Atheist Christmas

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Santa Christ

As an atheist, I love what Christmas has become. The name of Christ has been forever mashed up with the idea of Santa Clause, gaudily trimmed trees, and flagrant consumerism, graft, and financial irresponsibility. Merry Atheist Christmas.

At this point, I don’t see why any atheist would balk at saying Merry Christmas to any of their Christian counterparts. Just think about how meaningless the word has become. Consider how Christians spend the season. And compare it to how nonbelievers spend it. Besides a few church services, there is no difference whatsoever. And even many atheists get roped into the services on that occasion.

I love it when Christians start making noises about the reason for the season. First, they have to continually remind each other that there is supposed to be a higher reason to the season not accessible to the rest of the heathens. But then look at what they actually do:

Toys for the less fortunate

The last few churches I regularly attended got into Christmas in a big way. They would put up a big Christmas tree and solicit the congregation for unwrapped toys to set around the tree. They then made a point to donate all the toys to a local charity. For the record, I love these toy drives.

So let’s review: Christmas is not all about the received gifts. It is about something much deeper. So Christians come together to provide less fortunate children with, wait for it… presents. Wait, what?

So we are giving them a merry Christmas by focusing on the same consumerism that we are inveighing against? How is that different? We give them toys just like Santa would do because they are good little boys and girls. We are perpetuating the idea that one should expect gifts for Christmas.

What about next year when the budget is low, and we don’t give them gifts, or when we decide to support a different charity. Do they presume they were bad boys and girls that year? It seems all churches are doing is perpetuating the secular consumerism that everyone else is engaged in, and calling it Jesus. I’m fine with that.

The morning after

So what happens on December 26th? Do we go back to those unfortunate kids and help them in any way? Do we adopt them and bring them into our homes so that we can take care of them all year round? Or have we done our good deed for the year? Are we satisfied with that drive by toying so as to just move on with our lives for another year?

Remember, you can’t say Christmas without Christ. Is Christ going to come back in a couple of weeks to supply fresh batteries for those toys? I’m guessing not. Even when churches do Christmas, the star of the show is not really the baby Jesus. It is the jolly old elf.

As it happens, nothing is different in atheist households. Did you know that atheist also participate in toy drives for less fortunate kids. They also sing Christmas songs. There are many from which to choose. They get together with families, eat too much food, and bloat their credit card at about the same rate as Christians. At this point, there is no difference in the way we celebrate.

So merry atheist Christmas to all. And to all, a good night.

David Johnson

When Miracles Fail: A Guest Post by Sarah

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Sarah is a regular commenter on the Unbelievable podcast blog. My previous post on miracles, magic, and superstition appeared there. This is her response unedited save for light formatting. Enjoy…

In my church, anyone who so much looked at horoscopes was considered superstitious and this was not of god and certainly not good. In fact it was most definitely dabbling in the occult and could quite possibly be the start of demon possession. There were however apparently no particular contradictions in accepting the Magi in the nativity story who were astrologers. 😉

I’m sorry you had the conservative version of Christianity David. Ours sounds much more fun. 😉 And, we’d have had no problem calling your church “dead” for being cessationists, you would have had our pity for not being able or willing to experience the fullness of God. We on the other hand, were on fire. We were constantly told a ‘new wave of the Spirit was imminent’ and we were going to do great things.

I think they even coined the phrase “Living supernaturally naturally”. Miracles were to be expected, encouraged and sought out, though few would have been able to define what exactly a miracle was. Mostly it was serendipitous coincidences and vague 6th sense feelings, but tell people with enough repetition they’ve got some power and they get all amped up like an attendee at a Tony Robbins conference.

It was the giddy days of prayer-breakthroughs and in the event of not seeing anything particularly miraculous, one could always content oneself that in the very least we were a new creation and were unquestionably being inwardly transformed. This was the true miracle (when all else failed) albeit a bit less glitzy.

It was fun. But it was also dangerous. One family in the church received many prophecies, words of knowledge and pictures that the father, who was young and dying of cancer, would be healed. We all believed it. We all had faith. After all, god had confirmed it over and over so it was 100% going to happen.

It was the early 80’s, chemo wasn’t so great then. He died. The minister went as far as laying himself on the body to pray for it to be raised from the dead. This is something the family, and frankly myself as a 12 year old kid, should have never had to hear. It’s just plain creepy and building people’s hopes up is needlessly cruel.

Unsurprisingly, he remained quite dead. In the face of this unjust passing and quite unable to acknowledge they’d made a humongous, collective booboo, the church clapped and danced the following week as if nothing had happened. The widow left the church, shortly followed by my family.

We also had supernatural events happen on our kids’ summer camps and I, as any self respecting 13 year old girl, kept a detailed diary of them. One night when the boys were praying in their dorm, a “demonic spirit” appeared. Of course this made complete sense; we were going for god so we could expect enemy retaliation of the supernatural kind.

Terrified, they called the leaders and they all prayed it away. (As long as you did all this in Jesus’ name you were safe). The demonic entity was cast out but flew towards the girls’ dorm, so they prayed for protection and they all saw a shield appear over the building. Angels were also seen guarding the door.

The next morning, the camp was rife with the news and we all thanked god for his protection. I dutifully noted all the eye witness accounts in my diary, though disappointingly I had not seen any of the supernatural happenings myself. That’s OK, our meetings were full of being slain in the spirit and other supernatural events, so you couldn’t have it all, right?

What’s amusing is that 30 years later, I have reconnected on social media with one of the guys in question. He is now an Anglican vicar and I reminded him of this event. He has absolutely no recollection of it. I was dumbfound AND crestfallen. But, but… I was there, I spoke to the eye witnesses, I wrote it all down …within a very short time-frame and my diaries are perfectly preserved in their original format, in the language of the day. It has to be true, right?….

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Miracles, Magic, and Superstition: An Exercise in Very Special Pleading

Christians believe in miracles, but not magic, and absolutely scorn superstition. For this to be remotely coherent mental behavior, these terms must surely have very clear and distinct meanings. I don’t think the dictionary will actually help in this case. But let’s give it a try anyway:

Miracle: an extraordinary and welcome event that is explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency: the miracle of rising from the grave.

Magic: the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces: suddenly, as if by magic, the doors start to open.

Superstition: excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural: he dismissed the ghost stories as mere superstition.

Let’s see… Devine agency, supernatural forces, and belief in the supernatural. There is simply not enough delineation for an outside observer to tell them apart. Beyond the dictionary, we simply have to look at how people use the words.

A miracle is a supernatural event attributed to one’s preferred supernatural agent, usually a god. Magic is a demonstration of supernatural power by means or agents other than one’s preferred deity. And superstition is the supernatural power other people believe in that you don’t. At the end of the day, it is all the same supernatural stuff. The only difference is the source and validity.

To the outsider, a Christian professing a belief in the miraculous is indistinguishable from the person the Christian deems superstitious. And when Harry Potter uses magic to fix his cracked glasses, it is indistinguishable from Jesus using mud magic to restore sight to the blind. One who does not believe in the supernatural has no basis for distinguishing between a miracle, magic, and the superstitious without some variety of very special pleading.

Witches, Necromancers, and Diviners

The bible is full of magic and superstition. This is a challenge for those Christians who believe in miracles, but not magic or superstition. The bible says so is not reason enough to believe in miracles. For if that is the only criteria, than the same person is forced to believe in witches, necromancers, and diviners.

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. Ex. 22:18

A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them. Lev. 20:27

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. Acts 16:16-19

The people who wrote the bible believed in every kind of magic, witchcraft, necromancy, and divination. When Moses turned his stick into a snake, the opposing magicians did the same. The magic scripture inveighed against was not theoretical, but real. Sorcerers did real sorcery. mediums really spoke to the dead. Fortune tellers really told fortunes. Magicians really did magic. There are examples of all these things in scripture.

It requires a very special pleading to affirm god magic, but deny other, equally biblical magics. If miracles still occur, why would not magic, witchcraft, necromancy, and divination not still be going concerns?

Blessings and Curses

Rather than quote the bible which is jam packed with blessings and curses, I will present an article on the subject that presents the biblical view of such things far better than I can:

What the Bible Says About Breaking Curses

To summarize, the writer affirms that curses such as those done by Voodoo practitioners are effective, not because of the dolls and pins, but because of the demonic powers being used.

He also believes that Christians can be cursed when they find themselves out of spiritual alignment with god. This can happen even though Christians have power over demons. That power is apparently transactional in nature, not absolute.

I grew up in a very conservative church. But we regarded those who believed in blessings and curses as superstitious. We harmonized that belief with scripture by claiming that the time of miracles and magic had long ago ceased. Cessationism is not actually a good response to the problem.

What we could never say was that things we regard as superstition today were not real throughout bible times. If a person holds to a belief that miracles happened on the basis of what the bible says about such things, they have to also acknowledge that at one point, the world was full of magic.

Jesus/god Miracles

By now, Christian readers of this article are apoplectic with insistence that the only supernatural events that matter are the ones performed by Jesus/god and his lieutenants as told in the bible. They feel like I am changing the subject or missing the point.

But to feel this way is to have never understood the subject in the first place. Jesus/god was not the only one performing miracles back then. And the bible is not the only place where those miracles were recorded. Yet Christians are only interested in the ones recorded in the bible, and only a subset of those.

Christians swoon with awe over Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus. Yet they blush with embarrassment a few verses back when reading the account of the mass resurrection in Jerusalem.

When Lazarus died, his relatives didn’t believe Jesus could do anything for him. They berated him for coming too late. Yet that did not deter Jesus from raising a man four days dead. Yet when His mud magic failed to work properly on a blind man, we are quick to blame the man’s lack of faith.

No, Christians don’t like to talk about all the miracles in the bible. Just some. And they especially don’t like to talk about miracles outside of the bible. They claim that those stories are just fictional accounts written decades too late to be legitimate.

This argument simply makes no sense. If god is inspiring the writing, it doesn’t matter if it is hundreds or even thousands of years after the fact. What is important is whether the stories are true, not when god had them written down. We would only care about when the stories were written down if they were purely human attempts to remember history. The bible has always been said to be more than that.

The Broad vs. Narrow View of Miracles

Try to reason backward from today when Christians regard almost all contemporary miracle claims with skepticism, back to the first century where almost all miracle claims were viewed with acceptance. What changed?

it is fair to say that most believers today have a narrow view of miracles. Where as ages ago, there was a broad view of miracles. A broad view is the general acceptance of any miracle, any time, by any one, for any reason. When it comes to miracles and magic, everything is on the table.

A narrow view is accepting miracles, but with limits. They are limited to a certain period, performed only by certain people, done only in certain ways, only under certain circumstances. Not everything is on the table: good luck charms. Others can be accepted with enough supporting evidence: the resurrection.

The narrow view is the more challenging position as one must justify the limitations they place on the miracles in question. As yet, I have heard no internally coherent presentation of the narrow view.

The Positivist View

At this point, if feels like I am just making up words. But the pleading is so specialized for miracles, one needs to show the multiplicity of categories being parsed. In this case I am referring to the positive nature of miracles.

Gary Habermas asked Michael Ruse if he would consider it a miracle if an inoperable tumor vanished shortly after a prayer session. Michael countered by asking if Gary would consider a sudden, medically unexplainable death to be the work of Satan.

This particular stalemate pointed out the fact that mainstream Christians typically only consider positive, unexplained, serendipitous events to be miracles. The negative events don’t even bear consideration.

Why are the negative events so unimportant as to be given no consideration whatsoever? There are just as many unexplained negative events. Yet only the positive ones are called miracles. This positivist view requires explanation. So far, I have yet to hear it.

Worthy of Investigation

In this world of modern forensics, it is staggering to see the level of indifference demonstrated by Christians to the vast majority of modern miracle claims. One would think that because they already believe that miracles are possible, they would be interested in investigating miracle claims.

They’re not.

This is especially peculiar since those same believers expect atheists to take their miracle claims seriously, and investigate them as if those claims are more worthy. In this case, the pleading is that their miracle claims are worthy of investigation. While other miracle claims are less so.

If Christians really believed that all miracle claims should be investigated equally, they would all be professional miracle hunters.

They’re not.

Conclusion: Just Do One Already!

At the end of the day, if you want to prove that miracles exist, just do one already! Perform it for me. Better yet, perform it on me. I’ll be your guinea pig. Turn me into a guinea pig if that will make a more convincing demonstration. You can heal my vision, or any number of measurable health complaints. I’ll give you a list. Pick the one you want to go for.

We don’t need to debate this issue. We can put it to bed right now. I know two good people, each with only one eye, and the other is bad. Have at it. Surely proximity is not a problem. If resurrection can happen, surely growing back an eye should be child’s play.

No? How about popping over to the nearest cemetery with a camera crew and raising a dead person. You are not going to have any problem finding dead bodies. New ones are being made every second. Crash a funeral and turn their grief into celebration.

Enough with the excuses, the special pleading, and all that goes with it. You want me to believe in 2,000 year old miracle claims? Give me one verifiable miracle right now. Then we can talk.

David Johnson

Fool’s Gold: Why the Bible Must Be Cast Aside Once and for All

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Fool’s gold is a brassy, yellow mineral that can be mistaken for gold. That is the bible in a nutshell. It is mere pyrite being passed off as something of value. Nothing about it is praiseworthy or honorable. Far from being respectable, the bible is a fraud, masquerading as words of wisdom from a higher power. It should be treated like all other frauds, with indignity and scorn.

I can’t say exactly why they call it fool’s gold. It is either that you have been fooled into mistaking pyrite for gold. Or you would have to be a fool to mistake pyrite for gold. It could be that your are using pyrite to fool others into thinking it was gold. Either way, if you have invested your fortune into pyrite thinking it was gold, you have been fooled. And you were a fool with your money.

How much more so is that true for one who invests their life in the bible: a book even less valuable than a pocket full of pyrite? The Bible is not wisdom, evidence, or assurance of anything. Even if the god spoken of by the bible were real, the bible itself would be a poor representation of the hidden reality. Over the next few paragraphs, I will briefly make the case for why the bible is profitable for nothing:

Profitable for nothing

You have known the Holy Scriptures ever since you were a little child. They are able to teach you how to be saved by believing in Christ Jesus. God has breathed life into all Scripture. It is useful for teaching us what is true. It is useful for correcting our mistakes. It is useful for making our lives whole again. It is useful for training us to do what is right. By using Scripture, the servant of God can be completely prepared to do every good thing. 2 Tim. 3:15-17

In this passage, Paul is encouraging Timothy: his protege, to stick with the bible. Paul reminds Timothy of his biblical indoctrination as a child. In this, I feel some kinship to Timothy. I was also indoctrinated into the bible from my earliest memories. I was able to read the bible before many kids were able to read.

Paul acknowledges something that many progressives attempt to deny. You can’t get to the fundamentals of Christianity without the bible. Without the bible, Christianity falls. While this is not the overt message of verse 15, the implication is there. The bible is there to teach you how to be saved by believing in Jesus.

Paul doubles down on the bible by listing all of the things for which it is profitable. In summary, the bible is useful for everything that is important. It can teach you everything worth knowing. It can prepare you for doing everything worth doing. For a well-rounded life, the bible is all you need. On another occasion, Paul said this same thing in a different way:

For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 1 Cor. 2:2

It was enough for Paul: an educated man, to only know the message about Jesus. This is the message of the bible. All else is considered dross. Paul was all in and double or nothing on the bible. Paul did not talk about a human Jesus who lived, taught, and ministered to real people as a matter of history. Paul talked about the Jesus of prophesy.

During Paul’s lifetime, there were no written gospels as we have them today. When Paul refers to the Jesus of the bible, he is not talking about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He is talking about the first 39. He didn’t refer to the miracles of Jesus, or the teachings from Jesus, but to the prophesies about Jesus. Paul wants believers to get their Jesus from the bible, not from history.

Therefore, Paul has to sell the bible as gold rather than pyrite. Christians have to be convinced that the bible is an infallible, almost magical book. It is profitable for everything. And the only way to go wrong is to stray from its teachings. But in the real world, we know better.

No one but the most unfortunate would open the bible to learn history, or science, or math. Those who’s science literacy begins with, In the beginning, god created the heavens and the earth, have a disadvantage in the world that is hard to overcome. Even the true things they learn from science will be colored by the false things serving as their foundation.

While Paul insists that the bible is useful for everything that a believer needs, I will continue to lay out the case for why it is useful for nothing:

Anecdote is not the plural of data

If Christians are to be believed, the most powerful and convincing aspects of the bible are its many anecdotes, stories, parables, and claims. Just as an example, they know there is a god because the bible says that you must be a fool if you don’t believe in a god. While it is an interesting claim, there is nothing persuasive about it.

How powerful a force is faith on the universe? According to the bible, it can move mountains. Never mind that no one has ever seen a mountain being moved due to faith. It is enough that the bible says so. Can we establish that there even is something called the kingdom of god? Well, the bible tells us stories about Jesus presenting stories about what the kingdom of god is like. Therefore, there is obviously a kingdom of god.

I could go on this way for a long time. But I think you get the point. Christians talk about the bible as if they believed that anecdote really is the plural of data. In no other aspect of their lives do they apply this kind of epistemology. To be as fair to the believer as possible, let us assume that the bible contains absolutely true facts about what actually happened.

To assume this about the bible does not make it a useful tool for discovering truth. A broken clock is correct twice a day. If you only look at that clock when it is correct, you might mistakenly believe that it is an accurate timepiece. But even when it is correct, it is a bad timepiece.

The bible says that god created the heavens and the earth. Let’s say he did. How do we know he did? We have an anecdotal story that says he did. We could further speculate that the anecdote came directly from the one who did the creating. That still doesn’t make it reliable as data.

My diary is not evidence of what I did yesterday. It cannot tell you who actually started the argument, or what was said or done, or in what order the events took place. I may be fabricating all the stories in my diary to make myself look good. Reading my diary will not tell you about my calorie intake, or my exercise regimen. Some of what I wrote may be true. But the fact that I wrote it doesn’t make it true.

The best the bible can ever do is point to something that is independently true. A math book is only reliable insofar as it points you to formulas that work. The formulas in the book have to be independently verified as true. A claim in the bible is only true because it is independently true. The biblical claim does not make it true.

The bible supports every truth claim

Not only does the Christian try to elevate storytelling to the level of evidence, they use the bible to support every truth claim, even the contradictory ones.

Did Jesus ascend to heaven on the same day of his resurrection, or was it as much as 40 days later? According to the bible, the answer is yes to both. Was David the 7th of 7 children? The answer is both yes and no. The bible is very clear about both answers. Did the bible support the kind of slavery we are against today? The answer is a definitive yes or no, depending on which passages you prefer at the time.

Despite the fact that the bible says that homosexuality is an abomination to god, and that they should be put to death by a mob, there seems to be some confusion over whether or not they are to be welcomed as full members of the church with all the rights and privileges of leaders.

It is more like Schrödinger’s bible. The truth is held in superposition until opened and observed. The truth on any matter is wholly dependent on who is observing it at the time. As long as the bible can be used to support all positions, even contradictory ones, then it cannot be trusted as a reliable source of any truth.

There is no consensus on the bible

If I did want to rely on the bible to learn the truth about faith healing, where would I turn? Even after I read all the scriptures you tell me to read, I will still not know the answer. Do I accept your opinion, or the opinion of the person next to you? Perhaps I should accept the opinion of the denominations who practice faith healing. Then again, I don’t want to ignore the opinions of those Churches that are convinced faith healing has ceased. Oh, bother…

The issue doesn’t matter. Is the bible the word of god or the word of humans? There is no consensus even among Christians.

Conclusion: Dead to me

I have a lifetime of knowledge and experience invested in the bible. Even as an unbeliever, I have been loathed to let it go. I’m now letting it go. The bible is officially dead to me. I do not wish to be rude to the people I debate with on forums. But from now on, quoting the bible to make your case immediately marginalizes any point you are trying to make.

I will no longer waste my time trying to respect your magic book as any sort of viable point in a debate. It is not. Claims and stories are not multiple data points. A book that supports all claims is verification of none. And if there is no consensus on what it means, then it is useless as a source. If you cannot understand these basic principles, then we have no basis for discussion on the matter.

David Johnson

Holy War

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A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. Eph. 6:10-12

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, Eph. 2:1-2

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. 2Cor. 4:4

That should be enough to get the ball rolling. In case the point is too subtle, we are at war. And it is not just any war. It is the holiest of wars. It’s not a war against humans, but against the God of this world, the powers of the air, the powers of the unseen world, the evil spirits in heavenly places. This is full-on Dark Ages, superstitious, nut-jobery. But that is the world and war that Paul imagined. So that is the world and war I will address.

Ancient Foe

We tend to think of God as the old man with the long, white beard, and a wizard’s robe. I think we have it wrong. It seems to me that image better suits the devil. The Ancient of Days has an equally ancient foe who is wise like a serpent, knows all the ways of God and man, and uses a more subtle magic to work his ways.

This ancient foe has been around for so long and is so good at his job, he has created havoc in both the heavenly and earthly realms. He has god’s forces spread so thin, God has to conscript us into his army to help with the battle. Because of this ancient foe, god’s plans have never succeeded in any realm. We can read our bible from cover to cover, and never find a scenario where God wins. It is all highly contested. And the outcome is up for interpretation.

So what do we know about this ancient foe? Honestly, not much. Here is what we can infer:

  • Satan is immortal. I’m not suggesting that he existed in infinity past. But whatever beginning he had, it doesn’t seem as if he has an end. The bible does not ever talk about killing the devil. He is only to be locked in some sort of inescapable prison.
  • Satan’s forces are equal to god’s forces. This is a disturbing idea for a lot of people. Satan has been fighting God for a very long time. And he doesn’t show any signs of stopping. He always has God on his heels, reacting to Satan, rather than God fighting an offensive battle. If Satan’s forces were not at least equal to god’s, the war would have been over a long time ago.
  • Satan is winning the battle for souls. The bible never tells us what the war is over. We sometimes speculate that it is a battle over souls. They each are trying to take as many as they can. If that is even part of the truth, then the devil is not only winning, he will ultimately win. The bible tells us that most people are going to hell. And only a few will make it to heaven. No matter what else happens, the devil has already won the battle for souls.

There are a few more details we can tease out from the story. One that I wanted to take a bit more time with is the fact that Satan cannot be locked out of anything. In Job, the devil is in the courts of heaven, talking to God as if he belonged there. In Genesis, the devil in the guise of the serpent has no trouble getting into god’s special walled garden. That is not exactly how the story goes. But that is how it is popularly conceived. Even if you don’t place the devil in the garden, he gets here somehow, and becomes the God of this world.

His ability to break and enter goes beyond mere location. He can enter humans. Demon possessions were quite common in Jesus’ day. There is no indication that this special talent of demons was limited to any particular location or time. And we have no reason to believe they have ceased. The Catholic Church certainly doesn’t believe they have ceased, and carry out exorcisms to this day.

It seems the devil does not have to have physical access to a person to do the same kind of damage as he can with a possession. He knows what you are thinking and what you desire. And he can craft the perfect trap for you based on that inside knowledge. Against such a foe with such universal access, we have no hope.

Power of Persuasion

The story of job is about a bar bet between God and Satan. It seems job was the one man left on earth that the devil couldn’t corrupt. This seems to imply that he had successfully corrupted everyone else. One loss and a billion wins is a pretty good record. My point is that Satan knows how to persuade, or shall I say, deceive:

For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. Matt. 24:24

So that huge dragon—the ancient serpent, the one called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world—was thrown down to the earth, and his angels along with him. Rev. 12:9

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. 2Cor. 4:4

This last passage (repeated from above) is one of the scariest in the bible. Why are there unbelievers? Because the God of this world has blinded their minds. It is not that we failed to believe because the evidence and the logic presented by believers was bad. It is that the devil has blinded our minds so that we cannot see the glorious light of the good news. It seems to be suggesting that Satan can just make atheists out of people at will because he has the power to blind minds and block them from seeing the truth.

The very elect are not even safe. Of the handpicked 12 selected by Jesus, one was rotten to the core. Satan actually got all of them to abandon Jesus at the critical hour. He even got Peter to actively deny Jesus. That may even be worse than what Judas did. Make no mistake about it: The devil is really good at what he does. How good is he?

Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it! Matt.7:13-14

Jesus has already told us the outcome. Many (the majority) will enter the path of destruction. While few (the minority) will even find the path to life. In other words, Satan wins. He is going to deceive almost everybody. That includes those who are convinced they are faithful workers in the kingdom:

On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’ Matt. 7:22-23

The point of the section is that the devil has a superpower. He is more persuasive than God. He could persuade a third of the Angels to follow him as opposed to God. Think about that for a moment. In your wildest imaginings, what would it take to talk an angel in the lap of luxurious heaven to rebel? What could you possibly offer someone who, at that very moment, was being bathed by the light of God. The devil didn’t just get one or two, but a third. Had he been granted more time, he may have gotten them all.

Satan can talk Angels out of the very arms of God. He had no trouble talking the apostles out of the arms of Jesus. And he doesn’t even break a sweat blinding the eyes of people so that they become unbelievers, even the very elect. What chance do you have against all that?

Stalemate

In chess, a stalemate is a position where a player cannot make a move that would not immediately lose the game. The rules do not permit a player to move into checkmate. Therefore, the best strategy for a person who is in the weaker position is to maneuver the opponent into forcing a stalemate. While neither side can declare victory, the one with the weaker position has managed not to lose.

If the Christian maintains that God is the one with all the power, and that the devil is in a clearly weaker position, it seems that the devil can at least declare a stalemate. He is engaged in a battle against God, and has not lost, nor can God declare any meaningful victory. How is that even possible? Satan is not a newcomer to this war. He is the ancient foe. He has been playing this thing to a draw for a very long time.

This presents a major problem for Christians. Either God really is all powerful and just pretending to be at war with the devil, or there really is a war that God is not powerful enough to win after eons of fighting. If God is just pretending to fight, then this is all just a sick game. No one should worship such a god. The other alternative is that there really is a highly contested war with an uncertain outcome. God might lose.

But regardless what happens in some unspecified future, If we are to assume that God wants this war over, and with as few casualties as possible, he is not winning. But that is just one of the problems the Christian has to work out:

Free Will, or Did the Devil Make Us Do It?

The warfare theory presumes that there is so much evil in the world because the devil is manipulating people, and unduly influencing free will. But this multiplicity of theodicies produces a faith-canceling, interference pattern that must be addressed. If free will is a sufficient explanation for why people do bad things, and why bad things happen to good people, then the devil is completely unnecessary.

But if we are being influenced by one that is powerful and convincing enough to deceive Angels out of god’s heavenly grasp, then we are facing an unfair, cosmic force that pushes us into actions and opinions for which we are not fully responsible. In other words, this cosmic battle is causing more casualties the longer it wages. The question becomes unavoidable: If God can defeat the devil, why doesn’t he just go ahead and do it.

The Hatfields and McCoys, or, What Are We Fighting For?

There is the popular Hatfield and McCoy trope of two hillbilly families that are at war. It has gone on for so many generations, no one knows what the war is about anymore. They just know that Hatfields hate McCoys, and McCoys hate Hatfields. And that’s the way it has always been. So it is with the cosmic war between the powers of light, and the powers of the air.

We are never told what the war is over. We are just given the sides, and told which one is the good guy. We’re just supposed to support the one side, and hate the other side. But let’s take a moment to speculate about the catalyst of this war.

Some suggest that it is a battle for the souls of mankind. There seems to be both a quantitative and qualitative aspect. The devil wants the most souls. But he also seems to care about getting specific souls. It is as if one Saint equals 100 peasants. We are led to believe that the devil is not just hoovering up as many souls as possible, he is specifically after you.

But if this is just a mere matter of numbers, he has already won the battle. I refer you back to Matt. 7:13-14 as exhibit-A. We are told by Jesus how this all ends. Satan ends up with the vast majority of souls. If that is what this war is over, we can just skip to the end. There is nothing God can do to change that outcome as he has already announced it. So why are we fighting?

Perhaps there is another reason. Perhaps God was planning the end of history shortly after the cross. But the devil caught wind of the news, and was able to launch an offensive that has derailed god’s plan for nearly 2,000 years. Not only is everything delayed, but everything is in doubt.

Perhaps the heavenly realm is just not a safe place for humans right now. Maybe Satan is still causing trouble in heaven, and would pose a danger to saved humans that God would not be able to deal with. Therefore, the war is to completely overthrow Satan and cast him from the heavenly realm before bringing humans up there.

I could go on speculating in this fashion for a long time. But it would not get us any closer to an answer. We don’t know why their fighting. We just know that they have been fighting for a very long time. And there is no end in sight.

How Does the War End?

I’m not referring to mere outcomes. What I am talking about is the actual cessation of battle. Does the devil surrender at some point? Is he surrounded and captured? Or does he fight until the last angel is killed? Speaking of which, we seem to have another problem, as there is no indication that the devil can be killed. Humans can’t be killed. They just transition from one world to the next with a new body. I don’t recall an angel ever being killed, just cast out.

The bible talks about the devil one day being imprisoned, but never actually killed. If Angels can’t die, then what is the point of them fighting? If Angels could die, the fact that there has been a raging war for so long suggests that there is a method to produce more angels. Even the devil can produce more demons. If they can’t die, then the same angels and demons have been going at it for eons, unable to kill, unable to die. If no one can die, how does the war end? And what’s the point of the exercise?

If all God has to do is capture Satan alive and lock him in an inescapable prison, why not just do it? The implication is that he can’t. So does God have a big button on his desk marked, “Victory”? Does he just push the button when he gets tired of playing the game? As far as we can tell, the devil is getting stronger, not weaker. How does God end a war when the participants can’t be eliminated, the enemy cannot be captured, and his strength is constantly increasing?

Before leaving this point, how do we know if the war is still waging? What if the war ended a long time ago when no one was looking? What if the good guys didn’t win? How would we ever know? What would the world look like if Satan already won the war. It seems to me it would look exactly the way it looks today. If God had won the war, we wouldn’t be here anymore.

Fighting the Good Fight

I was having a discussion with a person in a comment thread who was convinced that this cosmic war was real, and that he was somehow a participant. I asked him what proof he could offer showing that there was any such war being waged, and what role he thought he was playing in that war. He never responded. I have never found a Christian who could provide an answer to either of those questions. Here’s the problem they face:

There is no way to answer either of those questions without seeming stark-raving mad, even to yourself. How, exactly, does an earth-bound human participate in a cosmic war that is not against flesh and blood participants? How do you wield the sword of truth in a way that effects the combatants? Do you shout out bible verses from the street corner? If you cause one prostitute to go home early, have you scored a victory in the cosmic battle? Did three demons just fall because you read the Sermon on the Mount out loud?

Some Christians believe that prayer is the secret weapon. But that makes even less sense than just randomly shouting out bible verses. Why would you ask God to strengthen the forces for good as if he were not already working at full capacity? Do you really believe that god’s strength is limited by the number of prayers he gets? Do you envision God holding back the winning blow until he gets enough prayer points? That’s absurd! So are all other possibilities of how humans might be participating in this war.

Try explaining how you know there is a war without resorting to, “the bible says so”. How do you prove it to someone who does not accept the bible at its word? If this war is being waged in a completely different realm, how do you even know about it? Are you getting war updates from the other side? All of the warriors are invisible. The weapons are invisible. The sounds of battle are inaudible. The only thing you can access are things done in this physical realm. How do you connect that to actions from some other realm With different physical realities? You can’t!

Conclusion: Give Peace a Chance

There are no holy wars. There only human wars of the flesh and blood variety. There are no angels, no demons, no principalities, no powers of the air and darkness, no evil spirits, and no oppressively powerful God of this world. There is no devil, no great serpent, no horned beast leading immortal legions against all that is holy.

You may be a Christian. But you are not a soldier, a prayer warrior, possessed or in dwelled by spirits from either side. You are not marching to Zion, or hoisting the royal banner. You are just some pathetic schmuck in a dead-end job, wishing for a little more magic, mystery, and adventure. You are just like the rest of us. You worry too much. You’re afraid of dying. And you want to believe that you matter to the cosmos, even though you don’t.

If you are Jewish, Muslims are not your enemy. If you are white, people of color are not your enemy. If you are straight, homosexuals are not your enemy. And if you are a believer, nonbelievers are not your enemy. There is no enemy. There is no kingdom to defend. There is no war to fight. So stop fighting.

Give peace a chance. Once you let go of this cosmic war idea, you will find that you have far fewer enemies. Peace is having no more battles to fight. Believers can never, truly be at peace as long as they are embroiled in a intractable, cosmic, invisible war.

David Johnson

Biblical Evidence for the Mythicist Position

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I do not believe that Jesus was a real person. I believe he was a mythical creation. I have believed this long before I heard of mythicism. A lot of things in the biblical account of Jesus just didn’t add up. I will eventually get around to writing a post that fleshes this out a bit more. For now, I just want to focus on one passage that stands out that seems to support the mythicist position:

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;

though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: Matt. 13:11-13, 18

Let us not lose sight of the answer Jesus gave to one of the most important questions asked in the bible. Like the disciples, I also wanted to know why Jesus spoke in parables that were hard to understand. Rather than obfuscating, Jesus responded to the question with a direct, and unequivocal answer: Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them

(For extra credit, look up mystery religions.)

By his own admission, Jesus didn’t want the masses to understand his kingdom teachings. He wanted them to be confused because the teaching was supposed to be a mystery available only to the inner circle. He then goes on to explain the parable, but only to his disciples.

When Jesus said that the one who has little will have it taken away, and the one with some will be given more, he wasn’t talking about money, but secret knowledge of the kingdom. Jesus is about to increase the knowledge of his disciples while intentionally confusing the crowd.

For this point, the actual meaning of the parable is not important. The fact that you heard what Jesus whispered to his disciples is proof that it never happened. Think about it: You were let in on a secret from which the masses were excluded. The secret was written down in a mass market book freely available to everyone in the world.

If Jesus had intended to keep the meaning a secret from the masses, he should have told his biographer to leave that part out where he revealed it to his disciples. It goes against the express wishes of Jesus that what he said was written down and shared with the whole world. If Jesus didn’t want it to get out, you wouldn’t be able to read about it.

What all that means is that this is nothing more than a story. It never happened. It is not history. We have both the parable, and the secret resolution to the parable because it is just a story. As the reader of this particular piece of fiction, you are made to feel like you are on the boat with Jesus, a part of his inner circle. You get the insider perspective.

Clearly, this scene is made up. Thing is, Matthew made up a lot of Jesus speeches and events. He is not a reliable witness of anything. He is a storyteller. The question becomes, why did the gospel writers have to make up stories about Jesus if they had access to a real Jesus. Since it is clear that this parable was made up, why not all the parables? Why not the sermon on the mount?

Even by conservative estimates, these writings were decades after Jesus supposedly left the scene. Jesus did not have a biographer because there was no one walking around raising dead people. Jesus stories are no more real than King Author stories. That is why we get to be in on the secrets, and be in on what certain people were thinking. Every page of the gospels is written like a work of fiction. The reason for that is because fiction is exactly what it is.

Positive Reasons for Disbelief

This is one of those subjects that I feel the need to revisit from time to time. It is good to take some of these perennial issues that are settled in one’s own mind, and rethink them afresh. I am suspicious of settled opinions that are never challenged, not even, and especially my own. On a number of occasions, I have examined why believers believe. Less frequently have I examined why atheists disbelieve.

For me, it is not enough to disbelieve on the basis that the presented reasons to believe are bad. Perhaps the presenters of those reasons were just really bad presenters. Maybe there are good reasons to believe. But they don’t happen to know what they are. I don’t want to disbelieve something that may be true on the basis that I got a bad messenger. If a proposition is worth actively disbelieving, it is worth examining. Only a thorough examination can uncover good reasons to believe or not to believe something. Here are a few of my positive reasons for disbelieving religious claims:

Disconfirming Evidence

  • Prayer – Believers have no evidence to support their belief. At least, they have no empirical evidence they can share with a nonbeliever. The nonbeliever does not actually need evidence to disbelieve an unproven proposition. Fortunately, the nonbeliever has even more than that on his side. While the absence of evidence is a good start where evidence is expected, the nonbeliever also has disconfirming evidence to support his skepticism. When I was a believer, I prayed as fervently and knowledgeably as anyone I knew or heard of. The one, very definitive thing I can say about prayer is that it doesn’t work the way it is described in the bible.

    Prayer is one of the few areas where the bible gives us specific instructions, and practical expectations of what should follow. We have an empirical measuring stick for success or failure. We can say to laboratory standards that the biblical notion of prayer does not work.

    Nonetheless, we are always hearing Christians talk about how God answered this prayer or that. Yet every answered prayer can be easily explained by natural causes. The modern Christian pray life is unimaginative and without genuine evaluation of the situation. Prayer doesn’t work. And they will never pray in such a way as to make that fact obvious to themselves. The way that Christians pray and the things they pray for is a sort of tacit admission that prayer does not work.

  • Christian Sin – I did not grow up in the Holiness tradition. They believed that becoming a Christian entailed becoming holy, as in sinless. My brand of Christianity was a bit more mainstream. We taught that though Christians sinned, their status as a Christian meant that they could easily be forgiven. It was on offer for the asking.

    But even mainstream Christians don’t avoid the Holiness trap completely. There is always some expectation that the in dwelling spirit of God provides you with some kind of defense against the wiles of the devil. At one point, the bible says, “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” This implies that the spirit of God which you have, is more powerful than the forces of evil. If Christians had such a spiritual advantage, they should be winning more of the battles. But they’re not.

    There is no evidence that the spirit-equipped Christian is more able to put down the bottle or the crack pipe than the spiritless atheist. Christians are not winning the battle of addition, or the battle of divorce, or the battle of pre-marital chastity, or any other battle involving them overcoming their idea of sin in some tangible way. I offer the average Christian life as proof that there is nothing special acting positively on those lives.

  • Failed Predictions – In science, predictions are evidence. A properly formulated prediction that comes true serves as a piece of evidence that the theory is true. However, if the prediction does not pan out, the theory is disproved. One failed, properly formulated prediction undoes the whole thing.

    So it is with religion. Even the bible agrees with the principle. The bible transposes prediction to prophesy. But it is clear that prophecy includes prediction. And that a failed prediction negates both the prophetic teaching, and the one making the prediction. Here’s the passage:

    But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. Deut. 18:20-22

    Jesus made a failed prophecy that was repeated by Paul. The prophecy was that the second coming would happen in the lifetime of his apostles. Regardless of whether that is what Jesus meant, that is clearly what he said, and how they took it. A true prophesy is indistinguishable from a false one if it is communicated so poorly that it conveys a false meaning.

    This article shows how some Christians wrestle with the issue. It even points out that the beloved, C. S. Lewis acknowledged the prophesy as apparently false, and had no satisfying explanation. We can debate the Olivet Discourse and its implications all day. But that is not the only example of failed prophesy in the bible. But we only need one. When I was a believer, I ran out of excuses for the Olivet Discourse. It was clear that Jesus and Paul taught an imminent second coming. They were wrong, false, and not to be believed.

There Is No Sign of Supernatural Goodness

God is supposed to be goodness personified. As near as I can tell, there are no signs of this god’s presence. His fingerprint of goodness is not stamped on this universe. All of the traditional matter in the universe is due to the cataclysmic destruction of stars over billions of years. Nothing was literally brought to life by the gentle word of a loving god. We are the product of death, destruction, and more death.

millions of species have gone extinct to make way for the present group. By nature, animals eat other animals in this brutish fight for survival. There is no hint of supernatural goodness in the cosmos, or in the animal kingdom much closer to home. But what about those who are supposedly made in the image of god?

If you take the Genesis story literally, the first character with a speaking role who wasn’t god turned out to be as mean as a snake. In fact, it was a snake. It was described as a creature made, and placed in the garden by god. It performed the first overt act of evil. It had no good in it. The woman chose to believe the snake over god. The man chose to believe the woman. If goodness is defined by ones adherence to god’s will, they were all rotten from the start.

Their kids were no better. Out of two boys, one of them was a fratricidal maniac. By the time the world had enough people to be considered populated, there were none good save one. Besides that one and his family, all had to be utterly destroyed for their wickedness. My point is that even in the most generous reading of the bible, there were never any people who demonstrated the supernatural goodness of god. From the beginning, it was always just humans doing the best they could to make it through the day.

Even today, there are no sects of Christians who’s lives indicate the presence of supernatural goodness. Never mind the fact that they commit all the same sins for which everyone else are condemned. At their best, they are no better than a secular humanist. Besides overt, religious expressions, the lives of the best Christians and the best secularists are indistinguishable.

We Are Required to Take it on Faith

I cannot believe by gunpoint. Even in the bible, a feature of false religion was that it was forced upon people by threat of death. You would be thrown into the lion’s den, or persecuted by Jewish enforcers like Saul. As it turns out, Christianity is no better. The message from Jesus is believe or burn in hell. It is easy to see how the crusades grew out of such a religion.

Faith is never a thing that can be commanded. It must be earned by persuasion, overwhelming evidence, or personal experience. It cannot be coerced. If faith is to mean something other than blind acceptance of facts not in evidence, then it is oxymoronic to command it of someone. But Christianity is filled with oxymorons and paradoxes. A similar command is to love God and love one another, as if love can be commanded.

Just as love by coercion is not love, faith by coercion is not faith. Wanting to believe is not the same as believing. I wanted to believe. Lots of people wanted to believe. We simply could not no matter how hard we tried. When the spark of doubt is introduced by multiple disconfirmations that fan the flames, belief becomes impossible. I want to believe that I won the lottery. But the disconfirmations of my lottery numbers not matching the winning numbers puts a damper on my ability to believe.

The threat of hell if I don’t believe does not help. If I bought into the threat, all it would do is make me want to believe at all costs. I would ignore disconfirmations, twist logic, abandon reason, and do whatever it took to deceive myself into thinking that things I don’t believe are actually true. That is the position I would be forced into. Indeed, that is the position I was in. Any religion that encourages people to abandon intellectual integrity is evil on that basis alone. Christianity demands faith. Christianity is evil.

The Story Does Not Hold Together

Every fan of science fiction knows that the moment supernatural elements are introduced into the storyline, major plot holes are soon to follow. We tolerate this in our fiction because we suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying a good story. But in many cases, the plot holes are so big, they take us out of the story, making it impossible for us to suspend disbelief any longer.

The reason we generally do not believe alien abduction stories isn’t for the lack of first-hand testimony. We’ve got plenty of that. The problem is that the stories simply do not hold together. They leave too many plot holes. Aliens advanced enough to traverse space to get here, for some reason, need to do exploratory surgery to figure out basic information about the lifeforms on this planet. They were able to see us from countless lightyears away. They have presumably learned our languages, and know all the lyrics to our favorite songs. With all that power and information, they just tinker with a few of us and go off on their merry way? The story isn’t believable. And that’s the main reason we don’t believe it.

The plot holes in the Christian story are as big as any in a Michael Bay film. Here is a brief sample of what I mean:

  • God was perfectly content within his own perfection, yet created inferior beings who would cause him no end of grief. In question form, why did god create anything? We create things to fulfill needs. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Sometimes that need is just to relieve boredom. But it is always driven by some kind of need. God’s creation has caused him to repent and cry. Why would he do such a thing? What need did he who has no needs, have to fulfill by creating?
  • Why does he so desperately want a relationship with inferior beings? Imagine a human on a deserted island fixated on cultivating loving relationships with earthworms. There is nothing about that scenario that is not disgusting. What if he is a mad scientist who gives the worms a rudimentary ability to communicate, but is constantly punishing them for not rising above their earthworm natures? God wanting a loving relationship with humans is downright creepy.
  • Why are we here and not there? If what god wants from us is a loving relationship where we live with him in a heavenly place which he has prepared, why aren’t we there right now? Why did he create this whole other universe for us to live, only to spend the rest of his time trying to rescue us from it? If he had wanted us in heaven from the beginning, why is this universe even here at all?
  • If god wants all men to be saved, why aren’t all men saved? If your kid is suffering from delusions, and finds herself drowning in the middle of the ocean, would you save her whether or not she recognized you or her condition? She’s sick. She has no idea what’s going on. If you drop a lifeline from a helicopter, she probably won’t take it as she wouldn’t know what to make of it. Would you just fly away content that you tried? Of course not. If necessary, you would use nets to fish her out. God has that power. If he wants everyone to be saved, why doesn’t he just save them? Why the drama?
  • How do we get evil from free will? If god has free will but no possibility of evil, why should our free will be some kind of gateway to evil? Why did he not just give us the kind of free will that is immune to evil like he has?
  • In a perfect, heavenly existence, why would even the devil revolt? Conceptually, god is perfect, and everything he makes is perfect. Yet imperfection is the result of everything he makes. Adam and Eve can be given the benefit of the doubt because they had a few traps that pushed them toward the dark side. But what of Lucifer? Did he have a talking snake to tempt him, or a forbidden tree? If Heaven had no such evil distractions, why would he, or anyone else conceive of rebelling? But things were apparently so bad, a third of the angels thought rebellion to be the more reasonable course of action.
  • Why should we believe Heaven will be a paradise for us? As plot holes go, this one is very hard to ignore. Like Midas, everything god touches turns to garbage. Before humans, he created rebellious angels, and oversaw a war in heaven. He creates an entirely new universe that was instantly infected with more evil from his faulty creation. Somewhere in the other-dimensional cosmos, there is still a war raging on.

    Paul says humans will judge the angels. That seems to imply that the angels are still doing things that need to be judged. At no point has god demonstrated the ability to create a peaceful paradise for anyone. So why should anyone believe that when humans get to war-torn Heaven, things will be different? If he is to remake the human heart for suitability in paradise, why not just do it now?

Atheism

Another good reason to disbelieve is the prevalence of atheism. A god that wants to be known could be known by all. People who have heard of me know that I exist. They may not care one way or the other. But there are no David Johnson disbelievers. If I wanted people to know of my existence, I have many convincing methods at my disposal. We know that the Queen of England exists. We know Tom Brady exists. We know my neighbor exists. If you would like proof, I can easily provide it for you. Yet large swaths of the population do not know that god exists. That’s a problem.

The only way god could be unknown to some is if he wanted to be unknown. God could easily make himself known to atheists. That wouldn’t change all atheists. Like the demons, they will acknowledge his existence. But they would likely not be inclined to worship him. So there is no benefit in leaving some to be honest atheists who simply do not believe he exists. Why not let the debate be about whether we should worship him rather than about whether he even exists? I believe that the fact that he does not make himself universally known is a good indication that he doesn’t exist.

The Origin Story Does Not Explain Our Origins

Every legend has an origin story. The purpose of origin stories is to ground the myth in reality, thereby making it believable. This device is usually reserved for fiction. true events do no need origin stories. When the story is true, we just call it history. But almost nothing in the bible can be considered history. While many of the stories are placed in historical settings, the stories read like fiction. That goes double for the origin stories.

At minimum, origin stories should explain why some things are the way they are. But the biblical origin stories don’t explain anything. The Genesis story does not tell us how humans evolved, and how the world was formed over billions of years. If that is the story the biblical writers wanted to tell, they could have done so in unambiguous language. That is not the origin story they told.

Magic trees and talking snakes do not explain the human condition, or why snakes crawl rather than walk, or why childbirth is painful, or why farming is hard. Worse, it tries to explain things that are not real, like why women are inferior to men. Humans do not die because we were barred from eating from the Tree of Life. Humans never lived to be hundreds of years old. Animals never spoke in the tongues of men. Giants are not the product of angels mating with humans. Everything about the origin story is wrong. If the origin story is that wrong, why would any rational person believe any of the rest of it?

The Holy Book Is Anything But

The origin stories may be the beginning, but are far from the end of the problems with the holy book. Not only is it factually inaccurate about how the world works, it is reprehensibly immoral with regard to the actions and pronouncements of god. The moral intuition demonstrated in the bible is not divine, but all too human, and the worst of humanity at that. The bible has its god and his generals committing war crimes that would shame the most ambitious despot.

Beyond the morality problems, the teachings are atrocious. Almost every unique teaching of Jesus is universally ignored by Christians because they simply do not speak to what anyone considers right thinking. No one in their right mind sells all their possessions and gives the proceeds to the poor. Even philanthropists don’t do that. And yes, Jesus said that to a general audience, not just to one individual on one isolated occasion.

No one who doesn’t want to be bullied turns the other cheek when the other is struck. No one should quietly submit to bullying and abuse, ever. Don’t follow that evil advice. If you turn the other cheek, it had better be a part of a roundhouse kick. Under no circumstances should you gouge out your lustful eye or cut off your sinful hand so that you can enter Heaven named, rather than enter hell in tact. Even if you try to argue that he didn’t mean these things literally, they are still stupid things for a moral teacher to say.

Beyond the specific teachings, the book is overly confusing. If the sincerest, most educated academics can’t agree on what is being said in any given passage, the average person doesn’t stand a chance. With tens of thousands of Christian denominations in the US alone, it is abundantly clear that no one really understands it. In no way is the Jewish and Christian holy book, holy.

The Blind Are Still Blind

When the Imprisoned preacher named John wanted to know if Jesus was the real deal, Jesus sent this message as a reply:

the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.

I have the same question as John. But the answer does not work for me because I am not in prison, and have access to the outside world. With my own poor vision, I can see that the blind use white canes, the lame are in wheelchairs, lepers beg doctors for medicine, the deaf read lips, and thankfully, the dead are still very much dead. Lies to the contrary are being preached to the poor. But what they really need is a hot meal and a dry place to sleep.

I live downtown. There are three hospitals within a mile of my place. One of them is a church sponsored hospital. None of them have ever heard of this Jesus that cures disease and heals injury. The Christian hospital seems to be the biggest of the three. It’s full all the time. It is not known for better care or faster healing. It does medicine just like the others. Nowhere in the world are faith healers taking jobs from doctors. Medical researchers are fighting the same diseases that were around in the first century. If miraculous healing power is the sign that Jesus is real, then I can only conclude that he was nothing more than a fraud.

Conclusion: We’re Still Here

I will conclude with the same point I have made in other writings. We’re still here. The Christian message of hope comes down to, ”The check’s in the mail”. They are told to give a lifetime of worship and tithes for a reward they can only receive after they die. Sure, this life is going to be filled with persecution and hard knocks. Consider it a joy to suffer for the cause of Christ. Don’t worry, you will get your reward when you’re dead. Really! The check is in the mail.

Christians have been checking their mailboxes for the last 2,000 years.

Despite waiting for the world to end in fire and blood, and a cloudy rescue for the faithful, we’re still here. You still have a crappy job. You can barely afford your house payment. Your health is in decline. Your kids are in constant danger from the predator who just moved in down the street. And through it all, we’re still here.

The horn has not sounded. The horsemen have not mounted. The lion is not lying peacefully with the gazelle. Swords have not been beaten into plowshares. And we’re still here. At the end of the day, all the Christian can say is, “One day, just you wait!” And they do. In the mean time, we’re still here, and have been far longer than the biblical writers anticipated. But they have all cashed out, and don’t have to live with the embarrassment of the fact that WE’RE STILL HERE!

Jesus tells his disciples that god is preparing a place for them in his house of many rooms. Talk about a story not holding together. How is it that god was just then preparing a place? Wasn’t it already prepared before time began? Is he still working on it? Why on earth are we still here and not there? These are just a few of the positive reasons I offer for disbelief.

David Johnson

So What

I knew what I wanted to call this piece long before I wrote it. But when I finally started writing the words, I couldn’t decide whether to end the title with a question mark or an exclamation point. Though technically a question, I am using it as an answer. It occurred to me that every Christian apologetic can be answered with, “So what!” It is not a mere dismissal of the topic. It is a declaration that the topic lacks any motivating power for change.

My style of argumentation is an appeal to the practical. If at the end of the day, an argument has no practical value, it loses. Worse, it ceases to matter. I both listen to and read a lot of arguments in favor of a theocentric worldview. Increasingly, I am convinced that even the better arguments have no wood behind their arrows.

There is no Christian argument that is relevant to a nonbeliever because all arguments must do more than convince. They must motivate a person to make a change. There is simply no incentive provided by the Christian for which the nonbeliever is obliged to regard as relevant. Indeed, there are only two incentives the Christian has to offer. And both are useless. All Christian incentives amount to reward and punishment. Here’s why they don’t matter:

Reward and Punishment

Why don’t you seek out practitioners of voodoo for help or reward? Why don’t you fear the punishments they can deliver? I suspect it is for the same reasons I don’t. I simply do not believe that there is anything they can do for me or to me with regard to reward and punishment. Not one Voodoo adherent has ever produced a shred of evidence that such rewards or punishments are even possible. Therefore, I feel extremely secure in my current position of ignoring voodoo as a going concern.

All of the above applies to Christianity. I grasp at no reward of eternal life and fear no punishment of hell as I don’t believe either are truly on offer. Nor has any Christian provided a shred of evidence that such is possible. But with Christianity, there is yet another factor that keeps reward and punishment from being a going concern for me, and most other nonbelievers:

There’s No Faking It

Let’s say that I was absolutely convinced that the god of the bible existed, and that there was a hell prepared for the wicked. What then? Would that change my perspective? Nope! The reason is pretty simple. I happen to find the very concept of hell abhorrent and offensive. I would actively campaign against any god who concocted such a place thinking it was just punishment for any finite crime. In other words, I would utterly despise any god that created such a place. And I wouldn’t feel too favorably disposed to the people who worshipped such a god.

This is an insurmountable problem. The New Testament Christ demands that we love him. Like his dad, he desperately wants to be loved, and ties that love with obedience. But I don’t love this Jesus who seems to have a thing for hell. As much as I would want to try, I simply couldn’t fake the kind of love that is required for salvation. If loving such a god is the price of admission, he can cook me now.

If I have misunderstood him, he can set the record straight, present himself as a being I could fall in love with. The fact that he does not set the record straight indicates that I am right about him, and there is nothing to be set straight, or he doesn’t care to save me. Either way, my fate is sealed. Therefore, I have no incentive to change anything. I have only to await the inevitable conclusion.

Alternate Endings Still Have No Effect

But what if there is a god, but no hell as many Christians believe. Would that make me love him, and thus, become a follower? Nope! Hell is but one of many atrocities associated with this god. If the biblical record regarding this god is even partly true, he is still a monster. I would be a monster to accept rewards from such a being.

What if none of the biblical record paints an accurate picture of this most beneficent being? In that case, I don’t know anything about him/her, and couldn’t possibly love him/her… it. Take away the bible, and we know as much about the Christian god as we do about dark matter. If this unknown god was offering eternal life, I would have no idea what it wanted in exchange. Therefore, it would make no sense for me to change anything about myself in a desperate attempt to please an unknowable god.

What if there was no afterlife, and rewards and punishments only pertained to this life? Would that do the trick? Nope! The problem with that idea is that there are too many disconformations to ever believe in such rewards and punishments. Good things happen to bad people. And bad things happen to good people. Nothing in human experience suggests that justice reigns in this life.

Conclusion: So What?

I was recently listening to a debate on the resurrection, and found myself uninterested in the arguments on either side. I don’t even believe there was a Jesus. But it doesn’t matter if I am wrong. Let’s say there was a Jesus that was crucified and rose from the dead. So what? Really, what does that matter? How is that relevant to anything?

Don’t get me wrong. Rising from the dead is a neat trick. But in the bible, it wasn’t unique. Lots of people rose from the dead. That didn’t make them sons and daughters of god. They all either died again, or were taken from this world. Either way, we have none of them to interview. No one has risen since that time. So why should it matter if Jesus did?

I have no desire to live eternally with the kind of god that is outlined in the bible. Living forever in peace without him does not seem to be an option. So I would rather just die when my time comes, and stay dead, left completely alone by all cosmic bullies who demand my love or fear.

Even if such cosmic bullies were real, I couldn’t love them, or run from them, or fool them, or even have meaningful communication with them. And I’m not alone. I cannot be swayed by an apologist because I could not act on anything they say even if i wanted to. I can’t believe in things I don’t believe, love who I don’t love, desire the unattainable, or fear what does not exist.

The Many Problems with Intellegent Design

ID is one of those Christian apologetics that gets me a bit riled up. It is not just that it is wrong or bad. They are all wrong and all bad. It is that the ID argument is dishonest. It is creationism 2.0 dressed up in different garb. Here’s the big difference. Creationism was overtly religious. That platform wore its religion on its sleeve. That kept it from being taken seriously in scientific debate. ID pretends to be purely scientific with no religious roots. But secretly, it has the same religious underpinnings as its predecessor. ID is simply hiding, or outright lying about its religious motives to sneak into scientific discussion.

Besides being dishonest about the motives, ID is no more scientific than was creationism before it. ID is philosophy and theology pretending to be science. Worse still, it is bad philosophy and theology. It simply does not hold together as a theory. It only looks promising if one does not look too closely at it, or take it to its logical conclusion. In this piece, I will do both:

Identifying Design

Take a cup of paint and throw it against a wall. Next, hire a professional artist to paint another wall so that it looks exactly like the wall with the splattered paint. Now tell me, which was random and which was intelligently designed? Here’s the thing: You can’t. No one can. There is nothing about the splashed wall that says, chaos. And there is nothing about the carefully painted wall that says, design.

The fact of the matter is, everything we are capable of detecting looks designed. The fact that we can see it all means that it is adhering to some sort of mathematically describable pattern. We wouldn’t recognize true chaos because we couldn’t detect it. What the proponents of ID will not do is name something they do not think is intelligently designed. For them, everything is intelligently designed because everything looks like design. Design, by its very nature, implies an intelligent agency.

From a scientific perspective, their claim is unfalsifiable, as nothing could disprove design as they define it. But that blade cuts both ways. It could also be said that everything appears to be a result of unintelligent, naturalistic processes without any design whatsoever. This includes computers, works of Shakespeare, and tacos. Here’s how that counterargument goes:

Process Without Design

Nothing is designed because everything is a part of an evolutionary process. No, unless it is a cheap Windows PC, your computer is not a random assemblage of parts. But the intelligently designed computer is not the beginning, but the end of a process no one could have predicted at the beginning. It is a stage in the evolutionary process.

Of course there is intelligence behind it. But where did the intelligence come from? Human intelligence, itself, is a part of an evolutionary process. The universe did not design intelligence anymore than it designed a computer.

This is not the Shakespeare written by infinite monkeys argument. It is more along the lines of Shakespeare being produced by a lengthy succession of monkeys, which is more or less what actually happened. The universe did not set out to intelligently create the works of Shakespeare. But over the course of billions of years of unguided process, the works of Shakespeare have come into existence.

Whether or not tacos were the ultimate design goal of the universe, I will leave it to the reader to decide. I am reminded of the old joke, if you want to bake a cake from scratch, first, make a universe. It is an acknowledgment that everything evolves from something. The only real question to ask is, what was the first thing that was not evolved from anything. And make no mistake about it: That is the only real question ID is getting at.

First Mover Redux

Oh, well… Here we go again. Surprise, surprise! When it all comes down to it, ID is just another first mover argument. As I have stated many times before in a variety of ways, creating a first mover does not solve the problem. It just advances the problem another level.

As we have seen in this universe, human intelligence is a natural, evolutionary process. Therefore, why should we suspect it would be different in any other universe, or with any other life-form? If we can see how human intelligence evolved, why is it unfair to ask how the ultimate intelligence evolved?

Then, there is the question of where god obtained the material to create the universe in which we live. It can’t be a preexisting part of himself. If that is the case, then all of god’s interactions with the universe is no more interesting than a human picking at a scab. To have any meaning, this universe has to be something wholly other from god, something he made, not something he is.

But to make a cake, or a universe, you have to have ingredients. Did god create from nothing, ex nihilo? Then you admit the possibility that matter and energy can come from nothing. If you say we are from god, and god has always been there, then you permit that matter and energy could have always been there. In neither case is a god necessary.

Conclusion: Goodbye Science, Hello, Fiction

Do yourself a favor: Skip the ID debate altogether. If you grant everything the proponents of ID are pushing, you still don’t get anywhere near a being recognizable as the god of the bible: the only designer candidate they actually care about.

Even they will admit that the only thing they are trying to prove is that someone with intelligence designed the universe. Beyond that point, they stop pretending that science has anything to do with their program. They support the principle of inference to the best explanation. They do not claim proof of design. They only claim that it is be best explanation inferred by the evidence. Beyond that point, it is all theology.

It is like an episode of Star Trek. A transporter is loosely based on some undefined scientific principles. But to actually get to a transporter, they have to abandon science, and fully embrace fiction to move the story along. If they didn’t, they would have never gotten the crew to a planet’s surface without landing the shuttle every week. From a production standpoint, that was very expensive. Transporters were cheap.

For the proponents of ID to get to where they actually want to go: the god of the bible, they have to abandon science and enter fiction. Next time I revisit the subject, I will examine some of the plot holes they end up creating in order to tell their story.

David Johnson

Faith: “Help My Unbelief”

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Despite the title of this post, I am not actually petitioning aid for my unbelief. I’m well beyond that point. But make no mistake about it: I have vigorously prayed this prayer many times during my first forty years of life as a believer. Alas, that prayer was never answered. My unbelief was not abated by divine intervention. The Line, “Help my unbelief” is from a story in Mark 9. A man is desperate for Jesus to help his dying son. He seemed like a person who would have tried anything, and probably did. He would have tried anything, believed anything. He was desperate and afraid. We’ve all been there.

The line has always captivated me from the moment I first read it as a child. The insertion of this very human moment contradicted everything I thought I understood about faith. It left me hopeful, but hopelessly confused. It seemed to stand in stark contradiction with other passages that required absolute faith. Jesus could do no miracles in his home town because of the lack of faith shown by the people there.

His own disciples could not cast out a particular demon because of their doubts. And they certainly had more faith than anyone else, as they had seen and performed other miracles first-hand. If even a little doubt could render them impotent, what hope did anyone else have?

Yet, here is a man admitting doubt, and yet, got the miracle he was so desperate to receive. How is that even possible. More to the point, if it was possible for him, why shouldn’t it be possible for me. That was my question then, and is my question for believers today.

The Faith of Thomas

One of the 12 that walked with Jesus, Thomas is my hero. Grant it, I don’t believe Thomas was a real person. But in terms of the story as told, he may be my favorite character in all the bible. Why he was singled out as a doubter, I will never know. The storyteller needed a doubter, and Thomas was it. He was declared the doubter because he requested proof that the risen Jesus was who he said he was. Here’s the thing: The other eleven had been given the proof demanded by Thomas in an earlier meeting. Here’s the passage:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jn. 20:19-20

You will notice that the disciples rejoiced only after they had been convinced by the wounds. Thomas wasn’t with them at the time. When they told him about it, he also insisted on seeing the evidence before being convinced. The story highlights Thomas as a doubter because he held out for the evidence. I’m fine with that. He held out for the evidence. He saw the evidence. And he believed as a result of the evidence.

Even more interesting, Jesus actually gave him the evidence rather than the more typical mercurial answer for which he was known. Not only that, he accepted Thomas’s faith rather than rejecting him as a disciple because of his demand for proof. Of course, Jesus upbraided him for his lack of faith, and made a speech declaring those who believed without evidence were somehow better.

But none of that really matters because the faith of Thomas was apparently sufficient for him to continue as one of Jesus’ 12 representatives. If it was good enough for Thomas, I’ll take it. Except, it seems that option is no longer available. It is either faith without evidence, or nothing.

The Impossible Faith

As I have said many times in other posts about the matter, we do not choose what we believe. We can choose what we want to believe. But when it comes to what we actually believe, we either believe it or we don’t. We can’t skip the builtin mechanisms we have for distinguishing truth from falsehood, muscling past our mental gatekeeper. We can’t short-circuit the pathways to proper belief. Just try as hard as you can to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You simply can’t do it. That is what I call an impossible faith.

What god seems to demand today is an impossible faith. My not believing things that are hard to believe does not make me a bad person. It makes me a properly functioning human. At worst, it makes me Thomas. God does nothing to try and persuade us. He simply demands that we believe. It is a little like demanding that you love someone you never met, and aren’t too sure if that person even exists. Love this person, or die! Believe these propositions sans clarification and proof, or die! It is the mad man who demands that you love him while he holds a gun to your head. I can try to fake it. But I can’t accomplish it. He might as well pull the trigger.

The Price of Grace

I recently wrote a piece called Grace: A Not So Free, Not So Gift. Part of my thesis was that grace is not free because it requires us to do something to reap its benefits. In most formulations, that something is usually faith. It is saved by grace through faith. No faith, no grace. Semantic games cannot change the fact that faith is a payment. The Hebrews writer put it this way:

Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. He. 11:6

There is simply no getting around it. Without faith (to paraphrase the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld), no grace for you! This particular passage highlights two propositions you have to believe. The first is that god exists. It is interesting that the writer of this passage does not automatically assume that everybody knows that god exists, or that there is sufficient evidence for his existence. He lists it as a proposition that one must take on faith. The second is that god rewards those who seek him. I know many Christians who do not believe in heaven, and hold no classical view of eternal reward.

I find the second proposition even more interesting because it seems to be unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Belief in god seems essential enough. But reward? What does it matter if a believer understands the idea of godly rewards? Why not demand belief in the risen Jesus, or blood atonement? Why something as inessential as the belief in reward? This will always be a mystery to me. What I am certain of is that the bible makes faith a prerequisite for receiving the not so free gift of grace.

Conclusion: Help My Disbelief

Christians unquestioningly accept faith as the price of grace. I do not. Why must we believe anything? If you have never asked yourself this, ask now. We don’t actually need faith for any of the laws of physics to work. Gravity, quantum mechanics, and relativity operate as predicted whether or not I understand or believe in them. I don’t have to believe in the benefits of oxygen to draw a breath. Nor do I have to believe that a snake is venomous before it can kill me.

This is true even in interpersonal relationships. If I make the unlikely promise that I will give you a pony, it is not incumbent upon you to believe it. In fact, if you know anything about me, it would show good judgement on your part to completely disbelieve it. The responsibility to deliver your pony is mine, and mine alone. You can disbelieve it all the way up to the point that the pony is in your yard, with all the appropriate papers declaring me the giver and you the owner. My fulfilling my promise does not require your faith.

I have been close enough to death so that I was certain I would die in the hospital, and not live to see another sunrise. I remember closing my eyes having zero faith that I would open them again. Fortunately, my faith was not required, as years later, I’m still here. Many mornings, I wake up a little surprised to have successfully done so.

Faith is meaningless in every practical aspect of our lives. We don’t need faith for a thing to be true, or to receive a gift, or to accomplish the unlikely. One might argue that wishful and positive thinking offers some benefit. But faith is presented as something distinct from hope and positive thinking. While hope may give you some measure of confidence where none is called for, faith will not give you better grades. It will not grow back your thinning hair. It will not keep you from being hit by a drunk driver. It will not add one good day to a bad marriage. It will not keep the repo man from driving off with your car. Faith profits nothing!

But… What if I’m wrong? What if I disbelieve as a result of being born to the wrong family, or in the wrong part of the world? What if I was provided misleading information during my formative years? What if I have a defective gene? What if I am mentally and emotionally incapable of the understanding required for faith? What if any number of things I haven’t even mentioned is keeping me from believing? I am still required to believe in what I clearly cannot.

I have been a seeker, not a finder. I have searched the scriptures multiple times. I have prayed with the fervor of a thousand priest, “I believe! Lord help my disbelief!” Until that prayer is answered, I don’t see the point in any other prayers. What I am left with is what I actually believe and don’t believe. I cannot muscle past the gatekeeper of my better judgement. I will happily take the reward of Thomas based on his evidence-powered faith. I await god’s presentation of the evidence that would persuade me.

David Johnson

Grace- A Not So free, Not So Gift

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I listened to a program that featured a Christian and a Mormon debating the concept of grace. The Mormon representative delivered a grace with which I was very familiar, as it exactly mirrored the Church of Christ idea of grace I have known since I was a child. While the debate, itself, wasn’t particularly enlightening, it did get me thinking about the subject.

I am very familiar with the main formulations. I find Calvinism vs. Arminianism debates quite entertaining, and most on point. Listening to people debate Paul vs. James can also be rather enlightening. But the epiphany I had when taking in this particular debate was that I had absolutely no idea what any of it actually meant. The more I study grace, the more nonsensical it seems. I’m not sure how I ever thought I understood it.

Though different groups pour different meanings into the words, everyone seems to agree that grace is a free gift from god to humans. This is the gift of salvation, as without it, everyone would be lost (burn in hell, live eternally without the presence of god, be completely annihilated). Salvation and condemnation are yet more concepts different groups apply different meanings to.

But the more I study grace, it strikes me that it is neither free, nor a gift. And it seldom ends in salvation, whatever that happens to mean. Obviously, I’ve got some unpacking to do:

Free as in Beer

I don’t at all understand the literal imagery of this expression. But I know what it has come to mean. Free as in beer suggests that something is absolutely free with no strings attached. Not only is there no up front payment, there is never any expectations for payment, or even appreciation after the beer is drank. Free as in beer is as free as it gets.

When Christians talk about salvation being a free gift through grace by faith, they seem to have a very different idea of free than I do. Even as a Christian, I always struggled with this one. The formulation I learned is that salvation is the free gift of grace. But you had to receive the gift through certain fulfillment mechanisms.

We were careful not to label those fulfillment mechanisms as works. But we definitely understood that there was something we had to do in order to take possession of the free gift. It is not that we earned the gift in any way. We didn’t. We just had to take possession of the gift. Make no mistake about it: The gift was still free.

Receiving the Gift

One of the quiet scandals of the gameshow: The Price Is Right, is that many winners couldn’t claim their prizes because they couldn’t afford the taxes on those prizes. Yes, the prizes were free. But they still had to pay the California state tax.

A more common example you may have experienced happens when you order something from TV. Often, there is a free gift with your order to incentivize you. When you have a representative on the phone, they tell you that all you have to do to receive the free gift is pay the shipping and handling. Shockingly, that shipping and handling fee is often the real, hidden price of the free gift. No S&H fee, no free gift.

At that point, it becomes a matter of semantics. How much do you have to do before the gift is no longer free? I am reminded of the classic Nigerian scam. Some wealthy royal is escaping from a desperate situation, and needs help moving his substantial cash hoard. He offers to give you a lavish reward if you help. He just needs you to send a small amount of money in U.S. currency for whatever transaction fees he concocts. To receive your free gift, all you have to do is send him a few hundred dollars. What a bargain!

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that there really is a substantial reward at the end of the deal. It still wasn’t free. You had to pay to get it, just like you have to pay the gameshow and the S&H fees. Semantically, the Christian can say that salvation by grace is free. But the loophole is that you have to do something in order to receive it, to claim your prize. You either have to be baptized so you can come in contact with the cleansing blood, or swear fealty to Jesus, your new king and master, or profess belief in propositions you can’t square with the facts. There is always something that you are expected to do to receive your free gift.

It gets even worse, and more confusing…

The Pearl of Great Price

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid. Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he found a pearl of great value, he went out and sold everything he had and bought it. Mt. 13: 44-46

I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand these parables. I can only tell you how I understand them based on study, and how they have been taught over the years. The treasure and the pearl represent the kingdom of god. We are meant to be the person who finds these treasures. To truly possess the treasure, it costs us everything we have. These treasures (gifts) are so valuable, no one could possibly pay the true price. To obtain it, you must give (pay) everything you have.

The interesting thing about the gospels is that Jesus never talks about grace. He tells some to keep the law in order to be saved. To others, he says if they love him, they will keep his commandments. Both he and his predecessor required their followers to repent and be baptized to be saved. In the above passage, salvation costs more than belief, repentance, and confession. It costs everything you have and are. That seems like a pretty high price for a free gift.

The Gift that Keeps on Taking

When a gift is not really free, it’s not really a gift. The moment I make a payment to receive it, it is no longer a gift. It is merchandise. I now have a contract that states that when I perform an action, you have to make delivery of your promise. When I pay shipping and handling, the free gift had better show up. Semantics aside, what we have is a two-way contract, not a free gift.

God’s free gift is even more problematic. We can understand why there has to be some kind of fulfillment clause among humans. If I offer every person in the world a dollar, it is reasonable that I require them to send me an SASE. I’m only one person. There isn’t enough time left in my life to address 7 billion envelopes. As humans, we have limits. God does not.

This is where the charade gets just a little bit transparent. God doesn’t have to require us to pay a state tax, or shipping and handling, or provide a self-addressed stamped envelope. We don’t have to seek him, or decide if he is even real. We don’t have to believe in him or trust him. If he wants to give everyone in the world a free gift, he can just do so without drama or fanfare.

If he wanted everyone to be saved, everyone would be saved. There is no need to jump through fulfillment hoops. He requires artificial fulfillment clauses precisely because he does not want to give his pearl of great price away for free. He does not want to give what is holy to the dogs. He wants us to show that we are worthy of the gift for which we can never be worthy. By definition, god has made certain that his gift is not free.

He has also made certain that his gift is not actually a gift. It is not just that we have to pay something to receive it. We also have to go on paying after we have supposedly received it. I say “supposedly” because there is no verifiable, extrinsic, measurable sign that we have received anything other than a good feeling.

We don’t get any added health benefit, as well still get sick and die from the same diseases as everyone else.The lifespan of the believer is not longer or happier than anyone else’s. Their finances are not any more stable. Their marriages are not any more secure. Their kids are not any smarter or obedient. Their parents suffer from the same geriatric issues. There is simply no received gift that can be externally demonstrated.

The big gift is eternal life. Of course, there is no way to verify that gift without first dying. Once dead, there is no coming back to verify the gift for someone else. Your only gift is something that you cannot verify, and is highly doubtful. And for that gift, you are expected to do an awful lot.

A Life of Sacrifice and Self-denial

Jesus tells his disciples they have to take up their cross and follow him. What kind of gift is it that requires the most loyal to carry an instrument of torture and death for the rest of their natural lives? Paul put it this way:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted… 2 Tim. 3:10-13

Paul made a point of his many sufferings so that he could pay it off by saying that every godly wannabe has to likewise suffer. Forgive me if I remain unsold on this gift that is starting to look a lot less like a gift. If my salvation has been completely paid for by the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, why am I expected to pay through my self-denial and suffering?

There is an even more troubling aspect of this gift. If this grace thing is really a gift, who is the giver, and who, the receiver?

An Eternity of Obedience, Worship, and Devotion

Jesus says that if we love him, we must keep his commandments. Does this ever stop? Will we always have to be subject to his commands even in heaven? Is there ever a time when we can say, “Nope. I think I’d rather do something else”?

One of my secret fears as a child was that I would go to heaven, get conscripted into the choir, and be stuck singing praise anthems to god for the rest of my eternal life. Is there a time when you can duck out of the song-fest and go shoot pool with some of your buddies? In heaven, can you have any conversation other than about how great god is, and how thankful you are to him for his free gift?

If life on earth is any indication, probably not. Once we have taken possession of our free gift, we are to be in a constant state of thanksgiving, prayer, and remorse for our sinfulness. We are never to trust inner own understanding. We are never to plan to do anything without first acknowledging that we can do nothing if it is not god’s will that we do so.

The advice of Ecclesiastes is that we should fear god and keep his commandments. This is the whole duty of man. Paul says that for him to live is Christ. And for him to die is gain. It seems that the only one getting a measurable benefit from the free gift is god.

He gets willing receptacles for his disembodied spirit. He gets us to give him money instead of the other way around. He gets us to volunteer our lives whenever he needs a sacrificial lamb. And he gets an eternity of worship, praise and sycophantic devotion. Even if we do get eternal life in the bargain, it seems god is getting much more. He is not giving us a gift. He is giving us a bill. And we will be paying it for the rest of our natural lives. Count me out!

Conclusion: Candy from Strangers

Why do believers accept this idea of a gift so uncritically? We look gift horses in the mouth everyday. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. When did we stop believing that? We know about cons and scams. If you believe in cosmic, otherworldly beings, why could there not be cosmic, otherworldly scammers?

The promise of heaven and eternal life in a state of undefined bliss sounds a lot like candy from a stranger. At least then, you get the candy. Religion promises so much more, demonstrates no ability to fulfill it, and requires that you give all that you have to obtain it. Isn’t it reasonable that we ask more information about this god who speaks to us in parables through ancient intermediaries?

As I have already made clear, I don’t understand the grace thing. It is a free gift for which I don’t have to do anything. Yet if I insist on living my own life on my terms, then I don’t qualify for this thing that god so desperately wants me to have. No, I don’t understand it at all. I don’t see how it’s free. And I don’t see how it’s a gift. But even if I did, I don’t believe it!

I don’t believe there is a reward waiting somewhere in outer space for those who live their lives in a particular way. I don’t believe that there is anything beyond the grave. I don’t believe there is a hell from which to be saved. If there is such a hell, I do not believe that the human sacrifice of an ancient, Middle-Eastern man can do anything to help me avoid it.

I don’t believe any of it. There is simply not sufficient evidence for me to do so. It is not that I haven’t tried. But if there is a god who represents a universe where all of these things are true, he knows exactly how to reach me. He knows the kind of evidence that would convince me. If he was interested in saving me, he would not try to do so by the equivalent of offering candy from a stranger.

He intentionally and consistently avoids allowing me to see any evidence that I would find persuasive. He will not do for me what he has supposedly done for so many others. He will not appear to me. He will not talk to me. He will not even give me a hallucination. He will not give me an argument that I can’t easily defeat. He will not give me an unmistakable sign, or even a feeling.

Contrary to the song I sang for so long, his grace most certainly does not reach me. And I suppose that is a good thing. Because like the prizes on the Price Is Right, I couldn’t afford it anyway.

David Johnson