Sins of the Father Chapter Three

Chapter Three

 

Kernels of Truth

 

 

 

Man Behind the Curtain

 

The man behind the curtain is an allusion to a plot point in the Wizard of Oz.  (Spoiler alert!)  As it turns out, there was no wizard.  There was only a little man using a complicated apparatus to create the illusion of a big voice and magical powers.  In other words, he was a fraud.  When his deception was uncovered and revealed for what it truly was, he used his phony, godlike voice to say, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

As it happened, the fake wizard did end up speaking a lot of truth.  That happened only after his fraud was exposed.  He stopped speaking as a wizard and started presenting himself as the mere man that he was.  Only then, did the adventurers find what they were seeking.

Such is the case with the bible

To get the most out of the bible and discover the nuggets of truth it holds, we must reveal the frauds and pay close attention to the men behind the curtain.  The call to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain is the same as calling for blind faith.  What the false wizard was really asking them to do was to have faith in spite of the evidence of their eyes to the contrary.

The purveyors of this fraud, I believe for the most part, are not doing it intentionally.  They, themselves, have completely bought into the fraud.  They have put on the blinders of faith and expect us to do the same.  They have conditioned us to ignore and reject out of hand anything that questions our foundational beliefs.  The bible, itself has built-in safeguards to keep the flock in line.

 

“For I say to every man to whose ears have come the words of this prophet’s book, If any man makes an addition to them, God will put on him the punishments which are in this book: And if any man takes away from the words of this book, God will take away from him his part in the tree of life and the holy town, even the things which are in this book” (Rev 22:18-19 BBE)

 

“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, were to be a preacher to you of good news other than that which we have given you, let there be a curse on him. As we have said before, so say I now again, If any man is a preacher to you of any good news other than that which has been given to you, let there be a curse on him” (Gal 1:8-10 BBE)

 

“I am conscious that after I am gone, evil wolves will come in among you, doing damage to the flock; And from among yourselves will come men who will give wrong teaching, turning away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-31 BBE)

 

There are many others but these are sufficient.  One of the greatest dangers for the Christian is to listen to a dissenting voice.  Paul was so concerned that others would come in after him and teach something different that he even warns the people not to listen to an angel from heaven.  There are actually Christians that would unceremoniously turn away an angel from heaven because he said something different from Paul’s teaching.  God would be wasting his time by coming down to earth to set the record straight because brainwashed Christians wouldn’t listen to him.

Who wants to run the risk of having plagues of the bible added to them, or having their future reward taken away?  Who wants to be labeled as a wolf among the sheep?  Preachers fresh out of seminary must be very careful about what they teach because anything that sounds like a new teaching could get them labeled as a false teacher.  A word to the wise for new preachers, if the congregation will not listen to an angel from heaven, they most certainly will not listen to you.

To make matters worse, there is a bias against anyone who might know enough to challenge the status quo.  Scientists are fools.  Philosophers know only the wisdom of man.  Doctors trust only medicine, not god.  According to Jesus and James, the poor are the righteous ones while the rich are the oppressors.  According to Paul, an intellect, intellectuals could not understand the truth as well as simple people can.  If someone raises a question that is too difficult to answer…

 

“But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes.” (2Tim 2:23 KJVS)

 

And when confronted with facts that we can no longer avoid and cannot see any way to deal with them that does not compromise our faith, we are to hold on to our faith because…

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.  By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Heb 11:1-3 NIV)

 

I grew up somewhat contemptuous of college and college educated people because of all the lies they would try to teach me.  They would tell me that the universe was not created in the exact manner described in Genesis 1.  They would tell me lies about the bible and try to destroy my faith because they themselves had no faith and didn’t want anyone else to have any either.  They were foolish and I was wise.  What did I need them for?

I was the model of faith.  My feet were planted firmly on a rock.  I could not be moved.  Whenever anyone tried to expose the man behind the curtain, I paid no attention.  I squeezed my eyes and ears shut, clicked my heels three times, and I was safely back in my own little world where nothing could shake my faith.

Eventually, I started noticing the man behind the curtain more often.  I would only glance at him from the corner of my eye.  It was many years before I drew the courage to look at him square on.  Now, I see him for what he is, and there is no unseeing him.

 

 

Beyond the Curtain

 

When the dog in the Wizard of Oz exposed the fraud, the adventurers were quite shocked at what they found beyond the curtain.  They did not find the workings of a god.  They found the apparatus of a man.  To be sure, it was an impressive apparatus.  Still, it was only a machine, not magic.  When we pull back the bible’s curtain, what will we see?

We will see lot’s of men and their apparatus.

We will see men like Luther and Calvin who spent their lives trying to explain the message of the bible.  These men were not inspired or directed by god, at least not to their knowledge.  They were mere men who acted as men by the authority of men.  They worked tirelessly on behalf of their god, but not by direct marching orders from their god.  They, and men like them had to figure out what the bible was trying to say, then pass that information on to other men.  They were sometimes wrong.  That does not mean that they had nothing valuable to say.

We will see men like Marcion, Irenaeus, and Eusebius.  These were men who worked tirelessly to establish a set of texts and codify them as scripture.  They had no commission from god to do this work.  Yet they had a passion, and believed it necessary for the establishment of orthodoxy, for all believers to be on the same page, as it were.

For centuries after the time of Jesus, no one had a compilation of scripture that was just like any other person’s compilation.  There were many writings read in the early church that did not make it into the canon centuries later.  There were other books that were rejected by the early church that, after a few centuries, did finally make it in.  The men who were instrumental in establishing the canon all had theological axes to grind.  Naturally, they chose writings that favored their position while excluding those that didn’t.

These men were not inspired or directed by god in any way.  They worked tirelessly on behalf of their god, but not by direct marching orders from their god.  They, and men like them had to figure out what should and should not be considered scripture.  They were sometimes wrong.  That does not mean that they had nothing valuable to say.

We will see men like Erasmus, Estienne, and Hort.  These are men who devoted their lives to wading through the thousands of copies of manuscripts that make up the bible and trying to figure out what the original documents might have said.  This was, and is, no small task.  They had to read through hand-copied manuscripts made by people of varying degrees of skill and literacy.  Before the printing press, no two copies of the bible were exactly the same.  God’s holy and divine word did not just drop from the sky in pristine condition.  Nor was it preserved for all generations to read and adore.

Instead, it required men who were wealthy and inclined to spend that wealth on bringing some order to badly corrupted texts.  These men were not inspired or directed by god in any way.  They worked tirelessly on behalf of their god, but not by direct marching orders from their god.  They, and men like them had to figure out what words were inspired and which were errors of men.  They were sometimes wrong.  That does not mean that they had nothing valuable to say.

We will see men like Jenner, Blahoslav, and Williamson.  These are just a few of the men who devoted their lives to providing us with an accurate translation of the bible in the native language of people around the world.

What would the Dakota Indians do without a bible they could understand?  What of the Romanians, the Turks, the Brazilians, the Mexicans, the Cambodians, the Zulus?  How could they learn of the Judaeo–Christian god and his ordinances?  For that matter, what of the English speaking world?  What of you?  It required men with the vision and passion for providing the bible in the language of every tribe and nation.

These men were not inspired or directed by god in any way.  They worked tirelessly on behalf of their god, but not by direct marching orders from their god.  They, and men like them had to figure out what words to use so that men of every tongue could know the words of the lord.  They were sometimes wrong.  That does not mean that they had nothing valuable to say.

We will see men like Ambrose, Athanasius, and Clement.  These were a few of the men who gave us the important doctrines of the faith.  For centuries, the church went without formalized statements and formulas for important doctrines.  People were forming beliefs about doctrinal matters without the guidance and sanction of the church.  This was and is a formula for chaos.

Enter the church fathers who codified doctrines such as the trinity, the dual nature of Jesus as fully god and fully human, the sacraments of the church, purgatory, ecclesiology, and pretty much everything else that was not exactly spelled out in scripture.

These men were not inspired or directed by god in any way.  They worked tirelessly on behalf of their god, but not by direct marching orders from their god.  They, and men like them had to figure out which teachings were orthodox and which were heresy.  They were sometimes wrong.  That does not mean that they had nothing valuable to say.

We see men like the patriarchs, prophets and apostles.  What are we to make of them?

 

 

Jehovah’s Witnesses

 

Who are the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles?  They are the holy men of the bible.  Their stories and legends make up the foundation of the Jewish and Christian faith.  When you speak of Moses, Isaiah, and Peter, you are talking about god.  For the Jews, if Moses said it, god said it.  Later, the words of the prophets gained the same sacred status.  For the Christian, it is blasphemy to suggest that the apostle Paul was wrong about something he taught or believed.  It would be the same as saying that god was wrong.

In a way, all of these men are priests.  A priest is a human intermediary between man and god.  All religions require the devotees of the faith to go through some man to get to god.  If one could go directly to god without an intermediary, then it would not be a religion.  The very fact that there is a religion replete with doctrines and boundaries means that someone has to define it and present it to the people.

That sounds a lot like the job description of a prophet.  A prophet is essentially the voice of god spoken through a human vessel.  Priests enable access to god by men.  Prophets allow access to men by god.  In the end, they are both the same.  You cannot worship god without doing certain things.  For most religions those things must be done or blessed by god’s human representatives.  You cannot know what to do to please god if god does not tell you.  Since he does not speak directly to you, you must get your information second hand from a prophet.

Even the Christian does not have direct access to god as we claim.  We have to hire clergymen to deliver and interpret gods laws.  These clergymen deliver the sacraments such as marriage, baptism, and communion.  We are just as dependent on holy men as any other religion.  Just do a casual search for church budgets on Google.  You will find that regardless of the size and geographic location of the church, the clergyman is the number one expense.  This is true across all demographics.  There is little wonder tithing is one of the favorite subjects of preachers.

The holy men of the bible were even more important than the holy men of today.  Their words and actions were considered to be inspired by god.  As such, what they did and said is sacred, authoritative, and binding.  Even their mistakes are covered under the aegis of sacred infallibility.  Rather than look at an obvious error and conclude that it was an obvious human error, we conduct rigorous mental gymnastics to reframe the error so that it is no longer an error.

I have read countless examples of biblical errors, inconsistencies, discrepancies, disharmonies, and mistakes, along with the accompanying tortured explanations as to why those examples are nothing more than a misunderstanding of god’s superior wisdom.  I have learned that it is possible to harmonize any biblical discrepancy.  All you need is a predisposition to the notion that biblical holy men can never be wrong.  All you need is faith.

The problem with the reliance on holy men is it gives them too much power.  A person who convinces others that he is god’s representative can define religion for his generation.  Better yet, if a person invents a holy man, that person can define religion by crediting it to the legendary holy man.  That way one can define religion without suffering the martyr’s death.

So what of the holy men of the bible.  In the next chapter, we will turn our attention to discovering more about them and the books that were written in their name.

 

 

Conclusion

 

There is much more to say about the problems with the bible.  I will say some of it in the following chapters.  There are many books and articles on the subject and I highly recommend you read them.  They will go into much more detail than what I have briefly touched on here.

My goal in these last three chapters is not to get you to throw away your bibles never to read them again.  Rather, I want you to understand that which you read.  The bible is not a magic book.  It was not written by god.  It was not assembled by god.  It was not edited by god.  It was not translated by god.  The original words were not even preserved by god.  You believe that it was still, in some way, inspired by god simply because it says so.  When it said that, it was not even referring to much of what we think of as the bible today.  Also, there is a good chance that the very passage in question was a forgery, not at all written by anyone we think of as inspired.

To get the most out of the bible, we have to throw off the idea of it being some sort of magic book.  It was written by a variety of people from a variety of places over a large amount of time.  We cannot begin to understand it without some serious dedication to scholarship.  That is not to say that it is not worth it to put in the scholastic effort.  It is.  There are fascinating stories that give us insight into how some of the ancient people tried to understand and relate to god.  Some of their struggles and solutions can surely serve to inform us today.

As for claims of its supernatural origins, it is not unique.  All religions that have holy books claim similar supernatural origins.  A holy book with holy men that does not claim to be from god is not worth reading.  However, I, and most of you do not believe in other holy books that claim to be from god.  Why not?  They all speak of miraculous events to verify their authenticity.  What sets the bible apart from all the others.  I guarantee that the vast majority of Christians cannot answer that question without an appeal to faith.  Well that is no longer good enough for me.  Everyone has faith in their holy book.  We have to have more.

It is often said that the bible is the only book that is internally consistent.  Considering all the writers and places and time covered in the bible, a mere human book would contain mistakes.  Well, the bible does contain mistakes, and lots of them.  It is said that fulfilled prophecy proves the bible’s authenticity.  Prophecy is a slippery eel to catch.  I have learned that any prophecy can be shown to have been fulfilled with the proper interpretation.  The endless debates over eschatology are proof that even Christians do not agree on exactly what prophecy means.  I am convinced that much of what the prophets said had nothing to do with making predictions for the distant future.  Their concern was with the people of their own day.  Their message was contemporary, not futuristic.

Whither, then, is the evidence for the bible’s authenticity as a sacred book sent from heaven?  Remove faith from the equation, and there is none.  One might argue that the longevity and proliferation of the bible is evidence enough.  Others may point to the changed lives resulting from the adherence to its teachings.  Still others may point to anecdotal stories of miracles that they have experienced first hand.

All of these observations are valid if true.  But for me, they are not true.  There are other religions that are spread just as far and wide as Christianity.  Adherence to the teachings of the bible can have positive results.  But some teachings in the bible can result in just the opposite.  How many wars have been fought and people killed as a result of some group trying to follow the dictates of scripture.  As for changed lives, mine is no better than most atheists.  Bible believers seem to be just as likely to have divorce, drug addiction, and depression.  Talk of miracles all you like, I have yet to see or experience one that could only be an act of god as opposed to a natural occurrence.

Absent any tangible evidence that the bible is anything more than a book of manmade origin, all I can do is examine its message to see if there is some redeeming truth that survives the corruption of the human process.

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Sins of the Father Chapter two

This Chapter deals with the subject of textual criticism.  I highlight a few of my favorite errors and contradictions.  The point, though, is showing how difficult it is to find the needle of truth in a haystack of errors.  Enjoy.

David Johnson

 

Chapter Two

 

Baby and the Bath Water

 

 

 

All or Nothing

 

Growing up, I learned that the bible was an all or nothing proposition.  It may have been made up of many parts written by many different people, but it was essentially one book written by the one true god.  If any part of it was right, it was all right.  We could not be selective in what we decided to accept.  By the same token, if any part of it was wrong, it was all invalid.  God did not make mistakes.  In a holy book, mistakes indicated that the whole thing was nothing more than a work of men.  This is partly how we invalidated the holy books of other religions.  We would point out some aspect of it that was clearly human error.  One drop of bath water disqualified the whole baby.  More to the point, it proved that there never was a baby to begin with.

How then are we to apply this principle to the bible?  I have tried very hard not to disqualify the whole collection of writings for the faults of a few passages.  But to have this enlightened view of scripture, I have to jettison the baggage of my belief in the all or nothing principle.  In practical terms, that means that I have to evaluate each part of the bible independently of any other passage.  Every word of every verse of every chapter of every book of the bible now comes under scrutiny.  I not only can be selective about which passages I will accept, I must.

I do not feel compelled at this point to prove my claim that some portion of scripture contains errors.  For the most part, if you are predisposed to believe that the bible contains no errors because it is the inerrant word of god, then any evidence I present will be quickly dismissed as fraudulent or a misunderstanding on my part.  You have already made your leap of faith in the inerrancy of scripture so no amount of proof will dissuade you.  If, on the other hand, you know that the bible contains some errors and that we do not have an uncorrupted record of god’s holy words, then you do not need me to prove it.  Still, I will provide a few examples of what I mean by errors.

In the end, it really does not matter how many legitimate examples I come up with.  For the purposes of the all or nothing principle, I only need one minor example.  Unless you are willing to claim that you have a copy of the uncorrupted word of god or have access to an original autograph of the complete set, or that your translation is based on such a manuscript, then you have already ceded the point.

 

 

Adding and Subtracting

 

“And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book. And if anyone removes any of the words from this book of prophecy, God will remove that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book.” (Rev 22:18-19 NLT-SE)

 

Never mind what the verse really means.  The way it has been traditionally presented is as referring to the whole bible, not just Revelation.  This, of course, is absurd.  From a biblical perspective, there is no bible.  Still, the above passage should be enough to put the fear of god into any copyist who would make even the slightest change to the sacred text.  According to this verse, we should be able to tell a forgery by taking note of what happens to them after they make their additions.  All we have to do is watch and see which translators suffered from the plagues in the bible and we will know they added to the word.

Unfortunately, I am not aware of any such cases.  Perhaps some have had their share in the tree of life revoked, but there is no way to tell.  In any event, there have definitely been additions and subtractions to and from the words of the bible.  How do I know?  Just count them.  I know of at least one person who claimed that the NIV deleted 64,000 words from the bible.  These deletions include words, phrases, and whole verses.  Many modern translations put verses in footnotes to show that they are not really considered legitimate.  KJV people accuse NIV people of subtracting from the word.  NIV people accuse KJV people of adding to the word.  Who is right?  They both are.

There are thousands of manuscripts from which we get our bible.  Some manuscripts have some verses that others do not.  The words are different in many places.  In some places, the differences are quite meaningful for interpretation.  Modern scholarship believes that many passages in the early editions of the bible were added by scribes.  Some of these additions were in the margins, never with the intention of augmenting the text.  Others were intentional additions to help clarify or present a favorite doctrine.

Which is your favorite translation?  Is it the one with lots of additions or the one with lots of subtractions?  You simply do not have a choice of neutrality.  You do not have a perfect copy.  You simply have something that is deemed good enough.  But good enough is not good enough.  I have heard many sermons and doctrines based on the specific tense and linguistic properties of a single word.  With thousands upon thousands of variations in the text, placing so much on that level of specificity seems asinine.

But you do not have to get down to the verse level to see the problem clearly illustrated.  Just ask yourself how the Lord’s prayer ends.  Don’t worry about the details of the prayer.  You will not be able to nail those down either.  Just focus on the ending.  Does Jesus stop after delivering us from evil, or does he go on to declare the kingdom, power, and glory forever, amen?  Most experts believe that last bit to have been a much later addition.

Have you read Mark’s gospel lately?  Where did you stop?  If you read past verse eight of the last chapter, you went too far.  The rest is a complete fraud.  Don’t take my word for it.  Google it.  Better yet, read the notes in your own bible.  Even snipping the obvious extra verses from the text still does not solve the problem of how the book ends.  Read verse eight in both the KJV and the NIV.  Have you read the book of Mark lately?  Are you absolutely sure?

Are there any important doctrines discussed in these passages?  That depends on if you consider Jesus commanding his apostles to baptize every creature important.  Perhaps the casting out of demons and speaking in new languages is marginal.  But I wouldn’t go handling poisonous snakes or drinking toxic liquids thinking that the word of god according to the last few verses in Mark will protect you.

 

 

Finding the Baby

 

Finding the baby in the bath water may be more difficult than you think.  Finding needles in haystacks is so tough because needles are so small and haystacks so large.  The biblical baby, let’s call him truth, is very small compared to the biblical haystack.  The bible is full of hay ranging from innocent mistakes to outright forgeries.  Without going into too much detail at this time, I will next consider the types of errors found in scripture.

The first type of error is the textual error.  We have already considered a couple of examples so there is not much more to say.  They come in all sizes from small to extra large.  The casual reader of the bible has no idea when they are reading something close to the original and when they are reading an outright invention of a scribe.

One of my favorite variants is found in Mark 1:41.  Jesus cures a man with a skin condition.  When Jesus did the deed, was he filled with compassion or anger?  Almost all translations say it was compassion.  However, the manuscript evidence makes a good case for if being anger.  It is certainly the most difficult reading that would explain the change to compassion.  There is not a good reason a scribe would change compassion to anger.  The point is there are many manuscripts that disagree on what was actually written.  Groups of people make their best guess on this and other variants all the time.  That is how and why we have so many translations.  The text, itself, is a problem.

Beyond, or perhaps wrapped up in the variant issue is the area of honest mistakes:

 

“Then the Syrians fled before Israel; and David killed seven hundred charioteers and forty thousand horsemen of the Syrians, and struck Shobach the commander of their army, who died there” (2Sam 10:18-19 NKJV)

 

“Then the Syrians fled before Israel; and David killed seven thousand charioteers and forty thousand foot soldiers of the Syrians, and killed Shophach the commander of the army.” (1Chr 19:18 NKJV)

 

Was that 40,000 horsemen or 40,000 foot soldiers?  If you are one of those who has to harmonize every “apparent” discrepancy, then perhaps you reason that the horsemen were foot soldiers who happened to be riding horses that day.  You may also reason that they were horsemen when they were on horseback, but the horses were shot out from under them.  In that way, they became foot soldiers.  In desperation, you might say that horsemen and foot soldiers were all the same thing so the words were interchangeable.  The one thing you can never consider is that the writer made an honest mistake.

But that is not the most interesting discrepancy in the text.  Was it 700 charioteers or 7000?  From this problem, there is nowhere to retreat.  This is not a rounding error.  The two numbers are not equivalent in any way.  They simply cannot both be right.  You might try saying that these were two different events.  Unfortunately, you would have to raise Shophach from the dead and kill him again as he died in both passages.

The only thing you can argue is that it is a simple scribal error.  I contend that you have no way of knowing if the scribe made the error or the original writer.  The one thing you cannot argue is that there is no error in the bible.  This error is writ large for all to see.  The scary thing about this error is that it has friends, lots of them.

Another variety of error is one that is irresponsible with the truth for commentary purposes.  Consider this question: how many sons did Jesse have?

 

“Thus Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen these.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all the young men here?” Then he said, “There remains yet the youngest, and there he is, keeping the sheep.”” (1Sam 16:10-11 NKJV)

 

Seven sons plus David makes a total of eight.  What’s the problem?

 

“Jesse begot Eliab his firstborn, Abinadab the second, Shimea the third, Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fifth, Ozem the sixth, and David the seventh.” (1Chr 2:13-15 NKJV)

 

Oops!  We have a real problem here.  In both cases, David is the youngest son.  That means that Jesse could not have had another son after David, unless his name was also David.  How many sons did Jesse have?  Was it seven or eight?  Was David the youngest or not?  Is there another verse that can clear this up?

 

“Now David was the son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehem Judah, whose name was Jesse, and who had eight sons. And the man was old, advanced in years, in the days of Saul” (1Sam 17:12-13 NKJV)

 

That’s two votes for eight and one for seven.  Which is more likely?  It seems to me that seven is more likely because the names of all seven were mentioned in the order of their birth.  There is no scribal error here.  These are the names of all the sons of Jesse, right?

 

“The following were the tribes of Israel and their leaders:  Tribe Leader Reuben Eliezer son of Zicri Simeon Shephatiah son of Maacah Levi Hashabiah son of Kemuel Aaron (the priests) Zadok Judah Elihu (a brother of David) Issachar Omri son of Michael” (1Chr 27:16-18 NLT-SE)

 

Who is Elihu?  David’s oldest brother had a similar name: Eliab.  Still, this can’t be a simple mistake because  where Eliab was mentioned, all the brothers were named and numbered.  Was Elihu an eighth brother that the chronicler didn’t know about at the time?  Or could he have been a ninth brother?

One explanation is that the chronicler wanted David to appear as the seventh brother, as seven was an important number for the people of the day.  Being the seventh son would add to his legend.  Being the eighth son, not so much.

When did Jesus drive out the money changers?  In Matthew and Mark, it seems to have happened toward the end of his ministry, while according to John, it happened at the beginning.  To harmonize the gospels, some have suggested that the event happened twice.  As far as I am concerned, this is merely a flight of fancy.  Others, more credibly, have suggested that the early writers were not concerned about the chronology of events as we are.  They just put together events in the order that would best aid their story.

Rearranging the facts is as good as making up the facts.  Consider this example.  A man becomes angry, kills someone, and is sent to prison for life without parole.  From this story, it is reasonable to deduce that the man was clearly guilty and deserving of his punishment.  Now consider a different telling of the story.  A man is sent to prison for life without parole, becomes angry, then kills someone.  I have used the same facts in both tellings of the story.  Yet in the second telling, the man might have been wrongly imprisoned and became unstable as a result of his unfair treatment.  What changed?  The only difference between the two stories is the order of events.  The order in which I deliver the facts depends on the editorial bent I have.  The writers of scripture frequently do the same.

To find the baby, we must also wade through the murky water of bad doctrine.  There are plenty of teachings in scripture that are universally hailed as unacceptable and without relevance in today’s world.  Don’t believe me?  Where do you stand on polygamy?  God is very much in favor of it.  There are numerous examples I could use to prove the assertion.  I will limit myself to one.

 

“I gave you your master’s daughter and your master’s wives for yourself, and I gave you the daughters of Israel and Judah; and if that had not been enough, I would have given you such and such things.” (2Sam 12:8 BBE)

 

We cannot exonerate god for the polygamy of his people.  The above verse specifically has god taking the credit for giving David multiple wives and the daughters of Israel and Judah.  He even goes on to say that had that not been enough, he would have gladly given him even more women and such.  No representative from god has ever made me that sort of deal.  I may revisit this one later.  For now, it is enough to say that we do not question the authenticity of the passage (though we probably should).  We just recognize it as bad doctrine.  We make excuses for the verse and try to overshadow it with verses to our liking.

Then there is the type of error that portrays god in an impossibly bad light.  Again, this is a category that I will deal with later in some detail.  I will refrain from giving any examples right now.  I will only say that if god was to return to earth in the present day in human form, most of the world would be forced to put him on trial as a war criminal.  Unless his defense was that he was misrepresented in the bible, he would most certainly be convicted.

Finally, there is the type of error that deals with the canon.  I contend that there are many canonical errors in the bible.  Many of the accepted books in the bible are outright frauds.  They are not written by the people to whom we give attribution.  They are most certainly not written by inspiration of god.  They are completely the work of men, and in many cases, dishonest men.

With so much bath water, it may be impossible to find the baby of truth.  There may, in fact, be no baby to find.  Perhaps the baby is dead: irrecoverable.  The more I read and study the bible, the more I am convinced that it is not a very good source for discovering absolute truth about spiritual matters.  When read in a certain light, there are a few kernels of truth to be discovered.  One just has to dig considerably deeper than we ever imagined.

Sins of the Father

I few years ago, I wrote a short book, more as a research project than anything else.  It was called “Sins of the Father“.  I wrote it under the pseudonym of Thomas, as in, the doubter.  It is Kindle only, so do not purchase it if you do not have a way to read Kindle content.  I am researching my next couple of projects, so I will take a break from writing.  However, I thought I would release the text of that book, one chapter at a time until I am ready to start my next series.  Enjoy.

David Johnson

 

 

Part One

Bearing False Witness

The witness of the Christian god is wrapped up completely in the testimony of scripture.  That means that in order to have an accurate understanding of god, we need to have and accurate understanding of the bible.  If our holy book bears false witness, then we have no hope of knowing and pleasing god.  We just as well throw babies in active volcanos hoping to satisfy the unknowable deity.  For the Jew as well as the Christian, it is the bible or nothing.  

I accuse the god of the bible of not giving us a reliable record of his written word.  If he gave exact words for us to read and follow, he did not preserve those words and we are left to make our best guess.  I accuse him of not using a more reliable way of communicating his message of life and death.  I refuse to be held accountable for a law that was not made clear and accessible.  I accuse the god of the bible of offering, at best, a confusing, and at worse, false witness.  I present the next three chapters as my case against the bible.

Chapter One

By Inspiration of God

The Bible

I guess it is inevitable that here is where I am compelled to begin.  After all, there is no Christianity without a clear and abiding mandate from God.  There can apparently be no such mandate without the sacred writings that constitute the word of God.  I say apparently because it is not the obvious first choice.  It seems the bible was written during a time when most people could not read.  This ensured that most people would be receiving the word of God through some type of intermediary.  Someone would have to be assigned the task of reading the holy words.  The bible itself describes no such office.  

Ironically, the written word records god’s messages being transmitted by special men and women to whom god miraculously spoke.  These prophets would then declare God’s words to the illiterate populous.  Only once did god personally write or dictate a sacred document: the Ten Commandments.  Even those commands were not copied and handed out to the people in written form.  They were spoken aloud and memorized by the people.  God’s mighty deeds were told and retold as stories that could be easily remembered and passed on.  When the Jewish bible refers to the word of god, it is not referring to a written word.  It is not referring to the bible.

Also conspicuously absent from the bible is a definition of the bible.  Today, we think of the bible as a sacred collection of sixty-six separate writings by a number of writers over the course of a few thousand years.  Never does one of these writings self identify as a sacred text of God.  Each writing claims many things that are highly suspect.  None claim to be the bible, or any part of the bible.  Canonicity is entirely an act of man.  To believe otherwise requires the first of many leaps of faith.  

God did not claim to write any books or compile a canon of scriptures.  Nowhere in the canon can one find instructions on compiling a canon.  There is no passage that tells us who’s writings are to be considered sacred.  We know that the apostle Paul wrote many letters that are not a part of our canon.  Why do we believe that the letters we have are the letters intended to be read as scripture?  The letters themselves give no such indication, nor do the letters of any other biblical writer.  The writer of 2 Peter believes that Paul’s letters are scripture, but which letters?  It does not say.  If we say that all of Paul’s letters are scripture, then we must admit that our Bible is incomplete.  We are missing some sacred words of god.  If we think we have the only letters that qualify as scripture, then we must come up with some explanation that makes these scripture and not the others.  

The classic explanation (and the only one I know of) is that god in his infinite wisdom, oversaw the canonization process and made sure that the right books made it into the canon.  I find this reasoning to be more than a little circular.  What it is arguing is that we know we have the proper canon of god because it is the canon we have.  If we had a different set of books, then that would be the canon.  We have what we have and therefore must believe that it is what God intended us to have.  

All of that presupposes that all the books in the canon are exactly what they claim to be.  I do not presuppose that.  In fact, I have serious doubts about the authenticity of many of the books we blindly accept.  We know a great deal more about spotting fakes than did the early church fathers.  Of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, fully six of them are considered deuteropauline because they are hotly disputed by many scholars as written by followers of Paul after his death.  Would you like to guess which books those are?  Ephesian, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus are all under suspicion of fraud.  I do not believe you have to be a scholar to come to the same conclusions.  I have come to suspect that most of the New Testament is not what it claims to be.

The picture does not get any better in the Old Testament: the doctrinal foundation of the New Testament.  If you ask most people who wrote the Pentateuch, they are likely to give you a blank stare.  If you ask them who wrote the books of Moses, they bright ones will tell you Moses wrote the books of Moses.  In fact, the ones who gave you the blank look are probably the brighter of the two.  More and more conservative scholars have come to believe that Moses did not actually write the books of the torah.  They are believed to be a conflation of several sources compiled 800 years after Moses died.  

The torah is presented as something that was handed down by god to Moses.  If it is not exactly that, then it is exactly a fraud.  What do Jewish scholars do with this information?  They do the same thing that Christian scholars do with it.  They claim that though the writings are not necessarily as they are presented, they are still in some way divinely inspired by god.  In other words, do not pay any attention to the man behind the curtain.  Everything in the bible is divinely inspired by god.  That is our story and we’re sticking to it.

It seems to me that if god wanted to pass down a lot of very detailed information to a preliterate society, he would have implanted his words directly in their minds for the sake of clarity and perfect recall.  Instead, the best option he could come up with was a lengthy book composed of many lengthy and complex writings that were subject to degradation, errors common to copying by hand, and the ravages of time.  The all powerful god who hangs life and death on his words has given us his words in a way that assures we can never know exactly what they were.

Every Word

“But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”” (Matt 4:4 NLT-SE)

As a child growing up in the church, this was one of many verses that was drilled into my head.  Never mind what this verse really means.  What matters is how it was interpreted.  I was taught that this was one of many verses that demonstrates the importance of every word of the bible.  God spoke every word of scripture and every word is what we must live on.  We are not to add or subtract any of his sacred words.  If we did, among other bad things, we would be stricken from the book of life.  (Great, another book.)  Well, there you have it.  The bible represents the exact words of god as he handed them down to the various writers.  Fine.  Only one question: which bible?  Is it the King James 1611, or the NIV?

I know, I know, these are only translations of the one true bible.  That one true bible with the true and complete words of god was not written in our language.  Therefore, it was necessary to translate the bible into something that we could understand.  The translations themselves are more or less the same.  The problem is they are not at all the same.  The different translations have many irreconcilable differences.  Between the different translations, words, phrases, and whole verses are left out.  In many other occasions, different words were used that convey different meanings.  There are many examples of this type of dissimilarity.  Just google it.  

Of course this is not the most interesting problem with the words of the bible.  By far, the most interesting thing is that we do not have the words of the bible.  We do not have any original copies of the sacred text that god somehow dictated and handed down to the writers.  Such autographs do not exist.  What we have are thousands of apographs.  These are the copies.  Unfortunately, we do not have any complete copies of the entire bible.  Mostly what we have are fragments containing parts of the bible that we have pieced together.  Remember, there was no canon.  That would have to wait until well into the fourth century.  

Further complicating the matter is that the copies do not agree.  It is not that one of the copies is correct and we just have to figure out which one it is.  The task is even more impossible.  There is no correct copy.  We have to figure out what the correct text should be by comparing all the corrupted texts.  Indeed, the texts are corrupt if off by only one letter of one word.  The inspired word of god has to be as perfect as the one who inspired it.  If it is imperfect, then it is not the perfect word of God.  Well, the texts we have are not perfect.  (Houston, we have a problem.)

Again, I suggest you google for results.  The textual variants are both numerous and significant.  I underscore this because many would like to dismiss the problem of textual variants by claiming that they are few and insignificant.  This is just flat out wrong.  Dare I call it a bare faced lie.  As I have stated, even one misquote of the holy word of god is enough to corrupt it.  That is what conservatives have been teaching for years.  Every word matters.  When it comes to textual variants, we are not talking about one, or scores, or hundreds.  We are talking thousands.  Even if most of them are common spelling errors, they are still proven to be mistakes of men, not words of god.

But the types of variants go well beyond inconsequential misspellings.  There are many that change the meaning of the text.  Some even change whole doctrines.  In many cases, we have no idea what was originally written.  We are taking our best, scholarly guess.  Sometimes we guess well, sometimes not.  The point is god is not guiding us to one conclusion or another.  We are guessing and our guesses are not in any way, shape, form, or fashion, inspired.  I know this because we keep refining our guesses and experts do not agree.  God has not chosen to call out any of the textual traditions as his inspired work.  

The conclusion to all of this is that god’s perfect, inspired word does not exist.  Whether it ever existed is a matter of another one of those massive leaps of faith.  For me, it is academic.  If this inspired word ever existed, it doesn’t exist now.  Even the most conservative, credible teachers have to admit that we are dealing in the realm of “close enough.”  Well I was not taught the close enough doctrine.  I was taught the absolute verbal plenary inspiration doctrine.  Whatever doctrine is correct, that one is most certainly wrong.  We do not have the words of God.  We have the words of men.  The question now is are any of those words inspired.

The Most Embarrassing Passage in the Bible (Follow-up)

I have been searching the web for some time to find a reasonable, or at least, representative argument for the literal interpretation to this passage.  (If you do not know what I’m talking about, read the previous article.)  I ran across an article that at least tried to make a rational case.  It is somewhat long.  you can read it in its entirety at:

http://www.reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/21%20The%20Earthquake%20and%20the%20Tombs%20Opened.htm

Here is an excerpt that I found to be representative of the argument:

If these resurrected-glorified believers did appear to all, whether Christian or non-Christian, it would have caused widespread astonishment in the population and severe panic among the leadership. A reading of the early history of the church in Jerusalem in the book of Acts gives the distinct impression that the resurrection saints were not seen by unbelievers. If they had, it would have figured into the discussions of the Sanhedrin on how to stop this new, vibrant movement.

The writer believes that the risen saints only appeared to believers.  He acknowledges that much would have been made of it had the general public been aware of it.  God wanted to keep it a secret.  Therefore, only believers were worthy of the greatest sign ever performed.  God didn’t actually want unbelievers to come to faith as a result of seeing the risen lord, or the risen multitude of local saints.

As bad as this explanation seems, it is actually worse when examined more closely.  Even if god only wanted believers to see the evidence of the resurrection, assuming all these newly risen people could hide from non-believers, there is the problem of the opened, empty tombs.  If one empty tomb is supposed to be evidence of a risen Jesus, what were the locals to make of whole graveyards of empty tombs?  All those graves that were burst open in the quake, someone would have noticed that.  Assuming these tombs stayed empty, they should have been testimony to the event for a long time afterward.  Don’t tell me only believers noticed all those empty tombs and chose not to report them.

As for only appearing to believers, where are the stories?  Why does this event only get two verses from one writer in the entire bible?  Why are not the believers sharing this victory story among other believers?  Why does this story begin and end with Matthew in an off-hand mention?

I will leave it there.  I look forward to better explanations.

David Johnson

The Most Embarrassing Passage in the Bible

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.  They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.  Matt. 27:51-53

Let me just say right up front, THIS NEVER HAPPENED!.  There are two unlikely events mentioned in these three verses.  The first is the ripping of the temple curtain.  To that event I say, who cares!  It’s a none story.  It didn’t happen, but it doesn’t matter.  I’m certain there must be some charlatan selling bits and pieces of the torn curtain.  All three synoptic gospels attest to it, but John, it seems never heard about it.  In any event, it simply doesn’t matter.  It is burying the lead.

The real story is that the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.  They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.  As far as I’m concerned, these are the most important two verses in the bible.  No other miraculous signs or wonders compare. Even the resurrection of Jesus pales in comparison to this event.  Jesus is one man from one tomb with a few select appearances to his followers.  This is a mass exodus from the grave by many recently departed who reintegrated into the lives of one of the major cities of the world.  That’s a story worth telling again and again and again.  There is just one problem; it wasn’t.

The story was not told by Peter who preached the first gospel sermon.  What a perfect time to point out a few people in the audience who had been recently dead.  It seems non of these newly risen people made it to Pentecost.  Paul didn’t tell the story, even though he wrote the first of the Christian scriptures closest to the time of the event.  Perhaps some would have still been alive.  It seems Paul never heard about it.  Nor is the story told by any of the other New Testament writers.

The story was not told by the first gospel writer: Mark.  Oddly, Mark wrote of the curtain, but not a word about the great zombie uprising.  Perhaps more interesting, Luke, who by many scholars, is believed to have had access to Matthew, and therefore would have known about the story, chose not to include it in his account.  Could it be that Luke knew it to be a fabrication?  Perhaps the more likely scenario is that it was a late addition by a copyist, and was never a part of the original manuscript.  That is just speculation on my part.

The fact that no biblical writers other than Matthew seemed to know about this event is extremely suspect.  But suspicion increases when you consider that no one in Jerusalem, Rome, or indeed, the entire world ever wrote about the event.  These risen people were not trying to hide themselves.  They would have gone to the temple and been seen by the priests.  They would have been seen by the Romans stationed in the city.  They would have been seem by those who came from all over the world to attend the Pentecost celebration.  There is no way to cover up this event and hide it from history.  Yet, we are to believe that only one man in the entire world cared enough about the greatest miracle ever done, to write about it.

Matthew is lying.  He is simply making stuff up.  This passage is the proof of that assertion.  The only question is, since he is lying about this, what else is he lying about.

I posited that the passages could have been added later by someone else.  I have no critical evidence for that.  Another equally plausible reason why the passage is there is that Matthew thought he could have Jesus fulfill yet another prophecy.  Matthew was nothing if not single-minded.  He was focused on making sure his version of Jesus fulfilled as many prophecies as possible.  This leads to more than one embarrassment in this gospel.

In this case, he may have been trying to fulfill a prophecy from Ezekiel 37:

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’  Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”

Sound familiar?  I thought so.  Either Matthew was a terrible hebrew scholar, (which I happen to believe) or he was an outright charlatan (which I also believe).  He abused, bent, and corrupted the Hebrew scriptures to mean whatever he needed them to mean at the time.  This is just one more prophecy that he didn’t understand, and wanted to use to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy.  It seems this stretch was a bridge too far for Luke, who use much of Matthew for his own writings.

This passage, alone, makes Matthew a joke of a source, but this passage is not alone.  As I suggested earlier, there are others in the gospel of Mathew that make it clear he was just trolling prophecies he didn’t understand, to make Jesus the messiah of prophecy.  Matthew should be stricken from the bible, but what would be the point?  Matthew is not the only writer who played fast and loose with the truth to make a point.  What set’s Matthew apart is that his lies are more obvious.  If Matthew is a reliable witness for the Jesus story, then the Jesus story is in a lot of trouble.

That might explain why we do not hear many sermons on the most public and astounding miracle ever done.  Even today’s preachers are ashamed of that story.  How do they deal with it?  They try to ignore it out of existence.  They hope no one challenges them and forces them to explain the lack of documentation for this miracle.  If this is the stuff of the Christian faith, and it is, count me out.  I would love for someone to explain to me why I should believe anything in the four gospels with fictions like this filling every page.

Are you embarrassed by this story?  Feel free to leave a comment.

David Johnson

Contradictions: What Do They Mean?

The bible is full of contradictions.  For the most part, Christians are not even aware of that simple fact.  I grew up hearing the declaration that the bible cannot contradict itself.  If even one contradiction or false piece of information was found in the bible, it would prove that the bible was the work of man rather than the infallible word of god.  As it happens, I still agree with this sentiment.  If the bible comes from god, it must be perfect in all aspects.  If it has human influence, then it is no longer the perfect word of god.  Once you find one error in the bible, if you are going to continue using it as a guide, you must pick and choose which parts you will deem worth believing.

For me, it is an all or nothing proposition.  That might just be a product of how I grew up.  For others, they can live with the contradictions and errors they know to be there, and still find a way to believe its more outrageous claims.  If the bible is not the perfect word of god, it’s just literature.  Important literature, but literature nonetheless.  I do not based how I live my life on literature.

Rather than provide a bunch of biblical contradictions, I will let someone else do it.  At the end of this post will be a link to a page that I strongly encourage you to read.  It is much longer than my average post, so prepare to take a little time with it.  One contradiction can be explained away, or even ignored.  The bible presents us with hundreds.  Often, I will give a few examples of something and end by saying, “I could go on in this manner for some time”.  This page will give you a sense of just how long I could go on with the subject of contradictions.

My point is not just to show that there are contradictions, but to encourage you to consider what that means.  When you see so many all in one place and taken as a whole, it has a powerful impact.  From time to time, I will point out some of my favorite contradictions and errors from the bible.  When I was a kid, I knew they were there, but I used to play the game of figuring out how to explain them away.  Now, I don’t.  How do you deal with biblical contradictions and errors?

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/paul_carlson/nt_contradictions.html

David Johnson

Beyond Prayer

Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.  Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.  If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make them well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.

Matt. 21, John 15, James 5

A conversation this morning led to the topic of prayer.  I was told that prayer was a conversation with god, not commands to a servant to give us things.  I challenged that notion by suggesting that the Christian scriptures, indeed, portray prayer as requests made with confidence to god.  The very word, pray, mean to ask.  Prayers might also have some conversational aspect to them, but they primary purpose of prayer is to ask for what we want and need.

I believe that the modern redefinition of prayer is largely to keep us from focusing on the fact that so many prayers go unanswered.  It is also to remove any hint of a testable claim.  If we are to have an expectation of prayer that it will be answered in the affirmative, then we have only to check the results of prayer to see if the claim is true.  If, however, prayer is just a conversation with god, then we cannot cast doubt on the faith system simply because it does not work.

That is why I started this post with three passages from the Christian scriptures concerning prayer.  There are many more in the same vein, but these should do for the purposes of this post.  I provided a bit more context to the passage in Matthew because I felt it was important to show the scope of the claim about prayer at the end.  Jesus had just performed a miraculous curse on a fig tree and made it wither and die instantly.  Please don’t ask me why.  I have no idea.  His disciples were amazed.  Jesus assured them that they could not only do that, but have a mountain cast into the sea with sufficient faith in the context of prayer.  Not only could they ask for things, but extraordinary things that didn’t make a lot of sense.

One of the excuses I sometimes hear for why a prayer went unanswered is that it was a request for the wrong thing.  With this formula, prayer only works for the things god wants, not for the things we want.  We are merely to pray god’s will back to him.  This makes no sense to me and does not agree with this scripture.  We are invited to ask for what we want.  God will do what he wants with or without our missive.

The example in the passage is of cursing a tree and causing it to wither and die out of a moment of pique, and casting a mountain into the sea just because you can.  Neither of the requests make any sense to me.  Why should god allow us to put a hex on something or someone simply because we were upset?  Why would god allow us to rearrange the landscape just because it suits us?  What other ridiculous tricks can we do through faith and prayer?  Can we turn the statue of liberty upside-down when we disagree with a new law?  Can we part rush hour traffic, like the Red Sea when we are late to a meeting?  Neither of these things is more selfish or silly than the two examples given in the scripture.

The next verse I offer stands alone.  It says, in no uncertain terms, that being faithful to Jesus is all it takes to access the power of prayer.  Jesus did not limit prayer to only certain types of requests.  He said that anything asked for by the one who remains in him will be done.  There is not really any wiggle-room in this passage.  It is clear and emphatic.  The only condition is remaining (residing) in him.

Clearly, we have to come up with some rationalization for why these passages do not really mean what they seem to mean.  Since the time these passages were written, the mountains have stayed firmly in place: none casting themselves into nearby seas.  Why not?  Obviously, god doesn’t mind doing it.  Could it be that there has been no one with sufficient faith, or faithfulness to unlock the full potential of prayer?  No one?  Christians do not even attempt to pray such prayers because we know the absurdity of doing so.

We go out of our way to avoid prayers that would test our faith if unanswered.  We have learned the fine are of the vague, nonspecific prayer, even when praying for something specific.  We pray vaguely for someone to be comforted in the time of their illness, and, if it be your will, please help her get better, and, if it is cancer, help him to cope with the situation.  No one prays that the eyes of the blind person be opened to perfect vision right now.  We do not pray that the person on life-support be healed, mind restored, and exiting the hospital that very hour under their own power.  Those are prayers that would get my attention.  We could measure the results of those prayers.  With the prayers we actually pray, there is no way to tell if they have been answered or not.

I mention healing because the passage in James is particularly about healing.  We are told that if a person is sick, they should be taken to the elders of the church and have oil placed on them.  We are not told to take them to the doctor for medical treatment.  Further, we are told that the loving and sincere prayer of the righteous person counts a lot.  Finally, we are guaranteed that the person will be healed.  As a bonus, if he is guilty of sin, (probably the one that caused the sickness in the first place) he would be forgiven. We believe and accept that the forgiveness part of the promise is literal and immediate.  We completely ignore the healing part of the verse because we know it isn’t true.  We do not expect that superstitious rituals done by religious leaders will raise the sick from their beds.

Allow me to quote a lengthy bit from Barnes Notes on this passage:

And the prayer of faith – The prayer offered in faith, or in the exercise of confidence in God. It is not said that the particular form of the faith exercised shall be that the sick man will certainly recover; but there is to be unwavering confidence in God, a belief that he will do what is best, and a cheerful committing of the cause into his hands. We express our earnest wish, and leave the case with him. The prayer of faith is to accompany the use of means, for all means would be ineffectual without the blessing of God.
Shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up – This must be understood, as such promises are everywhere, with this restriction, that they will be restored to health if it shall be the will of God; if he shall deem it for the best. It cannot be taken in the absolute and unconditional sense, for then, if these means were used, the sick person would always recover, no matter how often he might be sick, and he need never die. The design is to encourage them to the use of these means with a strong hope that it would be effectual. It may fairly be inferred from this statement:

The notation is actually much longer, but more of the same.  It literally rewrites the passage to say something else.  The passage goes from saying the sick person will be raised up, to “if he shall deem it for the best”.  Barnes goes out of his way to remove any promise or power from the passage.  He wants to be sure that there is nothing left of this scripture that can be construed as a testable claim.  The way the passage is written, if a sick person is brought to the appropriate, religious authorities, properly anointed with oil, are prayed for by a sufficiently righteous person, HE WILL BE RAISED UP!  There is no room for any other interpretation.

No church should have a roll-call of sick people that make the prayer list week after week.  Every bulletin printed with those weekly requests for healing stands as an indictment to the church.  Their sick are not being raised up.  Either there is something wrong with their prayers, or the idea of healing prayer as described in the Christian scriptures is nothing more than superstitious nonsense that we should have grown out of after the dark ages.

We cannot have it both ways.  We cannot proclaim that prayer is effective, yet we cannot measure its effect in any testable way.  It either has an observable effect on material reality, or it doesn’t.  The Christian scriptures depict prayer, at least sometimes, as a confident request for an immediate, observable miracle.  We have turned it into a conversation with god, the results of which can never be tested or observed.  That is not a biblical view of prayer.

Once we get beyond prayer, we might find that there are more affective ways of dealing with real-world problems.  I hope to write a follow-up post on that subject soon.

David Johnson

Twenty Questions for god

Several months ago, a friend and I were discussing some of those little questions that swirl in the back of the minds of the inquisitive: uncomfortable questions that we were never able to have answered.  We finally decided to write a few of them down in a letter-to-god format.  This group of questions that you are about to read came from me.  I might include his group in a later post.

I don’t expect anyone to try and answer these questions.  They are the kind of questions first-year seminarians stay up late at night asking each other.  Many of these questions go back to childhood.  I was an inquisitive child.  I imagine some of you have had similar questions.  They are the kind of questions that matter if you read the bible literally.  Once you give up on biblical literalism, some of this goes away, but not all of it.  Getting rid of literalism does not get rid of the problem created by the answerless questions; it just moves it into another arena.

Finally, even if you think you have an answer for one or two of the questions, you are meant to take them as a whole.  A lot of unanswered questions inevitably leads to doubt, and doubt to a lack of faith.  By definition, doubt is a lack of faith.  I have decades of unanswered questions.  If some of these questions mirror your own, let me know in the comments.  If you have made peace with questions and doubt, let me know how you did it.

By the way, sorry about the typos and formatting issues.  Blame it on Word, and my utter lack of motivation to fix it.

David Johnson

1.  Why did you send Satan to earth?

 

I am led to understand that there was some kind of war in Heaven, a dust-up, a skirmish.  Anyway, something happened that exposed Lucifer as evil.  He was so successful in his attempted coup d’état that a third of the angels joined him.  You knew he was evil and you stopped his uprising, so why did you send him to earth where he could work his evil on innocent humanity?  Why didn’t you just kill him, or lock him up for all eternity?  Why inflict him on us?

 

2.  Why did you make us?

 

I understand that we need you.  It is in you we live and move and have our being.  We are hopelessly fallen and we can’t get up without you.  But, why do you need us?  I get that you have been there from the beginning of eternity, but were you lonely?  Were you tired of all the fighting in Heaven?  Did you want a puppy?  Do you need to be worshipped by lower creatures and the angels just weren’t cutting it.  What exactly do you get out of the deal?

 

3.  Why did you make women?

 

Don’t get me wrong; I like women as much as the next man, but she seems to have an awkward place in the creation story.  You made all the animals without the drama of forgetting their mates.  But when it came to the man, he found no companion among the animals.  Why did he even have to look?  Did you forget about the woman?  She seems to be nothing more than an afterthought, a correction of a silly mistake.

 

Along those same lines, why was she even necessary?  Procreation could have been done in a way that didn’t require sex with a woman.  The animals could have been made sufficient for intelligent companionship.  Man could have been created without the co-dependent need for companionship.  The animals could have been made to be sufficient helpers and assistants.  Since the woman you made was easily tempted by pretty things and was dumber than a snake, why bother making her in the first place?

 

4.  Why is Adam blamed for bringing evil into the world?

 

This one has always confused me, and I could really use some clarification on this one.  Adam was the last to take a bite.  Therefore, if eating the fruit was sin, was there not sin before Adam even knew of it.  Didn’t the woman bring sin into the world?  But that doesn’t make sense either.  The serpent tempted the woman.  That means the serpent was evil before encountering the woman.  Sin was already in the world when the man and woman rose from the mud.  If the serpent was the devil, or influenced by the devil, and if you sent the devil to earth, then why are you not held accountable for bringing evil into the world?

 

5.  Why was there a forbidden item in paradise?

 

Please help me comprehend this whole “paradise” thing.  I thought that paradise was supposed to be a place of perfection and bliss.  It is a place where all good things can be experienced with reckless abandon.  I seems Eden was a different kind of paradise.  Apparently, they had to watch what they ate.  Did they also have to watch their step, and beware of poisonous plants?

 

6.  Why put the forbidden tree in the garden?

 

I know, this question seems a lot like the last one, but there is a subtle difference.  If there had to be a forbidden tree with forbidden fruit, why did it have to be place right in the middle of the garden home?  There was a whole world outside the garden, places far from mankind.  Why put this tree in the one place they would have to see it every day with easy access?

 

7.  Why make the fruit attractive?

 

I know I seem a bit fixated on the tree, but I can’t leave the subject without asking why the fruit was made to be attractive.  Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you knew exactly what Eve would consider beautiful, why did you make the fruit to the specifications of Eve’s desires?  According to your word, Eve saw that the fruit was pleasing to the eye.  If it had to be there, why make it so appealing?

 

8.  Why were Adam and Eve set up for failure?

 

We have been led to believe that Eden was paradise.  Further inspection makes me reevaluate that assessment.  There was a poison fruit tree situated in where it would be seen every time one of them looked up, full of fruit that was designed to be attractive to the humans, with an intelligent animal encouraging them to eat it.  Was this a garden or a petri dish?  Were Adam and Eve beloved children of God, or lab rats?  Had they rebuffed the serpent, would they have encountered an even more convincing talking orangutan just around the corner?

 

9.  Where is the garden now?

 

There just aren’t very many places on earth we don’t know about or haven’t seen.  In my lifetime, I have heard no reports of Eden’s discovery.  Is it still in our quantum reality?  I’m thinking it has to be since, when you expelled us the first time, you had to set an angel at the entrance of the garden to keep anyone from reentering.  You know, the one with the magic sword.  Is he still there swinging his sword?  If you were able to remove the garden later, why not at the time?  If you had to physically block the entrance with an angel wielding a magic sword, why isn’t he still there?  Was Eden ever a real place?

 

10.  Is the devil on your payroll?

 

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but since you created everything, it is reasonable to believe you created the devil as well.  He was once a leading angel, but you put that to an end.  Yet, when we read Job, we find that the devil, in spite of everything, is still on the payroll doing work on your behalf.  Was he denounced, or did he just receive a demotion?  Even as late as the gospels, no less than Jesus makes reference to the idea that Satan has asked to sift the disciples like wheat.  In the time of Jesus, the devil seems to still be on your payroll.  Please explain.

 

11.  Was the devil created evil, or did he become evil?

 

The bible is somewhat unclear on this point.  Was the devil created to be the tempter?  Is he functioning perfectly as he was created, or did something go horribly wrong?  According to the Genesis story, humanity was created perfectly, but with the ability to be corrupted.  Are the angels the same way?  If Satan was corrupted like Eve, who tempted Satan?

 

12.  If Satan was defeated and cast down, why does he have so much power?

 

Pardon my saying, but it doesn’t really look like Satan lost the war.  He still has a key to the heavenly throne room.  He was on earth at the right time and place to corrupt all of creation.  He was able to spread so much evil that save for eight people, you were forced to destroy every one and everything not long after creation.  Every plan to redeem mankind has failed from the garden, to the patriarchs, to Moses, to the judges, to the kings, the prophets, to the messiahs.  Even with the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross and the Holy Sprit filled church, according to scripture, the vast majority of humanity will be condemned to the fire pit of hell, with only a few finding the straight and narrow way that leads to life.

 

In addition, Satan has the power to cause sickness, depression, and work on our every negative emotion.  He can read our minds and determine our weaknesses.  He can fool the very elect.  Satan even has the power to just take over a person at will through a demon possession.  He won the battle of creation.  He won the battle of the flood.  He divided and conquered the nation of Israel.  And even though he was said to have lost the battle of the cross, he has already won the battle of the judgment as most will end up in hell with him.  Why has this defeated upstart continued to exercise so much power?  Why does he keep winning?

 

13.  Why do you need money?

 

From the philosophical to the practical, why do you need money?  More to the point, why do we need to tithe or participate in free-will offerings?  Do you not own the cattle on a thousand hills?  Since you have all the resources of the world at your disposal, why are there people without access to sufficient food, shelter, and clean water?  Never mind a Christian giving a few coins to a beggar.  Why are there beggars in the first place?  If you have all the resources in the world and are all knowing and all loving, yet do not take care of their needs, why should we?  Why do you need our money?

 

14.  Why is the bible so confusing?

 

I ask this as a person who grew up in the church and spent most of my life studying the bible.  The more I studied, the less clear it became.  But, this question is not about me; it is about everyone.  Get ten people in a room who are knowledgeable about the bible, ask almost any question, and get ten different answers.  Since the bible is intended for everyone, why does everyone not have the same understanding?  Why are good people of faith and conscience split on what you are trying to tell them?  Do we all need a seminary degree?  Which seminary.  They all seem to teach different things as well.

 

15.  In what way is the bible inspired, authoritative, and perfect?

 

Is all scripture really inspired by you?  What do you mean by “all scripture?”  Since there is no part of the bible that is self-described as the bible, how are we to know what is to be considered scripture.  You provided no table of contents.  You also provided no original texts for us to read.  You did not preserve a perfect autograph of scripture.  We only have copies of fragments that are all a little different.  We have what we call the bible by stitching bits and pieces together into a tapestry of testaments.  In other words, we have our best guess.  Even then, from version to version, translation to translation, none of the texts agree.  Without the exact words, a perfect copy, and some understanding of what you had to do with the writings, how are we to consider this book as authoritative?

 

16.  Why is it not obvious who the “real” Christians are?

 

There are over 40,000 varieties of Christians and very little fellowship between them.  Each group believes they have the truth.  Each believes they are the “real” Christians.  Some go as far as to claim that they are the only Christians.  How is a seeker to know who the real Christians are?  None seems more righteous than the other.  Each group takes as much medicine to control sickness and depression.  None are obviously more blessed or cursed.  All show love for others in one form or other.  No group is more loving than the other.  Why are real Christians not obvious?

 

17.  Why are you hiding?

 

Why has faith in you been turned into some sort of game?  You demand we believe in you, yet you go out of your way to hide from our gaze.  You even go as far as to make it appear you are not there.  You tell us the earth is young, but make it look old.  You tell us we were created but give us evidence of evolution.  You tell us you are in control yet make us live in chaos and doubt.  Why not just end the debate and show yourself.  How would that hinder free will?  I know my wife is there.  I can choose to love her or not.  How will knowing for certain of your existence hinder our free will?  What is the point of remaining in the shadows and leaving people to doubt you existence?

 

18.  What is the point of prayer?

 

If you are going to do what you want to anyway, why bother asking you to do anything else?  If you planned the best for me, but I ask for something less, will you give me the less thing I ask for, or the better thing you planned?  Since I do not know what to pray for, why pray at all?  If most prayers are not answered with fulfillment, what is the point?  I pray for something and do not get it.  Did you answer no to my prayer, or just not answer at all?  How do I know?  If something good can happen for me as a result of your love that I did not pray for, again, why pray?

 

19.  How do I know I’m saved?

 

With so many people claiming to know the correct formula for salvation, it is difficult to tell who is right.  How do I know if I made the right choice?  If I receive no otherworldly powers, then what?  Does it all just boil down to how I feel emotionally?  Is my conscience to be my guide?  All of the various factions quote scripture as the authority for their formula.  Why am I left to guess about something so important?

 

20.  What will be different about the new Heaven and new earth?

 

I guess when you get right down to it, this last question is a vote of no confidence.  I’ve seen what you’ve done to the first Heaven and the first earth.  Under you management, there was a war in Heaven.  So bad was it that a third of the angels agreed with the other guy.  Some say there were two creations of earth.  No matter how many there was, they were all bad.  The first one ends with the earth formless and void with darkness on the face of the deep.  The second one begins with the devil already in control.

 

Now, you want us to believe that next time, things will be different.  You’ve got a plan.  This time, it’s going to work.  This time, Satan will be defeated.  This time, there will be no more sin, or possibility for sin.  This time, nothing can destroy the fellowship of you and your creation.  Why should we believe things will be any different.  When there was nothing in the universe but you, we are to assume that all was perfect.  Yet, nothing you created seems to have the same level of perfection.  In fact, everything you create, from Heaven and earth, angels and humans, seems to eventually go straight to hell.

 

To recap, the world before the creation was corrupted, but that wasn’t your fault.  The world I know as creation quickly became corrupted, but again, not your fault.  Now, I am to look forward to another world of your making.  If that goes amuck, will you blame me for that too?  Please explain.  What will be different the next time around?  And if you can make it all work out right in the next life, why didn’t you just do it that way to begin with.

Beyond Faith-Based Thinking Part 2

Without Question

Last time, I defined faith-based thinking as excepting propositions without sufficient evidence.  Another way to put it is to accept propositions without question, and by question, I mean critical examination.  I was baptized at the age of seven, so I accepted everything without critical examination.  That is not to say that I couldn’t prooftext you to death.  I most certainly could.  I had an answer for every argument, and could give a reason for the faith that was within me.  But that has nothing to do with critical examination of religious propositions.  I simply didn’t have the mental, emotional, and academic tools for that.

Here is a small list of things I realized I had accepted before I ever had the tools to evaluate them:

  • In the beginning, god:  that is two propositions.  first, there is a god, second, he was there from the beginning.
  • Created:  Anyone who mentioned evolution was a fool of the highest order.  The world did not evolve; it was created whole and complete.
  • The heavens and the earth:  This is a subtile assumption that the earth is the central creation and that everything else is just the supporting cast.
  • Six days:  The universe could not be billions of years old.  Scientists were just wrong.
  • The bible is the only sacred book that matters because it was somehow dictated by the one, true god.
  • The bible is perfect:  Whatever the bible says is truth.  There can be no errors.  It had no human influence or input.  Everything is in there that should be there.  Nothing is in there that shouldn’t be there.  Everything in the bible is historically factual and accurate.
  • I was a sinner:  Since all have sinned, I must be a sinner.  I was guilty of something just by being a son of Adam.
  • There is a such thing as sin.
  • I needed a savior:  Without someone to save me from my 7 year-old wickedness, I was bound for hell.
  • There is a hell.
  • There is a heaven.

I could go on like this for some time, but I hope you get the point.  I did not carefully evaluate any of these claims before accepting them as truth.  I was raised on these claims with my mother’s milk.  I never once critically considered where the bible came from.  It just was.  Once I did start sniffing around the edges of the question, the only answer forthcoming is that it came from the inspiration of god.  It says so right in the bible.  At the time, I was not familiar with the term, “circular argument”.  If you are not familiar with that term.  the above is a good example.  We know the bible is from god because it says so.  With that kind of reasoning, how do you ever examine the bible’s authenticity?  You either look beyond the bible and the authorities of your church for answers, or you never question it.

The same holds true with all religious propositions.  How do you even go about questioning if there is really a god as described in the bible.  You can’t, because if you do, you will burn in hell.  That is what you have to risk to even ask the question.  asking someone to prove there is a god is just a sign that you do not have a saving faith, because if you did, you wouldn’t be asking for proof.

All of these things must be accepted presuppositionally, which is to say, without critical examination or sufficient evidence.  We are easily satisfied with a few proof texts and a bit of rhetorical sophistry.  That is troubling because we all know the adage, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”  It is one thing to accept that Jesus was a real person, even though we do not have much evidence to support that claim.  It is quite another to contend that he rose from the dead.  That proposition requires extraordinary evidence that is simply not forthcoming.  It is one thing to claim that the bible is an interesting collection of texts.  It is quite another to claim that salvation can only be found in the bible because it is the one, true word of god.  That requires extraordinary evidence which has never been produced.

Rather than extraordinary evidence, the church requires extraordinary faith.  That changes the adage to, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary faith.  Evidence: extraordinary or otherwise, not required.”  This is not a worldview that I can live with in any aspect of my life.  I see no reason why religion should be an exception.  Just show me the extraordinary proof.

If someone would like to convince me of the power of prayer, just pray that any one of my physical maladies are healed.  If, in biblical fashion, I am healed, that would be extraordinary evidence that is hard to ignore.  If, however, you pray a generalized prayer of healing without expectation of healing.  Then even you do not believe in what the bible says about prayer.  If you can’t prove that your own prayers are effective, why should I believe mine will be any more so?  I have tested prayer at every level.  It did not pass the test on any level.  Therefore, I don’t pray.

If the answer is that you can’t test god, or ask for proof, then religion is a non-starter.  You must accept everything presuppositionally, as a small child, not as a reasoning adult.  Well, I am not a small child.  I am a reasoning adult.  If religion cannot deal with examination from the likes of me, then it is a closed system to the likes of me.

David Johnson

Beyond Faith-Based Thinking

I am sometimes accused of attacking people of faith.  It is never my intention to attack any person or group of people.  I do attack ideas and propositions.  The problem is that many people associate the propositions they accept with themselves.  For them, if I am attacking a strongly held belief, then I am attacking them.  For them, there is no difference.  I don’t exactly know how to avoid that conundrum, except to reassure my readers that no personal slight is intended.

I would like to write a little more about why I do not subscribe to faith-based systems of thought.  It boils down to the kinds of things I choose to believe.  In fact, as I formulate my argument, I have already misstated the case.  I don’t actually choose to believe anything.  I either believe a thing or I don’t.  It is not a matter of decision making for me.  I believe that belief, itself, is an autonomic reaction to propositions.  When we here a proposition, we do not decide to believe it.  We either believe it or we don’t.  In fact, I would go as far as to say we are incapable of choosing to believe anything.

We can choose to try to believe something.  We can want to believe or disbelieve something.  We can profess belief, and even deceive ourselves into thinking we believe something.  But in the end, what we believe to be true is decided before we are even conscious of the decision.

But that’s an aside…

As you might can imagine, I have been asked by people of faith if I have faith in anything.  My answer is a resounding, no!  They seem to pity me for lacking the capacity for faith, as if I were handicapped: missing an arm or a leg.  They genuinely do not understand how I go through life without faith.  They do not understand the basis of my beliefs.  I tell them that I believe in things for which I have sufficient evidence.  If I do not possess sufficient evidence for a proposition, it does not mean it is not true.  It just means that I put no faith in it being true.  If the proposition is intriguing, I will explore the evidence and secure the matter as true or false.

Faith-based thought systems such as religion, are diametrically opposed to fact-based systems.  The first, and most important requirement for religion is the capacity to believe in things for which there is not sufficient evidence.  This should not be a controversial statement, as it is the very definition of faith, and one that the bible supports.  If, in fact, we had sufficient evidence for a particular proposition, then it would no longer be in the realm of faith, but fact.

When Thomas insisted on seeing the death wounds of the risen Jesus, he was granted his wish, reluctantly, with the rebuke that it is better to believe without seeing than to believe because of seeing.  Thomas would not be known as the doubter if he had believed without evidence.  The Hebrews writer tells us that without faith, it is impossible to please god.  He goes on to define faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.

Consider that definition carefully.  You hope for something so strongly, you can practically reach out and touch it as if it were substantive.  It gives substance to your hope.  Also, for all the unseeable, unprovable religious propositions, your faith should be evidence enough.  Faith is a placeholder, a substitute for evidence.  The bible makes it clear that Christians, “walk by faith and not by sight”.  The bible presents an antagonistic relationship between faith and sight: sight being another word for evidence or proof.

Part of my problem with faith-based thinking is that people of faith do not seem to apply it to anything other than religion.  In every other aspect of their lives, they are fact-based thinkers, just like me.  No sane or responsible person balances their checkbook on faith.  Nor do they handle any financial transaction with anything other that fact-based reality.  They check their bank account to be certain there are sufficient funds to pay the bills.  They collect and save receipts that may be important later.  They hire accountants, and hold their accountants to a high standard of evidence.

We all put gas in our vehicles when the needle is on E.  We go to the doctor when we get sick.  Though our doctor of choice may be a Christian, we insist he does appropriate diagnostic tests and prescribe medically sound treatments that have been tested and proven for the type of complaint we have.  No Christian would pay a doctor if all he did was take you into a room and pray that you get better.

When it comes to non-Christian religions, we revert to fact-based thinking. We do not accept the truth claims or extraordinary propositions of Hindus, Muslims, or Mormons.  We do not devotionally read the sacred texts of other religions, though we may study them academically and critically.  Many Christians know bits and pieces of how other sacred texts came together.  We know enough to debunk the texts as sacred.  Ironically, we have no idea how our own sacred texts came together.  That is because we read our texts devotionally, but not academically or critically.

We require high levels of evidence from anyone who believes in something other than Christianity.  We scrutinize their claims and test them against logic and how we understand the world to work.  We ridicule them for believing the ridiculous.  Yet, when it comes to our own beliefs, we flip the faith switch to the ON position.  We accept, without critique, all of the propositions of our religion no matter how far-fetched and unsubstantiated the claims may be.  We do not apply the same fact-based thinking to our own religion as we require of others.

I will conclude this part with a thought experiment.  You are an evangelist who is trying to convince a person to become a Christian.  This person has no knowledge of the bible, but knows something about other sacred texts.  He neither believes in god, nor is he hostile to the idea.  He simply has insufficient evidence to believe.  What method do you use to convince this person to put his faith in Jesus and become a Christian?  To what authority would you appeal?  The moment you pull out your bible, he will want to know why that book is authoritative, and takes precedence over all other sacred texts.  You say it is the word of god, but he does not believe in god, and if he did, you would still need to prove the claim that it is his divine word.

How would you go about proving your faith to a person who needed proof?  If you can’t, then how can you criticize a person for not believing in that which you, yourself cannot provide sufficient evidence?  If you say that the person simply needs to take a leap of faith, then you have done nothing more than any other faith system can do.  Will you make an emotional appeal?  Is Christianity based on nothing more than an emotional appeal to faith?

I refuse to believe in that which I have insufficient evidence.  I am not the problem, and I am not alone.  I reject the bible’s vilification of proof.  I must live my spiritual life with the same integrity as I live my natural life, which for me, is one and the same.  If I require sufficient evidence for everyone else’s religion, I have to do so for my own.  I did.  That is how I got where I am today.  It is a matter of integrity to apply the same standards to myself as I do everyone else.  I never accepted the faith-based thinking of the Muslim or the Mormon, and I had to stop accepting my own.

What I discovered was a long list of presuppositions that I had simply accepted on faith without question.  Next time, I will talk about those presuppositions and how I approached them.

David Johnson

Beyond Heaven & Hell Part 3

The Second Death

The Christian scriptures: Revelation, to be precise, four times describes hell as the second death.  How many deaths do we need?  How many times does god have to kill us before his justice is satisfied?  This sounds like a rhetorical question intended only to mock something that sounds silly, but there is more to it than that.

The bible opens with the story of Adam and Eve in the garden.  The implication is that they were intended to live forever.  That is presumed because the punishment they were threatened with was that if they ate from the wrong tree, they would surely die.  The punishment for sin, at least in the beginning, was death.  Count them: only ONE death.  There was no hell.  There was no second death.

The Ecclesiastes writer verifies this many times throughout the book in no uncertain terms:

I thought to myself,
“What happens to a fool will happen to me, too,
so what is the reward for being wise?”
I said to myself,
“Being wise is also useless.”
The wise person and the fool
will both die,
and no one will remember either one for long.
In the future, both will be forgotten.

I decided that God leaves it the way it is to test people and to show them they are just like animals.  The same thing happens to animals and to people; they both have the same breath, so they both die. People are no better off than the animals, because everything is useless. Both end up the same way; both came from dust and both will go back to dust.  Who can be sure that the human spirit goes up to God and that the spirit of an animal goes down into the ground?  So I saw that the best thing people can do is to enjoy their work, because that is all they have. No one can help another person see what will happen in the future.

A baby born dead is useless. It returns to darkness without even a name.  That baby never saw the sun and never knew anything, but it finds more rest than that man.  Even if he lives two thousand years, he doesn’t enjoy the good God gives him. Everyone is going to the same place.

This is something wrong that happens here on earth: What happens to one happens to all. So people’s minds are full of evil and foolish thoughts while they live. After that, they join the dead.  But anyone still alive has hope; even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
   The living know they will die,
but the dead know nothing.
Dead people have no more reward,
and people forget them.
 After people are dead,
they can no longer love or hate or envy.
They will never again share
in what happens here on earth.

And for good measure, here is one from Job 7: another wisdom passage:

As a cloud disappears and is gone,
people go to the grave and never return.

These are just a few of the passages found in the Hebrew scriptures on eschatology.  We are like animals with the same spirit that shares the same fate.  The wise and the foolish have the same end.  Everyone goes to the same place.  Again and again, the message is given that once it’s over, it’s over.  The shadowy world of the grave was considered the final resting place for everyone.  There was no expectation of a later, bodily resurrection and life continuing on.  That was neither an expectation of the Torah or the wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures.  One life; one death.  That is how it was understood for the vast majority of the bible.  In the beginning, god offered death for sin.  It was only a singular death.  So who’s idea was the second death.?  When was it decided that one death just wasn’t enough?

A Punishment that Fits the Crime

There are many other problems with hell.  The most egregious seems to be the complete unfairness of it all.  It is not justice to over-punish for a crime.  A parking violation that drew a fine of a million dollars would be struck down in court for being unfair by any standard.  Everything about the mainstream understanding of hell is unjust.  It is a punishment that fits no crime any human is capable of committing.

Try to imagine the ultimate crime for a human.  Perhaps some crazy dictator gets his hands on a stockpile of nuclear weapons.  In one final act of insanity, he sets them all off, killing everyone on earth.  Many will die instantly, while others will die slow, horrible deaths.  What is the appropriate punishment for that person?  Let’s say it took a year for the last person on earth to die.  Is there any reason his punishment should go longer than a year?  Perhaps he suffered a day for every person he killed.  That is about 7 billion days.  Perhaps he suffers the same amount of torture he put everyone else through.  That is still a finite amount of torture.  At some point, that person will have paid his debt to the society he destroyed.  Even for that person, unspeakable torment for all eternity is far too much.

Now, consider the average occupant of hell.  These are not people who committed the ultimate crime by any stretch of the imagination at any point in their lives.  These are people who, at worst, committed a few acts of murder.  On average, they cheated on a spouse, lied on their taxes, shoplifted a scarf, was rude to an employee, cut in line, sold something for more than it was worth, gave a partial day’s work for a full day’s pay, in other words, for being human.  These are the crimes that if left unforgiven, will have a person screaming in torment for all eternity.

It gets worse!

Last time, I pointed out that getting into heaven had a lot to do with what you believe and the intensity in which you believe it.  Moral excellence is not enough.  The same type of thing is true for getting into hell.  One need not be morally impure to be cast into hell.  The person who lives a morally perfect life is as much a candidate for hell as the moral reprobate.  If getting into heaven is about what you believed, then getting into hell is about what you didn’t believe, or believed incorrectly.

I grew up in a denomination that believed everyone was going to hell who was not a member of that denomination.  They also thought anyone who worship with the accompaniment of a musical instrument was hell bound on that basis, alone.  But we need not use such extreme examples to make the point.  Let’s say a person believes all accepted, mainline, orthodox, Christian teachings with one exception.  That person just didn’t believe in the virgin birth.  She believes that Jesus was of purely human origin.  Mainstream Christians would condemn that person to hell on the basis of that one heresy.

What if a person did not believe in a literal devil, or hell?  Such disbelief is enough to qualify that person for eternal damnation in the hottest spot of hell.  The example from Matt. 7 that I gave in the previous post presents us with people who claim Jesus as lord, who do his will to the best of their understanding and ability, yet for something not even explained to them, they end up in the Hitler wing of hell.  That is not justice by any measure.

Another obvious reason hell cannot be just punishment is that hell represents infinite punishment for finite crimes.  No matter how much damage I decide to do, I am only one person running with scissors.  I can only cover a finite amount of space in a finite amount of time to do a finite amount of damage.  Once I am caught by the authorities, they will punish me for my crimes.  They may even execute me.  But for god, that death is not enough.  He will raise me from the dead so he can introduce me to the second death: the death that is not as much death as torture.  He will punish my finite crimes, infinitely.  No moment’s crime deserves to be punished eternally.

Finally, according to the Christian scriptures, hell was a placed designed for the devil and his angels.  I have three problems with this.  First, why does god need a torture chamber?  If he has rogue angels, why not just kill them?  I see no justification for a loving god to keep a sadist’s playpen.

Second, if hell was created for the devil and his angels, why aren’t they there?.  Why are they allowed to roam freely about the earth?  Why are they allowed to prey on innocent humans?  Are not the angels more powerful than the demons, and god more powerful than Satan?  If so, why haven’t they all been rounded up and thrown into the pit that was prepared for them?

Third, and finally, if hell was created for the devil and his angels, why would any human be cast into such a place?  If humans must be punished, why did not god prepare a place for wayward humans that would  provide a more appropriate punishment.  Humans are capable of doing some very bad things, but they are not demons, and should not be treated the same as demons.  Even humans have enough sensitivity not to put petty criminals in with violent felons.  We have different levels of punishment for different levels of crimes and different types of people depending on age and gender. The god of the bible is content to throw almost all humans into the place best suited for the devil and his angels.

I believe I have made a reasonable enough case for a Christian to at least reconsider his views on the literal existence of heaven and hell.  If you are convinced of the literal existence of these places, I would love to see in the comments why you are so sure you are bound for heaven, especially considering that the vast majority of people are bound for hell, and even those who think they are serving god may be hell-bound as well.  What mechanism do you use to insure your eternal destiny?

For me, heaven is an abstraction.  The real problem is hell.  There cannot exist both a loving, merciful, and fair god, as well as a literal hell.  To maintain logical consistency, you have to give up one or the other.  In truth, once you give up one, it only follows to give up the other.  If you give up your notion of god, there is no basis to continue believing in an afterlife of any kind.  If you give up on hell, then you have given up on the bible which teaches about hell.  In doing so, you also give up on the teachings of Jesus regarding hell.  You give up any confidence in the bible as a reliable witness.  Since everything we know about god a Christianity comes from the bible, you will also give up on god.

Hell is a problem that cannot be surgically removed from the Christian story.  It either exists with all the problems I have outlined, or it doesn’t, thus dragging down the credibility of everything else the bible has to say.  One of these days, I will do a comparative analysis of holy books.  It is interesting that most religious people accept one holy book as sacred truth, and all the others as blatant fiction.  Most could not explain why they accept one over the other, even though they share many similarities.

See you in the comments.

David Johnson

Beyond Heaven & Hell Part 2

Dying to Get in

Last time, I mentioned that it is exceptionally difficult to get a ticket to the magic kingdom.  With the exception of a couple of outliers in the Hebrew scriptures, the only way to get there is by dying.  Since dying is generally a one-way trip, it is tough to get accurate telemetry from the other side.  It is supposed to be the place where our souls originated, but amnesia seems to be the price we pay for crossing over from there to here.  No one passing through the womb has any memory of those golden streets.  Our goal while on this plain seems to be to recover the memory of who we really are: children of god, and make our way back home.  There is no other way to get back besides the grave.  I have a couple of problems with this.

First, if our souls were already resting comfortably in the bosom of god, why were we sent here in the first place?  Life is hard, then we die.  What’s worse, according to the bible, most people won’t make it back home.  I’ll get to that later.  So, why send us here where the odds are stacked against us to ever make it back home?  It seems like a cruel game where the odds are not in our favor.

Second, I don’t like the idea that we have to die before getting back where we belong.  One of the hallmarks of a cult is a religious fixation with blood and death.  Mainstream Christianity is characterized by such a fixation.  From baptism, to communion, to wearing instruments of death as jewelry, we can’t get away from it.  Everything we hope for is put off until after we die.  The Christian scriptures promise that, “those who live godly in Christ will suffer persecution.”  Jesus tells his followers to bear their cross to follow him.  The apostle, Paul, openly ponders the merits of just giving up and dying so that he can go to heaven.  This can’t be healthy.

I can think of two cults in my lifetime that encouraged its members to commit suicide to enter the glorious, next life.  Christianity frowns upon suicide, but once a person dies, we tend to assume they went directly to the next life.  In the next life, heaven is not the only option.  But we are not quite ready to talk about door number 2.  Just acknowledging it is there, however, forces us to ask a deeper question about how it is we are supposed to get into heaven since dying is not enough.

Getting in

There are basically two views on how one gets to heaven.  There is the mainstream view, and the biblical view.  The mainstream view is the one that suggests all good people go to heaven when they die.  Your entry into heaven is based on how you lived your life.  Were you a good person who did good deeds, living a life of high, moral values.  In terms of absolutes, will the scales of judgement show that you were more good than bad.  That is how the average person talks of heaven’s qualifications.  Even at Christian funerals, we give this notion credence by talking about what a good person the deceased was.  Surely, this person is in a better place.  That sounds fair.  Unfortunately, that is not the biblical view.

The biblical view, as best I can piece it together, has nothing to do with how moral a life one has lived.  It has to do with what one believes and proper observance of ritual practice.  The poster child of this doctrine is the poor fool mentioned in Matt. 7:

Not all those who say ‘You are our Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. The only people who will enter the kingdom of heaven are those who do what my Father in heaven wants.  On the last day many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, we spoke for you, and through you we forced out demons and did many miracles.’  Then I will tell them clearly, ‘Get away from me, you who do evil. I never knew you.’

As a kid, this was the scariest verse in the bible for me.  If I could devote my life to proclaiming Jesus as lord, pushing back the demons in the name of Jesus, etc, only to be denied entry in the harshest of terms, then it was all just a craps shoot.  In the above passage, the condemned clearly and sincerely believed they were doing the will of the father.  Yet, at the end of the day, they were called evil doers.  How does doing the best you can, obeying god’s will to the best of your knowledge, and living a life of service get you labeled as an evil doer who waisted his life?  I learned that those most certain of their heavenly destination would most likely get a rude awakening in the end.  If that wasn’t depressing enough, looking back a few verses sealed the deal:

Enter through the narrow gate. The gate is wide and the road is wide that leads to hell, and many people enter through that gate.  But the gate is small and the road is narrow that leads to true life. Only a few people find that road.

Even as a child, I knew that the odds were most certainly not in my favor.  If living a good, pious life of obeying god to the best of your knowledge and ability can get heaven’s gate slammed in your face, then what was the formula that let’s you through?  Then, it hit me.  It has nothing to do with how you live; it has to do with what you believe.  That certainly explained the unholy lives of the Christians I saw in church every Sunday.  One could get forgiveness for almost any sin as long as they followed the correct formula of ritual observance and doctrinal beliefs.  The bible seemed to verify this on every page.

“He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.  He that believes not, shall be condemned!”  “…and whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”  “Without faith, it is impossible to please god.”  Suddenly, the bible was full of passages telling me not only to believe, but what to believe.  I studied the teachings of Jesus, and the teachings about Jesus.  I moved on to studying the teachings of his apostles.  I studied the formation of the early church, and the follow-up letters written by the apostles to the early church.  I memorized large swaths of text and went on to study the spread of the church throughout history in great detail.

I even learned enough Greek to read a little from a Greek New Testament.  Hebrew was a bridge too far.  I know more about the bible and the church than most fourth-year seminarians.  If I didn’t possess enough knowledge of proper beliefs to gain certainty of heaven, no one did.  Even at the pinnacle of my biblical and religious mastery, during the time when my faith was the strongest, I still didn’t have a demon’s chance of entering into those pearly gates.  There was never a time when I could be certain that I believed all the right things.

I knew that Gandhi and Mother Teresa, regardless of their good deeds were burning in hell because they couldn’t possibly have believed the right things as I understood them.  I also knew that Hitler and Manson might be drinking mimosas in heaven if they made the appropriate deathbed confessional.  There is biblical precedence for this kind of thinking.  After all, the thief on the cross got a guaranteed ticket because he made the right confession of faith at the right time, even though he was a thief.  Rahab the prostitute made it into the faith hall of fame, and there was no mention of her ever changing professions, while miracle workers using the power of the spirit were left, slack-jawed on the wrong side of eternity.  The stress and uncertainty of getting into heaven felt a lot more like hell to me.

Members Only

My final challenge rests in the rest of the bible.  Yes, I mean the fat part that accounts for over three quarters of the bulk.  There is simply no doctrine of heaven articulated anywhere in the Hebrew scriptures.  The Jews were promised many things if they pleased god, and threatened much if they displeased him, but never was there a promise of a bodily resurrection and an eternity spent in heaven or hell.  Heaven was apparently not for the Jews.  We do not get the hope of heaven or the threat of hell until Jesus enters the scene.  Even then, with precious little description.

Heaven seems to be a Christian only club.  It was only offered in the Christian scriptures, and can only be gained through belief in Jesus as lord and savior.  That is an exclusive club.  The billions in India, the orient, and Arabic nations have little hope.  They all have sacred texts, but only the Christian scriptures provide an inkling of knowledge about the Christian Heaven.  Apparently, hell is open to everyone.

Conclusion

In summary, I cannot believe in a heaven that was never even offered to the bulk of the people appearing in the bulk of the bible.  If feels like something bolted on to support a newly forming, apocalyptic worldview of an oppressed people who would see no justice in this lifetime.

I cannot believe in a place where we were a happy soul in the presence of god, only to be tossed in a body of misery, and likely tossed in hell for all eternity.  If there is such a place where we are originally from, why are we not still there?

I do not believe that life will ever be fair.  Heaven is an apocalyptic utopia where everything works out in the end.  All the wrongs are righted.  All the suffering is turned to joy.  All the poor will be rich, and all the sick will be well.  This is how fairytales end.  Real life is somewhat messier.  Innocent children become victims.  Would-be passengers get accidentally pushed in front of busses and trains.  Athletes at the hight of their prowess, die on fields of entertainment.  Criminals get away with murder.  And all too often, justice is blind, deaf, mute, and quadriplegic.   It is helpless to stop bad things from happening to good people, and it has no magical power to write a happy ending for those who need it the most.  Only children believe that life is fair.  Heaven is the adult version of that childhood hope.  Oh, how I wish I could indulge in such belief.

Finally, there is no way to guarantee entry.  According to passages I have already quoted, the odds are not in our favor.  Those most certain of their ticket seem least likely to get in.  There is no straightforward formula of behavior or belief that a person can learn and follow all the way home.

Left unmentioned among my reasons to disbelieve are the many stumbling blocks that seem to be littered about the path.  Adam and Eve were not just given a garden home, god placed a clever serpent among the innocent and naive humans.  Stumbling block.  There was not just one tree, but two.  Stumbling block.  There were not just angels floating about the new world, but demons.  Stumbling block.  In the Christian scriptures, the demons were so powerful, they could just take over and possess people.  Stumbling block.  The demons could deceive the very elect.  Stumbling block.  The road to heaven is littered with detours to hell.  I simply do not believe in this place where we are supposed to be from, and are meant to return, but mostly can’t, due to the supernatural obstacles in our way.

For this disbelief, I am counted a misguided fool, even demonic.  Ironically, my disbelief in a heavenly heaven has made me thrice devoted to building an earthly one.  Since giving up on a faith-based heaven, I have become devoted to a life of morality and values.  I have embraced the mainstream formula for heaven and made it my own.  We get to heaven based on what kind of life we live, not by the dogmas we believe.  And we don’t just get to heaven as if it were a destination in the far away.  We create pockets of heaven in the here and now.  We do not have to die to get there.  We have to live life to the fullest to realize we have already arrived.  Helping others get there defines our humanity.  That’s my idea of heaven.

These are a few reasons why I do not believe in heaven.  I have even better reasons to disbelieve in what is behind door number 2.  More to come.

David Johnson

Beyond Heaven & Hell

Needless to say, I do not believe in a literal Heaven or Hell.  I stopped believing in these things well before I abandoned theism.  I’m  not alone.  Many Christians do not believe in a literal Heaven or Hell.  What the bible has to say about these places is enough to cause reasonable people to reconsider how literal these places could be.  However, I believe that mainstream Christianity is still overwhelmingly populated by people who strongly believe in a literal Heaven and Hell.  For many of those Christians, they can’t imagine what Christianity would be without Heaven and Hell.  More to the point, they can’t fathom the purpose of life without Heaven and Hell.

So just what is this Heaven that many Christians hold as a central tenet of faith?  This would be a great time to quote a few scriptures that would clear up the whole matter, but, I find that scripture, alone, is not enough.  The bible provides precious little detail about this magic kingdom.  Here is what we are taught by mainstream Religion:  Heaven is the physical realm of the one, true god.  It is not a planet in this universe, but stands alone, above, and beyond this universe.  In other words, you cannot get there by getting in the starship Enterprise, and exploring every corner of the space-time continuum.  You have to be able to open a special doorway into another realm that exists outside of space and time.  It is a real, and by real, I mean physical place where beings with physical and spiritual bodies reside.

It is a place to which Jesus ascended.  If he were moving, impossibly, at the speed of light, he would still be in the Milky Way.  We probably should be able to spot him by telescope.  If he was moving at the kind of speed limiting the movement of physical bodies, even enhanced ones, he would likely still be within the solar system.  This image is obviously absurd.  The only reasonable explanation is that he was able to open some magic door to the other realm once he was beyond sight of earth-bound humans.  Heaven is in a magical location, but not so distant that humans and angels can’t come and go at god’s whim.  The location is always perceived as up.  There is no doorway from earth to Heaven.  To travel the distance one must come down from Heaven or ascend up to Heaven.  This presumes things about the universe’s structure that simply are not true.  Yet we suspend everything we know about the universe to hold onto the pre-science notions of universal up and down.  We know this is not a three tiered universe, but Heaven almost demands that we continue using that language to describe it.

As interesting as it is to ponder where Heaven is supposed to be, it is even more interesting to consider what Heaven is supposed to be.  It is definitely a physical realm, but god is not a physical being.  He is described as pure spirit.  It is difficult to imagine why god would need a physical abode.  Then again, perhaps there is a physical aspect to god hinted at by certain passages of the bible.  When Adam and Eve discovered their nakedness, they went hiding in the woods.  They heard the spirit of the lord moving through the trees.  That requires physicality.  When Moses wanted to see god, though god’s face was off limits, he was allowed a view of god’s backside.  A face and a backside suggest physicality.

In the gospel of John, Jesus said, “In my father’s house, there are many rooms…”  Only physical beings need houses.  Every being god created was physical.  The angels, cherubim, and seraphim, join the humans in possessing physical bodies.  When the Heaven-bound humans finally make the trip, they will be given new, physical bodies.  Why do we need physical bodies?  Because Heaven is a physical realm.  We will live in a room, or suite of rooms in the father’s house.  Or, perhaps we will live in a mansion of our own.  Either way, those are physical structures for physical beings.

Heaven is described as having streets made with gold.  Gold?  Really?  That is a horrible building material for streets.  Gold is too soft.  Also, do you really want to look at something so gleaming all the time?  Still, only a physical place would need building materials, especially building materials that are supposed to be emotionally appealing to look at.  Other popular images of Heaven include, as the song says, a mansion, robe, and crown.  This represents a place to live, something to wear, and a visible symbol of royalty.  None of that makes sense without physical bodies.

About those bodies, will we require privacy and modesty?  After all, we have a private mansion and we are wearing robes to cover our nakedness.  Does that mean we will have private parts to cover?  Why?  In our mansions, will we eat, sleep, and excrete?  If not, why do we need a mansion, or a room, or any such domicile.  The streets indicate walking or driving a chariot, or some kind of transportation.  Streets serve no other purpose.  Creatures of flight do not need streets.  Land-bound, physical creatures do.

What about the activities of Heaven?  Growing up, I always understood the primary activity of Heaven dwellers was to be singing praise to god around the grand throne.  Even as a child, this image was less than appealing.  First, why would god want to hear praise for all eternity?  Think about it.  Also, even if you love to sing, do you want to do it all the time, or even most of the time?  How many choruses of Amazing Grace can you handle in one sitting.  Ultimately, singing for all eternity seems to be a waste of timelessness.  What else is on the menu?

According to Paul, in an off-hand mention to the Corinthians, we will be judging angels.  Really?  Are you kidding me?  First, what will the angels be doing that require our judgement?  One only needs to be judged if there is a possibility of wrongdoing.  It seems the angels will have the possibility of wrongdoing, just as before.  Does that mean that there could be sin in Heaven?  If not, then no judges would be needed.  Will we be generals in an ongoing, cosmic war?  Frankly, that sounds like more fun than singing for the next ten thousand years.  But that’s just me.

At this point, I have exhausted everything the bible says and implies about Heaven.  There is not much to go on, and it doesn’t sound a lot different from Vegas when it comes right down to it.  The real, Christian definition of Heaven is the sum of all hopes and dreams.  It is ultimate bliss, whatever that means, for all eternity.  It is everything you ever hoped for multiplied by a trillion squared.  The only catch is that it is kind of hard to get in.  According to the bible, only few will find their way to the straight and narrow path that leads to salvation.  Good luck being one of them.

So, why wouldn’t a perfectly reasonable person not believe in that?

But wait…  There’s more!  Just how does one secure a ticket to the magic kingdom?  Stay tuned.

David Johnson

Parenthood: Foster Style

My wife and I just sent off the application to become foster parents again.  We did it about ten years ago, and are ready for another go at it.  The reason I am mentioning it on this blog is that we have a personal conundrum.  I am no longer a theist, while Barbara remains so.  We have talked about some ways we might compromise on the matter of how we will raise our foster children while in our care.  There are no easy solutions.

I do not want to raise my child with a faith-based worldview.  That stands opposed to my values system.  I do not believe that traditional religion is good for child development.  I think it is even worse for foster children.  The last thing I want for my child is to fear her drug addicted mother is a sinner who is bound for hell.  I also don’t want her to think that everything will work out just fine because some well-meaning people prayed for her situation.  Foster children carry enough baggage, they should not have to carry the religious baggage of a foster parent as well.

I do believe that children need to be socialized with other children their own age.  I believe they should be taught values, and have those values reinforced by community.  That is why I think UU is an ideal place to bring a foster child.  It is a place that will not try to indoctrinate, and will love without religious judgement.  She will never be made to feel like a sinner in need of salvation.  Nor will she be fed a line of false hope by a faith-based community who are too afraid to face the reality that bad things happen to innocent people without regulation of an otherworldly being who will magically just make it all work out.

Anyway, this is less about religion and more about yet another problem caused by religion.  If the tone of this post is bitter, it is because I am bitter at the moment.  I’ll get over it.  We, my wife and I, feel one of the highest callings is to provide aid to the orphan.  As it happens, that is one of my most beloved passages from the bible.  It is one of the descriptions of what it calls “true religion”.  Therefore, I am confident that we will find a way to work it out in the best interest of the children that enter our care.  Advice is appreciated.

David Johnson

Quick Take

I will be posting a lot more of these short posts that contain a single thing that either just popped into my head and posted without much thought, or an event that set me off.  Feel free to criticize them.  Just know that these are not the same as my more carefully planned essays.

Today at church, someone was mentioning child abuse, and abusers.  I asked what she thought should be done with people who, for whatever reason, was an in curable, unredeemable recidivist.  Her answer notwithstanding, another person who had also suffered abuse, represented her Christianity by taking umbrage to the question and suggesting that everybody can be redeemed.  Indeed, she had forgiven her abuser, and by that very act of forgiveness had redeemed him and the whole situation.

The first problem with this response is that this person could only think in religious terms.  When I used the word, redeemed, I intended no religious connotation.  I meant it as a synonym for rehabilitated as a fully vested member of society.  The strident commenter immediately thought about salvation of a soul and personally moving beyond a traumatic event.  This is one of those cases where religion has ruined the language.

The bigger problem is that the respondent, thinking she was demonstrating her piety, mostly demonstrated a shortsighted type of narcissism.  My question had nothing to do with how an individual deals with abuse.  It frankly makes no difference to the bigger picture whether you forgive or not.  It may make a great deal of difference to you, personally, and how your life flows from that event, but that is a self-centered way of approaching the issue.  Necessary, but self-centered.

What the lady was not prepared to deal with was the fact that her personally forgiven felon is out on the streets and free to strike again.  She was so wrapped up in her own personal forgiveness, she did not consider all of the other potential victims of this attacker.  Again, religion trumped a rational discussion about a real problem.  From her perspective, god can cure anyone  of anything.  Therefore, we should have faith that god will redeem this person and change their criminal behavior.

It never once occurred to her that in the vast majority of instances, her god does not free drug addicts of their addiction, and even more seldom, change the behavior of a child molester.  Her god has no problem with chronic recidivism.  Yet reality does not shake the faith-based fantasy that the life of the molester will miraculously be fixed because she has used the power of forgiveness.  There was no point in arguing the point because religious fervor had already cut off the possibility of a rational discussion based on what really happens in the world.

We did have an opportunity to talk again and clear up any misunderstandings.  As for the person to whom my question was originally directed, her public answer was that she just had to have faith that everyone was redeemable or she wouldn’t have the stamina to go on.  Privately, she acknowledged that there are some people with problems that we simply cannot fix and she had no idea what we, as a society, should do with them.

This is just an example of how the application of religion makes progress with real-life issues more difficult to deal with.  Once you paint everything with a faith-based, magical gloss, you never have to deal with certain problems.  Perhaps, this is why America, a professed, Christian nation, has never dealt with certain problems.  Real problems can only be dealt with once we remove that magic gloss.

Dealing with real-world issues is just another reason why we have to move beyond religion.

David Johnson

Beyond Apathy (Continued)

My speech, to the best of my memory, before the senate committee to repeal HB56:

I cannot imagine what it would take to get a person to voluntarily leave the country of his origin and enter a strange land at great risk to his health and life.  What horrors must a person be escaping that propels her across a militarized border, into a place where she does not speak the language, understand the financial or political system, and will be hated on sight.  I cannot fathom the desperation that leads to such actions, but those are the precisely the actions taken by our neighbors to the south by the thousands, and tens of thousands.

I don’t know about you, but I consider such a person as someone in need.  I have a history of trying to help those in need who cross my path.  I live in East Birmingham.  For any such person in need, my house will be a safe harbor.  I own a PT Cruiser.  As long as I do, my car will provide safe transport.  With such resources as we have, the food on my table will provide sustenance to those who need it.  It has always been so with me, and I have never once required proof of immigration status to serve those in need.

But I am not alone.  I contend that every person of conscience, not just those of faith, do, and will continue to do the same things with or without the sanction of the law.  It does not matter if you repeal the law.  People of conscience will continue to do what they believe is right.  I simply ask that you reconsider making criminals out of those who strive to answer the calling of their better angels.

David Johnson

Beyond Church Part 3

Here we are, the day after Easter Sunday, the busiest church day of the year, the most religious, Christian holiday of the year.  If you have Sunday best, to wear, this is the day to wear it.  The question that begs to be asked is, why?  Why do so many people flock to churches on Easter Sunday?  What is it that brings people to the temple; people who are not even religious, for the most part.  On that day, churches are attended by people who don’t even believe in god, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a church building at any other time, well, that is, besides when they are actually caught dead.  There is something about this day that draws people who are otherwise repelled by church.

It is not my intention to deconstruct Easter, at least, not in this post.  Rather, to acknowledge that there is something about the church experience that appeals to a large demographic of people, even to the nonreligious.  My intention is to figure out what that is, and suggest ways that those positive experiences can be enhanced by evolving them beyond church.  I don’t believe that the positive aspects of church have anything to do with religion as we have come to understand it.  What if we could make those positive aspects of church more accessible to more people year-round, rather than just one day a year?  I think we can.

Communitarian Morality

In my previous post, I decried the notion of seeking moral certainty in churches.  I have not changed my mind.  I equate moral certainty with absolute morality.  This kind of morality implies that there is an ultimate right and wrong that applies to all people in all places for all times.  For this to be the case, there has to be an ultimate arbiter of right and wrong who’s will and judgement is above all humanity.  I do not believe in the non-human arbiter of morality.  That means, for me, morality is something we have to work out among ourselves the best way we can.

That leads us to communitarian morality.  We may not be able to work out what is absolutely right and wrong for all people in all places for all times, but we can, and do work out what is right and wrong for particular communities of people in some places at certain times.  Churches like to believe they are dealing with matters of absolute morality.  But, in truth, they are only, ever dealing with matters of communitarian morality.  As an example, there are no churches in the South, today, that are teaching the appropriate manner of dealing with slaves.  Once upon a time, that was considered a matter of absolute morality.  It was only ever a collection of temporary, communitarian standards.  So it is with all laws that attempt to legislate morality.

I believe that a church can be a great place to gage the moral temperature of a community at any given time.  What is taught in a church about morality is often a reflection of what the community believes to be the highest moral calling of humanity.  This is not a bad gage as long as churches stay in touch with the reality of the times.  Churches become poor gages of communitarian morality when they become out of touch, and even opposed to modernity.  At that point, they become an obstacle to communitarian morality.  They become obsessed with the morality of a long-dead people from a different place at a time long past.  They become morality museums.  I try to avoid such churches at all costs.

Churches are not the only place where one can gage communitarian morality.  Such opportunities are all around us if we become sensitive to what we are looking at.  The local newspaper can give us great insight into what the community feels is acceptable versus unacceptable behavior.  Local school board meetings can be quite informative.  Getting to know one’s neighbors and getting involved with neighborhood programs will also give you a sense of communitarian morality.  All of these things are even better than a church for gaging communitarian morality because they gage the entire community, not just the subset that believes in faith-based reality.

The Ministry of Service

I believe that churches have the potential to be excellent conduits for the ministry of service.  Almost all churches teach a message of love and self-sacrifice for the sake of others.  They all seem to agree that those with resources should be about the business of making accommodations for those without.  One of my favorite passages in scripture is found in the first chapter of James.  It teaches that true religion is to help the widows and orphans in their time of need.  One of my favorite stories attributed to Jesus is the good Samaritan.  The idea of service is a part of Christian DNA.

Unfortunately, many churches have buried the service impulse under layers of meaningless doctrine.  For them, the word, “ministry” means to evangelize.  Saving souls that do not tangibly exist becomes more important than saving lives that do.  Serving physical needs becomes a cynical ploy for making a convert.  All churches take up a collection of money.  Once upon a time, all of the money collected was for the ministry of service.  Today, almost all of it goes to service the ministry.  Not all churches have fallen into this trap.  But the vast majority have budgets that show benevolence is a distant consideration to the real priority of institutional needs.

Seldom do church budgets reflect benevolence spending greater than 5%.  10% is considered excellent.  50% is almost unheard of.  For a true service organization, 50% would be considered a gross, mismanagement of funds.  Benevolence should not be measured in pennies on the dollar.  Rather, institutional costs should be measured in pennies on the dollar.

I like the fact that so many churches provide some form of aid to some people at some times.  But this can be done better by organizations that are true ministries of service by design.  It is better to tithe to the Red Cross, than to the average church, if helping others is what you are wanting to do.  Better yet, adopt or foster a child.  Help pay the medical expenses of someone without insurance.  There is no end of ways to participate in the ministry of service.  The impulse to serve is not a faith-based exclusive; it is basic humanity.  Religion is not required, and is often a hindrance.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Perhaps the best thing that churches provide is a social structure for the less socially adept.  For most of my life, my closest friends and associates have been members of the churches I have attended.  I hardly know how to develop friendships outside of the context of a church.  When I visit a church for the first time, people are making a concerted attempt to be nice to me, and try to get to know me.  They want me to like them.  They want to like me.  Now, my own cynicism understands that they want to grow their membership.  They want me to become a convert or new, paying member.  I have been on the welcoming committee, I get it.  Still, with little effort, you can usually find someone in a church with whom you legitimately bond.  I honestly can’t think of any organization better suited to instant society than a church.

The problem is that most churches require you to buy into their particular brand of theism for you to become a fully vested member in that society.  Church and theism kind of go hand in hand.  There are not many equivalent organizations for the non-theist.  This means that in order to enjoy the benefits of a ready-made social structure, one has to adopt, or feign faith-based theism.  A rare exception to this rule is Unitarian Universalism.  That has all of the society of a church without the faith-based requirements.  I wish there were more organizations that adopted this model.

Next time, I will write a post, or series of post about my experience with the Unitarian Universalist church.  It is nothing like what I expected.

David Johnson

Beyond Church Part 2

A couple of days ago, I had dental work done at an overtly, Christian practice.  During and after the procedure, the topic of conversation, (yes, there can be conversation even during a dental procedure where your mouth is held open by 16th century implements of torture), the topic of conversation was on matters of faith.  I did not start the conversation.

As I was leaving, we had gotten to forgiveness.  He had jokingly said something about how forgiveness was important at a Christian office.  For some reason, this raise my pique.  I told him that Christians do not have the copyright on forgiveness.  Indeed, one need not believe in god or have any religion in order to understand the importance of forgiveness.

This is where things took a turn for the weird.  He actually disagreed.  Quite serious by now, he explained that god created the world and everything in it.  Nothing exists without god.  Therefore, god created and taught us about forgiveness.  Without god, and by extension, Christianity, no one would be able to forgive.  I let it go at that.

This is one of the problems with church/religion that has to be addressed and overcome.  Last time, I talked about the inherent division and exclusivity of church.  My conversation with the good doctor is a real-world example of how the problem manifests in society.  In his worldview, only Christians have the true knowledge and inclination to forgive.  To him, I must have seemed like a savage as I was not a person of faith.  Therefore, I could not possibly understand the finer points of civilized humanity provided as an exclusive gift of god.

I don’t mean to give the doctor, who I liked very much, too hard of a time.  I was once the same way.  I understand where he was coming from.  I believed that the unchurched were more than the unsaved; they were also uncivilized.  When Christians invaded the new world that we call home, before trying to extinguish the natives, they tried to civilize them through evangelism.  After white settlers enslaved and subdued the blacks, they tried to civilize them through evangelism, church, and religion.  The idea has been prevalent through history.  Christians in particular have been very militant about advancing civilization through evangelism, as if without church, no people could be fully civilized.

This attitude has been at the root of some of the most egregious atrocities committed by humans agains humans.  Christians are some of the worst, but certainly not the only culprits.  If you take the Hebrew scriptures as serious history, you will find that their entire history of warfare and war crimes grew out of their own moral certainty.  They believed they were the only, truly moral people on earth.  The Muslims suffered from the same superiority complex.  Even empires that did not have an official religion thought their conquests indicated  the god’s were with them.

To the extent that modern-day church exacerbates this problem, we need to get beyond church and its ideas of separatism, exclusivity, and moral certainty.  Having read the bible many times, both devotionally and academically, I can say without hesitation that the god of the bible did not invent anything that most civilized people think of as morality.  Rather than justify this statement with specific examples, just read the specifics of the Hebrew law as given by god.  You will not recognize much that you consider moral, unless you are the type who considers killing your disobedient children an act of morality.

Perhaps you are the type who has dismissed all that Old Testament stuff as unimportant.  You are a Christian, not a Jew.  You put your trust in the loving and forgiving hands of Jesus.  This conveniently ignores the fact that the essence of Jesus was there from the beginning doing all of the horrible things you ascribe to the god of the Old Testament.  Jesus is the god of the Old Testament if scripture is to be taken seriously.

Secondly, you missed the introduction of eternal damnation.  The god of the Old Testament never threatened anyone with such a fate.  It was Jesus that brought us the promise of hell for those who did not accept his message.  I would argue that there is no sin a human can commit that can warrant unspeakable and unrelenting torture.  That is neither morality or justice in action.  Hell, as described in the bible, and understood by mainline Christians, is the greatest possible evil.  The message of Jesus is replete with references to hell and eternal damnation.

No!  We must stop viewing the church as the repository of moral teaching.  It is not!  Rather, the church is a place where troubled humans come together to experience a lifting of the troubles that weigh them down.  This is not the problem.  The problem comes when the preaching starts.  That is when we are told what the bible says and means.  That gets translated into specific precepts that become moral certainty.  The problem is that our moral certainty is different from that of another who has a different preacher with a different understanding of the bible.

One believes that it is immoral for a woman to hold authority over men, while another believes it is immoral to hinder them.  Once believes it is immoral to go to war for any reason.  Another believes it is immoral to avoid just war.  One believes it is immoral to admit a nonbeliever into ones home and extend a hand of human fellowship.  Another believes it is immoral not to do so.  This is, in part, why there is a need for so many different churches. Each believes they have decoded the true morality, while the others are under grace, but misguided.

My doctor could not imagine a world where the unchurched could possibly have a reliable, moral compass.  Once we start to believe this, on any level, about people outside of our particular faith circle, we have become a part of the problem.

Next time, we will conclude this series with what is good about church, and how those good things can be enhanced by moving them beyond church.

David Johnson

Beyond Church

I took a short break after my series on prejudice. Time to get back in the saddle. There are some fundamental things I need to say about the religious institution. I have tried to lay off of outright religious polemics, but this time, it just can’t be avoided.

This series will be in at least two parts, if not three. This first part will deal with the divisive nature of the church. As an institution, the church, by it’s very nature, is an instrument of division. Growing up, I learned to define the church as the “called out”.  If the church is made up of the ones who are called, then the unchurched are, by necessity the uncalled.

All churches have this exclusive element to them. There are many levels of exclusivity. The first level is churched vs. unchurched. The next level is denominational exclusivity. Within the denominations, there is yet another level of exclusivity that centers on cultural preferences and slight doctrinal refinements. In my neighborhood, alone, there are probably ten distinct churches within a five-block radius. Each of them has their own set of evangelists that canvas the neighborhood, their own benevolence programs, and their own religious and social agendas.

The number one method of church proliferation is through division.  Congregations have a hard time staying united for extended periods of time.  These splits take place for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it is a cult of personality.  A popular preacher leaves, and half the church goes with him.  Sometimes it is a fine point of doctrine that has risen to the level of fellowship.  Sometimes, it is a difference of opinion on fiscal matters.  At every level of the church institution, division seems to be written into its DNA.

I suspect one need look no further than the bible to find the genesis of the problem.  In the garden, god planted the seed of division between the serpent and the woman as a punishment.  That would not be the only time the god of the bible used division as a punitive measure.  In Babel, he confounded the languages so that humanity would be forever divided.  God would frequently set one brother or tribe above another, creating schism among family members.  Division becomes a major theme before we are halfway out of Genesis.

…And God is just warming up.

He decides that the best way to reveal himself to the world is by exacerbating tribal tensions.  He does this by artificially creating his own tribe that will form the basis of his earthly kingdom.  He identifies Abraham as special, and separates him from his people.  Division.  He makes a promise of greatness to Abraham, but provides only vague details.  Abraham bears two sons, but the promise is only to one of them.  The other becomes an outcast for all time.  Division.

Isaac has two sons as well, one of which will forever be an outcast, the other, a child of promise.  Division.  Jacob, the child of promise ends up with two wives, one of which he didn’t want or love.  Division.  Of his twelve sons, one was favored and singled out above the others.  Division.  The twelve sons become the founding fathers of twelve tribes that were destined to be united only briefly.  Division.

After the exodus from Egyptian captivity, god declared these Jews to be his special people who would be set apart from the rest of the world.  They would be a separatist group of conquerors.  Division.

…And more division to follow.

With this division came exclusivity.  Division and exclusivity go hand in hand.  They are two sides of the same coin.  One cannot exist without the other.  When god called out a special people, he also made them an exclusive people.  From circumcision to dietary restrictions, god made sure that Judaism was an exclusive club.  So much of the message of Jesus echoes the themes of division and exclusivity.

It was not enough to be a follower of Jesus, one had to declare exclusive loyalty.  Jesus declared himself not only to be the way, but the only way.  His teachings were not just true, but THE TRUTH.  He is the one logos of the one god.  He is the only door to that god.  There is only one proper way to believe, according to Paul.  “One lord, one faith, and one baptism.”

This notion of exclusivity extends to the church.  Catholic means universal.  There is but one body, which is the church, for all people.  At some level, every church believes they are that exclusive body, otherwise, they wouldn’t exist as a separate denomination.  Even those who do not condemn other denominations believe that they are more right than everyone else, that they have a better grasp of some important aspect of the truth than those of other churches.

I will pause here, for now.  In a future post, I will talk about how division and exclusivity in religion affects social evolution as a whole, and what we can do about it as individuals.  Also, read all of this as coming from a person who goes to church every week: a Unitarian church, to be sure, but still a church.  Obviously, I don’t believe that getting beyond church means destroying everything that looks like church.  In a final post on the subject, I will talk about some positive aspects of church, and how we can take those aspects out of, and beyond church so that they can find their fullest expression.

David Johnson