Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Three Sources of Darkness

Light and darkness are themes used throughout the Bible. Light refers to truth, instruction, good, etc., whereas darkness refers to blindness, ignorance, deception, death, evil, etc. Such broad meanings are confusing, so in this article I will restrict the meaning of darkness to blindness to truth including deception and ignorance. Now Christians preach against the darkness of the world and offer a light to eliminate darkness. This is the central message of the gospels. But is it true? Is the world really dark in the sense of blindness to truth, and is the light they offer really a way to remove darkness? Here I will examine the relationship of the three central pillars of Christianity (and other religions) to truth. These pillars are: revelation, authority and faith.

Revelation: This is the claimed foundation for Christianity, and yet it suffers from three fatal flaws:

  1. We can never show that any revelation is actually from God as opposed to some other non-physical entity, see: Can we know if a message is from God?

  2. We cannot distinguish between voices and visions generated by the receiver's mind and those generated by some external entity (be it God or other). Even the hearer or seer can never be sure a claimed revelation is actually a revelation and not his imagination.

  3. Finally, there is no truth test for revelation that deals with spiritual or non-physical beings, see: What do miracles prove? This is precisely the area where revelation should be useful, and yet there is no way to distinguish its claims from empty claims. The evidences people use to demonstrate revelation are no better than those used by fortune tellers and psychics; if one statement that he/she makes turns out to be true, that validates the rest of what he/she says, and of course dubious, ambiguous and false statements are ignored.

Hence, claiming with certainty that a revelation is from God and preaching it to others as true is then either an act of self deception, or a decision to deceive others or both. The reliance on revelation is like consulting an astrologer. What could be a greater source of darkness than that?

Authority: Christians must rely on mediated revelation, that is, revelation that came through someone else usually long ago. How is one to know which of the millions of claimed revelations to trust? That is where authority comes in. Authority is ascribed to certain books and these are regarded as "true revelations". Authority allows all kinds of bold claims to be made about the revelation and how to interpret it. Authority cannot be questioned but must be obeyed. It provides a skeleton to religion on which all its practices and rituals and teachings hang. Preachers speak with authority, especially when quoting passages of the Bible. Followers seek refuge in authority as it gives them something certain to hold on to. But what is the relationship between authority and truth? None. Actually quite the opposite. Authority acts to keep truth hidden. By denying questioning, doubting and testing of alternate ways it is denying people the means for finding truth. Basing a statement of fact on authority is an empty sham; it means there is no basis for the statement. (It is very different from quoting an "authority" whereby one is really citing the evidence gathered by that person and not saying something is true simply because that person says it is true.) Where does authority come from? Its advocates claim it comes from God. But there is no evidence for this, only authoritative claims that this is so. Thus divine authority is circular. It is a means to make bold claims with no basis for them. Is it possible to find a greater source of darkness than this?

Faith: The final ingredient needed on top of revelation and authority is faith. Faith enables people to accept revelation and authority with certainty and without question. It gives people confidence and comfort in their beliefs. It works by sidestepping critical analysis of the evidence and instead directly accepts revelation and authority. But it is more than just believing something more strongly than warranted by the evidence; it is a state of mind in which one chooses to not to question or doubt the particular revelation or authority. It is the glue that holds religion together. And it is also the glue that shuts people’s eyes. It keeps people from inquiry and honestly testing the truth claims of revelation and authority. It is hard enough to critically analyze the revelation and authority one has grown up with or lived with, and it is near to impossible when one has faith in them. Faith surely equals if not surpasses revelation and authority as a source of darkness.

So Christianity is right that much of the world lies in darkness. However the sources are not what Christians claim they are. The darkness is not that people believe the wrong doctrines or worship false gods; these are outcomes of darkness. The darkness is the reliance on false means for obtaining truth, namely: Revelation, Authority and Faith. These hide rather than reveal truth. When Christianity converts followers from other religions it is replacing one form of darkness with another one.

I claim that there is much more light in the world than Christianity admits. The scientific method of inquiry is capable of lifting us out of darkness. It does this by building explanatory hypotheses, evaluating them based on the evidence, and obtaining various levels of certainty according to the available evidence. In addition philosophy can shine light onto the realm of morality, see: Is morality subjective or objective? Ethical questions can be addressed based on our knowledge of humankind, rather than on commandments given in God’s name. The tragedy is that when Christianity seeks to relegate the scientific method to the sidelines and claims that revelation, authority and faith ought to be the central focus of one’s life, it is replacing light with darkness.


  1. Just some thoughts on your essay:

    Revelation - there are people in the Bible who question, sometimes repeatedly, if a message really is from God. What the people do, in order to be sure, is to ask God to help them be sure. Gideon, one of Israel's judges, puts out a fleece several days in a row in order to be sure it was God speaking to him. What ultimately discerns whether or not a message from God isn't only that the message is true (or predictive in the case of prophecy), but that the message testifies to the character of God Himself. Hence the test for a false prophet is always to see if a prophet honors and glorifies God. Furthermore, God invites people to question Him and interact with Him "taste and see that the Lord is good," and Jesus' command that we love the Lord with all of our minds (along with souls and strength).

    Furthermore, if those who hear revelation can never be sure they aren't spontaneously generating said message, then the same problem applies to the nonbeliever whenever his or her senses are stimulated also. The problem you've raised is the Cartesian evil demon.

    Authority: Authority can be misused and abused, but no where does the Bible claim that authority is always to be questioned. Indeed, I think it is in the book of Jeremiah that God says "the prophets prophecy lies, the priests rule by their own authority and my people like it this way." Also in the book of Hosea God says that he hates and despises the Israelite rituals because they had become empty, meaningless rituals.

    This problem of authority is possible in any belief system. Atheistic, hardcore communistic brainwashing (as was sometimes done by the Viet Cong for example) does pretty much the same thing, saying: "this is what we believe - so must you also."

    Ultimately, in Christianity authority is a very powerful tool, but a tool all the same. After all, Christianity is not primarily about rules, nor even morality. As I once heard it said - Jesus did not come to make bad people good, but to make dead people live.

    Faith: there is a common misconception, and mis-definition, of faith being necessarily blind and unreasoning. I don't know how else to respond except to say that this simply isn't so. Nowhere does the Bible instruct people to jettison their minds or ability for critical thought. Paul himself engages in philosophy to argue for the Christian faith amongst the Greek philosophers. Faith is largely defined by trust, and before one trusts in anyone one ought to check to see if it is reasonable to put one's trust into anything. The book of Proverbs echoes this when it warns people to protect their hearts.

    Christian Faith in no way denies or destroys scientific inquiry. The godfathers of modern science were, more often than not, monks. Furthermore, it was Kai Nielson of all people who once said "reason alone will not take us to the moral position." Reason and philosophical argument do not change people's hearts - which is what Christ came to do and still works to do this day.

    An interesting article to be sure. You are obviously a very thoughtful and intelligent person. Thanks for the thoughts.

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I will try and address them here.

    First ones on Revelation
    (1) On Signs: Do answered prayers or signs imply that it is God working? First is is pretty hard to show convincingly a supernatural cause for an event. Maybe there are simpler physical explanations for it. Did the event really occur as recorded or is the account biased in favor or one interpretation? If the sign has natural causes, is their improbability sufficient to be evidence that the sign is from God? There are many problems with this including the fact that there are many, many very improbable events happening all the time that we don't interpret as signs from God. Why is the fleece a sign and not the others?

    (2) On Character of God. But let's say we could somehow show a supernatural origin of the sign or message. Does that mean it is from God? Well, what about from some other deity? It could be from any of the innumerable supernatural beings that could possibly exist, see: http://myspeculation.blogspot.com/2007/12/can-we-know-if-message-is-from-god.html. Does being compatible with the "character of God" make is more likely to be from God? But how do we know the "character of God"? From the Bible. But how do we know the Bible is from God? From the Bible. But that is circular. And actually it has more problems than that; the character of God is different in different parts of the Bible, see my first post on this blog: Is God Good?. Is killing and raping Canaanite women and children compatible with the character of God you believe in?

    (3) On our senses. I am not saying that we cannot believe or trust our senses. Rather that some observations are much more succeptible to error than others. For example, one might glance at the moon and see a face in it. Does that mean we cannot trust our eyesight? No, it just means than we need to carefully examine the evidence, perhaps use a telescope and judge if what we thought we saw is actually there. Similarly hearing voices in one's head or seeing visions are not reliable means of observation. We know that our mind can generate these on its own while we sleep, so if we hear a voice tell us something, that is not good evidence of a communication from a supernatural being, let alone from God.

    On Authority
    (4) We agree that there are problems with authority. My claim is that authority is not a basis for determining truth, and yet nevertheless Christianity uses it as this. We determine truth by observation, experimentation and reasoning. We can also learn truth from others so far as they use these. We do not deduce that something is true because someone or some book says it is (that is, on the basis of the person's or book's authority). Rather we ask on what basis that person claims it is true and is that basis (be it observation, experimentation or reasoning) a good reason to believe it is true, and how likely is it that he is telling the full truth. But unfortunately Christianity, and other religions and various dictators, short-circuit this procedure for truth finding and rely on authority as a basis for truth, which it is not. That is what I mean by darkness.

    On Faith
    (5) I'm not saying that people of faith cannot be good scientists. But just that faith enables us to be blind to major errors in our thinking. It prevents us from applying critical reasoning and honest truth seeking to the regions it dominates.

  3. I think you’re looking at it from a far too dogmatic perspective. Let’s start small and work from there. You’ve raised many good questions, but I don’t think all of them are particularly relevant to this thread. I’d be happy to discuss the other threads at length at a later date, however.

    Revelation & Character:

    When people who did not know God were approached by Him in the Hebrew Bible, they were curious if they had really received a message from someone. Moses even asked God how he would know that it was really God who sent him and God, to Moses’ bewilderment, says that after the fact, once all that God has asked Moses to do has been done and they worship Him at the mountain – then Moses will know God sent him. It seems counterintuitive to us. Moses asks for something a bit more solid before he does anything and God says it’ll come afterwards. Rather than dismiss this as God being irrational, let us look at it in more depth.

    It is this act of worship that Moses experiences the consummation of his experience with God. As I mentioned earlier, we get to know God like we do any other person – by meeting Him, experiencing Him, and coming to trust Him increasingly as one’s faith grows. We come to know God by God intervening in our lives, not just through the Bible. The Bible is, mostly, a narrative account of real people having real relationships with God, through hardships and blessings.

    As to the trustworthiness of the accounts themselves, I think that would be an entire discussion in and of itself. Let me just say that we trust people depending, largely, on their integrity. We measure integrity by what people are willing to admit about themselves and, in the Bible, we see the authors admitting many, many embarrassing things about themselves – things that one would not admit if one had other motives apart from truth.

    However, just like with people, we can say that a message is far more likely from God if it lines up with His character and what He has revealed in the past, through the Bible. We know someone’s character through experience and time. All relationships require time to get to know the other person and us getting to know God is no different. We also know the character of God as revealed to us through nature, and through ourselves. We all have a concept of morality, that some things are good and some things are bad, even if there is disagreement as to what those things are. Therefore, when we are confronted with God we can take what we know of goodness and evil and see the nature of His character proven throughout history.

    Concerning supernatural causes: you seem to be assuming that where there is a physical cause there is not a supernatural one. I would assert that there is not necessarily an either/or divide here, but rather that both can be occurring at the same time. Thus if I lose my wallet, it may be simply because my dog has dragged it off somewhere but it may also be God attempting to teach me something – probably about anger management when I start freaking out that I can’t find it! Merely because we don’t interpret something as being from God doesn’t mean that we are correct in our interpretations – I think that God is, indeed, communicating with us all the time. We have, like the Magician in C.S. Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew,” become unable to hear Alan (Christ) as anything meaningful. I’m also not sure what “others” you are referring to when you mention the fleece. I can say that Gideon put out the fleece several times and asked God for the dew to settle on it a certain way that did not happen naturally. After several occasions of this prayer being answered, Gideon found some assurance.

    I would argue, very strongly, that the character of God does not change at all. Indeed, the more I read and study the Bible the more I am convinced of the unity between the Old and New Testaments, and the unity of the identity of Jesus Christ with Yahweh. While very interesting, and very important, I think that gets us beyond what we are really discussing at this moment. We are discussing revelation, authority and faith after all – but as I said I’d be happy to discuss these other points as well. I just think if we keep adding things on the original thread here will be lost.


    If our eyesight can be tricked, but tested through the vehicle of a telescope – then our hearts and minds can be tested through the use of conscience and logic. Conscience to see if what we may feel, feels right – but also to see if what we feel is, indeed, right to feel (we have really lost the ability to do that, but I digress). Logic to see if what we have thought is coherent. Logic, reason, and experience tell us if what we have thought is coherent with reality as we know and experience it – these are fundamental tests for truth that you seem to agree with.

    Furthermore, the language you use suggests to me that you would lump in delusions with religious experiences and I do not think this is an accurate portrayal of either one.


    Some Christians have made more of authority than they ought to have. That is why Jacobus Arminius declared that the statement of faith made by the Belgium churches is an idol that ought to have been destroyed. To cite your own words, however, “we also learn truth from others so far as they use it,” and that is exactly what authority, in any field of study, is – looking back at great thinkers and taking their opinions and convictions into consideration. If any Christians relied solely on authority than they would never read their Bible at all. While there are, sadly, some people who do this – I think it is safe to say that such a faith is not a healthy one.

    Furthermore, as I said before, the problems posed by the abuse of authority are not restricted to Christianity, nor even religion, but to any and all organizations (including atheistic and secular ones) that espouse a philosophy. Thus the problem seems to lie with us, with humanity, for we bring it with us wherever we go. I suspect we may actually agree concerning authority to a significant degree. That is why I made mention of the verses in the Hebrew Bible where God decries the corrupt traditions of the Israelites – authority, when misused, is not pleasing to God. Neither is authority for authority’s sake.


    David Hume said that if any book contains anything apart from empirical evidence or matters-of-fact, that it should be burned because it was nothing but “sophistry and illusion.” His philosophy blinded us, by its logical outworking, from the existential side of life that ought not to be ignored. If I may say so, a healthy, Biblical faith is one that seeks understanding through critical reasoning applied to the scriptures, the world, and ourselves. Christ’s entire message was based upon the idea that there was a truth that needed to be critically considered and an open, brutal honesty applied to the nature of our own hearts.

  4. Brian,

    There are too many sub-threads in our discussion. Let me focus on two of them:

    1. The example of God's revelation to Moses. Is Moses really justified in claiming it was from God and not, let's say, a powerful demon? Okay, Moses obeyed the message, he worshiped the speaker that called himself Yaweh, he had the visions and he experienced something mystical (call it consumation). Now, why should he or we conclude that was with God? Couldn't a demon say or do all those things? Couldn't a demon say things that are compatible with whatever the person might believe about God?

    How can any of logic, reason, concience, experience tell us if that was God or a demon? (And I don't mean a stupid demon, but one that can lie, can impersonate others, can say good things to make Moses think he is good, is more intelligent and masterful over communication than humans, you name it.)

    2. On the trustworthiness of the Bible you say: We measure integrity by what people are willing to admit about themselves and, in the Bible, we see the authors admitting many, many embarrassing things about themselves – things that one would not admit if one had other motives apart from truth. I would agree that if the authors did admit embarassing things about themselves that would speak well for their honesty. But let me ask: which author admits what that is embarassing about himself?

    I presume you are not referring to the countless times the Israelites disobeyed God and he punished them as recounted in Judges, Chronicles, etc? I have heard preachers use this example of how the Bible must be honest because it admits faults with its holy people. But this is wrong. Who is the author/editor/moralizer, and who is his audience? Clearly the former is the priest and the latter the post-exilic Hebrews. (The books of Judges mentions the exile). The priest is not admiting fault with himself or his forebearers, but with the people themselves. His motivation is to beat into them the message that if they obey God (in the way the priest tells them) that God will bless them and deliver them from their enemies.

    So, are there any authors that admit emarassing things about themselves? It is difficult to identify OT authors, so I'm not sure you are going to have much luck there. What about the NT? The synoptic gospels don't tell us who their authors are (their names weren't given by their authors). So I don't know where you are going to find the embarassing stuff...?

    My reading of the New Testament is that it was written to spread a belief and make converts. As such it is highly partisan. It isn't about teaching us history or the truth about someone's life. Its authors were fighting a war and were willing to use everything at their disposal to win, including things like dubious fulfillments of prophecies (see Matthew).


  5. 1) The question of God's identity is, I think, easily understood. Let us say you and I meet each other and I tell you I am a successful stock broker. How would you know if I were speaking the truth and not merely lying? Many of your tests for me would be born out over time and experience in interacting with me. You know none of my friends and, therefore, have no external source of knowledge to check against me (let us assume that a google search for me reveals nothing - just as it seems to in real life!). How do you know that I am not a stock broker or, indeed, an evil demon (if you allow for the existence of spiritual entities)?

    Logic can be used to ascertain if I ever say something that seems to be contradictory about my supposed profession as a stock broker. Reason can be used to see if it is indeed possible for me to be a stock broker given what you know of me and what you later discover. Conscience could be used in this case to see if I act as a "good" stock broker should.

    We only learn about people as they reveal themselves to us - hence "revelation." And God's ultimate revelation is the incarnation in Jesus Christ. But, sticking with the Moses example, the same tests of truth we use in a relationship with a new person also apply, similarly, to God.

    Also, it is interesting to note that the Bible asserts that false prophets (and I think it is safe to say demons too) don't exalt God - rather they exalt themselves. A false prophet could be identified twofold: if he were ever wrong about a prophecy and if he (or she) did not give glory to God. Demons, being by definition opposed to God, would not foster deep belief in God. They might foster the appearance of such but never the genuine article.

    C.S. Lewis has a marvelous illustration of just this in his book "The Screwtape Letters."

    2) The priest not admitting fault with his forebearers?

    No offense, but the book of Numbers, the books of Nehemiah, Ezra, 1 and 2 Kings - just to name a few - all decry the idolatry of former generations and current generations. The entire point of the book of Numbers is to remind the Israelites of their unfaithfulness and how it delayed their entrance into the Promised Land. That is just in the Hebrew Bible.

    The New Testament shows Paul, James and his brother outrageous tempers (John asks if he can call down fire on a city). Peter is unfaithful and wishy-washy (Lord I will never abandon you! Jesus? I don't know the man!) They all run away, and when Jesus returns from rising from the dead even *then* Thomas doesn't believe him. People turned away at his hard teachings (John 6) and were ready to kill Jesus on several instances.

    You don't portray something you want to sell in such a light. You would doctor it up, spruce it up, make the apostles entirely faithful and have everyone believe what Christ taught. The Bible, however, is not interested in selling anything - it is interested in the hard truth.

    I agree that they were fighting a war - a spiritual one. We must not forget that Christ told Pilate "my kingdom is not of this world else my servants would fight," and He demonstrated this in Gethsemane when Peter attacked a temple guard with a sword - and Jesus healed the wound of one who would be his enemy.

  6. Brian,

    1) I think my argument stands as is. On a side note: does it make sense that a false prophet or demon couldn't exalt God? Why not if in so doing he could confuse people? I'm sure there are plenty of people who you would call false prophets that exalt the God of the Bible (let's say advocates of various cults).

    2) I don't think you read my argument. Sure, the Bible records plenty of embarassing things people did, **but things that the authors of the books did.** The OT books weren't written as humble Jews to the gentiles but rather by Jews for other Jews. The criticisms of the Jewish ancestors served as warnings by the writer/editor to the following generations to obey the message that he and other priests tell them. The criticisms don't say anything about humility or honesty of the Jewish people, but rather they are clear in their moralizing purposes.

    Perhaps you mean the authors would have been embarassed by some of the stories they kept. Likely this is true, and indeed it shows that the author/editors were earnest in collecting stories of the time and that they didn't change them too much. But that does not mean that they were honest in all their recordings. If you are interested in reading critical literature on the Bible you can you'll find pointers to plenty of evidence for not-so-honest story telling.

    In the NT again it is not the authors that are being self-critical. But certain Christians being critical of others. And indeed there were very deep divisions between early christians, some of which we see hinted at in various NT passages. I don't think that implies interest in the hard truth.


  7. 1) Well I would have to disagree with your assessment of your argument. We'll have to resort to something else apart from our opinions, I think, if we're going to continue to have a meaningful conversation here.

    Jesus answered a similar question when he was accused of casting out demons by the power of demons. He said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. I think what He was getting at is that it is a demon's purpose to lure people away from God, even by supporting outward piety, so long as the true conviction to serve and love God is broken. consider an example from the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The demon Screwtape has lost his hold on a person who becomes a Christian. Screwtape's uncle, Wormwood, asks him what happened and Screwtape noticed two things: firstly that he would go for a walk daily and just enjoy the walk. Secondly, he would read a book daily and just enjoy the book. Wormwood counters by saying that he should have inspired the man to read the book in order to quote it to someone else, and walked every day for exercise so that both activities would have become drudgery to him.

    The difference is, possibly, subtle but the ramifications are quite significant. When applied to one's relationship with God, a demon might support an outwardly faith that is, as Jesus described, a "white washed tomb" that is beautiful on the outside but holds only bones within.

    2) No, I think I understood your argument quite plainly but perhaps I need to elaborate. You seem to be saying that the books were not contemporaneous with the events described - this is a slightly different topic but relevant enough, I think, to include. Let me work backwards here.

    The authors of the synoptic gospels are not mentioned as such, but tradition tells us with a good degree of consensus who wrote them. Given that the details the gospels include warrant a first-person perspective, and that people are generally not pathological liars, and if we are willing to apply the same criteria for discerning historical reliability that we do to other historical texts, the New Testament is the comparative cream of the crop. Given this, and the details that I mentioned before, along with others (such as Paul gleefully hunting down and murdering Christians), the New Testament authors establish themselves with a good degree of credibility. After all, you don't want to tell people that one of the great people in your new faith was once a murderer. It would be much like applying for any job today and openly telling your employer, during the interview, that you committed murder. Given that I work with the criminal population I can safely say that murder and evil do not make anything associated with them attractive. Furthermore, given Christ's teachings about "he who is without sin casting the first stone," the beatitudes, the countless examples of men who are outwardly pious with those who are truly faithful - all of these call for a harsh and merciless self-examination before the holiness of God before whom no one can stand. Perhaps the best example is when Jesus calls upon people to remove the planks from their eyes before pointing out the speck in someone else's - this is rigorous self-examination we are talking about here and an essential part of the Christian faith that the early Christians very often died for. Furthermore, given that the NT admits to so many faults of the Apostles (them betraying Christ, John falling asleep, Paul killing them off, their fierce tempers and internal jockeying for positions of favoritism), that it condemns sin, and that Christ rebuked, reprimanded, and tried to change their hearts to remove these outward manifestations of being sinful - we can see that the NT is extremely critical of all people, including its authors.

    Concerning the Old Testament, I think a closer reading denies what you have asserted. Jonah hated the Ninevites and wanted them to die. Indeed, he becomes so angry with God that he curses at Him. Jeremiah was a man known as the weeping prophet because of how he wept for his people and yet could not convince them to turn from their path en masse. The whole reason that the priests would have taught from the Old Testament would have been to point out the defective nature of human character (as readily portrayed in giants of the Hebrew faith: David, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, etc.) and how they are not immune either - hence the over four hundred laws that God gave at Sinai. I think what you are also not realizing is that these things actually happened. During the Israelite wandering in the desert for forty years they were experiencing the outworking of their own faithlessness. Therefore, while written for posterity, they were not written *solely* for posterity. Moses was calling the people into repentance during their wanderings while it happened - the Israelites didn't just make it up after the fact.

    If the Jewish scriptures say nothing about humility and honesty, then why does the prophet Micah command Israel to "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God?" Or why does the book of Proverbs say that "An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips"?

    It may not mean that they were honest in all their recordings but it does not automatically mean that they were dishonest in any of them, either.

  8. Brian,

    I think we are talking past each other. I am not trying to say the Bible is not historically accurate in much of what it records. Whether it is or isn't is not relevant to my post. I'm sure it does record many true events including struggles and mistakes of its heros. And yes it does speak to the struggles of past and present humankind. I'll let its historicity be judged in whatever ways historians judge other historical works.

    No, my gripe is with what the Bible claims about the supernatural world. Being historically accurate, if it is, does not mean it is accurate in what it says about non-physical or supernatural things. There is no point quoting Jesus's statements about the powers of demons and a house divided not standing; how can any human, Jesus or other, know something like that? How can we know anything about the nonphysical or supernatural world? Almost by definition we cannot as it is non-measurable. Visions, inner-voices, "inner-knowledge", "God-experience", and so on are no better than astrology in knowing anything about something that cannot be measured. If Jesus was a human, he couldn't have any way of knowing about the goings on in the supernatural. No more than you or I. Sure, many people at the time thought they knew all about demons and demon possession (by ascribing all sorts of psychological illnesses to demons). But that was the mistaken view from 2000 years ago. Now that we know better there is no space for demons. What physical thing needs demons to explain it?

    The problem has no solution. We cannot measure the supernatural world. So on what basis can we make any claims about it? We have no basis. So any claims about it are pure speculation or self-deception.


  9. Daniel,

    I agree to a certain extent. Just because the Bible is accurate and honest does not necessitate that it speaks accurately and honestly about the supernatural world, so to speak. However, just because it speaks accurately and honestly about the physical world does not mean it is automatically *incorrect* about the spiritual.

    As Jesus often taught in His parables - if someone cannot be trusted with little, how can he be trusted with much? Or, the reverse, if someone can be trusted with little than he can also be trusted with much! Therefore, when someone is being accurate and honest then it would seem that one would continue to be such when discussing other things as well.

    I also agree that if Jesus were human then he wouldn't necessarily know anything about the supernatural that we don't. However, since the Bible asserts Jesus was human but not merely human, that He was and is the word of God made flesh, then it would be safe to say He knows more about the spiritual than you or I. Before we revert back to talking about ho can we know if something is from God I would merely refer back to discovering the nature of someone's character. God's ultimate expression of who He is came in the form of a person with whom we can have a relationship, not a set of doctrines, dogmas, rituals and moral codes.

    Before I get too side-tracked, however, let me return to responding to your comment. You said: " Sure, many people at the time thought they knew all about demons and demon possession (by ascribing all sorts of psychological illnesses to demons)." This isn't necessarily true, however, with how the people in the Bible understand physical ailments. Certainly not every ailment was caused by a demon, and in Jesus' own healings He distinguished between the two.

    You also said: "Now that we know better there is no space for demons." All we know more about is the nature of the physical world. We discussed before, albeit very briefly, how merely because something seems to have a physical cause does not negate a spiritual or nonphysical one. the two are not exclusive but rather overlap.

    Let me try to narrow down what I am talking about because it would be easy to get off-track. I see your point in two different but complimentary lights.

    Firstly, that if the supernatural were "above" or "beyond" the physical world then there seems to be a logical sense in claiming we can know nothing about it -unless- the supernatural somehow revealed (revelation) itself to us. The ultimate Christian revelation is in the Incarnation of God in Flesh, Jesus Christ.

    Secondly, I wonder how we could "measure" your claim for truth: that we can only know what we can measure. Does this test for truth pass its own test? If we can only measure what is physical and repeatably demosntrable reality, how can we measure truth which is, itself, immaterial? Is this not a self-defeating statement?

  10. Brian,

    You write: God's ultimate expression of who He is came in the form of a person with whom we can have a relationship, not a set of doctrines, dogmas, rituals and moral codes. That very statement is a key doctrine of the church. The doctrine of the incarnation is a very powerful one: it is the answer to 90 percent of the problems people have with Christianity. There is no need to even consider the problems carefully; one can just point to the incarnation and the problem goes away.

    For example, the question at hand: how can we know if a revelation is from God? The answer: Jesus told us. There is no need to even consider what are the real problems with the revelation.

    But let me probe the incarnation doctrine a bit. What does it imply about Jesus and what he knew? I think we would agree that he wasn't an alien being occupying a human body using its own separate mind/intelligence. No, the incarnation means Jesus was fully human. That is, his brain processed data from his senses in the same way that our brians process data from ours: light landed on the retina, data passed through the optic nerve and visual cortex, and associations formed there the same way they do in our brains. His memory worked the same way our memories work. So to be fully human implies having the same intrinsic capabilities as humans and also the same basic limitations including limited sensors and limited memory etc. As humans we cannot simply know something. Rather our knowledge is all derived from our experience and reason and to various degrees is error prone. Jesus was in the same fix. If he was human he couldn't simply know something was from God. He would have to deduce it in the same way we would. And so the incarnation, if it means Jesus was human, does not solve the problem of knowledge of the nonphysical or spiritual world.

    You write: since the Bible asserts Jesus was human but not merely human, that He was and is the word of God made flesh, then it would be safe to say He knows more about the spiritual than you or I. Actually that is not necessarily implied by his title "son of God" or "word made flesh" -- he could be these with only human knowledge. And as explained in my last paragraph I don't believe he does have special knowledge of the spiritual world. Perhaps Jesus had some deep insights, but that isn't knowledge. Knowledge of the nonphysical requires the ability to sense or measure the nonphysical world, which we don't have. And if we had that capability we woudn't call it nonphysical as we would start measuring it.

    I'm not being inconsistent when I say knowledge requires measurment. If data didn't pass from the physical world to our brains we could say nothing about it.

    So I'm back to the original post. We are stuck knowing nothing about the nonphysical world. And yet nevertheless we are confronted by the church which claims that we do based on its doctrines of revelation and authority. It wants us to swallow these mixed with faith.


  11. Daniel,

    Logic, numbers, reasoning, and knowledge are all nonphysical things and yet they exist and can, indeed, be measured and validated. Therefore the seeming recurring presupposition of yours, that nonphysical things are unknowable, seems somewhat faulty. When I see two apples, I am not encountering 2 in and of itself, I am encountering an instance of it. I don't want to wax overly Platonic here, but we can't point to something and say "this is two" without saying "this is two of something."

    Concerning the incarnation I think you misunderstand what I am saying. The doctrine is important, but much more important is the actual event itself, the Incarnation itself. Jesus did not come with a code of ethics, or a "way," but he came to give himself. There has never been a life lived like Jesus Christ, and people from all religions readily accept that. He not only teaches the truth but he is the truth and lived it out perfectly.

    Furthermore, your understanding of the doctrine itself seems somewhat flawed. The doctrine states that Jesus Christ is fully human but also fully God, that Jesus Christ is "of the same essence" as God the Father. Therefore, while Jesus walked and ate and digested and slept like humans did, He also was uncaused, absolute, and perfectly holy (to name a few characteristics) just like God the Father.

    Apart from which, "word made flesh," is most definitely a claim to be God taken in context of John 1, as are the titles "Son of God," which He was, and even "Son of Man" which refers back to the book of Daniel I believe. These titles must be understood in their Greek and Hebrew context and not merely addressed with the chronological snobbery of contemporary wisdom that is totally ignorant of cultural weight.

    I also don't see how the Incarnation is some sort of trump card that one can play to debunk anti-Christian rhetoric. The incarnation, being deeply mysterious, is an invitation to explore the character and personhood of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. The existential complexity, particularly of pain and suffering, resounds throughout the entirety of the Bible, with its thesis statement as the Gospel account.

    Really, if Jesus Christ provided insight into human nature as no one else ever did or has since, if He lived a unique life, if He lived perfectly, without contradiction and hypocrisy, and His life can be testified to quite readily by historical evidence, then this demands close scrutiny and engagement. The incarnation is not a "get out of jail free" but an invitation of rigorous examination of the world and our selves.

    Maybe I'm missing the point entirely but the only reason why the incarnation doesn't seem to solve the problem of "nonphysical knowledge" for you is that you presuppose a physicalist understanding of the universe. You therefore reinterpret the Incarnation and insist that Jesus must have been merely a human being despite any evidence to the contrary.

    It seems to me (and maybe I am biased because I am myself) that we are back to my response to your first post - your presupposition is challenged by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, even without a prior acceptance or belief in Him, as He demonstrated by entering into the lives of those who did not believe.

  12. Brian,

    On nonphysical things: logic isn't a thing that exists. It is more of a method or process. Sure we can define concepts and represent things as symbols and manipulate symbols or numbers, and define forms and properties. But none of these exist in the way that Christians would claim the spiritual (or non-physical) world exists.

    Let me get to my most basic claim: I want to believe things that are true and not believe things that are false. Some can be clearly determined but there are many (an infinite number) of things that are in the gray area: one can't know if they are true or false. Of all the possible things that could be only, a very small fraction are actually true or actually exist. So for me to believe something is true I need to have a reason, meaning evidence. And the evidence needs to really support the claim. Some people are experts at obfuscating this link: they point to something very strange or unusual and then say that is evidence for one of their beliefs. Examples of these false links/deductions include: a prayer was answered so God did it (perhaps some other creature did it), or he did a miracle so he must be speaking from God (perhaps other things beside God do miracles), or he predicted he would rise and then he rose from the dead so he must be the Son of God (if one believes in the spiritual world there may be many things that raise someone from the dead, or maybe he didn't really predict it or maybe he didn't really rise, and there are other possibilities). There are stories of plenty of other people rising from the dead and we don't think they were divine. What do we really know about Jesus' life? How do we know he never sinned? For that matter, how would the author of the book of Hebrews know he hadn't sinned (apart from the fact that his theory of atonement required this and so he would have wanted to believe it)? Omission of sins being recorded in a gospel is surely not evidence that he didn't sin (although might have been sufficient for the author of Hebrews). Do you think if he did something mean as a kid it would be recorded for us in one of the gospels? And what did Jesus do that was so exceptional? His teaching was very similar to rabbis around his time as recorded in the Talmud. Others have shown great compassion and sacrificed their lives for others. Others have done much good. Others have claimed various levels of divinity, and for that matter it is not clear he ever claimed divinity (being the son of god, anointed one etc did not imply divinity in his time). And if one believes the stories then others have done great miracles. What evidence is there that Jesus was uncaused, absolute, and perfectly holy? What Christians have done is created an idealized Jesus completely apart from the actual evidence.

    Here's a summary: Christians start with three things that they won't seriously question: revelation, authority and faith. Given these three things then all their doctrines and beliefs can be made to work out somewhat consistently. These used to be the foundation of my beliefs too. But if one is willing and able to step back and examine each of these carefully, one will find that they are a foundation built on thin air. One could equally well start with revelation, authority and faith in some other religion or deity. Why not go with Islam or one of the millions of other beliefs? It is true that one has to make assumptions, but the assumptions one needs are far more basic: like assuming we can think. Postulating higher-level beliefs as assumptions, rather than basing them on evidence is a recipe for self deception.