Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Bible, the Truth and the Flood

One of the chief ways by which the evangelical movement seeks to distinguish itself from the "world", other religions, and even other Christian movements is how it treats the Bible.  The Bible is central; it is the filter through which evangelicals understand God.  It is often proclaimed as the means by which we can know what is right and wrong.  This is enshrined in doctrines central to the faith of many churches and para-churches.  For example, here is a doctrinal statements from Wheaton College, one of the top evangelical colleges:
WE BELIEVE that ... the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say. (http://www.wheaton.edu/welcome/aboutus_mission.html)
And here is a part of the long doctrinal statement from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS):
We believe that the whole Bible in the originals is ... without error. (http://www.dts.edu/about/doctrinalstatement/)
These doctrinal statements by evangelical colleges are serious: the faculty members must regularly assent to them or else they are out the door.  Those groups or people that do not hold to this view of the Bible are viewed as "liberal" and fallen away from the truth.

But do those who seek to enlighten the world with the truth, truly, honestly, value the truth?  Let's say, hypothetically, that we found that some part of the Bible is clearly mistaken in what it says.  Wouldn't that pose a severe test to the faculty at Wheaton and DTS?  If they admitted that there was an error in the Bible they would lose their jobs. To keep their jobs they must deny that they see any errors even in the face of compelling evidence.  So if this hypothetical situation were to occur, that an error in the original manuscripts of the Bible could be indisputably established, then to continue to support the doctrines of Wheaton or DTS would be an act of doublethink (as described in Orwell's 1984); asserting that two contradictory things are true.

But is this thought experiment purely hypothetical, or are there really passages in the Bible that are clearly mistaken in what they say?  Most of the important teachings in the Bible are outside the range of testable statements.  For example there is no way to confirm or disprove God appearing to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  There is, however, an important story in the Bible about which we now have very strong scientific evidence: Noah's flood.  First a quick summary of the flood via a selection of verses from Genesis 6-8:
And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. ... For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. ... In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. ... The flood continued for forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. ... The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.  And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. ... And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; ... and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. ... Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ ... The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.
The Genesis flood story is an important part of the Biblical message and of Christian faith.  It shows God's judgement on the human race and all animals.  These are only saved from extinction by the righteousness of one individual: Noah, and his obedience to God in building an ark.  This theme of salvation through a righteousness-man-of-God is repeated numerous times in the Bible, from Abraham to Moses to Jesus.  The theme of judgement-on-wicked-people is also repeated numerous times in both Old and New testaments right through to its culmination in the Book of Revelation which is almost a repeat of the flood except with lots of fire and blood.  If the flood story is mistaken, that throws into question a whole lot of other claims in the Bible.

Now it is quite clear from the story that the flood is intended as a global flood that kills all of mankind and all land animals except for those God rescued by the Ark.  Not only is this stated explicitly numerous times, but the whole story depends on it.  If it were just a local flood in the Near East, then there is no need for an enormous Ark to save sheep and giraffes and cows, as these would have survived just fine in their populations in other parts of the world.  All one would need is a small boat to save Noah and his family.  Also a local flood would not have killed all those people in China and the Americas, removing Noah as the ancestor of all living humans -- a key requirement of God's-covenant-with-mankind portion of the story.  So there is no getting around that the author intended this to be a historical account of a global flood that killed all humans and animals except those on Noah's Ark.

Many Christians would dismiss the issue by placing the global flood in the myth category (along with Odysseus' Odyssey); that is, it didn't really happen but it can teach us important lessons.  That, however, is precisely what conservative evangelical doctrines seek to counter: according to them no part of the Bible is historical fiction.  They don't deny metaphor and poetry, but that is clearly not the case for the Flood as the Bible presents it as an essential part of our history and lineage.

So here is an important part of the Biblical account that makes very strong claims about the world, and these claims are actually testable given modern scientific knowledge.  We can look for evidence of a global flood occurring in the last few thousand years.  What do we find?  We find overwhelming evidence that no such flood occurred. The evidence is so strong that to believe in a global flood is like believing in a flat earth or that the sun orbits around a stationary earth.  Just one example that I find compelling is from ice cores.  These are layers of ice that are laid down annually in Greenland and Antarctica (just as tree rings accumulate annually) and extend back hundreds of thousands of years.  If there were a global flood it would have deposited a vast layer of sediment in these cores at some point in that time.  But there is no such layer.  Hence there cannot have been a global flood.  If you want to read a plethora of evidences pointing to the same thing, have a look here: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-noahs-ark.html

We face a contradiction.  We have a key Biblical account that is clearly mistaken in its central claims. We also have numerous doctrinal statements by a plethora of evangelical groups, colleges, churches and seminaries that deny that errors in the Bible are possible.  Moreover we have thousands or millions of Evangelical Christians who claim to represent the truth who at the same time strongly believe in and support these doctrinal statements that are clearly false.  How can this be?  What do the faculty at Wheaton say: do they deny the Bible as the "supreme and final authority in all that [it says]?" or do they deny the ice cores?  Could it be that 1984 has already arrived?

Friday, June 25, 2010

My Contradictory Beliefs about God

As I reflect on my beliefs, I notice a curious contradiction.  On one hand I feel that God must be good, loving and caring towards humans, and that he is certainly not cruel and vindictive.  On the other hand, I don't believe that God exists.  How can I have both of these beliefs at the same time?  How can I have any opinion on what God is like if I don't think he exists?   Perhaps examining these beliefs more carefully will reveal why.

My belief in the goodness of God comes from my childhood and youth. Presumably that is when many of my subconscious assumptions about the world formed.  It was a time filled with teaching about a good God that sacrificed his son for us.  I heard numerous stories and commentaries on this at home and at church.  Also I read many Christian novels, such as the Chronicles of Narnia, whose main point was to teach and illustrate the goodness of God and how we must have faith in this.  So I became imbued with this sense of God's goodness.  It is an emotional belief;  I simple feel that God is good.

My disbelief in God's existence came through a long and tortuous route.  This route was primarily intellectual; I sought to examine my beliefs and resolve contradictions and errors.  Some of it is described in my post on Losing my Faith.  Other aspects of this struggle are recorded in various posts of this blog, including the very first post, Is God Good?, in which my underlying belief in God's goodness is contradicted by what I find written in the Bible.  Here my intellect is in combat with my worldview.  In my mind I have decided that I will seek to believe only what is true, and I have discovered that some of my cherished beliefs have grave errors in them.  If I am to be honest with myself I cannot maintain beliefs that I have concluded are false.  And the chief belief that I have concluded is false is in the existence of God.  Hence I cannot believe in God's existence.

Despite my belief that God does not exist, I find him lurking in my subconscious.  Although I know what I ought to believe, like the Apostle Paul, I find my inner self at war with my mind.  My subconscious beliefs rise up and take me captive.  Who will set me free?  Well, not Jesus who set Paul free (Romans 7:21-25), but perhaps this blog?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Carrot-Stick Hypothesis for Why We Believe

Here is a curious observation: given the same evidence, people generate very different beliefs. This includes different political beliefs, different economic beliefs (like what is wrong with the economy) and different religious beliefs. Even those that share a religion, such as Christianity, diverge into all sorts of denominations with conflicting beliefs. And the divergence of beliefs is not only between people, but in the same person.  Thinking of myself: my beliefs have changed dramatically over the course of my life.  If it is not the evidence that has changed, then what drives this divergence in beliefs?


My hypothesis is that a carrot-stick combination drives our beliefs. On one hand we have a strong tendency to believe that which we find attractive. This includes those things that are familiar or that are respected by our peers or by those we admire.  These ideals are like carrots that attract us until we make them our own. Reality, on the other hand, is a stick that can hit us on the head when our beliefs diverge too much from it. So, while we might find it attractive to believe that we can walk on water, it does not take too long for reality to dissuade us from that belief. Our beliefs are pulled by carrots and hemmed in by sticks.  Ideally carrots would always pull us in directions compatible with reality, but clearly this is not the case as many ideals are opposed to reality. People can progress a long way following carrots that are contrary to reality, but if they are seeking truth they are liable to be corrected by a stick at some point.


Now our world is filled with carrots. Every family, every community, every society, every civilization has its own ideals, all coexisting and to some extent competing with each other. So perhaps it is not surprising that there is such a divergence of beliefs; we humans are capable of finding many different things attractive.  


Beliefs that grow and propagate widely have a number of properties. They are, or can be, attractive to a large number of people. They spread from person to person. The more they grow the more attractive they become. And finally, but quite importantly, they are not easily opposed or smacked down by reality. Belief in God is a prime example. We instinctively crave order and safety in the universe, and what can give greater order and safety than an all-knowing creator? The fact that others believe in God and find fulfillment in their belief is itself attractive, enabling this belief to propagate. Parental belief in God is easily absorbed by children. And since God is postulated to be invisible, he is (mostly) safe from the stick of reality. So we should not be surprised that theism has conquered much of this world. But every community has its own concerns and ideals that it finds attractive, and hence there are likely as many beliefs in what God is like as there are believing communities.


I can understand my own life using this carrot-stick model. Growing up in a Christian family and Christian community I absorbed their ideals and along the way was drawn to the same beliefs. The ideals spurred me on and deepened my involvement with the community and in evangelism which resulted in bigger and better carrots as my faith grew. So what brought it all to an end? You can read about it in this post: Losing My Faith. In effect it was reality smacking me on the head and my decision not to retreat from reality, but rather follow it. It is natural, when reality smacks us, to avoid it by rationalizing it away to enable us to keep our carrots. I certainly did not want to lose all I had acquired (my community and church and hopes) and certainly I had many times kept that stick at bay. But this time, after a long, extended struggle, the stick knocked me off one path onto another. Am I still lead by carrots? Undoubtedly so. But my path is now aligned better with reality.


To conclude, we like to think of ourselves as masters of our beliefs; able to discern truth from falsehood and superstition from science. But I postulate that humans are actually closer cousins to donkeys than rational agents. We herd together and our beliefs are primarily pulled by carrots. Sometimes, though, we hit ourselves against a stick and change course.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Is God's Creation Good?

Christians frequently point to the beauty and elegance of nature as a reflection of the goodness of the creator.  And indeed nature is wondrous in many ways.  But there is a problem: many of the key underlying characteristics that lead to survival and multiplication of posterity are not those that Christians would like to ascribe to God.  These include: deception, predation, sickness, disease, death, fear, pain, poison, starvation, ruthlessness, and so on.  These properties are not simply add-ons to nature, but are deeply embedded in its design and fabric.  Let me illustrate some of these:

Fear and pain.  One of the great evils in this world is to be tormented by fear and pain.  Yet fear and pain play a crucial role in nature, spurring animals to find food and avoid predators.  A gazelle living in fear of mountain lions and wolves will remain alert and has a far better chance of survival than one without this fear.  The fear of the pain of being ripped apart will drive it to flee a pursuer with the last drop of its strength.   Furthermore, when prey are scarce, pangs of hunger will drive a wolf to seek prey with all the strength it can summon.  Fear and pain are like a force of nature, propelling the life cycle onward.

Predation.  Much of the diversity and beauty of nature is a result of each animal being optimized for a niche both in what it eats and in the ways by which it escapes predators.  For instance, panther chameleons are slow-moving tree-climbers that are experts at creeping up on insects and then grabbing them with their tongues that are almost as long as their bodies.  Cheetahs' camouflage and litheness enables them to silently creep up on a herd of impalas and catch one in a high-speed chase.  The impala, on the other hand, with its large eyes seeing in almost all directions and keen ears is highly suited to escaping swift predators.  Without predators, many of the impala's tightly honed features would be superfluous.  If the cheetah ate grass, its features would be superfluous, if not harmful, and it would do much better in a form similar to an impala or a cow.  The key reason for diversity and variety in the animal kingdom is the enormous number of techniques animals have developed both for avoiding being preyed on and for preying on other animals.  The predator-prey relationship is a harsh but necessary component of the beauty of nature.

Death.  Death is an essential part of life for many creatures.  Consider flies.  An apple falls on the ground and a fly lays eggs on it.  The eggs hatch, become maggots and consume the apple.  Once the apple is gone, either the maggots die or they must escape.  Well their plan is to escape by becoming flies which look for more fruit in which to lay eggs.  Imagine flies never died; their numbers would keep increasing with each fruit that fell until the world was 3 feed deep with swarming flies.  But this applies not only to flies, consider caterpillars: they eventually become butterflies whose job is to mate and lay eggs.  Some butterflies have no mouth for eating so living forever is out of the question.  The incredibly elegant and complex reproductive and mating system for animals is based on the inevitability of death.  Without death, any species the reproduced would eventually cover every square inch of the earth's surface.

If nature sings the praises of its Creator, what is it telling us about him?  One must look not only at the love a mother shows her offspring, but also at the cuckoo that kills the other chicks in its nest and the parasitic wasp that lays eggs in a caterpillar that eventually devour the caterpillar alive.  What does it tell us about the Creator that animals (and humans) are designed to suffer fear and pain and to starve and die?  What does it tell us that the winners in the animal kingdom are typically the strongest, fittest, most fertile, most well-camouflaged, most deceitful and most ruthless?  God must value those qualities highly since he made them the criteria for success in his creation.

Now here is the answer that puts all these worries about God to rest.  These bad characteristics are simply a result of The Fall; when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and God cursed the creation.  Since then not only have women suffered pain in childbirth and men had to work by the sweat of their hands, but death and pain and all bad things we see entered creation.  So these bad things we see do not reflect God's plan or his original creation, rather they are just his punishment on earth for man's sin.

As a myth this might be a fine solution for taking God off the hook for designing all the cruel ways in which animals kill and devour each other.  But it fails when it claims to be historical or scientific.  It implies that before the fall that the world was good and these cruelties, including death, were absent.   Cheetahs could chase impalas to stay fit, but they better not sink their teeth into their necks.  For that matter, since impalas don't need to fear cheetahs, they could stop looking around them and grow fat eating grass.  It means that flies and caterpillars better not be multiplying.  Actually no animals should mate unless ways of populating other planets were devised.

There is another problem too: the fossil record clearly records the death of animals for hundreds of millions of years.  That is far longer than anyone would claim humans were around, and far before the fall.  And life and death back then was surely no pain-free picnic.  A fossil (right) that struck me, in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, has been kept in the same pose in which it was excavated showing the dinosaur's neck arched back in its death throes, perhaps as it is buried alive in burning ashes.  And no one can tell me animals didn't suffer pain when chomped in half by the enormous teeth of a TRex or belly slashed open by a deinonychus.    For that matter, what kind of loving, caring creator would bestow an enormous dagger on the foot of a deinonychus?  What was God thinking he would do with it?

It is clear that nature as a whole does not now, nor has in the past, embodied the loving, caring, self-sacrificial  ideals we would like to ascribe to God.  Rather, if it were an intelligent mind that devised the deceitful and brutal ways for animals to catch, kill and eat each other, that mind certainly lacks empathy and care for the downtrodden and weak.  And perhaps taking an intelligent mind out of the creation equation provides hope.  We don't have to accept that humans are doomed to be cruel or evil by nature.  Rather the intelligent minds are now, us!  We have an ability to reason and to empathize with those that suffer.  We do not have to model society after the survival of the fittest model.  Instead, perhaps dignity, freedom and compassion can replace eat-or-be-eaten.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Problem of Hell and Honesty

The doctrine of hell is certainly a key component of Christianity.  Being "saved" means, in large part, being rescued from eternal damnation.  What motivates many in doing evangelism is saving the "lost" peoples of the world from being being cast into the flames of hell.

But hell creates problems for Christians too.  Are good people who are not Christians going to hell?  What about the millions, if not billions, of people who have not even heard the gospel -- will God torment them for eternity in hell?  Would a good, loving God send someone to hell because he was born in a Muslim community where he never heard the gospel?  What about babies, children, mentally-handicapped that are unable to "accept Jesus into their hearts".  Are they doomed?

There are plenty of Christian answers to questions like these.  One goes like this: God's justice requires that he punish people for their sins, and the punishment for sin is hell.  The problem with this is that surely a just punishment must be in some way commensurate with the crime.  But a punishment lasting eternity, is a punishment far beyond anything we can conceive, and far beyond any sin that a two-year old, or five-year old, or 20-year old or even the worst person you can image, could commit.  Surely it is not justice that forces God to dole out eternal punishment.

Another answer is that Hell is simply the consequence of sin. It is not like justice but more like gravity; we are all pulled down.  Only God can rescue us and he has provided a way for us to escape via belief in and submission to Jesus.  One might then ask, why does God require people be privy to this special knowledge in order to be saved?  What is going to happen to all the people who have never heard or who are mentally unable to understand?  If one is consistent, then one must conclude that they get shipped off to hell when they die.  It also makes one question God's goodness if he is populating this world with millions of people who he knows are never going to hear the Gospel and so are doomed to burn in hell for eternity.

But probably the answer that is most popular among Evangelicals is we get what we choose.  That is the theme of C. S. Lewis's book "The Great Divorce". Those that seek God, what is good and what is true, get to be with him for eternity (including for example the pagan God-fearer).  On the other hand, those that run away from God and seek evil, are banished from his presence for eternity (i.e. hell).  It is a nice resolution in the sense that what can be more fair than getting what you truly want, and it addresses the problem of those who haven't heard the Gospel.  The problem with this argument is that a key assumption is invalid; namely that pursuing God is equivalent to pursuing what is good and true.  Let me make this personal.  I am dedicated to seeking what is true and what is good.  And through my searching, (as reflected by others posts on this blog), I have concluded that the God presented in the Bible and taught by Christians is not good.  Furthermore, weighing the evidence as objectively as I can, I have concluded that this God does not exist.  So, if I am to be honest in pursuing what is good and true, I must reject the God of the gospels.  But according to most Christian doctrines, that would send me to hell.  The only way I can think of getting around this (as Pascal might advise me), would be to believe something I have carefully concluded is not true.   But surely there is something wrong if escaping hell requires me to be dishonest.

Now that I have finished this post, it occurs to me that I have repeated some of the themes of an earlier post.  Perhaps what is bugging me even more than hell, which I no longer believe in due to the reasoning above, is this: Christians are imbued with a feeling (and plenty of teaching) that the true Christian is honest whereas even the thoughtful non-believer is either dishonest or deluded.  However, I believe that careful analysis will show that very often the opposite is true.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thoughts on Respect for the Bible

I grew up being taught that the way to respect the Bible is to read it, believe it and obey it. That is certainly the dominant view among modern evangelicals. But it is not the only view held by the church. Nor may it actually be the most respectful. In this post I will consider different ways in which the Bible is respected.

How to treat and respect the Bible has historically lead to many disputes. These disputes included which language to use: the originals (including Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), or translations into Greek, or Latin or old English or modern English or other languages. Also in dispute is which ancient texts to use and which books to include, and who should read it and interpret it. Does respect for the Holy Bible require that the church be the caretaker of it, and explain it to the masses? Some certainly believed so.

Nowadays we look back to the Reformers (including Luther and Zwingli) as those who freed the Bible from the chains of the church and used printing presses to make it available to the anyone who wished to read it and in their own language. We take this for granted now, but this was considered dangerous, if not heretical, by the church. And indeed it did turn out to be dangerous as it surely was a major factor in the splintering of the church first into Catholicism and Protestantism, and then no longer constrained by a single church hierarchy, the protestants fought over interpretations of the Bible and split into numerous sects and denominations.

Even though this freeing of the Bible from its caretaker, the church, and its dissemination to all lead to much conflict and strife, it was surely the appropriate, right and respectful way to treat the Bible. It was a maturation or coming-of-age event. Once it was freed, there is no putting it back in the hands of the church. To do so would be like sending an adult to live as a child again.

Nevertheless, once the Bible was let loose, the reformers and their followers got nervous. It was not long before doctrines were established to contain and protect the Bible. These doctrines included "Biblical authority", "Biblical Inspiration", "Plenary Inspiration", "Biblical Inerrancy", and such like. These doctrines elevate the Bible above other books but at the same time they constrain how one can read the Bible. One must read it literally, or follow the intent of the author. One cannot question the veracity of its claims. So, while the Bible cannot return to being a child in the care of the church, neither could it be treated as an adult. Rather it was to be constrained like a teenager with strict rules governing it and its readers.

But if the Bible is a great book, which surely it is, it deserves to be treated and respected as an adult. How should we do this? Robert Price, in the introduction to his excellent book "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man," argues that the historical-critical study of the Bible is the new reformation. This approach starts with the Bible as an historical book, and seeks to discover how the Bible came to be, what factors influenced it, shaped it, who wrote portions and when, how reliable are the stories, and what can we know or surmise about the events it describes. The Bible is not placed on a pedestal. No questions are off-limits. It is not assumed a priori that the claims of the various authors or editors are true or false. Rather discovering this is one of its goals.

Historical-critical methods respect the Bible by treating it as an historical document and freeing it from dogmas and doctrines. What the text says is not sacrosanct. Rather the text is a window into the ancient world. It contains history and it contains propaganda. It also contains poetry, myths and conflicting stories that have been meshed together by later redactors. Through careful historical analysis, and by not imposing doctrines such as inerrancy, innumerable treasures of can be discovered in the Bible. For example, Richard Friedman's tracing the development and redaction of first five books of the Bible in his book "Who Wrote the Bible" is a fascinating account of religious history. Using critical analysis of the texts, rather than simply citing church tradition or special revelation, he reveals clues in the text that illuminate the authors and redactors of these books and reveals their goals and motivations.

There are various possible objections to this proposal. The first that comes to mind is this: "Doesn't the Bible claim to be inspired by God and so shouldn't one respect that claim?" The problem with this justification for inspiration is that it is circular. Only if one first assumes the Bible is fully true and inspired by God would one accept such a statement at face value. Here is a classic case of dogma driving the reading of the Bible. Another objection might be that the historical-critical method kills faith. I don't know if this is true or not as careful study certainly makes one more careful about what one believes, but this objection is irrelevant. It is not the role of truth to be constrained to fit our faith, but the reverse.

So, to conclude, the Bible is not a child that needs to be kept hidden away from general view. Nor is it an adolescent that must be constrained by religious dogmas. Rather, to respect it we must treat it for what it is: a complex historical document written and edited by many authors over hundreds of years. On a pedestal it becomes a god to obey, but under historical analysis it is a record of religious development and a window into mankind's search for meaning.