63. If God can write on a wall, why can’t he write his own Bible?

Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote.
— Daniel 5:5

011bdf05385d9482b538b64455895c8dAccording to Daniel chapter 5, God wrote the words “mene, mene, tekel, parsin” on King Belshazzar’s palace wall. The prophet Daniel was (naturally) the only one who could translate the message, but the translation interests me far less than the fact that God could write!

What I mean is, there were obviously no laws or restrictions preventing God from physically writing his own messages, in fact, this wasn’t even the first time God had written something down.

The Lord said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.”
— Exodus 34:1

But if writing is not against the rules, then why didn’t God author his own book? Just give that floating hand a pen and let him go to work!

Imagine all the time the Jews would’ve saved by not having to second-guess which prophets were actually speaking for God! They wouldn’t even need to test the words of these prophets against their prophecies, since the messages were dictated by God himself (assuming they saw him write it). They’d just be like, “Hey, God wrote it, and therefore we know it’s true! If you don’t like it, talk to the hand!”

Writing on the wallAnd if God wanted, he could’ve made his hand appear in every nation, delivering his word in every language.

And even today, God’s hand could appear in churches every Sunday, delivering new messages to churches across the globe.

I’m sure if we tried, we could come up with some legitimate-sounding reasons for why God prefers to use ghost writers (holy ghost writers?) to deliver his messages, rather than writing them personally. But no matter the excuse, the problem that always arises is that so many men claim to speak for God (or other deities): from the prophets of Baal, to the prophet of Ahura Mazda (Zoroaster), to the prophet Mohammad, to the Pope, to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, to Pat Robertson and Benny Hinn, to many modern UFO/Alien prophets.

With so many claiming to speak for deities, it leads to a lot of confusion. Many of these men must be wrong, yet billions have followed them because these followers were unable to distinguish between real prophets (assuming they exist) and fake ones. Did God not anticipate this problem?

Consider the new book God Consciousness. According to its publisher, it was written by none other than God himself! While God didn’t physically write the book, it’s said he did telepathically dictate the book word-for-word to Robert William Farmilo. Why isn’t every Christian clamoring to get a copy of God’s latest book? Because prophets are a dime a dozen. When everyone speaks for God, no one does (i.e. no one takes these claims too seriously).

Anyway, if a message were to come from a real god, it would be nice if they actually delivered it personally, rather than sending one of their eccentric (and seemingly self-appointed) representatives. Doing so would help to eliminate a lot of confusion.

So it’s unfortunate that the “real” God should choose to use the same basic delivery method as all the false gods, especially when he’s perfectly capable of writing for himself.

Conclusion

We know that people will arise who claim to speak for gods, and we know that many of them must be mistaken. We also know that false gods cannot speak for themselves, because they do not exist, and so it’s reasonable to assume that ideas about who these gods are and what they want are borne from the minds of ordinary men.

In light of these observations, is it really far-fetched to assume that the same thing could’ve happened with the God of the Bible? Does it really make sense that God would want to use the same delivery method as false gods? Or does God use the same delivery method for the same reason? Because he too is imaginary?

“But wait!” says the believer in my head, “Didn’t God go the extra mile to distinguish his messages from false gods? Through signs like miracles, prophecies, and the person of Jesus?” While I don’t want to detract from the original question, yes, this is what is claimed. I will endeavor to explore these other proofs, but this still doesn’t explain why God didn’t just write his own book in the first place, in addition to doing these other things.

Posted in God's Behavior, Logic and Reason, Old Testament, Prophecy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

62. Why aren’t vertebrates found with invertebrates in Cambrian fossil layers?

And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
— Genesis 1:20-23

According to the Bible (and creationists), all life on earth was created at the beginning of creation. Since then, many species have gone extinct, and a few have changed in minor ways, but all have remained of their same “kind.”

Evolutionists take a decidedly different view, where all life begins with single-celled organisms, and slowly evolves into more and more complex life over hundreds of millions of years.

With such widely opposing views, one would think the fossil evidence could only point in one direction, but both sides seem to use the same evidence to support their own conclusions.

One such piece of evidence comes from the (so-called) Cambrian fossil layers.

Creationists point to the “Cambrian explosion” as evidence for spontaneous creation. The Cambrian explosion represents a time when many forms of relatively complex multi-cellular life seem to suddenly burst onto the scene. This layer was preceded mostly by single-celled life, and less complex colonies of cells.

Scientists see the Cambrian explosion as a time when emerging evolutionary forces (e.g. predation and sexual reproduction) and unique opportunities (e.g. every environmental niche is unoccupied) helped to spark an explosion of diverse life over the course of “only” 20-25 million years (starting around 542 million years ago).

And while the Cambrian explosion is certainly a fascinating event, it doesn’t begin to explain one of the biggest mysteries of the Cambrian fossil layers.

The Burgess Shale

One of the most famous Cambrian fossil sites is the Burgess Shale. Located in the mountains of British Columbia, scientists claim this site represents a snapshot of late Cambrian life from about 505 million years ago (give or take a few million years).

Creationist claim the site represents a snapshot of Noah’s flood, from about 4,0004,300 years ago (give or take a few weeks).

The sea creatures in the Burgess Shale were buried in turbulent sediments of the great Flood.
— Proud progress or cosmic casino?, Carl Wieland, M.B., B.S.

God’s Word contains His own eyewitness account of the origin of all kinds of animals in Genesis chapter 1. He created all kinds of animals on the 5th and 6th days of Creation week about 6,000 years ago. They have continued to vary and reproduce only within their created kinds as we would expect on the basis of biblical history. Biblical history also tells of the global Flood. Rapid burial of animals in water borne sediment during the violence of the global Flood explains the excellent preservation seen in deeper fossil layers like the Burgess Shale… buried… around 4,300 years ago during the Flood.
— Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, Thirty Million Years Didn’t Really Change China’s Jurassic Park, March 8, 2014

Since its discovery, the Burgess Shale has given up over a quarter-million fossils, representing over 150 different species. But strangely, out of all of those fossils, not one modern vertebrate has ever emerged — not one single modern fish, reptile, mammal, or bird.

If all life was created at the same time, shouldn’t we find both invertebrates and vertebrates in the same layers? Was this just an isolated incident?

The Chengjiang Maotianshan Shales

On the other side of the world, at the Chengjiang Maotianshan Shales in the Yunning Province of China, around 185 different species of Cambrian soft-bodied fossils have been unearthed. These fossils are believed to have come from an earlier time in the Cambrian, but just as in British Columbia, there are no signs of truly modern fish or vertebrates.

And as it turns out, the same is true for all Cambrian fossil sites around the world.

Graphic showing locations of Burgess Shale-type deposits around the world

According to evolutionists, modern vertebrates don’t make an appearance because they wouldn’t exist for another 65 million years. But Creationists disagree, and are tasked with having to explain the mysterious absence of all modern vertebrates.

Few creationists even acknowledge this problem, but for those that do, their explanations fall into one of these three categories.

1. “Modern fish and vertebrates have been discovered in these ‘Cambrian’ deposits!”

Some creationists claim that the lack of vertebrates is no longer an issue, since vertebrates have been discovered at Cambrian sites. While it’s true that several vertebrates have been discovered (namely Pikaia, Haikouichthys, Myllokunmingia, and Metaspriggina), the evidence is greatly exaggerated, as these tiny creatures are a far cry from modern vertebrates.

While each of these “fish” had a basic notochord, they lacked the bony vertebrae column we would associate with most modern fish.

While Metaspriggina didn’t have any hard bones in its skeleton, it did grow a rod of cartilage from head to tail, called a notochord, to keep its body stiff. Human embryos develop a notochord, too, but it later turns into the disks of cartilage between the vertebrae in our spine.
— Carl Zimmer, New York Times, A Long-Ago Ancestor: A Little Fish, With Jaws to Come, June 11, 2014

When the creationist talks about fish fossils, we tend to imagine something like this:

But in reality, the “fish” looked more like this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

While these creatures may have been on their way to becoming fish, it’s deceptive to group them with modern vertebrates. Not only do they lack bony spines, they also lack jaws, and many of the fins seen on modern fish.

Bony fish (osteichthyes) are actually the most plentiful of all vertebrates, having around 28,000 species, so it’s odd that not one should make its way into any of the Cambrian fossil sites. Finding a marine reptile or mammal would be even more spectacular, since these animals are said to have evolved much later.

The major animal body plans that appeared in the Cambrian Explosion did not include the appearance of modern animal groups such as: starfish, crabs, insects, fish, lizards, birds and mammals. These animal groups all appeared at various times much later in the fossil record. The forms that appeared in the Cambrian Explosion were more primitive than these later groups, and many of them were soft-bodied organisms. However, they did include the basic features that define the major branches of the tree of life to which later life forms belong.
— Does the Cambrian Explosion pose a challenge to evolution?, BioLogos.com

2. “All fossils were buried around the same time, but the invertebrates were buried first.”

If the world was once flooded over the course of 40 days, we might expect to find all animals buried in a single layer of sediment.

NoahWe should be able to dig in various locations around the world, and find a singular “flood layer,” which would contain the fossils of dogs, cats, dinosaurs, giraffes, kangaroos, moose, deer, cows, people, primates, humans, unicorns, fish — all animals — all mixed together. And up until a couple hundred years ago, this is exactly what Christians expected to find.

But instead of finding one layer containing all known animals, scientists discovered hundreds of layers, each with varying types of animals (like our Cambrian layers, which only contain invertebrates).

Until recently, creationists simply denied that these layers represented any sort of evolutionary geologic column.

The fossil column (or similar figure) is presented without question as if it were true—as if it were real data.
— John D. Morris, Ph.D. 2003. Don’t the Fossils Prove Evolution?Acts & Facts. 32 (4).

But more recent creationists have succumb to the evidence, and they discount the denials of their predecessors.

To the contrary, we can walk across various regions of the earth and observe that the rock layers and the fossils contained therein generally match what is depicted in the widely accepted geologic column diagrams. … These rock layers are observable data, so the diagram is not some figment of evolutionary bias based on “the fossil content of their rocks.”
— Dr. Andrew Snelling, Order in the Fossil Record, Nov. 23, 2009

While some creationists are finally agreeing with scientists about the geologic column, they still insist that most fossil layers were laid down during Noah’s flood. But if that’s true, why are there no modern vertebrates found in the Cambrian layers?

According to creationists, it’s not because the fossil layers represent various stages of evolution, it’s because different types of animals were buried at different times during a single flood.

The fossils simply record the order in which plants and animals were buried about 4,500 years ago during the one-year Flood described in Genesis chapters 6–8.
— Tas Walker, Slow fish in China, Creation 22(3):38–39, June 2000

According to Dr. Snelling, these fossils were buried in the order of single-celled organisms, then marine invertebrates, then fish, amphibians, reptiles, land vertebrates, dinosaurs, and finally mammals. (I can only imagine what an inconvenient truth this is, for the creationist to have to admit that the flood just happened to bury these animals in the exact same order that evolutionists claim evolution occurred!)

Dr. Snelling claims that the single-celled organisms were probably fossilized first, prior to the flood, since they’re small and easily buried. Once the flood waters began to rise, the invertebrates became the first flood victims.

Interestingly, the flood’s turbulent water-borne sediments were just bad enough to capture invertebrates, but not so bad as to impede the escape of all modern vertebrates. Oddly enough, even large invertebrates were trapped by the sediments, while tiny boned fish were able to escape. Stranger still, even all the dead vertebrates that perished prior to the flood somehow managed to escape. (Whale bones, for example, can take up to a decade to decompose on the sea floor.)

Next came the fish, which is a bit odd. Killing fish by adding water is like trying to kill a man by giving him more land. I have to assume these fish were buried in thick sediment, because if they simply died from a change in salinity, they would’ve likely floated to the surface, and would’ve come to rest on top of all the other dead animals. Once again, strangely, the sediments were just bad enough to capture these fish, but not so bad as to impede the escape of all modern marine reptiles and mammals.

Next were the land plants, amphibians, and lizards. These weren’t fast enough to keep up with the larger vertebrates that were now heading for the hills, or smart enough to run for the hills like all the mammals and dinosaurs.

As the waters continued to rise, they eventually covered the larger land vertebrates.

A few days later, all the dinosaurs had run out of energy, and cried out to the mammals, “F**k it, save yourselves!”

All the mammals (dogs, puppies, cats, kittens, deer, fawn, etc.), regardless of their size, managed to make it to higher elevations, before they too were buried in sediment.

This flood hypothesis raises many questions. Why were the animals sorted by their various classes, instead of by their size and speed? Why are there hundreds of rock layers instead of just one? Why didn’t velociraptors, which had an estimated running speed of 40 mph, make it to the higher elevations? What happened to the thousands of different types of flying pterosaurs? Wouldn’t they have all made it to higher ground? Shouldn’t we find their bones in the top layer of animals, along with fish and birds (which would’ve floated)?

While evolution may take millions of years, the flood only took one, so I don’t see why we can’t prove the creationist hypothesis through experimentation. For example, imagine if we were to place a variety of animals in a large, walled-off, graded area, and then simulated the flood (sorry PETA, it’s for science). What would be the result? When we drained the water a year later, would we find these animals neatly separated by distinct layers like in the geologic column? Or would they settle into a single mixed layer? What if we simulated the turbulent sedimentary deposits suggested by creationists? Could we recreate what we see in the fossil layers? Could we first trap all the invertebrates without killing any fish? Would the animals be sorted by class in each layer? Or would there be a mix of whatever animals just happened to be in each area at the time of each sedimentary incident?

I can’t imagine any experiment ever adequately recreating the kind of “ordered chaos” theorized by creationists, but if this kind of order occurred naturally all over the world, then it should be easy to prove.

3. “All fish micro-evolved from an earlier kind of fish.”

A small number of creationists admit that the Cambrian deposits do not contain modern vertebrates, and that the fossil layers could not have been laid down by a single flood. Recognizing this, some have suggested that all fish may have evolved from an earlier fish kind, like those early fish found in the Cambrian deposits.

This is similar to the creationist argument for dogs. Some creationists claim that only one kind of dog boarded the ark (to conserve space), and that all dog breeds have micro-evolved from this pair over the last 4,000 years. Likewise, God may have only created fish “kind,” and those fish micro-evolved into all the fish we have today.

It’s ironic that a group that denies the power of evolution should place the biggest demands upon it, while still denying macro-evolution. As long as the kind never changes, the creationist doesn’t seem to care how much rapid micro-evolution is required.

Many creationists will accept fish as one kind totally. Henry Morris, for example, once suggested that all fish, ALL FISH, could have microevolved from salmon in less than 500 years. Anyone who can swallow batfish, sharks, rays, guppies, flounder, and piranha all being one kind, but finding evolution between chimps and humans impossible is in serious denial.
— Mike Dunford, Microevolution, Macroevolution, and our Species, July 3, 2007

Indeed. If micro-evolution can account for boneless, jawless fish evolving into fish with bones, jaws, lungs, and even wings, why can’t micro-evolution account for a apes developing a larger brain and upright posture?

Conclusion

So we have Genesis telling us one story, and the Cambrian fossil record telling us another. While the complete lack of modern vertebrates in Cambrian fossil layers should present a serious problem for creationists, they refuse to admit it. Why?

Although there is much discussion among creationists about the details relating the Flood and creation to the geologic column, all agree that the majority of the fossil-bearing rock record is a product of the Genesis Flood and that any model must first be aligned with Scripture.
— AnswersInGenesis.org, Roger Patterson, Evolution Exposed: Earth Science, Chapter 6, Geologic Column, January 20, 2011 

This statement is indicative of the larger problem: the creationist doesn’t need science to help him find truth, because he already believes he has the truth. If the evidence doesn’t point to creationism, then the evidence needs to be reinterpreted. But is this a reliable way of thinking? And has the creationist earned the right to dismiss any and all ideas that don’t align with scripture?

While the creationist may feel quite strongly about his convictions, there’s no shortage of conviction in other religions, cults, or psychiatric hospitals. Convictions are not as reliable as evidence, because they can lead us to so many different conclusions.

For example, if we allowed every religion to interpret historical evidence to support their own conclusions, the evidence would point in a thousand different directions! If we want to get to the truth, our best hope is to let the evidence speak for itself as much as possible.

Following the evidence is a bit like following a bloodhound: if we let it lead the way, it should guide us — and everyone else — to the same conclusion; but if we lead it, we will only end up wherever we want to go.

Religious convictions lead us to many conclusions, evidence (hopefully) only leads us to one. If that evidence just happens to lead to a religious conclusion, great! But it should do so on its own, we should not “drag the bloodhound” to that destination and proclaim, “The evidence leads here!”

Creationists will often admit that they have a strong Biblical bias, and will try to rationalize it by saying, “Evolutionists are also biased by evolutionary teachings!” To some extent, this is true, everyone is biased. The question is, is the biased individual willing to change his mind with new evidence? And what evidence is his bias based upon?

Keep in mind that most early scientists started out as creationists, but new discoveries forced them to question their earlier assumptions.

Maybe if things were different — if scientists had discovered an obvious global flood layer; or if we found that human DNA was completely different from the animals; or if stars were only visible up to 6,000 light years away — then there would’ve been little reason to question the Bible, but that’s not what was discovered.

As we’ve seen previously, Christians have a history of reading their own ideas into the Bible, instead of letting the text speak for itself. Likewise, they also seem to be reading ideas into the fossil record, instead of letting it speak for itself.

In getting back to the question, where does this evidence lead us? It seems to be saying that there was a time when invertebrates existed, but vertebrates did not. This is inconsistent with the Genesis account; God has made a claim, but the evidence here does not substantiate that claim.

But how do we know we have followed the evidence correctly? If all human knowledge were suddenly lost, I believe that future generations could use the same evidence to draw the same conclusions. If they discovered the same fossils, the same geologic column, the same homologies, and the same genes, they would likely conclude that all living things appear related. It’s almost unthinkable that they would look at the evidence and conclude that all life was created simultaneously, about six to ten thousand years ago, before being wiped out by a single cataclysmic global flood, except for a handful of animals, which inexplicably survived in the Middle East, and radiated out from there. The former conclusion comes from following the evidence, and the latter from leading it.

Posted in Intelligent Design?, Logic and Reason | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

61. Are we allowed to test God?

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We all know we’re not supposed to test God, but why not? Without evidence, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to tell the difference between a real god and a fake one.

Most Christians contend that God does not allow for testing because he desires faith, and he prefers to reveal himself only to the faithful.

Skeptics contend that the real reason we’re forbidden to test God is because God would fail the test. Moreover, faith spawns confirmation bias; instead of letting the evidence drive the conclusion, we draw a conclusion, and then seek out evidence to support it. Faith can also lead us to interpret random coincidences as signs from God.

But what does the Bible really say about testing God, and how has testing been dealt with in the past? Let’s take a quick look at the Biblical history of testing God.

Enter Jesus

“Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
— John 4:48

While Jesus may have preferred that people just accept him on faith, it’s said that he performed many signs and wonders to prove that he was the Messiah. These signs were necessary to foster belief (if they were not necessary in some way, Jesus would not have performed them).

Interestingly, when Jesus was specifically asked for a sign, he rebuked those who asked, saying, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign!” (Matt. 12:39).

So while signs were necessary, Jesus preferred to do them for people who already had faith. (This, to me, seems like preaching to the choir. Like Jesus said, it is the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy (Mark 2:17). It is the nonbeliever who needs a sign, not the believer.)

When Jesus himself was tempted by Satan, Jesus utters the now famous line, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test'” (Luke 4:12). This was in reference to Deuteronomy 6:16, which says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.” And this verse, in turn, was a reference to a time when the Israelites were wondering around the desert, and asked God for water.

Quote1By asking for water, the Israelites were testing God to see if he would provide for them, but if there was ever a group that didn’t need another sign, it was this one. These men had witnessed the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, manna falling from heaven, and God leading them day and night by smoke and fire. Strangely, even after all they had witnessed, they were still asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7).

Regardless of why they remained unconvinced, God felt they were pressing their luck by asking for another sign. But in telling them to not ask for a sign, was God placing a permanent ban on all testing?

Enter Gideon

The miracles that took place in Egypt and in the desert are cited ad nauseam throughout the Old Testament as a reason to believe. But to future generations of Israelites, these stories were nothing but hearsay. If the Jews who had witnessed these events firsthand still questioned whether or not God was with them, how much hope was there for future generations who did not witness these events?

It’s no surprise that when future generations began running into trouble, they too questioned if God was with them.

Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them or their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it.
— Judges 6:3-7

When an angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, Gideon expresses why the Jews had lost faith:

 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
— Judges 6:13

God blamed their misfortune on their lack of faith (and the worship of Baal), but notice that Gideon says he is unable to believe because he and his people had not witnessed miracles from God. Sure, they had all heard the stories, but they had not seen these things for themselves.

gideon-tests-godSo Gideon puts God on trial, and tests him several times. God first consumes an offering that Gideon places upon a rock (Judges 6:17-22); later, God fills some fleece with dew while leaving the surrounding area dry (Judges 6:36-38), and then does the opposite (Judges 6:39-40).

But God never rebukes Gideon for testing him; God never says, “I said no testing, damn it!” God gives Gideon all the evidence he needs to believe.

Enter Elijah

Fast forward a few centuries, and the Israelites were back to worshiping Baal. And, once again, God seemed to recognize that the people needed another sign, so they could distinguish between a real god and a fake (or inferior) one.

God prompts Elijah to summon people from all over Israel to witness a test between God and Baal (1 Kings 18:19). Elijah reasons with the people saying, “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). God wasn’t trying to run from a fight, he was saying, “Come, let us put this matter to a test!”

God had no objection to being tested against another god, in fact, it was his idea!

God then rains fire upon his sacrifice, while Baal does nothing (perhaps Baal felt his people were pressing their luck, after all they had already seen, and that they should now believe on faith alone). This demonstration was great for those who witnessed it (except for the priests of Baal, of course), but the proof of this miracle did not last, and to the next generation, it was just more hearsay.

Enter Testing with Tithes

A few centuries later, the Israelites were still questioning the benefits of serving God.

“You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty?'”
— Malachi 3:14

And, once again, God volunteers another test to confirm that serving him does make a difference:

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty.
— Malachi 3:10

On multiple occasions, God recognizes that evidence is the cure for doubt, and he would often show signs, or volunteer to show signs, to confirm his messages. But nowhere is the need for testing more apparent than when God is forced to deal with belief in idols.

Enter the idols

“Set forth your arguments,” says Jacob’s King. “Tell us, you idols, what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear. But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless; whoever chooses you is detestable.”
— Isaiah 41:21-24

In this passage, competition from other gods forces God to deal with the inherent problem of faith: no evidence. And how does God recommend dealing with this problem? Surprisingly, God advocates for a healthy dose of skepticism! God demands evidence!

Baal_Ugarit_Louvre_AO17330In an ironic twist, God now plays the role of the atheist. God does not believe in these gods, and recommends that you don’t either, not unless they can provide some pretty extraordinary evidence. God says, “If idols cannot present respectable evidence, then they are not to be believed. Let these gods predict the future, or tell us about the past, or do something amazing that fills us with fear and awe, that we may know they are real. If they can not do these things, then they are worthless, and those who believe in them are idiots.”

But when it comes to testing God, a double standard emerges.

When these idols failed to deliver (as they surely did), we do not hear them offering the kinds of excuses we hear coming from God. The idols do not say, “You should not test the idols!” (see Luke 4:12), or “A wicked and adulterous generation asks the idols for a sign!” (see Matt. 12:38-39), or “When you seek the idols with all your heart, only then will you find them” (see Jeremiah 29:13), or “If we idols show you a sign, it will destroy freewill!” and so on. 

When it comes to belief in other gods, God demands evidence before faith, but when it comes to belief in God, God demands faith before evidence.

It seems only fair that we place the same demands on God that he has placed on the idols, and demand evidence before faith, and so this is my response to this passage:

God of Abraham, present your case! Set forth your arguments! Tell us, what is going to happen, and this time, be specific! Tell us exactly when an extremely unlikely event is going to happen, or give us unambiguous information about your creation that we have yet to discover, so that we may know that you are God.

I have examined your prophecies and (thus far) I have found them to be little more than subjective vagaries that are heavily reinterpreted in hindsight; such tricks have been faked by many others.

I have also examined your historical insights and found them lacking. Mankind has discovered no clear evidence for a historical global flood and extinction, but we have found evidence for five separate mass extinctions (none by flood) that you fail to mention. There is also evidence that there were times when much of the earth was covered by ice; and that there were long periods of time when different types of animals were present (sans-humans); and times when giant meteors impacted the earth, but you make no clear mention of any of these historical events. Your genealogies also lead us to believe that the earth is much younger than the evidence suggests.

I have also examined your knowledge of your creation and found it lacking, with no mention of how everything is built from atoms, or how the earth is covered with living things invisible to the naked eye; there are no “divinely inspired” maps of the lands you created, no mention of the land or the Indians living across the sea, no mention of how our planet is but one of many orbiting other stars; no description of how the earth and planets orbit the sun, and no mention of other galaxies. You do not describe natural laws, though you are credited with creating them; the Bible contains no revolutionary description of physics, or relativity, or quantum physics — nor any explanatory “theory of everything.” From the biggest to the smallest, your knowledge is limited to the observable.

Failing all these things, I feel I have no choice but to ask for a sign like the kind you demanded of the idols, like the signs you offered the Israelites in Egypt and in the desert, or the signs you gave to Gideon, or Hezekiah, or Thomas. Do something — right now (so I don’t later mistake a coincidence for a sign) — whether good or bad, so that I will be dismayed and filled with fear. Send down fire from heaven as you did for Elijah, or write upon that wall as you did for King Belshazzar, or turn my glass of water into wine, or appear before me as you did Paul, or flip that light switch, or levitate this coin — do something that I may have evidence that you are less imaginary than Baal and the idols.

If you cannot do the things you challenged the idols to do, then I can only conclude that you too must be man-made, the product of myth and legend; an antiquated superstition invented to try and explain the unexplainable, control the uncontrollable, and console the inconsolable.

Conclusion

Like the Isrealites, our generation is left asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” “Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about?” and “What do we gain by carrying out his requirements?”

Out of desperation, we test God, but instead of receiving a clear sign that he is not imaginary, we are fed excuses. We are told, “You are wicked for asking for a sign!” Really? Why? God himself demanded a sign from the idols before believing in them. Or we are told, “You will be blessed for believing what you have not seen!” (John 20:29). But any imaginary god can offer imaginary blessings! I don’t need a promise of future blessings, I need evidence, and would gladly forego all the imaginary blessings offered by all the imaginary gods in exchange for proof from one of them.

As a Christian for over 30 years, I accepted the claims of the Bible on faith alone, and met God on his terms. I’ve spent countless hours listening for God’s “still small voice,” I’ve heard many claims of miracles, I’ve been “slain in the spirit,” and I’ve spoken in tongues, but these are also evidences that must be accepted on faith, or there are alternative explanations for these things, and none would convince me more than God responding to a very simple test.

So just as the Isrealites in the desert demanded evidence, just as Gideon demanded evidence, just as the later generations of Israelites demanded evidence, just as Thomas demanded evidence, and just as the Lord God Almighty himself demanded evidence from Baal and the idols, I too feel it is not unreasonable to request a demonstration before believing the extraordinary claims of God and Christianity.

Posted in God's Behavior, Logic and Reason, Miracles, Prayer | Tagged , , | 46 Comments

60. Did Zechariah 9:9-10 accurately predict that Jesus would ride a colt? And become a king? And bring world peace?

Jesus Riding a SnakeLet’s finish out Zechariah 9, which contains some of the Bible’s most specific prophecies about the messiah.

Zechariah 9:9-10

As you’ll recall, God (speaking through his mouthpiece Zechariah) had encouraged the Jewish remnant to rebuild his temple, which he promised to protect forever. How was God going to accomplish this? He promises (as well as predicts) that a new king would soon arrive, who would save the Jews from their enemies and bring about world peace.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your King is coming to you;
He is just and having salvation,
Lowly and riding on a donkey,
A colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
And the horse from Jerusalem;
The battle bow shall be cut off.
He shall speak peace to the nations;
His dominion shall be ‘from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.’”
— Zechariah 9:9-10

Our first authentic messianic prophecy!

This should go without saying, but messianic prophecies should be prophecies… about the messiah, and I appreciate that Zechariah 9:9-10 is just that. There is no need to convert a non-prophecy into a prophecy, or imagine that the messiah is hidden within a passage that’s also speaking to something else. Prophecies need to be specific.

Having reasonable standards for evaluating prophecy not only helps us to validate legitimate prophecy (should such a thing exist), but it also protects good prophecy from fraudulent claims. If the Bible is truly a divinely inspired work, then its prophecies should stand out from the crowd, but if others can perform the same prophetic tricks, then the Bible’s prophecies are not unique.

Zechariah makes several predictions here, and each one should be evaluated independently, since every prediction will have its own probability of coming to pass and its own potential for trickery and false-positives.

The Messiah will arrive on a colt

The first prediction is that a future king is forthcoming, and that he will arrive on a colt.

While it could be argued that this was a metaphor for a king who comes in peace — as opposed to one who arrives on a war-horse — each of the four gospels report that this prophecy was fulfilled literally (Matthew 21:1-7, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:28-38, and John 12:12-15).

 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.”
— Matthew 21:1-2

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
— John 12:12-15

The donkey and colt debate

Interestingly, Matthew is the only gospel where Jesus requests both a colt and a donkey, and his apostles return with two animals. In Mark and Luke, Jesus asks only for a colt, and that’s all they are said to return with (Mark 11:7, Luke 19:30). John gives a little different account, where Jesus locates the colt on his own, and then sits upon it, almost as an impromptu response to the fortuitous spotting of a colt; but still no mention of a donkey.

christs_entry_into_jerusalem_hippolyte_flandrin_1842Some skeptics argue that Matthew misunderstood Zechariah’s prediction, and believed the messiah was to arrive on both a donkey and a colt, and so he wrote the fulfillment to match his incorrect interpretation. However, assuming Matthew’s account is true, I wouldn’t fault the other gospel writers for not mentioning the donkey, since it was technically irrelevant. (Though I would fault John for claiming it was Jesus who found the donkey, since the other gospels claim otherwise.)

A self-fulfilling prophecy?

The bigger problem here is that the prophecy was so well-known it could’ve easily become self-fulfilling. If it’s true that the crowds cheered, “Blessed is the king of Israel!” then we can assume everyone knew the messiah was supposed to appear on a donkey, including Jesus.

Because this prophecy was well-known and well within human control (anyone can sit on a donkey), we can’t use this event to prove the claim that prophecy exists. It’s just as likely, if not more likely, that Zechariah made up the rules, and Jesus was simply following protocol.

The prophecy would’ve been much more impressive had it been placed further out of human control. For example, Zechariah could’ve predicted, “The messiah will come to you riding upon a giant snake.” If you saw Jesus riding on a gigantic snake, you’d say, “Oh, look, this must be our guy… because… well… giant snake!” This would’ve made it nearly impossible for anyone but the true messiah to fulfill.

Another problem with this prophecy is that its fulfillment is easily claimed and difficult to verify or disprove. If Jesus never took that famous colt ride, it would’ve been nothing for someone to lie and claim that he did, especially if it were decades later.

The messiah would be king

The most basic requirement of the Jewish messiah is that he would be the King of Israel (in fact, he is repeatedly referred to as the king). While anyone can ride a donkey, it’s much more difficult to convince people to make you their king (believe me, I’ve tried).

icone_md1Becoming the King of Israel is also something that’s difficult to lie about at a later date. While it may have been possible for early Christians to lie about Jesus riding a donkey (or being born of a virgin), they couldn’t go around claiming, “Jesus once ruled as the King of Israel!” because people could prove they were full of crap.

So as a prophecy, becoming the King of Israel scores points for being difficult to accomplish, and difficult to lie about. However, it’s still within human control. Even if Jesus did become the literal King of Israel, it could be argued that this was because Zechariah’s prophecy inspired the Jews to seek out such a person.

Only… Jesus never became the King of Israel.

Rather than admit defeat, Christians took to saying Jesus was still alive… but (for various legal reasons) he could not serve as the literal King of Israel… not right now, anyway. Instead, Jesus was said to be reigning as a spiritual king, on his spiritual throne, in his spiritual kingdom; and would one day return to reign as Israel’s real king.

Obviously, this new non-literal adaptation cannot qualify as fulfillment of the original prophecy, since these things are easily claimed, and impossible to prove or disprove.

When Christians compromised this prophecy by saying it was permissible for it to be fulfilled spiritually, they took a prophecy that would’ve been somewhat difficult to fulfill, and turned it into something that was easy for anyone to fulfill. Hell, we could even claim that Adolf Hitler once rode a colt (can’t prove he didn’t), and that he now reigns as a spiritual king at the right hand of God (can’t prove he doesn’t), and that he will one day return to earth to reign as Israel’s king (can’t prove he won’t).

One other difficulty with this reinterpretation is that it takes away from the original understanding the Jews would’ve had (more on this in a moment).

World Peace?

While it’s easy to ride a donkey, and possible to become a literal king, it’s nearly impossible to become a world leader and bring about world peace (believe me, I’ve tried). But bringing about world peace was what the messiah was predicted to do.

“We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”
— Zachariah 1:11

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
— Zachariah 9:10

I love this last prophecy, because it meets just about every criteria for a good messianic prophecy: it’s clear that it’s a prophecy, it’s clear it’s about the messiah, it’s highly unlikely that a Jewish king would ever gain global dominion and bring about world peace (though it’s still technically within human control), and it would be difficult to lie about such a great achievement (if taken literally).

PrinceOfPeaceOne thing that would disqualify this from being a good prophecy is if there were no deadline, and this is absolutely critical in order to qualify as a respectable prophecy. Like milk, all good prophecies need a deadline so we know when they’ve gone bad.

The implicit deadline is that world peace would come within the lifetime of the messiah, or very soon afterward. While there is no deadline given for when the messiah would arrive, we can logically assume it would’ve been before the destruction of the temple, which he was coming to protect.

Only… Jesus did not bring about world peace.

Once again, rather than admit defeat, Christianity extends the deadline indefinitely by claiming that Jesus would return from the dead to bring world peace, and no man knows the day nor the hour when this will occur.

By converting this to an open-ended prophecy, Christianity prevents it from ever failing, but this also compromises the value of the prophecy. Had Jesus literally brought about world peace, it would’ve been very impressive. But by saying the prophecy allows for messiahs to return from the dead to do it later, we once again make it easy for anyone to fulfill. Hitler too will one day return from the dead to bring about world peace (can’t prove he won’t). Easy to claim, impossible to prove or disprove.

The reason deadlines are so critical is because, without them, predictions are always right, and never wrong. That’s right. If you want to be a good prophet, make sure you never set a deadline. Some of your predictions will, by chance, come to pass, while all the others can be considered pending in perpetuity.

For example, you could predict that “In the future, significant meteors will impact the Americas, Asia, Russia, and disturb our oceans. There will also be great wars on every continent and between every continent, except Antarctica. And when you see the great Humpback whales wash ashore in Sydney, you will know that the arrival of the alien mother-ship is near.”

People in the distant future might say, “This person has never been wrong! Several of these things have already come to pass, and so based on this perfect performance, we can conclude that all of the other predictions will also come to pass!” But that simply isn’t true. The predictions that did come to pass were statistically possible, and the others may never happen. With open-ended prophecies, you can always be right, but still be wrong (though no one will ever know).

To be completely fair, an open-ended prophecy might be permissible if it predicted something exceedingly improbable that actually came to pass. But without the actual fulfillment, open-ended prophecies are worthless. 

Did God have a change of plans?

Many Christians will argue, “But wait! This entire prophecy was supposed to be fulfilled literally! But because the Jews rejected God, God had no choice but to fulfill the prophecy in some other fashion!”

But if God knows the future, then he knew the Jews were going to reject him. A God who cannot deceive would’ve had no choice but to either remain silent, or predict the actual future. Leaving out critical information is tantamount to lying, and God would’ve been deceiving the Jews by not telling them they were doomed to fail, and that their temple would be destroyed, and that they would never receive the literal king they were expecting. By not clarifying these points, God purposefully misled the Jews to believe one thing when he knew he meant another.

Zechariah did not predict a messiah who would fail to become a literal king, or fail to literally bring about world peace, or a messiah who would rise from the dead thousands of years later to accomplish these things; and there is certainly no way the Jewish remnant would’ve seen these messages in Zachariah’s prophecy. These ideas had to be read into the prophecy in hindsight, and it appears these excuses have evolved in order to prevent Jesus from appearing as a failed prophet.

Conclusion

As prophecies, these are specific enough to have potential, but with their Christian reinterpretations, they become easily fulfilled, left open-ended, and unable to prove anything about prophecy or Jesus.

If one assumes the Bible was written by mere men, can we explain the existence of these prophecies and their purported fulfillments in the absence of a divine fortune-teller? I think we can.

Any prophecy or prediction (especially one made in a religious context) creates an expectation. In this case, Zechariah creates an expectation that a king will soon arrive to save the day. Without this expectation, Jews would’ve never even begun looking to crown a king. (Why do people make prophetic predictions? People are just wacky that way.)

As Jews began scouring the landscape looking for a someone to crown king, Jesus and other hopefuls selflessly volunteered. Why would anyone do that? Who knows — maybe they thought they could actually become a king, or maybe they liked all the attention, or maybe the job came with an excellent dental plan; everyone wants to be special. Even today there are people who claim to be the returned Christ (people are just wacky that way). The prophecy that Christ would return has also created an expectation, and people have also, likewise, volunteered for this position. Regardless of why people do it, we know that they do. 

060406_gospel_170The next prediction is that this messiah will ride a colt, and Jesus may have ridden a colt (or sat on one) precisely because he was expected to. Alternatively, Jesus’ followers may have lied and claimed he rode a colt. Why would someone lie about the events of Jesus’ life? Well, we know that others from around that era also wrote gospels that contained lies about Jesus’ life, which is why many gospels were excluded from the Bible. Again, regardless of why they did it, we know it’s something people of the time were fully capable of doing, and they did.

Next, Jesus needed to become the King of Israel, but he was executed. Whether Jesus now reigns as a spiritual king (or Hitler does), we will never know, but the prophecy cannot be declared fulfilled with no proof of fulfillment.

The prophecy of world peace holds the most potential. While not impossible, a Jewish monarch bringing about world peace would be impressive. But Jesus never does this. It’s much easier to say your messiah will return from the dead to do it later, than it is to actually do it. With no deadline, there is no failure, but there is also no success.

Of these specific prophecies, Jesus fulfilled the easiest one, and the others had to be fulfilled spiritually or left open-ended.

Rather than abandon their faith, both Jews and Christians are guilty of reinterpreting this chapter to be about either non-literal events or events in the distant future.

I believe the truth is that this prophecy was intended to be taken literally by the Jewish remnant, and that it had an implicit deadline. This is evidenced by 1) the remnant that was being addressed, and how they would’ve understood the prophecy, 2) by the enemies that were named in the same chapter (current enemies, not enemies in the distant future), and 3) by the temple God had ordered them to build and was promising to protect (the king was coming to protect a literal temple, not a future temple, or a rebuilt temple, or a spiritual temple).

I will strengthen them in the Lord and in his name they will live securely,” declares the Lord.
— Zechariah 10:12

While I can sympathize with Jews and Christians and their desire to hold on to religious tradition, anyone seeking an honest interpretation will find their religiously-motivated reinterpretations ultimately intellectually unsatisfying, and the acceptance of prophetic failure more consistent with the facts.

Posted in Jesus, New Testament, Old Testament, Prophecy | Tagged , , , , | 26 Comments

59. Did Zechariah fail to predict the fate of the second temple? (Zechariah 9:8)

Roberts_Siege_and_Destruction_of_Jerusalem
If the Bible is the product of divine inspiration, then there should be no failed prophecies, and many Christians claim there are none.

Fulfilled prophecy is strong evidence that God is the author of the Bible because when you look at the mathematical odds of prophecy being fulfilled, you quickly see a design, a purpose and a guiding hand behind the Bible. If just one prophecy failed, then we would know that God is not the true God because the creator of all things, which includes time, would not be wrong about predicting the future.
—Matt Slick, Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, CARM.org

But if the Bible is not divinely inspired, then we should find evidence of prophetic failures, which may be getting downplayed or reinterpreted by believers whose confirmation bias causes them to remember the hits and forget (or reinterpret) the misses.

Thus far, I’ve only looked at prophecies that believers claim have come to pass, but I would also like to look at several prophecies that appear to have failed.

One such apparent failure is found in Zechariah chapter nine, which is most famous for it’s prediction about the messiah arriving on a colt (which we’ll visit next). Immediately before the famous donkey prophecy is a prediction about the second temple and the Jewish people, one that is every bit as intriguing, but doesn’t get as much play from the pulpit.

Introducing Zechariah

The book of Zachariah contains a message of hope written to a Jewish remnant that had recently returned from exile. Zechariah encourages them with his visions from the Lord, whereby God urges them to regroup and rebuild his temple in Jerusalem, which was ordered by King Cyrus (in 538 BCE). 

This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them.
—Ezra 1:2-3

The Jews were certainly motivated to return and rebuild, but they surely must’ve felt uneasy over what might become of this new temple. If God allowed the first temple to be destroyed, would the same fate befall the second temple as well?

With the first temple, God did warn that he would reject it if his people turned away from him (1 Kings 9:6-7). But this time, God promised, things would be different. 

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’… I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past Just as I had determined to bring disaster on you and showed no pity when your ancestors angered me, says the Lord Almighty, so now I have determined to do good again to Jerusalem and Judah.”
—Zechariah 8:9-15

God reassured the remnant that he would show mercy and take pity on them, and not bring about the disasters he had brought upon their ancestors. God also promised that this new temple would be even greater than the first, and that it would mark the beginning of a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity.

The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,‘ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”
—Haggai 2:9

 “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuiltMy towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’”
—Zechariah 1:16-17

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.
—Zechariah 8:4-5

And now, the prophecy in question

As if that wasn’t enough good news, starting in Zechariah 9, God also lists all the enemies of Israel that he’s going to pass judgement upon. After delivering that list, he drops this epic prophetic bombshell:

But I will encamp at my temple to guard it against marauding forces. Never again will an oppressor overrun my peoplefor now I am keeping watch.
—Zechariah 9:8 (NIV)

Never again?

The King James translates it a bit differently:

And I will encamp about mine house because of the army, because of him that passeth by, and because of him that returneth: and no oppressor shall pass through them any more: for now have I seen with mine eyes.
—Zechariah 9:8 (KJV)

So after having encouraged them to rebuild and promising to “grant peace” and “prosperity,” God also promises that “never again” will any “marauding forces” overrun them “any more.” Things were finally looking up for the Jews.

But in reality, Jerusalem was soon overrun by the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, who utterly destroyed the second temple in 70 CE (roughly 586 years after it was completed).

The Jews believed God’s promise, and spent 23 years rebuilding the temple, but it was eventually destroyed… again. Why didn’t God keep his promise? And how should the faithful interpret this apparent failure of prophecy?

A dual meaning?

When a passage has an implicit literal meaning, but Christians would like it to be about something else, they often claim it has a dual meaning (e.g. a literal and a spiritual meaning), and we’ve seen this card played before.

But here, the literal interpretation results in a failed prophecy, because the temple (and Jerusalem) were overrun.

As tempting as it may be, there’s no escaping that God has requested a literal temple to be built, and not a spiritual one (see Zech. 1:16, 4:9, 6:14-15, 8:9; Ezra 1:2, 5:2, 6:142 Chron. 36:22-23, and Haggai 2:1-9). God has requested a literal temple, and promised to protect that same literal temple.

So if we must take this verse literally, but the prophecy failed, how does the believer remedy this failure? That depends on who you ask.

Was God only speaking of Alexander the Great?

640px-AlexanderTheGreat_BustI found several believers contending that “him that passes by” is a literal prediction about Alexander the Great, who would later pass by without attacking Jerusalem.

While the Syrians, Phoenicians, and Philistines would be overrun by the invader from the north (Alexander the Great), Yahweh promised to “encamp around my house,” i.e., the temple, the family, the kingdom of Israel. This protection would be necessary “because of the one passing and the one returning.” Alexander bypassed Jerusalem on his way to Egypt in 332 BC. He later returned through Palestine without doing harm to the holy city. The clause “an oppressor shall not again cross over and against them” is very difficult. Probably the best solution is to regard the reference to be Alexander’s invasion. The Macedonian would never again come into the land of Judah.
The Minor Prophets, James E. Smith, p. 578

I appreciate that Smith sticks to a literal interpretation that promises literal protection of the Jews and the temple. The problem is that God also promises that “no oppressor shall pass through them any more,” which Mr. Smith admits is a “very difficult” problem.

Rather than count this prophecy a failure, he suggests God’s promise of protection was limited to just Alexander the Great. In other words, what God was really saying was, “I will encamp at my temple to guard it against Alexander the Great. Never again will Alexander the Great overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch.”

Offering protection against one oppressor isn’t any protection at all, since it’s only a matter of time before the next oppressor comes a knockin’.

Even if Smith is right, then God has deceived the remnant by leading them to believe he will be encamped there and protecting them from all oppressors, not just one. God had been reassuring them that they had nothing to worry about, and that they should rebuild, because soon there would be peace, and their temple would continue to be secure. This is the picture God paints, not a future where the temple is destroyed and Jerusalem is overrun.

Did the Jews not read the end user license agreement?

One other literal interpretation suggests that God was no longer obligated to keep up his end of the deal, because the Jews failed to live up to some conditions that God may have set forth, and this ended God’s guarantee of protection.

This too is unsatisfying, because God promised that this time things would be different, and from the Jewish standpoint, nothing was different. God did not take pity on them as he had promised, but their temple was destroyed, their nation overrun, and they once again became a scattered people.

Even if we assume that God had legitimate reasons for voiding his contract with the Jews, this interpretation still makes a liar out of God, since he said they would never again be overrun. When God said this, he knew damn well it wasn’t true. Because God knows the future, he knew the Jews would end up disappointing him, and that he would eventually let them be overrun. Even if God didn’t know the future, he should not have made a promise if he was unable to keep it.

From literal to figurative?

Other believers are a bit more sneaky, and try to get around the literal implications by claiming only the first half of the verse is literal.

In other words, when God says, “I will encamp at my temple to guard it against marauding forces,” he is being literal. But when he says, Never again will an oppressor overrun my people,” he is speaking figuratively. 

My first objection to this is that these two sentences are inseparable (some translations don’t even divide them into two sentences). God is encamping in the temple so that he can forever guard it and Jerusalem against marauding forces that may try to overrun them. The second sentence extends the promise made in the first, and there’s no indication that God has gone from a literal promise to a figurative one.

My second objection is that the Jewish remnant, to whom this message was directed, has no reason to read the second half figuratively. The reader would simply assume that God is offering his reassurance that the new temple will stand forever, because God is now encamping within it. If God doesn’t mean this, then God has intentionally misled these men, because his change from literal to figurative was imperceptible, and he didn’t bother to clarify.

But if we still want to assume a figurative meaning, what was God really trying to say? Since it’s figurative, the explanations are only limited to one’s imagination, but here are two examples.

The people being protected were Christians, not Jews

John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible goes along with the idea that the first part of verse 8 speaks to Alexander the Great, but then says the second half can’t be taken literally. How do we know it wasn’t supposed to be taken literally? Well… because it failed.

“This shows that this prophecy is not to be literally understood, since it is certain, that, after the delivery, of it, there were oppressors or exactors among the Jews in a literal sense…”
John Gills Exposition of the Bible

So… if a prophecy comes to pass, you know God meant it literally, but if it doesn’t, you know God must’ve been speaking figuratively. Either way, the prophecy is never wrong.

According to Gills, God was not speaking about ongoing protection for the Jews or the temple, God was secretly referring to the future followers of Christ. And the oppressors? Well… those are the accusers who claim Christians are still guilty of sin, when they are not, because Jesus has saved them. They “oppress” them with their false accusations. (Yes, seriously.)

Let’s read that verse again.

But I will encamp at my temple to guard it against marauding forces. Never again will an oppressor overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch.
—Zechariah 9:8

Paineful QuoteNo Jew living at that time would’ve read this and said, “This is obviously about the future messiah having to die as a sin offering, so that no one can ‘overrun’ us with verbal accusations of guilt when we are guilt-free!” No, they would’ve said, “This is God’s promise to protect us and the temple from ever being overrun again!” Gills interpretation is textbook eisegesis; entirely unsupported by the original text and a byproduct of Christian bias.

Again, even if we were to entertain Gills’ self-delusion, he has made a deceiver out of God, who knows full well how the Jews will receive this verse, and God never bothers to clarify.

Was God speaking of the future?

Next, there are believers like Steven J. Cole who attempt to salvage the second “difficult” half of this prophecy by making it about the distant future.

By the way, as with many biblical prophecies, verse 8 spans the centuries. The first part was fulfilled when Alexander spared Jerusalem. The last part, that no oppressor will pass over Jerusalem any more, remains to be fulfilled when Israel’s Messiah returns in power and glory.
Steven J. Cole, Bible.org

So… what God was really trying to say was, “I’m going to encamp here now, offer protection against Alexander the Great, but then stop protecting you for several thousand years (at least), and then I’ll protect you again!” Well… that’s reassuring.

BillOnce again, if we assume Cole is right, God has misled the Jews, who would’ve assumed God was going to encamp at the new temple and continuously protect it from that day forward. This is what the passage implies, and there was no reason for them to think that God would stop his protection and then restart it. What’s the point of God even encamping there if he’s not going to offer continuous protection?

God’s encampment and his ongoing protection go hand-in-hand, and the verse says nothing indicating God is going to hit the pause button for several thousand years.

Conclusion

There is no consensus among Christians as to how to solve this difficult problem, and no matter how believers try to spin this one, God ends up intentionally deceiving the Jews. He either deceives them by leading them to believe that he will protect them from all enemies, when he only meant one particular enemy (Alexander the Great); or he misleads them by saying they will “never again” be overrun, when he knows they will be; or he misleads them by letting them think he will protect them and the temple, when he was actually referring to the Christian church; or he misleads them by letting them think he would offer continuous protection, when he really meant on-again-off-again protection.

This prophecy is not difficult to understand, not if you allow for the possibility that the Bible was written by ordinary men who were unable to predict the future. Accepting this possibility, we are free to read and understand this verse for what it plainly says.

Posted in Biblical Contradictions, Old Testament, Prophecy | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

58. What if Intelligent Design were proven to be true?

intelligent-designWhat would happen if, tomorrow, scientists announced they had discovered indisputable proof that all life was intelligently designed? Theists everywhere would rejoice, no doubt, but what exactly would this discovery prove?

Proof of Design vs. Proof of God and Christianity

Back in my Christian days, I found my faith bolstered by arguments for design. Biological life was complex, and I was convinced that it could not have arisen without the help of an intelligent designer. But I did not find the arguments for Christianity nearly as compelling as those for design. Even if we were designed, it does not necessarily follow that we were designed by the God of the Bible. (Even the pro-design folks over at the Discovery Institute will admit to this.)

Design is consistent with the Biblical idea of creation, but it is also consistent with just about every other tale of creation. Design no more proves Christianity than it does Hinduism, or Greek mythology.

Proof of design would rule out all hypotheses about unguided abiogenesis; and it would then cause us to wonder who or what the designer is (or was) and how he/she/it/they came to be without a designer to form them.

So for Christianity, proof of intelligent design represents only the first hurdle. The Christian hypothesis would still have to compete with a myriad of other gods, aliens, myths, and hypotheses.

Other Explanations for Design 

aliens

Raelians, for example, also believe in intelligent design, but they assert that all life on earth was engineered by human scientists that came here from another planet.

And there are other UFO cults and TV shows (like Ancient Aliens) that suggest we might owe our existence to other aliens, not god(s). Who knows, perhaps alien life formed millions — or billions — of years ago, and these highly advanced aliens now traverse the galaxy, seeding earth-like planets, so that upon their next visit these worlds will be ripe for vacationing… or harvesting! (Yikes!)

Or perhaps the Hindus are correct, and we were created by Lord Brahma, and the universe is continuously being destroyed and recreated with the help of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva.

Philosophy professor Nick Bostrom from Oxford University offers another possible explanation: perhaps our reality is just a highly advanced simulation, created by our own distant progeny. There have even been experiments geared at detecting patterns that would be consistent with a simulation.

Or maybe eternal gods do exist, and we are them! Only… we don’t know it. Maybe we got so bored with eternal life (having seen and done everything a million times over) that we chose to relieve our boredom by temporarily erasing our memories and placing ourselves into a created world like this one, where we can experience newness and adventure once more. And perhaps, when we die, we return to the “real” world, and watch highlight reels of the various challenges and comedic situations we faced, and we share a good laugh with all our eternalAudience-watching-a-show--001 friends. (By the way, if this turns out to actually be true, I want all my eternal friends to know I totally figured it out… and that this game sucks! Worst… game… ever. The graphics are okay, I guess, but on the next version let’s have more supermodels and fewer plagues.)

After all, if God requires no explanation for the origin of his spirit, then neither do we, and the odds are about equal that either God or man should happen first upon the scene. In fact, we could even reason that there is more evidence to suggest we came first, since our own existence is easier to establish than God’s.

Or maybe we came first and then secretly created God, and led him to believe he was alone to see how he would respond. Maybe we did this knowing he would create new worlds, that we could then place ourselves into! Like the movie Inception, we are now living in a creation, within a creation, of our own creation! We buried the illusion several layers deep so we’d never figure it out (aaaaaand I just figured it out; one more reason why this game sucks… it’s so obvious!).

I’m not seriously endorsing any of these views, I’m just saying that even if intelligent design were proven, there are many possible explanations for who designed life and how, and Christianity may not be the most reasonable of all possible hypotheses.

Conclusion

Even though the origin of life is still a mystery, it’s not the silver bullet many Christians imagine it to be. Proof of design would narrow down the possibilities, but it would not prove that immaterial spirits exist, or that gods exist, or that we are eternal, or that man is living in a fallen sinful state, or that heaven and hell are real; it would only prove that something else came first (and seeing as how we exist, such a possibility doesn’t seem all that impossible).

The something that created us could be anything. We might be the product of another god, or gods, or aliens, or alien humanoids, or even ourselves! We might exist in a real world, or in a simulation, created by any of the aforementioned candidates. Or we may owe our existence to something not yet identified, that created us using some methodology not yet understood.

Even if we were able to prove that the God of the Jews was the intelligent designer, we might still be wrong about Jesus, or Muhammad, or Joseph Smith. Or maybe God did create us, but then killed himself! The possibilities are endless, and every claim must stand or fall on its own merit.

But the simple fact remains that intelligent design has not been proven, so there still exists the very real possibility that we are not designed, and that we are nothing more than the product of chance emergence. All we really know is that we exist; maybe we’re the first, maybe we’re not.

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
― Arthur C. Clarke

One final potentiality is that scientists may one day announce that they have discovered the order of chemical reactions necessary to create life. News to which Christians would, no doubt, respond: “Yes, but who designed the chemicals?”

Posted in Intelligent Design? | Tagged , , | 33 Comments

57. What about Pascal’s Wager? Why risk going to hell?

1024px-Blaise_Pascal_VersaillesBlaise Pascal was the seventeenth-century French philosopher and mathematician who famously argued that, in the absence of conclusive evidence, it was better to wager that God existed, since you had everything to gain and little to lose.

Pascal writes:

Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager?… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Pascal’s Wager appeals to us because it is sometimes reasonable to take precautions against a potential consequence, even when conclusive evidence is lacking. With eternal life on the line, even if there is only a small chance that God exists, doesn’t it makes sense to err on the side of caution, just in case?

Claims and Consequences

Pascals Wager breaks down into two main parts: a claim and a consequence. The claim is that God exists and wants us to believe in him, and the consequence is that he will reward us (or punish us) based on how we respond to this claim.

Before we delve into Pascal’s wager, let’s briefly look at what it means to make a claim.

Claims

When someone makes a claim that might be called into question, it’s their responsibility to meet the burden of proof. This is just a practical matter, since it’s all-too-easy to make up assertions. There are, in fact, far more things that could be claimed than things that actually exist.

For example, I could claim that:

  • there are six invisible aliens living in your colon;
  • your mom had a secret affair with Mr. T.;
  • God is currently living as a lesbian in the Bronx;
  • only whales and kangaroos get into heaven;
  • all lawyers go to hell; and
  • Einstein was born with an invisible Siamese twin hermaphrodite attached to his ankle that had to be removed by a voodoo priestess.

And the list goes on and on. Claims are easily made up and can be difficult to prove, and the burden should not be placed on you to prove them all.

It annoys me that the burden of proof is on us. It should be: “You came up with the ideas. Why do you believe it?” I could tell you I’ve got superpowers. But I can’t go up to people saying “Prove I can’t fly.” They’d go: “What do you mean ‘Prove you can’t fly’? Prove you can!’
~ Ricky Gervais

The more extraordinary the claim, the more important it is to have good evidence. For example, I could claim that my cat once had kittens, and I could claim that my cat once had puppies. The latter claim is going to demand a lot more evidence because it’s much more extraordinary.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
~ Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

If a claim cannot be proven true, it’s equally important that it can be proven false, so that (either way) the truth can eventually be known. Falsifiability is also important because its easy to make excuses to purposefully render a claim unfalsifiable.

It is nothing short of extraordinary to claim that invisible supernatural beings exist, and that one in-particular has always existed; he is omniscient and omnipresent, and he is the one who created everything, and a part of him came to earth through a virgin, performed many miracles, sacrificed himself to himself to save you from eternal suffering, and then rose from the dead. Such a fantastic claim demands extraordinary evidence.

Excuses, excuses!

So the first red flag with Pascal’s Wager is that it makes an extraordinary claim, and then excuses itself from having to meet the burden of proof.

But Christianity offers a good excuse for not having to provide evidence: God has intentionally obscured all evidence in order to preserve free will! This is a creative excuse, but is it actually true? Or was this just a clever excuse engineered to avoid having to meet the burden of proof, and to make the claim impossible to falsify?

Inventing GodsConsider for a moment that every god in the history of the world also refuses to reveal itself to you. (Isn’t that an amazing coincidence!?) Baal, Zeus, Mazda, Vishnu, Thor, the Flying Spaghetti Monster — they too are all invisible and they all have good excuses for not appearing to you. Even if it’s claimed they once appeared, they will most certainly have a good excuse for not appearing to you right now.

And gods are not the only ones excusing themselves from having to meet the burden of proof. Every spirit, monster, UFO alien, Sasquatch, fairy, leprechaun, chupacabra, and unicorn has a good excuse for not providing proof. It’s never that they don’t exist, it’s always because they are rare, or invisible, or small, or elusive, or on vacation, or they want you to do something before they will reveal themselves, or there is a government conspiracy covering them up.

The God of the Jews is no different; instead of just providing proof, we hear excuses for why the burden of proof can never be met.

So Pascal’s Wager makes a claim, and just like every other god, spirit, or imagined creature, it offers a creative excuse for why the burden of proof cannot be met. Evidence and reason are all we have to work with when it comes to determining truth, and once we begin to accept excuses in place of facts, we must accept all other unsubstantiated claims that carry consequences.

The Problem with Mohammad

To use a real-world example, Pascal could have just as easily wagered for Mohammad:

Let us then examine this point, and say, “Mohammad is God’s prophet, or Mohammad is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here…. Wager, then, without hesitation that Mohammad is God’s prophet.

Muslims too believe they have good evidence, and after 1,500 years of trying, Christians have failed to disprove this evidence to the satisfaction of over a billion Muslims.

Seeing as how the evidence is inconclusive, Pascal’s logic dictates that we play it safe, and wager that Mohammad was God’s prophet… just in case. But we cannot wager on both Christianity and Islam, because each idea is mutually exclusive, and this is where Pascal’s logic begins to unravel.

Consequences

Having excused itself from having to meet the burden of proof, Pascal’s Wager (and by extension, Christianity) raises a second red flag by warning of severe consequences for not believing.

KnockAppealing to consequences in this way is considered a logical fallacy, because it places the crux of the argument on the consequence(s) rather than the evidence. This tactic is generally frowned upon because: 1) it doesn’t provide any new evidence, 2) it attempts to motivate through fear rather than facts, and 3) it’s just as easy to invent consequences as it is claims (and if you don’t believe that, your teeth will fall out!).

While it’s entirely possible that the consequences of an unsubstantiated claim might be real, consequences are often used to manipulate others, and so we must be on guard against their misuse, especially when they are not accompanied by strong evidence, or when the claimant has something to gain.

Superstitious Claims and Consequences

Superstitions operate on the same basic principals as Pascal’s Wager: they too make a claim that is difficult to disprove, and they appeal to consequences to motivate others to action. For example:

  • You should throw spilled salt over your shoulder to prevent demonic temptation.
  • If you walk under ladders you will have bad luck.
  • If you break a mirror you will have seven years bad luck. (Unless you throw a shard into a south-flowing river.)
  • You should pass along that chain letter to improve your luck; breaking the chain will bring bad luck.

Likewise, Pascal’s Wager says: “You should believe in God to have eternal good luck; if you don’t believe you will have eternal bad luck.”

And as with the chain letter, it’s obvious that the original author invented these consequences to motivate others to distribute his letter. The consequences of Christianity may have been invented for similar reasons, because they work to motivate others to believe in and spread Christianity.

One distinct difference between Christianity and superstition is that Christianity’s consequences are carried out indefinitely. While the severity of a consequence does not add one iota of proof to the original claim, the perceived risk is greater, which provides all the more motivation to believe.

So Pascal’s Wager (and Christianity) not only skirts around the burden of proof, but by making claims of eternal consequences, it manages to inject the maximum amount of urgency into its claim without providing any more evidence. What’s more, because the consequences do not become apparent until after you’re dead, neither the original claim or its consequences can ever be falsified — you can’t prove it, you can’t disprove it, and the consequences are the most extreme imaginable. (Brilliant!)

But what if you’re wrong?

Assuming Pascal is correct, and God will condemn us to hell for not believing, then we must ask ourselves: “Is it then morally right to submit to a God who would do such a thing?”

This situation is a bit like living under a dictator who insists that you serve him or be put to death. Do you join him? Do you help him kill others who refuse to join? Or would you rather die than partake in actions you believe to be immoral?

While we’d all like to think we’d take the moral high ground, history and scientific experiments (e.g. the Milgram experiment) have shown that most of us will check our moral compass at the door and submit to whomever is in charge (our species is pathetic that way). I suspect the same thing occurs with God: believers assume God is good because he says he is, and since he’s in charge “might makes right,” and we don’t give much thought to the actual morality of his actions.

But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
~Luke 12:5

Believers will sometimes argue that because we are God’s creation, he has the right to do whatever he wants with us (including throwing us into hell forever). But is that morally right?

If it turns out that aliens are responsible for creating us, and they return next Tuesday to enslave and torture us, do they have the moral authority to do so? Or if a scientist creates a living being, fashioned from something other than DNA but still capable of experiencing pain, does that give him the right to torture it? Would you stand idly by as he jabbed hot pokers in its eyes, defending his actions by saying, “It’s okay, because he created it!” Will you stand there in Heaven, watching as Satan jabs hot pokers in my eyes, saying, “It’s okay, because God created him!”

Hell Viewing Station

If it is true that God allows people to be tortured, I believe it is morally wrong to submit to such a God, for several reasons.

First, I believe (as the Bible says) that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matt. 7:12). I do not wish to burn in hell forever, nor do I believe God would wish this punishment upon himself if the situation were reversed.

Second, if punishment must exist, it should fit the crime. Eternal punishment for a finite crime is infinitely excessive, gratuitous, and therefore evil. 

And finally, if punishment must exist, it should serve a purpose. To punish people without any end-goal in mind is pointless. Even if this punishment succeeds in teaching them a lesson, they can no longer do anything about it. Their endless tears of regret and screams for mercy cannot possibly bring about more justice after that point. This is not justice, and certainly not the actions of a loving creator.

Strange a God who mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness, then invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none Himself; who frowns upon crimes yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon Himself; and finally with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship Him!
~ Mark Twain

If it’s true that God knows the future, and hell really does exist, then his story is not about the few he managed to save, but about the majority he knew would be lost. Even if God did not know what would happen, he should’ve learned from Adam, or at least by Noah’s time, that mankind and free will were not a good combination. God gambles with the souls of men, knowing most will be lost.

The God of hell should be held in loathing, contempt and scorn.  A god who threatens eternal pain should be hated, not loved; cursed, not worshiped.  A heaven presided over by such a god must be below the meanest hell.
~ Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899)

Eternal suffering does not serve a loving God, it is not logical, it is not just, and it is wholly incompatible with his character. However, fear of hell does motivate people to join and spread Christianity, and I don’t think this is a mere coincidence.

Why would God even want to fill heaven with a bunch of “yes men,” who blindly go along with God’s definition of “good”? Wasn’t the point of creating man to avoid having a bunch of robots? Does God only want us to use our free will to choose to serve him, but never to question what is good? What if this is a test, and God is really looking for those who will think for themselves; those who will refuse to compromise their sense of morality even in the face of eternal torment? If God desires the company of those who are truly good, then he will want those who stand up to all kinds of evil, even when that evil is perpetrated by God himself. But then again, maybe God really does just want a bunch of sheep.

 I have always considered “Pascal’s Wager” a questionable bet to place, since any God worth believing in would prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite.
~ Alan M. Dershowitz, Letters to a Young Lawyer

(Note: I realize not all Christians share the same vision of hell, and this is something I will take on under a later question. But with respect to Pascal’s Wager, if we assume that hell is not all bad or is only temporary, then it makes it far less risky to wager against God.)

Fake it till you make it?

In response to Pascal’s Wager, some atheists argue that you can’t make yourself believe if you don’t, and God would know if you were faking. I disagree. You wouldn’t be repenting if you didn’t believe, at least a little. We don’t repent to Baal or Zeus because we don’t believe in them. Pascal’s Wager is not intended for those who have no faith in the possibility of God’s existence.

That said, I can’t stress enough how insanely suspicious it is that God should place any importance on our ability to believe without evidence. If God were real, and truly a god of love, he would place value on things like love, compassion, mercy, virtue, forgiveness, etc., and would judge us on these things. It does not make sense that God would place any value on some measure of gullibility, however, it does make sense that if God does not exist, that those who invented him would place a value upon belief without evidence, precisely because there was none.

“Religion is poison because it asks us to give up our most precious faculty, which is that of reason, and to believe things without evidence.  It then asks us to respect this, which it calls faith.”
~ Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

I strongly suspect that ideas like “hell” and “faith without evidence” exist not because they are reasonable, or true, but because they work to motivate us. Add this to the fact that Christianity’s claims and consequences can never be proven nor falsified, and the whole claim smells fishy.

Conclusion

Christianity has always presented itself as the only viable option (“turn or burn”), and Pascal’s Wager just spells this out. Is Pascal’s Wager a compelling argument? Absolutely, it is probably the most compelling argument one could forge from nothing.

But Pascal’s Wager asks us to betray our mind to cover our ass. It does a disservice to truth by asking us to elevate our beliefs beyond what the evidence supports. It adds no new evidence for the existence of God; it employs the same reasoning as superstition; its logic can be used to defend any god or religion, and even if true, we would have to betray our own sense of morality in order to fully embrace it.

The only thing we know with any certainty is that we have this life, shall we wager it away on the chance at another? In accepting Pascal’s Wager, we wager our minds, our money, our time, our reason, our morality, our children, and possibly even the very survival of our species.

If we were to all accept Pascal’s Wager, and give ourselves over to God and the Bible without question, and we are all wrong, what then? Then we have allowed our species to become enslaved by superstition, and gambled away the only life we will ever have, and with it humanity’s only chance at understanding the truth about who we are and where we came from.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
~ Unknown (aka “The Atheist’s Wager”)

Posted in God's Behavior, Heaven and Hell, Logic and Reason | Tagged , , , , | 77 Comments