66. Why doesn’t sin carry natural consequences?

CreationRulerHad our world been created by a moral designer, we might expect evil actions to carry natural consequences, in much the same way that other actions carry negative consequences.

For example, if we touch fire, we are burned; if we touch poison oak, we may break out in an itchy rash; or if we harass a rattlesnake, we may be injected with a toxic venom. All of these actions have natural consequences that could be construed as a message from the creator, one that says, “Hey! You ought not be doing that!”

Yet kill a man, or torture a helpless animal, or molest a child, and there are no naturally occurring consequences. There is no burning of the skin, no horrible rash, no risk of deadly toxins entering the bloodstream… nothing. Nature remains curiously silent in response to such serious offences, and this lack of natural condemnation seems incongruous with what we might expect from a moral designer (especially one so predisposed to judging evil).

If we are to know God through his creation (Romans 1:20), what does it say of a creator who passes up an opportunity to condemn evil? What does it say of a creator who designs nature to punish us for innocuous acts, whilst withholding punishments for even the most heinous atrocities?

Nature’s Ten Commandments

In fact, imagine what the Ten Commandments might look like if they were based on what nature actually does condemn us for doing (or not doing). The list might look something like this:

  1. Thou shalt convert oxygen to carbon dioxide (breathe), or thou shall die.
  2. Thou shalt not trip, fall, or walk off high cliffs or ledges.
  3. Thou shalt drink water.
  4. Thou shalt consume plants and animals, but not plants and animals I have made poisonous to the body.
  5. Thou shalt not touch fire or things of extreme temperatures.
  6. Thou shalt not expose thy skin to the sun for extended periods of time.
  7. Thou shalt not expose thy skin to extreme cold for extended periods of time.
  8. Thou shalt not reside in the presence of radioactive materials, select gasses, asbestos, smoke, poisonous plants or animals, or any other thing I have made harmful to the body.
  9. Thou shalt not consume saltwater, lead, mercury, or too much of any one element, or any other thing I have made poisonous to the body.
  10. Thou shalt not care for those with contagious illnesses, lest I cast their infirmities upon thee.

We might infer that these commands are of the utmost importance to the creator, because he has built natural consequences right into them. And yet, few of these offences would actually be considered immoral. There’s nothing morally wrong with drinking saltwater, or eating plants, or caring for the sick, so why attach stiff penalties to these deeds?

Now consider the Bible’s actual Ten Commandments. Few, if any, carry natural consequences. We can worship other gods, make idols, take the Lord’s name in vain, work on the Sabbath, disrespect our parents, kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, and even covet our neighbor’s stuff… all without God’s creation punishing us.

While God’s commandments may have been literally carved in stone, his creation does little to enforce them. God seems perfectly content to wait until the afterlife to punish us… which is odd… considering the number of things nature does not let us get away with.

Peanuts vs. child flesh

For example, for some, eating a peanut can have deadly consequences. Even an accidental taste can send them into anafelectic shock. Their tongues swell, their throats close shut, and they can die as a result. All this… over peanuts.

Meanwhile, you could have a late-term abortion, fry up the remains, and consume them as a part of an elaborate Satanic ritual… all without any natural consequences. Your tongue will not swell, your throat will not close shut, and your body will even become nourished by the flesh! Why would God design a world that naturally protects peanuts, but not children?

Other Bizarre Consequences

And there are many other bizarre things we are punished for doing:

Refuse to breathe, and you will suffer immediate natural consequences; but blaspheme the Holy Spirit (the only unforgivable sin, according to Mark 3:29), and there are no noticeable side effects! Your face won’t turn blue, you won’t be struck by lightning, you won’t keel over and die, you won’t even get a case of incurable hiccups!

Or stare at the sun or an eclipse for too long, and you could permanently damage your eyes; but spend the day watching pornographic snuff films, and your eyes are perfectly fine.

Or push too hard while defecating, and you may be punished with a nasty case of hemorrhoids; but push an elderly woman off a subway platform, and your hands won’t so much as blister.

And nature punishes us for many other irrelevant things, like letting mosquitoes or fleas bite us, or inhaling pollen, or drinking contaminated river water, or eating contaminated food, or straining to lift a heavy object, or staying underwater for more than a few minutes. Meanwhile, there is no natural condemnation for violating God’s commandments. Why not?

Possible Explanations

Assuming God exists, why would he design a world that did not punish us for sin, but does punish us for so many other irrelevant things?

One possible explanation is that all natural punishments are simply a consequence of the fall. But if God is going to initiate a system of natural penalties anyway, why would he not begin with sinful behavior? (And if that’s not enough, go on to punish us for additional things as well?)

Or we might reason that God is wanting to give us free will to do evil, but he will still punish sin in the afterlife. But if that were the case, why punish us for anything at all in this life? We should have the freedom to do anything we want: rub poison oak in our faces, drink salt water, eat peanut butter, kill each other, dance the macarena, etc., and then be judged in the afterlife. Once God begins imposing natural punishments, he restricts our free will in those areas, and if God is going to restrict our free will anyway, he ought to begin by punishing those things he considers offensive, not those things that are irrelevant.

Finally, we could reason that there are some sins that do carry natural consequences, such as homosexuality, or eating shellfish. But there are several difficulties with this kind of explanation.

In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
— Romans 1:27

Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you.
— Leviticus 11:12

First, there are so many consequences for various actions, we’re bound to find one or two that we can link back to something God considers sinful.

Second, it’s possible that the reason these things were considered sinful in the first place was because of the reactions they caused (e.g. “Shellfish may cause an allergic reaction, therefore God must not want us eating shellfish!”).

Third, if God is punishing people in direct response to sin, should we also assume there is a correlation between God and all other natural consequences? (E.g. does God really not want us touching poison oak?)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, why would God choose to punish these particular sins, but not others? Why ignore violations of the Ten Commandments, and blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, but then go out of his way to punish homosexuality… and shellfish eaters? (And why punish only some homosexuals and some shellfish eaters?)

Natural Explanations for Natural Consequences

Assuming there is no God, can we explain all natural consequences from a purely natural perspective?

Humans can determine what is morally right or wrong using the tools of empathy and reason. We reason that it is wrong to kill, rape, steel, lie, cheat, etc., because of how these behaviors impact others, and we understand how we might feel if someone did these things to us.

Comprehending morality requires the ability to feel, think, and reason, something that humans and gods should both be capable of doing. But nature completely lacks the ability to ponder moral issues, and can only react to things that impact survival and reproduction. In other words, nature is reactive, responding only to success or failure, but an intelligent God can be proactive, and design a world where natural “punishments” were tied to moral offences. If the world were designed by God, we might expect to see more of the latter, but for the most part, we observe that nature that is blind to matters of morality, acting solely in the best interest of each individual creature. And in most cases, the “punishments” we receive from nature can be directly linked to simple physics (i.e. burning, falling, etc.) or they can be linked to things that impact the survival and/or reproduction of a plant, animal, or organism.

For example, our bodies react negatively to things like the cutting off of oxygen, food, or water, because these things are vital to the survival of every cell in our body.

Plants and animals have also evolved many natural methods of ensuring their own survival and reproduction. Plants with poisons or thorns are less likely to get eaten, and animals with venom are less likely to be harassed or eaten (and it may also make it easier for them to capture prey). Even the bacteria and viruses that are harmful to humans are engaged in their own struggle to survive and reproduce. These plants and animals do not punish us for reasons related to morality; the pain they inflict is a side-effect of their own struggle to survive.

When it comes to things like food allergies, the immune system is attempting to ward off hostile invaders. Most of the time this is a good thing, as it protects us (and our collective cells) from these invaders. But occasionally, the immune system overreacts, unknowingly killing its host. While this may seem counter-productive, nature is learning through trial and error. When these individuals die, these “errors” are effectively selected out of the population, improving the fitness of the next generation. (But what would this say of a designer? Who designs some bodies to self-destruct over peanuts?)

While there are many things that can harm us, as long as they don’t kill us before we can reproduce, nature has little reason to take notice. Also, if we did not evolve in an environment where we were constantly exposed to certain threats, there is little reason to evolve defenses against them (though there are many animals that live in toxic environments that have adapted to them).

Finally, when it comes to reproduction, our bodies don’t exactly punish us for not having sex (though sometimes it can feel like a punishment). However, the brain does reward sex with more feel-good chemicals than just about any other activity, motivating us through pleasure rather than pain. Ironically however, nature doesn’t care if you have sex with your spouse, your neighbor’s spouse, your neighbor, or your neighbor’s livestock, your body rewards you with the same chemicals. (Again, what does this say of a designer, who forbids adultery, homosexuality, and beastiality, but builds you a body that rewards you for doing these things just the same?)

In short, nature cares about what it takes to survive, not what is moral. Nature is reacting to what matters most: survival. Meanwhile, a designer-God should build nature to react to what matters to him most: morality.

Conclusion

If God exists, and he is a moral God, we might expect his creation to naturally punish evil; yet few of the things that harm us in nature could be considered immoral, and few things that the Bible insists are immoral carry natural consequences.

The bizarre, nonsensical, and haphazardous way in which natural “penalties” have been distributed in our world suggest there wasn’t much intelligent thought put behind how nature ought to punish us for our behavior.

God could (and should) have constructed a world where sin was naturally punished, and irrelevant actions were ignored. Such natural consequences would’ve made policing our world much easier, if every man were to receive “in themselves the due penalty for their error.” This kind of natural karma would also ensure that every punishment fit the crime, and would even suggest that this world was designed by an intelligent creator who was concerned about justice and morality. But this is not what we observe.

If God is truly the creator, and the commands in the Bible are his (and not man’s), then we might expect to see the creator enforcing his rules through his creation, but we don’t (suggesting the laws laid out in the Bible were reasoned by men, and not God).

So go ahead, and feast upon the flesh of your children as you blaspheme the Holy Spirit. God won’t punish you. Not yet. Just don’t serve your children with peanuts or shellfish if you or your guests are allergic… because, apparently, God has set some limits.

Posted in God's Behavior, Intelligent Design?, Logic and Reason | Tagged , , , | 58 Comments

65. Does the Giraffe’s neck infer intelligent design or evolution?

GiraffeAs we’ve seen, nature’s extremes can yield clues about whether evolution, or intelligent design, best explains the design choices we observe in nature. The long neck of the giraffe is no exception, and is used by both creationists and evolutionists to make their case.

Long neck challenges

The long neck of the giraffe presents several physiological challenges that must be overcome in order to ensure the giraffe’s survival. Blood pressure must be strong enough to overcome gravity all the way up that six-foot-long neck, and when the giraffe lowers its head (e.g. to take a drink), the blood must be restrained from flowing too quickly down into the head, possibly causing brain damage or fainting.

There are several ways in which these challenges are overcome, and some creationists claim that these features are evidence of intelligent design.

The “Wonderful” Rete Mirabile

The rete mirabile (Latin for “wonderful net”) is a large blood vessel which branches off into a network of smaller vessels, and then reunites into a single trunk (or connects with other blood vessels). When two of these “nets” are headed in opposite directions, they can intertwine (or connect) to facilitate the exchange of heat, gasses (such as oxygen), and/or assist in circulation.

Circulus_arteriosus_schafSome creationists claim the rete mirabile is evidence for intelligent design, saying a designer placed it at the base of the giraffe’s brain to prevent sudden changes in blood pressure. And I must confess, as a Creationist, I found this fact to be rather impressive (which is why I chose to research it further).

But upon investigation, I discovered that the giraffe is not the only animal with a rete mirabile at the base of its brain. The okapi (the only other member of the family Giraffidae, which has a much shorter neck) also has one! As do cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo, camels, and even pigs. (And many other animals also use a rete mirabile in various ways in various body parts.)

Clearly, the rete mirabile Okapiwas not designed specifically to remedy the problems associated with having a long neck. But by failing to mention these other animals, the creationist misleads his/her audience into believing the design is exclusive to the giraffe.

One-way venous valves

Creationists also point to the one-way valves in the veins of the giraffe’s neck, which prevent blood from rushing back to the brain when the giraffe lowers its head. This too sounds impressive… if you’re unaware that the veins of most creatures are equipped with one-way valves.

Again, the creationist omits this fact, leading some to assume that God designed these valves specifically to deal with the problems of having a long neck.

The recurrent laryngeal nerve

Evolutionists also use the neck of the giraffe to argue their own case for evolution, claiming that the recurrent laryngeal nerve is evidence of poor design, which is best explained by evolutionary processes.

Instead of this nerve running directly from the brain to the larynx (which is only a couple inches away), it runs the entire length of the giraffe’s six-foot-long neck, loops around a major artery, and then heads all he way back up the neck to connect to the larynx. That’s a 12′ long nerve for a connection just a couple inches away. (If you have to see it to believe it, you’re welcome to watch a dissection of a giraffe’s laryngeal nerve below.)

Evolutionists claim that this route exists in most mammals (including us) as a vestigial throwback to a time when the nerve took a much more direct route from the brain of a fish ancestor to its gills. As fish gradually turned into land animals, and grew longer and longer necks, this nerve was never redirected (presumably because it functioned just fine as it was).

However, this argument too is a little misleading.

Creationists point out that this nerve is also responsible for carrying sensory, secretory, and motor fibres to segments of the esophagus and the trachea. If that’s the case, then it’s misleading for atheists to omit this fact (leaving their audience to assume the only purpose for this nerve is to serve the larynx).

Creationists also frequently claim that this design is somehow due to developmental constraints, and that the pathway is necessary for the development of an embryo. However, this claim is difficult (if not impossible) to prove.

Conclusion

Creationists present the rete mirabile and venous valves as “God’s gifts to giraffes,” even though both features exist in other animals, regardless of their neck length. Creationists would do better to point to these features in general, in all animals the in which they exist, rather than signaling out the giraffe (though these features in and of themselves are hardly the best evidence for design).

Likewise, atheists present the recurrent laryngeal nerve as “evolution’s gift to atheists,” even though it serves more than one purpose. Atheists would also do better to point out any other connections, so there is no misunderstanding.

I don’t believe there is a clear winner in this case, though if I had to stick my neck out (and my laryngeal nerve), I still find it peculiar that the recurrent laryngeal nerve loops around an artery (where it appears to do nothing), only to make make a return trip back up the neck. A singular descent, branching off to make any necessary connections (as most nerves do) would seem to be a more logical choice.

Posted in Intelligent Design? | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

64. Did Jesus set a deadline for his return?

The end of all things is near.
— 1 Peter 4:7

“Say what you like,” we shall be told, “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.” It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.
— C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays, p.97

Jesus and his FollowersThe late, great C.S. Lewis once confessed to believing that Jesus had made several “embarrassing” predictions about his return. While Lewis and others have invested a great deal of time in trying to absolve Jesus of this embarrassment, many Bible scholars and skeptics maintain that the best way to read the New Testament is with the understanding that Jesus and his followers believed they were living in the end times, and that Jesus’ return would occur within one generation.

But if Jesus really did set a deadline, it’s more than just “embarrassing,” it is possibly the strongest piece of evidence in the case against Christ, so let’s take a careful look a where this idea originates, and the Christian campaign to try and explain it away.

Apocalyptic origins

Ideas about an upcoming global apocalypse originate with Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Joel, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Zechariah.

[ The End Times ] “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then.
— Daniel 21:1

The great Day of the Lord is near, near and rapidly approaching. … I will bring distress on mankind, and they will walk like the blind because they have sinned against the LordTheir blood will be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung. … The whole earth will be consumed by the fire of His jealousy. For He will make a complete, yes, a horrifying end of all the inhabitants of the earth.
— Zeph. 1:14-18

The Lord is angry with all nationshis wrath is on all their armiesHe will totally destroy themhe will give them over to slaughter. Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will stink; the mountains will be soaked with their blood. All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree.
— Isaiah 34:2-4

“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.”
— Daniel 2:44

These Old Testament prophets warned that at at time when the great prince arrived, there would be a time of great distress, and “a horrifying end” would come upon “all the inhabitants of the earth.” When would it come? “The great Day of the Lord” was “near and rapidly approaching.” 

John the Apocalyptic Baptist

Just as there are Christians today who believe the end is near, there were Jews 2,000 years ago who believed the same thing. John the Baptist was one of them, and we can see the influence of these Old Testament prophets in his words.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
— Matt. 11:2-3

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? … The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
— Matt 3:7-10

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
— Matt. 3:2

Taking his cues from Old Testament prophets, John believed an apocalypse was soon approaching. The “coming wrath” would be preceded by the arrival of “the one who is to come,” who would bring about the end and the establishment of God’s new kingdom.

Jesus the Apocalyptic Christ

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus aligns himself with John the Baptist (as opposed to some other Jewish sect), which suggests he agrees with John’s apocalyptic views.

Jesus and the ApocalypseJesus later goes on to claim that he is indeed the promised messiah, and cites many of the same apocalyptic references. Jesus too warns that a time of “great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world” was coming soon (Matthew 24:21). Jesus’ disciples ask him, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them:

29 Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the skyand the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 30 Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. 32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. 36 But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
— Matt. 24:27-36

While Jesus says he does not know the exact day or hour, he does claim to know the generation in which these events would occur. But which generation? Was Jesus referring to his own generation, or a future one?

Jesus appears to be speaking directly to his disciples when he says, “when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” (as opposed to “when they see” or “when that generation sees”). Also, Jesus never asks his followers to write this message down for a future generation, so his words might be preserved for those who would witness these things.

An earlier chapter in Matthew seems to clarify what Jesus meant by “generation.”

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
— Matthew 16:27-28

Jesus appears to define a generation as the lifetime of those standing there with him.

Revelation 22:12 and Daniel 12:13 tell us that the rewards given to each person will be distributed at the Second Coming, or “at the end of the days.” This can only mean one thing: the generation standing there would “not taste death” before they witnessed Jesus rewarding “each person according to what they have done.” They would witness the Second coming and the end of days.

Luke tells a similar story:

32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. … 34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
— Luke 21:22-36

Again, Jesus appears to be speaking directly to the people of that generation, warning them to remain on guard, because of the events that were “about to happen” to “all those who live on the face of the whole earth.”

And the same goes for Mark:

29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
— Mark 13:29-30

(Interestingly, in the Book of John, the last gospel written, all mentions of a return in “this generation” are mysteriously missing. Why would John retell the same story, but omit a key detail that appears in all the other gospels? Could it be that the author wrote after that generation had already passed?)

Jesus seems much more interested in getting his message out to the present generation than preserving it for future a future one. He even tells his disciples:

 “Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
— Mat. 10:23

Some believers claim this refers to his first coming, but Jesus makes a similar promise about the “coming” of the “Son of Man” to the high priest:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” I am,” said Jesus. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.
— Mark 14:61-62

Jesus before CaiaphasAgain, the “Son of Man” is said to be “coming,” and it’s clear that Jesus is referring to the Second Coming (which would be on the clouds). But the high priest never witnessed either event.

In this promise to the high priest, Jesus sets a deadline that is consistent with all the others: Jesus would return in one generation, before all of his followers had “tasted death,” before his message had reached all of Israel, and before the death of the high priest. Even the men who nailed Jesus to the cross were to witness his return (Rev. 1:7).

Other indirect evidence from the gospels

Jesus makes many other indirect statements about the coming judgement, his impending return, and the establishment of his new kingdom.

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
— Mark 1:15

As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’
— Mat. 10:7

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.
— John 16:16

“If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
— Mark 8:38

And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
— Luke 18:7-8

But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.” I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
— Luke 10:10-12

And in speaking to the scribes and pharisees, Jesus says:

35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.
— Matt. 23:33-36

Judgement was coming to the towns and “adulterous and sinful” people of “this generation.” It would make little sense for God to pour out the punishments of Sodom upon these towns today, since they no longer contain the populations that rejected Jesus. It appears that Jesus believed he would leave for “a little while,” and then they would see him again, when he came to reward and judge these towns, and these people, in their own lifetimes.

The Apocalyptic Early Church

Even if we didn’t have the gospels, we could still establish what Jesus had promised his followers based on their beliefs.

James, John, Peter, Paul and others all indicated they believed they were living in the last days, and that God’s wrath and Jesus’ return were eminent.

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
— Acts 1:11

 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. … The Judge is standing at the door!
— James 5:8-9

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.
— 1 Peter 1:13

The RaptureHe was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
— 1 Peter 1:20

Live such good lives among the pagans that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
— 1 Peter 2:12

The end of all things is near.
— 1 Peter 4:7

You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.
— 2 Peter 3:11-12

The Lord is near.
— Phil. 4:5

When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
— Col. 3:45

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.
— 2 Thes. 1:6-7

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him…
— 2 Thes. 2:1

Do not look for a wife … the time is short … this world in its present form is passing away.
— 1 Cor. 7:27-31

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.
— 1 Cor. 10:11

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
— 1 Cor. 15:51-52

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…
— Heb. 1:1-2

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. … For, In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.
— Heb. 10:24-37

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.
— 1 John 2:18

16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
— 1 Thes. 4:16-18

Why did all these men believe that “the end of all things” was at hand? Why did they believe they “would not all sleep” before Jesus returned to meet them “in the air”? Why did they believe that they should not marry, and that the “world in its present form” was “passing away”? Why did they believe they were living at “the culmination of the ages,” in “the last hour,” when Jesus would return in “just a little while”?

It was, as C.S. Lewis had observed, because “their Master had told them so.”

If Jesus wasn’t planning on returning right away, he certainly did nothing to clear up this confusion. When the Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost, it said nothing; and when Jesus appeared to Paul, and later to John (in Revelation), he said nothing. To the contrary, Jesus continued to promote the idea that his return was imminent.

The Apocalyptic Book of Revelation

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus appears to John in a vision, and directs him to write to seven churches that existed at that time (Rev. 1:10-11).

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t direct John to write to the churches of a future generation. Jesus does not bother to discuss the major schism that would eventually develop between Catholics and Protestants, or address the rise of Islam. Rather, Jesus’ concern is focused on the churches of that day.

Jesus tells them:

Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
— Rev. 2:16

But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
— Rev. 3:3

I am coming soon.”
— Rev. 3:11

John is then given a vision of the end times, and at the close of this lengthy vision, John is told something else of great interest.

When the Old Testament prophet Daniel was given his apocalyptic visions, God told him to seal up his scroll, because it was intended for a future time (Daniel 12:4). But when John was given his apocalyptic vision, he is told the opposite.

 Dead-Sea-scrollsThe angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take placeLook, I am coming soon!” … Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near.” … “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.” … I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. … He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
— Rev. 22:6-20

John was not to seal up the scroll, because all these things “must soon take place.”

Not only does Jesus repeatedly stress that he is coming soon, he also states, “My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.” As we saw in Matthew 16:27-28, Jesus promised those living with him that they would not taste death before they witnessed this event.

Apocalyptic thinking throughout

From the apocalyptic words of Old Testament prophets, to John the Baptist, to the promises of Jesus, to the words of his followers, to the book of Revelation, the Bible presents a consistent message throughout: repent, pack your bags, spend your children’s inheritance — the end is now!

If Jesus did set a deadline, and failed to satisfy it, it should spell “game over” for Jesus. But as you might imagine, many explanations have been developed to try and explain this situation. Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular explanations, to see if they provide a better explanation than what is otherwise so apparent.

Peter attempts to extend the deadline

One of the earliest known attempts to explain Jesus’ failure to return within one generation appears in 2 Peter:

Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
— 2 Peter 3:3-4

(Note that most non-Christian Bible scholars regard 2 Peter to be pseudepigraphical, and written in retrospect, after Peter’s death. Few, if any, excuses for Christ’s delay are found in earlier works.)

These verses suggest that people had begun asking why they should continue to believe in Jesus now that his generation had died off. Jesus had not returned as promised, the apocalypse did not occur, and life went on as it always had.

Interestingly, “Peter” doesn’t deny that Jesus promised a swift return, rather, he tries to water-down the problem by claiming God has a different perception of time:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.
— 2 Peter 3:8

But this is no excuse, because Jesus used earthly markers to denote his timeline for returning (e.g. one generation, the lives of those standing there, the lifetime of the high priest, the apostles visiting all of Israel, and so on). These markers all relate to the human perception of time, not God’s.

Next, Peter tries to claim that Jesus isn’t “slow” in returning, but rather he is exhibiting patience.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
— 2 Peter 3:9

While this sounds nice, it too fails for several reasons.

  1. If Jesus was truly concerned that none should perish, he would’ve returned 2,000 years ago, before billions more could perish.
  2. Jesus never allowed for “patience” in any of the deadlines that he set. He did not say, “I’ll return before all of you are dead… unless I need to exhibit patience, in which case it may be longer.” To the contrary, verses like Hebrews 10:37 and Luke 18:7-8 promise that Jesus would not be delayed in his coming. So if Jesus has chosen to delay, then he still failed to predict this delay, and made false promises.
  3. At what point, exactly, does “everyone come to repentance”? With each new generation, there is a finite number of people who will repent, and that is the point when Jesus should return. If he allows another generation to exist, then even more will perish, and this could continue on indefinitely. (In Peter’s case, he appears to believe Jesus is delaying just long enough to pick off a few last souls, but will still return soon.)
  4. And finally, is God’s delay due to his perception of time, or patience? Peter appears to be throwing out multiple excuses, in homes that one will stick. If his delay is due to his own perception of time, then he is not exhibiting patience, he is right on schedule. But if it is due to patience, then his perception of time is completely irrelevant, and there is no need to even mention it.

Lewis, Futurists, and Preterists, oh my!

C.S. Lewis eventually went on to try and excuse Jesus’ statements by claiming that Jesus spoke out of ignorance, because he did not know the day nor the hour. In other words, Jesus thought his return would occur within one generation, but he was mistaken. But most modern apologists shy away from this explanation, because it’s not very God-like to make such extraordinary (and potentially false) claims while ignorant.

C.S. LewisBut it was clear to Lewis, as it still is to many others, that Jesus had promised a literal return within one generation. But accepting both these truths leads to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus failed, and therefore, Christians must choose which fact they’re going to embrace (literal return or one generation), and which they’re going to reinterpret. Because both facts are equally well supported, today’s Christians are still divided over how to resolve this matter.

Christians known as “futurists” believe that Jesus promised a literal return, but they deny that he set a deadline of one generation. Conversely, “preterists” believe Jesus set a deadline of one generation, but deny he promised a literal return.

(If you’re interested, you can watch both sides duke it out further, here.)

The Futurists

Futurism is the most popular view among U.S. Protestants, and was exemplified in the popular Left Behind series.

Since futurists accept a literal return, their challenge is to reinterpret every verse where Jesus appears to promise a return, or judgement, or apocalypse within one generation. The futurist must also play down all those pesky apocalyptic beliefs espoused by Jesus’ earliest followers.

Since Jesus’ words are considered the most authoritative (the followers may have just been “mistaken”), let’s focus on how the futurist interprets these.

“This generation” (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; and Luke 21:32)

According to many futurists, when Jesus says, “This generation shall not pass,” Jesus is saying that the “Christian race” will not die out before his return.

While the word for “generation” can possibly be interpreted as “race,” this doesn’t align well with Jesus’ other similar statements, or the beliefs of the early church. He also doesn’t act as if his words must be preserved for this future generation. And if this was what Jesus was promising — that Christianity would not pass away before his return — then why did he ask, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).

If it wasn’t Jesus’ generation that would witness his return, which generation will it be? Futurists say it will be the generation that witnesses events like the fig tree’s leaves emerging.

Unfortunately, understanding fig leaves is about as scientific as reading tea leaves, and this “last generation” has been misidentified many times.

According to Luke, the “time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written” began when Jerusalem was “surrounded by armies” (Luke 21:20-36) around 70 A.D. For Luke, the fig leaves had already begun to emerge, signaling the beginning of the end. But the end never came.

And according to 1 John 2:18, the early church knew they were living in the “last days” because “many antichrists” had come, just as Jesus had warned. But the end never came.

Fast-forward 2,000 years, and futurists were claiming that the fig leaves were emerging when the gentiles “stopped trampling Jerusalem” in 1948 (when Israel once again became a nation). However, that generation has also now come and gone, and the world did not end.

What good would it do for Jesus to warn a future generation, if it would be impossible to identify that generation?

“Some will not taste death”

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
— Matthew 16:27-28

Here, many futurists claim that Jesus was referring to the transfiguration, which always follows this pronouncement in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). But Jesus associates the “coming in his kingdom” with rewarding each person, which does not occur at the transfiguration. We can only conclude that those who would “not taste death” were also those who would witness the assignment of rewards, which only happens at the Second Coming.

Jesus’ statements to the high priest

“And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
— Matt. 1:23

Here, futurists claim that Jesus didn’t mean the high priest would personally witness Jesus’ return, but rather, Jesus was just making a reference to the prophet Daniel, to indicate that he was the “Son of Man,” or the Messiah.

While Jesus does appear to be referencing this apocalyptic verse in Daniel, it doesn’t excuse the fact that Jesus also claims the high priest will witness these events. Jesus could’ve just as easily insisted he was the Son of Man without indicating that the high priest would witness his return.

Others futurists claim that the high priest might possibly witness this event from beyond the grave (citing Philippians 2:10-11). While this is a possibility, it seems more consistent to say that Jesus was repeating the same teaching he’d been giving all along: he was coming in one generation, before everyone died, before his message would reach all of Israel, and before the high priest died.

Futurists and the early church

Even if we accept all these futurist interpretations, we still must wrestle with the beliefs of the early church.

Here, futurists claim that words like “near” and “soon” are relative to God, and subjective enough to mean several thousand years. And when the early church speaks of his return for them, they are really speaking of Jesus’ return for Christians in general. And when that doesn’t work, the early church is said to have been a little confused, but they were only human.

Full-preterism

Full-preterists take the opposing view, accepting that Jesus taught he would return within one literal generation, but they deny he would make a literal return.

The full-preterist isn’t burdened with having to deny all the apocalyptic statements of Jesus and his followers, but they still must find symbolic parallels for every end-time prophecy within one generation of Jesus’ life.

Luckily for preterists, symbolism is more art than science, and symbolism introduces so much ambiguity that just about anything can easily be said to have symbolized something else.

For example, when the second temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, preterists claim that this was when Jesus’ returned in the clouds… in the Father’s glory… with a loud trumpet blast (all symbolically, of course).

To make their case, preterists mine the Old Testament for any verses that happen to mention both judgement and clouds, no matter how loosely (e.g. Psalm 97:2, Jer. 4:13-14, Nah. 1:3, and Zep. 1:15-17). They then claim that everyone in Jesus’ day understood that “coming in the clouds” was Jew-code for judgement.

Did anyone physically see Jesus coming in clouds? No. But the destruction of Jerusalem in 66-70 A.D. they did see. And that is what Jesus meant by people seeing Him come in clouds. He meant they would see His judgment. His destruction. Coming in clouds was simply synonymous with destruction and wrath of God, therefore they would see the destruction.
— MF Blume

Futurists, of course, reject this symbolism, pointing out that Jesus was to “come back in the same way” that he left, in physical form (Acts 1:11). They also point out that his followers were to be literally transformed and caught up in the air to meet him (1 Thes. 4:17).

From a more historical perspective, what happened in 68 AD was that Jews refused to pay taxes, so the Romans plundered their temple. This infuriated the Jews, and triggered an all-out rebellion against Rome. (Some Jews even believed this was when their new king/messiah would arise, to help them defeat their enemies.) Many Jews gathered in Jerusalem for protection, but infighting broke out between them, and they were soon defeated. The Romans then destroyed the temple to teach the Jews a lesson. JerusalemSiege

So… was this what Jesus meant when he said, “all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”? That God would send some Romans to destroy the second temple? Over a tax dispute?

Full-preterists go on to claim that all prophecies were actually fulfilled by 70 AD. This is a bold claim, and futurists object, pointing out a number of inconsistencies with this interpretation. For example:

  • Jesus warned that devastating events would “come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth,” not just Israel.
  • In Matthew 24:21-22, Jesus says that this time of “great distress” would never be equaled again.” Was this really the worst distress the world has ever known?
  • Luke says that immediately after the distress of those days, the sun would be darkened, and the moon would not give its light, and the stars would fall from the sky. None of this happened (well, not literally, anyway).
  • Ezekiel 39:2-28 promises that God would bring every last Jew back to Israel, which still has not happened.

Full-preterists also claim that Revelation was written before 70 AD, and that all of its prophecies have already been fulfilled: Jesus has already come, Satan has already been bound, and the new heaven and new earth are already in place! (Somehow, I imagined the new world would have a lot more peace and far less porn… or more porn… I’m not really sure how much porn is supposed to exist in God’s new kingdom… perhaps we now have the perfect amount of porn?)

Futurists retort that we can’t possibly be living in God’s new kingdom, because Paul dismissed the idea of an early return 2,000 years ago (2 Tim. 2:14-18), and Revelation says there will be no more death in God’s new kingdom (Rev. 21:4).

Partial-Preterism

Cognizant of the fact that both these explanations aren’t without huge problems, partial-preterists try to patch things up by opting for two separate returns, one figurative, one literal. (And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more complicated!)

These partial-preterists agree with full-preterists that some of Jesus’ predictions were fulfilled symbolically in the past (such as the destruction of the temple symbolizing his return), but they leave room for a literal Second Coming (though technically, I think that would make it his third coming, if we count the symbolic one).

But partial-preterism is nothing more than a marriage of convenience; a hybrid compromise cooked up to allow its adherents greater flexibility in picking and choosing which verses are symbolic, literal, past, or future. Ultimately, partial-preterism’s futurist leanings fail for the same reasons futurism does, and likewise for its full-preterist leanings.

But wait, there’s more!

The interpretations don’t end there. There are other explanations, such as historicism, which attempts to spread the prophetic fulfillments across the centuries, and idealism, which says, “Screw it, none of this makes sense, the whole thing must be one big spiritual metaphor.” But these are less popular.

Conclusion

While Christians have done their best to excuse and reinterpret Jesus’ promises, both the apocalyptic expectations of the Old and New Testament and the beliefs of the early church combine to amplify and clarify Jesus’ non-so-subtle statements about when he believed the Second Coming would occur: within one generation.

Honestly, I don’t know how much more explicit Jesus could’ve been, other than to say, “I will literally return in literal clouds within 70 literal years, to hand out literal rewards, before all of you are literally dead.”

Matthew 16:28

The futurists are correct in saying that Jesus and his followers believed in a literal return, and the preterists are correct in saying that Jesus and his followers believed in a literal deadline of one generation. They are also correct in their criticisms of the other. And ironically, in debating each other, futurists and preterists give us plenty of good reasons to believe that Jesus had promised both a literal return, and a return within one generation. Both of these ideas are clearly spelled out in the Bible and do not conflict. If futurists and preterists would only agree on both of these facts, they would have one of the most reasonable, comprehensive, consistent, and intellectually defensible positions possible. But they cannot, because this would mean admitting Jesus failed. But since when is failure not an option?

While one can never prove that Jesus walked on water, or healed the sick, or rose from the dead, I believe we can prove — with a high degree of confidence — that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who promised to return within one generation. And he failed.

But if I’m wrong, and I find myself standing before God and he asks, “Why didn’t you believe Jesus was my son?” I would honestly answer, “I wanted to! But Jesus and his followers clearly believed he would return within one generation, and he failed! A real Son of God would not have failed! A real Son of God would’ve kept his promises!” And if God replied, “But you misunderstood! Jesus never promised to return within one generation!” I would reply, “Then Jesus was a deceiver, for he knew his words were being misunderstood by his followers, and he never bothered to correct them. Even after his death, he continued to mislead John. I know that God is not the the author of confusion, and that Satan is the only deceiver of men. Thus, I knew Jesus could not have been your son.”

Posted in Jesus, New Testament, Prophecy | Tagged , , , , , | 33 Comments

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 , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

62. Why aren’t modern 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 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 was 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 modern 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 other modern 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, 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 , , , , , , | 22 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. 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 an expiration date, 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 may one day return from the dead to bring about world peace (can’t prove he won’t). It’s easy to claim, and impossible to prove or disprove.

The reason deadlines are so critical is because, without them, predictions can be worded so they are 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, 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 based on this perfect performance record, 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 impressive if it predicted something exceedingly improbable that actually did come 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.

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