61. Are we allowed to test God?


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.


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 , , | 47 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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Jesus, New Testament, Old Testament, Prophecy | Tagged , , , , | 36 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Zechariah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the prophecy in question

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

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

Never again?

The King James translates it a bit differently:

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

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

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

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

A dual meaning?

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

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

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

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

Was God only speaking of Alexander the Great?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did the Jews not read the end user license agreement?

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

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

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

From literal to figurative?

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

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

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

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

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

The people being protected were Christians, not Jews

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

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

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

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

Let’s read that verse again.

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

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

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

Was God speaking of the future?

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

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

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

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

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


There is no consensus among Christians as to how to resolve this difficult problem, and no matter how believers try to spin this one, God ends up intentionally deceiving the Jews. He either deceives them by 1) leading them to believe that he will protect them from all enemies, when he only meant one (Alexander the Great); 2) saying they will “never again” be overrun, when he knows they will be; 3) letting them think he will protect them and the temple, when he was actually referring to the Christian church; or 4) letting them think he would offer continuous protection, when he really meant on-again-off-again protection.

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

Posted in Biblical Contradictions, Old Testament, Prophecy | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

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

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

Proof of Design vs. Proof of God and Christianity

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

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

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

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

Other Explanations for Design 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Intelligent Design? | Tagged , , | 35 Comments

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

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

Pascal writes:

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

Pascal’s Wager appeals to us because it seems reasonable that we should take precautions to avoid negative consequences, even though evidence is lacking. With our eternal life on the line, even if there is only a small chance that God exists, doesn’t it makes sense to err on the side of caution, just in case?

Claims and Consequences

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

Let’s take a closer look at each of these two parts.


When someone makes a claim that might be called into question, it is their responsibility to meet the burden of proof. This is just a practical matter, since it’s all-too-easy to make up all sorts of claims.

For example, I could claim that:

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

The list of things that could be claimed is endless, and because these claims can be difficult to prove, the burden should not be placed on you to prove all of them.

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

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

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

It is nothing short of extraordinary to claim that invisible supernatural beings exist, and that one in-particular has always existed without cause; and that he is omniscient, and omnipresent, and created everything out of nothing, and that a part of him came to earth through a virgin, and performed miracles, and sacrificed himself to save everyone from sin and eternal suffering. This is the claim Pascal is making, and such a fantastic claim surely demands extraordinary evidence.

Using excuses used to avoid falsification

If a claim cannot be proven true, it’s equally important that it at least be falsifiable, so that (either way) the truth can eventually be discovered. Falsifiability is also important because its easy to make excuses, in order to render a claim unfalsifiable.

Carl Sagan gave the example of claiming to have a dragon in his garage. When you go to investigate his incredible claim, you find he starts to make excuses. He claims the dragon is invisible, incorporeal, and blows a heatless fire that will not register on any scale. Through his many excuses, Sagan renders his claim unfalsifiable. He has not proved his claim, and he has made it impossible to test.

Similarly, Christianity excuses itself from having to meet the burden of proof by saying that God has intentionally obscured all the concrete evidence. Is this true? Or was this just an excuse that was offered to avoid having to meet the burden of proof, and to make the claim impossible to falsify?

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

And gods are not the only ones excusing themselves from having to meet the burden of proof. Just about every spirit, monster, UFO alien, sasquatch, fairy, leprechaun, chupacabra, and unicorn also has an excuse for not providing proof. It’s never that they don’t exist, it’s always because they are rare, or invisible, or small, or elusive, or on vacation, or there is a conspiracy to cover them up.

God is no different. Instead of providing any real proof, we hear lots of excuses for why the burden of proof can never be met.

Evidence and reason are all we have to work with when it comes to determining the truth of our reality. Once we agree to start accepting excuses in place of facts, we logically obligate ourselves to accept many other unsubstantiated claims.


Having excused itself from having to meet the burden of proof, and making excuses for why these claims cannot be tested or falsified, Christianity then warns us of consequences for not believing… and they are severe.

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

However, it is entirely possible for there to exist real consequences for an unsubstantiated claim (e.g. “The Yankees are coming!”). But greater skepticism is certainly warranted whenever the claimant stands to gain from your reaction, or the consequence is associated with an extraordinary claim.

Superstitious Claims and Consequences

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

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

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

Consider the chain letter for a moment. It’s obvious that the original author invented the consequences as a way to motivate others to distribute his letter. The consequences of Christianity may have been invented for similar reasons, because they work to motivate others to believe in Christianity, and pass it along.

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

So Pascal’s Wager (and Christianity) not only skirts around the burden of proof, but by making claims of eternal consequences, it injects the maximum amount of urgency into its claim without providing any additional evidence. What’s more, because the consequences do not become apparent until after you’re dead, neither the original claim nor its consequences can be proven nor falsified — you can’t prove it, you can’t disprove it, and the consequences are the most extreme imaginable. (Brilliant!)

The Problem of Mohammad

But by the same logic, Pascal could’ve just as easily wagered for belief in Islam:

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

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

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

But what if you’re wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

If it turns out that aliens are responsible for creating us, and they return next Tuesday to enslave and torture us, do they have the moral authority to do so? Would you stand idly by as they jab hot pokers into the eyes of your friends and family? Reasoning that, “It’s okay, because they created us!” Will you stand there in Heaven, watching as Satan jabs hot pokers into my eyes, saying, “It’s okay, because God created him!”

Hell Viewing Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t stress enough how insanely suspicious it is that God should place any importance on our ability to believe without evidence. If God were real, and truly a God of love, he should place value on things like love, compassion, mercy, virtue, forgiveness, etc., and judge us on these things.

While it does not make sense that God should desire faith above all else, it does make sense that humans would invent this rule, as an excuse for the lack of evidence. Likewise, while it does not make sense that God should allow eternal torment, it does make sense that humans would invent this threat, to motivate people through fear. 

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

I strongly suspect that ideas like “hell” and “faith without evidence” exist not because they are reasonable, or true, but because they motivate us to action.


Is Pascal’s Wager a compelling argument? Absolutely! It is probably the most compelling argument one could forge from absolutely nothing.

However, Pascal’s wager is also a logical fallacy, known as “argumentum ad baculum” (Latin for  “argument to the stick”) or “argumentum ad consequentiam” (“argument to the consequence”). It appeals to a fear of punishment, rather than offering evidence. (The promise of heaven likewise appeals to a consequence without offering evidence.)

Pascal’s Wager asks us to betray our mind to cover our ass. It does a disservice to truth, asking followers to elevate their beliefs based on fear, rather than evidence. It adds no new evidence for the existence of God; employs the same tricks as superstition; could be used to defend any god, and it asks that we betray our own sense of truth and morality in order to embrace it.

The only thing we know with any certainty is that we have this life, and we are asked by Pascal to wager part of it away, in hopes of getting another. In accepting Pascal’s Wager, we wager our minds, our money, our time, our reason, our morality, our children, and possibly even the very survival of our species.

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

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
–Unknown (Paraphrased from the work of Marcus Aurelius)

Posted in God's Behavior, Heaven and Hell, Logic and Reason | Tagged , , , , | 82 Comments

56. Why did God create Satan?

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
~ Colossians 1:16

God’s creation of Satan is one of the most perplexing and counter-intuitive ideas in the Bible. Even if we can somehow manage to acquit God of the charge of creating evil itself, he is still guilty of creating Satan, an entity whom he knew would turn evil. So I’ve gotta ask: what on earth was God thinking?

Jesus: “Hey dad, whatchya doin’?”God creating Satan

God: “Creating an angel who will rebel against me and bring horrible pain and suffering to mankind.”

Jesus: (Spitting out his holy water) “WHAT!? Why!? Why would you do that?”

God: “Well, I want to create some worshipers who will love me and love what is good. In order to have that, I need them to experience both good and evil, so they can freely choose the good.”

Jesus: “Okay… go on.”

God: “Well, if they are truly lovers of good, and they see me doing evil, the won’t love me, will they? Also, I am perfectly good, so I couldn’t do evil even if I wanted to. That’s why I’m creating ‘Satan,’ an angel who can do evil and take all the blame.”

Jesus: “But won’t the humans just blame you for creating this ‘Satan’?”

God: “Na, I’m not going to make them that smart.”

Jesus: “But still… whether you do evil, or you create someone who does, it’s still you instigating it; Satan can’t do evil if you don’t create him. Also, how can a perfect God even make an imperfect thing?”

God: “Son, you are waaaay over-thinking this. All you need to understand is this: God good, Satan bad. Satan will tempt the humans into sinning, do a bunch of evil, and try to steal their souls. That’s when we — and by we, I mean you — swoop down and save the day! Ta da! We’ll be like superheroes! And in the end, I’ll show everyone how good I am by casting Satan into the lake of fire for all the evil he did.”

Jesus: “You mean… all the evil you did. How about you just show everyone how good you are by not creating Satan?”

God: “Son, you don’t understand, I need Satan. If there is no Satan, Adam and Eve will never sin, and –”

Jesus: “Wait, hold on… never? Are you sure?”

God: “Sure I’m sure. I would much rather they sin of their own accord, that way all the responsibility for the fall rests on them, but they’re just not taking the bait.”

Jesus: “So… let me get this straight; you’ve set up this forbidden tree, and they’re not biting, so you think they need a little more… motivation?”

God: “Ya, just a little push in the wrong direction.”

Jesus: “And if you don’t create Satan, the fall will never happen, and everything will remain perfect and good?”

God: “Yes, and that’s a problem.”

Jesus: “So… you are orchestrating the fall?”

God: “No. Yes. Probably. Maybe. Indirectly. But I assure you it’s for a good reason.”

Jesus: “If it’s for a good reason, why not just explain to them that it’s in their best interest to sin?”

God: “Because, I’ve already told them to never eat of the tree, so if I go down there now and try to talk them into it, I’ll look ridiculous. And besides, I don’t tempt people, only Satan does (James 1:13).”

Jesus:You don’t tempt people!? What do you call that forbidden fruit tree in the middle of the garden?”

God: “Um… ornamentation?

Jesus: “So you create the temptation, and you create the tempter… but you still deny any wrongdoing?”

God: “Correct. The way I see it, I’m creating a good angel, it’s not my fault if he chooses to do evil.”

Jesus: “But you already know he will! Ugh… let me try to describe the problem in a way I think you’ll understand. There once was a man who hated his brother and wanted to kill him, but he didn’t want to become guilty of sin. When the man heard about a violent slave who had killed his last two masters, the man went and purchased the slave, and gave him to his brother as a gift. Now, if the slave kills his brother, whom will you find guilty of sin?”

God: “That’s easy, I would find them both guilty; the slave for the act of murder, and the man for giving the slave to his brother when he knew full well he was going to… oooohhhh, I see where you’re going with this.”

Jesus: “Good, so you understand that if you create Satan, knowing full well what he will do, then you are every bit as guilty. If you are perfectly good, you cannot create something that will do evil, and if you do — and you are perfectly just — you must cast yourself into the lake of fire for bringing such evil into existence.”

God: “Whoa, hold on there! I’m also a God of mercy! Can’t I just figure out a way to forgive myself? Or cast you into hell in my place?”

Jesus: “It’s always about the loopholes with you, isn’t it?”

All jokes aside, is it reasonable to believe that a perfectly-good, all-knowing God would create anything that would result in the production of evil? Surely a perfectly-good God would have some sort of zero-tolerance policy on evil, and would bring any evil to a quick end… but he doesn’t.

The Christian rebuttals

Believers almost universally maintain God’s innocence when it comes to doing any evil, and they typically defend God’s creation of Satan by making one (or more) of the following claims:

  1. God created a “good” angel named Lucifer, who turned evil of his own free will.
  2. God has a good reason for creating Satan, but it’s a mystery.
  3. God uses the work of Satan to help him “manifest his glory.”
  4. You can’t have freewill without Satan.

1) God created a good angel named Lucifer, who turned evil of his own free will.

But just because God created Satan, does not mean that He created him as an evil being. Rather, God created him good, and then he chose to become evil.
Eric Lyons, M.Min.Has Satan Always Existed?Apologetics Press, 2005

I’m surprised how often this answer is given without any further explanation, as if God simply didn’t know Satan would turn evil.

How could God consider Satan “good” when he knew he would turn evil? This is like a car manufacturer calling his cars “good” when he knows the engines will blow-up after 50,000 miles. To call them “good” is either a lie or incredibly shortsighted.

If God knew Satan would become evil, and chose to create him anyway (as opposed to skipping him and creating a different angel, or creating him with different desires, or not creating anything at all), God is responsible for the consequences.

Imagine, for example, that you traveled into the future and saw that your future child was responsible for the torture and death of millions of innocent people. Knowing this, would you choose to conceive this child? If you did, knowing what would happen, do you think you are at least somewhat responsible for the outcome?

Knowing the future puts you in a unique position to change it. If you conceive this child knowing what will happen, then you become an accessory to these crimes (morally speaking), because you could’ve easily prevented them. Likewise, if God knew Satan would turn evil, he had the opportunity to prevent evil by simply choosing to forego his creation.

Even if God didn’t know the future, he is all-powerful, and able to stop Satan. In fact, by not stopping him, God gives his approval for everything he does.

Again, imagine you have conceived this child, and that you are also able to stop him by simply asking. If your child turns to you before every evil deed and asks, “Is this murder okay?” “Is this rape okay?” “Is this torture okay?” If you answer “Yes,” “Yes,” and “Yes,” can you still claim to be wholly innocent?

You cannot pull the trigger and blame the bullet for the outcome. Likewise, you cannot be the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of all things and deny responsibility for your own creation.

Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
~ Isaiah 49:5

2) God has an explanation, but it’s a mystery.

Let me go right to the first question that everyone always wants to ask: if God knew Satan was going to do what he did, then why did God create him? Remember, I told you that the scripture said in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The Secret things belong to God.” There are just things that we can never know until we get to heaven.
Jennifer Mills, To You with Love from Jesus: Fifty of the Most Commonly Misinterpreted Scripture Truths from the Bible Revealed, p. 48

… God created Lucifer, the angels that chose to rebel, and people because He wanted to… We also need to realize that there are things we do not fully understand. God has a wonderful plan that stretches into eternity, full of things that we “do not know.” It is important to remember that God is in control and that He promises to work everything (even the bad things) together for the good of those who love Him. Sometimes we need to trust Him and walk in faith.
~ AnswersInGenesis.org, Kids Feedback: Why Did God Create Lucifer?, April 14, 2011

We’ve seen this excuse before, because it’s a wonderful catch-all for any problem that cannot be logically explained. This rebuttal does not offer any explanation, it just posits one exists, and places it just out of reach on the other side of death.

As previously stated, this kind of excuse can be employed by any religion to defend any problem. If a Muslim approaches a Christian and says, “Don’t worry about the difficulties you perceive with Islam, all these things will be explained away in the afterlife!” I don’t think the Christian would be convinced. It’s special pleading to argue, “My logical absurdities will all be explained in the afterlife, but yours will not.”

Publication2It’s also important to understand that we are not simply asking God to explain a mystery — a mere gap in our knowledge — we are asking God to make the illogical logical. Can God create a circular square? Can he make down also be up? Or black also be white? Can he make the south also be west? Can he be perfectly good and create evil? Or all-powerful and not responsible? (And don’t even get me started on the trinity).

Isn’t it enough that God asks us to believe in an invisible, intangible, and eternally elusive God? Must he also demand we have faith in the illogical? Does God purposefully disguise himself as nothing to test our faith? And then go so far as to make himself illogical, that he may test our faith against our god-given ability to reason?

3) God created Satan to help “manifest his glory.”

To summarize, God knew that Satan would rebel and that Adam and Eve would sin in the Garden of Eden. With that knowledge, God still created Lucifer and Adam and Eve because creating them and ordaining the fall was part of His sovereign plan to manifest His glory in all its fullness.
~ GotQuestions.org, If God knew that Satan would rebel and Adam and Eve would sin, why did He create them?

God has ordained that Satan have a long leash… because he knows that when we walk in and out of those temptations, struggling both with the physical effects that they bring and the moral effects that they bring, more of God’s glory will shine in that battle than if he took him out yesterday.
~ John Piper, Why does God allow Satan to live?

There are several problems with this line of reasoning.

First and foremost, we cannot admit that God knew Satan would do evil without also inferring that God desires evil. God now has a motive to conduct evil, and he wields it as a means to an end. This understanding of God makes it difficult to later claim that there is no evil in God, or that he does not desire evil.

Second, a perfectly good God would never use “good” ends to justify “evil” means, it’s just not in his nature. A perfectly-good God would have to say, “This plan requires the introduction of evil, and because there is no evil in me, I cannot knowingly produce it. It would be better that nothing be created.”

Third, assuming the use of evil is justifiable for the greater good, God should not be labeling Satan’s works as “evil.” Satan’s actions are actually good, for without them the “fullness of God’s glory” could never be realized. God (and Jesus) should be continuously thanking Satan for helping him bring about this greatest good, not chastising him and casting him into a lake of fire.

Forth, what exactly is this “greater good”? How this can this be “a greater good” when the majority of mankind end up in hell? Wouldn’t the “greatest good” have been not creating humans at all? To spare billions from suffering?

Fifth and finally, if we believe that every bit of evil that exists is absolutely necessary in order to bring about a greater good, this thinking leads us to some bizarre conclusions. For example, we probably shouldn’t attempt to reduce suffering, lest we inadvertently prevent the greater good that God is trying to accomplish. If God did not want this evil to exist, it wouldn’t exist, and therefore we shouldn’t try to stop it. Pain and suffering are good for us! 

Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus – a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.
~ Mother Teresa

4) You can’t have freewill without Satan.

Satan himself rebelled against God without anyone tempting him, and in the very presence of God, no less; thus proving an evil tempter is not a prerequisite for exercising free will. Adam and Eve had the forbidden tree, all they had to do was freely choose to eat of it. 

It’s safe to assume Adam and Eve would not have eaten from the tree had it not been for Satan, for surely it would’ve been preferable for them to sin of their own free will, so all the blame would rest squarely on their shoulders. God could then say, “I gave you absolute free will, and while I knew you would sin, you just proved my point.” Once you involve Satan, the blame is transferred to him, because it can be argued that Adam never would’ve sinned had it not been for this interference. This blame then gets transferred back to God, who created Satan and allowed him to tempt Adam. Ergo, God triggered the fall.


If God created everything, and God is perfectly good, then it stands to reason that all of his creations would be perfect… yet evil abounds. In order to explain this discrepancy, believers posit that evil springs from free-willed creations, and not from God. However, if God is all-knowing, then he can prevent evil by not creating evil beings like Satan. And even if God somehow did not know Satan would turn evil, God should not have risked creating him, or used his absolute power to stop him.

Some believers resort to redefining words like “good” and “evil” to the point where they lose all practical meaning; while others try and re-define the very nature of God, to allow for a good God that also does evil. But most will simply throw up their hands and say, “We have to wait for God to explain these things in the afterlife,” (though they are unwilling to accept this kind of reasoning when it is offered by competing faiths).

Bottom line: I don’t think it’s reasonable to believe that God would create Satan. I think the real reason this problem exists is because too many impossible demands have been placed upon God’s character. The God of the Jews had to be more powerful than all the other neighboring gods; he had to be the best, the strongest, the wisest, the oldest, the first, the last, the most benevolent, and (eventually) the only. We like our God to be absolutely perfect, the problem with this is that, if God is perfectly good, evil should not exist. The faithful have tried to patch this problem by offering Satan as a scapegoat, but then people asked: “If God made everything, why did he create Satan?” And we are back where we started. 

So we can choose to hope against reason that our invisible, intangible, elusive, and illogical God will explain all absurdities in the afterlife, or we can assume the Bible’s description of God is fundamentally flawed. If the latter is the case, at worst, we add God to a long list of deities that have become victims of rational thought; at best, God exists, but he is either weaker or more malevolent than the we have imagined.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
~ Epicurus

Posted in Biblical Contradictions, God's Behavior | Tagged , , , , | 244 Comments

55. Does the human yolk sac infer evolution?

embryo-6 weeks old-1

One human yolk sac, hold the yolk (six weeks gestation).

The human yolk sac emerges during the first few days of gestation and provides some of the first cells and circulation necessary for life. After about seven weeks, the yolk sac’s role diminishes as it is supplanted by the placenta.

But in oviparous (egg-laying) animals the yolk sac goes on to be filled with yolk, which allows the fetus to continue feeding while outside the womb.

Because most mammals get their nourishment directly from the placenta and lactation, yolk is unnecessary. 

But does the existence of a yolk sac in humans infer evolution?

Evolutionists say yes, insisting the yolk sack is a vestigial remnant of our egg-laying past.

Creationists say no, and point out that the yolk sac plays an essential role in the development of the embryo.

Evolutionists agree that the yolk sac is vital, but argue that it no longer plays the role it once did.

Creationists assert it never played that role, and that God must’ve designed the yolk sac to play two distinct roles.

And historically this is where the debate would end, in a draw, because you can’t prove that human yolk sacs once carried yolk… or can you?

What’s that you’re hiding in your genes?

Recently, researchers decided to see if human DNA contained the genes responsible for creating yolk. I’ll let Professor Dennis Venema explain the particulars:

One protein used as a yolk component in egg-laying vertebrates is the product of the vitellogenin gene. Since placental mammals are proposed to be descended from egg-laying ancestors, Chicken embryo at 16 days. researchers recently investigated whether humans retained the remnants of the vitellogenin gene sequence in pseudo-gene form. To assist in their search, this group determined the location of the functional vitellogenin gene in the chicken genome, noted the identity of the genes flanking the vitellogenin sequence, and located these genes in the human genome. They found that these genes were present side-by-side and functional in the human genome; then they performed an examination of the human sequence between them. As expected, the heavily mutated, pseudogenized sequence of the vitellogenin gene was present in the human genome at this precise location. The human genome thus contains the mutated remains of a gene devoted to egg yolk formation in egg-laying vertebrates at the precise location predicted by shared synteny derived from common ancestry.

While the vitellogenin pseudogene is compelling, it is but one example of thousands that could be given.

If creationists are correct in saying that the human yolk sac was never designed to carry yolk, what are we doing with a “scrambled” yolk gene?

The Creationist Response

In light of this new evidence, creationists kick the can further down the road by speculating that the vitellogenin gene is still active, and serves some other purpose in mammals.

It is presumptuous to assume that just because these genes were first found in association with egg yolk that their mammalian counterparts are vestigial remnants or that they, like so much other so-called junk DNA, will not be found to actually have functions unrelated to any ancestral history of making yellow goo.
Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell for Answers in Genesis

Dr. Mitchell goes on to point out that the vitellogenin gene is known to serve other purposes in honeybees and some non-mammalian vertebrates.

And maybe she’s right, just because the vitellogenin gene is associated with yolk production in non-mammals, doesn’t mean the gene is associated with yolk production in mammals… well.. except for that it is.

Echidna-Photo-550x461Luckily for us there are a few mammals that actually do have a functional vitellogenin gene; namely the monotremes: the platypus and two species of echidna. And guess what these mammals can do that no other mammal can do? You guessed it, they can produce yolk.

So it doesn’t seem presumptuous to assume that this is what the gene does (or once did) in mammals.

So why has this gene mutated?

It’s worth noting that when a copying error occurs in a vital gene, the carrier becomes less likely to survive or reproduce. But if a copying error occurs in a non-vital gene, the damage is inconsequential, and therefore the error is allowed to remain.

For example, if a chicken were born with a damaged gene that caused its eggs to contain no yolk, this mutation would be an evolutionary dead-end. Nature wouldn’t allow it. But if the same damage occurred in a placental mammal, it would be inconsequential, because the animal could get equivalent sustenance elsewhere. 

Natural selection selects for advantages and selects against disadvantages, propelling life forward through a simple process of trial and error. But inconsequential changes are just that. 


We have these three clues: an empty yolk sac that’s just like a bird’s, a gene that’s necessary for generating yolk, and evidence that this gene can produce yolk in mammals. Sure, we can always say, “God just wanted to design it this way,” but even if true, God designed it in such a way that also strongly infers evolution.

Professor Dennis Venema writes elsewhere:

These data make perfect sense if humans are descended from egg-laying ancestors and share common ancestry with chickens. It is very difficult to rationalize this data from an antievolutionary perspective. Since the common ancestor of humans and chickens was a reptile, this indicates that the vitellogenin pseudogene should be present in all non-egg-laying mammals. Studies so far have found this unitary pseudogene in wide variety of additional species ranging from dogs to wallabies.
Dennis R. Venema, An Evangelical Geneticist’s Critique of Reasons to Believe’s Testable Creation Model: RTB and Human-Ape Common Ancestry

From an evolutionary perspective, our yolk gene has suffered the same fate as our vitamin C gene: both were once vital, but became nonessential after we had alternative sources for obtaining similar sustenance.

Interestingly, creationists argue that our vitamin C gene was once functional in the Garden of Eden, but broke sometime after the fall of man. But creationists can’t very well argue that our yolk gene also once performed perfectly in the garden, so they argue that the gene must do something other than the obvious. 

We can always make up new excuses, but if looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. Or in our case, if we have a yolk sac like a duck, and the genes for producing yolk like a duck, then maybe we’re related to the duck.

Other Sources:
Science Daily, Loss Of Egg Yolk Genes In Mammals And The Origin Of Lactation And Placentation, Mar. 2008
Forbes.com, The Fossils in Our Genes, John Farrell, Oct. 2011
The Mammalian Yolk Sac Placenta, Department of Zoology, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Sept. 2009.
Creation.com, The human umbilical vesicle (‘yolk sac’) and pronephros—Are they vestigial?, May 2009
ChristianAnswers.net, Does the human fetus temporarily develop gills, a tail, and a yolk sac?
Posted in Intelligent Design? | Tagged , , , | 27 Comments