Friday, December 29, 2006

Sin and Salvation

I just received a new comment on an old blog post. Rather than continue the discussion there, I've decided to start a whole new one here...

The anonymous comment said:
"All of the world's problems began when Adam and Eve broke God's law...that is what sin is, the breaking of God's law. I don't mean to sound condescending, but there are no levels or measures of sin, the bible says that our very best is as dirty rags, that is why His grace is through His sacrifice which He provided Himself...Read your bible every day and do what it says..."
The issue I have here is that the commenter (in general agreement with a huge portion of Christianity) is blaming all the world's problems on two people I really don't believe existed - or rather I don't believe the two characters described in the bible were two individual people. Perhaps there really were two people called Adam and Eve, but I am certain that they were not the first man and first woman and I am pretty certain that their eating of a piece of fruit was not the event which introduced sin to the world.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying that sin isn't a problem, and I'm not saying that Jesus didn't need to die to atone for our sins, but I'm questioning the supposed origin of sin.

I've made this point before on this blog, but nobody commented then so I'll keep following this train of thought for a bit.

If we can't blame sin on two people about six thousand years ago, where did it come from?

If there really is no 'original sin' would it be possible (however unlikely) for someone (other than the Son of God) to live a perfect and sinless life? (By the way, how can we be sure that Jesus lived a sinless life? It is clear that he got angry and even cursed a poor defenceless fig tree for no good reason on at least one occasion - if we did this, would it not be considered 'sin'?)

Would such a person need salvation?

The bible makes it clear that Jesus is the only way for us to be reconciled to God. But who are the 'us' in this arrangement? All people or all sinners? Or are the two categories the same thing?

Any thoughts anyone?

I'm sure I had something more to say here, but I've forgotten. Maybe later...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Soul man

In my other blog, I posted an article about teleporters, like the ones you get in Star Trek. My friend Marcus responded with a long comment (that, due to an error, I have only just read) that took the discussion in a whole different direction. Essentially, he questioned the issue of the soul, which set me thinking...

What is the 'soul' and does everybody have one?

A quick search on an online concordance reveals that the word 'soul' (or 'souls') appears 113 times in the Old Testament (NIV) and the context of the word in virtually every instance is that of 'the depths of my being' - most instances of the word are in terms of doing something with 'all your heart and all your soul'. There is no suggestion of an immortal soul in the Old Testament, or that the soul is in any way distinct from the being or body. Specifically, there is no suggestion that the soul is that part of you which lives on after the body has died.

In the New Testament, several of the (23) instances of the word soul (in NIV again) are in exactly the same context as in the OT, that is, the soul is the 'being'. However there are a few verses which add an extra dimension:

Matthew 10:28 (and similar verses in other gospels)
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Hebrews 4:12
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Here we find the belief, as uttered by Jesus himself, that the soul lives on after the body has died. Note that the soul can be destroyed in hell, not tormented or punished as is generally believed. Also note that both the body and soul are destroyed in hell, not the soul alone.

But the verse in Hebrews is a tricky one. It suggests that the soul and the spirit are not the same thing, but can be separated.

Here are Marcus's words in the comment he made:
'I'm not sure if I [believe in the soul]. Which may be shocking, but as a Christian, I find the classic "soul" to be a rather un-Christian idea. I mean, whilst St Paul does make a flesh/spirit divide, and whilst St John has overtones of the same, neither of them has a doctrine of the soul as the-spiritual-bit-of-us-that-lives-on-and-goes-to-heaven. [...] For the new Testament writers, the whole flesh/spirit thing isn't dualism (flesh is bad, spirit is good, so let's pretend we have no flesh just like Jesus didn't really have any, he just looked like it) but rather a way of seeing the world under the sphere of God's influence, and the world outside God's rule. '

He then went on to make an astounding observation:
'Look at John 3. Jesus clearly says that you don't have a spiritual life unless you have a beginning to that life which is a separate thing to beginning fleshly life. Yet we aren't then two persons, or one person in two bits, but a whole person able to wholly exist (and not perish) in God's love. That doesn't seem to me to say "everyone has a soul".'

Whoa! Marcus, you're right, in John 3 Jesus really does say that being 'born again' is your spiritual birth - that you have no spirit before that event. This has astounding implications for almost our whole theology of death, heaven and hell. If only those who are born again have a spiritual component which lives beyond death, then many of the problems associated with the 'how can a God of love send people to hell?' question can be resolved. But then again, Jesus does speak of hell too, so this can't be the only answer.

Now I'm confused. I'll need to think more on this, but I'd welcome your comments here before I say more...

Several days later...

Rather than post a comment on this blog, Marcus phoned me up last night. (In my experience, having a blog has actually reinforced a few friendships in the real world - I've kept up with folk online, but this has rolled over into real life too. Which is good.) We talked about many things but eventually got around to the subject of the soul again. Here are a few thoughts which came out of that chat:

What is hell? What does Jesus say about hell? Well, he tended to refer to hell in terms of Gehenna, which was the rubbish tip outside Jerusalem where 'the fire is not quenched'. This has been taken to imply eternal suffering in hell, but when you think about what is said, it really does look like Jesus talks in terms of people being destroyed in hell - the rubbish wasn't kept in Gehenna forever, it was burned and destroyed. And although I am always cautious to try and draw specific meaning out of Revelation, the same sense is apparent there - the 'lake of fire' at the judgement (Rev 20) is the 'second death' - that implies destruction rather than eternal torment.

The bible only speaks in terms of a physical resurrection. We have bodies now. We will have bodies when we are resurrected. OK, so they may be changed (1 Cor 15) a bit, but they will be bodies. There is no need for a concept of 'the part of you that lives on without a body' because there is no part of you that will live on without a body. We will always have bodies. OK, so there may be an apparent discontinuity of existence between when our earthly bodies die (sometime in the next 70 years or so) and when our new bodies are resurrected (at the end of 'time') but for us there will be no discontinuity - we leave this world and are resurrected in eternity. Eternity does not follow after time in a linear manner.

There were other things we discussed, which I may blog about in the future, but that's enough for now. Marcus pointed to Tom ('N.T.') Wright as an authority on these matters, so I may go away and read some of his writings on the subject. Watch this space for future thoughts...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Greatest or least in the Kingdom of God?

Matthew 5v19
'Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.'

Matthew 6v19-21
'Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.'

1 Corinthians 3v10-15
'By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.'

What will 'heaven' be like?
Will all people in 'heaven' be equal?

Not by my reading of the above scriptures.

The thing that always struck me about the verse from Matthew 5, above, is that both the characters mentioned in it are in the kingdom of heaven. Its not as if the actions of one send them to hell and the actions of the other send them to heaven, what we have here is two characters who are both going to heaven, but one will have greater esteem there than the other. They will not be equal.

The Matthew 6 verse also implies inequality. If you can store up treasure for yourself in heaven, then it is obvious that some will store up more than others. Therefore, in heaven, some will have more (possibly much more) than others. Inequality again.

And finally we have the verse from Paul's letter to the Corinthians. I thought about these verses long and hard several years ago. The sense is much the same as Jesus's 'store up treasure in heaven' saying, but Paul speaks of building a house. The interesting bit of the passage, in this regard, is the end of it. Here we have the case of a man who hasn't built with the right materials on the right foundation - in other words everything he has done is wrong - but, his salvation is assured, he is in the kingdom. When the judgement comes, all his (misdirected) efforts come to nothing, but he is still saved. He has nothing, and even has the pain of losing everything, but still makes it through to the kingdom of heaven. In contrast to this, of course, are the folk who have built on the right foundations with the right materials - they enter the kingdom with their buildings still standing, and probably with much treasure also.

So I think it is clear that both Jesus and Paul preach a message of inequality - even if we get to heaven, we will not all be equal. This is also clear from several of Jesus's parables. How many times does Jesus say 'the kingdom of God is like...' and go on to explain a situation where one man gets 10 talents, one gets 5 and one gets only 1, or similar? If I recall correctly, there are several parables like this.

The kingdom of God is not built on equality. There will be inequality in heaven.

What are you doing to store up treasure for yourself in heaven?

Oh, and by the way, I'd still rather be least in the kingdom of heaven, than be great in the kingdom of hell...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Alternative therapies

There's a debate going on within the leadership of my church at the moment. A few weeks ago, the church building was rented out to a Reiki 'healing' group.

Several years ago the church was renovated and part of the funding came from the local council, on the understanding that the building would be available for local groups to rent it out. So we have had a film society, a gardening club, various art exhibitions, etc., all using the church building.

But should a church building be rented out to an 'alternative therapy' group?

According to a leaflet from our local Reiki practitioner, Reiki therapy involves 'channeling healing power' from a spiritual source without touching the recipient. But what spiritual source?

What spiritual powers are there? Are they all good? Are any evil? How can you be sure?

The bible makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is not the only spiritual power, even though He may be the greatest. There are angels, there are demons, there may be other spirits out there. In the bible, these are presented as being either good or evil - either on God's side or against Him.

So what spiritual source is the Reiki practitioner tapping in to (if any).

Some claim that the founder of Reiki was himself a Christian. Was he tapping into the Holy Spirit's power? What about those who practice Reiki who aren't Christians - do that tap into the Holy Spirit or do thay have to find some other source? Are there any neutral spiritual powers?

And in addition to the questions of where the alleged power comes from, is this the sort of thing that should be allowed to be carried out in a church building?

One thought keeps coming back to me - the only thing that got Jesus so angry that He resorted to physical violence was the misuse of the house of the Lord...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Answers for the Hillbilly Atheist: Part 5

Following on from parts one, two, three and four. And responding to these questions.

41. If god can do anything and loves us, why is there evil?

As stated elsewhere on this blog, I question the 'God can do anything' assumption. In my opinion the possibility of evil exists because, in order to have freewill, there has to be an alternative to good. Of course it is conceivable that nobody would ever have made that choice, but that didn't happen.

42. Why can’t we just skip this step and go straight to heaven?

What is the purpose of 'this step'? What is the purpose of 'heaven'?

One line of reasoning (which I don't really subscribe to) is that 'this step' is here to weed out the undesirables, so only the good guys get to go to heaven. Heaven wouldn't be heaven if the bad folk got in, would it?

But my way of looking at this is that 'this step' was meant to be more heavenly than it is, but it got mucked up. So God has graciously provided another, more heavenly 'step' for those who opt to take it. And I have no idea if there are further steps beyond the next one.

43. Why does god need to test us if he already knows the answer?

Its not a test. Its an opportunity. He's not trying to find out how you will respond, but rather He is giving you the opportunity to make the right choice. Whether you do is entirely up to you.

44. If heaven is all great and yet has freewill why can’t the same be true here, and what about the still born that goes straight to heaven that would have been the next Hitler has he been born, will he ruin heaven for the rest of us?

Maybe. As I said above, maybe what we call heaven is just another step.

45. If nobody can sin in heaven then how did the devil do it?

Ah. That is the big question about the Devil. No idea. None. I'm not sure we can find an answer to that question. For what its worth, I'm more interested in who the devil actually is...

46. Why does god let the devil tempt people?

Its all part of the big freewill question.

47. How is Jesus the son of god if Jesus is supposed to be eternal?

In what way is Jesus the son of God? Was there a mother involved? Well, on the human level, apparently yes - Mary had something to do with it, but on the everlasting, eternal level, there was no mother. God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit are all God. They chose to present themselves to us in these three forms, with these apparent relationships. But I think its all just a simple way of explaining that they are distinct characters to simple people. We understand the father-son relationship, so they chose to use it.

48. If God is a God of light why does he require blind faith?

Ha ha. Nice one. I don't believe God requires blind faith at all. Trusting someone that you have a reason to trust is not blind.

49. Do you feel lucky you happened to believe in the One True Religion™ ?

I believe in one God (expressed in three persons). I also believe that nobody on this planet has a totally accurate belief in that God. No religion has got it all right. In other words, all religions are wrong (to a greater or lesser degree). However, I do feel lucky that I was not raised in a culture where God was presented as a tyranical ogre. I feel lucky that I was raised in a culture where I had the freedom to think through things without fear of persecution. I'm not looking for religion, I simply want to find out the truth about God (whatever the truth may be!).

50. Why isn't the One True Religion™ as obvious as gravity that way nobody would have the "wrong" religion?

All religions are wrong. All religions muck things up. All religions distort our world view so that we can't clearly see the God who is there. Even Christianity (in its present, fractured, multi-denominational form) distorts and often obscures the real God.

A world with no religion could be paradise. Just people and God and none of the stupid stuff in between. I watched the Richard Dawkins documentary 'the root of all evil' (search for it on YouTube if you haven't seen it) where he presented religion as the cause of many of the problems in the world - and he's right, religion has been responsible for all kinds of evil. But that doesn't mean God is responsible - only that religious people, with their distorted views, are responsible.

So what I'm trying to say is that there is no 'One True Religion'!

Monday, November 13, 2006


I don't like religion.

This may seem odd, coming from someone who calls himself a Christian, but I really dislike religion. I mean, what is the point?

Jesus once said to his followers that whenever they eat bread and drink wine, they should remember him. Fair enough. But along comes religion and ritualises the whole thing - the bread becomes some silly little dry wafers and the wine is frequently either (a) not wine at all, but simply grape juice, or (b) some really special fancy wine - only drunk once in a blue moon. Where has the normal, everyday bread gone? What about 'everyday' wine?

The practical aspect of this is that when Christians have other Christians round for a meal, and share a bottle of wine and eat bread with their meal - they don't pause to remember Jesus.

I am certain that Jesus intended us to remember him when sharing a meal in our homes, not by ritualising the whole thing into a ceremony - and an infrequent ceremony too, for some denominations.

From my point of view Christianity is a relationship with God. Christianity is a way of life. It should not be a religion. From observation, it seems to me that for many folk, religion actually gets in the way of the relationship. It formalises the parent-child relationship into something more like a headmaster-pupil relationship. In fact, it tends to put the religious leaders in between us and God - as mediators. But the bible says the only mediator is Jesus himself.

Another thing ritualising Christianity has done is to place Christianity on the same playing field as all the other religions. Most world religions are about the quest for the distant God, but Christianity is about 'God with us'. If we are just a bunch of people doing rituals to appease or please the distant God, we are no different to any other religion.

Can we not just abolish religion in our churches?

Monday, October 30, 2006

What does God do?

John 5: 17-23
[17] Jesus said to them, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." [18] For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

[19] Jesus gave them this answer: "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. [20] For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. [21] For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. [22] Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, [23] that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.

Please bear with me on this one, but what does God do?

In considering my responses to the questions posed by the Hillbilly Atheist, one observation (or perhaps I should just call it a hypothesis) kept coming back to me - God generally does everything through people, not independent of people. Or, to turn that around, God does nothing (or almost nothing) by himself.

Think of any miracle as recorded in the bible. It was actually carried out by someone empowered by God, right? Not by God himself. (For reasons described elsewhere in this blog, I'm discounting everything up to and including the flood here, sorry.)

Who parted the read sea? Moses, empowered by God.
Who got water out of the rock? Moses, empowered by God.
Who brought the lightning down in front of the prophets of Baal? Elijah, empowered by God.
And so on.

In almost every instance I can think of (with the possible exception of 'manna', although that ceased when Moses died, so may have been through Moses), the miracle is carried out by means of a person. Not by God directly.

Is this right? Does God only work through His people?

If this is true, then it means that people can over-rule the will of God in certain circumstances. For example, suppose God empowers a certain person to heal another person, but the empowered person decides not to do the healing, then the sick person remains unwell.

It may also account for some of the apparenly un-loving miraculous acts in the bible. Take the example of Ananias & Sapphira (Acts 5). Peter was empowered by God (perhaps just for general ministry purposes) but Peter used that power to kill the two offenders. Were those deaths God's choice, or Peter's?

It also may give the final answer to the big questions of suffering and death. Why did God allow the 2004 tsunami? Because He needs to work through people - and the people either didn't know or didn't have the faith or whatever to stop the tsunami.

But this brings me to the passage above - Jesus says he only does what he sees the Father doing. So we must assume that the Father does something independent of people, but what?

The passage goes on to be confusing, because if Jesus only does what he sees the Father doing, and the Father does not judge, then how can Jesus judge? But that is a side issue.

No answers here I'm afraid, only questions. What does God do today?

Monday, October 23, 2006

When is the right time ... ?

A bit of self-censoring going on here I'm afraid. I've decided to delete this post. Thanks for all the comments, they were very helpful.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The fine-tuning argument

I listened to the latest Infidel Guy podcast earlier. This was "an atheist debater's primer" i.e. it discussed several subjects which commonly come up in Christian / Atheist debates, and offered arguments for atheists to use in such situations. Like the way Jehovah's Witnesses are primed with answers to common questions, but in reverse.

One of the arguments that they discussed was the 'fine-tuning argument' - this is used by some Christians in an attempt to demonstrate that life is so unlikely that it couldn't have happened by chance.

The basic reasoning goes like this: if the way this universe works was different by the tiniest margin, then life could not exist. Therefore the universe must have been designed, because it works so well. For example, if the universal gravitational constant was slightly less, the universe would have simply expanded so fast that no planets could have formed. And many other 'constants' are found such that minor variations in them would lead to an untenable situation for life to exist.

The two main arguments against this were:

1. The universe appears to be fine-tuned to produce life, but it also appears more fine-tuned to produce black holes. Some scientists estimate there are more black holes out there than there are living organisms on this planet...

2. Existence may have had a near infinite amount of time to try out all the possible combinations of fundamental constants - perhaps there have been countless universes where the constants were totally wrong for producing life, but nobody was there to observe them. We are only here to observe the universe because the fundamental constants that work in this universe are the ones which do work together to allow life to exist. Thus all arguments to probability fall apart.

This set me thinking. Given an infinite amount of (for lack of a better word) time, then all possible universes will exist at one time or another. The universe where there is a big bang that leads to life evolving on the third planet out from a small yellow sun will happen at some point. But, using this reasoning it is also reasonable to assume that the universe where there is a God who can create a small yellow sun and start life on the third planet out from it will also happen. It is neither more likely nor less likely; given an infinity of existence, both will happen at some point.

How can you tell which you are living in?

Answers for the Hillbilly Atheist: Part 4

Hello there to the Hillbilly Atheist! He's started reading my blog, so I guess I'd better get on with answering all his questions...

For what its worth, I don't think you should simply address the questions on your page to Christian Fundamentalists - if you're sticking to your atheist worldview, you are rejecting all forms of belief in all sorts of divine beings. I believe that belief in the divine is reasonable and rational, although I'm not a fundamentalist, in the contemporary useage of the word (I would like to be able to call myself a 'fundamentalist', in that I believe the fundamentals of Christianity without all the unnecessary baggage, but the word has been claimed by those who insist on believing all the baggage as well, sigh). Anyway, on with the questions:

31. If you believe the bible word for word, why does he kill two people for lying to peter and yet won’t smite a child rapist?

Well, as I've said in previous posts, I don't believe the bible word-for-word. But having said that, there are two things about the case of Ananias & Sapphira (Acts Chapter 5) that are worth noting:

The first is the timing of their actions. It could be that God wanted to get the church off to a good start, and if the rot set in too early the thing would collapse before it had a chance to grow properly. Nowadays, the church is big enough to sustain quite a lot of rotten parts (and I don't deny that they are there), so such drastic action is not required.

The second aspect in this case is Peter. As I said in an earlier response to your questions, for some unknown reason, God always works through people. Or rather, God gives his power to his people for them to use. In this instance I'm sure the decision to kill the two folk was Peter's, not God's. God empowered Peter, Peter decided to use that power to remove the rot in a spectacularly hot-headed way (he is always shown to be an impulsive character).

Or maybe the story is a myth that got added in at some later date.

32. Since Jews don’t believe in Jesus they are going to hell, now Hitler on the other hand could have converted on his death bed and went to heaven while the Jews he killed went to hell no matter how good they were, so isn’t god infinitely worse than Hitler? Also in Thessalonians 2:13-15 god apparently agrees with Hitler.

1 Thessalonians 2:13-16... My understanding of these verses relates to Paul's interpretation of world events in his time. 'The Jews' in this instance does not refer to all people who are ethnically Jewish, but to the current rulers of Judea. Who (I think) were in the process of being wiped out by the Romans at the time. Paul saw the events unfolding and interpreted the events as a punishment from God for Jesus's crucifixion.

Now, will Hitler be judged less harshly than the Jews? No. Will the Jews be judged with different criteria than Hitler? No. According to Revelation, everyone will be judged according to what they have done (Revelation 20v12).

As far as I know, Hitler did not convert on his deathbed, so this question is fairly pointless. However, I'm sure that somewhere in history a Jew will have converted on his deathbed.

33. Why didn’t god smite Hitler but did smite a guy in the bible just for touching a box? (see 2 Samuel 6:6 7)

God doesn't generally smite. As I've said on a few occasions, he generally works through people. However, the 2 Samuel story is an odd one. Maybe it's just a myth. But maybe the power of God did exist in some form in that box, if that was the case, it wasn't smiting but simply a genuine discharge of power that killed the guy.

34. If you think god isn’t happy about casting people into hell why does he say in proverbs that he will laugh at you while he does it? (first chapter start around the 2oth verse and read on)

The bible was written by people. Not all of them had a rational and reasonable view of God.

35. if Adam and eve were perfect before the fall, than how come they sinned, did god create imperfect beings, what about the devil, wasn't he perfect, how did he fall, did god mess up with him too?

See my post about Freewill. God created good things and hence the possibility of evil. And where does it say that Adam & Eve were perfect? They were merely 'good' and mucked up.

36. As an atheist I simply don't realize your god is real so how is it right to torment me for all eternity for an honest mistake?

As I've said before, 'torment' is a loaded word. And I'm certain that we have a totally wrong concept of both heaven and hell. But for what its worth, I believe that the world is filled with people who fall into one of two categories: those who, given the choice, would choose to live with God and those who wouldn't. God will not force those who don't want to live with him to do so.

37. How does the soul interact with the brain, what scientific evidence is there that shows how it happens and where it happens.

None. But there is no scientific evidence as to where consciousness is in terms of the brain. But you believe in consciousness, don't you?

38. What is a soul made out of?

Don't know. Does it matter?

39. Do retarded people have retarded souls?

This question offends me. I worked with adults with learning disabilites for a while a few years ago. These were folk right at the bottom of the IQ scale. What amazed me at the time was the way that some of them responded to God in an open and loving manner, while some totally rejected belief in God. Pretty much the same pattern that I have seen with intelligent people at the other end of the IQ spectrum. It would seem that God doesn't judge people according to their intelligence, he accepts the clever and the stupid. However, some of Jesus's parables warn that we will be judged according to the gifts we have been given - more will be expected from those who had more to begin with.

What I think God gets out of all this is love. And the capacity to love is not related to intelligence in any way.

40. Why does a righteous god think virgin women are war booty (numbers 31:17-18)

I think that was an incorrect rationalisation on the part of the writer of the book, several hundred years after the event. I think the thought process went something like this: We won the battle. This must have been because God was with us. We took the virgins as booty. This must have been because God told us this was OK...

More another time.

Friday, September 08, 2006


I was surprised to discover that the word 'omnipotence' (or rather the Greek word translated as such) doesn't occur in the bible until the book of Revelation. Jesus doesn't speak of God in those terms. Neither does Paul for that matter.

In fact, the closest Jesus gets to saying anything of the sort is when he says "with God all things are possible" (Matt 19v26).

The word 'almighty' is more common, but while this appears to mean "all-powerful" at face value, apparently the words translated to 'almighty' in English have more of a "supreme ruler" meaning than "absolute power". Its the sort of title that would be given to a human emperor.

The question is, of course, is God omnipotent? That is, is he able to do anything that can be conceived?

Most Christians I know will not question this, but I had a conversation with someone a few years ago who believed otherwise. He believes that God is omnipresent and is supremely (but not unlimitedly) powerful. And pointed out that any non-infinite amount of power (however huge) spread over an infinite expanse results in only small amounts of power in any given place and time.

Using this reasoning he can explain creation (in big bang terms) in that God's vast power was not spread over infinite time and space then but was concentrated into one location and time (I realise that the words 'location' and 'time' are meaningless here, but I hope you know what I mean). He can also explain localised miracles, such as healings, changing water to wine, the resurrection and so on. But he also uses it to explain why God did not prevent the tsunami a few years ago - perhaps seismic activity on this scale is outwith the bounds of his localised power?

This comes back to the old debate about why a loving God allows suffering. Perhaps he genuinely can't deal with it all?

And if God is not omnipotent, is he worth following?

Actually, I'd answer yes to that question. Its the same reasoning I used in a previous post. The questions are 'is Jesus the son of God?' and 'will trusting in him lead to eternal life?' If you can answer yes to those, does it matter if God is unable to stop the movement of an ocean?

Anyway, can I stress that this is an issue I'm working my way through, not one on which I've made up my mind? I haven't totally slipped into heresy. Please comment.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Belief and knowledge

One of the problems with discussions between believers and non-believers is that both groups of people claim to have knowledge about the subject rather than merely belief. The Christian might think "I don't just believe in God, I know that he is there" while the non-believer probably thinks "I know there is no god".

The problem with these mindsets is that there is no room for dialogue. They can't possibly both be right.

I am of the opinion that it is possible to know God, but you know the person, but believe things about him. Over the years my beliefs about God have changed. Hopefully they're getting closer to the truth, but that might not be the case. Either way, if there is room for change, then I don't actually have definitive knowledge about God.

I used to think that I was right to talk about what I know about God, while I shunned the 'belief' word. But the more I think about it, the more I see the arrogance of that position and am more inclined towards belief. If you merely believe something, you acknowledge that you have more to learn, if you claim to know, then the door to learning is shut.

Also, if you merely believe things, the road to dialogue is open. Not merely dialogue with non-believers, but dialogue with other believers in different traditions. If you merely believe things, you can agree to differ on many things, but if you know you are right, then you probably know the other is wrong, and the common ground between you can get very thorny.

Remember Paul's words (1 Cor 13:8-12) "... where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Faith (again)

I guess not many people were reading this blog last week. At least my old friend Chris responded... (where were the rest of you? I know of at least three other regular lurkers, why didn't you comment?)

Chris said this of faith:

'My short definition would be: "dependent trust".'

He then went on to give a longer illustration relating to abseiling:

'It occurred to me that when you are stood at the bottom of the rock face looking up, you can have absolute confidence that the rope holding the [abseiler] above will hold. There is no question in your mind that he will fall. But it is not until it is your turn to take the rope and lean back over the cliff edge that your confidence becomes faith.'

This is pretty much my understanding of faith too, its basically trust in action.

However, it is clear to me that most outside observers of Christianity (and, indeed, other religions) view faith as being the mechanism by which somebody can believe the unbelievable.

Obviously I can't speak for all people everywhere with faith, but my faith in God is more-or-less my belief that God will behave in the future in the same ways that he has behaved in the past. If he promised something and person X (in the past) received the outcome of that promise then I have faith that, in similar circumstances, person Y (in the future) will receive the same outcome. I have faith that if he has answered a certain kind of prayer in a certain kind of way in the past that he will answer the same sort of prayer in the same sort of way in the future.

My faith relates entirely to what God will do.

I can't approach faith as a way of 'rubber stamping' a given statement. The "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." way of thinking kind of annoys me. For a start, how can we be sure that God said it, whatever it was? I don't have faith that the set of compiled documents that we call the bible is the infallible word of God, as I've explained in this blog. So, for a given 'it', I need to question if God said it at all, before I can believe it. And as for settling it, well, there are some apparent contradictions and some things that God said which were only relating to specific circumstances, so no, that wouldn't even settle it...

The point in all this is to defend faith. Not blind faith - that is no faith at all in my opinion. But it is possible and justifiable to have a reasoned and reasonable faith in God and to live by it.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Fundamental Claims of Christianity

As usual, I've been listening to atheist podcasts. The more I listen to these things, the more I come to see that (for lack of a better term) 'evangelical atheists' seem to think that the creation / evolution debate is the most effective way of destroying a Christian's faith. It seems that they see creation by God as one of the fundamental claims of Christianty. And by that I mean it is a claim that, if disproved, would cause a Christian's belief structure to collapse.

I don't think that creation (in the six-days, man-directly-from-dust sense of the word) is a fundamental claim of Christianity at all. In fact, I call myself a Christian without believing either of those two elements of creation. I don't even believe in guided evolution.

But if that isn't a fundamental to Christianity, what is?

What are the fundamental claims of Christianity?

Well, I keep coming back to the thought that I am a Christian. The fundamental claims of Christianity are (in my view) the fundamental claims of Christ and the fundamental claims about Christ. I think these are:
  • The Kingdom of God is near. This is the heart of the ministy of Jesus as presented in the gospels of Matthew, Mark & Luke. This is what Jesus himself preached and what he taught his disciples to preach before his crucifiction - the Gospel of the Kingdom.
  • Jesus is alive. This is the heart of the ministry of the early Church. Jesus is alive, he has conquered death and he is able to be the mediator between you and God the Father.
  • God can live in you. The Holy Spirit is fundamental to the teaching of the early church. The claim is that God can live in you and with you and change you into the person you have the potential to be. This is also (in my view) fundamental in that this, of all the claims, is the one you can test for youself. If you can experience God in your being, you can have faith in the other claims. If there is no evidence of the Holy Spirit, you cannot be sure that any of the other claims are true.
  • You can live after death. This is a claim of many (though not all) religions. The Christian claim is that Jesus (and only Jesus) provides The Way to the Father, the only way to 'heaven' or 'paradise' or 'the Kingdom of God' or whatever you want to call it.
In my opinion, any claim beyond that is not necessarily fundamental to Christianity. The creation thing is not fundamental - you can follow Jesus without believing it. In fact, if I can slip into utter heresy for a minute, my faith in Jesus wouldn't be destroyed if it was proved to me that some other deity had created the universe and our God only came along at a later stage. If God can live in me now, enhancing my quality of life, and if I can be assured of life after death, does it matter if the God that can do that built things? Not to me.

But what do you lot think?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


I will shortly blog about faith.

But first, can I ask all readers of this blog (that means you) to comment on this post with a short definition of what you think 'faith' means?

Feel free to post anonymously.

Please use your own words and don't simply quote one of the famous bible verses. Thanks.

More to follow...

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose free will.

Rush: "Freewill", from the album Permanent Waves (1980)

When going through all the questions posed by the Hillbilly Atheist, and when reading other atheist websites, the issue of freewill keeps coming up again and again. The atheist's view of the Christian belief about freewill seems to go something like this:

God has given man freewill, so that he can choose to follow God or reject him. In order not to force man's hand on this issue, God will not provide proof that he exists. But, in order to sway man's decision, God does threaten those who make one choice with hell and promise those who make the other choice with heaven.

As I say, this appears to be what atheists think that Christians believe. This is not what I believe.

Freewill is not a universally held Christian belief. Some Christians will maintain that God predestines some people to be Christians and some not to be; essentially predestinating some for heaven and some for hell. They believe that man has no freewill, and anything that looks like freewill actually isn't as God has predestined everything. I don't agree with this belief - for a start it implies that the world, in its present state, is the way God wants it - he ordained the tsunami, he ordained the war in Iraq, in fact, even the 9/11 attacks must have been predestined by God. Nonsense. If God planned everything, why on earth would he invent all the other religions? Why would he make some poeple mass murderers, etc. The whole concept is nonsense and requires quite a bit of interpretation to justify the belief from the bible.

But freewill is not an easy belief to justify from the bible either. I don't remember ever reading a bible passage that states that God has given man freewill (for what its worth, I have also had discussions about the subject of angels not having freewill, and this isn't stated anywhere in the bible either, so why is there no redemption plan for fallen angels?).

Those of us who believe in freewill, do so primarily because it is self-evident. We can choose to follow Jesus or not. We can choose to reject the claims of Christianity. So we must have freewill because we can do what we want to (more or less).

So what about the issue of God not wanting to force our hands...? Well, I'm kind of in agreement with this, up to a point. God wants us to be in relationship with him - I believe that is the only reason we exist, because he wants us to be in relationship with him - but he won't force us to do this, beacuse he wants us to choose to love him. You can't force love. I truly believe that God would rather have you reject him and live life your way, than force your hand and make you follow him. But I also believe that he does offer benefits (in this world and the next) to those who follow him and drawbacks (in this world and the next) to those who don't. This is why 'heaven' will be better than 'hell' (although I believe we have totally wrong concepts of both).

And I don't belief that God has not provided any proof of his existance. See my earlier blog posts. You can have proof that God exists if you actually are prepared to go looking for it. Those who seek will find. Of course, many people don't actually want to find proof of God's existance, because they know that they'll have to change the way they live if they find out that its true.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Answers for the Hillbilly Atheist: Part 3

This post follows on from part 1 and part 2...

21. Since you believe the bible word for word, why does god offer proof to some and not others (examples include the 400 prophets of Baal who saw the altar of Elijah and Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus and good ol' doubting Thomas and by the way, why was he wrong to be skeptical?

Well, you start this one with a false assumption. I don't believe the bible word for word. Sorry. That doesn't mean that I'm not a Christian, or there is no God.

And I have no idea why God apprently does this. Maybe he has different plans for people, and so reveals himself in different ways.

And as for Thomas, where does it say he was wrong to be skeptical? The important thing about Thomas was that when he saw the evidence, he believed it and worshiped. He didn't remain skeptical - that would have been wrong.

22. Why does god choose to torture people forever instead of just snuffing them out of existence?

Torture is such a loaded word. The bible speaks of suffering in hell, not (as far as I am aware) torture. God will not torture people forever, indeed, my understanding of hell is that it is the place where God is not present. So if he's not there, how can he be doing the torturing? Most of our contemporary concepts of hell are rooted in beliefs formed several hundred years after Jesus lived, they are not based on what Jesus said. In other words, our concept of hell is wrong.

23. Why does the bible say that god is not the author of confusion (I Corinthians 14:33) but then says he uses the foolish to confound the wise (I Corinthians 1:27)?

This is a matter of translation. In 1 Cor 14v33 it speaks of order in the church service rather than disorder. Not confusuion in the mental sense. And the 1 Cor 1v27 verse speaks of God using the foolish to 'shame' or 'humble' the wise. Not bring them disorder. The two verses are not speaking about the same thing, so are incomparable.

24. Since god can do whatever he wants why doesn’t he just show up or do a big miracle and end all doubt?

Because he doesn't want to?

25. If you believe god or his angels watch over you, why do little kids get raped and killed, is god/the angel having an off day?

For whatever reason (and I have no answer on that one), God has chosen to do everything through people. Even if you go back to the miraculous events in Exodus, for example the parting of the red sea, God didn't just part the water for the Israelites, he gave Moses the power to part the water, and it was Moses who did it. I can think of no 'intervention' on the part of God in the bible where he does not act through a person.

Thus, if no person (and by this I mean one of his followers) is there, he doesn't (or possibly can't!) act.

In almost all instances of the appearance of angels in the bible, they act purely as messengers, not participants. The idea of a 'guardian angel' is not biblical.

26. Why does god protect some and not others if he is not a respecter of persons for instance protecting someone from a burglar but not protecting someone else?

Don't know. Why do burglars choose to burgle some houses and not others?

27. If god really healed Joe blow of cancer, why then do others die from cancer even if they pray, does god not like these people as much?

Why do you think that death is a bad thing? Paul said 'to die is gain' - maybe it is. Maybe those who died had done everything they were supposed to do, maybe those who were cured had more still to do.

28. why is it that when a bad thing such as a potential robbery is averted, god gets the credit, but when the robbery is successful freewill is to blame?

Human nature. We interpret the events, not God.

29. How is god love when he demands our servitude or be burned in hell, and how does this play into the freewill argument?

God made you for a reason. If you choose not to do your part then you are no use in God's plan. Why shouldn't he throw you in the trash? If you had a car which wouldn't go and was not fixable, you'd get rid of it, right?

And maybe, just maybe, those who choose to reject God will find hell (which we certainly have wrong concept of) to be a better place to be than in the presence of God 24/7? Maybe that's where God's love comes into it - not forcing anyone to do what they don't want to do.

30. Why does god need to bribe us with heaven and threaten us with hell if he is so concerned with our freewill choice?

Maybe its not bribery. Maybe he's just saying "this is the way it is, make your choice...". I think God wants you to choose one option over the other, which is why one looks so good, but he doesn't want to force your hand, you need to choose. Why? I have no idea. But I feel another blog post coming on...

Whole lotta shakin' going on...

Acts 4v31:
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

Last week in church, I found myself wondering 'What's all this shaking about?' This may be a question that you've never asked yourself (or anyone else) in church. Certainly, nobody shook in the presbyterian church I was raised in. Nobody shook in the baptist church that I went to when I was a student. In fact, nobody really shakes in the episcopalian church that I go to these days. But sometimes I go to a more 'charismatic' church in the evening. And they shake there.

It seems that when the Spirit of God fills someone, they shake. A regular part of the evening service at St Mungos Church, Edinburgh (and presumably some other churches too) is when the members ministry team make their way among the congregation and pray for people. They don't generally ask you if you have any particular needs for prayer or anything, they just pray that you might be filled with the Spirit of God. And you are. And this generally (from observation and experience) manifests itself as (uncontrollable?) shaking.

So what's the shaking all about? Why do we shake when the Spirit of God fills us?

I did a bible search on 'shaking' and 'trembling' and such like words, but didn't turn up anything of any note. The bible doesn't seem to explain this, its just something that happens.

Anyone got any words of wisdom on this subject? (Chris, I'm sure you've been doing a whole lotta shakin' this week - any insight?)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Mountaintops, dark valleys and prayer

Aside from the evidence that worship works, and the evidence that you can experience God, two other convincing evidences for the existence of God and the reality of the spiritual struggle have made themselves evident in my life this week.

The first is the dark valley experience. This always happens after a 'spiritual high' - a mountaintop experience. I was touched by the Spirit of God at church on Sunday night. I knew his presence, I felt his power. And so it was that on Monday morning I found my thoughts drawn to all sorts of inappropriate subjects and somehow the least godly CD in my record collection ('Tenacious D' if you must know) found its way to the top of the heap and got listened to; so my mind has been re-playing songs with more than a liberal sprinkling of profanity and some very dubious subject matter over the past few days...

This always happens - after the mountaintop comes the dark valley. If there were no spiritual struggle this wouldn't happen, at least not all the time. But every time I have a spiritual high, the temptations come thicker and faster than usual. I know I don't fear the devil, or think that he is as powerful as some would have it, but he is the father of lies and is very, very good at putting thoughts in your head when you're not looking. This may be his only power, but it is still a power.

The second effect is more or less the same. Prayer. It should be easy - just talking to God. But it isn't. Distractions and distracting thoughts come at you thick and fast when you try to pray. There he is again, the father of lies. In fact, even if there is no God, talking to empty air should be easy. The only reason that it isn't is because someone is out to prevent you doing it.

So there you have it, two negative evidences of the reality of spiritual things to go with the positive evidences I've discussed before.

Answers for the Hillbilly Atheist: Part 2

11. Why do the genealogies of Jesus contradict in Luke and Mathew (Luke does not use Mary’s line because it clearly says Joseph SON of Heli)?

There are many possible explanations for this one. My preferred explanation is that Matthew attempted to do Joseph's genealogy, and Luke tried to do Mary's. I believe that the bit where you claim it 'clearly' says that Joseph was son of Heli, could also be translated as "He was, it was supposed, the son of Joseph, but was of Heli" - which would mean that he came from the line of Heli, NOT the line of Joseph.

Of course, it is possible that one or both both writers simply got it wrong.

12. If the bible is gods word why do the psalms say things like, “oh god thou art holy and great”, is god that vain that he should praise himself?

God didn't write the psalms. Folk like David did.

In my understanding of it, "God's Word" doesn't mean that God personally wrote or dictated every word.

13. What scientific evidence is there for a virgin birth involving a male baby?

None. What other genetic scientific evidence has survived 2000 years?

You've phrased that a bit oddly - what scientific evidence do you have for a female baby virgin birth?

14. Why does it need to be a virgin birth to begin with is sex evil?

Sex is not evil. I'm not sure it had to be a virgin birth, but that's what the bible says happened. If God wanted to do it that way, then I'm sure he could.

15. Why does the bible say not to kill in the ten commandments, and then turn around and command people to do just that like in 1 Samuel 15:1-3?

The 10 commandments are a tiny part of a much larger law which describes, in detail, how the Israelites ought to live and which punishments accompany which crimes. The murder of one Israelite by another is forbidden. Waging war on an enemy is not. Killing people as punishment is expressly commanded. Do you expect every summary statement to convey all the details?

16. If the god of the bible is all-good why does he create evil (see Isa. 45:5-7)

That verse says he created darkness. Not evil. Next...

17. Where is proof of Jesus’ resurrection besides the gospels and why do they contradict in almost every detail on this fact (don’t believe me read the Easter story in each gospel and contrast them)

The accounts differ in several minor details. Who went to the tomb? (does it matter?) Was it a young man, an angel or 2 angels waiting there? (does it matter?) Was the tomb empty? (Yes!) Was Jesus alive? (Yes!)

As for proof, what other historical proof do you know that has survived 2000 years?

18. Why is it wrong to want proof, if so how does one determine which religion is right?

Wanting proof is not wrong. How to determine which religion is right? Well, try them out. You'll never know if you enjoy swimming by simply watching others doing it, you need to get in the water and try. If you try out a religion and experience nothing, then move on and try something else. But if something works, if you do experience the divine somewhere, then find out more.

Of course, more than one religion might offer experience. So you may need to try more than one out. But you'll never learn by not trying anything.

19. what scientific evidence shows how god created the universe?

Erm, all scientific evidence shows how God created the universe. Because science shows us how the universe is made.

20. If the universe is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old as creationists claim, then how can we see stars that are millions of light years away?

That observation is one of the best pieces of evidence that the universe is not 6000 years old. Young earth creationists are wrong. But that doesn't mean that there is no creator.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Fortean Bayesian Christian...

Ever since I found out about the writings of Charles Fort (circa 1992), I've considered myself, in many respects, to be a Fortean. Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932) documented many weird things that happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s, mostly things that apparently happened, but were contrary to the scientific theories of the day (and many of which are still inexplicable). He generally viewed the world in a sceptical (or skeptical) manner, especially any scientific theory presented as fact. He observed that there is often evidence contrary to the established theory which has often been conveniently 'brushed under the carpet' so as not to question the validity of the established theory.

One of Fort's qoutes that took me a long time to fully understand is "One measures a circle, beginning anywhere". I now understand this to mean that when you're trying to make sense of something, be it the world, or science, or religious thought, or whatever, the best place to start 'measuring' it from is where you are - don't try and find the beginnning, don't start with somone else's theory, start where you are.

In 1998 I discovered Bayes' Theorem as part of my work. Thomas Bayes (1702 -1761) was a Christian preacher, mathematician and philosopher. His greatest work (which spanned all three aspects of his life) was published by his friend Richard Price two years after his death. This is Bayes' Theorem. (Technically it should be "Bayes's" but nobody seems to write it that way.) Put simply, Bayes' Theorem is a scientific methodology for updating your beliefs on the basis of new evidence. In other words, if you think a certain hypothesis might be true, and things keep happening which support that hypothesis, your confidence (or 'degree of belief') in that hypothesis is increased with each and every evidence. Conversely, it things keep happening that are contrary to the hypothesis, your confidence in it diminshes. Of course, most of us work that way anyway, but Bayes' Theorem formalises the process in terms of maths and probability. If you view the world in a Bayesian manner, you are continually re-evaluing your beliefs on the basis of what happens to you.

So, as a Fortean I assess the truth of something starting from where I am, and as a Bayesian I re-evaluate my beliefs based on my experiences.

But I am a Christian also. I can't not apply the same processes of thought to my Christian beliefs as to any other beliefs.

Last night I was in church (i.e. it was the 'where I am') and I experienced the Holy Spirit, not merely being in the room but also being in me. As a Bayesian, my confidence in God was increased through that experience. And as a Fortean, that is where I measure my understanding of God. Sure, I have issues with things claimed in parts of the bible. Sure, I have questions about exactly who God is. But I am sure that God is.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Adam & Eve and the problem of sin

I heard someone say something on a podcast the other day which made me think. I can't remember the exact words, but the gist was something like this:

Christianity relies on the original sin of Adam & Eve. If there were no real Adam & Eve, no real serpent and no tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then there would be no sin and Jesus would not have had to come and die.

Is this right?

My problem in addressing this issue is that I believe in a historical Jesus, who was/is the Son of God, and who died for a purpose; specifically that his death somehow enabled people to be in a right relationship with God, something that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. But, I think the Garden of Eden stories are more or less mythological stories which are there to convey a message, but probably didn't actually happen as recorded.

Does belief in Jesus, the 'second Adam', logically imply that the earlier event must be true? Does Christianity rely on the truth of the Adam & Eve story?

For what its worth, I believe that the stories of Cain, Abel & Seth were probably based on real people, and they must have had parents. The parents may or may not have been called Adam and Eve, but the names are not the issue here. Were the parents of Cain, Abel & Seth the original two people? Well, I doubt it.

For one thing, in Genesis 4:17, Cain builds a 'city' - at about the same time as the birth of his first son. In fact, a few verses earlier Cain worrys that "whoever finds me will kill me" - which wouldn't be a major worry unless there were lots of people around, not just your parents. So the text of Genesis 4 suggests that there were lots of people around at this point.

And I am reaonably convinced that we have two seperate stories in Genesis, which have become muddled together. The first story (Genesis 2 & 3) concerns 'the man' and 'the woman' in the Garden of Eden. The second (Genesis 4) concerns 'Adam' and 'Eve' - the parents of Cain, Abel & Seth. I believe that these two stories got muddled together at some point when Genesis was being compiled (probably not by Moses, as is often supposed, but more likely a long time later, possibly during the exile years - or so I have heard).

But even if 'the man' and 'the woman' were not Adam and Eve, and furthermore were presumably many generations earlier (in order for there to be enough people to necessitate a city in the time of Cain), does that mean that the Garden of Eden stories are false?

Well, the events recorded in Genesis 4 and following (with the exception of the flood stories, the longevity claims and the tower of Babel) are all reasonably believable - that is, even non believers might believe that these stories are based on stories of real people who actually lived. OK, so they might be embellished and mytholised (is there such a word? there should be...), but there may be something historical in there.

However, the same cannot really be said of the Garden of Eden stories, these seem highly mythological in origin and it seems unlikely (from a human or historical viewpoint) that there is any actual history in there.

I am happy to believe that humans evolved on this planet from earlier, non-human mammals. Science has done a pretty good job of explaining it. Therfore, I don't actually believe that God 'formed man out of dust' in a unique creative act. Of course I believe that God is behind evolution so that ultimately we did come from 'dust' or sludge or something inanimate, but I don't think it was in the way that Genesis 2 says. Similarly I don't believe that 'the woman' was made at a later time than the man and was formed out of his rib. That seems pure myth to me.

But if this story is mythological and not real, then 'original sin' didn't happen. Tradition has it that sin is inherited from your parents and this goes all the way back to Adam & Eve in the garden. But if that never happened, is there no sin to inherit?

I've never been too comfortable with the notion of inherited sin, to me it seems like we're passing the buck - if I sin it isn't my fault, I'm only doing it because I inherited it, so its really my parents' fault and my ancestors' fault, but not my fault... People need to take responsibility for their own actions.

But even if the Garden of Eden story isn't true in a historical sense, it is true in a metaphorical sense - if you leave anyone alone in a room and tell them 'you can do anything you want, except look in that book on the table...' we know that, given enough time left alone, the vast majority of folk will take a sneaky peek. Its what we call human nature. The point of the Garden of Eden story is that we all (not two folk thousands of years ago) will naturally choose to do the things that God tells us not to. And if we don't choose to do the wrong thing by ourselves, it doesn't take much persuasion (just a few words by a lizard!) to make us give in to tempetation.

(Of course, this leads to the deabte over why God would make us in such a way as to naturally choose to disobey him, leading to separation and punishment... but that's a debate for another time...)

So it doesn't really matter to me if there is 'original' sin. There is sin here and now which needs dealt with. And Jesus did that. At least, that's what I believe.

I know that there's folks out there who don't believe in sin. But all you need to do is call it selfishness, and we find that pretty much everyone has it to a greater or lesser degree - and even a lesser degree is too much for God's liking, so he provided a way to deal with the problem...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Answers for the Hillbilly Atheist: Part 1

There's lots of websites out there which ask lots of questions of Christians. "How can you believe the bible if...?" or "How can you believe in God when...?" and the like.

One such list of questions can be found on the Hillbilly Atheist website. There's over a hundred of them. Over the space of several posts I want to see if I can answer all these questions. Of course, I'll not be able to answer them to the satisfaction of the Hillbilly Atheist himself, but some folks out there might find the answers interesting.

And for the record, these are my answers to the questions and may not represent orthodox or common Christian belief. So here we go:

1. How do you know Allah, Zeus, Thor, Aphrodite, Santa and the tooth fairy don’t exist? Keeping this in mind, how am I arrogant to believe the same about Yahweh?

I believe that some of those gods on your list are genuine attempts to explain inexplicable phenomena. God (the real one) did something and people tried to make sense of it and invented stories about these gods to explain them. I'm not so arrogant as to say that some of the stories about the god Yahweh don't fall into the same category. But just because people made up stories about some non-existant beings, doesn't mean that all beings are non-existant. We exist after all. Perhaps there is a real God, whatever you want to call him.

2. Isn’t the ritual of the Lords supper just symbolic cannibalism?

No. Its a reminder. The meaning of it is 'When you break bread at meal times, remember how I died. When you drink wine, remember my spilt blood'. I don't think Jesus intended us to believe that the bread somehow actually becomes his flesh or the wine becomes his blood - they remain bread and wine. I don't actually think that Jesus intended us to ritualise this rememberance either - eating bread and drinking wine were everyday occurrences in the time of Jesus, I'm sure he meant that people were to remember him at every meal time.

3. If god created us, why do men have nipples?

This is a silly question. 'If god created us' says nothing about how God created us. If he wanted to do it through evolution, that's his business. And evolution explains the nipples.

4. Who created god and if you say he always existed then how do you know god is eternal?

There are two possibilities. Either something came from nothing, or someone came from nothing and went on to create something. Either way, we have no answer on a human level. In fact, I'm heretical enough to consider the possibility that God was himself created by a higher deity, and so on. But that is a circular line of thinking and it gets you nowhere.

5. How do you know the bible is right?

I don't. I believe bits of it speak the truth. I believe this because it is consistent with my experience. How do you know it is entirely wrong?

6. Why did god create the devil?

Did God create the devil? Where does it say he did? As soon as something is defined as 'good' there is the possibility of evil, as soon as something is defined as 'right' there is the possibility of wrong. God ordered the universe in such a way that some things were good. Therefore it is to be expected that bad things would be also. Would you rather have a bland universe where there is no good?

7. If Adam and eve didn't know good and evil before they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil so why does god punish them when they didn't know what they were doing?

Apparently God told them not to do it. I'll blog about this issue soon. Watch this space...

8. If incest causes genetic problems which there is proof that it does how can we all come from just two people?

Go talk to a biologist. We did all come from two common ancestors. Whether they were called Adam and Eve and were, in fact, human is another matter entirely.

9. Why are all prophecies in old testament about Jesus vague and taken out of context (if you don’t believe me look them up and read the whole chapter that contains the "prophetic" verse you‘ll see that the verse applies to that chapter alone and its time not the future or Jesus and is very vague even if it were a prophecy)

This is too vague a question. Which specific verses? And not all of them are vague, although i'll concede that some are.

10. Why don’t Jews convert if the prophecies are so convincing?

Some do. I know plenty of (ethnically) Jewish Christian believers. I also know a few who were raised in the Jewish faith and converted when they saw the truth of Jesus.

That'll do for now. I'll reply to more of these questions another time...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The serpent and the devil

Read the first few chapters in the bible. Read them again. Who is it who tempts Eve?

It is not the devil. It is the serpent.

The only passage I can find in the bible that links the devil to the serpent is in Revelation where the devil is referred to as "the old serpent", which doesn't necessarily mean this serpent. So why was I taught in Sunday school that it was the devil who tempted Eve? Why do most Christians assume that the serpent in Genesis is the devil?

In fact, where is the devil in the old testament? He isn't there! The devil appears to be more or less a new testament concept - certainly, he was not considered in the oldest OT books and the vague references to him in the more recent OT books are, erm, open to interpretation at the very least.

Before you jump up and down and say "What about Job? Look, 'Satan' plays a big role there...", have a look at the character of Satan in Job. This is not the devil as we understand him today. This Satan appears to, essentially, work for God - his job is to be the adversary or the accuser, but it is clear that he only does what God intends. He isn't the devil, he's more like a 'devil's advocate' - the role played by a good guy to test a theory or, in the case of Job, a character.

'Satan' seems to fill this role in all the OT instances where the word is used. Satan works with God rather than against him. Essentially Satan's role appears to make the case for the prosecution - and not all prosecution lawyers are evil...

So when did the concept of the devil make it into Jewish/Christian thought? And (more importantly for us) if the devil is a concept introduced from somewhere else, is there any truth in the concept? Is there a devil?

I suppose we need to define what we mean by 'devil' before we can address if he exists. When I talk about the devil here I am asking if the spiritual being who seeks to undo the things of God and actively fights against Christians is actually a single person. Christians seem to believe that there are many demons or devils, but only one Satan - the prince of demons. And if he is there, where did he come from?

Certainly, the New Testament writers believed he was a real person. But WDJB (what did Jesus believe)? If the gospels are to be believed, Jesus seems to have spoken about the devil and hell more than anyone else, so what does he say?
  • Temptation in the wilderness: Matthew speaks of 'the devil' personally tempting Jesus for 40 days, Mark speaks of 'Satan' in the same role.
  • When Jesus is accused of driving out demons by satanic powers he asserts that he uses God's power, because why would Satan drive out Satan - if that was the case, satan's kingdom would be divided and would fall. Here Jesus uses the name 'Beelzebub' synonymously with 'Satan'. Beelzebub is referred to as the 'Prince of demons'.
  • Parable of the weeds: it is the devil who plants the weeds.
  • Jesus once accuses Peter of being 'Satan' - because he was worldly in his thoughts, not heavenly minded.
  • Jesus said the 'eternal fire' was prepared for 'the devil and his angels'.
  • Parable of the sower - the birds who eat the seed on the path are like the devil who steals the 'word' from people's hearts.
  • In John 8 Jesus calls his listeners 'children of the devil' and says this of the devil: "He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."
  • John speaks of 'the devil' entering Judas at the last supper.
In some of these instances, I think Jesus is talking about Satan (or the Devil or Beelzebub) as a concept - I don't think that Jesus meant that Peter had actually become Satan on that occasion, but rather he was taking on the role of the adversary.

But if the four gospels are taken to be accurate, then it appears that Jesus thought that Satan was a real person. But I'm not sure Jesus spoke of Satan on the same terms as some contemprorary Christians do, or even on the same terms as the epistle writers did. The epistle writers and many Christians today speak of fleeing the devil and engaging in warfare with the devil and give him credit for quite a lot of power. Jesus merely presents the devil as a thief and a liar. He can steal the word away from the hearts of non-believers, he can plant 'weeds' - people who can make life hard for Christians, he can lie. But that appears to be the extent of his powers.

Now it is interesting that Jesus speaks of Satan (the adversary) synonymously with Beelzebub ('Baal-Zebub' the god of the Philistines in 2 Kings 1). In the Old Testament these are clearly two seperate entities - indeed, the god Baal is presented as a false god, merely an impotent idol. But when we get to the New Testament the idol Baal has become a person and the prince of demons. Is this just a case of names getting confused, or the same name being given to two seperate things, or was the 1st Century concept of the devil really based on the OT idol? If so, where did he get his powers?

I have read a few theories about the devil essentially being a borrowed concept. During the Babylonian exile, the people if Israel were mixed up with the Babylonians and there was undoubtedly a mixing of cultures and beliefs there. What happens when you mix a bunch of people who believe in one all powerful God (with no significant enemies) with a bunch of folk who believe in two equal and opposite gods (Zoroastrians - their good god is more or less equally matched by an evil god)? Well, you might end up with a concept of a hugely powerful God with a pretty powerful (but not as powerful) enemy...

So we come back to the question of is there a real devil? And if there is, how powerful is he?

I don't know. I'm not trying to promote one opinion here more than any other. I'm just thinking out loud really. Certainly, Jesus believed in a devil, so as Christians we should follow his example. But is that devil someone to be feared or merely avoided? Please post your thoughts and comments below.

But anyway, I kind of got distracted away from my starting point, which was the Serpent in the garden of Eden. Even if there is a devil, I'm not sure this story speaks about him. So what do we know about the serpent?

Genesis 3v1: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

So here we have some form of (I assume) reptilian being who is 'crafty' and can talk. Furthermore it appears that the serpent is reasonably intelligent, certainly intelligent enough to philosophise. Also note that this serpent is not a snake - it is not until verse 14 that the serpent is cursed to crawl on its belly - I assume it had limbs.

I wonder if there is more here than meets the eye. Science has demonstrated that reptiles were the dominant creatures on the planet for hundreds of millions of years - far, far longer than mammals or humans have been dominant. In the past 60 million years or so mammals have evolved from small rodenty type things to us - intelligent enough to talk and philosophise about the world. Evolution had much longer to work with the reptiles - why couldn't they have developed intelligence, speech and philosophy? If you look at the fossil record, the evolutionary trend in the late cretacious period was towards medium sized, bipedal, intelligent dinosaurs (velociraptors, coelurus, troodon, dimeonychus, etc.) which were more-or-less the dinosaur equivalent of primates, including us. I think it is actually not unreasonable to assume that one or more of these species developed in much the same way that we have. To assume that we are the only possible intelligent species is simply arrogance on our part, others may have gone before, others may come after, indeed, there may be others elsewhere in the universe - and they're unlikely to look like us.

Which brings me back to the serpent in Genesis. Perhaps this is based on a racial memory of intelligent reptiles able to talk? If this is the case, all that survived is the story that they rejected God and were cursed by him as a consquence. Or perhaps there was no overlap of intelligent dinosaurs and intelligent people, but perhaps God revealed the story to his early followers as a warning - 'this is what happened to the last lot who rejected me...' or perhaps I'm just talking a lot of nonsense, sorry, this is what my thoughts are like sometimes.

Are any of you with me on this one?

Personally, I'd like to think that the dinosaurs did reach the stage of intelligence, civilisation and culture. I don't think these qualities are uniquely human - indeed I hope not, just in case we do encounter other life out there when we finally make it out into the universe properly.