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.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sons of God?

Genesis 6v1-4

[1] When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, [2] the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. [3] Then the LORD said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years." [4] The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

What is this all about? Many ancient religions had stories of their gods having children with human women, where the children grew up to be great heroes. For example the Greek god Zeus had loads of children with human women, including Hercules. But we don't believe this today, right?

Here we have a biblical passage with the same story - some divine beings, the 'sons of God', marry and have children with mortal women, producing heroic children.

So who were these 'sons of God' and how can they possibly fit into a contemporary theology?

The new testament is pretty clear cut - God only has one Son; Jesus. So if that is true then the 'sons of God' can't actually be the sons of God. But the passage makes clear that these 'sons of God' were significantly different from ordinary mortals. Indeed, even their half-ordinary offspring were heroic, suggesting that these folk were super-heroic in some way. So who were they? Here are the options as I see it (feel free to suggest more):
  1. The new testament is wrong, God had more than one Son...
  2. The old testament is wrong, this never happened...
  3. 'Sons of God' means angels, and angels and humans produced hybrid offspring...
  4. This is just a myth, a bolt-on from another religion added into the bible...
  5. It is a myth, adapted over time, based on some real event where two tribal groups (one generally bigger and stronger than the other, the other possibly generally more beautiful) met for the first time...
  6. 'Sons of God' = offspring of Seth / 'Daughters of man' = offspring of Cain (see Chris's comment, below)
So which is it? The problem I face is that you simply cannot just take the bible at face value here. There has to be some explanation to the story that is not contained in the bible. In other words this bible story, as we have it, is out of context and the context itself has been lost.

If this is true for this one story, it could be true for others. How many other stories in the bible are we musunderstanding because we have lost the context?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Dogma, Doctrine, Tenet...

I seem to have come across the word "dogma" a lot recently. According to
  • dogma: a religious doctrine that is proclaimed as true without proof.
The same definition is given for 'tenet', which is also defined as:
  • tenet: an opinion, doctrine, or principle held as being true by a person or especially by an organization.
And both of these definitions point to 'doctrine', which is:
  • doctrine: a belief (or system of beliefs) accepted as authoritative by some group or school
Other definitions of doctrine are given as:
  • a principle established through judicial decisions
  • a principle or body of principles presented for acceptance or belief, as by a religious, political, scientific, or philosophic group; dogma
  • a rule or principle of law, especially when established by precedent
  • a statement of official government policy, especially in foreign affairs and military strategy
What is the point of me quoting all this? Well, on this blog (and, indeed, in life) I am attempting to be critical of what I believe. As a scientifically minded person I find it really hard to accept some things without proof. Therefore I must be critical of dogma, even Christian dogma.

However, that doesn't mean I need to dismiss all doctrine. If a doctrine is established as reasonable (that is, as through judicial decisions or when established by precedent, as defined above) then it should be accepted, even without proof, until such times as proof is found (either supporting or otherwise) or further judicial decisions are made.

The question for us today is which established doctrines should now be dismissed due to proof or judicial decisions, and which should be maintained?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Worship works!

One of the most compelling reasons for believing that I've found is that Christianity works. However many doubts or intellectual uncertainties I may have about the bible and God, the thing works. You can experience God. You can know forgiveness. You can be transformed. You can become a better person. You can find purpose in life. Of course, there are still uncertainties, but there are certainties too.

This morning, at our church service, I felt God's presence. I felt Him there because I was worshipping, and worship works.

Worship works by showing us a tiny glimpse of who God is and who we can be if we let Him work in us. Despite not actually singing it this morning, I am particularly reminded of this song by Brian Doerksen (who is possibly my favourite worship song writer).

When You call my name
(by Brian Doerksen & Steve Mitchinson (c) 2000 Vineyard Songs UK/Eire)

There’s a hunger in this wilderness
For Your revelation
To hear the words of life that strengthen me
Come and show what You’ve prepared for me
Speak your confirmation
Show me how I fit into Your plan

For when You call my name
I can see again
Who You are and who I’m meant to be
And as You beckon me
I am free to see
Who You are and who I’m sent to be

I am seeking true identity
In the light of Your presence
I am longing to know how You see me
In the time that You have given me,
Release the strength to follow
And the grace to be who You say I am

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Proof of God's existence

Recently I've listened to a few Christian vs atheist podcasts and radio shows. The Christians always seem to use the same sorts of arguments to prove the existence of God, and these lines of reasoning always seem unquestionable to the Christian and unconvincing to the non-believer.

The three I've heard most often are:
  1. The evidence of creation. Look at the world - its pretty amazing isn't it. That couldn't have happened by chance could it?
  2. The evidence of selfless people. There are people who have done amazing things for other people and got nothing for themselves in return, that shows there's a God, doesn't it?
  3. The evidence of the bible. The bible says that Jesus died and rose again, there are no first century documents disputing this, therefore it must have happened.
Even I, as a believer, am not convinced by those arguments. Some scientists have done a pretty good job of explaining how the world could have developed in the absence of a God. And you can also point out the apparent flaws in creation to question the competence of a designer - surely the world would be better without earthquakes and tsunamis and disease, etc, etc.

And just because there are selfless people doesn't mean that there has to be a higher selfless being. If that reasoning worked then the existence of a higher selfless being would have to imply the existence of an even higher selfless being, and so on.

And there doesn't seem to me to be any point in trying to prove the historical authenticity of the bible in an argument. The events are so long ago in the past that they are beyond the reach of convincing historical certainty. Sure, the events might have happened, but you cant prove anything.

Why do none of these people use contemporary evidence? If there is a God who wants to interact with people today, then surely that interaction can be observed and experienced. If it can't then there is no reason to believe, if it can then everything else falls into place.