Archive for May, 2009
A quick preview

We’ve looked at the evidence, and we’ve all seen (though some of us have mixed feelings about admitting it) that the real-world evidence is consistent with the expected consequences of the Myth Hypothesis, and inconsistent with the expected consequences of the Gospel Hypothesis. “Big deal,” you may say. “So what?” After all, it’s possible that some variation of the Gospel Hypothesis will work better. Maybe by adding things and/or taking things away we can come up with a New Gospel Hypothesis that will be as consistent with the facts as the Myth Hypothesis.

Well, yes and no.

It’s true that we can try modifying the Gospel Hypothesis, or even replacing it completely with a new hypothesis created from scratch. But here’s the interesting thing: we’ve already discovered that the original Gospel Hypothesis, as I originally gave it, is inconsistent with the facts. That means that any new, true hypothesis must also be inconsistent with the Gospel Hypothesis, because truth is consistent with itself.

That may be too obvious to be visible, so let’s look at that again. The Gospel Hypothesis is inconsistent with the real world facts because it predicts consequences that don’t match real-world conditions. Any true hypothesis must predict consequences that do match the real-world conditions, which means they’re going to fail to match the predictions of the Gospel Hypothesis. So any new hypothesis, in order to prove more consistent with the facts than the Gospel Hypothesis, is going to need to contradict the Gospel Hypothesis in some way. The Gospel Hypothesis does not fit the facts, so to fit the facts, we’re going to have to find a hypothesis that’s inconsistent with the Gospel Hypothesis.

That’s going to be especially tough for the Christian apologist to pull off. But why bother? We already have a hypothesis that fits the facts perfectly. Not only does the Myth Hypothesis predict with 100% accuracy the conditions we’re going to find in the real world, it even explains why and how the Gospel Hypothesis is going to fail to fit the facts. What is the point in looking any farther?

This is a replay of the situation with the battle between the geocentrists and the heliocentrists. The heliocentrists had a hypothesis that predicted the movements of the planets with astonishing accuracy: the earth was moving just like the other planets were, in a gravitationally-dictated orbit around the sun. The geocentrists tried to maintain a competing theory: that all celestial bodies moved in mathematically perfect circles, as befits the perfect work of a perfect creator.

To try and eliminate the differences between geocentrism and heliocentrism, the geocentrists introduced the notion of “epicycles”—everything that moved through the skies was moving in a perfect circle, but the circles themselves were also being moved in circles, which in turn were being moved in circles, and so on. By building elaborate schemes of nested circles, and complicated proportions of radii, they hoped to approximate the same predictions as the heliocentrists did with their relatively simpler calculations of gravitational interactions.

What the geocentrists were doing, in short, was setting up a Loser’s Compromise: trying to eliminate the difference in the predictions of each hypothesis so that they could claim that their view could be true, and we could never know. They were pursuing the unscientific goal of irresolvable agnosticism in order to avoid having to admit that their traditional beliefs were scientifically incorrect.

But why go to all that work? Heliocentrism produces the same answers a lot more easily and reliably, without raising unanswerable questions like how you account for the mechanics it takes to cause abstract mathematical concepts like circles take up physical orbits in a physical universe so as to drive the physical motion of entire planets. Today, geocentrism is a by-word for refusing to bow to the facts.

It may indeed be possible to follow the geocentrists’ example, by creating epicyclical variations on the Gospel Hypothesis in an endless and fruitless attempt to find one that predicts real-world conditions as elegantly and accurately as the Myth Hypothesis does. But why bother? The best we could achieve by such an approach is a Loser’s Compromise. Agnosticism is not knowledge; it does not give us grounds for claiming that we are justified in concluding things we have no justification to conclude.

So that’s why I’m not particularly concerned by objections that claim my Gospel Hypothesis is flawed. Truth is consistent with itself, and even if my Gospel Hypothesis were different from what the Bible says, we can still learn a lot about real-world facts by measuring how consistent the Hypothesis is with the evidence.

And by the way, there’s no such thing as a “cherry-picked” hypothesis. “Cherry-picking” is an error that occurs during the evidence-gathering phase, after your hypothesis has been defined. It biases your conclusions by seeking out only evidence that supports your preferred conclusion and suppressing the evidence that is inconsistent with it. In our discussion of the evidence, we have not suppressed any evidence, and have even encouraged people to submit any evidence (that is, any verifiable evidence) that would be contrary to our hypotheses. No one has.

Meanwhile, back in the hypothesis stage, it is perfectly legitimate and even commendable to take a broader hypothesis and zero in on specific details for closer investigation. Truth is consistent with itself, so a valid hypothesis will hold up whether you step back and look at the big picture or zoom in and focus on the individual details. My Gospel Hypothesis is closer to the big-picture end of the scale, and that’s going to pose problems for anyone looking for an epicyclical rebuttal to the evidence I’ve presented. You can agree that the Gospel Hypothesis is not consistent with the facts, and you can offer alternative hypotheses that are inconsistent with the Gospel Hypothesis, but you can’t do either without admitting that there are serious flaws in traditional Christian dogma.

And you can’t come up with a hypothesis that fits the facts better than the Myth Hypothesis. The Myth Hypothesis is already 100% accurate, so the best rebuttal you can hope for is a Loser’s Compromise. And that, too, is just what the Myth Hypothesis predicts.

Hiatus

Folks, I’m going to be offline for the next week or so due to my son’s graduation, some home improvement projects, and an increased workload at my day job. I’ve got posts scheduled through next Tuesday, but new posts and comments monitoring are going to be extremely spotty this week. This should give cl time to finish up his well-reasoned rebuttal without further distractions from me, at least, so that may be a good thing.

Take care and behave yourselves while I’m gone, ok? ;)

XFiles Friday: Daniel in the Liar’s Den

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 13.)

We come now to Prophecy #8 in Geisler and Turek’s short list of “messianic” prophecies that are supposed to astonish us all with their amazing pinpoint accuracy. The prophecies so far have been amazing, all right, though perhaps not for the reasons Geisler and Turek intended. They (and we) however, have saved the best for last.

Let’s start with the passage, from Daniel 9.

“Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.

Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”

And now, Geisler and Turek’s “messianic” interpretation:

He will die in AD 33: Messiah will die (be “cut off”) 483 years (69 * 7) after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem (that works out to A. D. 33). The city and the temple will then be destroyed. (This occurred in 70.)

Let’s begin by checking Geisler and Turek’s math. Before we do any date calculations, though, we need to point out the fact that date math is a bit unusual because the people who started the Christian calendar didn’t use zero as the starting point. That is to say, 1BC is followed immediately by 1AD, without any intervening zero. 1BC to 1AD is 1 year, not two.

Counting backwards from 33 AD, then, we find that from 33AD to 1AD is 32 years, and from 1AD to 1BC is one more year. Subtract that from 483, and we have 450 years left to account for. 450 years earlier than 1BC is 451BC, so that’s the year we need to check out in order to locate the “decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem.”

Trouble is, the original decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem was issued by Cyrus the Great in 538BC, which is way off. A later king, Artaxerxes, issued a pair of decrees affirming and re-authorizing the original decree of Cyrus, one in 455BC and another in 445BC, which is closer, but still no cigar.

In fact, there are several different decrees that you could pick from in order to find something to land you in the right ballpark: 538BC, 516BC, 455BC and 445BC. Be a little bit generous in what you’re willing to accept as “close enough” and you can have your pick of dates, which is always helpful when you’re trying to prove the “pinpoint accuracy” of OT prophecy.

Dr. Harold Hoehner, cited by Geisler and Turek as the source for their chronology of Daniel 9, actually moves the date of the last decree one year later, to 444BC.

The date of this decree is given in the biblical record. Nehemiah 1:1 states that Nehemiah heard of Jerusalem’s desolate conditions in the month of Chislev (November/ December) in Artaxerxes’ twentieth year. Then later in Artaxerxes’ twentieth year in the month of Nisan (March/April) Nehemiah reports that he was granted permission to restore the city and build its walls (2:1). To have Nisan later than Chislev (in the same year) may seem strange until one realizes that Nehemiah was using a Tishri-to-Tishri (September/October) dating method rather than the Persian Nisan-to-Nisan method. Nehemiah was following what was used by the kings of Judah earlier in their history. This method used by Nehemiah is confirmed by the Jews in Elephantine who also used this method during the same time period as Nehemiah.

Next, one needs to establish the beginning of Artaxerxes’ rule. His father Xerxes died shortly after December 17, 465 b.c. and Artaxerxes immediately succeeded him. Since the accession-year system was used the first year of Artaxerxes’ reign according to the Persian Nisan-to-Nisan reckoning would be Nisan 464 to Nisan 463 and according to the Jewish Tishri-to-Tishri reckoning would be Tishri 464 to Tishri 463. . . .

In conclusion, the report to Nehemiah (1:1) occurred in Chislev (November/December) of 445 B.C. and the decree of Artaxerxes (2:1) occurred in Nisan (March/April of 444 b.c.

From 444BC to 1BC is 443 years, plus 1 year for the 1BC to 1AD transition, subtracted from 483 years, brings us to 39AD, some years after Jesus’ death. How do Christians deal with this discrepancy? I’d better just quote this.

According to the Jewish custom, our Lord went up to Jerusalem on the 8th Nisan, which, as we know, fell that year upon a Friday. And having spent the Sabbath at Bethany, He entered the Holy City the following day, as recorded in the Gospels. The Julian date of that 10th Nisan was Sunday the 6th of April, a.d. 32. What then was the length of the period intervening between the issuing of the decree to rebuild Jerusalem and this public advent of “Messiah the Prince”—between the 14th of March, b.c. 445 and the 6th of April a.d. 32 (when He entered into Jerusalem)? THE INTERVAL WAS EXACTLY AND TO THE VERY DAY 173,880 DAYS, OR SEVEN TIMES SIXTY-NINE PROPHETIC YEARS OF 360 DAYS).

From b.c. 445 to a.d. 32 is 476 years = 173,740 days (476 x 365) + 116 days for leap years. And from 14th March to 6th April, reckoned inclusively according to Jewish practice is 24 days. But 173,740 + 116 + 24 = 173,880. And 69 x 7 x 360 = 173,880.

Did you catch that? 173,880 equals 69 “prophetic years” of 360 days each. Isn’t that cool? If the Bible comes up with the wrong number of years, you just redefine what a year is, and multiply it to get a number of days, and use the days (implicitly converted back to real years) to arrive at the date you were shooting for. If the original numbers don’t work, just make up new ones!

But wait, it gets better. The calculation above was by Sir Robert Anderson, and starts from the wrong year, according to Dr. Hoehner. Here’s Dr. Hoehner’s “correction”:

In previous chapters in this book it was concluded that Christ’s crucifixion occurred on Friday, Nisan 14, in a.d. 33. Reckoning His death according to the Julian calendar, Christ died on Friday, April 3, a.d. 33. As discussed above, the terminus a quo occurred in Nisan, 444 b.c. Although Nehemiah 2:1 does not specify which day of Nisan the decree to rebuild Jerusalem occurred, it cannot have occurred before Nisan 1. . . . it could have occurred on some other day in Nisan.

“Using the calculating method Anderson used, Hoehner comes up with the 476 solar years. This is the difference between 444 b.c. and a.d. 33. By multiplying 476 by 365.24219879 days, comes to 173,855 days, and Hoehner states:”

This leaves only 25 days to be accounted for between 444 b.c. and a.d. 33. By adding the 25 days to Nisan 1 or March 5 (of 444 b.c.), one comes to March 30 (of a.d. 33) which was Nisan 10 in a.d. 33. This is the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. . . . The terminus ad quem of the sixty-ninth week was on the day of Christ’s triumphal entry on March 30, a.d. 33.

(I’m quoting from an article that quotes Dr. Hoehner—the first and third paragraphs are Hoehner speaking, and the middle paragraph is by the article’s author, Thomas Ice.)

So we take 483 years, as predicted in Daniel, pick an arbitrarily defined “prophetic year” from a calendar that no one has ever used or defined, and use that to make an equation of 483 x (360 / 365) to get 476.38356164 solar years (according to my calculator), which we round off by just ignoring everything to the right of the decimal point. Then we multiply the rounded-off figure back again by 365.24219879 days to convert the solar years back to 173855.28662404 days (once again ignoring the decimal part) to get a day that’s 25 days less than Anderson’s original 69 x 7. Since “25 days” contains a number, we add 25 in again to get the exact day of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem.Wowzeroonies!

This stunning display of “prophetic math” is even more astonishing when you go back and re-read the original conditions and—yep, Dr. Hoehner admits that we don’t know what day in Nisan the decree was issued. By carefully maintaining strict mathematical accuracy to eight decimal places except when we don’t, we can calculate that March 30 of AD33 is exactly 173,880 days after whatever the unknown day was that the decree was actually issued. Astounding!

Have I pointed out yet that Daniel never says anything about “weeks of years”? He just says “seven weeks, and sixty-two weeks.” Hebrew scholars check me out on this, but I believe the Hebrew words for “week” and “seven” are very similar if not identical, and the Christian prophecy buffs are just borrowing the “weeks/sevens” substitution because it suits their timescales.

It’s entirely possible that Daniel was simply saying what he actually meant: 69 weeks, or a total of 483 days (a year plus a few months) between the issuing of Cyrus’ original decree in 538BC and the arrival of an “anointed” prince who would rebuild the city. Or maybe Darius’ decree, or one of the ones by Artaxerxes.

Remember, Cyrus himself was designated as God’s Anointed One in Isaiah 45:1. Anointing was just the customary way of designating God’s legitimately-appointed ruler, and there were any number of “messiahs” (i.e. anointed ones) in Israel’s history. The concept of THE Messiah, capitalized, was a much later addition to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Certainly, an ordinary mortal seems like a better fit for the prediction that the anointed prince would soon “be cut off, and have nothing.” And the dedication of the rebuilt Holy Place (temple) took place in 515BC, not during Jesus’ lifetime.

Besides, I’ll let you all in on a little secret. The date Daniel was really referring to was the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, in 1917. If you take Daniel’s 69 “sevens”, you get 483, divided by seven days in each week and added to 1917 takes us to 1984 (assuming we take off a couple of years for the leap years), which is exactly the day my wife and I moved to Washington DC, which is the capital of the United States and thus corresponds prophetically to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. So Daniel was really predicting me.

I’ll be posting a mailing address later on where you all can send in your tithes and offerings. Cash only please.

An “inaccurate” question?

We’ve been having an interesting discussion about how the real-world evidence relates to the consequences that would naturally result from the Myth Hypothesis and the Gospel Hypothesis, especially with regard to the latter. One Christian objection in particular strikes me as deserving a post of its own in response. Before we look at that objection, however, let’s review what a hypothesis is and how it is used.

A hypothesis is actually quite simple: it’s a proposition that has testable consequences. In other words, to construct a valid hypothesis, all we need to do is make a declarative statement that is specific enough and self-consistent enough that an honest and objective inquirer can work out what observable consequences ought reasonably to result if the statement is true. For example, if we say “beer is an intoxicating beverage,” that statement is a valid hypothesis. Just by analyzing the sentence, we can describe the consequences we ought to see if the statement is true: we should see people get intoxicated when they drink beer, and we should measure increased levels of blood alcohol after drinking.

Notice that there is no requirement that a hypothesis describe a true condition. We can just as well state a hypothesis like “milk is an intoxicating beverage.” Once again, an analysis of the sentence is sufficient to determine what specific, observable consequences ought to result if the hypothesis is true: we should see people getting drunk on milk, and should be able to measure increased levels of blood alcohol in milk drinkers shortly after they’ve imbibed.

Not all statements make valid hypotheses, however. “Loki works in mysterious ways” is a statement that really covers just about any possible outcome. We can’t really look at, say, today’s weather report and tell whether it supports or refutes the statement that Loki works in mysterious ways. Likewise, inherently self-contradictory statements are untestable. If we say “Childless unmarried spouses have healthier children,” we’re not going to be able to describe an observable set of consequences against which we could compare the evidence.

The whole point of the hypothesis, remember, is to serve as a disciplined and objective methodology for finding the answers to factual questions. We can have an invalid hypothesis—i.e. a statement from which no meaningful and verifiable consequences can be adduced—but we cannot have an inaccurate hypothesis, because accuracy is a quality of answers and conclusions, and the hypothesis is merely a formal way of stating what the question is.

Now, once we’ve formulated our hypothesis, we can analyze it and describe the consequences that would naturally result if the hypothesis were true. This in turn allows us to compare our predicted consequences to the consequences we observe in the real world. At that point, and not before that point, we can draw conclusions as to whether or not the hypothesis describes a conclusion that is consistent with the real world truth. (For added accuracy, we can and should compare multiple hypothesis that have distinctively different consequences, in order to determine which hypothesis produces consequences that are the best fit for the objective evidence.)

My Gospel Hypothesis states, as a testable proposition, the idea that there exists an all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving Creator Who wants a genuine, personal, eternal relationship with each of us, to the point that He is willing and able to become one of us, dwell among us for a time, and then die for us so that we can be together forever. This is a valid hypothesis: it does not contradict itself, and it allows us to determine, just from examining the terms of the hypothesis, what consequences would result from this hypothesis being true.

We’ve discussed at some length why the conditions specified in the Gospel Hypothesis lead naturally to the consequences I’ve described, and we’ve all agreed (even the Christians!) that real-world conditions do not match the consequences I’ve outlined. Having stated our hypothesis, worked out its observable consequences, and measured them against real-world conditions, we are now entitled to conclude that the Gospel Hypothesis does not describe a situation that is consistent with the truth.

The Christian objection at this point is revealing. The complaint is that my hypothesis is “inaccurate,” that it is “incorrect” and even “bunk.” If this were simply an admission of the conclusion that the Gospel Hypothesis describes a God Who does not actually exist, that would be a reasonable observation. But that’s not at all what this particular objection is driving at.

I have stated clearly and unequivocally, and repeated numerous times in response to allegations to the contrary, that the Gospel Hypothesis is an inquiry into real world conditions. It is specifically not, in any sense, an inquiry into what the Bible does or does not mean to say. Yet the objection to this hypothesis is that it is supposedly “incorrect” because it does not accurately present the teaching of the Bible. The teachings of the Bible aren’t even on topic for this particular question, yet the objection is raised that we must reject the hypothesis a priori, regardless of its consequences and regardless of the evidence, solely because the Bible allegedly does not teach it.

Obviously, there’s absolutely no reason why we need to care what the Bible says when the Bible is not the subject of our inquiry. There’s certainly no rule that says we can’t ask a scientific question unless we phrase the question in strictly Bible-approved terms. Such a constraint would introduce intolerable bias into our investigation, and would invalidate any conclusions we might think we were entitled to draw. This might be a desirable outcome if we knew that the facts were opposed to our beliefs, and wished to contrive a rationalization for our preconceived conclusions. Such a frankly and arbitrarily prejudicial demand, however, has no place in honest inquiry.

It’s easy to see why this objection is being raised, of course. Christians can neither deny that the evidence is inconsistent with the Gospel Hypothesis being true, nor admit that the hypothesis is false. For all their objections and protests that the Gospel Hypothesis is not what the Bible teaches, they do indeed believe in the idea of the loving, self-sacrificial Father, and don’t want to admit that real-world facts are inconsistent with the conclusion that He exists. Christians therefore have a strongly compelling motivation to find some excuse to shut down the whole inquiry, and to reject the fact-finding without ever seriously looking at the facts.

By trying to force the discussion away from a consideration of the facts and into a traditionally endless debate over what the Bible means, Christians are hoping to insulate themselves from the impact of the truth. It would be a devilishly effective strategy, were we to fall for it, because no matter what arguments or evidence we used to support our interpretation of the Bible, the Christian can always reply, “Well, that’s not how I interpret the Bible,” and walk away feeling unscathed. He doesn’t even need to explain what he thinks the correct interpretation is, he just needs to declare what it isn’t, and thus all contrary evidence is irrelevant by fiat.

Read back through the comments and see how many times Christians keep insisting that we are only allowed to talk about what the Bible does and does not say, and how many times I try to explain that we’re not investigating what the Bible says right now, and how many times Christians acknowledge that I am indeed not discussing what the Bible says and yet still insist that the discussion cannot be valid unless we drop the whole topic and talk instead about what the Bible does or does not mean to say.

As I said yesterday, it’s a transparently bogus objection. Christians don’t want to face the facts directly, and they try desperately to divert us into a subjective and futile BS session over “what the Bible means to me.” The latter discussion, being subjective, they cannot lose. The former, they cannot win. And they know it.

How can you know that I am speaking the truth, and what will be the sign of my correctness? Behold, the Christians themselves will give you a sign: they will not be able to admit that we can formulate and test a Gospel Hypothesis without reference to the Bible, and will continue to insist that our study is invalid because it compares the Gospel Hypothesis directly to the real-world facts. What is more, they will argue that our Gospel Hypothesis is somehow biased, on the grounds that it allows us to reach a fact-based conclusion that is incompatible with Christian beliefs.

When that happens, I will point out that it is actually very difficult to construct a biased hypothesis, which is why it is taking the Christians so long to come up with an alternative hypothesis that sounds impartial while still guaranteeing a predetermined Christian conclusion. (It’s doubly difficult when you realize that this hypothesis must also make God’s absence sound perfectly reasonable and explainable without admitting that there’s any undeniable absence to explain!)

Like Mark Twain used to say, tell the truth—it’s easier. My Gospel Hypothesis was very easy to come up with because I was under no obligation to try and bias it in favor of one conclusion or the other. And it’s clearly an honest and unbiased presentation of the concept of a loving, almighty Father willing and able to die for us, as one of us, so that we could enjoy a genuine, personal, eternal relationship with Him. It’s about as simple and direct a statement of the concept as you could have; you can’t rephrase it in a way that would make it less biased, because there’s no bias in it that you could remove.

So watch and see. You’d think it would be foolish of me to make such a prediction when my opponents could simply contrive not to fulfill it. But they can’t. Their actions and their rhetorical defenses are constrained by the consequences of the Myth Hypothesis. They simply have no alternative but to fulfill my prophecy. Watch and see.

The Undeniable Fact, v2.0

I have a strict policy of not banning people for disagreeing with me, and that’s because discussing things with my opponents often helps me clarify and improve my own presentation. In that vein, I’d like to present Version 2.0 of the Undeniable Fact (and its Inescapable Consequence).

One of the things that came out during the discussion with Jayman and cl is that they immediately focused on what I consider to be a trivial irrelevancy: the notion that we cannot know, in the sense of having first-hand personal experience, that every single allegedly divine manifestation is necessarily a false perception. We spent quite a bit of time arguing over the significance of the consistency of the evidence we can observe, but no amount of evidence or logic could sway them from their faith that God could be hiding somewhere just outside the range of our vision.

This is an irrelevant distraction, because a God Who hides just outside the limits of our perception still leaves us subject to the Inescapable Consequence: in God’s absence, our only option is to put our faith in the unsupported and contradictory claims of men—a practice that boils down to mere gullibility, not evidence-based faith. The objections of Jayman and cl are a clear-cut case of the difference between proving something beyond a reasonable doubt, and proving it beyond all conceivable doubts. So long as they can conceive of a doubt about my conclusions, they will reject them in favor of their own.

With that in mind, here is Version 2.0:

It is an Undeniable Fact that we do not see God (i.e. the Christian God) showing up in real life, outside human fantasies, intuitions, superstitions, hearsay, and other subjective psychosocial functions that constitute a worldview (as opposed to the real world). Because of this Undeniable Fact, we cannot escape the Inescapable Consequence: so-called faith in God can never be more than gullible trust in the words of men.

This version is an improvement over the earlier version, because it focuses the attention on the key point of the real-world fact. Whether or not we can imagine the hypothetical possibility of God popping in for tangible manifestations on the dark side of the moon, totally unobserved by man, it is nevertheless true that we do not see Him showing up in real life, and that this absence from our lives has profound and inescapable implications for our thoughts and beliefs about Him. We do not have what we honestly need in order to experience a genuine relationship with Him.

This, incidentally, is precisely the outcome that would logically result from the Myth Hypothesis being true. It is not only plausible, but inevitable, that God’s non-existence would result in His absence from our observations of the real world. At the same time, it is exactly the opposite of the outcome we would expect if the Gospel Hypothesis were true, since we would have to assume that real world conditions are the result of a deliberate decision by God not to allow us to have any legitimate, non-gullible, and objectively reasonable basis for believing He even exists. That’s a contradiction of the stipulation that God wants each of us to have a genuine, personal, eternal relationship with Him, and therefore the available evidence is not consistent with the Gospel Hypothesis.

Tomorrow I want to look (again) at the Gospel Hypothesis and to address the transparently bogus objection that is being raised in opposition to it. Stay tuned.

The Motivation For Cleaning

Mark 11:15-25 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

I have seen many sermons on this event, and for some reason the main point is missed. It seems that people are almost ashamed of what Jesus does here yet they feel the need to justify it. Why did he get so angry? What was the big deal I have seen people spend inordinate amounts of time trying to justify this cleansing of the temple. They will say things like, “The money changers would try to take advantage of the poor pilgrims by forcing them to exchange their money (whether Egyptian, or Roman, etc) for Jewish currency and then take them for a ride with their exchange rates.” They try to make similar points regarding the sale of animals. How can they possibly set up such an unfair practice, depriving the poor of their ability to bring their own animals for fear of it not meeting the sacrifice requirements. This was pure extortion.”

Now to a certain extent, this is true. There was some level of extortion going on here. But high exchange rates is not what principally angered Jesus. In verse 15 we see that Jesus, “entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple“. If Jesus were only concerned about the people who were ripping these poor pilgrims off, then why did Jesus drive off these travelers also? The people buying were the victims, why did Jesus drive them out? Although it is true that they probably had to pay higher than fair rates for these temple services, they were part of the problem.

Its Purpose

Suppose these people got a fair exchange rate and a decent price for the animals? Would Jesus have approved? Was that all there was to this? No. Jesus’ concern was not (primarily) for a fair exchange rate, but for the holiness of the temple of God. It is a place of worship and prayer. Can you imagine if there were side doors in this sanctuary and people would just come in one door and out the other, while the sermons was going on? People were constantly coming and going, talking to one another. Imagine that this sanctuary were full of cattle, goats, doves, lambs, etc. The smell, the noise, could you worship in that context? Could you worship and pray and sing?

Maybe even this does not adequately convey the right sense, since, for whatever reason, we do not have a high view of the church. Imagine that we let a bunch of cattle and all this other distractions into the White House, or Buckingham Palace, or even the Louvre in Paris? Would that not be an entirely inappropriate place for such activities? Forget whether the exchange rate is fair! The is no reverence in that kind of activity. There is no awe. There is no sense of holiness! That is what is wrong with this picture. As we learned with the fig tree, it is all leaves and no fruit. All show and no substance.

The Gentile Connection

It was in the outer courts, the courts of the gentiles, that all the selling and trading was taking place. All the inner courts seem to have been business as normal. However, this outer court, which was all the further the Gentiles could go, was overtaken and turned into a marketplace. Moreover, Jesus quotes from Isa 56 in his denunciation of this practice.

Isa 56:6-7 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,and to be his servants,everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,and holds fast my covenant—7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,and make them joyful in my house of prayer;their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.    

It was expected, in Jewish thought, that the Messiah would come and cleanse the temple from Gentile pollution. As it turns out, the Messiah has indeed come and cleansed the temple, not of the Gentiles, but for the Gentiles!

Victoria and Holmes

There’s a particular approach to the truth that I call the Loser’s Compromise, and it goes like this: “We can’t know the truth about X, so let’s just agree that different people are equally justified in believing whatever they like about it.” Considered superficially, it sounds open-minded and fair, because it appeals to a certain live-and-let-live quality that avoids putting anyone in the wrong. In reality, though, it’s a deceptive rationalization, and an excuse for avoiding the truth instead of embracing it.

To illustrate why this “compromise” is actually a form of self-deception, let’s consider two different people, one of whom believes that Queen Victoria was an actual person who lived in England in the 1800’s, and the other wants to believe that Sherlock Holmes was an actual person who lived in England at the same time.

Which of these people need to resort to the Loser’s Compromise? The person who wants to believe in Queen Victoria doesn’t. Queen Victoria actually did exist, and there’s abundant evidence of both her existence and her reign. There is no correspondingly abundant evidence for a competing theory that she existed only as an entertaining character in the fictional works of some prominent author. The evidence reflects a clear and distinct difference in support for the Real Person Hypothesis versus the Fictional Character Hypothesis, and that difference in evidentiary support is what we mean when we say we are justified in concluding that Queen Victoria really existed.

Appealing the the Loser’s Compromise would be foolish under these conditions. Not only does it fail to lend any better support to the conclusion that Victoria existed, but it actually compromises our ability to recognize the truth, since it grants equal weight to the false conclusion that she was merely a fictional character. This is going to be true in any question of objective fact: at most one conclusion will be consistent with the actual real-world truth, and other conclusions are going to be false. To treat all conclusions as equally justified is to prevent oneself from distinguishing between true answers and false ones. For the honest inquirer who wishes to know the truth about Victoria’s existence, such an approach would be abhorrent because of its inescapable self-deception.

It might have a certain appeal, though, to the person who wishes to believe that Sherlock Holmes was real. Because Holmes did not actually exist, the Loser’s Compromise offers the believer something that the evidence can’t: a presumption of legitimacy. By gainsaying all evidentiary differences between the Real Person Hypothesis and the Fictional Character Hypothesis, the believer can avoid having his false beliefs exposed as false. That’s a rhetorical benefit to the person believing a falsehood, but only because his beliefs are false. He doesn’t want to know the truth because the truth isn’t what he wants it to be. Thus, the best he can hope for is to reduce everyone else to a level of ignorance that will prevent them from knowing his answer is wrong.

This is why I call it the Loser’s Compromise. The believer knows (at some level) that the evidence is against him, and that’s why he tries to discredit it so that it cannot be used to distinguish between truths and untruths. It’s an intentional sabotage of one’s ability to discern, and thus is a desperate, last-ditch effort at rationalization. The honest inquirer has no need of it, because the evidence will already support the genuine truth. The only function of the Loser’s Compromise is to create a false justification for a preconceived and false conclusions.

XFiles Friday: Messianic Prophecies II

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 13.)

Drs. Geisler and Turek are giving us a quick tour of just the highlights of the so-called “messianic prophecies,” and in so doing are inadvertently giving us a good lesson in just how contrived these “fulfillments” really are. In contrast to the earlier section where they dragged out a handful of Biblical references to actual facts (like the fact that certain people and cities existed), in this chapter they seem almost rushed as they hurry through the Old Testament, skipping over such minor details as the literary and historical context of the verses they use as proof texts. But we’re in no such hurry, so we might linger just a bit longer on those pesky details.

Picking up where we left off last week, we find Geisler and Turek turning next to Isaiah chapter 9, verses 6 and 7.

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

Their interpretation of this passage is a bit odd:

He will be God: Messiah will be born as a child, but he will also be God. He will rule from the throne of David.

They omit the contextual references to a military deliverance that destroys an army:

You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy;  they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.

And they pick out just those details which they think they can use as a prediction of Jesus. But there are several problems with this interpretation, starting with the fact that Isaiah says nothing at all about any Messiah. Geisler and Turek assume he means a Messiah, but that’s something they’re reading into the text. And it doesn’t quite fit.

For example, David’s throne has ended. His kingdom does not exist any more, and the nation that sits in Palestine now is not a kingdom. There is no throne there to sit on, and the throne that Jesus allegedly sits on now is not David’s, but is a celestial throne at the right hand of God. Purely symbolic, of course, but it’s a symbol of ruling authority, and even in Christian eschatology, Jesus is not going to inherit the earthly throne/authority of David, but is going to establish his own throne/authority, over the whole world, by his own divine power.

Another problem is that the verses cited put the reins of government into the hands of this “child” already, as ruler over an unending kingdom. But Jesus isn’t ruling. He vanished at the beginning of the book of Acts (if not earlier), and according to the New Testament is currently “waiting” for his enemies to be defeated. What Christians do of course is to project this into the future, and claim that in some distant post-Parousian kingdom, this prophecy will be fulfilled. But if that’s the case, then it’s not really right to claim that Jesus has fulfilled it, because the alleged fulfillment hasn’t happened. Does this stop Christians from claiming that Jesus fulfilled it? I guess that’s a rhetorical question.

A bigger problem, though, is the part that says the predicted child will be called Eternal Father. Jesus, however, is not called the Father, he’s called the Son. You could take this to mean he’s going to be named after the Mighty God and the Everlasting Father, in which case this verse would not be prophesying that the child himself would be divine, but if you take the mention of “his name shall be called…God/Father,” as indicating what his true spiritual nature is, then it makes a bloody hash of Trinitarian theology.

Let’s move on to Micah 5.

Marshal your troops, O city of troops, for a siege is laid against us. They will strike Israel’s ruler on the cheek with a rod. But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace. When the Assyrian invades our land and marches through our fortresses, we will raise against him seven shepherds, even eight leaders of men. They will rule the land of Assyria with the sword, the land of Nimrod with drawn sword. He will deliver us from the Assyrian when he invades our land and marches into our borders.

Pretty straightforward: when Assyria threatens the northern kingdom of Israel, God will call a mighty war hero out of Bethlehem, just like in the old days, and he and his seven “shepherds” will turn the Assyrian invasion into a rout, drive them back into their own land, and conquer them. So what is the Geisler and Turek interpretation of this passage?

Born in Bethlehem: Messiah, who is eternal, will be born in Bethlehem.

Wait, what? Micah didn’t say anything about Messiah, nor did he say anything about being born, nor did he say anything about being eternal. Nor do the circumstances surrounding the second verse have any resemblence at all to the circumstances that attended the birth of Jesus. The Assyrian Empire was long gone by the time Jesus was born. Micah’s hyped-up promises didn’t come true, and they’re not going to come true. Nor does that mean that the wreckage of his failed prediction is somehow “available” for rag-picker theologians to comb through looking for little nuggets they can put to good use. Micah screwed up, plain and simple, and if I were still a Christian, I wouldn’t be putting his goof on my short list of “proofs” that Jesus must be the Messiah.

One more for this week: Malachi 3.

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

Another fairly easy passage. God promises to come to His temple and purge His priests like the refiner’s fiery forge that melts metal and lets you scrape off the cruft that floats up to the top (yeowch!), and then the ritual sacrifices will go back to being they way they were in the good old days. This is a pretty ominous passage, because it promises a time of such severe testing that the prophet wonders who, if anybody, will be able to endure it. Geisler and Turek’s rendition of this passage?

He will come to the temple: Messiah, who will be preceded by a messenger, will suddenly come to the temple.

Once again, the circumstances of Jesus’ life don’t really match the circumstances of the prophecy. Jesus’ life did not cause the priests to endure any particular fiery refinement. Jesus did not have any noticeable success in purifying the priesthood, nor is he particularly famous for turning people back to a renewed emphasis on Old Covenant sacrifices offered by men. In fact, according to Christian theology, Jesus is supposed to have fulfilled the Old Testament sacrifices by becoming a sacrifice himself. Instead of restoring the old sacrifices to a place of prominence, he is supposed to have made them obsolete. Jesus doesn’t fulfill this “prediction,” he contradicts it!

By carefully excising a bit of a word here and a snippet of phrase there, though, Geisler and Turek craft a Messianic prophecy that they can count as having been fulfilled in Jesus time, even though God did not return to His temple and purge His priests and restore the sacrifices of men to the same prominence they had before. It’s not about what the prophecies actually say, you see, it’s about quoting a passage, and then quoting an interpretation, and then creating the preception that because some of the same thoughts and words appear in each, the quotation is actually saying whatever Geisler and Turek tell us it is saying.

When we hear Christians brag about the Bible’s amazing record of “fulfilled” prophecies, we can agree that it is indeed amazing how many “fulfillments” Christians manage to find in the various Old Testament passages they use and abuse to create their interpretations. This is part of the problem that attends the serious study of Scripture: if you do it honestly, you discover that the distortions and misrepresentations are not only infused throughout Christian thinking, they go all the way back to the New Testament writers themselves, who quote verses out of context and twist the words in ways that Christians would never tolerate from, say, a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness. And this is our “infallible guide” to eternal truth?

We’ve still got one more prophecy to cover, but that’s the passage about Daniel’s 70 weeks, and that’s worth a post in and of itself. Stay tuned.

Understanding the Bible

There is probably a good year’s worth of material (at least) that we could examine to find overwhelmingly consistent examples in which the real-world evidence takes precisely the characteristics that would necessarily result from the truth of the Myth Hypothesis, and that fails to correspond to the consequences that ought to result from the truth of the Gospel Hypothesis. I think we’ve seen enough of it thus far, however, to give us a basis for beginning to approach the question of how we are to understand the Bible.

Obviously, there’s two ways we can do this: we can interpret the Bible in the light of the real-world evidence, assuming that the real-world evidence is necessarily correct, or we can interpret the evidence in the light of the Bible, assuming that the Bible is necessarily correct. The latter is sometimes called “interpreting the Bible on its own terms,” and I think it can be fairly said that this is a biased approach. The Bible makes no secret of the fact that it is written to promote belief, and to prejudice people against unbelievers (”The fool says in his heart…”). Putting the Bible ahead of the evidence means guaranteeing that you will come to some sort of Christian conclusion.

But what if we put the real-world evidence first? Is that not equally biased? Yes it is. The same principle applies equally to both. If we put the Bible first, then we are going to be biased in favor of Biblical conclusions, and if we put real-world evidence first, we’re going to be biased in favor of real-world conclusions. It’s up to us, then, to pick which bias we want to have.

To interpret the Bible in the light of the evidence, we need first of all to understand what the evidence is telling us. This is what we have been doing up to now. The real-world evidence is most consistent with the Myth Hypothesis, because the Myth Hypothesis successfully predicts the actual nature of the real-world evidence with the fewest appeals to alternative interpretations and special pleadings. In fact, it does not need to appeal to any of those special-circumstances adjustments: the consequences we find in real life are already consistent with those that would necessarily result from God’s non-existence (the Christian God’s non-existence, anyway). The Gospel Hypothesis can be made to conform to the Myth Hypothesis via alternative interpretations and special pleadings, but it’s the Myth Hypothesis that sets the standard that the Gospel Hypothesis has to live up to.

If we are going to understand the Bible in the light of the real-world evidence, therefore, the most reasonable course of action is to understand it in the light of the Myth Hypothesis. This is especially true considering that the characteristics of the Bible itself are precisely those that would necessarily result from it being written in the absence of a genuine Christian deity, as we saw earlier. It is an example of myth-building, a reflection of people’s best hopes, values, and wishes, and also of their biases, fears, and flaws. It is a commentary, not on God’s nature, but on Man’s.

Speaking as a former student of the Bible, I can say from personal experience that the Bible makes a whole lot more sense and possesses far fewer perplexities and mysteries when seen from this perspective. And indeed, most of the problems people face in understanding the Bible in Christian circles stem from trying to force everything to fit into an anachronistic, falsely homogenized theology. The average Christian, doing their daily Bible study or personal devotional, cannot help but take the words out of their historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts, despite footnotes and study aids, and repurpose them to suit a modern Christian preconception of what the Bible ought to be telling them. One need look no farther than the pro-life movement to see this dynamic in action.

Can we take the other approach? Can we make the Bible our trusted guide into “all truth,” and use the Bible as our basis for interpreting the real-world evidence? Yes and no. We can try to do that, and in so doing can give ourselves access to the accumulated, multi-millennial experience of millions of believers reconciling their faith with God’s real-world absence. But the Bible is ultimately ink on paper: it does not speak, it cannot think, it does not react to any external stimulus. What we actually end up using as our trusted guide is our own interpretation of what we think the Bible is trying to say. The Bible can give us ideas for how to rationalize our beliefs with God’s absence, but we pick, choose, and adapt those ideas according to our own personal interpretations and biases.

That’s a doubly-risky approach, because the Bible itself is a document that merely records how other men have interpreted their own beliefs and experiences. Instead of understanding the document based on the real-world evidence, then, we are adapting our interpretation of the evidence to conform to an interpretation of someone else’s interpretation, adjusted to fit our own world view. Inevitably, we end up believing whatever is right in our own eyes, because we first adopt the interpretation of Scripture that seems right in our own eyes, and then we use that interpretation to come up with a derivative interpretation of the evidence that seems right in our own eyes.

Of course, the apologist can accuse skeptics of doing the same thing, because skeptics base their interpretation of the Bible on an interpretation of the evidence. And that’s true to a certain point. The difference is that we have reliable, scientific tools for assessing which evidence-based interpretations are most consistent with the evidence. Because our interpretations must be evidence-based, we can work out what consequences would result if our interpretation were correct, and then compare those predicted consequences to the actual evidence, and see which interpretation produces consequences that are most consistent with the facts.

No such mechanism exists for theology-based interpretations of the Bible. The believer who is intellectual and/or academically inclined can appeal to grammatico-historical arguments over parsings and cultural definitions and historical allusions, and can build an interpretation that satisfies an academic expectation of “what seems right.” But the charismatic believer can just as easily claim that God has chosen the foolish things in order to shame the wise, and that the true meaning of Scripture is accessible only to those whose Spirit-filled insights allow them to unlock meanings that mere linguistics can never decipher. And given the ambiguities we encounter even when speaking our own language in our own cultural context, who could say that the charismatic is necessarily wrong?

There’s a reason why excessive study of Scripture has a marked tendency to lead the honest and intelligent believer into greater and greater agnosticism. When we reject an evidence-based interpretation of the Bible in favor of a Bible-based interpretation of the evidence, we ultimately deliver ourselves to our own ignorance as a source of knowledge. In God’s absence, we can never really be sure we know what the Bible means, and if we’re putting the Bible ahead of the evidence, if we have to know what the Bible means before we decide what the evidence means, then we really have no basis at all for what we believe. Our faith becomes something we believe for no better reason, and with no more justification, than the fact that we want to believe it.

A milestone

We’ve still got a lot more that could be said about the differences in consequences between the Myth Hypothesis and the Gospel Hypothesis. I thought it might be a good time, though, to take a brief breather, and survey where we’ve come from, and the course we’ve charted thus far.

I originally started this series because a number of commenters objected to my claim that it is an “Undeniable Fact” that God does not show up in real life. I could not possibly make such a claim with any intellectual honesty, some said, because such a claim would require omniscience on my part. My reply was that I was not basing my claim on a brute force approach, i.e. by personally investigating each and every claim that might constitute a genuine appearance of God. Instead, I am basing it on a more scientific approach, based on the principle that the truth is consistent with itself.

I think by this point, I am legitimately entitled to claim that I have met my burden of proof, and have established the intellectual honesty of claiming, as undeniable fact, the observation that God does not show up in real life. If He did, we would be having a very different conversation right now with respect to the consequences of the Myth Hypothesis versus the Gospel Hypothesis. Christian apologists are arguing, not just that God’s absence from real life is possible, but that we ought to expect the Gospel Hypothesis to result in an absence that is just as pervasive and undeniable as the one that would result from the Myth Hypothesis being true. Needless to say, this apologetic would be entirely counterproductive (for Christianity) if it were not true that God is as absent as any mythical being would have to be.

This discussion has also been productive because it has shown fairly clearly that Christians do indeed know that God does not show up in real life. When I first proposed that the Gospel Hypothesis implies that God would show up to participate in the relationship He had worked so hard to make possible, the Christian reaction was immediate and unmistakable. How could I know that? What made me so sure that the Gospel Hypothesis wouldn’t produce the same consequences as the Myth Hypothesis? I was just creating ad hoc “predictions” designed to make Christianity look bad! And so on and so on.

We all know, believer or unbeliever, that the Myth Hypothesis is the best predictor for the evidence that we will actually find in the real world. The immediate and primary reaction of Christians to this fact is to challenge the idea that the Gospel Hypothesis ought to produce different consequences. But the predictions of the Myth Hypothesis are only an advantage in a world where God does not show up outside the myths, beliefs, and superstitions of men, so by recognizing the need to harmonize the Gospel with the Myth Hypothesis, Christians show that they do indeed understand what kind of godless world we live in (at least as far as the Trinity is concerned).

It’s rather a dilemma for the apologist, though, because if we admit the Undeniable Fact that God does not show up in real life, then we’re faced with the Inescapable Consequence—our “faith” cannot be based on anything more than the fantasies, intuitions, superstitions and hearsay of men, and thus can never claim to rise above the level of mere gullibility. But if the apologist agrees that God should, and theoretically could be showing up in real life, as predicted by the Gospel Hypothesis, then he’s faced with the unmistakable consistency between real life and the Myth Hypothesis, and the equally unmistakable INconsistency between real life and the Gospel Hypothesis.

And, once again, this outcome is precisely the way we would expect things to turn out as a consequence of the Myth Hypothesis being true. God’s non-existence will force the real world to reflect His absence, and therefore Christian apologists will be stuck wrestling with the dilemma of either admitting that God should be showing up if the Gospel Hypothesis were true, or admitting the Undeniable Fact that He doesn’t show up. Either way, we’re left with a Christian God Who appears and speaks and acts only in the feelings and imaginations of men, as predicted by the Myth Hypothesis. If that doesn’t clue us in on the truth, then we’re just not sincerely seeking it.