Archive for December, 2009
Six Myths About Christianity – Part 4

Nov WatchtowerThe Intermediate State

Having dispensed with the given texts in support of a mortal soul, the case still needs to be presented for an immortal soul. There is a vast array of texts that could be brought to bear on this subject to prove the immortality of the soul. However, since the main point of disagreement seems to be the intermediate state, I will focus my response there.

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Movement Passages

If the soul ceased to exist at death one would not expect to find descriptions of its movement. Yet many passages describe the soul as returning, departing, entering or leaving. Consider:
Gen 35:18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.
The soul was not ceasing to exist, but was departing. The term is yatsa and the majority of the time it conveys a relocation. Sometimes it is the source more than the physical movement that is emphasized (such as the flow of a river). The most reasonable interpretation is that her soul (the immaterial part of her existence) relocated.
Eccl 12:7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Luke 8:52 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat.

In normal usage, these terms describe that which continues to exist. When I depart a building or my wife returns from the store or my children depart the house or my dog enters it again, all of these verbs suggest that the person or animal continue to exist. So it is with the soul. It continues to exist as it moves from one place to another as the traditional understanding of the soul asserts.

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Entrust Passages

If the soul ceased to exist at death, then one would not expect to find passages where it is entrusted to God. If it ceased to exist, then there is nothing to entrust. If I commit something to your care, that something has to exist in order for my statement to make any sense. Consider:
Psalm 31:5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
Luke 23:46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
Acts 7:59-60 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

When I entrust my car to someone, my car does not cease to exist. If I commit my finances to someone, my money does not cease to exist. When I entrust the mailman with an urgent letter the assumption is that my letter continues to exist as he takes it to the intended destination. How can God receive what does not exist?

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Disconnected Passages

If the soul ceases to exist at death then it would be a most explicitly contradictory thing to find passages that describe souls existing apart from the body. Yet there are such passages. Consider:
1 Sam 28:11-15 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.

15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.”

Necromancy was forbidden in scripture. The assumption seems to be that in some instances one can communicate with the dead. But if the dead cease to exist then there is no one to communicate with. No room is left for speculation as Saul summons Samuel through the sorcerer. Although Samuel died and his body was in the ground, yet he lived.

Isa 14:9 Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades [spirits of the dead] to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations.
Isa 26:14 They are dead, they will not live; they are shades [spirits of the dead], they will not arise; to that end you have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them.
Is 26:19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead [departed spirits].
Matt 17:3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Matt. 22:32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

The interesting thing about this passage is that Abraham and Issac and Jacob had not yet received their resurrection bodies (neither will they until the second coming.) Though they were physically dead, yet Jesus says they are alive.

Philippians 1:23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

Why would non-existence be better? Indeed Paul says it is far better. The reason is:

2 Cor 5:8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

To be absent from the body is (not to cease to exits but) to be present with the Lord. One cannot be present if he does not exist. To be in the presence of the Lord is far better!

Hebrews 12:22-23 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect,
Rev 6:9-11 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
Rev 20:4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

These are a lot of passages to try to rework. On the whole it makes more sense to say that the soul continues to exist after death.

Behold the Lamb of God

Following up on my last post, I’d like to take a look at the core of Christian morality from a slightly different perspective. As I said before, the heart of the Gospel and the Old Testament sacrificial system is the idea of negotiable guilt—the concept of guilt as something independent of the facts about whodunnit, something negotiable (in the transactional sense) that can be transferred from one person to another. It’s a perverse and corrupt basis for a moral system because it ends up justifying the practice of punishing the innocent so that the wicked can escape justice.

But wait. Didn’t Jesus voluntarily lay down his life, in a heroic self-sacrifice to save the souls of sinners? Didn’t he freely give all to save all, and doesn’t the moral virtue of that humble service outweigh the moral liabilities of the negotiable guilt system?

Well, no, though I can understand the powerful emotional appeal that makes people think the answer ought to be “yes.” We admire the drama, the heroics, the self-sacrifice (and of course the ultimate vindication and happy ending when, the story says, Jesus triumphed over death). But having warm feelings about an idea is not the same as “examining everything carefully” so that we can “hold fast to what is good.” So let’s consider this aspect of the Christian moral system.

First of all, let’s notice that even if Jesus did voluntarily lay down his life for the benefit of the wicked, we’re still making the assumption that the suffering of the innocent does indeed have some kind of magic mojo to make the sinner’s guilt disappear. In other words, we’re still basing our moral values on the kind of bizarre voodoo in which the suffering of the innocent creates some kind of force or power that can be applied to the benefit of the wicked.

This is a rather nasty, black-magic sort of concept, but it’s absolutely essential to make the Gospel work. If the sufferings of the innocent are merely an injustice or an evil turn of events, with no magical benefits for the wicked, then when Jesus goads the Sanhedrin into a lethal fury, all he’s really accomplishing is a rather exotic and elaborate form of suicide.

Technically, of course, suicide is itself a sin, so had Jesus deliberately and intentionally created the circumstances of his own death, he would be sinning, and thus would lose the innocence that is supposed to make the mojo happen. The Gospels, however, portray Jesus as submitting—reluctantly—to the will of the Father. “Not my will but Thine be done” means it was not Jesus’ will to die, but someone else put him in a situation where he could not refuse. As Hebrews tells us, he “learned obedience” through what he suffered. His Dad made him do it.

This kind of coerced submission puts Jesus into rather a grey area, under any moral system. Did he really seek his own death, or was he just obeying with a gun, as it were, pointed at his head? It’s an interesting question, but it’s a moot point. The benefit his death supposedly creates for sinners is not drawn in any sense from his willingness to die, but merely from the fact that he suffered and shed his blood, as the New Testament emphasizes over and over again. For example, in Hebrews 9 we read:

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.

Notice, it’s the blood—the emblem of the suffering and death of the innocent victim—that produces the magical benefits for the wicked. Much as we might admire Jesus for being willing to go to his death for the benefit of sinners, the whole premise of such a “benefit” is that guilt can be transferred from the wicked to the innocent, such that the subsequent abuse of the innocent somehow rewards the wicked. Voluntary or not, what Jesus was pursuing was not noble. Though our feelings may say otherwise after the relentless indoctrination of countless hymns and sermons, there’s a nasty bit of blood magic at the core of the Cross.

I’m not saying, of course, that mercy is immoral, or that it’s never right to forgive sin. If you’re going to forgive sin, though, then just forgive it. Making innocent people suffer for things they never did is injustice, not forgiveness. If it’s your intention for the truly guilty to escape the consequences of their offenses, then just don’t punish anyone at all, duh! That would be a moral form of forgiveness.

Notice that the “negotiable guilt” system of morality actually makes mercy impossible. Under the classical Christian system of transactional morals, it’s not that sin was ever forgiven, or ever could be forgiven. Over and over the New Testament writers inform us that all sin was punished. The punishment was diverted onto Jesus instead of onto those who were actually guilty, but the full punishment was meted out. No sin was ever actually forgiven. Our “merciful” heavenly Father has never actually shown any real mercy. Under the Christian moral system, He can’t.

You see what I mean when I say the Christian moral system is hopelessly corrupt. Christians sing God’s praises for His alleged grace and mercy, yet the Gospel itself is founded on the premise that God never has and never could show any real mercy. A truly forgiven sin is a sin for which no punishment is ever meted out, which means no innocent sacrificial victim is needed to endure the suffering and death that the punishment requires. If God is capable of that kind of forgiveness, then the whole Gospel falls apart.

Unfortunately, that leaves us with a moral system in which God cannot ever actually forgive sin. He must necessarily pour out retribution on someone, even if (or rather, especially if) they never actually committed the sin He’s punishing. That’s what it means to be “forgiven” in the New Testament. But a system in which you say, “I forgive you,” and then dish out the punishment anyway, is a very perverse and immoral system!

Imagine for a moment if real people actually practiced such a system. Let’s say we show up at a party, and the host greets us at the door, holding a small, cute, adorable puppy. “Oh how cute,” we say, “you’ve adopted a new pet?”

“Oh no,” says the host, “I’m just borrowing this puppy so that if any guest says or does anything that offends me, I can just torture this puppy until I’m satisfied that the guest is forgiven.”

Superior moral system or batshit crazy?

It’s the same principle of negotiable guilt that the Judeo-Christian sacrificial system is built on, and it’s no more moral or admirable there than it is at the party of our puppy-punishing host. That Jesus would volunteer to perpetuate such a system is hardly a demonstration of virtue, and is evidence of a seriously flawed sense of moral judgment.

On Christian morality

I have a couple things I’d like to say about the oft-rehearsed claim that modern morality, and indeed all morality, comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition and/or its God. We often hear this claim voiced as a rejection of atheism, as though we would have no basis for our moral judgments without faith in God. I and others have frequently (and easily) refuted this claim by citing sources of morality that Christian apologists are simply ignoring. But today I’d like to go a step further and point out that Christians don’t even get their own morality from Jewish/Christian sources, nor would it be a good thing if they did. Modern believers like to attribute modern virtues to their traditional morality, but if we examine it thoughtfully, it turns out to have a foundation that is irretrievably flawed and corrupt.

My first point, that Christians do not actually get their morality from the ancient moral codes of the Jews and early Christians, can be easily demonstrated by comparing the moral standards of today to the moral standards that were normal and normative in the major Biblical periods. Despite denouncing moral relativism, and claiming to have an eternal and absolute standard of morality in the Bible, we can see from Scripture itself that believers’ moral standards have changed quite a bit over the years.

In the days of Moses, for instance, not only was it morally acceptable to own slaves and beat them, God’s Law even provided for the sale of one’s daughters as sexual slaves that the buyer could keep for himself and/or pass on to his son. Though God’s Law speaks of the girl’s “conjugal rights” being protected, this is not a marriage: if the man tires of the slave, he needs no writ of divorce, he needs only to emancipate her free of charge.

And speaking of divorce, the Law of Moses not only permitted divorce, but actually called for the death of the wife if she could not prove she was a virgin on her wedding night. Similarly lethal punishments were stipulated for sins like blasphemy, working on Saturday (even if it’s just gathering firewood), hitting your parents, and worshiping other gods. Christians don’t live according to those standards of right and wrong any more, and few of them would even call such standards morally acceptable in any enduring and absolute sense.

Judeo-Christian morality is not an eternal moral absolute. It has changed over the years. Even in the Bible itself, the morality of divorce changed from being acceptable in Moses’ day to being questionable and even unacceptable in New Testament times. Jesus went so far as to make divorce the moral equivalent of adultery (thus inadvertently putting the Law of Moses, aka “God’s Perfect Law,” in the position of legalizing the equivalent of adultery!). And the changes in moral standards didn’t stop there, as can be seen by comparing today’s attitudes towards slavery and polygamy with the corresponding attitudes of Biblical patriarchs, prophets, and kings.

That’s a good thing, because Biblical morality, at its heart, is built on a moral framework that is both flawed and barbaric.

” ‘If a member of the community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands, he is guilty. When he is made aware of the sin he committed, he must bring as his offering for the sin he committed a female goat without defect. He is to lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it at the place of the burnt offering. Then the priest is to take some of the blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. He shall remove all the fat, just as the fat is removed from the fellowship offering, and the priest shall burn it on the altar as an aroma pleasing to the LORD. In this way the priest will make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven. (Lev. 4:27-31)

There’s no one single place where this moral flaw resides, but the above passage is a fair sample of the kind of corruption that permeates the Old Testament Law and the Gospel that springs from it. The problem lies in the concept of sin as something that exists as an independent entity, almost a commodity, that can be materially transferred from one being to another.

If you’ve been raised in a Christian culture, as I was, you may be so accustomed to this principle that it seems natural and unremarkable. Habit, however, is no justification for moral turpitude, and this idea of sin as negotiable commodity is an appallingly bad principle on which to base a moral system. Think about it: if you have done something wrong, if you’ve committed some crime that demands retribution or at least accountability, the doctrine of negotiable guilt says that you can morally get off scott free by transferring your guilt to some other party. And then they have to suffer the consequences for what you did!

In other words, it is moral, under this system, for the innocent to be punished for sins they did not commit, so that the guilty can sin with impunity. Not only is this doubly unjust (for punishing the innocent and for leaving the guilty unpunished), it’s an open invitation to abuse. It’s bad enough that the rich and powerful exploit and neglect the poor and weak, but under this kind of moral system, it’s even possible for the wicked to add to the trials of the saints by transferring to them the guilt for sins they did not commit.

If that seems a bit extreme, just re-read the quote from Leviticus 4 above. If the goat were somehow guilty of a sin deserving of death, that goat would not be an acceptable sin offering to the Lord. The innocence (and helplessness) of the animal are what make it a suitable recipient onto which the guilt of the sinner can be transferred. The suffering and death of the innocent is what magically puts the sinner back into a state in which he needs never again fear any retribution for his misdeeds.

And that, my friends, is the heart of the Christian Gospel: that Jesus Christ, the innocent lamb of God, received all the guilt for all of our sins past, present and future, that we committed and that he did not; he was punished for those sins so that we would not be. Negotiable guilt, freely transferable from the wicked to any weak and/or innocent victim who can be cajoled, coerced or otherwise induced to assume it.

This. Is. Not. Moral.

If someone wants to debate whether morality demands punishment and retribution for evil deeds, then we can have that discussion another time. What cannot be disputed is that if punishment is to be meted out for evil deeds, then genuine, valid, uncorrupted morality demands that the punishment fall on the person who committed the deed. The question of guilt is not a question of transactions or of the power of the wicked over the innocent, it’s a question of historical fact. “Guilty” means “at such and such a point in time, when the evil deed was done, this is the person that did it.” No subsequent “transaction” will alter the true historical facts of what happened in the past.

The doctrine of negotiable guilt lies at the heart of the Old Testament sacrifices and the New Testament Gospel, and it’s a poisonously immoral doctrine that explicitly provides for the punishment of the innocent and the impunity of the wicked. It is the very opposite of what a sound moral system ought to be based on. It is not, and cannot be, the source of any modern morals worthy of our respect and endorsement. We do not obtain our modern moral values from such a corrupt source, and nobody with a conscience should ever want to.

The Second Coming – Book Review

The Second Coming, by John MacArthur, is a good dispensational book on end times. I am an amillennialist myself, but the Second Coming is worth the read no matter your perspective. There are two abuses that seem to attend books on end times. Either they are vitriolic and harsh toward dissenters, or they are wildly imaginative, sensationalistic, and bordering on just plain goofy. MacArthur avoids both of these errors.
After listening to his 2007 Shepherd’s Conference address, I was a bit nervous to crack the book, but I was well pleased by what I found when I did. It was written with conviction but with warmth and gentleness. That is a hard thing to find.
It covers chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s Gospel and it reads like a series of sermons. As in his preaching, MacArthur was clear and articulate.
I suppose I can’t review a book from a perspective differing from my own without a bit of interaction, so here it goes. I think that it may be helpful for beginning end-times readers to understand MacArthur as meaning “physical” when he says, “literal.” On page 23 he states, “There is no reason to spiritualize or devise allegorical interpretations of scripture if the literal sense makes good sense.” Yet amillennialists believe that Christ is literally reigning even if it isn’t a physical reign on earth. There is nothing fictitious about the kingship of Christ. Thus it is helpful if you read MacArthur as saying “physical” when he says “literal.” MacArthur even admits this amillennial interpretation (a real though spiritual reign) on the same page.
In chapter 6 “Signs in the Sky” MacArthur takes the partial preterists to task. On page 121 he states that preterists employ, “allegory and symbolic language to make as many of the prophecies as possible fit the events of A.D. 70. In so doing, they utterly divest much of the discourse of any real significance, turning great cosmic signs into mere metaphors about the transition between covenants.” I’ll get to the metaphors shortly, but what struck me in this quote was the minimization of the New Covenant. MacArthur acts as if the transition from the Old to the New Covenant was no big thing. But the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the biggest thing that has ever occurred in this world. In this transition the types and shadows were fulfilled. The High Priest has made satisfaction. Redemption was accomplished. The head of the Serpent was crushed. Why would actual cosmic fireworks be more significant than these things?
Regarding the signs in the sky, and earlier on the same page MacArthur quotes Gary DeMar saying, “In other contexts, when the stars fall, they fall to the earth, a sure sign of temporal judgment (Isaiah 14:12; Daniel 8:10; Revelation 6:13; 9:1; 12:4).” DeMar, a preterist, does not devise allegory to explain away Matthew 24, rather, he goes to scripture to see how this imagery has historically been used. When one does that one finds that these cosmic signs were never physical events but were instead apocalyptic language for a shaking of the world powers. On the next page MacArthur concedes that “Almost no one expects the stars to fall to earth literally. It’s possible, too, that the sun might not be extinguished literally. . . . So I agree that wooden literalism is not necessary to get a right sense of Jesus’ words.” A bit further on page 124 he writes, “The cosmic signs Jesus gave in his discourse would have been thoroughly familiar to any student of Old Testament Messianic prophecy.”
So it is a bit strange that MacArthur acknowledges that wooden literalism is out, mentions Old Testament usage, quotes a preterist who makes his case from Old Testament usage, but never deals with their conclusion on that basis. I also found the appendix ironic given Pink’s ultimate eschatological position.
More positively, I enjoy the book on the whole for many of the reasons I mentioned at the top of this review. Additionally, and more specifically, I liked his statement on page 163 that “Staying prepared for the Lord’s return will therefore ready us to face death too.” That is very good advice. Regardless of when the Second Coming will occur, we will all meet God within our lifetime since, at death, we will stand in His presence. Either He will come to us, or we will go to Him. Either way we need to be prepared. We get caught up in end-times speculation and fail to live in the present the way we should in light of the end (2 Peter 3:11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness”).
I’ll end with another good quote on page 172 regarding the parable of the talents. It is food for thought for all of us:
“He had no interest in increasing his master’s wealth. He was not committed to the honer and glory of his master by extending the master’s realm. On the other hand, he had things he wanted to do, and as long as the Master was not around to hold him accountable, he was perfectly happy to pursue his own interests and utterly neglect his duties.”

Film Review #4: Avatar (2009)

avatar poster

Rarely do films captivate people as the new film Avatar by director James Cameron does. With an overwhelming positive response to the film, it may become one that will be looked upon as one of the most revolutionary and transformative movies created. There are several reasons for the success of Avatar, one of them being the spectacular new version of 3D, called Real 3D, that was used to create a very unique and amazing viewing experience. However, technological eye-candy aside, the film’s underlying themes revolving around human environmental degradation, the dark side of capitalism, and the military-industrial complex all add to the composition of a film that has a deeper message for humanity, in perhaps the hope that once realized and actualized upon, we will finally transcend the egoistic tendencies that befall us within lower levels of consciousness and realize our place within the world, the universe and Reality itself.

The story takes place in the year 2154 CE and involves a mission by the US military and contractors to a moon of the planet Polyphemus called Pandora that is approximately 4.3 light years from Earth and about the same size. This planet turns out to be a rich source of an element called Unobtanium that Earth, which is now essentially devoid of anything green, desperately needs for it to solve its energy crisis. There is no security threat by Pandora or its inhabitants. However, ex-military mercenaries are sent to the moon in order to make sure the shareholders of the corporations which are mining the precious ore see substantial increases in their financial positions as soon as possible. The tactics of attacking, and conquering are used at will. The moon itself is largely comprised of lush forests and within it, live all sorts of prehistoric-looking flora and fauna, as well as the humanoid race known as the Na’vi. This is a race of peaceful blue-skinned and golden-eyed humanoids that are approximately twice the size of humans. The moon’s atmosphere is not breathable by humans and so they have to use specially-designed oxygen masks. However, this is not ideal for their purposes, so avatars are created. An avatar in this film is an organically-grown Na’vi that is controlled by a human remotely while lying in a pod on one of the human ships. All sensory experiences that would be felt by a Na’vi, such as taste, sight, and touch, are experienced as if the human was experiencing them first-hand. The Na’vi race survives and thrives on Pandora by understanding it and living in harmony with nature and all the life contained within it.

There are many deeper aspects of the film, some of which will be explored here. These aspects not only define the tone throughout the film, but they add to the complexity of the film (such as the invention of a new language for this movie). The first aspect that will be looked at is the ability for the Na’vi to receive transmissions of information from other elements within the environment. For instance, when the main character in the film named Jake is exposed to a Na’vi tribe for the first time, the king of this tribe named Eytukan tastes Jake’s blood from a wound on his forehead and decrees it is the will of Eywa for him to live with the Omaticayan tribe. A key to understanding how this is possible is to note that moments prior to this, an entire fleet of dandelion seed/jellyfish-looking floaters gravitate towards Jake’s avatar and cover his entire upper body. These seeds are later to be understood as being “very pure spirits” that come directly from Eywa, which is a planetary consciousness field akin to Gaia. What this example insinuates, is that the Na’vi are able to sense through the blood (the life-force of a being) of another a simple form of a transmission that they revere as a deity; this deity has encoded this information within the person’s consciousness. The blood served as a medium by which the sensing of the transmission by the Gaia-like entity was possible.

Another key aspect of the film are the ideas of interconnectedness and oneness. The Na’vi feel very in tune, connected, and one with nature and all that it encompasses. They experience this not only in a spiritual way, but in a very literal one as well. As the end of the ponytails that they have, there is a neural queue with bioluminescent strands that have the ability to connect to other neural queues, such as those of animals, as demonstrated when Jake’s avatar bonds with his Direhorse. Another demonstration of this interconnectedness is when Neytiri teaches Jack about the Na’vi-forest connection. She explains to him that all energy is borrowed and one day we have to give it back. This ties into the fact that matter (which is ultimately energy) can not be created or destroyed, only transferred from one existential manifestation to another. We are truly stardust. It is also disclosed within the film that all the trees on Pandora connect to each other through a certain type of bioneural network. The trees on Pandora are part of a neural network that is composed of more connections then the human brain. This seems to draw a parallel with the reality of plant consciousness here on earth, where scientific discoveries in the past few decades have found that there is a process of biocommunication in plant cells, which has come to mean that plants are sentient life forms that feel, know, and are conscious. The scientific field of neurobiology has been more and more effective in demonstrating this plant consciousness.

There is much in the film about Eywa, which has previously been called a similar concept to Gaia here on earth. At first, the scientists from earth do not believe the stories of the Na’vi about how Eywa is an actual sentient being within nature, but rather they believe, from their empirical experiments, that what the Na’vi call Eywa, is just an organic form of a data processor that can be uploaded into and downloaded from. However, towards the end of the film, the main scientist experiences the reality of Eywa being an actual form of collective group consciousness, with which the scientist becomes one with as her physical body dies. The mechanistic and reductionist views of the scientists had only shown one side of the reality. All the inhabitants are connected to the Eywa consciousness (human, animal, plant) and even the inorganic material on the planet as well. This is the fundamental aspect of a unified consciousness of all that exists. Everything is connected, from the tiniest particles to the largest galaxies. All is one.

There is also something to be said of how the Na’vi live and exist. Although the Na’vi are not as technologically advanced species as humans are, they are a more consciousness-evolved species that realizes in every waking moment of their lives that All is One and nature is not something to be seen as an enemy, but rather something that is a part of themselves just as much as they are a part of it. The spiritually-minded Na’vi feel the interconnectedness between each other and with nature to the point that (perhaps through an evolutionary response to a shifted collective consciousness) they are able to literally connect with aspects of their environment, such as horses, flying creatures, and each other,  and become one with them and become in tune to each others’ localized energy fields of consciousness. What they lack in technology as we know it, they gain in consciousness evolution and increased spirituality.

Avatar is a brilliant film that touches upon many issues and aspects of reality that humanity is in the process of experiencing and living through. There is much to be taken away from this film, and it would be quite difficult to leave this film without going over in one’s mind some very philosophical thought-forms. There is much that can be said about what sort of messages the film is trying to project into humanity’s consciousness, but the primary message seems to be that humans still have much room for growth and improvement. The ego, and all that comes with it, such as desire for material aspects of reality, is something that is seen as having the need to be transcended. Nature is viewed as something that is as much a part of us as we are a part of it. When humanity shifts its consciousness to a higher level, where behavior by humans as seen in Avatar is far removed from the collective transpersonal consciousness, they we will be able to experience a transcended and self-actualized existence.  If one wishes to read an astrophysics professor’s analysis of Avatar, particularly its scientific aspects, check out this article. If you have not seen Avatar yet, it is a great film that is much more than bedazzling animations and graphics. It will no doubt stand the test of time as a revolutionary and inspiring movie.

XFiles Friday: Could Jesus be wrong?

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 14.)

I have mentioned before that books on apologetics are written to persuade believers, and not skeptics, that their beliefs are really true. As we get deeper and deeper into Chapter 14, it becomes painfully obvious that Geisler and Turek are writing under the assumption that no skeptic in his right mind would have stuck with them this far, and that it is therefore safe to trot out some old and moldy chestnuts that would be downright embarrassing to have displayed in public. Right mind or not, though, we’ve stuck with them this far, and we’ll see it through to the bitter end!

They start off promisingly enough, raising the question of whether or not Jesus could possibly have been wrong in his beliefs about the “ultimate supremacy” of the Old Testament Scriptures.

Perhaps he wasn’t saying that those events in the Old Testament really happened, but just that the Jews believed that they did. In other words, maybe he was just accommodating to the beliefs of the Jews, in effect saying, “just as you believe in Jonah, you ought to believe in my resurrection.”

The good news is that Geisler and Turek can see the flaws in this sort of wishy-washy “he-didn’t-really-mean-it” approach.

This accommodation theory doesn’t work. As we have seen, Jesus did not tolerate error. He wasn’t accommodating to the beliefs of the Jews, as some skeptics have suggested. He rebuked and corrected them repeatedly, from scathing public tongue-lashings (like Matthew 23) to correcting their false interpretations of the Old Testament (Matthew 21; Mark 11; John 2). Jesus didn’t back down on anything, and he certainly didn’t back down on the truth of the Old Testament.

That’s certainly a very valid and well-documented point. Call Jesus what you will, the Gospels most certainly do not portray him as the sort of person who would give in to the popular errors, misconceptions, and false doctrines of his culture, contrary to his own firmly-held beliefs, just to beg for some kind of false popularity.

We can be sure, therefore, that when Jesus speaks of the heart as being the part of the body where lustful thoughts and fantasies occur, and where the words we speak have their source, and where various other sinful thoughts and mental processes take place, it is because he himself believed, along with other primitive people, that thoughts and feelings and desires and so on are functions of the heart. It’s an understandable conclusion, since we can feel our pulse beat faster when we’re thinking of certain things. But it means Jesus did not know what the brain does, or what the actual function of the heart is.

Jesus, in short, can be wrong about things. But Geisler and Turek don’t believe it, and because they don’t believe it, they make an argument that, seriously, you wouldn’t ever share with anyone you thought might take a hard, critical look at it.

The skeptic may say, “But couldn’t Jesus have erred because of his human limitations? After all, if he didn’t know when he was coming back, maybe he didn’t know about errors in the Old Testament.”

That’s actually a very good point: men are not infallible, and therefore in order to make their “dual nature” theory work, Geisler and Turek ought to be saying that Jesus, while infallible in his so-called “god nature”, would also have to be fallible in his “man nature.” Trouble is, if you say Jesus could possibly be wrong, then that means you have to think about what Jesus says, and that you have both the right and the duty to question practices (like persecuting gays) that Christians advocate based on Jesus’ ideas. That’s not going to give believers like Geisler and Turek the desired absolute and unquestioned authority over other people’s morality that they’re after, so obviously that argument has to go.

No, this limitation theory doesn’t work either. Limits on understanding are different from misunderstanding. As a man, there were some things Jesus didn’t know. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong on what he did know. What Jesus did know was true because he only taught what the Father told him to teach (John 8:28; 17:8, 14). So to charge Jesus with an error is to charge God the Father with an error.

In other words, we know Jesus was never wrong, because he specifically told us that his source was infallible. He only taught what the Father told him to teach. And we know that he was not wrong about that because, well, he was Jesus and Jesus was never wrong. Right?

Furthermore, Jesus affirmed the truth of his teaching when he declared, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”

Yes, Geisler and Turek did just argue that we can know Jesus was never wrong because he told us so himself.

So where does that leave us? We need to ask only one question: Who knew more about the Old Testament, Christ or the critics? If Jesus is God, then whatever he teaches is true. If he teaches that the old Testament is divinely authoritative, imperishable, infallible, inerrant, historically reliable, scientifically accurate, and has ultimate supremacy, then those things are true. His credentials trump those of any fallible critic (especially those whose criticisms are not grounded in evidence but in an illegitimate anti-supernatural bias).

In a book entitled I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, immediately after telling us we should believe that Jesus was infallible just because he told us he was, Geisler and Turek are chastising those awful, horrible, reality-based critics for daring to match their years of consistent, scholarly, and well-documented research against the “credentials” Jesus presumably has if we assume that he’s God (despite his mistakes).

Wow.

And the icing on the cake? Those critics, they’ve got an illegitimate anti-supernatural bias, doncha know. As opposed to a legitimate anti-supernatural bias, I guess. So they’re doubly wrong.

Sigh. What’s really sad about this embarrassingly bad argument is that Geisler and Turek expect Christians fall for it. I’d consider my intelligence mortally insulted if someone thought so little of my reasoning ability that they would seriously propose this kind of gullible rationalization as though it were legitimate evidence for the Bible. But I’m not G&T’s intended audience. Christians are. Ouch, talk about friendly fire!

You know what would be even worse though? If this were the best argument Geisler and Turek could think of for the infallibility of Jesus’ teachings. I’d gladly go on and look at their other arguments, only they don’t offer any. I realize that it’s getting towards the end of the book, and paper costs money. I can understand if they’d only want to publish one or two arguments here. But this was the argument they picked for publication?

I used to read books of apologetics when I was a Christian. I remember being rather disappointed, underneath my requisite feeling of edification. I thought to myself, “They must be keeping the good arguments in some other book.” I think now I know why I never could find that other book.

An Omnipotent Fiend

A good friend of mine recently raised the question of God’s dealing with man (specifically in the OT).The issue raised is one that I have encountered a few times and goes something like this, “It is often hard for me to imagine a god more cruel than our own.” Since this is a recurring topic on many forums, I thought it worth posting my response such as it is. I am not presenting a full-orbed theodicy, just a quick brain exercise.

I actually find it pretty easy to conceive of a more cruel god. Perhaps that reveals more of my own depravity than anything, but it doesn’t take much imagination on my part to conceive of one worse. There are always exceptions so I am not going to try to make an exhaustive case. Rather I will simply speak from my own experience.

I love to eat. It is a wonderful pleasure that I have been granted. The ease with which I eat is grace. It is not something that God owes to me. The farmer grows the food when that it something that I could be required to do. A fully evil god that delighted in the suffering of people could require that I sue rose-bush stems for my farming implements so my hands are constantly lacerated.

I have infrastructure and distribution that allows for easy transport (practically to my front door). An evil god would surely make me walk across glass to retrieve the food that someone else grew. Moreover each trek to retrieve my food would happen in bitter cold weather.

It is shear grace that food has been infused with wonderful flavors and that I have taste buds so that can appreciate it. A cruel god may elect to have my food taste horrible so that every bite would be deeply nauseating. At the very least it would be flavorless.

Much grace has been granted to overcome such side effects as e-coli. Surely an omnipotent fiend would ensure that every apple has e-coli and I am constantly sick.

The texture and temperature of the food could also be adjusted to add to my misery. It may have the texture of sand burs and the heat would be scalding. Every aspect of my eating could be absolute torture. And that is just eating. This is just a five minute brain exercise (it’d be faster but I type slowly). For anything than one can complain about there are a thousand thing that could be worse.

XFiles: Writing God’s Word for Him

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 14.)

We’re in chapter 14, out of 15 chapters, in a book entitled I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be and ATHEIST, by Drs. Norm Geisler and Frank Turek. For the last few chapters, Geisler and Turek have been citing “the Scriptures” as reliable, historical, and primary sources of information about what God has allegedly been doing in the real world, and now, in the next to last chapter of the book, they’re finally getting around to defining what “the Scriptures” are. Hey, if you bought the first 13 chapters…

Up to now, G&T have been trying to establish the authority of the Bible by blithely appealing to what the Bible says Jesus says about the Bible. But even a theologian gets tired of going around in circles eventually, so for a change of pace they head us off in the general direction of the canonicity of Scripture, or in other words, “How do we know which books are divinely inspired and which are not?”

It’s a bit of a trouble spot for believers, because for all that they may strut and brag about the “ultimate supremacy” of Scripture, they have no passage anywhere in the Bible that declares which books are officially Scripture. Nor do they have any official list of books handed down to them from God, or from Jesus, or from any apostle, or from any prophet, saying “These are the books chosen by God to become His Word.” So what’s a Christian to do?

There’s only one possible answer of course: when God fails to do something you need Him to do, you just do it yourself and then give Him the credit. This then become God having done it. You were just the tool God used, you see. He even “inspired” you (without putting you under the constraints of Deut. 18) to have the idea to do His work so that He wouldn’t have to. Ahem.

Yes, well, that doesn’t sound very good, so Geisler and Turek take us on a tour of some of the thought processes that uninspired men used in deciding which books were inspired, in hopes that this overview will inspire some sort of confidence that they picked the right books. This presumes that there are a certain number of books that are genuinely divinely inspired, so there’s always a risk that we’ll inevitably end up with a list of canonical Scriptures regardless. Maybe none of them are really inspired, and all we’re doing is compiling a list of most convincing non-inspired books we can find?

Regardless, let’s have a look. True to form, Geisler and Turek’s first appeal is to Old Testament books that are mentioned in the New Testament (whatever the “New Testament” is, since we haven’t defined that yet).

In his rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, Jesus covered every book in the Jewish Old Testament, first to last when he declared, “Upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar” (v. 35). Abel was killed in the first book of the Jewish Old Testament (Genesis), and Zechariah was killed in the last (Chronicles).

Bit of a peculiar thought pattern there. Granted, Geisler and Turek are talking about Chronicles as being the last book of the Old Testament in the sense that it contains the record of the events which occurred latest in chronological order. But seriously? We’re supposed to take Jesus’ rebuke as being a validation of every book of the Old Testament, just because he mentions both an early murder and a late one?

If this is supposed to inspire my confidence, they’re off to a bad start. Are we supposed to assume that because Jesus mentioned two righteous people being murdered, one at the dawn of (alleged) history and one in the early post-Exilic period, that therefore any book that refers to righteous people being murdered in the intervening history is necessarily valid Scripture? Doesn’t the Book of Mormon have some righteous people dying during that time frame?

But let’s not give them too much grief. I’m sure they’re doing the best they can. And to give them the benefit of the doubt, I would suspect that in its original form, this was not so much an argument in favor of the canonicity of the Old Testament, but an argument against the canonicity of the Apocrypha, which describe events occurring after Zechariah. Geisler and Turek are Protestants, after all, and it wouldn’t do to go including certain “undesirable” sacred writings in the so-called canon of Scripture.

Their next confidence-inspiring citation is to talk about how many times the New Testament cites books from the Old.

Jesus and the New Testament writers cited every section of the Old Testament as authoritative as they referenced events in 18 of the 22 books of the Jewish Old Testament. The historicity of many of the events listed in table 14.1 have been disputed by critics. But Jesus and the apostles reference them as if they are historically true.

Notice the subtle weasel words there. The New Testament cites “every section” of the Old. Not every book, every “section.” Geisler and Turek don’t say what they mean by “section” but they probably mean the Law, the historical books, the poetic books, the major prophets, and the minor prophets. In other words, five sections (or six, if you break the poetic books into poetic books and wisdom literature). How do we know that the people who picked the books for each section picked the right books? They don’t say.

Maybe there’s some hope in table 14.1? I’m not going to reproduce it here (sorry), but it’s a list of 32 places where the New Testament cites some OT passage as though it were authoritative. Of these 32 references, 22 are references to Genesis, 3 refer to Exodus, 2 to Daniel, and one each for Joshua, Numbers, Kings, Chronicles and Jonah, for a total of eight Old Testament books mentioned in 32 New Testament citations.

Conspicuously missing from this list, of course, is Jude 1:9. “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”. This is an example of a New Testament author directly and authoritatively citing a book called “The Assumption of Moses”—a book you won’t find in any of our modern Bibles.

So ok, New Testament writers cited at least 8 of the 39 books of the Old Testament, plus at least one book that Geisler and Turek do not regard as being genuine Scripture. So what conclusion should we draw when a New Testament writer cites another book authoritatively? Does that mean the other book should be regarded as Scripture? Hmmm, it seems that New Testament writers cited other “sacred” writings even when we can be pretty sure that these other writings were not genuinely inspired.

It doesn’t help, of course, that we’re using New Testament authors as reliable witnesses even though Geisler and Turek themselves admit that these writers took a lot of their “authoritative” citations from stories whose historicity is doubtful. Remember back when Geisler and Turek were telling us how reliable Luke was and how we should never doubt his accounts because he mentioned real cities like Damascus and real people like Caesar? Shouldn’t they also have mentioned how Luke and other NT authors also uncritically accepted stories that these same experts now know to be of doubtful historicity?

These are considerations that raise valid concerns about whether we should be putting our faith in Christianity based on the testimony of the New Testament writers. We ought to have settled that question before we even approached the question of what conclusions we ought to draw if we have faith in the testimony of the NT witnesses.

And that’s really what it all boils down to. Geisler and Turek are trying to get us to have faith in what the New Testament writers tell us, regardless of how consistent these things are with observable and verifiable reality, and despite the explicit denial, in the title of their book, that they are basing their conclusions purely on their faith in the words and superstitions and subjective experiences of men. It’s the kind of inverted and perverted thinking that inevitably happens when you try to make God real in a world in which He does not exist.

Truth and context

There is a particular type of flawed reasoning that intelligent and well-educated Christians are more vulnerable to than less thoughtful Christians are, and it goes like this:

  • Jesus is God, therefore Jesus is never wrong.
  • Therefore if Jesus ever appears to be wrong, we must have misunderstood what he was saying.
  • Therefore if we can find a context in which Jesus’ words are understandable, we have solved the problem.

This is a subtle form of straw man argument that takes a potentially dangerous question—was Jesus wrong?—and replaces it with the far less threatening question of whether or not we can understand what Jesus meant. Notice I did not say easier question. Jesus, at times, made assumptions and referred to contemporary social, cultural, and theological traditions that nowadays can only be discovered by diligent historical research by highly trained and experienced specialists.

At times the work of discovery can be so challenging that by the time we figure out what Jesus meant, we want to heave a celebratory sigh and shout, “We’ve done it, we’ve solved the problem.” It was so much work to figure out what Jesus meant, and we did such a good job of documenting that this is in fact what he must have been referring to, that we completely overlook the fact that we’ve been pursuing this non-threatening question instead of dealing with the more dangerous question of whether Jesus’ meaning was really correct.

Or, in 25 words or less, finding out the correct context is not the same thing as finding out that the context itself is correct.

This is the trap that Jayman and JP Meier have fallen into with regards to Jesus use of Exodus 3, as reported in Matthew 22. I’m going to criticize Jayman’s argument and his conclusion, but before I do I’d like to take a moment to express my respect and appreciation for the approach he’s taking here. He’s not beating around the bush, or trying to divert us into pointless distractions from the topic at hand. He’s giving us and honest and sincere report of how an intelligent believer looks at the issues in Matt. 22 and makes sense of them, and for that I salute him.

I said Jesus and the Sadducees shared a belief that, if the afterlife exists, it will eventually take the form of resurrection. At the beginning of the discussion the Sadducees could have made an argument that takes the following form:

1) If the afterlife exists, then the resurrection will occur.

2) The afterlife does not exist.

3) Therefore the resurrection will not occur.

Jesus agrees with the Sadducees regarding point 1. He merely needs to convince the Sadducees that the afterlife does exist and he will have succeeded in convincing them that the resurrection will occur. If you don’t share a belief in 1, then Jesus’ argument may not persuade you. That’s fine. His argument was with the Sadducees, not you. We all tailor our arguments for our audience.

Not a bad argument, rhetorically speaking. You don’t find Jesus’ argument persuasive? No problem, he wasn’t tailoring his argument to persuade you, he was targeting his remarks to his specific audience, the Sadducees. That sounds plausible, and possibly convincing, as a way out of the problems I’ve already pointed out. But let’s look at it a bit more closely.

First of all, this approach requires assuming that the Pharisees have given us a fair and accurate report of the teachings of the Sadducees. Is that a valid assumption? Let’s look at what one contemporary observer tells us about the reliability with which the Pharisees of his day handled the writings and teachings of others.

Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”

And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:

‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS,
BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME.
BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME,
TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’”

So according to Jesus, the Pharisees couldn’t be trusted to give a fair report of their own Scriptures, let alone the doctrines of their enemies. Let’s remember, too, that in the early years of the church, those who opposed Christianity described Christians as being atheistic in their beliefs, and cannibalistic in their practices, with suspicions of orgies and/or sacrificing babies in their secret rituals in the catacombs. Is it really wise to assume that whatever your enemies say about you is necessarily what you really do believe and practice?

As far as I know we have only two remaining records of what the Sadducees believed: we have what the Pharisees said about them, and we have their original Scriptures, the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. Personally, I think we’re more likely to get an accurate picture of what the Sadducees really believed if we examine what their Scriptures actually say, instead of just taking their enemies’ word for it. If someone can prove to me that the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy explicitly deny the possibility of life after death, then I’ll be more than happy to take that as confirmation that the Pharisees correctly described Sadducean belief.

Meanwhile, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Sadducees did deny life after death, and that Jesus was indeed targeting his remarks towards that belief. This is where we get into the point I opened this post with: JP Meier has gone to a lot of work to define for us the underlying assumptions on which Jesus based his argument, but he (and Jayman) would seem to be using the hard work of discovering and documenting these assumptions instead of addressing the more interesting (and dangerous) question of whether these assumptions were valid and correct.

Let’s look again at the three points of the Sadducean argument, as paraphrased by Jayman. Point number 1 says, “If the afterlife exists, then the resurrection will occur.” That’s a non-sequitur. You might argue that if there is no afterlife, then there can be no resurrection, but it’s a logical fallacy to turn that around and say that if there is an afterlife then there must be a resurrection. I might say, “I cannot purchase a new car because I don’t even have $5,” and that might be perfectly true. But that, of course, does not mean that if I get $5 I can buy a new car.

Necessity is not sufficiency: an afterlife can be necessary for a resurrection without being sufficient for a resurrection. Jesus, however, does not say the Sadducees are wrong because their logic is faulty, he accuses them of being wrong because they do not know their own Scriptures. And to this day Christians are reading Jesus’ words and believing that Exodus 3 teaches doctrines that, as Meier has ably documented for us, are merely the precepts of men (and flawed logic at that!).

There’s much, much more I could say about this topic, but I think perhaps I’ve presented enough material to document my point. Let me just give one last example and then perhaps we can move on to other things: As I’ve mentioned before, the statement “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” does not express the idea that God was involved in any kind of living relationship with the patriarchs at the time. God is merely identifying Himself as being one particular God, as distinct from all the other possible gods Moses might have mistaken Him for. He is just saying, “You know the God of the patriarchs? That’s the God that I am.”

This does not in any sense convey the idea that there will be a resurrection, Meier’s glorious assumptions notwithstanding. To see this, let’s suppose for a moment that God changes His mind and decides that His children would be more godly if they were spirits, like He was. So that’s it then, no bodily resurrection, the dead are spirits and are going to stay spirits for all eternity, because that’s the way God now wants it.

Suppose that God did make such a decision, and there was not going to be a literal, physical, bodily resurrection after all. How would the text of Exodus 3:6 have to change in order to reflect the fact that there was no longer going to be a raising of the bodies of the dead?

Obviously, since Exodus 3 says nothing about raising the dead, there’s nothing at all in the verse that you could change in order to change the meaning from “there will be a resurrection of the dead” to “there won’t be a resurrection of the dead.” The concept of resurrection is completely absent from the text, so there’s no way to change what it says about resurrection (short of inserting a completely new topic into the text, of course).

Suppose that the spirits of the patriarchs somehow committed a sin so bad that God became enraged at them and smote them with a mighty zot that completely destroyed them, before the burning bush. How would the text of Exodus 3 need to change then? Again, there’s no way to change the text to make it deny the continued existence of the patriarchs, because there’s nothing in the text that affirms their continued existence. Whether or not the patriarchs exist, God would still have the right to identify Himself as being the same God as the God the patriarchs worshiped.

So what Jesus is doing here is that he is really presenting, as Biblical doctrines, the precepts and traditions and flawed logic of the Pharisees—the people he himself called “hypocrites” and condemned for teaching the traditions of men as though they were the word of God!

I’m sorry, did I forget to warn you to put your irony meters in standby mode?

All of my original critiques still stand. Jesus publicly defended the doctrine of the resurrection, after accusing the Sadducees of not knowing the Scriptures, by citing a verse that says nothing about resurrection, and that doesn’t even have any relevance to the question unless you smuggle in a whole raft of illogical and extrabiblical assumptions that Farsi Jews brought back with them from the lands of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.

JP Meier has done a good job of digging through the debris of theological history in order to discover these extrabiblical traditions, but the fact that he even needs this kind of scholarship to find the source of these ideas is itself proof that the Bible itself is not the original source. If it were, Meier (or Jesus!) could have gone straight to the source just by quoting the verses where these ideas were written. But if Jesus himself could not find a clear, valid, self-contained reference in the Law of Moses to some future Zoroastrian-style resurrection, it’s because Moses never put any such teaching there in the first place. And that means Jesus was misusing Exodus 3.

The Reverse Reference Fallacy

Seems like the question of Jesus and his use of Exodus 3 is a hot topic right now, and I’ll have more to say on the subject. Right now, though, I think it would be a good time to turn our attention to a very common fallacy I see a lot of in the area of Bible interpretation, and that’s a fallacy I call the Reverse Reference fallacy. It’s fairly simple to describe, and fairly simple to detect, provided you disagree with whoever is committing the fallacy. Sadly, it is all but impossible to notice when the people promoting it are people you happen to agree with.

It works like this: So-and-so teaches some doctrine or tradition that refers to a particular passage of Scripture, and therefore that passage of Scripture is referring to the doctrine or tradition that So-and-so teaches. Amazingly, this sort of reasoning holds true even when we’re talking about a doctrine or tradition that arose centuries after the writing of the Scripture that supposedly refers to it! It sounds almost ridiculously easy to recognize as a fallacy when we lay it out in those terms, but in actual practice a lot of believers find it a great deal harder.

Sadly, there are a huge number of practical examples we can choose from. For example, let’s take the idea of papal supremacy. According to Roman Catholic tradition, Jesus established the office of the Pope, and bestowed that office on the apostle Peter, in Matthew 16:18.

[Jesus said] “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Most Protestants can read that verse and realize that there is nothing written in that verse about the creation of a successible papal office that would serve as Christ’s personal representative on earth, in a position of supreme authority over all other earthly church offices. The words needed to express such an idea are simply not present in the text that the Catholic tradition refers to. Because Catholics agree with the tradition, however, they see Matthew 16:18 as a reference to the tradition of papal supremacy, and therefore the absence of the relevant words doesn’t matter. The tradition refers to the Scripture, and therefore that Scripture refers to that tradition, at least in Catholic eyes.

Protestants can’t understand why Catholics would make such a mistake, but it’s one they readily make themselves, under slightly different circumstances. For example, the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone refers to Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Because the tradition of salvation by faith alone refers to Eph. 2:8-9, Protestants see Eph. 2:8-9 as a reference to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, even though the crucial word “alone” is not actually in the text (and even though James 2:24, the only direct reference to “faith alone” in the Bible, says explicitly that “man is justified by works and not by faith alone”).

The Reverse Reference fallacy is one of the most powerful tools believers use to make the Bible say whatever they want. Because the desired doctrine does not need to be actually, literally written in the Bible text itself, you can attach virtually any idea you want, just by having it refer to a passage of Scripture and then pulling a Reverse Reference. Creationists, for example, teach that Biblical “kinds” are fixed, and cannot evolve over time, and then they quote Genesis 1:24, where God says “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.”

There’s nowhere in Genesis 1 where it is actually written that the kinds themselves cannot change over time, nor does evolution say that one “kind” of organism ever gives birth to a different “kind.” Each species reproduces according to its own kind, even in evolution. It’s just that the “kind” itself changes, over many generations, into different, descendant “kinds.” Genesis 1:24 says absolutely nothing that would make evolution wrong, yet because the creationist traditions refer to Genesis 1:24, then by Reverse Reference, Genesis 1:24 must be a reference to creationist traditions. It’s a fallacy, but try and show that to a creationist. They know, and they know that they know, that Genesis 1:24, the most ancient of texts, is a reference to a tradition that, historically, is a fairly recent addition even to creationist dogma.

Or look at the Rapture. In the early 1800’s, a rumor began to spread among Pentecostal Christians that there was going to be a literal Great Tribulation, but that Jesus would return before these dreadful events to carry good and faithful Christians safely out of harm’s way. This new tradition refers to I Thessalonians 4:13-17, a passage which says absolutely nothing about Jesus coming back before any Great Tribulation, but ask any fan of the Left Behind series (shudder), and they can tell you: pretribulationist tradition refers to I Thess. 4, and therefore I Thess. 4 refers to pretribulational traditions.

That’s not even going into all the permutations and variations that the so-called “cults” exploit in order to convince people that the Bible teaches ideas that no one in the first century ever even heard of. The Reverse Reference fallacy is extremely widespread because it so effectively exploits the Bible’s main strength, which is that you can easily read into it whatever you think it should say, and then claim divine authority for the ideas you “found” in its pages. Given that kind of power, it’s no wonder people are so eager to promote it, for their own ends.