|EBON MUSINGS: THE ATHEISM PAGES||GUEST ESSAYS|
N. D. Guerre
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Religion and Sex
Many religions have a sordid history of mistreating women. For thousands of years, religion has been male dominated - God himself is regarded as male. Throughout the Bible and Quran, women are treated as second class citizens. There is a clear double standard: In sexual matters, women receive a disproportionate degree of punishment. Why do men behave this way; why do they blame women for their sexual problems, believing that somehow women are the source of evil and sin? (Remember, it was Eve who, encouraged by the serpent, tempted Adam to eat the fruit.) In addition to religious persecution of women, a great deal of guilt is created by religious belief about sex and the feared consequences of sexual activity and "impure" thoughts.
The Grand Inquisitor, placed in charge of Europe's spiritual purity by the Catholic pope during the Inquisition, regarded all women as potentially corrupting, and women who showed any inclination to actually wanting and enjoying sex were regarded as possessed by Satan. Similar attitudes are not uncommon today. Many Muslim women, for example, are punished if they get too friendly with men they aren't married to. Even in western society today, puritan attitudes still prevail: Attorney General John Ashcroft was so unnerved by the Justice Department's statues depicting nude women, he ordered them covered!
Why do men blame women for their "impure" thoughts, i.e. "she was dressed provocatively". In some Arab countries, they believe that just looking at a woman in a "certain way" will bring shame on her family. If a woman is even suspected of indiscreet behavior, she can be tortured or killed by her family to erase the "shame".
The Quran says that Allah ordered the wives of the prophet and women of believers to remain in their homes, to wear the hijab, etc., to be accompanied by a male relative outside the home. The Taliban required women to wear soft heeled shoes because they believed even the sound of a woman's footsteps was provocative. Women were forbidden to seek medical treatment by a male doctor, and yet women were forbidden to practice medicine!
Because some men cannot control their behavior around women, and because men in these societies have the power, the burden is placed on the women by making them essentially invisible to men outside their families. Women in many Islamic countries are required to cover up from head to toe when in public. Religious zealots contend that no man, other than the woman's husband, should see any part of her body, including her face. What are they so afraid of? Do they think a man will go sexually berserk just by looking at her face? Do these men have no self control at all?
In 2002 the Miss World pageant was moved from Nigeria to England because of religious rioting after a newspaper article suggested that the prophet Muhammad would have likely chosen a wife from among the contestants. The Muslim mobs stabbed, bludgeoned and burned to death at least 50 people. One witness described how a mob stabbed one young man, then forced a tire filled with gasoline around his neck and burned him alive! All because of religious belief. These people were offended that Christians would permit women to parade around in swim suits or even suggest that Muhammad would have somehow approved.
The problem of modernizing the Arab world e.g. improving women's rights is mainly one of overturning centuries-old Arab traditions of honor that accompanied the spread of Islam and are presently being taught by such radical movements as the Saudi-funded Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. In Saudi Arabia some women cannot get a driver's license because it would require a photo ID. Recently, 15 women died in a school fire simply because the religious police would not let the women out of the burning building without their veils! Can you believe it?
An estimated 5,000 women worldwide are murdered each year by relatives who believe these women brought shame on their families or communities. Even in cases of rape, the woman will be condemned while the man gets off Scott free. Within the Arab honor code, individual rights are secondary to one's status within the family or tribe. In one recent case, the prescribed punishment for the woman was to be stoned to death!
Suicide is often the only way out for such women. In conservative Muslim society, a woman who has been raped is considered a disgrace to herself and to her family. In such societies it is considered her duty to commit suicide! The man who raped her is not held accountable, she is! The reasoning is probably similar to other Muslim attitudes toward women that it is always the woman's fault by somehow provoking the man's sexual interest.
Another example of the religious persecution of women is the practice of sexual mutilation - the belief that women provoke men into unclean, impure thoughts by their sexuality, therefore the source of this sexuality must be removed. In some regions of Africa, men are so paranoid about this that parts of the female genitalia are cut, the clitoris removed and the labia sewn together.
Back in this country, we have recently been hearing a lot about pedophilia in the Catholic Church. Why are we surprised? The church requires that priests abstain from any kind of sexual activity, which is impossible for most men. The ones who do consent to become priests are therefore suspect: some are gay, or otherwise sexually conflicted, and join the priesthood in hopes that the constraints of the church will control their compulsions. You cannot simply squelch sexual desire - if you constrain it one way, it will express itself some other way.
As recently as the 1996, the Catholic Church in Ireland maintained asylums for young women who their families had deemed incorrigible. Presumably the parents, having been brought up in the strict admonishments of the church, felt that their daughters' behavior (unchaste or pregnant out of wedlock, raped or simply too flirtatious) was sufficiently sinful that either 1) they were ashamed to lay further claim to them or 2) they felt their only hope of salvation was to turn them over to the church in hopes of fixing the problem. Unfortunately, in many cases, these women were not fixed at all, but ended up being abused and enslaved to satisfy the material needs of the church or, in some cases, the sexual needs of the sisters who ran the asylums.
Similar abuse was rampant in church run orphanages in England and Australia. Young boys who had been abandoned by their families for whatever reason (economic hardship, behavioral problems, death of a parent, etc.) were terminally committed to these places. Like ordinary prisoners, they were forced into labor or servitude. Many of these boys were used by clergy or nuns to satisfy perverse sexual desires.
I have read that today there is a crisis in the Catholic Church analogous to that which existed just prior to the Protestant Reformation. In that case, the church had become corrupt, oppressive and aloof, too inaccessible to the people, a power unto itself with no accountability. There has also been a growing chasm between the more liberal and conservative elements in the Catholic Church. Recent pontificates have emphasized the conservative stance on priestly celibacy, the role of women in the church and birth control, whereas much of Europe and the United States have better adjusted to the realities of our changing times. In addition to the recent sex scandals, some of which can no doubt be traced to the church's abnormal stance on human sexuality, we have a full blown AIDS epidemic in much of the Catholic third world. One can easily argue that the church's prohibition on the use of condoms has only exacerbated the problem.
Recently, the Episcopal Church elected an openly gay priest to the office of bishop. The problem, of course, is that the Bible specifically teaches that homosexuality is a sin. (Leviticus 20:13 and 1 Corinthians 6:9) Ancient scripture sets out parameters on human sexual expression. In order to get around the restrictions that limit sexual activity to a man and a woman within a marital bond, liberal theologians have had to construct a theology that says the Bible does not really mean what it clearly says!
These liberals insist the Scriptures must be interpreted by modern standards. "Otherwise," says Katie Sherrod, editor of Ruach, the journal of the Episcopal Women's Caucus, "we would allow slaves. We wouldn't allow divorce. We wouldn't eat cheeseburgers." Fundamentalists contend that homosexuality is sinful because the Bible calls it an "abomination". However, the Bible also calls such modern-day activities as eating shellfish an "abomination". These people will interpret the Bible to say whatever they want it to say. And how many times do you think the Bible text has been interpreted and reinterpreted over the last two thousand years?
Most people would agree with the Old Testament prohibition on sodomy. But in the same section that condemns sodomy, there are numerous other laws that Judeo-Christian churches routinely choose to ignore (prohibitions against trimming beards, wearing clothing of mixed fibers and enforcing the death penalty against adulterous couples and children who curse their parents). In the New Testament, Paul condemns same-sex unions. But again, he also condemns many activities that most churches openly accept such as women attending church with their heads uncovered. If the Bible is to be accepted as the absolute, indisputable, divine word of God, how can you pick and choose which rules you're going to follow?
Religion and Medicine
Medical research was discouraged during the Middle Ages by the widely held belief that sickness was God's punishment for sin! Until the 14th century, religious taboos prevented the dissection of bodies to increase knowledge of our anatomy. Christianity taught that the human body was too sacred to allow it to be cut up and studied.
Religious opposition to inoculation when it was first introduced was based on the assumption that it was thwarting God's will. After all, who were we to play with nature, to alter something that God created in his infinite wisdom! (We hear a lot of this argument today regarding genetic and embryonic research.)
During the spread of plagues and other infectious diseases in the Middle Ages, the clergy called for people to gather and pray in the churches, which of course was just the worst thing you could do. Europeans viewed Native American's vulnerability to disease as evidence of God's will that the natives were inferior to the white man and therefore destined to perish.
In Milwaukee recently, an eight year old autistic boy died during a religious ceremony designed to remove the evil spirit that was believed to possess him. The minister said that the boy was possessed by an "unclean spirit". Furthermore, the minister stated that he had been "called" by God, trained as a minister and knew what he was talking about! The death was ruled a homicide.
There has been considerable debate recently regarding embryonic stem cell research. One approach to obtaining stem cells is to take them from human embryos. The argument from the religious right, and the current administration, is that this would be paramount to taking a human life. The fact is, however, these embryonic cells have hardly begun to form into anything akin to a living creature. Furthermore, most of these cells are destined to be destroyed anyway! The current restriction on federal funding means that we are impeding some very promising research that may some day allow us to use these unique cells to repair tissues destroyed by disease or injury.
Another argument by some religious people is that we should not be tampering with God's creation. (This is similar to the religious opposition to the development of vaccines discussed earlier.) It would seem more likely that what these scientists are trying to do is correct God's mistakes! Maybe that is still another reason these people oppose this research it is the implication that we are trying to correct a problem with the original design.
Another application of this technology has been to harvest stem cells from the umbilical cord of a new born child, a child conceived for the purpose, in order to save the life of an older sibling. One objection to the procedure is that the doctors are "playing God". But one mother's response to that was: "They're not playing God; God has inspired the doctors to develop this cure. It was God, working through the doctors, who made it possible."
In another example of medical intervention, a mother wrote regarding her daughter's feeding tube: "God has also granted doctors and inventors with knowledge of how to keep her sustaining, even enjoying, life by allowing her to receive nourishment."
Now think about these statements: They're saying that after God created these conditions, (you must accept that if God created everything, it must include these conditions) he then inspired certain people, as instruments of his will, to develop an intervention or cure. But, isn't the condition they're trying to fix part of God's plan? Why would God create such a condition and then want to help the doctor cure it? (Of course, only those children who have access to these procedures stand any chance of surviving.) Does that make any sense at all?
If you're religious and really thought about it, you would have to admit that the major objective of medicine is to either fix God's mistakes or overcome his vindictiveness, the former assuming he was simply careless in his design or the latter assuming that suffering was a deliberate part of the design. Most religious people would be appalled at the suggestion that God could make a mistake, so you're left with the only other conclusion (assuming there is a God): God is a sadist and wants us to suffer. He has created these diseases and left it up to us to figure out a way to deal with them.
Come on now, do you really believe that?
RELIGION AND SCIENCE
Religious people think that everything happens for some sort of divine reason. Years ago people thought that comets foretold disaster. They felt that there had to be a (religious) reason for the appearance of these strange objects, which upset the orderly perfection of the heavens. But things happen for natural reasons, reasons that can be understood if one is willing to observe and think on his own, unencumbered by religious preconceptions. It was discovered "that there might be principles, forces and laws of nature through which the world could be understood without attributing the fall of every sparrow to the direct intervention of Zeus."4 There is a way to understand the world without having to depend on a God hypothesis. It is called "science".
In the six centuries before Christ, there existed several ancient civilizations along the shores of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas that were conducive to free expression and open inquiry regarding the mysteries of the universe. These were home to the first known philosophers, scientists and mathematicians with such names as Archimedes, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates. Ionia in the sixth through forth centuries BC was a Mecca of scientific inquiry and discovery. The great Library of Alexandria was a center of learning and research, and its collection of books included all the cultures and languages of the ancient world. And yet all this was destroyed as western civilization descended into a two thousand year period of darkness and ignorance. Most of this great body of knowledge was lost forever. Not until the renaissance would man take up where the ancients left off. Two thousand years wasted!
In 1543 Copernicus proposed that the sun, and not the Earth, was at the center of the universe. The Catholic Church promptly banned the work until it was "corrected" by the church censors where it remained until 1835! This was at a time when any deviation from prevailing religious dogma was punishable by exile, torture or death. After all, the heavens were deemed to be the perfect domain of God as opposed to man's imperfect Earth. To question God's perfection was unthinkable! Furthermore, the church's position had always been that the Earth was at the center of the universe, that the heavens and everything in it revolved around us.
Then along came Kepler. Born a Protestant in 1571, he initially studied for the clergy. Having been carefully taught at an early, impressionable age to believe the church's teachings, he was torn between his religious beliefs and his scientific insights. He gradually overcame his religious indoctrination about the heavens and found the courage to challenge the long held beliefs of the church. His reliance on observation and scientific method rather than blindly accepting the prevailing dogma and superstitions, led to a breakthrough in our understanding of the universe, leading the way for Galileo and Newton. His reward was excommunication by the Lutheran Church. He was lucky!
Likewise, Galileo was persecuted by the church for proposing, among other things, that the Earth was not the center of the universe. He was forced by the Catholic Church under threat of torture to recant his heretical views. Through the intervention of influential friends, he was spared the worst punishments and instead placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. His book, Dialogo (Dialogue), was banned by the church for 200 years.
It is interesting to note that Galileo was a devout Catholic and even considered studying for the priesthood. Like all good Christians, he believed that the Bible was the inspired word of God. But he felt that the Bible was being interpreted incorrectly with regard to astronomical matters.
Why did the Catholic Church, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, continue to believe that the Earth was fixed at the center of the universe? Only in 1979 did the church, under Pope John Paul II, propose reversing the condemnation of Galileo. In his official apology, issued in 1992, the Pope stressed that faith should not conflict with reason; that although scripture cannot error, man can error in its interpretation.
In the seventeenth century, if you sought academic freedom and open exchange of ideas, you went to Holland. In the fields of science, exploration, commerce and politics, the Dutch were centuries ahead of the rest of Europe, where religious extremism was rampant.
In the eighteenth and especially nineteenth centuries, the rapid emergence of scientific discoveries became incompatible with traditional religious belief. The age of the "rational atheist" was born, as described by Ignace Lepp in his book Atheism in Our Time. Science was in direct conflict with the idea that the "creation of man took place about four thousand years before Christ; Eden was situated somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates; the Earth was the center of the universe; above it was heaven and below it was hell."31
Let's face it if human progress had been left up to the churches over the past one thousand years, we'd still be riding in horse drawn carriages over a flat Earth floating about in the center of the universe, inflicted with horrible infectious diseases and scared out of our wits that a wrathful God would destroy us at any moment.
At some fundamental level, we are all (religionist, scientist) searching for the "truth". This is part of our nature, to understand ourselves and the world around us. It's just that we each take a radically different approach to finding this truth. In essence, the religionists create theories based on intuition (things that seem obvious), wishful thinking and fear, whereas the scientists create theories based on observation and experiment. Furthermore, once a religious belief is established, it becomes irrefutable, shutting off further inquiry or critical discussion. There is a great danger in this approach: it is also part of our nature to latch on to a belief and refuse to let go or even consider that it may be wrong. What may seem obvious sometimes proves to be incorrect. A good scientist, on the other hand, will always be wary of unsupported assertions based on intuition or dogma.
"Assumptions can be dangerous, especially in science. They usually start as the most plausible or comfortable interpretation of the available facts. But when their truth cannot be immediately tested and their flaws are not obvious, assumptions often graduate to articles of faith, and new observations are forced to fit them. Eventually, if the volume of troublesome information becomes unsustainable, the orthodoxy must collapse."43 But the rigidity of religious dogma leaves no room for free expression or skepticism. This in turn prevents errors from being corrected.
Religious beliefs, such as geocentric cosmology and creation, have been proven wrong. And yet people will believe something based solely on ancient texts and religious dogma. But why would you believe something based solely on faith and ignore scientific evidence to the contrary? Wouldn't observable fact be more reliable than blind faith? And more importantly, scientific observation and theory are open to evaluation and criticism. Religious dogma is never questioned. So which would you think would be the more reliable source if you really wanted to know "the truth"? When dogma shuts out reason, observation and intelligent inquiry, truth and knowledge are the causalities.
The religious method of understanding our world consists of unchallengeable dogma which the believer is expected to accept as the truth based solely on faith. After all, the church is God's agent on Earth and who are we to doubt its proclamations? The scientific method, on the other hand, requires that whatever theory is advanced be studied and questioned by many people and that experimental observation confirm or modify the theory as required.
As any high school science student can tell you, the scientific method involves a series of specific steps: 1) Observation the scientist observes the world (or universe) around him, most often using instruments he has designed to aid in his observations; 2) Theory the scientist then congers up a theory that will explain the observations; 3) Publication the theory is published and distributed. It is then held up to the scrutiny of interested scientists around the world. These people are free to disagree with the theory or offer their own theory; 4) Proof using rigid criteria, the theory must be verified by experiment and observation. In this regard, the theory must be testable. If it cannot be tested in some manner, it is not science, but philosophy (or religion, if you will).
The religious method involves similar steps: 1) Observation the religionist observes the world (or universe) around him; 2) Theory the religionist will conger up a theory or explanation for what he has observed. 3) Publication: the theory is then put in writing, published in many forms and distributed. These theories eventually become what the religionist considers sacred or divine text. Although the religionist will severely disagree, these texts are still theory in every sense of the word that is, they are unproven.
Up to this point, the two processes are basically the same observation, theory and publication. But here is where the two differ significantly: whereas the scientific theory is open to criticism and revision, the religious theory becomes dogma - it is at some point accepted as the word of God and therefore beyond question or criticism. Also, step 4 has been left out. If it were truly important that you knew the truth, would you believe a conjecture or theory that had been widely debated, critiqued, modified as necessary, and verified experimentally, or would you believe something that had never been open to debate or doubt, examined impartially, verified impartially and accepted only on faith?
How can you think clearly about these kinds of issues when you firmly believe that everything in your life and the here-after depends on your religious beliefs? When a scientist studies the cosmos, for example, he doesn't worry that his conclusions will somehow affect what happens to him after he dies. His mind is, or at least should be, clear and open to new ideas and possibilities. A religious person's mind, on the other hand, is clouded by thoughts of salvation and preconceptions of what he feels has to be true. Otherwise, his whole concept of life, his reason for existence, is threatened.
Whenever Christians want to offer proof of their beliefs, they invariably reach for their Bibles. Whenever there's a conflict between science and the Bible, the fundamentalist's conclusion is always that the science must be wrong because the Bible is always right! Whereas the scientist will rely on evidence and observation, the religionist will rely solely on scripture. And for them, it is sufficient. Why trouble your mind with trying to understand the real world when all you have to do is quote the Bible? And when they're finished, they will shut their Bibles and their minds at the same time.
Believers are continually thinking up ways to explain away solid scientific evidence and reasoning in favor their own narrowly focused beliefs. Many of the following examples are taken from the writings of the Institute for Creation Research, notably Dr. Henry Morris. For example, Dr. Morris asserts that evolution "accepts as real the existence of death (fossil record) before sin, in direct contradiction to the Biblical teaching that death is a divine judgment on man's dominion because of man's sin."8
With regard to the fossil record, Dr. Morris continues: "Fossils, of course, speak of death often of violent and sudden death. They also speak of disease and injuries, of storms and convulsions in short, of a world like the present world Since death only "entered into the world" when sin came in through man (Romans 5:12), and since the whole creation was very good before man sinned, it is as obvious as anything could be that the fossil record now found in the sedimentary rocks of the Earth's crust could only have been formed sometime after man sinned."12
This begs an "obvious" question: since "death only entered into the world when sin came in through man" as Morris states, where are the plants and animals which were part of God's perfect creation before the fall of man? Did God destroy them as well? And if so, how does Dr. Morris presume to distinguish between the two? I'm sure Dr. Morris could come up with some explanation; perhaps he'd tell us that we simply have not found them yet.
As I discussed previously (The Power of Belief), man has a tendency to cling tenaciously to long held beliefs, whether is it for religious reasons or simply because an idea is so ingrained that he cannot, or will not, consider the alternatives. The beauty of the scientific method is that it is expressly designed to overcome these human tendencies. Science requires an accounting of observable facts and open debate on the issues with freedom to dissent. This openness is healthy. In many respects the comparison between the two methods parallels the difference between dictatorship (rule by edict) and free enterprise (where the best ideas survive the rigors of competition).
Scientific theories are constantly changing and being revised, largely based on new research and experimentation. Religionists frequently point to this fluidity of ideas as proof that the scientists don't know what they're talking about. They will find one or two examples where scientists were mistaken, or even fraudulent, to back up their claims. But the important point here is that the scientists, together as a community, are trying to find the right answers. The religionist will throw out some "off the wall" explanation, without viable proof or open discussion, and expect us to swallow it without reservation.
When confronted with a scientific fact that contradicts their beliefs, religionists will frequently make up any convenient explanation, even if it is not scientifically plausible or supported by observation or experiment. For example, ask him how come the fossils lie in strata of the Earth which could not have been built up over a period of less than ten thousand years. (Christian fundamentalists place the age of the Earth at between four and ten thousand years.) The "creation scientist" will then proceed to tell you that one cannot extrapolate present geological processes to past events clearly, they will say, God caused these strata to be laid down over a relatively short period, as during the Great Flood, for example. They will tell you that radiographic dating is unreliable because God could have created the rocks and bones with isotopes already well advanced in radioactive decay!
Another example is the question of how the universe can be only ten thousand years old if it takes light billions of light-years to travel to us from the distant stars and galaxies. Their answer is that God created the light as well and caused it to appear all at once! (But of course, why didn't I think of that?) They will also argue that we cannot really be sure how far away the stars and galaxies are. They will tell you that God created all of the stars just as we see them, all at once, on the fourth day of creation. When asked how they would explain a supernova explosion, they will tell you that God created a "pulse" along the light path which is just now reaching us.
If God made the stars on the fourth day (Genesis 1:16), that means he made the universe on the fourth day. How could he have made the Earth (1st day) before he made the universe? When asked how come there was light (first day) before the creation of the sun, moon or stars (fourth day), they will tell you that God (who, after all, can do anything) created the light energy before he created the sun! Well, of course; why didn't I think of that also!
Then there are arguments about the length of each day of creation. Ken Ham clears it up for us: "Probably one of the major reasons people tend not to take the days of Genesis as ordinary days is because they believe that scientists have proved the Earth to be billions of years old. But this is not true. There is no absolute age-dating method to determine how old the Earth is. Besides this, there is much evidence consistent with a belief in a young age for the Earth, perhaps only thousands of years."36
Dr. Morris states with regard to the theories of stellar and galactic evolution: "It is sufficient to note that these are all at best only interesting speculations, none of which is generally accepted and all of which encounter important objections. On the other hand, there is no reason at all not to believe that the stars were made just as they are now."9
I am not making this up, honest! In all of these examples of creation "science", the religionist has simply made up a "theory" to explain the contradiction. Anybody could do that if the facts don't conform to your beliefs, just make up something! Using that approach you can explain anything! It seems far more likely to me that the early books of the Old Testament, and for that matter the entire Bible, merely reflect the history, customs and religious beliefs of the time. That people now can take these writings literally as somehow relevant to today's world, is simply beyond me.
Ignace Lepp points out the mistake of attempting to rationalize religious belief. "Any faith that tries to combat science on its own grounds is doomed to defeat from the start metaphysics is not antiphysics, but rather the science of what is beyond the physical."32 In other words, religion is all about concepts that are beyond the bounds of human experience and observation. Stop trying to pretend it is science.
Religionists will frequently criticize perfectly good science simply because it does not agree with their religious beliefs. They will claim that the science is based on unproven or untestable conjectures, which is not true by definition. Then they will turn around and make their own conjectures, only these will be truly unproven and untestable, based solely on Bible references, whereas the scientific conjecture is based on sound scientific observation and experiment. In his book Are We Living in the End Times?, Tim LaHaye states: "But humanistic man would rather believe the unscientific theory of evolution than the truth of Scripture that God created man and will hold man accountable for the way he lives."23 Unscientific? How could you even begin to reason with someone like that?
Again, an excellent example of this can be found in the writings of Dr. Morris: "It should be recognized, however, that all such calculations (conjectures supporting evolution) necessarily must be based on a number of unproved and, as a matter of fact, untestable assumptions. They can never be as accurate or reliable as actual historical records, of which the Bible is certainly the most accurate and reliable."7
Dr. Morris observes that the present universe exists in a state of "conservation and disintegration as formulated in the two universal Laws of Thermodynamics". The good professor should know what he's talking about. He goes on to say: "It should be completely clear to all who are not willfully ignorant that universal processes of conservation and disintegration could never produce a universe requiring almost infinite processes of innovation and integration for its production. Therefore, if we really want to know anything about this creation period then such knowledge can be acquired only by divine revelation."13
I agree with Dr. Morris on one point that an understanding of Genesis is fundamental to all Judeo-Christian belief. Without a creation, there is no God. Without original sin, there is no need for a saviour. A belief in God, together with all subsequent religious belief, begins with the basic tenet that the universe was created. For where there is a creation, there has to be a creator.
As I have stated repeatedly in this document, I am continually amazed at how many otherwise intelligent and very knowledgeable people believe these things which have no basis in fact. Why is it inherent in the nature of religious belief that these people are so blind to reality? Dr. Morris is an excellent example - he has an enviable record: PhD from the University of Minnesota, faculty member of major universities for twenty eight years, chairman of the Civil Engineering Department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute for thirteen years and author of numerous engineering and religious texts. Who am I to question such a brilliant and educated man? Shouldn't it be obvious to me that he's right? But in reading his book The Genesis Record, I constantly find gross errors in reasoning, together with statements which are certainly unproven, often bordering on the ludicrous and in some cases outright lies.
These folks would rather ignore all the evidence to the contrary in order to maintain the illusion that provides the security they so desperately need. Take for example Gerard Flurry, publisher of The Philadelphia Trumpet. In a recent article about the Mars Rovers, he states that "Scientists are looking for life on Mars. They ought to be learning how to save life on Earth." In other words, they should be reading their Bibles. Forget space exploration; forget trying to understand the universe. Just read your Bible, and worry instead about your salvation!
These people like to use selective scientific insight to further their arguments. It gives them an aura of legitimacy. Mr. Flurry makes liberal use of our scientific knowledge of the universe, including Rover photographs, to further his own interpretation of that knowledge. With regard to the other planets and moons of the Solar System, he clearly indicates that he believes they are barren only because of the sins of man. He goes on to say that after Christ's Second Coming they will all, like the Earth, be restored to a living paradise! With regard to the Big Bang theory he states: "Our time is running out. It is time for mankind to stop making such wild and illogical theories. We have facts the truth of God which any person can prove. We don't look to pathetic man to understand what only our Creator could possibly understand." Anybody can prove the truth of God? Really? I'd love to see Mr. Flurry's proof. (He didn't include it in the article.)
Religious fundamentalists, by definition, take every phrase of the Bible literally. They are unwilling to cast it in the light of current cultural or scientific realities. There are others, however, who are at least a little more open minded and will attempt to apply some of our recently acquired scientific knowledge to certain events in the Bible, particularly the creation. Whereas the literalists insist that God created the universe some four thousand years ago, some religious "scientists" will accept that the universe started with the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago. They will argue further that the physical evolution of the universe and the biological evolution of man proceeded according to a creator's plan. But why do these people think the universe had to be created? Why is it that some highly intelligent scientists will resort to religious speculation and fantasy when confronted with something they don't understand. Why can't they be satisfied with simply acknowledging that there are some things in life we will probably never understand? (I'll tell you why: to deny creation is to deny God, and that is something these people are emotionally incapable of doing.)
Robert Jastrow, the noted astronomer who, by the way, considers himself an agnostic, has written: "I think .. that scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon which cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money. There is a kind of religion in science; it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the universe. Every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event; every effect must have its cause .
"This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized .
" . at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries." 21
Evolution vs. Creation
A strong argument for why people believe in creation was illustrated recently by Scott Martin: " many people cannot see the Lord through the things He has made because their vision has been obscured by the cataracts of evolution. One of the big struggles I had in accepting Christ, and the Bible in particular, was that I grew up believing in evolution. Virtually all the schools I attended taught that people are nothing more than a highly developed strain of monkey. That doesn't offer much purpose for life, does it? If we just evolved from a primeval puddle of mud somewhere, and if, when people die, they just turn back into fertilizer, then there's really no purpose to life."50 Clearly, for this writer, the concept of evolution is unacceptable if, for no other reason, it leads to despair. To believe in evolution is to deny that his life has any purpose. This man needs to believe in his god and a god-inspired creation just in order to survive!
In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, when asked what they believed was the origin of human life on Earth, 55% said they believed the strict biblical account of a six-day creation, 27% believed that we evolved from less-advanced life-forms over millions of years, but by a divine process (evolutionary theism or intelligent design) and only 13% said they believe we evolved without divine intervention (apparently 5% had no opinion). That is to say, approximately 4 out of 5 Americans believe some sort of god created human life and presumably the universe as well.
The religious concept of creation is based on faith, whereas the scientific concept of evolution is based on fact. This is an important distinction: the "theory" of creation has no basis in fact; there is no observable or testable evidence to support it. Rather than search for factual answers to what we do not understand, religionists make up answers or rely on ancient documents. They "take it on faith".
It is always easier to explain away some phenomenon by just saying it is part of God's plan that we are not meant to understand rather than taking the time and effort to study, observe, hypothesize, experiment, review and discuss openly and freely in order to arrive at the truth. How much easier it is to ascribe our existence to some magical notion of creation where a god simply waves his hand and poof - here we are! Let's not trouble our minds with trying to understand what really happened.
For many people, the justification for their belief in creation is that they simply look around and see all the beauty and organization in the universe. They say "how can you watch a sunset or marvel at the birth of a child and not believe that it must have been created?" And if it was created, there must be a creator, right? Someone must have designed it. This overwhelming sense of design is the reason so many conclude that the universe must have been created. But creation is a human concept. People design and build things. We create art, music, buildings, computers and spacecraft. We're accustomed to this notion that things are created.
Throughout history, we have been prone to attach human characteristics to our Gods. Hence, we say that God created man in his own image. God must look like us. He is a wrathful, vengeful God, just like man is prone to anger and vengeance. Therefore it would seem reasonable to assume that God created the universe just like you or I would create a photograph, for example. But there's no reason at all to expect that the origin of universe occurred through any process that we can relate to human experience.
People see the beauty and complexity of nature and conclude that, like a manmade work of beautiful art or the complexity of a computer, something of that magnitude must have been created. That would argue for a well designed natural world; after all, God is supposed to be perfect, therefore his creations must be perfect. But the nature of living things is far from perfect! Nature is not elegant. It is unnecessarily complicated and convoluted. There are thousands of examples of unnecessary and counterproductive processes the remnants of structures and organisms no longer needed or desirable.
The process of evolution is not elegant, as you would expect if it were the work of an intelligent being. "Instead of inventing new features from scratch, evolution works with what it has, modifying existing structures by trial and error. The result is a messy legacy of complicated bio-chemical pathways and body parts that are more serviceable than sleekly designed. Although proponents of intelligent design hold that organisms are too "perfect" to have arisen by chance, science shows that organisms don't work perfectly at all: they just work."1
If there is an infinitely intelligent God, how could he have made so many mistakes? For example: an autoimmune system that attacks the body destructively (inflammation) doesn't illustrate an elegant design. Multiple Sclerosis is a degenerative disease of the nervous system. Abnormally high levels of one of the body's immune chemicals gamma interferon wrongly activate T-helper cells to mount an inflammatory attack on the sheath that insulates nerve fibers. Lupus is another autoimmune disorder in which the body's own immune system attacks the tissues and organs of the body. Also rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that cripples millions of people.
Still another example is celiac disease. Here the tissues of the small intestine react to gluten as a foreign substance. Gluten, present in wheat, rye and barley, is one of the most fundamental food constituents on Earth. How could God have created wheat, rye and barley with gluten and then made some people intolerant to it? Did he not intend for us to eat wheat? Did he arbitrarily want to make some of us suffer? Or did he create some of us less than perfect an idea most religionists reject.
In a prime example of the lunacy of religious belief, the Roman Catholic Church has recently invalidated the holy communion of a girl in New Jersey because the wafer she ate contained no wheat, violating Catholic doctrine, which holds that communion wafers, like the bread served at the Last Supper, must have at least some unleavened wheat. It seems the girl has Celiac Disease. Why the little girl's mother can't see the stupidity of this kind of religious doctrine is beyond me. Instead she is appealing the ruling to the Vatican! (Curiously, a lot of other Catholics must have this same problem since, by my figuring, some half million of them are Celiacs.)
Steven Pinker, in the August 15, 2005 issue of Time Magazine writes: "Our own bodies are riddled with quirks that no competent engineer would have planned but that disclose a history of trial-and-error tinkering: a retina installed backward, a seminal duct that hooks over the ureter like a garden hose snagged on a tree, goose bumps that uselessly try to warm us by fluffing up long-gone fur.
"The moral design of nature is as bungled as its engineering design. What twisted sadist would have invented a parasite that blinds millions of people or a gene that covers babies with excruciating blisters? To adapt a Yiddish expression about God: If an intelligent designer lived on Earth, people would break his windows."48
If God had created us and a perfect universe in the last ten thousand years or so (the age of man according to most Christian thought), why are we carrying so much biologically useless "excess baggage"? For example, our minds are programmed for a "flight or fight" response to stress. Chemical messengers like adrenalin cruise through our bodies in response to perceived danger. This may have been appropriate a hundred thousand years ago if we were in the jungle being chased by a tiger, but in the last ten thousand years it has been largely unnecessary and counterproductive to our health. And we have accumulated other evolutionary baggage like hereditary propensities for fear, anxiety, aggression and hostility, especially to outsiders; we are prone to negative social behaviors like peer pressure, group behavior, ritual and submission.
Why would God have created us with these primitive brain functions? Their existence is better explained by evolution, where the brain develops from a small primitive center and slowly grows and changes as conditions require, leaving the old parts still intact. There is no way for evolution to rip out the ancient interior of the brain because of its imperfections and replace it with something better.5
I have read that only 4% of our DNA has any known function. That means that 96% of our DNA apparently does not express for anything and is therefore unnecessary. If you assume creation, then I can't imagine what God was thinking to have created all that useless DNA. But, if you assume evolution, then it makes sense that this extra DNA has been simply carried over from earlier life forms. (New evidence suggests that this extra DNA may encode RNA molecules that perform a variety of regulatory functions. However, at this point in the development of genomic theory, it still appears likely that large portions of the genome are superfluous. The fact that new discoveries can lead to modifications of prevailing theory illustrates how science, unlike religion, is open to new ideas and capable of adapting accordingly.)
If you believe in evolution, you believe that new viruses evolve. That is, they mutate and adapt to new environments by natural selection. If you believe in creation, then you must believe that God "creates" new viruses. Now the logical question is: why would God create a virus such as the 1918 pandemic that killed millions of people? And don't give me that "it is not for us to understand" crap. The fact of the matter is, there is no viable reason for these viruses at all. The only reasonable explanation for the existence of viral and bacterial diseases is that they evolved like all life forms, following the dictates of evolution.
It is much more reasonable for me to believe the general concept of evolution as opposed to creation. Viruses are the simplest and presumably the oldest form of life on Earth. Cell structures presumably evolved from these strands of DNA to form bacteria. More advanced life forms evolved defense mechanisms to cope with most of the life threatening influences of these primitive organisms. Most, but not all. These organisms, which reproduce at a prodigious rate, evolve quickly to adapt to new environments and constantly find new ways to invade our bodies.
By natural selection they acquire resistance to drugs intended to kill them. They evolve. An antibiotic's usefulness is often limited for that reason. There's no better or more immediate evidence supporting evolution than this natural process of adaptation. And yet, the creationist would have us believe that God creates these new drug-resistant strains! Why in the world would he do that? Do our efforts to conquer disease displease him?
Religionists like to quote scientific facts to support their beliefs. They pick and choose those facts that support their views and discard all the rest. I would call it selective ignorance. Virtually all of our vast knowledge of the biological sciences strongly supports the theory of evolution.
Furthermore, creationists will use any argument they can find to support their beliefs, (while ignoring those that don't) even if they have to make one up. For example, I had a religious friend (Baptist) who explained to me the "truth" about fossils and carbon dating. He said that God had put these things in the ground to lead us astray! And this was a college educated person! I found another example on the Institute for Creation Research web site (www.icr.org) which stated that when God created the universe about 10,000 years ago, he created the distant galaxies, together with the light from those galaxies as seen on Earth, so as to appear that they are millions of light years away!
They will tell you, in so many words, that God created the Earth's geological features, including the carbon dating of rocks and fossils, to appear as if they were formed millions of years ago. Now why in the world would God go to all the trouble of intentionally misleading us that way? That has got to be the stupidest conjecture I can imagine! This is a prime example of the length to which these people will go to justify their beliefs. They also believe that the creation included all the animals that ever lived on Earth. Dr. Morris states: "The frequent references to dragons in the Bible . certainly cannot be shrugged off as mere fairy tales. Most probably they represent memories of dinosaurs handed down by tribal ancestors who encountered them before they became extinct."10
"It is important to many creationists that man and dinosaurs lived simultaneously because they believe there was no death in the world until Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. If the Genesis story is false, they say, then there would be no need for Jesus to redeem the world."57
Dr. D. James Kennedy has proposed a technique that could help clear up the confusion. In his book Why I Believe, the learned theologian quotes the following passage from Luke 19:40: "And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out." He then concludes: "Scientists have recently discovered that it is now possible, with sophisticated instrumentation, to extract from solids, conversations which occurred nearby at any given time in the past. It may presently, for example, be possible to recover from a contiguous stone the actual voice of Moses as he replied to God at Mount Sinai."39 We might even be able to hear the mating call of Tyrannosaurus Rex!
Recently, the creation theory has been modified to be more palatable to the modern world. In its various forms, these new theories incorporate the idea of an evolving universe, but one guided by some form of intelligence. You often hear the argument from these people that, as the universe came to be, conditions had to have been just right for intelligent life to exist - something less than one chance in a million. Examples include just the right initial density of the universe shortly after the Big Bang, resulting in the creation of galaxies and solar systems. Also, the size and distance of the sun from the Earth and the composition of our atmosphere resulting in just the right temperature, just the right amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, the prevalence of life sustaining water and food custom made for our consumption - in short, all our needs provided for.
Religious people reason that, for these conditions to have been so precisely tuned, it must have been the result of a deliberate effort on the part of a creator. What they fail to comprehend is the fact that these critical constants of the universe have these values simply because, if they did not, we would not be here! And as for our Earthly conditions, this argument has cause and effect reversed. We humans are supremely well adapted to life on Earth precisely because we grew up here. Forms of life not well suited did not survive. This is really an excellent argument for evolution!
Even a few learned scientists fail to grasp this simple application of cause and effect: "Our Darwinian claim to have done it all ourselves is as ridiculous and as charming as a baby's brave efforts to stand on his own feet and refuse his mother's hand. If the universe had not been made with the most exacting precision, we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe was created for man to live in." (John O'Keefe, Director, NASA)
Unlike the theory of creation, the theory of evolution is not just one simple conjecture that can be judged either true or false. Instead it consists of volumes of observed facts and different theories to explain these facts. These theories are constantly under scrutiny by the scientific community and are discarded or modified if necessary as new information becomes available. Thus it is a self-correcting work in progress. Skepticism enables us to distinguish fact from fancy and to test our speculations. Religion does not allow for skepticism.
Religionists frequently point out aspects of evolutionary theory that have been shown to be incorrect or at least suspect. New evidence may disprove a previous theory or a scientist's method may be called into question. Religionists jump on these discrepancies and use them as examples of why the theory of evolution is false.
Creation, on the other hand, is never questioned (by its believers), but accepted on the basis of faith alone. This same rigid belief system applies to all religious dogma. In any religion, one is taught to never question the teachings of the church (interpreted scripture). To do so is often considered to be a blasphemous sin. Now how in the world can anyone think that such religious doctrine can be more reliable than observed fact and theory open to intelligent discussion and scrutiny?
One thing that distinguishes humans from all other creatures is our capacity to formulate questions and seek answers to these questions. From an early age we begin our quest for knowledge. Often a frustrated parent will answer a child's inquisitiveness with "because I told you so" rather than take the effort to answer the question properly. Is this not exactly what religion does? In questioning life's mysteries, we are expected to accept an answer on faith alone "because God told you so".
Fundamentalists take the stories of Genesis quite literally, as if they actually happened. But Genesis is believed to have been written at least 500 years after the events described. How could the writer, or writers, have known all those details about something that had happened so long ago? In addition to their beliefs about creation, these people also think that God eventually became upset with the way his creatures had turned out and decided to get a fresh start. He set Noah and his entourage afloat while he flooded the world and destroyed all those other sinful creatures. (How he thought that was going to fix the problem, I cannot even guess. Man was still burdened with sin and death. So what did God expect to accomplish?)
But stop and think for a moment: according to the Bible, Noah cared for all those animals - including, some will tell you, all the dinosaurs and other pre-historic creatures - for at least five months. How did he feed them all? What did the carnivores eat? Did they eat each other? There were seven of each "unclean" animal; were the extras to provide food for the others? How long would that have lasted? Furthermore, if the flood had destroyed all living things, including plant life, what was there left to eat when they disembarked?
Yes, evolution is still a theory, subject to revision, with new evidence regularly calling older assumptions into doubt. However, the reality of some form of evolutionary process should be obvious to anyone who has studied the subject unencumbered by preconceived notions of how the world came to be. Yet it is surprising that the vast majority of Americans subscribe to creationists views.
Recently several school districts around the country (notably in Kansas, Georgia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina) have introduced, or attempted to introduce, various forms of creationism or "intelligent design" into school science curriculums. The counter argument is, of course, that such teaching violates the constitutional separation of church and state in that it teaches a predominantly religious tenet in the guise of science.
For example, the South Carolina legislature is considering adding the words "critical analysis" (read creation) to school teaching standards. To make it seem unbiased, the wording would apply to all subjects. My thought is, if these people want to critically analyze everything, perhaps they should start with their religious beliefs. It is amazing to me that we are still arguing this point almost 80 years after the infamous Scopes "Monkey" Trial.
If we allow the Christian fundamentalists' version of creation to be taught in our public schools, why not also teach all the other creation beliefs of primitive cultures like the aboriginal "Dreamtime" of native Australians. I guess it would broaden the range of correct answers on all those standardized tests. For example, an alternate answer to the test question: "Why is the sky blue?" could be: "Because God made it that way."
Four hundred years ago we were arguing about a flat Earth in the center of the universe. We look back on that time and laugh at those who rejected the scientific evidence in favor of religious doctrine. Today we argue about creation and evolution. I would suggest that four hundred years from now, we will look back again and laugh at the ignorance of those who suggested that some sort of god created the universe.
SATAN, THE GOD OF EVIL
If God is good and loving, then how can we explain all the evil and suffering in the world? Well that's easy - we'll invent a "god" of evil - Satan. Now we can just blame Satan for all of our misery and leave God off the hook. It seems that Satan came on the scene when Adam ate from the tree of knowledge. Before then, we are told, man was without sin, the world was perfect and there was no suffering or death. We are told that eventually Satan will be banished again when God establishes his new kingdom on Earth and all the saved will live forever in peace and harmony.
"And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time." (Rev. 20:1-3) Why God cannot seem to deal with Satan has always been a mystery to me.
"When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the Earth But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever." (Rev. 20:7-10) Ouch!
Like any concept of a god, this whole idea of a devil seems so man made. If God has the power to banish Satan to the bottomless pit or to throw him into a lake of burning sulfur, why does he allow Satan to exist at all? Is there some power greater than God that he can't manage?
I believe that Satan represents the humanization of sin, the embodiment of evil and other negative aspects of the human psyche. Rather than attribute these things to a god-like creature, I would rather believe that these human flaws are buried in our sub-conscious as a result of our evolution from a more primitive past when instincts like fear and aggression were necessary for survival.
The first of the so called Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3) the actual Ten Commandments appear in Exodus 34 - tells us we must not recognize any other god (as was common in pagan religions of that time) but the God of Abraham. If we're to keep that commandment, how do you explain Satan who, after all, is the god of evil just as "God" is the god of good?
Recently we have heard a lot about a woman in Texas who drowned her five children in a bathtub. She has said that she did it to save them from eternal hell! "My children were not righteous. I let them stumble. They were doomed to perish in the fires of hell." She said she wanted the children to go straight to heaven, be with God and be safe. She was obsessed with images of Satan. "It was the seventh deadly sin. My children weren't righteous. They stumbled because I was evil." She screamed "I was so stupid. Couldn't I have killed just one to fulfill the prophecy?" Clearly this woman had carried her faith too far. But isn't it just a matter of degree? Why isn't it obvious to rational, intelligent people (the woman had been an honor student) that even the concept of a devil, or a God for that matter, is what's really stupid?
In another example, again in Texas, a mother led her two young sons outdoors and told them to put their heads on a large rock, then smashed their skulls with another, killing them. She was said to be so delusional she thought the Lord had told her to do it. "I just did what I had to do," she told the 911 dispatcher. Psychiatrists testified that the woman believed she was divinely chosen by God to kill her children as a test of faith and then serve as a witness after the world ended. The deeply religious woman was found innocent by reason of insanity. Are they saying she should be deemed insane because she thought God was speaking to her? If that can be considered insanity, what would you call anyone's belief that God speaks to them?
In still another example in Texas, a mother cut off her 10-month old daughter's arms thinking she wanted to "give her child to God".
(What's going on in Texas anyway?)
ORIGINAL SIN AND CHRIST'S SALVATION
The Christian religion is based on the assumption that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, the "son of God". We are told that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born to a virgin. That is to say, his creation was by the "normal" process of human gestation. But why would God, who simply created Adam from dust and Eve from bone, have to rely on a human surrogate to create Jesus? Why not just gather up some more dust and be done with it?
Furthermore, we are taught that Christ preached his indispensable, divine message of redemption for a relatively brief period of perhaps three years, then allowed himself to be tortured and crucified so that we might be "saved". This idea is absurd to me: Jesus was almost thirty years old before he started preaching. What was this "God on Earth" doing for thirty years? Why the enormous disconnect between Christ's birth and his ministry. If it was of such importance at the time, why was this man ignored for most of his life? The Bible talks about his birth as such a wonderful miracle (the Christmas story is only found in Matthew and Luke) and then ignores the major part of his life. We're told he was a carpenter. But why would God come down to Earth and waste all that time building furniture when he could be spreading his message? And doesn't it seem odd that nothing was written down during Christ's lifetime? Was Christ, the son of God, illiterate? Apparently he could read (Luke 4:17), but couldn't write?
Jesus chose common, uneducated men to be his disciples. God must have known that the future of his church, and the accuracy of his message, would depend on written documentation. Why would he then choose illiterate people to do the job? The New Testament books were written long after Christ died. Why would someone wait fifty years to write down something so important? One explanation given for the delay is that early Christians were convinced Jesus was going to return during their lifetimes to consummate history, so why bother writing anything down if the world was going to end at any moment?
The "Great Commission" is the name given to Christ's mandate to spread the word. Jesus' followers were authorized by the resurrected Christ in these final words uttered just before he ascended into heaven: "All authority in heaven and on Earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matt. 28:19) We are all supposed to be disciples. "God is not only interested in each individual's personal development, but also seeks our involvement in His mission to the world." Why can't this omnipotent God do the job himself? Why would he want to rely on fallible man to do something so important?
The earliest writing of the New Testament is believed to be Paul's letter to the Thessalonians around 50 C.E. The earliest of the four traditional gospels, the Gospel of Mark, is believed to have been written about 70 C.E. Since Mark was not an eye witness to Christ's teachings, it is presumed that Mark wrote down what his companion, the disciple Peter, said regarding Christ and his ministry.
Luke, who traveled extensively with Paul, is believed to have written the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts between 80 and 90 C.E. again, not a first hand account. Paul didn't even convert to Christianity until after Christ's death.
The Gospel of Matthew is also believed to have been written in the time period 80 to 90 C.E. It is important to note, however, that uniform testimony of the early church (primarily that of Papias about 125 C.E. and Irenaeus about 180 C.E.) was that Matthew, also known as Levi the Tax Collector, was one of the twelve disciples. That would have meant that Matthew wrote this gospel some fifty years after Christ died, not a very likely scenario.
The Gospel of John and the book of Revelation appear to have been written last, sometime between 90 and 100 C.E. These are by tradition attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples. However, it is very unlikely they are one and the same. In Revelation, "John" does not refer to himself as a disciple and even seems to speak of the disciples in the past tense. Also, there is the age problem and the long disconnect (at least 60 years) between Christ's ministry and John's writing.
All of these books were written anywhere from 20 to 70 years after Christ died. That would have been several lifetimes in those days! Modern scholars aren't even sure who wrote what, and authorship is generally implied by tradition.
The Gospel of John differed with Peter and the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in that John regarded Jesus as a manifestation of God himself, whereas the others regarded Jesus as a sort of messenger or messiah. Some authorities have even suggested that the Gospel of John was written as a rebuttal to that of a contemporary, namely the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so called Gnostic Gospels. Thomas believed that God's spirit dwelled in each of us, that we were all part of God's kingdom and that we could find our way to God by ourselves. John, on the other hand, believed that only Christ had God-like qualities and that the only way to God was through Christ. It is significant to note that none of the early church leaders seemed to agree on anything. Each group had its own patron apostle.
So it seems unlikely that any of the writers of the New Testament were eye-witnesses to Jesus' teaching. How could they have known the particulars of Christ's life and his message? Their writings must have been based on word of mouth, which we all know to be notoriously unreliable. Is it not more likely that Christ was simply an itinerant charismatic preacher and social activist and that stories like the virgin birth and the resurrection were made up by the early Christians to promote their beliefs and to make Christ out as divine?
As an example of how one can "spin" any subject to one's advantage, consider this reply by Craig Blomberg, professor of New Testament at the Denver Seminary. In regard to the argument that the early gospel writers were not neutral observers, but as devoted followers would have been biased to make Christ out to be more than he was, Dr. Blomberg states: " . people can so honor and respect someone that it prompts them to record his life with great integrity. That's the way they would show their love for him."49 Well, I guess that should quiet any skeptic!
In fact, there is good reason to question what really happened two thousand years ago. Most Christians simply accept the books of what we know as the New Testament. But these books were compiled sometime in the second to forth centuries. There was considerable disagreement in the early Christian churches about who Jesus was and about his teachings. In 325 C.E. the Council of Nicaea, convened by Constantine, established the creed that affirmed Jesus coequal in substance with God. Left out were the recently discovered Gnostic Gospels (Mary Magdalene was discovered in Egypt in 1896; Thomas was discovered near Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt, in 1945) which reveal that there were other versions of events surrounding the life of Jesus Christ. In addition we have the Gospels of Nicodemus, Barnabas, Bartholomew and Andrew, the Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans, the Apocalypse of Stephen and the recently deciphered Gospel of Judas. It is believed by some that there are still other documents, once thought to have been destroyed, that are hidden away in secret locations.
Clearly, the leaders of the early church decided which documents to include in the orthodox version and which to throw out. It is likely the early church suppressed many of the first century writings and ideas about Christ and his teachings, ideas that didn't fit with their own particular views and opinions. By what authority did these people simply reject these other sources and construct instead the now familiar gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John together with Acts, Revelation and the letters of Paul and others?
Also, the early church (under the leadership of men) subjugated women. Mary Magdalene, for example, was portrayed as a prostitute by Pope Gregory in 591 C.E. This belief was then perpetuated by the Catholic Church for 1378 years until, in 1969, the church decided she wasn't a prostitute after all! Now her role is being revised: she is even being portrayed as one of Christ's closest disciples in keeping with the Gnostic version of scripture. Some have even suggested she was his wife! If basic tenets of religious belief can be subject to revision such as this, how can anybody accept religious belief as the absolute, divine truth? Why isn't it obvious that these tenets are man-made?
In the first century, there were many Jewish and Christian sects whose interpretations of Christ's teachings were radically different from one another. One thing they apparently all had in common was the belief, based on prophecy, that a messiah would appear and free them from their oppression, restore the land they believed God had given them, and rule a world favorable to their interests. The Old Testament Books of Daniel and Isaiah foretold of a messiah. It was fertile ground for someone like Jesus to come along and capture the mood of the day. It has been suggested that half the Jewish mothers at the time hoped their sons would be the chosen one. What an appealing idea: The rich and powerful would be brought down and the meek, oppressed and persecuted would inherit the Earth! Unfortunately, Jesus did not meet their expectations of a king who would conquer the Romans and set them free. He was telling them things they, and particularly their leaders, did not want to hear. His fate was entirely predictable.
There were many other messianic movements at the time, all based on prophecy. Why did only this one survive? People say that because it has existed and prospered for so long, Christianity must be the real deal. But there have been many religious movements which lasted as long or longer. That the beliefs of one small band of followers would grow into a major religion does not seem unusual. It could have been circumstantial the right people at the right time and place. One of those people certainly was the Apostle Paul who, more than anyone else, promoted and documented the beliefs of the early Christian church. Some even suggest that Paul, not Christ, was the true founder of Christianity.
Today, Christianity is the world's largest faith, with 2 billion believers, or roughly one third of the Earth's population. But what would have become of the movement if Constantine hadn't adopted it as the state religion of Rome? Do you really think that Catholicism, and later Protestantism, would have grown and spread as they did without the early influence of Rome? Or was it the promise of salvation and eternal life, playing to the primal fears of man?
Apparently it was Paul who first gave special meaning to Christ's crucifixion and presumed resurrection. Remember that the punishment of crucifixion was normally reserved for a defeated enemy or hardened criminals. Paul managed to turn that image of ultimate shame and horror into a beacon of hope for humanity. He confronted the pessimism the followers of Jesus must have felt after the crucifixion and turned it into a cause for celebration: their leader had not died in vein; he had died to save their souls and had risen from the grave to prove his victory over death!
It was Paul's version of the message, spread throughout the Roman Empire, which became the origin of most Christian faiths today. This was probably because Paul preached to everyone, not just the Jews or proselytes to Judaism, and his message reached a much broader audience than those of the other Christian preachers who stayed in their small communities.
Paul believed that one could be a Christian without first being a Jew and following the Mosaic Laws about circumcision and diet. On this and other matters, Paul differed from the Christian church in Jerusalem, led by James (presumably Jesus' brother) and Peter. He felt that Christ's message was not only for Jews but also for Gentiles. Around 49 C.E. the Christian leaders in Jerusalem agreed that Peter had been chosen to lead the mission to the Jews (at that time the great majority of all Christians) and Paul to the Gentiles, and not to require Paul's converts to be circumcised.
This disagreement in the Christian church about circumcision prevailed throughout the first century. "Jewish Christians" were telling Gentile converts: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." (Acts 15:1) Why would anyone think that God requires his male followers to be circumcised anyway? Do they think he messed up somehow when he designed the human penis? If God wanted his subjects without foreskins, why didn't he create them that way?
How similar these disagreements are to current and past schisms in the church. A group within a given sect will disagree on something and then go off and form a new church. If there is one God, one truth, why are we in so much disagreement? And why has it always been that way? Why isn't it obvious that these beliefs are of our own creation?
Paul's writings, like many others in the New Testament, indicate he was certain that Christ would return in his lifetime and establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. In Mark 9:1 we read that Christ said to his disciples: "there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power." Again in Mark 13:30 we read "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place." Of course nothing happened in their lifetimes or since. And yet for 2000 years, people have continued to believe it would happen in their lifetimes!
Christians like to believe that Christ performed miracles, that he was a healer and an exorcist. But it is documented that there were hundreds of "miracles" being performed at that time and in that part of the world. Healing and exorcism were widely accepted. People believed in demons and that healers with special gifts could "cure" them. Rather than miracles, it seems more likely that simply believing in cures and experiencing the euphoria of the moment was sufficient to make people feel better. It is more likely that these problems were psychosomatic to begin with.
And what is it about the Christian emphasis on suffering? Paul advanced the idea that somehow Christ's suffering on the cross was symbolic of all human suffering, that he took it upon himself and by his resurrection showed that sin could be conquered. Other early Christians did not connect Christ's death with salvation. St. Thomas' writings, for example, don't even mention a crucifixion and resurrection.
I have never understood the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection. I have trouble relating a suffering Christ to an all-powerful God. I can't connect the idea of a suffering Christ with salvation from our sins. Most Christians believe that the crucifixion was pre-ordained, based on prophecies in the Old Testament. In fact it must have been, since without it - according to Christian belief - we would otherwise have no hope of salvation.
The Concept of Salvation
The Christian message I hear all the time is: you had better believe in Jesus Christ as your personal savior and be "born again", or else you are going to hell for eternity after you die.
This is not the Jesus I was taught, with emphasis on salvation instead of emulating Christ's humanity. If Christ were alive today, I believe his message would be more in keeping with the agenda of the liberal democrats than that of the conservative republicans, especially the "religious right" who go around expounding on their "born again" moral values and self-righteousness with emphasis on the assurance of salvation and eternal life rather than on helping the poor and disadvantaged. Jesus never took a position on any of the conservative moral issues of the Christian right, such as homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion and school prayer, but he had a lot to say about the corruption of money and helping the poor. As a recent editorial stated: "Christians should demand a living wage for the worker instead of another tax break for the affluent."
I have never been able to grasp the Christian concepts of sin and salvation. Why would a just and loving God want to punish me for something somebody else did, let alone somebody who lived thousands of years ago! Why should my urge to behave badly, or the fact that I will eventually die, be attributed to one act of defiance by God's first human creations, Adam and Eve. Why should humans be condemned to suffering and death just because Adam ate from the tree of knowledge or that Eve encouraged him? Why should women be forever condemned to suffer the pain of childbirth just because Eve encouraged her husband to disobey God? "It becomes clear now that the whole justification of Jesus' life and death is predicated on the existence of Adam and the forbidden fruit. Without original sin, who needs redemption? Without Adam's fall into a life of constant sin terminated by death, what purpose is there to Christianity? None."35
I just don't understand how sin can be the result of sin! Isn't cause and effect the same somehow? It's like a "vicious cycle" - sin begets more sin and so on. I can understand how a punishment like death could result from a suitably serious crime (certainly not by eating fruit), but why would you want to punish someone by making him commit more crimes? If you wanted mankind to be good, loving and obedient why would you intentionally make him sinful? (Oh, but I forgot: we must not question God. Sorry!)
In ancient cultures, it was common for a community to be held responsible for the actions of one person. (Gen. 34:25) Does this remind you of the concept that the sins of one man could condemn the whole world? Is it not possible that the authors of the Bible were influenced by this ideology?
By the way, the idea that universal death (that all living things must eventually die) and man's sinful nature were the result of Adam's fall from grace is relatively new. It is interesting to note that these concepts are not clearly defined in Genesis. There is nothing to lead you to believe that the world was created death-free, or sin free for that matter. In fact, we are told that the serpent (Satan) first tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Therefore, sin existed in this "perfect world" even before Adam and Eve ate the fruit.
In Gen. 2:17, God says "when you eat of it you will surely die." But, there's no reason to believe from that statement that the world was death-free before that time. One would normally take it to mean that you would die as a direct result of eating the fruit. This commandment was given to Adam; there is nothing here to imply that all living things would die from henceforth.
So where did these ideas come from? Again, it may have first cropped up in Paul's writings: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered the world and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." (Romans 5:12) Paul also writes: "For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
If death was the result of Adam's sin, then we must assume there was no death in God's original plan. But, if that were the case, the world would soon be overpopulated. "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth." (Genesis 1:27) When confronted with this logic, a friend offered the explanation that God would have sent the excess population to another planet! Dr. Morris has his own take on this problem. He states: "Obviously, it could not continue to grow indefinitely, without limit, but God no doubt has made adequate provision for such an eventuality."11
Furthermore, without death how would animals live? All animals eat other animals or plants to survive. The usual explanation one hears is that all animals were originally vegetarian. In fact, God instructed us to eat plants; he never said we could eat meat. (Genesis 1:29-30)
In discussing death, religionists conveniently ignore the impact of reproduction. But reproduction and death go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other. Without death, there is no need for reproduction. And without reproduction, there would be no need for sex, no need for male and female.
In Genesis 2:18 we read: "The Lord God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." So God created a woman from one of Adam's ribs. But I'm sure we can all agree that the woman referred to here was more than just a companion for Adam. She was female in the reproductive sense. However, at the time Eve was created, there was no death. And as we have just seen, without death there would have been no need for reproduction.
To the Christian, death is regarded as a consequence of sin. But for the reasons given above, reproduction must also be a consequence of sin. Therefore, the need for sex between male and female must be a consequence of sin. The very fact that nature is characterized by this endless cycle of birth and death is directly attributed by Christians to the selfish acts of our male and female ancestors. But that is a contradiction: Eve (together with the need for reproduction) should have come on the scene after original sin, not before!
These arguments regarding sin also apply to what many Christians believe about heaven. This is a heaven where there would be no death or disease. Our bodies would not age and we would live forever. Presumably then, there would be no sex, for the same argument given above, not withstanding the Muslim martyrs with their 72 virgins, of course!
But death is the result of a biological aging process. As our cells age, they lose the ability to reproduce and replenish themselves. Hence, an old man's skin is wrinkled, whereas a baby's skin is smooth. Now in heaven, presumably, this process would not occur: cells would never change or degrade. Furthermore, if there is sex and human reproduction and babies are born, will they grow and develop or remain as babies forever? Will people who die on Earth as young children live in heaven as children forever? None of this makes any sense at all.
Christian teachers tell us that, although we have been condemned to sin and death since Adam, there is hope in salvation through Jesus Christ. But what about all the people who lived before Christ? Most fundamentalists believe that God created the universe (including Adam and Eve) about 10,000 years ago. So there was roughly 8,000 years when man had no hope of salvation! That doesn't make any sense.
Ken Ham even suggests that death is a good thing! "Another aspect of death which many people miss is that God sent death because He loved us so much. In placing on us the curse of physical death, He provided a way to redeem man back to Himself. In the person of Jesus Christ, He suffered that curse on the cross for us. By Himself becoming the perfect sacrifice for our sin of rebellion, He conquered death."34 God condemned us to die because "he loved us so much"? How's that for convoluted reasoning!
It should also be noted that most Christians believe that all of life's tribulations and imperfections, not just death and sinfulness, derive from original sin. That would include natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, tornados, disease and famine. In short, everything that can make our lives miserable. The inference is that if Adam and Eve hadn't sinned, the world would be perfect and serine. Not only that, but many believe that the whole universe would be different, with similar ideal conditions on other planets! Back on Earth, there would be no tectonic plates moving around under us; there would be no hot magma close to the surface; the atmosphere would be stable and unaffected by the confluence of high and low pressure, hot moist and cold dry air, etc. There would be no diseases of any kind, no harmful viruses or bacteria, and there would be plenty of food for everyone. Does any this really seem plausible? I don't think so.
Protestant Christianity is an orthodoxy, a religion that emphasizes correct beliefs as opposed to correct behavior. Judaism and Catholicism are, by contrast, Orthopraxis, religions that emphasize correct behavior. Protestant Christians believe that to be saved one has only to believe in Jesus Christ, and that those who do not believe cannot be saved. "And he said unto them, go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." (Mark 16:16) "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) "Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (Acts 10:43) "For it is by God's grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God's gift, so that no can boast about it." (Eph. 2:8-9) "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." (Acts 16:31) "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romans 10:13) "To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." (John 1:12) "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) "He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:18) "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes unto the Father but by Me." (John 14:6)
The criteria for salvation are further complicated by the frequent contradictions one finds in the Bible. Despite the many references quoted above clearly indicating that faith in Christ alone is sufficient to guarantee salvation, we read in James 1:24 "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." In fact, Catholics maintain that salvation is achieved not by faith alone but also by observing the sacraments of the church - baptism, confirmation, communion, marriage, unction (e.g. last rites) and penance (confession and absolution). At one time the list even included indulgences payment in money or goods. Protestants, of course, don't agree; they believe that the benefits of the sacraments (baptism and communion) follow from faith. To add to the confusion, none of the Christian sects can agree on exactly what these sacraments mean or on exactly what is required to attain salvation!
Fundamentalist Protestants believe that it doesn't matter what you do with your life as long as you accept Jesus Christ. They'll tell you that you can't get to heaven on your own, that is by your own deeds, but rather only by accepting Christ as your personal savior. This raises an obvious question: comparing two individuals - one who lived an almost perfect life (we're reminded that only Jesus was perfect) but did not believe in Christ, compared to an immoral, depraved, selfish, hardened criminal who just happened to believe in Christ (a late convert perhaps) - who will get to heaven? When asked this question, the fundamentalist probably won't give you the ridiculous, but none-the-less orthodox, answer - namely that the bad guy will go to heaven and the good guy will go to hell. You will rather get the run-around: for example, when asked the question on the Larry King Live show recently, Rick Warren's answer was "now why would anyone want to reject the love of Jesus Christ?"
Doesn't matter how you lived your life, good deeds, bad deeds, whatever just believe in Christ (whatever that means) and you'll be saved. By that reasoning, Adolf Hitler could be in heaven right now, providing he accepted Christ before he died. Another example is Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols. It seems that he got religion in jail. Defense witnesses testified that Nichols had worn out four Bibles and was a God fearing, born again Christian. The defense attorney told jurors that "Nichols' belief in God is so firm that he believes if the Rapture occurred today, he is going to heaven." Nichols was spared the death penalty, perhaps because of his religious conversion. (If I were on the jury, I would have expedited his journey to heaven.)
After Paul in the first century, the 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, was one of the first to argue that the crucifixion atoned for the sins of mankind.19 Anselm was a friend of Pope Urban II, who called for the First Crusade. It was a time of plagues, of savage wars, of millennial fever. The notion of Christ's sacrifice was a way of coping with a very violent and brutal world, a way of making sense of it. Crusaders were promised a life in heaven if they died on the Crusades. (Sound familiar?)
But how in the world can the suffering and death of one man, Jesus, atone for my sins. Why would I think that mere belief and acceptance of Jesus Christ as some sort of saviour would guarantee eternal happiness (or disbelief guarantee eternal suffering)? I have never seen this concept explained in any manner. I read it all the time: "Christ died for my sins. His suffering and death assures my salvation." In his book The Return, Mike Evans states that our salvation "was purchased at the infinite expense of the blood of Jesus." But how does Christ's suffering on the cross somehow assure my salvation? What does one have to do with the other? There's never any explanation, just these grandiose statements about Christ dying for my sins. I have read several books by Billy Graham, the greatest Christian evangelist of the twentieth century, but nowhere does he explain what he means by this. By itself, it doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Do they just assume that we're supposed to automatically know what they're talking about?
In his book The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren states: "If God never did anything else for you, he would still deserve your continual praise for the rest of your life because of what Jesus did for you on the cross. God's Son died for you! . Why did God allow and endure such ghastly, evil mistreatment? Why? So you could be spared from eternity in hell, and so you could share in his glory forever!"47 The Bible says: "God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21)
So let me see if I've got this right: God planned the torture and death of his son, Jesus Christ, in order to spare me from going to hell for eternity. He punished his perfect son in order to erase the burden of sin and death, which he imposed on imperfect me simply because Adam and Eve messed up thousands of years ago. But I can't claim the gift of salvation unless I confess my sins, beg forgiveness and commit my life to pleasing God and praising his son!
Huh? Does this make any sense? God tortures his son so I can go to heaven? How in the world can millions of people believe this nonsense? I wish someone would explain it to me. I've read it a thousand times in dozens of variations and it still doesn't make any sense at all.
Warren also says that what God cares about most is the redemption of his people. "He wants all his lost children found! That's the whole reason Jesus came to earth. The dearest thing to the heart of God is the death of his Son. The second dearest thing is when his children share that news with others."44 Something just doesn't seem right here: is he saying that almighty God, creator of the universe, can't find his lost children, that instead he chooses to find and save his children by sending someone two thousand years ago to speak to a tiny portion of the earth's population, have him crucified - somehow for our benefit - and then depend on us to share the news with others?
The Christian doctrine of salvation has evolved over the centuries. Why did Christ have to die in such a horrible way? What divine purpose did it serve? How precisely does his death, usually referred to in this context as an atonement, lead to the salvation of humanity? This question has divided theologians and clergy for centuries, with no end in sight. The question of atonement, the passion of Christ's crucifixion, is once more front and center with the release of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ.
But what exactly is atonement? There have been several interpretations over the past two thousand years. Some have emphasized Christ's death as a sort of sacrifice, a modern version of the ancient practice of sacrificing. In pagan religions, humans were sacrificed to please the Gods. Then the ancient Jews substituted animals for humans. Now it was as if Christ had sacrificed himself on our behalf.
Matthew took a different slant. "The son of man came to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:28) This seems to reflect the Roman practice of demanding a ransom for the freeing of slaves. In the early church, this ransom was seen as payable to the devil. That interpretation changed with a theory developed by Anselm, who in 1098 wrote that God was owed the ransom as satisfaction for the insult of sin. However, it was pointed out that the debt was unpayable. We were just miserable sinners without any hope of saving ourselves through any ransom we could pay. Eternal damnation seemed unavoidable, except for the miracle of grace. Through Christ's passion on the cross, the debt could be paid, since Christ was without sin. Christ's agony, dedicated to God on our behalf, would buy our redemption (providing of course that we acknowledge the gift). This became know as substitutionary atonement, views still held by orthodox theologians. Christ acted as our substitute in payment of the ransom to God for our sin. This was similar to the concept of a "whipping boy" in ancient cultures where a man's slave could receive the penalty of being whipped as a substitute for the guilty master. Go figure!
These people believe that Christ somehow absorbed our sin, took it upon himself, and was punished by crucifixion for that sin, punishment that we deserved for our unrighteousness. They even believe that Christ's crucifixion was somehow planned in advance: "He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities." (Isaiah 53:5) They assume this refers to Jesus Christ - an obvious Christian interpretation of Isaiah's prophecy.
In the 18th century, a different interpretation of atonement emerged. Jesus' death became less central, because it was no longer considered the price for lifting the burden of sin. Now the emphasis was in emulating the life of Christ, letting Christ set the example for how we should live our lives. The focus was on his life and his teachings rather than his death. The important thing was that we should strive toward reconciliation with God by emulating Christ's precepts of love, forgiveness and tolerance. This theory is known as exemplary atonement. The Apostle Peter lends another twist on this idea of emulating Christ. He emphasized the suffering of Christ as an example for imitation: "because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." With this interpretation, we are supposed to accept our sufferings just as Christ accepted his suffering on the cross. Suffering and pain are, in this context, seen as noble burdens to be accepted as the price of our sins and as a reminder of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
Now with Gibson's film, the pendulum has swung back toward the theory of substitutionary atonement. Preachers who shy away from talking about the agony of the crucifixion, along with its promise of salvation, are now criticized for promoting "religion light". Living by Christ's example of honesty and morality isn't sufficient; we must also accept the blood of Christ as a prerequisite for salvation.
Many religions seem to have a preoccupation with suffering. Suffering and pain are indelibly linked to religious belief. Flagellation (from latin flagellare, to whip) was not an uncommon practice amongst the more fervently religious. Various pre-Christian religions like the cult of Isis in Egypt and the Dionysian cult of Greece practiced their own forms of flagellation. Women were flogged during the Roman Lupercalia to ensure fertility. Jews also practiced self-whipping during large temple ceremonies.
At first, flagellation became a form of penance in the Christian church, especially in ascetic monastic orders. For example, the 11th century zealot Dominicus Loricatus once repeated the entire Psalter twenty times in one week, accompanying each psalm with a hundred lash-strokes to his back. In the 13th and 14th centuries there were many medieval religious sects which practiced self-flagellation. As part of a religious ritual, they would thrash their backs bloody with leather thongs. The followers were noted for including public flagellation in their rituals. Today we still see this kind of behavior in devout Muslims who go around beating themselves with chains. These people believe that by their suffering they will somehow atone for their sins and gain favor with their God.
Mortification of the flesh is today practised in various ways by members of several different religions, including Christianity (particularly Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic monks), Islam (particularly in Sufism and Shi'a Islam) and Hinduism (especially in the festival of Thaipusam). It has been speculated that the more extreme practices of mortification of the flesh may be used to obtain altered states of consciousness for the goal of experiencing religious euphoria or visions. Opus Dei has approximately 85,000 members in 60 countries, and is based in Rome. It was erected as a Personal Prelature by Pope John Paul II in 1982, who also canonized its founder on October 6, 2002. Its founder is recorded as having whipped himself until the wall of the room was splattered with blood. In his writings, he stated: "Blessed be pain. Loved be pain. Sanctified be pain. . . Glorified be pain!" (The Way, 208).
The dictionary defines flagellation as "whipping as an abnormal incitement of sexual desire or as a means of religious discipline." What are we to make of this association between pain and suffering and both religious atonement and sexual excitement? Could it be that some humans have a built-in propensity toward sadomasochism and that their religious beliefs allow them a perceived legitimate outlet for such feelings? I have often thought that the persecutions of the Inquisition were at least partially motivated by sadomasochism. Perhaps such perversions are brought on by the religious suppression of legitimate sexual behavior.
Case in point: Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. The relentlessly savage movie plays like the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade. Here we have unadulterated, gratuitous violence in the name of religion. Nearly half of the film's 127 minutes is devoted to the torture and execution of Christ. Blood spattering dominates the film. Very little time is devoted to explaining why Christ died. To me it seems that Gibson, like perhaps many other Christians who are falling over each other to see the film, is acting out some kind of subconscious need to experience or enjoy this kind of graphic violence.
Why is this movie so popular? Religious Web sites have called the movie "the best outreach opportunity in 2000 years." Churches bought out 800 theaters for advance screenings and many gave away tickets some on the condition that you bring a nonbeliever as your date. Big-named endorsements helped too: the Rev. Billy Graham called the film equal to "a lifetime of sermons." How can torture and violence be construed as some sort of religious experience? And yet throughout history there has often been a strong association between religious extremism and violence.
I have read that Martin Luther rejected philosophy and humanism in favor of divine revelation. Human speculation and reasoning were not to be tolerated. His vision of a wrathful God filled him with rage. He was said to be a rabid anti-Semite and a misogynist (hatred of women), and was convulsed with a loathing and horror of sexuality. It is said that he favored the killing of rebellious peasants. He apparently was a fine Christian!
It seems that John Calvin was even worse. To him man's intellect was vitiated and his morals depraved. His God was an angry God, intent on punishing his creation gone astray. He believed that apart from revelation, man could not attain divine truth. He believed in predestination - that God elects whom he wills to salvation, damns others according to his own sovereign will and determines the destinies of all men. On the other hand, he also believed that man could only attain salvation by proper faith, participation in the sacraments and in proper living: no dancing, gambling, drunkenness, obscenity, card playing, theater, etc. Punishment for offenders was obligatory and severe. Both Luther and Calvin believed in the death penalty for heresy.
Salvation seems to have been one justification for the Inquisition. It was to save the soul from a much worse fate, the reasoning being that it was better to suffer man-made torture than to suffer for eternity in hell. (I have already touched on other possibilities: the church's fear of losing control and its seeming obsession with sadomasochism.)
Many people sacrifice in the only life they'll ever have. They suffer oppression believing that they will live happily ever after while their oppressors suffer eternal hell. They obsess about sin and salvation while waiting patiently for their Lord to return, and in the process willingly pass up many of life's fulfillments and pleasures.
God's Master Plan
God has a plan for each one of us, but he won't tell you what it is unless you ask. "We must seek the Lord. We must seek what it is he has planned for us. God reveals His perfect plan to those who seek Him with their whole heart." The basic premise of the plan, according to fundamentalist Christians is as follows:
In the beginning God created a perfect world where there was no sin, suffering or death. Into this Eden he created the first humans, Adam and Eve. But if the world was perfect to begin with, where did the serpent (Satan) come from? One would have thought that Adam and Eve were perfect too, but apparently that was not so. They listened to the serpent and disobeyed God's commandment not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. (Apparently, God didn't want man to be knowledgeable.)
We learn that before the fall, Adam and Eve felt no shame for being naked. But when Adam ate of the fruit, they suddenly felt ashamed and tried to hide themselves from God. Because of this passage in Genesis, religious people have ever since associated nakedness with sinfulness. Dr. Morris also states: "The fact that they did feel shame at what they had done showed that there was hope for their salvation. When sinners feel no guilt or shame, there is no remedy but judgment and condemnation."22
Anyway, God must have been very angry (an imperfect human trait, by the way) and came to the irrational conclusion that not only should Adam and Eve be punished, but that all living things from then on should be condemned to suffering, sin, death and eternal hell. Now, simply because they ate the forbidden fruit, not only would future man suffer and die, but all living things would also. Survival would become a matter of life and death; animals would have to kill or be killed. Does any of this make any sense so far?
However, several thousand years later, God has a change of heart and decides to allow a chosen few the privilege of avoiding eternal damnation. He sends his messenger or son, Jesus Christ, to tell a very small portion of the world's population about God's plan of salvation. All we have to do is believe the message, and we can not only avoid hell, but we can inherit the kingdom of heaven and live in God's grace and presence forever. Apparently, this means that anyone who happens to be born in the wrong time or place is out of luck.
Anyway, God apparently forgot to teach his son how to write. Those who hear the word - or later those who read what they believe is the word - and embrace it will now be saved. Those who either don't get the word (through no fault of their own) or reject it (like yours truly) will be punished in the most horrible way imaginable - like Satan himself, cast into a lake of burning sulfur, gnashing their teeth in unimaginable pain and suffering, etc. for all eternity!
And what is Christ's message? Why, he'll be back to gather up the faithful (in what is called the Rapture) to a safe place, while back on Earth he will vent his anger on the rest of us: seven years of the Tribulation - horrible desecration, disasters, suffering and death. Then those chosen few, God's faithful believers, will return to a new wonderful, perfect world where there will be no death or sin, where God will reign as king for a thousand years, destroy Satan and then reign forever and ever, while the rest of us languish in that lake of burning sulfur!
All this is believed to be God's master plan, all laid out in advance, even before creation itself. Some call it the Book of Life, and in it there is a chapter with your name on it. Yes, we are all each and every one of us part of God's plan. Presumably, our lives have been planned for us. I'm not sure, in that case, how we're supposed to be held accountable for our actions, but that's what these people believe.
Now, I'm not making this up, honest!. Ask any evangelical, fundamentalist, serious Christian and they will confirm the story I have just related. To these people, it is the key that unlocks the secret of life and their purpose for being here. But to me it reads like bad fiction from some sort of divine novel. It is so far fetched as to seem laughable.
Important concepts in the Christian lifestyle are sin, guilt, shame, repentance and forgiveness. Were there no sin, and thus no guilt or shame, there would be no need for forgiveness. In his book Believing Christ, Stephen Robinson states: "We don't want God to be fair or just when he judges us we want him to be merciful." In other words, we are all sinners, we are all less than the perfect creature God wants us to be, and we are all guilty. The concern, therefore, is not that God be fair or just, but rather that he be merciful and forgive us. There is no way out except by salvation. We are all sinners by definition God created us that way. " all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God " (Romans 3:23) For anyone who does not accept Christ as his personal saviour, judgment will be sure, just and severe.
Now try to figure this out: God made us all sinners. We have no recourse but to sin every day of our lives. There is no way we can help ourselves. No amount of deterrence or self-discipline can keep us from sinning. To add insult to injury, God then tells us we should all be ashamed and guilt ridden. We are unworthy of salvation. Our self confidence should be squashed and any shred of pride or self assurance should be considered sinful as well. We deserve to be punished, and God has promised that we will be punished severely on the Day of Judgment. We will be separated from God forever and cast into eternal hell and damnation for our wicked ways.
But wait there is one ray of hope after all. God is furious that we have turned out the way he intended, but thank goodness he is such a loving god. He loves us so much he sacrificed his own son to save us from the penalty of our sin. "For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous." (Romans 5:19) We can be saved simply by acknowledging God's mercy and accepting his son, Jesus Christ, as our personal Lord and saviour. It's that simple. Doesn't matter how terrible a person you were throughout your life on Earth, all you have to do is repent and declare your faith in God by accepting Jesus Christ as your redeemer, and every bad deed will be forgiven. Instead of spending the rest of eternity suffering unspeakable misery in God's underground torture chamber, you will spend it in heaven above where there will be no suffering or death, where you'll be loved by your creator God and live happily ever after!
Now, truthfully - do you really believe that!
Hello are you thinking yet?
I have concluded that God, if he exists, must be a sadist. Why else would he give man the urge to sin, and then when he did so, punish him for it! It's like God has this perverted need to punish people, so he assures a steady supply by giving us the urge to sin and then judging us accordingly. In human terms, it's called being "set up". In the old days of medieval tyrants, rulers would accuse innocent people of crimes and arrest them on trumped up charges just so they could have the pleasure of punishing them. It is like some sort of sick-o game where God wants to test his subject's loyalty by creating this urge to defy his will, communicate his will by only the crudest, most indirect means, and then condemn and punish his subjects when they do not obey!
DEATH AND ETERNAL LIFE
In many respects, promising life after death is a cruel hoax. Many Christians forgo earthy pleasures and create unnecessary hardships on themselves, worrying about salvation. They bide their time, wasting the only life they'll ever have, thinking how much better off they'll be in heaven. Think of all the martyrs who have sacrificed their lives believing they'll be rewarded in the hereafter. Mike Evans, in his book The Return summed it up inadvertently when he explained his passion for spreading the word: "In fact, what I was telling them was either the greatest hoax ever perpetrated or the key to life." Millions of people accept their misery in this life believing that something better awaits them in heaven. The Taliban and al Qaeda believe that when they die killing the infidel in the service of Islam they'll go straight to heaven and be favored by Allah, that they'll be presented with "seventy two virgins" for their conjugal pleasure!
Believers worry about the souls of unbelievers. They feel compelled to convert the heathen. They say "what will happen to you when you die? Don't you care?" When you die, you die, silly. What else is there to it? Death is no different than any other aspect of life including storms and plagues, traffic accidents, sickness and disease or the fall of leaves in autumn. Why can't people accept the fact that all organisms die. It's part of life. The genes mutate, cell function degrades, whatever. We die. Period. Why does there have to be some other life after death. Is it just something some people can't bear to think about?
Fear of death is perfectly natural. So it also seems natural that we would like to think that there will be something after death, that we will be reunited with loved ones and hopefully enjoy a better life, free of suffering and evil. An ailing Billy Graham, acknowledging that his life's work is near its end, recently said "I look forward to death. I look forward to seeing God face to face."
It might be pointed out that the concept of a utopian life after death was not unique to the early Christians. The idea of a resurrection, or life after death, was also a common Jewish belief long before Christianity. According to the Old Testament book of Daniel, the early Jews expected they would be raised from the dead (resurrected) at some future time.
Many people think that when you die you go to heaven (if you are a believer, of course). They talk about heaven being up in the sky somewhere. But, of course, we now know what is up in the sky. We don't have to make up explanations. Where do these people think heaven is? On top of the clouds? Do we float off to some other planet? Is there some essence of us (our souls) that goes into storage somewhere until Christ returns and then is reconstituted and lives happily ever after on Earth. This is crazy. And yet millions of people believe it. Or I should say they believe countless versions of the theme. No two religions can agree on exactly what happens.
I have seen adults try to answer a child's questions after the death of a parent or friend: "Daddy is in heaven" or "Daddy is with Jesus". This is the kind of simple answer a child can grasp. But why do adults need the same simplistic answers.
The Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the faithful will inherit an Earth of wonderful abundance, a paradise where there is no death, where they will live in peace with wild animals. How in the world could that work? What would the wild animals eat? Also, as I've said before, I assume there would be no sex, since without death there would be no need for reproduction.
Most fundamentalists picture heaven as a perfect world where Satan and evil no longer exists, where we all behave in perfect accord with God's commandments, where there is no strife, no wars, no suffering or disease and no death. (Apparently there will be no sun or moon either. In Revelation 21:23 we read: "The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light ") They believe it will be just like the perfect world God originally created before the fall of Adam. Most believe that the interval from Adam's disobedience to Christ's second coming is only a brief interruption in God's eternal plan.
My question is: why should we expect man to behave any differently in heaven? Why should we expect that he won't repeat Adam's mistake and thereby start the process all over again? The answer I suspect you'd hear is that by redemption, God would remove our sin. But if he can do that, then why not remove our sin right now? Why did he allow Adam to sin in the first place? What purpose does this imperfect, evil filled, interlude in God's plan serve anyway?
I read recently of a seminar that advertised to answer the question: "If you died tomorrow, would you know for sure what lies ahead after this life." It said it would answer, among other things, "where is heaven, what will it be like and how do I get there". Many people are desperate to know the answers to these questions. They want to believe there is a life hereafter. They need to believe. I believe religion's primary purpose is to answer these questions about death. But this is nothing more than wishful thinking.
Revelation and the Second Coming
There are about seventy million Evangelical Christians in the United States. These are people who strongly believe that Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation, and that those who do not accept Christ as their saviour will be cast into the fires of eternal hell. These are the people who believe that Christ will soon return and call up his believers to heaven, leaving the rest of us to suffer the Tribulation, hell on Earth. All this is spelled out in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament.
Revelation is believed to have been written about 95 C.E. Because of the convoluted nature of its verse, replete with visions, illusions and symbolism, the work is wide open to interpretation. It is written in an apocalyptic style, which was popular in the centuries just before and after Jesus. Apocalyptic literature was a response to persecution and oppression. These writings invariably presented divinely inspired visions in which the evils of the present were explained in terms of God's plan for the end of time and the apocalypse, when God would defeat evil and assert his full authority. The purpose of such writing was to provide comfort to those suffering at the hands of a power that was beyond their control. Revelation, along with the Gospel of John and the three letters of John, are by tradition attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples. However, as discussed previously, it is unlikely that John the disciple would have written these books some sixty years after Christ died.
There has been a lot of attention recently to the so called "end times" which is believed to include the Rapture, the Tribulation, Armageddon and the second coming. These people believe (based on their interpretation of Revelation) that before Christ returns for his thousand year reign of bliss, his true believers will be "beamed up" to heaven (the Rapture) and that great disasters, wars, pestilence and suffering will befall those left behind. The saved will live in a glorious, care-free, eternal life in heaven while the non-believers will suffer eternal hell and damnation.
The concept of punishment is very prevalent in religious belief, especially Christian belief, and none more vividly portrayed than in Revelation. If we're bad or reject Christ, we will be condemned to suffer in eternal hell. But for many believers, that punishment is not sufficient. These are the people who preach that suffering is God's retribution for the sins of Adam and Eve. These people think that "bad" people should suffer on Earth as well. So they take it upon themselves to do God's work by punishing those whom they perceive as "bad" people. This may take the form of a holy war, an inquisition, or a good hell and damnation sermon on Sunday morning.
Impatient to wait for God to take action, they fly planes into buildings, feeling that they are carrying out the will of their god. Holy warriors feel they have a mandate from God to fight and kill their perceived enemies those who don't share their religious beliefs. They even believed at one time it was permissible to torture people who were perceived to be evil or infidel the non-believers. Why are religious people so obsessed with threatening or punishing people who don't believe as they do? Are they so insecure and uncertain about their religious beliefs in divine punishment that they feel they have to "take the law into their own hands"? Why not let God punish them after they die. Isn't that the way it's supposed to work?
Why is it that religious people always have this yearning to punish non-believers, this desire for retribution? Why is religion so violent toward its perceived enemies? Throughout the Bible there are numerous references to promises of a better life in the hereafter for believers and punishment and eternal damnation for non-believers. Why is there so much reference to God's wrath and judgment? Wrath and punishment are human concepts. We get angry at someone and want to punish them. Why would we expect a loving God to act this way?
Humanistic gods rule by fear: you either obey me, or I will punish you. Moses was afraid to look at the face of God (Exodus 3:6). Throughout the Bible, we are taught to fear God. God is too glorious to be seen directly (the experience would be so traumatic, we would die on the spot), so he is described symbolically. Human language cannot express the splendor of God, so the Bible uses metaphors. It reminds me of the ancient Hawaiian Kapu system of religious law if a commoner so much as stepped on the shadow of the king, he could be put to death!
I recently read an article about Christian activities in India. The intent was, of course, to convert these people to Christianity. The missionaries were teaching the Christian concept of salvation, in effect, telling these people that unless they renounced their prior religious beliefs (Hindu, Buddhist, etc.) they would burn in hell for eternity! Hell is supposed to be the place where everyone goes who does not profess belief in Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. It is a horrible place where all hope is lost, and you are separated from God forever. The poor sinner is condemned to unbearable pain and suffering for all eternity. It will be like one huge torture chamber where the condemned will wail and moan in agony for ever and ever. Now tell me, why would a loving God create such a place?
Sometimes our relationship with God is compared to that of a parent and child. It is said that God loves us in the same way that a parent loves a child. And like God, a parent expects obedience in return. When the child is disobedient, a responsible parent will administer an appropriate punishment. But what would you think if that parent tortured the child, cast him out on the street or subjected him to a lifetime of punishment? And yet that is exactly what we are told God will do if we disobey. Does that make any sense at all? Rick Warren says "God wants to be your best friend." But what kind of friend would cast you into eternal hell simply because you didn't bow down and worship him?
Is God so insecure, or his ego so big, that he needs to demand our constant admiration and affection? I think it's pathetic when someone has to threaten you in order to secure your love or guarantee your loyalty. And yet that is exactly what Christians believe their saviour is doing. According to fundamentalist Christians, Christ is essentially saying "If you don't love me, I'm going to punish you by condemning you to spend eternity in hell!"
Then there is the concept of eternity either heaven or hell. Eternity means forever, without end. Eternity is like the mathematical concept of infinity; it has no meaning in the real world. Long before we reach eternity, the universe will have become a very different place, no doubt completely inhospitable to man.
We can all find scripture to validate our beliefs. Religionists use it to justify judgment, condemnation and punishment of those who do not agree. In a recent op-ed piece, these people were characterized as "those who are so self-righteously perfect in their arrogance that they feel they can judge someone they have never met and justify their prejudices with scripture." Well said.
Christians believe that Christ will return to Earth, gather up the faithful, condemn the unfaithful, destroy life as we know it and create a paradise on Earth - the second coming, the end times. Even the dead (in Christ) will be raised up out of their graves and ascend into heaven. (I guess those who died before Christ are out of luck.) "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." (1 Corinthians 15:51-52) "There will be the shout of command; the archangel's voice, the sound of God's trumpet, and the Lord himself will come down from heaven. Those who have died believing in Christ will rise to life first; then we who are living at that time will be gathered up along with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord." (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)
D. James Kennedy sums it up this way: "Jesus Christ, who once came in humility, will come back again in glory a glory that will eclipse the sun, with ten thousand times ten thousand of his saints. He will come with the angels of heaven, with the sound of a trumpet, and he will take unto himself his own, who shall be caught up to be with the Lord forever. Those who have ignored him, denied him, pretended but never really repented of their sins, shall be consumed with everlasting destruction in flaming fire."37
Regarding his second coming and the "close of the age", Jesus himself is believed to have said: "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power" (Mark 9:1) and "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place." (Matt. 24:34) Although many Christians will try to explain the word "generation" as having some other meaning, these passages seem perfectly clear to me: Jesus was telling the disciples that the Rapture, Tribulation and return of God's kingdom on Earth would occur in their lifetimes.
And every Christian since then has interpreted this passage the same way. For two thousand years they have believed the second coming would happen in their lifetimes. In the early nineteenth century, William Miller predicted that the Second Advent, or Christ's second coming, would occur between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When that didn't happen, his associates reset the date to October 22, 1844. All this was based on Daniel 8:13-14, an obscure prophecy believed to have been written over 500 years before the First Advent! And people still believe this nonsense! 40% of Americans believe the end of the world will come in their lifetimes! Deadlines come and go, and nothing happens. Yet people keep on believing!
The New England missionaries of the early nineteenth century were eager to convert the natives of Hawaii. A good many serious-minded Protestants thought they could detect signs in the disturbed and changing world about them that the "second coming" of Christ was near. Therefore it was imperative that sinners everywhere be confronted with the choice of accepting Christ or suffering the terrors of God's judgment. Sound familiar? I honestly don't understand this kind of thinking. Did the missionaries actually believe that the natives would all go to hell just because they hadn't gotten the message? Of course nothing happened, but now, almost 200 years later, we're going through the very same thing again this idea that Christ is coming back to avenge the disbeliever. When will these people ever wise up?
People point out various "signs" in current events that portend the event wars, violence, famines, plagues, earthquake and other natural disasters, moral breakdown, false religions and religious leaders. Every time there's an earthquake or other natural disaster, fundamentalist Christians feel more vindicated about their perceived "end times". I can just hear them as I read the headlines: "There you see, doesn't that prove that the end is near!"
In reading and listening to the leading evangelist, Billy Graham, one is constantly bombarded with a seemingly obsessive pessimism about current events. In one chapter alone, I noted the following references to the present state of affairs: moral decadence, corruption, sin, greed, sexual abuse, desperation, fear, irresponsible self-centeredness, cheating, lying, fraud, suffering, despair, alcoholism, drug addition, pornography, poverty, racial strife, homelessness, violence, crime, war, plagues (AIDS), famines, pestilence, earthquake and drought! Of course, he is interpreting these things as "signs" of the second coming. But he could have just as well been describing any previous age. His main message is that we must be prepared for Christ's return.
Now I'm no expert historian, but I am sure that all of these things have been common throughout history. Just a few examples I can think of are: 1) war and violence: the atrocities of World War II, the German holocaust, the Japanese slaughter of Chinese and Koreans; 2) corruption and greed: the power and wealth of corporate barons at the turn of the century; 3) desperation and suffering: the wars, oppression and plagues of the Middle Ages; 4) sexual abuse: the religious persecution of women for centuries. And of course poverty, racial strife, homelessness, famine and natural disasters have been around forever.
In his book Why I Believe, Dr. Kennedy states that in visiting the heads of every state in the Free World, Billy Graham "found that none of them but one believed there was any hope for this world beyond the end of this century, if that long."38 Kennedy's book was published in 1980. Twenty six years later, and he's still waiting for his Lord's return.
Every time I hear about some natural disaster or war on television, watch the images of death and destruction, fierce storms or wildfires, I can just imagine all the end-timers rejoicing in the anticipated return of their saviour. As I recently watched news coverage of the worst wildfires in California's history, I was thinking that the fundamentalists must be having a field day. For some reason, they cannot see that these natural disasters have been a regular feature of our planet for millions of years. In fact, there are many examples of far worse natural disasters and religious strife in past centuries.
The reason it seems like there are more disasters today is simply that we now have instant communications which saturate us day and night with all the latest bad news. (Bad news sells better than good news.) Modern media enhances our perception of disaster in three ways: 1) It is available to more people; in times past, most disasters were never known to people outside the local area. 2) It is timelier; news of a disaster is known around the world almost instantly, playing on our emotions before the impact can wear off. 3) It is presented more realistically; television especially brings into our living rooms all the gory detail in living color! No wonder people think the world is ending! Ronald Reagan, in a 1980 interview on the PTL Network, said "We may be the generation that sees Armageddon."
Before the demise of the Soviet Union, many Christian fundamentalists believed the Tribulation would begin with a Russian (the "northern land" mentioned by Jeremiah) invasion of Israel and the destruction of the Mosque of Omar (Dome of the Rock). They said the ancient prophecies of the Bible told us this would be one of the events that marked the beginning of the end. "Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal: and I will turn you about and drive you forward, and bring you up from the uttermost parts of the north, and lead you against the mountains of Israel." (Ezekiel 39)
Revelation also mentions kings from the East leading an army of 200 million soldiers that will wipe out a third of all mankind at the Battle of Armageddon. (Revelation 16:12) Some suggest this may be China or India, where "the master deceiver (Satan) has damned billions of souls with a succession of false religions."27
Mike Evans uses these prophecies, along with many others, to support his firm belief that the end is near. In his book The Return, published in 1986, he clearly indicates his belief that the blessed event would occur very soon. He quotes scripture: "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled." (Matthew 24:32-34)
From this, Evans concludes that the fig tree is a symbol of the nation of Israel and that the generation that Jesus is referring to is the one "that sees the fig tree putting forth leaves from tender branches." That is to say, the generation that would see the creation of the modern state of Israel. He goes on to define that generation as people born between 1925 and 1935.16 Given an average life span of 60 years (high for Jesus' time), he would put the second coming sometime before 1995. As of 2006, he is still preaching the same doom and gloom message. His time is running out. And why would God use the symbolism of a fig tree to warn us about something so important? Why not just tell us in a direct, easy to understand, manner? Why all the guessing and uncertainty?
In regard to the many attempts to find a peace in the Middle East, Evans writes: "If these fellows had only read their Bibles they would have wasted a lot less time. Nothing is going to cool the Middle East. It is a cauldron that will boil and spill over ever more nastily until the return of Jesus."15
I mention all these predictions of how current events seem to foretell the second coming only to point out their absurdity. Evan's book was published in 1986. Twenty years have passed and not only have none of these predictions happened, but the Soviet Union has come unraveled and is no longer a creditable threat to either the Middle East or China. Israel was granted autonomy in 1947, and yet at least two generations (based on the typical lifespan at the time Matthew was written) have passed without incident. Certainly there is instability and unrest in the Middle East, as there has been for thousands of years (due to religious strife). And there are increasing threats of terrorism by disenfranchised and angry Muslims throughout the world, spurred on (I might add) by our misguided invasion of Iraq.
One of the signs fundamentalists believe point to the second coming is what they see as "false Messiahs". They will point to any religious figurehead other than their own as evidence: Evans states: "Neither Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, nor Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, ever to my knowledge claimed to be the Messiah. But both men, like Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science), can take credit for having led many people astray."14
More recently, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon comes closest to making the prophetic messianic claim: "Two thousand years ago, Jesus came to the Earth as Savior, Messiah and True Parent . But when Jesus died on the cross .he was no longer in a position to bring an end to the struggle between mind and body . Heaven can wait no longer. Heaven is now revealing all its secrets based on my foundation of victory Now I am revealing this truth, bringing to a conclusion the final stage of the providence for humankind's salvation." The good reverend will tell you that the source of all evil is our sexual organs, that the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden started with an "illicit sexual relationship". This is based on the Genesis passage where Adam and Eve cover themselves presumably their genitals after committing their sin. He goes on to say: "Who can deny this? If you doubt it, I ask you to carefully read the Divine Principle, which contains the laws of heaven that were revealed to me."42
But the ultimate "false Messiah" will be the Antichrist, or the beast (Revelation 13), that will rule the world just before the second coming. One tenet of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is that prophecy regarding the Antichrist has already been fulfilled in the Pope and the Catholic Church. On the other hand, Evans sees it as a revival of the Roman Empire in the form of the European Common Market!
The mark of the beast is supposed to represent the Antichrist. It seems there is an international conspiracy of secret societies intent on establishing a "new world order" including a one-world economy. This is said to be evidenced by the trend to eliminate cash as a means of transaction, promoting the use of credit cards, debit cards, smart cards, etc. Then it is suggested that the biochips in smart cards will mark us as followers of the Antichrist with the number 666 as predicted in Revelation, and that this is just the beginning. Soon biochips will be imbedded in our right hand or forehead to identify followers of the Antichrist. (See Rev. 13:16) Really?
Of course, everyone with the "mark of the beast" will suffer horribly during the Tribulation and be destroyed by God. "And another angel, a third, followed, saying with a loud voice, If any one worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.'" (Revelation 14:9,10)
If Evans was alone in his beliefs, or even among a few zealots, I would say he was just some crackpot. But there are millions of people who believe this stuff. Just look at the popularity of the Left Behind series. In their book Are We Living in the End Times?, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins tell us in great detail about how the end times will play out: how the Rapture will rescue all true believers (no Catholics, please), the Russians will invade Israel, the temple will be rebuilt, the Antichrist will make a covenant with Israel, then break it, destroying the temple (Daniel 9:24-27), how Babylon will be rebuilt as the center of world government (thanks to help from Saddam Hussein) and then destroyed, how the seven year Tribulation will be like nothing the world has ever seen, with terrible suffering and death for all the non-believers (Matt. 24:21) and how Christ will appear and set up his thousand-year kingdom on Earth. "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the Earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." (Matt. 24:30,31)
These people believe that the Old Testament book of Daniel prophesizes that during the first half of the Tribulation a one-world government will be established by the Antichrist with ten "kings". LaHaye states: "At the rate America is disarming and the United Nations is increasing its stature and power, it is only a matter of time until the UN is capable of controlling the world."24 (Quite frankly, the UN doesn't seem capable of doing much of anything.) This "new world order" would be headquartered in Babylon! And all this is based on Daniel's interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream twenty five hundred years ago!
A one-world religion is also envisioned, one that encourages tolerance of religious belief and therefore excludes Christians, since they will be seen as intolerant of any belief that doesn't recognize the divinity of Christ. "In our day the religions of the world are moving together rapidly a significant indication that we are living in or very near the end times."25
New world order, one-world government, one-world economy (global economy), one-world religion every time I hear about international cooperation, I think about the end-timers. Watching the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Athens reminded me of this one-world prophecy: all the athletes from so many countries marching into the stadium, all coming together to compete peacefully. I could just see the prophecy coming true right before my very eyes!
Based on Revelation 7, LaHaye states that up to 144,000 witnesses will die in martyrdom trying to save men's souls. "Imagine! Despite the desperate evil of the Antichrist, despite the horrors of war and famine and pestilence and death, God is still so much in control of Earthly events that even the number of believing martyrs has been fixed by divine decree. Astonishing!"26 God in control? It seems more like Satan is in control!
The Tribulation is described in great detail in the seven bowels of Revelation 16: foul and loathsome sores, all bodies of water turned to blood, a scorched Earth followed by darkness, the Euphrates dried up to allow the armies of the East to cross and the greatest earthquake ever, which will shake the planet to its foundations, crumbling Babylon "into three parts" (there's a fault line under it, notes LaHaye) and leveling the cities of the world, in preparation for the great Battle of Armageddon! Enormous hailstones weighing a hundred pounds each will rain out of the sky. (Revelation 16:17-21) Doesn't this have a familiar ring? As I read this chapter in Revelation, I cannot help comparing it to the plagues of Egypt.
We are told that after the Tribulation, Jesus will return in all his glory and establish his kingdom on Earth. With Satan temporarily out of commission, all the saved, dead or alive, who are raptured at the beginning of the Tribulation, and those redeemed during the Tribulation, will live in bliss for a thousand years. In Revelation 20:11 we learn the fate of the unredeemed: At the end of the millennium, after Satan has been disposed of, Jesus will pass judgment on everyone who ever lived. "Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Presumably, most of those named in the book of life will have already been enjoying paradise during the millennium.)
Of course, there are several problems with this passage: Fundamentalists tell us that the only requirement to pass judgment is to love Jesus. And yet, John tells us here that we will be judged "according to what he had done". In Ecclesiastes 12:14 we read: "God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." On the other hand, Paul writes: "So we too have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified." (Galatians 2:16)
The scriptures do shed some light on this contradiction. In 1 Peter 4:11 we read: "by the strength that God supplies in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ." And in Romans 1 4:23 it is even more specific: "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." In other words, even our good deeds will condemn us if we don't give God the credit!
So which is it? Is a love of Jesus sufficient or will I also be judged by my deeds? And how am I supposed to know what the passing grade is? Where will God draw the line? Is simply thinking: "I love Jesus" sufficient, or do I have to say it out loud and witness to my friends? Do I have to pray every day or every other day? And with regard to my behavior, how many bad deeds will God accept. I mean, we all do bad things that's the way God made us. So, how much bad is too bad? This is no joking matter. It is deadly serious. If I don't get it right, I run the risk of being thrown into the lake of fire for eternity!
In his book Why I Believe, D. James Kennedy describes in horrid detail the testimony of an avowed atheist who went to hell and back. (He was resuscitated after cardiac arrest.) The poor man was in extreme pain throughout his entire body, a thousand times worse than anything he had ever experienced! Dr. Kennedy concludes: "Hell is real! He believed it did not exist at all, just as some who are reading this believe. He thought it was a myth. He did not believe Christ. He did not believe God; he did not believe the Bible. But he died, and he believes it now!"41 Dr. Kennedy overlooks one important detail: according to Revelation, we do not enter hell until the judgment, which will occur after the millennium over a thousand years from now!
The fundamentalists keep telling us we have a choice to accept Jesus Christ or reject him. Yet, throughout the Bible we are told about people who had no choice, people who were destined to fulfill prophecy according to God's plan. Some would blame the Jews for Christ's crucifixion, but how would prophecy have been fulfilled otherwise, and how would Christians find their salvation? (It would seem that the root cause of anti-Semitism can be traced to this premise.) Some would blame Pilate for Christ's crucifixion, but Christ said: "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above." (John 19:11) In other words, the crucifixion was all planned in advanced. Even Christ had no control over it! If Jesus Christ himself had no control over his own life, what chance do I have?
LaHaye writes about the final judgment: "And yet our Lord tells us of these awesome events. Why? To give us every opportunity to escape the terrible judgment to come. Remember, no believer in Christ will stand before God at the great white throne. That terrible spot is reserved for those who have rejected Christ as Savior "28
Every opportunity? His Lord tells us about this judgment - what would have to be the single most important factor in our lives - in an obscure, symbolic vision given to one person, thousands of years ago, with the expectation that the message would be passed on somehow to every person on the planet (not to mention all those who had lived before). John probably didn't have future generations in mind since the language of the New Testament clearly indicates these people expected the "end times" in their own time. And yet, LaHaye thinks his God has given us "every opportunity to escape the terrible judgment to come."
Hello are you thinking yet?
All this seems so utterly ridiculous to me. As I read Revelation, I am struck with one overwhelming question: Why do so many intelligent people believe this stuff? It reads more like the rantings of a demented old man. Nevertheless, fundamentalist Christians believe their saviour will come again, destroy God's enemies (anyone who doesn't believe as they do) and establish a perfect utopia where they will live forever (or a thousand years or whatever). In this present life of pain, sorrow and sin, they take hope in a better tomorrow; they are waiting for their Messiah. Doesn't it remind you of something else in the Bible how the ancient Jews were waiting for their Messiah? By God, it's the same script all over again!
Which brings me back to my original question. Why do so many people believe in God? A recent Harris poll found that 90% of those questioned said they believed in God. More than eight in ten Americans cling to some notion of heaven. (69% said they believed in hell, yet less than one percent expects to go there.)
What am I missing? Why do I think differently? Countless people, far more intelligent and knowledgeable than I am, believe: Billy Graham, D. James Kennedy, Rick Warren, C. S. Lewis, Henry Morris, Mike Evans and Tim LaHaye, to name just a few, are no doubt smarter than I am, certainly far more knowledgeable. Whole libraries are filled with learned volumes on the subject. And yet none of it makes any sense to me.
Just walk into any large Christian book store. There are thousands of books, tapes and CD's that promise to answer all my questions about God. But I don't see God's name on any of these books they're all written by humans! Why should I need someone else to explain God's existence and purpose? Why can't he do it himself? I just get this overwhelming feeling that we're desperately searching for something that doesn't exist.
I read the Bible. I read books and articles by religious people expounding on all the reasons I should believe, but none of it makes sense. They all fall back on biblical quotations as justification and proof of their beliefs. But the Bible is just a collection of books and documents written and rewritten by men thousands of years ago. If God wants me to know him and to do his will, why can't he just tell me? I know religious people believe that God has spoken to them. But again, that is a matter of belief. There is no proof of such communication. They cannot show me or explain it in any convincing way. God may have given me eyes to see and ears to hear, but he does not use them to communicate with me.
It's bad enough that God chooses to convey his message so poorly, but it would seem from numerous passages in the Bible that he has also predestined events and condemned some of us to disbelief. Our minds have been programmed in advance to either accept or reject the message. That would explain why the message is so real to some people and so incomprehensible to others. But why would God intentionally condemn people to eternal hell through no fault of their own?
Throughout this document I frequently frame an issue by asking a question such as why would God do this or that? Although no one can prove that God exists or doesn't exist, these questions are still relevant. The best I can do is cast doubt, and when the doubt is overwhelming, when there are so many questions, one cannot ignore the only reasonable answer to these questions. They are all satisfied by a single conclusion: they all assume the existence of a God. Without a God hypothesis, these questions are simply irrelevant.
The basic premise of fundamentalist Christian belief can be summarized as follows: God originally made the world perfect, without sin, suffering and death. But Adam defied God's commandment and, because of that, God condemned the world to sin, suffering and death. God then made a promise thousands of years later, through the ministry of Jesus Christ, to forgive our sin and provide eternal life if the sinner would simply accept Jesus as his personal saviour. Christ would then make good on his promise to return and restore the world to its previous perfect state for those believers, while condemning the non-believers to eternal hell and damnation.
So, the world was originally perfect, except that Adam was apparently imperfect and does what he was created to do: exercise his free will to do as he pleased, including the will to defy God. Then God was offended that his creation did as he was designed to do, and was so angry he decided to punish everyone from henceforth. Unless of course, you were saved, but that would have to wait a few years. And even then you had better hope you were born at the right time and place.
Further complicating the matter, God decides to make it difficult for man to learn and follow his divine will. He leaves clues for us to discover that will mislead us into thinking the world is much older than it really is. He constantly tempts us into believing false premises. He intentionally sets obstacles in our way to understanding those little secrets that will assure our salvation. He decides to convey his word indirectly through mortal messengers and then rely on them and their followers to spread the word, therefore assuring that the message is thoroughly adulterated, revised, translated and interpreted for thousands of years!
Give me a break!
Doesn't all this sound more like the behavior of a spoiled child than the intelligent actions of an infinitely perfect God? If he started with a perfect world and intends to finish with a perfect world, why fool around with this interim "if you don't love me, I'm going to punish you" phase. Is God so insecure he needs the constant assurance of his subject's unquestioned loyalty? Or is he a sadist, who simply enjoys punishing people?
It doesn't make any sense at all.
How can God punish me for not believing? It's like parents (God) relying on a family friend (the church) to tell their children (mankind) to do something and then punishing them for not doing it after the friend fails to forward the message!