Sunday, May 1, 2011

Faith and Reason: A Crucial Balance (Part 2)

This is the second section of my essay. I delve into my current doubts about inerrancy, and explain my reasoning. If this part is going to upset anyone, you may want to skip over it. Just a disclaimer.

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           From what I’ve observed, blind faith seems to be governed by circular logic. Many Christians (and people of other religions, for that matter) can offer no reason for their beliefs other than internal reasoning. I think we need to provide reasons outside of “the Bible says so, and I trust the Bible because it says it’s true, and it says it’s true because it is, and it is because it says it is.” I see the value in trusting something we haven’t physically seen or heard, provided we have other reasons to trust it. I don’t see the logic in a never-ending verbal spiral that doesn’t venture outside of itself. Some people say that the mark of “true” faith is continuing to believe something despite evidence to the contrary. This negates the critical thinking skills God gave us. If that line of reasoning were valid, we would be obliged to believe people who are clearly delusional or dishonest. The fact that someone preaches Biblical doctrine doesn’t always mean their reasoning is sound. A schizophrenic Christian might genuinely believe that God ordered him to bomb Las Vegas because of the tourists’ decadence and greed. His reasoning would be Biblically accurate, but that doesn’t mean we should believe God spoke to him.
            There are many intelligent fundamentalist Christians who don’t base their faith on circular reasoning, but I do notice that circular reasoning is more prevalent in fundamentalist thought. Over the past few years, I’ve discovered something intriguing: the most embittered atheists are usually ex-fundamentalist Christians. I wondered why this is so often the case, and realized that Christianity based entirely on the belief in Biblical inerrancy is the most easily fractured. For numerous people, this type of faith is a house of cards. As soon as they find one religious doubt that they can’t reconcile, the very foundation crumbles. It’s perfectly possible for a smart person to hold fundamentalist beliefs. It requires some mental gymnastics, and mental gymnastics are pretty useful for keeping your brain in shape. Unfortunately, they don’t allow for the same flexibility as real gymnastics. I view fundamentalism as a workout that only exercises one muscle. That muscle may become inordinately strong, but the rest of the body is neglected and falls out of shape.
           It’s possible to doubt absolute Biblical inerrancy without renouncing the faith. Personally, I have reservations about Biblical inerrancy. I’d like to share my reasons. Hopefully those of you who are still reading will bear with me and not get offended. This isn’t intended to upset anyone or to undermine Christianity, but to explain why my faith can survive in spite of these doubts.
            I’ve read the whole Bible by now, and have come across some passages that seem inconsistent with one another. It’s possible that my understanding is flawed. If you think these verses are inerrant, you’re welcome to clarify them.
            These are the passages I can’t seem to reconcile:

-God is incapable of lying and always tells the truth/God sometimes lies and doesn’t always fulfill His promises: 1 Kings 22:19-23; Ezekiel 20:25; 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12; 1 Samuel 9:15-16, 31:4-7; 1 John 2:21 (Jesus and God are the truth, so no lie comes from them), Hebrews 11:13; Numbers 14:30

-God never changes His mind/God sometimes changes His mind: 1 Samuel 15:29; Exodus 32:10-14; 2 Samuel 24:15-16; Isaiah 38:1-6; Jeremiah 18:7-10, 26:3, 19, 36:3 (It seems like it would contradict God's nature for Him to change His mind, as that would imply He was mistaken the first time. An all-knowing God would have no reason to alter His plans because He'd already know everything that was going to happen. Some may interpret these passages as conditional, especially the ones where God says "If X happens, I'll do Y." A lot of these examples are not conditional, though--God explicitly states He is going to do something, and then does something else. Even when God is speaking conditionally, this conflicts with His omniscience. When one knows the future outcome of something, one doesn't use the word "if.")

-God knows and sees everything/God is unaware of some things: Psalm 139:2-6; Isaiah 40:13-14, 63:5; Genesis 18:20-21; 1 Kings 22:19-23 (God asked for advice); Jeremiah 1:11-12, 2:30 (God can do things in vain?), 3:7, 3:19

-Children are/are not punished for their parents’ sins: Ezekiel 18:19-20; Isaiah 14:21, 65:6-7; Deuteronomy 24:16; Exodus 20:5, 34:7; 2 Chronicles 25:4

-Saul knew/did not know David before he was king: 1 Samuel 16:19-23, 17:55-58

-Michal (the daughter of Saul) had children/was childless all her life: 2 Samuel 6:23, 21:8

-There never would be anyone wiser than Solomon/Jesus was wiser than Solomon: 1 Kings 3:12; Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31

-King David's only sin was adultery/King David sinned not only by committing adultery, but also by taking the census: 1 Kings 15:5; 1 Chronicles 21:1-4. (David also gloated about defeating his enemies, and asked God to pour out His wrath on them: Psalm 3:7, 52:6-7, 58:10, 69:20-28, 109:10-15, 137:8-9, 140:10. Being vengeful is listed as a sin many times in the Bible. Even though David sometimes asked God to avenge him instead of carrying out his own retaliation, he still had a vengeful attitude. As far as gloating goes, Proverbs 24:17-18 tells us not to gloat over an adversary's defeat. Not only did David commit all those transgressions, but he also calls himself blameless in Psalm 18:20-24. Scripture repeatedly states that everyone sins, and that claiming to be blameless is a sin in itself. Being power-hungry is a sin as well. David expresses a great yearning for power and exaltation in Psalm 18:37-50 and 27:6. He thanks God for allowing him to defeat his foes, but his gratitude seems to be grounded in self interest. He's thankful to God because of his own gain.)

-No one ever went to Heaven before Jesus did/Elijah and Enoch went to Heaven before Jesus was born: 2 Kings 2:11; Hebrews 11:5; John 3:13

-Jesus was the first to ever rise from the dead/Others were resurrected before him: 2 Kings 4:32-37; Acts 26:23. (We also need to remember that Jesus resurrected Lazarus and the dead girl before being resurrected Himself).

-The earth will be destroyed/The earth will never be destroyed: Psalm 78:69; Ecclesiastes 1:4; Luke 21:33

-All people will be saved eventually/Some people will not be saved: 2 Peter 3:9; Isaiah 26:10 (Grace is shown to the wicked?), 45:22, 52:10; 1 Timothy 2:3-4, 4:10 (“All men, especially those who believe”); John 12:32; John 3:3; Mark 16:16

-People can choose God/God chooses us: John 5:39-40; 2 John 1:8; Deuteronomy 30:19-20; Joshua 24:15; Colossians 1:22-23; Galatians 5:1, Romans 9:11-26

-No one who is saved will depart from the faith/Some will fall away from it: 1 Timothy 4:1; Isaiah 57:1; Galatians 5:4; Hebrews 6:4-6; 2 Peter 2:20-21; John 10:28; 2 John 1:8; Romans 8:38-39; James 5:19-20; Colossians 1:22-23

-God’s anger is short-lived/God’s anger is everlasting: Psalm 30:5; Jeremiah 3:12, 7:20, 17:4; Micah 7:18

-Jesus came to bring dissension/Jesus didn’t come to condemn people: Matthew 10:34; John 3:17

-God’s work is not flawed and His laws are perfect/Some of God’s laws were flawed and needed revision: Psalm 19:7, 111:6-8, 119:160; Isaiah 40:8; Hebrews 8:7-9, (Note the difference between two of the possible translations in Hebrews 8:8. One translation reads that God found flaw in His people and changed the law accordingly, while the other translation reads that God found flaw in His own law. These are two vastly different statements); Hebrews 7:18-19

-The saved do not sin/Everyone sins, including the saved: 1 John 1:8, 2:10, 3:6-10, 5:18; Romans 3:23; 1 Kings 8:46; 2 Chronicles 6:36

-Jesus said that Scripture cannot change and God’s laws stand forever, yet the laws were altered with the new covenant: Hebrews 8:13; Colossians 2:14; Luke 16:17; Galatians 3:10, 24-25

-Proverbs 3:12 says that the Lord disciplines those He loves. Most of the people who receive His wrath don't seem to be loved by Him, though.

-Jesus was sinless and perfect because He was God in human form. Why does Hebrews 7:28 say He was “made” perfect? Wasn’t He already perfect?

-Isaiah 54:9-10 states that God vowed to never be angry with Israel again, but subsequent passages show He was angry with Israel after that.

-Isaiah 60:18 says that God promised Israel would never be attacked again, but they were attacked in later passages.

-Why would God write a name in the Book of Life in order to blot it out? Doesn’t the act of blotting something out imply correcting an error? God doesn’t err.

-The sun moves, implying it revolves around the earth? Psalm 104:19, 22; Ecclesiastes 1:5; Joshua 10:13

-We’re to love God and fear Him, but there is no fear in love. 1 John 4:18

-Love keeps no records of wrongs and God is love, but God will announce all our sins on Judgment Day (even though the Bible says He’ll erase our sins from His memory if we repent of them).

-In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says that he believes widows will be happier if they don't remarry. (He specifies that this is his own opinion.) If this is the case, why do so many widows remarry instead of opting to remain single? Paul also says he wishes that all men could be celibate, and that doesn't sound like an inerrant statement. It's obviously counter-productive to the human race's survival--or "counter-reproductive," if you will.

-Insects have four legs? Leviticus 11:23

-The story of Noah's Ark states that the only living beings who survived the flood were the ones on the ark. Nephilim were not on board, so it would logically follow that they died off. However, they are featured later on in the Bible.

-God killed Onan because He told him to continue his bloodline, but he refused to comply. If God was so insistent that the family line continue, was it self-defeating for Him to kill Onan (thus ending the bloodline anyway)? Why did God order Onan to do something He knew he wouldn’t obey? Why does God test us when He already knows the outcome?

-Why does God design every aspect of every fetus when He knows some won’t be carried to term (due to abortion, miscarriage, etc)?

-In Mark 16:9-20, Jesus says that believers will literally be able to handle venomous snakes and drink poison without coming to any harm. Throughout history, a lot of believers have attempted these actions and died. ( contains a footnote adding that earlier versions of the Bible don't contain this verse. It makes me wonder how much of our current Bible's content was originally there, and how much was added over time.)

-Romans 9 speculates that God might create most people simply to destroy them, in order to demonstrate grace to the elect. The passage surmises that God may do this to show the elect what grace means by providing a basis of comparison. The elect couldn’t fully comprehend the comparison, though, because they wouldn’t experience both. Seeing something doesn’t produce the same understanding as experiencing it. We wouldn’t need a basis of comparison if God made everyone elect and equipped us with the knowledge of its significance. We also wouldn’t need to be rescued from Satan if God didn’t allow us to be swayed by him in the first place. People say God gives us the option so we can choose Him out of our own free will, but some passages claim we don’t have the free will to choose Him. They state that God chooses us, but not due to our personal merit. Paul tries to justify this view in Romans 9 by saying that it wouldn't be unfair of God to create people just to destroy them, since a potter can use his creations however he pleases and the clay doesn't complain. This is a false comparison, though. Clay doesn't complain about being destroyed because clay is not a sentient creation. It doesn't have a brain or feelings or opinions. It doesn't suffer.

-Why does God desire glory? Doesn’t God already have infinite glory, simply because of who He is? Why would God need or want affirmation from such inferior beings?

-In 2 Peter 2:20-21, why does Peter write that a believer who has fallen from the faith and lost his salvation is worse off than someone who never had it to begin with? If both people are damned, why is one worse off than the other?

-Romans 1:18-20 says that God’s attributes are clearly seen in His creation, so no one has a reason not to believe in Him. What about people who are unable to intellectually comprehend Him, such as the severely mentally handicapped? What about people from other cultures who have never heard of Jesus? They may perceive some sort of God, but they cannot perceive the Abrahamic God specifically. Among our Western culture, there are people who have heard of Jesus but honestly don’t perceive Him or feel His presence in the world. They don’t reject God out of rebelliousness, as if they know He exists but are willfully choosing to ignore Him. Since God knows everyone’s heart and motives, why would He punish such people?

-The criteria for what qualifies a book as Biblical cannon seems subjective to me. During various Papal discussions, the Catholic church decided which books would be included in the Bible. (This explains why the Catholic Bible includes certain books that other Bibles omit, such as the Septuagint and the book of Maccabees). These choices were based on whether the books were consistent with others, whether they emphasized messages the Pope wanted to spread, whether they had been read by the Apostles, and whether the texts were old enough. Consistency is challenging criteria, as some of the Biblical books seem to contain internal discrepancies. How do we know which books were fully divinely inspired when they were so subjectively chosen? One could argue that God gave the cardinals and Popes proper discernment, but this doesn’t explain why some versions of the Bible include books that others leave out. It doesn’t explain the discrepancies. Another factor to remember is that the 27 books of the New Testament were not declared official cannon until over 300 years after Jesus' death.

-A lot of Christians cite 2 Timothy 3:16 as proof of Biblical inerrancy, but this is a circular argument. The Bible doesn’t explicitly profess to be inerrant. (Conversely, I would also be using a circular argument if I denied the Bible is inerrant because it doesn’t call itself inerrant.) In Timothy’s letter, he may not have been actually saying that all the books of our current Bible are divinely inspired. Not all of the current books were considered official Scripture at that time. He may not have been calling his own letter Scripture or calling any other text Scripture. He may have been simply defining Scripture as a divinely inspired piece of writing. However, the fact that a text is inspired doesn’t necessitate that every word is dictated by God. Some of the prophets were recording visions they had seen, and likely described them by their own interpretations. (I'm sure they genuinely believed they weren't relying on their own interpretations or using their own words, but that doesn't necessarily mean they were all correct in that belief. A person can be fully convinced that something is true, but the conviction alone doesn't prove it. Two people of opposite viewpoints can be equally certain of what they believe, and both may think that God convicted them. It's also useful to remind ourselves that many who believe they're receiving divine messages are actually listening to their own subconscious minds). In 1 Corinthians 7:12 and 25, Paul specifically states that God did not order him to write the letter. He said he was writing from his own personal judgment. He believed his judgment to be trustworthy because he’d received the Holy Spirit, but those who received the Holy Spirit could still err in their understanding (take Kings Solomon and Saul, for example). I noticed that many of the books cite other books which are not included in the Bible (such as the recorded prophesies of Iddo, the books of annuals, and other letters written by Paul). I’d assume that if a book is divinely inspired, it would only quote other books of divine inspiration. Otherwise, how would their references be spiritually reliable? Yet if the other books mentioned were divinely inspired, why weren’t they also included? Wouldn’t God have preserved them?

         In addition to these topics, I have doubts about the issue of perdition. I admit that my objections are largely based on emotion, because I don’t like the idea. Heaven and souls and God are all happy concepts for me, but hell and Satan are much less pleasant to believe in. I know this isn’t a sound reason to reject something. I don’t like the idea of cancer, but I accept the fact that it exists. Still, there are some other reasons why I have difficulty believing in a permanent hell.
        First, let’s look at the original Scriptural words that have been translated to “hell.” There are five which I know of. The first is “abaddon,” which means “destruction.” This could mean destruction after death, but could also refer to general failure and misery in life. It may also simply mean “to perish,” which is to rot away. The second word is “Gehenna.” This was an actual location in the valley of Hinnam, where people burned their garbage in a pit that contained worms. That explains Jesus’ use of Gehenna as a metaphor for the place we end up if we are immoral; a place where the fire is never quenched and the worms devour everything. It could simply be a figurative term. The third translated word is “Hades.” The term “Hades” is Greek for “Sheol,” which the Greeks believed to be a general place of the afterlife reserved for the righteous and unrighteous alike. It was also used to mean “the grave,” “the pit,” or death in general. The fourth word is Sheol, and the fifth word is “infernus.” That means “being underneath,” in reference to being buried underground. “The pit” makes no inference to an afterlife; it only means death.
         In the book of Psalms, David actually seems to express the belief that there is no afterlife. See Psalm 6:5; 30:3, 9; 31:17; 49:10, 14-15; 63:9-10; 71:18; 88:4-5, 11-12; 90:5. The book of Ecclesiastes seems to express this outlook as well: 3:19-21; 6:4-6; 9:5-6. The New Testament obviously includes a different interpretation of the afterlife, though Ephesians 2:10 says that people can praise Jesus from “under the earth.” If that refers to people in hell praising Jesus, it doesn’t seem to make sense that they would still be damned after accepting Him. In Psalm 6:5, David says that no one can praise God from the grave.
         I question the consistency of such teachings about perdition. For example, if you never leave heaven or hell once you’re there, why does the Bible say we’ll be temporarily brought to earth (resurrected) on Judgment Day? You would have to leave in order to appear back here. Also, why would we be judged a second time if we’ve already been judged directly after death?
          I can’t help but feel that hell would be a disproportionate punishment for sins committed during a limited amount of time on earth. We’re dead for a lot longer than we’re alive, so why would we be eternally punished for things we did over a duration of roughly seven decades? One might also ask why we deserve to be eternally rewarded for a short period of righteous behavior and faith. I don’t think we “deserve” it, but I think we receive it because God is generous and merciful. He gives us better than what we merit.
          Most people who have NDE's report a blissful experience in which they visit heaven, but a small portion of NDEers have seen a hell-like environment. Howard Storm, an ex-atheist, gave a detailed account of his experience and was interviewed on the History Channel. When I saw it I noted that positive and happy NDE's seem to all share common elements, whereas unpleasant ones are all different. I don't know whether this implies that each person's hell is unique, or that a hell-like NDE is more of a psychological manifestation than a "real" experience. I have my doubts about hell, but if it does exist, I don't think it's permanent. When people (such as Howard Storm) have Near-Death Experiences in which they believe they've been to hell, they never seem to report seeing anyone they recognize. Some see other people, but never ones they know. In NDE's that feature heaven, almost everyone sees deceased people they've known. This could have two implications. It could mean that most people go to heaven, which would increase the chances of encountering familiar faces. It could also indicate that everyone in hell is a stranger to you, which could be one of the punishments. I'm more inclined to believe the former.
          A permanent hell doesn't really make sense to me. Some compare God's damnation of a soul to a father disciplining his child, but the purpose of discipline is to reform children and teach them lessons. Placing unruly souls in a hopeless eternal prison wouldn't correct them, and would provide them with no opportunity to repent. I don't see why it would be too late to repent of mistakes after we die, since life is temporary but death is everlasting. I could view it as a holding place where some people are sent to "do their time" and learn the error of their ways, but then are released to heaven once they've atoned for their sins. Interestingly, Howard Storm's NDE actually refutes the common view of an eternal and inescapable hell where we're severed from God completely. He was able to ask for Jesus' help while he was there, and Jesus freed him.
            I have further doubts about hell based on physical technicalities. How would hell be “the blackest darkness” (Jude 13) if it contains fire? Why would it feature flesh-eating worms if souls have no physical flesh?
            As for Satan, I think his existence would tip the scales a bit too far in evil’s favor. If we already have wicked inclinations and there’s an additional supernatural figure encouraging us to pursue them, how much of a chance do we have? I think the devil might be a symbolic character in the Bible, representing the internal temptations we wrestle with. He’s never described as a literal figure in the Torah, even though the Torah and the Old Testament are virtually identical. I can believe in demons and general malevolent forces, but I think they’d be far too powerful if organized by a leader. I consider them more chaotic.
            Overall, I feel that the concept of hell is far too unjust to be true. A lot of Christians dislike the idea of hell but are afraid to question its existence, lest that doubt becomes the thread which unravels the rest of their faith. They fear that if we break loose from hell, all hell will break loose. I don't think we have to be so inflexible. Discounting one doctrinal element doesn't require that we throw the rest out the window.
         Some people may disagree and caution me not to lean on my own understanding, but God gave us understanding for a purpose. No matter what, we always end up relying on it. When we come across complex Biblical passages, we use our judgment to decipher them. Christian books usually advise us to adapt our personal ethics to match Scripture. They advise us not to justify something that our intuition tells us is wrong, or something the Bible prohibits. What if your gut tells you that the Bible is mistaken about something? What if your intuition cries out in protest that a certain verse is deeply, utterly wrong? Scripture says that the law is written into our hearts. Why not let our God-given understanding guide us, since He engraves His standards into it? Some say we betray the laws we are innately aware of by justifying behaviors we know are wrong, but what if we sometimes do the same with Scripture? I suspect it’s possible that we intrinsically know certain laws are unjust (such as the code requiring a woman to marry her rapist, or requiring parents to stone a disobedient son). We don’t convince ourselves that some laws are wrong when we instinctively know they’re right. We do the opposite, which is what we’re commanded not to do.

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