Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Answers of C. S. Lewis: Jesus' False Prophecies

C. S. Lewis both was and is my favorite Christian author. There is beauty in both his writing style and intellectual honesty. But what few fans of his realize is that this same honesty caused him to argue against a number of the more traditional Christian viewpoints. What would Lewis write in response to my post about Jesus' False Prophecies?

“It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, 'this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.' And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.

“It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side. ... The evangelists have the first great characteristic of honest witnesses: they mention facts which are, at first sight, damaging to their main contention. [I nearly didn't quote this last sentence, until I noticed the irony of both doing so and not doing so.]

“... The answer of the theologians is that the God-Man was omniscient as God, and ignorant as Man. This, no doubt, is true, though it cannot be imagined. Nor indeed can the unconsciousness of Christ in sleep be imagined, not the twilight of reason in his infancy; still less his merely organic life in his mother's womb.” - C. S. Lewis, in The World's Last Night, pages 98-99

I will begin by pointing out the obvious: Lewis's answer does not further support the apologists' other answers to this problem, but completely undermines them. Combining a typical evangelicals' view of what the incarnation would mean with Lewis's view of what Jesus said leads to the conclusion that Jesus was a false prophet. This is the Christian dilemma of being ecumenical: different Christians are saying really different things.

The biggest problem with Lewis's view is that there is a difference between not knowing and being aware of one's ignorance and not knowing and proclaiming one's ignorance as the truth.

Lewis seems to being saying “Jesus said X is true and then said he doesn't know if X is true.” That wouldn't make sense. What makes more sense is to consider the difference between what Jesus said he knew and what Jesus said he didn't know. He claimed to know that this generation would not pass away first, which is roughly a forty year window that could be stretched a couple decades further if needed. What he claimed not to know is the “day or hour.” What makes more sense is that Jesus claimed to have a general idea of the timing without precise knowledge. Jesus' general idea was wrong. Thus, not only did Jesus not know, and not know that he didn't know, he thought he knew with a high enough level of certainty to make a prophecy.

Deuteronomy 18:21-22: “You may say in your heart, 'How will we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?' When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Genocide, Vessels of Wrath, and the Bible

I have been asked multiple times what basis I have for morality without God. To this I freely admit that I have no basis for absolute morality. Common sense and playing by the rules of society get me pretty far concerning a pragmatic concept of morality, secular philosophers wiser than I get further still, but I fall short of what Christians at least think they have. It is certainly the case that something in me wants to believe that good and evil are absolutes. However, even were I to judge the truth of Christianity solely on whether it gives me the comfort of moral answers, I would still reject it.

Christianity theology easily answers the question of how an absolute standard could exist, but it raises questions regarding many of the immoral acts in the Bible. Before I give a specific example, first consider the criticisms people have of the morality of radical Moslems. They spread their beliefs not through persuasion, but by the sword. They believe that at times, they are the instruments of Allah who are commanded to execute his wrath on the infidels by wiping them out.

Numbers 31:1-3, 7, 9, 12, 14, 17-18: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites;' ... Moses spoke to the people, saying, 'Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the LORD'S vengeance on Midian.' ... So they made war against Midian, just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. ... The sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; ... They brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, ... Moses was angry with the officers of the army. And Moses said to them, ... 'kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.'”

Three thousand years later, the religion whose God ordered this slaughter would have evolved into a very different religion. This religion would include large segments who disbelieve in evolution because it justified the Holocaust - what would happen to society if everyone accepted a belief that condones genocide?

Psalm 34:8 - “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Psalms suggests that when we see the Lord is good, this is evidence that the Lord actually is good. What should we then conclude when we taste and see that the Lord is evil?

Hitler is not the only moral monster whom Christians berate for behaving in the manner in which God commanded Moses to act. If it were Allah rather than God commanding this, Christians would see this as evidence that Allah is evil. To believe this genocide was commanded by God and therefore righteous is no more reasonable than the religion of Al Qaeda. What if Bin Laden made the argument that Allah is a god of both peace and justice, but Islam is just going through its old testament? Maybe it's a spiritual blindness to our own sinfulness caused by our rejection of Allah that causes us to condemn 9/11. Who are we to judge what Allah has called righteous?

If the fact that the Midianites were evil and would cause trouble in the future was sufficient to justify these actions, then Hitler was not evil but merely uninformed in his belief that the Jews were evil and would cause trouble. Does the end justify the means?

Another defense that is used is so bad that I'm only repeating it because it is used in the Bible. In Romans 9:22-23: “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory...” Consider the reverse argument: maybe God wants all people to suffer, but in order to make them appreciate how great their suffering is, he blesses a select few. This makes more sense than Paul's argument for several reasons. First, a minority is blessed, so it makes more sense to rationalize how a evil God could bless a few than the rationalize how a good God could condemn so many. Second, it is unusual for people to be blessed out of the sight of the suffering, but common for suffering to be invisible to the blessed. Thus, if God is using blessings to taunt the cursed, he's doing a fine job, while if he's using the suffering to help the blessed realize how blessed they are, he's wasting a lot of suffering.

One way around my second objection is the early Christian idea that hell is visible from heaven, and the people in heaven will rejoice at the sight of the wicked being tormented. In a very twisted way, this would explain how suffering makes known the riches of his glory. The best argument against this view of heaven is that the cruelty of it makes one's stomach turn. Similarly, my stomach turns at the idea of “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Why trust the former reaction, but not the latter?

This is not merely me standing in judgment of God based on what I think is right, but me observing that God doesn't follow his own descriptions of what he is, and therefore concluding that either God lied or didn't inspire the Bible - Romans 9:20 and Job 40-41 deal with the former objection only. I don't think that Midianite children burning in hell agree with I John 4:8's descriptions of God as love, or that this disagreement should be attributed to their sin causing them to miss the big picture. Little kids can be pretty bratty, but the punishment doesn't match the crime. They have no inherent right to heaven, but do they not have a right to a real chance to miss eternal torment? Supposedly, the Lord is not willing that any should perish, but in the context of the Midianite children, that's rather like Hitler telling a Jew he wishes all men were Aryan.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Where was this God when the Midianites were being slaughtered at His command? Revealing his love for his chosen people through these vessels of wrath prepared for destruction is perhaps the most extreme form of partiality imaginable.

Deuteronomy 24:16 - “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.”

I've always heard that one of the ways that the law points to God is that it reveals his justice. The justice of this verse is violated by God's actions. Why kill the children? Their death was not an unfortunate reality of war. They were captured, and then after thinking about it, slaughtered. It's not like the Israelites lacked the resources – they had no trouble providing for the virgin girls and saving them for whatever it is that victorious soldiers do with girls.

The one last argument that apologists grasp for is the “we don't know” card. Maybe the Bible doesn't teach with clarity that children passively accepting paganism go to hell. Maybe hell isn't eternal conscience torment. Maybe the children were vastly more wicked and more capable of choice than we suppose. To paraphrase Bertrand Russel, if someone opened a crate of oranges and found the top layer to be spoiled, they would not conclude that the bottom layer must be extra good to balance out the rottenness of the top. If the bottom cannot be inspected, the far better theory is that the entire crate is spoiled.

This is why I seek the truth about morality apart from Christianity. I don't want my basis for compassion to be mixed in with a basis for genocide. I'll take not knowing why or if Hitler's genocide was absolutely wrong over knowing for certain that Moses' genocide was absolutely right.

(By the way, this argument was not that significant to my change of position. It made a difference not as its own argument, but as a counter-point to the moral and anthropologic arguments for the existence of God. Neither of those two can persuade me as long as I consider them to be weaker than the genocide argument against Christianity, or more generally, the Problem of Pain.)