Friday, 23 September 2011

His Eye Is On The Sparrow

In 1905 (lyricist) Civilla D. Martin and (composer) Charles H. Gabriel wrote what is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest gospel hymns of all time.  I still know all the words, by memory...

"I Sing Because I'm Happy
I Sing Because I'm Free
His Eye Is On The Sparrow
And I Know He Watches Me"

If you grew up "in the church", like I did, just the very mention of these lyrics will also bring the melody immediately to mind.  (I caught myself singing it as I was preparing for this post)  Or perhaps, if you didn't grow up in the church, you know this song from some of the more recent renditions (such as the one by Lauryn Hill).

Frankly, it's not hard to tell why people like it so much.  The sentiment expressed is quite touching, not to mention biblical...

"Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (Matthew 6:26) and "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:29-31).

I used to like this song myself (in certain ways I still do).

Frankly, some of my de-conversion is now a complete blurr.  That's the main reason I started this blog...I wanted to get my experiences written down so that, one day, my kids (who are still very young) could come to understand why Dad changed his mind on such an important issue.  I now realize that most former believers don't "lose their faith" all of a sudden because of, say, a difficult life experience.  It also doesn't typically happen in a moment of epiphany (or, as is often assumed by Christians, in an act of rebellion against God).  Instead, one loses their faith in a stepwise process, piece by piece by piece by piece...often as they become more educated, and begin to see much more clearly Christianities many implausibilities.  If I were to compare losing my faith to demolishing a house, it feels less like using a wrecking ball and more like removing a brick here, a window pane there, and a few roof tiles over what point is the house considered "demolished"?  It's hard to say.  The line between "Christian" and "non Christian" is not at all as distinct as I used to think it was.

Having said that, along the way, there were a few especially poignant moments that I know I'll remember forever.  I've already written about one such moment, here, but in this post I'd like to tell you about another...

Although I purposefully haven't covered it yet, if the truth be told I was musing a great deal on the problem of suffering during pretty much the entire two years of my de-conversion.  Even as a Christian, it had always bothered me a little that people die of starvation, every day, which of course isn't to mention those who perish, with what seems like alarming regularity, in natural disasters and the like (back then, it was just another nagging question).  I now realize that it should have bothered me a lot but, if I'm being honest, I tried not to think too much about it (my sense is this approach is pretty typical among believers).  After all, we need to leave those things that we don't fully understand "in God's hands"...right??

Suffice it to say, as I began to lose my faith, I felt compelled to look into this issue in a much deeper way.  I began reading about it, a lot, and I found myself thinking about it even when I wanted to put it out of my mind.  On one particular morning (after yet another late night of reading) my head was spinning as I tried to conceive of one possible reason for God to not send rain if/when it would (literally) save a child's life.  There are children who die of drought, I mused, so why doesn't God just send rain?  There must be a reason that I just don't understand

On the very morning I was having these thoughts, I arrived at work and opened up my e-mail inbox.  The first e-mail to catch my eye came from the church I was (still) attending.  Here is a rough paraphrase of the first line in the message I saw that morning...

"Thank you for your prayers and praise God for holding off the rain, yesterday, during the church's annual 'outreach BBQ'!"

Now, you need to understand, I had seen scores of e-mails like this before (and many since). There really was nothing special, or even slightly unusual, about it, but on this morning it hit me like a ton of bricks.  Something is SERIOUSLY wrong here, I thought, if God holds back the rain for my church's "outreach BBQ" but he doesn't send rain when it would save a child's life!!!  How could this be?!?!?!?  In that moment all of the times I had prayed (and participated in group prayers) for good weather, so that "God could be glorified" through this or that upcoming "outreach" event, came flooding back to my mind.  Why would God control the weather, for us, even once, but allow so many people to die because of things that are directly weather related (children, no less!).  In that instant, I suspected everything I had previously believed, on this issue, was (by sheer logic alone) complete bullshit

Now, of course, I realize my reaction that morning was an emotional one...and emotions are not always, well, entirely rational.  And I also know that Christian apologists have some (rather complicated) ways of "dealing" with this problem (more on that later).  But, for this post, I merely want to convey to you the complete explosion of cognitive dissonance that forced itself on me as I read the e-mail in question.  Christians get so used to simultaneously believing that: a) people die of starvation, thirst, natural disasters etc., and b) God can control the weather when he wants to, that it never occurs to them these two things completely contradict each other.  Is God deliberately allowing those children to die?  Is he unable to stop it?  Does God love the people in your church more than those children half a world away?  Christian, will you turn your face away from this blog, simply because I posted a disturbing picture?  Will you criticize me for doing so, to deflect the issue?  Or will you allow yourself to think more deeply about what it is that you believe?  Do you have good reasons for these beliefs, or is it easier not to look at them?

God's eye is not "on the sparrow", and the "heavenly father" certainly doesn't "feed them", despite what the Bible says in Matthew.  In fact, it can't possibly be true, unless he loves the sparrow more than he loves the children who die every 4 seconds.

Please think about it.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Is Jesus Relevant?

As a natural follow up to my last few posts, which outlined how I came to believe Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet, I'd like to comment briefly on a few of his other teachings.  As a Christian, I had always believed that the words of Jesus are timeless...sage wisdom, from God's own son, somehow (miraculously!) just as applicable to our lives, today, as they were to his closest followers two thousand years ago!

But, is this really true?

Well, as it happens, I do think that Jesus taught some "timeless" things.  "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", for example, certainly qualifies as timeless advice (even though most Christians are oblivious to the fact that it didn't originate with Jesus).

There were other things Jesus taught, however, that Christians tend to ignore (or explain in a very awkward way).  These things seem a little odd, to believers, or even downright puzzling.  As I pondered further on the implications of Jesus' apocalyptic worldview, some of these very passages (that I had once wondered about) began to make better sense.  Let me give you one quick example...

"Let the dead bury the dead" (Matt 8:22; Luke 9:60)

Huh?  What could Jesus possibly have meant by this?  Is he (God) against funeral preparations?  Funerals themselves?  Grieving over lost loved ones? 

Or, perhaps, Jesus thought the end was near.  The time was very short; right around the corner, in fact, so "let the dead bury their own dead"! 

Is it just me, or does this verse not make much better sense when seen in an "apocalyptic" light?  How would one make any reasonable heads or tails of it otherwise?

Even the teachings of Jesus that could more comfortably be positioned as "relevant" fit nicely into the apocalyptic framework.  Listen to Bart Ehrman,

"It could easily be argued, in fact, that all of Jesus' injunctions to love others, to give oneself to others, to serve others, and so on were instructions on how to inherit the Kingdom that was soon to appear.  For Jesus, everything else paled in comparison...

One shouldn't be concerned about such trivial matters as what kind of clothes to wear or what kind of food to eat...

If thieves want to take you clothes--let them!  If bullies want to force you to do their work for them--let them!  If the government wants to take your money--let them!  If thugs want to beat you--let them!  If enemies want to kill you--let them!  None of these things matters.  Your should give away your shirt as well as your coat, you should go an extra mile, you should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, you should turn the other cheek, you should not fear the one who can destroy your paltry body.  The Kingdom is coming, and the concerns of this life are trivial by comparison."  (from "Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium")

Getting back to our original question, is Jesus relevant?  For me, the answer is now yes and no.  I think Jesus taught some good things, in fact there's very little doubt about that fact in my mind.  But this doesn't mean he was God...and it doesn't mean we should govern our lives by the Bible, as if it were a perfect book (it's not).  The Bible was a product of its time, and Jesus was a man of his.

I feel as if I've said enough, in these last four posts, to at least sketch out my reasons for switching camps on the question of Jesus' identity (the so called "real Jesus").  While I still remain open to a change in perspective (again), as of this writing it remains highly plausible to me that Jesus was, at root, a failed apocalyptic prophet.  While I don't want to in any way minimize the significance of this change, as it relates to my personal journey (after all, I had previously believed Jesus to be God in human form!), I also don't want to get bogged down with any one topic here on the blog.  This blog is primarily about telling my story, so the "arguments" I present along the way are simply meant to illustrate my line of thinking at different points in the journey. 

As such, I'll consider this post to be the last (for now) on Jesus' apocalypticism and I look forward to continuing on next time with other elements involved in my de-conversion.

Monday, 12 September 2011

A Man Of His Time

In the last two posts I explained, ever so briefly, why I came to believe that Jesus issued a failed prophecy.  He was wrong, and so were many of the New Testament's writers

But where did Jesus get these (seemingly) crazy ideas?  He got them from the same place that most of us, still today, get some of our "crazy ideas" from...surrounding culture.  Jesus was a "man of his time", and his worldview grew directly out of the "Jewish apocalyptic context" of his day.

Let's back up a little, to before Jesus came onto the scene...

"Israel was a small nation caught between powerful empires to the north and the south...As a result the Promised Land was constantly under attack...During these periods of intense suffering, prophets such as Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel interpreted Israel's plight as Yahweh's punishment for their sins...Implicit and explicit in the prophetic interpretation of Israel's plight was the belief that if Yahweh's people repented of the worship of other gods, turned from their injustices, and served Yahweh their God with total devotion, then Yahweh would restore them to their land and establish them as preeminent among the nations...

The problem is that the prophets were wrong.  The Jewish people did turn from their wicked ways.  They did obey the law and devote themselves wholly to the worship of Yahweh (see Ezra for example).  But nothing happened.  Yes, they were returned to their land, but the land was never restored to their control.  One century turned into two centuries, two centuries into three, and so on.  Israel continued to be dominated by significantly more powerful nations, and their suffering continued unabated...The apocalyptic worldview was a way of interpreting the reality of Israel's suffering.  In this sense, apocalyptic was a theodicy.

...The question was, 'How can Yahweh be just when his covenant people are suffering?'  The old answer was that Yahweh's covenant people were suffering for their sins.  But now they had repented, and their suffering continued.  The apocalyptic worldview developed as an answer to that question.  'It was not because God was punishing them.  Quite the contrary, it was because the enemies of God were punishing them.'"

And a few paragraphs later...

"Another way to put the matter is that apocalyptic asserted that Yahweh's righteousness would be vindicated when he intervened to deliver Israel from its undeserved afflictions.  The 'morally sufficient reason for the divine sufferance of evil' is thus that the end will be restorative.  The most important thing to be stressed with regard to this theodicy, however, is that in order for its logic to be sustained, the end that justified the means had to be conceived of as imminent.  If Israel was to continue suffering, world without end, Yahweh's righteousness would not be vindicated.  Yahweh's righteousness was expected to be displayed in the fact that he could not suffer the suffering of his people for very long."  (Both of these quotes come from a book that I have already endorsed rather enthusiastically, "The Human Faces Of God", by Thom Stark)

This is the world that Jesus was born into. 

I closed my last post with two questions, namely "What was He thinking?" and "Who was Jesus?".  With the above, by way of background, I'd now like to take a stab at both of these questions (in reverse order)...

Who Was Jesus?

In 1906 Albert Schweitzer did what few scholars have done before him, or since...he re-directed the course of an entire field of study.  Schweitzer argued, in his monograph, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus", that Jesus was an apocalypticist.  Although he was not the first scholar to suggest this about Jesus, Schweitzer was certainly the most influential, and this view has since carried the day (among Bible scholars) for much of the twentieth century.  There isn't complete unanimity, of course (is such a thing even realistic?), and it should also be noted that no one today agrees with Schweitzer's particular reconstruction of Jesus' message and mission.  No one today agrees with Darwin's particular reconstruction either, but he was still "right", in a more general (and important) sense, and so was Schweitzer.

In fact, it occurs to me that Schweitzer and Darwin had one very key thing in common, they both let the evidence speak for itself.  Throughout the course of my investigations, into the "Jesus questions", I read some material that tried to paint Jesus in a rather different light (there are those who would like to say He was a Jewish cynic, a feminist, a mystic, a wise sage...and so on and so on).  But the one thought that I could never shake (and, I think, rightly so) was that these authors were trying very hard to mold Jesus into their image.  They wanted to "soften" his message, perhaps, by focusing on the "nice" parts, or at least the parts that felt palpable and/or relevant to modern life.

So, who was Jesus?  I think the evidence suggests, rather strongly, that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.

On to the next question, and then I'll wrap things up...

What Was He thinking?

Of course we'll never know, for sure, and I am endeavouring to approach this question with humility (and a large grain of salt).  Given all we have learned though, I don't think it's a stretch to present the following scenario (of Schweitzer's) as plausible, but in the broad strokes only.  Listen, as Bart Ehrman explains Schweitzer's position more fully (from "Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium")...

"Schweitzer did not think that the historical Jesus shared the problems or perspectives of the twentieth century.  Instead, Jesus was a first-century apocalypticist, who never expected that there would be a twentieth century.  He thought that the end of the world was coming within his own lifetime.  In fact, he expected it to come before the year was out.  When it didn't come, Schweitzer argued, Jesus decided that he himself needed to suffer in order for God to bring the heavenly kingdom here to earth.  And so he went to his cross fully expecting God to intervene in history in a climactic act of judgment.  When at his last meal he told his disciples that he would not drink wine again until he drank it anew with them in the Kingdom, he was not thinking that this would be two thousand years hence, but in the next day or two.  It turns out that Jesus was wrong.  He died on the cross mistaken about his own identity and the plan of God."

Alright, there you have it, I think we have successfully come full circle on this topic.  In these last three posts I have attempted to explain, in an admittedly rushed way, some of the evidence that convinced me to accept the conclusion that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.  In fact, there is a great deal more evidence for this conclusion than what I have presented here.  I could have done an in depth analysis, for example, of the "early" vs. the "late" sources (the "early" sources all portray Jesus apocalyptically, the "late" remove and/or modify these elements).  As it happens, I only eluded to this very briefly last time.  I also could have analyzed some of the basic features of apocalypticism, and how they each apply to Jesus specifically.  Even still, it seems to me that the Christian apologists (and others) who reject this basic theory have an awful lot of explaining (or explaining away) to do.  Can they present a more plausible model?  I don't believe they can.   

Jesus was a man of his time

Before I leave this theme behind, I'd like to briefly examine some of Jesus' "other" teachings, in light of this apocalyptic framework.  I'll get into that next time.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Was Jesus Wrong?, Part 2

Before I back up and jump headlong into the "Jewish apocalyptic context", of Jesus' day, I feel as if I should say a few additional words about the "Was Jesus Wrong?" question...

The first two-thirds of this post will essentially be a re-hash of material covered effectively by ProfMTH, in the 5 "Jesus Was Wrong" videos I linked to last time (in particular videos 2 & 3).  So, fair warning, if you watched that entire series, you may find what follows to be somewhat redundant.  If so, might I recommend you just skip down a few paragraphs.

Having said that, let's briefly re-cap the state of investigations into the "Jesus questions" led me to conclude that the texts in Mark 8, 13, and elsewhere, are best interpreted as a failed prophecy.  The case for this reading is very strong, in my view, and again I would encourage you to read Thom Stark's excellent book for a more in depth analysis of the counter-arguments made by Christian apologists (and why they don't hold water).

In fact the case is even stronger still, for a reason I haven't yet had the chance to mention.

That reason is this...many New Testament writers, including the apostle Paul, also seemed to believe that Jesus' return would occur during their lifetimes.  If Jesus hadn't said this, why would they assume it so readily?  Obviously, if this fact could be adequately demonstrated, it would add further support to the aforementioned reading of the texts (a reading the Christian apologists are forced to deny).  Further, as a second prong of this same point, one can catch glimpses of Jesus' prophecy being re-interpreted, by his followers, as time passes and it does not come to fruition in the way they had expected. 

Let me begin with some verses that demonstrate the first prong...

"According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.   After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will be with the Lord forever." (I Thessalonians 4:15-17)

"The end of all things is at hand..." (I Peter 4:7)

Revelation 1 talks about the "revelation of Jesus Christ" which "must shortly take place", and "the time is near" etc.

"Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains.  You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near.   Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!" (James 5:7-9)

If the truth be told there are numerous other passages, that I could have chosen, but I think you get the idea.

One might be tempted to think that Jesus' failure, to deliver on what He promised, would have necessarily caused his followers to realize the error of their ways (and, as such, to immediately abandon their belief in Jesus).  But a closer look at how other "apocalyptic" groups have handled such situations, historically, shows this to be a clear fallacy.  As ProfMTH notes, in quoting a paper by Dr. Lorne L. Dawson, "the resilience displayed by religious groups in the face of prophetic failure suggests...that the level of dissonance experienced by insiders is less than that imagined by outsiders."     

What sometimes happens, instead, follows a predictable and well worn pattern...and it includes things like the rationalization and/or spiritualization of the prophecy.  In other words, the meaning is re-interpreted by the faithful.  Listen again to Dr. Dawson, "successful the most important factor contributing to the maintenance of beliefs and the survival of (a religious) group" in the wake of a prophetic failure.

This brings me to the second prong...

"First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires.  They will say, Where is this 'coming' he promised?...But do not forget this one thing, dear friends:  With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."  (2 Peter 3:3-10)

First, take note of the defensive tone in the above passage.  Also, the whole "with the Lord a day is like a thousand years" argument sounds suspiciously like a "rationalization", in the wake of a failed prophecy, don't you think? 

Barrie Wilson makes a very similar point, in "How Jesus Became Christian"...

"Christians advanced differing strategies for dealing with the delay of the promised messianic era.  Probably some quit the movement, as failing to live up to its promises...Some second-century Christians continued to say that, eventually, Jesus would return to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth...But there were other ways of coping with the problem of the delayed reappearance.  Some began to spiritualize the concept, maintaining that the promised messianic era was not a political entity--not a transformed world after all.  On this view, the Kingdom of God came to be located within the hearts and minds of believing Christians.  The Kingdom message became reinterpreted as something spiritual--something available to everybody, in the here and now."

Sound familiar?

Let me state things even more plainly.  Not only did I come to believe, as a result of my research, that Jesus issued a failed prophecy...I came to believe that cognitive dissonance, experienced by His followers because of that failed prophecy, compelled them to re-think what it meant to believe in and follow Him.  A few centuries of heated debate later and, voila (well, not exactly), we have ourselves an "orthodox" Christianity (or should I say Christianities?).

Ok...deep breath...I'm getting way ahead of myself here so, on that note, I'll rest my case for now.  Actually, for my next post, I'd like to pull a George Lucas on you and discuss the "prequel", to all of this, the "Jewish apocalyptic context" that helps us to understand better why Jesus would deliver such a strange prophecy to begin with.  What was He thinking??  (Not that we'll ever really know, for certain)  Or, better yet, who was Jesus?  It is to this second question I will turn next time.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Was Jesus Wrong?

Losing faith in the innerancy of the Bible, and then the Virgin Birth, came as something of a shock to my system.  My intellect was running way ahead of my emotions and, frankly, my emotions were all over the place during these two years of "de-conversion".  By this point in the journey I knew things were getting very serious, but at the same time my hunger to know the truth about Christianity was growing stronger than it had ever been.  It was pretty much all I could think about.

OK, so perhaps the Bible's not perfect, and the Virgin Birth story has some unresolved tensions, but it's still possible, in theory, that Christianity is true generally...isn't it??  I mean, if the evidence points to Jesus being God than, hey, I don't really care if if I can't trust the Bible to be 100% accurate in every single detail.  If Jesus is truly God, come down to earth for us, that's enough! 

This is essentially the thought that compelled me to hone my investigation in on Jesus himself.  At the end of the day I knew it was Jesus, and Jesus alone, who would either vindicate or destroy the truth of Christianity, at least for me personally.  Perhaps it's an oversimplification but, in effect, I was breaking things down like this...

Jesus is God = Christianity is true
Jesus isn't God = Christianity is false 

Sound fair enough?  With this, by way of backdrop, I'd like to dedicate my next several posts to what I discovered, and ultimately concluded, about the man who lies at the very heart of the Christian religion.

The first "Jesus question" I endeavored to answer is the one reflected in the title of this post...namely, was Jesus wrong?  I had already run face first into this claim, several times over, in the course of my reading and online research.  (As such, I knew I couldn't reasonably avoid it any longer)  In so far as I could tell it seemed to be a fairly commonplace view, among Biblical scholars, that Jesus issued a failed prophecy.  You heard that right.  These scholars believe that Jesus issued a failed prophecy.  You see, in the New Testament Jesus speaks often of an imminent judgment which, I suppose, may be enough to raise an eyebrow or two all by itself.  However, in two particular passages, Jesus predicts that this final judgment will occur within the lifetime of his disciples.

These two discourses are found in Mark 8:34-9:1 (with parallels in Matthew 16:24-28 & Luke 9:23-27) and Mark 13 (parallels in Matthew 24:1-44 & Luke 21:5-36).  I won't take the time to quote the passages here but, suffice it to say, they really do have Jesus saying exactly that.  If you don't believe me, I urge you to look them up for yourself. 

The Christian apologists, of course, have an assortment of different ways to "explain" (or is it explain away?) these verses.  I wanted to know who was "right" on this issue so, over the next year or so, I read everything I could get my hands on re: this supposed "failed prophecy" of Jesus.  I won't take the time to detail the numerous point/counter-points, since that would be a lengthy process...but let me cut to the chase and say that, in my opinion, the checkmate argument is made by Thom Stark, in "The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Innnerancy Tried To Hide It) ".  Thom quite simply decimates the alternative readings, including a rather novel interpretation proposed by Anglican bishop N.T. Wright.  Listen to how Thom puts a ribbon on it, in his cheekily titled 8th chapter ("Jesus Was Wrong" (Or It's The End Of The World As We Know It And I Feel Fine)")...

"The simplest reading of this discourse, and the reading that fits best with the Jewish apocalyptic context out of which Jesus and his disciples emerged, is also the only reading that makes sense of Jesus' claims.  This discourse displays in no uncertain terms what the Jesus of the synoptic gospels believed: he believed that he would suffer and die, that he would subsequently be vindicated by Yahweh, that his faithful followers would also suffer for his name's sake, and that some would not remain faithful.  He believed that while some of his immediate followers were still alive, the son of Man would appear in the glory of God, with God's angels (now given to his charge), to judge the earth.  Those who were faithful to him are given life, and those unfaithful are shunned, or 'repaid.'  Jesus could not have been clearer if he had said 'I predict that the final judgment will occur within the next forty or fifty years.'  Two millenia of apologetic attempts to make the text say otherwise have not been successful."

It could be argued that Jesus was wrong because His "human" side was unaware of "the day or the hour" that His divine side (the "God" part of the trinity) had ordained for the final judgment (confused yet?).  This seem implausible but, even if true, there is still a yet bigger problem for Christians.  Listen to Deuteronomy 18: 22, "When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is a thing that the Lord has not spoken.  The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you should not be afraid of him. In other words, Jesus fails the Bible's own "prophet test", and the Bible contradicts itself yet again (on the one hand claiming Jesus is God and, on the other, putting a failed prophecy on his very lips)!

In my next post I'll write more about the "Jewish apocalyptic context", that Stark references in the quote above, since it played heavily into my changing views on who Jesus was.  For now, I'd like to leave you with a five part video series, from You Tube user ProfMTH, which ties together (and expands on) many of the pieces of this argument.  Video one, below, essentially just re-states the problem as I have already explained it here...but in parts 2 through 5 he gets into some of the more common "alternative" explanations, offered up by Christians (so it's well worth your time to watch all 5 parts)...

(Parts 2, 3, 4, & 5)

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Unanswered Prayers

As a child & teenager my mother and I had frequent conversations about spiritual matters.  I remember asking her, during one of these heart to hearts, about what would happen to those who have never heard of Jesus.  I mean, is it really fair that they should go to Hell, forever, if they didn't even have the chance to ask Him into their hearts before they died?  She said that if any such person were to truly seek God, with the sincerest of intentions, He would send someone (a missionary, presumably) to tell them about the Gospel while they still had an opportunity to accept it here on Earth.  Looking back I'm not sure I entirely believed her, even at the time, but for some reason it was enough to satiate my curiosity and stop that particular conversation in its tracks.  Prayer must be incredibly powerful, I reasoned, if it can even direct the paths of missionaries half a world away.

Years later, during what I now refer to as my "de-conversion process", the power of prayer would be put to the test in a terribly personal way.  I could feel my faith slowly slipping through my fingers, piece by painful piece, but there was just no way I was going to let it go without a fight.  "I believe; help thou mine unbelief" became something of a personal mantra (Mark 9:24). 

It takes me about half an hour to get to work, and this commute was a very precious, almost sacred, time in my day.  I can remember praying out loud in the car, morning after morning, just pouring my heart out to God and (often) literally begging him to give me some sort of sign, however small, that He was really up there.  I knew that's all it would take for me to fully embrace Christianity again, and to chalk whatever doubts I might happen to still have up to God's "mysterious ways".

During this phase I was also becoming increasingly aware of a community of people, found online rather easily, who seemingly had already been through what I was still in the middle of.  Ken Daniels, for example, was a missionary who literally had to return home from the mission field due to a personal crisis of faith.  He tells the whole story in "Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary", which I strongly recommend.  I grew to love and cherish this book, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the way Ken took you into his inner world during the numerous peaks and valleys of his struggle.  This is just one of the prayers Ken recounts...

"Father God, Creator of all things, lover of my soul, have mercy on me, a sinner.  How I learn more and more each day of my inadequacy to discern truth by myself!  I don't know whether it's because of pride or because for some other reason you've chosen not to reveal yourself to me, at least to the extent I would like.  All I know is that I do not have full assurance of the truth, and I submit myself before you now, asking that you will somehow reveal the truth to me and give me confidence that it is indeed the truth. 

The Bible seems so conditioned by the ideas of the times in which it was written and to me bears no evidence of divine authorship.  Must I be eternally damned because I can't believe that Samson, under the influence of your Spirit, avenged himself on his personal enemies by killing 1, 000 of them with the jawbone of a donkey?  Or because I see inconsistencies in the accounts and viewpoints of the biblical authors, such as whether Jehu was justified in killing the household of Ahab (Kings) or not (Hosea)?  Or because I see many of the ethics of the Bible (for example, polygamy, taking virgins as war captives and slaughtering the rest, and slavery) as objectionable?  Or because I see innumerable parallels between the myths of the Ancient Near East and those of the Bible, leading me to believe that they are in fact mere myths?  Or that I can't see why you couldn't just forgive truly penitent people for their sins without requiring a blood sacrifice, just as humans forgive each other?" 

So, why am I sharing all of this with you?  Well, simply put, God didn't answer my prayers.  He didn't answer Ken's either (although at times Ken thought God had "answered", more on that below).  But, why not?  Surely it's clear, from even the above prayer alone, that Ken was a "real Christian" and sincere in his search to the nth degree.  What possible reason could God have for not answering such heartfelt prayers?

When Christians are presented with stories like mine, or Ken's, they often give an answer that, in essence, boils down to "you didn't do it right" (or at least that's how I hear what they're saying).  Prayer does work, you see, but only if you meet all of Gods' special requirements beforehand.  Among the things that might disqualify you from having your prayers answered, or perhaps even heard, by God are...sin in your life, wrong motives, lack of faith, praying for something that isn't "God's will" and so on and so on.  And you can be sure they've got a Bible verse (or several) to back up each of these claims.

I now believe that the most probable scenario is much less complex...God didn't answer my earnest prayers, quite simply, because He doesn't exist.  I had previously learned about the "yes, no, or wait" fallacy so it was very difficult for me, this time around, to honestly interpret God's silence as anything other than just that...silence.  I had also been learning about our evolved tendency, as humans, to read in patterns where none actually exist (I'll write more about my changing views on evolution vs. creation in a future post).  In other words, I knew there was a psychological state that is helpful (necessary?) for seeing God's "answers" to prayer all around.  Heck, for Christians it's practically a bragging right to locate God's fingerprints on something or other, however deceptively normal, mundane, or coincidental that thing might *appear* to be at first glance (or perhaps, as is often assumed, it's just one of the signs of a mature Christian...kind of like a heightened spidey sense, but for God instead).  It would have been alarmingly easy for me to delude myself into thinking that something, almost anything really, was indeed the sign from God that I had long been waiting for (ie. "Thank you God, for that beautiful sunset while I was praying this morning, I just KNOW that was you telling me to keep trusting!")

Here's the nub of the issue...if God is in fact "all loving", and there exists even one deeply sincere person on the planet who has sought but not found Him, isn't this fact alone problematic for the Christian worldview?  If so, the problem multiplies, exponentially, according to the number of such people who actually do exist.  Does God "desire all men" to be saved, or not??  You can't logically have it both ways.  For the sake of argument, I'll even grant the additional assumption that this one person meets all of the special requirements God supposedly places on prayer in the Bible.  I know what you're thinking...God is God, right, so He is under no obligation to answer anyone's prayers, God can do whatever He wants!  But wouldn't an "all good" being, by definition, do everything in His power to keep people from burning in Hell?  Wouldn't He want to?