Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Random Radio Tidbits

Driving back from the airport today, I had one of the Bible channels on the radio, and the show was a lesser known ultra-right-wing talk show run by a guy with a memorable name, but for the life of me I can't remember his name right now.  Doh!  :-)  Anyway, this guy's guest was a specialist in Islam.  Citing some of the fundamental problems with Islam, the guest said something to the effect of "You know, hate speech is based on when you start to claim your ideology is better than someone else's ideology."  I was thinking "that's the pot calling the kettle black."

The guest then went on to speak about how violent Islam is, adding a comment to the effect of "all you have to do is look back through history to see that it promotes violence."  I was thinking "as opposed to Christianity's history?"

After that guest, the host spoke about how Christian persecution is one of the most under-reported stories in the world today.  The host was actually making a pretty accurate case here, based on the tidbits of news of persecution I have heard.  The persecution is ongoing in countries which are dominated by Muslims, and the host brought up certain examples.  The one example which caught my ear was the report of the persecutions in Egypt.  With Mubarak gone and the military in charge, many of the more radical (more conservative) Muslims have amp'ed up the persecution, and the military is turning a blind eye to it.

This struck me a particularly interesting, because right after Mubarak left, interviews of Egyptian Christians on similar talk shows I heard at the time had a revelation.  To the Egyptian Christians, Mubarak's ousting was an answer to their prayers.  They had been praying for this very liberation.  Praise God!

I am certainly not gloating about anyone's persecution, so don't take this the wrong way.  I am simply pointing out that this is yet another case where people have mistaken events for evidence of God's actions.

Friday, November 18, 2011


It is difficult to know how to treat Apocrypha; Biblical themed texts which have been excluded from the Bible. Some appear to be the historical equivalent of fan fiction. Others purport to contain prophesies and recorded the words of God. Sometimes they are a mix, so the line of discernment is blurry.

In a time without radio, TV, or the internet, coupled with literacy rates under an estimated 5%, it is likely that the relatively few written text stories were read aloud by the literate people to illiterate people as a form of teaching and entertainment. But illiterate people could have memorized the stories as told to them (and often did), and shared them with others creating an oral tradition. As the oral tradition was shared, it is possible that works originally written as fiction evolved into being considered true by the masses.

On the flip side, it is also quite possible, if not probable, that the order of creation was the opposite of what is described above. The story could have originated orally, could have been shared so much that it was considered true, and then, because of its popularity and imagined authenticity, could have been written down for posterity.

There is another option; that it was just an entertaining story that nobody really believed but everyone loved to hear.

I've only pointed to a few explanations above, when there could be many more across the spectrum of belief. The point is that it is a complex puzzle for us to unravel so many years later. This is especially true given that beliefs are rarely homogenous; local pockets of people could believe in what others know to be myths.

Even if all of the Apocrypha could categorically be considered false, like any human writing, they can contain truths about the human experience at the time in which they were written. They can illuminate customs and cultures. They can show what people thought about the world in which they lived; highlighting what they thought was possible, if not factual, in realm of the real and the supernatural.

Yet even that is not the completely picture. The written text to which we have access is most often not the original text. Through generations, the text was copied to preserve it. Each copy invited error. Each copy invited tweaking of the story. That tweaking could have been anything from correcting gaps in logic, to adapting the story for later times, to modifying it with the intent to promote a particular idea or cause.

In the Apocrypha we will take a close look at, we will find the character Belial portrayed as a ruler of demonic forces. This is the same Belial from 2 Corinthians 6:15, where we see:

What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? NIV

In the minds of the majority of the people of that time, Belial could be almost anything from a just a fictional portrayal of the ultimate evil, like Lord Voldemort, to a figure considered just as real as Christ Himself. Yet with the Biblical undertones of the Apocrypha, I would guess that it is very likely that at least some people believed Belial was real.

In December, I'll begin the exploration of some Apocrypha on this blog. :-)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Always on my mind...

To my loyal reader(s):  Thanks!  :-)

In the past several weeks, I've had lots to say, but not the time to say it.  Partly due to work.  Somewhat due to great debates which sprang up on my last two posts here.  (Incidentally, if you suffer from insomnia, they may help.  Just check out my comments.)

There is more coming, lots more as time permits, including a series I'm excited about regarding some recent research.  Want a hint?  Well, in 2 Corinthians 6:15 you find:

What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?  NIV

Just who the Hell is Belial?  Well, for starters, he's not Satan, but they are related in a sense.  That relation opens up a gateway into some rather interesting extra-canonical material.  So, keep an eye out for it...

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Perfectly Good (Christian) God?

Can a perfectly good God insist that He alone be acknowledged as God, allow evil to exist, or have any sort of eternal Hell awaiting those who refuse to accept Him? These are some questions which commenter Ollie Wallflower challenged me to answer, so here we go.

There are so very many assumptions on a theological extrapolation like this that I think it is worthwhile to spend a moment discussing them. For instance, one of the most significant assumptions is revealed by Ollie Wallflower asking these questions from the perspective of the world which exists now. However, there is no inherent need for an 100% spiritual being (God) to create an entirely different kind of realm (physical) for His creations to live in; a realm where their interaction with spiritual beings is limited at best. The fact that we live in this physical world is, to a large degree, why these questions have any real significance.

Also tied into these questions are the assumptions of divine purpose, divine planning, and a divine defined timeline. It is easy to imagine a perfectly good God who has no explicit purpose for His creations, other than for His entertainment of sorts, objects for His affection and delight. It follows then that a perfectly good God has no inherent need of a multi-millinia plan, and no need of a timeline to say when the physical realm will come to an end, or be remade, or whatever your belief. To a lessor degree, these questions have significance based on the Christian presumptions of purpose, planning, and timeline.

So, let's acknowledge that we are working under the above noted, and probably many more, assumptions which are richly steeped in Christian theology, and move on from there.

The next hurdle is defining what is perfectly good, or omnibenevolent. “Good” has so many varied uses in our language that perhaps we would do better to define it as love in this case. What does a perfectly loving God look like? Well, because we are building this argument on Christian fundamentals, why not use a Christian definition of love? We'll look at one of my favorite, well written sections of verse, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, below for reference:
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." NIV
Christian or secular, I think that's a good definition for love, period. So let's promote this as our concept of what an omnibenevolent, perfectly good, all-loving deity would be like. OK, now let's attack the questions:

Can an omnibenevolent God insist that He alone be acknowledged as God, or must He allow for the belief in other gods, or in atheism, as well?

Love is patient, ergo, God must be patient with people who believe in other gods or no gods.
Love is kind, ergo, together with patience, God should allow people to come to the truth about God on their own time.
Love does not envy, ergo, God has no cause to be jealous over people believing in other gods.
Love does not boast, ergo, God has no cause to insist that He alone be recognized as the only God.
Love is not proud, ergo, God has no cause to even bring up that He is the only God.
Love does not dishonor others, ergo, God has no justification to humiliate or punish those who do not believe in and accept Him.
Love is not self-seeking, ergo, God should not focus on His own displeasure in those who do not choose to follow Him.
Love is not easily angered, ergo, God should not be angered at humans with all of their varied circumstances, imperfect knowledge, and imperfect capacity for understanding that there are no gods but God.
Love keeps no records of wrongs, ergo, disbelief should not be an issue for God.
Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth, ergo, God should be simply happy when any human does come to accept the truth about Him.
Love always protects, ergo, God should protect even those who do not believe in and accept Him.
Love always trusts, ergo, God should trust that all people will come to believe in and accept Him.
Love always hopes, ergo, God should perpetually hope that all people will come to believe in and accept Him.
Love always perseveres, ergo, God should endure those who do not believe in and accept Him.

Can an omnibenevolent God allow evil--even if only for a time--and still be considered "good?"

The question only makes sense if God is assumed to be omnipotent, or at least powerful enough to prevent evil. It also draws into question what our assumptions are regarding evil. We know sin is an act which is against the will of God. Is evil the same as sin? I don't think so, at least not in our present-day vernacular. Evil appears to have a detrimental connotation, and is some subset of more-serious sins. We would not call someone who routinely breaks the speed limit “evil.” On the other hand, a serial killer is someone for whom the label “evil” seems appropriate. For lack of a better definition, evil involves acts which are in active, cognizant, and polar-opposition to love, and most often infringe upon the will of others.

Little in the 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 definition of love is specifically defiant of such evil acts.
Love is kind, ergo, God should act to prevent evil in kindness.
Love always protects, ergo, God should protect people from evil actions.
[EDIT NOTE: The NIV "always protects" is not the best translation.  It should read "always endures all things" instead.  However, given that no one would be considered "good" if they did nothing to prevent an evil act or bad act which was in their power to prevent, protect is a relevant definition for love.]

A typical Christian objection to this is that such an act of protection or preservation by God would impede on free will; that somehow absolutely free freewill is necessary to result in the purest love. However, this again is based on assumption. Our free will is impeded from the moment of birth by nature of this physical existence. For example, I desire to see the spiritual world, and I desire to fly like Superman, and I desire to teleport because air travel is just too slow. However, I can't choose to do any of those options, as they are simply not available to me. They are restricted from my freewill. Even beyond these super-powers, my freewill is restricted by circumstances. If I was a thief, and my desire was to have everything I ever could want, I could not achieve that because being just one person with a limited lifespan limits the fulfillment of my freewill. So our perception of what freewill is inherently accepts that our “natural” boundaries are the assumed acceptable limits of freewill.

That said, is it possible for God to allow people to have freewill but not allow evil? I think so. Have you ever seen an invisible fence? An invisible fence is a product is designed to keep your dog in your yard. You equip the dog with a special collar which, by radio frequency, activates an unpleasant shock to the dog when it tries to go beyond an established barrier (set by a buried wire). The only thing which activates the collar is crossing that threshold. In other words, the dog is completely free to roam on its own will, dig up the flower beds, chase squirrels, “water” the trees, etc. As long as the dog does all that in the yard, it receives no shock.

What if God equipped us all with a type of invisible fence to prevent evil? We could still do (nearly) anything we wanted to do on our own freewill. However, let's say that I had become angry at my neighbor because he had parked in my grass, and I decided I wanted to kill him because of that. The moment I grabbed my gun with the intent to slay him, God's invisible fence kicks in and I start to vomit. (God could easily do this if He is truly omniscient and omnipotent.) The nausea subsides, I grab the gun with the intent to kill my neighbor again, and immediately I start vomiting again. After a few cycles of this, I give up on the gun and decide to strangle him. As I start to walk over to his house with this intent, I start to vomit. Sooner or later I am going to learn that I physically can't kill my neighbor. The same process could be instituted on any evil to nip it in the bud. If instituted universally and consistently, these limitations would then seem as natural as not being able to fly like Superman or to teleport.

Can an omnibenevolent God allow *any* sort of Hell--a place where those who refuse to accept him as Lord will dwell for eternity?

The concept of an eternal Hell only seems to be relevant assuming Christian eschatology is accurate. For if there is no ultimate end point to the world as we know it, and no rebirth into Heaven (or into a sinless physical world, depending on your belief), which will last from then to eternity in perfection, then there would be no need for a Hell to cast the rejects into it for all eternity. Yet even in that assumed construct, the concept itself goes against several tenants of love:

Love is patient, ergo, God should be patient with us, given our limited timeline, limited knowledge, and limited comprehension. On an infinite timely, anyone would be expected to arrive at the truth, but truncating that timeline and making the judgement binding forever means that God has limited patience.
Love is kind, ergo, God should allow conversions at any time, because to lock someone to a fate decided by their own imperfections is not kind at all.
Love keeps no records of wrongs, ergo, God would have no justification for making an eternal judgement of that nature. (It also means that Jesus didn't need to die for our sins! But that's another story...)
Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth, ergo, God should be simply happy when any human chooses Him.
Love always trusts, ergo, God should trust that people will come to believe in and accept Him given an infinite timeline.
Love always hopes, ergo, God should perpetually hope that people will come to believe in and accept Him given an infinite timeline.
Love always perseveres, ergo, God should endure those who reject Him even up to the time of their conversion.

On a long enough timeline, love does conquer all, and truth prevails. :-)