Keys to the Book of Revelation

Longtime reader St. TY asks:

Some commentators, atheists and anti-Christians, go so far as to say (mockingly) the writer of the Book was under the strong influence of some hallucinogenic substance. How should a thoughtful Christian interpret the prophesies in the Book so that it harmonises with the rest of scripture? The moon turning into blood, for example. I'm afraid we might find our "creative interpretation" of no help.

TY,

The Book of Revelation is part of a Jewish genre of literature called "apocalyptic literature", which includes the Book of Daniel, parts of Ezekiel and Zechariah, and several works which are not part of the biblical canon, such as 2 Esdras and the Book of Enoch (quoted in Jude 1:14-15).  So the Book of Revelation isn't coming out of the blue.  It's part of a genre which has rules and expectations (one of them being the highly symbolic visions narrated by angelic beings), which would have been understood to some extent by the original audience.

While it's obvious to anyone with an ear for literary style (excepting modern scholars) that the Letters of St. John in the New Testament were written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of St. John, it's less clear that the Apocalypse was written by the same person.

The author does identify himself as "John", and he must have been known to the original recipients.  Like the Gospel, it refers to Jesus as the "Lamb of God" and the "Word of God", and has "I am" sayings, placing Revelation in a characteristically Johannine theological tone.  On the other hand, the Greek style apparently is significantly different, as first pointed out by St. Dinoysius, bishop of Alexandria.  I'm not a Greek expert so I can't referee this dispute, but a bunch of pro and con arguments are discussed here.  Some early Christians claimed that there was a "John the presbyter" who was different from John the Apostle (the traditional author of the book).

Regardless of who wrote it, the Church decided to include it in the canon of Scriptures.  So we seem to be stuck with it.  In order to correctly interpret the Apocalypse of St. John, we need to bear in mind some fundamental principles:

1.  The book tells us at the very beginning that it is "the revelation (unveiling) of Jesus Christ".  So the main point of the book is to reveal who Jesus is (Rev 1:1).  That's the real reason we know that the book is inspired, because through it, the Spirit gives us a picture of the glorified resurrected Jesus, who speaks with the same distinctive voice as the Jesus from the Gospels.  "For the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10)

You will notice this phrase "Lamb of God" keeps popping up.  Attempts to predict the exact chronology of the end times from the symbols often get distracted from what it says about Christ and his Church, missing the point of the book entirely.  It is only through Jesus that the meaning of the present and future can be seen clearly. Only the Lamb is worthy to open the Scroll which contains the meaning of history (Rev. 5).  Only through his Cross can we gain the clarity to understand "what must soon take place" (1:1).

Although the imagery in Revelation is highly violent, one should notice the deep irony in the phrase "Wrath of the Lamb".  Normally a lamb is something meek and inoffensive.  Also notice that the sharp, double-edged sword (first mentioned in 1:16) comes out of Christ's mouth, symbolic of his words, not literal bloodshed.

2. Pretty much every single image contained in the Book of Revelation is taken from elsewhere in the Bible (often by mushing several things together).  You ask how to harmonize the book with the rest of Scripture, but the book basically consists of references to the rest of Scripture!   The 7 Spirits, the 4 Horsemen, the Living Creatures, the 24 divisions of Priests, the 7 Thunders, The 2 Olive Trees, the 12 Tribes, the Moon turning to Blood, the Plagues, the Beasts, the Whore of Babylon, the New Heaven and the New Earth?  All blatant rip-offs from the Old Testament prophets.  I'd turn these into links, but you should really figure it out for yourself.  Read your Bible cover to cover, and you'll find most of these parallels on your own.

(The hardest one here is the Thunders For this, try counting the number of times "the voice of the Lord" strikes in the lightning storm described in Psalm 29.  Whatever the "voice" is saying is beyond human hearing, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have an impact on the world!)

Once you know what it meant the first time, that will give you clues about what it means in Revelation.

3.  Try reading the book in light of a political satire of what was happening during the 1st century religious persecutions ("Preterism"), and also as a description of the universal experiences of the church through history ("Idealism"), as well as a prediction of what will happen during the end times ("Futurism").  These are usually presented as rival views, but I think a text like this is capable of resonating on more than one level with different events.  None of these ways of reading the text should necessarily be privileged over the others, though some may work better than others for particular passages.  (The 7 churches were real 1st century churches, not eras in church history, and of course the Final Judgement and the New Heaven and the New Earth are still to come.)

Ecological disasters as a result of human sin?  These are, sadly, part of present day reality.  You will notice these plagues are not as severe as those described in the Book of Revelation.  Not yet, anyway.  But beware the time of the Seventh Trumpet, when "the time has come to destroy those who destroy the earth" (Rev. 11:15).

The symbolism is fluid, many-valued.  Ways of reading the book so that it is relevant only at some past time, or some future time, are sterile and implicitly contradict the idea that all Scripture is useful for growth in godliness.

The bogus crackpot methodology is "Historicism", which tries to arrange all the material into an exact chronology of historical events, identifying whatever the current author views as the greatest threat as the to-be-Antichrist.  (E.g. Protestants said it was the Papacy.) Often culminating in an predicted end during (or shortly after) the writer's own lifetime, contradicting Christ's repeated injunctions not to predict the times and dates that the Father has set by his own authority.  This has never worked before, and your system won't work either.

4.  The numbers are symbolic, and shouldn't necessarily be taken literally.

I'd say duh, but there are too many people who, oblivious to the symbolic significance of e.g. periods of 3½ years (based on the persecution described in Daniel), try to interpret all of these as literal time periods.  Maybe after substituting years for days, so they get all excited after they find two important historical events that are exactly 1260 years apart.  Most people don't realize how easy it is to find coincidences like this.  (It's like the birthday paradox; if you have a small number of people in a room, the expected number of pairs who have the same birthday is proportional to the square of the number of people, not the number of people.  It's the same if you have a bunch of dates you want to get to line up in some pattern.)

Similarly, pretty much anyone's name can be shown to be equal to 666 if you try hard enough.  (Although Nero Caeser seems like a pretty plausible guess for the original reference.)  So don't do this.

5. Remember that it's a work of art as well as a prophetic text.  The book is full of songs; it's about worship in the heavenly Temple which is above (which is why Tabernacle imagery keeps coming up).  Christian hymns are full of references to Revelation.  It's good to remember the healthy and wholesome impact which this book has had through the ages, not just the failed crackpot schemes.

There are 7 beatitudes in the Book of Revelation; the first says: "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near."  Readers often tend to assume that if we can't boil down the book to a bunch of propositions about what God is going to do, then they haven't gotten anything out of the book.  But the mood, the ambiance, the tone, is just as important.  God could have just given St. John a list of doctrines, but that wouldn't have been the same, would it? Notice how the book affects you as a reader, and consider that that may be the point of reading it.

-------------------------------------

Oh, and was the author on hallucinogenic mushrooms when he received this vision?  That's pure speculation, as far as I'm concerned.  (The claim that Patmos has hallucinogenic mushrooms / plants seems to be frequently repeated on the Internet, but after several minutes of googling I was unable to trace it back to any reliable seeming original source.  Anyone know where this claim originally comes from?)

But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that St. John had accidentally ingested a mind-altering substance.  This would not necessarily prevent God from using the resulting visions to reveal a true message.  God can use anything to accomplish his purposes.  The brain is a chemical system, and what we do with our bodies affects our spirits.

I once knew somebody who was led towards Christianity as a result of a few hours of religious themed hallucinations after smoking cannabis.  (Fact: pot can, unpredictably, cause effects akin to LSD.  It can also cause permanent neurological changes.  It's a much scarier drug than people make it out to be.)  God may have used that, but that doesn't mean that it's a good idea to trip out on something and hope to have a religious experience.  Being in an altered state of consciousness could make you more open to spiritual influences of all kinds—whether divine, or diabolical, or just weird stuff from your subconscious.

So I don't at all recommend that people take such things into their own hands.  Much safer to approach God in the ways that he has appointed, through the Bible, the Church, prayers and the Sacraments.  If he wants to give you a vision, he can.

Regardless of which St. John wrote the book, he was probably one of the Lord's disciples, as indicated by St. Papias.   This presumably means that he knew Jesus while he was on earth.  After a lifetime of suffering for Christ, and now an old man in exile, God gifted him with a vision of the same Jesus, now glorified, in order to encourage the rest of us to persist through our own suffering.   The vision came because he was tripping on the Spirit.  I don't think any drugs were required.

Posted in Theology | 6 Comments

God and Time V: Foreknowledge from Scripture

Continuing from where we left off from last time...

3. God knows the future

Another set of biblical passages indicate that God knows the future, not just the past or present.  Leaving aside the passages which teach the general doctrine that God knows everything, there are many which explicitly refer to his knowledge of things to come.

The most obvious examples are all the Messianic prophecies which predicted the coming of Jesus, but there are many other examples such as the prediction in the Torah and almost all the pre-exilic prophets that Israel would sin, go into exile, and then be restored.

Sometimes individuals are predicted by name, hundreds of years in advance.  For example, the prediction in 1 Kings 13:2 that Jeroboam's idolatrous altar would be destroyed by King Josiah, hundreds of years later (2 Kings 23:15).  Or the prediction by Isaiah concerning the rule of King Cyrus, the Persion monarch who brought Israel back from exile.  The context of the surrounding passage compares God to idols and false gods, and in many passages describes God's ability to predict the future as a key divine attribute which distinguishes him:

I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.   (Isaiah 46:9-10)

Another striking example is Daniel chapter 11, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the diplomatic relationships between the Ptolomies in Egypt and the Selucids in Syria (poor Israel being wedged right in between, geographically), for hundreds of years up to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the evil king who outlawed Judaism and desecrated the Temple, whose defeat is celebrated by the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

(These prophecies are so clear, that atheists have no choice but to postulate that these books were actually written after the events in question.  So scholars decide that Daniel wasn't written by Daniel in the 6th century BC, but actually by some anonymous person in the Greek dominated period of the 2nd century.  Even though, oddly, there are no Greek loan words in the book besides the musical instruments.  And the second half of Isaiah was written by somebody else (Deutero-Isaiah) after the return from captivity, notwithstanding the significant literary similiarities between the first and second halves of the book.  And the Torah was patched together by several sources during the Babylonian captivity, and somehow the Jews forced their bitter enemies, the Samaritans, to accept this document as the legitimate Torah.

I can understand why an unbeliever would bite these bullets; what I don't understand is why educated Jews and Christians have a tendency to automatically defer to the results of scholarship, even those based on explictly anti-religious assumptions.  Just because you're not a fundamentalist, doesn't mean you have to unquestioningly swallow everything the other side throws at you!)

In the New Testament, Jesus makes many prophecies about the future.  Humanly speaking, his knowledge of the future was limited in comparison with his Father's unlimited knowledge (Mark 13:32).  Nevertheless, he had sufficient access to the divine foreknowledge, that he predicted the circumstances of his Crucifixion and Resurrection, the destruction of the Temple, that Judas would deny him, and that St. Peter would deny him, among other things.

There are also various statements in which God asserts that he knows somebody in their mother's womb, including perhaps details of their future calling in life.  The most striking is David's statement, in a song on the theme of God's omniscience, who writes that

Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.  (139:4)

No wait, that may be relevant but I actually meant to quote this one:

Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. 
(Psalm 139:16 NIV; some translations differ)

See also Jeremiah 1:5Isaiah 49:1, and Galatians 1:15.  Oh, and also Romans 9:10-13.

This brings us to the ever-so-slightly controversial topic of predestination.  I'd actually like to sidestep the usual debate about this.  Regardless of whether St. Calvin and his followers' terrible assertions are in fact correct, it is pretty clear that there is a word (προορίζω) in the New Testament which is translated by the English word "predestination".  So all biblical theologies agree that there is such a thing as predestination, which presumably must involve God knowing in advance something about what is going to happen.  Indeed, St. Paul bases God's predestination quite explicitly in his ability to have foreknowledge about what is going to happen:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.  (Romans 8:28-30)

And he is not afraid to talk about all those in the Church were predestined by God, chosen in Jesus Christ:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonshipthrough Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.  (Ephesians 1:3-5)

Note that the "time" during which this predestination occurs is before creation.  It did not happen in time, but in eternity, which is outside of time.

Once you accept that God knows the future, a lot of the reasoning about how God somehow has to "be in time to be in relationship to us" and be "responsive to our choices" and "learn what we will do" or whatever is undermined.  God was already in relationship to us, knowing all about us and calling us, before the first star began to shine!  I don't see why God would need to "change" in response to our actions, if he already knew in advance what we were going to do.

At the level of practical theology, it is comforting to know that God already knows the future and that he isn't just guessing what he needs to do to accomplish his purposes in our lives.  Also, if God knows the future, then it follows that it is reasonable to pray for a favorable outcome concerning events which took place in the past, since when that event was occuring, God already knew that we would pray.  (Here I am assuming there is no weird time travel paradox where we would pray for X to happen only if X did not occur; if so we may be out of luck!  Also, I don't think it's reasonable to pray for things not to happen that we know did happen.  We are not asking God to change the past like a time traveller, but rather to take into account our present-day preferences back when he first created it.)

4. Supposed counterexamples

Now open theists deny that God has the power to predict the future, at least whenever it involves the free choices of human beings.  This is partly based on a philosophical belief, not derived from the Bible, that God foreknowing the future is inconsistent with free will.  (I think this reasoning involves a logical fallacy, but the important thing for now is that it is not an argument spelled out Scripture.  There are passages which may apprently seem to minimize or deny our free will in the light of God's sovereignty, and there are passages which teach the truth of human free will, but there are none which say that we can be free only if God is ignorant of what we will do.)

Many of the prophecies of the future in part 3 seem to involve events that would normally be considered free choices of human beings, assuming we have free will at all.  And, it is easy to see that any small free-will decision I make, by the "butterfly effect", will eventually have a major (usally accidental) impact on the course of the whole world.  In fact, none of us would exist if our parents and ancestors had made even slightly different free will choices.  Hence, if God cannot predict what people will do, it seems unlikely that he would have any ability to foreknow individual human beings in advance.

Some open theists say that God overrides human free will just in these special cases of prophecy, in order to get the outcome he wants.  Leaving aside the unparsimoniousness of this theory—once we admit that God knows some things in the future, it is much simpler to say that he knows them all—it's extremely ironic that this theory, which is supposed to preserve free will, only works by denying the existence of free will in salvation history whenever the rubber hits the road!

For those of us who are not Calvinists, this would also raise very difficult questions about e.g. Judas' betrayal.  St. John's Gospel tells us that "Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him" (6:64).  He predicted Judas' betrayal in advance, and claims it was forshadowed one thousand years earlier by David in Psalms 41 and 55, presumably based on his own experience of being betrayed by a close friend.  (I take very seriously the ability of Jesus to find typological meanings in the Old Testament Scriptures which are not necessarily clear to the rest of us.)  Since being Judas was worse for him than not being born, this would raise serious questions about God's justice, had Judas not chosen freely to be the kind of person he was.  (Presumably Jesus would not have picked him, if he had not had the potential to become a Holy Apostle!)

Back when I was arguing about open theism with St. Dennis Jensen in this thread, he brought up the scene where God (or rather the "angel of the Lord", but in the Torah this usually refers to a manifestation or vision which speaks directly on behalf of God) says

Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.  (Genesis 22:12)

Supposedly, this implies God did not know it before.  That might be a valid Gricean implication if this were the only verse we were working with, but I think it's pretty weak sauce as a counter-argument to the enormous wealth of texts explictly talking about God's foreknowledge of future events.  It seems reasonable to me that the function of the "now" modifier is simply to anchor God's knowledge to the actual event that he knew.   In other words, I read this as saying: As a result of you doing this, I know (and knew, but that is besides the point so I won't mention it) that you are the kind of person who would choose to do this.  God knows that Abraham would sacrifice Isaac because he actually (almost) did.  Had God not tested Abraham, there would have been no fact of the matter about what he would have done.  God knows X because X is true, and "now" is when X occurs, so it is natural to associate God's knowledge with "now" even if in fact it is eternal.

Also, I can't help but notice that the book of Genesis uses quite a lot of anthropomorphisms in general, including when speaking of God's omnisicence.  Remember, this is the same text that says things like

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.  (11:5)

and

“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.  If not, I will know.”  (18:20-21)

What these passages lack in theological sophistication, they more than make up for in vividness of language.  Indeed, they may be taken to teach an important truth, that God's knowledge is not passive observation-from-afar, but rather a living and active presence, keen to work justice and mercy in the earth.  But since open theists still believe that God fully knows the present, it seems that they too will have to take these passages nonliterally, just as much as the classical theist.  So why can't 22:12 be the same way?

In the Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views book, the Openness guy (St. Gregory Boyd) highlights the passage in Jeremiah where God says

 They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.  (Jer 7:31 + parallel passages)

This could just mean that it didn't ever enter God's mind to command that the Israelites sacrifice their children.  (I know we just did the story of Abraham and Isaac, but that was a test of faith and a sign, not to be imitated by future generations.  And, since God called it off, part of the function of the story is to indicate that he doesn't need child sacrifice!)  But even if we interpret this phrase "enter my mind" more broadly, it could just be a vivid way to refer to God's shock and horror that the Israelites would do such a thing.  A similar thing can be said about this more obviously problematic passage:

Have you seen what faithless Israel did?  She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there.  "I thought, 'After she has done all these things she will return to me'; but she did not return.  (Jer 3:7)

Here we have God indicating that he had certain expectations, phrased as if they were beliefs, which were not fulfilled.  But this can be taken as a poetic way to describe God's frustration.  In the same book, St. David Hunt (the guy I agree with), draws this analogy:

Learning that my best philosophy student has plagiarized his term paper, I exclaim, "I can't believe it!"  This "can't believe" must be distinguished from the ignorance I was in before the facts came out; it's a disbelief that's possible even when I know the truth.  I'm simply dumbfounded that someone with such ability, who did not need to plagiarize in order to write an "A" paper, would stoop to cheating.  God must be similarly frustrated that his chosen people, on whom he lavished so much attention, would betray him.  "It would never cross my mind that someone with all your advantages would do such a thing," he might say; and he might say it even though he knew from all eternity what they would do.  (p. 51 in my paperback edition)

I've mentioned before that I agree with the title of St. John Sander's Openness book The God who Risks, but I don't agree with most of the contents.  Sanders claims that passages where God speaks in conditional language, like when he says "if you do A, then B will happen, but if you do A', something else will happen", suggests that God doesn't know the future.  I can't agree with this argument.  God can have plenty of reasons to make conditional statements to us human beings, even if he knows perfectly well what will happen.

Indeed, in Deuteronomy, God lays out conditional blessings for keeping the Torah, and conditional curses for disobeying, shortly before predicting which of the two outcomes would in fact occur!  This does not mean that there was no point in telling them what would happen in the event that they obeyed.  As it was indeed in their power to do.  (Or was it?)  In any case the blessings were not in vain, given that some generations heeded the Lord more than others, and received part of the blessing during that time, before the inevitable happened.

None of us temporal creatures wish to be punished for something we did before we have had the fun of doing it.  So if God wants to warn us off doing something, he had better phrase it conditionally, as "IF you sin, THEN bad consequences will happen."  Even if he knows we will, as a matter of fact, disobey, a flat prediction to that effect isn't always the right way to motivate us to not do it.  Indeed, in the absence of a warning, the nature of the decision itself becomes psychologically different.  In some cases, people will do what is right only because they were warned about being punished if they didn't.

So it makes sense for God to state his relationship to us in conditional terms, and to wait until we actually sin in order to punish us.  (Or he may wait even longer, since he is slow to anger, patient and longsuffering.)  Similarly, it makes sense for him to display his wrath towards sin until such time as we repent, and then afterwards restore us to favor.  Even if he knows we will eventually repent, it does us no good to receive his blessings until we are ready for them.

Even though God knows what will happen, he also knows what could have happened.  So when, in certain biblical texts God says that "perhaps" the Israelites will repent (even though they didn't) this need not mean that he was caught short.  Instead it could refer to the fact that the intervention might have been capable, given the situation, of causing them to repent.

I think also explains all the passages in point 1 about God repenting and changing his mind.  Even if God is eternal and knows the future, we are finite creatures.  I agree that God must adapt some effectively temporal game-theoretic strategies in order to relate to temporal creatures.  I deny that he has to somehow strip himself of his eternal existence or foreknowledge in order to do this!

No matter what we say about God and Time, there are going to be some passages which post theological challenges.  Some of them may require some creative interpretation, to harmonize with the rest of the Bible.  But it seems to me much easier to explain the passages involving God repenting or coming to know things, in terms of the eternal view, then to explain why a God limited to the present would be spoken of as changeless and knowing the future.

And we haven't yet gotten to the best proof-texts yet!  To be continued...

Posted in Theology | 7 Comments

God and Time IV: Impassibility and the Bible

For my previous posts arguing that God is not temporal: I: Metaphysics, II: Special Relativity, and III: General Relativity.

In the next few posts, we'll examine the Scriptural arguments for this position.  While I don't think it's illegitimate to use arguments from Natural Theology in situations where the Bible is ambiguous, in the Bible we have revelation from God himself.  Since God knows who he is far better than we ourselves know it, we have reason to trust this source the most.

On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the Bible often speaks of God in metaphorical language.  All Theology involves some metaphors, necessarily so given that much of it is speaking about invisible realities which no one has seen.  But unlike academic theology, the Bible generally tends to use more "earthly" or "poetic" metaphors, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures.  For example, the Bible often speaks of God as if he had human bodily parts. Let me digress on this topic for a while, since it illustrates some of the relevant principles when interpreting the Bible.

Begin digression

Now as Christians we know that (apart from the Incarnation), God has no body.  To say God does have a bodily form is a heresy (i.e. a misunderstanding of the faith capable of doing spiritual damage), going by the name of Anthropomorphism.  Now Anthropomorphism is obviously false at a philosophical level—how could the creator of all physical things have had a human shaped body?  We may be in the image of God, but to think that God is in our image is a pagan crudity, as though God were on the same level as the all-too-human immortal creatures described by Homer.

Although Anthropomorphism is philosophically absurd, it can also be seen to be false from a purely scriptural analysis.  That is, there are clues in the text that this kind of metaphor isn't supposed to be taken literally.

For example, several passages say that God delivered Israel from Egypt "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm" (Deut. 5:15) [Click on the link and scroll down to see the cross-references in the right margin].  That this is intended as a metaphor is clear from the fact that the narrative portions of the Torah explain in detail the process of how the Exodus occurred, and none of the mighty miracles that dispersed Israel involved God literally smacking things around, or pointing, with a giant arm.  It is a metaphor for strength and command.  (To say that the ancient Hebrews didn't understand it was a metaphor is absurd.  If they didn't understand metaphors, they wouldn't have been able to consistently come up with good ones!  It's Modern Americans who seem to have trouble understanding metaphors.)

Or, instead of saying that God is omniscient, they might say that "the eyes of the Lord roam throughout the earth" (2 Chronicles 2:9 + cross-references).  If you think this means that the Hebrew prophets thought God was literally shaped like a human being, go to Zechariah 4:10 and you may learn something surprising about just how many eyes God has.  And don't forget his wings! (Psalm 91:4 + cross-references).

Or they might say that God spoke to Moses "face to face, as a man speaks to his friends" (Exodus 33:11), yet this is clearly not meant literally, since later in the same chapter God tells him that "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live" (Exodus 33:20).

(So instead God covers him with his "hand" and he sees his "back".  But if the face is nonliteral, these obviously cannot be literal either.  One of the numerous pastors in my ancestry used to say that this meant that God showed him, not his essence, but what he had done since creation, in which God's glory is reflected as through a darkened mirror.)

While God might occasionally show the likeness of a bodily form in temporary visions of God (known as theophanies), for example in Exodus 24:1-11 or Daniel 7 or Luke 3:21-23, this does not prove that God is actually literally looks like a really old man (or like a dove).  It only means that God chose to represent himself like that temporarily, accommodating himself to our weakness and limited understanding, in order to make a limited point.

In addition to pointing out that these passages make little sense on a literal interpretation, one may also point to broader Scriptural principles.  Most notably, even the earliest Hebrew Scriptures express an absolute abhorrence of idolatry, of any attempt to portray the divine in the image of any created thing:

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully,  so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.  And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.  But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.  (Deut. 4:15-20)

While Solomon tells us that "The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you.  How much less this temple I have built!"  (1 Kings 8:27).  God cannot have a shape unless there is some kind of space that he can be enclosed inside of, but no such space exists.

In the New Testament, Jesus says that (except for the Son) "no one has ever seen God" (John 1:18).  And St. Paul speaks of "God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see" (1 Tim 6:15-16).  These passages also indicate that the theophanies in the Old Testament cannot be taken as a literal depiction of God's likeness.

End digression

Now, I doubt any of my readers are tempted to think that God literally has a body (unless there are some Mormons lurking!)  So why am I going on and on about this?  Because I think the same situation applies, more or less, to the question of whether God is in Time.

"Open Theist" theologians, who believe God doesn't know the future perfectly, and that his knowledge and relationships change with time, will typically argue like this: the Bible teaches that there exists a personal, relatable God, but then later it was quickly contaminated by Greek philosophical ideas from Platonism, which portrayed God as being some timeless, impassible abstraction, so we need to reject all that and get back to the inspired Scriptures in order to get back to the real conception of God.  In other words, all the Christian theologians got it wrong from the 2nd to the 19th century, and we are only now getting it right.

One problem with this, is that the supposed "corruption" of theology by Platonism had already happened to parts of Judaism before the New Testament was being written, and some biblical texts already show signs of trying to explain Jesus in terms of these Greek ideas.  For example, the concept of λογος (God's word/reason holding the universe together) was borrowed by St. John straight from Platonic and Stoic philosophers, even if he uses it in a new way to talk about the Son's role in the universe even before the Incarnation.  So if we go all Platonism = bad and try to remove it entirely from Christian theology, we'll have to remove some parts of the Bible too!

Anyway, the God of Classical Theism, according to Christians, is a personal, relatable God.  He just had to take some extraordinary measures, such as the Incarnation of the Son and the Indwelling of the Holy Ghost, in order to be related to us in the way which he wanted.

OK, let's analyze the Scriptures now, starting with the ones which pose the greatest difficulty for my position, namely:

1. God changes his mind

So I agree that there are a bunch of biblical passages in which God talks as if he were temporal and could change.  For example, there are the passages in which God says he "regrets" having done certain things, for example, creating humans (in the account of the Flood) or choosing Eli's family for the High Priesthood, or making Saul king.  That is because they disobeyed him and became wicked.  And God reserves the right to adjust his plan accordingly:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.

 Then the word of the Lord came to me.   He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.  If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.  And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.  (Jeremiah 18:1-10)

Does this mean that God's promises are always tentative, and that everything could be revoked if we all become sufficiently bad?  No.  Why not?  Because about some things, God has promised that he will never change his mind, no matter what we do or how wicked people become!  In addition to his promise to eventually restore the nation of Israel, there are also his covenants with Noah, with David, and also with Levi.  (This last passage presents a bit of a theological problem if taken too literally, since the New Testament is quite clear that sacrifices are no longer called for, in light of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  These promises are ultimately fulfilled in the New Covenant, through our faithful High Priest who cannot die or have his office revoked.)  This seems to be God's modus operendi in the Old Testament: a trial period followed by an everlasting covenant.

A second Scriptural theme is God changing his mind in response to intercession.  In typical examples, God threatens people with some kind of punishment, and then one of his saints or prophets pleads with him—or a priest makes atonement by offering sacrifice—and he relents from what he was planning to do.

The most famous example here is St. Abraham pleading on behalf of the Sodomites; I guess this wasn't exactly successful since in fact there weren't ten righteous men in the city, so God destroyed it after all.  But it's a proof of concept, since if there had been a sufficient number of righteous people, God would certainly have spared the city.  (And don't tell me that Abraham was asking for the impossible since "no one is righteous, not even one".  That's true, but if God can condescend to use our language and grant our requests, he also knows who is righteous by ordinary human standards.)   Also, Lot and his two daughters were rescued, which was presumably part of what Abraham was hoping for.

Another dramatic example is St. Moses' intercession on behalf of his people.  Not once but twice, God tells Moses that he is going to destroy the entire nation of Israel for their sins, and start over with him!  But Moses refuses to accept this plan, he pleads with God for the idolatrous and ungrateful people, even for those who wanted to kill him, and the Lord listened to him.

The Torah contains many other examples of punishments which are remitted in response to intercession.  In one particularly dramatic example, the people rise up against Sts. Moses and Aaron and the Lord tells him to "Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once."  Moses' response?

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped.  (Num 16:46-48)

So what does this mean?  Is God less merciful than Moses was?  No, but he wanted Moses to acquire a Christlike character, in which Moses internalized God's love for his people, and was willing to stand up even to God on their behalf.

Shocking as it seems, God encourages this.  He really does think it is worthwhile to conform his own actions to our limited, human sense of justice.  And it isn't just Moses, it can be you too!  If you have a real relationship with God, seeking his will and his ways, then simply by asking you might be able to stand in the gap to spare those whom God would otherwise punish, and save those who would otherwise be lost.  It is an astonishing privilege which we could never have presumed to expect from the Lord of the Universe!  But everything in the Bible encourages us to view our relationship with God and other people in these terms.  The difference is, Abraham prayed that God would spare the city for the sake of ten righteous people in Sodom, but I am more presumptuous still, and pray that God would save even a tenth of a righteous person, among those he has given me to care about.

Here are some other notable examples of God "changing his mind" in the Old Testament.  (In the Gospels and Acts, the examples of individuals obtaining grace and mercy through interceding before Christ are too numerous to mention.  There are also some striking promises concerning intercessory prayer in the New Testament.)

Thus we conclude that there is a sense in which God is capable of changing his response to human beings, based on what those human beings in fact do.

2. Yet God does not change

But side by side with this, we find passages which indicate that God does not change his mind.  One particularly striking example of this comes in 1 Samuel 15.  In the very same chapter (!) where God says that “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions,” St. Samuel also says that

He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.  (15:29)

which is in turn an allusion to Numbers 23:19 in the Torah, a passage in which king Balak tries to hire the pagan prophet Balaam to curse Israel; but in vain, since God had determined to bless them.

In other words, Saul (or Balak) should not think that God changes his mind in the same way that human beings do.  God's purposes are certain and secure; he cannot be wheedled or manipulated.  His decisions are final, unless he himself, in his eternal counsels, allows men to intercede.  (Here we see, as often happens, that the Bible includes both sides of a paradox, while limited human theologies often attempt to include only one or the other.)

Some more passages about God not changing:

"I, YHWH, do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed." (Malachi 3:6)

Some might suggest that this passages only means that God's purposes do not change, but that other aspects of God may be capable of change.  But the literal meaning of the passage refers specifically to the Lord; the statement about Jacob's descendents are an additional implication.  In other words, God's purposes follow from his nature.  If this is fixed, the purposes are also fixed.  Similarly, in the New Testament St. James informs us that:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.  (James 1:17)

This beautiful passage is noteworthy for its strong denial that even the "shadow" of change can affect God.  There is not even a hint of inconstancy or variation in the divine being, and this is why his gifts are good and perfect.

Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 102:25-27 and applies it to Jesus.  Speaking about his eternal divine nature, it says that

“In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.”
(Hebrews 1:10-12)

and later, it adds that

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
(Heb 13:8)

Taken together, these passages can reasonably be taken to imply that God is immutable, that is incapable of change.  This implies that he is also impassible (incapable of suffering "passion").  It may be helpful to note that "passion" is one of those words whose meaning has changed subtly with time—it originally meant being acted upon passively by feelings, thus God has no "moods" or impulsive "reactions", so that he isn't carried away by emotions in the same way that we are.

(One time, I heard someone—she was normally the children's pastor, but she was "filling in" that day—preach that since God is personal, we should ask him how his day has been, and find out whether he is in a good or a bad mood before petitioning him for what we need.  I was astonished by the crudity of this conception of the divine nature.)

The traditional theology of "impassibility" has often been questioned, in light of the fact that the Bible also portrays a "living" God who is capable of being both pleased and grieved by what happens in the world.  And, however literally we take the biblical statements about God's changelessness, no Christian has ever denied that God is omniscient—that he knows everything taking place in the world, including contingent facts, even though this is itself a bit difficult to reconcile with his immutability.   (For example, here you can see St. Thomas Aquinas with his hands full trying to explain how God can know everything in the world simply as a side effect of knowing his own unchanging nature.)

I discussed this issue a bit in Does God Need a Brain, in which I argued that God knows things in a different way than we do, a way which does not actually require him to change.   I would say that God is so living and complete that he doesn't need to change in order to respond to everything perfectly.  God's being is so full that it is already a perfectly responsive answer to whatever the thing is.  Whatever exists, exists in relation to God, and God by the very act of creating it is in relation to it, and knows it perfectly.  Without changing, he nevertheless enters into relationship with each thing that exists.

Although he has no emotions in the literal sense, he nevertheless has something which is analogous to our emotions, namely his holy and active benevolent will, which is full of love for us, and therefore vehemently opposed to sin and whatever else is against our being the saints that he calls us to be.

But how then, do we reconcile this idea of God with the first set of Scriptures I mentioned?  When faced with an apparent conflict between different biblical teachings, we have several tools for trying to interpret them.

For example, we can compare to other things we know from good science and philosophy (bearing in mind that these are incomplete).  All truth is God's truth, and he speaks through Creation as well as through the Inspiration of the Scriptures.  Thus, we should not interpret Genesis 1 in a way that is clearly incorrect given the fossil record, and we may take into account things like Relativity when asking about God and Time.

We may also ask the Holy Spirit will guide us in helping the Scriptures meet our spiritual needs.  As a corollary to this, we should consider how the saints in the past (remember that they were guided by the Holy Spirit just as much as we are) interpreted those passages.  As a Protestant, I don't believe that Christian tradition is infallible, but that doesn't mean it can't be helpful.  Scripture can and must be used to critique tradition whenever it departs from the Gospel truths.  But we also have to remember that a lot of what we call "tradition" is just the record of how people in the past processed the Scriptures.  The Bible didn't just fall straight out of heaven into St. Gutenberg's press.  The saints of old read the same Bible that we do, and they thought that what they read was consistent with asserting that God is impassible.

Thirdly, we should read each passage in the light of the whole Bible, in other words to "let Scripture interpret Scripture".  This is a good and important technique, although it is abused quite often.  One way to abuse it goes like this:  whichever passages seem to agree with your theology, you call these "key verses" and "a central teaching" and "biblical doctrine".  Then, when faced with a verse which seems to disagree with your theology, you call this an "obscure", "problematic", or "difficult" passage which therefore needs to be "put in context".  This means comparing it to the verses you agree with, and noting that those verses are more powerful and important.  Once the difficult passage is reinterpreted in a way which agrees with the "central message" of the Bible, you have successfully neutralized those verses.  This gives you the right to disregard them (in any context other than explaining why they don't mean what they appear to) at which point they cease to play any positive role in constructing your theology.

For example, I have heard Protestant sermons on James 2:24, and read Catholic sermons on Matthew 23:9, in which the pastor very eloquently and persuasively criticized the "wrong" interpretation of the verse—the interpretation that contradicts their own theology—and then totally forgot their obligation to make the verse relevant to the lives and hearts of the congregation.  Once the verse was defanged so that it could no longer be a weapon on the other side, it was useless to them.  This is the sure sign that (contrary to their own protestations) the theology of these individuals was not based on the whole Bible, but only part of it.

(I read somewhere on a Christian blog, but I can't find it anymore, that getting your theology from the Bible is like trying to reassemble a disassembled watch.  Some theologies are better than others—the watch is either ticking or it isn't—but if there are pieces left over when you're done, then you know that your understanding of the original design is incomplete!)

I don't want to do this to the passages which assert that God "repents" and "changes his mind".  I think that they teach important spiritual truths about God, truths which we could not have obtained otherwise.  We need to leave room for paradox in our biblical understanding of God.  Unless we blasphemously claim to understand God as well as he understands himself, this is inevitable.

Nevertheless, I also think that we have excellent scriptural reasons to think that the passages about God repenting are anthropomorphisms, that they cannot be taken literally.  But this will require discussing two other biblical attributes of God, his foreknowledge and his eternity.

Posted in Theology | 11 Comments

Physics culture and theistic cosmology models

A reader asks this question, testing the boundaries between physics culture and religious belief:

How hostile do you think a learning institution would be to someone in their Physics department looking at the Horizon problem via the Universe being an Ex Nihilo creation of God, where matter was purposefully set in place and then a God-caused spacetime expansion? (As opposed to the thought experiment of assuming a singularity and a "Theistic or Non-Theistic Big-Bang" requiring another speculation (inflation) to explain one of the shortcomings of the theory.)
Dean C

Dean,

Most physicists aren't actually militant atheists, but all of us (whatever our views on religion) have been exposed to numerous "crackpots" who think that they have found major flaws in conventional physics and have a completely new and revolutionary way of doing things.  I discussed this pathology here and here. At least 99.99% of time, outsiders making such grandiose claims are totally wrong (or "not even wrong", because their ideas aren't precise enough to be testable), and so we filter out pretty automatically anything which pattern-matches onto typical crackpot-seeming claims and behaviors.

But this is not to say that simply criticizing inflation, all by itself, would get you lumped into the "crackpot" category.  Even among respectable mainstream physicists, inflation isn't completely uncontroversial.  While most of us believe it is true, this hasn't been established with total certainty.

A lot of the original arguments for inflation (e.g. the flatness and horizon problems) are a little bit philosophical in nature, and it's understandable if you don't find them completely convincing.  But it's not just generic arguments like that.  Inflation also makes some very specific predictions about the state of the universe after inflation ends, and these predictions seem to match very closely to what we actually observe (as the graph in that article shows).  There are respectable researchers (such as Neil Turok and Paul Steinhardt) who have philosophical objections to inflation (not based on religion) and are working on alternatives which may predict the same features in the microwave background.  But they are able to do that only because they fully understand the mathematics of inflation and the observational tests that it passes.

If somebody said something like "For philosophical reasons I am skeptical of inflation, and therefore I am interested in exploring alternatives to inflation such as X, Y," and if this person understood the mathematics of inflation (so they weren't just criticizing something they didn't know well enough), and if X and Y were mathematically-precise models with equations (such that even somebody who didn't believe in God could manipulate the equations and work out the predictions of the model), and if there was some hope that in the future, that model could be confirmed by empirical observations, then if all of these conditions are met, I think at most places this would be regarded as acceptable though eccentric.  Even if the "philosophical reasons" included some religious considerations.

It would be even better if this person had the ability to "suspend their disbelief" by sometimes having useful conversations with other people that presupposed the truth of inflation, without bringing up their reasons for skepticism every single time.  (Because that would make them a more useful colleague, and its scientifically it's an important skill to be able to work out the consequences of hypotheses even if you aren't convinced by them yet, as a way of keeping a open mind and understanding the relationship between ideas.)   Such a person would be capable of interfacing with other scientists who don't share his conviction.

(Which is not to say you could actually obtain a research job simply by working on X, Y, since there also need to be a sufficiently large number of other people who think work on X, Y is valuable enough to pay somebody money to do it.  In practice, people who work on long-shot alternatives to standard physics also need to work on more conventional topics, in addition, to be viable.  There are limited resources and funding in science, and not everyone can be supported.  But not getting a job is quite different from being excommunicated as a heretic!)

On the other hand, if X and Y can't be understood without reference to a Creator, and have phrases like "and then God miraculously caused this to happen" in them, or if the model doesn't lead to any mathematically precise predictions that could in principle be tested by future experiments, then this would not be anything like Science as it is traditionally practiced, and it would be dismissed off-hand by almost all scientists as a scientific theory.

And rightly so, because it would, at the very least, involve an enormous paradigm shift in what it even means to practice the scientific method, and justifying such a change would require overwhelmingly convincing evidence.  Of course, as a Christian I believe that miracles have happened in history, and that the universe was created by God. But in the field of Cosmology as practiced in Physics departments, the job is to mathematically model the universe using a set of natural processes described by equations.

It's hard to see how "matter was purposefully set in place and then a God-caused spacetime expansion" could, all by itself, be a mathematically predictive theory.  Because if the matter was just spontaneously created, there are almost an infinite number of configurations it could have appeared in.  Without some physical process or principles to limit it, it could have been anything!  And a "God-caused spacetime expansion" must either be described by a set of specific equations like that of Einstein's (in which case, an atheist could also use those same equations, while denying the existence of God) or else it means we (not having access to God's "hidden counsels") simply can't predict exactly how the size of the early universe changed with time.  But then how do you get any quantitative predictions for what you see when you point your telescope into the sky?

But if all you mean is that, in the ordinary course of doing science, scientists should not a priori rule out mathematically well-defined hypotheses (such as the fine-tuning of the constants of nature in a way that happens to permit life, or a net nonzero number of baryons coming out of an initial singularity), simply because those hypotheses seem "unnatural" in the absence of an intelligent creator, then I agree with this.  Nor, obviously, should a theist rule out the possibility that God might have created our universe using inflation (I don't see why not).  Such scientific hypotheses should stand or fall on their own individual merits, as the case may be.  It's okay (and indeed essential) to be guided by our own individual sense of parsimony, but we shouldn't be so biased that we rule out sensible models which explain the facts better.

(Incidentally, if inflation did happen, then the hypothesis that the universe just "started off" with more matter than antimatter can't work.  Even if there were more baryons than antibaryons coming out of the initial singularity, the universe expanded so rapidly during inflation that the initial baryons would have been diluted to homeopathic proportions.  For this reason, physicists generally prefer models of baryogenesis, in which the baryons are created by some specific physical process some time after inflation ends.)

Posted in Scientific Method | 16 Comments

God's will

Aron,
How is it possible that God is in control of all things and their will is always done, assuming that we are free?

Kevin

First, why are we free in the first place?  Because God wants us to be free, and he always gets what he wants!  (Unless he wants something else more which conflicts with it; then he gets that instead.)

Some theologians distinguish between God's permissive will and his perfect will.  If God wants you to freely choose to love him.  Since he wants you to be free, that means his permissive will involves creating a world in which you are allowed to love other things instead of him, and even to become enslaved by these things and lose your freedom for a time.  So our Father permits people to love e.g. pornography and greed, but his perfect will is that we should turn to him and become pure and holy through his Son Jesus Christ.  God "wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4)

So there is one sense in which God's will is always done—nothing happens unless he permits it to happen, according to his wisdom in accomplishing his ultimate goals.  But that does not mean he is equally pleased by everything that happens.  "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? says the Lord YHWH.  Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their wicked ways and live?" (Ez 18).

Hence we need to pray every day that "your will be done", because our Father has freely chosen (it is his absolute, iron will) that some graces will be given only when we ask for them, and cooperate with the lavish grace which has already been given, before we even knew to ask.

In the end times, after Jesus comes back, God's kingdom will come and so his perfect will is going to extend throughout the entire universe, just as it is now in heaven.  But even then, there will be some rebels who refuse to give up their hatred and pride, who will end up being excluded from the Lord's perfect will, because he permits them to be the kind of person they want to be, instead of the kind of person he wants them to be (Rev 22:15).  So God will not, in fact, get every single thing he wants.

Yet he is clever enough to work everything which happens towards the final blessedness of those who love him, according to his plan from before time began.  "For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom. 8:29).

Posted in Theology | 12 Comments