Friday, April 29, 2011

Time for Demons and Swine

Recently, we observed Jesus highlight the urgency of His mission on Earth when He told a follower that he should not even bother burying his dead father, but should instead help spread the word about the Kingdom of God. Then, Jesus and His disciples took a boat across the Sea of Galilee. When a sudden storm whipped up and threatened to drown them all, Jesus marveled at why His disciples were so afraid to die, as if they had no faith in the afterlife. After Jesus calmed the storm, the crew made it safely to the other side.

Time for Demons and Swine
For many, the Bible is a book of answers. However, it seems that for those who seriously study the Bible, it raises more questions than it could ever hope to answer. Unfortunately, far too few are willing to pursue complete honesty; to will ask “is this all true?” and to have a conviction for finding the real answer, whatever it may be. Let us take a deeper look at some Scripture, and let the tough questions flow.

The three synoptic Gospels somewhat agree on what happens after Jesus calms the storm. In Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39, we find the tale of how Jesus exorcises a demons in the Gadarenes/Gerasenes region.

The story goes like this...

Matthew: Two strong, violent, demon-possessed men who live in tombs met up with Jesus. The demons beg Jesus to cast them into a herd of swine. Jesus casts them into the herd of swine. The whole herd runs into the lake and dies. The swine herders report this to the town. The townsfolk ask Jesus to leave.

Mark/Luke: One strong man, who lives in tombs and is possessed by a “Legion” of demons, met up with Jesus. The Legion begs Jesus to let them go into a herd swine. Jesus lets them go into the herd of swine. The whole herd runs into the lake and dies. The swine herders report this to the town. The townsfolk ask Jesus to leave. The now-demon-free man asked if he could follow Jesus, but Jesus told him instead to go home and spread the word about what happened.

How many men were demon possessed? Preachers typically sidestep the one-man-versus-two-men issue by only using Luke's and/or Mark's version. Also, did Jesus Himself relocate the demons or simply allow them to move into the swine? It is a minor difference, but still a difference. Let us set aside minor differences and plunge into the deeper questions here...

Why did the demons cause the man/men to approach Jesus if they were afraid of Him? Why did they not just flee? This is the only case where demons are removed and subsequently put into other beings, and the only case of demon-possessed animals; why? Why would the demons want to go into the swine? Why did the swine herd immediately kill itself after becoming possessed? Why would Jesus let the demons go into the swine, or any living thing for that matter? If they needed God's permission, why was the man/men possessed by demons initially? When you start examining the story in detail, it just does not make any sense.

Even more interesting is the first response of the demons to Jesus. Mark 5:7 has the Legion shout “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won't torture me!” Luke 8:28 is essentially the same.

First, we see that Legion conveniently identifies Jesus as God's Son, just to clear up any confusion anyone may have. Despite Legion literally yelling out Jesus' identity in front of Jesus' disciples, Jesus later claims that Peter knew Jesus' identity only because God revealed it to him (Matthew 16:13-20). Either that is a lie, or God Himself was one of the demons wrapped up and identified together as Legion. Which is it?

Next, Legion begs for Jesus not to torture him/them. Why would they be afraid of Jesus torturing them? How would a God of love torture anyone? This is a confirmation the eternal punishment which awaits those who are not selected by God; the very punishment now doubted by a significant percentage of modern Christians.

An additional level of complication is added by the Matthew 8:29 version, which has the demons shout:
"What do you want with us, Son of God?" they shouted. "Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?" NIV

Again, we find the demons identifying Jesus for everyone to hear, and that the demons are worried about Jesus torturing them, but that is not all. Matthew has the demons say that this torture would be “before the appointed time.” How is it that the demons know that this is sometime before the appointed time? Matthew 24:36 says that only God knows the day or the hour, and yet these demons seem to have divine insight.

These contradictions, moral issues, and gaps of logic can all easily be explained: This is a work of fiction. There may be some truth somewhere; a little nugget of veracity which spawned the myth. If so, good luck trying to define it with confidence.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Stormy Faith

Depending on which Gospel you follow, there is a different chain of prior events to this study. According to Matthew, Jesus (non-)prophetically healed a bunch of people and emphasized the extreme urgency of His mission on earth by telling a would-be follower to skip his own father's burial in favor of following Jesus and preaching about the Kingdom of God. According to Mark, Jesus dishonored His mother and brothers, and then taught a large crowd through several parables while sitting in a boat. According to Luke, Jesus taught people through parables while traveling town to town, and then dishonored His mother and brothers. According to John, you would never know that this story happened at all. It seems that John was not impressed by the event described below.

Stormy Faith
Faith is a curious subject. The word “faith” is used around 240 times in the Bible. Only nine of those times are in the Old Testament (OT), and only three of those times are in the sense a faith in God. The other six OT references of “faith” are in terms of honoring an agreement. Yet every single time of the roughly 230 times the New Testament (NT) uses the word, it is in connection with believing in God. As Hebrews 11:1 puts it:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. NIV
To see such a stark contrast between OT and NT usage should give you pause about your faith. While you are paused, let us take a closer look at one of the times when Jesus commented about faith.

Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8:22-25 all recount the tale of how Jesus and some unnamed, unnumbered disciples joined with Jesus in a boat ride to cross the lake of Tiberias (a.k.a. Sea of Galilee). A fierce storm quickly appears. The boat nearly sinks while Jesus sleeps. The disciples awaken Jesus, who then rebukes the weather, making it calm and peaceful.

Before (according to Matthew 8:26) or after (according to Mark 4:39-40 and Luke 8:24-25) calming the storm, Jesus rebukes His disciples; asking them why they are afraid and asking why they have little or no faith.

Little or no faith? At first glance, that does not make sense at all. The lake of Tiberias is about 8 miles (13 km) wide, so this is a lake in which you could drown from exhaustion in trying to swim shore, especially in a storm. As Luke 8:23 renders it, “the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.” And what did the disciples do in their peril? They turned to Jesus for help! They woke up Jesus and, as Matthew 8:25 renders it, exclaimed "Lord, save us! We're going to drown!" They did not say “Jesus, would you please help us bail out the boat?” They had faith that Jesus could save them supernaturally.

So why did Jesus say that they had little or no faith? The classic Christian exegesis says that their “little faith” was evidenced by the fact that they either did not believe that God would protect them, or did not believe that Jesus could not protect them while He was sleeping. That exegesis is all wrong. By all appearances, God was not saving them. They were indeed in danger. (Now if the boat was completely calm and dry despite the raging storm all around, that would have been a good indicator that God was protecting them!)

Some pastors will latch on to the fact of this danger like it was the central message; to encourage belief regardless of what was happening around you because God will protect you, but that was not the message. As I pointed out, the disciples did believe that Jesus could save them. So this claim of “little faith” has got to mean something else...

I suspect that this was meant to be a rebuke that these disciples had not believed or taken to heart what Jesus had been preaching about the Kingdom of God. No, there is not much specific about the Kingdom in the Gospels thus far, but it does say that Jesus was preaching quite often about it (Matthew 4:23, Mark 1:14, Luke 4:14-15, Luke 8:1). Presumably, the afterlife would have come up sometime during Jesus' preaching. If so, Jesus would rightfully be wondering why they are afraid to die. That is part of the message of Salvation, right? Death, where is thy sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55)

This should be a reminder to Bible-thumpers everywhere that not everything that supposedly happened is actually recorded in the Gospels. You are going to have to do some interpolation to get at the truth of the story, if you could call it truth. The trick is that you have to stay within the limits of the text in your interpolation. Interpolate. Do not extrapolate.

OK, now for the skeptical punchline. Check out the basic mechanics of this story. Storm comes in. Believers solicit Jesus for help. Jesus controls the weather to save the believers.

Why is this same thing not happening today? Why is God not protecting believers which seek His protection from natural disasters? Surely people pray for protection during hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, tsunamis, etc. Yet you do not see any divine protection given, not at any rate above what could be called statistical chance. Even these mechanics point to my theoretical exegesis above.

Per the story, Jesus had to calm the storm for His own protection so that He could make it to the cross. Otherwise Christians would be praying to a boat, and that just would not do. So this divine intervention was a one-off, special event.

As for everybody else in the remainder of mortal time, why should God bother saving anybody's mortal life, when it is the deeper Salvation of the afterlife that really matters? So you may as well stop praying to God for healing or protection, oh you of little faith. God is not going to help you, and He is wondering why you want to keep living anyway.

That would have been an good message to send to new believers. It is not an attractive message in and of itself, but it does remind believers to focus on the afterlife, not on this life. Completely disregard the dangers of this life, and instead blindly follow, even to your death if necessary. The afterlife will be so worth it.

Oh, the power the early church leaders would have had over such sheep...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dead in More Ways Than One

After Jesus healed Simon's/Peter's mother-in-law, He drove out some demons and healed the sick of the local populous, which Matthew mistakenly ties into prophesy from Isaiah. According to Mark and Luke, Jesus then prayed alone, followed by preaching, exorcising, and healing throughout Judea. Matthew tells a different story...

Dead in More Ways Than One
There are some verses of the New Testament, some actions and words of Jesus, which give modern apologists issues when trying to reconcile Jesus' message with modern values. They usually take one of three approaches: 1) skip them completely, 2) skim highlights to cover the verses from a safer distance, or 3) cover them honestly, but skip looking for the deeper implications and forget them altogether in the overall picture they have of Jesus. That is why I am here to help.

Let us start with something Jesus did which is typically glossed over. It appears that after healing people and exorcising demons, a crowd gathered around Jesus. In Matthew 8:18, we see that Jesus did what any deity-made-flesh-to-show-His-love-and-grant-salvation would do. Jesus ran away from the crowd. OK, He did not really run, but He decided to take a boat across the lake to get away.

No reason is given for His flight. Maybe Jesus was tired of exorcisms, or perhaps He felt like He had spoken to these people enough. For whatever reason, the crowd was there to see Him, but He did not want to see them. Perhaps Jesus was just trying to let them know how God would interact with them in the future. They would seek after God. God would go somewhere else.

Presumably, as they were preparing the boat, a teacher of the Law tells Jesus that he wants to follow Him, but Jesus warns the teacher that He is a rambling man (Matthew 8:19-20). Luke 9:57-58 records this same conversation, except that Luke has the conversation happen while walking on a road from one village to another (Luke 9:56). Thank God the Bible is inerrant.

Both Matthew 8:21-22 and Luke 9:59-60 agree on what conversation happens next, but they may not agree on the content of those conversations. Let us go with a side-by-side comparison:

Matthew 8:21-22
Luke 9:59-60
Another disciple said to [Jesus], "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."

But Jesus told him, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead." NIV
[Jesus] said to another man, "Follow Me." But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."

Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the Kingdom of God." NIV

So in Matthew's version it seems like Jesus wants this disciple to follow Him and forget about the funeral. In Luke's version, it seems like Jesus is telling the “man” (who probably was not yet a disciple given that Jesus asks the man to follow Him) to go to somewhere to proclaim the Kingdom of God, possibly at that funeral while others bury his father. Which one is right? Flip a coin.

The most interesting text in these verses is “let the dead bury their own dead.” This makes Jesus sound like an insensitive jerk to this guy who just lost his father. Beyond that, the question comes up: What did Jesus mean by “the dead,” and why is this guy's father part of “their own dead?”

Biblical scholars explain this verse in several, mostly similar ways. Jesus was saying...
  • let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.
  • let people who are not called to spread the Word take care of earthly business.
  • the deceased and this man's family back home were all “unregenerate,” i.e. unsaved.
  • (my personal favorite) leave the business of the world to those who are dead to God.

The problem with these Christian views is that supposedly part of Jesus' purpose was to save the unsaved by getting the message to them. Yet from their perspective, Jesus is neglecting people who obviously need His help. Where is the love in that?

I think that Jesus was essentially labeling those who were already dead as lost causes. Their fate was already sealed. Furthermore, those who were still just carrying out the business of daily life were also lost.

Why? Because Jesus believed that the time had come, that God's final judgement was near. Not the end of Jesus' life mind you, which was also near, but rather the end of all life and the coming final judgement. People who could not discern the season (in the metaphorical sense of the word), people who were still carrying on with the old ways, were essentially like the people living out their daily lives right up to the day of the Flood. (We will see this same theme several times pop up in later studies.) This statement from Jesus captures the laser-like focus He had for getting the message out to those who were seeking it as soon as possible.

This theory is supported somewhat by what follows next, in Luke anyway. (Matthew continues on with the actual boat trip.) Luke 9:61 records an additional conversation along the road. A man tells Jesus that he will follow Him, but he is going to go back and say good-bye to his family first. In Luke 9:62 we see:
Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God." NIV
Jesus again playing the role of insensitive jerk, essentially tells the guy that he is not welcome in the Kingdom of God if he goes back to his family.

As above, it comes back to a business only, strict focus on (what Jesus thought was) the soon coming Kingdom of God. Jesus was acting much like Donald Trump, and He was not going to tolerate time wasters or weak commitments when He had a job to do with very limited time to do it. If only Jesus had known just how much time would pass until the Kingdom of God showed up. He probably would have been a lot nicer, if He had known that He had forever to wait...

No Christian today believes that Jesus thought that Judgement Day was going to be soon after Jesus' resurrection. Yet if the modern Christian perspective is correct, Jesus has no reason for being an insensitive jerk, because there were still about a couple thousand years to go (at least).

You also have got to keep in mind that this is the same Jesus who said do unto others as you would have done to you (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31). You and I probably would have let the guy go back to bury his father and let the other guy go back to say good-by to his family, because that is what we would like to do if the positions were reversed. Jesus is effectively saying that when God's involved, moral guidelines get ignored in favor of obeying His commands.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Suffering Servant, Suffering Truth

When the Centurion personally came to ask Jesus for help (according to Matthew), or when the Centurion sent many people in his place to ask Jesus for help (according to Luke), Jesus performed a long-distance healing on the Centurion's servant. Maybe next, Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree on what happens after that, to a certain extent.

Suffering Servant, Suffering Truth
Psychology tells us that, when it comes to beliefs and the discernment of truth, our own brains often work against us. We tend to remember only what aligns with our beliefs, and interpret data in such a way that we will often ignore contradictory evidence. It is called confirmation bias, and it is, perhaps, the largest hurdle we face when looking for the truth about something in cases when we already have a preconceived notion of what that truth is. For example, let us look at a classic case right from the Bible.

After healing Simon/Peter's mother-in-law, Jesus healed many sick and demon-possessed people (Matthew 8:16-17, Mark 1:32-34, Luke 4:40-41). Mark and Luke both record that Jesus forbade the demons from speaking, in order to again play the role of undercover exorcist. Matthew's account skips that silencing, and instead opts to include a different detail. In Matthew 8:17 we read:
This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
"He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases." NIV
That is what Isaiah said? And Isaiah is a prophet... Well then, it must be in a prophesy about Jesus! This quotation comes from Isaiah 53:4.

Take a moment to read through Isaiah 53. It is a short, twelve verse chapter, so it will not take you long. If you are at all familiar with the story of Jesus, you might be amazed. It does, indeed, appear to be about Jesus! However, I think this is a trick of your mind is playing on you, confirmation bias, because not everything lines up so well under closer scrutiny.

Take Isaiah 53:3, for example:
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. NIV
Men, in general, did not despise and reject Jesus. The Pharisees? Sure, they often did, but that is a pretty small subset of men. In Scripture, you find large groups of people following Jesus around (of the 171 times the Bible mentions crowds, 127 times are in the Gospels) and esteeming Jesus (such as Luke 7:6, Luke 7:45-46) much more so than men despising and hiding their faces from Jesus. Everybody wanted to be around this guy, which is quite the opposite of the Isaiah 53:3 image. Plus, Isaiah 53:3 says that this was a man of sorrows, portraying someone who lived a life of suffering, not just some climactic suffering at the end.

Even the verse Matthew quotes here is not quite applicable. Isaiah 53:4 says that this person “took up” the infirmities and diseases of the people. This is not saying that he removed these infirmities, but rather that he suffered those same infirmities and diseases, which is implicitly part of why he was called a man of sorrows in the previous verse. Yet Matthew quotes this verse as if it was intended to mean that Jesus removed the infirmities and diseases of the people. Matthew got it wrong.

There are several other clues in Isaiah 53 which suggest the Christian interpretation is wrong, but for the sake of brevity I will skip the rest unless further questioned. Yet there is one more we should cover, one which is even more condemning.

Isaiah 53:12 begins by saying that God will give this suffering servant “a portion among the great.” Yet according the Bible, God is giving Jesus the entire Kingdom, not just a portion (Matthew 28:18). You have got to pay attention to these types of details if you want to arrive at the truth.

So who is/was this suffering servant? There are other clues. This is one of (at least) four “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 42, Isaiah 49, Isaiah 50, and Isaiah 53 all mention this unnamed servant. Often, the servant is portrayed as being loyal to God, suffering unjustly, and later receiving some reward. Obviously, Christianity views these prophesies to be about Jesus. The traditional Jewish view is that this “servant” is actually a metaphor for the Israelites themselves, which is explicitly claimed in Isaiah 49:3 in a way. Other Jewish interpretations have focused on particular prophets or rulers. I think they may all miss the mark.

Based on what I see in the servant songs, I think the traditional Jewish interpretation is closest. To me, this suffering servant was meant to specifically represent the exiled Israelites who had remained completely faithful to God. When you read the curses which were to fall on the Israelites for their falling away from God, it is clear that the relatively few innocent Israelites would have suffered right along with the guilty, including with various diseases and plagues. They would have been oppressed. Some would have been slain in war. The remainder would have been scattered in exile.

From that theory, all of the verses seem to line up into place. For example, Isaiah 42:4, where it says that the servant will not be discouraged, and in his law (which would be God's Law) the islands will put their hope. The islands being the little pockets of Israelites scattered in exile amongst the Gentiles.

God promised that He would gather the exile-scattered Israelites back to their nation. This was how these God-faithful microcosms were going to be a light for the Gentiles, showing them that the Israelite God was the real God when the Israelites returned from these Gentile nations into their homeland, which aligns perfectly with Isaiah 49:6.

This is just skimming the surface of some really deep prophesy study. Yet even at this level, it is clear that Christianity has attempted to use some of the more-vague prophesies to promote their own brand of faith. To the casual observer, it is concrete evidence for Christianity, but to those willing to do some deeper research, and to those willing and able to consider each and every detail instead of glossing over the ones which do not agree, it is just more evidence of fiction.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Laying Down the Law

Laying Down the Law
Looking back on my past OT studies, I found more typos than I care to admit! :-) But I also found a number of gems; studies which would be excellent to challenge your own faith and beliefs about God, or get the conversation started with a believer as to why they might want to reconsider that faith. Here are my favorites from the years gone by:

  • The Sacrifice of Isaac is a classic point of Biblical contention. Would you do anything God told you to do, even if it was morally wrong?
  • For humans to “play God” is often considered evil. What about the case with God Playing God? Is it really any better?

  • Predators sometimes exploit their power to play mercilessly with their prey. In God: The Beast, that same theme rings through.
  • How much suffering is enough? In One More Game, God will stop at absolutely nothing to let people know that He is God, even if that means their complete destruction.
  • Promises, Promises. God promises that if they obey His Law, the Israelites will not have illness, miscarriages, or infertility, and they will have long lives. Long, but not everlasting...
  • I'll Be There With Bells On, or I'll Be Dead. Because God would kill you for not wearing bells, or special underwear, when going to worship Him.
  • We all have regrets. God does too, as you see in Repentant God, Part 2, where God wants to kill all of the Israelites which He just brought out of Egyptian slavery.




With my studies of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible complete, I am laying down the Law, so to speak. If I do any more detailed studies of the Old Testament, it will likely be sporadic, probably just to have a break from covering the Gospels. I will open it up to requests, though. So if you have ever had a question about the Bible and you would like my type of perspective, fire away! Leave your questions as comments below, and you just may win your own personal study, Foolishly hand-crafted. ;-)