I promised I would only share ideas that made an impact on my Christian friends, but to go further I’ll have to break that promise. Specifically, I’ve got some issues regarding the historicity of Noah’s flood and Jesus’ timing on the second coming. Part of the reason it didn’t have an impact is that there are so many moving parts:
I’d have to establish that:
- Noah’s flood and Jesus’ second coming matter
- I’m reading the Bible right
- I’m reading reality right
Christians disagree with me, but on different points. Many pointed me to the centuries of work done by Christian writers on these topics, and a lot of them wondered why this mattered to me at all. Why throw everything out over it? Looking back, I can see that these questions did not matter until I was far along in doubting, and they aren’t the deciding factor for me now either. They are more like a bonus, and if they were solved, it wouldn’t bring me that much closer to believing.
So I’m not going to argue the points, except for why they matter, and a little bit about Jesus’ second coming in the last section. You’ll notice how my frustrations with trying to hear God’s voice have led me to adopt a set of standards that I also want to apply to ancient written revelations of religions in general, such as the Bible. I also talk a little bit about why science seems to get a little more slack from me than religion–a criticism I’ve heard a couple times.
Why it Matters
If you’re like me, you want to build trust in sources. And if you want to build trust in a revelation, journalist, or doctor, then testable claims are helpful. They are not the only claims that matter, nor are they the only claims that can be true or false or meaningful. They are a gift.
And when it comes to revelation, the greatest of these gifts are specific claims that are not testable when they are made, but are testable later. I call these “juicy claims,” and we’re fortunate to have them. If I had my way, every religion or psychic that makes such claims would carve them into rock and then revisit them later to see how many were right. These claims aren’t completely make-or-break for me, but they do help.
I used to say, “if I can trust a source on things I can test, then I can build trust on things I can’t test.”
A few of my Christian friends corrected me by saying, “hold on just a second Sean, a religion could get a lot of testable things right and still be wrong about the untestable things.” One even said, “If people know this is how you decide things, they could exploit you.”
I agree and would take it even further now. Juicy predictions proven true could begin to establish that someone has a connection with a source of information outside of us, and that’s it. We still wouldn’t know if the source of the revelation is being honest about who they are or their intentions. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that Christians warned me of this, given how much the Bible warns of signs and wonders accompanying false prophets.
To make it more complicated, there is the possibility that technology is involved, as in the case of fake faith healer Peter Popoff, whose wife would speak into a small speaker in his ear using a wireless mic. There are ways to rule that out though. For example, skeptics will sometimes create fake online identities before going to a psychic show to try to rule out that a psychic is just getting information from the internet. Skeptic James Randi used to invite people who claimed magic powers onto his shows. He used to say things like, “Well, a lovely display of extra-sensory perception. A skeptic could say that you’re using XYZ, so to avoid that accusation, we’ll do it again with conditions ABC to rule that out.”
On Apologetics and Historical Writings
Some of my Reform (better known as Calvinist) friends encouraged me to consider historical writings and commentaries to see how God has revealed scripture through time, and how these writers have handled my challenges. I can see how it provides authority to be able to say “this verse has been understood this way through the centuries.”
What I would add is that if we’re looking at testable claims like Noah’s flood or Jesus’ second coming, we should weigh more heavily the writings from before those claims became testable, and look to see if there is a process of rationalization in the writings during and after.
The reason becomes clear if we consider another faith tradition. Mormons claim that Native Americans descend from Jews. If science advances to a point to be able to test that claim genetically, we should look at Mormon writings from before it was testable to determine what the claim was and its significance. This is regardless of whether it turns out to be true or false. Whether we are critics or believers, using this standard can help all of us avoid reinterpreting, downplaying, or magnifying what we’re hoping is in the text.
Additional reasons to freeze the Bible
Occasionally, people will bring me a prophetic word they’ve heard, and if there’s a testable element, such as details regarding a future natural disaster, my response is to try to get them to commit to the meaning of it before the time passes, because this is what I need in order to be able to develop faith. A lot of times they don’t go for it, saying that if it doesn’t happen in the physical world, then perhaps it was for the spiritual world instead, or perhaps we misunderstood some key details. I appreciate the honesty from the outset, so that at least I know what we’re working with.
I want to recognize that there can be a space for such fuzzy revelations, but if this is the case with every revelation, then the system works to increase faith no matter what happens, no matter which religion uses it, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong. It’s as if the system has been prepared to work even if it turns out to be imaginary all along. Sure, there will be occasional hits, but that’s to be expected with probability. The mistakes also need to be counted. To avoid this with the Bible, I want to freeze specific, testable, juicy claims.
Why not apply this standard to Geology and other sciences?
On several occasions, people have suggested that I have a double standard, because I want to freeze the Bible in place in order to pick at its claims, yet I am quite okay with science making progress over time.
Here’s why I have it. Geologists do not claim their source is a special revelation from an eternal Person beyond time. So, it’s not a big deal when I look back and see science’s flaws and shortcomings and the stubborn egos so certain of themselves, and the contradictions, and the inevitable revisions that will happen every time we expand our ability to observe. This is expected. This is a human endeavor.
So, when I point out these flaws in the history of religion, I’m saying, look, this has the features of a human endeavor, just like science has these flaws.
Additionally, I’ll recognize that not all religions or versions of Christianity claim to have a special revelation or even claim to be guided by God or gods. For me to analyze them as if they did wouldn’t make sense.
Why I think I’m right about the Second Coming
Arguments about this subject often have a lot to do with what Jesus and Paul actually said. What I read in 2 Peter 3 is evidence that I’ve understood Jesus and Paul correctly. I see:
- exhortations to continue believing the predictions despite the fathers dying and the world continuing on (verses 1 – 4)
- a reminder that God destroyed the world before. By water in the past, by fire next. (verses 5 -7)
- an encouragement to consider that God experiences time differently – this is evidence that the timing is at least an issue to be addressed (verses 8 – 9)
- encouragement to continue anticipating the end of the world at any moment, because it will come like a thief in the night (verse 10)
- encouragement to make decisions based on the expectation that this will happen soon (verses 11-18) – also a theme in some of Paul’s letters (1 Cor 7:29-31)
This isn’t the only place I see this. It’s all over the New Testament. 1 Peter 4:7 and James 5:8 both say the end of all things (or the coming of the Lord) is at hand and Revelation 22 says it four times in one chapter.
Jesus saying that no one knows the day or hour is not a contradiction. In context, the expression always comes along with exhortations to always be alert and ready because it could happen any minute now, as in Mark 13:32-37, or in the parable of the 10 Virgins in Matthew 25.
In the next post, I’ll share how practical concerns prevent me from living as if God is guiding our lives, although I do wish it were true.
For more on Noah’s Flood, and The Second Coming, I recommend:
The Rocks Don’t Lie – Geologist David R. Montgomery talks about the history of Noah’s flood and geology. The main ideas I took from this book were about how religion and science cross-pollinate and influence each other, and how different groups of people have handled the contradictions.
The Human Faces of God – This book mainly challenges inerrancy, but it takes a break from that in Chapter 8. Thom Stark focuses mainly on passages from the gospels and Paul’s letters to show that Jesus and early Christians believed the end of the world was coming within one generation, while engaging with NT Wright and other authors.