Documenting the Coming Singularity

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Viewing Christ (More) Objectively

By 11:58 AM
If I may, let me interject a personal note at the outset of this article. I used to be a Christian. For 28 years, from the time I was an 18-year-old college freshman, continuing as a minister and missionary, until sometime in 2005 (it's impossible to pin down and ending date), I was a believer in Christ as my Lord and Savior. But over a period of about a year, I began to allow myself to face up to some difficult questions, and eventually came to the conclusion that all the evidence I can find tells me that the existence of the God of the Old and New Testaments is extremely improbable. If you, dear reader, find that admission offensive, and for that reason choose no longer to visit my blog, then it will be to my loss. Yet I am willing to face that risk in order to be "up front" with my reading audience.

Additionally, I would like you to know that I do not write these articles in an effort to convince anyone of anything. I certainly do not begrudge you your faith, if faith you possess. I write these articles because I believe you might find these observations interesting, and perhaps even helpful and informative. With these confessions in view then, I move forward.

Viewing Christ more objectively is the title. Can I be objective? Not completely, I am sure, but more objective, I think so. More objective than I could have been a few years ago, certainly. How so? Because years ago I was wedded to certain beliefs, and was therefore unwilling to consider opposing points of view, answering all objections to my faith with facile and, even to me, unsatisfactory apologetics.

But a curious phenomenon occurred to me when I set aside the premise that the Bible was the inerrant, inspired, word of God. I began to look at it, if I may, more objectively, and passages that had never caused me a twinge of concern now took on a more worrying aura. I will share some of these with you now for your own consideration.

Christ's Petulance

"And seeing a fig tree in the way, He came to it and found nothing on it except leaves only. And He said to it, let no fruit grow on you forever. And immediately the fig tree withered away" (Matt. 21:19).

"And seeing a fig-tree with leaves afar off, He went to it, if perhaps He might find anything on it. And when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season of figs. And Jesus answered and said to it, No one shall eat fruit of you forever. And His disciples heard…And when evening came, He went out of the city. And passing on early, they saw the fig-tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, Rabbi, behold, the fig tree which You cursed has withered away" (Mark 11:13-21).

Let's not focus too much on the obvious discrepancy between these two accounts of the same alleged event, but let us touch on it: In the first account, the fig tree withered "immediately," which was clearly noted by the disciples since Matthew makes sure to mention that the miracle was instantaneous. In the second, the disciples only noticed the withering the next day. A trifling fault. But what concerns me is Christ's apparent fit of petulant anger. This story reminds me of something that happened many years ago at some family function or other. One of my relatives, an uncle I believe, on finding out that I had become a Christian, brought up this story and said that he always felt sorry for the fig tree, since the lack of fruit on the tree was clearly not the tree's fault. I laughed at the time at the thought that this man actually felt sorry for a tree. I don't feel sorry for the tree, but I am concerned about Jesus' pique. Jesus was hungry, and saw the tree from a distance, so he went closer, hoping to find some figs. Matthew tells us that it was not the season for figs. Why would Jesus expect figs out of season? In any case, he finds none, so he uses his supernatural powers to put a curse on the tree, which causes it to wither and die. Was this not a little petulant of Jesus? Wouldn't it have been better to cause the tree to bear fruit right then? Shouldn't we expect of a perfect man a bit more serenity? This story reminds me of myself when I am hungry and get disappointed, like when I leave the drive-through, get home, and discover that they left out my sandwich. Burger King is lucky that I don't have super powers, I'll tell you that. Anyway, Jesus pulls it out in the end by making a lesson on faith out of the whole unfortunate business.

Bertrand Russell said this about the story:
Then there is the curious story of the fig tree, which always rather puzzled me. You remember what happened about the fig tree. "He was hungry; and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came if haply He might find anything thereon; and when He came to it He found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it: 'No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever' . . . and Peter . . . saith unto Him: 'Master, behold the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.'" This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree.

I share his sentiments.

Christ's Revenge


"The Son of Man shall send out His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:41).

This is a much larger and more disturbing teaching. The doctrine of hell, of everlasting punishment, described by Jesus as a "furnace of fire" and the torments of which cause his victims to cry out in pain and terror. Many Christians attempt to make this teaching more palatable and appropriate to today's sensibilities by saying that hell is only annihilation; you simply cease to exist. Others say that the pain is only the loss of the presence of God. Still others paint Christ as an innocent bystander, watching in horror as sinners send themselves to hell, as if he had nothing to do with it. Yet none of these machinations holds muster. It is plain to see that God (and Christ) created man, who messed up (a design flaw, clearly God's responsibility), and so he sends Christ to offer a way out of the mess he created, and anyone to whom God chooses not to extend the gift of faith so that they can accept his solution, gets to be tortured forever and ever, amen.

The apostle Paul anticipates complaints about this teaching in his letter to the Romans. Someone dares to ask, "Why does He yet find fault? For who has resisted His will?"
A reasonable question: God made me the way I am, so how can he find fault? Paul's reply: "No, but, O man, who are you who replies against God? Shall the thing formed say to Him who formed it, Why have you made me this way? Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel to honor and another to dishonor?" In other words, Don't question God. He has a right to do with you whatever he wants, so just shut up.

Not a very comforting answer.

From time to time I will share similar thoughts and concerns with you. I'd like to hear your comments.

19 comments :

Jarod said...

I hate to hear that you no longer believe. These verses aren't really a problem. In the passage in Matthew it says, "when the disciples saw it." It does not say when they saw it. Also in the passage in Mark, Peter is the only one who draws attention to the tree. The others could have seen the tree earlier and Peter noticing later. So either way it can be explained. Two different witnesses seeing the same event are going to have different perspectives but they ultimately have the same point which is faith. Faith is what Jesus is trying to teach His disciple and this is just one way He chose to do it. Now to talk about Hell. The more surprising thing to me is not that God would send some to Hell but that God would choose to save any of us at all. We have committed treason against the infinite God and the punishment must be infinite as well. God chose to make a way back to Him by sending His Son, Jesus Christ. It seems amazing to me that the judge of the universe chose to pay the penalty on our behalf. Any who are in Hell deserve to be there just like everyone else. That God would pardon some should cause us to stand in awe. He would have been right to send us all to Hell but in His love He saw fit to save us. It is not our own doing and His choosing us has nothing to do with anything in us and His not choosing others has nothing to do with anything inside them. As Paul says who are we to find fault with God. "So to all who are thirsty come and the one who desires take the water of life without price."(Rev. 22:17)

Barry Mahfood said...

Jarod, thanks for your comments.

I hope I don't sound condescending when I say that your answers are some of the same ones I used in my former life as a minister. The problem I have with them now, and the point of my article, is that when you begin with the premise that the Bible has no contradictions, and that God is good (why do we believe that? Because he said so), you are viewing it from that point on in a non-objective way. Any apparent contradiction must then be explained away (as you have done) rather than evaluated without bias. For example, Mark (or whoever wrote that book) tells us what Jesus was doing approaching the tree. He was hoping to find some fruit. It doesn't say he was looking for a good object lesson in faith. If you look at it without bias, it is very clear that his motivation was to find something to eat.

Now, if Peter saw the tree later, did Jesus give his lesson twice? Once for the more alert disciples, then later on for the oblivious Peter? See, you're looking for ways to negate an obvious contradiction. If all else fails, you'll say that such minor details aren't what's important in the story. Same bias, same escape.

Regarding hell, I agree that if God made us, he has the right to send us to hell, even if he is the one who is responsible for our design. But then why would you call him good? By any reasonable standard he would be considered an unfeeling, merciless tyrant. But because you begin with the rock-hard belief that God can do no wrong, why then by definition, sending us to hell cannot be wrong. It's circular logic, which is not logic at all.

Spaceman Spiff said...

What's this about being more objective? How can you become any less of a subject? Would it even be a good thing to do? I'd suggest it is better to find the subjective viewpoint from which all this is best understood.

First of all, there is no "obvious discrepancy" in these accounts. If you told a tree it would never bear fruit and then I came back a few hours later and found it withered, I might well say "He cursed it and it withered right away!" with no loss of accuracy, just precision. No one would begrudge me the truth of my statement unless they had some motivation for proving me a false witness. I think that's what's going on here.

Secondly, there is a thing in philosophy called the "rule of charity." It basically means you take it for granted that your opponent is making the strongest possible argument he could be making, and argue with that.

In this case, you have failed to follow this rule. Do you think it was the author's intent to portray Jesus as petulant? That would be a hard case to make, since they both clearly suggest he was the Messiah and a great and wise rabbi. So what could they mean by this story? To interpret correctly, you need to practice the law of charity and try to figure out what it would have meant to the authors.

Then you can say they are wrong, that the Jesus in their story is in fact petulant. But at least make an *attempt* to deal with what authors may have wanted to communicate with this story before you make such an aggressive interpretation.

If you find what the authors and their audience may have understood by such a story, or by Paul's remarks, or by Jesus' teaching about gehenna, it may be that you will find an interpretation that is not so easily torn apart. You may actually find that you have been tearing apart a modernistic straw man the whole time.

You may find that in your attempts to be "objective" you have only made your subjectivity more harmful by ignoring it.

Anonymous said...

Barry,

Good post. I see the apologists are the first out to comment. I have to say that this story has bothered me some too, since you would expect the Son of God to have a bit more class than is portrayed in these verses.

Good thing for BK I don't have super powers either! :)

Jarod:
"That God would pardon some should cause us to stand in awe. He would have been right to send us all to Hell but in His love He saw fit to save us"

Says you. If a creator god has perfect supreme love and such an intelligence that is often portrayed, then simply, he wouldn't be throwing folks into flames for the least of sins. He should have thought of something better to do with us by now (over how many millions of years?)

Space:
"So what could they mean by this story? To interpret correctly, you need to practice the law of charity and try to figure out what it would have meant to the authors."

Yes, try out an exegesis of the scripture, won't you? I can't see how a "law of charity" would hold up to destroying a tree that could feed many people. Not very charitable. These were goat hearding desert dwelling iron age people, and they weren't terribly
sophisticated. THAT's why some of these things were written. It's that simple. If Jesus could feed people by a miracle of thousands fish then he could certainly get a few figs without being so distasteful and childish.

Anonymous said...

Questions I have about this issue are as follows;
When someone recovers from an accident (for example) people say "see how great God is" but if the person does not recover, then "it is God's plan", or for a terrorist attack "it's the devil's work". Why would it be God's plan for someone to die in a horribly painful way (cancer, fire etc.)? Also people talk about how their prayers were answered when they got the job they wanted or whatever - now why would God get you a job and IGNORE the millions of people in the world that are starving and diseased not to mention the poor children tormented and traumatized every day by the war. Are people so self-centered that they think God would answer their prayers for trivial matters while ignoring all these suffering people?! Are people believers because they want to "know" that they will be going somewhere nice (heaven) after death because the alternative is too hard to accept i.e. that's it...the game is over!

Those are my questions...guess I'm just a logical thinker.

Spaceman Spiff said...

Anonymous:
My point is that you have to make a case for what the author's would have meant and what an audience would have understood. Neither you nor Barry have done that. You seem to imply that the fact that they are an ancient people explains the story but as far as I can tell you make no effort to show how. Thus your claims are somewhat weakened. Your reaction is an important one, but you should make an attempt at understanding the author *without* necessitating them being an idiot.

For example, in the case of the fig tree, it says Jesus saw a fig tree "with leaves" which would have suggested that it was something other than a normal fig tree. Thus he went to look to see if he could find "something on it" (not necessarily figs). The text seems to indicate that this kind of tree that Jesus hoped for because of the leaves showing *should have* had something on it at that time. But this one didn't.

Anyway, Jesus, and perhaps just as importantly, the authors of Matthew and Mark, being intimately familiar with the prophecies in Isaiah, chose to take this as a symbolic of Jesus' reaction to Israel. He is passing the judgment that God is supposed to pass on Israel.

Look at what follows and surrounds the text. It makes *no sense* for there to be a random story about Jesus being mad over missing food. It makes much more sense for there to be a symbolic claim to Messiah-ship be symbolically referencing the prophecies of Isaiah, since that fits in with the rest of the book.

Your claim that these authors are not that sophisticated is quite specious. There is plenty of evidence of such symbolic language all throughout the Old Testament and in the Talmud. In fact it is relatively easy to read this story in such a way that makes sense with the rest of the books around them, that makes sense of why Matthew and Mark would include this story and believe it would help convince people Jesus was the messiah.

The upshot is this: a first centry Jew would (and most of them apparently did) read this story as a messianic claim symbolic of judgment of Israel, followed in Mark by Jesus actually passing judgment at the temple.

You can insist that the writers are idiots and that Jesus was stupid to expect fruit on this tree, but the people claiming to have seen it seem to think it wasn't unreasonable. On their terms, in the terms of the story, it makes more sense to read it as saying that the appearance of this tree would lead one to believe there would in fact be fruit on it, but there wasn't. This is symbolic of Israel, with the apparent religion of the leaders that Jesus found lacking in real fruit.

This doesn't mean you have to buy the story, but it means you can't read it as mere petulance, and it is silly to conclude that Jesus is just foolishly expecting fruit on the tree with no reason to.

Such simplistic readings do not display serious engagement with the text, they display pure chronocentric modernist arrogance. What is really meant here by an "objective" viewpoint is "a face-value reading from our modern scientific perspective" which is the wrong one from which to figure out what the text means when its 2000 years old and Jewish.

The same kind of thing can be shown with the way you guys are discussing hell and God's goodness. Its the 20th century modernist viewpoint you are working from, and you're trying to fit a 2000 year old Jewish text into it. Of course its going to look a little silly. You have to first understand it on its own terms, then you can critique what its actually presenting, rather than starting off assuming something that leads to your conclusion. All you do in that case is tear down straw men. You may make yourself feel better about your position, but you haven't really made much of an argument against the text itself.

Anonymous said...

Spaceman - can you give any insight to my questions? (the post immediately above your last)

Jarod said...

http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/TopicIndex/43/1856_If_God_is_sovereign_over_what_we_do_how_can_he_get_angry_at_us/

http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/EventMessages/ByDate/227_Ten_Aspects_of_Gods_Sovereignty_Over_Suffering_and_Satans_Hand_in_It/


These are two links to some of the best explanations I have heard on suffering and the sovereignty of God and also of how God can be angry with us for what He has ordained. About objectivity, it is impossible for someone to be completely objective. Our beliefs are always going to find there way into every area of our lives no matter how hard we try to keep them out. That does not mean that we can not deduce truth on a particular subject. Truth is truth whether we believe it or not.

Barry Mahfood said...

Spaceman,

I always learn from your comments. I'd never heard of the law of charity.

I agree that the authors of the gospels would be trying to convince us that Jesus is the Christ, and so would portray him in the best possible light. On the other hand, people don't always do a good job of writing to their best advantage. In this case, looking at the story without the preconception of Christ's perfection and the Bible's inerrancy portrays a petulant Jesus to many.

I know that these concerns of mine can be explained away, but I guess I've stopped trying to do that.

Anyway, thanks again for your comment and what you've added to this discussion.

Barry Mahfood said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for the support. I also think it curious that people who survive disasters often give credit to God. One wonders why God didn't save everyone a lot of trouble by preventing the disaster in the first place. But of course the biblical God always wants to "show his glory," by putting people into dire straits and then rescuing them. That sort of behavior in humans is called mental illness.

Jarod said...

The problem we have is trying to describe God in human terms. God is God and there is none like Him. God isn't sitting up in heaven with lightning bolts throwing them at us but God does allow things to happen like natural disasters so that we can get a picture of how horrible sin is. Romans 8:20 says that the creation has been subjected to futility. When sin entered the world it caused the whole creation to under go decay and thus we have natural disasters. Suffering is allowed to take place so that we may see the destructive nature of sin and thus turn from it to God. God is righteous because His ultimate aim is to bring glory to that which is most valuable namely Himself. So God's aim is to glorify Himself which some may call it selfishness but God is the only one which selfishness is actually a good thing. It is the reason everyone is not in Hell right now. God gets glory in us finding joy in Him so God gets the glory and we get the joy. It is one of the most wonderful transactions in the world.

Jarod said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CinnamongirlFla said...

Where do you stand on the subject of Allah? Do you think Muslim cashiers at Target should have to ring up pepperoni pizzas? How about Algore (peacebeuponhim) and Global Warming?

I think Allah, Mohammed, and Algore (peacebeupomhim) are all great examples of petulance . In addition, the last two are extreme opportunists who profit greatly from inflicting their religions beliefs on others, in contrast to Christ.

You can be snarky if you choose to reply because I have started a new company, CinnamongirlFla's Great American Offset Co. Just pay me $5.oo and I will help a little old lady across the street on your behalf. If you delete my post, it will cost you $20 bucks and I will contribute one dollar to Obama's campaign because he gives us hope.

You can't lose 8-) Heh.

Barry Mahfood said...

cinnamongirl,

This thread is about Yahweh, or more accurately, Jesus. I know that you are all hopped up on all things Muslim, but that's a whole 'nother subject. On the other hand, I could post about the Bible's malign influence of society (as a sort of offshoot from your feelings about the Koran). Hmmm.

Spaceman Spiff said...

Anonymous,

I've thought a lot about the problems you put forth, and written quite a bit about them. Several issues are wrapped up here, but on the issue of why God might allow bad things to happen I've written thoughts here:
http://spiffthespaceman.blogspot.com/2005/09/problem-of-pain-or-why-do-bad-things.html
http://spiffthespaceman.blogspot.com/2005/11/what-will-suffering-teach-us.html
http://spiffthespaceman.blogspot.com/2006/04/some-more-thoughts-on-god-and.html

But the other issue you bring up is an interesting one. Does understanding God as answering our individual prayers necessitate us understanding Him as ignoring the prayers of others? I don't think so. I guess I would answer this way. My experience as a teacher has taught me a few things about dealing with a lot of kids. What one kid needs is not always what another kids needs. They don't always understand that, but a lot of the time I do. Sometimes somebody needs a little help, and sometimes somebody else doesn't. It may not make sense to them, but they lack the perspective that I have.

I'd say the Christian response is that something similar is at work here. I can only be grateful to God for saving me from some suffering if I accept that He is at work in difficult times as well. If we avoid the pitfall of treating God like a genie that *has* to help us if we are good enough or have right enough beliefs, then we are certainly able to avoid the problems you put forth.

I do have a problem with thanking God for ill-gotten gain, or anything that comes because someone else has been harmed. For example, I don't believe it is right to thank God that we are so wealthy in this country, since that happens in large part due to greed and unjust treatment of other nations.

But if we are cautious about what we attribute to God, and if we accept suffering from His hand as well as blessing, then as I said, I think we are safe in believing that God is also at work when others are blessed or when they suffer.

Spiff

Spaceman Spiff said...

Alright I'll try posting those links again. You have to copy and paste each part.

http://spiffthespaceman.blogspot.com/
2006/04/some-more-thoughts-on-god-and
.html

http://spiffthespaceman.blogspot.com/
2005/11/what-will-suffering-teach-us
.html

http://spiffthespaceman.blogspot.com/
2005/09/problem-of-pain-
or-why-do-bad-things.html

Spaceman Spiff said...

Dad,

You should try viewing science more objectively. Go back and look up all the attempted and committed atrocities that have been justified by scientific beliefs, not to mention all the harm that has been done to the planet and to humanity with the tools developed by science.

You'd probably object that those weren't good or true science, and that it isn't science's fault that people abuse it or abuse technology.

And I'd agree with you, but also point out that such a response invalidates the same criticisms of religion.

Barry Mahfood said...

Howdy Spaceman,

We miss you back at the ranch. When are you headed to Texas?

I think you are right about stuff being done in the name of science that's not admirable, but my impression is that science generally admits its ignorance and seeks to discover truth, while religion generally claims to know the truth and resists discovery, a la Galileo, Darwin, and other persecuted scientists.

Spaceman Spiff said...

Hey,
Next weekend we'll be headed out to Texas. Some weekend after that we'll definitely visit home. We miss you guys very much.

As far as science admitting its mistakes, you should read Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." He suggests that science is very resistant to new theories. They are always brought up by young revolutionaries unattached to the old paradigm. I think its just like any other human endeavor (including religion).

I'd say its hard to read much theology (Calvinism and Restorationism notwithstanding) without concluding that a whole lot of Christian thinkers have sincerely sought truth and accepted discovery and new ways of seeing things. Much like science, religion can be very conservative about its "received wisdom" but at the same time, developments are inevitable, since it is a human practice.

This is deep within Judeo-Christian thought. Jews never believed they had a perfect interpretation of the Torah, or that one interpretation would necessarily be applicable in different times and places. The rabbis acknowledged job was to interpret the Torah for their time. They saw the Torah as a place where God came in, but which they had to wrestle with. Thus we have the Talmud. Development was always happening and accepted.

We Christians lost that at some point, but some of us are getting it back. We have this "treasure in jars of clay" as it were. We treat the text as our charter document, the application and understanding of which is a complicated and never finished process. We accept that our wrestling will be imperfect, that even in some important ways, the text itself is imperfect and human. Yet we experience God there and join the long line of those who have wrestled with the Scriptures and how to understand and live them.

You can find this kind of thinking all throughout history, though just like in science or politics or history, there have always been those who claimed more authority for their interpretation than was warranted.