This is a response to Chris Burkhardt’s review of my book, which can be found at http://americancynic.net/log/2018/8/29/thou_shalt_not_believe/.
1. Sin, Death, and Guilt
The Bible and the Christian doctrine do not and never did simply begin with the fact of death. At best, Christianity begins coequally with death and sin. Sin, or “missing the mark” with respect to God’s expectations and moral law, is a continuous theme throughout the Bible and the Bible does in fact teach that sin, or missing the mark with respect to God’s expectations and moral law, is the direct reason people cannot enter the Kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven.
The Book of Genesis plainly teaches that Adam and Eve’s missing the mark by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil made physical death a reality (Genesis 3). The New Testament plainly teaches that eternal torment is the result of missing the mark with respect to God’s law and not accepting Jesus Christ as one’s savior, as the atoning sacrifice for one’s own acts of missing the mark (Romans 3; John 3:18; Hebrews 9-10).
Church traditions differ on which sacraments, if any, are necessary for salvation, but no Christian church can deny that Jesus Christ is the savior of the human race and that he saves humans who accept him as their savior from the consequences of their missing the mark, which according to the Bible are eternal torment and not merely physical death.
Burkhardt is correct that I equate sin with guilt. Or to put it otherwise, “missing the mark” is what makes people unrighteous, unworthy of God’s mercy, and unworthy of entering the Kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven according to the Bible and all Christian doctrines based on what I consider an honest reading of the Bible (Matthew 25; Romans 3; Revelation 21:27).
Thus, in my reading of the Bible, it teaches that missing the mark, or in other words engaging in actions that violate God’s moral law, makes people guilty of contravening God’s will and their guilt for doing so keeps them out of the presence of God eternally.
2. Hell and Salvation
No matter how existentially frightening the prospect of physical death may be, in my opinion cessation of consciousness at death is vastly preferable to post-death resurrection and subsequent eternal torment. To me, this is so obvious that I believe no argument should be necessary: nobody, not even the most extreme masochist, would prefer an afterlife where they experience continuous agony over simple nonexistence.
While I admittedly have no personal experience with hellfire, I feel confident in writing that all who, from the vantage point of this life, believe they would prefer conscious agony to nonexistence in the next life, would quickly change their minds if they were confronted with the experiential reality of eternal torment. (This paragraph should be read as hypothetical: there is no reliable evidence that a realm of postmortem agony like Gehenna actually exists, and thus I don’t believe it’s something that people should actually worry about.)
Humans don’t need saving from the biosphere. And if they do, death works just fine, so long as there is no afterlife of agony or torment. However, it is possible to achieve a moderate degree of contentment, or even full peace-of-mind, in this life, in this biosphere, if one’s circumstances are not too dire (or else one learns to accept one’s circumstances no matter how dire), if one does not believe in realms of torment that await sentient beings after death or in gods who cause suffering to humans for sport or similar notion, and if one embraces and lives by values that make contentment or peace-of-mind realistically achievable if one lives by those values (and I will add in passing that most extant value systems, including secular value systems, do not make contentment or peace-of-mind realistically achievable).
3. Regarding Failed Prophecies
I agree that the prophecies I cover from 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and Ezekiel in my chapter “Failed Prophecies,” and particularly the prophecy from Ezekiel, are boring. I didn’t include them because I believe they make for riveting reading. Rather, I included them because I think they call the claim that the Bible is infallible and divinely revealed or inspired into question.
I didn’t bother trying to figure out what the prophets were predicting or trying to get across for two reasons: (1) I doubt it is possible to determine what the people who wrote these alleged prophecies down were trying to get across if not the literal message conveyed, and (2) I really don’t care why these prophecies were included in the Hebrew Bible—I only care that they’re present in a book (or, more accurately, collection of books) taken to be infallible and divinely revealed or inspired by most Christians.
I also don’t care why or even if these prophecies are still valued, though I question very much whether most of the ones I cited are in fact still valued even by the most ardent Protestant Fundamentalists and the most observant Orthodox Jews.
I don’t care what their significance has been over the millennia. My only interest is what their falsity tells us about the Bible’s status as divine revelation, and I have no desire to try to salvage them or reapply them to present circumstances. I only care that they’re wrong when literally read and that their wrongness calls the status of what most Christians still believe to be divine revelation or divinely inspired into question.
4. Interpretation of the Bible and Christian Tradition
I maintain that my understanding of the Bible and of the basic premises and core teachings of Christianity is in fact the most honest one. Instead of reaching for interpretations of ideas and teachings that fit with my own preexistent views, I prefer to do my best to take ideas and teachings at face value, or as closely to their apparent intended meaning as I can.
I realize this approach may seem quaint and/or unrealistic in the eyes of those who believe that ideas in a text can never be fully understood in their original sense or taken at face value because their meanings are constantly shifting as a result of repetition, interactions with other words in the same language, and continuous definition and redefinition vis-à-vis those other words, and also as a result of people’s variegated understandings of those words and their surrounding context, which vary from place to place, epoch to epoch, group to group, and even individual to individual.
Or to put it in more thoroughly postmodern lingo, all ideas are dynamic and constantly being interpreted and reinterpreted by those who engage with them using their own unique rhetorical strategies based on the range of meanings of those ideas made possible by the cultural and meta-cultural discourses in which their thought patterns and linguistic possibilities are always already embedded, as well as their own individual idiosyncrasies which themselves are constituted by categories determined by their cultural framework and themselves exist only within a range of contexts specific to their social situation.
But I do not agree with the fundamental tenets of what, in general terms, can be called the “postmodern worldview,” which I have sought to describe in this section (and in case the reader is wondering, the foregoing section is deliberately confusing so as to convey something of the overall “flavor” of postmodern “analysis”). Rather, I believe that ideas do have meaning independent of what those who interpret and engage with them bring to them.
More specifically for present purposes, I believe the Bible has passages with particular meanings independent of people’s interpretations thereof. Now, I acknowledge it is possible that nobody interprets these passages 100% correctly, but I maintain that some interpretations are much more accurate than others. I
I acknowledge that my reading of the Bible is inevitably rooted in my own experiences and in the culture in which I grew up, but unlike those of what I am calling a “postmodern” bent, who for the most part seem to carefreely and unapologetically embrace their biases and gleefully read them into texts, I try as hard as I can to overcome the biases I have as a result of my own cultural heritage and individual idiosyncrasies.
(To be clear, I am not saying that Burkhardt has a “postmodern” reading of the Bible, but I think that, by legitimizing the act of bringing one’s own experiences to bear on one’s interpretation of the Bible, his approach leans in that direction.)
5. No, I’m not opposed to reading books; yes, I treat the supernatural elements of the Bible as integral to the Christian message and deal mainly with them
It is true that all works of art are human creations. However, in my book I am not addressing the Bible as “art” or as fiction (and I would point out that most books of the Bible are not presented by their authors as works of art or fiction). Rather, I am addressing the Bible as a book or collection of books that many people regard as containing factual claims about the universe and about history that are divinely revealed or inspired.
I never argue that the Bible has no value or inherent meaning. This is a false claim about my book that sets up a straw man argument implying I see no value in reading books.
Contrary to what Burkhardt claims, in my book I acknowledge that value can be found in the Bible even if one does not believe it is divinely revealed/inspired or if one rejects its supernatural elements (for example, in the third paragraph of Chapter 1, which is at pages 13-14 of the print version).
It is true that I argue against using the Bible to find these values precisely because of its supernatural elements which are just as integral a part of it as any moral teaching, and cannot be ignored except through very selective reading, but I certainly don’t deny that it’s possible to do so (indeed, I mention a very specific example of this in my chapter on the Trilemma, Thomas Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth).
My main focus in my book is on showing that the Bible’s factual claims are false or cannot be proven, and when I write that it is just as well to throw the Bible out once one starts picking and choosing which claims to take seriously, I mean that there is no reason to treat with any more reverence than a popular novel. I don’t mean that one should throw it out, just that there is nothing wrong with throwing it out at that point.
I think it is actually quite important to emphasize this point: unlike works such as Hesiod’s Theogony, a very large number of people still do take the Bible’s factual claims seriously and believe they should treat the Bible and its claims with reverence and respect.
Pointing out that Hesiod’s Theogony does not describe factual events would be pointless because only a handful of revivalists believe the gods of the Ancient Greek pantheon literally exist. But pointing out the same thing in the Bible is still quite necessary, as a very large number of people still believe the Bible is divinely revealed/inspired and that the creation narratives in Genesis, the flood narrative, the Exodus, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, etc. describe actual historical events.
I realize my book is not original in this regard, but I believe this still needs to be said, especially by those who have believed in the literal historical truth of these teachings in the past and then come to reject them (which, as far as I can tell, none of the so-called “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism” or most other famous atheists and nonbelievers ever came close to believing). There are a lot of us in that category, and for many of us the truth or falsehood of the view that these are actual historical events is no mere intellectual trifle, but is of the utmost importance. For people who grew up in other traditions, I’m sure the truth or falsity of the historical claims of their tradition is just as important to them.
If we humans are not gaining our understanding of the universe from purported divine revelation, or from a living person who claims they have the answers and expects his or her claims to be taken on faith or trust (like many-a New Age guru), then we are relying on our own reason and experiences, as well as the reasoning and experience of experts whose views have been peer reviewed and accepted by other experts in their field.
I never argue that a book cannot help people gain a greater understanding of the world. In other words, I do not argue against reading books. Rather, I argue against treating books, specifically the Bible, but others as well, as infallible/sacred.
I am willing to concede that my wording in the quotation cited by Burkhardt was a little bit clumsy. What I was trying to get at is that at the very least, I would appreciate it if people acknowledge when they are, as I put it, simply making the Bible say what they want it to say, rather than pretending (whether intentionally or otherwise) that the Bible agrees with them and in fact does say what they want it to say.
6. On Wealth and the Wealthy in the New Testament and the Issue of Class Antagonism
I don’t gloss over the message that early Christians sought a social order without rich people. That message is at the very least implied in my lengthy treatment of what the New Testament teaches about wealth and the wealthy.
However, I concede that Burkhardt’s interpretation of the “eye of the needle” passage is correct. Indeed, I provide the same interpretation of that passage that he does elsewhere in my book (Chapter 19, in the section Wealth and the Wealthy in the Gospels), and I believe this is the correct interpretation, not the one I provide in Chapter 18. This passage does teach that, barring a miracle, a rich person cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
However, I maintain that the New Testament teaches that people cannot be moral without the help of God, and that this point, which is made in Chapter 18, stands. And just to make it clear, I interpret the Kingdom of God as primarily an afterlife phenomenon, for even if it is present on earth, the Bible makes it clear that it is also present beyond the earth and that all earthly things are fleeting and will continue to be fleeting until the Kingdom of God is literally brought to earth in the end-times.
The “camel through the eye of a needle” passage thus teaches that, barring a miracle, a rich person cannot be saved. Of course this passage does not describe how much money a person needs to have to be “rich,” but as I point out in my book the vast majority of contemporary Westerners are rich compared to even the vast majority of well-off people in Roman-occupied Judea 2,000 years ago.
I acknowledge it may be possible that early Christians had a strong sense of class antagonism, the extent of which I did not appreciate when I wrote my book, and that they were just as fanatical as Marxists in their hatred for the rich and for rulers. As a person who believes all governments lack inherent legitimacy and acknowledges that all of them are premised on the use of force and engage in varying degrees of repression, I am even a little bit sympathetic to the latter half of that stance. (To be clear, I also acknowledge that absence of government usually means more frequent, more brutal, and less predictable exercises of force than would exist with government, and therefore while I believe no government has inherent legitimacy, I prefer having limited government to not having any government.)
I also freely acknowledge that even today, some people who are rich are so because they have exploited others. However, I consider increased prosperity the key to making life less miserable for human beings in light of the formidable obstacles we and all other species face in this biosphere. I support a free market economy with private ownership of the means of production, most services, most land, and the fruits of labor because of the proven practical benefits of such a system in reducing human suffering from what it once was.
Many people, especially “leftists,” tend to underestimate how extensive these benefits have been, as they are either ignorant of how much more brutal life was for the entire human race than it is now until less than two centuries ago, or underestimate the extent to which humans were capable of brutalizing each other and indeed were often quite eager to brutalize each other in virtually all premodern societies even without the assistance of advanced technology. (And again to be clear, I don’t claim that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are or have been paradisiacal, only that they have featured less suffering and hardship, overall, than any other period of human history, despite still featuring an abundance of both. Thus, I fully acknowledge that these centuries have still featured an abundance of suffering and hardship. Indeed, the fact that there is still so much suffering and hardship, despite the technological and humanitarian advances that have characterized these centuries compared to all other periods of human history, is one of things that causes me have such a negative view of the biosphere.)
Far from being the foundation upon which modern capitalism was built, the values of the New Testament are directly antithetical to the ethical and scientific foundations of modern capitalism. Perhaps a creative misreading of the New Testament by the Puritans, as well as deists and other British Protestants, helped facilitate the rise of modern capitalism, but in my reading the New Testament does indeed teach the degree of contempt for the wealthy and the accumulation of wealth that Burkhardt finds in it, and I am willing to concede that Burkhardt is correct that it does so in an even more extreme way and to a greater degree than I recognize in my book, i.e. by teaching a conscious class antagonism.