Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Godless Basis of Authentic Morality: A Response to A.J. Ellis

In the many online discussions I engage in with Christian theists, the argument for God's existence that is both used more than any other and employed with the most confidence is by far the argument from "objective morality." This concept of morality is invoked as evidence for God; their reasoning is that if there is an absolute standard of good and evil that is grounded in something outside ourselves, it must therefore be grounded in something transcendent or supernatural. One self-described Christian apologist I have known for some time via Facebook heavily favors this particular argument, and my recent discussions (which I hope will turn into a formal debate) with him on the subject have inspired me to address his points in the present essay.

On his online blog, entitled Musings From the Empire, A.J. Ellis describes himself as "An occasional writer and Christian constitutional libertarian apologist." On a recent discussion thread on my Facebook profile, A.J. had the following to say about morality and the God hypothesis:
The existence of objective moral truths (everyone has 'em, though we may not agree where that line would be drawn) is one of the evidences for the existence of God.

First, in obeying God, a person is simply conforming with the final reality (which is God,) instead of beating our heads against it. If God exists, (God meaning the final authority and creator of the universe,) then what He says is true, including moral truths.

Humanists always assume some 'higher' moral framework than God, to say that 'God is unjust,' but by what authority or framework can they make that claim?

By what standard do you say that God is unjust?

Ahh, but wait, you assume the Christian standard of morality given by this God in order to attack his justice, all the while ignoring certain things that go along with God's existence (such as His necessary claim to ownership and ultimate judicial authority.)

I say show me how God is objectively unjust.

In a separate thread, in response to challenges I had put forth to his statements, he writes,
Why is it [human freedom and dignity] a 'right?!' What makes any of these otherwise silly moralistic things 'standards?!?' How do you get an 'ought' (without which morality is NOTHING, such as your assertion of 'rights') from what 'is?' (material things which do not speak.) I remember the statement about 'avoiding pain and being happy' being 'better' for people, but why in the world should that matter at all to anyone if they can get away with it? Why is it 'better' in the first place?

Although I'm sure you've heard the question before, I'm very interested as to how humanism can get or ground moral obligations, or an 'ought,' based on your woldview [sic], and also wonder if there's a humanistic example of an objective or transcendant [sic] moral obligation that exists.

On a surface level, A.J. Ellis is correct: If an objective moral standard does exist, then it must come from somewhere. But how does it then follow from this that objective moral standards come from God? God's existence would remain undemonstrated even if objective moral values were shown to exist. In other words, his implication is wrong. The fact of the matter is that A.J.'s argument is worthless because it assumes what it sets out to prove: To paraphrase A.J.: "We are all imbued with a moral sense, by which we have the capacity to judge that God is unjust in the first place. Therefore, all people are possessed of a moral sense which could only have come from God. Therefore, God exists." The argument is essentially that if one understands anything about good and evil, then that person must have standards of some kind, and that standard must have come from God. How does "God" follow from the fact that people with an understanding of good and evil employ standards?

Allow me to illustrate the vacuousness of this argument with a question directed specifically at A.J.: Do you consider chocolate to be delicious? Think carefully how you answer; how do you know what "delicious" means? Clearly, you have a standard by which you judge that which is delicious and what is not delicious. This standard you have is the reason you will gladly accept a chocolate bar that I give you, but will reject, say, a steaming dog turd in disgust. Now, if your standard is what informs you that chocolate is more delicious than dog turds, then there must be a source by which to measure how delicious things are. Is it not therefore obvious that this source must be God? After all, by what possible standard can you objectively discern that which is delicious from that which is not, if that standard is not the most delicious thing in the universe? Therefore, we can conclude that God, the Ultimate Tasty Thing, exists.

But why end there? Literally any existential abstraction can be ranked in some hierarchy that descends from a "source" or standard. For instance, who is the best gay sex partner? For any given homosexual man, there is obviously going to be some good gay sex and some bad gay sex, with a continuum in between. How, exactly, are we to rank gay sex along that scale? A standard is obviously required to do this. What does this observation make God out to be? As we can see, one should be very careful about who is established as the ultimate standard for everything, because then he/she/it has to actually become the Ultimate Standard for Everything. Such a being would also by logical necessity have to be the ultimate evil as well. Think about that, A.J.

The underlying point of these thought experiments is this: The standard you have of what is delicious and what is not has the potential to instill in your mind a Platonic idea of what the most delicious thing in the universe might taste like. But does it then follow that such a thing exists? Not necessarily. If I were to give you a great amount of food and asked you to rank the food items based on how delicious they are, your personal tastes will objectively determine how you rank them. You will end up with a "most delicious item" and a "least delicious item" according to this personal taste by which you objectively rank the food. But is the "most delicious item" on your list the most delicious food item that exists or could possibly exist in the universe? The most likely answer is no. It is much more probable that at some future point after ranking your food gifts, you will encounter new food that becomes, according to your personal tastes, your new "most delicious item." However, the theoretical possibility that there could exist the Most Delicious Thing in the Universe does not mean that such a thing actually does exist.

The only thing required to conceive of a variety of moral standards is imagination. As humans, we can imagine situations or circumstances that are better or worse than what we are currently experiencing. For example, we can easily imagine a world devoid of pain and suffering, or at the very least a world devoid of unnecessary pain and suffering. Does our ability to imagine such a world mean that such a world actually exists? But we do not even need to go that far with our imagination in order to demonstrate the fallacy of claiming that the existence of human standards implies a transcendent Ultimate Standard floating somewhere in the ether. As humans, we imagine better and worse scenarios in relation to what we currently experience all the time, often sub-consciously. For example, if we are driving along a rural highway and our vehicle gets hit by loose gravel on the road, we may instinctively think It is a good thing this car is not being hit with bigger rocks! As long as anybody has the ability to imagine better and worse scenarios, a scale can be mentally constructed. And all the evidence we have concerning the nature of ethics and morality screams that they are an entirely human contrivance. Ethics and morality are sociological constructs that humans use in order to efficiently function in a cooperative society. Ethics and morality are byproducts of the same system of mental processes by which we rank foods or how clean the air smells on a given day. We engage in qualitative and quantitative analysis all the time, and none of it requires a divine author of any kind.

The Counter-Argument From Morality
There is in fact an important counter-argument to be made. As a Christian, A.J. Ellis claims that his God is the divine author of morality. He knows that God is good, because the book he allegedly inspired says that he is good. Such reasoning is, of course, circular. But even setting that detail aside for now, when Christians read through the Bible and point out passages to say, "Look, here we see God doing something good," they are making a judgment of God's described actions. Based on their own conception of morality, they deem a given action attributed to God as being good and not evil. If they did not already have a notion of morality ingrained in them by the influence of functioning societies, there is no conceivable way they could judge whether it is God who is evil or Satan who is evil.

Furthermore, if the God of the Bible truly is the Standard and Source of all goodness, why is it that Christians cannot readily point to highly questionable passages as examples of God's goodness? There are numerous instances in the Bible which speak of the the Israelites committing genocide at the direct command of God, and raping and pillaging indiscriminately with God's blessing and endorsement. Why do we not see many Christians pointing to such passages as examples of God exercising his perfectly good character? Of course, it is true that some do; there are Christians who will say that what God ordered his chosen people to do was morally upright and good, because the people being wiped out and terrorized "deserved it." However, it is also true that Christians rarely if ever hold such narratives up as their best example of God's goodness. In other words, they realize they have to explain such passages. But again, if the God of the Bible truly is the objective Source of all moral goodness recognized by humans, such passages should not require apologetic explanations or excuses. God's morally good character as described in the pages of Scripture should be unambiguously clear and obvious to everyone, and the fact that it is not unambiguous throws a wrench into any characterization of the biblical God as the Source of all goodness, from whence all humans derive their own standards.

A.J. charges me with assuming the Christian standard of morality given by his God in order to attack his justice. This is nothing more than evasive rhetoric that attempts to circumnavigate or avoid any commitment to declaring the morally dubious biblical passages as morally good, which consistency would require A.J. and apologists like him to declare. To cut past this evasive maneuver, I address this question to A.J. himself: Are you saying that, for example, God's act of flooding the entire earth, killing everybody except for eight people, was morally good?

Most Christians will most likely answer yes to this question, but only because they are forced to by the dictates and assertions of their holy book. I contend that their own moral compass informs them that this is not good or just, and that they recognize this in the inner recesses of their conscience. But they try to suppress this recognition when they insist that they must agree with what the Bible says, and specifically when they call this and other instances of God-ordered atrocities a "necessary evil." The term "necessary evil," when used as a rationalization in this way, allows the apologist to redefine "evil" such that the classification becomes meaningless when applied to God. In this view, evil is simply misunderstood good, because God's plan must be brought to fruition no matter what the consequences are or who is hurt along the way.

This response to the "necessary evil" line of rationalization is reminiscent of an argument put forth by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume likens the "evil as a means to an end" justification to an architect showing off a house that is so lacking in refinements as to inflict upon the prospective homeowner the most unpleasant living conditions. The architect could argue that this house is actually a wonderful, high-quality house, because if anything about the house's original condition was changed or modified, the result would not be a better house, but a still worse one. On the basis of this, the architect could suggest that the house is perfect as it is. Of course, the reasonable and justified response to such an architect is obvious:
Did I shew you a house or palace, where there was not one apartment convenient or agreeable; where the windows, doors, fires, passages, stairs, and the whole economy of the building, were the source of noise, confusion, fatigue, darkness, and the extremes of heat and cold; you would certainly blame the contrivance, without any further examination. The architect would in vain display his subtilty, and prove to you, that if this door or that window were altered, greater ills would ensue. What he says may be strictly true: the alteration of one particular, while the other parts of the building remain, may only augment the inconveniences. But still you would assert in general, that, if the architect had had skill and good intentions, he might have formed such a plan of the whole, and might have adjusted the parts in such a manner, as would have remedied all or most of these inconveniences. His ignorance, or even your own ignorance of such a plan, will never convince you of the impossibility of it. If you find any inconveniences and deformities in the building, you will always, without entering into any detail, condemn the architect.

These analogies, when applied to the Bible's conception of God, illustrate the emptiness of the "necessary evil" rationalization. If the biblical God had skill and good intentions, he might have formed such a plan of the whole, and adjusted the parts in such a manner, as would have made the committing of atrocities to remedy problems completely unnecessary. His failure in that regard should never convince anybody of the impossibility of a better plan. The inconveniences and deformities of the universe we find ourselves in serve as evidence that the God spoken of in the Bible is nothing more than the product of human imagination, a projection and extension of human traits onto an imagined untouchable entity whose alleged actions reflect humanity's own failings to live at peace with one another. However, if the biblical God does exist, we are justified in condemning him as unjust, and in doing so we do not assume the standard of morality given by this God.

Lest any Christian apologist employs the rhetorical maneuver of creating a distinction between the relevancy of the Old Testament versus the New Testament, I point out that the New Testament notion of eternal punishment for finite crimes is evil and unjust. In fact, this notion stands as the greatest example of the evil and injustice of the God character, more so than any of the atrocities described in the Old Testament as endorsed or commanded by God combined. There are many Christians whose own moral compass informs them that this is indeed evil and unjust. They are the ones who typically say they do not believe in eternal punishment or in the concept of hell. They say that the believers are given eternal life in heaven and all non-believers simply cease to exist. In other words, their own moral standards, which they do not get from an authoritarian deity, inspires them to change what the Bible actually says. But I submit that offering any kind of reward based on belief and not on action is just unjust as the doctrine of eternal conscious torture. Preferential treatment for invalid reasons, which describes perfectly the doctrine of conditional immortality, is just as evil.

My two-pronged question to Christian scholars and laypersons who are squeamish about the idea of eternal torture is similar to the question I posed to A.J. above: 1) Suppose God did prescribe eternal torture for non-believers in the afterlife, unambiguously and clearly. Would that prescription of eternal torture for finite crimes become good simply because the deity said so? 2) Since you as a Christian believe that hell does not exist, please explain the words attributed to the person whom you believe is God in the flesh. I suspect the answers to the first question (which is essentially a form of the Euthyphro Dilemma), would be mixed; some would say yes, and some would say no. The latter group clearly has the superior moral grounding. As for the former group, I personally do not see how they get around the actual words they believe are attributed to Jesus when he speaks of the fires of hell. Even the Pope (Benedict XVI) a few years ago made a public statement to the effect that hell exists and is eternal.

In the end, the Bible is shown to be a big book of multiple choice, from which Christians pick and choose their theological and social beliefs. This demonstrates that A.J. Ellis grossly oversimplifies matters when he claims that if God exists, then what he says is true, including moral "truths." The fact of the matter is that as humans, we have our own moral standards that we apply to our interpretation of the Bible and other holy books, standards which operate independently of any alleged deity and which are informed entirely by social and cultural influences. The standard by which we can say God is unjust is the same standard that has allowed us to survive as a species and form cooperative societies, and these include notions of justice, fairness, compassion, empathy, etc. Humanism can realize and ground moral obligations in this way; we can get an ought from an is based on what we recognize to have sustained us throughout history.

As for a "humanistic example of an objective or transcendent moral obligation that exists," our secular standards of morality are no more "transcendent" than our standards as they apply to food, gay sex, how clean the air smells to us, or how much gravel can strike our vehicle before investing in a new paint job. But something does not need to be "transcendent" in order to be reasonably applied in the real world. Morals are not transcendent, because morality does not pre-date either consciousness or experience. And because no two experiences are exactly alike, it makes little sense to speak of morality in objective terms. It makes more sense to say that there exists a moral consensus, a consensus that we disregard at our peril.

The Atonement Dilemma: An Addendum

Some months ago, I wrote a short essay arguing that the Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement, at least as understood in the orthodox sense that most Christians adhere to, is plagued with fundamental inherent inconsistencies. In the Christian mythology, Jesus Christ is said to have suffered and died for the sins of humanity. If that is the case, I asked, should Jesus Christ not be acting as a placeholder in hell for eternity? Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus took upon himself the sins that condemned all humanity to an eternity separated from God in hell. Therefore, in order for the theological structure to remain internally consistent, Jesus would necessarily have to remain in hell permanently in order for any Christian to enter heaven.

I now realize that my formulation of the problem in that previous essay did not take into account the mythology in its entirety, and the feedback from my readers served to remind me of this. The reason why Jesus could take upon himself the sins of all people and yet avoid being permanently trapped in hell is because he is God, and therefore holds the power to avoid that fate by a fiat act of will. For example, one reader responded as follows:
To use a really lame analogy, if you take a balloon full of air and try and submerge it underwater, it is going to fight its way to the service. So too because the nature of hell (which IS separation from God) could not contain God Himself, the process of atonement somehow broke the gates. On His return from hell, those who clung (and do cling) to Him in hope are lifted out of death and decay as well. If not bodily yet, in spirit yes.

In a similar vein, another reader responded by pointing out that
I don't think your representation holds, because there's nothing that said Jesus had to go to hell forever. There is a difference between us (the debtor) and Jesus (the one who paid.) The scriptures say that while the penalty of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life.

One other thing, if God exists and the Bible is His word, God can do whatever He wants. There is no absolute standard of 'justice' above Him, because justice is defined by Him. Also, what is sufficient is defined by Him as well.

While this aspect of the mythology is certainly relevant to explaining how Jesus Christ could have escaped the fate of permanent placeholder in hell for the redeemed, the more important insight and the more pertinent point to be made is that there was no sacrifice. If Jesus was trapped in hell forever, that would be a true sacrifice. I am not saying that, according to the story, Jesus did not suffer and die brutally. But this would not hold a candle to the claim that Elvis Presley died for our sins. Elvis stayed dead! Jesus, on the other hand, took an extended weekend and then returned to his position as God afterwards. As revealed by Mel Gibson, Jesus experienced horrible suffering and pain that was literally excruciating. But Jesus did not even experience the most horrible pain and suffering in human history. Compare, for example, the alleged sufferings of Jesus Christ at his execution to people who were kept alive for long periods in the midst of torture during the Spanish Inquisition. I have seen Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ several times (it was not as good as the book, by the way). I have read several historians who point out that as bloody as Gibson's portrayal was, it was very commonplace at that time in history for people to be scourged, brutally beaten and crucified to the same degree experienced by the Christ in the film.

Thus, the relative brevity and commonplace nature of Jesus' sufferings compared to the level of suffering experienced by people in all of human history pose another problem threatening the credibility of the atonement scenario. But the problems do not end there. Suppose a godlike being came to you and presented this offer to you: "You are going to be beaten brutally, scourged, have your skin ripped out, stabbed, and nailed to a tree until you die. You are then going to stay dead for three days. Then, when the three days are over, you become God, the supreme ruler of the universe." Who in their right mind would not sign up for that? Far from being the deal of the century, this would be the deal of an eternity. It is anything but a sacrifice.

The Christian notion of substitutionary atonement is essentially that God sacrificed himself to himself as a workaround or loophole for rules that he devised himself. If God can do whatever he wants and still retain his perfect morality, with no absolute standard of justice being above him, he could have simply forgiven all people, or at least admitted that his original rules were patently absurd. For what exactly is the actual point in masochistically taking on that extra punishment? If you want to forgive an individual or a group of people, then forgive them, most especially if you are the one who is in charge of making up the rules concerning whether your special creations can be forgiven or not.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Gambling with Pascal: A Refutation of the Foundational Basis of Ray Comfort's Ministry

It is a fact that there does not as yet exist a single argument for the existence of a god that is not either an appeal to emotion or a logical fallacy. This being the case, it is only natural that those of us who realize this fact should come to expect that more and more theistic apologists should begin to understand this as well. But in this regard we often witness the opposite; the observation that very little in essence has changed in apologetic approaches from its earliest practice is quite startling upon consideration.

I can find no better demonstration of this fact than the popularity and influence of the ministry of Ray Comfort and his sidekick Kirk Cameron, of Way of the Master infamy [1]. As utterly stupid as these two figures are, it cannot be denied that they are extremely popular in the mainstream evangelical community and have become household names in American Christian culture. This means, of course, that there are actually many Christians who sincerely consider Ray and Kirk to be competent defenders of the Christian faith. This is a very interesting phenomenon considering that, in the words of my friend Martin Wagner, these two men do not have enough brain cells between them to power a very tiny flashlight.

On their website, Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort offer an online course on Biblical Evangelism, which teaches Christians how to effectively share and defend their faith [2]. This course has also been published as a book, entitled The School of Biblical Evangelism, which consists of 101 lessons which take the form of 5-10 page chapters. Several aspects of this coursework are quite telling. For one thing, their entire approach throughout is to largely bypass intellectual argumentation in favor of purely emotional appeals and guilt trips. They are quite open about adopting this approach on their own website and televison show. What follows is a choice sampling of their open admisssions to being anti-intellectual and proud of it:

"These lessons will teach you to overcome your fears by using a proven, powerfully effective way to make the gospel make sense. You won't be at a loss for words. You don't need to be an expert in apologetics. Instead, you'll learn the forgotten biblical principle of bypassing the intellect (the place of argument) and speaking directly to the conscience (the place of the knowledge of right and wrong) — the way Jesus did"
(http://www.wayofthemaster.com/btc.shtml)

"[T]hese questions [intellectual objections from the non-believer] can often be arguments in disguise to sidetrack you from the 'weightier matters of the Law.' While apologetics (arguments for God’s existence, creation vs. evolution, etc.) are legitimate in evangelism, they should merely be 'bait,' with the Law of God being the 'hook' that brings the conviction of sin. Those who witness solely in the realm of apologetical argument may just get an intellectual decision rather than a repentant conversion.

Always pull the sinner back to his responsibility before God on Judgment Day, as Jesus did in Luke 13:1–5."
(http://www.livingwaters.com/witnessingtool/watchforredherrings.shtml)


Ray: We'll teach you how to bypass the intellect (the place of argument) and speak directly to the conscience, the place of the knowledge of right and wrong.

Kirk: You don't have to be an expert in apologetics or archaeology, and you don't have to know Greek! Just let love swallow your fears and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SmEu8DaM58).

Kirk: When you learn how to speak to a person's conscience, and circumnavigate the intellect, the subject of evolution seems to disappear.

Ray: Now this is real good news for people like me. It means I don't have to become an expert in the "fossil record." And it also means I don't have to learn words like "Rhinorhondothackasaurus."
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohCDWDsUefk&p=B772A24C0D6113CF&playnext=1&index=27).

Interestingly enough, Kirk and Ray have stumbled (albeit through no intellect or cleverness of their own) across an approach that is in fact quite effective, even when applied to some people who do have a solid grounding in intellectual thought. Because of the way the human brain is hardwired to function, one's entire education, intelligence, critical reasoning and every other aspect of our self that relates to rationality can literally be bypassed if the barriers separating the outermost layers of the brain from the brain's center are psychologically manipulated in such a manner that entry is made possible. This is because the human brain is structured in such a way the function of critical thinking and rationality resides in its outermost layers. The height of our emotional being, as well as the most animalistic and instinctive part of our being, resides in the center of the brain, and this emotional capacity decreases the closer we progress in study to the outer edge of the brain. Thus, that part of our psyche that is operated by the center of the brain is the area most susceptible to fear tactics and appeals to emotion. Depending on how strong these tactics are, they do have the potential to override the rationality of even a highly intelligent and critical thinker. This potential to override the intellect is especially strong in cases involving intelligent people who simply have never devoted much deep thought concerning what they believe and why, and what they do not believe. The evangelicals who exploit this psychological state of affairs most often target these people. The success of the street preaching of Kirk and Ray, for example, depends entirely on their targeting of people who have not developed the critical thinking skills necessary for realizing the emptiness of their claims.

Then, of course, there are many people who are purposefully not shown in the final edit of Kirk and Ray's television show depicting their street preaching adventures. These are the people who have a background in active critical thinking, who have a solid understanding of skepticism and are well-educated and well-read, and who have thought long and hard about what they believe and why and what they reject and why. Those of us who grasp these qualities will immediately and clearly see how embarrassingly pathetic Kirk and Ray's course on Biblical Evangelism is. Numerous examples abound, but one of the most important in my mind is the fact that lessons involving how to provide evidences of God's existence is almost non-existent in the coursework. Out of 101 lesson chapters, only five chapters near the end address the subject of atheism. Only one of these addresses "proofs" of God's existence, in an almost begrudging, impatient manner that makes it obvious to the reader that very little thought was given to the argument.

But the question of the existence or non-existence of God is a very basic one; one would think that this question should have a prominent place at the beginning of any discussion involving someone who lacks a belief in God. In fact, that starting point should be basic regardless of whether the person targeted by the evangelist believes in God or not. If an evangelist tried to convince me to become a Christian, it would do no good for her to begin by telling me that I am obliged to worship her deity or dedicate my entire being to its will. I have yet to be convinced that the deity being described even exists in the first place. But Kirk and Ray have failed to apply even that basic logic to their initial evangelistic approach. If he can get away with it, Ray Comfort will always avoid discussions that prompt him to provide evidences for theism. Of course, this is because he does not have these evidences, which is also why he places such great and enthusiastic emphasis on "bypassing the intellect." And who better to teach the art of bypassing the intellect than two idiots who have no intellect, and who even admit they have no need of it?

The "proof" that Ray Comfort's course instructs the aspiring evangelist to present to the unbeliever is nothing more than that well-known and tired runaway analogy that has been overly refuted in multiple ways for over one hundred years: the analogy between buildings and paintings and builders/painters, extrapolated to the universe as a whole, onto which the label of "Creation" is slapped to uphold the analogy. Ray ends up invoking Romans 1:20 as his main piece of evidence, using the Christian holy book to "prove" the Christian God exists. Beyond this extremely illogical and circular argument, Ray continues to avoid any depth of thought on this issue, as we see in the opening of lesson chapter 70, on "How to Prove the Existence of God":

To one who examines the evidence, there can be no doubt that God exists. The fact of the existence of the Creator is axiomatic (self-evident). That's why the Bible says, "The fool has said in his heart, There is no God" (Psalm 14:1). The professing atheist denies the common sense given to him by God, and defends his belief by thinking that the question "Who made God?" can't be answered. This, he thinks, gives him license to deny the existence of God [3].

Apparently, Ray cannot manage to remain consistent even in the same short paragraph. If the "fact" of the existence of God is axiomatic, why must one "examine the evidence" before being clear of all doubt? Why would examination of evidence even be required? Notice also what this axiomatic assumption does: even in a chapter purporting to provide evidences of God's existence, the approach is still to assume at the outset that God's existence is a given (i.e., the claim that professing atheists deny the common sense given to us by God, and that this is why we are atheists). In the previous chapter, Ray had declared that there is no such thing as a true atheist. Thus, it is likely to be this idiotic assumption that all professing atheists either secretly believe in God or are truly agnostics that encourages him and Kirk to take a detour from delivering evidence-based justifications for belief in God. I also find it exceedingly ironic that Ray Comfort writes that in order to know God exists, "all we need are eyes that can see and a brain that works . . . The only ones who have trouble with its simplicity are those who profess to be intellectuals. No wonder man is searching for intelligent life in the universe" [4]. The reason this blows the irony meter is seen in the self-contradictory way Ray concludes the chapter:

In a world where the rich get richer and the poor get stomped on, we are informed that God has gone to the other end of the line with the message of everlasting life. How has He done that? Simply by choosing that which is weak, base, and despised. You can see this by asking a skeptic, "Do you believe that the following biblical accounts actually happened?"

Adam and Eve, Noah's ark, Jonah and the whale, Joshua and the walls of Jericho, Samson and his long hair, Daniel and the lion's den, Moses and the Red Sea.

Of course he doesn't. To say that he believed such fantastic stories would mean that he would have to surrender his intellectual dignity. Who in his right mind would ever do that? The answer is simply those who understand that God has chosen foolish, weak, base, and despised things of the world to confound those who think they are wise [5].

Here we are basically being told that aggressive anti-intellectualism and utter ignorance should be proudly displayed, because in the deluded minds of Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, such loud displays of blind and credulous acceptance of superstition is proof that God exists and that he has turned his backs on us critical thinkers. 

Pascal's Wager: A Sucker's Bet
As it turns out, Ray and Kirk's Biblical Evangelism course as a whole depends most heavily on Pascal's Wager, far more than any other terrible argument. Long before actually working on establishing the existence of their deity, they instruct their aspiring evangelist students to begin by throwing the Ten Commandments at the unbeliever in the hopes of causing him or her to feel guilty, embarrassed or otherwise uncomfortable about themselves, at which point they switch to the fear tactic of threatening eternal torture if he or she does not convert. Their twisted routine is described in their own words as follows:

He [Jesus] used the Law to bring "the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:19,20). We can do the same by asking, "Do you think you have kept the Ten Commandments?" Most people think they have, so quickly follow with, "Have you ever told a lie?" This is confrontational, but if it's asked in a spirit of love and gentleness, there won't be any offense. This is because the "work of the law [is] written in their hearts" and their conscience will also bear "witness" (Romans 2:15).

Jesus confronted the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-21 with five of the Ten Commandments and there was no offense. Have confidence that the conscience will do its work and affirm the truth of each Commandment. Don't be afraid to gently ask, "Have you ever stolen something, even if it's small?"

Learn how to open up the spirituality of the Law and show how God considers lust to be the same as adultery (Matthew 5:27,28) and hatred the same as murder (1 John 3:15). Make sure you get an admission of guilt. Then ask the person, "If God judges you by the Ten Commandments on Judgment Day, do you think you will be innocent or guilty?" If he says he will be innocent, ask, "Why is that?" If he admits his guilt, ask, "Do you think you will go to heaven or hell?" [6].

After pressuring their victims to admit guilt, Ray and Kirk then charge the unbeliever with being a liar, a thief, an adulterer at heart, a murderer at heart, etc. Their tactics make about as much sense as saying that if you have ever told the truth in your life, that makes you a truth-teller (and, as we all know, all real truth-tellers will say that they have lied at least once in their lifetimes). Ray and Kirk apparently have no grasp whatsoever of the difference between being imperfect and being evil, and their erroneous equivalence between minor imperfections (including thought crimes) and grave immorality that is harmful to society is similar in scope to claiming that anyone who changes the oil in vehicle is an expert mechanic. Again, their goal in employing these tactics is to shame their subjects adequately enough so that their intellect is completely discarded, making them susceptible to their array of emotional appeals and threats of divine punishment. Ray and Kirk are hoping that it will not even occur to the person they are trying to convert to request that the evangelist present evidence that the being they are being told to pray to and ask forgiveness from even exists in the first place!

The shady sales technique in play here is to convince potential buyers to impulsively purchase their product, without first demonstrating that they actually need their product. To Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron I say: Prove to me first that God exists and then that this God is necessarily the Christian God, before telling me I need to go to this God for any kind of forgiveness. Their entire methodology depends on peoples' intellect, an intellect that would lead them to ask for such qualifiers, being placed on the back burner. But of course, Ray and Kirk do not realize their dependency on people's gullibility and credulity, because their intellect is not even on the back burner. It is non-existent.

Their promotion of religious impulse-buying is closely related to their aforementioned dependence on the all-too-transparent fallacy known as Pascal's Wager. In addition to gleaning satisfaction from putting others down as a way of over-compensating for their own utter lack of intelligence, Ray and Kirk are motivated by the delusionally paranoid notion that, in the words of the infamous eighteenth-century clergyman Jonathan Edwards, "[T']here is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up" [7]. This is perhaps seen most clearly Lesson 23 entitled "The Reality of Hell." In this lesson, our authors enter into a discussion of what they see as being the implications if the Christian fundamentalists are wrong about Judgment Day and hell, all the while revealing the hilarious and complete cluelessness with which they delve into their polemic:

Here's the good news, though, if there is no hell: You won't know a thing after you die. It will be the end. No heaven, no hell. Just nothing. You won't even realize that it's good news.

Here's the bad news if the Bible is right and there is eternal justice: You will find yourself standing before the judgment throne of a holy God. Think of it. A holy and perfect Creator has seen your thought-life and every secret sin you have ever committed. You have a multitude of sins, and God must by nature carry out justice. Ask Him to remind you of the sins of your youth. Ask Him to bring to remembrance your secret sexual sins, the lies, the gossip, and other idle words. You may have forgotten your past sins, but God hasn't. Hell will be your just dessert (exactly what you deserve), and you will have no one to blame but yourself. This is the claim of the Bible. If you don't believe it, it is still true. It will still happen [8].

Again, it cannot be stressed enough that at no point thus far in the course has the existence of this "holy and perfect Creator" or the existence of any kind of afterlife ever been established by way of evidence. These things are axiomatically assumed as a given at the outset. Rather than laying out a coherent argument that demonstrates the truth of their claims as the end product of a carefully-reasoned investigation process, the aspiring evangelists who are learning from this course are directed to answer all objections from non-believers with the Mother of all Logical Fallacies. Any experienced Christian apologist with even half a brain realizes that Pascal's Wager is a defunct and stupid argument whose utter unability to address anything of substance killed its validity long ago. It offers all the wrong reasons to believe and, when boiled down to its essence, is nothing more than an appeal to consequences and an appeal to fear. What is even more telling is the fact that Ray and Kirk know they are using fear as a tactic to manipulate a conversion-friendly reaction from their victims, and admit as much, when they write, "[T]he Bible discloses an often-overlooked tool that we can use to reach the lost. That tool is the 'fear of death' . . . Every human being in his right mind has a fear of death (Hebrews 2:15)" [9].

The Greatest Gamble
Why exactly is Pascal's Wager a defunct and stupid argument that fails to address anything of substance? In answering this question, I find it useful to turn to a brief critique of a particular episode of Ray's and Kirk's television program The Way of the Master which is devoted to the subject of Pascal's Wager [10]. In this episode, entitled "The Greatest Gamble," Ray and Kirk prowl the streets of Las Vegas. Standing inside a bustling casino, Ray first asks the viewer, "So what is the greatest gamble? I mean, what are the highest stakes?" We then cut to a scene outdoors where Ray asks a man, "Would you ever bet your life? Would you, for ten million dollars, play Russian Roulette with one bullet and a six-shooter? Ten million dollars!" The man shakes his head, says no, and tells Ray, "Because it's your life . . . I value my life."

Ray and Kirk repeat this question to six other people they stumble across in the streets of Vegas. In all, almost half the people interviewed said they would not gamble their life in that way. Five say they would be willing to go through with that gamble, at which point Kirk and Ray open up a briefcase full of cash with a handgun lying inside and present it to the person. All but one of those who at first said they would go through with the game end up backing out at this point. The one exception is a man identified as Nick, who without hesitation reaches for the revolver upon being presented with the briefcase. "Give it to me. Let's do it," he tells Ray. "You're going to try?" Ray inquires incredulously. The footage of this street interview is cut at this point. We are not shown what happened next, most likely because they did not allow him to go through with it and did not want to kill the drama they had built up.

One man, closer to the end of the episode, even goes so far as to say he would play the game of roulette with three rounds chambered instead of simply one: "For ten million dollars! Ten million bucks, man! You don't even make that in a lifetime!" When Ray tells him, "You're not going to have a lifetime if the bullets are in the cylinder," the man replies confidently, "That's a risk you've got to take. That's the way I look at it." Ray's very next question to this man is, "Do you believe in Heaven and in Hell?"

Those of us with our thinking caps on can clearly see where this is heading.

Ray and Kirk then proceed to explain the point they are attempting to make, an explanation that involves Ray and Kirk making an argument as to why it is reasonable to believe in an afterlife, and specifically in hell. They provide two "very convincing evidences" (which are not evidences at all) that hell is real: 1) The rationality of divine justice; if there is no eternal torture chamber, they claim, then God is unjust and couldn't care less about the sins of humanity and 2) the existence of the human conscience, which they allege equips humans with a built-in knowledge at birth of right and wrong. Following this Non Sequitur-soaked two-pronged argument, their reasoning goes like this:

Ray: So what is the biggest gamble? I mean, what are the highest stakes? It is to say there is no Hell. And if you're wrong and you go there, you're going to lose your most prized possession: You're going to lose your very soul! (4:37 - 4:54).

Kirk: So how will you do on Judgment Day? Will you be innocent, or will you be guilty? In light of the fact that God sees your thought life and every sin done in darkness, do you think when you die you'll go to Heaven or Hell? Please, don't gamble with your own soul. You can't afford to be wrong! Simply be honest before God. Confess your sins to him, and then turn from them once and for all and put your faith in Jesus Christ to save you. Then obey the Bible. Read it daily. Your obedience is proof of your love for God. God demonstrated his love for you when he sent his son to die on the cross and take your punishment upon himself. Listen to what Jesus said: "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (23:16 - 24:13).

The analogy presented by Ray and Kirk fails to even get off the ground, and showing why this is the case also shows why Pascal's Wager completely fails as a valid argument. In a game of Russian Roulette, the gambler has a 1 in 6 chance of dying via a shot in the head at point-blank range, which is the penalty. There is absolutely no comparison to Pascal's Wager, where the odds of being hit with the penalty have never been calculated, as far as I am aware. Who knows what such odds would be? As far as anyone knows, the odds of "losing my soul" in this spiritual game of Russian Roulette could very well be one in a million! After all, Christianity is not the only religion that threatens eternal punishment for not believing. The very existence of even one belief system or worldview different from and/or incompatible with Christianity that threatens its own harsh penalty for non-belief destroys the validity of Pascal's Wager, for obvious reasons. The Wager relies on a Special Pleading fallacy. Therefore, if the Wager is to be applied consistently in such a way as to avoid special pleading, we are not left with the simplistic choice put on the table by Ray and Kirk. We are instead left with a choice between literally thousands of different belief systems that all conflict with each other [11]. Seen in this light, choosing non-belief in any purported god, religion or unsubstantiated worldview (pending demonstrable and verifiable evidence, of course) is clearly exceedingly more reasonable than choosing any one of hundreds of religions or unsubstantiated worldviews solely out of fear of being wrong and ending up experiencing divine retribution [12].

My closing remarks are directed at Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, should one or both ever stumble across this: When your combined IQ level finally reaches above room temperature, then come back and try again to present a serious argument for theism first and then for Christianity in particular. However, I am quite confident that the day your collective IQ approaches that value, hell will have frozen over anyway.


NOTES

1. Kent Hovind is a close contender in my book, coming in at a close second. But of course, his current hiatus as a prison patron has put a considerable hamper on his popularity and influence. See Nathan Dickey, "Inside the Mind of a Creationist: A Critical Analysis of Kent Hovind's 'Doctoral Dissertation.'" The Journeyman Heretic (blog), 23 February 2010, http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2010/02/inside-mind-of-creationist-critical_23.html (accessed 6 September 2010).

2. http://www.biblicalevangelism.com/register (accessed 6 September 2010).

3. Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort, The School of Biblical Evangelism (Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 2004), pp. 464-65.

4. Ibid., p. 466.

5. Ibid., p. 469-70

6. Ibid., p. 118.

7. Jonathan Edwards (1741), "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson, eds., Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes Revised Edition (New York: Hill and Wang, 1962), p. 165.

8. Cameron and Comfort, Biblical Evangelism, p. 155.

9. Ibid., p. 185.

10. "The Greatest Gamble." The Way of the Master, Trinity Broadcasting Network (KTBN, Santa Ana). For those who have even a slight masochistic bent in their entertainment choices will not want to miss this episode. It really is that rich: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5388605400616793608# (accessed 6 September 2010).

11. This is not even to mention the weighty problem presented by the sheer number of divergent denomination within Christianity itself. The fact that there are about 38,000 Christian denominations means that no matter what kind of Christian one becomes (including "non-denominational") there will always be at least (and most likley many) other branches of Christianity that will declare him or her a false Christian, a heretic, an apostate, etc, who is therefore headed to hell. Ray and Kirk have not addressed this problem, namely that becoming a Christian is more or less analogous to playing the lottery. Thus, Pascal's Wager fails even when applied within a single religion. Can anybody say fractal wrongness?

12. The counterpoints to Pascal's Wager I have presented here is hardly the extent of the problem with this apologetic. A more exhaustive treatment of this subject, by way of a point-by-point refutation of "The Greatest Gamble" episode, is in the works.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The 32,000 Virgins of God and Moses

"If there is a God, he is a malign thug." ~ Mark Twain

"The death of one is a tragedy / But death of a million is just a statistic." ~ Marilyn Manson

The Biblical story of the Israelites' massacre of the Midianites and their capture of 32,000 virgin girls in the Old Testament stands as one of the clearest demonstrations of the fact that the Bible promotes great evil. The forcefulness of this particular story is shown by the fact that no matter what form or version of Christianity or Judaism one chooses to embrace, there is no possibility of shying away from the truth that this story portrays a horrible evil as just and good.

The story is found in the Book of Numbers, chapter 31. The first aspect of this story that needs to be emphasized is expressed in the first two verses, which read, "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 'Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.'" From the very beginning of this chapter, it is clearly stated that Moses was not the only one who ordered the attack. The order originates from God, who uses Moses as his primary messenger and overseer of the orders. Thus, Jehovah cannot be let off the hook for what ensues in the remainder of this chapter. This war of vengeance against the Midianites was not the work of Moses, but was conceived and planned by God.

Moses dutifully sends out 12,000 of his men (one thousand from each tribe) to make war against the Midianites. The Israelite soldiers slay all the Midianite males, and take all of the women, children, goods, cattle and sheep captive before burning down all their cities and castles. The Israelite soldiers return to their camp at the plains of Moab, bringing the captives and spoils of war and presenting them to Moses and Eleazar the Priest. Moses is furious; he asks the soldiers, "Have ye saved all the women alive?" (v. 15). Moses proceeds to explain irately that "Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the Congregation of the Lord" (v. 16).

The Midianite men, of whom there were no survivors, had turned their backs on God and therefore deserved to die. But Moses is here telling his army that the women who had been taken captive were the ones responsible for leading them away from God in the first place, and that consequently they were deserving of death. And because the sins of the fathers are to be carried out upon the sons, Moses declares all of the little boys worthy of death. Thus, Moses commands, "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man, by lying with him. But all the women children that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves" (vv. 17-18). Thus, after completely destroying the entire city of the Midianites, the Israelite army kills all the women and children they took captive, except for the virgin girls. After this massacre is carried out, the Israelite army undergoes a process of ritual purification outside the camp for seven days as prescribed by Eleazar, then return to divide the spoils. Moses has another conversation with God in which God instructs him on exactly how to divide up the spoil. Verses 25-47 describe in detail the process by which a thorough inventory of the spoils is made and divided up among the warriors who took part in the battle and the rest of the tribes making up the Congregation of Israel, which portion was given to the priests, and the amount that God demanded as a tax to himself. It turns out that there are 32,000 virgin girls in total (v. 35). Of those, a total of thirty-two are turned over to the temple as God's tribute portion (v. 40).

I have read through this chapter in the Book of Numbers several times. I know the story very well, to the point where I can readily imagine a number of different ways a fundamentalist preacher might deliver a sermon on this particular passage. The most common rationalization employed by a fundamentalist preacher is likely the one that declares how unfortunate it is that God had to kill the Midianite men for turning their backs on him, that the men, women and little boys deserved death because of this, and yet proceeds to assert how wonderful it is that God spared all those young Midianite girls in his infinite love and mercy so that they could grow up in the service of the one true religion, knowing Jehovah and knowing his love! This is one of the most transparently ridiculous as well as despicable rationalizations one can concoct in an attempt to defend the story's immoral theme of young girls being raped after just witnessing all the people they love get killed by the people who are raping them. The Christian attempts at rationalizing the actions of God, Moses and the Israelite army in this story completely ignore this obvious implication. Rather, they prefer to focus their apologetic energies on pointing out the wickedness of the Midianites, much as they do with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis.

Of course, it is also true that there are not many sermons being preached on this particular passage. While one could come up with ways to rationalize the story, it is not a particularly pleasant or relevant sermon to prepare, considering the vast array of other Bible passages to choose from. Indeed, I consulted SermonAudio.com, the Internet's largest library of audio sermons from conservative Christian churches, to get a sense of how often this passage is preached on. Out of over 335,000 sermons collected on the site, a mere 13 sermons based on Numbers 31 is to be found [1].

In addition to standing as an example of extreme immorality portrayed as heroic justice, this story contains logical absurdities that become apparent when one does the math. Consider: how many people would the Israelites have to kill in order to end up with 32,000 virgins? On average, based on the population of girls age 0-17 in most U.S. cities of comparable size, a total population of about 300,000 is required to come up with a figure of 32,000 for girls in that age range. It should be duly noted that this figure is generous; it is likely that in the time period in which the Book of Numbers is set, girls were probably engaging in intercourse as early as age fourteen. We do not know for sure, of course. But in any case, a required total population of 300,000 to account for thirty-two thousand virgin girls is a good and generous estimate. Now, according to population figures from 2008, there are only 60 cities in the U.S. that have more than 300,000 in total population. Pittsburgh is at the bottom of that list at 60, with a population of 310,037 [2]. Thus, the Israelite army in our story would have had to wipe out the equivalent of Pittsburgh ca. 2008 in order to end up with 32,000 virgin girls.

Let us place the numbers in perspective: 300,000 casualties of attack is one hundred 9/11s. It is seventy times the number of U.S. soldiers who have died in the Iraq War to date. But it is only half the number of Iraqis who have been killed to date. Exactly where did all of this take place? What huge city did the Midianites have? How were all of the women and children, 32,000 of which are young virgin girls to be spared, corralled to a location where the rest are killed en masse?

There are many numbers in the Bible that are demonstrably and completely wrong. This is one particularly implausible example. There has been an enormous population explosion in just the last century. It is doubtful that there even existed cities the size of Pittsburgh at that time in ancient history. While it is true that the Roman Empire was comprised of five million people by about 14 A.D., the Roman Empire was atypically enormous for one city. In fact, it constituted the entire known world and was spread out in many wide-ranging locations. But historical/archaeological evidence for the existence or plausibility of one city with 300,000 people in circa 1400s B.C. is lacking. Rather, we are presented with the picture of a roving band of murderous barbarians wandering in a desert, juxtaposed against very specific details concerning the Midianites. Throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, there are numerous stories of the Israelites utterly destroying tribes left and right, stories that do not provide any specifics but only lengthy lists of destroyed and defeated tribes. The sheer number of people that were killed at the direct instructions of God add up quickly to a formidable figure in this manner.

One of the most important considerations to come away with upon reading and contemplating this story is that no matter how Christians attempt to rationalize the details away, this story would be incredibly appalling even if it happened to concern a single family. Imagine this scenario: a loyal servant of Jehovah heads to the house next door and murders the father, the mother and the little boy because they were deserving. He spares the twelve year-old daughter of the murdered parents, keeping her to himself. One instance, applied to one family makes the scenario described in Numbers 31 one of the most immoral and appalling events that could possibly happen, as is readily recognized and acknowledged as such by all people. Yet it is presented as a moral requirement when this same act is carried out on a mass scale! Controversial rock musician Marilyn Manson had the right idea when he observed human nature to be such that too often we tend to perceive that "The death of one is a tragedy / But death of a million is just a statistic."

The alternative to believing that this horrible slaughter of a city with a population size equivalent to Pittsburgh actually occurred is to concede that the Bible is wrong about the number. We certainly should hope that the numbers are very wrong! However, the important point to bear in mind is that it does not matter if the story is true or not. For the record, I do not think this story ever actually occurred; I contend that it is far-fetched and that the numbers are indeed all wrong. But this pales in importance, because the massacre and plunder is portrayed as something that was just and good. It is an act that God is described as having executed and placed his seal of approval on. If the events described in this story ever really happened, it would be an example of horrible evil. This is precisely why I agree with Mark Twain when he said, "If there is a God, he is a malign thug." In my estimation, Mark Twain was being particularly generous in his description of the God of the Bible, and "malign thug" is possibly the most pleasant description one could give to this fictional character. As some of my readers may remember, I have in past writings described the God of the Bible (specifically as depicted in Genesis) as an immature teenager who experiments carelessly with humankind. However, a more fitting parallel is to be made between God and Al Capone the farther one reads through the Old Testament. The God character certainly does develop into a malign thug, and today we are confronted with thugs for God, also known as radical evangelists.

As always, I look forward to feedback from my Christian friends who may wish to exercise their apologetic skills. I can be convinced.

Notes

1. http://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?chapter=31&keyword=Numbers&BibleOnly=true&currSection=sermonsbible.

2. "Table 1: Annual Estimates of the Population for Incorporated Places Over 100,000, Ranked by July 1, 2008 Population: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2008" (CSV). 2008 Population Estimates. United States Census Bureau, Population Division.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Why Does God Not Stop Satan? A Response to Lavern

There could, he reasoned, be only one Creator, God, who was or had been primarily benignant. Yet all the evidence pointed to the co-existence of an evil creative principle, a Satan. God, then, must be a split or dual personality, a sort of Jekyll and Hyde, manifesting sometimes as the Devil. This duality . . . must be a form of what is commonly called schizophrenia.

~ Clark Ashton Smith [1]

Some months ago, I wrote a lengthy essay critiquing the ideas put forth by the infamous creationist Kent Hovind, specifically focusing on his “doctoral dissertation” that he wrote in the early 1990s and which has just recently surfaced. At one point in that essay, I brought into the discussion a point relating to the relationship between God and Satan as depicted in the Bible. I raised the question of why God did not simply destroy Satan in the past or destroy him now, especially given God’s alleged omnipotence. For according to a literal reading of the Biblical story, Satan is a thorn in the side of both God and humans, being as he is the driving influence behind evil and suffering in the world. I posed the question as follows:

The bewildering question is this: Why is God content to treat the disease and not cure it? Why does God not kill Satan, who is allegedly the thorn in the side of humanity who inspires [humanity’s] shortcomings? The biblical story in its literal form makes no sense.

Biblical literalists are often heard offering the explanation that God cannot destroy Satan now, because he's bound by the Bible to destroy Satan at the end of time. But then, the question that naturally comes next is who wrote the Bible? What they are essentially saying is that God bound himself to not incapacitate Satan, because God himself wrote the Bible which records Satan’s demise at the conclusion of all things, rather than early on [2].

The present essay is inspired by a video I recently came across, made by a freelance Christian theologian by the name of Lavern, which attempts to address this very question. This Christian commentator runs a YouTube channel whose handle is “TrustInJC” (which I can only assume stands for Johnny Cash), a channel devoted to short video messages discussing a number of different topics and issues relating to Christianity and the Bible. After having viewed the video, entitled “Why Does God Not Stop Satan,” I thought it worthwhile to review and analyze its message point-by-point, for the message given in it is directly relevant to the question I posed in that earlier essay [3].

“TrustInJC” (or Lavern) begins:

Hello; Lavern here, and thank you for joining me. In this video, I’m going to attempt to answer a question that was put to me. The question was “Why does God not stop Satan?” Now, before I get into my answer, I’d like to make it clear that I’d really like to know what other people think on this matter, because I believe there’s a lot of atheists who ask this question and even Christians who are unsure why it is that Satan is allowed to roam so freely in the world today.

Now, as far as my answer: The short answer is that God does in fact stop Satan. We have his promise in the prophecy that Satan will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. So we do know that God eventually does stop him, and stops him cold and for all eternity. The question is, then, why does he not do it sooner? Why is he not already stopping Satan? Why does he allow Satan to continue with what many people would consider to be madness? Well, there are actually a number of reasons for this. I’m probably not going to be able to answer them all in this video.

One of the more common answers (and something I believe to be true) is that it’s not so much that God allows it, but rather that people allow it. And not just allow it; there are many people who embrace Satan. They reject God and embrace Satan. Scripture tells us that if we are not for Jesus, then we are against him. So consider all the people who are rejecting Christ. These people, then, are against him. So it can be no wonder then that Satan is so well accepted. People are actually embracing Satan; we see this in the media, we see this in government, we see it in the laws that are being passed, we see it in the movies, we see it in our music. People are embracing Satan. Now again, this doesn’t answer the question: “Well, why does God allow this?” So, I would say that it’s not so much that God allows it, but people are asking for it. And as long as people are asking for Satan, God’s going to allow it because they have the free will.

As we can see, the first explanation Lavern offers as to why God does not stop the efforts of Satan comes in the form of placing the blame on humanity’s alleged preference for Satan over God. Free will is then invoked to account for why this preference is upheld by the omnipotent deity. The first problem with this rationalization is that it is presented in the context of a gross oversimplification in the form of a black-and-white dichotomy that simply does not exist in the real world. Lavern subscribes to the transparently false notion that anybody who is not a Christian is against Jesus and is by default an ally of Satan. This idea, which displays an appalling level of understanding of diversity, is so obviously fallacious that it hardly warrants thorough debunking. By Lavern’s criterion, those who worship Satan would include Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintos, Scientologists, atheists/agnostics, and every single other belief system or viewpoint that does not fall within the category of orthodox Christianity. His claim that anyone who rejects Christ automatically embraces Satan is false primarily for the simple reason that Satan is a part of Christianity, while most other faiths and viewpoints listed are completely separate. It is also interesting to note close counterparts to the notion of evil in other religions. Muslims reject Christ, yet their doctrine also declares belief in and opposition to Shaitan, the Islamic equivalent of Satan and a comparable enemy of their God.

Lavern also specifically refers to those who generally “reject God and embrace Satan.” No atheist believes that Satan exists, just as no atheist believes that God exists. As I pointed out above, belief in Satan presupposes belief in Christianity or Islam, which of course presupposes distinct forms of theism. Even the very small minority of atheists who identify as Satanists do not actually believe in Satan as an actual literal being, but rather revere Satan as a symbol of freedom. There is a vast spectrum of belief in between atheism and theism, of course, for which Lavern’s black-and-white false dichotomy simply does not fit. Many people are not “for” Jesus in a religiously devout sense, but see no particular reason to be against his teachings and philosophy. In fact, a great many people hold great respect and admiration for the alleged life and teachings of Jesus, including some atheists, without taking the unnecessary step of accepting the religiously-inspired, unreachable pedestal constructed for Jesus by adherents of orthodox Christianity. It is also important to point out that the percentage of people in the United States who actually believe in Satan as a literal being and worship him is extremely small.

In view of this last point, one will notice the sheer ridiculousness of the level of paranoia Lavern harbors toward the world. He apparently sees Satan around every corner. He claims he can recognize the influence of the prince of darkness in the media, in government, in laws that are passed, in films and in music. Is this paranoia in the least bit warranted? I think not; such illusions of sensing evil everywhere often comes from an over-inflated sense of one’s own righteousness that is projected on everything contained in one's day-to-day purview to maintain and increase that delusional sense of ego-reinforcing self-righteousness. But perhaps this notion that a malevolent evil is around every corner provides a hint as to how Lavern might respond to the counter-arguments I raised above. I suspect he would respond by asserting that the majority of those who are not followers of Christ embrace Satan without knowing it consciously. But this amounts to a conspiracy theory run amok, and as with virtually every other conspiracy theory, this idea is unfounded and non-falsifiable. Unless Lavern can provide positive and convincing evidence that a being called Satan as understood by the Christian religion actually exists, and furthermore that Satan’s influence is everywhere exerted in society, we are justified in safely dismissing his conspiratorial claim that Satan’s machinations are everywhere around us whether consciously recognized or not. This means that in the context of the specific claims Lavern has made, one needs to ask him to identify specific examples of media outlets, government actions, laws, film and media that are the products of Satan’s inspiration, and specific reasons as to why these are legitimate examples. Otherwise, to simply assert that “Whatever is not of God is of Satan” is a meaningless statement. God has never been satisfactorily defined in such a way that all can agree what God is through independent verification.

All these considerations aside, placing the blame for Satan’s continued dabbling with the creation of a supposedly all-powerful God on the free will of people who prefer Satan over God is singularly unsatisfactory as an explanation, at least in view of what Christianity actually teaches. The Bible contains numerous accounts of God intervening in human affairs in such a way that the volition of humans is placed on a back burner. God is apparently willing to intervene and directly violate the intentions of people at some times, and not at other times. The God of the Bible is a very arbitrary character in many ways. Why should the continued existence of his number-one antagonist and the source of humanity's problems be an exception? Why is God obliged to grant humanity their alleged preference of lord and master, but not obliged to grant humanity their other desires and choices? Many Christians are fond of describing God as a caring parent-figure who is only looking out for his creations’ best interests. This portrayal is often put forth as their explanation for why God does not always allow people to experience what their free will choice would result in. If Christians such as Lavern are correct in arguing that it is not God so much as it is people that allow Satan his continued existence through their free will preference, then Christians who adhere to the “caring parent figure” picture of God are obviously not taking this into account or their conception of God is simply wrong. If Lavern’s deity and devil really do exist, then perhaps we should all be desperately wishing, in the interest of humanity, that Garth Brooks was speaking of real possibilities in his song “Unanswered Prayers,” in which he sings,

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers / Remember when you're talkin’ to the man upstairs / That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care / Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
Moreover, if God is so very constrained by the free will of his creations that he is bound to refrain from decisively curing humanity's disease, why speak of him as all-powerful?

Lavern continues:

But there is more to it. There is another answer as well. And for that we have to go right back to Genesis where it all began, where Satan had the first contact with humans, that being Adam and Eve. Scripture tells us, through the writings of Enoch, that God planted the Tree for the purpose of revealing to Adam his sinful nature. For God knew the sinful and the carnal nature that was within Adam. But Adam didn’t. And so God planted the Tree for the purpose of revealing to Adam his sinful nature. And Satan was also part of this plan. Satan was allowed to tempt Adam and Eve. He was allowed to place into their minds these thoughts, these ideas that they could be like God if they ate of this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And so then, through this temptation from Satan, their lustful desires (that to be like God) and their prideful heart all came to the surface and was revealed through their actions when they finally gave in and ate of that fruit. And so we see that Satan and this Tree both actually had a purpose into revealing the true nature of Adam and Eve, their true sinful, evil, rebellious nature.
This is all very interesting in its wild speculation, as well as quite bewildering. Lavern is raising far more questions and quandaries than he is answering. My first point in response is a minor one, but one I consider worth raising awareness about. Almost all modern Christian creationists believe that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was the devil in disguise. But nowhere in the Bible is this either stated or implied, neither in the third chapter of Genesis nor in the Book of Revelation and in no passage in between. There is no unambiguous internal biblical support for thinking that the ancient authors of Genesis had what modern theologians think of as Satan in mind at all when describing the serpent in the garden. But I digress . . .

Lavern cites the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings of Enoch in his analysis of the Adam and Eve story, specifically for the purpose of supporting his interpretation that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was planted by God in proximity to Adam’s and Eve’s habitation as a means of intentionally tempting them into sin. This is interesting in a number of respects. First, Lavern’s interpretation implies that God created Adam and Eve with a built-in sinful nature that they were not aware of. Second, this interpretation likens the Tree of Knowledge to the Pauline interpretation of the Law of Moses. Lavern states that God planted the Tree of Knowledge for the sole purpose of intentionally provoking Adam’s dormant sinful nature into the open [4]. But the analogy to the Pauline doctrine concerning the Mosaic Law is unwarranted. God would have no need to reveal humans’ fallen nature as a means to demonstrate to them their need for his salvation if God had not created humans with an inner evil nature to begin with. Such an “installation” makes no sense whatsoever. Most interesting of all, Lavern states that Satan was a central part of God’s purposes. What he suggests is that God allows Satan to continue wreaking havoc in the lives of people because Satan is conveniently conducive to “revealing our true nature.”

If what Lavern is suggesting is true, the implication is that God created the first humans with a “sinful, evil, rebellious nature” at the outset and that God’s first occupying interest in humans was to tease their evil natures out of their dormant state and into a manifestation that would reveal to Adam and Eve this nature they did not know they possessed. Does this understanding strike anybody else as very odd? What possible reason would God have to create the first humans with a built-in evil nature lying just under the surface? And what is God’s motive for wanting to reveal this dark side of their nature to them as his very first exercise in interacting with them? Perhaps a motive to compel his creations by guilt to be subservient to him is what is at work here.

In my aforementioned essay critiquing Kent Hovind and creationism, I write, “God’s first mistake was to facilitate the first two humans’ fatal screw-up by placing the Tree of Knowledge in the middle of the Garden of Eden, not to mention arbitrarily declaring it forbidden.” Apparently, Lavern would agree that the fall of the first humans was, in fact, facilitated by God (with the help of Satan no less), but that it was no mistake and was intentional. In that same essay, I also posed this question and comment: “What is the divine reasoning behind staging and choreographing situations and conditions in just such a way that disaster is predictable, including the placing of these people in a specific locale in close proximity to a constant temptation? This is rarely addressed by the biblical literalists and never given an explanation that preserves God’s powers of reasoning.” Lavern has actually addressed this question. He has also furnished an explanation, derived from a pseudepigraphical text, that does in fact preserve God’s powers of reasoning (although very loosely). But this is done at the undeniable expense of a picture of the God of the Bible that is omnibenevolent or one whose intrinsic nature is goodness and love. The God that Lavern describes is strikingly malevolent and capricious. Lavern’s interpretation of the biblical God does rationalize what otherwise appears to be fatal errors of judgment, but the rationalization is immediately recognized as irreconcilable with his alleged nature of perfect goodness and love. Then again, my statement in the same essay referred to above may also apply: “If the fundamentalist version of Christianity were actually true, God is perhaps best conceptualized as a teenager who is experimenting on a cosmic scale, not fully understanding exactly what he is doing with our race.”

The major point to take home from this is that, in the process of attempting to answer the question of why God does not stop Satan, Lavern has stated unambiguously that God and Satan are allied together for a common purpose. God is using the skills of Satan to throw guilt in the faces of his new creations for some twisted reason, which is presumably what Satan is also interested in doing. They both glean something out of this tempting game, and so they work together. The implications of Lavern’s statements appear to have escaped his own attention. If God and Satan are working together for a common purpose, then the reason God does not stop Satan is obvious! In Lavern’s scenario, stopping Satan would be against God’s interest! Not only does this mean that Lavern cannot say God is omnibenevolent and remain consistent, but his scenario also means that God is not all-powerful on his own to accomplish his twisted purposes. In view of the first reason Lavern offered above, perhaps it is little wonder that God is willing to grant humanity their alleged preference of Satan. If Satan works for God, perhaps he finds this indulgence convenient to his designs and plans!

Lavern continues:

We also see in Scripture that there are other things that God uses to reveal our nature. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Law of Moses was given to us so that we would see our sinful nature, so that that part of us would be revealed. Scriptures themselves are given to us to reveal ourselves. Scripture is like a two-edged sword. It reveals not only who God is to us, but it also reveals who we are. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins, so the Holy Spirit reveals to us our true nature. So, so much about our life is done in order to reveal our nature. Even suffering has this purpose, and we see this in the Book of Job. In the story of Job, we see that Satan comes to God and he asks for permission to test Job. And God allows, he gives permission for Job to be tested. So we see here that Satan is actually a test for us, that he is allowed to test us to reveal our nature. And it was Satan’s purpose to try and reveal that Job is not as righteous as what Job would like to believe or what God is claiming. And what we see is that after the second phase, Job actually does falter. He begins to question God. And what this reveals to us is that, like Jesus tells us, the rich man has a very difficult time in entering heaven, and the reason is because of the pride and the lust and everything that they have for the things that they have, their health and so on.

Now, in the story of Job, from the story of Job, I just want to read a couple passages. Because what we see in Job is that it does reveal Job’s nature. And a young man by the name of Elihu is the one who really reveals this. And he asked Job, in chapter 33, beginning verse 19: “So why are you bringing a charge against him [meaning God]? Why say he does not respond to people's complaints? For God speaks again and again.”

And then going on to chapter 34, beginning verse 7: “Tell me, has there ever been a man like Job, with his thirst for irreverent talk? He chooses evil people as companions, he spends his time with wicked men. He has even said, ‘Why waste time trying to please God?’”

So we see here that through Job’s suffering, he finally breaks, and his true nature is revealed. The suffering breaks him down to his core self. It’s like peeling an onion, and it just breaks him down. And from that place, his true nature is revealed. But then from that place, Job ends up repenting. And from this place he actually becomes closer to God, and he actually knows God a whole lot better. We see this in the end of Job. But before I get to there, just one more verse I’d like to read: Chapter 36, verse 21 (this is still Elihu talking): “Be on guard, turn back from evil. For God sent this suffering to keep you from a life of evil.” So through this suffering, it’s actually saving Job, preventing him from a life of evil.

Now, it ends in chapter 42. And reading from verse 5 (this is now Job talking): “I had only heard about you before. But now I have seen you with my own eyes. I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” And this is Job talking about God. Just to repeat this, I had only heard about you before. But now I have seen you with my own eyes. So we see that through his suffering, Job was brought closer to God, and he was able to hear his voice and he was able to see him. And none of this would have been possible if he had not first lost everything that he’d had.

Here Lavern expands on his argument that God allows Satan to continue to thrive for purposes of self-revelation by arguing that Satan is a tool by which the faith of humans is tested. According to him, the influences at work in peoples’ lives to reveal our nature includes the workings of Satan, hence the mention of human suffering as a consequence of Satan’s actions. Not surprisingly, Lavern uses the most clear and thus most forthcoming example in Scripture, that of the story of Job in the Old Testament. In his discussion of Satan asking permission of God to torment Job, Lavern makes a very interesting series of statements. For instance, his comments concerning the rich having a difficult time entering heaven because of their possessions and pride leads me to doubt just how carefully Lavern has read his Bible. The Book of Job indicates fairly clearly that Job was at his most pious and righteous at the height of his prosperity and wealth. Before going into an inventory of his wealth, the opening verses of Job tell us that he was “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1-5).

But again, this is a minor point in the context of the overall question we are asking. Lavern’s overarching point is that Satan’s harmful workings and the suffering he inflicts on the world serve the purpose of testing the strength of the faith of the righteous. This occasions an important question: If the God of the Bible is omniscient or all-knowing, why is the testing of his followers’ faith required? Of course, if Lavern stands by the statements he has made so far concerning God’s nature, perhaps the God he has in mind is not all-knowing, all-powerful, or possessed of an impeccable morality. If we take Lavern’s previous statements seriously, we are presented with a God who employs Satan to help him accomplish his capriciously meaningless purposes because he is apparently not all-powerful and thus cannot achieve his purposes without inflicting suffering. Thus, perhaps this God may not be all-knowing or possessed of clear judgment either. But even given a God who is not all-knowing, one wonders why the “God” conceived by Lavern’s theological imagination would even care to be convinced of the strength of his subjects’ faith in the first place. After all, Lavern has stated that God knowingly created humankind with a built-in evil nature that he took pleasure in throwing in their face via the temptation of the Tree of Knowledge that he dangled in front of their faces, so to speak. If God created human beings for the purpose of gleaning a twisted sense of pleasure from watching them wallow in guilt, one would tend towards the conclusion that he is not very interested in seeing them rise above that guilt, which by the accounts of most Christians and Jews is achieved through piety and devotion to God.

If this kind of God actually exists and the accompanying scenarios really did occur, and if Job was aware of this state of affairs in the agenda of this deity, then Job is perfectly justified, as is all humanity, in levying the kind of charges against this deity that the character of Elihu disapproves of in the quote given above (which is actually found in Job 33:13, not verse 19). In light of Lavern’s conception of God, the contemptuously rhetorical question Elihu poses in Job 34:7-9 is grossly misplaced. Because Elihu is speaking in pious defense of God, we can wonder just how “evil” and “wicked” the men he disapproves of really are. A “thirst for irreverent talk” would in this case seem to amount to an authentic morality that opposes the juvenile capriciousness exhibited in the particular portrait of God we are examining. Why waste time trying to please this kind of God indeed?

Some of my readers may at this point charge that I am focusing too heavily on this one individual’s idiosyncratic conception of God and interpretation of Scripture. While this may be the case – since this is a response to his personal attempt to explain a question I have raised in past writings – I should also point out that similar criticisms apply to the more mainstream Christian and Jewish apologetics surrounding the philosophy contained in the Book of Job. According to mainstream interpretation, the moral of the story is that if we unquestioningly trust in God, he will provide for us even if we do not understand his motives in allowing hardship and suffering in our lives. But in the story of Job, God does more than just withhold from Job an explanation of his reasons for allowing Job to suffer tremendously. Job makes several inquiries as to God’s reasoning, with no initial response forthcoming. Finally, God responds indignantly by saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much” (38:4). God then proceeds to embark on an obnoxious tirade, repeatedly making statements such as, “Do you realize the extent of the earth? Tell me about it if you know!” (38:18), “Do you know the laws of the universe? Can you use them to regulate the earth?” (38:33), and so on and so forth. In essence, God’s response can be paraphrased as “Were you present when I created the universe and can you grasp all of its intricacies? No, so how dare you inquire!”

However, God’s motive in allowing Job to experience such suffering is made known to the reader of the text at the outset. The settling of a bet was his motive. This should strike all readers as extremely petty. One can also apprehend more than pettiness on a cosmic scale when one considers that all of Job’s children and servants were unwittingly involved, with the result that they all perish at the beginning of the story. They had no direct relation to the petty bet between God and Satan, and no explanation is offered as to how they could possibly be deserving of death. If such senselessness is required in “preventing Job from a life of evil” and in bringing him “closer to God” as Lavern says, one can only wonder how perfectly good, loving and all-powerful this God really is.

Lavern continues and concludes as follows:

Now, jumping to the Gospel of John, chapter 9: This is the story of the disciples coming to Jesus and asking him about this blind man. They ask him “Why is it that he is blind? Is it because of the sins that he committed or the sins of his father?” And this is how Jesus responds: “’It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,’ Jesus answered. ‘This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.’” So it had nothing to do with sins, it had nothing to do with anything that this person had done wrong, but rather was to glorify God and his Kingdom, and at the right time in God's timing, this is what happened. And Jesus ends up healing this man, and the glory of God is shown.

So, there are so many different reasons. It’s not just one or two as to why Satan is allowed to continue to have his way in this world. Some of it is people actually want him. People are drawn to Satan because of their own evil natures. Some of it is because we are being tested. Some of it is to reveal our own nature, so that we can come closer to God.

Alright, I really look forward to comments. Till next time, peace and blessings.

The third and final story Lavern cites as illustration of his reasons for why God does not stop Satan is thematically reminiscent of the preceding two. In all three stories, God is far more culpable than Satan for the sufferings of the characters described in the stories. Let’s review: • In the first story, God creates the first humans with a dual nature already in place in their spiritual constitution for the sole purpose of facilitating their downfall through deliberate temptation, such that the two created people will feel compelled by guilt to be subservient to him. Our bold theologian implies that God enlisted the services of Satan to aid him in bringing about the desired result and essentially wrote the script for the serpent’s dialogue found in Genesis 3.

• In the story of the sufferings of God’s servant Job, God dabbles in a petty wager with Satan to test the strength of Job’s loyalty in the midst of pain, a wager that costs the lives of Job’s entire family with the exception of his wife.

Finally, in the story of the healing of the blind man by Jesus in John 9:1-3, we are given yet another insight into how God is aided in elevating his show of power by teaming up with the helpful scapegoat who is Satan. As Jesus states in the passage, the lifelong blindness experienced by the man was inflicted upon him from birth for the sole purpose of providing a public show of God’s power and “glory” later in life through being healed. The blind man in this story was robbed of a lifetime of sight for no other reason than to allow God (in the person of Jesus) an outlet for glorifying himself by stooping to heal him. If Satan is understood to be a major source of pain and misery in the lives of God’s special creation, we see another example of God enlisting the services of his supposed arch-enemy to attain a self-glorifying end.

Conclusion

Taking Lavern’s mini-sermon as a whole, to what conclusion can we arrive as to how he answers the question he sets out to address? According to his analysis, it would seem God does not stop Satan because God and Satan routinely work together and cooperate with one another to achieve ends that are desirable to both. In concluding this response and further establishing why Lavern’s explanations actually does damage to the character of the God he claims to serve, a discussion of other Biblical passages that refer to the relationship between God and Satan is in order. For consistency of form, the passages I cite are from the New Living Translation of the Bible, the version which Lavern uses in his quotations.

The Bible’s treatment of this relationship appears to justify Lavern’s morally-damaging statements. For example, in the Hebrew Bible, one translation of the term applied to Satan bespeaks a divine messenger sent by God to be an adversary on his behalf. In the story of Balaam as recounted in Numbers 22, for instance, Balaam is visited by God in a dream and instructed to meet Balak, accompanied by the princes of Moab. The next morning, Balaam attempts to evade God’s instructions. In his anger, God sends a messenger (or angel) to kill Balaam as he travels on a donkey across the country. The messenger is invisible to Balaam but is seen by the donkey, who takes immediate action to avoid the danger, bolting off the road and into a field. In his frustration, not knowing that the animal was acting in the interest of his life, Balaam physically beats the donkey. The donkey then speaks to Balaam, asking him why he was beating her. Balaam (who apparently is unfazed by being confronted with a talking donkey), replies, “You have made me look like a fool!” At this point, the messenger appears to Balaam visibly and informs him in verse 32 that he has been sent by God as a satan (satan being a commonly-used Hebrew verb which translates to mean “one who opposes” or “adversary”).

Another use of the Hebrew term describing the adversary’s actions translates as a “divine counselor” of sorts. One example of this is found in a comparison of I Chronicles 21:1 and II Samuel 24:1. In the former, we read that “Satan rose up against Israel and caused David to take a census of the people of Israel.” In this account, the census is said to have been encouraged by Satan, for which David is severely punished by God with a plague that kills seventy thousand Israelites. In the latter account, the identical event is described, with the one difference being that here it is God who influences the census rather than Satan: “Once again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he caused David to harm them by taking a census. ‘Go and count the people of Israel and Judah,’ the Lord told him.” Despite this, God still becomes infuriated and punishes the Israelites with the aforementioned plague.

Most scholars of the Hebrew Bible consider the writings in II Samuel to be the original account from which the editor of the I Chronicles text received his information. It is widely believed by scholars that, at the time the text of II Samuel was compiled and edited around 560 BCE, the editors subscribed to the belief common among that religious community at the time that God was the ultimate source of all supernatural actions, whether good or evil. This perspective had changed slightly by 400 BCE, at which time I Chronicles is believed to have been written. The author of the account in I Chronicles views God as one who works indirectly through helping agents. Thus, when we read in I Chronicles 21:1 that Satan rose up and inspired David to take a census of his kingdom, we are likely not reading an account of an adversary working against God, as evidenced by what we are told in II Samuel 24:1.

In Zechariah 3:1-2, Satan is portrayed as a member of God’s council in the court of heaven, in much the same way as he is portrayed in the first two chapters of the Book of Job. In his role on God's council in this passage, Satan objects to the selection of Jeshua as the high priest: “Then the angel showed me Jeshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord. The Accuser, Satan, was there at the angel’s right hand, making accusations against Jeshua. And the Lord said to Satan, ‘I, the Lord, reject your accusations, Satan. Yes, the Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebukes you. This man is like a burning stick that has been snatched from the fire.’”

New Testament theology paints a picture of Satan and his role in the world that is dramatically different than his portrayal in the Hebrew Scriptures. The evolution of the figure of Satan from a loyal servant and ally of God to the arch-enemy of God and of all mankind has been traced by many scholars as a transformation that developed during what is called the “intertestamental period” between the close of the Protestant Old Testament and the start of what eventually became the New Testament canon.

The shift in Jewish conceptions of Satan during the transitional intertestamental period was largely occasioned by the influence of the Babylonian religion of Zoroastrianism. In particular, the concepts of angels, of the immortality of the soul, and of Angra Manyu, the God of Evil, were incorporated by Jewish thinkers into their theological system of belief [5]. The Zoroastrian concept of dualism began to surface in a number of Jewish writings, especially those of the Essenes, and eventually became fully integrated into Jewish thought. Shahriar Shahriari quotes J. Duchesne-Guillemin as saying that the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism and Christianity was such that “First, the figure of Satan, originally a servant of God, appointed by Him as His prosecutor, came more and more to resemble Ahriman, the enemy of God” [6]. John Gray remarks that “The development of the concept of Satan as the personal power of evil, who had his counterpart in the archangel Michael, the champion of cause of man in God’s purpose of creation, was probably developed under the influence of Persian Zoroastrian belief in the two conflicting spirits of good and evil” [7].

Thus, the strongly-held Protestant conception of an all-evil opponent of an all-good God who falls from heavenly service and resides over fallen man and hell is taken directly from late period Jewish writings such as the Book of Tobias, Ecclesiasticus, and the Book of Enoch, which were heavily influenced by the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. The irony of this fact is that one of the major reasons Protestants give for their rejection of texts such as these is that, in their understanding, neither Jesus nor his followers refer directly to them. Of course, our friend Lavern takes a different approach and strongly admonishes other Christians to consider the Book of Enoch to be inspired by God. But Lavern’s views represent another irony; he accepts the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal and non-canonical text, as an inspired writing from God in order to emphasize the conflict between God and Satan from a source that describes this conflict in greater depth than any canonical book of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament. At the same time, he inconsistently adopts a view of the relationship between God and Satan that writings such as the Book of Enoch largely served to dispel, namely that God and Satan hold common interests and cooperate to realize these interests.

As a result of this integration from influential pagan sources, God came to be understood as wholly good, rather than the source of both good and evil. Satan was conversely characterized as profoundly evil, wholly opposed to God. History was suddenly viewed as a cosmic battle between God and Satan, and the originally-held concept of Satan as God’s helper or lackey disappeared from orthodox systems of theology. Satan and his demons were then believed to be humanity’s greatest and most threatening enemies, and Christians and skeptical nonbelievers alike began to ask the question that is pondered to this day: Why does our all-powerful and perfectly good God not put an end to Satan’s ministry?

NOTES

1. Clark Ashton Smith, “Schizoid Creator,” in Tales of Science and Sorcery (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1964).

2. Nathan Dickey, “Inside the Mind of a Creationist: A Critical Analysis of Kent Hovind’s ‘Doctoral Dissertation,’” Nathan Dickey’s Blog, 23 February 2010, http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2010/02/inside-mind-of-creationist-critical_23.html (accessed 6 June 2010).

3. TrustInJC, “Why Does God Not Stop Satan,” YouTube, 31 December 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrNX5RFBC0o (accessed 6 June 2010).

4. On his channel, Lavern has also produced a thirteen-part series of very interesting messages, entitled The Book of Enoch is God Inspired, in which he discusses why he believes the pseudepigraphical and apocryphal Book of Enoch is inspired by God. This series is available at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFD7A02C95EA58BB0&feature=plcp (accessed 6 June 2010). In Part 2 of this series, Lavern goes into fuller detail concerning the conception he has been given from this apocryphal text that humanity was created with two conflicting natures at the outset and that the Tree of Knowledge was a device deliberately used by God to draw out Adam’s and Eve’s dark side of their nature.

For example, he states in this second installment,

“Enoch explains that God understood and knew of Adam and Eve’s evil heart. He understood that they had a rebellious, evil, sinful nature. But they did not understand this, they didn’t know this, and so God used this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to reveal this to them. And so when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes were opened. But it wasn’t because there was something in the fruit that opened their eyes, but rather the act itself. For when they ate of the Tree, their eyes were opened to the fact that they had this evil, sinful, rebellious nature and that they had rebelled against God, and that that sin distanced them from God. Paul understood this, and he had a revelation and understanding of this. And that is why Paul was able to write about the reason and the purpose of the Law of God. God’s Law, Paul explains, was created for the purpose of revealing to us our sinful nature, in the very same way that the Tree of Knowledge was put in the Garden of Eden to reveal Adam and Eve their sinful nature. So this was not some kind of new revelation that Paul received, but rather it was a revelation and an understanding of the writings of Enoch” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lu1Qkl6yLI).
The question Lavern fails to address is why God found it necessary to create humans with an evil nature to begin with. Does this not render God, not Satan, responsible for human rebellion and resultant human suffering, especially given his idea that it was God who orchestrated the temptation in Eden?

5. These concepts are developed in Zoroastrian Scriptures such as the Zend Avesta, the Pahlavi Texts and others. These texts are available online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/ (accessed 6 June 2010).

6. Shahriar Shahriari (July 1997), “Influence of Zoroastrianism on Other Religions,” http://www.sullivan-county.com/z/zor7.htm (accessed 6 June 2010).

7. John Gray, Near Eastern Mythology (New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1985), p. 127.