When I was a small boy I had to attend church and sit and listen to two sermons every week. These sermons did not contain any serious or deep theology, but they gave me the general ideas that underpinned Christianity. I was fascinated by the idea that there was a heaven and a hell; heaven for the good people and hell for the bad ones. On top of this there was a God of love who sent his son to rescue us. This was Jesus, who suffered almost unendurable pains so that we could go to heaven and escape going to hell.
Surely this couldn't be right, why did God invent hell in the first place? This didn't seem a very loving invention. Worse still if Jesus went to so much trouble, why was this scheme such an obvious failure? Despite all this love most people just ignored God and his grand scheme and seemed happy enough to lead bad or careless lives and go to Hell, was this because they just didn't bother about God? Or perhaps, unlike us (my immediate church going family) the others just didn't believe in God.
Naturally this created some tension in my thinking; either God didn't exist or I was getting the wrong facts about God. For some reason I decided to continue believing in God which meant I had to reject, or change, at least some of what I was learning about God. I decided that God existed but his presence was unprovable. I reasoned that if there was a way of proving God existed then God, or Jesus would have published this vital proof of existence. Alternatively they could have left a permanent miracle, perhaps a flame that really did burn forever without any fuel and was freely available for later scientific scrutiny. In this way the obvious miracle would convince everyone and God was real and worked miracles and thus they would be saved as the loving God seemed to desire. To make some sense of this God idea I decided that ‘God’ was a concept that lay beyond our logic.
CHRIS: Hello Terry, what is this that I hear about you claiming the idea of God is nonsense.
TERRY: No, not nonsense, just illogical. I think that feeling and believing in God is a natural common experience.
CHRIS: Ok why do you claim that the idea of God is illogical?
TERRY: Because we cannot see God and we can only hear God indirectly: we are dealing with a concept that cannot be scientifically examined. Hence I claim that the things of God cannot be directly observed or measured and are therefore beyond scientific analysis. A recent philosophy, called logical positivism, states that items must be repeatedly and reliably observed or these items have no significant meaning. Religious items such as existence, foretelling the future, receiving moral knowledge, etc. cannot be reliably repeated and confirmed so I class these items as transcendent. These transcendent items (also called metaphysical) lie beyond, or above, the reach of scientific logic.
CHRIS: Well then is the Bible logical.
TERRY: Not in the strict and formal way that I am defining logic.
CHRIS: Does this mean that the Bible is not true?
TERRY: Not at all, truth is a subtle concept and doesn’t depend on formal logic. For instance we are good friends who are having a discussion, but how can you prove that we are friends and how can you logically say whether or not our discussion is useful?
CHRIS: But I am asking you to state whether or not the Bible is true.
TERRY: In my initial story, about my juvenile thoughts on Christianity, you can see I mentally discarded logic and decided to start with the premise that the Bible was true.
CHRIS: But do you still think this as a scientist?
TERRY: Oh yes, I see the Bible as being true, but not as a scientific textbook. A scientific textbook will be rewritten and changed every few years as our scientific knowledge grows; while the truth of the Bible is expected to be timeless.
CHRIS: Well is the Bible true in the history it presents?
TERRY: It might be, but unfortunately we cannot scientifically confirm what took place in history. We have to apply faith to believe authenticity of the Bible. From our modern scientific analysis, we can only say that the original writers believed they were writing the truth. Little else can be proved either way.
CHRIS: Let us cut to the chase. In your opening statement you mention heaven and hell. Do you believe in Hell?
TERRY: I certainly did once. But the exact details were never clear to me. I have been reading the Bible all my life and I still cannot find a clear picture of Hell (outside the Apocrypha). It appears that hell is a transcendent place (I really have to say transcendent state) where sinners go when they die and are judged to be unworthy of existing with God. I cannot find any biblical evidence that sinners are tortured forever, even though I have studied the supposedly relevant passages.
CHRIS: Yes we have been through this discussion before. You think (along with other bible scholars) that the Israelites learned and developed the concept of Hell while they were in captivity in Babylon. You think that we cannot extract unnecessary details from the parable of rich man and the beggar (Luke 16:19-31). And you believe from the description (Revelation 20) that the bible only says that the immortals (the Devil and his angels) suffer eternal torment; the unworthy humans suffer a judgement and are sorted out presumably for death.
TERRY: Yes I am glad I don’t have to go through that all again. But please don’t assume that I have a simple belief in that fairly literal description. I agree that you have summarised what I think the Bible says on this matter. But, and this is important so that we do not misunderstand each other, we are dealing with transcendent descriptions, what I really believe is that on, or after death, we will be judged on how we lived and how we tried to please God. This judgement will affect what happens to us after death.
CHRIS: But the way you were thinking you make God appear to be incompetent.
TERRY: No, not at all, even as a young boy I adjusted my thinking to make sense of the God of love. It is the traditional Christian apologetics that makes God seem incompetent and unloving and this is why I am wary of traditional interpretations. I need to make sense of my religious intuition.
CHRIS: But doesn’t the Bible say (2 Peter 1:20) “… that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.”
TERRY: Yes it does but I don’t see why that should change my right to understand the bible in my own way. The word ‘prophesy’ here means to speak out (or write) so called words of God to the public, almost always with an element of foretelling. I would be blaspheming if I pretended my ideas were God’s words.
CHRIS: Do you still think Jesus was wasting His time?
TERRY: Far from it, he came to show us how to reach and understand God. In response to ‘God’s word’ we should live justly (that is use moral logic), show mercy to those around us and remain humble before God. This pattern was revealed before Jesus arrived (Micah 6:8). To restate these ideas we should live our lives the way our creator wants us to live.
CHRIS: But what about sacrifice and atonement?
TERRY: A good point. This certainly had me puzzled. I always knew that ‘good works’ were not really what God wanted. I now suppose that God wants our willing and obedient cooperation and participation in His creation.
I expect to encounter pain and suffering in this life. God is not a giant homomorphic (man shaped) Cosmic Father Christmas: prayer to God may not make everything better on demand, but it will help me understand and participate in suffering of others.
Jesus set a pattern that I accept and try to follow. I am judged by my intention not by what I am. The righteousness of Jesus is conceptually similar to the good Karma that the fully realised Buddas are said to leave.
CHRIS: I know you have lately studied Buddhism without finding any reason to leave Christianity so I will accept your comparison in the spirit in which it is offered.
Do you still think Christian plan doesn’t work?
TERRY: If I believed all the orthodox teaching and apologetics that I have heard and read I would think Christianity is clumsy and not plausible. But by opting for transcendent explanations my Christian faith has grown throughout my life.
CHRIS: Did you ever have any conflict between your scientific understanding and your transcendent understanding.
TERRY: Not personally, no. But I had considerable difficulties mixing with Christians who thought that their Christian beliefs were scientifically (and historically) reasonable. This to me is intellectually and spiritually unsatisfactory. The transcendent is not observable or verifiable; it takes faith to experience these things.
CHRIS: Did your scientific training help you reach this understanding?
TERRY: I don’t think so; I took to physics because it suited my scepticism. I didn’t become a sceptic because of my studies.
CHRIS: So you were always religious.
TERRY: I guess so; I picked it up from my Mum and Dad and went from there. Historically, the reformation enabled us to read the bible for ourselves and reject unsuitable dogmas. I have done this all my life and I still have a religious faith that keeps me faithfully following the path that I believe Jesus laid out.
Here is a parable that I have taken from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-haunted World; in turn Sagan acknowledges the psychologist Richard Franklin as the source of the example.
Suppose I say to you, in all earnestness, “A dragon lives in my garage.” And I keep insisting that this is the case. Obviously (I hope) you will respond by asking to see the dragon. So when I agree I take you to look in my garage. When you look in the garage, you see that the cars are not there and around the walls are shelves and cupboards containing the usual stuff found in any garage; but there is no sign of a dragon. So you ask “Where is this dragon, has it gone away?” “Oh no” I say “it is there but I forgot to tell you that it is invisible.”
So you think, ‘well I will play along with this stupidity’ and you suggest “Hey let us sprinkle flour around the floor so we can pick out the foot prints of this invisible dragon.” But I reply “no that won’t work because the dragon hovers above the floor without walking on it.” Then you think ‘what about the fiery breath’ and you ask “where are the flames from its breathing?” I reply that these are also invisible. So you propose to use a heat detector to pick up the flames. I reply that “this won’t work because the flames are heatless; this is why they are invisible.” Feeling rather stymied, you suggest “well why not let me spray paint around the garage so that we can pick up the outline of the dragon.” Again I reply “Good idea, but this dragon has no substance and the paint won’t stick to it.”
No sensible person would bother to argue anymore, there seems no point. Clearly there is no dragon present. Or if there was such a strange creature it is not going to make any difference to the world.
It should be obvious that I am asking you to consider whether or not my belief in God is similar to my belief in the non-existent dragon. Personally I don’t think so. The difference between these beliefs is in the memes or tradition. However, as transcendent things are unprovable I deliberately chose to stop here and not continue with any type of argument.
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