29 October 2010

Driven by Eternity

Today I read Driven By Eternity, a Christian motivational book. It was good as far as it goes, but it prompted the usual insoluble theological questions as interpreted by a snooty philosophical dilettante (i.e. me).

Such as:

If God were infinitely just, how could he also be infinitely merciful? Either everyone gets exactly what they deserve or some people are given mercy and get a lesser punishment. In the human world, these two virtues are exercised independently (since no one is perfectly just or perfectly merciful) but God claims a maximum of both. It would seem impossible.

How can God's laws be called "eternal"? In the Old Testament he gives all manner of restrictions on people, such as telling them not to eat pork and to sacrifice a dove if you touch a menstruating woman, as well as the Ten Commandments. But in the New Testament he either dismisses all of those or (depending on your view) dismisses some of them: thus few Christians keep kosher. In either case, God apparently changes his mind sometimes.

The problem of punishment again arises when it comes to "eternal justice." No human being can possibly commit an action of infinite gravity, yet all humans are punished with an infinite penalty. In a billion billion years, the world and stars will all be gone - one way or another. All possible consequences of an action will have ended. No matter how many people are murdered or how often you had sex outside of marriage, your villainy will be utterly meaningless. Yet your punishment will continue, for another billion billion years and forever. It's monstrous.

Furthermore, we are expected to have perfect knowledge of the standards of judgment: to be certain a certain sect of Christianity is right. But why Protestantism over Catholicism? Or Christianity over Islam? Inasmuch as I can tell with the best of my knowledge, they all have equal claim to authenticity (which is to say, little to no claim at all). Yet if I choose the wrong one, I'd be condemned to hell for doing something utterly harmless in any other sense, such as denying Muhammad's authenticity as the final prophet or Jesus' divinity as the son of God. It's like being condemned for rolling the wrong numbers on a pair of dice.

The myth of "choice" is also a little irritating. This is the idea that by sinning I am "choosing Hell and rejecting God." But when I take the Lord's name in vain, it is certainly not to choose Hell. It's usually to express anger or another strong emotion. It is another party, God, who would be deciding that my action represented an unintentional choice of which I was unaware. This is as if I offered you two candies, and if you chose the wrong one I hit you with a rock. You're not "choosing the rock and rejecting me," you're picking a kind of candy.

This verse is just asinine: "If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone were to rise from death." (Luke 16:31) I beg to differ.

The author, John Bevere, uses no fewer than six different translations of the Bible, choosing out-of-context verses from among them as he goes along and inserting parenthetical asides in the quotations, in order to get the Bible to say what he wants it to say. Example: "But [like a boxer] I buffer my body [handle it roughly, discipline it by hardships] and subdue it." (Cor 9:27) This prompts me to distrust his integrity. I am reasonably sure you could create and justify almost any message if single snatches of verses from any translation and supplemented by your own insertions were admissible as evidence.

Bevere has questionable judgment. As evidence of near-death experiences (NDEs) he mentions a study by a Dr. Melvin Morse. He studied a group of 133 children; the ones who were critically-ill and had been resuscitated had never had an NDE, but the dozen who had been in accidents, almost drowned, or had heart attacks all had NDEs. This is somehow evidence that NDEs are real. Does this make sense? "Some people had NDEs, so therefore they must be real"? Plus, a closer look at Dr. Morse's actual research reveals that NDEs can be artificially induced: "The pilots were placed in huge centrifuges and spun at tremendous speeds. After they lost consciousness, ... [a pilot typically experienced] leaving his physical body and traveling to a sandy beach, where he looked directly up at the sun. [One] pilot remarked that death is very pleasant." To me this is evidence against the validity of an NDE, but not to John Bevere.

So yeah. Some problems.

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