Category Archives: Inerrancy

Apologize This!

In a country where 37% of people describe themselves as “born again” and presidential candidates kick off campaigns with prayer rallies, one might assume Evangelical Christians would feel secure. But they don’t – they are arming for a siege.

There was a bunker-like atmosphere during a crisp and overcast weekend in late October as over 2,000 Evangelical academics and students gathered for the 18th Annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics sponsored by the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Their redoubt was the Northside Christian Academy (motto: “Preparing Students for Eternity”) in a leafy northern suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I used to believe Christians had two brains — one was lost and the other was out looking for it,” thundered Josh McDowell, one of a parade of electrifying, Baptist preacher-style thought leaders who relied more on rhetorical razzle than PowerPoint slides. “The problem with many Christians,” he complained, “is you can’t give me an intelligent reason why you believe what you believe.”

Like many of the conference keynotes, McDowell is absurdly media-savvy, a prolific presenter, author or co-author of 120 books including the 15 million-selling More Than a Carpenter, about you-know-who. Other far-right erudites on the agenda included Gary Habermas (36 books, half of which attempt to prove the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection), William Dembski (20 books, including the first on Intelligent Design published by a university press), and Michael Brown (20 books, popular radio host).

Apologetics is the opposite of an apology. The mission of the conference was to equip academic Evangelicals with talking points to defend their position on topics such as “The Nature of God,” “The Best Objection to Evolution,” “Refuting the New Atheism,” and “Philosophical Foibles of Modern Physics.” A discipline as old as religion itself, apologetics basically means “explaining our beliefs to outsiders.”

Outsiders were not much in evidence among the well-behaved crowd of believers, but they hovered in the skies like a metaphorical Death Star. Indeed, among the 120 sessions wedged into two endless 12-hour days, one by S.E.S. professor Richard Howe was called “The Religion of the Force: A Look at Star Wars.” After betraying a mastery of minutiae as impressive as that of any Star Warrior in a wookie suit, Howe concluded: “The Force in Star Wars is very much like what you find in witchcraft and the occult.”

More seriously, the assembled apologists feared what they ominously call “The Culture,” which they see as an almost overwhelming Force of God-denying moral wafflers, evolutionists and sexual predators. The most chilling presentation was Josh McDowell’s “One Click Away” about the horrors of — believe it or not — internet pornography. McDowell spewed a torrent of statistics that I can only pray are not true: 67% of 12-25 year olds go to porn sites; 56% of divorces are caused by porn; one-third of eight year-olds “regularly” view sex acts online.

Yikes. Of course, the 70-ish McDowell is a professional yarn-spinner who claims to have delivered 24,000 talks over 51 years, which at an average of 1.3 per day makes one wonder. But his point is clear: Our kids are being podnapped by a liberal culture that is the moral equivalent of a pack of wild boars. This might seem beside the apologetic point until you realize the #1 Evangelical “proof” for the existence of God is the so-called “moral argument,” i.e., that there is an obvious universal standard of right and wrong that would not exist were there not a universal creator. Anyone who denies this standard – or that it comes from God – is guilty of “relativism,” about as close to a curse word as you’ll get from this crowd.

McDowell’s talk was an outlier in that he didn’t mention the Darth Vader of the conference, a man potentially more famous in Evangelical circles than in his own family: evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. Moreso than the other members of the so-called New Atheist anti-God squad of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Dawkins is seen as a deadly adversary because of his mastery of the evidence for evolution.

Why are Evangelicals so obsessed by evolution? In the words of William Dembski, a floppy-haired academic and Intelligent Design apologist with impressive credentials (Ph.D.’s in math and philosophy), “They [i.e., evolutionists] really think this makes a case for atheism.” He’s troubled by the so-called “theistic evolution” movement championed by scientist-Christians such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project, who believe in God without rejecting evolution.

Next time: The most dramatic plenary!

What’s Your Problem?

Rock Star Bart Ehrman

Beliefnet (“Inspiration. Spirituality. Faith.“) always struck me as a kind of front for conservative political propaganda disguised as interfaith sharing, but it’s actually more benign. At times — as in those glorious days of April, 2008 — it sports a spirited, erudite dialogue on issues deep and wide.

What happened in April, 2008? Why, that’s when Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman and Rock Star Bishop N. T. Wright faced off in a religious studies Battle of the Bands over the deepest issue of them all: If there is a God, why is there so much darn suffering?

It’s not a new question, of course: Job faces it, suggesting the earliest Jewish communities had the same debate as Ehrman and Wright. But it’s inspiring to stumble on such a live Christian dialogue between two such well-armed combatants.

These two are about as famous as it’s possible for Christian academics to be these days. Ehrman has appeared on “The Colbert Report” more than once, and Wright is also a strong-selling author who’s probably met a few celebrities. They’re scholars who know the texts backwards (Hebrew is read from right to left – get it?).

But there the similarities end. Ehrman is American; Wright is British. Ehrman was a Southern Evangelical who gradually lost his faith. Wright was an Anglican Bishop, a self-described Calvinist, and very much a believer.

Their debate started with an entry Bart Ehrman contributed to the “Blogalogue: Debates with Spirit” section of Beliefnet titled “How the Problem of Pain Ruined My Faith.” The occasion was the publication of his unapologetic screed, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.”

“For most of my life,” Ehrman starts, rather ominously, “I was a devout Christian, believing in God, trusting in Christ for salvation.” At some point in his mid-20s, it seems, his Biblical scholarship led him to reject the evangelicals’ (quite silly) doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture, but he stayed a Christian for 20 more years.

But he had a growing problem with suffering. Where was God in disasters? Where was God in Cambodia and Colombian mud slides and so on. The stats he rattles off are despairing: a child dies of starvation every five seconds; every minute 25 people die because they don’t have clean water; every hour 700 people die of preventable malaria. “Where is God in all this?”

Reflection led him to the more nuanced Christological view that Jesus points the way toward God, showing us that “He is a God who suffers.” That is, basically God’s answer to suffering is to make sure we don’t suffer alone. He doesn’t remove or prevent pain but allows us to soldier through it (unless we die).

Then, some ten years ago, Ehrman realized he “simply no longer believed the Christian message.” He just didn’t believe God answered prayers, intervened and would come again in glory. It’s an intellectual trip he’s on, of course, but it’s one a lot of us can relate to.

[Up Next: a very — ahem — spirited debate ensues …]

No Man Knows the Day or the Hour (Except Me!)

Waiting for the Rapture?

Every tin-pot prophet who would predict the End of Days comes up against what would seem to be a highly problematic text:

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Jesus — the Big Banana, Jr. himself — makes this statement about the coming of the Kingdom in identical language in Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32. (Such verbal identity, by the way, is used as evidence that Matthew had Mark in front of him when he wrote his Gospel.)

Since it comes from Jesus, Christian fortune-tellers who would like to predict the “day or hour” of the coming Kingdom need to explain it away.

And they do. But how?

Edgar Whisenant, author of the infamous bestseller “88 Reasons the Rapture Will Occur in 1988,” dealt with it directly. In fact, rebutting Jesus’ statement makes up Reasons #1 and #2.

Reason #1: There are 24 time zones on our planet and always “two days existing on the earth at the same time,” Whisenant points out. So any singular Rapture event will happen at 24 different times on two different days at once. But “the faithful,” he says, can know “the year, the month and the week of the Lord’s return.” Ah, of course. Jesus lets us know the week!

Reason #2: Quoting a Joe Civelli of Pensacola, Florida, Whisenant focuses on micro-parsing the Greek word “know,” which he and Joe claim has two different meanings. They convince themselves (if not us) that the passages use the word (“oida“) in such a way that “no one knows” actually means “no one knows easily but if you try hard you can know.” Thus is black, precisely understood, actually white.

Our old, old friend Harold Camping is less insulting, if rather more tortured. His free pamphlet “No Man Knows the Day or Hour?” takes this passage by the balls.

Camping takes the original position that, in fact, it was impossible for Christians to know the “day or hour” until the late 20th century. In Acts 1:8, Luke has Jesus say that “the Holy Ghost is coming upon you.” Camping takes this to mean that gradually, as the Kingdom nears, its dates emerge — but only to Camping and his followers.

His theology is complicated but essentially privileges his own sect. In fact, Camping believes the Church Age ended in 1988 and God stopped saving people. This fact is why he enrages so many other Evangelicals, whom he believes to be damned. (It does, however, confirm my theory that Millennials are Satanic.)

Sounding like any good 2nd century Gnostic or member of a Greco-Roman mystery cult, Camping concludes:

It is the true believers who know the time (the hour) and much about Judgment Day (the day).[!!!]

It’s Not Me, It’s You

Rapture-Ready Kitten

Last Monday, 86 year-old “humble Bible teacher” and millionaire failed Doomsday prophet Harold Camping emerged to say he wasn’t wrong, after all.

His cognitive dissonance lasted precisely one day (Sunday) — a “very difficult time,” he admitted, when he “was wondering, ‘What is going on?'”

Not, apparently, a mistake, blunder, faux pas, outrageous misreading of Scripture or insulting and irresponsible display of arrogance. No, “what is going on,” he concluded, was that “God brought Judgment Day to bear” — it’s just “we didn’t see any difference.”

Say what? What about all those earth-shattering catastrophes he’d predicted as recently at last Friday? A kind of technicality.

Camping dug into his Bible on Sunday and found a text that let him off the hook, for now.

Revelation 9:4 continues a sci-fi vision where “locusts” are said to appear out of a smoke cloud and:

“… they were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.”

And in 9:5, we are told these locusts “were not given power to kill them [people without the seal], but only to torture them for five months.” During which time we — the unelect — will suffer “agony” like the “sting of a scorpion.”

Now, this passage certainly contains the key phrase “five months.” No doubt. Camping takes his literally. But what about the rest?

No “locusts” I can see — so they’re symbolic. Of what? Unclear. Although recent bad weather was taken to be a sign of impending Rapture pre-5/21, this passage would seem to preclude it. But near my house in Northeast Minneapolis last week, a tornado most definitely DID “harm the grass” and a whole bunch of “plant[s]” and “tree[s],” in direct defiance of Scripture.

So the locusts are unruly. What about the “agony” of the unelect. Notice any more pain than usual, sinners?

And then there’s that crucial “five months.” Camping’s original Rapture date required interpreting Noah’s “seven days” of warning as 7,000 years. So those “five months” should be equivalent to at least 150,000 years, right?

Perhaps October 21st won’t be so bad after all.

Camping in the Wild

Now that Harold Camping has pushed out the date for the Rapture until 10/21, we can pause for a Satanic second here and ask ourselves: Just who is Harold Camping? How can he singlehandedly turn America into a country where some polls showed 10% of us seriously considering the world might end last Saturday?

Camping is a radio evangelist and founder of Family Radio, a 300-person 501(c)-3 non-profit based in Oakland, California. It has 66 stations in its network but does not appear to own most of them. As Christian radio goes, the network is middle-of-the-road rather than righty or lefty.

A few years ago, Camping’s network seems to have been worth about $150 million and be fishing donations of $15-20 million per year, according to MinistryWatch.com. An employee ratted to the Christian Post this week that Camping raised most of his $100 million Doomsday ad budget by selling off two stations. So it’s possible Family Radio is down to about $50 million net worth.

Funny aside: Camping’s Doomsday billboards directed people to a website called WeCanKnow.com which asked for donations. For what? The world’s going to end! The link was disabled about a week before 5/21, perhaps by someone who connected these dots (or an overloaded server). It’s back up this morning — still proclaiming “Judgment Day-May 21, 2011” and offering free downloads of terrifying eBooks such as “Woe to the Bloody City” and “I Hope God Will Save Me!” (p.s. He won’t).

Clinically speaking, Camping is older than dirt. A teenager in the Great Depression, he grew up in Colorado and became a Civil Engineer, married, had seven children. Devout all his life in that old-fashioned Reformed American way. He started a construction business in California and was a popular volunteer Bible Studies teacher at the First Christian Reformed Church of Alameda for years.

By the late 1950’s, he had a non-profit radio ministry on the side and in the 1960’s started his live “Open Forum” radio broadcast on weekends. Camping sold his construction business in the ’70s and “Open Forum” became a very, very long-running call-in show where he handled Biblical questions unrehearsed Monday-Friday for 90 minutes in the evening. It’s still on the air with the 89 year-old Camping as a one-man show.

“Open Forum” is a wonder. Truly. Camping is an absolute master of the Biblical texts and the conservative Protestant tradition. I used to listen to it on my way back into the City from consulting engagements in New Jersey — by accident, really, since I was not then a practicing Christian. He took any question at all from anyone, paged through to the relevant text, and gave intricate, plausible, cross-referenced responses in his extraordinarily deep, almost God-like voice.

Rarely have I heard such intellectual mastery of a single topic from anyone. It doesn’t happen. He knew the Bible’s million words all but by heart. He stressed “humility” in listening to “God’s Word.” And in his non-apology to listeners last Monday, Camping continued to insist he was just a “humble Bible teacher” with no responsibility for anything he says.

People can delude themselves, of course, but it takes a very special person to delude thousands of others. Having been in construction during the California real estate boom and sold at the peak, Camping is undoubtedly a multi-millionaire. How can someone so smart be so wrong?

I recently ran across a very good definition of “cognitive dissonance” in the Washington Post, quoting Mark Vrankovich, head of Cultwatch, a pro-Christian anti-cult group:

“You invest a lot of your emotional energy or put money into it. So no matter what the evidence you want to keep on believing. The alternative is that you’ve wasted your time and money, you’ve wasted friendships and burned bridges — people don’t want to face up to that.”

Camping Out

We’ve been joyously rubbernecking the pile-up of Harold Camping’s latest failed Rapture prediction in the pages of the Christian Post. Lest our short term memories fail us, this time last week two reasonable polls showed 3% of respondents thought the world would end last Saturday and another 10% thought “maybe.”

Why? Point thumbs at Harold Camping, girls. The 89 year-old founder and resident prophet of the 66-station Family Radio network seems to have spent almost $100 million on billboards and broadcast spots predicting The Rapture would occur at 6pm on May 21st.

A very practiced Biblical hyper-reader, Camping based his date on a text in Genesis saying Noah had a 7-day warning of the Flood. In an exponential leap beloved of doom-sayers, he turns 7 days into 7,000 years, adds that to his own date for the Flood (4990 B.C.E.) … and here we are!

Or not.

The week before the faux-Rapture, Camping delivered an inadvertently insulting letter to the 300 employees of his California-based 501(c)-3 non-profit:

“As I bid you farewell,” he wrote, “may you steadfastly continue to stand with us to proclaim the Gospel through Family Radio.”

Why insulting? Camping believed the truly elect would be snatched up before the Tribulation. But not, apparently, his employees, who would remain on Earth with the rest of us to suffer Hell-on-Earth, still “steadfastly” clinging to the airwaves.

Hours after the non-Rapture, evangelicals tripped over themselves to denounce Camping and his calendar. Some of this was just good business: a rival Christian radio outfit self-righteously said, “Do not lend your ears to anything from Harold Camping.”

And Left Behind series author Tim Lahaye excoriated him as being “not only wrong but dangerous,” since, of course, a Tribulation would be a disaster for sales of apocalyptic fiction.

How did Camping himself react?

Although repeatedly saying he wouldn’t give interviews, he seems to have had some trouble keeping his mouth shut. A reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle went to the door of his Alameda mansion and got him to admit he was “flabbergasted” and was having a “really tough weekend.” An IBTimes reporter got him on video saying “I’ve got to think it out.”

So he thought. Didn’t show up to work Monday morning.

That same day, an apparently disgusted Family Radio employee gave an interview to a Christian Post reporter so revealing it makes us wonder how much control Camping really has at the network.

Among other things, the employee said Camping raised the $100 million 5/21 advertising budget by selling a TV and FM radio station. He painted Camping as a lone crazy man in an office that didn’t believe him. He’d made ten previous Doomsday predictions, most of which were not publicized. Family Radio Employees didn’t trust him anymore. Donors were openly told not to sell their homes.

Monomania? Megalomania? Something worse, perhaps. Camping’s brother “said he has always been like that since he was a child,” said the employee.

Monday night, Camping had emerged. Thought was over. Utterly unrepentant, he said the Rapture had occurred but was “silent” and pushed out the date of ultimate destruction to October 21st.

We’ll have more to say on Camping and this fascinating non-event. But for now, let’s point out that while many of his followers may indeed have experienced classic “cognitive dissonance,” the prophet himself had a different response.

He failed to feel any dissonance at all.

“This Is Hell”

Last week, Time magazine ran a cover story asking: “What If There Is No Hell?” Having grown up near Detroit, I represent that remark. But enough about me — what do you think of my inerrant faith that modern Americans are disarmingly ignorant of theology or the elementary history of their own (supposed) faith?

Screw your heads back on, sinners! Here’s a list off the top of my head of things you probably didn’t know but anyone who’s read an encyclopedia entry titled “Christianity” would:

  • There is no “Hell” in the Old Testament (i.e., Hebrew Bible)
  • New Testament “Hell” looks more like some kind of Purgatory or waiting room
  • The idea that in “Hell” our bodies live in eternal, roasting pain was invented in the year 400 by Augustine (see “City of God,” Book XX)
  • The idea that we have “Souls” that live after our bodies die was imported into Christianity from Plato
  • Again: There are no “Souls” in the Bible
  • Paul made it absolutely clear that his message was for everyone — even though a lot of Jesus’ original disciples wanted to keep it only for Jews (see Galatians)
  • Jesus did not claim he was God
  • Jesus thought the end of the world was coming in a few years
  • So did Paul
  • The “Holy Spirit” perplexed the early Christians — it’s not obvious from the scriptures this thing is the same as God
  • There is no “Trinity” in the New Testament
  • There is no “Incarnation” in the New Testament — that is, it’s not obvious Jesus is fully man and fully God (most early Christians thought he was more one or the other)
  • Jesus didn’t really establish a church; early Christians (including Paul) didn’t think they needed a church
  • There are no bishops, cardinals, monks, nuns or popes in the Bible
  • Jesus was not a CEO, entrepreneur or American capitalist — in fact, it’s pretty clear he hated the rich
  • Jesus was a socialist
  • Jesus was a Jew — he was born and died a Jew
  • He had no idea he was founding a new religion — his message was entirely delivered to Jews to prepare them for the coming judgment
  • Jesus did not believe in “family values” — he recommended that people leave their families and follow him
  • Jesus was a Middle Eastern male who looked a lot more like a modern Iraqi than a modern American

There’s more, but let’s stop there. Peace.