The Wrath of God: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

My musing today is inspired by Bethel McGrew’s thoughts on Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and CS Lewis.

Esther O’Reilly…. I mean Bethel McGrew, as she is wont to be known now, writes in her Essay Preview: Missing God of Jordan Peterson’s interview with Sam Harris in which Harris prodded Peterson to commit to conclusions on his flirtation with God. Harris teased Peterson into grappling with the idea of a personal God, but Peterson characteristically sidestepped the invitation.

Jordan Peterson is far more popular, or notorious, a subject than my extraneous musings, but Peterson isn’t the focus of my thoughts today. It isn’t Sam Harris either, though I have written about him before. Rather, the trajectory of my own past flirtations with the idea of a less personal God now prods me forward.

McGrew observes in Harris’s questions that he unwittingly, if not then crassly, “makes the same point C. S. Lewis makes in his fictional Letters to Malcolm, writing on the problem with trying to depersonalize God’s anger. Lewis’s hypothetical young correspondent suggests that we might reframe our experience of this anger as ‘what inevitably happens to us if we behave inappropriately towards a reality of immense power.’ A live wire doesn’t feel angry when it shocks us, but we know we will be shocked if we brush up against it.”

Before getting to the point, I must confess that I have played with a similar analogy out of a similar desire, I suspect, to make God seem less unpopularly angry. A God who is not wont to anger (or wrath as the Bible unabashedly puts it) seems more palatable to the modern mind, and, perhaps, safer,

Only my analogy, which I have thought to be rather clever, is of two magnets. The magnet signifying God is of immense proportion, of course, compared to the little magnet the size of humans. It doesn’t matter the size of the magnets, though; if we are orientated opposite to God, we are repelled by God.

It’s science. Like the laws of nature. It has nothing to do with God being angry.

I have toyed with the same human affinity to depersonalize an angry God. I admit the temptation to subscribe to the idea that primitive, Bronze Age people are less sophisticated than us and got it wrong to think that a loving God might get angry.   

I rather like my analogy, honestly. It neatly dodges the discomfort of “the God of the Old Testament” in our collective faces. Discounting God’s wrath as primitive imagery is, perhaps, convenient, if not a dead end as I now consider.

The temptation to gloss over biblical truths is no less compelling in our time than in Lewis’s time, and, perhaps, with the same unwitting results:

“But ‘My dear Malcolm,’ Lewis writes, ‘what do you suppose you have gained by substituting the image of a live wire for that of angered majesty? You have shut us all up in despair; for the angry can forgive, and electricity can’t.’”


On my analogy, a magnet cannot do other than to repel a magnet orientated with its same pole forward. Of course, a tiny magnet opposing a larger magnet can always reorient itself! Right?

Of course, analogies always break done at some point. Have you ever tried holding two magnets with their north poles facing each other? The lesser magnet tends to want to flip and go the other direction. If the magnet were a person, the “attraction” might be described as unstoppable.

But that doesn’t seem to be the way we operate in our orientation to God. We seem to have this sticky business of free will milling about within us, and a real tendency toward sin that requires us to choose God’s way over our ways (if we want to be orientated in God’s direction). We don’t naturally align with God.

It isn’t quite like science. It’s messier than we like to think of science (not that science doesn’t have its own messiness with sticky things like quantum entanglement and such). We can no more remove God’s personhood than our own from the “equation”.

I am a bit embarrassed that I have fixated on this tangent to McGrew’s point in writing about Jordan Peterson, but it’s what caught my attention and held it. It gave my a springboard for my own thoughts. I have taken her work afield, but it’s the path I am on, so I will continue.

Continue reading “The Wrath of God: Between a Rock and a Hard Place”

Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Erhman – Part 6 – Postscript

I have taken some time in previous blog articles to summarize my comments about an interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris. Ehrman talks about his early induction into a fundamentalist Christian world and losing his faith. He talks about the issues with biblical interpretation that led him away from belief.  I provide some comment on issues that possibly factor into his loss of faith, and the most recent articles address a modern view of miracles that avoids wrestling with evidence of the resurrection, and an observation that I share with others: that atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible similarly (two sides to the same coin).

One way to summarize Bart Ehrman’s story is the rejection of a rigid, wooden Christianity that imposes (or tries to impose) a “literal” meaning to everything in the Bible.  For Erhman, this is an all or nothing proposition.  Either the Bible is all literally true, or it is all literally false.

This is a false dichotomy.  It fails to appreciate nuance, different genres in the Bible, the significance of symbolical, metaphorical and allegorical meanings, context, and many other things.  It is the position of someone insisting that the Bible be read in a certain way and read through a particular lens, rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself.

When we approach the Bible, or any literature, with our own assumptions and presuppositions, we have already begun to dictate where we will end up. Ehrman originally approached the Bible with the assumption that it was all literally true (whatever “literally” meant to him and the people who influenced him). Ehrman now approaches the Bible with the assumption that it is all literally false, and that colors the way he reads it.

Harris’s reliance on Hume’s standard for determining the proof of a miracle comes back to mind.  If we set the bar “exceedingly” high, as Hume says we should, we rig the analysis, from the start, to discount every miraculous claim.  That the standard we have set is impossible to meet is the ultimate point. They don’t believe in miracles so they don’t take evidence of miracles seriously, whatever the evidence is.

This way of approaching a subject doesn’t seem very scientific or scholarly to me.  Yet, Harris is a scientist.  Erhman is a scholar.  While skepticism is a useful tool, it needs to be employed with a dose of humility, and the same skepticism should be applied to the “hermeneutics of skepticism” employed by the skeptic.

When the interview starts, Harris talks about people failing to use skeptical scientific tools.  Harris is, generally, referring to the scientific method. The scientific method is primarily a skeptical approach, demanding proof.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach.  The danger, however, is that we sneak all kinds of presuppositions into our scientific approach which, by their very nature, will dictate outcomes.  This really is not what the scientific method, in its purest form, is meant to be.

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Erhman – Part 6 – Postscript”

Sam Harris Podcast Interviews Bart Ehrman – Part 5 – Atheists & Fundamentalists May Be Two Sides of the Same Coin

Ehrman does exactly what we might expect of someone trying to explain something he doesn’t believe in. He grossly oversimplifies the discussion, and he compares it to something else he doesn’t believe in.

This blog piece is a continuation in a series of articles commenting on the podcast interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris. We trace Bart Ehrman’s early fundamentalist experience through the “loss” of his faith and the fundamentalism that still informs Ehrman’s view of the Bible, albeit not from a believing position anymore. I explore some factors from Ehrman’s story that may explain his turn away from belief in God, and the “exceedingly high” bar skeptics set for miracles that allows them to discount the Bible without seriously considering the evidence.

Ehrman suggests, reasonably, that the resurrection is the foundation for Christian belief, but he and Harris quickly gloss over the evidence. From the resurrection, the discussion turns to focus on heaven and hell.  Erhman remarks that, when he was a fundamentalist Christian, he believed in a literal heaven and a literal hell.  He described a literal hell with traditional fire and brimstone.

I have noted, as have other people in the past, that atheists and agnostics often take the same literal approach to scripture as “fundamentalists” do.  This is an example of what I mean by that. It’s possible that hell is literal fire and brimstone, but it’s possible it isn’t. There are a number of different biblical theories about hell, even among evangelicals, and even more if we go to the more mainstream denominations.

Many Christian scholars do not believe that hell is literally fire and brimstone.  They make a good case that the language is metaphorical, rather than literal.  One of the hallmarks of a fundamentalist (as with an atheist or agnostic) interpretation of the Bible is the lack of nuance and sophistication. Both viewpoints tend to fail to appreciate and understand metaphor.

Of course, sometimes a text might be taken literally and metaphorically, and a text may have literal meaning and metaphoric meaning that are both appropriate.  A fundamentalist, though, tends to want to read everything literally, and skeptics do the same thing.

The result for the fundamentalist is a kind of belief that ignores evidence to the contrary, and for the atheist the result is total rejection of the Bible.  The fundamentalists and the skeptics ironically approach Scripture in the same way. This leads to a false dichotomy: we either must accept everything (regardless of the evidence) or accept nothing (in spite of the evidence).

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast Interviews Bart Ehrman – Part 5 – Atheists & Fundamentalists May Be Two Sides of the Same Coin”

Sam Harris Podcast Interview of Bart Ehrman – Part 4 – Setting the Bar Exceedingly High

An exceedingly high bar for the proof of miracles allows Ehrman and Harris to avoid a serious discussion about the evidence of the resurrection.

I have written three articles summarizing some observations I have from an interview of Bart Ehrman, the agnostic New Testament scholar, by Sam Harris, the atheist, about Christianity. In those articles, I cover Bart Ehrman’s story about losing his faith, the fundamentalism that continues to color the way Ehrman reads the Bible and the dangers of social influence as a substitute for a deep, personal relationship with God.

I covered in the first article the rather ironic claim that Harris makes about approaching a familiar subject from a new angle. When an atheist interviews an agnostic on the subject of Christianity, I don’t know what new angle he is talking about! They both come from the same angle of unbelief.

When Sam Harris asks Ehrman to describe what Ehrman, as “an informed believer” would have said was the strongest argument for Christianity, I had to chuckle. When Ehrman replied that the proof of the resurrection would be the strongest argument, I had to agree, though. As Paul said, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, his preaching and faith were useless, and he would have to be pitied.[1]

For the proof, Ehrman states only two facts: the empty tomb, and the followers of Jesus who claimed to see Jesus alive after the resurrection. (They are other “minimal facts” that even skeptics will concede.) Ehrman doesn’t expound on the two facts, other than to note that Paul alludes to a list of people in 1 Corinthians who claimed to see Jesus risen from (including 500 people at one time (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8)).

These two facts are certainly on the short list of key factors scholars evaluate in considering the historicity of the resurrection, but they are not the only facts to be considered. Even skeptical scholars, like Ehrman, admit a few more. (See Previewing the Minimal Facts Critique of the Resurrection.) But, Ehrman and Harris never really get to a discussion of the facts.

Before any real discussion of the evidence, Sam Harris jumps in to refute the resurrection by reference to David Hume. Hume of course is the 18th century philosopher who urged a standard of proof for miracles that, in Sam Harris’s own words, is “a bar that is exceedingly difficult to get over”. By reference to Hume, Harris says that the proof of a miracle has to be so strong that believing in anything other than a miracle would, itself, would require belief in the miraculous.

This is a type of a priori position that discounts and dismisses miraculous claims without really taking a hard look at the evidence. In essence, the position is that miracles can’t happen. They don’t happen. Therefore it didn’t happen. This “exceedingly” high bar that Sam Harris speaks about is arbitrary. Ehrman acknowledges, but glosses over, that point by saying that “believers have a different standard of proof”. This is entirely true, but it doesn’t really address the issue.

What is a proper or reasonable standard of proof?

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast Interview of Bart Ehrman – Part 4 – Setting the Bar Exceedingly High”