Dispensationalism and Doomsday

Question from Brian (not the previous Brian):
I am studying Bible at a christian university but am tired of a strictly christian perspective (many of my friends at home are atheists and i enjoy discussing theology with them). As i study more deeply i realize that much of Modern christian theology doesn’t match up with older theology and even the Bible itself but i specifically want to talk of the rapture and similar eschatology.

To begin with I can find no historical evidence of a “rapture” before John Darby described it. In fact it seems more in line with the oldest texts that heaven quite literally descends and there is no longer a distinction between heaven and earth. In this time the “Kingdom of Heaven” is where the dead are resurrected from the hadean realm and judged. Those who were judged to be righteous in life get to stay and those whe are judged unrighteous are sent to gehenna (hades and gehenna (a constantly burning trash heap outside jerusalem) are important distinctions in the original texts). Being sent or taken away is seen as punishment throughout the old testament i don’t think God would suddenly change his mind about that.

Well thats what i think, rip it to shreds please.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’d like to know how you interpret the end of 1 Thessalonians 4 if not as a literal description of the future Rapture. Sure, “raptured” might be one of several different translations (“caught up” is another) but they all seem to mean roughly the same thing. I think it was laid out for Darby pretty clearly. So what did they think it meant before Darby came along? Or did they just not give it the emphasis it now has? Meanwhile, those who aren’t raptured probably end up in Hell, which is close enough to the Old Testament idea of being sent away.

Details aside, God will supposedly extract His chosen few one way or another. This event, and more generally Judgement Day, is useful to Christians and non-Christians alike. Christians can use the threat of approaching endtimes to proselytise and recruit in an atmosphere of urgency, like the frantic folks at the eBible Fellowship are doing right now. Non-Christians can simply wait until after the appointed date to point out the futility and lack of predictive power of Christian prophecies, as no doubt they will after May 21 when the Fellowship is trying to explain why not one of their number was raptured (and, after October 21, why the world hasn’t ended). The 2011 dates join a long and dubiously distinguished line of specific endtime prophecies by people who saw the short-term benefits of displaying apparently concrete information about the fate of us all.

I’m 30, and this isn’t my first rodeo. I vaguely remember an end date that whizzed by when I was in high school, and another during university. What worries me isn’t the possibility that one of them will turn out to be accurate, but the near-certainty that each time people are being exploited. The Millennium was the worst in recent times; in Uganda, hundreds of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were massacred by the failed prophets who had taken all their worldly goods in the months leading up to New Year’s Eve.

There’s a big one coming up next year: the date in December 2012 sourced from the Mayan calendar and reverse engineered to match every bit of religious or new-age Doomsday math anyone had lying around. I’m frankly terrified of two things. Firstly, even more people than the Millennium victims will likely be exploited and even ruined or killed thanks to the massive, worldwide, decades-long hype suggesting that they’re about to die. Secondly, some disappointed fanatics may even see fit to engineer apocalypses for themselves and those around them shortly after the fateless date.

My one consolation is that after 2012 there are really no further doomsdays similarly embedded in the public consciousness. We can all give it a rest for a while.

The women at the tomb, and other conundrums

Question from Mr Brown:
This isn’t so much an atheist question but a question concerning the validity, or lack there of, of the resurrection.
In Matthew 27:65-66 the author tells us how several women who went to Yeshua’s (Jesus) tomb to anoint his body with spices after he was crucified.
My first question is how did two women (three in the gospel of Mark) plan on unsealing a sealed tomb guarded by Roman guards and sealed by a large stone tomb?
Second question: Why didn’t his disciples go to anoint his body, particularly his brothers James and his twin Jude?
Third question: After Jesus’ resurrection in Luke 24:36 Jesus is able to walk through walls (appear in sealed rooms John 20:19) why was there a need to roll the stone from his tomb?

One last question not concerning the resurrection.
If the accounts of Jesus are true how could both his family and disciples doubt he was the messiah after seeing, people brought back to life, angels, the ability to control nature, healing the blind, terminally ill, crippled, and other unearthly phenomena?

Answer by SmartLX:
The thing about asking obvious questions about the resurrection story is that people have had two thousand years to plug holes in the narrative through re-translation, re-interpretation or plain old guesswork. Of course, if you assume temporarily that certain parts of the story were true and others weren’t, other reasons practically suggest themselves.

– When the women set out to anoint Jesus, they might not have known about the stone. They would probably have expected the guards to let them access the body, as long as they didn’t try to steal it. (As it happened in the story, the women were left alone with the open tomb after the tremor, and the Romans hadn’t checked inside, so if the body were still there that would have been a great time to move it.)
– Perhaps anointing was women’s work (it certainly didn’t take a holy man, or the women wouldn’t even have tried) or the eleven remaining disciples were too afraid of their own disillusioned followers to go near the place. (They didn’t yet have the resurrection story to redeem themselves in the eyes of true believers, and avoid getting lynched.)
– Apologists get a great deal of mileage out of the mere existence of the Empty Tomb (assuming that even that existed). If the stone hadn’t been moved, the tomb might not have been found empty – and without prior knowledge of an empty tomb, appearances of Jesus might have had less impact. (To view it more cynically, if the stone hadn’t been moved it wouldn’t have been possible for anyone besides an undead Jesus to empty the tomb.)
– You’ve got me on that last one. I haven’t heard a good reason why Jesus’ prior miracles seemed to account for so little if they actually happened.

Look, if I don’t tell you, someone else will: you’re asking the wrong guy if you actually want to hear the accepted answers to these questions. Go ask some Christians. (Better yet, see how many different rationalisations you can collect from different Christians.)

Trouble in the Mailroom

“If you sent in a question any time in the last few weeks (or if you sent a question at any point which hasn’t been answered), using the “Ask here!” form or the email address, then chances are it didn’t reach us.”

If you sent in a question any time in the last few weeks (or if you sent a question at any point which hasn’t been answered), using the “Ask here!” form or the email address, then chances are it didn’t reach us. Sorry.

Until we sort this out, feel free to enter your questions as comments on this post. Copy and paste them from your Sent box if you need to. We’ll extract them and make new posts out of them.

Meanwhile, the archive of the old site is still there if you want to make sure your question hasn’t been asked before. Keep in mind that it’s an archive and new comments won’t be published there. If you think there’s unfinished business bring it over here in a new question.

Edit: The “Ask here!” form seems to be working now, so use that.

Natural Selection

“So just because the religious don’t understand it, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t exist.”

Question from CLH:
Asking you a question about specifically about evolution might seem a bit off-topic in regard to atheism.
But as you probably know the majority of the scientific community (the majority of which are atheists) regard evolution as scientific fact.
And we’re talking the entire theory, not some watered down “micro-evolution” version.

I’ve recently read some books to increase my knowledge and understanding on the theory of evolution.
It is now abundantly clear to me that all living things on this earth have evolved (as opposed to having been “designed” in their present form).

Until you understand that these changes have occurred slowly over billions of years it is kind of hard to grasp the concept of evolution. Even then it is mind-boggling to thing that we could get from a single-celled organism to where we are today.

But the facts are indisputable in that regard. But while evolution doesn’t fit well with the story of creation as told in the bible, it doesn’t
completely rule out intelligent or conscious design at point in the evolutionary process.

In my reading about evolution the authors do a great job of explaining how evolution consists of the natural selection of random mutations.
It seems confusing to people at first (which is it…”random” or “selection”?), but I get now the basic concept. But the part that I don’t understand
is this. They make it clear that neither random mutations or natural selection is a “conscious” process.
This suggests to me that there is no needs assessment or analysis taking place. But without such a needs assessment or analysis taking place, how
are we to believe that the natural selection process could have any direction or insight in determining which random mutations are actually beneficial and should therefore be selected?

Consider the evolution case study “How Beach Life Favors Blond Mice”

The basis of the study is that beach life survival favors mice with blonde as opposed to dark colored hair. The understanding is that flying predators
can more easily see and located the contrast of dark colored mice against the white sand background as opposed to blond colored mice. Makes perfect sense
and I believe that has actually been proven in some scientific experiments. But here is what I don’t get. Without a conscious assessment of someone or something
to make the observation that being blonde is more beneficial how does the natural selection go about making the right selection that we’re giving it credit for?
It would be one thing if you had a group of mice that were gathered behind a rock and saw a couple of their buddies (one blond and one dark) run
out onto the sandy beach and make the observation that time and time again the predator preys on the dark colored mouse. It that observation (conscious knowledge) were somehow
transferred and converted to their DNA for future generations to make use of in the natural selection process then that might make sense.
But once again we’re told that natural selection is in no way a conscious process. So that being the case, one has to wonder what basis natural selection
has for doing the needs assessment and making the right selection? That seems to leave open the possibility that intelligent design might be interceding at some point. Not necessarily a theist “God” mind you, but some form of intelligent (conscious) design. Or perhaps the scientists are just wrong about natural selection not being a conscious process?

On a side note, I’m wondering if there is a more common sense explanation for the blond mice case study such as the following:
As more dark mouse die off there are less and less of their dark mouse DNA to contribute to the future generation gene pool resulting in the future breading and reproduction cycle of more and more blond and less and less dark colored mice.

Answer by Andrea:
I see that your critical thinking skills are well-honed, since you basically came up with the answer as to why evolution is not a conscious process in your last paragraph.
My religiously conservative dad once took a tour through Grand Canyon and when the guide told him that the squirrels had changed through natural selection my dad laughed, “Isn’t that silly, squirrels choosing each other?” I tried to stifle my own laugh while I explained they don’t consciously choose each other, it’s that the squirrels best adapted to their environment (in your example mice being blond and less visible to predators) live longer and therefore produce more offspring. Their offspring that carry those adaptive genes will also live longer, which allows them to also carry forth those genes to a greater extent than those not carrying the beneficial genes until they become commonplace in the population. The version of the gene with less adaptive properties then often becomes recessive or eventually it loses its function due to disuse.
With respect to mutations, a lot of religionists will say that mutations are bad, and it’s ridiculous to think they could generate a whole new species. But what they don’t understand, or perhaps want to know, is that our genes mutate all the time throughout our lives for many different reasons, and most of those mutations are neither harmful nor beneficial. When harmful mutations arise, they are typically not spread widely since their carriers are not as fit for the environment and typically don’t live as long or as healthily.
Darwin termed this “natural” selection, which is selection guided nonconsciously by environmental cues. This is compared to the selection he saw by pigeon and dog owners, who guided the selection “unnaturally” by selectively breeding their animals to produce the desired genetic mix.
So just because the religious don’t understand it, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t exist. In fact, it takes a far greater “leap of faith” to believe that an intelligent designer zapped everything into existence — for example, who zapped the intelligent designer into existence? And if that creator has always been around, why not just believe the universe has always been around in different form, for which there is much more evidence? It’s much more logical to believe that since only four out of 118 or so elements needed to produce life — oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon (albeit under the right conditions). There is fossil, genetic, chemical and empirical evidence for evolution, yet there is absolutely none for the intelligent design, also known as the creationist, point of view.
Creationists will admit there may be evidence for evolution but assert that this is only on the microevolutionary scale, such as with regard to bacteria and viruses. Although they deny that macroevolution occurs, we have already seen it with other quickly-producing organisms such as birds, fish and small rodents to the extent that they can no longer interbreed — one step at which they are considered a new species. There is also plenty of scientific evidence in the form of fossils, and there are transition species for almost all of the major transitions, including from water to land (see Tiktaalik, discovered in 2006).

Good job analyzing.


“If someone’s really interacted with a ghost and can prove it, wouldn’t we all want to be the first to know? Until then, I take each claim as it comes.”

Question from Robert:
What is an Atheists position on the paranormal, and what do you say to people who have experienced paranormal activity?

Answer by SmartLX:
Save the capital A, please. It’s not named after anyone, it’s not a complete philosophical “school” and it doesn’t trigger the special case for deities. You wouldn’t capitalise a theist, so you shouldn’t capitalise an atheist either.

There is no one atheist position on the paranormal – by which, from your title “Hauntings”, I assume you principally mean ghosts. We’ve had self-proclaimed atheists here arguing with other self-proclaimed atheists over whether ghosts exist. It’s not necessarily a contradiction for an atheist to believe in ghosts if he/she sees a way people can persist after their own deaths without the help of a god. Personally, while I know people leave behind great legacies when they die, I don’t think they continue to exist as literal ghosts. And I don’t think there’s any available, substantive evidence for any other “paranormal” phenomena, which for me puts them all in the same category as gods.

Thus, there’s nobody I’ve ever spoken to who I can be confident has actually experienced paranormal activity. When people say that they’ve experienced paranormal activity, which sometimes they do, I ask for their evidence and I discuss alternative explanations with them. If someone’s really interacted with a ghost and can prove it, wouldn’t we all want to be the first to know? Until then, I take each claim as it comes.

Rapture in 2011!…?

“The thing about apocalyptic cults is that they portray the apocalypse in such a way that everything works out all right if they’ve got all the chips at crunch time.”

Question from M:

After hearing your most recent podcast, I was inspired to inquire further about the Rapture that has been announced for May 21, 2011. I contacted the EBible Fellowship about their decree and asked the following:

“I was just wondering, if you are indeed certain that the world is coming to an end soon, would you have a problem with signing a contract that all your belongings be turned over someone else on that day. Surely, you won’t need any money or a home or furniture, or anything else for that matter, once you are raptured up to heaven. A few good beneficiaries that I would like to suggest for your possesions to be given to are: The Center for Inquiry, The James Randi Education Foundation, The Public Braodcasting Station or The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

God’s Law is absolute, and as such it would be an admission of lack of faith to have any doubts about this apocolyptic proclamation. Please do not insult God’s intellegence by hedging your bet. To keep ones earthly belongings in the off-chance that God may be wrong is the height of arrogance. The only possitive course of action would be to accept the end as a fact, and leave all possible resourses to those who chose to ignore God’s word in hope that they will then be better able to find the truth that is God in the time they will have left after the rapture and before the entire world ends. To deny the deniers an opportunity to repent and see the light would be, at best, unchristian.

Thank you for your concern on this highly important matter.”

I have been told for meny decades that God is the source of morality and that Christians are thus moral, so I don’t see any reason why they should object to my proposal. The only thing left to do now is sit back and wait for those bank accounts, property titles and other such stuff to get signed over. They wouldn’t be lying about the whole Rapture thing, surely.


Answer by SmartLX:
The thing about apocalyptic cults is that they portray the apocalypse in such a way that everything works out all right if they’ve got all the chips at crunch time.

Particularly in Christian eschatology (endtime mythology), the end of the world isn’t a quick process; there’s the Tribulation to get through, where the world goes almost literally to Hell before Jesus shows up (again). That’s what the Left Behind books are all about, and there are over a dozen of those so there’s a fair bit of chronological space to squeeze them all in. While it’s happening, the righteous will do what they can to help those who need or deserve it, but for that they need money.

Point is, there’s always a reason why they aren’t giving away their own resources other than that the world isn’t really ending. Whether the reason they give is a real reason or not, just keep in mind that doomsday cultists, whatever they may be, are not necessarily stupid. They have probably thought of the obvious questions people are going to ask them, especially questions which challenge their right to their own stuff.

Christmas on Duty

“If it came to a lawsuit, the nativity would most likely be defended as a seasonal tradition stretching back decades.”

Question from Armybrat:
I work on a military post and driving into work today there was a big nativity scene at the first intersection after entering the post. Is this not going against the law of mixing government and religion? Me personally I dont think that it should be there but Im not a law major so what do you think? Oh and its not in or around a church.

Answer by SmartLX:
First off, I’m assuming you’re in the USA. And I hope you’re not assuming I’m a law major either.

If the nativity is inside the post, and it’s sanctioned by the management, then it’s an endorsement of a specific religion on government property and the same laws apply to it as to all those lists of the Ten Commandments in courthouses which cause lawsuits all the time.

If it came to a lawsuit, the nativity would most likely be defended as a seasonal tradition stretching back decades. This would be a paper-thin defence as there are plenty of traditional Christmas decorations that don’t shove Jesus right in your face, like trees (minus the angels), tinsel and Santa. Nevertheless, that might well be enough to save it if the arbitrator is sympathetic.

If you want more details on legal issues like this one in the US military, there’s an organisation that would love to help: the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. They’re secularists, not explicitly atheists (their founder is Jewish), but the big problem right now is unchecked Christian proselytisation to captive audiences of soldiers and frightened civilians, and people of all stripes including Christians can fight that together.

The God Delusion and The Shack

“If you really don’t want to pay for it, but don’t want to steal it either, try your local public library.”

Question from Brian:
I keep arguing with this christian in one of my classes, and as part of an agreement, I’m going to be reading a book called “the shack.” However, I only agreed to this if he would read a piece of atheist literature. Specifically, the God Delusion. However, I don’t own a copy. Is there somewhere I could download it from without signing up for something?

Answer by SmartLX:
The New York Times has (most of) the first chapter, but I’m not sure where you could legally download the whole thing for free even if you did sign up for something. You could of course illegally download it by torrent or whatever, if you can justify doing so to yourself.

TGD is four years old now, and the paperback’s been through several editions, so you should be able to get it quite cheaply if you find the right bookshop. (I saw this for myself when I bought a second copy while my first was circulating among my friends.) If you really don’t want to pay for it, but don’t want to steal it either, try your local public library.

FYI: The Shack is a work of fiction wherein God personally lays out his own theodicy, i.e. explains in general why bad things happen, to a victim of tragedy. As an apologetic tool it’s most useful when a potential convert to Christianity is specifically struggling with the Problem of Evil. I don’t know whether that applies to you. In any case, even among Christians the book has its advocates and its opponents. Just in the link to Amazon above, you can see people separately trying to defend the book (Finding God in The Shack) and attack it (Burning Down The Shack).

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it, and your friend’s thoughts on TGD, if you want to comment when you’re done.

If only there were…oh, wait, there is!

Ladies, genetlemen and Brian, I give you the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible, with the SA Quran and SA Book of Mormon thrown in.

Question from Brian:
Is there some kind of online resource for atheists? I was thinking of something like an online bible with highlighted contradictions or something. I couldn’t find anything though.

Answer by SmartLX:
Ladies, genetlemen and Brian, I give you the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible, with the SA Quran and SA Book of Mormon thrown in. Issues are listed by chapter and verse, as well as category (e.g. Contradictions, Absurdity and Intolerance). It’s the single most comprehensive online Bible study guide that doesn’t immediately try to plug every hole with rationalisations in the name of “Biblical exegesis”.

The SAB has been around long enough that several Biblical inerrantist groups and individuals have started counter-projects to answer every single issue it raises, as a matter of principle. The creator of the SAB isn’t concerned by this; he lists the responses on the site, and includes links with each highlighted issue to any specific responses from those counter-projects which are freely available (some are now commercial products). These responses are just as informative to read as the site itself, because they show just how hard you have to work to reconcile certain passages with the doctrine of inerrancy, or divine co-authorship, or even common sense.

So go check it out. I’m right here if anybody wants to discuss something specific pointed out by the SAB.

Debating with Christians

“Why don’t we just start believing there’s a little green leprechaun on my lap waiting to grant my every wish while we’re at it?”

Question from Brian:
It’s me again. This Christian at my school is planning on debating me about religion this Monday. My problem isn’t really with the information, it’s just that people always think that I think I’m better than they are. What do you think?

Answer by Andrea:
Dear Brian,

First – Kudos to you for debating Christians! We need to have more of that in this country.

Regarding your question, during my college days, I would have said, of course I’m better and more rational than you, how can any sane person believe there’s an invisible wizard in the sky? Why don’t we just start believing there’s a little green leprechaun on my lap waiting to grant my every wish while we’re at it?

These days I’m more tactful, and in studying sociology and neurophysiology, I realize that people can genuinely believe they have had a supernatural experience, and not knowing brain neurophysiology, they attribute it to a supernatural force. Others don’t have the strength to handle life’s issues without a crutch, which can also result from improper upbringing in the formative years.

In answer to your question, however, I would touch on the following:

· Make it clear that everyone has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses including yourself, and no one is necessarily better than anyone else.

· Make people aware that you think they are entitled to believe whatever they want to as long as they don’t try to shove it down everyone’s throat.

· To bring people around to my way of thinking, or at least understanding it so they don’t fear it so much, I would mention some of the reasons why I don’t believe, which for me would be:
– Other than biblically-related writing, there is no secular proof of a man who could heal lepers, raise the dead or walk on water. There is also no proof of any apostles or most, if not all, the stories in the Bible (eg the great flood, etc.). There is secular proof of a King Herod, but he died 2 years before Christ was said to be born. There is also no proof of any mass slaughtering of male children.
– There is much proof that Christianity is merely a plagiarism of many mythologies preceding it (
see for instance “The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold and Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled at URL: www.truthbeknown.com/christ.htm)
– How can one believe religion is a good thing when secular societies are so much more societally healthy, while the US, the most religious country in the industrialized world, has the most societal dysfunction (i.e., highest rates of assaults, murder, imprisonment). The second most religious country, Portugal, is also second most dysfunctional. See also Phil Zuckerman and Gregory Paul for stats.
– Mention the contradictions found throughout the Bible. I think if more people actually read the Old Testament, more people would be atheists.

Try also Secular Student Alliance for answers to your question and for purposes of community.
Hope that helps.