The (Real) Rich Man and Lazarus

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It’s everyone’s favorite biblical parable! Well, at least for those who are looking to explain what happens when we die. A favorite—do doubt. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misunderstood stories in the Bible.

While many people believe this was Jesus’ way of telling us that the dead go on to live as disembodied spirits, was it? Is that really the message that Jesus was trying to convey?

A close evaluation of this story may actually suggest something different. For those who are not familiar with the tale, it appears in Luke 16:19-31. I will now provide a brief sample from The Death Myth, in order to briefly explain the parable.

“Essentially, the story goes as follows: there is an unnamed wealthy man who encounters a poor beggar named Lazarus on his way to and from his estate, on what is apparently a regular basis. The rich man “lives in luxury every day,” while Lazarus is financially destitute and is living on the streets outside the rich man’s property. To make matters worse, Lazarus is most likely a leper (v.20), and is regarded by others as being even lower than the dogs that came to lick his wounds. Though not directly stated, it is clearly inferred that the rich man cared nothing for Lazarus and was quite content to maintain their radically different living conditions. Thus, the story tells of a cruel-minded person of means and a kind-hearted person of poverty. For this reason, it is strongly implied that Lazarus was religiously faithful and the rich man was spiritually bankrupt.”

As the story progresses, we learn what becomes of these two men after they die. Good old Lazarus goes on to a place of peace and comfort, called “Abraham’s bosom.” Meanwhile, the rich man heads to the dark side of the underworld, called “Hades.” The script had been completely flipped; the suffering man had been rewarded with a good life, and the nasty miser was now being treated to a life of torment.

This parable is one of the central texts used as evidence that the soul continues to live apart from the body during the “interim period”—that is, the time between death and the resurrection (i.e. where the dead are right now). It seems so straightforward. Good people die and go to a good place, and bad people die and go to a bad place. And this happens immediately after death.

Simple, right?

Not quite. There are serious problems with using this parable in such a way. The first problem is the most obvious one—this parable is, well, really a parable! Jesus’ favorite teaching method was to use short, fictitious stories (parables) to teach people important lessons about real life. The stories themselves were not literally true, but they were most definitely spiritually true. The events didn’t happen, but the lessons they reveal are very real.

I know of no other parable that is taken literally in all of Scripture. Not one. And to be sure, this story is absolutely a parable. It is chock-full of imagery, like chasms and fire. It follows a string of other parables within the Gospel of Luke (the Lost Sheep, the Lost Son, the Shrewd Manager, etc.). It even has unknown, or even purposely unnamed, characters. We don’t know who Lazarus was; this was almost certainly not the Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead. The “rich man” isn’t even given a name. If being named (or unnamed) is what determines whether or not a character really existed, then it appears that at least half of the story is fictional right out of the gate.

Friends, this parable is viewed literally by many people for one reason: a literal reading would lead us to believe that we will live apart from our bodies when we die. Beyond this story, the evidence for that belief is quite scarce, and is also typically based on more metaphor.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that a literal reading of this parable goes against the most common belief about the state of the dead: that believers die and go to heaven. Both cannot be true at the same time. We might go to Abraham’s bosom, or we might go to heaven, but we can’t do both. The same applies to Hades and hell. That’s for sure.

What, then, is the purpose of Jesus’ story? If it doesn’t tell us what happens during the interim period, what does it tell us? In my mind, it tells us two major things.

First, it tells us that there is going to be life after death (ultimately), and that the choices we make now will determine what that life looks like. As I have said many times, the whole discussion of the afterlife within the Bible revolves around the return of Jesus and the resurrection. At that time, we will receive the reward or punishment that is due to us.

Along with that, it also shows that there will be a “reversal of fortunes” that occurs in the afterlife. Those who righteously suffered will be exalted, while the unrighteous will be debased.

Second, the story tells us that there will never be enough evidence to appease those who desire more and more of it. The rich man begs (as Lazarus once did, ironically) Abraham to send a messenger to warn his family that they are heading for their doom as well. Abraham told him no; absolutely not! They had the Scriptures to learn this lesson from. Besides, they wouldn’t change anyway. Not even if a dead person rose to pay them a visit! (see Luke 16:29-31 for this dialogue)

There will never be enough “proof” for some people. Many who saw the risen Christ didn’t even believe it!

Jesus’ parable of the Rich man and Lazarus has a rightful place as one of his finest teaching tales. It warns all of us about unbelief, and the incredible results of it. It shows us that all people will one-day be righteously judged and appropriately sentenced. It even shows us that God has already offered all the proof we need, and that a rejection of that proof will result in an afterlife of anguish and separation from God.

It does not, however, illustrate what literally happens to each of us at the moment we die. In other words, this parable is really a parable.

 

 

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.

 

Is Anyone Watching? (Part One)

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Throughout my time researching the issues surrounding death and the afterlife, it has occurred to me that people have mixed feelings about where the dead presently exist (or, don’t exist). However, I may have underestimated just how important this particular issue is for many people.

For the moment, never mind the question as to whether or not it would be preferable for the deceased to have to watch the living. That will be the topic of my next blog (part two). Right now, the focus is on those of us who are alive in this world.

It is extraordinarily difficult to lose those who are closest to us; no doubt about it. In fact, there may not be anything more difficult to endure. For some, there is great comfort in the thought that their lost loved ones are in a “better place.” While they no longer fill our lives with joy, we can at least believe that they live in a place of peace and comfort. This is particularly true for those who have had to watch a mother, a sister, a brother, or any other close friend or relative, suffer until his or her exit from this world.

More than simply existing somewhere as disembodied spirits, it is often believed that our loved ones may even be watching over us, observing our daily lives. That, too, is a source of comfort for certain people.

While that sentiment is certainly true for some, there is of course another side to this issue. There seem to be at least as many people who have the opposite perspective. For them, the prospect that their deceased friends, family members, or acquaintances, are tracking their every move provides no comfort or solace. Instead, it offers an almost paralyzing sense of dread: a haunting, debilitating feeling of discomfort.

The reasons for this should be obvious—not everyone in the world is a kind, generous, and caring person. Some people are rotten to the core, and are not really worth remembering. Worse, some people may not even deserve to be remembered (if we can help it).

This is a hard pill to swallow, but swallow it we must.

We all know a widow or widower who had a tumultuous marriage, and is now attempting to move on with his or her life. We all know someone who had an abusive father, or a vindictive, controlling mother. We might know someone who is scared to enter into a new relationship, sell their home, change locations, or make any number of other decisions, out of fear that a deceased person would not approve of it.

“Will Sam understand if I date again?” “Is Sharon upset that I did not visit her grave this week?” “What would mom think if I sold the house that she and dad built?” The list could go on and on.

We know these people, or perhaps we might even be one of these people. This is the other side of the coin.

I can only offer my “2 cents” on this issue. Through researching all of the biblical evidence available to us, as well as issues like near-death experiences (NDEs) and communicating with the dead, I have concluded that deceased human beings do not exist anywhere at present. They are not in heaven, experiencing a life of bliss. They are not suffering in hell, either. Most importantly, the dead are not watching us. They are not there to praise our good deeds, nor are they around to condemn our perceived mistakes and failures.

Dead means dead: gone, deceased . . . the absence of life.

I am also quick to add that all people will one-day stand before God, and that He will decide our appropriate rewards or punishments. This will occur at Christ’s return. The dead will live again, and will someday be in one of the places people assume—and falsely, I believe—they are currently living in.

In the end, I have made this case through the entirety of The Death Myth, and it is up to each reader to decide whether or not my view makes the best sense of things. As for me, I do not spend one second of my life thinking about what the deceased are doing, or what they may be thinking about me personally. I certainly remember them, but I do not worry about them. To me, nothing good can come from a preoccupation with the dead.

The good people who have passed from my life would rather me spend that time focusing on God or my living family and friends, anyway.

Of course, it is also up to each reader to assess the implications of either worldview. Do you find joy in thinking that the dead are watching you, or do you find liberation in the thought that they are not?

I suspect that every person may answer that question a little differently.

 

 

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, you can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.

 

Who is Living in Hell?

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If we are being honest, everyone has thought about hell at one time or another. Some of us may try not to think about it, but that effort is sort of like trying to ignore a chipped tooth or a man adorned with a rainbow-colored tutu; it’s just not possible.

Granted, this is a very thorny topic. This subject is the stuff of nightmares and medieval paintings. However, it is also something that I discuss in The Death Myth. But why? — you may ask. Believe it or not, the biblical descriptions of hell can actually tell us quite a lot about the state of the dead and the interim period (the time between death and the resurrection); odd as it may be, hell can actually tell us something about our own futures.

While Jesus may not have spoken directly about hell as frequently as some believe—certain thinkers have speculated that Jesus spoke twice as much about hell as he did about heaven—there is no question that hell (Gehenna), and the issues surrounding it, was a very common topic for Jesus. I find this to be particularly interesting, since I have often been told that “hell has no place in Christian theology!”

I think Jesus’ main purpose for talking about hell is that deterrents typically work as well (or better) than incentives. Avoiding a punishment can be as good as receiving a reward, particularly when eternal separation from God is the consequence. But let’s get to the real point here. In a strange way, it would be satisfying to know that the monsters of the world are now “getting theirs” in hell. We all yearn for justice. We would like to think that tyrants like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Jim Jones, and the child rapists of the world, are all “burning.”

Don’t pretend the thought hasn’t crossed your mind.

But they aren’t. None of these people, or the countless others that could be mentioned, are living in hell. Not according to the Bible, at least. I will go one step further on this. Satan—the most renowned villain in all of human history—is not living in hell, either.

I realize that almost everyone who is reading this blog (thank you, by the way) is probably a little confused. Just as you may have been taught that believers go to heaven immediately after death, my hunch is that you have also been taught that the wicked go to hell at that time.

I have the same response to both propositions: NO. Deceased believers are not living in heaven right now, and no one—not even Satan or the demons—is living in hell at this moment, either. Don’t get me wrong, both will happen: just not now.

What follows is a cross section of passages taken directly from The Death Myth. Along with providing another free sample of the book (parts of pages 82-84), I hope that it will also explain why no one is currently living in hell.

“There is a good reason why the forces of darkness are not associated (in the present tense) with hell in the Bible—hell is not currently a reality for anyone. It was previously noted that hell is the place prepared for Satan and his angels. In the same verse, we see that hell is also the destination for those who choose to follow Satan rather than Christ (Mt. 25:41). But the main point remains the most pivotal—Satan and the fallen angels, the very entities that hell is/will be designed for, do not even exist there at the present time. As a matter of logic, it stands to reason that Satan’s deceased followers do not exist in hell right now, either. At the moment, no one is suffering in hell.

Within the New Testament, any discussion about the “lake of fire” (Gehenna) or the place of everlasting punishment revolves around the end of this age. The book of Revelation summarizes this point well: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (20:10). This exact point in time quite obviously occurs in the context of Christ’s return and the ultimate separation of the righteous and the wicked. It appears that even the fallen angels (demons) are well aware that God is going to administer their punishment at a specific point in the future. The Gospel of Matthew (and its synoptic parallels) makes this point clear for us when it tells of Jesus’ confrontation with two demon-possessed men:

“When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. ‘What do you want with us, Son of God?’ they shouted. ‘Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”

Clearly, hell is the future place of punishment for the forces of evil. If hell is an existence yet to be experienced by Satan (or anyone), what could that potentially reveal to us about the state of the dead? What does this have to do with deceased believers? While the biblical descriptions of hell do not directly tell us something about heaven, they certainly do so indirectly. The question really comes down to this: if the unrepentant do not go directly to Gehenna when they die, then why should we believe that the faithful go directly to heaven when they die?

. . . It should be noted that a story like Jesus’ parable of the Weeds is absolutely incompatible with the perspective that we will go straight to heaven or hell at death. If this were true, then the landowner doesn’t actually separate the wheat from the weeds when the harvest time comes, as Jesus so clearly revealed. Instead, the story would have to be rewritten, and the landowner (God) would need to tell the servants to separate the weeds (the unrepentant) from the wheat (the righteous) on the spot. If the weeds are not being sent to their everlasting destination during this age, how can the wheat be? They are both supposed to be living together until the harvest, after all. More than that, they are supposed to be completely separated when—and only when—that day comes. As Jesus tells us in his own interpretation of the parable, the harvest is clearly an allusion to the judgment that will occur upon his return (Mt. 13:39).

Now, what does all of this mean to us? Simply put, it means that if believers are entering heaven before the harvest occurs, then Jesus was wrong in his assessment of the judgment and the afterlife. Suffice it to say that this should be a deeply troubling problem for those who think that heaven is the immediate destination for the souls of deceased believers. While heaven and hell are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum, they are inextricably bound in terms of their temporal placement. No one goes to hell immediately after death, and no one instantly goes to live in heaven, either.”

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.

 

 

References

Rossiter, Brian. The Death Myth: Uncovering What the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife. pg. 136.  iUniverse. Bloomington, IN. Copyright, 2018. Print.

Wilkinson, Dan. “Did Jesus speak more about Hell than about Heaven?”. Jan. 14, 2015. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2015/01/did-jesus-speak-more-about-hell-than-about-heaven/

Ghosts: Playing with Spiritual Fire

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To start this particular blog, I want to provide a brief section directly from The Death Myth:

“Though the belief that human spirits interact with our world is far from new, it has reached a fever pitch in American society over the last decade or so . . . One of the most recent (2005) Gallop polls that inquired about the belief in ghosts revealed that roughly 75 percent of those interviewed believed in something we would consider to be paranormal. More specifically, 37 percent of people believed that houses can be haunted, and roughly 32 percent of people believed that we can somehow encounter the ghosts or spirits of dead people in particular situations. In 2006, when asking more than four thousand American teens about behaviors regarding the supernatural, the Barna Group found that an astonishing 73 percent of these teens admitted to having made some type of effort to contact spirits. For Christian parents in particular, these numbers should be more than a little alarming” (pg. 136).

Since the publishing of these polls, I would venture to guess that the numbers have only increased. Most Americans believe that deceased human beings exist as disembodied spirits. Nearly 1/3 of us believe that we can personally interact with dead people. Most alarming, nearly 3/4 of our teens have actually made an effort to do so.

From a biblical standpoint, there are two major things to consider on this topic. The first is that communicating with ghosts is not an option, because they do not exist. In its sixty-six books, the Bible mentions the existence of a deceased human spirit returning to earth approximately once. 1 Samuel 28 records that Saul—Israel’s first king—went to a pagan medium (called the “Witch of Endor”), in order to bring the prophet Samuel back to life. He wanted advice, as his kingship spiraled out of control. He desired counsel; what he got was an omen of death. As the “spirit” of Samuel emerged from his slumber, he declared the following:

“Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today.  The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me” (1 Sam. 28:18-19).

Since this is the only event in the Bible that records such a thing, and the summoning was performed by witchcraft, many commentators (myself included) suggest that it wasn’t Samuel who came back from the dead at all. Who was it, then? All in good time. Beyond this quirky event, the Bible makes no other reference to the actual existence of ghosts. More than that, all deceased human beings should exist in heaven, hell, Abraham’s bosom, or Hades, according to the “traditional” view of the afterlife. If not, they should be unconscious entirely (i.e. not “living” anywhere). In the book, I argue for the latter.

But let’s be clear: from a biblical perspective, under no circumstances could the dead be roaming the earth in spirit form. As I discussed in my two-part discussion on contacting the dead (see part one and part two), the existence of deceased spirits would not be a good prospect, even if they were real.

The second thing we must consider is that necromancy—the attempt to summon or communicate with the dead—is highly discouraged within the Bible. Both Leviticus 19:31 and 20:6 strictly forbade those of the Jewish faith from making any such effort. Deuteronomy 18:9-13 is equally clear. Before consulting the Witch of Endor, Saul actually banned all mediums and conjurers from the land (1 Sam. 28:3), no doubt from divine command. Paul encountered a woman with related powers in Acts 16:16-18, and he ended up having to cast a demon out of her!

The verdict? Clearly, a biblical worldview supports neither the existence of ghosts nor any attempt to contact them. In fact, it strictly forbids it. However, one question remains: why is it so wrong to try to contact the dead?

In the book, I chronicle an event that occurred with a good friend who believed that his deceased relative haunted his home. He was so sure of this that he made regular attempts to communicate with the entity. This all ended on the day he was pushed down his basement steps by his “dear old uncle.” He had not been communicating with the spirit of a deceased relative, but with some type of malevolent force. The Bible calls these forces “demons.”

All of this tells us one very important thing: we would do well to heed the Bible’s warnings about ghosts and all efforts to contact them. It seems likely that the Jewish people—and by extension, Christians as well—were strictly forbidden to contact the dead because they would not really be contacting “the dead.”

Attempting to communicate with ghosts is like playing with spiritual fire; you may well receive the contact you are searching for, but you may also get burned.

 

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.

 

 

References

Barna, “New Research Explores Teenage Views and Behavior Regarding the Supernatural.” https://www.barna.com/research/new-research-explores-teenage-views-and-behavior-regarding-the-supernatural/

Moore, David W. Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal. Gallup, 16 June 2005. Web. 20 May 2015. http://news.gallup.com/poll/16915/three-four-americans-believe-paranormal.aspx

Rossiter, Brian. The Death Myth: Uncovering What the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife. pg. 136.  iUniverse. Bloomington, IN. Copyright, 2018. Print.

Jesus Wept. Lazarus Should Have.

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It is one of the most famous events in the New Testament, and is unquestionably the shortest verse within the entire Bible. John 11:35 does not parse words: “Jesus wept.” It is not terribly difficult to see why Jesus shed tears, either. Lazarus—one of Jesus’ dear friends—had died, and Jesus had not been there to help him. Jesus was distraught, as were Lazarus’ other friends and family. But if you really think about it, it may have been Lazarus himself who ended up having the best case for being emotionally devastated.

How can that be? Lazarus was the dead one! Well, yes. But that was soon to be remedied by the great Physician. As we read, Jesus proceeded to raise Lazarus back to life. With the simple words, “Lazarus, come out!”, the dead man rose. After everyone had removed their jaws from the floor, they naturally rejoiced. Lazarus—their beloved friend and brother—had been given the most amazing gift imaginable: the gift of life. He had once again been given an existence.

Of course, that’s not actually what the “traditional” Christian view of the afterlife asserts. The view that most of us have been taught is quite a lot different from that. It is usually taught (and has been since about the 3rd or 4th centuries AD) that each of us is essentially a soul that inhabits a physical body. Greek philosophers, particularly those following in the footsteps of Plato, believed that we have an “immortal soul.” In essence, this implied that the human soul continues to exist at death, rather than expiring like the body. It can mean more than that, but it at least means that the soul consciously survives the death of the body. It’s an easy view to find in Greek philosophy, but is much harder to find within the Bible.

In the present circumstance, this tells us quite a lot about old Lazarus. If the typical view of the afterlife is correct, Lazarus had not been given “life” at his resurrection. He was previously living as a disembodied soul or spirit, prior to being raised. In other words, he was already “alive:” just not alive with a body here on earth. More than that, Lazarus should have been in a “better place,” as we have all heard many times before. He should have been in heaven, with God and the angels. If not there, then he should have been in Abraham’s bosom or “paradise,” which are both thought to be realms of existence for the souls of fallen believers. Whatever the case, Lazarus was supposed to be living a life of bliss and splendor after his departure from this fallen world.

By now, I think you may see the problem.

If Lazarus was living as a disembodied soul, in a place that is certainly better than here, then Jesus actually did him a disservice. Jesus put Lazarus (his soul) back in a human body, and robbed him of his “better place.” Lazarus had to come back to his fallen body, back to the fallen world, and most importantly, back to a place where the certainty of death still loomed. He would now have to do what very few others ever had to: die twice. Not only had Lazarus been taken away from the glories of the afterlife, he would now have to make the trip to the grave all over again.

In predictable fashion, the very next chapter of John’s Gospel records the following: “So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him” (Jn. 12:10-11). Lazarus immediately became a target, just like Jesus. This means that, on top of it all, he also had to live in fear after his resurrection.

Let me be clear: Jesus’ miracle of raising Lazarus back to life was indeed a miracle. This event was clear evidence that Jesus had power even over death itself. However, we also have to ask what it meant for Lazarus, on a personal level. When really evaluated, the typical understanding of the interim period—the time between death and the resurrection— and the nature of the human soul paints an unfortunate picture for Lazarus. We could add Jairus’ daughter (Mk. 5:22-43, Lk. 8:41-56), a widow’s son (Lk. 7:11-17), a woman named Dorcas (Acts 9:40), a man named Eutychus (Acts 20:9-10), and a few others, to this list.

All of these people were stripped of their heavenly lives, in order to be placed back in this world.

With that said, it is still possible that Jesus really did do Lazarus (and his loves ones) a great favor by bringing him back to life. This would be true if Lazarus was actually dead—really, truly gone and unconscious—and Jesus restored him to the land of the living. Now that would be a reason to rejoice! But if the typical view is correct, and Lazarus was previously living in a place of bliss, that can hardly be the case. Lazarus did not “come back” to life; he simply moved from a heavenly existence to one here on earth.

If the most common way of looking at death, the afterlife, and the human soul are correct, there is only one conclusion to draw from all of this: Jesus wept, and Lazarus should have.

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, you can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.

James and the Giant Flood

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The Hobbit.  FernGully.  Gulliver’s Travels.  James the Giant Peach.  Noah and the Great Flood.  All are more or less equally factual, because none are factual at all.  None of these cute little tales are really true.  Let’s be honest about it: the stories of a massive deluge that wreaked havoc on humanity are all hogwash.  Utter nonsense.  Please . . . just call it for what it is.

This is of course the standard narrative that is pushed by the precious few who are enlightened enough to know better.  To these intellectual “grownups,” science and rationality have slowly extinguished the flame of religious folklore.  However—and as is seemingly always the case—they are clearly wrong.  More than being wrong, they appear to have it completely backwards.

In 1993, Columbia University scientists William Ryan and Walter Pitman made a scientific expedition to the Black Sea with the Russian Academy of Sciences.  Utilizing sonar imaging techniques, they were able to detect that shorelines had once been about 140 meters (nearly 460 ft.) lower than they were during the measurement.  The presence of a single, uniform layer of mud was also found, suggesting that a flood may well have occurred on the Black Sea.  Moreover, the expedition recovered sun-bleached freshwater mollusks via sediment samples. Using carbon-14 dating methods, they were able to tell that the mollusks from both the deepest and the shallowest layers of that sediment were only about forty years apart; the waters had not risen gradually, but rapidly.  What typically causes rapid flooding?  Hmm, you got me.  A column on Columbia News summarized their subsequent theory in the following way:

“Ryan and Pitman believe that the sealed Bosporus strait, which acted as a dam between the Mediterranean and Black seas, collapsed when climatic warming at the close of the last glacial period and caused icecaps to melt, raising global sea level.  With more than 200 times the force of Niagara Falls, the flood caused water levels in the Black Sea, which was no more than a large lake, to rise six inches per day and swallowed 60,000 square miles in less than a year.”

In effect, it was perhaps the Mediterranean Sea that had flooded, causing the Black Sea to fill so drastically.  Isn’t the Mediterranean Sea located just west of present day Israel and ancient Israel/Palestine?  Wouldn’t that actually be the most probable biblical location of the Great Flood?

A number of other researchers have come to believe that there was indeed a flood of large proportions that occurred at the Black Sea, several thousand years after the last ice-age.  Perhaps most notably, renowned Titanic researcher Robert Ballard has taken a special interest in the possibility of a Black Sea flood.  Ballard’s overarching theory was that around 7,000 BCE, post ice-age warming caused oceans and seas to rise, resulting in the “swelling” of the Mediterranean Sea and a subsequent push of its waters north through modern-day Turkey.  In fact, he too speculated that this water ended up hitting the Black Sea with a force 200 times harder than those created by the incredible Niagara Falls.   A surge of that magnitude could be called nothing other than a “Great Flood.”

Additionally, a 2004 expedition by a number of prominent scientists also led to the conclusion that the Black Sea was once “. . . an immense lake of black water that at one point in history began to widen in an unusually rapid way.”  While neither the works of Ryan and Pitman nor Robert Ballard suggested that the entire earth was covered in water, they certainly suggested that a sizeable flood occurred in an area that would fall right in line with the biblical account.  It’s worth mentioning that the size of Noah’s Flood is seriously debated, even among those coming from either Jewish or Christian backgrounds.  It is quite conceivable that the Flood was a local or regional flood, and that it occurred in this specific area.

While the proposition that an event of this magnitude actually occurred in the areas of the Black and Mediterranean seas is not widely accepted as absolute fact—William Ryan himself has ask some perplexing questions about the theory—it is nonetheless still compelling.  While parts of these theories have somewhat fizzled out—having found no tell-tale signs of extremely ancient housing, only wreckage dating between about 350-550 AD—the general idea that there was indeed a type of major flooding event that occurred in the Black Sea region is still difficult to ignore.  Was this the site of the Great Flood?  We don’t know.  It certainly does seem as though something of the sort happened, though.

But enough about the science.  Clearly, there are prominent researchers who support the idea of at least a local flood that occurred in the same general area described by the biblical authors.  Anyone who is familiar with my blogs knows that I value good science: honest, open, and investigative science.  However, they also know that I equally value the traditions of our earliest ancestors.  After all, who has ever been closer to the source of human origins than they were?  With every generation, we get farther away from the beginning of our race and the major events of our early history.  Of course, the early civilizations are precisely where the whole notion of a giant flood began in the first place.

The ancient Hebrew tradition tells of an immense flood in which God wiped humanity almost entirely off of the map.  Having become exceedingly angry with their consistent and egregious rebellion, God decided to destroy the world of men.  Genesis 6:11-13 records the following:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.  God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.  So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.  I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.”

As the text describes, only a man named Noah and his family were allowed to survive the impending destruction.  While the Bible’s portrayal of the Great Flood is undoubtedly the most popular, it is not by any stretch the only flood tradition.  In fact, nearly every ancient culture had its own flood story.  Besides the biblical account, the most notable probably comes to us from the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.  In its introduction of Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk—who is, incidentally, both part god and part man—the first “tablet” of the Epic makes several allusions to a great flood of destruction.

“He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden, he brought information of (the time) before the Flood . . . Mighty net, protector of his people, raging flood-wave who destroys even walls of stone! . . . It was he who reached by his own sheer strength Utanapishtim, the Faraway, who restored the sanctuaries that the Flood had destroyed!”

While allusions to the flood show up very early on, it isn’t really until the end of the Epic (Tablet XI) that we are given greater clarity concerning the event.  Utanapishtim—the man commissioned by another god, named Enki, to build a massive boat that would preserve him and his family during the flood (sound familiar?)—reveals the “secret of the gods” to Gilgamesh:

“Shuruppak, a city that you surely know, situated on the banks of the Euphrates, that city was very old, and there were gods inside it.  The hearts of the Great Gods moved them to inflict the Flood . . . The gods were frightened by the Flood, and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu.  The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall.  Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth . . . Six days and seven nights came the wind and flood, the storm flattening the land.  When the seventh day arrived, the storm was pounding, the flood was a war–struggling with itself like a woman writhing (in labor). The sea calmed, fell still, the whirlwind (and) flood stopped up.  I looked around all day long—quiet had set in and all the human beings had turned to clay!  The terrain was as flat as a roof.”

While the Epic’s insistence that there are a great number of gods and god-like beings (Gilgamesh being one of them) involved in this particular flood story, the Bible clearly depicts the Flood as being the product of one God, Yahweh, who had reached His limit with human disobedience.  Still, the similarities are striking.  There is a massive flood due to divine dissatisfaction with humanity, a righteous man who builds a giant ship to escape the flood, and the preservation of human beings and civilization through this great “Ark.”

Then we have a number of ancient flood myths recorded by the ancient Chinese people, the Gun-Yu myth being the most prominent.  Though the accounts vary slightly, the ancient Greeks also believed in a great flood that was sent by Zeus (the “father of the gods”) to destroy humanity.  Clearly, the flood traditions are very widespread among ancient cultures.  The ancient Sumerians, who actually preceded the Babylonians, also wrote (see Kramer, below) about a flood: “All the windstorms, exceedingly powerful, attacked as one, at the same time, the flood sweeps over the cult centers.”

These references to a flood indicates something very important—all of the most prominent cultures on record believed that there had been a massive flood.

It would appear that flood stories are not only extraordinarily widespread, but also extraordinarily ancient.  What was the cause of this catastrophic event?  The ancients were adamant about the cause: divine, heavenly beings were responsible for the Great Flood.  While these beings go by different names—Gun-Yu, Zeus, Yahweh, etc.—none of these cultures believed that the flood occurred by purely naturalistic causes.  According to the ancient traditions, it was intentional.  Even if we hold that the Flood was simply a product of ordinary causes, we would be left with the questions behind the question. 

How is it that Noah, for example, could have known that he needed to construct a giant boat in order to survive the event?  Who was responsible for warning those inhabitants about their impending doom?  Who could have known that the flood was coming, in a day and age without anything close to sufficient weather technology?  How could all of these cultures have similar stories when they were spread so far apart?

We can be nearly certain of several points in all of this.  The first is that there was almost certainly a Great Flood (or floods) because every prominent ancient culture affirms it, and modern science has slowly been verifying that something of the sort occurred.  To call all of these accounts “myths” is truly unfair.  It is more probable that this event occurred than not.

The second point is related to the first, in that there is essentially a cross-cultural consensus concerning the event.  While several of the most prominent accounts were mentioned, there are actually more than three hundred ancient flood stories from around the world.  More than three hundred.  It is quite true that many of the particulars (the details) of the flood stories differ from culture to culture, but the main aspects of each account are consistently present.

Can we really believe they were all just propagating some ancient lie that originated with a small group of people?

The third point is that there is also a consensus among the ancients that the flood was caused by greater, extraterrestrial beings who were releasing the waters upon the earth for the express purpose of destroying earthlings.  These cultures seem largely to affirm that the god/s decided to spare a remnant of human beings so that the human race could ultimately outlast the catastrophe.

In the end, this appears to be yet another case where ancient history and modern science are converging.  The simple fact that the ancient accounts all point to beings who possessed both extraordinary power and knowledge should cause us all to take pause.  We might dismiss the whole thing if only a couple small groups promoted the idea of a massive flood.  But when there are hundreds of accounts to consider—including the testimonies of the most renowned civilizations in ancient history—we have to admit that there might just be something to this.

Yeah, the notion of a Great Flood is no more realistic than all of the other fictional stories we love to read and tell about: the fairy tales we read to children before nap time.

Really???

 

References

Ballard, Robert. “Ballard and the Black Sea.” http://www.nationalgeographic.com/blacksea/ax/frame.html

Vintini, Leonardo. “Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood, Did it Really Happen?”.  The Epoch Times. http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/61371-was-there-really-a-great-flood/

Hannah Fairfield, “Finding Noah’s Flood”.  http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/99/11/flood.html

Holloway, April. “Gun-Yu and the Chinese Flood Myth.” http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/gun-yu-and-chinese-flood-myth-00370

Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer. Pg. 153. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday / Anchor, 1959

“Noah’s Flood.” http://www.columbia.edu/cu/newrec/2412/tmpl/story.4.html

Ryan, William. “Status of the Black Sea Hypothesis.” http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/~billr/BlackSea/Ryan_Chapter7_Springer.pdf

Stone, Larry. “Did the Story of Noah Really Happen?” http://www.foxnews.com/science/2014/03/28/did-story-noah-really-happen.html

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablets I and XI. http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/tab1.htm

 

 

A B Normal: Decoding the Evolution Confusion

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Among many other descriptions, Merriam-Webster’s defines the term “evolution” in the following ways:

  1. one of a set of prescribed movements
  2. a process of change in a certain direction
  3. unfolding
  4. growth
  5. a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler, or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state
  6. a process of gradual and relatively peaceful social, political, and economic advance
  7. the process by which new species or populations of living things develop from preexisting forms through successive generations

Do things change over time?  Has life on Earth changed over time?  Have geographical structures like canyons and river banks been altered throughout history by factors like wind and water erosion?  Do some viruses develop a resistance to particular antibiotics?  Do living organisms adjust to their surroundings in at least minimal ways?

If you agree with any of the definitions above, and/or answered “yes” to at least one of these questions, then you are indeed an evolutionist.  Of course, it’s not quite that simple.

The big “E” word is sown like a badge of honor on a uniform by many people, and is avoided like a pack of rabid hyenas by others.  In truth, neither of these positions is rational.  But the immense confusion surrounding the term “evolution” has no doubt caused both the worship and the hysteria to persist within our modern world.  Nowhere is this confusion more prominent (and more important) than when evolution is applied to the biological world.

Let me say at the onset of this discussion that people on both sides of the aisle are guilty of either misrepresenting or misunderstanding what “evolution” really means.  So allow me to evaluate each side in turn.  On the one hand, there are those of us who view the world as the product of an extremely powerful Deity who produced life in a very intentional way.  On the other, there are those from the cloth of raw scientific materialism who believe that evolution has provided us with a completely godless explanation of the biological world around us.

I’ll begin on the theistic side of the equation, specifically with those who have been conditioned to be horrified of anything having to do with evolution.  There are of course plenty of theistic evolutionists (also known as “evolutionary creationists”) who believe that God created the biosphere by using some combination of evolutionary processes, namely the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection working on heritable variation (caused by random mutation).  Sense this worldview is actually more compatible with atheism than it is with theism (I believe), the next section will deal with their major failures.  There is certainly a paranoia on the side of some theists (Christians in particular), telling them that evolution is of the devil, and that we should not even use the term to describe things like how the game of football has changed (evolved) over the years.  Specifically, those coming from the side of Young Earth Creationism (YEC)—who tend to take the Bible literally at nearly all points—often feel that the word is a complete abomination.  But the dirty little secret here is that even the YEC view of creation has “evolutionary” processes built into it.

The YEC perspective typically holds that there once existed a large group (some 2,500) of “proto-species” that God created, and Adam only had to name those rather than hundreds of thousands (or millions) of species in one 24-hour period. As Answers in Genesis—Ken Ham’s apologetics brainchild—contributing author, Andrew Kulikovsky, explained:

 “Since many genera contain dozens, even hundreds, of species, it is far more likely that Adam had to name only a couple of thousand of these proto-species—a task which could easily have been achieved in a few hours. (Assuming Adam had to name 2,500 proto-species (genera), and he named a single proto-species every five seconds, it would have taken him approximately three hours and 45 minutes to complete the task if we include a five-minute break every hour.)” 

I could say plenty about the notion that God continuously paraded a couple thousand animals in front of Adam as he spat out new names every five seconds, and I could speculate about what Adam did during his breaks (hacky sack, perhaps?), but there are more important things to attend to at the moment.  On this view, truly massive speciation (how species diversified) occurred in only a few thousand years.  This is particularly true when we lump the rest of the Animal Kingdom—apparently all marine organisms, insects, beetles and arachnids—that Kulikovky’s 2,500 proto-species excludes (because Adam supposedly had no part in naming them).  We would have Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection working on the incredible variation of genetic information thought to have been intrinsic to the 2,500 proto-species.  On this YEC view, 2,500 proto-species diversified into the millions—at least 2 million, and probably many millions more—of species that exist today, based on Kulikovky’s article.  I should add that they must have diversified at lightning-fast speeds because there is only a few thousand years of time for this to occur on the YEC view.  Further, this furious series of speciation events occurred not once, but twice, because the same process had to have occurred after the global Flood too (on their view).  Unless one wants to suggest that millions of species existed on Noah’s Ark during the Flood, that is.  No credible thinker has been willing to do that, thankfully.

I find all of this to be stunning, considering the fact that Ken Ham and his associates are so emphatic that the Darwinian mechanism would never have enough time to work, regardless of how old the Earth actually is.  I, of course, agree with that point.  But I’m not the one proposing that all of the world’s species actually diversified (on two separate occasions) far faster than either Darwin or his followers have suggested.

What this means is that, in effect, YEC holds to something eerily similar to the Darwinian mechanism that many of its adherents despise.  In some sense, this would actually be a sped-up version of biological evolution, but with God specifically creating the genetic information on the front end rather than random mutation doing this over the course of millions of years.  I am not trying to attack YEC here, but am simply pointing out how it alleges to explain the living world around us.  Biologically speaking, this perspective clearly qualifies as some form of evolutionary process.  2,500 biologically-loaded “proto-species” (also described in YEC as “genera” or “kinds”) are believed to have diversified into all of the species on the planet without any further divine intervention.  Once the proto-species were loaded with incredible amounts of genetic information (how does something like that survive?), natural processes—namely, natural selection—sorted out the variation and produced the biosphere.  And, again, this occurred at a rate that would make even the most ardent Darwinist’s head spin.  There must have been hundreds or perhaps thousands of brand new species coming into existence every day.

This tells us that the most conservative theistic views of creation affirm that biological evolution—in some way, shape, or form—occurred.  But that leads us to the most important aspect about the evolution discussion: the term has come to mean so many different things that it actually has almost no real meaning at all.  To clarify this point, I now turn to the other side of the evolution ledger.

It should have been apparent at the beginning of this blog that to say that “evolution is true” is to make one of the haziest and most ambiguous statements imaginable.  Yet, we hear it all of the time.  The theory of evolution is simply beyond dispute.  It has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.  As Richard Dawkins puts it—on behalf of Darwin worshippers everywhere— “Is it a Theory? Is it a Law? No, it’s a fact.”  It’s a sure as gravity.  Just ask Neil deGrasse Tyson, he’ll tell you; “The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact.”

I wonder: if you drop an ape from the sky, will it turn into a human being before it hits the ground?

Though you still won’t read about the failures of Darwin’s theory in most biology textbooks or hear about them in many public forums, they most definitely exist.  The doubts about Darwin and the neo-Darwinian synthesis are so pronounced at this point that many alternative theories have been put forth, as well as theories that simply seek to supplement its apparent inadequacies.  There are now views positing that mass amounts of genetic information must have been present in earlier life-forms (biological front-loading), that diversification essentially occurred in massive jumps (punctuated equilibrium) rather than through the painstakingly slow process that Darwin proposed, and that less complex biological systems can give rise to more complex ones by simple interactions (self-organizational theory), just to name a few.

In fact, scores of researchers have expressed deep concerns about the efficacy of Darwin’s mechanism through what is called the “Third Way” of evolution.  Perhaps the most well-known among them is James Shapiro, from the department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago.  Most of these individuals are anything but religious zealots.  Many are actually atheists, but they can no longer ignore the facts: Darwin’s proposal that natural selection could act on heritable genetic variation (mutation-driven) in order to produce the biosphere just doesn’t obtain.  It won’t work to explain everything, at the least.  In my estimation, it doesn’t work to explain much of anything.  As a matter of undisputed fact, the overwhelming majority of mutations are lethal and result in the death of the organism.  It is a matter of simple common sense that mutation would not be a good foundation upon which to build an evolutionary theory.  This point, along with many others, has severely damaged the neo-Darwinian enterprise.

The head has been severed, but the snake continues to twitch.

My brother and I have long referred to biological evolution as the “great blob” because it absorbs everything in its path.  “Evolution” gets larger and larger as the umbrella widens to cover every supplemental (and sometimes competing) hypothesis.  Darwin’s theory has sort of become the corroded old statue that awkwardly stands in the middle of the evolutionary graveyard.  Though surrounded by many other decaying corpses and temporary visitors, it remains the most visible; it’s still what most people ultimately mean when they refer to evolution in the biological sense.  Theories of biological evolution now unite to form what is very much a Frankenstein of explanations.  It ultimately bears the name of Darwin, but its parts come from a host other places.  Mainly, they come from A B Normal, a reference that any Young Frankenstein fan will understand.  This predicament was the reason for the sentiments expressed by Dr. David Berlinski when he was asked whether or not Darwin’s theory of evolution is true.  His response remains a classic:

“Before you can ask is Darwinian Theory correct or not, you have to ask the preliminary question, is it clear enough so that it could be correct. That’s a very different question. One of my prevailing doctrines about Darwinian Theory is: man that thing is just a mess. It’s like looking into a room full of smoke. Nothing in the theory is precisely, clearly, carefully defined and delineated. It lacks all of the rigor one expects from Mathematical Physics. And Mathematical Physics lacks all of the rigor one expects from Mathematics. So we’re talking about a gradual decent down the level of intelligibility, until we reach Evolutionary Biology. We don’t even know what a species is, for heaven sakes!”

Again, you will virtually never read something like this in a high school biology textbook or hear it from the science professor at the university down the street.  But this assessment is spot on.  When someone says, “biological evolution is a fact” (or anything of the sort), they are absolutely right . . . but they are right for all the wrong reasons.  As I previously discussed, anything we observe in the biosphere is “evidence” of evolution because evolution now encompasses every possible outcome.  Rapid changes, gradual changes, no changes, and everything in between.  It’s all “evolution.”  And again, don’t just take my word for it.  Last year’s Royal Society of London meeting featured biologist Gerd B. Müller, who suggested—among others at the meeting—that there are more than half a dozen ways that “evolution” is defined in the biological sense alone.  He proved this by referencing the literature being published in today’s scientific journals.  Forget the different varieties of evolutionary theories for the moment: this means that “biological evolution” itself has many different meanings.  How do you begin to talk about something that is so clearly undefined?

A “room full of smoke” may actually be a strangely generous statement.  It now looks more like a coliseum full of smoke.

There is no simpler and less inescapable critique of any theory than to say that it is unfalsifiable: that no evidence could ever be brought to bear that might disprove it.  Biological evolution is the filet mignon of all unfalsifiable theories.

I have now discussed the various ways that the term evolution is used in both the biological sense and in the everyday sense.  It should be clear that nothing has “evolved” as much as the word evolution itself.  I told you in the title of this blog that I would decode the evolution confusion, and I realize that I have not done so in the normative way.  This is because decoding something that is quite literally incoherent is not possible in the normative way.  But that’s just it—understanding that evolution has come to mean so many things (almost everything, really) is exactly how we decipher the way that we should understand it.  That knowledge, in itself, ought to liberate those who fear the term, and it should also restrict those who use the word like a sledgehammer on others.

In conclusion, I want to leave you with a few general guidelines or approaches that we should take with regards to the issue of evolution.

  1. Everyone believes in evolution, in the very broadest sense of the word.  This is true of ordinary things like how business procedures or fashion trends have changed over the years, and is also true of the ways that speciation (how animal species diversify) occurs in our world.
  2. Never forget that evolution has come to describe everything that is either thought to change or thought to have changed.  The word is a giant blob: a tar-baby that sticks to everything it touches.
  3. There is nothing intrinsically good or evil (or true/false, if you’d like) about the word.  Rather, there are only appropriate and inappropriate ways to use it.
  4. When discussing biological evolution in particular, we absolutely have to define our terms.  When someone talks about evolution—in any way, shape, or form—do not let the conversation progress until you have asked one very important question: what do you mean by the word “evolution?”  Make the person explain his or her perspective.  (Oh yeah, and don’t let them tell you that evolution is simply about how species change.  We all believe that happens.  Make them tell you exactly how (which evolutionary mechanism/s is at work, so to speak) evolution occurs.  Beyond spitting out a few general catch phrases, most people will not actually be able to do this.)

Based on the engorged nature of the word evolution, clarity is the key.  Clarity is essential.

I hope that this blog has in some way helped you to understand the truth about the most enigmatic word in the English language (or any other).  I think we would all do well to take this issue very seriously.  When used appropriately, the word evolution has the potential to tell us a great deal about the God who created us.  When used inappropriately, it has the power to lead us to the conclusion that this great Being has no part to play in our existence.  Worse, that He does not exist at all.

 

References

Berlinski, David. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. 2008. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1091617/quotes

Dawkins, Richard. “Is it a Theory? Is it a Law? No, it’s a fact”.  Richarddawkins.net. Nov 30, 2015. https://richarddawkins.net/2015/11/is-it-a-theory-is-it-a-law-no-its-a-fact/

Ham, Ken. “Evolution—Not Enough Time.” Answers in Genesis. Jan 19, 2006.  https://answersingenesis.org/media/audio/answers-with-ken-ham/volume-120/evolution-not-enough-time/

Kulikovsky, Andrew. “How Could Adam Have Named All the Animals in a Single Day”? Answers in Genesis. June 1, 2005.  https://answersingenesis.org/bible-characters/adam-and-eve/how-could-adam-have-named-all-the-animals-in-a-single-day/

Merriam-Webster. “Evolution.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evolution

Müller, Gerd B. “The extended evolutionary synthesis”. The Royal Society. Nov 7. 2016. https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2016/11/evolutionary-biology/

Rossiter, Wayne D. Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God.  Pickwick Publications. Eugene, OR. 2015, print.  https://shadowofoz.wordpress.com/

“The Third Way of Evolution.” http://www.thethirdwayofevolution.com/people

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. “Neil deGrasse Tyson Smacks Down Creationists Who Are Demanding Equal Time on Cosmos.” Politicususa. Mar 23rd, 2014. http://www.politicususa.com/2014/03/23/neil-de-grasse-tyson-smacks-creationists-demanding-equal-time-cosmos.html