When I was ten years old, it was an irrefutable fact: “Girls give you coodies. You just don’t want to get anywhere near them, because if you do … well … you’ll get coodies.” I can’t remember if we had any mental picture of what a ‘coodie’ looked like. I remember we had an elaborate ritual to ward off coodies: inscribing ‘CP’ or ‘coodie protection’ all over our arms and legs. And I think another one to get rid of a coodie infection. Needless to say, my view about girls has long since changed. I just don’t think that way anymore.
Upending one’s viewpoint isn’t just a phenomenon related to growing up. Sometimes life’s experiences can completely detour the way even adults think. I know my view of world religions was dramatically altered after reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. For others, a near death experience will leave them with a whole new frame of reference for their life.
It also isn’t just a personal or individual thing. America was changed dramatically by the war in Vietnam. The way people and governments around the world handled money was affected for decades after the Great Depression.
In the Christian world, we’ve gone through a complete paradigm shift in how we view the universe: the sky above us and the earth beneath us. Most people in the Christian world don’t know this, but for thousands of years, we believed in a three layered heaven around a three layered earth. As bizarre as this might sound to our ears now, it stems directly from passages in Scripture.
Right in the very first verse of the Bible, we read about God creating the “heavens”. Note the plural. There are many, many other passages in which the plural form of this word is used. In other places, this plurality is emphasized by phrases like “… the heavens, even the highest heavens …” (Deut 10:14; 1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6; 2 Chron 6:18; Neh 9:6). Paul talked about knowing someone who had been caught up into “the third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2). When they did this, the Hebrew authors were thinking, as did everyone else in their day did, that there was one level in which earth bound bodies moved (birds, arrows and baseballs), another level in which the celestial bodies moved (sun, moon and stars), and yet another level beyond those in which heavenly bodies moved (God, angels, human souls).
When they looked up, they had no telescopes, binoculars, satellites or any other tool to tell them how far away the sun, moon and stars were. There was absolutely no reason for them to think that those objects in the night sky were unfathomably bigger than the earth and millions of light years away, rather than just lanterns a few miles up at best. They couldn’t know that the sun was 400 times bigger than the moon (to the uninformed person they look like they’re almost identical in size, which is why we can experience both a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse), or that many of the stars were millions of times bigger and hotter than the sun. How could they … they had no concept whatsoever of ‘billions’ or ‘light years’ or things so big that they could swallow up thousands of earths.
All of those ‘lanterns’ seemed to move in an arc across the sky, and the ancient star gazer had no way to explain how lanterns might simply float in mid air a couple miles up, so they envisioned those little lights hanging from a big dome or upside down bowl placed on top of the flat earth, held up by the mountains and curving down to the seas.
When raindrops fell down from the sky, they had no understanding of the water cycle, including the concept of evaporated water condensing ‘out of thin air’. The only way for them to comprehend this mysterious water from the sky was to propose that there was a large body of water beyond the dome (‘the waters above’) and small holes in the dome which let the water drip through.
When they explored the springs and rivers around them, they found that water seemed to just continually flow out of the ground: in many cases, this flow seemed to never stop, even when there hadn’t been rain for several months and all the surrounding fields had long since dried up. “Where does all this water keep coming from? they might ask. It just kept pouring out from somewhere underneath (‘the waters below’), so there must be yet another large body of water deep underneath the earth and gushing to the surface.
These simple misinterpreted observations led the ancients to see the dome in the sky (your translation might use the word ‘firmament’ or ‘expanse’ or ‘vault’) as something solid. When describing God’s control over various aspects of weather, one of Job’s friends says: “Can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze? (Job 37:18). This solid dome was thought to hold back the waters above (from which the rain trickled out) and separate them from the underground waters below the earth (from which the rivers came forth).
With these interpretations of observed nature (which was the leading science of their day) in your mind, re-read the Creation story in Genesis from their viewpoint and pay particular attention to the words ‘firmament’ (or ‘expanse’ or ‘vault’), and the separation of ‘the waters above’ and ‘the waters below’.
And finally the third layer of earth: ‘the place of the dead’. The Hebrew authors, as did everybody throughout the Ancient Near East, firmly believed that souls went to some kind of place deep in the earth. ‘Sheol’ in Old Testament Hebrew, ‘Hades’ in the Greek New Testament, and ‘Hell’ in modern English. In the Complete Jewish Bible, David talks about how God “lifted me up from Sheol” (Psalm 30:3), Job describes “the limits of the Almighty as being higher than the heavens above … and deeper than Sheol” (Job 11:8), and God talks about his anger “that burns down to the depths of Sheol” (Deut 32:22). Isaiah and Ezekiel refer many times to people going down to hell, or hell being brought up against nations. Jesus referred to an evil city being “brought down to hell” (Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15). Even the Apostle’s Creed says that Jesus “descended into Hell”.
The church also made it clear that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun revolved around it. This mistaken belief justified an arrogant need for humans to be seen as the centerpoint of all God’s attention, but it was also based on repeated phrases in the Scriptures like “… the rising of the sun …” and “… to the going down of the same …” ‘The Teacher’ in Ecclesiastes specifically described the sun’s orbit: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises” (Ecclesiastes 1:5). There were also the interesting passages in which the sun “stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day” at Joshua’s command (Joshua 10:13), and another one in which the sun went “ten degrees backwards” as a miraculous sign for King Ahaz (Isaiah 38:8).
So there you have it. The Bible is full of references to a three layered cosmos, a solid firmament or dome separating “waters above” from “waters below”) and a three layered earth (including the lands we walk on, “the waters below” and Sheol) around which the sun and planets revolve. That was the way the whole Ancient Near East saw things, including the Babylonians and Egyptians. So did the church for over a thousand years after them.
If you proclaim “Sole Scriptura” as a rallying anthem, then you should be pushing for this cosmological model to still be taught in grade schools today.
Not only is this cosmology thoroughly Scripturally-based, but alternative scientific models were resisted because of perceived huge theological implications. Claiming that the earth instead revolved around the sun challenged our special relationship with God: mankind must be the center of God’s attention, and relegating us to an orbiting side show lessened our importance. Observations of sun spots (solar flares) and craters on the moon were flatly denied because this questioned God’s perfection: God only created things that were without spot or wrinkle. The critics instead insisted that these were due to spots on the telescope lenses of the incompetent scientists. Eclipses and comets were undeniably signs of God’s judgement. The Tower of Babel, an architectural project using the cutting-edge technology of their day, was blatant wickedness because those people were building their own way to heaven itself in an attempt to become like God.
But we don’t think that way anymore! (mostly) Very few Christians today will deny the findings of modern astronomy which refute this ancient cosmology. We fully accept that it was a naive understanding based on simple observations and an unnecessarily literal reading of Scripture.
And yet we continue to do the exact same thing now when it comes to biology, the origin of life, and the beginning of mankind. As per my previous two blogs, the evidence for human evolution is overwhelming. And yet some still insist on denying a mountain of scientific evidence in order to hang on to one specific theological interpretation. And just as with the cosmological model that was once staunchly defended on Scriptural grounds, you’ll recognize the same arguments being used here. ”Humans and chimps couldn’t possibly have descended from a common ancestor ‘because this challenges our special relationship with God‘: we are made in his image, and therefore must be different from the animals. The errors in the genetic code which so strongly argue for our direct relationship with the other primates were not there at the time of Creation ‘because this calls God’s perfection into question: he only creates things that are without spot or wrinkle‘. They must instead be mutations caused later by environmental changes brought on by the Fall and/or the Flood.”
Same arguments, now re deployed against different scientific observations. Yes, old habits are hard to break. In fact, we still talk about the sun rising or setting, about monsoon rains or floods being caused by ‘an opening of the floodgates of heaven’, and about going ‘down’ to hell. We’re even still hearing about eclipses and comets being signs of God’s judgement: you might hear a fair bit of noise in social media this week about the third “Blood Moon”, and certainly much more in September/October when we see yet a fourth one.
I’ve heard people doggedly reject human evolution and insist on the historicity of Adam/Eve in the Garden of Eden, not for any scientific or logical reasons, but because to do otherwise would mean having to re think the concepts of Original Sin, death and Christ’s crucifixion.
But what if a mountain of scientific evidence supports human evolution occurring over a couple hundred thousand years? What if that mountain in fact argues directly against the historicity of an ‘Adam and Eve’? What if there’s evidence of death, disease and predation going back for millions of years … fossilized dinosaurs with cancers, and fossilized evidence of a carnivorous attack on some prey animal? What if there’s absolutely no evidence either way for a Garden of Eden?
For me, this situation is something like a culture which develops an elaborate world-view based on a claim that the sky is orange … a ‘fact’ about which they frequently remind themselves, and instil deep into their children … and some bold soul finally puts up her hand to say: ”But the sky isn’t orange!?”
The emperor has no clothes.
A very long list of observable facts now require us to adjust any theology based on a direct reading of the first few chapters of Genesis. This includes Paul’s teachings in Romans 5 and 1st Corinthians 15 when he talks about where sin and death came from. The sky just isn’t orange.
One aspect of theology with which I’ve long struggled is that all people are ‘desperately wicked’. ”Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Because of the genuine good that I’ve seen in people who aren’t otherwise religious. The little old lady who lives next door, to the best of my knowledge, may have entertained a hint of petty jealousy or selfishness in her lifetime, but certainly hasn’t done anything deserving of a death penalty, let alone one that involves eternal torment. The standard response to this is that her goodness pales in comparison to that of God’s, and in that sense she’s no better than a psychopathic pedophile, but the fact remains she still hasn’t done anything deserving of a year in jail, let alone an eternity in hell.
I’ve also wrestled against the idea that the God of love needs to see blood spilt before he can forgive sin. If humans are able to simply forgive other humans, even those who have done horrific things … as did some Coptic Christians who were in the news a few weeks ago for forgiving the ISIS killers … why can’t God?
In the process of trying to make sense of my theology, I’m now asking some hard questions about sin and sacrifice and blood-letting. They’re not exactly new … greater theologians than me have been asking these questions for a long time … but it doesn’t seem that they’re getting much reflection in the broader Christian community around me today.
First, could it be that Christ came not to be ripped apart, have his blood poured out, in order to satisfy the vengeful wrath of God against the little old lady who lives next door (and against everyone else), but rather to be an example? To demonstrate a life of complete self sacrifice, giving up wealth or power or personal comforts, even any claims on his personal safety, security and independence, and instead giving us a different set of goals. To give food, water and clothing to those without, to care for the orphaned and widowed, to visit the sick and imprisoned, and to break the chains of the oppressed. It turned out that this example was just too radical for some people and so they killed him. The cross just happened to be the way they did things back then in Roman-occupied territories: thousands of other people were also crucified, but we don’t attribute any theological significance to that.
Second, could it be that Homo sapiens has always had this thing about sacrifice and the spilling of blood. Civilizations all around the world for thousands of years, even long before Moses set up the temple practices, have employed animal and human sacrifices in their religious rituals. This brings out a visceral response in us … adds a whole new level of meaning that simply beating on a drum or playing organ music in the background can’t provide. Perhaps God said “OK, this means something to your species. I can work with this” and decreed all the sacrificial practices found in the Pentateuch. Or perhaps, because that need to offer sacrifices was in them already, the people developed those practices all on their own (which would certainly explain some of the more bizarre commands found there). Either way, that ritual killing carried on until God finally declared “Okay. Enough. I actually don’t need these sacrifices and this blood spilling. If you really need something like that in order to be reassured of my forgiveness, then let me finish this off once and for all. I’ll take care of the details. It’ll be a perfect sacrifice that ends all need for any further sacrifice.”
Third, could it be that God wants to just simply forgive and forget, but that someone else cries foul saying “That’s not fair. A penalty has to be paid. Hitler slaughters millions of people, ISIS lops the heads off others, and if they finally say ‘Oops, sorry God, please forgive me’, you welcome them into Paradise with open arms. Letting them off the hook like that is not justice.” And so to satisfy such an Accuser, God in Christ steps forward and says “OK, you need justice to be done? Fine, let me pay the price myself.”
Maybe it’s all of the above. It’s ‘a multi-dimensional thing’ (thanks RG for that phrase).
I know full well that even asking these questions will be disturbing for many readers. But I think we’re allowed to ask questions like these. Abraham asked God “Do you really have to kill all those people?” (Gen 18). Moses tried to embarrass God out of wiping out the Israelite nation (What will the surrounding nations say?) (Exodus 32). Job demanded an audience with his accuser, and with God himself, to explain the injustice of his situation (Job 31:35). Jesus asked “Do I really have to go through this … to drink this cup?” (Mark 14:36). So I get the feeling that God’s OK with us asking questions. It isn’t sacrilege. To run from questions like these … with hands on ears, humming and babbling loudly to drown out the noise … simply because the answers might be challenging, or require some major renovations to our theological cathedrals, is not a sign of healthy pursuit of Truth.
I’m learning that it’s totally possible to let go of many ideas we’ve built up around the idea of an Adam and Eve in the Garden 6000 years ago, and still fulfill the Great Commission.
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