Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Evolution Of God

From *The Skeptical Review*, Nov-Dec, 2000:

By Farrell Till 
Biblical writers seemed unable to make up their minds about the nature of their god. In one passage, he is given a trait that contradicts the nature attributed to him in another. To some writers God was omnipresent, i. e., simultaneously present everywhere
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast (Psalm 139:7-8).
To others, his presence was limited, and so he had to go from place to place as the need arose. When the descendants of the flood survivors were building a tower to heaven, "Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower" (Gen. 11:5), whereas an omnipresent entity would have had no need to "come down," since he would have already been present at the construction site. Prior to this, Adam and Eve, having broken Yahweh's command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, heard Yahweh "walking in the garden in the cool of the day" and "hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh God among the trees of the garden" (Gen. 3:8). Hiding from an omnipresent deity would have been impossible, so, unlike the psalmist quoted above, the writer of this story must have seen Yahweh as a god whose presence was limited to a specific location at any given time. When Yahweh exiled Cain for killing his brother Abel, for example, the Genesis writer said that "Cain went out from the presence of Yahweh" (4:16), but if Cain went out from the presence of Yahweh, then Yahweh could hardly have been an omnipresent entity. Other biblical passages restricted Yahweh's presence in the same way, whereas others agreed with the psalmist who thought that God was omnipresent. The prophet Amos declared that no one could escape from Yahweh's wrath. Though they dug into Sheol, his hand would take them; though they climbed into heaven, he would bring them down; though they hid themselves on the top of Carmel, he would find them; though they hid in the bottom of the sea, he would command the serpent to bite them (Amos 9:2-3). There was just no place for Yahweh's enemies to flee from his presence, yet other writers presented him as a deity restricted in space. The Israelites, for example, thought that God sat enthroned on the mercy seat that was on the ark of the covenant (Ps. 80:1; 99:1; Ex. 25:22; Num. 7:89; 1 Sam. 4:4).

The Bible is also contradictory about the omniscient nature of God. Some passages clearly taught that God knows everything: "God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (1 John 3:20). According to some writers, this view of God's nature extended even to the future.
The former things I [Yahweh] declared long ago, they went out from my mouth and I made them known; then suddenly I did them and they came to pass. Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, I declared them to you from long ago, before they came to pass I announced them to you, so that you would not say, "My idol did them, my carved image and my cast image commanded them." You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forward I make you hear new things, hidden things that you have not known (Isaiah 46:3-6).
Prior to this, Isaiah had even declared that a test of a god's divinity was whether he knew the future:
I [Yahweh] am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be (44:7).
In other words, the prophet was saying that a god who didn't know the future wasn't really a god, but despite such passages as these, there are others that presented God as an entity whose knowledge was very limited. In 1 Kings 22:16-23, Yahweh, unable to think of a way to entice King Ahab to his doom, had to call upon an underling "spirit" to formulate a plan. 

During the years of their wilderness wanderings, Moses had to intervene to keep Yahweh from making serious mistakes in his zeal to punish the Israelites for disobedience (Num. 14:11-23; 16:20-22, 44-50). On the subject of God's omniscience, the Bible is a maze of contradictions. At times, God knew everything; at other times, he seemed incompetently ignorant.

The same is true of the other attributes of the Bible god Yahweh. Sometimes, he was the omnipotent creator, who "hung the earth on nothing" (Job 26:7) and "upholds all things by the word of his power" (Heb. 1:3), but at other times he couldn't do such common things as defeat an army that had iron chariots (Judges 1:16). Just about any biblical passage that described the nature of God will be contradicted by other passages that presented the same attribute differently.

There's a very sensible explanation for these inconsistencies. The Bible wasn't written all at once but is a product of several authors , who lived and wrote over a period of centuries. Primitive people created their gods in their own image, so there is no reason to think that the ancient Hebrews were any different. To the earliest biblical writers, their god Yahweh was anthropomorphic in his nature, and so he had many humanlike characteristics and limitations. Over time, the god-concept evolved, as it continues to do today, and so God became more spiritual, loving, and merciful in his nature, unlike the earlier concept of a barbaric warlike god, who ordered the genocide of entire tribes of non-Hebraic people. Gradually, he became a god who was everywhere and could do anything, unlike the predecessor version of Yahweh who couldn't defeat an army that had iron chariots.

The mere suggestion that God is just a product of evolutionary theism is appalling to inerrantists, who believe that their god is immutable, but the evolutionary view is far more sensible than the unlikely "explanations" that inerrantists have resorted to in trying to harmonize inconsistencies in biblical descriptions of God's nature.

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