On the Problem of Free Will and Original Sin

In a conversation about this post, someone remarked to me that god made man in his own image.  There are a lot of implications to this position, but the most troubling for me is the concept of original sin and free will.  So god creates man in the image of himself (so his pattern), but man has the ability to sin.  Ergo god has the ability to sin (because we’re made from his pattern).  It also implies (a) god is not perfect (we are not perfect), (b) god can be evil (we can be evil), (c) god can make mistakes (we make mistakes), and so on.

But perhaps the most troubling position here is the rather absurd way god is portrayed.  That is to say, god is portrayed as a vindictive megalomaniac with serious social and commitment issues.  Think about the Genesis account: God makes the world, god makes man, god tells man he is ruler over the other living things on earth so long as he does not commit sin (eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) even though god made the tree and made man with the ability to eat from the tree. Does god create Satan or does he share the same preexistence as god?  Either way, god creates woman, Satan convinces woman to eat from the tree, woman convinces man to eat from the tree (that god put there), man and woman commit sin, god casts them out from paradise with all these problems (pain during childbirth, working the soil and toiling for survival, etc…).

Now, let me situate this in an analogy focusing on one aspect of creation; that is to say, the idea of creation itself.  Suppose you have all the powers of god for a moment. You decide to create a Ford truck. But what you really want is a Cadillac. You can’t blame the truck. So then you scrap the truck and make another truck, but this time you give it the ability to change into a Cadillac–but then it doesn’t do that, it stays a truck. Still, it isn’t the truck’s fault! You created the damn thing as a truck! Finally, let’s say you scrap the truck, create another truck with the ability to change into a Cadillac, and then try to show it all the amazing benefits it would have it would just change into a Cadillac–and if it doesn’t change into a Cadillac you’re going to burn it in hell for all eternity. But despite your pettiness and threatening tone, the truck remains a truck and in the end you’ve only proven you are a hopeless megalomaniac with sadistic tendencies. You still cannot blame the truck–if you wanted a Cadillac so badly, you just should have made a Cadillac.

If that isn’t twisted enough, how about the whole ‘temptation’ bit in the forest?  Consider this carefully now and don’t just react to what I’m saying.  Give it some thought while reading this analogy.

Let’s say your a parent.  You bake a batch of cookies and place them on the kitchen counter.  You then take your 4 year old and put them in the kitchen and, before leaving, you tell them to not eat the cookies from the cookie jar.  They have free reign of the kitchen, but they can’t eat from the cookie jar.  Then you walk out and lock the child and the cookies in the kitchen behind you.

Now let’s take a moment to reflect: 4 year old, kitchen, cookie jar (not tucked away in some cabinet, but sitting in a reachable position).  Let’s also presume that you have omniscient powers (like god is supposed to have, according to the bible, e.g., “…for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” [1 John 3.20] and”The Lord certainly knows everything that people do; he knows their imaginations and their thoughts and their hearts.” [2 Esdras 16:54]).  So you knew that if you left the cookie jar there full of fresh cookies, your 4 year old would open it up and eat a cookie.

That is just what happens, too.  The child goes over to the cookie dish, eats a cookie, and you burst into the kitchen and you say, ‘well, guess you’re doomed to a lifetime of toil and, by the way, you’re going to burn for eternity.’  And then you shove your 4 year old into an oven.

Too harsh?  I agree.  But this is the story of the Genesis account.  Adam and Eve, who had no knowledge of good and evil (so, they were essentially innocent) and had just been created like five minutes before Satan showed up, committed a very forgivable act (eating fruit from the tree) and instead of doing the logical thing (you know, like removing the tree or putting it out of reach–like make it float or hover twenty feet up–or just not creating the damn tree in the first place) he places the tree within reach and gives creates evil and creates Satan (presumably) and allows all of this to happen even though he knew it was going to happen (because the Dude is all powerful and all knowing).  And still damns man to a lifetime of toil and also misery after death (the Christian view of Hell, for our modern audience).

The most interesting bit though, he could have created Adam and Eve with the ability to not sin.  And since he is god, all powerful, he could have done it so it wouldn’t influence our free will.  He could have created us with the ability to be free without committing murder; we already have limited free will (we can;t just sprout wings and fly, even if we want to do that).  So why not give us, say, wings and not give us the ability to commit murder?  Seems rather odd, right?  If he wanted Adam to not sin, then he should have created a being that couldn’t sin.  It is patently absurd–in fact everything about free will and original sin is absurd.  And if you are still following at this point, you can see why I feel that way.

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Noah and the Flood: The Historical Impossibility

Noah’s Ark/Flood Story:

Recently there has been an aggressive push by the media to include stories in their coverage about the flood and the Ark.  Here are a few stories from the past few months:

None of this is new.  A Google News search indicates that people have been searching for Noah’s Ark since as early as the 1940’s.

Every attempt has led to failure or abuse of information.  Why?  Because the Ark is not on Ararat.  It’s not anywhere.  It never was.  The story of the Ark is a theological story.  It is not a history account.  Let’s break the narrative down into increments:

1. Men were mating with giants (yes, giants lived on earth, according to Gen.  6)

2. ‘Sons of God'(?) ( בְנֵי־ הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙) took human women as their wives (‘the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose’ – this line looks remarkably Greek to me, as if this were from Homer about the sons of Zeus) and bore mixed offspring.

3. Angry at this, God wishes to ‘undo’ humanity, but decides in his mercy to save a remnant through Noah who was upright and perfect in his eyes.  So God commands Noah to build an Ark for his family and seven pairs of every clean creature and one pair of every unclean creature on earth.

4.  Noah does this.  God floods the world.

5. God makes the water recede.  Commands Noah to leave the ship, which he does.

6. Noah builds an alter to God and makes a burnt offering of some of the animals he just saved from being swept under in the flood.

7. God feels bad and says, after smelling the pleasant aroma of the animal sacrifice, ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.’

8. Noah decides to build a vineyard and become a drunkard.

Now, just from this summary, where in it can we find history?  The part about the giants?  Do we find it in the demi-God offspring between the sons of God and the daughters of men?  In the flooding of the world?  That Noah rounded up every creature, across continents, and stuffed them in his ship?  No, none of this story is historical.  Then why would someone believe the flood narrative is historical?  As Bob Cargill aptly points out (and please read the whole article, it is very good):

The worldwide flood described in Genesis 6-9 is not historical, but rather a combination of at least two flood stories, both of which descended from earlier Mesopotamian flood narratives. Note that this does not mean all of the claims made in the Bible are false (or true for that matter); I am dealing here only with the biblical stories of the flood. (Also understand that the “slippery slope” claim of “all of the Bible is true or none of it is true” is simply an unnecessary rhetorical device designed to keep readers from doing precisely what scholars do every day: analyze each claim in the Bible on a case-by-case basis. It is not necessary to accept an “all or none” stance towards the Bible.)

Most biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholars argue that the flood is a mythical story adopted from earlier Mesopotamian flood accounts. These earlier accounts include the 17th century BCE Sumerian flood myth Eridu Genesis, the 18th century BCE Akkadian Atra-Hasis Epic,and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which are some of the earliest known examples of a literary style of writing. The most complete version of the Epic of Gilgamesh known today is preserved on 12 clay tablets from the library of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (685-627 BCE). This extant Akkadian version is derived from earlier Sumerian versions. In the story, Gilgamesh and his companion, a wild man-beast named Enkidu, travel the world on a number of quests that ultimately displease the gods. After the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to learn the secret of eternal life by visiting the immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how the god Ea (equivalent to the Sumerian god Enki) revealed the gods’ plan to destroy all life with a great flood, and how they instructed him to build a vessel in which he could save his family, friends, and livestock. After the flood, the gods repented for destroying the world and made Utnapishtim immortal.

But it might also have roots in an Egyptian narrative known as Legend of the Destruction of Mankind, where Râ sends Hathor out to destroy mankind for blaspheming him.  When Râ sees what he has done he seeks a way to cease the massacre:

But having tasted blood, Sekhmet would not
be appeased. For three nights the goddess Hathor-
Sekhmet waded about in the blood of men, the
slaughter beginning at Hensu (Herakleopolis
Magna). Ra now realized that Hathor-Sekhmet
would destroy the human race completely. Angry
as he was, he wished to rule mankind, not see it
destroyed. There was only one way to stop
Hathor-Sekhmet — he had to trick her.

He ordered his attendants to brew seven thousand
jars of beer, and to color it red using both the
mandrakes and the blood of those who had been
slain.

After he has tricked Hathor into a drunken stupor and the massacre stops, Ra remarks:

Now, although the blasphemers of Ra had
been put to death, the heart of the god still was
not satisfied. The next morning he confessed to
Hathor his true feelings: “I am smitten with the
pain of the fire of sickness. Why did I have such
pain? I live, but my heart has become exceedingly
weary because I still have to live with those men.
I have slain some of them, but worthless men still
live, and I did not slay as many as I ought to have
done, considering my power.”

Then the gods who were in his following said
to him, “Don’t worry about your lack of action, for
your power is in proportion to your will.”

Ra, the Majesty, said unto the Majesty of Nut,
“My members are as weak as they were at the
first time. I will not permit this to come upon me
a second time.”

What makes this narrative so interesting compared with that the of the Akkadian, Sumerian, and Jewish flood narratives?  The simple answer has nothing at all to do with the historicity of the events; the answer is plain, that is to say, it has to do with the theological message, God’s mercifulness.  Some will of course quibble with the value of mercy when multitudes of creatures and people are killed in brutal ways, but the story held a certain place in the ancient mythic mind.

Taking the additional content surrounding the flood narrative out of the story of Gen. 6-9 not only fractures the narrative and removes context, the emulative quality of the narrative, and its theological purpose, but it ignores the rich literary tradition from which the narrative derives.   Pseudo-archaeological attempts to illustrate the historicity of the flood also ignores volumes of scientific and mathematical data which not only suggests its impossibility as a historical event, but demonstrates the ignorance of the narrative by those wishing to impose their modern bias anachronistically onto ancient literature.  The value of these stories rest in their theological meaning, which would have held a much more valid function for ancient readers of these texts.

Some Additional Reading Information:

T.L.Thompson, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel: The Literary Formation of Genesis and Exodus 1-23 (JSOTSuppS 55; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1987), pp. 74-83.
T.L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 75-93
P.R. Davies, The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives (JSOTSuppS 257; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), pp. 24-44
P.R. Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History–Ancient and Modern (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), pp. 27-35

Timothy Beal: In the Beginning(s): Appreciating the Complexity of the Bible

What an excellent article by Timothy Beal at the Huffington Post. This is what I have been trying to say for years now.  Definitely check it out; it is worth the read.  Here is a snippet:

Unlike the creationism in circulation today, the Bible’s own creationism is rich in different, mutually incompatible ways of imagining cosmic and human beginnings. There is no single biblical account of creation. The Bible doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Why should we?

Whether or not we should have a problem with this biblical polyvocality, I’ve learned the hard way that many indeed do. I recently wrote a short piece for Askmen.com on “Five Things You Didn’t Know” about the Bible. The first of those five things was that there are multiple accounts of creation in the Bible. I expected some people to disagree, and I looked forward to a serious back-and-forth about the texts I had pointed out. That’s not what happened. Instead, I was overwhelmed with a flood of angry responses, most of which were as impious, rude and downright unchristian in tone as they were reactionary and unthinking in their “defense” of the Bible.

Once I got over being called a “gay moron” and “fatass nerd editor sitting in his basement,” I could see that what I’d gotten myself into was an amplified version of the debates that go on every day between “Bible-believers” and atheists, who looked to me very much like two sides of the same coin.

Both sides agreed that my goal was to “discredit” the Bible, to “make the Bible look stupid, irrelevant, and full of holes” and “a load of bullshit.” The only difference between them was whether they supported or condemned me for doing so. Neither side was remotely interested in engaging with the logic of my argument, let alone the biblical texts I used to support it.

Never mind that I’m a Christian, that I regularly teach about the Bible in confirmation classes and in Sunday school, and that I’ve dedicated more than two decades to studying and teaching biblical literature as a college professor. I think I have my facts right, and the biblical references were right there. It would’ve been easy to go and read them before responding. But no one on either side of the argument did.

via Timothy Beal: In the Beginning(s): Appreciating the Complexity of the Bible.

I can’t recommend it enough.  (h/t to James McGrath on Facebook)

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