If You Can Take a Comma Out of the Middle of the Bible, You Might Just as Well Put a Question Mark at the End!

Perhaps you’ve heard this saying:

If you can take a comma out of the middle of the Bible, you might just as well put a question mark at its end.

Well, over the past two centuries, science, archeology, and critical academic scholarship have, metaphorically speaking, taken a lot of “commas” and certainties out of the middle of the Bible. And there is, thus, a huge question mark at the Bible’s end.

Given that this is a FACT, where does one go now (if one is religious)? Do you:

  • Still believe in hell?
  • Ignore contemporary science, archeology, and academic scholarship on the Bible, and simply pretend that the Bible is inerrant?
  • Reject that the earth is old and that plants and animals have changed over time?

Or do you concede what most educated people have concluded:

  • There is no hell
  • The Bible is not inerrant
  • Evolution occurred

And then ask: Now what?

That “now what” question is a dizzying prospect. Is it too dizzying?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to If You Can Take a Comma Out of the Middle of the Bible, You Might Just as Well Put a Question Mark at the End!

  1. ozpullar says:

    Lets take take a look at the bible, the books that were picked to go into the bible were from a converted Roman Emperor losing his Empire became a christian, Constantine “the” Great . If you had the choice of various letters or chapters would pick the ones that you make you feel comfortable?

    One major mistake made by “Jehovah or Yahweh or God” Psalms written by King David an adulterer who made sure his so called best friend? was killed on the front line of a battle so he could be with Basheba
    According to Jewish law David should of been executedon two accounts, yet his line led to Jesus, how can that be JUSTICE?

    I have a lot more to say!

    Cheers

    James

  2. Well, since you asked: As a teacher of literature, you seem to have quite a high opinion of the sciences, and what they are able to do. I suppose then it is ironically fitting that I, with a background almost totally in the sciences and technology end of the spectrum (B.S. only, just for full disclosure) hold a much more limited view of the guarantees provided by science, and seem to take a higher view of the truth claims that can be enfolded in literature.

    I don’t know the origin of thesis statement for which you have provided the antithesis, but I have heard similar statements. I do know, however, that it is possible to believe in the divine origin of the Bible without owning the term “inerrant” I do so myself. It is not so much that I actively reject the term, as it is the fact that it carries so much baggage that I’m no longer sure what I would be agreeing to if I did use it. One must define terms.

    But back to science v. literature.
    Science is pretty short on facts, other than those of observation. The explanations of those observations are properly called theories, not facts, as they themselves are subject to ongoing review and evolution. I fully accept that evolution (whether Darwinian or some other model) in an old earth gives the most plausible explanation for the biological facts we observe. That does not prove that it is fact, but it is the current state of our understanding. I believe that the Pope has said the same. I do not expect that understanding to substantially change, but the sciences have made big changes before. I wish I could recall the source, but I seem to remember a rather famous quote from a prominent man of science in the late 19th century that the “future of science (not to be confused with technology) lies in the 5th decimal point” or that the only things left to understand were in the marginalia, in sweeping out the corners of our ignorance, That was just before Einstein and the incoming tide of quantum mechanics overturned almost everything we thought we knew about physics.

    As for literature, I’m sure you will agree that the real truth of a story is often not primarily in the top level meaning. Since the Bible is the subject at hand, I’ll use the creation account. If a scientist says to me that a 6 day creation some 6k years ago looks to be almost impossibly unlikely, that the observations fit much better with a several million year slow development model, I will (and do) accept that. The Biblical account may, when we know all things, prove literally true here, and I will be pleasantly surprised. But I think the real truths are underneath the story-telling, and any possible amalgam of tribal myths out of which these stories may have been crafted. I see Divine inspiration working here more as an editor than author, blending which tales got remembered, how they were intermingled, until the story told contained the truths He wished to convey.

    The danger with reading with this approach is that one may use it to cast away anything that disagrees with what I want it to say. “Oh, it’s just a myth!” But as I’m sure you will agree, a symbol is always less than the thing symbolized. The shapes S-U-N are almost nothing in comparison to what they represent. The real is more than its stand-in.
    I believe the Bible uses symbolic language and story telling often in attempting to convey truth too deep for the available symbols.

    This is not to give a complete analysis of my approach to the Bible, but simply an isolated example showing that one does not have to discount science, or turn ones brain to rot to hold the Bible as authoritative.

    It is curious to me that you mention the concept of hell twice, and at the same level of certainty as evolution. Certainly no science speaks to either it’s existence or non-existence, save in this material universe, and I don’t think that has been advocated in a long, long time. I believe its existence in this world has never been posited by anyone who had developed a distinction between physical and metaphysical. No, science offers, and can offer, neither support nor refutation of hell.

    The absence of hell is thus an article of religious faith as much as is its existence. That believe is thus subject to all sorts of influences, including carefully thought-through philosophy, to wish-fulfillment, to tacit acquiescence to the cultural norms of our peer-group, and the “spirit of the age.” All of these are perfectly common ways of acquiring tenets of belief, but they may fall far short of any standard of proof.

    So in an abbreviated form, these are my responses to your questions. I hope they are interesting and coherent, if not satisfying and compelling!

    BTY, you concluding question cuts both ways, and is the real end of theological questions.
    If these things be true, how should I then live?

    Blessings!
    -R. Eric Sawyer

  3. santitafarella says:

    Eric:

    I can’t disagree with anything that you’ve said above. You seem to be a 21st century Christian attempting to digest what science and archeology have said about the Bible over the past two centuries. You don’t have your head in the sand.

    As for hell:

    I include hell as something we “know” does not exist because, whatever else we may say about God, if hell were to exist, and most people ended up there, then God would be far worse than Hitler and Stalin combined. God would be a devil of some sort. I just don’t think that rationality and literal hell belief—in which God tortures people in relentless fire for eternity—can abide in the same place. Were hell to exist one might just as well abandon reason and humane reflection all together.

    But since hell does not exist, we are left with a contemporary conundrum: Why should there be any hurry or urgency about religious questions? Hell was once used (and by fundamentalists is still used) as a prod to make a premature decision for this or that religion. But without hell, belief in God must be founded on a different foundation than Pascal’s wager (saving your skin from damnation).

    —Santi

  4. A while back I had series of conversations on my site and others on exactly this point: the existence of Hell, or the doctrine of damnation. my take on it, and why I believe the idea inescapable is outlined below. I decided to repost it, rather than just a link, so that any followup comments would stay in the same thread. In a nutshell though, my position is that it is not so much about punishment, other than some choices have natural, intrensic and unavoidable consequences. I don’t know how many will end up there, I hope none. But I am compelled to see it as at least a possibility for all.

    ============
    http://rericsawyer.wordpress.com/2008/02/24/how-can-a-loving-god-damn-people-to-hell-a-response/
    ============
    I won’t attribute the source, since I can’t now find it; but in the blog of a friend of mine the question of damnation came up as an example of a religious dogma which cannot be accepted.

    I beg to differ. If one accepts at least for the purpose of this discussion certain propositions about God, and heaven (I will reference these propositions as we go along) then some sort of doctrine of damnation is inevitable. The only other alternative is for our independence and autonomy to be an illusion.

    Orthodox Christians may object that my argument is very short on appeals to the Bible. That is by design. In our current climate, appealing to Holy Scripture is mostly preaching to the choir. While I do regard the Bible as God’s Word, written, and that it accurately and reliably contains what God intends to say to me thereby, my contention is with those who don’t share that view. If I am going to appeal to an authority, it must be to an authority to which both sides yield. I choose for this purpose natural reason. For me, reason is a gift of God and sign of His presence. It thus must stand under an even higher authority. As Hooker said, it stands underneath Scripture. But whereas my ideas are thus subject to correction from the witness of the Bible, others may not be impressed by that witness. I would wish to show that even natural reason joins with the Bible in asserting this doctrine as true

    The first proposition I will claim about God is that God is truth. We are told that, when He was asked by Moses to give His own name, He said “I am that I am… Tell them ‘I AM’ has sent you”

    A nonchristian diest (or even in my limited understanding, a Taoist) may well define God as “that which is” without getting into any issue about whether or not God is personal, or has intelligent awareness, or even might be a Wordsworthean/Star-Wars “Force” that rolls through all things. God is what He is. He is not what we imagine Him to be, not what I understand Him to be, not what all the great thinkers, theologians, priests, and philosophers, individually or by collective agreement, say that He is. God is what He is. God is truth, and undivided, unlimited truth. “The whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Kind of makes the “… so help you God” part of that swearing seem pretty appropriate.

    A second proposition is that I believe that there is an existence after death. My full belief goes a great deal further than that, but for the sake of this article, this is enough to claim. I believe that this existence involves a reunification, or a unification if you prefer, with God, with “that which is.”

    One of the truths in this life has been that we are free to acknowledge, disregard or reject any fact we wish. We can reject or ignore facts ranging from our obligations to our creditors to the laws of gravity. But we are not free from the consequences of the actions we then take. If I ignore my debts, I can expect to be sued, or foreclosed upon. If I jump off the house, I will fall to the ground. I can ignore or deny reality, but reality will act upon me in a way consistent with what it is, not with what I proclaim it to be.

    As to “What is Heaven like?” I have very little opinion. I think we have been given some peeks in the Bible, but I’ve already declared that authority outside the scope of this discussion.

    I do differ with what seems to be the prevailing unexamined view of many people. That view seems to include some sort of really nice place to live, and some sort of ability to interact with the other inhabitants, perhaps some sort of activity or occupation, but otherwise pretty much like the life we know. I don’t believe this.

    Or rather, I don’t believe it sufficient. If the goal of this creation is as I believe union with God, then it means that we are to be united with total Truth, with all that is, total light and no darkness at all. In the words of St. Paul, “we shall know as we are known.”

    So, is all this clarity to be presented to us inexorably, as inescapable as the light of day washing over us in the morning? Well, I think yes. Will everyone just automatically accept that truth? We often don’t accept it here. I have more than once put my head under my pillow and tried to deny the dawn.

    If we continue as ourselves, with our independence, then we continue in that ability to deny the truth.

    But what are the consequences of that denial? It is tempting to say that God should “let them in” anyway, that He can and will consider our difficulties, know we did the best we could, and let us in. I share that sentiment. But if I think it through, what do I mean by “let us in”? Let us in to what? How can I be let in to a union with all truth while at the same time saying that truth isn’t true (while knowing the truth)? Insisting on bringing the falsehood into Truth would destroy truth. I cannot insist on truth and reject it at the same time. I cannot be united with God and deny Him with the same voice. Now, it may be that God will continue to work with each of us until everyone accepts the truth. I deeply wish this to be true. I cannot think it likely, but that is another discussion. My point though, is that we cannot be united with the ultimate reality of the universe while also rejecting reality. That ultimate, final separation from God is damnation.

    So, then, what is meant by the talk of Christians such as myself when we say that those who accept Jesus are the only ones who will be saved? Well, we mean quite a few things, but for this discussion, one only. Let’s say, again for the sake of argument, that God did in fact do certain acts so that we could be set free from all the lies we have told ourselves and others, in thought word and deed. If I find myself in that realm of perfect light, truth and clarity I will know beyond doubt exactly who I am, what I have done and the falseness in me, and how God has brought me to this place. What if that knowledge is so unwelcome to me that I say “NO! It CAN’T be that!… I know the truth, and it is —–” If I, with Truth seated right before me insist on my own imaginings of fables, haw can I be united with that which I reject?

    Some will likely point out that this sword cuts both ways: if on that day Truth is much different than I believe, if my theology is all wrong, I will be in deep trouble. Well, they would be right. But it is not the rightness or wrongness of my theology that matters. It is rather how tightly will I cling to my own thoughts, my own imaginings, my own opinions, my own lies, my own…, my own…, my, my, my,…” for infinity. Will I bow my head and my heart to the one who said “I am the Truth” and accept Him instead? It isn’t about right doctrine, it’s about accepting the truth, in preference to ourselves, when we are invited into it.

    Does God damn? Yes. Can we damn ourselves? Yes. I think that ultimately those are the same questions. Our refusal to accept the only reality that is, and this includes who God is, who we are, and what He has done for us; Our refusal to accept the only Truth there is means we cannot be joined to it. And being outside of truth is damnation however ther rest of the details are filled out.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Erik:

    You wrote above: “Our refusal to accept the only Truth there is means we cannot be joined to it.” It’s curious that what one personally believes should have such an effect upon one’s union with God. I think this is a form of magical thinking (“If I think the right things about God, and think good thoughts of the right God, I’ll be attached to him. If not, I’m fucked!”). I just don’t think it follows of necessity. It is a non-sequitur.

    Also, I think that the whole premise that what one believes about God while one is alive is more important than what one believes about God when one is dead if fallacious. What if I were to get to the pearly gates after death and see that, sure enough, all the God-talk on earth was true, and I changed my mind at that moment, and accepted the new information presented to me? Why would God then send me to hell anyway? It just makes no sense that there is a cut off point for changing one’s mind.

    Lastly, hell belief (that is, torture by a divine authority) is simply a non-starter for me. It is (in my view) evil in the way that slavery, racism, sexism, and genocide are evil. In other words, if hell were real (and it is not), then it would follow that one must oppose it on moral grounds (as one would oppose, say, sending Jews to Auschwitz). The fact that God is the instigator of the evil would not make the act less morally culpable. If you say that God’s ways are higher than human ways, and that means that God can torture someone for eternity, then you are giving up rationality and humaneness. This is why I say that hell belief cannot be sustained in a world that has made so much progress in individual liberty and human rights. Torture is always wrong—even if God does it. And if it is not wrong, then we cannot go on, as human beings, to engage in human reason. Reasoning fails at the moment we seriously affirm that God tortures, or could engage in torture.

    —Santi

  6. santitafarella says:

    Erik:

    I’d add one more thought: Hell belief seems archaic to me. It belongs to another age (as the theologies of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin belong to other ages, and the philosophical systems of the pre-Socratics belong to another age). The premises underlying hell belief simply no longer reasonably function. Torture is a non-starter for contemporary, humane people (as sexism and racism are non-starters).

    —Santi

  7. saradode says:

    I don’t believe that the Bible, or any other sacred text, is a necessary tool in forming a relationship with God, or understanding who God is or what is expected from us. It is one attempt to understand and articulate these things, by one set of people, written by certain authors at a certain age in one area of the world, and has been useful in interpreting God’s ways to some–not all–people throughout history. Other texts (or no texts at all) have provided the same thing for other people and cultures who also seek relationships with God, but to whom God would manifest God in different ways, according to what would make sense to them and draw them closer. We all have different spiritual needs, and none is necessarily better than the other. God understands this; God’s desire is only that we act out of love, and God is too big to be concerned with the petty differences in interpretation that we we ourselves create. (I also believe that that was Jesus’ point, although others found it easier to interpret it in other, divisive ways.)

    As for hell, I don’t believe that it’s a “place”–it’s a state of being, and, just like “heaven”, or the “Kingdom of God”, or “Nirvana”, or whatever you choose to call it, it can exist in life or after death. Hell is the inability to form relationships with God, or in a Godlike way with others, bourne out of fear and misunderstanding of God’s will (and interpretations of the sacred texts, and the teachings of certain religious institutions, are often to blame for that fear and lack of understanding). It can also be remedied, even for those who have been led to believe that they are not worthy of God’s love.

    This is a very interesting, erudite post–thank you for sharing it. I’m just of the opinion that debating the “validity” of the Bible or any other text, or the nature of God, or who is “right” about God, is very much beside the point, and is a misuse of energies that could be much better used in other ways in finding the divine within ourselves.

    Thanks!

    Sara

    http://saradode.wordpress.com

  8. santitafarella says:

    Sara,

    I’m with you throughout most of your post—and agree that love is paramount. I can’t agree with your last paragraph, however. The mind must be kept engaged, and religion must not be held away from critical reflection, discussion, and vigorous debate. As for hell, I would not call the torments of the psyche hell (as you do). When I say that I reject hell, I mean that I reject the notion that there is a god who tortures (or allows people to be tortured) for eternity.

    —Santi

  9. saradode says:

    Yes, I see your point about keeping the mind engaged–it is healthy and necessary and useful, as long as people are able to keep their minds open (not always easy, and I speak for myself as much as I do for anyone else!). What I should have said was that arguing from an impermeable “I’m right, and you’re wrong (and therefore you’re damned!)” position is, to say the least, counterproductive.

    On the idea of hell, there’s no way to explain how I’ve come to my conclusions on that without sounding insane to some people, so I won’t attempt it here (it’s in my blog; people can take it or leave it–I’m just hoping that it will at least make people think about the possibilities!). But I DEFINITELY agree that God is in no way inclined toward, or capable of, punishment of the sort that so many people have been led to fear. Learning that, I believe, is one of the first steps into what some might call “heaven”.

    Thanks for your response, Santi!

    Sara

  10. stupid believer says:

    oh man, what airtight logic

  11. Santi, thanks for the sensible discussion!
    You said that a belief in Hell seems archaic I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that. It is certainly old, but I cannot see any reason against it on that score, any more than a new idea should get an uncritical eye just because of its novelty. The issue is not its age, but its accuracy.

    You give me a hint when you say that
    “The premises underlying hell belief simply no longer reasonably function.”
    I hope that by that you mean those premises have been shown to be untrue. I don’t really give a damn about whether or not any idea is functional, except as it may be true. Thinking of “Fahrenheit 451” where justice had been replaced as the fit end of law enforcement by deterrence. In such a system, the swift punishment of the presumed guilty is more functional as a deterrent than the delayed or absent punishment of the actual guilty, the most functional role of the police would be to round up a plausible suspect ASAP, and render quick and summary punishment. That some may consider it “unjust” is beside the point. Justice is not as functional as deterrence, from a societal point of view.
    But as to the question, I don’t know what those premises underlying hell belief are, and how they have been shown to be false. Perhaps you could enlighten me.

    To take your other points in no particular order, you say that
    “I think that the whole premise that what one believes about God while one is alive is more important than what one believes about God when one is dead if fallacious.”
    I quite agree, and sometimes get asked to surrender my official knee-jerk fundamentalist membership card over this. (I still have it) I don’t know when we “run out of chances,” I rather suspect though, that God will pursue as long as there is a possibility left. The danger is that, if I tell myself lies, and believe my own lies (and I show a frightening ability to do this –“one more beer wont hurt!” or “I’ll just sleep 5 more minutes”) then there may come a time when I no longer have the ability to believe anything but my own lies. I have, in fact, become the lie.

    That leads me to your point about personal belief having such an effect on one’s union with God. From your response, I think you may be seeing me as advocating some sort of exam, perhaps on “the theology of the reformation” at the pearly gates. Failure to earn a passing grade punches the down button on the elevator. I’m personally a fan of reformation theology, but that is not my image at all.

    My idea comes from my image of God as ultimate reality, totally true, in whom is no shadow of falsity. Part of my image is that we, on being joined to Him, are being joined to “all truth” That will include the truth about the needs of my neighbors, the falsity and selfishness that was really behind my refusal to give a buck to a panhandler (I say it just makes it worse for him, he needs instead to be in a program. The truth is more often that I want the dollar for myself), the truth about everything in my life, and how it impacted the rest of the world. I don’t specifically mean standing before a judge as the accused, just that my deceptions won’t work any more. I will know. I will also know (according to my understanding of ‘the Gospel”) that all this has been forgiven, that everything is quite alright. I will also know how and why its all right.

    But God has chosen to make me autonomous. My choices have power to affect things. In all this illumination, He will cure me from all error, but he will not remove my ability to lie. My lies will no longer be believable, but I can still prefer them to what is obviously true.

    And this leads into your third point: What is hell? You defined it as “torture by a divine authority” and declare it to be simply evil. By paraphrase, a good god committing an evil act is a contradiction on the face of it. It therefore must not be true, or if true, good and evil have lost their meaning and chaos reigns, or God is NOT good, and must be opposed.
    -We are not so far apart here. The problem comes in when we thing through all the ramifications of the individual liberty and human rights you accurately note.

    Once a person accepts the view of God and an existence of the human soul after death as I described it (and that provides plenty of room for disagreement) then you must ask the question “what happens if I won’t accept the truth? What if I keep shouting “NO! it was HER fault!” even when I can clearly see better, I just refuse to? Does God just give me a pass, and say, well, it’s just a little lie, we will let it slide. But that bit of darkness, that “untruth” destroys the character of God as “all truth” I can imagine God going over and over with infinite patience the truth, trying to woo me into it. But does this go on to infinity? Some say yes, I don’t know. But I do believe that God does not destroy my individual liberty. He can correct my errors, make me to see the truth, but he cannot make me accept it as true. To just zap the proper attitude into my brain would be to simply overrule who I am, to destroy my liberty on the pretext of saving me. That won’t work.

    I think at the end of the day, God says (and this is over-humanized) Here is light, peace and truth. You are very welcome here. We all know the truth, and the truth has set us free –But I remain free to stop my ears and shut my eyes to things I can plainly see –and insist on “not truth” To be joined to not-truth, to unreality, to everything that is “not-God” is to me, the definition of hell. And, as is the nature of symbols, all the symbolic language about hell is but an image of something more intense. Even in the lining psychological relm, having ones mind given over to the un-real is a rather horrible thing, and constitutes insanity.

    But I don’t think it is done by God.
    If I am standing in the rain outside of the house of someone with whom I have a quarrel,
    And he opens the door, saying “come in out of the rain, and we’ll talk things over.”
    If I refuse the open door and stand out in my sodden and resentful misery, is it the houses fault? Should he come out and wrestle me into the house kicking and screaming? Or should he honor me by honoring my right to choose? There is a quote that all who are in hell choose it, and God’s “condemnation” is that he honors that choice.

    ====
    And Sara, I think I am almost totally on the same page with you, in that God offers joy and peace freely and to all.
    But I don’t believe He will force us to take it,

    -Blessings!
    R. Eric Sawyer

  12. saradode says:

    Of course I don’t know for sure because I’ve never tried to do it, but I’d think that living in a world in which everything that couldn’t be proven by “airtight logic” was overlooked, rejected, and/or scorned would be a pretty sad, dry, and colorless existence–regardless of whether you’re a “believer” (of whatever level of intelligence) or not.

    Sara

  13. saradode says:

    Eric,

    I believe that you’re right in saying that God won’t “force us to take it” (what a different, but also rather dull, world it would be if that were the case!). But I do believe that God will wait (God’s got nothing but time), even long after death–although perhaps not forever.

    Sara

  14. saradode says:

    P.S. I should say that I don’t think it’s always a case of stubborn refusal. So many people have been programmed into believing that God has a strict set of rules and no tolerance for deviation from that (human-created, for the most part) set of rules, not to mention a nasty temper, that they simply don’t believe that there is any possibility that God can love them. They simply give up out of fear and unnecessary self-loathing.

    Again, I think that that was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, but that teaching was twisted in favor of doing what comes much more easily for many people–making judgments of their own, and then attributing those judgments to God in the name of “righteousness.” Look at Peter’s letters, for example.

    Sara

  15. Sara, I agree that He will work as long as there is the possibility of success; Jesus of course told stories that suggest this. And it may be that in the end, all will be won. I doubt it, for reasons beyond this thread, but I hope it is true.

    One model I have is of a suitor, a perfectly honorable young man, desperately is love with a particular young woman. He protests his love over and over, proposes marriage repeatedly. There is nothing “objectionable” about him, she simple refuses him. He has her welfare at heart, yada yada yada… but she refuses him over and over. He doesn’t care; he is willing to pursue her until the end of the world.

    At some point, we have to start calling him a stalker. At some point, if he truly loves and respects this woman, he must honor her choice, and walk away. Even if he knows it is the wrong choice, he must leave her with the freedom to make it.

    Maybe God will win all, but he must leave us the right to choose against Him.

    -Eric

  16. santitafarella says:

    Eric,

    Your analogy doesn’t work for me. The proper analogy, if there is a hell, is of a stalker who, on being rejected by a “foolish” woman, builds a torture dungeon for her to go to as punishment for her foolishness.

    Remember, if there is a hell that means that God MADE hell.

    —Santi

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