It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.
Main points for this lesson
Ask: How is revelation supposed to work?
D&C 8:2 Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.
D&C 9:7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right,
Answer: Members are expected to work out the problem themselves, and then decide if they feel spiritual about it.
If it’s right, you feel something like dyspepsia, and if it’s wrong, you feel dumb.
D&C 9:8 and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
From the manual:
Why does the Lord expect us to study matters out in our own minds before receiving revelation? (Answers could include that the Lord intends for us to be active, not passive, as we seek revelation from Him. He also expects us to use our agency. We grow as we use the gifts and resources He has provided to help us study matters out in our minds.)
In other words, you’re supposed to use your brain to solve the problem, but then you’re supposed to pretend that the answer came from God. That way, you do all the work, and God gets the credit. But you have an answer that you feel positive about. If it all blows up later, then you can pretend there was some sort of “greater purpose” for you getting it wrong.
This is a good time to review this video from Jeff Holland, in which he arrives at what he admits is an unambiguously wrong answer to prayer.
Ask: What was his explanation for why the Spirit told him to go in the wrong direction, on (in his words) “clearly the wrong road”? Answer: The Lord allowed him to go the wrong way for a while, so that he would know it was wrong.
Ask: How would you ever know if this method of getting answers didn’t work?
With this rationale, there would be absolutely no way to disconfirm this method. Either it gives right answers, or it gives wrong answers that are also right! Either your faith is strengthened, or your faith is strengthened more. This method is a closed circle.
This is also blind faith. An eye that responds the same to light and darkness is a blind eye. Faith that responds the same to confirmation and disconfirmation is blind faith.
Personal revelation in my life
I actually got my testimony of the church by praying about the Doctrine and Covenants, and not the Book of Mormon. I might be atypical in this regard.
I finished reading it, and when I was alone, I prayed to ask if it was true, being well aware of the feelings I was supposed to feel. And I really did! I remember feeling somewhat carried aloft by the swelling, pulsating sensations of the Spirit — or perhaps some other internal organ located near the chest area.
That experience kept me in that church for decades. As with the effect of homeopathic pills, it was never quite effective as it was on the first miraculous experience. But I was sold.
What didn’t occur to me until much later was that the consequences of not having that spiritual confirmation were too terrifying to contemplate. Parents wrong? Entire ontological system a myth? Future plans a waste of time? Setting myself against my family, friends, community, and entire support network? Brain said: Tell you what, endocrine system — it’s make-or-break time. Give him the buzz — he’s already worked up — and we can work out the rest later.
What was Oliver’s gift?
Here’s a rather cryptic passage from D&C 8, written to Oliver Cowdery.
D&C 8:5 Oh, remember these words, and keep my commandments. Remember, this is your gift.
6 Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;
7 Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.
Gift of Aaron?
Aaron was Moses’ brother, and his gift was the gift of gab. He did the talking while Moses did the revealing. But that’s not the gift here.
Aaron also had a rod (supposedly) that he could throw down on the ground and turn into a snake.
Exodus 7:9 When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.
7:10 And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.
7:11 Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.
7:12 For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.
Okay, now things are getting interesting! The association with the rod of Aaron is apt, but even now we’re not on the right track. The rod being referred to here is a dowsing rod.
I just want to give credit where credit is due: I never would have known this without the Joseph Smith Papers, which the LDS Church has published. Unlike some of the church essays, they’re not shy about publishing them online — or even linking to them from a story about Oliver Cowdery. Good on them for putting this out there, even though it’s a little… out there.
So let’s get to the good stuff. What about this rod? Here’s the link.
O remember these words & keep my commandments remember this is thy gift now this is not all for thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout
Well, the article is helpful again, because it has a footnote:
In preparing the text of Revelation Book 1 for publication, Sidney Rigdon replaced “sprout” with “rod.” Green, flexible shoots or rods cut from hazel, peach, or cherry trees were sometimes used as divining rods.
There you have it. Oliver was intended to use a divining rod. That makes the following passage make more sense:
D&C 8:8 Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.
9 And, therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, and you shall have knowledge concerning it.
What a shame, though — Oliver was rubbish at using it, especially to translate documents. How do you translate with a stick? Probably the same way you translate with a rock in a hat. I don’t know. Maybe that’s because divining rods are complete rubbish. People still use them to try to find water, but no one can do it under controlled conditions. They do try, though. And fail.
Ask: In this video, what evidence do people offer for dowsing? Answer: Anecdotes.
Ask: How do the dowsers respond when they fail? Answer: One man says that a mischievous prankster god is thwarting him for fun. One woman is shattered.
Dowsing is (or was) the most common form of paranormal claim that claimants brought before James Randi’s million dollar challenge. No one ever managed to demonstrate such an ability under controlled conditions.
However, frauds (like Joseph Smith) still try to use them to fleece the credulous. A man named James McCormick sold fake bomb detectors — which were just dowsing rods — to the Iraqi government for $60,000 a pop. They probably were responsible for deaths, as these useless devices were actually being used at checkpoints to detect bombs. McCormick was jailed.
Ask: What kinds of questions are Latter-day Saints encouraged to answer using this phoney method of personal revelation? Answer: The most important questions in life, including whom to marry, what to study, where to live, and what work to take.
Ask: What kind of trouble can someone get into for using fake intuitive methods to solve real problems?
To encourage separation of church and state, and to point out how, for religious people, misplaced concern bleeds over into contempt.
The story of this reading is the story of conflict between believers and unbelievers. How can we live peacefully among people with whom we have religious disagreements?
This has been on my mind lately, because I’m about to go on a big family visit, and just about all the rest of my family is still in the church. What to do?
My answer: Go, and have a great time, because that’s what we always do! Lucky for me, my family members aren’t a bunch of jerks. And I don’t mention the church unless someone asks. (Which some do.) Basically, it’s going to be AvoidFest 2016. That’s how we work it out, and yeah, there’s some distance, but at least we have some fun getting together, eating food, meeting young grand-nieces and -nephews, and never mentioning the church at all ever.
Main points of this lesson
How the Book of Mormon recommends dealing with non-believers
How does the Book of Mormon handle this? Let’s drop in on the Nephites, who are all one big group now. Mosiah’s reading them the records of Zeniff.
Mosiah 25:7 And now, when Mosiah had made an end of reading the records, his people who tarried in the land were struck with wonder and amazement.
25:8 For they knew not what to think; for when they beheld those that had been delivered out of bondage they were filled with exceedingly great joy.
25:9 And again, when they thought of their brethren who had been slain by the Lamanites they were filled with sorrow, and even shed many tears of sorrow.
25:10 And again, when they thought of the immediate goodness of God, and his power in delivering Alma and his brethren out of the hands of the Lamanites and of bondage, they did raise their voices and give thanks to God.
You’ll have to give them a minute here, people! It’s all a bit much.
Mosiah 25:11 And again, when they thought upon the Lamanites, who were their brethren, of their sinful and polluted state, they were filled with pain and anguish for the welfare of their souls.
Okay, well, now we have a problem. If my family decided to wail and moan over my “sinful and polluted state”, I’d tell them to get the hell over themselves and mind their own damn business (sorry for swears), because I’m actually doing quite well. I think everyone would be a lot better off if they could just chill the darn heck out over other people’s sins.
In the modern church, this spills over into a fear of contamination. When it comes to the truth about the church’s history, the church uses a disease and contagion metaphor to instill fear of outside information in its members. From the awful Boyd K. Packer:
“That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith – particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith – places himself in great spiritual jeopardy. He is serving the wrong master, and unless he repents, he will not be among the faithful in the eternities… Do not spread disease germs!” (Boyd K. Packer, 1981, BYU Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 259-271)
As the story continues, we find that there are some people among the Nephites who have the good sense not to believe the prevailing religious nonsense of their time.
Ask: How does the Book of Mormon depict non-believers?
Mosiah 26:1 Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers.
26:2 They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ.
26:3 And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.
26:4 And they would not be baptized; neither would they join the church. And they were a separate people as to their faith, and remained so ever after, even in their carnal and sinful state; for they would not call upon the Lord their God.
Answers: Hard-hearted, carnal, sinful. They “can’t understand the gospel”.
Ask: Have you been described this way by believers?
Ask: What could be the church’s purpose in slandering non-believers in this way?
To instill a fear of non-believers in the membership
To down-weight non-members as a source of information
To poison the well
Note that the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual grimly asserts:
Many Church members are led into sin by unbelievers.
Well, many church non-members are led into stupidity by church members!
As if all of this weren’t bad enough, the non-believers are hauled up before the priests and admonished for “sins” and “iniquities”.
Mosiah 26:5 And now in the reign of Mosiah they were not half so numerous as the people of God; but because of the dissensions among the brethren they became more numerous.
26:6 For it came to pass that they did deceive many with their flattering words, who were in the church, and did cause them to commit many sins; therefore it became expedient that those who committed sin, that were in the church, should be admonished by the church.
26:7 And it came to pass that they were brought before the priests, and delivered up unto the priests by the teachers; and the priests brought them before Alma, who was the high priest.
26:8 Now king Mosiah had given Alma the authority over the church.
26:9 And it came to pass that Alma did not know concerning them; but there were many witnesses against them; yea, the people stood and testified of their iniquity in abundance.
Imagine that you’re at home trying to get some iniquity done, and someone drags you from your place and throws you into a boring religious meeting to account for your actions! There, people accuse you of non-specific crimes of a religious nature.
You’d think this would ring some alarm bells for Alma, who saw Abinadi hauled up before a bunch of priests in similar fashion.
Anyway, Alma takes it to God, and God says, it’s chill: just kick them out of church, and I’ll burn them for eternity later.
Mosiah 26:25 And it shall come to pass that when the second trump shall sound then shall they that never knew me come forth and shall stand before me.
26:26 And then shall they know that I am the Lord their God, that I am their Redeemer; but they would not be redeemed.
26:27 And then I will confess unto them that I never knew them; and they shall depart into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Laws about religious persecution
King Mosiah lays down some laws preventing persecution.
Mosiah 27:1 And now it came to pass that the persecutions which were inflicted on the church by the unbelievers became so great that the church began to murmur, and complain to their leaders concerning the matter; and they did complain to Alma. And Alma laid the case before their king, Mosiah. And Mosiah consulted with his priests.
Again, note that the unbelievers are charged with some form of non-specific persecution. Probably just existing.
The LDS manual says this:
“Mosiah issues a proclamation forbidding believers and unbelievers from persecuting each other.”
Well, not from the text!
Mosiah 27:2 And it came to pass that king Mosiah sent a proclamation throughout the land round about that there should not any unbeliever persecute any of those who belonged to the church of God.
27:3 And there was a strict command throughout all the churches that there should be no persecutions among them, that there should be an equality among all men;
These verses state that
Unbelievers can’t persecute believers
Believers can’t persecute each other
Guess what’s missing.
Before we leave this section, let me say that I never noticed how puritanical and dictatorial this society is, and I find this astounding. This is not the kind of conduct that any society should aspire to. It’s more a product of Saudi Arabia or Iran. And yet, it’s presented to Mormons as normal.
Destroy the church
The rest of this reading concerns one Alma the Younger, son of Alma, and one of the unbelievers.
Mosiah 27:8 Now the sons of Mosiah were numbered among the unbelievers; and also one of the sons of Alma was numbered among them, he being called Alma, after his father; nevertheless, he became a very wicked and an idolatrous man. And he was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities.
You know what — I want to hear some of this flattery. I’m trying to imagine how I could flatter people so hard that they’d perform some iniquities.
Mosiah 27:9 And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them.
27:10 And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king —
Destroy the church? Surely this is a straw man, isn’t it? Apostates don’t want to destroy the church — they’re happy to live and let live, right?
Actually, no. I would dearly love to destroy the church. I want it reduced to atoms. Not through violence or anything like that — I want to destroy it through education.
It may be hard for members to understand why I oppose the LDS Church — and really all forms of religion, superstition, pseudoscience, and unreason. So I’ll tell a story.
One night, I was out in front of a phoney talk-to-the-dead medium event, handing out “Psychic Bingo” cards. (Yes, this is another thing I do.)
And I saw two women, presumably a woman and her daughter. The older one looked at me with a wearily concerned expression, and asked me, “Why do you care?”
I guess she’s tired of skeptics.
I responded, “Because I think people need to have good information when they’re making choices.” That’s true for phoney mystics of any stripe. People deserve informed consent, and that’s not something they get from the LDS Church. Instead, information about the church (the temple, the history, the underwear) is carefully dished out to those who “ought” to have it. When caught doing this, the church dissembles carefully.
But if you really want to know, here’s my top ten list: Why I want to destroy the church.
Because it teaches a false feel-good method for finding out what’s true, which makes it really difficult to find out what really is true using evidence
Because it teaches things that can’t be proven true, or that have already been proven false
Because it teaches a narrow sex-based view of morality which makes people feel ashamed of their bodies and desires
Because it interferes with marriage equality, and it has the blood of LGBT kids on its hands
Because it makes its members look down on those who don’t believe its nonsense
Because it tears families apart, just like Jesus said he would do
Because it whitewashes its history, and turns an adulterous con-man into the second-best thing next to Jesus
Because it charges its members for the pleasure of being lied to, and builds a multi-billion dollar empire with it
Because it absorbs the lives of its members in an endless chain of arbitrary moral commands, ceaseless admin duties, and time-wasting make-work, so they don’t have the time to think
Because it makes people devalue the only life we know we have, in the hopes of a better one later
Those are just the first ten I could think of. It wouldn’t be hard to do a hundred more, depending on how fine-grained I wanted to get. But you get the idea.
Ask: If you want to destroy the church, what are your reasons? Your list is welcome in comments.
Ask: Why might members say that ex-Mormons “can leave the church, but they can’t leave it alone”? Answer: It’s an attempt to silence ex-members, so that the only people giving information about the church is the church itself.
Ask: Does the church “leave people alone”? Answer: No. It sends out tens of thousands of missionaries every year to convert people, it indoctrinates children, and it enmeshes itself in legislation — in country after country — to strip LGBT people of the legal right to their marriage relationships.
A lot of people — even ex-Mormons – say that you haven’t really progressed until you can “move past it” and “leave it alone”. Well, I hope I never do. I hope I never get so blasé about human suffering or deception that I could ever just leave the LDS Church alone.
I feel like I’m watching the church collapse in real time, but I won’t be happy until it’s shrunken into a hard conservative rump, and then divested of its membership and converted into The Corporation of Latter-day Real Estate. I won’t be happy until every chapel is a community centre, and every temple is either a library or a bookstore, one of those nice ones where you can sit down and read and have a coffee.
Mosiah 27:11 And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood;
27:12 And so great was their astonishment, that they fell to the earth, and understood not the words which he spake unto them.
27:19 And now the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands; therefore he was taken by those that were with him, and carried helpless, even until he was laid before his father.
27:20 And they rehearsed unto his father all that had happened unto them; and his father rejoiced, for he knew that it was the power of God.
27:23 And it came to pass after they had fasted and prayed for the space of two days and two nights, the limbs of Alma received their strength, and he stood up and began to speak unto them, bidding them to be of good comfort:
27:24 For, said he, I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.
From then on, they begin preaching. And why?
Mosiah 28:2 That perhaps they might bring them to the knowledge of the Lord their God, and convince them of the iniquity of their fathers; and that perhaps they might cure them of their hatred towards the Nephites, that they might also be brought to rejoice in the Lord their God, that they might become friendly to one another, and that there should be no more contentions in all the land which the Lord their God had given them.
28:3 Now they were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.
Again, it’s all very nice of people to be concerned for my welfare. But if you believe that God is going to torture me forever — as the Book of Mormon clearly says — then this is your problem, not mine. And if you’ve decided to worship a being that would do that… then frankly, I’m concerned for you.
Your conclusions make sense in view of your beliefs. But it’s your beliefs that are the problem.
Additional lesson ideas
Oh boy, chiasmus! When apologists discovered this little angle in the 1970s, they thought they’d hit the freaking jackpot. A heretofore unknown form of Hebraic poetry, but one that appears in the Book of Mormon.
Chiasmus is a fairly simple way of structuring information. You give a bunch of items, and then give them again in reverse order. Isaiah (or “Isaiah”) does this.
There you have it: Joseph Smith didn’t know about Hebrew poetry, since he was but a simple and uneducated (?) farm boy who didn’t never get no larnin’. But there chiasmus is, in the Book of Mormon. So surely this must be evidence of its Hebraic origins!
Well, not exactly. In the case of Alma 36, you have to ignore an awful lot of text to get the chiasm to work out properly. Check out Earl Wunderli’s critique in Dialogue.
The existence of extended chiasmus in the Book of Mormon seems far from proved by Alma 36. While the inverted parallelism developed by Welch is impressive on first reading, on closer analysis it is Welch’s creativity that is most notable. By following flexible rules, he has fashioned a chiasm by selecting elements from repetitious language, creatively labeling elements, ignoring text, pairing unbalanced elements, and even including asymmetrical elements.
And more to the point, chiasmus was known and used by authors of Joseph Smith’s time. Here’s an equally elaborate example used in The Late War, a book of history retold in Biblical style, which bears a strong resemblance to the Book of Mormon.
The fact is, chiasmus appears naturally in all kinds of places. It’s not even hard to make a chiastic paragraph. It’s just writing things in one order, and then writing them again in reverse order. In fact, in this very paragraph, I made some chiasmus myself. It’s not rocket science. Chiasmus is a natural way of ordering information, and that’s a fact.
To encourage readers to question the morality of the material in the Book of Mormon.
In our last reading, Nephi saw his father’s vision of the Tree of Life. But would you believe it, Nephi one-ups his father by getting special bonus content! (It’s almost like Nephi was trying to make himself look good in this narrative.)
This director’s-cut version of Nephi’s vision contains prophecies of future events that, by sheer coincidence, had already happened by Joseph Smith’s time. And nothing that happened after. And that’s the big lesson of prophecy:
If they succeed, either they were’
extremely vague, or
written after the fact.
Not only that, but isn’t it curious that prophecies given by God — a being so trancendental that he’s outside of space and time — reflect in precise detail the kind of knowledge, opinions, and prejudices held by people of the time? We’ll see an example of this in this lesson.
The Book of Mormon is the story of people who (allegedly) came from the Middle East, started a civilisation, clashed in a series of wars — and left no physical traces.
They didn’t even leave any DNA — Native Americans are the descendents of Asians, and not Middle Easterners.
But in Nephi’s vision, the angel tells him that his ‘seed’ — his physical progeny — will be numerous.
1 Nephi 12:1 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Look, and behold thy seed, and also the seed of thy brethren. And I looked and beheld the land of promise; and I beheld multitudes of people, yea, even as it were in number as many as the sand of the sea.
12:2 And it came to pass that I beheld multitudes gathered together to battle, one against the other; and I beheld wars, and rumors of wars, and great slaughters with the sword among my people.
12:3 And it came to pass that I beheld many generations pass away, after the manner of wars and contentions in the land; and I beheld many cities, yea, even that I did not number them.
So why can’t we find anyone in the Americas with Middle Eastern DNA?
This is a huge issue in Mormonism, and I’m only going to touch lightly on it here. But we’re going to be delving into it more deeply in future lessons.
Dark and filthy vs. white and beautiful
Nephi sees that Laman and Lemuel’s progeny are dark, loathsome, and filthy…
1 Nephi 12:23 And it came to pass that I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.
whereas white people are beautiful.
1 Nephi 13:15 And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.
Brian Dalton — aka Mr Deity — rightly calls out Mormonism for this racist doctrine.
In recent years, the LDS Church has tried to tamp down this idea, but they’ll never be able to completely disavow the racism in its foundational document. The idea that dark skin could be a punishment for sin is at the heart of the Book of Mormon. The only way to purge racism from the church is for it to disavow the Book of Mormon completely. And that’s not going to happen.
Main ideas for this lesson
The Great and Abominable Church
Nephi sees something curious — the formation of the G&A.
1 Nephi 13:4 And it came to pass that I saw among the nations of the Gentiles the formation of a great church,
13:5 And the angel said unto me: Behold the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches, which slayeth the saints of God, yea, and tortureth them and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity.
13:6 And it came to pass that I beheld this great and abominable church; and I saw the devil that he was the founder of it.
Its founder is the devil.
1 Nephi 14:9 And it came to pass that he said unto me: Look, and behold that great and abominable church, which is the mother of abominations, whose founder is the devil.
14:10 And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.
As a Mormon, I tried to make sense of what exactly the G&A was, but I was confused by the hopelessly contradictory descriptions. Was it a specific church? or just some kind of generalised ‘evil church’?
“The Roman Catholic, Greek, and Protestant church is the great corrupt ecclesiastic power, represented by great Babylon which has made all nations drunk with her wickedness, and she must fall, after she has been warned with the sound of the everlasting gospel. Her overthrow will be by a series of the most terrible judgments which will quickly succeed each other, and sweep over the nations where she has her dominion, and at last she will be utterly burned by fire, for thus hath the Lord spoken. Great, and fearful, and most terrible judgments are decreed upon these corrupt powers, the nations of modern Christendom; for strong is the Lord God who shall execute His fierce wrath upon them, and He will not cease until He has made a full end, and until their names be blotted out from under heaven.”
– Apostle Orson Pratt, Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, p.84 – p.85
“It is also to the Book of Mormon to which we turn for the plainest description of the Catholic Church as the great and abominable church. Nephi saw this ‘church which is the most abominable above all other churches’ in vision. He ‘saw the devil that he was the foundation of it’ and also the murders, wealth, harlotry, persecutions, and evil desires that historically have been a part of this satanic organization. (1 Nephi 13:1-10)”
– Mormon Doctrine, p. 130 (1958)
“Harlots. See Church of the Devil, Sex Immorality.
Literally a harlot is a prostitute; figuratively it is any apostate church. Nephi, speaking of harlots in the literal sense and while giving a prophetic description of the Catholic Church, recorded that he ‘saw the devil that he was the foundation of it.‘ … Then speaking of harlots in the figurative sense, he designated the Catholic Church as ‘the mother of harlots’ (1 Nephi 13:34; 14:15-17), a title which means that the protestant churches, the harlot daughters which broke off from the great and abominable church, would themselves be apostate churches.”
– Mormon Doctrine, pp. 314-315 (1958)
I asked McConkie why, in fact, his reference to the Roman Catholic Church as the “Church of the Devil” had been removed from the 2nd edition of his book, Mormon Doctrine.
McConkie insisted to me that it was excised not because it was not doctrinally sound but because it was too difficult for people to accept.
Which brings us up to the present definition of the Church of the Devil: It’s everything
Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “The titles church of the devil and great and abominable church are used to identify all churches or organizations of what- ever name or nature—whether political, philosophical, educational, economic, social, fraternal, civic, or religious—which are designed to take men on a course that leads away from God and his laws and thus from salvation in the kingdom of God” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. , 137–38).
It’s Protestantism, it’s Catholicism, it’s Communism, it’s secularism — everything that isn’t Mormon is the church of the devil. Which stretches the definition of church, wouldn’t you say? By including everything, Mormons make this scripture meaningless.
The colonization of the Americas
If the last part of this reading is disturbing, this part of the Book of Mormon should have alarm bells ringing for anyone with a social conscience.
1 Nephi 13:10 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld many waters; and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren.
13:11 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren.
13:12 And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.
The spirit of God wrought upon Columbus? Let’s see about the kind of people that the Holy Ghost liks to hang out with.
Columbus’ rule in Hispaniola was tyrannical and cruel. Unruly colonists were summarily executed and natives were either sold into slavery or worked to death. The death rate for natives under his rule was 80-90%, punishments including cutting off of hands, nose, tongue and ears. Dismembered bodies were regularly paraded about the colony to deter the rebellious. In 1500 he was sent back to Spain in chains for trial under allegations of genocide and cruelty. He was widely hated by both the natives and the natives, however today he is celebrated.
Columbus was a religious maniac and used to justify a litany of cruel and savage practices. He saw conversion to Christianity as the main purpose for his mission, yet freely denied natives baptism so as to sell them into slavery. Towards the end of his life he wrote the ‘Book of Prophecies’ in which he claimed his own role in the discovery of the new world had bee prophesied by the Bible. He also outlined some events that would occur, such as the whole world being converted to Christianity, the last Crusade to the Holy Land to finally defeat Muslim rule, that King Ferdinand of Spain would become the Last World Emperor. In the end, Columbus was a corrupted, disease-ridden and more than a little deluded.
Mormons think that the Holy Ghost is offended if you say “damn” and “hell”, but Columbus gets a pass.
What, then, do we know of the real Columbus? What were his motives in pursuing his world-changing enterprise? Perhaps the greatest motivating feature of his life was his faith. His writings and the records kept by his contemporaries indicate that Columbus had unshakable faith that he was an instrument in God’s hands.
And, indeed, the Book of Mormon affirms that he was.
We interpret that to refer to Columbus. It is interesting to note that the Spirit of God wrought upon him. After reading that long biography, a Pulitzer winner of forty years ago, titled Admiral of the Ocean Sea—I have no doubt that Christopher Columbus was a man of faith, as well as a man of indomitable determination.
I recognize that in this anniversary year a host of critics have spoken out against him. I do not dispute that there were others who came to this Western Hemisphere before him. But it was he who in faith lighted a lamp to look for a new way to China and who in the process discovered America. His was an awesome undertaking—to sail west across the unknown seas farther than any before him of his generation. He it was who, in spite of the terror of the unknown and the complaints and near mutiny of his crew, sailed on with frequent prayers to the Almighty for guidance. In his reports to the sovereigns of Spain, Columbus repeatedly asserted that his voyage was for the glory of God and the spread of the Christian faith. Properly do we honor him for his unyielding strength in the face of uncertainty and danger.
Let’s face it: the LDS Church doesn’t hesitate to stand up for one of the worst and most cruel people that Europe has produced.
Nephi sees the American Revolutionary War.
1 Nephi 13:16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them.
13:17 And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them.
13:18 And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.
13:19 And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.
This seems as good a place as any to mention one of the probable sources of inspiration for whoever wrote the Book of Mormon: The Late War.
The Late War is a history of the USA, written in a high-flown scriptural style. (Sound familiar?) It contains — dare I say — a number of 4-grams (4 words in a row) that match the Book of Mormon (though see here for some criticism).
The interesting thing about the Late War is that telling stories in biblical style was a thing. Try reading some, and see if it doesn’t match the Book of Mormon for tone.
Again, notice that Nephi’s prophecy runs right up to Joseph Smith’s time, and stops. It seems prophets can only see the past.
Additional lesson ideas
True to the Faith, a currently used “correlated” booklet, summarizes the Great Apostasy this way:
“After the deaths of the Savior and His Apostles, men corrupted the principles of the gospel and made unauthorized changes in Church organization and priesthood ordinances. Because of this widespread wickedness, the Lord withdrew the authority of the priesthood from the earth. During the Great Apostasy, people were without divine direction from living prophets.
This would be a weird way for a god to do something. After working to build his church, god decided to give a big middle finger to humanity and sit around for a few centuries.
Heavenly Father was apparently content to let generation after generation pass away without access to true knowledge regarding himself or the authority and rituals his alleged children require to return to him. Now he is super concerned with trying to get the word out?
Disbelief is not dwindling.
To finish out this lesson, I’d like to address a theme we’ve seen a few times already, even in the short readings we’ve done. I’d like to point out the word dwindle, and how believers use it to describe the unbelieving.
1 Nephi 4:13 Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.
1 Nephi 12:23 And it came to pass that I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.
What’s all this about dwindling in unbelief?
I had an LDS friend ask me about this once. She knew I didn’t believe, and she was concerned. After all, if you’ve ben told over and over again that disbelief is a prerequisite to dwindling, you might be scoping out the unbelievers you know for signs of dwindling!
So she asked me hesitantly, “Are you okay? and happy in your life and your beliefs?”
I responded, “Yes. I’m fine.
“I’m living a good, happy, ethical life as an unbeliever.”
It’s true. I’m someone who has left the church, and is doing better than ever. I’m flourishing in unbelief. Sure, I know some people who haven’t done so well, and the church was barely enough to keep them (unhappily) in check. But there’s no reason why a reasonably smart person with an internalised moral code needs a cage.
My poor friend, who’d been conditioned by the church to worry about me. How unnecessary. What a burden for our Mormon friends.
I want to say that we should show our LDS friends how well we’re doing after Mormonism, but that isn’t quite right either. I don’t want to put on a display and become an ad for my ideology — that was for then. Some of us aren’t doing well. And some of us avoid saying so to our LDS friends and family because we don’t want to prove them right. Aha! — we told you you’d dwindle.
What’s the answer?
I think the best thing is to be how you are. If you’re flourishing in unbelief, then it could be instructive for members. And if you’re dwindling, don’t go to great lengths to not show it, and be sure to ask for help from understanding people when needed. All of us can dwindle from time to time, belief or no belief.
To encourage a more helpful view of the world than Mormon theology allows
For this lesson, we’re getting into Nephi’s analogy of the Tree of Life — a big white tree that makes you happy when you eat its fruit. (It’s not drugs, apparently.)
But the real message of the tree is that there’s only one place to be, and only one way to get there. This fits in well with the current message of the church, which pretty much amounts to “stay in the church”. And when your organisation just says “stay in the organisation”, that means the organisation is entirely superfluous.
Main ideas for this lesson
Origins of the Tree of Life story
Members of the church make a big deal about how Joseph Smith couldn’t have cranked out the Book of Mormon himself in such a short time. Well, he didn’t have a short time. You know what they say: You have your whole life to write your first book.
And so it is here. It seems that Smith borrowed the Tree of Life analogy from a story his dad used to tell. Here’s the story as his mother told it in her book History of Joseph Smith by His Mother.
In 1811, we moved from Royalton, Vermont, to the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire. Soon after arriving here, my husband received another very singular vision, which I will relate:
“I thought,” said he, “I was traveling in an open, desolate field, which appeared to be very barren. As I was thus traveling, the thought suddenly came into my mind that I had better stop and reflect upon what I was doing, before I went any further. So I asked myself, ‘What motive can I have in traveling here, and what place can this be?’ My guide, who was by my side, as before, said, ‘This is the desolate world; but travel on.’ The road was so broad and barren that I wondered why I should travel in it; for, said I to myself, ‘Broad is the road, and wide is the gate that leads to death, and many there be that walk therein; but narrow is the way, and straight is the gate that leads to everlasting’ life, and few there be that go in thereat.’
Traveling a short distance farther, I came to a narrow path. This path I entered, and, when I had traveled a little way in it, I beheld a beautiful stream of water, which ran from the east to the west. Of this stream I could see neither the source nor yet the termination; but as far as my eyes could extend I could see a rope running along the bank of it, about as high as a man could reach, and beyond me was a low, but very pleasant valley, in which stood a tree such as I had never seen before. It was exceedingly handsome, insomuch that I looked upon it with wonder and admiration. Its beautiful branches spread themselves somewhat like an umbrella, and it bore a kind of fruit, in shape much like a chestnut bur, and as white as snow, or, if possible whiter. I gazed upon the same with considerable interest, and as I was doing so the burs or shells commenced opening and shedding their particles, or the fruit which they contained, which was of dazzling whiteness. I drew near and began to eat of it, and I found it delicious beyond description. As I was eating, I said in my heart, ‘I can not eat this alone, I must bring my wife and children, that they may partake with me.’ Accordingly, I went and brought my family, which consisted of a wife and seven children, and we all commenced eating, and praising God for this blessing. We were exceedingly happy, insomuch that our joy could not easily be expressed.
While thus engaged, I beheld a spacious building standing opposite the valley which we were in, and it appeared to reach to the very heavens. It was full of doors and windows, and they were filled with people, who were very finely dressed. When these people observed us in the low valley, under the tree, they pointed the finger of scorn at us, and treated us with all manner of disrespect and contempt. But their contumely we utterly disregarded.
I presently turned to my guide, and inquired of him the meaning of the fruit that was so delicious. He told me it was the pure love of God, shed abroad in the hearts of all those who love him, and keep his commandments. He then commanded me to go and bring the rest of my children. I told him that we were all there. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘look yonder, you have two more, and you must bring them also.’ Upon raising my eyes, I saw two small children, standing some distance off. I immediately went to them, and brought them to the tree; upon which they commenced eating with the rest, and we all rejoiced together. The more we ate, the more we seemed to desire, until we even got down upon our knees, and scooped it up, eating it by double handfuls.
After feasting in this manner a short time, I asked my guide what was the meaning of the spacious building which I saw. He replied, ‘It is Babylon, it is Babylon, and it must fall. The people in the doors and windows are the inhabitants thereof, who scorn and despise the Saints of God because of their humility.’
I soon awoke, clapping my hands together for joy.”
Anyone familiar with the contents of this Book of Mormon reading will recognise all the salient elements of the Tree of Life story, which Joseph absorbed and repackaged into his own narrative. It seems that Joseph Smith wasn’t the only creative one in the family.
Elements of the story
I’m going to pull the important bits of the story out, and maybe give some ideas about how they contribute to Mormon thinking.
The dark and dreary waste
Lehi starts the story.
1 Nephi 8:5 And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
8:6 And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.
8:7 And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.
No clue from the manual as to what this is supposed to be, but I suppose it’s the world. Believers need everyone to think the world is an awful and unfulfilling place without their bullshit.
The tree of life and its fruit
1 Nephi 8:10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.
8:11 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
Notice that, in this story, there’s only one place to be if you want to be happy: near the tree. In the same way, Latter-day Saints seem to think there’s only one place to be if you want to be happy: stuck in boring meetings for three hours on a Sunday.
The rod of iron
1 Nephi 8:19 And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.
Not only is there only one place to be, there’s only one way to get there: a cold, hard iron bar. You have to hold onto the bar and never let go, if you want to get to the tree.
Ask: What’s wrong with this picture? Answer: We live in an amazing world, with many options open to us. There are many ways to live and be happy, and they don’t all involve undeviating obedience.
In fact, undeviating obedience is way more likely to lead to committing atrocities than thinking for yourself is.
The river of filthy water, the mist of darkness, and the great and spacious building
The story continues:
1 Nephi 8:21 And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood.
8:22 And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree.
8:23 And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
8:24 And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
8:25 And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.
8:26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
8:27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
8:28 And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
8:31 And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building.
8:32 And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads.
8:33 And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not.
Boy, the world sure seems like a dangerous place, doesn’t it? And if you let go of that rod for a split second, you could get drowned in a fountain.
This part of the story contributes to a “scary external world” narrative, which keeps many believers from venturing very far outside the confines of the faith.
Notice also that in this lesson, the church is attempting to inoculate its members against criticism and scorn.
I admit it’s not very nice to make fun of people. On the other hand, I think making fun of beliefs and ideas is perfectly acceptable. Ridicule doesn’t harm true ideas, but it’s lethal to false ones, which is why people with false beliefs are incredibly touchy about mockery and ridicule.
Ask: If you’ve been in a science class, did the lecturer warn you that people would mock and ridicule you for accepting a certain scientific idea? Answer: Such a warning is unnecessary for factual ideas that are demonstrably true. If someone did try to ridicule you for accepting a fact, it would be sufficient to display the evidence for that fact, and then let that person do what they want with that information. But for beliefs that have no evidentiary basis, this is impossible, which is why believers typically resort to an appeal to faith as a fallback position.
People in the story
So the LDS lesson manual mentions four kinds of people in the story:
a. 1 Nephi 8:21–23. (Those who start on the path but then become lost in the mist of darkness.)
Not very high achievers, are they? All they had to do was keep hold of that rod, and they couldn’t. Sheesh.
b. 1 Nephi 8:24–28. (Those who hold to the rod of iron until they reach the tree and partake of the fruit, but then become ashamed and fall away.)
Ah — they succumbed to peer pressure. Losers.
c. 1 Nephi 8:30. (Those who hold to the rod of iron until they reach the tree and partake of the fruit, and who then remain faithful.)
Those brave and stalwart individuals who stayed in the boat. And how did they manage it? By ignoring people with contrary opinions.
d. 1 Nephi 8:31–33. (Those who never start on the path but instead go directly toward the great and spacious building.)
So one group ends up believing, and three don’t. There’s something I want to point out about the three groups: They’re all people who succumbed to less-than-worthy motivators, whether apathy, or insufficient stamina, or social pressure. No one ever lets go for a worthwhile reason, like the fact that the iron rod isn’t really going anywhere, or the fruit of the Tree of Life is kind of meh. And what with all the scriptural editing, uncredited essays, and apologetic double-talk in the church today, the iron rod isn’t as firm as it used to be. It’s more like a steel slinky.
Which leads me to a conclusion. All the church knows how to do is devalue the life choices of people who don’t stay in the church. You can blame them or feel pity for them, but in this story, there’s no way to see their choices as valid.
How is a Mormon supposed to respect non-members or ex-members? How is a believer supposed to regard an ex-Mormon partner? How does this story help to build relationships? Or really, to do anything besides keep Mormons in their seats every Sunday?
There is one good thing in the manual, however.
Encourage class members to strengthen each other and to never mock or belittle others.
Hey, that’s fair. If we’re doing that, we need to knock it off. Ideas are fair game, but people deserve respect. That also goes for people who stay Mormon. We may not think it’s a good decision, but we don’t always know their motivations or their situation. Who knows — maybe something could have been different for me, and then I’d still be there.
A better story
Here’s my try at writing a better analogy. It’s more reflective of reality as I see it. From the Book of Daniel (Midgley), chapter 1.
And it came to pass that I saw a world, and this world had treasures wondrous to behold.
There was knowledge to gain, and work to be done.
There were books to read and stories to tell.
There was treasure.
What’s that game where you slash around in the grass and find gems? Is it Zelda?
It was like Zelda.
There was food and people and music and art and love.
There were a lot of dangerous animals and there was disease.
For a lot of people, things sucked pretty much all the time.
But fixing that was part of the work to be done.
Oh, yeah, and there was coffee, too.
And it came to pass that into this land there came a group, all huddled together, with a huge muslin sheet over them.
The Sheet kept them together in a group, like a great amoeba or something.
The Sheet blocked out the light, and kept them from seeing the things in their world as well as they might.
For those closest to the centre, it obstructed their view entirely.
God, were they sensitive about the unkind comments people made about the Sheet; but in fairness, they looked frigging ridiculous under that thing.
And it looked hot and uncomfortable.
But they did not mind being under the Sheet because they felt it was safer then being outside.
Their leaders told them what life was like outside, and their descriptions of the dangers was enough to keep them under the Sheet.
Being under the Sheet made them feel special, like a community.
And some said that they could not imagine life without the Sheet.
And some were not sure about the this whole Sheet thing, but that the Sheet was a part of their identity, and they’d been under the Sheet for this long, so.
And it came to pass that some of them would venture out in pairs to convince others to join them under the enormous Sheet, and some would join them.
And it came to pass that in the course of time, I saw more and more people venture out from underneath the Sheet.
They had seen that the world outside the Sheet had more treasures than they’d been able to imagine, and that life under that Sheet involved a lot of unnecessary crap.
Especially not having coffee.
But when they returned to tell others about life without the Sheet, they found themselves ignored by their erstwhile fellow Sheet-mates.
And it came to pass that Sheet-mates was not intended as some kind of sexual euphemism.
And sometimes they were cut off from their families and partners (who really had been Sheet-mates) and these were the saddest of all.
And it came to pass that some of the People of the Sheet were happy, and some were miserable.
And some of the people outside the Sheet were happy.
And some were miserable.
A fact which the People of the Sheet harped on endlessly.
But sometimes not being under a Sheet is like that.
And the people outside the Sheet ended up, not in one place, but across the whole face of the land, since that was where the action is.
And as the people discovered things about their world, they called unto each other, and shared their discoveries, and used their knowledge to discover more.
And there were many ways to live, and many places to be, and all chose their way as best they could.
Additional lesson ideas
Is Jesus the Father?
The first edition of the Book of Mormon contained these verses:
1 Nephi 11:18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh.
… 11:21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
… 11:32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
In current editions, the text of these verses has been changed to read:
1 Nephi 11:18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
11:21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
11:32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
It’s a change that goes quite a bit beyond a simple textual edit, and shows that the Book of Mormon was Mormonism v1. Even so, sometimes Mormons double down on this, insisting that Jesus is the Father, if you redefine ‘father’. (Redefining words is the last refuge of a scoundrel.)
• Christ is sometimes called Father because of his role as Creator from the beginning
• Jesus Christ is also known as Father through the spiritual rebirth of mankind (see Born of God). As the foreordained Redeemer, he became the “author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him”
• Furthermore, Jesus is called Father because of the authority God gave him to act for the Father.
So Jesus is the Father, but only when he’s acting as the Father. Unless he’s also the Creator or the Saviour, which is all the time. Totally not confusing.
Sometimes the Savior has spoken both as the Father (Elohim) and as the Son (Jesus) in the same revelation
Because the writer got confused.
At this point, I tap out. It’s like arguing about the Force v Midichlorians with Star Wars nerds. Mormons are basically making their Godhead indistinguishable from the Trinity, so I hope they have fun with that.
To encourage readers to live this life, instead of following a false hope for a better one.
Here we see Paul’s words to the Ephesians. This lesson is kind of a quick flyover of two terrible things God apparently didn’t have a problem with: misogyny and slavery.
Paul also mentions two issues that have divided Christianity for centuries. The first one is predestination vs. free will.
Eph. 1:4 According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: 1:5 Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,
If Paul doesn’t believe that God chose some people to be Christians and to hell with everyone else, then he sure sounds like he believes it. Or perhaps he’s just getting more creative in his explanations for why people don’t believe him. He used to say they were wicked and blind. Now he’s softened that a bit — it’s just that God didn’t choose those people.
The second divisive issue is faith vs. works.
Eph. 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 2:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
As an atheist, these are two things that I no longer have to pay any attention to, and this alone is worth becoming an atheist. I’m serious. Believers pull up Pascal’s Wager on me, and it usually goes like this:
Believer: If you believe and you’re wrong, you lose nothing. But if you don’t believe and you’re wrong, you lose everything. Me: Yeah, but if you believe, then you have to waste years of your life sorting out absurd and unclear ideas like predestination and faith vs works. And wouldn’t it be worth an eternity of torture not having to think about that stuff? Believer: You’re right. Torture would be much better. I’ve decided to become an atheist now.
Main ideas for this lesson
Is there hope in atheism?
Paul thought that being an atheist was the worst thing in the world.
Eph. 2:11 Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; 2:12 That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:
The Greek word used for “without God” is ἄθεοι (a-theoi), which is etymologically identical to atheist. What do you know — atheism appears in the Bible.
Ask: Is Paul making an accurate characterisation of atheists as ‘having no hope’?
Well, hope in what? If you want hope in angels coming down and helping you on your exams, of sailing up into the clouds to meet Jesus while the rest of doomed humanity dies horribly, or of living forever, then no, atheism doesn’t offer that kind of hope. But considering that these are false hopes — well, I think I could do without that kind of hope, couldn’t you? And while trying to maintain those hopes might seem comforting, there’s ultimately not much utility in believing them.
Sam Harris made a good point at the Global Atheist Con of 2012.
At about 11:30
We are locked in the present moment with our thoughts and our iPads. So what does atheism have to offer people in this circumstance? People like ourselves and people more fearful and self-deceived than us — a great body of humanity that recoils at the mere suggestion that a first century carpenter may not be able to hear their thoughts, much less answer their prayers. Well, atheism as mere disbelief in God, doesn’t have much to offer. It’s a corrective to a whole raft of bad ideas, but it doesn’t put anything in place of bad ideas. It’s a necessary corrective, but what what fills the void is science, and art, and philosophy. Atheism is just a way of clearing the space for better conversations, and the problem we face, of course, is a problem of convincing the better part of humanity to have those better conversations.
As for me, my “better conversations” include discussing language with my students, news and (occasionally) philosophy with my friends, life experiences with my sons, and having a wonderful life full of love with my wife. These things are what feed us.
The danger of accepting a false promise of eternity is that it could make us miss this life, the only life we’re sure we’re going to get.
We’ve already treated Paul’s misogyny in a previous lesson. Paul continues the theme here.
Eph. 5:22Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 5:24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
As a believer, I tried to ignore these verses. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who don’t ignore them. For them, these are God’s pattern for how women should act. Here’s a report of a sermon from Marc Driscoll, the former pastor of Mars Hill.
Read with me in Ephesians 5:22–33. We’re just going to read it and then talk about it. “Wives” — what’s the word, ladies? Boy, it didn’t take long, did it? One woman quietly said, “Submit.” So, not arousing, enthusiastic, joy-filled response. “Wives, submit.” “What does that mean in the Greek, Pastor Mark?” You can always tell a rebellious Evangelical. They do word studies. They try to go to the Greek and figure out if it perhaps means something else. I’ll just read, OK. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the” — men, what’s it say? — “head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything” — seems like a lot — “to their husbands.
I have a better idea — let’s have partners be partners, instead of trying to force everyone into a preordained mold.
Eph. 6:5Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; 6:6 Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;
But why would Christianity be against slavery, when it really is a desperate desire to become an eternal slave? Christopher Hitchens points out the connection.
It would have been easy for a god to say, “Don’t have slaves.” Especially when you consider all the other stuff he prohibited.
It’s an easy moral decision. Yet the Bible muffs it. This is why I say that the Bible should be disqualified from being considered a good source for moral instruction. Any book that condones slavery has pretty much forfeited this claim.
Additional lesson ideas
The prince of the power of the air
Paul held to a then-prevalent belief that the devil had control of the air.
Eph. 2:2 Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience:
Silly Paul; everyone knows the devil actually has control over the water.
During the Middle Ages this doctrine of the diabolical origin of storms went on gathering strength. Bede had full faith in it, and narrates various anecdotes in support of it. St. Thomas Aquinas gave it his sanction, saying in his all authoritative _Summa_, “Rains and winds, and whatsoever occurs by local impulse alone, can be caused by demons.” “It is,” he says, “a dogma of faith that the demons can produce wind, storms, and rain of fire from heaven.”
So it seems that Satan has control over air and water. Fire would also seem to be in his court. Looks like earth is the only safe element left.
To encourage readers to be charitable toward those with whom we disagree.
Paul’s back for another go at the Corinthians.
Main ideas for this lesson
Does prayer help?
Paul starts off by thanking the Corinthians for their prayers.
2 Corinthians 1:11 Ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf.
Here’s some explanation from the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual:
Paul thanked the Saints who had prayed for him and Timothy in their time of adversity (2 Corinthians 1:11). Why is it important for us to pray for each other? How have the prayers of others blessed you or someone you know? How are we blessed when we pray for others?
Presumably, God knows what everyone needs. Yet he needs to be constantly reminded who needs help. So either he doesn’t remember whom to bless, or he know and he doesn’t care to do it until enough people beg him.
I made a cartoon on this topic. At the time, I was thinking of how strange it was that Mormons would not only pray for someone, but — if you needed to bring out the big guns — write down someone’s name and put it in a temple. What’s the difference? Why would one work better than the other? It’s a question I still wonder about.
Ask: Why don’t some people believe in God or Jesus or the church? Possible answers:
They find that there’s no evidence for the claims.
They tried it, but didn’t like it.
Thy didn’t think it was relevant for their life.
There may be any number of valid reasons not to believe. But not in Paul’s world. For Paul, if someone doesn’t believe, they are blind.
2 Corinthians 3:12 Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech:
3:13 And not as Moses, which put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished:
3:14 But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same veil untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which veil is done away in Christ.
3:15 But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart.
3:16 Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away.
It’s even worse than that. They may be affected by Satan, the “god of this world”.
2 Corinthians 4:3But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:
4:4 In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.
This is a really unhelpful and disrespectful way of reasoning.
It might come as a surprise that I should say this, when I have an entire blog (or two) devoted to pillorying religious belief. How can I talk about respecting belief?
It’s like this: there are beliefs, and there are people. People should be respected, but beliefs need to be examined without mercy.
Religious people often conflate the two. They think I’m being disrespectful to them when what I’m really doing is speaking out against the belief. That usually means they’ve identified too closely with their beliefs. They’ve essentially traded their own goals and identity for that of the religion. At times, this demand for respect is an attempt to silence opposition.
To sum up, I draw a distinction between ideas and people. So notice the difference:
When I say that someone is wrong on religion, I’m saying the ideas are wrong, and they are mistaken.
When Paul says that someone is wrong on religion, they are somehow under satanic agency.
In this situation, how can a believing Mormon respect their spouse who no longer believes, when their views are considered not only wrong, but somehow evil? How can a parent have a relationship with a child who sees no need for the religion under these circumstances?
Ask: If you are an unbeliever, how can you do better than Paul did? Answers:
We can see believers as good people with whom we disagree.
We can refrain from saying that believers are stupid, remembering that we weren’t stupid when we believed. We just relied on some very human forms of reasoning. We wanted to defend our beliefs — we were told over and over again that beliefs must be defended.
Paul’s accusation of others as blind is particularly galling when he admits that his own approach is to walk by faith, and not by sight.
2 Corinthians 5:6 Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord:
5:7 (For we walk by faith, not by sight🙂
And to make it worse, he puts a smiley after it. Full points for being on the cutting edge of online trends, but really, Paul.
It gets even worse. Paul advises against having relationships with unbelievers.
2 Corinthians 6:14Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?
6:15 And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?
Ask: What does Paul’s final question mean in modern English: “What part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” Answer: It might mean something like “What agreement can they have? How can they have any common ground?”
Isn’t it telling that religious beliefs make it difficult to find common ground? Paul can’t imagine how it could be done. Fake belief systems cause division.
This kind of separation is absolutely necessary to maintain the fragile bubble of faith. When a belief has no evidentiary support, it’s difficult to keep believing it, and it needs a carefully controlled environment to maintain it. Merely speaking against it can be enough to make that bubble pop. This is why believers are so touchy about criticism of their beliefs. They know the belief can’t sustain scrutiny, and they’re trying very hard to keep that bubble.
I have found that, while it can be difficult relating to someone on the opposite side of a faith divide, it’s much easier from the unbelieving side. I think they’re wasting their time, but at least I don’t believe that there will be any eternal consequences (torture or isolation) for them. On the other hand, the believer seems to approach the matter with a great deal of anxiety for the eternal soul of their friend or family member. What a lot of unnecessary suffering.
You know what I really hate about the LDS Church? It takes normal things and, by outlawing them, makes them a source of guilt and shame.
It’s good to feel bad about rotten things we do, but it’s not great to invent sins and make people feel bad about them.
Daniel Dennett mentions this in his talk, “How to Tell You’re an Atheist”.
At about 6:45 –
“As you know, we atheists are a happy lot. We’re deeply moral but we don’t have a mountain of artificial guilt. We do feel guilty about our misdeeds but we don’t consider them sins.”
On the other hand, Paul is glad when people feel guilty in ways that work for him.
2 Corinthians 7:8 For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season.
7:9 Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.
7:10 For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
From the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual:
What is the difference between godly sorrow and “the sorrow of the world”? Why is godly sorrow an important part of repentance?
President Spencer W. Kimball explained: “If one is sorry only because someone found out about his sin, his repentance is not complete. Godly sorrow causes one to want to repent, even though he has not been caught by others, and makes him determined to do right no matter what happens. This kind of sorrow brings righteousness and will work toward forgiveness” (Repentance Brings Forgiveness [pamphlet, 1984], 8).
Well, I agree that if you’ve done something wrong, it’s not great if you feel bad just because you got caught.
Let’s turn our discussion to the behaviour of the LDS Church. For decades, it has been intentionally fuzzy about its past (to put it kindly). It has promoted a sanitised, feel-good version of its history. When others have published the facts, they have been dismissed as anti-Mormon lies. At times, the church has “flashed” the facts here and there, in ways that would not attract a lot of attention. This has allowed apologists to claim that the facts were always out there, and if people hadn’t noticed them, this was due to their lack of diligence.
That tactic only worked when information was scarce. But in our age of information, people have learned facts about the church that they didn’t hear in church. And so now that enough people are leaving to affect the bottom line, the church has finally begun to open up a little about its past. Not in advertising this information, but by producing what can only be described as apologetic essays, anonymous and unpublicised.
Discuss: Is the church trying to be honest about its past, and do better? Or is it just trying to get its version of the story out there? If the latter, how is this different from someone who feels bad because they got caught?
Additional lesson ideas
Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”
According to 2 Corinthians, Paul had an unspecified infirmity. The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual says:
• Paul said that the Lord gave him an infirmity — a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Why did the Lord give Paul this infirmity? (See 2 Corinthians 12:7.) What did Paul learn when the Lord did not take away his “thorn in the flesh” as he had asked? (See 2 Corinthians 12:8–10.) How can our weaknesses help us receive strength from Jesus Christ? (See Ether 12:27.) How have you seen the truth of Paul’s statement that “when I am weak, then am I strong”?
Here’s the scripture that pertains.
2 Corinthians 12:6 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.
12:7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
12:8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
12:9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
So what was Paul’s infirmity? It’s possible that it had something to do with his eyes, as he says to the Galatians:
Galatians 4:15 Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.
On the other hand, a friend of mine takes the view that, with Paul’s hatred of women, it was probably something only fixable recently with a little blue pill.
Satan is allowed to impersonate angels of light
Here’s an odd scripture to finish on.
2 Corinthians 11:13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.
11:14 And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.
Let’s consider the context. Paul is trying to lead a church of people with lots of differing views. It must have been a challenge to retain his leadership! After all, anyone could claim thy’d received a vision from an angel of light, and place themselves over Paul.
When you’re in that position, what do you do? You tell people not to believe their experiences, and to believe yours instead. And this is what Paul does.
The problem is that by saying this, Paul is admitting that God’s plan is so confusing that satanic agents are allowed to impersonate divine ones. God maybe should have rethought that.
To show contradictions in the resurrection story, and to encourage readers to seek evidence for extraordinary claims.
This lesson is about the pivotal event of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus. I say it’s pivotal because if it didn’t happen, then there’s no point to Christianity at all. And Paul says as much.
1 Corinthians 15:14And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
This really came home to me when my father passed on. I realised that I was the grown-up now, and I had to decide how I was going to live. And if there was a life after this, or no life after this, I wanted to know it. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you don’t care about defending the story you’ve always lived by, and you just want to know if you’re right or wrong. Well, at this point, I wanted to know if I was right or wrong.
So for me, the crucial question became: Did the resurrection of Jesus happen?
And my answer: Of course not. Why would it? Don’t be a credulous nincompoop. People don’t just get up from being totally dead. When has that ever happened in all of human experience? Never. So if someone wants to convince me that it really happened, thry’re going to need better evidence than copies of documents. And as Sam Harris points out, that’s all we got.
Bible scholars agree that the first gospels were written decades after the life of Jesus. Decades.
And of course, we don’t have the original manuscripts. We have copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts which have thousands — literally thousands — of descrepancies between them, many of which show signs of later interpolation, which is to say that people added passages that then became part of the canon. There are whole books of the canon, like the book of Revelation, which for hundreds of years were not included because they were deemed false gospel. There are other whole books, like the Shepherd of Hermas, which you probably haven’t heard of, but for centuries it was considered part of the canon, and then was later jettisoned as false gospel.
Generations of Christians lived and died being guided by gospel that is now deemed both incomplete and mistaken. Think about that. This process, this all too human process of cobbling together the supposed authoritative word of god is a very precarious basis to assert the claims of Christianity. But the truth is, even if we had multiple contemporaneaus claims of the miracles of Jesus this would not be good enough. Because miracle stories abound even in the 21st century. The devotees of the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba ascribe all of the miracles of Jesus to him. He reads minds, he fortells the future, he heals, he raises the dead, he was born of a virgin. Sathya Sai Baba is not a fringe figure. You may not have heard of him, but they had a birthday party for him a few years ago and a million people showed up. There are vast numbers of people that think he is a living god.
So Christianity is predicated on the claim that miracle stories — exactly of the kind that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba — become especially credible when you place them in a pre-scientific religious context of the first century roman empire, decades after their supposed occurance, as attested to by copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek and largely discrepant manuscripts. We have Sathya Sai Baba’s miracle stories attested to by thousands upon thousands of living eye witnesses and they don’t even merit an hour on cable television. And, yet, you put a few miracle stories in an ancient book and half the people on Earth think it a legitimate project to organize their lives around. Does anyone else see a problem with that?
Actually, yes, I do.
Speaking of “largely discrepant manuscripts”, we’re going to see how the stories in the gospels are hopelessly confused as to the details of the resurrection. Here’s a helpful infographic.
This was God’s opportunity to report the facts of the case, and it resembles nothing more than a mishmash of human fabrication.
So how does Christianity paper over this? The surprising answer: By expecting you not to demand any evidence for its claims, and by telling you that you’ll be blessed if you believe without evidence. How about that?
Main ideas for this lesson
Rolling away the stone?
Let’s start at the beginning: In the morning, two Marys (and a Salome, if you believe Mark) were heading to the tomb.
Matthew 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
Other Mary: Why do I have to be ‘other Mary’?
Mary: You’re not married to Jesus.
Other Mary: Well, you’re not married to Jesus!
I don’t know what they thought they were going to do; there was supposed to be a huge stone there. But then Matthew reports a second huge earthquake that no one else noticed, and an angel rolls away the stone.
Matthew 28:2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.
Already we have a fail. Round tomb stones weren’t really a thing at the time. They wouldn’t be popular until about 70 CE, which supports the idea that this was a later addition. Richard Carrier notes:
There is another reason to doubt the tomb burial that has come to my attention since I first wrote this review: the tomb blocking stone is treated as round in the Gospels, but that would not have been the case in the time of Jesus, yet it was often the case after 70 C.E., just when the gospels were being written. Amos Kloner, in “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sep/Oct 1999, pp. 23-29, 76), discusses the archaeological evidence of Jewish tomb burial practices in antiquity. He observes that “more than 98 percent of the Jewish tombs from this period, called the Second Temple period (c. first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), were closed with square blocking stones” (p. 23), and only four round stones are known prior to the Jewish War, all of them blocking entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely rich (such as the tomb complex of Herod the Great and his ancestors and descendants). However, “the Second Temple period…ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In later periods the situation changed, and round blocking stones became much more common” (p. 25).
Jesus then appears to different people in contradictory and mutually exclusive ways. Rather than recount it, I refer to this portion of our infographic.
If that’s not enough for you, I have this PDF file from my good friend David Austin. (He should get a blog.) Click the image to download a copy for yourself.
Thomas and doubt
Jesus appears to the rest of the apostles. And since it’s John, notice the “fear of teh Jooz”. He’s always on about the Jews.
John 20:19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
Good so far, except Thomas wasn’t there. And he won’t believe it until he sees it.
John 20:24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
20:25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
Good on him. He’s demanding the kind of evidence that’s required to support a claim. That’s what a person should do.
John 20:26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
20:27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
20:28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.
Thomas believes, but at least he’s doing it right. He wants evidence, he gets it, and he changes his mind.
But now here’s Jesus with the kicker.
John 20:29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
Here we have it, folks. This is the one that I count as the worst verse in scripture. Jesus is saying that evidence is fine, but no evidence is just as good. Maybe even better.
By insisting that believing without evidence is somehow on a par with believing with evidence, Jesus takes the metric that rational people use to evaluate claims, and turns it on its head. If we all did this, there’s no limit to the mutually exclusive and contradictory claims we could believe. To accept this way of thinking is to abandon reason.
Imagine how irresponsible it is for a god to demand this. Here we are in our short lives, having to choose the right religion or philosophy or story among tens of thousands, and if you get it wrong, it’s no salvation for you. Those are serious consequences (which God has set out). A responsible parent would spell out the evidence for his gospel fairly clearly. God doesn’t do that. Instead, he expects you to pick one without adequate reasons, and hope you got it right. To be fair, he also is supposed to give out feelings, the nature of which can easily be misunderstood, and which are experienced by followers of all religions. Otherwise, good luck.
This theme of not needing evidence is often taken up by believers I’ve met. When I ask for evidence, they never provide it. Instead, they make excuses for why I shouldn’t expect evidence, or they tell me why I should accept substitutes for evidence (like feelings). Strangely, they don’t seem to see how this is an evasion of the responsibility to back up what they say.
To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it — the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.
Ask: How does the LDS Church encourage people to “avoid the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss” church doctrines? Answers: By avoiding material that is not “inspiring”, and by labelling books and people who tell the truth about the church as “anti-Mormon”.
Ask: How is the refusing to confront doubts “one long sin against mankind”? Answer: One of the most important things we can do in life is to advance our collective knowledge. Doing this helps create technologies that can cure illness, sustain life, and improve the quality of living. But this only works if we make reality the metric against which we compare other ideas. Accepting false beliefs means that we stop advancing, and start retreating, and this helps humankind not at all.
I’d like to take a moment and bear my testimony of doubt. Doubt is amazing! Doubt has helped me figure out what’s true and what’s false far better than faith can. Having faith just confirms what you believe, whether it’s right or not. It’s like a compass that always points in the way you’re going. What good is that? It might be okay if you’re trying to feel good about your beliefs, but if you’re trying to find out what’s true, it’s no use at all.
By contrast, doubt won’t hurt true claims (as long as you understand the kind of evidence required to establish a claim). However, it’s lethal to false ones.
Why’s it have to be snakes?
Jesus eventually jet-packed back up to heaven, but before he did, he left this instruction:
Mark 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
16:17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
16:18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Snake-handling preacher Cody Coots got scared when the 6-foot long rattler bit his right hand early Monday.
Just three months ago, his father, Jamie Coots, died within minutes of being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at his Middlesboro church. The loss was still fresh for his family and friends, and Cody Coots, who took over for his father, had just been bitten by an even bigger rattler.
At first, “All I could think about — am I going to make it?” Coots said.
Jamie Coots, 42, was handling three rattlesnakes during a Saturday-night service at the church when one bit him on the right hand. Jamie Coots had survived more than half a dozen previous bites, but that night the venom quickly overwhelmed him.
His legs buckled in the bathroom at the church after he murmured “Sweet Jesus,” said Andrew Hamblin, a snake-handling minister from Tennessee who was with him.
People at the church rushed Coots home. He had made clear earlier that he did not want medical attention for a bite; his family sent an ambulance crew away as believers prayed over him.
A deputy coroner pronounced Coots dead about 90 minutes after he was bitten.
This raises all kinds of questions for me.
When someone dies from a snake bite in these churches, why don’t they take it as a sign of the victim’s lack of faith?
Why do they pray for the person to get better? Is that supposed to be some kind of Plan B, in case of lack of faith?
And where are all the poison-drinking churches? Did they used to exist, but poison worked more reliably than snakes?
To explain why Jesus’ return is a failed prophecy, and to show the foolishness of waiting and hoping for the end of the world
This lesson is about the end of the world. As we all know, Jesus is coming back to kill billions of people (but more of this in the lesson on the Revelation) and usher in his earthly kingdom. Everyone’s been waiting for it for quite a while.
Of course, as we’ve already seen, Jesus taught that he was coming back during the lifetimes of people who were still alive then. And later on, we’ll see how Paul had to hose down the end-of-the-world stuff. “Oh, boy! He’s coming soon!” they said. Two thousand years later, and they’re still saying “Oh, boy! He’s coming soon!”
Still, people wait for the end of the world — in some cases, with an eagerness that any normal person would find unseemly. I guess a lot of people are waiting for Jesus to come back and tell everybody that they had the right religion and everyone else was wrong. Kind of like in this South Park clip.
As for me and my generation, we got told that we were the final generation, held in reserve for the end times, and how valiant we must have been!
Little did we know, we were actually a group of mammals who were born like groups of mammals before us. Which is still pretty great, you know, because mammals.
Still, we thought the end was going to come any day! When you don’t expect it! (Surely someone is expecting it every day.) If God was saying back in Joseph Smith’s time that the day was at the doors, then surely by now we must be in the latter days! It’s even in the name of the church, right? Latter-day Saints?
The end is not near, senior LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer said Saturday.
Today’s youths can look forward to “getting married, having a family, seeing your children and grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren,” Packer told more than 20,000 Mormons gathered in the giant LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.
Well, now what do I do with all this food storage?
On the other hand, maybe Jesus has already returned.
Teaching tip of the day
A helpful tip from the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual: Don’t just make up a crap answer when you get a question about the made-up crap in the Bible!
Suggestion for teaching: A call to teach does not require that you know everything about the gospel, so you should not feel embarrassed if a class member asks a question that you cannot answer. Instead of making up an answer, admit that you do not know and offer to try to find an answer.
…that someone else has made up. But it will be a correlated someone. Leave it to the professional apologists, kid.
Try to find an answer? There isn’t just one answer to lots of gospel questions because the whole thing is made up from top to bottom.
Why shouldn’t you make up an answer? When has that not been what everyone does? That’s all Joseph Smith did. That’s all any prophet or apologist does — come up with some kind of answer that will satisfy the believing and save the story.
Seriously, when you bring up a discrepancy with a believer, what’s the first thing they try to do? Quick, come up with an answer — whether it’s scriptural or not! Anything that comes to hand will do, and if it sounds right, then it must be right, because the gospel is right. Right?
Look, it’s all very well that the Church try to rein in the impulse to conduct on-the-spot apologetics, but they’re fighting a very strong and well-trained urge — and one that for many people is the quickest way they have of resolving the conflict and putting cognitive dissonance back to sleep.
Main ideas for this lesson
Are the number of earthquakes increasing?
For signs of the end times, Jesus names things that are going on more or less constantly. Smart move, Jesus.
Matthew 24:7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
In church, I sometimes heard about how earthquakes were increasing exponentially as we approached the Last Days. Are they? Not really.
No, the number of earthquakes is not increasing compared with the recorded history, according to data from the US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center.
The USGS estimates that several million earthquakes occur in the world each year. Many go undetected because they hit remote areas or have very small magnitudes. There are more seismographs installed worldwide every year, so more earthquakes can be detected. However, the number of large earthquakes (magnitude 6.0 and greater) has stayed relatively constant.
Cecil Adams, in this Straight Dope column, points out that natural disasters — earthquakes aside — may be increasing because of climate change, and because we count the ones that affect humans. Urbanisation means more of those.
You see where it gets tricky — the definition of natural disaster is unavoidably tied to the number of people affected and/or the value of the damage done, both of which will naturally increase as the earth’s population and wealth do, and of course wealth and population aren’t evenly distributed worldwide. And that brings us to the other big part of our growing vulnerability to disasters: urban migration in developing countries means denser populations, which often goes hand in hand with quickly-assembled, not overly sturdy housing. The parts of the world where this is most common tend to have largely informal economies, in which the enforcement of building-code regulations may not be a top priority. All this makes it much more likely that a serious meteorological or seismic event will meet the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance’s criteria for a disaster: ten or more people killed and at least 100 injured, evacuated, displaced, or left homeless. By that organization’s count we now have twice the number of disasters per year that we did 20 years ago.
Matthew 24:11 And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
Well, just don’t believe any prophets. That was easy.
Stars falling from heaven?
Matthew 24:29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
“You know, one of the signs that the second coming, is that the stars will fall out of the sky and land on Earth. To even write that means you don’t know what those things are. You have no concept of what the actual universe is. So everybody who tried to make proclamations about the physical universe based on Bible passages got the wrong answer.
Again, Jesus says that the end of the world is coming within his generation.
Matthew 24:34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
I’ve had Christians tell me that this statement is only meant to apply to the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in 70 CE. Could that explanation work?
No, not really. It’s true that Jesus talks a lot about the destruction of the temple — and I take this as evidence that it had already happened by the time this was written. But let’s go back a few verses.
Matthew 24:30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
24:31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
24:32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
24:33 So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
Jesus talks about a lot of amazing public events: everyone seeing him in the clouds, angels and trumpets — things that haven’t happened. Then note that he says that “all these things” will be fulfilled in this generation — not just the one thing. Good try, Christians, but I don’t see any reason to limit the scope like that.
Function of this belief
From time to time, it’s good to ask: What’s the function of a belief like this one?
Matthew 24:21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
I can see a couple of reasons why this works for Christianity.
When things go wrong, it provides a handy reason: the world is getting worse!
It provides a “scary external world” narrative that keeps people frightened. Frightened people aren’t good critical thinkers. So this meme keeps them in the group, for the perceived safety it gives.
But this “hell in a handbasket” meme is unhelpful. People with the attitude that the world is in an irretrievable and divinely-predicted decline aren’t good at trying to find solutions to the world’s problems. They ooze a kind of cynicism and contempt regarding the “world”. This is what I’ve found when I’ve run across them.
But as I explain to these Jehovah’s Witnesses — who have been wrong many times on this issue — things aren’t actually getting worse. They’re getting better. Steven Pinker explains.
On the day this article appears, you will read about a shocking act of violence. Somewhere in the world there will be a terrorist bombing, a senseless murder, a bloody insurrection. It’s impossible to learn about these catastrophes without thinking, “What is the world coming to?”
But a better question may be, “How bad was the world in the past?”
Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.
This is very difficult for people to get their head around when they’re been hearing the “hell in a handbasket” narrative for the whole of their lives. I try to bring up this theme whenever possible with a certain believer — we’re at the lowest point in violent crime for forty years, etc. — and every time I do, it’s like it’s the first time she’s heard it. It just bounces off. How could reality compete, when all they have to do — they suppose — is watch the news?
Failed prophecy — and thank goodness
After all these years, one thing should be clear: Jesus is not coming back. This is a failed prophecy, but people don’t realise it’s a failed prophecy because of the rolling deadline.
Harold Camping told us the date on which the world would end. Of course, the date passed without incident. Camping was wrong. According to the Christian bible, the Jesus character told his contemporaries that the world would end during their lifetimes. Jesus was wrong too. Like Camping, the Jesus character was a failed prophet.
So were all these people who made failed end-of-the-world predictions, dating from 2800 BCE to today.
Anthropologists who study the Melanesian tribes speculate that Frum might have actually been a real person – most likely a generous sentry, engineer or aircraft mechanic who handed out goods, Hershey bars or medicine to the locals during the occupation. Perhaps he even identified himself as “John, from America”. Others speculate that Frum may instead be a composite of several personnel from the airbase or even a hodge-podge of American icons and archetypes including Uncle Sam, Popeye and Santa Claus. Some suggest that the Melanesian veneration of John Frum actually pre-dates the Second World War and may be based on some unknown charitable westerner that visited the island by ship in the decades before World War Two.
Regardless, Frum-worshipers still herald their god as the almighty “King of America”. Each year on Feb. 15, devotees mark their bodies with the letters U.S.A. and march in hopes that Frum will return. The entire religion, which is now more of a kitschy tourist attraction than anything else, also formed the basis of a homegrown nationalist political party that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2007.
At this point, it begins to look like the “hero’s return” is a bit of a theme in human belief.
Springville • In the Springville home where Benjamin and Kristi Strack and three of their children were found dead on Sept. 27, no note was found to explain the murder-suicide.
In a notebook, a “to-do list” had been scribbled on the pages, Springville police revealed at a press conference Tuesday. The list looked as if the parents were readying to go on vacation — items such as “feed the pets” and “find someone to watch after the house” were written.
But there was no clear explanation for why on that September day, the five family members ingested a fatal mixture of drugs.
In the weeks and months after the family’s deaths, Police Chief J. Scott Finlayson said investigators talked with their family and friends, who told them that Benjamin and Kristi Strack spoke frequently of “leaving this world.” Friends said the couple believed there was a looming apocalypse and that they desired to escape from the evil in the world.
We can see that this is a tragic waste of life, but it’s just as true that putting your life on hold for an imaginary saviour’s return is a waste of your life.
In about five billion years the sun will run out of hydrogen, which will upset its self-regulating equilibrium; in its death-throes it will swell, and this planet will vaporise. Before that, we can expect, at unpredictable intervals measured in tens of millions of years, bombardment by dangerously large meteors or comets. Any one of these impacts could be catastrophic enough to destroy all life, as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago nearly did. In the nearer future, it is pretty likely that human life will become extinct – the fate of almost all species that have ever lived.
In our case, as the distinguished astronomer and former president of the Royal Society Martin Rees has conjectured, extinction is likely to be self-inflicted. Destructive technology becomes more powerful by the decade, and there is an ever-increasing danger that it will fall into the hands of some holy fool (Ian McEwan’s memorable phrase) whose ‘tradition’ glorifies death and longs for the hereafter: a ‘tradition’ which, not content with forecasting the end of the world, actively seeks to bring it about.
On that theme, Christopher Hitchens explains more ably than most — and off-the-cuff, as well — how this hope for an apocalypse really evinces a kind of contempt for life.
I think maybe I will take a few moments to say something I find repulsive about especially Monotheistic, Messianic religion, with a large part of itself it quite clearly wants us all to die, it wants this world to come to an end you can tell the yearning for things to be over, whenever you read any of its real texts, or listen to any of its real authentic spokesman, not the pathetic apologists who sometimes masquerade for it. Those who talk, there was a famous spokesman for this in Virginia until recently, about the Rapture, saying that those of us who have chosen rightly will be gathered to the arms of Jesus, leaving all of the rest of you behind: if we’re in a car it’s your lookout, that car won’t have a driver anymore; if we’re a pilot that’s your lookout, that plane will crash; we will be with Jesus and the rest of you can go straight to Hell.
The eschatological element that is inseparable from Christianity, if you don’t believe that there is going to be an Apocalypse, there is going to be an end, a separation of the sheep and the goats, a condemnation, a final one, then you’re not really a Believer and the contempt for the things of this world shows through all of them. It’s well put in an old rhyme from an English exclusive Brethren sect: “We are the pure and chosen few, and all the rest are damned. There’s room enough in hell for you, we don’t want Heaven crammed!” You can tell it when you see the extreme Muslims talk, they cannot wait for death and destruction to overtake and overwhelm the World, they can’t wait for what I would call without ambiguity a Final Solution. When you look at the Israeli settlers — paid for often by American tax dollars — deciding if they can steal enough land from other people and get all the Jews into the promised land and all the non-Jews out of it then finally the Jewish people will be worthy of the return of the Messiah, and there are Christians in this country who consider it their job to help this happen so that Armageddon can occur, so that the painful business of living as humans, and studying civilization, and trying to acquire learning, and knowledge, and health, and medicine, and to push back the frontiers can all be scrapped and the cult of death can take over.
That to me is a hideous thing in eschatological terms, in End Times terms. On its own a hateful idea, a hateful practice, and a hateful theory but very much to be opposed in our daily lives where there are people who sincerely mean it, who want to ruin the good relations that could exist between different peoples, nations, races, countries, tribes, ethnicities; who openly say they love death more than we love life and who are betting that with God on their side that they’re right about that.
So when I say as a subtitle of my book that “Religion poisons everything”, I’m not just doing what publishers like and coming up with a provocative subtitle. I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integrity, it says we can’t be moral without Big Brother, without a totalitarian permission, it means we can’t be good to one other, it means we can’t think without this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love someone who we fear – the essence of sadomasochism, the essence of abjection, the essence of the master-slave relationship – and that knows that death is coming and can’t wait to bring it on. I say that this is evil.
So what do we do with our lives, if things will continue as they are until the Big Blast?
Enjoy it. We are born without asking. We are helplessly alive. And we are doomed to die.
Even so, it seems to me that doing something is a higher-quality decision than doing nothing. Here are some ideas.
Enjoy life responsibly. You only get one.
Help make things better for others. They only get one life, too
Learn as much as you can about the world and the universe, since the sharing of knowledge is a very good way to help make things better for everyone.
Try to leave something good for the next generation.
And I might add: Interplanetary travel seems like a good idea, if we want to get off this rock.
To help readers to avoid hypocrisy, and to point out the kind of hypocrisy that the church deals in.
This lesson is about hypocrisy, and that really is a terrible thing. Pretending to be one way while being another way leaves you feeling split down the middle. I think a lot of us know what this is like.
And I don’t want to say that people in the LDS Church are a bunch of hypocrites. It would be hypocritical of me to say so. We all have trouble living up to the ideals we espouse, and our implementation won’t always be perfect. The best we can do is keep trying to improve, and to try to make the inside match the outside. Ironically, this task has been much easier for me since leaving the church.
Here’s why: as a kid in a Mormon family, you kind of get your moral system handed to you. How to live, what’s right and wrong — that’s what church leaders are for, to tell you that stuff. Morality is for them to know, and for you to find out, like in General Conference. You’re encouraged to study things out in your own mind, and get “personal revelation”. But if you get a different answer than the one you’re supposed to get — well, that doesn’t get you too far in a church where they tell you what kind of underwear to put on, and where wearing a blue shirt instead of a white one is considered daring at best and an act of rebellion at worst.
So you get this moral code issued to you at birth. It’s not negotiable, and you’re constantly reminded that obedience is the first law of heaven. But sometimes the code doesn’t make sense, and maybe it doesn’t really fit you. You notice that other people have to think about their moral choices, and they seem to do mostly fine, even though their code differs from yours. And your code excludes a lot of normal stuff that isn’t so bad, but you’re supposed to feel bad when you do it.
What’s a young person in a Mormon setting to do, besides obey the phoney moral code? There are basically three choices:
Rebel. Make your own code. Not the favoured option for someone who wants to be a “good kid”.
Give up. I saw a lot of kids do this. Eventually you forget what was in your own heart.
Sneak. This was very popular, too. It’s a way of keeping peace with the adults, but still having some latitude to live your own way. But it turns you into a hypocrite. And then when you hear lessons in church about the danger of hypocrisy, you feel bad for engaging in that pattern of behaviour. But you might not realise how the imposition of this artificial and nonsensical moral code contributed to your behaviour.
Ask: What is hypocrisy?
My computer’s dictionary defines hypocrisy as: the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.
By this definition, the LDS Church commits a lot of hypocrisy of its own.
LDS leaders work tirelessly in the service of bigotry, working to deny the validity of the relationships of LGBT people, and bemoaning the consequences if such marriages have legal recognition. But then they decry the lack of tolerance afforded to their bigotry — moaning that for progressives, tolerance is a “one-way street”. How to respond to this? My response is that it’s hypocritical for them to renounce tolerance by persecuting LGBT folks, and then to demand tolerance when it’s convenient for them — especially when they intend to use such tolerance… to promote intolerance.
It claims to have the standard of truth against which all others can be evaluated. But as we’ve seen in lessons, its own teachings — on evolution, the history of the earth, and (as we’ll see next year) the origins of the native peoples of the Americas — are demonstrably false. They teach that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct book upon the face of the earth”, when it is actually not even a correct book. In addition, the church promotes a counterfeit method of “knowledge from feels” that does not lead to truth. It does this while calling out “counterfeits” of its own — counterfeit families, counterfeit belief systems, and so on.
It demands honesty from its members — the temple recommend interview asks if a member is “honest in their dealings” with other people — while the church itself has always been less than forthcoming about its own history and origins. Facts have been routinely dismissed as “anti-Mormon lies”, and then when the church has tried to make a belated show of clearing the air, it quietly publishes anonymous (and therefore retroactively deniable) essays, showing some of the facts that will reflect best on the church. Members are instructed not to tell potential converts about its strange and potentially off-putting temple ceremonies.
Now where did I get the idea that it was okay to shade the truth and present oneself in the most positive light? How easily I slipped into it, and how long I kept that up!
I want to explain how I try to avoid hypocrisy. I’m a university lecturer and a presenter on my language podcast Talk the Talk, and so there’s a temptation for me to want to be the Smart Guy. But I’m not, not really. I feel like I hardly know anything! And pretending I do is really destructive. When you pretend to know more than you do, it keeps you from learning more. And then it’s all about you and reputation and protection, and not about what’s true.
My advice: The antidote to hypocrisy is humility. Intellectual humility is not only an appealing quality in a thinker, it’s repulsive when it’s absent. So here are my tips.
Say “I don’t know”. We sometimes get allergic to saying “I don’t know” in academia. But that’s something that you have to say! Saying “I don’t know” is the beginning of knowledge. But the next thing out of your mouth should be, “How can we find out?” or “How would we know the right answer if we saw it?”
When you’re wrong, cheerfully admit it, and update. No one is going to get it right all the time. And just about everything we think is true is going to be a little bit wrong. There’s no shame in admitting that. I actually love it when someone can tell me when I’m wrong. That means I don’t have to believe that wrong thing anymore! What a great thing! And if I know people are able to get back to me about mistakes, it means the feedback system is working, and that means I probably got everything else right. Right?
At the start of this lesson, Jesus is eating with friends. Then things get weird. Right in the middle of dinner, Mary starts anointing.
John 12:2 There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him.
12:3 Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.
I’m trying to imagine what this would have been like, if this happened at a dinner with friends. One of the guests starts rubbing something on another guest’s feet, and rubbing their hair all over them. I’m thinking ‘awkward, inappropriate, and uncomfortable’.
John 12:4 Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him,
12:5 Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?
12:6 This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.
Apparently John could read minds. This must be what they call the “gift of discernment”.
The LDS lesson manual says:
Mary’s actions were criticized by Judas. What did he say should have been done with the ointment? (See John 12:4–5.) How was Judas a hypocrite?
Because people who say they’re concerned about the poor are hypocrites! That means that a hypocrite probably created this meme:
Despite a significant rise in income inequality in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) is arguing that it’s not something the state ought to be worried about.
“We don’t grapple with that here,” Perry told The Washington Post in a recent interview, while acknowledging that the state’s richest residents have seen the greatest spike in earnings.
“Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion,” he added, an apparent reference to Mark 14:7. While Perry takes the message from the Bible to mean poverty is hopeless and therefore not worth grappling with, Jesus Christ was actually delivering a different lesson: “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good,” the Son of God advises in the King James version of the Bible.
Over to Matthew. You know Matthew, right? He’s the one who seizes onto everything Jesus does, and claims it’s a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. To which I’d respond: Prophecies are easy to fulfil when you know about them.
Except sometimes he gets it wrong. Here’s a passage in Zechariah that Matthew claims Jesus fulfils:
Zechariah 9:9Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.
There’s a literary device in the Old Testament called parallelism, where things get repeated twice. It sounds nice, and gives the passage some heft.
But let judgment run down as waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream.
So notice the parallelism in Zechariah: he starts with
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O daughter of Jerusalem:
and finishes with
riding upon an ass,
and upon a colt the foal of an ass.
Except that Matthew somehow misses the parallelism. He says that Jesus was actually riding two animals at the same time, an ass and a colt.
Matthew 21:1 And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples,
21:2 Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me.
21:3 And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them.
21:4 All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying,
21:5 Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.
21:6 And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them,
21:7 And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.
That’s some fancy riding, Jesus!
Palm Sunday – Good Friday Conflict
The always-comprehensive kyroot points out a plot hole in this story.
Jesus is adored and worshipped as a King as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He then proceeds to work miracles, heal the sick, and demonstrate his supreme wisdom, making him even more a figure for adulation. But five days later, without explanation, he is abruptly hated so much by his own people that, given a chance to have him released, they chose to free a common criminal instead. There is something seriously wrong with this story.
God hates figs
Here’s one of the truly bizarre stories about Jesus.
Matthew 21:18 Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered.
21:19 And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.
21:20 And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!
21:21 Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.
Mark adds that it wasn’t even the time for figs to be ripe.
That’s some psychopathic behaviour there. You can take Jesus out of the Yahweh, but you can’t take Yahweh out of Jesus. Or something.
You should check out this video, because it really is quite funny.
Parable of the marriage feast
Speaking of psychosis, Jesus tells a great story about how his father will kill loads of people at the last day.
Matthew 22:1 And Jesus answered and spake unto them again by parables, and said,
22:2 The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son,
22:3 And sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come.
22:4 Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage.
22:5 But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise:
22:6 And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them.
Okay, well, killing people is not good. But really, the only thing that most people did wrong in this story is not going to a party.
Matthew 22:7 But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.
Whoa! Disproportionate response, God! I wouldn’t destroy a whole city. About the most I’d do is unfriend someone.
Matthew 22:8 Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy.
22:9 Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage.
22:10 So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests.
22:11 And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:
22:12 And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.
He was like, “I was out on the highway, and someone brought me here. I don’t even know anybody.”
Matthew 22:13 Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.
Whoa again! Outer darkness is pretty harsh for just having the wrong garment on.
So there it is. If you don’t believe in him, God is going to kill you (perhaps symbolically?). And if you do believe, but you have on the wrong garment (perhaps symbolically, perhaps actual garments), it’s OD for you.
This is a good example of something I’ve been mentioning during our New Testament year: People think Jesus is all about the love, but really, he’s the same old psychopath that Jehovah was. Obviously views on the Trinity differ, but if you were looking for evidence that God the Father and Jesus were the same person, all you’d have to do is show them the terrible scriptures from the OT, and then these scriptures from the NT, and you’d have to admit, “Yep, that’s totally the same crazy angry guy.”
Render unto Caesar
Here’s another area where some churches show more than a little hypocrisy. Jesus is having another bash with the Pharisees. They say:
Matthew 22:17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
22:18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?
22:19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.
22:20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?
22:21 They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
22:22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.
Good call, Jesus. Religious figures should be giving Caesar his due, and in our day this means paying tax.
Currently, religions are tax-exempt. When churches don’t pay tax, the rest of us have to pay their share. That means we’re forced to support religions we don’t even believe in. Lately, religious organisations have been screaming because they’re being forced to kick in for employees’ birth control. They argue that they shouldn’t have to pay for things that run counter to their beliefs. But when it comes to the rest of us funding churches contrary to our belief, somehow it doesn’t rate a mention. Talk about hypocritical!
While some people may be bothered by the fact that there are pastors who live in multimillion dollar homes, this is old news to most. But here is what should bother you about these expensive homes: You are helping to pay for them! You pay for them indirectly, the same way local, state, and federal governments in the United States subsidize religion — to the tune of about $71 billion every year.
Churches are businesses. They should pay taxes like every other business. If they do charitable work, fine. Treat that like any other business that does charity work. But letting them get away without paying their fair share hurts all of us.
Finally, Jesus talks about the first and great commandment.
Matthew 22:35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,
22:36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
22:37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
22:38 This is the first and great commandment.
22:39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
What is it like, I’ve never tried it, I’ve never been a cleric, what is it like to lie to children for a living and tell them that they have an authority, that they must love—compulsory love, what a grotesque idea—and be terrified of it at the same time. What’s that like? I want to know.
I’ll tell. Having to love an absent father figure who knows your thoughts and can sentence you to eternal isolation is a terrible emotional ordeal. You have to read about how he’s killed those who didn’t obey him, and you have to try to admire that — to love it. It can’t be done without warping a person’s idea of what love is.
Love is a great thing, and yet commanding love is twisted. You can’t command someone to love, especially not to love everyone. It may not be appropriate or helpful to love everyone, including people who are doing you harm. If there’s contact with abusive people, what may be required is to cut off contact and get away from them before they drain you. This is okay to do.
That was quite a lesson. Until next week, be well, and I hope you have a match between the way you present and the way you are.
To show how Christianity demeans people who believe differently as “lost”, and how it demeans its own members as “unprofitable”.
For this lesson, Jesus has a few parables about how to treat those who are “lost”.
Right off the bat, I have a problem. As an ex-Mormon and ex-Christian, I don’t think of myself as lost, and I find it insulting that Christians learn to portray me that way. I could think of Christians as “lost” — what else am I to call someone who ignores and denies the good in this life because they’re busy working for the next — but I don’t really think that. I think we’re all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have. Isn’t that a more respectful way of working through our differences?
Anyway, what advice does Jesus give on how to treat the “lost”? According to these parables:
Parable of the lost coin
Parable of the lost sheep
Parable of the prodigal son
we’re supposed to be happy for them… when they come back to church. But that’s about it. Until they do, Jesus doesn’t have too many ideas. Could this be why Mormons are usually so bad at relating to former members?
Main ideas for this lesson
Let’s start with the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
Luke 15:4What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?15:5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
15:6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
15:7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
Ask: Why would members esteem one person who comes back over ninety-nine who never leave in the first place? Answer: When someone leaves, it places members in an awkward situation. They either have to think that the person was wrong to leave, or perhaps — gasp — acknowledge that they had a point. But if that person comes back, the conflict is resolved. Of course that person was wrong to leave — by coming back, they’ve admitted it themsleves! It must be tremendously validating when someone returns.
The LDS lesson manual continues this theme.
• In what ways might a person be “lost”? What is our responsibility toward those who are lost? (See Luke 15:4–5, 8; Alma 31:34–35.)
Possible answer: Someone might be lost when they masturbate to porn, and our responsibility is to rat them out to the bishop! That’s according to the LDS video “Wounded on the Battlefield”, here hilariously sent up by Dusty. (Language warning, of course.)
This next part concerns child abuse. It’s not something I’ve been through, but many people have, and worse, the abuse has happened in a religious setting. I’m going to try to be as sensitive as I can about this, but please be aware if this is a triggering issue for you, and I’d appreciate seeing your thoughts in comments.
Jesus speaks of offenses against children, saying that they’re inevitable. He’s only an omnipotent being — what can you do?
Luke 17:1 Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!
17:2 It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.
Nice try, Jesus, but these are just words, not deeds.
Ask: If you were an all-powerful being, and you saw that this was happening to a child, what would you do? Possible answers: Drop the offender with a non-suspicious heart attack, cause amnesia, change the offender’s mind like God did to Pharaoh.
Ask: What does God do instead? Answer: Sits and watches, and threatens the offender with punishment later.
Tracie Harris from the Atheist Experience expressed it rather tersely:
When I bring this up to believers, their answer usually revolves around agency. It’s regrettable that this happens, says the believer, but God refuses to abridge the agency of the offender.
My question then becomes: What about the child’s agency? What about their agency not to be abused? Why is the offender’s agency the only one’s that gets respected here?
If this isn’t good evidence that no god exists, then it’s definitely good evidence that this god isn’t worth worshipping.
While I’m on this topic, could I put a word in about bishop’s interviews. LDS bishops — generally men from the community with no training in counselling — routinely interview adolescents in closed-door sessions, in which the young people are quizzed about their sexual behaviour, including masturbation. This needs to end.
We could also argue that religion itself is a form of child abuse. Taking the mind of a child, and diverting it toward supernaturalism is a terrible path that can take years to undo. That’s not to equate sexual abuse and spiritual or intellectual abuse — given the choice, I’d take the spiritual / intellectual abuse I got, instead of the sexual abuse I didn’t get. But it’s worth pointing out that there are different forms of abuse, and even the non-sexual kinds can be damaging.
So it appears that Jesus has no trouble disparaging people who believe differently as “lost”. But he also doesn’t have very much encouragement for those who do believe.
Luke 17:7 But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?
17:8 And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?
17:9 Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not.
17:10 So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.
In other words, don’t think you’re good just because you did what you were commanded. You’re still unprofitable.
This idea has a function. After all, we want people in church to feel good, but not too good. That why we hear so much about avoiding ‘pride’. So Latter-day Saints are hearing this in church this week, and thinking, yep, I sure am unworthy.
Keep them down. That’s how you keep them coming back. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen. This is classic abuser behaviour.
I’d like to offer some good news to my Christian friends. You don’t merit the abuse that Jesus and your religion dish out. You’re better than this.
Additional lesson ideas
The kingdom of God is within you
This scripture was left out of the lesson:
Luke 17:20 And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
17:21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
This scripture seems to imply that one can find spiritual answers inside oneself. That’s very dangerous to a hierarchical top-down model of spirituality, which is why Bruce McConkie fought it so hard. Watch as he turns it into an affirmation of the church system.
“One of the heresies which prevails in a large part of modern Christendom is the concept that Jesus did not organize a Church or set up a formal kingdom through which salvation might be offered to men. This poorly translated verse is one of those used to support the erroneous concept that the kingdom of God is wholly spiritual; that it is made up of those who confess Jesus with their lips, regardless of what church affiliation they may have; that the kingdom of God is within every person in the sense that all have the potential of attaining the highest spiritual goals; and that baptism, the laying on of hands, celestial marriage, and other ordinances and laws are not essential to the attainment of salvation.
“It is true that men have the inherent capacity to gain salvation in the celestial world; in a sense this power is within them; and so it might be said that the kingdom of God is within a person, if it is understood that such expression means that a person can gain that eternal world by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. But it is also true that Jesus did organize his Church and did give the keys of such kingdom to legal administrators on earth. (Matt. 16:13–19.)
“Even the marginal reading in the King James Version changes the language here involved to read, ‘The kingdom of God is in the midst of you,’ meaning ‘The Church is now organized in the midst of your society.’ The Prophet’s rendering of Jesus’ thought, as such is recorded in the Inspired Version, is of course the best of all. Its essential meaning is: ‘The Church and kingdom has already been organized; it is here; it has come unto you; now enter the kingdom, obey its laws and be saved.’” (McConkie, DNTC, 1:540.)
Oh, Bruce. Is there anything you can’t turn into a reification of your authority?
Old Testament stories and the end of the world
Rather threateningly, Jesus refers to the Flood and Lot’s wife as though they were real events — thus reaffirming that he still intends to kill a lot of people at his return.
Luke 17:26And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.
17:27 They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.
17:28 Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded;
17:29 But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.
17:30 Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.
17:31 In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back.
17:32 Remember Lot’s wife.
And that leads us to one of the first scriptures that will eventually be wound into a doctrine known as the Rapture.
Luke 17:34 I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
17:35 Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
17:36 Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
Two men in a bed? Two women grinding? Thunderf00t once had the opportunity to interview two members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and when the interview inevitably went south, he threw this in as a last chance to offend them.
I’m posting this video, not because I’m a fan of Thunderf00t, because I found it amusing and relevant to the scripture. I actually find his anti-feminism off-putting and misguided. But here’s the clip. The relevant part starts at 15:52.
Well, that interview went down the tubes, so now let’s have a closing hymn. As so often is the case, this one’s from Morrissey, and it’s “Lost”. The relevant lyric: “Everybody’s lost. But they’re pretending they’re not.”