Revelation, Imagination...or Hallucination?

The Bible as Word of God, Fatal Flaw #1
One of the most extraordinary claims made by Christians is that God’s only means of communicating with the world is through the mammalian brain of one species. Yes, think about it, that’s it: the three or four pounds of living matter in our skulls. We’re told, of course, that there are several forms of divine revelation, e.g., answered prayer, visions, scripture. But there’s no way to get around it: all of these emerge from human brains; they come out of our heads.

Well, the concept doesn’t work, and it’s not hard to spot the flaws. Why would an all-powerful god, who—you would think—wants to get unambiguous messages across to human beings, have set things up in such slipshod fashion? Couldn’t he have done better? It might have been Carl Sagan who suggested that, instead, a savvy deity could flash messages on a planet-sized billboard on the Moon; that way we could get clear, up-to-date directives from the Overlord of the Cosmos.

But we’re stuck with human musings and speculations about gods—our brain output—especially scripture, at least in the Protestant traditions.

This is the second article in my series of six on the collapse of the Bible as Word of God. The introductory article in the series can be found here. In the remaining five articles, I will discuss the five flaws that cripple the claim that the Bible emerged from the Mind of God. Christians can snap out of it: two thousand years of false advertising is enough.

Hubris has prompted Christians to insist that we just have to trust them that they’ve got it right, that pronouncements from God have been faithfully transmitted through the brains of the devout…ending up as scripture, answered prayers, and visions.

The more extreme fundamentalists believe that the Bible is all true, every last word of it. More levelheaded Christians know that this is dangerous and silly; the really bad things in the Bible, and the mounds of mediocrity, are not hard to identify. And they rightly have little patience with fanatics who engage in sophistry and special pleading to defend every verse in the Bible.

If you’re willing, however, to wave off a lot of inferior Bible stuff—“No this cannot have come from God”—then you’d better have solid criteria for deciding what did from God. Is it just your hunch, your own sense of decency that prompts you to make the call? Anyone who claims that God acts through the human thought process needs to show us the evidence.

But this gets complicated, doesn’t it? For example, a pious ancient author wrote paragraphs that are now revered as scripture; we can imagine him, quill and parchment in hand, scrawling the sentences. What exactly was flowing from his brain to the fingers that moved the quill? We have to know: were the words coming from his brain or through his brain from a so-called higher power? Was it really, truly revelation…or, instead, were his words the product of his own imagination or even hallucination? Non-fundamentalist believers concede that all three possibilities are in the mix. Unless you have a way to tell the difference between revelation, imagination and hallucination…don’t expect skeptics to take you seriously. We suspect smoke and mirrors, a con job.

The irony, of course, is that the biggest doubters are believers, because they point fingers at other theists and say, “No, you’re mistaken.” When’s the last time you heard Catholic priests reading from the Qur’an on Sunday mornings? They don’t do it because they know it’s not the word of God. When’s the last time you heard Methodist ministers reading from the Book of Mormon? That book is just a joke—although for devout Mormons it is the very Word of God indeed.

This is the challenge for ‘Bible-believing’ Christians: you gotta tell us how you know that any particular verse or chapter of the Bible came from God, and not from the mind of the author. How foolish, how gullible—and pretty dangerous as well—to grant Word-of-God status to stuff that tumbled out of somebody’s imagination.

Christian theologian Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer states the problem pretty well:

“[The Bible] is also a dangerous book because we often ascribe divine will to the many human distortions it contains. We undermine the sacredness of the Bible and fuel its dangers whenever we fail to discern the difference between distortions and revelation, whenever we give its words and its writers too much authority, or whenever we abandon or fail critically to examine the contents of its pages. Simply stated, the Bible can inform our religious experience, but it is often wrong about God” (Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus, 2001).

Three money quotes from this statement about the Bible:

• “a dangerous book because we often ascribe divine will to the many human distortions it contains
• “whenever we fail to discern the difference between distortions and revelation”
• “it is often wrong about God”

This kind of candor is refreshing, and follows in the wake of a couple of centuries of critical Bible scholarship. No surprise there. But, also no surprise, Nelson-Pallmeyer fails to take the next step and tell how to spot the difference between distortion and revelation.

Of course, we all make our own value judgments; we are tempted to say, “Oh yes, this is God’s word,” when we come across the good stuff in the Bible. We are guided by our own moral compasses. Thus we appreciate the sentiment of Micah 6:8:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

This is actually pretty cool; it tells us exactly what the Lord requires of us. But the apostle Paul claimed that he had an update about what God expects: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

So, Micah had an idea; Paul had an idea. Did either of these pronouncements come from God—or were they just the opinions of their authors? Theologians have probably written thousands of pages trying to mesh these two points of view, because they can’t let go of the idea that both texts were “inspired.”

So far, theologians have failed to provide the criteria that we must have to take their enterprise seriously: how can we tell what came from God and what didn’t? So here is Fatal Flaw #1: There is no way to tell. It’s theological bias and guesswork.

This is a variation on a theme that I often press: please, theists, tell us where we can find reliable, verifiable data about God that all theists can agree on, i.e., “Yes, this is where the data can be found.” Is it the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon? Which chapters, which verses? All theists have to agree on these genuine deposits of god-information. And they have to tell us how they know. “We take it on faith” is a concession/confession that they don’t know. They’re bluffing, pretty confident that their faithful flocks will go along with their pious certainties, in short, be fooled.

Many years ago a therapist friend said to me, “Reality is what happens outside the patient’s head.” That comes to mind when we face the fact that all scripture, revelation, answered prayers, and visions begin their journey to the external world in the human brain. Believers make the claim that human brain matter is acted upon by God, but they have failed spectacularly to make the case for that.

Unless we’re offered a reliable, verifiable way to tell the difference between Bible verses that came a god and those that came from the mind of the guy pushing the pen, we know we’ve identified a huge flaw in the posturing about the Bible being the Word of God.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.