When God Lived Just a Few Miles Up

The never-ending reinvention of God
It’s really not a good idea to ignore your roots, but sometimes people have a vested interest in doing so—at least trying to. Christian theologians have made a mighty effort to overcome their roots, namely, the thought world of the Old and New Testaments.

We can look at puzzling, bizarre items of faith today and see their origins in the old texts. We marvel that the folks in the pews don’t balk at the stuff they’re expected to believe. For example, intense personal theism, the belief that nothing you do or think escapes God’s notice—which is embraced by Christians today as naturally as breathing—derives from ancient assumptions about the location, the proximity of the gods.

Just how close is God? Check out this ending of the Noah story, not always included in the rainbow storybook versions (Genesis 8:20-21):

“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done.’” God was especially pleased with the smell of burning animal fat (see Leviticus 3:14-17).

God was just overhead, close enough to get a whiff—and he even changed his mind because it smelled so good! So apparently too, he’s close enough to keep an eye on everyone. Does that really work anymore? Christian theologians, bent on cleaning up God’s reputation, know full well that the Bible, with 1,001 embarrassing verses, is far more of a curse than a blessing.

An essay that brings home this point, “The Cosmology of the Bible,” by Edward T. Babinski, can be found in the 2010 John Loftus anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. We are so often yelled at by Christians, when we point to an incriminating Bible verse, “You’re taking that out of context”—which is not true, most of the time, by the way. But Babinski demonstrates that the correct context for reading the Bible is one that most folks are not even aware of, namely the ancient cosmologies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel itself.

Christian theology is dragged down by its milieu, which includes God savoring the smell of charred fat. There has indeed been a mighty effort by theologians to get folks to avert their eyes from this mediocre god who makes personal appearances in so many Bible stories.

Maybe some Christians really do believe that the universe began when God, casting a spell, spoke it into existence, “Let there be light.” This is echoed in John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Well, somebody else thought of it first, as Babinski points out:

“Egyptian tales of creation begin with divinities of water, darkness , formlessness and emptiness, as well as air and wind. Creation takes place via a regal command either of the heart or the spoken word. According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, every act of creation represented a thought of a high creator god and its expression in ‘words.’ A host of Egyptian creation myths agreed that the agency of creation was god’s ‘word.’”

Israel’s conquerors from the north also had detailed creation myths:

“The Mesopotamians, like the Egyptians, also placed a high, even magical value, upon ‘words,’ and the necessity of obeying spoken commands from kings, priests, and, of course, gods. The pre-Babylonian civilization of Sumeria believed that all things existed and were made by the ‘word’ of a high god named Enki.”

The major focus of Babinski’s essay, however, is the cosmology of the Bible (pp. 119-132), and he digs far more deeply into the text than the well-known tales at the opening of Genesis.

“Some of the earliest creation passages in the Bible depict Yahweh in conflict with watery foes, not unlike Marduk’s battle with the primeval water goddess Tiamat, or Baal’s battle with the sea-god, Yam.”

“…the names of the sea monsters defeated by Yahweh in Psalm 74 are found in texts from ancient Ugarit where they are identified as foes whom Baal defeated.”

And the Genesis 1 story itself betrays the influence of other creation epics. It has always been a bit awkward to read that the Sun was not created until the fourth day. That seems to be such a glaring error, since, at the outset God had ordered, “Let there be light.” Babinski notes, however, that there were theologies behind this: “In a similar vein, texts from ancient Ugarit, Israel’s West Semitic neighbor, mention gods of light, as well as gods of Dawn and Dusk that are separate from gods of Sun and Moon.”

Light happening before the Sun was created has been a common target for ridiculing the Genesis story, but when I was young I didn’t notice that so much. However, having a pretty good grasp of the solar system, I couldn’t make sense of the “firmament” and the “waters above the firmament.” Babinski shows just why it is hard to make sense of it (pp. 122-125), because ancient thinkers were guessing about the structure of the heavens. As is the case with all theologians, they were speculating without—and even against—evidence.

And, no surprise, the earth was thought to be flat:

“…there does not appear to be a single verse in the Bible that depicts the earth as a sphere…there are numerous incidental phrases as well as entire passages in the Bible that support the conclusion that its authors believed the earth to be flat.”

But who cares, right? I’m going to guess that very few Christians today are among the new crop of flat-earth dunces, and they aren’t really bothered that the Bible folks way back then, including Jesus, assumed that the earth was flat and, what’s more, that it was half of creation. Their faith really doesn’t deflate at all; nor should it. Even the most devout folks have a pretty good grasp of our solar system and—we would hope—its place in our galaxy.

Of course we are entitled to wonder why God, hard at work inspiring his perfect book, and wanting to impart perfect wisdom to his chosen authors, didn’t throw in accurate information about the geography of the Cosmos. But never mind that.

We’re on the hunt to find out why a deeply attentive god was easy to conceive. The cosmology of the Bible made it possible. Babinski notes that “…God’s abode in heaven was not imagined to lay light-years away…in the mind of the psalmists, distances from one part of the earth to another part of the earth paralleled the distance to heaven above.” He also notes the imagery in Psalm 104:3, i.e., that God “makes the clouds his chariot” and “walks upon the wings of the wind.” And in Amos 4:13 God “treads on the heights of the earth.” God was close enough to be paid visits: “Stories of ascents and descents from heaven appear throughout the Bible.”

Babinski states the implications:

“If the ancients did not believe heaven was so near, and heavenly beings so attentive and active, they wouldn’t have been so concerned with appeasing them or seeking their blessings—yet these were universal concerns in the ancient Near East.”

But that cosmos is gone, and it’s been a desperate exercise for Christian theologians to hang on to their attentive God. They may be dismissive of the “na├»ve ancient poetry”—“oh, you can’t take that literally”—but the authors of the Bible based their very concept of God on the cosmos as they imagined it. As humans have come to grasp the immensity of the cosmos, theologians have been backpedaling for centuries trying to find a way to make it believable that God can be so interested in every person on earth.

Laypeople certainly don’t want to give up on The Man Upstairs—and this means hanging on, somehow, to the Bible imagery. Babinski states the dilemma:

“Do we feel the coziness or the peculiar dread of such a cosmos anymore, one in which god(s) live overhead? Such feelings have diminished greatly since the invention of the telescope that allowed humans to peer more deeply into the ‘heavens of the Lord.’”

“…the cosmos that telescopes and space probes have revealed is not nearly as cozy a place as the ancient one we have examined, though it does feature a peculiar dread all its own, namely that our planet is a tiny life raft bobbing in space with far less fortunate rafts bobbing over to our right and left.”

“…any number of probable catastrophes from space could cripple or annihilate human civilization. And none of these inherent dangers seem to have anything to do with whether or not gods are appeased.”

Babinski’s essay is an invitation to jettison the old time religion. Christian theologians really do have to admit that they have dispatched the hovering, primitive, bloodthirsty god of the Bible, and fess up that they’ve reimagined and reinvented God. Paul Tillich thought that presenting God as “the Ground of All Being” would do the trick, but this isn’t a big satisfier for the folks in the pews.

So another tough job for theologians is trying to get parishioners to bid adieu to the Man Upstairs. There is no upstairs. But, oh my, what kind of god are they left with? A prying Spirit that is present everywhere? Hmmm, sounds familiar:

He's making a list
And checking it twice;
He's gonna find out who's naughty and nice

He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows when you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

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.