Lessons Learned from the Death of a Snake Handler

Lessons Learned from the Death of a Snake Handler February 21, 2014

SnakehandlingEarlier this week news began circulating about the death of yet another snake-handling preacher and my first response was to leave it alone. Christians hate being lumped together with the fringe outliers of their religion and at first I was happy to comply with their wishes. But yesterday the son of the deceased preacher announced that the very snake which killed his father will be making an appearance again in this week’s gathering. As anyone who knows anything about religious belief knows, this is par for the course. You can’t learn from your mistakes if your religion tells you that you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. Knowing this the way I do, I decided to write about this because, while their actions may look crazy to the rest of us, there’s an important lesson in this story that’s relevant for the saner members of the faith of my youth. This story accentuates something I desperately want my Christian friends and family to see about the nature of faith, of biblical authority, and of confirmation bias.

Most Christians will understandably want to distance themselves from these Appalachian oddities because they feel that these bizarre eccentricities don’t represent their own more reasonable faith. It feels irrelevant to them because they don’t identify with it. They would never do something as crazy as dancing around, brandishing venomous snakes. But these guys are just doing something in a really big way that I was taught as a Christian to do in a much smaller, but analogous way. I see here something that is detrimental to the psychological well-being and intellectual health of my friends and family, so I want to take this opportunity to say something about it. There are a number of ways that the death of a snake handler illustrates what’s wrong with the more socially respectable version of the faith which I inherited as a child.

First of all, you have to realize that these people only do this because the Bible says they should do it. The Bible tells them that if they “take up serpents” and “drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.” When confronted with the dangerous absurdity of this notion, most sane people find a way to dismiss this passage. The most educated way to do this is to note that the last twelve verses of the gospel of Mark aren’t original to the text. Even though this passage has been a part of the Bible for most of the church’s history, they follow the lead of those scholars who throw this passage out (a somewhat contradictory move for inerrantists) so they don’t have to worry about it. But there are two major problems with this: 1) Once you do that, you’ve also thrown out any appearance of a resurrected Jesus in this gospel. With this passage taken out, Mark’s gospel ends with three women “trembling and bewildered,” fleeing a vacant tomb without telling anyone anything “because they were afraid.” That’s a terribly unsatisfying place to end this story, particularly since most scholars agree that this gospel was likely the earliest of all of them. That presents some rather obvious problems, but you can go there if you want to. In fact, please do! Consider the likelihood that the earliest Easter tradition had no posthumous appearances of Jesus because those were only added later. 2) This isn’t the only place where the Bible leads its readers to believe they will be invincible to snakes. In Luke 10, Jesus tells his followers they’ll “tread on serpents and scorpions,” and the book of Acts tells a story in which Paul gets bitten by a viper and suffers no ill effects. Clearly this is an early Christian tradition and these Appalachian snake handlers are just following the Bible as best as they understand it.

Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Why would your tradition uphold practices like condemning homosexuality or prohibiting women from having authority over men but then turn around and fault these guys for obeying the Bible in ways that even more radically test their faith? And I know you can say “you’re not supposed to test God,” but sometimes you’re told that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. Besides, the biblical passage behind this deadly tradition speaks of deliberately “taking up serpents in your hands” and it groups this among other signs which are meant to validate the claims of Christianity. Nothing in this passage indicates that these words had an expiration date, as if they were only relevant to one time period or one group of people. Again, I say these people are only doing what the Bible says to do. Perhaps for you, this is one of the places where you simply choose not to follow the New Testament. Everybody has at least a handful of those whether they admit it or not (have you baptized anyone for the dead lately?). But be honest with yourself when those moments come. Don’t lie to yourself and pretend anyone can truly follow the teachings of either the Old Testament or the New without throwing out at least some of it.

Second, I want you to take a good, long, hard look at how the snake-handling tradition doesn’t die even when its most visible advocates do. In particular I want you to notice the relationship of belief to empirical observation. They are told they can handle snakes and they won’t be hurt. Then they get hurt. Then they do it again. Then they lose an arm. But they keep doing it! Then they finally die of a snake bite. So what do onlookers do? Even their own grieving children? They keep on snake handling. They’ll even bring back the exact same snake and use it again in the next week’s demonstration of their fearless faith. But WHY?! The answer is baffling but simple: They are taught that their beliefs and practices should remain unchanged even in the face of contrary evidence. That’s how religious belief works. People whose beliefs are more nuanced and harder to falsify will snicker and mock these country folk for not seeing how these deaths disprove their doctrinal stances. But again, they’re just doing in a bigger way what the rest of the faithful do in more subtle, socially respectable ways.

This topic has come up a lot lately because Peter Boghossian has shone a light on this particular facet of faith in his new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. He has caught a lot of heat for this because most Christians don’t appreciate being told that their beliefs are “without evidence.” To be fair, I’ve already explained why I don’t prefer that way of putting it myself, although the way I would put it may sound almost identical. There’s one key distinction. From my experience, evangelical faith requires believing irrespective of evidence. That speaks neither to the presence nor absence of evidence, which to my mind makes this formulation at least a little bit more accurate because most Christians would have a long list of evidences which persuade them to continue in their faith. Granted, the kind of things which satisfy most Christians are utterly unsatisfying to atheists (that’s why they’re atheists). But they do have evidences of sorts.

However, the Bible encourages believers to look beyond what they have seen thus far to expect even more than what they have already witnessed. Inherent in the notion of faith is an expectation that God will do things which go beyond what even past experience in itself can validate. That’s why the archetypal hero of biblical faith was a guy who believed he was to become the father of a large nation even though he was old and childless and his similarly old wife had never been able to bear children. Faith means believing things even when they seem contrary to what you see happening around you. That’s why it’s called faith. And that explains why the predictable deaths of snake-handling preachers never seem to kill the tradition. It’s because faith teaches you to believe things even when empirical observation suggests they are untrue. That’s what Paul meant when he said “we walk by faith, not by sight.”

The third and final thing I believe this story should cause us to see is that the Bible leads people to believe other things which, while usually less lethal, are just as untrue. I’ll give you two examples, and I’ll explain why the failure of these things to materialize won’t stop people from believing them,“come hell or high water.” I’ve talked about them before, but they bear repeating:

A) If you give money to God, you’ll get it back, and then some. I lead off with this one because the Bible so clearly tells its readers to put God to the test on this matter. It says that if you give of your material wealth to God (which in practical terms means giving to the budget of either a church or an authoritative individual) then you will not only receive that back, but you’ll get even more in return. This promise appears in both the Old and New Testaments, the latter by way of Jesus himself, followed by Paul as well. The Bible makes no pretenses about people doing this selflessly. It encourages them to give so that they’ll get even more in return. It’s meant to be both a positive reinforcer and a kind of evidence for the claims of the Judeo-Christian religions.

But this doesn’t work. I’ve tried it. So have many, many others. But that doesn’t seem to impact most Christians’ belief that these promises are reliable. Just as the snake-handling people do after their preachers die, when this promise fails to materialize, believers draw from a massive arsenal of excuses to account for what happened: Maybe God is trying to teach them to be okay with not being compensated according to this promise. Maybe God doesn’t want them to be too materialistic (then why promise material gain in the first place?). Or maybe they misunderstood it and it doesn’t really say they’ll be compensated. Maybe if they read it in the Hebrew or in the Greek it won’t really say what it seems to say. If all other excuses fail, then somehow or another, “it just wasn’t his will.” In this way, this clear and unambiguous assurance cannot possibly count against the credibility of this belief system, because it just can’t. It’s not allowed. The system of belief must be protected and preserved at all costs.

Oh, but sometimes the money does come in! You take on a second shift, or perhaps work some overtime and guess what happens? Your income goes up! It must be God keeping his promise, right? Come on, people. Why do you play these games with yourself? If you get 40 hours’ pay for 40 hours’ work, that’s not miraculous provision. If you work overtime or vacations and get “time and a half,” that’s not miraculous provision, either. Nor is it necessarily miraculous if you voice your needs in front of a group of compassionate people and they choose to help you by giving to you. That’s people taking care of people, and it happens among the religious and the non-religious alike. At some point in this process, you become guilty of slothful induction. No matter how undeniably this promise seems to fail, you will not allow that realization to set in. You can’t, because your whole belief system might be threatened. You can see the snake handlers’ denial so clearly, but seeing your own is a different story.

B) If you pray for sick people to get healed, they will be healed. Not by doctors, not by medicine, and not by the normal functioning of the immune system. Miraculous healing. That’s what the Bible promises again and again and again. In fact, one of those instances in which Jesus promises miraculous healing for the sick occurs in the same passage as the snake-handling promise. They are side-by-side, both presented as signs of the legitimacy of the Christian message. But anyone who is honest with himself must admit that this usually doesn’t work, and when it does work, there are always other factors involved which contribute to the healing. Chemotherapy, perhaps, or medicine, or surgery. Sometimes even the normal functioning of the body will take care of things as big and as ugly as cancer. It happens both with and without prayer.

Studies have been done to try and establish an empirical basis for claiming that “prayer works,” but they always disappoint. In order to preserve the belief that closing your eyes and talking quietly to yourself makes things happen around you, you have to employ significant confirmation bias. You must write off all instances in which the desired effect didn’t come to pass (“God just had other plans”) and focus only on those moments when things went the way you asked for them to go. But hold on a second there. Do you not see what you are doing? You have arranged things in such a way that failure is impossible. This belief has been constructed in a way that makes it non-falsifiable. It cannot be proven wrong.

You got that job you wanted, right? Congratulations! Did you interview for it, and put your best foot forward? That’s great! But why then call this “an answer to prayer?” You made it happen by doing the things people do to make this happen. Does it matter to you at all that other people did the same things you did, and got their jobs, too, but didn’t pray at all? This is how confirmation bias works. If you automatically rule out all data which contradicts your hypothesis (in this case that “praying for things can make things happen”), then of course all you’re left with is positive results! If you also refuse to eliminate other relevant variables (like interviewing for the job, or taking the medicine, or working the extra shift, or telling the whole Sunday school class about how broke you are) then acquiring affirmative results is a piece of cake.

But these are mind games, folks. We are only fooling ourselves. We have rigged the game—stacked the deck—to insure that our belief system won’t be disturbed. It’s Human Psychology 101, really. But we need to move beyond these self-delusional tactics and start looking for things that more reliably lift us out of our own personal biases. It’s understandable that you want to distance yourself from these crazy snake handlers, and you shake your head at their obtuseness. But they’re just doing in a really big way what you were taught to do in a thousand more subtle and socially acceptable ways. They’re just doing what the Bible (and yes, their tradition’s reading of it) tells them to do. Tell me again how that’s different from what you do?

My Prayer Challenge

I’ve offered this challenge before, and I’ll do it again many more times. As a previous devotee to many different traditions of prayer (petitionary, intercessory, confessional, contemplative, prayer-reading, healing, adoration-confession-thanksgiving-supplication, etc), I’ve run the gamut of prayer approaches and experiences in my time. I sympathize with the desire to “take God at his word” about the various promises the Bible says he has made. But I also came to see that in order to maintain beliefs like these we construct an elaborate edifice of protective excuses and rationalizations to eliminate evidence which seems to undermine what we are told to believe. If you have any sincere interest in combatting the self-deluding power of these kinds of mind games, then please accept this challenge:

1) Pray the way Jesus taught you to pray—privately, where no one else can hear you do it. Quite the opposite of the public spectacle prayer has become for so many Evangelicals (and politicians hoping to earn their vote). I want you to see what happens when you don’t let other people know what your needs are. Are you willing to try that? For six months? Jesus told you to make your needs known to God in secret because, if he’s the one who will meet your needs, then he’s the only one who needs to hear what they are. This is one of the points at which rationalization sets in so that you tell yourself, “I wouldn’t want to deprive others of the joy of seeing how God answers people’s prayers.” Uh huh. So you don’t think he’s able to show them that in their own lives without you helping him? Do you even really believe the stuff you say you believe? I know that sounds harsh and critical but I say it sympathetically. I’ve been in that same position myself. But then I realized what I was doing, so I gave it up. Are you willing to be that honest with yourself?

2) Pray for things that only God can do and keep a written record of the results. You rig the game when you mainly pray for things that will likely happen anyway, even without prayer. I’m sure you’ll still pray for your children to get over their flu (thankfully, you’ll give them medicine for their symptoms anyway) and you’ll pray for your spouse to get that job promotion (which he or she will also work hard to earn). But I’d like to challenge you to keep a journal of “answered prayer” while only including those things which you know cannot happen through any way other than divine intervention. Why include anything else as evidence? If your goal is to truly demonstrate that your faith doesn’t rest on flimsy rationalizations and confirmation bias, then stop admitting weak evidence as exhibits in this case. Concretely track the outcome of prayers made in private for things which only God can do. Do this for six months. If you make it to the end of six months and still believe prayer has any relationship to what happens around you, I would like to see your journal. I will publish it here and admit it as relevant evidence for the reliability of the promises of the Bible.

I predict that long before the six months are up, most who attempt this will abandon the experiment because it’s not going the way they wanted it to go. Rationalizations will kick in soon:

  • I didn’t believe hard enough.
  • I must have doubted at least a little.
  • My motives must have been wrong and that’s why God didn’t answer the prayers.
  • We shouldn’t test God because that’s bad.
  • Prayer should really be for other things, like fellowshipping with God instead of asking him to do things. God isn’t Santa Claus, after all.

Never mind how many times that Jesus himself tells you to do this very thing in no uncertain terms. If you take this as seriously as I’m suggesting, you will have to either abandon the experiment or else you will finish out the six months with a significantly different understanding of either prayer or biblical authority or God or all of the above.

Don’t be like the snake handlers. Don’t keep making excuses for all the moments your belief doesn’t actually match your experience. It’s not a healthy way to live. You may not handle snakes in church, but you may very well harbor your own tradition’s irrational notions just as faithfully, come hell or high water.

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  • Wendell Neal

    I have a couple of recommendations for religious snake handlers everywhere. Let’s change species of snakes. My first choice would be the vipers and cobras that inhabited and still inhabit biblical lands. These species would make short order of the “slothful induction” problems these folks have. However, in the event they do not wish to be more consistent with the biblical instructions on herpetology, may I suggest substituting eastern diamondbacks for the more mildly tempered timber rattlesnakes and copperheads. This, too, would allow for a more expeditious and robust demonstration of their faith.

  • cjoint

    To think, if these guys only had the faith of a mustard seed, you know, the smallest seed on earth…err..never mind.

    I have to say, this hits at the heart of my own dedonversion. Not only did I begin to understand that my faith in the bible was misplaced, incongruent and untenable, but that it’s actual claims are contradictory and impotent, and it was self deceiving to ignore the abscense of any evidential power therin.

    I’ve said it before, but to be a true believer you have to put faith in the fantastic supernaturalism claims of the ancient past, and believe that they will once again appear in the distant future, all while ignoring the present absence of anything worthy of being called a recognizably divine power.

  • mikespeir

    There’s “snake handling” going on across the Christian world. Most of these critters aren’t wiggly, and their bites don’t kill as quickly, but they’re deadly just the same.

  • I am going to follow your response about the snake handling and leave it alone myself. I do think it is excellent fodder for the seemingly bizarre atheist movement that wants converts. Why? Why seek converts? Isn’t that a criticism of Christianity? At any rate, I am at time a skeptic and I enjoyed your About page and with that I am skeptical about skeptics as well. I cannot deny that faith in something real or imagined truly did make a difference, even when I gave money, I did in fact get it back. Kudos on the blog godless in dixie.

  • Tam

    Reblogged this on One HuMan's Journey.

  • Brilliant! From Anselm’s “credo ut intelligam” (I believe in order that I may understand) all the way to Tertullian’s “credo quia absurdum” (I believe *because* it is absurd), the ‘logic’ of faith is a whole other way of arriving at ‘truth’. And the human capacity to reframe positively and attribute causality squeezes reality into a glass slipper several sizes too small and proclaims it a perfect fit.

  • Keeping a journal is a great idea–it keeps hindsight and confirmation bias from being such a problem. But one must be honest about keeping it. I once, during a squabble about the efficacy of prayer, suggested to a Christian on Facebook that he keep a prayer journal listing all of his prayers and how often they were answered the way he’d requested, so he could see how seldom “miracles” really happen. He said he had done this and gotten a near 100% answer rate (“answer” meaning “I got what I prayed for,” not the “yes/no/maybe/later” horseshit that Christians rationalize the word to mean once they finally realize nobody’s answering them at all). He was very emphatic about having done this and he was just astonished that his “wonder-working” god had been so faithful. So I asked to see a scan of the journal, and when pressed to the wall, this Christian–who claims to be a pastor, by the way–finally he admitted that he had lied about having a prayer journal. He’d never done it. He had just said he’d done it, because he thought nobody on FB would ever be able to tell he was lying. But he was saying this stuff in a room full of people who did know better and who weren’t inclined to just believe any fool thing a Christian says just because he says he’s a Christian or a pastor, and he got caught lying-for-Jesus. He ain’t the only one, either. But most Christians don’t lie about prayer’s efficacy; they just slowly stop asking for anything really miraculous, like I did.

    If prayer were real, nobody would have to tell anybody they were doing it, and Christians wouldn’t have to flat-out lie about it. It’d be something we could–and indeed would–test often and frequently, and find to be useful and helpful. Hospitals would employ teams of people to wander the wards and pray for people, and results of their efforts would be easily available and viewable. But instead, they seem to go to enormous pains not to test prayer’s efficacy, and lie about results when pressed.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I won’t go through everything here, and I’m not keen on entering into another long, dragged out debate, but I just wanted to address several of your points:

    1. You’re assuming that “the real Mark” ended precisely at chapter 16, verse 8. But why assume that? Textual scholars certainly aren’t in agreement on that point, and some have argued that the original ending is simply lost, torn off. Like many skeptics, you make much of the fact that Mark says the women “said nothing to anyone.” But this could be quite naturally interpreted to mean that the women told only a couple disciples, privately, without spreading the news abroad. More subtly, if you compare this sentence with multiple other passages in Mark’s Greek grammar, you see that he’s fond of beginning with a sweeping “no one/any one” construction, then following it up with “except” or “but.” See Mark 5:37, Mark 10:18, and Mark 9:8. That’s his personal stylistic fingerprint, if you will.

    2. How much later are you claiming the traditions of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances sprang up? Gerd Ludemann dates the Apostle’s Creed quoted in 1 Corinthians 15 at no later than three years at the outside after the crucifixion. Exact quote: “…[T]he formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.” (Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, p. 38). That’s well before at least half the gospels were even put down in writing.

    3. The first NT passage you quote supposedly relating to material wealth comes in the middle of a short list of proverbial parallels. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged. Condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned. Give, and it shall be given unto you. It’s just basic common sense that when you invest in the people around you, not merely in material terms but in terms of sacrificing your own interests for their good in some way, at least some of those people will be there to return that favor when you need help. I love to think about this in relation to It’s a Wonderful Life. Is George a materially wealthy man at the end of the story? Not by half. Everything he gets is going towards making sure he doesn’t go to jail, and once that’s taken care of he’ll go back to his modest middle class life. The handfuls of coins “showered in his lap,” as it were, are metaphors for the true measure of George Bailey’s wealth: his friends. When Old Man Potter kicks the bucket, there will be no loving friends and family gathered at his beside to bid him goodbye, because in this life, he did not give. Not so for George Bailey. And that’s the heart of Jesus’ message.

    As for Paul, recall that this is the same guy who wrote in Philippians 4: “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” This is no prosperity gospel. Of course, Paul encourages the Church to give, and of course he tells them truthfully that God is able to bless them for their generosity, but to equate this with modern prosperity gospel teaching is incredibly weak. Compare Paul’s own hard-scrabble existence of frequent beatings, hunger, cold and thirst with the lifestyle of someone like Benny Hinn. The reality of suffering is everywhere in the epistles. For goodness sake, he compares the pain of our earthly existence with that of a woman groaning in childbirth in Romans 8. And while we’re cross-referencing to Jesus, compare with John 16. I could go on and on. The point is clear.

    4. Jesus ordained the apostles with the power to perform healings, but even they didn’t always use it. Paul tells Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach. He also suffered from blindness (perhaps the ongoing “thorn in the flesh” he refers to) and the pain of all that his body went through in the process of his ministry. At no point do we hear about Paul’s stripes magically being healed. So, even in that immediate “hot spot” context, we’re taught that sometimes God’s answer is “No.”

    5. Finally, in answer to your prayer challenge, multiple people can testify to having received timely, concrete aid from a distant friend or even an anonymous source who couldn’t possibly have known their specific need at that moment. But I suppose that doesn’t count since it seems you’ll only be satisfied with God making Joni Eareckson Tada walk again.

    With all due respect, your accusations of “flimsy rationalizations and confirmation bias” smack of “pot meet kettle” to me.

    Thanks for reading.

  • Esther, for a powerful confirmation of prayers answered, I’d recommend Tim Minchin’s “Thank You God” you-tube video. Convinced even a skeptic like ME!! (wink. . )

  • 1. You’re assuming that “the real Mark” ended precisely at chapter 16, verse 8. But why assume that?

    Because that’s how our earliest and most reliable copies of Mark end. Do you have any evidence for the supposition that they end that way because the original ending was “torn off”? And like I said, if you’re not willing to accept this, then you’ve got to accept the idea that Jesus said you can pick up serpents and not get hurt, which brings us back to my original point: That these people are only doing what the Bible tells them to do.

    2. How much later are you claiming the traditions of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances sprang up?

    Not my problem. It’s my observation that stories can get spun and exaggerations can happen very quickly, especially when strong emotions surround the reporting of a tragic event. With enough conflicting stories, finding out the truth can get very difficult even in our modern era of instant information.

    3. …It’s just basic common sense that when you invest in the people around you…at least some of those people will be there to return that favor

    So you interpret these statements about giving in social terms, then. When you give to people, they’ll give back. No god required, I guess. I can live with that.

    Of course, Paul encourages the Church to give, and of course he tells them truthfully that God is able to bless them for their generosity, but to equate this with modern prosperity gospel teaching is incredibly weak.

    I didn’t equate this with the modern prosperity gospel. I am pointing out that in multiple places the Bible says that if you give to God he will return the favor and even bless you beyond what you have invested. You conveniently left off the Malachi passage which made this the most explicit, but the notion of abundance is there even in the New Testament passage. My contention is that if you give to a church budget you do not get anything in return for that unless you do as I have suggested and appeal to the generosity of actual people. I see nothing supernatural about that.

    But positing that I just jumped to Creflo Dollar or Benny Hinn is misrepresenting what I said.

    4. Jesus ordained the apostles with the power to perform healings, but even they didn’t always use it.

    I contend that they likely never used it because it’s a made up concept. The best evidence for this assertion would be to see it in action now. You have a thoroughly developed hobby of debating things that happened two millennia ago, mostly via quote mining from scholars who have made careers out of doing the same. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, I am “monumentally disinterested” in trying to figure out who said what and did what in the ancient Levant. If what this religion claims is true, then here-and-now stuff will bear it out. In a previous thread you called that being “subjective.” I didn’t respond because I was baffled by the hypocrisy of it. You are really going to argue that concrete, present evidence in the real here-and-now world is less reliable than endlessly debating events which happened thousands of years ago among a people who didn’t record what happened until years later? I don’t even know what to say to that.

    So, even in that immediate “hot spot” context, we’re taught that sometimes God’s answer is “No.”

    What I see there is that the earliest Christians used rationalization and confirmation bias as much as we do today.

    5. Finally, in answer to your prayer challenge, multiple people can testify to having received timely, concrete aid from a distant friend or even an anonymous source who couldn’t possibly have known their specific need at that moment.

    That’s not an answer to my prayer challenge. People do nice things for each other all the time (Christian or not). Make requests, like Jesus said to do, not telling anyone, and then keep a written record for six months. And don’t write “prayer letters” to people in distant countries telling them about all the needs you want them to “pray about.” The same friend I quoted before (he’s a minister) is also fond of saying, “People who write prayer letters don’t need to be prayed for.” IOW, that’s not why they make their needs known. They know that the only way their needs will be met is if they make sure people—real people—know that they need things.

    But I suppose that doesn’t count since it seems you’ll only be satisfied with God making Joni Eareckson Tada walk again.

    Au contraire. Pick any one of hundreds of biblical claims and show me that happening now, in real life (not in a book). Why limit ourselves to just one kind of healing or miracle?

    But since you brought that up…You and I both know that’s impossible. Short of a medical breakthrough, people with irreversible nerve damage to their spinal cords don’t get healed. We both know better than to expect that kind of miracle.

  • cjoint

    Even when I was a beleiver, and would have entered this debate on Esther’s side, I would have had to enter with a knowing that “God just doesn’t seem to work that way today” ethos. And it’s a powerful motivation that develops dispensationlism & cessationist theologies among others- it’s an admission in the design of these theologies that recognizes that “God doesn’t” , and clings to “but God could” in order to not look foolish or self-deceived . It then relies heavily on attributions. So if I’m hurting in North Carolina financially and my friend in Utah gets a warm fuzzy feeling to send me $, it’s evidence of prayers answered. But when other people of other religions or no religion experience these same coincidences, the Christian would not recognize this as a demonstration of other gods working power. Again, like I think Neil just pointed out in Esther’s arguments, it relies heavily on believing and defending incredible claims of the past, while ignoring the complete absence of anything even coming close today. The iron chariots of today’s random experiences begs beleivers to accept an all powerful being missing in action.

  • Also, it’s funny you should mention Tada. She is coming to my family’s church next weekend to speak. The theme of the conference? “In the name of Jesus…RISE UP!”

    That’s right. It’s a health conference in which the key text is the passage in which Peter heals a man unable to walk. For this conference, they chose Tada as the speaker. The mind reels.


  • dave warnock

    Jesus said it plainly, several times: ask and you’ll receive; whatever you ask for shall be given you, if you ask for a fish, you won’t get a rock, (if you ask for money, you won’t just get a new friend)…and so on. The issue is not about the obvious excesses of a Benny Hinn- just simple Christians walking in obedience to simple and plain statements from their savior concerning prayer. And when no answer comes, circumstances weren’t met, faith wasn’t strong enough, God said no. Jesus didn’t say to pray and expect an answer but sometimes the answer may be no. He said, pray and you WILL get what you asked for.

  • Gra*ma Banana

    “If prayer were real, nobody would have to tell anybody they were doing it,…” Seems to me that Jesus didn’t think he needed to “advertise”. However, today’s interpretation of how and what to pray for depends on one’s agenda; monetary, political, self-promotion, etc.

  • David W

    Thanks Neil,

    cjoint said earlier “this hits at the heart of my own dedonversion.” This is true for me as well.

    I sincerely tried to ‘find God,’ and when the promises made in the Bible fell flat, well, I began to wonder why.

    You said, in response to a comment: “You are really going to argue that concrete, present evidence in the real here-and-now world is less reliable than endlessly debating events which happened thousands of years ago among a people who didn’t record what happened until years later? I don’t even know what to say to that.”

    It couldn’t be put better.

    It is always baffling to me when in conversations with Christian family and friends, when I point out ‘that their beliefs and practices … remain unchanged even in the face of contrary evidence.’ and I point out that they ‘keep making excuses for all the moments their belief doesn’t actually match their experience;’ and then somehow, I am suddenly the unreasonable one, and they say something like “God just doesn’t seem to work that way today” as if this is supposed to satisfy me, and is somehow an airtight response which points out my foolishness.

    *shrug* it makes speaking with them, my Christian family and friends a frustrating experience.

  • I don’t think modern Christians do much at all that their Jesus would recognize.

  • “God just doesn’t seem to work that way today” as if this is supposed to satisfy me, and is somehow an airtight response which points out my foolishness.

    Did it ever occur to you (and to godless) that God didn’t work “that way” back then? He was never a cosmic gumball machine — put in a quarter (or a prayer) and get the candy at every turn! Believe it or not, Christ spoke in parables, often suggested our ‘reward’ for following Him would be in heaven and not here on Earth, etc. So it is not at all clear to me that the Bible suggests if just pray with the right amount of faith we’ll get whatever we want here and now. There is a reason many Christians suffer (and even die as martyrs) and we generate them for their forbearance.

  • Jeremiah

    This reminds me of the 1950’s cult that inspired Leon Festinger’s book “When Prophecy Fails” which introduced cognitive dissonance. After the prophecy that their cult believed did not come true, they actually became more fervent in their beliefs.

  • David W

    Hmm, IOW, the absence of evidence for god and the supernatural, and the lack of answer to prayers is evidence for your belief?

  • dave warnock

    and when the scripture says: “you shall call the elders of the church and they shall lay hands on the sick and they SHALL recover”…oh yeah, that means they are well in heaven but still sick on earth.

  • dave warnock

    The cognitive dissonance it takes to live as a Bible-believing Christian who thinks God is active and responsive in one’s life today is staggering. Prayers will be sent to heaven today in churches all around me- people imploring God for this or that favor; many of them legitimate needs; some of them heart-breaking needs. But God won’t do a thing for them. They might imagine that he touched my hip and made me feel better or gave me peace for my anxiety, but examples of God really coming through and doing a miracle won’t be reported. How do I know? Because I watched it for 35 years. Never saw it happen once. Yet I continued to petition God and believe that he would answer. Why did I do this in the face of all evidence to the contrary? Because I believed what the Bible said- just like those snake handlers. I took Jesus at his word.

    My bad.

  • Gra*ma Banana

    My sister still believes that God had a hand in getting her laid off. She suffered through 4 company take-overs, browbeating, un-Godly working hours and conditions, toxic work atmosphere, the deterioration of her health and healthcare, and finally, after 35 years, she was laid off just one year from her 62nd birthday so she could draw SS and with no COBRA benefits. But it was God’s will, at this time, in this way. Everyone else around her, including those in her church, cautioned her to find another job before they laid her off, but she must have been waiting for God to ‘officially’ lay her off.

  • Neil, I noticed you didn’t address 1 Cor 15. If I were to concede the Gospels, which I don’t, what’s your take on Paul’s resurrection description.

  • When I was in seminary, they taught us that responsible biblical interpretation begins with the elemental disciplines like textual criticism and translations, etc. Only after that work is done do you begin the next level of work, which includes hermeneutics, exegesis, and biblical theology (then later systematic and historical theology). Each one builds on the discipline before it. You don’t jump to a secondary or tertiary discipline until the foundational work is done. In this case, deciding on the earliest text comes before we do anything else. Metzger and most textual critics of both conservative and liberal camps alike concede that the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark’s gospel ends where I said it ends, at verse 8.

    While you understandably are more interested in buttressing the reliability of the resurrection account (which, granted, I mentioned at one point), I was really discussing snake handling. The question at hand is: Did Jesus tell his disciples they’d take up snakes and drink poison and be fine? The experts in this field have reached a pretty significant consensus that this passage is not original. So asking how long it took for the story to grow from its original state to its later state is really beside the point we’re discussing.

    Did it take 3 years or 5 years for the story to get to that level? I don’t know, and I’m not nearly as concerned as you are, because either way we’re still debating ancient history. I can’t go back to that moment in time and see what happened. I have here and now to examine and understand the world around me. That’s what I keep pointing this discussion back to and each time you guys want to get AWAY from the here-and-now to discuss unrepeatable events that were to have happened so long ago that they are completely unfalsifiable. That compulsion is very telling for me.

  • What we learned is reality bites. :) When living in a fantasy world, you can make up anything you like. Who said what when is irrelevant; it’s all make believe.

  • Jane

    The total inefficacy of prayer was also what led to my de-conversion. Thank you so much for an excellent blog post. (as usual!)

  • Neil, I’m surprised that you would even consider the Gospels. I figured that Erhman had sown enough doubt to discredit them, except as historical texts. The snake preacher obviously considers the last chapters of Mark as true Christian belief, although most Biblical scholars do not. My studies have seen scholarly skeptics embrace the Pauline works. Guys like Ludermann and Goulder, included. That’s why I asked about 1Cor 15. Even most historical scholarship, including skeptics, date the information gained to be about three years from the event itself. If the resurrrection didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be a Christian!

    I’m smiling at your choice of worlds, “unrepeatable events….completely unfalsifiable.” I’m a bit confused about those, because the truthfulness of an event doesn’t depend on it’s repeatability, and I’ve shown by argument that the information describing the resurrection event was from three years or less from the actual event, itself.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  • dave warnock

    it’s kinda funny to see snake preacher and Biblical scholar in the same sentence :)

  • I’ve actually read very few books by atheists. Only a couple as I recall, and neither of them were about the Bible. It’s not so much by choice, it’s just that I spent three of the last four years working seven days a week and three jobs at once. I’ve gained back one day a week but it fills up very fast, so I just don’t have time to read much. I have a lot of catching up to do. So ironically most of the biblical studies I’ve got stored up in my head are from conservatives during my Christian days.

    As for skeptics embracing Pauline works, that depends on what you mean. They certainly feel that some of the letters attributed to him are authentic (1 Cor. being among them) although that doesn’t mean that they accept all that he reports as factual (for example, Paul’s chronology in the first couple of Galatians is completely incompatible with the Lukan narrative about the ministry of Paul). The few things he has to say about the ministry of Jesus would have been passed to him third or fourth hand in most cases, and very little of that shows up in his letters. He only makes direct references to teachings of Jesus two or three times, which is one of those curiosities of the Paul-Jesus relationship (or lack thereof).

    But as for the origins of the credal statement in 1 Cor. 15, let’s suppose for the moment that it traces back to three years after the crucifixion. Three years is a long time. It’s plenty of time for a story to grow and become embellished. I’ve seen stories mushroom overnight, particularly when surrounded by an emotionally charged situation. Shouldn’t the resurrection appearances trace back to the few days immediately following the crucifixion?

    More importantly, do we really have any way of knowing? We are still debating circumstantial things (like “Would these guys make this up?” and “Were any words added later?” etc). This is still academic. And ancient. If the claims of Jesus and of the New Testament are legitimate, then comparing notes on ancient texts shouldn’t be the best we’ve got. If there is a real person, invisible but everywhere, who is capable of demonstrating his existence and power in real life, then why are we debating ancient texts?

  • Esther Oreily already touched on it.

    You say:

    “Consider the likelihood that the earliest Easter tradition had no posthumous appearances of Jesus because those were only added later.”

    Here you are clearly implying that Mark is the earliest Easter tradition. That is false.

    In response to Esther you claim there is some inconsistency between the potential ending of Mark where it ends saying the women were bewildered when they saw the vacant tomb and the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. But there is no contradiction at all. In fact they are quite consistent.

    I stopped reading a bit after that but I might read the rest if I have time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Mark Bailey

    I shouldn’t be surprised to bump into you here, Wendell. As my crusty old major professor and renowned Alabama herpetologist (with whom you’ve worked) Bob Mount used to observe, isnt it interesting that the snake handlers never successfully colonized the southeastern coastal plain, land of the diamondback?