Untrustworthy spirits: Pat Robertson and Eliphaz

Untrustworthy spirits: Pat Robertson and Eliphaz August 4, 2012

A couple of stray notes formed a chord for me. First was a remark by Ben Myers:

So the Spirit has spoken to you, quietly, cogently, confirming you in a conviction? Eliphaz thought so too (Job 4).

Eliphaz was one of Job’s friends in that profoundly strange and strangely profound story.

Here’s all you need to know about Eliphaz: He was wrong. Extremely wrong. Spectacularly wrong. He starts out by contradicting the omniscient narrator of the story, which is never a good idea. Then he gets rebuked first by Job and then by God — in person.

So Eliphaz was wrong. But here’s the odd thing about his wrongness: Eliphaz also claimed that he was revealing what he had been told by the voice of a spirit. Here’s the passage Myers alluded to, Job 4:12-16:

Now a word came stealing to me,
my ear received the whisper of it.
Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
when deep sleep falls on mortals,
dread came upon me, and trembling,
which made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face;
the hair of my flesh bristled.
It stood still,
but I could not discern its appearance.
A form was before my eyes;
there was silence, then I heard a voice …

That passage called to mind something else I’d just read — a link from a Religion News post that sent me back to this 2011 Media Matters round-up of Pat Robertson’s failed prophecies. Ben Dimiero lists several “prophetic” pronouncements and predictions from Robertson that didn’t turn out the way Pat said that God said they would.

Note that these aren’t simply examples of Robertson being wrong or of him making predictions that didn’t turn out the way he predicted. That wouldn’t be particularly remarkable — the man speaks publicly so frequently, and often without a script, that it isn’t surprising that in at least some of the thousands of hours he’s spent broadcasting we’d find examples of him saying things that were inaccurate, false, foolish or goofy.

But the point here is that these are examples of Robertson being wrong despite having assured his listeners that he was relaying a direct message from God. “The Lord told me,” he said. He “heard it from the Lord.”

There are a limited number of possible explanations for how this could be.

1. God spoke directly to Pat Robertson, but God was mistaken.

2. God spoke directly to Pat Robertson, but God was lying.

3. God did not speak directly to Pat Robertson, but Robertson mistakenly believed God had done so.

4. God did not speak directly to Pat Robertson, but Robertson lied and claimed God had done so.

Either God spoke to Robertson or not. If so, then God was either mistaken or lying. If not, then Robertson was either mistaken or lying.

I think that about covers it.

The majority of Christians and atheists would reject the first two possibilities as being incompatible with what they believe about, respectively, the character or existence of God. Thus when Robertson says, “I heard it from the Lord,” these Christians and atheists can join in responding, emphatically, “No, Pat. No you did not.”

That leaves us with explanations 3 and 4, both of which seem to me to involve acts of deception. The difference between the two, in my view, is the object or target of that deception. That is to say that I believe Robertson is either deceiving himself or else he is attempting to deceive others.

Some Christian traditions would disagree with me there, however, interpreting the third option differently. They would suggest that Robertson may not be deceiving himself, but rather that he may be the victim of some lying spirit — perhaps even Satan himself — posing as the voice of God.

Happily for our purposes here, we need not get into all that. We don’t have to worry about various theological theories of Satan or evil spirits because it doesn’t really much matter how one interprets that third option. Or whether one settles on that third explanation or on one of the others.

Because while it may be interesting to debate the merits and demerits of these, the only four possible explanations for Robertson’s track record of failed prophecy, as a practical matter, we don’t need to worry about which is correct. As fascinating as it may be to speculate about what these failed prophecies tell us about the character of Pat Robertson and/or the character of God, the salient point here is that these failed prophecies are, in fact, failed prophecies.

All of which is to say that, when he claims to be speaking for God, Pat Robertson is not trustworthy.

Perhaps that’s because God really has spoken to him and God is not trustworthy. Perhaps it’s because Robertson is prone to mistakenly attributing his own fanciful ideas as messages from God, and therefore such messages are untrustworthy. Or perhaps it’s because Robertson sometimes lies, falsely claiming he has a message from God in order to make his own political punditry seem more spiritual or more authoritative.

But in any case, the practical implication for the rest of us is always the same: Pat Robertson’s alleged messages from God are not trustworthy. We cannot, and should not, trust them. Or him.

But then I’m guessing you already knew that. So, OK, then, carry on.

(See also at Goblinbooks: “The Clarifications of Pat Robertson — A Celebration.”)

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