Friday, February 06, 2015

"Magic trees"

i) Atheists mock the Bible for having "magic trees." Atheists refer to the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, and the burning bush. In fact, I've encountered two illiterate atheists who said the burning bush was a talking tree.

ii) To begin with, I doubt the narrator thought the tree of knowledge or the tree of life had the innate ability to confer godlike knowledge or immortality. 

a) For one thing, knowledge is psychological, but immortality is physical. Even if, for the sake of argument, the fruit of the tree of life had the chemical properties to confer immortality, knowledge operates on a very different principle.

b) Moreover, from the viewpoint of the narrator, just because there's a correlation between eating the fruit and a particular result, that doesn't mean the fruit caused the result. 

To take another Pentateuchal example, if unauthorized personnel touched the ark of the covenant, that was deadly. But contact wasn't lethal because the ark itself was fatal to the touch. It's not like the ark was radioactive. It was simply a gold-plated wooden box. Authorized personnel could open the ark and put things inside without suffering harm.

It's not the ark that killed you, but God. The ark was an emblem of God's holiness. For unauthorized personnel to touch the ark was an act of profanation. God struck the offender dead. 

iii) Likewise, as I've argued elsewhere, I doubt the bush itself was on fire. In context, I think it was the luminosity of the angel within or behind the bush that made it seem to be on ablaze from a distance. 

Mind you, I have no antecedent objection to a bush that miraculously burns without consuming itself. 

iv) But what about "magic trees"? Is that inherently absurd? 

Of course, what's absurd is relative to your worldview. To a Christian, atheism is absurd. Indeed, some atheists think atheism is absurd (i.e. existential nihilists)!

It depends, in part, on what you mean by "magic trees." Take animism. Animism was one of the most popular pagan religions. And unlike many dead pagan religions, animism continues to have huge numbers of adherents in parts of the Third World.

According to animism, the physical world is inhabited or haunted by nature spirits and ancestral spirits. That includes rocks, trees, and streams. 

On this view, it's not that a particular tree has inherent "magical" properties. The tree itself is just a tree. But the tree has become the host for some ancestral spirit. 

That doesn't mean that if you cut open a "magic tree," you will find a wood nymph inside. The framework isn't that physical. 

v) From a Christian standpoint, I don't believe in "nature spirits." But I do believe in evil spirits. This includes demonic spirits. But it might also include "restless spirits." By that I mean, souls of the damned that linger on earth. They are doomed. They await the final judgment. But in the meantime they "wander." They tend to hang around places where they used to live. 

On this view, "magic trees" are no more or less absurd than haunted houses. It depends on what you believe about ghosts, demons, and the intermediate state of the damed. 

vi) Apropos (v), this is related to the notion of territorial spirits:

This may also be related to the Biblical concept of bloodshed polluting the land (Num 35:33-34).

It wouldn't surprise me if there's a circular dynamic in play. For instance, it wouldn't surprise me if a locus of human sacrifice became a magnet for evil spirits. Conversely, it wouldn't surprise me if a locus of evil spirits became a magnet for human sacrifice.

Evil feeds on itself. Evil gorges itself on evil. And if you conjure the dark side, you may get what you ask for. 

Now, the Bible is not an encyclopedia. It doesn't attempt to record everything that exists. So I just offer this as a working hypothesis, not a settled fact. 

vii) That said, there is corroborative evidence. For instance:

Well do I recall the almost overwhelming depression that came upon me as I entered the premises and inner "sanctuary" of the "goddess" (Kali) in Nandi, Fiji with its horrifying blood-smeared image. The pace of walking became abnormal and breathing irregular. Similar was the experience in the Kali temple premises in Calcutta, India. Attendance at a ceremonial dance in eastern Zaire brought an impact of oppression and ill feeling to me in the "electrified" general, negative and depressive atmosphere of the situation. It was very similar in Dahomy, West Africa, as we observed a priest at the altar sacrificing chickens and chanting incantations to appease the evil spirits at the bottom of an "indwelt" tree.  
I cannot help but believe that there is such a thing as demonic focalization in certain objects and operating uniquely through certain formulas. These objects (including words) become special embodiments and vehicles of demonic powers and convey supra-human and supra-natural potency. Strange phenomena proceed from them. Sounds and voices are heard, flames are seen shooting forth from rocks and trees as lightning or bright flashes, and strange and destructive influences are emanating from them. Dr. John S. Mbiti reports several rather peculiar experiences in African Religions and Philosophy (pp194-97). Trustworthy eyewitnesses have informed me that they have seen flames shooting up from rocks repeatedly in Timor, Indonesia, and trees have been seen burning without being destroyed. Experiences as described by Dr Mbiti and the reports from Timor are quite common in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.  
It has been experienced that the transportation of an idol has actually brought serious physical disturbances, destruction, and death to the new locality and community. 
The books Demon Experiences: A Compilation [Tyndale House 1972] and [Robert Peterson's] Are Demons for Real? (Moody Press 1972) report numerous instances to support the view. My personal experiences in Africa, especially in Dahomy and certain villages in Nigeria and in Timor, Indonesia, leave no room for doubt in my mind. Unforgettable are the impressions and mental pressures that I experienced in the peculiar atmosphere that surrounded two very large trees in the interior of Dahomy at which trees numerous twin children had been sacrificed to the spirits of the ancestors who were supposed to indwell those trees. Peculiar stories were being told of terrifying phenomena that seemed to proceed from those trees, especially in the evening hours and at times of "sacrifices." George W. Peters, "Demonology on the Mission Field," J. W. Montgomery, ed. Demon Possession (Bethany 1976), 198-200.

viii) I will close with a personal anecdote. I used to go for afternoon walks along a woodsy paved trail that was frequented by cyclists. 

I began to notice that every so often a bicycle accident would occur right around a particular tree. I don't know if I'd classify it as one tree with several trunks or several trees bunched together. 

This didn't happen every day or every week. But the frequency seemed to be unusual.

Now someone might say that's just a coincidence. In the nature of the case, I can only witness an accident if I happen to be at a particular place at a particular time. Similar accidents may occur elsewhere that I don't see because I wasn't there.

Okay, I get that. But it fails to explain why bicycle accidents happened to cluster at that particular spot. There weren't any bumps, cracks, or loose gravel at that spot along the trail. 

The stretch of trail I used to walk along was about 2 miles in either direction. Yet I didn't witness bicycle accidents clustering elsewhere along the same stretch of trail.

Moreover, two other points along that same stretch were naturally more accident prone. That's where the trail bottlenecked, with barriers on either side. That's where you had a bend in the trail around blind curves. 

A speeding cyclist couldn't see what was just around the curve. He'd be unable to stop in time to avoid a collision. Yet I never witnessed a bicycle mishap at those locations.

So it seems as if there was something about that tree. Did something evil happen there years ago that made it treacherous be around?

I don't have a firm conviction. It could just be a coincidence. But it's one of those things I notice as I go through life. If you're observant, you pick up on little uncanny things that happen here and there. Not something you expected or sought out. 


  1. See here for a miracle account from Craig Keener involving a tree. I've seen a picture of the fallen tree in one of Keener's presentations on miracles. I forget which presentation it was or where the photo was displayed in that presentation. But he has been showing people the photograph he refers to.

  2. Steve, do you think the restless spirits of deceased humans can possess living human beings like demons can?

    1. I'm inclined to think that's possible. Medical missionary (surgeon/psychiatrist) Kenneth McAll presents prima facie evidence for that theory in various books. That would also be a theologically orthodox alternative explanation for putative evidence of reincarnation.

    2. Hang on, restless spirits of humans?
      I've always been lead to believe the opposite, that we go into some sort of intermediary state, or we go to a temporary heaven/hell, but never walking about.

    3. I had specific reference to the damned. The intermediate state is just that–a state, not a place.

      The final, definitive separation occurs at the day of judgment.

    4. Alex,

      Keep in mind that much of what scripture tells us about the afterlife involves generalization, comments that possibly or probably aren't meant to be taken as universals. Some of the Biblical authors were aware that men like Samuel, Moses, and Elijah appeared on earth after death. There can be an intermediate state between death and being in heaven or hell, even if it's just a brief intermediate state, as the carrying away by angels to Abraham's bosom in Luke 16:22 illustrates. Jesus' disciples seem to have thought that spirits of the dead or representatives of them could appear to people on earth (Mark 6:49, Luke 24:37, Acts 12:15). Notice Jesus' response to the disciples in Luke 24:38-43. The response is relatively lengthy. He responds to their concern in word and action, but he doesn't try to correct their belief that a spirit (presumably a spirit of a deceased human) could appear to a person on earth. Rather, Jesus focuses on persuading them that he was more than a spirit. The disciples' belief in the appearance of spirits is significant. Most of them or all eleven of them held the view, apparently, which suggests that it was widespread, orthodox Jewish belief at the time. But it's even more significant that their belief was so persistent (coming up in Mark 6, Luke 24, and Acts 12) and was never corrected by Jesus as far as we can tell, even when he responded to them at length in Luke 24.

      Christians have sometimes had experiences of seeing the dead or coming into contact with them in some other way. Sometimes, both parties, the deceased individual(s) involved and the person(s) still alive, are Christians, even significantly mature ones, which poses problems for a demonic explanation. Some of my relatives have seen deceased Christians after death, with corroborating evidence.

      There are a lot of ambiguities here. For example, Jesus might have disagreed with the disciples in Luke 24 without having said so or without Luke's having recorded it. But both of those scenarios are less likely. So, the passage provides some support for the conclusion that the dead can appear to people on earth. Does a passage like Acts 12:15 suggest that some representative of Peter was thought to be involved, not Peter himself? Might the same sort of concept be involved in the other relevant passages? I doubt it, since most of the passages don't include such a qualifier, and we have no reason to assume one. And while some Biblical passages and extra-Biblical experiences may involve something like a vision of the dead rather than a visit from a dead person, I see no reason to assume that it's always the case. Furthermore, how significant is such a distinction in most instances? For most people in most contexts, I doubt that it matters much whether the dead person visited or appeared in something like a vision. I suspect that dead people, including dead believers, do sometimes appear on earth.

      (continued below)

    5. (continued from above)

      That doesn't mean it's a normative occurrence. I suspect it's exceptional rather than normative, given how scripture generally talks about the afterlife and how unusual it is for Christians to report such appearances of the dead. They happen, but they seem to be minority occurrences. And we shouldn't try to initiate contact with the dead, whether dead believers or dead unbelievers. See our posts on prayer to the dead (and angles) here. You can search the Triablogue archives for more posts on the subject. Even when the dead initiate contact with those on earth, there's a danger of becoming too focused on the experience or thinking too highly of the dead person who appeared, for example. We should be aware of such dangers and guard against them. We also need to consider possibilities such as delusion and demonic activity. It's important that we exercise discernment.

      For those who are interested, I have an archive of posts on near-death experiences and other paranormal phenomena, such as apparitions of the dead, here. Several years ago, Steve Hays wrote a post providing an overview of paranormal experiences from a Christian perspective.

  3. Seems like atheists can't be consistent on this one. After all, they believe in magic dirt that turns into people.