Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Heaven is for real"

I'm going to comment on a three evangelical book reviews of an alleged NDE:

Let me say at the outset that I haven't read the book, and I don't intend to. I'm also dubious about the recollections of a 3-4 year old. I'm not a child psychologist, but to my knowledge, kids that age have underdeveloped short-term memories. BTW, it's odd that reviewers disagree on whether he was 3 or 4 at the time. 

In addition, kids that age don't clearly distinguish between reality and make-believe. So I don't consider Colton to be a reliable witness. 

Furthermore, how trustworthy this is depends on the credibility of the parents as well as the boy. 

If I wanted to disprove Colton’s experience on grounds of logic or consistency I might point in a couple of different directions. In the first place, Colton is a toddler who speaks like an adult. His verbatim quotes sound nothing like a 4-year old, and I think I can say this with some authority as the father of a 4-year old (Challies). 
Some of the words that Colton supposedly spoke as a four-year-old seem more like words an adult would speak, but perhaps that’s due to his father’s memories as he tried to reconstruct his son’s words from years earlier (Alcorn).
Of the reviews I've read, that's the most cogent criticism. How much of this account is Colton's, and how much is Todd's reconstruction or embellishment? 
This kind of proof is exactly the kind of proof we should not need and should not want. Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe (Challies).
i) I agree that we shouldn't use NDEs as proof. That doesn't mean they can't furnish evidence. 
ii) Moreover, it's not necessarily a question of wanting it. Given the prevalence of reported NDEs, it's a question of evaluating this phenomenon one way or the other. 

I’ve already given you the broad outline. Colton dies (or something close to it) and visits heaven for an unknown period of time. He returns to his body and over the months and years that follow tells his parents about his time in heaven. He tells about spending time with Jesus, about meeting the sister he never knew he had, about fluttering around with wings, about the pearly gates, and on and on (Challies). 
Heaven is for Real is written by an evangelical pastor, Todd Burpo, and tells of his then four-year-old son Colton, who survived emergency surgery and later told his family that he went to Heaven. Colton described seeing Jesus and meeting his miscarried sister and his great-grandfather, who died before he was born (Alcorn).
It's odd how Alcorn and Challies gloss over these details. Yet if this is accurate, then it would be classic evidence of a veridical NDE and/or OBE. Information Colton could only acquire if he crossed over. Do Alcorn and Challies not understand the criteria for assessing veridical NEDs and OBEs? 
Many supporters of the book claim that any and all objections pale in the face of the supernatural knowledge that Colton reveals--things that were humanly impossible for him to know. For example, he said that he had met his other sister in Heaven. When told by his mother that Cassie was his only sister, his shocking response was, "No....I have two sisters. You had a baby die in your tummy, didn't you?" (p. 94). Colton had never been told of the "painful episode" of the miscarriage, and his parents never knew the gender of the fetus. Colton added, "In heaven, this little girl ran up to me, and she wouldn't stop hugging me....She said she just can't wait for you and Daddy to get to heaven" (Berean). 
That experience took place when three-year-old Colton was undergoing emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. Not too long afterward, he told his parents that he saw them praying for him outside the operating room. When they asked how he knew what they had been doing he said, "Cause I could see you....I went up out of my body and I was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body. [Scripture tells us that death takes place when the spirit vacates the body. Yet there was no medical report of a clinical death during Colton's surgery.] And I saw you and Mommy. You were in a little room by yourself, praying; and Mommy was in a different room, and she was praying and talking on the phone" (Berean).
This misses the point. Suppose his clinical death wasn't medically confirmed. Yet he was in the O.R. at the time. So how could he be aware of what was happening outside the O.R.? For that matter, he couldn't even see what was happening in the O.R. He was unconscious at the time. 
So assuming this is accurate, it's either a case of clairvoyance or an OBE. 
What we do know about that and other types of drug-induced conditions of mind (even dream states, meditation, and an overworked imagination) is that multitudes of people have reported experiences that seem to validate everything from clinical or near-death events to past-lives journeys to abductions on UFOs. They also reveal information for which they had no basis of knowledge prior to their experiences. It may be that an altered state of consciousness creates a condition in which the mind is like a blank screen, open to outside input. Spirit entities, whose goal it is to undermine the Word of God and deceive the world, might have that ability to program the blank screen and could therefore take advantage of anyone in such a highly susceptible condition (see Dave Hunt, Occult Invasion , pp. 187-90). But again, no one knows for sure how such things take place (Berean).
This assumes a demon knew about his late sister, and grandfather, as well as where his parents were, and what they were doing, during surgery.  
Now, what do I do with a book like this one? It seems to me that there are only a couple of options available to me. I can accept it, agreeing that this little boy is legitimate—he went to heaven and is now telling the tale for our edification. Or I can reject what this boy is saying—he did not go to heaven and this book is fictitious. If I go with this second option (which is exactly what I am doing) I now have two choices before me: either the boy (and/or his parents) is a liar or he genuinely believes he experienced something that he did not actually experience (Challies).
i) Even if the boy is mistaken, that doesn't make him a liar. As I said before, I think kids that age naturally blur reality and make-believe.  
ii) Now we do have to make allowance for the possibility that his parents are hucksters who wrote the book to make money. At the same time, they didn't know ahead of time that this would be a best-seller. So we're judging that in retrospect. 
More seriously, I was concerned about Colton’s claim that people in Heaven have wings (he says he too had wings while there), and other details that fit popular lore about Heaven, but don’t fit Scripture. In the Bible, some angels are portrayed as having wings, most are not. But never is any human being in Heaven or anywhere else said to have wings. Some beings in Heaven, according to Colton, have halos. But that’s not in the Bible. It’s from popular art in the Greek and Roman era and more recently in the Christian art of the Middle Ages. And of course we see it in our popular culture depictions of heaven, including cartoons.These things suggested to me that perhaps this child has seen and heard things about Heaven that worked their way into his imagining Heaven, as opposed to coming from an actual experience in Heaven (Alcorn).
I think that's pedantic, as well as naive.
i) To begin with, the Bible records visions of heaven. Yet the imagery is cultural accommodated. So, in principle, God could accommodate a child's understanding. The child could experience heaven in terms comprehensible to a child. An age-appropriate heaven. 
ii) In addition, Alcorn seems to be assuming that heaven has objective features. But the intermediate state is a disembodied state. So it's more like a collective dream or VR program. Simulated sensory input. 
iii) The artistic device of "halos" represents the underlying fact that heavenly beings are luminous. There are many examples in Scripture. 
First, the Bible gives us no indication whatsoever that God will work in this way and that he will call one of us to heaven and then cause us to return. It is for man to die once and then the resurrection (Challies). 
Does Challies deny that clinically dead patients are sometimes resuscitated? What happens to their consciousness during the interval between clinical death and resuscitation? Unless Challies is an annihilationist, he doesn't think the soul ceases to exist.   
The only biblical example we have of a man being caught up to heaven is Paul and it’s very interesting that he was forbidden to tell anything about it. And the reason he even mentioned this experience was not to offer encouragement that heaven exists, but to serve as a part of his “gospel boasting.” He saw heaven and was told to say nothing about it. This was a unique experience in a unique time and for a unique reason (Challies).
That's very selective. The Bible records several informative visions of heaven. 
So what's the bottom line?
i) Assuming that Colton had a veridical experience, I think the most plausible interpretation is that his account combines elements of recollection and imagination. 
ii) And, of course, this isn't coming straight for Colton. This is filtered through his dad's editorial voice. So there's the question of how much his dad filled in the gaps with creative interpolations. 
iii) How seriously we take this account depends, not only on Colton's reliability, but his parents. 
In sum, I think this account is too iffy to put much stock in it. At the same time, I think it exposes a lack of sophistication on the part of evangelical reviewers. They have a rigid, compartmentalized outlook that fails to ask the right questions or draw necessary distinctions. 

Founding the church

20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord (Eph 2:20-21). 
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers (4:11).
Eph 2:20 is a favorite prooftext for cessationism. But I'll note two problems with that inference:
i) If we equate the foundation with the apostolate, and if we say the apostolate was temporary, then the foundation was temporary. But if the foundation is temporary, the superstructure is temporary. The superstructure rests on the foundation. Remove the foundation and the upper stories collapse. So either cessationists are overworking the metaphor or they are mistaken to equate the foundation with the apostolate.
One solution is to equate the foundation, not with the apostolate, but with apostolic doctrine. Apostles were temporary, but their teaching is permanent. 
ii) During the construction phase, you lay the foundation before you build the superstructure. What is under is earlier. Since the upper stories rest on the foundation, the foundation is the first thing to put in place.
If we press the metaphor, that would mean the apostles antedate evangelists, pastors, and NT teachers. But even if that's true of the Twelve, that's not true of the apostolate generally. For instance, Paul was an apostle, but by the time God commissioned Paul, the church was up and running. There were elders and evangelists who antedate Paul's apostleshipTherefore, Eph 2:20 isn't strictly chronological. 

Acts' Historicity

Craig Keener writes:

Just as later apocryphal gospels diverge further from Palestinian and Semitic traits in the early strata of the Jesus tradition, so these apocryphal acts [of the second century and later] often diverge much further from the undisputed epistles' portrait of Paul than Luke's Acts does….

Luke abridges, rather than expands, the adventures and signs available to him; cf. 2 Cor 11:23-12:9; 12:12; Rom 15:19…

Friday, January 24, 2014


I’ve read that she sang Gershwin songs for American officers, after the war. “Yes,” she says, “and I stole everything possible to eat. Because, you know, after the war, we had nothing to eat. We had nothing. One egg a year. Can you imagine, one egg a year? And we could have 68 grams of butter a month.” (About two and a half ounces.) 
“I went into the officers clubs, and they had everything. They would make a big loaf of bread or something, and whatever was not eaten, they threw away. And we had not the right to take it. Ja. It was not fraternité, not at all. Whatever I could steal, I did. 
“Once, there was a brown paste. It was something to eat, so I took it.” It turned out to be peanut butter. “We had never heard of it.” I ask, “Do you like peanut butter?” “I don’t eat it, but yes: I like peanut butter with crunches in it. Fattening, though.” 
I say, “After the war [with all the privations she has described], the rest of your life must have seemed easy. The hard part was at the beginning; all the rest was easier.” 
“I didn’t feel it so,” she responds. “No, when you have nothing, you have your will. All you can think about is overcoming. Overcoming obstacles. You just go forward. You don’t think, you just do it. You have no choice. Then, afterward, you have choices — and that is difficult.”

What are universities for?

"What are universities for?" by Nigel Biggar.

Problems With A Conspiracy View Of The Resurrection

In another thread, Thomas Keningley wrote:

On a tangential note, Jason, can you point me to any resources, from you or elsewhere, arguing against "Conspiracy theory" used as an alternative to the resurrection to explain the apostolic preaching, i.e. the disciples conspired with other [supposed, on this theory] eyewitnesses to cook up the resurrection which they then preached from Pentecost?

Here's my response:

An Extended Review of Peter Lampe’s “From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries”

From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries
From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome
 in the First Two Centuries
Brandon Addison has posted an Extended Review of Peter Lampe’s “From Paul to Valentinus” at This is something that I myself have wanted to do for a long time, but have never had the time to do it.

The papacy is critical to Roman Catholic sensibilities about itself. Now with the doctrine of “papal infallibility”, it is a cornerstone of Roman Catholic epistemology – you’ll hear some apologists saying things like “because of the papacy (and papal authority), we have the ability to know with certainty what’s really ‘divine revelation’ and what’s merely ‘human opinion’.”

Growing up as a Roman Catholic, I was certain that the papacy had been a strong, firm, well-defined institution from the days of Peter – when he founded the church at Rome and was the first bishop there – his bishoprick extending for 25 years. Then there was a grand and glorious history of popes down through the next 2000 years.

In holding to the doctrine of the papacy (and it is a doctrine of the Roman Catholic church – and remember, doctrines can never change), Roman Catholics have intertwined this doctrine tightly with the history behind it. In fact, with reference to the papacy, history is so intertwined with dogma that it is referred to by theologians as a “dogmatic fact”.

This has been defined by an eminent Catholic theologian as “historical fact so intimately connected with some great Catholic truths that it would be believed even if time and accident had destroyed all of the original evidence therefor” (Shotwell and Loomis, in the 1927 introduction to their work “The See of Peter” (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, ©1927, 1955, 1991), pgs xxiii–xxiv).

Shotwell and Loomis were among the first researchers of the 20th century to explore the history of the papacy in depth, but they weren’t the last. Others explored the history and theology of that period, and exploded the notion that Peter was at Rome for 25 years – if at all. Oscar Cullman’s 1953 work “Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr” applied historical and exegetical methodologies to the New Testament (and post-NT writings) about Peter and concluded that yes, while Peter was important, there was no such thing as “apostolic succession”. Cullman was a Lutheran and a very ecumenically-minded one at that. He was one of the Protestant observers at Vatican II. Karl Barth joked with him that his tombstone would carry the inscription “advisor to three popes.”

But Lampe has provided the crowning achievement on a century’s-worth of work on the earliest papacy. Relying on a methodology that seemingly scrutinizes every scrap of paper from that period (Rome in the first two centuries), every grave and cemetery, every inscription, every archaeological find, Lampe provides a clear and compelling picture of what it was like to be a Christian in Rome during those centuries.

And while being totally non-polemical throughout the whole project, Lampe’s work gives us a keen insight into Rome in the first two centuries that almost totally excludes the notion that there was a pope, or a “successor to Peter”, or in fact, that there was even a single bishop in charge in the city during those first two centuries.

Acts' Genre

Craig Keener writes:

I will finally conclude, in agreement with the majority of scholars, that Acts fits the ancient genre of history…

Even if Luke provides narrative structure where his sources are incomplete (as probably in the Gospel), such detailed correspondence with extrinsic sources at such numerous points (see ch. 7 below) is virtually unheard of in novels….

Milankovitch cycles

For the sake of argument, let's suppose macroevolution is true. Let's also suppose various parts of the world are fairly stable over time.

On those assumptions, the fossil record embedded in the geological column of a given region would be vertical snapshot of how local species evolved. Something approximating a control group. Based on the law of superposition, species lower down would be more primitive while species higher up would be more advanced. 

Now let's introduce Milankovitch cycles. Orbital eccentricity, axial precession, and axial tilt are cyclical variations which combine to affect the distance and position of the earth in relation to the sun. Solar variation is another factor. 

In theory, these cycles effect climate change. Because they are mutually independent, and have different durations, they intersect in complex ways.  

Assuming this is roughly correct, I assume it will affect biogeography and even biodiversity. Fauna and flora are sensitive to climate. If a wetter region becomes dryer, or vice versa, if a warmer region becomes cooler, and vice versa, that will impact local fauna and flora. 

Some species may adapt to new conditions. Some species may migrate out of the affected area while other species may migrate into the affected area. Some species may become extinct because they can't adapt and lack the mobility go migrate, or because natural barriers impede migration. 

Although we think of migration in terms of fauna rather than flora, since plants immobile, seeds are widely dispersible by various natural mechanisms. So it's possible for exotic flora to be transported to a new region. 

But consider how these factors would affect the fossil record. You'd no longer have a continuous record of species from the same area. Rather, that would be disrupted by preexisting and coexisting exotic species migrating into the area, to supplant previous occupants, which either migrated out of the area or went extinct. 

This, in turn, complicates the inference that the geological column charts the continuous evolution of local species. For the sequence no longer represents the history of a stable control group. Rather than a clean diachronic progression, you have synchronous species from different regions that relocate. It's horizontal as well as vertical. Change in place as well as time. 

Is a species higher up evolved from a species lower down? Or is this an exotic species which, due to climate change, migrated to a more hospital environment? A preexisting species that coexisted with species further down? 

I'm not qualified to assess these variables. But it's something I consider when Darwinians confidently appeal to the fossil record. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

In defense of war

God and Time: relational facts are not illusions

Shepherd v. Enns

Some additional comments which Jerry Shepherd made in response to Enns and his defenders:

Carlos, thanks for your taxonomy on a number of points on whether one qualifies as a Marcionite or not. Some of your points are valid, some are irrelevant, and some are just way overdrawn. For example, your second point needs a whole lot more nuancing. For one thing, it's quite anachronistic. Purposeful reflection on the practice of allegorical interpretation doesn't really take place till after Marcion has passed off the scene. For another, It just isn't true that, "Here, he came into major conflict with nearly every proto-orthodox writer. Allegorical/typological readings were the only way to maintain that Jesus was Messiah, they argued." This just isn't the case. Many of the allegorists also practiced very literal, historical interpretation. They believed that the recorded events happened, AND, that they could be interpreted allegorically. To be sure, allegorical interpretations of the ancient church fathers could be quite fanciful, but by no means did they regard these as the only way to maintain that Jesus was the Messiah. I'm willing to be corrected on this if you can demonstrate otherwise.
But, the point that you say is the "only" point on which the Marcionite label might stick is, in fact, the important point. Marcion jettisoned the OT because he could not reconcile its description of God with the person of Jesus. He refused to believe that the violent deity depicted in the OT was the Father of Jesus. So the question to ask is whether an approach to the same problem today that relegates significant portions of the Old Testament to "human projections onto God," or "wrong perceptions of the character of God," does not do the same thing as Marcion does. Again, to use, the example of Joshua 6, aside from any question as to whether or not the account is historical, the question is, is the character of God as portrayed in this account consonant with the God whom Jesus called his Father. Did Jesus worship, praise, and pray to, that God. If the answer is "no," then without formally doing so, the approach has effectively decanonized the account, as well as large swaths of the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Ironically, It also ends up distorting our picture of who Jesus is.
Recognition of the discontinuities is not the issue. Methodology in dealing with them is.

Sorry, Andrew. I have to disagree with you quite strongly on this one. Jesus did not contradict anything in the OT. He did give new directives for the new people of God in a different age. He did condemn un-nuanced uses of OT laws and/or practices. He did bring certain OT practices to a conclusion. But he never passed judgment on those practises and he never contradicted them. And you're going to be very hard pressed to show how other OT authors disagreed with the author of Joshua.

As you said, one specific example is the dietary laws. Jesus has ended them. But that does not at the same time mean that they were not the will of God for the OT Israelites. Something can be changed, amended, nullified, etc., for any number of reasons, without at the same time passing judgment on it.
Another example would be the marriage and divorce legislation. Jesus declares that these laws were neither ideal nor in accord with God's original intention. But that does not mean that Jesus condemns the giving of those laws. Goldingay: "Legislation by its very nature is a compromise between what may be ethically desirable and what is actually feasible given the relativities of social and political life."
Violence? I find it very difficult to find a critique of what God commanded in the OT in the passages you cited. Christ gives his people a "new directive" with regard to how they are to relate to their enemies, and one which is in accord with the very different context of the NT people of God as a wandering, pilgrim, oppressed people of God, rather than a settling or settled political entity. But this by no means says that what the OT understands to be the command of God for his ancient people was wrong. Longman: "To say that the New Testament critiques this picture of God in the Old Testament is in effect to say that the Old Testament is not Scripture."
Regarding the NT "mixed bag," this metaphor hardly does justice to the issue. As Karen pointed out, if anything the violence is more horrific in the NT than in the OT, both in the recorded words of Jesus, and throughout the rest of the NT. I see no evidence of Jesus and the NT writers "grappling" with this issue. Instead, they rather strongly and plainly proclaimed it. The evidence of this latter understanding is substantial.
To say that God's law has no expiration date sounds clever, but needs more nuancing and makes for a very flat reading of the OT. Within the Torah itself, there is the recognition that the law was amendable and adaptable. The law is changed in Numbers 9 to allow people who had become ritually unclean to still participate in the Passover, though a month later. The law is changed in Numbers 27 to allow daughters to inherit property. The same law is further amended in Numbers 36 to allow make sure that the property inherited by the daughters remains within the clan. These passages serve as precedents for the Law's adaptability.
Christ comes as the authoritative Son of God, with full prerogative to change the law as he sees fit. It was his law to begin with.
I never alluded to any historical difficulties. I only made a hypothetical concession and said that if one discounted the historicality of the conquest narratives or other narratives in which God is depicted in violent terms, then one is still left with an inspired portrayal of God--a God-authorized portrayal with which he is comfortable for his people to use in their understanding of who he is and what he is like.

Pete, the tectonic shifts are indeed tectonic. And they are all in keeping with what I've been saying all along. Christ's changes the law in accord with a radically new constitutive make-up of the people of God. Notice how all the things you put in parentheses (land, purity, Gentiles, circumcision, treatment of outsiders) reflect the fact that the new people of God are not going to be ethnically, or nationally, or geographically constituted.
Jesus does not "subvert" the purity laws. He brings them to an end. And it is a non sequitur to argue that because he brings them to an end, that he is questioning the giving of those laws in the first place. When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that a day is coming when neither Mt. Gerizim nor Mt. Zion will be the authorized place to worship God--while in the very same breath acknowledging that the Jews had the location correct--is he calling into question the tabernacle and temple plans and their erection in the first place? Of course not. This is a major tectonic shift; but it is not by any means saying that the OT provisions for tabernacle and temple should never have been made in the first place. The same is true of the purity laws. They are coming to an end. But they had a God-authorized purpose in the OT.
Actually, you wouldn't know where I'm coming from any more than you do now, if I "came clean" about my views of the historicity of the conquest narrative. After all, I think you and I are basically agreed regarding the historicity of the creation narratives. And yet, we draw theological conclusions about the character of God from the "portrayal" of God in those narratives. I believe God reveals himself through all kinds of genres. So, I'll make a deal with you. I'm pretty sure you don't believe in the historicity of the conquest narratives. So, you tell me if you think the portrayal of God in the conquest narrative is an inspired portrayal, an authorized window into the character of God, and then I'll tell if you I think the accounts are historical. :)