AUTHOR’S NOTE: This series of articles reflects an “atonement theory” of Christianity that I now reject. I’ve kept this series to show where I come from.
In the last post, I ignored one of the most ingrained instincts of the western world and advocated that you should give up your rights, your liberty, your autonomy, and your pursuit of happiness so that some distant overlord can pursue his. All this to an audience whose national heritage involved rebelling against a distant King George and English Parliament in order to pursue our . . . well . . . rights, liberty, autonomy, and pursuit of happiness.
Since I’m already well behind, I have nowhere to go except . . . further backward. I argue in this Part II, that you should put all your trust—risking everything—in something that can’t be observed, measured, experimented on, or subject to the scientific method. Because that’s a lot easier.
Today and tomorrow, I’m going to talk about the world of the invisible.
There’s a scene in the book of Exodus that sets the ball in motion. The context is that an ethnic group of Hebrews are enslaved in Egypt (the first instance in what would be a recurring theme in the history of the Jews—even into the last century). The Egyptians have subjected the Hebrews to daily lives of brick making since the death of Joseph, son of Israel (two important figures in Jewish history). Today: Bricks. Tomorrow: Bricks. 25 years: Bricks. So on this background, God appears in Palestine to a Hebrew man named Moses.
And how, you ask, did God appear to Moses? In a burning bush, of course. (Hint: If you’re writing a screen play and want to introduce a supernatural being, this is a poor way to go about doing it.) God, in this weird burning bush scene, tells Moses that he has long heard the cries of the Hebrews, and now is the time for Moses to go face down Pharaoh and liberate them. It turns out that God, in addition to feeling feelings of jealousy, as I described in Part I, feels a profound compassion.
To understand what happens next, it’s important to realize that at this point, neither Moses nor the Hebrews are very acquainted with this burning bush God, if at all. Really there is little to suggest that anyone in the world is. And to succeed, Moses has to obtain the trust of a people who over the course of five centuries have known nothing but slavery, who probably have no imagination, no hope, no idealism, and who will want to know what makes this bush god different than all the other household gods in Egypt with whom they are familiar.
This concern led Moses unknowingly to ask possibly the most important question in the whole Bible.
Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?
I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”
Okay. There’s a whole lot of weird stuff going on right here. But two things in particular tell the reader a whole lot about the nature of this god.
First, the bush thing. Why does God not just appear in the sky in all his glory like he does to King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? The answer is that, notwithstanding Morgan Freeman’s character that you saw in Bruce Almighty, God’s presence never fails to be absolutely terrifying to humans. Fast forward from this scene to the not-too-distant future and God has rescued the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt. While in the Sinai Peninsula, God calls Moses to the top of Mount Sinai in order to give the famous “ten commandments” (which are really just the famous part of what was a much larger legal system). As Moses begins up the mountain, God instructs Moses to prevent anyone from following him. Not that they even wanted to. The mountain is a blazing furnace, covered in smoke and peppered by claps of lightning. And coming out of all this storm is the clear and overpowering voice of God “like a trumpet.” And, of course, the Hebrews are perfectly calm about it:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Yeah, in fact, any pride they brought with them to the base of the mountain fizzled immediately. You must understand that the image of God as a rosy Santa Clause breaks down the minute you open up a Bible.
And God’s angels? They’re no picnic either. The Bible includes virtually no account of people—good or bad—who are visited by angels and don’t fall to the ground in unmitigated fear. Everything about the spiritual world is alien to us. It is an incomprehensible existence, and it’s visible presence does nothing for humans but scare us witless. The distance God keeps is for our own good.
But in a later scene, Moses tells God that he is frustrated with the distance. Out of his frustration, he makes a bold demand that he probably didn’t understand. He asks God to show him his glory. And God responds:
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. . . . “But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
You will find few people is the Bible whose intimacy with God even remotely approached Moses’s. Yet, even Moses wasn’t allowed to see God. His mortal mind would have died on the spot. So instead of God appearing in all his glory, the almighty creator of the greater universe appeared to Moses as a bush on fire.
Second, let’s talk about God’s name. As I said above, Egypt had many gods. And the Hebrews, whose identity with God had probably dissipated over the five centuries since the death of Joseph, probably would have been more familiar with them than with this “God of Moses.”
The gods in Egypt and Mesopotamia actually were a lot like humans. They were born, they grew up, they fell passionately in love, they plotted against each other, they got their hearts broken, went to war, got made and withheld rain, created planets, and died (okay, not all of that is like humans).
But, the God of Moses was different. When God proclaimed I AM, he was saying something revolutionary. His message essentially was I am not trapped in time and space like you are. In one glance I see everything that has been, everything that is, and everything that was. I created the world, but there is a much bigger world than the one of which you are aware. It is big and indescribable. And terrifying to you. But over the next several thousand years—through prophets, through calamity in which you will find yourself, through the times I will rescue you, through signs, wonders, and a whole bunch of stuff you’re not going to understand at first—I’m going to describe it to you as best as you are capable of understanding it.
All this from two very short words. God hardly lacks efficiency.
By the way, a certain carpenter man named Jesus came along later and would also proclaim “I AM”. People threw stones at him for saying that. (But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
So, while the God of eternity is invisible, he does quite a bit to make himself known. If you read Part I, I think you’ll agree that God wants to be known. First, he sends people to speak for him. He sent Moses to Egypt, Elijah to Israel, Isaiah to Judah, Jonah to Nineveh, Daniel to Babylon, and Paul to Rome.
Oh, and God sent Jesus. (And I’m getting ahead of myself again.)
Lastly, his fingerprints are all over things that are not invisible. His presence moves nature all around us. To those of you who don’t believe in God, does it ever bother you—even if only a little—when you think of ants? The sophistication of ant society requires a collaboration exceeded only by humans. First, lets talk about the ants themselves. Some ants have mandibles that are adapted to cut grass. They cut grass into small bits all day, every day—without weekends. Other ants are adapted to carry grass, carrying 20x their body weight! This is the equivalent of a 2nd grader carrying a car. Once the courier ants bring the grass snippings into the colony, another type of ant is adapted to chew on the grass and convert it into a fungus farm. And this fungus farm is the ants’ food source. Meanwhile, inside the colony, there are ants who guard the fungus farm, and ants who guard the queen. And the queen ant—she just makes babies all day. In most colonies, the queen ant is the mother of every ant. She will live an average of thirty years—the longest life span of any insect in the animal kingdom. Once the queen dies, the colony has about a month or two before it completely dies.
What a fascinating society right under our feet.
And that’s to say nothing of the colonies. If there is a true mystery in nature, it is ant colonies. They usually begin with the queen, who digs a vertical tunnel and then a chamber for herself. Then, as if on autopilot, the newly born ants, according to their classification, begin the process of constructing horizontal tunnels, more vertical tunnels, and chambers. They even build an air vent to keep from asphyxiating from the carbon dioxide created from the grass fungus.
Scientists are observing that each of thousands of species of ant has a specific nest design. Yet, ant colonies have no leader. Instead, the complex structures of ant life are programmed into ants through a set of rules that scientists are not even close to delineating. Seriously, take a look at this recent video on Youtube.
I believe in many components of evolution, which frequently puts me at odds with fellow believers. Natural selection causes animals to adapt biologically. It causes carpenter ants to have excellent mandibles for eating wood. It causes some moths to be camouflaged. It allows some finches to have large beaks for large nuts and other finches to have small beaks for small nuts. Natural selection is both observable and logical.
But frankly, isn’t evolution incredibly unsatisfying when it comes to these ant colonies? Convergent evolution explains how animals develop similar useful features. Divergent evolution explains how isolating populations leads to genetic rifts. I don’t believe Ant colonies fall well into either of these categories because their differences are of a cause of unity, rather than the result of disunity. It’s also worth pointing out that an ant, beyond its specific task within a colony, is not all that biologically advanced. An ant cannot solve complex problems. And yet, there is a synchronizing force that guides each ant within the colony — a force that unifies each worker towards the construction of such wondrous underground worlds.
I believe this guiding force is invisible. And I believe in an invisible world. And I believe there are invisible beings that live there and have major effects on what happens right here. While this is a world I don’t completely understand, with beings and forces I don’t completely understand, I’m convinced they’re all there.
I believe God is there even though a math equation will never isolate him. The God who created the universe doesn’t live in the universe, and is beyond the reach of the scientific method.
Jesus didn’t come simply to make Earth a better place. He came mostly because we are powerless against the invisible world. Tomorrow, I’ll describe that world.