I want to turn the classic question around for a bit. Christians are famous for asking atheists — “What if you’re wrong?” (And there are lots of great answers for that question. I linked to one of the most famous.) But I want to contemplate for a moment — What if God is wrong?
All this talk of cosmology and philosophy has got me wondering why nobody seems to spend much time on this question. Let’s imagine for a minute that God is real, but that he’s suffering from a delusion. It’s not as flippant as it might sound at first.
When we survey the pantheon of contemporary gods, we discover that the mythology is filled with stories of one god deceiving another. Grab any compendium of Roman or Greek mythology and just start reading. You’ll have plenty of examples by time for tea.
Furthermore, God seems to have pulled a switcheroo on us between the Old and New Testament. In the OT, he seems to readily admit the existence of other deities. Instead of telling the Israelites “I am the only god in the universe,” he tells them, “I am the only god you may worship.”
Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: (Emphasis mine — HD) for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them. — Ex 18:11
The temple I am going to build will be great, because our God is greater than all other gods. – 2 Chron 2:5
These are just a couple of examples, but I chose them because they illustrate clearly that both Yahweh and his followers spoke of other gods in the present tense, and compared them in terms of relative greatness.
By the time of Isaiah, things were starting to change. The prophets were now delivering the words of a god who at least claimed to be singular:
Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me.
Indeed, polytheism (henotheism, specifically) was the name of the game, so much so that as justification for god’s singular nature, the writer of Jeremiah goes to great pains to prove to his readers that other gods are either impotent or non-existent. (Jeremiah 44: 15-18)
Did you ever wonder why the phrase “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” is important? It was very important to the writers of the Bible:
Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? — Ex 15:11
For thou, Lord, art high above all the earth: thou art exalted far above all gods. Psalm 97:9
Now. Let’s ask some tough questions about god and his scribes.
Why the confusing language?
Someone should lay odds on how fast before someone says, “You’re misinterpreting from the original Hebrew!! That’s not what those words mean!!!!”
And I will grant the possibility. I will grant the possibility that as we progress through history, the Bible only APPEARS to progress from henotheism to monotheism. It’s all a mistake of translation.
But what does this say about God? There’s no question that most of the Levant was henotheistic before the Babylonian captivity. Zoroastrianism, a precursor of Judaism, was probably the first major religion to espouse the belief in “one” god — and I use scare quotes because Angra Mainyu and Ahura Mazda are both gods, but they are each singular in their domains — Ahura Mazda is THE good god, and Angra Mainyu is THE bad god. So it’s much closer to monotheism.
And EITHER (1) Yahweh played along with this by pretending that there are other gods. (Wouldn’t that be lying?) or (2) Yahweh believed that he is one among other gods, or (3) Yahweh is not powerful enough to ensure proper dictation among his scribes, or (4) Yahweh didn’t care enough to ensure proper dictation among his scribes.
So I’m not impressed very much by a singular, all powerful, all knowing god who can’t manage to paint a coherent picture of himself over a few hundred years.
But what about another possibility? What if, as the earth evolved, gods evolved too? What if the Greek Pantheon, and Ahura Mazda, and Baal didn’t disappear because of cultural assimilation and advancement? What if they disappeared because they were banished or destroyed by other gods who were gaining more and more influence and power?
What if Yahweh became the only god in the region?
If that’s the case, then we need to look very seriously at the rest of the world, because Allah and Buddha and Krishna and Rama have a lot of power and influence in the rest of the world, and their texts are believed just as fervently by their followers as Yahweh/Jesus’ is by his (theirs?).
What if Yahweh/Jesus is a jealous despotic god who, through force, manipulation, and subterfuge, has been taking power from other gods for centuries? There is some biblical backing for this idea. (Hint: It’s in the Ten Commandments!)
Which of these two scenarios makes more sense?
- God, the all powerful, singular, all knowing, all loving god of the entire universe, sat back and watched as literally thousands of god myths came and went, allowing earth to be saturated with henotheism. Then, to prove how powerful he was, he started with a tiny rag-tag band of nomads, and over the course of two thousand years, managed to spread his religion to about a third of a tiny, insignificant little planet in a tiny little galaxy.
- Yahweh, a war god of the early Hebrews in the Levant, gradually gained power over several hundred years, and vanquished, banished, or killed all the other gods in the area. Using the lack of global communication to his advantage, he convinced his followers that he was the only god in the universe, and used that lie to his advantage such that by the time the Americas and the Far East were discovered, the local gods there were seen as false.
What if God’s Wrong?
There’s yet another possibility. The god of the Bible is somewhat schizophrenic. In one century, he orders the killing, pillaging, and enslaving of entire cities and kingdoms:
And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.9And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.10And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.11And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts.
Several centuries later, he’s preaching a message of tolerance and love. (Except when he’s not.)
Maybe Yahweh is nuts. Does it really make sense that the only god in the entire universe would feel it necessary to promise eternal punishment to anyone who didn’t follow him? Or does it make more sense that a very jealous and mentally unstable god would make abusive demands in order to subjugate, terrify, and manipulate his followers?
And while we’re on the subject — isn’t it odd that Yahweh seems to think he’s omnipotent and all-powerful, and Allah does too? What if they’re both mistaken? How would a deity prove or disprove to itself that it knew everything there was to know? How would it know that it wasn’t mistaken, and that there wasn’t some knowledge floating out there, unknown to any deity?
It’s one thing to say that the word of the Lord represents proof that the Lord exists. But even if we grant that, it’s a very, very big leap from there to proof that the Lord is what he says he is. Even if Yahweh/Jesus/Holy Spirit/Father (schizo much?) believes what he/they say about himself/themselves, that doesn’t prove it’s true.
And history seems to indicate that it’s not.