JOHN: Well Bob, thank you very much. This is delightful. I’d like to ask you one question. At the beginning, are we coming through? OK? At the beginning, you talked about mythological archetypes and you talked about all the stories of Jesus and the supernatural and whatnot. I want to ask you a question about the supernatural.
When we use the phrase supernatural, I use that in the sense of supernature. So for example, when I was doing a forum with Paul Kurtz, the secular humanist, I said, Paul, I said, do you have any example in all of human knowledge of a lesser order producing a greater order? Or nothing producing something? And this goes back to the understanding of the big bang theory, which I hold as the best scientific hypothesis. And my question was, what produced the big bang? Now, if all observable data — unless you can show me otherwise — shows cause and effect, and greater order producing lesser order, must there not be a greater order that spoke the universe into being, its order, its balance, our personality, and our moral nature? And if that’s the case, if a force or God spoke the universe into being, does not that force or God have the ability to be supernature in his or its involvement in our lives?
BOB: Well, if an entity could create the world, then of course it would be capable of anything else. But I am not sure the world is an effect. It seems to me that may be circular to assume that it must have come from somewhere. Why is it unthinkable, as some Christian theologians even said, that the physical universe could be eternal though always changing. I don’t know that invoking a kind of an X to explain a Y is much of an answer. Is it a problem where the world came from? I don’t think so necessarily.
JOHN: Is it a point of interest for you?
BOB: Sure. Yeah.
JOHN: OK. I was talking to a French astrophysicist once at a secular humanist conference I attended. I go to these conferences. They’re a lot of fun. And I asked him the same point. He took out a piece of paper and said, oh, the answer is simple. And on the piece of paper he drew a little circle and said, see this circle? This is the universe. I thought, isn’t that neat, right in my own hand, OK. So there was the circle and there was the universe. And then he pointed an arrow to it from a prior circle. And he talked about, you know, universes that expand and contract, expand and contract. And he kept showing universes that produce universes. Until finally he came to the future universe which was really one of our past universes. And so he had essentially a Hindu argument of a cycle. And I said, OK, so you’ve got a cycle. But what is bigger than that cycle? What is bigger space-wise? What is prior to it?
So to me, I can not escape Ecclesiastes 3:11, that says we have eternity in our hearts. So for example, we know that we exist in a world of space, time, and numbers. I remember as a little kid, I used to try to conceive of the end of space. And I would imagine myself with Flash Gordon. I guess that dates me. You know, flying to the end of the universe. And I would get there. And do you know what I found? A brick wall. The problem was, not only who built it, but what was on the other side of the brick wall. In other words, I’m glad for limitations of space because it provides for my existence. But I can not conceive of something beyond space.
The same way with numbers, as my youngest child, my daughter says, Daddy, what’s the biggest number? And I say, Brittany, it’s infinity. But that’s a philosophical construct. And so she says, OK, Daddy, what’s infinity plus one? Well, that’s infinity, which is also another philosophical construct. Infinity means without number. We can not get to the biggest number. We can’t wrap around it. And yet we’re glad for the limitation of numbers.
And then also time. As my 16-year old said about ten years ago, he said to me, Dad, he said, when we go to heaven we’re going to live forever, right? I said yes. He said, well, you know forever’s a long time. What are we going to do? Aren’t we going to get bored? And the whole idea is that we live in the limitations of time, space and numbers, and yet there has to be something bigger than that. There has to be what I would say is supernature, because time, space and number is nature.
So, when we see the mythological archetypes — and sort of you’re reacting against their supernatural — are you reacting against what you see is the mythology of the New Testament? Or are you reacting against the concept of the supernatural and the possibility of God who made us and loves us?
BOB: Well, for one thing, I don’t know that there has to be anything bigger than the world and space and time. But the issue that I see with invoking the myths, and so on, is the principle of analogy and history. That I certainly, a mere mortal, have no way to pontificate on whether there is or isn’t a supernatural, whether miraculous things ever happened or not, never having been there. But the only way historians can render the kind of judgment they claim to render, probabilistic judgments. They don’t claim to be oracles, knowing somehow what happened, but probably is this report or that report accurate. You have to assume an analogy with present experience, or anything goes.
If somebody says that Hansel and Gretel is true, and you say, wait a minute, witches with ginger bread houses? Well, just because you’ve never seen one doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Well, yeah, I guess they could. But is there any reason to think so? When I see a bunch of stories about Attis, Adonis, etc., which are overt and obvious myths that no one would deny, and then there are good reasons to say they’re myths. And they seem so similar to these stories. Whereas on the other hand today we have no experience of such a thing. Now that wouldn’t be true, let’s say, with the exorcism stories of Jesus or with faith healing. I mean there are analogies to those. That’s not a problem. Whatever explanation one wants to have, supernatural, psychosomatic, doesn’t matter historically. You could see things like that happening.
But if you’ve got the same god doing the same things, why do you have no healer or evangelist walking on water? Why does Mother Teresa not change water into wine? Or call down fire from heaven? If there are people that have the courage of the prophets, well, certainly no problem believing that people did in the ancient past. But if no one does these spectacular feats, and we can’t see how they could, then it seems to me reports of such deeds in the past are probably legends. I mean, we do have what we know are legends of that. We don’t have documented reports of it, so since the historic can only speak in terms of probability, I’d say that we’re dealing with a bunch of probable legends.
JOHN: I want to ask you one question, then answer the question you gave, and then turn it over to you to ask me some questions. But I just wanted to follow up on one point you said a moment ago. There’s no reason to have something bigger than time, space and numbers. Is that what I heard you say?
BOB: Yeah, though I’m not quite sure what it would mean. Bigger in what sense? More numbers added on? I don’t think you do mean that from what you said.
JOHN: What I mean is I think we acknowledge the limitations of time, space and numbers as our 3- dimensional, at least 3-spacial dimensional universe that we normally operate on. And what I’m saying is that since numbers cannot end, and space cannot in the human mind conceptually end, OK, or even mathematically to my knowledge, and time as well, it seems to me that here we are, for example, I don’t think you chose ahead of time to be conceived and born. In other words, we are here in the face of an extraordinary universe that is bigger than what we can grasp. Could you say that is bigger than what we can grasp?
BOB: Oh certainly. Yeah.
JOHN: If that’s the case, that to me is a humble admission there is something bigger, prior and deeper. And so to me, that itself on intellectual terms of humility, you mentioned humility. I say amen to humility. When we don’t know something, we don’t know something. And in the face of a universe that’s bigger and prior to us, in terms of our ability to measure reality, it leads me to an intellectual conclusion there must be a supernatural, a supernature, something prior to and bigger than. But I just wanted to explore that a little bit.
You asked the question about if these supernatural elements happened in the past, why do they not happen today? In “National Geographic” about a year and a half ago, there was a bunch of people, National Geographic reporters and photographers, who were interviewing some voodooists in West Africa. Now what I thought was very interesting about this, was the way they framed it was they didn’t want to be offensive to the voodoo culture. And therefore all religions are equal. And so they gave them very great respect. As people they deserve as full respect as anyone.
But what was interesting was they reported, and this was in “National Geographic,” which is not where I would look for supernatural evidence as a general rule. They talked about this voodoo witch doctor in the middle of a circle of about thirty people. They have pictures of it, maybe thirty feet across the circle. And he looked and pointed at a woman holding a chicken in her hand. And as he did and called out a curse in the presence of the National Geographic people and the people there, the chicken’s neck snapped in half.
OK, you look at something like that — that’s from the demonic side from my understanding — but by the same token I think if you go into third world cultures, much less so in an Athenian culture, I think I could show you, if you are willing to talk about it, evidence after evidence of the presence of the supernatural, of healings in Jesus’ name, of power and so forth. So I believe that it’s present. But by the same token, I believe that we, you and I, are raised in such an Athenian culture that really disbelieve that. That as Jesus says, you know, your faith has made you whole.
So I really believe, yes, that the supernatural still happens today. I’ve seen it in many evidences. I’ve had miraculous healing in my life at several points. But I’m also a diabetic, OK. And the fact is that all the healings that Jesus did, we talk about Lazarus being born twice, he also died twice, because after Jesus raised him from the dead, he died later. Why? Because the very simple reason the resurrection body, once sin is purged, is what God’s aiming for. So the touching of the supernatural is not to be a one-time remedy. It’s a taste of the future yet to come. But if you want to ask some further questions.
BOB: Well, I don’t deny that there are remissions and things for which we ought to be grateful where people’s diseases vanish. But the thing is, since we don’t exactly know what’s going on there, or these crazy voodoo type of things. There are a lot of unexplainable things. The problem is, but that’s where I again have the problem with fideism when you’d think agnosticism would be called for. Here are unusual phenomena. And sometimes they can be explained away.
Like I think, I forget the man’s name, Andre something. He was a stage illusionist and an evangelical Christian and debunked these Philippine psychic surgeon guys. The word hasn’t gotten around to a lot of people yet. They still are suckered in by it. Well that sure looked real good to a lot of people. And that was like a third world sort of a thing. I wonder. I don’t know that it didn’t happen, but there’s a case where the first time I ever heard of it, I heard it was debunked. And I don’t know. I mean the evidence isn’t all in yet. Even if it does happen, can we say there you go, God did it?
JOHN: Well, you know, when you talk about agnosticism, from my perspective agnosticism is a good word. It says when you don’t know something, you admit you don’t know something. But the reason you say you don’t know something is because you want to know, OK? So we can be agnostic about the workings of gravity until we find out that they work to go back into prior times. And there is no question the Bible diagnoses this. That there are charlatans mimicking everything that is true. You saw the Egyptian magicians in the face of Moses, in terms of the biblical witness. And so, I in my experience, I think most people who claim to have supernatural power are charlatans. And I think a lot of Christians engage in it also. But the counterfeit should not distinguish from the real. And I would be delighted at that question, in personal interaction between you and me, to actually investigate some of these things where I feel the reality is there. And if the reality were there, that you saw something that was uniquely in the power of Jesus’ name, not available in another name, would that cause your agnosticism to consider moving toward — not gnosticism, historically and philosophically — but toward knowing and believing there is a God who loves and cares and revealed himself in Christ?
BOB: Well that would be a big jump. I think of something I think Lessing said, that if I say I’m holding a ball in my hand, and I’m now going to make the ball disappear to prove that 2 plus 2 equals 3, and I actually do make the ball disappear, 2 and 2 still doesn’t equal 3.
JOHN: Because of the false syllogism.
BOB: Yeah, I don’t see how, I mean, it’s such a leap from saying, OK, there’s something that surprises me, I don’t know how to explain it, to say, oh, well I must accept now one possible explanation, that God caused it as a miracle.
JOHN: When you read the response of the Pharisees to Jesus healing the man born blind. According to the story on its own terms, those Pharisees saw a man that every eyewitness evidence told them had been healed, since he was born blind, in terms of the story on its own terms. You may disagree the story is historical. But that’s the inner integrity of the story. And yet they didn’t believe. So I guess it’s very possible that we could see all the evidence of belief and still not believe because of will power.
BOB: But there’s not enough evidence for that. Like I have no problem with, I don’t find it a distasteful notion to believe. But it seems to me, it’s very much like when people say, well look, there’s pyramids in South America, there’s pyramids in Egypt, you see, there must have been an Atlantis. Well wait a minute. We don’t know how they built the pyramids. Like Charleton Heston on TV, it must have been UFOs. Wait a second. You know, it’s possible, but…
JOHN: Wait wait wait wait. Does Heston say that? Or Leonard Nimoy?
BOB: Oh sadly, yes.
JOHN: Oh, OK.
BOB: He’s got the Starship Enterprise dropping the Sphinx and everything.
JOHN: No no no no. That’s Nimoy. Leonard Nimoy.
BOB: No, Heston does it too. Yeah, sad.
JOHN: Oh. News to me. I’ve learned something.
BOB: Space aliens built the Sphinx? It’s really sad. Unbelievable.
JOHN: Oh, OK.
BOB: It’s possible. I mean, there’s a lot of strange…
JOHN: That’s too bad for someone who played Moses. [laughter]
BOB: I know, I thought the same thing. That’s why he’s on those gun control ads too: my people here are the ten amendments.
JOHN: Now that’s another syllogism.
BOB: The problem is that it’s possible there’s life in outer space, and that some of these people on the Oprah show that claim to have been on UFOs. I guess something strange happened to ’em. Or you have Roswell eyewitnesses. OK, something odd happened. But wait a minute. Not nearly enough evidence is in to say, OK, it must be flying saucers. And the same thing here. I’m not one of these guys like a psi-cop, who think you’ve gotta beat to death every paranormal thing. No, who knows? There’s more things in heaven than on earth. But then to leap to the conclusion, oh, see, it’s God and reformed theology and biblical innerrancy are true. Wait a minute, that’s a whole different thing. So my problem is it’s a hasty judgment, it seems to me.
JOHN: Which is interesting, because coming from an agnostic perspective, I didn’t know a lot of that stuff. And the conclusions I’ve had have come through basically from dealing with Scripture on its own terms as reasonably as I can. Let me ask you real quickly. When I gave a definition that the only basis you have for history, science, law and whatnot is Genesis compared to every other religious origin text, am I on target? Or am I being fictional?
BOB: I don’t even, forgive me, but I don’t even understand that. Because the Bible seems to me to clearly partake of the same myth pool there. You can find God killing the dragon and creating the earth from its carcass in Psalm 74, Psalm 89, implicitly in a couple of places in Isaiah and Job. It seems to me in the Garden of Eden story, it’s exactly parallel to the Prometheus myth where Yochver Jehovah is a jealous, peevish God who lies to Adam and Eve and tells them they will die if they eat his fruit. They don’t.
JOHN: Ah, but but but but but…
BOB: The narrator says the serpent is correct.
JOHN: …but here’s the whole point. Death theologically is not the physical termination of life. It is the brokenness of relationship. And physical death is a consequence.
BOB: Is it possible that’s what that simple statement intends? You’re reading so much into it.
JOHN: Well, no, my book is nearly done, called “First the Gospel, Then Politics.” I examine all that with exegetical patience. Now, understanding the things in Psalm 89 and other places like that, and we could go into that. But let’s come back. And let’s come back to what I said about the view of history. For example, let’s take history. It says there’s a first man, a first woman, their children, all the way through to the present, eyewitnesses within the biblical context all the way through. A concern for history. A concern for eyewitnesses. A concern for fact. And you don’t find…
BOB: I don’t see it in the Bible. It seems to me to partake of all ancient historiography, which was rewriting history to legitimate a present circumstance.
JOHN: But the rewriting of history from known people back into legend has no such genealogy all the way from the beginning.
BOB: From known people? Seth and Enos really lived? Methuseleh’s an eyewitness?
JOHN: See, this is the assumption. The religious origin texts don’t even make that assumption. They don’t have the concern for that historical verification.
BOB: But if this is what the bible writers consider historical verification, they’re just wrong. I mean, a guy lived 969 years? This is evidence of historical eyewitness?
JOHN: Well that’s interesting to me. Because what you are saying is you must have some view of judging it’s historically wrong. What is the source you have for judging history?
BOB: The principle of analogy. If I read about Superboy flying into the future…
JOHN: But where does the principle of analogy come from?
BOB: Present experience, because…
JOHN: OK, present experience. So what you’re saying then is your experience, which is the product of a lineage that produced you, interprets over and against what produced you.
BOB: I don’t, that’s retreating into needless abstraction. I don’t see Billy Graham able to call down fire from heaven on his enemies. I don’t see him walking on the water.
JOHN: Well, Jesus told the disciples not to do it also. So I don’t think Billy would want to.
BOB: Yeah, hopefully not. But the thing is, why does none of this happen? If the things Jesus is shown doing…
JOHN: That’s a fair question, but that’s not what I’m asking. See, what I’m asking is that you have a conviction for the needfulness of historical witness, eyewitness accounts, fact and whatnot. And I’m trying to say, all of us are influenced by what precedes us. And we trace it back to some source. And the only source on its own terms with a concern for verifiable eyewitnesses, you disagree with it. I’d love to talk to you about Methuseleh afterwards, OK? And my understanding there, OK? But what you’re saying is you’re concerned for these things. And are there any other sources apart from Genesis?
BOB: But I don’t think the Bible is concerned with that. Certainly not Genesis.
JOHN: Absolutely. That’s why it starts with one historical man. In its view, it views Adam and Eve as historical.
BOB: A guy named “man”? Who a snake talks to? [snickers from audience] Is this seriously intended as history?
JOHN: Well, if you take the view that God is supernatural…
BOB: Then anything is possible. I mean…
JOHN: Well, and then you look at the ethical nature, which is the basis for the First Amendment and civil rights.
BOB: God lies to Adam and Eve, which he plainly does.
JOHN: He lies? How?
BOB: And even the narrator of Genesis says that their eyes were opened. And as God says, they have become like one of us. The serpent is the one that tells the truth. God is the one that doesn’t.
JOHN: See, this all goes back to the tree of the knowledge of life, ah, tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. The knowledge of good and evil is a metaphor, Hebraicism, that means the knowledge of everything. Everything there is to know is between the polar opposites of good and evil.
BOB: Andre Wellhausen said that too, yeah.
JOHN: And only the uncreated creator can know that. And so he says to Adam…
BOB: Well, the author of the myth.
JOHN: Well. Well…
BOB: I mean, the author can tell you whatever it is because he made it up.
JOHN: OK. That’s your assumption, and I have my assumption: the text. We’ll talk about the text, no matter who wrote it or where it came from. The text has God, viewing God, as the only one who can understand evil and not be tempted or polluted by it. And therefore in the goodness of giving to Adam an unlimited menu of good choices, the heavens and the earth to fill and subdue and to enjoy forever, he says don’t disobey and try to become the uncreated creator.
BOB: You’re reading Saint Augustine into it. There’s no such explanation. It just says keep your mitts off the fruit or you’ll die that day.
JOHN: You know, I’m not reading Saint Augustine because I didn’t read him on this one. I’m reading the exegetical text on my understanding.
BOB: Oh, no, no. There’s no such explanation as to why they’re not supposed to eat the fruit. It just says, don’t do it or you’ll die. You’ve kind of a…
JOHN: Because the Hebraicism is, the knowledge of good and evil is something only God can possess. It is bigger than space and time.
BOB: But there’s no such thing in the…
JOHN: That’s the assumption of the text by the Hebrew language.
BOB: Oh, no.
BOB: Oh, no.
JOHN: And not only that, but look at this. God says to Adam — the text says God says to Adam from your perspective — he says, in feasting you shall feast, an unlimited menu of good choices. But don’t disobey God, your creator, or you will die. And the simplicity is, since the goodness is given and since you didn’t make it, the goodness is don’t eat poison or you’ll be dead.
BOB: Then it isn’t poison. The guy lives 800 years afterward.
JOHN: But see, once again, that’s the eisegetical understanding of death.
BOB: Huh? Oh, come on.
JOHN: See, the tree of life was to live forever, from the assumption.
BOB: And he kicks him out before he can do it. God says, we gotta get him outta here, because if they eat…
JOHN: Since he has rebelled, if he is to eat of the tree of life, he can’t do it because he’s got a sinful, broken relationship apart from God’s presence, and it actually would end up killing him in the long run. And so God is putting him outside of the garden for his well being, for the redemptive process to begin.
BOB: Oh, come on. You’re just reading in truckloads of theology into this.
JOHN: Well, I think I’m reading truckloads of exegesis into it, but, very good.
“The Price-Rankin Debate” is copyright © 1997 by Robert M. Price and John C. Rankin. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1998 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Robert M. Price and John C. Rankin.