Mar 7 2012

Of Magick and Miracles

When atheists are looking to blame Christianity for all that is wrong in the world, they are inclined to run through the usual litany of crimes against humanity, including the Crusades and the house arrest of Galileo.[1]

My first reaction is to say that this has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. My second reaction is to point out that much of what we think we know about these events comes to us from people who have an axe to grind against the medieval Catholic Church, Christianity, religion, or all the above. Real historians have done their best to set the record straight, which the New Atheists blithely ignore as they regale the unfaithful with sordid tales of Christians acting unchristianly.

The same rap sheet usually includes the witch-hunts of the late 1500s and early 1600s. According to some estimates, around 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft, and as many as 60,000 may have been executed.[2] Critics blame these horrors on what they take to be the inherent evils of religion. In the Enlightenment, the medieval church was faulted for its irrational belief in witchcraft. Today, in the cultural morass we call Postmodernism, the medieval church is faulted for using witchcraft as an excuse to pick on lonely elderly women, or practitioners of pre-Christian pagan beliefs, or both. The first angers the feminists, and the second has become a cause célèbre of New Age Wiccans.

Again, I would reply that the witch hunters were hardly following the teaching of Christ and His apostles. Nor were they following legal precedent from the so-called Dark Ages. In 785, Charlemagne enacted martial law on the newly conquered pagans of Saxony. Article 6 of that law blamed belief in witchcraft on the deceits of the devil, and imposed the death penalty on anyone who burned a witch.[3] Misguided vigilantes posed more of a threat to life and property than a few pagan “witches.” So much for the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne and his contemporaries wrote magic off as a pagan fantasy. In this respect, they were closer to the Christian worldview. From a Biblical standpoint, nature works in a regular way until God intervenes. There is no room for magic and witchcraft because God reigns supremely over both the natural and the supernatural. The great witch hunts of later centuries undermined this view by giving witchcraft a newfound credibility.[4]

The whole point of magic – or maybe that should be magick – is that there are hidden forces within nature that can be manipulated for good or evil. Don’t get this confused with magic used as a plot element in Lewis’ Narnia series or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And don’t get this confused with the stage magic used by entertainers who pull rabbits out of their hats. To claim that magick is something more – that it is metaphysically real – is to deny the Biblical worldview.

This is why the Bible takes a no-holds-barred approach to magick, sorcery and divination. Under the Old Law, sorceresses were put to death (Exodus 22:18). This may sound harsh, but sorcery represented a clear and present danger to God’s chosen nation. If the Israelites could be conned into thinking that a pagan sorceress had real gifts of sorcery, then perhaps they could be conned into accepting her prophetic guidance as well, which could lead the people into soul- and life-threatening situations.

This helps us understand a potentially difficult passage in 1 Samuel 28. On the eve of his final battle, Saul consults the medium of En Dor. He asks her to conduct a séance with the dearly departed Samuel and, indeed, the spirit of the prophet appears in their presence. But is Samuel’s appearance a genuine piece of sorcery, or the work of God? The woman’s reaction gives it away: she cries out in a loud voice (vs. 12). She is shocked because she has never been able to summon the spirits of the dead. Her mediumship is a fraud, and she knows it. This is the work of God.

The same skepticism holds throughout the New Testament, and especially in Acts. Luke repeatedly draws a distinction between the real power of the apostles and the fraudulent claims of people like Simon and Elymas (8:9-25; 13:4-12). The apostles’ miracles are not tricks; they are not demonic; they are not self-serving. Their power is from God, just as the Gospel they are preaching is from God.

Mystics and charlatans were not the only ones with a magic problem. Christians in Ephesus still clung to their magical scrolls (19:18-19). Their worldview was confused and incomplete.

It has to make us wonder: How much stock do we put in black cats and four-leaf clovers? Maybe it’s not witches or magick for us. Maybe it’s something else, like astrology or evolution. But clearly there are consequences for not building a thoroughly Christian worldview.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, March 2012, p. 8.]

[1] Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian. London: Routledge, 2004[1957], pp. 22,123,161; Richard Dawkins, The Devil’s Chaplain. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 148,159; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. London: Bantam, 2006, pp. 1,37,41,166,308,312. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell. New York: Penguin, 2006, 30,43,408; ad nauseum.
[2] Edward Peters, “Witchcraft,” Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Garland, 2000, p. 1069. Peters’ figures are at the high end of estimates.
[3] See Arend Quak, editor, Speculum Saxonum. Rodopi: Amsterdam, 1999, 34 fn. 21. Article 6 reads as follows: “If anyone, deceived by the devil, believes, in the way pagans do, that some man or woman is a witch (strigam) and eats people and if for this reason he burns her and gives her flesh to be eaten, or eats it himself, he is to suffer the capital punishment.”
[4] Karen Jolly, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. London: Athlone, 2002, pp. 23-26.

Nov 14 2011

Selling Heaven

Thomas Nelson – the world’s biggest publisher of religious books — now belongs to the secular publishing house, HarperCollins.[1] If you look at the spine of your Bible, you will likely see the Nelson name.

One of Nelson’s titles, Heaven is for Real, is on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. On, Real is the top seller in their “Christian Theology” section.

In fact, as of writing, 9 out of 20 books are about heaven.[2] One is a straight ahead attempt at saying what heaven is like. Two (from Rob Bell) suggest that everybody is going to heaven. The six remaining titles represent three allegedly true stories (in various formats) of people who went to heaven and came back again.

In some respects, these stories resemble the Near Death Experiences that people used to talk about in the heyday of the New Age movement. But these go beyond the typical NDE story: it’s not just a case of seeing the light, or Jesus opening His arms, but of spending time in heaven.

Trust Me, I Was There?

Heaven is for Real (2010)

  • This is meant to be the true-life story of a 4 year old boy who went into surgery for an appendectomy and then, after surgery, had all sorts of amazing tales to tell about heaven.
  • His accounts are compelling, so we are led to believe, because they reveal all sorts of information about heaven that a 4 year old couldn’t possibly know unless he had actually been there.

The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (2010)

  • This is a story of a 6 year old boy who went into a coma following a car accident.
  • When he woke up two months later, he told his parents that the angels had taken him to the gates of heaven, and he talked to Jesus.
  • He related events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was in a coma – events, allegedly, that he could know nothing about unless he saw them in heaven.

90 Minutes in Heaven (2004)

  • A Baptist preacher was in a serious car accident, declared dead at the scene, and allegedly spent 90 minutes in heaven.
  • Another Baptist preacher was passing by, stopped to pray, and the guy miraculously came back to life.

Quick Response

1.    Is it possible to die, experience something of the afterlife, and return to tell the tale?

  • Absolutely. This is exactly what happened during the New Testament times. We know that Paradise is the next step for those who are found righteous in God’s sight (Luke 23:43). In addition, John the Apostle paints a highly symbolic picture of the spiritual world that awaits us. In one scene, we are shown the souls of martyred saints under the altar (Rev. 6:9-11). They are clearly conscious, so we know that souls can experience the afterlife (i.e., they are not soul sleeping).
  • Second, Jesus brought Lazarus (John 11) and the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7) back to life, and the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate example of life after death (1 Cor. 15). So we know that it is possible to be dead, and live again. And yet, nothing is said about their experiences in Paradise. The message of Jesus’ miracles and His resurrection are much more important than sensationalist stories of afterlife experiences.
  • Paul in 2 Cor. 12:2 talks about a man who “was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words” (vs. 4). In the context of this passage, Paul is talking about the significance of prophetic visions (vs. 1). Again, it is significant that neither this man nor Paul dwelt on their experiences. In fact, the man heard things he was not permitted to speak about (vs. 4).
  • The bottom line: Yes, we find people dying and coming back to life in Scripture. We can infer that they experienced the afterlife but, in contrast to the above books, their stories of the afterlife are notably absent.

2.    That was back in the days of miracles. What about today?

  • Even if the stories in these bestselling books were true, what more can they tell us that we do not already know? We know already that there is a heaven to gain and a hell to lose. Jesus told His disciples in John 14:2 that He was going to prepare many mansions. That promise is backed up by His life, teaching, works, and resurrection. Why do we need the testimony of a preacher or a young boy, when we already have the testimony of Christ and His apostles?
  • If these stories are trying to tell us something new, then they are vulnerable to the warning issued in Gal. 1:8 – “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” In fact, there are claims in these books that are simply unbiblical, which brings the accounts into question.

3.   There is no independent corroboration for the claims in these books.

4.   Here is something else that we already know: “it is appointed for men to die once, and after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). This is the sobering truth that we need to hang our hats on.

Update: Interesting little post from Hunter Baker at Touchstone/Mere Comments.


[2] As of Nov. 1, 2011: Heaven is for Real (1 Kindle, 2 Paperback, 3 Hardcover) – NYT Nonfiction list: #2, 39 weeks on list; The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (6 Kindle); Love Wins (8 Hardcover), Love Wins Companion (10 Paperback); Heaven (14 Hardcover); 90 Minutes in Heaven (13 Paperback, 17 Kindle).

Jan 14 2011

The De-conversion of Doctor Who

Recently I learned that one of my favorite TV actors of yesteryear is an avowed atheist.[1] The person in question is Tom Baker, who played the titular role in the marathon sci-fi series Doctor Who. So yes, I hold up my right hand and confess, “I am a geek.” To make matters worse, I am a British child of the ’70s. This means, of course, that I spent the requisite time cowering behind my father’s armchair while the Daleks threatened to Exterminate! Exterminate! pretty much everyone I knew and loved. Ah, good times, but I digress…

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Nov 11 2010

Pop Paganism

Church bashing, pagan priestesses, and religious pluralism – Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1982) has it all. Offering yet another take on the Arthurian legend, Bradley’s fantasy has been praised for its feminist narrative and honored with its own miniseries on basic cable (2001).

The strongest women of Avalon – all devotees of the mother goddess – hold the destiny of the High King in their hands while fending off the dual threats of Saxon invasion and Christian conversion. The “official” version of the new religion gaining ground in Arthur’s world is cold, misogynistic, hypocritical, and meddlesome. Not all is gloom and doom, however. Bradley, in the voice of Morgaine, offers hope by uniting the two religions under one Gnostic banner. If Morgaine has her way, the most enlightened heirs of Camelot will understand that the Christian God and the Celtic goddess are male and female aspects of a single, nameless Divine. The good old days are behind us, she laments, but the goddess survives in the guise of Mary, mother of Jesus.

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May 27 2010

Hollywood Hypocrisy: The Prime Directive

In various Star Trek series, the “Prime Directive” ordered a strict policy of noninterference in the cultures of developing planets. For Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, the plot device was aimed squarely at the perceived evils of Western civilization, including traditional Christian faith. Indeed, religion always provided a convenient exception to the Prime Directive. Principal characters, especially in the original series and in The Next Generation, were frequently called upon to debunk religious belief or quash its development.[1] For someone like Roddenberry, tolerance was the first and greatest command unless, of course, an inhabitant of the galaxy happened to believe in God.

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