My wife and I were talking about the Eucharist earlier this evening and how many churches don’t recognize it as what it is. We both came to different but equally plausible explanations, but we ultimately agreed that most people spend the their time in meditation communion thinking about what they’re going to eat at Denny’s when church service lets out.
Let me not be so cynical for a second and pretend that people have an actual opinion about what the Eucharist is intended to mean. I would imagine that, at least in Protestant churches, the view would be fairly predictable. Predictable because those churches revolve a lot around the general concept of penal substitutionary atonement (aka the view that Jesus died for your sins as a substitute so that you can go to heaven).
But… given my studies both in and beyond the Bible in the last year or so, I feel like that view is pretty narrow. I won’t say “wrong” because, truthfully, it would be presumptuous of me to believe I’m spot on with anything. But hey, I’ve found life to be better in the gray.
Anyway, we’re not necessarily going to cover the Eucharist here, but I do believe with some level of confidence that the constructs about God that we learn about are incorrect. And not only are they incorrect, but I’ll take it a step further to say that some of these are psychologically damaging. That said, here are five things that I believe are common fallacies about the big man upstairs.
5. God needs our praise.
I’ll be honest, I loathe the worship part of any worship service. Songs have gotten longer and higher in quantity, and my old man knees just can’t stand it anymore. (Puns!)
Jokes aside, I genuinely don’t get why we pour so much time each Sunday into this. I’m not at all saying God isn’t worthy of our praise, because he most certainly is. I don’t know the precise origin, but I imagine that this probably originated out of interpretations of Revelation and all the angelic beasts circling the throne singing praises. But even that’s pretty loose. Just because they are singing praises doesn’t mean God is forcing them to.
Think about cute babies for a second. People praise them all the time for all the cute things they do. The babies didn’t ask for it, nor do they really have any idea what’s going on. Yet we praise them anyway because it comes from a natural desire to. Likewise, I think the better way to interpret those aforementioned passages is that those angelic beasts wanted to praise God.
The psychologically damaging piece about this fallacy? Imagine every single thing or event that has demanded praise or worship, whether it be Pharoah in the Bible, Hitler in the first half of the 20th century, or Jim Jones and the Jonestown cult. All led to cases where people then performed heinous activities that they probably wouldn’t have done under better judgment.
4. The Bible is inerrant about the way it portrays God.
I choose the word “inerrant” intentionally because it’s a super popular doctrine that circulates in my churches. Essentially, many people believe that the Bible was divinely inspired by God himself to the point that God would not allow there to be any mistakes in the Bible.
I can get onboard with the “divinely inspired” piece, but that gets murky very quickly. What does that even mean? Some might think it to mean that God somehow magically put messages in people’s brains to write down exactly what God wanted. I don’t fall in that camp.
First of all, there are far too many contradictions in the Bible for this to hold true. From smaller ones like detailed placements of Jesus stories across the Gospels to larger ones like how the books of Samuels/Kings and Chronicles contain mostly the same content, except Chronicles is much more optimistic about King David.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the contradictions themselves, but needless to say, if we HAVE verified that contradictions exist, then there’s almost no way that our portrayal of God in the Bible is 100% correct. (There are probably some elements that are correct; more on this below.)
Speaking of misinterpretation of who God is, let’s move onto our next point…
3. God wants to (or feels the need to) send people to hell.
Lots to unpack in this big fallacy. The first basic one is the idea that hell as we’ve been taught it exists. That merits its own post, but the short answer is that the Bible is very light on content that postulates a fire and brimstone hell.
More importantly to me is how we cast our own perspective of justice onto God, probably unfairly. I’ve unpacked this at length in another post you can find here, and the general gist of that post is that God is not bound by our definition of justice because God is infinite whereas we are finite.
There’s nothing at all in the Bible that says God has a finite amount of love and therefore needs to select who’s in and who’s out. Rather, Jesus hands us some portrayals of God that indicate unfairness by our worldly standards. Think about the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16). Essentially, you see workers coming in to work for this vineyard owner at different points in the day, yet they all get paid equally at the end of the day. Not fair, right?
Also consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32). A young son basically tells his father he wishes he was dead in order to receive an early inheritance. The father obliges, and the son quickly squanders the wealth. The now destitute son realizes that his life would be better off as a slave to his father, so he comes crawling back to his father where his father welcomes him back as if nothing happened. Meanwhile, the older son who was there all along is rightfully like, “WTF, dad?”
Notice that in both cases, there is an unfairness, but it’s always an unfairness that is beneficial to all parties. The early day workers in the vineyard still got paid, and the prodigal son’s older brother didn’t get kicked off the ranch by daddy once the little bro came back. So while God doesn’t seem to play by our earthly justice rules, he’s still universally doing good things for all peoples.
2. God hears all prayers and answers them according to his will.
Okay, I’ll be honest, I don’t fully buy into the idea myself that this is a fallacy, but there are still aspects of it that I want to call out. The trouble for me is that we treat God too much as if he is a wishing well. On the extreme end of the spectrum, televangelists like Joel Osteen are pretty obstinate about this “ask and ye shall receieve” mindset (what many call “prosperity theology”), and I personally know many people who believe this is true.
There are two big troubling things about this. First, when you do more digging into the lives of those who believe praying their way to material goodness is true, you find that there’s a pretty good reason why they are materially wealthy. (Like coming into a windfall inheritance or owning a business that has done really well for them.) I’d be more apt to believe prayer was the reason here except for the second reason, and that reason is that many prayers go seemingly ignored. Prayers for health of a dying child, basic needs for those in third world countries, and more are virtually unanswered.
Where this gets really psychologically dangerous is when we start tying cultural / societal prosperity to prayer. I’m speaking directly about the “God Bless America” epidemic. There are many who believe the United States is a wealthy country because it is a predominantly Christian country. I could write a much longer post about this, but the short answer is that that is extremely arrogant thinking.
Why I struggle with fully calling God’s intervention through prayer a fallacy is that I have witnessed too many things occur post-prayer to have not had a divine intervention. And yes, I still pray very regularly. Still, that prayer my 8 year old self prayed for regularly of receiving a Nintendo 64 never came true, so I still think it’s safe to rule out a fully wishing well notion of God.
1. God is a big man upstairs.
You’ll notice throughout this post that I’ve been referring to God as if he is a male human being, even using the “he / him” pronouns throughout. This is honestly a shorthand to make writing easier, but I do not believe this at all. I don’t believe God can be described through a mere gender lens, nor do I see God as this single elder sitting on a throne in the sky. That picture probably came about as the result of several factors, including historical traditions of tribes looking up to older men as wise leaders, a couple depictions in Revelation of God on a throne, and the fact that a lot of Christian philosophy stems from Greek thinking who portrays their lead god — Zeus — in the same way you see God depicted in many paintings. (Like Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”)
Though the Bible states we are “created in the image of God” (imago dei), imagining God as a male human being is extremely naive. Even the Bible itself often doesn’t allude to this! Right out the gate, Genesis 1 tells us God was a Spirit hovering over empty waters before the formation of the world. Fast forward to the New Testament where we see God incarnating as a dove (Jesus’ baptism) and a “tongue of fire” (the Pentecost).
But perhaps my favorite interpretation of God comes from the Old Testament. Toward the beginning of the book of Exodus, God asks Moses to confront the Pharoah about releasing the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. When Moses asks God what his name is, God replies with the Hebrew word “Yahweh” (YHWH). This name is held as sacred and is thus translated as small caps “LORD” in English, but think about that word Yahweh, if it is indeed pronounced as we do in English. Father Richard Rohr shared in a podcast that he heard a Jewish scholar (can’t remember the name) who believes that this is merely an expression of breath itself. “Yah” being the inhale; “Weh” being the exhale. If this is true, then God is basically saying “I am all and within all of life itself.” (And this is later reinforced in the Elijah account when God appears as a still, small whisper after several great natural occurrences.)
I think that’s beautiful and a much better interpretation of God, but even that’s probably far too naive to fully describe God. At the very, very least, I think it’s safe to assume God is much grander than a simple old man.
Okay, that wraps up this post for today! I hope you had as much fun reading it as I had writing it. I might expound upon some points here in some future posts, but I figured this one is already getting too long as is. Catch you in the next post.