Monthly Archives: May 2024

The Bible’s questions, answered—part 4: Answers to questions in the reign of Saul

The Bible contains a lot of questions, and it doesn’t always provide satisfactory answers. So I’ve been answering some of the Bible’s questions myself. This time, I’m looking at questions from when Saul was king of Israel.

Some Israelites ask: How can Saul save us? Answer: By threatening to destroy the property of any Israelites who don’t help him fight their enemies.

Samuel asks Saul: Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder? Answer: He did obey the Lord, and he did not pounce on the plunder. He was still going to destroy all those animals, just like God told him to. He just hadn’t done it yet.

Samuel asks: Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? Answer: Who knows? The Bible has some seriously mixed messages on those issues.

After Jesse presents seven of his sons to Samuel, Samuel asks him: Are these all the sons you have? Jesse’s answer: No, there’s an eighth son. Alternative biblical answer: Yes, Jesse had seven sons.

Goliath asks the Israelites: Why do you come out and line up for battle? Answer: Because the Philistines did.

The Israelites ask each other: Do you see how this man Goliath keeps coming out? Answer: Probably. He seems kind of hard to ignore.

David’s brother angrily asks him: Why have you come down here? Answer: To see how you’re doing and to bring you food.

He also asks David: With whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? Answer: Another shepherd.

Goliath asks David: Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks? Answer: He’s coming at you with stones, not sticks.

Saul asks: What more can David get but the kingdom? Answer: Your daughter.

Saul asks his daughter: Why did you deceive me and let my enemy escape? Answer: Because your enemy is her husband.

Jonathan, skeptical of the idea that Saul is trying to kill David, asks: Why would he hide this from me? Answer: Telling you to kill David for him is not hiding it from you.

Jonathan asks David: If I knew my father wanted to harm you, wouldn’t I tell you? Answer: That seems pretty unnecessary when your father has already blatantly tried to murder David several times. Plus, you already did tell him.

Saul asks: Why hasn’t David come to the meal yesterday or today? Answer: Could it have something to do with the fact that you’ve tried to kill him repeatedly?

Jonathan asks a confused boy: Isn’t the arrow beyond you? Answer: No.

The Philistines ask: Isn’t this David, the king of the land? Answer: No, Saul is the king.

Achish king of the Philistines asks: Why must this madman come into my house? Answer: It was the madman’s idea to go to you. Ask him.

Saul asks: Is that your voice, David my son? Answer: No, it’s the voice of David Jesse’s son.

Saul asks: When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? Answer: Depends on how serious their enemyship is, the man’s moral beliefs, his self-control, etc.

Nabal asks: Who is this David? Answer: The son of Jesse.

He also asks: Who is this son of Jesse? Answer: David.

Then he asks: Why should I take my bread and water and the meat meant for my shearers, and give it to this David guy? Answer: Because he deserves a reward for not harming you. /s

Abner asks: Who are you who calls to the king? Answer: Nobody’s calling to the king. He’s calling to the commander.

Ghost-Samuel asks Saul: Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? Answer: Because he can’t consult the Lord, because the Lord has departed from him and become his enemy.

The Philistines ask: How better could David regain Saul’s favor than by taking the heads of our own men? Answer: He doesn’t need to. He already did that a few chapters ago.

The Philistines ask: Isn’t this the David who the women of Israel sang about, saying he had slain tens of thousands? Answer: Yes, but they were wrong. He hadn’t done that yet.

Continue reading The Bible’s questions, answered—part 4: Answers to questions in the reign of Saul
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Are all rulers wise?

The eighth chapter of Proverbs is all about wisdom and understanding. It portrays Wisdom as saying that all who rule on earth reign and govern by her, by Wisdom. So all rulers on earth must be wise.

But the Bible mentions some rulers who were not wise. Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t a wise man, or he wouldn’t have tried to get all the wise men in Babylon killed. Saul did such a foolish thing that God decided he couldn’t be king anymore. Even Solomon wasn’t wise when he first became king.

Speaking of Solomon, he certainly didn’t seem to think all rulers were wise when he wrote Ecclesiastes. And he ought to be an expert on these things. Solomon doesn’t say it’s impossible to be a foolish old king, only that it’s not the best thing you can be. He contrasts wise people with rulers, which would make no sense if rulers were always wise themselves.

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The Story of Elisha and the Mean Boys
God Rescues His Servant From Persecution

The life of Elijah the prophet ended when God took him up to heaven in a whirlwind. He was succeeded by his servant Elisha, who gained the ability to do miracles like Elijah had done. As Elisha was walking along, a bunch of boys saw him and started making fun of him because he was bald. This bothered Elisha, so he stopped to put a curse on them. Then God sent two bears out of the woods to maul the mean little boys, so the bald prophet could continue on his way without anyone reminding him that he was bald.

The end.

The moral of the story

Continue reading The Story of Elisha and the Mean Boys
God Rescues His Servant From Persecution
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Will the sun and moon last forever?

They will last forever.

Solomon equates “forever” with “as long as the sun” continues. So does God, who also says something will be established forever like the moon. The Bible says God established the sun and moon for ever and ever, with a decree that will never pass away.

There’s also a verse in Isaiah that says Jerusalem’s sun will never set again, and its moon will wane no more.

Then they will be destroyed?

The verse just before that in Isaiah, though, makes it sound like it might actually be talking about God, not the actual sun and moon. And in any case, that verse says at that time the sun and moon will no longer shine on Jerusalem.

But won’t they still exist forever, even if Jerusalem is cut off from them somehow? No, Joel says by the time the day of the Lord arrives, the sun and moon will be darkened. The sun will turn to darkness and the moon will turn to blood. And Revelation says after the sun turns black and the moon turns red, an angel will darken a third of both of them.

Then they will still exist.

Apparently they won’t be completely destroyed at this point, because after that a woman will wear the sun and put her feet on the moon. And an angel will even make the sun more powerful.

And then they won’t be needed.

Then there’s the new Jerusalem, which won’t need the sun or moon either.

Continue reading Will the sun and moon last forever?
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Why it makes no sense to pray for anything

Jesus says believers can ask him/God for anything they want, and he will do it. As long as you have even the tiniest amount of faith, nothing will be impossible for you, not even moving mountains. Whatever you ask for in prayer will be yours, if you believe it will be.

Well, some parts of the Bible suggest that you might have to ask in the name of Jesus, and have somebody else agree with you on what you’re asking for. The Bible says the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective, so just make sure you have a clear conscience, and you can get anything you ask for. As long as it’s God’s will, anyway…

But actually, the Bible says God gives generously to all without finding fault, so forget about all those apparent preconditions (belief, righteousness, agreement, asking in Jesus’s name, aligning with God’s will, etc.). None of those things are even required before God will give you what you ask for. If you don’t have what you want, it’s only because you haven’t asked God for it. Jesus agrees: he taught that everyone who asks receives. God even gives good gifts to evil people if they ask.

Of course, Jesus and the Bible are wrong, as usual. In reality, nobody ever gets what they want because they prayed for it.

Testing the claim

Scientific experiments

Since Jesus makes such a strong claim, that you can ask for anything in prayer and God will always give you what you ask for, all it takes to disprove that claim is to observe one single case of someone not getting what they prayed for. But we can do better than that. Even the weaker claim that prayer sometimes gets results can be disproved. When people have tried actually rigorously testing the hypothesis that prayer has a healing effect, most of the studies have found no healing effect.

Why only most? A few false positives are to be expected by chance, even if there is no real effect. But usually when a study seems to show that prayer works, it’s because that study is flawed. The more a study is well-designed, the less effect of prayer it finds.

In some of the studies, the subjects all knew they were being prayed for, which is the only reason they felt better afterwards. As shown by other studies that found that people felt better when they thought people were praying for them, not when people actually were praying for them.

(Although not even that placebo effect consistently works. Some well-done studies have found that the patients who didn’t know they were being prayed for had worse outcomes than the ones who weren’t being prayed for at all, and the people who knew they were being prayed for ended up even worse off than that.

Maybe that knowledge gave those patients performance anxiety, or maybe the patients interpreted doctors resorting to prayer as an indication that their situation was hopeless. Or maybe there’s no real effect here either way, just minor random variation.)

Then there’s this study, where there weren’t enough subjects involved, and the statistical analysis was done by a biased person without sufficient blinding (a problem other prominent prayer studies have had as well), and they claimed success based on outcomes other than what they were originally supposed to be testing for, and they failed to control for which patients had health insurance, and they didn’t distinguish between prayer and other supernatural healing methods, and it’s not clear whether actual prayer was even involved at all.

And that’s not the worst one that has been done. Another study on prayer had an even smaller sample size and no control group, and was not double-blinded. And it was funded by the Templeton Foundation, which gives the researchers a corrupt incentive to report results in favor of religion regardless of what they actually find.

Even the few prayer studies that are pretty well designed and still get so-called positive results show much more limited effects than you’d expect from an all-powerful God. If the difference in outcomes between groups in those studies was really caused by God and not chance, why would that difference merely be something like 14% of patients in the prayer group getting a bad outcome vs 22% in the control group? And why would most of the outcome variables measured show no effect of prayer, including variables like “recovering quickly” and “not dying”, which were outcomes that people were specifically praying for?

There was one study on prayer (for increasing fertility) that did find quite a significant effect size… but that study turned out to be completely fraudulent.

Keep in mind that these specific studies I’m mentioning here are just the few where prayer appeared to get fairly good results. The vast majority of studies on prayer have found no significant effect at all.

Anyway, maybe studies on prayers for sick people shouldn’t be taken as evidence for or against the effectiveness of prayer, because prayer is awfully hard to control for. Most people who are sick are already going to be praying and/or having others pray for them, so it would be hard to be sure you actually had a non-prayer group of patients to compare with. It’s probably better to assess the effectiveness of prayer by looking at something that people aren’t going to be praying about already.

Informal experiments

Most people don’t even bother keeping track of which of their prayers were or were not successful, and as a result they only remember the times when they got what they asked for. But if you do try keeping track, you’ll find that most of your prayers actually go unanswered.

You can also try keeping track of the same things you would have asked God for, but without praying. Or you could try praying to a jug of milk or something instead. It won’t make any difference. You will get about the same success rate as when you prayed to God, because all the “answered prayers” you’ve experienced were just coincidences. (Of course, to make it a fair comparison, you have to make sure that the way you evaluate the results of praying to the milk jug is just as biased as the way you evaluate the results of praying to God.)

An even easier way to test whether prayer has any effect is to try asking God to do something that unambiguously could not possibly happen without supernatural intervention. After all, if you believe you have access to an all-powerful prayer-answering God, why limit your requests to things that can happen without God’s help? Jesus promised that believers can pray for things that seem impossible, and they will get what they ask for.

So ask God to do something like moving a mountain, or making a coin land the same way 50 times in a row. Or if you prefer, try asking him to do something more useful, like restoring an amputated limb, or eliminating all cases of a common disease. And to make sure that what’s happening is unambiguous, ask him to do it instantly and without help from humans.1

When you ask for something unambiguous like that, you never get it. It doesn’t matter how good a reason you have for wanting the miracle to happen.2 It also doesn’t make any difference if you make sure to fulfill all the conditions that the Bible sometimes says (and sometimes doesn’t say) are required for your prayers to be answered.

If the only way it can happen is with God’s help, it will never happen. You only get “results” from prayer when you ask for something mundane, something that can happen even though there’s no God listening to you.

Consider the massive amount of evil that is constantly happening in the world. There must be so many people praying all the time for God to stop those things from happening, yet they continue to happen. God clearly isn’t answering prayers. And if he’s not willing for whatever reason to do anything about all the world’s big important problems, do you really think he’s going to take your trivial personal requests? The little things you ask for and get are just things that would have happened anyway.

When one or a few people pray during a disaster and end up being the only survivors, this is taken as evidence that prayer is effective. But were those people really the only ones who prayed? Most people are religious, so probably not. You just don’t hear about the rest praying, because dead people don’t get to talk about what happened when they prayed, so everyone ignores them. But most of the people affected by the disaster likely did pray, and most of those people who prayed didn’t survive. So no, that is not evidence that prayer is effective.3

Similarly, lots of extremely ill people pray for recovery, and lots of them don’t recover. But the few who do recover are the only ones you get to hear talking about what happened when they prayed. So if you don’t actively look into the numbers, you can easily get a very distorted impression of the effectiveness of prayer. In reality, prayer has no effect on death rates.

You don’t even have to test it to know that prayer won’t get results

Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?

God

What happens if you pray for something that requires other people to do something? Either God doesn’t respect people’s free will and will force those people to do things just because you asked him to, or the outcome of your prayer depends on those people’s decisions rather than on God.

Or what happens if two people pray for incompatible outcomes? They’re not both going to get what they asked for. Jesus’s claim that all prayers will be answered isn’t even logically possible.

But why should prayer even be needed? A good God would protect everyone from harm all the time, not just when they prayed. So why pray? Do you think God doesn’t already know what you need? If an all-knowing God hasn’t helped you already without you praying, it’s because either God is not good, or helping you isn’t actually the right thing to do. Either way, praying isn’t going to make any difference.

They say God has a plan, and everything that ever happens happens for a good reason, since it’s all part of God’s perfect plan. This idea is incompatible with the idea of a prayer-answering God. Not everything people want is going to be part of God’s original plan, so any prayers that don’t happen to fit into the plan are going to have to go unfulfilled.

What else could God do? Do you really expect God to change his plan just because a human asks him to? Why would you even want him to? Do you think you know better than God? To ask God to do what you want is to say that you think his own plan isn’t good enough. Prayer is blasphemy.

Either he was already going to do what you think he should do, so asking him to do it is pointless, or he already decided it wasn’t the best thing to do, which means you are asking God to do something bad. Do you think God is going to agree to do something bad for you? Do you think just because you think the alternative course of events would be bad, God is going to prevent it, and thereby prevent all the greater good consequences that he knows it will have?

Because according to a popular theistic argument, every seemingly undesirable event that ever happens was planned by God for a reason. It must have some awfully important planned consequences, if God was willing to intentionally plan for that unpleasant event to happen, just so those consequences could happen. So God is certainly not going to let you disrupt his perfect plan and prevent all the good that was going to happen because of that event, just because you said so. He’s going to ignore your prayer.

If God is all-knowing and all-good, then he doesn’t need you to tell him what to do, and he isn’t going to let you. Or, if God does let imperfect humans influence his actions, then God is imperfect.

Making excuses for God

Believers have plenty of explanations for why God doesn’t answer prayers. It’s easy to come up with excuses for God when you’ve had so much practice because God has been constantly disappointing you all your life.

Continue reading Why it makes no sense to pray for anything
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