Thought Experiments

on the

Text of the Bible

The recent book and movie The DaVinci Code raises some interesting questions on the nature and source of the Christian faith. I heartily encourage people to look at the evidence on both sides of the questions, but before jumping into the fray, I think you should consider a few of what physicists call "thought experiments," a study of the logical implications of whatever factual data there might be out there.

I do not believe it is necessary to be a classical theist to run these experiments, but it does help if you are open to the possibility of an objective God, separate from our imaginations.

1. Knowing

If there is a God, and if He wanted to tell you something, how would you know? How would you know it's not just heartburn?

If you met a person on the street (or on the 13th floor of a 10-story building like in one of the movies), and he looks just like any other person, but he tells you he is God, why should you believe him? Does he do something god-like? What would that be? If he exactly matches your preconceived notions of what God is like, how do you know you are not hallucinating and imagining the whole encounter?

It is the nature of gods that they have supernatural powers. Otherwise they would just be humans. Would a miracle1 (some violation of the laws of physics) be persuasive? George Burns in the movie Oh God was asked to make it rain on a sunny day, so he made it rain -- inside the car. "I wouldn't want to spoil the day for everybody," he said. In that movie the dubious human was invited to ask for a miracle, but the movie is fiction, written by dubious humans. What does a real God do to prove who He is?

This is an important question, because there are numerous god-claims, and it helps to know which are credible and which are ignorant or outright fraud.

2. Communicating

After God has your attention, how does He reliably communicate? If He speaks only to your mind, so only you hear Him, how do you know you are not hallucinating or engaging in a flight of imagination? When I was a child, I read a lot of science fiction, and one day I convinced myself that I had been transported to a different time. I really believed it -- until I went home and everything was as it should be for the normal flow of time.

If you want to give important instructions to somebody so they will remember what you said, do you speak to them in their sleep? Or write it down on a piece of paper? How about carving the words of the message on stone?

Which are you more likely to believe, a piece of gossip given anonymously over the phone, or a document signed and dated by an author you know and trust?

3. Corruption

Let's say somebody started a religion. It happens all the time, Buddha did it, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, L.Ron Hubbard, they all started religions. This experiment does not require a supernatural startup, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can do just fine. For a religion to be credible, it might try to teach high moral values, like honesty, democracy, doing good to other people, and paying tithes into the church treasury to help the poor. Let's further suppose that the tenets of this religion are attractive, and it acquires a large following. After the founder is gone, some unscrupulous scoundrels infiltrate the religious hierarchy (no doubt after some of that treasury of tithe money), and change some of the teachings of the religion to better promote their own power grab. Here's the question: How can they pull that off?

If these larcenous villains change (or delete) the teachings of honesty and benevolence, who will stay with the religion? All the people who joined because of the high moral values, they will go away and take their money with them. If the usurpers leave the moral code in place, but change other doctrines, everybody who knew the old teachings will cry out that this is not honest, that it is contrary to the true faith, and throw the bums out.

How then can this corruption take place, and still leave a religion that teaches high moral values, without alienating everybody watching the transition take place? And if they do, how will they get more adherents, over the outcry of the alienated original followers?

4. Gullibility

The popular conceit of modernism is that people 2000 years ago were superstitious fools, but we know better. A Recent Creationist2 knows that entropy applied to our cognitive capabilities suggests that they were smarter 2000 years ago than today, so this experiment is for the other camp, the Darwinist or Big-Banger or theistic evolutionist, all who believe that the things are getting better, not worse. For purposes of this thought experiment, we assume that is the case.

How long have humans been evolving since they first began to think intelligently? 100,000 years? 1.5 million years? Pick a number you are comfortable with. What percentage of that time is 2000 years? 2% or 0.13%? That means the humans 2000 years ago were in the worst case just 2% stupider than you and I are.

They didn't have modern science, but what did they have? Nature. How many times do you have to put a seed into the ground and watch it sprout into exactly the same kind of plant the seed came from, before you believe that the seeds grow up to be just like the tree they came from? How many times do you need to put your foot in the water at the beach before you recognize that the water won't hold it up? How many girls do you know who got pregnant without a guy's sperm? This is the 21st century, we can actually do these things! But they couldn't. Why should somebody 98% as smart as you are -- so close you can't tell the difference without a Stanford-Binet test -- why should somebody like that believe otherwise?

5. Continuity

The Jewish religion had been around for a couple thousand years when Jesus showed up. Jesus was a Jew. One of the teachings of the Jewish religion -- we have manuscripts dating back before Jesus, which contain this teaching with no evidence of alteration -- is that God does not change, and His rules do not change. Jesus publicly announced that he was not changing any of that. St.Paul was trained in the Jewish educational system and quoted extensively from the Jewish Bible; he also claimed that the religion he taught was the same as the religion of Abraham and Moses.

The Gnostic writings tell a different story. Their demi-urges seem capricious and changing. They deny important tenets of Judaism. Which "Christianity" do you think would appeal more to Jewish believers? Who were the early Christians, anyway? Are you more persuaded by new ideas that look familiar and fit with what you already know to be true, or by something radically different from everything you believe?


OK, tell me about these hidden gospels that the church "suppressed". Nobody believes Thomas or Judas or Mary was even alive when the "gospels" attributed to them were written; why should we believe they are more authentic, or even as credible as, the Bible texts that were in wide circulation when the original Disciples were still alive to refute them?

Tom Pittman
2006 May 31


1. Atheists and other people who do not believe God can do miracles might be disinclined to let the occurance of a miracle persuade them. Can a person be mistaken about what is possible in an infinite universe? What if God is outside the physical universe, and therefore not bound by the laws of physics? Does any mortal human have enough definitive knowledge to rule out that possibility?

2. If entropy takes things into disorder and corruption, then it stands to reason that it also applies to our mental capacities, created in Adam at maximum ability and slowly deteriorating over time.