In Pursuit of Truth

Unravel the truth about religious interpretations in this insightful episode. Explore the complexities of literal versus figurative interpretations of scripture.

With so many religions and sects claiming sole mandate to truth through their interpretation of scripture, what is true and what isn't and how do we tell the difference? Would it even matter? For any interpretation of Scripture to be true, it needs to be part of a coherent system of truths. Anyone is free to propose any idea but it could not be accepted as being the absolute truth unless its proven to be true. Beliefs and propositions are very different. A belief exists only in the mind and people are inclined to act on beliefs as if the thing were true. You are free to act out your beliefs, provided it doesn't cause harm to others. Proving the Bible to be true is a very subjectively flawed endeavour. These texts are written in many different literary styles. Not all of them are factual. This episode explores whether the Bible is meant to be interpreted literally or figuratively.


Thomas Budge asks the awkward questions you would like to ask, he pokes holes in rigid belief systems, and challenges the way the world taught us to think. His aim is to stimulate debate and encourage lateral thinking, so it's okay if this podcast occasionally makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

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My mother is in her late 80s and is our family's religious matriarch. Sixty years ago, when I was a boy, a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses came knocking at our door one Sunday morning. Mom let them in. Having been brought up in an atheistic home, she was clearly in need of some form of spirituality and immediately accepted their Bible study proposals. That was like a stone thrown into a pond and the ripples of this new faith soon spread out across our family, capturing aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins. The religion has since seeped down into the minds and hearts of three or four generations and I can see that ours is now an ancestral family of Jehovah's Witnesses. I consider myself lucky because I was expelled from the organisation at the age of 27 due to unrepentant bad behaviour (I was gay) and irreconcilable differences of belief. I don't think my family consider me lucky — they believe I'm doomed. I'm an apostate, someone whose beliefs have changed and who no longer belongs to a particular religious or political group. An apostate is seen as a sort of dissident, a rebellious defector, someone treasonous to the cause. Satan was technically the first apostate and one can appreciate how all other deserters are believed to follow him. I'm now quite light-hearted about my excommunication but it came at considerable emotional cost because under Jehovah's Witness law, my family had to shun me. It is an exceptionally cruel punitive measure drawn from some very literal interpretation of scripture. The Witnesses habitually decode the Bible in a very matter-of-fact way and the rules about shunning are no exception. Dr Jerry Bergman notes that the hatred directed against those who quit the Watchtower Society can sometimes result in suicides, homicides or even multiple murders which he documented in his book.

Mom recently attended a Jehovah's Witness convention with my sister and her family. The main theme that day was about encouraging those who had strayed to return to the faith and so she took it upon herself to convince me to return. Over the phone the next day she said, "You know, my Boy, Jehovah will soon destroy Satan's wicked system of things. We were told at our assembly that Jehovah is like a shepherd who takes time to look for lost sheep, returning them lovingly to the safety of the flock where He keeps a watchful eye over them. Isn't it time that you return to Him so that you can be saved?" Like all other Witnesses, she believes that there will soon be a monumental cataclysm, an almighty apocalypse called Armageddon. God will use all the tools He has at his disposal, like: hail, floods, pestilence and sulphurous brimstone. During this ritual cleansing of the earth, all heathens will perish. They will be wiped from the face of the earth, their memory ignominiously obliterated forever. Anyone who doesn't pledge allegiance to God through the JW organisation will die. In 1914, Jesus began to invisibly rule over earth. He is establishing a new Kingdom here. Armageddon paves the way to restore Eden-like paradise conditions on this planet. Earth will then be occupied only by the faithful meek. Of all the possible life-supporting planets in this universe, why Jesus favours this miniscule blue pixel, is unknown. Why is planet earth and the people living on her so special? It is preposterous to presume that this is the only planet in this entire universe that supports complex forms of life, like ours. This planet does have some amazing biodiversity yet there is every reason to believe that life exits elsewhere in the universe too. Given the vastness of space, it is highly probable that there is other intelligent life somewhere else out there. For a planet to host life, a number of important prerequisites need to be in place: the planet can neither be too hot nor cold. It would have to orbit its host star at just the right distance, not too far away yet not too close, like earth does. Orbits like Pluto are just too far from the hosting star and barely receive any solar radiation leaving them freezingly cold; those like Venus are boiling hot. To host life, the planet would also have to rotate at a reasonable speed on its axis; a day that is too long or too short would freeze or fry half of the planet. Water and oxygen are also important for life to exist as we know it and one would expect to find similar earth-like conditions on other far-flung planets if life were to flourish there. The odds are very probable that there are many millions of other planets that meet these criteria.

Because Witnesses interpret scriptures very literally, their image of a new order is picturesque. It is quite plainly just as the Bible describes it: a new order of things where the lion lies down with the lamb, death is conquered and everyone lives in peace and harmony forever. Is this just luscious poetry and figurative writing or is it a factual account of earth's future? Such literal interpretation requires a lot of faith (naïve assumption) and quickly falls apart when scrutinised scientifically. These interpretations create nonsensical conundrums and I once got into some serious trouble for asking a very simple question, "Why do Watchtower drawings of Adam and Eve depict them with belly buttons?" It's a brilliant question without any plausible answer.

It is important to understand that the Bible is written in many different literary styles. Not all of it is factual. Parts are written as epistles. These are personal letters written to various congregations or individuals and this correspondence covers various issues and topics of difficulty for those early Christians. The Bible also contains long lists of genealogy, family lineage, sometimes skipping many generations and spanning hundreds of years. There is also historical narrative that documents events about the nations that Israel had dealings with, and about key people who played important roles in Biblical history. Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. They are collectively known as the Pentateuch and are predominantly statutory in nature, tabling Old Testament Laws that are now commonly regarded as obsolete. We also find prophetic styles of writing, proclamations about future occurrences. Some prophecies had immediate relevance while others had a much longer scope. Large chunks of the Bible are poetic and proverbial, making interpretation of these passages very subjective and you'd need to carefully consider many aspects around the writing of these accounts before literally accepting them as fact.

If lions were literally to cohabit peacefully with lambs, if death (an idiosyncratic artefact of Satan's sinful system) disappeared and everything lived forever, the entire unfurling of the universe would suddenly have to stop functioning to permit the earth to last eternally. Forever is a very long time indeed. The suspension of all thermodynamic processes would naturally affect the sun too. There could be no more sunshine because the light and heat radiating from the sun occurs as a result of the vast quantities of helium and hydrogen it burns every day, a process that cannot last forever. Astronomy already knows that the sun is halfway through its lifecycle. Its reserves will one day be exhausted. When the sun begins to run out of fuel, it will start to bloat at first as its gravity weakens and its remaining contents puff outwards. This will swallow up all the inner planets including Mars and the band of asteroids. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and the asteroids will all be engulfed and destroyed. As the dimmed, bloated sun continues into its old age, it is likely to collapse in on itself, forming a white dwarf star, a cindery remnant found at the heart of our solar system.

To allow a carnivorous lion to coexist alongside a sheep, the lion would have to undergo some inconceivable adaptations to take on a vegetarian lifestyle. If this is factually what's meant to occur, there is no way a lion's biology could remain as it is. If the lion morphed into a docile, cud chewing herbivore, we couldn't then really call it a lion, could we? Realistic acceptance of Bible verses creates other problems too. Watchtower images depict the new paradise as a place of rolling green hills, flowering shrubs, fruit-laden trees, lion and lamb huddled together in the sunshine, and happy families dressed in conservative western garb with children all sweetly frolicking together. It's a pimped-up version of the American Hawaiian Dream. If the idea of original sin was to be forever erased from human minds after Armageddon, all people would surely return to Eden-like states of naivety, in the same innocent way Adam and Eve began life. Why are all the people in the picture fully-clothed? Why not naked depictions of people in this new paradise, as it was in the first paradise? If people were truly free of sin, shame and judgement would they be in need of clothing? If death is conquered, and everyone lives as happy families, raising their children as depicted in Watchtower literature, what about eventual overpopulation? Would reproduction then be a necessary part of our biology in the absence of death? Why then show images of children in this new paradise? Do children not suggest the continuation of the reproductive process? Does birth make any sense at all without death as its counterpart? I get the point that billions will die in Armageddon because the bulk of the world's population are unbelieving heathens and they are all doomed. This leaves plenty of space for survivors. There are presently only around 8.2 million Witnesses worldwide and I'm convinced, from my personal experience as a former volunteer in their organisation, that not all of them will be squeaky clean at the time of the end. Hence, not all will make it through. But, oh, I forgot to mention the resurrection. All those people sleeping in their graves will rise from the dead when Jesus takes up his sovereign leadership. I'm not quite sure what is meant to happen to an Armageddon survivor who lost multiple spouses to illness and death? Will he or she be allowed a polygamous marriage after the resurrection when all the former partners are brought back to life? In what physical condition will the dead be resurrected? I certainly hope that all their bodily defects at death will be fixed: congenital imperfections corrected, missing limbs replaced, blind eyes that see again and all wrinkles ironed out to negate the ravaging effects of old age. I sincerely trust that every resurrected body will be restored to its prime state. But how do we conceptualise that ideal? Will all resurrected men, women and children come back in their teens, twenties or with the wisdom predominantly found in the aged? Perhaps there's a timeless, ageless model of human form that epitomises a perfect person: a wise sage in a hormone pounding, gorgeous body — not just one or two of them but a whole world full. Now suddenly, it's starting to sound very promising but with fantasy and lustful desire, nobody will ever get in. Yet, ironically, what's the point of such magnificent eye-candy if nobody has the capacity to fantasise over it.

If Armageddon is a reality, it isn't going to be a pretty sight with literally billions of dead people strewn everywhere. There will be ghost cities across the globe, filled with millions of abandoned vehicles and houses and only a few million able-bodied people to do all the clean-up work. It sounds nightmarish. I have to assume that there will be a vast, miraculous mop-up operation during Armageddon otherwise the place will be far from paradise. What will God do with all of Satan's buildings in all the commercial hubs around the world? Without trade, industry and other religions, they serve no purpose at all. Will these epiphyses vaporise into nothingness?

If there is no death, does it mean that macrophages found in your bloodstream won't eat bacterial invaders in your body? If the answer is no, then why have macrophages at all? Will plants grow and die? Will they bear flowers, have fruit and spread their seeds because that also implies reproduction and what's the point when there is no death? What happens to the spiders? Like the lion hunters that morphed into something else, will spiders start chewing leaves like worms do? Will they stop spinning their webs? What will happen to animals and insects in a fire, will they somehow be protected forever? Will fires never happen because you can't burn something without death occurring at some level in the system. Does a deathless world imply that humans will never fall ill, have accidents, choke to death or break bones? If this is so, why then have cell division? Would cells die? Would one need a sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system to control flight and fight if there is a divine promise of eternal peace? How will people eat if death is outlawed? Will they all become fruitarians? These are good, pertinent questions and I could go on asking them forever.

If you challenge the Witnesses about these matters, you'll probably be told that Jehovah has His plan — which really means, they don't have foggiest clue about the details of a new earth because this literal story is too crazy to comprehend — yet you are urged to trust God and simply accept that it will all happen the way He says it will. That's what faith is all about, isn't it?

Having any discussion with my mother on these kinds of matters is impossible. Hers is not a belief that resonates with me and so anyone could have quite easily predicted that I declined her offer to return to the organisation. Although I have a deep sense of personal spirituality, according to the Witnesses, I will never be spared through Armageddon if I don't belong in the truth, a euphemism for their interpretation of scripture. That's what the Witnesses call it "The Truth" and you'll hear them speaking amongst themselves, saying things like, "When did you come into the truth?" Or "I feel so sorry for her because her husband is not in the truth." Or, in my case, "You know, he turned his back on the truth." The Witnesses are taught that all other religions and all other interpretations of the Bible are the cunning work of the Devil. Their doctrinal beliefs, which are regarded as the only truth, are determined by a committee of seven men. The Jehovah's Witnesses are of course not the only group to claim sole mandate on truth. Many other religions and sects do the same thing too. As a seeker of truth, how will you ever know who got it right and who didn't? Surely there can be only one version of reality regardless of how many beliefs or opinions there are about it.

For any interpretation of Scripture to be true, it needs to be part of a coherent system of truths. It's an idea that comes from philosophy, a discipline known as epi-stem-ology. To determine the truth about anything, we begin with a proposition about it. A proposition is a statement in which something is affirmed or denied, so that it can be characterised as being either significantly true or false. I could make the proposition that the earth is flat. It's a perfectly valid proposition but it is not necessarily true. Knowledge, reality or the factual state of affairs is belief in a proposition that you have tested and proven to be true. You are free to propose any idea but it could not be accepted as being the absolute truth unless its proven to be true. The Latin term, o-nus pro-bandi (the burden of proof) is a legal obligation on a party to provide sufficient evidence to warrant or substantiate their position. In establishing proof, one should be very careful to eradicate hearsay. Hearsay is unverified, unofficial information that does not form part of the direct pool of knowledge regarding a certain matter or idea. Beliefs and propositions are very different. A belief exists only in the mind and people are inclined to act on beliefs as if the thing were true. Nothing prevents you from holding out a belief, that's your right which is enshrined in the South African Constitution. Therefore, the Witnesses, or any other religion for that matter, are free to promote and act upon their beliefs as if they were fact but there is a special provision in the Constitution preventing others' beliefs infringing upon or impeding anyone else's rights. You may have your personal beliefs but you cannot act them out if they cause harm to others. Pastor Steve Anderson's bigoted views of homosexuality cost him dearly because they became hate speech and impinged on others' rights and choices. He was banned from entering South Africa and was deported from Botswana because of them.

Onus probandi, or the burden of proof in a Biblical sense is nearly impossible to find because beliefs are generally riddled with hearsay. As an example, take the claim that the Jehovah's Witness Governing Body is directly appointed by God. This is the ruling council of seven men who determine all Witness doctrine and policy. They use a couple of scriptures to establish their credentials and divine appointment. In terms of beliefs, it is a valid one and all Witnesses are well within their rights to act upon it as if it were fact. However, no matter how you look at it, it is only hearsay because there is no conclusive way to prove this claim. The burden of proof is incumbent upon the party making the proposition to establish its truthfulness but sadly, no empirical evidence exists to substantiate their claim.

Empirically proving the Bible is a very subjective endeavour. The original texts were written thousands of years ago and we already know that there were some serious edits made to the Bible by the clergy and politicians in ancient Rome. Some of the books of the Bible, a category of writing known as the Apocrypha, were omitted in their entirety. Other teachings were tweaked to suit the times. For example, it is fact that Christmas and Easter were borrowed from the Pagan celebrations of solstice and equinox and included in the Christian calendar. It sounds blasphemous yet the claim that the Bible is authentically the Word of God is also nothing more than hearsay. We cannot prove or disprove it. The earliest parts of the Bible were written by Moses, the same man who led the Israelites out of Egypt. He was the 12th generation, direct descendant of Adam, meaning that the Genesis account of creation was written at least 500 years later, if not longer. How faithful was this account? How had the information come to Moses? The opinions and hypotheses of scholars vary widely regarding when the New Testament was written or first recorded. Some view it as a collection of fables and myths verbally passed on by storytellers for generations before being recorded. Other scholars believe that most of it was written before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, some 70 years after Jesus' birth.

I've been deeply cynical about Jehovah's Witness beliefs and I share my personal line of thought because these are ideas I had to grapple with for decades after my excommunication to re-establish my spiritual place. By joking about such matters, we create other points of reference that help us find new thought perspectives. God most certainly has a sense of humour so we shouldn't worry about offending Him. Paramount of course, is that we respect others' absolute right to believe freely but I urge you not to be bullied into believing any old stuff. Choose your belief framework carefully and be vigilant when adopting others' beliefs. Test them thoroughly before taking them on as your own. This episode isn't meant to send you into a spiral of depression and anxiety over your spiritual beliefs. To the contrary, the hope is quite the opposite: the intention is to inspire, liberate and uplift you. I think that most rational persons will concur that there will never be conclusive proof regarding the Bible. Because it is written in so many different literary styles, its interpretation will always be very subjective. This means that differences of opinion over dogma are expected and nobody can ever claim to be right or wrong. I urge you not to discard these holy texts, writing them off as unprovable bits of hogwash. It might be better to ferret out the amazing framework of beliefs about wholesome living which you are then free to interpret in a way that resonates best with you. Superimpose these beliefs upon those of other religions and you'll soon notice common key elements that teach us about selflessness, godliness, neighbourliness, oneness, holiness and so many other egoless virtues. When we apply these principles to human life, it creates a wonderful framework for respectfully celebrating our collective diversity to its fullest extent.

In the next episode of Soul Searching we take a look at an interesting idea that comes from Ramtha's teachings which validates all beliefs, making everything true. Here's Ramtha's statement about truth, "There is truth in everything […] but there is also refinement in all things, for each moment refines truth. That is why God is not in a state of perfection but rather a state of becoming. Each entity continually progresses in his understanding to encompass more unlimited truth. And whatever his understanding is, moment to moment to moment, it will be the truth as he sees it, as he knows it."

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