A strong delusion

I have yet to hear a compelling explanation of why these words appear in 2 Thessalonians 2 (verses 7-14). Emphasis, of course, is mine:

For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It seems to say pretty clearly that God chooses some people to believe in him, and forces other people not to believe in him. Kinda throws a monkey wrench in the whole business of evangelizing, for one thing. (Are you trying to mess up God’s plan?) Beyond that, it seems terrifically, monstrously unjust. Those whom God deludes into believing the wrong thing get punished for eternity, while those whom God decides to implant the correct beliefs get to be saved and “obtain glory.” In order to deserve reward or punishment, though, you need to be morally responsible for the things you did. Being forced by an omnipotent being to believe something would clearly not qualify for moral responsibility.

I’ve heard two responses to this from Christians when I point it out to them. One:

The people God sent a strong delusion first chose to follow Satan instead of God. It says, ‘they refused to love the truth. Therefore….’

I see where this is coming from, but I don’t think it ultimately answers my objections. First, it redirects the debate to one that’s about God’s omnipotence and the existence of Satan. Surely if God didn’t want people to be tricked by Satan and his false signs and wonders, there are myriad ways he could have achieved that — beginning with not creating Satan in the first place.

Beyond that, though, what is this attitude really saying about God’s approach to humanity? Imagine a little child saying to a parent, “I hate you! I’m gonna run away and never come back!” Would the parent then be justified in kicking the kindergartener out of the house, leaving him to fend for himself on the streets? After all, he started it, right? In this case, let’s even grant that the person was purposely acting against God, rather than seeing Jesus’ and Satan’s different sets of “signs and wonders” and merely getting confused. God is telling this person, “You want Satan? I’ll give you Satan!” and making it impossible for them to change their mind in the future. Rather than sending a strong delusion, an omnipotent and benevolent God could have and would have sent an illuminating understanding of reality. (Remember, we’re temporarily granting that Christianity is true here.) Instead, he chose to cement their damnation. So, regardless of who acted first, this is rather a dick move on God’s part.

The other, bizarrely common response I’ve heard is:

Yeah, well, it’d be so nice and simple to be a five-point Calvinist! Hahaha!

Naming it doesn’t refute it. If your holy, divinely-inspired book flatly states that the five-point Calvinists have got this one right, why aren’t you one? Perhaps because it’s nasty and unjust?

Of course, most Christians can’t square these verses with their faith. But they won’t choose to amend their beliefs to include a capricious, unmerciful God as their scripture describes, nor will they be sufficiently uncomfortable with the dissonance between their scripture and their beliefs to reject the entire religion as nonsensical. The only other option, as far as I can see, is to embrace the irrationality of it and pretend it’s a complete non-issue. But that’s the real delusion.

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  1. May I take a stab at this?

    For the Christians who treat the Bible as a flatly literal rule book, wherein each line is a literal line from God to us, this would seem problematic.

    You may be aware, though, that not all Christians treat the Bible as a literal rule book, but more as a book of Truth. For Christians like myself, we see Paul making a point here that need not be a directly factual literal truth from God, but rather, Paul’s expression at that time of a truth as Paul understood it.

    IF the Bible is a book of Truth and Truths, then one of the Truths we understand is that God is good, and another is that God is just and fair. These are common and central themes found in the Bible (and, some might say, in our reasoning).

    So you have this one place where it sounds like Paul is suggesting that God only “chooses” some of us and the others, God deliberately confuses so as better to condemn them. But at the same time, you have many, many other places where God is expressed as loving the whole world, not wanting ANY to perish, not wanting to see blood shed unjustly. How do we reconcile the difference?

    Well, for the literalists, I would agree that it would be difficult. Not so much for those of us who see a book of Truths, not literal “God said” facts.

    We have Paul and a church community that is experiencing persecution and punishment, death and devastation. In that context, Paul is warning in apocalyptic terms (like the book of Revelation) about those who aren’t of the community of faith, how they would seek to destroy, how these folk are confused. Paul attributes it here to God, but that is probably not uncommon in that day and time to credit to God all manner of thoughts and ideas. It is not the same as saying that God is taking responsibility for it, God’s Self.

    The point would be: Watch out for these destroyers, cling to the faith and the faith community, love one another, stay true to God… It is not necessary, it seems to this poor believer, to take it literally.


  2. Hi Dan. You never have to ask “may I” before adding to a discussion on my blog. I appreciate your comments!

    There are actually a number of places in the Bible where it says that the people who are saved are “elected” or somehow determined by God, rather than it being their choice or their moral responsibility. I chose this one particular one because it recently came up in a discussion I was having with Christian friends, and because its language is so striking. Now, it may well be that there are more places where the Bible says that God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved. Do you suggest that we can find the correct theology by counting up verses that come down on each side of an apparent contradiction, and picking the side that has more verses behind it? This is, I suppose, a workable approach, but it strikes me as a strange, confusing, and ineffective way for an omnipotent being to choose to communicate his will. (And most Christians open their Bible and draw inspiration from whatever passage they are looking at, or whichever their pastor tells them to look at, rather than looking at statistics aggregating all Bible verses together at once. What if they pick the wrong passage to read?)

    I also have a larger issue with the distinction you seem to be making between “truth” and “facts” — I don’t see how something can be true and yet not be a fact, or vice versa — and with how one tells whether a particular verse in the Bible is something to be interpreted literally or metaphorically. I mean, I agree with you that the Bible should not be taken literally! But as long as we are tossing out statements that seem to reflect only the misguided and heavily-contextualized understandings of people who lived thousands of years ago, how do you justify belief in God as literally real? That sounds as metaphorical to me as any other teaching in scripture.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts and the welcome. A few responses…

    Do you suggest that we can find the correct theology by counting up verses that come down on each side of an apparent contradiction, and picking the side that has more verses behind it?

    No, that is not my suggestion. My point is that at least some Christians think that treating the Bible as a rule book, where each line holds the same weight and is as if God is commanding literally whatever each verse says is not a workable approach to Bible study, nor is it a wise or rational or biblical way to think about life, morality or God.

    As you note, there are passages that seem pretty internally inconsistent with other passages, IF taken literally. Does God want us NOT to shed innocent blood or was Israel correct to wipe out whole cities? Does God “elect” only some people and create other people only for a literal eternal destruction in a literal sheol or does God want ALL to be saved? etc. The literal approach to Bible study is not possible.

    And for the record, this is from someone who started out life as a fairly traditional Southern Baptist literalist who eventually decided that literalism does not make biblical sense (not to mention rational sense) – the Bible simply does not demand a literal interpretation of itself, that is an externally-, culturally-imposed command.


    I also have a larger issue with the distinction you seem to be making between “truth” and “facts” — I don’t see how something can be true and yet not be a fact, or vice versa

    If I may, let me start with some fairly simple biblical illustrations.

    In the Bible, you have an account of creation that, by most rational, logical, historical measures appears to be written in a mythic style. It is an account of “the beginning” that tells us in mythic terms that God created the world. That is the Truth of the story.

    Now, does a story passing on this Truth in mythic terms demand that it be also taken literally as to the facts in the story? No, of course not. Not any more than other mythic stories ought to be taken literally. Stories of “how the Tiger got his stripes,” or “how the Sun came to be” are passing on Truths in a storytelling style that are not rationally taken literally and, in fact, taken them literally would be missing the point of the stories themselves.

    So, with the creation account, it does not require a literal “six day” process that apparently took place literally thousands of years ago. That would be reading a mythic story as science and missing the Truths being passed on entirely.

    Similarly for the Jonah and the Whale/Great Fish story. The Truths found within the story could include “You can’t run from God,” and “God loves and wants to save everyone,” but taking it literally (demanding that there was an actual Jonah who was literally swallowed by a “great fish” and three days later was spewed out on to a beach near Ninevah) is not necessary or biblically required to get to the Truths of the story.

    The Truths are not dependent upon the facts, at least in these two stories.

    In fact, treating stories told in a mythic or fable-like or epic manner as literal science and history texts with facts told in a modern manner is not rational or biblical.

    Before I continue, does that much make sense?

  4. By the way, I love your blog title and quote from Sagan and think that this approach is extremely biblical and Christian, for what it’s worth.

    Christianity does not require us to set aside our brains.

    Along those lines, and as a follow up to what I just wrote, rationally and historically we know/scholars tend to agree that when it comes to history-telling the era of what we might call “Modern History Telling” – with an emphasis on factual literality and exact linear story telling does not begin to emerge until about 500 BCE – 500 ACE. Herodotus (circa ~450 BCE), for instance, is generally considered the “Father of Modern History.” Similarly, Thucydides (circa ~400 BCE) is considered the “Father of Scientific History.”

    Before this time period, exacting factual, linear accuracy in story-telling just wasn’t a priority. And even throughout this time period (500 BCE-500 ACE) and beyond, you still have factual “looseness” in storytelling. Our manner of Modern History evolved over time.

    Factual, linear story and history-telling evolved over time and it is a modern and cultural hubris to try to impose a literalist interpretation on ancient texts.

    As a storyteller from my dear state of Kentucky has noted, “I’m not lying, I’m telling a story!” Telling a story in a manner that does not demand a literal, linear interpretation is not “wrong,” it’s simply a method of storytelling. The only thing wrong is trying to demand a literal interpretation on a story never intended to be taken literally.

  5. So how do you tell the difference between a story meant to be taken literally, and one that is metaphorical storytelling? Are the nativity stories meant to be taken literally? They sound like typical mythical hero birth stories out of Greek mythology. How about various miracles? What about the resurrection? How do you justify drawing a line and saying, “This event is storytelling, but this other event really happened?”

  6. If you’re asking me, I’d say: How do we tell on ANY point whether something is real or metaphorical? We use our reasoning, taking into consideration the evidence at hand.

    And, if you’re like me, you also allow for a little mystery and the realization that my understanding and reasoning is finite and limited.

    For instance, look at my example I have already given:

    1. We have a Creation story/stories that appears to be written in a mythic style.
    2. It comes from a prehistoric time period when stories were typically told in a mythic fashion.
    3. The physical evidence on hand and our best current scientific reasoning suggests that the world is nowhere near merely thousands of years old, but more likely its billions of years old.

    In all of that, I see no reason to doubt the scientific conclusion (recognizing that science is always amending itself as new evidence and understanding emerges) on the age of the earth or the universe. I see no reason not to treat the Genesis Creation story as a myth conveying a version and pre-scientific understanding of the creation of the world and God’s hand in it all.

    So, in answer to your final question, How do I draw a line and say, “this is metaphoric/allegorical and THIS likely truly happened…”? I look to the evidence.

    Ultimately for Christians like me, much of the facts found in the Bible are not as important as the Truths found therein. Was there a literal Jonah? Maybe, maybe not, doesn’t really matter to the story. Was this Jonah actually swallowed by a great fish? I don’t know, probably not. ARE we to love our enemies? Yes. ARE we to recognize that we can’t run from God? From our responsibilities to our fellow humans? Yes, we should recognize those Truths.

    The facts of the story are really almost irrelevant.

    Now, as to Jesus, well, there appears to be more of a historical record, there. There are non-Christian records of the church and of Jesus’ followers. Given the evidence, it would seem a stretch to me to say that no Jesus ever existed…

    And on from there.

    The short answer though is that we use our reasoning and look to the evidence to sort out our conclusions.

  7. Hi Dan,

    That’s all well and good, and nothing that I would particularly disagree with. However, wouldn’t we also be justified in saying that “the physical evidence on hand and our best current scientific reasoning” tells us that people who’ve been dead for three days don’t return to life?

  8. Sure. And I have no way of knowing or “proving” that he did. That falls into the area of “mystery” that I mentioned earlier that I am comfortable with accepting, even if it’s only on faith.

    On the other hand, the telling and retelling of this resurrection story is a good bit different than, for instance, the Creation story.

    For one thing, it is in the time period when history began to be told and retold and written down with more of an eye for historical accuracy.

    For another thing, there are accounts of many witnesses to the risen Jesus. There are non-Christian accounts of the early church and its activities.

    There appears, to me, to be a good-enough case that a man named Jesus of Nazareth existed, taught lessons, got into trouble with the authorities for his teachings and was executed.

    There appears, to me, to be a good-enough case that Jesus’ followers took up his teachings and way – and this in the face of persecution and even death. These early believers – some who knew Jesus first hand – appear to have believed that Jesus resurrected from the grave.

    I’m not an authority on the case and would leave the full case to others who are better able to make it, but I have heard it and find it compelling enough to believe on faith, even if I can in NO way prove this resurrection. If you’re like most skeptics I’ve met, you’ve heard the case for Jesus’ resurrection before and I could offer you nothing new. If you have not, I’d be glad to point you to the rationale.

    For me, I accept the resurrection because I accept the teachings credited to this Jesus and the early church that rose in his wake. These teachings, to me, are the most logically sound, morally prudent and wise reason for being a follower of Jesus.

    If you don’t find the case for resurrection compelling, I’d suggest not believing it.

    If you don’t find the teachings of this Jesus to be compelling, then I’d suggest not believing them.

    I do.

  9. For what it’s worth, here is a brief conversation between two respected Christian scholars (Borg and Wright) with divergent views on the Resurrection.

  10. I would offer one more follow up thought:

    For at least some of us, the point of Christianity is not the “facts” of the stories in the Bible, but the Truths being taught. I am a Christian because I am a follower of the teachings of Jesus (called “the Christ”). Jesus taught us about salvation by grace and I believe that lives of grace and God’s grace DO save us from all sorts of hell. Jesus taught us about simple living, about concern for the poor, about lives of integrity and honesty, about love of this world, this Creation, about finding evidence of God in this creation, etc, etc.

    Ultimately, it is these Truths that I’d say are the critical point of the Christian faith, not the smaller “facts” that may or may not be part of a literal history.

    Did you know that in the story of Jesus “feeding the multitudes,” there is no mention of a miracle happening or of Jesus magically making food from nothing? We sort of imply it from the story, but it’s not literally there. Some have suggested that what happened was this huge hungry crowd was there to listen to Jesus – a crowd largely of poor folk – and they realized there were no food vendors or food sources to feed them. But Jesus’ friends found one little boy who was willing to share his meager food. And Jesus blessed it and divided it and they began to share it, and soon, everyone was fed – but what if the “miracle” there was that, following the child’s sweet example, others divided and shared what THEY had, too, and sure enough, soon everyone was fed?

    I’m not saying that is what literally happened. I don’t know, none of us were there. But that is certainly the sort of “every day miracle” that is consistent with the teachings of Jesus, whom I follow.

    There IS salvation in grace, seems to me, sparing us from all sorts of hell.

    For what it’s worth…

  11. Very much off-topic, but NFQ, I’m very sorry I somehow failed to meet you at the Reason Rally!

    Oh, well. Glad you were there, anyway.

  12. Dan:

    You are suggesting that even those beliefs fundamental to the Christian identity, like the resurrection, require an element of faith to be believed because, as you rightly point out, there simply isn’t enough evidence that the resurrection ought to be taken literally (and even if it were taken literally, there is not enough physical evidence to support it).

    So here’s my question for you: why do you have faith in Christian beliefs rather than in the beliefs of some other religion? Surely you haven’t fallen into the trap that most people fall into, namely that of adopting the religion of the culture they are born into, simply because their parents have indoctrinated them into it?

    In my experience, faith (or trust) is earned. For instance, if I meet a friend for coffee every Monday morning for two years, I have reasonable grounds (excuse the pun) for having faith that he will be there next Monday.

    So how has Christianity earned your trust? What is it that justifies taking a set of ancient Middle Eastern myths as something worth believing in, rather than consigning them to the scrap heap of irrelevant superstition?

  13. Thanks for the question, Keith…

    why do you have faith in Christian beliefs rather than in the beliefs of some other religion?

    Because it’s the belief that makes most sense to me, that best explains how we are to make it in this world. Specifically, the anabaptist(ish) – think Amish, Mennonite, etc) understanding of Christianity is the one that makes most sense to me.

    The anabaptist understanding of Christianity has “earned my trust” because it strikes me as quite real, earnest and workable in this world. They/we take the teachings of Jesus pretty literally and strictly, resulting in a lifestyle and belief that, if everyone followed, would make living in this world more like the Realm of God.

    I don’t think there is anything superstitious about believing that we are saved by grace, or that a life without grace and love would be a hellish existence. Or that we ought to love our enemies and do good for those who hate us (because anything else will result in a hellish existence). Or that we ought to provide for/assist/side with the least of these. Or that we ought to live simply, within our means, sharing of our excess with those in need. Or that we ought to love God’s creation and find the wonder and glory in each blade of grass and every drop of rain and, thus, we ought to care for how we treat this world and the people herein.

    Where in those beliefs do you find superstition (MW: a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation)?

    I think what many non-theists (and, unfortunately, too many theists) put too much stock in are the literal accuracy of the stories found in the Bible. “IF these stories told in that book are not factually true, just as they’re written,” too many non-theists and conservative-ish types assert, “then none of it can be true.”

    But of course, that is not logical, is it? (And I’m not saying you’re one who would say that, just that some non-theists might).

    Have I been “indoctrinated” into my parents’ belief system? Well, I was raised southern baptist of a pretty conservative, bible-literalist variety of Christianity and, after years of consideration, study, meditation and life, have moved to a fairly progressive form of anabaptism(ish).

    I believe I’ve gone the road that makes most sense to me, that strikes me as the most logical and most beautiful way to live.

    So, I don’t think I’ve just been indoctrinated, but you might. Would I know if I were? You tell me.

  14. I don’t think there is anything superstitious about believing that we are saved by grace, or that a life without grace and love would be a hellish existence. Or that we ought to love our enemies and do good for those who hate us (because anything else will result in a hellish existence). Or that we ought to provide for/assist/side with the least of these. Or that we ought to live simply, within our means, sharing of our excess with those in need. Or that we ought to love God’s creation and find the wonder and glory in each blade of grass and every drop of rain and, thus, we ought to care for how we treat this world and the people herein.

    Where in those beliefs do you find superstition?

    Most of the beliefs you list are good, entirely consistent with humanism, and do not involve superstition. Believing that this world is “god’s creation” is a superstitious belief; the belief that we should appreciate this world does not require that we believe it comes from a creator. And I have a couple of questions. What do you mean by “grace”? And what is it we need “saving” from? That’s where I might really see superstition, depending on your answers.

    Nice to see people moving away from fundamentalism. Even if they remain theists, the fewer fanatics the better.

  15. “Grace” – Disposition to kindness, a gift, an un-merited gift. Along those lines.

    What do we need saving from? Ourselves, mostly. I believe that humanity is prone towards what we religious folk call “sin,” or simply prone to make mistakes and do wrong.

    We are too often prone to hate, to malign, to gossip, to slander, to lie, to destroy, to kill, to steal, to wage war.

    We need salvation from the sort of world that happens when we give in to our baser instincts. Seems to me.

  16. Ubi Dubium

     /  April 1, 2012 at 11:35 am

    So we can save ourselves from our tendency to do wrong by being kind? Again, that’s very humanist in thought. Apart from your statement that the world is “god’s creation”, I not seeing anything in what you said that would explain why you would call yourself a “christian”. The idea that there was an original creator who set things in motion, but that we are now on our own is what I would describe as “deism”.

  17. I am a Christian because I am a follower of Jesus’ specific teachings.

  18. In other words, it is my opinion that a whole variety of beliefs and traditions have grown up attached to “Christianity” that have little to do with Christ’s teachings.

    Did Jesus teach a virgin birth? No.
    Did Jesus teach a penal substitionary theory of atonement? No.
    Did Jesus teach scriptural inerrancy? No.
    Did Jesus teach opposition to gay marriage? No.
    Did Jesus teach “total depravity…”? No.
    Did Jesus teach a six day creation? No.

    And I’m sure you know I could go on and on.

    Sometimes, I feel it might be more appropriate to call myself “Jesusian,” because so much has been added to “christianity” that is beyond Jesus’ teachings. But I really identify with the anabaptist Christian traditions and that is where I’ve landed.

  19. I have a question. Is it possible to be “Jesusian” while not believing in his divinity, his supernatural identity, or his claimed miracles? In other words, that he’s not God.

  20. I would suspect that many people would hold that position. I don’t.

    If one respects, digs, follows the teachings of Jesus (setting aside the ones involving miracle or mystery), one would be a fan and follower of Jesus, it seems to me, just not a Christian in the traditional “churchy” sense.

  21. Carl de Malmanche

     /  April 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Let me spell out the true difference for you:

    “If you drink Coke you will be happy, healthy and rich. The word of the Coke company declares that all other beverages are bad for you. And because you drink them and not Coke(tm), you do not drink the best nutritious Coke. Since nutrition is good for you so not drinking the best Coke will be bad for you; even if you enjoy drinking that which is not Coke.

    Those who drink Coke will be smiled on by the Coke company, unless you fail to buy our other products too.”

    Don’t fall for the marketing – demand product information on the packaging.

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