To say He [God] hath spoken to him
in a dream is no more than to say he dreamed that God
spake to him ...
Thomas Hobbes , Leviathan
Mainstream churchmen have become as reticent about miracles
as they have about exorcisms. Such things are not explicitly
denied; they are simply not talked about in public. As the popularity
of miracles has declined, the popularity of revelation has increased.
More and more people enjoy direct communication with God. To
these individuals God reveals himself in various ways, and the
information provided in this way is called revealed knowledge.
He appears to people, conveys information, imparts secrets,
offers guidance, grants hidden knowledge, and so on. Sometimes
he does so directly, sometimes through a heavenly intermediary.
There are numerous ways in which divine revelations might be
verified, and which have supposedly been used in the past to
establish their reliability. For example, they might foretell
the future, solve intractable puzzles, reveal hidden knowledge,
or corroborate other revealed knowledge. In the past God allowed
people to prove that visionary dreams were miraculous by granting
identical dreams to more than one person. Without the opportunity
to collude, this provided convincing evidence of the divine
source of the dream information. There seems to be no good reason
why such evidence should not be available today. For example,
the reporting of identical apparitions by different visionaries
could be tested by separating the visionaries until apparition-time
and then questioning them separately afterwards to see if their
stories tally. This could easily be done at Medjugorje for example,
but it never has been. The nearest the visionaries there have
come to a scientific investigation was to undergo a medieval
test for religious ecstasy: being pricked by a priest with unsterilised
pins. The technique is similar to that used on other well-known
visionaries stabbing, cutting and burning to see if the
visionaries came out of their ecstatic states. This shows that
the Roman Church is not opposed to testing in principle, merely
to effective types of testing in practice.
In modern times God has taken to providing Anglicans with revealed
knowledge so insubstantial that it is virtually unassailable.
Yet he still provides Roman Catholics and fundamentalists with
more solid material, which is vulnerable to objective assessment.
There are a number of good reasons for doubting the validity
of this revealed knowledge, similar to those for doubting the
validity of visionary experiences. Among them are phenomena
such as contradictions, errors, and other matters provoking
God's revelations generally match the recipient's background, culture, intellectual limitations, existing beliefs
God never seems to advocate liberal views when revealing himself
to those of a conservative outlook, or vice versa. When he speaks
to fundamentalists and Roman Catholics he invariably confirms
that his views are much the same as theirs. When he communicates
with American Baptists and other evangelists, he often assures
them that it is necessary to be born again in order to get into
Heaven. He rarely, if ever, provides this intelligence to Roman
Catholics or mainstream Protestants.
When colonialism was popular in Christian countries, God would
frequently recommend that European countries should take over
other countries in order to bring Christianity to them. As late
as the nineteenth century God was telling French bishops that
he had chosen France to make Algeria the cradle of a great Christian
nation. Perhaps God subsequently changed his mind about colonisation,
as most Europeans did in the twentieth century. He was no more
consistent about the Philippines. For many centuries he told
the Spanish that it was their destiny to bring Roman Catholicism
to the natives. It was for this reason that King Philip II imposed
Catholicism by force of arms. Around the beginning of the twentieth
century God seems to have decided that their Roman Catholicism
was a mere superstition that should be replaced by Protestantism.
He informed the President of the USA of his change of mind.
As President McKinley reported:
I am not ashamed to tell you, Gentlemen, that I went down
on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance
that one night. And late one night it came to me.... There
was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to
educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilise and Christianise
Perhaps God later changed his mind again, because as it turned
out Protestantism made little headway against the already entrenched
Roman Catholicism. God quite often communicates with religious
American presidents. He communicated with the second President
Bush in 2003 on the second American War in Iraq, failing to
correct any of the president's misconceptions about Iraq
though he (God) presumably knew what was happening, and informed
the president that he (God) had “been through” what
he (Bush) had been through*.
They seem to have been on close terms, because President Bush
was also able to confirm that “Liberty is the plan of
heaven for humanity"*
As in the case of George W Bush, suspicions may be aroused
not so much by what God revealed to his favoured followers,
but by what he failed to reveal. God favoured Pope Pius XII
with divine visions. This was at the tail end of the long period
during which it was acceptable for popes to live like great
princes, and Pius was not keen on change. God failed to reveal
to him that times were moving on, and that those gold door handles
fitted to his Cadillac might be seen to represent bad taste,
or that they might appear to compromise him as champion of the
poor and as Servant of Servants. God seems to have been just
as out of touch as his earthly representative.
Pope Benedict XVI - "Servant of
God sends different messages to different sects, and even different
factions within sects. He revealed to traditionalist Anglicans
that he had sent a thunderbolt to damage York Minster in 1984,
soon after a liberal theologian, David Jenkins, had been consecrated
as Prince Bishop of Durham there. He seems not to have thought
to warn anyone beforehand, which would have been rather more
impressive, and might have saved his Church much time and trouble
in repairs, as well as avoiding the appointment of a prince
bishop of whom he so strongly disapproved.
During the 1980s God started informing some right-wing Christian
fundamentalists that he was responsible for causing AIDS. He
told them that he had had enough of sodomy and drug abuse and
was sending an old fashioned plague to punish the wrongdoers.
He did not explain why he had not given warning beforehand,
as he used to do. Neither did he explain why he had also targeted
haemophiliacs and others who needed blood transfusions (except
of course when he spoke to sects that condemned blood transfusions
for them he confirmed what they already knew, that accepting
a blood transfusion was a punishable sin). Nor did he explain
why he had arranged for innocent babies to catch AIDS in their
mothers" wombs. Of course he did not mention the plague
at all to more liberal Christians. In Uganda, meanwhile, he
sent the Virgin Mary to deliver a different message: in that
country she appeared to many people claiming that "slim"
(the local name for AIDS) was a punishment for adultery, that
no medical cure for it would ever be found, and that it could
be eliminated only by repentance and prayer.
God's revelations often reveal him to be parochial and
partisan. It is in itself suspicious that God has told many
communities that they are his chosen people, but he never seems
to have told anyone that their neighbours were his chosen people.
Throughout the centuries different Christian groups have received
directly contradictory revelations, in circumstances that have
often led them to kill each other in large numbers. As we have
already seen, in most, if not all, European wars in the last
millennium God has informed both sides that they enjoyed his
full support. During World War I, God revealed to Protestants
in Germany, Roman Catholics in Austria, and Orthodox Bulgarians
that he was on their side, but he simultaneously informed their
enemies Protestant Englishmen, Roman Catholic Frenchmen
and Orthodox Russians that on the contrary he was on
their side. They all killed each other in the name of the same
God vouchedsafe to the Eastern Churches the fact that a corpse's failure to decompose was evidence that it had belonged to a
heretic. But he assured the Roman Church of exactly the opposite:
that only the bodies of saints were preserved from corruption.
God told Calvin that he wanted to see the Roman Church reformed,
but told many popes otherwise. He consistently and secretly
confirmed the doctrine of predestination to the King of England
(Article 17 of the 39 Articles). Yet he denied it to a long
succession of popes.
Again, God used to advocate slavery and capital punishment
to a wide range of Christian sects, but now he confirms these
views to far fewer people, and has even started telling other
Christians exactly the opposite. In recent times some Christians
have been divinely assured that God approves of racial discrimination
while others have simultaneously received divine intelligence
that he abhors it. At the time of writing some Christians are
assuring us that God approves of women priests and that it is
heretical to deny women the right to ordination, yet he is telling
others that he most certainly does not want women priests so
that on the contrary, advocates of women's ordination are
God is apt to make exactly the same errors of fact and history
that the recipients of his revelations would have made had they
been responsible for inventing them. Numerous examples could
be cited, but to illustrate the principle we shall look at a
few cases of Christ revealing himself to believers.
When Christ reveals himself on his cross he is invariably seen
in the same position, although this position is an artistic
convention. It is not known whether he had his face or his back
to the cross, nor what position his legs would have been in
(probably not as conventionally shown), nor how far up the shaft
the cross piece would have been placed.
Calvary, late 17thearly 18th century
German or Dutch; Ivory & ebony.
A rare representation of one of the more likely positions
in which Jesus would have been cruxified.
Visionary crosses often have a footrest or suppedaneum, an
invention of medieval artists unknown on real Roman crosses.
According to fashion Jesus sometimes has a nail through each
foot, sometimes a single nail through both. Again the titulus
bearing the inscription "Jesus of Nazareth King of the
Jews" is sometimes in Latin only (illiterate types before
the Counter-Reformation) or in Latin, Greek and Hebrew (others).
Also, the exact wording varies from vision to vision, as it
does from gospel to gospel. Sometimes Jesus wears his crown
of thorns on the cross, sometimes he doesn't. If he does then
it might vary from a delicate circlet to a vicious-looking mass
of outlandish thorns, depending on the conventions current at
the time in the visionary's home country. The crucified Jesus
always wears a loincloth (perizonium) despite the fact that
he would almost certainly have been crucified naked. Also, the
spear wound on his side has a tendency to migrate from one side
of his body to the other in an apparently random fashion, as
the spear wounds do on the bodies of different stigmatics. The
number of stripes inflicted during Jesus' flogging also changes
from time to time. Forty was the number prescribed by Jewish
Law but visionaries not aware of this have reported varying
numbers. St Bridget of Sweden said the number was in excess
Some Christians report religious experiences as a result of
carrying a large wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem,
which they are told is the route that Jesus walked on his way
to be crucified. Some even see him, and walk along with him,
on their Good Friday pilgrimage. But there are problems here.
First, Jesus" cross as seen by his new companions looks
like the ones in traditional Christian art, whereas the real
one would have been much shorter. Worse still, Jesus would not
have carried a whole cross. Those condemned to crucifixion carried
only the cross-piece (patibulum). The main shaft (stipes) was
a permanent feature on the site of crucifixion which
is why it was often referred to as a tree (e.g. Acts 10:39).
Furthermore, the route has changed many times since it was first
reconstructed. At one time there were two separate routes, each
promoted by the Christian faction who had most to gain financially
by that route. In the fourteenth century the whole route was
changed to meet the requirements of European pilgrims who wanted
the stations of the cross to match their preconceptions, based
on the order of events in the gospels. Changes have been made
ever since, often for commercial reasons. The first, fourth,
fifth and eighth stations were given their present locations
only in the nineteenth century. Worse still, the traditional
route had been based on the assumption that Pilate had been
staying at the Antonia Fortress. In fact it is far more likely
that he stayed in a building now called the Citadel, near the
Jaffa gate, on another side of town.
Christian pilgrims are often told that Jesus entered Jerusalem
by the Golden Gate. Some of them then enjoy numinous experiences
there, entering the very same gate that Jesus used. This gate
is the one which Jewish, Christian and Moslem mystics agree
is the one to be used by the Messiah when he arrives. The problem
is that it was not built until six hundred years after the time
Revealed knowledge often turns out to be wrong.
God frequently reveals the future to his followers. For example
he often calls believers to serve him, assuring them that they
have an important part to play in his unfolding plan. These
assurances are not always fulfilled. For example, God has instructed
many missionaries that part of his divine plan was for them
to spend their lives converting pagan savages, only for those
same missionaries to die before they could carry out their part
in his divine plan. One can imagine the mystification of newly
arrived missionaries who discovered that, despite their divine
calling, their future extended no further than a malarial swamp
or a large cooking pot.
In earlier centuries huge numbers of Christians received divine
intelligence that God wanted them to go off to the Holy Land
to kill Muslims. He was particularly keen to encourage noblemen
to go and help. Yet many, even his anointed kings, failed to
achieve anything of note, and many died having achieved nothing
at all. Baldwin IV, unusually, had the makings of a fine King
of Jerusalem, but he was disabled by leprosy and died in his
bed in 1185. Frederick Barbarossa drowned in a few inches of
water in 1190 on his way to liberate the Holy Land. Henry of
Champagne, Count of Troyes, King of Jerusalem, met his end in
1197. Standing at an upper gallery of a castle, facing into
the room, he stepped backwards and plummeted to his death. Louis
IX (St Louis) lost one battle after another and then died of
plague in 1270, with the result that his whole crusade was doomed
to failure. In 1471, Pope Pius II, who had been inspired to
lead a crusade himself, died of excitement before setting off.
God seems to have been remarkably capricious in his explicit
allegiance. Just as he had told the Jews that Jerusalem would
never be taken by their enemies, he told the Christians that
Constantinople would never fall. Constantinople was known as
the "God-protected city". Perhaps God changed his
mind, for Constantinople fell to the Muslims in 1453, just as
Jerusalem had fallen centuries earlier. He also seems to misdirect
people on points of doctrine. For example he sometimes shows
bereaved Christians unfamiliar with doctrine that their dead
pets are now happy in Heaven, but theologians have always said
that animals do not have souls, and cannot therefore go to Heaven.
Again, Christians whose spouses have died are often informed
by divine agency that after their own deaths they will be reunited
with their spouses in eternal wedlock. But this directly contradicts
what Jesus said on the matter (Matthew 22:30).
has revealed to various devout Christians popes, saints,
visionaries, and others the identity of the antichrist.
It has been several different Roman emperors, leaders of numerous
rival denominations, Genghis Khan, Saladin, Martin Luther or
the Pope (according to taste), Napoleon, Hitler, several American
presidents, apartheid, the European Union and the United Nations.
Altogether hundreds of antichrists have been identified. Everyone
agrees that there is at most one real antichrist, which means
that hundreds of others cannot be. Since no claim is noticably
more credible than any other, it appears that God has been misleading
a large number of his most devout supporters.
the most striking example of divine mis-revelation in recent
times occurred at the election of Pope John Paul I in 1978.
Cardinals claimed to have felt the hand of God at work during
the election. Cardinal Basil Hume said of his fellow cardinals'
decision to elect John Paul: "The feeling he was just what
we want was so general that he was unmistakably God's candidate".
To the embarrassment of the cardinals, God's candidate died
within 33 days of his election, having achieved nothing during
his short reign. More curiously still, his successor, John Paul
II, adopted policies diametrically opposed to those that John
Paul I (and therefore God) was known to have favoured. (John
Paul II was subsequently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease
and was unable to function or speak for years before his death.)
As long as the information provided
through divine revelation is sufficiently anodyne, there is
no way of knowing how reliable it is. Assertions such as "God
wants us to pray more", "God feels great pity for
those who are suffering at this time", and "God says
thank you all for coming along today" are sufficiently
insubstantial to be intrinsically unverifiable and therefore
immune to rational criticism. To an objective third party the
revealed knowledge of the Christian God is no more convincing
than any other revealed knowledge, as long as it remains insubstantial.
If people purport to have received information from God we
cannot know for certain whether they are reporting the objective
truth, or unwittingly deluding themselves, or suffering from
a mental illness, or deliberately attempting to deceive us.
The revealed knowledge claimed by many residents of homes for
the criminally insane is qualitatively indistinguishable from
that purportedly enjoyed by the most devout and respected saint.
Cleopatra, Merlin, space aliens and garden gnomes all provide
information to psychiatric patients that, to a disinterested
outsider, is qualitatively identical to that revealed by God
to his most holy living saints. There is no way of distinguishing
revealed knowledge, if it really exists, from the product of
a fertile imagination or an unstable mind. Some observers find
this suspicious, on the grounds that God might reasonably be
expected to provide better quality revelation than other suppliers.
Many of those who claim to have experienced divine revelation
subsequently discover themselves to have been mistaken.
The role of priest is not a job, it is a vocation, a calling
from God. God tells selected men (and women at certain times
and in certain Churches) that he needs them to dedicate their
lives to his service. Their whole lives are to be spent in the
service of his Church. All these people have the faith required
to provide absolute proof of the existence of God. But if this
is the case, how can any of them ever change their minds? How
can they decide that they were wrong? Either God doesn"t
need them after all, or else they only imagined their vocation.
In the Roman Catholic Church alone more than 700 priests leave
each year, just in Europe. Worldwide there are currently more
than 80,000 priests who have left the Church.
Apparently God tells the Pope one thing, and the 80,000 ex-priests
something quite different. The position is much the same in
most established Churches where God has called people to his
service, granted them certain knowledge because of their faith,
and then discarded them. From born again Southern Baptists to
high church Anglicans such discoveries are not uncommon. More
curious still is the fact that those who undergo conversion
experiences often undergo a subsequent conversion to another
sect. It seems unlikely that God should "reveal" one
true religion yesterday, a different one today, and yet another
one tomorrow. It is not clear how converts rationalise such
re-conversions, but many do so. Indeed some evidently manage
to do so many as five times*.
It seems unlikely that God keeps changing his mind about which
is the one true faith.
Clergymen of all denominations have discovered their vocation
to have been mistaken and have abandoned it. Some have become
atheists, and critics of Christianity. This is not a new phenomenon:
a number of prominent names could be cited from the past, from
the Roman Catholic priest Jean Meslier to the Calvinist minister
William Goodwin (1756-1836). This leads the impartial observer
to wonder how it can be that the recipients of a divine calling
could come to doubt its veracity. Alternatively, if these people
have been mistaken in believing that they had experienced divine
revelation in the first place, we might wonder if all such claimants,
given time, an inclination towards sober reflection, and financial
security, might also find themselves to have been mistaken.
Furthermore, it is not only the clergy who lose their faith.
Famous visionaries have also decided that they had been mistaken,
and so have all other categories of Christian follower.