The Bible, Reincarnation, Adam and Eve, and the Prodigal Son
This is a response to a recent article by David Knott, which in itself was a response to some articles of my own on themes of Christianity, reincarnation, and Bible interpretation. (See his article for full details of the thread. My four articles are listed at the bottom of that.)
On the subject of reincarnation David says: “Graham appears to have pre-existing ideas about reincarnation and the spiritual realm that he is now attempting to justify from Biblical texts”. It’s true that I have pre-existing ideas about reincarnation, but these are based on modern research, conducted as rigorously and scientifically as possible given the tricky subject matter. I’m referring primarily to the work of Ian Stevenson, as reported in Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, and Where Biology and Reincarnation Intersect. Erlendur Haraldsson carried on Stevenson’s work, and reports on his results in I Saw a Light and Came Here: Children’s Experiences of Reincarnation. (I’ve written about their work on reincarnation here, and about Stevenson’s second book, which connects reincarnation and birthmarks here. There is a further article on that theme here.)
When David says that I was attempting to justify reincarnation from Biblical texts (and therefore the pre-existence of consciousness before the body, what Christians call the soul), what I was doing was looking to see if there were any possible examples. I reported some, some of which were more credible than others. I admit that those I noted could be considered inconclusive, debatable, possibly tenuous. Perhaps, as David would claim, there is indeed no evidence for reincarnation and pre-existence in the Bible. From my perspective, however, that would be a very sad reflection on the Bible’s ignorance, if we are supposed to consider it the ultimate authority in matters of religion and spirituality. It’s worth repeating that the denial of pre-existence was adopted by the Roman Church as late as the 6th century, and that early Church figures, notably Origen, sometimes said to be the greatest of these figures, believed in reincarnation. He obviously had no problem reconciling his belief with biblical texts, or did not consider these texts authoritative.
David then moves on to the subject of biblical interpretation. He says: “With a book as rich and complex as the Bible, it is possible to prove just about anything, if you decide beforehand what you want the Bible to say… However, the Bible does not yield up its truths if we have already made up our minds… I do not consider myself immune from this human tendency, far from it. The only solution is constant vigilance and humility, with the aim of arriving at ‘Bible based’ beliefs, where we ask God to reveal the truth to us, and allow the Bible to change our thinking”. If believing that the Bible is the revelation of God’s truth is not an example of deciding in advance what the truth is, then I don’t know what would be.
David then refers to the phenomenon of confirmation bias. This is the tendency that we all have to readily accept information that matches our pre-existing beliefs, while at the same time challenging and ignoring information that goes against our beliefs. To me, this would seem to be what has been happening in our exchanges on the Bible and its supposed coherence. David thinks he knows what the overall biblical message is (and therefore the message of Christianity). He is certainly very familiar with the conventional Christian interpretation. Every time I point out what seem to me major inconsistencies, he seeks to downplay them, or reinterpret them in the light of his beliefs. Is that an example of confirmation bias?
A minor quibble for David. On the subject of my “novel interpretation of creation” (in this article), I referred to the two accounts of creation in Genesis. David says: “Graham sees an inconsistency in the two accounts, but I would suggest that it is of his own making…” He, however, sees “the two accounts as complementary and entirely consistent”. This is actually the opposite of what I said. It is not me suggesting that there are two accounts of creation; this is the conventional understanding of biblical scholars, as I clearly pointed out. Thus, halfway through Genesis 2.4 the NRSV edition intervenes to say ‘Another Account of the Creation’. I actually said that my alternative interpretation was attempting to reconcile the two different accounts.
David is critical of my “ ‘super spiritual’ interpretation’ (not my words) of the Garden of Eden story, saying that it is inconsistent with some parts of the text. I agree, and said so in my article. This could well be seen as evidence of lack of coherence in the Bible, and evidence for two different creation accounts, although David would of course not want to hear that.
I’ll pick up on one of his points. He says that “God gave Adam the job of taking care of the garden of Eden. The description of the garden is quite detailed including the presence of rivers known to us today: the Tigris; and Euphrates. This all seems very physical to me”. Indeed it does, but there is an explanation. Some historical background is helpful.
The Garden of Eden story of Adam and Eve, as far as I’m aware, is never mentioned again in the Old Testament. This is strange since, given its position, it would appear to be the foundational story of, and inspiration for, Judaism. This would suggest that it was written later than the other Old Testament texts, the authors of which seem unaware of it, or a late addition to the texts considered for inclusion. Various scholars assume that it was a story that the Jews heard first during the period of the exile in Babylon. This would make sense because the Babylonian tradition was inherited from the Sumerians, where the original story bore no relation to anything remotely like Judaism, Yahweh, or monotheism. It seems that the Jews picked up the story during the exile, and adapted and edited it for their purposes, which may well have been spiritual rather than literal. The references to rivers remain, but there is no longer any need to interpret the story literally, since it has already been radically altered.
If David wants to persuade me that the Garden of Eden story is in any sense literal or physical, therefore not ‘spiritual’ or mythological, then he would have to find some ‘scientific’ evidence that a man can be formed out of dust from the ground, that a fully grown woman can emerge from the body of a man, and find serpents that can talk. I would also like to know where on planet Earth I can find a cherubim guarding the way to the tree of life. He is happy to mention the rivers as evidence for a physical interpretation, but not these more inconvenient details which, I would suggest, need to be interpreted symbolically or ‘spiritually’.
David then refers to my “novel interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son” (which starts about halfway through this article). He contrasts this with “the Christian interpretation of this parable (which) has been recounted countless times”. That may be a problem. Have Christians interpreted the Bible correctly, or are they finding what they want to believe, based on the theology that they have been taught? That would be an example of the confirmation bias that David referred to.
To back up his interpretation, he refers to the accompanying parable of the lost sheep, and quotes Luke’s gospel: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent”. With only one slight amendment to the text, this would be consistent with my ‘spiritual’ interpretation: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (i.e. one prodigal son who returns) than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not (feel the) need to repent”.
Knott agrees that “the younger brother repents — he returns humbly to his father”. Where one might ask does his father (God) reside if not in the spiritual realm? For better or worse, I’m sticking by my interpretation.
I believe that David and I have agreed not to pursue these discussions any further, as they are clearly going nowhere. Nothing I say is ever going to make any difference, and by this time I’m sure David is thinking the same about me. A parting of the ways is therefore appropriate. I’ll leave readers to decide which interpretations seem more credible, or are closer to the truth.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).