Sunday, April 19, 2020

The English-Speaking Demon | Second Sunday of Easter 2021

The missionary told me about it as matter-of-factly as though he were talking about witnessing a solar eclipse. He had only been in Brazil for a short while, and was attending the already-established church's Friday evening 'liberation service' when some strangeness ensued. A liberation service is focused on prayer, praise, and preaching centered on setting people free from spiritual bondage. He had stepped into another room to do something, when members came urging him to get back to the service. One of the men they were praying for was speaking in English.

Re-entering the assembly hall, he found people gathered around a man who was growling in English, cursing God and Jesus. The missionary told people around him the gist of what he was saying, and joined them in prayer. Eventually, the man was 'set free.' The spirit departed. Some months or years later, that man went on to be a deacon in the church. Importantly, he doesn't speak any English. Never learned.

At least, that's how I remember the story, as it was recounted to me. What does it mean? 
"Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, 'We’ve seen the Lord!' But he replied, 'Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.' After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!' Thomas responded to Jesus, 'My Lord and my God!' Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.' Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name." John 20:24-31 CEB
In this reading for the Second Sunday of Easter we see a description, written decades later by someone who most likely wasn't present (seems doubtful it was the Apostle John) we hear the familiar story of 'Doubting Thomas.' While the other disciples had seen the resurrection Jesus with their own eyes, and Thomas had known these men for at least a few years, and had himself seen the miracles attributed to Jesus, he didn't believe their wild stories. People in ancient times generally knew as well as we do that people don't really return to physical life after death. Then poor Thomas gets the benefit of seeing Jesus alive again, the opportunity he had missed before, and gets blamed through the centuries thereafter for his skepticism.

The lesson, of course, is that we shouldn't need to see Jesus or really have any evidence of his resurrection to believe it to be true. 'Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.' It appears wildly unfair to me for such a demand to be put on people, when the apostles had such an opportunity. 
"Miraculous powers were the Christians’ evangelistic calling card, their compelling proof. Jesus himself, the son of God, had performed one miracle after the other. He was born of a virgin; he fulfilled prophecies spoken centuries earlier by ancient seers; he healed the sick; he cast out demons; he raised the dead. And if all that wasn’t enough, at the end of his life he himself rose from the grave and ascended to heaven to dwell with God forevermore. His disciples also did miracles—amazing miracles—all recorded for posterity in writings widely available. And the miracles continued to the present day. People became convinced by these stories. Not en masse, but one person at a time." — Bart Ehrman, "Inside the Conversion Tactics of the Early Christian Church,", 29 March 2018
Dr Ehrman made that same point in a lecture I heard recently on YouTube, and his argument was that while Jews could ransack their scriptures for passages that sounded like prophecies of Jesus, the Gentiles to whom Paul preached had no such basis for believing. It was the miracles performed by the apostles and other believers that persuaded people to take the gospel message seriously. What Ehrman highlighted was that it doesn't matter whether the stories were true or not. People heard about them, and since people looked to the gods for divine favor, a god that was purported to deliver on promises about faith and prayer got their attention.

Let me repeat that in different words: it didn't matter whether the miracles happened or not; what mattered were the stories.

The story I began this post with came from a source I consider trustworthy, and I have no doubt he experienced something like what he described. My memory of what he said could be faulty, which plays into the game of telephone that happens with stories like this. It was extraordinary to begin with, and can become more so with each telling by someone else down the line.

Applying the Sagan Standard here, that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,' makes this account of an English-speaking demon impossible to prove. It was a very unusual experience, practically impossible to reliably recreate, and there's no video evidence. We could gather testimony from other eyewitnesses, if they could be found after more than two decades, and I suspect that while the general idea of what happened would be similar, the details would vary widely. That's certainly what we have with the resurrection stories in the four Gospels, as well as with a number of other miracles attributed to Jesus. Apologists argue that this confirms the resurrection stories in particular, because if they were identical it would be evidence of the whole thing being made up. That's hard to square with the claims of inerrancy that most evangelical Christians make for the Bible, and the simple fact that the details do not line up. 

From my earliest days as an evangelical I heard that miracles still happened on the mission field. I heard the stories. Defending them still being a reality overseas but not in the United States was that they were necessary to demonstrate the truth of the gospel, while in 'Christian' America no such evidence was merited. From time to time I'd hear a sorehead grouse regarding the decline of the US church that 'with the way things are going, we'll be seeing miracles here again soon.' Pentecostals, of course, would gladly beg to differ with this view, as they believe the miracles never stopped, and that they see them happen in their circles all the time.

Some of the loudest cognitive dissonance I experienced as an evangelical believer what the requirement of faith regardless of any circumstances. If prayer wasn't answered, it was because either God didn't will it, I didn't deserve it, or I lacked faith. Prayer is always answered, some say, though sometimes the answer is 'no.' That's certainly not what the ancient pagans-turned-Christians signed up for, or many of us moderns either. If the prayer of faith cannot be answered reliably and clearly in this life, what's to say that any of the promises regarding an afterlife and our place in it have any substance either?

So, going into the second week of the Easter season, I'm with St. Thomas the Doubter. After all, I'm from Missouri, the 'Show Me State.' Provide extraordinary evidence for extraordinary events, or leave me be.