Friday, April 30, 2021

Questions to Ask Before Asking Questions About Genesis

 A few questions people have posted online recently have prompted me to write this. This started out as a response to someone's thoughts on reconciling the story of the creation in Genesis with what we are figuring out from modern science.

 Before asking any questions about Genesis it is best to first ask yourself a few questions.

1. Who wrote the Bible?

More specifically, who wrote the book of Genesis? The easiest thing to do is assume that it was Moses. But how does that fit with what we know from an LDS perspective? In the Pearl of Great Price the Book of Moses is Joseph Smith's "translation" of Genesis chapters 1-6 up to verse 13. So the Joseph Smith translation took 5 and 1/2 chapters in Genesis and expanded them into 8 chapters for the Book of Moses. There are a couple of different ways of looking at this.

The material added by Joseph Smith could be divinely inspired or mandated material added to the original text by Moses. Or it could be material that originally was in the book written by Moses and later editors removed it when writing the "Reader's Digest condensed" version of Genesis. Either way the implication is that just the text from Genesis was not considered complete and additional revelation was needed.

This all of course assumes that Moses was the one who wrote the version that we have in Genesis. If you start looking into that question just realize that the answer gets very complex very quickly, and it does nothing to make the question "Who wrote the Bible?" any easier.

From the Book of Moses we learn that what was written about the creation and the Garden of Eden was shown to Moses in a vision. The story of the Garden of Eden was not written down by Adam. The story of the flood wasn't written down by Noah. If we assume that Moses wrote Genesis, and there are arguments that he may not have (or there may have been many editorial revisions), then whoever wrote Genesis in the form that we have now was writing 1,000-4,000 years after the events in the Book of Genesis. 

In so many ways the question of who wrote the Bible leads to the next major question that you have to ask.

2. What language was the Bible written in?

Anyone who has learned a second language knows that translation is not always as simple and straight forward as you might think. For many years my dad taught Spanish and something he always told his students was, "Spanish is not translated English!"

Yes, words like "que" are usually translated into English as "what". But "que" does not mean "what". The word "que" has its own meaning and use in Spanish that does not always correspond to "what" in English.

But it gets more complex from there. In most universities, and even in some high schools, students are required to take a few classes of a foreign language. In some cases taking advanced math classes counts towards the foreign language credit. This actually makes sense because as anyone who has suffered through several math classes knows, math is a foreign language. You have to learn how to read, write, and speak math. It's deceptive because math can use all English words and numbers, yet still be a completely foreign language.

The same is true of science. Science has its own language. Many people are completely unaware of this because if you pick up a book on physics or chemistry there will be mostly English words in there (or Spanish words in Spanish speaking countries, or Mandarin words in China, or etc.). But learning the language of modern science is literally like learning a foreign language.

So this brings us back to the question of what language was the Bible written in. Was it written in English? Why not? Other than the obvious fact that English didn't exist yet. Back when Moses was alive alphabets were still being invented!

Not only did Moses not write the Book of Genesis in English, but God didn't even speak to Moses in English! God spoke in a language that Moses understood! ("well duh qleap42, get to the point.")

God didn't speak to Moses in modern English because its not something Moses would have understood. In the exact same way, God didn't speak to Moses in the language of modern science. He spoke to Moses in a language that Moses could understand. Many people will say that if God had shown Moses the creation in vision, then God had to have shown Moses "the correct" way creation happened. Anything else would mean God was deceiving Moses. 

But these things were shown to Moses in a vision. Lehi in his vision of the tree of life saw the love of God as a tree with fruit on it. The vanity of the world was a great and spacious building without foundation. Did God deceive Lehi by representing "the love of God" as fruit on a tree? Or vanity as a "great and spacious building without foundation"? In the Book of John's Revelation, John saw many things, all of which were symbolic. Did God deceive John by showing him symbolic events about the end of the world?

Furthermore, what is the "correct" scientific understanding that God is supposed to have shown to Moses to not deceive him? The scientific understanding during the 18th dynasty in Egypt? Or was it the science of 7th century BC Babylon? The science of 3rd century BC Greece? 3rd century AD Rome? 11th century China? 16th century Europe? Science of the 19th century? The 20th, or the 21st? Perhaps better the 22nd? Or the 31st?

It's awfully presumptuous of us to think that God should have explained things to Moses in a way that Moses couldn't understand just so that we could. It's awfully presumptuous to think that we currently understand the universe correctly. That the way we see things is the way God sees them. It's awfully presumptuous to think that God can only explain things to people in a way that fits with our understanding of reality. Anything else is wrong and would mean God is deceiving them. That's an awfully prideful way of looking at things.

In the Doctrine and Covenants it mentions that in the last days everything will be reveled, including how the earth was made and the power by which it came to be. An interesting corollary of that is the idea that how the earth was made has not been revealed! That means the story in Genesis is not the story of the literal creation of the world, but symbols in a vision given to Moses so that he could understand. In that way God taught Moses how he, Moses, sits in relation to God. When Moses saw that he realized "that man is nothing, which thing [Moses] never had supposed."

Perhaps we should keep that in mind as we use science to learn things about the universe and how vast it is. When we consider the size and the true scope of reality that we are just now beginning to understand through science, we learn things we never thought possible. The size and scope of the universe is something that I literally deal with on a daily basis. Whenever I see someone, especially Latter-day Saints, insist the earth is only 6,000 years old, or that the earth was created in six 24 hour periods, I just think about just how big the universe really is. I think about how complex it is, from the creation of elements, the formation of stars and galaxies, the complexities of nuclear reactions, neutron stars, gravitational collapse, supernovas, neutron star mergers, basic chemistry, the time it took life to evolve, the complexities of life, the intricacies of evolution, evolutionary niches, the complex reactions that govern our bodies, the chaotic neuron cascades in our brains, not to mention the complexity of history, language, science, culture, and human societies. And there at the center of it all a God who knows and understands it all. Whose hand can hold millions of earths like this. Who watches as millions of earth come into being and millions pass away. God is someone who can know all that, and wants to teach us all of that, but first we have to learn how to understand what He is saying.

In all the vastness of creation it is awfully presumptuous of us to presume that we know how God made the earth because we read something in a book and assumed that we understood what it was saying.

Before we ask questions from Genesis, perhaps we should ask ourselves some questions.

Monday, April 26, 2021

We Already are in Hell

In this past conference Elder Dale Renlund spoke on a topic that is very familiar to anyone who has spent time studying theology, the problem of evil. He told of a conversation he had with a man while visiting Rwanda. The man asked the classic question,

“If there were a God, wouldn’t He have done something about [the genocide]?”

Elder Renlund explain the issue in this way, "For this man—and for many of us—suffering and brutal unfairness can seem incompatible with the reality of a kind, loving Heavenly Father.... This dichotomy is as old as mankind and cannot be explained in a simple sound bite or on a bumper sticker." Elder Renlund spoke about specific examples of unfairness and how to keep our faith in the face of such terrible evils. So while he spoke on examples of evil in the world, he didn't address the context of how we view the world.

Inherent in the man's question is an assumption about this world and the role and nature of God that he expected God to just do something to prevent the evil in the world. If there is something I have learned many times over, it is that the hardest mental exercise is recognizing and challenging our own assumptions. Almost everyone who considers the question, "Why does God allow such terrible things like the Rwandan genocide to happen?" fails to follow that up with the question, "What is it that makes me think that God should do anything about it?"

The simplest answer to this is that God is good, and good people should stop evil from happening, and God has the power to stop it. But the issue for the believer is that God is still there and loves us, but did not stop the evil. So from the perspective of a believer how should we resolve this issue.

To start I will ask a question to consider, and finding the answer will be left up to the interested reader.

The more interesting question is not, "Why does God allow evil to happen?", but,
"What is God doing to fix the evil that exists?"
When believers are faced with the problem of evil we seem to forget that God has already given us a framework to understand the problem of evil. Perhaps because we are so prone to view the story of Adam and Eve as a literal story that we fail to consider the symbolic meaning of the story.

Fundamentally we find ourselves in a fallen world. The name Adam in Hebrew is literally the word for humanity. From story of the Garden of Eden we learn that we, all humanity, are cut off from the presence of God. We are quite literally left to ourselves. Perhaps we do not consider the full implications of that. We, humanity, are responsible for all the evil that we do. We cannot say that we live in a fallen world, cut off from the presence of God, and then expect God to actively take charge of everything that happens in the world.

The story of the fall, especially as it is reiterated in the temple endowment ceremony, is trying to teach us the reality of the world we live in. As believers we must confront this fact, in this world there exists both good and evil, and whether we have more good or evil depends on us. In the endowment ceremony God himself does not come down to confront the evil of the world, but sends messengers.

We say that we currently live in a telestial world, and we must consider the implications of that statement. In D&C 76 we learn that those in the telestial kingdom do not experience the presence of celestial beings, but only receive "through the ministration of the terrestrial." Those in the telestial kingdom are "they who are thrust down to hell."

This means that the telestial world we live in is literally the location of hell.

In classical Christianity the standard view is that there is the earth, and then there are heaven and hell. The usually unspoken assumption is that earth is the middle point of glory. In Dante's Inferno the earth (or at least the surface) is the dividing line between heaven and hell. But in LDS theology our view is a little more lopsided. True to the view presented in the story of the expulsion from paradise, we live in a "fallen" world out of the presence of God. As explained in the Book of Mormon, separation from God is a kind of death, and "hell", or the second death, is a permanent separation from God.

From this perspective our current state is not that different from those who are "thrust down to hell." In the revelation on the Degrees of Glory the telestial glory, or our current temporary state, is the lowest degree of glory. There is not much below us since we have "fallen" after all and considering all the terrible depravities committed by humanity there is not much further for us to fall.

The classical idea of heaven and hell have worked its way into LDS theology in how we talk about the spirit world. There we speak of spirit paradise and spirit prison, but those ideas are not really found in our scriptures. In D&C 138 it mentions that all spirits, including the righteous considered their state as being in prison or bondage. It was not until Jesus appeared to the saints gathered together awaiting his coming were they given the hope that they could be released from their "prison". Even in the spirit world all of humanity was cut off from the presence of God, and we would have stayed that way if it had not been for Jesus Christ. Thus everyone, including the righteous found themselves in "spirit prison" or "hell" after their death.

This is rather interesting because in the Old Testament it does not mention separate places, such as heaven and hell, for the righteous and the sinners. There is only one place, sheol, where all the dead go. Only after the death and resurrection of Jesus could there be a division in the world of spirits to divide the righteous in the presence of God from those who are not. This means that for those who die there is no real change in their spiritual state. Thus "hell", or spiritual separation from God, is simply a continuation after death of our current separation from God.

With this context we can return to the original question, "How can God allow evil in the world?" The simplest bumper sticker answer is, "Because this world is Hell." With one exception there is nothing lower in glory, or goodness than this world. We are the furthest we can get from God.

This view of things should change how we view the world we live in. The amount of goodness or evil in the world depends on us. Through the ministering of angels, prophets, and apostles, we are shown what we must do to rise in our progression from a telestial world with all its pain and evil to a celestial and more perfect world. This is the symbolic teaching of the endowment ceremony. Because we are already out of the presence of God there really is nowhere else to go but up.

Many believers have it in their mind that God will come and cast out the wicked and thrust them down to hell. But right now, before the final judgement, there is not really anything worse than living in a world outside the presence of God. There is no worse hell to be thrust down into than to be left to witness the worst depravities of humanity. We already are in hell.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ perhaps our message should not be "Repent or you will be punished and thrust down to hell!", but it should be, "Repent and fix the world you live in or you will be forced to continue to live in the hell of your own creation."

Whether we live in paradise or hell, that depends on us.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Faith is the Fundamental Substance of Reality

Something we do without realizing it is to interpret the scriptures and our faith through the lens of our cultural background. In our culture we are strongly influenced by Protestant theology. I sometimes joke that in the US everyone is a Protestant, even the Catholics. What I mean by that is we have been so thoroughly immersed in Protestant ways of thinking that we don't even realize we are doing it.

One of the places this shows up is how we talk about faith and knowledge. Because of our culture we are making implicit assumptions about what faith is and what it means to know something. Given those fundamental assumptions it is natural for someone to come to the conclusions, or ask the questions that you did.

Let me give an example of how we can unconsciously make an assumption that can lead to a paradox.

There is something called the "heap paradox". Suppose you have a heap of sand. In this particular heap there are 15,000,000 grains of sand. If you take a single grain of sand from the heap so that you now only have 14,999,999 grains, is it still a heap?

Any rational person would look at the sand sitting in a pile and say, "Yes. That is a heap of sand."

Now you take away another grain so that you have 14,999,998 grains. Is it still a heap? It should be.

Now you keep taking away single grains of sand until there are only 3 left. Can 3 grains of sand make a heap? Any rational person would look at it and say you need to get your eyes checked if you call 3 grains of sand a "heap of sand".

So at what point did the "heap of sand" turn into "not a heap of sand"? You could say that 15,000,000 grains were a heap. You could say that 1,500,000 grains were a heap. But at some point you get down to a minimum number and it stops being a heap. So, at what point did your "heap of sand" turn into "not a heap of sand"?

The inability to determine that is the "heap paradox", and it cannot be resolved.

But there was a problem with our mental exercise. We made a mistake and we didn't even realize it. And that mistake created the paradox.

By definition the number of things in a "heap" is undefined. Yes we can take a heap of sand and count the number of grains and get 12,749,873 grains. But the exact number isn't what makes it a heap. We use the word "heap" to mean a large, unknown, and not easily counted pile of things. The fact that we happen to know the number of things in the heap is unrelated to whether or not we call it a heap.

So, in the heap paradox we subtly shifted the definition of "heap" to include an exact value. Without realizing it we created the paradox.

A similar thing has happened in our culture with words like "faith" and "know". Over hundreds of years our understanding has drifted so that, while similar, we are missing something that was present in the original definition of the word we translate as "faith", and what it means to "know" something.

When Hebrews 11:1 is translated into English, because of hundreds of years of Protestant theology, we run into a paradox. In the original Greek the verse is,

Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων.

This can correctly be translated as,

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (King James Version)

But there are other ways of translating this. For example,

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (New International Version)


Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. (New Living Translation)


To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see. (Good News Translation)


Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. (Christian Standard Bible)

In the KJV the word that is translated as substance is "ὑπόστασις" (hypostasis). In Greek the word hypostasis literally means "to stand (-stasis) under (hypo-)". It means it is the thing that supports or is the source of everything. In philosophy hypostasis is the fundamental substance of reality. It is the thing that makes up everything.

But it can also mean to possess a claim, or to have title (or a deed) to a guaranteed agreement. It entitles someone to what is guaranteed under the particular agreement. (We still use this idea in modern English. If someone has a legal claim that can be heard in court, we say they "have standing". They have standing under the law to claim something such as property, or redress of wrongs.)

So another way of (very loosely) translating Hebrews 11:1 could be,

Our faithfulness gives us standing to actively wait for the proof of things that we cannot see.

Or it could be translated (again very loosely) as,

Our faith is the fundamental substance of reality that we trust gives proof of the things we cannot see [such as God].

So, how does that change the way we talk about faith and what it means "to have faith"? That is the question.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Different Nativity Story

I wanted to tell a slightly different nativity story. The Bible itself has very little written about the birth of Jesus. It doesn't even mention what time of year it happened. Over the years small additions to the story have been added to help flesh it out. But those were just assumptions created in later European culture. Because of this, and also because of translations issues, a number of items have become part of our "collective memory" about the nativity. For example the assumption that Jesus was born in a stable or barn, even though the Bible never says that. In some cases entire stories have been invented hinging on the mistranslation of a single word.

So I wrote this as an alternative nativity story. Some of the things included are my own interpolations, but in many cases I tried to use the best historical understanding that we have. In some places I have tried to use different words than is normal to make you pause and actually think about what is being said.


More than two thousand years ago a young couple about to be married had an unexpected surprise. It turned out that the soon-to-be-wife was pregnant. In their small community in Galilee this would have been quite a scandal, and in the culture at the time the shame of having a child out of wedlock would have followed her throughout her life. For her, while it was still a surprise, she had been warned about her coming pregnancy by an angel. In a great act of faith she accepted what the angel told her and said that she would be the Lord's servant. For the next few months she stayed with her cousin who also had a miraculous experience and received a promise that after many years of infertility she too would have a child. Together they rejoiced in what they had been called to do.

After several months Mary traveled back to her home and to her waiting fiance. The soon-to-be-husband and unknowing soon-to-be-new-adoptive-father found out that his soon-to-be-wife was pregnant, in a very impossible way, with what people would say was his first child. But he knew differently because he was a man of honor. After some thought he decided to do the honorable thing, as demanded by his culture, and break off the engagement. Being a kind, though honorable man, he didn't want to make a public display and wanted to keep everything "private". But again God interceded. In a dream an angel commanded him to ignore the honor based values taught to him by his culture, and to do a more holy thing so that a greater good could be done.

Joseph may have been a man of honor, but he was also a man of faith. He accepted what God had commanded him to do and married the woman who would come to be known as the Mother of God.

In their small community they would have been aware of the whisperings and gossip around them. Concerned with how it would affect the child he would raise, Joseph considered moving back with his family several days' journey to the south. Wanting to know what would be best for the child because the angel had told him the child would be a savior and ruler in Israel, even God Himself. There was a scripture known to the faithful that said the Ruler and Shepherd of Israel will be born in Bethlehem. This scripture came as an answer to his prayer to know whether he should move his new family.

Joseph took that as a sign that he was the right man to make sure the prophecy would be fulfilled. He was from Bethlehem and he had family there. Taking his young wife, and soon-to-be-mother, he set out on a journey of faith. He was a man of faith and was doing what he had been commanded by the angel. Also doing what he knew to be true from the scriptures. He knew it had to be this way.

Shortly after arriving at the house of relatives his wife went into labor. With the women in Joseph's extended family there to assist, Mary gave birth to the Son of God, the future Savior of not just Israel, but of the whole Earth. Despite his relative's generous accommodations there was not enough room in their guest room for the young couple, a new baby, and the others staying there. Mary needed rest and could not sleep if Jesus was woken up every few minutes by the others in the room. To help Jesus sleep they wrapped him tightly in some cloth and placed him, outside, in a disused stone watering trough for some animals. Not a very auspicious beginning for the King of Heaven.

Before long they heard hushed talking coming from outside and went out to find a group of shepherds had entered the fenced in yard by the house and were reverently observing the baby lying in the manger. The shepherds told them that they were visited by a host of angels proclaiming a covenant of peace between the kingdoms of the earth and the Kingdom of God, and that God would extend mercy to all people, even though they had sinned. And they instantly went looking for the Savior of the World, and just as the angel had said, they found the child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

On that night something changed. A sequence of events began that will ultimately culminate with God fulfilling the covenant he made with all humanity. The gulf of sin and alienation between all of humanity and God has been bridged. And God, through his Son, offers eternal life to all those who are faithful and willing to take upon them the name of The Son. As Christians we have taken His name upon us and faithfully await the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, where, as promised, we will dwell in peace.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Misusing a Scripture about Worshiping Idols

It finally happened. Someone tried to use a scripture about Asherah poles to justify their particular belief. Five years ago I wrote about a hypothetic argument about planting trees near a temple. In Deuteronomy there is a verse that says,

"Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the Lord thy God." Deuteronomy 16:21

Conceivably someone who did not understand the context could argue that this verse applied to modern day temples and that trees near the temple were forbidden. But in context, and translated correctly, this verse forbids Asherah poles, or groves near holy places. This commandment was directed at a common Canaanite religious practice, and directed the Israelites to not worship the goddess Asherah.

Recently I came across someone who said their father considered Christmas trees to be "of the devil" and pagan because Jeremiah 10:2-5 forbids it. In the King James Version the critical verses read,

2 Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. 3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. 4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. 5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

In this case the father interpreted these verses to be an condemnation of Christmas ("the customs of the people") and Christmas trees ("for one cutteth a tree out of the forest"). But with a little bit of historical knowledge (and a slightly better translation) we find that this is actually condemnation against worshiping wooden idols, such as wooden statues of the goddess Asherah.

A more modern translation (New Revised Standard Version) of these verses reads,

2 Thus says the Lord: Do not learn the way of the nations, or be dismayed at the signs of the heavens; for the nations are dismayed at them.
3 For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan;
4 people deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
5 Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good.

Because someone did not understand the historical context of this passage, they interpreted it to mean that Christmas trees were forbidden. This is why we need to learn the context of the scriptures or we will think things like, God condemns Christmas trees, and miss the original teaching of, don't worship dumb idols who can't do anything for you or answer your prayers.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Did Doctors in the 1800's really not wash their hands?

Spoiler: They washed their hands.

Earlier this year Google made a doodle for their main search page about Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis who practiced medicine in Vienna, and later in his native Hungary in Pest. Dr. Semmelweis is famous for advocating for hand washing before we even knew about the existence of germs. At his hospital in Vienna he was able to greatly reduce maternal mortality rates by simply having the doctors and medical students wash their hands. Supposedly there were doctors across Europe who resisted this idea and fought against the suggestion that they were killing their patients. Only later when doctors discovered the existence of germs and understood how they caused disease was Semmelweis vindicated. Countless lives could have been saved if people had just listened to Semmelweis, but doctors were obstinate and stubborn and refused to listen.

This version of the story is the one that gets repeated in numerous news stories from NPR to the Washington Post, along with other places. It makes for a dramatic story, which is why it gets repeated, but there is a problem with it. It isn't true.

To understand what happened we have to consider the context, and also look at what Semmelweis himself wrote about his own ideas and also what we wrote about his supporters and critics.

In 1847 Semmelweis started an experiment in national hospital in Vienna. In the maternity ward the mortality rate was terrible, to the point that it was reported that women would rather give birth in the street than go to the hospital. During some months one out of every seven women who entered the maternity ward died there. But for women who used midwives and not doctors, even in the hospital, the mortality rate was closer to one out of every hundred women. To Semmelweis this indicated that the problem was the doctors and the medical students.

Because the hospital was also a research institution, an autopsy was performed on every woman who died there. Usually the same doctors and students who performed the autopsies were the same doctors who later attended the births. You can probably see where this is going.

A woman dies after childbirth because of an infection. The doctor performs an autopsy on her, and later attends another birth and the woman also dies from an infection. Semmelweis noticed this and implemented strict handwashing procedures.

But here is where actual history diverges from the story that usually gets told. When people tell the story of Semmelweis they portray it like washing their hands was a new, unusual, and radical practice. But in reality the radical change Semmelweis started was to change what the doctors washed their hands with. The doctors routinely used soap and water to wash their hands. They weren't barbarians. If they did an autopsy they would always wash their hands with soap and water before doing anything else. They were doctors, and knew how to keep things clean, just not sanitized by our standards.

Semmelweis had the doctors wash their hands with a solution of chlorine (bleach) after an autopsy. In the months that followed the mortality rate dropped dramatically. After two years of collecting data the difference was so clear that Semmelweis's students began travelling across Europe to explain the new theory of how to prevent what they called "childbed fever". As reported in letters from his students the reception of his ideas was positive and enthusiastic. Much of this we know because Semmelweis later published a book entitled The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever where he laid out his theories and data. At the end of his book he included a chapter on reactions to his theories with excerpts from personal letters and also formal published responses to his ideas. He took extra care to respond to all those he thought had unfairly criticized his work.

It is from his own book that we get the story that he was persecuted and rejected by doctors across Europe. He made sure to bitterly complain of his critics inability to understand what to him was very plain. But it turns out that while his data was compelling, it didn't actually support his conclusions.

Semmelweis thought that dead or decaying matter would get on the doctor's hands, which would then release its miasma (smell) causing the women to get sick and die. Other doctors responded that after washing their hands, because every doctor actually did wash their hands, there wouldn't be enough dead material left on their hands to cause the sickness.

Essentially Semmelweis was saying that the raw matter of a dead body was one of the most potent poisons known to man. But this poison could only kill women, and kill them when they were giving birth. Furthermore he insisted, without evidence, that this was the only cause of "childbed fever", and there could be no other cause. This last point was the source of most criticism.

Dr. Carl Levy from Denmark pointed out doctors at his hospital did not perform autopsies. They outsourced autopsies to other doctors who did not work directly with patients. Also in Dr. Levy's reply to Semmelweis's own response to Dr. Levy, he casually mentioned that the doctors in Denmark would regularly wash with soap and water, and in some cases would wash with a chloride solution, just as Semmelweis demanded that doctors do. This exchange is recorded in Semmelweis's book, and shows that doctors in Europe actually did wash their hands.

Also recorded in Semmelweis's book was a letter from Sir James Simpson (the "father of anesthesiology"). Semmelweis attributed most of the criticisms from Simpson to issues of translation (he assumed that when his letter was translated from German into English something must have been lost since Simpson was not ecstatic about his ideas). But based on what Simpson wrote it is clear that he actually had no issue with Semmelweis one way or the other.

Simpson was surprised to learn that in Vienna they treated up to 32 women in the same room, and noted that in the UK they only had one patient per room. Also Simpson was not particularly impressed with reports that in Vienna they failed to change the sheets between patients. Additionally Simpson was not moved by Semmelweis's insistence that the English adopt his theories since, as Simpson noted, in England they had already been using chlorine solution washes before attending patients for many years. 

In fact one medical textbook published in 1854, quoted by Semmelweis in his book, noted that in English hospitals they had already adopted the practice of chlorine washes. When Simpson responded to Semmelweis he was a bit dismissive because he didn't think much of the hygienic practices of the doctors in Vienna who had apparently just barely discovered hand washing.

So what about the hospital in Vienna? Some versions of the story mention that the hospital administrator opposed hand washing. But this is contradicted by what Semmelweis wrote in his own book. It is true that his superior in the hospital didn't agree with Semmelweis, but his disagreement was over Semmelweis's theory, not the actual hand washing. After Semmelweis left Vienna the doctor who replaced him continued the practice of handwashing and kept the mortality rate low.

Semmelweis's reason for departure from Vienna is frequently cited as proof that he was persecuted for his ideas. Semmelweis was not promoted to the equivalent of full professor, and was also given a lower position along the lines of adjunct faculty. Frustrated Semmelweis left Vienna and returned to Hungary where he ultimately ended up working in the hospital in Pest.

To understand this we need to look at the larger events at the time. Vienna was the capitol of Austria, which was at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary was an unstable collection of nations that would very quickly collapse in the aftermath of WW I. As a Hungarian Semmelweis was viewed with suspicion in Austria, especially since his siblings and other family members supported the Hungarian revolution in 1848 and 1849. It was precisely at the end of the revolution, with at least one of Semmelweis's brothers being executed for treason, that Semmelweis was passed over for promotion. Even though many of his colleagues recommended him, the hospital administration decided to hire an Austrian because of political considerations. He also had a contentious relationship with some of the doctors in the hospital, including his direct superior. So being passed over for promotion was more about politics and personal relationships than disrespect for his research.

But in his book Semmelweis maintains that it was because his superiors disapproved of his theories and wanted someone who would not promote them. But, as already noted, his replacement continued using a chloride solution for washing hands, and also wrote a textbook that included a section on Semmelweis's theory. 

So just based on the information included in Semmelweis's book, we learn that doctors commonly washed their hands with soap and water. The medical practices were not uniform across Europe, even down to how many patients were kept in a room and how often they changed the sheets. But in some countries, such as England, it was apparently routine for doctors performing surgery, or delivering a baby, to wash their hands with a chlorine solution. It was not the case that doctors all over the continent were repositories of unmitigated filthiness.

They did inadvertently spread disease because they did not know about germs, but there was nothing in Semmelweis's theory to imply the spread of germs. From the way he understood it he found a cure for a single, though deadly, disease. He never extended his ideas to other diseases such as dysentery, because he focused on a single problem. In his writing there is no indication that hand washing with a chloride solution could be a way of avoiding any other diseases. It was only later with the development of germ theory that doctors could recognize using a chloride solution (bleach) as a general way of controlling germs.

In retrospect Semmelweis is remembered for being correct about washing hands, but he was not correct about the core of his theory which assumed that miasma (vapor or gasses) emanating from decaying matter from a corpse was the primary source of the disease he was studying. A few of the articles written about him mention only in passing those things that made up the bulk of his theories. It was those things, that disease was caused by particles of decaying organic matter, that his contemporaries rejected. They were not opposed to hand washing, they did it anyway, they just didn't think that it was necessary to wash their hands to remove the minute traces of decaying organic matter.

Later because hand washing became such an important thing, that part of his writings were remembered and emphasized, and nothing else. He was only known for telling people to wash their hands, and not for ideas like self-infection through dead organic matter. Thus it was assumed that opposition to him was because of hand washing. And the only conceivable way someone could be opposed to hand washing was if they did not wash their hands. This is the unfortunate source of the idea that doctors in the 1800's did not wash their hands. But just using the writings of the man who is always cited for proof that doctors did not wash their hands, we can see that doctors did in fact wash their hands.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The καιρός of the Second Coming, Not the Χρόνος of the Second Coming

I have been seeing a large number of posts and comments about the time of the second coming and whether it will happen in a few years or not. Hopefully this post can change the way we think about the second coming.

A famous American writer once told a story of two fish swimming along. Another fish swimming by nods at them and says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" The two fish keep swimming until one looks at the other and says, "What the #$!& is water?”

We are surrounded by our own culture and many times it determines how we think and view the world without us realizing it. In our culture time is something that structures our world. If you have to go to work, you are expected to be there at a certain time. Church meetings are scheduled at a specific time (and not Mormon standard time). TV shows air at preset times. Your GPS can tell you down to the minute how long it will take you to get somewhere. You can track the progress of a package being delivered. What ever device you are using to read this on has a clock that is synchronized over the internet by an official clock somewhere.

Our concept of time is something we are so embedded in that we have a hard time realizing that our concept of time is unique in all of human history. Up until a few hundred years ago the smallest unit of time anyone really used was the hour, and even that was a little hard to measure. For most of human history time was measured by the position of the sun, moon, and stars. The extreme modern obsession we have with exact times did not exist until recently.

Time in the ancient world, the world of the Bible, was a very different thing. For us time is something that increments up. Events start at some time, other events follow, and then things happen after that. There is a specific order to events. We want to keep things in chronological order. If you study history you will probably study it in chronological order, or will study a specific time period according to the years on a calendar.

In the world of the Bible how people interacted with time was very different. There was no exactness. Meetings or events didn't start at exact times. No one was checking the clock to see if a meeting should start, because there were no clocks! (None in the sense that we know them.) A festival, or feast, or celebration, or meeting would start when the necessary people were there to start it.

In Hebrew the word for time is יום, or Yom. The concept of yom is simple, but for us it can be confusing. Yom can be translated, depending on context as "day", "year", "age", "epoch", "season", or just an undefined amount of time. In one way we use the word "day" in the same way when we say, "Back in my day...."

In Greek time is broken down into two separate concepts. Greeks used the word Χρόνος (chronos) to talk about time as we are familiar with it. When King Herod asked the wise men what time they saw the sign of Christ's birth (as recorded by Matthew, which was written in Greek), he was asking them about the chronos of the event. It was something that could be put on a calendar. Time, as it relates to chronos has a start and an end. Or it could be used to indicate the time "before" something happened. But chronos could be an undefined amount of time, but it was still something that could be put on a calendar.

The other Greek word that gets translated into English as "time" is καιρός (kairos). While you could put kairos down on a calendar, it doesn't refer to a specific time. It refers to the right or opportune time. A comedian telling a joke has to time it right to make people laugh. Comedic timing isn't a chronos, thing, it's a kairos. When growing food in a garden you don't follow an exact schedule. You plant the garden when the time and weather conditions are right, and you harvest the food when it is ripe. If it's not ripe, you just have to wait. It's not something you can sit down with the plants and work out a day when they will be ready. This is a case of kairos.

The Apostles who recorded the words of Jesus used the word kairos to talk about the time of the "harvest". There wasn't a chronos for the time of harvest, there was a kairos. The time wasn't set. It depended on the conditions of the wheat. At times the apostles would call the saints to action saying that now was the kairos to act, now was the right time. It wasn't because they had reached the correct date set in heaven for it. The conditions were right to preach and convert many people. They had to take advantage of that moment before it passed.

When it came to the second coming, Jesus and the apostles never spoke of the chronos of the second coming. They only spoke of the kairos, the unknown time that it would be the right moment for it to happen.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time (kairos) will come. (Mark 13:32-33)

Even speaking of the "time of the gentiles" it was not a specific set period of time. There would be a beginning and end to the time of the gentiles. But those times were not, and are not set.

And importantly some of the critical "times" used by people to try to predict the chronos of the second coming, are not chronos at all, but kairos.

14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time (kairos), and times (kairos plural), and half a time (half a kairos). (Revelation 12:14)

These times are not set times (chronos). They are movable times (kairos) that depend on certain conditions.

With this view, God does not have a "millennial" planner that He keeps hidden so that no one will know when He has scheduled the second coming. God is waiting and watching for the correct moment of the second coming. It is not a set time, and Jesus warned us against those who thought they knew the chronos or even the kairos of the second coming. God is not bound by any timetable. There is only one who knows the correct conditions (kairos) for the second coming, and that is God, and he will act when the conditions are right.


Additional materials/reading:

Here's all the times chronos appears in the Bible (New Testament). You can check out how it is used and how it is translated.

When you separate the two concepts some things in the Bible start making a lot more sense.