Guest post by Melody
Author’s note: This guest post is the same one as before, except that I have added some examples at Bruce’s and his editor’s request. At times, the post is a bit snarky. I have to say that I’ve used so many Biblical examples in it that it felt like preparing a Bible study. However, you might say that it’s more of an anti-Bible Bible study.
Suspension of disbelief and gaslighting
Some of the stories in the Bible depend heavily on the suspension of disbelief and/or on gaslighting. These tools are quite useful, as they give more credence to the stories, which is pretty important for a book that claims to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Suspension of disbelief is important when it comes to storytelling, as it is needed sometimes. If we all didn’t suspended our disbelief, why would we ever watch or read fantasy or sci-fi? Why would we be interested in mythology or superhero movies? The characters, animals, and events in these stories are not real, as we well know, and loads of impossible things happen. Suspension of disbelief is what keeps us going. Superman doesn’t exist, but we’ll still give him the benefit of the doubt because we’re interested in the story and the character.
But — and there is a “but” to this — if the suspension of disbelief stretches a little too far for a little too long — the tolerance varies from person to person — we stop believing in the story and instead get irritated and scornful. We stop reading or watching and feel a little cheated somehow. The promises are not fulfilled and the bubble is broken. There are many ways this can happen; I’ll mention two.
Deux Ex Machina and the plot hole
These are two of the pitfalls of some biblical stories. Deux Ex Machina literally means “the god from the machine.” It’s a plot device that comes out of nowhere and saves the day. It can be used for any kind of new event, character or development that fixes whatever was the problem. The audience feels cheated when this happens: it seems unfair because it’s too good to be true and not very believable. Deux Ex Machina tends to break the suspension of disbelief and creates an eye-roll moment instead. The plot hole has a similar effect. A plot hole is an error or gap in the story that cannot be fixed without ruining the story’s own internal logic. A situation where events clash with earlier information is an example of a plot hole. Plot holes are irritating to the reader and make a story weaker. If something doesn’t fit well in the story, once again the suspension of disbelief is much more easily broken, which will in turn lessen the enjoyment of the story. Other examples of this are characters who act out of character or, for instance, historical characters whose dialogue is far too modern. It becomes harder to enjoy a story when these things happen.
A few examples of Deux Ex Machina in Biblical stories
The story of Adam and Eve and the fall has an element of Deux Ex Machina in it. God threatens the first couple and informs them they will die if they break his laws, but when push comes to shove, they only get expelled out of paradise. God changes the rules of the story—because He can—as there wouldn’t be much of a story left if the only two protagonists are dead. So the ‘promise’ of death is not fulfilled and another solution is found: exile. This way the couple stays alive to live another day and it also means their story may continue. To stay with Genesis, I could mention another example. Cain, for instance, is responsible for the first murder but in order for him to stay alive, God protects him with a mark, gives him a wife and a city to flee to. None of these are mentioned beforehand, but they appear out of nowhere in order for Cain to have a somewhat happy ending.
Such a surprise happy ending happens quite often in the Bible. The story of Jesus breaking the bread where the food suddenly multiplies could fall in this category. It serves as a miracle but is also a bit convenient. Many of the miracles of Jesus rather follow this pattern. Think of it like this: when you first get to know Superman, you quickly learn that he can fly and cannot suffer to be near Kryptonite. You learn these things about him at the beginning of the story and if he later manages to escape by flying, say from a burning building, you don’t feel cheated because you already knew he could fly.
With the Jesus stories, it is different. We know he is the Son of God, but we don’t know what that entails. That means that any kind of miracle can occur, any kind of rabbit from the hat. If Jesus has a problem, he’ll solve it, with a flick of his fingers. He can heal the sick; he can raise the dead; he can walk on water; he can multiply food; he can battle the Devil in reciting Scripture; he can heal someone’s ear; he can foresee the future; he can control nature; he can…. The possibilities are endless. Because the story offers virtually no limits to Jesus’ powers, they can easily feel like a Deux Ex Machina. Easy solutions coming out of nowhere.
When you consider the stories of Jesus as a living body of work that has been shaped over years with various authors, this makes sense. There are many versions of Jesus as there are many versions of King Arthur’s tales and, indeed, many different versions of Superman or other comic book heroes too. Different authors think up different background stories, add to them, or eliminate elements. The enemies may differ, the powers may vary, the character itself often changes along with the story. With various authors, the internal consistency of stories can easily get muddled. This often happens when there’s a large body of work on a single character.
But even with only one author this might become a problem. Readers have, for instance, pointed this out in some of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. It is hard to remember every little bit of detail of a character’s life if you write many stories about the same character. And so Holmes has hardly any interest in literature in one story, whereas he quotes Goethe in actual German in the next. (1) The same can be said for Watson’s war wound, which might be located either in the shoulder, the leg, or one of his limbs. (2) A popular explanation—one might be inclined to call this Holmes canon apologia —is that Watson was bending over and was, therefore, shot in the leg and the shoulder both with the bullet first hitting his leg and then his shoulder or the other way around. (3) However, it is just as easily conceivable that the author simply did not remember where he’d decided to give Watson his wound.
Plot holes in Biblical stories
In the Bible there are a few stories that have different endings. You could consider this a plot hole, or if you want to be kind, see it as a parallel universe instead. Both Judas and King Saul die differently in different versions of their life story. In 1 Samuel 31:4, Saul commands his armor-bearer to kill him. The man doesn’t obey and so Saul kills himself instead. However, in 2 Samuel 1:8-10, King David hears the tale of Saul’s demise told by the Amalekite that killed him. In this version, King Saul also asked to be killed and his command is obeyed. Both stories cannot be true, unless they truly did happen in parallel universes. Judas’ death has a similar pattern to it: it remains somewhat of a mystery. In one of the gospels, Matthew 27:5, Judas hangs himself, yet in the book of Acts 1:18-19, Judas falls, presumably onto a rock, and dies. It is not entirely clear if this is a deliberate act and, therefore, also a suicide or simply an unfortunate fall. Either way the deaths differ significantly and cannot be both true. The reader may think of it as an alternative ending, much in the way that some movies offer when they come out on DVD. Except, of course, that this is supposed to be read as history—if you are a literalist—and history does not have alternative endings. (On a fun note, historians sometimes do contemplate the “what if” question where history is concerned. This is called counterfactual history and a big source of new stories and ideas. The man in the high castle is a well-known example of a story that poses such a question.)
The two differing creation stories present a similar problem. They do not add up. Man and woman are created differently at different moments in the story. In the one story, Adam is alone for a while and Eve is created from his rib; in the other one, they are created together, apparently simultaneously. Again, they cannot both be true.
A short internet search brings you a world of Biblical plot holes. There are far too many to mention them all, but this Reddit thread alone, brings up quite a few. (4) If God is so powerful, why does he punish the people with the Babylonian confusion? He could have gone much further, and as the original poster suggested, these different languages that are created become pretty irritating when you get to the point where evangelizing becomes really important. However, that’s where speaking in tongues comes into play.
God’s power itself poses an interesting question as well. Satan is a created being; God isn’t, yet at times they seem equally powerful. Satan is able to enter heaven at will and makes a devious bet with God to get Job to lose his faith. A similar attempt is made by Satan to deceive Jesus as well. When Daniel receives news of an angel, the angel tells him he was held up for days and could only visit him, after an arch angel had assisted him. Where was God, you may wonder? (Daniel 10:13)
When Abraham is visited by the angels, they tell him that God has heard cries coming from Sodom and they have been sent to investigate what’s going on there. (Genesis 18:21) This seems to suggest that God is not omniscient and needs his helpers to find out instead. In Judges 1:19 God supports Judah and provides victories, however, chariots of iron are stronger than God somehow. Imagine that: the tribe in possession of more advanced weaponry wins!
These stories make some sense from the perspective of a world with various gods in constant battle where the winning tribe also represents the victorious god. They make no sense at all if the God in these stories is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient: because, in that case, demons and chariots fitted with iron shouldn’t matter one bit, let alone be on the winning hand.
Another one I find quite compelling myself is this one: if Genesis is meant to be metaphorical, as many people claim, consider the following, posed on another thread, by a former Catholic:
“[W]hen you finally break down all the inconsistencies and questionable passages in Genesis, many Christians come to the conclusion that Genesis is simply metaphorical. But Jesus sacrificing himself for a metaphor seems like a major plot hole all on its own.” (5)
Gaslighting is a subject which has recently received more attention. It is a form of manipulation where the person who is being gaslighted will begin to doubt his or her own memories or reasoning. It’s seen as an abusive tool as the subjects will become doubtful and distrustful of, ultimately, themselves. Gaslighting is about being dismissive of someone’s arguments and about invalidating people’s feelings. “Are you sure it happened that way?” might be an example. It’s a way of discrediting someone before they’ve even begun to speak.
The term gaslighting is based on the play, and movie, Gas Light. In the story a woman is deceived by her husband. He spends time in the attic searching for hidden treasure and as he lights the gas lights up there, the lights in the rest of the house dim. His wife notices this but in order for him to keep his secret, he convinces her she is mistaken instead. He tells her not to trust her own perceptions but to believe him instead. Every time he goes up into the attic, she notices the dimming gas lights in the rest of the house, but he continues to make her doubt her own senses. She is simply imagining things. His manipulation of her: making his wife doubt herself, her own memories, and her own perception, is what became known as gaslighting.
You could say it’s what Job’s friends do to him as they invalidate his words and talk over his arguments. Job’s friends insist that has must have done wrong, for God to harm him so. Job is adamant that he did not. In fact, in the story, God himself agrees with Job on this. It doesn’t matter what Job brings forth in arguments, his friends will not have it. In Job 4:7-8 Eliphaz says “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” His other friend, Bildad, makes a similar argument in Job 8:20. “See, God will not reject a blameless person nor take the hand of evildoers.” They cannot unify their beliefs about a just God and Job’s suffering, therefore, Job must have done something to provoke God’s wrath in their opinion. The friends do not succeed in making Job doubt his own account and point of view; they go to a great deal of trouble to make him see their point, but ultimately fail to gaslight him.
Another example of gaslighting is a story that is often brought as very poignant. Jesus accepting Peter back into the fold. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him as he has just betrayed him. In the story, this question is repeated three times —the number being symbolically significant in itself as the number of completeness, hence the Trinity, three days in the grave and I’m sure there are others — until Peter gets pretty frustrated. “You know I love you,” he finally exclaims, exhausted. And yes, it is a kind of punishment for his betrayal: can he be trusted after all? But there’s another side here as well. As part of the Trinity, as God, Jesus knows what Peter thinks and believes; he can see right through him. (John 21:15-17) Why does he need to ask him three times? Why else other than to make Peter doubt himself all over again (as punishment)? Peter becomes frustrated and desperate as his exclamations are unable to prove his fealty. He has nothing but his word and his word is not believed. This story is often portrayed as Jesus’ endless love for Peter —considering what happens to Judas, as a response to his betrayal of Jesus, one is inclined to see the story in that way— yet it also shows the more testily side of Jesus. He makes Peter grovel, makes him doubt himself all over again, and only after he has toyed with him, does he receive forgiveness. Perhaps Jesus forgot his own teachings? I seem to remember something about seventy times seven…. (Matthew 18:21-22)
When you take this further, it might be that God is gaslighting us. The Bible constantly warns us that as sinful people, we should not to trust ourselves, nor our sinful hearts. This is precisely what the term entails: making people doubt their own perceptions, their own lived experience, belittling their feelings or memories. The question is: who gains from this and what does the gaslighter have to gain? In a relationship the gaslighter will try to get the power, the reins of the relationship, by manipulating the other party in the relationship. If this is what God does to his own people, what does that say about Him? Why does God have to manipulate his followers in getting the power in the first place? Doesn’t He already have it?
“Trust in the Lord with all you heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5) The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.” (Psalm 111:10) What these texts have in common is that God is to be trusted and humanity is not. But it goes even further than that: God is to be trusted and you should not trust yourself. You cannot believe in yourself, rely on your skills, stand for your opinions, trust your sense, but you have to rely on God instead. God will guide you; God will keep you; and so on. This means ultimately that God wins every battle you will have with him. You might not like the existence of hell, for instance, but God has the final say. Perhaps you want to have an egalitarian marriage but God, and probably your preacher too, point you towards the headship of men. But it can get worse. You might feel pressured into forgiving someone because the Bible tells you to do so. You might stay in an abusive relationship because you believe God does not allow divorce.
It ends in you not being allowed to be yourself. You are considered a sinner by God. You have been saved by his Son and as a result you have to give up yourself. Your personhood. The Bible is quite clear about this. The price you pay is to no longer belong to yourself. You have been bought and paid for. It also means that you may end up in an identity crisis. You are no longer allowed to think for yourself and make your own decisions. Instead you are supposed to ask for and follow God’s will. Your opinion doesn’t matter. What your senses or instinct tells you is null and void, because the will of God will always win. You do not matter and what you think or believe doesn’t matter either. After all, you can’t trust your sinful heart. You cannot trust your sinning mind. Paul explains it like this in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do.” He is torn and struggles in this chapter with his own mind. The things he does, he sees as sinful; the things he wants to do, but doesn’t do, he considers to be good. The following link gives 23 Bible verses about the death to self. (6) Twenty-three times where you are told that you are not allowed to be yourself. That your self is bad and untrustworthy. As, for instance, Ephesians 4:22-24 “[T]hat, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self.” Or the often repeated phrase about crucifying your old flesh or taking up your cross. Galatians 5:24 says the following: “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” John 3:30 talks about: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” These are only three of the twenty three verses and they all mention not trusting your own judgement.
Gaslighting is a specific tactic designed to make people doubt themselves and thus grooming them to believe the other person’s views and perceptions. It is something that leaders of any kind might use to their advantage to control (a group of) people. If people can’t trust themselves, they will be far more likely to start trusting their leader, which is the intended goal. Cults probably use this as well. Messages to the members to not trust themselves, nor the outside world, make it easier to keep them in the fold. Finally, the Bible itself has countless verses telling you not to trust yourself, to abandon common sense and your own judgement and to give your life with all its decisions over to another. You are told to die symbolically, by baptism, and to rise as a new person – an empty person who is the marionette to God’s strings. This is the ultimate goal of gaslighting.
One could say that when you de-convert, the suspension of disbelief for the Bible has been broken. You’ve been kind, and perhaps resilient, enough to hang on to its truths for a long time but you simply can’t anymore. The spell has been broken and suddenly the Bible is riddled with plot holes. Broken promises and prophecies abound. The story no longer captivates you as it did before. You become aware of numerous problems in the storylines. You can’t un-see them anymore. On top of that, the authors (or God) try to gaslight you into not trusting yourself and your own judgement. Once you realize that, you’ll have a hard time going back to Biblical bliss.
(1)Some inconsistenties of Sherlock Holmes; https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php?title=Some_Inconsistencies_of_Sherlock_Holmes
(2) Sherlockian.net: Canonical cruxes;
(4) Major Bible Plotholes; https://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/2c0hmt/major_bible_plot_holes/
(5) What are the biggest plot holes in the Bible; https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-biggest-plot-holes-in-the-Bible
(6) Death to self; http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Death-To-Self