Monday, January 14, 2008

The Sceptic's Dream

I was listening to Daniel 2 yesterday, and was reminded of how much I like it, particularly what we see of the character of Nebuchadnezzar.

He's the King of Babylon - the most powerful kingdom in the known world. And more than that, he's not taken in by all the superstition and "smart guys" in the royal court, though he's not quite modern either. So when he has a dream, he thinks it has a meaning and is worried about it. But he knows that if the court astrologers and so on aren't just faking it, they'll be able to tell him what the dream was as well as the meaning.

Then the king answered, "I am certain that you are trying to gain time, because you realize that this is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me the dream, there is just one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the dream, and I will know that you can interpret it for me."

The astrologers answered the king, "There is not a man on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men."

This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon.

Daniel 2:8-12, NIV

Now I'm not saying I'd want to work for Nebuchadnezzar - his labour relations policy had a lot to be desired and he had some issues with pride, but I've got a lot of sympathy with him here. The astrologers and wise guys claimed to have access to some form of knowledge from beyond the universe. Neb calls their bluff, and wins.

It's interesting also that the astrologers, despite all their claims (and the Babylonians arguably invented Western astrology and astronomy), are still functional atheists when it comes to checkable claims. They genuinely don't think that gods reveal things to people, or that gods live among men, which makes one wonder precisely how they claimed their astrology and so on worked. Ask Russell Grant, or whoever the astrologers of today are, what the biggest news story of 2008 will be, and if they get it wrong, they're obviously bogus. They won't know any better than anyone else.

Anyway, Daniel shows up and says this:

Daniel replied, "No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you lay on your bed are these...

Daniel 2:27-28, NIV

And the story ends like this:

The king said to Daniel, "Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery."

Daniel 2:47, NIV

One of the big concerns of the prophets is attacking idolatry. Daniel does it in an unusual way - he presents a series of stories which serve as contests between God and the various gods worshipped in Babylon, the most powerful nation in the known world. Here he shows that the gods the astrologers and wise guys claimed to follow are precisely zero use when it comes to testable stuff, but that God can reveal mysteries.

And that seems to chime in with a lot of sceptics' views. The Babylonian religion looks like it is actually completely ineffective. Yes, there are clever guys involved, giving their own wisdom. But there is no access to transcendent truth or revelation in a way that goes beyond what normal people have. And the astrologers and so on know it when it comes to the crunch. There's a chance they're even just going along with it to keep themselves in business.

But there is a real God, who does have the power to reveal mysteries, and to act, and to save his people.

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