Gospel Hypothesis 4: Hermeneutics »« Gospel Hypothesis 2: the voice of God

Gospel Hypothesis 3: on the origin of Scriptures

According to the Myth Hypothesis, gods do not exist, and all religions that promote belief in gods do so through the political and psychosocial processes of ordinary superstition and myth-making. This implies a number of things, the most fundamental and obvious of which is that none of these religions is going to have any actual god to show to people, much less to lead them and judge them. Everything we’re going to be able to know about gods is going to have to come from ordinary mortal humans, either from their speculations, or their superstitions, or their subjective feelings, because in the absence of any real gods, that’s all we’ve got to go on. This in turn is going to have some consequences that may seem very familiar to students of history and current events.

The first implication is that religions, as part of the myth-making process, are going to invoke two methods as their primary sources: stories, and prophets. Stories give us 3rd hand information about what gods have allegedly done, and in the absence of any real gods showing up to correct them, the stories are going to be free to evolve according to the usual, mundane processes of hearsay, superstition, and confirmation bias. A misperception here and an exaggeration there, plus a few appeals to the human love of a good story, and you have the makings for an entire pantheon of deities blessing and/or smiting mankind. If the Myth Hypothesis is true, then such stories and legends will have to make up for the absence of the real presence of any god or gods—assisted, of course, by the prophets.

The prophet has a unique role, if the Myth Hypothesis is true. As the authoritative spokesman for God, in the absence of any actual God who might otherwise dictate his actions, the prophet is essentially free to say whatever he can get away with saying. He can exploit people’s superstitions and prejudices and ambitions, and make them feel like God is on their side, provided of course that the people are faithful about staying on the prophet’s side.

For example, if the people happen to own other people as slaves, the prophet can get away with recommending what masters will see as fair and human treatment for the slaves. Denouncing the practice of slavery in general, however, might be more than he could get away with, at least in the absence of considerable public sympathy for ending slavery. Deus ex machina won’t save you from an angry mob if Deus is only a myth.

Or if the people are largely sexist and homophobic, the prophet can preach male dominance and homophobia, and thereby increase his social standing and influence. In the absence of any real God, who’s going to tell him he’s being prejudiced and unjust? Traditional superstitious practices, like blood sacrifice, are also big winners, so long as the people buy into it. If no God exists, then no God is going to break the news that hemoglobin does not actually change anyone’s moral history.

The downside is that merely appealing to popular attitudes and prejudices isn’t going to be enough. Sooner or later a question will arise that will require the prophet to take a stand, in God’s name, that will involve being verifiably right or wrong. There are ways a prophet can dodge accountability for his mistakes, like claiming that God changed His mind, but too many instances of this sort of thing tend to create doubts, which are extremely toxic to prophetic privilege.

But all is not lost. There’s an ingenious solution to this problem: write your prophecies in a book. Transfer the “divine” authority to a book, and then don’t claim to be a prophet yourself, but only claim that you’re following the book’s authority. If you’re right, it’s because the book has divine, prophetic authority. If you’re wrong, hey, you’re only human—you must have just misunderstood what the book is saying. But the book is still authoritative, and therefore you still speak and preach with divine authority no matter how often you’re wrong.

This is the optimal outcome for religions that don’t have an actual God, so if the Myth Hypothesis is true, then that implies we should see religious authority emerging from a collection of stories and prophetic writings that eventually become codified as Scripture, administered by human authorities who are qualified either by scholarship or by the remnants of some kind of quasi-prophetic authority to serve as its interpreters.

The Gospel Hypothesis, meanwhile, implies that we won’t need second- or third-hand accounts of what God wants to tell us. We’ll have God Himself, Who loves us and wants nothing more than to participate in the kind of personal, tangible relationship that makes third-party reports superfluous. We might have certain records around of how God dealt with past generations, and in fact we’ll never stop compiling such records, because our loving Heavenly Father will never stop having those kinds of dealings with us, every day. If the Gospel Hypothesis is true, therefore, we should expect the absence of any such thing as “authoritative Scripture” and “Apostolic Tradition,” because we won’t be getting our information second or third hand, we’ll be getting it first-hand, directly from our loving Father Himself.

The situation we see in the real world is exactly the only situation we could see if the Myth Hypothesis were true. No additional explanations or rationalizations are needed: the history of Scripture has unfolded the only way it could unfold in the absence of any real God. The Gospel Hypothesis can’t predict the kind of divine absence that would make prophets and Scriptures necessary, and in fact it implies the exact opposite. Believers have all kinds of rationalizations for why reality doesn’t match the implications of the Gospel Hypothesis, but that’s exactly the point: the rationalizations are necessary because reality isn’t consistent with the original hypothesis on its own.