Is God Supernatural?

Gary Gocek bio

A layperson wonders whether God is a supernatural being.

2012, gary@gocek.org, http://www.gocek.org/, all rights reserved. Hover for usage notes. Email a link to a friend. Other articles by Gary.

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Contents

Introduction and acknowledgments.
How can I even ask such a thing?
How does God overshadow the virgin, multiply the loaves and fishes, raise the dead and allow the resurrected to appear if God is not a supernatural, omnipotent being?
Can other religions forego the supernatural?
If it's all metaphorical, and Jesus is not supernatural and residing in a supernatural place, then where do I go when I die?
What, then, is God?
Appendices.
Bibliography.

Introduction

Revised 2012-05-17.

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Since 2009, I have been exploring eschatological themes. I started out with an interest in what can be described as the "mechanics of salvation", and I have also been taking a metaphorical look at the Bible and especially the Gospels. I have read apologetic stuff, liberal stuff, secular philosophy stuff, and have viewed videos and countless web sites.

The more I study this stuff, the more I feel that the lessons are more important than the stories. Did Jesus heal the sick so I would worship Him, or to teach me how to heal? Or both? As the lessons grow in importance, should I even bother to wonder if the stories actually, literally, historically happened?

More directly, is God a supernatural being in a supernatural place called Heaven, waiting to judge me unilaterally from "His" supernatural throne, after I die? Is religion, and Christianity in particular, tied to any notion of a supernatural afterlife?

I have been surprised that there is little overt discussion of God's supernaturalness on the Internet, aside from the atheists who try to prove their non-belief by ridiculing the supernatural beliefs of others. Am I the only Christian who questions God'a supernaturalness, or am I the only one who hasn't figured out that God is not supernatural? I am a Christian sinner trying to convince my readers that there is every reason to believe in God, but no reason to expect a photo op with an angel.

Acknowledgments

I received valuable assistance in the development of this article, but this article is my own work with the help of God and I am the only person who should be held accountable.

The Polish Heritage Society of Rochester granted me a scholarship in recognition of my in-kind contributions. I used funds from that scholarship to develop this article. This article may not represent the perspective of the PHSR.

A few members of the clergy have guided me since around 1990. This article presents my own beliefs, and these priests may not agree with some points, and they did not review all my points, so I will use first names only: Deven, Julie, Peter, Bill and David.

And of course, thanks to my lovely wife, Susan for her support, even when she doesn't know she's being supportive.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. See the Bibliography section for more information.

Technical and Grammar Notes

As a software developer, I have found the development of a long article for the web to be technically interesting. If you have any thoughts on the technical aspects of gocek.org, let me know. NRSV Bible verses do not capitalize "he" and "him" when referring to Jesus, but I otherwise conform to this tradition. Please report errors, misspellings, etc.

How can I even ask such a thing?

It's the elephant in the room that Christians don't talk about in polite company. When an atheist says he or she doesn't believe in God, what or who is it that isn't believed? Don't atheists believe that humans, acting together, can achieve greater things than individuals acting separately, and isn't that a way to define God? Is resurrection about a supernatural afterlife, or a different sort of posterity? Why did it take me, geezer that I am, so long to ask?

Most mainline, American Christians are baptized at birth and grow up with a supernatural version of God who interacts with humans as God deems necessary. We ask this God to change our lives, cure our diseases and give us stuff. Of course, it's Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny who give us stuff, and we drop those fantasies, but we keep praying to God to win the lottery.

How does God overshadow the virgin, multiply the loaves and fishes, raise the dead and allow the resurrected to appear if God is not a supernatural, omnipotent being?

If one is to sacrifice the notion of God's supernaturalness, one must also sacrifice the notion that the Gospel miracles represent literal, factual moments. The alternative is that they are metaphors and lessons. Every Gospel story, every verse, exists to teach a lesson. The metaphors are sufficient.

Luke 1: 34Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

If the whole point of the virgin birth narratives is to show the power of God, then there is no lesson for us today. Virgins don't literally talk to angels and then give birth. The big deal here is not that Mary had known no man before being visited by an angel. The annunciation is a metaphor for coming to understand God's plan. Mary comes to know God and loses her virginity, metaphorically, by coming to know God, accepting God's plan for her and fulfilling that plan with God's help.

Matthew 14: 17They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." 18And he said, "Bring them here to me." 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

The story does not say that the food was magically multiplied. Marcus Borg says that with this story, we are taught that the fair distribution of wealth leaves more than enough for everyone.

Matthew 28: 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay."

The empty tomb is the most powerful metaphor of all, biblical or otherwise. The presentation of the story must attempt to portray the power of the notion of resurrection, new to the followers of Jesus and to humans in general. Jesus led a life of such perfect service to humanity that death and a blocked tomb could not contain Him. In the "empty tomb" stories, the followers begin to understand that we each leave an impression on all all with whom we interact. The better we live, the more lasting the impression.

Mark 16: 14Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation."

Jesus spent three years teaching His followers, and finally sacrificed His human existence for His cause, which was to show humanity the path to the kingdom of God. The followers didn't forget Jesus just because He died. The message and the man who delivered it left such a powerful impression that they could only relate their feelings as if Jesus was still with them.

Jesus lived and died: some things can be taken literally

I have pointed out that miraculous events can be taken metaphorically, to the extent that they do not need to be taken literally. Aside from the notion that life is a great gift from God, some parts of Jesus' life were not miraculous and were simply human and can be experienced by all of us. Fortunately, few of us sacrifice as much and as violently for our passions as Jesus.

I consider the crucifixion of Jesus to be a literal, historical event. There are metaphors there, too, since death leads to resurrection, but the non-miraculous things were, I believe, historical.

Granted, once I suggest that some stories are literal and some are metaphorical, it is impossible to prove that I have drawn the line in the correct place. One could imagine, and many have, various fictionalized accounts. What if progressive Jews and Gentiles had been resisting the Romans and Jewish collaborators for years, with little to show for it except for a number of martyred colleagues? After a while, they allegedly invented a single man who combined their experiences, and threw in a few extra events to fulfill certain scriptures. With that focal point (Jesus), the writers hoped to make some headway toward the kingdom of God. With little justification, I prefer the notion of one, literal, super-charismatic messiah dying for a cause, and then lots more dying for the leader (as we have seen over the centuries). I prefer the notion of a literal rather than a fictional Jesus when considering the strength of Christianity after 2000 years.

Can other religions forego the supernatural?

I do not accuse any religion of an improper focus on a supernatural God or gods, or a supernatural afterlife. Most Christians don't question the supernaturalness of the divine.

However, the advantage Christians have in attempting to de-focus on the supernatural is that our prime focus is on Jesus, who was human. Moses and Mohammed received words and accomplishments from God, while Jesus is recognized to have had a different, human relationship with God. I especially recognize Jesus as the one perfect example of discerning God's plan and fulfilling it, with God's help.

It is difficult for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, neo-pagans, indigenous believers and others to fully drop the supernatural. Either an intervening God is needed to inspire their prophets, or supernatural aspects are inherent, such as reincarnation. The notion that reincarnation is a natural process that science hasn't explained is just silly. Certainly, many religions do not depend on supernatural elements, but many do.

Part of my reason for writing this article is that atheists often question supernatural elements that they, the atheists, ascribe to Christianity. Atheists state a preference for godlessness in place of this Christian fantasy. However, the more accurate Christian vision is that of a perfect kingdom of God, here on earth, and while the achievement of this vision is difficult to imagine, it's a vision and not a supernatural place. Humans won't achieve the vision through godlessness or supernaturalness; we'll achieve the vision through guidance by something that is beyond any one of us and yet part of all of us.

I am among a minority of Christians who have dismissed the supernatural, but I repeat my claim that Christians are inherently able to dismiss the supernatural because, unlike other faiths, the root of Christianity, Jesus, is human.

If it's all metaphorical, and Jesus is not supernatural and residing in a supernatural place, then where do I go when I die?

Yeah, this is the hard part for those of us raised with the supernatural God. As an educated adult, you have to admit that the Gospels as miraculous stories aren't fully satisfying because they haven't happened in 2000 years. As metaphors, the Gospels provide powerful lessons for building a just and peaceful society. However, if the miracles are metaphors, then so is Heaven, and if Heaven isn't supernatural, then where do we go when we die?

1 Thessalonians 4: 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

That's what it says; the dead will rise and be healthy and joyful for all eternity, and we'll even get to keep our pets, according to writer Hank Hannegraaf.

Here's the thing: resurrection is for the living, not for the dead. Many of us can say today that we have experienced the presence of Jesus, but there are no videos on YouTube, because that's not what resurrection is about. If I live my life as Jesus taught, I will remain present for my loved ones. I will impact them, and they will impact their loved ones, and so on, across all humanity, for all time. I have an impact now, and I will have an impact after I die, if I lived correctly.

I believe that there is no supernatural, self-aware afterlife. Descriptions of afterlife destinations can only be described in human terms, since we are only human, making the descriptions useless. We can't know what death is like, and yet most humans want to believe that death is like something, anything. There is nothing un-Christian about supernatural afterlife, if the root Christian mission is to spread the news that God's plan for us is to live into the kingdom of God; the kingdom of God is is unrelated to afterlife, so there is nothing wrong with afterlife. However, while we're agonizing over the afterlife, we're not spreading the news that God's plan for us is to live into the kingdom of God that is already here, now.

The problem with reincarnation for Christians is two-fold. From a supernatural perspective, if our souls separate from our dead bodies until being reunited at the time of the Second Coming, with which body would the soul reunite if it had been associated with multiple bodies? From a metaphorical perspective, Jesus often stressed the urgency of His lessons (Mark:13:33). If our souls exist forever, or at least for multiple lifetimes, then there is no urgency. That's not to say that reincarnationists can behave badly without consequences; reincarnation is not inherently evil, but it's non-Christian. I'd rather be a Christian than reincarnated.

I can't know that reincanation doesn't occur, but I believe it does not occur and that there is no supernatural afterlife or a place that can be described literally as pagans describe the Summerlands. Anecdotally, I find that pagans experience more inexplicable, supernatural events than monotheists and atheists. That's not evil, but it's, well, inexplicable. We don't get to keep coming back until we get it right. Souls are not in such short supply that Mother Nature needs to reuse them in new bodies. Finally, Christians should recognize that an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, supernatural God does not need us.

What, then, is God?

Please refer to my other articles. God is the connection between us that makes us, together, something greater than the individual parts. This God needs us as much as we need this God. Free yourself from the bonds of believing that it gets better after we die. Use your God-given gifts to announce that the kingdom of God is here, and we need to live into it.

Appendices

Biographical Notes

Here are some biographical notes on authors whose works were researched for this article.

Bibliography

Click to view the bibliography.


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