The scoffer’s seat and the Berean’s bench

In 1978, over 900 members of the People’s Temple died at the command of the cult’s leader, Jim Jones. Many died voluntarily after poisoning their children. Some were shot down by guards enforcing Jones’ suicide order. They believed the capitalist, racist,

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United States government was about to attack them after Temple gunmen murdered a U.S. congressman.

In 1993, 86 members of the Branch Davidian cult were killed in a fire during an FBI siege of their compound near Waco. David Koresh, their leader, was considered a second messiah. His followers earlier opened fire on ATF agents approaching the compound.

In 1997, 39 members of a decades-old cult, led by Marshall Applewhite, ate poisoned applesauce and died. They believed death would allow them to ride a space ship they thought was traveling behind the Comet Hale-Bopp.

There’s a diverse selection of tragedy for you. What caused it? Some say lunacy, others see government conspiracies. But many explanations of these much-analyzed events miss the larger point. We tend to explain horrible events in a way that separates us from them. We speak as if “those people” were essentially different than anyone we know. Thus we are exempt from the lessons the tragedies might teach us.

Remember that most of the dead listed above (except the children) joined the groups voluntarily. Most were also willing to die for their leader and his beliefs. Few of them were insane. All, except the children, allowed themselves to be deceived. They willfully believed irrational claims.

Those people needed a philosopher.

Philosophers question what other people assume. It is a critic’s work. If I say, “David Koresh is the second messiah,” a good philosopher might ask me why I believe that. If I tell him “Koresh’s Bible studies say so,” he might ask me where the Bible says that and if the text is being handled properly. A good philosopher would dog me until I abandoned my unexamined belief, justified it, or shut up my ears. I suspect most of the cult members above had already shut their ears and died of a lack of discernment.

Usually we think philosophers are frowned on in Scripture. Paul’s teaching in Colossians 2 warns against worldly philosophy, after all. He says that it can rob you of your faith. In fact we’ve all seen that happen. What begins with a sincere love of wisdom digresses into, “Has God really said ??”

That’s what Psalm 1 means by sitting in the seat of the scoffer. He’s a habitual and self-indulgent critic. He sits to judge, to condemn actually, all but the most novel ideas of others. As you would expect, what’s novel changes frequently. He finds himself always contemptuous of those around him, recreationally chipping away at their beliefs.

A philosopher can be that scoffer. Proverbs describes the scoffer as a man who delights in his scoffing, hates or dishonors those who seek to correct him, causes strife, and will not find wisdom. His understanding comes from within rather than from God. It is limited and temporal. He is earnestly wrong and clearly dangerous because he starts with an assumption apart from God. Any assumption that makes my viewpoint an absolute will be, 10 times out of 10, the foundation of a false philosophy. It will be either hobbled by untrue things or wrong motives. This is the self-aggrandizing but often appealing philosophy of Colossians 2:8.

It seems that most philosophers are scoffers. The habit of being critical easily becomes proud and self-indulgent. Because philosophy is often an academic career it can be sterile, theoretical, and vain. Anything can, though. As philosophy deals with ways of thinking and knowing, it is foundational to other realms of knowledge. Thus, cynical philosophy produces humanist dentists and football coaches.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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