1 John 4.1-6:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
2 Timothy 4.3-4:
For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
2 Peter 1.16-17:
For we did not follow wisely-crafted myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
WARNING: This blog post contains a specific word that many Christians will not feel comfortable with. The use of this language is not intended to shock or offend, nor is it used flippantly. It is used to reference a philosophical work on ethics that describes the concept of “bullshit.” I am not an advocate for the free or abundant use of swearing or scatological language. Yet, at the same time, the use of this language is somewhat comparable to Paul’s usage of the word for “dung” (σκῠ́βᾰλον) in Philippians 3.8.
One of the concerns that we see repeatedly presented throughout the New Testament is a concern with prophets and teachers who are false, mislead, and inflict harm. For some modern hearers, like me, this concern about false teachers may provoke feelings of judgment, being aware of and having experienced people who quickly used such labels derisively in the face of conflict. Much like the word “fool” in the Proverbs began to be used as a derisive insult of angry people that necessitated Jesus warning people that such language makes one accountable to a judgment that could end up with the fires of hell (Matthew 5.22), the language of false teacher and prophet can and has been used derisively by some Christians. Yet, the reason the early Church has such a concern is not that they are inclined to be judgmental of people, but rather they have a deep, abiding concern for truth such that people who fundamentally reject basic claims about the person of Jesus and persistently mislead the people are to be avoided. Regardless of whether one thinks Jesus is truly the Son of God (I am speaking to those who do not share my faith convictions), the early Christians had a deep abiding concern that they should not misrepresent God or themselves to those they taught. While “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is the Son of God” were the most important fundamental claim of the early Christians, that they are truth-seekers, because Jesus is the Truth, is an important virtue.
However, precisely because labels used to point to false teachers and false teaching have been used so flippantly and without concern for taking the time to accurately understand and represent what other people are saying and why they are saying it, it is important to think carefully about what constitutes such false teaching for the early Christians. For instance, the heresies of Pelagianism and sem-Pelagianism have been readily used to describe anything that seems to diverge from an Augustinian-Calvinist account of grace and salvation, without concern to accurately represent what is specifically being claimed. Marcionism has often been charged against those who may have views on the Old Testament that are not considered sufficiently venerable enough, such as Andy Stanley’s oft-maligned comment about “unhitching faith from the Old Testament.” In cases like these and others, there is a cultural game that some play that they are expecting people to fall into error and sin and that they should be ready to call it out. Quick anger and judgment fuel such judgmental claims, which consequently means that such people give less attention to why something is false, why something is misleading, why something is harmful.
So what is it about false teaching the bothers the early church? Obviously, on the surface of it, they reject various claims about the person of Jesus. And yet, the problem of such people isn’t simply that they reject the truth of Jesus at some level, but that there is something about them as a person that makes them opposed to the Gospel. For instance, in 1 John 4.3, those who reject that Jesus has come from God are said to be under the influence/spirit of the antichrist. Far from describing a character of evil who will rise up to power in the end times, to be an antichrist is to stand in opposition to what Jesus stands for. By rejecting Jesus is from God, be an implication that would mean the loving character of Jesus is not representative of God (note that the discussion about the spirit of the antichrist in 1 John 4.1-6 falls right after talking about Jesus’ commandment to love one another in 3.23-24 and returns to this theme of love in 4.7ff). The spirit of the antichrist cannot accept that the love of Jesus is the exact representation of God, thereby leading them to distort who Jesus is and thereby also distort who God the Father is (1 Jn. 2.22). The antichrist is not simply about denying a point of doctrine about Jesus ‘divinity, but about distorting Jesus so that His actual character that makes Him the anointed Messiah of Israel and worthy Savior of the world are not taken to be truly representative of God and His will for us. The spirit of antichrist could be alternatively imagined in the form of people who confess that Jesus is God but yet cast a portrayal of God and Jesus that is far from having the deeply loving, merciful, gracious character working for the good of human life, particularly in the midst of our suffering.
Why does the spirit of the antichrist reject the representation of a Jesus who deeply loves and calls us to deeply love is from God? Ultimately, John ascribes the reason to the fact that speak from and are listened to by the world (1 Jn . 4.5). This wouldn’t have been said of them, however, if these people under the influence of the antichrist did not claim to belong to the same community of faith (cf. 1 John 2.19). So in saying that they speak from and are listening to the world, they are essentially living double lives: on the surface, they claim allegiance and affiliation with Jesus and the early Church, yet at the same time, what they say is ultimately learned from and accepted by the world. Their representations of God and Jesus are what would be pleasing to people who do not belong to God’s people.
Why is love so offensive to some people? It can seem on the surface that talking about love may be a form of ear-tickling. Indeed, it can take on that form when we are focused primarily on helping people feeling approved by talking about love. While there are helpful times to help people know they are loved, such a theme can readily become a way of tickling people’s ears by telling them something they want to hear, whether it is truly something they need to hear. On the other hand, when the Scriptures talk about love, they focus less on the feeling of the recipients of love and more so on the ethical call to people to show love that is willing to suffer for others. This is why the deep nature of Jesus’ love is offensive to some and resisted by some who claim Jesus: it calls them to be willing to suffer themselves for the sake of others just as Jesus did for us. Far from simply seeing Jesus’ love as something for us, it becomes an exemplar for our own lives. We will return to this idea of suffering a little bit later.
This leads us to what Paul says about false teachers in 2 Timothy 4.3-4. In describing a group of people, implicitly some who identify with Jesus, who want to have teachers that accord with what they want and desire, he gets at the heart of the relationship between false teachers and those who accept them. False teachers are those who appeal to the sensibilities of the audience they seek to impress. Their focus is not on careful consideration of precisely what it is that they are teaching, but on giving people what will give them praise, status, and influence among their audience. What Paul then says characterized this teaching is something that moves away from the truth and are myths. What Paul means by myth (μῦθος) isn’t what we often mean by myth when we are talking about the stories of gods and goddess in pagan mythology. Μῦθος was regularly used to refer to a story that is said without concern for its truth. It isn’t necessarily used to refer to stories that are intentional deceptions, but any range of stories that strongly misrepresent matters.
At the heart of myths in this sense is something that is similar to what philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt defines as bullshit in On Bullshit (hence force, I will simply abbreviate this discussion of this concept to BS so as to minimize offense to my fellow Christians as much as I can while still keeping in touch with the philosophical work). Frankfurt explains at the heart of BS is “lack of connection to a concern with the truth.”1 Yet BS is not the same thing as deception. In deception, the truth is still considered important, hence it is hidden with lies and manipulation. For a person who is engaging in BS, they have no concern about the truth, but are simply concerned with getting what he wants.2 Hence, BS can lead to the confabulation of stories and ideas that may sound plausible enough, but are primarily unconscious constructions of affairs based upon what fits their interests at the time.
Yet, I would push beyond Frankfurt’s description of BS. Frankfurt suggests that there is little concern for truth in BS. I would put forward, however, that some BSers may have a desire for the truth to the point that they may believe they are speaking truth, but their self-perceptions of speaking the truth are rationalizations designed to validate how they are deserving of what it is they are seeking. For them, to desire to be in truth does not lead to a diligent and critical discernment (cf. 1 Jn. 4.1), especially when accurate representations are particularly important. BSers are not just susceptible to misrepresentation, but in some cases, they need to believe they are telling the truth. In these instances, “truth” is defined narcissistically, where the truth is believed to be what provides the BSer what they want, without concern for seeking for and appropriately understanding the information that can provide signals to what is reliable and true.
In the case of myths, the teachers who provide them are not necessarily intending to deceive their audience. Nothing Paul says suggests they are *intentionally* deceptive. Rather, they may be understood more so as people-pleasers who are well-attuned to the type of things that people want to hear. Although to be clear, not all people-pleasers are profligate BSers; we need to avoid an unhelpful stereotype of such people. There are some people-pleasers who simply refrain from telling painful truths, but endeavor not to speak what is false in what they do say. Other people-pleasers may speak BS, but only to the extent that they can avoid perceived threats, but otherwise, their BS is relatively contained. At the heart of the popular teacher who speaks BS, however, is someone who actively pursues what they want by using BS.
This is probably what Peter is getting at in 2 Peter 1.16 in referring to as “wisely-crafted myths” (σεσοφισμένοις μύθοις). There, Peter is not criticizing false teachers, per se, but he presenting himself as someone who does not tell to adhere to such type of stories. They have the appearance of wisdom, with the verb σοφίζω being used to describe how such false stories are created based upon what is taken to be wise. Instead, Peter is focused simply on telling what they saw and heard in Jesus, without regard to trying to create a story based upon what seems wise.
If I were to try to assess what the ingredients of wisely-crafted myths would be, I would suggest it starts from taking some theme or idea that has apparent truthfulness, the appearance of wisdom, and then expanding upon that theme in some form of narrative or exposition, with the working principle that the more an apparently true theme or idea is used and appealed to, the better. For example, I am reminded of a preacher who once talked about seeking the tail of the devil. The apparent truth of this story derives from the way that the serpent in Genesis 3 is later connected to Satan. Then this preacher proceeded to build a myth based upon this idea, suggesting if that one sees the tail of the devil, one should just back away. This continues to play on the apparent truthfulness of the danger that snakes have to us that is then transferred to the devil. Yet, such a conclusion runs absolutely counter to the New Testament exhortation to resist the devil (Eph. 4.27, 6.11, Jam. 4.7), overlooking the image of Satan as an aggressive lion who seeks to devour (1 Pet. 5.8) and ignoring how Jesus in his temptations has to resist the devil (Mat. 4.3-11/Lue. 4.2-13). The story and its moral received praise from some of those who heard it and its apparent truthfulness that derived from the facts that (a) it took Scriptural story of the serpent as a starting point and (b) played off the instinctual fear that people have of snakes to tell a pleasing story about just backing away from Satan. Yet, on the face of it, it seems there was little concern to portray the devil and the Christian response to him the way the Bible actually says. A wisely-crafted myth (unconsciously) designed to please people that isn’t concerned to spend the time to focus on what is available on the topic at hand.
What seems to be one distinction between true teachers, such as what Paul is exhorting Timothy to be, and false teachers is the willingness to endure hardship (κακοπάθησον; 2 Tim. 4.5). At the root of so many of our desires is an avoidance of pain and suffering. By obtaining what it is that we seek after and desire, such fulfillment of desire may stave off feelings of pain, sadness, fear, anger, etc. by creating feelings of euphoria and pleasure. When the avoidance of suffering is at the heart of our desires, it has the tendency to strengthen the nature of the craving and passion into an exaggerated form from what we might want otherwise. For instance, a basic desire to be accepted by others that is at the heart of our nature as social creatures that seek connections with others may become distorted into a deep craving and desire for popularity. A desire for sexual intimacy and bond with a member of the opposite sex may escalate into an exaggerated desire to pursue the pleasures of sex. There is a reason that Paul talks about “sufferings which produce sin” (τὰ παθήματα τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν) in Rom. 7.5.3 Our relationship to pain and suffering will determine how we respond to the potential lack of fulfillment of our desires. If we embrace the cross of Jesus Christ so that we suffer with Christ (Rom. 8.17), the prospective expectation of pain with the lack of fulfillment of our desires won’t motivate us to do whatever we can to pursue what we desire. If one can not accept the experiences of some pain, suffering, and unfulfilled longings, then one will push deeper towards a passionate compulsion to obtain this desire.
So, for false teachers, their desires undergird the reasons they speak what is not true. We see Jesus and Peter portray false prophets as similarly being lost in their inner desires (Mat. 7.15, 2 Pet. 2.10-16). It is these desires that stand at the heart of myth-making so as to tickle the ears of the people from whom one wants approval, praise, status, money, etc. BSer will want to rely upon what appears true and reliable so as to influence their hearers, but what they perceive and portray to be true is conformed to what is consistent with their own desires rather than the information that is readily and directly accessible.
To be clear, the mere existence of error, making mistakes, being unable to dedicate more time and resources to discern the truth, etc. are all reasons we might get something wrong but not be a false teacher in the Biblical sense. We all make mistakes and have limitations on what information and skills we possess. The pathway to obtaining truth comes by persisting in Jesus’ word (John 8.31-32), so it will take time to come know the truth. Rather, at the heart of BS, at the heart of myth-making to tickle people’s ears is a lack of concern to carefully discern the truth due to prioritizing the specific desire outcomes of what one says that is controlled by one’s own desires, not a limitation in our abilities to acquire truth.
Unfortunately, the vocation of pastor and preacher can tempt people to such a mentality and approach, to the point that those who were originally eager to proclaim the Gospel gradually begin to adjust what they preach and teach to accord with what they will get them the approval or status that they desire. While the existence of the temptation and the occasional slip up does not make one a false-teacher, it is important to keep the focus on what our heart should be truly dedicated to: to live for, proclaim, and demonstrate in our lives Jesus Christ. Perhaps in doing this, we should regard more blatant attempts at people-pleasing based upon out-of-controls to be as despicable BS/dung that should be seen as a part of our former life that we accept as a loss and pursue instead to be found in Jesus Christ by being willing to faithfully share in His sufferings and then also His resurrection (Phil. 3.7-11)
- Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 32.
- Ibid, 53ff.
- Many translations render τὰ παθήματα as passions, but Paul uses the same word in Rom. 8.18 to describe sufferings. It is more likely that Paul is talking about the role of suffering in producing sin in Romans 7.5, as it serves as a conceptual contrast to the afflictions that produce character as described in Romans 5.3-5. This translation takes the genitive phrase τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν as what Daniel Wallace calls the genitive of product (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 106). While Wallace calls this usage rare, the overall discussion of Romans 7 is how sin is produced in a person who lives under Torah. Hence the genitive of product makes the most coherent sense of Paul’s discourse.