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R. C. Sproul vs. Rudolf Bultmann

July 6, 2011

In promoting his new book Unseen Realities: Heaven, Hell, Angels and Demons, R. C. Sproul claims, “”I believe that if we are to be consistent Christians, believing all of the Bible rather than portions of it, we must recognize that the supernatural places and beings described on its pages are real. There is an uncompromised supernaturalism at the heart of the Christian worldview, and we must not let the world’s skepticism with regard to these things affect our belief systems. We must trust and affirm that there is much more to reality than meets the eye.”

Without comment from me, other than suggesting you read the entire essay, I give you a snippet of Rudolf Bultmann’s “New Testament and Mythology” from Kerygma and Myth.


Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world–in fact, there is hardly anyone who does. What meaning for instance, can we attach to such phrases in the creed “descended into hell” or “ascended into heaven”? We no longer believe in the three-storied universe which the creeds take for granted. The only honest way of reciting the creeds is to strip the mythological framework from the truth they enshrine–that is, assuming they contain any truth at all, which is just the question that theology has to ask. No one who is old enough to think for himself supposes that God lives in a local heaven. There is no longer any heaven in the traditional sense of the word. The same applies to hell in the sense of a mythical underworld beneath our feet. And if this is so, we can no longer accept the story of Christ’s descent into hell or his Ascension into heaven as literally true…

Now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil. We know that the stars are physical bodies whose motions are controlled by the laws of the universe, and not daemonic beings which enslave mankind to their service. Any influence they may have over human life must be explicable in terms of the ordinary laws of nature; it cannot in any way be attributed to their malevolence. Sickness and the cure of disease are likewise attributable to natural causation; they are not the result of deamonic activity or of evil spells…

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of daemons and spirits.


Who would you agree with, and why?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 11:18 am

    Neither actually. Both treat the texts too literally. I recommend Walter Wink’s trilogy on the Powers. He argues angels, demons and the rest represent something real about human relationships and the institutions they create. The texts are not about supernatural powers but oppressive human relationships.

    • July 6, 2011 12:51 pm


      I have read Engaging the Powers and I believe that Wink is following the program laid out by Bultmann in this essay in that he demythologizes the text and then offers an existentialist interpretation. Though for Wink ‘the powers’ are more corporate while for Bultmann I think they would be more individualistic.

      I would also guess you haven’t read Bultmann, for there would be few in the context of this essay that accused him of reading too literally.

  2. July 6, 2011 4:07 pm

    I’d like to see a bit more of Sproul’s book than the Amazon review, to get a sense of what his schtick is. BTW, his ministry was involved in an interesting lawsuit.

    As for Bultman, clearly is IS possible to use modern science and at the same time believe in the supernatural. I don’t know why he would make such a statement.

  3. Emerson Fast permalink
    July 6, 2011 4:08 pm

    Naaa Bultmann does read “too literally.” This is his work as critic in line with the critics before him (and please, don’t think I’m using the word “critic” pejoratively). First they conduct the historical method, by which they treat the documents that form the NT in all of their human-ness, rather than seeking some hidden spiritual meaning. After this is complete, Bultmann proceeds to uncover the aspects of the text that speak to the modern “believing-self-understanding.” This is why his NTT is almost entirely void of demythologising (I must assume you haven’t read it, as per the comments you have made above). He deals with the litera, and leaves it at that.

    • July 6, 2011 5:50 pm

      Emerson, my intent in the post was entirely in the context of this particular essay, though I could have been more specific.

  4. Emerson Fast permalink
    July 6, 2011 5:30 pm

    As for who between the two is “correct,” I would have to say neither as well. I don’t like Sproul’s fundamental “all-or-nothing” attitude. Fundamentalists pick-and-choose all sorts of things from the scriptures, and then condemn others for doing the same. As for Bultmann….I can think of no better person to conduct a response than from magister philosophiae Immanuel Kant himself: “When empiricism itself, as frequently happens, becomes dogmatic in its attitude towards ideas, and confidently denies whatever lies beyond the sphere of its intuitive knowledge, it betrays the same lack of modesty; and this is all the more reprehensible owing to the irreparable injury which is thereby caused to the practical interests of reason.” (Critique of Pure Reason, p.427)

    • July 6, 2011 5:54 pm

      I would disagree with Kant, as others have since he wrote. Philosophy, and naturalism for that matter, have made a lot of strides since his time.

      This is not related to your comments but it just occurred to me that a good title for a book might be “Critique of Pure Speculation”

  5. July 6, 2011 5:39 pm


    You can see the table of contents and preface for Unseen Realities here: LINK

    • nazani14 permalink
      July 7, 2011 7:12 pm

      All right, I opened the PDFs. It’s pretty simple-minded – just another preacher telling us to believe in heaven, hell, angels, and satan because the bible says they exist.

      “Why do we struggle to accept these things?… God is no less invisible to us, yet we believe in ..him. Moreover we fully accept that ..microbes and germs exist, even though we cannot see them with the naked eye.”

      Yeah, but we can see microbes through Leeuwenhoek’s little toy. We constantly see the effects of microscopic life in bread, beer, and the common cold. Heaven and hell clearly are not the physical realities described in the Bible, unless you want to make the unprovable claim that they are on some other planet. Sorry, if anyone still wants to talk about heaven/hell/angels/satan, they have to do so in the context of myth and metaphor or be considered rather dotty.

  6. Emerson Fast permalink
    July 6, 2011 11:33 pm


    You do realize that all sorts of people would say the same thing about “naturalism,” or even about the existentialism which underpins divers concerns of Bultmann in his written work? I mean, for bloody sakes, we live in a world where scientists can mention parallel universes (!), universes arising out of black holes (!), or even extra-terrestrial life (!!!!!!!!!!!) in the same breath, or at least the same book in which they deal with fractals or gluons. To be honest, I find all of these concepts to be absolutely insane…but there we are. “If every metaphysics in fact presupposes a theory of knowledge, every theory of knowledge in turn presupposes a metaphysics” says that old atheist Sartre (Being and Nothingness, p.10). This holds good for the naturalists. And if they can have their multiverses and black holes and, on certain reserved occasions, ET’s… goodness why scoff at the idea that there may be forms of life more intelligible than our own with ethical dispositions good and evil? The idea that man is the most complex of beings in this universe of ours that you so love to display via picture from time to time… silly in light of the fact that we have not searched the depths of the universe to say such…naturalism has here overstepped its bounds. We are specks of dust on a “pale blue dot”…..we are still struggling to come to terms with our own moon, much less this galaxy, much less all the trillions of other galaxies out there. Dogmatic much, Bultmann? Oh yes, thou art dogmatic.

  7. Emerson Fast permalink
    July 6, 2011 11:34 pm

    oh, just to clarify, I meant “all these concepts to be insane” in reference to black holes and such, not fractals and gluons. Those are demonstrable.

  8. Emerson Fast permalink
    July 6, 2011 11:38 pm

    black holes are demonstrable too (just not universes arising out of them). Sheit, I need to go to bed. Sorry for the triple post.

  9. July 7, 2011 12:52 am

    i agree with sproul.i would offer that nowhere in the scriptures does it say that the stars are demons. furthermore, i would suggest that you cannot attribute all spiritual/supernatural/demonic/angelic appearances and incidences in the bible to scientific happenstance. in any case, i find much of what bultmann says to be the height of arrogance and narcissism,

  10. July 7, 2011 3:43 am

    I disagree with Sproul. Sure, Science and Naturalism can’t explain everything at this time but that doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever you fancy and expect everyone else to treat it as if it was just as factual as the things we can verify with evidence. I’d be more than happy to change my position though if Sproul would heal a deaf/blind/epileptic person by driving out a demon.

    I would love to have a God I can find in reality instead of philosophy but all I seem to find is the opposite…

  11. July 7, 2011 8:35 am

    I don’t have the time (okay, attention span – but I’ll say time) to read the entire Buttman essay – but the snippet here is extreme and insulting.

    Sweeping statements, painting anyone with conclusions other than his (if such could even exist after viewing movies in 3D and playing Angry Birds on their iphone) as not advanced, not critical thinking, not serious, unable to think for themselves etc., really detracts from the valid points he’s trying to make.

    Both points seem to be on the extreme actually. Sproul’s thoughts are pretty accurate – but his assertion that “believe all the bible rather than portions of it”, takes his argument from “it’s okay to hold to truths that aren’t affirmed in scientific journals” to some kind of “accept it all cause it’s the Word-ah of God-ah” neighbourhood.

    Both have valid points, but as usual – the truths somewhere in the middle between the two extremes.

    July 20, 2012 11:11 pm

    Greetings my friend and fellow R.C. Sproul.

    Great work and words from you.

    Thank you and God be with you.

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