God And Big Numbers by Robert Gorham Davis (June/July 1996)

Biblical religion seems obsessed by numbers. In the Old and New Testaments the word “thousand” occurs 470 times. Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible devotes four columns of fine print to listing the lines in which “thousand” may be found. One fourth of the space, appropriately enough, is given over to the Biblical Book of Numbers.

Perhaps the need to count heads reflects a Roman administrative world where the census had been long employed as an aid in collecting taxes and conscripting soldiers. The Book of Numbers in the Torah begins with a command from God to Moses, “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel.” The number of males suited to military or other service was discovered to be 8,580.

This is a reasonable number, a marked retreat from Exodus 12:37-38, which speaks of “about 600,000 men on foot besides women and children,” who left Egypt on the night of Passover. “A mixed multitude,” the passage goes on, “also went up with them, and very many cattle, both flocks and herds.” A footnote in the Oxford Annotated Bible protests at such exaggeration, saying that the desert “could not have supported so large a population, at least two and a half million.” How the authors of the footnote arrived at that last figure I do not know.

The love of large numbers was shared by ordinary persons. When Rebekah was chosen by God to be the wife of Abraham, her excited sisters urged her to “be the mother of thousands of ten thousands.” It was a way to say “millions,” a word not available in early Hebrew.

Even Jesus could not forbear employing numbers at once large enough and specific enough to impress his hearers. At the scene of his betrayal by Judas, one of his followers drew a sword. Jesus halted him. “All,” he said, “who take the sword will perish by the sword,” a remark which the Bible as a whole hardly confirms.

“Do you think,” Jesus went on, “that I cannot appeal to my father, and he will at once send me more than 12 legions of angels.” A footnote informs us that this would come to 72,000 angels, a formidable force, considering the almost unlimited power of angels. And why 12 legions, rather than ten or fifteen?

The figures on church or mosque attendance in present-day censuses are known to be questionable. Christians and Moslems who have not given much thought or emotion to religion tend to exaggerate when asked questions by a stranger, especially an official of some kind. Being positive about their devotion to church or mosque does not cost anything, and will improve their standing with more ardent co-religionists if news of their answers gets about. The major religions, involved in politics and even in war, don’t mind having their numbers upped, nor do factions of their government whom they support.

According to the 1995 Information Almanac, there are in the present world some 1,869,751,000 Christians and 912,874,000 Muslims. Those millions of Christians are supposed to believe as a matter of faith that on the Day of Judgment all humans who have ever lived on earth — not just Christians –will experience bodily resurrection and be sent to spend eternity in Heaven or Hell.

I shall deal largely with that Judgment, since the greatest number of humans ever brought together will assemble before God’s altar to be judged and sent to Heaven or Hell. Whether Hell exists and is a place of never-ending, unbearable torture is a matter of disagreement among various Christian sects, though the gentle Jesus apparently believed in a Hell of the worst sort.

In Matthew 25, describing the Last Judgment, Jesus says of himself rather than God the Father, “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them, one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at his left.”

After promising reward in Heaven for those on his right, who had helped the hungry and homeless — hardly to be expected of sheep — Jesus will say to those on his left, the goats: ” ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ ” Since sheep were commonly white and goats black, the division between them for purposes of judgment would take only an instant, a mere glance, without moral probing.

The story makes no sense. Why “nations” and not individuals? Goats in the analogy have no choice in the matter, being goats by nature, according to the genes they inherit. We have the term “black sheep” for those in a family who constantly misbehave, but the term is always and only used for humans. Jesus does not single out black sheep to be sent to Hell.

The treatment at the Last Judgment of nonChristian “nations” is explained more satisfactorily by Paul in Chapter 1 of his Letter to the Romans. Of the Last Judgment he writes, “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves. . . .”

This surprises me, for I had always supposed that belief in Jesus was required for salvation. In fact Jesus himself said so. But if we accept what I have quoted from Paul in Romans, we must imagine all the nonChristians and Christians, who have been judged, favorably gathered in a vast throng stretching as far as the eye can see. The Book of Daniel estimates their number at “ten thousand times ten thousand.”

Romans, Greeks, Goths, Egyptians. They won’t be in native costumes (where would these have been preserved?) but naked, with glorified bodies and unimaginable hair-dos. Sometimes the judges are guided by a book, obviously a very fat book, containing the names of those to be saved, written by God at the time of the creation. How did he know unless he determined that the bad would be bad, and the good, good? Apparently he was not always in full control, for names are sometimes blotted out. Toward its end the Book of Revelation says “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

How long will the Last Judgment take? Suppose, at a very insufficient minimum, that on the average, judgments will take two minutes, little enough to consider in nonChristian cases a lifetime of good and bad thoughts and deeds. Or to find a name in the book of life.

God knows everything about everyone who ever lived, but does Jesus? Speaking of and to God in the 139th Psalm, the Psalmist declares: “Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up . . . Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it already . . . For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb.” God not only knows all our thoughts, but fashioned our bodies in the womb. No thoughts are too subtle for him, bodies never too numerous, even if they run into the billions.

Under such circumstances, when all moral and immoral acts of each individual must be reviewed, 30 judgments will take at least an hour (a gross minimalization). In a day we can expect 720 judgments. In a year — but it won’t be a year if it’s a day — there could be something in the neighborhood of 220,000, a tiny proportion of all the resurrected roaming the earth and waiting fearfully for the character of their eternal destiny.

Obviously judgment of all the resurrected would require years of unflagging attention to particular histories, leaving God and Jesus with no time for anything else. But perhaps in Heaven, Jesus, as part of the Trinity, can know everything God his father knows, and like God, can be everywhere at once, doing many, many things simultaneously.

The Church teaches, according to the most recent issue of the Roman Catholic Catechism, that every soul “is created immediately by God — it is not ‘produced’ by the parents — and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it is separated from the body at death.”

That is why Roman Catholics feel so strongly about abortion. Immediately after conception, when one lucky sperm among millions penetrates the egg, God implants a soul. If the fetus is aborted, it has no life outside the womb. Its soul, however, rejoined to its aborted body, lasts forever. A place must be created by God, where fetuses, millions of them, can spend their eternity of nonlife. What a cruel fortune!

This raises another delicate question for Roman Catholics. At what point in the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution did God start implanting souls? The name Darwin and the concept of Evolution do not appear in the Catechism despite the human or at least hominid fossils that are constantly being discovered in Africa, Asia and Europe. The truths of Evolution and neo-Darwinism are taken for granted by modern biologists. Here at its most obvious is a combat between science and Biblical Christianity, fought out at town meetings and public school committee meetings where Creationists demand that their doctrines be taught as legitimate science.

Should we then imagine God, looking the way a family doctor did in the old days, coming up the walk immediately after each conception? He carries a black bag full of souls to insert. This may be the hundredth or the thousandth visit on this particular day. These insertions will end, of course, before the general resurrection and Last Judgment, after which no conceptions will occur and no humans be born.

The scene as I have just imagined it is quite off the mark. The soul is supposed to be immaterial; no human has ever seen or hefted one. Similarly, God is invisible and omnipresent. Omniscience is easy to assert for God, difficult to prove.

God, on this supposition, implants, in bodies of his own making souls, of his own making, which are presumably perfect. Once the soul-bearer learns about good and evil, he or she is responsible for the state of that soul.

Whether inserted souls are all alike and of what they consist we are not told. But as contrasted with the possessors of souls generally, infants fashioned by God and born defective, lacking limbs or brains, can hardly be blamed for their plight. This must be God’s doing, since he is omnicompetent. A miscarried, unbaptized fetus is resurrected like all other humans, but sent off forthwith to limbo. It is hard to imagine the nature of the self in fetuses who experienced no human life outside the womb . . . if indeed they have any self at all.

Though full of New Age references in astrology and numerology, the Biblical Book of Revelation is woefully wanting as prophesy. Yet it has formed the conclusion of an unchanging Bible for nearly 2,000 years. Generation after generation of hopeful interpreters, taking off from the Book of Daniel, have tried to make the Book of Revelation predict what will happen in their their own historical period, with embarrassing lack of success.

Even Jesus Christ, though he boldly declared himself part of the Godhead, is well known to have failed badly when in all three synoptic gospels he is made to prophesy the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.

“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” That generation passed away nearly two thousand years ago. And if one wants to learn about the future, nothing is less revelatory than the Book of Revelation.

In the typical New Yorker cartoon of admission into Heaven, we see St. Peter sitting at a table outside the entrance faced with only one or a few prospective candidates for permanent residence in Heaven.

But how about the numbers in Heaven itself? Resurrected bodies are immortal. Even if only a small percentage of Christians are saved, the total must mount into the millions. How far back salvation went we do not know, since believers are chary of discussing pre-Adamic man. The absurd creation story of Adam and Eve in Genesis was invented very late in real prehistory, well after hominids from Africa, later replaced by Neanderthal and Cromagnon Man, gradually moved into other continents and with great skill drew recognizable animals on the walls of caves.

Adam and Eve were needed, however, for the church doctrine of original sin. “In Adam’s fall we sinned all,” says the New England Primer. Adam is supposed by the Bible to be the ancestor of all humans, from whom they inherited a disposition to sin. That is why the incarnation of Jesus, the second Adam was supposedly required, that all who believed in him should be saved.

Believers expect to be brought together with God and Jesus after death, billions of immortals facing two or three divine persons — except for angels, of course. It is hard to imagine. Do the resurrected gather as a congregation, enough to fill hundreds of cities, or do they walk past in an endless line, shaking hands with Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit, when their place in the line reaches the Godhead?

The saved will have their own bodies, souls and memories, though they will not eat, drink or marry. But how in this vast throng of billions and trillions will they find and recognize their loved ones with whom they will spend eternity, either reminiscing or abandoning the past, as they tire of reminding each other of their experiences on earth.

I visualize a vast plain with millions of resurrected bodies milling around on it. God, of course, knows where each person’s relatives and former lovers are. Perhaps He can direct them to each other or personally lead them. But this is asking a lot, even with eternity to do it in. God has to be very patient and not mind tedium. The saved, of course, are supposed to be constantly joyous.

In life you usually “can’t have it both ways,” as we are told many times, beginning in childhood. And in childhood we are also asked, when we have fumbled something, “Why don’t you use the brains the good Lord gave you?” Why indeed? In Biblical religion, if you are willing not to use those brains, you can have it both ways.

In that case, like billions of others, you will ignore basic contradictions in the Bible and in the religion you have been taught. You will ignore the total absence of any kind of proof that the Biblical God exists any more than did Zeus or Mithra or Horus. But if you have been reading this essay and the rest of Freethought Today or were brought up as a Unitarian, as I was, it is unlikely that such irrationality will triumph.


Robert Gorham Davis, a major literary critic for many years and author of the groundbreaking essay, “Logic and Logical Fallacies,” has taught at Harvard, Smith College, and foreign universities, retiring as Professor Emeritus of English Literature from Columbia University.

Freedom From Religion Foundation