The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” If this passage from Psalms is correct, then many people today are fools, for they insist that God does not exist. But the ranks of non-believers include many scientifically minded and highly intelligent people, not the sort we would normally consider as foolish. So, what makes such a person a “fool,” and not merely someone with whom we disagree?
Well, let’s begin with a look at the definition of “fool,” which includes “a person who has been tricked or deceived into appearing or acting silly or stupid.” Now, sometimes we trick ourselves, and thereby make fools of ourselves. And other times we are misled. But either way, most would agree that someone who holds contradictory views has deceived himself. Imagine a person proudly proclaiming that the prime rib he is about to eat is an important part of his vegetarian diet. Or the person who says that the only medicine that can save him is the one with no ingredients.
But sometimes contradictions aren’t as obvious. Why, then, is it a contradiction to insist there is no God? It doesn’t appear to be contradictory – at first glance anyway. For the answer to that question, we are indebted to St. Anselm of Canterbury, who lived and pondered these questions some ten centuries ago. I can’t do justice to Anselm’s argument in this brief piece, but perhaps some concepts borrowed from Anselm may help make the point.
The first requires consideration of just what the mind does. Anyone who has seen a baby develop realizes that the human mind comes preprogrammed with an “operating system” of sorts. This allows us to acquire language, to reason, to recognize concepts such as fairness and truth and beauty, and other intangible things, and to make use of imagination. This ability for abstract thought lends itself to “got it” moments, when a problem that has been puzzling us all of a sudden makes sense. We all use these systems intuitively; of course there is no other way, since we could never use reason, for instance, to prove the validity or usefulness of reason.
One aspect of this ability for abstract thought is the ability to conceptualize. Food, for instance, can encompass a million different things, but to qualify it must be edible and serve to nourish, and not poison, us. We can call an ash tray “food”, but the underlying thing is not a matter of what we call it, but of what it consists.
So, with this observation in view, consider for a moment not what a definition of God might be, but what the conception of God is. What is it that we are struggling to grasp when we use that term? Anselm’s definition was simply this – God is that being a greater than which cannot be conceived. Whatever attributes God would have – omnipotence, omnipresence, perfect goodness, etc. – if you can conceive of a being with all those attributes plus an additional one, then the latter would be God. So, imagine two beings then – each with exhaustive, infinite powers. One of the two has the attribute of necessary existence, while the other may or may not exist. Clearly, the former – the one with necessary existence – would be the greater. Consequently, to fully conceive of God, we must be conceiving of a Being who can’t not exist, whose existence must always have been and will always continue to be. Anything else simply cannot fit the conception of God.
So, what does that prove? Maybe this conception of God is imaginary. Not so, Anselm would contend. And here’s why: the mind is not capable of conceptualizing something that does not correspond to something real. Now, this premise is a bit harder to get one’s mind around. The normal response to this part of the argument is that we create imaginary things all the time, from unicorns to tooth fairies to Jedi Knights. But each of these things, while imaginary, is the combining of things that are real: a horse and a horn; a person with wings and unusual powers; a warrior with special abilities and unusual weapons. And, moreover, neither a unicorn nor a tooth fairy nor a Jedi Knight would possess the attribute of necessary existence. If a unicorn did exist, it would have to consist of a horse with a single horn in its head; but its existence could have occurred briefly in the distant past, or could arise in the distant future or could not occur at all. We can fully conceptualize such a creature without the need that the creature itself actually exist, because the conceptualization does not require necessary existence.
This concept of “necessary” existence is not easily grasped at first. Many skeptics will contend that “existence” is not an attribute at all. Imaginary things don’t actually exist, they will say, so they consist of nothing. This line of argument can quickly devolve into an argument over definitions, with the skeptic insisting that it is nonsensical to consider a thing which does not exist. This assumption allows them to defeat Anselm’s argument – they write “necessary existence” out of the set of characteristics of God – but a moment’s reflection should reveal that this comes at too high a price. I can conceive in my mind of many past historical figures whose attributes I can describe in detail but who do not presently exist, for they have passed away. More importantly, every scientific discovery or invention must first begin in the mind of a person who sees the attributes of the thing before it actually takes form. The automobile, for instance, did not create itself; it first appeared in the mind of an inventor who could see what it would consist of if it did exist, and then set about adding “existence” to its attributes.
Letting our minds approach the concept of what “God” must be, the only way to conceptualize Him is as a necessarily existent being. If we are not seeing Him that way – if we are insisting that there may be a God, but then again maybe not, then we are not yet thinking about God, but about something else, something less than God.
This foray into philosophy can be difficult. Fortunately, there are many other proofs for God’s existence, ones much easier with which to grapple, but this one stands out for its elegance. For if it has merit, then God has embedded within us the means to find Him in the one place we have exclusive and special access to: our very minds.
If Anselm is right, then the fool who denies God is saying something like “I believe that the Being who must necessarily exist does not exist.” A rather foolish thing to say, when you see it clearly.
The Bible says that God has written his law on our heart. Perhaps if we probe a bit deeper still, we can also begin to see in its depths the first faint scratching of His signature.
Posted by Al Serratoimaginary beings, necessary existence, ontologica, St. Anselm
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We live in an age of “consent.” The prevailing Western ethic approaches moral issues not on the basis of what God has ordained, but on whether the behavior in question is agreeable to the adults who are involved. The golden rule has become “just as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone,” without anyone really bothering to define what “hurt” or “anyone” actually means. It’s a “feel good” philosophy that says, in essence, “I won’t judge you if you don’t judge me.”
Unspoken in all this is that an assumption that we are autonomous beings – independent actors with unfettered control over our own destiny. Children may still need to mind their parents – although even with children their set of “rights” is now much greater and ever expanding – but when that magic age of “adulthood” is reached, we’re pretty much the one “in charge.” But why should this be so? People don’t create themselves, so from where does this authority derive?
If asked how they came to be, many people today would probably point to their parents, and if pushed on the issue, might make reference to some fuzzy notion of evolving from the “primordial soup.” But we are not “created” by our parents; we are simply begotten. They form part of a chain of life that goes back to the beginning, but they have no real choice in how we are assembled. DNA, of course, is the source code of our existence. Having received a package of “instructions” from each parent, we are assembled over the course of nine months as millions of lines of detailed instructions are implemented, covering everything from the size of our feet to the operating software of our brains.
Human beings are quite familiar with creating things. If I desire to build my dream home, I will set to work with an architect who will incorporate into his set of instructions every detail that I would like to see built into the home. Workers will take that set of instructions and begin the task of fabrication, taking care to lay out the wiring, plumbing and other working parts so that the home is not simply a shell but a functional whole. The dream car I park in the garage is similarly obtained: I set forth a list of specifications that I want the car to possess – size, styling, color and interior features to name a few.
Now, whenever we create, we do so for a purpose. The purpose may be functional, which may include simply for recreation, or it may be aesthetic. But we don’t “create” without some purpose in mind. From this, the following syllogism flows:
- Created things have some purpose
- The purpose of a created thing is defined by the creator.
- Human beings are created things
- Human beings have a purpose defined by their creator.
This conclusion, however, is in direct conflict with the prevailing “wisdom” of our age. Each of us, as a recent Supreme Court decision said, is apparently free to define our “own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.” This is a marked departure from our past, and certainly from the Christian worldview. If my syllogism is at all valid, the ashtray would be free to define itself as food, and the car to view itself as an airplane. The intended purpose of the thing, and the will of the one who created it, would mean nothing.
So, what is the purpose of the thing we call “human life?” Christianity provides an answer: it is not to accumulate wealth or material possessions, or to attain worldly power or fame, although some or all of those things may come. It is to glorify God by living in conformity with His will and to spend eternity in relationship with Him, with all the joy that connecting with perfection entails. We have tremendous freedom within that role to make many choices, and to live a life that is full and robust and satisfying.
But defining our own ultimate purpose is not one of those choices. We were made for a purpose, and redefining things to suit our own views is not only counterproductive – in the end it may prove deadly, at least in an eternal sense.
Posted by Al Serratoeternal life, evolution, God's will, man's purpose
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Free will” occupies a central position in Christian theology. Without it, there would be no basis upon which a fair God could hold us accountable for our acts of rebellion against Him. But some Christians also hold a view that we are “predestined” before our births for either salvation or damnation. God is omniscient, after all, so how can it be that He does not already know everything we will do in the future, thus making our “free will” an illusion?
How should this apparent contradiction be approached and, more importantly, can it be reconciled? These are important questions to ask, but a proper sense of humility should lead us to an awareness that a definitive answer is probably beyond our present capability. The problem, in my view, is that our capacity to think is limited by our nature as temporal beings. Expecting us to make sense of how a timeless Being could view our life spans would be roughly like asking a fish to contemplate what running, skipping and jumping on land would be like. The frame of reference is the problem.
Here’s what I mean. When I think of salvation, I am thinking in a temporal or chronological fashion. I wonder what a person will do that may affect his ultimate destiny. Will a believer have a change of heart and die an atheist? Will an atheist repent in time and accept Christ? There is always an element of uncertainty and of surprise. God, of course, does not think this way. For Him, there is no past or future to wonder about, only an eternal present. There can be no surprise for Him, no uncertainty as to what the future might hold. He has full access to all parts of our lives at any “time” since He is not trapped by time, as we are.
An example from the world of computer simulations may help make the point. Years ago, I played a “first person shooter” game set in World War II. I quickly realized that my player was working through a series of predetermined challenges. For instance, as he approached a certain guard post, there was a sniper in a set location that would rise up and shoot him. This challenge was the same every time the simulation was run, so with some foreknowledge, the second time through I could take appropriate cover or react in time to keep my player “alive.” Eventually, I could “game” the system to the point that my player could reach the destination successfully. So, my player had “free will” (me, in essence) and a set of choices he was “free” to make. But this freedom was not unlimited. He could not change the simulation, nor could he leave it. He could alter the outcome somewhat based on what he did or did not do earlier in the simulation, but the possible decision trees were not unlimited. Ultimately, he either reached the final destination point or he did not. His environment was controlled to a large degree but “freedom of choice” was not taken away.
If the programmer ran a thousand players through this simulation, the results would no doubt be variable. Some players would do well, perhaps by previous experience or by talent, while others would fail quickly. The majority would probably fall somewhere in the middle. After they played, if the programmer were to view each step of the way for each of the players, he would see – in his present – what actions each player took given the limited choices available to him. By viewing these results, the programmer would see what choices were made, and as he ran through them, he could see how the player’s “free will” was exercised. But at this point, the outcome would be predetermined. Even if he sees a player doing well early in the simulation, the programmer would know what the ultimate conclusion was. This “foreknowledge” would in no way undermine the free will exercised by the player. Now God has no limitations like those of the programmer. He does not have to rewind the clock, because all times are present to Him. Consequently, he can confer free will and see the outcome even though none of the behavior ever surprises Him.
Just as in the simulation, it seems that God has not given us complete freedom of will. First, our power is limited. Thus, we can “will” something – such as success on a test – but be unable to accomplish what we will. Second, we are motivated by our innate nature, so that something that we have a natural inclination toward will probably impact the “freedom” of the choice. For example, if I love chocolate, then my choice to have chocolate for dessert is free, but I am not completely indifferent in making that choice. Third, we are not fully free to live the kind of life we might want to. We may desire “holiness” but our free will can never really get us there, due to our fallen nature. Fourth, our free will is exercised often in response to challenges that have been put in our path and for which we have limited possible alternative.
These considerations would seem to indicate that free will is not truly present. But what it really says is that we are not “free” to earn our way to heaven; we have neither the power nor the inclination to do what is necessary to get there. The good news of Christianity, however, is that we do not need to; all we need do is place our trust in Jesus Christ and allow him to do the “work” of salvation for us. And that choice we have been empowered to make, despite the corruption inherent in our current nature.
Even recognizing the limitations of our will, we nonetheless know intuitively that we do have a choice to make whether to bend our knee, and our will, to Him. As C.S. Lewis put it, we feel the law pressing down upon us and know we should follow it, and at the same time are aware that we do not, in fact, follow it. The Apostle Paul makes this point in the first chapters of Romans. Why would he talk about a law written on our heart leaving us without excuse if our actions and behavior were all pre-programmed? Why would Paul talk about those who want to get rich falling into temptation leading to destruction (1 Tim. 6) if they had no choice in the matter? Finally, when Jesus is asked by the rich man (Mark 10) what is needed for salvation, why did He not respond “there is nothing you can do, it’s already been predetermined”? This would have been a perfect time for Jesus to express that salvation was predestined. The many times Jesus said “go and sin no more” would also be meaningless if a person had no choice as to his future behavior.
Foreknowledge and predestination are, consequently, not the same thing. As in the case of the computer simulation, there is no conflict between God giving us free will and “foreknowing” how we will have used it. He possesses full knowledge and has in fact predestined some of what we will experience, without having removed the essence of free will from us – the essence being, of course, our freedom to rejoice in or reject Him.
In the final analysis, God’s knowledge of our choices does not prevent them from being our choices. We should use that freedom wisely.
Posted by Al Serratofree will, God's will, predetermination, Salvation
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Winston Churchill was a master orator. He embodied the tenacity of a people whose once far-flung empire could boast that the sun never set upon it, but who were at that moment on the verge of defeat. In the face of the Nazi onslaught, Churchill’s tone captured the spirit of an embattled but unbroken populace:
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
When resisting the spread of tyranny, this “never say die” attitude is both encouraging and necessary for survival. But misapplied – by for instance human beings mired in rebellion against their Creator – it is another matter entirely.
Human beings possess free will. What begins as a desire to control oneself and one’s immediate environment routinely evolves into a desire for more and more power. It is this self-will that is at the crux of the human condition. Most of the misery in the world is a product of people stubbornly pursuing their own satisfaction, seeing the world through the lens of selfishness and carnal desire, refusing to empathize with their fellow human beings, seeking first their own advantage. This urge to dominate has marred the history of every race and culture on the planet.
Christianity recognizes this condition as part of the natural order of a fallen world: we are born with “original sin,” the desire to thwart God’s will, the desire to accomplish our own will. This, we believe, is a natural part of every human being, a function of the life we inherited from our original parents. But pursuing this path to power, sadly, is the “wide road” against which Jesus warned; the “narrow path,” the path leading to salvation, is the path upon which reconciliation with God can occur, through the redemptive work of our Lord and Savior.
While we are not free to save ourselves – we lack that power – we are free to reject that gift that God has offered, and to continue to fight Him – on the beaches, the landing grounds, the fields … the classroom, the workplace, the bedroom. We can continue to insist that our ways be done, and not His.
Or we can follow a different path – the path of surrendering our will to Him. Recognizing that a perfect Being rightly deserves our respect, our obedience and our love, we can bend our will to Him, replacing the rebellion that wells up within us with a song of praise. Is it not fitting and right that we give worship and devotion to the One who breathed life into us, whose thoughts continue to sustain us, and who offers us the potential for everlasting joy in His presence?
“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16) But, as Jesus also taught, “if you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8)
It is never too late to chart a new path, a path in pursuit of Truth. It is never too late to replace selfishness and anger with love, empathy, understanding, and compassion. It is never too late to approach this all-powerful God, with fear and trembling, but also with confidence that He patiently and with open arms awaits our return.
At the dawn of this new year, there is no time like the present to prepare your surrender.
Posted by Al SerratoGod's will, original sin, rebellion
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President Obama will have an open seat tonight during the State of the Union address to represent those victims who have lost their lives to gun violence. Roughly 11,000 homicides were committed with guns in the U.S. during 2014. Everyone agrees these lives are tragic loses due to senseless acts of violence.
That same year, over 1,000,000 unborn human beings lost their lives through abortion. If we have one open seat to represent every 11,000 lives lost, we would need 90 open seats at the State of the Union to represent the lives of the unborn killed during 2014 alone. We would need 5,182 open seats to represent the 57,000,000 human beings who have been killed since Roe v. Wade in 1973. Unfortunately there are only 446 seats in the House chambers where the State of the Union is given.
A White House official said the president told supporters the open seat was for “the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice—because they need the rest of us to speak for them” and the open seat should serve to “remind every single one of our representatives that it’s their responsibility to do something about this.”
What is sad and shameful is that the president condemns gun violence while supporting abortion violence. For it is just as true that open seats are needed for “the victims of abortion violence who no longer have a voice—because they need the rest of us to speak for them” and that these open seats should serve to “remind every single one of our representatives that it’s their responsibility to do something about this.”
The unborn need a voice. They need us to speak for them. True, our representatives do have a responsibility to do something. But these open seats for victims of abortion violence should not just remind every single one of our representatives. They should also remind you and me, because it is just as much our responsibility to do something about abortion.
So what can we do? We can graciously share the gospel, study more about abortion, pray, speak out on the issue, teach others, engage in conversation, vote, adopt, volunteer time at pregnancy centers, help pregnant women in need, start a student pro-life club on campus, offer healing and mercy to post-abortive women and men, and donate money to pro-life organizations.
We can all do something. Just do something.
Posted by Aaron BrakeAbortion, Obama, pro-abortion, pro-choice, pro-life
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God gave us free will so that we can freely choose Him, for freedom of choice is essential to love. But, the skeptic counters, many people do not believe God is real. Why doesn’t God reveal himself more clearly? This question has considerable surface appeal, as it plays on our intuitive sense of fairness. Despite the vast number of people who believe that the evidence for God’s existence, and for Christ’s deity, is more than sufficient to ground a solid faith, there are always others who say they might believe “if only….” And if God really does want all to be saved, why doesn’t He provide them with that extra level of proof?
Before attempting an answer, it’s worth taking a closer look at what the skeptic is really saying: “I’m not interested in what your evidence shows. It’s not enough to satisfy me. I want my personal standard to be met. Satan knew of God’s existence and still rejected Him. Why can’t I get that level of proof?”
This is an odd challenge, because it ignores the objective nature of “evidence” and instead focuses on the subjective nature of a person’s response to it. It moves from considering what conclusions the evidence might support to considering what more could be added to make the conclusion even stronger. In the criminal courts, it is not uncommon to present a compelling case which, after days of deliberations, results in a “hang” and the need for a retrial. Eleven jurors might be completely convinced as to the truth of the charge, but one juror can insist that he needs more evidence. Now, perhaps that one has found something that no one else could see, despite days of discussion; more likely, the lone juror is unwilling to convict – to follow where the truth leads – for other reasons. If he follows the skeptics’ lead here, that juror might say: “I’ve heard of cases in which there is a confession to the crime and still the jury did not convict, so I am justified in voting not guilty here until I get the kind of evidence that I want.”
Like the skeptic in the present challenge, this juror is making a statement, and not an argument. The fact that greater evidence could be produced in support of a claim is a given; it is true for all possible claims at all possible times, because perfect proof is not possible. But this assertion is not an argument that the evidence that was produced is insufficient. In fact, it does not address the weight and convincing force of the evidence at all.
Returning to the original challenge, what is it that would convince the skeptic? The answer: total knowledge of God, the same kind of knowledge Satan may have had. That means the skeptic wants full knowledge of that Being which embodies the ultimate perfections, that Being from whom derives all things good and worthy of praise and apart from whom there is only deprivation and evil for time without end. Full knowledge of that Being would also entail full knowledge of the consequences of accepting or rejecting His offer of life with Him. Satan was some type of spiritual creature; we know little about him, other than that he used his will to oppose God. But we are all human beings, and as such, we have intimate knowledge of man and his nature. Could we really face that level of knowledge? Would it not be apparent to all that the choice to accept God would be coerced and no longer free? Free will would become a mere fiction.
God set the level of evidence of Him in a way that is fitting to our nature. He does not reveal more because what He has revealed is sufficient, which explains perhaps why the vast majority of all who have ever lived have sought in some way for the God they know is there. We are without excuse, the Bible says, for the knowledge of God is written on our very hearts. We may blur that knowledge with the frantic pace of our lives, or silence it with our insistence on having things our way. But what we have been given is enough to ground our faith, if we only use our minds and our ability to reason to assess what has been revealed to us. But for those who choose not to believe, there is freedom to pursue that course, a course marked by self-will and the quest for control.
Yes, the evidence could always be better. But imperfect human beings rely on imperfect knowledge all the time. The evidence we do have is worth considering, and it may well change the course of your life… if only you give it the chance.
Posted by Al Serratoevidence, proof of God's existence, quantum of proof
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Gaze skyward on a clear night and let your mind roam a bit. Look upward from any spot on Earth and you’ll see millions of light years into the distance, and millions of years into the past. And everywhere you look, there are stars, grouped into solar systems and galaxies, numbering into the untold billions. And around each star revolves material, sometimes planets larger than our own. Yet scientists tell us that the closest possibly Earth-like planets would take us millions of years to reach, while the planets closer to home are simply uninhabitable. The atheist and the theist, considering this same canvas, reach two quite different conclusions. For the Christian there is awe – despite our knowledge that we are not the “geographic” center of the universe, it does appear that the universe was fine-tuned and created with us in mind. Though we are located on the periphery of an unremarkable galaxy, we seem ideally situated to gaze back into the creation event. To the atheist, by contrast, it seems like such a, well, waste: no rational being would go to the trouble of making so much just to populate a tiny planet. The vastness of the cosmos, for them, proves that either there is no God, or he is certainly not a God interested in the lives of people here.
Is there an adequate answer to this challenge? Can we still have confidence that despite occupying a location in the universe that is infinitesimally small and seemingly remote, we can rightly claim that all of this was made for us?
Examining what underlies the atheist’s challenge is an appropriate starting point. From a human perspective, their argument seems compelling. Imagine for a moment a plan to house two scientists at the extreme reaches of Antarctica. A proposal to build a small city and to pave the streets with gold would be exceedingly foolish. The conditions would make construction extremely difficult, the cost would be astronomical, the dangers overwhelming, and most importantly, there would be no need. Anything more than the bare essentials to keep the scientists alive would be wasteful; any plan to build more evidence of irrationality.
If God wanted to build a home for humanity, wouldn’t a single planet have been enough? Or a single solar system? Why would He do so much more? The answer, I submit, lies in a proper understanding of God’s attributes. Unlike human builders, God suffers no limitations. He is omnipotent. It is as easy for him to construct 100 billion stars as it is to construct one. While this creative activity may require effort- a working of the will – it does not require “work.” In fact, like the artist who paints a portrait as a gift to a loved one, the very act of creating may itself be an act of love. The artist is free to situate his subject in any surroundings he chooses, and if challenged as to why he didn’t simply paint the person’s face, he would no doubt be surprised at the foolishness of the question. After all, his creative energies were directed at something much bigger than simply the central feature of the work. Moreover, his expressive artistry depends on the complete picture, and how it interacts with the central feature; painting only the face would, practically speaking, eliminate the artistic aspect of the work.
Unlike men who labor for what they build, and who must conserve resources or energy, an omnipotent being has no more need to scrimp than would a computer programmer who can populate his simulation with a million characters as easily as he can with one. It is simply a matter of desire, not one of power or purpose.
So why would God go to such apparent extremes? The answer may lie in the fact that Earth lies in a very distinct location both within the universe and within the timeline. Moreover, Earth’s unique set of characteristics – the location and size of the moon, its period of revolution, the distance to the sun, etc. – allows for scientific study of the created order. It may simply be that God intends for us to reach out to Him through the use of our minds, to understand Him better by studying what He has created for us. Or perhaps, He simply wanted us to “enjoy the show,” the master artist outdoing Himself for our benefit.
When the U.S. military seeks to get someone’s attention, the phrase they use to describe the level of their efforts is “shock and awe.” An apt phrase, it seems, for understanding God’s approach as well. For when one contemplates the immensity of the power and intelligence necessary to create – from nothing – something so vast and so organized, we should feel shock and awe. We should turn toward Him, not in arrogance and pride, but humbly, with fear and trembling.
But knowing that He loves each of us personally, and has a plan for us – well, that may be the most amazing miracle of all.
Posted by Al Serratocause of the universe, size of the universe
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There is an alleged inconsistency that is sometimes raised between being pro-life and also pro-capital punishment. Here’s the question: “Is it inconsistent to be pro-life when it comes to the issue of abortion and yet also support capital punishment in certain situations?”
Here are some important points to remember (see Francis Beckwith and his book Defending Life, pages 126-127, on this topic):
1. The alleged inconsistency of pro-life apologists who support capital punishment is often introduced as a red herring to distract from the main issue that must be addressed. Even IF pro-lifers were inconsistent on this point, that’s all it would prove: an inconsistency. And what follows from that? Not much. It has nothing to do with the one question that must be answered in the abortion debate: “What is the unborn?” As Beckwith notes, “inconsistent people can draw good conclusions” (Defending Life, 126).
2. Remember the pro-life syllogism:
a. It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.
b. Elective abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.
c. Therefore, elective abortion is wrong.
How is supporting capital punishment inconsistent with this syllogism? It isn’t. Capital punishment kills a guilty human being found guilty of a capital crime, not an innocent, vulnerable, and defenseless human being inside the womb. This is a big difference and there is no reasonable analogy or moral equivalence between the two. Beckwith states, “Pro-life advocates, for the most part, do not argue that killing is never justified, for there are instances in which killing is justified, such as in the cases of self-defense and capital punishment, both of which do not entail the killing of an innocent human life” (Defending Life, 127).
3. If being pro-life and pro-capital punishment is inconsistent, isn’t being pro-choice and against capital punishment equally inconsistent? In other words, if A and B are inconsistent, then not-A and not-B are likewise inconsistent. But I’ve never heard pro-abortion choice advocates bring up this point. And if this is true, why even bring it up at all?
4. Finally, there are in fact some pro-life advocates who are against capital punishment, and therefore the claim of inconsistency vanishes with regard to these individuals. If the pro-abortion choice advocate is so concerned with consistency, “Why does he not then give up his abortion-choice position and embrace this pro-life position, as it should seem to him even more consistent than the anti-capital punishment abortion-choice position?” (Defending Life, 126).
In short, pro-life advocates who support capital punishment (which is the position I hold) are pro-innocent life, and therefore there is no inconsistency between protecting innocent, vulnerable, and defenseless human life in the womb and at the same time supporting the taking of guilty human life in certain situations.
This should be especially obvious for Christians who can clearly see in Scripture God’s view of the sanctity of human life and the command for capital punishment in the very same verse: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6).
Posted by Aaroncapital punishment, pro-life
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My last post ruminated on the nature of “timeless truths” – such as the laws of geometry and of logic – and what worldview better explains the existence of such permanent concepts. I argued that the existence of eternal and unchanging ideas necessarily required an eternal and unchanging mind to ground them. A commenter disagreed, raising two interesting challenges. The first was whether my point was that the value of pi was dependent on an eternal and unchanging mind to recognize it; if so, he felt I was mistaken, as the value of pi remains constant because it is basically built into the definition of what a circle is.The second challenge stemmed from my description of the mind of God as eternal and unchanging. As he put it, “If it is eternal and unchanging, how could it have any thoughts at all?”
Unpacking the assumptions which underlie these questions is the first step in understanding the cause of the disagreement. The challenger assumes that circles simply exist – that they always have and always will. Consequently, it stands to reason that a value such as pi – a measurement relating to a circle – would always be the same, regardless of whether or not a mind existed to recognize it.
The problem with this challenge is that it takes as a given the very thing which is under consideration: the existence of “ideas” such as mathematical concepts by which things like circles can be quantified or measured. After all, there are no perfect circles – or lines for that matter – in nature; these things exist only in our minds, and things in nature more or less approximate them. Our intelligence allows us to “see” how various relationships exist, and to make use of this understanding to gain valuable knowledge of, and mastery over, nature.
What we are discovering as we learn more about these abstractions, and these relationships involving concepts such as lines, angles, energy, mass, logic, etc., is that they are in fact a language of sorts. Using these concepts, we can construct equations which communicate information about things that exist as abstract ideas, but that have practical application. For instance, using the rules of geometry, equations can be constructed that would allow a person to determine distance to an object by knowing the height of the object and the angle to its top. Using the laws of physics, equations can allow scientists to harness the energy of the atom. Using the laws of logic, conclusions can be drawn about things that must necessarily be true if certain premises are true. These equations are not simply visual aspects of solid objects; they speak to us about the way things must be if certain other things are true. They predict what future events will take place if certain current events are set into motion. Their predictive power is based on an assumption of the stability of nature, but that stability cannot itself be proven but must instead be understood and accepted intuitively. In all these ways, concepts we can access with our minds are “speaking” to us in a language that is somehow known to our minds.
But we did not invent this language, and we know it. We are engaged in the processing of discovering it. Since languages come from minds, we have to ask ourselves why this language is there for us to find. After all, it predates the appearance of man on this planet. Atheism says it just happens to be that way. The “language” of thought just exists, in the same way that rocks exist. This answer might explain why a rock is there, but not why calculus works and will continue to work into the future. Theism offers a better explanation – an eternal mind exists which grounds these laws and rules of nature that we can discover through the use of our minds. That’s why we see them and animals cannot.
But how can a “god” who is “eternal and unchanging” have any thoughts at all? This question assumes that God thinks it the same way that we do – in a linear and temporal way. We make decisions one step at a time, building knowledge as we move forward through time. But time does not apply to God in the way it applies to us. When we “change,” it means that new circumstances have affected us in some way, causing us to improve or decline in some fashion, or to shift our approach. There is nothing new for God. He sees all things and all time in his eternal present. He knows all things. Therefore he has no need to change. No new thoughts occur to him because all possible thoughts are present all the time within his infinite mind. He can spend infinite time contemplating each of an infinite number of thoughts.
Now, I cannot explain how this works, anymore than a fish could explain how human beings move through their medium without gills and fins. My temporal limitations prevent me from fully grasping how this works. But positing that an omnipotent being cannot think is a contradiction – it asserts that limitless being is in fact limited.
The language of logic tells us otherwise.
Posted by Al Serrato
infinity, logic, timeless truths
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Spend much time on the water and you’ll quickly realize the value of buoys. Whether they signal an underwater obstruction or the edge of a narrow channel, they mark the way for mariners, helping them find their way safely home. But to serve this valuable function, the buoys must remain fixed in place – literally “grounded” to the earth beneath the waves. Otherwise, the forces of wind and current would move them and eventually deposit them, useless, onto a distant shore.
Buoys are not the only things that must remain “fixed” in order to have value. A bit of reflection reveals that certain unchanging concepts must also be somehow grounded. Unpacking this idea provides considerable support for a belief in God and displays the lack of explanatory power of the atheist’s worldview. For in the end, without a supreme transcendent eternal Being – God – to ground these permanent concepts, they simply could not exist.
We acquire information about the world from our senses. The evidence of what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste provides the clues which, assembled by our minds, tell us about the world around us. The vast majority of what we encounter is changing; it is in a constant state of flux. Matter does not remain fixed but moves from one form to another. The components of this computer I am presently using were once things that were quite different and one day will either be reconfigured to some other use or begin to decay in a junkyard somewhere. Even more “permanent” things like mountains and rivers did not always possess their current appearance and also are in the process of transformation.
Just as the forms of matter are not fixed, neither are our thoughts. “Minds” are constantly in the process of changing. My knowledge base is much greater today than it was ten years ago, and some things I thought to be true then I no longer believe to be true. Many of my thoughts relate to current and shifting feelings, such as hunger or thirst or the need for sleep. My opinions as to events or places or people are also constantly changing. For most of what we encounter, those things and ideas that are changing, we know the thing itself, or at least something about the thing. When I know that the sky is blue, I am knowing the sky and the color it emits. When I know that the Roman Empire fell, I know something about an historical event. When I know I am hungry, I know something about my physical condition.
But there is a separate category of known things that are different – things that we know to be necessarily permanent. I know, for instance, that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse. I know that a particular number – pi – will always result if I divide the area of any circle by the square of the radius. I know that if A equals B and B equals C, then A must also equal C. Moving to a different arena, I know that courage in the face of adversity is a virtue and that betraying a friend is bad. I know that it is wrong to derive pleasure from torturing children.
I am also aware that these concepts, which I conclude are not subject to change, are also shared by all rational people. NASA demonstrates this when it sends spacecraft hurtling to the distant reaches of our solar system and beyond; the probes bear messages in the form of mathematical equations, because rational people recognize that anywhere this craft may go, and for however long into the future that it may continue to exist, those concepts will not change. These “necessary truths” will outlive everything that is physical.
But what is it that I am recognizing when I realize that a particular concept is not subject to change? When I say that the sum of the angles of a triangle is always 180 degrees, where is it that such “laws” abide? Where were they before man first developed the intelligence to discover them? The value of pi may be a constant, but it is a constant that is unknown to non-sentient beings.
Our experience tells us that ideas are not like rocks or rivers; they are not physical things. They do not have a physical location, but exist only where minds exist. But minds do not fall into the category of unchangeable things; minds, like matter, are changeable and always changing. If both mind and matter are constantly in flux – constantly subject to change – how can it even be that some concepts are in fact not subject to change?
The atheist has no answer to this. Saying that these are simply features of the universe is no answer, because the universe has been changing from the moment it came into existence. Moreover, a “mindless” universe cannot be the source of ideas which must come from minds. With no permanent mind to serve as the grounding for unchanging eternal truths – atheists have no satisfactory explanation for the way things really are. It’s like saying that mail carriers are the source of mail, without ever bothering to consider who authored the letters that they carry. Theists, by contrast, have an explanation that is sound: if there are ideas that are eternal and not subject to change, then there must be an eternal and unchanging mind that grounds those ideas.
These changeless truths, then, are our “buoys,” fixed not in the good earth but in the firmament, marking a safe path for us to in finding our way home – the way back to the mind that is God.
Posted by Al Serratoexistence of God, timeless truths
Posted in Uncategorized, Writings | 3 Comments »
On this day, December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution was ratified and with it came the formal abolishment of slavery in this country. It states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This amendment was especially significant considering that just eight years prior in 1857 the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that blacks were property and non-persons.
Even earlier than this, on July 1, 1854, Lincoln wrote this small fragment to address some of the popular arguments put forward by pro-slavery choice advocates who argued that whites should have the right to enslave blacks based on color, intellect, or interest:
“You say A is white and B is black. It is color, then: the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be a slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore, have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be a slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”
Read that again. The importance of Lincoln’s logic should not be overlooked. Lincoln realized that if you try to establish human rights or personhood by appealing to a set of arbitrary degreed properties which carry no moral weight or significance, properties such as color and intellect which none of us share equally, then you end up undermining human rights for everyone.
What pro-slavery choice advocates did in the past, pro-abortion choice advocates do today. Only instead of arguing that blacks are non-persons based on color and intellect and can therefore be enslaved, they argue the unborn are non-persons based on size, development, and dependency, and can therefore be killed.
But logic is timeless, and the reasoning of pro-abortion choice advocates today is just as flawed as that of the pro-slavery choice advocates then. If Lincoln were alive today and were to address the current abortion debate, he might say something like this:
“You say A is big and B is small. It is size, then: the larger having the right to kill the smaller? Take care. By this rule, you are to be a victim to the first man you meet, with a larger body than your own. You do not mean size exactly?—You mean human persons are developmentally the superiors of the unborn, and therefore, have the right to kill them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be a victim to the first man you meet, with a development superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to kill the unborn. Very well. And if another can make it his interest, he has the right to kill you.”
And there you have it. Scott Klusendorf states, “In the past, we used to discriminate on the basis of skin color and gender (and still do at times), but now, with elective abortion, we discriminate on the basis of size, level of development, location, and degree of dependency. We’ve simply swapped one form of bigotry for another” (The Case for Life, 66).
In the past pro-slavery choice advocates adopted an elitist view and sought to create a sub-class of human beings who didn’t qualify as human persons. Today pro-abortion choice advocates do the same. They argue that larger, more developed, and independent human beings can kill smaller, less developed, dependent human beings.
Contrast this with the pro-life movement which is inclusive and wide-open to all. Pro-lifers argue that all human beings, including the unborn, are in fact human persons simply in light of being what they are: human beings who possess a human nature. Please join with us in committing to protect the smallest, most defenseless, most vulnerable members of the human community: the unborn.
Posted by AaronAbortion, Abraham Lincoln, pro-choice, pro-life, Scott Klusendorf, slavery
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Persuading the skeptic that the Christian conception of God makes sense can prove daunting. The concept of God as a “perfect” being seems to stand in stark contrast with passages of the Bible that describe God as desiring – indeed, demanding – praise and worship. As one challenger put it,
“You can say ‘he is a perfect being’ until the cows come home. It won’t convince me. A perfect being doesn’t demand ‘recognition of the fact.’ So, he is not perfect and your ‘recognition’ is really ego-stroking.”
This challenger does not believe that God exists; but, if one does, he is certain that He cannot be the God of the Bible.
Demanding worship demonstrates emotional weakness;
Perfect beings have no weaknesses, emotional or otherwise;
The God of the Bible demands worship;
Therefore, the God of the Bible cannot be perfect.
As long as the premises to this conclusion are sound, the logic would appear compelling. The problem for the skeptic, however, is that premises one and three, while clever, are in fact inaccurate.
When Demanding Worship Is Not An Emotional Weakness
“Demanding worship” can usually be considered an emotional weakness. It conjures up the image of a powerful, but insecure, person who can only feel an adequate sense of self-worth if those around him stroke his fragile ego. Many a tyrant has fit this description, and history is replete with the accounts of the wild mood swings and savage cruelty of such leaders. One wrong word – even an unfounded suspicion of disloyalty – and years of faithful service to such a despot come crashing down. The picture, in short, is of an emotionally stunted child in regal clothing.
But God is not “demanding” worship in that sense. To understand why first requires an appreciation of the difference between a human tyrant and a perfect Creator. The tyrant is a human being, as are his subjects. He has no greater worth than them, regardless of how hard he insists that he does. He is not entitled to worship; quite the contrary, in most cases. His actions entitle him to contempt and disrespect, but if he has sufficient force on his side, he may impose his will. While the tyrant tries to puff up his sense of self-worth and importance, and then feeds off the praise he extorts, he is in the end deceiving himself. When he can no longer force obedience, his “people” will turn against him.
God, by contrast, occupies a position above and separate from us. He embodies perfection of every kind. This includes perfect knowledge, both as to Himself and to us. It is literally impossible for Him to have an “exaggerated” ego that needs stroking. His self-knowledge is perfectly accurate. He doesn’t have a false – or exaggerated – idea of his worth; quite the contrary, he knows with certainty that He has infinite worth. He can’t have an “exaggerated” sense of self-importance because one cannot add to infinity. He literally is the most important thing possible. To the extent that He feels superior to His creation, it is because, well, He is. His knowledge of this is not arrogance.
Is there a valid distinction to be drawn between demanding and expecting worship? This response to premise three may strike some as hair-splitting, but God does not “demand” worship to satisfy a need; he “expects” worship because He deserves it. He “demands” what is just, and since justice in this context means a proper valuation of things, He is in essence “demanding” that His creation relates to Him in an appropriate way – a way that we would recognize as “praise.”
Consider for a moment what giving praise entails. To praise is to express approval or admiration for someone. In its true sense, it cannot be forced. I can mouth words of “praise” to a wicked tyrant, but everyone involved knows that there is no “approval” and no “admiration,” just coerced action. I can pretend to worship, but in reality I do no such thing.
Now consider, by contrast, examples of truly praiseworthy behavior. When the firefighter rushes into the burning building to save the vulnerable child, or when the soldier jumps on the grenade to save his squad, he is performing a selfless act that evokes admiration and approval. A professional athlete demonstrates the combination of tremendous talent honed by countless hours of practice. What these examples have in common is that each embodies a type of excellence, and whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, sentiments of respect and adulation come from deep within us, unbidden, in response to a natural process of our minds. I naturally feel awe and a desire to praise something excellent, outstanding, or virtuous. If I am honest about it, I will not refuse to acknowledge such recognition, even if part of me is jealous that I may lack these attributes. Moreover, for something truly amazing, I will feel the response that is due in such settings – awe. And what can be more truly amazing and awe-inspiring than a perfect Being?
The problem with the skeptic’s challenge is that he refuses to wrap his mind around the concepts he is discussing. Glimpsing the attributes of a perfect being would blind us; it would result in recognition that praise and worship of this Being are indeed appropriate. This is so not because He needs anything from us but because we need it – our refusal to correctly assess Him embeds us further into self-deception that will ultimately destroy us. In other words, knowing but rejecting God means we are living a lie – that we are living outside the natural order of things, in which praise flows naturally from lesser to greater beings. This harms us, not God.
In sum, then, when God “demands” worship, He is not asking for ego-stroking. He is simply expressing the natural order of the reality He created.
Posted by Al Serratoego stroking, God's attributes, perfection, worship
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Christianity is a rational faith system, based on evidence of certain historical events which give credence to a particular worldview. But not everyone is ready to use reason and the rules of logic in arriving at conclusions. In many such cases, it is emotion – not reason – that is setting preconditions on what decisions the skeptic is willing to reach.
Some people reject Christianity, for example, because they have never personally experienced a miracle or because they think certain Christian leaders are bad people. These positions find their roots in emotion, not reason, and may stem from many things: early childhood experiences or trauma; a desire to live a life that is unconstrained by restrictions placed from outside; a rebellious nature that simply takes pleasure in bucking the established order. Given human nature, it is exceedingly difficult to use rational arguments to change the mind of someone who is letting emotion cloud their thinking.
Prosecutors preparing to make a case must assess not just the rational aspects of why guilt has been proven, but the emotional aspects that can sway a jury into thinking that a vote of not guilty is the “right thing” to do despite the evidence of guilt. An experienced prosecutor will not willingly take on the challenge of persuading an emotionally-driven skeptic; that’s why jury selection is so critical to success. Weeding out jurors who refuse to be bound by reason, and the rules of logic, is essential if a rational verdict is the goal. Christian apologists don’t have that luxury. If they seek to “make the case” for Christianity – often times with family or close friends – they must consider both the rational and the emotional aspects of their presentation.
A proper sense of humility requires an acknowledgement that often times nothing will work. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to breaking through such defenses. But, generally speaking, the head-on approach will not work. A more subtle and perhaps longer term strategy is necessary.
Consider for example the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba. David’s craven behavior in sending Bathsheba’s husband to his death was not something he would have willingly discussed. The prophet Nathan would not have “reasoned” David into seeing his guilt – and his need for repentance. Yet Nathan slips past any emotional defenses by disguising his point. In this way, David is able to see through his denial to the underlying moral issue that was at play. However much David would have rejected the straight-on argument as to his guilt, he could not help but see Nathan’s point when presented in this nuanced way.
Head-on arguments tend to embed people in their original position. But getting them to see their approach from a different perspective can help to dislodge them. Thus, the first step in dealing with someone who rejects the rules of reason is to get them to see just how foolish that position is. This takes some knowledge of the person, his likes and dislikes, and the things he prizes or holds dear. It also takes patience – waiting for the right time to discuss an issue. As in the case of David and Nathan, the apologist must be able to recognize when the other person feels strongly enough about a subject that an apologetic point can be made.
A starting point is to demonstrate the absurdity – and danger – of abandoning reason. Imagine going to a doctor and having him tell you that he won’t be ordering any tests this week because lab tests are unfriendly on even-numbered days. Would you pay a car mechanic who wants to flush the radiator so that the brakes will stop squeaking? Words can be put together to form sentences, but the words ultimately have no meaning if the rules of logic and reason are abandoned. Alice in Wonderland’s Humpty Dumpty put it best: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean –neither more nor less.” It’s no problem that the words are put to multiple, inconsistent use. “When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra.”
The absurdity of this point makes for laughter, but a person who abandons reason needs to see how silly that position really is. Whatever they happen to be saying means only what they want it to mean, regardless of the truth of the underlying situation. This is not an enlightened position to hold.
If you’re dealing with someone who does not care whether his position is enlightened, there probably isn’t much that you can do. Despite their denials, however, they intuitively understand that rules exist for a reason. Try playing poker with them and start changing the rules, so that a pair of threes will beat a royal flush. Or tell them that their bank will start compounding interest in a way that removes money from their account. When the impact on them is direct, as in these examples, they won’t need to be motivated as to the importance of applying the correct rules. They will understand that following the proper rules ensures fair and predictable outcomes.
Rules of thinking – the rules of reason and logic – also exist so that we can arrive at correct conclusions about what our senses perceive. Sloppy thinking can lead to bad outcomes, such as when I conclude that if one aspirin makes me feel better, 20 will make me feel 20 times better. Or when I decide that my lungs should work just fine underwater or my arms can be used as wings. Nature has a nasty way of dealing with people who reject rational thought. Everyone who lives long enough to be an “irrational skeptic” knows this – regardless of whether they will admit it.
The fact is that most people don’t really reject the rules of reason and logic. Instead they reject the conclusions to which those rules may lead them. Understanding this might not make you a better apologist – but it will probably make you a less frazzled one. Sometimes there is nothing that can be done but bide your time, while waiting for the right opportunity to arise.
Posted by Al Serratoanswering skeptics, apologetics, fallacious reasoning
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The modern skeptic often takes an aggressive stance against theism generally, and Christianity in particular. In recent posts, I have examined one such “attack” on God: the challenge that God cannot be considered a “loving” parent because He allowed his “children” to be subjected to temptation, knowing that many would succumb and end up in Hell. Though emotionally charged, the challenge lacks cogency when one considers the true nature of “free will.”
But the challenge cannot be lightly dismissed, because the hidden emotional content is quite powerful. In its extreme form, the claim is that a God who could allow any of his creatures to suffer eternal torment is, by any standard, a monster who should be resisted, not worshiped. After all, no human parent would ever subject a child to such a punishment.
No, they wouldn’t but not for the reason that the skeptic thinks. Parents can, and do, separate themselves from children who use their free will to harm them. Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system knows that this happens increasingly – and far too often. Perhaps elder abuse was always a problem, but my sense is that the permissive culture of the past few decades has mislead many parents into wanting to be their child’s friend, rather than the authority figure they were meant to be. Adolescents without self-discipline often turn to drugs and alcohol, and as they waste their most productive years playing or getting high, they fail to develop the skills that would allow them to remain gainfully employed.
And then reality steps in. Fewer and fewer options for gainful employment appear, as they spiral further downward. And where do they turn for financial support? All too often to the parents whose remaining years stand in the way of the windfall of inherited wealth that they come to believe is rightly theirs. What follows is, simply put, ugly. Parents whose later years are lived not in peace and quiet – those anticipated “golden years” of retirement – but in fear, as their once precious children turn against them. There is little as heartbreaking as watching the anguish of such parents, who after a lifetime spent bailing out their children finally realize that they need the help of the authorities if they are to remain safe. Restraining orders lead to arrests and angry confrontations in court, in which the parents, reluctantly and with heavy heart, tell the story of how their sons or daughters stole from them, battered them, threatened them to keep silent… and many times wished them dead.
What is a parent to do in this situation? Is not their first step to separate themselves from their rebellious offspring? To use the force of law, if necessary, to keep those whose wills have turned against them from having access to them… and any wealth or other goods they may have accumulated? To seek justice for the wrongs that have been done, justice that entails some form of punishment, in which wrongdoing is recognized and redressed? And what would be said of a judge who refused to grant the restraining order? Who insisted that the parents remain subjected to the greed-driven violence of those offspring, or who ordered them to turn over their wealth, regardless of their wishes or the justice of their cause? Would this not be considered barbaric?
What does any of this have to do with God? After all, he is all-powerful, isn’t He? He cannot be victimized by us, His children. This is true, of course, but it misses the point. While God has no frailties and no weaknesses, like human parents He is interested in relationship. After all, that’s why He created any of us, just as the desire for relationship is the reason parents have children in the first place and don’t give them up for adoption. And when His human children use their free will to sin against Him, to take what He has given without thanks or appreciation, to constantly demand more without acknowledging that they have no right to it – when they shake their fist at Him in rejection and rebellion – what is God to do? Should He reward them nonetheless, giving them more and more? Should He override their will and make them into robots, seemingly human on the outside but incapable of free choice and, consequently, of love?
The separation that a parent in this situation can seek is limited. It will either end when the son or daughter genuinely repents and seeks forgiveness… or when the parent’s life draws to a close. This perfectly tracks the “good news” and the “bad” of Christianity. God offers us reconciliation, but it most be done on His terms. With repentance and trust in His saving power, we can be restored to right relationship with Him. All can be put right. In this there is mercy and unmerited grace. The bad news, by contrast, is that God doesn’t die – the separation from all that is good and pure and worthy of praise continues without end. A horrifying thought – the prospect of forever spent alone, aware of God but unable to join with Him, consumed with hatred and self absorption, in a place where the “fire” is never quenched.
This is unpleasant business, prompting some to argue that God should not have created at all. Really? Would parents of ten children turn back the clock and eliminate them all, if one rebelled against them? How about if two, or four or eight rebelled? Would not one loving relationship – freely entered and freely sustained – be embraced by the parents who seek relationship, despite the sadness at realizing that others have been lost to their own perverted self-will.
I suppose we each must answer this question for ourselves, but seeing the skeptic’s challenge in proper context – in the context of loving relationships based upon free will – helps to demonstrate that God’s ways, however seemingly harsh, are indeed just.
Posted by Al Serrato
God's will, hell, justice, punishment, separation from God
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My last two posts have considered a skeptic’s challenge that a “loving” God would not have exposed his children to the pernicious powers of the Devil. Yes, God could have better “protected” his children, but to have done so would have deprived us of true free will. And yes, God knew that much of His creation would reject Him, but again if He fashioned things in such a way that no one rejected Him, where in that would there be room for freedom? So, if God does allow His children to experience temptation, and if the consequence of rejecting God is “eternal torment,” how can Christians maintain, nonetheless, that this was an act of love? With consequences of this magnitude, how could God have acted consistent with His loving nature, and not sadistically, as some would contend? Would it have been better for God to have never created us?
This challenge strikes me as a bit ironic. We live, after all, in an era in which individualism is of paramount importance. Whether it’s the call for “less government” or the demand for greater sexual freedom, we find ourselves ensconced in an “age of consent,” in which giving expression to our choice is all that really matters. The abortion industry has made amazing use of this theme, deploying the euphemism “pro choice” to dress up a barbaric act that runs counter to a mother’s basic human nature. Everywhere we look, the desire to give free reign to our “free will” is a driving force.
Clearly, free will matters to us, and it matters despite the consequences that are built into our nature. Sexually transmitted disease reaches epidemic proportions, yet we, as a culture, insist that science save us from these consequences. A change in behavior is simply not in the cards. Is it not built into the very nature of things that we defy what is expected of us, what we know we “should” do, in favor of what we want to do – regardless of the ultimate consequences of our choice? We don’t want to worship God; we’re too busy trying to be Him.
This is the nature of man, and the nature of free will. There are no half-measures. Either a person is free to reject God, or he has limitations placed upon his will. But such limitations eliminate the freedom of the choice, just as a drop of poison deprives a glass of water of its purity.
With this as backdrop, let’s consider God’s choices. We say that God “loves” us, which means that He wills our ultimate good. If He takes away the freedom to reject Him, he can make us perfectly good and content, in the fashion of a cherished pet. But if He gives us intelligence and the freedom to act against His wishes, then the meaning of love cannot be to domesticate us as pets. Love, in this setting, must mean what it means for human beings in proper relationship with each other: the desire for the other to achieve his best destiny. A free will being freely choosing God achieves the highest good imaginable – eternal union with the source of all that is perfect and excellent. Those who direct their will against God do not want union with Him. They want separation from Him. So a perfectly loving God gives both categories what they have been seeking – union or separation.
The skeptic will no doubt object that separation involves punishment. But what would he have God do? Force the unbeliever to spend eternity with Him against his will? Force him to love God by stripping away his freedom, while in his heart he wants only to go on defying God? Force God to reward those who defy Him, even if that is not what God wills? Does the skeptic not see that he is speaking a contradiction?
Would it have been better, then, for God to not have created at all? Many skeptics insist this is the case. I submit that they do not really mean what they say. After all, if they could wipe out all of humanity with the push of a button – eliminate the good and the evil so that no future generations of humans could be lost – I seriously doubt they would do so. And here’s why: because the potential for infinite good outweighs the consequent bad. Consider how the scales are balanced in the end: the many who are received into God’s presence experience eternal – and infinite – joy; the created order therefore experiences an infinite increase in joy. The rest experience what they sought through the use of their wills. Certainly not positive, but consistent with the desire of their wills.
God creates, then, an infinite increase in joy and perfections if He creates, or He creates nothing at all. Doesn’t the right choice seem perfectly obvious?
Posted by Al Serrato
creation, God's will, Salvation
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My last post discussed an unusual twist on a familiar challenge to the “goodness” of God. Analogizing to a parent allowing hardened criminals into his home, the skeptic asked why God would allow Satan – the ultimate deceiver – to have access to His “children” in the Garden. The implicit emotional impact of an analogy such as this must be recognized, but the challenge nonetheless remains. How can Christians make sense of temptation, and of the freedom the “tempter-in-chief” has been given?
In considering the question of temptation, two possibilities appear: God could have created beings that He shielded from temptation. Such beings would remain “good” but their goodness would be programmed and not the product of free will. Love that is programmed, however, is not really love at all; it may on the outside appear like love, but love without choice is meaningless. The second possibility is for God to create free-will beings capable of true love. But to do so, they must also be capable of not loving; they must be subject to the temptation to reject God, because absent any such temptation, they would in fact be in the first category – good, and “loving,” but only because they are following their programming. There is no middle ground; God could not do both – not because God lacks power – but because doing both is essentially a contradiction. It’s like asking God to create a circle with four equal sides. The very question betrays the questioner’s lack of conceptual understanding of what free will and love are.
Let’s consider some basic definitions. Temptation, in the more specific religious sense, is a desire or craving to do wrong. Some things are wrong in and of themselves in a way that we all intuitively realize but perhaps would have difficulty explaining. “Malum in se” is the way it is expressed in Latin; murder and rape are classic examples of such wrongs. By contrast, some things are “malum prohibitum” – wrong not because they are inherently evil but because they are prohibited by law or by consensus. Taking game out of season or driving 50 in a 35 mph zone are examples. But these are earthly concepts. Why should anything be wrong, even things that we say are somehow wrong “inherently?” The answer to the question lies within these ancient legal descriptions. Created beings recognize that their creator sets the rules – He embedded them into the nature of things. Some things He prohibits, some things He specifically commands, and the rest remain in the category of neither prohibited nor commanded; this vast middle category is left for society and for government to define and enforce, for the common good.
What was the basic temptation in the Garden? Was God a crazed arborist who was concerned about the health of a particular tree? Was he worried that Adam and Eve would suffer indigestion if they partook of the “forbidden fruit?” Or was He encapsulating in His prohibition the very basic rule that lies at the root of the human condition: “there cannot be two Gods, and I will not share my authority – my ‘god-ness’ – with you. Are you willing to abide by this and to freely enter into relationship with me? But be aware: this requires that you obey my commands.”
Each of us knows the answer to this question. We may complain that we were not given a choice; after all, we “inherited” this “sin nature,” didn’t we? But we know at our core that this nature is not forced upon us against our will. We did not inherit a craving for odd or distasteful things, or for being altruistic and self-sacrificing. No, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that each of us, to some degree or other, wants to throw off the shackles of creature-ness – with its frailty and limitations – and step into God’s role. We crave autonomy and power, over ourselves, our environment, and others. That’s why songs like “I Did It My Way” resonate so much with us. In fact, we go so far as to put God himself “in the dock,” demanding that He account for the many perceived “wrongs” of which He stands accused by modern man.
Yes, God knew that we would sin in this way. He knew that this sin nature would eventually require that He separate Himself from some of His creation. So, let’s consider for a moment His options. If He prevented this most basic craving – the desire for total autonomy – to enter our thought processes, how could anyone conclude that they are “free?” Keep in mind that we are not discussing here trivial or irrational desires – this one is central to the very concept of freedom. If he allowed this most basic temptation, but prevented anyone from ever triggering it so that it would always lay dormant, then, again, we could not call ourselves “free.” If he allowed some “lesser tempters” to trigger this desire, once again there would be a limit on the freedom of the choice. So, in the end, He allows the ultimate “tempter” to take his best shot. Not because He wants us to fall but because He wants our choice – and our love – to be genuine, and the product of free will. Sadly, for many, as the 17th century poet Milton penned, “it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”
This, then, is the basis of true freedom. A basic choice that goes to the heart of man, and to the root of the most important question there is: how will I relate to my maker? Will I turn toward Him with bended knee, willing to recognize and embrace His kingship? Or will I stick my finger in his eye, kicking and screaming the lyrics to “My Way?” If I choose to respond to Him on His terms, He will do the necessary work to make relationship with Him possible; if by contrast I reject Him, well, what more is there to be said?
My next post will consider how a choice of this magnitude – with such dire consequences – could ever be considered part of a loving act of a loving Creator.
Posted by Al Serratocreation, God's mercy, Salvation, temptation
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When considering whether God is truly “good,” some begin with the situation of the first couple. Why, they ask, did God allow Satan to have access to the Garden when he knew that the man and woman he had placed there would undergo, and succumb to, temptation? One skeptic used an analogy to further his point: a parent might set rules for her child, and might punish him for breaking those rules, but she would never allow a criminal – a consummate deceiver such as Satan – into her home to prey upon that child. The skeptic then concludes that no moral justification could support God’s knowing choice to create people whom he foreknew would end up in Hell.
An apt analogy can not only convey a rational point, but it can do so with an emotional impact that is as substantial as it is disguised. The listener feels the injustice captured by the analogy and begins to shy away from his position. But analogies can be misplaced; when the thing compared is not like the thing at issue, it may be that the analogy simply has emotional power, and doesn’t really advance the position of the one who raised it.
On an emotional level, comparing God to a parent who allows a predatory criminal to have access to his innocent children is a masterstroke. Parents who would deliberately expose their children to such danger would be worthy of censure, if not criminal prosecution. How can we love, and serve, a God who is “guilty” of such horrendous behavior?
A parent’s job in raising young children is to shield them from harm, and from inappropriate temptation and danger, until they are old enough and sufficiently trained to properly handle the situation. Children lack wisdom and maturity, and have poorly developed capabilities to detect deception and to foresee the long term consequences of their choices. Moreover, the specter of a predator in one’s home is doubly horrific, as a parent cannot help but envision even greater – perhaps physical – harm that the criminal might inflict. But a parent’s role is of limited duration – a fully grown and properly educated person should eventually be capable of recognizing and resisting the evildoer’s deceptions.
We do not, of course, have a full picture of what transpired in Eden. But we do know that Adam and Eve were not children who were invited to play with the neighborhood serial killer. They were fully grown and were instructed by God as to how things work – in short, that He was God and that they were not. He told them that they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that the consequence would be quite unfavorable. And what deception did Satan play on them? Did he trick them into thinking that they were eating of a different tree? Or that they were not eating at all? No. He simply contradicted God – he told Eve that God was afraid that they too would become Gods.
This is not the account of a criminal luring a child into a car with the promise of candy. This is instead the essential story of man – the struggle between two competing desires. On the one hand, will we submit to the God who breathed life into us, and respect his kingship as God? Or, on the other, will we shake off the shackles of God’s authority and insist that we are each our own God, capable of charting our own course, of knowing good and evil, unwilling to let God be God?
No, God is not a sadistic parent hoping to harm as many of his children as He can, and not caring about the consequences. He has something quite different in mind. God could have created beings that he shielded from temptation; or he could create free-will beings that could enter relationship with him in a meaningfully loving way. But he could not do both. To assert that he should have is to hold, whether knowingly or not, to a contradiction.
In my next post, I will attempt to explain why this is so.
Posted by Al SerratoGarden of Eden, satan, temptation
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Since it first hit the big screen, the Star Wars movie series has wowed audiences with its spectacular special effects. In that galaxy far, far away, the ageless struggle between good and evil rages on, built around the story of a good “knight” who is seduced over to the Dark Side. It makes for great entertainment, as it re-tells a story that is as old as man.
But here, closer to home, are we engaged in that same kind of struggle? Are we in a spiritual battle, a battle being waged for our very souls, in a realm beyond that which our senses can perceive?
Secularists, and sadly many modern “believers,” simply reject this view of reality. They insist that what can be perceived is all there is, as they place their “faith” in science to eventually explain away all mysteries. They don’t believe in simplistic notions like Hell, and if it exists at all, they view it as a destination reserved for the very few, for the worst of the unrepentant. Evil, in their view, is an amorphous, faceless force and not reflected in an identifiable “person.” In sum, they hold to a modern notion that they are basically “good” and that their goodness will, in the end, be recognized by any God that might happen to exist.
These modern views on good and evil may be comforting, but they find no support in the teachings of Jesus, in the Bible or in the traditions of the Church. These sources tell us that Satan, the original fallen angel who inhabits the real Dark Side, is a person, and that Hell is a real and horrible place. Jesus clearly viewed reality this way. He knew Satan to be an actual person, and spoke directly to him when He was tempted him in the desert. Jesus also interacted with lesser demons, which recognized Him as the Son of God and which spoke to Him. In Matthew 8:28-32, Jesus cast a group of such demons into a herd of swine. (See also Mark 9) Jesus also spoke often of Hell as a real and horrible place, likening it to the perpetual garbage fires in the region known as Gehenna. Jesus admonished us not to “fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” Matthew 10:28.
The Bible also teaches that Satan acts purposefully and has each of us in his sights. In fact, the Bible warns us to “stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8. It teaches that the battle we face here is not against human forces, as it may seem to us from the information provided by our senses, but against the “the principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness, the evil spirits in regions above.” Ephesians 6:12. It tells us that salvation is not something we can earn through our own works or that we can merit through acts of goodness. The way to avoid condemnation is through belief in Christ, for “whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” John 3:1-19
What are we to make, then, of this battle for our souls? Is there a “force” we can appeal to for salvation? Or are we left to trust our feelings and to make it on our own? Many people today have lost their way on this question. They speak of being “spiritual” but not “religious.” They feel free to pick and choose what to believe and what not to believe, what to accept as true and what to discard as outdated. They rationalize their immoral behavior and then convince others to join in their rationalization, as if, by force of democratic vote, God’s moral law could be changed. This form of false spirituality is quite seductive, as it responds to the inner desire to know God without requiring the effort to actually learn about Him.
So, how do we find our way out of the Darkness? The answer lies in learning about the true nature of God, as He revealed Himself to us through Holy Scripture. It begins with the central truth that God the Son, the Word, became flesh and made his dwelling among us. John 1:14. Christ is the original light that shines on in darkness, a darkness that did not overcome it. John 1:5. By taking up His cross, and shedding his blood for us, He “cancelled the bond that stood against us with all its claims, snatching it up and nailing it to the cross. Thus did God disarm the principalities and powers. He made a public show of them and, leading them off captive, triumphed in the person of Christ.” Colossians 2:14.
Jesus told his followers that if they lived according to his teaching, they will know the truth and the truth will set them free. John 8:31-32. And therein lays the rest of the answer. If we are to engage in this great spiritual battle, we must first become informed of the true nature of things from God’s perspective. Paul, in his epistle to the Ephesians, explains how to begin. Using imagery that would be familiar to his audience (but unfortunately not to us), he urges them to arm themselves for the battle by putting on the “armor of God” so that they can “resist on the evil day.” He encourages them to “stand fast, with the truth as the belt around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and zeal to propagate the gospel of peace as your footgear. In all circumstances hold faith up before you as your shield: it will help you extinguish the fiery darts of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, the word of God.” Ephesians 6:13-17. Similarly, in 1 Peter 5:9, we are told to resist the devil, “solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.” And again, in the Epistle of James, we are told to “resist the devil and he will take flight.” James 4:7.
So, there it is. The lion is stalking in the night, but the true Light can lead the way out of darkness. We need not seek out and attack Satan, but we must resist him. We do this by submitting to God’s will; by arming ourselves with truth; by leading honest and just lives; by not being ashamed of the Gospel but willing to proclaim it with zeal; by encouraging each other to grow stronger in the faith, and finally, and most importantly, by getting into and staying in God’s revealed word.
What’s stopping you from stepping into the light?\
Posted by Al Serratoephesians, hell, satan, spiritual warfare, spirituality
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My last post discussed some of the problems with demanding “extraordinary” evidence before considering the possibility that an extraordinary event – like the Resurrection of Jesus – actually did occur. Setting artificial standards for evidence, I argued, does little to advance the goal of determining the truth. Skeptics often respond by insisting that nothing short of the miraculous will convince them of the existence of God. After all, they reason, if God did exist, he would expect us to use the mind he gave us to come to our own conclusions, based on evidence and reason, in order to separate fact from fantasy. When pressed, the skeptic will often provide the following examples of “adequate” proof:
- God appearing to everyone, everywhere at the same time;
- Finding microscopic writing on every living cell identifying God as the manufacturer;
- Present day miracles such as amputees regrowing limbs through prayer;
- Alien life coming to earth and also proclaiming Christ as savior;
- Finding large etchings on Mars authored by Yahweh.
These examples of “adequate” proof all share the quality of being “extraordinary.” Faced with such evidence, many more – though I would submit not all – would have a conversion experience. Since God performed such extraordinary acts in antiquity, the skeptic wonders whether it is asking too much that he perform these same types of acts for all people at all times in all places.
The first step in assessing this challenge is to consider whether God has an adequate reason for not addressing each of us in a direct and unambiguous way. Why doesn’t God write us an email each day that makes his will known? The answer, I suspect, has to do with the “fall” – as a result of which God removed himself from direct contact with us – and from the fact that he actually does intend us to use our intellect to move towards him. To better know, and experience and understand him requires not a one-sentence tag line – “You should take that job. /s/ God” – but a conscious effort of the will to solve the puzzles of life, of revelation, of awareness of God in our lives. That this is achievable requires little more than perusing a book on the lives of the saints. But at a deeper level, the skeptic who insists on such direct communication is actually betraying the very commitment to rationality that he pretends to have.
The skeptic insists he cannot just believe “on faith” and that he expects that a God who gave us a mind would expect that we use it. Christians agree. In fact, many passages in Scripture reaffirm Jesus’ admonition that we are to love God with all of our minds. In placing trust in the Biblical account of reality, Christians use a rational process known as abduction – reasoning from inferences to a logical conclusion – piecing together dozens of bits of information to see where they lead. This process is an example of how rationality works. By contrast, despite their asserted reliance on rational thinking, skeptics insist 1) that the evidence be “extraordinary” (whatever that means) and 2) that nothing short of a direct contact by God would suffice. Do they not realize that the intellect isn’t necessary if one’s expectations are set to that level? Even the person of below normal intelligence would be able to conclude “God Is” with such evidence and without any use of rational thinking. Reasoning from evidence to a conclusion would simply not be necessary.
The skeptic’s position is like that of a juror who refuses to convict the murderer because there was no confession, or no video of the killing as it took place. But killers always leave some evidence behind, and piecing together the bits and pieces of that trail allows for a thoughtful, rational person to find guilt regardless of the killer’s silence. Now, the skeptic may object that God should not try to hide, the way the killer does. No matter. Use a different example. Many of the greatest discoveries of science – for instance, unlocking the secrets of the atom – required effort to uncover the reality that lies beneath the surface. If scientists waited for an instruction manual to appear written into the canals of Mars, or printed on the cell, we would still be lighting fires to illuminate our caves. In any other pursuit of knowledge and understanding, the thoughtful person understands that the answers will not always be clear and that reasoning to best conclusions is a viable way of attaining knowledge. Why should it be any different when it comes to knowledge of God? What is too easily obtained is often too little valued.
The skeptic sets impossible standards because he is trying to find reasons to reject what is patently obvious to most people who ever lived – created things require a Creator. Christians take this knowledge to a deeper level, placing confidence in their conclusion that this Creator revealed himself in the pages of the Bible. In so doing, Christians rely on reason; it is the skeptic, with his impossibly high demands, that refuses to.
Posted by Al Serratoabductive reasoning, Extraordinary claims
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Many skeptics approach “the evidence” for Christianity with a closed mind. Hobbled by a number of presuppositions, they typically end up where they begin: convinced that God simply would not have made himself so difficult to detect. Many will back up their position with a challenge – because Christian claims are so “extraordinary,” they say, only “extraordinary evidence” will be sufficient to persuade them. Upon reflection, however, it should be soon apparent that this is a rather odd – and self-defeating – way to go about the task of acquiring knowledge. Odd because it demonstrates a misunderstanding about the way evidence works. Self-defeating because reviewing evidence is supposed to be done so that one can arrive at “the truth” about what occurred, and when one option – a creator God – is set “off limits” at the beginning, there is only one result that can be reached. This may give the atheist comfort – his views remain unchallenged – but it is difficult to describe this as a meaningful search for the truth.
Consider: “evidence” can mean a variety of things, but as it relates to historical events – which, after all, is the basis of Christian belief – it refers to the existence of certain facts which directly or indirectly tend to prove that the event in question occurred. Whether it’s Jesus life – was he real or fictitious? – his death – did it occur on the cross?- and, most significantly, his bodily resurrection from the dead, the process of discernment requires a consideration of all of the evidence to determine whether one can conclude with confidence that the event did in fact occur. Consequently, in assessing the weight and persuasiveness of the evidence, it may appear that certain pieces of evidence line up as probative or not probative, relevant or irrelevant, weighty or weak. But refusing to consider evidence unless it first meets the standard of “extraordinary” reflects a bias against ever reaching a conclusion. Far from being a rational position, it is the abandonment of reason, for reason does not impose upon itself such artificial restrictions. This demand for “extraordinary” evidence is, upon reflection, also rather ironic. Christianity is in fact based on “extraordinary” evidence. It is “out of the ordinary” and “exceptional” and “not commonplace” that
- 66 books written over dozens of centuries by a variety of unrelated authors could be assembled into a coherent whole, one that tells an overriding message of man, his problem, and the solution God set in motion. The books of the Old Testament presage and predict Christ, and the books of the New Testament demonstrate the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies;
- the concerns and beliefs of a culture separated from us by thousands of years could still resonate as relevant today, and join via a common system of belief cultures from all across the globe and spanning every conceivable age since Christ walked the earth;
- the early followers could be so convinced of the truth of what occurred that they were willing to face death rather than deny what they would have known to be false, if indeed they were fabricating a story;
- a variety of predictions – hundreds by some counts – could find fulfillment in one historical person;
- modern archeology repeatedly confirms so much of what is written in the texts;
- items of scientific interest relating to astronomy and physics (for examples, check out the work of the scholars over at www.reasons.org) appear to be embedded in books such as Job;
- the claims of multiple miracles that were witnessed by numerous people;
- and probably most significantly, a man who preached a radical message of universal brotherhood to a subjugated people who were expecting and hoping for a conquering king could change a world and still be regarded – and embraced – as relevant today.
This is just a partial list. Indeed, entire books and ministries have been devoted to making this case. And while the skeptic can challenge various pieces of evidence, it is difficult to gainsay both the amount and the quality of the evidence upon which Christians base their faith.
This is not to say that Christianity is not about faith – it certainly is. As Paul says in Hebrews, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1-2) No one can see heaven or preview what eternity with God will entail. Faith provides the assurance that what Jesus promised is true; we can rest confidently in the knowledge that things not seen will be as he promised. But we don’t have “blind faith” that he once lived, or that he has the authority to carry out what he promised. That knowledge is based on the evidence provided by those early witnesses. These men and women lived in extraordinary times and witnessed extraordinary things; sadly, many suffered extraordinarily for their convictions. But what they left to posterity, the evidence of what they saw and heard and experienced – whether or not it rises to the level of “extraordinary” – was certainly sufficient. And it remains so today.
Posted by Al Serrato
Evidence for Christianity, Extraordinary claims, fulfilled prophecy, resurrection
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