Writings

8
Feb

Debating Atheists: Arrival of Jesus (part 5/5)

tomb#4 The Arrival of Jesus

Ancient history is a funny thing. We depend on the information, but no one was there to see it. Historians meet this challenge with the standard method of historiography.

Historiography is scientific in a sense, albeit different than the hard sciences like physics and chemistry. In both cases, absolute certainty still evades us. Historians seek only to identify what events are more likely than not to have happened. Famous religion skeptic Bart Ehrman says human events that occurred in the past are always a matter of what probably did or did not happen [1].

History’s witnesses contain lore and exaggeration but also facts. It’s inherently problematic that there’s much about the ancient world we’ll never know. In fact, an overwhelming majority of events and people left without a trace. When it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, however; there’s little else we can know so well.

Surprised? It turns out there are a few facts about his life, death, and post-death events that aren’t even contested among historians today. So, it’s safe to say we can know with relative historical certainty that these things actually happened. Don’t take our word for it, but see what the scholars who reject Christianity say about him.

  1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion in first century Palestine

“Jesus death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.” – Atheist Gerd Ludemann [2]

“The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans is one of the most secure facts we have about his life.” – Atheist Bart Ehrman [3]

We can take it “absolutely for granted that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate” Skeptic John Dominic Crossan [4]

Jewish scholar Paula Fredrickson tells us “the crucifixion is the single strongest fact we have about Jesus” [5].

Even the radical and anti-supernatural Jesus Seminar claims that the crucifixion is “one indisputable fact” [6]. Finally, New Testament scholar Marcus Borg articulates for us:

“[S]ome judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated. …. We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world” [7].

With such strong endorsement by non-Christian scholars who may otherwise be inclined to dismiss this fact, it seems as though no one would oppose it. Nonetheless, there are a few who do. Muslims, of course, are theologically committed to reject this fact at the outset. There are also a handful of scholars who argue the crucifixion was an allegorical story based on pagan mythology. An excellent rebuttal to this view by Greg Koukl can be found here [8]. The interested reader is encouraged to look into the reasons these scholars have for or against all three of these facts about Jesus [9]. The point of this article is to show basic facts most non-Christian scholars concede to when everything is considered.

Surprising as it may be, non-Christian scholars accept most of Paul’s letters and much of the gospel narrative as authentic. Honest historians apply the same standard to the New Testament as they give other available textual witnesses. Almost all scholars give credit to Paul for at least 7 of his 12 letters which give us more than enough for all three points in this post by itself.

Even non-Christian historians don’t dismiss the gospels which provide independent and early accounts. It’s important to realize the passion narratives that provide an account of the crucifixion have distinct differences even among the “synoptic” gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This indicates the written narrative comes from a unique prior source even when other parts of the gospels may share a common tradition. Additionally, the crucifixion is presumed as historical in non-canonical material such as the Shepherd of Hermas and two letters of Clement, Gnostic texts, and the writings of early church fathers.

Contemporary non-Christian sources help too. Admittedly, some Christian apologists have overstated ancient witnesses that mention Christ, but others have dismissed them too quickly (the latter possibly due to the former). At the very least, the extant material left from ancient writers who mentioned Jesus relayed what they took to be contemporary common knowledge. Non-Christians Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar Serapion, and Josephus each have different reasons for mentioning Jesus of Nazareth, but they all assume his execution to be a fact taken for granted by their first century audience. It is also worth noting that ancient writings of the time confirm specific crucifixion details described in the gospels and no ancient source contradict this was Jesus’ fate [10].

  1. Jesus had followers who had experiences they believed to be the risen Jesus

Once again, this point can be made by those who we would expect to disagree. Mike Licona points out that Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide in his work titled, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, gives a case that the post-resurrection appearances in the New Testament originate from the apostles themselves [11].

Atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann thinks the appearance narratives were so well attested that Paul cited them to support his argument. Commenting on the famous appearance narrative in 1 Cor 15, Ludemann thinks Paul referenced the 500 witnesses to encourage his audience to go interview them [12]. Skeptic Robert Funk reports the findings of the hypercritical “Jesus Seminar” who believe the 500 witnesses actually had an appearance, albeit a visionary one [13]. From this and many other passages, we know that the followers sincerely believed Jesus appeared to them both individually and in group settings – both to disciples who knew him well and those who did not – both to friend and to foe alike. The accounts are so well attested one scholar who even proposes the idea that Jesus never existed concedes this point (yes, you read that right). The skeptic Richard Carrier puts it this way…”Obviously, I also agree there were appearances, but I argue the appearances were hallucinations” [14].

Here Carrier supports the most common critical view in contrast to the resurrection hypothesis. His biased approach of methodological naturalism rules out the existence of God thereby excluding the resurrection option from the start. He’s so committed to avoid the resurrection that he proposes contradictory theories and admits he doesn’t intend to provide a plausible alternative theory – only something that’s possible. In his view (akin to Hume and Ehrman), miracles are the least probable event regardless of the evidence, so any alternative to the resurrection is more likely. The implicit assumption is this: since God isn’t an option, anything else will work better. He can then lob spaghetti at the wall and take whatever sticks because he took the supernatural noodles out before the toss.

  1. Hostile skeptics Paul and James changed from hostile critics to teach the resurrection as their central message and lived an increasingly hostile life of suffering and ultimately faced a violent death for it.

James:

Admittedly the weaker of the “minimal facts” gleaned from his exhaustive study, Dr. Gary Habermas cites the conversion of James as a fact supported by the writings of a majority of scholars who are published on the topic in English, French, or German since 1975. In his book co-authored by Mike Licona, he lists four reasons given by the skeptics:

  • James rejected Jesus’ ministry (Mk 3:21, 31; 6:3-4; John 7:5)
  • 1 Cor 15:3-7 believed by skeptics to be authentic lists James as a witness to the risen Jesus
  • James becomes a Christian leader (Acts 15:12-21; Gal 1:19)
  • James died as a martyr for being a Christian leader (Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria) [15]

Flavious Josephus was a contemporary to both James and Paul and was a Jewish historian financed by the Roman Emperor. His familial heritage was of Jewish elite in the capital city of Jerusalem where he lived while these events were unfolding. If anyone would have known about the early Christian movement, Josephus would. So, what he says about James the Just, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth and leader of the Jerusalem church carries some weight:

Having such a character, Ananus thought that with Festus dead and Albinus still on the way, he would have the proper opportunity. Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin, he brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, whose name was James, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned [16].

The testimony of James is affirmed by Christian and non-Christian sources alike.

Paul:

The fact that Paul was a skeptic who converted to Christianity is so uncontroversial that we can take it directly from the source, Paul himself. There’s no need to do otherwise since the non-Christian scholars endorse his authorship to his testimony. According to skeptic John Dominic Crossan, Paul’s personal testimony exceeds even the events recorded in Acts [17]. Paul writes of his personal conversion experience in Galatians, 1 Cor, Philemon, and 1 Timothy. It’s also accounted for in a separate source on two different occasions in the book of Acts, which ironically, is also the book that most vividly speaks of his prior violent opposition. Virtually no scholar goes against the overwhelming majority consensus that Paul once was a skeptic who became a believer. Given the drastic shift in position, that is a tremendous understatement. Even atheist philosopher Michael Martin has concluded this [18].

Conclusion:

In closing, let’s review what we can know from these facts that non-Christians support: 1) Jesus was crucified, 2) apostles had post-resurrection appearances, and 3) Hostile critics Paul and James converted. Which explanation best accounts for these three facts? Skeptics have offered a range of theories, but far and away, the most common naturalistic explanation offered is grief hallucinations. This is the most common way to avoid a supernatural explanation, but fitting the skeptic’s prior presupposition is where the advantages end.

Hallucinations fail to account for group appearances granted as historical by skeptics and doesn’t work for hostile witnesses like Paul who didn’t even know Jesus but wanted to kill his followers. The best explanation is the one offered by Christianity: that Jesus rose from the dead. The only reason to keep it off the table is if you take God off the table before you start looking.

Dr. Shapiro mentioned many things about the life of Jesus but didn’t face any of these three facts. Instead, he cited clearly inaccurate information to lead the audience astray. For example, he said Jesus may never have existed at all. To this point, scholar and skeptic Bart Ehman pulls no punches. In a friendly crowd, receiving an award from Freedom from Religion Foundation president Dan Barker, Ehrman said:

There is so much evidence that….this is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity…There is no scholar in any college or university in the western world who teaches Classics, Ancient History, New Testament, early Christianity, any related field who doubts that Jesus existed…That is not evidence…but if you want to know about the theory of evolution vs the theory of creationism and every scholar in every reputable institution in the world believes in evolution. It may not be evidence, but if you have a different opinion you’d better have a pretty good piece of evidence yourself…The reason for thinking Jesus existed is because he is abundantly attested in early sources…Early and independent sources certainly indicate that Jesus existed…One author we know about knew Jesus’ brother…I’m sorry, I respect your disbelief, but if you want to go where the evidence goes…I think that atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism, because frankly, it makes you look foolish to the outside world [15].

We need go no further than the peer-reviewed literature published by skeptics who should otherwise be inclined not to say such things. To be fair, these very same critics don’t conclude the resurrection best explains the facts, but conclusions about things with such weighty implications don’t happen in a vacuum. All sorts of factors influence our conclusions. Remember, history is a science of discovering what most probably happened so the urge is strong to wedge in other factors such as philosophical presuppositions, lifestyle habits, emotional attachment, upbringing, social setting, academic pressure, wealth, and recognition. No matter where we fall on the resurrection question, a variety of influences come into play. It’s at this point where we must part with the skeptics cited above with whom we’ve agreed with so far on key matters of science, ethics, human experience, and history. For those following their desires, just about any theory can be made to fit. For the rest of us who go where the evidence leads, there’s the hope eternal in the resurrection of Jesus.

[1] Bart Ehrman quoted in How to Defend the Christian Faith: Advice from an Atheist

By John W. Loftus, Peter Boghossian viewed in Google Books preview

[2]  Gerd Ludemann, 2004. The Resurrection of Christ. p50 quoted by James Bishop here

[3] Bart Ehrman, http://ehrmanblog.org/why-was-jesus-killed-for-members/)

[4] John Dominic Crossan quoted by R. Stewart & Gary Habermas in Memories of Jesus. p282 quoted by James Bishop here

[5] Paula Frederickson, remark during discussion at the meeting of “The Historical Jesus” section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 22, 1999 as cited at ReasonableFaith.org

[6] Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape as cited by James Bishop here

[7] Marcus Borg, 1999. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. Chapter 5: Why was Jesus killed? as cited by James Bishop here

[8] Greg Koukl, Jesus Recycled Redeemer, Solid Ground, September 1, 2009 http://www.str.org/publications/recycled-redeemer#.WJajTVMrLIU

[9] A great resource on the most current peer-reviewed literature on the topic is by Micheal R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, IVP Academic, 2010

[10] ibid, pp303-318

[11] ibid, pp323-324 – citing Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, 2002, p99

[12] Gerd Ludemann, The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry, 2004, p41

[13] Licona (2010), p321 – citing Funk and the Jesus Seminar (1998)

[14] Richard Carrier, March 18, 2009, Missouri State University debate with William Lane Craig at approximately 47 min 23 sec.

[15] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, (2004) Kregel. Grand Rapids, MI. p68

[16] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:200

[17] Licona (2010), p396

[18] Gary Habermas “The Case for Christ’s Resurrection” in To Everyone an Answer: The Case for the Christian Worldview. “[W]e have only one con­temporary eyewitness account of a postresurrection appearance of Jesus, namely Paul’s.” found here http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/inbook_to-everyone-an-answer/habermas_case-for-xp-res.htm

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25
Jan

Debating Atheists: Arrival of Evil (part 4/5)

evilUnderstanding evil reveals an important part of reality. As much as we try to avoid it, evil is part of the universal human condition – something theists and atheists both have in common. You may be surprised, however; that the way atheists think about evil actually shows God exists.

For the previous post on part 3, atheist arguments for the Arrival of Biological Information, click here. Unlike other points in this series so far, probing evil touches the heart. It gets emotional. The argument I’m presenting, by contrast, isn’t designed to address the emotional part of the problem. There are volumes dedicated to that. Rather, the point here is to reason through three facts about evil that nearly all people agree on and to see what follows:

2. Evil exists

This fact is so obvious that even the argument of evil used against God relies on it. Readers have probably heard the “problem of evil” used as a critique against theism. This was something I knew Dr. Shapiro would bring up in our debate, since he’s brought it up in a prior encounter, so I decided to hit it head on. As expected, Dr. Shapiro parroted the classic criticism from 4th century BC philosopher Epicurus:  “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” [1]

The question puts God in a dilemma. Either he’s not all powerful (he can’t stop evil) or not all good (he’s unwilling to stop it). Theists believe God is both all-powerful and all-good thus find themselves having to eliminate one. I address this more later. What we must consider at present; however, is that the objector assumes the existence of evil prior to the objection. This is a huge assumption. Epicurus posed a fair question to the Greek polytheists of his day but is it fair to carry this over to God of the Bible? We’ll address that later. The immediate question is whether or not evil exists at all and this objection only works if it does. Put simply, if there’s a “problem” of evil, then there’s evil.

Seeing the plain consequences of this fact, skeptics typically go one of two ways: 1) ground goodness on something other than God, or 2) deny good or evil exist at all.

This first group accepts value propositions as something real (good and evil exist) but tries to avoid God. Freedom from Religion founder and president Dan Barker says “’Good’ is that which enhances life, and ‘evil’ is that which threatens it.”[2]

Sam Harris defines morality as the “right and wrong answers to the question of how to maximize human flourishing in any moment…” [3] In my debate with Dr. Shapiro, he repeated the secular humanist doctrine that value relates to the standard of universal “well-being.”

The careful reader may see that they shifted the meaning of good. Rather than goodness defined as ultimate moral perfection, they see it as the best way to accomplish a goal. Plenty could be said about this shift, but it doesn’t really matter for this part of my argument. Whether they ground goodness in human flourishing or not, they still have an objective standard. They don’t put it on God, but instead on something else of objective and universal value. Sam Harris urges, “we need some universal conception of right and wrong” [4]. So, despite this shift in definition, they find themselves in the same place in terms of establishing objective goodness. For this purpose, we can join together in agreement with atheists who agree objective goodness exists, right?

Not so fast! Other well-known atheists dismiss value altogether. In Darwinian naturalism, there is no way things are supposed to be. Dawkins puts this best:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference [5].

An abstract from Cornell University scientist William Provine’s second annual Darwin Day speech starts off this way: “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly” One of those consequences, he suggests, is that “no ultimate foundation for ethics exists” [6].

If moral values aren’t real, this disrupts my first premise. There are plenty of reasons to reject the idea that moral values are a convenient social construct, but it’s important to show where this takes us if it were so.

It turns out the denial of moral value just exchanges one problem for another. If the atheists who deny evil are right, then the problem of evil goes out with it. If there’s no evil, there’s nothing to complain about. Saying there’s no evil is different than living that way, however. For most people, this isn’t as far as most are willing to go. Our gut-wrenching feelings on the inside and our outward actions tell us that everyone knows evil exists. In fact, even atheists arguing this objection often find themselves blaming God for the evil they just told us doesn’t exist. While the denial of evil may be something popular writers do, those dedicated to clear thinking on this issue have come to a much different conclusion. They know objective value is only possible with God.

The philosopher who put this most poetically was one of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century who also happened to be an ardent atheist Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche vividly illustrates the absurdity of a moral laden world without God in this passage from The Joyful Wisdom:

“Where is God gone?!” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, – you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? – for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! [7]

In our own time, atheist philosopher of science Michael Ruse puts it this way,

“The position of the modern evolutionist . . . is that humans have an awareness of morality . . . because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love they neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory . . . . [8]

The late atheist Christopher Hitchens conceded that it “could be true, yes. That could well be true,” that morality is a by product of social evolution without any objective foundation [9]. He adds, “one wants to think their love for their fellow creature means more than that.” No Christopher, they don’t merely want to think it, they actually do think it and for good reason.

Nietzsche, Ruse, Hitchens, and other like-minded atheists may not believe in God and many despise him. However, they know that without him, they’re posed with another problem worse than the first. Namely, they are unable to account for the kinds of evil that we all know is real. Worse, they deny the very evil atheists typically point to as evidence against God. This argument turns the challenge on its head. We can only make sense of evil if God exists.

In my recent debate, my secular humanist opponent didn’t seem to grasp this. Instead, he doubled down. Dr. Shapiro indicted God for allowing things he described as real examples of evil. The irony here was that he was proving my point. If Shapiro is right that there are real unjustified evils that God was allowing, he’s granting that the first premise above. It’s as if he wants to argue “God exists and he’s really bad so he can’t exist!” He can’t have it both ways. Take it from the atheists, either evil exists or we need to act like it does.

So which is it? Do moral values exist in something other than God or are they useful illusions? We’ve seen how Darwinian naturalism leads to a world without value. On the other side, we’ve seen God’s critics condemn his acts as evil in no uncertain terms. We’ve also seen that a world devoid of evil can’t condemn God for something that doesn’t exist. If true, advocates of this view don’t point us to God nor do they challenge him, essentially making evil a non-issue. Those who blame God for real evil agree with us on this first point, but how far will they go?

2. Evil entails objective good

By objective good, I mean absolute moral perfection by which all things of value are measured. Evil isn’t really a thing at all. Rather, it’s the absence of something – namely, something good. Just as darkness isn’t anything on its own without light (dark = the lack of light rays), evil only comes about when something good is taken away. For Harris, Barker, and Shapiro evil is when human well being doesn’t go the way it should. Whether we base value on God or our own idea of human flourishing, evil is when something goes wrong. It’s not the way things are supposed to be. This only makes sense if there’s a right way for things to be. Next, we see what kinds of things come with objective goodness.

3. Objective good must transcend, precede, hold accountable, and value humanity.

Transcending:  First, goodness entails a moral authority which crosses all times, places, and cultures. People groups can’t make up their own values. Instead, value applies to all people regardless of what anyone thinks about it. That’s what philosophers mean by “mind-independent.” The Nazis can’t be just in doing what they did no matter how many people agreed with it. Instead, goodness must extend beyond the individual mind or community consensus to be the standard by which ALL people and cultures are compared. The value inherent in objective goodness must transcend humanity in this way.

Preceding:  Second, goodness cannot have been invented by the first humans. After all, any values established by man can be later undone by men [10]. It would be absurd to think the first humans could come up with whatever value system they wanted because they were first on the scene. It doesn’t take much effort to see the advantage of having lying or stealing as virtues. No, that isn’t an option available to us. Goodness wasn’t invented. It was already there.

Holding Accountable:  Third, there is no objective goodness if evil goes unpunished. As my friend Frank Turek puts it, where there’s no justice, there’s no injustice. When people are allowed to do bad things without any consequences, there is no justice. Objective goodness demands justice. But there’s not always justice in this world. The murderers of black teenager Emmet Till in the 1950’s rural Mississippi never faced trial. The murderer of 6 year old Adam Walsh admitted the killing but was never charged. While in his 70’s Joseph Stalin had already killed about 50 million people (not including war casualties) and continued his genocidal orders from his deathbed in a Moscow mansion. In a purely natural world with no accountability for all people, there’s no justice for all people. If there’s no justice for all people, there’s no justice at all. If that’s not good, then goodness must include universal human accountability.

Value Giving:  Fourth, objective goodness must include the intrinsic value inherent in all human life. By intrinsic, I mean they all have equal worth just for being part of the species and not for any act, experience, or attribute they have or lack. It would make no sense to violate the rights of a human being if they aren’t valued in the first place. Evil and suffering experienced by humans only makes sense if the species has worth beyond itself and that their value is an objective fact of reality.     

4. Therefore, since evil exists, there is a transcendent, authoritative, human valuing source of objective goodness

Biblical Christianity’s explanation offers a solution that perfectly fits these facts:

God transcends humanity – Job 12:10, Acts 17:25, 28, Col 1:17, Heb 1:3, Eph 4:6

God precedes humanity – Gen 1-2, Ps 90:2, Job 36:26, Rev 1:8, Jn 8:58

God holds humanity accountable – Gen 3:24, Amos 9:1-4, Mt 6:20, 1 Pet 4:4-5, 2 Pet 3:9, Mt 25, Mk 9:43, Rev 14:9-11, 20:10

God values humanity – Gen 1:27, Ps 16:11, 73:25-26, Isa 62:5, Zep 3:17-18, Jn 3:16, Eph 5:23-32, 1 Jn 4:19

God is objective goodness – Gen 1:31, Ps 100:5, Lk 18:19, Rom 12:2, 1 Thes 5:18, 1 Jn  4:8

As I said in the beginning of this post, it’s hard to separate emotion from logic when reflecting seriously on evil. This was a tough one to cover. On stage during the live debate, I had three examples of human suffering in my slide show but by the third one I lost my composure and had to skip it. I know I was being overly emotional in my appeal, but my unexpected emotional response just emphasized the point. Evil exists and deep down we all know it. Christianity might not be what people like, but it provides the best explanation. Dr. Shapiro didn’t think so, but he missed the point entirely. This was most evident during the Q&A when he said “I want to clear up something really fast. Christians always say if you don’t believe in God you can’t say anything about morality. That’s nonsense!”

Nobody ever argued this and Dr. Shapiro is smart enough to know better. The point he ignored that there is no objective basis to ground moral values under atheism. I’ve had the chance to meet with Dr. Shapiro since our debate and learned he considers all morality as relative. So, even when he grants the horrid act of abusing babies as objectively wrong, he still considers it relative.

Strangely, Dr. Shapiro seems to embrace moral realism when he condemns God’s actions, or his failures to act. Shapiro can’t allow for any moral values as real and mind independent since it makes no sense under atheistic naturalism. In other words, Dr. Shapiro might argue like this: Since God doesn’t exist, there are no moral values outside of the human mind. Since there are no values outside human minds, all morality is relative.

The trouble is, I don’t think Dr. Shapiro has followed the logic as far as it goes. As Dr. Shapiro said in his opening speech “It just is what it is.” At bottom, the universe has no meaning or purpose outside of humanity, he said.

Christianity does offer it. It offers a basis for grounding value in the universe, a value of humanity and holding people accountable. Dr. Shapiro didn’t understand the point and furthered the case for Christianity every time he complained about evil. It’s ironic, actually. The very person he blamed for evil – God – is the one we can see much more clearly in contrast to the evil we all know exists. The intellectual dishonesty really showed in the inconsistent demand Shapiro and questioners put on Christianity. They tolerated, even celebrated ignorance on origins of cosmos or biology but demanded to know why God allowed evil. Even if they could ground evil in something transcendent and authoritative, why not find ignorance on that just as “refreshing?” It gets worse.

This brings us to an important rule: the one who bears the burden of proof is the one who makes the claim. It wasn’t my burden to refute my opponent’s unsupported assertions but they are his to defend. I had to provide support for my position, but so did he. No one gets a free pass here.

Dr. Shapiro is fully within his rights to criticize my ideas, but he must do more than rely on emotional reaction and make a compelling case for his view. He gave no case so there was nothing to address. That’s why I pointed out to the audience that Dr. Shapiro depended on a “shock” factor in the absence of sound argument. In addition to pointing out this fallacy, I gave three points that Dr. Shapiro needed to defend for the Epicurian dilemma mentioned at the top of this post:

  • God has no moral authority to do as he sees fit with his creation.
  • God has no justification to accomplish a greater good (and we have enough knowledge to determine this)
  • God could have done otherwise to accomplish a better result

Even after pointing this out during my rebuttal speech, Dr. Shapiro still failed to provide any good reasons to believe these three hidden assumptions implicit in his complaint about God.  Instead of arguing it, the appeal was to the heart, “How could a good God allow this?!”

As in the other points I made, I invited Dr. Shapiro to present an alternative explanation for evil. Since he didn’t do that, the offer presented consistent with Christian theism remained the best explanation offered that day.

Theism offers the best explanation but it does more. It is so obvious that there are things wrong with this world, that the burden falls on those who deny it. Sitting on a comfy couch with my wife talking about our day is all it takes to bring this reality home. As a federal agent and a nurse, the common question “How was your day, honey?” makes this evident daily. Regardless of where you are in life, I’m sure this could be true for you too.

Christian theism not only explains evil in our world, but it’s the only one that offers a satisfying solution to it. The same God of the Bible whose perfect nature sets the standard for value also offers mercy to people who have violated it. In perfect justice, the crimes against him are paid in full by the only one who can bear it, the God-man Jesus of Nazareth. Clearly, this is something that atheists won’t grant. But you would be surprised what they do say about him. The question of Jesus will take us to the fourth and final point in this short series.

Endnotes:

  1. Classic argument for the “problem of evil” first attributed in this form to the Greek philosopher Epicurus
  2. Dan Barker, Losing Faith in Faith, page 125
  3. Sam Harris, bases his moral standard on what he deems human flourishing, https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/thinking-about-go
  4. Ibid
  5. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: The Darwinian View of Life, Basic Books, 1995, p133
  6. William Provine, “Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life” [abstract] from speech given at the Second Annual Darwin Day Celebration, University of Tennessee – Knoxville on Feb. 12, 1998 https://web.archive.org/web/20070829083051/http://eeb.bio.utk.edu/darwin/Archives/1998ProvineAbstract.htm
  7. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, https://archive.org/stream/completenietasch10nietuoft/completenietasch10nietuoft_djvu.txt
  8. Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262, 268-269.
  9. Hitchens vs. Craig debate “Does God Exist,” Biola University (La Mirada, CA), April 4, 2009, at approximately 1:25 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tYm41hb48o
  10. Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality, p73
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22
Jan

Jesus on the Problem of Evil

written by Aaron Brake

In Luke 13:1-5 we have Jesus’ clearest teaching on the problem of evil:[1]socrates

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

Not only is this Jesus’ clearest teaching on the problem of evil but we see Him addressing both moral and natural evil in His response. Notice that Jesus is first questioned regarding an example of what we would call moral evil: the murder of some Galileans by Pilate. In providing an answer, Jesus Himself introduces an example of natural evil: the falling of the tower of Siloam which killed eighteen.

How did Jesus answer the problem of evil presented to Him? His answer is short and to the point: “They weren’t worse sinners, they were just sinners. And unless you repent, you’ll die too.”

D.A. Carson in his book How Long, O Lord? provides several important insights into this passage. It would behoove us as Christians to reflect deeply on these points.

First, Jesus takes it for granted that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23):

Jesus does not assume that those who suffered under Pilate, or those who were killed in the collapse of the tower, did not deserve their fate. Indeed, the fact that he can tell those contemporaries that unless they repent they too will perish shows that Jesus assumes that all death is in one way or another the result of sin, and therefore deserved.[2]

Second, because death is what we all deserve, it is only God’s mercy that keeps us alive:

Jesus does insist that death by such means is no evidence whatsoever that those who suffer in this way are any more wicked than those who escape such a fate. The assumption seems to be that all deserve to die. If some die under a barbarous governor, and others in a tragic accident, it is not more than they deserve. But that does not mean that others deserve any less. Rather, the implication is that it is only God’s mercy that has kept them alive. There is certainly no moral superiority on their part.[3]

Third, wars and natural disasters are always calls to repentance, and the fact that we question God’s goodness in times of calamity is a reflection of our own depravity and rebellion:

Jesus treats wars and natural disasters not as agenda items in a discussion of the mysterious ways of God, but as incentives to repentance. It is as if he is saying that God uses disaster as a megaphone to call attention to our guilt and destination, to the imminence of his righteous judgment if he sees no repentance. This is an argument developed at great length in Amos 4. Disaster is a call to repentance. Jesus might have added (as he does elsewhere) that peace and tranquility, which we do not deserve, show us God’s goodness and forbearance.

It is a mark of our lostness that we invert these two. We think we deserve the times of blessing and prosperity, and that the times of war and disaster are not only unfair but come perilously close to calling into question God’s goodness or his power—even, perhaps, his very existence. Jesus simply did not see it that way.[4]

Dr. Clay Jones in his class on Why God Allows Evil entertainingly replays the dialogue from Luke 13 like this:[5]

Questioner: Jesus, we have the problem of evil here, the great problem of the ages. People are being killed Jesus. What have you got to say?

Jesus: They weren’t worse sinners, they were just sinners, and unless you repent you’ll die too. Next?

Questioner: Whoa! Jesus, hold on for a minute here! This is the PROBLEM OF EVIL! The question of the ages! Philosophers have debated this forever! People are dying here Jesus! What have you got to say???

Jesus: They weren’t worse sinners, they were just sinners, and unless you repent you’ll die too. Next?

Questioner: No, Jesus, don’t you get it?!? Let me put it to you this way. You see, if God were all-loving, He would want to prevent evil. If God were all-powerful, He could prevent evil…

Jesus: They weren’t worse sinners, they were just sinners, and unless you repent you’ll die too. Next?

Jesus’ answer to the problem of evil is that all fallen, unregenerate sinners born in Adam are worthy of death. Whether we die by murder, accident, or disease isn’t anything more than we deserve. It is only by God’s grace that anyone is saved and it is only by God’s mercy that anyone is kept alive.

What implications does this have for Christian apologetics? At least three:

First, it means that Christian apologists need to take the consequences of sin and reality of human depravity seriously when addressing the problem of evil. Many Christians simply pay lip service to what the Bible has to say about these topics. It’s no wonder then we are often at a loss for words when someone asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” A completely biblical, though partial, rejoinder is this: no one is good but God alone! Bad things don’t happen to good people because no one is good. Jesus raised no qualms about our naturally born status as sinners before God, the universal corruption and guilt of humankind, or our need for repentance. He introduced these very issues Himself in addressing the problem of evil. He took it for granted that the wages of sin is death. Christian apologists should do likewise.

Second, when addressing the problem of evil, Christian apologists need to present a theodicy which minimally includes the biblical teaching of original sin and human depravity. Why God allows evil won’t make sense unless we have the problem of sin clearly before us. J.I. Packer stated,

The subject of sin is vital knowledge…If you have not learned about sin, you cannot understand yourself, or your fellow-men, or the world you live in, or the Christian faith. And you will not be able to make head or tail of the Bible. For the Bible is an exposition of God’s answer to the problem of human sin and unless you have that problem clearly before you, you will keep missing the point of what it says.[6]

The same is true for the problem of evil. The subject of sin is essential because in raising the problem of evil, the skeptic must put forth an anthropodicy (justification of man) by arguing that man is “basically good” and God is unjust for allowing the suffering and evil He does. In response, the theist must show these assumptions to be false, and in their place put forth a theodicy (justification of God) which includes evidencing the depths of human depravity and arguing that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evil that He does. Until we clearly articulate and defend the gravity of sin, as well as the universal corruption and guilt of humankind, many of our answers to the problem of evil will largely remain unpersuasive.[7]

Third, the present moral and natural evils we experience are appropriate segues into our need to practice and preach repentance in light of the final eschatological judgment. Those who experience such evils are not any more deserving. Rather, these disasters serve as warnings to all of us that final disaster awaits everyone who remains hardhearted and unrepentant:

So when disaster strikes, let us not wring our hands over the mysterious ways of God but encourage everyone to reflect on their sinful and doomed state in hopes that some will escape the Final Disaster that awaits the ultimately unrepentant.[8]

_______________________________________________

[1] I am indebted to Dr. Clay Jones for most of the material and insight presented here, as well as pointing me to the following passage by D.A. Carson.

[2] D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 61.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] This is a loose reconstruction with some additions of my own.

[6] J.I. Packer, God’s Words, 71.

[7] For more on these first two points, I highly recommend reading Clay Jones, “We Don’t Take Human Evil Seriously so We Don’t Understand Why We Suffer” found at http://www.clayjones.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Human-Evil-and-Suffering.pdf.

[8] Clay Jones, “Disaster Is Always a Call to Repentance!” found at http://www.clayjones.net/2011/11/disaster-is-always-a-call-to-repentance.

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13
Jan

Debating Atheists: Arrival of Biological Information (part 3/5)

Fact#2: The Arrival of Biological Information

Information embedded inside all of life demands an explanation. Virtually all agree that, at some point in earth’s early history, the first living being came about from non-living (dead) material. Setting aside for the moment the incredible principle of life arising from death, what we find inside of life gives us the greatest mystery of all. The information inside of life is exactly what we see in high tech computer engineering. It’s remarkably designed. Bestselling atheist writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins remarks on information in every cell this way:

“The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like. Apart from differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular biology journal might be interchanged with those of a computer engineering journal.”5

So the argument goes like this…

  1. All life requires DNA/RNA.

Citing Richard Dawkins, “DNA code is universal among all living things” 6

  1. DNA/RNA is information

What’s information? “By information, I mean the specification of the amino acid sequence in protein…Information means here the precise determination of sequence, either of bases of the nucleus acid or in amino acid residue in the protein.” Christian skeptic and co-discoverer of the DNA structure, Francis Crick. “Genes are information…a code…in sequence…just like what a computer programmer would do!” 7

      3. Information requires a mind

In his debate with Christian apologist David Wood last year, leading atheist and editor of Skeptic Magazine Michael Shermer explains it this way,

Is there some advanced intelligence, a designer, call it whatever you want. Maybe. How do we know? Our methodology is actually pretty good for finding out…[Y]ou know the SETI program has algorithms. They grind through of signals coming from space to determine if it’s random noise or if it’s a signal. 8

Shermer concedes that information infers an intelligent cause and even offers a way to verify it. Ironically, his method is the very same one offered by the ID advocates he’s trying to refute.

  1. Therefore, life required a mind.

This is why religion critics like Francis Crick 9, Richard Dawkins 10 and others propose the rarely accepted view of panspermia, or the idea that intelligent alien life seeded the early earth at just the right time for life to take root. In fact, there’s little discussed about origin of life at all. Normally, the question skips the origin of life issue and goes right into the evolution mechanism. Like all facts which lead us to conclusions we don’t like, it’s much easier to simply ignore the problem.

But not all of them are. The arrival of biological information is an area evolutionary biologists around the world are dealing with. In Nov 2016, scientists from around the world met in London to discuss how the neo-darwinian mechanism fails to account for the complexity of life. Recordings of the lectures will be provided on the Royal Society website soon. What’s more, is that the issue of information already in the cell before the first organism ever existed is not even a matter of evolution at all.

The reason I presented this as evidence for God is the same reason atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel and former atheist Antony Flew saw purpose and design in biological life. Every living cell requires something that is so particular that it cannot, in principle, be attributed to chance or natural causes. The DNA molecule contains not only complexity – for it has that. The complexity must also be arranged in such a way that it performs a specific function for the development of a living organism.

The specific complexity of this program is exactly like computer software. In fact, the four fundamental nucleotide base chemicals comprising the DNA molecule strands are not only similar to a computer program but they are the exact same thing. The pioneer of modern software, and no friend to Christianity, recognized this when he said, “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.” 11 The four chemicals abbreviated A-C-G-T are a four character code much like the binary two character code of human developed software consists of particularly placed zeros and ones. The only difference, is that whereas a slight computer code error typically results in a minor disfunction, any deviation from the DNA sequence most likely terminates the organism and any future decendants. This poses major problems for the. Neodarwinist theory of random mutation but that’s beyond our immediate scope.

Lest anyone be tempted to think time and chance under natural laws can produce such a function-based information code, atheist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould shows that time is not available to us:

[W]e are left with very little time between the development of suitable conditions for life on the earth’s surface and the origin of life. Life is not a complex accident that required immense time to convert the vastly improbable into the nearly certain. Instead, life, for all its intricacy, probably arose rapidly about as soon as it could. 12

Richard Dawkins goes further by ruling out chance a priori:

However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive. You may throw cells together at random, over and over again for a billion years, and not once will you get a conglomeration that flies or swims or burrows or runs, or does anything, even badly, that could remotely be construed as working to keep itself alive. 13

Not only was there no time for the DNA/RNA to develop naturally, there was also no known natural mechanism for it to do so.

Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel agrees, “The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account [neo-Darwinian evolution] becomes.” 14

“It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.” 15

“I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct on the ground that anything else would not be science.” 16

“I believe the defenders of ID deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.” Ibid 17

Whenever information is found, in uniform and repeated human experience, it’s been the product of an intelligent mind. I left it to Dr. Shapiro to provide at least one piece of evidence to the contrary. He didn’t. 

 

This was the third in a series of five posts showing how atheists concede four primary facts that infer biblical Christianity. For a fuller picture of this argument, you may want to check out part one (introduction) or part two (arrival of the universe). 

———————————————-

Footnotes (continued from part 1):

5) Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, New York:Basic Books/Harper Collins, 1995., p17

6) This fact is so widely assumed it was hard to find a direct quote. Richard Dawkins cited in a news article https://news.virginia.edu/content/richard-dawkins-universal-dna-code-knockdown-evidence-evolution. It’s worth noting after an exhaustive search, I found no published work directly denying this fact.

7) Richard Dawkins interview starting at 1:25 https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=oF1UzhPA5N8

8) Michael Shermer vs. David Wood debate on “Does God Exist” October 10, 2016, Kennesaw State University

9) Francis Crick, directed panspermia 1972, https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/ps/access/scbccp.pdf

10) Richard Dawkins at the end of Expelled https://www.youtube.com/shared?ci=Dee3DLgEDEw

11) Bill GatesThe Road Ahead p228

12) Stephen Jay Gould, “An Early Start,” Natural History, February, 1978.

13) The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design 1988, p9 The immediate relevance to this was pointed out to me by Douglas Axe.

14) Nagel, Thomas (2012). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p5

15) ibid, p5

16) ibid, p7

17) ibid, p12

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3
Jan

Debating Atheists: Arrival of the Universe (part 2/5)

universeIn the previous post of this short blog series found here, I explained how four facts agreed upon by the majority of non-Christian experts can be used to build a strong case for Christianity. This is the approach I took when I debated Freethought Arizona spokesperson Dr. Gil Shapiro in November 2016. In this week’s post, I’ll cover the first one.

#1 The Arrival of the Universe

Either the universe is infinitely old or it started at a finite time ago at a certain point in time. There’s no third option unless we deny the existence of the universe altogether as some new age or eastern beliefs do. The cosmos has been the focus of study as long as man has existed and some mysteries remain yet unsolved. Nevertheless, that the universe had a beginning is something we can say with relative certainty.

  1. About 13.8 bya the universe came into existence where energy, matter, natural laws, time, and space arrived on the scene prior to which they were not there.ASU astrophysicist and religion critic Paul Davies says “the universe can’t have existed forever. We know there must be an absolute beginning a finite time ago.”1

Alexander Vilenkin, another skeptic of religion goes further arguing for a finite starting point even with the possibility of multiple universes when he said this in 2003:

“It is said that an argument is what convinces a reasonable man, but a proof even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape:  they must face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” The problem for Vilenkin and his non-Christian peers is what follows from a “beginning.”2

In defense of this idea, outspoken religion skeptic and Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krause said, “If you asked me what I would bet, I would bet that our universe had a beginning.”3 To see why scientists like Davies, Krause, and other skeptics consider the beginning of the universe a problem, it’s important to see what follows from another fact we already know.

  1. In uniform and repeated human experience, everything that begins to exist has a cause

Sensing the pending consequences of these two facts, Dr. Krause tries to show how events can occur from “nothing.” The trouble is, he defines nothing as something. You can see Krause first properly defines “nothing” as the “absence of anything” but in the very next breath tells us his “nothing” of the pre-beginning initial conditions of the universe contained something, namely, lots of complex “stuff” and “particles” interacting with each other.4 Dr. Krause is a brilliant man and must know better. For the stuff and particles he just listed by default entails space, time, energy, matter, and abstract objects like physical laws and logic which is all that’s needed to make up our entire physical universe. These things are not only not “nothing” (no-thing) but are the very things scientists tell us did NOT exist until they came into being at the beginning of the universe, a beginning Dr. Krause would put his money on. In fact, the universe itself is comprised of the same things he attributes to as “nothing.” So for Krause: nothing = universe.

If these first two points hold true, as nearly all experts agree, and the logic is sound, the following conclusion is inescapable.

  1.      The universe had a cause.

This opens a whole other can of worms. Who or what is the cause? Well, we can infer a few things from this argument. The cause must be supernatural, uncaused, spaceless, immaterial, timeless, personal, powerful, rational, and independent. This list of attributes rules out nearly every world religion except monotheism.

Uncaused – Gen 1:1, Ps 102:25-27, Jn 1:3, 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:16, Heb 1:2

Spaceless – 1 Kings 8:27, Isa 66:1-2, Acts 7:48

Immaterial – 1 Kings 8:27, Isa 66:1-2, Acts 7:48

Timeless – Ps 90:2, Job 36:26, Rev 1:8, Jn 8:58

Personal – Gen 17:1, Rev 19:6, Ps 33:9, Rom 4:17

Powerful – Gen 18:14, Jer 32:17, Job 42:1-2, Mt 19:26, Mk 14:26

Rational – 1 Cor 14:33, Isa 1:18, 2 Tim 2:13, Lk 10:27

Independent – Gen 1:1, Ps 102:25-27, Jn 1:3, 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:16, Heb 1:2

We’re not able to show the God of Christianity on this first argument alone, but there’s no better candidate than theism to fit the bill. At the very least, the God of biblical Christianity matches this description without a single miss and is among a very short list of contenders. It’s important to note none of the rival atheistic theories fit these attributes for the universe’s initial cause. But before critiquing any rival options, I waited for Dr. Shapiro to present another cause that better explains the creation of the universe. He never did. And the options offered by the atheists mentioned here start off on false or unfounded assumptions. Atheists might not like the Christian explanation, but they seem to support the basis for it and fail to offer a better way. So the Biblical account of the arrival of the universe remains the best explanation available to us.

Endnotes:

  1. Paul Davies, “The Big Bang-and Before,” lecture at Thomas Aquinas College March 2002 quoted from ReasonableFaith.org.
  2. Alexander Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One p176, quoted from Common Sense Atheism blog post “Craig on Vilenkin on Cosmic Origins” by Luke Muehlhauser
  3. Lawrence Krause, debate with William Lane Craig in Brisbane, Australia on August 7, 2013 transcript here
  4. Lawrence Krause, debate with William Lane Craig, 2013, video here starting at around 17:00
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28
Dec

Debating Atheists: Introduction (part 1/5)

factOn November 27, 2016, I debated a local atheist leader, retired podiatrist Dr. Gil Shapiro, the spokesperson of Freethought Arizona (video here). I’ve blogged on general post-debate thoughts here but now will cover a series of five consecutive blog posts covering each of the four arguments that the atheist couldn’t answer. This is no credit to my debating skills or subject knowledge which are nothing special, but it does show how classic arguments for the Christian worldview can be powerful if we keep it simple. My hope is that this will serve as a good outline to keep in mind when you engage with skeptics in your own community, the water cooler, or the next family dinner table.

By far, the most difficult part of debate prep was planning my general approach. Knowing my opponent helped. In a story by the local paper leading up to the event, the AZ Daily Star quoted Dr. Shapiro saying, “There is the religious view and the secular point of view, and there will be some things we can’t move on our position, but there will be some things that we can.” In this spirit, I researched claims from renowned atheists and non-Christians and arrived at four aspects of reality we can all agree on even though we may come to different conclusions. They are:

1) the arrival of the universe from nothing

2) the arrival of biological information from dead matter,

3) the arrival of evil, and

4) the arrival of Jesus.

This was a community event between two amateurs so I had to stick to the basics. As a full time detective, I’m not a biblical scholar, scientist, or philosopher so I wasn’t going to get fancy. That’s why I proffered four facts that enjoy the vast consensus of scholars regardless of religious or non-religious bias. I was also intentional on my topic selection. After all, what could be more pressing for the Christian worldview than creation, sin (evil), and the resurrection? I framed the debate using only commonly accepted facts both Dr. Shapiro and I could, in principle, agree on, and provided an explanation that best fit the facts. If my logic was valid and the facts true, the conclusions I offered would remain standing as the most reasonable. At the end of each of the four separate arguments, I told the audience I would wait to see what my opponent would offer as a better explanation of these facts. In his rebuttals, he gave a lot of criticisms but never answered my challenges directly. Not only was my opponent silent in presenting an alternative explanation for any of these four facts, he didn’t offer any explanation at all.  So, if the challenges I presented demand an explanation, the Christian explanation won by default.

Christianity won because the evidence was better and the reasoning clearer than what my atheist friend offered. We all know that debates are won or lost by much more than the content. If I came across condescending or frustrated, all the evidence and logic in the world wouldn’t have helped me. Good manners and graciousness are critical. My goal was to be bold and nice at the same time. While his arguments were lacking, I owe thanks to Dr. Shapiro for keeping things cordial as well. He’s a gentleman.

A quick note about scholarly consensus is important. Few of us have the time or training to master all the arguments so it helps to stand on the shoulders of scholars who do. I’m not suggesting an appeal to authority or majority can replace sound reasoning. Surely, scholarly consensus alone isn’t an argument. It would be fallacious to appeal to the majority since the majority can be wrong and the number of noses is irrelevant to the truth of a proposition. What this shows is that each fact has been defended in published work and debated among experts on all sides of the issue. When scholars committed to a worldview contrary to Christianity concede these facts, they do so in spite of their desires because of the weight of evidence and because intellectual honesty compels them. That’s what we want it to do for our unbelieving friends as well. We just need to point this out.

To show how this works, I’ll release four short blog posts to unpack each of these facts over each of the next four weeks. When combined together, these four facts make a cumulative, or “minimal facts,” case we can use to show our skeptical friends to infer important conclusions that point us to God based on facts even atheists grant. Inspired by what Gary Habermas has done for the historical case for the resurrection, these facts can be extended into an overall case for Christianity. The compelling force of Habermas’ work is showing the mass concession by scholars from non-Christian, even hostile, worldviews on relevant facts surrounding the death of Jesus. It’s easy to point out Christian scholars in support of our views, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but citing a skeptic who is an authority on the topic blunts the bias objection from the start.

It’s not only skeptics who need to hear this. When I speak at various Christian groups, I’m constantly surprised by how many intelligent and faithful Christians don’t know how widely accepted these facts are either. Without the facts, they risk being forced into defending ideas already settled among the experts. To suggest that Jesus died by crucifixion, for example, might sound like a religious claim, not a historical one. Once we learn that the most skeptical scholars accept Jesus’ crucifixion, however, it should cause our skeptical friend to question her own reasons for denying it.

Many of the scholars I’ll cite are the same ones our skeptical friends are learning from. So if our friends are persuaded by atheist writings of Dawkins, Shermer, Hitchens, Krauss, Erhman, Carrier, and others, get ready to hear what they have to say now!

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23
Dec

Review: A New Kind of Apologist

new-apologistClick here for 3 minute video review.

When Sean McDowell asked “would you review my new book?”, I thought this was going to be another brilliant apologetic for the faith. What I found were a few pages from Sean interspersed with 27 essays by excellent apologists and six a diverse cast including skeptics. I was right about it being brilliant but it was more than just another apologetic. The book is certainly readable cover to cover like I did for this review but even better served in bite-sized chunks on demand. The topics are among the most current I’ve seen in any printed work to date and might be the best single volume reference set of it’s kind. Let’s unpack it.

(more…)

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6
Sep

The Danger of Spiritual Apathy

fffApathy. That often smug assurance that “it” just doesn’t matter. That vague sense of superiority that comes from a “whatever” worldview. Nothing really matters. No one can ever know for sure. So why bother?

Every believer who has tried to make the case for Christianity has encountered this response.  It’s not that the skeptic is considering our truth claims and rejecting them, or countering them with evidence that they are false, or that his worldview is true. Instead, most skeptics I’ve dealt with have developed a comfort level regarding the “unknowability” of ultimate things. They often argue that the fact that people disagree about such things – that they have differing views – is itself evidence that no one can ever know whether God is, what He is about, or most importantly, what He may want of us. And so, they often don’t bother to try to investigate these things for themselves.

But if the Christian worldview is correct, such apathy may itself be hazardous to one’s spiritual health. Not long ago, I tried to make this case in a conversation with a skeptic. It went something like this:

“Let’s say this was 50 years ago, and when I saw you, you were chain smoking cigarettes with your kids always nearby. I know where medical science is headed, so I tell you that you are hurting yourself, and your kids. You respond that no one can really know such things; after all, you can point to doctors who advertise cigarettes and smoke them themselves, and you feel fine when you smoke. I point to other doctors who think that it’s really bad for you. You respond, ‘See, it’s a tie, so stop bothering me. Each believes what they were raised to believe, or what they want to believe.”

“Do you see,” I asked, “that the conflict between the doctors should not lead you to conclude that neither is right, or that the answer is not knowable? As a friend, should I keep trying to bring you back to the truth about cigarettes, or should I let you persist in believing something that is, in the end, hurting you and your loved ones?”

My friend’s response was not unexpected. It went like this: “Have you ever noticed how so many things are bad/wrong only at certain points in a cycle? Eat eggs, don’t eat eggs; give your kids soy, soy is bad; babies should sleep on their backs, no their stomachs, no their sides, no their backs etc., etc. When my daughter was born I would put her on her back to sleep and when I left the room my mother would put her on her side and when my mother left the room my grandmother would put her on her stomach. Over time the answer comes full circle. Why go around and around with it? What I am saying is not just throw up your hands and quit; what I am saying is that I do what feels right to me and that is the best I can do. Sometimes I listen to friends (and doctors) and sometimes I don’t. I think the “answer” to many of these things is unknowable.”

Fair enough. Some things are unknowable, and for some things, it doesn’t really matter. But that of course is the point of being thoughtful: deciding which is which. So, I conceded that for some things, the right answer might be “it doesn’t matter.” For example, a child might be equally safe on her side or her back. Eggs or soy might be good for you or bad, depending on your health and how much you eat. But for other things – like smoking – it will never “come back around.” Science will never say that smoking is good. It might say that it won’t necessarily kill you, but not that it will “balance your humours” like they said 200 years ago.

“So,” I concluded, “the trick is, which is this? Are questions of eternal life like laying a child on her side, or like smoking with my kids in the room? I hope you see the answer matters. If you were smoking 10 hours a day with your kids present, you would be harming them. Getting the right answer on that would matter. Getting the right answer on your relationship with God also matters, both to you and to the people you influence.”

I don’t think I persuaded her. As with smoking, not everyone bothers to read the warning label.

Posted by Al Serrato

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24
Aug

What Hypocrisy Teaches Us

Chriasstians are all hypocrites!

How often do apologists for the faith encounter that objection? Yes, there are hypocrites in the church, at least in the sense that none of us can actually and fully live up to what the Christian faith commands.  But more significantly, hypocrisy isn’t about simply failing to live up to the rules; it’s about being duplicitous about it. It’s about celebrating the things we shouldn’t do, about not properly regretting the sins that we commit.  This prevalence of hypocrisy – and the recognition that it is wrong – are actually more consistent with the existence of God than with atheism.

Hypocrisy is not a modern phenomenon. Jesus himself condemned it repeatedly in addressing the religious leaders of his day. They sought power and influence by using their elevated status to suppress and burden people. I would venture to say that every culture in the world, and throughout all periods of time, has recognized, and reviled, hypocrites.  The root of the word provides some explanation: the Greek word from which it derives meant a “stage actor,” a person who is not what he appears to be.  In modern usage, it carries of course a very negative connotation: “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs” or “a person who feigns some desirable or publicly approved attitude, especially one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements.”

So, hypocrisy is not simply failing to live up to a set of expectations; that is inherent in human nature. No, hypocrisy involves something more calculated: a desire to exploit this feigned persona in order to accomplish some other purpose. It is, at its core, deception.

If secular humanism is true, and man is simply an accidental product of evolution, then it stands to reason that those traits which provide the most survival potential would be favored. The basis of hypocrisy is not difficult to understand. Like any form of deception, it confers an advantage on the one who employs it. By promoting virtue, but secretly not bound by it, the hypocrite can – at least in the short run – profit by his behavior. Virtue, of course, involves self-discipline and often self-denial. It is the process of saying no to what I want at present because I recognize that simply wanting it is not a sufficient reason, that competing interests are at stake that must be considered.  But why must they be considered? If man is the measure of all things, and I am a man, why can I not decide that what is in my immediate best interest is what I should pursue?  Over time, shouldn’t it be the case that we would simply recognize that we all act in our own self interest? There is, therefore, nothing to revile about hypocrisy, just as we don’t condemn the lion for devouring its prey. It is simply in the “nature” of things.

But virtue persists, as does the recognition that it is a better way – a more noble way – in which to live.  Virtue manifests itself in acts of self-sacrifice, altruism and concern for others.  While these things tend to benefit a society, they confer little, if any, immediate reward to the one who does them. This, of course, is what makes such conduct virtuous, and worthy of our admiration and respect.  They are difficult to do.

Over time, then, the survival advantage hypocrisy provides should make hypocrisy a staple in society. And since it confers an advantage, it would be valued… and accepted as something that everyone does.  But that is not how we view it. Deep down, we know that such behavior is wrong, and worthy of condemnation.  It is wrong because it is inconsistent with truth and honesty, and the way things “ought” to be. And if we are impacted by a hypocrite, we feel it viscerally. It makes us angry.

To borrow from CS Lewis, when we consider hypocrisy, it is hard not to see that it appears to be a law of behavior.  It is not a descriptive law, as in the law of gravity, which describes how a rock will fall if released from a height. It is instead a moral law – a law that says we should not act that way, that acting that way is “wrong” on a very basic level.

But natural selection cannot explain moral laws.  It may explain the evolution of preferences and opinions, perhaps, but not laws that all cultures and all people seem to intuitively recognize.  But if there is a God, by contrast, it begins to make sense. Having left his law written into the fabric of our minds, we should expect to have some sense of right and wrong.  Because this eternal God grounds truth in a transcendental and unchanging way, it makes sense too that this love of virtue is itself timeless and without boundary.

So, the next time you encounter the challenge, it might be worth reminding the skeptic where the hypocrisy challenge actually leads.

Posted by Al Serrato

 

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10
Aug

Waging Spiritual Warfare on Drugs

Of thassfe many issues facing teens today, there can be little doubt that drug and alcohol abuse have risen to the top. Ours is an increasingly permissive society, in which children have more freedom, more free time and more spending money, than just about any previous generation.  Expectations have also risen, and so too has the stress that accompanies often unrealistic expectations. So it comes as no surprise to most parents that the temptation for teens to “self-medicate” with alcohol and drugs has also increased.  Add peer-pressure to the mix, and it often seems inevitable that kids today will succumb.

No young person starts down this road contemplating how, somewhere in their futures, they will deal with the wreckage that results – the broken relationships, broken promises and, far too often, broken lives.  They assume somehow that they will just “handle it.”  But in close to three decades as a prosecutor, I have seen on thousands of occasions the fallout – material, physical and spiritual – of poor choices on the lives of teens and young adults.   These young people did not lack education.  Schools have made valiant efforts to educate kids as to the effect of drugs and alcohol, and their inherent dangers. But despite knowing of these consequences, both legal and medical, far too many young people – Christians included – persist in their self destructive behavior.   Lasting change – life-changing improvement – occurs when a person’s internal worldview can be redirected.  It is not enough to teach a child to say “no” to a variety of temptations; instead, people must have a positive worldview – a combination of good things in life – that they affirm. It is for this reason that twelve-step, or other faith-based programs, find considerable success, because the force driving the change is a new and better view of the world.  The old negative patterns –i.e. trying to say no to impulses which eventually overwhelm them – are replaced by positive ones – saying yes to God and increasing one’s commitment to living a better way.

Christianity has provided this better worldview for two thousand years.  It provides a cohesive way to view the world, and our place in it. It provides the means to not only make sense of this bewildering set of choices we call “life” but to form a relationship with the one who made us and left us here. Today’s secular culture rejects this claim as primitive or steeped in superstition; it throws up road blocks to religion in the public square, seeking to replace traditional faith with “neutral” and “enlightened’ science.  Sadly, it appears that many self-described Christians have also adopted a worldly view, often times due to a lack of Biblical literacy.

When I have discussed the problem of drugs and alcohol with other parents, the response I usually get is that I am naïve to think that we can “stop” kids from experimenting.  Try too hard, they say, and the kids will just rebel in college – and essentially go off the “deep end.”  Fear tactics – which they assume is all Christianity can provide – simply “don’t work.”  But the message of Christianity is not fear-based.  Yes, there is a Hell to which those who reject God will eventually be relegated. But fear of this is not the core of the Christian message. Far from it.  Instead, Christianity finds its grounding in a personal relationship with a Being who, despite being incomprehensibly awe-inspiring, wants us to approach him the way a child approaches his “daddy.” (Romans 8:15)  He offers us restoration from the brokenness of our earthly lives, a brokenness brought on by our rebellion to his will.  We learn to see past the “hollow and deceptive” philosophy of a world un-tethered from its Creator and set our minds on things above (Colossians 3)  In short, we can find new life, as the old ways pass from us and we are transformed by the renewal of our minds. (Romans 12)

Presenting a positive and workable worldview to our young people is the paramount responsibility of every parent.  Yes, temptation will remain, and kids – even committed Christian children – will continue to succumb to temptation. But perhaps by sensitizing teens to what temptation entails at a spiritual level, they would not be so glib about ignoring the risks which already have been so thoroughly presented to them.  By “spiritual”, I do not mean, as if often the case today, the feeling of “closeness” to God that is uninformed by traditional religion.  I am instead referring to the spiritual realm, or in other words the reality that exists beyond that which our senses can perceive.  The apostle Paul summarized this quite forcefully in his letter to the Ephesians, where in Chapter 6 he warns them that our battle is not against human forces but against powers of darkness and “spiritual forces of wickedness.”  Elsewhere, the Bible warns us to “stay sober and alert” and says that the devil is “prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)  In the Epistle of James, we are told to “resist the devil and he will take flight.” (James 4:7)  In the Gospels, Jesus has a personal encounter with Satan, deals with lesser demons and talks often of the consequences of sin as death and Hell.  In short, the Christian worldview sees temptation – including that from drugs and alcohol – in a much different way than the secular world.  The short-term pleasure these substances promise can be balanced by an awareness that they are in fact a tool used by a personal enemy, Satan, who has us in his sights and will use what limited power he has to ensnare us.

Waging spiritual war on drugs may sound trite.  Indeed, many people today are ready to throw in the towel and admit defeat.  But if the Bible is true, then a spiritual war involving much more than simply drugs and alcohol is raging all around us. These substances may not be the adversary’s greatest weapons, but they’ve caused quite a bit of carnage, especially to the unsuspecting. It’s time to see them in their proper light.

Posted by Al Serrato

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3
Aug

Why Did a “Good” God Create Hell?

Many aspeople today accuse God of unfairness.  Since God can foresee the future, they ask, why didn’t He simply never create all those he knows to be destined to spend eternity in Hell?   One skeptic I know put the question like this:

God supposedly knows everything that will happen before you are ever born, so if all your choices are set beforehand, how can they possibly matter? Furthermore, if God knows you will “choose” Hell before he creates you, why does he simply not create you? Personally, I would much prefer nonexistence to eternal torment. Is God deliberately creating people knowing they will end up in Hell? Then I would call him evil. Is he compelled to create people regardless of what he sees in their future? Then he doesn’t have free will, which would certainly be an interesting interpretation, but one I doubt many people share. Is there some other explanation? If so, I can’t think of it.

This challenge has a bit of intuitive appeal.  It seems to put God in a box, as it were, trapped between being “evil” for choosing to create rebellious creatures or lacking free will, by being unable to do otherwise.  Let’s take a closer look at the two horns of this apparent dilemma.

To the Christian, “evil” is the label we give to words, thoughts or actions that deviate from God’s perfect will.  If we were created robots, there would be no evil in the world; we would operate exactly in accordance with God’s desires.  But in creating man, God did something quite different. He gave us “free will,” the capacity to rebel against him in our thoughts, words and actions. And rebel we did.  God “foresaw” this development, but only in a manner of speaking – a manner focused upon the way we think.  This is because God is not bound by time. For him, there is no future to “foresee.”  There is only an eternal present.  All times – whether past, present or future – are accessible to him in this eternal present. Thus, at the moment of creation, God was aware that man would rebel, that he was rebelling, and that he had rebelled. He was aware of the acts and the consequences, the motivations and the ultimate end, of everyone.  Consistent with his nature for perfect fairness, he created a means by which man – though in rebellion and deserving punishment – could nonetheless find reunification with him.  But in implementing this scheme, he did not force this choice upon us. He gives us the means to salvation, but remains content in allowing us to choose which path we will follow.

Those who use their free will to turn toward him – more precisely, to accept his free gift of salvation – will find a welcoming father, ready to do the work needed to restore us. Those who use their free will to turn away from God – to reject his gift – will find that this choice too is honored.  Expecting God not to create those in this latter category would have two significant effects: it would show that God’s provision of free will is really a fiction, since only those who choose to do his will are actually created, and two, it would mean that Hell is a place of evil.  But Hell is a place – or perhaps more precisely a condition – which was created by God to serve a purpose. Since God does not create evil – i.e. he does not act against his own nature – then Hell cannot be a place of evil. Like a human prison, it may be inhabited by those bent on doing evil, but the place itself – and the confinement it effectuates – is actually a good, just as separating hardened criminals from society is a net positive for both the evil-doer and the society that is victimized.

Some will be tempted to argue that God should have forced this choice upon us anyway. Isn’t it better to be forced to love God then to spend eternity in Hell? Only, I suppose, if one believes it is better to be a robot than a thinking, self-aware and self-directed being.  There is no middle ground. Either free will is something real – with consequences attendant to the choices we make – or it’s a fiction.  One cannot have it both ways.

To recap: God is not trapped in an either/or dilemma. God is not “evil” for having created, because in the end he treats his creation fairly, giving each what he or she deserves.  Since he values free will enough to have given it to us, he apparently intends to make that gift real by allowing some to reject him. Likewise, God is not lacking in free will, because he is not “compelled” to create against his will. Since Hell is not a place for eternal torture, but an appropriate destination for all rebellious human beings, God does not violate his own nature – does not engage in “evil” – when he separates himself from some of his creation.

What this challenge brings into focus is not some internal inconsistency in our conception of God. No, what it highlights is just how different our thinking is as compared to God’s. For like the skeptic, many would view the decision to create nothing all – neither good nor bad people – to be a better – a more noble – alternative.  Yet God sees things quite a bit differently, it seems.

In the end, that he views things differently should not really surprise us. Our judgment as to right and wrong, good and evil, has been corrupted by our rebellion. Since we all share this fallen nature,  we should realize that we are not in the best position to render judgment as to the way eternal things “ought to be.” We wouldn’t ask a group of incarcerated rapists for guidance on issues of sexual mores; nor would we consult death row inmates for advice on how best to treat one another. Perhaps, in the same way, God has little need to consult with us to determine what ultimate “fairness” demands.

No, the Creator of the universe may occupy a slightly better position to judge matters eternal. We might be wise to heed him, rather than try to ensnare him in a “logical” trap.

Posted by Al Serrato

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24
Jul

What Christianity Teaches About Service

ssI attended an awards assembly recently with my teenage son. He had written an essay on the value of military service, so the speeches and theme this night had to do with the traditions of service. And though this assembly was conducted at a Christian school, none of the comments made addressed the question of why people are willing to sacrifice in service to another. As I sat listening, a comment I had heard many years ago occurred to me: we are living on the fumes of past generations. Especially in the United States, many of us are living out the finest traditions of service, but few seem to remember what the generations that came before us – especially that first group of Patriots that set this great experiment in ordered liberty into motion – knew. Not only do our freedoms derive from the God that created us, but the idea of “service” makes the most sense within the context of a Christian worldview. Their vision of the benefits of service lingers with us, but many seem to be forgetting the reason – the value – behind service.

Consider: many people draw satisfaction and a sense of purpose from serving others. They may never wonder why this is so, but simply recognize the satisfaction it allows them feel. Others seek out and enjoy – whether secretly or not – the recognition that service to others may entail. However worthy their efforts, they are being done not exclusively for the benefit of the other, but also for the benefit of the doer. This may seem an unfair criticism, especially when one considers that a growing number of people seem to have no interest in serving others, regardless of motivation. But this comment is an observation, not a judgment. It is simply the case that in serving others, we usually obtain some level of reward, whether purely psychological or not.

If, then, these efforts are but an approximation of something else – some purer sense of service that we approximate but never quite reach – just what is that something else? In the Christian tradition, it is referred to by the label agape love: the love of the other for the sake of love. It is a love freely given, a love that seeks no reward. In its highest forms, it manifests in acts of great self-sacrifice, such as when a person lays down his life for the safety of – for the sake of – the other.

And where do we learn of the value of such love. Where does such love find its grounding? Certainly not in the world of Darwinian evolution, a world characterized by random selection and the “survival of the fittest.” No, it is from Jesus’ own lips that we hear these stirring, yet challenging and troubling, words:

 

“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.(John 15:12-13)
Consider also the Christian command to love one’s enemies:

“You have heard that it was said,‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.(Matt. 5:43-45)
Finally, what example does Jesus give during his last hours on Earth? He could not have made the point clearer, as he washed the feet of his disciples, an act of profound humility and love. (John 13)

The apostle John said that all things that have ever come into being have come through the Logos, the son of God. (John 1) So perhaps it is to be expected that we, the image-bearers of God, would have within us the seed of such great love. Perhaps there will always be something tugging at us, that God-shaped whole in our heart that draws us out of ourselves and toward others in acts of loving service. That draws us ultimately back to the One who created us.

But to an increasingly secular world that has forgotten its roots, the debt owed to Christianity for improving our world is worth noting. From the hospitals and other institutions that bear the names of Christian saints to the great universities that were founded to train up new generations to bring the message of Christianity to a fallen world; from the many people of faith who have fallen in the service of this great country to those faithful still among us serving unnoticed wherever there is need – we owe indeed a great debt of gratitude for a faith that inspired such selfless love.

Vigilance is said to be the price of freedom. But that vigilance cannot be directed solely outside the gates. We must look inward and return our hearts and our minds to faith in the One who emptied himself to become one of us and who took on our sins to restore us to right relationship with God.

And showed us the true meaning and value of service in the process.

Posted by Al Serrato

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14
Jul

Belief In God Is Not a Feeling

“Restmember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.” Obi-Wan’s admonition to Luke Skywalker sums up what some skeptics probably think about Christianity. If it were real, they would be able to “feel it” in some tangible way, and perhaps also be able to manipulate its power. A skeptic I spoke with recently framed it this way:

“I don’t ‘feel’ God in my heart the way most theists claim to, I don’t see any external justification for his existence, and I simply see no good reason to believe. So why is it my fault that I don’t believe? God supposedly created me just the way I am, after all. So, I’m not ‘rejecting God’ since he never made himself known to me in any real way. So why is non-belief a crime at all? What is the effect of non-belief that is so horrible?”

These thoughts express, I suspect, what Americans are thinking in larger and larger numbers. Raised in a culture led in many arenas by a secular – and in many instances anti-religious – elite, they feel increasingly confident that their view that nature is “all there is” comports with the way things actually are.

So, what is wrong with “non-belief?”

I suppose the first and quickest answer is that the thought itself is a bit incoherent. Consider what is being said. “Belief” is that state of mind in which one concludes that a fact is true. I believe that the car is red. I believe that John’s explanation regarding the accident is false. There is, of course, an issue of certainty. My belief regarding the car’s color may be mistaken, due to poor lighting; or my belief that John is lying may be wrong. But it makes little sense to say that, as to the car’s color, I have no belief. Or that I am hearing John’s explanation but believe nothing about it. Claiming to have “no belief” may seem high-minded and impartial, but it simply mistakes the way the human mind works. Whether we will it or not, our minds naturally move toward forming and reassessing beliefs. Indeed, at a basic level, we need to do so to stay alive. We must be constantly assessing our environment, our surroundings, to make prudent choices as to what to do next. Believing something about those choices and surroundings is indispensable.

As it relates to the question of ultimate things, one must acknowledge that complete certainty is not possible. So it’s fair for someone to say “I believe there probably isn’t a God, that the evidence I perceive of his existence is less compelling than the evidence which supports a conclusion that he does not exist.” But this begs the question: what is it that you are relying on in forming this belief?

And this takes me to the second point, the one raised at the outset. If one approaches this assessment with the unspoken premise that God would cause himself to be “felt” in the manner suggested in Star Wars, then believing he is not there gains traction, since few, if any, people have such mystical experiences. Most committed believers I know never have such “feelings.” They conclude from the testimony of their senses, and the working of the reason of their minds, that a staggeringly complex and exquisitely organized creation requires a Creator. Though there are numerous logical proofs that support the belief in the existence of the immensely powerful and intelligent being behind all this, the common sense notion that something cannot be created by nothing has been more than sufficient for most people who ever walked this Earth.

As it relates to Jesus, and his divinity, the case is an historical one. The body of evidence relating to Jesus, safeguarded and passed down through the centuries, establishes that he lived, that he was crucified and that he rose from the dead, leaving behind an empty tomb and galvanizing a following that changed the course of history. In so doing, he fulfilled numerous prophecies that predated his birth. The resurrection and the miracles he performed provide a solid foundation upon which one’s belief can rest. Numerous authors have detailed the evidence, but the PleaseConvinceMe website (here and here, for example) is as good a starting point as any for beginning to examine the logical proofs as well as the historical evidence.

So, is “non-belief” a crime? No more so that not believing in the power of medicine is the cause of someone’s death. A person with a fatal disease is not “punished” for refusing to get medical help; it is the disease, and not the lack of belief, that is causing the problem. So too with matters eternal. Christianity teaches that God’s law is written on our hearts, so that we are all “without excuse.” Our own consciences will testify against us in the end. Christians do not believe God punishes us for “not believing.” He punishes us for rebellion – for the things we said and did which manifested this rebellion – by separating himself from us. Mercifully, he also provides the means for re-uniting with him, through the work of Jesus.

Feelings are a wonderful part of human life. But in this galaxy, and in this time, they’re not particularly reliable in reaching sound conclusions or making wise decisions.

Posted by Al Serrato

 

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5
Jul

Why We Should Get To Know the Bible

Is there eea way to use the Bible to get someone interested in knowing more about the Bible? I’ve thought about this question for many years. As I learned more about the Word, and spoke more with people who called themselves Christian but knew little or nothing about what the Bible teaches, I wondered about the best approach to take. Here, in a nutshell, is one possible approach to make the case for studying the Bible from the Bible.

Most people who call themselves Christian will acknowledge that the Bible is the inspired word of God. What this means to them varies. Usually they will insist that the Bible is not literal, leaving them free to add meaning as they choose, and to ignore passages that are difficult. But why do such people seem to have no interest in ever learning Scripture? After all, even if the Bible is not literal, it must mean something. Why think of it as “inspired” if its wisdom is largely ignored? There are many possible answers to this question, but the most likely seems to be that they don’t see the need to do the hard work of learning not just what the Bible says, but also its history and context.

So, I sometimes begin by asking such a person whom Jesus might have been referring to in Matthew 7:21-22, where He warned about false prophets and added that not all who “prophesied,” “cast out demons” and “performed miracles” in His name will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Instead, it is “he who does the will of My Father.” In John 8:12, Jesus calls himself the light of the world; “he who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life.” And then in verses 31-32: “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.” Finally in 1 John 2:3-6: “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.

It seems pretty obvious that the Bible teaches – including the words of Jesus Himself – that there are those who know of Him, who may even invoke His name, who He will not recognize, because they have not in truth followed Him. But if invoking His name, or calling oneself a believer, is not enough, what then must one do to follow Him? Scripture provides the answer: we must love God not just with our heart and soul and strength, but also with our mind. (Mark 12:30) We must study and know the Word of God. How else can we be “salt and light” to a fallen world (Matt. 5:13) or represent Christ as His ambassadors (2 Corinth. 5:17)?

The Bible tells us that we should “not be conformed to this world” but instead be “transformed” by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we can discern what is the will of God, “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). We must “abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9). God intends the Scripture to be this source of the knowledge of good, as it is “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

In studying the Word, we are to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Writing to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul thanked God that when they received the word of God which they heard from him, they “accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” (1 Thess. 2:13). And to Timothy, Paul urges him “retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me” and to “guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.” (2 Tim 5:13-14).

In short, as the Apostle Peter wrote, we are to always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, doing so with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15) It takes knowledge, and thoughtfulness, to do this. Studying and knowing the Bible is, necessarily, the first step.

Changing someone’s view of the importance of Scripture is easier said than done. This approach may be a start, but there are no doubt many other, and better, ones. If you’ve had some success in this endeavor, please take a moment to write me at Al@pleaseconvinceme.com with the approach you took.

Posted by Al Serrato

 

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25
Jun

“The Hunger Games” and Human Nature

serfThe Hunger Games is great fiction. It takes the viewer or reader on an adventurous ride to a post-apocalyptic future, frighteningly reminiscent of ancient Rome’s barbaric approach to “public entertainment.” As the story unfolds, the protagonist – a 16-year-old girl whose hunting skills give her a better chance at survival than her much younger sister – volunteers to enter “the arena” in her place. In this fictitious futuristic world, denizens of “the Capitol” force a yearly ritual upon the subjugated peoples of the “twelve districts.” One boy and one girl from each district are selected at random to fight to the death in an arena of horrors, as some symbolic punishment for the rebellion that the Capitol had suppressed decades earlier.

The trilogy of books – and now, it seems, the movie – resonate with the audience because they tell a story as old as man. It is the story of the struggle against injustice and unfairness, the desire to see virtue prevail, the sense that it is just and right for the “good” to win and for evil to be thwarted. The reader can’t help but be attracted to young Katniss. Her selfless offer to face near-certain death in order to spare her sister makes her instantly appealing, and intriguing. But her resistance to the evil that is being perpetrated upon her, and her cleverness in dealing with the injustice she faces, seals her attraction. She is … good, and we know it. The people who created and run “the games,” by contrast, are evil. They inflict pain and suffering … because they can, or for the pleasure of seeing it unfold. They have lost their humanity and have become empty shells of human beings, going through the motions of life but not having even a mere fraction of what makes Katniss so fully alive.

I would venture to say that this story, though conjured up wholly in the mind of the author, is as relevant today, in this culture, as it would be in any human culture at any time. The struggle against the arrogance of power; the recognition of the value of honesty, fidelity, altruism, selfless love, sacrifice – the intuitive attraction we feel when we encounter virtue – these things seem to be built into the very nature of what it means to be human. Yes, many, perhaps most, human beings depart from this ideal. They become coarsened as a result of what life throws at them. For some, perhaps too many, they revel in the evil into which they allow themselves to descend. But we recognize them, and their acts, for what they are – perversions of the good. And we keep coming back to the standard, to a recognition of the permanence and rightness of the values that Katniss embodies. And we hope, however vainly, that those who have fallen astray will repent and seek redemption.

But why should this be so? Where does the grounding for such eternal truths exist? If atheism is true, as so many people seem to hold today, then we should have no particular reason to recognize good as good, or to embrace the struggle of the lonely fighter with the just cause against the forces of evil arrayed against her. “Good” is simply a point of view, an opinion of like or dislike, enjoyment or displeasure. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, does it not make more sense to simply view morality as whatever the prevailing view of the culture is? “Good” becomes what the majority – what the collective or the State – define it to be. In Katniss’ world, for instance, sacrificing 23 people a year for the sake of the “greater good” of the society would seem a relatively small price to pay.

We should not be deceived. Though those who derive benefit from barbarity may not complain – as is true of the ruling classes of all tyrannies – we nonetheless suffer no confusion as to what truly is the good. The virtues of selflessness and willingness to sacrifice for the other; the value of friendship for the sake of the other, and not so as to exploit another; the recognition that evil must be resisted and fought – these things that resonate with us as we watch Katniss, make no sense in a culture whose morality is situational, or based on the randomness that evolution presupposes.

Christianity, by contrast, provides a much better explanation for what we feel, what we know to be true. We intuitively recognize the existence of good because it is objectively there. We may rebel against it, and we may fool ourselves some or even most of the time about how well we are responding to it. But throughout history, and from culture to culture, that basic core sense of “the good” remains – with variations perhaps but largely intact. And we find ourselves naturally attracted to it – drawn to it even against our will – because the Author of all goodness has left that homing beacon within us. He, of course, sets the standard of good, and our view of true good is at best a dim reflection of what it really is. We may even disagree as to particular applications, but in recognizing that good and evil are real, that they occupy distinct and actual places in the universe, we take that first small step back home.

Posted by Al Serrato

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19
Jun

Is Our Will Truly Free?

In a recent p44ost, I argued that God, despite His immense power, does not
force us to accept Him. In the end, He respects our freedom by allowing us the choice of whether to let Him in or to say no to Him.

A reader took issue with this claim, saying:

For me, this represents the fundamental flaw in Christian logic and ultimate judgment – that we can ‘decide’ to believe, or not believe. That we are ‘free’ to believe, or not believe. This is crucial because in the end, we’re judged on our heartfelt belief . . . as if it were our conscious decision. If you really had a choice in what you truly believed, you could decide to believe that Islam is the one true faith. Of course, you’d have to become familiar with the basic premises and claims of Islam. You’d have to learn that not believing would result in eternal punishment. And then, Tuesday morning at 9am, you’d simply turn-on your belief… THIS CONCEPT IS ABSURD! There is no free-will when it comes to heartfelt beliefs! …But it is irrational to punish or reward someone for their most heartfelt beliefs. That’s because, in the end, they cannot control what they truly believe.

Now this challenge is interesting from a number of perspectives. First, if the writer really “believed” what he was saying, he would not bother to write. Consider the claim he is making: he thinks Christianity has it wrong in its doctrine regarding free will. He thinks instead that “heartfelt beliefs” are not things that you have any choice in, because no one can control what they truly believe. But by this reasoning, I may simply be one of those who have a heartfelt belief that free will actually exists, even though it really does not. So, why try to convince me that I’m wrong? Why try to get me to see that my view on free will is actually false? The argument self-destructs; to convince me to change my view of free will, the challenger must also agree that beliefs, heartfelt or otherwise, are things that can be changed.

Secondly, the idea that it is irrational to punish or reward someone for their heartfelt beliefs cannot survive scrutiny. Consider legislation outlawing “hate crimes.” Are these not a reflection by society that certain views – when they cause a person to act antisocially – are worthy of condemnation? Was this not the point of the Nuremberg War Trials – that Nazi ideology and the evil it spawned were volitional, however “heartfelt,” and therefore worthy of punishment?

In fairness to the writer, part of what he is saying is no doubt accurate: it is nonsensical to claim to “believe” something which one holds to be not true. I cannot “believe” in Santa Claus while at the same time concluding from the evidence that he does not exist. By contrast, however, “belief” in something isn’t a mystical experience that is separate from the mind. We don’t close our eyes and “feel the force,” as if belief in God required access to a power source that we could tap into or manipulate. God gave us minds and the capacity for reason so that we would use them, not sit idly by waiting to be overwhelmed by a fairytale “conversion experience.”

A moment’s reflection will show that there are indeed times in which we “decide” to believe. Take for example the issue of commitment to a relationship: a person can decide that true love means staying committed to their spouse, even if the relationship is shaky. Acting on that belief, they can work on restoring the relationship. By contrast, a person can also choose to believe that divorce is a better option in the event that they are unhappy. There is “evidence” to support either position, so action must be based on “belief” despite not having perfect knowledge of the future.

Or take for example the choice that a soldier makes. He “believes” in his country and wants to serve it, even though he does not have full knowledge of each of the principles upon which it once stood, now stands, or will stand in the future. What he does know, however, supports his commitment of will to defend it against all enemies. He may have moments of doubt, but a properly grounded belief will see him through those doubts.

In each example, there may be moments in which belief falters, and that is usually due to temptation – to jettison the old for something new, to run from danger. But consider what this temptation is: often, it is simply the desire to think first and foremost of oneself and not of others. The deeper we dig, what we find time and again is man in his natural condition. This issue of free will – this question that we are examining – is the question of man’s rebellion against God. Man chooses to throw off the shackles of the creature and exercise instead – or at least try to – the prerogatives of God. What better way to do this than to ignore – no, to reject – God’s very existence? Despite the overwhelming evidence built into nature of incredible intelligence, sublime artistry and immense power, the modern atheist insists that this vast complexity can be explained by human minds as the product of random chance and time. The hubris of such as position, when viewed from the perspective of God, must indeed be laughable.

In the end, a person is free to reject the evidence of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Perhaps some do for what the challenger calls “heartfelt” reasons. But most, I suspect, never take the time to assess the evidence, to consider its plausibility, to weigh and balance what has come to us from antiquity. Doing so might require them to make changes in the way they view the world… and their place in it.

The atheist who rejects belief in God is not the object of unfair treatment; he is not unfairly prevented from having faith by some“heartfelt belief” that he can’t seem to shake, as if he wants to believe and is being punished for lacking the ability. It is not as if his mind, though seeking God, is being “overcome” against his will by his “heartfelt” but erroneous beliefs.

No, he is freely choosing how he will view the world. He is directing his will away, rather than toward, his creator. He is choosing to reject God because he remains in rebellion against God. But God remains, as does the evidence, for anyone who wants to give the question a closer look.

Posted by Al Serrato

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15
Jun

Is God Pro-Abortion? A Response to Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks

written by Aaron Brake

Receiving your news and information from late night television, comedy shows, or internet political commentary can often leave you misinformed, especially when hosts address topics in which they have no expertise. Such is the case in this video where Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks offers his thoughts on the Bible and abortion and attempts to make the case that God is pro-abortion:

How should Christian pro-life advocates respond? Cenk needs to be corrected on several points.

First, Cenk begins by writing off the scientific evidence that a genetically distinct, living, and whole human being comes into existence at conception. The question of “when life begins” has been settled for decades thanks to the science of embryology. To quote just a few experts in the field,

Human life begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoo developmentn) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual. (and) A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo).”[1]

“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization… is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte.”[2]

“The development of a human being begins with fertilization, a process by which two highly specialized cells, the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female, unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.”[3]

You can read 40 similar quotes from medical experts in this article who reach the same conclusion.

Despite the evidence, Cenk says the view that life begins at conception is based solely on religion. Why? Because this allows him to dismiss the view as “religious” which further justifies his refusal and inability to interact with the evidence. Not only is this wrong, but it is intellectually lazy. Secular pro-life advocates use the same evidence and argumentation in making a case for the pro-life view, and their analysis certainly cannot be labeled “religious.”

Second, moving from science to the biblical text, there is no indication in this passage that the woman is pregnant. This test of faithfulness is a general test applied when a husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful, with no mention of pregnancy being made. In fact the passage specifically says that the husband has a mere suspicion with no evidence or witnesses, seemingly ruling out a visible, noticeable pregnancy:

If a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act (v. 13).

Again, there are no witnesses to testify against this woman, the act of adultery was hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she has remained undetected. Pregnancy from adultery would not go unnoticed or undetected, and so pregnancy resulting from this act seems to be precluded in this scenario.

One could respond to this by saying that perhaps the passage is referring to future pregnancies of the unfaithful woman that will ultimately result in miscarriage. This brings us to our next point.

Third, Cenk Uygur quotes from a very specific Bible translation. Why? Because this is the only translation that uses the word “miscarry” when interpreting this passage. In other words, this translation fits his narrative. He quotes from the 2011 NIV translation which uses the word “miscarry” twice in Numbers 5 verses 21 and 27:

Here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the LORD cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. (v. 21)

If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. (v. 27)

Interestingly, not even the 1984 NIV translation translates the verse this way. This seems to be a change made specifically in the 2011 edition. Every other reliable translation I examined including the NASB, KJV, NKJV, HCSB, RSV and ESV, all translate the verse similar to this:

Then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. (v. 21 ESV)

And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. (v. 27 ESV)

The more literal interpretation for the phrase in question is “your thigh fall away.” So is the translation “your womb miscarry” an accurate interpretation for “your thigh fall away”? This brings us to our next point.

Fourth, looking at the context of the passage, a strong case can be made that miscarriage is not in view but rather barrenness or the inability to have children (sterility). Notice there is a contrast being made in this passage between barrenness and fertility in verses 27 and 28:

And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.

To reiterate, if the woman is guilty of wrongdoing, “her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away” but if she is innocent “she shall be free and shall conceive children.” The opposing consequences based on guilt or innocence make sense if what is being contrasted is sterility with fertility, or the inability and ability to have children. The case becomes stronger when we consider that throughout the Old Testament barrenness is considered a curse (e.g. Gen. 20:17-18; 30:1, 22-23) and children are considered a blessing (Gen. 17:6; 33:5; Ps. 113:9; 127:3-5). The “curse” then that the water brings is the curse of barrenness or sterility which is hermeneutically consistent with the rest of the Old Testament. Roy Gane agrees in his commentary on the book of Numbers. Referring to this passage, he states,

The former, in which “thigh” apparently connotes reproductive organs (cf. Gen. 24:2, 9), can be taken to imply sterility and may refer to a prolapsed uterus. H.C. Brichto suggests that abdominal swelling indicates a state “known to the layman as ‘false pregnancy.’ This condition…is featured by distended belly, cessation of the menses and incapacity to conceive.”

While scholars have not agreed on the gynecological implications of the Hebrew terminology, they sound painful and clearly cause sterility (contrast 5:28). So the conditional imprecation, to which a suspected woman must assent by saying ’amen, ’amen (5:22), specifies outcomes that any Israelite woman dreads: social stigma, physical suffering, and inability to bear children.[4]

In summary, Cenk has failed to make his case that God is pro-abortion based on the biblical data. First, there is no indication that the woman in this scenario is pregnant. Second, Cenk must rely on a questionable interpretation of the text in order for his view to hold water. Third, a strong contextual case can be made that sterility or barrenness is being spoken of, not necessarily miscarriage.

Finally, we can ask the question, “So what?” Let us suppose Cenk is correct in his interpretation and that the judgment from God on the adulterous woman is miscarriage. What follows from that?

Does it follow that abortion on demand is morally permissible? No. As Francis Beckwith points out, attempting to argue for abortion on demand due to hard cases or special circumstances “is like trying to argue for the elimination of traffic laws from the fact that one might have to violate some of them in rare circumstances, such as when one’s spouse or child needs to be rushed to the hospital.”[5]

Does it follow that elective abortion is permissible in special circumstances such as adultery? No. The fact that God in His judgment takes life doesn’t give human beings the prerogative to do likewise. This is seen throughout both the Old and New Testaments. As Clinton Wilcox states, “Peter pronounced a curse on Ananias and Sapphira because they lied to the Holy Spirit, and God struck them dead. It doesn’t follow that we are justified in killing someone for lying. God is the giver of life, and only he is uniquely qualified to take it.”[6]

Does it even follow that God is pro-abortion? No. Again Clinton Wilcox points out that “an abortion really isn’t in view here…children were a blessing to Jewish women. A barren woman was seen as cursed. This curse was not meant to abort a child. Rather, it was meant to show guilt. A woman who had not committed adultery would gladly redeem herself by drinking the water. A woman who had committed adultery would not agree to drinking the water, and therefore guilt could be determined.”[7]

[1] Keith L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th ed., pp. 16, 2.

[2] Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Miller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd ed., p. 8.

[3] Jan Langman, Medical Embryology. 3rd ed., p. 3.

[4] Roy Gane, The NIV Application Commentary: Leviticus and Numbers, 523-524.

[5] Beckwith, Defending Life, 105.

[6] Clinton Wilcox, Does the Bible Justify Abortion?, found at http://christianapologeticsalliance.com/2012/10/30/does-the-bible-justify-abortion/

[7] Ibid.

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11
Jun

Why Growing Closer To God Is Such a Slow Process

My last post addressed asthe question whether free will could truly be said to exist if one believes, as Christianity teaches, that man is born with original sin. I argued that man remains free, despite this fallen nature, because he acts in accordance with his desires. Unlike a robot or lower animal, operating on programming or instinct, man has the capacity to weigh and balance, to imagine, and to foresee, at least in part, the consequences of his choices. Man therefore has the capacity to transcend his programming – his nature – and to become something different, something better. And so, more is expected of him.

Christianity also teaches that we cannot transform ourselves, at least not in a manner sufficient to satisfy a perfect God. We must allow Him into our lives – no, we must make Him master of our lives – so that He can do that work within us. But this is a slow process and the question I left open in the last post is why this must be so. Why can’t we simply decide to “love God” and throw off on our own the shackles of sinfulness?

I submit that the answer to that question also lies within our nature. We are imperfect, limited beings seeking to approach a perfect, holy God. We need simply look around us to see why this must be a slow, progressive process, and not one that can be accomplished quickly. Consider for a moment the way we learn. We do not possess instincts like the lower animals. We cannot, without first being taught and engaging in much practice, jump onto a narrow ledge and remain perfectly balanced, the way a cat does. We cannot “download” into our minds a program from a computer and have instantaneous and complete knowledge of a subject. Instead, the progress toward any goal is a slow and laborious one.

Amazing progress is of course possible. Think for a moment about being thrust into the cockpit of a modern airliner on final approach. You would see a jumble of displays and readouts, light and dials and gauges, all perfectly arranged and providing a steady stream of information. You might even recognize a few, and their significance, if you took the time to focus on a particular instrument. But even with the pilot standing nearby ready to explain, you would be unable to make sense of the whole. She, of course, sees everything with clarity, effortlessly scanning the readouts and able to respond with the precision needed to bring thousands of tons of metal floating softly back to earth.

Or think of a surgeon conducting open-heart surgery. You’ve seen pictures, no doubt, of the body’s interior, but peering in over his shoulder, you would see a mass of flesh, and tissue and blood. The idea that you could precisely introduce an instrument into the mix and leave the patient the better for it is laughable. Yet the surgeon can do precisely that. His experience allows him to see with clarity what looks to you like chaos.

What we can derive from this is that we are slow and progressive in our ability to learn. It takes considerable time, and repetition and effort, to achieve the mastery that the pilot or the surgeon demonstrates. They take years to reach their respective goals, and they can no more will themselves to be masters of their craft on day one than we can step off a building and float safely to earth.

Applying this observation to God is of course different. God is a not a plane or a body; he is not something for us to master or manipulate. What is He? The Bible says he is “love,” and most religions, if they do not exactly agree, would at least agree that He is ultimate goodness. And where do we first begin to develop a facility for love? We do that within the context of relationships. We move from infancy to adulthood, and as we do so, we move from “takers” of love and affection to mature adults with the capacity to give. In its highest form – agape love – we express the capacity to love without condition and without expectation for return. We express love for the sake of love. This too is a lengthy process. Like the surgeon or the pilot, we do not simply decide to love others and live out that decision perfectly. The road is marked by many obstacles and many ups and downs.

Marriage has been rightly seen as the best vehicle for fully developing this capacity because it involves focusing our “love” wholly upon the other. It’s no wonder then that the standard wedding vow contains the promises that sound so strange to our modern ears – to love, honor and respect someone in sickness… in bad times…when things are at their worse? Really? Why would anyone choose to persist in loving someone who can give nothing of the original “bargain” back? And then children are brought into the equation, and for the first time we understand what love also entails – a sense of devotion and vulnerability that we could never quite understand if we haven’t experienced it ourselves.

This is all fine and good, the skeptic might respond. But God could have shortcut this whole process, couldn’t He? He could have made us instantly ready for all these things, so He remains at fault for the current mess we are in.

I hope the above examples lead you to the same conclusion as they lead me. Flying a plane is difficult, as is surgery. Loving a spouse or a difficult child also takes time, effort and practice. But God is not a mere person or a skill to master. He is ultimate perfection. Gaze up into the night sky or into the recesses of the living cell, and marvel for a moment at the extreme intelligence and power that He encompasses. We are closer to the ant, or the amoeba, than we are to Him. Multiply the difficulty of mastering a skill, or fully loving another person, not by a million or a billion or a gazillion – but by infinity. That is the task that awaits any human being with the audacity to think that he can relate to God as an equal.

Of course God must do the work. There can be no other way. And the process of relating to perfection – of someday interacting with ultimate and perfect goodness – is a slow and progressive one. But despite His immense power, He does not force our hand. In the end, He respects our freedom by allowing us the choice of whether to let Him in to start the process.

Posted by Al Serrato

 

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2
Jun

Why We Remain Free Despite Our Fallen Nature

Evilasd is not a created thing, but is instead the measure of the extent to which a particular thought or act deviates from “the good.” That was the point of a recent.  Drawing on the work of Augustine and other early Christian thinkers, I concluded that God allows for evil – for human beings to think and act in a way that is contrary to his perfect will – because that is the only way “free will” could exist. He could make us robots or mere things, but he could not make us “free” without the capacity for “evil” to also exist.

The problem with short essays is that the work of giants such as Augustine or Aquinas cannot be encapsulated in 750 words. These posts are meant simply to convey a basic principle, or to generate interest in the ideas and some discussion. Sometimes the discussion that emerges reflects the misunderstanding that can result from a superficial treatment of a topic. One challenger commented:

“If people inevitably commit evil (as Christians believe), then we don’t have free will. A god who allowed a tendency to evil to be inherited doesn’t sound good to me.”

Making sense of this challenge requires first that we consider what is meant by “evil.” In my post, I used the term quite broadly, meaning any deviation from God’s will. Consequently, evil could mean something serious, like genocide, or it could mean something minor, like demeaning someone, or anything in between. While all acts of rebellion may be contrary to God’s will, it is self-evident that some acts of rebellion against God (eg. rape, murder, genocide) are more serious and more despicable than others. Consequently, while it is true that all people “inevitably commit evil,” it is not as if all people feel a compulsion to commit heinous acts of violence or depredation. The common element in all “evil” however is the exercise of the will directed at achieving one’s own ends whenever those ends do not coincide with God’s perfect will. Sometimes those ends might be laudable, and sometimes not. But the common feature is the desire for “control” – of one’s self, of others, of one’s environment. In the final analysis, it is the desire to throw off the yoke of God and to be one’s own master – the very essence of rebellion.

Does this feature of the human species negate free will, as the challenger asserts? Hardly. Because when we act in our own interest, and we pursue our own base ends, we nonetheless act in a volitional manner. We do what is pleasing to us, what we find to be desirable. The opposite of that would be to act on compulsion, or by instinct. Unlike the lesser animals, whose behavior appears largely programmed, human beings have the capacity to reflect upon their behavior. While they might experience temptations or urges, they retain the capacity to act in accordance with their will and not simply due to some biological imperative. To say, then, that our ability to choose to act in accordance with our pleasure is evidence of a lack of free will is incoherent. It is not as if we are forced, for example, to eat things that are disagreeable to us, or to do things we would rather not do. What we choose to do is most often simply an expression of our innermost desires.

Which leads then to the next question: why do we possess such desires? This is a much trickier question. Why does the lion devour its prey? Why does it look upon the jungle as a place to hunt, to exercise dominion, to kill? It is built into its nature, yes, but as a result of that nature, it derives pleasure or satisfaction from its actions. It operates according to its programming. But we are not lions. We have the capacity for thought, for reflection, for self-assessment, for insight. We can see the long term consequences of our actions. We can develop empathy for others. While we may derive pleasure from doing wrong, we also possess the capacity to see the law that urges us to do right. The lion can be tamed, given enough time and effort. But it must be done from outside. Its instinct must be overcome. Man, by contrast, has the capacity to transcend his programming – his nature – and to become something different, something better.

The question is how he does this. The secular humanist believes man is basically good and that with enough education and enlightenment, he can correct himself. Man – the center of all things – remains the center in this worldview. Christianity, by contrast, teaches that man’s fallen nature is like quick-sand. The temptations that we experience, while not instincts or compulsion, are nonetheless powerful and difficult to master. We can struggle to escape but in the end our efforts are not sufficient. We cannot tame ourselves – our natures – nor can we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

The good news of Christianity, of course, is that we need not. God does the work of redemption, including the initial overture in which he beckons us home. We need simply say yes. He can then perfect us, make us ready to stand in the presence of perfection. (More on this in my next post.)

Yes, God is responsible for allowing man to have this fallen nature – this tendency toward evil – and for giving man the free will to act on that desire. But he did not saddle us with instinct that takes away the volitional nature of our acts. Instead, he bestowed upon us his very image – the imago dei. He provided us the capacity that he gave to no other animal, for self awareness and self control. Most importantly he gave us the capacity for choice – to say yes to him, and to let him complete a work in us.

And that makes him very good indeed.

Posted by Al Serrato

 

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28
May

A Response to Hillary Clinton on Abortion

This last December I begababyinwombn working on a document which responded to Hillary Clinton on the issue of abortion. It was given to the Rubio and Cruz campaigns hoping they would be able to use the information in debate during the general election. Unfortunately that will not be the case.

But, we didn’t want the information to go to waste so I’ve posted the link here from the Life Training Institute website. You can also find it at the bottom of the “Resource” page on the site.

A Response to Hillary Clinton on Abortion

My hope is that it will be a useful resource for those of you who are interested. Thanks so much to Scott Klusendorf for including me on this project. Also thanks to Daniel Rodger for proofreading and suggestions.

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