Most non-believers will tell you that man is basically “good.” When he acts against that basic goodness, it’s the result of disease – such as alcoholism, drug addiction or some form of mental illness. These, in turn, stem from a failure of society to reach out and provide the right kind of assistance and services. If only we as a society could do more, spend more, provide more, we could eventually create the kind of utopia that “good” people populate.
Christianity, by contrast, teaches a much different worldview. Long ago, the first man and woman exercised their free will to rebel against God, and in so doing created a rift between man and God that continues to this day. Though man has a certain inherent goodness, because he bears the image of God, he is at present broken, corrupted, fallen – and he manifests that fallen nature in a way that we see quite starkly. Christians have a name of this manifestation – sin. It afflicts, and motivates, all of us, and no one can escape its pull. Not without divine help, anyway.
These contrasting worldviews cannot both be correct. And depending on which view you accept, your response to the good news of the Gospel will be different. “Good” people who simply need more education and more refinement don’t need a Savior; they can do just fine on their own – and with a little help from society. But fallen and corrupted people – even well-intentioned ones – are not going to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Their nature, constantly at war with the good that is within them, needs to be recast – remade in the image of the God who made them and left them here.
Is there a way to “prove” which view is correct? How can we reliably determine what man is like in his natural state? First, we need to get our minds around what we mean by terms like “good” or “evil.” I would suggest a simple definition: what we recognize as “good” in other people is the product of an intentional effort at selflessness. Whether its sacrificial love, working for charity or simply a random act of kindness – what we experience as “good” is an act directed to the benefit of the other. By contrast, what we see as evil is an act directed at satisfying within oneself a base or selfish end. The quests for power, for recognition, for material wealth, for dominance – all these things drive people to ignore the harm inflicted as they climb on the backs of those who stand in their way.
Now, with this basic concept in mind, what can we see from examining man in his most primitive state? I don’t mean primitive as in caveman, but as in newborn. Spend even a little time with infants and toddlers and you’ll see some very basic features emerge. Each views himself as the center of the universe and expects his parents, and the other kids around him, to treat him accordingly. With each passing month, the willfulness of the child’s behavior becomes increasingly apparent: from every fiber of his being, he is shouting “I want things my way!” Whether it’s food or drink, when and how he wants it; his mother’s attention; or his playmates toys, a developing child’s “me-focus” is readily on display. And if his will is thwarted, there is no resort to reason – a temper tantrum is the predictable result.
Now, some might object that children are innocent and cannot be described as bad or broken, or worse yet, evil. They might point out that children are free from the biases and prejudices that sour many adult relationships. But this objection misses my point. I would not describe children as evil either, because evil implies a level of awareness of the harm one is doing, and a small child does not yet appreciate the consequences of his behavior. But the child’s behavior is reflective of the way his mind operates, and unless a parent applies discipline and training to bend the will to a proper orientation, a spoiled, self-centered adolescent will emerge.
Consider: no parents ever have to train their child to give up his positive and sunny disposition and be more critical of others; they don’t need to punish their children for sharing too much and instead teach them to rip their toys out of the hands of their playmates; they don’t need to insist that a child stop thinking so much about what he can do for his parents – “Can’t I wash the dishes or sweep the deck? I really don’t have anything else to do?” No, for every child, the process of “civilizing” is a process of moving from a me-centered selfishness to an other-centered effort to get along.
Children don’t have the insight yet to seek to change their ways, to live more cooperatively and altruistically. Their parents’ job is to teach them – to help them move from their inherent fallenness to a state which is not quite natural to us, a state in which we are intentional about trying to do good. The non-believer can also do good. But by rejecting God as the source of true goodness, he remains in defiance to God. He refuses to see his need for a Savior to finish the job of making him good. He refuses to bend his will to God. It is no coincidence that the Bible speaks of becoming a “slave” to Christ. For in the end, it is only by bending to Him – by dying to ourselves as we look outward to others in order to better serve Him – that we can eventually find the solution to our problem.
Believing that we are basically good flies in the face of the reality of what we truly are. It stands in the way of our crying out for the Savior who alone as the power to restore us. Observing children in their natural condition can help give us a better picture of ours. This is one of the few lessons that we should allow our children to teach us.
Posted by Al Serratochildren, fallen nature of humans, Salvation
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Many skeptics believe that all religions are basically the same. If there is an afterlife, they surmise, all that will be required for admission is that you live a “good” life and be “sincere” about your beliefs. My last post offered reasons from the observation of nature that should cause the skeptic some, well, skepticism about this view that all who are “good” and “sincere” will find a place in heaven.
In short, it seems to me that a study of nature actually leads to the contrary conclusion: if nature is our guide to knowledge, then the Author of nature seems to be teaching that getting it right is what matters. Sincerely believing that you can defy gravity won’t count for much if you step off the side of a building, no matter how good a life you’ve lived up til then.
Nature provides many other examples of this lesson. Consider for a moment the way nutrition works. There are a variety of food groups that can provide nourishment, and considerable variety within each food group. Proteins, dairy products, fruits, grains, vegetables – each of these groups has something to add to a person’s total nutrition. When taken in the right balance, the person will experience normal growth to adulthood, plenty of energy and overall good health. But when one or more elements is lacking, a person’s health can be severely impacted. Take for instance the disease known as scurvy, brought on by the absence of citrus fruits in a person’s diet. Many an ancient sailor experienced this lesson the hard way, suffering a variety of physical disabilities that led to a painful death.
Notice that nature does not seem to care how a person was raised. If they learned to eat poorly in their childhood, nature does not take that into consideration in attaching a consequence. Nor is nature concerned with how sincere a person is in believing that his diet is good for him. When medical experts of the ’50′s assured their patients that smoking was good for them, that did not make smoking any less harmful. Those who study nature should realize that with more education and knowledge, we move beyond what we once believed as we try to conform our beliefs, and our behavior, with the way things really are.
To the thoughtful person then, eating should not be about what dishes he grew up on or about what food makes him feel “good.” Most people find chocolate to be quite tasty, and it’s known to lift one’s mood. But if chocolate becomes a staple item in place of, say, vegetables, then one’s health will soon decline. This result will occur regardless of how many experts advise it and regardless of how sincerely the person believes that chocolate can take the place of beans or broccoli. Though considerable variation exists, we cannot eat just anything and if we’re smart, we should concern ourselves with finding that right balance of items that will best sustain good health.
Finding this right balance, of course, can be difficult. There is no shortage of “experts” who will tell you that only they have the answers. Yet try we must, for our health hangs in the balance. It would make little sense for us to throw up our hands in frustration and say that these competing “experts” can’t all be right, so we’ll just keep eating the way we want to, or the way we were raised to, and hope for the best. No, seeking answers and moving closer to “getting it right” are what any thoughtful person should do.
How does this relate to apologetics? When dealing with a skeptic, the believer often encounters apathy. Most skeptics just don’t care what Christianity has to say, because they have uncritically accepted the notion that all belief systems are equal. By analogy, they have rejected the idea that some foods are good and some are bad, and replaced it: most people eat what they grew up eating; who are you to say that chocolate isn’t as good as broccoli or fish?; I don’t believe in citrus fruits; you’re so intolerant when you think you know what a healthy diet is? Sound familiar?
Perhaps a discussion of nature might be persuasive, because skeptics often believe that it is only through the study of nature – through science – that any real knowledge can be obtained. That study should lead to the conclusion that nature is quite a harsh professor. It doesn’t grade on a curve and it doesn’t give partial credit for making a good effort. There is an order to life and to nature, and one must live within that order or suffer some very real, and often very nasty, consequences.
As a Christian, I can take comfort that the Author of nature has provided a rescue plan that makes my choice easy, and my work light. Yes, nature is harsh as a result of man’s rebellion, but I have a rescuer who can and will restore what has been broken. There may be a variety of denominations, and there may be differences in some doctrines, but in the end there is one path to reconnecting with God – it is by placing one’s trust and faith in Jesus and his saving work. Like many who came before me, I can take great comfort in the knowledge that the heavy lifting has been done for me. But where does the naturalist find comfort when studying the workings of nature? And if nature is this harsh in the here and now, why in the world should the skeptic conclude that it will be any different in the hereafter?
No, the wise choice is to discard this foolish notion that all religions are the same and that all paths lead to God. Better answers are out there, but you’ll never find them if you never start looking.
Posted by Al Serratoeternal life, naturalism, Salvation, skepticism
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Most skeptics I know feel pretty confident that all religions “say basically the same thing.” If there actually is a God, they’re not particularly worried, because in their view, “being a good person” is really all that matters. As long as you are “sincere” in your beliefs, whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Hindu or a member of your own individual religion, it will turn out fine in the end. Many go so far as to say that they simply “won’t believe” in a God who warns of a narrow path to salvation.
This view has always struck me as particularly odd, coming as it often does from people who subscribe to a view that nature is all there is, and that science is the best way to attain knowledge. It’s odd because neither nature nor science operates in this fashion. Neither cares about the sincerity of one’s views and beliefs, and neither cares about what led someone into the position he or she currently holds about the way things really are. What matters is whether the person is getting it right. After all, stepping off a cliff will result in a nasty fall, regardless of whether the unfortunate soul knows or cares that there is a cliff in front of him and regardless of how sincerely he believes the cliff is not really there.
Consider another example from the natural realm. You awake one morning with a crushing weight on your chest. You’re sweating and short of breath, and pain begins to shoot down your arm. It quickly occurs to you that these are the symptoms of a heart attack, so you dial 911 and soon find yourself in route to a hospital. But a surprise awaits you there. You have a choice of several doors. Behind one is a primitive medicine man, ready to bring you comfort and healing with various incantations and potions. Behind another is an ancient herbalist. Knowing what compounds result in what physical effects, he plans on using a variety of roots and extracts to restore health. Behind a third is a hypnotist, who believes that your symptoms are the product of anxiety, and that clearing away some of the baggage of your past will eliminate both your physical and mental pain. And behind the fourth, is a gruff, unfriendly and disinterested surgeon who tells you that your coronary arteries have collapsed and that without a bypass operation, you will soon be dead.
A frightening prospect one hopes never to face. But imagine for a moment what considerations will be going through your mind: the pain is real and intense and growing stronger with each passing moment. You need help, someone who can save you. Before today, you cared very little about healers or hypnotists or herbalists, nor much for surgeons either. Each, you believe, has something to offer, something he or she can contribute, and each is right in his or her own way. But right now, you don’t care what makes the four similar; what matters is what makes them different. Will each be just as effective in saving you, and if not, which one can best deal with the particular problem you are facing?
Their individual sincerity doesn’t matter. Nor does the confidence that they express that their approach will work. The medicine man may seem more confident than the surgeon, who tells you what the risks are. But confidence and sincerity don’t guarantee that a person’s views correspond to reality. What matters here is basic: which one actually has the solution to your problem. The herbalist and hypnotist might solve some problems, but your particular problem needs a surgeon. Because nature doesn’t care about what you like or don’t like.
Of course none of this proves that Christianity is true, or that Jesus Christ is the “surgeon” that you need. But that is not the point. In the example, the crushing weight could not be ignored. For us, the prospect of death can be ignored, at least for a while. But every thoughtful person knows that it awaits in the end. Here we deal not with possibilities or probabilities, but with dead (excuse the pun) certainty. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, we have a “problem” that we can’t avoid forever.
Christianity explains the source of the problem. Man has rebelled against his Creator and is now paying a price for that rebellion. Eternal separation from God – from the source of all goodness and power and love – is the necessary consequence of that rebellion. But there is a solution, a particular way that God has provided through which we can get right with Him. Through the centuries, this belief has offended many, who view it as exclusive, small-minded and unfair. But having a heart attack is “unfair” and so is dying. Reality can be quite harsh at times.
So next time a naturalist tells you that, if there is a God, he will certainly accept “good” people, ask him where in the world he got that notion. Nature itself stands in testimony to the fact that surviving requires more than wishful thinking – it requires that you actually get things right.
Posted by Al SeratoSalvation, sincere beliefs, skepticism
Posted in Writings | 3 Comments »
“It does not matter how just, kind, and generous they have been with their fellow humans during their lifetime: if they do not accept the gospel of Jesus, they are condemned. No just God would ever judge a man by his beliefs rather than his actions.”
It is difficult, if not impossible, to provide a satisfying answer to this challenge. After all, even for believers, the doctrine of hell is difficult, and goes against our own inclinations – to forgive ourselves, to lessen our own culpability, to judge ourselves as “basically good.” It’s only by resort to Scripture, and a bit of philosophy, that we affirm that a just God must have a place of punishment if there is to be such a thing as free will.
A “just” God does justice, which means to punish or reward appropriately. In the Western tradition, we punish people for the actions they commit, but the extent of punishment is dependent also on the person’s mental state, and a person’s mental state is reflective of his or her beliefs. Premeditated murder is worse than manslaughter, and is punished more severely, and a hate crime is a sentencing enhancement that adds more punishment to the underlying crime. In both examples, a person’s beliefs are at play: the premeditated murderer has reflected on his choices and wants the victim dead; a hate crime reflects a belief that the rights of a member of the protected group are especially unworthy of respect. So, considering a person’s beliefs may well be relevant, especially if those beliefs have motivated the criminal behavior.
But the challenger’s mistake is even more fundamental. He is wrong to assert that people are condemned for not accepting the gospel. Christians believe that people are condemned for their sinful behavior – the “wages of sin is death” – not for what they fail to do. The quoted challenge is like saying that the sick man died of “not going to the doctor.” No, the person died of a specific condition – perhaps cancer or a heart attack – which a doctor might have been able to cure. So too with eternal punishment. No one is condemned for refusing to believe in Jesus. While Jesus can – and does – provide salvation for those who seek it, there is nothing unjust about not providing salvation to those who refuse to seek it. After all, we don’t normally feel obliged to help someone who has not asked for, and does not want, our assistance. So too the Creator has the right to withhold a gift – i.e. eternity spent in His presence – from those who would trample on the gift, and on the gift-giver.
The quoted assertion also demonstrates an unspoken belief that we can impress God with our “kind” or “generous” behavior. This fails to grasp what God is – a perfect being. We cannot impress Him. What we do right we should do. We don’t drag people into court and reward them for not committing crimes. This is expected of them. They can’t commit a murder and then claim that punishment is unfair, because they had been kind and generous in the past. When a person gets his mind around the idea of what perfection entails, trying to impress a perfect Creator with our “basic goodness” no longer seems like such a good option.
So, in the end, we find ourselves in a predicament. We use our free will to rebel against our Creator, but we want Him to accept this rebellion, and us, with “no questions asked.” When God judges us, He finds us wanting in both our actions and our beliefs. But in His goodness, He also provides a solution to our problem, a bridge that gaps the divide that exists between us and Him. There is nothing unfair in any of this.
After all, entry onto that bridge is free, and available to everyone.
But we must first want to cross over.
Posted by Al Serratobelief in God, eternal separation, justice, justification
Posted in Writings | 1 Comment »
In my last post, I made the comment that as limited beings, we could never fully know the mind of a perfect Creator. I said that because, I think, a proper sense of humility requires that we acknowledge our limitations. If we start off our study of theology with the presupposition that complete knowledge of God is somehow possible, we will in the end be disappointed. Complete knowledge is simply not attainable.
A challenger commented on my statement by saying:
“if this is true, then all modes of worship and ideas about gods must be thrown out as imperfect and more likely error ridden. There is no way to live your life around guesses so better to live as if there’s no god and be the best person that you can be.”
The reasoning employed here is faulty in a number of respects, and as apologists, it is important to be able to recognize, and point out, where the challenger’s thinking is going astray.
Let’s begin with the conclusion: there is, of course, nothing wrong with being the “best person that you can be.” But what does “best” mean? In common usage, “best” is simply the superlative form of “good.” Products are often rated “good,” “better,” and “best.” Measuring “good” requires us to have some notion of the function of the thing in question: a laptop that doesn’t turn on would not be a “good” computer, though it might pass muster as a paper weight. Calling it “good” because it kept papers in place on the desk would sound silly though, as everyone knows what the function of a laptop is. What makes a car “good?” Great gas mileage, power and speed, or freedom from breakdowns? Again, it would depend on the use to which it is designed to be put. Perhaps a balance of all three for the average driver; an optimized blending of characteristics.
When we apply this inquiry to human beings, how does one know whether he is living his “best” life? Should he measure it by worldly success, by wealth, by the number of friends he has? Does “best” change depending on the person? On his stage of life? On his preferences?
It doesn’t take much reflection to see that the challenger is offering no guidance at all. The whole point of the religious enterprise is to get at the mind of the one who designed us and who left us here for some purpose. Understanding what he wants from us is the main way – the only way – for us to determine whether the lives we are living are “good,” let alone “best.”
But the challenger doesn’t believe this is possible for limited beings. He responds with a false dichotomy: either we can know fully the mind of an infinite being, or we should “throw out” as imperfect and “error ridden” all modes of worship; it is better, in his view, to live as if there is no god.
This may be the conclusion the challenger wishes to reach, but logic does not support it. Examples abound all around us. I have a rough idea of how this computer I am using operates. I could provide a general explanation and probably not be too far off the mark. But move into any real detail, and my lack of knowledge would soon become evident. I certainly could not take it apart or rebuild it from scratch. What conclusion should I draw from this? Because I cannot fully know the mind of the computer designer, or the intricacies of the computer hardware, am I better off living as if there were no computer? How about the electricity that powers it? Should I start lighting candles and turning off the power because I lack a detailed understanding of how transformers and circuit breakers work?
Complete knowledge of a subject is never necessary in order for the student to have gained something useful from the acquisition of knowledge. And moving closer and closer to the truth about a subject will often increase our power. Faced with limited knowledge of the workings of a computer, I am better off learning more about it, and thereby increase its usefulness, than I am in pretending that it really doesn’t work, simply because I can’t know fully how it works.
So too with the most important subject of all: the one that involves the study of who left us here, and why? Learning more about Him, and want he wants from us, is not just a “good” move. It’s the very “best” one we can make.
Posted by Al Serratoapologetics, knowledge of God, skepticism
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Some of the most fascinating science fiction plots involve time travel. Our minds are naturally intrigued, and ultimately confused, by the concept of how and why things play out the way they do, and what, if anything, could be done to change the flow of history. If we could go back in time, could we alter our present by tinkering with the past, or would a new timeline in some parallel universe result? We will never know.
Sometimes, believers too get caught up in inquiries regarding what might have been. Recently, a believer posed this question about God and his plan for mankind:
Wouldn’t God have known what would happen in the Fall?If he knew why did he go through with making us? With making the tree?
Because limited beings can never fully know the mind of a perfect Creator, the only correct answer to this question is probably “We’ll never know… at least not in this life.” However, considering the attributes of God that we do know and recognize, we can try to make some sense of the state of affairs in which humanity finds itself.
As Christians, we believe God to be omnipotent and omniscient. Stated another way, we believe that there is nothing beyond God’s power or beyond his knowledge. All things that are capable of being done, He can do, and all things that are knowable, He knows. There is nothing doable or knowable that is beyond His reach. Consequently, He must have known of the Fall and that the first two humans would “eat of fruit of the tree.” As limited and temporal beings, our minds cannot really grasp what foreknowledge entails. The passage of time, in the sense that we experience it, is a limitation. We move in one direction only; we see only dimly the past and the future is at best an exercise of our imaginations. While God may be in some sense temporal, time – as we experience it – could not limit His potentiality. For God, all things must exist in an eternal present, which His omniscience allows Him to access without limitation.
We recognize that God has given us “free will,” but what exactly this means is not entirely clear. There are certainly things that we cannot will to do, such as reading another person’s thoughts; there are other things that we have no desire to do, such as living in conditions that are hostile to life; and still other things of which we are unaware, so that willing them is not even contemplated. In short, our will is not unfettered. Whatever limited set of choices He gave us, they are meaningful to Him as it relates to love. Love, as we know, must be freely given and received to have any value. So, if we are to share an eternal loving relationship with Him, we must be sufficiently free to make that choice real.
The tree, whether real or figurative, is obviously one of the choices God gave us that mattered to Him. To “love” Him meant – and continues to mean – to recognize that as God, He is entitled to our respect, our obedience, our worship. When we put other things first – when we put ourselves and our desires first – we sin against Him.
So, knowing where our free nature would lead us, why did He nonetheless create us? Why did He create beings who in their nature could not, on their own, fulfill His expectations? Who needed to be saved by Him, but first needed to be prompted by Him to even want salvation?
The answer has eluded the greatest minds, and no doubt always will. I think the most we can say here is that, consistent with his nature, he had perfectly adequate reasons. My suspicion is that those who are saved are where they belong, having freely consented to the work God eventually does in them. Those, by contrast, who are not saved – who spend eternity apart from God, have freely chosen to die in rebellion against him; they too are where they belong.
In other words, I can only trust that a perfect God has effectuated His plan for salvation in a perfectly fair way.
Posted by Al Serratoeternity, God's perfect will, Salvation
Posted in Writings | 2 Comments »
I was discussing ultimate things with an atheist friend and the topic of eternal life arose. She seemed quite indifferent to the whole concept, so I tried to hone in with a specific question:
“Do you desire eternal life? Do you feel something inside of you longing for life that is full and robust and filled with relationships, where you have time to do all the things you want, where your physical health remains perfect, with no end? I think the answer must be yes – that all rational people feel this, but I really am not sure how you will answer it.”
She sidestepped: “How about ‘maybe’ or only with certain conditions. Does eternal life have a single meaning? How come you get to decide what the meaning of eternal life is?”
Her response surprised me. I assumed that everyone shared a similar positive view of “eternal” life. Her question about why I get to decide confused me. I responded:
“Okay. I think I get you now. You mean that your desire for eternal life would depend on what that entailed? You’re thinking that you can imagine scenarios where perhaps oblivion would be preferable? I hope I don’t come off as arrogant,” I said. “I don’t ‘get to decide’ what eternal life is. I simply have a frame of reference that I’m seeing the world from, so at first I didn’t see that you were viewing it differently. In my frame of reference, eternal life isn’t something I acquire; its something I already have. That’s both good and bad news. The good news is obvious: this feeling that there is never enough time and that I always desire to have more time will get fulfilled; the bad news is that I may not like my circumstances.
For instance, if I embark on a life of crime or drug addiction, I will eventually reap what I sow – nature has consequences built into it – and the place I find myself might not be pleasant. So too is eternal life, in my view. The ‘I’ part of me is eternal, even though my current body is not. That’s why I say that I ‘have’ a body and not that I ‘am’ a body. Even linguistically, we realize that the ‘I’ part of us is something different – something ephemeral – from the physical part of us.
So therein lies the reason for my question to you. How can you be indifferent about such a question? I know you will say that no one has the answers, but don’t you think its worth an investigation? To satisfy yourself that you really can’t know? Take my drugs example. Since you’re young and healthy, you might be able to abuse drugs for quite some time, but it wouldn’t be a smart move for you to say that you really don’t care what effect it will have on you in 20 years. Looking down the road to the consequence of our choices is something we all need to do.”
Apparently not. At least not in her view. She responded:
“No, I don’t think it’s worth my investigation. I also don’t think I should spend my time investigating UFO’s, zombies, or Big Foot. I hate things that require lots of time and thought where you are virtually guaranteed not to accomplish anything or get a definitive answer.”
“Of course,” I responded, “the obvious difference is that you will never meet a UFO, a zombie or a big foot, but you will face the question of what comes when this life draws to a close. And concluding before examining the evidence that you won’t accomplish anything or get an answer stands in pretty stark contrast to millions and millions of people who have concluded that the opposite is in fact true.”
She wasn’t impressed:
“Well,” she said, “you are assuming people meet God; that’s a pretty big leap too. Who do you know who has met him? And I think most believers do so blindly; I don’t believe most of those people do any scholarly inquiry and draw conclusions based on evidence. They believe what they raised on, like me, or what they want to believe.”
“The fact that people believe what they were raised to believe,” I countered, “does not amount to a real argument. It’s a variant of the genetic fallacy. You’re trying to prove why believers might be wrong – they just were raised that way – without first proving that they are wrong. So, if I told you that I believed the earth was flat, and I was raised that way, you wouldn’t just shrug your shoulders and say I’m entitled to that belief. You would show me evidence that the earth is round and expect me to use reason to conform my view to the evidence. If I told you that you were entitled to that belief but you just believed it because you were raised by some round earthers and you never saw the whole earth so you couldn’t really know, then… you’d start to see how I feel.”
“One last analogy. 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 those 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 its really bad for you. You respond, ‘see, it’s a tie, so stop bothering me. Each believes what they were raised to believe. Plus, other things can kill me too, so why should I worry about cigarettes? Or, maybe you say that even if I am right, you’ll be one of the lucky ones who won’t be hurt by it.
Do you see 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?”
Again, she didn’t bite:
“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. At one time it would have been totally unacceptable to all of society for a mother to work and put a child in daycare 10 hours a day. Now, 10 hours of daycare is the norm. I get that most people think that daycare schedule is fine, but I don’t. I make up my own mind by doing what feels right. Have you ever considered that the answer doesn’t matter? Maybe the search is the whole point and maybe I am done already and you’re just slow.
I don’t think you can prove God like you can prove that the world is round. To prove the world was really round and have everyone believe, we needed real-time pictures from space. Bring me a picture of God and we’ll talk.”
I made one last attempt:
“These are good examples of things that change, but I hope you can see from them that there must be a ‘right’ answer. The right answer might be ‘it doesn’t matter.’ For example, a child might be equally safe on her side or her back. 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. Same thing with child care: it may not irreparably harm your child to put her in daycare 10 hours a day, but your position is more than just a ‘feeling.’ So, the trick is, which is this? Are questions of eternal life like laying a child on her side, or like I’m smoking with my kids in the room? All questions are not of equal importance.
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.”
But she really didn’t see… at least not yet.
Posted by Al Serratoeternal life, genetic fallacy, knowledge of God, skepticism
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Talk to an atheist about faith, and you’re likely to get an eye-roll. To most, faith is roughly synonymous with superstition, a subject not befitting of modern, science-oriented people. In fact, most skeptics will argue that faith is an obstacle to intellectual progress, a departure from reason into irrationality. Since the apologist’s goal is to introduce the skeptic to the Christian faith, we are oftentimes doomed to failure before we begin.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul speaks of “faith, hope and love” abiding, and says that the greatest of these is love. This got me thinking recently about what these concepts mean, and why it is that they “abide” or “last forever.” The more I reflected on them, the more I realized that each is a built-in feature of the human mind. We are designed for relationship and we all seek love and acceptance. To be emotionally healthy, we need to love and to be loved. Similarly, we seem to have within us a natural desire for a future that is, in at least some respect, better than the present. We “hope” for this future, while doing what we can to achieve it. Hope is so central to the human experience that when we encounter someone who lacks “hope,” we inevitably see a disturbance in the person’s thinking, and where hope is completely absent, we will see despair and sadly quite often, suicide. Faith too is a natural function. We have faith – trust - in the airplane in which we fly, even though we do not have the ability, nor the means, to examine it. We trust that the medicine the doctor has provided will help, not hurt, us. As limited beings, we cannot possibly know all there is to know. In order to live, we have to place our trust, our faith, in things for which we can never have complete knowledge; our faith finds support in what we do know – the airline’s safety record or the doctor’s qualifications – even though the ultimate thing is beyond the reach of our knowledge.
The modern secularist no doubt shares the Christian’s view that love and hope are two key elements of the human mind. But faith, by contrast, is a concept that they view as unnecessary. They believe that they can, and should, dispense with it, the way one might shake off a primitive superstition. So the first step an apologist must take is to convince the skeptic that not only is faith a natural feature of the mind, but that it is something we all use every day. The question is not faith versus science, but rather what is the object in which we place our faith.
A good beginning is to settle on an accurate definition of faith. I would suggest a definition of “faith” that the above examples demonstrate – as the act of trusting in something that one cannot know with complete certainty. It contains an action part – trusting – and a standard of proof part, for lack of a better term – the degree of certainty one attaches to his or her conclusion. The opposite of faith is not reason; it is disbelief. In other words, to lack faith in something is to believe that the opposite of it is probably true.
Reason, by contrast, is not an act of trusting; it is act of thinking, a process by which one derives conclusions based on evaluating evidence that is received through the senses. It can be inductive or deductive; it can be sound or fallacious. But in the end, it is simply a tool that one has access to through the use of the mind, much like the tool of vision, hearing, or language acquisition. These things are simply available to any human being with a normally functioning mind. The opposite of reason, then, is not faith; it is irrationality.
Far from being opposites, reason and faith coexist in a continuum, in which knowledge moves from things that are definitely known through observable evidence (trust with high certainty) to things that are not definitely known but highly likely to be true (trust with less certainty) to matters that are entirely speculative and can be taken only “on faith” (trust with little or nothing to support it).
The decision to fly in a plane serves to illustrate the point. No one can know with certainty that the plane will safely carry them. Sitting back in the seat as it takes off is the kind of act which can be characterized as trust in action, or faith. If the plane is a commercial jetliner from a reputable company, and one studies the physics of flight, one’s degree of confidence should increase. If, by contrast, the plane is in a state of disrepair with a drunk pilot, faith that it will successfully fly will be diminished. In either case, if one chooses to act, one is placing faith in the object in question. What he should be concerned with is not whether reason is better than faith, but with the reasons that support the faith.
In the end, faith in God, like any other conclusion a person reaches, is always the product of reason based on evidence, because reason is simply the only way anyone can arrive at a conclusion. What distinguishes sound faith from foolish faith is the strength of the evidence that supports the conclusion and the validity of the reasoning process that was used.
Perhaps if the skeptic can see that faith is not the enemy of reason, one can begin the process of trying to show why placing one’s trust in Christ is the best decision a person can make.
Posted by Al Serratoapologetics, faith, reason
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A recent comment to one of my blog posts included an interesting analogy. The writer compared discussions between theists and atheists to Wile E Coyote cartoons, with the theists getting to play the Roadrunner:
As he explained:
You see, in the cartoon, the central gag is that the laws of physics apply to the coyote, but not to the Roadrunner. The Roadrunner can step off a cliff, stand in midair, taunt the coyote, and then race across to the other side. If the coyote tries it, the laws of physics kick in and he’s met with a long whistling fall and a dramatic splat at the bottom of the canyon.
So it is with theists and atheists. Theists live in their imaginations and have no respect of logic or the laws of the physical laws of the universe. The laws of physics are more like conveniences to them. When it servers their purpose they will quote them, but the minute they contradict what they believe, they happily toss logic and reason out the window. If the atheist raises a logical contradiction, or points out an impossibility according to the laws of physics, the theists shrugs their shoulders and says, “it’s a miracle, God can do anything”. They are not bound by the laws of physics within their own minds and imaginations and they’ve taken that to believe that neither is the rest of the universe.
There’s no arguing with that. You can’t have a logical debate with someone who has no respect for logic. Just when you think you have them pinned down and there’s no logical way out of it, much like the Roadrunner, they toss logic and the laws of physics to the wind and ignore everything you said.
You can’t have a debate if both sides can’t agree to the ground rules. Theists imagine anything is possible simply because they have an imagination that can dream up anything they want. Atheists realize that isn’t the case. But in most cases atheists haven’t realized this fundamental flaw. They keep thinking that if they only try hard enough, if they only go back to the drawing board one more time, that they can design the perfect logical argument which the Roadrunner… I mean, theists… cannot escape.
This is a clever comparison, one that many atheists may believe is true. But does it stand up to scrutiny? The kind of scrutiny that the challenger claims to believe in?
1. Do Christians live in their imaginations? Some may, of course, but Christian positions are not imaginary ones. Christian doctrine is not that Jesus was a cartoon, some Casper the Ghost figure who can move through buildings and has other super powers. In fact, Christians don’t attempt to explain how God altered the observable laws of nature – they just conclude that he did, because dead men don’t return to life. It is not a resort to imagination to conclude that there are things we cannot explain; it is the reflection of a proper sense of humility, especially as we realize the immense power and intelligence of the being who “thought” into existence a universe of this size and complexity.
2. Do Christians lack respect for logic or the physical laws of the universe? “Logic” is simply the method of reasoning that governs correct or reliable inferences. It encompasses certain rules, such as if A= B and B= C, then A= C. The “physical laws of the universe” are descriptions about the way things in nature work. They don’t command rocks to fall or fire to burn; they simply describe patterns that are discerned from repeated observations. For example, a gravitational constant is a mathematical expression of the way gravity operates; similarly, electrical conductivity describes how well certain materials can conduct electricity. In what way do Christian beliefs “disrespect” either? The belief in the resurrection, or in any of Jesus’ miracles, does not run afoul of a proper respect for either logic or the physical world. There is no rule of logic that dictates that supernatural events are impossible. Nor is there a conflict, logical or otherwise, between believing in physical laws and in accepting the possibility that whatever set the laws in motion has the power to alter them, if he so chooses. The way that Christian beliefs can be challenged, along these lines, is if Christians are forced to agree that supernatural events are not possible. This in essence is what the atheist demands. But what proof, logical or otherwise, does he provide for this presupposition?
3. What does it mean for something to be “impossible according to the laws of physics?” It means that as long as those laws are operating, the impossible event cannot occur. But upon what principle does the atheist rest his case that these apparent “laws” are inviolable? A computer programmer can create a simulation in which certain laws operate for the characters in the simulation. The programmer is not bound by those laws; quite the opposite is true, as he is the one that created them. Having exercised that power, altering the laws, whether temporarily or permanently, is not a particularly difficult task. It may seem so to the character in the simulation that is bound by the programming, but that is simply a failure of knowledge or awareness on his part, and not an actual limitation upon the programmer. So too here: if the atheist wishes to start with the presupposition that the laws of nature are some type of mindless, self-generated and eternally existing rules that cannot be violated, then of course he will conclude that any apparent violation of those laws is impossible. But this is not logical thinking; it is the fallacy of circular reasoning.
4. I have no idea what “logical argument” the atheist can muster that will “pin” the Christian. The only way to “pin” a Christian is to begin with the presupposition that informs the atheist worldview – this universe is all there is, was or ever will be. It somehow created itself and despite the fact that we cannot know more than a sliver of what is knowable about a universe that is, for all practical purposes, beyond comprehension, “logic” somehow dictates that the one thing that can be known for sure is that it created itself. Perhaps in this the challenger is correct: the atheist position is utterly lacking in imagination. To believe that a human being with a limited capacity for knowledge can establish with certainty that the universe has no creator is noteworthy mainly for the self-delusion that must underlie it.
On further thought, perhaps the analogy is accurate in one respect: the atheist’s circular argument faces a fate similar to Wile E. Coyote’s, as it, and he – perched as they are in midair – have very little besides empty air to support them.
Posted by Al SerratoChristian worldview, laws of nature, Miracles
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When talking to a skeptic, it’s not uncommon to hear the challenge that what we have in the Bible is not particularly reliable. Making reference to the “telephone game,” the unbeliever will often claim that the Bible is probably much different than the original “story” it was meant to document. The analogy resonates with many people, who realize how hard it is to memorize in exact order a string of words that are spoken once. By the time it is repeated to the tenth person, it will bear little resemblance to its original form.
But does this analogy aptly describe the transmission of the Biblical texts? Putting aside for a moment evidence from sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls which corroborate the accuracy of the Bible, are there other reasons to conclude that the “telephone game” bears no resemblance to the transmission of the early texts?
The first step in assessing this analogy is to consider the unspoken assumptions that are at play. The “telephone game” usually involves a rather meaningless sentence, spoken once, in which word-for-word memorization is the goal. The sentence to be memorized has no particular significance and no importance is associated with it, other than to memorize it word for word. Modern players live in a culture where written and electronic information storage systems have virtually eliminated the necessity of being able to quickly memorize long passages of information.
To be valid, then, the challenge of the telephone game assumes that these same conditions apply to those early times. But the experience of the early Christians bears no more than a superficial resemblance to this type of game. Yes, they were trying to remember things that were said in the past. But that is where the similarity ends.
In today’s culture, we have a certain approach to documenting history, one that highlights detail. We also have the technology to make recording detailed statements and events easy. Given these factors, certain expectations arise. Take for instance a criminal trial. As a juror, you may want to see and hear the actual interview in which the killer confessed, because you want to know exactly what he said, what words he used, whether he paused, how he came across as he was speaking. When the non-believer takes this approach to Biblical texts, he will reject them before he even considers their reliability because they will never meet these expectations. The skeptic rejects the text without ever really assessing it in the context in which it was written.
The writers of the First Century did not have electronic means to record statements, nor did their culture put a premium on recording history the way we do. They did, however, have a rich tradition of passing on stories, of using their minds to memorize long passages, even entire books. Accurately passing their traditions and stories and knowledge from generation to generation was highly valued.
When the first Christians began to document Jesus’ message, they were not playing a game in which He quickly said a string of words and asked them to repeat it. Jesus traveled from town to town spreading his message. His followers no doubt heard him speak on a subject on numerous occasions. What they eventually recorded was not a transcript of a particular speech, as if he were uttering the Gettysburg address once, and only once, at one particular moment in time. He was addressing themes repeatedly, using parables to convey his meaning, and inquiring of them if they understood. Given this context, it is not really hard to understand how someone who heard Jesus tell something they considered important – perhaps having heard it many times – would have committed to memory what was said. The important thing for the writer would not be that he got every word in the exact order it was said; it is likely that Jesus Himself varied what He said from speech to speech. The important thing would be that the meaning was accurately passed on.
Moreover, the central truth claim of Christianity is that Jesus died on a cross, was buried and then rose again on the third day, appearing thereafter to his disciples and many others. Remembering that they witnessed these events would not be difficult even for a person of average mental ability, as the unique and supernatural nature of what they witnessed would be indelibly recorded in their memories.
While the challenge of the”telephone game” has some superficial appeal, it is at most a red herring, a distraction which prevents some people from ever giving the historical truth claims of Christianity a fair hearing. The Christian message is far more robust – and meaningful – than a simple children’s game.
And that simple truth is certainly worth remembering.
Posted by Al Serratoanswering skeptics, resurrection, telephone game
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A common challenge by atheists raises questions that most Christians feel ill-equipped to handle. I know from first hand experience how unsatisfactory many of our “answers’ may seem. Take this question, for instance: how, it is asked, can a “loving” God allow billions of unborn babies to die. Since the beginning of human history, God has allowed countless babies to die either before birth or shortly after. The Christian God, the argument goes, has taken no prudent or loving steps to protect unborn children nor has he done anything generally to alleviate the dreadful impact of the natural world on fragile human beings.
This challenge is but a variation on the standard challenge which, atheists contend, proves that the God of the Bible – a God who is both loving and powerful – cannot exist. But the challenge proves more about the presuppositions of the challenger than it does about the existence of God. There is an assumption at play here – that the only life there is is the “natural life” prior to death and that to be “loving,” God must allow all of us to have a full, long, happy and relatively pain-free life.
This secular challenge is an easy one to make. No one wants to suffer, or to see others suffer. Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the impact suffering has on us, both physically and emotionally. Yet suffering – and ultimately death – are a constant and prominent feature of the human experience. Making sense of this state of affairs is not easy, as we seek to understand things from our limited perspective. The value of the Christian worldview is that it transcends these limitations. While the atheist can make no sense of this often “short and brutish” experience, the Christian worldview, drawing on an outside source, can. We were never promised 100 pain-free years; no, we were made for something far greater, something we squandered when we used our free will to oppose God. Destined for eternal life, we face a problem – spending that eternity separated from the one who created us.
But God in his mercy provided a solution. The contrast in worldviews is stark – to the secularist, the most that can be hoped for is 100 pain free years – an utterly impossible wish- and then oblivion. To the Christian, the point of this life, however long or short, however painful or pain-free – is to make it to the next life, to that life in God’s presence that Jesus’ death on the cross made available to us. Just as the issue for an unborn baby is not how painful gestation or birth may have been, but whether he or she survived the experience, so too for us at this phase, the ultimate issue is whether this life leads to the fullness of eternal life with God, or whether it leads to eternal emptiness separated from God.
But what of the atheist’s contention that such a God cannot be “loving.” How can loving and suffering ever be reconciled? To answer that, we must have clearly in mind what is meant by “loving.” To some, loving means giving someone everything that he may want; never having to set limits or say no to someone. After all, to say “no” is to deny the person something that he or she wants, and will only lead to frustration and unhappiness on the part of the other person. It does not take much reflection to see that this definition – employed these days by far too many permissive parents – is a prescription for disaster as it relates to raising children. Anyone who has dealt with a spoiled child knows why.
No, to “love” someone requires something more: it requires that we seek the good for the other. “Tough love” is effective – and not an oxymoron – because there are times when the “loving” thing to do is to deny another the thing he wants, even if that leads to suffering. Some parents learn this lesson the hard way; wanting to give their children everything, they depart from the natural order of things. They prevent their children from learning the harsh realities of this world – a world we did not create and whose rules we cannot alter simply by wishing them to be different. By shielding their children from nature’s harsh realities, they fail to prepare the child for adult life, where hardship and frustration are common experiences.
But our problem is greater than that of a parent needing to discipline an unruly child. If we happened across a thug robbing a pensioner, we would not employ a “loving” response and allow him to continue. Justice would override love in that setting, and we would stop the assault. The robber might have many reasons for his behavior and might have deluded himself into thinking he was somehow justified. So too with us. We may think that we are entitled to the keys to the kingdom, for us to do as we please. But to a perfectly just God, our acts of rebellion demand a response.
And therein lies the ultimate issue: if loving someone is desiring their ultimate good, who better to understand that good than the creator of this universe, the very standard by which good is measured? As a perfect being, God defines and embodies the ultimate good. Spending eternity in his presence is, therefore, the ultimate good that any of us can ever achieve. That we so often reject this gift is a function of our fallen nature. The corruption of our thinking that leads us to ever more selfish living also prevents us from seeing things – including ourselves – the way they truly are.
But God suffers no such limitation. The suffering he allows in the world is not a limitation under which he labors and can find no solution. As Christians, we trust that this suffering, a byproduct of the fall, serves a purpose. We may not grasp that purpose, and we quite decidedly do not like the consequences of it.
This world, despite its abundant riches and beauty, is a dangerous place for frail human beings. The atheists’ challenge recognizes this characteristic of nature. Yet, skeptics often rely on the fall back position that if there is a God, He will recognize their inherent goodness and reward them for their goodness. Does the skeptic not see that the harshness of nature may instead testify to the seriousness of our predicament? Does it not bear witness to the Christian position that a powerful and just God can rightly condemn us for our rebellion, and that suffering is a by product of that state of affairs? From where does the confidence come that God will see things our way?
Contemplating suffering is unpleasant business. Christianity provides an explanation for our predicament, as well as an ultimate solution. Atheism provides neither.
Posted by Al SerratoGod's mercy, love, skepticism, suffering, Theodicy
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Skeptics often challenge believers by claiming that the “evidence” for Christianity would never hold up in a courtroom. They contend it’s hearsay; they can’t cross-examine the witnesses, so the case would never even see the inside of a courtroom. For many unfamiliar with the legal system, this challenge seems solid. After all, why should we trust our eternity to a message that wouldn’t pass muster in a court dealing with comparatively less important issues?
A bit of reflections shows the problem with this line of reasoning. First, it doesn’t take into consideration that we know many things that could never be “proven” in a courtroom, using the rules of evidence. Just about any historical event that is beyond the lifetime of living persons would suffer from similar problems, as well as problems of authenticating documents and physical evidence relating to the case. Yet, we have little doubt that these events occurred.
More importantly, the legal system provides the right to see and confront one’s accusers, and the related right to cross-examine them about their testimony, for a reason – “confrontation” is a reliable way to test evidence, to ensure that it is credible. But there are other ways to assure oneself that a person’s testimony is credible. In the case of the early martyrs, the way they demonstrated credibility – steadfastness in the face of persecution – is even more reliable.
Consider: if a witness testifies that he saw the defendant point a gun at the victim and fire the fatal shot, the defense will want the right to test the reliability of that account of what occurred. But what will they test? Generally speaking, the attack will take one of two possibles tacks: show that the witness is mistaken – he believes that he saw what he says but he is mistaken – or show that the witness is lying – he knows the defendant did not commit the crime but he is saying so for other reasons. If neither is the case, the witness’ testimony will prove very damaging to the defendant.
In preparing to cross examine, a skilled attorney does not rely simply upon his oratorical skills. He needs to plot out an approach. If he wants to challenge the witness as mistaken, he will inquire into the types of things that could cause a mistake: how well does the witness know the defendant? How long did he see him? Were there impediments to clear viewing? How did the stress of the event affect the witness’ ability to perceive the event; Were drugs or alcohol a factor and if so, to what extent did they effect the witness’ ability to observe and record what occurred? Each of these avenues may prove productive in undercutting the conclusion the witness reached.
But if the witness says that the defendant is his brother and he saw him from a few feet away with nothing blocking his view, then attacking the witness as “mistaken” will not be very productive. That leaves the other possibility – that the witness is lying. What is the relationship of the witness to the defendant? Does the witness stand to gain financially or otherwise by seeing the defendant convicted? What is the witness’ reputation in the community for honesty and integrity? These factors could be of great assistance – perhaps the witness is a “jailhouse snitch” who is trying to get out from another charge by telling the police what they want to hear. Or, by contrast, maybe the witness is the defendant’s brother who just happened to be present when the defendant committed the crime and is unwilling to lie for him. The only way the trier of fact can know what to make of the witness’ statement – “I saw the defendant shoot the victim” – is for a vigorous inquiry as to all these areas to occur. Only by fleshing out exactly what the witness saw, and as much about the witness as can be gleaned, will the fact-finder be in a position to decide the likelihood of mistake or misleading.
The skeptic’s refusal to even consider the testimony of the early martyrs on hearsay grounds stems from a misunderstanding of the point of cross-examination. The strength of a person’s testimony can be shown, perhaps even more reliably than by answering questions in court, by the person’s behavior as it relates to that testimony. To put it bluntly: is he willing to die for it?
The skeptic will immediately object: but many people are willing to die for false beliefs? Yes, that’s true, but that is not the situation when we consider what those first martyrs faced. This group of men and women knew Jesus and were actual witnesses to the fact and the circumstances of his death. This was their testimony: he died a gruesome death, he was later placed in a sealed and guarded tomb, and after three days he began to interact with them in a resurrected and enhanced body. If we had them on the witness stand, which of the challenges would we pursue. Mistake would not take us very far. No attorney with any sense would claim that Jesus survived the crucifixion or that the man the apostles saw after the resurrection was not Jesus. Jesus was well known to these individuals, and they witnessed the “effectiveness” of Rome’s favored way of ensuring a tortured and humiliating death. The tomb was empty and even if an imposter had tried to play Jesus’ role, he would not have been able to fool the apostles. That would be like telling the defendant’s brother that he actually saw someone else commit the murder – not a likely way to persuade anyone.
Perhaps then the apostles were lying. They knew Jesus had died on the cross but they wanted the world to believe that he had escaped death. They knew this was false but persisted anyway. How would a skilled attorney cross examine these witnesses? He would begin with the basics: is there a motive to lie? Do the apostles stand to benefit in some way, either financially, emotionally, or through the acquisition of power? Do the apostles have some animus against the “other side?” Are there prior inconsistent statements or actions that would undercut their present testimony? How committed are they to the position they are taking?
Having cross-examined countless witnesses, I for one would not want to take on these witnesses? Committed? They went to their deaths rather than retract would be easy enough to retract – “okay, you’re right, we just really wished that he was the messiah so we fabricated this whole thing.” Prior inconsistencies? Quite the contrary. The change in their behavior shortly after Jesus’ death – from meek and broken to brave and bold – actually corroborates their testimony. Animus against the other side? They preached a message of love, forgiveness and reconciliation. They gave unto Caesar the things of Caesar. Motive for gain? Hardly. Insisting that Jesus was the messiah brought them nothing; in many cases it took what little they had away. They gained neither position, nor power, nor wealth, nor anything else of earthly value. Where does the cross-examiner go? What could watching them answer questions on the stand possibly add that their behavior and actions in the face of persecution not already tell us – with much greater force?
The missionary Jim Elliott once said “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Having witnessed the risen Lord, the early martyrs had a level of confidence in their message that few today can manage. They might accept the label fool, but liar?
It is the fool who would stake his case on that argument.
Posted by Al SerratoChurch Fathers, cross examine; martyrs; hearsay, reliability
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In recent posts, we’ve been discussing the difficulties inherent in defining and recognizing the miraculous. The skeptic usually approaches the issue with the set presupposition that miracles, however defined, are not possible. What the believer concludes is a miracle is in fact the product of limited knowledge or ignorance. The skeptic’s “god” – science – will someday show how the miracle we assumed occurred was actually no such thing at all.
This is a difficult topic to tackle in the abstract. If a miracle is defined as a departure from the known laws of nature, then it is easy to assert that with enough additional knowledge, we will be able to see that the event in question wasn’t actually a departure after all.
The problem with abstract discussions is that they sometimes cause us to lose focus on the issue at hand. The issue, as it relates to Christianity, is whether a particular miracle occurred. Did Jesus of Nazareth – the historical figure most scholars acknowledge lived and was crucified some two thousand years ago – emerge from his tomb in a resurrected and incorruptible body? Countless believers have staked their lives – their eternities – on the answer to that question.
The skeptic already has his answer: since a dead man always stays dead, it is exceedingly improbable that this account could be true. The “probabilities” favor some naturalistic explanation – he didn’t die, this was a myth, a product of hallucinations, etc. But approaching the issue in this fashion demonstrates an a priori rejection of the evidence that one is supposed to be considering. And relying on probabilities in making the assessment of whether a past event occurred is generally fallacious. A past event either occurred or it didn’t; the probability of a known past event is one.
Consider: if I play the lottery, my chances of selecting the correct sequence of numbers is exceedingly small, on the order of one in many millions. The probability of my winning is extremely low. If my lottery ticket corresponds to the posted lottery results, then I have beat the odds. The event has now moved from one in the future, for which probability assessment applies, to one in the past, for which assessing whether it occurred based on probability makes no sense. Once I see that the numbers match, the argument “this can’t have happened because millions to one shots don’t occur” would be inane.
Yet the skeptic does this all the time. Because resurrections are improbable, we must keep looking for more probable solutions, regardless of what the actual evidence tells us. In fact, many don’t consider the evidence at all, having concluded that improbable results cannot occur. To use the lottery analogy, they never bother to look at the lottery results or their tickets because they are sure that they can never win.
A probability assessment of a past event does have some value. First, it may tell us whether an intelligent agent was at work in causing the result. If I keep winning the lottery, it may mean that someone is tipping me off about the numbers or altering their selection. If life on earth is statistically a one in a trillion-trillion-trillion event, it may be that an intelligent source created it and that it did not arise by naturalistic means. And if a man who claims to be God doesn’t stay dead, it may mean that he is who he said he is. However “unlikely,” if the evidence is adequate to support that the event occurred, dismissing it from our minds as “not possible” is less than rational.
Second, probability assessments may allow us to draw inferences about the way people acted. How probable is it that 500 people all experienced the same hallucination of the risen Jesus? How probable is it that dozens of people who knew the truth insisted on falsely claiming that they had experienced the risen Jesus so that they too could be put to death? Assessments as to probable behavior allow us to evaluate the legitimacy and likelihood of the claimed behavior. But probabilities can’t tell us whether a past event actually occurred. For that we need to evaluate the actual evidence, fairly and completely.
The case for the Resurrection is compelling. Perhaps it is the product of wishful thinking, but my study of the facts tells me otherwise. Because of what is at stake, each of us needs to consider the case on its merits. Enough has been written about it that this can easily be done. What we shouldn’t do is close our minds to the possibility without ever having considered the evidence.
Posted by Al Serratoprobability, proof of God, resurrection, skepticism
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Seeking the best explanation for a set of circumstances is something we all do intuitively. It’s called abductive reasoning. As Jim has pointed out on many of his podcasts, it’s what detectives do in solving a crime: putting the pieces together so that a picture of what occurred emerges in sufficient detail to have confidence that it is true. Perfect knowledge is never required.
As it relates to apologetics, abductive reasoning is a formal way of supporting the case for the validity of Christian truth claims. Though there are dozens of pieces of evidence to support the belief that the Resurrection happened, many apologists will make the case using a “minimal facts” approach. These facts include that Jesus lived, that he was put to death on a Roman cross, that his tomb was later found empty, and that his followers experienced encounters with him which were, simply put, life-changing. These followers included skeptics who knew him well, such as his brother James; zealots who were persecuting his followers (Paul); and men and women who had been following him during his earthly ministry.
What best accounts for these facts? Hallucinations do not occur in mass settings. Mistaken identification is not plausible for family members and close friends. Wishful thinking is not reasonable for those who sought to persecute rather than follow, or for those who never believed Jesus’ teachings during his life. Seeing that the cumulative case points to the fact of the Resurrection can be a powerful way to support the faith.
Many who argue against these claims do not do so on the basis of abductive reasoning; they don’t assess the piles of evidence to determine what other reasonable inference would better fit the known facts. Instead, they begin with the presupposition that miracles cannot occur. Consequently, any explanation of these events which rely on the miraculous is rejected out of hand. The case is lost before it is even considered.
In short, many argue that relying on the possibility of a miracle is simply an admission of ignorance. If you can’t establish how the miracle occurred, they argue, you should not be able to rely on it.
This challenge to provide an explanation for the “best explanation of the facts” is clever but misplaced. There are many circumstances in which we can know something to be true, or to work, without knowing how it is that this is so. Take reason or a sense of fair play, for instance. I make use of these things even though I have no way of explaining how reason works, or why I should rely on it. Consciousness is another example: in operating rooms around the world, anesthesiologists make use of drugs that can put people “under” and then restore them to consciousness without knowing how it is that this occurs. They understand the effect these drugs have on the cellular level, and they can measure differences in brain wave activity, but understanding how a grouping of brain cells goes from conscious to unconscious and back is still beyond them. Though not usually considered as such, consciousness and reason are themselves “miraculous” – no sufficient naturalistic processes can account for them.
So, if the evidence that a man was put to death and then appeared again in a re-animated and enhanced body is sufficiently credible, then the fact that we cannot currently “explain” how it occurred does not prove that it did not occur. Consider for a moment the many medical “miracles” that have occurred. There are countless cases in which a disease process stops, or reverses, for reasons that are simply not clear, at least at present. As knowledge and technology advance, some of these miracles will be explained through naturalistic mechanisms. But how can the skeptic possibly know that this will always be the case? Would this not require perfect knowledge on his part, in order to know with certainty that departures from the laws of nature can never occur?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to know more, with seeking more knowledge and more information to get the “how” questions answered. There is nothing wrong with trying to rule out all naturalistic explanations before considering the supernatural. And it may be, in the end, that additional knowledge will modify, or perhaps even change, some of our views. But refusing to go where the evidence leads because of a belief that supernatural events are “impossible” is a reflection of a person’s underlying bias, not an expression of enlightened thinking.
Posted by Al Serratoabductive reasoning, Miracles, resurrection, skepticism
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For Christians all across the globe – men, women and children of all races, nationalities and cultures – today concludes Holy Week, a week during which we remember the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Savior. Adorning the buildings where Christians will gather, and often adorning their persons, the symbol of the cross is everywhere present. The reality behind the cross is quite jarring – it conjures up the vision of a man, beaten and bloody, going to a certain, and gruesome, death, in a manner diabolically calculated to maximize pain and suffering while also depriving him of any semblance of human dignity.
Why do we continue to “celebrate” this event? Why do we sanctify– make holy – this holiday?
Indeed, as the Bible makes clear, the cross is a “stumbling block” and “foolishness” for those who do not believe, but for those who are called, it is the “power” and “wisdom” of God. Why this is so requires us to understand the idea of atonement, the “balancing of the books” that Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection.
Why does Jesus’ death on the cross matter to God, or to us? Doesn’t everyone die, and if so, what makes Christ’s death any different? To answer these questions, we must first see our lives from God’s perspective. As a perfect being, He endowed us with free will, which we used to rebel against Him. This created a rift in the relationship, a chasm between God and man. So, why did He make us that way? Why couldn’t He just accept us as we are?
Good questions, and ones we will never fully understand here. But we can glimpse the answer when we consider it from the perspective of love. What makes a loving relationship meaningful is the volitional aspect of it; if love is coerced or bought, it is not love, but something else, something less satisfying, less pleasing. A master has a relationship with a servant, but what the servant feels for the master is obligation, not love. The tyrant can command his subjects to kneel before him, but he cannot compel them to love him. Payment or punishment, or any other tool of coercion, can accomplish a result, but it cannot change the mind, nor the heart. It is only when love is freely given, and when love can be lost, that we truly value it. What we want, in the end, is relationship, and that requires free will, not intelligent robots who perform according to preset programming but are incapable of feeling. And so too with God.
Jesus’ act of love on the cross – in freely laying down his life – makes no sense until we consider from what this act saved us. Christians believe that God stands ready to punish us for our transgressions against His law. Punishment for transgressing the law is of course a requirement of justice. But God, as an eternal and perfect being, demands perfect justice. What does perfect justice entail? At minimum, it demands that all transgressions be appropriately punished. What, then, is the appropriate punishment for violating the law of a perfect and eternal being? Separation from Him, as a very minimum. Why? For the same reason that law-abiding people don’t share their homes and lives with outlaws. Even without moving toward active punishment, the very first thing one would expect from justice is that it does not countenance injustice to be committed in one’s presence. But this “minimal” punishment of separation is also the bad news. Because He is eternal, our separation from Him is also eternal. Permanent separation from an infinitely perfect being – while knowing that He is there and being unable to share eternal bliss with Him and with others – is a form of torment that makes any earthly torture seem mild by comparison. It is the nature of the result – and not any sadistic purpose on God’s part – that makes Hell such a horrible place.
We can’t make sense of this “bad news” without first getting out of our mind the common notion that God will be impressed with our good deeds. We think somehow that we are good enough and that God will see that and reward this goodness. Christians believe that He won’t. That indeed is bad news.
So, how does Jesus getting nailed to a cross save us? I suppose the precise answer is “it doesn’t.” What saves us is Jesus taking in our place the punishment we deserve. Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man. As a fully human being, He accomplishes something that no other human being has done: complete perfection. He is the only man who lived without transgressing God’s law. Therefore, He is the only man whom God, in His justice, cannot punish. If God punishes Him anyway, he would be guilty of the cosmic “child abuse” of which skeptics like Christopher Hitchens and other new atheists accuse Him. It is for this reason that Jesus tells His disciples that no man takes His life. He willingly gives it up.
Why? Because as an eternal being, Jesus is the only kind of being who can absorb the eternal and infinite punishment God can rightly impose upon us. God the Father pours out His wrath on Jesus and Jesus accepts this wrath, even though He did not deserve it, so that we don’t have to. The cross is simply the mechanism by which this transaction was completed. The resurrection then proves that Jesus was indeed the God-Man who possessed the power to “balance the books.”
In so doing, perfect justice has been fulfilled. Because Jesus offers this gift to us even though we do not deserve it, perfect mercy is also satisfied. He does not force us to accept this gift, and many do not. Nonetheless, perfect justice and perfect mercy are balanced. The debt owed a perfect God is paid and we are “saved” from the punishment we otherwise deserve – punishment that is the necessary and natural byproduct of separation from a perfect being. Once we accept the gift, we open ourselves up to a process which God will complete in us, making us ready to reunite with Him. Like a surgeon whose cure requires that we first consent to his procedures, God will not make us “perfect” and therefore capable of spending eternity with him, unless we first assent to the work he will do in us. This ultimate and eternal solution to our problem – God offering salvation to all and accomplishing the work needed to achieve it – is just the kind of perfect elegance we should expect from such a being.
This answer, of course, leaves much to be said. After all, tens of thousands of pages have been written about Christian beliefs over the past two thousand years. And there is no doubt that others have tackled this subject in a more meaningful and intelligent manner. My hope is that, perhaps, it can serve as the start of a conversation.
But for today anyway, it is enough that we reflect, and give thanks, that on this day so many centuries ago, this perfect plan found perfect execution in the loving sacrifice of our Lord.
Posted by Al Serratoatonement, Easter, God's love, Miracles, plan of salvation
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The ontological argument for the existence of God takes considerable reflection before it begins to make sense. First formulated by St. Anselm of Cantebury, it is an argument that proves, from reason, that God must exist. You can see a summary of the argument here:http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm#13
Many skeptics believe the argument is flawed because they think the logic underlying it can be applied to a host of other areas. The first, and perhaps most famous challenge to St. Anselm’s original formulation, contrived of a “perfect island” to “prove” that the ontological argument proves too much. In a similar vein, a skeptic asked me whether Anselm’s ontological argument could work in reverse – to prove the nonexistence of God. As many apologists know,
The writer referenced an atheist’s blog post which set forth the following syllogism, claiming that it provided proof that God does not exist.
1. God exists if and only if God is the maximally greatest being.
2. If God is all-just, then God is not omni-benevolent.
3. If God is not omni-benevolent, then God is not the maximally greatest being.
4. If God is not the maximally greatest being, then God does not exist.
5. God is all-just
6. Therefore, God does not exist
This argument, with its apparent logical force, is on first glance a bit troubling; after all, if the logic is sound, God isn’t. But as is often the case with atheists’ claims, this argument suffers from premises that are false, and misleading.
When Anselm formulated what became known as the “ontological argument,” he relied on a an interesting premise that may seem false on first glance. He said that the mind cannot conceive of a thing unless that thing actually exists; the thing we conceive, in order to be conceivable, must conform to something in reality. To put it another way, it is not possible to conceive of something that is not itself a real thing.
As mentioned above, critics challenged Anselm by coming up with the analogy of the “perfect island” and arguing that one could easily imagine an island that was perfect, even though no such actual island existed. These critics missed the point of what Anselm was doing. He was exploring the contours of reason, in a sense. He recognized that the human mind came preloaded with this capacity and he was examining its limits. The problem with the “perfect island” analogy is that what Anselm was talking about was not definitions but instead conceptions. What is the conception of an “island”? Well, it’s an area of land surrounded on all sides by water. Anytime we see this, we recognize it’s an island. Perfection is simply not an attribute of an island, so positing a “perfect” island doesn’t advance the analysis; it’s just playing with words.
A modern challenger might say that he can envision a leprechaun or a unicorn, and these don’t exist. But these are simply variations on a things that do exist: a little biped/humanoid with magical powers or a horse with a horn. We are not imagining things that are “unreal,” but simply combining things that do exist, and there is nothing in the conception of “leprechaun” or “unicorn” that requires existence. Perhaps such beings once lived or will live in the future; perhaps they live only in the imagination.
But moving to the conception of God, what do we find? Infinite attributes. That is what we mean when our minds try to approximate this concept. Consequently, the conception “God” is the only one for which Anselm’s definition applies: the being a greater than which cannot be conceived. If we are conceiving of a being with any limitations, then we are simply not yet thinking about God, but about something lesser. Since “necessary existence” is a feature that is greater than contingent or possible existence, the true conception of God is of a being that must necessarily exist.
So, Anselm concludes, if we can conceive of God – and we can – he must necessarily exist, because we are not capable of conceiving of things that do not exist, and God’s attributes must include necessary existence.
But can this proof be reversed on itself to prove the opposite? Let’s see where the challenger’s argument goes wrong:
1. This seems a bit tortured, but the point is correct. To qualify as “God,” the being under
consideration must be maximally greatest.
2. This is where the argument begins to break down. Justice and benevolence are not things or qualities of things. It isn’t like saying that if God is “all red” then he is not “all blue.” Justice exists only as a descriptor of the quality of a relationship. The same is true of benevolence. These qualities only make sense to the extent that they relate to the way one human being treats another. We wound’t admire a lion for its sense of justice, or a whale for its benevolence toward fellow creatures. So, God is not “all just.” He is “perfectly” just. He does the right thing with regard to each individual. God is not “all” benevolent. His acts of kindness toward us are perfectly balanced. Consequently, for God there is no conflict between any of these attributes for he correctly applies them in his relationship to us. More on this in a moment.
3. This premise is simply false. The mistake is in the unspoken assumption that “maximally greatest” means having the most of something, as if “benevolence” was a thing that could be collected and weighed. When understood as a function of relationship, we can see that “omni benevolence” would not be a “maximal” attribute but would be a limiting one. If I confront a rapist who is attacking a defenseless old person, the quality of “omni benevolence” would presumably prevent me from stopping him, as I would be required to do some charitable act toward him. But doing so would simultaneously cause harm to the victim, so I would be left with, not a maximal greatness, but a defect. God embodies perfect benevolence. He bestows it were it belongs, and metes out justice where that is appropriate, always achieving a balance that cannot be improved upon.
4. This premise is true. To be God, as Anselm notes, maximal greatness is necessary. The flaw is in failing to grasp what “greatness” actually means, and in failing to see that the supposed “greatness” of “omni benevolence” is actually a limitation.
5. This is true, though I would state it as “perfectly just.” I’ll accept “all just” in the sense that there is no part of God, and no attribute of God, that is unjust. In fact, the whole notion of just – how one person treats another – is merely a reflection of God’s perfect nature.
6. The conclusion is doomed, for the reasons set forth above.
Posted by Al Serratogod's benevolence, God's justice, ontological argument, perfection
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Atheists demonstrate an amazing “faith” in the power of science. They accuse believers of wishful thinking – or outright foolishness – when believers conclude that an intelligent being is the only reasonable inference to draw from the evidence that surrounds us. Unfortunately, this leads many skeptics to close their minds to proper reasoning, and ironically, leads them into the very error that they accuse the believer of making – the error of placing their trust in something they really haven’t considered.
Here’s why: most skeptics define “faith” as believing something despite the existence of evidence.” Since no one can examine Jesus, nor directly access the time before creation, nor transcend this physical universe and examine what lies beyond, skeptics conclude that there is nothing beyond. And since Christians place their trust in something –Someone – lying behind this reality, the skeptic believes that this is a foolish leap of faith.
Abduction is the process of reasoning to the best explanation from the available evidence. We use this form of reasoning all the time. We see that certain patterns hold true – clothing gets wet when we walk in the rain – and we infer from the presence of a dripping wet raincoat that it is raining outside. We do this intuitively and we take as a given that our sense of reasoning operates correctly to allow us to reach valid conclusions. This is so even though we cannot use reason to prove the validity of reason. Simply put, if I try to use reason to prove that reason is valid I have to presuppose the validity of the very thing – reason – that I am trying to prove. No, reason is a starting point, a given that we must all utilize if we are to discuss – to think – at all.
Christians are not imagining a creator when they look at the evidence of the universe. Quite the contrary: given the nature of the universe – its order, fine tuning and the complex design inherent in life – we quite properly infer that something immensely intelligent and immensely powerful set it in motion. Science seeks to answer the question how was it done? And science performs a very valuable function. But science as a tool for discovering processes cannot explain what first set in motion the forces that it is examining; what the designer sought to accomplish with the laws of nature; and what the ultimate meaning and purpose of life really is.
Consider: imagine a scientist examining the mail he receives every day. Over time, he learns everything there is to know about the type of paper that is used, how the paper was formed, the type of ink, its place of manufacture and its ingredients. Imagine further that he determines how the letters are grouped to form words. Seeking knowledge of this type is laudable. But if the scientist concludes that since he knows all there is to know about ink and letters and envelopes, that there cannot be a letter-sender, or a mailman to deliver the letters, then he has done something worse that making a blind leap of faith – he has closed his mind to the obvious reality of what he is examining. Indeed, the only way the scientist can learn the point of it all, the meaning of the message, is to read what was written, for in it is embedded information, something that simply cannot arise through random or blind processes.
Similarly, an archaeologist examining the ruins of an ancient city can determine the method and manner of construction of the various structures that remain, what types of materials were used and how well they fared over time. She could speculate as to the purpose of the buildings, and what the civilization’s level of technology might have been. But she would be unable to determine what actual purpose the buildings were meant to serve. For that, information from the architects and planners would be needed.
As Christians, we bear witness to a personal God, not because we are grasping at myths, but because we believe the evidence of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection sufficient for us to know Him in a personal way. In other words, we personalize the source of the Big Bang not by myth or wishful thinking but by specific revelation.
In the end, science and the Christian worldview are not in conflict. It is the one who insists despite the evidence that there is no God – and ultimately no one to whom we will one day be called to answer – that is persisting in ignorance.
Posted by Al Serratoevidence and faith. apologetics, evidence of design, Intelligent design
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Secularists are fond of claiming the mantle of science in their discussions with believers. One can often hear derision dripping from their words, the frustration felt over dealing with such “primitive” beliefs. Science and progress go hand in hand, they assure us, toward a future in which the “evils” of religion will be replaced by an age of enlightenment and reason. If only it were that easy.
A spirited exchange to a recent post included a variety of such challenges. For instance, in arguing against the possibility of miracles, the challenger claimed:
“By definition, if these laws of physics or physical constants are broken, then they are no longer constants, they are no longer laws.
If it were possible for God to interfere with any event in the physical universe, it would imply that God was in fact physical and in that universe. Otherwise, laws of physics would be broken. Thus, God cannot affect the physical world.”
This is sloppy thinking, which a moment’s reflection will easily demonstrate. God – if he exists at all – is that being a greater than which cannot be conceived. There is no power he lacks, no knowledge he fails to possess, no ability that eludes him. Yet, the challenger assumes that, after setting in motion rules for his creation, he would be bound by them; unable to affect them. But upon what is this assumption based?
Consider: a computer programmer can write a program in which he embeds various laws or rules. Those rules will apply consistently – unless of course he allows for the rules to be suspended. What this means in essence is that the primary rule – the one that we usually observe – is subject to a greater law or rule – the one that overrides the general or usual rule. What would stop the programmer from doing this? Could the subject of his rules challenge him for being inconsistent? Even if this fictitious programmer created artificially intelligent beings, they would not even become aware of his existence unless he wanted them to be; and then, only to the extent that he wanted them to become aware. He could do what he wanted with his rules and no one would ever know.
The challenger, in claiming that violations of laws such as gravity are not possible, is simply conceding that he has not yet fully grasped the conception of God. For if he were truly considering, through the use of reason and experience, a being capable of willing into existence a universe of this size, power and complexity – simply by thinking it – then creating exceptions to his rules would not pose a challenge.
To this the challenger will cry foul. You can’t, he may claim, depart from the observed rules by invoking other “god of the gaps” rules. This would make a mockery of science. But if there is no God to provide order – to ground the rules – why should I believe that science has anything to teach? Science is simply measuring observations; I must first believe that a rule of consistency applies, so that making observations is worth the effort. The challenger’s unstated assumption- “there can be no exceptions to the rules I observe” – has no weight unless something lies behind the rules, ready to enforce them or give them consistency. If atheism is true, then we could have no confidence in even our thoughts about rules.
The challenger went on, referring to the Bible:
“This is a book that makes people believe that the laws of physics can be broken, that people can walk on water, turn water into wine, build an Ark to house every animal, rise from the dead, the existence of ghosts, souls, an afterlife, etc, etc.? How can you have an intellectual discussion with someone who uses a rule book that’s so disprovable?”
Disprovable? Really? And how would one go about disproving that someone could walk on water? Is this not based on a presupposition that observed laws of nature always apply? But why should someone believe that? Well, if the universe were designed that way, that would be a sufficient reason. But the atheist rejects the possibility of such a designer. Does he not have to concede, then, that he has no basis for believing that the laws we observe are uniform? What has he done to examine every instance – past, present and future – in which any particular law operates?
The challenger is correct, of course, in concluding that proof of God’s existence does not prove that the God of the Bible is he. That much is true. But recognizing the existence of God is a better starting point than by beginning with the conclusion that God is not even possible.
Posted by Al Serratoatheism, limits of science, skepticism
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Not long ago, a friend sent me a very thought-provoking article about raising kids. Entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” it dealt with “why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods.” Many modern parents are attempting to create perfect childhoods for their offspring, and in so doing are creating a generation of narcissists who are suffering higher and higher rates of depression and anxiety. Therapist Lori Gottlieb’s review of both empirical and anecdotal evidence was compelling and she struggled to find an answer to the question posed in the cartoon, at left, that accompanied the piece. Why do so many kids struggle with feelings of depression and of being lost, when they are arguably living in the best of times?
The article was quite thought-provoking and included a number of good suggestions, counseling readers to remember that happiness is not something that we can seek directly. Nor is it something that we can talk into our children. In fact, trying to convince kids that everything they do is “great,” and provide excuses every time they fall short, will set them up for a decidedly unhappy adulthood. In short, this quest for perfection in our kids, and for our kids, is doing them a great disservice.
While I applaud Gottlieb’s contribution, I don’t think her analysis goes deep enough. True, “our children are not our masterpieces,” as she notes. But can she answer why this is so? Other than by seeing the consequences of this form of parenting, is there a way we can know that it is doomed to failure?
This is where Christianity, with its understanding of why things work the way they do, can provide answers that a secular view cannot. If there is no God, then evolution would explain how we ended up in this situation. Our social views are evolving, and presently we are in a time in which being “non-judgmental” and “me-centered” is highly valued. Perhaps some people suffer in this environment, and if enough do, then it will presumably change as time moves on. But of course, with no God to provide meaning, this situation we find ourselves in is neither right nor wrong; it just is. Attaching a value judgment to it makes no more sense than criticizing a wolf for running in packs or praising a lion for stalking its prey.
From a Christian perspective, by contrast, we know the source of this unrelenting desire for perfection. Seeking relationship with us, God has left within us a desire to search for Him, the ultimate fountain of perfection. This desire works in conjunction with our conscience, which provides us knowledge – what we experience as a feeling of guilt – when we do wrong. But we have perverted this desire for Him into the desire for perfection in the here and now, both in our own lives and in the lives and actions of those around us, those we influence like our children. Though we would acknowledge that perfection is not really achievable now, we don’t actually internalize that knowledge, and so we persist in wanting what we can never have. This leads us often to poor choices. Take for example the rising divorce rate; while divorce is sometimes necessary, more often it is a desire to “start over” because we can’t seem to make the marriage, and our partner, perfect. Letting God be perfect is liberating, then, because the pressure to achieve perfection here is seen for what it is – a misplaced effort at best, a violation of the First Commandment at worst.
Christians also know that insisting on achieving perfection now will necessarily lead to unhappiness – the recognition of the gap between what I expect and I what I actually experience. God is the only perfect being, and seeking perfection apart from Him is an effort doomed to failure. Happiness is a corollary of right living, and right living means living in a manner consistent with God’s will. God does not will us to be self-centered; quite the contrary. His will is that we place him, properly, at the center of everything. Consequently, our own happiness should never be a goal in and of itself. The article makes this point quite well.
But why should that be so? If nature were all there is, then pursuing the object of my desires would make sense. I do that with things like food and shelter and other basic necessities. But when it comes to happiness, the more I seek it, the less happy I become. Again, the Christian worldview can make sense of this. We weren’t meant to be “happy” here, at least not in the sense that people have today. This is a waypoint on a journey, and the issue is not whether I have achieved bliss here, but whether I have developed in the appropriate way. Consider, by analogy, the life of the fetus. Is its goal or function to be happy for nine months? If the mother takes care of herself during the pregnancy, the fetus may experience no pain, but the purpose of the in utero time was not to maximize the fetus’ happiness or self fulfillment, but to prepare her for this life. Similarly, while it is better to be happy than to be sad or troubled, it is a mistake to measure the value of our lives by our feelings. There may be times when happiness eludes us, but when we view this as part of the way things were meant to be, it actually helps, ironically, to lessen the unhappiness.
The secularist will probably never understand this. Thinking that science can answer all his questions, he neglects to try to make sense of it all in a broader and more comprehensive way. So intent on studying the leaf in front him, he misses the forest for the trees. And often times, it is his children who will also suffer.
Posted by Al Serratochild raising, god's nature, happiness, perfection
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To the secular mind, Christianity can appear to be a giant schoolyard bully, threatening eternal harm for anyone who breaks his rule. A comment to a recent post reflected this position, and helps to bring into focus the difficulty that believers can encounter in trying make their case:
“How do threats of eternal torment help support your case? OK, I know you hold out the alternative ‘Heaven thing’ and I appreciate that. Sounds wonderful!
But American Evangelicalism is so unforgiving that a full 95% of all humanity will, or has been, relegated to Hell for all eternity. And this judgement is based on a worldview, not even on the merits of your behavior. No time off for good behavior? That’s unbelievably harsh!
So I can be a Hindu with a lifetime devotion to the sick, the poor and the downtrodden, and your message is, “Sorry friend, you’re headed for an eternity of pure HELL! You should’ve gotten your worldview story straight Oh well- you’re screwed forever – tough luck!
Your message may be ultimately true, or false. But is there any question that it’s brutal beyond any level attained by the worse human examples?”
Let’s set aside for a moment the dripping sarcasm, which doesn’t really assist the argument. What’s being advanced in this common challenge rests on some unspoken, and unexamined, assumptions. The first is that the threat of “eternal torment” is part of a strategy aimed at convincing people to join “our” group. Since this message is such a turn-off, especially since its directed at “worldview” – as the writer puts it -rather than behavior issues, wouldn’t we be better off just dispensing with the “fire and brimstone” message?
This challenge has met with considerable success in recent decades. One need look no further than Rob Bell’s recent book which concludes that, in the end, “love wins out” and no one remains in hell. The message that actual and unpleasant consequences may attach to our beliefs, and our actions, is wildly unpopular in a pluralistic culture that values individuality as the highest virtue.
The doctrine of hell can’t be explained in a few sentences; it can’t be reduced to a simple soundbite. To make sense of it, one must examine his own hidden presuppositions about the true nature and purpose of this life and about what the “well-lived life” really looks like. It takes reflection, and it takes seeing – or at least trying to see – from a perspective different than the narrow one that focuses on “me;” on how I can get what I want.
So the challenger doesn’t realize that believers didn’t invent hell – the locus if you will of separation from God – as a marketing ploy. Jesus himself spoke of it – often, it seems, and with a distinct note of warning in his words. Modern Christians have no more right – or ability – to modify or change these beliefs than would a modern vegetarian who claims that offering a meat dish each day spices up a vegan menu. Either one holds to the core beliefs of Christianity or one should question why he uses the label at all.
Which leads to the next aspect of the challenge. Isn’t this unbelievably harsh? That, I submit, would depend on the degree to which we can claim ignorance. The example of the Hindu doing good works is meant to drive home the point. Shouldn’t he be rewarded by a loving God?
Not necessarily. A perfect God may actually expect us to do good, so that doing what is expected gets us no reward. Perhaps instead the question is what we do wrong. Has this hypothetical Hindu done anything wrong in his life? How much wrong should a perfectly God good ignore? These questions help point out the rather obvious point that God may not be grading us on a curve. He may instead have put the knowledge of his law on our hearts, and provided us a means to respond, and then actually be committed to holding us to this standard.
Which leads to a final observation: what part of the natural order makes one think God could not possibly be “harsh?” After all, we live on a sliver of habitable space in a universe beyond comprehension, and most of this planet is deadly for us. “Innocent” people suffer all the time when they, even inadvertently, violate a law of nature. Three people walking on the edge of a steep cliff are all subject to the same result if they slip off the edge – the harshness of gravity going one-on-one with the weakness of the flesh. It doesn’t seem to matter to nature if one was a Hindu doing good works, another a child molester and the third blind and unable to see the edge.
Yes, there is an aspect to Christianity that can appear harsh. Anytime a consequence is imposed, the recipient no doubt feels the same way. But if the warning is sufficiently clear, and the consequence fair and appropriate, then the problem is with the one who continued in rebellion, not with the law-giver. But more to the point: wishing that things were different isn’t much of a basis to stake one’s eternal future on.
Posted by Al Serratoconsequences of sin, eternal punishment, eternal separation, hell
Posted in Writings | 4 Comments »