Christianity is a rational faith system, based on evidence of certain historical events which give credence to a particular worldview. But not everyone is ready to use reason and the rules of logic in arriving at conclusions. In many such cases, it is emotion – not reason – that is setting preconditions on what decisions the skeptic is willing to reach.
Some people reject Christianity, for example, because they have never personally experienced a miracle or because they think certain Christian leaders are bad people. These positions find their roots in emotion, not reason, and may stem from many things: early childhood experiences or trauma; a desire to live a life that is unconstrained by restrictions placed from outside; a rebellious nature that simply takes pleasure in bucking the established order. Given human nature, it is exceedingly difficult to use rational arguments to change the mind of someone who is letting emotion cloud their thinking.
Prosecutors preparing to make a case must assess not just the rational aspects of why guilt has been proven, but the emotional aspects that can sway a jury into thinking that a vote of not guilty is the “right thing” to do despite the evidence of guilt. An experienced prosecutor will not willingly take on the challenge of persuading an emotionally-driven skeptic; that’s why jury selection is so critical to success. Weeding out jurors who refuse to be bound by reason, and the rules of logic, is essential if a rational verdict is the goal. Christian apologists don’t have that luxury. If they seek to “make the case” for Christianity – often times with family or close friends – they must consider both the rational and the emotional aspects of their presentation.
A proper sense of humility requires an acknowledgement that often times nothing will work. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to breaking through such defenses. But, generally speaking, the head-on approach will not work. A more subtle and perhaps longer term strategy is necessary.
Consider for example the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba. David’s craven behavior in sending Bathsheba’s husband to his death was not something he would have willingly discussed. The prophet Nathan would not have “reasoned” David into seeing his guilt – and his need for repentance. Yet Nathan slips past any emotional defenses by disguising his point. In this way, David is able to see through his denial to the underlying moral issue that was at play. However much David would have rejected the straight-on argument as to his guilt, he could not help but see Nathan’s point when presented in this nuanced way.
Head-on arguments tend to embed people in their original position. But getting them to see their approach from a different perspective can help to dislodge them. Thus, the first step in dealing with someone who rejects the rules of reason is to get them to see just how foolish that position is. This takes some knowledge of the person, his likes and dislikes, and the things he prizes or holds dear. It also takes patience – waiting for the right time to discuss an issue. As in the case of David and Nathan, the apologist must be able to recognize when the other person feels strongly enough about a subject that an apologetic point can be made.
A starting point is to demonstrate the absurdity – and danger – of abandoning reason. Imagine going to a doctor and having him tell you that he won’t be ordering any tests this week because lab tests are unfriendly on even-numbered days. Would you pay a car mechanic who wants to flush the radiator so that the brakes will stop squeaking? Words can be put together to form sentences, but the words ultimately have no meaning if the rules of logic and reason are abandoned. Alice in Wonderland’s Humpty Dumpty put it best: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean –neither more nor less.” It’s no problem that the words are put to multiple, inconsistent use. “When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra.”
The absurdity of this point makes for laughter, but a person who abandons reason needs to see how silly that position really is. Whatever they happen to be saying means only what they want it to mean, regardless of the truth of the underlying situation. This is not an enlightened position to hold.
If you’re dealing with someone who does not care whether his position is enlightened, there probably isn’t much that you can do. Despite their denials, however, they intuitively understand that rules exist for a reason. Try playing poker with them and start changing the rules, so that a pair of threes will beat a royal flush. Or tell them that their bank will start compounding interest in a way that removes money from their account. When the impact on them is direct, as in these examples, they won’t need to be motivated as to the importance of applying the correct rules. They will understand that following the proper rules ensures fair and predictable outcomes.
Rules of thinking – the rules of reason and logic – also exist so that we can arrive at correct conclusions about what our senses perceive. Sloppy thinking can lead to bad outcomes, such as when I conclude that if one aspirin makes me feel better, 20 will make me feel 20 times better. Or when I decide that my lungs should work just fine underwater or my arms can be used as wings. Nature has a nasty way of dealing with people who reject rational thought. Everyone who lives long enough to be an “irrational skeptic” knows this – regardless of whether they will admit it.
The fact is that most people don’t really reject the rules of reason and logic. Instead they reject the conclusions to which those rules may lead them. Understanding this might not make you a better apologist – but it will probably make you a less frazzled one. Sometimes there is nothing that can be done but bide your time, while waiting for the right opportunity to arise.
Posted by Al Serratoanswering skeptics, apologetics, fallacious reasoning
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The modern skeptic often takes an aggressive stance against theism generally, and Christianity in particular. In recent posts, I have examined one such “attack” on God: the challenge that God cannot be considered a “loving” parent because He allowed his “children” to be subjected to temptation, knowing that many would succumb and end up in Hell. Though emotionally charged, the challenge lacks cogency when one considers the true nature of “free will.”
But the challenge cannot be lightly dismissed, because the hidden emotional content is quite powerful. In its extreme form, the claim is that a God who could allow any of his creatures to suffer eternal torment is, by any standard, a monster who should be resisted, not worshiped. After all, no human parent would ever subject a child to such a punishment.
No, they wouldn’t but not for the reason that the skeptic thinks. Parents can, and do, separate themselves from children who use their free will to harm them. Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system knows that this happens increasingly – and far too often. Perhaps elder abuse was always a problem, but my sense is that the permissive culture of the past few decades has mislead many parents into wanting to be their child’s friend, rather than the authority figure they were meant to be. Adolescents without self-discipline often turn to drugs and alcohol, and as they waste their most productive years playing or getting high, they fail to develop the skills that would allow them to remain gainfully employed.
And then reality steps in. Fewer and fewer options for gainful employment appear, as they spiral further downward. And where do they turn for financial support? All too often to the parents whose remaining years stand in the way of the windfall of inherited wealth that they come to believe is rightly theirs. What follows is, simply put, ugly. Parents whose later years are lived not in peace and quiet – those anticipated “golden years” of retirement – but in fear, as their once precious children turn against them. There is little as heartbreaking as watching the anguish of such parents, who after a lifetime spent bailing out their children finally realize that they need the help of the authorities if they are to remain safe. Restraining orders lead to arrests and angry confrontations in court, in which the parents, reluctantly and with heavy heart, tell the story of how their sons or daughters stole from them, battered them, threatened them to keep silent… and many times wished them dead.
What is a parent to do in this situation? Is not their first step to separate themselves from their rebellious offspring? To use the force of law, if necessary, to keep those whose wills have turned against them from having access to them… and any wealth or other goods they may have accumulated? To seek justice for the wrongs that have been done, justice that entails some form of punishment, in which wrongdoing is recognized and redressed? And what would be said of a judge who refused to grant the restraining order? Who insisted that the parents remain subjected to the greed-driven violence of those offspring, or who ordered them to turn over their wealth, regardless of their wishes or the justice of their cause? Would this not be considered barbaric?
What does any of this have to do with God? After all, he is all-powerful, isn’t He? He cannot be victimized by us, His children. This is true, of course, but it misses the point. While God has no frailties and no weaknesses, like human parents He is interested in relationship. After all, that’s why He created any of us, just as the desire for relationship is the reason parents have children in the first place and don’t give them up for adoption. And when His human children use their free will to sin against Him, to take what He has given without thanks or appreciation, to constantly demand more without acknowledging that they have no right to it – when they shake their fist at Him in rejection and rebellion – what is God to do? Should He reward them nonetheless, giving them more and more? Should He override their will and make them into robots, seemingly human on the outside but incapable of free choice and, consequently, of love?
The separation that a parent in this situation can seek is limited. It will either end when the son or daughter genuinely repents and seeks forgiveness… or when the parent’s life draws to a close. This perfectly tracks the “good news” and the “bad” of Christianity. God offers us reconciliation, but it most be done on His terms. With repentance and trust in His saving power, we can be restored to right relationship with Him. All can be put right. In this there is mercy and unmerited grace. The bad news, by contrast, is that God doesn’t die – the separation from all that is good and pure and worthy of praise continues without end. A horrifying thought – the prospect of forever spent alone, aware of God but unable to join with Him, consumed with hatred and self absorption, in a place where the “fire” is never quenched.
This is unpleasant business, prompting some to argue that God should not have created at all. Really? Would parents of ten children turn back the clock and eliminate them all, if one rebelled against them? How about if two, or four or eight rebelled? Would not one loving relationship – freely entered and freely sustained – be embraced by the parents who seek relationship, despite the sadness at realizing that others have been lost to their own perverted self-will.
I suppose we each must answer this question for ourselves, but seeing the skeptic’s challenge in proper context – in the context of loving relationships based upon free will – helps to demonstrate that God’s ways, however seemingly harsh, are indeed just.
Posted by Al Serrato
God's will, hell, justice, punishment, separation from God
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My last two posts have considered a skeptic’s challenge that a “loving” God would not have exposed his children to the pernicious powers of the Devil. Yes, God could have better “protected” his children, but to have done so would have deprived us of true free will. And yes, God knew that much of His creation would reject Him, but again if He fashioned things in such a way that no one rejected Him, where in that would there be room for freedom? So, if God does allow His children to experience temptation, and if the consequence of rejecting God is “eternal torment,” how can Christians maintain, nonetheless, that this was an act of love? With consequences of this magnitude, how could God have acted consistent with His loving nature, and not sadistically, as some would contend? Would it have been better for God to have never created us?
This challenge strikes me as a bit ironic. We live, after all, in an era in which individualism is of paramount importance. Whether it’s the call for “less government” or the demand for greater sexual freedom, we find ourselves ensconced in an “age of consent,” in which giving expression to our choice is all that really matters. The abortion industry has made amazing use of this theme, deploying the euphemism “pro choice” to dress up a barbaric act that runs counter to a mother’s basic human nature. Everywhere we look, the desire to give free reign to our “free will” is a driving force.
Clearly, free will matters to us, and it matters despite the consequences that are built into our nature. Sexually transmitted disease reaches epidemic proportions, yet we, as a culture, insist that science save us from these consequences. A change in behavior is simply not in the cards. Is it not built into the very nature of things that we defy what is expected of us, what we know we “should” do, in favor of what we want to do – regardless of the ultimate consequences of our choice? We don’t want to worship God; we’re too busy trying to be Him.
This is the nature of man, and the nature of free will. There are no half-measures. Either a person is free to reject God, or he has limitations placed upon his will. But such limitations eliminate the freedom of the choice, just as a drop of poison deprives a glass of water of its purity.
With this as backdrop, let’s consider God’s choices. We say that God “loves” us, which means that He wills our ultimate good. If He takes away the freedom to reject Him, he can make us perfectly good and content, in the fashion of a cherished pet. But if He gives us intelligence and the freedom to act against His wishes, then the meaning of love cannot be to domesticate us as pets. Love, in this setting, must mean what it means for human beings in proper relationship with each other: the desire for the other to achieve his best destiny. A free will being freely choosing God achieves the highest good imaginable – eternal union with the source of all that is perfect and excellent. Those who direct their will against God do not want union with Him. They want separation from Him. So a perfectly loving God gives both categories what they have been seeking – union or separation.
The skeptic will no doubt object that separation involves punishment. But what would he have God do? Force the unbeliever to spend eternity with Him against his will? Force him to love God by stripping away his freedom, while in his heart he wants only to go on defying God? Force God to reward those who defy Him, even if that is not what God wills? Does the skeptic not see that he is speaking a contradiction?
Would it have been better, then, for God to not have created at all? Many skeptics insist this is the case. I submit that they do not really mean what they say. After all, if they could wipe out all of humanity with the push of a button – eliminate the good and the evil so that no future generations of humans could be lost – I seriously doubt they would do so. And here’s why: because the potential for infinite good outweighs the consequent bad. Consider how the scales are balanced in the end: the many who are received into God’s presence experience eternal – and infinite – joy; the created order therefore experiences an infinite increase in joy. The rest experience what they sought through the use of their wills. Certainly not positive, but consistent with the desire of their wills.
God creates, then, an infinite increase in joy and perfections if He creates, or He creates nothing at all. Doesn’t the right choice seem perfectly obvious?
Posted by Al Serrato
creation, God's will, Salvation
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My last post discussed an unusual twist on a familiar challenge to the “goodness” of God. Analogizing to a parent allowing hardened criminals into his home, the skeptic asked why God would allow Satan – the ultimate deceiver – to have access to His “children” in the Garden. The implicit emotional impact of an analogy such as this must be recognized, but the challenge nonetheless remains. How can Christians make sense of temptation, and of the freedom the “tempter-in-chief” has been given?
In considering the question of temptation, two possibilities appear: God could have created beings that He shielded from temptation. Such beings would remain “good” but their goodness would be programmed and not the product of free will. Love that is programmed, however, is not really love at all; it may on the outside appear like love, but love without choice is meaningless. The second possibility is for God to create free-will beings capable of true love. But to do so, they must also be capable of not loving; they must be subject to the temptation to reject God, because absent any such temptation, they would in fact be in the first category – good, and “loving,” but only because they are following their programming. There is no middle ground; God could not do both – not because God lacks power – but because doing both is essentially a contradiction. It’s like asking God to create a circle with four equal sides. The very question betrays the questioner’s lack of conceptual understanding of what free will and love are.
Let’s consider some basic definitions. Temptation, in the more specific religious sense, is a desire or craving to do wrong. Some things are wrong in and of themselves in a way that we all intuitively realize but perhaps would have difficulty explaining. “Malum in se” is the way it is expressed in Latin; murder and rape are classic examples of such wrongs. By contrast, some things are “malum prohibitum” – wrong not because they are inherently evil but because they are prohibited by law or by consensus. Taking game out of season or driving 50 in a 35 mph zone are examples. But these are earthly concepts. Why should anything be wrong, even things that we say are somehow wrong “inherently?” The answer to the question lies within these ancient legal descriptions. Created beings recognize that their creator sets the rules – He embedded them into the nature of things. Some things He prohibits, some things He specifically commands, and the rest remain in the category of neither prohibited nor commanded; this vast middle category is left for society and for government to define and enforce, for the common good.
What was the basic temptation in the Garden? Was God a crazed arborist who was concerned about the health of a particular tree? Was he worried that Adam and Eve would suffer indigestion if they partook of the “forbidden fruit?” Or was He encapsulating in His prohibition the very basic rule that lies at the root of the human condition: “there cannot be two Gods, and I will not share my authority – my ‘god-ness’ – with you. Are you willing to abide by this and to freely enter into relationship with me? But be aware: this requires that you obey my commands.”
Each of us knows the answer to this question. We may complain that we were not given a choice; after all, we “inherited” this “sin nature,” didn’t we? But we know at our core that this nature is not forced upon us against our will. We did not inherit a craving for odd or distasteful things, or for being altruistic and self-sacrificing. No, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that each of us, to some degree or other, wants to throw off the shackles of creature-ness – with its frailty and limitations – and step into God’s role. We crave autonomy and power, over ourselves, our environment, and others. That’s why songs like “I Did It My Way” resonate so much with us. In fact, we go so far as to put God himself “in the dock,” demanding that He account for the many perceived “wrongs” of which He stands accused by modern man.
Yes, God knew that we would sin in this way. He knew that this sin nature would eventually require that He separate Himself from some of His creation. So, let’s consider for a moment His options. If He prevented this most basic craving – the desire for total autonomy – to enter our thought processes, how could anyone conclude that they are “free?” Keep in mind that we are not discussing here trivial or irrational desires – this one is central to the very concept of freedom. If he allowed this most basic temptation, but prevented anyone from ever triggering it so that it would always lay dormant, then, again, we could not call ourselves “free.” If he allowed some “lesser tempters” to trigger this desire, once again there would be a limit on the freedom of the choice. So, in the end, He allows the ultimate “tempter” to take his best shot. Not because He wants us to fall but because He wants our choice – and our love – to be genuine, and the product of free will. Sadly, for many, as the 17th century poet Milton penned, “it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”
This, then, is the basis of true freedom. A basic choice that goes to the heart of man, and to the root of the most important question there is: how will I relate to my maker? Will I turn toward Him with bended knee, willing to recognize and embrace His kingship? Or will I stick my finger in his eye, kicking and screaming the lyrics to “My Way?” If I choose to respond to Him on His terms, He will do the necessary work to make relationship with Him possible; if by contrast I reject Him, well, what more is there to be said?
My next post will consider how a choice of this magnitude – with such dire consequences – could ever be considered part of a loving act of a loving Creator.
Posted by Al Serratocreation, God's mercy, Salvation, temptation
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When considering whether God is truly “good,” some begin with the situation of the first couple. Why, they ask, did God allow Satan to have access to the Garden when he knew that the man and woman he had placed there would undergo, and succumb to, temptation? One skeptic used an analogy to further his point: a parent might set rules for her child, and might punish him for breaking those rules, but she would never allow a criminal – a consummate deceiver such as Satan – into her home to prey upon that child. The skeptic then concludes that no moral justification could support God’s knowing choice to create people whom he foreknew would end up in Hell.
An apt analogy can not only convey a rational point, but it can do so with an emotional impact that is as substantial as it is disguised. The listener feels the injustice captured by the analogy and begins to shy away from his position. But analogies can be misplaced; when the thing compared is not like the thing at issue, it may be that the analogy simply has emotional power, and doesn’t really advance the position of the one who raised it.
On an emotional level, comparing God to a parent who allows a predatory criminal to have access to his innocent children is a masterstroke. Parents who would deliberately expose their children to such danger would be worthy of censure, if not criminal prosecution. How can we love, and serve, a God who is “guilty” of such horrendous behavior?
A parent’s job in raising young children is to shield them from harm, and from inappropriate temptation and danger, until they are old enough and sufficiently trained to properly handle the situation. Children lack wisdom and maturity, and have poorly developed capabilities to detect deception and to foresee the long term consequences of their choices. Moreover, the specter of a predator in one’s home is doubly horrific, as a parent cannot help but envision even greater – perhaps physical – harm that the criminal might inflict. But a parent’s role is of limited duration – a fully grown and properly educated person should eventually be capable of recognizing and resisting the evildoer’s deceptions.
We do not, of course, have a full picture of what transpired in Eden. But we do know that Adam and Eve were not children who were invited to play with the neighborhood serial killer. They were fully grown and were instructed by God as to how things work – in short, that He was God and that they were not. He told them that they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that the consequence would be quite unfavorable. And what deception did Satan play on them? Did he trick them into thinking that they were eating of a different tree? Or that they were not eating at all? No. He simply contradicted God – he told Eve that God was afraid that they too would become Gods.
This is not the account of a criminal luring a child into a car with the promise of candy. This is instead the essential story of man – the struggle between two competing desires. On the one hand, will we submit to the God who breathed life into us, and respect his kingship as God? Or, on the other, will we shake off the shackles of God’s authority and insist that we are each our own God, capable of charting our own course, of knowing good and evil, unwilling to let God be God?
No, God is not a sadistic parent hoping to harm as many of his children as He can, and not caring about the consequences. He has something quite different in mind. God could have created beings that he shielded from temptation; or he could create free-will beings that could enter relationship with him in a meaningfully loving way. But he could not do both. To assert that he should have is to hold, whether knowingly or not, to a contradiction.
In my next post, I will attempt to explain why this is so.
Posted by Al SerratoGarden of Eden, satan, temptation
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Since it first hit the big screen, the Star Wars movie series has wowed audiences with its spectacular special effects. In that galaxy far, far away, the ageless struggle between good and evil rages on, built around the story of a good “knight” who is seduced over to the Dark Side. It makes for great entertainment, as it re-tells a story that is as old as man.
But here, closer to home, are we engaged in that same kind of struggle? Are we in a spiritual battle, a battle being waged for our very souls, in a realm beyond that which our senses can perceive?
Secularists, and sadly many modern “believers,” simply reject this view of reality. They insist that what can be perceived is all there is, as they place their “faith” in science to eventually explain away all mysteries. They don’t believe in simplistic notions like Hell, and if it exists at all, they view it as a destination reserved for the very few, for the worst of the unrepentant. Evil, in their view, is an amorphous, faceless force and not reflected in an identifiable “person.” In sum, they hold to a modern notion that they are basically “good” and that their goodness will, in the end, be recognized by any God that might happen to exist.
These modern views on good and evil may be comforting, but they find no support in the teachings of Jesus, in the Bible or in the traditions of the Church. These sources tell us that Satan, the original fallen angel who inhabits the real Dark Side, is a person, and that Hell is a real and horrible place. Jesus clearly viewed reality this way. He knew Satan to be an actual person, and spoke directly to him when He was tempted him in the desert. Jesus also interacted with lesser demons, which recognized Him as the Son of God and which spoke to Him. In Matthew 8:28-32, Jesus cast a group of such demons into a herd of swine. (See also Mark 9) Jesus also spoke often of Hell as a real and horrible place, likening it to the perpetual garbage fires in the region known as Gehenna. Jesus admonished us not to “fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” Matthew 10:28.
The Bible also teaches that Satan acts purposefully and has each of us in his sights. In fact, the Bible warns us to “stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8. It teaches that the battle we face here is not against human forces, as it may seem to us from the information provided by our senses, but against the “the principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness, the evil spirits in regions above.” Ephesians 6:12. It tells us that salvation is not something we can earn through our own works or that we can merit through acts of goodness. The way to avoid condemnation is through belief in Christ, for “whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” John 3:1-19
What are we to make, then, of this battle for our souls? Is there a “force” we can appeal to for salvation? Or are we left to trust our feelings and to make it on our own? Many people today have lost their way on this question. They speak of being “spiritual” but not “religious.” They feel free to pick and choose what to believe and what not to believe, what to accept as true and what to discard as outdated. They rationalize their immoral behavior and then convince others to join in their rationalization, as if, by force of democratic vote, God’s moral law could be changed. This form of false spirituality is quite seductive, as it responds to the inner desire to know God without requiring the effort to actually learn about Him.
So, how do we find our way out of the Darkness? The answer lies in learning about the true nature of God, as He revealed Himself to us through Holy Scripture. It begins with the central truth that God the Son, the Word, became flesh and made his dwelling among us. John 1:14. Christ is the original light that shines on in darkness, a darkness that did not overcome it. John 1:5. By taking up His cross, and shedding his blood for us, He “cancelled the bond that stood against us with all its claims, snatching it up and nailing it to the cross. Thus did God disarm the principalities and powers. He made a public show of them and, leading them off captive, triumphed in the person of Christ.” Colossians 2:14.
Jesus told his followers that if they lived according to his teaching, they will know the truth and the truth will set them free. John 8:31-32. And therein lays the rest of the answer. If we are to engage in this great spiritual battle, we must first become informed of the true nature of things from God’s perspective. Paul, in his epistle to the Ephesians, explains how to begin. Using imagery that would be familiar to his audience (but unfortunately not to us), he urges them to arm themselves for the battle by putting on the “armor of God” so that they can “resist on the evil day.” He encourages them to “stand fast, with the truth as the belt around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and zeal to propagate the gospel of peace as your footgear. In all circumstances hold faith up before you as your shield: it will help you extinguish the fiery darts of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, the word of God.” Ephesians 6:13-17. Similarly, in 1 Peter 5:9, we are told to resist the devil, “solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.” And again, in the Epistle of James, we are told to “resist the devil and he will take flight.” James 4:7.
So, there it is. The lion is stalking in the night, but the true Light can lead the way out of darkness. We need not seek out and attack Satan, but we must resist him. We do this by submitting to God’s will; by arming ourselves with truth; by leading honest and just lives; by not being ashamed of the Gospel but willing to proclaim it with zeal; by encouraging each other to grow stronger in the faith, and finally, and most importantly, by getting into and staying in God’s revealed word.
What’s stopping you from stepping into the light?\
Posted by Al Serratoephesians, hell, satan, spiritual warfare, spirituality
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My last post discussed some of the problems with demanding “extraordinary” evidence before considering the possibility that an extraordinary event – like the Resurrection of Jesus – actually did occur. Setting artificial standards for evidence, I argued, does little to advance the goal of determining the truth. Skeptics often respond by insisting that nothing short of the miraculous will convince them of the existence of God. After all, they reason, if God did exist, he would expect us to use the mind he gave us to come to our own conclusions, based on evidence and reason, in order to separate fact from fantasy. When pressed, the skeptic will often provide the following examples of “adequate” proof:
- God appearing to everyone, everywhere at the same time;
- Finding microscopic writing on every living cell identifying God as the manufacturer;
- Present day miracles such as amputees regrowing limbs through prayer;
- Alien life coming to earth and also proclaiming Christ as savior;
- Finding large etchings on Mars authored by Yahweh.
These examples of “adequate” proof all share the quality of being “extraordinary.” Faced with such evidence, many more – though I would submit not all – would have a conversion experience. Since God performed such extraordinary acts in antiquity, the skeptic wonders whether it is asking too much that he perform these same types of acts for all people at all times in all places.
The first step in assessing this challenge is to consider whether God has an adequate reason for not addressing each of us in a direct and unambiguous way. Why doesn’t God write us an email each day that makes his will known? The answer, I suspect, has to do with the “fall” – as a result of which God removed himself from direct contact with us – and from the fact that he actually does intend us to use our intellect to move towards him. To better know, and experience and understand him requires not a one-sentence tag line – “You should take that job. /s/ God” – but a conscious effort of the will to solve the puzzles of life, of revelation, of awareness of God in our lives. That this is achievable requires little more than perusing a book on the lives of the saints. But at a deeper level, the skeptic who insists on such direct communication is actually betraying the very commitment to rationality that he pretends to have.
The skeptic insists he cannot just believe “on faith” and that he expects that a God who gave us a mind would expect that we use it. Christians agree. In fact, many passages in Scripture reaffirm Jesus’ admonition that we are to love God with all of our minds. In placing trust in the Biblical account of reality, Christians use a rational process known as abduction – reasoning from inferences to a logical conclusion – piecing together dozens of bits of information to see where they lead. This process is an example of how rationality works. By contrast, despite their asserted reliance on rational thinking, skeptics insist 1) that the evidence be “extraordinary” (whatever that means) and 2) that nothing short of a direct contact by God would suffice. Do they not realize that the intellect isn’t necessary if one’s expectations are set to that level? Even the person of below normal intelligence would be able to conclude “God Is” with such evidence and without any use of rational thinking. Reasoning from evidence to a conclusion would simply not be necessary.
The skeptic’s position is like that of a juror who refuses to convict the murderer because there was no confession, or no video of the killing as it took place. But killers always leave some evidence behind, and piecing together the bits and pieces of that trail allows for a thoughtful, rational person to find guilt regardless of the killer’s silence. Now, the skeptic may object that God should not try to hide, the way the killer does. No matter. Use a different example. Many of the greatest discoveries of science – for instance, unlocking the secrets of the atom – required effort to uncover the reality that lies beneath the surface. If scientists waited for an instruction manual to appear written into the canals of Mars, or printed on the cell, we would still be lighting fires to illuminate our caves. In any other pursuit of knowledge and understanding, the thoughtful person understands that the answers will not always be clear and that reasoning to best conclusions is a viable way of attaining knowledge. Why should it be any different when it comes to knowledge of God? What is too easily obtained is often too little valued.
The skeptic sets impossible standards because he is trying to find reasons to reject what is patently obvious to most people who ever lived – created things require a Creator. Christians take this knowledge to a deeper level, placing confidence in their conclusion that this Creator revealed himself in the pages of the Bible. In so doing, Christians rely on reason; it is the skeptic, with his impossibly high demands, that refuses to.
Posted by Al Serratoabductive reasoning, Extraordinary claims
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Many skeptics approach “the evidence” for Christianity with a closed mind. Hobbled by a number of presuppositions, they typically end up where they begin: convinced that God simply would not have made himself so difficult to detect. Many will back up their position with a challenge – because Christian claims are so “extraordinary,” they say, only “extraordinary evidence” will be sufficient to persuade them. Upon reflection, however, it should be soon apparent that this is a rather odd – and self-defeating – way to go about the task of acquiring knowledge. Odd because it demonstrates a misunderstanding about the way evidence works. Self-defeating because reviewing evidence is supposed to be done so that one can arrive at “the truth” about what occurred, and when one option – a creator God – is set “off limits” at the beginning, there is only one result that can be reached. This may give the atheist comfort – his views remain unchallenged – but it is difficult to describe this as a meaningful search for the truth.
Consider: “evidence” can mean a variety of things, but as it relates to historical events – which, after all, is the basis of Christian belief – it refers to the existence of certain facts which directly or indirectly tend to prove that the event in question occurred. Whether it’s Jesus life – was he real or fictitious? – his death – did it occur on the cross?- and, most significantly, his bodily resurrection from the dead, the process of discernment requires a consideration of all of the evidence to determine whether one can conclude with confidence that the event did in fact occur. Consequently, in assessing the weight and persuasiveness of the evidence, it may appear that certain pieces of evidence line up as probative or not probative, relevant or irrelevant, weighty or weak. But refusing to consider evidence unless it first meets the standard of “extraordinary” reflects a bias against ever reaching a conclusion. Far from being a rational position, it is the abandonment of reason, for reason does not impose upon itself such artificial restrictions. This demand for “extraordinary” evidence is, upon reflection, also rather ironic. Christianity is in fact based on “extraordinary” evidence. It is “out of the ordinary” and “exceptional” and “not commonplace” that
- 66 books written over dozens of centuries by a variety of unrelated authors could be assembled into a coherent whole, one that tells an overriding message of man, his problem, and the solution God set in motion. The books of the Old Testament presage and predict Christ, and the books of the New Testament demonstrate the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies;
- the concerns and beliefs of a culture separated from us by thousands of years could still resonate as relevant today, and join via a common system of belief cultures from all across the globe and spanning every conceivable age since Christ walked the earth;
- the early followers could be so convinced of the truth of what occurred that they were willing to face death rather than deny what they would have known to be false, if indeed they were fabricating a story;
- a variety of predictions – hundreds by some counts – could find fulfillment in one historical person;
- modern archeology repeatedly confirms so much of what is written in the texts;
- items of scientific interest relating to astronomy and physics (for examples, check out the work of the scholars over at www.reasons.org) appear to be embedded in books such as Job;
- the claims of multiple miracles that were witnessed by numerous people;
- and probably most significantly, a man who preached a radical message of universal brotherhood to a subjugated people who were expecting and hoping for a conquering king could change a world and still be regarded – and embraced – as relevant today.
This is just a partial list. Indeed, entire books and ministries have been devoted to making this case. And while the skeptic can challenge various pieces of evidence, it is difficult to gainsay both the amount and the quality of the evidence upon which Christians base their faith.
This is not to say that Christianity is not about faith – it certainly is. As Paul says in Hebrews, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1-2) No one can see heaven or preview what eternity with God will entail. Faith provides the assurance that what Jesus promised is true; we can rest confidently in the knowledge that things not seen will be as he promised. But we don’t have “blind faith” that he once lived, or that he has the authority to carry out what he promised. That knowledge is based on the evidence provided by those early witnesses. These men and women lived in extraordinary times and witnessed extraordinary things; sadly, many suffered extraordinarily for their convictions. But what they left to posterity, the evidence of what they saw and heard and experienced – whether or not it rises to the level of “extraordinary” – was certainly sufficient. And it remains so today.
Posted by Al Serrato
Evidence for Christianity, Extraordinary claims, fulfilled prophecy, resurrection
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My last two posts addressed common challenges skeptics level against Christians for defending God’s inherent power to deal with his creation as he sees fit. If God orders the destruction of a wicked people, the skeptic contends, He must be a hypocrite at best, or some kind of moral monster at worst. But if man ever creates an artificially intelligent robot, I concluded, man too will possess the power to turn off his creations whenever he sees fit.
But, the skeptic complains, robots aren’t human – and they never will be. Humans are so much more than machines. Fragile even under the best of circumstances, each living person is a miracle of flesh and blood, all too subject to pain both physical and emotional. Capable of feeling the boundless love of a mother, they can also experience the agony of loss. As the skeptic might put it, “Surely there is a difference between pulling the cord out of the bottom of a toaster, and pulling the arms off an infant. Likewise there is a difference between turning off a robot and running through with a sword a human being.” Isn’t it different when what’s being turned off is a living, breathing human being?
This challenge may seem significant to us – after all, we are all part of the class that is affected – but what difference does it actually make? What power has God ceded to us – has God abandoned – when he included among our features such things as thoughtfulness and pain, love and hatred, joy and bitterness?
First, it bears noting that feelings and intelligence are gifts, not liabilities. Life is fuller and more meaningful with them than without. The dog has some awareness, but cannot appreciate the subtlety of poetry or the ecstasy of marital love. Pain too serves a function. Without it, we would lack the tool essential to avoiding danger. In short, God gave us more by giving us these things. He made us more like him. So, what then is the objection? The earlier objection was that God was hypocritical or contradictory. But once one recognizes that God, having created us, occupies a level above us, it follows that he has the authority to do that which we cannot do. What does our feeling pain do to change that authority? Speaking for myself, I am perfectly content that he gave me feelings and intelligence because I can experience emotionally and intellectually the fulfillment promised in reuniting with him. But with these gifts, he also attaches a price. If I am entrusted with access to great power, is it not right that I am punished more (rather than less) when I abuse it? To whom more is given more is expected.
I suspect that the real objection is that this is not fair. God, having created us with feelings, must now “respect” them. He must not allow us to suffer any pain. But again, why should this be so? And if “respecting” our feelings means allowing us to have our way, and if our way conflicts with his perfectly holy nature, which “right” should prevail? God’s right to remain true to his character or our “right” to feel “good” all the time, to never suffer, even where that suffering is a natural and predictable byproduct of our conduct. Returning to my analogy, if the artificially intelligent robots are like the robot on Lost in Space (for those of you not old enough to remember, he possessed human emotion), would I be prohibited from turning it off or otherwise destroying it if it were to attack me? Refuse to follow my commands? Could I not turn it off or on as I wish, or use it for parts, if I determined that this was the best course of action? Taken a step further, if the robot used the intelligence I had given it to rebel against me, would the capacity for emotion I had given it prevent me from exercising my power to dispose of my creation as I saw fit?
This may seem harsh, and perhaps that is the ultimate objection. Why can’t God just do what we want him to? Why can’t he let us be gods and play by our own rules. Perhaps – at least from our perspective – God’s actions are sometimes harsh. Having given us so much, he expects something in return and the punishment that he metes out for our rebellion is substantial, all the more so because we are aware of it intellectually and emotionally.
But he has warned us, and he has provided us a means to reunite with him. What else does fairness require? The suffering we experience here need not be eternal and there is a reward that awaits us that will far surpass the pain we endure here. But it must be done on his terms, not ours.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, says the Bible. I think this helps me understand what that means.
Posted by Al Serrato
God, God's goodness, human suffering, plan of salvation
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My last dealt with the varying translations of the 6th Commandment. Does it prohibit “murder” as the newer texts indicate, or more generally “killing” as is listed in the King James version? I concluded that “murder” is what is meant and that Christians are not hypocrites when they accept some killing as justified, such as in the cases of self-defense, some forms of capital punishment and just war.
The skeptic may then shift his challenge. Whether it prohibits killing or murder, how does the God of the Bible, the God of the Old Testament, justify the destruction of human life, either directly by his own hand or by ordering the ancient Israelites to wipe out certain enemies? Doesn’t that make God a hypocrite, or worse?
No, it doesn’t. There is no hypocrisy or contradiction in this setting because the rule-giver is not subject to the rules he creates. There is an unspoken premise in the challenge. We are all used to the notion that “no one is above the law.” The skeptic assumes that God occupies a position like that of a legislator. The legislator cannot commit crimes and then claim to be above the law because he wrote the law. This is so because the legislator is part of the class to whom the law is addressed and is controlling.
But God occupies a different position, because he stands above his creation. He is not one of many, who just happened to be entrusted with the power to write law. He created the power to make law, at least as far as we are concerned. As the creator of life, he has absolute authority over his creation. Common analogies to help make this point range from the classic pot maker that Paul the Apostle referred to (in Romans 9:21) to the more modern example from the world of robotics.
Imagine that I am able to master the field of artificial intelligence and place it in a series of robots. Like the character Data on Star Trek, or the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, these creations appear human, have an active intellect and the capacity to learn and adapt. What would prevent me from assigning them to “work the mines”? If I can turn them on – give them power and “life” – by what rationale would I be prohibited from using them as I see fit, or for that matter, turning them off?
They, by contrast, would have no claim on me that I am being “hypocritical” if I order them not to turn off their fellow machines, or if I refuse to do the work I created them to do. Simply put: they are not my equal; they are instead subject to me and my creative power. Because of that power, I retain the authority, and the right, to exercise my will as it concerns them. Consequently, I can also delegate that authority by, for example, ordering Robot 1 to turn off Robots 2 through 10. Nor would this order constitute a contradiction, for the underlying rule is not “no one, including the creator, should ever turn off a robot.” The underlying rule is that “no robot shall ever turn off another robot,” at least without adequate justification. When the creator orders that robots be turned off, he is not contradicting himself.
Now, this may lead the skeptic to accuse God of unfairness, or cruelty. This challenge is more difficult, in that God gave us more capacities than the robots of my analogy. Specifically, he gave us the ability to feel, to love, to experience emotion. But these are not deficits; no rational person would prefer to lose these capacities and opt to be a heartless machine. True, people often misuse these capacities and suffer harm, and pain, as a consequence. And sometimes bad things happen that are beyond our control, and which cause us pain. But the pain need not last forever. In the end, the offer to experience love and fellowship and endless joy in the company of perfection is our to accept – or to reject.
The skeptic who calls God a hypocrite is refusing to acknowledge the actual position of the creator, and instead assuming that the creator is subject to the rules he sets for his creation.
But the skeptic refuses to answer the most basic question: just why should that be so?
Posted by Al Serrato
6th Commandment, God's power, hypocrite
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The 6th Commandment has been translated as both “thou shall not kill” (King James Version) and “thou shall not murder,” in newer versions, such as the New American Standard. Skeptics delight in such apparent contradictions, contending that Christians are either hypocritical, for not following the command to not “kill,” or are engaging in “special pleading,” if they insist that “murder” is the correct interpretation. Either way, the skeptic is likely to cry foul.
But is the skeptic’s view correct? Are we forced to concede that the Bible’s command is nonsensical, if it prohibits all killing, or that we are forcing our interpretation on it? According to scholars, the Hebrew term that was originally used – ratsach – can be translated to include a broad range of killing or slaying, encompassing intentional murder, such as predatory “lying in wait” as well as less culpable forms of killing. Looking only at the phrase or sentence which contained the term, one would be left with an undecipherable message as to what the author meant. This is true, of course, of any use of language.
Words have multiple meanings and nuances that allow us to reduce our thoughts to a medium that allows for expression and, more importantly, communication. Unfortunately, it also allows for confusion. The only solution to this confusion is context. A word that does not fit into the broader meaning of the passage is probably poorly chosen. A word that contradicts large portions of the surrounding text is probably mistakenly translated. This is not an example of special pleading, but of sound interpretation. Special pleading, by contrast, is the logical fallacy that occurs when a person seeks to apply an exception to a general rule without justifying the exception. For example, let’s suppose I claim that the deliberate taking of innocent human life is always wrong. However, I wish to make an exception for abortion, but I don’t attempt to justify why such an exception would apply. I don’t bother showing that the fetus is not human, or that it is not innocent. I would be guilty of fallacious reasoning. (This, of course, is what makes debating “pro choice” defenders difficult, as they are refusing to follow principled thinking. But, I digress.)
Now, let’s consider the difference in the verbs “to kill” and “to murder.” “To kill” is a broad term which could encompass the taking of any life form; it has no connotation with regard to the mental state of the killer, what type of life was taken, the reason for the action, or the ability to justify the act. “To murder,” by contrast, is a specific term which conveys the killer’s mental state – historically called “malice,” the taking of human as opposed to other life, the baseness of the reason and the lack of justification. Applying these concepts to the Bible, it would be nonsensical to conclude that the 6th Commandment prohibits “killing” of all kinds. After all, the people of that day killed much of what they used for food. The Author of the Old Testament commanded them to take life in certain settings, including the imposition of capital punishment in a variety of situations. Moreover, using the term to mean “to kill” would render sinful even the accidental taking of life or the taking of life in self-defense, a situation in which the defender is himself the victim of wrongful conduct.
This would essentially eliminate any notion of moral behavior, as a wrongdoer bent on killing multitudes could not justifiably be stopped with deadly force, and would be no more immoral than a person who accidentally killed someone in a moment of inattention. Understanding “ratsach” in this context to mean murder makes sense of the passage and allows it to be harmonized into the whole. It still prohibits a great deal of conduct, but the prohibition applies to the wrongfulness of the conduct. Thus, a person who accidentally takes the life of a friend through an accident no fault of his own is not considered on the same par morally with the person who lays in wait to murder his rival. This form of reasoning cannot properly be considered fallacious. It is not as if “ratsach” only meant “to kill without malice, including accidentally” and when we do not like the meaning, we invoke an unjustified exception. Instead, we are using the meaning that best comports with the overall meaning of the Bible. By contrast, the person insisting that the term be taken to mean “to kill” – ostensibly to avoid a fallacy – is committing the greater fallacy of forcing an irrational interpretation of the passage.
Posted by Al Serrato
6th Commandment, Death Penalty, fallacious reasoning, ratsach
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Stories about religious cults appear pretty regularly in the news. Pastors of mainstream denominations square off with defenders of particular sects, whose adherents resent being tagged with the label “cult,” with all its negative connotations. All the while, atheists look on with bemused satisfaction, thinking themselves above the fray, shaking their heads in condescension at all the bigoted people with their small-minded views about “right thinking” who don’t realize just how irrational they really appear.
But is atheism itself a cult? A small misguided offshoot of the main group we could loosely characterize as “rational thinkers?”
A lot depends on what definition of “cult” is used? Its meaning varies: it can refer to a group bound together by the veneration of a person, ideal or thing; a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols; a quasi-religious organization using devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents.
Now, I suppose one could counter that atheists aren’t sufficiently united to be considered a cohesive group. And no self-respecting atheist would consider their views to be even “quasi” religious, as they generally have nothing but disdain for people who “need” to invoke deities to make sense of what science, they are convinced, can explain. But the growing voice and influence of atheists is having an impact, and certain “sacred ideals and doctrines” have coalesced. Darwinism and the “separation of church and state” are two of the most prominent emerging belief-systems of this group.
As their zealousness increases, their voice amplified through the influence they exert in academia, this new breed of atheists does what it can to marginalize and belittle traditional believers. Not quite a religious “inquisition,” but similar enough in its efforts to suppress contrary views that others should take notice. In most scientific fields, and certainly in the field of biology, a scientist allowing his religious views to cause him to question the “doctrine” of Darwinism will soon find himself out of work, or otherwise marginalized. Similarly, any effort to bring to the public square a framework for morality based on transcendent principles rooted in the Bible will result in a outcry that the “wall” of separation of church and state has been breached.
Indeed, many atheists are on a “crusade” of sorts, trying through the courts and elsewhere to wipe clean the public square of any reflection of organized religious views. Crosses and commandments can be privately worshiped, but what were the Founders thinking when they didn’t write into the Constitution a prohibition of public displays? No matter that the First Amendment actually protects religious expression, this new breed of atheists will not stop until their vision of cross-less and commandment-less public areas is a reality.
In these respects, the hard-core atheists are coming to resemble the cults they disdain. Their views are peculiar and have been rejected by the vast majority of all who have ever lived, who recognize some very basic notions: that created things need creators; that repositories of information such as is found in DNA require an intelligent source; that rules of morality that we all intuitively have access to require a rule-giver that is transcendent; that life cannot magically arise from non life without some transcendent source preceding that move.
Of course, name calling doesn’t really advance an argument, so I’ll refrain from actually calling atheism a cult. But as I reflect on how the members of this group have closed their minds to these common-sense notions as they have increased the pitch and volume of their demands, I certainly have to wonder.
Posted by Al Serratoatheism, cults, darwinism, religious expression
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“The notion that hell is a place of “just” punishment is meaningless. Parents punish their children so that they will learn not to repeat undesirable behavior. The jail system isn’t even really interested in that. It is vengeance, pure and simple. And that is the problem with “hell” as most christians portray it. The only way it could be reasonable is if it were to improve people’s behavior on release. But if there is no release, it is not even punishment. It is torture. And I submit that a being who would create an eternal torture chamber does not come remotely close to embodying perfection. In fact, I would say he compares unfavorably even to Hitler who, for all his evil, could only condemn his victims to finite torment.”
Analogizing from the temporal to the eternal is difficult, if not impossible, since we have no frame of reference other than the one we occupy. How, then, do we make sense of a place in which there is no way to improve a person’s behavior on release? In which the torment that is felt is unending because there is no release?
Let’s consider for moment the analogy that is being used, that of the modern prison system. In dealing with the worst offenders, prison is meant to separate them from society, but it is also meant to punish. Both purposes are legitimate. But the punishment we speak of is, in essence, the incarceration, the very same act that accomplishes the separation. We do not first separate inmates from society and then inflict additional punishment; there are no medieval tortures that await them, no mistreatment that is deliberately inflicted to further the pain these inmates feel, no chain gangs to make their daily lives unbearable. In a very real sense, the punishment is the product of the incarceration, not an additional purpose.
Many people feel that prisons, for this very reason, do not provide adequate punishment for wrongdoers. Many feel that justice would be better served if more punishment were inflicted. But this criticism does not – indeed, cannot – apply to the eternal. Why? Because forcible separation from God is the worst thing that can befall any soul. There is nothing more to be done, nothing that could increase the pain that such a soul would experience. By the same token, there is nothing to be done that would lessen the pain; no way to make separation from the source of all that is good more bearable.
Consider for a moment of what the pain of separation consists. In a prison setting, being prevented from exercising any real control over the activities of one’s day, and one’s movement, would be bad enough. But being unable to spend time with others, being forcibly torn from one’s family and one’s closest friends – this indeed is torment. Imagine for instance a newlywed knowing that his lovely bride will be 80 before he is released. Or a new mother knowing that her vulnerable child will have to grow up without knowing her. This is anguish, pure and simple.
Move now to a still deeper level. Even for the most hardened of criminals, there are people to whom they are attached, with whom they wish to spend time, even if they are simply fellow inmates. These others have some quality, some attribute, which makes them attractive, makes them desired. That is why solitary confinement is such an extreme form of punishment.
Now, consider the soul facing eternal separation and eternal alone-ness, isolated and embittered, aware of but forcibly separated from the God against whom their rebellion rages? What a human being feels on a limited and temporal basis, such a soul feels magnified a million, a billion …. an infinity of times. And he is not contemplating separation from a limited and flawed human being, but from the source of all life, all goodness, all joy. Can we even find words to describe what infinite emptiness feels like?
No, God does not actively torture people in hell. But he does not change His nature to suit those who shake their fist at Him. The separation that He imposes, just though it is, is a horrible thing indeed. But it is not torture; it is the nature of things.
Posted by Al Serrato
eternal punishment, hell, souls
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1. The issue of abortion can be a psychologically complex issue, but it doesn’t follow from this that it is a morally complex issue: it’s wrong to take the life of an innocent human being without proper justification.
2. One of the first questions that must be addressed in the abortion debate is this: What is the unborn? If the unborn is a human being, no justification for elective abortion is adequate. If the unborn is not a human being, no justification for elective abortion is necessary.
3. Pro-abortion choice advocates commonly make two mistakes when arguing their position: (1) they assume the unborn is not a human being and/or (2) they disqualify the unborn from being a valuable human being based on an arbitrary quality or characteristic, such as size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependency.
4. A strong case for the pro-life view can be made based on science and philosophy. Science tells us that a distinct, living, and whole human being is brought into existence at conception. A sound philosophical argument helps articulate why the pro-abortion choice position should be rejected on moral grounds:
A. It is morally wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being without proper justification.
B. Elective abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being without proper justification.
C. Therefore, elective abortion is morally wrong.
By “elective abortion” it is meant those abortions not necessary to save the life of the mother.
5. What made political liberalism great was a commitment to protect the most vulnerable members of the human community. The pro-life view is the truly liberal position since it is inclusive and seeks to protect the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable human beings: the unborn. Despite this, the pro-abortion choice position has unfortunately become the official platform of the Democratic Party, contributing to the tragedy of 55 million unborn who have lost their lives since Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Thanks to Scott Klusendorf, Greg Koukl, and Alan Shlemon from whom I have taken most of the information in these points.
Posted by AaronAbortion, Democratic Party, morality, political liberalism, pro-abortion, pro-choice, pro-life
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I once had a friend who liked to play an interesting game of “what super power would you prefer?” He would ask, for instance, whether it would be better to have the ability to fly or the ability to, say, read people’s minds. Whichever one you picked, he would quickly point out the negatives that might come with that choice, and often the two possibilities he selected were, to say the least, bizarre.
I thought about that game a while ago while watching an episode of the TV show “Fringe.” Unfolding a story of parallel universes in conflict, the show plays out a variety of unusual events. The episode I was watching involved a person who had been experimented upon as a child, and as a result had developed the capacity to read people’s minds. What may have started off as a super power, however, quickly turned into a liability. Since other people’s thoughts would flood into his mind from a distance of 50 or so feet, he had been forced to become essentially a hermit, living in isolation as far away from society as he possibly could. The power had become a curse.
Most people would agree that the ability to read minds would be terrifying. Of course, there are legitimate reasons for this: the white lie we tell when we really don’t think someone looks nice would be unnecessarily hurtful. Things like bargaining for the best deal or playing poker would be impossible. But the real reason is that each of us knows the inner turmoil that lies within us – the conflicting, and often quite base, emotions warring within our minds for dominance, and worse yet, for expression. Jealousy, hatred, greed, envy, the desire for power and dominance – this ugly aspect of our basic nature must be daily suppressed, or channeled into some more appropriate expression. Drugs, alcohol and fatigue become the enemy, as each alone, and worse in combination, can lower the walls of self-restraint that, for most of us most of the time, imprison these demons in the recesses of our minds.
In my last post, I asked the question if man is basically “good,” as secular humanism holds, or basically fallen and broken, as Christianity teaches. This is an important question, because a worldview out of sync with the true nature of things is likely to lead its adherents very far astray. And secular humanism, with its utopian promises, is doing just that, as it leads people away from the true source of life. Seeing clearly man’s inner corruption can help shake off the creeping influence of this godless worldview.
But, some will object, man is capable of great acts of goodness. Does this not show that man is at his core good? Yes, it is true that many people do “good” in the world. But what is really in their heart? How many times are those acts motivated by some other, baser desire? How many times is the act of good an offering of penance, whether knowingly or not, for the guilt that is bubbling constantly to the surface of our thoughts? Why is it that despite advances in psychology that seek to eliminate these pervasive feelings of guilt, guilt remains a universal feature of the human condition? Is it, perhaps, that each of us knows something is expected of us that we refuse to deliver, and how often we fall short of the mark? Is it that we know that despite all our “good” works, there is something else within us that we cannot quite control?
If someone could read minds, he would not find a world full of people experiencing peace and contentment, with the occasional person struggling to force some evil thought to the surface. Quite the contrary: he would find the vast majority of people pursuing their selfish agenda, sometimes doing good but always measuring what they are getting against what they are giving. Even the philanthropist is in part motivated by the pleasure he derives from public praise. The mind-reader would find people quick to take offense and slow to forgive, nursing wounds real and imaginary, though some are more adept at hiding this than others. That’s what makes a saint so unusual, and so worthy of emulation. Yes, selfish concern is the norm, and the process of civilizing a person involves teaching him to think about others first. That process is so difficult precisely because it is so against the grain.
As the old radio drama put it, who knows what evil lurks within the heart of men? And lurk it does, ready to take advantage of any chink in the armor of self control that most of us need to assemble as we take on the challenges of life. The answer is simple: God, of course, knows. Omniscient by nature, he knows our every thought. Our constant acts of rebellion we cannot hide, nor disguise. He sees our corruption with stark clarity, and though we can lie to ourselves, we cannot deceive Him. And nonetheless, He finds a way to continue to love us and to reach out to us. But he does so on His terms. We cannot approach Him and ask Him to embrace the evil that we do. Instead, with humble hearts, we need to acknowledge that justice would require that He separate himself from us. As a perfectly holy being, it would make perfect sense for Him to do so.
That is the danger of the humanistic worldview. When one mistakenly believes that he is basically good, he doesn’t need a Savior. What point is there in prostrating oneself at the foot of the Cross, when standing eye-to-eye with God feels so much better? The Christian worldview, by contrast, makes better sense of what we actually see. Man needs a savior, because at his core is a corruption that he cannot himself remedy. Though we may try to hide it from others, we can’t help knowing this, if we’re ever honest enough for a no-punches-pulled self-assessment.
Posted by Al Serratoman's nature, mind-reading, secular humanism, selfishness
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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
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“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
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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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