In recent years, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement has cogently presented the argument that the incredible order in the universe must have an adequate cause. Just as any fine-tuned device was designed and manufactured for a purpose, so too does the evidence of fine-tuning in the universe point to a creator God.
But not everyone accepts this argument. Famed prosecutor and author Vincent Bugliosi contends that agnosticism is the only sensible conclusion that rational people can reach. In his recent book, he claims to apply rigorous logic and common sense to his position, but does he adequately defend this view?
“The Divinity of Doubt” aims frequent belittling remarks at believers and on this topic, we get more of the same. Bugliosi comes out swinging, claiming that the way to defeat the notion of God’s existence in this area of intelligent design is to accept for the sake of argument that he is all intelligent and all powerful and then show that he never would have done what theist’s claim he did. (p. 55) He promises that he will show that ID is self-defeating on its face. (p. 83) His proofs? A series of questions for which he can find no answer.
• Why, he asks, would God create this incredibly complex system of 122 constants to allow for life on earth? Here he is referring to the various constants that scientists have measured, ranging from the tilt of the planet, to the electromagnetic forces to the concentration and content of the atmosphere. With each of these variables, scientists have noted that even very tiny changes in their values would have made life impossible. Why couldn’t God create an earth that relied on none of these things? Was that beyond his power?
• The Earth is infinitesimally small compared to the universe, with its trillions of stars. Why would 99.99999 percent of the universe have nothing to do with life on Earth? What conceivable reason would God have for doing this?
These questions lead him to conclude that an intelligent being would not create something that served no purpose. Therefore, it seems to him, there can’t be such a God.
But let’s take a closer look at the logic he employs. How valid are his premises? The syllogism he employs would break down something like this:
– If there is a God, nature would be simple and consist only of necessary things.
– The universe is vast and complex and contains many seemingly unnecessary things.
– Therefore, there is no God.
Stating it this way shows that Bugliosi’s issue is not his logic; it is the utter lack of persuasive force of his first premise. Since he frames most of his “argument” as a series of mocking questions, he never attempts to establish the validity of this premise. If his premise is false – as a moment’s reflection will establish – then his conclusion finds no adequate support. Using the courtroom language of which he is so fond, he is “assuming facts not in evidence.”
There are many reasons why God could have chosen to create in the way He did, any one of which provides a valid alternative to his premise. For one, as limited beings, we have no idea what other use this universe may have. How could Bugliosi have sufficient knowledge to know which things are necessary and which are not? How could he know whether simple things are to be preferred over complex things? To conclude that only purposes that are plain to us can be valid is rather, well, arrogant. How could he possibly know?
Second, another implied premise in Bugliosi’s argument is that God creating that way – with far more stuff and complexity than Bugliosi thinks is necessary – is somehow wasteful, as if God were some kind of lunatic who built an Egyptian pyramid in order to house a closet. But God is infinite in his power and his creative ability. For such a being, creating more is no more difficult than creating less. It would be like marveling at a computer programmer that filled his simulation with thousands of simulated players rather than one or two. It just isn’t that difficult a task.
Finally, has Bugliosi considered that God might have an artistic side to Him? Is it possible that, with infinite power, He chose to paint a canvas through which we can glimpse both His power and His majesty? Scientists tell us that we are located at a time and place in the universe from which we can gaze back to the beginning. This tapestry of the stars, taken in conjunction with the exquisite order that functions so seamlessly and so smoothly throughout the universe, may simply be a work of art that He wishes us to behold, and to enjoy. It may simply stand as a testament to His awesome creative power and glory. And perhaps as warning, that He is not to be trifled with.
The ancient psalmist had more wisdom than today’s skeptics.
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? “
Perhaps that is the message writ large on the night sky.
Posted by Al Serrato
God's power, Intelligent design, Psalms, the cosmos
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In his book “The Divinity of Doubt,” former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi argues that agnosticism is the only sensible position to hold. But the book never gets to the heart of the Christian message. Instead, Bugliosi trots out the usual challenges to faith, mocking believers along the way with taunts about how his questions have never been, and cannot be, answered. Here’s a sampling of his “can’t be answered” questions: At the very beginning of the book, Bugliosi claims that theists have not a single fact to support their position. “By fact I mean a truth known by actual experience or observation. And something that cannot be logically explained in any other way.” (p. 4). Later, he says that the only way to be able to accept evil in the world is if God appeared in the sky and told us that although what has happened doesn’t make sense, its part of a grand scheme for life. (p. 8). Verification about God, he says, is not possible, and most of what is written on the subject is nothing more than “sophisticated ignorance.” He says that what he doesn’t know is “just more of the nonsense I already do know.”(p. 13)
He’s off to a pretty bad start. For someone who no doubt understands proof beyond a reasonable doubt, consider what he has done here: his standard is proof beyond any possible doubt, and his available evidence is those things that can be known by “actual experience or observation.” Actually, it’s even higher – he’s asking for a direct and personal revelation in a way that cannot be denied, such as God appearing to him in the sky. What he’s done in his first chapter is to reveal the depth of his bias, and the impossibility of anyone overcoming it through reason or evidence. There is simply nothing that will satisfy him.
Given his approach, all of history is off the table. He can have no knowledge of Washington crossing the Delaware, because he wasn’t there to experience or observe it. And of course just about everything can be “explained away,” especially if done in a piecemeal fashion. The real question is whether the alternative explanation is a “reasonable” one. After all, in the OJ case, explaining the evidence away as the product of a frame-up could be made to follow the rules of logic; the problem is that doing so, given the totality of the evidence, was not “reasonable.”
Another of his questions is: How God would put people on earth that he already knew were going to end up in hell. “No one in Christianity, to my knowledge, can answer that question,” he says. (p.5). But Christians have answered that question. God has perfect knowledge, because for Him there is no time; there is no before, during or after. For Him, all things exist in His eternal present. But God has given us free will, such that though He can foreknow how things end up, He does not cause us to act the way we do. When I watch the movie Titanic, I know the ship will sink even though I had nothing to do with that result. What the existence of Hell says about the nature of God is a fair question. Wondering why God would set it up this way is too. But concluding that God must not exist – that is simply not a logical conclusion to draw.
Another “deal breaker” for Bugliosi is the Christian concept of prayer. Why would we have to beg God to be what he supposedly already is? If God is good, He will already be willing to give us the good that we are praying for. The question is not the profound contradiction he thinks it to be; it simply betrays his misunderstanding of the purpose of prayer. Prayer is not simply a way of asking God for stuff, like some magical list for Santa. While we can bring our requests to God, prayer is much more. At minimum, it includes giving thanks and giving praise. Doing these things allows us to incline ourselves toward God; to orient ourselves properly with respect to a perfect being, who created us for a purpose. He is, consequently, worthy of our love, praise and respect. Prayer – whether answered immediately, eventually or never – is something that benefits us in our relationship to God. Anyone who thinks it is a way of making wishes come true doesn’t understand much about the Christian view of prayer.
Having made clear that no evidence other than a personal visitation would satisfy him, Bulgiosi moves on in Chapter 2 to explain that Christian writings would be inadmissible “in court” because they all constitute hearsay and are not properly authenticated. Since a jury would not be allowed to consider such documents, these historic texts must also be denied admission in the courtroom of the mind of the seeker. Readers should see this trick for what it is: an attempt to compare apples and oranges. The rules of evidence that apply in court are an excellent way of ensuring a fair trial of an accused. When a crime occurs, presenting evidence that is reliable and properly tested so that the accused is not falsely convicted is reflective of a civilized and fair society; indeed, our system of justice recognizes that many guilty people will go free so that the chances of an innocent person being convicted is minimized.
But this approach to arriving at sound conclusions is not the exclusive way to acquiring valid and reliable knowledge. Nor is it a particularly effective method when the question is not guilt as to a recent crime, but understanding of historical events which occurred long ago. Bugliosi paints with too broad a brush; by his standard, we would be unable to conclude anything about the past, as all surviving documents would be hearsay and subject to some dispute. That is why historians take great pains to collect all the available documents and other evidence and test them for reliability, by comparing and contrasting with other information from the period in question. By so doing, by studying the context and seeing how each piece of evidence fits into the scheme, they reach a consensus as to what occurred and why. None of this would be “admissible” in the way Bugliosi is contemplating. But then, no one expects it to be when they spend a lifetime studying or learning from history.
On the question of “intelligent design,” one of the principle arguments for God’s existence, Bugliosi answers that “physical laws of nature may be responsible for it.” ( p. 23) But this is no answer. The physical laws that are doing this must themselves have a source. This is especially true if those laws didn’t begin to operate until the Big Bang occurred, since scientists acknowledge that these laws came into being at that moment. Bugliosi concludes that we have no framework of reference that tells us that God is responsible for the predictability and harmony of the universe. (p.23) But this is not accurate. Our framework is our common human experience. When we see a thing proceed in a harmonious and ordered way, we recognize that a mind is behind the process. Watches don’t assemble themselves and start ticking. So too with the universe; if there is fine-tuning and order, we should also conclude – absent some more reasonable alternative – that a mind is responsible for what we see.
Bugliosi’s reputation rests on his experience in the courtroom. But if he wants to portray himself as a reasonable presenter of the facts – what every prosecutor must do if he or she is to win the jury – he should take greater pains in proceeding with a fair and open mind. He tips his hand at the beginning of the book. He isn’t going for fair and balanced here – he ends up with the conclusion he started off with, and spends the rest of the book trying to support it.
Posted by Al Serrato
agnosticism, dealing with doubt, doubt, evidence
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In his book “Divinity of Doubt,” celebrated prosecutor and author Vincent Bugliosi makes the case for agnosticism as the “only intelligent, strong position one can take on the question of God’s existence.” He’s an agnostic, he says, “because my mental faculties tell me the existence of God is beyond human comprehension, not just beyond human cognition, which of course it is and which is too simplistic.” Doubt is divine, he concludes, “in that it impels a search for the truth. It opens the door to knowledge. Faith puts a lock on that door. Indeed, while one is under its spell, faith anesthetizes the desire to seek knowledge and truth. And as knowledge increases, faith recedes.” (p. 258)
A search for the truth. To a prosecutor, this is the essence of a criminal trial. This theme – of searching for and finding the truth – is woven into every successful closing argument. Sadly, it seems that Bugliosi, for all his career success, has gotten things precisely backward as he approaches the most important question any mortal – anyone who knows for a certainty that this life will end – must confront. Dispensing with what he once did as a prosecutor, Bugliosi today stands before a “jury” of readers urging them to not reach a verdict – despite the abundance of evidence – but to be content endlessly criticizing the source of the evidence, and the proponents of faith. In the process, he sets up countless strawmen, only to use ridicule and hyperbole to knock them down. Because perfect knowledge can never be had – because some questions will always remain – Bugliosi urges us to throw up our hands, give up and be smug about knowing that by never reaching a conclusion, we can always appear above it all. His book is a celebration of ignorance and indecision, of never being able to discern truth.
Ironically, this book is not at all the approach that a prosecutor would take. First, a prosecutor would know that some questions will always remain unanswered, despite the strength of the evidence presented. The key inquiry is whether the questions relate to what is really at issue, or whether they are “red herrings.” Second, a prosecutor would have an open mind as they went about preparing the case. Bugliosi, by contrast, has concluded from the beginning that matters of “faith” – by which he means religious truth claims –are simply not knowable. Ignoring the mountains of literature that establish the necessary existence of God, he claims that neither the theist nor the atheist has a single fact to support its position. (p. 4). The book proceeds downhill from there. Using endless rhetorical questions and mocking accusations to belittle anyone who claims to have formed some conclusions about faith, Bugliosi ends up where he began – believing that no one can know what Bugliosi chooses not to accept. But his questions are not new, nor are they that difficult to answer. But they must be approached with an open mind, which he plainly does not have. Perhaps he never did.
Doubt can only be a starting point for the acquisition of knowledge. As he certainly once admonished his juries, doubt gives way to the force of the evidence presented, leaving an “abiding conviction of the truth of the charge.” Opening the “door to knowledge” makes sense only if one intends to enter and explore. To stand on the outside, as Bugliosi does, and insist that nothing is knowable of the other side, is not a triumph of intelligence, but an admission of failure, or of apathy. Contrary to his assertion, faith does not recede with knowledge – it becomes greater. One’s faith in the ability of an airplane to fly increases as one’s knowledge of the physics grows; it does not decrease.
As a prosecutor, Bugliosi would have railed against such facile rhetoric. He would have rightly been disappointed in jurors who returned a verdict of “no one can really know the truth about what you’ve presented,” and seen it as an abdication of their duties, especially if he had presented evidence as substantial as that which supports a conclusion that God is.
And what is that evidence? After all, the question Bugliosi tackles is not proof that Christianity is true, but the simpler question of whether it is “rational” to believe in a creator-God. While he correctly notes the limitations of our ability to “comprehend” God, knowing that a creator must be there is the only rational conclusion that is consistent with the evidence. For countless centuries, these arguments from reason have persuaded not only the vast majority of people who have ever lived, but the greatest scientific and philosophic minds among us. (Books like Alvin Schmidt’s “Under the Influence” chronicle the contribution such believers made to Western culture.) These arguments build on and reinforce each other, enhancing the cumulative effect of the proof. These arguments – from causality; the existence of the universe; the fine tuning in the universe; the existence of intelligent life; the fine tuning of life as seen in DNA; the existence of morality, of music and math and the exquisite order which abounds in nature – provide rational support for the conclusion that an intelligent Creator is at work. Bugliosi never takes on the core of the case. Instead, we are treated to conclusions like: the vastness of the universe is a waste, since human beings can never access it all, so an intelligent Creator is not possible. Does he not recognize the illogic in assuming that he knows God’s purposes, or that physical size means anything to a Being of limitless power?
Unfortunately, this book has the potential to do much harm, as Bugliosi’s rhetorical skill is clearly on display. But unlike a prosecutor on a search for truth, Bugliosi has become a defender of ambiguity and indecision, as he seeks to persuade his jury that, in spite of the evidence, the only smart choice is to remain hopelessly deadlocked.
Posted by Al Serrato
atheism, Christian truth claims, faith, proof of God
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This is the time of year for resolutions. There’s something about new beginnings that prompts people to want to turn the page and leave behind the shortcomings or disappointments of the past. New Year’s resolutions almost always fall into one of two categories: physical or mental. Gym memberships skyrocket this time of year as, another year older and a few pounds or more overweight, we think about the advantages of becoming slim and trim, of trying to turn back the clock while there’s still time… and energy.
So too in the area of the mind. The countless titles found in the “self improvement” section of the bookstore bear witness to the widespread desire to cast off our old selves and move into the future without the “baggage” that has encumbered us most of our lives. Or it may be something more simple, like improving our memory, learning a new skill, or picking up or improving our proficiency in a foreign language.
Physical and mental fitness are important, but there is a third aspect of the human experience, one involving the spiritual dimension. Though some may deny its existence, the vast majority of people recognize the need for spiritual nurturing and growth. Once addressed by membership in an organized faith system, this need is sublimated by an increasing number of people today, as they reject all forms of organized religion in favor of generic “spirituality.” Sadly, this approach misses a key component of the spiritual dimension, the development of a relationship.
The goal of physical fitness is to increase one’s muscular strength or agility, and improving one’s mental acuity involves increasing knowledge or wisdom or enhancing memory. These are both inward-looking; they deal with self improvement. Spirituality, by contrast, cannot be a self-focused activity. By its very nature, it must necessarily involve the relationship between the part of a person that survives death, and the God who created and sustains that individualized consciousness.
Of the three components of humanity, the spiritual dimension is the most important. Our bodies will eventually fail, as will our minds; in the end, our physical selves will return to dust. This no one can deny. But our souls survive. If we spend our lifetimes looking inward and seeking our own pleasure, craving the fulfillment of our carnal desires, we may end up spending eternity in a similar place – a dimension of “solitary confinement.” Christianity, by contrast, promises something much different – the prospect of a loving relationship with the source of all life and all goodness. But a relationship requires effort; it is much more than a simple realization that another person exists or that a spiritual dimension overshadows our earthly existence. Ask anyone on the verge of divorce, or a parent who is estranged from a child – relationships require both quality and quantity time and they require effort – they succeed only when they are approached in a spirit of selfless love.
The skeptic may protest that even if there is a God, He appears to be silent, that it isn’t possible to have a relationship with a non-physical being. This betrays a lack of imagination. Long distance relationships can exist, in which two minds interact through the written or spoken word. Though not as satisfying as face-to-face contact, lack of physical presence does not prevent the development of a relationship. This may have been easier for previous generations to grasp, since they did not have the benefit of technology which allows us to communicate instantly and “face to face” with people in distant corners of the globe. In those earlier generations, a hand-written letter or the words of a sojourner may have been the only means by which two people, separated by great distance, could express affection or exchange ideas. In a similar “non-technological” way, God has provided us an ample basis for knowing He is there and learning many things about Him. Through His general revelation, we glimpse His immense power and intelligence, the exquisite order of His creation, the sublime artistry which characterizes His creative efforts. Through special revelation – the pages of the Bible – He has “fleshed out” the rest of the story – literally, as it were, through the “flesh and blood” life of Jesus of Nazareth.
But God wants something back from us. He wants us to care. It’s not difficult to understand why. Just ask anyone mired in a relationship bereft of love and affection and passion. Though God needs nothing from us, His desire – His expectation – for us is that we respond appropriately to the great love He has shown us. Revelation 3 speaks of this desire:
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. “
Be zealous. An interesting admonition for times of such religious apathy.
As we begin this new year, and a new set of resolutions, let’s keep in mind that the appropriate response to God’s love is to return that love – not in a lukewarm fashion, but passionately, zealously and fully, using our hearts and minds to grow ever closer to Him.
Posted by Al SerratoGod's love, new year resolutions, spirituality
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Tomorrow, Christians throughout the world will celebrate the birth of the Savior. But to the growing number of atheists, this celebration makes little sense. Having accepted the materialist’s view of reality, they have limited themselves to thinking that nature is all there is, or was, or ever will be. Largely oblivious to the futility of such a barren worldview, they think they have the corner on reason as they insist that miracles like the Incarnation – God becoming man – are simply not possible.
But the thinking underlying this worldview is circular: they begin with the assumption – the working hypothesis – that nature is all there is, and that all things and events must be explained by natural processes. Is it any wonder, then, that they end up where they began, with the conclusion that miracles do not occur? And without the possibility of miracles, they conclude Christianity must be false, without ever bothering to examine the historical evidence that supports it. But, of course, for a Creator powerful enough to create the universe from nothing -as the Big Bang corroborates occurred – and intelligent enough to create practically infinite varieties of life through the assembly of amino acids into DNA, entering this world as a flesh and blood creature isn’t really an obstacle. Insisting that this is impossible is roughly similar to a fish in an aquarium insisting that nothing exists beyond the tank. To the fish, the tank may seem to define the limits of reality, but that is simply because its frame of reference is so limited.
This Christmas season, it’s worth remembering that the real miracle of Christmas is not that God became man, but the manner in which He did it. When Jesus came into this world, Augustus Caesar ruled a Roman Empire that was making its might felt in all directions of the compass. But Jesus wasn’t born into wealth, power or privilege. Swaddled in rags, He drew his first breath in the lowliest of circumstances, welcomed by parents who could barely care for Him and who needed to flee the country in order to protect Him. He was born to a people that were themselves powerless. Defying expectations of a conquering messiah, He walked among men and women as a simple carpenter, seeking neither to form a church nor raise an army. Instead, He spoke of God’s great love for us, our need to repent and the consequence of remaining in our rebellion. The new “Adam,” he lay down his life to restore what was lost through the original Adam, to fix what was broken…to re-balance the scales.
In so doing, He showed us the meaning of real love – love that seeks neither reward nor return, love that is given selflessly and without limit – the kind of love we each long for, but seek in the wrong places. He emptied Himself so that he could fill us with the love that could restore the relationship broken when man chose to use his free will to defy God. Possessing infinite power, He chose to serve, rather than be served. Without ever putting quill to parchment, his teachings nonetheless reverberate down to us 2000 years later, with the same transformative power that rocked the Roman Empire, and then the world.
The Psalmist says: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained; What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him?”
What is man?
To the atheist, nothing more than an animal. An intelligent animal, to be sure, but nothing more. But to the Creator of the universe, man holds a much revered place. That He would bother with us at all – that he would express such love to us and for us – that, indeed, is the true Miracle of Christmas.
Posted by Al SerratoChristmas, God's love, Miracles, naturalism
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Guilt. That feeling of remorse or regret for a bad deed done. It has been mankind’s constant companion. Many have thought about it, wondered about it, written about it; all have experienced it. The Roman historian Tacitus spoke of its power – “Seek to make a person blush for their guilt rather than shed their blood.” Shakespeare recognized its effects: “Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind; the thief doth fear each bush an officer.”
Much effort has been expended in trying to escape it, minimize it, hide and run from it. But it cannot be escaped. It serves as warning and reprimand. It is relentless in its pressure, its insistence, often impelling, paradoxically, the guilty to confess to obtain freedom from it. In the end, it must be faced and dealt with, and the best way to do so is apparent.
But many still refuse to recognize what guilt really is – a message from an intelligent mind. A guidepost and reminder as to what this mind wants – expects – from us. Many insist instead that it is simply an observation, as this comment to my last post expressed:
“I think the problem is the assumption that guilt is a message, and — in particular — a message from a unified source. But, if guilt were a message from a unified source. Everyone would feel guilty about the same things. No, morality is more an observation. As a result most people have (mild) variations in the perception.”
Is there a difference between a message and an observation?
I think there is and that difference lies in the source of the information.
An observation is something internal. If I feel hungry, I am motivated to eat. If I am angry, I am motivated to lash out. Threatened? I may react by flight, or by fight. Feelings of guilt can be observational in nature, to the extent that I am aware, or becoming aware, of a disturbance in my process of thinking. But what is that disturbance? It is an awareness that there is a disconnect between what I have done, or I am planning to do – on the one hand – and what I ought to do – on the other. It is that conflict that I am experiencing as guilt.
Does this not require some explanation? If, after all, these are solely internal to ourselves, why the struggle? When I am hungry, I am not at war within myself as to what to do. My urge – my instinct – is to eat so as to satisfy the hunger. But when I eat too much, when I realize I am becoming a glutton, I begin to realize that I really ought not act that way. The former is internal – an observation and perhaps an instinct – but the latter is coming from outside of the person and is seeking to change what he in fact does.
The skeptic claims that, if guilt were a message, we would all feel guilty about the same things. Generally, of course, we do. No one feels guilt over a good deed done, or angst in trying to help someone. No one feels pleased when they betray a friend. But this is not really the point. While there are variations as to how we receive the message, and what we do with it, the point here is that it is a message, originating from a source external to us. Like a transistor radio, we may have variations in the clarity of the signal received, but we are not the source of the signal.
In my earlier post on guilt, the line from an episode of Madmen served as a quick summary of current thinking about guilt: the character opined that it’s all about what I want to do as opposed to what’s expected of me. But if the skeptic were right – if morality is just an observation – it wouldn’t be that hard to turn off the voice that is calling us to something better. We would simply do what we want, or what the stronger instinct impelled us to.
What we are left with is this: there is a law external to us that we did not create, and that we are somehow liable to. We want to follow it, but in the end we never do – at least not fully. We then suffer the consequences.
Christianity has an adequate explanation for this state of affairs. We feel guilty because we are guilty. We know the law that God has placed in our hearts and we strive mightily to ignore it. What answer does Naturalism have?
Posted by Al Serratoguilt, naturalism
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My last post used a scene from the show Madmen as a starting point for discussing guilt. The show tells the story of the men and women working in a New York ad agency in the 1960’s. The main character, Don Draper, is trapped in a worldview in which success is measured by his conquests, largely in the field of work and women, but he is increasingly beset by an awareness that things are not right with him.
Don’s inner turmoil may mystify him, despite the rewards his “success” make available to him, but the Christian worldview can make perfect sense of what is occurring with him. Don’s conscience, though seared, is still functioning, fulfilling its role in trying to get Don’s attention before it is too late. Though Don is achieving all he sets out to do, happiness eludes him, as he spirals ever downward, leaving human wreckage in his wake. As the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, we are all “without excuse” because the knowledge of God, and of his law, is written on our hearts. Whatever this writing is, it is apparently scripted in a universal language, as it is apparent that feelings of guilt and remorse are common to all cultures and all peoples, throughout all of recorded time.
Non-believers don’t accept this, of course. They acknowledge that feelings of guilt exist, but view these feelings as a negative, or bad, thing. They look to modern science – psychology or pharmacology or a combination of the two – to help people finally rid themselves of this vestige of our primitive and superstitious past. But it is not that easy. Guilt persists, bearing witness to the existence of a moral law that is pressing down upon us, a law that we can seek to evade but can never fully deny. God is the source of that moral law, and try as we might, we cannot escape it.
The secular effort to explain away the moral law that fuels our feelings of guilt goes something like this: what we recognize as morality is really just the product of evolution. It is a trait that somehow serves the community and is thereby passed on. We are, in this view, operating on instinct. As used in this sense, instinct means more than just a powerful impulse as contrasted with the product of reason; it refers to an inborn pattern of behavior which is shaped by biological necessities such as survival and reproduction. In Darwinian terms, this instinct – of a moral law – confers an advantage of its holder so that it is passed effectively, and in large numbers, into the next generation.
But this explanation misses a few key points. The first is the origin of the behavior. Why would early man benefit from recognizing a moral law and feeling guilty? And whose moral law would he adopt? If anything, ruthlessness – the absence of morality and of guilt – would allow him to be more effective as a hunter, and thereby be more likely to survive. Moreover, the explanation does not explain enough. Regardless of how they originated, it is apparent that we do indeed have instincts that appear to involve morality, such things as maternal love or running from danger. But how is it that people choose between competing instincts, such as the urge to run from danger versus the urge to stay and help?
There is a selection process as to what one “ought” to do. And it is not simply the stronger of the two instincts that carries the day, since it is often the weaker of the two (eg. the urge to stay and face danger to help a friend) that the moral law encourages us to strengthen. The very desire to strengthen one instinct proves that this thought process is something different than the instinct. As CS Lewis analogized, instincts may be notes on a keyboard, but something else serves as the music to select which note to play.
Finally, if the moral law were a part of a “herd” instinct, we would be able to point to some instinct within the set that is always “good.” But on reflection, it is clear that all instincts derive their good or bad qualities from the situation. Even seemingly positive instincts, like mother love, must be tempered by competing considerations, or a bad result might ensue. The “right” course of action is never as simple as following a single instinct, like the instinct to eat when hungry or run when threatened. The purpose of the moral law is to instruct us as to how to choose among possible courses of action in a given situation. Some of the choices may involve instinctive urges, but much more is at play than mere instinct.
In the end, what we recognize as the moral law is a message to us, a set of rules or instructions that someone, it seems, wants us to follow. Like all messages we encounter, this one must have a mind – an intelligent source – behind it. That source is the Creator who placed us here and who gave us a purpose and ultimate destiny from which we can’t escape, no matter how hard – like Don Draper – we may try.
Posted by Al Serratoatheism, Christian worldview, guilt, instinct
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The American Movie Channel’s series Madmen is a fascinating glimpse at a slice of American culture. Set in the early 1960′s, it focuses on the professional and personal lives of New York advertising executives. Seeing their lives unfold through a haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke, we watch a train wreck in slow motion as the accumulation of heavy drinking and slippery morals leads the main characters in an ever descending spiral of sex without intimacy, success without purpose and life without meaning.
In one episode from season four, a character interacting with executive Don Draper explains how her study of psychology has freed her: she now realizes that everything comes down to “what I want versus what is expected of me.” This makes perfect sense to Don, who has already been quite successful in suppressing what remnants of conscience might be operating within him. He seems intrigued by the simplicity of the statement – and no doubt by its allure. The underlying philosophy predates the 60′s, of course, and it is still going strong today. The modern version no doubt adds the standard caveat “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone,” as if we can actually know the long term effects that immoral conduct will have on ourselves or other people.
But that’s not my point. What struck me, instead, was what this philosophy is seeking to escape. What is it that presses down upon us, demanding our attention and causing feelings of guilt when we don’t live up to expectations. What is the source of these expectations and why are these expectations so difficult for people – of all cultures through all time apparently – to escape? After all, as the show depicts, most people seem to need help trying to make good their escape into the selfish pursuit of self-interest, leaning on crutches like alcohol, drugs or other addictive behaviors to distract them or to numb the pain. Could it be that, as Christianity teaches, these expectations are in fact a message that comes to us from an intelligent source? Could it be that the God who made us has left within us a set of rules that, try as we might, keep pointing us back to Him? That we depart from at our peril?
CS Lewis makes this argument quite effectively in Mere Christianity. His review of culture and history convinced him, a former atheist, that there are not multiple moralities throughout time and place, but one general one that is apparent in nature. While different cultures may disagree on the specifics, many commonalities persist. For example, running away in battle has never been admired and double-crossing a person who had been kind is never a cause for pride. While some cultures allowed for multiple wives, all agree that a man cannot simply have any woman that he wants. Now it is true that people break these rules all the time. But it is also true that they inevitably develop feelings of guilt when they do. Despite the best efforts to justify behavior, or to shift blame away from themselves, guilty people generally feel increasing torment by their guilt. This is one reason why so many criminals confess their crimes, even though doing so may be against their own best interest. As Madmen unfolds, it is apparent that Don, and the others, need a new philosophy. But a worldview that helps them ignore their guilty knowledge – that lets them focus on what they want rather than what is expected of them – is not it.
No, what they need is to get in touch with the true source of knowledge and of goodness, and to start to find out what He rightly expects of them.
Posted by Al Serratoaddictive behaviors, alcoholism, escapes, God's law, guilt
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Not long ago, I had the privilege of meeting a World War II fighter pilot. Now in his early 90’s, in 1944 he took part in a key battle of the war in the Pacific, a last ditch effort by the Japanese to repel the American reoccupation of the Philippine Islands. Known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf, it pitted the last remnants of Japanese naval power against a vastly inferior American force, left behind to oversee the American landings while the bulk of American striking power had gone off in search of the enemy. The men who fought that day, on ships and in the air, exhibited uncommon gallantry in facing a determined and powerful foe. Though time had ravaged this man’s body, his mind remained sharp, and before long he was recalling details of that October day those many years ago. As our conversation came to a close, I took a moment to express my thanks for what he did during the war. I thanked him for his service and his courage, and for the opportunity it provided me to live in a more peaceful world.
As I reflected on this later, I realized that his actions in upholding freedom in a war-torn world did not actually involve me. He had done nothing directly for me; I was not yet even born. But I knew that if men and women like him had not risked their lives, and been willing to sacrifice all, I might not ever have been. They had earned my thanks. They, in turn, had people who had come before them, who had done things for them, and to whom heartfelt gratitude would be appropriate. Tracing backward in time, I saw for a moment an endless stream of thanksgiving moving back through the recesses of time to a beginning trapped forever in the mists of forgotten memory.
In that moment, I also saw that my gratitude was personal. It was directed at living, breathing human beings. I did not give thanks to machinery, to the steel that cocooned the pilot in the cockpit of his plane, or to the chemistry that allowed the fuel mixture to propel it forward. Nor did I thank the instruments that provided feedback to him or the gunpowder that charged his weapons. My thanks, appropriately, were directed at people – the ones who forged the steel, who had teased out the secrets of chemistry, who had built the machines and weapons that he used. My gratitude related not to the thing, but to the intelligent source that lay behind it. To a person.
What, I wondered, lies at the end of this seemingly endless chain? If gratitude is owed to a person, to whom did the first man and woman, or the first group of humans, give thanks? Evolution? An undirected process that did not have them in mind? And if much of what we are thankful for exists in nature – as part and parcel of the good Earth and all that is on it – to whom does this thanks belong? Giving thanks to inanimate objects is nonsensical, yet the desire to express thanks is universal. I saw in that moment that the whole idea of gratitude, the innate desire to give thanks that is shared by every human being, presupposes an ultimate source to whom this gratitude is owed.
While the atheist too can give thanks to people who preceded him, how can he make sense of the end of this chain of personal thanks? With no one there who created the Earth with all its bounty and splendor, what point is there for gratitude? The Christian worldview, by contrast, does make sense of this. It is right and fitting that we express thanks to those who came before us, for their effort and toil paved the way for the good we now experience. But that chain of causation, the progression of events for which we are thankful, does not end a month, a year or a even century ago; it continues to a beginning point, and to a source who was both all powerful and yet quite personal.
In the last analysis, it is God – a person – whom we thank for all that is good. Whether He acts directly, or through the things and people he created, it makes sense to express our gratitude to Him. And what better time to begin than on this weekend set aside to remember… and to give thanks.
Posted by Al Serrato
atheism, God's goodness, gratitude, Thanksgiving
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“No one is above the law.” So the popular saying goes, and no truer thing was ever said in a mere six words. This thought, and our Western system of justice which sprang from it, stands as a testament, and a tribute, to the philosophy that gives mankind its best chance for ordered liberty.
That philosophy, of course, was largely shaped by a Christian worldview, one in which our rights, and our equality under law, were grounded in a transcendent being who made us for a purpose. Our Founders certainly understood this when they recognized that all men are created equal, and that this equality finds its roots in the “Creator,” who endows each person with rights that are inalienable. As the familiar phrase recites, among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Many secularists today, however, mistakenly believe that this concept also applies to God. They fail – or refuse – to see the distinction between the Creator and the created, as they put God “on trial” for everything from genocide, “ethnic cleansing” and murder in Old Testament times to every instance of suffering in the modern world that God “could,” but fails, to prevent.
A moment’s reflection should make plain that God need not answer to us – He, indeed, is the one thing “above the law” for He is the law. He is no more subject to it, or answerable to us, than the computer programmer is to the rules he writes into a computer simulation. While God’s apparent indifference to the human condition may cause us to speculate about his nature, or his will, none of our opinions or our accusations will ever “make out a case against him.” This is simply nonsensical when one realizes what the concept of God entails.
Most people understand this intuitively. Take the prevailing view of abortion in many circles today: a majority of Americans apparently still support the notion that a mother can choose to end the life of the baby growing within her. Christianity holds, to the contrary, that it is always wrong to deliberately and without justification take innocent human life. Since the developing child is “innocent” and since he or she is “human life,” that should end the discussion. The reason it doesn’t is that many people recognize that the baby’s life is different – the baby lacks self-awareness or developed intelligence and the baby is “dependent” upon his mother’s body for continued life. These factors, skillfully manipulated through the rhetoric of “choice,” lead many people – who refuse to think through what in fact is at play – into serious error.
Think of it this way: human beings, regardless of their age, level of intelligence, or degree of dependence on others are in a horizontal relationship with each other. We are all the same kind of creature. While we each possess distinct and different talents, and while opportunities for development differ, we are equal in the nature of our being. Though many wish to view the mother as “superior” to the child, in reality she is not. The mother of the child did not “create” the child she is bearing; the child was “begotten.” This may sound like mere semantics, but it is not. For it is the power to “create” from nothing – as God did in the Big Bang event – that gives the right to dictate to those that were created.
Men and women, when they “procreate,” are but a link in the chain of life that God set into motion thousands of years ago. They take part in the process; they are not the source of it. If science ever leads to the creation of intelligent robots, men will be the “creators” and will have the right to do with those robots what they will. Having created them from raw materials, whatever rights they are eventually given will be dependent entirely on the will, and wishes, of those who created them.
As the Bible teaches, in God we live and move and have our being. This is literally true: the sum total of what we are is grounded in God’s creative power. If he were to stop thinking of us for even a moment, we would cease to exist. Our relationship to Him is not one of equals, as we are entirely dependent upon him.
I’d say that gives him the power to define morality, and to not be subject to second guessing by us. Better that we stop pointing the finger of guilt at Him and start listening to what he expects of us.
Posted by Al Serrato
equal rights, God on trial, God's will, morality
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You settle down in the lounge chair, poolside, sipping a drink and getting ready to open the book you’ve been waiting to read. The faint strains of a nearby conversation start to catch your attention; it sounds a bit … odd … so you concentrate more to listen.
“You think that was bad,” says the young man, “you have no idea the pain I endured. My mother was a drinker, and she kept drinking just about every day. It was day 73, no, wait, maybe day 74, when she took a bad fall. I think she was in a supermarket by the sound of things, and she landed right on her belly. I shook so hard I didn’t think it would ever stop. I was sore for days.”
“That is bad,” his petite companion replied. “Wow, I had no idea. I just remember feeling hungry all the time. And scared. My mother was poor, and my dad left her just after I was conceived, so food was in short supply. Sometimes I thought I wouldn’t make it to delivery. The nights were the worst. I could feel my mother sobbing. And then, then, there was that time – mid second trimester I’m going to say – when she came down with some kind of flu. At first I was just a bit tired, but once it got through to me, I … well, let’s just say I didn’t know what real hurt was until that.”
“Yep,” her friend commiserated. “I knnnooowww what you mean. But look, you had it made. Your mom went full term. Man, what I wouldn’t give to go back. I can still remember how safe and warm I felt most of the time, even when she was in the sauce. I didn’t ever want to leave. I mean, you couldn’t have pried me out, if it was up to me. But she delivered me almost six weeks early – all that alcohol I guess. If only I could get those weeks back….”
Strange, right? A conversation you’ll never hear. And it’s not just because we can’t remember what occurred while we were in utero. It’s because, in a real and significant way, it no longer matters to us. Where we are now is not just different than where we were; it is orders of magnitude different. It is so different that it is foolish to even try to compare, or to think about, or to, well, engage in conversations like the one imagined above.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course, what happens to a developing baby matters very much. The baby must be protected and nourished while in his mother’s womb. But not so that the baby has a good time or great memories. Pregnancy is simply a part of the journey that we must all experience to achieve that next level of development – the one that really matters. If a fetus could talk to you, he would probably tell you to leave him alone. He’s got everything he needs, and trying to entice him with promises of fabulous sunsets, romantic love or the thrill of flying won’t simply fail to persuade him – they will make no sense to him. But knowing what you know, if you could talk to one, you would try to assure him, to welcome him to his new world, to work to allay his concerns. There really is something better on this side.
Sadly, for far too many people today, this world is the “final” destination. They try to soak in as much adventure and stimulation and experience as they possibly can, grabbing for all the gusto they can get, hoping that somehow they can hang on to at least some of it for long enough to make it all seem worthwhile. But it slips through our fingers all too fast. While we run from thing to thing, someone on the other side is knocking. He’s promising that His side is, well, orders of magnitude greater than anything our side has to offer. But we must trust in Him, because not only can we not see it….we wouldn’t understand it even if we could.
Jesus paved the way for us to that other side, and we must place our trust in Him to make this present journey work. Just as a mother protects and nourishes her unborn child, Jesus’ work on the cross safeguards our transition to the other side. We remain safe and secure in His arms, if we just accept the gift He offers.
Of course, this view doesn’t fully answer the problem of human suffering. And it’s not meant to trivialize the suffering that occurs here day after day. Something bad happened to man in the fall, something that translates for us into pain. Perhaps we had mental or physical powers that once protected us, but no longer. And for many – no, for all human beings – pain is a reality that we each must grapple with, day in and day out. But if this analogy I offer is even close to being true, what will matter for us will not be what pain we suffered here, but whether we were successful in making it to the other side. This present suffering will pale in comparison to what is to come; it will seem as the blink of an eye, when compared to an eternity spent in God’s presence. In the end, perhaps, the pain will simply be forgotten, part of a necessary foundation but not something we will need to think about, or care to.
Once there, I don’t think we will be looking back, worried about any of what we suffered… or all of it. Freed from that pain, we will be glad that we made the journey, and above all filled with the joy that comes from finally returning home.
Posted by Al Serrato
afterlife, Heaven, human suffering
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Imagine a time in the not too distant future. Trying to compensate for a declining population, scientists use advanced technology to build a “race” of robots, giving then not only human appearance and abilities, but also increasing amounts of “artificial intelligence.” Things work smoothly in the short run, as the robots’ nearly limitless energy for work transforms Earth into a near paradise. But the scientists, never satisfied with their product, and seeking to give them a chance at true relationship with their human masters, give the robots freedom of will, grafting it on to the ability to the think independently that they already have. Chaos soon ensues, as the robots rebel and rise up against the human population….
This is standard fare, of course, in science fiction circles. Shows like “Battlestar Galactica” explore the philosophic issues surrounding this scenario, and play out possible expected, and some unexpected, outcomes. Let’s do the same for our actual world.
A major stumbling block for non-believers – and for many Christians as well – is the doctrine of Hell. How, they ask, can an “all-good” God consign his creation to a place of torment? Don’t we have a right to continued life, as we want it to be? Rights talk such as this flows readily from the American mind and temperament. As beneficiaries of a system of ordered liberty, with resort to the courts to settle our grievances, we seem to easily slip into thinking that man is autonomous, a force onto himself, with rights that spring from his desire for control.
But though we resist thinking about this notion, we are in fact created beings. We did nothing to bring ourselves into existence and the basic equipment with which we encounter the world – our senses and our capacity for reason – was given to us at birth. However much we wish it to be otherwise, we cannot for long escape the realization – especially as our bodies age against our will and betray us – that we are on a journey in which this good Earth is simply a way-station. However much we assert our independence, utilize our intelligence, and demand our “rights” to do what we want, we must, if we are honest with ourselves, realize – perhaps with a bit of alarm – that whatever left us behind may intend to reckon with us for what we have done while here. He may, we must acknowledge, require an accounting.
Most people who think through the implications of our contingent nature eventually realize that whatever did create us and leave us here retains the right to do what he will with the fruit of his labor. After all, no one condemns the potter when he smashes the pot that does not meet his wishes, or the painter that slashes a painting if he so chooses. In the scenario painted above, we realize that the scientists would be within their rights when they “unplug” or otherwise disable their creation. Having made them, the scientists retain the right to do what they will – even by putting them to forced labor or by dismantling them for parts. There is no moral outcry when, for example, the Air Force cannibalizes broken planes for parts that keep other planes flying.
But when we move to the arena of man and his Creator, our bias leads us to a totally different conclusion. But we are different, aren’t we? We think, and reason, and have free will that allows us to plan, to dream, to set goals. We form relationships that are meaningful to us. And most importantly, we feel. Pain is a constant threat and common companion. Does this not give us the right to “do what we want?” Especially if we mean well and don’t want to “hurt” anyone? To be “good,” God must simply get out of our way and let us … what, be God?
Actually, He doesn’t. Nothing changes in this analysis when the creatures under consideration are us. Having formed us – and everything for that matter – from nothing, God can do what he wants with us. In fact, it appears that in the natural order of things, God has established rules that we violate at our peril, so that what He wants for us can be seen not only in his Revelation, but in the natural law. What changed is our perspective. Our bias in wanting our way is what leads us to cry foul when God’s created order bumps up against our plans and desires. As in the Garden of Eden, modern man insists on not serving God, but on replacing him… or displacing him, at the very least. Insistent on having our way, we see God as a nuisance, or for many of us, the enemy. We shake our fist at him, insisting that He move out of our way, and that he justify Himself to us.
Unlike the robot analogy, God does not fear us or where our freedom may take us. We present no threat to him. But that does not mean that He must accept us into His fellowship, for to do so would be inconsistent with His holy nature. So, He reveals Himself to us, in a way that is substantial but not overwhelming, so that He does not overcome our freedom to choose. And most importantly, He provides a way for us to reunite with Him, but on His terms. That many people will use this freedom to remain in rebellion is not something for which He must explain.
None of this is easy for us to fully comprehend or to accept. Set in our rebellion, without God taking the initiative, all would be lost. But when we insist that God must bend to our will, that our freedom to choose must be accepted by Him despite His contrary view, well, then we are living outside the order which God has created. And in the end, He can – and will – do what He, in His wisdom, deems right.
Better for us to begin to see that clearly than to persist in a notion that we can imagine God out of existence. He may seem largely hidden to us, but He is there.
Posted by Al Serratoconsequences of sin, free will, god's nature, hell
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Christian apologists are accustomed to dealing with the “straw man” fallacy. The one who engages in this type of argument paints a false picture of his opponent’s position, one that is easy to ridicule or defeat, and then concludes, triumphantly, that his view has prevailed. But not every challenge that misstates our views is necessarily intentional. At times, the challenger has simply failed to grasp what it is that Christianity holds.
Take for instance the doctrine of Hell – the concept of eternal punishment. Many atheists take this doctrine as evidence that primitive men “invented” Christianity, because they believe that any God who would punish someone for failing to worship him would be unworthy of worship.
Consider this challenge:
“According to christian beliefs, their god requires extensive ego-stroking, and will throw anyone who does not provide it into hell. Everyone can see that this is wicked. Some openly call it ‘just’ for the purpose of stroking their god’s ego…. Now, you could try to challenge my assessment. You could try to show there are people (according to christian beliefs) who don’t stroke your god’s ego but are not sent to hell. If there are people who refuse to call your god ‘good,’ ‘holy,’ ‘just,’ and ‘righteous’ throughout their entire lives and still are not sent to hell (again, according to christian belief) then you will have shown my assessment to be incorrect.”
Looking past the mocking tone of the challenge can be difficult, but since the challenger’s position may be based simply on ignorance, it may be worth the trouble. Let’s take a closer look at the challenge.
It is simply mistaken to assert that God “requires ego stroking.” This is more an expression of emotion than an argument, as it completely misses God’s true nature. As a perfect being, God requires nothing. As used by the writer, “ego” refers to self-esteem, and can be defined as “somebody’s idea of his or her own importance or worth, usually of an appropriate level” or it can mean something more pejorative, as in: “an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a feeling of superiority to other people.” Either way, the term cannot be applied logically to God. God lacks no knowledge, including self knowledge. He doesn’t have an “idea” of his worth; quite the contrary, he “knows” with certainty that he has infinite worth. He can’t have an “exaggerated” sense of self-importance because one cannot add to infinity. He literally is the most important thing possible. To the extent that he feels superior to his creation, it is because, well, He is. His knowledge of that fact is not arrogance, because it is factual.
What is “wicked” is for a created being to demand what he does not deserve. God, on the other hand, deserves recognition of what he is, for such recognition is an accurate reflection of the way reality is. I naturally recognize when someone or something is “superior” to me; I naturally feel awe and a desire to praise something excellent, outstanding, virtuous, awesome. If I am honest about it, I will not refuse to acknowledge such recognition. Moreover, for something truly amazing, one will feel the response that is due in such settings – awe. Getting one’s mind around what God entails would result in a recognition that praise and worship of this being is indeed appropriate, not because he needs it but because our refusal to correctly assess him hurts us. In other words, knowing but rejecting God means we are living a lie, that we are living outside the natural order of things. This harms us, not God.
Yes, recognizing God’s perfection is “just,” but not because we wish to “stroke” his ego. It is just because it is fitting and due, a proper response to the fact of his perfection.
Are there people who “don’t stroke god’s ego but are not sent to hell?” Yes, of course. Those who place their trust in Jesus and accept the gift he offers avoid separation from God. Christian’s refer to this as the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Jesus takes our place, accepting the punishment we rightly deserve, while we share in his divinity and receive the grace we need to be reunited with the God against whom we have rebelled.
Will you find people who refused to call “your god “good,” “holy,” “just,” and “righteous” throughout their entire lives” in heaven? Probably not. Such a person is refusing to recognize reality. Beholding perfection, he refuses to see it for what it is and instead persists in his rebellion.
Which of course leads us right back to the doctrine of hell. We live in a free society, one that at least in principle provides for justice. A person who spends his life rebelling against authority, and insisting on doing whatever he pleases, following no rules other than what he wishes to do, will eventually find himself in jail. He will have identified himself as someone who cannot handle freedom, who cannot live in society, for he does not respect what it entails. He will find himself alone and separated. But this separation will have been his own fault, based on his insistence in doing things his way. It will not be because he failed to say the right things, but because the just response to rebellion is punishment and separation.
We see this as human beings, though our sight is far from perfect. A perfect God sees this with perfect clarity. And this indeed is the kind of “bad news” that should prompt one in rebellion to give a closer look to the long term consequences of his choices.
Posted by Al SerratoGod's perfection, hell, justice
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Fans of the Twilight Zone will remember the classic episode “To Serve Man.” In the story, aliens from a distant world come to Earth with the offer “to help.” Initially reluctant, the inhabitants of Earth are quickly convinced that the aliens mean them no harm; quite the contrary, alien technology helps to eliminate many of Earth’s struggles and problems.
As the story progresses, the aliens offer to take people to their home world, which they promise is a veritable paradise. Many sign up and soon embark on the alien ships to begin their adventure. And why shouldn’t they? After all, everything the aliens did was pleasing and helpful; there was no immediate evidence that they would, or could, hurt anyone.
Many people today have adopted a worldview that looks only at the short term pleasure, and not the long term harm, of their pursuits. They believe that they can – perhaps even should – do whatever they like, as long as it doesn’t “hurt anyone.” Where Christians once derived their morality from the teachings of Scripture, many – some would say most – have adopted this humanist worldview, confident that their notions of what “not hurting” someone means are similar to God’s. This willful blindness to God’s law is not new to our culture; it has been practiced throughout history. But where once Christians sought to be “salt and light” in their culture, today’s increasingly intolerant public square is making such efforts increasingly difficult.
Which brings me back to the Twilight Zone. Not everyone was convinced that the aliens were benevolent. Several sought to crack the code of their alien language, so they could translate a book which was left behind. The book’s title – To Serve Man – seemed consistent with the aliens’actions in providing near-miraculous service to mankind, such as restoring the fertility of the soil and rendering nuclear weapons harmless. The story ends with a shocking, albeit too late, discovery: “to serve man” is actually the title of a cookbook. The aliens had come to turn people into food.
While not seeking to literally consume us, our adversary the devil “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:7) He does this by lies and deceptions, for he is the father of deceit. And the oldest lie of all? The same one told in the Garden – you don’t need to follow God’s rules, for you too can be like God.
And so we must be cautious. A philosophy that tells us to do whatever we want as long as it doesn’t “hurt anyone” is a highly seductive philosophy, one that “tickles the ears” of listeners. (2 Tim. 4:3) But how can we truly foresee the long term effects of our choices? How can we know, when we give in to our temptations and embrace them as good, what ultimate harm will come to us, and to those we say we love? As Jesus taught, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but to forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
Seduction comes camouflaged, and it comes in many forms. Behind it is always a lie, a promise of short term pleasure that seeks to conceal the long term harm. Staying true to God’s will requires us to know and follow his law. Trying to substitute a “do no harm” philosophy may seem enlightened, but in the end it will not serve – neither man nor mankind.
Posted by Al Serrato1 Peter 5:7, following God's law, temptation, twilight zone
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Whether they recognize it or not, most people have an intuitive need to learn the rules. Whether it’s a game, or a new pursuit or interest, or the nuances of a tax form, we seem to naturally realize that some rules are at play and that learning them, and following them, are important.
In fact, it’s pretty well known that kids do better when the rules of the home, or of the classroom, are clearly set forth and enforced. I reflected on this today while thinking about the upcoming World Series. Most of the rules of the game make sense, once the framework of the game is understood. But many are simply arbitrary. Its three strikes that will get a batter out, not two or four. When the third strike is dropped by the catcher, the batter still has a chance to get to first in some, though not all, leagues. In short, to play effectively, the team must know the particular rules that apply and recognize that they – the members of the team – don’t get to alter the rules.
Nor can they decide whether their performance is “good.” Looking at what the ump calls a third strike will still make you “out” regardless of whether you believe it was a strike or not; the ump gets to make the call. It struck me as odd, then, to realize that this sense of the need to learn and follow “the rules” doesn’t seem to take hold today for the game of “life”, even among those who call themselves Christian. Many, perhaps most, don’t believe in a last Day of Judgment at which, as Jesus said, the wheat would be separated from the chaff. They seem to think that everyone eventually ends up in heaven, because a loving God will see that they are basically “good” and accept them.
But isn’t “good” a standard of performance, like judging whether a pitch is a ball or a strike? And how is one to know if he or she is “good” at all, let alone sufficiently “good” to meet the standard of an infinite and perfect rule-maker? After all, there is no scoreboard to check as we go. Why then is there so little concern, let alone fear, that the rule-maker and ump may take a different view of our performance here on Earth than we do? Why do so many assume that, as to this most important “game” we call life, there are no rules and we are free to do what we like, as long as we don’t “hurt” anyone?
Could it be that this affinity for learning and using the rules was in fact left behind in us by God, as a marker calling us back to right relationship with Him? Maybe this sense we have is there to remind us, repeatedly, that there is an ultimate set of rules to which we must, in the end, submit our will if we are to one day be made perfect. His rules are simple: there is only one ultimate Creator, one Sovereign, and that’s Him. That may sound petty to some, but that’s because they don’t fully grasp that awe and adoration are simply what a perfect being merits. The second rule is to love God and to love your neighbor, fully, completely, unselfishly. For without love, freely given and freely received, there is no basis for eternal fellowship with Him.
Of course, giving flesh to these rules requires a bit more thought and reflection, and trying to follow them without also putting your trust in Jesus won’t “earn” you anything. But thinking that there is no rule-maker, or that we can make up our rules as we go, isn’t a very smart way to approach the game.
Posted by Al Serrato
apathy, Christian doctrine, last judgment, relativism
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Considering the likelihood of God’s existence from this starting point will often cause the atheist to engage in circular thinking, as evident in a challenge I received in response to a blog post: “For gods to be gods they have to be supernatural – agreed? For something to be supernatural it has to exist outside of the universe – agree? Since the universe IS everything, there is nothing outside, there is no ‘outside.’ Therefore nothing can be supernatural, which means that any being demonstrating the traits of a god is nothing more than a powerful evolved creature that lives in the same universe as we do, therefore is not a god and not deserving of worship. I’m on solid ground when I say no gods exist. Disagree? Prove they do.”
With just a bit of reflection, it is apparent that the skeptic has built his conclusion right into his premises. By defining the “universe’ to be “everything,” and “supernatural” as being “outside the universe,” the only possible conclusion is that there is no God. Restating the syllogism, the challenger is saying: To exist, a being must be within the universe. By definition, God is that being which is outside the universe. Therefore, God cannot exist.
The problem with the conclusion is not the logic employed but the accuracy of the premises involved. Why should we assume that the universe is everything, that there is nothing outside of it? The challenger presents no evidence to support his claim, nor does he provide an argument. He simply assumes that the universe is all that there is. This is very shaky ground upon which to build a belief system. When a Christian refers to the “universe” – at least an “old earth” believer – he is usually referring to the thing that popped into existence from “nothing” some 14 billion years ago. “Nothing” does not mean some prior void consisting of a vacuum, or consisting of some type of precursor particles; such things would be somethings. No, “nothing” means the absence of anything and, while difficult to comprehend, is what makes this universe so extraordinary.
The universe, as we know it, consists of length, width, depth and time. Physicists tells us that in the first fraction of a second, it also consisted of additional dimensions. There was a before to the universe – a point at which the universe did not yet exist – and there will be an after; otherwise the universe itself would be infinite and eternal, which science tells us it is not. But if time as we know it began with the Big Bang, then this “before” and “after” exist in a way in which our temporally based minds cannot fully comprehend. Since a “something” cannot come from “nothing,” this universe needs a source adequate to explain its presence. Intuitively we know that the source must be immensely powerful, given the size and grandeur of what we see, and immensely intelligent, given the precise mathematical order built into the laws of nature. This source must be artistic, for the universe contains incredible and exquisite beauty. But the source, while capable of entering this universe, must exist outside and apart from it; otherwise it would be part of the universe and itself in need of explanation.
The skeptic’s challenge is not unlike a person who examines a house he comes across. He sees that it is built to precise specifications, that it is functional and that its appearance demonstrates a symmetric elegance. Because he was not present when it was built, and because the present owners acknowledge that they did not build it, he concludes that it must always have existed, that there were no architects, no carpenters, no plumbers. No rational person would draw such a conclusion, because the existence of precisely built things requires a builder adequate to the task.
But, in holding his view, the atheist has abandoned rationality in order to arrive at the place he began.
Posted by Al SerratoBig Bang, circular reasoning, origin of the universe
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“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
So says Shakespeare, in the Merchant of Venice. His point? That mercy cannot be forced, and that for human beings anyway, it benefits both the one who gives mercy and the one who receives it. This accords with a common definition of mercy: “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence.” We recognize these as good things, as enlightened behavior. So if mercy is good, then unlimited – infinite – mercy must be even better. Right?
Maybe not. Atheists often contend that God’s requirement of a “blood sacrifice” shows that he is not infinitely merciful. Infinite mercy, it is claimed, would be mercy not requiring such a sacrifice. An non-believer advanced the argument like this:
“Since I can forgive without the shedding of blood, I put it to you that I am more merciful than YHWH, therefore YHWH is not infinitely merciful since there are those more merciful than he. The idea that YHWH is still forced to punish people means YHWH is not infinitely merciful since the amount of mercy could be increased. That doesn’t address the question which is; how can YWHW be infinitely merciful if mere people are demonstrably more merciful? Indeed, under the Law everything is purified with the shedding of blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Heb 9:22″
While it may appear on first glance that the skeptic is on to something, this challenge works only if the meaning of the term “mercy” is not closely examined. Mercy is not a thing like, say, health, for which it may be argued that more of “it” is always better. No, mercy is a freely given gift, from the one in power toward the other, for reasons of compassion or pity. But mercy must also be balanced against other virtues, such as justice. Consider: it was merciful for the Allies to help rebuild their former Nazi foes. But would it have been similarly “merciful” if they had assisted the Nazis before they were defeated? While they still occupied most of Europe? After all, the later mercy came at the price of millions more dead than would have been the case had peace been declared in 1942. But allowing the Nazi war machine to dominate would not have been good, because assisting such a regime would defeat justice. Any desire to treat mercifully with the Nazis would have to be balanced against the desire for justice, and the greater evil that derives from justice denied.
The skeptic’s challenge refuses to recognize this basic distinction. Instead, we are to believe that if some of thing “x” is good, then an infinite amount of thing “x” is always best. But that depends on what “x” is, and against what “x” is balanced. Take for example the quality of patience. Patience is a virtue. Plugging “patience” in for “x,” we would have to conclude that infinite patience is better than finite patience. But infinite patience would result in never taking action. Loyalty is another virtue. Is infinite loyalty to be exalted, even if the person to whom the loyalty is attached has committed offenses which demand punishment?
No, the flaw in the skeptic’s challenge is that he refuses to recognize that these qualities exist in a balance; God’s perfection applies to how these attributes find perfect harmony together, perfect expression. It is not a simple child’s game of counting up the score. To conclude otherwise would be to hold that God’s infinite perfection is in fact a limitation – if he exercises perfect patience, he is trapped into eternal inaction.
But what of the specific challenge: that the skeptic does not require the shedding of blood, which means he is more merciful than God, who does. Has God just been outdone in the area of mercy? The first flaw in the challenger’s argument is that he assumes that he has the power to exercise mercy – he says that he does not require any sacrifice to do so. But since the skeptic did not create mankind, and has not been offended by mankind’s rebellion, by what right, and through what power, is he to accomplish this forgiveness? Can he also forgive a rapist for the crime committed against some other person? In so stating, the skeptic betrays a profound misunderstanding of what mercy and forgiveness actually involve. Moreover, the challenge fails to consider why a “blood sacrifice” – Christ, to be more specific – was required. When is blood shed? Usually, this refers to when something is killed. Christianity teaches that the wages of sin is death. When man rebelled, it brought death into the world. Death is the consequence of the rebellion, a consequence which God’s perfect justice demands. But God also provided a solution, which also came through death. Consider: if we never died, we would be eternally separated from God, in bodies that decay with time. Hardly a pleasant prospect. When Christ came into the world, and died after living the perfect life, he offered his life and death as a sacrifice to atone for the guilt of the rest of us. His blood – his sacrifice – is God’s solution to the problem that man’s rebellion created. And His gift is free to all of us – no work is required on our part.
It’s hard to see that as anything other than infinite mercy: He came to set us free and suffered and died in our place. If our free will is keeping us from accepting this unmerited gift, it is hardly God’s lack of “mercy” that is to blame.
Posted by Al Serratoatheism, God's mercy, justice
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Making sense of the existence of a place like Hell is a common struggle for Christians, both for their own peace of mind and in trying to convince others of God’s love and fairness. Almost immediately, we are placed on the defensive, being asked to justify how a “loving” God could condemn any of his creation to a place of constant, and eternal, torment. I’ve often heard the challenge brought like this: “Isn’t God’s love for us is like that of a parent? Can you imagine any loving parent ever wishing, or wanting, such extreme punishment for their own child?”
The answer, of course, is no. No parent would delight in tormenting his children. And neither does God. But just as human parents must sometimes resort to court orders to keep their children away, so too does God employ the equivalent of an eternal “restraining order.” Though they do not intend to use it this way, the analogy of parental love actually works against the challenger’s case, because it makes clear the need, even in the context of what was intended as a loving relationship, for enforced separation to be imposed. Everyday across the length and breadth of this country, there are parents who are being victimized by their children. In many cases, the children want something that the parent is not able, or willing, to give. Often, the abuse consists of verbal or physical assaults or of some form of theft, and many times the problem is fueled by an underlying drug or alcohol addiction. In many such cases, the abused parent seeks assistance from the police and the courts to have their offspring restrained from contacting them. Unable to break through their depraved hearts, and unwilling to continuing being mistreated, they resort to the law to provide separation – and justice. This ultimate step must break their heart, but it is often the only means by which the parent can safeguard his or her well-being. In some, more extreme, cases, the parent’s testimony in court might contribute to a conviction which will land the child in prison, sometimes for life. The point is simple enough: love has its limits, and there comes a time when separation from an abuser is the only path that is left. If this causes the child pain, that pain is not “intended” by the parent; it is, instead, an unavoidable consequence of the path set in motion by the child.
Applying this analogy to an eternal setting has its drawbacks. God, of course, cannot be victimized. He has no fear of us, and no need to incarcerate us in order to protect Himself. But He does have the same right to association that we do. When a person uses the free will God has given us to rebel against his Creator, that rebellion need not be ignored by God. Indeed, if God truly is a perfect being, it cannot be ignored. For God to maintain perfect justice, there must be an adequate consequence, an adequate response, to wrong-doing. On earth, that justice often involves incarcerating the wrongdoer, to minimize his ability to continue to use his free will to harm others. Similarly, God makes use of His power to separate those who refuse to accept the gift of life that He offers, an offer He makes on his terms only.
For those who have died in rebellion, no further chance is offered them. Eternally “restrained” from fellowship with God, they experience eternity aware of all that they have lost. Consider: what bring joy in life are not, ultimately, money and toys and success. While these things are sought after, they would mean nothing if a person were utterly alone. That’s why solitary confinement is so destructive to the human mind, and so punitive. No, it is human companionship – relationship – that brings joy to life. Conversely, the loss of relationship, in whatever form it might take, can lead to depression and in some extreme cases even suicide.
But every relationship on earth involves a flawed human being, one who does not embody perfection and is therefore a mere shadow of the Being that does. When we begin to consider the joy of love, or conversely the agony of the loss of a loved one, and multiply that experience not by millions or billions, but by infinity itself, we may begin to see why human writers, even divinely inspired ones, cannot quite grasp the horror of the thought. A lake of fire would seem tame by contrast.
But this place of suffering is internal,self-centered, self-focused. An eternity of caring only about oneself, apart and alone and without hope of reunification with the source of love. It is not a place where God inflicts torture, but rather one in which infinite torment awaits on the far side of the abyss. God derives no pleasure when He acts to restrain an unrepentant sinner. Indeed, He provides an alternative – a means of salvation – to all. For those who refuse His gift, they will have only themselves - literally, and eternally – to blame.
Posted by Al Serratoeternal damnation, God's love, nature of hell
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“God is perfectly just, and yet he sentences the imperfect humans he created to infinite suffering in hell for finite sins. Clearly, a limited offense does not warrant unlimited punishment. God’s sentencing of the imperfect humans to an eternity in hell for a mere mortal lifetime of sin is infinitely more unjust than this punishment. The absurd injustice of this infinite punishment is even greater when we consider that the ultimate source of human imperfection is the God who created them.”
The challenger contends that a “limited” offense does not warrant unlimited, or eternal, punishment. Such punishment, he concludes, would constitute a greater injustice than the “mere mortal lifetime of sin.” For many people, including perhaps a majority of “believers,” this argument is accepted uncritically. But upon closer examination, it is apparent that the conclusion the challenger draws is based upon a misunderstanding of what “just” punishment entails.
The first step in the analysis must be to consider the nature of the “sovereign” against whom the crime is committed. If I commit a crime in California, state authorities in Colorado could not impose punishment. Their laws have not been broken. To be just, the laws of the sovereign must be made known. Although “ignorance of the law” is not an excuse, a fair system makes known its laws, so that they can have the intended effect: to shape behavior by encouraging the good and discouraging the bad. State authorities are by nature limited and flawed. The scheme of law they pass reflects that the lawmakers cannot expect perfection.
But who is the lawmaker that can sentence us to this “eternal” punishment? It is, of course, an eternal being, and more importantly, an eternal being who embodies and comprises perfection. That he would separate himself from a creation in rebellion is hardly unjust. And if separation from God is in fact the “hell” of which we speak – the agony of seeing but not being able to experience the joy of his presence – then those who reject his gift are in store for an eternity of this experience. This is not a sentencing choice that a capricious lawmaker has conjured up, but the necessary consequence of 1) living eternally and 2) being eternally separated from the source of perfection.
When California enacts “three strikes” legislation, the sovereign has made known that there are offenses which carry with them a punishment of life imprisonment – separation for the rest of one’s life from the society that has been victimized by the offender’s behavior. The third strike may be much less serious than the prior offenses, an offense that on its own would not merit such a sentence. But coming as it does after a series of more serious violations, it tips the scales in such a way that this conclusion – that separation is warranted – becomes just.
Re-examining the challenger’s conclusion in light of these reflections reveals what is at play: the challenger has ignored the fact that a single offense, committed against an eternal and perfect being, could be sufficient in his mind to justify separation from him. But of course it is worse than that, for we humans in rebellion have racked upon sin upon sin, offense upon offense. But, the challenger complains, is there no proportionality between the offense and the type of punishment? Can’t God come up with a lighter punishment?
Again, this misunderstands the nature of the problem. God is not devising ever more wicked ways of inflicting punishment on us, hoping to make hell as torturous a place as possible. The punishment of hell is, simply, the natural consequence – the byproduct – of being separated from God. God does nothing more than that, but unfortunately for us, this is experienced as torment.
Finally, God embodies infinite perfection, so rather than sinning against another human being, who himself has flaws and needs forgiveness, these offenses are against a being who is infinitely holy. Considered this way, eternal separation from God starts to make a bit more sense. The good news, of course, is that God is also infinitely merciful. Knowing that we cannot solve this problem on our own, he solved it for us and made that salvation available to everyone. Perfect justice, perfect mercy, perfectly balanced. It seems to be a just and elegant solution to our problem.
But what of the challenger’s further indictment of God for creating imperfect human beings and then punishing them for being imperfect? This conclusion also rests on faulty reasoning. God created beings with free will and each of us chooses to use our free will to defy Him. As the creator, he has the right to respond to that rebellion, by separating himself from us. Consider how you might react if you built a robot to clean the bathroom and he eventually refused, claiming that he wished to be served rather than to serve. You could easily unplug him, or disassemble him, because as his creator you would have that prerogative. So too with God. We get what we deserve – eternal separation from Him – because we do not choose to obey His wishes. Rather than condemning God for this, the smarter move is to thank Him for also providing us the solution.
Posted by Al Serratoeternal separation, God's justice, hell, justice
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There has always been evil and suffering in the world, and how to make sense of it is a principal object of Christian apologetics. Often, the argument is made that God gave us free will and, as a result, people have the liberty to choose to do evil. But this answer does not satisfy the atheist; often, he will challenge God’s goodness, with comments such as the following:
You claim your God is omniscient. When he created the universe, he saw the sufferings which humans would endure as a result of the sin of those original humans. Surely he would have known that it would have been better for those humans to never have been born (in fact, the Bible says this very thing), and surely this all-compassionate deity would have foregone the creation of a universe destined to imperfection in which many of the humans were doomed to eternal suffering…or alternatively only create those humans who will freely choose God, and eliminate the possibility of their suffering.
This challenge has considerable intuitive appeal. We all rail against the suffering that each of us must face, to varying degrees, as our lives progress. We realize the fragility of our human condition, and how inhospitable this creation seems to be to flesh and blood human beings. It is frightening, indeed, to think of all the ways that our lives can be tragically altered, or ended. But does the harshness of this reality “prove” that God is not “good”?
The first step in responding to this challenge is to get a better idea of what is meant by “good.” Generally speaking, “good” is a measure of quality; how a thing or an idea measures up to a standard of performance. A “good” knife is one that well performs its function, or its intended use. A “good” person is one that lives up to a standard of behavior. But how can one determine what that standard should be? For example, any time two opposing forces are in conflict, whether they are teams, or armies or ideas, the quality of the outcome will be decided from the perspective of the party involved. For instance, the American victory in World War II was a “good” outcome for Western democracy, but a decidedly “bad” outcome for those who staked their future fortunes on the Nazis. A good outcome for my son’s soccer team is when the other side loses. Generally speaking, then, a “win” is good for the winner and bad for the loser.
With this basic distinction in mind, it would seem that, at least preliminarily, answering whether it was “better” to have “foregone the creation of a universe destined to imperfection in which many of the humans were doomed to eternal suffering” would depend on the person being asked. For those spending eternity in heaven in the joyful bliss that an infinitely loving and power God can provide, He certainly did the right thing in creating us and in giving us this opportunity. Infinite and eternal joy and fulfillment versus, well, oblivion – that’s not a difficult choice. By contrast, for the person suffering torment in hell, realizing that he will spend eternity aware of, but separated from, this awesome being, it will probably seem “better” that man was never created.
But let’s take it to a deeper level. How does one decide which of two sides is right in claiming that a successful outcome according to their desires is an objectively “good” outcome. For example, the Nazis deemed domination of Europe a good outcome. Would their victory actually have made Nazi control of Europe a “good” result? The purpose of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials after World War II was to establish that crimes against humanity had been committed. The underlying premise was that the “good” accomplished by the Allies was not a subjective good, i.e. we’re glad we won and you lost, but an objective good, i.e. Nazi officials were guilty of conduct that was objectively bad, and therefore justly punished. The premise of the trials was that such objective knowledge of good was available to us, and not that the might of the victor makes right. But how can this objective assessment be made, if each side can claim that “good” is what suits them?
This, of course, is a frequent argument of the theist. While an atheist can be moral, he cannot ground his morality, because only the existence of a transcendent being provides the basis for judging objectively the “good” or “evil” of conduct here. Without such a judge, the atheist’s conclusions are mere opinions, mere statements of likes or dislikes. By that standard, the challenger is left saying that having people end up in hell displeases him. To conclude that allowing anyone to suffer in hell is worse than not creating at all, the atheist must appeal to a standard of right and wrong, a standard of goodness. But what is that standard?
Christians can at least make sense of this standard: it is for the creator to decide. Given his perfect knowledge, he is in a better position to judge which is a better outcome. Indeed, challenging God in this fashion seeems rather presumptuous. The creator of this universe is obviously immensely intelligent and powerful. That we should decide what He should do in creating – how he should go about assigning a value to competing options – makes about as much sense as my dog giving me advice on careers or on moral issues. Without the proper frame of reference, a basic sense of humility should prevent us from telling God how he should have approached his creative work.
In the end, foregoing creation would not have been a “good” solution for the many individuals who responded to God’s gift and are, or will be, experiencing eternity in His presence. When you combine this with the realization that people who are separated from God are separated by their own choice and not simply chosen at random, then it would not be fair to deprive so many of such joy when those who have refused God’s gift have done so willfully.
Posted by Al Serratocreation, eternal separation, eternity, God's goodness
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