Friday, May 26, 2017

A Simple Test for Atheists

I was thinking this morning about a single question for people who announce they are atheists with four possible responses. This is not a trap question, but it could be an interesting and non-threatening way to start a dialogue. The question would go something like this:

On a scale of 1-4, how confident are you that there is no God?

By “God,” we mean the God of perfect being theology.[1] The responses would look something like this:

1.     Not confident, but there is enough evidence against God to justify my unbelief.
2.     Somewhat confident; there is enough evidence to justify my unbelief and to make theists seriously consider giving up belief in God, too.
3.     Very confident; there is enough evidence such that everyone lacks justification for belief in God.
4.     Extremely confident; near certainty; there is enough evidence such that it is irrational to hold belief in God.

Assuming the atheist answers honestly, you now have a starting point to question them. Too often, the theist (and Christian) is instantly put on the defensive. Instead of that, this helps atheists to see they are making some kind of claim, and a burden of proof rests upon them to show why others should agree with them. There is also an interesting psychology that can go along with this. For example, while (4) has the biggest payoff (you get to say all believers are irrational!), it also has the largest burden (just consider: (4) as a position is invalidated just in case there is not enough evidence such that every last theist in the entire world is irrational for being a theist!). On the other end of the scale, while (1) has the smallest payoff (you can’t even guarantee that any theists are even so much as slightly unjustified in being so), it also shoulders a relatively small burden of proof—and even places one on the theist who insists that the atheist is not justified.

(2) is also a fairly moderate claim. It doesn’t even claim that theists are unjustified; simply that the evidence for atheism is strong enough to warrant a serious look, and of course that it warrants the justification of belief in atheism by the unbeliever. (3) is interesting, for it is a strong claim without being the kind of claim that (4) is. Well, it actually depends: some people tend not to make any kind of distinction between justification and rationality; if there is no such distinction, then (3) collapses into (4). What do you guys think?

[1] While I am a Christian, and this is the most important thing about me, I’m interested in discovering if the atheist has ruled out the type of being we would call God, full stop, or if hers is mainly a complaint about Christianity or other major world religions.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Why Didn't God Stop Satan?

I heard my niece repeat her question from the Bible study last night. Jodi and I were talking to her sister and their family over Skype (they’re serving as missionaries in another country). I didn’t think that now was the time to jump in with a response, especially because I didn’t know how the question and answer played out in the Bible study itself. But it’s a question that a lot of Christians, not just young people, have pondered. The question is this: If God is all-knowing, wouldn’t he know that Satan was going to be evil, and do something to prevent it? A good question, indeed!

Strictly speaking, this does not merely assume God’s omniscience. It also assumes his omnibenevolence, or all-goodness. It also assumes his omnipotence (or at least a faculty of powers such that he could overcome Satan’s intentions). This is fine, for these things are part and parcel of historic Christianity. But then why didn’t God do something about it?

I think the key lies in the concept of love. God wants his creatures to love him (those that are capable of loving). At some level, and at some time, it appears Lucifer (Satan’s angelic name) had the ability to love God (and perhaps most or even all of the angels have had such an opportunity also). But to be in a love relationship requires two or more participants and a response that freely chooses love.

This makes sense, at least intuitively, right? Consider a man who wanted a woman to love him. She didn’t seem to at first, so he breaks out his magic spell. The magic spell makes it to where she fawns all over him, and even causes her to desire only him.[1] But can she be really said to love him? At the very least, we recognize she lacks something crucially important to love relationships: that she at least should choose to want to love him (or at least should choose to want to choose, if such a thing be demanded). Instead, this was foisted upon her. Her response is no different from an automaton.

So then, love requires freedom of choice at some level. Now the reason God doesn’t intervene is because if a choice is to be successfully made, it must be free. If God mitigates the choice when Satan tries to reject him, then it’s not really a choice (that is, forcing Satan to choose God in the event that Satan tries to reject him[2]. So God allows his choice to be real, and have real consequences. But why would God, knowing that his world would go so wrong, still stick with it? For a few reasons: 1. The love relationship God deems to be worth it. That should be humbling! 2. God knows something we don’t.[3] It may be that only in this type of a world would we get the number of saved freely trusting in Christ and living in eternal bliss with him, with the low-balance to minimize the lost.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

[1] Thanks to Jerry Walls for a relevantly similar example.

[2] Frankfurt examples are interesting here, but not directly relevant, since on this discussion it’s not the case that Satan chooses and God does not intervene. On this supposition, Satan does not choose God and God has to intervene. Frankfurt examples tend to lose their intuitive force on these situations.

[3] I once heard Tim McGrew say this.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Confess Your Faults?

James 5.16 clearly exhorts us to “Confess your faults one to another.” My question is how far does this extend? If we are honest with ourselves, we may find that we have sinful thoughts about other people multiple times per day. This can be evil thoughts of all kinds. So, do we track down each person, each time it occurs, and confess it? This seems not only tedious, but potentially impossible.

Here’s an idea: perhaps we only do this when it affects the other person. This initially sounds plausible, but, as a matter of fact, it too suffers from a fatal flaw. We are often under the unfortunate and mistaken assumption that our own internal sins only affect ourselves. However, we know from experience and the Bible that no man is an island (Rom. 14.7-8). What we think helps form our character, and our character affects not only who we are, but also the lives of others we encounter. So, if this principle holds, then we’re right back where we started.

So perhaps another track is needed—after all, a fool speaks all his mind (Proverbs 29.11). Perhaps it is something like this: when we have done something that clearly has an external affect, or when we have done something or had any attitude toward someone that they have perceived as an offense, we ought to seek reconciliation. This “clearly” bit helps delineate things a little, but it doesn’t eliminate all confusion outright. Thus, another guiding principle is needed, one that I suggest be joined to this one. That is: follow what God is leading you to do. This can be known through the Bible and through wise counsel. If God is moving you, then please follow it!

There are a few questions that remain, however: What other considerations should we take into account with respect to confessing our faults one to another? What role should the local church play formally in these instances? How does the concept and practice of forgiveness come into play? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Flexibility of Middle Knowledge

Middle knowledge is, roughly, the thesis that God has knowledge of what his free creatures would freely do in any set of freedom-permitting circumstances in which they might find themselves, and this knowledge is pre-volitional; that is to say, it comes logically prior to God’s decree to create the world, so that God is not causing them to do it. This doctrine is most often found in the context of Molinism, but there are many Molinists who are all over the theological spectrum when it comes to various topics, including soteriology (the study of salvation). There are Arminian-Molinists and Calvinist-Molinists, interestingly. It is my brief burden to show that middle knowledge can be applied not only to more Arminian-leaning teachings (of libertarian free will, for example), but also some Calvinist teachings (though there are obviously some that are off-limits for the Molinist—for just one, divine causal determinism being compatible with free actions).

First, middle knowledge is compatible with regeneration preceding faith.

One of the classic debates in soteriology is whether regeneration comes as a result of faith, or faith comes as a result of regeneration. On the former, proponents emphasize that God saves only because the person responds; a person who has not responded is not regenerate. On the latter, advocates contend that only a regenerate person can respond, so that it is necessary for faith in the first place. Which is right? For middle knowledge proponents, it may not matter. Suppose God uses his middle knowledge, logically prior to his decree, and knows each and every person who would freely place their trust in him if given a new heart. Suppose also, for the sake of argument, that regeneration prior to faith is necessary. God could then regenerate just these persons who would then libertarianly come to him. What about irresistible grace? The Synod of Dordt does seem to make this difficult. Hey, I didn’t say you’d fit in at Presbyterian potlucks!

Second, middle knowledge is compatible with limited atonement.

This may surprise some people, again, especially since very few Molinists accept limited atonement. Limited atonement is the thesis that Christ died for all of the sins of a specific group of people, all of whom will be saved (nearly word-for-word from Dr. John Hammett’s definition). The issue again is the same: God could use his middle knowledge to know precisely which people would believe in appropriate divinely selected circumstances, and only have Christ’s death atone for these sins.

Third, middle knowledge is compatible with unconditional election.

This is, admittedly, fudging a little. That is to say, you might have to ignore a pretty major definition of unconditional election that most Calvinists use ubiquitously. Instead, you’ll have to view unconditional election more along the lines of God getting the precise set of the saved that he wants. A better way to comport with the Westminster Confession’s definition is to emphasize God’s sovereign choice and omnipotence. So, suppose God can work circumstances such that anyone can freely (in the libertarian sense) come to him (say, because regeneration infallibly works to produce a new heart, and that new heart will always libertarianly choose God); in this case, God isn’t decreeing that the set of the saved will be so because of foreseen faith; indeed, they will have faith because they were chosen to be redeemed (it just so happens redemption always accomplishes this libertarian goal non-causally). In that case, you still have an unconditional election of sorts.

What does this all mean? Does it mean I’m a Calvinist now? No. In fact, I still reject these Calvinist teachings myself. My point is two-fold: 1. Sometimes the reasons people have for rejecting middle knowledge are not as good as they think they are; middle knowledge is flexible! 2. This means the debate on these Calvinist doctrines lies along lines not identical to middle knowledge. In other words, I believe God’s giving a well-meant offer precludes limited atonement (as well as the biblical evidence); I believe if God would have a world similar to this one in which everyone would freely be saved, then that’s the world we would have, etc. Something to think about!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Baptism and Submission to God the Holy Spirit

So lately I have tried to be more responsive to the Spirit of God in his promptings in my life. This is as opposed to being dismissive outright or just not engaging in thought on the topic. In my life (as is common to many) I have struggled with assurance of salvation. I prayed the prayer “just in case” but generally knew of course that didn’t save me. I settled the issue of assurance mostly during college, when I had heard someone say that if the struggle results in wanting to commit to God, then it’s probably conviction of God; if it’s merely of guilt and despair, it’s probably of Satan. That resonated with me. I also made a profession of faith when I was very young, and it’s hard for me to remember a whole lot about it. I further realized that, whether that conversion was real or not (if it wasn’t, it is hard for me to point to one specific place that I was), I am converted: I am trusting in Jesus Christ, his finished work on the cross, that he is God the Son, lived a perfect life, died for my sins and was raised the third day. I further want to follow him and have seen evidence of the Spirit’s work in my own life. I may have prayed the prayer a hundred times, but none of those prayers have ever saved me; none ever could.

In any case, I had occasionally wondered if I was saved at the time I had my baptism as a child. If you made me guess, to this day, I’d probably say 60-40 that I was. However, I wasn’t sure. In times past, I had really not entertained it much, and just dismissed it out of mind. However, this time, I knew that God wanted me to reach out to a member of the pastoral staff at my church.

So I crafted an email to one of the pastors and explained my situation. We determined we would meet up at church to talk about it briefly. I told God my responses to the three possible outcomes: 1. If he told me I should undergo baptism, I would gladly submit. 2. If he told me not to worry about it, then I wasn’t going to worry about it. 3. If he told me it was up to me, I would pray about it for a week and get back to him. I honestly expected him to go the route of (3), or maybe (2). So I was surprised when he said, “Let’s do it!” For a moment, I worried about what people would think. Then I realized that it doesn’t matter; what matters is that I follow God and do what I told him I would do, in response to how I believed he was working things out.

So this past Sunday (Easter!) I was baptized. There’s a chance (see above) that I was just “getting wet,” but let me explain the idea. If this was my baptism, then I was being obedient to the Lord. I obviously have no regrets about that. If this wasn’t—that is, if I was saved when I was baptized as a child—then my testimony is one of being willing to follow God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as they lead, and being willing to submit to the authority of my local body of believers (the church). It may even resonate with others in the church. I obviously have no regrets about that!

In any case, it is by no means my mission to make someone doubt whether they are saved or have been properly baptized. That would be to miss my point. My point is that whatever the Lord is asking you to do, don’t ignore it. Let the Holy Spirit have his work in you, so that you will be the kind of person he wants you to be: conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.