Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hermeneutics for Apologists, or How to avoid starting a Cult

Christians in general and apologists in particular must be careful to interpret the Scriptures properly. While I will not be teaching a hermeneutical series here, I will be covering some common mistakes in interpretation, how to remedy them, and their application to apologetics. One will find that some biblical “problems” become easier to solve once proper hermeneutics are employed.

In fact, this will help in dealing with cults or fringe groups of Christianity. Why is it that Harold Camping and his followers have so misunderstood the idea/event of the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ? Because he employed a faulty hermeneutic (namely, that one can adduce a numeric code arbitrarily assigned to an Old Testament event with an arbitrary date that predicts the exact date the Lord will return). We must avoid these mistakes.

1. Everything in the Bible is meant for me.

This mistake is most often made by atheists/skeptics, but it can be employed by Christians as well. After all, will Tychicus really “make known” to me “all things,” or anything for that matter (Eph. )? Probably not. In fact, we are not the direct original audience for any of the biblical writings. If we start to apply certain things in the Bible, they may at first appear quite harmless, but they may enable us to go down an incorrect path.

For instance, suppose someone is praying about whether or not to start a church. Suppose he further questions God, saying, “how can I lead?” He flips open the Bible to Exodus 3:14 and reads, “I AM hath sent me unto you.” And with that, he goes and starts a church. The problem? This passage has absolutely nothing to do with starting a church, nor is it an injunction meant for believers today (much less this one in the example in particular).

This situation can be applied apologetically by recognizing the original audience and what it meant to them. This is called the proper interpretation of a given passage. Sometimes, this passage is a command given and valid for all believers. This is the case when it is a matter of objective morality apprehended directly or when it is not the case that the command is culturally-rooted. Even in the case the particular command is localized, we nonetheless may glean principles from the text that must be applied to our lives (lack of this idea is exactly why the Old Testament—outside of the miracle stories—is frequently ignored: no one understands it!). This answers the smug skeptic who sarcastically wants to know why we shave, or wear mixed types of fabric, or eat shellfish, etc.

2. Interpret every genre the same way.

This is an all-too-common pitfall. Because the modern Western church is quite attuned the idea of the genre of the epistle (especially the Pauline epistles), these are quite often interpreted correctly (or at least generally). However, the modern interpreter will then transfer the principles he or she unconsciously uses from the epistle to each and every other genre. History, the Gospels, prophecy, the Law, Hebrew poetry, Wisdom. These genres cannot be interpreted the same way as the epistles.

Within the epistles, the easiest way to grasp the particular message is to narrow down the theme of the book, the thought structure or argument, the major and minor points, and finally the surrounding context.[1] To do this in the book of Proverbs, however, can lend itself to disaster. Consider Proverbs 17:21-22: “He that begetteth a fool doeth it to his sorrow: and the father of a fool hath no joy. A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Perhaps one would say that if one has a foolish child, he should simply find something to be happy about, and then all of his problems will go away. Or perhaps it is saying the only way to personal happiness is to have a good son. In any case, it misunderstands the point: the proverbs are individual sayings grouped together; sometimes to make a specific point, and sometimes not.

Another example is the genre of prophecy. One cannot simply choose a few verses to examine and derive principles from. Rather, one must understand the particular beginning and ending of “oracles,” or messages from the Lord. Once one identifies these, he can better interpret the Word of God.

How can this be applied apologetically? One may make sense of particular situations or methods of writing. When one realizes that the Gospels (being either ancient biography or Old Testament history) are not meant to be an impartial, chronological recording, one may dismiss the so-called “problem” of the Synoptics.

3. The point of the passage is irrelevant; so long as I can make something that fits with the passage I chose.

This is the biggest problem with biblical interpretation. I do not believe this error is done on purpose, but I would be so bold as to say it is the most common. John says, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” So all we need to do is praise Jesus, and this will attract people to come to the Savior, right? Well, this may be right, but it is certainly not what Jesus was teaching in this passage. The point of the passage is what matters.

But what does it matter so long as we are correct in the principle, an objector may ask. It matters precisely because one has no guarantee of being correct while using a faulty hermeneutic. In fact, it can only be said to be correct in spite of the passage, not because of. Secondly, if God gave us the Bible he wanted us to get exactly what it contains! God’s Word must be given priority over what we think is true.

The Bible cannot be reduced to what we can create, make up, or what is in accord with our traditional beliefs or what sounds good. It must be interpreted in light of its argument or the point of the passage. For instance, it is important to note that not everything in the book of Isaiah is actually in the future. One must understand the social ills Isaiah preached against or the behavior of Israel being preached against by Isaiah and God himself. Otherwise, one will most assuredly get the interpretation wrong.

Too often I have seen fringe churches and even cult-like groups spring up over these very hermeneutic issues. Too many churches read verses like “come out from among them, and be ye separate,” and use it to justify the condemnation of women wearing pants, among other things. In apologetics, this just lends fuel to the fire of skeptics. Look at Harold Camping! It simply creates more work for the rest of us. Have any favorite fallacious interpretations or fallacious principles? Let’s hear ‘em!

                [1] This is not a complete discussion on how to interpret an epistle but simply the basics.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Monday, May 30, 2011

David and Saul's Sons

This is a follow-up to the most recent post on Generational Responsibility.

In 2 Samuel 21, the story is relayed of how David gave over seven of Saul’s sons to the Gibeonites to be killed by them. Was this a morally good act? Could David have misunderstood what he was to do? What of the guilt of Saul himself? Was it imputed directly to those of his house?

We must examine this biblical text in order to understand more. First, we know that the term “sons” here is being used to extended family (i.e. grandsons, nephews, etc.). We know this because of the comment of verse 7: “But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul.” The seven delivered included: the two sons of Rizpah (making them his sons), and the five sons of Merab[1] (making them Saul’s grandsons). All of these were delivered to the Gibeonites upon their request as revenge for Saul’s breaking of their long-standing peace treaty in killing their people.

Just as we cannot say David was mistaken in performing this act (because God answered David’s questioning of the famine with the evil done by Saul), so we cannot say God did not wish this to be done. The reason is because after these men were killed, God lifted the famine (v. 14). The lesson is that vows and vengeance belong to the Lord.

But what of the sons themselves? Were they innocent? It seems unlikely. While we are not told of their crimes in great detail, we do know they bore actual guilt. In fact the Bible records just this idea in verse 1. “It is for Saul, and his bloody house.” The punishment was not merely for Saul’s actions but for actions carried out by members of his household also. The narrative of these acts does not appear anywhere else in the biblical record. However, because of Deuteronomy 24:16, we know this account must be implicating members of Saul’s household in the fighting.

This would not have been unusual, as in ancient near east culture had both the kings and their sons fighting in raging battles (this is in fact how both Saul and his son Jonathan died). So the likely reconstruction is that Saul attacked the Gibeonites with the aid of his army, which included probably most of the males of Saul’s household as well. The army killed those Gibeonites despite the Israelite treaty in place. Years later, Israel was enduring an extended famine. David asked the Lord why it was in place, the Lord answered that it was Saul and his household leading the charge and killing the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites demanded retribution by executing some of Saul’s household, and David sent over some of the sons. The strongest likelihood is that David had known or been able to obtain information about which sons had been involved (again, probably all of them who were able-bodied [this eliminated Mephibosheth] and of age). They were killed, and the famine was abated.

We know God deals righteously even when executing judgment. There is no unfairness with God. This was clearly a punishment, but the ones being punished were guilty according to the biblical record.

                [1] There are two possible explanations for verse 8’s reading “Michal” even though Michal was said to have died childless in . A. Michal raised the sons of her sister Merab. B. This is a copyist error. In either case, these are children of Saul’s house.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sins of the Father

The Old Testament is far too often ignored by the body of Christ in New Testament times. At best, the main old stories are kept cherished, along with the psalms and possibly the proverbs. However, in general, most people do not really have any idea what the Old Testament is about. They tend to anachronistically interpret OT events, stories, and prophecies solely in terms of what it means to the Church. This is unfortunate as they are robbing themselves of a wonderful resource. However, some interpretive problems remain.

For instance, consider the issue of family punishment in the OT. If one committed a sin, his family often bore the punishment. Deuteronomy 5:9 states in part, “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” As another example, consider Joshua 7:19-26, where Achan and his family are stoned, and then burned with fire. 2 Samuel 21:9 also details David’s giving over of seven sons of Saul to be killed.

By way of contrast consider Ezekiel 18: the entire chapter is about personal responsibility for sin regardless of what your father has done. It is explicitly in contrast to the passage in the Torah (Ezekiel ). What are we to make of these situations theologically and morally? First, one must understand Jewish cultural thought. In the ancient near east in general and Judaism in particular, the solidarity of the family unit was central. If the father (the head of the house) acted in a certain way it was as though his descendants acted in that way (cf. Hebrews 7:9, where Levi was said to pay tithes in Abraham to Melchizedek).

There are two ways to interpret what I will call “generational responsibility” (GR). Both of them may be embraced. First, GR means the proclivity or propensity for that particular sin would be passed on to the third and fourth generation. We see this both in the biblical record and from modern-day life experience. The same sins parents fall into are more readily done by the sons. However, this does not quite fully capture the concept in Deuteronomy 5:9. Second, GR means the consequences of the father’s sin are visited upon the third and fourth generation. I do not believe this principle alone captures sufficiently the idea of Deuteronomy 5 either. Why not?

The narrative of Achan compared with instructions in the Torah will help us here. Please recall that Achan’s entire family, including his children, were put to death.[1] However, Deuteronomy 24:16 clearly states, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” This verse comes on the heels of the command to pay the hired servant exactly what he has earned. The point is that the consequences and punishment cannot lawfully always be applied to the sons (death), so that it must be some combination of the two views above which adequately explains this principle. Hence, Achan’s family must have been witting accomplices (that only makes sense: how could they have avoided knowing he took the loot and buried it in their tent?).

Next, we must consider the context of Ezekiel 18. Culturally, this came during the exile of Israel. In exilic times, the idea of Ezekiel is one of hope in some places (especially with regards to Israel’s future). However, Ezekiel also presents to them the idea of personal responsibility. As already discussed, this idea was not necessarily foreign. But the point was. For instance, the idea of the book of Kings (1 and 2 Kings for us) is that the consequences of generation after generation of willful rebellion were exile (it is also worth noting we think nothing morally amiss with punishment for the corporate nation with the idea of GR here). Like Chronicles, the idea of Ezekiel in chapter 18 is that every man bears his own responsibility. If his father was righteous and he was wicked, he is punished. If his father was wicked yet he was righteous, he was rewarded. If he had been a transgressor but repented, he was rewarded. If he had been righteous but transgressed, he would be punished. This is a message of hope to those in exile. “You have had punishment,” Ezekiel is saying, “but you may have God’s favor on your very life!”

Yet this idea is not really new. God both punished and rewarded individuals before (think of David, who is a perfect microcosm of this). We also do not see, in these examples, punishment of innocents. That is, we have reason to believe from the text itself that those who receive punishment are those who transgress. Consequences of sin may manifest themselves in the next generation (such as unfortunate transmission of disease contracted by the parent in an act of sin), but true GR only occurs in tandem with the next generation’s actually performing that sin.

God is righteous, and we know that sin has consequences that go beyond even ourselves. This principle does not offend our moral sensibilities. Yet we know God does not transmit the sin itself, though there is something to be said for everyone’s having a sin nature. In much the same way as man’s having original sin, GR means that while a particular iniquity is avoidable, it nevertheless will not be avoided by that person (in general). However, Ezekiel 18 teaches if he or she does avoid it, he has God’s blessing!

The particular case of David and the seven sons of Saul will be dealt with in a separate blog post. Feel free to comment below!

                [1] There is always the answer that Joshua and Israel simply went overkill, misunderstanding what they were to do in killing the entire family. However, not only is the record silent on this, but it seems the Lord even approved of the action.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Monday, May 23, 2011

One Thing

I was recently out driving and was listening to 96.1, a station playing songs from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and some more recent songs as well. One of the songs that came across the airwaves was a song called “One Thing,” by Finger Eleven (from 2003). I had not heard it in a while. This song, while undoubtedly not spiritual, nonetheless struck me with its words.[1] While I will not comment on every lyric, I will lay out the assigned significance for cultural apologetics.

Restless tonight/Cause I wasted the light

This is almost the lament of the unbeliever. I imagine it to be the remorse of the centurion, who famously said, “Truly, this was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:54) It is the reflection of those who have put off God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ and have finally come to the recognition of the truth. The obvious truth is that rather than wasting the light of the world one should accept it. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not . . . But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John 1:4-5, 12)

If I traded it all/If I gave it all away for one thing/Just for one thing
If I sorted it out/If I knew all about this one thing/Wouldn’t that be something?

These lyrics just screamed biblical passages to me. First and most prominently was Matthew 13:46: “When he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” Jesus was speaking here of the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom Jesus was offering. Second, Mark 8:34-37 say, in part, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me . . . whosoever shall lose his life for my sake . . . the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Being a disciple of Christ, which all believers are called to be, is no easy task. We must be willing to trade it all, to give it all away for only one thing.

Finally, Philippians 3:10 boldly is reflected in these lyrics. “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection.” If someone willingly followed Christ by forsaking all, and really did attain unto the knowledge of which the apostle Paul spoke (as we will according to 1 Corinthians ), that would be something. We must never forget to present Jesus Christ and his offer of salvation as a wonder. It’s not an issue of being mystical or praying a prayer. It is a realization of the offense of one’s own sin, and a willingness to confess that sin, repent, and believe the Gospel (that Jesus died, paying the penalty for sin, and God raised him the third day from the dead).

I promise I might/Not walk on by/Maybe next time/But not this time
Even though I know/I don’t wanna know/Yeah I guess I know/I just hate how it sounds

In our kidnapping of the song this is perhaps the most depressing of the lyrics. Clearly, it is the unbeliever who does not want to follow Christ after all. The cost is just too great. “Maybe next time,” he thinks to himself. “But not this time. Later. When I’ve got more time. When I’ve done what I want to do.” Luke says of the rich young ruler, “And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich.” The young man’s sorrow was in direct proportion to his wealth. It was in fact his wealth that brought him down.

I speak with unbelievers all the time. Many times, they feel they simply have no need of religion. “My life is just fine without God,” they say. “I respect that it’s good for you, and I believe in God. I just try my best.” But their best is not good enough, just as my best is never good enough. It cannot erase the bad that was done. A perfectly good God cannot endure evil in his very fellowship. It must be punished. This punishment was taken on by Christ. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice paid the penalty for all of our sins. Appropriating that makes it logically possible to be reconciled to God. Because God is love, anyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

I know this song is not about God or the Bible. But we must be willing to use what resources we can. For some, this is nothing more than a song. For others, this is a microcosm of their lives. I pray they will reconsider.

                [1] The song is probably about some girl he had a chance with, but removing a line from the song here or there, one is left with a very biblical-sounding song!

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

The Rapture, Camping, and Atheists

By now we all know Harold Camping’s failed prophecy concerning the May 21 Rapture (and subsequent world destruction by October 21, 2011) did not come true. This came as no shock to the vast majority of Christians, cultists, other world religious followers and atheists. Pretty much, this came as a shock to no one but Camping’s followers.

On the one hand, we may mock, poke fun, and otherwise crack jokes about the failed prophecy. I admit freely that I have and that the jokes themselves are truly funny. But what is not funny is the aftereffects of this failed prophecy. I do not know Camping, and so I do not know if he is merely delusional or a false prophet (however, the fact he’s done this before makes me lean towards the latter). These aftereffects, and how to combat them, should be discussed.

First, one of the major aftereffects is the one coming from general society. The simple fact is that this failed prophecy concerning Christ’s return reflects badly on all orthodox Christians. Fair or not, we are all lumped together with this man. How do we rectify this? First, it should be pointed out most Christians simply do not believe in the failed prediction that was made. This, however, is only partly helpful. Why? Because once it is revealed that one does in fact believe in a personal return of Jesus Christ, the mocking freely continues. All we have done is remove ourselves from the false prophet. But therein lies the benefit. We need not concern ourselves with looking good for the lost world. The apostle John said, “Marvel not . . . if the world hate you.” (1 John 3:13)

Next, another effect is that we receive mocking from atheists themselves. This may seem identical to the first point above. However, it differs in a major aspect. It lends credence (again, fairly or not) to the idea that believers are, well, raving lunatics, and atheists by comparison are pillars of logic and reason. It robs us of credibility with them. How do we deal with this? The best idea is to demonstrate simply because someone associated with us in some way does some certain action X, it does not follow that I am responsible for X, or bear the implications of X upon my life or beliefs. In short, we call them out for the guilt by association fallacy.[1]

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Camping’s followers themselves experienced great loss. Reports have been made concerning millions donated to Camping and his non-profit to spread the word. Where do you think that came from? Hard-working, otherwise mostly rational people. Some of these people quit their jobs, racked up debt, stopped paying bills, sold their houses and cars, and otherwise made poor decisions with the rationale that they would soon be gone.

But their loss is more than just purely financial. After all that these people have sacrificed, it is almost inevitable some will turn to agnosticism, atheism, bitterness, or some other combination. These people should be warmly accepted into our church families provided: they are truly saved, they understand what they believed was a lie, and they are ready to renounce it in the name of biblical truth.

We should be compassionate and loving. We should be harmless as doves and wise as serpents. While the jokes being made are funny, we should remember there is nothing funny about an all-too-real false prophet, and the damage he has done—both physical and spiritual.

                [1] Note also that it will not work to claim we are not deluded, but Christianity nonetheless is—for that is pushing the guilt by association back one step. Further, if we are not deluded, and we hold to Christianity, it cannot follow that the latter is delusional but the former is not.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Some Sins are Worse than Others

Are some sins worse than others? Or are they all the same? It seems as though many Christians would say, contrary to our strong moral intuition, that all sins are in fact the same. In relation to salvation this is clearly true. For instance, consider Romans 5:12: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” The idea is that any sin, no matter how “large” or “small” mankind may consider it, separates man from God. This is because sin, by definition, is a violation of the moral law of God. Therefore, proponents conclude each sin is exactly alike in the eyes of God; no sin is any better or worse than any other sin.

However, there are a few problems with this. First, it ascribes a sort of consequentialism with respect to judging the relative “rightness” or “wrongness” of an action. If some action results in being separated from God, then every action is entirely the same qualitatively. But what reason should we think that is true?

Second, it prevents any actions from being judged to be “better” or “worse” in any true sense. Between two bad options, only pragmatically can we say some action is better or worse; there is no difference between, say, raping, torturing and killing a woman and stealing a twenty-five cent piece of candy from the dollar store. This seems highly counterintuitive. Perhaps someone would complain that intuitions are sometimes found to be wrong. However, this does not mean we should think my intuitions are incorrect. Even if we found that some of my moral intuitions are incorrect, what non-question-begging reason do we have to think that this particular moral intuition is wrong?

Third, this seems to go against biblical evidence itself. Matthew records the words of Jesus, saying, “It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in that day of judgment, than for that city.” The context is the commissioning of the twelve by Jesus to the people of Israel.[1] The idea is that rejection of Israel’s own Messiah is worse than the actions of the Sodomites. Suppose one wished to argue that all the text states is that there are differing levels of punishment. To that I would ask: why different levels of punishment if there are not different levels of crime? We cannot say God in his wrath is condescending to our limited understanding. Even though David was a sinner and sinned every day, why did the biblical record seem to think David as an adulterer/murderer was worse than the prior David?

Finally, Jesus himself describes different sins as actually ontologically worse than others. In John 19:11, Jesus spoke to Pilate, and told him that the one who delivered him to Pilate had the “greater sin.”[2] This word for “greater” is μειζονα. This word always means “greater” or “more” in a comparative sense. This should be the final nail in the coffin. Jesus himself taught greater and lesser degrees of punishment, and greater and lesser degrees of sin. Some things really are farther away from the moral standard of God himself than other things. Yes, it is true any sin separates you from God. But it does not then follow all sins are equally bad. God gave us our moral intuitions, and we should use them.

                [1] There are plenty of other verses to support this idea, including: Matthew 11:24, Mark 6:11, and Luke 10:12.

                [2] This may refer to either Herod or Judas.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

John 6 Revisited

A question has been asked concerning my post on John 6 and the saved. The question relates to the words “given” in verse 37 and “drawn” in verse 44: are they synonymous? Perhaps, even though they are differing words, they nonetheless point to the same concept. Is this true?

First, I would wonder what the positive case for equating those two words would be. I readily concede two different words, even in the same passage, don't necessarily constitute separate concepts. But I hesitate to group them together just to avoid the implications of my view; that in fact would be ad hoc.

Second, I think there are decent reasons to suppose they are different subsets of the same major point. First, the word for "gives" is διδωσιν; it is in the active voice while the coming is in the middle. This means, strictly speaking, the coming flows from the giving. Because they are given it is a matter of course that they come. But it doesn't then follow they could not have refused to come, nor does it provide any direct comment on the reason for being given. It certainly doesn't follow that God gave everyone, nor does it follow that God could have given everyone. Next, the word for "draw" is ελκυση; it is in the subjunctive mood. This is like a counterfactual: If one is drawn, then he can come.

You might be wondering what the major point is. In John 12:32, Jesus says if he is lifted up (speaking of his death), he will draw all men unto himself. Guess which word he is using? ελκυσω. This shows that the concepts cannot be identical to the giving of verse 37; else if they are, all men are saved. Now it occurs to me one may wish to argue that in John 6 it is the Father drawing and in John 12 it is the Son. But this is a distinction without a difference, and let me tell you why. Typically, Calvinists have no problems asserting that the way the Father draws is through the Spirit. Hence, they have no complaint here. Second, the Son mentions he will raise himself up from the dead, yet Paul says the Father did (by contrasting God with the Son he is not saying Jesus is not God; he is saying the Father raised the Son). Even though the Father and Son are not identical, they nonetheless all participate in acts of salvation and creation.
It also occurs to me the Calvinist may wish to assert that "all men" only refers to all men of the elect in John 12. Aside from being ad hoc, verse 32 is a contrast to verse 31 (cf. v. 30). The "prince of the world" influences the entire world; Jesus didn't mean here the prince of the world of the elect is cast out of the world of the elect from the grip of sin. Just as Satan is cast out from his death-grip on the world, so Christ provides the replacement of grace and salvation. In any case, I hope that I at least provided a surface answer. I don't think John 6 directly supports Molinism. But neither do I think it supports Calvinism; in fact, based on other passages and other philosophical and theological considerations, I believe John 6 is compatible with Molinism, whereas it is not with Calvinism without serious contortion to the text.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Literary Analysis of 1 Kings 19

Literary analysis of Old Testament (OT) passages is very important to the understanding of the text itself. As Yates mentioned, if one fails to understand the literary devices used he will fail to understand the theological message of the passage.[1] This essay will contend that in order for an OT passage to be examined accurately, one must conduct a literary analysis, discuss interpretive issues, and draw out application from the text.
Literary Analysis of 1 Kings 19
            The passage to be examined is 1 Kings 19:1-21. The first technique I noticed that was employed by the author was that of irony. In verse 2, Jezebel promises Elijah that she will kill him; she even vows that if she does not accomplish this, may she be killed (and worse)! The irony comes in v. 17, when the Lord promises to kill Jezebel and Ahab. It is more than a bit ironic that Jezebel managed to prophesy her own doom. The irony may have been discussed by the author in order to illustrate the principle of justice for the wicked. Additionally, the usage of irony shows that God will take care of his people. The prophet had no need to fear for Jezebel was not in control; God was in control.
            The next device utilized is that of contrast. In verse 3, Elijah feared for his life from one single queen. In the prior chapter, Elijah had been extremely victorious against the 450 prophets of Baal (and even rousing the people to acknowledge the true God in ). The author may have used this contrast to show that even in the aftermath of a victory believers must rely upon God (as opposed to themselves). In fact, instead of confronting the evil queen (as he had done with the false prophets) with the power of God, Elijah fled (v. 4). So disquieted was Elijah concerning his predicament (and indeed so faithless), he requested of God to be killed. Interestingly, this may show that he did not fear death as much as he feared the queen herself. Perhaps her methods were more vicious and cruel. If he was to die anyway, it may as well have been at the hands of his God.
            The next feature involves another act of contrast. In v. 4, Elijah “seeks to renounce his prophetic office,” but God will not let him die just then.[2] However, vs. 19-21 give the narrative of Elijah’s commissioning of Elisha, his ultimate replacement. God did grant his request but only on God’s timing. Repetition is present as well in the narrative experience of the angel of the Lord’s feeding Elijah (vs. 5-7).
            This repetition consisted both in the words and in the actions of the angel. Incidentally, it seems this is also an instance of paneling. Paneling is repetitive events with a final differing result. In the first panel the angel provides a cake and water and urges Elijah to “arise and eat” (v. 5). Elijah does so, but lies back down after he is finished. In the second panel, the angel of the Lord came, provided food and drink, and urged him to rise and eat. In this case, Elijah did so, and completed a journey the Lord had for him. He only completed this journey, however, because the angel of the Lord added one final difference to his command to Elijah: “because the journey is too great.” (v. 7) It was not a final meal to be enjoyed before death, but a meal of preparation. God was communicating to Elijah that he was not finished quite yet.
            Intertextuality seems to be present in verse 12 as God’s voice appears in conjunction with a fire. This drew an unmistakable hearkening back to Exodus 3 and the story of Moses and the burning bush. The fact is, however, that the Lord was not present in the fire itself (as in other times); he reveals himself in a still, small voice. Elijah answered that although he had been “very jealous for the Lord God,” he nonetheless received a death threat for his trouble. The point of the still, small voice does not seem to be the oft-repeated refrain, “look past the business of life to the quietness of the Lord.” Rather, it seems as though God is communicating to Elijah that he is the one who is in control. If God can control earthquakes, wind, and fire at will, then Jezebel should not concern Elijah.
            James Mays noted another repetition in the issue of the hopelessness of Elijah (v. 14 cf. v. 4 and 10).[3] In verse 4, Elijah requests death from God as he is not greater than those who have already been killed at Jezebel’s command (cf. v. 14). In verse 10, Elijah spoke to the Lord in greater detail, revealing Israel’s apostasy, the repudiating of the sin-sacrificial system, the killing of all other prophets, and the proposed execution of Elijah himself. He repeated this entire summary in verse 14. This repetition is likely included to show the burden of Elijah. However, it is quite telling that in all three usages of this motif God moves Elijah on to show him something.
            In the first stage Elijah is sent to Horeb. In the second stage, Elijah is sent to the mountain top. In the third stage, God sends Elijah to Damascus, with assignments on the way. God was in control, and God was going to take care of Elijah.
Interpretive Issues
            An interpretive issue would be the phenomena experienced by Elijah. Were these natural or supernatural events? Perhaps these were in fact natural phenomena that Elijah mistook for divine signs. It seems v. 11 may use hyperbolic language, so that perhaps the author is here exaggerating. The response this essay shall give is that there is no need to view these events as purely natural.
            First, God instructed Elijah to go to the mount (vs.10-11). Thus, God is involved in the events as a matter of course. In that case, one should not be surprised if seemingly supernatural events occur. Simply because a series of events appears unnatural God is not precluded from acting in that way. Second, even if one supposes the phenomena of wind, earthquakes, and fire are purely natural, there is no explaining away the conversation Elijah held with God.
            Suppose that an objector complains that Elijah had gone an extended amount of time without food, so that he was delusional (v. 8). One might even complain this is impossible! This response is inadequate for three reasons. First, as noted earlier, God was involved. This divine action inherently means laws of physics and anatomy may be interrupted. This would be, in that case, a miracle by definition. Only if one had good reasons for saying God was not involved in this could one then make the case for Elijah (as a prophet of God, no less) being delusional.
            Second, Elijah had no such disability when the angel of the Lord appeared to him and fed him (v. 5). While it may be argued Elijah was in a fragile state emotionally, it seems he had come to terms with his impending death (v. 4). This means Elijah was despondent but not disabled. Third, the conversation Elijah had with God included prophetic details (vs. 17-18); it seems highly unlikely that a delusion would contain such detail. In fact, if such a delusion did contain prophetic details of which king to anoint and what specific actions he would take, it would literally be a miracle, and thus the objection loses all force!
Personal Applications from 1 Kings 19
            There are theological principles to be applied from this passage. First, God provides for his servants, both physically and spiritually. In verse 5, God miraculously sent Elijah food and water, and in verses 15-18 God implies he will keep him alive from Jezebel. Spiritually, God provides a successor in Elisha. The people of God never have to worry about their spiritual needs going unmet when they trust in the Lord. Second, the hearkening back to Exodus 3 in the image of the fire reminds believers God is in control. In that story, the theme was that God is superior to the god of Egypt (Pharaoh). In much the same way, God is superior to any natural phenomena or any creation (such as man). In summary, God can be trusted to provide for his servant’s needs and is in control over things, events, and people of the earth.
            This essay has examined the literary devices used by the text of 1 Kings 19. It also examined potential interpretive issues concerning prophetic visions and revelations of commands from the Lord. It concluded any objections to Elijah’s instructions from the Lord are unjustified. The application to the believer’s life of trusting God to be in control even in the most difficult of circumstances was also discussed. God demonstrated to Elijah he controlled events both in the present and in the future, and God still controls those events today.

                [1] Gary Yates, “Literary Analysis Presentation,” Week 7.

                [2] James Luther Mays, Harper Collins Bible Commentary (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 293.

                [3] Ibid.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Who is a Heretic?

Who is a heretic?

That’s a great question. It is a question far too infrequently asked and far too quickly answered. Of course, one’s answer will depend upon his theological tradition: if one is a Catholic, then she will answer a heretic is one who disagrees with the approved teachings of the Church. In that case papal edicts and the early and late councils will be consulted. If one is a Protestant (especially an evangelical), however, there will be more at her disposal. Perhaps it is to be in conformity with a denominational doctrinal statement or creed; perhaps it is merely to be in line with a particular church.

Lately I have noticed a trend among biblically-minded people to say a heresy is anything that is contrary to Scripture. Hence, any doctrine that is actually untrue is a heresy. This sounds good at first. However there are serious ramifications which must be discussed.

1. The entire body of Scripture is made up of many smaller propositional beliefs (that are all true).

2. Denying any one of these beliefs, or holding anything found to be in conflict with any one of these beliefs, is heresy (by definition above).

3. Any heresy makes the proponent of that heresy a heretic.

4. Any person X believes what they believe to be true about the Scriptures is true in each of the individual propositional parts.

5. Therefore, anyone who disagrees with X about any propositional truth in or relating to Scripture should epistemologically be regarded as a heretic.

6. Any heretic H should be rejected after two admonitions (Titus ).

7. Therefore, any H who disagrees with X about any propositional truth in or relating to Scripture should be rejected after two admonitions.

But something surely seems wrong here! Essentially, this argument (which is logically valid and sound if this idea of heresy is true) requires us at the very least to view every person who disagrees with us about anything in the Bible as a heretic. What follows is cookie-cutter Christianity. Either everyone must be identical to me in every doctrine, or I must be identical to them. Since there are quite literally no two non-cultic believers who believe all things alike, this means any person should regard literally every other person as a heretic. Sure, some doctrines the Scripture teaches are not easily understood. Yes, our strong intuition is that even the truths of Scripture are not accurately and fully possessed by any one person; that is, each of us, while believing our beliefs are true, nonetheless also embrace as true the belief that I am flawed in some part of my doctrine or theology (we just don’t know which part that is, obviously).

If the argument is wrong what premise do we reject? (4) cannot be, for it is logically incoherent to say “I believe that my belief X is wrong.” (1) is true for any evangelical or orthodox Christian. (3) may be a good candidate for rejection. In this case, then, the person would say simply because a heresy is held by a person it does not follow that person is a heretic. This, however, seems quite arbitrary. At what point does one become a heretic? After two heresies? Three? Virtually all definitions of “heretic” agree that it is “holding” such a belief (that is, it is known by someone that X holds a heretical belief). It seems just as obvious a heretic is one who holds a heresy as it is one who stole something is a thief.[1]

Since (5) and (7) are conclusions they cannot be rejected. (6) is a restatement of Titus 3:10, so it also should not be rejected. That leaves us only with (2). We should reject that if a belief held turns out to be wrong then it is heresy. Indeed, since the commonly-held belief is that each of us is wrong in theological concerns somewhere, it thus follows we are all heretics!

Then what is a biblical heretic? We don’t have many Scriptures dealing with the issue. In fact, we only have Titus 3. In an interesting discourse, it seems Paul is actually speaking here of those who would either deny grace-based salvation or deny the need for good works after salvation (I encourage you to read the entire book in one sitting; you will come away with much the same sense I think).

In Titus 3:10, the word for heretic is αιρετικον. It is the only time in the New Testament the word is used. So perhaps a clue is to be found in v. 11 in the word “subverted.” That word is εξεστραπται, also used only once in the NT. However, those words can also be translated as “divisive” and “perverted.” Interestingly enough, in Pauline theology these concepts can be shown to deal with those who are not even saved! Romans 16:17-18 speaks of those who cause divisions in doctrine who “serve not our Lord Jesus Christ.” See the emphasis on “our”? There should be no doubt these people causing doctrinal divisions were not saved. Further, the idea of “perversion” found in Titus 3 is suggested hereby to be linked to the idea of those people who demanded justification came by a measure of the law (cf. Galatians 5:12). The entire book of Galatians is in fact against the perverting of the true Gospel (cf. Gal. 1:7). The idea correlating to Titus is that the man’s sin (active voice) and self-condemnation are causing his perversion (passive voice).

I think Paul is saying a heretic is a person (unsaved, more often than not) who perverts the truth of the Gospel by either denying grace-salvation and embracing works salvation or avoiding any good works whatsoever (i.e., the idea that I can come to Christ but sin may abound—chances are good such a person is unsaved anyway). Not everyone is a heretic. Not everyone should be viewed as a heretic. I am open to any correction anyone feels is necessary. Comment below!

                [1] It’s worth noting that there are different “levels” of thievery, and likely different levels of heresy then under this definition. Some are clearly worse than others, some left it back in the past and no longer do it, etc. However, this distinction has no bearing on the analogy or the argument.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Brownies and Apologetics

Today’s post is more lighthearted.

Brownies are great things. You buy a small, relatively cheap box containing a mix. You bring it home, and your wife does the rest! Soon enough you get brownies. Of course, they must be pre-mixed and baked according to the proper instructions. After about 40-45 minutes of baking they are finally ready to be pulled from the oven.

Apologetics is quite a lot like baking brownies. As apologists, we gather resources like crazy. A lot of them are good, and some of them are even cheap! What if one did not read the instructions and had never made brownies before? I daresay the final product would not only be unpalatable, but maybe unrecognizable as well. Sometimes we rush in to discussions or topics related to apologetics that we don’t sufficiently understand. We have not properly prepared our minds for the task. This mind preparation is analogous to following the instructions.

Next, the brownies must be baked. I have seen unbaked brownie batter. It’s quite rich and quite tasty. However, the brownies are not all they are supposed to be. In fact, it is probably not that healthy for someone to consume only the unbaked product (at least relatively speaking). The baking is essential to the final product matching what one sees on the outside of the box. As apologists, we need to match the picture we see of apologetics as done in the Bible; apologetics as done by Jesus.

If the proper mixing of the brownies is our intellectual preparation, then the proper baking is our spiritual preparation. The heat cooks the brownies and conforms them to their proper structure and function. Instead of a gooey mess, apologists can be exactly what they were meant to be only in the case of proper spiritual function. The heat that helps us comes in many forms. God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, other believers, our pastors; all of these should be included in one’s spiritual growth, and none should be neglected.

Apologists are a lot like brownies: if they don’t know enough about what they’re speaking they are bitter and damaging; if they don’t go through the baking of spiritual discipline, they fall apart like a gooey mess.
All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Jonah, Nineveh, and Repentance

There are many misunderstandings about the book of Jonah. Some wish to claim the book is not to be taken literally, since it included the miraculous story of a man being swallowed by a giant whale or fish and surviving after three days’ time. Others give a misguided attempt to show it is possible for a man to survive 72 hours inside of a whale or fish.[1] Still others do not understand that the book is to be understood as an undifferentiated whole. That is to say, it is one story: the story of redemption.

The Ninevites were an evil people. They were considered to be cruel (cf. Nahum ). The story of Jonah is quite famous. Jonah is called to go to Nineveh in 1:1-2. I have heard preachers say from the pulpit that Jonah was afraid, and so refused to go. However, it seems they have not taken into account 4:1-2, which say, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful…” Essentially, Jonah did not want these people to experience redemption by repentance. He was telling God, “Didn’t I tell you this would happen!?”

The message of the book of Jonah is that God loves all people, not simply the “good ones” or the “chosen ones.” Jonah 3:5-10 show a detailed and thorough repentance. It was thorough in its scope: everyone from the king to the least of all the people turned from their evil ways. It was thorough in its aim: it turned from its evil ways unto the God of Jonah (the true God).

What most people tend to miss is that the repentance did not only avoid judgment. What does it take to be saved? Believing God (cf. Romans 4). When Rahab was spared judgment it was because she had been accepted by God![2] The people who turned from their sins not only received mercy from God in avoiding judgment, but its attendant grace as well. What a thought! The God of the universe isn’t just interested in our physical lives, but our spiritual ones as well. God knew under what precise set of circumstances national revival would take place; and it was Jonah’s preaching that God used.

How do we apply this to apologetics? First, we explain that our God loves every person and wants all to be saved. Even the “bad guys” of the world; even Osama bin Laden. Second, we explain that God wants Christians to be concerned about all people of the world.

There is a view of Jonah 4 that claims God’s sovereignty is in view, and thus the lesson for Jonah is that just as he should not care whether or not God creates the gourd or destroys it, so he should not care whether God chooses to save the Ninevites or not. Such a view seems totally at odds with verses 10-11 of that chapter. God’s point is that Jonah felt bad about the gourd, even though he did nothing to raise it up and it was only around for a night. By way of contrast, there are people (for whom God labored [see the rest of the story at the very least] and who have been around a while) that need to be saved—specifically those who are mentally disabled and children. So, on the one side, we have a plant that Jonah did nothing for lasting for one night versus children and the mentally handicapped on the other. Just in case Jonah still thought this was a contest, the verse (and the book) ends with this comment: “and also much cattle.” Jonah, at least care about the valuable livestock involved!

It is interesting the book ends here. There is no response from Jonah. I like to think the issue is that God has the last word, and Jonah is ashamed at his attitude. He is probably the one who passed along this story until it was written down. In apologetics and evangelism, we need to communicate the truth that God wants every man, woman, and child to be saved. He wants them to turn from their sins. He wants us to repent as well; he wants us to love as he does, no matter who it is.

                [1] This is misguided for two reasons. First, it is not necessary to view Jonah as in the belly of the whale for 72 hours. He need only have spent a full day and parts of two others in order to fulfill this requirement. Second, the story is intended to be one of divine action; therefore, we should not be troubled if the event is not physically possible; nothing precludes God from doing it.

                [2] This was true even to the point of Rahab’s inclusion in the Messianic line!

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Benefit of Philosophy in Theology and Apologetics

Some people, when they hear what it is I am interested in theologically and academically, listen politely for a while, but ultimately say something like, “We are limited by man’s understanding.” Sometimes they’ll even say “these kind of questions are prompted by satanic influences,” or “the Bible forbids getting involved with philosophy and vain janglings.” Is this true? If it is, it should be noted interpretation of the Bible requires inference, so that philosophy must be done on at least some level. If it is not, what role does it play in apologetics and theology?

First, philosophical reflection can influence theology greatly.

Suppose one believes, philosophically, that divine omniscience cannot coexist with human freedom. On the basis of this philosophical reflection, then, one either denies divine omniscience to be true, or denies human freedom. From there, one’s entire theological perspective may be altered dramatically as implications arise.

In a less dramatic and more useful (biblically) way, I have discovered certain “problems” in theology can be readily solved once philosophical reflection gets involved. Take, for instance, the problem of Jesus’ ability to sin. There is quite a contemporary debate among laymen as to whether or not Jesus could have sinned. However, applying possible world semantics, we can point out if Christ could have sinned then there is a possible world in which he is not God. But since God is a necessary being, either Jesus could not have sinned or he is not God at all. Jesus is God; therefore, Jesus could not have sinned.[1] Other problems in theology may be solved this way. In short, problems in theology can be exacerbated by bad philosophy or solved by good philosophy. Since philosophy is inescapable, which would you prefer?

Second, philosophical reflection can influence apologetics greatly.

Perhaps one of the largest problems in apologetics is the problem of evil, pain, and suffering. Pure theological reflection only (if there is such a thing) can help those who are already saved greatly in this area. The answer for them is something like this: you have trusted God already for your salvation, and you know he is good. Trust him to be good here. This is a very biblical response, and I would never minimize it for the believer. But for the unbeliever this response comes across as intellectual hand-waving.

Philosophy can help us to question even the questions behind the objections to God’s existence. Further, it can help us provide an offensive case for Christianity (instead of merely defending it). Philosophy permeates everything we as Christians do. If we evangelize, we do so in a particular way; we think this way is best for this person. Since we cannot escape philosophy, we should do it in a way that benefits both Christians and unbelievers.

Third, God may use philosophical reflection to bring you closer to him.

Since God is truth it only stands to reason that knowing more of him will bring you closer to him in many cases. As we do philosophy, theology, and apologetics, we must remember that this is not primarily an intellectual engagement. This is primarily an engagement of the heart. If this sounds cliché to you, then you’re the one I am talking to. I’m speaking to myself, and to anyone who is tempted to think and check their heart at the door (even though the reverse is a far more prevalent problem).

Many people seem to fail at Matthew because they think the Lord is speaking in terms of compartmentalization. They think Jesus is saying, “love God with this, and then that, and then this,” and this stutter-step way of thinking will leave you unbalanced every time. Jesus’ point is very simple. Love God with all of your being. Can you love God without being philosophically trained? Absolutely. Can God use philosophy to help you in your knowledge of him? Absolutely. Should top-notch apologists and theologians use philosophy? Without question!

                [1] One could go to the dramatic move of claiming God is not a necessary being, but that leads us to deny that God is the creator of all reality external to him; that is, some things could have come into being without his influence (which seems contrary to biblical and intuitive truth).

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Morality and Possible Worlds, Part 2

The Best Possible World
            The best possible world inherently involves moral perfection. That is, whatever is the greatest logically possible maximal state of affairs constitutes the best possible world. With respect to the problem of evil it is sometimes asserted there is no logical contradiction in stating “a possible world exists in which everyone freely chooses the good and is saved.” Plantinga frames it this way: “Surely it is possible to do only what is right . . . it is possible, in that broadly logical sense, that there be a world containing free creatures who always do what is right. There is certainly no contradiction or inconsistency in this idea.”[1]
            The idea of whether or not God could create such a world (that is, if such a world is feasible to create given free will) has been the general focus of the debate. There are those who would grant that assumption (such a world is both possible and feasible). These people would assume that this actual world is therefore the best possible world. The argument for this will be explored.
Leibniz’ Argument
            Gottfried W. Leibniz (1646-1716) made amazing contributions to the Christian philosophical community. He asked the famous question at the heart of the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Leibniz also embraced the “best possible world” argument.
            This argument was summarized by Plantinga as follows.
            Before God created anything at all, He was confronted with an enormous range of choices . . . Being perfectly good, He must have chosen to create the best world He could; being omnipotent, He was able to create any possible world He pleased . . . Hence, this world, the one He did create, must be the best possible.[2]

            For Leibniz, a being who does not create the best possible world is not acting consistently “with supreme wisdom and goodness,” and therefore is not the best himself.[3] Such an idea was scandalous to Leibniz (and indeed to all orthodox Christians). Perfect being theology entailed there existed a Perfect Moral Being (PMB). Without the PMB, God, as he was known, did not really exist. The argument, syllogistically, looks like this:
            1. If the PMB creates, then the PMB must create the best world possible for him to create.
            2. The PMB is omnipotent.
            3. Therefore, the PMB can create the best logically possible world.
            4. The PMB created this actual world.
            5. Therefore, the actual world is the best logically possible world.
            The conclusion very nearly strikes some as absurd prima facie. However, since the argument is logically valid a premise must be denied in order to avoid the conclusion. Atheists will deny (4) and substitute their own premise. Others may deny (2) or amend it to exclude the ability to actualize just any logically possible world.[4] [5] One may also deny (1), saying God may have no obligation to create the best possible world. Still others argue from the implicit assumption that there even is a best possible world. It is to this consideration this paper will turn.
Is There a Best Possible World?
            Plantinga questions whether there even is such a thing as a best possible world. “No matter how marvelous a world is—containing no matter how many persons enjoying unalloyed bliss—isn’t it possible that there be an even better world containing even more persons enjoying even more unalloyed bliss?”[6] For Plantinga, the idea is that whatever world postulated will always have another world with at least one better feature.
            Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder have argued that there is no best possible world. In a roundabout way, they postulated a world-randomizer that selected a world to actualize for a God-like being. Much like Plantinga, for any world, say number 297, there exists a better world (numbered higher in proportion to each world’s value) 298. 299 is better than 298, and so on ad infinitum. In that case, however, there just is no best possible world. Each successive world is better than the last (and in turn, all others before it). Just as natural numbers are not exhausted, so the goodness of each world also is not exhausted. “Although he can create any of them, he can’t create the best of them because there is no best.”[7]
            In this case, the Howard-Snyders argue, “there is no contradiction in supposing that an essentially morally unsurpassable, essentially omnipotent and omniscient being could create a world inferior to some other world he, or some other possible being, could have created.”[8] The best possible world is never attained precisely because that which cannot be attained does not actually exist.
God’s Free Will as it Pertains to Actualizing a World
            Now the discussion must turn to God’s free will in actualizing the world. Even granting Leibniz’ assumption of a best possible world, is God constrained to create it? This paper contends that the PMB is not constrained to create any particular world.
            First, the PMB cannot be asked to create a world that is logically impossible. Since standard PMB theology asserts logic and truth are within the grounds of his nature, he cannot act contrary to that.[9] So worlds which have broad logical possibilities may nonetheless actually be impossible, logically, for God to create (such as those worlds which are not strictly logically possible [like John’s being an abstract object]).
            Second, Roger Turner discusses the difference between creating and actualizing a particular world. According to Turner, “For God to create something in the strict sense, there must have been a time when that thing God creates did not exist. This is not true for any possible world W.”[10] Hence, God must be viewed in terms of actualizing a particular world that already has certain features.
            Next, Turner also argues it is God’s nature alone that may limit him, if anything at all.[11] No one thinks God is not free in the relevant sense when we say he cannot sin. Therefore, no one should think God is not free by not creating a bad world where everyone always does evil.
            Perhaps one may object that this misses the point. Yes, God may be said to be free to create other worlds and not particularly constrained to create this actual world. Yet it seems nonetheless God must create this actual world (if the best possible world exists). What is the answer?
            The Howard-Snyders argue since any world, even if deliberately chosen, will be a world than which some omnipotent PMB could have done better, and since there is no best possible world, it is only incumbent upon the PMB to actualize a good world.[12] Even on the assumption the best possible world exists, it seems such a world could never be instantiated. It seems the PMB is not morally required to actualize such a world after all, even if it exists.
Is the Best Possible World Achievable?
            This idea was alluded to in the section on possible worlds. Norman Geisler argues even if a best possible world is conceivable it may be that such a world cannot be achieved. “It may be that God in His infinite foreknowledge foresaw that no such world [a world of free creatures who never choose to sin] would actually materialize.”[13]
            Because of the diversity of creatures and their free will, it is entirely plausible the best logically possible world containing free creatures is simply not feasible to create. Plantinga follows this viewing of free will forming a sort of “delimiter” to the worlds that God can actualize. He maintains, “Whether or not it is within God’s power to actualize depends upon what Maurice would do if he were free in a certain situation . . . It is, of course, up to God whether or not to create Maurice . . . but if He creates Maurice and creates him free with respect to this action, then whether or not he actually performs the action is up to Maurice, not God.”[14] In this sense, it seems the best possible world, if one exists at all, is not entirely achievable.
God and Moral Obligation
            In our discussion of God and any moral obligations that may be incumbent upon him, we should consider possible/achievable worlds and moral preferability among worlds. Specifically, one must ask whether God has any moral obligations whatsoever. Craig answers in the negative, writing, “I don’t think God has any moral duties. For moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, and presumably God doesn’t issue commands to Himself. Therefore, He has no obligations to live up to.”[15]
            Indeed, with respect to the discussion over whether God is actually constrained to create this, or any other, possible world, Craig believes one cannot claim that either. “If God is essentially good, then there is no possible world in which He does evil . . . God acts in the complete absence of any causal constraint whatsoever . . . That God is acting freely is evident in the fact that His will is not inclined necessarily toward any particular finite good.”[16] God is not constrained to create any particular world. Leibniz’ PMB axiom (as I call the first premise of his argument) has some potential difficulties.
The Perfect Moral Being Axiom Problems
            There are three major issues with respect to the PMB axiom.[17] First, there is the difficulty of the “ought implies can” problem. This idea is that one cannot be held morally culpable for acting (or refraining to act) in a situation in which he cannot act or refrain from acting as he does. It is the same basic principle of moral responsibility that guides us not to punish the mentally disabled or young children; no one would think of trying a two-year-old for murder if it accidentally shot someone with a gun lying about. One does not bear moral responsibility unless he is able to act and able to understand that act. If God cannot actualize the best possible world (because it does not exist or has overriding features [such as free will]), then he cannot be held morally culpable for not creating such a world. In that case the PMB axiom is false.
            Second, the best possible world is one in which no one exists but God himself. The Howard-Snyders point out, referring to the PMB as “Jove,” that “Jove doesn’t have the option of making it the case that there is no actual world . . . if he refrains from using his creative powers, a world will nevertheless be actual . . . That world will have no concrete being other than Jove in it.”[18] In other words, even a world with only God in it is nonetheless a world.
            It is here where I must part company with Dr. Geisler. In his discussion on options for creating (including God’s refraining from creating), he mentions “[not creating being better than creating] assumes that nothing is better than something. This is a gigantic category mistake.”[19] Since God is a necessary being any and every possible world will be populated at least by God. Craig agrees, saying, “In a possible world in which God creates nothing, there is only He Himself, the paradigm and locus of goodness . . . That’s a pretty good world, to say the least!”[20]
            If every world is populated by at least God, then the worlds with the greatest balance of morally good acts to bad (and the one with the least amount of damned) are worlds in which God creates either nothing at all or worlds with no free creatures.[21] The best possible world is one in which God simply exists with nothing else whatsoever. This is the point, and this is the problem. If the PMB axiom is correct, it seems the best possible world for which God would be responsible for actualizing are worlds in which nothing moral exists but God himself.
            The third problem for the PMB axiom is that if the second issue is not a problem—that is, supposing the best possible world(s) does not contain only God—and if there is a best possible world, then God could have created creatures who never sin or refrained from creating at all. This is due to the fact this is clearly not the best possible world. That is, it is simple to imagine another world with one more good act and one fewer evil one; a world where one more is saved and one fewer is lost. In this case, the only options are that the PMB axiom is false, our intuition about broad logical possibility is false (which is impossible to prove without question-begging), or that the PMB does not exist. Since the latter two seem quite unacceptable this paper opts for the falsehood of the PMB axiom.
            Steinberg argues God must always choose to do his best (as opposed to doing the objectively best).[22] In this case, however, we see no reason God cannot choose in accordance with his goals, so long as the world he does choose to actualize is also good (which it already is, by definition).
Standard for the PMB
            The standard for the PMB was hinted at in the preceding section. An argument for God’s moral justification in creating the actual world will be presented in this section. First of all, ought implies can. This is extremely relevant, as any standard one places upon the PMB must include this idea. Second, creations which bear God’s image have intrinsic good. The logic is as follows: A. God is good (PMB assumption). B. Whatever God creates is good extrinsically (Gen. 1:31). C. Because of A, anything created in God’s image is intrinsically good. D. Humans were created in God’s image. E. Therefore, (from A-D) humans have intrinsic and extrinsic good.
            Third, one must grant in worlds that contain actions for which God is not causally responsible (or beyond his control because of free will) God does not bear any moral responsibility or culpability for those actions in those worlds. Therefore, any world in which God is not directly causally responsible for sin is intrinsically good given creatures bearing God’s image exist. That is, because God is good and there are creatures that are intrinsically good, we can call a world good so long as God avoids moral culpability for the actions of those creatures.
            If this actual world meets the aforementioned standard and the AMP, then God is morally justified in creating this actual world. Syllogistically, the argument is as follows:
            1. God is intrinsically good.
            2. Whatever God creates is extrinsically and intrinsically good if and only if it is in God’s image.
            3. Humans are created by God in his image.
            4. Therefore, humans are intrinsically good.
            5. Any world bears intrinsic good in which God is not directly causally responsible for sin.
            6. God is not directly causally responsible for sin.
            7. Therefore, this actual world is intrinsically good.
            8. If this world is good and meets the AMP, then God is morally justified in creating this actual world.
            9. This world is good and meets the AMP.
            10. Therefore, God is morally justified.
            Critics may cry foul at (9), but (8) seems very plausibly true. If that is the case, the objector must beg the question against the conclusion unless he has some external, overriding reason to think God is not morally justified in creating this actual world. However, without positive evidence, the objector has no case and no reason to think that the AMP is not met in this actual world, especially given free will.
            The problem of evil is not merely a logical or evidential one. It is one that is very emotional as well. For as moral beings we are rightly outraged at the evil that exists in this present world. Randy Alcorn notes of evil’s affect on a person, “Logical arguments won’t satisfy you . . . You need help with the emotional problem of evil . . . You will not find relief unless you gain perspective.”[23] Apologists must always be sensitive not to minimize the real hurt and suffering moral evil has caused in the lives of others—even if the hurt is self-inflicted.
            We must show these people there is a God who brings good out of bad; he is the one who will cause his people to praise him through eternity.[24] Genesis 50:20 states the evil meant for Joseph was meant by God for good. This is the reality we must proclaim.
            This paper discussed the concept of possible worlds and various axioms for moral preferability among worlds. It also offered up its own principle of the AMP. We turned to a discussion on the best possible world and whether God was constrained to create it. We argued even if there were to be a best possible world, God need not create that one, so long as the world he created was intrinsically good.[25] We then offered an argument for God’s moral justification in creating the actual world. The problem of evil in the hearts and minds of people is not going away any time soon. Apologists have a wonderful arsenal to bear on this problem, and they may assert boldly there is no need to call God evil.

 [1] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977), 32.

                [2] Ibid., 33. It should be noted the atheist J.L. Mackie agreed with Leibniz’ line of thought up to the conclusion: it was there Mackie said this was not the best possible world; therefore, God does not exist.

                [3] Gottfried W. Leibniz, Theodicy trans. E.M. Huggard, ed. Austin Farrer (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1985), section 201, 154.

                [4] Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 37. In this he discusses certain states of affairs’ being consistent with one another; the entire conjunctive state of affairs of everyone’s freely coming to Christ or refraining from evil may not be feasible given free will of each individual creature.

                [5] Another route to take is simply to deny (2) simpliciter. This is the option of the Open Theist; God, while very powerful, cannot do everything.

                [6] Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 34.

                [7] Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder, “How an Unsurpassable Being Can Create a Surpassable World,” in Faith and Philosophy 11 (April 1994): 260-68.

                [8] Ibid.

                [9] Note that even if an objector insists the PMB does not also ground truth and logic, he is at least beholden to them, so that he cannot act contrary to that standard.

                [10] Roger Turner, Christ the Redeemer and the Best of All Creatable Worlds (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University, 2009), 9. This is because of two things: first, possible worlds already exist as abstract objects. Second, since God is a maximally great being, he exists in all possible worlds; meaning there are no vacuous worlds.

                [11] Ibid., 17.

                [12] Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder.

                [13] Norman L. Geisler, If God, Why Evil? (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2011), 64.

                [14] Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 44.

                [15] William Lane Craig, “Question #114” < http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7227> accessed April 27, 2011.

                [16] Ibid.

                [17] As a reminder, the PMB axiom is that any essentially good and perfect moral being must create the best possible world.

                18 Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder.

                19 Geisler, 59.

William Lane
Craig, “Question #51,” <
http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6155>, accessed April 27, 2011.

                21 There is an argument to be made, as Geisler does, that the good of free creatures outweighs the good of creating all non-moral creatures only. Geisler makes this argument on pp. 60-64.

                [22] Jesse R. Steinberg, “Leibniz, Creation, and the Best of All Possible Worlds,” in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 62 (2007): 123-33.

                [23] Randy Alcorn, If God is Good (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2009), 3-4.

                [24] Ibid., 282.

                [25] While it was not discussed, it seems quite extreme to claim evil as necessarily existing in this possible world. The idea is that certain things we find virtuous, such as courage, are only possible in the face of some evil. However, I would contest that a world in which courage is exemplified is not inherently morally preferable to a world in which no evil exists. Further, one’s character may be such that if he were to encounter evil, he would have courage. Since this character is formed by his actions, one may find such a counterfactual admirable, even in the lack of such evil.

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