Friday, January 23, 2015

Christianity Does Not Make Sense? Part 4

This is the last in a series of posts dealing with an article concerning why an atheist thinks that Christianity makes no sense. I hope it’s been interesting!

9. Terrible things happen to good people.

People are killed by war, disease, natural disasters, and many other horrible things. God is omnipotent and intervenes or he is not and he doesn’t. If he does and he is, then suffering exists because God intends for it to be that way. If he doesn’t and isn’t, then he’s not worth worshipping.

This is just your standard old problem of evil, and really no one should be very convinced by it. This is because, very much like the other points on this article’s list, a whole host of assumptions take place that go unargued for. First, this article assumes that omnipotence means something like “controlling the minutiae” of our lives, where “control” is undefined. That seems obviously false. If God creates creatures that he endows with free will, it’s just a matter of logic that you cannot force someone to freely do something. You can force them, or they can do it freely, but not both. Humans have used that will to choose very poorly.

It also assumes that this physical life is either all there is, or is most important, or else there’s no good reason for allowing the things that God allows. As to the first and second, Christianity stipulates otherwise—and if this is supposed to be a critique of Christianity’s coherence, this objection is just irrelevant. As to the third, there’s just no way for the objector to know that God has no such good reason, and indeed we can plausibly think he does have such a good reason. After all, on Christian theology, the ultimate goal is for us to become Christ-like and for humans to live with God eternally. Given free will and how free creatures would respond, there’s no reason to think that an appreciably better world would yield the ultimate results it does—in other words, there’s no reason to think there’s no reason God could have for allowing what he does, and it’s on the objector to argue otherwise.

10. It’s all just way too convenient.

No matter what happens in life, Christians claim God has a plan, or answered prayer, or provided something or is working something out. If the answer to every question is exactly what you want to hear, then it’s probably not right.

It’s difficult to know precisely what the objection is. At first blush, it looks like they’re saying Christianity is unfalsifiable. But that’s not quite correct: if God does not exist, or the Resurrection did not happen, for example, Christianity is falsified. So maybe the objection is that Christianity seems to have an answer for everything, and maybe that means the Christian is not being objective. It’s true that it could mean that; it’s also empirically equivalent with Christianity, you know, actually having the answers!

Well that’s it: every once in a while I like to tackle the popular-level objections, to see what kind of poor thinking substitutes for intellectual discourse. Hopefully, none of my Christian brothers or sisters were swayed by that article!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Christianity Makes No Sense? Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts dealing with an article claiming that Christianity makes no sense. You can see the second post here! The objections are mostly simplistic, sometimes evincing bad theology, sometimes bad philosophy, and sometimes just both. Today, I’m going to tackle a few more from their top 10 list.

6. Prayer is contradictory

God has a plan, so how can your prayer change it? Atheists and others don’t pray, but rely on good decision-making, and arrive at the same place people who pray do.

The article actually has a lot more to say that this, but one part doesn’t make any sense (the last sentence is the paragraph is baffling for so many reasons and appears unrelated to either of the statements above), and the others are just descriptions of either of these two. There are actually two objections here, not one, seeing as prayer’s efficacy can be challenged in the same way even if prayer is not “contradictory.” Strictly speaking, the first charge is not supported by anything said in the paragraph. What the author probably means is something like, “Prayer and an unchanging-plan of God are contradictory,” and stipulates that God’s response to prayer is a change in his plan.

So how do we avoid this first charge? Well, we could say that God’s plans change, but that might suggest that God was unaware of some fact or set of facts that, when he became aware of them, prompted him to change his mind. We wouldn’t want that. However, we could also say that God planned the world taking into account what and how and when we would pray in various circumstances. Thus, God can even bring about an answer to prayer even prior to the prayer being prayed, or prepare circumstances years prior to an event’s occurring such that someone prays for it. This is the Molinist solution to prayer, and it’s a great one! Thus, there just is no contradiction between God’s unchanging plan and prayer, since if the relevant counterfactuals had been different, then God’s knowledge would have been different, and plausibly a different world would have been brought about instead of the one we have.

The second charge is that prayer doesn’t seem to work. The problem with this comparison as an argument is that there’s no way to know that it works. That is, one would have to know that had the person not prayed, the same result would have obtained, and had the non-praying person prayed, the same result would have obtained. Given that this critique is supposed to be of Christianity, why can’t the Christian just say that, given God’s active planning in response to our prayers, the world may well have been different if we had not prayed? A better objection is the one that has a control group that doesn’t pray and a group that prays for the same circumstances or things, but even that has flaws (are the people believers in both groups? Unbelievers? Why should we expect that particular prayers are answered at a certain rate?).

8. The Bible doesn’t set the moral bar very high.

The Ten Commandments aren’t very good: it says that not coveting one’s neighbor’s wife is worse than rape! Jesus and his Father encouraged, condoned, and commanded rape, murder, hate, and hurting children! Jesus will send people to Hell for not believing in him.

And this is how we know they have done no scholarly reading on the Ancient Near East, to say the least! Of course, no examples are provided, because why should they? The Ten Commandments form the basis for moral duties, not a compare/contrast (this is why in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy case-laws are given that are not directly the Decalogue, but are instead applications of them). We’ll take their accusation of covet being worse than rape: they aren’t understanding a “better than/worse than” in the Decalogue: they’re showing fundamental units of moral behavior. The family was instituted by God at the creation. The Seventh Commandment (this one concerning adultery) is because the marital relationship is the fundamental unit of the family. So, adultery and coveting spouses (this last part of a different commandment) have the dual motivations of being in violation of the family and the image of God in man. So what about rape? That has the same violations, by implication! Thus, one can be said to be violating the seventh commandment, probably the eighth, and maybe the sixth as well (this is why Jesus says hating your brother is a violation of the sixth commandment).

Next, she is probably alluding to the Conquest passages, but there are many convincing scholarly journals and publications now that suggest hyperbolic conquest language was being used, no more literal than when Jesus said to cut off one’s hand or when we say one sports team “slaughtered” the other. The last objection fails to understand what it means to believe on Jesus. So many, many atheists make this mistake. The belief is not merely intellectual. It is volitional and active. You have to want to be saved from your sins, and trust that God will save you on the merits of Christ, not you. Rejection of this entails a choice to remain in your sins, and Hell is a separation from God. Remaining in your moral failures entails a separation from God, and, very plausibly, those who choose in this life to maintain their moral failures in the face of a perfectly holy, just, and loving God will not suddenly come around to see the light once God leaves people to their own hearts and devices. This is where eternity comes in!

8. Christian love is not very loving.

It makes no sense to have Jesus come to Earth, live without God for 30 years, torturing him to death, and then bringing him back to life instead of just forgiving humanity.

The way the objection is phrased is pretty terrible, but there’s a better one lurking under the surface: why did God have to send Jesus to die for our sins (penal substitution)? Well, some Christians reject penal substitution, affirming other models whereby Jesus redeemed every part of the world with every part of his life. I affirm penal substitution, however, so that option is not open to me.[1]

So what can I do? First, point out that Jesus did not live without God for 30 years. He in fact had a vibrant relationship with God, according to Luke 2. But further, God cannot just forgive. Why? First, there is justice. It is plausibly unjust for evil not to be paid for. Evil must be defeated! Second, there is free choice. Each person must apply forgiveness that God has secured for himself; if he refuses it, God must honor their choice in order for that choice to mean something, which is the point of creating free creatures in the first place. Third, Christ needed to live the life he did to show he was a man who kept the Law through the power of the Spirit.

Next, this author seems confused about what happened on the cross. God did not torture and kill his son. It seems pretty obvious the Roman soldiers and leaders in the Jewish Sanhedrin saw to that. God did ordain a world to exist such that he willingly sent his Son, and applied the sins of the world to him in that payment via death (this is what the Isaiah passage means, and my guess is this is the source of confusion). Greater love has no man than this: that a man would lay down his life for his friends. If atheists deny this, there’s just no telling what they consider love to be.

[1] I am becoming more and more persuaded by what Dr. Jeremy Evans has called the kaleidoscope view of the atonement, where there is some truth to just about every theory of the atonement, and together they form the whole story.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mailbag: An Objection to the Kalam

Jon writes:

Hi Randy,

I recently came across an objection to the kalam argument that I haven't been able to sufficiently answer. My question is this: How can we know that the cause of the universe still exists without appealing to any sort of external arguments from natural theology that would enable us to prove this?

God bless,



Hi Jon,

Thanks for this question! Technically speaking, this isn’t an objection to the “bare-bones” version of the kalam. Here’s how you can tell: ask yourself which of the two major premises (or the major and the minor, technically) does this objection undercut our warrant for or otherwise refute? Certainly not the causal principle, and not that the universe had a beginning. Thus, it’s irrelevant to the conclusion, which is that the universe had a cause.

Notice this isn’t even quibbling with Craig’s extended version of the argument, where he argues for the personal nature of the First Cause. Rather, at best what’s going on is that this is an attempt to undercut the warrant for saying that this First Cause still exists.[1] And that is important, for if we have no good reason to think the First Cause still exists, then we have no good reason to think God still exists (inasmuch as God is identified with the First Cause).

I have a number of responses. First, why restrict our knowledge of the First Cause’s continued existence to the kalam? At first blush, one might think the objector is arguing that if other theistic arguments are imported in order to establish God’s continued existence, then it will be these arguments doing all the work, and not the kalam. And to that I say—why think a thing like that? The kalam is not about arguing God’s mode of existence, or length of existence into the future, or God’s subsequent actions. Instead, the kalam is all about the universe’s having had a cause that brought it into existence. Complaining that it doesn’t establish something further about God than it does is like complaining that the historian of the Revolutionary War doesn’t discuss when George Washington died or lived forever. It’s not, strictly speaking, relevant to the causes or characters of the Revolutionary War. Thus, the objection isn’t really objecting to much, or else is irrelevant.

Second, if we want to know whether or not God has continued existence, as that is important and relevant, then inasmuch as it is not the point of the kalam to discuss it, we’re welcome to bring in any point of knowledge that we might have. The ontological argument, the moral argument, the Bible, Christian theology, etc. all require God’s continued existence. Now an objector may protest, but so what? They don’t need to accept that God still exists in order to accept that he is the cause of the universe’s existence. Now if God as a First Cause existed, then naturalism is out the window and anything that we may know is admissible. If they want to give up naturalism and to know whether or not God still exists, we can discuss why we think it likely that if God ever existed, he still does (though I wouldn’t do this without a firm admission from them that naturalism is false—otherwise, they may just be doing this as a giant red herring). But they can’t simply say there is no reason to think God still exists if he ever did at all—at least not without argument.

Finally, in WLC’s and James Sinclair’s essay in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, the extended kalam does in fact suggest that God is metaphysically necessary. This is because he is plausibly (via simplicity considerations) both uncaused as the absolute first cause and beginningless. So, as Craig says, “If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful . . . This, as Thomas Aquinas was wont to remark, is what everybody means by ‘God.’”[2]

So we can see it’s not an objection to the kalam at all (it grants that God at one time existed) and so naturalism is false (or at least assumed false for the sake of argument); we are free to discuss any reasons we have for thinking if God existed at one time, he still does, including other theistic arguments, reasons for thinking that a powerful being like God is doesn’t have more powerful beings than himself (note: this need not be shown to be true—the objection is modest enough in saying that we don’t have a good reason for thinking God still exists if he ever did: so long as we have one good reason, that’s not irrational, the burden is met. It would then be up to the objector to tell us why this reason is not good for thinking that it’s probable God still exists.); and we are free to argue that an absolutely first cause that is uncaused and beginningless is very plausibly metaphysically necessary, and so we would need a reason to think that such a being has gone out of existence, which is more than what the objector has provided.

Typically, these kinds of objections are either based on misunderstandings or otherwise red herrings. If an atheist really is willing to give up naturalism (at least for the sake of argument), it’s worth it. Otherwise, it’s very likely a red herring. I hope this helped!

[1] Please also note that this isn’t even an argument that the First Cause does not still exist; it merely asks us how we know from the kalam.

[2] William Lane Craig and James D. Sinclair, The Kalam Cosmological Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, eds. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2012), 194.