Saturday, June 21, 2008

To R is human, to not, divine?

Props to the Seeking Disciple for making an interesting point in the combox of Steve's "I Am Legend" movie review post:
Since it is rated R, I by no means aim to see it but thanks for the Christian review.
I'd like to make a few quick comments on his comment. My comments are intended to (hopefully) provoke further thought and reflection on the part of the individual believer rather than to answer the question of whether Christians should watch R rated flicks.

And, obviously, much more can be and has been said, and said far better, than I say here (e.g. Prof. John Frame's article is super helpful).

1. Of course, Fred Butler rightly points out that the movie isn't actually rated R: "Actually, the film is rated PG-13. Primarily for a bit of zombie violence, tension, an occasional swear word and diseased ridden corpses."

2. But getting to the larger issue, should a Christian watch movies rated R by the MPAA (or their rough equivalent in other nations)? This begs the more general question of whether a Christian should go to the movies at all.

3. These days there can be objectionable material in a PG rated movie as much as there's objectionable material in an R rated movie. What I mean is that there's arguably as much moral "danger" to the Christian in a movie which may be clean in terms of what the MPAA would consider objectionable but which features a distinctly anti-Biblical worldview or which mocks the Biblical worldview as there is in a movie containing sex, violence, and bad language.

4. Speaking of which, when a movie is rated G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17, we're using the MPAA's standards rather than Biblical standards -- which may or may not coincide with one another.

5. Reels and reels of movies were filmed before the current MPAA standards were decided upon. Likewise, standards have changed over the years -- with the changing of the MPAA guards or judges. Would a movie rated PG today have been rated PG, say, in the 1950s?

6. Just because a film is rated R doesn't necessarily mean the entire film is without its mitigating virtues. By the same token, there's also something to be said for learning from depravity -- although this should obviously be carefully weighed and considered, very carefully weighed and considered.

7. What sins and temptations one Christian struggles with may not necessarily be the same or even similar sins and temptations another Christian struggles with.

8. On the other hand, as Christians we probably ought to just as soon elect not watch an R rated film if it means keeping a "weaker" brother or sister in Christ from stumbling in this particular area.

9. In the midst of all this, there's the common grace of God to take into account as well -- which, among other things, has blessed filmmakers, writers, and actors with the talents they possess, and thus allowed for feature films which aren't necessarily Christian or Biblically informed or whatever but are nevertheless good.

10. Looking outside of film, we could ask some of the same or at least similar questions about TV, music, video games, etc. And, historically, there's arguably been similar considerations involved in terms of reading banned books and other literature.

Birth of a film critic


“You should stop commenting on films. You really don't know how to read them. I'm not a fan of your biblical hermeneutic, but it least it has some sort of foundation. Your understanding of film is weak--perhaps buolt on sand. You do not understand _28 Days_ later. The fact that you call _I am Legend_ a better film than _28 Days Later_ especially in terms of the Zombie genre shows your ignorance. It would be like saying that the Gospel of Mark is more sophistacated than the Gospel of John. I suppose you can make that argument if you like. Good luck. So stick to the things you know--reformed hermeneutics.”

Your snooty and slanderous attack on my cinematic credentials is utterly ill-founded. I’ll have you know that my patrician taste in film was formed at an early age, and the purebred pedigree of my film criticism is unimpeachable.

For your information, the combined talents of Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, and Meryl Streep could scarcely approach, far less rival, the thespian virtuosity I saw on display when, at the age of 7, I beheld Raquel Welch, clad in a bearskin bikini, wrestle a prehistoric python in One Million Years B.C. I have standards, too, buster!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Idolatrous universalism



Hi. I thought I would offer just one correction to your comment that, "Rather, as MacDonald makes clear, if he thought the Bible taught that God eternally damns some sinners, then he would cease to believe in God. So, by his own admission, he’s not prepared to believe in a revealed God. That’s what makes him an idolater."

I am surprised that you think that I made this clear - surpised because it is not my view. What I say in the book is that if, after we have looked again with an open mind, Scripture REALLY does not fit with universalism then so be it - we need to go back and try to make the philosophy work (as task I consider exceptionally difficult, as you know).

The philosophical-theology in my book serves to drive us back to the Bible and ask whether or not we have misunderstood it. It is not a substitute for revelation. Now, as you know, I argue that Scripture is indeed compatible with universalism. So reason and revelation are compatible. Phew!

You accuse me of placing reason over revelation but you made no mention in your review of chapters 2-6 which are entirely devoted to discussions of the biblical text. So perhaps your review was a little misleading on that front. I don't expect you to agree with my interpretations of the Bible because, in your view, your systematic theology is water-tight. OK - I am not going to try and persuade you otherwise. However, I do think it misleading to accuse me of sidelining revelation when you ignore the fact that the bulk of my book is biblical exposition all predicated on an evangelical understanding of Scripture. Indeed my version of universalism is predicated on God's self-revelation in Scripture.

Now I may be mistaken but am I am idolater? That is an exceptionally serious charge. I really do not mind you thinking that I am wrong but I am not so impressed with the false-god charge. Let me tell you about the false god that I worship. He is the holy Trinity - revealed in Christ, taught in Scripture and proclaimed by the church in the creeds. If that god is a false god then which one should I be worshipping?


6/20/2008 4:50 AM

1.In the programmatic opening chapter of your book you make the following sorts of autobiographical admissions:

“I can recall one Sunday morning when I had to stop singing for I was no longer sure whether I believed that God deserved worship. For a believer, that is a moment of despair. Ever since I had been a Christian, I had never waved in my conviction that God loved people, but on that Sunday I didn’t know if I could believe that anymore. I was having a doxological crisis—wanting to believe that God was worthy of worship but unable to do so. The crisis was brought on by my reflections on hell” (1).

“The problem was that over a period of months I had become convinced that God could save everyone if he wanted to, and yet I also believed that the Bible taught that he would not. But, I reasoned, if he loved them, surely he would save them; and thus my doxological crisis grew… He may love me, but does he love my mother? I was no longer sure. Could I love a God who could rescue everyone but chose not to? I could and did go through the motions, but my heart was not in it. And that was what happened—I sang and prayed; but it felt hollow and so I stopped. I no longer loved God, because he seemed diminished” (3).

True, you then spend chaps. 2-6 trying to make an exegetical case for universalism. However, these come with a tacit disclaimer. Given what you said in chap. 1, you will only believe in the self-revelation of God in Scripture on condition that Scripture teach universalism. Your faith in Biblical theism is contingent on universalism. That’s the escape clause in your contract.

So, you subordinate the authority of Scripture to your extrascriptural preconception of divine worthiness.

2. And, yes, that’s the very definition of idolatry. You begin, not with revelation, but with your preconception of God. If the Bible happens to agree with your preconception, then that’s a bonus point for Scripture—but if the Bible teaches everlasting punishment, then you jettison Biblical theism.

So you most definitely assert the primacy of your extrascriptural preconception. For you, the Bible is expendable. You were able to reinterpret Scripture consistent with your preconception. But had you been unable to do so, then—by your own admission—you would no longer be a Christian.

Actually, I wouldn’t dignify it with the label of “reason.” It’s simply emotion. The bathos of the bleeding-heart, limousine liberal. It’s a secularized Christian conscience. You’re very compassionate behind your tinted windows.

3. You say I’ve leveled an exceptionally serious charge against you. But there are no exceptionally serious charges in universalism. Universalism trivializes every evil.

If universalism is true, I could flay you alive with a penknife, say three Hail Marys after I die, or do 1000 hours of postmortem community service, then head for heaven. In universalism, all is forgiven since all are forgiven.

4. It’s just a coincidence that you’re theism happens to be as nominally orthodox as it turns out to be. The Trinity doesn’t conflict with universalism, so you just so happen to affirm the Trinity.

Your universalism is heretical, and where your remaining theology is orthodox, it’s orthodox by chance. Like being accidentally innocent of murder because the gun misfired.

5. As a universalist, you fail to appreciate either divine mercy or divine justice. You lack a basic grasp of law or gospel.

What God should you be worshiping? Of course, I’m a Calvinist, so you already know where I stand—but in answer to your question, I don’t mind stepping outside the Reformed stable for a moment. You’d do well to worship the God of Athanasius, Chemnitz, Pascal, and J. C. Ryle.

The summer reading list to end all summer reading lists

Several fine Reformed stalwarts have come up with recommended summer reading lists. Here are some I've come across:And, of course, you could always head over to Discerning Reader for more books to read. Or check out Desiring God's resources. Or Ligonier Ministries' list. Or see Frame's or Poythress' book reviews. Or even have a look at the top right sidebar of the Pyromaniacs' blog to see what Phil Johnson is currently reading.

Okay. So. Yeah. Sure, there are some serious books on these lists. Some weighty tomes mentioned above. Books written in specialized fields by erudite scholars. Books written by academics and other professionals who have spent years upon years (if not their entire lives) of study in order to bring forth these books. Books several hundred pages in length (also entirely in font size 1; and not Times New Roman font but I'm talkin' photon font). Books with detailed, complex, technical argumentation.

However, I don't know about you, but speaking for myself, as significant as these books may be, they're nevertheless mere child's play in comparison to what I'm used to reading. They're nothing special to me. They're the sort of thing I could read in a few moments. Right before breakfast. Or during breaks at work. While waiting for the bus. Maybe in-between TV commercials. In the interval between flossing and brushing my teeth. That sort of thing.

Rather, true believer, let me introduce you to a serious list for serious peeps. A list which will put all these previous lists to shame. A list which will cause all other lists to pale by comparison. A list which will leave you reeling. A list which will so blow your mind away that I'll have to smack you with the back of my big pimp hand in order to bring you back to reality.

Yes, without further ado, here is the summer reading list to end all summer reading lists (brace yourselves -- and don't say I didn't warn you):

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Resurrection of the Body and Life Everlasting: A Reply to Trenton Merricks

(Thanks to James Anderson, Ted Hamilton, and Steve Hays for insightful comments on a rough draft of this post. The position argued below should not be taken to be identical with their own views on the matter, and any errors or blunder are to be attributed to me.)

The resurrection of the dead is one of those articles of faith known solely by way of special, divine revelation. The doctrine has historically been understood as teaching that our resurrection body will in some sense “the same” as our earthly body. This obviously raises a whole host of philosophical questions. For instance, how can this be? How is it achieved? Surely there have been millions of people whose bodies have been destroyed. Perhaps they have been cremated, their ashes being tossed into the ocean, and then eaten by various denizens of the deep. Some have been eaten by cannibals, or even the worms. Some were completely obliterated by the atomic bomb dropped in WWII.

To take one popular (at least historically) view: Our numerically identical molecules we had here on earth are what constitute our resurrected bodies, and since it may be the case that those molecules cease to exist (for most people) then, according to this teaching, they "come back" into existence. But this seems counter-intuitive. For example, say I told you that the Sistine chapel had been obliterated by terrorists using a nuclear “dirty bomb.” All that was left was a hole where the chapel once stood. Perhaps a few pieces of rubble remained, and some ashes were carried away by the wind, but for all intents and purposes, the chapel was non-existent - even many of the molecules that made up the chapel were non-existent. This would be front page news. Now, say that sixteen months later I told you that I had been to Rome and had been in the Sistine chapel and saw the Frescos, and, most importantly, I saw the very same ceiling Michelangelo painted. You would no doubt correct me by saying, “You mean you saw a replica of the Frescos and Michelangelo’s painting, right?” If I responded, “No, I saw the exact same paintings. Numerically identical ones to the originals.” (This presupposes that the paintings now there are the originals. Since they have been restored, and parts replaced, one might not view them as the originals anymore. But I don’t need to discuss the history, or different notions and intuitions of identity through time, for my purposes.) So this view seems perplexing to some.

Some people, therefore, think it is impossible to bring back the same thing after it has been completely destroyed. This is debatable. Using only our unaided reason, then, we should say that the question whether it is possible for something to cease to exist and them come back into existence is an open question. We don’t know either way. But as I said at top, the Christian’s belief in the resurrection is grounded in special revelation. So, if the above view is what Scripture teaches (or is the way things will go), then our intuitions would be wrong. There is some support for this reading of Scripture, and it also seems to have been the position of many of the Fathers and Scholastics, so some might be internally rational in holding this view. Those who hold this view would say that even though we don’t know how this kind of resurrection will happen, we know that it will happen.

One popular model in the above vein is the so-called “reassembly of parts” model. Whether this position is true or not is an open question. This deals with the how, and Scripture is silent on the “how” part. This model isn’t without its problems, though. For example, it is not clear that the molecules which make up our bodies will persist until the general resurrection. Secondly, if one were eaten by a cannibal, one’s atoms would become part of the cannibal’s body. And since both you and the cannibal are resurrected, and since one molecule cannot exist in two places at once, who gets the molecule(s)? Furthermore, assume that your molecules did not disappear. If God reconstructed the atoms of your 5 year old body and placed that body next to you, would that child have your body? If not, why assume that the atoms that existed when you died make up your body at the resurrection? Or, does God take the atoms of your body when you were at the “optimal” age of a glorified human, and use those atoms to constitute your glorified body? What if you are a Christian who is also a midget? If your molecules and body must be numerically identical in this sense, will there be midgets in heaven? What of those who die as embryos? Will have been made up partly of embryos in Petri dishes?

As I said above, since we don’t know how the resurrection will happen, we can’t totally discount the above. There have been answers to the above kinds of questions from those within this camp For example, perhaps God resurrects the embryo and then speeds up its natural development process so that what would have taken it 25 years takes 25 nanoseconds. Phenomenologically this would seem to us as if an adult sized body was brought back. Or, perhaps we will have midgets in heaven? Certainly the poor health that accompanies some midgets is not necessary to being a “little person.” And, there are many midgets who do not think there is anything wrong with being a midget. It may seem to them that to say there will be no midgets in heaven is like saying there will be no black people in heaven. Whether all this is persuasive or not, is another matter. Some may be satisfied with these answers, though. It may be the true theory for all we know.

Another view that has prominence is that there is some sort of “body template” or “form” or “entelechy” and it is the resurrected body having that template that guarantees “sameness.” The Westminster Confession speaks of “selfsame” bodies. Again, as is notorious in these debates, and with debates about ‘identity’ in general, this could mean a number of things. G.I. Williamson, in his commentary on the Confession, claims that this means that the same “essence” is resurrected. Are the particular earthly molecules “essential?” Presumably not since they have changed many times during our life and yet we “wear” the “same” body. So perhaps Williamson follows those like Shedd, Berkoff and others, in viewing this “essence” as some sort of “organizing principle” (cf. Berkoff, ST, Eerdmans, 1996, p. 723). Berkoff states that if this is the proper view this neatly sidesteps any debate about the same historical molecules needing to be resurrected. This template is part of our essence and does not cease to exist. This avoids the above questions of a “temporal gap” in the existence of our body and allows it to be “the same.”

Another view might be that we have numerous bodies corresponding to different possible worlds. Right now I have my fallen body. At the resurrection I will be given my unfallen body. The body I “would have had” had the fall never occurred. This view also allows the sameness of body and gets around temporal gap problems.

All of the above are consistent with and allow for the “intermediate state.” The “intermediate state” is that period of conscious time between when we die here on earth and when we receive our resurrected bodies. This position is endorsed overwhelmingly throughout church history, and seems to have the best exegesis behind it.

Some people are unhappy with these theories. Indeed, they are unhappy in general with the dualistic picture that has dominated Christian thought. They call themselves “Christian physicalists” (CP). One should note that they are physicalists about the body, not about everything; say, God and angels. One such CP is Trenton Merricks. In his interesting chapter on The Resurrection of the Body and Life Everlasting in Reason for the Hope Within (ed. Murray, Eerdmans, 1999, pp. 261-286) he defends the CP view of things against one popular line of questioning: "How does it square with the doctrine of the Resurrection.” To his credit he claims that, although he has philosophical problems with dualism, his view is one he thinks he can support Scripturally. He recognizes the difficulty in explaining how something can cease to exist and yet come back into existence, and he is not persuaded by arguments that the atoms fail to cease to exist (e.g., like Athenagoras’s response to the cannibal question answering it by claiming that human flesh cannot be digested!).

He offers an analogy that he thinks makes sense of the notion of ceasing to exist and then coming back into existence. He uses the idea of time travel to make his point. This idea, he admits, is rather “fanciful.” According to Merricks, if you get in the time machine in 1999 and “skip” ahead to, say, 2030, then you ceased to exist at that point in 1999 and then came back into existence in 2030. There is a “temporal gap” in your life. Merricks admits that many do not think it is possible to have said “temporal gap” (also, since you don’t “exist” then his doctrine should not be equated with a heresy known as “soul sleep”). Similarly, then, when we die we “jump ahead” in time and come back into existence on “Resurrection day.”

My purpose in this entry will be, mainly, to interact with some of Merrick’s critiques of the dualist views on death and the resurrection, as well as why he thinks his view answers those critiques better than the dualist, and so I will not spend much time addressing the time machine analogy (the reader can think about it further on his own). But, I will make a few brief points by way of reply. First, many people debate whether time travel is possible. Given the contradictions it generates, many think it is more “fanciful” than Merricks seems to think. At the level of generalities, there is no problem, but once analyzed it is difficult to show how time travel is intelligible. Thus, Merricks may well be using one seemingly problematic thing to explain another problematic thing. Secondly, it is not clear, to me at least, that the time traveler (assuming the notion is intelligible) ceases to exist while traveling to another time. Indeed, many models have the traveler traveling through time at an accelerated rate. Or perhaps going through worm holes, or through other dimensions. Third, if ceasing to exist and then existing is problematic, why think saying that this is what happens in time travel is something that would make the objector satisfied with the intelligibility of it? Surely if he thinks that it is generally impossible to cease to exist and then come back into existence, he will think it is impossible in the particular case of time travel! So, it isn’t clear to me that Merrick’s analogy doesn’t break down in relevant ways, or doesn’t beg the question. I should point out that I have not read any particular responses to Merrick's paper, and so any similarity my thoughts might have to others is coincidental. But, nothing I say is particularly unique. My thinking has been informed by many Christian thinkers, and so I thank them for their work if they see (assuming any are even reading!) any similarities between my thought and theirs.

As Merricks says, he bases his belief in the resurrection of his body on Scripture. It doesn’t depend on the time travel analogy. Merricks thinks that the physicalist view best makes sense of the biblical data regarding the resurrected body. His main argument is that the resurrection and eternal life seem to be tied together in various passages. He finds that it is dead people that are raised, not bodies. He finds that the hope of resurrection is just the believer’s hope of eternal life. This all makes sense because for the CP, “life after death and resurrection are, for physical organisms like us, one and the same thing” (ibid, p. 283). The dualist doesn’t believe, according to Merricks, that dead people are raised. Rather the dualist, according to Merricks, believes that dead bodies are raised and united with people. The CP view is more “natural,” then. If the CP is correct, and a person is identical with her body, then she cannot exist after her body dies. The resurrection is the raising of her, then. Thus, it is “part and parcel” of the promise of eternal life that one’s “original” body will itself be resurrected. Then, the numerical identity of the earthly body with the resurrected body “is just what the physicalist who believes in life after death would expect.”

It should be noted that these are Merricks’s concerns. For example, the holistic dualist would claim that “we” are “soul-body” composites. Thus it is appropriate, and proper, to say that it is indeed we who are resurrected. There is a very real sense that we are “not ourselves” in the intermediate state. It should also be noted that much of Merricks’s view of Scripture seems to be that the writers were speaking in philosophically precise language. The NT writers were not speaking with philosophical precision and the underlying metaphysics is usually underdetermined by the choice of words alone.

At this point in the chapter, Merricks turns his sites on the dualist. He asks why the dualist would expect a numerically identical body for his resurrection body. Won’t any body do? This all trades on what the biblical writers had in mind. One reason might be that it is our body-template that is redeemed. If this is a necessary aspect to our being it would not be possible to give us “another” template. Or, say it is the same historical body, molecules and all, that make up our resurrected body. One reason it could be the “same” might be that complete redemption would seem to be lacking somehow. If it is the case, will it not be redeemed? That is what Paul says (Rom. 8:23). It is precisely my body that is affected by sin, not some body. My infirmities and weaknesses of that surface time and time again in my bodyremind me of the curse of sin and its lingering affect. A full salvation then, it would seem, would require the salvation of my body. Indeed, this is Paul’s point. “[I]t is not until the body has been transformed that redemption can be said to be complete; in this life, our bodies share in that ‘frustration’ which characterizes this world as a whole” (Moo, Romans, p.521). Thus, it is my body that is given to me at the resurrection, all shiny and new, so to speak. Both views could be had by the dualist. So, if “our body” means “our body-template,” it is the “same” because it necessarily must be. If it is the same molecules (putting aside problems of the intelligibility of this), then it still must be because redemption would not be final. Various models are possible, but one thing seems certain, it is “our body” that is redeemed and this is linked to salvation. Thus if the correct exegesis is speaking about “historical molecules,” the dualist would still need to get those same molecules in order for redemption to be complete.

A more important objection, for Merricks, is that ‘death’ seems to be more intelligible on the CP hypothesis. We were created to have eternal life, so ceasing to exist is a bad thing. But,

It is not clear that the dualist can agree that death is bad. When a Christian dies, according to the dualist, he or she goes immediately to a much better place. Death for the believer, according to the dualist, is glorious union with the Father in Heaven. Death, it would seem, is even better than quitting your job and moving to a beachfront villa in Hawaii. I think this is a problem for the dualist. For I think the scriptures teach that death is a bad thing, a curse, an enemy; and an enemy defeated in resurrection. If physicalism is true, it is easy to see how bad death is and also how death is defeated in resurrection. But if dualism is true, it is hard to see how death is an enemy, and harder still to see how it is overcome in resurrection. (ibid, p.284).
The first thing to note, by way of reply, is that Merricks quickly focuses on the believer. If we immediately go to heaven, then how is death bad? But before he focused in on the believer in particular, he was speaking about death in general. And since death for the unbeliever implies judgment and suffering God’s wrath, death isn’t better for them. Indeed, it would seem one could reverse Merricks claim by focusing on the unbelievers. If expediting being in God’s loving presence is good for the believer, then expediting being in God’s wrathful presence is bad for the unbeliever. Thus, Merrick’s claim is a wash. Merricks may, no doubt, reply that since they are, like a time machine, instantaneously ushered to judgment day, it’s not better for them. Recall that he said when we die we “jump ahead” in time and come back into existence on “Resurrection day.” But this undercuts his reasons against the dualist thinking death is bad in terms of the believer instantly going into God’s presence. For if he is correct that we, like a time machine, are transported almost instantly to the next time, then how does he critique not equally apply against him? I will come back to this point below and finish it.

Secondly, even though we will be in God’s presence, this isn’t the best scenario for us. I’ll offer three reason why this is so: (i) The first I already mentioned. As I argued above, salvation is not complete until we have our redeemed bodies (whatever this means). Having a redeemed body implies having the “same body” that was unredeemed. You don’t “by back” something you never had. (ii) There is good reason to believe that we will not be “all that we can be.” For example, Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline has argued (cf. Images of the Spirit, Baker, 1980) that the Bible presents three aspects of the imago Dei: Physical, official, and ethical. All three concerns us. First, our physical body images God, in an analogous way. Scripture tells us, using anthropomorphism, that God “sees.” That he has a hand and an arm by which he “acts” in the world. Our body reflects God’s power, in a finite way. Secondly, regarding the “official” aspect of the image, it is by means of this aspect that we image God in office. We are vicegerents, exercising dominion on the earth. Since the earth is physical, we carry this office out, in part, by using our bodies (we of course use our minds as well). And one could even make a more limited argument from the third aspect. Many of God’s laws are contextualized according to the way he made us, i.e., physical beings. According to how he created everything, there may be some natural laws or goods that are essential to existing in this kind of world and so require our physicality. (iii) Lastly, death is separation. Scriptures speak of death in two ways, spiritually and physically. Spiritually we are separated from our natural relationship with God. We need to be reconciled. This death can be remedied here and now. Regeneration is re-birth. But when we physically die our soul is separated from our body. This is unnatural since God made us to be embodied, and called our bodies good (and I have addressed arguments against why we should expect to have our earthly bodies back at the resurrection). So even though we will be with God, this will not be an ideal state. The ideal state is when we are born again and in glorified bodies. Resurrection ends the separation.

Merricks does not address the first two of these rebuttal points, but he does address the third. I will now turn to his arguments against (iii). Merricks offers two points by way of response. Neither are satisfactory answers, from my perspective. In regards to my final point Merrick’s first response grants that dualists can say that death as separation is bad, but physicalism still has it beat with respect to badness. He says,

To see this, imagine what you would say to a mourner at a Christian’s funeral if you and the mourner knew for certain that dualism were true. You could comfort the mourner by noting that now the deceased is in a better place and with the Lord. She is much happier than she was before death (happier, even, than she would be on a beach in Hawaii . . .). If, on the other hand, you hand the mourner knew for certain that physicalism were true, you would have only one comfort - the resurrection. You might say “For now, there is little to comfort you. But someday the dead will rise again.” Physicalism makes death all the worse and resurrection all the more glorious. This fits very well with scripture’s attitudes towards death and resurrection.
This is inadequate as a response on several grounds:

1. Notice, again, Merricks speaks only of believers. And why think this state is ideal? That we are “floating around” in a state of unmitigated bliss. This state certainly isn’t the perfect state. It isn’t the final end, or goal to which we were created. We were created body-soul unities. And it also seems, according to some passages, that the saints in heaven are upset and perturbed as to what is going on here on earth.

2. Merricks seems to be switching subjects. He seemed to have been arguing that death was bad for the one who died. But his story seems to ask which view would be harder for the friends and family of the one who died. But this is oversimplified:

a) The cases may vary. Say that an elderly Christian woman dies. She has outlived most of her family. There’s not much left here for her. To be sure, we will mourn when she dies, but this is more so for us than it is for the believer. But we are also happy that she is with the Lord and possibly other family members. But, there may be times when the death is untimely. The person was taken “before his time.” Perhaps an infant dies of SIDS. This is devastating for parents. It isn’t realistic to suppose that you can just tell the parents “your child is with Jesus now” and the pain vanishes. As someone who has been through a wife suffering miscarriage, I can attest to this.

b) With respect to an unbeliever, if I were a friend or family member I would rather know (perhaps sinfully) that he or she was currently non-existent than to know that he or she were consciously enduring God’s wrath. In this sense, the dualist view offers the least consolation.

c) Perhaps Merricks switches subjects because the only people death could be “bad” for is living people? Since those who die are non-existent, then death isn’t bad for them. If this is so we have seen that once the question is analyzed, the dualist case is better. The reasons why death is bad for friends and relatives of believers can be had on dualism (e.g., their presence is still gone, we miss them, it was before their time, etc.,), and death is much worse for friends and family of non-believers on the dualist score because this comes with the knowledge (if we know them to be un-saved) that they are not enjoying things right now, to put it lightly.

3. If Merricks is not switching subjects, but only trying to show us his intuitions behind why it is in fact worse for the one who died, then this claim is likewise suspect. I give two reasons:

a) I would rather hold-off punishment as long as possible. So, death is worse for the unbeliever on the dualist picture. I deal below with the response that there really is no "holding off period" since the very next thing experienced is either blessing or cursing.

b) Why think death is supposed to be bad for the believer? I did make an argument showing how we could view death as bad for the believer. But if Merricks must have his “bad/badder” criteria, then death for the believer is still worse on dualist assumptions, even though it was never meant to be as bad as Merricks seems to want to make it. Given that I showed how death for the believer does not represent an ideal state of affairs, then this makes it worse for the believer than does non-existence.

On the “no-believer-exists” (NBE) model, how is death bad for them? What makes death bad for the individual? He doesn’t exist. How is he harmed? What is the nature of this harm? Who is the subject of this harm? Can one have harm without a subject? When does the harm take place? After the subject ceases to exist? If this is bad, then does physicalism have “more” evil in the world than the dualist?

Epicurus wrote to Menoeceus:

Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience, … Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer” (Epicurus’ “Letter to Menoeceus,” citied in Stephen E. Rosenbaum’s chapter “How to be Dead and not Care,” in “The Metaphysics of Death,” ed. John Martin Fischer, Stanford, 1993, p.121).
Rosenbaum offers this argument on behalf of Epicurus:

[A] A state of affairs is bad for a person P only if P can experience it at some time.


[B] P’s being dead is bad for P only if it is a state of affairs that P can experience at some time.

[C] P can experience a state of affairs at some time only if it begins before P’s death.

[D] P’s being dead is not a state of affairs that begins before P’s death.


[E] P’s being dead is not a state of affairs that P can experience at some time.


[F] P’s being dead is not bad for P.

(ibid, pp. 121-122).

Thus, if the “badness” of the believer’s death was a (say) 1 out of 10, that beats the “badness” of the NBE’s death by 1. Therefore, if one must have the “more bad” death, the dualist has it.

4. Lastly, the dualist position seems to fit certain passages of Scripture better. For instance:

II Cor. 5:6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

CPs like Merricks have to view this as speaking phenomenologically. This is out of touch with most commentators and seems to be quite the stretch.

See also Daniel Block’s The Old Testament on Hell (cited in Hell Under Fire eds. Morgan and Peterson, Zondervan, 2004, pp 43-65) for exegesis of OT texts supporting the idea of an intermediate state.

The doctrine of the invisible church seems to imply the existence of many dead saints.

Heb. 12:22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

It is certainly odd to view this as saying the “spirits of righteous men made perfect” are non-existent while all the being surrounding this phrase are certainly existing! Indeed, it’s not clear how we “have come” to non-existent men. If something doesn’t exist, you can’t be there.

Phil. 1:20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Notice that in Philippians 1:21 death is called gain for the believer. This would seem to undercut Merrick’s idea that it must be “bad” is some kind of major sense.

In response, Merricks notes that passages like Philippians 1:21 “seem to support dualism over physicalism.” How does Merricks respond to this? He ventures that an answer might be “found in the story of the time machine.” His answer is that if he knew he was about to get in a time machine and the very next instant he would be at resurrection day, then he “would be quite excited.” Merricks claims that this gives him great comfort in knowing that the “very next thing” he experiences will be “death’s defeat.” Thus to die is to “jump ahead” to the Resurrection day, and so death is gain in a very real sense. In a very real sense he could think to himself “this day” you “will be with the Lord in paradise.”

Again, I find this answer unpersuasive. I will list a few reasons:

5. This response makes it unclear as to whether he thinks death is “bad” for the believer or the family members and friends. Much of his critique against the dualist is based on the idea that “death is bad.” But how did he mean this? It seems his answer to Philippians may support the notion that he doesn’t think death is all that “bad” for the believer. Indeed, he claims he would be “quite excited” about his death! So, perhaps he only thinks death is “bad” for the believer because it is “bad” for the believer’s friends and family. I have addressed this above. The reasons it is “bad” for friends and family are reasons that can equally be had by the dualist (I’m assuming certain tenants of Catholicism are wrong and the friends and family aren’t in “communication” with their dead family members!).

6. This answer seems to undercut one of his arguments against dualism. Recall that he had claimed, “It is not clear that the dualist can agree that death is bad. When a Christian dies, according to the dualist, he or she goes immediately to a much better place.” But his answer to Philippians 1:21 doesn’t seem much different. For all Merricks knows, he is immediately at a much better place. Phenomenologically, there’s no difference, then. What is the relevant difference, then? Both the dualist believer and the CP believer “experience” God’s presence “immediately.”

7. Indeed, one might claim that Merrick’s view is “better.” We can all remember what it was like to be children waiting for Christmas morning (some of us still may experience this!). Being conscious was almost torture. Waiting until that “glorious” day was more than we could bear. For me, I would try to get to bed early so morning would “come sooner.” If I had to wait for Christmas morning minute by minute, I might have burst! Likewise, assuming time is the same (!), waiting for our full salvation, perhaps for thousands and thousands of years (apologies to the Left Behind theologians), will be worse than “falling asleep’ and waking up to the Glorious morning! I don’t think Merrick’s view is better, this answer only seeks to answer him on his own grounds.

There is obviously much more that could be said in this debate. I do not suppose that I have shown that the CP position is false. I do think that the weight of the Scriptural evidence is on the side of the dualist. And, Merricks claims that the scientific and philosophical claims to the effect that dualism is “irrational or demonstrably false,” “are unjustified.” There is obviously much more that can (and will!) be said in this debate. For example, it seems particularly problematic to hold to both the Incarnation and a physicalist view of the person. It is not at all clear that Christ “ceased to exist” when he died. I Peter 3:18 “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” Given the unity of Christ’s person, and the constraints of orthodoxy, this seems like a tough hill to climb (though I am aware Merricks has written on this subject, interacting with his arguments will take us too far off course). So, my aim in this entry was not ambitious, I simply aimed to offer some dualist answers to Merrick’s critiques, and to offer some reasons why this dualist finds his program unsuccessful. Like Merricks, I also heartily recommend John Cooper’s Body, Soul & Life Everlasting as a good place to start studying this subject.

Cohort of the damned

I was recently asked why I thought God created so many hellbound beings. Any answer is speculative, but here’s my conjecture:

1.Of course, the reason why God created so many hellbound beings isn’t a question distinctive to Calvinism. It isn’t generated by Calvinism.

To the contrary, supralapsarian Calvinism at least offers a partial theodicy. Even if it fails to furnish a specific answer to the question of why so many are lost, it still furnishes more of an answer than the traditional alternatives.

2.There’s also an acute irony in Christian concerns over the fate of the damned. The folks who have the most to lose aren’t the folks who worry about their eternal fate. The lost don’t worry about their eternal perdition. The folks who worry about the hellbound are the heavenbound!

Of course, if one of the damned happens to be someone close to you, then you do have a personal stake in his fate, even if you yourself are heavenbound.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the lost have a very different view of their condition. And it’s not just that they don’t believe in hell. They don’t find the idea of heaven appealing. They don’t find God appealing. They don’t find a godly life appealing.

Look at Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin or Merv Griffin or The Donald. That’s their definition of success. They’ve “made” it.

I’d find that aimless, vapid, vacuous existence unendurable. It’s like living your life on the set of a game show. Killing time with endless inanities.

Yet there are countless men and women who live for that. That’s the existence they aspire to.

If you didn’t see it, you wouldn’t believe it.

There are the handful of folks who actually live that way: who’ve “made” it. And then there are countless others who line up at the 7/11 to buy lottery tickets in the off chance that they’ll beat the odds, strike it rich, and be able to enjoy the same Tinsel Town, Vegas Strip existence.

As a Christian spectator, I find this sobering. If I thought that is all there was to life, I’d commit suicide.

(Of course, knowing what I do about the afterlife, suicide would be no escape, but you get the point.)

We tend to associate evil with paradigm examples of extreme evil. Torture, mass murder, &c.

But equally evil is the banality of evil. The way in which so many men and women trivialize the gift of life. Fritter away their time on earth.

While Christian theologians debate about whether hell is pointless, unbelievers have no problem leading pointless lives. Christian theologians are bothered on behalf of unbelievers who aren’t the least bit bothered by what bothers the anguished theologians.

I’m not saying that hell is pointless. But it is ironic that those who have the most investment in the outcome, the parties concerned, are, in fact, studiously unconcerned. And I do think this should cause us to scale back our vicarious concerns.

3.Of course, one could say the lost are nonchalant about hell in this life because they don’t believe in hell, and when they get there they will change their tune. To some degree I suppose that’s true.

But I tend to think of hell as an extension and intensification of fallen life on earth. Even though it’s an utterly miserably way to spend eternity, there are many unbelievers who make themselves miserable here and now. And even though it’s an utterly miserably way to spend eternity, that doesn’t make them long for heaven.

I think it’s a useful object lesson to see this side of evil. It’s so irrational that it would be hard to believe it unless you saw it for yourself.

Hell is just a special case of sin in general. It’s not fundamentally different than life in a fallen world. Just more of the same—minus the mitigating effects of common grace.

Common grace is necessary to make coexistence with the reprobate possible. But it can also be deceptive. It makes sin seem more virtuous than it really is.

4.As for the sheer numbers, I think the basic reason for that is due to human nature. We are creatures, created by procreation. As a result, we aren’t discrete, self-contained units. Rather, human beings come in sets, packages, chains. Parents, children, siblings, and various permutations thereof.

There are millions or billions of lost souls because they’re related to each other. In branching family trees. Forests of fallen humanity. Seeds and seedlings intertwined.

There’s something unnatural about salvation. At one level, salvation is natural. It restores our natural condition. The way we were meant to be. But short of universal salvation, saving individuals is genealogically selective. Grafting a twig here and a twig there.

In principle, God could always save more, but the cut-off point would always be arbitrary; for, at a certain level, the human race is an organic whole, like an orchard contained within an acorn.

5.I’m not very sanguine about salvation by general revelation. I think the witness of Scripture points to salvation by special revelation.

Of course, special revelation is progressive, so, to that extent, what constituted saving knowledge varied in time, if not in place. But public special revelation terminated 2000 years ago.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What Would Bill Nye Do?

A popular atheological strategy (popular to the New Atheists, internet atheists, militant atheists, and others of this general ilk) that I frequently run across is the argument that biblical writers, or especially Jesus, spoke in such un-scientific terms. For instance, it is claimed that Jesus misspoke about the smallest seed, calling a plant a tree, indeed, not knowing anything about modern agriculture is one recent charge I read. Of course enough of these statements are shot out at the reader with such frequency, the "other side" not able to "speak" is always a must, and with the suppressed premise that has been allowed to enter into the readers mind is that if (say) Jesus really were God he wouldn't have spoken this way, he would have spoken in scientifically precise terms, the author then lets out a hearty guffaw, and says, "See, Jesus just can't be God because he's a friggin idiot." My paraphrasing is intended to tone down the rhetoric I've seen them employ!

Call this the "Jesus should have known better if he were really God" objection. Ethically, the New Atheists say that since Jesus didn't act like Mr. Rogers, he can't be divine. Epistemologically, the claim is that he should have been more like Bill Nye "The Science Guy." Metaphysically, then, Jesus should have been fully Mr. Rogers and fully Mr. Nye - a hypostatic union an atheist can stomach!

For the life of me I can't see why the above mentioned atheists find these kinds of "arguments" all that rationally compelling. If they want to persuade the Christian, then I can give them an insider secret: We do not find these arguments persuasive, at all. We actually shake our head in disbelief at the kinds of straws these atheists must grab at to reject Christianity. And we're not alone. For instance, atheist Michael Ruse is reported as saying, "The Dawkins Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist." And reading between the lines, he means all New Atheist propaganda and belligerent attacks on believers. And Ruse isn't alone. Many atheists have condemned the militant village atheist.

Certainly these kinds of arguments, like the ones in popular atheist best sellers like The God Delusion, God is not Great, Letter to a Christian Nation, and constituting the majority of what one finds on the internet, are not the best the atheist has to offer. The Christian is, or should be, ready to admit that there are some serious, well-thought-out objections to the Christian faith that we need to deal with seriously and honestly. But this post isn't about those arguments. Rather it's about the more popular ones like those listed above.

I should like to explain why I find these oft repeated objection so utterly ridiculous and poorly-thought-out. Above I said that we could call these types of objections the "Jesus should have known better if he were really God" objection. But I fear this title isn't too catchy. And so I'll give these class of objections a catchy acronym. Above you will recall that I said that it seems that the New Atheist expect Jesus to be something like Bill Nye "The Science Guy." And so rather than the popular WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?), we will refer to this class of objections as WWBND (What Would Bill Nye Do?).

WWBND: Jesus should have stated everything such that it always lined up with the most accurate, complete, final scientific picture of the world lest he be less than God.

Thus to call the mustard seed the smallest seed is not what Bill Nye would do. To speak in terms of ancient agricultural practices is not something Bill Nye would do. These claims are violations of the WWBND principle and as such serve as evidence against Jesus' divinity - 'cause were the divine to come to earth he would talk like Bill Nye, Jesus didn’t so talk, ergo, Jesus is not divine. I think I've captured the essence of this argument. I will now lay out some reasons why I think it is so ridiculous. It actually serves as a testimony against the New Atheist. Shows the level they're operating at.

For starters, why suppose the WWBND principle valid? After all, Jesus didn't come here to give science lessons. Math either, for that matter. Being technically correct about a seed (I'm placing the poor exegesis that drives the criticisms on the back burner for now) seems rather unimportant when speaking about the central problem man has, and how he might be right with God and avoid the consequences of his law-braking actions (though the New Atheists would object to even this given that Mr. Rogers wouldn't have taught a hell). I suppose the atheist would respond with something like this: "God must always say what is true in the final analysis. Uttering falsehoods is an indication that one is not a god. And of course, the 'final analysis' mean scientifically accurate to the nth degree."

Of course Christians do not think God can lie. But of course we do not think, along with those who hold common sense in esteem, that using popular vernacular, speaking phenomenologically, or even estimating is properly called lying in any and all circumstances. I don't know about you, but I don't normally call someone a "liar" if I overhear him saying that he needs to "get on the ball" and keep his finances in order. Of course an extended study of the mustard seed parable (I also do not hold people to standards of scientific accuracy when in the midst of parables, but that's just me) is beyond the scope of this post, I refer any interested to any major Christian commentary on the subject. What I want to explore are the possible implications I see arising from the WWBND standard atheists impose of Jesus.

For example, suppose Jesus did speak how the atheist wanted him to for the Gospel accounts to be believable. And also suppose Jesus is God, and so knew everything. Thus his statements would be the final end-of-the-day statement of how things are. Let's look at this Burgess Shale situation and see how things "might have gone." I will list three things that would happen if Jesus spoke WWBND style:

  1. Would anyone have listened to Jesus? Image you were a first century Jew. You here a man speaking of molecules, worm holes, neurons, E=MC2, the speed of light, the particle-wave aspect of light particles, a planet spinning thousands of miles per hour (supposing that speed was even coherent to them) with them and all other objects held down by an "invisible" terrestrial "glue," DNA, various theories of perception and audition, genes, memes (!), germ theory, microbes, red giants, black holes, etc. What would they have thought of his “modern” theories of agriculture? Would it have even made sense? Even been possible to enact? If any of us were first century Jews we would rightly scoff at this weirdo and his crazy thoughts. Then he claims to be God. "Yeah, sure, like God would really say things like that.

  2. On what basis does the atheist suppose that if Jesus did speak in terms of the final, completely accurate scientific picture, we would find his statements believable? Putting aside the language problem and how our modern scientific terminology would be stated in first century Hebrew and Greek, we should point out other things. For example, given that most scientific theories have developed, been discarded and replaced, revamped, shown to be flat-out wrong, and other things along these lines, and besides the fact that every scientist I know admits we do not have the final picture today and that almost all theories will be stated radically different in years to come, why think if Jesus spoke in this finalized language we would say, "Now that's God." Since many theories today would have received ridicule and scoffing at the hands of scientists just a hundred years ago, why think that the final theory, which could be thousands of years ahead of our current state, would not be something we would ridicule just as much as how we ridicule now.

    Now some atheists have said that Jesus should have revealed the solutions to important things, like how to stop "global warming," but (a) this would have been laughed at just a few years ago (and would be laughed at by many today), (b) Jesus did give the solution to global warming in terms of salvation (the point is that there are rather more important things for him to discuss), (c) this evidences the narcissism and solipsism of today’s atheist.

  3. Finally, if Jesus did speak in terms of the final complete picture, and given the eminently plausible assumption that people in the first century would have thought him crazy, and assuming that anyone would have even bothered to chronicle his life, then the New Atheist would no doubt tell us all how "evil" Jesus was because he spoke in ways that his hearers were determined to reject and thus to judge them with hell for rejecting him would be unfair. This point shows how the New Atheist simply has an agenda and there is no evidence they would accept of fail to explain away. Their arguments are consistent with everything, thus they are meaningless.

    Once we really spell these kinds of objections out, place meat on their bones, we see them as the distorted, and rather pathetic, rantings of angry atheists who worship “Science” as their God and think the only acceptable explanation is a “scientific” one and the only proper language is “scientifically accurate.” The problem is that neither of these impositions are scientific stated or demonstrable.

    "The church, the pillar & foundation of truth"

    One of the prooftexts for Catholicism is 1 Tim 3:15. Unfortunately for Catholics, this verse isn’t referring to the church of Rome. In context, it’s referring to the church of Ephesus (cf. 1:3).

    It’s a reference to the local church, not the universal church—much less the church of Rome. If, therefore, we’re going to use this verse as a prooftext for a high church ecclesiology, then the church of Ephesus is the pillar and foundation of truth. Roman Catholics are betting on the wrong horse. They should switch their allegiance from Rome to Ephesus. Now that we’ve cleared that up, we look forward to Roman Catholics submitting to the true Vicar of Christ—the bishop of Ephesus.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    "I Am Legend"

    I recently saw I Am Legend (2007) on DVD. It’s a good film—although it would have been a better film had the same care and patience been lavished on the second half. I don’t know if this is one of those situations in which the original vision of the director was mutilated by producers who were afraid an audience wouldn’t have the attention span to appreciate a more leisurely narrative. Let’s cut away to the action-packed special effects!

    Not that the first half is without its special effects. It’s conspicuous for its dystopian vision of a deserted and dilapidated Manhattan, after a retrovirus “jumped,” either killing the human inhabitants—who had no natural resistance—or mutating the survivors into zombies.

    It’s good that Will Smith is the lead actor. Except for flashbacks, there’s only one character in the first part of the film, so it’s important to cast the role with a sympathetic actor. I’ve read that other actors were considered—Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, and Ah-nuld. The naturally likable Smith was a better choice, although Gibson would bring a certain pathos to the part.

    There is one point at which I think Smith tried too hard to stretch himself and show that he’s a “serious” actor. After he has to kill his dog, he goes back to the video store to return his DVDs. That was part of his old routine, back when he had “Sam.” Having a dog for a companion, while no substitute for human companionship, is what allowed him, up till now, to preserve his sanity. And he used to play-act by talking to the mannequins as if they were real employees. Now, however, he demands a response.

    The scene is meant to be poignant, but I think it’s strained. Smith is an actor who doesn’t need to force his feelings. He’s more effective when he relies on his natural spontaneity. He’s good within his range, but his range is somewhat limited. He’s not Laurence Olivier.

    The film borrows a few moves from 28 Days Later. The same rabid retrovirus, turning humans into zombies. Hovering in the background of both is Night of the Living Dead.

    28 Days Later also gives us post-apocalyptic visions of an urban wilderness—in this case, downtown London instead of New York. The Thames. Big Ben.

    I Am Legend is generally better flick than 28 Days Later with one exception. In the British film, the outbreak is precipitated animal rights activists who “liberate” infected lab animals. These are really terrorists, and there’s a genuine danger—though not necessarily on the scale of these SF movies—that such acts of vandalism will infect the general population.

    To some extent, the film falls apart in the second half. It covers too much ground in too little time. Neville’s dog dies. He goes on a killing spree to wreak revenge. He’s rescued in the nick of time. The next day he discovers a cure, then dies later that day when the hemocytes attack.

    That’s no way to tell a story. Filmmaking is storytelling. I always find it mystifying that studios will sink tens of millions of dollars (or more) in exotic locations, high-paid actors, and special effects—but not invest a fraction of a fraction of that amount in writing a solid script. A coherent, emotionally satisfying storyline. It isn’t that hard to do. Bards have been doing that very thing since the days of Homer.

    Neville is rescued by Anna Montez, played by a luminous Brazilian actress. And she has a cute kid in tow. This is obviously a replacement for the family he lost in the evacuation.

    Logically, then, the movie should spend a little time given them a chance to develop some rapport.

    Instead of Neville being happy to finally have some human companionship, he acts like a sociopath. Granted, he’s upset over the death of his dog—but his reaction is still out of sync with the occasion. The problem is not with his acting, but with the script.

    Yes, we’d expect him to suffer the effects of social isolation, but that should result in some awkward moments—not belligerence.

    In addition, the director succumbs to the fatal temptation of many SF films, where FX becomes an end in itself. It isn’t credible that a retrovirus could turn human beings into creatures with the strength, speed, and agility of mandrills on steroids. The use of FX to simulate an abandoned cityscape was dramatically meaningful. But this is just plain silly.

    That doesn’t mean the second part of the film is a total loss. There’s enough potential that you can see the lost opportunities.

    However, the most interesting aspect of the film is the providential motif. That’s unusual in a SF film. In practice, if not in principle, the SF genre is militantly secular. We can argue whether the SF genre is inherently secular. Some SF writers were Christian, or wrote on Christian themes, and James Jordan happens to think the SF worldview is inherently Christian rather than secular.

    But, as a matter of practice, early writers like H. G. Wells were militantly secular in their outlook, and that cast the die.

    Not that I Am Legend is overtly Christian by any means. But it is religious. There are a number of conveniently coincidental events in I Am Legend, and while this would ordinarily be too good to be true, they are integral to the text and subtext.

    In a flashback, Neville’s wife prays for him. We also see a sign that says, “God still loves us.” The sign has a picture of a butterfly. That ties into a butterfly motif. Neville’s daughter was forming a butterfly with her hands. At one point, Neville’s dog is chasing a butterfly in a cornfield.

    Anna hears his radio signal, makes it safely to Manhattan, and rescues him from the hemocytes. She hears God. She talks about his plan. And she escapes safely to a colony in “Bethel” (note the Biblical allusion) Vermont, with the vaccine. Here we have a string of improbable events—made more improbable by their cumulative force.

    Yet, at one point, Neville saw that Anna had a butterfly tattoo. So that’s a sign from God. A fulfillment foreshadowed by these earlier events. Anna is the antitype of these prefigural incidents.

    One wonders if there’s an allusion here, either to Anna the prophetess (Lk 2:36-38), or the legendary mother of the Virgin Mary.

    In any case, there’s a providential theme running through the film. Divine providence is the unifying theme.

    Love at first bite

    One of the stock, cinematic genres is the horror genre. This, of itself, is subdivisible into a number of sometimes distinct and sometimes intermingled themes.

    There’s the creature-feature. Perhaps this plays to some subliminal, childish fear of the monster under the bed.

    It takes an infinite variety of forms, but Frankenstein may be the cinematic prototype.

    A variant on the creature-feature is the werewolf. But this has never had the dramatic potential of the vampire because the werewolf is a limited character. It’s either human or bestial, but nothing in-between. Not much room for character development.

    Another seminal variant is the Island of Dr. Moreau—which was prescient in light of modern genetic engineering. Does man have a fixed, God-given nature, or is he just another animal, which can manipulate its own evolution?

    Then you have the slasher films or splatter films. Psycho was a precursor to this genre—yet Hitchcock was a great artist who didn’t actually show anything, but left it to the vivid imagination of the audience to fill in the blanks.

    The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was the true precursor—a movie I only know by reputation. In the age of computer graphics, it’s now possible to simulate every form of mutilation. Hence, slasher films have become explicit and sadistic to the nth degree of depravity. You only have to be subjected to the TV trailers to get the idea.

    What does it say about moviegoers who see these films? That there’s a segment of the population who would be serial killers if only they could torture men, women, and children to death with impunity. For now they must content themselves with the virtual alternative.

    A subdivision of the slasher movie is the revenge movie. Carrie is the camp classic. Vicarious catharsis for bullied boys and girls. What would Aristotle think?

    Speaking of Aristotle, horror films like Final Destination update the old Greek conundrum of cheating fate. This raises some potentially interesting theological and philosophical questions, but a B-movie like Final Destination isn’t the vehicle to pursue those issues.

    And, of course, you have simple gorefest outings like Night of the Living Dead—another film I only know by reputation.

    From a Christian standpoint, the interesting aspect of the horror genre is the subdivision which concerns the occult, for the occult intersects with the Christian worldview.

    When I was a kid, Dark Shadows was a popular TV show. At one level, it’s no different than boys who tell scary stories around the campfire or dare each other to go inside an abandoned house. Boys have a natural appetite for “spooking” each other, and I think that’s generally harmless.

    On the other hand, shows like Dark Shadows probably did a lot to popularize the occult. And, nowadays, kids can get genuinely hooked on the occult by playing with a ouija board or other apparently innocuous high jinks. The innocence of youth is not as innocent as it used to be.

    Some shows mix various genres. The short-lived Brimstone was one of the better entries.

    Most occult horror movies are B-movies at best. Among the more distinguished entries are The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and the Amityville Horror.

    They all turn up on TV from time to time. The Exorcist and the Amityville Horror are allegedly based on real events. I’ve never seen both films from beginning to end. I find the subject matter too distasteful.

    I don’t know how authentic they are, but I do believe that things like that really happen, and I prefer not to have those images indelibly imprinted on my memory.

    For some reason, the vampire is a favorite character in the horror genre. And it’s interesting from a Christian perspective—although cinematic treatments generally fail to develop that potential.

    Some vampiric films and TV shows satirize the genre, like The Lost Boys, The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    There’s also been the vampire with a conscience shtick (e.g. Angel, Forever Knight, Moonlight). Here a Pelagian vampire tries to redeem his wicked life through good deeds.

    Others versions emphasize the romantic dimension. Interview with the Vampire, as well as the Frank Langella vehicle, are chick flicks. Interview with a Vampire is periodically shown on TV, but I’ve never seen the whole thing. It’s by and for the fairer sex. If Brad Pitt in a powered wig and silk stockings is what you’re looking for in a movie, then this is definitely the movie for you.

    The Langella vehicle has a strong cast, but I only know it by reputation. A playboy vampire.

    The grand daddy of cinematic vampires is, of course, Bela Lugosi. This is the stand-up comedian’s version of the Count.

    In many ways, Christopher Lee was the definitive Count. Lee is a hit-and-miss actor. That’s because he’s not much of an actor. What he does on screen has little to do with acting. He’s a presence rather than an actor. The less he acts, the better.

    When he succeeds is when a certain role is suited to his unique presence. The voice. The eyes. The haughty bearing. The pallid complexion. The aquiline profile. The gaunt, statuesque posture.

    He did the Count for several Hammer productions, of which the first (1958) was the best. It benefited from having a great antagonist in the person of Peter Cushing as van Helsing.

    There are different ways of playing van Helsing. One way is to play him as the stereotypical, Victorian scientist. Cool, rational, logical, secular, and single-minded. That’s basically how Cushing played him.

    Lee also did a 1970 version, directed by Jesus Franco. On the one hand, it suffers at times from a low budget. But in some other respects it's superior to the 1958 Hammer production.

    The BBC did a 1977 production starring Louis Jourdan. Jourdan is surprisingly good in part. His Dracula is, by turns, imperious and amoral. A commanding figure, but hollow.

    This is also the most Catholic adaptation I’ve seen. Frank Findlay plays van Helsing as a devout Catholic. That’s another way to pull it off.

    In his own production, Francis Ford Coppola also accentuates the religious angle, but restores the Rumanian background. Historically, Vlad was Rumanian Orthodox, but the default religious setting of vampiric movies tends to be Roman Catholic—in large part because Western filmmakers, to the extent that they’re familiar with any religious tradition, only know Catholicism.

    Coppola makes the interesting move of turning Dracula into an apostate. When his wife commits suicide, and the Church refuses to give her Christian burial, so he renounces the faith and goes over to the dark side. God then curses him by transforming him into a vampire.

    There is also a scene in which, in an act of revenge, Dracula essentially damns a character (Lucy) to living death.

    Dracula’s blood is an anti-Eucharist. A damnatory chalice.

    Coppola picks up on another theme—and that’s the cost of vampiric immortality. A vampire outlives all his loved ones.

    At this point, Coppola introduces a Hindu motif. Dracula’s long dead wife has apparently been reincarnated as Harker’s fiancé. Coppola is nothing if not the syncretist.

    This presents Dracula with a dilemma. He doesn’t want to lose her again. But if he turns her, he will destroy the very thing he loves. She will become like him. Another accursed, God-forsaken creature.

    In the end, Coppola allows Dracula to undergo a deathbed conversion. Cheap grace. Salvation—Hollywood style.

    The film benefits from the virtuoso performance of Gary Oldman. Anthony Hopkins plays van Helsing. Hopkins is a solid, reliable performer.

    But since he doesn’t pretend to be a pious character, his use of Catholic sacramentals reduces them to magic tricks.

    The film also suffers from the casting of Winona Ryder as the Count’s love interest. While she’s pretty, and brings a certain vulnerability to the role, she’s hardly the sort of woman a man would sell his soul for. If I’m going to damn myself for a woman, can’t you at least give me Greta Garbo or Sophia Loren?

    Then there’s the casting of Keanu Reeves as Harker. In honor of Reeves, Hollywood should really create an Oscar for the world’s worst actor.

    Nosferatu the Vampyre had two source of inspiration. It was, in part, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, but it was also a remake of the 1922 German silent classic.

    Unlike Coppola’s production, which relies on sumptuous sets and special effects, Herzog’s product makes use of evocative natural scenery—as well as the canals of Delft. I think Vermeer’s sensitivity to light is due to the reflected light of the canals.

    In its way, Kinski’s assumption of the Count is just as talented as Oldman’s. But Kinski stresses the vampire’s loss of humanity. A vampire retains its human memories, but it’s basically a predator with a human I.Q.

    In that respect, a vampire is a metaphor for the damned. They retain their memories, but with the loss of common grace, we wouldn’t recognize them as the men and women we knew in this life.

    In most vampiric flicks, the women are nothing more the victims. But in Nosferatu, Lucy (Harker’s wife) is the heroine. In a sense, she reprises the role of van Helsing, but in a distinctively feminine manner. She can’t overpower Dracula. She can only destroy him by going on a suicide mission. She lures him into her bedroom and distracts him until the dawn. The rising sun does the rest.

    Most of the better vampiric movies—and there aren’t many—adapt Bram Stoker’s novel, to one degree or another. And exception is Near Dark.

    The character of the vampire can be romantic on either (or both) of two different levels. He can be treated as a rival to normal men, with their wives or girlfriends. An “alternate” lifestyle.

    Or he can be a Romantic figure in the sense that enemies of the faith like Byron, Blake, and Shelley recast Satan as the antihero. Dracula is an Antichrist figure. A proxy for the devil.

    Near Dark uses the Western genre as a vehicle to retell the vampiric myth. And it goes out of its way to deglamorize the vampire.

    At the same time, the movie as a redemptive blood motif. It’s striking how often secular filmmakers raid the Christian cupboard to set the table.

    The film is R rated for gore and bad language. I could do without either. However, it does have a dramatic function in this film. And it also benefits from strong casting all around.

    Blacula was an uneven film. A B-movie distinguished by the performance of William Marshall. I never understood why James Earl Jones had a bigger career than Marshall. I think that Marshall had an even finer speaking voice, and he has a more imposing stage presence, which translates into a more imposing screen presence.

    But maybe that’s the problem. He was too big for the medium. Too theatrical. Too dominating. But he’s fun to watch, especially as he teases the homicide detectives.

    John Carpenter’s Vampires pops up on TV from time to time. No doubt it’s better seen on TV which—to judge by movie reviews—censors some of the language and violence.

    The film can’t decide what it wants to be. On the one hand, the specter of rent-a-slayers who nonchalantly dispatch bloodsuckers as this were just another day at the office is clearly comedic. Equally comedic is the idea that the Vatican has subcontracted the job to the gentlemen in question.

    When, however, the film tries to go “deep,” about a renegade Cardinal, apostate priest, infested cross, and so on and so forth, it takes itself way too seriously.

    Forever Knight was a TV show with an interesting premise. Being a typical TV show, the producers and screenwriters lacked the imagination to develop the premise, so it degenerated into just another schlockfest.

    But the basic premise of the show is that Nicholas de Brabant is a one-time Crusader who was attacked by a vampire and “turned” on his way to the Holy Land. That sets up an interesting tension.

    At one level is the psychological tension. He was a medieval Christian on a quest to defend the Church. But in the very course of his quest, he is forcibly conscripted into the army of darkness. Against his will, he becomes the antithesis of what he set out to be.

    In the TV show, he tries to redeem himself by good works, but that’s the wrong framework. The correct framework, especially in the setting of medieval Catholicism, would involve ritual purity and impurity.

    Crusaders felt that the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem, was sanctified by the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ. That’s what makes it the “Holy Land.” Cultic holiness.

    To some extent this is a carryover from the OT, but with a couple of key differences. In Biblical typology, cultic holiness of Israel is fulfilled in the person and work of Christ. He is the true Temple, Paschal lamb, &c.

    In addition, the OT ceremonial law cut both ways. On the one hand, it would possible to violate the ceremonial law and become ritually impure. But the ceremonial law also made provision for ritual purification.

    But when we apply Catholic categories of ritual purity to vampirism, that doesn’t work. A vampire can’t enter a church. He can’t purify himself through communion or holy water or the sign of the cross. He can’t rest in hallowed ground. Indeed, these are weapons in Van Helsing’s toolkit.

    Once he contracts ritual defilement, once he becomes a creature of the night, then holy things are fatal on contact. Like poison.

    That’s the real reason a vampire can’t stand sunlight. It’s not that vampires are photosensitive, as if they suffer from an acute case of albinism. No, it’s all about the spiritual symbolism of light v. darkness.

    It’s always a mistake when screenwriters try to explain vampires scientifically. These are fictitious creatures, and—what is more—their existence and their paranormal powers are distinctly occultic. That’s the consistent, narrative explanation.

    Nicholas de Brabant might still be a Crusader at heart. Still be a Christian—in medieval terms. But as an unclean creature, he cannot escape his condition. He cannot turn to the good because exposure to the good is lethal to someone in his condition. He’s trapped inside.

    The only way for Nicholas de Brabant to break free from his condition is if he converted to the Protestant faith! Embraced sola fide!

    The conundrum is generated by certain theological and narrative assumptions. Challenge the assumptions, and that dissolves the conundrum.

    Monday, June 16, 2008

    Aborting Philosophy

    This article was sent to me recently and I was asked to provide my opinion of it. The article is written by Dr. Richard Parker, M.D. and it’s titled “A Physician Comments on Abortion and the Morning After Pill.” As might be expected, Parker’s position is pro-abortion. However, his philosophical failings become immediately apparent in the first paragraph. Parker states:

    I was recently confronted in the Emergency Department with a situation I rarely encounter: a woman requesting "the morning after pill." Since I practice in a largely conservative state, for a few minutes I introspectively debated whether I should provide her with such a prescription (italics mine).
    The portion I emphasized above demonstrates Parker’s first problem. He is looking at this issue as a political issue. But while the issue has been used by politicians, determining the ethics of abortion has nothing to do with politics. Therefore, the fact that Parker lives in a “largely conservative state” ought to have exactly no bearing upon his actions from an ethical perspective. (It might be relevant if he was dealing with a legal issue; but since the so-called “Morning After Pill” is legal in the US, that’s a non-issue here.)

    Secondly, Parker displays his ignorance of the rights of man when he writes:

    The anti-abortionist position also fails to recognize that human beings are granted rights qua man's status as a rational animal, not qua animal.
    There are several problems with this. Let’s start with the fact that if we consistently hold to this, then we MUST say that those people who are “more rational” than others have more rights. That is, under this theory, an imbecile does not have the same human rights as a genius. In fact, the smarter one is the more rights a person must have.

    Furthermore, it means that adults will by and large have more human rights than children, as most adults are far more rational than most children. As a result, our ethical conditioning to save children before adults in the case of fire, for instance, is not only wrong but evil. If an infant and his mother are caught in a burning building, the ethical choice for the firemen is to save the more rational of the two. Let the infant burn, rescue the mother. But this obviously goes against most of our common ethics (regardless of whether you hold to a Biblical world view).

    Further, rationality must be measurable in order for it to have any meaningful usage in Parker’s dictum. But this presents a problem for Parker because whatever tests we use to determine rationality would have to occur when he is conscious. If Parker is asleep, we cannot test his rationality—he would score exactly the same as a non-rational rock! Therefore, if I kill him while he’s asleep I have not killed a rational human being at all under his definition. Therefore, if we are consistent with his ethic, no murder has occurred.

    Finally, Parker’s claims about the rationality of the person are identical to the views of those who defined slaves as non-persons. Black slaves were considered less-rational than whites, and therefore whites could own them. If we take Parker’s position that rights come about based on something that is not linked to our humanity but instead to some other ontological feature, then human rights cease to be human rights and instead become whatever rights the ruling political class allows. In Parker’s case, human rights become rational rights. And as soon as we change rights in this manner we can begin to exclude whomever we deem unfit.

    Additionally, I must point out that the Christian response to Parker is that human rights are not “granted” at all, but exist due to the fact that humans are created in the image of God.

    Parker also tries to make a distinction between the actual and the possible. He writes:

    In reality, the potential is not the actual, nor is an entity's parts the same as the entity itself and rights can only be granted to actual rational entities.
    Again, Parker treats human rights as if they can somehow be “granted.” But if they are granted that implies a grantor. What grants those rights to us? If he says it’s the law, then all that needs be done is that we modify the law. If the law grants rights, we can change the law to say, “People named Parker can be executed” and that would not be unethical. If it’s the consent of the people, we can still get enough people together to say, “People named Parker can be executed.” Is that not what every oppressive regime does? Hitler’s Germany decided Jews had no right to life, so they could be killed. How is this a violation of the rights of Jews unless the “grantor” of the right is something beyond either communal law or the consent of the governed?

    Also note that Parker’s claim is that a fetus is potentially rational. (Again, this requires us to assent to his idea that rationality is what determines rights—something we’ve already shown above to be flawed.) This comes to fruition when we read:

    Individual rights should not and cannot be granted to potentialities because they are metaphysically distinct from actualities. The potential and actual therefore have distinct moral and political implications.
    Let us use his reasoning here. If human rights come about because of the humanity of the object, rather than Parker’s invention of “rationality” then we see that the fetus actually satisfies the requirements above at gaining “individual rights.” A fetus is a human being. This is a scientific fact. Human beings have human fetuses. Humans cannot have cat fetuses, humans cannot have walrus fetuses; humans have human fetuses. The fetus is human from conception, and this is scientifically undeniable. Therefore, if rights come about due to the humanity of the fetus rather than due to the rationality of the fetus, we have proven using Parker’s own methodology that the fetus actually has human rights because the fetus actually is human.

    Parker then continues:
    Another flaw with the anti-abortionist view is the failure to acknowledge the proper metaphysical relationship between mother and the unborn fetus. The fetus is physically within the mother and connected to her via the placenta and umbilical chord. It is directly physically dependent on the mother for all of its life sustaining needs-oxygen, energy and safety from the external environment. The relationship between mother and fetus is not that of two distinct human entities, but rather that of an independent human being (the mother) with rights and a dependent physical appendage, something that is physically within and part of the mother and therefore cannot have individual rights.
    Note that Parker is arguing that rights are not just dependent upon rationality (his original claim) but also upon the location of the individual and also the relationship of that individual to another individual. As I did before with his “rationality” argument, I want to examine the outcome of this thinking.

    First of all, Parker is flat out wrong when he says “The relationship between mother and fetus is not that of two distinct human entities” because scientifically, it is exactly that. The fetus is a distinct human being and the mother is a distinct human being. It is true that the fetus is dependent upon the mother, but dependency does not affect rights! If it did, parents ought to have the right to kill all their dependants. Infants cannot live on their own. They require nurture. Under Parker’s theory, it ought to remain moral to kill infants.

    Furthermore, as a doctor I’m sure that Parker can think of several cases when a person is under anesthesia. That person is now completely dependant upon the doctors for his well-being. Is it morally justifiable for a physician to kill a patient under his care because the patient is now completely dependent upon the doctor? Of course not. A person does not lose his rights simply because he is dependent upon others for his well-being.

    Likewise, Parker has determined that the location of a human being can determine whether or not that human being has rights. But what is the rational basis for that argument? This is an ad-hoc claim, completely unsupportable. How does the location of the fetus change the rights of the fetus? How could the fetus have no rights when, if he was moved just a few inches away, he would have full rights? How is such a thing justifiable ethically? Parker cannot simply assert that it is the case that the fetus has no rights based on location: he must prove this claim.
    Parker continues:
    Individual rights cannot be granted to the parts of human entities-to do so would make a surgeon a murderer when he removes a healthy kidney from a patient for an organ transplant, an internist a murderer when he poisons a tapeworm to achieve its removal from a patient's intestine, a dermatologist a killer when he removes a mole from a patient's face.
    But of course a fetus is NOT a “part” of the mother. The fetus is a complete human being distinct from the mother. That is the point. If the fetus was a part of the mother, the fetus would remain a part of the mother after birth. Just as the removal of a kidney does not transform it into some other person, so removing a fetus would not transform the fetus into some other person. If Parker wants to play that game, he’s proven himself irrational…which means I can ethically kill him.

    Parker continues:
    The basis for individual rights lies in man's nature as a rational animal, as a living being with a volitional consciousness (free will). The concept of individual rights can therefore only be properly understood in the context of a rational independent entity, not in the context of a living thing with rudimentary sensations.
    We’ve already addressed this earlier, but note that nowhere does Parker actually argue for this. He merely asserts it as if it were true.

    Finally, Parker says:
    The metaphysical act of birth, when the unborn makes the transition from mere potential to an actual human being and successfully separates from the mother to become a separate metaphysical entity, an actual living being with a volitional consciousness, confers the moral and political concept of rights.
    Birth is a metaphysical act? Moving a few inches down the birth canal changes the metaphysical nature of a fetus?

    If one thing is obvious, it’s that Parker has no philosophy degree.

    Even if we pretended metaphysics changes at birth, his reasoning is still completely wrong. Before birth, the fetus is distinct from the mother. This is self-evident because you can locate the fetus! The fetus is therefore a separate entity from the mother. That the fetus is connected to the mother does not make the fetus any more equivalent to the mother than the fact that my touching another human being makes us the same person. The fetus is also alive before birth. What is an abortion if not the killing of the fetus? You cannot kill what isn’t alive. Regardless of how you look at it, the fetus is most certainly a living organism, distinct from rocks, gasses, and all other non-living objects. Furthermore, if the fetus has a “volitional consciousness” at birth, it most certainly had it moments before birth too. The act of birth does not create the “volitional consciousness” of the fetus, nor does it animate the fetus. These things were already in place before the birth occurred.

    In point of fact, the only thing the act of birth does is confer political rights. But political rights are not the same thing as moral rights. Politically, it was okay to own slaves in 1800. Morally, it was not okay to own slaves. Politically, it may be okay to kill unborn human beings; morally, it is not okay to do so.

    Parker says: “This is the reason why I provided this patient with the morning after pill and the reason why I am not a murderer.” But a murder is someone who takes the life of an innocent human being without proper justification. And “because the mother wants to” is not proper justification for taking the life of an unborn human being. Therefore, Parker is a murderer. Not in the legal sense, of course. But not all who are murderers are legally murderers.