Saturday, November 04, 2006

Can the "New Atheists" Provide An Objective and Universal Moral Code?

Introduction: Given the fact that some from our church attended a recent debate on the subject of the possibility of materialistic atheism providing a rational justification for holding to moral realism (i.e., objective morality), and given the fact that the "new atheists" are making their waves in America, I thought I'd briefly interact with some of the statements Richard Dawkins made in regard to his new book, The God Delusion. Dawkins has no qualm with aggressively attacking the various religions of the world, but he seems to take special pleasure in critiquing the Christian God. He states,

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[1]

Dawkins also arrogantly states that he is “quite keen on the politics of persuading people of the virtues of atheism”[2] thereby showing his own “evangelistic” zeal for promoting atheism. And as to the fact that atheists shouldn’t make the logical blunder of positing a universally negative statement, Dawkins replies,

There's an infinite number of things that we can't disprove . . . You might say that because science can explain just about everything but not quite, it's wrong to say therefore we don't need God. It is also, I suppose, wrong to say we don't need the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unicorns, Thor, Wotan, Jupiter, or fairies at the bottom of the garden. There's an infinite number of things that some people at one time or another have believed in, and an infinite number of things that nobody has believed in. If there's not the slightest reason to believe in any of those things, why bother? The onus is on somebody who says, I want to believe in God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, or whatever it is. It is not up to us to disprove it.[3]

Another evangelistic “new atheist” named Sam Harris, author of the popular book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason has recently written Letter to a Christian Nation wherein he seeks to provide a “how-to” manual for deprogramming religionists. He states in an interview with Gary Wolf,

We [non-believers] stand dumbstruck by you as well—by your denial of the tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God.[4]

He also stated that he would have religious faith replaced with the,

religion of reason. We would have realized the rational means to maximize human happiness. We may all agree that we want to have a Sabbath that we take really seriously—a lot more seriously than most religious people take it. But it would be a rational decision, and it would not be just because it’s in the Bible. We would be able to invoke the power of poetry and ritual and silent contemplation and all the variables of happiness so that we could exploit them. Call it prayer . . . .[5]

According to Harris’s interviewer, this "prayer" would be “. . . that our reason will subjugate our superstition, that our intelligence will check our illusions, that we will be able to hold at bay the evil temptation of faith.”[6]

Next, let’s take a look at how Dawkins philosophically hangs himself in the article Let's All Stop Beating Basil's Car where he says that punitive action on a criminal should be likened to beating and kicking a broken down car,

Ask people why they support the death penalty or prolonged incarceration for serious crimes, and the reasons they give will usually involve retribution. There may be passing mention of deterrence or rehabilitation, but the surrounding rhetoric gives the game away. People want to kill a criminal as payback for the horrible things he did. Or they want to give "satisfaction' to the victims of the crime or their relatives. An especially warped and disgusting application of the flawed concept of retribution is Christian crucifixion as "atonement' for "sin'.

Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.[7]

Dawkins tightens his own noose further,

Concepts like blame and responsibility are bandied about freely where human wrongdoers are concerned. When a child robs an old lady, should we blame the child himself or his parents? Or his school? Negligent social workers? In a court of law, feeble-mindedness is an accepted defence, as is insanity. Diminished responsibility is argued by the defence lawyer, who may also try to absolve his client of blame by pointing to his unhappy childhood, abuse by his father, or even unpropitious genes (not, so far as I am aware, unpropitious planetary conjunctions, though it wouldn't surprise me).

But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.[8]

So, in review we’ve seen the following:

  1. Dawkins thinks that the Christian God is a horrible monster.
  2. Taking punitive measures in correcting people is illogical despite the fact that we’ve been biologically pre-programmed to take such measures by “millennia of Darwinian evolution.”
  3. Religious faith is an “evil temptation” that must be resisted at all costs.
  4. Much of the violence in recorded history is religiously motivated.
  5. The only acceptable global religion for mankind must be rooted in an absolute reliance on materialism and the scientific method.

We’ll look at all five problems and provide brief critiques of each.

I. Dawkins thinks that the Christian God is a horrible monster.

The fact that Dawkins thinks that the Christian God is a horrible monster doesn’t do anything to call His existence into question. The fact that we personally dislike something does nothing to mitigate against the existence of said entity. Dawkins is merely showing forth his hatred of the Christian God through an emotional objection, a classic example of Argumentum Ad Populum. Dawkins must also provide his epistemological justification for deriding the Christian God in light of his materialism. I would be interested in seeing what he would do with the following syllogisms given the fact that, at least to the best of my knowledge, he believes that only particular, concrete, physical entities exist.

Syllogism One:

  1. Material things are extended in space.
  2. Objective moral laws are not extended in space.
  3. Therefore, objective moral laws are non-material.
  4. Materialism posits that non-material entities do not exist.
  5. Therefore, objective moral laws do not exist.

The above syllogism is very problematic for Dawkins as his only options for holding to objective moral norms would be to revert to some type of cultural or moral relativism, adopt some brand of pragmatism, or deny his materialism outright and adopt a Platonic version of atheism.[9] Another helpful syllogism could be written as follows

Syllogism Two:

1. Objective moral laws are universal entities that apply to all people, places,

and times.

2. Materialism holds that only particular entities have ontological existence.

3. No material thing is a universal entity.

4. Objective moral laws are not material things.

5. Therefore, objective moral laws do not exist.

Given Dawkins’ assertion that the Christian God is immoral, one wonders how from an epistemological and metaphysical standpoint he is able to derive immaterial, universal, and objective moral standards by which he then uses to question the character of the Christian God. If all that exists are material, concrete, particular, physical entities, from whence comes good/evil, moral/amoral would transcend to us so that we can appreciate his sentiments as well? As one good friend has said, “the atheist seeks to defend the existence of an ‘only marble’ universe by appealing to non-marble entities.” Thus, Dawkins has to appeal in the very thing he denies in order to argue against the Christian God, namely, immaterial, abstract entities like universal moral norms.

II. Dawkins believes that taking punitive measures to correct criminals is illogical and that we do this because we’ve been biologically pre-programmed to do so by “millennia of Darwinian evolution.”

(1) If this is the case, then what objective basis does he have to condemn the actions of the Christian God? Maybe other cultures have not adopted the same morality as Dawkins. This then leads to the fact that (2) if we have been biologically preprogrammed, why try to convert anyone to atheism? If biochemical predestination is true, people have simply developed over eons of time to simply be like weeds in a garden, one weed grows one way (to have the cerebral ability to believe in the Christian God) and one grows another (does not have the cerebral ability to believe in the Christian God). Thus, we see Dawkins again contradicting himself.

III. Religious faith is an “evil temptation” that must be resisted at all costs.

At the back Sam Harris’ statement is the catchphrase idea that “faith precludes reason.”[10] Of course, this is not how the Christian defines faith, and such claims are the rope that that the materialist uses to hang himself. How so? Here’s a typical definition of religious faith as utilized by many atheists: “Faith: belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.” So, if one has a “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence” then that person is “irrational”, “anti-reason”, and according to Harris, has succumbed to an “evil temptation.” Let's take a look at this claim:

(1) What about this belief itself? (i.e., the belief that having faith or belief in God does not rest on logical proof or material evidence and is an “evil temptation” that must be resisted.) Is the atheist’s belief that having faith is irrational itself “resting” upon “logical proof or material evidence?” If so, then it would be necessary for them to show the “logical proof" or relevant evidence. When they do, we will then press them about their new belief. That is, the belief that he has presented logical proof or material evidence to support his original claim and belief. Then, if he can supply said proof and evidence, we can push back again and again, until, lo and behold, the atheist is caught in a vicious infinite regress.

(2) If the atheist’s belief about the irrational nature of faith is not “resting” upon “logical proof and material evidence” then their belief in this definition is itself, irrational!

IV. Much of the violence in recorded history is religiously motivated.

(1) If this is true[11], it does nothing to disprove the existence of the Christian God as it is a circumstantial ad hominem attack, which is sometimes called the tu quoque[12] fallacy. We could just as easily pull out examples of the millions of people killed under the atheistic regimes of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung and so forth. Trying to show that one ought not believe in Christianity because of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Christ is irrelevant to the truth of the proposition in question. Thus, we would all do well to ask if the actions done in the name of any philosophical system or worldview are consistent with the principles of that self-same system. If not, then we cannot rightly deride that system because of the mistakes of the supposed followers of that system, for to do such would be to commit said fallacy.

V. The only acceptable global religion for mankind must be rooted in an absolute reliance on materialism and the scientific method.

Intelligent Christians have certainly never derided the use of the scientific method, as that very method has been developed through the hard work of hundreds of Christian scientists.[13] However, we have a strong philosophical, theological, and rational basis for believing that the scientific method will work, namely, because the Creator God has ordained that the world shall operate with regularity on the basis of the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and logic (cf. Gen. 8:22).

However, assuming materialism, we’ve already seen that we can’t make sense of the moral, logical, and scientific laws that govern the world because such cannot exist in a universe that consists only of physical entities. We also seen that the very idea of having a “global religion for mankind” rooted in materialism is the death knell of that same religion because you can’t have immaterial things like belief in things, laws of logic and natural law at all if all that exists are material entities. So, said aspirations on the part of Sam Harris cannot even get off the ground from a epistemological and metaphysical standpoint if he is to be consistent.

: It appears that the “new atheists” want to have their philosophical cake and eat it too.
As was said already, to do so, they have to justify their materialism by appealing to non-material things, thus undercutting the very thing they are trying to accomplish. Thus, the “new atheists” fail to account for moral law, logical law, and scientific law on the basis of their own beliefs. In other words, they show that their own worldview is impossible because upon its own standards it refutes itself. However, what should one expect given the fact that they’ve rejected the Lord of rationality? As Jesus said,

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 "And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. 26 "Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 "The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell-- and great was its fall.” Matthew 7:24-27

*The floods of inconsistency slam against the philosophical house of atheism.*

Pastor Dustin S. Segers



[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


[8] Italics mine for emphasis.

[9] For the uninitiated, the Platonic version of atheism essentially says that there is a immaterial “realm of ideas” wherein immaterial and abstract objective, unchanging, and universal laws, principles, and moral norms exist. Given the fact that this view of reality is philosophically/historically grounded in Plato, it is interesting to point out that his best student, Aristotle refuted him. Hence, using Aristotle’s arguments, one simply takes the non-revelatory Platonist back to philosophical materialism after a thorough-going refutation of his Platonism.

[10] In actuality, Christians believe that faith makes sense of reason and that faith must be present in order to reason at all.

[12] Ad hominem attack is when you attack the character of the person(s) making the argument rather than the argument itself. A circumstantial ad hominem is when you attack a person’s beliefs based upon the irrelevant circumstances that appear to be associated with said belief but really aren’t. Tu Quoque means “you’re another” or translated more loosely, “look who’s talking”.


What if the tooth-fairy really exists?

The latest profundities of John Loftus:

“Let's say Allah exists.”

Let’s say he doesn’t.

“Since no one can be absolutely sure, this is a possibility, correct?”


“The Muslim God could exist and the Koran could be his word.”

No, the Koran could not be his word since Islam is a Christian heresy. Muhammad appeals to the Bible to attest his own prophetic claims.

But since the Bible contradicts the Koran, Muhammad is a false prophet by his very own yardstick.

“As an atheist I admit this possibility.”

One more strike against atheism.

“So I suspect that Christians who are not absolutely blinded by their faith and upbringing would agree with me here.”

Far from being blind faith, this is a matter of elementary logic.

“So with that possibility…”

Predicated on a false premise.

“…let's say you die and you stand before Allah's judgment and he sends you to hell. Christian, what do you say in response? You say ‘I didn't know.’ ‘I thought Christianity was true.’ Then the Muslim God simply says, ‘ignorance is no excuse, I gave you many clues.’ ‘I even spoke through the atheist John W. Loftus when he suggested this possibility one day on his Blog." ;-) "Now off you go into hell's eternal flames."

Excepting for the fact that the only clues we find in the Koran are clues of charlatanry and self-delusion.

“Think of the shock of it all! You would be completely and utterly in shock, wouldn't you?”

Since John Loftus doesn’t believe in the afterlife, he regards the dead as pretty shockproof.

“And this is exactly what you believe that Muslims and atheists, Jews and Deists will face on the day of judgment with YOUR Christian God?”

Sounds good to me.


Ah, yes, the old argumentum ad hogwashum.

“Absolute hogwash.”

It’s even more irrefutable when he adds the adjective, don’t you think?

“I haven't got the words to express my disgust with this God of yours.”

That’s what happens when your infidelity is sentimental rather than rational.

“ And I am dumbfounded why anyone would believe this. I am even more dumbfounded that I believed it for far too long.”

Well, that inspires a lot of confidence in his powers of reasoning, does it not?

“Wake up.”

So this post isn’t for real. It’s all a bad dream. That would go a long way towards explaining the caliber of reasoning.

“No intelligent Being would demand that we must believe the right things about him in order to gain entrance into heaven, even if he did exist.”

Notice how this dogmatic assertion directly contradicts his previous claim: ““As an atheist I admit this possibility, so I suspect that Christians who are not absolutely blinded by their faith and upbringing would agree with me here.”

Evidently, Loftus is absolutely blinded by his infidelity.

“This God of yours parallels the barbaric ‘thought police’ in ancient civilizations.”

Actually, modern-day liberals are the “thought police.” Look at their speech codes on college campus. Look at their ever-enlarging list of hate crimes. Look at the way they stifle dissent on evolution. Or their mandatory “diversity training.”

No one’s more censorious or intolerant than a liberal.

“This is a democratic age we're living in.”

Given the fact that Loftus is a cultural relativist, the appeal to social conditioning cuts both ways. Why is a democratic age morally superior to a “barbaric” age?

“We all have various opinions on everything, and these opinions are sincerely held ones.”

Notice how he substitutes democracy for truth.

And observe his selective tolerance. What about sincerely held Christian beliefs?

“We are tolerant of diverse opinions because educated people realize we will have intelligent differences. But to send people to hell because they disagreed, well, that's barbaric, plain and simple.”

1.Assuming that it’s barbaric, what’s wrong with barbarism?

Does Loftus believe in moral absolutes? If so, where’s the argument? If not, drop the moralistic bravado.

2.Actually, what we believe about someone else says a lot about ourselves. If a skinhead idolizes Adolf Hitler, that says a lot about the skinhead. If a teenager idolizes a gangsta rapper, that says a lot about the teenager.

If you’re a Maoist or a Nazi or a Kamikaze, that says a lot about the sort of person you are. About your value-system.

3.We have social obligations. Moral and intellectual duties to other people. If a man saves my life or does me a big favor, I’m in his debt.

Suppose I have a famous father. Suppose he’s a devoted father.

And suppose, after he’s dead, I write a sensational biography full of libelous accusations just to cash in on my father’s fame.

That would be a supreme act of betrayal.

There are people who deserve our love and loyalty. People who merit our respect and gratitude—beginning with God.

But, of course, that’s something Loftus wouldn’t understand because he treats other people as disposable means to achieve his selfish ends.

We have no pope!

True to form, the liberal media, as well as secular bloggers, are puffing the story of Ted Haggard’s downfall.

How significant is this scandal? Well, it’s significant to Haggard. It’s significant to the members of his family. It’s significant to his personal friends. And it’s significant to the members of his megachurch.

Beyond that, it’s of absolutely no objective significance whatsoever.

Haggard is not the pope. The NAE is not the Magisterium. And New Life Church is not the Vatican.

Pundits make a big deal about the fact that he was, just before his resignation, president of the “30-million” member NAE.

Honestly, folks, how many Evangelicals pay the slightest attention to the NAE? Do you go to the NAE website for moral and theological guidance?

Did you ever vote for Haggard? I know I didn’t.

He’s completely irrelevant to my life, and I daresay he’s completely irrelevant to yours as well.

Haggard is not my pastor. Or elected representative.

As a graduate of ORU, Haggard is hardly the first guy I’d turn to for theological advice.

As a Christian, I only have one representative, and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ.

The downfall of Haggard is only significant if we allow the enemies of the gospel and the chattering classes to assign it a wholly artificial significance and foist that upon the rest of us. If we permit them to redefine us.

The media is addicted to the cult of celebrity and the cult of personality. And they are welcome to their infatuations and soap opera scandals.

But don’t try to impose your silly values on me.

Haggard is simply someone who’s well-known for being well-known. Haggard’s inner demons are no more important than J-Lo’s love-life.

Save it for the National Inquirer, alongside the three-headed baby, alien abductee, weeping Madonna, and Elvis-sighting du jour.

What's at stake

Many conservatives feel that Bush has betrayed the conservative cause. Some of their criticisms are weighty and just.

But it’s easy to forget the good things he’s done, and how much better he is than the democratic alternative.

Wayne Grudem helps to put things back in perspective:


He has been frustrated by a wayward and timid Congress, and especially by a foolish Senate rule that effectively requires 60 votes to pass anything, but he himself has steadfastly done just what I (at least) had hoped he would do with regard to:

(a) appointing two excellent Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito,

(b) appointing dozens and dozens of Circuit Court and District Court judges who are committed to just interpreting laws, not making new laws from the bench,

(c) defense against terror – astoundingly, he has kept us free from attack for over 5 years (and been criticized and attacked for every part of that effort), and he has seen democratic governments established in the Afghanistan and Iraq, setting in motion a movement to change the history of the world by marginalizing Islamic terrorism in Muslim countries,

(d) school choice, doing what he can to promote this most significant of all needs to help overcome poverty,

(e) abortion – he signed the partial birth abortion ban law that President Clinton vetoed twice (1996 and 1997), and he has consistently been pro-life,

(f) support for a Constitutional amendment on marriage (which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling last week shows we clearly need),

(g) the economy, pushing through several tax cuts that help everyone, and as the tax cuts have helped the economy they have done much good for the poor who need jobs, so that the economy has weathered both 9/11 and the 2001 recession and is now booming, the Dow Jones average is at its highest point in history, and we produce three times more goods and services than any economy in the world (we now produce about 33% of the world’s goods and services, and no other nation comes close),

(h) creation of jobs, with economic policies that have given a strong economy so that people who want jobs can find them (the unemployment rate today is only 4.4%, the lowest in years), something again that especially helps the poor,

(i) wise use of the environment, resisting the immense pressure to bring us onboard with the foolish Kyoto Protocol that is now harming European economies and helping nothing, and wisely supporting more domestic production of energy (especially ANWR in Alaska),

(j) embryonic stem cell research (that is, the creation of the beginnings of little babies just to harvest their parts), restricting federal funding and taking immense criticism for it,

(k) huge increases in aid to overcome AIDS in Africa, along with promotion of abstinence-based programs, for which he has again taken immense criticism,

(l) Social Security – he told the truth, and had plans to rescue it, but the timid Congress didn’t have the courage to touch it,

(m) faith-based programs – by executive order he is ending the discrimination against faith-based social services that actually work in changing lives through the power of Christ, and he had other excellent ideas, but couldn’t get Congress to go along,

(n) a sensible, comprehensive immigration program that included securing the border, some kind of path to citizenship for those who have broken no other laws and have been here working for some time, and also a documented guest worker program – good ideas, to my mind, in line with biblical injunctions to care for the “alien and sojourner,” but also including measures to punish those who do wrong -- but the Congress would not do much about it,

(o) racial justice and reconciliation, appointing prominent African-American and Hispanic citizens to high government posts, and pushing for education reform, which would do more than perhaps anything to overcome persistent Black poverty (but the Democrats and the public school lobby have fought this tooth and nail),

(p) seeking to repeal the wrongful “death tax” on personal estates (but the Democrats blocked it in the Senate, because of the foolish rule needing 60 votes to pass anything, never intended by our Constitution),

(q) appointment of wise, tough diplomats to key posts, like John Bolton at the UN, Condoleezza Rice as Sec. of State, and Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank,

(r) personal conduct that is “above reproach,” giving moral leadership to the nation by example of life and by kindness that amazes me toward those in politics and in the press who continue relentlessly to attack him,

(s) probably many other things that I have by now forgotten.

(t) And all this in the face of a relentlessly hostile and negatively-biased press, and many people who simply attack everything he does, plus facing the daily responsibility of guarding our nation against the deep evil of worldwide terrorism.

What more could I ask from a President of the United States? You may differ with me on these things – it’s a free country! But these are my convictions, built up over six years of watching George Bush’s presidency.

Of course I have a few disagreements – I wish President Bush had not signed the McCain –Feingold bill to hinder campaign contributions and freedom of speech (but I don’t know what the alternatives were at that time, and perhaps McCain would have made any other legislation impossible for years). I also wish he had played more political hardball with Congress over greatly increased, wasteful spending (but I don’t know what the trade-offs were regarding votes for crucial issues of national defense and protection of the country from terrorism, and I know he sought a line-item veto to reign in spending and Congress would not grant it).

But overall I am so very very thankful for an outstanding, I think excellent President. He has done right. And he is changing world history in a right direction, a direction that will give more freedom for everyone to determine their own governments and their own religion, and (of significance to me as a Christian), more freedom for the proclamation of the gospel around the world, so that people would have a fair chance to hear and consider (but never ever be compelled to accept) that good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What about the Iraq war? It is just that – a war, and wars are not won quickly or easily. We were attacked in an act of war on 9/11, and we had been attacked by similar terrorists many times before that. Finally we are fighting back, against an invisible, very skillful, very evil enemy.

When people complain, “It’s not going well,” I just think, “What you are saying is that we haven’t won yet. But that is because there are still evil people in the world who want to destroy Iraq and eventually destroy Israel and destroy us, and in some countries their governments are not stopping them yet. So this is a huge task, but we have no choice but to go forward. There will only be one side left at the end of this war, and I want it to be us, not the Muslim terrorists.”

It seems to me that what we need as a country is to unite behind the President in this war, not attack every move he makes (isn’t this what a country usually does in war?). For every U.S. soldier who dies there are many times more terrorists who are caught or killed (which I think in light of Rom. 13:4 is the right thing for civil government to do), and the terrorist movements simply cannot and will not continue a losing battle forever. Criticism of the war sounds to me like people are saying, “There are still some evil people in the world, therefore Bush is a bad President.” That is misguided reasoning, because there will always be evil people in the world, and the God-given solution, according to Rom. 13:1-7, is to prevent them from harming others through the use of superior force by our military and police. That is what President Bush is doing, and I don’t know if anyone else in the world could do any better. (Many nations are not even trying, just sitting back and letting us do the dirty work while they criticize!)

So I think President Bush has done a very good job as President, in an amazingly difficult time.I think if we did not have such a hostile press the President's approval rating might be well above 60%, if people were just aware of all the good this President has done. But his approval rating is low, and that affects the election. And I know that this election is more about him than much of anything else. What then will happen?

President Bush’s plans and goals will be stalled and he won’t be able to do much of anything if Democrats take control of Congress, for they will then control all bills that come to the floor, and probably start to launch endless “hearings” out of retribution for the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and they will seek to cut off funding for fighting terrorism (all spending bills must originate in the House), and probably “leak” more national security secrets to the New York Times (as the Times, I think in order to harm President Bush, already destroyed our ability to listen in on terrorist phone calls and to track terrorist funds without the terrorists knowing it). Democrats in control of even just the House would just make President Bush’s last two years miserable. And so I pray, and ask, Will the Lord allow that? Would that please him? I hope not. I pray not.

So I continue to ask God if he will still hear the prayers of so many millions of his people, who are still seeking after many years to change the Supreme Court so that abortion could be prohibited by law in our country, so that marriage could be protected and the homosexual agenda would be stopped, so that Muslim terrorist attacks against Christians and against the basic human freedom of people to govern themselves could be defeated rather than encouraged around the world, so that true reform and true parental choice could come to our failed public school systems that are robbing millions of poor children of a chance to be productive citizens for their whole lives, so that wise policies concerning the use of the world’s resources could be implemented, so that the tax cuts could be made permanent and even expanded, to further strengthen the economy, and so that the judiciary could be sufficiently reformed that the will of the people, rather than the opinion of judges, would be the determining factor in the laws of our nation. All this and more is at stake, and much of it will become simply impossible if the Democrats take control of either the Senate or the House.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Darwin's "Dangerous" Idea

Darwin, Mind, and Meaning.

Horus, Jesus, And Jon Curry

Earlier this week, I began a series of posts on the infancy narratives. Jon Curry, who often makes false claims about Christianity without doing much research (see here, for example), decided to involve himself in the discussion in his usual manner. He claims that the lack of documentation in his posts is because he takes a "laid back" and "easy going" approach toward these discussions. His "laid back" approach seems indistinguishable from carelessness. Among many bad arguments in his latest posts, Jon writes:

"It [the virgin birth] is probably something they [the early Christians] would like to believe. It makes Jesus just as good as the other dying and rising god's of the time, as Horus is also born of a virgin. Or Anakin Skywalker."

When I mentioned that Jon didn't document his assertion about Horus, he commented:

"I've documented it multiple times. You've ignored it."

What Jon has repeatedly cited is a Wikipedia article, and I've repeatedly explained to him why relying on that article is problematic. The article is anonymous and has a warning at the top about how its content "may not be reliable". Why are we supposed to trust what that article says about Horus? If you go to the comments page for the article, you'll find many examples of the absurd claims the article has contained in its many editions. It's been edited repeatedly, and it still has many problems. It repeatedly makes claims without citing any source. What does it tell us about Jon Curry when he repeatedly relies on such sources for his information and repeatedly cites them when his claims are disputed, even after he's warned about the unreliable nature of the material?

One of the sources the Wikipedia article mentions is Tom Harpur. In an article responding to Harpur, the Biblical scholar W.Ward Gasque writes:

"I sent an email to 20 of the world's leading Egyptologists, outlining the following claims put forth by Kuhn (and hence Harpur)...That Horus also 'had a virgin birth...[the Egyptologists responded that] there is no evidence for the idea that Horus was virgin born."

The Wikipedia article claims that parallels between Jesus' infancy and that of Horus are "most obvious" in some carvings in a temple in Luxor. The atheist Richard Carrier (the same Carrier cited in the past by Jon Curry) argues against such an interpretation of the Luxor inscription. Carrier writes:

"The Luxor inscription also does not depict impregnation by a spirit, but involves very real sex (indeed, the narrative borders on soft-core porn), and the woman involved is the mythical Queen of Egypt in an archetypal sense, not Isis per se....The inscription in Panel 4 (which is often cited on the web as the key frame) describes the god Amun jumping into bed with the human Queen on her wedding night (or at any rate before she consummates her marriage with the human King) disguised as her husband. But she recognizes the smell of a god, so he reveals himself, then 'enters her' (sic). The narrative then gets a bit risque--the god burning with lust, queen begging to be embraced, there's kissing going on, Amun's buddy Thoth stands by the bed to watch, and after Amun 'does everything he wished with her' she and Amun engage in some divine pillow talk, and so on. At one point the queen exclaims amazement at 'how large' Amun's 'organ of love' is, and she is 'jubilant' when he thrusts it into her....At any rate, the couple relax after 'getting it on', and the god tells her in bed that she is impregnated and will bear his son, Amenophis. To be more exact, the Queen inadvertently chooses the name by telling Amun she loves him, which is what 'Amenophis' means. It follows from this fact that Panel 8 (when the ankh is touched to the Queen's nose) does not depict an impregnation. The queen is already long pregnant in that scene. In fact, she is already 'showing.' Instead, it is the birth that is announced then, not the conception, and Kneph then proceeds to impart the god's soul into the divine fetus, using the ankh (perhaps this indicates quickening, but at any rate the fetus was already there when this happens). The birth itself occurs in Panel 9....Kneph only forms the fetus and the soul and unites them, he does not impregnate the Queen (Amun does that, the old fashioned way)...So I think the parallels here [between the Luxor inscription and the infancy narratives of the New Testament] are very weak."

In contrast to Jon Curry's careless use of unreliable sources, the material I've recommended to him cites widely regarded scholars in relevant fields, such as Bruce Metzger and Jonathan Z. Smith. (See the relevant sections in Steve Hays' book on the resurrection, J.P. Holding's article here, and Glenn Miller's article here.) All Jon has given us is an anonymous Wikipedia article that's been shown to have many errors and doesn't offer us any documentation for the claim under discussion.

Even if Horus was viewed as born of a virgin prior to the time of Christianity, that fact alone wouldn't give us sufficient reason to conclude that Christianity probably borrowed the concept from the Horus account. Jon Curry not only has failed to show a pre-Christian belief in Horus' being born of a virgin, but also fails to take the further step of showing that such a pre-Christian belief undermines the Christian doctrine of Jesus' virgin birth in the manner he's suggested.

Too smart for games

To finish up some old business:



Well, without going through all 600, I found that the only 2 people from UF who signed the list were both Evangelical Christians, just from looking at their websites.

I am not implying that every single person on the list certainly is of one of the Abrahamic faiths, but if you want to take a wager, I'll post my wager right here on the web: when we move from sample 1 -- those who don't 'dissent from Darwinism' to sample 2 -- those who do, I will wager that the correlation of Abrahamic faiths (a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim) goes up by a minimum of 0.3 (30%), which is a significant statistic (p<0.05), given the prevalance of those faiths generally, and the relative lack of those faiths within scientists generally (about 40% believe in God, and Nature, 1997).

I'd wager on it. Would you? (hypothetical, not a real challenge to put up money)

Now, that doesn't mean that ID is false, but it certainly means something

Come on, Steve. You're too smart for games.


Well, I suppose I ought to be relieved to learn that I’m too smart for games. I guess that exempts me from Dawkins' classification system: “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).”

Given Dawkins’ rather parsimonious alternatives, I’d opt for wicked over stupid every time. The wicked have all the fun, right?

Thankfully, though, Danny has given me another option: “smart.”

I must, say, though, that there’s an even better choice than any of the five. And that’s to be right.

Better to be stupid and right than smart and wrong.

He then says that while his wager doesn’t mean that ID is false, it certainly means something.

Speaking for myself, I don’t see that a fact-free wager means a thing. This is all raw conjecture on Danny’s part.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s play along with his assumptions.

Okay, then, what would such a correlation certainly mean?

Answer: the tautology that religious people believe religious things while irreligious people believe irreligious things.

And what’s the significance of that tautology?

This is the sort of argument that either proves too much or too little.

Danny is insinuating a causal connection: religious people believe religious things because they’re religious.

And he’s using that alleged connection to discredit their belief in ID on the grounds that their belief is driven by religious ideology rather than scientific evidence.

But there are two problems with this line of argument:

1.If valid, then it’s child’s play to construct a symmetrical argument for disbelievers in ID theory, to whit: their disbelief is driven by irreligious ideology rather than scientific evidence.

That follows directly from the structure of Danny’s own argument. Just use the same statistics in reverse.

2.The other thing it disregards is that intellectual conversion is a two-way street.

Someone could deny naturalistic evolution because he’s religious, or he could be religious because he denies naturalistic evolution.

That is to say, there are people who were originally atheistic in outlook, but as they began to scrutinize the intellectual difficulties with propping up naturalism in general, or naturalistic evolution in particular, they came to see that Christian theism was the only rational alternative.

Who Designed the Designer

Who Designed the Designer? by Jay Richards

Bush lied!—or did he?

A striking story from the notoriously rightwing, Bush-adoring NYT:


The campaign for the online archive was mounted by conservative publications and politicians, who said that the nation’s spy agencies had failed adequately to analyze the 48,000 boxes of documents seized since the March 2003 invasion. With the public increasingly skeptical about the rationale and conduct of the war, the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees argued that wide analysis and translation of the documents — most of them in Arabic — would reinvigorate the search for clues that Mr. Hussein had resumed his unconventional arms programs in the years before the invasion. American search teams never found such evidence.

Among the dozens of documents in English were Iraqi reports written in the 1990s and in 2002 for United Nations inspectors in charge of making sure Iraq had abandoned its unconventional arms programs after the Persian Gulf war. Experts say that at the time, Mr. Hussein’s scientists were on the verge of building an atom bomb, as little as a year away.
European diplomats said this week that some of those nuclear documents on the Web site were identical to the ones presented to the United Nations Security Council in late 2002, as America got ready to invade Iraq. But unlike those on the Web site, the papers given to the Security Council had been extensively edited, to remove sensitive information on unconventional arms.


What's so bad about hell?

The doctrine of hell is one of the leading objections to Christian. But one of the striking features of the polemical literature against the doctrine of hell is the vast disproportion between the intensity of the rhetoric and what the Bible actually has to say on the subject.

Most all of the time, what the critics of hell are attacking is not the Biblical doctrine of hell, but a popular version of hell, based on some colorful bits of imagery in Dante and Edwards or horror flicks of the slash-em-up variety.

It’s like a bunch of boys who double-dare each other to go into an abandoned house, as they regale each other with lurid stories about the unspeakable horror that lurks within.

And when a kid screws up his courage to go inside, the actual experience is quite a let down. The anticlimactic reality can’t live up to the campfire stories.

But what is hell really like? What does the Bible say?

1. Imagery

The Bible uses some stock imagery to describe hell, viz. maggots, chains, outer darkness, the lake of fire.

This is usually taken to be figurative.

2. Duration

On the traditional interpretation, the state of damnation is everlasting.

There have been persistent efforts to deny this, but I think the traditional interpretation is sound.

3. Punishment

Damnation is punitive.

There have been some attempts to deny this. Hell is locked from the inside. The damned rejected God, but God never rejected the damned. That sort of thing.

But it’s clear from Scripture that damnation is treated as a judicial sentence in which God is exacting retribution against the wicked. Damnation is inseparable from the principle of just deserts.

4. Despair

Hell is characterized as a place of psychological misery, viz. “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

5. Pain?

This is a bit difficult to separate from the figurative imagery. However, Scripture has a doctrine of the general resurrection.

Since the damned are reembodied, they are presumably vulnerable to pain.

The corporeal dimension of damnation is also a reason to say that hell is an actual place, and not merely a state of mind.

6. Pure evil

Damnation is a state in which sin is unrestrained by common grace.

And that, I think, covers just about everything we can say for sure about damnation. The rest is speculation.

Now, in the customary attack on hell, such as you find in Pinnock or Ingersoll, hell is characterized as a torture chamber—with God cast in the role of the cosmic sadist. Like something from a B-movie of the horror genre.

Several things stand out in this model of hell:

i) The damned are victims.

ii) Apropos (i), the damned are unwilling participants—like a man or woman who’s strapped to a table as a psychopath flays them alive.

iii) An emphasis on physical torment.

But it should be obvious that this model of hell doesn’t derive from the specific exegesis of Scripture.

To depict hell as a torture chamber, you have to make certain assumptions. Ironically, this confronts the critic of hell with a dilemma.

Why would hell resemble a torture chamber? Assuming that it is analogous to a torture chamber, why would the damned be so cruel to each other?

To believe this, you have to accept a pretty traditional view of sin and human depravity.

Yet critics of hell assure us that the traditional doctrine of sin is vastly overblown. Not only does it exaggerate the degree of human depravity, but it artificially classifies perfectly natural and normal impulses as sinful.

What is more, secular critics of hell regard unbelievers as more virtuous than believers. As Steven Weinberg puts it, with or without religion, you’d have good people doing good and bad people doing bad, but for good people to do evil—now that takes religion.

Moreover, a secular humanist would say that a consistent secular humanist is more virtuous than a consistent Christian.

If, then, we take the critics of hell at their word, why would hell be one big torture chamber? Why would the damned torment each other?

This depiction isn’t consistent with either the religious left or secular humanism.

On their view, hell should actually be better than life on earth. Better without God. Or better without the superstitious shackles and Victorian hang-ups of organized religion.

All the most enlightened people end up in hell. The scientists and philanthropists.

The only reason for believing that the damned are truly vicious is if you believe that sin is every bit as bad as the Bible says it is.

But, in that case, where’s the injustice in punishing sinners by making them live with each other? If one wrongdoer wrongs another wrongdoer, is that a miscarriage of justice, or is that poetic justice?

Isn’t that a case in which the punishment exactly fits the crime? Conmen conning other conmen? Muggers mugging other muggers. That sort of thing.

Finally, if we’re going to speculate on hell, then a hellish existence need not entail pain. Interminable boredom would be a hellish existence. Too much sameness becomes unbearable over time.

Conversely, too much change becomes unbearable over time. Imagine an inescapable dream in which nothing ever stays the same. People come and go. Places come and go.

Having your own way came be a source of despair. A dream come true can be a nightmare if your three wishes are sinful wishes. We’ve all seen people who couldn’t cope with success. The man who has everything in life except a happy life.

Life in a fallen world gives us many glimpses of hell. A foretaste of things to come for those who die outside of Christ.

This is the stuff of novels and plays, movies, TV shows, and real life.

The way in which the enemies of Christianity demonize (pun intended) the doctrine of everlasting punishment is exactly the kind of malicious caricature I’d expect if hell is for real. This is the devil’s version of hell. The version of hell he puts out for public consumption so that folks won’t take it seriously. And his P.R. campaign is ironically successful with the hell-bound.

I don’t doubt that hell is a very bleak place. But what makes a hellish existence such a grim existence is not the address, but the company we keep. There goes the neighborhood!

Taking On Dawkins' God:An interview with Alister McGrath

Here's a few excerpts from Taking On Dawkins' God:An interview with Alister McGrath:

Alister McGrath wants the world to know that Richard Dawkins is wrong: good science is not tantamount to atheism.

Do you have a personal relationship with Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins and I have met, and we’ve discussed these issues, but I think it’s probably fair to say that I’m interacting more with the books than with the man. I thought that it was essential to interact with the Richard Dawkins who was in the public arena, rather than Richard Dawkins the private man. And the reason for that is simply that his ideas are known so widely through his books. Therefore, the book I wrote is basically an interaction with what Dawkins has published.

Certainly, there is an amount of parallelism between our careers. But I think the reason I’ve been so interested in interacting with him is just this sense that there is a very important public dialogue that needs to take place here — and that maybe I was the right person to get this dialogue underway.

Can you talk about the way in which Dawkins’ focus has seemed to change over the years?

There’s no doubt that Dawkins has changed. He began by being a very adept scientific popularizer and, in The Selfish Gene, you see someone who really knows Darwinian theory and is capable of explaining it very, very clearly. But by the time you get to A Devil’s Chaplain, what we have is a very crude religious propagandist, only loosely connected with the whole scientific culture. Certainly, in reading everything Dawkins has written, I saw nothing that helped me to understand that transition.

It seems to me, he has a real animus against religion, but I’m unable to identify any single factor that seems to be a legitimate explanation of that hostility. The media now perceives Dawkins not as a scientific popularizer — if they want to talk to somebody about science they’ll go to other people — but rather as an aggressive atheist who can be relied upon to “rubbish” religion, almost like a knee-jerk reaction.

It’s very puzzling. In reading him, I can see no persuasive reason for being so hostile to religion. I can see good reasons why he might say, “I think religion is wrong,” but I don’t see why he says religion is evil and, above all, that religious people are fools, demonical or mad. That just doesn’t follow from the examples he brings.

What do you think of Dawkins’ understanding of religion and theological matters?

Dawkins seems to assume that his audience is completely ignorant of religion and, therefore, will accept his inadequate characterizations of religion as being accurate. And I think his entire method is based on the assumption of the transference of competence.

In other words, because this man is a very competent evolutionary biologist, that same competency is evident in, for example, his views on religion. And really, one of the things I find so distressing and so puzzling in reading him was that his actual knowledge of religion is very slight. He knows he doesn’t like it, but he seems to have a very shallow understanding, for example, of what religious people mean by the word “faith.”

So why has the media not called out Dawkins on his religious ignorance?

The reason that Richard Dawkins has become so influential is that his rather strident, rather aggressive views resonate with what quite a lot of people hope is indeed the case. And so, if you like, Dawkins has become a figure who is better known for his rhetoric than his reasoning.

On those relatively few occasions when he does try to engage Christian theology, he does show himself to be embarrassingly ignorant of what Christian theology is saying.

Ernan McMullin, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, told me recently that the Christian right loves Dawkins because he is so extreme, because he is so easy to focus on, and because he is so easy to turn into an icon of everything that they dislike about secular society. What do you think of that?

That’s happening. There’s no doubt that many people are treating Dawkins as a kind of atheist role model. It suits Christians very well because he’s so aggressive and, at the same time, so poorly informed. He is really easy to critique. I think that if any atheists read your magazine, I would strongly recommend they find a more responsible spokesperson. Richard Dawkins is only creating an impression that atheists simply are people who have knee-jerk reactions to faith and know very little about them.

In your book, The Science of God, you make an interesting claim that in October and November of 1971 you began to discover that the intellectual case for atheism was rather insubstantial. This coalesced into the idea that atheism itself is a belief system. What was providing the impetus for that?

In Oxford people sit up late into the night arguing, and I was doing this. I was arguing with people about A.J. Ayer and about Bertrand Russell and discovering that what I thought were very secure arguments actually were extremely vulnerable. Now it wasn’t so much I was reading — I was engaging. What I was doing was engaging with Christians who clearly were very articulate and extremely well informed. And I hadn’t really come across people like that before. So I guess that what you could say is I was breathing the intellectual oxygen that Oxford makes possible and discovering that my ideas needed urgent revision.

So it wasn’t a matter of particular written text? It was more just dialogue with real people?


Do you expect or anticipate a book-length response from Dawkins?

No, I don’t. What I do hope for is a public debate in which he and I can dialogue with each other. I don’t necessarily mean a point-scoring debate. Neither one of us is trying to wrestle the other one to the ground. I do think that because the issues are so important, there is a genuine case for a public dialogue with an audience able to listen to us exchange views and then critique both of us. I think that’s extremely important.

Dawkins is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. And I would argue he’s, therefore, under a professional responsibility to engage in precisely this type of dialogue because after all, what we’re talking about here is an issue of the public interpretation of science. I think here to misrepresent is a very serious thing, and I think it’s fair for him to be able to defend himself in public against that. And I’m very happy to have that debate any time he wants to. But at the moment I fear the initiative is with me, and I’m not getting a favorable response.

What do you mean you’re not getting a favorable response? Do you mean from Dawkins himself or from others who are his followers?

I am ready to have a public discussion with Richard Dawkins at any time and place he chooses. He knows that.

He refused?


Are there good reasons for observing that the methodologies of science are dependent upon a worldview that holds that there is order in the universe to begin with?

I think that’s right. Dawkins doesn’t really engage with historical analysis very much. He doesn’t ask why did the sciences emerge in a predominantly Christian culture, for example, and I think that his lack of knowledge of history does lead him astray at a number of very important points.

If you had a message for Dawkins that I could help you convey, what would that be?

Let’s talk in public.

Jay Walker

I heard that Jay Walker (The Discomfiter) was going to be on The Narrow Mind tomorrow morning from 9-10 PST. Gene Cook told me he's going to drop some arguments pertaining to how Christians are a bunch of liars. Given my latest debacle, I'm tuning in for this one.

I also heard that he got his latest round of arguments from John Loftus. Should be an interesting show.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Millennial options

I’ve been asked to comment on the millennial debate.

I. Postmillennialism

1.Classic postmillennialism is aesthetically appealing. It charts a pleasing dramatic arc and denouement from certain OT themes like the seed of promise and godly remnant to an upward and outward crescendo and climax.

In that respect it exemplifies the classic comic genre, which begins on a high point (Eden), then suffers a tragic downward motion (the fall), then rebounds to end on a higher note than it began on.

This is more aesthetically and dramatically appealing than amillennialism, where Christ comes (the first time), but history continues to zigzag between good and evil, with neither side winning a decisive victory until his second coming.

Postmillennialism is linear while amillennialism is more cyclical.

It’s also more aesthetically appealing, but not necessarily more dramatically appealing, than premillennialism. As we know from the popularity of the Left Behind series, its wham-bam, Batman-style histrionics enjoys a certain cheesy, melodramatic appeal.

So, if life imitated art, we would opt for classical postmillennialism.

Unfortunately for postmillennialism, the choice comes down to revelation rather than imagination, and postmillennialism is, as far as I can tell, underdetermined by Scripture. Prooftexts include:

i) OT golden age prophecies (e.g. Ps 2; 22; 72; Isa 2; 9; 11; 66).

ii) The sweeping terms of the Abrahamic covenant and Great Commission.

iii) Parables of kingdom growth.

iv) An endtime Jewish revival (Rom 11).

But while all of this is consistent with postmillennialism, none of it implies postmillennialism.

i) For one thing, premils, postmils, and amils all compete for some of the same prooftexts. All three groups appeal to the OT golden age prophecies. They simply apply them to different phases of redemptive history.

ii) Likewise, both premils and postmils appeal to Rom 11.

So these prooftexts fail to select for postmillennialism in particular.

iii) I’d add that interpreters like O. P. Robertson, N. T. Wright, and Lee Irons have offered amil readings of Rom 11 which—if valid—would undercut that chapter as a prooftext for either premils or postmils.

iv) Postmillennialism is more specific in its claims than the rather generic language of the Abrahamic covenant and Great Commission.

v) It’s precarious to base your theology on the parables, which are secondary literature in the sense that they are designed to illustrate a teaching rather than stand alone.

vi) In addition, there are also parables which stress the imminence of the Parousia.

vii) A popular objection to postmillennialism is the specter of a mass, endtime apostasy.

However, postmils can deflect these passages by preterizing them. In addition, premils tend to cobble these passages together under the assumption that they all refer to the same event. But one needs to undertake a lot of painstaking exegesis before we can justify that assumption.

2.In addition to classic postmillennialism, a more recent development is postmillennial preterism. This is a development within certain Reformed circles.

And it’s a rather eccentric if not oxymoronic synthesis in the way it severely truncates and radically redefines the traditional postmil projections.

It would be better to drop the “postmil” part of the hyphenated compound and merely call it preterism, pure and simple, for that’s all it is.

3.A logical, albeit heretical, extension of preterism is hyperpreterism.

At one level, there’s no difference between hyperpreterism and liberal preterism inasmuch as both groups believe that OT and NT prophecies targeted the same event.

The only difference is that the hyperpreterist believe the prophecies came true (in a figurative sense), whereas the liberal preterist believes they were falsified by subsequent events.

On a side note, I’d also observe that certain English commentators like N. T. Wright and R. T. France adopt a preterist reading of at least some (all?) OT and NT prophecies as well. And given N. T. Wright’s power as a popularizer, even within Reformed circles, this is something to keep our eye on.

II. Premillennialism

1.Premillennialism comes in many flavors.

i) Classic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism.

ii) Classic dispensationalism and progressive dispensationalism.

iii) Pre/mid/posttribulational premillennialism.

For the moment I’m going to ignore these intramural debates, which I’ll revisit shortly.

2.At one level, premillennialism has only one prooftext: Rev 20.

There are three basic arguments for the premil reading of Rev 20:

i) We should interpret the Bible as literally as possible.

ii) The storyline or historical plot of Revelation is continuous and chronological from Rev 4 through to the end. Rev 20 records the millennium. Rev 20 follows on the heels of 19, which records the return of Christ. Hence, the Apocalypse teaches, in a very straightforward manner, the premillennial return of Christ.

iii) The redoubled use of the verb ezesan (“came to life”) in 20:4-5 should retain the same sense in each occurrence.

Amils reject these arguments on the following grounds:

i) Amils generally regard the internal structure or literary organization of Revelation as cyclical rather than linear, involving septunarian numerology and recapitulatory parallelism.

I personally think that amils can be overly precise in their divisions. However, I agree with this analysis in general.

ii) Even if Rev 20 follows Rev 19, several commentators (Beale, Michaels, Poythress) have pointed out that we need to distinguish between the visionary sequence and the historical sequence.

On this view, what the Apocalypse is recording is not the historical sequence, in the sense of future chronology, but the psychological order in which John was receiving and processing these visions.

iii) The real issue is not whether the verb means the same thing in both occurrences, but whether it denotes the same thing. The premil interpretation commits a semantic fallacy by equating sense and reference.

Traditionally, amil interpreters gloss the second occurrence of the verb in light of Jn 5:25-29.

This comparison has a certain appeal, for if you assume common authorship, then John’s usage in the Gospel might be synonymous with his usage in Revelation.

However, the Fourth Gospel is not the first place you should look to interpret Rev 20. Rather, you should first consider such factors as any literary allusions in Rev 20 (cf. Ezk 37) as well as certain rhetorical polarities in Revelation, viz. life/death/, first/second.

So I agree with the premil criticism of the traditional amil interpretation respecting the verb. But I also think that more recent amil commentators like Poythress and Beale have offered a more contextual interpretation.

3.Pretribulational premillennialism adds a supporting argument in the form of the secret rapture. This is a harmonistic device to square the parables which stress the imminence of the Parousia with the other parables that accentuate the progress of the gospel and duration of the church age.

A key text in support of the secret rapture is 1 Thes 4:13-18. For an amil interpretation, cf.

G. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians (IVP 2003), 136-41.

Speaking for myself, one of my basic problems with pretribulationalism is the way in which it automatically isolates and then aligns various passages from different authors in different genres writing to different readers. There is not much effort, that I’ve seen, to ask preliminary questions regarding the occasion and purpose of the passage in question with respect to the target audience. It’s just assumed that all these passages are talking about the same event.

III. Hermeneutics

Now, if this were all that premillennialism had to say for itself, it wouldn’t have much to go on. What keeps the debate alive, aside from a certain amount of partisanship on either side, is that competing interpretations over individual verses are merely symptomatic of a different and deeper interpretive scheme and theological methodology, as well as a different ecclesiology.

Here are some of the major issues:


Traditionally, premils emphasize the literal meaning of Scripture, as they define it. Actually, one of the problems is the absence of a definition, for they generally define “literal” by what they take to be synonymous adjectives like “plain,” “natural,” or “normal.” So the definition is circular.

Another source of the ambiguity—indeed, of the equivocation—is that “literal” is being used to cover more than one concept. From what I can tell, “literal” is deployed in some of the following senses:

i)”Actual, factual, historical.”

A literal interpretation involves the affirmation that what was said or done really happened. A real event, in space and time.

That definition would involve an ontological claim.


The Biblical representation doesn’t stand for something else. It isn’t metaphorical.


It’s the first impression that the words would make an average reader.


What the statement means in isolation to a “system” of theology.


The event not only happened, but happened in exactly the way it’s described in Scripture.

Unlike (i), (ii)-(v) are epistemic rather than ontological. A statement about what we can know rather than what there is.

Beyond the aforementioned definitions are a couple of related concerns:

2. The appeal to what is “plain,” “natural,” or “normal” is a populist appeal. It democratizes theology. You don’t need to know anything about Greek or Hebrew or the original culture to understand prophecy.

3. Consistency. There is a concern to have a uniform rule of thumb for interpreting the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

However, within dispensationalism itself there has been a drift away from literality. This is one of the differences between classic and progressive dispensationalism.

By itself, I don’t think this marks a liberalizing trend. What has happened is that, as the cream of premil scholars have studied abroad with the likes of I. H. Marshall, Alan Millard, and the late F. F. Bruce, there has been an inevitable shift from homespun literalism to the grammatico-historical method.

Scholars like Darrell Bock and Daniel Block are simply better educated than Scofield, Darby or Chafer. Having received a good deal of their training outside the dispensational fold, that is bound to have an impact sooner or later.

Now, because the Bible does, indeed, record real-life events, the GHM will often yield in “literal” interpretation, in one sense of the word. And, in that respect, the effect of the hermeneutic shift is rather selective and subtle rather than wholesale.

Still, what is driving the literal conclusion is not a literalistic hermeneutic, but a different methodology which, when applied to an actual event, generates a literal conclusion. The literal conclusion is the caboose, not the choo-choo.


Dispensationalism accuses Calvinism of operating with a form of replacement theology, according to which the church swaps out Israel in the OT promises.

So what’s the difference between classic dispensational hermeneutics and, say, Reformed hermeneutics? And who’s right?

1.Apostolic Exegesis.

i) One of the fundamental differences between Reformed hermeneutics and classic dispensational hermeneutics lines in what they consider to be the chronological cutoff point for the canonical context of any given book of Scripture.

In classic dispensationalism (at least in principle), it is the canon of Scripture up to and including the book in question. Everything earlier, but nothing later.

In Reformed hermeneutics, by contrast, the entire canon is potentially in play. Later books may well shed light the interpretation of earlier books.

Progressive dispensationalism agrees with Reformed hermeneutics in this respect.

For information on the difference between classic and progressive dispensationalism, cf.:

Classic dispensationalism rejects this move as anachronistic. A violation of original intent.

ii) It’s undoubtedly true that, in this respect, Reformed hermeneutics represents a departure from the GHM, as ordinarily construed.

That’s because Reformed hermeneutics makes allowance for the dual authorship of Scripture. An uninspired writing cannot look ahead. As such, it would be anachronistic to interpret an earlier document in light of later developments.

But where inspiration is a factor, OT books are genuinely anticipatory.

iii) This form of retrospective exegesis does not impose a different meaning on the original text. The meaning remains the same.

But we need to distinguish between sense and referent. Where an OT text has a future referent, that referent can only be properly identified in the future.

In any future-oriented text, there will be a dialectical relation between the past sense and the future referent.

It means whatever it meant at the time it was given. But the temporal referent is supplied by the historical outcome.

The text may, of course specify the referent. That way, we know what we’re looking for.

But it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we know exactly how and when the anticipation was realized in time.

And this is quite literal. For the future referent literally lies in the future.

iv) Another problem with the classic dispensational critique is that it also engages in retrospective exegesis, even though it disavows that practice:

v) Reformed theology also operates a more typological, rather than literalistic, conception of fulfillment. There is a great deal of intertextual interpretation in the Bible. This often goes by the designation of “apostolic exegesis,” but that is somewhat misleading, for it isn’t limited to NT interpretations of the OT. Rather, it extends to the way in which later OT writers interpret earlier OT writers.

Intertextuality is a pervasive feature of Scripture. For the Bible is a record of a continuous legal, literary, and prophetic tradition. Reformed hermeneutics takes its cue from the way in which Bible writers discern the fulfillment of God’s promises.

vi) This is not to say that Reformed exegesis is above criticism in every particular. To some extent, amillennialism is a carryover from Augustine, which includes the lingering influence of allegorical exegesis.

Geerhardus Vos had a considerable influence in giving Reformed amillennialism a more self-consciously eschatological outlook. From him there comes a distinction between inaugurated eschatology and realized eschatology.

Especially in the past, Reformed theologians have sometimes been guilty of “spiritualizing” OT prophecies in a loose, unbridled manner.

Thanks to Vos, this has been tightened up by more recent Reformed theologians and commentators like Beale, Hoekema, Poythress, Ridderbos, and Robertson.

2.The Covenant Community

In Reformed theology, the church never takes the place of Israel. This mischaracterization results from mapping dispensational distinctions back on Reformed theology.

In Reformed theology, Israel and the church were never separate entities or organisms. Rather, they are simply different names for the covenant community.

God has always had a covenant community. In the course of redemptive history, there have been differences in the terms of external membership. But God’s redemptive and eschatological promises share a common referent in the covenant community throughout its historical phases.

Finally, we might pose the blunt question, “Can a dispensationalist be a Calvinist?” The answer depends on how broadly or narrowly you define Calvinism.

If you think that TULIP is a sufficient definition of Calvinism, then, in principle, even a classic dispensationalist could be a Calvinist.

If you regard covenant theology as a necessary ingredient of Calvinism, then it may be possible for a progressive dispensationalist to be a Calvinist.

For an overview of covenant theology, cf.:

As a practical matter, Calvinism has always been pretty tolerant of classic premillennialism, even though amillennialism and postmillennialism have been the most popular options in Reformed historical theology.

The Reformed confessions were framed at a time when some of the later distinctions did not exist.

Traditionally, Reformed theology accentuates the continuity of the covenants while dispensationalism accentuates their discontinuity. But progressive dispensationalism has considerably narrowed the gap.

For further reading:

V. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists

O. P. Robertson, The Christ of the Prophets (P&R 2004)

______. The Israel of God (P&R 2000)

N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” The New Interpreters Bible, L. Keck, ed. (Abingdon Press 2002), 10:687-93.