Saturday, May 31, 2014

Trust me, I'm a scientist

More Proof for the Religion of Peace

The Hitchcock/Hanegraaff Debate On The Date Of Revelation

Earlier this week, I wrote about the date of the book of Revelation. I want to recommend a couple of resources for those who are interested in doing more research on the subject.

Are miracles less likely than not?

I'm posting something I said in recent correspondence with some friends:

I just find the whole business of probabilifying miracles nonsensical. It's said that miracles are inherently or antecedently unlikely. 

Take the miracle at Cana. By that logic, it was less likely than not (indeed, far less likely) that God would perform the miracle at Cana. But how is anyone in a position to say in advance (and after the fact it's moot) whether or not God intended to perform the miracle at Cana? How do you lay odds for that hypothetical? 

If, moreover, God did in fact perform the miracle at Cana, how is it less likely than not (indeed, far less likely) that he wouldn't do what he was going to do? If he did it, then isn't it at least more likely than not that he was going to do what he did? 

Perhaps an atheist will say the evidence for atheism renders a miracle improbable. But in that event, it's not the probability of a miracle, but the probability of a miracle-working God, that's at issue.

Since, moreover, any evidence for miracles would subtract from any (alleged) evidence for atheism, is it not viciously circular to make atheism the gauge for assigning a probability value to miracles–even if you're an atheist? 

Not to mention that it would only take one bona fide miracle to falsify atheism. The threshold for falsifying atheism is exceedingly low. 

To take a comparison, what's the probability of a royal flush? Assuming the deck is randomly shuffled, that's a straightforward mathematical calculation.

But what's the probability of a royal flush if the deck is stacked? Well, assuming the card sharp is good at his job, it's inevitable.

So that becomes a question of how probable it is that the deck is stacked, which in turn, becomes a question of how probable it is that the dealer is a card sharp.

I don't see how treating probability statistically enables us to lay odds on whether or not the deck is stacked. That's a question of what would motivate a dealer to stack the deck.

In my illustration, the uniformity of nature is analogous to randomly shuffled decks, while a miracle is analogous to a stacked deck. 

I don't mind defining a miracle as an action that inhibits the world from continuing in the way it would if left to itself.

But since a miracle involves personal agency or personal intention, overriding how the world would continue if left to itself, the question is how to assign a probability value to God's will to perform (or not perform) a miracle. I don't see how statistics or background knowledge regarding the general uniformity of nature is germane to how we anticipate or estimate God's intention to perform a miracle. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

"Troubling trends"

Arminians have seized on this article by Merritt:

Of course, Arminians don't see themselves in any of this. It's always the other who suffers from these defects.

i) I'm unpersuaded by the oft-cited distinction between "new Calvinists" and old Calvinists. For instance, what does it even mean to classify Piper, a huge fan of Jonathan Edwards, as a neo-Calvinist? 

ii) There's an obvious point of tension between Merritt's accusation that the new Calvinists are "isolationists" and his contention that more vocal and visible strain that has risen to prominence in recent years. They’ve been called the “young, restless, and reformed” or neo-Calvinists, and they are highly mobilized and increasingly influential.

iii) The new Calvinists often engage those outside their tradition. They are frequently polemical in that regard. Indeed, Merritt says that under "egotism." So that's another inconsistency on his indictment.

iv) The charge of "tribalism" posits a false comparison. For other groups are just as tribalistic. Arminians are tribalistic. Lutherans are tribalistic. Charismatics are tribalistic. Environmentalists are tribalistic. Darwinians are tribalistic. And so on and so forth. 

v) The charge of egotism reflects the false modesty of critics who refuse to acknowledge their own dogmaticism and intolerance. 

vi) Within the same section, he simultaneously accuses Calvinists of ousting Tullian Tchividjian and "closing ranks" or  “sweeping under the rug when it comes to insiders."

But both those allegations can't be equally true, for they tug in opposing directions. 

Same thing with the ousting of Bruce Waltke. Merritt pounces on that example, but how does that illustrate Calvinists closing ranks? Isn't that Spring cleaning rather than sweeping under the rug?

vii) He makes the absurd allegation that as the ego inflates, the body rises and one begins to speak from above rather than from across. This is often seen in the way neo-Calvinists speak as if they are the arbiters of the term “gospel.” Search the term “gospel” on the web site of the Reformed publisher Crossway and you’ll see what I mean. 

How would that be any different that if we went to the website of a Lutheran publisher like Concordia? Or a Baptist publisher like B&H? Or an Arminian publisher like Seedbed? 

viii) Merritt alleges that:

Because Tim Keller has become something of a prize hen for Calvinists—New York Magazine called him “the most successful Christian evangelist in the city”—you won’t likely hear other neo-Calvinists mention Keller’s views. Tribalists attempt to “clean house” when it comes to outsiders but “sweep under the rug” when it comes to insiders.
As Roger Olson, Baylor University professor and author of “Against Calvinism“, told me, “[Neo-Calvinist's are] a tribe, and they’ve closed ranks. Somehow they’ve formed a mentality that they have to support each other because they are a minority on a crusade. Any criticism hurts the cause. I’ve seen the same thing among feminists and black theologians.”
Olson says that when he speaks to Calvinist leaders, they will often critique the movement and its other leaders in private, but never in public. My experience has been identical.
“There is a fundamentalist ethos in [neo-Calvinism],” Olson says. “You get pats on the back and merits for criticizing outsiders, but not for criticizing insiders. There is a system where if you are young coming up in the ranks, you get points for criticizing or exposing those outside the movement but it’s not your place to criticize those who are above you in the movement itself.” 

That's demonstrably false. Keller is the target of relentless criticism within the Reformed community. For instance:

ix) Notice how often Merritt quotes Olson in his article, as if Olson is an impartial critic of Calvinism. Likewise, he quotes Scot McKnight, another prominent Arminian apologist. All this proves is that Arminians disapprove of Calvinism. 

Merritt's article is just an incoherent hatchet-job to disguise his leftwing agenda. 

A brief history of postmil preterism

Postmil preterism has become popular in some contemporary Reformed circles. To my knowledge, Warfield was the first postmil preterist, but it didn't catch on at the time.

Postmillennialism has a long history in Calvinism. But a synthesis of preterism and postmillennialism seems to be more innovative.

Warfield's preterism is clear from how he interprets the Johannine Antichrist (in 1 John) and the Pauline Antichrist (in 2 Thessalonians). That, in turn, commits him, in some measure, to a preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse. 

I don't know if Warfield arrived at his preterism independently of how he arrived at his postmillennialism. His mentor and teacher, Charles Hodge, was a postmil. Warfield began his career as a NT scholar, before succeeding A. A. Hodge at Princeton. I don't know where Warfield picked up preterism. 

I think Reformed postmillennialism was kept alive by Loraine Boettner. He's a bridge between Warfield and the resurgence of postmill preterism. He got clobbered when he contributed to The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views. If memory serves, Martin Selbrede helped him behind the scenes to shore up his case.  

To my knowledge, the resurgence of postmil preterism initially took place in theonomic circles, although I don't think Rushdoony was a preterist. I don't know if Bahnsen was the fist to recombine preterism with postmillennialism. 

A further complication was the split between the Rushdoony faction and the Tyler Texas faction. The movement spawned splitter groups, with some former members leaving the movement. It's possible that the resurgence of postmil preterism would have been abortive had it not been for the influential patronage of R. C. Sproul. 

Warfield was easily the most distinguished postmil preterist. Among the current crop, Keith Mathison and Kenneth Gentry seem to be the two best scholars. You also have hack popularizers like Gary DeMar. 

Here's a generally positive review, which–however–registers concerns:

Partial preterism is a very unstable position. If you start with partial preterism, it's hard to stop with partial preterism. In that respect, it's disturbing to see the inroads that preterism is making in some Reformed circles. Here's a glowing review from the OPC rag that's utterly oblivious to the dangers of shipwreck:

And here's a review, by a hyperpreterist, which charts Mathison's drift towards the rocky shoals of hyperpreterism:

There are some very significant changes in this book from some of Mathison's previously written works on eschatology that need to be pointed out. 
The main change is that Mathison used to divided Matthew 24-25 up into two sections--with two comings of Christ: 1) one in AD 70 Mt 24:1-34, and 2) one to end time Mt 24:35ff (cf. Mathison, "DISPENSATIONALISM Rightly Dividing the People of God?" p. 138ff). He is now partially following Gary DeMar's exegesis that the OD (Olivet Discourse) is united and that the coming of Christ in Mt 25:31ff. is also a reference to Christ's return in AD 70 (380). I say "partially" because he will not admit that the "end of the age" is the end of the old covenant age in AD 70 which is contextually tied to the destruction of the temple, which DeMar boldly points out. Mathison's change is curious because he, along with other Reformed theologians in his book, "When Shall These Things Be?" condemned "hyper-preterists" for coming up with exegesis or interpretations that could not be found in the early church fathers. Question, "What early church father taught that the coming of the Son of Man in Mt 25:31 was NOT the "actual" Second Coming of Jesus connected to the general judgment and resurrection - as Mathison has attempted to pull off in "FROM AGE TO AGE?" 
Mathison takes EVERY eschatological text in 1 and 2 Thessalonians as being fulfilled in AD 70 except for 1 Thessalonians 4 (507ff., cf. Mathison, "Postmillennialism An Eschatology of Hope" pp. 225ff.). In order to establish his preterist interpretations of say 2 Thessalonians 2, he uses the parallels or analogy of Scripture hermeneutic with Matthew 24: 
2 Thess. 2:1=Matt. 24:27, 30 a coming of the Lord
2 Thess. 2:1=Matt. 24:31 a gathering together to Him
2 Thess. 2:3=Matt. 24:5, 10-12 apostasy
2 Thess. 2:7=Matt. 24:31 the mystery of lawlessness
2 Thess. 2:9-10=Matt. 24:24 satanic signs and wonders
2 Thess. 2:11=Matt. 24:5, 24 a deluding influence on unbelievers (Mathison, Postmillennialism, 230). 
BUT when the resurrection is associated with Christ's return and is the topic, he avoids the parallels that Amillennialists and Full Preterists make between Matthew 24-25 with that of 1 Thessalonians 4-5: 
1 Thess. 4:16=Matt. 24:30 from heaven
1 Thess. 4:16=Matt. 24:31 with archangelic voice
1 Thess. 4:16=Matt. 24:31 with God's trumpet
1 Thess. 4:17=Matt. 24:31 believers caught up to be with Christ
1 Thess. 4:17=Matt. 24:30 believers in "clouds"
1 Thess. 5:1-2=Matt. 24:36 exact time unknown
1 Thess. 5:2=Matt. 24:43 Christ comes like a thief
1 Thess. 5:3=Matt. 24:37-39 unbelievers caught unaware
1 Thess. 5:3=Matt. 24:8 birth pains
1 Thess. 5:4-5=Matt. 24:43 believers are not deceived
1 Thess. 5:6=Matt. 24:42 believers told to be watchful
1 Thess. 5:7=Matt. 24:49 exhortation against drunkenness
1 Thess. 5:4-8=Matt. 24:27, 36-38 the day, sons of light, sons of the day (Michael Sullivan, "House Divided Bridging the Gap in Reformed Eschatology A Preterist Response to When Shall These Things Be?,chapter 4, THE ESCHATOLOGICAL MADNESS OF MATHISON OR HOW CAN THESE THINGS BE?" pp. 107-108)" 
Due to creedal commitments (obviously not exegesis), notice how he is FORCED to violate his own parallel hermeneutical approach - with partial preterists such as Gary DeMar, Kenneth Gentry, James Jordan, and Peter Leithart all having the same problems. Mathison now claims that Jesus did not teach about His actual Second Coming, but Paul (through progressive revelation) did in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15. But Paul tells us that what he is teaching in 1 Thess. 4:15ff. is "According to the Lord's own words..." (see above). Matthison is obviously "conflicted" between his hyper-creedalism and Full Preterism, and that is why he makes these bizarre statements and avoids the obvious Full or True Preterist interpretations.

Atheism at an impasse

Here's a striking admission by a rabid atheist, regarding the stalemate between theism and atheism:

The prospects for a simple, confined argument for atheism (or theism) that achieves widespread support or that settles the question are dim.  That is because, in part, the prospects for any argument that decisively settles a philosophical question where a great deal seems to be at stake are dim. 
The existence or non-existence of any non-observable entity in the world is not settled by any single argument or consideration.  Every premise will be based upon other concepts and principles that themselves must be justified…The question of whether or not there is a God sprawls onto related issues and positions about biology, physics, metaphysics, explanation, philosophy of science, ethics, philosophy of language, and epistemology.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

In what sense are miracles improbable?

Atheists typically classify miracles as inherently improbable. And even some Christian philosophers assign a very low (but surmountable) prior probability to miracles. Low in what sense?

Consider two examples to illustrate my question.

Richard Feyman once said: 

You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot. And you won't believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!

In what sense is that improbable? 

i) Perhaps he meant, what are the odds that a license plate would have that combination of letters and numbers. Those exact letters and numbers in that exact sequence.

Let's pick a figure out of the air. Suppose the odds are one in 20 million that a license plate would have that number. 

If, however, there were 20 million license plates, then it's a dead certainty that one plate will have that number.

So even though it's astronomically unlikely that any given plate will have that number, it's certain that some plate will have that number.

ii) But maybe what he meant was not the improbability of the license plate, but the conjunction of two independent events. What are the odds that a car with that particular license in that particular lot would be there at the same time he happened to be there? 

However, as a good physicist, wouldn't he say it that conjunction was bound to happen given the antecedent conditions? That there was a causal chain of events leading up to that conjunction? It seems (to me at least) counterintuitive to say something inevitable is astronomically improbable.

But perhaps we need to distinguish between what's metaphysically improbable and what's epistemically improbable.

iii) To take another comparison, what are the odds of having B- blood type? I think the answer depends on the reference group. It's 2% for Caucasians, but 0.4% for Asians. 

Mackie on miracles

[W]e should distinguish two different contexts in which an alleged miracle might be discussed. One possible context would be where the parties in debate already both accept some general theistic doctrines, and the point at issue is whether a miracle has occurred which would enhance the authority of a specific sect or teacher. In this context supernatural intervention, though prima facie unlikely on any particular occasion, is, generally speaking, on the cards: ...But it is a very different matter if the context is that of fundamental debate about the truth of theism itself. Here one party to the debate is initially at least agnostic, and does not yet concede that there is a supernatural power at all. From this point of view the intrinsic improbability of a genuine miracle ... is very great, and one or other of the alternative explanations...will always be much more likely – that is, either that the alleged event is not miraculous, or that it did not occur, that the testimony is faulty in some way.
This entails that it is pretty well impossible that reported miracles should provide a worthwhile argument for theism addressed to those who are initially inclined to atheism or even to agnosticism.
... Not only are such reports unable to carry any rational conviction on their own, but also they are unable even to contribute independently to the kind of accumulation or battery of arguments referred to in the Introduction. To this extent Hume is right, despite the inaccuracies we have found in his statement of the case. J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (1982), 27.

So the agnostic will assign a very low prior probability to a miracle. Presumably, an atheist would assign a zero probability to a miracle. 

Here's the problem I have with that set-up: Sure, given agnosticism, a miracle has a very high burden of proof to discharge.

The question, though, is how firmly the agnostic should privilege his agnosticism as the benchmark–especially in the face of ostensible counterevidence.

Suppose the agnostic became and agnostic before he ever encountered evidence for the miraculous. But that means he became an agnostic in ignorance of the ostensible counterevidence. 

Should his agnosticism count against the probability of miracles? Or should evidence of the miraculous count against his agnostic presumption? Does it not beg the question for him to use his agnosticism to prejudge the likelihood of miracles? Shouldn't the evidence for miracles figure in case for agnosticism in the first place? Even if he comes to the issue belatedly, shouldn't he mentally go back in time and ask himself whether he'd even be an agnostic had he encountered this evidence at an earlier stage in his intellectual development? Isn't his agnosticism accidental to that degree? Why should it be a standard of comparison? What if he was starting from scratch, with the evidence for miracles at the outset? 

Put another way, when both miracles and agnosticism are in dispute, why should his agnosticism have its thumb on the scales? 

Suppose an atheist has reasons to be an atheist. He developed his reasons before he became aware of evidence for miracles.

Should he use atheism to assign a low prior probability to miracles? Why isn't the logic reversible? Why can't evidence for miracles assign a low (perhaps very low) prior probability to atheism? Why the asymmetry?

I don't see why his atheism should supply the standard of comparison for assigning prior probability values to miracles. Why is it not simply a case where he has to counterbalance the evidence for atheism against the evidence for miracles? Why would evidence for atheism set the standard? 

Shooting Fischers in a barrel

Calvinists like Hays seem to want very badly to convince everyone that Calvinists are simply smarter than those who disagree and to disagree with Calvinism is just to show how stupid you are.

i) Ben Henshaw has a tin-ear for sarcasm.

ii) A better question is why Arminians are so shallow and desperate that they get excited about somebody like Austin Fischer. It's fine with me if they make him the postboy for Arminianism. He's their Justin Bieber. 

Moving along:

It depends on what the greater "good" is. For God to create hell and men to be placed in that hell to maximise his eternal glory may not be so "good." 

Nothing can augment God's glory. God doesn't damn anyone for his own benefit. God has nothing to gain. 

God doesn't want evil and sin to exist at all. He permits them if that is a risk in love. 

Which is a backdoor admission that the Arminian God wants sin and evil to exist as a means to an end. That's the price he must pay for true love. 

Permission is not a euphemism. Parents understand the concept.

So if bethyada knew that his (her?) teenage son would suffer paralysis by performing a dangerous stunt to impress his friends, he wouldn't intervene to stop his son. If bethyada knew his daughter would become a prostitute to support her drug habit, he wouldn't intervene to prevent her from getting hooked in the first place. LIkewise, if he knew that his son would O.D. on heroine, he wouldn't intervene to save his life.  

This is a problem that Austin identifies with Calvinism. 

Because Austin is a partisan.

It does not disprove Calvinism, nor is it universal, but the arrogance among the young Calvinists is frequent enough that they form a distinct category even alarmingly noted by other Calvinists. 

i) In my experience, "young Calvinists" are no more or less arrogant than young Arminians, young Lutherans, young Catholics, &c. 

ii) bethyada's invidious comparison, which is popular among Arminians, illustrates how their sense of spiritual superiority blinds Arminians to their own arrogance. 

Really, should a Christ follower tell a fellow traveller to become an atheist? 

Fischer said:

This got me thinking and I remembered that he has frequently admitted he thinks the hard doctrines of Calvinism render it a very offensive theology that is destined to be a minority opinion in the church. I didn’t ask him at the time (and I wouldn’t have wanted to put him in a spot), but I can’t help but think he might agree with me here. When Calvinism is preached honestly and consistently, with all of its hard edges showing instead of concealed in euphemisms, it is very difficult and offensive and it seems unlikely it would ever be as popular as it is now in western evangelicalism.
He also said:

We need to trace out our beliefs to their logical conclusions. I firmly believe that, because our beliefs shape us (whether or not we want them to or are aware of it), we need to know where our beliefs are leading us.

So I'm measuring him by his own yardstick.  
bethyada then goes off on a tangent:

Perhaps this is some sort of Galatian-type response to Judaisers: Austin is a false teacher. Consistency is hardly a false gospel. It does not cause men to abandon Christ. Or does Steve see Calvinism synonymous with salvation excluding Catholics, Orthodox, and large portions of Protestantism including Pentecostals?

bethyada substitutes imagination for information. 

Finally, Billy Birch labors to create a parallel:

Calvinism: Now, God, I summoned you to this interview to determine if you are powerful, like Thor, worthy of my worship. You can start by filling out this questionnaire to see where you rank in my rating system. If you make the first cut, I will quiz you further to see if your godlike power deserves my approbation, thus averting my disappointment.

Some basic problems with his attempted analogy:

i) In Scripture, the question is not whether God is worthy of our worship, but whether we are worthy to worship God. Billy blows right past Olson's subversive standard. That's because Calvinists are more real to Birch than God. That's why Birch disregards my point. 

Even if he thinks I'm a hypocrite, he should still be concerned with Olson's subversive standard for its own sake. But he isn't. That's because the Calvinist opponent is more real to Birch than the God of Scripture.

ii) Olson uses his moral intuitions to sit in judgment of Scripture. I don't. 

iii) If Arminianism is true, then God did less to save a Christian than if Calvinism is true. I'm not measuring God by a Calvinistic ruler when I note that fact. Rather, I'm measuring God by an Arminian ruler when I note that fact. If Arminianism is true, Christians have less to thank God for, because God did less for us than if Calvinism is true. That makes him less praiseworthy–on Arminian grounds. If Arminianism is true, then God did no more to save the heavenbound than the hellbound. 

Sanctification and the gospel

The sanctification debate

I'm going to briefly comment on this post:
It's striking that Scott Clark has decided to side very publicly with Tullian Tchividjian on the sanctification debate. To my knowledge, Tullian's prominent critics hadn't linked his position to WSC. Ironically, Clark is now playing right into Frame's indictment of "the Escondido theology."

Some orthodox Reformed pastors are being charged with antinomianism because they allegedly over emphasize grace—how sinners who face eternal condemnation apart from the free favor merited for them by the perfect, whole obedience of Christ can over emphaize grace I am uncertain but that is the charge. Further, it is charged that some of these advocates of free grace downplay the moral, logical necessity of sanctification and good works as a consequence of Christ’s free justification of sinners. 
Clark doesn't quote any critics who say Tchividjian and his ilk "overemphasize grace." It's revealing that Clark frames the issue in the same way antinomians (i.e. the Evangelical Grace Society) frame the issue. They allege that making good works (or sanctification) a condition of salvation compromises salvation by grace.
That, however, reflects, a truncated view of grace. They are defining grace in purely external terms. Justification. What Christ did for us on the cross. 
That denies the internal aspect of grace: spiritual renewal. 
In Calvinism, salvation by grace covers both the external dimensions of salvation (e.g. justification; Christ's imputed merit) and the internal dimensions of salvation (e.g. monergistic regeneration, sanctification, preservation). 
Reformed critics of antinomianism are by no means overemphasizing grace. To the contrary, antinomians are underemphasizing grace by reducing grace to what God does to and for us in contrast to what God does in us and with us. 
Put another way, if you lack good works, you lack grace. If you lack sanctity, you lack the grace of sanctification. That's not law v. grace. Rather, that's a graceless state. 
With those caveats out of the way, one feature of the response by some to the renewed emphasis on grace is the assertion that though we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone we are saved partly through works. 
i) It would be more accurate to say we are justified by faith alone and we are saved by grace alone. Moreover, there's a cause/effect relation. Justification is contingent on faith, faith is contingent on regeneration, regeneration is contingent on grace. 
ii) Are the critics of Tchividjian actually saying we are "saved partly through works"? Do they use that phrase? Or is that Clark's summary attribution?
It would be more accurately to say we are saved party through the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and sanctification. Because sanctification has a cooperative aspect, the Holy Spirit prompts born-again Christians to use the means of grace. 
It's not that we're saved partly through works. Rather, good works are the fruit of a spiritual root. If you lack the fruit, you lack the root. 
The difficulty is that some Reformed folk are not satisfied with making Spirit-wrought sanctity, which produces obedience that comes to expression in good works, a logically necessary fruit of justification and the evidence of their regeneration, justification, union with Christ,  adoption etc.
It's unclear what Clark means by saying good works are a logically necessary fruit of justification. Justification is not a cause of sanctification. Justification is categorically different. Justification is a forensic status. Sanctification is the fruit of regeneration. A necessary extension of regeneration.
Perhaps Clark means you can't have justification without good works. True. Justification and sanctification are a package deal. The God who justifies the elect, sanctifies the elect.
But, of course, the logic is reversible. If you can't have sanctification without justification, you can't have justification without sanctification. 

“Apostolic Succession” a very late “development” for “Churches of the East”

Distorting the history of “the Great Schism”

Over at CTC, David Anders has put up an article entitled “The Witness of ‘Lost Christianities’” – he makes such claims as that these churches ultimately are a “witness” to such things as “the development of Catholic doctrine” and “the importance of the Papacy”. I took issue with one particular claim of his:

David Anders: From your original blog post:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Aliens among us

One popular storyline in SF involves an advanced alien civilization that makes first contact with primitive humanoids. By definition, it has to be technologically advanced to be capable of deep space travel.

In one variation on this theme, first contact is the origin of humanoid religion. To primitive humanoids, the alien technology is magical. Godlike.

Continuing with our storyline, suppose humanoids passed down a traditional record of first contact in folklore. They recorded the appearance of the spacecraft. The appearance of the aliens. What they aliens did. 

The folklore might reflect a degree of legendary embellishment. Because the primitive humanoids lacked the scientific categories to describe first contact, they'd resort to mythopoetic categories. But it would still bear witness to a real event. 

Suppose ufologists appeal to this ancient folklore as evidence of first contact. Along come the debunkers. The counterparts to Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Michael Shermer, and PZ Myers in our SF scenario.

Now even though, in our scenario, aliens really did make first contact, the debunkers would dismiss that out-of-hand. 

Another variant on this theme involves alien/humanoid hybrids. Say they use molecular cloning to create hybrids. Then the aliens leave the hybrids behind.

Some humanoids never interbreed with hybrids. Other humanoids interbreed with hybrids, but because the humanoids outnumber the hybrids, the alien DNA is steadily diluted until only trace elements remain.

Suppose geneticists discover some humanoid specimens with residual alien DNA. The ufologists cite that as scientific confirmation that the folklore about first contact was authentic.

But the debunkers dismiss that as genetic anomalies, the same way they explain away evidence inconsistent with Darwinism–even though, in our scenario, this really is evidence of first contact. 

The same mindset which causes atheists to discount miracles, irrespective of the evidence, would cause them to discount first contact, irrespective of the evidence.

The Society of Arminian Gay Enablers

Yesterday, the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA) plugged an article by Jonathan Merritt:

This is yet another revealing look into Arminian priorities. According to Merritt:

While Calvinist Protestants—including Presbyterians, some Baptists, and the Dutch Reformed—have been a part of the American religious fabric since the beginning, Oppenheimer points to a more vocal and visible strain that has risen to prominence in recent years.
They’ve been called the “young, restless, and reformed” or neo-Calvinists, and they are highly mobilized and increasingly influential.
And why is Merritt alarmed by what he takes to be the increasing influence of highly mobilized neo-Calvinists? I don't think it's hard to connect the dots. On the one hand, some Calvinists are prominent culture warriors. And Merritt views that as a threatening development because he's on the other side of the culture wars. Just recently he was stumping for homosexual marriage. He opposes Christian civil liberties:

And what would motivate Merritt to position himself in that direction? Well, from what I've read (you can Google it yourself), Merritt was a closet homosexual until he was outed. So his political sympathies are unsurprising. He has a social agenda. 

But why would SEA be in bed (pardon the pun) with homosexual activists? Why would SEA make itself a tool of the homosexual lobby?

Because, for SEA, opposing Calvinism is the all-important priority, even if that means an informal alliance with homosexual lobbyists. 

Merritt cites a "troubling" example of neo-Calvinism:

Sometimes it seems as if Calvinists view themselves as judge, jury, and executioner of the Christian movement at large—determining who is faithful and not, who believes the gospel and who doesn’t, who is in and who is out. (One might call to mind John Piper’s iconic and infamous “Farewell, Rob Bell” tweet.) 

Why is SEA siding with Rob Bell, hopeful universalist, proponent of homosexual marriage, and Oprah's spiritual advisor? Because, for SEA, opposing Calvinism is the all-important priority. The enemy (Bell) of my enemy (Piper) is my friend. 

Why is SEA endorsing this article? Because anything is better than Calvinism.


Yesterday, SEA puffed an article by Jonathan Merritt on "troubling trends" in contemporary Calvinism. And why is Merritt troubled by the increasing influence of neo-Calvinists? Because, as I point out, Merritt is a homosexual activist whose social agenda is diametrically opposed to the neo-Calvinists. 

I then say: 

But why would SEA be in bed (pardon the pun) with homosexual activists? Why would SEA make itself a tool of the homosexual lobby? 
Because, for SEA, opposing Calvinism is the all-important priority, even if that means an informal alliance with homosexual lobbyists. 

Thereafter, my combox is swarmed by Arminians who respond by saying, We don't care what motivates Merritt. We don't care about his political agenda.

Ironically, that corroborates my original point. Because opposing Calvinism is their all-important priority, it doesn't bother them if SEA is in bed with the homosexual lobby so long as Merritt is attacking Calvinists–even though the real reason he's attacking Calvinists is because he wants to kneecap them to lesson their impact on social policies (e.g. Biblical marital norms). 

Like I said in my post, they adopt the philosophy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And it's striking to see them corroborate my point.

A preterist approach to Revelation

I'm going to comment on this article:
I believe that the book itself demands a basically preterist approach. This does not mean that all of the prophecies in the book have already been fulfilled. Some of the prophecies in Revelation (e.g., 20:7–22:21) have yet to be fulfilled, but many, if not most, of the prophecies in the book have been fulfilled. My approach then may be considered as essentially preterist.x
It isn't clear to me why Mathison draws the line at Rev 20-22. 
i) Maybe he thinks it would be heretical to say Rev 20-22 has already been fulfilled. But from a preterist perspective, isn't that question-begging? Traditionally, that would be heretical because traditionally Christians didn't interpret statements about the return of Christ preteristically. By the standards of the Apostles' creed and the Nicene creed, hyperpreterism is heretical.
But since Mathison thinks a midcourse correction is overdue in how we interpret NT prophecy, isn't it more logical for him to maintain that the traditional classification of hyperpreterism as heretical is mistaken, due to flawed hermeneutics? 
ii) Or maybe he thinks Rev 20-22 still lies in the future for the common sense reason that these events obviously haven't taken place as of yet. If so, it's hard to see how he'd distinguish that from past events in Rev 4-19. For instance, Revelation describes global catastrophes. On the face of it, that didn't happen in the 1C. 
Perhaps he'd say he doesn't interpret the language of global catastrophes literally. If so, how is the type of language in Rev 20-22 essentially different from the type of language in Rev 4-19?
iii) Also, on the face of it, Rev 19 describes the return of Christ. Yet he places Rev 19 in the past. Does that mean he thinks the Second Coming of Christ took place in the 1C? 
Before explaining why I believe this approach to be correct, I must explain why I do not believe the other approaches to be fully adequate. Proponents of the futurist view say that their approach is necessary because there is no correspondence between the events prophesied in the book and anything that has happened in history. This conclusion is reached because of an overly literalistic approach to the symbolism of the book and a lack of appreciation for how such language was used in the Old Testament prophetic books. This, however, is not the most serious problem with the futurist approach.
Up to a point I'm sympathetic to that criticism, especially when dealing with futurists like Robert Thomas. However, this objection generates tensions with Mathison's own position, as we shall see shortly.
The most fundamental problem with the futurist approach is that it requires a very artificial reading of the many texts within the book itself that point to the imminent fulfillment of its prophecies. The book opens and closes with declarations indicating that the things revealed in the book “must soon take place” (1:1; 22:6). It opens and closes with declarations indicating that “the time is near” (1:3; 22:10). The book of Revelation does not begin in the way the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch begins, with a statement to the effect that the content is not for the present generation, but for a remote generation that is still to come. The book of Revelation has direct relevance to the real historical first century churches to whom it was addressed, and the text of the book itself points to the imminent fulfillment of most of its prophecies.
i) We need to distinguish between Rev 2-3 and Rev 4-22. Rev 2-3 was directly addressed to 1C Christians. It's about their situation. 
And, of course, the seven churches of Asia Minor may well have been the initial recipients of Revelation. But that doesn't ipso facto mean Rev 4-22 is about them. Even if Rev 2-3 is firmly grounded in the 1C, it doesn't follow that 4-22 refer to 1C events. That requires a separate argument.
To take a comparison, Abraham was the initial recipient of God's promise. Yet the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant is incremental.  
ii) Appealing to the temporal markers ("soon," "near") is deceptively simple. This seems to be Mathison's argument:
Revelation was written to 1C readers. Revelation says these events will happen soon. Therefore, they had to happen in the 1C. 
Problem with that inference is that it turns on the correct identification of who is in view. Suppose you're a futurist. You think the final generation is the subject of the prophecies. In that case, the stopwatch begins whenever they come on the scene. 
The fact that 1C Christians were the original recipients of Revelation is irrelevant to whether these are short-term or long-term prophecies. Mathison believes that many OT prophecies were long-term prophecies. The original audience didn't live to see them fulfilled, because the prophecies didn't refer to their situation, but a future generation. 
You first have to identify the intended subject, then apply the time-markers to the intended subject. The time-marker ("soon," "near") doesn't select for the referent. Rather, the referent selects for the time-marker. Once you determine who it's about, then it will be soon for them.    
The idealist approach is held by many in the present day, but it is fundamentally flawed as a method of interpreting the book of Revelation. It’s most serious problem is that it brushes over the specificity found within the text. Bauckham explains,
Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today.xiv
Not only does the idealist approach tend to ignore the historic specificity demanded by its character as a letter, it also tends to ignore the hermeneutical implications of its character as a prophecy. The Old Testament prophets used highly figurative and symbolic language, but they used this language to speak of real historical nations and specific impending historical judgments. Writing his own prophetic book, John does the same.xv
i) I think pure idealism is wrong. By "pure idealism" I mean a purely cyclical view of history. A closed-system in which the same kinds of things happen over and over again, without any progression towards a final denouement. No exit. 
But idealism has an element of truth. History is repetitious. Each generation faces similar challenges. Idealism is a half-truth. 
ii) There's a tension between Mathison's appeal to the use of stock imagery and his appeal to historical particularity. In the nature of the case, stock imagery isn't specific to any particular time. The very fact that Revelation carries over so much OT imagery shows you that the imagery is applicable to different times and places. Flexible descriptors. 
iii) In addition, the fact that the situation of 1C Christians occasioned Revelation doesn't mean Revelation is confined to their situation. 
iv) One commentator outright denies Mathison's presupposition. He takes the opposite view:
Despite obvious differences between John's time and our own, his visions were probably as strange to many of his first readers as they are to us. These visions are by no means a picture of the social world that John actually lived in, but rather a prolonged piercing glance through that world to the cosmic struggle between good and evil taking place just behind or beyond it…In short the book of Revelation gives us little information about the actual social world in which it was written. J. R. Michaels, Revelation (IVP 1997), 21. 
For Michaels, Revelation isn't a mural of the 1C social world, but a window into the spiritual battle behind-the-scenes. One may or may not agree with his perspective, but Mathison's guiding assumption is no longer a given. 
Proponents of the futurist, historicist, and idealist approaches offer several criticisms of the preterist approach to the book. Probably the most serious criticism is that this approach robs the book of any contemporary significance. John Walvoord, for example, writes, “The preterist view, in general, tends to destroy any future significance of the book, which becomes a literary curiosity with little prophetic meaning.”xvi Leon Morris echoes this sentiment, claiming that the preterist approach “has the demerit of making it [the book of Revelation] meaningless for all subsequent readers (except for the information it gives about that early generation).”xviiIt is actually rather surprising that this criticism is repeated so often by conservative evangelical scholars. It implies that any biblical prophecies that have already been fulfilled are meaningless for readers in later generations. But are the Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus meaningless for later generations? Are the multitudes of Old Testament prophecies concerning the destruction of Israel and Judah and the subsequent exile meaningless for later generations? Obviously not, and neither would the prophecies in Revelation be any less meaningful or significant if it were shown that many or most of them have already been fulfilled. All Scripture is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16), even those parts of Scripture containing already fulfilled prophecies.
The problem with that comparison is that if all OT prophecies were fulfilled in the past, including golden age oracles about the world to come, yet we are still here, in a world with death, disease, suffering, and moral evil, then we'd have to reinterpret those passages in a way that drains them of hope for anything better. If Christ returned in the 1C, but it made so little difference, then that's a very despairing outlook.
Now, because Mathison is a partial preterist, he can blunt the full force of that implication, but that raises the question of whether you can hop onto the streetcar of preterist hermeneutics, then hop off before it arrives at that grim destination. If preterist hermeneutics are valid for Rev 4-19, they are valid for Rev 20-22. 
Secondly, when the genre of the book is taken into consideration, it provides strong evidence for a basically preterist approach to the book. The book is a prophecy (1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). It is an apocalyptic prophecy set within the form of an epistle, but it is a prophecy nonetheless. Why is this important? It is important because it means that our approach to the other prophetic books of the Bible should provide us with some guidance in how we approach this last prophetic book of the Bible. We should approach it and read it in the same basic way. We do not read any of the Old Testament prophetic books as a whole in an idealist manner, and there is precious little in any of them that could be approached in a historicist manner. We recognize that these prophecies were given to specific people in specific historical contexts. Many of the Old Testament prophecies deal with impending judgments upon either Israel or Judah or the nations that oppressed Israel. They also contain glimpses of ultimate future restoration. In short, we take a basically preterist approach to the Old Testament prophetic books, recognizing that they speak largely of impending events, yet also deal at times with the distant future.xix Given that this is the way in which the Old Testament prophetic books are approached, it seems that our presumption should be in favor of the same basic approach to the prophetic book of Revelation.
i) The scope of prophecy is qualified by the object of prophecy. The church is not a specific people at a specific time and place. The church exists at different times and places. It exists more or less continuously in some places. It ceases to exist in some places where it used to exist. It movies into new places where it didn't exist. Christians live and die at different times and places. They often face impending threats. Yet a threat impending for Christians in one period is not the same impending threat for Christians in another period. 
ii) OT prophets frequently use fairly interchangeable language for different historical judgments.
iii) Jeremiah's prophecy of the 70-year exile had a definite point of fulfillment. Yet Daniel (9:2,24-27) and the Chronicler (2 Chron 36:18-21) both view that prophecy as a specific exemplification a repeatable principle. Daniel extends it to ten jubilees. 

Bergoglio’s Gig: Advancing the Agenda

Fr. (Don) Michele de Paolis is an Italian priest and cofounder of the homosexualist activist organization, Agedo Foggia.

The conservative Roman Catholic website carried this little bit about his writings:

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Soon for whom?

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place (Rev 1:1).
This is often cited by unbelievers as a classic example of a failed prophecy. These things were "soon" to take place, but in retrospect, we know they didn't happen. Not soon. Not ever. 
However, I'd like to examine the assumptions underlying that indictment. What counts as fulfillment of a prediction? 
To some extent that depends on who (or what) the prediction was for or about. Who does it concern? Soon for whom
Let's take a simple example: 
20 and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ 34 But a certain man drew his bow at random[a] and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.” 35 And the battle continued that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Syrians, until at evening he died (1 Kgs 22:20,34-35).
That prediction was about Ahab. It was fulfilled when he died. A one-time fulfillment. 
Now let's consider a more complex example:
These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. 
10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (Jer 29:1-14).
i) In one respect, the fulfillment is straightforward. It was fulfilled 70 years later. 
ii) However, who was the prophecy for or about? On the face of it, the prophecy was about the exiles. But that's somewhat ambiguous. It's not the same group for the duration. Most of the exiles who originally heard the prophecy didn't live to see it play out. So in that sense, it wasn't for them. It wasn't about them. That's why they are instructed to settle down. But it also looks ahead to the final exilic generation, who will return from exile. 
Now let's take another example:  
18 If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn 15:18-19).
i) When was this fulfilled? The answer is bound up with the question of who it's for or about. It's a prediction about Christians generally. The kind of animus which every Christian generation can expect to face. It doesn't necessarily apply to every individual, but to Christians as a class, in contrast to unbelievers as a class. 
This prediction is fulfilled throughout the course of church history. It lacks a singular, one-time fulfillment. The fulfillment is diachronic because the prediction applies across generations of Christians. 
ii) Suppose, for the sake of argument, this prediction included the word "soon." Suppose Jesus said, "You will soon be hated by the world."
Although Jesus didn't put it that way, that's implicit in what he said. If the world hates them because they are not of this world, then once the world becomes aware of them, they will be hated by the world. That will happen soon enough. 
iii) Now, if this prediction was to take place "soon," does that mean it had to be fulfilled in the 1C? Would it be exclusive to 1C Christians?
It would be soon for everyone it was about. If the prediction is for Christians generally, and it will happen soon, then it's soon, not in relation to a particular period of time, but in relation to the lives of the referents. For whomever it was intended. It is soon for all interested parties. But what is soon for a 1C Christian isn't soon for a Medieval Christian, or vice versa. 
iv) Which brings us back to Rev 1:1. When you think that was meant to be fulfilled isn't something you can derive from the adverb alone. Rather, you must determine who the prophecies in Revelation are about. It will be soon for them–whoever they are. 
A preterist will say it's soon for 1C Christians. A premill will say it's soon for the final generation. An amil will say it's soon for Christians at different times. For instance, Revelation predicts persecution. From an amil standpoint, that's about Christians generally. For premils, that's about endtime Christians. 
Likewise, Revelation predicts that dying Christians enter the rest of the blessed (14:13). That's true for all Christians, who die at any time.

Naturalism and the burden of proof

Miracles, in order to leave no reasonable doubt their scientific inexplicability, must therefore be very extraordinary events. They must be events which we have every reason to believe are physically impossible; i.e., our best-confirmed natural laws must tell us that events of this sort cannot occur. This means that prior to their actual occurrence they must be events that we would judge very unlikely to take place. Indeed, it is fair to say that they must have an a priori likelihood about as low as any contingent fact could have. Thus, even if we can imagine events so remarkable that they would be scientifically inexplicable, we can ask whether any evidence would be strong enough to establish that such improbable events had taken place.
i) This is a classic way of making the case against miracles. You shift the burden of proof onto the proponent of miracles, then assign an insurmountably low prior probability to miracles.  
ii) Notice that Parsons doesn't base his definition of miracles on examples of miracles in Scripture or church history. He doesn't begin with the kinds of miracles that figure in the dispute, then formulate a definition that covers these cases. Instead, he picks an aprioristic definition out of the air. 
iii) To say a miracle must be the kind of event which cannot happen consistent with natural laws is ambiguous. Does that mean it cannot occur if nature is left to its own devices? If so, that doesn't mean miracles are physically impossible if an agent intervenes. Mill defined a miracle as "a new effect produced by the introduction of a new cause."
It's physically impossible for nature to produce a bicycle, but an agent can produce a bicycle by manipulating natural resources. 
iv) There's also the question of natural laws allow permit. Suppose psychokinesis is real. In that case, some kinds of events are physical possible which would be physically impossible if no one has psychokinetic ability. One can't rule out psychokinesis in advance by claiming that conflicts with natural laws, for that's circular. 
v) Parsons seems to be assuming that a miracle must bypass natural processes. But although that's true for some kinds of miracles, that's not true for coincidence miracles.
For instance, in 1 Kgs 22, Ahab's death in the battle of Ramoth-gilead is predicted (vv22).  And this is what happens:
29 So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah went up to Ramoth-gilead. 30 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “I will disguise myself and go into battle, but you wear your robes.” And the king of Israel disguised himself and went into battle. 31 Now the king of Syria had commanded the thirty-two captains of his chariots, “Fight with neither small nor great, but only with the king of Israel.” 32 And when the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, “It is surely the king of Israel.” So they turned to fight against him. And Jehoshaphat cried out. 33 And when the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him. 34 But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.” 35 And the battle continued that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Syrians, until at evening he died.
On the face of it, this doesn't violate any natural laws. Yet it's too discriminating to be the result of blind causes–especially in conjunction with the fateful prediction, and Ahab's futile precautionary measures. 
vi) Finally, it's actually the naturalist who suffers from an insurmountable burden of proof. Naturalism is a universal negative. Naturalism can't afford a single miracle. Naturalism can't afford a single answered prayer. Naturalism must discount every answered prayer as mere coincidence. Naturalism must discount every miracle as misperceived, misremembered, misinterpreted, or misreported. Naturalism can't afford a single miracle to slip through its sieve. All it takes is one miracle, one answered prayer, to falsify naturalism. 
Keep in mind, too, that answered prayers are vastly underreported. That's because most Christians live and die in obscurity. Only a handful of people knew them. They are quickly forgotten. They never make it into the history books. No one writes their biography. The answered prayers we happen to hear about are an infinitesimal fraction of the totality. 

When Was Revelation Written?

The issue of the date of the book of Revelation came up in a recent thread. I think Revelation was written near the end of the first century, probably in the 90s.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Jesus Spoke and Taught in Greek

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded words on Monday over the language spoken by Jesus two millennia ago.
"Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew," Netanyahu told Francis, at a public meeting in Jerusalem in which the Israeli leader cited a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity. 

"Aramaic," the pope interjected. 
"He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew," Netanyahu shot back.

What is often not given enough attention is that Jesus would had also been competent in Greek and likely taught in Greek in certain contexts. See Stanley Porter's argumentation on these two points:

Does Scripture say you must forgive the impenitent?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Waiting for the coin to drop

9 This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; 10 they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction (Rev 17:9-11). 
This is a controversial passage. It's a key prooftext for preterism. 
i) Scholars usually think the "seven hills" is a thinly-veiled allusion to the city of Rome. I think that's probably correct as far as it goes, although I also think this is case in which reality dovetails with symbolism. It's a coincidence that Rome was associated with seven hills. John exploits that topographical coincidence. But his numerology is symbolic. It just so happens that Roman topography plays into Johannine numerology at this particular juncture. Most of the time, John's numerology lacks that precise, real-world correspondence. 
ii) Most commentators think there's an allusion to Nero. Preterists think that's an allusion to the historical Nero. Other commentators think that's an allusion to Domitian as a Nero redivivus figure. 
a) One problem with the Neronian identification is that if, a la postmill preterists (e.g. Ken Gentry), you think Revelation allegorizes the fall of Jerusalem, then it's hard to see the relevance of a Roman locus in Rev 17:9-11. Nero's relation to the fall of Jerusalem is pretty secondary, to say the least.
b) Likewise, it's hard to see the pressing relevance of the Neronian persecution to Christians living in Asia Minor. 
c) A problem with the Nero redivivus identification is that Nero returns from the dead, not to wreak vengeance on the people of God, but on current imperial regime. But wouldn't that be a good thing for Christians? Not persecuting the faithful, but persecuting their persecutors (i.e. the Roman ruling class). 
iii) As many commentators have pointed out, no matter how you juggle Roman emperors, trying to correlate Rev 17:10 with a specific historical succession of Roman emperors is ad hoc.
iv) I think John is making the general point that until the Day of Judgment, the church will always have enemies. Just when you think you've put one mortal threat behind you, there's another lying in wait. You can beat back evil, but it always returns. 
That might seem discouraging, but that forewarning is an antidote to disillusionment. 
Moreover, although this is a perennial battle for the church, when Christians die and go to heaven, they do put that behind them once and for all. They hand their sword to the next generation. And even though this is a vicious cycle throughout the church age, it will terminate with the Day of Judgment.