Saturday, January 06, 2018

Hanky-panky roundup

While Shepherd Watched Their Flocks By Night

In the Eastern church, Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Christ, but in the Western church it commemorates the visitation of the Magi. While it's good to commemorate both events, chronologically speaking, it makes more sense, on the heels of Christmas, to commemorate the visitation of the Magi. In popular piety, the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke are combined, although the visitation of the Magi was about a year or so later:

Two fine performances of the same hymn:

I generally prefer the first although the second ends on a strong note (literally!) with a better descant and dramatic view of stained glass windows.

In the first performance it's nice to see the choristers instinctively rocking to the gentle rhythm of the hymn. And it's good to see men (as well as women!) singing Christian music in unison. Good for men to have that in common, directing and uniting their minds to the chief end of man.

(I'm struck by how many parishioners don't sing at all, even in traditional churches.)

What would Adam think if he could see (perhaps he can!) his posterity, thousands of years later, celebrating Christmas and Epiphany in this chapel? Although we are exiles, banished from Eden, we have made little Edens in the wilderness.

And a fine performance by another classic Epiphany hymn:

Christmas customs

I have been a Christian pastor for several years and I have a question that worries me. I would be very grateful if you could help me with your opinion on this subject. I am concerned about the usage of the Christmas tree in the celebration for the birth of Christ. There are some important facts: - The Christmas tree has a pagan origin, and was used in Celtic beliefs as part of pagan worship. - The Bible teaches us not to mix the pagan with the holy. This was the continuous struggle of the people of Israel from the time they left Egypt until they returned from the exile. Based on these two statements, should Christians use a Christmas tree as a decoration during the celebration of the birth of Christ? 

Craig answered this question, but I have my own response:

i) Christmas customs are not obligatory. These are not religious duties, commanded in Scripture. But by the same token, they're not forbidden.

It's good for Christians to annually commemorate key events in the life of Christ. If anything, the church calendar would benefit from systematically tracking events in the Gospels.

ii) It's good for Christians to be discriminating about what Christmas customs they observe. For instance, I disapprove of most secular Christmas songs. They are trite. They trivialize the season.

By the same token, I wouldn't include Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as a Christian parent, in my family tradition. That presents a complete counter narrative to the real Christmas story. A subversive alternative. In that regard it's not essentially different from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, even if the film is not intentionally anti-Christian. 

I remember watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in elementary school. As I recall, I thought it was effective storytelling, although I didn't care for the music. 

iii) However, Christmas trees, Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, and so forth, are natural objects. They have no intrinsic pagan significance. Pagans make use of natural objects to symbolize pagan beliefs, but that's a case of projecting something artificial onto the object. That doesn't make a natural object pagan. A tree is a God-given object. 

When Christians make use of natural objects, they are reclaiming God's creation from heathen usurpation. Taking back what pagans stole. It was never theirs in the first place. Pagans have no claim on God's creation. They are not entitled to reinterpret the significance of natural objects. They have no right to turn natural objects into pagan emblems.

iv) Christmas trees are decorated with lights and reflective materials to create a festive, celebratory atmosphere. Light is an ancient, central biblical metaphor. In the Gospels, light is associated with Christ. The star of Bethlehem (Matthew)–as well as Christ: the primeval light, entering the world he made (John). 

v) On a related note, Christian readers are often disturbed by how account of the Magi exploits heathen astronomy and astrology. But once again, pagans have no claim on celestial objects. Matthew is divesting heathen astronomy and astrology of its impious misappropriation by restoring and redirecting attention to the Creator of the heavens, born as the Savior of the world. 

Friday, January 05, 2018

The lantern of the soul

Craig fields a question comparing ISIS to OT holy war:

I though Craig did a fairly good job in 3 1/2 minutes. I'll add a few observations of my own. I've discussed this general issue before, but not in reference to ISIS. And I won't repeat everything I've said about OT holy war. 

i) Some people object that if it weren't in the Bible, Christians wouldn't defend OT holy war. That may well be true, although I don't think that's a damning admission. If I weren't a Christian, I'd have lots of shallow, unexamined, unjustified beliefs. And it's not as if an atheist has a superior position. 

ii) If I were making a case against Islam, I wouldn't begin with jihad. Both the Bible and the primary sources of Islam have religiously-sanctioned violence. That's not what distinguishes Christianity from Islam. 

iii) Mind you, that comparison only works at a very abstract level of generality. Violence can be identical in some respects, but morally different. Take a murderer who shoots someone to death and executing a murderer by firing squad. In one respect their identical, but that overlooks fundamental moral differences.

Or compare a schoolyard sniper with a human shield situation. In both cases, innocent children may die, but those are not morally equivalent situations.

Likewise, in war, both sides may use the same weaponry, yet one side may be fighting for a just case while the other side is fighting for an unjust cause. It's not primarily a question of the kind of violence or the objects of violence, but the rationale. A Martian observer, just watching the battle, might think both sides are interchangeable, but that's undiscerning. 

iv) ISIS deliberately practices the most excruciating ways of killing that their fiendish imagination can devise. Exultant sadism. A religious pretext to be get in touch with their inner psychopath.

By contrast, the OT holy war doesn't torture the enemy to death. Although OT holy war is brutal, it doesn't practice cruelty for cruelty's sake.

v) In addition, OT holy war doesn't use violence to spread the faith. This goes to two radically divergent views of conversion.

In Islam, conversion is conformity. It's not a change of belief. When someone converts at gunpoint, they have the same beliefs and attitudes after conversion as they had before conversion. The only change is a different public facade. They feign reverence for the new faith. They say and do whatever is necessary to survive or thrive. 

It's very revealing that Islam values such a thin, perfunctory piety. Just say the right things and do the right things with no corresponding assent.

Compare that to OT piety, with its stress on circumcision of the heart. Or prophetic denunciations of mechanical ritualism. 

In biblical piety, faith is conviction first, and profession second. Not profession without conviction.

In biblical piety, conversion involves a transformation in the convert's entire outlook. A spiritual rebirth. A new heart. Loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.  

vi) That's why the Judeo-Christian faith can never endorse mass conversion, in that externalistic sense. That's why, even though Christianity is a missionary religion, a global religion by design, it is not a religion of world conquest, in the sense of using violence as an evangelistic tool. Coercion is an an instrument of submission, not persuasion. You can't force someone to believe against their will. At best, you can force them to pretend to agree with you. Like extracting a confession under torture. 

Biblical faith abhors mock piety. Abhors pious playacting. In biblical piety, faith proceeds from the inside out. God lights the lantern of the soul, which then radiates outward. 

vii) All these OT cultures were warrior cultures. They practiced military conquest. The Israelites weren't doing anything to the Canaanites that the Canaanites weren't doing to their neighbors, and vice versa. Indeed, the OT laws of warfare are quite restrictive. It's about securing a particular territory, with clearly-defined borders. That's it. 

Am I toxically paranoid, or are you naïvely inured?

Are there ghosts?

Question: "What does the Bible say about ghosts / hauntings?"

Answer: Is there such a thing as ghosts? The answer to this question depends on what precisely is meant by the term “ghosts.” If the term means “spirit beings,” the answer is a qualified “yes.” If the term means “spirits of people who have died,” the answer is “no.” The Bible makes it abundantly clear that there are spirit beings, both good and evil. But the Bible negates the idea that the spirits of deceased human beings can remain on earth and “haunt” the living.

Hebrews 9:27 declares, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” That is what happens to a person’s soul-spirit after death—judgment. The result of this judgment is heaven for the believer (2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Philippians 1:23) and hell for the unbeliever (Matthew 25:46; Luke 16:22-24). There is no in-between. There is no possibility of remaining on earth in spirit form as a “ghost.” If there are such things as ghosts, according to the Bible, they absolutely cannot be the disembodied spirits of deceased human beings.

The Bible teaches very clearly that there are indeed spirit beings who can connect with and appear in our physical world. The Bible identifies these beings as angels and demons. Angels are spirit beings who are faithful in serving God. Angels are righteous, good, and holy. Demons are fallen angels, angels who rebelled against God. Demons are evil, deceptive, and destructive. According to 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, demons masquerade as “angels of light” and as “servants of righteousness.” Appearing as a “ghost” and impersonating a deceased human being definitely seem to be within the power and abilities that demons possess.

1. It's true that we need to take demonic activity into account. The question is whether that's an ad hoc explanation for all prima facie apparitions of the dead. 

2. The respondent's major prooftext is Heb 9:27. However, he doesn't exegete that text or explain how disproves the existence of ghosts. Let's examine the text:

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Heb 9:27, ESV).

i) Considered in isolation, this might be a universal statement: every human will die. Moreover, every human will die just one time. 

ii) In addition, both claims might be universal. Those who face judgment are coextensive with those who die. If death is universal, then judgment is universal. 

3. Let's consider the first clause. Is it universally true that everybody dies just once? For that matter, is it universally true that everyone dies? You can't die more than once unless you die at least one time. You can't die more than once unless you die a first time. But in Scripture, there are exceptions:

i) Elijah (1 Kgs 17) and Elisha (2 Kgs 4) raise the dead. But presumably, the children they restored to life were not immortal. So they died a second time. There's also the somewhat enigmatic statement about the revived corpse in 2 Kgs 13. But that might be another case of someone who's temporally revived, only to die a second time. 

In addition, Jesus raised the dead, viz. Lazarus (Jn 11), the daughter of Jairus (Lk 8), and the widow's son (Lk 7). Likewise, Peter raised the dead (Acts 9). More ambiguous is the case of Eutychus (Acts 20). 

Presumably, although these people were revived, they were still mortal. So they died a second time. 

ii) In addition, Paul indicates that Christians who are alive at the time of the Parousia will become instantly immortal (1 Cor 15:51; 1 Thes 4:17). So they won't die at all. 

iii) Likewise, there's the translation of Enoch (Heb 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kgs 2), who escape death by that intervention. 

In addition, what happened to the saints in Mt 27:50-53?

iv) Assuming the inerrancy of Scripture, Heb 9:27a is a general claim rather than a universal claim. Not a statement about what happens to everyone, but what happens to humans in general. 

And that's confined to examples from Bible history. But the Bible is not an encyclopedia. It doesn't detail everything that exists or everything that happens. 

v) Put another way, Heb 9:27 is not an absolute claim, but a statement about what happens to humans, all other things being equal. Yet it makes allowance for exceptions, all things considered. Like many unqualified statements in Scripture, it has an implicit ceteris paribus clause. If other conditions hold constant, if other factors remain unchanged, then that's what will happen. But in some cases, a different outcome is possible if there's a countervailing factor. 

4. In addition, this 1C statement doesn't address situations in which someone who's clinically dead is resuscitated by medical technology. Take someone who falls through ice, drowning in a fridge pond. He dies, but the chilling effect temporarily prevents necrosis, so in some cases he can be revived. But he'd be dead by 1C criteria. 

5. Let's consider the second clause. Is that a universal claim? Does it mean every human will undergo divine judgment? That depends on what the author means by "judgment" in this context:

a) Sometimes "judgment" has is a synonym for condemnation, damnation, eschatological punishment (e.g. Heb 10:27-30). But the author doesn't mean everyone will face judgment in a punitive sense. To the contrary, he sets "judgment" in v27 in contrast to "salvation" in v28. Some experience judgment while others experience deliverance from judgment. So the claim isn't universal in that sense.

b) Sometimes "judgment" denotes a verdict of acquittal or conviction (e.g. Heb 4:13; 12:23; 13:4). So it might be universal in that discriminating sense. 

6. In addition, Scripture presents a two-stage afterlife: (i) the intermediate state, followed by (ii) the final state. In that sense, most humans will be "judged" twice:

i) There's what happens to you after you die. The period in-between death and the Day of Judgment. Postmortem judgment is repeatable and individual. It happens at different times throughout human history, because people die at different times. 

ii) Then there's eschatological judgment. The Final Judgment. That's a corporate, one-time event at the end of the church age (or thereabouts). 

7. According to Scripture, every human will experience one of two divergent eternal destinies. The concise statement in Heb 9:27 doesn't unpack all these subdivisions. 

8. Does Heb 9:27 preclude apparitions of the dead? In principle, there are three or four possible options:

i) There's no possible contact between the living and the dead

ii) It's possible for the saints to contact the living

iii) It's possible for the damned to contact the living

iv) Both (ii) & (iii)

9. Some Christians think "judgment" in Heb 9:27 means that damned are quarantined, so that contact between the damned and the living is impossible. Even if that's true, it doesn't address the very different case of sainted believers. 

We have apparitions of the dead (Moses) at the Transfiguration (Mt 17). 1 Sam 28 is a prima facie apparition of the dead, in the context of necromancy. (Some readers dispute that interpretation.) 

In addition, Jesus appears to Paul (Acts 9) and John (Rev 1). 

The "dead" is ambiguous terminology. Jesus is alive, yet he usually resides in the realm of the "dead" (e.g. with the saints in heaven).

So even if Scripture ruled out apparitions of the damned, it doesn't rule out apparitions of the saints. (I'm using "saints," not in the Roman Catholic sense, but in reference to dead Christians.)

And, once again, it's important to keep in mind that the Bible is not an encyclopedia. We need to draw a distinction:

i) Scripture doesn't say if X happens

ii) Scripture says X doesn't happen

But (i) is not equivalent to (ii). The silence of Scripture is not a denial. 

10. Are the damned quarantined? Maybe so, maybe not. That depends on the nature of postmortem punishment and the intermediate state of the damned. Suppose, until the "great separation" at the Day of Judgment, some of the damned are "wandering spirits" or "restless spirits". That in itself is a punitive condition.

11. Consider the alternative explanation: demons impersonating the dead. But if demons aren't quarantined, why insist that the souls of damned humans are quarantined? After all, doesn't Scripture depict fallen angels as imprisoned spirits (e.g. 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6; Rev 9:1-3)? But if that picturesque language makes allowance for demonic activity on earth, why not ghosts? 

12. Yes, believers go to heaven when they die. Does that mean they're confined to heaven? Was Moses confined to heaven? Or Elijah? Or Jesus. Or celestial angels? 

13. What about the parable of Lazarus and Dives (Lk 16)? 

i) That's tricky because it's a fictional illustration, so the question is how much it is meant to illustrate. For instance, if you press the details, this would mean the damned can contact the saints. But do Christians who deny the existence of ghosts think that's generally the case? Can the denizens of hell initiate contact with the denizens of heaven whenever they feel like it? Is that realistic? Or is this an imaginary conversation between someone in "heaven" (Abraham) and someone in "hell" (the rich man) to illustrate whatever lesson(s) the parable is meant to teach?

ii) In addition, the barrier in that scene isn't between heaven and earth, but heaven and hell. There's no traffic between heaven and hell (v26), but that doesn't rule out the possibility of traffic between heaven and earth. When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn the rich man's living relatives, Abraham doesn't say there's another barrier which prevents that. Rather, he says it would be futile since they wouldn't listen. 

Moreover, v31 is an allusion to the Resurrection, not the intermediate state. That verse doesn't speak directly to the status of ghosts. Rather, it foreshadows the incredulous reaction of the Jewish establishment to the resurrection of Christ.

14. BTW, I don't subscribe to universalism, annihilationism, postmortem salvation, or Purgatory. My analysis takes for granted a traditional evangelical view of the afterlife–which I've defended on other occasions. 

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Why become Roman Catholic

Olson is far more charitable towards Catholicism than I am. That said, he does a nice job of skewering a Catholic selling-point:

God has a wonderful plan for your afterlife

"God has a wonderful plan for your life". That's a popular theological trope. When I Google it I get nearly 27 million hits!

God's wonderful plan for your life represents his "perfect will". However, you may squander that opportunity. God's "wonderful plan" stands in contrast to his "permissive will," in case you fail to take advantage of his "wonderful plan" for your life.

From the standpoint of Calvinism, how should we evaluate this paradigm? 

i) God has a plan for everyone's life. There's no distinction between a perfect will and a permissive will in that regard. Everything happens according to his master plan.

ii) Does God have a "wonderful" plan for everyone's life? Depends on how you define "wonderful". Did Jeremiah have a wonderful life? It wasn't wonderful for him. It was wretched. 

I suppose you could say it was wonderful in terms of the contribution it has made to world history.

iii) Conversely, there are evil people whose lives are a hedonistic paradise. They have a "wonderful" life–in that hedonistic sense–while many devout believers suffer.

iv) It would be more accurate to say that God has a wonderful plan for your afterlife. Of course, I don't mean for everyone. I'm not a universalist. But Scripture stresses a reversal of fortunes. The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a classic example. 

Why Jesus Wouldn't Appear To Every Individual Or Christian Today

I want to add some comments of my own to Steve Hays' recent post on the subject. I don't want to repeat every point he's made, but there will be some overlap.

In my experience, skeptics don't give much consideration to the disadvantages of these alternatives to Christianity they propose, in this case an alternative version of Christianity that would have Jesus making an appearance to every individual or every Christian. They're so focused on the supposed advantages of their scenario that they give little attention to the downside.

There's no reason to think an appearance of Jesus would be necessary. Lesser evidence would be adequate. Why should we think the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual's heart, historical evidence for Jesus' life that's comparable to the evidence we commonly accept in other contexts involving historical matters, and other such means of leading a person to faith aren't enough?

God is simultaneously accomplishing multiple purposes in the world. Often, there are tradeoffs that require one thing to be gained at the expense of another.

Part of what God is doing is revealing and developing our character. For example, when an atheist doesn't have an adequate explanation for the evidence he has, yet he demands more evidence, that tells us something about his character. Similarly, there's a building of character when somebody who will eventually become a Christian has to value God enough to seek him, improves his character as he thinks through evidential issues and applies his conclusions to his life, and so on.

There are implications for God's character and how we relate to him. There's dignity in a king offering a pardon on his own terms rather than the criminal's. What if the criminal demands that the king come to him and give him the pardon in person? Whether the king accommodates that demand has implications for his character, how he's perceived, how other people looking on will behave, and so forth.

As Steve mentioned in his post, we have many extrabiblical examples of God providing people with an unusually large amount of evidence if he sees fit, and there are many Biblical examples of God doing so as well. God has sometimes answered my prayers, given me highly evidential supernatural confirmation of something in a context in which that confirmation was important to me, and acted supernaturally in my life in other ways. He doesn't always do it, and when he does it, the evidence he provides isn't maximal or even close to maximal. It doesn't have to be. (Similarly, when I'm interacting with other people, I often give them less evidence than I could, since that lesser evidence is adequate. Providing more would be inefficient, take too much time, give a false impression about what's needed in the situation, encourage false expectations in future contexts, etc.) And asking for more evidence wouldn't explain the evidence I have.

For some examples of the evidence we have, which critics are claiming we need to have supplemented, see here, here, and here. The presence of that evidence is far more difficult for a skeptic to explain than the absence of further evidence is for a Christian to explain. What Christianity affirms about matters like God's sovereignty and the work of the Holy Spirit make an appearance of Jesus to everybody unnecessary. God is already addressing everybody adequately. If that adequate work is supplemented by lines of evidence like the ones addressed in my three links above, there's no reason to think that more is needed.

Rebelling against God's plan

Many preachers and pop apologists have an understanding of divine providence that goes something like this: Gen 2 was God's original plan. Then Gen 3 happened. Human agents and fallen angels rebelled against God's plan. So God came up with the plan of salvation.

To take an illustration, suppose I plan a road trip. It's a long trip. I want to see some historic towns and scenic landscapes. I book motel reservations. I plan how many miles to drive each day, to make it to the next motel. The route is chosen according to the motels and sights I want to see.

But once I'm on the road, there's a snowstorm that derails my plans. It shuts down the interstate. So I detour around the storm by going into another state above or below the storm. Unfortunately, this means I miss some of the attractions along the route. 

That's an analogy for open theism. On that view, God doesn't have a master plan. Rather, he has a set of contingency plans up his sleeve. He doesn't know which ones will come in handy. He's flying blind–just like the rest of us!  

Yet most preachers and pop apologists believe in divine foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge. But in that event, it makes no sense to say God scrapped his original plan. 

Suppose, when I'm making plans for my sight-seeing trip, I have advance knowledge of the snowstorm. In that case, I don't adjust my original plan. Rather, I'd take that into consideration from the outset. 

I'd plan my trip to begin sooner or later to get past the snowstorm. If I knew all along about the snowstorm, I wouldn't first draw up a plan that failed to take that into account, then adjust my plan to take that into account. I wouldn't make travel plans in the first place that didn't incorporate that advance knowledge into the itinerary. 

It makes no sense of Christians like this to say creatures rebelled against God's plan. What plan were the rebelling against? His original plan? But if their rebellion was foreseen, then they wouldn't be rebelling against that plan, as if God implemented a plan that failed to anticipate their rebellion, then had to modify his plan after the fact. Rather, their rebellion would figure in his plan all along. 

Freewill theists get themselves into this quandary because they are loathe to say God planned the fall. That's virtually supralapsarian! But unless they're open theists, belief in divine foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge logically commits them to affirm that God planned every evil event that actually transpires. They may not mean that in the way a Thomist or Calvinist means it, but they cannot consistently treat evils events as unplanned events from God's perspective. The original plan is exactly what happens. Even in freewill theism (exempting open theism), there is no plan B. It was plan A all along.   

Moving goal post

Here's another village atheist question I'll respond to:

Why are there so many starving people in our world? 

Doesn’t God answer their prayers? God has received uncountably many prayers both from the desperate people in the world and from healthy Westerners who are concerned about strangers in need.

There are different ways of responding:

1. People starve for a variety of reasons. They may live in a part of the world that lacks the natural resources to sustain that population density. Or they may live in a famine prone region. Or they live under an oppressive regime. And so on and  so forth.

2. It's not always a bad thing for people to starve to death. Depends on the people. If ISIS fighters were starving to death, good riddance! 

Of course, that's an extreme example, but I say it to make a point of principle.

3. Suppose God miraculously fed everyone. Would atheists who pose this accusatory question recant and become devout believers?

4. The basic problem with a question like this is that even if starvation was taken off the table, a militant atheist would then point to something else. Why does God allow natural disasters? Why does God allow people to die in house fires? Why does God allow people to die of cancer? Why does God allow people to die in traffic accidents? And so on and so forth. Every time you kick the football through the goalpost, the very same atheist will move the goalpost. 

So the problem with a question like this is where to draw the line. Short of a perfect, ouchless painless world, won't an atheist complain about any remaining evil–or perceived evil?

But in that event, this is really about the problem of evil in general. If God exists, why isn't the current world free of moral and natural evils?

Yet if that's the question behind the question, then Christians don't need to run down a checklist of every kind of evil, offering a specific explanation for each and every kind evil. Rather, there are preexisting theodicies that cover that ground in general. And it's possible to combine two or more stock theodicies to give greater coverage.  

We don't need to give separate explanations for every kind of evil. By providing a theological justification for certain kinds of evil, a theodicy already deals with all the particular evils in kind. 

It's not so much a question of why God makes a world containing a variety of evils, but why God makes a world containing any evils. If you have theodicy that can justify evil at all, or paradigm evils, then it isn't necessary to give independent answers for every instance. So long as those are representative examples, the theodicy already provides a general rationale. Different samples don't change the explanation.  

5. However, the larger point our atheist is laboring to make is that there's one economical explanation for the existence of all these different kinds of evils: God doesn't exist! But there are two basic problem with that alternative:

i) A Christian doesn't need to "cobble together individual reasons for each of these questions" if it only takes a few theodicies to cover all the bases. We just classify objections by category. Theodicies offer categorical explanations. There's a common type of explanation for a common type of objection.

ii) It's deceptively simple to say God's nonexistence explains them all, for God's existence has enormous explanatory power. God's existence is a unifying principle. An atheist has to cobble together individual reasons to replace the explanatory power of one God.  

Ten questions Christians must answer!

I ran across a village atheist website with "Ten Questions a Christian Must Answer". At last count it had about 1250 comments. 

I'm going to ignore most of the questions because I've answered them or questions like them before. These are cliche questions. But there's one question I'll single out. Indeed, I've seen two variations on the same question:

How do we explain the fact that Jesus has never appeared to you? Jesus is all-powerful and timeless, but if you pray for Jesus to appear, nothing happens. You have to create a weird rationalization to deal with this discrepancy.

How do we explain the fact that Jesus has never appeared to you? Jesus could appear to you, but he doesn’t. He appeared to Paul after he died, so it’s not like he hasn’t done it before. He could appear to give you advice for a tough decision, give you comfort in person like a friend would, or just assure you that he really exists. 

i) I explain the fact that Jesus never appeared to me because I never asked him to appear to me.

ii) In addition, Jesus never promised to appear to every Christian, so there's no expectation that he will appear to every Christian. 

iii) Moreover, I don't view Jesus as a genie whom I can summon to do my bidding. 

iv) As far as decision-making, that doesn't require private revelation. Throughout Scripture, you have people making decisions because God providentially orchestrated events in a certain way or implanted subliminal suggestions. So I can do God's will without even thinking about it. 

And even at the level of private revelation, that doesn't require a dominical vision. What about an audible voice or revelatory dream? To demand a personal audience with Jesus is an arbitrary stipulation, even if we grant the general principle. 

v) There are many well-documented reports of Jesus appearing to people, viz.,

Another example is Bishop Hugh Montefiore, who converted from Judaism to Christianity due to a dominical vision.

To say Jesus doesn't appear to people because he doesn't exist backfires, considering the many reported examples to the contrary. There's no dearth of evidence.

And if an atheist discounts these reports as tall tales or hallucinations, then his challenge was duplicitous. If, when you call his bluff, he says it doesn't matter, then he was arguing in bad faith all along.

vi) From what I've read, reports of Jesus appearing to people typically involve situations where they didn't ask or expect Jesus to appear to them. It wasn't in response to prayer, but an unsolicited visitation. 

vii) Furthermore, when Jesus appears to people, it may be to summon them to a life of costly discipleship. So there's a tradeoff. A grueling vocation in exchange for the vision. I don't envy St. Paul's life. 

ix) I'm not vouching for any particular report. I'm just responding to the atheist on his own grounds. I don't presume that every reported dominical apparition is legit. I can't assign percentages. But I do think that if you have enough reports by prima facie credible witnesses, that makes it likely that some reports are true. 

x) Likewise, I don't need to personally experience something to know it's true. Secondhand information suffices for most of what we know. Why carve out an ad hoc exception in this instance?

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Marriage and mating

"Marriage quality" proponents like to compare homosexual marriage to interracial marriage or miscegenation. They allege that opposition to homosexual marriage is morally equivalent to racism.

The comparison is disanalogous in several respects, as I've noted before. But I'd like to make an additional point. To my knowledge, the Colonial and Antebellum ruling class drew a distinction between interracial mating and interracial marriage. They didn't object to interracial mating or miscegenation. Consider Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, or other white slave masters who used the slave quarters as their private, onsite harem. To my knowledge, that was socially acceptable.

What was unacceptable was interracial marriage. It's parallel to European royalty and aristocracy who had mistresses. Where they drew the line was marriage, because marriage produces heirs. It didn't matter if you fathered "bastard" kids by your slave or mistress, because their "illegitimacy" disqualified them as heirs.

It wasn't about race, but social class. Maintaining the caste-system. "Rightful" heirs. A line of royal succession. That sort of thing.

Interracial marriage was taboo because that threatened the social hierarchy. The ruling class wanted to maintain horizontal divisions. 

From what I can tell, the actual rationale was more cynical and devious than straightforward racism. White racists sometimes oppose miscegenation based on theories of racial purity, but the bloodlines that the ruling class cared about weren't based on racial pedigree but social pedigree. You were expected to marry your social peers, not your social inferiors. That would disrupt and destabilize the caste-system. That certainly reflects poorly on the social mores of the ruling class, but it's a different kind of evil. 

Over Jordan

Over the years I've done hundreds of posts on the problem of evil. In this post I'd like to summarize some of that material, as well as arranging it in a logical relationship. The purpose of this post is not to reargue all my contentions, but state them in compact, logical fashion. The supporting material is to be found in my many posts on the subject. It's possible that I've forgotten some of my own arguments. 

1. The problem of atheism

Before we think about the problem of evil, we need to think about the problem of atheism. Too many atheists as well as Christians get off on the wrong foot by beginning with the problem that evil purportedly poses for the Christian faith. But that's the wrong starting-point.

We need to consider the implications of the alternative. Atheism provides a point of contrast. As some hardy atheists concede, their position conduces to moral and existential nihilism. Human lives are worthless. 

The problem of evil induces some professing Christians to renounce the faith. Yet atheism is irredeemably evil. Apostates are siding with evil when they recant Christianity. They decry evil, but throw themselves into the arms of evil by embracing nihilism. 

It's crucial to appreciate that atheism can never be a viable fallback position. 

2. How problematic is the problem of evil?

Evil can be a serious problem without being a serious problem for the credibility of Christian theism. We need to distinguish different ways in which evil is a problem. Evil is a problem in the sense of making life much grimmer. But that's different from claiming that evil is a problem for the truth of Christianity. 

We keep reading that the problem of evil is the main intellectual challenge to the Christian faith. But does the repetition of that trope artificially condition people to think that way about evil? Does constantly reading about the problem of evil feed on itself.

Is the trope circular? Does the trope have a cumulative effect? If you hear something a thousand times, you may be more likely to believe it just because you heard it a thousand times. Repetition becomes a specious substitute for evidence–like an urban legend. 

3. The freewill defense

Not surprisingly, many freewill theists deploy the freewill defense. Obviously, it wouldn't be possible for someone who isn't a freewill theist to deploy the freewill defense. If he was a Calvinist, then that theodicy would be inconsistent with his theology.

However, the freewill defense is independent of freewill theism in the sense that even if libertarian freedom were true, that doesn't automatically mean the value of libertarian freedom outweighs the disvalue of evil. Just because freewill theism is consistent with the freewill defense doesn't entail that the good of libertarian freedom is better than the good of a world without so much pain and suffering. Many freewill theists just assume that the freewill defense is their default theodicy, but the truth of freewill theism is separable from whether freedom in itself makes the existence of evil morally permissible. 

4. The logical/evidential argument

The logical argument from evil is internal to Christianity. It attempts to show that some key Christian tenets are mutually inconsistent. In principle, an atheist who denies moral realism can deploy the logical argument from evil. 

By contrast, the evidential argument from evil concerns the plausibility of God's existence in light of evil. That can be a worry for Christians. But unlike the logical argument from evil, when an atheist deploys the evidential argument from evil, he may evaluate the issue by resort to his own standards. 

Frequently, though, atheists blur these two different arguments. Is the atheist arguing on his own grounds, or is he arguing on Christian grounds? Oftentimes, atheists are so controlled by what they think is rational or ethical that they impugn the coherence of Christian theism when they are covertly interjecting their own criteria into the assessment. 

Moreover, if an atheist deploys the evidential argument from evil, then he shoulders a burden of proof to justify his own standards, consistent with his naturalism. He's not entitled to take his criteria for granted. 

5. Philosophical theology

The argument from evil typically takes the form of an inconsistent tetrad:

i) God is omnipotent

ii) God is omniscient

iii) God is benevolent

iv) Evil exists

An atheist then attempts to show that these are mutually inconsistent, thereby generating a dilemma for the Christian. To relieve the inconsistency, a Christian must forfeit at least one of the propositions. If, however, (i-iii) are nonnegotiable, then his belief-system has no give. As an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it set, if it's inconsistent at any one point, then you must ditch the whole thing. So goes the argument.

But one problem with the argument from evil is that it attacks a very abstract version of theism. Something derived from philosophical theology. Classical theism or perfect being theology.

Typically, the argument from evil isn't formulated in reference to a historic living religion like OT Judaism or NT Christianity. 

For instance, it would be much harder to show that the argument from evil disproves the existence of Yahweh since Yahweh isn't "benevolent" in the sense that atheists typically define benevolence when formulating the argument from evil. Indeed, many unbelievers reject biblical theism because they think Yahweh, Jesus, and/or God the Father is not benevolent as they see it. They take umbrage at various divine actions, commands, and prohibitions in Scripture. 

But where does that leave the argument from evil? If, by their own admission, biblical theism doesn't comport with their preconceived notions of benevolence, then the existence of evil is consonant with the existence of a Deity like that. 

On a related note, the existence of evil is a necessary presupposition of biblical theism. If we were living in a world devoid of moral and natural evil, then the absence rather than the presence of evil would falsify the Biblical depiction of reality. Bible history is replete with evil. Eschatological salvation and judgment are the ultimate remedy. 

6. The paradox of prevention

Atheists allege that if God exists, he'd either prevent evil altogether or at least prevent more evil than he does. However, preemption has the paradoxical consequence of not only preventing an event but by the same token, preventing any evidence that the event was preempted. Since it never happened, it had no discernible effects. A nonevent leaves no trace evidence. 

For all we know, God has preempted countless evils, for if he's done so, then in the nature of the case that's something we will never know. 

7. No best world

It's easy for us to imagine ways in which the world could be better. But that's a shortsighted perspective.

Take time-travel stories in which the protagonist is living in the aftermath of a global catastrophe. His solution is to avert the catastrophe by changing the past. Changing a key variable in the past so that the future will fork off into an alternate timeline where that catastrophe never happened. And he succeeds, only there's an unforeseen cost. He may simply replace one global catastrophe with another global catastrophe. The alternate future has a different disaster. Or by preventing the catastrophe, he prevents many resultant goods. 

So he can never strike the right balance. There's no alternative that preserves all the same goods without the attendant evils. There's no best possible world. Each world may be better in some respects, but worse in others. Short-term improvements at the expense of long-term disasters. Every alternate timeline has tradeoffs. 

8. Domino effect

Apropos (7), although God can and sometimes does intercede to prevent or halt evil, divine intervention has a disruptive effect on the future. Every divine intervention causes the future to veer off in a different direction than if God did not intercede. 

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes that's a good thing. Yet that's offset by the series of goods which divine intervention eliminated when he diverted the timeline. 

Moreover, there's no optimal number of divine interventions. He could always do it one more time or one less time. Each intervention or nonintervention has respective consequences down the line. So the cutoff is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. There's no intrinsic upper or lower limit. 

In a cause-effect world, every action has a domino effect. Divine prevention doesn't merely swap out one domino with another, but replaces the entire series of falling dominoes after that point with a different series of falling dominoes. 

Atheists act as though God could just rearrange some things to make the world a better place. But in a world with linear cause-and-effect, it isn't possible to rearrange a few things without setting the future on a whole new course. 

And every alternate timeline has a different set of winners and losers. People who were heavenbound in one timeline don't exist in another timeline. They miss out on that incomparable opportunity. 

Some people respond by appealing to the Epicurean symmetry between prenatal and postmortem nonexistence. But that's an intuition which many people don't share. Arguably, nonexistence is a deprivation. 

9. Second-order goods

There are internal relations where you have an effect of an effect. Nested relations where the end-result is necessarily contingent on an intervening event. For instance, a grandfather can't directly father a grandson. Rather, he can indirectly produce a grandson via the medium of his own son. By the same token, some kinds of goods are necessarily contingent on some prior evils. Even an omnipotent God can't bypass those stages to achieve the result directly. 

10. Soul-making virtues

There's a difference between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. A difference between abstract propositional knowledge and firsthand experience. 

Experience is transformative as well as informative. It doesn't just add new information, but changes you in the process. Let's take two hypothetical examples:

i) Suppose an athletic boy has contempt for a disabled classmate. He taunts and bullies the boy in the wheelchair. 

Then he himself becomes disabled during a sporting event. He now finds out what a struggle it is to be confined to a wheelchair. To depend on the kindness of strangers. He acquires compassion through personal, comparable experience. 

ii) Suppose some teenagers go hiking. They're best friends, or so they assume. But that's never been put to the test. 

Suppose, due to unexpectedly bad whether, they suddenly find themselves in a survival situation where the odds of their individual survive are greatly enhanced by leaving an injured companion behind. Or by murdering a companion. 

That life-threatening situation exposes the depth or superficiality of their friendship. Will they risk their own life and health for the sake of another, or were they fair-weather friends all along?

Now suppose they never went on that ill-fated hiking trip. In that case, they wouldn't need to have those sacrificial virtues. Yet that's a grave moral defect, even if circumstances never force it to the surface. 

11. Eschatological compensations

Compared to eternity, this life is a blink of an eye. However horrifically a Christian may suffer in this life, once that's past, it's forever behind him. After he dies, the afflictions of this life are increasingly distant in his consciousness. Although memory is important, we live in the present, and our mood is powerfully shaped by future expectations.  

Indeed, there's a tremendous sense of relief. He made it! The worst is behind him. He's safe now. Out of harm's way. Nothing more to fear. Nothing more to lose. He can't go back. And the way ahead is nothing but good.