May 28, 2013
Good and Evil
by Brian Schroeder
This a summary of a presentation by Brian Schroeder on Good and Evil on the 9th of May at Tabor College. His Power Point slides are in Good and Evil and the video recording is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEh19op3IAk.
“Good” and “evil” are innately believed concepts by virtually everyone. We don’t doubt that good exists or that evil exists. We assume them just as we assume many other fundamentals (such as 1+1=2, “I think therefore I am”, good is better than bad). Despite various denials, we intrinsically believe certain things to be either good or evil. Death is a fundamental evil, but beauty is good.
If God is totally good and all-powerful, how can there be evil? Either God is not all-powerful, or he is not truly good.
When God had finished creating he saw that it was all very good. God said to Adam: You can eat from every tree – except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. How can there be “good and evil” in God’s perfect world, and what about the prohibition against eating that fruit on pain of death?
This leads to the question: What is “evil”? How do you define “evil”? Or, for that matter, how do you define “good”?
a) Consider pain and suffering? If you put your hand in fire, then this leads to pain, which is a defence from damage, such as happens with leprosy. What about “no pain, no gain”? Athletes push the “pain barrier” regularly.
b) Is it evil to cut someone open with a knife? Both of my children were born that way. So, what is evil? What makes something evil? Is it motivation? And if so, what makes that motivation evil?
c) Massive earthquake and tsunami? What if it happens on Jupiter? Does “evil” depend on the experience of sentient beings, or does the experience of, for example, rocks count too?
When pressed, most people will be unable to provide any sort of meaningful consistent definition of evil. Philosophers have struggled with this over the years. Nietzsche’s approach is possibly the most consistent (non-theistically speaking). Basically, without an absolute reference point (ie. God), good and evil have no absolute meaning and can only represent that which is considered positively or negatively useful.
Assume there is NO GOD. The Universe created itself from nothing. The materialistic universe is all there is. We are the random result of random reactions. In the time-scale of the universe’s existence, all of life is a momentary blink with no purpose, no meaning, and no permanence.
In this universe there is no such thing as “good” or “evil”. The sum total that can be said is “What is – is.” Thus ultimately “good” or “right” can only be defined as what is, and therefore “evil” as what is not. So everything that is is good/right (and nothing is evil).
Enoch Tan stated:
Good and evil do not exist. At a fundamental level, there is really no good and evil in the universe. Everything just is. It is perception that frames reality. Good and evil is based on perception. Therefore the perception of good and evil depends on the one perceiving it. If you perceive something as good, then to you it is good. If you perceive something as evil, then to you it is evil. We can choose our own frame of reality or we can choose to follow the frame set by another in his perception of good and evil.
If there is no God then “good” and “evil” may be valid terms with real meaning in the following sense. Good is what ‘I’ like, and evil what ‘I’ dislike. It is thus totally relative – everything is a matter of personal opinion, and that opinion will become totally irrelevant when the person dies. (It makes little difference if we change from individual preference to a group preference.) Thus laws, rules, customs etc. are merely a temporary direction of a momentarily existing animal with no real purpose.
With very few exceptions (if any) everyone believes that real evil is committed by people. But in every case evil must disguise itself as good, must convince people that it is good. (There is a website that lists the 10 most evil people in history, and the 10 most good. Interestingly Adolf Hitler comes in at number 3 on the evil scale, and Jesus Christ at 4 on the good.)
Are good and evil absolute or relative? If they are relative then they are effectively meaningless. If a word can mean anything, then it means nothing.
Define God as
a) supreme being,
b) omnipotent, omniscient, all loving,
c) creator of and therefore ‘outside’ of the universe,
d) and therefore the definer of everything.
Thus “Good” means being in conformity with God – his being, his nature. Being as designed to be, doing as designed to do.
“Evil” means being out of conformity with God, contrary to his being, his nature. Being/doing contrary to how designed to be/do.
This implies that God is good. He is always in conformity with himself. It also means that it is wrong to say that
(a) God cannot sin,
(b) God cannot lie,
(c) God cannot do evil.
(a) sin cannot be done by God,
(b) untruth cannot come from God,
(c) evil cannot emanate from God. (Darkness cannot come from light.)
The inability lies in the evil, not in God.
Good exists in its own right, so long as God exists. Pure and total good is a valid concept. Absolute good exists and is real. It can exist by itself in its own right.
Evil does not and cannot exist in its own right. It is in total dependence on Good for its existence. “Pure evil” is an impossibility, an oxymoron (“pure” is a “good” term), it cannot be. For example death depends on life for both its existence and its power. Evil is the deprivation or negation of the good, or the corruption of the good. It is the rejection of the truth, of the right.Evil is embraced, received, accepted, promoted, defended on the basis of perceived reward (good) or promised good. Eg. “I” don’t kill someone out of desire to do be evil, but to remove some negative from “my” life, because I believe “my” life will be better in some way. Abortion is an obvious example.
When the devil (assuming he exists) wants to tempt someone, he doesn’t say “You are going to hate this! It will make your life a misery and destroy everything you think is good.” Rather he works to convince us that it will do something good for us.
Good is always better than evil, more beautiful than evil; it is truer, righter, more attractive. That is why evil has to clothe itself in apparent goodness (if I cheat I will get a better result, more money, glory, etc.). But if/when we see them truly only GOOD is good, right, true, beautiful, alive, lasting…
Consider a brand new car. Carefully designed and built, just out of the factory in ‘perfect’ condition. It comes with an owner’s manual, and a servicing manual. It is designed to work in a certain way, to be driven and maintained in a certain way. To get the absolute best out of the car, it is essential to follow the design and to treat it according to the manufacturer’s instructions. “Good” is to do so. “Evil” is to use the wrong oil; kerosene instead of petrol; drive with the hand brake on; aim to keep the needle in the red zone as much as possible; don’t maintain coolant; … and many more possibilities. If the headlights get smashed – or are missed during manufacture – or windows, seats, spare wheel… then the car is incomplete and contrary to the design. Being born blind, or blinded later, is an evil; it is contrary to how we are designed to be.
But what if God is a capricious God? What is good one day may be evil the next, and vice-versa. Such a being would be internally inconsistent. ‘He’ could never be “God” as we understand “God”. ‘He’ could never be the creator of a functioning universe – the ‘laws of the universe’ could not be depended on & may vary or change at any time & for no reason Þ no science. ‘He’ could not be ‘love’ or the author of love. Such things as good, evil, love, justice, etc. would have no basis for being.
No, we do not have this option. Either God IS – in all his omnipotent, omniscient, relational glory – or there is not God.
What if I don’t like God; what he is like? What about some of the ‘horrible’ things he has done (eg. commanded Israel to exterminate Canaanites)?
Basically “Good” is defined by God, not by our feelings, and not of itself. As God’s creatures in his created universe, our understanding of good and evil can only be as defined by God. Therefore if anything about God appears to “me” as anything other than pure and total GOOD. That can only be because
- I have incomplete knowledge and understanding (eg. Surgeon cutting person open with a knife),
- I have a wrong perception of God (eg. God = Santa Claus, God = Baal, …),
- I have a wrong or distorted perception of the situation, or
- I have been deceived by a 3rd party.
If we could but see the big picture, the whole picture, we would see and know that not only has God only done good the whole way through, but the best possible good. We would see too that it could not be otherwise.
“Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil” The greatest possible good involves / includes / requires the choice of embracing God’s image. Love isn’t love if there is no choice. So in order for God to create the greatest possible good (and how could such a God do otherwise?), he had to create the opportunity to choose, and this therefore meant the opportunity to choose differently.
The point of the choice was very simple and minor, but never-the-less totally significant. To choose to eat of it was to choose not-God, to be ‘other’ than God, different to God, contrary to him and contrary to who they were created to be. More specifically: to be distinct from God.
Since, in this creation, God is the epitome, the definition, of good, then to be distinct or different can only mean to be less than good – or therefore to be, “know”, evil. And from that point evil has grown.
One can only create from what is within them. Everything that IS comes from God (John 1:3). So did God create evil? Is God responsible for evil? Is evil part of who God is? (Yin and Yang?). Since the greatest good involves the choice, it must inherently contain the concept (possibility ?) choosing otherwise. SO: No! There is no darkness, evil, wrong, etc. in God. And yet in creating the greatest good, evil (= other than God) had to be possible. By its very nature, inherent in the greatest possible good is the possibility of rejecting that good, of choosing otherwise.
- Without God there is no such thing as good or evil, merely reality. This also means that “the problem of evil” does not exist unless God exists. It is either a non-question, or it has meaning only if you already believe in God.
- “Good” means being fully congruent with God. “Evil” means deviating from that – being ‘other’ than God or God’s nature. Thus “God is good” is a tautology; there is no other option.
- Good exists in its own right. Evil does not. It is dependent on good for its existence.
- Any time I am disposed to accuse God of evil; it can only be because of insufficient information or because of actual evil in me.
- God is not the author or originator of evil. But inherent in the highest possible good is the possibility of rejecting that good – this rejection is then what we call evil.
This all leads to – What is “evil”? Following the argument through we end up with “If there DOES NOT exist an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good/loving being then evil does not exist.” Thus to claim that evil exists is to acknowledge that God exists! Thus the problem of evil is only a problem to the theist – ie to those who believe in both God and in the existence of evil. Yes we struggle with it. Yes it is hard (sometimes impossible) to understand. But because we believe in God – as defined above – we believe that there IS an answer.
3 For I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God!
4 his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.
5 They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.
6 Do you thus repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?
Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.
17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’
18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.
March 23, 2013
By Ray Lakeman
Presented at a meeting of “Reasonable Faith Adelaide” on 14-March-2013.
Click The Creationists to view the slide show. The video recordings are at History of Creationism Part 1 and Part 2.
My major source is The Creationists – From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design [1992, 2006] can be borrowed from the ISSR library at Tabor Adelaide. Summary essays from Ronald Numbers can be found at:
I wish to make my own position clear. I was raised in a family of farmers and market gardeners with limited education, but when I lost my hands at age 5 my father became determined that I should have the education he was denied. My family were pretty casual about Christianity, but were happy to claim allegiance to Anglican or Methodist churches. I was sent to Sunday School, and when older attended church. As a science teacher at age 33 I was confronted by the issues of creation versus evolution and began to investigate. By age 43 I owned a Young Earth Creation view. This presentation is about the modern history of creationism. It is not my intention to teach creationism other than to explain the history, and I will not defend creationism here. I also wish to make it clear that Reasonable Faith neither endorses nor rejects Young Earth Creation. However, Reasonable Faith does stand on the Nicene Creed which says, “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” I acknowledge the helpful suggestions of Kevin Rogers while I prepared this presentation. It was Kevin who suggested I unpack the significance of the Scopes Trial and the play Inherit the Wind. In these topics I have used additional sources to flesh out the study that Numbers presents. The images I present are easy to obtain on the web. The 2min video extract is from The Magician’s Twin: C.S.Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society by John West,available on YouTube.
As Dr. Ronald Numbers is my main source I shall introduce him. Numbers is a respected historian and was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist home in south-western USA with the standard SDA teaching that creation occurred 6,000 years ago and that Noah’s Flood formed the vast rock deposits and fossil beds of the Earth’s crust. During his higher education Numbers abandoned the SDA teaching and in his book he makes his position clear: “I no longer believe in creationism of any kind”, he says, and he goes on to declare “I am strongly committed to treating [creationist] advocates with the same respect I might accord to evolutionists”. Numbers is true to his word, for nowhere in his book does he insult creationists while describing their modern history. For this reason I commend his book to Reasonable Faith members as a good source of information on an important question for our culture: How shall our generation interpret the Bible and Science? History gives the answer thus far, and this book is a good contribution to that history.
Title Slide 1
Creation Science can be described as Biblical Creation stripped of explicit references to Biblical authority, God, Adam and Noah. Creation Science is a new movement of the twentieth century. It arose as a movement composed of trained scientists and lay Christian supporters from a wide range of Christian churches, and it has grown despite almost universal opposition from both mainstream scientists and the mainstream leaders in churches.
In the early years of the twentieth century the self-described geologist George McCready Price stood virtually alone in insisting on the recent appearance of life and on a global flood catastrophe that massively rearranged the earth’s crust. Price was well-received by creationists, but made few converts beyond his Seventh Day Adventist Church.
In 1932 the Evolution Protest Movement was formed in London, and is now called the Creation Science Movement, the oldest creationist society on Earth.
C.S.Lewis Slide 2
It is interesting to note that in its early years the Evolution Protest Movement tried to win C.S.Lewis as an advocate and failed. Lewis excused himself with the statement “When a man has become a popular Apologist he must watch his step”. However, in 1951 Lewis had changed and wrote to the Evolution Protest Movement, “You might be right in regarding evolution as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives”. The Creation Science Movement has a prominent website and program of activities to this day.
In 1938 the Deluge Geology Society was formed in Los Angeles with strong roots in Adventism, and in 1944 their member Frank Marsh published “Evolution, Creation and Science” with a trained biologist’s view on Young Earth Creation. Marsh exchanged letters with Theodosius Dobzhanski, and found that their ideas were far apart. It is Dobzhanski who said that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. In Marsh’s final letter he said to Dobzhanski that he was not a grouch looking to argue with famous biologists, nor was he looking for fame, recognition or livelihood. Though he disliked being at odds with the academy Marsh was willing to turn a cheek to criticism if he could convince some mainstream scientists to accept special creation. Later Dobzhanski graciously wrote that Marsh was an intelligent and informed person who did not accept evolution as true. A rare acknowledgment for those days.
Around 1946 radioisotope dating was providing evidence to challenge the Young Earth view, and this caused internal disputes between Young Earth Creationists and Old Earth Creationists and led to the demise of the Deluge Geology Society.
Organised creationism didn’t amount to much until around 1960 when everything changed. But to understand what happened in 1960 it is helpful to first understand the 1925 Scopes Trial.
John Scopes Slide 3
The Scopes Trial made an enormous impression on America and the world. Shortly after the Tennessee governor signed an anti-evolution bill into law, the young American Civil Liberties Union in New York began searching for a volunteer to test the Tennessee law in court. John Scopes was a young teacher who substituted for two weeks in a biology class, and was unsure if he ever used the word “evolution”, but he agreed to be charged for the crime of teaching evolution in order to test the law, and in return he would be paid enough to fund his entry into his planned course of study.
Darrow and Bryan Slide 4,5,6
On the evolution side the ACLU hired an expensive team of experts led by the agnostic big city criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes, and on the anti-evolution side, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association hired the popular Presbyterian anti-evolutionist and three-times presidential candidate William Bryan to prosecute Scopes. The 8-day “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee was given top headlines across the nation’s newspapers and around the world. Everyone realized that there was an important question on trial, “Did human beings descend from monkey ancestors?”. What would the lawyers decide? And could state science curricula teach evolution and deny the Bible account of creation?
On day 7 of the trial, Darrow put Bryan in the witness stand as a Bible expert and was surprised that Bryan did not accept a literal reading of Genesis 1. Bryan said the “days” could each be 600 million years! The ACLU objective was to overthrow the anti-evolution laws and open the door for teaching evolution, but Bryan won the case and Scopes was fined a token $100 for breaking the law. The trial also made clear that the public were not buying the evolution story, as public sentiment was clearly opposed to monkey ancestors and the teaching of evolution in taxpayer funded schools.
Cartoons and Newspapers, Slides 7-13
Numbers points out that in the years following the trial several historians have claimed that the Scopes Trial was a public relations victory for the evolutionists. But Numbers counters that the evidence does not support that view. Journalists did review Bryan’s performance harshly, saying he revealed his ignorance of both religion and science. Darrow received considerable criticism also for his ignorance of religion and science as well as for disrespecting the judge, being rude to Bryan, and trying to deny the people of Tennessee their democratic rights to determine what should be taught in tax-supported schools. So poor was Darrow’s performance that the ACLU tried to dump him from the defence team – unsuccessfully.
After the trial the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association were flushed with a sense of victory: “[Bryan] not only won his case in the judgment of the Judge, in the judgment of the Jurors, in the judgment of the Tennessee populace attending; he won it in the judgment of an intelligent world”.
Numbers believes the ACLU and the Scopes trial set back the cause of teaching evolution for at least 30 years, for in this period “American textbook publishers tried to avoid antagonising conservative Christians by saying as little as possible about evolution. This policy of ‘neutrality based on silence’ began to crumble in the late 1950s …”. The “space race” was on, and millions of dollars were being spent on science education in order to beat the Russians! By 1963 the Biological Science Curriculum Study had published three new biology texts and more than 50% of US students were being confidently taught about their ape-like ancestors. An organised backlash began. Some of the anti-evolution reaction was from Bible-believing Christians, and some was from people who were insulted by the idea of monkey relatives. Anyway, the public were far from convinced of the truth of Darwin’s hypothesis and the arrival of this evolutionist textbook galvanised Christians to fight back by joining together in creationist societies.
Inherit the Wind, Slides 14, 15
Numbers shows that the Scopes trial is important in the modern history of creationism, and the play “Inherit the Wind” is also important because it conveys a false view of history into our modern culture. Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee wrote “Inherit the Wind” as a criticism of McCarthyism and the anti-communist investigations conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Unfortunately the play used Scopes as a safer vehicle from which to comment, and the play blatantly portrays the Scopes trial as a public relations victory for the enlightened forces over the fearful dogmatists, for the authors had no interest in an accurate portrayal of the Scopes Trial. The play was first performed in 1955 and a note in the opening of the script admits that while the play depicts the Scopes Trial “it is not meant to be a historical account and there are numerous instances where events were substantially altered or invented”. As well as the play there are three film versions of “Inherit the Wind” from 1960, 1988 and 1999, all of which give the false view of being true history. I considered showing a clip of Spencer Tracey in the 1960 movie, but it was so completely misleading that I rejected doing so.
David Menton has carefully analysed the play and compared it with the real Scopes Trial and notes that throughout the play Bryan is portrayed as closed-minded, pompous, stupid, intolerant, hypocritical, insincere and gluttonous. The following sample dialogue between Darrow and Bryan appears on page 51 (real names substituted):
DARROW: ‘I don’t suppose you’ve memorized many passages from The Origin of Species?’
BRYAN: ‘I am not the least interested in the pagan hypotheses of that book.’
DARROW: ‘Never read it? ‘
BRYAN: ‘And I never will.’
The truth is quite different, however: Bryan is reported by one of his biographers, Lawrence Levine, to have read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species 20 years before the Scopes trial. Bryan’s reservations about the theory of evolution were certainly influenced by his religious beliefs, and he had actually written many well–argued articles critical of the evidence used to defend the theory of evolution.
Bryan also carried on a long correspondence on evolution with the famous evolutionist Henry Osborn. For a layman, Bryan’s knowledge of the scientific evidence for and against evolution was unusually sophisticated. By comparison, the trial transcript shows that Darrow gave the impression of having a poor grasp of evolution. Darrow appeared to rest his belief in evolution on scientific authority, which he accepted without question.
If you want a detailed rundown of the inventions in “Inherit the Wind” see
The new 1963 US biology textbooks presented evolution as a fact, and stirred Bible-believers to action. In 1961 Morris and Whitcombe published “The Genesis Flood”, and in 1963 formed the effective Creation Research Society. For all Bible-believers Morris’s book and society explained a convenient compression of billions of years of Earth history back to 6,000 years. This was a consistent and comprehensive answer to all the Biblical interpretation gymnastics. The creation – evolution question was painted in sharp relief: Either Bible history for one camp, or Big Bang with Billions of Years and Evolution for the other camp. Henry Morris was clear: All the mainstream geologists, biologists and astronomers were wrong. The Bible made full sense of the world in its straightforward reading, and a full repudiation of the Academy’s story of origins made room for the Bible’s story of Creation, Fall, Judgment by Flood, Redemption by Christ, Final Judgment and Consummation of the Creation. If you believe Genesis it is easier to believe Revelation and everything in between, said Morris. Anyone with hope of a miraculous end for this Age finds it easier to believe a miraculous start of this Age. Ronald Numbers admits that this is an attractive view for a Christian.
I have related only a few episodes in the history that Numbers presents. For example, Numbers gives interesting accounts of Muslim Creationism, accounts of the Intelligent Design Movement, accounts of the Australian Answers in Genesis organisation and much more.
Summary, Slide 16
Numbers focuses his study of creationism within the modern era and shows it has been a time of radical change. From p368-372 he gives an interesting summary of this period. In the early years of the twentieth century there were very few creationists with academic recognition and scientific training. Creationists were obscure, isolated, ignored and ridiculed. Bible-believing Christians were often happy to ignore the creation-evolution conflict, and when pressed on the issue, often avoided conflict by using interpretations of Genesis 1 which accommodated the scientist’s story of deep time and evolution. These explanations were mostly of the “Days of Genesis 1 should be interpreted as Ages” type, or proposed an enormous “Gap” in the Genesis account so evolution could occur. A Garden of Eden special creation of Adam and Eve was often invoked along with the standard evolution story for the rest of creation. In the 1920s one man stood out — the Seventh Day Adventist, George McCready Price, who taught and wrote booklets promoting recent Creation and Flood Geology. Numbers would have us believe Price was the first modern creation scientist, and his view is backed up with much detail.
100 years later, creationists have changed a lot! Well educated and academically recognised creationists are numbered in the thousands, and new scientific creationist books are published almost every week. Organised creation societies exist around the world. Instead of being ignored or dismissed as a bad joke, creationists are the objects of serious criticism and dire concern! The Young Earth Creation view is being hotly argued on internet forums world-wide. Public opinion polls have remarkably remained in favour of creation and against evolution. (For example, a recent New York Times poll found 65% of US citizens want both creation and evolution taught in school science).
Arthur Schopenhauer said newly discovered truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, and dismissed as not worthy of consideration. Second, it is vehemently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being obviously true and self-evident. Modern Creation Science is definitely still facing vehement opposition in stage two and it is unclear if there will ever be a stage three. Creation Science has experienced shocking success since 1960, and although it is still a small force in culture, it is certainly not going away. Actually, says Dr. Ronald Numbers, one should expect the influence of Creationism to continue growing.
William Lane Craig, Slide 17
William Lane Craig avoids the issues of evolution and young earth in his debating, but when he speaks of evangelistic opportunity he is optimistic, and I think Craig’s optimism is a fitting “last word”:
“It is the broader task of Christian apologetics to create a cultural milieu in which the Gospel can still be heard as a legitimate option for thinking people. People may not come to Christ through the arguments, but the arguments give them permission to believe, as it were – the intellectual permission to believe when their hearts are moved by the preaching of the Gospel and by the Holy Spirit.”
“Now, I believe, we are living at a time in history when huge doors of opportunity stand open before us. We are living at a time when Christian philosophy is undergoing a renaissance, which has revitalized natural theology, and arguments for the existence of God. We’re living at a time when modern science is more open to the existence of a transcendent Creator and Designer of the universe than at any time in recent memory. And we’re living at a time when biblical criticism has largely established the credibility of the outlines of the New Testament life of Jesus, so that the Gospels are now regarded once again as serious historical sources for the life of Christ. This is a tremendously exciting time to be alive and working in apologetics. I think that we’re well poised intellectually to regain lost ground and to help reshape our culture in such a way that the Gospel can be heard as a legitimate option for people today.”
(Accessed Feb 2013: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/)
I share Dr. Bill Craig’s optimism, and I am encouraged by the modern history of creationism. I thoroughly commend The Creationists by Dr. Ronald Numbers to anyone who has ever wondered about the people who believe in Creation.
Modern Cartoon, Slide 18
February 8, 2013
In both the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Fine tuning Argument, Craig refers to the Big Bang (BB) Theory. Creationist organisations, such as Creation Ministries International (CMI), do not accept the BB theory and believe in a young earth instead of one that is 4.5 billion years old. On 25th October 2012, Steve White provided a presentation on the creationists view. His Power Point slides can be seen from the following link: Cosmology of the Bible
Here is Steve’s summary:
1 A Creationist view of Cosmology
The Bible cosmology records a young 6000 year old universe that was accepted by both Jewish teaching and Christendom until only about 200 years ago. Even today Jewish mainstream newspapers such as the Jerusalem Post record the current year since creation as 5774 (Christians typically add 243 years to this Rabbinical chronology of Seder Olam Rabbah compiled by Rabbi Yose ben Halafta who died 160 AD, to correct the age of Terah when Abram was born and the accepted duration of the Persian empire).
The following Biblical references were quoted as evidence that the early chapters of Genesis are consistent with later scripture:
- The fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 8) sanctifies the Sabbath on the basis of six literal days of creation of earth and heaven followed by a day of rest. The seven day week is still observed around the world today despite various attempts to change it.
- Luke the careful historian lists the genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-37) back only 66 generation to Adam the son of God i.e. creation.
- Peter (2 Peter 3:5) circa 60 AD speaks of the heavens and the earth being created out of water and then destroyed by water in direct support of the account given in the early chapters of Genesis both of creation and then Noah’s catastrophic flood, the latter which provides an alternate explanation for the fossil record and sedimentary rock layers often used as evidence of an old earth.
Christian scientists only started to defend the Biblical young universe record in the last few decades.
The explanation of apparent starlight events billions of years old was addressed by Dr Russell Humphries in his book Starlight and Time : Solving the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a Young Universe, 1994. His model proposes the universe beginning from a Black Hole containing all matter in the universe in the form of water, with the Earth close by, deep in its gravitational well. On Day 4 of Creation the Black Hole flipped into a White Hole, allowed by the General Theory of Relativity, and the Universe then expanded in the 24 hour period. Whilst Earth continued to experience only 24 hours because of proximity to the gravity of the White Hole, the expanding Universe experienced billions of years of events and red-light shift. Since Day 4, both our Solar System and the rest of the Universe run have existed for 6000 years and we continue to observe starlight events that occurred over the billions of years compressed into Earth’s Day 4.
Dr John Hartnett of University of Western Australia has modified Dr Humphries model by restricting the White Hole expansion of water to just beyond our Solar System. This overcomes problems of timing of events in nearby galaxies and blue shift expected if the water spread to the edge of the Universe. Work is still proceeding to refine the model, in conjunction with equations from the General Theory of Relativity derived by Dr Moshe Carmeli, a secular Israeli theoretical physicist.
Other naturalistic models for the formation of the Universe continue to have significant problems:
- No robust explanation of the formation star nuclear fusion from a gas cloud has been given, as gravity cannot overcome gas pressure to achieve compression required for fusion.
- Halton Arp’s documentation of the disparity in red-shift between galaxies and quasars that are obviously in proximity as gas is observed flowing from the former to the latter. The degree of red-shift has been the standard of establishing the distance to far galaxies but if it fails to explain quasars at the same distance, so something is wrong.
2 RF Response
There were a number at the meeting that disagree with or are not convinced by the creationist view.
In general, Craig avoids the divisive issue of evolutionary theory in his arguments. There is enough good evidence out there without getting entangled in these issues. However, Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is a big and divisive issue among Christians and there will inevitably be more discussion and debate on this subject at Reasonable Faith Adelaide. At least we should try to be better informed on the issues.
January 23, 2013
Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument
The Principle of Sufficient Reason
By Kevin Rogers
Why does anything at all exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? These were the questions that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) raised, and from them he developed an argument for the existence of God based on the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). The PSR is one form of various cosmological arguments.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)
Leibniz was a German mathematician and philosopher. In mathematics, he was the co-inventor (with Isaac Newton) of calculus, the first inventor of a mechanical calculator and the inventor of the binary number system. In philosophy, he suggested that we live in the “best of all possible worlds”, he was a key thinker in the development of rationalism and also a forerunner of modern logic and analytic philosophy. In his latter years, he fell out of favour due to disputes with Newton on whether he had copied Newton’s ideas on calculus. His writings were largely forgotten, but were revived in the 20th century, and he is now highly regarded.
2 The Argument
Leibniz’s argument consists of 3 premises and 2 conclusions, as follows:
- Premise 1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence
- Premise 2: If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God
- Premise 3: The universe exists
- Conclusion 1: The universe has an explanation of its existence
- Conclusion 2: Therefore the explanation of the universe’s existence is God
However, is it a good argument? A good argument must satisfy the following criteria:
- The premises must be true, and
- The conclusions must follow logically from the premises.
In this article, I will work backwards. I will firstly discuss the logical structure of the argument (its validity) and then consider the premises. We will firstly assume that the premises are true and verify whether the conclusions follow from the premises.
3 Logical Structure
Conclusion 1 is justified by Premise 1 and 3 as follows:
- Premise 1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence
- Premise 3: The universe exists
- Conclusion 1: The universe has an explanation of its existence
Thus if everything that exists has an explanation of its existence and the universe exists, then it follows that the universe has an explanation of its existence.
Conclusion 2 follows from premise 2 and conclusion 1 as follows:
- Premises 2: If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God
- Conclusion 1: The universe has an explanation of its existence
- Conclusion 2: Therefore the explanation of the universe’s existence is God
I think it is fairly self-evident that the logical structure of the argument is valid. Now we will look at the premises.
4 Are the Premises True?
4.1 Premise 3
Premise 3 states that the universe exists. I think this is fairly self-evident. I am sure that there have been extreme sceptics that have questioned this claim, but I will not concern myself with them.
4.2 Premise 1
4.2.1 Objection 1 – How do we explain God?
Premise 1 states that everything that exists has an explanation of its existence. This has prompted the following objection:
If premise 1 is true, then God must have an explanation of his existence. The explanation of God’s existence must be some other being greater than God. That’s impossible; therefore, premise 1 must be false.
However, this objection is a misunderstanding of what Leibniz meant by “explanation”. According to Leibniz, there are 2 kinds of explanations:
- Beings that exist necessarily (necessary beings), or
- Beings that are produced by an external cause (contingent beings).
Necessary beings are those that exist by a necessity of their own nature. In other words it is impossible for them not to exist. Some mathematicians believe that abstract mathematical objects, such as numbers, sets and shapes (e.g. circles and triangles) exist necessarily. Necessary beings are not caused to exist by an external entity and necessarily exist in all possible worlds.
On the other hand, contingent beings are caused to exist by something else. They do not exist necessarily and exist because something else produced them. This includes physical objects such as people, planets and galaxies. It is easy to imagine possible worlds in which these objects do not exist. Thus we could expand premise 1 as follows:
Premise 1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either due to the necessity of its own nature or due to an external cause.
It is impossible for God to have a cause. Thus Leibniz’s argument is really for a God who must be a necessary, uncaused being. Thus the argument helps to define and constrain what we mean by “God”.
4.2.2 Objection 2 – Does the Universe need explaining?
Some atheists have objected that premise 1 is true of everything in the universe, but not the universe itself. However, it is arbitrary to claim that the universe is an exception. After all, even Leibniz did not exclude God from premise 1.
4.2.3 Objection 3 – An Explanation of the Universe is Impossible
Some atheists have suggested that it is impossible for the universe to have an explanation of its existence. Their argument goes something like this:
The explanation of the universe would have to be a prior state of affairs in which the universe did not exist. This would be nothingness. Nothingness cannot cause anything, Therefore the universe exists inexplicably.
This objection assumes that the universe includes everything and that there is nothing outside the universe, including God. The objection has excluded the possibility of God by definition. However, an alternative definition is that the universe contains all physical things, but that God exists apart from the universe. This objection assumes that atheism is true and argues in a circle. It is clearly begging the question.
4.3 Premise 2
Premise 2 states that if the universe has an explanation of its existence, then that explanation is God. This appears controversial at first, but in fact it is not. This is because atheists typically argue that if atheism is true, then the universe has no explanation of its existence. Thus if there is an explanation of the universe, then atheism must be false (i.e., God is the explanation of the universe). This conclusion follows from the following rule of logic: If p => (implies) Q, then “not Q” => “not P”. An example is, “If it is raining, then there are clouds. Thus if there are no clouds, then it is not raining.”
One may object at this point that the word “explanation” is ambiguous. An explanation for something may be due to either an intelligent agent or a mindless, unintelligent prior event or cause. For example, suppose we have a rusty car. The existence of the car was due to intelligent agents, but the rusty degradation was due to mindless, unintelligent causes. If the ultimate explanation of the universe is mindless and unintelligent, then the argument does not take us very far. However, could the existence of the universe be ultimately due to mindless causes?
However, I don’t think that the LCA necessarily demands that the observable universe has an intelligent explanation of its existence. For example, suppose that this universe was birthed by some other universe. Well, that other universe would be the explanation of its existence. Of course, that would simply push the problem back one step further. Even if an atheist wants to appeal to an infinite past succession of universes, we can still ask of that infinite succession, “Why does it exist, rather than nothing and what is its explanation?” But at that point, what kind of explanation can there be other than some transcendent, necessary cause? So a rational atheist is forced to either concede the argument or claim that the cosmos exists inexplicably (without explanation).
4.4 Objection 4 – The Universe exists Necessarily
All atheistic alternatives now seem to be closed, but not quite. Some atheists have claimed that the universe exists necessarily (i.e., the universe is a necessary being). If that were the case, then the universe would not require an external cause. However, this proposal is generally not taken seriously for the following reason. None of the universe’s components seem to exist necessarily. They could all fail to exist. Other material configurations are possible, the elementary particles could have been different and the physical laws could have been different as well. Thus the universe cannot exist necessarily.
However, is it valid to resort to God as the explanation of the universe? Are there other possibilities? The universe consists of space, time, matter and energy. The cause of the universe must be something other than the universe. Thus the cause of the universe must be non-physical, immaterial and beyond space and time. Abstract objects are not possible candidates as they have no causal relationships. Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that the cause of the universe must be a transcendent, unembodied mind.
Leibniz’s argument from the Principle of sufficient reason is an interesting argument for the existence of God, but it goes beyond just God’s existence. It also constrains the attributes of God to be a transcendent, uncaused, unembodied mind, who necessarily exists. In other words, this being is what the major monotheistic religions traditionally refer to as “God”.
January 22, 2013
Did Jesus Rise from the dead?
The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is the most critical of all Christian truth claims. As Paul states, if Christ is not raised then your faith is futile. In other words, Christianity stands or falls on the basis of the reality and truth of a physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This article is a summary of William Lane Craig’s argument for the resurrection, based on chapter 9 of his book, On Guard, Defending your faith with Reason and Precision.
The argument is presented in 2 phases:
- What is the evidence, and
- What is the best explanation of the evidence?
This argument is mainly based on the writings of the New Testament, in particular the 4 gospels, Acts and those letters of Paul that are universally recognized as genuinely from the hand of Paul. This includes Galatians, 1&2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Colossians. The argument does not assume that the NT texts are the divinely inspired Word of God. It treats them as historical resources that are the works of men. They are a set of fairly independent books that were eventually formed into a collection, which we now call the New Testament.
2 The Evidence
The 3 lines of evidence are:
- The empty tomb,
- Jesus’ appearances alive after his death, and
- The origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
2.1 The Empty Tomb
The 5 lines of evidence for the empty tomb are:
- The evidence for Jesus’ burial
- There are multiple independent reports of the empty tomb
- The simplicity of Mark’s account
- The role of women in the discovery of the empty tomb, and
- The earliest Jewish response to the resurrection claim
Why is the burial relevant to the argument for the empty tomb? If the burial story is accurate then the location of the tomb was known. The tomb must have been empty when the disciples commenced preaching, otherwise the disciples wouldn’t have believed their own message, nobody else would have believed them, and the Jewish authorities would have suppressed the new movement by exhuming the body.
The evidence for the historicity of the burial is that
- We have multiple independent sources supporting the burial and also
- The particular role of Joseph of Arimathea.
188.8.131.52 Independent Sources
There are at least 5 independent sources that support or provide information about the burial:
- Mark’s passion source,
- Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8,
- Matthew and Luke’s source,
- Early sermons in Acts, and
Mark’s passion source is believed to be derived from an earlier source as it differs in style from the rest of Mark. It is one long continuous narrative, whereas the rest of Mark tends to consist of short pericopes with abrupt joining statements. Mark describes the burial by Joseph of Arimathea and that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses witnessed where Jesus was buried. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul explicitly states that Jesus died, was buried and was then raised on the 3rd day. Matthew and Luke deviate from Mark in a common way, indicating that they were using a common source independent of Mark, usually assumed to be Q, which is an early source. John’s source is also independent. Acts contains records of early sermons that mention the burial, as “he was not abandoned to the grave” (Acts 2:31).
184.108.40.206 Joseph of Arimathea
All 4 gospels state that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in his family tomb. Joseph was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. There was tension and hostility between the Sanhedrin and Jesus, as well as with his disciples. However, the gospels speak favorably about Joseph. Thus this is unlikely to be a Christian invention. The gospels also state that women were the witnesses to his burial, which is also unlikely to be a Christian invention.
2.1.2 Independent Reports of the empty Tomb
The independent sources that directly attest the empty tomb on Sunday morning include those sources that attested the burial. Matthew also reports that the first Jewish counterclaim to the resurrection was that the disciples had stolen the body. However, this claim would only have been raised if the tomb was actually empty. Luke and John also mention that 2 of the disciples visited the tomb to verify the women’s report that the tomb was empty. These constitute additional independent sources that attest the empty tomb.
2.1.3 Simplicity of Mark’s Account
Mark’s account of the empty tomb is simple and lacks legendary development that is typical of later legends. The actual resurrection is neither witnessed nor described. The narrative is told simply without theological reflections or Old Testament quotations. This is in contrast to the gospel of Peter, which is typical of late legendary developments.
2.1.4 Role of Women
All 4 gospels attest that it was women who discovered the empty tomb. This likely to be genuine as it is something that would not be invented. This is due to the low status of women within Jewish and Greek culture at that time. Women were not regarded as credible witnesses. For example, in Antiquities of the Jews IV.8.15, Josephus states, “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex”. Other quotations that indicate the low status of women at that time are, “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Sotah 19a) or “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a Gentile, a slave or a woman” (Berachos 16b).
2.1.5 Earliest Jewish Response
The earliest response to the resurrection was that the disciples had stolen the body (Matt 28:11-15) and Matthew states that “The story has been spread among Jews to this day”. This presupposes that the body was missing.
2.1.6 Conclusion on Empty Tomb
The historical evidence for the empty tomb is quite strong and is now widely supported by Biblical scholars and historians. Jacob Kremer (a New Testament critic) states that “By far most scholars hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb”. Gary Habermas has conducted a study and claims that 75% of scholars accept the empty tomb (Habermas). This includes eminent Jewish scholars, such as Geza Vermes and Pinchas Lapide.
2.2 The Appearances
I will now discuss the evidence for the appearances of Christ after his death. Three lines of evidence will be presented:
- Paul’s list of eyewitnesses
- Independent gospel accounts, and
- The bodily nature of the appearances.
2.2.1 Paul’s List
In 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8, Paul provides a list of people to whom Christ appeared after his death:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
This quotation is from one of Paul’s indisputably authentic letters. From Galatians, we know that Paul was acquainted with the first disciples and it is strongly believed that this account was obtained from Peter and James while he stayed with Peter for 15 days, three years after his conversion. His list includes the following people:
- Five hundred brethren
- All the apostles
- Saul of Tarsus (Paul)
The specific appearance to Peter is not described in any of the gospel accounts. However, we have good evidence that it did occur for 2 reasons:
- Paul knew Peter personally (Galatians 1:18) and so he received this information first hand, and
- Although Luke does not describe the appearance, he still mentions that it occurred, as he reports “The Lord has risen indeed and he has appeared to Simon [another name for Peter]” (Luke 24:23).
Thus we have 2 independent reports that Jesus appeared to Peter.
“The Twelve” is a generic term that refers to the original 12 disciples minus Judas. The appearance to this group of disciples is also independently described in Luke 24:36-42 and John 20:19-20. In both accounts Jesus greets the disciples with “Peace be with you” and then he shows them his wounds before eating in their presence. This appearance emphasises the bodily, physical nature of the appearance and also verifies that it was the same person as who was crucified.
220.127.116.11 Five hundred brethren
Paul then states that Jesus appeared to more than 500 brethren on a single occasion. This event seems quite outstanding, but it is not mentioned explicitly in any of the gospels. This has made many suspicious. However, in its favour, Paul states that some of these have since died but the rest are still alive. It seems apparent that Paul had personal contact with many of these people and that witnesses were still available at that time and could be questioned. Why is this event not described in the gospels? Perhaps it is because most of the gospel appearances took place in Jerusalem. The appearance to the 500 could have taken place in Galilee and may even correspond to the event described Matthew 28:16-18 (the great commission).
James was one of Jesus’ brothers. During his ministry, his brothers did not believe in him and there was obviously tension within Jesus’ family. This is reported independently in Mark 3:21, Mark 3:31-35 and John 7:3-5 and also meets the criteria of embarrassment. However, after the crucifixion, his brothers had changed their attitude. They were present with the disciples in the upper room (Acts 1:14), James became the leader of the Jerusalem church, Paul met with James during his 15-day stay with Peter and Paul refers to James as one of the 3 pillars of the church at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9). In addition, all of Jesus’ brothers became Christian preachers and even Josephus describes the martyrdom of James the brother of Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews (20:200). This turnaround in the attitude of James and his brothers affirms Paul’s claim that Jesus appeared to James.
18.104.22.168 All the apostles
“All the Apostles” refers to a wider group than the original 12 disciples. It is evident that such a group existed as Luke reports, “Choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22). Thus Luke independently attests that there was a wider group of men who had witnessed appearances.
22.214.171.124 Saul of Tarsus (Paul)
The appearance to Paul is explicitly described once in Acts, and then recounted by Paul twice in the same book. Paul also explicitly confirms this appearance in 1 Corinthians 9:1and 15:8. Saul was previously a Pharisee, a persecutor of Christians and even responsible for the execution of some Christians. This is described in Acts and is also confirmed in his letters. However, he suddenly gave up his former way of life to follow Jesus, for which he suffered greatly and was eventually martyred. This radical change was solely based on his belief that Jesus had appeared to him.
2.2.2 Independent Gospel Accounts
The gospels and Paul’s list provide multiple independent accounts of appearances:
- The appearance to Peter is mentioned by Paul (1 Cor 15:5) and Luke (24:34)
- The appearance to the 12 is mentioned by Paul (1 Cor 15:5), Luke (24:36-53) and John (20:19-31)
- The appearance to the women is reported by Matthew (28:9-10) and John (20:11-17) and also meets the criterion of embarrassment
- The appearance to the disciples in Galilee is reported by Matthew (28:16-20), Mark (16) & John (21)
According to sceptical scholar Gert Ludemann, it is historically certain that disciples experienced appearances.
2.2.3 Bodily Nature of the Appearances
However, were the appearances physical and bodily or were they simply visions that were internal to peoples’ minds? On this the New Testament is clear for the following reasons:
- Paul implies that the appearances were physical,
- The NT distinguishes between appearances and visions, and
- The gospel accounts emphasis that the appearances were physical.
126.96.36.199 Paul on the Resurrection Body
Paul taught not only the immortality of the soul, but even more emphatically taught the resurrection of the body. In 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 Paul compares the earthly body with the resurrection body as shown in the following table:
Some have suggested that the natural/spiritual comparison is synonymous with physical/immaterial. However, this is not the case. Paul makes it clear that he is referring to orientation. The natural man seeks to please the desires of the flesh whereas the spiritual man seeks to please God.
188.8.131.52 Appearance/Vision Distinction
The New Testament clearly distinguishes between an appearance and a vision. An appearance is external and physical whereas a vision only occurs within an individual’s mind. The appearances occurred over a period of 40 days. Thereafter, individuals experienced visions, such as Stephen’s vision of Jesus at the right hand of God while he was being stoned (Acts 7). The exception was Saul, who experienced an appearance much later. There was a flash of light, he fell to the ground, he was temporarily blinded by the experience and his acquaintances heard a sound but did not understand the voice. Also Paul explicitly describes this event as an appearance.
184.108.40.206 Gospel Accounts Emphasize Physical Appearances
All of the gospel accounts emphasize the physical nature of all of the appearances. There is no trace or evidence on non-physical appearances. These accounts also meet the criterion of dissimilarity. The Greeks only believed in the immortality of the soul and considered the physical body inherently evil. The Jews believed in the universal resurrection of the righteous at the end of the world but had no belief in the resurrection of an individual prior to this time, let alone that the Messiah would be resurrected.
2.3 Disciples’ Belief
So far we have covered evidence for the empty tomb and the post crucifixion appearances. The 3rd line of evidence is the origin of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection. The Christian Church exploded into life during the 1st century. What caused this movement to begin? The crucifixion was a disaster for the common expectation of the Messiah. The origin of the Christian Church was based on their belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead and that the resurrection was the validation of Jesus’ claim to be Messiah.
3 The Best Explanation
The evidence strongly suggests that Jesus died and was buried, but on the following Sunday morning his tomb was empty. This was then followed by what witnesses believed to be physical appearances of the risen Jesus. It was this belief in the physical resurrection that was the basis for the origin of the Christian church. This is the evidence that is widely accepted by Biblical critics. However, how is this evidence best explained? This section will describe some of the criteria that historians use to formally compare hypotheses in the light of the evidence and will then apply these criteria to compare the following hypotheses:
- The Conspiracy Theory,
- The Apparent death Theory,
- The displaced body theory,
- The hallucination Theory, and
- The Resurrection hypothesis.
3.1 Criteria for Comparing Hypotheses
Historians use various criteria for comparing hypotheses. These include the following:
- Explanatory scope: How well does the hypothesis explain the evidence?
- Explanatory power: Does this hypothesis make the evidence more probable?
- Plausibility: How well does this hypothesis fit with background beliefs?
- Less contrived: Is there less need for additional unsupported beliefs?
- Disconfirmed by fewer expected beliefs: Does this hypotheses not conflict with fewer accepted beliefs?
- Meets conditions 1-5 better than other hypotheses
3.2 Hypotheses Comparison
3.2.1 Conspiracy Hypothesis
The conspiracy hypothesis is that the disciples stole the body and then lied about his appearances.
This theory has good explanatory scope as it explains all of the evidence. The tomb was empty since the disciples stole the body. It explains the appearances, as the disciples lied. It also explains the origin of the disciples’ belief as that was also a lie. However, this hypothesis does not have good explanatory power. Why invent a story where the empty tomb is discovered by women? Why is the story not filled with proof texts and fulfilled prophecies? Why isn’t the resurrection witnessed and described? There are no dazzling and glorious appearances. Matthew’s story about the guard would not suit a conspiracy. The body could already have been stolen before the guard was set. However the biggest objection is that, “Why would the disciples die for something they know isn’t true?”
The conspiracy theory is also implausible. Conspiracies are difficult to maintain and usually unravel. It also doesn’t tally with the disciples’ psychological state. They would have been devastated that their hoped for Messiah had been humiliated by crucifixion. Why would they bother with constructing a conspiracy?
In the early 20th century it was fashionable for scholars to suggest that Christian beliefs about the resurrection were contrived by copying pagan resurrection stories. Scholars collected supposed parallel stories from pagan religions. However the movement collapsed when the parallels were studied more deeply. The reasons were that the parallels were shown to be false and there was no connection with the disciples’ resurrection belief.
The ancient world was a fruit basket of beliefs and so it was easy to find instances that were similar. However, the parallels were of a different order. Some were assumptions into heaven (Hercules or Romulus), some were disappearances (Apollonius and Empedocles), some were seasonal symbols (Tammuz, Osiris and Adonis) and some were emperor worship (Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar). However, none of them were a close match to the resurrection and were simply the wrong interpretive framework for 1st century Jews. In addition, paganism was abhorrent to Jews and so it is highly unlikely that the disciples would have derived the resurrection from pagan beliefs.
As an alternative some have suggested that the resurrection was derived from Jewish influences. However, the Jews expected the resurrection of all the righteous at the end of the world. They did not expect the resurrection of an individual Messiah prior to the end. This has been confirmed from other messianic movements. No other Messianic movement ever proposed that their Messiah was resurrected.
The conspiracy theory is also contrived. It postulates motives to the disciples for which there is no evidence. It suggests that the moral character of the disciples was defective. Hypotheses have to be multiplied to account for the evidence. How does the conspiracy hypothesis account for the 500 witnesses and the women discovering the empty tomb?
The conspiracy theory is also disconfirmed by expected beliefs. Conspiracies tend to unravel. The disciples also seem sincere and the story does not match messianic expectations. For these reasons the conspiracy theory is not taken seriously by any scholar today.
3.2.2 Apparent Death Hypothesis
This theory suggests that Jesus was not dead when he was taken down from the cross. He later revived and escaped from the tomb, and then convinced the disciples that he had risen. This theory was popular at beginning of 19th century. This theory would explain the empty tomb, the appearances and the origin of the disciples’ belief. Some versions of this theory suggest that the disciples and Jesus conspired to fake Jesus’ death. However this version suffers from the same weaknesses as the conspiracy theory. The other version of this theory is that Jesus just happened to survive. However there are some obvious problems with this version. Jesus underwent severe torture prior to the crucifixion making it highly unlikely that he could survive crucifixion. The guards thought that Jesus was dead and they should have been competent in their assessment. Roman soldiers knew when their victims were dead and could ensure death by a spear thrust. Surely Jesus was at least severely weakened. How could he then move the stone, impress his disciples or support numerous appearances? The theory is also contrived. There have been suggestions that Jesus took special potions to fake death or that the centurion’s lance thrust was just a superficial poke. The theory is also disconfirmed by medical knowledge regarding the effects of scourging and crucifixion. Also, the appearances only continued for 40 days but Jesus did not continue with the disciples thereafter. Hence the displaced body hypothesis now has little scholarly support.
3.2.3 Displaced Body Hypothesis
This theory suggests that Joseph of Arimathea only placed the body in his tomb temporarily and then later moved the body into the criminal graveyard. Hence the disciples discovered the empty tomb and then inferred the resurrection.
This theory explains the empty tomb but not the appearances. It also has little explanatory power. Why didn’t Joseph correct the mistake? Perhaps he died before he got the chance. Some have suggested that the body was unidentifiable. However, Jewish ossuary practices militate against this. After one year the bones were transferred into an ossuary box and so Jews knew how to identify the correct body. Besides this, the criminals’ graveyard was close by. There would have been no need to use the family tomb. In addition, the Jewish law did not permit the body to be moved so soon after death. The theory is also contrived by suggesting Joseph’s sudden death or ascribing motives to him for which we have no evidence. Thus no historian currently supports this theory.
3.2.4 Hallucination Hypothesis
David Strauss proposed the hallucination theory in his book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835). The most prominent defender of this view today is Gerd Ludemann. This theory suggests that the appearances were hallucinations. This theory explains the appearances but does not explain the empty tomb and does not actually explain the disciples’ belief in the resurrection.
One of the claims is that the recorded appearances are similar to modern experiences of visions of the departed. Even if this is so, this would not lead to a resurrection belief. Visions of the departed may encourage belief in an afterlife but do not cause belief in a current physical resurrection. Visions of the departed are not taken as evidence that someone is alive, but that they are dead. Visions or hallucinations would more likely lead to a belief that Jesus was assumed into heaven in a manner like Enoch or Elijah.
It has been suggested that Peter and Paul could have had guilt induced visions but this theory relies on disputed theories proposed by Jung and Freud. Besides this, Paul does not fit. He was a successful and happy Jew who was fulfilled in his former manner of life. Paul’s experience is also recorded as being specifically an external appearance. His heard a voice, he was knocked to the ground and he became temporarily blind. The diversity of the appearances also “bursts the bounds of psychological casebooks.” Jesus appeared to many people at many times in many locations and under many circumstances. How could all these appearances lead to a uniform view of a physical resurrection? Some have suggested that there was a chain reaction and copy cat behavior amongst the disciples, but Paul and James also experienced appearances and they were not members of that group.
The hallucination theory is also highly contrived. It assumes that Peter was so obsessed with his guilt that he projected a hallucination. It also requires that the other disciples were prone to hallucinate or that Paul had a secret attraction to Christianity. The theory is also disconfirmed by the empty tomb, Paul’s satisfaction with his former life and the clear distinction that the New Testament makes between an appearance and a vision.
Nevertheless, the hallucination hypothesis is still considered a live option today and is superior to the other naturalistic options, but how does it compare with the resurrection hypothesis?
3.2.5 Actual Resurrection Hypothesis
The resurrection hypothesis is that Jesus actually physically rose from the dead leaving behind an empty tomb. This theory explains all 3 facts of the empty tomb, the appearances and the disciples’ belief in the resurrection. It also has great explanatory power since if Jesus rose from the dead we would expect the empty tomb, the appearances and the disciples’ belief. It is also more plausible considering Jesus’ life, his claims about his identity and the evidence for God’s existence. The resurrection claim is more plausible for Jesus than for Elvis. The main supposition that is required is that God exists. Once this is admitted as a genuine possibility then a supernatural explanation fits into the historical context. The main disconfirming belief is that “dead men do not rise”. It is indeed true that dead men do not rise naturally. However, the claim is that God raised Jesus from the dead. Hence if the prejudice against miracles is rejected, then there is no better rival to the resurrection hypothesis.
There is good evidence for the empty tomb, the appearances and that the disciples believed in the resurrection. The most straightforward explanation is that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead as claimed. The main obstacle to accepting this as true is the prejudice against the supernatural and against miracles. If God does not exist then the resurrection is impossible. However, if God is the creator and designer of the universe then, “the odd resurrection here and there is chicken feed”.
May 11, 2012
Argument for the Resurrection from Paul
Most arguments for the resurrection are based on the gospel accounts. For example, William Lane Craig bases his argument on:
- The empty tomb,
- The appearances, and
- The disciples’ beliefs in the resurrection.
I totally agree with his approach. However, this article is an argument that is personally convincing to me. It is based almost entirely on Paul’s writings (mainly Galatians and 1 Corinthians).
There is a lot of debate about the authorship and dating of the four gospels. However, these factors are far less controversial for most of Paul’s letters. Paul wrote 13 letters out of the 27 books in the NT, just less than 30% of the whole New Testament, and in each of his letters Paul identifies himself as the author in his initial greeting. Virtually all historical and biblical scholars accept that the majority of Paul’s letters were indeed written by Paul. His style is strongly personal, spontaneous and even controversial. There is no way that his letters were constructed or contrived by a committee. Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Philemon are virtually undisputed by scholars of all persuasions as being originated by Paul.
We can also be very confident that we have a good record of what he wrote. Many copies of Paul’s letters were disseminated widely, diverging into multiple branches like leaves on a tree. Scholars can compare multiple copies and derive a very reliable text. Thus, there is scholarly agreement that we know what Paul wrote.
Within his letters Paul refers incidentally to dateable events. Thus the contextual information that is contained in these letters enable some of them to be dated quite accurately. Paul’s letters were also written very close to Jesus’ ministry. His earliest letter may be within 15 years of the crucifixion. All of his letters were completed prior to Paul’s death in about 65AD. There are 2 theories for the destination for the Galatian letter (the South and North Galatian theories), which result in authorship dates of 49 AD or 55 AD respectively. 1 Corinthians was written in approximately 53 AD.
In summary, for most of Paul’s letters, we know who wrote them, what he wrote and when he wrote them. We also know they were written within a generation of Jesus’ crucifixion.
2 Biographical Information
We can also learn a great deal about Paul from his letters that is consistent with the account written about him in Acts several years later.
Firstly, in 1 Corinthians 15:9 and Galatians 1:13&23 Paul admits that he formerly persecuted the Church and tried to destroy it, as confirmed in Acts. However, on his way to Damascus, Paul claims he had an encounter with the risen Christ. This is described 3 times in the book of Acts. According to Acts a bright light appeared from heaven, Paul fell to the ground and he heard the voice of Jesus. This appearance was more than a vision that occurred in his brain. His companions saw the light and heard a sound, but they could not understand the voice. So something physical happened. Paul was temporarily blinded by the light. So Paul was also physically affected.
Paul later confirms this event in his letters. In Galatians 1:11-12, 1 Corinthians 9:1 & 15:8 Paul claims that he has seen the risen Christ and that the risen Christ appeared to him. This event was sufficiently convincing to Paul to completely reverse his former position and commence his Christian ministry without any reference to the established apostles (Galatians 1:15-24).
In Galatians 1:18&19 Paul records that, 3 years after his conversion, he visited Jerusalem and stayed with the apostle Peter for 15 days. During this time he also met with James, the brother of Jesus. He returned to Jerusalem again 14 years later and met with Peter, James and John (Galatians 2:1-9). Paul does not say a great deal about what they discussed during these visits, but we can safely assume that they did not spend the time drinking cups of tea and talking about the weather. Paul was also familiar with Jesus’ other brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5). Thus Paul had access to Jesus’ family members and also to witnesses of his ministry.
Paul’s main record relating to the death and resurrection of Christ is contained in 1 Corinthians 15:1-26 as follows:
1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.
2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.
16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.
25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months from the beginning of 50 AD to about July 51 AD. He probably wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus in about 53 AD in response to news from Corinth. In verse 1 he refers to their reception of the gospel from him. In particular, in verse 3 he states, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that…” The following text from verse 3 to 7 is a creed. Paul said that he had previously received it and then passed it on to the Corinthians (in 50 AD). Most scholars believe that Paul received this pre-existing creed from Peter and James during his first visit to Jerusalem 3 years after his conversion, which must have been within 5 years of the crucifixion. Paul then mentions Christ’s death, burial, resurrection and appearances to Peter, the Twelve, 500, James and all the apostles. After the creed he adds that Christ appeared to himself in an unusual way. It is significant that he mentions both Peter and James, as he met with them during his first visit. The appearance to James is not mentioned in the gospels. However, James was not a believer in Christ prior to the crucifixion but became the leader of the church in Jerusalem afterwards. Neither is the appearance to the 500 mentioned in the gospels. However, he states that most of them are still alive. The implication is, “Go and ask them if you don’t believe me.”
Paul is fully aware of the implications if Christ was not raised. His preaching is useless, so is their faith, he and the apostles are false witnesses, they are still in their sins, the dead in Christ are lost and Christians are to be pitied above all men. There is not much going for a dead Christ. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, Paul lists some of the things that he suffered for the gospel. He went on to suffer much more and was eventually executed during the Neronian persecution.
Paul knew what was at stake. If Christ was not raised then he and all the other witnesses were liars, his preaching was useless and futile, as is our faith. If Christ was not raised then all the apostles were of all men most to be pitied. What is the point? Why bother? Why travel all over Europe and suffer all these persecutions if the gospel message is not true? Why not rather eat drink and be merry? For tomorrow we die.
Eventually Paul was arrested and put in prison. The NT does not record his death. However, there is strong testimony from other sources that Paul was eventually beheaded just outside of Rome during the Neronian persecutions in about 65 AD.
Paul was willing to pay with his life for his belief in the resurrection. Now, dying for your beliefs doesn’t make it true. News reports of suicide bombers dying for their belief in Islam is almost a daily occurrence. But there is a key difference for the apostles. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the events and knew if their claims were true. Likewise, Paul was in an excellent position to know if the resurrection claim was untrue. Why die for a cause if you know it is not true? For this reason, even sceptical scholars that do not believe in the resurrection will still admit that the apostles really did believe that they had seen the risen Christ.
Is Paul Reliable?
Paul testifies to us that Christ is raised from the dead, but is he a reliable witness? If he is not a reliable witness, what are the possible causes of his error? Was he a liar? This is highly unlikely. As I described before, why suffer and die for something that you know is not true. Besides, Paul’s teaching about truth and integrity militates against it. Was he hallucinating? Was he sincerely mistaken? This is actually the most common explanation provided by sceptics. If it was just Paul, then that would be a possible explanation. However, there are at least 3 reasons why it is highly unlikely.
- Firstly, Paul was in the wrong frame of mind to hallucinate in such a way. The vision was in direct opposition to his intent and desires.
- Secondly, there were many witnesses to the resurrection. What are the chances of them all experiencing a hallucination, let alone the same one?
- Thirdly, a vision of the departed would not lead Paul or the other disciples to believe in a bodily resurrection. Visions of the departed may lead people to believe that a person lives on after death, but do not prompt them to believe in a bodily resurrection. Visions of the departed are not evidence that a person is alive, but that they are dead.
Was Paul crazy? This was Festus’ response. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” However, notice Paul’s reply: “I am not insane, most excellent Festus. What I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26: 24-25).
Was Paul stupid? Anyone who reads his letters will realise that this is not possible. For example, Antony Flew is a former atheist who is one of the leading philosophers in the world. Yet, he says, “Paul is an intelligent man and has the mind of a first class philosopher”.
So it seems that alternate explanations for Paul’s testimony are highly unlikely.
Summary of Paul’s Testimony
In summary, I believe that Paul provides a solid testimony to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ and the truth of the gospel for the following reasons:
- Paul had access to eye witnesses to the risen Christ within 5 years of the event.
- Paul had his own experience where he claims that he had seen the risen Christ.
- Paul’s conversion was completely unexpected as he was a former persecutor of the church.
- Paul had no motive to give a false testimony.
- Paul was willing to endure suffering and death for what he believed. Why do that if you know it is not true?
 See discussion between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew at http://www.illustramedia.com/IDArticles/flew-interview.pdf
May 3, 2012
I attended the Global Atheists’ Convention held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from Friday 13th April (good luck?) to Sunday 15th April. Our GPS did not recognize “1 Convention Place” and so we had difficulty finding where to go. Ann dropped me off where we thought it was. Almost as soon as I got out of the car, none other than Richard Dawkins walked straight past me; so I knew I was in the right place.
Richard Dawkins is one of the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”. “The Four Horsemen” is a play on the corresponding figures in the Book of Revelation (chapter 6). The 4 horsemen are outspoken figures for the new atheism movement. The other 3 are Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Unfortunately, Christopher Hitchens died of cancer on December 15 last year and so he declined to attend. However the other 3 were there. Their key books are shown in the following table.
Table 1: Key books by New Atheists
||The God Delusion
||God is not Great
Why Religion Poisons everything
||Breaking the Spell
||Letter to a Christian Nation
There were about 4,000 atheists in attendance plus 5 intrepid Christians under the auspices of the Melbourne City Bible Forum. Throughout the convention, it was assumed that the atheistic world view was correct and there was virtually no attempt to justify that belief.
During the GAC I had a number of conversations with atheists. I told them I was not an atheist but an observer. In fact I was a spy; and I told some of them that I was actually setting up a chapter of Reasonable Faith in Adelaide. All of the people that I spoke to were friendly and interested. One woman said something like, “I suppose you are going to write nasty things about us”. I assured her that I wouldn’t, so I hope that I am fair.
I made notes on the individual speakers. However, this summary spans the speakers and provides my overall impressions.
The opening address was given by David Nicholls. David lives in Maitland in South Australia. He is the current president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA).
The conference theme was “Celebration of Reason” and it was commonly attempted to associate reason, logic, truth, philosophy and evidence-based science with atheism, whereas religion stifles questioning and is a force of darkness. So how do you feel? David also claimed that reason is opposed to faith. Atheists have faith in reason, but Christians have blind faith without reason or evidence.
On 11 September 2001 Islamic terrorists flew aeroplanes into the Twin Towers in New York, killing over 3,000 people. This was done in the name of Islam. Islam is a religion, so all religions must be evil. This event was probably a significant trigger in the New Atheist movement.
3 Quality of Speakers
Naturally the quality of speakers varied greatly. About half of them were excellent. Some were balanced and readily admitted weaknesses in atheism and acknowledged merit in opposing views. In my view Peter Singer, Sam Harris, Leslie Cannold, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Lawrence Kraus, Eugenie Scott and Jason Ball were of this ilk. I even agreed with many of Richard Dawkins’ comments. I cannot comment on AC Grayling or Geoffrey Robertson, as I didn’t hear them. Lawrence Kraus gave the only talk that contained significant scientific content. It was an excellent presentation and I intend following up his arguments. I purchased his book, “A Universe from Nothing”.
4 The Aggressive Atheist
Most of the speakers were quite restrained, but the final speaker (Paul Zachary Myers) was the most aggressive.
His grand plans are an assault on heaven and the killing of God. His talk was roughly as follows:
Society started with the family, then centred on the king, the city and then the world. Jews were a people of the book and the book persisted beyond the city. The ideas of Christianity are also captured in a book and so the ideas persist longer than the people. Ideas change the world, but you can kill an idea. Churches are reacting to the new atheists. We have a better idea and science is the God killer. We are the people of reality and you Christians are false. We are products of the natural world but are also members of a universal tribe. Science bridges the differences between tribes since science works. Our only authority is reality. Science and religion are in opposition. Assertion is the enemy of science. What matters is what is true. Apocalyptic views are an excuse for laziness, relying on a left behind book that is clearly lacking supernatural sources.
He attacked the morality of the atonement. He then attacked various Christian extremes (outliers) but he then turned towards Christian moderates. “I don’t like you!” he said. A good atheist is interested in truth and evolution is a fact. Atheists like being rebels and are proud to be different. We are cranky individualists. There are no shepherds. We are hunting. We are wolves, we plan to conquer and Christians have cause to tremble.
The crowd cheered and the rattles waved. Bring it on!
5 Separation of Church and State
A hot button for atheists was the separation between church and state. They considered it unjust that religion, especially Christianity, should receive any preferential treatment, such as tax breaks, the opportunity to proselytise within schools or the use of school chaplains. It is Ok to teach comparative religion, but this should be done by professional teachers. However, there is competition for what is taught in the curriculum. Some of the speakers freely admitted that separation of church and state was actually promoted by Christians. Some speakers did not want funding of Christian or private schools. I don’t think this argument is completely convincing. If people pay taxes and want their children to go to private schools due to lack of confidence in the public schooling system then the fact that they pay taxes means that some government funding is justifiable. The real issue is the actual distribution.
There was a strong interest in ethics at the conference. It was often claimed that we can have ethics without God. Ethics should be based on reason to minimise harm and we don’t need religion to tell us what is right and wrong. We have arrived here by chance and for no reason. Thus it is up to us to create our own morality. Dawkins claimed that we don’t get our morals from religion but from reason. Richard Dawkins mentioned the instance where a man was stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Number 15: 32-36). He did not consider the context sympathetically. However, he concluded that we use our own reason to evaluate Biblical morality and thus our reason is a higher authority than Biblical revelation. Thus we should rely on our own sense of right and wrong. Morality also develops with time. We have 21st century morals. Darwin and Huxley were racist and would be considered revisionist now, as they were people of their own time. Morality should be based on consequences in order to prevent harm. Eg in the area of abortion there is nothing inherently sacred about humans. He was pro euthanasia but the slippery slope should be taken seriously. Designer babies are a viable option to remove bad genes. We can select cells. At least the issue should be discussed. Suffering and pain does have a purpose, at least as a deterrent.
I got the impression that liberal left ethics were assumed to be true such as:
- Pro-gay marriage based on the equal rights argument,
- Pro abortion based on a woman’s right to choose,
- Feminist values,
- Pro euthanasia, and
- Permissive sexual values etc.
However, an atheist who came to one of the Reason for Faith seminars claimed that there is no uniformity in atheists’ ethical beliefs. They have no hierarchy and there are no approved sets of beliefs.
7 God as a Moral Monster
A common theme is that we should not get our moral values from the Bible, as the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster. Jim Jeffries did a very clever and entertaining parody of God as a party pooper. God is self-obsessed. He wants people to sing praise songs to him. He hates fags and anyone who doesn’t do what he wants. Dan Barker also cited the case where Satan incited God to destroy Job without reason (Job 2:3).
8 The Atonement
The morality of the atonement came under frequent attack. Is man really evil? Don’t we have a natural inclination to do good? Why original sin? Why should we be held responsible for being born into sin? Why should God become a man and die to satisfy his own requirements? Why can’t he just forgive? Eternal punishment in hell seems to be an over-reaction.
I believe we should take on these questions and provide an explanation of the morality of the atonement. This is a fantastic opportunity to state the gospel at the deepest possible level.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a North African woman who was brought up as a Muslim but has since defected. Hence she has 2 bodyguards.
Aayan Hirsi Ali
She gave an African perspective of those countries where Islam dominates, usually associated with bribery and repression. Islam is far worse than Christianity. Islamic countries have discriminatory tax practices, persecute Christians and Muslim minorities, suppress freedom of speech and freedom of the press, suppress women, practice genital mutilation and enforce marriage of young girls, as young as 9 years old. According to Ayaan they are all actually devoted to the destruction of Israel and have no commitment to a 2 state solution with the Palestinians. However atheists and the liberal west are often soft on Islam and often attack Christianity more than Islam. This may be due to white guilt, a romantic perspective on primitive cultures or just plain fear of reprisal. It is often the case that serious Christians are more effective at identifying the issues and providing effective opposition. Christianity may be the major force that holds back an Islamic winter.
10 Christians Doing Bad Things
On one occasion the compere asked “Who here is a lapsed catholic?” About 1,000 people put up their hands. He then asked, “Who is a lapsed Baptist”. Only one person put up their hand. As a Christian who is half Baptist and half Anglican, I should be proud, but I am not exactly sure what this result means. Anyway, it was obvious that the problems in the Roman Catholic Church are a significant factor in people becoming atheists. Likewise common targets were Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, the US religious right, those who oppose gay marriage, abortion or euthanasia, or those who impose their values on others (bigots). I don’t think that all of these targets are necessarily bad, but it is obvious that one of the churches’ major enemies is itself.
However, groups should not be judged by their worst examples. At one stage it was observed that every group has their outliers and it is not valid to judge groups by outliers. Atheists do not like being aligned with Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot.
One guy that I met was a former Assemblies of God minister, who is now an atheist. He used to speak in tongues and had participated in healings. The healings that he saw he now considers psychosomatic or temporary. He was a nice guy and spoke openly about his experiences. Unfortunately we did not have much time to talk and he had to leave quickly but we departed on very friendly terms.
11 Sam Harris on Death
Sam Harris is one of the 4 horsemen and has a PhD in neuroscience.
He was supposed to talk on free will, but changed his topic to the subject of death. As an atheist, this was a very brave move. You could hear a pin drop. The following is a summary of what he said.
Death and its denial are fundamental to religion, but death is the end and there is nothing after death. Death is not the problem; life is the problem. Life is an emergency and everyone has a run of bad luck but we must still try to make this world a better place. Real progress is a recent phenomenon. We cannot make this world a paradise and there is no satisfying way to hold on to the past. Atheism itself does not have much to offer, except only as a (supposed) corrective. Science, art and philosophy fill the void. Most people believe for emotional reasons. How can people make sense of tragedies? Religions provide an answer that most people think they need. Belief in heaven is consoling but atheism does not offer any such consolation.
We have to deal with this. We should admit that we waste a lot of our time caring about the wrong things and petty concerns. We spend a lot of our time in denial. We should rather make the most of the present time. What is the point of life? The answer is a change in attitude to live in the present moment. It is always now. The past is just a thought arriving in our memory. We are hoping to be happy in the future and we are always solving a problem. How can we be fulfilled in the face of death? We want fulfilment and a lack of suffering, even though some suffering is desirable for progress.
Consciousness is everything and your mind is all you have. What is the significance of your bucket list? What about our might have beens? We suffer from neurosis. Self conversations are a source of sorrow. We are constantly creating and repairing a world in which our minds want to live. We must see the sacred in the secular.
It reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s quote (A Free Man’s Worship):
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation henceforth be safely built.
Perhaps it is even more expressively captured in this famous quote from Macbeth,
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
12 The Reason for Living
One of the major themes that came through was the contrast in the reason for living. The atheist believes that there is nothing after death and this life is all we have. Thus we should live for this life and make the most of what we have rather than wasting our time preparing for the next life. This was one of Dawkins’ themes. He advocated redesigning our morality and social institutions in accordance with a naturalistic world view.
By contrast living for God is a master/servant relationship. According to Dan Barker, holding our hands together in prayer is a symbol of shackled hands. Why live for another? We arrived here by accident. We should be autonomous, we should decide our own morality and we should make our own decisions about how we live and manage this world, rather than relying on an ancient text.
Sam Harris’ talk on death was pertinent. Ultimately the atheist has very little to say to console in the face of tragedy or injustice. Death ends all and life is ultimately meaningless. However, this is not a knock down argument for the Christian. If the atheist is ultimately right then it is better to accept life’s limitations rather than believing a lie, just because it makes us feel better.
13 Reason for Faith Conference
After the conference I helped Melbourne City Bible Forum with their Reason For Faith festival, which was held in response to the GAC. My main contribution was in handing out pamphlets at railway stations. I found this emotionally draining due to the frequent rejection. Only about 20% of people accepted the pamphlets and I felt that I was an imposition on their lives. A few people stopped to talk, but these were mainly Christians. However, it was still obviously a worthwhile activity as almost half of those who attended some of the meetings were there due to the pamphlets.
At one event, which was a discussion panel between some Christian scientists and some atheists, I met Graham Oppy. He is an atheist, an Australian and a world class philosopher. He is also a very nice guy. He has had written debates with William Lane Craig on the Kalam Cosmological argument and the fine tuning argument. I had about a 15 minute discussion with him in which he briefly covered some of the issues with the arguments. I didn’t understand or remember all he said, but I intend following up his writings.
14 An Assessment
There was an element of hubris at the conference. Atheists think they are the smart, rational people. They are the “brights”, the rationalists and the free thinkers. Thus they bolster their own self image with these self-complimentary terms. However, as a Christian, I believe in reason, logic, truth, questioning and evidence based science just as much as they do (or even more so). In fact, Lawrence Leoung joked, “We are all freethinkers; and we all think the same”. Many a true statement is made in jest. There is no necessary or logical link between these values and atheism. In fact these values arose out of a Christian context, which they generally fail to acknowledge. Thus their arguments were generally applied in a one sided manner. For example, Daniel Dennett stated that it is very hard for people to change their beliefs. This is very true. However, he was referring to the difficulty of believers changing their mind towards the supposed truth of atheism, but did not seem to consider that it is also true in the reverse direction. In fact nearly all of his arguments could be applied in the reverse direction, but he seemed blissfully unaware of this.
On the other hand there were many things that I agreed with during the conference:
- I am sympathetic to separation of church and state.
- I believe we should work to make this world a better place.
- In the area of morality, we face new issues today that were not imagined 2000 years ago and we have to work out new solutions.
- I also share their concerns about Islam.
However, there are deep fundamental differences with the Christian world view. The atheist wants to be autonomous and optimise this life in some way. Autonomy entails making our own decisions without reference to any other authority. By contrast, Christians believe that the Bible is a revelation from God. The purpose of life cannot be understood without that revelation. Hebrews 1:1-2 states, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” So God has spoken to us. The other fundamental difference is our highest fulfilment is found not by pleasing ourselves but by doing the will of God. As Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? ” (Matt 16:24-26)
One of Christopher Hitchens’ themes was that “religion poisons everything”. Now, in the past 2000 years some dreadful things have been done in the name of Christ, but, as admitted at the conference, it is wrong to judge a movement by its outliers. The following Sunday I returned to my local church. It is a small affair of mainly working class people. However, there are a substantial number there in whom the gospel has borne fruit. They are warm, self effacing and wonderful people whom I can only aspire to copy. Does religion poison everything? Naah, it just ain’t true.
March 10, 2012
All of the major religions address the problems of evil, suffering and death. However, the problem of evil is mainly a problem for the monotheistic religions, i.e., Judaism, Islam and Christianity, since they assert that there exists an all-loving, all powerful God. The problem of evil is the major argument against an all-loving, omnipotent God. David Hume provided a succinct and colourful summary of the problem of evil as follows:
- Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent.
- Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent.
- Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (Hume 1779)
David Hume (1711-1776)
Evil can come in two forms: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is due to human evil acts, whereas natural evil is due to non-human acts that occur in nature, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods or fire. It is also possible for moral evil and natural evil to overlap. For example, the interception of food aid may cause others to starve. Any complete theodicy must account for both types of evil. Most theodicies tend to
- deny the reality of evil,
- redefine the goodness of God, or
- limit God’s omnipotence.
I will now review some of the historical responses to the problem of evil.
2 Historical Responses
Irenaeus (130 AD – 202 AD) believed that evil was a means for growth in human character and has a valuable role to play in God’s plans.
An engraving of St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyons, France)
This view has also been developed further in recent times by John Hick. Humanity is created incomplete and must make free choices in the face of evil in order to obtain completeness. Genuine perfection cannot just be bestowed on humanity; it must be developed through our choices. This necessarily entails the risk of making wrong choices. In addition, an experience of evil is necessary in order to understand and appreciate the good. Effectively, Irenaeus is saying that evil may seem real to us, but it is not ultimately. Thus this theodicy is a denial of the full reality of evil. For instance, is pain evil? In fact it helps us avoid further damage and thus pain provides us with a warning signal.
There is some truth in Irenaeus’ view. God can certainly use evil for good purposes. This is illustrated in the life of Joseph (Genesis 50:20) and also when Jesus was delivered up by the hands of wicked men in accordance with God’s plan (Acts 2:23). If Irenaeus’ view is correct then this provides an explanation of how God can be loving and yet allow evil. Irenaeus also went on to teach that all will be ultimately saved and he reduced Christ’s atonement to an example rather than the objective means for our salvation. Both of these propositions are un-biblical but, apart from his un-biblical propositions, Irenaeus’ argument seems to have a great deal of merit. However, the argument from pain is not complete. The normal experience of pain is quite functional but, if pain is used as a means of torture, then this defeats its functional purpose and the pain experience seems to have no redeeming properties. I don’t think it is necessary to infer that evil is not real from Irenaeus’ argument. If God uses evil for his own good purposes how does that necessarily infer that the evil is not real?
2.2 St Augustine
St Augustine proposed what is now called the free-will defence.
Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century
He taught that God’s creation was good and that God gave free will to both angelic beings and humanity. Some angelic beings rebelled against God and chose evil. They became the source of temptation to Adam and Eve. Moral evil is the result of our choices and natural evil is the punishment for moral evil. Evil is the privation of good and so God could not have created evil, as evil is when something is missing from God’s creation.
The free will defence is an objection to Hume’s first premise: “If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able, then is he impotent”. The free will argument is that it is unreasonable to claim that God is impotent if he cannot perform the logically impossible. For instance, it is logically impossible to create a square circle. If God cannot create a square circle, then this does not mean that God is not omnipotent. The free-will argument is that God has determined that it is better to create creatures with free-will rather than creatures whose behaviour is determined. However, it is logically impossible to give creatures free will without preventing the possibility of these creatures from choosing evil. Thus evil is an unavoidable consequence of giving humanity free will. Thus the free-will argument places limitations on God’s power.
Now human choice obviously accounts for a large portion of the evil that is present in this world. If bad human choices were eliminated, then this world would be a much better place. However, the free-will argument seems to have a number of limitations. The argument from free will does not obviously account for natural evil, as natural evil is usually not the result of human choices. Some natural evils are preventable. For example, we have some measure of choice over where we live and some places are safer than others. On the other hand, there is no place that is absolutely safe and we are always susceptible to some harm, no matter what precautions we take. Thus the Bible teaches us not to rely just on our own resources but to trust in God. The notion of free-will also requires qualification. In what sense are our wills free? Once we get to know a person, then their choices can be quite predictable. Our wills are free in the sense that our choices are not being forced by an external agent but they are substantially determined by our character, and conversely our choices also shape our character. Another complicating factor is that the Biblical writers claim that our wills have been affected by the fall such that we are predisposed to rebel against God. The free-will defence also raises questions regarding our future destiny. What about heaven? Will heavenly creatures have free-will? If so, then can evil be re-introduced into heaven? Appealing to free-will also appears dissonant relative to the Bible. The Bible certainly assumes human responsibility, but there is barely any mention of free will in the Bible at all except for a few references to free will offerings. Why appeal to a philosophical category that is basically missing from the primary Christian source document?
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz suggested that we live in the best of all possible worlds.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)
He contended that “the present state of the universe exists because it follows from the nature of God that he should prefer the most perfect” (Leibniz 1890). Thus this theory limits God’s power. This was effectively refuted by Voltaire in Candide, which was a satire wherein Voltaire created a fictional sequence of tragedies for Candide, the hero.
Voltaire at 24, by Catherine Lusurier after Nicolas de Largillière’s painting
In the end, Candide survives and Dr Pangloss, the spokesman for Liebniz, implausibly concludes:
There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not travelled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts (Voltaire 1759).
However, were all these circumstances really necessary for Candide to arrive at his final destination? The notion appears ridiculous; so how could this be the best of all possible worlds? An additional weakness in this theory is that it is pastorally insensitive and unhelpful.
In latter times Leibniz has received some support from a scientific perspective. For example, the movement of tectonic plates results in earthquakes and volcanoes, but this may be necessary to replenish the gaseous state of the atmosphere and so support life. Thus God’s hands may be tied. From a Biblical perspective, this theory seems implausible. If this is the best of all possible worlds, then what about heaven? Will that be constrained such that evil is still present?
2.4 Process Theodicy
Process theodicy is the belief that God is not fixed but is undergoing development. Thus the presence of evil is due to the fact that God has not yet got things sorted out. Process theodicy is a denial of the power and omnipotence of God. It certainly does not reflect the Biblical God who knows the end from the beginning.
3 Objections to Premises
Having completed the summary of historical theodicies, I will now discuss objections to Hume’s argument.
One objection to Hume’s argument is to challenge his second premise: “If God is able to prevent evil but is not willing, is God necessarily malevolent?” How do we know whether God does not have some good reason for allowing or even ordaining suffering that may seem evil to us? For instance, a parent may allow their child to suffer the consequence of their actions in order for them to learn, or may punish their child for their better good. How do we know whether this is not the case for all forms of human suffering?
No doubt there is some validity in this objection. In many instances, a greater good may emerge from suffering. Even in those instances where this is not obviously so, we do not see the full picture and are not in a position to know with certainty that any suffering is pointless or does not have a higher purpose. In arguments for the existence of God the onus of proof is on the theist, but for the problem of evil the onus of proof is on the anti-theist. For this case, it is impossible for the anti-theist to prove that any instance of suffering or evil is pointless. This argument constitutes a reinterpretation of the goodness of God.
The main problem with this objection is the issue of plausibility. Some instances of evil appear to be pointless and inexplicable, even though the case cannot be proven. In the recent Japanese tsunami (11 March 2011), thousands of Japanese were killed. No doubt, the humanitarian response was encouraging and the source of great good. However, the result for those who were killed seems somewhat final. Within Christian theology there is also the problem of hell. The way is narrow that leads to life and only a few find it. The majority are destined for eternal suffering. What benefit can come from eternal suffering if there is no resultant ultimate good? Why is there infinite suffering for a finite offence? Certainly God gives humanity the dignity to make choices that have eternal consequences. Perhaps our choices are only meaningful if they do have eternal consequences.
Since God is our father, it is instructive to consider the corresponding issues for human parenting. Our children are born with wills of their own. Would we have it any other way? We would rather have children who make their own choices rather than robots that did everything we said. This entails risk and sometimes our children disappoint us, even permanently, and yet we still think this is preferable to the deterministic alternative. A good parent will sometimes cause their children pain and suffering if it is just or is for their long term good. Imagine that there existed a harmless happiness drug that guaranteed perpetual happiness. Would we as parents want our children to take it? Most would not. It is a greater good for our children to grow through making choices regarding good and evil and experiencing suffering in order to grow in maturity. The analogy is not perfect. Most parents love their children but they are not omnipotent. However, they have some power and, when there are problems, the lack of power is usually not the issue.
4 Biblical Perspective
So far I have discussed the problem of evil mainly from a philosophical perspective. However, the Biblical perspective should also be considered when considering the foregoing arguments in relation to the Christian God. The following is a summary of various Biblical teachings that are relevant to the problem of evil.
4.1 The Origin of Evil
In accordance with Genesis 1, God created a world that was good. Romans 5:12-15 states that sin and death entered the world through one man. However, God placed the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden, and Adam and Eve were subsequently confronted by the tempter. These 2 factors indicate that evil existed, in some way, prior to the fall, but its origin is not explained. Revelation 13:8 states that the lamb was slain from the creation of the world. When Adam sinned God didn’t say, “Oops!” Thus it seems that the origin of evil is somehow incorporated within the plan of God.
4.2 God as Judge
The Old Testament clearly depicts God as judging humanity. This is exhibited in the flood, the judgements on Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues against Egypt, the eviction of the Canaanites and numerous judgements against the nations. It is popularly thought that God undergoes a conversion from sternness to love between the Old and New Testaments, but this is not borne out by the evidence. The wrath of God is still being revealed against unrighteousness and numerous judgements and plagues are prophesied in the book of Revelation. God is not afraid to punish evildoers, and he says so repeatedly.
4.3 The Book of Job
The book of Job provides an extensive treatment of the problem of evil and suffering. In the first 2 chapters Satan claims that Job is only good because God blesses him. Thus Job’s suffering is supposedly to test Job’s sincerity. Job’s friends subsequently propose various unsatisfactory rationales for Job’s sufferings. However, when God appears to Job, no explanation is provided and there is no reference back to Satan. God does not use Satan as an excuse for Job’s suffering. God mainly states that his knowledge goes beyond Job’s understanding. Job is answered in the act of meeting God, and this experience is a total answer as far as Job is concerned. In addition, even though he never received an answer to his questions, God rewarded him such that he is more than compensated for his sufferings.
4.4 Jesus and the Purpose of Evil
There are several instances in the New Testament where Jesus had the opportunity for explaining the purpose of evil or suffering. One man was born blind, not because of anyone’s sin but “that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:1-3). However, it seems that this explanation cannot be generalised to all other cases. The Galileans who Pilate slaughtered and the eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them were not unusually sinful but “unless you repent, you will likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). However, Jesus still provides no explanation for these tragedies.
4.5 The Atonement
The atonement provides a solution to the problem of evil. Jesus’ death bore the punishment due to our sin, and he laid the foundation for the destruction of all evil and the creation of the new heaven and the new earth. The atonement is also an emotional solution to the problem of evil since God so loved the world that he sent his only son who shared in our condition. God has done something about the problem of evil that was enormously costly. However, this still does not provide a rational explanation of why God allowed evil into the world in the first place.
The doctrine of election creates a problem for theodicy. Even though election is a controversial subject, it seems to be plainly taught within scripture. No-one can come to the son unless the father draws him (John 6:44) and all that are given to the son will come to him (John 6:37). The purpose of election is to teach us that our salvation is entirely of grace rather than due to merit in our choice. However, what about those who are not chosen? As Calvin says, those whom God has not chosen “he reprobates”. Why damn those who cannot respond? The Calvinist may respond that the reprobate still makes a deliberate choice. However, many Christians respond to election by rationalisations that diminish its force.
4.7 Christian Suffering
Universal suffering is difficult to explain, but Christian suffering is more explicable. Peter says that we are to arm ourselves to suffer as Christ suffered and to follow in his steps (1 Peter 4:1); and Paul strangely says that we are to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Colossians 1:24). Righteous suffering is not just inevitable; it also has a redemptive purpose. For the Christian, suffering is not just permitted by God; it is ordained.
4.8 Explanatory Biblical Doctrines
The Bible does not provide us with an explanation of how evil can co-exist with a good, all-powerful God. God knows, but he hasn’t told us. However, William Lane Craig has suggested that various Christian doctrines make it more likely that suffering and evil can coexist with a good omnipotent God (Craig, 2010).
- The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God. The goal of utilitarianism may be to maximise happiness and minimise suffering for the majority of people over the long run, but this is not God’s goal. God’s goal is that we come to know him and grow in maturity towards the image of Christ, and this will entail suffering.
- Man is in rebellion against God and so the evil that we observe in the world is not unexpected.
- God’s purpose is not restricted to this life, but is completed in the next life. Our earthly existence may seem unfair but God will administer true justice at the judgement.
- The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good that is not worth comparing with our earthly sufferings (2 Corinthians 6:4-5).
5.1 An Atheistic Answer
The problem of evil is not a problem for the atheist. The world is as it is and any natural evils are just bad luck. Human selfishness is simply a by product of the survival of the fittest. If the problem of evil was the only argument related to the existence of God then it would be simpler to conclude that God did not exist.
5.2 Summary of Theodicies
A number of theodicies have been proposed that provide some explanation of how God can be omnipotent and omni-benevolent and yet allow evil. There are elements of truth in most of these theodicies. They open up possible explanations but do not provide definitive solutions. God can use evil for good purposes and the pain or suffering that we experience can have educational or redemptive purposes. Much of our suffering is also due to our choices and may be inevitable considering the nature of our choice faculty. Thus neither of Hume’s premises is necessarily true. However, the Bible does not provide an explanation for the origin of evil, it does not resort to a free will defence to explain how God cannot prevent humans from choosing evil and it does not provide an explanation of how God can have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil. God does not justify himself to us.
5.3 The Final Revelation
However, the Biblical writers do maintain that God is just, merciful and righteous altogether and that he knows the end from the beginning. It is the Christian belief that at the final judgement God will be revealed as being just in all of his acts and decisions even though we cannot see how it all works out now:
After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (Revelation 19:1-2).
In Genesis 18:24 Abraham challenged God with, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” It is implied that he will. This is a faith position, but not a blind faith position. It is based on what we already know about God from special revelation and our own experience. It is still reasonable to believe that God can resolve things in a loving and just manner even though we currently cannot understand all of the details. He is omniscient, but we are not. In the meantime this world is not the best of all possible worlds but it may be the best way to the best of all possible worlds.
Craig, W.L. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd edition (Crossway: Wheaton, Illinois, 2008)
Craig, W.L. On Guard: Defending your faith with Reason and Precision, 1st edition (Crossway: Wheaton, Illinois, 2010)
God, Reason and Religion Manual (Tabor College Adelaide).
Hume, D. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, first published 1779.
Leibniz, G. W. The Philosophical Works of Leibniz, ed. G. Duncan (London, 1890), 101.
McGrath, A.E. Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).
Voltaire, Candide, first published in 1759 (New York: Random House, 1956), 188f.
February 18, 2012
David Hume (1711-1776) was an important figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a sceptic and is noted for his arguments against the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God.
David Hume (1711-1776)
His article “On Miracles” in chapter 10 of “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” (published in 1748) has also been highly influential. Chapter 10 can be found at:
The conclusion of his article on miracles is that no amount of historical evidence can warrant belief in a miracle. To quote Hume from section 87, “I flatter myself that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.”
Hume’s first and primary argument is:
- Miracles are of necessity very rare and improbable.
- It is much more probable that the historical testimony is false than that the miracle actually occurred.
- Therefore a wise man will not believe the historical testimony to the miracle since no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle.
Hume’s ultimate target is the New Testament miracles, especially Jesus’ resurrection. However, he does not attack them directly, but uses indirect arguments. Hume is not saying that miracles are impossible and do not happen. What he is saying is that the evidence will always be insufficient to warrant belief.
2 Bayes Theorem
It has been said that one of the problems with Hume is that he was born before Bayes’ Theorem. He wrote at a time when the mathematics of probability was in its infancy. Thus his argument is qualitative rather than quantitative. By a strange coincidence, Bayes’ Theorem was proposed by Thomas Bayes (1702-1761), who was a British mathematician and a Presbyterian minister. Bayes’ Theorem can be stated as P(A/B) = P(B/A) * P(A) / P(B), where P(A/B) means the probability that A will occur given that event B has already occurred. Bayes’ Theorem is most easily understood by an example. I have taken this example from Wikipedia, but altered it slightly to reflect modern trends.
Suppose there is a school with 60 boys and 40 girls. 50% of girls wear trousers and 50% wear skirts. 5/6 of the boys wear trousers and (you guessed it) 1/6 boys wear skirts (that was the modern trend). If a student (of unknown gender) is wearing trousers, what is the probability that it is a girl?
Let A be, “The student is a girl” and B be, “The student is wearing trousers”.
P(B/A) is that probability that a student is wearing trousers given that the student is a girl, which is 0.5 or 50%.
P(A) is the probability that a student is a girl, which is 0.4 or 40%.
P(B) is the probability that a student is wearing trousers. This is the probability that:
- A student is a boy (0.6) * the probability that a boy is wearing trousers (5/6) +
- A student is a girl (0.4) * the probability that a girl is wearing trousers (0.5).
Thus P(B) is the probability that a student is wearing trousers = 0.6 * 5/6 + 0.4 * 0.5 = 0.7.
Thus according to Bayes’ Theorem P(A/B) = 0.5*0.4/0.7 = 2/7. I.e., the probability that a student is a girl given that the student is wearing trousers is 2 in 7.
This can be verified by the following table:
There are 60 boys and 5/6 wear trousers; therefore 50 boys wear trousers. There are 40 girls and 50% wear trousers; hence 20 girls wear trousers. Therefore, 20 out of 70 students who wear trousers are girls. Therefore P(A/B) = 2/7 as derived by Bayes’ Theorem. So, loweth and beholdeth, it worketh.
Now I will apply Bayes’ Theorem to miracles.
3 Application of Bayes’ Theorem to Miracles
Let M be the event that a miracle occurred. Let R be the event that a report has been received that a miracle occurred. Then P(M/R) is the probability that a miracle occurred given that a report is received. According to Bayes’ Theorem P(M/R) = P(R/M) * P(M) / P(R).
People tell the truth most of the time but occasionally what they say is wrong, either deliberately or unintentionally. Let us be uncharitable and denote an incorrect report by the event L (for Lie), and let T be a true report. Therefore, P(T) = 1 – P(L).
P(R/M) is the probability that a miracle is reported given that a miracle actually occurred. This is simply P(T), ie the witness reported truthfully.
P(M) is the probability that the miracle occurred in the first place.
P(R) is a bit trickier. This is the probability that a report of a miracle was received, whether true or false. Let M’ (not M) be the event that the miracle did not occur. Then P(R) = P(M)*P(T) + P(M’)*P(L).
For the purpose of this example, I will adopt Hume’s assumptions on probabilities, although I will argue against them later. Hume argues that a miracle, by nature of the case, is highly improbable just based on the relative frequency of occurrence. Thus P(M) is a very small positive number. Hume would argue that there is at most one person who has risen from the dead (the rest being resuscitations). Thus, as far as the resurrection is concerned, P(M) is approximately 10-10 (based approximately on the total number of people who have existed during recorded history). Hume allows that people tell the truth much more often than not. So let us be generous (like Hume) and suppose that people lie less than 1% of the time. Then the application of Bayes’ Theorem yields P(M/R) = 9.9*10-9, which is a very small number. So Hume seems to be right. If a single witness reported that a random person was raised from the dead, then it is highly improbable that the event actually occurred. This is Hume’s core argument that the improbability of a miracle outweighs the reliability of human testimony.
However, what if multiple (n) independent witnesses reported the same event? The probability that they were all lying is P(L)n, which I will denote as Pn(L), which becomes vanishingly small as n increases. Conversely, Pn(T) asymptotes to 1 as n increases.
Another problem with David Hume was that he was born before Microsoft Excel. The following graph shows a plot of the probability that the miracle actually occurred against the number of independent witnesses (for the assumed values of P(M) and P(L)).
Probability versus number of witnesses
For this example, a wise man would believe that the miracle occurred if there were more than 5 independent witnesses.
You can argue all you like about appropriate values for P(M) and P(L). However, provided P(M) is non-zero there is always a value for the number of witnesses above which it would be wise to believe the report.
The above example is simplistic. Many factors contribute to an actual historical argument and these factors may be independent or interdependent. In most historical arguments it is difficult to assign agreed probabilities to each factor and derive a reliable result. Thus most historical arguments end up being qualitative rather than quantitative. However, the example demonstrates that multiple attestations may be sufficient to warrant belief in an improbable event. Thus Hume’s core argument fails.
What I am saying is only common sense. It is something that is happening in our courts every day. There is a low probability that a random individual has committed a crime, but the weight of evidence may still be sufficient to secure a conviction beyond reasonable doubt.
4 The Probability of Miracles
In chapter 90 Hume states, “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” From this Hume seems to be implying:
- A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
- The laws of nature are derived from our uniform experience and are a description of what always happens.
- Thus by definition miracles never happen.
However something smells about this argument. It simply illustrates that the term “miracle” can be defined in such a manner as to be logically incoherent, such as a “married bachelor”. On the contrary, the above argument could be modified as follows:
- A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
- The laws of nature are a description of what usually happens.
- Thus a miracle is an unusual event.
Hume also seems to assign probabilities just based on relative frequencies. However, this approach is simplistic. For example, more people die from playing lawn bowls than from hang-gliding. Does that make lawn bowls a more dangerous sport? The context (e.g., age of participants) will affect the probability. In the same manner, the probability of Jesus’ resurrection should not be based just on relative frequencies. It will be affected by background issues/beliefs, such as whether God exists and if He is interested in us. In this case, a person may well believe that P(M) is much greater than 10-10.
5 Witness Reliability
Hume’s second argument is that no miracle has been attested by a sufficient number of reliable witnesses. In paragraph 92 Hume states, “For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.”
A couple of comments can be made on this argument.
- Firstly, he sets the bar very high. I doubt whether Hume would qualify himself. If we required the same witness credibility in court then the court system would get nowhere.
- Secondly, he does not consider examples. What about the apostle Paul and Luke? I haven’t got space to go into detail, but I think they come close.
6 Conflicting Miracle Claims
In his final section Hume claims that there are competing and conflicting historical miracle claims that essentially defeat one another. He cites a number of examples. I have not space to consider them all, but I will only discuss the example of the Roman emperor Vespasian. Hume states in section 96, “One of the best attested miracles in all profane history, is that which Tacitus reports of Vespasian, who cured a blind man in Alexandria, by means of his spittle, and a lame man by the mere touch of his foot; in obedience to a vision of the god Serapis, who had enjoined them to have recourse to the Emperor, for these miraculous cures.”
There are 2 issues with this example:
- How strong is the historical attestation for Vespasian’s miracles?
- Would this miracle be in conflict with Biblical miracles?
Vespasian (9AD to 79AD) led the Roman army in subjugating the Jewish rebellion in 66AD. He became emperor in 69AD. While in Alexandria in Egypt in 69 AD Vespasian is purported to have healed a blind man and a lame man. These miraculous events were reported by the Roman historians:
- Tacitus (56AD to 117AD) in Book 4 of his Histories (written about 100AD to 110AD),
- Suetonius (69AD to 130AD) in Book 8 of the Lives of the Caesars (written about 119AD), and
- Dio Cassius (about 155AD to 229AD) in book 65 of his Roman History (written after 200AD).
You can access these accounts at:
Hence we have 3 records by credible historians. Tacitus even records, “Persons actually present attest both facts, even now when nothing is to be gained by falsehood.” Most historians agree that something unusual happened. However, there are causes for doubt. Tacitus elsewhere records that he did not believe it was a miracle and that he believed that the healings occurred by natural means. Dio Cassius records that the Alexandrians were unimpressed.
The Roman emperors were purported to be divine figures and any miraculous associations assisted an aspirant in obtaining power. Modern historians surmise that it was a setup by Vespasian’s followers to enhance his aspirations for power. If we consider P(M) and P(L), we discover things are not so good. The Egyptian god Serapis has long since packed his bags and departed from public interest. So a coherent basis for the miracles is lacking. Thus P(M) is inordinately low. The historians were probably honest in their 2nd hand reports of the stories but the promoters and witnesses at the time had a strong motivation for a positive account. Thus P(L) is high and the witnesses were probably not independent. So, do I believe it? Probably not.
The other issue is whether this is a conflicting miracle claim. In Matthew 24:24 Jesus is reported to say, “False Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect — if that were possible.” This opens the possibility for miracles originating from “profane” sources.
Doubtless there have been many spurious claims regarding miracles. However, if 2 miraculous claims are inherently incompatible then at least one of them must lack sufficient evidence, but the fact that they conflict does not mean that both claims are false.
Hume states, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” That is reasonable. However, Hume goes on to conclude that the consideration of historical evidence for a miracle is pointless, as a matter of principle.
Hume’s article is quite long and I have by no means covered all of his arguments. I have only covered his central arguments.
In this article I have not attempted to prove that miracles do occur. My purpose has been more modest. I have only attempted to show that a historical argument for the occurrence of a miracle can potentially be sufficient to warrant belief. I believe my argument has shown that multiple attestations can in principle provide sufficient evidence to warrant belief in a miracle.
Thus I flatter myself that I have discovered an argument that will, if just, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check against Hume’s objection to miracles, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.
Kevin Rogers (1951-)