July 2012


David Baggett and jerry Walls have written an excellent book exploring God’s relationship to morality.  The book aims to provide a moral argument for the existence of God, and to answer criticisms to theistic ethics.  After showing how various non-theistic foundations for ethics fail, the authors take a close look at the most common objection to theistic ethics: the Euthyphro argument.  They critique both horns of the dilemma: pure voluntarism (X is good because God commands it) and non-voluntarism (X is good wholly independent of God and His will).  If goodness is determined by God’s commands, then morality seems arbitrary.  Indeed, if God willed that rape is good rape would be good (abhorrent commands objection).  There is also the epistemic problem.  How would we know what God has commanded, or if God has changed His mind?  The problem with non-voluntarism is that it makes God irrelevant to morality.  Goodness stands outside of God.  Indeed, God is subject to the good in the same way we are.  At best His role is to communicate to us what is good.  He is like the divine meteorologist who reports the weather rather can creating it.  If goodness is independent of God, then God’s aseity (self-existence) is called into question.  He cannot be the metaphysical ultimate.

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I often hear Christians of every stripe say they wish hell did not exist, or that no people would end up there.  I understand what they mean.  Hell is a gruesome prospect.  The idea of people suffering for eternity is a grim one.  It’s hard to be excited about a doctrine like this, particularly when all of us have family and loved ones that we have good reason to believe will end up in hell.  On a purely emotional level, there is a sense in which all of us can say we wish there was no hell or that no one would go there. 

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Perhaps I am a slow learner, but it just occurred to me recently that the Calvinistic doctrine of eternal security, while germane to Calvinism, is not limited to a Calvinistic theology.  Even an Arminian could hold to the doctrine of eternal security (once saved always saved) while disagreeing with the Calvinists on the question of how people become saved.  Arminians could hold that it is impossible for someone whose spirit has been regenerated by the Spirit to fall away without accepting the Calvinist notion that God alone determines who will be regenerated.  The question of how we are saved (monergism or synergism) is separate from the question of the permanence of salvation.  It could be true that humans have to freely respond to God’s offer of grace before God saves them (synergism), and that once saved, a person will always persevere to the end.  There is no logical incompatibility between these two positions.

I’ve been reading through the book of Proverbs with my wife.  I’ve noticed something in the text that clues me into the history of the book, and poses interesting questions for the doctrine of Biblical inspiration.  

The book opens with the words, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1:1, ESV).  These words read like the words of an editor, not Solomon himself.  They were added by the individual(s) who compiled Solomon’s proverbs and edited them into the form and order we see in our Bibles.  There is reason to believe, however, that this collection of Solomonic proverbs consisted only of the first nine chapters.  Proverbs 10:1 reads, “The proverbs of Solomon.”  If the introduction to the book of Proverbs tells us these are the proverbs of Solomon, why mention this again unless (1) there had been a shift in authors from Solomon to someone else somewhere between chapter one and chapter nine, or (2) if the proverbs beginning with chapter 10 were not part of the original collection of proverbs.  There is no indication of a change in authorship between chapter one and chapter nine, so it follows that chapter 10 begins a new collection of Solomonic proverbs that was not part of the original collection.  How long did the first collection circulate before this second collection was added?  We do not know, but clearly enough time elapsed that when the new collection was added to the first, it was important to preface the collection by noting that these, too, were the proverbs of Solomon.  

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It is often said that Adam and Eve did not know the difference between good and evil prior to eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (TKGE).  This does seem to be the straightforward meaning of Genesis 3:22a: “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.’” (ESV)  There are a couple of problems I see with this interpretation, however:

  1. The text does not say Adam and Eve only gained knowledge of evil after the Fall, but knowledge of “good and evil.”  If we understand “knowledge” in a cognitive sense, this would mean God originally created human beings as amoral beings, having no knowledge of moral concepts or moral categories.  If we were created as amoral beings, then our moral intuitions and our capacity for moral reasoning are not part of the imago Dei (image of God) in which we were created, but rather a consequence of the Fall.  That’s a tough pill to swallow for two reasons: (1) Moral reasoning is one of the unique characteristics of God that among God creatures, humans alone exhibit.  Since humans alone were created in the imago Dei, it stands to reason that moral reasoning was part of that original imago Dei; (2) How is it possible for an act of disobedience to produce in us the knowledge of good?  Evil, yes, but good?
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The evidential problem of evil points to the improbability that the amount of evil we see in the world – particularly gratuitous evil – would exist if an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists.  The argument usually takes the following form: 

(1)   If God exists, gratuitous evil would not exist
(2)   Gratuitous evil exists
(3)   Therefore God does not exist 

Many theists attempt to undermine this argument by attacking the veracity of premise two.  For example, William Lane Craig and William Alston argue that humans are not in an epistemic place to judge any act of evil as gratuitous since we cannot see the big picture of history.  For all we know, an act of seemingly gratuitous evil will result in a greater good years or even centuries from now, either in the life of the person who experienced the evil or in the life of another person in another country.  Our cognitive limitations should not be used as evidence that gratuitous evil exists.  At best we must remain agnostic on the question.

This is an appeal to the Greater-Good Defense, which argues that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting all evils—including those that appear gratuitous to us—such as using them to bring about some greater good that could not have been brought about apart from those evils.

In the latest issue of Philosophia Christi, Kirk R. MacGregor provides some reasons for thinking that this response to the evidential problem of evil is misguided.  Just because our cognitive and temporal limitations make it impossible for us to prove that any act of evil is truly gratuitous does not mean that gratuitous evil does not exist.  He argues that the belief that some evils are gratuitous is a properly basic belief.  For example, we do not believe that every time we are bitten by a mosquito or stub our two that these evils have some greater purpose or will be used to accomplish a greater good.  Such things make virtually no difference in our own lives, yet alone on the grand scheme of things.  Given the proper basicality of belief in gratuitous evil, MacGregor says the burden of proof is on those who would deny the existence of gratuitous evils, and to meet their burden of proof they must explain how every instance of gratuitous evil actually results in some greater good.  This is not possible, and thus the person who believes in the existence of gratuitous evil is prima facie justified in maintaining that belief, even given his cognitive and temporal limitations.

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A former professor of medical ethics and former chairman of the Institute of Medical Ethics in Britain, Raanan Gillon, wrote an editorial in the British Medical Journal lambasting a judicial ruling that gave pre-eminence to the sanctity of life.  Gillon argues that given scant medical resources, physicians should be allowed to withdraw treatment from stable, but minimally conscious patients suffering from severe dementia in order to cause their premature death.  

Yes, this is a preeminent bioethicist.  The field has become overrun with utilitarians who espouse views that are anything but ethical.

Theists often use the basic metaphysical principle that something only comes from something as evidence for God’s existence.  We reason that if the universe (something) came into being, then it must have been caused to come into being by something else – it could not have simply materialized out of nothing without a cause because out of nothing, nothing comes.  The something that brought the universe into being must itself be immaterial, spaceless, and eternal, which are some of the basic properties of a theistic being. 

I have heard a few atheists object to this argument by questioning the veracity of the basic metaphysical principle that something can only come from something on the grounds that we have never experienced nothing to know whether or not it is possible for something to come from nothing, and thus we cannot know that it’s impossible for something to come from nothing.  While we may not have any direct experience of something that comes into being from nothing, it does not mean it’s not possible.  Indeed, in the case of the universe it was not only possible, but it actually happened.

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What makes humans valuable?  There are only two options: something inherent within the nature of humans themselves (intrinsic) or something acquired by humans (extrinsic).  Things that are valuable in and of themselves for the sake of themselves have intrinsic value (love, friendship, health, happiness, virtue, etc.).  Things that are valued for their function – what they do for us or how they allow us to obtain an intrinsic good (money) – have extrinsic value.   

When it comes to bioethics, the great divide is between those who think human value is extrinsic (and many would add, subjective) and those who think human value is intrinsic and objective.  Put another way, bioethicists are divided between the liberals who think human value is based on doing (extrinsic value) and conservatives who think human value is based on being (intrinsic value).  Whereas liberals only value the functional expression of certain human capacities, conservatives value the being who possesses those innate capacities whether they are being expressed or not.

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There’s a difference between how we know something to be true (epistemology), and what makes that something true (ontology).  Keeping this distinction in mind would illuminate many debates.  For example, atheists often claim that one doesn’t need God to know morality and act morally.  That’s true, but it misses the point.  Just because one can know moral truths and behave morally without believing in God does not mean God is not necessary to explain morality.  As Greg Koukl likes to say, that’s like saying because one is able to read books without believing in authors, authors are not necessary to explain the origin of books (author-of-the-gaps).  In the same way books need authors, moral laws need a moral-law giver.

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A friend of mine made a point the other day that I thought was insightful.  If matter is all that exists, and there is no free will because everything is either determined or indeterminate, then there is no real distinction between rape and consensual sex since the distinction relies on the notion of free will.  If the will is not free, then strictly speaking, no act of sex is chosen—even so called consensual sex is not chosen.  Every act of sex is chosen for us by forces that lie outside of our control.  We may think that we choose to engage in sexual activity or choose to refrain from doing so, but these are just illusions.  Prior physical processes cause us to either have the desire to engage in sex or the desire not to engage in sex.  

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Astrophysicist Alex Filippenko of the Universityof California, Berkeley took part in a panel discussion on June 23, 2012 at the SETICon 2 conference on the topic “Did the Big Bang Require a Divine Spark?”  Taking a page out of the playbooks of Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss, Filippenko claimed that “the Big Bang could’ve occurred as a result of just the laws of physics being there. With the laws of physics, you can get universes.”[1] If the laws of physics are responsible for churning out universes, then the ultimate question is not the origin of the universe, but the origin of the laws of physics.  Where did they come from?  Filippenko recognizes this problem, saying “The question, then, is, ‘Why are there laws of physics?’  And you could say, ‘Well, that required a divine creator, who created these laws of physics and the spark that led from the laws of physics to these universes, maybe more than one.’”[2] 

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I’ve heard a lot of atheists hypothesize that one of the reasons religion was invented was because people had to manage their fear of death.  If people believe that they will continue to live on in some fashion after death, it mitigates their fear of death.  Can the fear of death explain the origin of religion, or the origin of religious faith in people today?  Perhaps, but three points should be made.  

First, not all religions include conscious existence beyond the grave.  For example, in many Eastern religions absorption into the One (personal extinction) is the end of all things.  Clearly immortality is not the motivation for those religions and religious practitioners.  

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Opponents of same-sex marriage often argue that such relationships are detrimental to children.  Advocates of same-sex marriage point to a litany of studies showing that children raised by same-sex couples fare just as well, if not better, as other children. The American Psychological Association referred to 59 such studies when they announced in 2005 that children raised by same-sex couples fare just as well as children raised by opposite-sex couples.

Recently, Dr. Loren Marks from Louisiana State University examined those 59 studies (ranging from 1980 to 2005) the APA cited in support of their conclusion.  He concluded that they were all fraught with methodological problems that undermined their results.  According to the Science Daily report “more than three-quarters were based on small, non-representative, non-random samples that did not include any minority individuals or families; nearly half lacked a heterosexual comparison group; and few examined outcomes that extend beyond childhood such as intergenerational poverty, educational attainment, and criminality, which are a key focus of studies on children of divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation.”[1]  Dr. Marks is careful to point out that this does not mean children raised by same-sex couples do, in fact, fare worse than other children: “The jury is still out on whether being raised by same-sex parents disadvantages children, however, the available data on which the APA draws its conclusions, derived primarily from small convenience samples, are insufficient to support a strong generalized claim either way.”[2]

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Sam Storms has written an insightful analysis of the idea that we can or should “forgive God.”  While a few snippets cannot do it justice, the heart of his argument is as follows: 

First of all, let me say that I understand where this sort of question comes from. I understand how people quite often are confused by what God does or doesn’t do. … But my struggle is with the language of “forgiving God.” For one thing, I don’t find it ever used in Scripture. That alone ought to give us pause before we incorporate such language into our Christian vocabulary or allow it to shape our theology or our understanding of spiritual formation.

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Recently I listened to the debate between Peter Atkins and Callum Miller.  As usual, Atkins was short on arguments and long on ad hominems, although I must admit that he was more civil in this debate than usual.  One of the things Atkins said, however, caught my attention.  He said that one of the advantages of science over religion is that in science, one can be wrong, whereas in religion one is never allowed to be wrong.  I’ve heard other atheists make the same claim.  I find it interesting because whether it’s true or false, it’s irrelevant.  

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I have a question for my non-theist readers: Why is it that I can chop up a tomato and eat it, but I cannot do the same to a human being?

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