Category Archives: Arguments for theism

Preacher: ‘Duh! God doesn’t talk to you!’

One of my friends from high school shared a link to this sermon via Facebook.

Pastor Phil Johnson

Pastor Phil Johnson

I’ve never heard a sermon quite like this. The speaker, pastor Phil Johnson, spends the first 15 minutes asserting that God does not communicate with individuals by putting words or thoughts in their heads, and ridiculing people (generally and specifically) who believe that God communicates this way.

At the 15:54 mark, Johnson says, “The very same superstition that allows Oral Roberts to believe he got a message from a giant Jesus is the same kind of belief that makes a Southern Baptist reader of [Blackaby and King’s popular Bible study series] ‘Experiencing God’ think that God is speaking directly to him.”

So yeah, anyone can see how absurd that is, right?

Then he explains (starting at the 16:16 mark, and invoking 2 Timothy 3:16-17) his view of how God does communicate: Verbally, God communicates through scripture only — “sola scriptura.” This means that God definitely communicated directly with characters in the Bible and with the writers of the Bible but definitely has not communicated directly to anyone since.

After drawing the arbitrary line of “sola scriptura,” Johnson immediately blurs it by saying (at the 17:21 mark), “beyond that, we just trust the providence of God to order our steps.” This seems to mean that God sets conditions in a way that nudges or entices people in the right direction, placing an obstacle here, clearing a path there. Well, I can still recall being a believer and puzzling over the meaning of each setback (was God telling me to stop or testing my perseverance, or was the devil or ‘the world’ persecuting me?) and each golden opportunity (was it a gift from God, temptation from Satan, or something else?).

One reason it’s tough to determine whether (and how) one’s steps are being ‘ordered’ is that the Bible cautions people against exercising their own judgment. Johnson affirms this principle: At the 19:11 mark, alluding to Proverbs 3:5, he says, “The Bible is God’s message to us. Trust it, and lean on it, and lean not to your own understanding, and especially not to whatever subjective impressions you might feel.”

Now try to follow Johnson as he ‘clarifies’ how God does and does not communicate (starting at the 19:52 mark): “Those urges and sensations that we feel are not revelation. But to whatever degree they are true at all, they are the result, the effect, of illumination — when the Holy Spirit applies the word of God to our hearts and opens our spiritual eyes to its truths. And then we need to guard carefully beyond that, against allowing our own experience or our own subjective thoughts to eclipse the authority and the certainty of the more sure word of prophecy.”

That’s right. Johnson even says the “word of prophecy” is “more sure” than “our own experience.” He reiterates this a while later (starting at the 40:44 mark): He reads 2 Peter 1:16-18, and then interjects, “Peter goes on to say that even what he heard with his own ears and what he saw with his own eyes was not as authoritative as the eternal word of God contained in scripture.” Johnson continues to verse 19, using a translation that includes the phrase “We also have a more sure word of prophecy … .”

Let that sink in. He’s saying that a person who reads in the Bible that the transfiguration of Jesus occurred has better proof of that event than the disciples who allegedly saw and heard it.

We end up with an implied hierarchy of influences, ranked as follows from most reliable to least reliable:

  1. Scripture.
  2. Personal experience (including seeing God ‘in person’ and hearing him speak ‘out loud’).
  3. The ordering of one’s steps, “illuminated” by scripture and the Holy Spirit.
  4. Personal judgment.
  5. Perceived direct communications from God.

This hierarchy is utterly illogical. For example, Johnson treats it as indisputable that God spoke directly to (or through) certain people thousands of years ago, but inconceivable that God speaks directly to (or through) anyone today.

He explains his stance (starting back at the 16:20 mark) by invoking scripture, and it really could not be explained any other way. His argument is structured as follows:

  1. The Bible, according to itself, is sufficient for instructing people on how to live.
  2. If God were to give revelations other than the Bible, it would mean the Bible is not sufficient.
  3. Therefore, God has given no revelations other than the Bible.

A classic example of “It’s true because our faith requires it to be true.”

By contrast, the two influences that are considered most reliable in the real world — personal judgment and personal experience — are treated as vastly inferior to the Bible.

It depresses me to know that Johnson has followers who embrace this hierarchy in the name of faith — rejecting empirical data and logic in favor of a recklessly assembled (and therefore disjointed and inconsistent) anthology of ancient, mostly unattributed writings.

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The author and enforcer of morality?

I’ve been listening to a lot of debates (in podcasts), mostly about whether the Christian god (or any personal god) exists.

Here is one of the most common challenges to the atheist position: “If there is no god, where does morality come from? Who or what has the moral authority to decide what is right and what is wrong?”

And here is another common challenge: “Without God to answer to, what motivates you to be good?”

I know these challenge have been answered eloquently and convincingly by many others, but I’d still like to offer a multi-point response of my own.

1. These challenges pose a false problem, produced by sleight of hand:

Step 1: Assume the existence of a god with traits only a god can have — in this case, absolute moral authority.

Step 2: Hypothetically remove that god from existence.

Step 3: Put the burden on atheists to fill the vacancy with something else that has the same trait.

(The same technique is represented in the question: “If there is no God, what is the meaning of life?” The speaker generally has a narrow definition of “meaning” in mind — the implication is “God assigns my transcendent, sacred missions to me. Who assigns yours to you?”)

It has not even been established that we humans have or need an absolute moral authority, so questions about where it comes from are premature.

2. There is a common set of good and bad behaviors that theists and atheists acknowledge.

Giving, telling the truth, and protecting people from harm are good. Stealing, lying, and physical assault are bad. Enhancing people’s self-esteem is good; degrading it is bad. There are trade-offs, but we all have a very similar sense of what is right and wrong.

When people deviate from the common moral code, it’s often because they have adopted uniquely religious ‘moral’ hierarchies — usually entailing requirements or constraints on speech, thought, food, and sexual behavior that do not promote anyone’s well-being in any tangible way and that often work against it.

In the debates I’ve heard, when the atheist opponent points out that nonbelievers also know good from evil , the theist concedes but explains that “the law is written on everyone’s heart,” invoking Romans 2:15. In other words, we are indeed all born with an innate sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, but God put it there. At first glance, this seems no more testable than a claim that God engineered the Big Bang. However, the “written on our hearts” claim has a flaw: only the common moral code is in everyone’s heart. Everybody knows that stealing, lying, and physical assault are wrong; everybody does not ‘know’ that homosexuality, eating shellfish, and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit are wrong.

3. God, as portrayed in the Bible, acts — and commands people to act — in ways that are inconsistent with what ‘we all know’ is right. His moral expectations are not only subjective but also incoherent.

By comparison to the common moral code among humans, the biblical god’s moral code is completely without rhyme or reason — especially in the Old Testament.

  • In multiple instances, God commands his chosen people to commit genocide and take slaves, including sex slaves. (Viewed another way, he punishes the non-chosen people just for being non-chosen — something completely beyond their control and completely within God’s control.)
  • God commands Abraham to murder his son.
  • God executes one of his own Levites, Uzzah, for daring to touch the Ark of the Covenant in order to steady it.

4. Everyone is motivated by fear of repercussions.

Whether there are gods to answer to or not, people still have to deal with the natural, legal, economic and social repercussions of their actions.

5. Vicarious redemption negates fear of repercussions from God. 

If a person believes he can have any and all of his sins absolved by ‘accepting’ Jesus’s vicarious sacrifice, then he has no greater motive to be moral than a person who believes there are no gods to answer to. Once he’s been ‘saved,’ his fear of hell is dissolved. So what motivates him to be good?

Higher standards for the omnipotent!

But what about the second assumption, that if God is omnibenevolent, then He prefers a world without evil over a world with evil? Again, such an assumption is not necessarily true. The fact is that in many cases we allow pain and suffering to occur in a person’s life in order to bring about some greater good or because we have some sufficient reason for allowing it. Every parent knows this fact. There comes a point at which a parent can no longer protect his child from every mishap; and there are other times when discipline must be inflicted on the child in order to teach him to become a mature, responsible, adult. Similarly, God may permit suffering in our lives in order to build us or to test us, or to build and test others, or to achieve some other overriding end. Thus, even though God is omnibenevolent, He might well have morally sufficient reasons for permitting pain and suffering in the world. 

— Wiiliam Lane Craig, writing on the problem of evil

Craig’s parenting analogy is seriously flawed because it suggests that God and human parents are under the same constraints.

As humans, we may be justified in sometimes allowing or causing others to suffer, but only to the extent that it is necessary to achieve a greater good — for example, to spare them (or others) worse suffering or, in some cases, to bring them (or others) some kind of reward.

For example, we allow our children to endure the pain of vaccinations in order to protect them against diseases, which can bring misery, debilitation or death.

Similarly, military recruits are subjected to mental, physical and emotional stresses in order to help them succeed and survive in combat. “More sweat in training, less blood in battle.”

As we mature, we learn to accept trade-offs as part of life — as long as they are truly necessary. We don’t get shots for diseases that don’t exist, and if there were no such thing as war, there would be no boot camps to persevere through.

Human parents can honestly tell their kids, “I wish this trade-off did not exist, but it does.”

But God designed the whole scheme, so he willed that there would be trade-offs. How could he then wish things were different?

We take it as a given that we can’t eat and drink whatever we want and still have healthy bodies. But if our bodies had been designed differently, there would be no such trade-off.

Christian apologists may claim that God withholds some pleasures from us and subjects us to some suffering now so we have the opportunity for an afterlife of extreme pleasure and absolutely no suffering. In other words, our complete happiness and our complete lack of suffering is God’s goal. However, God imposes a restriction on how we can get to that state: That extreme pleasure without suffering is only possible for those who are in a ‘consensual’ love relationship with God. If this is true, it isn’t just ‘the way it is’ — it is a condition of our existence that was imposed by God. So why does this trade-off exist? Either God needs a relationship with us — in which case our pain is for his gain — or God designed us to need a relationship with him. No matter which is the case, God willingly imposes a trade-off that should not have been necessary.

Actually, it is impossible to be human and not suffer, because suffering is simply experiencing something we don’t like. We suffer continually just by virtue of not being able to do everything that is pleasurable and not being able to avoid everything that is unpleasant. The difference between what we normally call ‘discomfort’ and what we normally call ‘suffering’ is one of degree. So basically, if God created us, he willed for us to suffer simply by making us as natural beings.

Parents and drill sergeants can’t control the external forces that make it necessary to train and ‘discipline’ those in their care. But for an omnipotent god, there are no external forces. It’s time to stop letting God off the hook and pretending his hands are tied. Is our pain for his benefit or for ours? If it’s for his benefit, then yeah, it makes sense: He is sadistic. But if it’s for our benefit, what exactly is the reward that is worth whatever kind and amount of pain we might experience?

On inerrancy of the scriptures

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 24 08.06If those to whom the narratives of the Bible are so sacred that they are not to be handled freely as other narratives are handled, could for just one moment stand aside from their own point of view, and could realize that criticism, if it is honest criticism, must begin by looking upon the Bible just as they themselves look upon other sacred books, as something to be tested just as other books are tested, at least some of the bitterness of controversy would be done away.

There is the more need to speak plainly and sharply in this matter, because many of our religious leaders are disposed to admit the principle, while they are not willing to apply it. The Bible, they say, may contain errors. But that any particular statement is an error, they will not admit so long as there is any way, probable or improbable, in which it may be explained. Now this is not consistent, and it is not quite honest; it is pretending to treat the Bible in an impartial way, without treating it in a way that is actually impartial. When we are dealing with any other book we do not assume that its statements are true so long as there is any conceivable way in which they might be true; we balance the evidence, and then we decide for the more probable view. And we must insist that the statements of the Bible are to be accepted or rejected on just the same degree of probability or improbability which would govern us anywhere else.

— Arthur Kenyon Rogers, The Life and Teachings of Jesus: A Critical Analysis of the Sources of the Gospels, Together With a Study of the Sayings of Jesus, 1894

Hiddenness: an obvious problem

I’ve been searching in vain online for a coherent explanation for ‘the hiddenness of God’ — an answer to the question, “If God really wants a personal relationship with everyone, why doesn’t he make himself and his intentions more obvious?”

The least satisfying answer I’ve found is, essentially, that God has made himself ‘obvious enough’ for everyone to believe in him if they want to believe. (This is true in a circular way: If people are willing to believe something based on flimsy evidence, then flimsy evidence is sufficient.)

Another answer, and one that gets a little closer to addressing the actual question, is that God hides himself on purpose because if he made himself too obvious, then believing in him would require no faith. Put another way, God intentionally makes it difficult to believe in him so that when people do believe, it is meaningful. But that begs the question of why that kind of ‘difficult belief’ is necessary in order for God to have a genuine love relationship with people. Why place any obstacle in the way of the relationships you are seeking?

There is no parallel of that requirement in human relationships — sane people do not intentionally make themselves difficult to understand, love or trust, just so it will be meaningful when people understand, love and trust them.

Also, this ‘hidden on purpose’ explanation is inconsistent with the situation described in the first few chapters of Genesis, before ‘the Fall.’ There, God is ‘completely obvious’ to Adam and Eve and appears to have a close personal relationship with them nonetheless. This isn’t trivial. Christian salvation doctrine depends on recognizing the pre-Fall situation as the baseline for the God-human relationship, the kind of relationship we all could be having with God right now if Adam and Eve had not listened to the serpent. We lost perfection “through Adam,” so we need to gain it back “through Christ.”

So for me, the hiddenness of God remains unexplained.

What’s the worst that can happen?

“What if you’re wrong?” the Christian asked the atheist.

The atheist answered:

“I think you are asking, ‘What if the Christian god is real and your lack of belief in him is what disqualifies you from salvation?’

“If that is the question, it is an example of an either-or fallacy. It suggests there are only two possibilities: that there is no god, and that there is a god whose only requirements for salvation are those presented in Christianity. Ironically, the question is also an appeal to fear of the worst-case scenario. So I must point out that there are countless other logical possibilities to consider — some of them far worse cases than the two you have presented.

“Just think of any established religion whose salvation requirements are stricter than those of Christianity. What if you are right about the existence of a god but wrong about what he requires for salvation, and you don’t make the cut?

“If you were consistent in your appeal to the worst-case scenario, you would be striving to identify all the religions that have salvation doctrines and then striving to meet all of their salvation requirements. But it would be absurd to do that. You have to take probabilities into account.

“For whatever reason, you have concluded that the claims of Christianity are so likely to be true and that the claims of other religions are so likely to be false that you can rest assured that you are saved.

“The same kind of scrutiny that has enabled you to rule out the claims of all non-Christian religions has enabled me to rule out the claims of all religions.

“Neither of us is prepared for the theoretical worst-case scenario. But I think both of us feel safe from eternal damnation according our individual views of reality.”

See also: Dear Christian: Do your beliefs pass the pillow test?

Implications of the free will defense

A good night’s sleep has enabled me to crystallize my thoughts on the free will defense (see yesterday’s post). These are the implications of that defense, as I see it:

  1. In order to truly love people, God must allow them to do whatever they please and never physically intervene in their actions.
  2. God is all-loving; therefore, he has never physically intervened in anyone’s actions.
  3. Fairness is important to God only in the setup, not in the outcome. Everyone must start with free will (and the potential to love God), but if some people exercise free will to prevent others from exercising free will (and deny them the opportunity to love God), that is a perfectly acceptable outcome.
  4. Bribery (the promise of heaven and other rewards), threats (the threat of hell and other consequences) and, oddest of all, miraculous spiritual transformation (“changing the heart” of a person) are all acceptable tactics for God — not only to influence a person’s behavior but also to change his inner disposition toward God! The only unacceptable form of influence is physical manipulation, which would control only an outward manifestation of a person’s inner disposition toward God.
  5. God is all-powerful, so he could manipulate inanimate matter to stop people’s evil acts (already committed) from having their intended effects — for example, stopping a bullet before it reaches its innocent target — but apparently this is also against his principles.
  6. Thus, although God is able to both treat the disease (evil in a person’s heart) and arrest the symptoms (evil deeds committed toward others, and their effects), his policy prohibits him from arresting the symptoms. He only treats the disease, and that only selectively. Even in cases where God treats the disease, the patient and others always have to suffer the residual effects of the disease — it is the only non-negotiable part of the scheme.

Eight big, gaping holes in the free-will defense

Today, in a podcast of a debate, I heard yet another theist spout his take on Plantinga’s free will defense and decided I’d had enough. I scribbled down eight reasons that “free will” is an absurd and inadequate explanation for why an omnipotent and all-loving God would allow people to commit evil acts against each other.

The explanation I heard in the podcast was similar to Plantinga’s defense but more aligned with the standard blurb I’ve heard from many Christian preachers and laymen over the years. Essentially, it went: God created humans to love him, but they can’t be forced to love him (otherwise, it isn’t love), so he made all humans with the ability to do good or evil. Intervention is a slippery slope, so on principle he refuses to ever physically restrain people from doing evil or to force them to do good.

To that, I say:

  1. The whole concept — what God wants, how he operates, the whole thing — is speculation that is not even supported by the Bible. It is a transparent and futile attempt to reconcile Christian doctrine with reality.
  2. If the purpose of free will is for God to enjoy a mutual love relationship with humans, its success rate has been dismal.  Presumably, having a sincere love relationship with God depends on having an accurate (Christian) concept of who he is.  Even if you take the Old Testament at face value regarding the origin and history of the human race, it’s clear that only a minority of people have ever been exposed to the Judeo-Christian concept of God — and only a fraction of those have actually come to love God. To compound the injustice, many have been robbed of the opportunity to love God because they were killed (according to the Bible, not me) before they could be exposed to Christian ‘truth.’ Some of those killings were by people exercising ‘free will,’ and of those, some were mandated by God!
  3. Loving God does not equate to willing to do good. Even if it did, a person’s actions would still be only indicators of his will. Physically restraining people from doing what they will to do (let alone preventing their victims from being harmed) does not prevent them from willing to do those things in the first place.
  4. By contrast, for God to “change a person’s heart” seems like the kind of undue influence he would really want to avoid, yet he does this routinely (according to the Bible and innumerable Christian testimonies).
  5. If it is wrong for God to physically intervene in human behavior, it must be even more wrong for humans to physically intervene in other humans’ behavior, yet God allows — or, rather, commands– governments, “masters” and parents to do just that, and in some cases has held them accountable for the sins of the people they failed to control!
  6.  If physical manipulation is not an option for God, coercion via bribes and threats should not be, either. Yet “the greatest commandment” in Christianity is to love God to an extreme degree;  the incentive for belief in God (a prerequisite for loving God) is eternal joy; and the consequence of not believing in God (which rules out loving him) is eternal punishment.
  7. It is unclear how a human could “love” God in any sense that would be meaningful to God. If a person “loves” God because he redeemed humanity, that is actually just gratitude. If a person “loves God for who he is,” that is actually just admiration — or, viewed another way, perceptiveness! If a person desires and enjoys communion with God, that might be characterized as simple affinity or even selfishness.  A human’s “love,” whether for another human or for God,  is always conditional — a manifestation of some kind of self-interest —  and God should know this better than anyone.
  8.  A common-sense parenting analogy goes a long way: If you saw your child attempting to do something wrong or dangerous (to herself or someone else), it’s a no-brainer that you would try to stop her. Do you seriously think that that single intervention — or even ongoing interventions — would  permanently rob her of all her free will, or that it would make it impossible for her to ever sincerely love you?

A fresh take on the old ant analogy

The Onion nails it yet again.

The niceness test

C.S. Lewis writes, in Mere Christianity :

I think this is the right moment to consider a question which is often asked: If Christianity is true why are not all Christians obviously nicer than all non-Christians?

He continues, a few paragraphs later, in the second part of his three-part response:

[W]e must be careful to ask the right question. If Christianity is true then it ought to follow (a) That any Christian will be nicer than the same person would be if he were not a Christian. (b) That any man who becomes a Christian will be nicer than he was before.

I agree with Lewis that a Christian’s level of ‘niceness’ should not be compared with the ‘niceness’ levels of non-Christians but against the level of ‘niceness’ of the hypothetical person the Christian would have become if he had not converted to Christianity.

But unlike Lewis, I think it is impossible to make either kind of comparison. I say this because I see ‘niceness’ as a false test. What is perceived as ‘niceness’ in a given person is not necessarily genuine, and it is not necessarily the result of spiritual conversion.

  • Observations of  ‘niceness’ can be subjective. I think converts tend to seem ‘nicer’ to the groups that convert them than to outsiders, particularly those whose belief systems the converts have rejected.
  • The practice of ‘niceness’ can be selective. Believers may treat fellow believers better than nonbelievers — or they may tend to show more courtesy or grace to nonbelievers (who are still prospective converts) than to fellow believers (who are already won over).
  • ‘Niceness’ is outward behavior. Independent of religion, people act nice for a wide variety of reasons — some selfish, some altruistic. And religion can introduce multiple new reasons to act nice toward various people — again, some selfish, some altruistic.
  • Even if a person’s ‘niceness’ is driven by altruism, that altruism may be the result of something other than a genuine spiritual conversion — for example, an inherent desire to ‘pay forward’ the kindness one has received from church members.

In other words, conversion to Christianity might somehow produce new ‘nice’ behaviors in a person, but that still won’t prove “Christianity is true.”

Now I’ll get personal: I became a Christian at age 13 and considered myself a believer until around age 40. I would characterize myself during that period as selectively ‘nice’ but essentially self-centered, immature and arrogant. My mantra was “If the world fits, you’re the wrong size,” which I invoked as license, even a mandate, to offend nonbelievers with my expressions of belief. As I said in a previous post, I was a born ‘devil’s advocate’ who happened to be advocating Christianity.

It’s logically possible that Christianity made me less horrible than I would have been otherwise. But even to the extent that Christianity made me ‘nicer,’  it is not clear that my ‘niceness’ was for any noble reason at all, let alone a spiritual reason. Again, religion can introduce multiple new reasons to act nice toward various people. I know for sure that in many cases I was just reciprocating toward people who were nice to me, and that in many cases I had something to gain — socially, emotionally or materially — from acting nice. And of course I had a simplistic expectation that if I was nice to people, God would be pleased with me and possibly reward me. I may have had some bursts of genuine compassion, mercy or generosity, but probably not many.

The bottom line: Lewis’s ‘niceness test’ is a false test because ‘niceness’ doesn’t prove anything. At least in my case it didn’t.