September 2008

The recent spate of anti-religion books written by militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens make the charge that theism is not only wrong, but evil. It’s an interesting twist on the Biblical story of creation. According to Judaism and Christianity, in order to get evil out of the Garden man needed to be removed. According to the new atheists, in order to get evil out of the Garden we need to remove God Himself. Ironic?!

In several previous posts (here, here, and here) I addressed the problem of differences in the Gospels, pointing out that what are often taken for contradictions are really just examples of 21st century Westerners trying to impose unrealistic and modern standards of historical reporting on ancient Easterners.  I demonstrated this by pointing to examples in which two different passages within the same book report different information.  No one thinks of these as being contradictions because they come from the same author, and appear in the same literary document.

I found another example of this, but not in the Gospels this time.  This one appears in Acts.  Luke’s account of Jesus’ words to Paul on the Damascus road reads as follows: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? … I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:5b-6, ESV)

Paul, recounting the same event in Acts 26:14b-18, records Jesus’ words as:

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads. … I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.  But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles-to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (ESV)

Not only is Acts 22 much fuller in its account of what Jesus said to Paul, but there is little overlap between them as it pertains to Jesus’ instructions.  In Acts 9 Jesus instructs Paul to go to Damascus and wait to be told what to do.  In Acts 22 Jesus does not tell Paul to go to Damascus, but instead, instructs him in his mission on the spot!  If these two accounts appeared in two different books, critics would claim a contradiction.  But because they appear in the same literary work, no such charge is made.

Of course, a reasonable harmony can be made for the two accounts.  Acts 9 appears to be a summary of the much longer conversation, rather than a transcript of the actual words Jesus said (at least for His instructions; not His introduction and self-revelation).  Acts 22 is probably closer to an actual transcript of what was said to Paul.

The fact that Jesus discloses to Paul His purpose for his life there on the road does not contradict what Luke reports in chapter 9.  No specific instructions were given regarding what he should do next to fulfill that purpose.  Furthermore, in the context of Acts 9, it seems what Paul was “to do” in Damascus was receive salvation.  That is why the Lord spoke to Ananias in a vision to go pray for Paul to regain his sight and be filled with the Spirit (9:10-19).

“Agnosticism seems to be a more tenable commitment than atheism. Problem is, in action one must act as if God does not exist (etsi deus non daretur), or as if He does. In action one must make a commitment that one cannot quite make on purely intellectual grounds. It is by our deeds that we show what we most deeply believe.”[1] 

[1]Michael Novak, “Empathizing with Atheists

Euthanasia advocates begin their advocacy by assuring us suicide will only be permitted for the terminally ill who are suffering great pain.  That’s what they say.  But it’s not long after suicide is legalized that those same advocates push for expanding suicide to the non-terminally ill, and expand the definition of suffering to include emotional suffering.  We’ve seen this kind of thing in Belgium and the Netherlands.  In fact, in those two countries we’ve seen euthanasia expand from a voluntary choice, to non-voluntary, and even involuntary.  

England is pushing for Euthanasia.  Ironically, one of their leading bioethicists is being honest about what circumstances she thinks euthanasia should be legal in before “basic” euthanasia is legalized.  During a recent interview for the October 2008 edition of Life & Work-a Church of Scotland publication-Baroness Mary Warnock made the following assertions about the duty to die: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.”  She is very clear that the right and duty to die is not tied to insufferable pain: “I’m absolutely, fully in agreement with the argument that if pain is insufferable, then someone should be given help to die, but I feel there’s a wider argument that if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they’re a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die.”[1] 

Don’t buy into the “it will only be limited to the terminally ill and suffering” polemic.  It’s not true. 


HT: Al Mohler

[1]“A Duty to Die?” in Life and Work, October 2008; available from

That is the topic of the latest article I published at the Institute for Biblical Studies.  Check it out.

Here is your chance to talk about whatever you want to talk about.  Speak your mind in the comments section.  Or maybe suggest a topic you would like me to cover in a future post.  It’s open mic.

Some concepts are so heady that they are difficult to put into words.  For example, how does one talk about what God was doing before creation, when creation marks the beginning of temporality?  There cannot be a “before” the beginning, and yet we can conceive of God’s existence before time began.  While it is difficult to put this into words, one way of doing so is to speak of God existing “without the universe.”  Problem solved. 

There are other concepts, however, which are impossible to put them into words.  Consider “nothing.”  It is impossible for us to even imagine nothingness, yet alone to reduce it to words.  For example, according to the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins our universe came into existence from literally nothing about 13.7 billion years ago.  But to say our universe came into existence “from” nothing treats nothing as if it were somewhere from which the universe emerged.  It isn’t, and that’s not what scientists mean to say, but that is the picture that emerges when we try reducing this concept to words.  

We might even conceive of a “time when nothing existed,” but this too is unintelligible.  There cannot be a “time” when nothing existed, because a state of nothingness includes the absence of temporality.  I’ve done it again.  I referred to nothingness as a “state,” but it is not a state.  It is nothing!  The fact of the matter is that no matter how we choose to refer to the concept, the moment we do so, we reify it in the process.  We do the same thing for other concepts.  Consider darkness.  Darkness, as such, does not exist.  It is the absence of all light.  And yet the moment we refer to “darkness,” we reify it, as if it were an existent.  This is a shortcoming of language we have to live with, but we need to be cognizant of the fact that speaking of nothingness, or of something coming from nothing, does not mean nothing is something.  It means no-thing.

During Greg Koukl’s August 10th radio broadcast, he shared some thoughts about the criterion of falsifiability as it relates to theism, that I found worth passing on (with some expansion and commentary of my own).

Some claim theistic belief is not reasonable, because theism cannot be falsified.  For something to be falsifiable requires that there be an imagined set of circumstances that would demonstrate a particular view to be false.  For example, Christianity would be falsified if archaeologists ever unearthed Jesus’ body from a grave outside Jerusalem.  The idea behind the principle of falsifiability is that if, in principle, there can be no evidence that counts against a view, then it is not possible to have a reasonable conversation about the merits of the view.

While this is a useful principle, clearly it is not an absolute criterion for a theory/belief to be reasonable, nor is it necessary to have a reasonable conversation about its merits.  For example, consider the belief that you exist.  Can you imagine any set of circumstances that could convince you that you do not exist?  No.  It is inconceivable.  And yet we are fully reasonable in our belief that we exist.

While falsifiability is a useful way to evaluate a theory/belief, the merits of that theory/belief do not hang on its falsifiability.  Its merits hang on the evidence in its favor.  Theism has several lines of evidence in its favor.  That body of evidence serves as the basis for a reasonable dialogue concerning the veridicality of theism.

More to the heart of the matter, falsifiability cannot be an appropriate test for theism because it is impossible to falsify a universal negative.  And in order to falsify God’s existence, one would have to prove a universal negative: God does not exist.

To be fair, I should qualify my statement that a universal negative cannot be proven.  While a universal negative cannot be proven empirically, it can be proven logically.  If something is logically contradictory, or incoherent, we can be sure it does not exist.  For example, I can prove there are no square circles.  I cannot, and need not do so empirically, but I can do so logically.  The concept of a square circle is incoherent, and thus square circles cannot exist.  Some atheists contend that theism is logically incoherent, but few have been persuaded of their arguments.  In the past, the most common attempt to show theism was incoherent was the problem of evil.  It was reasoned that if God is all good and all powerful as theism claims, evil should not exist.  And yet it does, hence, theism must be false.  Philosophers have since come to realize that the existence of evil is logically compatible with the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God.  It stands, then, that the very nature of theism is that it cannot be falsified, and thus this should not count against the view.  The focus should be on the evidence for theism, not its unfalsifiability.

This is a sad commentary on our times.  A man bludgeons another man with a hammer, while 10 bystanders do nothing.  This is nothing short of shameful and inhuman.

Renee Descartes was the first modern philosopher. He was a rationalist. His goal was to ground knowledge in something that could not be doubted. He found such a grounding in his famous formulation, Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). The question to be answered was how he could know he existed. The answer was to be found in his act of contemplation of the very question. To contemplate existence requires a contemplator who exists. That he was thinking about doubt was something he could not rationally doubt, and thus concluded he knows indubitably that he exists. He reasoned deductively as follows:

P1 The act of thinking requires the existence of a thinker
P2 I experience the act of thinking
I exist as a thinker

Some argue that Descartes key insight actually turns out to depend on a logical fallacy: begging the question. The question is whether there exists a personal subject, “I.” And yet “I” is smuggled into the second premise of the argument. That is question-begging, for it assumes there is an I to experience the act of thinking, and then concludes that there is an I who thinks. I am conflicted about this. On the one hand, this seems reasonable to me. Descartes reasoning does seem to beg the question. On the other hand, Descartes argument seems valid: the ability to contemplate one’s existence requires that they exist. What do you think?

If Descartes did beg the question, invalidating his argument, then it seems there is no non-question-begging argument that could indubitably prove I exist. Of course, this does not mean I do not exist. I do, and I know I do. It simply means we can’t demonstrate how we know this, other than an appeal to basic intuition.

I think this is a helpful lesson for skeptics. One does not need to be able to prove (or know how) X is true in order to know X is true. Some truths are properly basic; i.e. they are self-evident, do not need to be questioned, and do not need evidential demonstration.


UPDATE 3/1/17: Perhaps the supposed question-begging nature of the argument is merely the fault of how analytic philosophers structure the argument. For example, if we state the argument as follows, it does not beg the question:

P1 The act of thinking requires the existence of a thinker
P2 There are acts of thinking ______________________________________________
Thinkers must exist

There is a short, concise examination of cremation over at the Parchment and Pen blog.  The author, Jeff Spry, concludes that burial, not cremation, is the Biblical norm.  He demonstrates that cremation is viewed quite negatively in Scripture. 

What are your thoughts on cremation?  Is it acceptable for a Christian?  Should it be viewed equally with burial?