The “Intrinsic Probability” of Theism

Before coming to the evidence for the existence of God, a preliminary question needs to be asked: How plausible is it, a priori, that God exists?

Consider the case of John and Jane. John assumes that the existence of God is profoundly unlikely and therefore views theistic proofs with deep suspicion and finds them unpersuasive. Jane, on the other hand, assumes that the existence and nonexistence of God are about equiprobable and therefore views those same proofs with an open mind and finds them persuasive.

The point is that our presuppositions about the “intrinsic probability” of theism (where the “intrinsic probability” of a hypothesis is a measure of its simplicity prior to the evidence) are crucial to the outcome of any discussion of evidence for the existence of God and so need to be taken into account. [1]

It is at first tempting to think that John is correct. The existence of God seems about as improbable as anything can be. God, if he exists, is unlimited: infinite in power, knowledge and love. The principle of parsimony, which recommends the simpler of any two competing explanations, would seem to recommend an atheistic explanation in every possible case: Whenever there are two possible explanations for the evidence, one which appeals to the existence of God and one which does not, the explanation which does not appeal to the existence of God is simpler and therefore has greater intrinsic probability. Prejudice against theistic claims is, it seems, justified.

However, in The Existence of God, Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne presents a strong counterargument to this view. He first notes that to postulate a limited force is to postulate two things: The force and whatever constrains it; while to postulate an unlimited force is to postulate one thing: The force, which, being unlimited, is not constrained by anything. “For this reason,” he continues, “scientists have always favoured a hypothesis ascribing zero or infinite value to some entity over a hypothesis ascribing a finite value when both hypotheses are compatible with the data.” Thus, “the hypothesis that some particle has zero or infinite mass is simpler than the hypothesis that it has a mass of 0.3412 or a velocity of 301,000 kilometres per second.”

Theism is the proposition that the ultimate explanation of the universe is a single immaterial person that is of the simplest kind imaginable because it is unlimited: Since a person is, “a conscious entity that has rational thoughts, moral awareness, intentions, continuity of identity and who is able to perform basic actions,” a person having zero powers would not be a person at all. [2] And so it follows that in postulating a person with infinite powers the theist is postulating the simplest person logically possible.

The intrinsic probability of theism is therefore high and prejudice against theistic claim unwarranted.

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[1] Some philosophers do not recognise the concept of “intrinsic probability.” Plantinga, for example, thinks it is doubtful that there is such thing as intrinsic logical probability but concedes that, “we certainly do favour simplicity and we are inclined to think that simple explanations and hypotheses are more likely to be true than complicated epicyclic ones.” The reader who shares this view can simply equate “intrinsic probability” with the notion that, all things being equal, simpler hypotheses commend themselves over complex ones.

[2] As Dallas Willard notes in The Divine Conspiracy, “Any being that has say over nothing at all is no person. We only have to imagine what that would be like to see that this is so. Such ‘persons’ would not even be able to command their own thoughts. They would be reduced to completely passive observers who count for nothing, who make no difference.”

 

Thoughts on urgency and apologetics

The view from my house looks out over Auckland – West, North to East. It is a stunning view and one I doubt I will ever get used to. It is spectacular at dusk as the whole city is a mass of sparkling lights beneath a massive deepening blue sky. Magnificent.

I am often moved to prayer when I look at that view, for that mass of sparkling lights represents over a million people and many of them aren’t aware there is a God who truly loves them. When I look at that huge expanse of sky, I can’t help think how small we truly are compared to God and how just one drop of His glory could flood a city. Yet despite this, Jesus called us to spread His glory, to share His good news in the darkening world we live in (Matthew 28:18-20). The Bible exhorts us to be ready in season and out with the reason for our faith (1 Peter 3:15). Much of God’s glory is found in what we do and what we say. God gave us the honour of being part of His story by both living it and sharing it. His works in our lives create rich narratives of incredible love and redemption and are always, always meant to be shared.

Maybe you struggle with the battle between building and enjoying your life in this world; yet sense a deep restlessness that leaves you feeling perhaps there is something more you could be doing for the world to come. The stirrings of Christ-led urgency.

I recently came across a ‘judgement day’ video online that I found disturbing and as a fellow Christian – embarrassing! The producers meant well I am sure. I can best describe the short movie as having been made up of a script invoking ‘80s or ‘90s hellfire preaching with added graphic visuals to add to the effect. Yes, it did contain some truth about hell, but it was cringe worthy. I can’t imagine a postmodern being converted by it – although God sometimes uses the most unlikely things to capture our attention! I envisage many would label the short as scaremongering and manipulative – exploiting fear – despite the shades of postmodern surrealism within the movie itself. Watching the short did, however, cause me to think about urgency and perhaps this was its purpose. I couldn’t help but be stirred by those words and images because I believe in hell and I love people. It reminded me about the importance of not only sharing our faith, but also sharing it as often as possible. It gave me a sense of urgency. It also, indirectly reminded me of the importance of discipleship where the full story of our origin, meaning, morality and destiny (1) could begin to be fully explored, discussed and lived out biblically.

In our crazy busy lives, it is easy to let time slip by without stopping to think who we are as Christians and what we are called to do. Yet there is a world of people around us desperate for answers even as they put up their hands in denial of truth. Behind many hard questions are hearts and minds that genuinely want to believe there is a God that can help them make sense of the world. Yet, even if the questioner is hardened to the truth of God, there is usually a silent listener or reader nearby who is desperate for that truth.

Those sparkling lights.

Maybe we need to change our perspective and see that sense of urgency not as a manipulative tool, but rather an energising one. I challenge you to pray for that sense of urgency if you lack it. This may or may not be the end times, but these are your end times and mine. This is the only life we have in which to make a difference eternally.

With all the apologetic and evangelism resources, ministries and schools available to us, we are so blessed! I have found apologetic study invigorating! Finding answers for those tricky questions; thinking deeply on the things that are happening in the world around us; looking at issues through the lens of a well thought out Christian worldview; and using both our intellect and our spirituality – always guided by the Holy Spirit – is a powerful way to get closer to our God and make a difference in this world! I encourage you to start with your own questions. Find the answers in books and websites such as this, and begin to share.

But in your hearts set Christ apart [as holy—acknowledging Him, giving Him first place in your lives] as Lord. Always be ready to give a [logical] defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope and confident assurance [elicited by faith] that is within you, yet [do it] with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15 (AMP)

(1) The contexts of our origin, meaning, morality and destiny, form part of the core apologetics module at RZIM Academy. 

Allan Sandage

It is often assumed that religious belief diminishes in ratio to scientific knowledge. “You’d expect,” begins one Newsweek article on the subject of God and science, “that the more deeply scientists see into the secrets of the universe, the more God would fade away from their hearts and minds.” There are many striking counterexamples to this assumption—but few more striking than that of Allan Rex Sandage.

Allan Sandage was one of the most important astronomers of the twenthieth century. He began his career in cosmology in the 1940s as a protégé of Edwin Hubble (the astronomer who discovered the expansion of the universe) and, after Hubble died of a heart attack in 1953, Sandage continued Hubble’s ambitious research project of measuring the size and age of the universe.

By some accounts Sandage was a difficult man—it was said that you were no one in astronomy if Sandage had not stopped talking to you. But an uncooperative attitude did not prevent him from making numerous groundbreaking contributions to cosmology. It was Sandage, for instance, who worked out the first reasonably accurate values for the elusive Hubble constant and the age of the universe (!) and Sandage again who discovered the first quasar.

For over forty years until his retirement in 1997, Sandage was regarded as the world’s foremost observational cosmologist and chalked up numerous further contributions to his field: publishing influential papers and improving all aspects of the cosmological distance scale—both within our own Milky Way and beyond to distant galaxies. The accolades and awards accordingly followed, including the prestigious Crafoord Prize—the Nobel of the astronomy world. In 1991, the New York Times noted that Sandage was now popularly referred to as, “the Grand Old Man of Cosmology.”

It was known, meanwhile, that Sandage was a “practicing atheist” as a youth and in a culture of glib scientism the assumption that an astronomer of his expertise and stature would have no truck with the supernatural may have been a fairly natural one. However, in 1985, at a Dallas conference on the theme of science and religion, Sandage surprised his academic peers by taking a seat among the panel of theists. In the context of a discussion about the theological implications of the Big Bang, he then revealed that he had converted to Christianity at the age of fifty. [1] “The world is too complicated in all parts and interconnections to be due to chance alone,” Sandage would explain in numerous subsequent articles on the subject of science and religion. “We can’t understand the universe in any clear way without the supernatural.” [2]

The conversion of Allan Sandage is a testament to the strength of the evidence for theism from modern cosmology and a dramatic counterexample to the belief that increases in scientific knowledge invariably reduce belief in God.

 

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 [1] Interestingly, a young Stephen Meyers was in the audience of this conference. Meyers relates that it was this shocking volte-face by Sandage that inspired his research into the evidence for design in the structure of the cell.

[2] See the Argument from Cosmic Teleology, which I summarise here, and the Argument from Adequation, which I summarise here.

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 2)

Welcome back for the second part of this series, in which we’re looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes[i]. In this post, I’m going to address a topic that nearly always crops up in conversations on abortion; namely, rape.

Abortion and rape are very emotionally heated and tense subjects, and to be writing about both of them necessitates extreme reflection, caution, and care. Though I’m about to argue that rape does not provide justification for abortion, I want to take a moment to emphasise that women who are raped are victims of a dreadful and morally reprehensible crime. As such, they deserve our compassion and care regardless of our stance on the moral permissibility of abortion, and regardless of whether or not they do, in fact, opt for abortion. On this point, I’m sure all can agree.

Before moving on, allow me to provide a summary of what follows. First of all, the argument from rape is stated. Then, four responses to the argument, which indicate that it fails, are offered. Finally, a description of the good that can result from a woman choosing to protect her unborn child is presented. In this way, I hope to persuade you that rape does not justify abortion.


The Argument from Rape

Those who appeal to rape as justification for abortion typically argue that abortion should be legal in order to protect the mental wellbeing of women who have been raped. The argument goes like this: Abortion safe-guards the mental health of women who are pregnant by rape. Since the mental wellbeing of the mother is of greater value than the unborn, and since carrying the unborn to term would cause her immense mental anguish, a woman who has conceived due to rape is under no obligation to carry the unborn to term. Additionally, she did not choose to be pregnant, and the unborn is an aggressor against her integrity. Therefore, she is not obligated to allow the unborn to make use of her body, and is justified in terminating her pregnancy.

 Due to the immense emotional impact we justifiably feel when we hear of women who have been raped, this argument has significant rhetorical impact. However, when examined in depth, four problems arise which indicate that, in fact, rape does not justify abortion.

  1. Rape and Abortion on Demand

Let’s take a look at the first problem; namely, this argument fails to support abortion on demand. “Abortion on demand” is the idea that abortion should be allowed for virtually any reason during all 9 months of pregnancy at the request of the mother. It’s this view that pro-choice advocates typically contend for. Does the argument from rape support this view? Let’s grant, for the sake of discussion, that it’s a sound argument. What follows? Simply that abortion is justified in the case of rape. Clearly this conclusion offers no support for allowing abortion whenever and for any reason, and, therefore, it’s irrelevant to the case for abortion on demand.

Additionally, statistics indicate that pregnancy from rape accounts for around 1% of all abortions[ii]. If abortion is justified only in the case of rape, then it follows that 99% of abortions are morally impermissible. Since the argument from rape would justify abortion only in those specific circumstances, if one wishes to secure a right to abortion for all women in all circumstances, one must provide additional reasons besides said argument. Thus, even if we were to grant that abortion is morally permissible in cases of rape, in the absence of additional reasons justifying abortion in other cases, we should still advocate to restrict abortion rights to those relatively few (though still significant) cases.

  1. Begging the Question

Secondly, the argument from rape begs the question by assuming that the unborn is not an intrinsically valuable human being. In philosophy, to “beg the question” means to assume what one is meant to be proving[iii]. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the assertion that the unborn is not a valuable human being is incredibly difficult to establish and maintain. If the unborn, contrary to this assumption, is an intrinsically valuable human being, then it has the same right to life that the mother does, and as such is entitled to the same legal protection that she is.

To make this point clearer, imagine that you were conceived as the result of rape. Furthermore, imagine that every time your mother sees you or thinks of you, she experiences immense emotional anguish as memories of her experience resurface. Is the fact that she experiences such anguish sufficient justification to kill you? Clearly not. Why not? Because you have the same right to life that she does. However, if the unborn also possesses that right to life, then wouldn’t it also be wrong to kill him or her? Therefore, the determining question is not whether the unborn was conceived as the result of rape, but whether the unborn is an intrinsically valuable human being. This can only be determined by considering the nature of the unborn and what makes humans intrinsically valuable.

  1. An Ethical Intuition

Another issue with the argument from rape is this: if the unborn is a valuable human being, then to kill him or her for the benefit of the mother is to violate a clear ethical intuition; namely, that we cannot kill one innocent person in order to benefit another. For example, suppose that I require a replacement of some vital organ in order to continue living. Obviously, it would be wrong to kill you, or any other person, in order to harvest said organ and preserve my life. This doesn’t entail a lack of compassion for me or my imaginary situation. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of your right to life, and, as Francis Beckwith notes, it’s a refusal to commit murder, even for a good cause[iv]. Similarly, to kill an unborn human being in order to benefit the mother is wrong. “Simply because some people believe that an unborn child’s death may result in the happiness of another does not mean that the child has a duty to die”[v].

  1. The Unborn as Aggressor

Finally, it’s vital to note that there are three parties in this equation. The rapist is the aggressor—the one who commits the crime—and the mother is a victim of the crime. However, the mother is not the only victim—we must remember the unborn. Since, in most circumstances, the unborn doesn’t put the mother at risk, it’s hardly accurate to describe him as an aggressor. Rather, he is a consequence, and therefore a victim of, the crime perpetrated by the rapist. Thus, abortion cannot be justified on the grounds that the unborn is an aggressor.


For the reasons outlined above, it seems that rape isn’t sufficient justification for abortion. Evidently, this is a hard truth. Rape is a terrible crime, and most of us can’t begin to imagine the immense turmoil and distress that women experience when they discover they are pregnant by rape. Women in these situations should be met with compassion and generosity. However, the four responses I’ve offered indicate that abortion simply is not an appropriate response. Rather, if a woman chooses to selflessly bear a child conceived by rape, she performs a beautiful, morally praiseworthy act. If, after giving birth, the mother isn’t in a position to care for a child, or doesn’t want the responsibility of motherhood, she has the option of putting the child up for adoption. Doing so acknowledges her desire not to take on the responsibilities of child-rearing, but also heeds the value of the child before birth, and preserves their right to life.

In closing, allow me to dwell for a moment on the virtue of women who are victims of rape, and yet choose to carry the unborn to term. It’s worth repeating that a woman who willingly bears a child conceived by rape performs a beautiful, morally praiseworthy act. Christopher Kazcor poignantly describes this act as:

…in complete contradiction of what takes place in a rape. In rape, a man assaults an innocent human being; in nurturing life, a woman protects an innocent human being. In rape, a man undermines the freedom of another; in nurturing life, a woman grants freedom to another. In rape, a man imposes himself to the great detriment of another; in nurturing life, a woman makes a gift of herself to the great benefit of another… women who face pregnancies due to rape deserve unconditional love and compassion whether they choose abortion or not. But true love and compassion includes honesty about difficult moral truths, and, sometimes, even a call to heroic generosity.[vi]

Sometimes the truth is difficult to bear. But if we join together to support women in these circumstances, perhaps we can turn something ugly and unthinkable into something virtuous and just.


 

Endnotes:

[i] Making the Case: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1.

[ii] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, p. 189.

[iii] For example, suppose a well-meaning Christian were to argue for the reliability of scripture by saying “scripture is trustworthy because the Bible says so”. This statement begs the question, as it’s only by assuming that scripture is trustworthy that we can trust what the Bible says, which is the point our Christian friend is attempting to prove.

[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 106

[v] ibid.

[vi] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, p. 196.

Omnipotence Paradoxes

 

Every Sunday around the world Christians profess their faith in, “God the Father Almighty.” But does the concept of an all-powerful being really make sense?

The claim that God is all-powerful, or “omnipotent,” is the claim that God has unlimited power. While there is no obvious logical incoherence in the concept of omnipotence (the proposition, “There exists a being with unlimited power” does not involve an explicit contradiction in the way that, say, “John is a married bachelor” does) it is sometimes claimed by skeptics that it has paradoxical entailments.

The standard objection presents some action such that a limit is imposed upon God whether he performs it or not. Consider the question, “Can God create a stone too heavy for him to lift?” or, “Can God create a universe too wayward for him to control?” If God can create such a universe, to take the second example, then there is an action he cannot subsequently perform; namely, control it; and if he cannot create such a universe, then there is a different action that he cannot perform; namely, create it. Either way, the argument goes, there will be an action God cannot perform and so omnipotence is logically impossible.    

To see why this objection fails, we need to understand omnipotence in a more careful way. Theologians have always understood omnipotence to mean the power to perform any logically possible action. Thus to note that God could not create a square circle imposes no limit on his powers because creating a square circle is not an action whose difficulty lies in the brute force required to perform it. In fact, it is not an action at all; rather, the imperative Create a square circle is a logically incoherent combination of English words which have no referent in the set of all possible actions performable by an omnipotent being.    

This refinement de-fangs the objection completely. Stones so heavy that unlimited forces cannot lift them and Universes so wayward unlimited forces cannot control them both belong with square circles and married bachelors to a class of logically incoherent entities. The limitations in question are limitations, not of power, but of logical possibility. In a like case, the Bible teaches that God, being perfect, can do no evil and this “limitation” can be understood in the same sense as those just discussed. The phrase, “A morally perfect being who acts immorally,” describes a logically incoherent state of affairs—equivalent to, “A perfectly silent being who sobs loudly,” or, “An invincible being who is overthrown”: God cannot logically be expected to perform an action such that, if it is performed, that action has the entailment that God did not perform it. [1]

It may be that most Christians affirm belief in an omnipotent God on faith and scripture. Those of a more philosophical bent may appeal to a priori grounds—Plantinga’s Ontological Argument, for instance, or Swinburne’s argument for the parsimony of a First Cause unencumbered by limitations. [2] Still others may simply gaze into the vast and beautiful heavens at night and find it a perfectly reasonable property to impute to the creator. But on whatever grounds Christians affirm their belief in an Almighty God, rational reflection suggests that there are no indefeasible a priori objections to doing so.

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[1] All paradoxes of this sort can be simplified to the question, “Can God abrogate his own omnipotence?” As Richard Swinburne notes in his discussion of omnipotence paradoxes, it is logically possible that the answer to this question is yes but God never chooses to do so. In this scenario, too, the paradox is circumvented: God, being omnipotent, can perform the proposed action but, in choosing not to, remains omnipotent.

[2] To postulate a limited force is to postulate two things: The force and whatever constrains it; while to postulate an unlimited force is to postulate one thing: The force, which, being unlimited, is not constrained by anything. “For this reason,” Swinburne says, “scientists have always favoured a hypothesis ascribing zero or infinite value to some entity over a hypothesis ascribing a finite value when both hypotheses are compatible with the data.” Thus, “the hypothesis that some particle has zero or infinite mass is simpler than the hypothesis that it has a mass of 0.3412 or a velocity of 301,000 kilometres per second.” And since a person having zero powers would not be a person at all, by postulating a person with infinite powers the theist is postulating the simplest person logically possible.

Who Created God?

One common objection to the existence of God can summarised as follows,

 God, if he exists at all, is the most complex conceivable being; therefore, to postulate God to explain the universe, life or consciousness is by definition to postulate an explanation more complex than whatever it is you are trying to explain. And this leaves us with the more difficult task of explaining the explanation.

The objection (which is reducible to the schoolyard teaser, “Who created God?”) should be familiar to readers of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion in which it is presented as the central argument against the existence of God. [1]

Three things need to be said in response to it.

The first is that a key premise hangs on the assumption that mental states are reducible to physical brain states and that the existence of an infinite intelligence therefore implies the existence of an infinitely complex physical substrate—analogous to an infinite computer or human brain. [2] However, when the theist postulates the existence of God he postulates the existence of an immaterial Spirit and so, ex hypothesi, an entity which lacks the “heterogeneity of parts” Dawkins himself recommends as the indicator of complexity. William Lane Craig suggests that the error behind this objection consists in conflating the mind itself with the mind’s ideas. “A divine mind may certainly have complex ideas,” Craig concedes. “It may be thinking, for instance, of the infinitesimal calculus while monitoring and controlling the status of every elementary particle in the universe.” But being unembodied it lacks physical parts and so is not complex in the sense that is required for Dawkins’ objection.

The second point that needs to be made in response to the demand for an “explanation of the explanation” is that the same demand can be made of any final theory of the universe. In scaling up the ladder of metaphysical explanation, atheist and theist alike arrive at a final rung. There will be, for both, a final brute fact or “explanatory terminus” for which there can be no further explanation. Physicalism, for instance, is the claim that only the physical universe exists. “The universe,” Bertrand Russell asserted, “just is.” But this is every bit as much a metaphysical claim as theism. And so the atheist cannot simply dismiss theistic proofs and rest his case; he needs to make his case in the court of philosophical analysis. There, our task will be to determine which of several competing explanatory termini (including theism and atheism) is on balance the most coherent given the total evidence. But demanding an “explanation of the explanation” is not a legitimate response to any final metaphysic under consideration because it leads to an infinite regress—we can then demand an explanation of the explanation-of-the-explanation; and then an explanation of that—and so on ad infinitum. In order to recognise that some final explanation is the best of several competing final explanations, it is not necessary or coherent to have to explain that “final” explanation by means of some further explanation. [3]

The third, final and most important point is that the question, “Who created God?” makes a category mistake. In postulating the existence of God the theist is postulating an uncaused and eternal being; that is, a being that exists in and of itself—a property theologians call “aseity.” Asking, “What caused the uncaused?” is akin to asking, “Who is the bachelor’s wife?” Nor does defining God as uncaused insulate theism against rational critique. The atheist can object that the concept of God is incoherent or that there is no evidence to support his existence. But what the atheist cannot do is dismiss the concept of an uncaused being a priori because the theist is unable to tell him what caused it. Uncaused entities are not incoherent in principle; on the contrary, they are a recognized concept in both philosophy and mathematics. [4] And critically, the atheist himself is postulating an uncaused entity in asserting that the physical is all that there is. When Bertrand Russell asserts that the universe “just is” he is asserting that the universe exists as a brute fact without cause or explanation. The question we must ask is which brute fact, the universe or God, is an inference to the best explanation from the philosophical and scientific evidence. And this is not resolved by pressing an objection against the theist that applies with equal force to the atheist.

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[1] Dawkins calls it, rather clumsily, “the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit.” See Chapter 4 of The God Delusion.

[2] For a careful refutation of this assumption see, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False by the eminent philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel.

[3] To illustrate this elementary precept of scientific reasoning, William Lane Craig invites us to imagine a group of archeologists who unearth artifacts resembling jewellery, pottery shards and arrowheads. They would be justified, he points out, in inferring that these object were the products of some unknown group of people rather than the result of the chance processes of sedimentation. And the fact that the archeologists cannot tell us who these unknown people were or how the artifacts came to be there in no way invalidates their explanation.

[4] As John Lennox, Oxford professor of mathematics, puts it: “The set of the uncaused in not empty.” It is rationally permissible to suppose that it includes mathematical and logical truths, moral values and metaphysical universals.

The Swoon Theory

It is well established on the historical evidence that—however you wish to explain it—the followers of Jesus had experiences after his death that completely convinced them that he had returned from the grave. [1] Among the different naturalistic hypotheses which attempt to account for this is the Apparent Death Hypothesis or, “Swoon Theory.” This proposes that Jesus did not really die on the Cross but only fainted and later revived in the cool of the tomb.

On superficial inspection the Swoon Theory seems plausible enough. We often hear stories in the news about people being pronounced dead only to wake up in the morgue or, in some cases, during their own funeral. [2] However, today the Swoon Theory finds virtually no support among even skeptical New Testament historians; and in what follows, I shall outline the three main reasons for this.

The Swoon Theory is massively disconfirmed by our knowledge of Roman execution methods and military culture. As the historian N. T. Wright notes, “The Romans were very, very good at killing people. They specialised in it.” One reason for this was that the authorities provided soldiers with a powerful incentive to carry out their orders successfully: Any soldier who let a prisoner escape would forfeit his own life in their place—sometimes by being buried up to the neck and burned to death under a fire fuelled by his own clothes. The rule applied if the escapee was an ordinary prisoner of war and applied, a fortiori, if he had been charged, like Jesus, with insurrection against the Roman Empire. Roman soldiers were also prohibited from leaving the scene of a crucifixion until death had occurred and it is inconceivable that the soldiers tasked with executing Jesus would have allowed him to be carried off unless they were certain he was dead.

The Swoon Theory is also massively disconfirmed by our knowledge of crucifixion pathology. Victims of Roman crucifixion were typically scourged until their arteries, muscles and intestines had been laid bare. The Gospels report that Jesus was scourged and that after his scourging he was too weak to carry this Cross to Golgotha—a detail which medical authorities (Edwards, Gabel and Hosmer, 1986) suggest is consistent with hypovolemic shock. Once impaled upon the cross, the victim faced an excruciating physical dilemma: To yield to gravity and slump down, whereupon the weight of his body would constrict the intercostal muscles surrounding his lungs and cause asphyxiation and unconsciousness within around twelve minutes; or to push up against gravity to maintain consciousness but at the cost of supporting his entire body weight on pierced feet. As the historian Gary Habermas observes, it would have been a very simple matter for a centurion practiced in crucifixion to determine that Jesus was dead: He would only have to observe that Jesus has ceased to haul himself up heaving for breath and had remained slumped on the cross for around half an hour. And the spear in the side, recorded in John 19:34, provides additional proof of mortality: The fluid which gushed forth is consistent with a rupture of the pericardium—the sac which surrounds the heart.

And finally: The swoon theory lacks explanatory power to the point of total incoherence when its proponents attempt to account for the origin of the transformative belief among the disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead. It is prohibitively improbable that the moribund survivor of a botched execution somehow extricated himself from his burial shroud, pushed back the heavy bolder at the entrance of the tomb, overpowered the guard and limped back to his followers—who all immediately fell at his feet in frightened awe and proclaimed him the risen Lord and luminous conqueror of death. As early as 1879, German critic David Strauss put paid to the swoon theory for all time by pointing out that a half-dead Jesus would have inspired little more in the disciples than a wish to provide medical care. According to Habermas, Albert Schweitzer, in his classic volume surveying historical studies of Jesus, “lists no convinced proponents of the swoon theory after Strauss’s critique.”

Skeptics attempting to provide a naturalistic explanation for the post mortem appearances of Jesus would do well to look elsewhere. The Swoon Theory is dead and buried and unlikely to revive.

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[1] “Historians,” writes Bart Ehrman, “have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ Resurrection. For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.” Ehrman goes on to suggest a historian, qua historian, cannot adjudicate on whether a miracle occurred. And so Ehrman places the Resurrection hypothesis in historical quarantine.

[2] For example: A bishop in Lesbos by the name of Nicephorus Glycas was declared dead on March 3, 1896. In accordance with tradition, his body was put on display in the Methymni church. But on the second night of “the exposition of the corpse” Glycas reportedly sat up and demanded to know what he was doing there.

 

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 1)

In my previous series on abortion[i], I outlined the pro-life position and argued that the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings who possess intrinsic value and a right to life. In this post, and the ones that will follow, I’m going to address common objections to the pro-life position and attempt to show how they fail to refute the pro-life case I’ve offered. Firstly, let’s address the question of whether pro-life advocates should attempt to persuade others of their view and fight for pro-life legislation.


  • “I oppose abortion personally, but I don’t want to force my view on others.”
  • “You’re entitled to a pro-life opinion about abortion, but you shouldn’t force it on others by trying to make abortion illegal.”
  • “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one”.

If you’ve ever read news reports, articles, or had conversations about abortion, chances are you’ve heard statements such as these. In an age of “tolerance”, many of us like to avoid conflict regarding controversial topics, and abortion certainly fits that description. As such, statements like the ones above appeal to many people. Most would agree that, to a certain extent, we must allow others to act as they wish, even if we consider their actions immoral and therefore detrimental to their wellbeing. To attempt to control every action of every individual would lead to despotism of the worst kind. With this in mind, one might ask whether abortion is an action that we should tolerate, even if we consider it immoral. Just as we allow people to smoke cigarettes even though we know that doing so is detrimental to their health and, some would say, wrong, shouldn’t we allow people to have abortions, even if we consider it immoral? In the following paragraphs I’ll argue that, if the pro-life case is sound, the answer to such questions is a resounding “no”.

The first question that comes to mind when considering the statements above is “why do people personally oppose abortion?”. Take a moment to pause and see what answers you can think of. Chances are you’ve thought of an answer along these lines: most people who oppose abortion do so on the grounds that it kills a valuable human being who has a right to life. Since possessing a right to life entails that others have a moral duty to avoid intentionally killing you, those who oppose abortion typically believe that we have a duty not to intentionally kill the unborn.

Following such reasoning, we can take the statement “I oppose abortion personally, but I don’t want to force my view on others” and fill in the “why” behind it. Doing so, we end up with the following proposition: “I oppose abortion because it kills a valuable human being, thereby violating their right to life. However, I’m okay with allowing other people to violate that right to life if they choose, because I don’t want to force my view on others”. Such a stance appears inconsistent when examined in this light, for if unborn human beings are intrinsically valuable (which the statement affirms), then we should do our utmost to defend their right to life—even if others fail to recognise their value (which the statement denies). As such, this view is internally inconsistent and should be rejected.

Perhaps an analogy is in order. Imagine you are a white American, living during the 18th century when the slavery of African-Americans was widely accepted. Furthermore, imagine you believe that African-Americans are valuable human beings (as I’m sure you really do), despite the fact that the majority of your fellow countrymen believe otherwise. Due to your beliefs, you oppose slavery. Would it make sense to say that, although you personally oppose the slavery of African-Americans on the grounds that slaves are valuable human beings, you don’t want to force your views on others? (After all, if you don’t like slavery, then don’t own a slave). Or would it be more consistent to argue that, due to the fact that the enslaved are valuable human beings, we should fight for their right to freedom? It seems that when human rights are at stake, such as the right to freedom or the right to life, we are amply justified in enforcing measures that prevent the violation of those rights. This principle applies just as much to abortion (assuming that the unborn are valuable human beings) as it does to racism and slavery.


In addition to this line of reasoning, there’s another problem with the statements above. The declaration that a pro-life advocate shouldn’t force their opinions on others appears to be founded on the assumption that we shouldn’t force opinions regarding controversial topics onto other people. This can be summarised as follows:

(1) We shouldn’t force views/opinions regarding controversial topics onto other people.

(2) When pro-lifers argue that abortion is immoral and try to legislate against it, they are forcing a view/opinion about a controversial topic onto other people.

Therefore,

(3) Pro-life advocates shouldn’t argue that abortion is immoral and try to legislate against it.

Take a moment to process (1). Then, turn your attention to (3), and reflect on these questions: is (3) a view/opinion? If so, what is (3) a view/opinion about? (Obviously it’s an opinion about abortion). Is abortion a controversial topic?

Evidently, (3) is a view/opinion about abortion, which is a controversial topic. However, if we believe that (1) is true, then it appears that we shouldn’t force (3) onto others. In other words, the statement “you shouldn’t force your pro-life views about abortion on others” is itself a view on a controversial topic, and thus we shouldn’t impel it upon pro-life advocates. Why should we allow a pro-choice advocate to “force” their view of abortion on a pro-life advocate, but not the inverse?

In fact, it’s not difficult to provide a counter-example to the assumption that we shouldn’t force our views regarding controversial topics on other people. Many would argue that guns should be more strictly regulated in the United States. Gun control is a controversial issue, and if advocates of stricter gun control were to succeed in passing appropriate legislation, they would be “forcing” their views on others. Nonetheless, from their perspective they would be entirely justified. Why? Because doing so would presumably protect valuable human lives—which is exactly what’s at stake with abortion.

All of this underscores a crucial point—the most important question to answer pertaining to abortion is whether the unborn is a living, valuable human being. If so, then pro-life advocates should contend for their views in the public square, and should fight for laws that protect vulnerable unborn human beings. If not, then no justification for abortion is required. This question lies at the root of all moral reasoning around abortion, and answering it brings clarity to questions and statements such as those outlined above.

For further reading please see my previous series (links below), as well as Part 2 of this series, which addresses rape and abortion.


 

Endnotes:

[i] See Pt 1, Pt 2, and Pt 3

The world we deserve

We have this strange sense of justice buried deep within us that constantly screams out for satisfaction at all the wrongs we witness. But where does this sense come from? Why do we feel entitled to demand that these wrongs be made right, that justice be brought to the unjust?

A cursory glance at the history of Western civilisation teaches us that concepts of morality and justice sprout from societies built on notions of absolute truth, or God. This isn’t to say that these societies perfectly followed their own standards, but they did have a framework in place which made sense of these concepts.

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” “I’m not perfect, but I definitely don’t deserve this.” Cliches pour forth as we attempt to defend ourselves from the constant attacks that life throws at us. Who exactly we are yelling at, nobody knows. Chance, the universe, God or god (us) – it doesn’t really matter. We just want to make it clear to whoever is listening that this isn’t fair.

We can only be justified in our cries for justice if there is some sort of imbalance going on around us – something has ripped in the fibre of reality and affects us all. Today, however, the prevailing worldview of functional atheism (or as Michael Horton calls itt, ‘the Sovereign Self’) provides no such foundation. If there is no God or sense of objective morality in the world, then no legitimate appeal to cosmic justice can be made. Suffering would be blind bad luck, with every person subject to the disposition of nature, others, and themselves.

But we know that this is all wrong, don’t we? We know deep within ourselves, whether we like to admit or not, that this call for justice is legitimate. We know this because there is something much more to humans than meets the eye. We are much more than a squishy collection of quarks, floating around the universe with nowhere to place our feet.

Do we really know what we are asking for when we beg for justice? The justice of God is absolute, righting the wrongs not only of genocide and racism, but also the diseases of gossip and early morning crankiness. If there is ultimate justice, then there is an ultimate standard – one which we all fall far short of.

Keeping the reality of our depravity in mind will help Christians immensely in our evangelistic efforts – if we remember that this present evil age is our crime, then we will be more likely to seek answers outside of our ourselves, at the cross of the Judge and Justifier.

Please Persuade Me! The Role of Values

New Zealand readers will be well aware that we are in the thick of a political campaign. The campaign is fascinating for a bunch of reasons – the Maori Party and the Greens potentially both battling for survival while Labour surges ahead, the old legend Winston Peters resurfacing again like Poseidon from the deep poised ready to bestow the Prime Ministerial crown on his favourite. Or perhaps, waiting like a midwife at a birth ready to declare whether it is blue for a boy or red for a girl. Child poverty, abortion, climate change, housing, and many other issues have been raised, and all are important for Christians to consider.  

But, in this post let’s briefly consider the place of values more generally. Bill English said that Jacinda Ardern’s values won’t pay for the groceries – probably true, but if they can’t pay for shopping, what can values do? In our consumeristic world are they even useful anymore, and in our scientific world are they believable? The central task of values, I think, is to persuade. If they are to do anything useful, they should serve as reasons for action in one direction or another. Reasons, for instance, to pick the blue or red, or another, team to run the country.

We can all understand that scientific or economic facts can be reasons to act (or vote) one way or another. If consuming a particular substance is scientifically shown to be likely to harm me, or pursuing a particular course is likely to make me go broke, I will probably decide against it. But values, surely they’re more ephemeral, more abstract – perhaps not even necessary in an adequately scientific society? We have to go slowly here though. The choices made on the basis of science or economics (physical harm or going broke) were actually made on the basis of both empirical facts and values. Only if we wish to avoid harm, or avoid going broke, will the empirical facts be relevant to the decision we make. So, we need values in order to decide what to do, even when deciding on the basis of scientific claims.

In a political context, and many other areas of social interaction, we want values not just for working out what we want to do (our own preferences would be enough for this), but for convincing others that they should want the same thing. Values cannot be just preferences if they are to fulfil their function, as they are intended to control not just our actions, but others’ actions – and to shape their preferences. When a politician appeals to values, they are appealing to, not empirical facts, and not just preference, but a claim about the way the world should be – a claim which intends to hold true across people with very different preferences. Values, if these things are real and useful, apply to both the poor and the rich, those that will benefit from an action and those which will not. In other words, they transcend individuals and people groups.

We live in a world where moral reasoning makes sense. It not only makes sense, but it is absolutely crucial for us and our society. Much more attention should be paid to the question of how to make sense of values, as their foundations (if any) will affect how they work in the world. This is a question which the Christian intellectual tradition has a lot to say about, and one which has contributed to many thinkers being persuaded of the reality of the personal Foundation of values. Christians should welcome open political discussion of values, in the hope that more will be persuaded of what is true, beautiful, and good.  

The New Testament: Copies (Clarity of the Bible VII)

‘I will give a lolly,’ said Graeme, our lecturer, ‘to the person who copies out the most verses in three minutes.’

For the next 180 seconds, I frantically wrote out most of 1 Peter 1 by hand. Some of my classmates copied out more, so I did not get the lollipop.

Then we took the two longest copies and copied them out. (I didn’t win the lolly in that round either.)

Finally, we checked the printed Bible and marked all the mistakes.

‘If your handwritten copies were our only copies of 1 Peter 1,’ said Graeme, ‘How could we decide which variations were correct?’

It was pretty clear. We would prioritise older copies. We would think of what mistakes were likely to happen while the copies were being made (like writing a wrong word that looks similar to the right one, or repeating a word accidentally). It would help that we had several copies to check against each other. We also noticed that, in any place where there were two equally convincing alternatives for what the original said, it hardly mattered. The differences were extremely trivial, and made no difference to doctrine.

This was the process of working out what the original said – an area of study called textual criticism (criticism in the sense of evaluation, not just objections).

Textual criticism is not only for the Bible, but for many other books, including Shakespeare’s plays. Textual criticism can achieve more with some books than with others. It depends on what copies can be found.

The original text of the Old Testament is remarkably well represented by the translations we have today. Perhaps the most spectacular event to confirm this was the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. Among these scrolls were copies of most of the Old Testament close to 1,000 years older than the copies that had been available so far. These older manuscripts and the later ones agreed with stunning accuracy, bearing witness to the famous carefulness of the scribes who made copies.

The New Testament is even better off when it comes to textual criticism. For most books from the New Testament times, if they have survived at all, the earliest manuscripts available a good several centuries (sometimes over a millennium) after the time of writing, and we are lucky if they number over a dozen. Yet copying by hand is not such a transmission nightmare as some people imagine; textual critics and historians generally accept that what these authors said has successfully reached us.

But the New Testament is represented by literally thousands of manuscripts. The most important ones come from the fourth to sixth centuries A. D., very close to the time of original writing in the first century. Such a wealth of manuscripts really helps the process of checking variations to deduce the original words. The reasonable confidence of past Christians that the New Testament is being passed on intact through copies has been bolstered by a mountain of evidence – all we need and many times over!

And what we found with our copying activity in our class is also true for the Bible: when copies give us two equally convincing alternatives for what the original said, the differences are trivial, and make no difference to doctrine. God has truly provided us with exceptional clarity in the Bible.

Besides Graeme Fleming’s lecture at Lake Learning (a Christian training camp), I have drawn on F. F. Bruce’s classic The Books and the Parchments for this post.

How should we then vote?

Once upon a time, there was a man who wasn’t thinking about politics. But it is not this day. Today, and seemingly for time eternal, politics. The End…? Please?

Yes, it is once again election time in New Zealand. Kiwis of different backgrounds and persuasions are beginning to think/not think about which boxes they will tick on September 23. For Christians, the results can be diverse. Conservative believers will often base their votes on one or more controversial issues concerning human dignity and the imago Dei (e.g. abortion, euthanasia) while avoiding the plagued parties who support these acts. Across the chasm, politically progressive believers identify with policies to free the captives and care for the least (oh, that’s what those passages mean) seeing the ‘other side’ as dispassionate and driven my Mammon. While the above examples are extremes, the crux is clear – we vote for the party that promises to tackle areas that we see as crucial. Emphasis on the promise.

The question then – which is the correct way? How should Christians vote? In essence, there is a simple answer.

Jesus

Forgive me for being incredibly cliched, but the answer is Jesus (and I never went to Sunday School). Look at these words that Jesus uttered during his earthly ministry:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

(John 18:33-36 ESV, emphasis added)

Mere hours before his life-giving death, Jesus spoke these words to give all believers an instruction manual on how to live in a world governed by interim rulers.

Dual citizenship

Jesus’ last words to those charged with continuing his mission – the apostles – didn’t contain three points of application on how to create a Christian society. We don’t vote to establish heaven in the here and now. We vote in good conscience who we think will best lead our respective cities and countries to the greatest common good. We are very much dual citizens, finding our homes in the City of Man and the City of God. Our ultimate allegiance is to the latter, but as long as the Lord wants us here, we are to strive to serve the interests of Babylon and it’s people. One of the most abused sections in the Old Testament – Jeremiah 29 – testifies to this fact as do the lives of Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Peter and Paul. If seeking the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) is the priority of the exiled Christian (that’s you), then the question of who to vote for becomes simple and complex – who best assists the City of Man to flourish and thrive? Different Christians will answer this question in different ways and that is alright. If you lean left, that is alright. If you lean right, that is alright. If you are disillusioned by it all and abstain, that is alright.

As we approach the 2017 General Election, remember politics is a grace (Romans 13) but not the grace. Good policy does not save souls. If we mix up politics and the Christian message, the bar is set too high for the common grace of politics, while the saving grace of Christ is minimised and diluted. By confusing the two kingdoms, we destroy them both.

If you are a Christian, you owe your allegiance to a kingdom that is not of this world. A kingdom that is far above petty bickering and broken promises. A kingdom built on an immovable Word and ruled by an impeccable King. A kingdom sprouting from a seed.

In this kingdom, you do not vote but are voted for, by the Right and Honourable King of elected rebels.

Praise His Name forever. Amen.