The Gospel According to Dawkins

The ‘new atheists’ have frequently ignored their best qualified critics, particularly in recent years. As Richard Dawkins tours NZ this month, will he continue with this trend? If his many confident claims about the core historical aspects of the Christian faith (an area well outside his field of expertise) were subjected to rational scrutiny and public debate, would they survive? Dr Graeme Finlay’s recent book ‘The Gospel According to Dawkins’ suggests not. It moves rapidly through a wealth of detail including a lot of quite recent work in the field, but in a very accessible way. The conclusion is clear – Dawkins and friends are well out of their depth in this area. 

Professor Dawkins needs little introduction, as a populariser of evolutionary theory who in the early 21st century used that platform to help develop the movement that came to be known as the ‘new atheism’, a movement widely believed to now be in decline, subject to as many attacks from fellow atheists as from believers.

Dr Graeme Finlay is a senior lecturer in the medical school at the University of Auckland, and an experienced participant in science-faith discussions, author of many helpful books (e.g. on evolutionary genetics), booklets and articles in the field, also having training in theology. For more background, here’s a transcript of an interview with him on this book. Dr Finlay is also a project director of the recently established NZ Christians in Science

The book starts with discussing the relation between faith and evidence, and the ways in which our culture, in particular our scientific worldview, is so inextricably embedded within the Christian tradition – many of the conclusions of which, ironically, many atheists take on faith. Not all faith must be blind in this way, however – “Dawkins asserts that faith ‘requires no justification’. But I gladly acknowledge Christian faith precisely because it is rooted in the empirical world of human history.” Indeed, Christianity is perhaps uniquely among the religions focused on historical claims rather than ecstatic experiences, rituals, or prosperity.

As background, in the first two chapters, Finlay briefly traces the history of science, and the pre-Christian foundation for science to the New Testament. He also shows the relevance of theology, particularly the biblical descriptions of God’s nature (e.g. good, acts freely, has supreme authority), in understanding Christian views of the world (respectively: matter is not evil; nature is contingent – must be observed; and nature is secure and not at risk of being overwhelmed by chaos).

Next, it is asked – did Jesus exist? Leading new atheists and many of their followers have flirted with the claim that he didn’t – keeping it as a live option, while (for most of them) never quite fully committing to it. The historicity of some parts of the Hebrew scriptures are briefly touched on to follow up on a comparison Dawkins made with king David. Then Finlay gives the various early non-Christian references to Jesus substantive treatment. These references are widely discussed in introductory writings on the topic, but ‘the Gospel according to Dawkins’ provides a lot of helpful context which I wasn’t aware of – particularly fascinating is the discussion around Tacitus’ treatment. Then, we have the writings of Paul, and early Christians from the end of the first century, with many fascinating insights along the way.

The rest of the book explores the authorship of the gospels (we can know more than often thought), the history of gospel scholarship, the transmission of the gospel texts (reliable), other writings that got called gospels (late and uninformative), the historical value of the gospels (high), the problem of sin, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and much more. A recurring theme is that the new atheists engage in something similar to science denialism when they disregard the findings of New Testament studies. This book is written by a scientist and touches on science-related issues in a few places, so is particularly suitable for those who have or think they have a scientific mindset. It also works well though as a general introduction to reasons to take basic Christian ideas seriously. 

One of these central ideas is the idea of sin, which Dr Finlay helpfully explores towards the end of the book. Dawkins castigates Christians for obsessing over this topic, but the chapter on sin helps to show why it is as crucial for our modern lives as to people in any other era. In particular, it is illustrated with careful discussion of the environmental crisis our society faces and which all of us living in the modern world contribute to. This is no unthinking fundamentalist tract, but instead the product of decades of scientifically informed Christian thought. 

I highly recommend this book, it is much more interesting than I can adequately communicate in this short review. There is material here for old Christians, new atheists, and everyone in between, including many helpful references to the wider literature. I hope that Professor Dawkins and many members of the movement he has given birth to will also read it – they may find here a path to the intellectually fruitful and personally fulfilling enlightenment which they seek.

Why not pick it up on kindle now?  And if you have comments after reading, feel free to get in touch with me to discuss them. 

Richard Dawkins is Coming to New Zealand, and That’s Good News!

(From Canterbury Evangelism Network and Thinking Matters)

Who is Richard Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science populariser. He is the former University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science. He has written many books including The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable and The God Delusion. He is a passionate rationalist who vigorously promotes science-based education, values and understanding. He is a staunch defender of atheism and a controversial critic of religious belief. He is well regarded by media and many academics as a top scientific thinker and a compelling public speaker.

Why is Richard Dawkins coming to New Zealand?

Dawkins is promoting his new book Science in the Soul in Auckland on May 10, 2018, and Christchurch on May 11, 2018. The book is a collection of 42 of his essays spanning three decades that proclaim the power and glory of science, the wonder of discovery, and the necessity of scientific thinking in diverse areas of society. He defends Darwinian evolution and natural selection, and the role of scientist as prophet. He responds to questions about whether science is itself a religion, the probability of alien life and the beauty and cruelty of life on Earth.

Why should the church be interested?

Dawkins has been identified as one of the New Atheists, a group that speaks critically against religion in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. He is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design and non-rational approaches to social policy. In The God Delusion, he argues that there is almost certainly no God and that religion is a delusion. He equates religious indoctrination of children with child abuse and offers the following description of God:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

How is this “Good News”?

Dawkins has brought the discussion of religious belief back into the public arena and we can be grateful for that. No longer simply a “private faith”, Christians are being asked to think carefully about what they believe and why they believe it in light of his strong attacks on Christianity. St. Peter encourages Christians to “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV). The faith and witness of followers of Jesus Christ will grow and the Church will be strengthened when we seek answers and present them with humility and respect.

How should I think about the conflict of science vs. faith?

Is it always science or faith? Is it possible to be both? We enjoy many benefits that science has brought to our lives; modern medicine, electricity, automobiles and smartphones. We can find areas where we agree with Dawkins if we’re willing to listen carefully. We can learn to discern claims of verifiable facts from claims about the implications of those facts. Scientists, like all people, are just as susceptible to affirm or ignore evidence based on our view of the world. Remember that there are faithful, obedient Christians who believe in a young earth, an old earth and theistic evolution. Be gracious.

How can I engage my non-Christian friends and colleagues?

Pray to God with thankfulness. Dawkins’ visit is a gift that can open up conversations about Jesus. Listen carefully and genuinely seek to understand what others believe and why. Affirm areas of agreement with the Christian worldview. Resist a combative response, even if you feel defensive. If you don’t have solid answers to their questions, say so with humility. Offer to journey together to discover what is really true and whether it matters to our lives. Consider Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17. He quoted pagan philosophers and poets to build bridges that moved people towards Jesus. He ignored those who sneered at his faith and instead went with those who were genuinely interested in learning more. Get out there and do likewise. In addition, explore some of the articles on this website, you might find something that speaks to the subjects that either you or those you know struggle with.

How can I pray?

We urge you to pray for Richard Dawkins. This is an important opportunity. Instead of being prideful, defensive or argumentative, we can choose to bless him as one created in the image of God and to pray for his salvation and a destiny that he has yet to embrace. We would love to welcome him into God’s Kingdom here in New Zealand. We choose to pray for revelation of the living God. We choose to pray for dreams and visions of Christ to flow into his life. It has been prophesied that this city is a place where people will come and meet God and then take the good news back to the nations. It is in this spirit that we believe good things for Richard and want him to have the blessing of knowing Christ.

What a privilege to pray for a man God loves and wants to rescue and restore. God used Saul to become one of Christianity’s greatest evangelists. He can use Richard Dawkins the same way.

If you would like to share this information with your church, download the Richard Dawkins Brief in PDF, print copies to A4 and then cut them into A5 sized handouts.

Is Karma consistent with reality?

Karma

We often hear people talking about Karma and many of them loosely use it to refer to someone getting payback for what they did in this lifetime. This puts us in an awkward spot if we want to talk about sin and how Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. To share the gospel, we would have to argue how the teaching of Karma is inconsistent with the real world that we live in.

But what is the actual meaning of Karma? The word literally means ‘action’ and the original teaching of Karma, or the proper meaning of Karma, is the idea that whatever you are in this life is just the consequence of your previous life choices.

The principle of Karma is that your good deeds loosen the grip of the sense-world and your bad deeds tighten its grip, throwing your soul deeper into corruption. Karma tries its best to explain the differences that we see in human beings, it implies that humans are what they are because of what they did in their past lives, as the majority of Hindus believe today. If some are blessed more than others, it would mean that God is partial, but this teaching lets him off the hook as God would not be responsible for any of the events happening today. It is simply the outworking of the Karma.

Eternal World?

As we go deeper into understanding Karma, the eternal nature of this doctrine becomes apparent. In the book The Crown of Hinduism, J.N. Farquhar explains,

“As every occurrence in the world is the effect of foregoing action, and as every action is followed by its retributive expression, it is clear that the process can have had no beginning and will have no end.” [1]

This leads to the conclusion that, if Karma is eternal and an absolute feature of the world, the world must be eternal as well. However, we have philosophical and scientific reasons to believe that the universe is not eternal. The following argument demonstrates how one cannot affirm both: that the doctrine of Karma is true; and that the universe had a beginning.

  • If Karma is true, then every action is the result of the foregoing action.
  • If so, then the world has no beginning and no end, in other words the universe is infinitely old.
  • We have scientific and philosophical reasons to believe that the universe had a beginning, that it is not infinitely old.
  • Therefore, one is not justified in holding both that (1) Karma is true and (2) that the Universe had a beginning.

If it is the case that one finds them self in agreement with the best of current philosophy and of current science, it follows necessarily that one cannot hold the teaching of Karma to be true.

Philosophical argument

Let’s try to wrap our minds around the concept of the ‘universe having a beginning’. The best philosophical argument presented to refute the claim of an infinitely old universe is the impossibility of an infinite regression of causal events. If there were an actual infinite number of past events, then “today” would’ve never come to be. J.P. Moreland in his book LOVE YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR MIND explains,

“It is impossible to cross an actual infinite. For example, if a person started counting 1, 2, 3… then he or she could count forever and never reach a time when an actual infinite amount of numbers had been counted. This is due to the nature of infinity – it is infinitely larger than any finite number. The series of numbers counted could increase forever without limit but it would always be finite. Trying to count to infinity is like attempting to jump out of a pit with infinitely tall walls – walls that literally go forever without top edges to them. No matter how far one counted, no meaningful progress would be made because there would always be an infinite number of items left to count.” [2]

He further adds,

“If the universe had no beginning, then the number of events crossed to reach the present moment would be actually infinite. But since one cannot cross an actual infinite, then the present moment could never have arrived if the universe had no beginning. This means that since the present is real, it was only preceded by a finite past and there was a beginning or first event!” [3]

This establishes the fact that actual infinites do not exist in reality. Thus if this is applied to the teaching of Karma, its absurdity is exposed from a philosophical point of view.

Scientific Support

We just learned a good philosophical argument for the fact that the universe had a beginning. However, what about the scientific evidence of a finite past? The big bang theory, as well as the second law of thermodynamics, points us towards the fact that the physical universe had a beginning. The Big bang theory is currently the only established theory that is consistent with the observed physical universe in all scientific literature.[4] We also know that the universe is expanding and if we were to go backwards in finite time intervals, we would reach a point where time, space and matter cease to exist.

Then we have the second law of thermodynamics. It states that the universe is running out of useful energy. The second law is also known as the law of entropy. Frank Turek in his book I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH TO BE AN ATHEIST explains this,

The second law is also known as the Law of Entropy, which is a fancy way of saying that nature tends to bring things to disorder. That is, with time, things naturally fall apart. Your car falls apart; your house falls apart; your body falls apart. But if the universe is becoming less ordered, then where did the original order come from? Astronomer Robert Jastrow likens the universe to a wound-up clock. If a wind-up clock is running down, then someone must have wound it up. This aspect of the Second law also tells us that the universe had a beginning.”[5]

At this point, some might consider a cyclical or oscillating model of universe, where it is argued that the universe is expanding and contracting from eternity past. However, these models have been routinely rejected in the scientific literature for suffering from the physical law of thermodynamics, causing each cycle to reduce the amount of useful energy. Entropy makes every cycle longer than the previous one, meaning if we were to go back in time, the cycles would become smaller and smaller until we come to an absolute beginning. This principle has even been proven in the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, where any universe which expands on average into the future, cannot be infinitely old, but must have an absolute beginning. [6]

From the aforementioned evidences, it is clear that we have good scientific reasons to support the claim that the universe had a beginning.

Conclusion

We have reasonable evidence that the universe had a beginning and thus the truth of Karma faces a strong defeater, both philosophically and scientifically. This leads us to the conclusion that if one follows the evidence available to them, they must abandon the teaching of Karma to believe what is evident, rather than what is akin to a made up fairy-tale.

References:

[1] Farquhar, J. N. 1913. The Crown of Hinduism. Miami, FL: HardPress., p. 139

[2] Moreland, J. P. 1997. LOVE YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR MIND. Colorado springs, CO: NAVPRESS., p. 162

[3] Ibid., p. 163

[4] Vilenkin, Alexander. 2012. “Did the Universe have a Beginning?” Accessed April 29, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXCQelhKJ7A

[5] Geisler, Norman L. & Turek, Frank. 2004. I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to be an ATHEIST. Wheaton, IL: CROSSWAY.,p.77

[6] Vilenkin, Alexander. 2012. “Did the Universe have a Beginning?” Accessed April 29, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXCQelhKJ7A

The Argument from Consciousness: Nonphysicality

Introduction
This is my fourth post in a series on the Argument from Consciousness. The argument begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be explained on a naturalistic ontology. It then argues that the existence of conscious agents with mental properties that cannot in principle be reduced to the physical implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause. [1] My previous posts in this series discussed qualia, intentionality and privileged access. In this post I will be discussing the intractable nonphysicality of mental states; that is, I will be showing that, unlike our physical properties, our mental properties are in principle irreducible, unquantifiable and insusceptible of evolutionary explanation.

Nonphysicality
A crucial problem for naturalism is that mental states differ greatly in every important respect to physical objects. This is something that is obvious on even superficial analysis. A desire for roast beef has no length; nostalgia lacks spatial extension; the mental picture of a tiger is without weight. Beliefs, moreover, are true or false and right or wrong—properties that have no meaningful application to physical objects. The flux of brain signals associated with the impulse to commit murder is not immoral; the axons and dendrites associated with the false belief that Shelley wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are not themselves “false.” Nor can the physical structure of the brain (its electrochemical impulses, say, or its neurones) be lucid or confused or naive or cynical in the way that thoughts and beliefs undeniably can be. “How,” asks John Searle, “can we square the self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles?” The answer, Moreland suggests, is, “Not very well.” [2] In the following paragraphs, I will detail three reasons for thinking that consciousness is impervious to a naturalistic explanation in principle.

Mental States Are Irreducible In Principle
Reduction in the physical sciences is achieved by distinguishing mental phenomena from more fundamental physical phenomena and giving primacy to the physical phenomena. Warmth, for instance, is reduced to molecular energy in thermodynamics. Thereafter, molecular energy is understood to be what warmth, “really is.” Sensory perception is subjective and can show variation between individuals and species. We therefore move toward a more objective knowledge of the world when we understand it in this way; when we understand warmth as the way in which molecular energy is perceived in consciousness; or understand colour as the way in which electromagnetic wavelengths are perceived in consciousness—and so on. “What the evidence of the history of science shows,” notes Swinburne, “is that the way to achieve integration of sciences is to ignore the mental.” But, as Nagel has shown, an intractable circularity problem arises when we come to the mental itself: We do not move towards a more objective understanding of consciousness along analogous lines when we attempt to understand consciousness as the way in which brain activity is perceived in consciousness: It is incoherent to reduce consciousness to some more fundamental physical phenomenon and ignore the former because the former, consciousness, is the very thing we are attempting to explain.

Mental States Are Unquantifiable in Principle
Physical objects differ from each other in measurable ways. As a result, we can have general laws that relate quantities in all bodies by a mathematical formula. Rather than an exhaustive index of laws (an object of mass n and velocity p colliding with one of mass q and velocity r results in t—and so on for innumerable different cases) it is possible to formulate a single law that, “For every pair of objects in collision the mass of the first multiplied by its velocity plus the mass of the second multiplied by its velocity is always conserved.” The problem for any psychophysical theory of mind is that thoughts do not differ from each other in measurable ways. One thought does not have exactly twice as much meaning as another one; nor could one put a figure on the strength of a remembered odour or weigh the poignancy of a memory. An infinitely long list of psychophysical laws matching every possible brain state to a mental state is impossible in practice and useless in theory. An elegant and simple general law describing the correlation of brain states and mental states, on the other hand, is unachievable in principle. “Above all,” adds Swinburne, “there could not be a formula that had the consequence that this brain would give rise to my mind and that one to yours rather than vice versa. We could discover at most that there were these connections, not why there were these connections.”

Mental States Defy Evolutionary Explanation In Principle
Natural selection is a theory of elimination. It explains why variants thrown up by evolution are eliminated. But it does not explain why they were thrown up in the first place. In the case of physical variants (the countershading of a moth, say) there can be an adequate explanation in terms of a mutation that causes the variant to appear in accordance with the basic laws of chemistry. But our problem is to explain why a particular physical state produces a particular mental state. Natural selection can perhaps explain how, having appeared in evolutionary history, conscious animals survived; and it may explain how they developed a preponderance of true beliefs. [3] But it cannot explain the origination of the most novel feature of human beings: Their conscious life. Moreover, so long as an organism generates the correct behavioural outputs in response to stimuli, it will survive: Functions that organisms can and do execute unconsciously. For this reason conscious states are, strictly speaking, superfluous to evolution and so lie beyond its explanatory limits. [4]

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[1] Further argumentation will need to be given to justify the claim that the nonphysicality of the mind makes theism more probable than naturalism. This will be the objective of the last post in this series.
[2] For Moreland’s argument see his Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument.
[3] Note, however, that Plantinga denies this. See his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which I discuss here.
[4] The foregoing is a paraphrase of the detailed discussion of these points in The Existence of God by Richard Swinburne (Chapter 9: Arguments from Consciousness and Morality) as well as Mind and Cosmos: Why The Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel and Moreland’s book cited in [2].

Religious Pluralism: Is There Really Only One Way to God?

Introduction

One of the essential tenants of Christianity is that Jesus is the only way to God. As it says in John 14:6 (NIV) – “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However, the idea of religious pluralism has become so pervasive in our culture that many now believe that there are ‘many roads to God.’ All religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – lead to the same God. They just take different roads to get there. This view is anchored in several misconceptions about logic, culture, and truth claims.

The Conundrum of Contradiction

Firstly, when it comes to pluralism, simple logic shows that this view is philosophically incoherent. Justification for this comes from the law of non-contradiction, which insists that contradictory truth claims cannot simultaneously be true. For instance, the religion of Islam teaches that God is a Unitarian being, while Christianity teaches that God is Trinitarian. Furthermore, Hinduism and Buddhism say we are reincarnated after death, while Islam and Christianity teach that heaven or hell is our final destination. Consequently, to state that all of these views are true at the same time is as inconsistent as saying that three plus three equals six and seven. The answers are mutually exclusive. It’s possible that they are both false, but it’s not possible that both are true.

The Barrier of Cultural Bias

A second line of reasoning some people like to assume is that the truth claims of all religions are equally false. Their objection goes like this: ‘All moral and spiritual claims are the product of our particular historical and cultural moment, and therefore no one should claim they can know the Truth, since no one can change whether one assertion about spiritual and moral reality is more true than another.’(1) This idea, centred in the theory of social constructionism, would have us believe that our understandings of God are merely social constructs influenced by history, geography, and the culture around us. For example, some may argue that ‘one is only a Christian because they have grown up in a context where Christianity is the prevailing worldview. However, if they were born in the Middle East they would have likely grown up believing the teachings of Islam.’ Sociologist Peter L. Berger notes that many have concluded from this fact that, because we are all locked into our historical and cultural locations, it is impossible to judge the rightness or wrongness of competing beliefs.(2) Yet, Berger goes on to say that if you infer that the social conditioning of a belief means ‘no belief can be universally true for everyone,’ that belief is itself a comprehensive claim about everyone and is also the product of social conditions meaning it also cannot be true, on its own terms. ‘Relativism relativises itself’(3) says Berger. Therefore, this argument is self-refuting.

The Paradox of Pluralism

The third logical failure, is the presumption within pluralism that undermines its own claims. The belief in one way to God – also known as exclusivism – affirms the possibility that one religion is objectively true and therefore, contradictory religious claims are false. “Pluralism says we must reject exclusivist truth claims about religion and instead embrace all religious views as equally true.”(4) The irony is, pluralism turns out to be exclusivist too – by excluding exclusivism. On that account, pluralism attempts to get others to abide by rules that it itself is not willing to submit to.

Conclusion

By examining the framework of pluralism under the lens of logic, considerations of culture, and the analysis of truth claims, it becomes clear that this way of thinking cannot stand up under scrutiny. First, the fact that all truth that is objective, is by its very essence exclusive, shows that Pluralism is simply incoherent. Second, if religion is defined to be a social construct and thus can be dismissed as false, then Pluralism must also be so classified and rejected as false. Finally, Pluralism excludes all those who have beliefs that are exclusivist, and as such fails its own test. This third point is in direct contrast to the message of the New Testament that claims the offer of salvation is available to all. Instead of being exclusive Christianity is actually very inclusive. Everyone is welcome to come to Jesus. It does not matter who they are, or what they have done. The Bible tells us, “…whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life” (John 3:16).” (5)

(1) Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Pg 9-12. Penguin, 2009.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Berger, Peter L. A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. Harmondsworth: Pg. 40. Penguin, 1969.

(4) Stonestreet, John, and Brett Kunkle. A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World, Pg. 323. David C Cook, 2017.

(5) Morrrison, Jon. Clear Minds & Dirty Feet: A Reason To Hope, A Message To Share. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013.

The Argument from Consciousness: Privileged Access

Introduction
This is my third of five posts in a series on the Argument from Consciousness. Again: The Argument from Consciousness begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be explained on a naturalistic ontology. It then argues that it is credibly probable that agents with these mental properties will exist if there is a God but incredibly improbable that they would exist if there is not. In other words, the existence of conscious agents with mental properties that cannot in principle be reduced to the physical implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause. My first post in this series discussed qualia and the second intentionality. In this post I will be discussing a property of mental states which philosophers of mind call, “privileged access.”

Privileged Access
The most essential property of mental states is also the most problematic for naturalism: their personal immediacy to the subject who experiences them. “A mental property,” as Oxford Professor of Philosophy Richard Swinburne puts it, “is one to whose instantiation the substance in which it is instantiated necessarily has privileged access.” To help us understand why this is a problem for naturalism, Swinburne invites us to consider the following thought experiment. It is a helpful though not essential preliminary to what follows to note that people can enjoy a relatively normal mental life with only half a brain—after a procedure known as a “hemispherectomy.”
Suppose, firstly, that Swinburne is involved in a car accident that destroys his body but leaves his brain intact; suppose, secondly, that this occurs at a future date when brain transplants are feasible; suppose, finally, that a whimsical surgeon is responsible for the treatment of Swinburne and decides to perform a bizarre experiment: He will transplant the left hemisphere of Swinburne’s brain in one donor body and the right hemisphere of his brain into another donor body. Let us refer to these two new bodies, each of which contains one half of Swinburne’s brain, as Person A and Person B. The operation is a success. Person A and Person B recover and both somewhat resemble Swinburne in terms of character and memory.
The question arises whether Swinburne has survived the operation. The claim that Swinburne is now both Person A and Person B is eliminable by a law of logic known as the identity of indiscernibles. [1] Very simply expressed: If Swinburne is mentally identical to Person A and Person B, then Person A and Person B are mentally identical to each other and are therefore the same person—which they are not. The remaining possibilities are that Swinburne is Person A or that he is Person B or that he is neither because the operation destroyed him.
Reflection on this thought experiment shows that, however much we know about what has happened to Swinburne’s brain (“and we may know,” Swinburne emphasises, “exactly what has happened to every atom in it”) we do not know what has happened to him. And this is important because whether or not Swinburne survived the bizarre experiment is an objective fact about the world—a fact that it will not be possible to know by either the most thorough cross examination of Person A and Person B or the most exhaustive naturalistic description of their respective hemispheres. And so an exhaustive naturalistic description of the universe leaves something essential out of account; namely, who experienced which brain states.
What arguments of this sort bring out is the “privileged access” of the subject to his own mental life—what Searle calls the, “first person ontology.” “Others,” Swinburne writes, “can learn about my pains and thoughts by studying my behaviour and perhaps also by studying my brain. Yet I, too, could study my behaviour (I could watch a film of myself; I could study my brain via a system of mirrors and microscopes) just as well as anyone else could. But I have a way of knowing about pains and thoughts other than those available to the best student of my behaviour or brain: I experience them.” And what makes a mental event a mental event is not the public knowledge captured by naturalism but precisely this private knowledge that naturalism cannot possibly capture.
This is the third property of consciousness that is insusceptible of reduction to the physical

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[1] The Identity of Indiscernibles, also knows as “Leibniz’s Law” after its formulator Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, is a principle of analytic ontology which states that no two separate entities can have all their properties in common. The fact that Person A and Person B are physically distinct should not mislead us. Swinburne is concerned not with the body and brain per se but with the continuity of the personal identity and mental life of preoperative Swinburne—whether this is transplanted into either or neither of the postoperative bodies. It is obvious that the continuity of identity essential to personhood could not survive division or (due to Leibniz’s law) be doubly instantiated.

The Argument from Consciousness: Intentionality

Introduction
This is my second of five posts in a series on the Argument from Consciousness. The Argument from Consciousness, you may recall, begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be explained on a naturalistic ontology. [1] It then argues that it is credibly probable that agents with these mental properties will exist if there is a God but incredibly improbable that they would exist if there is not. In other words, the existence of conscious agents with mental properties that cannot in principle be reduced to the physical implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause. My first post in this series discussed qualia. In this post I will be discussing a property of mental states which philosophers of mind call, “intentionality.”
Intentionality
A second property of mental states that defies naturalistic explanation is what philosophers call the “intentionality” or “aboutness” of thought. By this they simply mean that all thoughts have the property of being about or of something external to themselves. When you think about shoes and ships and sealing-wax, for example, your thoughts are in those moments of or about shoes and ships and sealing-wax—a property, moreover, that is inescapable since even the thought, “Thoughts do not have intentionality,” if it is to be meaningful, must itself be about intentionality and therefore have intentionality. The denial of intentionality would therefore suffer from what Plantinga calls, “self-referential inconsistency,” and cannot be rationally affirmed.
The intractable problem intentionality raises for naturalism can be drawn out in the following way. Consider the word moon penciled on a piece of paper. In the absence of a literate observer to read the word and associate it with the moon, can the carbon particles of pencil lead and the wood pulp that composes the sheet of paper be said to be “about” the moon? Clearly not. And what can be said of a penciled word on the page can be said equally of physical brain states. A pattern of firing neurones representing someone’s thought about the moon cannot, in the absence of a conscious observer to experience that brain event as a thought about the moon, be said to be “neurones about the moon” in any meaningful and objective sense. Physical things (whether they be neurones or particles of pencil lead or teapots or rocks) are not “about” other physical things in the way that mental states undeniably are. And so an exhaustive naturalistic description of mental states would leave something essential to them out of account.
This is the second property of consciousness that is insusceptible of reduction to the physical

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[1] To affirm a “naturalistic ontology” is to affirm the metaphysical position that everything arises from natural properties and causes and so that supernatural or spiritual explanations are to be excluded or discounted. On a naturalistic ontology mindless particles organised in various ways by mindless forces is all that exists.

The Argument from Consciousness: Qualia


Introduction
That we have a mental life of thoughts and perceptions is the most fundamental fact of human experience and the starting point for every other kind of inquiry. Colours and objects in our field of vision; intentions and beliefs; pains, memories, thoughts—the most radical forms of philosophical skepticism must take all these as properly basic even when denying everything else. [1]
There are, meanwhile, five properties of consciousness which are much-discussed in the Philosophy of Mind because it seems they cannot in principle be explained on a naturalistic ontology. [2] In other words, presupposing with the Naturalist that mindless particles organised in various ways by mindless forces is all that exists seems to leave us without the explanatory resources to account for our mental life.
The Argument from Consciousness begins here—with an a priori proof that these fundamental properties of consciousness are in fact insusceptible of reduction to the physical. It then draws out the logical entailments: For if the mind cannot possibly be reduced to the brain then mind and brain are not identical. Naturalism is falsified and some form of substance dualism is implicated. And given the existence of nonphysical mental substances established by the argument, theism is an inference to the best explanation for them.
In this five-part series of posts I will present each of these properties in turn and then argue that it is credibly probable that agents with these mental properties will exist if there is a God but incredibly improbable that they would exist if there is not. The existence of conscious agents with these five mental properties therefore provides evidence that there is a God who created them.
Qualia
The hiss of car tyres on a wet road; the smell of jasmine or the taste of avocado; a flash of sunlight on a stormy lake. All these things have a raw qualitative “feel” that is as immediate and undeniable as it is indescribable. Philosophers call these subjective tinctures of sense perception qualia; and in his influential paper What Is It Like to Be a Bat? [3] the eminent philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel argues that they present an insurmountable conceptual challenge to naturalism.
Nagel begins by noting that if an organism is conscious at all then, “there is something it is like to be that organism.” To complete a naturalistic account of mind, this subjective savour of selfhood must be reducible to an objective brain state. The problem is that the reductive step by which a physical theory is arrived at translates what is private and subjective into what is public and objective—a point to which we shall return. Qualia, meanwhile, just are the private and subjective experiences of sense perception. And since quaila are also facts about the world it follows that there are facts about the world that naturalism cannot possibly explain.
To help us understand this point and its implications Nagel invites us to consider what it is like to be a bat. “Sonar,” he notes, “though a form of perception, is wholly unlike any sense that we possess and there is no reason to suppose that the subjective experience of a bat is like anything we can experience.” It will not do here, says Nagel, to imagine that you have webbed arms that enable you to fly around at dusk catching insects in your mouth; or that you perceive the world by means of high frequency sound signals; or that you spend the day hanging upside down by your feet in an attic—all this only tells you what it would be like for you to behave as a bat behaves and that is not the question. “I want to know,” Nagel writes, “what it is like for a bat to be a bat.”

How, then, can this be known? The answer is that it cannot because the task is impossible by tautology: Bat qualia can no more be instantiated in nonbat consciousness than triangularity can be instantiated in a circle. Limited to the resources of the human mind, the extrapolation to bat experience is incompleteable. And critically, the problem is not confined to such exotic cases. In contemplating bats, says Nagel, we are in the same position of an intelligent bat contemplating us. The structure of their minds make it impossible for them to succeed; and nor could they plausibly deny that there are qualia of human experience. We know what it is like to be us; know, that is, the ineffable but highly specific subjective savour of personhood from moment to moment. Nagel concludes that qualia are trapped within a particular point of view and can never survive transference to a physical theory open to multiple points of view.
This is the first property of consciousness that is insusceptible of reduction to the physical.

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[1] Philosophical idealism takes a skeptical view of the external world and holds that reality is fundamentally mental; solipsism holds that only one’s own mind can really be said to exist. Descartes famously held that we can coherently doubt everything except the fact that we doubt—cogito ergo sum.
A belief is properly basic if it cannot be derived from other beliefs but must be accepted if beliefs of any kind are going to be possible. Other examples include the reality of the external world, the deliverances of rational intuition, and the existence of other minds.
[2] The five properties in the order they will be discussed in this series are: Qualia, Intentionality, Privileged Access, Nonphysicality and Free Will.
[3] Nagel’s fascinating essay is only 16 pages. You can read it here. See also his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

How can Jesus be both God and man?

The Incarnation is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity. It is the belief that God became incarnate in the historical Jesus who was both truly God and truly Man. Any mixing or blurring of the two natures within Christ has traditionally resulted in heresy for going against the explicit teachings of scripture. This explains why such a vital Christian Doctrine has been under attack since the beginning. Christians are accused of believing in a logical contradiction. [1]

Some have argued that God possesses attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and is described as timeless, spaceless and immaterial. God has these attributes necessarily and if He were to lose any of them, He would cease to be God. However, these properties are not typically observed in human beings. Thus the question is raised “How can Jesus be both truly God but truly Man at the same time”?[2]

Philosopher Thomas V. Morris, from the University of Notre Dame, summarizes the problem as follows:

“It is logically impossible for any being to exemplify at one and the same time both a property and its logical complement. Thus, recent critics have concluded, it is logically impossible for any one person to be both human and divine, to have all the attributes proper to deity and all those ingredients in human nature as well. The doctrine of the Incarnation on this view is an incoherent theological development of the early church which must be discarded by us in favour of some other way of conceptualizing the importance of Jesus for Christian faith. He could not possibly have been God Incarnate, a literally divine person in human nature.” [3]

This does look like a serious difficulty but Morris has produced one of the best responses to this sort of challenge in his book “The Logic of God incarnate”. Following his lead, Philosopher Ronald H. Nash has revisited the argument and laid it out for us in his book “Worldviews in Conflict”. Like Morris, Ronald presents three major distinctions that needs to be understood in order to work our way out of this apparent contradiction. They are as follows:

  1. The distinction between essential and nonessential properties
  2. The distinction between essential and common properties
  3. The distinction between being fully human and merely human. [4]

Essential and nonessential properties

The word ‘property’ simply refers to a feature or characteristic of something. Properties are of two types, essential and nonessential, which we can understand by looking at the example of a red ball. The colour of a ball is a nonessential property because even if we change the colour to yellow or blue, the object would still be a ball. But the property of ‘roundness’ is an essential property, because if we were to change that then the object would cease to be a ball. One cannot have a ball that isn’t round. Similarly there are certain properties which are essential to God such as necessary existence, omnipotence, omniscience, and so on. If there is a being that might lack any of these essential properties, then that being could not be God. When Christians affirm that Jesus is God, they also affirm that Jesus possesses all these essential properties of God. This is pretty obvious as well as easy to grasp, but the real problem arises when we try to identify the essential properties of human beings. Critics of incarnation go wrong when they believe that in order to be a human one has to be lacking in omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. In other words, it is incorrect to conclude that the lack of these properties is essential to being human. This could be explained further, but we first need to understand the distinction between essential and common properties. [5]

Essential and common properties

A common property is any property that human beings possess but it is not necessarily an essential property. In order to explain this common property, Ronald refers to Morris’ example of ten fingers. He explains that since all human beings have ten fingers, this is common property. But it is obvious that having ten fingers is not an essential property to being a human because a man can lose one or all of the fingers and still be a human being. [6] Let’s take a look at how Morris explains the importance and relevance of these points with regards to the doctrine of Incarnation:

“It is certainly quite common for human beings to lack omnipotence, omniscience, necessary existence, and so on. I think any orthodox Christian will agree that, apart from Jesus, these are even universal features of human existence. Further, in the case of any of us who do exemplify the logical complements of these distinctively divine attributes, it may well be most reasonable to hold that they are in our case essential attributes. I, for example, could not possibly become omnipotent. As a creature, I am essentially limited in power. But why think this is true on account of human nature? Why think that any attributes incompatible with deity are elements of human nature, properties without which one could not be truly or fully human?”[7]

In other words, even though you and I lack those essential properties of a divine being, where is the argument that proves these limitations are essential for being human? Morris argues that these properties are simply common human properties and not essential ones. [8]

Being Fully Human and Being Merely Human

An individual is ‘fully human’ if he has all the essential human properties, while an individual is merely human if he has all the properties of a human being but has some additional limitations like for example lacking omnipotence, lacking omniscience and so on. That being said, what Christians believe is that “Jesus was fully human without being merely human.” What it means is that, Jesus possessed all the properties essential to being a deity as well as all the properties to being a human being. Morris argues that critics are confused when they try to conclude that the lack of divine properties is essential to human nature.

Conclusion

The three major distinctions play a vital role in defeating the alleged contradiction that exists within the Doctrine of Incarnation and thus helps us in concluding that the orthodox Christology is not self-contradictory. 

 

References

[1] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., pp. 99-100

[2] Ibid., p.100

[3] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 17, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[4] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 101

[5] Ibid., pp. 102-103

[6] Ibid., pp. 103-104

[7] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 18, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[8] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 104

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 5)

Welcome back for Part 5 of this series, in which I’m 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].


“Men don’t get pregnant, and therefore abortion is a woman’s issue” is a phrase sometimes used to silence men when speaking on abortion. To be candid, I’m surprised but pleased that this statement has yet to be directed at me. As with many popular arguments for abortion, it has some initial appeal. Nonetheless, when examined carefully, it proves to be significantly flawed in a number of ways. Before outlining two flaws lurking beneath the surface of this phrase, allow me to state the argument more clearly.


The Argument

Taken at face value, the statement “men don’t get pregnant, therefore abortion is a woman’s issue” is a poor argument, since the conclusion (abortion is a woman’s issue), doesn’t follow from the premise (men don’t get pregnant). In order to reach the desired conclusion, we must uncover and insert a couple of hidden premises. With some re-wording, we can state the argument as follows:

1: Men do not get pregnant.

2: Pregnancy is a necessary condition for having an abortion.

3: Individuals should not have opinions on things they cannot experience.

Therefore,

Conclusion: Men should not have opinions on abortion.

This, I believe, is the reasoning most people express when they argue that men shouldn’t have an opinion on abortion. A number of objections could be raised, but I’ll focus on two that are sufficient to defeat the argument.

  1. Gender is Irrelevant to Validity

Firstly, arguments don’t have genders—people do. When someone offers an argument for or against abortion, anyone who wishes to contest it needs to address the argument itself, not the person making it. This is because an argument’s validity does not depend on the presenter’s gender, nor any other attribute they may or may not possess. For example, imagine my wife were writing this article rather than me. Why should we think that the reasoning before you is sound when presented by her, but not when presented by me? Remember, in this hypothetical situation the content of the article and the arguments therein are identical. The answer: if the content of this article is sound, it’s sound regardless of whether my wife or I wrote it. In truth, a good argument is a good argument whether it’s presented by a man, a woman, a child, a Vulcan, or a talking lion (think Aslan). 

In philosophy, this type of move, when someone attacks the person presenting an argument rather than the argument itself, is known as the ad hominem fallacy. For example, if a smoker argued “smoking kills, so don’t smoke”, someone might reply “you’re just a hypocrite!” and disregard the argument. However, the fact that the smoker is a hypocrite has nothing to do with his reasoning—it’s true that smoking is bad for your health and often leads to death, and therefore if you wish to live a healthy life, you shouldn’t smoke. While it’s true that he’s a hypocrite, his reasoning is nonetheless sound. In the same way, when someone objects to a pro-life argument by saying “you’re a man!”, they are simply attacking the proponent of the argument rather than addressing the argument itself. It’s true that I’m a man, but that fact has no bearing on whether my arguments are sound. 

  1. A Problematic Premise

Although the first point is sufficient to defeat the argument in question, a pro-lifer might further buttress their case by making another point; namely, that premise 3 commits us to absurd notions, and therefore must be false. Premise 3 states that “Individuals should not have opinions on things they cannot experience”. This, however, is clearly false. If it were true, then we’d have to conclude that women can’t have opinions on circumcision, or that no human being can have an opinion on the mistreatment of animals. In fact, if we were to be consistent in applying this premise, then, since no man can experience pregnancy, the conclusion would actually state:

Conclusion: Men should not have opinions on pregnancy or abortion.

Clearly this conclusion is false, and, as such, we should reject premise 3. But, if we reject premise 3, then the argument collapses since the conclusion doesn’t follow from premises 1 and 2 alone.


With these two points in mind, it seems evident that men are entitled to have an opinion on abortion—whether that be for or against. In fact, when you think about it, abortion isn’t solely a woman’s issue. Every unborn child has a father, and it’s often men who contribute to child-rearing when a woman chooses not to abort. We might say, then, that abortion is ultimately a human issue. This is not to belittle the undeniably profound role that women play in bearing children through pregnancy and in raising them, but it is to say that we shouldn’t forget or marginalise the part that men should and do play. I may be preaching to the choir, but I encourage you, the reader, to carefully reflect upon the ethics of abortion and form an educated opinion— regardless of your gender.


 

Endnotes:

[i] Making the Case: Part 1Part 2Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

The Conceivability Argument for Dualism


In the philosophy of mind there are a number of powerful arguments that demonstrate consciousness cannot in principle be explained on a physicalistic ontology. In other words, presupposing that mindless particles organised in various ways by mindless forces is all that exists leaves us without the explanatory resources to account for our mental life. Most of these arguments examine some basic property of consciousness (qualia, intentionality, etc.) and give an a priori proof that each is insusceptible of psychophysical reduction. And if the mind cannot possibly be reduced to the brain then mind and brain are not identical. Some form of substance dualism is implicated. [1]

The Conceivability Argument for Substance Dualism is different: It demonstrates through natural reason that the mind and brain are nonidentical without reference to any particular property of consciousness. In what follows I will be summarising the discussion provided by Edward Feser in Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide. The argument begins with a few preliminary precepts.

Physical Impossibility vs. Metaphysical Impossibility

Feser first introduces a distinction between two kinds of impossibility: physical impossibility and metaphysical impossibility. It is helpful here to think of this as a distinction between strong and weak forms of impossibility. A state of affairs is merely physically impossible if, though impossible in the actual world, we can give a description of it obtaining in some possible world without contradiction. [2] In this connection consider the proposition,

A man survived a headlong fall from the top of the Empire State Building.

This proposition is merely physically impossible because we can describe a possible world (say, one with very weak gravity) in which such a thing is possible. By contrast, a state of affairs is metaphysically impossible if it is impossible in the actual world and we cannot give a description of it obtaining in any possible world without contradiction. In this connection consider the proposition,

A married bachelor drafted a square circle.

This proposition is metaphysically impossible because we cannot coherently describe any possible world in which such a thing obtains.

From this distinction we can derive a terse precept,

Conceivability entails metaphysical possibility.

A Related Principle of Identity

Let us now use this distinction to articulate a principle of identity: A is identical to B if and only if it is metaphysically impossible for A to exist apart from B; that is, only if we cannot conceive of any possible world in which A exists apart from B. Consider the claim that water is identical to H2O. If you can conceive of a possible world in which you have water without H2O, or H2O without water, then, sensu stricto, water and H2O are not identical but different substances.

Applying this Principle of Identity to the Mind and Body

Let us finally apply this principle of identity to the mind and body. If one can conceive of a possible world in which you have a mind without a body then mind and body are not identical. And indeed one can conceive of such a possible world. W. D. Hart, for instance, invites us to imagine a man who wakes up one day and shuffles sleepily into the bathroom to wash his face. Looking in the mirror, he sees two empty sockets where his eyes should be. With a hacksaw, he then removes the top of his head and discovers that he has no brain. In a panic he removes his head, his neck, his torso. At last his body is completely disposed of and he sees nothing in the mirror but the wall behind him. Of course, all of this is physically impossible but it also conceivable and therefore metaphysically possible.

W. D. Hart’s example is appealingly ghoulish but there are many other ways to conceive of mind and body existing apart from one another. Solipsism is another example. Out of body experiences a third. All of them are eminently conceivable. And from each of them it follows, ex hypothesi, that mind and body are not identical.

An Objection from Opponents of Substance Dualism

Against this, some opponents of substance dualism have argued that it is possible to conceive of two identical substances existing separately. For example: Water is identical to H2O. But now let there be a substance having the properties of liquidity, quenching thirst, freezing at low temperatures, etc. whose chemical composition is XYZ. If this is conceivable, then it is metaphysically possible; and if it is metaphysically possible, then A and B can be identical and conceived to exist separately and so the operating precept is violated.

Kripke’s Objection to the Objection

However, Kripke, the American logician, fussily dispatches this objection. Let water be that substance which in every possible world has those properties which water has in the actual world; i.e., liquidity, quenching thirst, freezing at low temperatures, etc. Let H2O, meanwhile, be that substance which in every possible world has that chemical composition which H2O has in the actual world. Trivially, the substance in the actual world having the properties of water is the same substance in the actual world having the chemical composition H2O. But since “water” in any given possible world is the same substance having the properties of water in the actual world, and the substance having the properties of water in the actual world is H2O, so the substance having those properties in every possible world is H2O. And so water and H20 are identical in every possible world.

In other words, to conceive of a substance similar to water that is not H2O is not to conceive of water existing apart from H2O but simply to conceive of a substance similar to water that is not water. The case of water and H2O does not therefore offer a counterexample to the test for metaphysical identicality. And so, we may conclude, the Conceivability Argument for Substance Dualism obtains.

A Final Point

As a final point it is worth noting that nonconceivability does not necessarily entail metaphysical impossibility. In other words, it does not follow from the fact that we cannot conceive of A existing apart from B that A and B are metaphysically identical. Maybe we just aren’t creative enough or intelligent enough to conceive of how it is possible. But conceivability of separateness does entail metaphysical nonidenticality—which simple precept does all the work of the argument. And unless the physicalist can demonstrate that that precept is wrong, substance dualism intrudes upon and falsifies his physicalistic ontology and the shadow of theism begins to darken his door.

—————————————————————-

[1] See my discussion of the Argument from Consciousness here.

[2] It is important to understand that in this discussion “a possible world” is not another planet or a parallel universe. In modal logic a possible world is just a comprehensive description of a possible reality where “possible reality” is analogous to “hypothetical state of affairs” with the added condition that its description entails no logical contradictions. And just as there are infinitely many sets in set theory, so there are infinitely many possible worlds in modal logic.

Thoughts on the possible timeframes of hell…

When writing my previous blog post on the question, “How can a loving God send someone to Hell?” I was aware that there would be more I would have to write on this topic in the future. It’s an incredibly tough subject and one I am not at all comfortable with and more a theological question than an apologetic one.

The associated question: “Why doesn’t God annihilate unbelievers at death?” is one I have often pondered. It is a question that requires in-depth biblical exegesis. However, I believe we can look at Scripture as a starting point of reference to at least begin to formulate an answer.

In this post I offer a some guidelines we can use when searching for the answers to this important question and others like it. In the footnotes, I will also give some follow up links for further study of the topic. 

 

Whichever doctrinal line we decide to ascribe to we need to remember that the authority of the Holy Scriptures are both our starting point and reference for any study on the topic and we should not interpret them according to what we want to find. It is too easy to find a verse or two that could be interpreted in the way that makes us more comfortable, rather than objectively looking at what the verse actually says in both it’s historical, grammatical and contextual state of being.

We also need to acknowledge that until we personally step into eternity ourselves we can only interpret what may be the answer where there are not definitive supporting scriptures.

To begin let us look at the two predominant thoughts about hell. Whether it is an eternal punishment or if it has an end point culminating in the complete annihilation of an unbeliever’s soul. 

There are many Scriptures that point to the ‘eternal torment’ of unbelievers, but there are also some Scriptures that seem to allude to a possible post-punishment termination point. 

The following is a small list of Scriptures often used to support a post-death annihilation of unbelievers (I have underlined the words pointing to these thoughts):

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many.” Matthew 7:13

“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the Glory of His might,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (This verse is also used in support of an eternal torment).

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” John 17:12

“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory –“ Romans 9:22-23

“and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” Philippians 1:28

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28

“But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Hebrews 10:39

Although Matthew 10:28 appears convincing, I find these Scriptures unhelpful, as they don’t specifically say ‘cease to exist eternally’; it again comes down to context and interpretation that warrant further study.

The following are verses that speak of an eternal punishment:

“And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” Revelation 14:11

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. “ Matthew 18:8

“The he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25: 45-46

“….where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Mark 9:44-48

“..and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” John 5:29

“These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2

Neither of these lists are exhaustive[1], yet as much as I would prefer annihilation to be the answer for those who choose Hell, I personally cannot find indisputable evidence in Scripture that this will be the case.

If we are going to discard the doctrine of eternal punishment because it feels profoundly unpleasant to us, then it seems fair to ask what other biblical teachings we will also reject, because they too don’t square with what we feel. And if we do this, are we not replacing the authority of Scripture with the authority of our feelings, or our limited understanding? Randy Alcorn[2]

We can and should continue to study this topic and there is a wealth of opinion, both scholarly and otherwise, out there to read and meditate through.[3] In the meantime, the reality of there being a hell – eternal or finite – should move us to do all we can to ensure that we get the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. We need to be careful that our study does not distract from the Great Commission. As I stated earlier we may only find clear answers to some of these difficult questions when we step into eternity ourselves.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13.12 ESV

Let us focus on the call God has placed upon all of us through Jesus and be inspired to action by Spurgeon, who said:

“If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay…If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned or unprayed for.”[4]

We cannot allow our ‘feelings’ about the horror of hell and our very human desire for it to be a false doctrine paralyse, us into doing nothing. Let us err on the side of Hope and work hard to do all we can to stop the flow into hell whilst we continue the search for answers.

[1] For more Scriptures that support eternal punishment read: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/ten-foundational-verses-for-eternal-punishment-in-hell/

[2] https://www.epm.org/resources/2014/Jun/18/will-unbelievers-be-annihilated/ This is an excerpt from Randy Alcon’s book  If God Is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.

[3] I suggest reading through some of the following Q & A’s by Dr William Lane Craig: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/bradley-on-hell – particularly Point 3. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/do-the-damned-in-hell-accrue-further-punishment

[4] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Wailing of Risca” (sermon 349, New Park Street Pulpit, December 9, 1860), www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0349.htm, as quoted in Randy Alcorns book If God is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.