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A Christian Response to Christchurch, III: The Problem of Evil

Part I | Part II 

In this trilogy of articles I highlighted the key features of an appropriate Christian response to the shooting in Christchurch. My first article focused on the victims; my second article focused on the perpetrator; and my third and final article focuses on the problem of evil. Overall my concern has been to show that Christianity provides a map to understanding and preventing human evil and is also able to meet the philosophical challenge presented by its occurrence. 

1. The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil is one of the oldest and most notorious objections to the existence of God. Its proponent claims that if God exists we should not experience any evil in the world—for if God is all-good, He would want to prevent evil; and if He is all-powerful, He would be able to do so. [1] The fact that evil obviously does exist proves that there is no God. In the aftermath of a tragedy like the shooting in Christchurch, even those with a strong belief in God may feel the force of this argument.

2. The Higher-Order Goods Solution

The most persuasive response to the Problem of Evil begins by exposing and rejecting its hidden assumption: That human beings are God’s pets and the universe a playground created for their unmitigated comfort and pleasure—a surmise which a single toothache suffices to falsify. Pleasure and comfort, to be clear, are good. And our world contains a generous quantity of both. But a world that contained nothing but pleasure and comfort would of necessity lack something of immeasurably greater value: What philosophers call “Higher Order Goods.”

Love, virtue, compassion, forgiveness, patience, courage, heroism and moral self-determination are among the Higher Order Goods that would be unattainable if the possibility of moral evil were removed. For, as I have argued elsewhere, all these goods are attained through the exercise of free will; and God cannot create agents with free will and prevent them from doing evil. [2] It follows that any world of free agents in which the Higher Order Goods are attainable is a world in which moral evil is a distinct possibility. [3]

In responding to the Problem of Evil a theist need not deny that the creation of a world in which humans experience unmitigated pleasure and comfort would be a morally good act. But he suggests that a divine mind may view the creation of a world like ours as a morally better act. It is good to be a contented animal free of suffering and devoid of moral significance; but it is better to be a saint. And God, being perfectly good, gives to the crown of his creation the very best He has to give: He gives us the opportunity to become saints.

The response gains additional force when we remember that suffering is a temporary feature of the created order and the goods it makes possible will endure forever. Those who develop moral and spiritual virtue during this brief period of suffering and probation will be fit for eternal communion with God at the end of time. We do not view the pain of childbirth as a senseless misfortune—it leads to the life-long bliss of motherly love. And nor should the suffering of human beings be viewed as a senseless misfortune if it leads to the eternal bliss of divine love.

3. The Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils

A skeptic who grants the general form of this argument need not completely abandon his objection. He can recognise that the Higher Order Goods are greater than pleasure. He can accept that any world in which these goods are obtainable is one in which suffering will be an unavoidable possibility. But he can nevertheless object that there is too much suffering. In its most formidable formulation, this objection confronts us with a particular horrendous evil. The American metaphysician Peter van Inwagen offers the following example. Unfortunately, this is something that really happened:

A man came upon a young woman in an isolated place. He overpowered her, chopped off her arms at the elbows with an axe, raped her, and left her to die. Somehow she managed to drag herself on the stumps of her arms to the side of a road where she was discovered. She lived, but she experienced indescribable suffering, and although she is alive, she must live the rest of her life without arms and with the memory of what had been done to her.

Inwagen calls this attack “The Mutilation” and asks: Are God’s ultimate purposes dependent on the occurrence of The Mutilation? It would seem not. Then could God have prevented The Mutilation and still achieved his ultimate purposes? It would seem so. It follows, the skeptic continues, that the Mutilation is unnecessary. And since God is all-good, He will want to prevent unnecessary horrors; and since God is all-powerful, He will be able to do so. The Mutilation proves that God does not exist.

4. The Impossibility of a Non-arbitrary Limit

Inwagen, himself a theist, responds to this objection by noting that there are situations in which the imposition of a non-arbitrary limit is logically impossible. And God seems to be in this situation with respect to the number of evils He allows.

After all, subtracting The Mutilation from history does not de-fang the objection from Particular Horrendous Evils. The skeptic could just point to another evil—perhaps the shooting in Christchurch—and ask all the same questions. But nor is a proponent of the Objection from Particular Horrendous Evils denying that the occurrence of some horrors is consistent with the existence of God. The specific assumption underlying the objection is therefore as follows: There is some minimum number of horrors n consistent with God’s plan such that the addition of a single horror (n+1) will represent unnecessary suffering that God, if He existed, would prevent.

In his article on the subject [4] Inwagen shows that this assumption is false. For any n, where the existence of n horrors is consistent with God’s plan, n-1 will be equally consistent. To ask What is the minimum number of horrors consistent with God’s plan? is therefore like asking, What is the minimum number of raindrops that could have fallen on England that is consistent with England’s having been a fertile country? Obviously, if God had stopped one or one hundred or one million raindrops from falling, England would still be a fertile country. And just as obviously, if God had allowed only one or one hundred or one million raindrops to fall, England would be an arid country. The point is this: It cannot be coherently postulated that there is some minimum number of raindrops n such that the subtraction of one raindrop (n-1) results in England being arid and the addition of one raindrop (n+1) wastefully exceeds what is required to ensure that England is fertile. But that is more or less what the Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils does postulate.

Evil is an emotional subject and Inwagen’s talk of arbitrariness may make some uneasy. It needs to be emphasised strongly, therefore, that while there is no non-arbitrary limit to the quantity of evil in our world the fact of evil is not arbitrary. We must remember that evil is an unavoidable consequence of free will and free will confers the profoundest imaginable benefits upon humankind.

5. The Conversion of the Hard-hearted

Inwagen shows us why Particular Horrendous Evils are unavoidable. But this leaves us to speculate on whether there is any positive reason why God permits them to occur. In Providence and the Problem of Evil, Richard Swinburne suggests one such a reason.

God loves evildoers and wishes for them to repent and be reconciled to Him—as discussed in my previous article. This fact, as Swinburne notes, provides a positive reason for God to allow particular horrendous evils: They make possible serious moral choices for people normally too timid or too hardhearted to make them.

This is a principle we see operating on a small scale in our everyday experience. A man too timid to defend a coworker from verbal abuse may be moved to defend him against physical abuse; a man too lazy to help an elderly neighbour struggling up the stairs with her shopping may be moved to rush to her aid if she takes a bad fall. But there exist people who, through the exercise of their own free will, have become hardhearted. And they may view physical conflict or an old lady falling down the stairs as an entertaining spectacle. To such people Particular Horrendous Evils offer the possibility of redemption.

Here Swinburne has in mind a prison guard who is moved to disobey orders by the terrible suffering of his captives; or a citizen who helps his neighbours to escape a death squad by hiding them in his basement—something which both men do at great personal risk despite being people who, in the normal course of life, were unmoved by the more moderate suffering of others. Some, while having no direct exposure to a horrendous evil, may be moved to make sacrifices in support of the victims or to campaign for reform; many others may be moved to discover and abandon their own subtle prejudices. And it is certainly plausible that some people of each type were caught up in the public outpouring of sympathy and solidarity that followed the Christchurch shooting.

6. Conclusion

This, I repeat, is an emotional subject and Swinburne’s argument needs to be read in its proper context. It is not here being claimed, simpliciter, that God is pleased to allow horrendous evils so that hardhearted people might be moved to compassion. My concern in this post has been to show that free will makes possible Higher-Order Goods which are more valuable than pleasure; that evil is an unavoidable consequence of free will; and that there is no non-arbitrary limit to the amount of evil God permits. Particular horrendous evils are therefore consistent with the existence of God. And when we think carefully about what further reason God may have for not preventing them, we find that they may also offer the last hope of moral redemption for the hardhearted.

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[1] The objection goes back as far as the Greek philosopher Epicurus who asked: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

[2] As I argue here, omnipotence needs to be carefully formulated to allow for the constraints of logical possibility.

[3] In this post, for the sake of brevity, I am ignoring natural evil. However, I think that there is also a coherent solution to this problem which I discuss here.

[4] Inwagen’s fascinating article is available here: The Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils.

A Christian Response to Christchurch, II: The Perpetrator

Part I | Part III

In this trilogy of articles I am highlighting the key features of an appropriate Christian response to the shooting in Christchurch. My first article focused on the victims; my second article focuses on the perpetrator; and my third and final article shall focus on the problem of evil. Overall my concern shall be to show that Christianity provides a map to understanding and preventing human evil and is also able to meet the philosophical challenge presented by its occurrence. 

1. The Christian Command to Love One’s Enemies Promotes the Dignity of Persons

In my previous article, I spelled out the Christian teaching on hatred and violence. Jesus taught that we are to love others self-sacrificially and irrespective of their nationality, religion or creed. In fact, we should love even our enemies. This has two implications for a Christian response to the massacre in Christchurch. The first, already discussed, is not controversial. We are to condemn the massacre in the strongest possible terms. The second, which is the subject of the present article, is rather more problematic. We are to show the same self-sacrificial love to the man who carried out the massacre.

On superficial inspection the command to love our enemies would seem psychologically impossible to obey. The generally accepted definition of love is, “an intense feeling of affection for someone or something.” And I would suggest that no morally normative person is capable—nor should be capable—of feeling this for an unrepentant evildoer.

But the difficulty only arises because the English word “love” collapses important distinctions between different kinds of love. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, there are four words for love. Eros signifies the romantic passion of lovers; philia the platonic affection of friends; storge the natural empathy between family members and agape the unconditional love of God for his fallen creature. “The first step to wisdom,” according to a Chinese proverb, “is getting things by their right names.” And this is surely correct. For we see right away that it would indeed be perverse and irrational to love an evildoer in all but one of these ways.

Among other reasons, eros, philia and storge all involve a feeling of warmth and affection for the beloved. But agape, importantly, need not. Thomas Aquinas said that to love with agape it is sufficient that we should “will the good of the other” as God wills the good of his sinful creatures. [1] Agape is therefore perfectly consistent with recognising and loathing evil in others. We love the evildoer with agape insofar as we have a concern for his welfare. And since it would be as good for the evildoer if he were virtuous, our concern for his welfare includes a wish that he were not evil. At no point need we experience warm feelings for him; we merely wish that he were the sort of person for whom we could experience warm feelings. 

This is a point well-understood by C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, he wrote,

We must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves—to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. This is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not. 

The question arises whether agape occurs in relevant contexts in the Greek of the New Testament. And so it does. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies during the Sermon on the Mount; when John informs us that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” and when in 1 John 4:8 we read that “God is love”—it is the Greek word agape that is being used in each case. The distinction is particularly salient in John 21. When Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me, Peter?” and Peter answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” Jesus is using agape and Peter philia—thus explaining why Jesus repeats his question. Jesus is enjoining Peter to love more deeply. [2]

In my previous article I also claimed that Christianity promotes the dignity of persons. I think it is fairly obvious that agape towards evildoers protects human dignity and that hatred and vindictiveness towards evildoers does not. Some evildoers, it is true, will need to be imprisoned to ensure that they do no harm to others. But a society in which agape prevails is a society in which the good of all persons will be sought and the dignity of all persons will be upheld. And lastly, while I have been at pains to point out that agape need not include warm feelings, it need not exclude them either. When agape is developed in one’s spiritual life it may eventually produce a totalising affection for humanity in which even the evildoer is caught up.

2. Christianity Teaches a Conditional Forgiveness that Promotes the Welfare of Both Victims and Wrongdoers

At the first court appearance of the man who carried out the Charleston Church massacre in South Carolina, relatives of those who died announced that he was forgiven. The shooter, notably, had not asked for this forgiveness. Nor had he expressed any remorse for his actions. Granted that we are commanded to “will the good” of our enemies, is it really good to forgive them immediately, totally and unconditionally in this way? In what follows, I will first argue that the answer to this question is a carefully qualified no. I will then argue that it is not obvious from Christian teaching that we are commanded to do so. And finally, I will suggest an appropriate Christian response to unrepentant evildoers. 

According to Richard Swinburne, forgiveness has four components: repentance, apology, reparation and penance. [3] If I have stolen your watch, I must return it to you or give you something of equivalent value. This is reparation. In criminal cases reparation may be enforced by the legal system and deals with the effects of wrongdoing. But it does not deal with the fact of wrongdoing—that someone sought to harm you. For us to be reconciled, I must also distance myself from my wrongdoing by means of repentance and apology. Often this will suffice to remove my guilt but in cases of serious wrongdoing something extra may be required—a gift or service as a token of my sorrow. Swinburne calls this “making a penance.” The process is completed when you agree to treat me, insofar as you can, as one who has not wronged you. And this is to forgive me. 

Swinburne then suggests that it is morally wrong to forgive someone who has hurt us and never shown repentance. In doing so, he says, we treat those who wrong us like small children. We fail to take them seriously as moral agents who are responsible for their actions. We also deny them an opportunity to directly confront the hurtful consequences of their wrongdoing and be reconciled to us. And if, what is quite plausible, that confrontation is something that could influence moral change in them, then that is something we deny them too. 

To illustrate his point, Swinburne invites you to imagine that Professor Green has murdered your wife. Imagine also that Professor Green does not regret his actions and has powerful friends who set him beyond the reach of the law. Later, you meet Professor Green at a cocktail party. Recall that to forgive someone is to treat them, insofar as you are able, as one who has not wronged you. But it would be wrong, Swinburne says, to enjoy Professor Green’s company and laugh at his jokes. By doing so you treat human evil with levity; you deny the evildoer an opportunity to be reconciled to you and you dishonour the memory of your wife. Let us call this kind of forgiveness “unconditional” and forgiveness that is offered only after repentance “conditional.”

I think it is helpful here to connect the idea of conditional forgiveness to agape—to the welfare of the evildoer. For even if it helps you to forgive Professor Green immediately, totally and unconditionally it does not help Professor Green. He remains an unrepentant murderer who is perilously far from the moral good. It follows that there is a sense in which unconditional forgiveness is selfish. True forgiveness is not solitary. It draws the wrongdoer into a process of reconciliation and redemption. [4] [5] This too has important entailments for our response to the Christchurch massacre. If we could speak to the shooter, we should not say, “We forgive you.” We should say, “You have done an evil thing and you need to repent and be reconciled to the world.”  

After careful consideration, it is my view that the bible teaches conditional forgiveness. Note first that in the bible our forgiveness of one another is to follow God’s model of forgiveness (“Forgive one another,” we are repeatedly told, “as God forgives you,”) and that God’s forgiveness is conditional on repentance. Indeed, one of the central activities of Jesus’ ministry was calling sinners to repentance so that they could receive God’s offer of forgiveness—not announcing that everyone was already unconditionally forgiven. 

Even one of the most promising passages that can be cited in support of unconditional forgiveness is repeated elsewhere with repentance as an explicit condition. In Matthew, Jesus says that we should forgive each other “seventy times seven times” (18:22), a phrase that means, “without limit.” Clearly, then, the bible teaches unlimited forgiveness. But notice that the author does not actually specify whether such forgiveness is conditional or not. The author of Luke, meanwhile, repeats the same story and adds in 17:3, “and if they repent, forgive them.” And I think this is precisely what we should expect from God given the importance of conditional forgiveness to the welfare of evildoers.

A final issue to consider is how we should respond to an unrepentant evildoer. On this subject Matthew 18:15-17 seems to provide clear instructions. If your brother wrongs you, confront him. If he refuses to repent, go away and return in the company of a mediator. If the he still refuses to repent, bring the matter before the church. And if he still refuses to repent, avoid direct involvement with him. It is here that something similar to the response to the Charleston Church massacre is appropriate. We should now “forgive” the unrepentant wrongdoer insofar as we regard him with agape. We do not indulge in thoughts of retribution or hatred. We wish and pray for his good. [6] 

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[1] Summa Theologica, Part II-I, Question 26.

[2] John 21:15-17. Poignantly, the last time Jesus asks the question he also uses philia

[3] See Richard Swinburne’s Was Jesus God? 

[4] It has been noted that the idea forgiveness is a therapeutic exercise designed to “set free” the one who has been wronged does not occur in the Bible but belongs to 18th century moral philosophy and modern pop psychology.

[5] “There are some people,” said Lord Reith, “whom we have a duty to offend.” These are people who have wandered so far from the truth that the truth offends them. In such cases we have a duty to offend them in an attempt to bring them back to the truth.

[6] I believe that is what people really mean when they say, “I forgive you,” to unrepentant evildoers. One of my concerns in this article has been to show that, strictly speaking, this is agape and not forgiveness.

A Christian Response to Christchurch, I: The Victims

Part II | Part III

In this trilogy of articles I shall be highlighting the key features of an appropriate Christian response to the shooting in Christchurch. My first article shall focus on the victims; my second article on the perpetrator; and my third and final article on the problem of evil. Overall my concern shall be to show that Christianity provides a map to understanding and preventing human evil and is also able to meet the philosophical challenge presented by its occurrence. 

1. Christian Teaching Illuminates the Connection between Hatred and Violence

In 1 John 3:15, we find these strange and startling words: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” The verse does not stand alone. It fact, it is a paraphrasing of Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew 5:21-22 where insulting or even being angry at others is set next to murder in terms of moral seriousness. [1] 

On its face, all this sounds like an absurd exaggeration. On what reasonable assessment is an insult, let alone an unkind thought, approximately equivalent to murder? But Jesus’ teaching actually demonstrates his profound knowledge of human moral psychology; knowledge which helps to illuminate the specific causal mechanism by means of which hatred in thought and speech can escalate to violence—so salient a feature of the tragedy in Christchurch.

To properly understand this we need to first consider how people develop a moral character. Richard Swinburne, the Oxford professor of Philosophy, is helpful here. Humans are so made, he says, that when we freely choose to do good, it becomes slightly easier to choose to do good again at the next opportunity; and when we freely choose to do evil, it becomes slightly easier to choose to do evil again at the next opportunity. In this way, over time, we strengthen and weaken desires of various kinds and so form our moral character. [2] [3] This is a view that goes right back to Aristotle (“A man becomes brave by acting bravely, just by acting justly”) and appears to be confirmed by modern neuroscience. [4]

Murder, I therefore suggest, cannot be adequately explained by proximate causes—malice, motive, means. It needs to be traced upstream to its point of origin: A secret unchecked fear or hatred that may have gestated for decades before culminating in actual violence. And while I hasten to add that hatred is not a sufficient condition of violence, it is a necessary condition: Not every unchecked hatred leads to a massacre, that is, but every massacre begins with an unchecked hatred. It is therefore wisdom, and not prudishness, which moves Jesus to warn us so solemnly against unkind thoughts and words. In front of the man who indulges even petty hatred opens a path which, should he continue along it, terminates in suffering, bloodshed and sorrow.

2. Theism in General, and Christian Theism in Particular, Provides the Most Coherent Metaphysical Framework within which to Affirm the Dignity of Persons and Condemn Hatred and Violence

To understand this, first note a precept familiar to every theologically literate Christian. The universe is not like a house which God built and from which he can then withdraw his attention. Rather, the universe and its inhabitants stand in the same relation to God as the piano sonata to the pianist. He sustains each of us in being from moment to moment with painstaking care and, at each of those moments, observes and monitors us with an intensity of perception next to which Ireneo Funes with his passion flower is but a pale approximation; anxiously bends over us, so to speak, and holds us in his abyssal gaze—waiting with a heart ablaze with divine love for us to turn to him.

For now it does not matter whether any of this is true; it matters only whether it has relevant entailments for human behaviour among those who believe it is true. And so it does. For it entails that human relations have the profoundest imaginable moral and spiritual importance.

Most of us would approach an ancient artefact of immeasurable value in an attitude of quiet reverence—especially when under the gaze of the museum curator. But on theism every person you meet exists under the burning gaze of God and is of immeasurable value to him; the thrice-holy God who, in the person of Jesus Christ, literally died for love of them. For any rational and sincere Christian, abusing or even insulting another human being (let alone murdering them) should be as unthinkable as entering a church and desecrating a holy relic. 

It is also a fundamental principle of Christianity that humans are made imago dei or “in the image of God” inasmuch as we have a God-given capacity for reason, spirituality and moral awareness. To express this sightly differently, something of what God is exists as an essential part of each person—meaning that each person is intimately associated with the most tremendous and holy thing at the heart of Ultimate Reality. In contrast to atheism, which reduces man to a concretion of atoms shaped by mindless natural processes, Christianity affirms and vouchsafes the eternal mystery and sacredness of persons. [5]

3. Christianity Provides the Strongest Possible Reason and Motive for Treating Others with Self-sacrificial Kindness

To understand this last claim you will first need to note the distinction between an obligatory act and a supererogatory act. 

An obligatory act is one which it is wrong not to do. People have an obligation to feed their children, for instance, and under normal circumstances are morally culpable if they do not do it. A supererogatory act, on the other hand, is one which is good but not obligatory. It is good in this way to volunteer at the local soup kitchen but you are not morally culpable if you do not do it.

Importantly, obeying a reasonable command from an authority is an obligation—particularly when significant benefits have been received. A teenage boy, for instance, has an obligation to mow the lawn when his father instructs him to do this because his father is an authority from whom he receives important benefits. Something interesting therefore happens when an authority commands us to perform a supererogatory act: He or she elevates it to an obligation. And when the benefit received is life itself and the command comes from the Ultimate Authority—that obligation is very serious indeed.

The question is whether God has commanded us to perform supererogatory acts for our neighbour. And the answer is yes: In the clearest and strongest possible terms.

When Jesus was asked the Greatest Commandment, he replied that there are two. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” It follows from John 14:12 (“Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me”) that loving your neighbour is a necessary condition of loving God—the two commands are mutually inclusive. Jesus himself insinuates this when he says the Second Greatest Commandment is “like unto” (i.e. synonymous with) the First; and 1 John 4:20 explicates the point: “If anyone says ‘I love God’ but hates his brother or sister he is a liar.” 

And there is no possible doubt that “loving one’s neighbour” here means performing supererogatory acts. To the man with two coats in his closet, Saint Ambrose of Milan said, “One belongs to you and one belongs to the man with no coat”—a gloss on Jesus’ teaching in Luke 3:11. This is a very challenging admonition (it is rightly said of the gospel that it is, “a comfort to the afflicted and an affliction to the comfortable”) but it is also an inescapable requirement of obeying Jesus. If my neighbour is in need and I have the means to help him but prefer to let him suffer to avoid a diminishment of my material goods, then I cannot be said to love him as I love myself. I have failed to obey the Second Greatest Commandment and, ex hypothesi, I have failed to obey the Greatest Commandment also. 

Nor can there be any doubt that our neighbour is any fellow human being—for the question was put directly to Jesus in Luke 10:25-29. After teaching the Greatest Commandments, a lawyer asks,  “But who is my neighbour?” And in response to this question Jesus narrates a parable in which a Jew is saved from peril by a passing Samaritan. 

The Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ time hated one another—to such a degree that the Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim and the Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover. For this reason the message of the parable is clear. “Jesus,” explains Swinburne, “is commanding us to show love to our fellow humans of whatever race or creed, just as the Samaritan showed love to the wounded Jew” [6]—which is perfectly consistent with Jesus’ famous command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 

Christianity, therefore, does not simply forbid a hatred of others by divine command and under pain of eternal loss; nor does it simply recommend treating them with kindness. It imposes a solemn moral obligation to treat others—Muslim, Jew, Hindu or atheist—with self-sacrificial love.

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[1] “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

[2] Emerson made the same point more pithily when he wrote: “Sew a thought, reap an action; sew an action, reap a habit; sew a habit, reap a character; sew a character, reap an eternal destiny.”

[3] See Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil.

[4] See The Brain That Changes Itself by Normal Doidge and neuroplasticity and hypofrontality generally.

[5] I am not denying that atheists can and do abhor violence and value persons. In fact, I claim that there will be no outward difference between a Christian response to the massacre in Christchurch and that of a morally normative atheist—both will be united in shock, heartache and condemnation. What I am suggesting is that the Christian response here will differ in being undergird and intensified by a coherent metaphysical foundation—something “secular humanism” is conspicuously lacking.

[6] See Swinburne’s Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy.

Approaching the Jesus Myth with Others

Given the Christmas cheer and the anti-Christian, anti-Jesus rhetoric one typically hears around this time, I thought I might do a simple defence of Jesus’ existence using some of my favourite sources. Out of interest, you might appreciate this small opinion piece in the New York Times involving an interview with Dr. William Lane Craig. It’s always nice to see the media occasionally stepping out to question a mainstream Christian representative and well-respected scholar, instead of promoting the vitriol coming from a community of 30 people in the state of Kansas.

In my experience, the sooner you can get people reading the gospels for themselves the better. I have encountered countless testimonies involving the powerful effects of reading the gospels with an open mind. However, getting people to read or do anything in our instant-gratification, sceptical society can be incredibly difficult. On top of this, how can we possibly get people interested in Jesus if people believe he was just a made-up story? Or if people think that the scriptures are riddled with fantastical exaggerations?

In this blog I will present an approach for helping people get past Jesus Mythicism, followed by several links for dealing with other sceptical beliefs that typically follow this extreme scepticism.

The General Approach

Before going on this journey of discovery with anyone, realise that to genuinely help someone change their mind, it is highly recommended that you converse in person. Any written exchange requires a high level of work and skill to communicate accurately without coming across as dismissive. Regardless of whether you decide to engage in written or face to face exchange, I highly recommend that the entire engagement is filled with questions on your side.  When desiring to get a point across, try to think of questions that might lead them to genuinely ask you to share what you know. Typically, this involves questions that portray your genuine interest in the justification or validity of what they know.

Remember, the best way to communicate is to genuinely treat the person you are talking with as if they know a lot of things that you don’t. Pretend you are learning from a tutor and must write an examination essay tomorrow on the truth of their position. Chances are they do know a lot of things you don’t. Recognising this will likely help you focus on the kinds of questions that help get to the core of the truth, instead of an infinite number of wild goose chases.

In my experience there are several stages sceptics typically go through when rejecting the Jesus narrative.

1 – Jesus was a Myth

2 – The scriptures are unreliable

3 – Jesus was just some dude, not God

4 –The resurrection is unreasonable

Now, not everyone is going to defend all 4 of these unjustified positions, but I typically get the impression that these are the most likely conclusions people will draw, each of which people will defend independently of one another. The first involving the highest scepticism, moving down to the fourth as being the least sceptical. This all being said; most people may present their position as being generally reasonable to accept without much evidence. This happens when people reject Christianity for some other reason more important to them. This means they won’t change their mind based on the evidence you present. Helping them to see that their position isn’t very robust may be where you need to stop, no evidence required, move on to the next doubt they may have.

We recently had a student from the University of Auckland spend an entire year discussing all the evidence for God with our student leaders. Each argument individually was easy to dismiss without justification. However, at the end of the year, when reviewing the broader summary of the Christian story with a street evangelist, the weight of all the evidence became overwhelming. He said it was because of his many conversations throughout the year that the arguments, which were easy to individually dismiss without evidence, became overwhelming evidence to the Christian story when put together with the message of Christ.

Agnostic biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who has written books like “Misquoting Jesus” and debated Dr. William Lane Craig on the resurrection of Jesus, openly admits that “It was really the problem of suffering that lead [him] to becoming an agnostic”. So just remember that having this conversation about Jesus being a Myth may just be an important part of a bigger picture for whoever you may be talking to. You cannot expect people to become Christian from this one conversation, so don’t continue shoving evidence in people’s faces in the hopes that they will convert to Christianity right there and then.

Was Jesus a Myth?

Before getting into some of the push-backs you might want to use in a conversation with a Jesus Mythicist, it is very helpful to ask a range of questions to establish where someone is coming from. Even someone who is equipped with their reasons to lecture you on how Jesus never existed should struggle with the following questions. Being a sceptic with a sceptic is the best approach.

  • What is an appropriate standard of determining the historical accuracy of anything?
  • How can we have any confidence in this standard as an appropriate standard for evaluating history?
  • Do you know of any historical scholars anywhere in the world who agree with or teaches this standard?
  • Where should mainstream scholarship be adopting this standard and why aren’t they currently?

These questions may not persuade the sceptic out of their position. However, it may open them up to hearing the following information.

In 2014, Bart Ehrman attended a conference called “Freedom From Religion” where he gave a lecture regarding “what it is like to be an agnostic who writes about religion”. At the end of this talk he was questioned by an audience member who said “I do not see evidence in archaeology or history for a historical Jesus”. Bart Ehrman’s response was scathing. Addressing the audience of sceptics and Atheists, Bart said, “There is so much evidence”, “In the crowds you all run around with it is commonly thought that Jesus did not exist. Let me tell you, once you get outside of your conclaves there is nobody who [thinks this]”. Now appealing to the authority of a single academic is not a good argument, but if someone raises this point, you must emphasise that this is not the point of quoting Bart Ehrman. What you want to get across to the sceptic is that even the most sceptical of any academic scholar will tell you that the Jesus Mythicism movement is a joke. You are using the quotes of Bart Ehrman as testimony and evidence to the reality that academic scholarship is entirely against Jesus Mythicism.

One could go into arguments demonstrating the evidence of why historians come to the conclusions that they do. However, the average person isn’t likely to trust your interpretation of Biblical scholarship let alone understand the significance of well-established principles that undergird the evidence for Jesus’ existence. Therefore, the questioning of the Mythicist’s assumptions and principles is so essential. So long as they think they are justified in their conclusions, it doesn’t matter what counter perspective you may have, most people are unlikely to listen, and it is unlikely to change their mind. What you want to demonstrate is that they have no grounds for asserting anything they currently believe to be true and then demonstrate that there is a vast majority consensus among historians going against their relatively uneducated perspective. Always remember, you have just as much right to play the sceptic of anything they say as they do to you. Make sure to use that as much as possible. Ask them how they came to their conclusions and why you should believe the claims they make, even about the sources of their claims and how you can independently verify their claims and sources. But do this with genuine curiosity, for all Truth is God’s and God has given us the tools and moral witness of the Holy Spirit to discover His Truth.

Bart Ehrman goes on to say in the Q&A “This is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity. There is no scholar in any college or university in the western world who teaches classics, ancient history, new testament, early Christianity, any related field, who doubts that Jesus existed… I think that Atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because, frankly, it makes you look foolish to the outside world.”

Now, with the understanding that the objective of quoting Bart Ehrman is to provide evidence of a consensus, what we want to do is help our sceptic friend understand that if we are to go against the entirety of a peer reviewed academic industry, we better have a very good piece of evidence ourselves before demanding people explain away our baseless assertions of what is and isn’t appropriate.

If the person you are speaking with then wants to dispute their arguments and evidence that exist for Jesus Mythicism, first ensure that they establish how their views are defended by people who are well educated and scrutinized by others devoting their lives to this study. Maybe encourage them to go into the field of study and prove to the world the accuracy of what they are saying if they are so certain they are correct. Be a loving encouragement throughout. Remember to love your enemies. And if all is lost, propose that you spend time together going through the evidence presented by agnostic and self-proclaimed Atheist scholar of ancient history, Bart Ehrman. He wrote a book just for this called “Did Jesus Exist?”

The Other Stages

When dealing with the other stages of scepticism you will encounter, many of the principles are much the same. Treat the person like they are a subject matter expert from whom you eagerly and innocently want to understand how they came to their conclusions. You should genuinely want to know what evidence they’ve found which lead them to believe what they say, and where you can personally find the sources for such evidence. Although these other stages of scepticism don’t have as much consensus on the subject, they still have very good arguments which have been refined and made easily accessible for the public. This is where having good resources to go through with the person you are discussing with will be very helpful. However, this is probably a series of blogs for another time. For now, I would just recommend watching any of the following to get a solid summary of the arguments. Particularly for guidance around what direction you might want to take a conversation through asking tactful questions.

For people who think ‘The scriptures are unreliable’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0OWYAf2TNA

“Jesus was just some dude, not God”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSQDov6NNp0&index=

“The resurrection is unreasonable”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvTNFrjPjC0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9k3CBwj-ut0&t=

Brendan Malone

About Brendan

Brendan Malone is the Director of LifeNET NZ. He has been working full-time in pro-life, marriage, and family ministry for the last 14 years where he speaks at churches, universities, high schools, and conferences on bioethics and sexuality issues throughout New Zealand and Australia.  During that time he has delivered over 500 presentations, and spoken to more than 30,000 people. He is one of the founders of ACTIV8 Pro-Life Training Week – an annual philosophy, apologetics, and media/social-media training event for young adults which has been running for 10 years in New Zealand and over 7 years in Australia. He is married to Katie and they have five children. Brendan also has a background in communications and media training, and he regularly connects with people in the online space via his YouTube channel which has approximately 20,000 subscribers.

Talks and Presentations

Abortion and Human Rights

This presentation unpacks the pro-life arguments against abortion, as well as the serious logical flaws in the pro-choice ideas that are regularly used to try and give ethical justification for abortion. It also explains why the pro-life position is not an article of religious faith, but is instead a robust position based on the best available scientific evidence and human reasoning.

Euthanasia: We can live without it

This presentation explores the dangers of euthanasia and assisted suicide. It explains why legalising these acts creates a seismic and extremely harmful change for the medicine, ethics and wider society. It also robustly refutes the myth that legal safeguards can ever be employed to prevent serious harm to the vulnerable members of the community from euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Pornography and Human Dignity

With the advent of the Internet pornography has now become a serious social issue which now regularly attracts media attention. But what exactly is the problem with pornography, and is it really as harmful as some people are claiming?  This presentation will explore these and many other related questions, offering an in-depth explanation of the difference between objectification and love, the harms caused by pornography, an explanation of human dignity and the way that pornography conflicts with it, how pornography affects the brain, as well as practical tips for helping others to avoid or deal with a pornography habit.

Critically Engaging Our Entertainment Media

Have you ever stopped to consider how the media you consume is shaping your view of the world and your approach to important moral and social issues? In this presentation we will explore the powerful way in which media can shape our thoughts and beliefs and how to apply a critical mind to the content we are watching in order to avoid indoctrination. We will also discuss the negative impacts that excessive social media consumption can have on God’s design for human community, as well as talking about what authentic Christian art might look like if it hopes to be an effective voice in the midst of this unceasing avalanche of media content.

The Broken Community

This presentation explores the profound crisis of isolation and loneliness that now plagues the West. It explores the root causes of this serious problem, and why the Church must urgently become a place of authentic community in order to be effective at evangelising the culture from this point forward. This presentation also offers practical advice on how community can be safeguarded and restored in an age of personal disconnection and individualism.

The Courage to be Counterculture

This presentation explores some of the philosophical roots of the current ideological confusion and brokenness that plagues Western society, as well as equipping participants with the practical skills and the hope they need to effectively live out a life-giving counterculture of self-giving love.

Effective use of social media

This presentation explores the impact of social media and offers practical advice about how to use it effectively as a communications tool. It also offers important advice about some of the risks associated with social media engagement, and how they can be mitigated for more positive outcomes.

Practical media skills and interview techniques

This presentation offers a comprehensive understanding of how the mainstream media works, and how to communicate with excellence in that space. This presentation offers practical advice of how to write effective media releases, as well as important media interview skills and strategies.

Contact details:

Mobile: 021 054 0762

Email: brendan@lifenet.co.nz

Website: www.lifenet.co.nz

Guido Stark


About Guido

Guido has Bachelor’s degrees in Astrophysics, Mathematics and Theology and works for a leading global software company in Wellington. He is on the leadership team of the Thinking Matters group Reasoned Faith Wellington which runs regular apologetics training for local Christians.

He frequently discusses the origins of life, the nature of God, world religions and the meaning of life with those he meets. From hundreds of conversations with people from many walks of life and spiritual understandings, he has gained experience that can encourage you to confidently articulate what you believe and invite others to question their assumptions.


Talks & Presentations

The following presentations can be delivered as independent sessions, Sunday sermons, or as a combined workshop.

Does God Exist?

Simple arguments for the existence of God and a road map for a conversation

Opening a conversation about the most fundamental questions of life and being able to follow through with a reasonable argument isn’t as hard as it sounds. This presentation will provide you with a road map for conversations about the deepest questions of life and will help you articulate some simple arguments for why God exists.

Religions of the World

Aren’t religions all the same?

This overview covers the essential beliefs of the main religions of the world. It will equip you to discuss the fundamental ideas of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – why they are not the same, and what these differences mean in real life.

Why Christianity

Good reasons why it’s true

Discover a range of evidence for Christianity and learn to confidently demonstrate solid reasons for why Christianity is true.

Understanding the Incarnation II: A Means of Making Atonement

The biologist Richard Dawkins suggests that the Christian claim God became incarnate and was crucified is incongruous and improbable on its face. [1] The Oxford professor of philosophy, Richard Swinburne, takes the opposite view: In The Resurrection of God Incarnate he argues that there are good a priori reasons for thinking that, if there is a God, He will become incarnate in response to the obvious general fact of human sin and suffering. In other words, not only is the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Jesus not incongruous, it is precisely the sort of thing we might expect God to do if God exists. [2]

In my previous post I presented the first of three reasons Swinburne presents in support of his view: Given two preliminary axioms (the moral perfection of God and the sin and suffering of man) Swinburne argues that we might reasonably expect God to become incarnate and live a life filled with great suffering in order to discharge a moral obligation to share in the human suffering which, though for a good reason, He allows. In this post I will present the second reason why an incarnation follows naturally from these same axioms: To provide humanity a means of making atonement

Obligation, Guilt and Atonement

Swinburne first divides good actions into two broad types. Obligations are good actions that we owe to others: It is good in this first sense for you to feed your children and tell others the truth. Supererogatory actions are nonobligatory good actions: It is good in this second sense to volunteer at a soup kitchen. We do not wrong others when we fail to perform supererogatory actions but we do wrong others when we fail to meet our obligations—to respect each other’s property and personhood, for example, or to keep our promises. For wronging others we are blameworthy and so incur guilt. And in order to remove our guilt we need to “make atonement.”

Atonement, Swinburne says, usually has four components: repentance, apology, reparation and penance. If I have stolen your watch I must return it to you or give you something of equivalent value. Such reparation deals with the effects of my wrongdoing but it does not deal with the fact of my wrongdoing—that I sought to harm you. I must also therefore distance myself from my wrongdoing by a sincere apology and repentance.

Often this will suffice to remove my guilt but in cases of serious wrongdoing something extra may be required: a small gift or service as a token of my sorrow. Swinburne calls this “making a penance.” The process is completed when the victim agrees to treat me, insofar as he can, as one who has not wronged him: And this is to forgive me.

All Humans Have Wronged God

It is an obvious general fact, claims Swinburne, that all humans have wronged God. We have wronged God directly by failing to show reverence and gratitude to him as the holy source of our existence and we have wronged him indirectly by wronging each other. If I hit my wife I abuse the free will and responsibility entrusted to me by God and I also hurt a creature he created—just as I wrong you if I hit your child because I hurt someone upon whom you have lavished your loving care and attention.

In addition to incurring guilt through our wrongdoing we inherit a general propensity to wrongdoing. This is partly social (you are more likely to abuse your children if you yourself were abused) and partly genetic: Evidence has emerged that what a person does and has done to him at an early age affects the genes he hands on to his children.

Swinburne suggests that we also inherit something analogous to guilt: We are indebted to our ancestors for our life and for many benefits that come down to us through them; our ancestors, in turn, are indebted to God for their own wrongdoing. We therefore incur an obligation to help atone for their guilt. “Even the English law,” notes Swinburne, “requires that before you can claim what you inherit from your dead parents you must pay their debts.” Thus while the guilt itself is not ours, the obligation to atone for it is, and our failure to meet this obligation can be a further source of guilt.

It would seem, then, that human beings have a serious obligation to make atonement and are in a poor position to do so—owing to both the size of the moral debt and the propensity to continued wrongdoing. How might a morally perfect God respond to this? Swinburne suggests that God would likely respond by helping us to make a proper atonement.

The Appropriate Reparation to God

Earlier I made the obvious point that if I steal your watch I owe you a watch—or something of equal value. The question arises: What is the proper reparation for a wrongdoer to offer God? What has gone wrong, says Swinburne, is that we have failed to live good lives. One proper reparation would therefore be a perfect human life which we can offer to God in repentance. And while that one perfect human life may not morally counterbalance all the wrongdoing of n number of morally bad human lives, it is up to the injured party to determine when a sufficient reparation has been made. And one truly perfect human life would plausibly enable a merciful and morally perfect being to justifiably make that determination.

Making Sense of a Reparation Received from and Offered Back to the Wronged Party

Here the skeptic may still object that a third party cannot make restitution for the offences of another. No one would consider justice done if a judge were to have an innocent man seized off the street and thrown in jail for the crimes of the murderer who himself remained free. Correct. But the problem lies not with the argument but the analogy. Consider a more helpful one.

Suppose Mrs Hall hires a man, John, to paint her house. John is paid in advance but procrastinates providing his services and finally spends the money on a ski trip during which he breaks his leg. Ideally, he would either return the money or find someone else to paint the house on his behalf. But if he is incapable of doing either of these things (because, say, he is broke and and doesn’t know anyone prepared to paint the house) he finds himself in the position of having an insoluble debt.

Plausibly, Mrs Hall could dismiss the whole matter with an airy wave of her hand and hire a new painter. But now suppose the following: That Mrs Hall is a morally conscientious woman who thinks it important that John should take his wrongdoing seriously; that she is very generous; and that she knows someone who is prepared to paint her house on John’s behalf. No one would consider the matter resolved if she were to call this third party and engage him to paint her house without John’s knowledge: By every reasonable assessment John would still be in her debt. But she might consider the matter resolved to her satisfaction if John himself were involved in the arrangements—if, for example, he were to express remorse for the situation and then, having been provided with the contact details, were to call the third party in order to explain the problem and ask for his help.

In this analogy, needless to say, Mrs Hall represents God, John a human wrongdoer, and Jesus the third party whose assistance we must solicit. As Aquinas noted, confession and contrition must be shown by the sinner himself but, “satisfaction has to do with the exterior act and here one can make use of friends.”

Two final points.

The first is that there could by chance appear many prophets falsely claiming to be a divine offer of atonement for human wrongdoing. A prophet making the claim truthfully would therefore need the “signature” of God upon his work—an effect that only God can bring about and which can be taken as a mark of endorsement. This would show us that God, the injured party, was willing to accept the reparation. One obvious way God could do this would be to violate the laws of nature—such as by raising the prophet back to life three days after his death. [3]

The second final point is that the means of atonement God offers makes no difference to us unless we associate ourselves with it. Just as John, in my analogy, needs to both repent and himself solicit the assistance of the third party in order to discharge his debt, so a wrongdoer needs to ask God to accept the life of Jesus as a reparation for his sins. And this again entails the necessity of a worldwide institution to announce that God has provided a means of atonement and to enjoin us to avail ourselves of it.

Conclusion

Swinburne suggests that the Christian claim that Jesus saved us from our sins is to be understood in the above way. By becoming incarnate in Jesus and living a perfect life, God provided a means of atonement. Thus, “God was both the wronged person and also the one who, thinking it so important that we should take our wrongdoing seriously, made available the reparation for us to offer back to him.”

——————————————————–

Part I | Part III | Part IV

[1] In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes: “If God wanted to forgive our sins why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed?”

[2] You can read my summary of the entire argument in a single post here.

[3] See the Resurrection of Jesus.

Understanding the Incarnation I: An Obligation to Share in Human Suffering

“If God wanted to forgive our sins,” complains Dawkins in The God Delusion, “why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed?” I will confess that, before I became a Christian around three years ago, I shared Dawkins’ perplexity. In fact, the Christian claim that, “Jesus died for our sins,” (understanding this to mean that before God could forgive us for wronging him he needed to become a man so we could murder him) was finally as strange as the claim that, “Honi the Circle-Drawer philandered for our monogamy.” If it was not utterly nonsensical then it was so impenetrably obscure that only a religious mystic could fully understand it—and even then he would then be unable to explain it to others. [1]

The Oxford professor of philosophy, Richard Swinburne, would not share this view. In The Resurrection of God Incarnate, he argues that there are good reasons for thinking that, if there is a God, he would become incarnate in order to live a perfect life filled with great suffering that ends in a miracle. In other words, not only is the crucifixion of God Incarnate not incongruous; it is precisely the sort of thing we would expect God to do if God exists.

Swinburne begins his argument with two preliminary axioms. The first is that if God exists God is by nature morally perfect—that is the sort of being whose existence we are postulating. The second is that human sin and suffering is a necessary feature of the universe God has created. Swinburne argues that such suffering is something which God (if God exists) has good reason to allow but is also something to which God (being morally perfect) is also likely to respond in a dramatic way.

In this first post it will be my concern to argue for the necessity of human sin and suffering and then discuss the first of three a priori reasons for thinking that God would become incarnate in response to it. The two remaining reasons that make up the rest of Swinburne’s argument will be presented in subsequent posts.

The Sin and Suffering of Man

Suffering is an unpreventable feature of any world in which virtue and moral self-determination are widely attainable for finite agents. This was a point I discussed in a previous post.  Again, briefly: Free will ensures that we have a choice between doing good and doing evil while humans are so made that when we do good it becomes easier to do good again at the next opportunity and when we do evil it becomes easier to do evil again at the next opportunity. [2] In this way, we gradually strengthen or weaken desires of different kinds and so form a moral character.

Without free will none of this would be possible. And while God is omnipotent, his omnipotence needs to be understood in a way that allows for the constraints of logical possibility. It is logically impossible for God to create agents with free will and ensure that they do no evil. And so human suffering is a potential feature of any world in which virtue is widely attainable.

It is only because God wants us to freely become good people that he permits temporary moral evil and suffering. But it needs to be noted that it is not free will alone, but free will and moral evil together, that provide an opportunity to manifest most virtues. In other words, only if someone eventually exercises their free will to assault or abuse you can I exercise mine to show you empathy; only if you are robbed can I make personal sacrifices to provide for you. The question arises whether moral evil alone would afford adequate opportunities for everyone to form a virtuous moral character. Swinburne suggests that it would not. A world in which opportunities to obtain virtue are universally available must therefore contain natural evil.

Consider a world without disaster, disease and decrepitude; a world in which the only cause of injury and death is, respectively, assault and murder. It is a mathematical certainty that such a world would provide far, far fewer opportunities for compassion, self-sacrifice, courage, forbearance, and so forth, and highly probable that some of us would have no such opportunities at all. Pleasure and comfort are good and our world, of course, includes both. But a life that offered nothing else would make us complacent, hedonistic, idle, selfish and shallow.

The initial conditions of the argument are therefore as follows: Human beings are misusing their free will to do evil. As a result, many individuals and societies are developing a bad moral character. This fact, together with the natural evil necessary to ensure that opportunities to obtain virtue are universally available, causes human suffering that is often widespread and profound. God, meanwhile, is morally perfect. How is he likely to respond? Swinburne argues that God will likely respond by becoming incarnate. Let us now consider the first of the three arguments he gives.

To Fulfil an Obligation to Share in Human Suffering

Parents often subject their children to suffering for the sake of some greater good. Mrs Bell, for instance, may put her overweight daughter on a stringent diet. Mr Wild may ask his son to attend a “difficult” neighbourhood school for the sake of good community relations. Under such circumstances, it is good but not obligatory for the parent to show solidarity with their child by taking a share in the suffering that has been imposed. Thus Mrs Bell may decide to join her daughter in eating a green salad for dinner even though Mrs Bell herself is not overweight. And likewise Mr Wild may present himself at the “difficult” neighbourhood school to enrol in the parent-teacher association or offer to coach the soccer team.

In both examples the suffering imposed is mild. But Swinburne suggests that when the suffering imposed reaches a certain level of intensity the good of sharing in that suffering for the one who imposes it rises to an obligation. In this connection he offers the following example.

Suppose, firstly, that England has been unjustly attacked and the government has conscripted all men between 18 and 30 to defend it; suppose, secondly, that a parent may “veto” the conscription of their son if he is under 21; suppose, thirdly, that older men under 50 may volunteer. Most parents with teenage sons veto the conscription but Swinburne, in view of the gravity of the situation, refuses to do so: He insists that his 19 year old son enlist. Suppose finally that Swinburne is 45 and so himself eligible but under no obligation to serve. “Since I am forcing my son to endure the hardship and danger of military service,” concludes Swinburne, “I have a moral obligation to him to volunteer myself.” And of course in circumstances of this kind the sharing could not be incognito. “The parent needs not merely to share the child’s suffering but to show him that he is doing so.”

The relevance of all this to the doctrine of the Incarnation can be spelled out as follows: Given the amount of pain and suffering which God, though for a good purpose, permits us to endure it is very plausible to suppose that he incurs a moral obligation upon himself to share in that suffering; and given that God, being perfectly good, always performs the morally best available action, it is very plausible to suppose that he would discharge that obligation. This could be achieved by means of an incarnation; that is, by becoming human and, “living a life containing much suffering and ending with the great crisis which all humans have to face: the crisis of death.” And one way to ensure that he has shared in the very worst suffering humans must endure is to live a life that ends in a brutal and unjustly imposed execution.

A moment ago it was noted that the obligation to share in the suffering one imposes on another can not be discharged in secret. Thus an incarnation would not fulfil its purpose unless the knowledge that it had occurred were made widely available to the future human race. And since the human life of God Incarnate would be of limited duration he must also found an institution—such as the Christian Church—to proclaim his message.

Swinburne therefore argues that the terrible suffering of Jesus, including his betrayal and his brutal and unjustly imposed execution, is not incongruous on the assumption that Jesus was God Incarnate; rather, it is precisely the sort of thing we might expect of God given his moral perfection and the great human suffering which, though for good reason, he allows.

The next post in this series will discuss the second of three a priori reasons for thinking that God would become Incarnate: To provide a means of making atonement.

—————————————————

Part II | Part III | Part IV

[1] Here one thinks of Buddha’s famous Flower Sermon. Zen Buddhism is said to have begun when Buddha held up a white lotus flower to his followers and said—absolutely nothing. No one understood the meaning of this, except for one disciple, who smiled subtly and with that subtle smile Zen Buddhism was born.

[2] As Emerson put it, “Sew a thought, reap an action; sew an action, reap a habit; sew a habit, reap a character; sew a character, reap an eternal destiny.”

The Possibility of Miracles

One of the skeptic’s most familiar complaints about Christianity is that it asks us to believe in a lot of mythological nonsense that has been scientifically falsified—such as parting seas and virgin births and men who walk on water. It is certainly true that the Bible contains accounts of miracles. And it true that a Christian is committed to taking at least some of these literally. Indeed, Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the claim that Jesus rose miraculously from the dead—a point realised by the Apostles themselves.1 But can the skeptic justify his claim that it is absurd and irrational to even entertain a belief in miracles? In this post it shall be my concern to show that the answer to this question is: No.

Let us begin by defining a miracle. A miracle is a claimed event which, if it occurred, would constitute a violation of the laws nature. By this definition it is not even certain that all of the extraordinary claims in the New Testament are miracles. In Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, for example, the American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga includes a Quantum Mechanical account of the transformation of water into wine—sportingly provided by the atheist physicist Bradley Monton. GRW, for what it is worth, refers to the Ghirard-Rimini-Weber approach—one of a set of collapse theories in quantum mechanics. Morton says,

The wave function for each particle is spread throughout an unbounded region of the universe at every time except perhaps momentary instants of time. This means that for each particle there is at most a finite region where it couldn’t be localised by a GRW hit. Some, probably even most, particles could be localised anywhere. So for changing water into wine, it’s not a big deal—you’ve got a bunch of individual particles that are composing the water, and they can all have GRW hits such that their positions are redistributed to the locations that would be appropriate for them to compose wine.

Monton’s final assessment is that, “all of the other miracles are unproblematically compatible with quantum mechanics.”

Morton helps to show that even the most extraordinary claims in the New Testament are not in principle beyond the purview of science but such speculations are, in the end, beside the point. And this is because the Christian claim is not that the miracles recorded in the New Testament are Quantum anomalies—even ones orchestrated by Jesus. Christians claim that the miracles of Jesus, and in particular the Resurrection of Jesus, did violate the laws of nature. This is the precisely the point of the miracle: Since violating laws of nature is something which only God can do, the Resurrection constitutes a divine signature on the life and teachings of Jesus.

I will now briefly discuss three standard objections to the belief in miracles and show that each one is ultimately without warrant.

The Objection from Scientism

The first objection holds that the scientific method is the only valid source of true beliefs about the world. Its proponent claims: If something cannot be empirically measured and quantified, or proven by means of a repeatable experiment, then we cannot hold a justified belief in it. And since miracles, by definition, lie beyond the scope of the scientific method (i.e., are unquantifiable, untestable, etc.) we cannot hold a justified belief in miracles.

The problem with this view, dubbed “scientism” by its critics, is that it is self-referentially incoherent. Consider: The claim that the scientific method is the only valid source of true beliefs about the world is a metascientific claim—a belief about the world that cannot itself be empirically measured and quantified, or proven by means of a repeatable experiment. Perhaps one could attempt to demonstrate the validity of scientism with a philosophical proof. But since any such proof would both advocate the scientific method as the sole source of truth, and originate outside the scientific method, it would invalidate itself.

In recent times scientism has enjoyed an unselfconscious resurgence in the writing of the New Atheists but it can be traced back to a mid-twentieth century movement in Western philosophy called Logical Positivism. Logical Positivism held that the only meaningful statements were those capable of being verified through sense experience or (as in pure logic and mathematics) those that are true by tautology. All non-tautological claims were subject to the “verifiability criterion” championed by A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book, Language, Truth and Logic. The existence of God, interestingly, was not rejected outright; it was simply excluded from the conversation. Ayer said that it was just as absurd to be an atheist as to be a theist. The statements, “God exists” and “God does not exist” simply had no meaning.

By 1945, Logical Positivism had been abandoned by its own founders. The first problem with the verifiability criterion was that it forbade the metascientific precepts necessary to formulate a theoretical framework for scientific inquiry. The second problem was the fatal one already noted: The verifiability criterion is itself neither tautological nor verifiable. As the mathematician David Berlinski puts it, “All such arguments, when self-applied, self-destruct.”

The Objection from Hume

A second influential objection against the belief in miracles goes back to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume claimed that the inductive confirmation of natural law in everyday experience is so overwhelming that no eyewitness report of a violation of natural law could ever outweigh it. For instance: The fact that heavy objects are always and everywhere observed to fall to the Earth is overwhelming background evidence against a report that, say, a marble bust of Mozart had levitated into the air. Whether this miracle had really occurred or not, a rational person would be compelled to reject the report of its occurrence on the basis of his everyday experience of gravity.

Contemporary philosophers of religion identify two flaws in Hume’s argument, both of which are discussed by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne in his influential book The Existence of God. Swinburne first notes that, even granting Hume’s assumption that the only relevant background evidence is our experience of the laws of nature, there is no reason to suppose that this evidence always counts decisively against the report. “Maybe,” Swinburne writes, “so many careful witnesses report very clearly what happened that their evidence can outweigh the evidence from the normal operation of laws of nature.”

You might object that people lie, hallucinate and are easily deceived. But in support of his point that, very occasionally, we may be rationally compelled to accept evidence for a miraculous event from multiple, credible witnesses, Swinburne appeals to two fundamental principles of rationality: The Principle of Credulity and the Principle of Testimony. 

The Principle of Credulity states: If to a subject S it seems that x is present then, in the absence of special considerations, probably x is present. If Mr Green has the experience of it seeming to him that there is a German shepherd on his lawn then that is good evidence for his believing that there is a German shepherd on his lawn. “The principle of Credulity,” Swinburne asserts, “is a fundamental principle of rationality and unless we allow it to have considerable force, we quickly find ourselves in a skeptical bog in which we can hardly know anything.”

In ordinary experience we also use a wider principle: Other things being equal, we believe that what others tell us is probably true. “Most of our beliefs about the world,” observes Swinburne, “are based on what others claim to have perceived—beliefs about geography and history and science and everything else beyond immediate experience.” Swinburne argues that such beliefs are justified even when (as per usual) we do not personally vet witnesses for their reliability. Thus the Principle of Testimony: The experiences of others, in the absence of special considerations, are probably as they report them. In his book Swinburne enumerates and discusses various special considerations and shows that none of them can be universally applied to religious experience.2

Contra Hume: On these two principles of rationality detailed reports of a miracle from several credible witnesses may outweigh the inductive evidence of natural law from everyday experience—even without including the evidence of natural theology in our total background evidence.

“But Hume’s main mistake,” continues Swinburne, “was his assumption that in such cases our knowledge of what are the laws of nature is our only relevant background evidence.” Equally relevant to our assessment of a purported miracle is any background evidence for the existence of God.For if on the total background evidence it is plausible or even probable that there is a God, then it is plausible or even probable that there exists a being with the power to violate the laws of nature. Evidence that there is a God is evidence that laws of nature can be violated—which will have particular relevance in cases where the reported event is of a kind that God, if God exists, would have good reason to bring about.

What reasons might God have to cause an event that violates laws whose regular operation he usually ensures? Swinburne suggests that there are reasons of two kinds. The first is to answer human prayer. “A world in which everything occurred in accordance with natural laws,” he notes, “would not be a world in which God had any living interaction with human beings.” The second kind of reason why God might violate natural law is, “just occasionally to put his signature on the work or teaching of some prophet in order to show that that work or teaching was God’s work or teaching.”

Swinburne argues elsewhere that, on the assumption that God exists, an Incarnation authenticated by a divine miracle has a certain likelihood given the moral perfection of God and the obvious general fact of human sin and suffering.4 And when this consideration is combined with the evidence for the existence of God from natural theology, a multiply and independently attested miracle of the right kind under the right circumstances may outweigh the inductive evidence that, when natural laws operate in the usual way, such things do not occur. Hume’s attempt to show that a miracle is always unworthy of credit fails.

The Objection from the Laws of Conservation

The third and final objection to miracles is the claim that special divine action in the world would violate the laws of physics. Plantinga asks us to consider this example of a miracle: God creating an adult horse ex nihilo in the middle of Times Square. During such an event the laws of conservation of energy, momentum, and so forth, would all be violated. Physics, meanwhile, tells us that this is impossible. The objector concludes miracles are impossible.

However, the laws of conservation apply to systems that are causally closed—closed to causal influence from without. But as Plantinga reminds us it is no part of standard physics that the universe is causally closed and whether or not it is depends on whether or not God exists. For consider: If God does exist then there exists an omnipotent being who can act upon the universe from without. Evidence for the existence of God is therefore, equally, evidence against the causal closure of the universe. And likewise: any system in which a miracle occurs is, ipso facto, not constrained by the various conservation laws. One cannot reject a miracle on the unproven assumption that God does not exist and therefore the universe is causally closed; indeed, the reported miracle may be evidence against the assumption on the basis of which the skeptic is rejecting it.

We have seen that there is no indefeasible objection to the possibility of miracles and so no way for a skeptic to prevent at the outset a rational inquiry into their occurrence. Whether it is rational to believe in the foundational miracle of Christianity—the Resurrection of Jesus—cannot be settled a priori. It needs to be settled in the court of historical analysis.4

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[1] Paul writes, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” 

[2] See my summary of his argument here.

[3] See the Modal Cosmological Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, as well as the arguments from Cosmic Teleology, Biological Teleology, Consciousness, Adequation, Moral Experience, Desire and Religious Experience. All nine lines of evidence for the existence of God are also lines of evidence for the possibility of a being who can violate the laws of nature and so for the possibility of miracles. They must therefore be included in our total background evidence for a purported miracle. 

[4] There is no space to detail the argument here. See his book The Resurrection of God Incarnate. I summarise the relevant part of that book here.

[5] See the historical argument for The Resurrection of Jesus.

When in Doubt

It is part of human nature to doubt. In a world in which the prominent worldviews are contrary to Christianity, it is no surprise that many followers of Christ have doubts about their faith. I know from personal experience that doubts can often seem overwhelming, and that it is extraordinarily easy to blow them out of proportion. What should simply prompt reflection and consideration instead causes one to become anxious and defensive both internally—emotionally and intellectually—as well as externally—in one’s interactions with others. In such cases, there are two missteps that believers should beware of. Firstly, we can mistakenly perceive an objection as undermining a particular Christian belief, when in fact that belief has little or nothing to do with the objection. Secondly, we can assign far more importance to a given belief than it truly has. As a result of these two missteps, doubts and objections can appear to have implications that they do not necessarily have.  

As an example of the first misstep, take the so-called slaughter of the Canaanites. Critics often argue that God’s command to the Israelites to kill the Canaanites[i] was immoral, and therefore the God of the Bible cannot be good. Obviously, this conclusion is troubling for all who believe that God is essentially good. Must we accept it, or is there an alternative? One option would be to repudiate the argument. This, in my opinion, has been successfully done by a number of apologists[ii]. Another alternative would be to grant the argument, but deny the conclusion. Let’s see what happens if we explore this route.

Suppose that God’s command to kill the Canaanites was immoral, and that an essentially good God could not have issued such a command. Rather than inferring that God is not good, the Christian could instead conclude that the Israelites were mistaken in thinking that God had issued such a command. If we draw this conclusion, then the objection does not undermine God’s goodness, but rather biblical inerrancy, since the command is recorded in scripture. Clearly this is still a troubling conclusion for most believers. Nonetheless, it serves as an example of the first misstep that doubting Christians can fall into; namely, perceiving an objection as undermining a particular Christian belief (e.g. God’s goodness) when it actually does not necessarily do so.

This brings us to the second misstep: assigning more importance to a belief than it warrants. In the Christian worldview, some beliefs are more central—more important—than others. For example, the belief that God exists is vital, while beliefs regarding the rapture and tribulation are far less significant. Philosopher William Lane Craig offers a helpful analogy that emphasises this point. He states:

Our system of beliefs as Christians can be compared to a spider’s web which radiates out from a central point. These strands of the web represent different doctrines or affirmations that we as Christians believe. Some of these doctrines are more central to the web of belief. If one of these doctrines were plucked out, the reverberations would be felt throughout the entire web and the web might even collapse. But if one of these peripheral strands were to be removed, there would be little reverberation in one’s system of beliefs.[iii] 

If we picture Christian beliefs like a web, then the existence of God would be a core strand, along with the deity of Christ and his bodily resurrection. If these claims turned out to be false, then so would Christianity.

Returning to our earlier example, then, which belief is more central to the Christian faith—belief in God’s goodness, or in scripture’s inerrancy? Although giving up either would send colossal tremors through one’s web of beliefs, I believe that abandoning the former would do more damage than the latter. That is to say, belief in God’s goodness is more central to Christianity than belief in biblical inerrancy. The danger is that, in constructing our web of beliefs, one might place more importance on a doctrine than it warrants. Then, when that doctrine is challenged, the accompanying doubts appear to strike far closer to the heart of the Christian faith than they should. The moral of the story is that, when in doubt, we should think carefully about what belief an objection undermines, and make sure that we place that belief in its appropriate place in our ‘web of beliefs’; neither attributing more significance to it than is warranted, nor underestimating its importance.


Endnotes:

[i] See Deuteronomy 7:2; 20:16-18.

[ii] For some responses to the so-called slaughter of the Canaanites, click here and here.

[iii] https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-doctrine-of-revelation/doctrine-of-revelation-part-7/

What Is Wrong With Watching Pornography?

Has pornography really become morally and socially acceptable? If a fluff piece reposted on the Herald website is any indication, the answer is: Yes, it has, and for your information, it is now opposition to pornography that is morally and socially abnormal.

The article in question informs us that an American woman by the name of Claire Dolton was recently pilloried online after jilting her fiancé for the stupidest of reasons. “And the reason?” asks lifestyle reporter Vanessa Brown and then answers her own question: “Well, the guy liked to watch porn—gasp!”

Consider that sarcastic, editorialising gasp. It leaves the reader in no doubt of Venessa’s opinion. Claire Dolton is a pearl-clutching prude and her decision to break up with her fiancé over pornography is absurd. If pornography is to be approached with any moral reservation at all (and it is not clear from Vanessa’s article that it should) then, presumably, it is on a level with double-parking and the late return of library books: A naughty foible unworthy of serious concern.

If it is absurd to be solemnly opposed to masturbation and pornography then the Christian Church has been absurd for twenty centuries. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that, “pornography does grave injury to the dignity of participants,” and lists masturbation as a mortal sin—where “mortal” means serious enough to destroy one’s relationship with God. Luther and Calvin believed likewise as is clear from their voluminous writings. And there is no possible reading of Matthew 5:27-28 (in which men are forbidden to, “gaze at a woman to lust after her,”) that does not proscribe pornography for any man who wishes to obey the teachings of Jesus. [1]

In the digital age, meanwhile, pornography has never been more abundant, more accessible and more accepted. [2] Clearly, then, there is a chasm between what the Church teaches and what society practices. In what follows it will be my concern to show that Christian teaching on this issue is morally coherent. My argument will be that the Church upholds and promotes an ideal of human sexuality that is most conducive to the production of virtue and happiness while forms of human sexuality that deviate from this ideal, and in this instance pornography and masturbation, are productive of vice and therefore morally wrong.

It Is Disordered

Let me begin with a modest claim about masturbation and pornography: It is highly doubtful that a good counterargument can be mounted against the view that it is disordered—where “disordered” is understood to mean, “contrary to the normal and healthy functioning or purpose of something”—in this case, human sexuality.

Clearly enough, a boy who discovers that he enjoys rubbing his genitals has not discovered the unitive and procreative ends towards which the motivating urge is directed. Who can deny that he still has an important further fact to learn about sex? Or, if the masturbator is an adult man, who can deny that what is missing from the room when he masturbates is as critical to the completion and fulfilment of human sexuality as is an opponent to a solitary man on a tennis court who wishes to play a game of tennis?

The theologian Peter Damian has even suggested that masturbation is a form of low-grade homosexuality—a point which entails masturbation is disordered ipso facto for heterosexual men whose sexual desires are directed at the female sex. [3] I will admit that I initially laughed at Damian’s suggestion—but it is nevertheless reasonable on reflection. For consider what is happening when a man masturbates: In a room in which a woman is nowhere to be found, a male hand is bringing a penis to orgasm—so be it that the hand and penis belong to the same man. In The Porn Trap, Wendy and Larry Maltz make the further point that, for this very reason, heterosexual boys have always tried to use pornography to “heterosexualize” masturbation,

Rather than focus on the fact that they are stimulating male genitals, they can focus on the reassuring presence of a female.

The obvious qualification that no female is actually present gives the lie to the attempted deception: For in the final analysis masturbating to heterosexual pornography is no more a form of “heterosexual sex” than a shoe is “food” if while eating it I look at pictures of bread.

Here an objector may simply allow that pornography and masturbation are disordered and ask: Is what is disordered necessarily wrong? Thomists think the answer to this question is Yes and their position, called Natural Law Morality, is not as easy to refute as you might think. But showing that masturbating to pornography is wrong does not depend on a defence of Natural Law Morality. There are far less scholastic and more obvious objections at hand.

It Is Paradigmatically Selfish

That the act of sexually pleasuring yourself is paradigmatically selfish is, I hope, fairly obvious. John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body, argues that, “pornography and masturbation represent the destruction of the symbolic and nuptial meaning of the human body.” For, as he says, “God gives all men and women erotic energy,” that, “forms part of that attraction between men and women.” That, of itself, is a profound good. But it follows that,

Sexual energy needs to find its outlet in love, not lust: In masturbation that erotic energy is turned in on oneself. Masturbation, therefore, is a symbol not of love but of loneliness.

Here an atheist reader will object that I have smuggled God into my argument. But the point is scarcely affected by the substitution of “Nature” for God as the origin human erotic energy. It is an obvious general truth that when the pleasure of sex is shared it opens one up to erotic and romantic affection and, ultimately, family love. Thomas Nagel, himself an atheist, sees this reciprocity as being what is essential to human sexuality.

Nagel proposes that sexual interactions in which each person responds with sexual arousal to noticing the sexual arousal of the other person exhibit the psychology that is natural to human sexuality. In such an encounter, each person becomes aware of himself or herself and the other person as both the subject and the object of their joint sexual experiences. Perverted sexual encounters or events would be those in which this mutual recognition of arousal is absent. [4]

On Nagel’s criterion viewing and masturbating to pornography would qualify as, “perverted sexual events” since there is not and cannot be a mutual recognition of arousal between two conscious selves.

It Therefore Impedes Virtue

Consider, by contrast, a man in a loving and monogamous marriage who refrains from pornography and masturbation. Such a man constrains his sexual activity to one woman with whom he is in love. He thereby enjoys the imposition of what is probably one of the few constraints upon the male libido that is stronger than the male libido—love itself. In other words, a loving husband who enjoys sexual release with the woman he loves and in no other way quickly discovers that in the interests of cherishing and respecting her he will frequently need to overcome and set aside his carnal urges—to give up on the idea of fulfilling some erotic fantasy that his wife finds embarrassing, for example; or to give up on the idea of having sex altogether in order to nurse his wife because she feels unwell. In this way, over time, and by force of habit, his love and respect for the other must operate against and surpass his strongest instinct for pleasure. And as Plato said, “A man becomes brave by acting bravely.” He means that we shape our moral character over time by our moral choices. The implications of this should be obvious

You might object here that a loving husband who does not so constrain himself does all these things too only he also masturbates to pornography in private from time to time—perhaps the better to control his carnal urges. But this objection entirely misses the point. For the man who has an orgasm whenever he wants and with whatever fantasy or pornographic aid he wants does not enjoy any inter-personal constraint upon his sexual release. C. S. Lewis understood this well when he wrote,

The real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete and correct his own personality in that of another and turns it back; sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides … For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover; no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity.

And It Promotes Vice

Much of what I have said so far could be applied to masturbation alone. But masturbation is almost always coupled with pornography abuse—and this is much graver. Lewis himself wrote well before the spread of online pornography. But his warning has only become more relevant and more urgent.

It is logical: You cannot love, respect and will the good of another human being and simultaneously find pleasure in watching them do something harmful or have something harmful done to them. The question arises: Is choosing to become a pornographic actress a good thing for a woman to do?

The question can be brought home by imagining that your mother, sister, daughter or wife is the woman in question. Sexual intercourse has the potential to be the most wonderful experience of human life—from its romantic and unitive force in a loving relationship to its production of children and so of family love. Contrast this with the life of a pornographic actress for whom sex and love are alienated so that her body can be objectified for profit.

If you cannot with perfect equanimity entertain the prospect of one of your female loved ones becoming a pornographic actress then you are morally compromising yourself every time you watch and masturbate to pornography. For to enjoy pornography and masturbation one has to follow the opposite moral path of the man who constrains his sexual activity to one woman with whom he is in love; namely, he has to allow his sexual desires to eclipse his love and respect for the other; he has to view woman and girls with limited financial and emotional agency as objects worthy to be used and misused for the sake of his own sexual enjoyment. And to do so—and to make a habit of doing so—is, Plato reminds us, simply to become a perverse, selfish, callous and unloving person.

This argument holds with respect to any form of pornography whatever; but it holds a fortiori with respect to the sort of pornography that has become almost normative online in recent times. There are various studies that can now be found on the prevalence and frequency of verbal and physical aggression towards woman in pornographic videos today. A fairly typical example reviews 304 popular videos and reports that,

88% of scenes contained physical aggressive behavior, such as choking or hitting, and 49% contained verbal aggression, mostly name calling. Almost all (94%) of aggressive behavior was directed towards women and elicited a positive or neutral response.

The Herald itself should know better. A month before it posted the above article, it ran a story on an online discussion among pornographic actresses in which it was revealed that, “rape, abuse and exploitation are shockingly common.” And when it is remembered that viewing pornography online produces ad revenue for those that promulgate it, it is not an exaggeration to say that men who view pornography are helping to fund the rape, abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women and girls. In this light, Claire’s mortification at her fiancé’s enjoyment of pornography does not seem quite so absurd.

The coherence of Christian teaching on this subject is, I believe, a small item of further evidence for the truth of the Christian Faith.

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[1] In this article I address myself to the problem of heterosexual men viewing heterosexual porn with a focus on the exploitation of women. This is because it is primarily men that view porn and it is primarily woman who are exploited. However, the same arguments could with very little need of emendation account for viewers and actors of any gender and orientation.

[2] The Broadcasting Standards Authority would likely agree with Venessa Brown—having decided that a show in which headless human beings are selected worthy or unworthy of romance by an examination of their genitals was fit for prime time New Zealand television. You can read about their decision here.

[3] For the coherence of Christian teaching on homosexuality see Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy by Richard Swinburne, p.303-306.

[4] Quoted from this article on the Philosophy of Sexuality.

End of Life Choice Bill: A Response

Euthanasia is a weighty subject—a subject that cannot be broached without reflecting upon human suffering, harm, and death. Since the proposal of the End of Life Choice Bill (ELCB), euthanasia has been the subject of extensive public and private debate here in Aotearoa. For those unfamiliar with the bill, it proposes the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia for any person over the age of 18 who has a “grievous and irremediable medical condition”, who “experiences unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that he or she considers tolerable”, and who can “understand the nature and consequences of assisted dying”[i]. In December 2017 the bill passed its first reading, and the second reading will be held once the Justice Committee have finished receiving public submissions. In this post, I will argue that the ELCB is flawed in such a way that renders it unacceptable as public policy. Briefly, my argument is that the safeguards in the bill are unable to sufficiently minimise the risk of patient manipulation, and, since the government should not accept legislation for euthanasia that fails in this regard, the bill should not be accepted.


Safeguards

Section 8(h) states that attending physicians must do their best to ensure that patients’ requests for euthanasia are free from external pressure, and three primary safeguards are outlined[ii]. The physician must:

  • Talk to “other health practitioners who are in regular contact with the person”
  • Talk with “members of the person’s family approved by the person”
  • Fill out a form detailing the actions he or she took to ensure that these obligations were fulfilled.

My contention is that although these safeguards offer some protection against manipulation, they do not sufficiently minimise the risk. As an example, consider this situation:

A family stands to benefit from the death of a terminally-ill relative. As such, they manipulate their ill relative into requesting euthanasia, even though it is not a choice she wants to make. Nonetheless, she informs her health practitioner of the “decision”, and requests euthanasia. The physician talks to the patient, as per the safeguards, who falsely affirms that the request was autonomous. The physician then converses with the family, who do not admit to having manipulated the patient. Consequently, the physician sends the necessary forms to the Registrar, which approves the request, and the patient is euthanised.

This example indicates that, even when the safeguards are followed, patients can nonetheless be manipulated into requesting euthanasia against their wishes.

Objections

There are two obvious rejoinders that would nullify this argument. Firstly, someone might contend that it is all very well and good to theorise about these kinds of abusive situations, but, in reality, no one would ever do such a thing. To this objection, I would quote ethicist J. D. Velleman: “no one would ever do such a thing as abuse his own children or parents—except that many people do”[iii]. In light of the atrocities that have occurred and do regularly occur in our society, the aforementioned scenario hardly seems unlikely. But, if it is not unlikely, then it deserves to be seriously considered, and should be a significant factor in our assessment of the worthiness of this bill.

Secondly, many people argue that there is no evidence of significant abuse or error occurring in countries and states where assisted-dying is currently legal. As one study indicates, “rates of assisted dying in Oregon and in the Netherlands showed no evidence of heightened risk for [vulnerable groups]”[iv]. When considering an increase in euthanasia among elderly persons, other researchers state “we deem it less plausible [than other explanations] that the trends indicate more vulnerable groups feeling increasingly forced to choose euthanasia”[v].

Two responses come to mind. Firstly, interpretation of these findings is mixed. Though some researchers conclude that there is no indication of abuse, others question both their methodologies and conclusions[vi]. In some cases, the data is consistent with error and abuse. For example, a study of euthanasia in Belgium found that life-ending measures were frequently enacted without an explicit request, and that in these situations “family burden and the consideration that life was not to be needlessly prolonged were more often reasons for using life-ending drugs”[vii].

However, a more fundamental consideration is this: if manipulation were occuring, it is not clear that we should expect to find evidence. After all, the abused person is deceased, and therefore cannot testify, while those who committed the abuse are unlikely to admit their wrongdoing. Since these are probably the only parties privy to the abuse, a lack of evidence is what we should expect both if manipulation is occuring, and if it is not. Therefore, absence of evidence does not equal absence of abuse.


In sum, I do not believe that the ELCB provides adequate safeguards against manipulation, and therefore it should not be accepted. If euthanasia is to be legalised, we as a society have a duty to make sure it does not adversely affect vulnerable people. As such, any proposed legislation must be subjected to rigourous scrutiny to determine whether it achieves this end. In this regard, I believe the End of Life Choice Bill fails.

 

Endnotes:


[i]ELCB Section 4: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/member/2017/0269/latest/DLM7285950.html

[ii] ELCB Section 8: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/member/2017/0269/latest/DLM7285956.html

[iii] Velleman, J.D. (1992). Against the right to die. Journal of medicine and philosophy, 17(6), p. 675.

[iv] Battin, M. P., van der Heide, A., Ganzini, L., van der Wal, G., & Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B. D. (2007). Legal physician-assisted dying in Oregon and the Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on patients in “vulnerable” groups. Journal of Medical Ethics 33, p. 591.

[v] Dierickx, S., Deliens, L., Cohen, J., & Chambaere, K. (2016). Euthanasia in Belgium: trends in reported cases between 2003 and 2013. Canadian Medical Association Journal 188(16), p. 412.

[vi] E.g. Finlay, I. G., & George, R. (2011). Legal physician-assisted suicide in Oregon and The Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on. Journal of Medical Ethics 37, pp. 171-174.

[vii] Chambaere, K., Bilsen, J., Cohen, J., Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B. D., & Mortier F, D. L. (2010). Physcian-assisted deaths under the euthanasia law in Belgium: a population-based survey. Canadian Medical Association Journal 182(9), pp. 896-897.