Evidence, miracles, and science: An argument against the existence of Jesus considered

In a recentish post, Arkhenaten advances two theses, one concerning the philosophy of science, the other history:

A) Sometimes science can test for and falsify supernatural phenomena (philosophy of science).

B) Jesus of Nazareth never existed (history)*.

More specifically, he writes:

If the theist wants the atheist to change – and aren’t they compelled to spread the Word? (sic) – then simply provide evidence that demonstrates the sincerity of their objective and the veracity of their claims.

At least provide the evidence that convinced them to become Christian.

Ah … but then we are back to things supernatural which cannot be tested by scientific means as they fall outside the natural world. Right?

Well, yes … and no.

Yes, he[Jesus] was a regular bloke. Except for miracles. The miracles he did. Not least of which was raising Lazarus from the dead.

And this is where we should expect to find evidence. Some independent attestation of the wondrous deeds he did. After all:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

John 21:25

It’s in the bible, and the bible is the inspired Word of God, right?

And, yet, what do we have?

Not a word, not a whisper.

A god who lived among humans as a human and as a god for over thirty years and left no trace outside of a story?

There is absolutely nothing that can be checked. Nothing to back a single claim.

In this case absence of evidence is most definitely evidence of absence.

Evidence of miracles? Hmm …. I don’t think so.

And under such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to draw the only logical conclusion.

The biblical character, Jesus of Nazareth is simply a work of fiction.

There are several things to be noted here:

1) Why must the Christian provide evidence to prove the “sincerity of their[sic] objective”? Why assume that when a Christian is evangelizing to the non-Christian he is doing so with nefarious intent? Perhaps this Christian knows nothing of apologetics and the rational case for the Christian worldview. Yet, when he recites John 3:16 to someone he’s proselytizing, what is there to suggest he’s doing so disingenuously and not with the belief that it’s for non-Christian’s best interest?

This Freudian slip suggests there is no “evidence” that will give Arkenaten cognitive pause because he is already convicted not to mull it due to prejudice he has about its source. Whether this prejudice is rationally justified, I’ll let the reader decide. For those who have met him online, I think the answer is readily apparent.

2) Arkenaten doesn’t flesh out the “scientific means” he has in mind to test the supernatural—also undefined. The supernatural, being super-, must be beyond the natural, which itself refers to what I’m interpreting as what the spacio-temporal exhausts. So, miracles from Jesus, Moses, or whoever are supposedly of the supernatural and workings not of this spacio-temporal realm. Indeed, according to Hume, miracles are by essence violations of observable natural laws. If science only operates within these observable natural laws of the spacio-temporal, then any miracle is beyond the reach of science to corroborate. To wit: Any miracle X that seems in violation of some natural law Y doesn’t provide prima facie evidence for the existence of X, but throws into question the veracity of Y as being a bonafide natural law.

So, it’s not clear what’s applicable for the natural can verify the supernatural. Though Arkenaten admits the difficulty here, he also thinks there is a way to get around this problem, vaguely appealing to “evidence.” However, it’s not obvious how science—understood as the empirical method that seeks knowledge of the physical spacio-temporal universe via continuous stages of observation, hypothesis, and experimentation—can provide evidence about whether a proposed historical figure existed (How do you test that?). The past isn’t empirical; why assume the “evidence” strictly is too?

Perhaps what Arkenaten means by “evidence” are archaeologically gathered artifacts, like contemporaneous manuscripts from the first century Roman Palestine. Well, deriving conclusions about the past from writings of a bygone era is not science but something closer to the discipline of history, which can be informed by science but not actually be of science as defined above.

So, Arkenaten seems to be stretching the bounds of empirical science in order to make a historical argument about whether Jesus existed. This either stems from a commitment to scientism, the incoherent view that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, or confusion about what science does and what constitutes its evidence. Regardless, both undermine his claim A) that science can test for and falsify supernatural phenomena. It also is unrelated to the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. These are separate issues.

3) As for Arkenaten’s historical argument for the non-existence of Jesus, it seems to be the following:

  1. If Jesus did exist, then there is independent attestation of his miracles.
  2. There is no independent attestation of Jesus’ miracles (indeed, nothing at all “outside of a story”).
  3. Ergo, Jesus did not exist.

As a modus tollens, the argument is formally valid, but that itself is not a guarantee of soundness. Indeed, I think both 1 and 2 can be rejected as false.

For premise 1, there isn’t a strong reason to think independent attestation, meaning contemporaneous references to Jesus’ miracles not from his disciples or their followers, would have much bearing on the question of Jesus’ existence. Either Jesus, as a mere man or the incarnated Son of God, did or didn’t exist; whether Roman historians or others of the time cited miracles attributed to him is logically irrelevant to the matter at hand. For it’s possible, even likely, that Jesus’ miracles wouldn’t be widely written down in the oral tradition-driven society of first century Judea. As for the occupying Romans, it’s probable they wouldn’t even be aware of Jesus until he would be leveraged as a symbolic figurehead for Jewish insurrection. The antecedent of 1 does not imply its consequent.

Moreover, Arkenaten provides no argument for this criterion of independent attestation found in the consequent. He just posits it as plausible and definitive. But why assume this? I mean, most of what we know about Socrates, a man who was amazing in his own right, comes from his followers. They’re not independent either, yet, while some might doubt some parts of Socrates’ life, no one doubts that Socrates even existed. That’s because there are other means historians use to establish the historicity of an event or person that this dogged insistence on independent attestation of miracles as what determines Jesus’ historicity precludes by seemingly capricious fiat. So, what is gratuitously asserted—if there was a historical Jesus, his miracles would be confirmed by contemporary independent sources—can be gratuitously denied.

Likewise, premise 2 can be regarded as false. Let’s grant Arkenaten’s call for “independent attestation,” albeit modified. While there isn’t a contemporary non-Christian reference to Jesus or his miracles (Tacitus and Josephus are later), it’s simply not the case that there is “Not a word, not a whisper … absolutely nothing that can be checked. Nothing to back a single claim” about Jesus. It’s not “In this case, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” The Christian faith did not emerge from a vacuum. There are particular facts established by historian-developed methodologies in need of explanation which apologists use to make an abductive case for the Resurrection, the miracle upon which Christianity is erected, and, ipso facto, the historical Jesus.

For example, at least a few of Jesus’ apostles died espousing Jesus as Lord and Savior. Martyrs make terrible liars. It seems the likes Peter and Paul really believed what they were preaching. Well, it’s possible they hallucinated Jesus or were just plain crazy. But isn’t it much more likely they knew a person (or in Paul’s case, knew people who did) upon whom to base their radical new religion? As it so happens, the same sort of argument, mutatis mutandis, is used to claim the Resurrection as history.

So, it’s not enough for Arkenaten to declare victory here. These kinds of arguments from apologists have to be refuted, the historical facts explained better in terms New Atheists would accept, before justifiably dismissing Jesus’ existence, and thereby Christianity, not to mention the many secular accounts of the Gospels’ narratives in which Jesus is a historical figure.

4) Now, I’m sure this reasoning has little pull on Jesus mythicists, who occupy quite the redoubt on the internet when it comes to this area of New Testament scholarship. They’ll find this answer too speculative. After all, they’re demanding a “smoking gun” in a discipline where practitioners, more often than not, don’t possess one and must piece together what they do have to draw conclusions about the past. History is not a hands-on science.

Nevertheless, I suspect Arkenaten and company will treat it as such if it suits their ideological fancy. In my experience, “evidence” can be whatever they need it to be, hence the adamant Jesus mythicism in spite of the evidence that convinces the vast majority of academic historians, many of whom have no theological axe to grind, that Jesus, at least as a mortal, walked the earth two millennia ago.

Why do New Atheists cling to this benighted view about Jesus? My estimation: It’s not enough for Christians to be wrong—they must be hopelessly irrational too. Christianity, in their minds, is not merely false, but ridiculous. And those who believe in and live by the ridiculous in an increasingly secular society deserve ridicule from their more enlightened peers.

These anti-Christian beliefs form a cock-sure attitude. Neither falsifiable nor open for negotiation, they are dogma founded more in vitriolic politics than dispassionate reason.

For potential further evidence of it, read the comments.

*I’m not being uncharitable about Arkenaten’s position either. He’s maintaining it’s not merely the Christian conception of Jesus Christ that is the myth, which allows the possibility of a historical person known as Jesus who’s merely a man, not divine. It’s Jesus wholesale. Note that Arkenaten expresses skepticism about even the seemingly most mundane details of his life, writing, “Jesus was born, lived – and one can presume he slept, ate and used the toilet just like regular people – and of course he died. Or at least this is the claim [emphasis mine]. He’s also said as much in previous comments on another entry of this blog.

Savage words for Dan Savage’s guide to interpretting Old Testament law

Remember when this blog was about philosophy and Christian apologetics before all the politics? Believe it or not, I still do, and I want to get back to doing some of the good ‘ole Lord’s work. Dan Savage, the prominent same-sex marriage and gay rights activist, affords me the opportunity to do both. So, what’s that saying about birds and stones?

Basically, Savage attacks the Pentateuchal laws in regard to homosexuality as null and void because the rest of the stuff in there is no longer followed or believed to be binding. He calls condemning homosexuality and ignoring all the other rules about menstruation, diet, ceremony, etc. is hypocritical. Furthermore, the Bible’s alleged treatment of slavery and lack of abolitionist sentiment severs any credibility and authority about any other moral claims it establishes. Savage paraphrases from Sam Harris that “The Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong: slavery. What are the odds that Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? One hundred percent.” And as such, the book is ethically bankrupt.

Well, no, and here’s why. The schtick about cherry-picking what to follow from the Old Testament is an all too common criticism, but it relies on sloppy exegesis. First of all, Christian theologians for ages — I’m talking as far back as Augustine and Tertullian — recognized three categories of laws within the Leviticus and company. Ceremonial laws dealt with issues such as circumcision, diet, cleanliness, sacrifices and priestly garments. Civil/judicial rulings for things like crimes and business exchanges. The moral category involved basic normative principles often involved in the Ten Commandments like murder, theft, deceit, adultery and idolatry. Also of import, Israel, as God’s chosen and holy people, was supposed to be a theocracy. Hence, the ceremonial and civil/judicial laws are considered to be only applicable to the Jews at this time. Therefore, this section of the legal code is not viewed as appurtenant to Christians, as we don’t live under the same circumstances. The moral laws, on the contrary, transcend time and space and are authoritative. So, the ones about human sexuality, like those in Leviticus 18 and 20 about homosexuality, are still very much in play. Indeed, Savage is mistaken: The Christian, who denounces homosexuality on the basis of the Old Testament, is being fully consistent in his or her beliefs.

Of course, there’s also the New Testament edicts that prohibit homosexuality in Romans 1: 26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9, which bears the notion the entire Bible needs to be interpreted comprehensively, not this sniping of verses and passages out of context. The Old Testament often does not make sense without the New Testament and vice versa.

This exegetical principle now brings me to Savage’s, and those of like mind, fixation on slavery in the Bible. Admittedly, the issue is not so easily dismissed like his first criticism, especially given our cultural and righteous aversion to the institution in modern Western society. However, it’s crucial to remember that the Bible is to be understood holistically. Scrutinized verses need to be weighed against similarly themed passages and with the whole of Scripture. So obsessing about relatively miniscule chunks, loading them into your anti-Christian cannon and blasting away as if your ammo is deadly to the whole Christian worldview is honestly nothing more than blustery. Let me also write, given my two years in graduate school, such attitudes presented to other positions in academia would be deigned as inappropriate and ineffective. There is something called the principle of charity, which deems a critique as efficacious if it attacks the strongest form of the argument, not the low-hanging fruit.

Hence, Savage and other “New Atheist” types who attack the Bible are too content with their marauding diatribes about the hateful, capricious God of the Old Testament, the atrocities against the Canaanites and, in this case, slavery. They claim victory prematurely, as Christians have been grappling with these passages since the 2nd century A.D. Yep, sorry to burst your bubble, but these criticisms aren’t some new insight never considered. Enter Origen who proposed the Bible must be read through the lens of Jesus. In other words, if you read Leviticus and think God endorses slavery, this conclusion makes no sense in the light of Christ’s love in his death and resurrection, and you therefore, have misinterpreted the text. Following from this idea, C.S. Lewis advocated what’s known as “mere Christianity” or the foundational propositions of the Christian worldview. As William Lane Craig notes, “If God exists and has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus of Nazareth, then Christianity is true, and the rest is working out the details.” According to Craig, the slavery accusation, as it is often asserted, is very much in the details and has no bearing on whether or not theism is true or the historicity of Jesus. Admittedly, Savage here never claimed these alleged contradictions mean Christianity is false, — only its moral claims — but such a view is implied and plausibly inferred. In either case, the apt reply to Savage’s obsession with the little things is “so what?”.

Moreover, another thing to remember, the Bible is less interested in individual social standing than it is invested in spiritual salvation. Whether or not a person was a master or a slave doesn’t really matter when the soul could be forfeit.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).

The Bible repeatedly urges devotion to the eternal than what is material and temporary. It’s message breaks the chains of sin. That’s the paramount biblical message, i.e., the Gospel.

However, some might find find the above described exegetical strategies and explanations as wishy-washy, so here are some more little “details.” For example, the slavery laws clearly belong civil/judicial category, which had no intention of application to any gentile society, let alone modern America. Similarly, Biblical slavery most likely resembled indentured servitude and not the plantation-style Antebellum South practice with which we strongly associate. It was voluntary and like a form of welfare for the destitute, with many of the laws protecting the slaves from harm. Service was also supposed to be temporary, as mandated in Deuteronomy 15:12. It was actually quite humane and progressive for its time.

It might be objected that regardless of the favorable conditions, it still is deplorable to own a person as property, and surely a just God would reflect that moral truth in its decrees. Ah, but the Bible does twice in Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7. Still, I don’t see why the Bible must overtly express abolitionist sentiment to be considered morally authoritative. Moreover, this objection seems in line with the same thinking behind the arguments from evil, only it’s posed specifically around whether or not the Bible has moral worth, not around God’s existence:

  1. If the Bible is moral, then it has laws that prohibit the possession of people as property.
  2. The Bible has laws that permit and regulate the possession of people as property.
  3. Therefore, the Bible is not moral.

As a modus tollens, it’s valid, but it’s not sound as the first premise is not solid like in similarly formulated arguments from evil. For there could be a morally sufficient reason for God tolerating the temporary and voluntary possession of people, such as to prevent widespread poverty that afflicted ancient peasants as is suggested in the Bible. There could be others, but the fact is humans are epistemically limited and have about an amoeba-sized view inside the Earthly petri dish. God’s perspective is rather all-encompassing, so it’s conceivable that we don’t have all the information to judge why God would tolerate the owning of people. Premise 1 also is colored by a Western-centric interpretation of slavery: If the Bible does not meet that worldview’s expectations in regard to morality, then it’s devoid of normative weight. But that conditional is clearly false.

Furthermore, I think Savage’s contention that the Bible “is a radical pro-slavery document” is a gross mischaracterization. His ignorance becomes incredibly evident when he makes that jab at the book of Philemon. In the letter, Paul beseeches Philemon to welcome back Onesimus, a runaway slave of Philemon’s who had become a Christian. He implores Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave” but “as a dearly loved brother” (Philemon 1:16). Although Paul didn’t speak against the institution of slavery, the implications of the Gospel were not conducive with the practice of institution. As all people are sinful, they’re all equal, and moreover, equal as brothers and sisters in Christ. This claim clearly is not compatible with the Roman or American South’s slavery institutions. This might be speculative, but I would conjecture this idea also undergirded Christian abolitionists’ rationale for ending slavery and influenced the Founding Fathers’ revolution and subsequent nation-building.

So, the Bible did not get “the easiest moral question” in the Bible wrong if, indeed, it’s in regard to slavery. It took a nuanced position on a complicated issue that only faintly resembled what Americans consider as slavery. If anything, the Christian tenants, properly understood, implied the buying, selling and trading of human beings as chattel as morally reprehensible and laid the groundwork to formally ending the injustice. Then for curiosity’s sake, what is “the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced?” Infanticide seems pretty straightforward, as it seems pretty hard to justify the killing of babies unless of course, they happen to be inside the womb. Then it’s not even ok; it’s a woman’s righ—oh, wait…

This also reminds me: Isn’t it interesting the famed champion of the bullied refers to the Christian students who walk out on his tirade delivered from what is a bully-pulpit as “pansy-assed?” Savage justifies his behavior as executed in self defense, despite the video shows Savage verbally segueing to talk about the Bible in his presentation and seemingly no students are heckling him for his sexual orientation or offering any sort of provocationThough it does bear asking, why the hell is Savage speaking, first of all, at a high school journalism conference, and secondly, why is the Bible a topic at such an event? All but the iron—no sorry, I mean hypocrisy is lost on me here. Here is a man who is vehemently condemning ethical double standards and slavery, who openly endorses the breeding and purchasing of children to gay couples as equality under the law.

“Chattel slavery, also called traditional slavery, is so named because people are treated as the chattel (personal property) of an owner and are bought and sold as if they were commodities.”

Google it,

Modus Pownens

Evading the Euthyphro Dilemma

Oh, it comes to this as I knew it must.  The dreaded Euthyphro Dilemma: A prowling shark, unavoidable for any theist who swims frequently and deeply enough in these waters.  I’ll admit I’ve been attacked by this shark, and I didn’t have the philosophical muscles or shark repellant to unclamp its jaws from my leg.

In my humble opinion, the Euthyphro Dilemma is without a doubt the most formidable argument against grounding morality in God.  An atheist should be keen to have it in his or her arsenal.  Well, without further ado, here’s my best effort at concocting “shark repellent.”

The Dilemma actually comes from Plato, who allegedly captures Socrates posing this riddle to Euthyphro.   I’ll give a paraphrased or modern summary of it: “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?”  Either answer is undesirable for the theist.

Riddle me this, Euthyphro!

If the first horn is taken, something is good because God commands it, morality is rendered ultimately subjective.  Whatever is good is a matter of God’s opinion.  Also, it implies a deplorable action, like torturing babies for fun, could have actually been praiseworthy only if God had decided differently.  Therefore, instead of establishing an objective morality grounded in God, morality appears to be just a product of seemingly arbitrary divine fiats.

The second horn doesn’t bode better.  It implies morality and the good are external from God, and he does not even factor into ethics.  Moreover, it challenges God’s sovereignty as he is subject to the moral standard like every other moral agent.

Ouchie!  So now what?

The False Dilemma Response

The most common theistic response is to split the horns in half and declare the dilemma a false one.  In other words, the theist isn’t confined to the two options, but there’s a third.  It’s to declare that God is the good, and his commands are reflections of his all-good nature.  Under this third choice, God couldn’t command torturing babies for fun as morally praiseworthy because it violates his good nature.  It also solves morality appearing to be external to God as it posits the good as a part of God’s haecceity or essential essence and grounding morality within it.

This third option happens to be Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig’s response of choice for the Dilemma and has probably achieved popularity among Internet and YouTube apologists thanks to his espousal.  Craig’s stamp of approval on it has also made it too tempting of a target for Internet and YouTube atheists, who have developed a rejoinder to it.

I’m unsure of who came up with it, but these defenders of the veracity of the Euthyphro Dilemma claim this doesn’t solve the issue for the theist, but instead pushes it back into different terms: Is God’s nature good because he chooses it or is his nature good because of some other external force?  Unfortunately, this riposte is not as lethal as internet atheists believe it to be.  Often this erroneously triumphed death stroke is asserted with little or no argumentation whatsoever.  This question is a fair one to ask about God’s ontology, but it doesn’t directly follow from the Euthyphro Dilemma.

If only all philosophers looked so hardcore when they think.

I, however, still must contend there are other ontological problems with this false dilemma response and subsequent doctrine of divine simplicity.  Namely, God becomes identical to his properties and becomes relegated to something of an abstract object without agency or causal power.  Philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it this way:

If God is identical with each of his properties, then, since each of his properties is a property, he is a property – a self-exemplifying property. Accordingly God has just one property: himself. This view is subject to a difficulty both obvious and overwhelming. No property could have created the world; no property could be omniscient, or, indeed, now anything at all. If God is a property, then he isn’t a person but a mere abstract object; he has no knowledge, awareness, power, love, or life. So taken, the simplicity doctrine seems an utter mistake.[1]

Enter the Mawson

The response I think is in the theist’s best interest comes from philosopher T.J. Mawson.  Instead, Mawson takes the second horn of the dilemma, but argues theists should view some moral truths like the laws of logic in relation to God.  In fact, most theists are of the mind that the laws of logic don’t constrain God’s omnipotence or freedom.  Likewise, moral truths like torture is wrong should be considered necessarily true, hence it’s not within God’s power to make torture good.

T.J. Mawson

If we view God’s omnipotence as not requiring of Him that he be able to bring about logically impossible states of affairs, then as of logical necessity agonizing pain can only ever refer to something bad, not even God can be required to be able to make agonizing pain refer to something and yet the thing to which it refers not be bad. Since of conceptual necessity torture involves the inducing of agonizing pain, so not even God can be required to be able to make a universe whereby something picked out by the concept of torture is good. We are hence not forced to say of God that he could make torture good; we are indeed forced to say the opposite, which is what our intuition told us to say anyway: not even God could make torture good in the same way that not even God could make bachelors married.[2]

Is this to say God has no role in morality?  Hardly.  Instead he instantiates these moral truths via his act of creation.  This especially works nicely when put into conjunction with the universal contingent facts about our actualized personhood that God chose freely to create.  Mawson explains it thusly:

As it happens, all people in this world have the property of suffering agonizing pain if a large amount of electricity is passed through their bodies; this being so, it is a universal truth that it’s bad to pass this amount of electricity through people. But the universal badness of passing large amounts of electricity through people is obviously the result of contingent features of the natural world, features that on theism God has freely chosen to create and that consequently it is not at all counterintuitive to suggest could have been different. Thus the theist is free to say that all substantive moral truths (as opposed to conceptual necessities) depend on God’s will in creation, but this does not, after all, have the counterintuitive consequence that we must say that God could make torture, for example, good. As we have just seen, torture is of logical necessity bad and thus not even God could make it good.[3]

There we have it!  Thanks to Mawson’s response, God is still pivotal to morality while his sovereignty is still very much intact.  I think it’s fair to say this is a common response to the Euthyphro Dilemma most theists and atheists online haven’t thought about.  I’m receptive to any feedback, critical or concurring, that would be given.  But until I get some:

Take that, shark!!!

Modus Pownens

[1] Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature? 47, cited in Nash, Concept of God, 94.

[2] Mawson, The Euthyphro Dilemma, http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Mawson-The-Euthyphro-Dilemma.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

An Exegetic Look at Abraham and Faith: A Response to SomeMusician

SomeMusician, Oscar, has written a response of his own to Sifting Reality‘s post entitled “What a Relief.”  At the end of his post, Oscar has Christopher Hitchens, by the means of a YouTube Video, attack the notion of faith’s reliability in God’s commands via the story of Abraham and Isaac.  It’s an emphatic conclusion to both Oscar’s argument and post.  I’ll grant rhetorically it’s effective, but obviously I don’t find it logically convincing.

Before I go any further, please take note of two things: I plan to do a response to the Euthyphro Dilemma Oscar brings up in a followup post because Socrates’ ole riddle deserves a lot of attention, and secondly, I won’t deny that I struggle with God’s order to sacrifice Isaac.  I’m not some automaton devoid of an immediate emotional response of disgust to something as morally depraved as child sacrifice.

Certainly, at face value, Hitchens’ proclamation intuitively seems justified even to me, someone who disagrees with him almost on everything.  But let me fight YouTube with Vimeo:

Granted, the video addresses more the Problem of Evil, but I think Swinburne’s point about the importance of context in the interpretation of Christianity is most pertinent here.  So yes, sorry, it all comes down to context, which I know atheists think is just a cop out response.  However, just because you don’t like it, doesn’t falsify it.

Like I’ve argued previously, if someone’s to criticize one of the most influential and pervasive ideologies in humanity, it seems sensible to understand the hermeneutics applied to its authoritative text.  Many atheists aren’t this studious and neither are tons of fundy Christians.  That’s why the Westboro Baptist Church and its antics seems so asinine.  I’ll admit there are a vast number of Christians who don’t understand their own religion.  I’ll also concede this is a monstrous failure and a dereliction of spiritual duty of the Church.  And while I’m digressing, I’ll grant that atheists aren’t unjustified in thinking that Christian fundamentalism is the consensus of mainstream Christianity because in some places it seems to be everywhere.  But there are also numerous Christians who hold to the historical and intellectually robust teachings of the early Church.  It’s unfortunate yet not unsurprising so many atheists are more content than a cucumber to ignite fundy straw men than tackling real Christian doctrine, which is significantly more fire resistant.  In the conduct of debate, you want to grant your opposition the most charitable position because if you can take down the ideology at its strongest, then all the weaker positions fall with it.  So, just saying…

…CONTEXT IS PIVOTAL.  Now, I don’t intend to imply Oscar was intellectually dishonest or lazy with his critique of faith or the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Oscar is by no means an unfair or militant atheist because that’s the furthest claim from the truth.  He, however, despite what I frankly believe was his most honest effort, took the story of Abraham and Isaac out of context.

Biblical stories and their implications to the whole of Christianity are hardly ever as simple as atheists will portray, and the case of Abraham and Isaac is no exception.  The story doesn’t start at Genesis 22:1. with God’s command to Abraham.  It also doesn’t begin with Isaac’s birth at Genesis 21:1.  Instead, our story commences at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Genesis with the call of Abram.

The LORD said to Abram: “Go out from your land, you relatives and your father’s house to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you.  I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you.  I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:1-3)

For our purposes, God promised the then Abram tons of descendants despite the fact Abram and his wife Sarai had been trying for years and were now well beyond child-rearing age.  This promise would be formalized into a covenant between God and Abram later in chapter 15 in which Abram sacrifices a cow, a female goat and a ram all of which are three years old, plus a turtle dove and a young pigeon (Genesis 15:9).  Now, what happens a few verses down in the chapter is crucial.

17 When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals.  18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “I give this land to your offspring, from the brook of Egypt to the Euphrates River: 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:17-21)

God manifesting himself as a fire pot and a flaming torch passing through the sacrificed carcasses is significant.  In ancient Mesopotamian culture, this act essentially meant may I be torn a part and roasted like these animals if I don’t keep the covenant we just established.  In today’s online vernacular, God was telling Abram that He was serious and wasn’t trolling him.

God did fulfill his promise to Abram turned Abraham in Genesis 22 with Isaac’s birth, and God’s good will wasn’t solely exemplified by that covenant.  He also promised Abraham in Genesis 18:32-33 he would spare Sodom and Gomorrah if 10 righteous people could be found.  Unfortunately, there weren’t that many.  Only Abraham’s cousin Lot and his two daughters were saved from the destruction (Genesis 19:29).  God also took care of Ishmael and Hagar upon Abraham’s request (Genesis 21:11-21) despite the fact Abraham’s union with Hagar was a sign of mistrust in God’s covenant.

The Angel of the Lord staying Abraham's hand.

Therefore, we have multiple instances of God being gracious and faithful to Abraham.  Now, when this evidence is taken into account with God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, we have a much different picture than what Hitchens or other atheists would have us believe.  The order for Isaac’s sacrifice wasn’t some capricious, arbitrary fiat from out of the blue.  God had clearly demonstrated his favor to Abraham earlier, which means Abraham did have some reason to trust and reciprocate with faith of his own.  It simply did not make sense for God to suddenly pull the rug from under Abraham’s feet.  God had promised Abraham would have descendants as numerous as the stars.  Killing Isaac would be drastically contrary to that covenant.

Now, it’s impossible to know what was going through Abraham’s head at the time.  I’ve heard some theologians speculate he believed God would raise Isaac from the dead.  Whatever thoughts he had, Abraham obeyed and make no mistake, showed extraordinary faith.  Was his faith unwarranted, a complete shot in the dark?  No.  He had reason to think things would play out right, and they did.

Interestingly, here’s a biblical case for faith that is not blind or stubborn.  It was an act of trust, which make me wonder…

…from where did we get this concept of blind faith?

Modus Pownens

The Other Presumption of Atheism

Yep, I’m not writing about what is typically identified as the Presumption of Atheism—the hotly disputed assumption that atheism, not theism, is the default position in this whole debate.  That’s a whole other can of worms to be opened at a later time.  Rather, this provocatively titled post is about another and all too common oversight to which many atheists seem vulnerable, and I would contend it’s the atheists of this time’s greatest weakness and ultimate undoing.

Inspiration for this post came from my ethics professor, who openly admitted he was an atheist.  Today he explained that he came from a long line of Baptist preachers and how they left him the impression that they thought most people were going to end up boiling in a lake of fire.  My professor said this belief contributed to his eventual apostasy.  He went on further to make the disparaging comment that if Christians really believed the vast majority of people would be broiling with the fishes for eternity, that they would be out in Speaker Circle like Brother Jed and Sister Cindy yelling at and accusing students.

A little background information on Brother Jed and Sister Cindy: They’re a married couple of Christian fundamentalists who frequently stand in Speaker Circle and engage in combative evangelism.  Speaker Circle is small amphitheater on campus where the speaker has the right to proclaim whatever he or she wants to students sitting down to listen and those on their way to class.

Brother Jed "evangelizing" among students at Speaker Circle.

Now, I don’t agree with Brother Jed’s methods.  I feel they cause more harm than good.  Plus, he has uttered claims that are both non-biblical and blasphemous.  Apparently, he hasn’t sinned in years, and he has the right to judge others despite the Bible reading, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” ~ 1 John 1:8 or “‘If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to cast the first stone at her.'” ~ John 8:7.

Brother Jed and fundamentalists like him seem to lack significant knowledge of Christian theology and teachings.  Everyone still sins, even Christians.  Judgement is God’s alone.  The Bible is explicitly clear on those points.  So often these fundamentalists have their heads so far stuck in the ass of the Old Testament they fail to recognize the New Testament and superseding covenant established within it.  They don’t take in Christianity comprehensively and neither do many atheists.

Both groups, who are spectrally opposite to each other, make the same error.  Both are so frequently unaware and unappreciative of all the thought and scholarly effort behind the religion.  In the case of my professor, he was raised on a diet of dogmatism and porous theology that of course a lake of perpetually burning fire seemed absurd.  However, I’m aghast at how anyone who objectively opens and reads Revelations where said lake is described can come to the conclusion that it’s a physical place.  There is nowhere in the Bible that provides a sound basis for Hell to be an actual tangible region with its own geography much like the afterlife in Greek mythology.  It’s not like the River Styx empties into the mythical Lake of Fire in Revelations.  The actual book is permeated with metaphors and allegories.  Hence, for my professor to so egregiously mischaracterize the Christian concept of Hell must mean he is ignorant of Christian doctrine.

And finally I get to it, the other presumption of atheism.  That once they think atheism must be true and theism is patent nonsense, they underestimate the latter.  They straw man and bastardize Christian theism.  They make woefully fallacious arguments against what they erroneously deem such a indefensible position.  So, yes, my professor is correct in thinking Christians believe Hell will be awful forever for a vast number of individuals, but is incorrect in thinking that this implies we must all “preach” like Brother Jed if we genuinely hold to that.  He again is an ignoramus to evangelization.  That, many Christians believe the Holy Spirit plays the pivotal role in conversion and we are mere pawns in a cosmic chess game for souls.  Or that there are different ways to evangelize.  Or maybe some Christians just realize there are more effective methods for persuading people than shouting and casting judgement on your intended audience.

It’s evident to me my professor, who specializes in ethics, isn’t remotely intimate with the current happenings of philosophy of religion or Christian theism.  Once he became entrenched in his atheism, he didn’t bother to understand or study the opposing position before he criticizes it.  He assumed it to be weak, lackluster and defeated by David Hume and Bertrand Russell long ago.  He undervalued the arguments made by the brilliant theists of the past and present.  He presumed Christian theism is not an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

He presumed too much.

“Know thy enemy,”

Modus Pownens

Blood on Our Hands

A common argument levied against theism, specifically the Christian and Islamic varieties, is one that attempts to blame the theist for the world’s problems.  Often, the atheist asserts the vast majority of wars were religious or religion retards progress.  But despite its popularity, the charge is blatantly fallacious for multiple reasons and should be abandoned by able minds.

Reason 1:

The assertion is historical nonsense.  The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of wars has little to do with religion.  Here, the atheist erroneously will be all too keen to bring up the crusades, Spanish Inquisition and Irish Protestants vs. Irish Catholics.  Granted this is true, but there are so many conflicts not because of religious differences: the Greco-Persian wars, Peloponnesian Wars, Roman Civil Wars, the Punic Wars, Roman Servile Wars, Julius Caesar Gaulic Wars—fast-forwarding a bit— the French and Indian War, American Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Napoleonic Wars, Crimean War, American Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II are a just a from the top of my head.

I won’t deny terrible things have been done in the name of religion and or God, but to hold religion responsible of humanity’s historical atrocities is without a solid basis.  There are plenty of counterexamples to cast doubt on such a claim.  The common denominator here is not religion, but people.  Note, this sentiment will be a trend throughout this post.

Reason 2:

An ideology should be judged by its tenants and not by its malpractice.  Many of the Christian culprits for the horrors of the crusades or Spanish Inquisition weren’t acting very Christian, were they?  Given the most important commandments prescribed by Jesus were “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” ~ Luke 10:27, these Christians were ignoring some important Christian rules.  Again, don’t  pronounce judgment on a worldview by its corruption.

The same can be applied to Islam, especially nowadays.  The terrorist fanatics, who are a minority, and their perversion of Jihad is not representative of all Muslims nor Islamic theology.  People are the problem; not the actual belief system.

There exists an important distinction between religion and theism that I feel like I need to elucidate.  The two are not the same thing despite atheists will lump them together with reckless abandon.  Jews, Christians and Muslims are all theists and the faults of one group don’t necessarily invalidate the others’ or theism as a whole even if Reason 2 wasn’t applied.  Moreover, there are non-religious, rationally affirmed theists, hence even if all forms of organized religious monotheism were shown to be false, it doesn’t completely follow that theism is false.  Last but not least, there are religions that don’t fundamentally involve belief in God such as Buddhism or Taoism.  So, please understand, theism is a sufficient condition of religion, but not a necessary one.

Reason 3:

It’s plausible to think even if Christianity and Islam had not risen to prominence people would still be killing everybody else.  To stick it where the sun don’t shine and for the sake of argument, lets say atheism instead came to dominate life in the European Middle Ages.  That, the pagans renounced their various polytheistic beliefs for the view the natural world is all there is.  It’s impossible to know exactly how things would play out, but I feel it’s arguable that the strong would still trample the weak, some other reason than God would be employed to justify it and any opposing ideas would be quelled to consolidate power.  How do I support this?  Well, it’s already happened.  Joseph Stalin had a knack of killing his own people “to preserve the wonderful legacy comrade Vladimir Lenin had given to Mother Russia.”

People, not just Stalin, are depraved.  When we encounter different cultures, ideas and religions, our nature is prone to mistrust and often, to react violently to these foreign concepts and the aliens who hold them.  It’s certainly not right, but as a species, it’s what we do.

Moreover, if this theory that religious belief is pathologically linked to violence and war is worthy of consideration, then we’d expect to see a more peaceful world because most divine right monarchies have been supplanted with governments with the separation of church and state.  Well, we expected incorrectly.  The last century was easily the most violent of our history.  See World War I and World War II for more detail.  Oh, and after those blood baths, we came a razor’s blade away on multiple occasions of self-immolation as a race during the Cold War.  Lastly, the secular United States could be considered the most belligerent country on the planet as we’ve been in a number of conflicts over the past 100 years.


I think I’ve successfully refuted this way too traversed avenue of attack.  And it’s a path many a theist is also too eager to travel.  I’ve seen on the Internet many Christians accuse atheism being the cause of more and death and suffering than Christianity, and they actually attempt to justify this by attributing the atheistic communist regimes of the last half of 20th century as culpable.  Much of what I argued above can be and should be applied to the defense of atheists and atheism in general.  But what I really take issue with here is the attitude here of both parties.

See, it isn’t fair for this to be even called a fallacious argument anymore because it isn’t.  It’s more egregious than that.  Now, it’s devolved to nothing more than a shouting match, a blame-game.  The question is no longer if this is a viable topic of discussion; it’s who has more blood on their hands, and the truth is we’re all submerged and drowning.  We’ve trivialized human life, a notion most theists and atheists ought to find deplorable.  We’re forgetting we all value humanity.

As a Christian theist, I reject atheism, but I don’t reject atheists.  I don’t hold the ones I know as responsible for the horrid acts committed during the Cultural Revolution of China.  Nor do I expect any of them, or any intellectually solid atheist for that matter, to hold me accountable for the Salem Witch Trials.  They might find the arguments for God’s existence and theism as a whole unconvincing, and that’s fine—I find metaphysical naturalism shallow and wanting—but it’s not too much of a concession on either of our parts to acknowledge our respective worldviews aren’t false on the grounds of the actions of other Christians or atheists past, present or future.  It’s that simple.

I’ll leave you with the wise, yet succinct words of former YouTube Christian apologist Veritas48:

“Don’t judge a philosophy by its abuse,”

Modus Pownens

An Apology for Apologist Lee Strobel

Any time you debate a popular controversial issue—say, I don’t know, the existence of God—there is bound to be a time where you take some flack.  There is a sizable chunk of emotion invested on both sides, and this can make for a potent powder keg.  And sometimes this potential erupts into a conflagration of ad hominems and potty-mouth language.  Needless to write, it can get pretty nasty out there for both the theist and atheist.  So sometimes when you’re in the trenches with a fellow soldier, you got to watch his back.  Semper fi, baby!

In my opinion, Lee Strobel is one of the most hated Christian apologists out there.

Lee Strobel is a personal hero.

I would say Kent Hovind, Ray “the Banana Man” Comfort, Matt Slick and William Lane Craig.  Hovind, Comfort and Slick are a little in over the heads.  Craig, on the other hand, probably doesn’t deserve all the crap flung his way.  The notoriety  from his debates and the Kalam Cosmological Argument gushes a most beautiful, ruby-red that the sharks can’t help but bite.  In his defense, Craig is a legitimate philosopher and is taken seriously by his atheist counterparts in academia.  Philosophers such as Quentin Smith and others felt Kalam was worthy of a bona fide response.  Alas, this post is about Strobel.

Now, I’m won’t argue Strobel is the greatest apologist this side of Aquinas or of this generation.  I won’t contend he doesn’t make errors or is immune to criticism.  But those who assert he is an idiot —mainly those of the New Atheist ilk—and his work isn’t worthy of consideration are out of line.  Strobel is no moron; he’s an accomplished writer, who appeals to the layperson through his Case for a Creator, Case for Christ and Case for the Real Jesus books.

DISCLAIMER: I’m about to come off really pompous here.  The reason why I have immense respect for Strobel is the fact he is a product of the University of Missouri’s Walter Williams School of Journalism, the same institution I’m enrolled in.  So what’s the big whoop?  For those who don’t know, MU’s journalism school is a Mecca of the discipline.  It’s the oldest journalism program in the country and arguably, the world.  I fully acknowledge I’m not impartial here, but MU’s reputation is well deserved.  I’ve already gained professional experience reporting, writing and editing that many non-MU journalism students will not accomplish until out of school.  But enough of me spreading the MU gospel.

Both Lee Strobel and I have walked through these "hallowed halls."

The point is Strobel was trained at the best journalism school in the world.  He knows how to be objective and investigate things better than most.  Even when he set out as an atheist to disprove Christianity, he was able to put his personal bias aside.  Strobel is not a weak-minded individual, but rather a great example of open-mindedness and free-thinking.

Obviously, I admire Strobel.  His work is what introduced me to apologetics and continues to be a driving influence behind my efforts here.


Modus Pownens