Archive for June, 2010
Suffering & Substitution

There are two streams of attacks against Christianity that seem to be in conflict with one another. On the one hand we have the problem of pain. This has been described as the most difficult problem that Christianity faces. Example after example of horrendous evils are marshaled forth as evidence against God’s existence.

On the other side of the coin there are attacks against the doctrine of Christ’s penal-substitutionary atonement. People describe this blood atonement as “barbaric” or “child abuse” or as Kant stated “morally debilitating.” Princeton Seminary’s George Hunsinger rightly observes that “The blood of Christ is repugnant to the Gentile mind, whether ancient or modern. This mind would prevail were it not continually disrupted by grace.”

Thus one stream of criticism faults God for not doing enough to solve the problem of pain while the other attacks God for going too far in the atonement. One stream attacks God for not taking sin seriously enough and the other faults him for taking it too seriously. These two streams collide together, canceling the force of one another creating a beautiful, calm lake.

XFiles: The Faith, by Chuck Colson

(Book: The Faith, by Chuck Colson.)

I have a couple more substantial books coming in, but in the meantime I thought I’d take a quick look at Chuck Colson’s book The Faith. As some of you may recall, I bought this book in response to a request from a publicist at Zondervans, who invited me to submit questions to Colson, which the latter promised to respond to publicly in his blog. I sent him two rather simple ones (I thought), and never heard from him again. Go figure. So now I’ve got the book, and I’ve got a gap in the XFiles series, so it seems like it must be God’s will for me to review it now.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest ultra-condensed summary: What do Christian’s believe? A curious mixture of evangelical pop theology and contemporary conservative politics (what Colson calls “social holiness”). Why do Christians believe? Because great Christians demonstrate the power of God by the way they fearlessly face persecution and death for their beliefs. Why does it matter? Because if Christians don’t jump up and vote Republican every time Karl Rove says “family values,” they might end up following the example of the great Christians, and frankly that scares the shit out of them. The Church may love martyrs, but they love them best when they’re someone else.

This curious dissonance pervades much of The Faith, with Colson admiring and even gloating over the sufferings of Christians as though this were a noble and enviable witness, while at the same time superstitiously attributing these sufferings to a lack of faith, and suggesting that we could and should avoid suffering a similar fate by doing more to make our nation a Christian nation.

For example, the book opens with the story of the homicidal maniac who broke into an Amish schoolhouse and shot ten girls, five of whom died from their wounds. The last chapter features the story of the murder of Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist. Both stories are told in vivid, emotional detail, though slanted to make the victims’ desperation sound like noble piety in the girls’ case, and sheer futility in van Gogh’s case. Both stories are told to try and bring home the point that only “orthodox” Christianity can save us from having future generations praise us for the same reasons as Colson praises the Amish girls. God forbid.

In the introduction, Colson says that his goal is to lay out, in about 240 pages, the key points of Christian orthodoxy that Christians need to know. Obviously, if you’re going to summarize the key points of Christian doctrine in a mere 240 pages, there’s a substantial number important points you need to discuss. You need to be extremely focused and selective. Sensational stories, told in lavish and even lurid detail, would only waste space that could be spent discussing things like how Christians address the problems with the Trinity, or theodicy, or other vital doctrinal issues.

Colson, however, is not a theologian, he’s a politician. And make no mistake, The Faith is a political book rather than a theological one. Though the subject matter of the book is ostensibly religious and doctrinal, the primary goal of the book is to unite the largest possible body of voters believers around a core set of conservative doctrinal and political principles. Don’t expect this book to explore, in any depth, any of the issues that have divided Christians in the past and continue to divide them today.

Take the Protestant doctrine of sola fide (“[salvation] by faith alone”). If this idea is part of “the Faith once for all delivered to the saints,” then the Roman Catholics have clearly strayed from orthodoxy, but if not, then the Protestants are the heretics. What does The Faith have to say about these issues? Nothing much. He does affirm that sola fide—properly understood—is part of Christian orthodoxy. But look at how he says it.

The New Testament makes it clear that this gift of salvation, becoming righteous, or exchanging identities comes by faith—not works—or any merit of our own (Ephesians 2:8). I helped to organize a group called Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), which underlined the agreement of both communions on this central question in a remarkable 1997 document, affirming what the Reformers meant by sola fide—or faith alone!*

*[footnote:] “The Gift of Salvation,” First Things (January 1998), 20—23, also at “We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift, conferred though the Father’s sheer graciousness out of the love he bears us in his Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification…Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).”

Sounds like a great victory for ecumenism, doesn’t it? Particularly for the Protestant side of ecumenism? Colson certainly seems to think that he’s managed to convince the Catholics (or at least some Catholics) that the Reformers were right about sola fide, and that salvation is by faith alone. In actual fact, though, all he’s done is to get them to agree to redefine sola fide in Catholic terms, such that faith itself becomes a work (“an act of the whole person…issuing in a changed life). Notice that the core disagreement—whether works like baptism are required for salvation—is neither mentioned not discussed. All that has happened is that he’s gotten both sides to agree that works alone are not sufficient to earn justification. Since neither Catholics nor Protestants teach that good works can save you apart from the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, this was not a difficult compromise to reach.

Compromise, consensus, lowest common denominator—these are the tools of the politician’s craft, and Colson is using them with a rather cavalier disregard for the deeper doctrinal issues that he’s glossing over. The doctrine is actually less important, you see. What matters is getting more and more Christians to lower their standards, ignore their theological differences, and unite around a conservative social and political platform so that conservative Republicans can have a solid, monolithic, and multitudinous power base to draw on.

That’s why such a short book on doctrine has so many lengthy and tabloidesque digressions: they not only evoke manipulatable emotions, they also help fill in the gaps left by the important issues that he’s not going to touch, in the interests of political expediency.

This book is a (no pun intended) textbook example of why a failure to separate church and state inevitably does the church more harm than help. The important issues, the issues that define why your church is not some other church instead, are left behind, sacrificed on the altar of political necessity. Unity comes at the expense of doctrinal compromise, and the state religion is reduced to what little bit of vague nothing happens to be shared in common by all believers.

As you know, I like to dig into a book and see what makes it tick. That’s probably not going to happen this time, because Colson isn’t so much defending Christian doctrine as he is attempting to exploit it for conservative political ends. Besides, it’s not a terribly substantial book, and there’s just not a whole lot of depth to dig into. So as soon as the other books get here from Amazon, I’ll probably abandon The Faith.

After all, it won’t be the first time.


But where knowable truth is denied, ambition suffocates. Meandering replaces meaning, confusion trumps conviction, ambivalence swallows aspiration. We become living symptoms of the last days, “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7). (Dave Harvey,

Individualism once allied with a societal assumption of objective truth and eternal verities could generate at least some men and women of courage, honor, vision; individualism allied with philosophical pluralism and the scarcely qualified relativism of post-modernity generates ‘a world without heroes.’ (D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God)

XFiles: The surprise ending

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)

We’re just about done with Geisler and Turek’s attempt to deal with the existence of evil and the problems this poses for their allegedly all-good, all-wise and all-powerful god. And, in a bit of a surprise twist at the end, it turns out that the unbeliever actually wins this one. The Christian runs out of answers, admits that his “explanations” don’t really do the job, and ends up encouraging the atheist to just have faith. Great way to end a book called I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, eh?

Remember last week, when Dr. Geistur (the Christian) argued at some length that there were five possibilities regarding the creation of the world, and that there was some reason why God had no choice but to create a world that would end up full of sin and evil? Yeah. Turns out that was all a sham. This world is not the world that an all-wise, all-powerful and all-good God would make, and Geistur knows it.

GEISTUR: God can’t force free creatures not to sin. Forced freedom is a contradiction.

STRAW: But this world could be better if there were one less murder or one less rape. So God failed because he didn’t create the best possible world.

GEISTUR: Hold on. While I will admit that this world is not the best possible world, it may be the best way to get to the best possible world.

Geistur has been caught out, so he tries to quickly change the subject, which we’ll get to in a moment. But let’s notice first that Straw’s point is exactly right. Not all attempts to sin are successful. Sometimes you try to blow up a plane, and only set your undies on fire (ouch!). This world we live in already contains the possibility that sin can be thwarted, despite the free choice of the would-be perpetrator. Even if you insist that God is too pro-choice to deprive us of our free will, He still has plenty of opportunity to intervene to prevent actual harm from being done between the time sin occurs in the heart and the time the villain’s evil intention is carried out.

What’s more, when Person A plans to murder Person B, A’s free will has implications for B’s free will, since murder interferes with B’s ability to freely choose what they will do with their life. Even if God is constrained to minimize infringements on free will, it’s a wash. Somebody‘s free will is going to be harmed, so why does the evil person get his way and the good person doesn’t? Straw’s point doesn’t go far enough (naturally, since he’s only a straw man atheist). It’s not just that God failed to create the best possible world, it’s that He fails every day to do what He can to make it better.

Oops, the atheist is right, time to wave hands and try and distract the audience. You gotta love the choice of words here. Geistur can’t come right out and claim that this world is the best way to bring about the best possible world, because then he’d have to show how it’s the best possible way. He says it “may be” the best possible way. Faced with a solid, substantial, real-world problem raised by the atheist, the Christian backpedals and offers only empty speculation.

The problem is that Geistur doesn’t really have an answer for this one, or for the problem of evil in general. The best he can offer is some hand-waving and the hope that somehow, some way some mysterious and inscrutable answer might be out there somewhere. He assumes that it probably builds character or something.

GEISTUR: God may have permitted evil in order to defeat it. As I’ve already said, if evil is not allowed, then the higher virtues cannot be attained. People who are redeemed have stronger character than people who have not been tested. Soul-building requires some pain.


So if men, being made in God’s image, are devoid of the higher virtues and cannot obtain them without allowing and participating in evil, then it stands to reason that God must also be devoid of the higher virtues, and unable to obtain them, since there’s nobody available to redeem Him from His sins. Geistur’s argument also implies that God must have a weaker character, for the same reason. Otherwise it would be possible to have a strong character without sinning, and then we could have a world in which evil did not play such a vital role.

Let’s remember, too, that we’re only talking about the speculation that the present world may be ONE means of arriving at a better world. It’s not the only way to do so, and it’s certainly not the best. As we’ve mentioned before, Geistur’s own Super Bowl illustration gives us one model that a wise and good God could have used to build a world that builds character through competition. If God were smarter than His worshippers, He ought to be able to think of lots more. (Hey, as long as we’re indulging in empty speculations anyway, right?)

Unfortunately for Geistur’s rosy and shapeless daydream, Straw spoils the mood by asking why God would create people knowing they were going to choose hell. Geistur’s answer, rather astonishingly, is to suggest that it’s like parents choosing to have children, knowing that some day they would disobey! No, seriously, he tries to make it sound like an omniscient God, knowing full well the endless agonies to be suffered by the damned in Hell, would be no more put off by it than a parent would be at the thought of a child choosing to go his own way. Geistur even brings in his Super Bowl illustration again to try and sell the point.

GEISTUR: I was willing to take the risk of loss in order to experience the joy of love. The same is true  of every Super Bowl. Both teams know that one will lose, yet both are willing to play the game despite that risk.

Can’t you just see God sitting up in heaven, in His comfy armchair, TV remote in one hand, cold beer in the other, saying, “Yeah, I knew that billions would end up screaming and sobbing in ceaseless torture just so I could have a few worshipers, but that’s a risk that I was willing to take. You have to take risks to get the most out of life, you know.”

Nice guy. And this is Geistur, the Christian, painting us this cozy picture of his God deliberately creating sinners to go to Hell because the rewards to Him outweighed the risks to us—at least as far as He was concerned. Not a sparrow falls to earth without God’s knowledge, Jesus tells us. It’s just that God doesn’t care. Sweet.

Let’s just give each player a chance for one final quote:

STRAW: I must admit that your intellectual answers make some sense, but evil still bothers me.

GEISTUR: It bothers me too, and it should.

That’s a good closing line. It should bother him, because his straw man’s praise notwithstanding, his intellectual answers only show the tremendous inconsistencies in his Gospel. The rest of Geistur’s lines are all about having faith in some invisible Comforter Who, in some indefinable, subjective, imaginary way, will “help” us to endure the evil that his bastard God has benevolently prescribed for us, as “good” medicine to help us build some kind of “higher character.” Oh yes, and Jesus died on the cross, so He knows all about what it means to have to endure the consequences of sin. Well, except for the part about eternal suffering in Hell, of course. But that’s a risk He was willing to take, so He could get a few worshippers.

I think we can see now why Geistur’s very first priority in this discussion was to demand that we assume that God exists. Under no circumstances is any of this evidence allowed to be applied to the central question of the book, i.e. whether or not real-world evidence reflects the existence of a Gospel-style deity. It might seem like the most fundamental obvious question an apologist ought to have to deal with, but it’s off-limits. And now we know why: the real-world evidence is not consistent with the existence of a God that matches Geistur’s description.

God does not show up in real life. The only source of information we have about God is what we can obtain from the thoughts, words, and feelings of men. Not only is evidence of God absent from the real world, but the evidence which does exist is deeply and fundamentally inconsistent with the evidence that would result from such a God existing and creating us.

Geisler and Turek are right about one thing, though: they don’t have enough faith. When you believe what men tell you, just because men tell you, despite seeing how inconsistent it is with the real world, that’s not faith. It’s gullibility.

And we’re done! There are two more appendices, but they’re primarily aimed at refuting liberal Christianity, and I’m not terribly interested in pursuing that. Maybe some day. But I think we’ve pretty much finished our consideration of what Geisler and Turek think of as the primary evidence for God’s existence. It’s a weird combination of superstition, denial, double standards, and (of course) plain old gullibility, but it’s not what I’d call really good evidence.

So much for that then.

A White Christian Nation

As President Obama once remarked, America is not a Christian nation, or at least not just a Christian nation. It’s probably his most-quoted statement (although his quoters tend to have a curious inability to report the “not just a Christian nation” part). It offended a lot of people, even though it’s factually true. There are indeed non-Christians living in America, and since America is a democratic republic, non-Christians do have a significant say in what the country’s values, priorities, and policies are. A simple and even uncontroversial fact—but some people don’t want to hear it. To them, America is a Christian nation, and any attempt to say otherwise is an attack on the Christian faith.

How can we help such people understand why America is not (and does not want to be) a Christian nation? The other day I though of a parallel that might be helpful: calling America a “Christian Nation” is like calling America a “White Nation.” Yes, there were quite a lot of Founding Fathers who espoused at least vaguely Christian rhetoric, just as there were quite a few who owned slaves. And yes, you can find a lot of early American policies and precedents that favored Christianity, just as you can find a lot that favored white men. And you can even argue that, by “freedom of religion,” the Fathers meant being free to choose whatever flavor of Christianity you like best, just as you can argue that when a slave owner like Thomas Jefferson writes “all men are created equal,” he really means only that all white males are equal, and not that women and/or other races are also equal.

If you’re a white supremacist, you may not see anything wrong with doing any of the above. If you’re a Christian supremacist, then you may see a problem only with the “White Nation” arguments (even though they’re the same as your own, slightly re-framed). And that’s the point. The Christian Nation arguments are Christian Supremacist arguments. They’re a bigoted demand that your religion be publicly and officially acknowledged as supreme above all other religions, just as white supremacists demand that whites be held superior to all other races. And that’s why sensible and fair-minded men and women should oppose all efforts to turn America into the kind of Christian nation that our Founding Fathers came here to get away from.

How to Protect Yourself From Emotional Manipulation

Given the reality that we as human beings have a very strong self-centered aspect of our beings called the ego, many problems arise when this aspect of the human experience goes uncontrolled. Manipulation has always been a favored tool of the ego in order to get what it wants. This manipulation can come in either a physical form or it can be seen to work on the emotional level in order to break the psyche into meeting the manipulator’s desires. Properly identifying the ways in which people emotionally manipulate others can save us much suffering in the future when identified early enough. By protecting ourselves from being manipulated on the emotional level, we are able to free ourselves once and for all from the violation of our universal right of free will. The following will be a detailed list of signs to look for in people that are trying to emotionally manipulate others and how to defend against these sinister tactics.

You make a statement that is turned around to be used against you in a negative way.

The person will speak with an air of honesty that is in fact a cover for their true intentions. An example would be that  you would tell this person something like,  “I am really angry that you forgot my birthday.” Their response would be that  “it makes me feel sad that you would think I would forget your birthday, I should have told you of the great personal stress I am facing at the moment, but you see I didn’t want to trouble you. You are right I should have put all this pain (by this point, persuasive tears may begin to appear in order to give more credence to this manipulation tactic being used) aside and focused on your birthday. Sorry.” Your intuition may sense that this elaborate apology is not genuine. However, since they said the magic words,  you are essentially left with nothing more to say or you will find yourself trying to control their fake anger. When this scenario plays out, do not accept an apology that is as real as their true intentions. If you do accept the apology, you have just been emotionally manipulated! If it does not feel genuine,  it probably is not. Do not allow yourself to me emotionally blackmailed because if you do that one time, the emotional manipulator will see that it can be used as a successful method of getting what he or she desires.

The person presents his or herself as a willing helper.

A person that acts as an emotional manipulator plays the part of someone who is willing to help out with any given task. If you ask for their help with something, he or she will be more than willing to agree. If you did not ask for their help, he or she will volunteer to help with any given task. Seeing an offer for help looks like a wonderful thing, but in the mind of an emotional manipulator, this is merely a tactical move in order to fulfill a selfish desire he or she has. If you accept their offer to help,  he or she will express their unwillingness to help by letting out several sighs that are loud enough for you to notice, or some other non-verbal signs that let you know they actually do not want to help you with whatever it was they offered to help with. You will notice this and tell them that it does not seem as if they actually want to help, and this is when he or she begin their main manipulation efforts. He or she will show their great will to help you and that you are being unreasonable. In order to bypass this manipulation, ignore the fake sighs and subtle cues that he or she is unwilling to help. You can also confront the individual directly and deliver an ultimatum (albeit in a civil manner).

They say something but later assure you that they did not say it at all.

This is one tactic that you can see being used in many aspects of society, perhaps the political sphere being the greatest user of this. If you constantly feel like there may be something wrong with your memory recall because you remember one thing and the emotional manipulator “remembers” another, then be cautious. Those who have mastered the “art” of emotional manipulation are experts in justifying their actions, turning things around against you, and rationalizing situations. It is as if they have graduated The University of Lying and are incredibly skilled in passing off even the most ridiculous lie without giving any hints that he or she is being deceitful. They can be expert persuaders to the point that you begin to question your own memories and sanity. To combat this technique by the emotional manipulator, keeping a log of what he or she says is a good start to having definitive proof that he or she is lying right in your face. It does not matter how you go about doing this. It can be in the form of having another person with you when the manipulator is saying whatever it is they are saying, writing it down, recording it, etc.

They put you in a guilt trip.

Emotional manipulators are experts in the craft of guilt-tripping. They have the ability to make you feel guilty either for not speaking up, for speaking up, for not showing enough emotion, for showing too much emotion, for not giving and/or caring enough, and for giving and/or caring too much. There are no lines that the emotional manipulator will not cross in order to put you in a guilt trip. This person will very rarely exhibit any real needs or desires he or she has. Instead, emotional manipulation is the game they play in order to get these needs and desires satisfied. Combined with guilt, sympathy is a very powerful tool to manipulate your emotions. The emotional manipulator is excellent at playing the victim. They stir up your will to support, care, and nurture them. These individuals very rarely do their own dirty work, so to speak. They are able to make you do it for them and when you do (through indirect means) they will say that they never expected or wanted you to do anything at all. Do not worry, you are not losing your sanity! Make it abundantly clear to them that you are not going to do their dirty work, which can be said by saying  “I am fully confident in your ability to work this out on your own.”

They are indirect.

By taking the passive-aggressive route, emotional manipulators are able to deal with things indirectly. Actions in this category include talking behind your back, getting others to say to you what they would not say themselves, and finding subtle ways of letting you know they are unhappy. They will tell you things that you want to hear, but then do something to undermine that. An example of this would be if the manipulator says that “of course I want you to go back to school baby and you know I will always support you.” Fast forward to a night where you are either studying for an exam or perhaps finishing a project for work and your children (if you have some, that is) are throwing temper tantrums, the television’s volume is set really high, and your pets need taking care of  – all the while “honey” is sitting on the couch looking at you blankly. If you were to call them out on this, they will likely say something like “well you can’t expect life to just stop because you have an exam or have to finish a project for work can you dear?” This is a difficult one to deal with, and if an emotional manipulator pulls this one, the choices for response are very limited…even as much that I do not have an adequate method to combat this besides getting this person out of your life.

They always seem to have it worse than you.

This tactic is pretty straight-forward. No matter what problems you may have in your life, the emotional manipulator always has problems worse than you. They shift focus from your problems to their supposed problems (which almost never exist in the way they claim they do). If you sense that they are not being genuine and are just trying to shift the focus of the conversation on themselves in order to satisfy an egoistic desire, they will display feelings of being deeply hurt and will call you selfish. Yes, they will call you selfish, when in reality it is they who are selfish. Every day is Opposite Day for this emotional manipulator. It is difficult to combat this, because it is difficult to prove that you are not trying to be in the spotlight, so to speak. However, a clear and effective solution is to simply trust your intuition on their genuineness and walk away.

They are able to lower the positive energy of others around them.

Given the interconnected nature of human consciousness, everyone affects everyone else. This reality is able to both benefit and hurt us. If an emotional manipulator is in a room with others who are feeling fairly content and positive, the manipulators’ low level of consciousness will negatively impact all the others around his or herself. If they are angry or sad, others will begin to feel these emotions creep up into their consciousness and bring them down. The instinctual result of this is that others will try to bring the energy level back up by trying to make the emotional manipulator feel better. By staying around such a person for a long period of time, you will find yourself exhausted with always trying to bring them back up to the positive end of the emotional spectrum and become burnt out.

They have no sense of accountability.

Emotional manipulators do not take responsibility for their own actions. They always turn around a situation to see what others have done to them. An easy way to identify an emotional manipulator using this tactic is to see if he or she attempts to establish intimacy via the early sharing of what is considered very personal information that is the kind that makes you feel sorry for them. You may at first feel that this individual is very sensitive, emotionally open, and perhaps even a little vulnerable. This is precisely how they want you to perceive their actions. Emotional manipulators have emboldened their ego to such great heights that they practically never feel vulnerable. The best way to combat this tactic is to identify it early on and cease giving these individuals an audience.

Every one of us is bound to come across an emotional manipulator sooner or later. By understanding how they operate and what tactics they use on others, we can be well prepared for their attempts at using us for their own egoistic desires and can prevent much pain, sometimes even a lifetime’s worth. Spread awareness to others by educating them on emotional manipulation and with our collective efforts, we will no longer fall for their tricks.

Six Myths of Christianity – Part 12

It will probably be November 2010 before I finish my review of the November 2009 issue of the Watchtower. This post is a continuation of my interaction on their treatment of the Trinity. The previous posts on the Trinity are here:


Church Fathers On the Trinity

Misunderstanding the Trinity

Anti-Trinitarian Verses

Compare these Bible verses: Matthew 26:39; John 14:28; 1 Corinthians 15:21, 28;
Colossians 1:15, 16
Following are the verses that the Watchtower lists under their “Compare these Bible verses” section.

Matthew 26:39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

In many of these instances it would be helpful if they were to explain why they think a verse causes trouble to the doctrine of the Trinity. Based on past conversations with them, my guess is that because Jesus prayed to the Father they think that he is not the same as the Father. But we agree. The Father and the Son are two distinct persons so they can talk to each other, love each other, send each other, etc. Two persons in one God. No analogy is perfect, but we can see clear distinctions between the past, present, and future. They are all part of the one time continuum. There are not three time continuums, only one. But the present is not the past and the past is not the future. Water has also been used to describe the Trinity. There can be liquid water, water vapor, and ice. All three are 100% water, yet there are clear distinctions between them. When talking about water or time or space (whatever analogy you want to use) we are speaking of essence or ontology. But water can subsist in three forms. When we speak of God we speak of his essence, yet God subsists in three persons. Understanding this is essential to understand what the doctrine of the Trinity is. If you do not understand these distinctions, then you have no right to offer a rebuttal. We have no problem when one person of the Trinity speaks to another person of the Trinity.

John 14:28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.

It is the phrase “the Father is greater than I” that is key here. The reasoning is, if the Son is God, and nothing is greater than God, then the statement that the Father is greater doesn’t make any sense. Matthew 20:25 says, “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.’” Does this mean that these “great” ones were a different class of beings? There are us normal humans then there are these “great men” who are a different class of beings. Obviously not. When Jesus says that the Father is greater, it should be understood in terms of authority as is clear in Matthew 20:25.

1 Corinthians 15:21, 28 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

The same problem occurs here. The church has always held that God the Son is subservient to God the Father. The existence of authority structures does not imply ontological inferiority.

Colossians 1:15, 16 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.

This is a passage that is actually strong support for the deity of Christ. The reason that Jehovah Witnesses use it is because of the term “firstborn.” They suggest that this means that the Son was created and therefore can’t be God. This, however, is a misunderstanding. For the sake of argument, let us take “firstborn” in a wooden literal sense. To be born, there must be a mother and a father. They need to be intimate and so conceive a child. This child is of the same nature as the parents. God to not bear lamas. Is this what the Jehovah Witnesses want to suggest? Are we to take this term in its normal literal sense? Since the Jehovah Witnesses affirm that God the Father is the father, then there would also have to be a divine Mother. And when she conceived she bore a divine Son. They would never affirm this and so we can safely dismiss this as a possibility as well as dismiss any insistence they have to a “literal” reading since this is where it leads.
But if we are to take it in a figurative sense, what figure shall we assign to it? The Jehovah Witnesses would suggest that Jesus was the archangel Michael, and that God they Father does not have a significant other, and that Jesus being His Son does not mean that Jesus is divine. Instead they suggest that “firstborn” should mean “first created” and that is where the similarities with its normal usage end. But where in scripture do we see “firstborn” ever used in that sense? No where do you see “firstborn” mean “the chronologically first created thing of its kind that is of a different nature from its creator.” That understanding will not be found in scripture.
Instead, “firstborn” should be understood as “preeminent.” In Deuteronomy 21 God says:

“If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, 16 then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, 17 but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his.

Here we see that the father was not to transfer the preeminent status that belonged to the firstborn to one who was not the firstborn. We see both uses of “firstborn” in this passage. We see this link once again in 1 Chronicles 26:10 “for though he was not the firstborn, his father made him chief.”
Thus in Exodus 4:22 God says, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son.” Israel was not the first created nation. Rather Israel was the nation that God favored. Israel was, in God’s sight, the preeminent nation. Psalm 89 is about David (vs 20) and yet we see this declaration in v 27 “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” David was not the firstborn of Jesse, in fact he was the last.” Yet God calls him “firstborn.” Neither was he the first king, he was the second or third (depending on if you count). The text itself explains the meaning of firstborn as the preeminent one.
In Jeremiah God says that Ephraim was his firstborn. But in what sense? Not chronologically. The answer is in Genesis 48.

16 And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). . . .

17 When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” 19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.”

Ephraim was the preeminent one, not the first chronologically. Thus when Colossians 1 says that Jesus was the firstborn, we should not understand that as the first created thing of a different nature from its creator (a meaning nowhere found in scripture) but rather as the preeminent one. This meaning is not only the consistent non-literal usage, but it is even applied in verse 18 “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” He was not the first one to die, nor was he the first one to be raised from the dead. But he is the preeminent one. He is the head, the source, the preeminent one. That is the proper meaning.

XFiles Friday: the best of all possible worlds

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)

We’re watching a kind of textual cartoon in which Geisler and Turek have a straw-man atheist (Mr. Straw) grilling a Christian (Dr. Geistur) on the question of evil. So far, the atheist seems to be giving the Christian a pretty hard time, and the Christian, despite his smug and triumphant tone, is floundering.

It goes no better for the Christian when Mr. Straw asks why God created people knowing that so many of them would end up eternally damned in Hell.

GEISTUR: Good question. There are only five options God had. He could have: 1) not created at all; 2) created a non-free world of robots; 3) created a free world where we would not sin; 4) created a free world where we would sin, but everyone would accept God’s salvation; or 5) created the world we have now—a world where we would sin, and some would be saved but the rest would be lost.

Or at least, those are the only 5 options Geisler and Turek could think of, so naturally an all-wise and all-knowing God would be incapable of finding or creating a sixth alternative. Right?

That’s the problem with creating God in your own image: you may want to claim that He has the power to make things be whatever He wants them to be, but in actual practice, He can’t exceed the limits of your imagination. He’s restricted to being and doing only what you believe He should, because you’re the one that’s creating Him. So the five options that Dr. Geistur imagines for God are indeed the only five options He has available.

Even given those five options, however, Geistur has a hard time making the last option look like the best (or only) possible alternative. Let’s look at his excuses one by one.

GEISTUR: …The first option can’t even be compared to the other four because something and nothing have nothing in common. Comparing a real world and a non-world is not even like comparing apples and oranges, since they both are fruit. It is like comparing apples and non-apples, insisting that non-apples taste better. In logic, this is called a category mistake. It’s like asking “What color is math?” Math is not a color, so the question is meaningless.

Hmm, grass is not a color either, but the question “What color is grass?” is hardly a meaningless question. Plus, a chocolate bar is a non-apple, and some people do think chocolate tastes better than apples. But quibbles aside, it’s clear that Geistur is attempting to brush off this question without really addressing it. Sure, if you’re really determined, you might think of some instances where it would be meaningless to compare a thing with the absence of a thing, but that’s not a universal principle.

For example, if you have sex with someone other than your spouse, that’s adultery. If you don’t have sex outside of marriage, that’s not adultery. Is Geistur saying that it would be a category error to claim that non-adultery is better than adultery? Good health is not disease; disease is not good health. Can we not determine whether the presence of one is better or worse than its absence? Can we not compare the presence of poisons in our food to the absence of poison, and say which is better?

If we’re talking about God’s choice of actions, we can certainly say that it’s better not to do anything than to do something that results in endless suffering for untold billions of people. Morally, that should be a no-brainer. Plus, even if it were true that you couldn’t compare non-creation with the creation of evil and endless suffering, that’s still no reason for God to create endless suffering. If you can’t compare the two, then neither is better, and God has no reason to prefer to create suffering. Geistur ignores this factor as well, and moves on to the next alternative.

STRAW: Ok, so why didn’t God make his second option—a robot world?

GEISTUR: He could have, but that wouldn’t have been a moral world. It would have been a world with no evil, but with no moral good either.

And why would you need morality, if there were no evil? Once again, Geistur’s God is constrained by the limits of His creator: the fallible mortal man, Dr. Geistur.

Personally, I think it’s rather fascinating that Geistur is convinced a world where God exists and evil doesn’t, a world in which men are the unblemished image of God and obey His will perfectly, would necessarily be a world in which no moral good would exist. What does that tell us about God’s nature and God’s will? Even more ironic, Geistur is trying to make it sound like Robot World would be a bad thing. But how could it be “bad” if morality does not exist, and there is neither good nor evil?

Geistur just moves on to the next two options (with some carefully scripted help from Mr. Straw).

STRAW: So why didn’t he make worlds three or four? Those worlds would allow love, and they certainly would be better worlds than this one.

GEISTUR: Yes, but  not everything conceivable is actually achievable with free creatures… God can’t force free creatures not to sin. Forced freedom is a contradiction.

Interestingly, Geistur concedes that at least two of the five options would be better than the one God supposedly chose. His excuse for why God didn’t choose one of them? Same as Rabbi Kushner’s: God lacks the power to pull either of them off. Despite His allegedly unlimited power and allegedly unlimited wisdom and alleged sovereignty over the affairs of men, God can’t create a world in which free men would fail to sin.

Straw’s next line should have been “Will we have free will in heaven?” but I rather suspect Geistur’s head would have exploded.

Geistur’s God may be constrained by the conceptual limits of His creator, but we’re not, so let’s look at some of the ways a moderately clever God could have created world three. (World four is uninteresting because it involves God creating a sinful world full of suffering and injustice, and why go through all that when there are better alternatives available?)

Despite their morbid preoccupation with sin (especially other people’s), Christians don’t necessarily have a good understanding of why people sin. Instead of understanding the real reasons, they superstitiously give credit to a magical “sin nature” (or “law of sin” as Paul called it) that works mysteriously and inexplicably to cause us to want to do evil just for the sake of being bad. It’s like cartoon bad guys: they don’t have a reason to want to destroy freedom and justice and truth and such, they’re just, well, bad guys.

Real people aren’t cartoon bad guys. They do things for reasons, and those reasons seem good at the time. Address the underlying reasons why people “sin,” and they’ll no longer have any motivation to do wrong. Poof, there’s world three, a world in which people freely choose not to sin because they have no reason to sin.

How? Well, let’s look at a few of the reasons why people do bad things: ignorance, misunderstanding, unsatisfied appetites and biological drives, competition for scarce resources, and so on. Those are all factors that can be addressed, at Creation time, by a wise, good and loving Creator, without compromising the free will of the creatures. Don’t design creatures that need to eat each other for food. Equip them to survive and thrive on sunlight or some other limitless energy source. Don’t give them biological territorial instincts or irresistable and indiscriminate sex drives. Wire their brains to enable perfect empathy and understanding of others, and let them perceive instantly why the good choices are more desirable than the evil choices.

And of course don’t give them a sin nature that will enslave them and force them to do evil against their will. That was what Paul was complaining about, but it’s hardly mandatory that we have such a thing. For that matter, it’s silly to protest that “free will” prevents God from being involved when our free will is already being violated by some kind of magical sin nature. If free will is what we don’t have, then God runs no risk of causing us to lose it.

Geistur’s final score: three swings, three misses. The real world is simply not consistent with what Geistur wants us to believe about the existence and nature of his imaginary God, and when he tries to make excuses for why this is so, his answers are not consistent with reality or with each other. He ducks and dodges and dances away, but he never does provide us with answers that have the easy and automatic self-consistency of real-world truth.

Hang in there folks, we’re almost to the end (of Appendix 1). Geistur is going to try one last time to convince us that evil isn’t all bad, the end justifies the means, and it’s all for our own good. Stay tuned.

The Free-Will Defense

Theodicy is a term that derives from two Greeks words “God” and “righteousness.” It is a discipline that seeks to provide an answer for the righteousness of God in light of all the evil in the world. David Hume framed perhaps the most famous formulation of the issue in his Dialogs Concerning Natural Religion:

“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

Perhaps the most popular theodicy is what is known as the free-will defense. It basically says that in order for free-will to exist there must be the possibility of evil. It is viewed that it is more important to have free will than it is to have a world without evil. Could God stop all the evil in the world? Yes, but to do so would remove free-will. As I said, this is perhaps the most popular theodicy.

I do not think that the free will defense is sustainable. It does not adequately answer the problem of evil. In the next post I will present what I think is a better defense, but the remainder of this post will be dedicated to showing why I think the free-will defense does not work.

First, this does nothing to address the problem of natural evils. That is to say, the free-will defense, by its very nature, can only provide and answer to evils where free will is in play. But what about hurricanes? What about earthquakes? What about floods and famines and disease and fire and cold and pestilence? Rocks do not have a free will. Mud does not have a free will. So why would God not stop a mudslide from taking out several homes in a town and crushing many families in their houses? What reason can be given? Water does not have a will to violate, so why does God not stop the tsunami as it is about to break onto the shore? Why would God allow drought and starvation when all he has to do is send rain? These are real questions that we should not hide from. They are real questions that affect real people. The free-will defense has no answer.

Second, even with the evils that do involve free wills, why does God not mitigate the extent of it? C.S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain says:

We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults.

Lewis thinks that such a world, if taken to its final state, involves a violation of the will. I disagree. We don’t have to carry it to an extreme case in order to make this a better world. Lewis goes on to ask when we should stop. To be consistent we would have to eliminate even evil thoughts and to do this is to remove free will. But there is no need to go that far. We can conceive of a world with far less pain and evil just by taking some of the steps that he suggests (a wooden beam becomes soft as grass when used as a weapon). The criminal still has evil thoughts, he can still act out on his evil thoughts. But God can limit the painful results of these evil actions. Indeed, just taking away pain in the first place would be a good step. So even with evils committed by free-will agents, the free-will defense fails to account for the intensity of suffering.

Third, from a Christian point of view, free-will does not necessitate the existence of evil. In fact scripture describes the should that sins as enslaved. Ironically the more evil there is, the less freedom there is. At the opposite end of the spectrum we have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who are the most free beings that exist, yet there is never even a possibility of sin in God. The tree persons of the Trinity are stunning examples of how evil is not necessary for free will to exist. Moreover, traditional Christianity believes that in heaven there will be no more sin. When one is in heaven one is more free than he has ever been, and yet there will be no sin. This strikes at the very heart of the free-will defense. It appears that there is no necessary connection between genuine free will and the existence of evil.

Fourth, in many cases there is more than one will involved in an evil event. If the whole purpose in allowing evil is to uphold someone’s free will, what happens if there are opposing wills? For every thief that wants to steal there is a corresponding victim that does not want to be stolen from. For every murderer who wants to kill, there is a corresponding victim who does not want to be killed. For every rapist who wants to violate some young girl, there is a young girl who desires not to be violated. In all these events (and many more) there will be someone who gets there way and someone whose will is violated. If someone’s will is going to be violated, why does God uphold the will of the rapist and not the will if the young girl? Can any reasonable answer be given?

Fifth, it does not seem to follow that free-will is always the most ethical virtue to uphold. There are times when a child is running into the street that it is best if we pull them to safety – even if they object. We consider their life to be more important than their desires at that point. In fact all commands to reduce suffering and crime in this world are nonsensical if the highest good is to uphold free will. Why should police stop thieves and wife beaters if the greater good is to let the criminal exercise his free will?

These seem to me the most formidable objections to the free-will defense. This is not to deny the place of free-will within a larger theodicy. It is simply to point out that the free-will defense as a stand alone defense is not adequate.

XFiles: Too many holes

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)

I remember watching a cartoon, long ago, where the rabbit was visiting Holland, and happened to spot a hole in the dike. Naturally, he stuck his finger in it to plug it. Well, you can guess the rest. No sooner does he plug one hole than the dike springs another leak. Soon he’s plastered himself to the wall, using fingers, toes, and even his long rabbit ears to plug all the leaks, and then even more leaks break out. He can’t plug the new ones without taking his fingers out of the old ones. You just know this isn’t going to end well for the poor rabbit!

I don’t know what sort of expression was on the faces of Geisler and Turek as they wrote their appendix on the problem of evil, but the more I read it, the more I think they must have had the same intense look of inventive desperation as that cartoon rabbit had. Every time they turn around, their rationalizations have new holes, and they’re running out of fingers to try and plug them all with. The best solution—replace the shoddy structure with a sound and solid one—isn’t available to them. Instead of taking a consistent, cohesive approach, they must resort to an erratic and hyperactive succession of sound-bite rationalizations, hoping to save the day by jumping from leak to leak fast enough to stop the flow of disaster. It doesn’t actually work, but at least they can feel good about how busy they are.

Today’s installment starts with Mr. Straw (the atheist) reminding Dr. Geistur (the Christian) that his excuses thus far have failed to explain why God does not intervene to warn us about preventable disasters like 9/11.

STRAW: If you knew [9/11] was going to happen and had the power to stop it, wouldn’t you have stopped it?


STRAW: So you are better than God!

GEISTUR: No, by stopping 9/11, I would be preventing evil. But God, who has an unlimited, eternal perspective, allows evil choices knowing that he can redeem them in the end. We can’t redeem such choices, so we try to stop every one.

What Geistur fails to consider here is that God, in this scenario, is not merely permitting evil choices, He is making an evil choice of His own, by deliberately withholding information that could have been used to thwart the attacks. That, you may remember, is the exact crime that Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison for: knowing about the attacks in time to warn people, and not informing the authorities. And God is guilty of the same crime, at least according to Geistur’s theology.

Nor does it excuse the evil of God’s own choices to promise that in some unexplained way we might hope for the possibility that God’s unlimited power might find a way to “redeem” this evil choice later on. A perfectly good God would not need to make up for His evil choices later on, since He would not make evil choices in the first place. Geistur thinks he has plugged the new hole, but all he’s really done is take his finger out of the old one, by putting God in the role of a sinner Who needs forgiveness Himself. And this isn’t the only hole Geistur opens up, as Mr. Straw also notices.

STRAW: Yes, but by your own Christian doctrine, God doesn’t redeem all evil choices in the end. After all, some people go to hell!

GEISTUR: Yes, but that’s because God can bring eternal good only to those who will accept it. Some people ignore the facts or simply choose to play the game in a way that brings them defeat. Since God cannot force them to freely choose to play the game the right way, ultimate good only comes to those who choose it.

Notice how each answer not only fails to solve the original problem, it creates additional problems as well? The problem with 9/11 is that God made the evil choice to withhold the vital, lifesaving information. Geistur attempts to plug this leak by saying God should be excused because He will redeem this evil choice later. When pressed, however, he admits that this isn’t really true, and that God will not redeem them, and in fact cannot redeem them, except for what Jesus called a “few” people. So this answer fails more often than it succeeds.

Geistur doesn’t notice this, though, because in true ADHD fashion he’s already shifted to a completely different compartment in his thinking: the notion that people only go to Hell because they obstinately refuse to go anywhere else. From Geistur’s point of view, God obviously cannot have any flaws, and therefore all these unanswerable problems must be man’s fault, somehow. The problem of God’s evil choice simply pops behind one of Geistur’s magic blinkers, where he can’t see it, and his attention is focused solely on how evil people are.

The problem with this excuse is that people are supposed to be made in God’s image. Geistur is assuming that, left to their own free will, most people will become progressively more evil until they are so opposed to good that they will cause their own harm rather than allow themselves to experience God’s eternal good. They’re made in the image of God, and therefore they naturally become progressively more evil as time goes on. This isn’t just misanthropic, it’s blasphemous!

Nor does it help to say that some kind of “sin nature” is preventing us from valuing and pursuing godliness. If a sin nature is some kind of external influence—that is, if it’s something that’s not an inherent part of human nature as created by God in His own image—then God could solve that problem by purging us of that sin nature (as the Cross is supposed to enable Him to do). Then our free will would be truly free, and we could pursue the good that, being made in God’s image, we ought to innately desire. If He can’t do that because our free will (created in His image) actually prefers the sin nature, then what does that tell us about the image we’re supposedly made in?

And remember, this situation is all supposed to be part of God’s plan, which He foreordained before the foundation of the world. If God today finds Himself in a situation where He has no choice but to make evil choices, which He will usually fail to redeem later on, because He has allowed us to acquire the kind of sin nature that prevents us from pursuing the innate desire for good which ought to come from being made in His image—well, if that’s the way things are, it’s only because that’s the way He always intended for things to be. Even when you try to excuse God due to “circumstances beyond His control,” Christian doctrine teaches us that He and He alone is ultimately responsible for creating and directing those circumstances, according to His own will. His behavior, thus, is inexcusable. He is, and must be, responsible for His own actions, or He is not truly God (at least as the Bible describes Him).

Interestingly, after floundering around for a while trying to make it sound like people should be glad that God allows them to go to Hell, Geistur seems to get an inkling of this same problem. If the situation today is such a mess, why would God create it this way in the first place? That should be interesting, though I’m not too hopeful of any truly profound insights from the good Dr. Geistur. I don’t think we’ll have room for it all in this post, though, so let’s break here and pick this up again next week. Cheers.