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Richard Carrier is one of the lesser horsemen of the New Atheism, but he’s often cited by atheists who are slightly more serious. One of his most popular essays is “Why I am not Christian.” I was recently asked to write a response to this essay.

Before I offer my response, I want to say that there are certain limitations to this essay.  Two that you should know about right off. First, what I say here is not an argument for Christianity, only a response to objections. If you want fully developed arguments, I’d recommend Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. Second, I wasn’t able to respond to everything Carrier said, but I tried to respond to the spirit of his argument on each point.

God is Hidden

Carrier’s first point is that God is silent. He argues that “If God wants something from me, he would tell me. He wouldn’t leave someone else to do this, as if an infinite being were short on time. And he would certainly not leave fallible, sinful humans to deliver an endless plethora of confused and contradictory messages.” [1]

This puts Carrier in the strange position of holding the burden of proof for a theological point of view.  Why is it that we should suspect God to act in the way Carrier suggests? Carrier thinks that his position flows “necessarily” from the Christian idea of who God is: a perfectly loving and perfectly omnipotent being.  It’s just a simple syllogism: A loving and omnipotent being would make himself known to everyone. God has not done this. Therefore, God, at least a loving and omnipotent being does not exist.

Now, there’s at least three points to be made here. The first is that there is a sense in which God has met the requirements laid out by Carrier. Romans 1 says, “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” God has provided revelation that is accessible to everyone. Granted it may not be a full disclosure; he only reveals his “eternal power and divine nature,” but nevertheless it is there.

The second point is that Carrier’s position seems like a rather presumptuous, solipsistic position to take. How is that we can presume to know what God should do? Carrier presents analogy after analogy that are designed to demonstrate that if he were in God’s position, he would most certainly do such and such a thing or act in some particular way.  I know there have been many times I have been certain that a person should have acted in such and such a way, but later, when I had all the facts,  changed my mind. Human beings presume to know all the facts all the time. And we get it wrong all the time. Isn’t it at least logically possible that, given all the facts, God might be justified in not making the sorts of appearances that Carrier suggests? To make the claim, as Carrier does, that “The logically inevitable fact is, if the Christian God existed, we would all hear from God himself the same message of salvation, and we would all hear, straight from God, all the same answers to all the same questions,” is to shoulder a tremendous burden of proof. He would have to show that there is no logically possible set of circumstances where God would act differently than Carrier’s prediction.

Related to this second point is another issue. Richard Carrier does not get to decide the conditions under which the revelation of God will be satisfactory. We, as human beings, do not get to turn to our creator and say to him, “Hey God, you know what? I’m not going believe in you unless you  physically appear directly to me. And none of that ‘vision’ nonsense. I want empirical data. Something I can run tests on and such. That cool with you, God?” I don’t think a god who was commanded about by us so that he obeyed our demands and, in essence, was subject to us, is really a god at all. That sounds rather more like a cosmic waiter than the God of the universe. “Hey God, if you do a real good job, I’ll believe in you a little extra – maybe wear a cross necklace or something. Deal?”

The third point to make here is that we have good reason to think that there are circumstances and conditions that Carrier has overlooked so that the sort of revelation Carrier demands is not “logically inevitable.” Carrier labeled the first point of his essay “God is hidden,” and this is a point theologians have acknowledge for a long time. Everyone agrees: God is not a visible as he could be. The question is “Why?”

One response is to say that God does not want to coerce belief, so he makes himself illusive. He wants to preserve human freedom. You can find him if you want to, but he’s not going to write his name in the cloud every other Tuesday. In other words, God wants people to choose to trust in him. He doesn’t want people to merely be resigned to the fact that God exists in the way they are resigned to the fact that the sky is blue or that one day they will die. Carrier dismisses this kind of argument as “excuses.” Such arguments, he says, suffer from a lack of evidence and being too ad hoc. Well, that may be and it’s not really the view I hold myself. But the point is that there is a logically possible set of circumstances where God would have good reasons for not revealing himself as Carrier requires. And so long as this is even a logical possibility, Carrier’s point about the hiddenness of God entailing the non-existence of God doesn’t succeed.

The best answer to the hiddenness of God is not that God wants to preserve human free will, though that is a possibility. The best answer is that God desires a certain kind of relationship with mankind and so he reveals himself in just such a way for that relationship to best be attained. Paul Moser suggests that “One of God’s aims with divine elusiveness would be to focus and highlight a more urgent question for humans: namely, who exactly is in charge here? Who is the proper moral authority over the universe, including over all humans? A related urgent question in need of focus may be: exactly how is God in charge over this morally troubled universe?” The elusiveness of God creates an existential problem that we have to work out, and this problem has to be worked out the way God wants, not the way Carrier demands God to work it out. When we presume to make God the subject of our cognitive demands, we commit what Moser calls “cognitive idolatry.”  As Moser asks, “Will we let God be truly God (and thus morally robust) even in the area of human inquiry about God?”[2]

Moser suggests that Jesus himself raised this point himself:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Mt 11:25-27, italics added; cf. Lk 10:21-22; 1 Cor 2:4-14)

The conclusion Moser reaches is that

Jesus thus portrays his divine Father as hiding divine ways and means from people who are pridefully “wise and learned” in their own eyes. He suggests that God is intentionally elusive, even to the point of hiding, relative to people who oppose God’s authority and morally righteous ways. This suggestion agrees with a long-standing teaching of the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew scriptures, including Isaiah 45:15: “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel.” If we take Jesus and the Hebrew prophetic tradition seriously, we should expect God to be morally righteous, perfectly loving and thus at times elusive toward wayward humans.

The point is that we should not expect for God to be revealed under the circumstances and conditions prescribed by human beings, as if he were some sort of regular specimen in a lab. If God revealed himself in this way, it might ease the minds of many empiricists, but it would ultimately sell human beings short of the sort of relationship God wants us to have with him. Instead, we should expect God to be revealed under the circumstances and conditions God prescribes: God reveals himself only under the conditions he wants, if it all. As Moser has aptly said, “We think we readily know what we should expect of a perfectly loving God. As a result, we confidently set the parameters for God’s reality as if our favored parameters were decisive. This is a careless move, if bold, common, and apparently self serving. We seldom ask, however, what God would expect of us.”

God is Inert

The second point Carrier raises is that God is inert. Essentially, Carrier is arguing his own version of the problem of evil here. He says that “It’s a simple fact of direct observation that if I had the means and the power, and could not be harmed for my efforts, I would immediately alleviate all needless suffering in the universe. “ God, he argues, has the means and power and the motive (being all-loving), “Yet I cannot be more loving, more benevolent than the Christian God. Therefore, the fact that the Christian God does none of these things—in fact, nothing of any sort whatsoever—is proof positive that there is no Christian God.”

His second point has some of the same problems as the first, namely that Carrier actually takes  a positive theological position which he needs to prove. This time, he needs to show that there could no possible set of circumstances under which God would be justified in allowing suffering to take place. He would also need to show that God does not, in fact, intervene to alleviate suffering. The world is indeed full of suffering, but we have no way of knowing of how often God intervenes in human affairs. Perhaps he does it all the time in ways that are not detectable. Of course, I’m not claiming that this is in fact the case. I’m just offering it as a logical possibility, one that Carrier would have to refute in order to take the position that he does.

Essentially, what Carrier is suggesting is the classic argument against theism, which Sam Harris recently restated:

Of course, people of all faiths regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil.

There are really two versions of the argument from evil. The first is the logical. Simply stated, the logical problem evil claims that the statements “God exists as an omnipotent, omni-benevolent being” is contradictory to the statement, “Evil exists.” But most philosophers seem to think that the logical version of the argument cannot be successful (For examples of Christian theodicies, see Platninga’s Free Will Defense or John Hick’s Soul-Making Theodicy). Paul Draper, a respected philosopher of religion and an agnostic, said, “I do not see how it is possible to construct a convincing logical argument from evil against theism.” [3] It seems rather likely that God, even being all good and powerful, could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing suffering and evil in the word. As long as this is even a logical possibility, the logical argument from evil does not succeed.

The second version of the argument, the emotional version, is something that should be taken very seriously. Essentially, the emotional version of the argument is that while God and evil may be logically compatible, there is nevertheless no satisfactory reason as to why God allows the amount of suffering he does, or why he allows it in a specific circumstance. There are all kinds of horrific experiences we might call to mind here: rape, torture, starvation.  Sure, God’s existence may be compatible with evil, but this kind of evil?

I’ll be frank and honest here. There are reasonable responses to be offered, but if someone I loved experienced something as horrible as torture, I surely would not pat them on the back and say, “Hey, you know what? God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing this.” That might be the logical answer, but it certainly isn’t the right answer in that moment. If asked why, my answer would have to be, “I don’t know and I am so very sorry this happened to you.”

But, part of my answer would include a reminder of the fact that this person is created in the image of God and intrinsically and inherently valuable. And that he is more than an aggregate of parts or an ongoing fizzing chemical reaction so that he is reduced, according to Richard Dawkins, to a machine for propagating DNA, which is “every living object’s sole reason for living.” Why should the undesirable brain state of a particular machine matter to us? I can’t think of a very good reason. However, the reason that evil in the world matters, the reason is it should upset us, is because people matter. People matter because they are more than the sum of their parts – they are imago Dei.  So, while I can’t provide an explanation for why some particularly evil event happened, what I can do is say why it matters.

Wrong Evidence.

Carrier’s third reason for rejecting Christianity is that “Christians can offer no evidence at all for their most important claim, that faith in Jesus Christ procures eternal life.” He goes on to conclude that because this specific claim does not meet his requirements for what constitutes evidence, that Christianity is not true. First, it’s just not the case that there is “no evidence at all” for the claim that faith in Jesus Christ produces eternal life. Perhaps Carrier means that there is no direct, empirical evidence for the very specific claim “faith in Jesus Christ results in eternal life.” That might be true, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t bother Christians. What is the basis of their beliefs? It’s on the basis of inference from other beliefs – a perfectly valid way to form beliefs. We hold all kinds of beliefs without having direct, empirical data. Big Bang cosmology, for example, is based on inference from what we do observe, like the expansion of the universe. In the Christian case, if we have good reason to think that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, rose from the dead and that he said, “Faith in me results in eternal life,” then we also have good reason to think that faith in him results in eternal life.

Second, it’s a distortion or oversimplification to suggest that the central truth of Christianity is that Jesus hands out eternal life for the faithful, as if Jesus was some sort of cosmic Billy Mays. “Hey guys, if you put in a little faith now, you’ll get a nice reward in heaven! It’s all yours for only prayers a day!” This seems like a rather convenient way to argue. First, you distort and isolate a claim calling it “central.” Then you set up your own criteria of evidence and decide that there is no evidence for the claim you are trying to disprove. I imagine just about any position can be refuted if we’re allowed to use these maneuvers. Now, if we ask the broader and more appropriate question, “Is Christianity true?” what we find is that the situation is not at all like Carrier has described it. There are, in fact, good reasons and evidences for thinking that Christianity, specifically, is true.

Carrier expands his critique, saying that “Christian” evidences boil down to either a claim that (1) “the universe exists; therefore, God exists” or (2) “I feel that God exists; therefore, God exists.” He adds that these sorts of arguments don’t tell us which god exists, only that maybe one, unspecified god does. (2) is, of course, ridiculous. I don’t know of any intellectually serious Christian making that argument. Alvin Plantinga argues for something called the sensus divinitatis, but that’s not at all like the argument “I feel God exists; therefore, he does.” However, Carrier does have a point here. Cosmological and teleological arguments can only tells us so much about who God might be and they certainly don’t tell us that the God of Christianity is the right one. The Bible itself seems to confirm this. The verse from Romans I quoted earlier said that nature reveals only God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature. But, not all Christian arguments reduce down to Carrier’s two options.

The arguments are numerous and varied, but one of the best and simplest arguments comes from Gary Habermas. He argues that on the basis of the evidence for the resurrection alone, the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated. He has scholarly articles available for free on his website: http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/articles.htm.

William Lane Craig has also presented substantive arguments for the existence of the Christian God. He takes a two-step approach, first arguing that God exists and then that it is the Christian God. He has many of his articles for free on his website as well, but you have to sign up to be able to access them: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/PageServer?pagename=scholarly_articles_main. In my opinion, his book, Reasonable Faith, is the best, fullest account demonstrating the rationality of Christianity. If you are serious about interacting and dialoguing with Christians on an intellectual level, you should pick it up.

I’m not going to present Habermas and Craig’s arguments here since this essay is only a response to Carrier’s objections, but there are certainly good, substantive reasons for having faith in Jesus Christ. They are at least good enough the people like Hitchens and Harris think it worthwhile to have a debate.

Wrong Universe

Carrier’s final point is that Christianity predicts a qualitatively different universe than the one we find ourselves in. He says that the universe we would expect to observe if Christianity is true is one like the one the Apostle Paul had in mind: a geocentric world with no evidence of evolution. I think Paul probably did have a geocentric worldview and of course he didn’t believe in evolution. But I don’t think that’s because thought Christianity entailed a universe with certain material qualities. It’s probably because he shared the standard and accepted general cosmology of his time. Frankly, I don’t think Paul would have any problem with modern cosmology. One reason to think this is the case stems from the fact that from a relatively early date Christians were open to the idea that God may have not created everything directly, but instead utilized “potentialities.” Augustine, for example, was open to the idea that God just created the cosmos. Everything else, for lack of a better word, “evolved” out of this initial creation.

Carrier says that given what we know about the Christian God, it is very unlikely he would have created the universe we observe. A good God, who wanted to create a universe designed for intelligent life then we shouldn’t observe the amount of death and suffering in the world. We also should life springing up in every corner of the universe. After all, if God’s purpose was to bring about life we can assume he’d be pretty good at it. The problem here is that Carrier has once again taken the burden of proof for a theological position. He claims to know the sort of universe God would create given his intentions. I just don’t think we’re in a good place to make those sorts of predictions. For example, Carrier says that we should expect a human brain to be quite a bit smaller than it is if there really is a soul. After all, he says, all the thinking would happen in the soul and not the brain. I find this to be incredibly speculative and the fact that human brains aren’t smaller than they are can hardly be counted as evidence against Christianity.

One of the themes through this last chapter is that Christianity is ad hoc in how it reconciles the data about the material world with the world Christianity predicts. That’s an interesting claim. I’d have to agree that in at least some cases Christians are guilty of this. Creationists, for example, will claim that light traveled at a different speed at different times in order to explain how we can observe light from stars millions of light years away when the universe is only a few thousand years old. That’s certainly logically possible, but it strikes me as being far too contrived. However, in general, I don’t think Christianity is guilty of the level of “ad hocness” that Carrier says. All the Christian worldview really predicts about the material universe is that it was created by God for the purpose of revealing and glorifying himself. That’s a pretty wide open sort of claim. It certainly doesn’t entail the sorts of predictions Carrier thinks a Christian worldview should. In short, Christians are open to a wide range of possible universes. There is no specific Christian material cosmology, so that if we find out that the earth isn’t the center of the world, we have good grounds for thinking Christianity has failed. William Lane Craig recently did a podcast on this very issue: http://www.rfmedia.org/RF_audio_video/RF_podcast/Some_Questions_About_Design.mp3. You don’t have to sign up to listen. You can just click through.

This isn’t to say there are no predictions Christianity makes about the material world. At least one prediction is that the universe is not eternal and that it had a definite beginning. Another prediction is what J.P. Moreland calls the recalcitrant imago dei. Essentially, what Moreland says is that if it is the case that human beings are created in the image of God, there ought to be certain facts about human beings that a worldview like materialism would find difficult to explain. I won’t lay out his case here, but you can find a summary of it at his website: http://www.jpmoreland.com/books/recalcitrant-imago-dei/.

Conclusion

The conclusion here is not surprising: I don’t find any of Carrier’s reasons for rejecting Christianity adequate. Carrier certainly raises a number of good points that are worth thinking through. But, ultimately, even in light Carrier’s objections, Christianity is still a reasonable worldview.


[1] Carrier, Richard (2011). Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith (p. 7). Philosophy Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Paul Moser in God Is Great, God Is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable & Responsible (p. 54). Intervarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] See Paul Draper, “The Argument from Evil,” in Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues, ed. Paul Copan and Chad Meister (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), p. 146.

A friend of mine sent me a link to an article on Slate yesterday. Said he thought I would think it’s interesting. The tagline was “Does Evil Exist? Neuroscienctists Say No!”

It’s just the kind of title to get a reaction out of me and before I even read the article, I had decided that the typically left leaning Slate was contributing to the disturbing trend that grants scientists authority in all aspects of life.

I quickly quipped back to my friend that I knew of an equally authoritative article, “Do Neutrinos Exist? Bank Tellers say no!” That’s no slight to bank tellers. It’s just that they don’t really have any expertise on the subject of neutrinos. Likewise, scientists also have little expertise on the subject of evil. They might be able to tell us the sorts of physical reactions we have toward evil. Or what kinds of brain chemistry an evil person has, but they can’t tell us what evil is or whether or not it exists.

So after I settled down, I started to read the article. Here’s the first two paragraphs:

Is evil over? Has science finally driven a stake through its dark heart? Or at least emptied the word of useful meaning, reduced the notion of a numinous nonmaterial malevolent force to a glitch in a tangled cluster of neurons, the brain?

Yes, according to many neuroscientists, who are emerging as the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in general.

It turns out that my initial impression was right. No need to read the rest. Slate is a science worshiper just like such much of those left-leaners these days. And so I told my friend that I had correctly judged a an article by its tagline, a feat I was quite proud of. For a moment. After informing him of my insight, my friend asked, “Did you read the whole thing?”

Well the truth is that I hadn’t. And I had done such a poor job of reading even the first few words that I didn’t even notice the title: “The End of Evil? Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing. Are they right?”

So I went back and I actually read what Mr. Rosenbaum had to say. Turns out, there is some real insight here and I almost missed it. I think the neuroscienctists would probably say I have a cognitive bias. I suppose they are right.

You can read the article here.

Eli, it looks like we can break your post down into general points: first, morality can’t come from God; second, God sets a poor moral example anyway.

You pose something like the classical objection to theistic morality, the Euthyphro Dilemma, when you said that

First, we have to ask ourselves where absolute morality comes from in a Christian universe. There are only two choices: 1) Morality is somehow woven into the fabric of the universe and is separate from God.  This being is perfectly moral and follows this mystical code without failure. 2) This  absolute morality that Craig is so fond of is actually created by God and is absolute in so far as  God is absolute.

Socrates said it like this: “Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” The implications of this dillema are tremendous. If God loves what is good because it is good, then goodness exists outside of God. Goodness is something external to God that he desries. In this case, when it comes to moral issues, we could just skip God and go straight to what is good. God would be unnecessary for moral goodness in this view. So that forces us to the other horn of the dilemma. If something is good just because God wills it to be, then goodness arbitrary. God could have willed that we eat all firstborn children. And this would not be a pleasant experience for the eater or the eaten. Further, it just seems flat ridficulous to think that something like canbialism could be considered morally good in any possible universe. So then, we theist have a problem don’t we?

Well, maybe not.

And while it’s rare thing to say, I think in this case Socrates had it wrong. The reason is rather straightforward: the Euthyphro Dillemma is a false one. A true dillema is when you are offered only two choices. Let me show you a true dillemma:

Either (A) Barak Obama is reptilian shape shifter from another dimension, or (~A) he is not a  reptilian shape shifter from another dimension.

A true dilemma only arises when there are really only two choices. Either it is A or not A. Socrates’s dillema could be written like this:

Either (A) something is loved by God because it is good, or (B) it is good because it is loved by God.

Since Socrates uses the form of Either A or B instead of Either A or not A, his dillemma doesn’t really have only two horns. In fact, I think we might add a C to the Euthyphro Dillemma.

Either (A) something is loved by God because it is good,  (B) it is good because it is loved by God, or (C) something is good when it is consistent with God’s nature.

Before I suggest that (C) is our best choice, I ought to first show why (A) and (B) are not good choices, not just for theist, but also the atheist. First, (A) is actually making a assumption about the nature of goodness that I think is impossible. It is suggesting that God is subject to a law of moral goodness that exists independently of him. The problem here concerns the relevancy of a impersonal, cosmic moral law. How could this moral law have any relevance to us or to God? It has no rights over us. It contributes nothing to the universe, can feel nothing, expects nothing, and demands nothing. In way, it’s like this:

A game of checkers between two friends, Tom and Lisa, is progressing along nicely. Lisa makes a move, a move she had been planning for half a dozen turns now, and jumps three of Tom’s checkers. Tom objects and says, “You can’t do that because I have a full house!”  Now, we know it’s ridiculous for Tom to try to apply the rules of poker in game of checkers. In the same way, it would be ridiculous to suppose that the “good” presupposed in (A) would be relevant to God or us. Just because other “rules” exist doesn’t make them applicable in a particular situation. And there are other, deeper issues with (A) that I’ll leave alone for now. But let me pose this simple question before we move to (B): Is the kind of goodness assumed in (A) even logically possible? It is even possible that goodness could exist like (A) presupposes it does?

Now for (B). First, I think it’s worth pointing out that (B) is not problematic for a theist (some theologians might recognize it as rather awkwardly stated version of the Divine Command Theory). It’s perfectly logical and fine to say that God determines (in  the sense that he chooses based on his desire) what is good. The trouble is that (B) creates some concern about goodness being arbitrary. What is evil could be considered good, if God just happened to be in a bad mood that day. This concern actually arises out of a misunderstanding of two issues: (1) what the word goodness means and (2) what it means for God to declare something good or evil. So (B) might be something that could be affirmed by a theist, if it had a little more nuance. In order to give it that nuance, let’s first address issue (1).

Perhaps the best definition of goodness is this: goodness is whatever is appropriate or proper. Goodness is revealed in relationships.[1] This means that love (which a morally good action) is the proper relationship between two beings. Justice, in a legal context, is the appropriate relationship between citizens and the society. Respect is the proper relationship between two or more parties. Hate would be the improper relationship between two beings. So would lust and selfishness. Such is the case with the rest of the virtues and vices.

A morality is a kind of spectrum. On one end there is evil (or inappropriate actions) and on the other end is goodness (or appropriate actions). That is simply what the words good and evil mean. They describe degrees of propriety and impropriety. But that scale is meaningless unless it is attached to some moral system that gives substance to the terms “good” and “evil.” (In utilitarianism, for example, goodness is whatever produces maximum happiness for the maximum number of people).

Christians argue that goodness can be given its substance by the nature of God. Whatever God is, he must be good, appropriate, and proper. That is what he is by definition – the being greater than which none other can be conceived. Augustus Strong held that the divine attributes, like perfect goodness, have an “objective existence” and are essential to the divine essence.[2] Now those terms, good and evil, have meaning.

So it is God’s nature that determines the actions and desires he has. And since God’s nature is perfectly good, all his moral commands are also perfectly good. They are not arbitrary. In a sense, when God declares a moral law, he is revealing part of his nature in a concrete way. When God commands human beings not to murder, he is telling us something about his nature. The ethics of God let us see his very heart. And what we find is that God values life, righteousness, truth, and justice.

Also, man is obligated to obey God “in view of his being a creature in God’s world.”[3] But if God were to disappear, then so would the standard of moral rightness (not to mention or obligation to behave morally, another reason why (A) is insufficient).[4] The moral spectrum would be without substance.

If God gives his commands to mankind out of his “unchangingly good character,”[5] then the divine command theory escapes the Euthyphro Dilemma and is a sound ethical system. On this view, goodness is not arbitrarily decided by God and neither is God subject to some external moral code. And we can thus affirm (C): something is good when it is in harmony with God’s nature.

Now let’s address your section objection: God sets a poor moral example. (I have to wonder here: by what standard do you object? What measure do you use to declare Christian ethics inadequate? But that’s another questions for another time.)  To make this argument, you have two lines of evidence: the God of the OT is inconsistent with the God of the NT and God’s moral commands are actually immoral.

The God of the OT is not inconsistent with the God the NT. However, I will grant that there are some differences in how God interacts with world from the OT to the NT. These differences are due to a number of reasons. First, in the OT  much of the text deals with God’s relationship to a theocratic state and God’s requirements for that state. And while God still has a plan for Israel, she is no longer a theocracy as such.

And this is not an idea imposed on the bible in order to reconcile contradictions. This is idea present in both the OT and the New. For example, Jeremiah proclaims that

“The time is coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah. (Jer. 31:31)

The difference between the presence of the theocratic state in the OT and the lack of it in the New explains the majority of apparent differences. Let’s take the issue of homosexuality that you brought up as an example. You quoted Lev. 20:13 which reads:

If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads (NIV).

There is a similar statement in the NT:

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion (Romans 1:26-27 NIV).

But notice that there is a very key difference. In the NT, there is no capital death penalty associated with homosexuality. Paul states that there is still a penalty (in Rom. 6:23, Paul lets us know that penalty of any sin is death), but it is not a legal one. This is because there is no theocratic state to enforce that penalty. In the OT, God judged sin directly through the state of Israel. Now that no such theocratic state exists, no injunction for capital punishment exists. But in the NT, God still judges sin; however, he longer does it through the state of Israel.

The theocracy of Israel was temporary. It had a purpose to fulfill; once it was fulfilled, God began the next stage (some call this stage in God’s redemptive plan the “Church Age.”) in his plan of redemption (For a brief exaplnation of these stages in God’s redemptive plan, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispensation_(period)). God’s moral character never changes. How that character is articulated or expressed might change depending on  the stage in God’s redemptive plan.

It’s important to realize that this shows continuity with character of God rather than contradiction. In both the OT and the NT, God will judge the sins of the world. In the OT, God often chose to judge sin immediately through the state of Israel. And since it was a state, there were laws that corresponded to this. In the NT, God remains as judge, but he postpones his judgment until after the return of Christ. However, he still will utilize direct and immediate judgment if it is appropriate for him to do so (See Acts 5:1-10).

But the most dramatic picture of the justice of God is not found in the OT, but in the New. The passion of Christ was to satisfy the justice of God: “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice…” (Romans 3:25). What we see demonstrated throughout the bible is the incredible balance between God’s love and his justice.

So there is no disconnect between the God of the OT and the God of the New. They are very much the same.

Your second of line of evidence concerns specific moral issues like the treatment of women, the Canaanite Conquest,  the issue of slavery, and divine judgment, the role of religion in the world, among other issues. These are great issues to raise and I think there are substantive and satisfactory Christian responses to all these issues, but trying to address them all in this blog post is probably too ambitious. If you’d like to raise one or two of these issues in your next post, I’d be happy to discuss it.

Thanks for the great conversation, brother.

Jon


[1]Millard Erikson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998). 309.

[2] Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge: Judson, 1907), 244-5.

[3]Oliver Barclay, “The Nature of Christian Morality,” in  Readings in Christian Ethics, edited by David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw(Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 1994), 48.

[4]Copan, 88.

[5] Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay (Downers Grover: InterVarsity, 2000), 250.

On the Sources of Morality

This little five minute snippet of what I assume is a much longer discussion manages to bring up questions that have dogged philosophers and theologians since the beginning of recorded history. Before I go any further I must note the first two things that passed through my brain when I started watching this: First I have no idea who the atheist is, and William Craig has a totally badass beard. If theology loses its luster for him, I imagine he would easily find work as a lumberjack or professional mountain climber or any other such masculine enterprise. Hopefully, we can all agree that he should seriously consider growing it back.

The main question that the rugged Mr. Craig seems to be asking (and answering) is, “Where does morality come from for an atheist?” The atheist guy give some common, but ultimately very weak answers that  Craig immediately uses to make the guy look like a Nazi apologist and possible child molester. Since none of the Atheist’s answers can provide us with an “objective morality,” Craig is able to label the guy with the dreaded term “moral relativist.” . Like I said earlier, I don’t know who the atheist guy is, but as far as I can tell he is terrible at debating. Prominent atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have both done a way better job of defending morality on humanistic grounds and I imagine I will end up using a lot of their arguments rather than atheist guy in the video.

So, first off I think we need to deconstruct this whole notion of “objective morality.” According to Craig, our morality must come from a divine, and therefore absolute, source to be of any real value. Otherwise, we are just following societal norms and our ideas about right and wrong are an illusion that we have concocted to make ourselves feel better. In Craig’s idea of an atheistic universe there is no difference between helping an old lady cross the street and shoving her into the path of an Hummer because we have no “absolute” source for why one would be preferable to the other.

I have to agree with Craig that without religion there is no “absolute” moral code. To be able to point to supposedly divine writing and judge somebody without having to think may seem like an attractive concept at first, but I believe the sort of intellectual laziness this type of thinking promotes is actually responsible for much of the evil in our world today. We live in a world of gray areas and I believe that reason and thoughtful contemplation are much better sources of morality that books written thousands of years ago by people who thought slaughtering livestock would appease the creator of the universe. I’ll try to defend humanistic morality later, but right now, I want to humbly put forth the idea that even with religion we still can’t have an absolute morality.

First, we have to ask ourselves where absolute morality comes from in a Christian universe. There are only two choices: 1) Morality is somehow woven into the fabric of the universe and is separate from God.  This being is perfectly moral and follows this mystical code without failure. 2) This absolute morality that Craig is so fond of is actually created by God and is absolute in so far as God is absolute.

The first situation does away with the need for religion as the source of morality because God is not the source and the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. Morality is separate from God and human beings could be moral by following this code. It would only be moral to follow God as long as God followed the absolute moral code perfectly. This scenario seems unlikely mainly because it undercuts God’s omnipotence and it doesn’t really offer the ultimate source of the absolute morality.

So the only other proposition we are left with is that God decides what is moral. Since I tend to view the God of the Bible as an individual moral actor this makes the absolute morality Craig talks about seem painfully arbitrary. God is making a personal decision that x is moral and y is immoral the same way that I would except that he/she/it is the creator of the universe (I hope that me comparing my decision making process to that of God’s doesn’t make me come off as vain.)

But maybe I’m being unfair. I suppose that a code of morals that comes from an absolute being would be absolutely moral. So what else would we expect from these absolute morals? I would expect that they are absolutely consistent. That God would confer the same moral judgments  upon people all throughout human history. Because if he didn’t, then his absolute moral judgments are in fact just decisions made on arbitrary whims.

The argument for absolute morality falls apart for me when you compare the Genocidal God of the Old Testament with the relatively dovish Triune God of the New Testament. I’m not a biblical scholar and I’ve barely studied the Bible at all since High School, but I don’t think it is really controversial to point out that Jesus emphasizes love and mercy over judgment and punishment. Why does God suddenly stop bringing horrid plagues and floods that drown the entire earth and command us to “judge not lest you be judged” and to “turn the other cheek”?

It seems most Christians don’t really take this absolute morality thing very seriously either, and thankfully so. Otherwise we would behave the way people did in the Old Testament (and the way that modern day theocracies like Iran behave now.) If God’s morality is absolute and unchanging then all good Christian women should immediately  renounce the evils or working outside the home, wearing makeup, and insisting on rights such as voting and owning property.

If I remember correctly, sex outside of marriage was also harshly punished.  If polls that claim a large majority of people have sex before marriage are to be believed, then why aren’t we facing a severe stone shortage in this country?

One of the great moral issue of our day is gay rights. Should they be able to get married and receive the same rights that society bestows upon heterosexual couples? If we turn to the perfect and unchanging word God we find that the answer is a resounding no; gays are an abomination and should be put to death (Leviticus 20:13 KJV). The Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t seem so crazy now, they’re just following the word of God!

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the greatest human rights struggle in our history, the fight against slavery. Modern secular societies that were influenced by the ideals of the enlightenment have all done away with the practice because they recognize that human being should not be able to own each other. The Bible has no problem with slavery, and in fact offers a helpful set of rules for how slaves should behave.

Westboro Baptist Church aside, I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the sort of absolute morality that is offered by the Bible. The Christian God appears to be on the wrong side of the moral issues I mentioned above. We have these rights not because they were sanctioned by some divine being but because of our capacity for empathy, because we could see a better world than the one we lived in, and because many have given their lives for the rights of others.

So what do you guys think?

 Sincerely,

Eli