Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Is the Gospel?

Following his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and commanded them to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Most of us are aware that “gospel” (euangelion in Greek) means “good news.” But what exactly is the good news that the apostles preached? What should be our message to the world around us, to our “unchurched” and unbelieving neighbors? The apostle Paul addresses these questions in his first letter to the Corinthians:  

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. 

For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. …. 

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:1-8, 20-26). 

According to Paul, the good news of the gospel is, firstly, that “Christ died for our sins.” The good news begins with atonement, with the sacrifice of Jesus on a cross of crucifixion, to save us from the judgment our sins deserve. Because of that sacrifice, we are accorded great blessings from the Father, namely: forgiveness (Eph. 1:7); righteousness (or justification) by faith (Rom. 3:21-24); and reconciliation with God (Rom. 5:1-2).  
Yet the good news is not simply that Jesus died, but “that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” His resurrection, well attested by the facts of history, provides an objective basis for hope. Paul in verses 20-23 argues essentially that because Christ rose from the dead, believers in Christ will also rise from the dead: “…even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” Elsewhere  Paul says, “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). The entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 amounts to a historical-theological defense of resurrection – not merely the resuscitation of a body, but the raising up of an altogether new and incorruptible body that will live forever in the presence of God.
Finally, the gospel is that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). This “gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23; Mark 1:14) is good news because humanity now has access to peace and righteousness (justice) under the rule of a completely good and powerful King. Jesus has come in the authority of the Father to establish his kingdom. Having defeated “the last enemy,” death (v. 24-26), Jesus will one day “deliver” that kingdom to the Father. Until that time Jesus is slowly but surely taking dominion over all things that oppose Him. “For He must reign till he has put all enemies under his feet” (v. 27). Here again is cause for great hope: “And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 15:20).

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Call to Repentance

Readers of the New Testament may recall that both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ began their public ministry with a call to repent – "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:1-2; Matt. 4:17). Along with John’s prophetic announcement that he had come to “Prepare the way of the Lord,” these identical declarations suggest to me that repentance somehow "clears the way" for God’s kingdom to arrive, to become accessible. They also offer a clue as to where human beings really stand with respect to freedom and morality.

As countless philosophers and theologians have argued over the centuries, the reality of good and evil in the world cannot be rightly understood apart from moral responsibility, which implies moral freedom. But the problem actually runs much deeper than that. Libertarian freedom, the unrestricted ability to choose between options, was lost, or at least severely curtailed, in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve freely decided to transgress the commandment of God. That catastrophically fateful decision triggered a spiritual chain reaction that left humanity disconnected from God, under a curse of pain and frustration, in bondage to sin, and most importantly, banned from paradise, i.e., strictly unable to return to their original free and happy state.

The way I read both Scripture and experience, we humans are now beset with an innate sinful bias that continually skews our desires and decisions toward sin and selfishness, even against our strongest determinations to be unselfish and good. For this reason, I believe, Jesus did not preach for men to simply choose to do good. Rather, he urged people to repent, which implies that humans are in a sort of spiritual default state of moral corruption. The difference between repentance and merely choosing good over evil is subtle but critical. A personal determination to be good is doomed to failure because the sinful nature or bias mentioned earlier will always find its expression – and as most of us have discovered in the course of life, it doesn’t take much evil to completely ruin a good situation (one act of adultery has been known to destroy a marriage, for example).

Repentance, on the other hand, involves some decidedly non-humanistic dynamics: First, repentance is a response to the call of God. In other words it is initiated by the Spirit of God. This explains why Paul described repentance as a gift: it simply cannot take place apart from God’s gracious initiative to call and convict men of their sins (2 Tim. 2:25; cf. John 6:44; Rom. 2:4). Second, repentance is miraculous. Only by the power of God’s Spirit can a person burdened by long-standing sinful bondages turn to Christ and find deliverance (John 8:34-36; Rom. 6:17-18). Finally, repentance reconnects us with God – the source of “every good gift” as James put it – and therefore refreshes the heart with a sense of liberty and grace. “Repent therefore and be converted,” proclaimed the apostle Peter, “that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19-20).

The good news is that as many as will hear the gospel may repent. Here is one of many places where I part ways with my Calvinist friends. Because God is no respecter of persons he calls upon all of us, in love and grace, to call upon him, in repentance. And whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. The past has no hold on us; the call of God is heard only in the present. As Paul declared to the philosophers in Athens: “Truly these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Dreaded Amputee Question


One reason Christians engage in apologetics is to provide answers to serious questions about the faith by relatively honest seekers. Some questions, however, appear not quite so serious. For me one such question is, "Why won't God heal amputees?" Made famous by Marshall Brain, this simple inquiry is presumed by some skeptics to expose the abject absurdity of miracles, of prayer, of God's love – indeed of theism generally – and therefore to send Christian apologists beating a hasty and shameful retreat before the overpowering logic of unbelief. Of course that hasn’t happened. For a sampling of effective, rational responses to the amputee question, consider offerings at Christian Skepticism, at Answers in Genesis, and at Triablogue.

Now my own immediate response to the question "Why won’t God heal amputees?" is something like, "Because He’s too busy trying to decide whether or not He can create a rock too heavy for Him to lift.” In other words the Amputee Question belongs in the same category as the old Rock Question – it's a clever rhetorical device that has almost nothing to do with the substance of the issues (like theodicy or the general efficacy of prayer) it purportedly addresses. But rhetorical questions such as these persist because they provide convenient substitutes for the hard work of constructing serious, sound arguments. That said, the following is my own response to the Amputee Question.

Right off the bat we need to brush past the loaded nature of the question itself. To ask "why God won't" do something is to take it as a given fact that there is something God won't do. It would be like asking "Why won't atheists just admit that they believe in God?" Hardly a matter for serious dialogue. Not all theists, certainly not this one, would take it as a working premise that God won't heal amputees. So to try to answer why God won't do what has not yet been demonstrated that he has not done (or will never do) is to get ahead of ourselves, and concede too much. Also, even if we were to concede that God has never healed an amputee, it doesn't follow that he won't heal an amputee, or lots or all amputees, in the future, including in the future eternal kingdom of heaven. (And it should be noted that it seems a bit calloused to use people with amputated limbs, many of whom firmly believe in God despite their painful physical and psychological experiences, as inanimate props in an argument for atheism in the first place.) 

Next we need to consider whether there is an actual argument here. As mentioned the question is almost purely rhetorical on its face. But an argument of sorts is at least implied. According to Upchurch and Galling at Answers in Genesis, the argument can be reformulated thus:

1. An omnipotent God would heal amputees.
2. Amputees are not healed.
3. Therefore, an omnipotent God does not exist.* 
Here the first premise states a theological proposition and the second states an inductive generalization drawn from human experience, followed by the conclusion that God does not exist. But none of the premises have been established, so on the face of it the argument is unsound. Few if any serious theologians would take the statements "An omnipotent God would heal amputees" or "The Bible promises to give us anything we want in prayer" as sound inferences derived from either systematic theology or careful exegesis of particular biblical data. Neither is it a fact that no amputees are healed (though it certainly appears that the vast majority are not); nor that prayer doesn't work. 
As to the second premise: it may seem at odds with experience to dispute the proposition that amputees are not healed. But for the argument to be successful the proposition that no amputees are healed needs to be confirmed. That assertion runs afoul not only of the problem of induction and proving negatives, but of specific instances of amputee healings documented by Craig Keener and others, and arguably, by certain miracles in the New Testament. On the other hand, if the essence of the question is "Why are some amputations, physical ailments, etc., not healed?" then this would be the same question most of us have asked, particularly when in pain. God doesn't heal most people with headaches or strep throat or kidney disease, so they take pain relievers and antibiotics and use dialysis. God doesn't heal most amputees, so they undergo rigorous therapy and use compensating devices like wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs. Non-healings have been a painfully obvious fact of life for all people for millennia, long before Marshall Brain first began to ponder the non-healings of amputees. Seen this way the Amputee Question is little more than an observation that there is natural evil in the world. 

The strength of the Amputee Question, then, is that in rhetorically effective and compact form it calls attention to two traditionally popular arguments, the logical argument from evil and the argument against miracles. The weakness of the Amputee Question is that countless philosophers and theologians of all stripes agree that these are no longer considered sound defeaters of theism.  

* For anyone who would object that such restatements are straw men, please feel free to construct a serious argument based upon the Amputee Question and present it here.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Theodicy of Incompleteness

[I've decided to kick-start my blog, by posting an excerpt from an article originally printed in Hope's Reason: A Journal of Apologetics and reprinted as the first chapter of Transcending Proof.]  

Like most of the great mathematical discoveries by the great mathematicians, the famous incompleteness theorems published by Kurt Gödel in 1931 almost completely escape the comprehension of the average man on the street. Nonetheless, scholars familiar with the work of Gödel and his theorems have gone to the trouble of translating his texts – not only from the original German, but from the abstract language of logic and high-level arithmetic. What they describe is a powerful insight with profound limiting implications for otherwise seemingly unbounded areas of research, such as artificial intelligence and theoretical cosmology. I suspect they also have implications for theodicy.  

Using sophisticated mathematical and logical machinery, Gödel managed to prove with the incompleteness theorems that in most any formal and consistent axiomatic system, there will be a true statement derivable from the system which nonetheless cannot be proven within the system.[1] The statement in question can be proven in principle (as it is true), through the addition of more axioms, but this expansion results in a larger system in which the principle of incompleteness again holds: New statements will be derivable from the new system, which cannot be proven within the new system.  

To illustrate the theorem I will take the liberty to borrow an analogy from Rudy Rucker, that of a truth machine which houses all known truth and can answer all questions asked of it with only true statements.[2] A truth machine operator approaches the machine and types in the following sentence:  

"The truth machine will never say that this sentence is true."  

Then the operator asks the machine if the above sentence, as stated, is true or false. If the truth machine decides the sentence is true, it cannot say so (because the sentence states that the truth machine will not say it is true). If the truth machine decides the sentence is false, then again it cannot say so (because it only answers with true statements) – yet its failure to say so is precisely what the sentence says of the truth machine. It is true, then, that the truth machine will never say that the sentence is true. Though true in itself, the undecidability of the sentence for the truth machine means that its truth cannot be recognized by that same machine.  

All this implies that as outside observers, we can somehow ascertain a truth that even a perfectly programmed truth machine cannot. This implies in turn that we, along with this special insight that only we can see, in some sense transcend any programmed system – even a system that houses all known truth. How can this be? Well, for one thing we have not been programmed. Human beings are evidently not reducible to machines, any more than our thoughts are reducible to abstract statements derived from formal systems of logic or mathematics. Often the undecidable statement in a proof of Gödel's theorem is termed self-referential, and this is telling; for what a machine lacks by its classical definition is self-awareness. Penrose argues that with this ability to reflect human beings alone can see both sides of a paradox, whereas a machine can only process inputs given it from outside itself.[3] In a brilliant stroke of genius eminently logical and equally paradoxical, Gödel managed to establish the critical distinction between God-given reason and mechanical computation.  

Technically Gödel's theorems only hold in the context of consistent systems featuring formal language, system-specific axioms, and rules of inference. Peano Arithmetic is thought to be the ideal such system. Euclidean geometry is also said to suffice. But the principle appears to apply more generally. For example, Stephen Hawking has argued that the eclipse of classical Newtonian physics by the mutually incompatible theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity suggests incompleteness of the physical universe. Though mathematical models can be created which approximate the fundamental structure of the universe, they cannot be proven in principle because human observers are entities within the very system under observation:  

But we are not angels, who view the universe from the outside. Instead, we and our models are both part of the universe we are describing. Thus a physical theory is self-referencing, like in Gödel's theorem. One might therefore expect it to be either inconsistent or incomplete. The theories we have so far are both inconsistent and incomplete.[4]  

Even more so, theological explanations for evil in a physical universe whose theories are inconsistent or incomplete should be expected to appear similarly inconsistent or incomplete. Pressing the idea yet further, Thomas Nagel maintains that in light of the unavoidable subjectivity of human perceptions, "any objective conception of reality must acknowledge its own incompleteness."[5] 

A less formal but no less baffling undecidable statement facing any theodicy project might go something like this: "God's act of creating humans free to choose between good and evil is morally justifiable." If we say that the sentence is true, we imply that the freedom to choose evil is morally justifiable (though evil by definition is not morally justifiable). If we say that the sentence is false, we imply that the freedom to choose good is not morally justifiable (though good by definition is morally justifiable). The former means leaving the floodgates open to various forms of evil and its painful consequences. The latter means closing the door to love, friendship, adventure, growth, discovery, and personal accomplishments – in short, an absence of any meaningful experience of good. Either situation could rightly be described as evil. Theodicy in one sense remains woefully incomplete. 

In another sense, however, the Scriptures supply a complete and coherent solution to the problem of evil. As Eleonore Stump suggests, certain Christian beliefs speak uniquely to the problem of evil: The fall of Adam (and by extension all of humanity); the onset of natural evil ("a curse upon the earth") through Adam's fall; and the eternal destination of either heaven or hell awaiting all people, depending on the state of their relationship to God, principally through faith in Christ (or willful lack thereof).[6] Indeed, a thoroughly biblical Christian response to evil alone seems capable of answering the questions still confronting us:           

1. How can God create an eternal paradise, given the priority he places on moral free will? 

2. Why has God not already created an eternal paradise complete with morally free beings, given that he has the ability to do so? (Or, why is this-worldly existence even necessary?) 

These questions really turn on one another. God can create an eternal paradise featuring sheer moral goodness only if its inhabitants are free to choose the good. But such a paradise requires that its inhabitants never choose evil, which implies a restriction on freedom. Just what is it, then, that makes it possible to retain human volition and at the same time ensure uncorrupted goodness? Jesus preached the answer consistently: the coming of the kingdom of God. The theology of the kingdom, especially its eschatological and eternal aspects, depicts a gradual but final and irreversible, i.e., complete, triumph of good over evil. As Jesus preached it and as most New Testament scholars acknowledge, the kingdom can be best viewed as having already arrived in one sense and yet awaiting its complete fulfillment in another. This is the "Already-Not Yet" paradigm, which suggests incompleteness in theology.[7]  

From this perspective, the creation of the world as described in Genesis was not the end of God's work of creation, but only the start of a much more expansive creative-redemptive program with ultimate, everlasting joy in view. This creative-redemptive program, as I have called it, consists of three distinct phases. During the first phase in the paradise of Eden, human free will was unrestricted with respect to choosing among certain moral and relational options. Among the numerous fruit-bearing trees in the garden were both the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Despite God's warning that death would result, Adam (following Eve) ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil; and of course to know good and evil is to know evil, and to know evil is to experience it. Given the basic truth of the doctrine of original sin or universal depravity, that all men have shared significantly in the transgression of Adam, all humans have experienced evil directly both as perpetrators and victims.  

Inhabitants of a world fallen and cursed by sin, we are now in the second phase of God’s creative program. Having partaken of the knowledge of good and evil, we still operate with free will but with the added "advantage," so to speak, of being better (but still not completely) informed. Experience has taught us, i.e., Christian believers, that sin breeds more pain than pleasure in this life, and death at the end of it. Equally we have tasted of the forgiveness of sins, the liberating life of God in Christ, and the comforting ministry of the Holy Spirit. For believers, then, the innate human appetite for evil has been weakened and becomes ever weaker with our growth in the faith. Replacing that old craving for transitory pleasure is a desire for the eternal knowledge of God himself, the very source of all good things. On such a view, this-worldly existence is necessary as the arena in which eternally binding choices are made, and where evil – especially the irrational, excruciating sort we prefer to call pointless and gratuitous – serves as a powerful inducement to seek God rather than sin. "So things that contribute," says Stump, "to a person's humbling, to his awareness of his own evil, and to his unhappiness with his present state contribute to his willing God's help." She then concludes that "moral and natural evil make such a contribution."[8] Jesus said simply, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."[9] In a fallen world, if no other, we are able to hear, freely and clearly, the divine call to repentance from sin and ongoing faith in Christ. Evil in that case might not be a senseless aberration from God's creative-redemptive plan, but an essential part of it.  

Nonetheless, the third phase of God's creative-redemptive design alone will bring about the completeness we seek. Only in the future, final consummation of God’s plan will we realize how one can remain ever free to love God and others but never free to become evil. Although the logical compatibility of evil and divine benevolence, of free will and eternal blessedness, cannot be strictly proven within the system of this world, Scripture posits its provability in the larger transcendent system of the kingdom. In the eternal kingdom of heaven theodicy will be completed. But of course no theodicy will be necessary. God will wipe every tear from our eyes and every trace of evil will have vanished away forever, not in violation of our free will, but in the divine response to it. This may explain why there is no tree of knowledge of good and evil in the heavenly paradise of Revelation 22 – only a tree of life. Having already tasted the bitter fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and as a result having freely renounced sin and embraced eternal life in Christ by faith, we will enter the New Jerusalem prepared to joyfully partake of the tree of life forever. Only then and there, in the eternal kingdom of heaven, will we experience the culmination of both genuine freedom and everlasting joy.


[1] The idea goes something like this: For any system based on formal language L, there will be a self-referentially true statement G coded in L such that neither G nor not-G is provable in the system. G, then, is true but formally undecidable. Either the system is incomplete with respect to the truth of G, or the system is inconsistent (consistency here means that in principle no statement can be derived that is both proven and disproven via the axioms of the system). But since G is true (as can be proven in principle by expanding upon the system to include true axioms bearing on the truth of G), the system must be incomplete with respect to the truth of G. 

[2] The illustration as I describe it is a condensed and modified version of Rucker's step-by-step explanation depicting a "Universal Truth Machine" and Gödel himself as its operator in Rudy Rucker, Infinity and the Mind (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), p. 174. 

[3] "Reflection principles provide the very antithesis of formalist reasoning. If one is careful, they enable one to leap outside the rigid confinements of any formal system to obtain new mathematical insights that did not seem to be available before." – Roger Penrose, The Emperor's New Mind (New York: Oxford, 1989), p. 144. 

[4] Stephen Hawking, "Gödel and the End of Physics," lecture given at the Dirac Centennial Celebration, Cambridge, UK, July 2002, http://www.hawking.org.uk/godel-and-the-end-of-physics.  

[5] Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 26. 

[6] Eleonore Stump, "The Problem of Evil," Faith & Philosophy, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Oct. 1985), p. 398. 

[7] For a comprehensive survey of historical and contemporary theology of the kingdom of God, see Mark Saucy, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (Dallas: Word, 1997). 

[8] Stump, "The Problem of Evil," p. 409.  

[9] Matthew 5:3, New King James Version. The New Century Version describes these poor as "they…who recognize their spiritual poverty." Presumably they belong in the same spiritual category with those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, Matt. 5:4-10.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Transcending Proof: In Defense of Christian Theism

Available at Amazon here (Kindle edition here).


Foreword by Stephen J. Bedard                                                                                  


1. A Theodicy of Incompleteness
2. Why I Am Not a Metaphysical Naturalist (and Why I Am a Christian Theist)
3. Extraordinary Claims, Ordinary Fallacies, and Evolution
4. Transcending Proof: A Reply to Richard Carrier
5. A Brief Critique of Theological Fatalism
6. The Presumption of Naturalism and the Probability of Miracles: A Reply to Keith Parsons
7. History, Archaeology, and the Veracity of Scripture
8. The Dusty Web of Gnosticism
9. On Belief as Inductive Inference
10. Classical Apologetics: Traditional Arguments for the Existence of God
11. Is God Incoherent? A Reply to Dan Barker
12. Out of the Whirlwind

From the back cover:

This selection of writings by a seasoned apologist offers some creative answers and insights concerning issues that challenge the intellectual integrity of the Christian faith:

·  Theodicy and the problem of evil
·  Creation and the logic of evolutionary theory
·  Evidence and rational justification of belief
·  History, probability and miracles
·  The coherence of Christian theism

" Don’s work is a valuable addition to the growing apologetic library that is so needed by the Church." -- from the Foreword by Stephen J. Bedard