The gift of Prophecy

What is the New Testament gift of prophecy? Since the birth of the charismatic movement, this question has been the catalyst for a great deal of debate among evangelicals, likely because our answers have such tangible practical implications. In his work “The Gift of Prophecy in The New Testament and Today”, Wayne Grudem argues for the existence of a prophetic gift which he defines as: “Speaking merely human words to report something that God brings to mind”. Practically, these prophecies are based on revelation from God and are given spontaneously as the church is gathered. Although based on divine revelation, the prophecies are muddied by the subjective experience and fallible reporting of the prophet. God does not provide erroneous promptings, but humans do report their revelations in earthly terms that may be in error. As such, prophecies should be weighed in order to sift the good from the bad.

This view comes from his sincere attempt to bring all the relevant biblical texts into theological harmony. I have great respect for many of his arguments and I am sympathetic towards many of his points, indeed my conclusions are somewhat like his. In this article, I will present a slightly different view of the relevant texts and draw some practical conclusions. The arguments surrounding this debate are quite complex, so I have kept things as short as possible and only addressed the issues that I find necessary.

Some Context

The book of Acts

In Acts, there are three ‘outpouring’ events. Many scholars observe that these events are not just incidental accounts that Luke throws in. Rather, they serve a purpose: To indicate that the commission of Jesus is being accomplished.

At the start of Acts, Jesus calls the disciples to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. The narrative of Acts goes on to tell us how this was accomplished. At each critical geographical turning point, there is a ‘Pentecost’ event. First, the disciples in Jerusalem receive the Spirit. Then, Peter witnesses the same phenomenon in the region of Samaria, and finally, Paul witnesses the phenomenon again in Ephesus.

These three key events are not arbitrary. They are big turning points of history as the Gospel breaks into a new sphere of humanity. As Carson states, each of these events is best understood as “a critical salvation-historical turning point, not a paradigm [for conversion]”.[1] With that in mind, let’s examine the specific cases.

Acts 2

In this passage, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples and they “speak in tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. This brings amazement to many, but some accuse the disciples of drunkenness. Peter, in response, points to a prophecy from the book of Joel. “They are not drunk”, he says, “but this is what was spoken of by Joel”. The text he refers to is from Joel 2, where God promises that he will “pour out [His] Spirit on all flesh”. As a consequence, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy… Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

So the outpouring of the Spirit will lead to prophecy. But I have one question: who prophesied? Search the text and you will not find anyone prophesying (depending on your assumptions). This has led some commentators to conclude that tongues must be a form of prophecy[2]. But there is another, more likely, possibility. They did prophesy; and they did it when they “declared the wonders of God”.

As Grudem points out, the word prophetes had a wide range of meanings in the first century. It could indeed refer to supernaturally endowed knowledge, or could simply mean “spokesperson” or “proclaimer”. Paul himself uses the word in this way (Titus 1:12).[3] Thus, we must take great caution in our approach and be wary to give to the word more weight than is due.

In my view, the very act of declaring God’s wonders constituted prophecy. The disciples “proclaimed” God’s work. Piper says: “Prophecy, as it is used here… is primarily verbalising the great things you have seen of God”[4]. I couldn’t agree more. But is this consistent with the rest of the book of Acts?

Acts 10

In the second ‘outpouring’ event, Peter preaches the gospel to the household of Cornelius. As he speaks, the Holy Spirit “falls” on all who hear. Peter later describes this event: “the Holy Spirit came on them just as he had come on us”. This should give us a clue. What happened at the house of Cornelius is the same as what happened at Pentecost.

So then, note how it is that those present knew that the house of Cornelius had received the Spirit: “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.” Now if this is the same thing as Pentecost, I am led to believe that “Praising God” is also very closely related to (if not synonymous with) prophecy.

So to help us define prophecy, we now have two separate phrases in our repertoire: “Declaring the wonders of God” and “Praising God”. Perhaps the third and final ‘outpouring’ event will help us further.

Acts 19

Here, Paul finds some believing proselytes who have been baptized by John the Baptist, but have not heard the message of Christ. Paul gives them the good news and when he had laid hands on them, “The Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied”. This does not give us another phrase which to define prophecy, but it does serve to reinforce our earlier point: To declare God’s works and to Praise God is to prophecy. The reason prophetes is used here seems simple: we have already been told what those people who received the Spirit proceeded to do. Luke decides to be brief and just use one word. I think Luke uses these three expressions almost synonymously. They spoke in tongues and proclaimed, just like before.

Were these events ‘ecstatic’?

The answer depends on what you mean by ecstatic. But I do think there was a certain miraculous spontaneity that accompanied these ‘outpourings’. At Pentecost, over a hundred people spoke in languages they had never learned, and they probably spoke all at once. They were euphorically declaring great wonders and mysteries of God at the same time. If you call this ecstatic, I wouldn’t disagree. There had to be some reason why the surrounding people thought they were drunk.

Of course, because these events were special pivotal events in history, it would be unwise to attempt to emulate them. I will soon show that this was in fact the error of the Corinthians.

Corinthian Chaos

So we begin our examination of the critical text. First, some context. As Carson writes: “From chapter 7 on, Paul appears to be answering a series of questions put to him in a letter from the Corinthians”. This is integral to our understanding of the passage. Paul is not presenting some teaching by his own choice. Rather, he is responding to the Corinthians and dealing with their questions using their own terms. In fact, it appears that this discussion of tongues and prophecy was never a part of Paul’s original message to the churches. He never addresses it of his own accord; indeed no New Testament author does. That should give us some caution as we read the passage before us.

So what was happening in Corinth? We can learn something of their situation by inverting Paul’s rebukes. In each of Paul’s exhortations, it is safe to say that the Corinthians were doing the opposite. At the very least, then, we know that the Corinthians were all shouting in “unintelligible” speech, saying to each other “I have no need of you”, they were “thinking like children”, worshipping “without using the mind”, inciting outsiders to say they were “out of their minds”, failing to speak “one at a time”, stirring “disorder” and so on.

I take this to mean that the members of the church were obsessed with spiritual experiences. Surely this is what Paul means when he says that they are (literally) “zealots for spirits” (verse 12). They were trying to re-create what they thought were spiritual experiences, but were really ecstatic frenzies. They claimed that the Spirit was taking hold of them and that they couldn’t control themselves (which Paul dismantles in verses 31-32). They claimed that they were ‘in the Spirit’ and not in the mind (which Paul chides in verses 15-17). They were speaking in unintelligible language that would make it look like they were mad (which Paul rebukes in verses 9-11). They were shouting ‘prophecies’ all at once, so that no one could hear or learn (which Paul corrects in verses 29-30), and so on. This led them to disqualify their fellow brothers (which Paul exposes in chapter 12).

This conclusion is not new. MacArthur writes: “the Corinthians started to confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with the former ecstasies, frenzies, and bizarre practices they had known in the pagan religions from which they had been saved”[5]. But of particular interest is that the Corinthians seemed to be asking Paul specifically about tongues and prophecy[6]. Carson makes this observation: “That Paul should restrict the focus of discussion… to two [gifts], prophecy and tongues, strongly suggests that there was some dispute or uncertainty about these two in the Corinthians Church”[7]. Powers writes: “In these verses the one who speaks in a tongue and the one who prophesies are compared and contrasted”[8]. This is true for a large chuck of the text. Why were the Corinthians so interested in these two gifts?

I propose a reason: they had heard of the events of Pentecost and probably also the events at the house of Cornelius. They had been told of the outpouring of the Spirit and were trying to replicate the scenes they had heard about.

If this is the case, then the terms “praising God” and “declaring wonders of God” become directly relevant. So too the suggestion that “prophecy” could mean “heralder” or “proclaimer” in the first century. It seems to me that, as part of their disordered worship, the Corinthians were shouting praises and encouragements in a frantic, frenzied, chaotic way. The Spirit was revealing great truths to them, but they were more interested in boasting of their spirituality than in edifying others. I do not know exactly what words they used, but it may have been something as simple as “Jesus is Lord” (see chapter 12). This makes much more sense than any of Grudem’s examples. I don’t think the Corinthians were shouting “The Lord has put on my mind a tremendous concern for the believers in the Philippines”. Although I don’t deny that it is possible that the Spirit will give such a leading, this is not the kind of practical application I would make for a church setting. It doesn’t fit the text.

On the whole, it seems more appropriate to me to define prophecy as follows: “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to the church in a time of need”. I see this as primarily based on scripture. For example, “Hey everyone, I think the words of Peter might be applicable to this situation…”

Anomalous Agabus

Grudem points to the somewhat obscure character of Agabus (Acts 11 and 21) to support his position. He claims that two small mistakes (as he calls them) in the second prophecy of Agabus serve to back up his definition of prophecy as a fallible report of divine revelation. Agabus saw something from God, but said it wrong. He misinterpreted his vision. Thus prophecies need weighing.

But Grudem runs into a roadblock. Agabus’ use of the phrase “Thus says the Holy Spirit” gives him strong ties to the Old Testament Prophets (as this was a regularly repeated phrase in their infallible oracles). This is problematic for Grudem, and he struggles to find a solution, even suggesting that his words may be due to a “misunderstanding of his role”[9] as a prophet. That is, the gift had not been around long enough for Agabus to fully understand the lesser, fallible nature of New Testament prophecy.

I find this argument unconvincing. Much more likely is the notion that Agabus was a true Prophet in the Old Covenant sense. John MacArthur has described the book of Acts as an “incredible period of transition as the church was born”[10]. Luke records miraculous event and powerful demonstrations of the power of the gospel. I hardly think he would interrupt his miraculous narrative in order to detail a (partly) failed prophecy. If indeed the narrative describes a transition from “a body of Jewish believers to the body of the church”[11], then perhaps we may expect that some remnants of the old covenant would still exist. Even the symbolic mode of delivery (the use of the belt in 21:11) resonates with the sound of prophetic oracles of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

But there is an elephant in the room: The Agabus example is far divorced from Paul’s practical, ecclesiological guidelines to the Corinthians. Should the Corinthians sit down and predict who is going to die next, but do it “two or three at a time”? And if someone were to stand up and say “Beware, there is a famine coming!”, would this qualify as “strengthening, encouraging and comfort” for the whole church? Would we respond “gee, brother, I have really learned and been encouraged”? I think not. Grudem tries to squeeze Agabus into Corinthian categories, but he doesn’t fit. Agabus does not belong in Corinth.[12]

In fact, all of Grudem’s examples suffer from this same ecclesiological chasm. He refers to a prediction by John Knox (1514 – 1572) about the death of William Kirkaldy, and cites several other puritan and reformed writers that tell stories of “extraordinary men… receiving extraordinary revelations… foretelling diverse, strange and remarkable things”[13]. But these extraordinary examples are just that; extraordinary! None of them occurs in a church setting, let alone in an ordered and disciplined worship service, as part of the gathering. I don’t think this is what Paul has in mind when he says “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said”. The examples break down when applied to the church. Indeed, God can and does give revelations like these in extraordinary settings, but none of these examples actually helps Grudem’s point. I conclude that the Agabus events were unique. He was like an Old Testament prophet, and this form of prophecy did not continue in the church. Perhaps this is why Luke begins each Agabus narrative with “In those days prophets came down from Jerusalem…”

Any conclusions we make about New Testament prophecy, and any examples we use to support our position, must be consistent with the practices of the regular gathering of faithful believers. Grudem has not shown this.

Prophecy as teaching

Grudem insists that prophecy is different from teaching. He says that “teaching” or “teachers” generally refer to the regular, planned, expounding of the scripture in the church, whereas prophecy isn’t based primarily on scripture, but on spontaneous revelation[14]. You can see the false dichotomy here. I would say that prophecy can contain scripture, or be based on scripture, without being the same as planned, expository bible teaching. An unplanned encouragement based on God’s promises in Romans 8, for example, would not be called ‘Bible teaching’, but is still inextricably linked with God’s word. In my view, it would certainly be prophecy.

It seems to me that a person who prophecies is quite different from a teacher, but a prophecy will contain teaching. In the church, the teacher/preacher for the day will be appointed ahead of time. He will prepare his message and study the scripture intently. He will then address the church in a formal way from a pulpit for a set amount of time.

Someone who gives a prophecy, however, brings an encouragement that he felt was needed. It was an unplanned, spontaneous application of God’s truth. Prophecies contain teaching, after all, they are given so that “we can all learn”.

Prophecy as prediction

But doesn’t Paul refer to prophecy as a more predictive phenomenon in other letters? Perhaps. But we must remember, once again, that he is responding to the Corinthian practice, not describing his own. This famous passage is not a doctrinal treatise of Pauline theology; it is a response to Corinthian heresy using Corinthian terminology.

Now, Grudem rightly shows from the use of diakrino in verse 29 that prophecies are to be sifted for truth that may be mixed with error[15]. I submit to you that teaching can be weighed. Prediction can’t. Most of Grudem’s examples are un-weigh-able because they are un-test-able. There is nothing to test them against. But if prophecy is at least similar to teaching, then this exhortation to weigh prophecies makes sense. Remember, Paul places prophecy in the same category as teaching and knowledge (verse 6).

Furthermore, I struggle to see how predictions can comfort and edify. Paul says that the purpose of prophecy is “so we can all learn and be encouraged”. I believe that my definition of prophecy, as “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to the church in a time of need” seems more appropriate.

Supporting Scripture

Acts 15:22 supports my view. Here we are told that “Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them”. Here, it seems, Luke makes a direct link between the fact that these two men were prophets and the fact that they exhorted and encouraged their brothers. If anything, this is further evidence for the wide semantic range of the word prophetes in the first century, for here surely it means “proclaimer” or perhaps even “encourager”.


Based on these reflections in scripture, I define prophecy as follows: “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to believers in a time of need”.

Some Pastoral Reflections

What then shall we do? Carson, Grudem and MacArthur give some good pastoral reflections that we should all chew on. I won’t reinvent the wheel but I will make a few points alongside these great men.

1: While they may be sincere, people or churches that try to create spiritual experiences are not mature. Perhaps the clearest lesson from our passage is that emotional experiences are not a reliable indicator of mature spirituality or even true faith. Those who want to grow and exhibit true out workings of the Spirit should be seeking to “strengthen, encourage and comfort”. They should use their minds.

By extension, this means that order is a mark of the true church. In a mature gathering, all words and deeds will be done in good order, with a view to help encourage and exhort others. It is important to remember that Paul accused the church at Corinth of “remarkable childishness”[16]. They were babies as far as Paul was concerned. Their practices, then, were not those of mature Christians. Mature Christians are sober and use their minds. “Edification demands intelligible content”[17]

2: Excessive deliberation over the exact form of prophecies is actually contrary to Paul. In 1 Corinthians, Paul takes the focus off the form of the gifts and onto the content of the gifts.

Whatever you are doing, if it doesn’t encourage and extort others, it isn’t biblical prophecy. Likewise, whatever you are doing, if it does encourage and exhort others, you are fulfilling Paul’s directives. Indeed, you have discovered the heart of Paul in this passage. We might say, “encourage and console your fellow believers, and so fulfill the heart of prophecy”.

So what is prophecy? That’s the wrong question. The right question, which will be seen as such by the mature, is “What can I do to edify and help my brothers and sisters in this situation?”.  In other words, Paul doesn’t tell them to seek to prophesy without a purpose. He encouraged it for a reason. That reason? Edification and consolation. I submit that we should be pursuing the reason, not the phenomenon. This was the error of the Corinthians. Let us learn from their mistake.

Brothers and sisters, when we stand before the throne of judgement, there will be many who had prophesied that will hear those chilling words: “I never knew you”. But there will be no one who “consoled”, “encouraged”,” edified” who will hear those words. Christ also is not looking for a phenomenon, he is looking for the reason behind it. In both Paul and Jesus, that reason is love.

3: Nobody denies that the Holy Spirit is able to give impressions and guidance for believers today, especially with regards to illuminating the scriptures. God can do what he wants. Grudem’s historical examples show this.

There is a difference, however, between accepting what God can do and expecting what God ‘should do’. Setting up yourself and your church to expect the extraordinary is unwise. Christ has told us how to live. His word contains “all we need” for life and godliness. It is our calling to seek to follow God in the ordinary. If he gives the miraculous, rejoice! But be wary of trying to conjure it. Walk according to his word, and it will be well with you. MacArthur says it right: “[True] spirituality is simply receiving the living word daily from God, and then living out that word in a moment by moment walk in the Spirit”[18].

[1] [Source 2], pp. 112. See also [Source 3] pp.150 “Acts provides not a paradigm for individual Christian experience, but the account of the gospel’s outward movement geographically, racially and above all, theologically”.

[2] See [Source 2] pp. 141 “Prophecy is an expression that embraces tongues”

[3] [Source 1] pp. 39

[4] [Source 4]

[5] [Source 4] pp. 108

[6] See [Source 2] pp. 22 “Is it really true that spiritual manifestations constitute unfailing evidence of spiritual people?”

[7] [Source 2] pp. 100

[8] [Source 5] pp. 309

[9] [Source 1] pp. 83

[10] [Source 3] pp. 102

[11] [Source 3] pp. 85

[12] I don’t mean to deride Grudem here. He himself admits that the case of Agabus is “difficult to classify” [Source 1] pp. 83

[13] [Source 1] pp. 352

[14] [Source 1] pp. 118-120

[15] [Source 1] pp. 58

[16] [Source 3] pp. 108

[17] [Source 2] p. 103

[18] [Source 3] pp. 183


[1] Wayne A. Grudem, The gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (2000)

[2] D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (1988)

[3] John F. MacArthur Jr., The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective (1978)

[4] John Piper, This is What Was Spoken by the Prophet Joel (1981)

[5] B. Ward Powers, First Corinthians: An Exegetical And Explanatory Commentary (2008)

Are Apologists Fighting the Wrong Battle?

John McCray thinks so.

Earlier I said how intellectual atheism is not a significant threat to Christianity. The biggest threat atheism has posed in America has not been reasoned argumentation. Rather, bitter diatribes and emotional criticisms (usually following religiously infused catastrophes like 9/11) have been responsible for much of their success. Their books and speakers weren’t made famous due to carefully-crafted, logically sound arguments. Instead, their highly emotive statements resonated with the frustrations of those who already had issues with religion.

In my estimation, well over 80% of what the New Atheist authors and speakers say about Christianity are demonstrably false or misleading. But this raises the question: If their claims are false, why is it that Christians weren’t able to correct these falsities, shutting them up right away? Part of it is simply because of the brute force of their rhetoric. Another part is because Christians are largely illiterate about what it is that they claim to believe. Statistically speaking, most who claim to be Christian are either unable to articulate or flat out do not understand the basics of what they claim to believe. This has led Christians to be unequipped and unable to respond to such attacks.

I think that number is probably 100%, not 80%. But I also think that it matters that we engage with academic, intellectual atheism, not just the childish and illiterate new atheists. Because the new atheists can only be allowed to get away with their foolish rhetoric if the academy is already either complacent or atheist.

Christianity, Ethics, and Politics in the Age of Isabella Chow

This is a very interesting paper, quite relevant to apologetic methodology.

“As for Christians, I think the wisest counsel is to err on the side of strength rather than conciliation. Our political culture, in general, increasingly respects boldness—whether used for good or for ill. Tellingly, public apologies by targeted persons often seem to further excite the person’s opponents and crystalize his damnation—functioning as a kind of Kafkaesque seppuku with zero redemptive function. It is not hard for me to understand why. As a militantly anti-Christian teenager, I perceived the apparent passivity of Christians as proof that, deep down, they secretly knew that I was right and that their faith was a lie. Having now been a Christian for many years, I can see that the Christians I challenged were actually attempting to model the humility of Christ but, regrettably, doing so imperfectly.

For Christians to speak with greater boldness would be biblical as well as pragmatic. Too often, Christians emphasize only one component of Jesus’ personality, resulting in a one-dimensional meekness isolated from the fullness of Christ’s character. As the novelist Walter Miller indicated in A Canticle for Leibowitz, the church today is capable of saying ‘[l]et the little children come to me,’ but is less capable of saying—as Jesus did only a few chapters later—‘[y]ou serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?’”

Resurrection: Where did the belief come from?

We have already discussed some of the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, however there are some further arguments and pieces of evidence that bear some consideration.

The first is a consideration of the origin of the belief in the Resurrection. The point I want to make is this: this is not an easy thing to believe, or an obvious idea to come up with. This is a hard thing to impress upon you and I, who live in an at least Christian influenced culture. But in ancient Israel, there was no conception of a dying and rising Messiah. In fact the Jews were so resistant to this idea, that when Messianic prophecies seemed to indicate that there would be a glorious eternal Messiah and a suffering and dying Messiah, there would in fact be two Messiahs! It is extremely non-obvious to an ancient Jew that the Messiah could die and rise.

Not only is the idea of dying and rising in this way unknown for the concept of the Messiah, but it is also entirely unknown in Judaism as well. In Judaism, there is a concept of a final Resurrection of all the dead on judgement day. They knew of what we might call a resuscitation: a dead body returning to the same kind of life it had before, temporarily. Resuscitated dead would have an ordinary lifespan. But a Resurrection to Glory before judgement day is a different idea. It was unthinkable that a Resurrection could occur apart from judgement day. As NT scholar Joachim Jeremias says:

Ancient Judaism did not know of an anticipated resurrection as an event of history. Nowhere does one find in the literature anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly, resurrections of the dead were known, but these always concerned resuscitations, the return of the earthly life. In no place in the late Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to Glory as an event of history.

The argument here is that it would take something quite dramatic and astounding to convince a group of apparently thousands of orthodox Jewish believers that not only had the Messiah been radically different to the one that they were expecting, but that He had done something that they wouldn’t have otherwise thought was possible.

Without the presence of an actual Resurrected Jesus, it is more difficult to explain the explosion of Christian belief immediately following His crucifixion. This is further evidence for the claim that Christ rose from the dead.

LCA: Responding to 3 important challenges

I intend to discuss three problems here:

1. In what sense does God have a will, since God necessarily chooses the best possible world.

2. In what sense are there possible worlds, since God necessarily creates only the best possible world.

3. In what sense is God omnipotent, since God in some sense can only bring about the best possible world, and no others.

These problems are serious ones, and do need to be responded to. This is especially important given the large corpus of literature claiming that these problems spell the end of contingency arguments, or for any conception of theism.

First, let’s run a little thought experiment. Suppose we have a deterministic chess AI, name it A: given the same position, and the same outside factors like underlying hardware and time remaining, it will always make the same move. There is no randomness inside the AI. Suppose that A’s opponent is a fairly weak engine, and A has been able to perfectly predict all of their opponent’s moves. There is a sense in which A “knows” about all these possible outcomes and futures, despite the fact that none of them can come about.

Now I don’t think that at this point it’s too controversial to extend the thought experiment. Suppose that A is not just deterministic, but is actually necessary. That is: not only can it not do otherwise given the nature of its programming and its situation, but those programs and situations could not be different. Does this fundamentally change A’s knowledge? I don’t see how it does. The internal state of A is identical, it’s just a fact about the external world that has changed. But not, in a sense, A’s world. Since A’s world consists only of the board, the rules, and the opponent.

Even though A is necessary, there is a sense in which it “knows” about “possible” future outcomes. How can this be? I claim this: A’s “knowledge”, though it appears to be based on counterfactuals, does not depend on possible worlds at all. This knowledge that A has is not based on any kind of access to “possible worlds” since A and its opponent are necessary.

An agent, when considering the impacts of their actions, can simulate possible outcomes of all the actions that agent could take. Even if the agent is necessary, it can simulate these outcomes, since that agent itself is the thing that determines them. Now perhaps you and I do not, because our knowledge is imperfect. But our chess AI has in a sense a perfect knowledge of its world, and God has a perfect knowledge as well. So God can perfectly internally simulate the outcomes of the actions that He could take. And note that this is true regardless of whether God necessarily takes a particular action. Each of these simulations is technically metaphysically impossible: God, being perfectly good, won’t choose to create them. But that’s the only impossibility present in them: they contain no other contradictions. God’s will, God’s choice, is the only thing restricting these worlds from being possible. And so God can perfectly simulate them.

Now we have reconstructed a possible world: not as a meaningfully real metaphysical possibility, but as a specific kind of thought in God’s mind. And using these possible worlds, we can engage in all our normal counterfactual reasoning, which we have come to love Lewisian worlds for. But now, possible worlds aren’t primitive, God’s knowledge and God’s power are ontologically prior.

Where did that notion of power come from? Again, worlds are simulations of the consequences of God’s actions. And so the totality of all those actions in each of those worlds is the totality of God’s power. Normally we want to frame omnipotence as “the ability to bring about any possible world”, but now we’ve gone the other way: omnipotence is primitive, and a possible world is a simulation of the consequences of an action of which God is capable. So now: what is omnipotence? What makes God omnipotent rather than just very potent?

It is the density of possible worlds. The denser they are, the more powerful God is. If there are only, say, 3 possible worlds, God is not very powerful. But if they are more unrestricted perhaps every logically possible world, or every world that would be metaphysically possible apart from God’s will, then God is more powerful. What we have now is: God’s power is as unrestricted as His knowledge, and God’s knowledge is as unrestricted as His power. So now an argument for omniscience also suffices for omnipotence. Arguments for God’s omniscience have been given elsewhere, and perhaps they will be elaborated on further later. But for now, we will move on.

God’s will is mixed in here too: God must will because God has a reason for one world becoming the actual world, and God acts on that reason. That reason being that that world is the best possible world. Seems like having a reason and a goal, simulating outcomes, and choosing an action is having a will. God chooses among alternatives based on His beliefs (or in this case, knowledge) and desires. The content of those desires is moral goodness, and God is necessarily good, so God necessarily creates the best possible world. But despite (and in my argument, because of) this, God chooses, and God has a will.

Why believe this? So far all I’ve done is tell you a story about the attributes. I hope I’ve convinced you that they are possible, compatible, and reinforce and illuminate one another. But so far, I’ve given you no reason to think God has them.

Here’s one: We need counterfactuals to ground our everyday reasoning. But given the PSR, as Van Inwagen argues, there is modal collapse. Only one truly possible world, therefore necessitarianism. So there are no other possible worlds to ground our counterfactuals. Are we dead?

No: possible worlds do exist, but only in the mind of God. And that’s the only place they could exist: no other being can simulate these “almost possible” worlds, since no other being is the means by which they are possible or impossible. It is solely because of God that they are possible or impossible, so only God can have proper simulations of them. But under that, the only way we can ground our counterfactual reasoning (if we rely on possible worlds) is via God. So God is a necessary part of our everyday reasoning. Combined with the rest of the LCA, we ought to believe in God.

Is Hell Just?

In discussions regarding reasons to doubt Christianity, I often hear people reply an argument from hell. The argument roughly is this:

  1. If God exists, He always does what is right
  2. It is wrong to send people to hell
  3. Under Christianity, God exists and sends people to hell
  4. Christianity is false

The argument is valid, so the Christian must respond by disputing a premise. Few of us would dispute 1, and only universalists and annihilationists make a meaningful disputation of 3. But I am neither of those things, so I will here dispute 2.

The first atheist catchphrase we hear in defence of 2 is this: finite sins do not deserve infinite punishment. This is a very common claim, but I think it is one of the worst attempts at justifying 2.

First, let’s be clear about the types of finitude. Either finitely many sins, finitely severe sins, or sins that take a finite duration. These are the ones I see defended. Each fails. It’s not clear how finitely many sins matters, for two reasons that will become clear later, and another I will present now: I claim that a single sin makes one worthy of hell. Just one is enough, since a single sin is infinitely bad. It doesn’t take multiple murders to make one worthy of the death penalty, just one. It’s not clear how sins are “finite” in severity: every sin is a sin against an infinitely perfect being who is infinitely innocent and infinitely undeserving. Each sin is a fall of an infinite distance: from perfection to imperfection. How is a sin finitely severe? And each sin takes finite time to commit, but crimes and punishments are never proportional in time. Crimes which take a second may have year long sentences, while crimes which take an hour may have month long sentences.

Second, we can point out that this is a kind of misunderstanding of sin. A sin is not merely an action, but is a condition, an attitude of the heart. Yes, people may commit “a” sin. But it’s not merely sins that people are condemned for, but sin. For failing to be what they should be. For not being the kinds of people that were righteous. It’s not clear what the quantity referred to here is, such that that quantity can be finite.

Third, I can even accept that “finite” (whatever that means) sins result in a finite sentence in hell. But since the sinner continues sinning in hell, at the very least by cursing God, they continue adding time to their sentence. So while at any time their remaining time in hell is finite, it functionally never ends. So in this sense, an infinite time in hell is actually the result of infinitely many sins.

Suppose instead of appealing to some kind of infinity, the argument is made more simply: hell is too bad. No one deserves it. It’s not clear how this is justified other than moral intuition (other than denying the truth of justice itself, but that’s a poor response. If hell is supposed to function as a reductio against Christianity, then we must either take a Christian conception of justice (people getting what they deserve) or else argue that under Christianity, justice is false. Good luck), and I think we can give a good reason why this moral intuition is flawed.

As sinful people, we don’t see the full horror and severity of sin. We think it’s “no big deal” the same way a man raised in a culture of slavery thinks slavery is “no big deal” or a man raised in a culture of rape thinks rape is “no big deal”. We are not objective judges of the severity of sin. We don’t let criminals decide gaol sentences, we don’t take rapists seriously when they balk at a death sentence for rapists, which they would do if they were raised in a culture where rape was common.

Not only are we guilty sinners ourselves, but we’ve been raised in a world where sin is common, thoroughly baked into our entire life, often dismissed as “no big deal”, and often even celebrated. How can our moral intuition be well formed enough to objectively judge what the right punishment for sin is? There is only one objective Judge, and He has made His proclamation.

With that moral intuition called into question, let’s lessen the force of it a bit more. Hell is certainly unpleasant, and ought to be avoided. Worse than any suffering that can occur in this life. But scripture seems to imply that hell will be worse for some than it is for others. Those who are particularly evil will receive a harsher penalty. Don’t imagine hell as being one blanket for all: everyone will receive the just penalty for their actions.

Consider also: people in hell are not the same as they were in life, in many important ways. Being separated from God, thrown into the outer darkness, they are separated from all that is good. They would be almost unrecognisable to us, shadows of who they once were. Not a single one will repent of their sin in hell. They might be sad that they are being punished and wished they had avoided that punishment, but none of them will truly repent of the evil that they had done.

Finally, we must point out that little is told to us about the nature of hell. It may be the case that our conceptions of hell truly are unjust. If that turns out to be the case, then God will do something else, since God is just. This argument, if it were sound, doesn’t defeat Christianity, only classical conceptions of hell. I’m probably wrong about at least a third of my theology. I don’t know what I’m wrong about, and I try very hard not to be wrong, but if it turns out I’m wrong about hell then I won’t renounce Christ.

With all this in mind, I don’t think hell is a good reason to doubt Christianity. Either justified with poor logic, demonstrably faulty moral intuition, or not fatal to Christianity as a whole.

Trello Board and Social Media

Kind of a fluffy post today, but I want to open up access to my Australian Apologist Trello board. This is how I have been collecting ideas for posts, or just thoughts that I’ve had that are relevant to any area of apologetics. I think however that it will be valuable to many of you. You will find ideas that I have not yet developed into full posts, resources, responses to my posts that I haven’t responded to yet, etc. Don’t treat anything there as correct, or defensible, but merely interesting.

Note also that you can vote on this board! If there’s a particular topic that you want me to develop more fully, vote for it, and I will take your votes into consideration when deciding what to spend my time on.

Apart from Trello, I will remind you that you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, subscribe to get posts via Email (look in the top right of the sidebar), and join a Discord Server where I am active, and where I am intending on running live discussions and debates soon.