- Lydia McGrew: Saints rising in Matthew
- Excellent lecture on Messianic Prophecy
- From Fine Tuning to a Perfect Being
- Jesus Is Too Good To Be False
- Hume, Miracles and the Many Witnesses Objection
In discussions regarding reasons to doubt Christianity, I often hear people reply an argument from hell. The argument roughly is this:
- If God exists, He always does what is right
- It is wrong to send people to hell
- Under Christianity, God exists and sends people to hell
- 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.
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.
Christian philosopher Josh Rasmussen has recently completed a roughly 3 hour series of podcasts with Capturing Christianity, in which he discusses primarily the contingency argument for God. There are also some discussions of other topics, such as apologetic methodology and the problem of evil. You can find them here:
Both Rasmussen and Capturing Christianity are worth paying attention to in general, but these discussions specifically are quite good. They are a bit popular level rather than academic level, but still valuable.
One of the most convincing prophecy arguments is that from Isaiah 53, where we have clear, specific prophecies of the Messiah centuries before He could come. And when He did, He clearly fulfilled. This would be one of the stronger arguments for the supernatural origin of the bible, stronger probably than the one that we’ve already examined from Daniel 9.
However, the atheist (and indeed the Jew) seem to have a strong counter-argument. Isaiah 53 is not a Messianic prophecy, but it is intended to be an allegory for Israel, not Jesus. And that the Christians of the first century (including the Apostles) desperately searched through the Jewish scriptures looking for things they could fit Jesus into. And under that view, the prophecy argument is weaker. So here, we will examine whether Isaiah 53 really is a Messianic prophecy.
References in the Old Testament
Of course, the best source for how ancient Jewish readers interpreted Isaiah 53 is the Old Testament itself. If elsewhere in the pre-Christ Jewish scriptures, we have references to Isaiah 53 that indicate it is Messianic, that is very strong evidence that it was understood by the original hearers and readers as messianic.
Martin Hengel argues in his paper The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period that there is a connection between Isaiah 53 and passages in Zechariah and Daniel which indicate that the Isaiah text is intended to be a Messianic prophecy. The argument is detailed and I won’t go into it here, but it is worth considering.
Consider just Isaiah though, consider in Isaiah 11:10 where the Messiah (and pretty much everyone agrees this one is Messianic) is the “Root of Jesse”. But now in the very start of the song in 53, right in verse 2, the Suffering Servant is the Root who springs up.
The Davidic references are not finished, however. Remember that David reveals that the Messiah will be a priest of the order of Melchizedek in Psalm 110. And now in Isaiah 52:13, we are told that the Messiah will act as a priest, “sprinkling” many nations as the blood of sacrifices was sprinkled on the people.
Early Jewish interpretations
Unfortunately, our sources on early Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53 are pretty sparse. But we do have some, and many of those are indeed messianic interpretations. The most famous one is probably from the Babylonian Talmud in Sanhedrin 98b, where the author uses Isaiah 53 as a source about the Messiah in order to try and determine what the Messiah’s name will be:
“The Messiah –what is his name?…The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, `surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…'”
There are some other examples of Messianic interpretations of the Suffering Servant. Consider the Targum Jonathan’s translation of Isaiah 52:13, which clearly indicates that the interpretation of the passage is Messianic:
“Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high and increase and be exceedingly strong…”
In the Zohar (a non-mainstream Kaballah text, but an early one which indicates some interpretation trends) we have this passage:
“`He was wounded for our transgressions,’ etc….There is in the Garden of Eden a palace called the Palace of the Sons of Sickness; this palace the Messiah then enters, and summons every sickness, every pain, and every chastisement of Israel; they all come and rest upon him. And were it not that he had thus lightened them off Israel and taken them upon himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisements for the transgression of the law: and this is that which is written, `Surely our sicknesses he hath carried.‘”
Or Rabbi Moses Maimonides:
“What is the manner of Messiah’s advent….there shall rise up one of whom none have known before, and signs and wonders which they shall see performed by him will be the proofs of his true origin; for the Almighty, where he declares to us his mind upon this matter, says, `Behold a man whose name is the Branch, and he shall branch forth out of his place’ (Zech. 6:12). And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he shall appear, without father or mother or family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of dry earth, etc.…in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which kings will harken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.” (From the Letter to the South (Yemen), quoted in The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, Volume 2, pages 374-5)
These are just a sample of the many examples of Messianic interpretations.
Now, these quotes are not the only early interpretations of the Suffering Servant. It was also interpreted by early Jews to perhaps refer to Moses, and sometimes even to Israel as modern Jews claim. But these interpretations are not universal, and in fact that corporate interpretation of the Servant being Israel only became dominant in the post-Christ era, where Jews began using it as an apologetic against Jesus as the Messiah. But before this, it was a valid and not uncommon interpretation that this text was about the Messiah.
Characteristics of the suffering servant that do not fit Israel
- The Suffering Servant is innocent and has no guilt. (9)
- It pleased the Lord to bruise the Suffering Servant (10)
- The Suffering Servant is a sin offering: a slain sacrifice (10)
- The Suffering Servant suffers both willingly and silently (7)
- The Suffering Servant is a prophet, who declares how God saves His people (1)
- The Suffering Servant suffers in the place of Israel (8)
- The Suffering Servant dies and is buried (9)
- The Suffering Servant has no descendants (9)
I think that given these, it’s clear that the text is intended to be Messianic and the corporate interpretation of the Suffering Servant as Israel fails. And then the Christian can go on to easily argue that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of here.
The third argument from Van Til that we will examine is the argument from induction. Van Til argues (rightly) that we must be able to use induction in order to be able to reason about the world. That is, we have to be able to reason from our past experiences as individuals and as a society and infer the future. But to reason this way, we must assume that reality has a kind of uniformity or intelligibility. And according to Van Til, the only way we can know this is through theism.
Does Christianity offer a solution to induction?
The first step in evaluating Van TIl’s argument is discussing whether Christianity can actually justify induction as we use it. I am not currently aware of any serious arguments that induction is impossible under Christianity, and I think it’s reasonably clear that under Christianity we can perform induction. How do we know that reality is regular or predictable in the right kind of way? Because the God of order and knowledge created not only a world that is ordered and knowable, but also our minds. And since He created our minds intending that they would know the world, we can know the world through induction.
It’s true that some argue that under sceptical theism, we cannot do induction. We may discuss this more when we discuss solutions to the evidential problem of evil, but it doesn’t apply to theism in general.
Secular justifications of induction
In order for Van Til’s argument to succeed, it must not only be the case that theism allows for induction, but that there is no coherent secular response to the problem as well. Many attempts have been made at secular answers to this problem, we will have a brief look at some of them here.
Popper: Falsification, Not Induction
Karl Popper has famously argued that inductive reasoning ought not to be performed in the manner that is normally considered here. Instead of looking for observations to confirm or verify our hypothesis, we should instead look for observations that falsify the hypothesis. And if we don’t find any, we don’t consider the hypothesis true, we just consider it to be not yet falsified.
This approach is perhaps the dominant approach in philosophy of science and indeed in the practice of science. However, I think it is somewhat difficult to swallow. We end up not really believing that things are “true”, instead we believe they are “not yet proven false”. But that’s simply not how we reason about the world, we do think it is true that our various inductive hypotheses are correct. We do think it is true that the sun will rise tomorrow because we have observed it doing so in the past. So while here we do have a coherent way of reasoning, it doesn’t save our normal, everyday reasoning using induction. Therefore this is not a good enough response to the problem of induction
Law of Large Numbers
This is another, less popular (though I think stronger) response to the problem of induction. Helpfully explained by this Reddit comment (the whole /r/askphilosophy subreddit is pretty great by the way), we can justify induction essentially a priori using some mathematics. However, it is not without its issues as well. I will quote the SEP:
The more problematic step in the argument is the final step, which takes us from the claim that samples match their populations with high probability to the claim that having seen a particular sample frequency, the population from which the sample is drawn has frequency close to the sample frequency with high probability. The problem here is a subtle shift in what is meant by “high probability”, which has formed the basis of a common misreading of Bernouilli’s theorem. Hacking (1975: 156–59) puts the point in the following terms. Bernouilli’s theorem licenses the claim that much more often than not, a small interval around the sample frequency will include the true population frequency. In other words, it is highly probable in the sense of “usually right” to say that the sample matches its population. But this does not imply that the proposition that a small interval around the sample will contain the true population frequency is highly probable in the sense of “credible on each occasion of use”. This would mean that for any given sample, it is highly credible that the sample matches its population. It is quite compatible with the claim that it is “usually right” that the sample matches its population to say that there are some samples which do not match their populations at all. Thus one cannot conclude from Bernouilli’s theorem that for any given sample frequency, we should assign high probability to the proposition that a small interval around the sample frequency will contain the true population frequency. But this is exactly the slide that Williams makes in the final step of his argument. Maher (1996) argues in a similar fashion that the last step of the Williams-Stove argument is fallacious. In fact, if one wants to draw conclusions about the probability of the population frequency given the sample frequency, the proper way to do so is by using the Bayesian method described in the previous section. But, as we there saw, this requires the assignment of prior probabilities, and this explains why many people have thought that the combinatorial solution somehow illicitly presupposed an assumption like the principle of indifference. The Williams-Stove argument does not in fact give us an alternative way of inverting the probabilities which somehow bypasses all the issues that Bayesians have faced.
In simpler terms, it has been objected that this response to the problem of induction incorrectly assumes that the sample distribution matches the population distribution. That is, it incorrectly assumes that what we have observed is representative of some sort of universal law. Which is in fact precisely the thing that we are trying to prove. Presumably, the proponents of this solution would argue that in general, we assume that a sample is drawn randomly unless we have any reason to suspect otherwise unless we can demonstrate a bias. But that’s not necessarily true, often sampling measures come under scrutiny and must demonstrate their random methodology.
I think this solution is stronger than the previous one, however.
Perhaps in the future, we will consider more solutions to the problem of induction, but here I have presented the most common one and one that I think is quite interesting.
- The Death of God, The Descent of Man, The Death of Humanity
- The Historical Reliability of the Gospels: A Response to the Influence of Bart Ehrman
- Why Is the Christian Subculture Still So ‘Mindless’?
- 9 Reasons Why Joseph of Arimathea Was a Real Historical Figure
- Study the Culture to Better Share the Gospel
In the last few days, some good engagement has come from users in the comment sections here, I would like to highlight those and encourage more of you to participate. If I’m wrong, tell me! If you’re confused by something I’ve read, tell me! We would all benefit.
Also a reminder that you can subscribe to the blog via email to get the latest updates quickly.
- On LCA points 2 to 4
- On Historical Evidence for the Resurrection
- On Van Til’s Argument for the Unity of Knowledge
We recently began looking at some presuppositional arguments from Van Til, as examined by James Anderson. One of Van Til’s more interesting arguments is one for the existence of a God that is not unitarian. Theoretically the same argument could be made for a God that exists in multiple persons of any number, not just 3. But for now, we will treat Christianity as the only worldview that has the requisite ontological commitments.
The argument is basically this: at the base level, reality is either fundamentally unity, diversity, or both. Reality being fundamentally unity or fundamentally diversity would undermine our knowledge of reality. Therefore if we are to know anything about reality, we must hold that reality is fundamentally both. Only Christianity presents a worldview under which this is true, so Christianity is true.
Here is Van Til:
As Christians, we hold that in this universe we deal with a derivative one and many, which can be brought into fruitful relation with one another because, back of both, we have in God the original One and Many. If we are to have coherence in our experience, there must be a correspondence of our experience to the eternally coherent experience of God. Human knowledge ultimately rests upon the internal coherence within the Godhead; our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition. (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 23)
This is relatively easy to phrase in a more formal premise-conclusion form, so I won’t bother here. I am sure you can all reconstruct it.
What we must do now is justify the claim that under fundamental unity or under fundamental diversity, reality is not knowable.