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.

Josh Rasmussen on Capturing Christianity

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.

Isaiah 53: Is it about the Messiah?

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.

Van Til on the Problem of Induction

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.