Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review: Hidden In Plain View by Lydia McGrew

This is the same review I left on Amazon.

Hidden In Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts by Lydia McGrew

I really enjoyed this book. I had heard about undesigned coincidences before, and I wondered why, in light of the fact that there were supposedly so many of them, the same ones kept being brought up in talks, blogs, and interviews by various people. Now I understand. It's because there's only a handful of them that actually amount to undesigned coincidences. The rest of them seem to have more to do with the creativity of the author (whether Lydia McGrew, William Paley, or whoever) than with there actually being an undesigned coincidence.

Let me give two examples. One is a compelling undesigned coincidence, and the other doesn't seem so to me. These are right next to each other in the book.

The first is on page 85. In Matthew 10, the twelve apostles are listed in pairs, e.g. Simon and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, etc. Mark 6 says that when Jesus sent the apostles out to preach, he sent them out in pairs. Lydia thinks this is an undesigned coincidence because Mark explains why Matthew lists the apostles in pairs the way he does. If this argument is sound, then supposedly Matthew pairs them up according to who traveled with whom. But this seems like a stretch to me, and I see no reason to think the sending of the twelve in pairs has anything at all to do with why Matthew lists the twelve in pairs. Granted it's possible, but I think you need more than mere possibility to use this as historical evidence of some real event. You'd have to have some good reason to think one thing actually IS the explanation of the other thing before this argument would work.

But suppose I'm wrong, and it does indicate some historical reality. What would that reality be? That Jesus sent the apostles out in two's? Or that the pairings in Matthew correspond to who traveled with whom? I don't see how. Maybe the apostles were paired up for some unknown reason, and if we knew that reason, it would explain both why Matthew would list them in pairs and why Mark would say that Jesus sent them out in pairs. But we can't really know what that historical reality is, so even if this is an undesigned coincidence, we couldn't draw any historical conclusions from it, at least not with any confidence. You can't say that A explains B when there's a possible C that explains both A and B independently of each other, especially when it's far from obvious that A is actually the explanation for B.

The other undesigned coincidence is on page 87. In Matthew 14, Herod hears news about Jesus and tells his servants that he thinks Jesus might be John the Baptist risen from the dead. Then in Luke 8 we find out that one of Jesus' followers is the wife of one of Herod's servants. So that explains how we know what Herod said to his servants. What makes this an undesigned coincidence is the fact that Luke was not trying to explain anything about what was said in Matthew 14, yet it's hard to think of a better explanation of how this information ended up in Matthew. How could anybody have known what Herod said to his servants in private unless his servants relayed it to other followers of Jesus?

That strikes me as being a good example of an undesigned coincidence. Now the question arises whether Lydia's book has more examples like that first one or like the second one. I didn't keep count, but my guess is that it's about 50/50. So I rounded up and gave Lydia 3 stars. Besides, I think it's a very valuable book even if not everything said in it was persuasive. I gave her an extra star because the book is really well written and a pleasure to read.

Lydia said somewhere in the book that we shouldn't expect every example to be compelling. Her hope was that the cumulative effect would present a strong case for the reliability of the gospels and Acts. But I don't think examples like that first one contribute anything to the cumulative case. As William Lane Craig once put it, "Two bad arguments don't make a good argument." With enough creativity, I think somebody could probably come up with all sorts of examples of undesigned coincidences that aren't really there, but the only way they really count in a cumulative case is if we have good reason, and not mere speculation, that one thing explains another thing in an unintended way. We do have that in the second case above, but not in the first case.

Thanks for writing this book, Lydia. Somebody needed to write this book. I hope that through the process of natural selection (or peer review if you prefer), we'll weed out the bad arguments and hone the good ones.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Natural theology, deism, and theism again

In my previous post, I was talking about how the arguments for God from natural theology only rise to the level of deism (or so it is claimed), and do not bring one all the way to theism, much less to any specific God, like YHWH. But this morning, I was thinking about how it would be quite the coincidence if the God of the Abrahamic religion didn't exist and yet these philosophical arguments were sound.

I'm not aware of every creation story there's ever been, but I have read or heard a lot of them. In just about all of them, they presuppose that some things already exist besides the creator. Hardly any of the stories go all the way back to the beginning of everything. They explain how things were made out of previously existing stuff or circumstances. None of the gods in most other religions are anything like the God of the Abrahamic religions in the sense of being this being who stands completely apart from the natural realm and brought it all into being.

If the typical philosophical arguments for God are sound, then they cohere much more nicely with the God of the Abrahamic religions than they do with just about any other god of any other religion. I say that provisionally because, as I said, I'm not aware of all creation stories.

That, by itself, isn't enough reason to think the God of the Abrahamic religions is one and the same with the God of the philosophers. After all, it's possible there's a deistic God and all religions are made up. But it is good reason to look into the Abrahamic religions, I think.

Consider this, though. The idea of the Abrahamic God was already around before all these philosophical arguments became wide-spread, which means belief in the Abrahamic God did not originate from these arguments. It arose independently of the arguments. That means if those arguments are sound, and the God of the philosophers actually exists, then it would be a huge coincidence if people happened to invent a God that resembles the actual God in so many ways. It seems more likely that the God who exists actually revealed himself to people, and that's how they came up with the Abrahamic God. The Abrahamic God is the God of the philosophers.

Let me see if I can put this another way. According to both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, God created everything that came into being, and that includes everything on earth and everything in the heavens (Genesis 1:1, John 1:3). Colossians 1:16-17 puts it like this: "For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together." That sort of absolute exhaustive creation only exists in the Abrahamic religions as far as I know, and that's precisely the same sort of God you get from cosmological and teleological arguments. The God of Abraham is also absolutely sovereign, autonomous, and authoritative (Daniel 4:35, Psalm 135:6), which is what you get from the moral argument. If the God of the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments actually exists, then either he revealed himself to the Hebrews or else they made an extraordinarily lucky guess when they made up YHWH. After all, they didn't come up with YHWH through cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments. They either made him up and got lucky, or God made himself known to them.

So I don't think the arguments from natural theology are merely sufficient reason to look into the Abrahamic religions; they are sufficient to strongly suspect that at least one of the Abrahamic religions is true. It's just a matter of which one at that point. It's Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Deism and philosophical arguments for God

Some people complain that the typical philosophical arguments for God are not sufficient to bring one to theism, but that if they are sound, they only rise to the level of deism. Deism is the view that God created the world but does not intervene in the world. That would mean that any revealed religion, like Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, is not true. It could be that under deism, God doesn't intervene because he is unable to, or it could be that God doesn't intervene because he isn't interested. One could hold to either view and still be a deist.

It seems to me that if God created the world, it's unlikely that he'd be unable to interact with it. So any version of the cosmological argument would undermine the claim that God is unable to interact in the world.

The moral argument seems to undermine the claim that God is uninterested in the world. I remember reading somewhere that Benjamin Franklin thought God would judge sinners, but that in the meantime he doesn't intervene in the world. But it seems to me that if God is interested in how we behave, especially in how we treat each other, he would have a motive in intervening in the world. To the degree that our moral obligations are for our own good, they show that God cares about our well-being. If he cares about our well-being, we should expect that he would intervene in some way. At the very least the fact that God would have standards that he expects us to follow, and the fact that he bothered to let us in on it, shows that God is not indifferent about us.

The fact that we know right and wrong shows that God must have intervened in the world in order to impart this knowledge. Humans came into the world fairly recently by cosmological standards. God had to have created us in such a way as to impart this knowledge. The only other possibility is that when he created the world, he set the initial conditions in such a way as to guarantee not only our existence, but that our brains would be hardwired in such a way as to know about his moral standards. Although possible, that seems unlikely to me. I suspect our knowledge of morality, if it reflect God's morality, had to have been imparted to us by a divine intervention in the physical world at some point in the history of the universe.

Of course the argument from evil (or suffering) is invoked to show that God does not care about our well-being. The moral argument answers the problem of evil, though, by showing that God is perfectly good and therefore must have a morally sufficient reason for allowing or causing evil and suffering, whether we know what that reason is or not.1 So in spite of evil and suffering, there is still reason to expect that God would have a motive to intervene somehow in the world. According to Christianity, he intervenes primarily by saving people from his wrath by providing atonement through the death of Jesus Christ. He also promises that he will intervene by raising the dead, judging sinners, and granting eternal life to the redeemed. But he also answers prayers and rescues people from calamities. Why he rescues one person and allows another to suffer is a mystery.

So the cosmological argument and the moral argument together seem to rule out the two reasons for why, under deism, God doesn't intervene in the world. I don't think this is a definitive proof against deism, but I do think it's a reasonably good reason to doubt deism or to reject the claim that the typical theistic arguments only amount to a deistic God. They don't prove that God intervenes in the world, but they do undermine any reason to think he can't or wouldn't.


1. See A quick and dirty response to the problem of evil.

Friday, July 05, 2019

The double edged sword of evangelism from a Calvinist perspective

I've been working on a book for a long time now that's designed to explain, in a sort of autobiographical way, why I think Christianity is true. My hope is that God will use it to draw people to himself, and that it will be instrumental in at least somebody's conversion to Christianity. That's one reason I'm writing it anyway, and it's the only reason that's relevant to this blog post.

Calvinists believe that whether somebody is saved or not is entirely up to God. For a Calvinist who wants to evangelize, this takes a lot of the pressure off because it means that as long as we are faithful in presenting and defending the gospel, we need not wring our hands over whether somebody will be lost because we weren't persuasive enough. It's not really up to us. God will effectively call everybody he intends to save. If people reject our message, it isn't because we have failed as apologists. Our success and failure isn't measured by how many people we succeed in converting. Our success and failure is only measured by whether or not we were obedient and faithful in presenting the gospel. Whether people respond positively to it or not is entirely up to God. And this is supposed to relieve us of performance anxiety.

Recently I was listening to some people who are not Christians, and I realized that their way of thinking was so diametrically opposed to my way of thinking as a Christian, that there was no hope of them ever being receptive to the gospel unless they had a radical change of heart. I wish I could remember the details of what was said. As I was listening to it, I found myself discouraged. That's what gave rise to this post. While I might be comforted in knowing that a person's unresponsiveness to my efforts to persuade them isn't my fault, there's a double edge sword because, on the other hand, it also means that there is no effort I could make that would improve matters. If God does not change a person's heart, there is nothing I can say to them to persuade them. If you love the person you're talking to, this can be really discouraging. It means there's no effort you can make, no matter how hard you try, that will get your loved one to convert. All you can do is pray for them and hope that God grants them grace.

But let me say something else that's related. I'm not sure it follow from the doctrines of Calvinism that how well we do apologetics makes no difference. There are some Calvinists who think that apologetics and even just announcing the gospel without defending it is pointless because if God had already determined who he is going to save and who he isn't, then there's nothing we can do that will make any difference. If God wants to convert Bob, but not Jim, then it doesn't matter what we do or don't say to Bob and Jim. No matter what we do or don't do, Bob will still be saved and Jim won't. So some Calvinists think there's no point in presenting the gospel at all. And among those who think we should present the gospel, merely out of obedience, there's no point in defending the gospel with arguments since arguments don't persuade.

I've always thought this was a mistake because even if God determines everything, there can still be causal chains that are entirely deterministic. Imagine a row of dominoes set up so that if one falls, the next one will inevitably fall. And suppose God determines that the last domino will fall, so he knocks over the first domino to make it happen. Would it make sense to say that the middle domino made no difference? Of course not. The middle domino has everything to do with why the last domino fell. In the same way, as long as God uses means to accomplish his ends, then apologetics can be used as a means for God to draw people to himself. Apologetics are not superfluous in Calvinism.1

If we grant that apologetics are not superfluous under Calvinism since God uses means to accomplish his will, then there's no reason to think that how well we do apologetics makes no difference. After all, how well we do apologetics may be the means by which God draws people to himself. If effort counts for anything at all, even under theistic determinism, then surely it matters how well we defend the gospel.

Consider any other endeavor we have. If you're a consistent Calvinist, then you must believe that God ordains everything that comes to pass. If you graduated from college with a 4.0 average, it's because God meant for you to do so. It was predetermined from before the foundation of the world. Yet your hard effort had everything to do with your GPA. If you had not tried so hard, you would not have made a 4.0. God predestined you to make a 4.0, and he used your hard work as the means through which he accomplished that end. If effort matters, even though God foreordains everything that comes to pass, then surely the effort we put into defending the gospel matters just as much as the effort we put into making good grades in school. So it ought to matter how well we do apologetics.

Jesus himself seemed to believe that delivery makes a difference. He said on one occasion that he spoke in parables so that some people would not understand him. He said to his disciples, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven” (Mark 4:11-12). Doesn't this presuppose that if Jesus spoke plainly that some people would've understood, turned, and been forgiven?

Jesus showed that evidence matters, too. He said, "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes"(Luke 10:13). Tyre and Sidon would have repented if Jesus had shown them the same miracles that he showed Chorizin and Bethsaida. Yet he didn't. So here's an example of where evidence would have made a difference in somebody's conversion.

If effort makes a difference, then we do have something to be anxious about--whether we presented the gospel clearly, whether we defended it well, etc. If it's possible for Jesus' lack of clarity to explain why some people didn't repent and be forgiven, then it's also possible that our poor arguments or poor presentation is the explanation for why some people don't repent and receive forgiveness. That does put some of the onus on us, even if God determines who he will save and who he won't. We are his instruments. But I do still think it puts us in a better position than a non-Calvinist as far as fretting over our own efforts.


1. See also Calvinism and evangelism and Does Calvinism render apologetics superfluous?.