Monday, April 20, 2020

What is meant by the subjective/objective dichotomy in morality? (and other questions)

Somebody on a discussion forum asked some questions about Christian morality, and I responded. This happened several years ago, but I was just looking for an old post and stumbled on this and thought it might make a good blog post. So here you go.

As you pointed out, the phrase "objective morality" gets tossed around a lot without defining terms. So let me define this phrase first because it can be taken in at least two different ways.

First way:
Morality is what we take to be right and wrong. Objective morality would then be moral conclusions we came to without the influence of bias or prejudice, but rather that we came to through a fair and impartial look at the facts informing our circumstances.

Second way:
Morality is, in fact, what is actually right or wrong. Objective morality would then include moral obligation we would have whether we choose them or not, whether we believed in them or not, whether we approved of them or not, etc. In other words, the moral imperatives would be incumbent on us independently of human sentiment.

When theists use the phrase "objective morality," we are using it in that second sense, not in the first. Since moral obligations do not derive from any human thought or decision, they must come from some source outside of humanity. We believe it comes from God.

So we humans do not invent right and wrong; rather, we recognize right and wrong. Moreover, morality exists independently of the Bible. It is not merely because some imperative is in the Bible that it is therefore wrong as if the Bible made it wrong. Rather, it is wrong already because God forbids it, and the Bible merely records it because it is true. So the Bible recognizes that certain things are true or false, but it doesn't make them true or false.

After all, Adam, Eve, and Cain were punished for their immorality before the Bible was ever written. God punished the world with a flood for their immorality before Moses ever received the law on Mt. Sinai. And other nations who never received the Mosaic Law were still punished for their immorality.

But as far as specifics go, most moral imperatives have prima facie force. That is, they apply in most circumstances but are not without exception. To be objective is not necessarily to be absolute. For example, it's generally wrong to lie to people, but there are circumstances in which lying is the right thing to do. I went into more detail about that on my blog.

All it takes for objective morality to exist for there to be any action at all in any situation that it would either be wrong to do or wrong not to do regardless of what any human thought. And it's not hard to think of examples.

1. A man who beats his wife with a baseball bat just because she forgot to get Oreos while she was at the store is doing something that is morally wrong.

2. A single man who has sex with the wife of another man is doing something morally wrong.

3. A woman who slips a date rape drug in her dad's drink, then rapes him while he is incapacitated is doing something morally wrong.

Conversely, I have never heard any theist offer a rational explanation as to WHY it can only be objective, when emanating from a deity or a "holy text."

It's because morality consists of imperatives. Moral law is prescriptive. It imposes obligation. It tells people what they must and must not do. Imperatives can only come from persons. If all that existed in all of reality were non-sentient material objects, nothing would be right or wrong. The universe could be thoroughly described merely with "is" statements, but no "ought" statements. Imperatives can only come from one person imposing their will on another person.

People have instituted governments that make laws which are also prescriptive. But no human law can make something that is otherwise wrong become right or vice versa. Even laws can be just or unjust. For example, a law that required parents to sacrifice their firstborn child in a fire would be morally wrong. It would be wrong to make such a law, and it would even be wrong to obey such a law if it were passed. So the moral law has authority over every conceivable human law, and it is the basis upon which human laws can be judged either just or unjust.

So the authority behind the moral law must be personal, absolute, autonomous, and transcendent. No conceivable creature could have such authority, even if there were a superior alien species from another planet. Something like a god would be necessary to ground morality. The fact that the God conceived of by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and even deists is a person who is autonomous and transcendent and responsible for creating everything else that exists makes that sort of God a sufficient source of morality. It is hard to think of anything else that would suffice.

If a moray is "objective," it is static.

That is not true. What gives a moral imperatives their objectivity is that they come from a legitimate authority whether that authority requires the same thing all the time or whether the authority requires different things at different times.

Can any theist state, specifically, which morals are "universal and objective" that cannot be derived outside of the "holy texts?"

A moral does not need to be derived from holy texts before they can be universal and objective. As I said before, it isn't holy texts that make things right or wrong. Holy Texts can only record things. Any authority holy texts have is grounded in God. God would have that same authority whether the holy text existed or not.

In my view, God created us in such a way that we are able, through reflection on our experience, reason, and intuition, to discern between right and wrong. As the Bible puts it, God's law is written on our hearts. While the Bible can clarify things for us in many cases, for the most part, everybody knows right from wrong even if they're ignorant of the Bible.

Once an "objective moral" has been defined, what significance could the phrase "appropriate to the time" possibly have on the objectivity of a moray?

Some moral are stated in broad terms, then applied to specific circumstances. When the circumstances change, so does the appropriate action. On the surface, it may appear as if the moral obligation has changed since at one time, a person should do X, but at another time, they should do Y. But in reality, the reason they should do X at one time, and Y at another time, is because of some broader moral principle that hasn't changed at all.

For example, it might be appropriate to give a person medicine while they are sick, but once that person is no longer sick, it is no longer appropriate to give them medicine. So it isn't as if the moral law changed from "Give medicine" to "Withhold medicine." Rather, the general moral principle in both cases is "Take care of the person's health," and what changed over time was what the person needed to stay healthy.

So time and circumstances can affect the specific moral obligations we have in virtue of more general moral principles. That's where our "reason" comes into play. It isn't as if there's a moral code that specifies every possible situation you could be in. Rather, there are general moral principles we are instinctively aware of, and we have to use our reason to discover how they apply to specific circumstances, which change through time.

Who is the final arbiter of a disagreement between two (individual or groups of) humans regarding the "objective" moray within any holy text?

We have to make a distinction between moral ontology and moral epistemology. Ontologically, the final arbiter of any moral disagreement is God because it is God who determines what is right or wrong. But epistemologically, disagreements have to be settled on the merits of the arguments for and against both sides, and sometimes people never succeed in settling their differences. Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses have an organizational structure designed to interpret scripture on behalf of everyone else, and they also settle disagreements.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

How do you determine what should and shouldn't be read literally?

People sometimes ask whether the Bible should be read literally, and I always answer that the question is based on a false premise--that the Bible is a monolithic book. I then go on to explain that the Bible contains lots of different genres, and each document should be read in light of its genre. That means some things are going to be literal and some aren't.

So then the question comes up: How do you determine what should and shouldn't be read literally? Somebody asked me that on an Ask a Calvinist thread on, and this was my response:

It's easier in some cases than in others. In a lot of cases, the text explicitly tells us. For example, in Revelation we are told that this or that vision represents something else. Jesus taught in parables, and parable is a commonly understood genre in which a story or scenario is meant to capture some deeper truth.

The rules for determining whether something in the Bible is literal or not are just the same as determining whether something outside the Bible is literal or not. In most cases, we recognize the genre of some piece of literature and interpret it according to its genre. We recognize that history and personal letters should be interpreted differently than apocalyptic or poetic literature. But we also recognize figures of speech. Figures of speech are funny because if you're not familiar with figures of speech that are common in some culture, then you can mistakenly take something literal that's not meant to be literal. That happens a lot with foreign exchange students. So knowing something about historical and cultural context helps with that.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Jesus was raised from the dead

I want to pick back up on what I said yesterday about how there'd be no reason to invent the idea that Jesus' death had a divine purpose (specifically to atone for sins) unless his followers had some reason to think he was the messiah in spite of having died. Believing that his death atoned for sins wouldn't, but itself, be any reason to think he was the messiah, so it wouldn't have been invented for that purpose. If it was invented at all, it would only have been invented as a way of redeeming the humiliation of the cross in light of the fact that Jesus really is the messiah.

But why think he was the messiah at all after he was killed? I mentioned briefly yesterday that the crucifixion should have convinced his followers that he wasn't the messiah, and they appear to have lost hope immediately after his death. I want to drive that point home, though, by looking at some unambiguous messianic prophecies.

First of all, let me give a little background information what is meant by "messiah." Messiah comes from the Hebrew word for "anointed" or "one who is anointed." Being anointed applied to three different kinds of people in the Old Testament. Primarily, it was used of kings (2 Samuel 2:4), but it was also used of priests (Exodus 30:30). Less frequently, it was used of prophets(1 King 19:16). Christ comes from the Greek word for "anointed," so christ and messiah both mean the same thing.

In the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as being all three things--king (John 18:37), prophet (Matthew 21:11), and priest (Hebrews 3:1). But when he is called the Christ, this refers primarily to him being a king.

Or rather, I should say the king. After David was anointed king, God made a promise that his throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16, 1 Kings 2:45). He also said that as long as David's descendants are obedient to God that David will never lack a man to sit on the throne of Israel (1 Kings 2:4, 8:25).

But some of them weren't obedient, and as a result, David's dynasty came to an end near the beginning of the Babylonian exile. Still, Israel did not give up on God's promise. The prophets began to say that God would fulfill his promise by raising up a descendent of David who would sit on this throne and rule forever (Isaiah 9:7, Ezekiel 37:25, Jeremiah 33:14-22).

When the New Testament says that Jesus is the Christ, this is what they are referring to. They are saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promise to always have a man on the throne of David. That's why Jesus is called the Christ, the son of David, etc. Even "son of God" was a messianic title, which I won't go into here, but read my post and the subsequent discussion in the comment section of "Response to a Jew with a view about Jesus" on that point.

Old Testament prophecies about the messiah can be identified in a couple of ways. One way is that they often refer explicitly to God's promise to always have a man on the throne of David, like in Jeremiah 33. They can also be identified by their use of messianic titles. Sometimes the messiah is called David, sometimes a son of David, or a descendent of David. Another common and obvious messianic title is "branch of David" or "righteous Branch" or "root of Jesse" or something along those lines. Jesse was David's father, by the way. These are all the unambiguous messianic prophecies. There are passages in the Old Testament that Christians attribute to Jesus but that Jews reject, like Isaiah 53. I'm not going to talk about those here. I'm just going to talk about the unambiguous messianic prophecies.

Some of these are chapter-length, so I'm not going to quote them in full. I'm just going to list them and summarize. This isn't an exhaustive list either, by the way.

Isaiah 11. Here, the messiah is portrayed as judging righteously, righting all wrongs, etc. It also says that his coming will be accompanied by ideal circumstances which are poetically described as the lion lying down with the lamb, etc. These poetic images appear to refer to worldwide peace. It says that all nations will defer to him as if he were a beacon. Then it goes on to say that his coming would be accompanied by gathering of all God's people who had been scattered throughout the nations. Judah and Israel will re-unite.

Jeremiah 23:1-8 says basically the same thing as Isaiah 11. It calls the messiah a righteous branch of David who will do justice and righteousness in the land. His coming is accompanied with the return from exile of all who had been scattered, and it says they will dwell securely.

Jeremiah 33:14-26 repeats the prophecy, tying it explicitly to God's promise that David will never lack a man to sit on the throne of Israel. It also lumps that promise in with other promises God made to Israel and Judah, assuring the reader that God will never break his promises nor reject his people.

Ezekiel 34:11-31 says that God will judge between sheep (i.e. people), and he will gather all his flock who have been scattered so that they can dwell in safety with plenty to eat, and the other nations will no longer oppress them or prey on them. It says that "my servant David" will be their prince and their shepherd.

Ezekiel 37 is the vision of the valley of dry bones that all come to life. The interpretation of the vision is that the bones refer to the whole house of Israel and how God will open their graves and place them in their own land. The prophecy continues to explain how Judah and Israel will be reunited and how they will be gathered from all the nations in which they had been scattered. God will cleanse them of all sin, causing them to walk in his statutes. He will make an everlasting covenant of peace with them, and God will dwell with them forever. David will be their king and shepherd forever.

Even before Jesus started making overt claims about being the messiah, there are things he did that raised suspicions. Matthew reports that one of the first things out of Jesus' mouth when he started his ministry was, "Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). Nearly all of Jesus' parables were about the kingdom of God. The fact that he named specifically twelve people to be apostles alludes to the reunion of the twelves tribes of Israel, which in turn alludes to the restoration of the whole house of Israel, part of what the prophets associated with the coming of the messiah. So people had reason to suspect Jesus was making a messianic claim even before he started being explicit about it.

With all of these things in mind, it should be no surprise that "Christ crucified" would be a "stumbling block to Jews" (1 Corinthians 1:23). In fact, one of the primary reasons Jews today reject Jesus as the messiah is because he was crucified without having fulfilled all of these promises.

Messianic expectation was high in Judea from 6 CE on into the first war with Rome that began in 66 CE. Before then, Judea wasn't ruled directly by Rome. It was ruled through satellite kings of the Hasmonean dynasty. King Herod ruled until his death in 4 BCE at which time his son, Archelaus, was made ethnarch of Judea. Archelaus was deposed in 6 CE at which time Judea was placed under direct Roman rule under prefects (or procurators). Pontius Pilate was one of them.

While Herod defended the right of the Jewish people to practice their religion freely while he was king, these rights were threatened under Roman rule, and there was constant tension between the Jewish people and the Roman occupiers. This tension eventually erupted in war in 66 CE.

During that time, several people rose up and made messianic or quasi-messianic claims about themselves. The most famous were made during the war itself. It should be perfectly understandable why Roman occupation would increase messianic hope and expectation. It's because the hope was that the coming of the messiah would free the Jewish people from Roman oppression. So when some would-be messiah came along, gathered followers, and got people's hopes up, those hopes were always dashed when that would-be messiah's movement ended in his death, which was always the case. Once the would-be messiah died, their followers scattered. Sometimes they'd go back to living their ordinary lives. Sometimes they'd find another messiah to follow. But nobody ever continued to think somebody was the messiah after they had been killed because their death proved that they were not the messiah.

The only exception is in the case of Jesus. But even in the case of Jesus, his followers initially scattered and lost hope in him. Their hope was restored when they saw him alive, or so they say.

The appearance traditions go back to that early oral tradition Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:1ff. Paul says that after the resurrection, Jesus "appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also." Paul had actually met Peter, James (the brother of Jesus), and John in Jerusalem on a couple of occasions (Galatians 1:18-19, 2:1-10). He also ran into Peter once in Antioch (Galatians 2:11). Some scholars think his first trip to Jerusalem is where he received this oral tradition, including the appearances to Cephas (i.e. Peter), James, the twelves, and all the apostles. It's hard to say where he learned about the appearance to the 500 or how he knew how many of them were still living.

The fact that the appearances actually happened is pretty widely accepted among New Testament historians because of their early origin, how close these accounts are to the actual eye-witnesses (since Paul was personally acquainted with Peter, James, and possibly some of the other apostles), the fact that they are multiply attested, and the fact that it provides a powerful explanation for why Jesus' movement survived his death. In fact, it's nearly impossible to account for the survival of Christianity apart from these appearances.

E.P. Sanders said, "That Jesus' followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know" (The Historical Jesus, p. 280). And there's lots of speculation among scholars about what the nature of those experiences were. Some, like Sanders, just shrug their shoulders and say, "I dunno." Others, like Gerd Ludemann, say it must've been some kind of vision or hallucination. There are a handful of conservative scholars, like N.T. Wright, who think Jesus actually did appear to the apostles. Most scholars seem to agree that the appearances are the explanation for why Jesus' followers continued to believe in him in spite of his crucifixion.

If that's the case, though, then what kind of experiences must they have been? Were they individual experiences or did they happen in groups? Were they dreams, visions, or hallucinations, or was there a tangible Jesus before them who they could touch? I wrote a blog post called "The Hallucination Hypothesis" where I went into some detail about my thoughts on these subjects, so I won't go into the same detail here. But as a summary, I'll say that I don't think anything like a dream, vision, or hallucination is sufficient to explain why they thought Jesus was still alive. One of the most common defenses of the hallucination hypothesis is the fact that grief hallucinations are common when people die. But grief hallucinations don't explain why the apostles all came to believe Jesus had risen from the dead.

While grief hallucination may be common, they never lead to the belief that a loved one has risen from the dead. My grandmother had one and thought she experienced my grandfather's ghost. The gospels even report that their initial impression upon seeing Jesus was that he was a ghost (Luke 24:37). With that option available, and with people just dismissing hallucinations as "seeing things," it doesn't seem like a vision or hallucination would've lead to the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead.

But a real flesh and blood Jesus who they could touch and who could actually eat tangible food in front of them can explain belief in the resurrection. And that's what the gospels say happened. They all report skepticism in the beginning. First, there was skepticism when the women who visited the tomb said they saw Jesus. Then there was skepticism on the part of Thomas that the other apostles had seen Jesus. During the last appearance recorded in Matthew, it says that some were doubtful (Matthew 28:17). But what apparently persuaded them was that Jesus ate in front of them and they could touch him. And it's hard to think of anything short of that that would've convinced them that Jesus had risen from the dead and was the messiah in spite of him being crucified before ushering in the kingdom of God, establishing worldwide peace, and ending the Roman occupation.

In the case of James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul, the appearances explain their conversions. According to both John's gospel and Mark's gospel, James didn't believe in Jesus prior to the crucifixion (John 7:5, Mark 3:21). But then Paul records that Jesus appeared to James, and according to Acts, James was leading the church in Jerusalem. By his own account, Paul tried to destroy the Christian church but then he was converted as a result of Jesus appearing to him. These appearances had to have been of such a quality as to explain the conversions. Paul thought Jesus really did rise from the dead. He places such importance on it that he said, "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised" (1 Corinthians 15:14-15). A mere vision or hallucination would not have convinced anybody that Jesus had risen from the dead, and it's an inadequate explanation for the conversation of James and Paul.

And you can just imagine what you would think if somebody you knew to be dead appeared in front of you. You might think you were going crazy, seeing things, or having a hallucination. You might think, like my grandmother, that it was a ghost. Or maybe you'd even think you were having a really lucid dream, but the last thing you'd think was that your dead loved one had risen from the dead. A mere vision or hallucination wouldn't lead you to believe that.

Besides having actually touched Jesus and eaten with him, I suppose the inference to the real resurrection of Jesus was heightened by the fact that his tomb was found empty, and something had to have happened to his body. I'm not going to go into that here, though. I will say that the real resurrection of Jesus explains in a powerful way why his movement--a messianic movement--survived his death. With that in mind, I'll end this post by saying: He is risen.

Happy Easter!

PS) This is my 600th post. Wahoo!

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Jesus died for sins

Since we are between Good Friday and Easter, I thought I'd write a post about the theological implications of Jesus' death on the cross from an historical point of view.

According to the gospels, Jesus predicted his death and that his death would atone for sins. His disciples had a hard time wrapping their minds around that, which is understandable since by this time they believed Jesus was the messiah. Going to his death would've made no sense if he was the messiah because the messiah was supposed to come to restore to the Jews everything that was lost--their unity with Israel, their sovereignty, the throne of David, etc. How could Jesus be the messiah if he was going to die?

If Jesus really did predict his death, I imagine the disciples must've figured they weren't hearing him right or maybe he was using some kind of metaphor they didn't understand or whatever. At one point, Jesus seems to have gotten through to Peter, and when he did, Peter was all like, "Oh no you won't!" Jesus rebuked him, which must've left Peter pretty confused. Peter's continued confusion is evident in how he tried to rescue Jesus when Jesus was being arrested in the garden.

When I was younger, and I read the gospels, I thought the disciples were comically clueless. I remember wondering if maybe the authors of the gospels just made them appear stupid so that Jesus would appear a lot smarter. But now that I've gained a better understanding of what a messiah would've meant to an average Jew in the first century, I think their reaction to Jesus' predictions about his death make a lot more sense. They weren't stupid. They were suffering from cognitive dissonance. Jesus was saying something that was totally incongruent with his claim to being the messiah.

Or so it must've seemed. They later came to see Jesus' crucifixion as the means through which Jesus would accomplish all the messianic expectations. The division between Judah and Israel, the scattering of Israel, the destruction of the first Temple, the end of David's dynasty, the exile, and the occupation by other nations, were all the result of Israel's failure to observe God's Law given to them through Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross dealt with sin once and for all, removing all of the obstacles to God's promises being fulfilled. The Old Testament says that the messiah would usher in the eschatological kingdom with everlasting peace and prosperity for everybody, but the New Testament says how he would do it.

I can't remember who it was (maybe Raymond E. Brown), but I remember some Jesus scholar speculating about whether Jesus knew he was going to die when he went to Jerusalem that last time. According to the gospels, Jesus was warned not to go because it wasn't safe. But he decided to go anyway, and when he got there, he was greeted by a crowd of people waving palm branches and shouting, "Hosanna to the son of David!" If Jesus wasn't in any danger before, this surely would've put him in danger because now he's got a crowd of people hailing him as the messiah. All four gospels say he rode in on a donkey, which would suggest that he was consciously fulfilling the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 about a king riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

If that happened, then surely Jesus was claiming to be the messiah, and the crowd understood him to be making that claim. But what did he expect to happen next? Did he know this would get him killed? Did he go to Jerusalem for that purpose? Or did he expect that this was his moment to finally sit on the throne of David?

If Jesus did know that going to Jerusalem would get him killed, this would explain why we get the sense in Mark's gospel and elsewhere that Jesus was initially ambiguous about who he was. At one point the crowds seem frustrated with Jesus because up until then he hadn't told them plainly that he was the messiah. Some people thought he was the messiah. Others thought he was just a prophet. Some even thought he was John the Baptist risen from the dead. But by the time he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, his messianic claims are all out in the open, and nobody is confused about it anymore. It may be that Jesus wasn't overt in the beginning because he knew that would've cut his ministry short. If that's the real reason Jesus was secretive about being the messiah early on but bold later on, then that would suggest that he did go to Jerusalem to die because in that case he knew that making overt claims to be the Davidic king would get him killed, and now he's going to Jerusalem on a major pilgrimage festival and being very overt about claiming to be the king of the Jews.

One of the earliest sources we have about the historical Jesus is a quote that Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 11. It's about the last supper where Jesus identified the bread and wine of the meal with his body and blood, saying that the cup is the new covenant in his blood. That means Jesus spilt his blood to establish a new covenant. So according to one of our very earliest sources, Jesus did seem to predict that he would die and that his death would initiate a new covenant.

There's one other place where Paul uses the same language to introduce an oral tradition that he's passing on, and that's in 1 Corinthians 15 where he says that Jesus "died for sins." This formula goes all the way back to the very beginning of Christianity. According to a footnote in Mike Licona's book on the resurrection of Jesus (note 140 on page 234), scholars date this formula anywhere from a few months to five years after Jesus' death, so it's very early.

It raises an interesting question about how Jesus' disciples actually came to think of Jesus' death on the cross in a salvific way. They clearly didn't think of it that way before Jesus' death. They were confused when Jesus predicted his death, and even after the last supper, Peter still seemed to be confused by it. And all of them appear to have been shocked and disillusioned when Jesus was crucified.

There are a few possibilities. It's possible that after Jesus was resurrected, he explained it to them, and they finally understood. It's possible that they remembered Jesus predicting his death, including how he called the cup the new covenant in his blood, and although they didn't understand him at the time, they interpreted his words with the advantage of hind sight. It's possible they made up the atonement out of thin air as a way of redeeming the crucifixion because they just couldn't handle their messiah dying in such a humiliating way.

That last possibility seems the least likely to me. If they fully expected Jesus to sit on the throne of David and establish national sovereignty, then his crucifixion would've disconfirmed their belief, and it does seem from the gospels that they initially lost hope when he was crucified. If they lost hope in him being the messiah because he died on the cross, there would be no motive to try to redeem the death to make it less embarrassing. And it won't do to suggest that they invented the idea of atonement to salvage their belief that he was the messiah since that wouldn't have done the trick anyway. Even if he died for sins, how's he going to sit on the throne of David if he's still dead? Without some reason to think Jesus is the messiah in spite of being dead, the claim that his death served a noble divine purpose is just arbitrary. It seems to me that before they'd have any motive to make up a scenario in which Jesus' death was actually part of God's plan or had a greater purpose, they would have to first have some other reason to think he was the messiah apart from that rationalization. The thought would be, "Oh, well, now that we know he is the messiah after all, why the death on the cross? It must've served some good purpose. Maybe he died for sins." But without some reason to think Jesus was the messiah in spite of his death, there would be no motive to invent the idea that his death on the cross atoned for sins.

I'll pick back up on that tomorrow since tomorrow is Easter, and Easter is a celebration of the resurrection.

EDIT: Here is tomorrow's post: "Jesus was raised from the dead."

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Tactics vs. Street Epistemology

Greg Koukl has this book called Tactics where he teaches Christians how to have productive conversations with non-Christians. I read the original a long time ago, but I've been reading the 10th anniversary edition lately because it's been updated. While I think the book is great over all, there is something about it that bothers me.

Greg's third Columbo tactic is to poke holes in other people's views by asking them leading questions designed to get them to recognize the flaws in their views and/or persuade them of your point of view. This is the same tactic Peter Boghossian advocates in his book, A Manual For Creating Atheists. It's basically the Socratic method, but Boghossian and his fans call it "street epistemology."

I have no problem with this method of persuasion. What bothers me, though, is that Greg advocates what appears to me to be a double standard. While in chapter seven, Greg advocates asking "leading questions" to make your points, in chapter nine, he says that if somebody uses this tactic on you that you should "Politely refuse to answer the person's leading questions." Greg even explains how if somebody begins to ask you leading questions, you can turn the tables on them and put them back in the hot spot. The object, in Greg's view, is to control the conversation by making sure you're always the one asking the questions, and they are always the ones having to defend their views.

The whole purpose in Greg's tactics is to take the pressure off of you and put it on the other person. These do seem like good strategies if your goal is just to remain in your comfort zone. You stay in your comfort zone by forcing the other person to defend their claims but avoid having to defend any claims of your own. But what good is that other than giving you psychological comfort? If you have a point of view you want to get across to somebody, then you should be willing to assume the burden of proof at some point. If you just want to stay on the sidelines and poke holes in other people's statements, you may be having a good time, but you're not accomplishing a whole lot.

I don't think anybody is obligated to submit to the Socratic method if they just don't like being on the witness stand. But I think that if you're going to expect other people to be on the witness stand, you should be willing to sit on the witness stand yourself. And if you're not willing to do that, then you shouldn't subject other people to it. This is just Jesus 101--treat others how you want to be treated.

I don't entirely agree with Greg's advice about what to do when somebody uses the Socratic method on you. His advice appears to be that you should never let this happen. But if that's something that one should never let happen, then non-Christians should never let it happen either, and if non-Christians never let it happen, then Greg's third Columbo tactic will be of no use to anybody.

My alternative advice is that if you don't want to be on the witness stand, then it's perfectly alright to ask the person to just spell out their arguments instead of asking you questions. But at the same time, if you're going to expect other people to answer your leading questions, then you should be willing to answer theirs and not play this game of shifting the burden of proof just to avoid discomfort or to control the conversation.

There have been times when I've allowed myself to be put on the witness stand because I think that can be helpful to people. (It can also be fun.) Sometimes people want to challenge you because they hope to change your views, but this is an opportunity for you to give them information. Allowing yourself to be grilled with questions could be helpful to them. People often think they have some killer question that'll stump you and expose the falseness of your views (e.g. "If everything needs a creator, then who created God?"), but you can disabuse them of this confidence by giving good responses to their questions. If they ask you questions you don't know the answers to, you can always just admit you don't know the answer. There's nothing wrong with that. In cases where you don't know the answers, this can help you since it may reveal a weakness in your point of view or something you need to study more. It can give you direction and be a learning experience.

But I'm not always up for being put on the witness stand. Sometimes I just don't have the energy or I'm just not in the mood. That happened a few weeks ago when somebody sent me a private message and wanted to do the Street Epistemology thing on me to challenge my epistemology. I declined, telling him I didn't want to be on the witness stand but that if he thought there was something wrong with my epistemology, he should just tell me what it is, why he thinks I'm wrong, or what point of view he thinks I should adopt. So he wrote me back a short message giving a brief explanation of his epistemology, and that was the end of our conversation. I suppose if I weren't just being lazy I would've chosen to engage with him, but I was tired at the time and didn't feel like it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Covid-19 and the problem of evil

The coronavirus pandemic has people asking about the problem of evil again. For anybody who has thought about the problem of evil, no new example of evil or suffering should change anything. Either the problem of evil has been solved or it hasn't. The new coronavirus doesn't add anything new to the discussion. If the Bubonic Plague or the Spanish Flu didn't disprove the existence of God, then neither does Covid-19. But I thought I'd make this post anyway and see if I can find all the posts I've made in the past on the problem of evil and list them here.

Alvin Plantinga's solution to the deductive problem of evil. I wrote this one when I was just trying to understand Plantinga's argument in God, Freedom, and Evil, so it may not be entirely accurate.

More on the problem of evil. This is a follow up post on the last one.

Can God actualize any possible world he wants? In this post, I made some corrections to my previous post on Plantinga's argument.

Omnipotence and the problem of evil. This is a short post explaining one point Plantinga made in his book.

What makes a counter-factual true?. I made this post after stumbling upon what I would later find out is a common objection to Molinism--the grounding objection--but I hadn't quite understood the objection yet.

Conversations with Angie: The Problem of Evil Stated. This is the first post in a series of posts I did on the problem of evil. I'm not going to link to every post in the series, but there are links to the bottom of each post to the next post in the series, so you can follow those. The last one is Conversations with Angie: Finally reconciling evil with God's goodness. This series is probably the most detailed discussion on my blog about the problem of evil. My thoughts on the topic have evolved, though, so this series isn't necessarily exactly what I would say today, though it's close enough I guess.

Conversations with Angie: Update on Alvin Plantinga. This corrects something I said about Plantinga's argument earlier. This conversations about Plantinga lasted for three posts, so see the links at the bottom of this post and the next one.

Does libertarian freedom entail the ability to do good or evil? This post isn't directly about the problem of evil, but it is relevant to the free will theodicy and the free will defense, which are responses to the problem of evil.

Feasible and infeasible worlds. This is also not directly about the problem of evil, but it is relevant to Molinism which, in turn, is used by Plantinga and others in their response to the problem of evil.

A quick and dirty response to the problem of evil. This was my effort to give a succinct response to the problem of evil. It tries to cover most of what is in the Conversation with Angie series, but in a very abbreviated way.

The value of resolving the intellectual problem of evil. This one gives a practical reason for dealing with the problem of evil before evil strikes, so it's pretty relevant to what's going on right now with Covid-19.

And that's it. It's possible that I might've missed a post or two, but that's most of them.