Did God Allow the Attacks on 9/11 for a “Greater Good”?

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

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Shortly after 9/11, people were seeking answers about why God could allow such a terrible tragedy. Some Christians made some unfortunate comments,  attributing the tragedies to the judgment of an angry God. Others said that God had some mysterious purpose in allowing it to happen. We were told that somehow he was going to bring about a greater good through it. The “greater good theodicy” is a common Christian response in the attempt to undercut the atheistic argument from evil. But is this answer a good answer?

While I certainly don’t disagree that God can and does at times bring good out of evil, I’m convinced that the greater good theodicy is plagued with problems. First, let me define some terms. A theodicy is defined as “The vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” The defender of the greater good theodicy wants to deny that there is such a thing as gratuitous evil. They would say that God allows only that evil into this world from which He can bring about a greater good or prevent a worse evil.

Gratuitous evil is basically defined as evil that does not serve a greater good or purpose. The greater good theodicist would claim every moral evil works together to serve the greater good. So where does the trouble lie for the greater good theodicy?

For starters, we have no way to show the skeptic that a greater good obtains. There is no evidence to support the claim. In the example of 9/11, one might respond that 9/11 led to a lot of positive changes in our nation’s awareness of terrorism and security, but how many lives lost exactly did it take to cause such changes to come about? Couldn’t it have been that many more people had been spared in order for such changes to take place? Furthermore, there is no objective criteria for measuring the good. How do we know how much good counterbalances a particular evil? We don’t.

The greater good theodicy also seems to undermine the doctrine of petitionary prayer. If God wants us to suffer from such things as terrorists attacks to bring some sort of good out it, why bother praying for such a thing as the protection and safety promised in the 91st Psalm, or asking him to heal those effected by the tragedy? The greater good theodicy also seems muddy the waters in alleviating the suffering of our neighbors around us. For if God has allowed certain evils for a greater good, why should we work to stop injustices when greater goods will ultimately come about if we simply allow them to happen?

I think the most difficult problem of the greater good theodicy is it seems to make evil necessary; for without the evil it follows that certain goods cannot obtain. This means that ultimately God is planning the evil to bring certain good about. If evil isn’t necessary, then we’re back to the question about why God allowed the evil in the first place. I also think the greater good theodicy also commits God to a moral philosophy of consequentialism, which means that God would then be determining the correctness of a certain cause by the goodness of the outcome. An example of this was the terrible U.S. bombings of Japan. The Truman administration and its defenders justified that atomic bombs being dropped on Japan would’ve saved more lives than an military invasion ever would. Of course, God would be in a place to know these things, but then others lives must be sacrificed to bring about a greater good. It certainly isn’t good for those who suffer an untimely demise. Moreover, we see in scripture God condemns that we do evil to bring certain goods about. (see Romans 3:8, 6:1)

When faced with questions about tragedies of a similar nature, Jesus did not appeal to such reasoning.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Because we live in a fallen world in which the curse is a very real, pointless evil is possible and God is justified in allowing it. But for those who are Christians are given authority over the evil around us, as well as the Holy Spirit, who can supernaturally warn them of danger if they are attentive. (see Luke 10:19, Romans 5:12-17, James 4:7, John 16:13, Acts 20:23)

We must all be ready to meet our Creator, to whom we all must give an account of our lives. Jesus put the focus on the condition of our hearts and the brevity of our lives. God unequivocally condemns evil, and he came to redeem us from evil if we freely choose to receive him. Instead of looking for some greater good to come from atrocities such as 9/11, we should be looking to spread the mercy and love of God to those hurting around us.

(I’m particularly indebted to Dr. Bruce Little’s insights on the problem of evil for much of the content on this post.)

Apologetics Bloggers Alliance collaboration for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (Various theological views are represented. Bear in mind that linkage doesn’t equal full agreement)

Isn’t it arrogant and immoral for Christians to evangelize?

Are Christian missionaries doing something wrong by trying to share their faith with others? I mean, they have to believe that they have some elite status with God. After all, they think that their faith has given some sort of audience with God, and those who do not hold to their particular view are mistaken and are failing to embrace something that is extremely important. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be handing you that tract or knocking on your front door on Saturday morning when you’re trying to watch College Gameday. For them to push their beliefs on someone has to be the apex of spiritually snobbery, no?

So what is the young and eager missionary to do, other than look for a new line of work? Well, she or he could stop believing that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” altogether, or they could just be agnostic about it, refusing to believe one way or the other. For the Bible-believing Christian, neither option is appealing.

If the missionary chooses the former, he’s still being exclusive, because now he’s saying Christians are wrong and what he believes is right. If he chooses the latter and decides to withhold judgment, it’s just a tacit way of saying that his status is privileged. After all, if people were smart as he was, they’d follow his lead. So really there is no neutral ground to be found. The criticism that there cannot be only one way to God is a double-edged sword. In saying that the missionary is arrogant and immoral, the religious pluralist wants you to adopt their view that there can’t be only one way to God. But then by their own criteria, they are arrogant and immoral. Therefore, I don’t think the arrogance charge sticks.

You really think you're better than me, don't you?!

Moreover, it could be that the missionary has done their due diligence in looking at other religions and worldviews and concluded that the Christian worldview has the most explanatory power and scope. Furthermore, they may have had an life-changing encounter of God’s love through Christ and want to share that with others.

Think about it: This might be a crude illustration, but if you recently had car troubles and found a good, honest and affordable mechanic, wouldn’t you tell someone about this mechanic in the proper circumstance? Think about what the Christian believes, (or at least most do, I think): The Christian believes that they found the answers to the meaning, value and existence and that anyone can do likewise, not by merely adopting a moral code or repeating a creed, but by knowing Jesus as Lord. They believe they God can be personally experienced now and want to help lead others in enjoying that same experience.

Can they be blamed for wanting to share this with others? I fail to see how.

On Jerry Coyne and godless morality

Jerry Coyne at "Noorfest", Duke Univ...

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Earlier this month,  Jerry Coyne wrote an op-ed piece for the USA Today called “As atheists know, you can be good without God”. Coyne is an outspoken evolutionary scientist and an atheist. Coyne tries to prove that theists do not have the moral high ground, and to that end I agree with him in some sense. Atheists, of course, can be moral too. But I will argue that he has no basis for thinking that this morality is grounded in anything factual given his atheism.

Jerry seems to share in some of the fundamental misunderstandings that many atheists have when it comes to the moral argument for God’s existence. First, he brings out our old friend the Euthyphro Dilemma. I’ve written here recently that the Euthyphro Dilemma is really a false dilemma, but Coyne throws in a new wrinkle when he brings up that God not only can command us to do evil, but that He has! Coyne cites several examples of what modern Westerners would view as the more abhorrent commands of the Old Testament. Genocide! slavery! stoning! Oh, my!

Forgive me for being flippant, because I think these are valid concerns that should be thoughtfully answered.  The “abhorrent commands” objections take me beyond the scope of my point of this post, but I do recommend you to these helpful posts on Old Testament Ethics by Matthew Flannagan:

Mr. Coyne says that morality is not grounded in God but rather based upon evolution and our own reasoning.

So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we’d expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.

First let me say that I do think atheists, theists, pantheists and pastafarians alike can recognize moral facts. Human beings recognize that being kind is morally right, and that burning down orphanages for fun is morally wrong. But are these moral facts simply natural facts? If moral facts are simply natural facts, I would argue that they simply descriptive but not prescriptive. Altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing and the notion of fairness is how the world happens to be, but if the atheist is correct and we’re all here by a massive string of cosmic flukes and not for a real purpose, then there is no way things are supposed to be.  The difficulty for Mr. Coyne and atheists like him is saying this is how it ought to be.

When a male duck forcibly mates with a female duck, that is the way nature is, but we don’t say that the duck is doing something it is morally wrong. When we see hyenas eating a young gazelle alive chunk-by-chunk (forgive me if you’re eating while reading this), that is the way nature is, but we don’t see it as morally wrong, it’s just nature functioning as nature does. Unless an atheist is committed to some sort of moral platonism, then for them natural facts are the only kind of facts. They apply to the duck, the hyena and the human being. When humans are nice or when humans are not so nice (think child abusers, rapists, terrorists, serial killers and the lot) we’re just merely describing what is, but it says nothing about what ought to be. Was it necessary that human beings evolved with this sense of morality?  Charles Darwin didn’t seem to think so. In his book, The Descent of Man, he says:

…[if] men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

Michael Ruse, an atheistic philosopher at Florida State says:

The position of the modern evolutionist . . . is that humans have an awareness of morality . . . because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love they neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory . . . .

So there is nothing objective about morality on the evolutionary account, they’re just illusions “fobbed on us by our genes”.  But if God exists, then he provides the necessary foundation for moral duty. And if God designed us with a certain end in mind, he can make human beings in His image with the ability to recognize and discover what is right and wrong.

While Jerry is right that all of us can recognize the difference between right and wrong, naturalism provides no foundation for moral duty; rather it’s just telling us how it is. Telling us how it ought to be is rather meaningless on naturalism because there is no telos to the universe on their view. They can continue to do right because that’s what they prefer, but it’s hard to see how morality would be objective on atheism. I think it makes sense to say that if moral facts exist, then atheism is very unlikely to be true, to put it modestly. I don’t think Coyne wants to say moral facts do not exist, but atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse (as well as J.L. Mackie, Nietzsche and others) are at least consistent in denying that moral facts exist in a godless world. Coyne tries to stick the theist in a dilemma, but I think at the end of the day he’s the one finding himself in a pickle when it comes to plausibly explaining  moral facts in purely naturalistic terms.

Science Sez So: Man Made God

This week the L.A. Times ran an op-ed piece written by two atheists who use neuroscience to show us that God is a human invention. Cutting edge stuff, I know.

In recent years scientists specializing in the mind have begun to unravel religion’s “DNA.” They have produced robust theories, backed by empirical evidence (including “imaging” studies of the brain at work), that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to “no heaven … no hell … and no religion too.”

Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past.

Game over, right?  As I gather it, their argument runs something like this:

  1. Psychological mechanisms are the byproduct of natural processes, viz. natural selection.
  2. Faith in God, religious experience, etc. is the result of these natural, psychological processes.
  3. Therefore, religious belief is invalid.

This all seems so groovy and scientific, but at bottom it is a bunch of fallacious hooey. (Hooey, I say! Fighting words!)

1. The argument commits the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is based solely on something or someone’s origin and not its current meaning or context. The truth of a belief is independent of how we came to know it. I could believe that Des Moines is the capitol of Iowa from reading tea leaves. It doesn’t mean that Des Moines isn’t the capitol of Iowa; it just means I have some lousy justification for thinking that such is the case. Even if we grant that human beings have some fallible and possibly sketchy reasons for believing God might exist, it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t exist.

2. The argument is bulverism. Bulverism is when the argument is assumed to be wrong and then we’re told why the person believes the argument instead of being told why it is really wrong.The writers say that the religious believe for their need of attachment and protection. They go on to write that  “among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce “out-group” hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies.”  What’s being said goes something like this:

  1. You say God exists.
  2. Because of your psychological need for attachment, protection, to explain the unexplained, etc, you personally want there to be a God.
  3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

That doesn’t follow at all. It would be an equally fallacious assertion for the Christian to say to the atheist “you say God doesn’t exist only because of your psychological wish to make your own rules and have no higher accountability for your life”. That’s just attacking the person, not the arguments. I will say that I do find it ironic that the writers of this piece act like they’re being objective and are themselves free from psychological factors. Along these lines, I find this truthful admission from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel to be refreshing. Nagel says

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Again, this doesn’t prove atheism to be true or false. The point is that no one is completely free from psychological factors in their beliefs.

3. The argument is question-begging. What the writers are saying is “we know religious beliefs aren’t true because there is no God, so religious beliefs have to be explained by purely natural means”.  If there is no God, then our religious beliefs are selected by evolution strictly for survival value, not for truth. But if God exists, wouldn’t it be rational to think He would want us to know that He does, in fact, exist? So God could either guide the process of evolution in such a way that human beings will develop basic cognizance that He is real, or He could simply just instill a belief in us that He does exist and that he wants a relationship with us. We then could choose to suppress that knowledge or not. That seems to be the point of what Paul was saying in Romans 1:

…The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…

4. The argument is self-defeating. If naturalism is true, then all of our beliefs; not just religious ones, are the byproduct of blind, unguided material forces. If our cognitive faculties cannot be trusted to have true spiritual beliefs, what makes us think we can we trust them to produce true beliefs about anything related to the real world? Purely naturalistic evolution is not concerned with learning truth, but survival:  feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing.  Charles Darwin himself admitted:

With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

J.B.S. Haldane, the famous biologist said something similar:

“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of [physical materials] in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of [physical materials].”

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis also addresses this in the chapter aptly titled “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”

“If all that exists is Nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves. Our convictions are simply a fact about us-like the colour of our hair. If Naturalism is true we have no reason to trust our conviction that Nature is uniform.”

Any theory that leads us to such radical skepticism about our beliefs – not just our religious beliefs, but all of our beliefs, including our scientific beliefs – is self-defeating. On the contrary, the theist has no reason to doubt her cognitive faculties if they are given to them by God; who would want her to have true beliefs. The theist is actually justified in believing that they actually can take advantage of “our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason”.

Imagine that.

Finally, I have to say something about this -

 It is conceivable that St. Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus was, in reality, a seizure caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.

So Paul may have had a seizure that caused him to have a religious experience and go from persecuting the church to being its greatest advocate? Did the women at the tomb have an epileptic seizure that caused them to see an empty tomb and an angel? Did the disciples who said they saw Christ after his crucifixion and burial, did they also experience some sort of seizure that caused them to believe they saw the risen Jesus? The disciples claimed they saw the risen Jesus individually and in groups; were they experiencing some sort of seizure that caused them all to hallucinate the same thing?  Does that even remotely explain the historical facts? But I guess I’m just leaning on some psychological crutch and not using my ability to reason. Right?

The Christian and the Euthyphro Dilemma

Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum

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One of the arguments raised against God being the basis for morality is the age-old Euthyphro Dilemma. Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue, asks Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” The modern adaptation raised against theism goes something like this: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”

The Catch-22 for the theist is this:

  1. God could command any arbitrary thing that popped into his head – like killing kittens – and we’d be obligated to obey and call it good because God says so. Or
  2. God answers to some sort of higher moral standard outside of himself, thus he cannot be the basis for our morality.

Based on biblical teachings, I do not think the Euthyphro dilemma poses a real problem for the Christian at all. If the statements found in the Bible are even possibly true in what they say about God, then the Euthyphro dilemma is really a false dilemma.

  1. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” (Referring to evil as darkness and light as good) (1 John 1:5)
  2. “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8)
  3. God is triune “And I (Jesus) will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:16)
  4. God is eternal and necessary. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (Jn. 1:1-3)
  5. God’s character is unchanging. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. “ (James 1:17)

So if God is light and he is unchanging, then He cannot on a whim become a “dark god” and command torture of little babies. If God is love, then what he commands will by necessity be loving. If God is triune, then his morality is not found outside himself, but within the persons of the Trinity. The persons who make up the Godhead relate to each other freely not out of law or arbitrary demands,  but out of perfect and maximal love for the other. “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” (John 3:34-35)

So assuming the Bible is correct in what it says about the nature of God, God cannot have other traits then the ones that He possesses,  thus there is no arbitrariness. Furthermore, there is no higher moral good than love of the self-sacrificial, agape kind. God’s commands flow from his loving nature, and the New Testament command is to believe in Jesus Christ  love as Christ loved. (Jn. 13:34-35, 1 Jn. 3:22-24) There is no love standard that the triune God answers to outside of himself, He is necessarily a perfectly loving being by his very own nature.

Moreover, we read that whether we know God or not, He has “hard-wired” all humanity to recognize his commands. The commands aren’t imposed on us from the outside, but rather we recognize internally that we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we do love our neighbor as ourselves, then we won’t steal from them, sleep with their wife, kick their cat, throw fireworks at their dog, etc.

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” -Romans 2:14-15

The Christian has a special advantage. Not only does the Christian experience the benefit of having their sins forgiven, but they also God’s very own Spirit living within her, enabling her with divine grace to keep God’s commands.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.  (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:22-23)

To close, if the Christian theology and anthropology is correct, then Euthyphro dilemma really is not a dilemma at all. Socrates may have stuck a pebble in Euthyphro’s shoe (or sandal, I should say) but for the Christian believer, there is no quandary.

If Jesus is the Messiah, Why Don’t More Jewish People Believe in Him?

Jews for Jesus branch in New York City.

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A skeptic I was speaking with recently brought up the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. Implicit in his questionings was really an argument, which went something like this:

  1. Christians claim that Jesus is the Messiah as predicted by the Old Testament.
  2. Most Jews reject Jesus as their Messiah.
  3. Therefore, Jesus cannot be the Messiah.

There are two major problems with this line of reasoning. First, this is an appeal to popularity. Not long ago, people believed that the earth was flat. Just because a belief is widely held doesn’t make it a correct belief. The popular opinion of the Jewish people could be wrong.

Secondly, this is a wild overstatement. Many Jews do accept Jesus as the Messiah. At the earliest point of the history of the church, only Jews were Jesus’ followers. There are congregations of Jewish Christians across the globe today, including many in Israel.

Furthermore, Jesus himself predicted that he would be rejected by most Jews of his era. He was not at all what many Jews expected of the Messiah, and little has changed to this day. Their understanding of the Messiah was that he would be someone who would overthrow Israel’s oppressors and usher in world peace, not be crucified on the cross like a criminal. To hang on a tree, in their view, is to be cursed by God. (see Deuteronomy 21:23) However, in Mark 12 Jesus predicted he, like so many of God’s prophets sent to the nation before him, would be rejected, mistreated and killed.

Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

“But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

The meaning of the parable is clear. The vineyard is Israel (see Isaiah 5:1-7), the tenants were the people of the nation, the prophets were the servants. Jesus viewed himself as the Son and heir of the kingdom. Even skeptical New Testament scholars like those of the Jesus Seminar accept this as an authentic saying of the historical Jesus. Mark records that Jesus went on to say that the vineyard owner would do away the vineyard owners and give the vineyard to a nation that will produce the fruits – which the bible indicates is the church, which consists of both Jew and Gentile. No one has a special place with God because of their ethnicity. (see Ephesians 2:12-15, Gal. 3:28, 6:14-16)

History also tells us that the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D.; and the Jews, sadly, became dispersed across the world. Only in the past century have they been gathered as a nation again. Jesus not only predicted his rejection in this parable, but also the destruction that followed in 70 A.D. (see also Matthew 22:1-14, Mt. 24) Note that this does not make the church “special” any more than Jews are special because of their ethnicity. Paul warns us that just as judgment came to Israel for their rejection, so we too can be judged for our unbelief. He goes on to say that God’s gifts toward Israel and their calling is without repentance. (See Romans 11) God “so loved the world”, which includes people of all nations, including the Jews through whom the Messiah came.

So the argument raised by the skeptic is demonstrably fallacious and furthermore disproved by history. It does nothing invalidate the claims of Christianity, if anything these objections can be used to strengthen Christianity’s claims.

Thoughts on miracles

An engraving of Scottish philosopher David Hum...

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Carl Sagan helped popularize the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. You often hear this phrase chanted like a mantra when talking to skeptics. This maxim is derived from the famous Scottish philosopher David Hume, who argued that miracle claims can never rationally be believed. Says Hume,

It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But according to the principle here explained, this subtraction, with regard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such religion.

In other words, Hume is saying that mankind’s experience of the world has well-established that the laws of nature are essentially ironclad. In order to believe the testimony of a miracle, one would need more evidence than all of humankind’s experience of the laws of nature, which of course is impossible. On the other hand, we often experience that people at times lie about what they’ve seen or are simply mistaken. The probability against a miracle is extremely high.

There are a lot of problems with Hume’s argument, but I want to focus on his use of probability. Hume only considers one part of the equation. Hume says that since miracles are by definition improbable events, we are irrational to accept that a miracle ever occurred. Given our knowledge of the world, this overwhelms any evidence that can be offered. Rather than asking ourselves of how improbable that a miracle did occur, what we need to be asking ourselves is “what are the chances that a miracle did not occur given the specific evidence that we have? ” We can’t just write off miracle claims with the wave of a hand as Hume and his skeptic followers would like us to.

Unless we’re just prejudiced naturalists, we need to also consider what is the probability of other hypotheses that can be offered. For instance one might look at the evidences for the resurrection of Jesus. The probabilities of the naturalistic hypotheses (as I’ve briefly discussed here, and you can also read here and here for more detail) are really low. One cannot just look at the resurrection with just our basic knowledge of the world and say it never happened. With some help from Bayes Theorem, the probability of the resurrection might actually come out to be quite high when the alternative explanations are factored in. Going all nerd here, such an equation would look like this:

Pr (M/K&E)= Pr (M/K) × Pr (E/K&M)/Pr (M/K) × Pr (E/K&M) + Pr (not-M/K) × Pr (E/K& not-M)

  • Pr= probability
  • M= miracle
  • K = general knowledge of the world
  • E= evidence

The miracle hypothesis would gains probability as the alternative explanations are demonstrated to be improbable. So when we look at the full scope of the evidence and see that the hallucination theory, wrong tomb theory, or the conspiracy theory are shown to fail in explaining the full scope of the data, the miracle hypothesis – which does cover the full scope of the data quite well – becomes more and more probable in comparison.

Moreover, who is to say that natural law is uniform? Only if we presuppose that naturalism is true would we conclude that nature is as uniform as Hume would lead us to believe. If we assume that God does not exist or He does not act in the world from the start, then of course miracles are extremely improbable. But if God exists and He is a free agent, He can put his stamp of approval on whatever pleases Him. He might want to heal a cancerous person because He sees their faith, or in the case with Jesus of Nazareth, God may decide to resurrect him as an endorsement of his claim to be the Son of God.

In his classic work A View of the Evidences for Christianity, William Paley asks rhetorically “In what way can a revelation be made but by miracles?” Paley’s answer is tersely straightforward: “In none which we are able to conceive.” In other words, if there is a God who wishes to unmistakably show Himself to us, miracles are not improbable, they are unavoidable.