Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why I Write This Blog: From Understanding to Worship

As a rule, whenever one of my friends has a blog, I'll follow it. I feel better telling everyone to read my blog if I return the favor. But the thing about most of my friends' blogs is...they're inactive. The last post was several months or even years ago. Somehow my blog has bucked this trend and has managed to be more prolific than many of the big-shot bloggers I follow, even with a full-time job on the side, if not in post frequency then in raw word count. (Quantity, not quality) What is the reason for this? What, besides the fact that my thoughts have to end up somewhere, keeps me posting on this blog as if I were getting paid per word? Two things:
  1. Helping God, the Bible, and the gospel make more sense to me so I can appreciate them more.
  2. Helping God, the Bible, and the gospel make more sense to others so I can appreciate them more.
So often teaching and preaching draw a distinction between genuine spirituality and dry "intellectual exercise", a distinction I think is wholly unwarranted. Coming of age in a genuinely Biblical, God-and-gospel-centered church like Hope Community, I quickly internalized its message of the centrality of the gospel. But "the gospel" was, in my mind, still something of an abstraction. It seemed to me, at least partly, based on the teaching I got in college, that the point of the gospel was to share and spread the gospel--which is circular and ridiculous! Because my understanding of Christianity was shallow, I was living it weakly.

Maybe it's just part of my nature as a deep thinker, but I need to know very clearly and deeply what I believe and why for it to have an effect on my life. I believe it's not wrong to question God, at least with the right motives, because the more we understand of Him, the more we'll want to worship Him in our lives. This blog is my attempt to build that greater understanding, one post at a time, for myself and for others. I hope it helps you.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sy Garte on Scientism and Morality

This recent post on the website of BioLogos (an organization of Christian evolutionists) is an interesting analysis and rebuttal of atheists (notably Sam Harris) who claim to be able to derive morality scientifically. Sy Garte approaches the intersection of biology and morality much better than I, with my very limited knowledge of biology, have been able to.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Two Parables

One of the most common ways Jesus taught was by parable. ("Parabolic", instead of "hyperbolic" speech, though He certainly used that too) Parables are extended analogies used to make a point about a subject that may be hard to grasp when talked about normally (such as the kingdom of God) in plain, everyday speech. Though the format can seem similar, they are not allegories where every character and story element has a spiritual analog. The Bible says Jesus spoke in parables rather than plainly when teaching so only those who actively sought to understand His teaching would be able to do so. Another reason, I think, is that parables are good at catching people "off guard" by getting them to consider a subject from a perspective that they normally wouldn't. At least, that's my hope with this post.

As I argued in my response to Dan Barker's book, the interface between Christians and atheists can't simply be argumentation and debate. Actual, mutual understanding is needed (and atheists can't simply claim to already have this understanding by virtue of formerly being Christians). Christian "apologetics" should not simply be studying how to craft the perfect argument to persuade skeptics and detractors; it should be the pursuit of dialogue and real relationships with people of different beliefs than yourself. Promoting understanding, not persuasion, is the goal of the following two parables.

Disclaimer: The following parable requires some basic knowledge of calculus to fully appreciate. If you're feeling rusty, please review the basics of differentiation and integration.


Suppose, in some kind of alternate reality, mathematics was not pursued by science and engineering but by religion. Specifically, you have been raised in the holy faith of calculus. which believes that the culmination of all mathematics is the laws laid down by the great mathematician Isaac Newton. At your church, the preaching, teaching, and fellowship all revolve around the proclamation of the following eight laws, which you have been taught from childhood and which are supposed to be able to explain all manner of differentiation and integration.
Eight laws, four for differentiation and four perfectly matched ones for its inverse, integration. (It's true that the last of each law can be derived from the others) The two are perfect inverses of each other, and with the power of both every mathematical mystery can be answered. You gather weekly to remind each other of these laws, apply them to your lives, and sing praises to the great father Newton who derived them.

One day, feeling curious and less than satisfied with what you've been taught about the clarity, harmony, and sufficiency of these laws, you decide to try to apply them all by yourself. You quickly run into difficulty. You try testing the inverse relationship of differentiation and integration on a simple function, but get the following by applying the laws:
Wait a minute. You differentiated and integrated x squared, but you just got x back, even ignoring the extraneous C. How are they perfect inverses of each other? Moving on and hoping it will make sense later, you try plotting x squared and its derivative next to each other.
More confusion! Isn't the derivative supposed to be the rate of change of a function? If the graph of x squared is curved, that means its rate of change is, well, changing! And yet the derivative is a flat line, a constant 1! How can this be? Poking around in your holy scripture, you even find functions like logarithms that don't seem to have any way of being differentiated or integrated at all!

You arrange a meeting with your pastor for some answers. You show him your calculations, you show him the pages with the odd functions in your Bible. He closes his eyes, sighs, and shakes his head. He says, "Newton sometimes works in mysterious ways. For now, it is ours to have faith in the perfect correctness and completeness of the revelation he has given us, and to trust that one day he will make everything clear."

You don't find this answer very helpful or even credible at all. If calculus is so correct and complete, worked out by the smartest man who ever lived, why does it seem like it has contradictions and flaws, and why doesn't even your pastor know about it? You decide to turn to the internet, posting your questions on some calculus forums in hope that someone else out there has the right answers, though you're starting to wonder if there is no "right answer".

But the answers aren't much more helpful either. Some internet mathematicians say that these questions, don't bother them because they "feel in their heart of hearts" that Newton's system is correct and complete. Some make wild arguments about the order of nature and internet stories of people seeing Newton's laws show up on their toast. Some intellectual types try to redirect your questions or answer ones you never asked, explaining from their ivory tower that your church's teaching isn't true to Newton and drawing up pages of proofs and derivations of their supposedly-perfect system from algebra (if Newton was real, why would he make the truth so incomprehensibly complicated?). Some go on the offensive, asking, "How dare you question Newton?"

You start broadening your search, asking liberal mathematicians who only accept the first two laws and even followers of the antimathematician Leibniz you once considered heretics, but really it's starting to seem like there is no grand, mathematical system for finding derivatives and integrals. You finally reject the faith you once held and decide to pursue an BA in English.

This parable is largely a response to the other atheist book I read, Deconverted by Seth Andrews. He describes four kinds of people he interacted with in his doomed search for answers, represented above: the feeler, the folklorist, the theologian, and the foot soldier. Obviously I would fall into the theologian category. It sounds like Andrews saw the (partially true) answers the theologian types were giving him as overcomplicated, overconfident, grasping-at-straws attempts to explain away what he saw as increasingly obvious evidence for Christianity being a bunch of baloney. The parable is an attempt to show what this might have looked like to the theologians he was talking to--an unreasonable demand to have truth conform to expectations of simplicity and rejection of evidence that said otherwise as "explaining away' the obvious. (e.g. answering some Biblical questions by bringing up the need to read the Bible in its original context, which he dismisses but which I see as "obvious")

A New Sect of Islam

Suppose that in the near future, in Iran, a new sect of Islam emerged. This movement worshipped a previously little-known, poor, itinerant Muslim imam (teacher) named Isa. This man's life was little-documented at the time, but he was believed to have been stoned to death as a heretic in 1980, the early days of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Isa had been killed for claiming to be God, unthinkable blasphemy in Islam, but nonetheless after his death the cult he had led continued to persist and even grow, proclaiming that Isa really was God and was equal in stature with Allah, though somehow, mysteriously, one in spirit with him. Despite continuing, fierce persecution, the cult of Isa continued to spread, both inside and outside Iran, in the east and the west, converting not just Muslims but people or all faiths, finally gaining widespread, international attention in the present day.

Obviously not all of the parts of this story align perfectly with the gospel accounts. The point is that the emergence and persistence of an Islamic sect that holds a multipersonal view of God is just as unthinkable today as the emergence of a Jewish sect that held a multipersonal view of God in the first century. Judaism and Islam are both strongly monotheistic religions. The very existence of such an offshoot sect begs the question, how can this religion have possibly formed around a belief that completely flies in the face of the most cherished beliefs of its parent religion, and how can it possibly continue to hold traction and convert believers of this parent religion?

Again, to use another analogy, this would be like an explosively popular Christian denomination emerging, converting many existing Christians, while proclaiming that we should actually be worshipping Michael, with God as his assistant. It's that different. Atheists, who are inclined to see all religion as equally superstitious nonsense held by people who will believe anything, may not see any difficulty with how this could happen, but in my opinion it is even harder to explain than the resurrection accounts.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

From Law to Grace

I don't regret my decision to start listening to my doubts. Doing so has taken my relationship with God to new levels of depth and authenticity. But it also has its risks. As I questioned and tested more and more of the assumptions of my faith, I came to realize that my old view of the "gospel", the central message of Christianity no longer made sense.

Let me first present the view on the law and gospel that I've heard so often preached.

The Mainstream Evangelical View of Law and Grace

The Lord is a God of covenant relationships. He appeared to Abram, a Mesopotamian nomadic pagan, calling him to leave his homeland and travel to the land of Canaan, promising to make him into a great nation and bless him. In an excellent example to Christian missionaries, Abram obeyed, leaving behind his whole life and going where God sent him. God later made a covenant to give Abram countless descendants and a land for them to live in; indeed that through him "all nations will be blessed", a promise to send His son as redeemer to the whole world 2000 years later. God made to seal this promise with the standard "covenant-cutting" ceremony of the time, but put Abram into a deep sleep and performed the ceremony alone so that the covenant promises would not be dependent on a messed-up man who pimped out his wife to foreign kings (twice!) but only on God's sovereign good pleasure. God gives Abram a new name and circumcision as the sign of the covenant for him and his descendants and he dies at a good old age. Abram's immediate descendants Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, despite their repeated failings and misfortunes, each have the covenant of Abraham affirmed to them.

Fast forward to Egypt, 400 years later, where the descendants of Abraham, the Israelites, are now slaves of the pharaoh. God, through Moses and a lot of high-budget miracles, despite their constant whining and disobedience, rescues them from slavery and brings them back to the land promised to Abraham earlier. God gives them the "Mosaic law" to help restrict and convict them of their sin and need for a Savior, help them live in relative harmony in the land of Canaan, and to "point forward" from the shadows of the rules and rituals to the reality to come in Christ. God's heart aches as He knows (and predicts to Moses) that the Israelites will be unable to keep this law and will eventually be cast out of the promised land as a result, until the Messiah comes to bring the promises to ultimate fulfillment.

1600 years later, Israel has indeed failed to keep the law but has disobeyed and turned from God, and as a result has been divided, exiled, and brought back severely humbled. The time has fully come for God to fulfill all that was promised in the law. He sends His perfect Son, Jesus Christ, to live with His people and give them the greatest gift imaginable: Himself. He teaches the people that love for God and neighbor is the fulfillment of the law they could not keep and, in the culmination of the whole tradition of priests presenting sacrifices, dies on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins.

The apostle Paul, perhaps the ultimate theologian, puts the whole narrative together for us. The law was never the final reality for the Israelites (or anyone) to look to and they were never supposed to try to try to justify themselves by perfectly following it; it was meant to show them their sin so they would repent and turn back to God as most perfectly revealed in Christ. He refers back to Abram, who, before the law was ever given, "believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness", as the example of justification by faith that the Israelites should have followed even before the object of that faith was fully revealed. The law, which saved no one and made nothing perfect, whose usefulness was negated by the sins of the people, was never meant to be the basis for God's relationship with His people; it has always been about faith, and that in Christ.

There are many true elements to this law-to-grace narrative, but in its totality it hasn't held together in my mind. I have been wrestling with why this is for the past few weeks.

The Tension

I've already mentioned the quandary between law and grace that got me to admit that the Bible (as I read it) had contradictions. Moses said that the Israelites could obey the law and be declared righteous by doing so; Paul says this is impossible and was never the intention of the law. Paul's message of the insufficiency of the law and our total reliance on grace, taken at face value and as echoed by countless preachers, is irreconcilable with Moses' presentation of the law as a guide to attainable righteousness and life.

Then, more fundamentally, I realized that Paul's message seemed to fundamentally undermine the giving of the law. Paul (and, I would argue, reformed/evangelical preaching) presents the gospel as the offer of freedom by grace from our enslavement to the law, which made nothing perfect but only condemns and is powerless to save us. This would all be well and good, except of course that the law was also given by God.

Some verses from the Pentateuch offering one side of the law:
   Leviticus 18:5: You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD."
   Deuteronomy 6:25: And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us."
   Deuteronomy 30:11-14: For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
And Paul's side:
   Romans 3:20: Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
   Galatians 3:17-20,23-25: What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. ... Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
   Romans 10:5: Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.”
And from Hebrews:
   Hebrews 7:18-19: The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
   Hebrews 10:1-4: The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
These verses demonstrate the tension I was feeling. It's especially acute when Paul in Romans 10:5 cites Leviticus 18:5, which was meant to motivate and encourage the Israelites to obey the law, as an example of what not to do. It seemed like the Israelites were led astray, ordered by God to seek righteousness from the law (and inevitably fall short) rather than in Christ. Oh, those poor, "chosen" people, born before salvation by grace through faith was revealed when all the scriptures taught was salvation by works! Paul (or the interpretation of Paul I'd been taught) and Hebrews seemed to be presenting the gospel as a God-given solution to a God-given problem (enslavement to sin and the law). And this wouldn't do.


A quick aside on the nature of covenant. A lot of theologians and preachers define "covenant" to be nearly synonymous with "promise". In this view, the Abrahamic covenant was God's promise to Abram to make him into a great nation, bless him and all people through him, etc. A lot of significance is drawn from the surreal scene in Genesis 15 where God goes through the covenant-cutting ritual alone. In this view, it means that the covenant in no way depends on Abraham, who has no "side of the bargain" to do, nothing to contribute to the covenant--and for good reason! God's covenant, the thinking goes, can't depend in any way on sinful people, but only on His own, perfect word and promises to bless unconditionally.

Except two chapters later, God does place a requirement on Abraham, namely circumcision. This requirement isn't just extra, but is essential on Abraham's end for him to "keep" God's covenant. Genesis 17: 9-14:
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.
That sounds kind of like God is placing a requirement (or condition) on Abraham and his descendants to stay in the covenant. So it is, in fact, conditional. But you may say that this isn't so much a "condition" as it is a sign of the covenant, as Paul seems to count circumcision as being separate from the law in Romans 2:25-29. What about the law? Hundreds upon hundreds of requirements, many of them carrying the penalty for disobedience of being "cut off from [one's] people", that is, out of the covenant.

So clearly God's covenants with people can be conditional. In fact, our entrance into the new covenant in Christ's blood is also conditional, upon our faith. I would say that God's status as the sole oathtaker, maker of these unilateral covenants, does not mean that He is simply going to bless us despite how much we sin (though we do see the truth of this in the Old Testament and life today). It means that God is in total control over the covenant, able to add blessings or conditions for the human recipients as He sees fit. It's less of a contract and more of a business relationship.

Old and New Perspectives

After that aside, let's go back to the main tension: how Paul seems to present the law (with which, as a former pharisee, he would have been very familiar) in a completely different light than it is presented in the Old Testament. As it turns out, Paul (and other New Testament writers) use Old Testament material in some very unexpected ways that would definitely fail the modern definition of "good exegesis".

For example, Matthew 2:15 says that Jesus fulfilled Hosea 11:1: "Out of Egypt I called my son." But a quick analysis of the Hosea passage reveals that this is just a prelude to an account of the son's (Israel's) stubborn disobedience to the Lord. This passage is not only not predictive but retrospective, it portrays the "son" in a negative, sinful light. And Matthew applies it to Jesus.

Or see Hebrews 3:7-11, which cites Psalm 97:7-11. But if you look closely, this citation is not perfect. Psalm 95:7-11 reads:
Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,
where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
For forty years I was angry with that generation;

I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.”
So I declared on oath in my anger,
“They shall never enter my rest.”
Compare the italicized lines with the citation in Hebrews:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the desert,
where your fathers tested and tried me
and for forty years saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation,

and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
Those do not say the same thing. And, as if to answer the possibility that he was simply working from a different version of Psalm 95 than we have, the writer of Hebrews then references it correctly a few verses later, in verse 17: "And with whom was he angry for forty years?" The change in the Greek is smaller, simply the insertion of the word dio ("therefore"), but the fact remains that the author seems to have changed a cited text to support his point. The fact that this happened in Hebrews, which is apparently written in very scholarly Greek, indicates that this turn of phrase was probably accepted by its readers, not treated with suspicion. What is going on? Did the writers of the Bible not know how to treat the Bible?

Peter Enns, who mentions these and other OT-NT discrepancies, theorizes that both of these writers (and Paul) were citing the OT not from a historical perspective but from the new perspective they knew: that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, had come to earth and defeated death. This truth, which they had arrived at not by careful reasoning but personal revelation, was sufficiently large to merit reinterpreting everything they had known, including earlier revelations from God, in a new light. (This is the point of much of the book of Hebrews) Enns explains this "recontextualization:
It is not that Old Testament words are taken out of context and tossed into the air to fall where they may. Rather, the New Testament authors take the Old Testament out of one context, that of the original human author, and place it into another context, the one that represents the final goal to which Israel's story has been moving.
So we see in the Bible at least two very different ways to read the Old Testament--the standard historical-grammatical way, trying to understand how it would have been received by its original audience, and the..."different" way the New Testament writers handle it, as recontextualized in light of Jesus. It's essential to keep the existence of these two perspectives in mind when dealing with perceived conflicts between the Testaments like I saw in Paul. In this case, I think the "tension" between Paul and the law comes from ignoring the original purpose and context of the law and only interpreting it as Paul did, after Christ.

Differences in Context

So, in the original, Old Testament context, the law is given as the moral fabric of Israel to be obeyed and that obedience would be the Israelites' righteousness (Deuteronomy 6:25). How does this not contradict Paul's later teaching? I think the answer lies in the context surrounding the law, and the questions it answers. The biggest problem with the law after it was originally given was that the Israelites, in a polytheistic, paganistic culture, ignored it and turned to worship other gods in addition to, or instead of, the living God. Keep in mind that the OT does not deny the existence of other nations' gods, only that they are worthy of worship. In ancient Near East (ANE) cultures, as long as you paid the proper respect and service to your family or local god, it was considered fine to explore other gods and see what they had to offer. God's insistence that His people worship Him alone, for He is a "jealous God", is, as far as I know, unique for that time, so it's easy to see how the people might have had trouble getting this into their heads.

In the New Testament context, though still in a polytheistic society, pagan worship is no longer the big problem the Israelites have with the law. Instead it is Phariseeism--not ignoring the law, but following it zealously, "relying on it" (Romans 2:17), instead of the God who wrote it, to be righteous. This line of thinking said that since the Jews were God's chosen people, they had an automatic "in" with Him (a Jewish tradition taught that Abraham stood at the gates of Hades/Sheol, preventing any circumcised man from entering) and only nominal obedience to the law was require to remain part of this covenant. The Jews considered themselves to be a special people in a privileged position with God, over and above everyone else; the Pharisees wore their zealous obedience to the law on their sleeves not so much as an example to help others but to assert their own moral superiority. This seems to be the kind of people Paul is speaking to in Romans 2:17-29 as he is trying to knock them off their pedestal, and it is also the background of thinking Paul himself came from.

So this helps to explain why the law is presented so differently between the testaments--its role was threatened by two very different sin issues. Discouraging seeking righteousness from the law was necessary with the Pharisees, but would have been confusing or counterproductive for the ancient Israelites. But there is more. Paul's central concern is--and I think the concern for Christians today should be--individual "justification", or restoration of right standing before God and the eternal life ("salvation") that goes with it. But this was not so in the Old Testament when the law was given. The picture of righteousness was much more corporate than individual--note all the descriptions of the Israelites turning to or from God seemingly as one. And it was more temporal; the highest hope from God was not eternal life but a long, prosperous, blessed life of shalom in the land God had provided and the survival of the nation of Israel and (later) the Davidic line of kings. I'm guessing this difference in focus was simply a reflection of the different time periods and cultures in which the books were written. God didn't try to give the Israelites the law expressed in a classical way of thinking and certainly not in a modern one--He interacted with them in a way that made sense to their ancient way of thinking.

And in this ancient way of thinking, I don't think the law was nearly as much of a burden as it seems to us today. The general view on deity in the ANE was that the gods were a lot like people, with needs, desires, and flaws of their own. To paganistic cultures of this time, people were created to serve and provide for the gods as slaves; their obedience was entirely for the god's sake. If misfortune befell someone, he would assume he had somehow offended one of the gods and would try to find out his trespass and make amends to whatever god he had offended, but the process involved a lot of guesswork and "blanket confessions". Then enter Yahweh, who made it very clear that He was not like other nations' gods. He had no needs and made His will for His people crystal-clear, not for His own sake but for theirs, "that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time" (Deueronomy 4:40). Here was a God who did not punish people for violating His indiscernible whims but showed them exactly how to live uprightly before Him!

But by the New Testament, the focus had shifted. Though the good nature of the law was not questioned, it had become undeniably clear, through history, that the people were deficient in keeping the law. But some, the teachers of the law, had forgotten this. The faith-works distinction, which the Pharisees were so adept at drawing, simply did not exist when the law was first given. In the ancient Near East, there was no sacred-secular divide. Everything that happened was, in some sense, the direct action of a god. All of life was lived to the gods. Obedience to the law was not supposed to be a series of rote actions or prescribed routines, but was supposed to be holistic, down to the deepest level of being. In Deuteronomy 6:6 Moses reminds the Israelites that "And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart". In contrast, Isaiah 29:13 laments, "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men". The book of James is a great New Testament look at how inextricably faith and action are supposed to be connected. The law, as originally given, is not for justification by works because, among other things, justification by works is built on a distinction that was not made at the time and should not have been made. (This also applies to the Christian faith-works dichotomy that James addresses)

One other thing--when Paul and other NT writers talk about the role of the law in the individual, eternal sense of salvation (to convict our sin), do they mean the Mosaic law? Because if they do, it was only given to the Jews; how are gentiles and those who were never under the law to be convicted of their sin? I don't think Paul's message about 'law' should be restricted to the Mosaic law. Even if he was originally writing about the Mosaic law, this could be because he was writing largely to Jewish audiences or to churches dealing with "Judaizers" (false teachers who taught that Christians also had to become Jewish). The role of the law that Paul argues, to bring our sin and need for repentance to the forefront, can apply equally to the "law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2) or simply the law of conscience. (Romans 2:14-15) When speaking of the law, Paul also seems to mix the old, historical law (Romans 2:12-16) with the new understanding of the law applied to us individually and giving way to grace (Galatians 3:23-25).

Here is a table I made with some HTML magic outlining some of the big differences between the Old and New Testaments' differing perspectives on law and righteousness.

Old CovenantNew Covenant
Possible kinds of "law" Mosaic law Mosaic law, "Law" of Christ, conscience
Role of the law Law is to be obeyed Law convicts us of sin
Eschatological hope Temporal, corporate salvation Eternal, individual salvation
Endemic sin/Threat to the law Worshipping foreign gods (forsaking the law) Attempting to justify oneself by works (misusing the law)

I think the effectiveness and "goodness" of the law was also culturally dependent. Around 1500 BC, when the Mosaic law was given, it was a golden standard, the good gift of a God who is not silent, arbitrary, or needy but desires to alive in harmony with His people and give them blessings, and so told them exactly how to live in a way that was pleasing to Him. Even when they disobeyed the law, the Jews admitted that it was good and the fault lay in them, trusting God (by faith!) to maintain his covenant faithfulness with them. But by the time of Christ, something had changed. Chastised for disobedience by exile, the Jews were determined to get it right this time and, with what we know as the Old Testament completed, started fastidiously attempting to follow the laws in it, even creating their own traditions that went above and beyond the demands of the law and enforcing them to avoid breaking the law on any point whatsoever. Instead of realizing their sin and repenting it to the lawgiver, these "law-followers" believed that because of their chosen status and perfect adherence to the law, God could never reject them. It is to this lie of legalism, still present in today's world, that Paul speaks and interprets the law, not to the Israelites' original struggle with disregarding the law for pagan gods.

So, in summary: the Mosaic law was never meant to justify alone but was meant to be the expression of the Jews' covenant faithfulness to God (like Abraham's faith) and the way for them to live in harmony with Him, the land, and each other, which we do see at times. It was also meant to convict them of sin, a purpose at which we also see it succeeding in places (Josiah in 2 Kings 22-23, Ezra in Ezra 9-10), but it had become ineffective even for this in Jesus' time. It is to this Pharisaical culture, not to Moses, that Paul and the other NT writers speak about the role of the law. The fact that the law ultimately seemed to have failed at its purposes--not because of any intrinsic deficiency but because of the peoples' sin--set up tension and expectation for a new, better law; not only that, but a new, better covenant between God and His people, which Christ came to inaugurate.

Responses to "Godless" by Dan Barker

I've been reading a book that I doubt many Christians have read. That book is Godless, by Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

I first heard of Dan Barker in college (my sophomore year, I think) when Cru and CASH (Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists) co-hosted a debate between him and Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza. At the time, the very existence of people like Barker who went from being believers "just like me" to staunch atheists genuinely frightened me. Copies of this book were on sale after the debate, but I stayed well away. I think it's an indicator of growth that I've now not only bought bought the book but find it fascinating, if challenging and troubling. Unlike most of the books I post about, I wouldn't recommend it to every Christian.

Barker divides the book into four sections: his personal "testimony" of de-conversion, his reasons for not believing in God and refutations of lots of apologetic arguments, his arguments against Christianity, and his life as part of the "new atheism" movement. It's a tough read because there are nuggets of truth that Christians need to hear in the midst of seas of statements and arguments I disagree with. I've learned a lot from reading it, though (as is often the case) not what the author was trying to teach.

I mostly bought the book for the first part, which takes up surprisingly little of its length. I was interested in the similarities and differences (for clearly there had to be some) between "deconversion stories" and my own struggles with doubt. Clearly our stories had to diverge at some point, but where?

Early Life

In the first part, it soon became clear that Dan Barker as a Christian, was never "just like me". He grew up in a highly charismatic, fundamentalist branch of evangelicalism that focused on spiritual experiences and gifts and believed that since Jesus was coming back in the next decade or two, now was the time not to make any preparations for the future but to win souls. He decided to start preaching at the age of 15--because "I didn't think the world would last long enough for me to go to college or get married or raise a family". Trusting in God to come through despite his youth and lack of experience, he would go on frequent soul-winning expeditions in southern California and Mexico, trying to convert the unchurched and Catholics, bringing the Truth to poor, lost souls. He used his talent for music in church, revivals, and faith healing sessions, as well as writing Christian songs and musicals. He was "the kind of guy you would not want to sit next to on a bus."

Eventually he did get married and, rather than settle down and focus on providing for his family, stayed on the road, working with her as "musical evangelists" from church to church while supplementing their living writing and producing Christian music. He describes one particular incident that summed up his "life by faith". While driving he heard a voice saying "turn right". So he turned right, into some farmland. He kept following these directions by faith, excited to see what God had in store for him at the end, until he arrived at a dead end in a cornfield. When nothing came of this, he realized God had merely been testing his faithfulness and obedience!


Barker is clear that his apostasy was a gradual process; he didn't suddenly realize that God didn't exist. He seems to view fundamentalism at one end of a spectrum that he gradually slid down via a series of concessions, through moderate and liberal Christianity to agnosticism and atheism. The first step came when he decided to maintain fellowship with some Christians who didn't believe Adam and Eve were historical people, despite thinking they were "lukewarm" (Revelation 3:15-16) in their liberal beliefs. For the first time, at around 30 years old, he started asking questions (not having doubts) about Christianity, feeding an intellectual hunger he'd been ignoring for years in his fundamentalism and evangelizing. He started reading philosophy, science publications, psychology, and the newspaper(!), seeking an intellectual dimension to his faith that had been missing. At each little step, he thought his faith was being strengthened or maturing, "when it was actually my knowledge that was being strengthened." This perception is troublingly like what I've been doing lately. (I don't consider this ominous, but it raises the question of whether my story is just his at an intermediate stage)

He also began studying what Christians of other traditions and denominations believed and realized that  "there is no single Christianity--there are thousands of Christianities", each with their own, "correct" theology and interpretation of the Bible. This denominational pluralism clashed with how he knew that "God is not the author of confusion" (1 Corinthians 14:33). How could they all be right? To me, this seems like the result of a very simplistic view on hermeneutics that views the Bible as existing primarily to define a single, precise body of doctrine--if this precision and univocality are absent, as they seem to be, then clearly the Bible and (God, its heavenly author) has failed at its purpose.

Anyway, Barker began to swing across the theological spectrum from fundamentalism to liberal theology. One day, while driving and arguing with God and himself about emotion and reason, he had one thought that seemed to come from the voice of honesty, not God: "Something is wrong. Admit it." It was then that he committed to "follow reason and evidence wherever they might lead, even if it meant taking me away from my cherished beliefs".

He started thinking of different denominations as being distinguished by where they drew the line between essential and nonessential doctrines. He was drawing this line higher and higher, "discarding many lesser doctrines as either nonessential or untrue." (I'm not sure how considering a doctrine nonessential equates to discarding it) He came to respect the more liberal theologians he was reading rather than seeing them as evil heretics, even while not agreeing with them fully.

He began questioning not just his beliefs, but his inner spiritual experiences. Interestingly, he claims to be able to duplicate those feelings and experiences today, which of course raised doubts as to their authenticity. If so many people of other faiths could be wrong about these experiences, why not him as well? He started having doubts that a personal God really existed at all. He describes the process of reason taking the place of faith and the Bible in his life as being like a fossil slowly turning to stone. Here his perceived dichotomy between faith and reason is clear. "Where did we get the idea that words on a page speak truth? Shouldn't truth be the result of investigation and analysis?" To look at the issue from all sides, he began reading books by non-Christian authors with "facts that discredited Christianity", which he tried to ignored because they didn't fit with his religious worldview. "Faith and reason began a war within me". He kept crying out to God for answers to these questions--just as I have done--but none came. This is one of the hardest parts of the book to read as a believer. Why me and not him? I don't think I am qualified to answer.

The only answer he saw from Christianity was "faith", which became to him like a "cop-out, a defeat--an admission that the truths of religion are unknowable through evidence and reason. It is only indemonstrable assertions that require the suspension of reason, and weak ideas that require faith." It seems like he saw faith and reason at this point as diametrically opposed, and saw an undeniable need to make a choice between them. He makes it clear that this choice was not easy--"It was like tearing my whole frame of reality to pieces, ripping to shreds the fabric of meaning and hope, betraying the values of existence. It hurt badly." All the connections and the career he had built on his faith made it harder. and choose he did. "I did not lose my faith--I gave it up purposely. ... I lost faith in faith."

In answer to my original question of how our stories differ, I think the answer starts with relationship we see between faith and reason. His search for truth seemed to be based almost from the beginning on the belief that faith (which sounds a lot like my definition of blind faith) and reason were fundamentally opposed to each other (see below). My questioning has been guided from the start by the assumption that faith and reason are inextricably linked as two ways of apprehending the same truth, and must either stand together or fall together. My experience has served to reinforce and affirm this assumption, just as it did Barker's. Am I only self-deluded in this? His conclusion that thousands of denominations meant "thousands of Christianities" is also a point of departure; he thought it meant God was divided or confused, I think it means people are divided and confused.

He expressed resentment over a lot of the responses to his apostasy that assumed that he somehow wasn't a "real Christian" or he would never have turned away. And, indeed, no one can no whether his faith was real except God and Dan Barker. But, though he does mention how hard the process was, the fact that it happened and then was over, and that the unpleasantness seemed largely due to the difficulty of completely reorienting one's worldview, seems like a clue. There isn't the kind of bottomless loss or grief I would expect from someone who really believed the gospel, the real gospel, but lost that belief. If I stopped believing Christianity, I would mourn for the rest of my life that a worldview as fundamental and wonderful turned out not to be true. The promise of building a peaceful, rational society of liberty, equality, and prosperity utterly pales in comparison to the glorious, eternal hope Christians hold to.

Atheism and Agnosticism

I'm not going to cover the whole book in that much detail. Parts 2 and 3, which take up most of its length, are persuasive, not narrative, and I'm going to be selective about what I respond to in no particular order. For a while he argues more philosophically about his reasons for atheism and against Christian apologetic arguments. One interesting  thing is the difference he draws between agnosticism and atheism, which conflates them more closely than I would. He says "agnosticism addresses knowledge; atheism addresses belief." (I would not draw so sharp a line between knowledge and belief) So, to Barker, being an agnostic means you don't know with reasonable certainty that God exists, and atheism means you don't believe he exists.

He further defines agnosticism as "the refusal to take as a fact any statement for which there is insufficient evidence"--which is much closer to my definition of skepticism. In my view, agnosticism is simply the lack of knowledge of (or belief in) something for whatever reason--the statement, "I don't know." (Which seems closer to the Greek root of agnosticism, a-, meaning "without", and gnosis, meaning "knowledge", but anyway) Atheism, then, is not knowledge or a religion but simply a lack of belief. He distinguishes between the soft, "small-a" atheism he holds and the hard, "capital-A" atheism that positively denies the existence of a God. (Of course, in all the rest of his rhetoric Barker assumes the nonexistence of God, so he doesn't seem very on-the-fence about the question)

The Burden of Proof

Anyway, this contrasts interestingly with my argument that moving either way from the purely agnostic position of claiming no knowledge about the existence or nonexistence of God requires a reason (the "burden of proof"), and I know of no reasons to move towards belief in the nonexistence of God. He would say that everyone agrees without argument that the natural universe exists, but that anything beyond this is not obvious and needs to be proven. "We should start with nature. We should start with the nonexistence of God and then the believer should argue for God's existence, not demands that atheists argue against it. The burden of proof in any argument is on the shoulders of the one who makes the affirmative claim, not the one who doubts it." This is a clever, almost undetectable bit of philosophical sleight-of-hand. Barker conflates the agnostic, "I don't know whether God exists or not" view with the negative, "I don't know that God exists, so prove it" view. Since the existence of God and the supernatural are not obvious, the reasoning goes, we should assume they don't exist and work from there. While claiming to be correcting Christians who were misusing the "burden of proof" argument, Barker misuses it himself.

Cosmological "Kalamity"

The Kalām cosmological argument for the existence of God is the reason I know I will never be an atheist (at worst, a deist), so I was interested enough to see what Barker had to say about it than I read ahead to that chapter. I can't say I was disappointed that his argument against it wasn't very convincing. The basic thrust of the argument can be summed up with the question, "Where did the universe come from?" In more logical terms, as apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig puts it:
  1. Everything that begins to exist had a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.
Barker argues that Kalam begs the question (presupposes the existence of God) with some set-theoretical smoke and mirrors. He says it implies that the first step of the argument assumes that reality can be divided into two sets: things than began to exist (BE), and an implied set of things that didn't. (NBE) For the argument to work, he says, NBE must not be empty and must accommodate (conceivable contain) more than one item (God). If NBE only accommodates God, it is effectively synonymous with God and so Kalam implicitly begs the question, assuming that God exists in its formulation.

Notice how Barker has to transform the argument to get to this point. First, he assumes it is making a statement in set theory, even though the original, Islamic argument greatly predates set theory and the argument can just as easily be stated with propositional logic without sets.
  1. If something began to exist, it had a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.
The only thing this version says about NBE is the contrapositive of the first statement: "If something did not have a cause, then it did not begin to exist." Then he begins to reason "behind the scenes" of the set theory version of Kalam and base his whole argument about a purely implicit set (NBE) that the argument itself says nothing about. It's hard for me to believe that Kalam "begs the question" if if can conceivably be transformed into a form that does so, no matter how much work it takes to get there. It's also debatable in the first version whether NBE should also include things that did not begin to exist and don't exist, like dragons, in which case it certainly accommodates things more than one item. As well, even if all his set theory logic is correct and the argument does assume an implicit set NBE that only accommodates God, it does not "beg the question" of God's existence; it only assumes the existence of a concept of a beginningless first cause (who himself may or may not exist) that is coherent enough to be reasoned about. Reasoning about God is not the same as assuming his existence. If Barker really thinks existence is a property that God has, maybe he'll be convinced by the ontological argument?

He then gets at more of the argument's premises. He argues that Kalam is self-refuting or internally inconsistent, based solely on a materialistic understanding of the cosmos and reality. "If an actual infinity cannot be a part of reality, then God, if he is actually infinite, cannot exist." If we use words like "decided" and "create" differently than how they are used to describe human actions, he says, they are meaningless and worthless. So if something is incomprehensible to us (or to Dan Barker), it is meaningless and can't be true; apparently the presence of mystery in Christianity is enough to condemn it. He argues that the impossibility of traversing an infinite amount of time also applies to God's non-temporal existence, so God had to begin to exist. He says that existing "outside of time" is impossible: "To say that God does not exist within space-time is to say that God does not exist." (How is this not begging the question of metaphysical naturalism?) None of these arguments should be convincing in the least to Christians.

Lastly, again restricting Kalam to being defined in set-theoretical terms, he says that the universe is not a "thing" and is the "set of all things", so it is not part of "everything that began to exist" and applying the first statement to it is like comparing apples and oranges. I'm really not sure why the universe must be a set and not a "thing", and I have no problems with treating it as such. As well, there are versions of the cosmological argument that only refer to objects within the universe rather than to the universe as a whole; Barker pays them no attention. Throughout the chapter, he either misses or refuses to address the real force of the question: "How did space, time, and everything begin to exist?" or simply "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and its implications.

Faith vs. Reason?

It seems that the wedge of evidence that led Barker away from faith was driven into the dichotomy he saw (and still sees) between faith and reason, or belief and knowledge. He views reason as the gaining of truth from empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Faith, then, is just the opposite, believing claims without this sufficient evidence. He claims this willingness to believe without evidence is not only foolish, but even dangerous: "Without faith, anything goes" is a phrase he repeats several times. If you believe without having sufficient evidence, the thinking goes, you can believe anything you want and no one can disprove you! "With faith, everybody is right." (This is a slippery slope fallacy)

Unfortunately, many Christians (like Barker as a Christian) also perceive this false dichotomy between faith and reason. I randomly stumbled upon a blog post that expresses it from a Christian perspective: "Truth doesn’t need credentials, it just needs to be believed."

Attacking Biblical morality

Much of the third part (arguments against Christianity) contains Barker's issues with the view of morality presented in the Bible. Bizarre rules with disportionate penalties (Numbers 15:32-36), lots of smiting (in the KJV), God-sanctioned violence, and seeming disregard for human rights--it's easy to see how a modern, skeptical reader would find these things detestable. Barker contrasts this with the humanistic view of morality, which "comes from within humanity" and "implies avoiding or minimizing harm". Later he says it is "simply acting with the intention to minimize harm". He resents the common apologetic jab leveled against atheists that without God, there is no way to hold to any system of morality. The humanistic system of morality Barker presents is simple and, I think, inernally consistent.

But I think this question still has significance. Yes, humanists like Barker are able to develop and hold a nice-sounding, coherent definition of morality. But, unless they already agree, why should anyone listen? What makes this picture of morality, centered around the value of minimizing harm to living beings, any more "right" than any other that could conceivably be proposed? Consider ancient Near East cultures, where the highest "moral" values were legitimation of the reign of the king and giving honor to the gods. What gives humanists any right to judge this morality as any better or worse than their own? Because it contradicts theirs? (But the ANE cultures could say the same thing) Could the humanistic valuing of prevention of harm above all else be just as culturally conditioned as ANE cultures' devotion to gods and king? For this reason among others, his constant comparing of the moral values seen in the Bible with humanism or common sense fall rather flat. If you claim reason has a monopoly on morality, your claim is at least as arbitrary as Christians who claim that God does. (Of course from within the humanistic worldview this questioning of ancient morality is quite justified, but the same could be said of judging humanism from a Christian perspective)

Barker also shows that he doesn't seem to understand how Christian ethics actually work. To him, Christian morality is based entirely on blind, unquestioning obedience to absolute, timeless commands issued by ultimate authority. Christian love is not authentic; it is "because God said so". He asks Christians in debates, "If God told you to kill me, would you do it?" and points to the ultimate answer of "Yes" by some of his opponents as evidence of Christianity's depravity. If God told me to kill someone, I would seriously question whether it was actually God speaking to me, or check myself into a mental hospital!

Bible Contradictions

I won't go over his chapter on Bible contradictions (most of which I was already aware of) in too much detail. It was a mixture of uncovering real tensions in the Bible (which he says immediately undermine its credibility) and blatant misreadings that are often based on the specific wording of the KJV (which he uses exclusively). e.g. Saying that John 8:14 ("Though I bear record of myself, [yet] my record is true") contradicts John 5:31 ("If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true."), even though in 5:31 Jesus is stating an untrue hypothetical ("I" is implied to mean "I alone") and He is in fact making the same argument in both passages. These misreadings were somewhat surprising as he does demonstrate some hermeneutical ability, including Hebrew and Greek word studies, elsewhere.

Denying Christ

He also argues that Jesus probably did not actually exist, and even if He did the accounts of His resurrection are myths. (Taking the fourth option, "legend", in C.S. Lewis' "lord, liar, or lunatic" trilemma) I'm not sure Barker is aware, but Lewis actually does address this possibility in his essay, "What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?"
What are we do to about reconciling the two contradictory phenomena [Jesus' moral teaching and claims to be God]? One attempt consists in saying that the Man did not really say these things, but that His followers exaggerated the story, and so the legend grew up that He had said them. this is difficult because His followers were all Jews; that is, they belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God--that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake. On the contrary we get the impression that none of His immediate followers or even of the New Testament writers embraced the doctrine at all easily.
Another point is that on that view you would have to regard the accounts of the Man as being legends. Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. Apart from bits of the Platonic dialogues, there are no conversations that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence. In the story of the woman taken in adultery we are told Christ bent down and scribbled in the dust with His finger. Nothing comes of this. No one has ever based any doctrine on it. And the art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art. Surely the only explanation of this passage is that the thing really happened? The author put it in simply because he had seen it.
Barker also argues that the existence of miracles make the gospels unhistorical; that is, because miracles have not been credibly observed, they can be assumed to be extremely rare, if nonexistent, so accounts with miracles in them are more likely to be myths or fabrications than true. "History is limited; it can only confirm events that conform to natural regularity." He quotes David Hume: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish." And Hume elsewhere in his essay On Miracles writes:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as could possibly be imagined.
I would recommend that Barker read more of Lewis, who in his book Miracles also directly addresses this argument:
Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely "uniform experience" against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.
He goes on to argue, in more words, that the naturalistic assumption that nature is uniform ("natural regularity") which Hume assumes cannot be known except by circular reasoning: "Experience therefore cannot prove uniformity, because uniformity has to be assumed before experience proves anything." And, "No study of probabilities inside a given frame can ever tell us how probable it is that the frame itself can be violated."

One other thing of mention is that, while going over possible naturalistic explanations for the resurrection, Barker brings up the "swoon theory". This is the theory that after the ordeal of being starved, severely flogged, crucified, and impaled by professional executioners, after lying in a tomb with no food, water, or medical attention for over 24 hours, Jesus somehow started feeling well enough to escape and convince people He had "miraculously" risen from the dead. This is absurd. Barker calls out Christians for applying "healthy" skepticism to other religions but not their own, but here shows himself to be similarly selective.

Materialistic Epistemology

Though he never explicitly explains it, I think I arrived at a decent understanding of the worldview Barker is writing from. Since all we can directly see evidence for is the natural world and evidence for the supernatural is sparse and explained more easily by naturalistic explanations, it is unjustifiable to assume that anything beyond the material world exists. Since science and reason have proven to be by far the most useful tool we have in understanding the natural world (i.e. the universe), they are the best possible yardstick by which to measure all claims of truth. Religions fails miserably at meeting the criteria for a good explanation of phenomena like being falsifiable, simple, and internally coherent, so it should be discarded. Morality should be defined in terms of measurable, even quantifiable effects, with the goal being to minimize harm to living beings like humans.

I think many "endless debates" are endless because what is always discussed is not the underlying assumptions by which the disparate positions differ, but the implications and results from reasoning by those assumptions. So with Calvinism and Arminianism, where (I have found) the real difference lies in underlying philosophies of free will, determinism, and God's sovereignty, but what it usually debated and contrasted are the five points. And so with the theism-atheism conversation. I think the deepest difference between the above way of thinking and Christianity (I won't speak for other worldviews) is one of epistemology--the study of knowledge and how we come by it.

Atheism enthrones human rationality, human senses, human understanding as the ultimate standard of truth. The only valid conclusions are those that can be based on empirical evidence that is developed via sound, tried-and-true reasoning. The body of truth and knowledge begins with our senses and expands outward from us via reason. The scope of truth is that which can, potentially, be observed or induced from evidence. Logical devices like Occam's Razor are assumed to be universally applicable and binding. The supernatural, by definition that which is not part of nature and cannot be directly sensed, can safely be assumed not to exist because we can't directly sense it. So religion, which makes claims that can't easily (or at all) be supported by evidence seems absurd.

Christianity, on the other hand, believes that the human intellect and senses are not perfect and that the nexus of truth is located outside (and is larger than) ourselves, though it is still possible to interact with it (and the natural world) via reason. The empirical-rational epistemology of atheism is not wrong, but incomplete, and the mistake is in making it the scope of what can be considered true. I'm especially confused as to how atheists can claim to know so much about what is true while believing that their "knowledge" is a series of biochemical reactions in the brain that has evolved to be able to parallel situations in the material universe. In this view, why should these chemical reactions be able to "work" when dealing in abstractions or things not directly sensed? 


The above was not meant as a comprehensive refutation of Godless, just as an intellectually honest response to the book as I read it and an encouragement to Christians who may be afraid of reading the views of atheists. But I am a bit nervous about including it because what I ultimately got out of this book is rather opposed to it. Which is simply this: the basis for Christianity's relationship with atheists cannot, cannot, cannot simply be debates and conversion attempts. Christian apologetical arguments, which are presented as valuable tools to correct the falsehoods believed by atheists and bring them to the truth, are revealed, by actually reading the thoughts of an atheist, to largely be tired, smart-sounding,  slogans being thrown around in an echo chamber, unaware that many of them as stated are completely unpersuasive to actual skeptics.

Godless begins with a rather off-putting, acerbic foreword by Richard Dawkins who, in the most condescending terms possible, expresses the need to actually understand Christians in order to reason with them. And Dawkins is right. Relationships between these two disparate worldviews can't be built on canned arguments and intellectual potshots aimed more at readers within the writer's own community than at the other one. Real dialogue and mutual understanding are necessary. Simply confronting the naturalistic worldview from the perspective of our own is not sufficient. For example, atheists like Barker don't see themselves as hopelessly lost, rebels, depraved sinners, etc., so addressing them as such is at best counterproductive, at most hurtful, even if we think we're being loving by presenting the truth to them.

In a sense, there is a difference between belief and knowledge, as Barker argues. If we dialogue with atheists while "knowing" we Christians are right, that we alone have the truth and anyone who disagrees is wrong, end of story, so therefore atheists must be proved wrong on every point...well, you can see how this "dialogue" would be a sham. Atheists, with their exaltation of reason and disregard for superstition, are guilty of this as well, even in this book, which is happy to evaluate Christianity almost entirely according to humanistic morals and naturalistic reasoning. By allowing "orthodoxy" to dictate that Christians must be right and atheists wrong, we lose the ability to learn from them. I think the very existence of a "Freedom from Religion Foundation" is not simply an occasion to cite Matthew 5:11 and consider ourselves blessed, but a sobering indication that something may be wrong with Christianity in America. Barker's synonymous usage of the terms "freethinker" and "atheist" should be an indication that our way of reading John 8:32 as emphasizing the need to believe the right things may need to be rethought. Critiques of the church are not automatically sin or persecution, no matter where they come from. If Barker allowed some credibility to the Bible, he might have closed as I am about to, by citing James 3:17: "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

God's Justice

I've been doing a lot of thinking about (among other things) different views on atonement--ways of thinking about how Christ's sacrificial death saved us from sin--recently. The most common view in much of Protestantism is the "penal substitution" view of atonement (PSA): in a nutshell, that we are innately sinful; God, being perfectly just, cannot tolerate or ignore sin and must punish it with death but, out of love, so as to be "just and the one who justifies" (Romans 3:26), He gave His son to pay the penalty of death for sin in our stead so that we can live in union with God. This blog post by Derek Flood less charitably describes what the doctrine of penal substitution might sound like to non-Christians who are learning about the gospel and wondering why Jesus had to die:
You have broken the law because it is impossible to keep it, and so you must have broken it. And because you cannot keep this impossible to keep law you will be charged with death because "the penalty for sin is death" and those are just the rules. God must have blood because the law requires it; there must be a penalty paid. The only payment that would have been enough is sacrificing someone who was the "perfect law-keeper", someone who could live a perfect life without sin. So God decided to kill his own Son on the cross to appease his legal need for blood. Now that Jesus has been sacrificed God is no longer mad at us for not doing what we can't do anyway, so we can now come and live with him forever - as long as we are grateful to him for his "mercy" to us.
The basic assumption behind PSA is that God's justice and His mercy/love/kindness are in tension. God wants to have mercy on us, to forgive us and be in unbroken relationship with us, but being just He cannot overlook our sin and must punish it. As John Calvin, the former lawyer and one of the main theologians responsible for the modern understanding of PSA, says:
--sinners, until freed from guilt, being always liable to the wrath and curse of God, who, as a just judge, cannot permit his law to be violated with impunity, but is armed for vengeance. But before we proceed further, we must see in passing, how can it be said that God, who prevents us with his mercy, was our enemy until he was reconciled to us by Christ. - Institutes 2.16.1-2
 This has implications for our view of God's justice and what it entails. The Calvinist explanation of why God does not elect everyone to salvation is that by His justice, we all deserve death for our sinfulness and God would be just to execute this punishment this instant; it is a miracle of His mercy that anyone is saved or even takes their next breath (so quit your whining!). Justly, God owes us nothing and anything good we receive from Him is mercy, not justice. Then I was hit by these verses:
And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7-8)
So clearly God's justice is here supposed to be a good thing. The elect, who according to Calvinism are those who have been spared God's justice, are supposed to look forward to receiving it.
Hear my voice according to your steadfast love; O LORD, according to your justice give me life. (Psalm 119:149, ESV translation)
 According to your justice, not mercy. Don't we justly deserve death? How can God give us life according to His justice? You could argue that this refers to God being just by crushing His son and giving us life, but again, in this scenario Christ receives the justice and we receive the mercy. There isn't supposed to be anything good (beneficial or desirable) about justice for us, is there?

In fact, doing a simple search for Biblical uses of the word "justice". In the Old Testament, justice most often appears not as punishment administered by a holy God but as something desirable that we are called to give to everyone, especially the socially outcast or marginalized. Ancient Near East cultures did not share our modern conception of justice as simply restitution of wrongs. Their conception of justice was intricately tied in with wisdom, the ability to make wise decisions to restore parts of life to the good, orderly state, the "way things should be", which in the OT is the Hebrew concept of shalom.

The law calls us to give justice to everyone:
  • Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. (Exodus 23:6)
  • Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19:15)
  • Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)
The books of history give examples of people who acted in justice or injustice:
  • But [Samuel's] sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice. (1 Samuel 8:3)
  • And Absalom would add, "If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice." (2 Samuel 15:4)
  • He [Solomon] built the throne hall, the Hall of Justice, where he was to judge, and he covered it with cedar from floor to ceiling. (1 Kings 7:7)
In the wisdom literature justice is equated with righteousness or both helping the needy and punishing the wicked.
  • The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. (Psalm 103:6)
  • He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. (Psalm 37:6)
  • Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right. (Psalm 106:3)
  • I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. (Psalm 140:12)
  • Arise, O LORD, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice. (Psalm 7:6)
  • It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the innocent of justice. (Proverbs 18:5)
  • The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. (Proverbs 29:7)
  • If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. (Ecclesiastes 5:8)
What about the books of prophecy? Aren't they full of declarations of God's impending justice on sinful Israel?
  • Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
  • Zion will be redeemed with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness. (Isaiah 1:27)
  • Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.  (Isaiah 10:1-2)
  • In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it--one from the house of David--one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness. (Isaiah 16:5)
  • Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him! (Isaiah 30:18)
  • "Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm. (Isaiah 51:4-5)
  • Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. (Isaiah 59:15)
  • "For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity. In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. (Isaiah 61:8)
  • Correct me, LORD, but only with justice--not in your anger, lest you reduce me to nothing. (Jeremiah 10:24)
  • I am with you and will save you,' declares the LORD. 'Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only with justice; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.' (Jeremiah 30:11)
  • The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. (Ezekiel 22:29)
  • I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. (Hosea 2:19)
  • They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. (Amos 2:7)
  • Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:15)
  • But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin. (Micah 3:8)
  • Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. (Habakkuk 1:4)
  • "This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.' (Zechariah 7:9-10)
Or in the New Testament:
  • "Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. (Matthew 12:18)
  • And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.' (Luke 18:3)
  • For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:31)
And finally the Romans passage everyone likes to cite in support of penal substitution:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished--he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:20-26)
Yes, this is a somewhat arbitrary selection of verses on justice (look for them yourself if you like), but I tried to find verses that most closely fit the penal substitution view of God's justice as a need to punish sin. But this kind of usage is surprisingly rare. Besides the Romans passage, we see it in Acts 17:31 and maybe Isaiah 61:8, but these are only a small part of the "big picture" of the justice God embodies and wants us (yes, us!) to practice as well. Biblical justice means having compassion on the poor, needy, outcast, and marginalized (this is very convicting to me too), loving what is good, hating what is evil, standing for righteousness. It is indeed closely tied in with righteousness, but it seems to have more temporal or civil connotations--it is an essential quality for kings (Proverbs 29:4), judges (2 Samuel 15:4), and for all of God's people (Psalm 106:3).

For God, who is said to be the ultimate source of justice (Proverbs 29:26), justice does not only look like pouring His wrath out on the ungodly, but in having compassion and redeeming His people--acts that are often contrasted with the justice we are supposed to deserve from Him. Yes, God's justice does also mean punishing unrighteousness, but if we make that the whole definition we not only hold a distorted view of God but miss out on the impact of His commands for us to also be just. I'm not trying to undermine the view of justice held by PSA, but to argue that it is grossly incomplete and myopic. If all God's justice means to us is that He hates sin and has to punish sinners, we miss out on most of the rich (and relevant) theology of justice the Bible has to offer.

God's justice can't be so easily separated or put into tension with His compassion and mercy for us. The crucial distinction that is so easily missed in the PSA view, I think, is that God's justice means that He hates sin, but loves us sinners. The caricature of PSA above depicts God as angry at us, even bloodthirsty, but this is not wholly inaccurate. Proponents of PSA easily slip from talking about God as angry at sin to God as angry at us. Calvin, speaking with his usual uncushioned precision, says "God, to whom we were hateful through sin, was appeased by the death of his Son." (Institutes 2.17.3) When condemning sin turns into condemning sinners (which is amazingly easy, even unnoticeable), God's justice is perverted. God's justice means condemning sin not because of "the rules" or because our sins make Him very, very angry, but because of His abiding, just love for righteousness and equal hatred for sin as the opposing force to His plan for shalom.

Speaking from personal experience, a common tactic of denial is to brush away arguments like this, that God's view of justice is less about condemning sinners and more about caring for issues suspiciously akin to the "liberal agenda", as "social justice Christianity" that is only focused on making things better here and now with no eternal perspective. But the Biblical evidence demands to be heard. People say that Jesus preached about a lot of things more than anything else, but while reading the gospels in my New Testament class this semester I think that, fundamentally, his preaching was centered around the message: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near." Heaven is coming down to earth. He came not to put our souls on a lifeboat to heaven or bring about economic equality for all, but to inaugurate the coming of the eternal kingdom of God to our temporal world. The gospel is a message stretching to eternity, but for the believer, eternity begins here and now.

Note: My last post said my next one would be about evolution. I have not forgotten that post and am working on it; I just realized this one was nearly done so I finished it.