On the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth after his unjust death stands at the very heart of the Christian faith.

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If materialism is true, it goes without saying that the prior plausibility of a corpse coming back to life through random physical processes is extremely small.

However, some atheist apologists go farther than that and argue that even if God existed, the probability of His raising Jesus from the dead would be incredibly low.

 

Atheistic philosopher Jeffery Jay Lowder (who is a nice, respectful, well-articulated, intelligent and decent man) put it like this:

B3: Approximately 107,702,707,791 humans have ever lived. Approximately half of them have been male.
B4: God, if He exists, has resurrected from the dead at most only one person (Jesus).

B3 and B4 are significant because they summarize the relevant evidence about God’s tendency to resurrect people from the dead (assuming God exists). They show why the resurrection has a low prior probability even for theists. Once we take B3 and B4 into account, the prior probability of the resurrection is less than or equal to 5.0 x 10-12. In symbols, Pr(R | B1 & B3 & B4) <= 5.0 x 10-12.

 

I shall reformulate his argument in a simpler way while emphasising a most problematic hidden assumption.

  1. From the 100 000 000 humans who have ever lived under the sun, none has been resurrected by God’s mighty hands.
  2. Consequently, the probability that a human being chosen at random gets raised from the dead is less than 10-11.

3. God would be as interested in resurrecting Jesus as he would be in resurrecting a random human being.

4. Hence the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection is less than 10-11.

Although premise 1) might be begging the question against claims of miracles, I shall accept it as true.

Premise 2) is totally uncontroversial. So what truly stands in the way of the conclusion is premise 3).

Why on earth should we assume that Jesus was only a random human being to God? This probability seems unknown to me unless one makes assumptions about the divine Being, i.e. one engages in theology.

(The are good articles written by professional philosopher of science John Norton explaining why epistemic ignorance cannot be represented by a probability distribution [1], [2], [3])

Lowder seems to be aware of this. A (godless) commenter wrote:

“Your estimate of 5.0 x 10-12. assumes that Jesus is a typical human. But if not, if B1A: Jesus is the second person of the Trinity is true, P(B2) becomes much higher, possibly of order 1. In that case the relevant unknown is P(B1A | B1). While that may be small, I doubt if it’s anywhere near as small as 5.0 x 10-12.”

His response was:

“There are not any reliable statistics for the reference class of men who are the second person of the Trinity. Thus, the reference class that must be used is the broadest one for which we have reliable statistics, viz., men.”

But this is clearly begging the question.

  • Why should we  assume that Jesus was a random human being to God?
  • Because this is the only way we can approximately calculate the prior probability of his resurrection.
  • And why should we assume that this value approximates anything if we don’t know whether or not he was just an ordinary man to God?

So I think that unbelievers cannot argue from ignorance here. They should instead give us positive grounds for thinking that Jesus wasn’t special to God.

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Did Jesus leave his grave behind? An interview with Mike Licona.

There can be little doubt that the Christian faith stands and falls with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who claimed this would be the Way His heavenly father would defeat evil forever.

He is Risen

For many people having grown up in post-Christian Europe, this alleged event is nothing more than one of the numerous legends the ancient world was littered with.

SanktClausIn what follows, I had the immense privilege of interviewing Mike Licona, an amazing Biblical scholar and historian who thinks that an intellectual honest man of the twenty-first century can and even should believe that the Son of Man truly rose from the dead.

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In our conversation we touched upon many topics and also wondered if it’s really the case that materialism (the worldview according to which everything is material) is almost certainly true.

 

 

 

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Should an inerrant Bible be the very foundation of Christianity?

Eric Reitan, a progressive Christian philosopher (having written an excellent book on the New Atheism and one defending universal salvation) gave several arguments against the central place of the Bible for our faith.

 

How Does God Reveal? Five Christian Reasons to Doubt Biblical Inerrancy

 
The Patheos website is currently hosting a multi-blog conversation about progressive Christianity and Scripture which has generated numerous engaging and thoughtful contributions–such as this one by James McGrath. Because the relationship between progressive Christian faith and the Bible is one of my enduring interests, the sudden flood of interesting essays on the topic has inspired me to take a few minutes to reflect on the issue myself. 

As a philosopher of religion, the way I approach this topic is in terms of a philosophical question: What theory of revelation fits best with the Christian view of God? Put another way, if there is a God that fits the broadly Christian description, how would we expect such a God to reveal the divine nature and will to the world?

Many conservative Christians take it for granted that God has revealed the divine nature and will in and through a specific book. More precisely (although they aren’t usually this precise), they believe that God inspired certain human authors at various times in history to write texts that inerrantly express divine truths–and then inspired other human beings to correctly recognize these texts and include all and only them in the comprehensive collection of Scriptures we call the Bible.

Let’s call this the theory of biblical inerrancy.

Does this theory fit well with broader Christian beliefs? Is this a good Christian theory about divine revelation, culminating in a good Christian theory about what the Bible is and what sort of authority we should attach to it? I think there are a number of reasons to be skeptical.

Put more narrowly, I think there are a number of reasons why Christians should be skeptical, given their Christian starting points. Let’s consider at least some of these reasons.

1. Christianity holds that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God

Traditional Christian teaching holds that Jesus is the Word made Flesh, the incarnation of God in history. And this means that for Christians, the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book (however inspired). It is this fact which motivated George MacDonald to say of the Bible,

It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not the Bible, save as leading to him.

Biblical inerrantists might argue that nothing precludes God from both revealing the divine nature primarily in Jesus and authoring an inerrant book as a secondary revelation. This is true as far as it goes. But there are reasons for concern.

First, there’s a difference between the kind of revelation that Jesus represents, and the kind that a book represents. A person and a book are different things, and we learn from them in different ways. Consider the difference between having a mentor in the project of becoming a better person, and reading self-help books.

Doesn’t Christianity teach that God’s preferred way of disclosing the divine nature and will is through personal, living relationship rather than fixed words? The problem with throwing in an inerrant book as a “supplemental” revelation is that it can lead to Bible-worship. Given human psychology, there is something alluring about having a book with all the answers. But if God primarily wants us to find the answers through personal engagement with the living God, as discovered in Jesus, isn’t there a real danger that fixation on the Bible will distract the faithful from God’s primary mode of self-disclosure?

None of this is to say that human stories–witness accounts of divine revelation in history–aren’t important. They can motivate a desire to seek out the one whom the stories are about, and they can offer tools for discerning whether you’ve found the one you seek or an imposter. But once they are seen as secondary, as valuable as a means to an end, the need for inerrancy dissipates. If what really matters is my friendship with Joe, and if I sought out and formed a friendship with him because lots of people told me stories about him that revealed him as an awesome guy I wanted to meet, do I really need to insist that those storytellers were inerrant? Why?

2. The Jesus of Scripture was not an inerrantist

In John 8:1-11, we have the story of the teachers of the law coming to Jesus with an adulteress, and asking Him whether they ought to stone her to death as the Scriptures prescribe. The passage itself declares that this was a trap: If Jesus came out and directly told them not to stone her, He would be defying a direct scriptural injunction.

He avoided the trap: He didn’t directly telling them to act contrary to Scripture. Instead, He told them that the one without sin should cast the first stone.

It is a stunning and powerful story (no wonder someone decided to write it into the Gospel of John, even though it didn’t appear in the earliest versions). But notice that Jesus didn’t tell them to do what Scripture prescribed. Instead, He found a powerful way to drive home exactly what was wrong with following that scriptural injunction–in a way that avoided their trap.

In short, Jesus disagreed with some of the teachings in the Scriptures of His day. In the Sermon on the Mount, he offered gentle correctives to earlier teachings–teachings which started in a direction but didn’t go far enough. The lex talionis command to punish evildoers eye for eye and tooth for tooth may, at the time, have served as a restraint on retributive impulses: don’t punish beyond the severity of the crime. But for Jesus, that level of restrain was insufficient. It was a start on a path, perhaps, but only that. Jesus followed the trajectory of that path to its conclusion, and enjoined His listeners to turn the other cheek.

In short, it’s clear Jesus didn’t have the inerrantist view towards the Scriptures of His day that conservative Christians have towards the Christian Scriptures of today. Conservatives might argue that Jesus would view the modern Bible–or maybe just the New Testament?–in the way they favor, even if the approach to Scripture that He actually modeled is at odds with their approach.

Allow me to treat such a speculative claim with suspicion. If Jesus is the primary revelation of God in history, then it strikes me as appropriate to follow His model for approaching Scripture, and respectfully look beyond the letters on the page to the deeper intentions that finite human authors might have missed, noticing trajectories and exploring where they might lead.

3. In the New Testament, Paul distinguished between his views and the Lord’s

 In 1 Corinthians 7:10-12, Paul says the following:

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her…

I’ve talked about this passage before, so I won’t go into details. What interests me is the distinction Paul makes between his own views and those of the Lord. In this passage, it’s clear that Paul did not see Himself as taking dictation from God. He made a clear distinction between his own opinions and those of the Lord, and by making the distinction explicit was signaling to his readers that they should treat the injunctions differently–as if he didn’t want to claim for himself the kind of authority that he took to accompany Jesus’ explicit teachings.

But if inerrantism is true, then Paul’s teachings are the inerrant word of God, and so have the same kind of authority as Jesus’ words. In other words, if inerrantism is true, then Paul was wrong to make the distinction he made. But that distinction is made by Paul in a letter that’s in the Bible. And if inerrantism is true, a distinction made in a letter that’s in the Bible has to be accurate. But if it’s accurate, inerrantism isn’t true. Zounds!

An exercise in creative interpretation might offer the inerrantist the wiggle room to escape this logical trap, but inerrantists are routinely skeptical of such creative interpretation of Scripture. At best, then, this amounts to a difficulty for inerrantism, the sort of difficulty one often sees when trying to force a theory onto subject matter that doesn’t quite suit it. Theories can perhaps weather some such difficulties, but if they become too common it is hard to reasonably persist in endorsing the theory.

4. Efforts to overcome apparent contradictions in Scripture lead to a false view of Scripture

Speaking of difficulties of this sort, the Bible isn’t a neat, orderly, systematically consistent treatise. The Gospel narratives, for example, aren’t identical. They tell the stories of Jesus’ life in different ways. Details differ–for example, in accounts of the resurrection. Bart Ehrman does a fine job of cataloguing  many of these in Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible.

Mostly, these tensions aren’t explicit contradictions but rather what might be called apparent ones: they don’t seem as if they can go together, because you’d need to tell a rather convoluted story to make them fit.

Inerrantists have not been remiss in offering such convoluted stories. But if you need to tell enough of them in order to make your theory map onto what it’s supposed to explain, the theory becomes increasingly implausible.

And there’s another problem, one that should be of concern to Christians who care about the Bible. The convoluted tales that you have to tell in order to make disparate biblical narratives fit together end up leading you away from an honest appreciation of the message of the biblical authors. As Ehrman puts it, “To approach the stories in this way is to rob each author of his own integrity as an author and to deprive him of the meaning that he conveys in his story.”

When you do this, you care more about preserving your theory about the Bible than you do about understanding and taking in its message. For me, this is one of the greatest tragedies of an inerrantist approach to Scripture: It makes it difficult for readers to engage with the Bible on its own terms. It’s like someone who is so devoted to a false image of their spouse that they can’t see their spouse for the person they really are. Likewise, the steps that need to be taken in order to preserve the doctrine of inerrancy in the face of the Bible’s actual content means that it becomes impossible to have an intimate relationship with the Bible as it really is. This is not taking the Bible seriously. It is taking the doctrine of inerrancy seriously at the expense of the Bible.  

5. God is love

Christianity teaches that God is love. In fact, it is the closest thing Christians have to a scriptural definition of God:  “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8).

If God is love, then we experience God when we love. If God is love, then the primary way we can encounter God is through loving and being loved–that is, through cultivating loving relationships with persons. This may help to explain the Christian view that a person–Jesus–served in history as God’s fundamental revelation, rather than a book. Books can’t love you. And you can’t love a book in the sense of “love” that Christians (and the author of 1 John) have in mind when we say God is love.

When we feel the profound presence of the divine showering love upon us–or when we feel the joy of being loved by others–we are encountering the divine nature as something coming to us from the outside. But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are channeling divine love, and experiencing it “from within” (so to speak). The divine nature is moving within us, more intimately connected to us than any mere object of experience. I think this is what the author of 1 John means when he says that whoever does not love does not know God. To love others is to be filled with the spirit of God. It is to let God in.

If any of that is true, then it is by encouraging us to love one another that God makes possible the most profound revelation of the divine nature and will. And while the Bible does encourage us to love one another, the theory about the Bible which takes it to be the inerrant revelation of God may actually be an impediment to love.

We end up focusing more attention on the Bible than on our neighbors. We are more committed to “doing what the Bible says” than we are to loving those around us. Out of a desire to be connected with God, we insist that homosexuality is always and everywhere sinful–and when the gay and lesbian neighbors we are supposed to love cry out in despair, their lives crushed by these teachings, we stifle our compassion, shutting out love in fear that loving them as ourselves might lead us to question the inerrancy of the Bible.

If God is love, then any theory of revelation that tells us to find God by burying our noses in a book is a problematic theory. If God is love, we must look for God in the love we see in the world. The Bible, understood as a flawed and finite human testament to the God of love working in history, can be a deeply meaningful partner in our quest to encounter God and live in the light of divine goodness. But as soon as it is treated as inerrant, it is in danger of becoming a bludgeon used to silence those neighbors who want to share experiences that don’t quite fit with this or that verse.

The Bible points away from itself. Respect for it demands that we look up from the page and engage with our neighbors and the creation. God is alive in the world. The Bible tells us that God is alive in the world. In so doing, the book is telling us that if we want to find God, we need to look into our neighbor’s face with love, and at the natural world and all its creatures with love.

Because God is there. God is there, revealing Himself in the vibrancy of life and the child’s laugh and the mother’s tender kiss. God is there, in the gay man who sits by his longtime partner’s hospital bedside, gently stroking his brow. God is there, in the joyous wedding vows of the lesbian couple that can finally get a legal marriage after years together.

And any time a too-literal allegiance to the letter of the biblical text causes someone not to see the face of God in that tenderness and joy, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has blocked divine revelation, impeding God’s effort to self-disclose to the world.

 

 

Here follows my own response.

 

Dear Eric,

it would be a terrible understatement to say that this post of yours was extraordinarily amazing 🙂

Here is a major problem for the Conservative Protestant position: it cannot merely be that their Bible is inerrant, but also that people who first recognized it that way were as well. If they weren’t, what give us the guarantee that their decision was correct?

Therefore, I view the doctrine of Solo Scriptura as rationally extremely problematic.


I also agree that God’s revelation was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and that it is not propositional knowledge, even if it logically entails affirming certain truths.

I think that Biblical inerrancy is IMPOSSIBLE in the first place, due to the presence of many conflicting voices in the collection of books having been gathered under that name.

Therefore, ironically enough, inerrantists themselves have constantly to pick and choose which texts they take at face values and which they necessarily have to distort because they contradict the former.

The real danger here is that according to the doctrine of inerrancy, if you find some Biblical verses describing God as commanding moral atrocities, you HAVE to conclude that the God experienced by ALL other Biblical writers endorsed them as well.

Tragically, nasty fundamentalists considerably water down Christ’s call to love our enemies to make it match the theology of the imprecatory psalms.

And many of them will give up Christianity altogether, become bitter anti-atheists while keeping the same fundamentalistic mindset.
So a New Atheist recently wrote he wants to burn the whole Bible because of the presence of atrocities within it, ignoring the obvious fact there are many other Biblical authors who did not approve at all of them.

As you expressed it so well, the priority of Conservative Evangelicals is NOT to become more loving persons and turn the world into a better place BUT to combat heresies and frenetically defend particular verses having been empirically refuted.

This explains rather well why they’re so obsessed with homosexuality while utterly ignoring (or even upholding) crying social inequalities.
I have come to see books within the Biblical Canon in the same way I view other Jewish and Christian books, and offered a parallel between C.S. Lewis and the apostle Paul writing down their experiences with God.

I think that the basis of a progressive Christian theology should be the idea that as a perfect being, God has necessarily to be much more loving and just than any (purely) human being could ever be.

Thus, if your theology teaches that God predetermined countless babies to grow up for being damned and eternally suffer, you’ve made a reductio-ad absurdum of it.

I think you’re an incredibly bright person and defender of our faith, and I wish much more people would read your writings instead of those of William Lane Craig.
His evil view of God is one of the main reasons why Conservative Evangelicalism is increasingly collapsing.
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Keep the good work!

 

 

 

 

Did Jesus think he was God?

The outstanding liberal Biblical scholar James McGrath wrote a thought-provoking post on this very topic.

 

BildI mentioned a few posts about Bart Ehrman’s recent book yesterday, and there are already a couple more. Larry Hurtado offered some amendments to his post, in light of feedback from Bart Ehrman himself. And Ken Schenck blogged about chapter 3 and whether Jesus thought he was God. In it he writes:

I think we can safely assume that, in his public persona, Jesus did not go around telling everyone he was the Messiah, let alone God.

But one must then ask whether these is a good reason to regard the process that follows, in which Jesus comes to be viewed as the second person of the Trinity, is a legitimate or necessary one.

Schenck also criticizes Ehrman for giving voice to older formulations of scholarly views, as though things had not moved on.

The only people who think that Jesus was viewed as a divine figure from the beginning are some very conservative Christians on the one hand , and mythicists on the other. That in itself is telling.

I’d be very interested to see further exploration of the idea that, in talking about the “son of man,” Jesus was alluding to a future figure other than himself, and that it was only his followers who merged the two, coming up with the notion of a “return” of Jesus. It is a viewpoint that was proposed and then set aside decades ago, and I don’t personally feel like either case has been explored to the fullest extent possible. Scholarship on the Parables of Enoch has shifted since those earlier discussions occurred, and the possibility that that work could have influenced Jesus can no longer be dismissed.

But either way, we are dealing with the expectations of a human being, either regarding his own future exaltation, or the arrival of another figure. We simply do not find in Paul or in our earliest Gospels a depiction of Jesus as one who thought he was God.

Here was my response to that:

Well I’m not really a Conservative Christian (since I reject a fixed Canon and find some forms of pan-en-theism interesting philosophically) but I do believe that Jesus was more than a mere prophet. Along with N.T. Wright I think He viewed Himself as the new temple embodying God’s presence on earth.

I once defended the validity of C.S. Lewis trilemma provided Jesus viewed himself as God.

I’m well aware that Jesus divine sayings in John’s gospel are theological creations .

But here there is something curious going on here.

Many critical scholars think that the historical Jesus falsely predicted the end of the world in the Gospel of Mattew
“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. ” Matthew 24:34

But if one does this, why could we not also accept the following saying

“37”Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38″Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!…” Matthew 23:37

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which is located just several verses before Matthew 24:34. It seems rather arbitrary to accept the latter while rejecting the former.

This verse is intriguing in many respects.

In it, Jesus implies his divinity while not stating it explicitly, and if it was a theological creation such as in John’s Gospel, it seems strange that Matthew did not make this point much more often and clearly at other places, if such was his agenda.

What’s more, the presence of Matthew 24:34 (provided it was a false prophecy) has some interesting consequences about the dating and intention of the author.

1) Let us consider that Matthew made up the whole end of his Gospel out of his theological wishful thinking for proving that Christ is the divine Messiah.

If it is the case, it seems extremely unlikely he would write that one or two generations AFTER Jesus had perished.
This fact strongly militates for dating Matthew’s gospel as a pretty early writing.

2) Let us now suppose that Matthew wrote His Gospel long after Jesus’s generation had passed away.
He would certainly not have invented a saying where his Messiah made a false prediction.
It appears much more natural to assume he reports a historical saying of Jesus as it was because he deeply cared for truth , however embarrassing this might prove to be.

And if that is the case, we have good grounds for thinking he did not make up Matthew 23:37 either.

I’m not saying that what I have presented here is an air-tight case, it just seems the most natural way to go about this.

I think that historical events posses objective probabilities, geekily minded readers might be interested in my own approach.”

 

To which James replied:

“Thanks for making this interesting argument! How would you respond to the suggestion that Jesus there might be speaking as other prophets had, addressing people in the first person as though God were speaking, but without believing his own identity to be that of God’s? I think that might also fit the related saying, “I will destroy this temple, and in three days rebuild it.””

 

Lotharson:

“That’s an interesting reply, James! Of course I cannot rule this out.

Still, in the verses before Jesus uses the third person for talking about God:

“And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”

and verse 36: ” 36 Truly I tell you , all this will come on this generation.” is a typical saying of Jesus he attributes to himself.

And so it seems to me more natural that Jesus would have said something like:

For Truly God says: ’37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing…”

 

James:

“Well, the same sort of switching back and forth between first person of God and the first person of the prophet is found in other prophetic literature, so I don’t see that as a problem. Of course, it doesn’t demonstrate that that is the best way to account for the phenomenon, but I definitely think it is one interpretative option that needs to be considered.”

I mentioned our conversation because I think it is a nice example of how one can disagree about a topic without being disagreeable towards one another.

Would not the world be in a much better state if everyone began striving for this ideal?

 

 

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Jesus and political involvement

Deutsche Version: Jesus und das politische Engagement

 

Yesterday evening, I participated in an interesting inter-religious dialog about how one’s faith shapes one’s political views.

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In America, the Religious Right (mainly constituted of Conservative Evangelicals) considers that the Good is defined by an inerrant Bible they venerate (and sometimes almost worship), regardless of all empirical evidence.

I consider such an approach extremely misguided. The Bible speaks with conflicting voices on many topics, and Conservative Evangelicals have always to pick and choose which verses to take at face value, which in turns determines the set of contradictory verses whose meaning has to be distorted.

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My regular readers know that I very often criticize the New Atheists and their claim that Religion is the worst poison of the world which ought to be wholly blotted out.

I think that they too are utterly misguided and fail to recognize that the main cause of religious atrocities and evil is not a supernatural belief in and of itself BUT the concept that whatever God (or the gods) allegedly decrees is good and ought to be meticulously applied, regardless of the horrors it might involve, a point stressed by no one less the last Pope Benedict.

 

To my mind, religious atrocities would rapidly cease if all believers seriously took the thought that God is morally perfect, that is far more loving and just than the best human being who has ever lived.

 

During His earthly ministry, Jesus made it clear that all laws exist for the well-being of mankind and are not arbitrary in any way.

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“And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Mark 2:27 

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

 

This is why a Conservative Christian opposing homosexuality is not being faithful to Jesus if he just states “Homosexuality is wrong because God decided so according to His good pleasure.”

No, IF homosexuality is wrong, then it is wrong because it is harmful for the individual and society and get in the way of becoming a loving and caring person. They should provide us with empirical evidence backing this up.

 

All political decisions from a Christian standpoint should aim at promoting the well being of one’s neighbors (that is the whole mankind), alleviating their suffering and encouraging them to become loving people.

But we live in an extremely complex world and it is often pretty hard to figure out which sets of laws would really be useful and which should be avoided. People starting with different presuppositions will reach in good conscience conflicting convictions, and we should all withstand the self-righteous temptation to view them as either dumb, ill-informed, irrational or wicked, a point well developed by progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser in his book “You’re Not As Crazy As I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions”.

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Advice for a struggling Christian

BildI received this interesting and touching email.

” I grew up Anglican and live in Canada.  I now have a wife (she is Japanese and agnostic) and two kids.  Ever since I can remember I’ve always believed and prayed to God.  But it was recently that I truly stated to question a lot things about what I believed, such as the hell topic, the hiddenness of God, the problem of evil, and the apparent errant texts in the bible.
As I stated, I am very much troubled by certain texts of the bible, in particular the violent acts attributed to God, including the genocidal commands, the killing the Egyptian firstborns, the killing of David’s newborn, the burning of Sodom and Gomorah, the flood, etc, etc.

So what am I to make of these texts?  Do I simple ignore them and assume they are false?  If so why did Jesus appear to regard the OT scriptures as sacred? 

Any insights you can provide are truly appreciated. 

Best Regards,
Geoff”

I am incredibly thankful to Geoff for his terrific email which raises many fundamental questions that are all too often shoved aside by Conservative Christians.

I find it extremely healthy to start questioning and critically examining one’s faith, as I pointed out in one of my first blog posts, this is all what progressive Christianity is about.

I am sure, however, that I won’t be able to provide him with final answers. All I can do here is giving him some advice and insights which will hopefully help him make up his own mind.

The problem of Biblical atrocities

Moral indignation against certain Biblical passages is far from being a phenomenon of our enlightened age.

Several Church Fathers in the first centuries of Christianity recognized the stark contrast between Christ’s teaching (on the one hand) and the moral message conveyed by some texts in the Old Testament on the other hand.

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Gregory of Nissa wrote:
“The Egyptian [Pharaoh] is unjust, and instead of him, his punishment falls upon his newborn child, who
on account of his infant age is unable to discern what is good and what is not good … If such a one now
pays the penalty of his father’s evil, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is
Ezekiel, who cries … “The son should not suffer for the sin of the father?” How can history so contradict
reason?”
C.S. Lewis (who is almost universally admired by Evangelicals) did not share their belief in Biblical inerrancy and had this to say about the genocide depicted in the book of Joshua:

Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.

To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.”

Salvaging the dogma of Biblical inerrancy

The-Bible-and-Inerrancy-cartoon

Conservative Evangelicalism is founded on the rock of the Chicago statement on inerrancy, according to which everything a Biblical writer intended to convey is entirely free of errors.

As a consequence, Conservative Evangelicals have developed two kinds of strategies for dealing with putative moral atrocities found in the Bible.

The first consists of calling into question the moral intuition underlying our rejection of certain passages (when interpreted straightforwardly).

William Lane Craig is a great example of that approach. He tried to argue on philosophical grounds that God is not bounded by any moral obligations and has the right to kill an entire wicked people if He so wishes.

As Randal Rauser argued, his arguments utterly fails to establish that the slaughter of the Canaanite was not an atrocity.

The second Evangelical strategy consists of arguing that we cannot take the offending texts at face value and that if we interpret them correctly, we will see that they are really not as morally problematic as one could think.

Philospher Paul Copan champions this method. The problem is that he often has to resort to far-fetched interpretations and assumptions or rewrite the Bible, as argued by Thom Stark.

To paraphrase Evangelical pastor and theologian Greg Boyd, both strategies are (at best) only able to make the God depicted by the terror texts look a bit less horrible.

A shift of paradigm concerning inspiration

To my mind, such strategies are akin to seeking to cure a cancer by using pain killers. It might temporarily alleviate the pain but does nothing to heal the underlying disease which is still progressing and going to cause many other ordeals.

I think that the Evangelical way to look at the Bible has to be overturned and that one should consider Biblical authors in the same way other Christian and Jewish authors are seen.

Let us consider John Wesley, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, the Church Fathers or many missionaries. The fact that they were not inerrant and that God did not directly speak to them does nothing to cancel the value of their testimonies, experiences and theological insights.

It also does nothing to show that they did not experience God’s miraculous intervention.

Viewing the Biblical writings as thoughts about God rather than as the direct voice of the Almighty certainly greatly alleviate the problems of atrocities they endorsed.

Like Christians between 300 A.C. often got God wrong, writers of the OT and the NT also made culturally conditioned mistakes and misinterpreted the divine will.

This is why we cannot base our theology on the Bible (which speaks with many conflicting voices to begin with) but on God’s ultimate moral perfection, as C.S. Lewis expressed it in the quote above.

This is why we need to use the historical critical method to interpret the Bible in order to understand the historical context and motives of the authors.

If we do so, we will often realize that (most) Biblical authors were not evil and were often progressive for their time, even if their ethic fell short (objectively speaking).

And it is from their very experience and progresses we can learn as Christians.

Jesus view of the Bible

jesusTorah

This leads us to the most problematic question, namely what Jesus thought about the Hebrew Bible. Did he not consider it to be inerrant in the same way modern Evangelicals do?

I have three important points to make about this.

Incarnation does not mean infallibility

Viewing the earthly Jesus as almighty and all-knowing is not only unnecessary but also flies in the face of the Biblical texts.

As theologian Kenton Spark put it:

“Though theologians seldom point this out, the fact that Jesus operated mainly within the horizon of his
finite human horizon has other implications. If we assume for the sake of discussion that he was a
carpenter like his father, did he ever miss the nail with his hammer? Hit his thumb? Did he think that he left
his saw on the bench when, because he was distracted, he actually leaned it against the wall? Did Jesus
ever look across a crowded town square and think that he saw his brother James only to discover that it
was someone else? And did he estimate that the crowd was about 300 when it was really 200? To confess
that Jesus was fully human is to admit that the answer to these questions must be yes. “

Progressive Evangelical scholar Randal Rauser wrote:

“The problem is that this imputes a bizarre psychology to Jesus which undermines the humanity of Jesus, separating it drastically from the common human experience it is meant to emulate. Consequently, it has nothing to commend it. In conclusion, we are far better off accepting that Jesus had at least one, and likely an indeterminate number, of false theological beliefs, so long as there are no false theological beliefs of soteriological import among them.”

Like all Jews of His time, Jesus probably wrongly held to some kind of Biblical infallibility. To my mind this is a real defeater against Christianity only if you view His revelation as absolute moral and intellectual knowledge, which is an assumption I reject.

 Jesus view on infallibility and the meaning of the incarnation

Whatever it was, it cannot be the Chicago view (i.e. what the authors really expressed) since the central message of Christ flies in the face of many problematic passages in the OT.

(There is a nice post on the blog of Peter Enns I could not unfortunately find).

I take N.T. Wright’s view that the incarnation means that Jesus became God’s new temple and the Almighty showed us His true face through the life, death and resurrection of His Son.

Therefore God’s revelation through Jesus is not (primarily) propositional knowledge but a narration.

 Concluding words

I think that we must view the Bible as part of the experience of God’s people which is centered in the life of Christ.

Consequently, we should edify ourselves with the Bible in the same way we build ourselves up through other Jewish and Christian authors, i.e. by seeing what we can learn from their own experiences while always taking into account their historical background for understanding them. The presence of scientific, historical and moral errors are no indication that their experiences were not genuine.

Now all I could write was a sketch and I completely accept the fact that many people won’t be convinced by my views.

I have one main advice for Geoff: follow your own conscience wherever it leads.

If you find my  answers untenable and cease to be a Christian, you would much more honor God in this way than by faking a faith you cannot have and experiencing cognitive dissonance.

And as perfectly loving and just, God is never going to condemn a honest person who could no longer believe in Him due to the evil in the world and confusions He Himself allowed.

I wish you all the best for your spiritual journey which must be authentically yours.

spiritualjourney

How to rationally criticize a religion: the origin of misogyny

I recently bumped into this picture and find it perfectly illustrates an ideological and irrational criticism of religions found everywhere in the Western world.

Foto

 

The first obvious mistake in this image is the same type of shameless overgeneralization I exposed in A perfect example of ANTI-theistic irrationality. The fact that you can find demonstrably odious verses in the Bible is no evidence that the whole Bible (who was written by many conflicting authors) is a wicked book.

The second mistake consists of judging the morality of ancient authors according to our advanced and enlightened Western standards. It would certainly be silly to mock Greek philosophers (or other writers in the antiquity) due to some of their extremely erroneous scientific beliefs. Likewise we should also evaluate the moral (and theological) strength of a historical character according to his cultural background and the Zeitgeist back then.

If this principle is followed, we will find that Paul’s treatment of women was quite progressive for his time (even if it would be pretty reactionary today) and that Jesus view of them was truly revolutionary.

All of this raises the following questions: were men in the past misogynists owing to their religious beliefs?

Or did they develop misogynists religious beliefs due to their desire to subjugate and exploit women and dominate over them?

 

While always boasting about their alleged rational superiority, anti-theists are not trying to scientifically answer all these questions.

Instead they are picking and choosing whichever facts suit them for drawing extremely sweeping conclusions, like far right ideologists do all the time.

 

I think that such kinds of arguments are only valid against fundamentalists and Conservative believers who consider their holy writings as being utterly devoid of errors.

They lamentably fail to show that the entire religion or sacred book is evil or that its past members did not imperfectly experience a perfect God.