Posts Tagged ‘Christian apologetics’

“Why isn’t God a better engineer?”

December 5, 2012

I’ve noticed that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has become one of pop culture’s go-to guys for science, and it’s easy to see why: He’s charming and friendly, and he obviously knows his stuff, science-wise. I’ve seen him at least a couple times on The Colbert Report, but he’s on TV elsewhere.

The John Templeton Foundation recently asked him (and other notables) to answer this question: “Does the universe have a purpose?” To his credit, he admits up front that answering the question requires “access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations.” We might imagine, therefore, that any argument from “empirical foundations” alone would leave a lot to be desired, as does his answer.

He argues that no universe that looks like ours could be the product of design. If God exists, wouldn’t he at least be the world’s greatest engineer? No engineer would design this universe. It’s far too inefficient and wasteful.

Christian apologist William Lane Craig has handled this objection in debates before. I like this short answer from his blog, in response to a reader named Mike, a software engineer and agnostic:

So these arguments alone give us good grounds to think that a Creator and Designer of the universe exists. Now against this conclusion you oppose two considerations. First, “The universe is wasteful. It’s HUGE and most of it is empty space devoid of life.” Ah, but Mike, recall that it’s one of the insights of the fine-tuning argument that the universe must in fact be very large, since the heavy elements like carbon of which our bodies are made are synthesized in the interior of stars and then distributed throughout the cosmos by supernovae explosions. But it takes billions of years for the stars to go through such a process, and all the time the universe is expanding. So the size of the universe is a function of its age, and that is a pre-condition of our very existence. So all that empty space is not at all a waste! Besides, how do you know it is devoid of life? Maybe there are intelligent beings who exist elsewhere in the cosmos who are also God’s creatures. Why be closed to that idea?

Second, you object that “Even on earth the process of life was very wasteful. The majority of species have gone extinct.” But is it true that life was wasteful? The primeval forests were the basis for the oil and coal deposits that make modern civilization possible. (Try to think of human culture ever evolving very far in the absence of fossil fuels!) The extinct creatures that existed during those times were part of the eco-system that made the planet flourish. And don’t you think that God, if He exists, delighted in the dinosaurs and other marvelous creatures now extinct? I think He did!

That brings us to the real crux of the problem, in my opinion. The implicit assumption seems to be that God wouldn’t create such extravagant waste. God is like a super-efficient engineer who wouldn’t engage in such waste.

Mike, I love you engineers because you respond so well to my approach to apologetics! But you’ve got to be really careful about creating God in your own image and projecting your values onto Him. As I said to Quentin Smith, who originally raised the efficiency objection, God may be more like an artist than like an engineer, someone who delights in the extravagance of His creation, in far-flung, undiscovered galaxies, in flowers that bloom unseen on a remote mountain hillside, in beautiful shells lying in the ocean’s unexplored depths. I see no reason at all to think that God should be like the engineer rather than the artist. Efficiency, as I said, is a value only to someone with limited resources or limited time, or both. But God has unlimited time and resources, so why shouldn’t He be extravagant? Granted that your engineer would marshal his time and resources carefully; but suppose God isn’t (just) an engineer?

God and the “God particle”

July 10, 2012

I knew that some people—both believers and atheists—would make some extraordinary claims in the wake of last week’s possible discovery of an elusive subatomic particle called the Higgs boson. As for what it is, read the linked Times article. I’m no physicist. I’ve read that it’s the “glue” that holds everything else together. Suffice it to say that physicists predicted that such a thing existed and have been looking for it for a while.

The main reason I imagined that it would pose an apologetic challenge is because of its unfortunate nickname, “the God particle.” The physicist who first called it that in a book he wrote on the subject wanted to call it a profanity beginning with “god” but his publisher objected.

For the apologetic challenge, the gist of the argument on the atheist side is that somehow the existence of this particle means that the universe no longer needs a God to create or sustain it. (Haven’t they been arguing that all along? How does the Higgs boson either add or detract from their arguments?)

Regardless, I’ll point you to my go-to guy for apologetics, Dr. Glenn Peoples. His article is excellent, as always, but I especially like this paragraph.

As you’re reading this, you might be forgiven for asking what any of this has to do with an argument that God’s existence isn’t necessary. You’d be right to ask that question, because in reality there is no connection at all. How does this even speak to the question of why there is, right now, something rather than nothing? What does this tell us about the origin of the universe from nothing? The answer is just that – nothing! Discovering a particle that exists within the physical universe obviously can’t tell us why physical matter exists at all. The particle that gives mass to some matter, leaving other matter without mass, has nothing at all to tell us why there is matter or why the universe came into being.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, I hope this now seems obvious.

Personal incredulity is not an argument

April 26, 2012

A Facebook friend helpfully pointed me to a webpage that reminds us of eleven mistakes of logic that we often make when arguing. As I’m currently preaching a sermon series on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, I’m trying my best to avoid them. One fallacy, which I had never heard of before, is “personal incredulity.” Here’s the description:

I’m struck by the fact that he uses evolution as an example. I get his point, but I also note that this same mistake is often made by skeptics and atheists concerning God, theology, and resurrection.

Recently, my friend Mike was watching an online debate between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and the late Christopher Hitchens. I assume this debate was part of Hitchens’s God is Not Great book tour several years ago. (Click here to read about a debate I witnessed live between Hitchens and my Christian ethics prof, Timothy Jackson.)

Mike was impressed with Craig, and why wouldn’t he be? Craig knows all the arguments backwards and forwards, and is well-prepared to take on any comer. (Last year, Craig challenged Dawkins to debate him in England, but Dawkins turned him down. Smart man!) But my friend noticed that Hitchens had zero interest in engaging any of Craig’s arguments. And since Craig is such an earnest fellow, I can’t imagine that he fared well playing Hitchens’s game of scornful derision masked as witty repartee.

My point is, the fallacy of personal incredulity is a primary tactic of our celebrity atheists. Dawkins himself deflects criticism that he knows nothing about Christian theology by talking about fairies and flying spaghetti monsters. Why bother learning anything about theology? he would say. It’s such obvious nonsense.

And so it is with evidence for the resurrection. The attitude of many skeptics is, “It doesn’t matter what you tell me, I’m not going to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s beyond the realm of possibility.” Whatever else happened, we know in advance that that didn’t happen.

One thing I hope to get across in this “Reason to Believe” series is this: If the resurrection of Jesus did happen, then the evidence we have is the precisely the evidence that we should expect. 

“House” and miracles

February 14, 2012

Dr. Chase misunderstands God's involvement in the world.

One of my favorite TV shows, House M.D., is on life support, ratings-wise, and last night’s episode shows why. They’re running out of ideas. How many times, after all, have they recycled last night’s storyline: a patient has a religious experience, and a doctor (usually House himself, but this time Chase) tries his best to explain it away using science.

Well… the story isn’t new, but it’s still a good one. I appreciate the way last night’s episode put in sharp relief the faulty premise of scientism: if science can explain why something happens, then that squeezes God out of the equation. If science then not-God.

For example, in last night’s episode, Dr. Chase falls in love with a patient who is a nun-in-training—technically a postulant. She’s struggling with doubts about her vocation, which provides a convenient opening for Chase. After all, if she decides not to become a nun, then Chase can pursue a relationship with her.

So Chase goes to work on her. But he’s too late. She’s now convinced that God encountered her during a life-saving medical procedure. Upon learning this, Chase is prepared to convince her that her divine encounter was nothing more than a symptom of her disease. Nevertheless, seeing her newfound conviction—she’s praying the rosary as he approaches her hospital room—he doesn’t have the heart to go through with it.

In fact, he may even have second thoughts about his own convictions. The show, as always, leaves the question ambiguous.

But do you see problem with Chase’s point of view? He believes that if there were a “natural” explanation for her religious experience, then there could not also be a supernatural explanation. But why?

Couldn’t God have graciously used this woman’s medical condition and resulting hospital experience to convince her to pursue her calling? God gave her a sign, in other words, using perfectly natural and explainable processes.

My firm belief is that God does this all the time. To be a theist and believe otherwise is to be a Deist—to believe that God has a hands-off policy when it comes to Creation; that God winds up the universe, governed by well-ordered physical laws, and lets it run its course.

Needless to say, I hope, Christians are not Deists. We believe in a hands-on God who is always and everywhere at work in our world. And he can be this way without resorting to what we usually call the “miraculous.”

But that’s our problem. From my perspective, miracles happen all the time.

Blog replay: Christopher Hitchens debates Tim Jackson

December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens died this week. I disliked his ideas and nearly everything he stood for. (I’m not meaning to disrespect the dead; he would want people like me to dislike him and say so.) In one important way, however, I owe him a debt of gratitude. He influenced me to start this blog and to formulate my own responses to the often shallow arguments put forth by him and his fellow New Atheist writers. He shook me out of my complacency about defending the Christian faith.

Not that I think I do the work of apologetics very well, but most of my fellow clergy (none of my blog readers, I promise!) don’t do it at all. They don’t seem to care about the ideas of people like Hitchens. For whatever reason, I do. Passionately. I think his ideas matter to many people—people who will never darken the door of a church. So I care about them, too.

Don’t get me wrong: No one comes to faith because of ideas alone. No one reasons their way into becoming a Christian. No argument by itself will cause someone to be a Christian. It’s a much deeper, more emotional decision (made possible by the Holy Spirit, of course). But arguments and reason do play an important role.

Regardless, I saw him in Atlanta in 2007 on his book tour for god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As part of this tour, Hitchens had been going from city to city, staging debates about God and religion with whichever local believer his publicist could find to debate him. Often, these debate opponents were overmatched (Al Sharpton in New York? Really?) or unprepared for Hitchens’s aggressively derisive debating style—often confused for wit by his tour’s enthusiastic fans. “Oh, you thought this was going to be a fair fight?” Hitchens seemed to say. “It’s personal, and I’m going straight for the jugular.”

Sadly, Hitchens often took advantage of Christians’ well-meaning impulse to be nice, which they sometimes mistake for the virtue of kindness. Niceness is not a virtue, especially when debating someone like Hitchens. Sometimes, as the song says, you’ve got to be cruel to be kind.

Dr. Tim Jackson, kind—even nice—but he knows the difference.

Fortunately, Timothy Jackson, my Christian ethics professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, understood this distinction when he debated Hitchens at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. This time, Hitchens seemed unprepared. Not that there was much give-and-take. Hitchens rarely responded to what Jackson said. He was mostly reciting a script. Still, even he conceded a few weeks later on a blog that Jackson was, “by far” his best opponent. I’m sure he was!

This audio recording is from the second of two debates that day. I attended the first. I assume the second is similar, although Dr. Jackson told me in an email that both of them were a bit grumpier the second time around.

UPDATE: Now it’s on YouTube!

Responding to another post doubting bodily resurrection

April 23, 2011

After my post early in the week responding to this Huffington Post blogger, one of you brought my attention to yet another interesting post on resurrection at that site. This one is a little better, I guess, but it deserves a response. Since my Easter sermon is (finally) finished, I think I have a little time now. I’ll quote the interesting parts and then respond.

Many sermons in churches declare clearly that Jesus physically rose from the dead, in the sense that his same body was reanimated. The Bible, however, is much less clear on the details of the resurrection. Mark, the oldest Gospel, ends with the mystery of an empty tomb with no appearances by Jesus.

He’s right about the Bible’s being ambiguous about Jesus’ resurrected body. In resurrection, Jesus’ body isn’t a resuscitated corpse. A physical body in the sense that we understand it couldn’t disappear and reappear at will, nor could it walk through locked doors. The resurrected Lord was at least physical, in the sense that he could be touched, and he ate and drank. But he was more than physical as we understand it. N.T. Wright calls it transphysical, which works for me. If we don’t understand it, well, that’s O.K. There is much mystery here. But we know from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that whatever Jesus is in resurrection, we will (at some point on the other side of death or at the end of history as we know it) be like him. Read the rest of this entry »

Why not bodily resurrection?

April 18, 2011

Peaking inside the empty tomb. (The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.)

I’ve been reading the Huffington Post’s Christianity page for about a month, and I like it. Even though I frequently disagree with its writers and bloggers, I appreciate that a relatively mainstream news and opinion website devotes serious attention to religion, and gives actual Christians and other practitioners of religion the ability to write about their faith. By contrast, Newsweek‘s religion coverage, for example, often treats religious questions with the seriousness it would devote to extraterrestrials and U.F.O.s.

I read this opinion piece, “Is a Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Necessary for Easter to Have Validity?” by author Steve McSwain, with sympathy. As I said in a recent sermon, “Heaven is not consolation for a life poorly lived,” and if we treat it as such, life after death begins to feel like pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. It feels like wishful thinking. It feels death-denying.

As I’ve emphasized many times in sermons and on this blog, eternal life isn’t something we have to wait for. It begins now. True, we can’t experience it in all its fullness on this side of resurrection, but we experience some measure of it—by all means. I even preached a sermon on this very topic just a couple of weeks ago. McSwain says he came to this realization after reading his favorite French writer. Nevertheless, the present reality of eternal life (what theologians call “realized eschatology”) is deeply embedded in the New Testament itself—in John’s gospel and Paul’s letters especially. Both the Johannine Jesus and Paul speak of resurrection as both a metaphorical and physical event (e.g., John 11:17-27, Romans 6:1-4, Ephesians 2:5-6). The Bible isn’t either/or on the question of resurrection; it’s both/and.

While I’m sympathetic with McSwain, get a load of this paragraph, in which he gives his number one reason for denying bodily resurrection:
Read the rest of this entry »

Religion and war?

March 11, 2011

A friend sent me an email with a link to this animated map. According to the website, here’s what it purports to be about:

How has the geography of religion evolved over the centuries, and where has it sparked wars? Our map gives us a brief history of the world’s most well-known religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. Selected periods of inter-religious bloodshed are also highlighted. Want to see 5,000 years of religion in 90 seconds? Ready, Set, Go!

What follows is so laughably bad it almost deserves no comment. If I were to believe this map, I would be surprised at how little religious violence there has been in history. It fails to show, for example, all the bloody violence associated with the Reformation—e.g., Catholics killing Protestants, Protestants killing Catholics, and Protestants and Catholics killing Anabaptists. I’m sure the other major religions have their share of internecine bloodshed, too.

"What's your favorite color?" suddenly has life and death implications.

Of course, even knowing all that, I can’t say based on evidence that something inherent in a religion itself is to blame for the bloodshed. I would instead argue that there is a fatal flaw in the heart of humankind that is to blame. Christianity has much to say about that problem.

Be that as it may, the site’s purpose, I think, is to imply an ineluctable connection between religion and violence. Finding such a connection is a fool’s errand. As I’ve said elsewhere, no one practices something called “religion.” Indeed, no one practices something called “Christianity”—the map’s monochromatic march of blue-ness notwithstanding. We all come to the faith through particular traditions, creeds, confessions, denominations, or doctrinal emphases, all of which are mediated through culture. It’s fine to speak of the “Christian faith” in general—I hope that we can!—but no one practices such a generic thing.

One thing’s for sure: Whenever we human beings get involved in anything, we tend to mess it up. Not because we’re evil, but because we’re sinners.

(By the way, how have you possibly shown me “5,000 years of religion” without showing me anything about the religion itself? All I know about Christianity from the map is that, apparently, it’s blue.)

Unless one is prepared to get inside every religion, study all of its nuances and varieties, find common threads connecting different religions, and demonstrate in some meaningful way that these common threads are responsible for something called “inter-religious bloodshed”—after having carefully adjusted for other factors, such as politics, sociology, and economics—one has proven nothing.

Speaking as a Christian, how do we justify any bloodshed based solely on a religion whose founder eschewed violence and retribution and taught us to “turn the other cheek”? When we kill “in Jesus’ name,” in other words, we are hardly being faithful Christians. Again, maybe something is going on besides simply “religion.” Just as something else might have been going on in the unprecedented scale of killing in the 20th century between modern, secular nation-states than vague concepts like “modernity” and “secularism.”

Well, you get the point… I’m already taking it way more seriously than it deserves. The point for us Christians is to notice how easily ideas like “Christianity is responsible for an ungodly amount of killing” slip into our cultural bloodstream without much resistance.

I resist!

A little bit of Easter before Lent

January 27, 2011
In a very thoughtful dialogue about the Bible, miracles, and resurrection, I was asked on another blog if there were any evidence outside of the Bible for Jesus’ resurrection. Here’s what I wrote—very quickly—which some of you might find helpful. I prefaced it by saying that it was too large a topic, and I recommended that they start with N.T. Wright’s 1,000-page Resurrection of the Son of God, and then let’s talk.

Briefly, if it helps, no one set out to write something called “The Bible.” For example, Paul didn’t know he was going to be prominently featured in a small section called “The New Testament” when he was writing his letters to little churches scattered around the Roman Empire. Moreover, most of the documents of the New Testament were written independently of one another. Most of its writers didn’t have access to most of the other material in the N.T. So why think of the New Testament as one thing instead of 27 things?

Your answer might be, “Because the people who wrote these 27 things were already convinced.” O.K., but you might instead ask yourself, “Why were they convinced?” The church’s proclamation from the earliest moment was that Jesus had been resurrected. This wasn’t wish fulfillment, as modern critics often say, because it’s clear that no one, not even his closest disciples, expected Jesus’ resurrection. If the historical Jesus talked about his resurrection to them,1 they didn’t understand what he was talking about. The disciples were confused and scattered after Jesus was crucified. Many Jews believed in resurrection at the end of the age, and many Palestinian revolutionaries challenged Rome and were defeated and killed. None of their disciples claimed their leader was resurrected.

We often hear that resurrection legends sprung up around charismatic people all the time in antiquity (didn’t Hume say something damning to that effect?), but that’s simply not true. There are legends of people who weren’t really dead and returned from the grave, who were killed and resuscitated, who came back as visible ghosts or spirits, and who were assumed or translated into heaven with the gods. But there were plenty of other Greek words that the Bible writers had at their disposal if they wished to describe these other things. They chose “resurrection,” which has a specific meaning in a specific context. And never before Jesus had anyone ever said that resurrection had happened to anyone. Again, this was a Jewish expectation for the end of history, not the present.

What accounts for that, except that many, many people, contrary to common messianic belief or expectation, actually believed that Jesus had been resurrected? Look at it this way: If it were nearly any other well-attested event—like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, for example—we would conclude, “The reason people reported seeing and experiencing this event is because this event happened.” We don’t say that about resurrection because why? It’s too far outside of the realm of our experience. Of course it is, but that alone doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

We also have, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s eyewitness account of resurrection. By their own methodology, modern historians can’t simply say, “That didn’t happen.” They must count that as evidence (not proof, but evidence in favor of it). As Paul points out there, as of his writing, there were 500 or so eyewitnesses still living who could confirm the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, not to mention many key leaders in the church (who often did suffer and die because of this belief). Again, it’s our modern prejudice that people in antiquity were dumb and gullible, but there’s no reason to think that’s true.

This is scratching the surface… But look: No one, no one, no one comes to faith in Jesus because they’re intellectually convinced. Such conviction would contradict faith, obviously. Faith is like falling in love. The story rings true to me.

1. I believe he did, but many scholars dispute it. It doesn’t matter for my argument.

More on miracles…

December 9, 2010

I forgot to make this point in the preceding entry…

Notice this: Jesus’ enemies don’t dispute the fact of his miracle-working (as we moderns would if Jesus were walking on earth today), only in whose name and by what authority Jesus works the miracles. Even John the Baptist’s doubts about Jesus (“Are you one, or should we expect another?”) aren’t because Jesus is failing to work miracles (which would likely be the basis for our doubts today). In fact, Jesus reassures John by recounting the miracles, not simply to prove that he has the power to work them (which isn’t disputed), but in order to point to their deeper meaning: they reveal something about Jesus’ identity and God’s kingdom.

Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Luke 7:22).

From our modern point of view, it’s hard to imagine that the fact of Jesus’ miracles was uncontroversial, but it seems to be. Given the hundreds of eyewitnesses who purportedly saw or experienced these miracles throughout Galilee or Judea, it would be risky for the evangelists to say Jesus performed them publicly, when so many people could have easily contradicted them. “I remember Jesus’ teaching and preaching, but healing the sick—whoever heard of such a thing?”

This lends credence to Malina and Rohrbaugh’s view discussed earlier: We don’t and can’t experience reality the way people living in the first century did.

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