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Rachel Held Evans vs. John Piper: Both Miss the Point

As a liberal, it isn’t too surprising that Rachel Held Evans repudiates the Reformed understanding of tragedies like the Moore tornadoes.  Essentially, we join Augustine in proclaiming that God feels it better to bring good from evil, than to eliminate all evil.

What started this is a tweet by John Piper (now removed) that quotes Job 1:19.  Here, a great wind topples Job’s house and kills his children.  Piper is, quite obviously, applying it to the recent tornado that ripped apart Moore, Oklahoma.

Is that insensitive, as Evans says? Read the rest of this entry

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The Mystery of God

Any theism that didn’t ultimately point to mystery would not be a very believable world view. So we must not regret our final use of mystery. It is not an unfortunate, desperation ploy but a necessary part of any exalted theism.

— Tom Morris

The Indictment Among the Rhetoric

Yesterday, I spoke of the Blog for WWGHA totally messing up Christian doctrine.  Mere rabbit trails compared to what the author really wants us to answer for him.

Thomas is asking for a theodicy that makes sense of the events of the last few years:

How can anyone love a “God” who allows hundreds of thousands of people to die in a tsunami, or dozens of people to get shot innocently in a movie theater? What parent would allow you siblings to die while they looked on laughing.

Semantically, Thomas is actually asking for a personal reason Christians can love a God that passively allows tragedy to occur.  But I’m going to interpret him charitably here, assuming Thomas is asking for a theodicy: a logically argued resolution to the problem of evil in a world run by an omnipotent, omniscient God who could end evil but doesn’t.

Infinite wisdom, as the author of the target piece argues, isn’t really all that satisfying.  Neither is the related “mystery” of God.

I’ve never really been that big a fan of the “free will defense,” since the Bible shows God quashing free will.  However, the instances of God upholding free will vastly outnumber the instances of him preventing sin.  So I think that free will, while not the answer, is a component of the bigger picture.

Greater good isn’t all that great by itself.   Strobel’s Case for Faith has a great analogy about a bear trap.  Suppose a bear is caught in a trap and you decide to free it.  You can’t possibly do so without causing the animal more pain than he’s in, and there’s no possible way to explain to the animal that his increased pain will actually lead to total freedom.  And so he’ll lash out at you while you try to free him in a misplaced effort to defend himself.

We lash out at God for people dying in tsunamis and for innocents getting shot in a movie theater.  But what if all this is just part of the ultimate plan designed to free us from this bear trap?  What if the pains we see and the suffering we endure are really leading up to the day when none of this pain and strife will be necessary?  When the metaphorical hunter finally releases our leg and we can scamper pain-free into the woods?

I don’t think it’s the whole picture, but I think that the greater good defense has some merit to it.

This means I see merit to both free will and the greater good.  And I think a synthesis of the two is the answer to all questions related to theodicy.  Which leads me toward something I might call the Education Defense for Evil — it is necessary to have evil in this world to reveal God’s full character (wrath, love, and mercy), bring full glory to God at the culmination of history, and to reveal our own nature.

Evil serves a purpose (greater good) without being God’s purpose (free will).

I confess that while I’ve thought about this for a while now, I have little in the way of previous theodicy by any great thinker to back it up.  The idea needs more development, but it is something I foresee I will be writing and researching more in the future.  This seemed as good a time as any to introduce it, since I could scarcely criticize Thomas from WWGHA in the previous post without actually answering the one conundrum that was worthwhile.

Scripture Saturday: Who Conceives Evil? (Ps 7:14)

Recently a commenter going by Patrick asked me, regarding this article, if it mattered whether God created calamity or evil.  He wondered if that was just semantics.

Well, no, it isn’t just semantics.  Evil here means “moral evil.”  If God created moral evil, then he cannot be good by any definition of the term.  A perfectly good God could not look back on his creation and say it was “good” if he had created moral evil.

On the other hand, “calamity” is neither this nor that.  It’s a force of nature, neutral.  In the hands of a righteous God, argues Clay Jones, calamity is a powerful call to repentance.

So for this Scripture Saturday Sunday (better late than never, right?), I wanted to take a peek at Psalm 7 to determine just who creates “moral evil.”  The answer is in verse 14:

Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies.

This verse describes a potentiality — the potential to sin.  It all begins with the will to evil; a desire to commit mischief and that gives birth to lies.  James, the brother of our Lord, explains it this way:

Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (Jms 1:15)

So the desire is our own, not the fault of God.  The desire, having taken root, produces the sin.  Sin, fully realized, is death.  That’s why God takes all of this so seriously — and why we should, too!  But, alas, Francis Schaeffer was right to observe “. . . that none of us in our generation feels as guilty about sin as we should or as our forefathers did.”

Did God Cause 9/11?

In honor of the victims who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 and the brave heroes who rescued many survivors, I wanted to take on a common objection to the Christian model of God.

Objectors typically point out that God is omnipotent and omniscient according to the Bible, and either of these is grounds to believe that God is behind every evil action, either directly (by omnipotence) or indirectly (by inaction despite knowing the event in advance through omniscience).

Which leads to two questions:

  1. By virtue of his omnipotence, did God cause the terrorist attacks of 9/11?
  2. By virtue of his omniscience, does not halting the attacks make God as guilty as the planners?

No and no.  Let’s find out why.

The first is fairly easy to dispense with.  The capacity to do something isn’t the same as actually doing it.  I can throw in a load of laundry and do the dishes, but I don’t do either very often.  If the dishes or the laundry are done at my house, I’m not necessarily the cause (even though I’m more than capable of doing a load of laundry).  Odds are, if either of those tasks are done, it was my wife who accomplished both.

So it is with God.  Though God is capable of bringing about terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11, that doesn’t mean he did.  In fact, as we’re about to discover, it is quite doubtful that he had anything to do with them.

From a Reformed perspective, isn’t God is the ultimate cause of everything?  Not exactly — that’s actually a strawman that Arminans throw at Calvinists.  Properly, God has foreordained that which will come to pass, and most think that Calvinists teach that God’s decree is one dimensional.

In the model that most non-Reformed folks attack, if life were Red Riding Hood, God is David Leslie Johnson.  If life were Spider Man or Mission: Impossible (how cool would that be?), then God is David Koepp.  If life were a 007 movie (best scenario yet!), then God is Neal Purvis.  If life were Inception or Memento, then God is Christopher Nolan.

Get it?  Those guys are screenwriters.  Life, however, is most certainly not a screenplay, and God is not a screenwriter.  The decree of God for this earth is not so one-dimensional that it can be reduced to a pile of 112 white, 8.5 x 11″,  typed in Courier New, 1″-margin pieces of paper.

God’s decree has more flexibility than a shot list and George Lucas-style unrealistic dialogue.

Part of God’s eternal decree is the free will to choose our paths apart from him.  Our liberty is not forfeit, neither is the responsibility we bear for our choices (despite their contingency).  And,  moreover, God is not the author of sin.  Mankind is wicked enough — we don’t need help creating sin!

The Calvinist affirmation: God is sovereign, yet we are responsible.

Which means that the 9/11 terrorists chose, apart from God, their paths.  And those paths are to destruction, as are all paths chosen apart from God.  Unfortunately, their destruction led to the forfeiture of many more lives than just their own.

Freedom to do horrendous evil sometimes, unfortunately, means that we do horrendous evil.

Is God, then, responsible because — knowing 9/11 would happen — he did nothing to halt it?

Nope.  As I’ve argued above, God’s gift of free will means that curse of moral responsibility.  God is not obligated to clean up our messes.

Which actually raises another interesting question.  If God did stop sin, how would we ever know?  We wouldn’t.  So, then, is God the restraint on sin that Paul speaks of in these verses?

Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessnessis revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. (2 The 2:3-8)

And there is at least one biblical example of God staying someone from sinning, despite that person having a prime opportunity.  In Genesis 20:1-18, Abraham lied to Abimelech and told him that Sarah was his sister rather than his wife.  So Abimelech, smitten with Sarah, tries to take her as a wife.  I think we all know what that means (wink wink, nudge nudge!).

Yet, Abimelech never had the ceremony, nor consummated the relationship.

When the truth came out, and Abimelech pointed out that he was innocent, duped, and didn’t do Sarah, did God congratulate him for keeping it in his pants?  Uh, nope.  God said, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (20:6, emphasis added).

Interesting.  God stopped Abimelech.  There is precedent, both in the apostle Paul’s passage and in this earlier example, of God restraining mankind’s sin so that it isn’t as bad as it could be.

The bottom line is that we notice the ones that God lets by, like 9/11.  But we can’t fathom how many he might hold back, essentially saving us from ourselves.  The ones he stops might be worse than 9/11.

But why let any through?  Two main reasons, I think.

First, perfection of the saints’ faith:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jms 1:2-4)

Second, revealing pretenders:

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  He who has ears, let him hear. (Mt 13:3-9, explanation at 13:18-23)

A third reason, not in the Bible, is the display of compassion.  Look at what happened post-9/11.  Every country rallied to the U.S.  Everyone sent relief to the victims.  Volunteers to clean the rubble weren’t in short supply.  Blood donations soared.  When President Bush announced the War on Terror, the armed forces suddenly had more recruits than they knew what to do with.  Chain stores were out of American flags.

Patriotism was no longer out of style.

Truly, a person is refined in fire and tribulation.  If you have it too comfortable, then you will never know what you’re truly made of.

So, Augustine summed it up the best when he wrote, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.”  If God has a great reason to let the evil through, then we can hardly hold him responsible for the results since the results are the good things intended for us, and the suffering perfects our faith and our humanity.

Other Posts in the Coordinated Blogging Event:

Questions Theists Can’t Answer

The Blog for WhyWon’tGodHealAmputees has directed my attention to a Reddit thread where unbelievers seek to compile a list of questions that theists supposedly can’t answer. So I thought I’d take a quick peek at some of the questions, because you just know they not only have answers, but they’ve been answered countless times in countless (but consistent) ways but ignored by unbelievers intent in their unbelief.

Who created God? God is a necessary being. He is the starting point of existence, because existence had to have a starting point and the creation and fine tuning of the universe suggests that the beginning of it all had power and intelligence. So this is a really stupid question; which is what made me laugh at Dawkins’s The God Delusion when I read it. This is the kind of question that kindergartner asks. Please tell me the rest of these questions are going to be better.

Why do innocent babies suffer and die? That’s better, but still not good. Really, all humans suffer and die without exception, the good and the bad. Why should babies be immune to this?

If God didn’t want Adam and Eve to sin, why did he create them without knowledge of good and evil? God is the good. Since Adam and Eve were originally created for fellowship with God, God (as the good) would be their source of information for good and evil. By eating from the Tree of Knowledge, they effectively sent the message that they would decide good and evil for themselves, apart from God.

What sets your religion apart from any other? In the case of Christianity, the unique theology has God reaching down to man by Jesus. No other religion provides perfect mediation or complete salvation from sin. In every other religion, you have a set of specific behaviors or attitudes that tries to get man back into good standing with God, nature, the universe, or some other sense of the divine. Only Christianity has God doing the reaching and mending.

If people are born in to sin, do babies go to hell if they die? (after all, they haven’t accepted Jesus) There’s really no Scriptural answer to this question. It isn’t revealed. This is where faith–authentic faith, not the blind faith that atheists insist is what Christianity means when it says faith–comes into play. If a person has faith in God, and believes that God is perfectly just and impartial, then what happens to the baby in question will be perfectly just and fair. This is likely decided by God on a case-by-case basis.

Numerous answers have been proposed to this question by many thinkers. Augustine believed that unbaptized infants went to hell. The Westminster Confession of Faith holds that elect infants go to heaven, while reprobate ones will go to hell. It was the Roman Catholic belief for ages (and many still hold to this) that baptized infants go to heaven and unbaptized infants reside in limbo (a sort of void in between heaven and hell).

But, as I said, there is literally no Scriptural answer. Anything said in this area is pure conjecture.

How come god cures cancer but never grows back the arm or a leg of an amputee? Thank you for acknowledging that God cures cancer. God seems to work within the confines of nature, confines that he himself ordered. God cannot do anything contrary to his own nature, and violating a law (whether moral or natural) would go against his nature, essentially making him out to be a liar. Humans are incapable of regenerating lost limbs; the process is far too complicated and therefore limited to low-order animals like flatworms or to simple appendages like tails.

If you live a christian life, but your loving son doesn’t, you will probably go to heaven while he will go to hell. Do you think you will enjoy the afterlife knowing that your son is being tortured for eternity? How good a heaven that would be? Answered that in this podcast. There are a few approaches to this question, but they all make the Christian sound cold and uncaring. Essentially, a walk with Christ by necessity comes with certain obstacles. At each decision point, the Christian is going to be called to choose between something of material value (such as a family tie, heirloom, or perhaps a perceived physical need), or furthering our walk with Jesus. The Christian, in faith, ought to choose to further his walk with Jesus.

How we can enjoy heaven when a child suffers in hell qualifies as a genuine mystery–at least right now. We (as parents) should do all that we can to demonstrate a Christian lifestyle to our children, and pray they grow up and remain in it. But the old saying, while not in the Bible, is nonetheless true: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Per Luke 14:26, 33, we should be willing to surrender our own family ties if that’s what it takes to continue walking with the Lord. These ties aren’t going to mean anything in heaven anymore (Mt 22:30).

Why is there something rather than nothing? Atheists can’t answer this question. So instead of admitting this, they throw it back to us. I suppose that we can’t answer it, either–at least not to the atheists’ satisfaction. However, since we largely agree that the universe exists contingently rather than necessarily, and we can also agree that everything that exists has all of the necessary prerequisites to its existence in place, all that remains is to identify the prerequisite to the existence of the universe. Christians identify this as God, who is necessary by his nature in that respect. So there is something because there was first God, without God, there literally would have been nothing. And not something-nothing; i.e. particles and random bits floating around in a vacuum that never quite ordered itself into something complex. I’m talking nothing-nothing; i.e. no mass, motion, energy, or personality. Lack of all existence. Nothing-nothing.

Atheism offers us nothing better or more logical than, “We exist. Pass the beer nuts.”

There are many, many more questions that were proposed. I’m only going to answer the ones that I’ve gathered previously from the tread; I’m not going to continuously check back and answer all of the questions that they propose. I actually have a life outside of blogging! I have a second part of miscellaneous questions coming soon, four categories of questions: . Lastly, I have two wise observations about the questions in general. Stick around; things should get interesting!

Old Post, but New to Me

Sometimes, I gloss over the really good posts in my reader with the promise that I’ll get back to them later. Which of course I seldom actually get back to them later. But in this case, I did and I’m glad.

Dr. Randal Rauser (who I’m mad at for this post describing the plot of the movie The Human Centipede, which I’m having a hard time getting out of my head because the very idea of one person eating then pushing excrement into the mouth of a second person sewed to their anus is really gross–and how does Dr. Rauser know the plot of that movie, anyway?) gave us insight into John W. Loftus’s character:

Every so often people provide challenges to our positions that we cannot seem to answer. So what are we to do? Concede the difficulty and work to revise or reject our position? Well we could do that, but nobody likes to eat crow. And we have our reputations to protect, don’t we? So I am grateful to John Loftus for providing an alternative. First, create a diversion; second, insult with a range of slurs; and third (and most interestingly) accuse of heinous actions in counterfactual situations. (source)

Sounds like Loftus to me. Dr. Rauser explains that he critiqued Loftus’s essay on the Problem of Miscommunication, and Loftus responded, cordially at first, but then Dr. Rauser backed him into a corner from which he couldn’t escape.

Rather than admit defeat and revise his argument, Loftus changed the subject completely, demanding a coherent theodicy from Dr. Rauser before he’d answer the simple question of what divine revelation should look like. In other words, what criteria would separate divine revelation from simple human meanderings?

When Dr. Rauser tried to get the debate back on track, Loftus called him a snake and a Pharisee, demanding he answer the irrelevant question.

Then, Loftus told Dr. Rauser that he would have lit the fire that burned Anne Askew.

So, to recap: irrelevant question, name calling, slanderous accusations. I’ll have to remember that for my current conversation with Doug Crews, in case Crews backs me into a corner (it doesn’t look like that is going to happen, but you never know).

YouTube Video Finally Up

I have decided to add YouTube videos to my repertoire of apologetics. This was not a light decision. I really didn’t want to produce them, since I am not a good “off the cuff” speaker. I can’t sit down with an idea for a speech and make it. I have to have a careful outline. If I don’t, I will end up sounding really stupid.

Fortunately, I have found an excellent open source scriptwriting package, Celtx, that allows for the preparation of audio-visual scripts. This allows me to plan out YouTube videos. Celtx also includes a storyboarding feature, so I can lay out my videos prior to making them. All I needed was video editing software, and I was good to go.

The short version of the story behind the following YouTube video is that it was really annoying to make. This is an answer to the video “Five Questions for Christians” by Netwriter.

The long version of the story is that after I decided to answer that video and had written and storyboarded the script, I searched for video editing software. Obviously, I can’t pay for it, so I went the open source route. I found some great software, but it was for Linux only. They had a link to AVS4YOU, which is for Windows.

I assumed that the software that was recommended by an open source website would itself be open source. So I downloaded the software unquestioningly, and used it to edit the video I had scripted. Once I was satisfied, three hours later, I selected the “Produce Video” option. A dialogue box appeared informing me that unless I paid the $59 subscription fee, a watermark would be added to my video. I was, needless to say, a bit irritated.

My next step was to search for open source video editing for Windows, but I couldn’t find anything. I did, however, come across a review of the best free video editors. So I clicked on that link, and the first package listed was Microsoft Movie Maker. To my added irritation, I discovered that it is included with Windows XP on up.

So I looked on my Start Menu, and sure enough: there it was all along.

Do Christians Read the Bible Anymore?

When I see this:

Many women who dress inappropriately … cause youths to go astray, taint their chastity and incite extramarital sex in society, which increases earthquakes. Calamities are the result of people’s deeds. We have no way but conform to Islam to ward off dangers. (source)

And this:

Television and radio evangelist Pastor John Hagee believes the recent eruption of the volcano in Iceland stems from Britain breaking God’s covenant.

The day after Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority said the Western Wall in Jerusalem could not be used in Israeli tourism ads in Britain because it is considered occupied territory, Hagee said, the volcano erupted, shutting down Britain’s economy in one day.

“That’s coincidence, like the flood was a coincidence. That’s coincidence, like the Red Sea was coincidence. That’s coincidence, like the earthquake and the Resurrection was coincidence,” Hagee told about 3,200 people at Lancaster County Convention Center on Thursday night as part of John Hagee Ministries’ Rally and Prophecy Seminar. (source)

I really wonder about the intelligence and the sanity of the preachers ordained by God to minister to his people. I’ve answered this point before, but only in general terms. Since these two are speaking specifically about disasters, I thought I’d take a look at the words of Jesus regarding a disaster in his day, the fall of the Tower of Siloam.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Lk 13:1-5)

It is often the temptation of us ordinary mortals to try to attribute some sort of meaning to the meaningless. But it isn’t always the case, bibically or otherwise, that a disaster leading to death or destruction of a country’s economy is the result of sin. Look at Job; he was righteous in God’s eyes, yet God allowed tragedy after tragedy to befall the poor guy.

Jesus, who would have been in a position to know why God allowed that tower to collapse and kill those 18 people, didn’t ruminate on the sin of those people. Instead, he called his hearers to repentance, asking them if they thought that they were somehow better than those who were caught in the disaster.

Of course they aren’t. No one is better than anyone else; we all are sinners (Rom 3:23).

Instead of being arrogant and acting as if he knows better than Jesus why a particular disaster befell the U.K., perhaps Hagee should follow in Jesus’ footsteps more closely. Use this event to highlight God’s impartiality: “Do you suppose that those caught in the volcanic eruption were worse sinners than you? Repent, or you too will perish.”

A Theodicy on Natural Disasters

Jeffery Bruce over at Christians in Context had an excellent thought on why natural disasters occur. He doubts that it is a very original thought, and it probably isn’t, but it’s something that I’ve never considered and is very valid.

Bruce points out that all of creation was cursed along with Adam and Eve. Undoubtedly, humans wouldn’t be able to tolerate the resplendent perfection of what God himself terms “very good,” and so all of creation must be made imperfect along with us. It is from this imperfection that things like natural disasters occur.