Archive for February 2013

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 3

love-winsI have been reviewing Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, with a particular eye towards evaluating not only his arguments, when they are made, but also the way he makes those arguments. I have not read the book before, so each review is fresh: I am writing these having just completed the chapter the post is on. Here, I’ll go over Chapter 3: Hell. First, I will outline the chapter, then I will analyze its content. Be sure to check the end of the posts to links for the other posts in this series, as well as a few other links.

Chapter 3: Hell

Outline

Rob Bell begins his discussion of hell by framing it around this issue: “God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy–unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever. That’s the Christian story, right? Is that what Jesus taught?” (64). In order to answer this question, Bell says, he will show “every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word, ‘hell’” (ibid).

In order to do this, he first turns to the Hebrew Scriptures. As he explores these passages, Bell concludes that God has power over life and death and that God is present and involved in life after death. However, the words “life” and “death” have different meaning for the Hebrew Scriptures than we give them, argues Bell. Instead of some kind of fixed point of either being alive or dead, Bell notes that they view life and death as “two ways of being alive” (66). To conclude with his discussion of the Old Testament, Bell sums up: “simply put, the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined” (67).

Then, Bell turns to the New Testament. Here, he notes that the word for hell was often “Gehenna,” which in Jesus’ day was a fiery garbage dump (68). Bell skims through a few passages here, simply quoting individual sentences without context. Then he evaluates a few verses related to “Hades,” which Bell argues is “essentially the Greek version of… “Sheol” (69).

Then, Bell turns to a number of stories about using strong language to describe human suffering, with examples from Rwanda, as well as rape, divorce, adultery, etc. Next, he turns to an analysis of Luke 16:19-31, the story of Lazarus and the rich man. He makes much of the notion that the rich man is still alive in the fire, and that he still expects Lazarus to serve him (74ff). His analysis of this story ends with his conclusion: “He [the rich man] fails to love his neighbor… It’s a story about individual sin, but that individual sin leads directly to very real suffering at a societal level. If enough rich men treated enough Lazaruses outside their gates like that, that could conceivably lead to a widening gap between the rich and the poor” (78).

Because of this analysis, Bell argues that “What we see in Jesus’ story… is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells… There are individual hells… There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (79).

After an aside on Jesus’ eschatological warnings as very real and immediate, Bell turns to what seems to be the core of his argument for the chapter. Here I’ll quote at length:

Many people… have only ever heard hell talked about as the place reserved for those who… don’t believe… People who don’t believe the right things…

[I]n reading all of the passages in which Jesus uses the word ‘hell,’ what is so striking is that people believing the right or wrong things isn’t his point… he’s talking about… how [listeners] conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors. (82)

Analyzing texts which don’t explicitly discuss hell, but which are taken as teaching on the topic, is the next task Bell turns to. He notes Jesus’ discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Jesus said “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you.” Bell states, “More bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah? …There’s still hope? And if there’s still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah, what does that say about all of the other Sodoms and Gomorrahs?” (84-85). He then explores the theme of restoration throughout the Bible.

Then, he explores Matthew 25′s passage about the sheep and the goats. He makes much of the Greek word, kolazo. He argues that it could have the meaning of “pruning” rather than punishment, and so “the phrase can mean ‘a period of pruning’” in contrast to “eternal punishment” (91). He puts the possibility forward that this could be “an intense experience of correction” (ibid).

In the next chapter, Bell says he will turn to what happens after we die.

Analysis

Bell shows a great concern for the need to avoid views which ignore hell or desire to cut it out of the picture. There is a tendency towards avoiding a “literal” hell or even pretending the teaching isn’t part of Christianity at all. Bell rightly notes that this cannot be reconciled with Scriptural teaching, and that we need to think on the topic.

Bell’s discussion of “life” and “death” as having implications beyond merely physical death is correct. However, the place he draws it from (the Deuteronomic Code) is a bit strange. The blessings and curses, as well as the choice between “life” and “death” are based on the corporate promises given to the nation of Israel. That’s not to say it doesn’t have individual application, but the way Bell discussed it may cause some confusion.

Properly speaking, Bell’s statement that “there is hell now” seems simply mistaken. The reason is because he makes this as an application to our present lives being hell. No, he doesn’t make this as an analogy, as in our lives are hellish or like hell on earth. Instead, his point seems to be that people, when they are making life-destroying decisions, are currently experiencing the realities of hell. It seems that this may be an unfortunate tie-in to the apparent works righteousness explored in chapter 2.

However, Bell does seem correct at least in part when he asserts that Jesus’ teachings had much to say about the ills of society and how we must work to avoid bringing in even greater suffering through class warfare, independent choices, and the like.

Yet even in this, Bell’s primary points seems to be a kind of works-based righteousness yet again. In contrast to the notion that salvation is based around beliefs [faith?], Bell bases Jesus’ teaching in this area upon the love of neighbor. While this is clearly part of Jesus’ teachings, Bell’s position on this seems to be wrong again. Christ did explicitly teach that right belief [faith] is a criterion for salvation: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. But whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). No, this is not in the context of the verses on “hell,” which was the focus of Bell’s quote above, but the way Bell states his argument makes it sound as though what he has stated is the teaching of Christ on the topic.

This leads us to another overarching problem with Bell’s argument so far: namely, his tendency to atomize the texts he disagrees with in order to filter their teachings through specific texts he uses as control verses. He seems to create a canon-within-the-canon, utilizing certain proof texts as the filter through which he views all other texts. Even worse is the fact that he simply ignores texts which explicitly teach the opposite of what he states.

Bell demonstrates a truly confusing view of Jesus’ statement about Sodom and Gomorrah. Note that Jesus says that it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah; Jesus does not say there is still hope. The text is pretty clear: Sodom and Gomorrah have already been condemned, but those who are rejecting Christ now will be under even worse judgment. I have very serious difficulties seeing any possible way that Bell could realistically conclude that this passage is teaching there is still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah. Instead, Jesus is using those cities as the paradigm example of evil. They are already condemned, and if those who are listening to Jesus at that point do not repent, their condemnation will be worse.

Finally, Bell’s interpretation of kolazo is also problematic. The reason is because he uses a translation from classical Greek as opposed to the Greek used in the New Testament (Koine Greek). He fails to acknowledge that although words can have meanings at one time, that doesn’t seal their possible range of meanings for all time. We can see this in some modern words, like “brave,” which used to mean “cowardly.” The point is that simply having a meaning at some point in time doesn’t make that meaning of a word useful at all other points in time. Furthermore, the meaning for kolazo as “punishment” is attested throughout early Christian literature as well as late classical literature. I tried to find the meaning Bell suggests for the word in a few New Testament lexicons I have sitting on the shelf and failed to find it. They unanimously give “punish” as the only or the primary meaning, and nothing related to pruning or horticulture, as Bell suggests, is even hinted at. I conclude that Bell is mistaken.

Conclusion

Bell gives some important points related to the need to reflect on Jesus’ teaching as well as a right emphasis on the reality of hell. Unfortunately, there are some pretty major exegetical errors found in chapter 3. My study of kolazo suggests that Bell is simply wrong on this topic. His interpretation of the passage related to “Sodom and Gomorrah” is odd, to say the least. Finally, although he doesn’t explicitly state his position, Bell seems to continue to imply that it is our actions, rather than faith, which determine the reality of heaven or hell for our life on earth and in the hereafter.

Next week, we’ll evaluate chapter 4, which is entitled “Does God get what God wants?”

Links

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Preface and Chapter 1- I discuss the preface and chapter 1 of Love Wins.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 2- I review chapter 2.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 4- I look at Chapter 4: Does God Get what God Wants?

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 5- I analyze chapter 5.

Love Wins Critique- I found this to be a very informative series critiquing the book. For all the posts in the series, check out this post.

Should we condemn Rob Bell?- a pretty excellent response to Bell’s book and whether we should condemn different doctrines. Also check out his video on “Is Love Wins Biblical?

Source

Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?

eps-ccBioethics is an expanding field with direct implications for our lives. Here, we’ll reflect on the possibility and implications of gene therapy and enhancement. While I was at the Evangelical Philosophical/Theological Society Conference in 2012, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk about this very topic, and that will be the focus of this post. Unfortunately, the speaker had been switched around and was not listed in the booklet that I have. Furthermore, I never caught the speaker’s actual name (I tried to write it down when he was introduced, and got Gary Alkins, though I have tried searching online for that and haven’t come up with it), so if someone knows what it is, please let me know. I’ll reference the speaker as “speaker” throughout this post.

The central relevant moral question under discussion was: “Should genetic technology be used to not only heal but also to enhance the human condition?”

A Vital Distinction

The most important aspect of this discussion is the distinction between gene enhancement and therapy. Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”

Therapy

Using our knowledge of genetics for therapy, the speaker argued, is perfectly justified. We are called by Christ’s example to treat illnesses, and gene therapy can be seen as an extension of this. There was little time spent defending the moral permissiveness of gene therapy, as the primary question was whether genetic enhancement is morally permissible.

Enhancement

There are several arguments for genetic enhancement. These include:

1) The “natural lottery” argument: if we have the capacity to genetically enhance humans but do not, that means we are, effectively, just playing a genetic lottery to see if our children turn out well. Parents have a moral duty to act against the natural lottery.

2) We encourage environmental enhancement (i.e. seeking better education, putting children in brain-stimulating environments, encouraging sports for their physical well-being, etc.), why is genetic enhancement any different?

3) We already manipulate chemicals (caffeine, vitamins, etc.) for our well-being, why not genetics? In the end, what matters is human well being.

4) Genetic enhancement is simply the next logical step for humanity. If we agree that therapy is good because it stops genetic defects, should we not also hold that enhancement is good because it pushes people to fill their greatest potential.

Against these arguments, the speaker argued:

A) Genetic enhancement could never match the ideal outlined in these arguments, wherein every human being is enhanced on a number of levels. Instead, it would very likely increase the split between the haves and have-nots by allowing those who have much to increase their dominance over society. The haves could afford to continue enhancing and remain a kind of super-human society while the have-nots would never be able to catch up.

However, a possible counter-argument to this reasoning would be to note that there will always be people who are advantaged and people who are disadvantaged. It’s unclear as to how this should serve to undermine the moral base for genetic enhancement.

B) There is a great good in letting humans accomplish things which stretch their skill set. Think about the steroids controversy in sports. We intuitively know that those who used performance enhancing drugs had an unfair advantage over those who did not. Similarly, those who would be genetically enhanced would have an unfair advantage over those who were not enhanced in almost any conceivable area of human achievement.

C) What of bodily autonomy? Who’s to say that it is a good for parents to meddle with their children’s genes. What if a child does not want to be extremely strong, or what of their parents choose to give them giftedness in music, but they simply don’t like to do music? What if the children hate what their parents chose for them: hair color, eye color, etc.? Unlike the “natural lottery,” such attributes related to enhancement actually do have blame to assign to someone. Is there no bodily autonomy involved?

Enhancement and Theology

There are numerous theological issues involved in the debate over genetic enhancement. First, humans were initially created perfect. The fall has caused them to lose that perfection, but God’s plan is perfect and doesn’t require us to try to evolve back into perfection.

For Christians, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan comes in the New Creation. The notion that humanity needs a genetic upgrade reflects the worldview of naturalism. Christians do not hope in their own ingenuity but rather in God’s plan for creation. That does not mean we cannot get actively involved in healing, but it does mean that we do not need to violate persons’ humanity by enhancement. The assumption involved in enhancement is that our bodies are not good enough and that we need to improve them, but that is not a Christian notion. Although we are fallen creatures, that does not imply that we are creatures capable of getting out of our own fallenness. Furthermore, the notion that our bodies are not good enough is a type of gnosticism in which we devalue the material world that God created for us.

Evaluation

It seems to me that the arguments against enhancement are sound. In particular, the argument about the haves and have-nots seems effective. The argument from bodily autonomy also carries a great deal of weight. It seems to weigh against every argument that was brought to bear in favor of genetic enhancement.

It seems that if parents select for certain attributes, then parents can be held morally culpable for the genes their children develop. Thus, if the child dislikes an attribute, they could feasibly hold their parents responsible for that selected attribute. Interestingly, this may work both ways too: a child could hold their parents responsible for not changing an attribute. Yet this latter argument seems to make a mockery of parenthood, holding parents responsible for nature.

In the theological sphere, one may wonder whether someone could just as easily argue that because we were created initially perfect, a pursuit of bodily perfection could be viewed as a fight against the Fall and the curse. I tried to ask this as a question, but there wasn’t time at the end to get to all the questions. The speaker did an excellent job noting possible counter-arguments to their points, and I thought gave a very fair presentation overall. It seems that the best argument against genetic enhancement may be the bodily autonomy argument, but there are others besides that.

I’d like to know what your thoughts are on this topic: Do you think enhancement is moral? Why or why not?

Links

I have written on a number of other talks I went to at the ETS/EPS Conference. I discuss every single session I attended in my post on the ETS/EPS Conference 2012. I also discuss a panel discussion on Caring for Creation, and a debate between a young earth and old earth proponent.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Really Recommended Posts 2/22/13

postI have to say, the posts for this week are really the cream of the crop. Make sure you follow the blogs I link to here, because they are constantly amazing. We look at The Mortal Instruments, Richard Carrier and the Jesus Myth, the power of prayer, how pornography can destroy the brain, science fiction, and a fun interview!

Empires and Mangers: The Mortal Instruments- What’s all the buzz about surrounding the upcoming movie and the books called “The Mortal Instruments?” Anthony Weber analyzes the series in this fantastic post. I haven’t read the books and I was still fascinated. Do check this one out, as it will be all over culturally. Also, follow this blog because the posts are consistently at this quality. It’s a must-read every time.

Does Richard Carrier Exist?- A fun but rigorous look at whether Richard Carrier exists. Why? Richard Carrier is best known for his denial that a historical Jesus ever existed. Here, Glenn Andrew Peoples and Tim McGrew partnered to use Carrier’s methods on him, to devastating results.

C.S. Lewis on the efficacy of prayer- Have you ever heard the objection that prayer doesn’t work? Matt Rodgers takes on this argument through C.S. Lewis, the eminent Christian writer and theologian.

The Effects of Porn on the Mail Brain- This is a scary, uncomfortable post. The topic is pretty self-explanatory.  Pornography is devastating. Let us pray for those under its chains and continue to work against it.

Grand Blog Tarkin- Have fun with this one. It is a blog dedicated to looking at the social and military themes in science fiction and fantasy. I cannot describe how nerd-awesome this is (just a hint: if you get the title, you’d love it… even if you don’t, you’ll still love it). You must check it out.

Mike Robinson interviews J.W. Wartick- A bit of a plug here: check out Mike Robinson interviewing me on his (great!) blog. I’d love your comments.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 2

love-winsI have been going through Love Wins chapter by chapter and will continue my series here with Chapter 2. As I noted in the first post:

There are many other looks at Love Wins available online, both critical and positive. What do I hope to offer here? I will analyze Rob Bell’s arguments in three primary ways: in light of historical theology, in light of methodology, and in light of analytic theology. I believe this will offer a thorough look at several of Bell’s claims. I hope to offer as even-handed an analysis as possible.

Rob Bell’s argument will be examined for historical accuracy and philosophical rigor. Furthermore, I will examine how Rob Bell makes his argument, because method is often one of the primary ways that people err in their theology. I begin with an analysis of the Preface and Chapter 1. I am hoping to release one post a week as I analyze this text. I will post each section with an outline of the arguments followed by my analysis.

For other posts in the series, view the links below.

Chapter 2

Outline

Rob Bell begins with imagery of heaven, followed by a series of questions about the nature of heaven. He notes the cultural picture of heaven: “harps and clouds and streets of gold, everybody dressed in white robes” (24). Heaven leads us to ask questions like “What will we do all day? …What will it be like? Will there be dogs there?” (24-25). Bell uses these questions as a bridge into another question: “who will be there and who won’t be there” (25). He discusses a young woman who contemplates heaven and realizes her family won’t be there, based on a pastor’s answers to this question:

When she asks the pastor afterward if its true that, because they aren’t Christians none of her family will be there, she’s told that she’ll be having so much fun worshipping [sic] God that it won’t matter to her. Which is quite troubling and confusing, because the people she loves most in the world do matter to her. (25)

This leads Bell to ask the question:

Are there other ways to think about heaven, other than as that perfect floating shiny city hanging suspended there in the air above that ominous red and black realm with all that smoke and steam and hissing fire?

I say yes, there are. (26)

Bell then turns to an analysis of Jesus’ interaction with the rich man in Matthew 19:16-30. He notes that Jesus’ answer to the rich man’s question about “eternal life” restates his question as “Enter life” (28ff). He argues that “Heaven, for Jesus, was deeply connected with… ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’” (30).

The Greek word aion is analyzed, and Bell concludes that it has multipple meanings such as “age” with a beginning and end, or “forever” (but not in the way we understand forever, he adds).  He then surveys a number of passages in the Bible which discuss about the new creation/age, concluding by pointing out “Life in the age to come. If this sounds like heaven on earth, that’s because it is. Literally” (33).

Bell insists upon focusing on life now as opposed to in the future. “Jesus takes the man’s question [in Matthew 19:16] about his life then [in eternal life] and makes it about the kind of life he’s living now. Jesus drags the future into the present…” (41). This raises the question for Bell: “What does Jesus mean when he uses that word ‘heaven’?” (42).

Bell answers the question by noting a number of meanings for the word “heaven” in Jesus’ day. He concludes that heaven is “The day when God’s will would be done on earth as it is now in heaven. The day when earth and heaven will be the same place…. Life in the age to come” (43). This entails that “Taking heaven seriously… means suffering seriously, now. Not because we’ve bought into the myth that we can create a utopia… but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere” (45). He notes that our beliefs about the future shape our actions now (46).

The analysis of heaven continues, as Bell notes that “the confusion [about heaven]… comes from the idea that in the blink of an eye we will automatically become totally different people who ‘know’ everything. But our heart, our character, our desires, our longings–those things take time” (51). He returns to aion and argues that “heaven is not forever in the way that we think of forever, as a uniform measurement of time…” instead, translators use the word “‘eternal.’ By this they don’t mean the literal passing of time; they mean transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether” (58).

Based on his understanding of heaven as heaven on earth, Bell suggests that “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death” (59).

Analysis

Bell’s critique of cultural notions of heaven should be well-received. The way that pop-culture has portrayed heaven is extremely inaccurate and perhaps even dangerously wrong. Harps and wings and the like are pop imagery, not necessarily Biblical imagery. We must look to the Bible to determine what it is that heaven will be like. It seems that Bell is correct to note that heaven will be a New Creation and that the notion of heaven and earth coming together is a theme in the Bible.

Furthermore, he seems spot on when he notes that there are confused notions of heaven which constitute humans suddenly, miraculously, entirely changing into all-knowing spirit creatures. I have yet to find anywhere in the Bible that it says anything at all about humans suddenly knowing everything in heaven, yet it is a claim that persists in everyday conversation.

Bell does once more commit a minor methodological error when he simply notes that there are other views on heaven as though the simple existence of other views about heaven somehow validates these other views. The context in which he says this was in his argument against the pop view of heaven, and so it seems he is correct in favoring a view of heaven that is closer to the Biblical account, but it remains an issue that Bell argues in this fashion. The mere existence of differing views on a topic does nothing to validate any or all of said views.

Furthermore, it seems that some of Bell’s conclusion go beyond the Biblical text. For example, his suggestion that eternal life is “about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death” (59). It seems that at this stage Bell drifts dangerously close to a kind of works-righteousness. After all, who exactly is it that needs to live this kind of life? You, dear reader. According to Bell, it is each person’s task to live a kind of life which is capable of surviving death.

In fact, Bell illustrates this through his example from Matthew 19. He notes that the rich man does not live eternal life now because “The man can’t do it, and so he walks away” (41). It is hard to think about a view of eternal life more contrary to what Jesus did and what is taught in the Bible about salvation. Eternal life does not come because we are capable of living a life that somehow transcends our current reality. That is impossible for us to do.

It is truly unfortunate that Bell’s interpretation of the text he makes key for his point (Matthew 19) illustrates another methodological error. Namely, ignoring context. The entire section on the need for living eternal life now is based upon Bell’s reading of Jesus as reinterpreting the rich man’s question as asking about “enter[ing] life” (27ff). He takes two words from the middle of a phrase Jesus says and then bases what seems like his entire discussion of the doctrine of heaven around it. Yes, he cites many prophetic passages about the new creation, but instead of taking these to provide a broader commentary on the notion of eternal life, he reads them all through the filter of those two words: “enter life.” He therefore commits a serious methodological blunder, and it seems that it is this blunder which leads him to a doctrine of heaven which becomes tied into what it is that we do to get to heaven.

Conclusion

Overall, it seems that Bell has done a great job of providing some critiques of the “pop culture” view of heaven which is decidedly unbiblical. He even gets many things right about heaven, including the notion that it will be a new creation and that it will be tied to the creation we experience now.

In light of these positives, it is sad to say that Bell’s discussion of the nature of salvation seemingly turns upon an idiosyncratic reading of two words ripped from their context and used to reinterpret every other passage he references. It is even worse to note that Bell’s doctrine of heaven wavers right on the edge of works righteousness, if it does not step over into that camp altogether. The fact is that Bell discusses eternal life as something which we have to do. It is something which we can do if we just live a life that is capable of transcendence.

It is hard to imagine a doctrinal stance more removed from the notion of salvation by grace through faith. Sola gratia.

Next week, we will look at Chapter 3: Hell.

Links

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Preface and Chapter 1- I discuss the preface and chapter 1 of Love Wins.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 3- I look at Chapter 3: Hell.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 4- I look at Chapter 4: Does God Get what God Wants?

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 5- I analyze chapter 5.

Love Wins Critique- I found this to be a very informative series critiquing the book. For all the posts in the series, check out this post.

Should we condemn Rob Bell?- a pretty excellent response to Bell’s book and whether we should condemn different doctrines. Also check out his video on “Is Love Wins Biblical?

Source

Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Young Earth Creationism and Presuppositionalism: An Analysis

Young Earth Creationism stands or falls based upon the specific use of presuppositionalism as an epistemological groundwork. Here, I will challenge the very core of the young earth paradigm: I will charge that it is an invalid presuppositionalist approach to viewing science and theology.

Young Earth Creationism (YEC will be used hereafter for “young earth creationism,” “young earth creationist”  and other forms of those words as needed), is, of course, the position that the Genesis account of the creation of the universe took place over the course of  seven literal 24-hour days about 6-12,000 years ago. I have extensively explored various aspects of young earth creationism and other positions, and my posts can be found under the “Origins Debate” page.

Presuppositionalism is a type of apologetics (defense of the faith) which relies upon presupposing the truth of the Christian worldview in order to defend it. I have analyzed presuppositional apologetics a number of times. For an introduction into this position, check out “The Presuppositional Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til.”

Epistemology is the study of how we come to know things. Essentially, it asks questions like “How do we know that we know?”

Before proceeding, it is worth noting that many debates between YECs and people who believe in an ‘old earth’ perspective turn on the YEC use of presuppositionalism. A common theme for mocking YECs is to say they just refuse to hear evidence or shout over evidence, yet it seems that this is an unfair portrayal. As we evaluate the young earth position, it will become clear that the YEC perspective operates from within a presuppositional framework that explains much of the way YECs reason. It will also become clear, however, that the YEC use of this framework is invalid.

Thus, it is my contention that YEC is directly dependent upon a presuppositional approach to how we know things. For support of this contention, I note the fact that many YECs see this connection themselves. For example, Answers in Genesis has a number of posts on the topic, including a post outlining the meaning of and need for presuppositional apologetics. Or again, Nathaniel Jeanson of ICR presented a presuppositional case for YEC (analyzed by the Geochristian). However, this is not the only evidence. YECs tend to argue exclusively within a presuppositional framework.

Consider this argument:

The Bible clearly states that the earth was made in seven days. There is no room to interpret the text in any way other than as a literal week of creation.

Such an argument is extremely typical within the YEC community. However, it is also clearly a presuppositionalist approach to the question of the age of the earth. YECs will argue that science must be interpreted in such away as to line up with the creation account. A common theme is that “The data is the same, it is the interpretations of that data that differ,” another notion is that people are rejecting the “plain and obvious meaning of the text” when they offer an old earth interpretation. Such a position is often united with the notion that only by using “man’s fallible ideas” can one come up with a date of millions or billions of years.

The thought process goes in this order: we presuppose the truth of the Bible => the Bible teaches that the earth is 6-12,000 years old => all scientific evidence for the age of the earth must line up with the truth of the Bible. The Bible is the infallible word of God, and so it cannot be in error. Because, according to the YEC paradigm, the only possible interpretation for the Biblical account of creation is the young earth perspective, it therefore becomes clear that all science and truth must line up with YEC.

We are thus left with two possible ways to challenge YEC. Evidence simply is not the problem. Any evidence, if the YEC use of presuppositionalism is valid, simply must line up with YEC. Thus, to challenge YEC, one must confront directly its presuppositions. First, one can challenge the position by attacking the premise that the YEC paradigm is the only possible interpretation of the Genesis creation account. Second, one can challenge the position by directly attacking the presuppositional epistemological groundwork that the arguments are built upon. Rather than focus upon the first challenge, we will here explore whether or not the YECs have validly made use of the presuppositional approach.

Assuming a Young Earth

It is important to note that the way the YEC argument works is to begin by simply assuming the truth of young earth creationism. I know this may sound radical, but it plays out time and again when discussing the various positions on the age of the earth. The young earth paradigm brokers no alternatives; only the young earth perspective is even possibly correct. How is it that YECs are so confident in their approach?

Simply put, the confidence is gained from the very way that they defend the young earth. YEC is not defended based upon evidence. It is not as though scientists are examining the earth and coming to the conclusion that the earth was formed only some thousands of years ago. Indeed, several prominent YECs assert that the very notion of finding the age of the earth from investigation of the geologic past is impossible or hampered by sin and fallible ideas. For just one example, Whitcomb and Morris, in their highly influential work, The Genesis Flood, write:

[I]f He [God] did this [created a universe full-grown], there would be no way by which any of His creatures could deduce the age or manner of Creation by study of the laws of maintenance of His Creation. (238, emphasis theirs, cited below)

Such a notion persists throughout much YEC literature. In principle, the only way to conclude a young earth is to abandon supposed “uniformintarianism” (hold that the processes in place today continue at the same rate they did in the past–see an evaluation of one YEC’s use of this notion here) and view all of the history of the earth through the lens of God’s word. Now, whether or not it is valid to assume that the Genesis text is a scientific account, the argument here should be fairly clear. Namely, the young earth position is assumed. It is not something demonstrated by science, but rather a given before any scientific investigation takes place. Similarly, the position is assumed to be true before any exegesis has occurred. All scientific evidence and any exegetical hints at a different position are subsumed into the YEC position because it is assumed from the outset as correct. Because YEC is correct, all evidence must line up with it.

Some may object by arguing that frequently YECs offer evidence for their position. They may cite various catastrophic theories or flood geology as alternative explanations of Earth’s geologic past. However, even the authors of books like these (such as Whitcomb and Morris, or Walter Brown in his In the Beginning) admit that the key is to presuppose Scripture, which is of course, on their view, to presuppose a young earth.

The Validity of the Young Earth Assumption

It is clear that YEC turns upon presupposing its truth. YEC is assumed to be true, and all alternative views are simply wrong by default. Unfortunately, this is an abuse of presuppositional apologetics.

It is important to contrast the specifically YEC use of presuppositionalism with the wider use of presuppositional apologetics. Presuppositional apologetics in general is the method of engaging entire worldviews by granting their core assumptions and lining them up against reality in a competition of best explanation. The YEC use of presuppostionalism is to defend a single contention–a young earth–against all comers. There are very significant disanalogies here. What the YEC has done is use presuppositionalism not to enter into the square of debate over whole worldviews, but rather to insulate their interpretation against any possible counter-evidence.

There is a distinct difference between the use of presuppositional apologetics, and the use of YEC in presuppositionalism. The latter tends to simply reject outright any challenge as either against the “clear word of God” or as “assuming uniformitarianism.”  By placing their own view beyond the realm of rational inquiry, they have undermined their own potential to know that it is true.

The Faulty Grounds of the YEC Presuppositionalist

The foregoing evaluation leads us to the greatest difficulty facing the YEC approach: a faulty epistemology. Unfortunately, the way that the defense of YEC has been shown to work introduces a paradigm of knowledge which is impossible to sustain. Essentially, the YEC must assume what they think they know. Such an assumption seems to be viciously circular. The YEC must reason thus: “The Bible teaches a young earth=> The Bible is True=> the earth is young.” When presented with counter evidence, rather than engaging with the evidence, the YEC generally falls back to this same argument and reinterprets the evidence. That is where the whole system breaks down: the YEC has not made the right use of presuppositionalism, which allows for entire worldviews to be falsified. Instead, the YEC has misused presuppostionalism to put a young earth interpretation beyond falsification.

The objection will be made that everyone has core beliefs that must be assumed without evidence. Although such an assertion is itself hotly debated, I think it is possible to sidestep such a difficult discussion. Instead, one can note that even if one grants that core beliefs are necessarily assumed, the burden of proof is squarely placed upon the YEC to show how holding to a young earth is necessary for knowledge. Why is this the case? The simplest explanation is that if one assumes the epistemology needed for presuppositionalism is correct, then one has essentially a framework that involves the assumption of core beliefs that are necessary to allow for any knowledge. Thus, for example, the existence of God might be argued as necessary for knowledge (a la Alvin Plantinga, Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and the like) because without God to make us rational, there is no basis for thinking that our beliefs have any actual relationship to reality. Whether or not this is the case, it seems that a young earth is not one of these core beliefs.

Thus, we have finally come to the ultimate failing of the presuppositional defense of YEC: it abuses its epistemological framework to the point of breaking. The YEC has utilized an epistemological approach that allows for core beliefs to be assumed, but has done so in such a way that essentially any belief could be assumed with equal validity. An old earth creationist or theistic evoloutionist could equally argue that their position is based upon a core belief that must be assumed, in which case YEC is undermined. In turn, they could assume their reading of Scripture and make all others wrong by default.

Presuppositionalism must walk a fine line to determine which presuppositions are genuinely those which must be assumed for knowledge. When challenged, the presuppositionalist must make arguments to show that the presuppositions are indeed necessary for knowledge. Unless and until a YEC makes a case that by abandoning the notion of a young earth, one necessarily undermines all knowledge–a case which I must admit seems impossible–the YEC use of presuppositionalism is undermined. Rather than making a valid use of that apologetic approach, YECs have undermined its very principles, and have thus eliminated their own possibility of knowledge. They have relativized all truth by introducing as “first principles” things which are not necessary for knowledge.

A Final Defense

The YEC may object, saying that they have indeed established that YEC is necessary for knowledge. After all, if one denies YEC, which is the clear teaching of Scripture, one has denied God’s word, which is the basis for the entire presuppositional approach.

Setting aside a critique of presuppositionalism as the notion that one must assume the entirety of Scripture to have any knowledge, I would respond by simply noting that this argument does nothing to rebut my charge. I have argued that believing the notion that the earth is merely thousands of years old is not necessary for knowledge. The burden of proof rests squarely on the YEC to show how it is. By merely asserting that denying YEC undermines all of Scripture, one has begged the question. They have engaged in a presuppositional defense of something for which it has been charged that such an approach is epistemologically impossible. In order to defend it, one cannot simply assume that the other side is wrong, one must show how they are wrong.

Objective Knowledge

We have seen that YEC misuses presuppositionalism. A final point worth noting is that the YEC approach to apologetics actually undermines the possibility of objective knowledge. For, as we have noted, the YEC simply assumes their interpretation of the text without argument and then evaluates all science and theology through that lens. However, the YEC offers no reason for rejecting the notion that others could do exactly the same thing with their interpreatations of the text. The YEC has essentially made all truth relative. Anyone can simply assume their position is correct without argument, and then reinterpret all counter-evidence based on that approach. It therefore becomes clear that the YEC use of presuppositionalism must be rejected.

Unfortunately for YECs, the young earth position itself stands upon the bedrock of its faulty use of presuppositionalism. It remains to be seen whether it can adapt itself for a solid evidential base.

A Way Forward in the Age of the Earth Dialogue

It has become clear that YEC is based upon a faulty use of presuppositionalism and that its use of the presuppositional approach undermines the very possibility of objective knowledge.

How, then, can one proceed? It seems that the best way to proceed is to simply throw off the bindings of the misuse of presuppositionalism (taking note that presuppositionalism in general is not necessarily invalid if used properly–see discussion here) and engage in an honest debate over the evidence for either position. Rather than throwing out rote accusations at the other side (“You’re denying Scripture”; “That’s just because you’re assuming ‘uniformitarianism’”; etc, etc), let us engage in dialogue on the evidence at hand. Let’s look at the text in its cultural and linguistic context. Let’s examine the geological evidence of the earth and see where the evidence leads us. Let us not cut off the discussion before it has even begun by simply assuming we’re right and the others are wrong. We are called to always have a reason (1 Peter 3:15). By abandoning the necessity of reasoning when it comes to an issue such as young earth creationism, YECs have undermined the very possibility of a consistent apologetic.

Links

I examine a number of common young earth creationist arguments. Also check out my extensive writings on the origins debate.

Naturalis Historia is a phenomenal site which largely focuses upon investigating claims about a young earth. Some great starting places would be the series on the amount of salt in the oceans (Part 1 here) or some of the thoughts on baraminology.

Geocreationism is another site that examines evidence for the age of the earth with a theological approach. I highly recommend it.

Finally, the GeoChristian offers a number of critiques of the young earth theological and scientific perspectives.

Sources

John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood 50th Anniversary Edition (P&R Publishing, 2011).

The last image is from NASA. The other images were personal photographs and protected by the copyright on this site.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

J.W. Wartick:

Check out this excellent list of pro-life articles.

Originally posted on Well Spent Journey:

Today is the 40th anniversary of the tragic Roe v. Wade decision – as good a day as any to pass along some pro-life resources that I’ve found particularly insightful:

  1. Bad Pro-Choice Arguments (Neil Shenvi): Dr. Shenvi debunks a number of popular, yet seriously flawed, pro-choice arguments. Examples include “The unborn is not a human being, it is just a mass of cells” and “We should combat abortion by reducing poverty, not by making it illegal.” 
  2. Questions for Pro-Choice People (Michael Pakaluk): Dr. Pakaluk poses some tough questions to those who support legalized abortion. This is a must-read for anyone who considers himself “pro-choice”, but nonetheless has a few inner qualms about the actual practice of abortion.
  3. A Future Like Ours (Clinton Wilcox): This summary of Don Marquis’s “Future Like Ours” argument appeared recently on the Secular Pro-Life Perspectives blog. The argument states that murder is wrong…

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Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Preface and Chapter 1

love-winsI know I am late to this party. It has taken me a while to get around to reading Love Wins by Rob Bell. There are many other looks at Love Wins available online, both critical and positive. What do I hope to offer here? I will analyze Rob Bell’s arguments in three primary ways: in light of historical theology, in light of methodology, and in light of analytic theology. I believe this will offer a thorough look at several of Bell’s claims. I hope to offer as even-handed an analysis as possible.

Rob Bell’s argument will be examined for historical accuracy and philosophical rigor. Furthermore, I will examine how Rob Bell makes his argument, because method is often one of the primary ways that people err in their theology. I begin with an analysis of the Preface and Chapter 1. I am hoping to release one post a week as I analyze this text. I will post each section with an outline of the arguments followed by my analysis.

Before I begin, one more note on this analysis: I have not read the book yet. My reason for  this is I want to have it fresh in my mind as I do the analysis instead of coming to the text with a preconceived notion of what I remember it saying. Thus, these analyses will be based on a reading of the book chapter by chapter. I will end with an overall  review once I wrap up the book. See the end of the post for links to other chapters.

Preface- “Millions of Us”

Outline

Rob Bell begins his book with a fairly simple statement “I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us” (vii). Bell asserts that “Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories… it’s time to reclaim it” (vii-viii). He points out that some teachings about Jesus have caused people to stumble, and that others do not discuss the issue of hell for various reasons.

Analysis

Bell is to be commended for taking on an issue that many are afraid to discuss. It is true that some people and even churches will not delve into the topic of hell. It is important to talk about this doctrine, as it has been part of Christian teaching from the beginning.

Unfortunately, it seems that Bell has already made a methodological mistake. He implored readers to “please understand that nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching… That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years…” (x-xi).

There are actually two errors here. First, simple diversity on a topic doesn’t somehow automatically validate all positions. Just because there was diversity about the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t mean that the Arian position is somehow a valid theological perspective. Thus, it seems that Bell’s point here is moot. Diversity does not mean validity.

Second, historic, orthodox faith is not a diverse array of beliefs. The historic Christian faith has been define in universally acknowledged creeds which state what the universal church teaches on various essentials for the Christian faith. In fairness to Bell, he may be using “orthodox” to mean a denominational perspective, wherein the wider spectrum of beliefs is what may be considered “orthodox.”

Chapter 1: “What About the Flat Tire?” 

Outline

Bell starts with a story about a quote from Gandhi, which prompted someone to write “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Bell reacts to this with a series of questions: “Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?” (1-2). Elsewhere, he  focuses in on the individual again, asking whether it is true that the Christian message for someone who claimed to be an atheist during life has “no hope” (3).

He goes on to ask: “Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (2).

After focusing on the case of an individual’s salvation and whether there is an age of accountability, Bell focuses on the nature of salvation. “[W]hat exactly would have to happen… to change [an individual's] future? Would he have had to perform a specific rite or ritual? Or take a class? Or be baptized? Or join a church? Or have something happen somewhere in his heart?” (5). Bell notes that some hold that one has to say a sinner’s prayer or pray in a specific way in order to get saved.

Bell continues to contemplate what it is to be saved, and points out that some believe that it is about a “personal relationship” but that that phrase is never used in the Bible. He asks why, if it is so central to salvation, would such a phrase not be in the Bible? (10-11). Bell asks whether “going to heaven is dependent on something I do” and then asks “How is any of that grace?” (11).

Then, Bell looks at various Biblical narratives, including the faith of the centurion, the discourse with Nicodemus, Paul’s conversion, and more, providing a constant stream of questions and noting apparently different things said about faith and salvation (12-18).

Analysis

Bell is right to focus on the notion of one’s personal fate. It is indeed impossible to declare with certainty that a specific person is in hell. It is always possible that God called them to faith in Christ before they died, even at the last moment. We should never say with 100% certainty that someone is in hell.

Bell is also correct to raise doubts about various things that people allegedly need to do in order to “get saved.” His critique of such theologies is again based around questions instead of head-on arguments, but even that is enough to poke holes into works-based theologies.

There seems to be a rather major methodological error in Bell’s analysis of a “personal relationship” with God.” His argument against using this notion to discuss salvation is to say that the phrase is not used in the Bible anywhere. As noted in the outline, he asks a number of very pointed questions regarding this and notes that the phrase isn’t in the Bible. But there are other phrases not used in the Bible which are central issues for Christianity, like “Trinity.” A phrase not appearing in the Bible does not automatically mean it isn’t taught by the Bible. Things can be derived from Biblical teaching without having the exact phrase we use to describe that teaching appear in the Bible. Just to hammer this home, let me point out that the phrase “Love Wins” nowhere appears in the Bible. One using Bell’s methodology here might come to the conclusion that his book is unbiblical.

Just as an aside, I found it a bit of a methodological problem that Bell begins the book with a chapter that is almost entirely questions. He promises answers later, but for now it seems like all the reader is left with is a bunch of–make no mistake about it–leading questions. I think that leading questions are appropriate for teaching, but not so much for defense of a position.

Conclusion

So far, we have seen that Bell makes a few methodological errors, each at a central part of his chapter. First, he made the assumption that diversity of views means validity of all. We have seen that such is not the case, diversity of views does not put them all on a level playing field. Second, he argued that because a phrase isn’t in the Bible, it doesn’t seem to be Biblical. We pointed out that this would collapse Bell’s own work  because “love wins” is not found in the Bible. Even if it were, however, we noted that the mere absence of a phrase does not entail its falsehood or unbiblical nature.

However, we have also had several good things to say about Love Wins. In particular, his analysis of works-based systems of salvation was helpful. The fact that Bell is willing to discuss a controversial topic and ask the hard questions is also commendable.

Next week, we’ll analyze Chapter 2, which is about heaven. I look forward to your comments!

Links

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 2- I review chapter 2.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 3- I look at Chapter 3: Hell.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 4- I look at Chapter 4: Does God Get what God Wants?

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 5- I analyze chapter 5.

Love Wins Critique- I found this to be a very informative series critiquing the book. For all the posts in the series, check out this post.

Should we condemn Rob Bell?- a pretty excellent response to Bell’s book and whether we should condemn different doctrines. Also check out his video on “Is Love Wins Biblical?

Source

Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations of Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”

The interplay between worldviews and science fiction is very strong. In any writing, an author’s viewpoint will show through, but I think that it is particularly true in sci-fi. For in science fiction, the author is most frequently presenting a view of the world as it should be or as it should not be. The speculative future can be used as a foil through which the reader views reality in a new way. Often, science fiction will touch upon theological issues.

Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God utilizes science fiction in an extremely thought-provoking way to discuss the possibility and meaning of God in our universe. Before diving in I need to make to things clear. First, just because I analyze a book like this does not mean that I think that everything in it is theologically sound by any means (and believe me, it is not). Second, there will be extremely HUGE PLOT SPOILERS ahead. For those who are just interested in seeing how science fiction can explore faith issues, read on!

Fine Tuning

The most immediately striking and pervasive theme of Calculating God is that aliens show up on earth, and they believe in God. In fact, they take the existence of God to be a scientific certainty. The main character of the book, a paleontologist named Tom Jericho, is very skeptical throughout. Here’s the kicker, though, the aliens have been convinced of the existence of God through the evidence–specifically, the fine-tuning argument. Said argument is presented throughout the course of the book in interactions between Tom and Hollus, an alien paleontologist.

What is surprising is how much depth the book goes into while exploring the argument. Yes, Sawyer does fudge the argument a bit by allowing the aliens the possibility of a grand unified theory of science as well as a few other fictionalized aspects of the argument, but overall the fine-tuning argument he presents is very similar to the modern fine-tuning argument.

Not only that, but the characters Sawyer created go to great lengths to explore objections to and defenses of the fine tuning argument. For example, there is a discussion on p. 144ff (mass market paperback edition) in which Hollus and Tom discuss some objections to fine tuning. Tom is arguing against the probability of God:

“All the actions you ascribe to God could have been the doing of advanced aliens” [said Tom].

“There are… problems with your argument,” said Hollus, politely. “[E]ven if you dispense with the need for a god in recent events–events of the last few billion years; events after other conscious observers had emerged in this universe–you have done nothing to dispense with the relative strengths of the five fundamental forces [its science fiction, so there is an extra force], who designed the thermal and other properties of water, and so on. And therefore what you are doing is contrary to the razor of Occam you spoke of: you are increasing, not reducing the number of entities that have influenced your existence…”

The book is replete with debates like this, and the inevitable conclusion is that, shock of all shocks, God exists. I don’t say that sarcastically, I mean that I was genuinely surprised that the book affirmed God exists. But what kind of God?

God Exists… but?

It should be clear that in Calculating God, God is nowhere near the God of classical theism. In fact, one could almost argue that what Sawyer has offered here is a materialistic supplanting of God. The “god” of this work is essentially a super-powerful alien which is capable of swallowing the enormous energy output of a supernova, while also capable of designing our biology and fixing the constants of the universe during the early stages of the Big Bang.

God’s action is described purely in non-transcendent language. For example, the aliens confirm that god caused ice ages and mass extinctions on all the planets with intelligent life. The way this was accomplished was a matter of some speculation–perhaps God generated a dust cloud by using particles from across the galaxy to shield the planets from light and lower the temperature, or perhaps God redirected an asteroid or two to send them hurtling at the planets with life that needed a ‘jump start’ of evolution (146ff).

So why think that this is an image of god supplanting the classical theistic God? Well, clearly many who use the teleological argument are intending for it to point towards a creator God. What Sawyer has offered is a more naturalistic explanations of these events. Yes, there is a ‘god’ in the sense of a being capable of tampering with the very fabric of our universe, but that ‘god’ is itself trapped within the spatio-temporal boundaries of the known universe. In fact, god is said to subsist by recreating itself via a kind of reproductive method and passing one generation through a Big Crunch (think of a bouncing universe model).

Now what?

Calculating God offers a unique look at theology from a science fiction perspective. The fine tuning argument is presented in full force–even enhanced by some fudging of the science–and it leads to the inevitable conclusion that god exists. Yet this ‘god’ is not at all amenable to the god of Christianity or classical theism. So what should we do with this book?

Well, it is important to note that it is a work of fiction. The author clearly adds in some extra ‘fluff’ to make the fine tuning argument more powerful than it is (and I think it is quite powerful as it stands). And really Sawyer’s shoehorning in of a materialistic entity that is able to fiddle with physics boils down to hand-waving. Again, it is fiction, but it is important to note that Sawyer’s attempt to supplant the God of classical theism simply doesn’t work. Think of it this way: how would a purely physical being, however powerful, manage to transcend the physical universe in such a way as to literally rewrite the laws of physics? Extremely interesting science fiction? Yes. Compelling argument? No.

So where are we left? Sawyer does present the fine tuning argument in a way that is quite compelling, even when one strips away all the layers of fiction over it. It seems to me that, at a minimum, readers are left with a rock in their shoe: how do we explain away all this fine tuning without going beyond the cosmos? Sawyer’s own proffered answer, while entertaining fiction, remains that: fiction.

Other Issues

I have not yet even begun to delve into the depths of Sawyer’s Calculating God. The book covers an extremely broad array of topics related to science and faith as well as the secular-religious [false] dichotomy.  For example, he discusses abortion in a few places, and I think the view the characters favor is very inconsistent. There is also some clear portrayal of the religious “other” as only a fundamentalist who seeks to halt scientific advancements. Yes, Sawyer panders to Christians in a few places, but the overall look at religious persons seems to be fairly negative (apart from Tom’s wife).  I wish I could do justice to each of these topics, so I think I may follow this post up with another touching on more. For now…

Conclusion

Ultimately, Sawyer’s work is a simply phenomenal read. The amount of scientific, ethical, and religious issues upon which it touches is stunning, and readers will be forced to deal with the argument. Sawyer has done an excellent job using fiction for what I think it is called to do: inspire, entice, and force thought. Readers will be uncomfortable. The work will challenge people to really think about the arguments, and to think about the offered solutions.

Links

I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.

What would it mean if we discovered life? I have reflected on the possibility: Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets.

Our Spooky Universe- I make the case for the intelligent design argument for the existence of God, which is heavily used throughout Calculating God.

Check out my other looks at popular level books. (Scroll down to see more!)

Source

Robert Sawyer, Calculating God Mass Market Paperback Edition (New York: TOR, 2000).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Really Recommended Posts 2/8/13

postI could do these every day and still not catch up to the amount of fantastic posts out there. This week’s Really Recommended Posts feature “Love Wins,” natural evil, apologetics methodology, Tolkien, and more! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts (and recommendations!).

Love Wins Critique- Rob Bell’s book on hell (or lack thereof?) caused quite a stir when it came out, and it continues to be discussed widely. Check out this excellent multi-part critique of the book. You can access all 5 parts here.

Why Would God Allow Natural Disasters? – One of the hardest parts of the problem of evil is the difficulty of “natural evils.” Check out this insightful response to the problem.

Is the Cold Case Still Valid? – One of the debates within Christianity is about apologetics methodology. Should we be evidentialists or presuppositionalists or something else (spoiler: I don’t think we need to be either/or)?  This post discusses a critique of Cold-Case Christianity from an apologetic methodology standpoint. The book is phenomenal and I recommend it highly (see my review). See also J. Warner Wallace’s own response to the objection.

John Lennox vs. Richard Dawkins- A great video in which Lennox discusses science and Christianity, set against beautiful backdrops and quotes from the Bible. It also features some other excellent Christian thinkers. It’s worth the watch.

Loyal dog continues to attend mass at church where owner’s funeral was held- Just a heart-wrenching story about a loyal dog. Not apologetics related, really, but I enjoyed it.

Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories” continues to have massive influence today. Read it here online (or obtain the PDF file to read later). I found this post through another excellent list of links which is well worth checking out.

“For Greater Glory” – A look at a movie about Christianity in the face of violence

fgg-movieFor Greater Glory tells the story of the Mexican Government’s persecution of the Roman Catholic Church following its anti-catholic laws written in 1917. It follows the lives of various Cristeros, those Mexicans who revolted against the government in the name of religious liberty. The movie goes beyond being just another Western movie to exploring some extremely important sociological and religious themes. I won’t summarize the plot (you can find that here), but there will still be SPOILERS below.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good 

The general Enrique Gorostieta Velarde is clearly a “good guy.” He was, himself, no Christian and certainly not a Roman Catholic, but he stood up against those who would persecute people simply for their beliefs. He also did not stand for compromise: he wanted toleration to be granted to Roman Catholics. He fought for an ideal. Even if that ideal was not one of the faith he was fighting to defend, he felt that there was injustice, and fought against it.

It is unclear whether the historical Enrique Gorostieta Velarde ever became a Christian. In the film, it certainly make it seem as though in making his arguments, he came into a kind of faith in God. It also seems to be the case that the historical general had some political ambitions in that he desired to bring about a change in the Constitution to provide for more toleration.

Father Christopher is an example for Christians everywhere. He does not back down in the face of violence. He became a martyr by standing in front of men who were doing him violence and proclaiming Christ to them. His martyrdom served as inspiration for a number of people in the film.

The Bad

The anti-catholics in the film are clearly the “bad guys.” It is hard to argue with this. Anyone who chooses to attack and kill people simply because of their beliefs certainly qualifies for the catchall “bad guy” terminology.

Plutarco Elías Calles, the Mexican President, an atheist, decides that he must use a violent crackdown to keep the Roman Catholic Church from becoming involved in Mexico. He couches his oppression of the Roman Catholics in language of secularism. Instead of focusing upon their religion, he makes his argument based upon the rule of government: the Roman Catholics serve a ruler (the Pope) who is outside of this country, and so they are a danger to the stability of this country. Despite this “secular” language, the fact of the matter is that throughout the film, the government is viscous not just towards the Roman Catholics as people who serve a different master, but also simply as religious persons. Crosses  are burned and churches are destroyed. People are slaughtered during worship. It is a wholesale war against Christianity.

The Ugly

The film does not draw a hard and fast line between “good” and “bad,” however. There are also the ugly: those who, with good intentions, also commit atrocities. The Cristeros (those who fought for religious tolerance of Roman Catholicism) who commit atrocities were the “ugly.” Some felt they had to fight evil with evil, and committed horrible acts in the name of their cause. This is exactly what Christians are called to avoid.

Just War and Pacifism

The movie brought up the constant debate within Christianity between just war theorists and pacifists. It was surprising how lucidly it presented the issues. There were those in the film who refuse to use violence to fight against the government, citing Christ’s example of turning the other cheek. Yet even they become involved in getting supplies such as bullets to the Cristeros. On the other hand, there are those who argue for a just war tradition: when injustice is running rampant, should not Christians be among those who stand up against it, even if that calls for using force? The film never answers one way or another; instead, it leaves it to those watching to weigh the merits of just war and pacifism.

I tend to favor the just war theory myself. It seems to me that if a government like the Nazi Regime exists, then it is perfectly justifiable to use force to prevent them from perpetuating their evils.

Historically, according to more than one source I looked up, it is argued that the Cristeros actually had little impact on the overall outcome of the changes and toleration which came to Mexico. Instead, it was a deal negotiated by the Vatican with the Mexican government. Yet it seems for me historically perplexing as to why, exactly, the Mexican government would have desired a compromise if the Cristeros were not in operation. I speak here as no expert on the topic by any means. I’d be interested in reading your own thoughts.

The Elephant in the Room

It is hard to see this movie without thinking about the elephant in the room: atheists are in power, and religious people are killed. It’s a theme in the movie, but it also plays out time and again throughout human history: the French Revolution, the Soviet Union, the massacres of Armenians in Turkey, the Spanish Civil War, and more. Why is it that it seems, historically, every time a secularist government has taken power, the religious persons are the ones who suffer violence?

The answer to this vexing question seems to me to be quite clear: the notion that religion is violent and secularism stops violence is just false. Not only that, but the distinction between secular and religious is, itself, a mere construct with no ontological reality. I have argued this before when I discuss the Myth of Religion.

Conclusion

“For Greater Glory” is a movie that should be a must-see for those interested in worldview discussions. I could see it being used at an interfaith group, church youth group, or seeker group to generate discussion. The movie is definitely violent, and it shows the good, the bad, and the ugly unapologetically. It is for that reason that it must be seen.

What is perhaps the most shocking part of this movie is the fact that, prior to watching it, I had never heard or even imagined that Mexico had persecuted Christians. The violence committed against Christians by others in authority continues into the modern era, and it is truly depressing to know how little we hear about it. I can’t help sometimes but join with David and say “How long, Oh LORD?” (Psalm 13).

Links

I discuss the way that construct of “religion” has been used to denigrate an alleged “religious other” in my post: The Myth of Religion.

I have looked at a number of other popular movies. Check them out (scroll down to see more posts) in my movies category.

An interesting discussion of Christian pacifism can be found over at Glenn Andrew Peoples’ blog: Pacifism, Matthew 5, and ‘Turning the other cheek’.

SDG.

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