September 3, 2014

Thoughts on God's NOT Dead

OK, it took me awhile to watch it, but I finally did. And now a few weeks after watching it, I am commenting on it. However, for both of you who read my blog, you may note that my posting has been rather sporadic anyway due to my current schedule at work. So I apologize for my timing.

Now on to the movie. I loved this film. However, due to the ending, I only give it an A-. More on that later. My fear though is that many people are going to misunderstand exactly what the film is doing and who the film is for.
It is important to notice that the film is for Christians, and not for Atheists. If you show this film to an Atheist, they are likely to be unimpressed, and perhaps even a bit angered. However, this is more due to a misunderstanding of what the movie is doing. It is not offering arguments for God's existance, but offering counter arguments to the two main arguments we tend to get from Atheists. So in this sense, if the Atheist is angered, this is more likely due to them being unreflective of their own bad arguments, or to them misunderstanding what the film is doing (or perhaps at the bad ending, which I will get to. Promise).

So what are the two arguments being dealt with?

Counter Argument 1: Argument from Authority

This is what is really being countered by the main storyline. It is important to note that the Professor only offers this as an argument. Now from an Atheist perspective, this may seem to be a straw-man. However, there are many professors who do precisely this, and there is a lot of this form of bullying going on on-line.

So how does the movie counter? By exposing it as the fallacious argument that it is. Ultimately, an argument from authority is a fallacy because no human being, no matter their credentials knows everything and because ultimately it isn't the credentials that would make an expert right, but the evidence that had convinced that expert of their opinion. At some point, we need to examine the actual evidence.

The story does this with 2 plot moves. First, it portrays the professor as a bully. This is because that is what this argument is doing. It is bullying.

The second is by the Christian presenting good arguments. Now, he doesn't present them fully, but only an a kind of introductory way. This is because they are not really what the plot is about. Instead it about how this professor tries to defeat them merely by appeal to authority. I feel the apex of this counter-argument is with the Stephen Hawking quote. He is stumped by the appeal to authority, does his research, and counters with a second authority. After this, the appeal to authority is, within the movie, dead. We instead focus all of our attention on that second argument.

Counter Argument 2: The Argument from Evil

After the professor's defeat in regard to the Stephen Hawking quote, and his embarrassment, we get to the real reason why the professor is such a bully: he lost his mother. From his perspective, God would never let his mother die.

Now, there is a problem here that needs to be acknowledged. It is a common Evangelical Argument that Atheists are all simply hurt, and that is the only reason why the reject God. This is a bad argument and shouldn't be made. You shouldn't ask the question that the main character asks of his professor "What happened to you" to every Atheist that you encounter. It is belittling to their beliefs and, on the whole, ineffective for precisely that reason. Many Atheists are going to see that argument in the movie at this point, and that is unfortunate.

However, it isn't the professor's Atheism that causes the student to ask this question. It is his bullying. The professor is clearly angry. He hates Christianity and God and he demonstrates it by how he acts, not by what he espouses. Now the movie could still be advocating the above argument, but I do think that the character is justified asking the question when he does.

But in either case, this explicitly introduces the second argument: if there is suffering in the world, then God doesn't exist. While the student does present an intellectual answer to this, in the form of the free will argument, he barely gives any time to it. Instead, he merely asserts it, and then gets the professor to expose his own hypocracy. But we aren't left with too much of an answer.

Unless we broaden our scope to the rest of the movie. Most of the movie is a series of stories of individual people dealing with various problems. But if you notice, the theme of dealing with the evil in our lives is the common thread holding all of these stories together. Ulimately the counter-argument to the problem of evil isn't some intellectual argument, but the very fact that Christianity brings healing to the suffering. It is the multi-faceted nature of Christianity in reaching into those dark places of hurt and confusion and to hold and help us that is truly the answer to the question. Christianity doesn't ignore the question of evil. It solves it.

Two Criticisms

There are some criticisms that can be made of the film though that I feel are worth looking at. And warning: spoilers ahead.

First of all, due to it's conservative source, I am sure that it is going to be critiqued from minority voices. And, quite frankly, I don't think it does too well. When we look at it from a race perspective. every non-white character is a foreigner (with the exception of Michael Tate, but he's a celebrity). Now the Chinese student, the Arab teenager, and the African missionary are all portrayed in a positive light, but one could easily get a sense that Americans are all white from this film. Even the Arab father is portrayed positively in the sense that he is heart-broken by what he feels he must do. Indeed, the portrayal of Arab culture in that scene is quite accurate (though Arab culture is of course quite varied. I am assuming the family is Sunni). But from the perspective of an American minority, they could easily feel unrepresented.

The other critique would the professor's death. I could see many atheists being offended by how this was done. Indeed, I think it is a failure of the film. It isn't so much that they killed him, but that the atmosphere around his death was so happy. I get that it is showing that the professor is saved in the end, but it should have given the moment of his death more respect than it does.

Here is how I would of done it, and maybe you can see my point. I would have had the professor see the advert for the Newsboys and leave. Then I would show the scene with Duck Dynasty (though I wouldn't have used him, but whatever) talking about sending the text message. I then would have had the montage of the various texts going out, including the Arab girl texting her younger brother, but not having one go to the professor. The last one I would show would be the girlfriend sending her text to her brother. After she does, she sees the voicemail message, and exits the auditorium. We then cut to the professor walking down the street, with no music. We see the pastor and the missionary are there. Then the professor gets hit by the car, and the scene of his bed-side confession precedes the same, except continuously, and just the sound of rain. Then he dies, and we pause... with the pastor over his body, in the rain and his head down. Then the missionary puts his hand on his shoulder and starts giving his speach. As he does, we cut back and forth between him talking to the pastor, and the girlfriend listening the voicemail left by the professor (with the sound of the Newsboys coming in quietly). Then she sends the text message to him. The pastor hears it, picks up the phone, and reads the message. He smiles, and then we cut to the concert, which now can serve as a symbol of the celebration in heaven.

Do you see how that is more respective to the death? In the movie it feels, well, vengeful. There is no beauty in the moment. And it is at such a pivotal part of the movie (you know, the ending). Indeed, it feels like the promo of the film, that is the sending of the texts and of the Duck Dynasty guy, was more important than the story, and that is just a shame.


Overall, if we understand this movie as inspiring Christians to be bold and not to be afraid, then I have to say the film succeeds, in spades. It definately could have been better, but considering the low budget, I would say that it does an excellent job. I highly recommend the film, and pray that you forgive it for its imperfections.

It does a very good job at pointing us to good arguments for God's existance, as well as telling thought provoking and probing morality stories to inspire us to think more deeply about pain and suffering. I especially like the point about the pastor not being on the side lines, but being on the front-lines, just like any missionary. Life is complicated, and one cannot be expected to answer its questions with pat answers to pat questions. We need to look deeper into the fundamental human experience and see God there, and I am thankful that the film reminds us of that.

June 9, 2014

Essential Attributes Verses Relational Attributes

What I want to say here is going to be a bit technical, so please hold your horses, but I think that this is important in terms of a particular argument that I hear from Calvinists as well as a classic argument that one hears from Atheists. This has to do with the kinds of attributes a thing can have.

Lifting Rocks

Let’s start with the Atheist argument because I think it is more familiar. It runs as follows:

  • Can God create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it?
  • If He can’t, then He is not omnipotent since this is something that he cannot do.
  • If He can, then lifting it is something He cannot do, and so again He is not omnipotent.
  • Therefore omnipotence, as an attribute, is incoherent and God cannot be omnipotent (or God cannot exist though that would require some additional premises)

Now, theologians have consistently said that the phrase “create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it” is itself an incoherent phrase, and God is not beholden to be able to do something nonsensical. However, I think many have trouble seeing how this phrase is incoherent. We can see the incoherence by understanding the difference between essential attributes and relational attributes.

Simply defined, an essential attribute is a attribute something must have in order for it to be what it is. It is an aspect of its nature. A relational attribute is a attribute that something has in relation to something else.

Let’s take a rock. Let’s say the rock is five pounds. Is this rock heavy or light? Well, quite quickly you would say that it is light. You are able to lift it readily. However, imagine you are an ant. Now is it heavy or light? Well, clearly now it is heavy. But how can this be? We are talking about the same rock. The rock didn’t change; only the situation around the rock changed. So how could a attribute of the rock be different? The simple answer, according to the definitions given above, is that heaviness is a relational attribute, meaning that it is in relation to the power of the one attempting to lift or move it. But then, what is it that makes the rock heavy or light relative to me? It’s mass. Mass is not a relational attribute but an essential one.

Now this shows us the incoherence of the argument. Creation is the forming of something’s essence. As a process, creation is merely concerned with essential attributes, and does not form relational attributes. Likewise, the act of lifting is concerned with heaviness; it is not concerned with mass (Since I also could lift a rock of any mass given properly low gravity). Thus the two verbs in the sentence are acting on different attributes (creation --> mass | lifting --> heaviness). Therefore, the two verbs are themselves completely disconnected, and one cannot make demands on the other, making the sentence incoherent. God can create a rock of any mass and lift a rock of any heaviness. Therefore He is omnipotent.

Getting Justice

Now the problem with the Calvinist argument is much more subtle, but is answered by the exact same distinction. According to certain Calvinists (admittedly not all), God is justified in creating persons with the knowledge (and I would say intention) that He must condemn them because God needs to express His justice. Justice is a defining attribute of God, and if God did not express it, then He wouldn’t be God.

Well OK, but what kind of attribute is it? How do we determine whether justice is an essential attribute or a relational attribute? Is justice part of God's essence, or is it something God is in relation to something else? Well for that, let us return to the rock.

As you may recall, since it was two paragraphs ago, the mass is an essential attribute of a rock, since it is part of the rock's nature, and heaviness is a relational attribute of the rock, since it is defined in relation to something else (namely the power of the lifter and gravity). How did the atheist confuse these two things? Well because any relationship involves two entities, it is therefore connected to the attributes of those two things. So with heaviness, it is connected to the power that the lifter is able to generate and the mass of the rock (and of course the gravity). However, in everyday conversation, when we talk about relational attributes, we usually assume the context. For instance, we always simply assume Earth's gravity when talking about heaviness. Also we usually assume that the lifter is the one being spoken to, making the available power just as assumed Therefore, in everyday speech, heaviness is typically determined by the mass of the rock. Because the other referents are assumed, we think of it as a sole property of the rock even though in reality it is actually the rock's mass expressed within a particular context. Therefore, all relational attributes are basically the expression of an essential attribute within a particular context. We can therefore identify a relational attribute if it requires something else for expression and is reducible to some essential attribute. We can also identify an essential attribute if it requires nothing external for expression.

So let us turn this analysis onto justice. Is justice relational or essential? Well, immediately we see that this almost answers itself. The Calvinists’ own argument clearly shows that justice is relational, since it claims that the unrighteous are necessary in order for justice to be expressed. Well, since all relational attributes are reducible to some essential attribute, what do we reduce justice to? Again the answer is quite clear. Justice reduces to righteousness or goodness. In other words, justice is merely the expression of God’s goodness in the context of evil, just as heaviness was the expression of the rock’s mass in the context of the ant.

So where does this leave us in terms of assessing the Calvinist argument that God created us for the expression of His justice? Well for this, we will need to turn to another attribute of God: aseity.

Now the doctrine of aseity states that God is self-existent: He can exist by Himself and has existed by Himself and He needs nothing. Thus the Latins said that God exists “a se” or ‘himself’, hence aseity. So what does this mean? Well if God exists by Himself, then the only kind of attributes He must express are essential attributes. Indeed, we can say this stronger. We can in fact say that God must be able to not express any relational attributes. To deny this is to deny divine aseity. If God ever needs to express a relational attribute, then God needs something beyond Himself. In fact theologians of typically argued that God must exist as a Trinity in order for love to be an essential attribute of His, for He needs persons to love. Therefore God must express His goodness in all circumstances, but God also must be able to not express His justice. He must be able to exist without the existence of things to enact justice towards.

Does this mean that God is not necessarily just? Of course not. God is necessarily just within the context of evil. To ask if God can be just without evil is akin to asking if God can lift a rock so heavy He can’t lift it. It is meaningless. However, to ask if God could ever not be just when evil is present is like asking if the five pound rock could be anything but heavy to an ant. Therefore it only makes sense to ask is just within the context of evil, and within that context He must be because He is always just.

Therefore, considering the argument “God created wicked people for the expression of His justice”, we can draw two conclusions: one logical and one theological. First, the argument is incoherent. It is clear that justice as a concept is only valuable and meaningful in the context of evil, and cannot be used to justify the existence of evil itself. It is merely derivative of His goodness and does not require expression in of itself.

Second, the argument can make God dependent on His creation. If God must express any relational attribute, then He needs the existence of the thing it relates to, which in this case is us. What’s worse is God wouldn't require us per se, but would require our sin. This makes God not just dependent on humanity, but dependent on sin itself. Now a Calvinist might argue that God doesn't need to express justice, but that it is merely good for God to express justice. If that is true, then that good would have to be compared to the existence of evil itself. I fail to see how a world without justice because it is without evil is worse than a world with any amount of evil at all. Justification for the existence of evil must come from an attribute of creation itself which is not inherently evil but created for the good, such as free will. In the absence of just such a justification, Calvinism must either reexamine whether God is truly good, or better yet reexamine their Calvinism.

April 30, 2014

My Thoughts On The Ignorant

So last week I put up a post responding to John MacArthur's video on Inclusivism. However, I did not include my actual beliefs in that post, and I thought it might be good to write a seperate post describing what I personally think.

First, I want to state that I am not a Pluralist. I strongly reject the notion that all beliefs are created equal, and I believe that a response to the gospel in particular is soteriologically important. However, I am also not an Exclusivist, so I do believe that there are some who will be in heaven who had not heard the gospel in this life. Therefore, I will fall somewhere in the middle, making me an Inclusivist. However, I try to balance out a lot of different truths in the full development of my belief.

  • That God desires all to be saved (I Tim 2:3-4)
  • That God is lenient on those who are ignorant (Acts 17:30)
  • That evangelism brings salvation to those who hear it (Rom 1:16)
  • That faith in Christ is necessary for election, justification, and regeneration
So how do I compile this. First of all, there is a difference between election, justification and regeneration over against final salvation. Final salvation is an end state. When we are referring to that, we are referring to something that will happen in the future. When I say that I am saved, what I mean is that the good work which has been done in me is such that it guarantees salvation (given that I do not abandon it). 

Election, justification, and regeneration on the other hand are contemporaneous acts that God does on me which take place here and now.When I say I am elect, I mean that right now I am part of God's people. When I say I am justified, I mean right now I am legally in right standing with God. When I say that I am born again, I mean right now God is revived my dead spirit and that the Holy Spirit resides within me. All of these acts are necessary for salvation to ultimately be completed, and it is these acts which guarantees my salvation (not anything I do). 

So how does this apply to the ignorant? Well it seems to me that there is no way that one who is ignorant of the gospel can be regenerate, justified, or elect. Without the gospel, they cannot be in Him, and thus enjoy the benefits and the calling of representing God in the world through His people. However, it does strike me as possible that they can be confronted with the gospel upon death, and that in accordance to that response, be justified, regenerated, and elected. 

This would imply though a well tilled soil. I don't want to suggest that all ignorant persons will ultimately be given eternal life. Indeed, I would think that it is less likely, or else what is the point of evangelism other than giving them the Spirit within this life? But if a person was in fact responding to the drawing of the Holy Spirit, and lacked only exposure to the truth, such exposure would come in death.

After all, faith is about trust and submission to God. It is not about doctrinal affirmation. Doctrine is a sign of maturity; it is not a sign of salvation. So this would raise the question, what signs would we expect from such persons? Well I would suggest that it is not the same signs as a Christian. The fruit that we usually discuss from Christians are the fruits of the Spirit, but an ignorant person wouldn't have the Spirit since they would not be regenerate. Mostly, I would think we would expect a dissatisfaction with what their society says. In other words, they wouldn't be saved because they are a good Muslim for instance, but they would actually be a bad Muslim. Such persons would be responding to the internal draw of the Spirit, and would be lead away from the lies that are around them. They would be ready and willing to hear the truth, simply not knowing what the truth is.

This would be consistent with what Hebrews says, when it claims that someone who has never heard the truth would be better off than the apostate. This makes no sense with exclusivism, but it does with the position I laid out above.

Now I have had this basic view for many years. Generally the only argument I have heard against it is that it is the MacArthur kind. I don't think that I can prove this with Scripture, but I think it is consistent with Scripture and with what I know about God's heart. I am perfectly open to other theories though. 

April 25, 2014

John MacArthur on Inclusivism

So I recently watched this video:

There are a couple of things I would like to say in response, some positive and some negative.

First of all, MacArthur here is suffering from a confusion of terms. When he is responding to what the Catholic apologist and Pope said, and then goes on to define Inclusivism, what he actually defines is what is known as Pluralism. Pluralism is that doctrine which states that what one believes is irrelevant, but only how one acts or whether one is spiritually connected with God.

In this, I completely share in MacArthur's criticism. Truth matters. Pluralism fundamentally denies that there is any true gain in properly identifying and submitting to the one true God. Instead, it focuses on the individual's authenticity of belief and honesty. I do not think this is biblically defensible, nor do I think it is intellectually honest.

However, by calling this Inclusivism, he is able to avoid dealing with the claims of actual Inclusivism. We see this when he quotes the obviously Inclusivist quote from Billy Graham. MacArthur's primary argument against Graham's position is merely a guilt by association. But not only is such an argument fallacious on its face, but in this case the association itself is merely artificial.

Part of the problem of course is the actual definition of Inclusivism. Inclusivism is the belief that God will take into account the conditions and situations around those ignorant of the truth, and will judge them according. You may note a degree of vagueness in that definition. The reason for that is that Inclusivism is actually quite varied in its application, and often maintains a degree of mystery about how things work in regards to the ignorant. This variety makes it quite difficult to assess Inclusivism as a whole since some forms of it can border on Pluralism, while other forms of it border on MacArthur's own Exclusivism (that only those with full understanding of the gospel will be ultimately saved). Indeed, one can argue that unlike Pluralism or Exclusivism, Inclusivism isn't really a doctrine but an umbrella term for all those nuanced beliefs that fall between the two.

As such, it is easy for someone at the end of the spectrum, such as MacArthur, to conclude that all those who disagree with him basically believe the same thing. Indeed, this seems to be the only kind of argument MacArthur seems to know sometimes. However, it is also an erroneous conclusion.

April 18, 2014

A Good Friday

Let me rephrase what Jesus said to the rich young ruler: why do we call today good? I love Jesus. He comforts me, He takes care of me, and He defines my very existence. Yet today we celebrate the day that He died the most horrible and gruesome death ever known. So why do we call it good?

Let me share a bit of my life. A year and a half ago, my second son, Justin, was born. He had a beautiful face and unusually wise eyes for his age. However, even though he looked perfectly healthy from the outside, on the inside his lungs and heart were malformed. The Lord gave my wife and me 10 days with him, and then he left us. Out of all of the experiences of my life, it is the most painful and difficult experience I have ever had. And I will treasure it always.

There is only one word to describe those days we had with Justin: good. There is only one word for the anticipation of him being born even though we knew he would be sick: good. There is only one way to define the feeling of being able to hold him in my arms as he passed away: good. There is only one thing to say to explain what Justin’s short life was: it was most certainly good.

Good is not the absence of pain, or the immensity of happiness. It is the fundamental value of something. Justin’s life, though short, will forever be cemented in his mother’s and my hearts, and it is that which makes it good. When we look to the cross – the epicenter of human history, the suffering to end all suffering, the King of Kings carrying the guilt of the world – we look at something of immeasurable worth. It was not just another Friday, but for humanity it was the best Friday of history. And though it was a difficult time for Christ that day, I am certain He looks back on it and calls it good, for it was the day He bought His people.

So let us celebrate in mourning. Let us express our joy for the day of sorrows. And let us look up that hill and know that what was done was done for you, for me, and for the whole world. May you have a truly Good Friday. Amen.

April 14, 2014

Cosmic Software

I was thinking about the question of how does God's omnipotence work? Often Atheists attempt to challenge the notion of His omnipotence which such things as, "Can God create a square circle" or "Can God create a rock so heavy He can't lift it", but both of these arguments, apart from being sophomoric, assume a 1st grade definition of omnipotence as "God can do anything". A more scholastic definition would be closer to an inexhaustible reservoir of power implementable on both macro and microscopic scale.

But thinking about this, I wondered if there was a way to explain why this inexhaustiveness is true. Note how I am not saying infinite, for that would assume that it is quantitative (and a quantitative infinite is impossible). Instead, omnipotence is usually understood as a quality and is therefore not measurable or watt not.* It is often explained as being the result of His nature and His relationship to the cosmos.

So I thought of this analogy. Consider a computer programmer. This programmer designs a game where the characters in it have AI. This world that they live in would also have certain well regulated physics that they would be bound to. However, the programmer would not be bound to such physics. He would probably develop some kind of standard medium of interaction, like some kind of interactive HUD. However, this medium will have its limitations, and if there is something that he wants to do which is part of the standard medium, then he would still be able to go to the code level and change things.

So how would this appear to the simulated persons? Well, certainly his power would seem infinite. After all, it would take the same amount of energy for him to move a pebble as it would for him to move a mountain. Second of all, the universe would appear regulated, since there is a standard physics in the world. Also, the programmer would seem less active than his power would imply. This is because the standard way he interacts with the world is the HUD, and only goes to the code level when he has good reason.

This description strikes me as being very similar to how we experience God. Now I am not saying that our world is mere illusion, and this is merely a simulation. The analogy has to do with a creator vs creature relationship. But it seems to me that it is reasonable that God has same standard means of interacting with this world that He goes outside of in rare circumstances. Additionally, the power is similar in its unquantifiable nature. So I think this is a good way of looking at the question, and understanding how God relates to our world.

*Get it? "Watt not" instead of "what not"? It's a pun! No, not funny? Fine. Wattever.

April 5, 2014

A Call To Explaining Order

One of the things that I have been thinking about lately is the accusation of "God of the gaps". Now, I don't think that this is true of theism in general. Theism concludes that God exists for philosophical reasons. I also do not think this is true of Christians in general either, for we usually conclude that God exists for personal reasons. However, I think this might be true of the ID movement, and I also think that it is a fair accusation of Creationism as well. Let me explain.

There are generally two types of causes*. The first is agent causation. This is when an intentional being decides to do or makes something. The other is process causation. This is that set of things and actions that are necessary (or simply that were used) to bring about a desired end. First instance, if I wished to talk about the agent cause of the Mono Lisa, that would be Leonardo Da Vinci. This is important since it can answer questions in terms of the Mono Lisa's purpose and influence. However, if I wished to talk about the process cause of the Mono Lisa I would have to discuss Leonardo's painting techniques, palette, model, etc. This is important if we wish to replicate the Mono Lisa or its style. The first question is of minimal importance to the forger, while the latter is of minimal importance to the historian**.

When we say that God created the cosmos, what we are proposing an agent cause, not a process cause. Meanwhile, science is only capable of asking about process causation and has no input in regards to agent causation. This is fair enough. So where is the accusation of God of the gaps?

I think it is with the lack of concern of process causation that I find in many Creationists and some ID people. It is certainly true that once we have God as an explanation, there is little need to have process causation because we can simply say that God did it. Atheists complain that this leads to scientific laziness on our part. And here is where I think at least anecdotally they have a point. In my experinence, Creationists and IDers (and no they are not the same thing) tend to be content with merely criticizing the alternate position. Even the YEC tend to be content with finding evidence which supports their position with little interest in exploring deeper issues and answering unanswered questions. And yes this is a problem.

But where I disagree with the atheists is that it doesn't have to be this way. I think the fundamental reason for it is because we tend to be on the defensive, so I don't think it is laziness. But it is something that we should think about, and actively avoid. Yes, OK, God made the universe, but how did He do it? We really don't know. Mind you, the atheist doesn't know how the universe came about either, so it is not like they are on better footing. But we should be interested not just in the agent causation, but also the process causation. How did God create the cosmos? What was His mechanism? Can we get more detailed than Genesis 1? I think if we are to be taken seriously, we have to start at least asking these questions.

* Here I am using the world 'cause' to mean something which exists outside of something else which brings that thing to be, whether it be an object or an action. I am not using the more general meaning of explanation of a thing. It is also important to note that my names here are informal, and not to be taken as typical.

**Note that I said "minimal importance" not "no importance".