Abortion & Men

Below is a section from a longer article on debating abortion. It concerns the popular sentiment from a growing number within the pro-choice movement that men have no right to an opinion or that abortion is none of our business.

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This response is incredibly tiresome but I have yet to debate abortion without my opponent bringing it up. I was even told by another man that because we were men we had no right to an opinion on the matter. Ironically, this was stated right after he had given his own – “pro-choice” – opinion!

I have yet to be informed as to precisely how my having a penis is any hindrance whatsoever to my ability to rationally analyse the scientific evidence concerning the beginning of life, the philosophical question of personhood, the biological facts about life development, or issues of viability, disability, or mortality. In fact in plain experiential understanding of the realities of pregnancy and child birth I have discovered that I often far outstrip even many of my female opponents. I know what it’s like when it dawns on you that you’re going to be a parent. I know what it’s like to see my child for the first time at 12 weeks on a hospital scan. Due to certain complications I got to see many more scans over the months that followed and watched my son grow in the womb of my wife. I know what it’s like to be there every step of the way through a difficult pregnancy and a child birth hit by the complications of an ovarian cyst. My wife was very ill after giving birth, and was required to remain in hospital for a week afterwards. I may not have carried a life inside my body, but to think that this means I didn’t understand what was going on is pure unadulterated nonsense. I’ve lived it.

Furthermore, the idea that abortion has no effect on men is at best factually incorrect, and at worse a horrendous instance of the kind of sexism that would be censured if it was stated the other way around. Being a father is a big deal. Being a father has completely turned my life on its head. Utterly. When a woman contemplates an abortion it’s not just her own well-being and future at stake in the decision. The future of the man is at stake also. When his child is aborted do you really think this has no effect on a man? In fact, in the majority of cases when a woman has an abortion without her partner’s consent the relationship subsequently breaks down. We’re not robots. We’re not devoid of emotion. So please let’s have no more of this patronising nonsense that men should have no right to an opinion because we don’t know what it’s like or that abortion doesn’t affect us.

Of course, the argument leads to all manner of silliness: should only terminally ill people have a right to an opinion on euthanasia? Are disabled people the only ones qualified to dictate public policy concerning provision for disabled people? Are female doctors and surgeons incompetent when speaking on issues of testicular or prostate health? Perhaps all of us in the Western world should remain neutral on questions of third world aid since we don’t know what it’s like to be poor?

But, of course, the claim is merely a red-herring; little more than a lazy attempt to close off all debate, particularly when it’s going badly and a man is asking difficult questions of those who think it’s fine and dandy to take the life of an unborn child.

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Stephen J Graham

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Christianity: A Cold-House for Philosophers & Lesbians

This week the Christian singer-songwriter turned religious commentator Vicky Beeching has “come out.” The Independent printed a fascinating interview with her here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/vicky-beeching-star-of-the-christian-rock-scene-im-gay-god-loves-me-just-the-way-i-am-9667566.html

I’ve read the article and have been fascinated by some of the comments flying around cyberspace. From what I can gather most of the Twitterverse has rallied round, and I’m sure Beeching has been buoyed by the reception she has received. Of course, as is patently clear in her interview, Beeching knows all too well the suspicion and downright religious hatred that is often directed towards homosexuals by Christians generally and Evangelicals in particular. She was quite rightly nervous about how the news of her sexuality would be received.

Thus far, from what I can tell, she’s done well. Most of the reaction has been supportive, and many people were moved by the interview (if you haven’t read it stop reading my ramblings and read it), with some claiming to have shed tears at what she has struggled through from a very early age. I can’t claim to have shed any tears myself, but one particular episode she recounts had me almost shaking with rage (I’m from Belfast, we don’t cry, we just get mad!). At age 16 she attended a large rally, seemingly the kind of charismatic shindig where people are told that Jesus has the power to deliver you from all sorts of bondage. Being confused and guilt-ridden from feeling same-sex attraction and trying to live within a conservative faith community which condemns it, Beeching went forward for prayer only to find herself surrounded by horribly overzealous charismatics praying in tongues and trying to cast evil spirits out of her. This maddened me so much I was almost swearing in tongues.

When you read the interview you are struck by just how harmful and abusive certain forms of Christianity can be. And the question was inevitably raised in several comments: why on earth would you stay true to a church or a faith that has wounded you as much as this?

I have often pondered the same question in my own case. I’m not gay, but I’ve seen and been victim of my own fair share of ecclesiastical abuses. I spent 10 years in the horribly abusive charismatic movement, I’ve witnessed enough church abuses to last me a lifetime from manipulative, greedy preachers to the cultish behaviour of certain faithful church members. In my own case I’ve experienced rejection and alienation simply because I’m not an “easy believer.” Being a philosopher can be a difficult business when it comes to church. The kind of questioning and critical nature of the average philosopher isn’t often welcomed in churches. To a great extent I’ve lived in isolation from Christian culture, feeling I don’t fit in. I even deleted my Facebook account a few months ago largely because I was growing weary of other Christians I know. I was weary of having my faith constantly called into question because I didn’t sign up to the party-line on some given issue, or because I questioned the public comments of some fundamentalist preacher. More than that I felt many of these Christians were embarrassing themselves in front of my non-Christian friends with downright idiotic comments. In fact, one of my closer non-Christian friends remarked to me: “Do you not think you’re on the wrong side?”

And thus the question comes back: why bother with an institution or with a faith that has wounded you so much, that has caused so much grief to you?

Beeching has stated that she wants to be an agent for change in the church, and that she remains a passionate Christian believer. And that’s exactly the right answer, I think. In my own case I remain a Christian because I believe the central tenets of Christianity are true. It’s not about how it makes you feel, or about how the behaviour of other adherents affects you. At rock bottom the best (only?) reason to hold to any belief is if you are convinced of its truth. Some of the adherents of Christianity can be rotten, blinkered, petty-minded, bigoted, intolerant and about as much fun to be around as a grizzly bear with a migraine. In fairness, there are many also who are kind-hearted, compassionate, hard-working, helpful, fair-minded and self-sacrificing. But we’re not Christians because some Christians are nice. Nor should we abandon faith because others are nasty. Christianity – like any worldview or faith system – stands or falls on the grounds of truth. Insofar as Beeching is convinced of the truth of her faith she is quite right not to abandon it despite the horrendous suffering she has endured at the hands of those who really should have done better.

Stephen J. Graham

Stephen J. Graham

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Kids, Philosophy & Religious Objections

I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.” – Robin Williams (as John Keating), Dead Poets Society

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of philosophical education for children in schools, and was delighted to find this recent article written by Stephen Law, a philosopher at Heythrop College: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/religion-and-philosophy-in-schools.html

In this article Law defends the teaching of critical thinking skills to children against some common objections. What is most amazing to me is that we should have to defend the teaching of critical thinking skills at all. And yet there really are people – Law cites a popular British columnist and a leading Rabbi – who are very influential, should be intelligent, and yet who oppose it. Law points out that many religious people would be absolutely fine with such a programme of education, and yet (as I too find in my own research) those who oppose it are typically religious.

But let’s look at a few positives first. It’s my own view that philosophy is of such fundamental importance that we should consider it alongside traditional staples of education such as mathematics or English. At its most basic philosophy is about reasoning well about all manner of subjects – from every day run-of-the-mill issues to the big questions of life, existence, meaning and morals. It can help us to cut through nonsense and waffle, spot reasoning mistakes in the work of news reporters, journalists, politicians, and even teachers, as well as analyze complex concepts and entire worlds of thought. In a mini interview Guy Longworth, a philosopher at Warwick University, captures neatly the importance of philosophy: “Many important questions – including truths about morality, aesthetics, the very general structure of reality, and our relation to that reality – can be known, if at all, only through philosophy.”

I recently took an IQ test (130 if you’re interested, and even if not I’m bragging) which included questions that the vast majority of the population gets wrong, and yet in order to get them right all you need are basic reasoning skills – the sort that understands nothing more complex than modus ponens or modus tollens. Apparently the failure to spot elementary reasoning mistakes is widespread. I’m reminded of an article I read a number of years ago which reasoned that because most rapes were committed by men that therefore most men were inclined to be rapists. Quantifier shift fallacy. Logic 101. Of course, philosophers also make mistakes and propound invalid and unsound arguments (I’ve propounded a few myself), but rarely so glaring and basic, and are typically more willing to abandon (or able to correct) a poor argument when the mistake comes to light.

Reasoning skills are vital. Does anyone seriously suggest that a lack of reasoning skills is a useful thing? Is it a bad thing that children learn skills that will assist them in analyzing complex problems, read carefully, critically assess all kinds of ideas, and explore the big and most interesting questions of human existence? Is there some supposed problem with teaching children to express themselves with clarity and precision, or how to construct a solid case for something? Learning to think for oneself is an important part of maturity and intellectual growth, the skills for which can be taught from quite an early age. I routinely use Lego to explore philosophical topics with my 7 year old son – ranging from free will, to right and wrong, good and evil, and the existence of God (see my blog post here: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/category/lego/). And none of it goes over his head. Kids tend to respond incredibly well to philosophical issues and problems, and often display a creative intelligence and curiosity that, sadly, many adults have long since lost. Whilst some people claim that we run the risk of raising a bunch of argumentative brats, I would argue that when properly taught philosophy should increase one’s levels of intellectual humility. After all, in philosophy we’ll see incredibly intelligent opponents stating their case, we’ll come to appreciate that even seemingly obviously wrong positions aren’t quite as silly as they look at first, and that when dealing with ultimate questions the answers are rarely straightforward.

The strength of philosophy as a discipline is well known. For instance, recent studies in the US have shown that university students who have studied philosophy at undergraduate level exceed other graduates on standardized professional and graduate school admissions tests (such as the LSAT, GMAT and the GRE). Incredibly enough philosophy graduates even perform better on verbal skills than English graduates, and unsurprisingly outstrip all other graduates on analytical skills. The following link and the graphs contained therein illustrate just how strongly philosophy graduates perform in contrast to other disciplines:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/12/verbal-vs-mathematical-aptitude-in-academics/

And thus it’s really no surprise to find philosophy graduates in all manner of careers from law to banking to journalism. So, it seems that philosophy is massively beneficial (though, of course, the philosophers reading this will point out that perhaps it is the case that smart people choose philosophy, not that philosophy makes one smart!). This evidence isn’t conclusive of course, but it’s highly suggestive that it’s a great discipline to study and master if one wishes to excel at a range of skills that are valuable both in life and to potential employers.

As beneficial as studying philosophy seems to be, there are opponents; and as already stated these opponents tend to be religious. This baffles me – a “non-Calvinist Presbyterian!” I first attended university to study chemistry but found I wasn’t interested in it enough to study it. I decided to switch to what I was interested in: theology and philosophy. I remember the look on the face of a church elder when I told him I was going to study theology – sheer delight. I remember how his faced changed when I added “and philosophy” – sheer horror. “You’ve got to watch that philosophy!” was his advice. To be honest, in my experience, the study of philosophy is much more conducive to religious belief than studying theology. Theology was often dry and tedious, not to mention full of shockingly poor reasoning. I ended up approaching the subject primarily as a philosopher than a theologian, choosing theology modules that were more philosophical in nature – such as Christian thought and world religions, though admittedly the Old Testament always fascinated me. Philosophy, by contrast, was much more of an “adventure of the mind.” It was in my philosophy classes that I met authors who forever changed how I think – William James and Alvin Plantinga being particularly influential on me. Moreover, they changed how I think as a theist in ways that theologians rarely did (though I happily give a nod in the direction of NT Wright, one particular exception).

So what lies behind this suspicion of philosophy on the part of many religious believers? I suspect the biggest problem is simply ignorance – ignorance of what philosophy does. Or perhaps ignorance that considers it synonymous with rabid atheism. Ignorance too of the fact that there are many philosophers who are both religious and of the highest academic standing: Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig, Evans, Davis, Pruss, Helm, Hick (deceased), Wolterstorff, Alston (deceased), McGrew, Stump, Leftow. So many, in fact, that atheist philosopher Quentin Smith complained that God is alive and well in His one academic stronghold – philosophy departments.

But I think more than ignorance is at work. I detect a strong level of fear: the fear of risk. What if we study philosophy and it turns out that the case for God crumbles and atheism appears to be the truth? Some Christians prefer the discipline of apologetics to philosophy of religion for this reason. Apologetics is about defending what one believes. Philosophy of religion is about seeking the truth wherever that may lead, even if it leads away from the beliefs that one currently holds. There’s no real way to assuage such fears – such a risk will always be present in any truth seeking discipline. But as a theist I honestly cannot imagine being in the position of having to give up theism. It’s a risk, sure, but a small one, I’ve discovered. In any event if one is sure of one’s faith what is there to fear of any discipline that seeks to discover truths about reality?

The teaching of philosophy would be greatly beneficial to children. So important, I think, that the fears of a largely religious minority should not have veto power over it. Thus it’s difficult to disagree with Stephen Law when he concludes: “all children should, without exception, be encouraged to think critically – and thus philosophically – even about the moral and religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom. Religious parents should not be able to opt out.”

Stephen J. Graham

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Theism, Atheism & Confirmation Bias

Thomas Nagel once commented: “I want atheism to be true. . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Some theists (most notably James S Spiegel), in a bout of apologetic zeal, have attempted to gain some mileage out of such comments: “See! Atheism is wishful thinking! Nagel doesn’t believe in God because he doesn’t want there to be a God!” This may well be true, but allow me to balance Nagel’s comments with some of my own. I am a theist and I want theism to be true. It isn’t just that I believe in God and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is a God. I want there to be a God; I want the universe to be like that.

So I guess we’re even.

Moreover, I don’t think I’m alone in such sentiments. I’ve lost count of the number of theists in general – and apologists in particular – who claim that if atheism is true then it’s bad news for humanity. Typically the claim is that if atheism is true then our lives have no meaning or value or purpose, and that there is no objective morality. I’m not convinced that there would be no meaning to our lives if atheism is true, but I’m sympathetic to the claim that morality appears difficult to ground objectively in an atheistic universe. In any event, whatever we make of such claims the point is that it suggests that most theists do not want atheism to be true.

Thus I suspect that there’s a fair bit more wishful thinking going on than protagonists on either side care to admit. And that’s OK: we’re merely human. We aren’t the impassable, emotionally cool, wholly rational agents we may often paint ourselves as. We’re a complex of rational, emotional, psychological, historical and cultural factors that make us what we are, and, crucially, that greatly influences – maybe even determines – much of what we believe.

Seemingly our capacity for self-deception is great indeed. The heart is deceitful, as the prophet says, in an observation that was way before its time. None of us should kid ourselves that wishful thinking or what is commonly referred to as “confirmation bias” has no jurisdiction or influence in our own minds. I regularly come across apologists whose only familiarity with atheistic thought is what they read in apologetic works – where, of course, it’s being critiqued and rejected. Alternatively it’s not uncommon to find popular atheists mocking a great mind such as Alvin Plantinga despite never having read a single significant work written by him. Or take the phenomenon of atheist versus theist debates, who you reckon won often depends on who you agreed with before the debate ever took place. For instance, it’s my view that William Lane Craig pretty much comprehensively defeated both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris when he debated them, and yet there are many atheists whose contrary opinion is just as adamant.

The phenomenon of wishful thinking – believing what we wish to be true, or gravitating towards what we hope is true – isn’t a new one but it is only relevantly recently that the scientific investigation of the phenomenon took off, influenced largely by the work of the social psychologist Ziva Kunda. Kunda argued that our prior emotional dispositions influence how our minds process information. We are more likely to be critical of bad news than good news. When we read an argument for something we already hold we seem to do so much less critically than when we read a piece of work which runs contrary to some cherished belief of ours. In the latter instance our sceptical dial is often cranked to the max. When it comes to information or evidence which agrees with our worldview or coheres well with our current noetic system we are much more likely to accept it.

There are numerous studies which affirm the phenomenon of confirmation bias. In one study it was discovered that people scoring low on IQ tests tended to give more credence to articles criticising the useful and validity of such tests than those who scored higher. We like to think we’re smarter than perhaps we are; when the evidence contradicts us so much the worse for the evidence!

Another study looked at the correlation between climate change denial and political persuasion – why those who are right-leaning free-market advocates are less likely to believe in manmade climate change than leftists. John Cook, of the University of Queensland, concludes: “For supporters of an unregulated free market, regulating polluting industries to reduce global warming is so unpalatable that they are far more likely to reject [the idea] that climate change is happening.”

There are numerous theories as to why we are so prone to wishful thinking and confirmation bias. For those who have studied long and hard and come to a conclusion about some matter it can be disconcerting when we are presented with some piece of strong evidence which we have heretofore overlooked. It’s not easy to let go of years of work, to acknowledge that one was wrong all this time. How often, for instance, do academics change their minds about significant matters? We like to think we are right. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Contrary evidence can be disconcerting, confusing, and worrying; it may make us feel very bad.

One thing I find fascinating about so-called “deconversion stories” is the amount of pain and upheaval losing one’s faith can bring. In many cases it’s a loss of an entire social life and support network. Many take years to finally accept that they no longer believe, living in self-denial before making the break. Of course the same can be found in conversion stories. Mortimer Adler, who converted very late in life, speaks of years of rejecting religious commitment primarily because it didn’t suit his life and would require a radical change in how he lived.

One of the features of the question as to whether or not God exists is that it’s more than an academic question. If, say, the Christian God exists that fact would be something of a terribly inconvenient truth for many people. It would mean a change of life for many that they would not be willing to make. Of course it can be equally convenient for a theist to hang onto belief regardless of what evidence comes against it. For many people their belief in God is a comforting one. Believing that when they die they will go to heaven gives them strength to face their demise. Their entire social life may revolve around church. So, if faced with conclusive evidence against their beliefs understandably they won’t easily let go of them.

Some scholars have argued that wishful thinking and confirmation bias might even have been of biological or evolutionary advantage in some cases, at least when it comes to matters which aren’t of immediate survival concern (wishful thinking that we aren’t being chased by a tiger when in fact we are wouldn’t have lent itself to human thriving!). Believing certain things that make us feel good, or rejecting beliefs that threaten to make us feel bad, anxious or depressed, certainly has a stress reducing effect. Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett argue for the evolutionary advantages of wishful thinking and confirmation bias along these lines.

Whatever the science of the matter the fact appears clear: we are very prone to such biases. The Scottish philosopher David Hume once remarked that reason often becomes a slave to our passions. Perhaps when our heart doesn’t want to accept X our head will try extra hard to resist X, even if that means ignoring the evidence for it almost entirely. In his influential essay “The Will to Believe,” William James said “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” The point is that our will is not neutral when it comes to belief formation.

But of course how we feel about X doesn’t determine the truth of the matter. So what are we to do? What steps can be taken to lessen the influence of biases in the formation of our beliefs? Perhaps simply being aware of how prone we are to biases can help weaken their influence over us. Alternatively we can make a conscious decision to read a certain number of books or articles which run contrary to our cherished beliefs. If you’re an atheist and your only knowledge of Christian philosophy comes through articles on Internet Infidels, then make it your purpose to read some Christian philosophy directly. Read Plantinga’s influential essay “Reason and Religious Belief,” for instance. Are you a young earth creationist? Then perhaps read Richard Dawkins’ book “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Don’t just stick to Ken Ham’s summary dismissals. Write articles and essays and submit them to sceptical friends for criticism. Another Christian might give you glowing praise for your article on the evidence for the resurrection but a sceptic will force you to face arguments, evidence and issues that your Christian friend probably won’t. Or perhaps play Devil’s Advocate against yourself or those who agree with you.

Above all conduct yourself with a dash of grace and a dollop of humility. The person you critique may indeed be the victim of cognitive biases or wishful thinking, but it might easily be the case that somewhere in your own mind you too are a victim.

Stephen J. Graham.

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The Most Powerful Theistic Argument?

JW Wartick, a graduate in Christian apologetics from Biola university, has written an article that appeared retweeted in my Twitter feed this week in which he seeks to outline what he thinks is the most powerful theistic argument. You can find the full article here: http://jwwartick.com/2014/07/07/kalam-are/

For Wartick the most powerful argument for theism is “The Argument from Religious Experience” [ARE], and he seems to think it’s head and shoulders above the rest. Wartick rightly points out that – like most arguments – the ARE can be stated in different forms. Here is the form Wartick provides, (actually this is a revised form after realizing his initial argument was question-begging):

1. Generally, when someone has an experience of something, they are within their rational limits to believe the experience is genuine.
2. Across all socio-historical contexts, people have had experiences they purport to be of a transcendent realm.
3. Therefore, it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.

Now, to be fair to Wartick he has only written a blog article so there isn’t time or space to flesh out all the details. However, even allowing for this fact the argument strikes me as desperately weak at best, if not fatally flawed. I want to raise five problems with what Wartick presents.

Firstly, in an article concerning what is the best theistic argument it’s odd that Wartick doesn’t actually outline what this exclusively theistic argument is. He prefaces the argument he does give with these words: “Here’s a way to formulate [the ARE] to merely defend a transcendent reality.” This, then, is not an argument for theism. Even if the argument he presents is a good one (it’s not, see points 2-5 below) an atheist could affirm every single step and remain just as much an atheist as he was before. Buddhists, for instance, are typically atheistic and would affirm this argument’s conclusion. Other atheists might agree that believing in a transcendent realm is rational even if they themselves don’t believe it. What use, to theism, is an argument that could easily be affirmed by an atheist? Take the Kalam cosmological argument by way of contrast. If valid and sound the KCA brings us to an immaterial, timeless, spaceless, incredibly powerful personal creator of the universe. Wartick’s argument doesn’t even give us the actual existence of a “transcendent realm”, it simply concludes that it’s “rational to believe” such a thing exists. Now, Wartick might say this is only one formulation of the ARE, but then why in an article outlining “the most powerful theistic argument” does he use such a weak formulation? Why not state what this powerful theistic argument is? As it is the reader is left totally in the dark. Moreover, it’s rather bewildering why Wartick concludes with “I think my overall point stands: The ARE is the strongest argument for theism,” when in fact he hasn’t even presented any argument for theism at all.

In any event we can but analyse what Wartick has given us, which the rest of this article will do.

The second point of critique is that the argument as presented isn’t even valid. Wartick realizes this, saying: “The argument leaves a few spaces to fill in for the sake of making it deductively valid, but we’ll just look at it as it stands now.” This is a curious statement indeed! The argument is invalid, but let’s consider its merit anyhow? It has no merit, it’s invalid! As it stands it’s little more than 3 dubiously connected sentences on a page. Claiming to be painting in broad brush-strokes is no excuse for presenting an invalid or incomplete argument. I don’t wish to be uncharitable but it smacks of laziness.

Thirdly, the argument turns on what strikes me as an incredibly vague term: “transcendent realm.” What does this term mean and what does it refer to? Wartick never tells us, and again it’s such an important phrase that the lack of space is no excuse not to define it. Later in the article Wartick claims that “when millions of people say they have experienced a transcendent realm, prima facie it is rational to believe them.” This is the so-called principle of testimony. Now, I’ve no problem with the principle of testimony itself but Wartick is flat-out wrong to claim that people say they have experienced a “transcendent realm” (whatever that means). The literature on religious experiences is massive, but it’s rare to find people claiming to experience a “transcendent realm.” Christians typically claim to experience the grace of God or the love of Christ. Hindus claim to experience some sense of oneness with “the Real.” Mormons experience a burning in their bosom. And so it goes on. It seems to me that Wartick is taking massively diverse experiences and sticking them all in a box labelled “transcendent realm,” a term suitably vague to cover the fact that many of the experiences contained therein have precious little in common with each other, with many downright incompatible. Of course this is all before we address the thorny difficulty in moving from what some person claims to have experienced to what – if anything outside their own mind – they did experience.

Fourthly, the argument’s conclusion is also vague. The first premise is singular – when a person experiences something then they can prima facie trust their own experience. Then in premise 2 Wartick refers to people who have had experiences of the “transcendent realm.” However, in the conclusion he simply says “Therefore it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.” But who are we talking about in the conclusion? Are we talking of the people who have had such experiences? Or are we talking of those who haven’t had such experiences? Again Wartick doesn’t tell us, and again there’s no excuse for not doing so. Presumably it’s the latter since this is intended as an argument with powerful apologetic potential. However, in addition to adding to the argument’s invalidity, this presents further problems for the argument. Which brings me to…

Fifthly, the argument is of very limited use for those who have never had such experiences (and of course the argument is hardly necessary for those who have!). In the comments section of his article Wartick states: “[the ARE] may provide evidence to those who have not had the experience by way of the principle of testimony.” [Emphasis mine]. This is not nearly good enough! Surely any apologetic argument has to do a little bit more than maybe provide someone with some evidence, especially if we’re talking about incredibly powerful theistic arguments. The problem Wartick faces if he tries to make his argument conclude to something more specific than some ill-defined “transcendent realm,” is that religious experience is so diverse that it’s understandable that the skeptic will stand scratching his head wondering who on earth to believe. If he believes the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Christians, and all the various species of these faiths, to take him to belief in a “transcendent realm” it seems that he will have to rule out most of these experiences when it comes to believing in something more specific – say, a triune God, unless Wartick would suggest that the experiences of the Hindu are in some way evidence for the trinity? Are we to accept the Buddhist’s experiences as evidence for a transcendent reality only to rule them out later if we narrow the argument to the existence of a personal God? That sounds like a dubious pick and mix approach to me.

The principle of testimony which Wartick draws on is fairly uncontroversial and unproblematic in the world of physical reality, but it’s incredibly difficult to apply to otherworldly contexts in which there is widespread disagreement amongst those who claim to have had such experiences. This is the only objection to the ARE that Wartick actually addresses, albeit doing little more than glossing over it. Wartick rightly points out that claim X and claim Y don’t “cancel each other out.” True, but who is the skeptic to believe? For the person lacking any such experiences it’s understandable that he should throw his hands up in despair and join Hume in a game of backgammon. This isn’t to dismiss everyone’s experiences as false – though Wartick would have to overcome powerful psychological and cultural explanations for religious experience before he could construct a plausible argument – it’s simply to point out that such an argument faces massive difficulties in the diversity of reports of religious experiences.

Wartick’s example on this point concerns two people giving different descriptions of a murder suspect in court. The first describes the suspect as a “tall, dark male” and the other describes him as a “pale, short male.” Both descriptions could be correct from the point of view of the different people giving them. With this example I fear Wartick isn’t taking the differences in religious experiences nearly seriously enough. It’s more like having multiple witnesses: one claims he saw a tall man, another saw a group of teenaged girls, a third that a dog savaged the victim, a fourth that the man collapsed as if with a heart attack, and a fifth that he committed suicide. Wartick doesn’t deal with this problem except some waving and hand gesturing in the direction of “the relevant literature.” However, I wonder does Wartick believe the experiences of the following are veridical: Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, Hindus, Theravada Buddhists, Shamanists, Wiccans, Druids and Satanists. Do they all just experience God (or the transcendent realm or the Ultimate or the Real) from their own point of view, as his witness analogy would suggest? John Hick would’ve probably welcomed such a conclusion, but he was a pluralist – is Wartick?

In another article (http://jwwartick.com/2012/04/02/re-usefulness/) Wartick is much more modest about what the ARE can achieve: “it seems that we are justified in being open to the existence of things beyond the mundane, everyday objects we observe in the physical reality. If people from all times and places have had experiences of things beyond this everyday existence, then it does not seem irrational to remain at least open to the possibility of such things existing.” [Emphasis mine].

However this is now a long way from a powerful theistic argument. If in fact there is a powerful theistic argument from religious experience Wartick has done little to cast light on what exactly it is.

Stephen J Graham

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Football, Atheism & The Problem of Evil

What do football commentators and atheists have in common?

Watching the World Cup I’ve noticed that commentators and pundits suffer from the same confusions that many atheists suffer from. Let me explain.

It’s half time in the match and the pundits are in the studio drooling, ready to share their wealth of footie wisdom with viewers. And in loads of games so far I’ve noticed that one particular irritating habit that seems to afflict even the most experienced and sensible pundit (say, the ones with an IQ above 80) is the tendency to add up all the chances a particular team had during that half – say 5 chances – and declare that the score could therefore be 5-0 by now. Arrrrgh!! No! no! no! no! no! Don’t they teach you anything about causation in Commentary College?!

“If Holland had taken all their chances they would have been 3-0 up by now.”

Whilst the average footie fan might be nodding in agreement, this claim should strike the more philosophical footie fan as patently fallacious. Let’s say Holland missed easy goal scoring opportunities at 5 minutes, then after 7 minutes and then again at 45 minutes, right before the end of the first half. Is it the case that Holland really should be 3-0 up by now? I don’t see how we can make that claim at all. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute the game will have turned out very different. The set of events leading up to Holland’s chance after 7 minutes is dependent on earlier events – which included the miss after 5 minutes. Had Holland scored in the 5th minute then the stream of events leading to the chance in the 7th minute would not have occurred. In fact, maybe scoring so early would have caused a change of tactics in the opposition such that it’s very possible that had Holland scored in the 5th minute they may have actually conceded several goals shortly after. We have no way whatsoever of knowing given the complicated matrix of events. Every writer of science fiction understands this point: you change something in the past then you change – often radically – how events pan out after that point.

What has this got to do with atheism? Well, it’s related to an approach some atheists take to the problem of evil. If only God had removed all the Ebola viruses or all the flu viruses, or all the hurricanes. He’s all good and all-powerful, right? Then couldn’t he quite easily remove some evils at least and therefore make the world a better place?

This sort of all too frequent comment makes the same mistake as the football pundits. It assumes that you can make some change and that everything else will just continue on as it would have without the changes. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute they still would have had the same opportunities in the 7th and the 45th – If God removed the Ebola virus everything else would be just as good and we have the added bonus of no Ebola virus. But of course, we have no way to know this at all. If we have two different worlds – W1 and W2 – and God removes the Ebola virus from W1 in 2002, then W1 is now a radically different world from W2. The changes that now occur in W1 makes it impossible to say whether this world is better than W2, and only a simplistic football commentator approach to causation and the interconnection of events could lead us to claim that it is. Just as its possible that Holland scoring in the 5th minute could have lead to their defeat, so it’s possible that by removing the Ebola virus from W1 actually leads to a worse world.

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Football, Atheism, and the Meaning of Life

As I enjoy a break from my writing projects to watch the World Cup I’ve taken to spending my evenings after my son goes to bed lying on the sofa watching 22 grown men running around after a piece of inflated leather. My wife thinks it’s really rather pointless, lacking any important goal. What does it matter? Who really cares who wins? Will it make any difference to the world whether Brazil or Argentina or Holland wins?

Good questions, and worth tackling. What is the meaning of football? What’s the point of it? People get paid millions play, but isn’t it all so pointless? “Yay my team won!” So? “They got a trophy!” So? “They’re now the most successful team in the world!” So? Does it really amount to anything? Records are broken. Even legends will be eventually forgotten – witness the growing number of young people who haven’t got a clue who The Beatles are, who have substituted the Fab Four for One Direction.

And of course there seems to be something innate in us which makes us ask this very question of our own existence and take a shot at an answer. We’re born. We engage in years of intensive education. We try to get the best job we can, earning as much money as we can, and get a bit of enjoyment along the way. All the time we age, our bodies weaken, and before we know it it’s nearly all over and all that’s left is a young person inside an old body wondering what the hell happened. Before we know it our lives have taken a dive and we’re in a box. And is that it? Are we just worm food after that? What if atheism is true and there is no greater purpose to life? If atheism is true isn’t life just as meaningless and purposeless as watching 22 grown men chasing a ball?

What if atheism is true……..

We know that eventually our sun will burn up our planet. We know also that the universe itself will “die” as, in all probability, it expands and becomes more dilute, cold, desolate and pitch black. All the genius of humanity will be forgotten. Every witty invention will have gone to the wall. Everyone cured of illness by the finely honed skills of a doctor will have succumbed to death, and their doctors along with them. Every piece of art destroyed. Every building turned to dust and scattered. Every river dried up. Every mountain flattened. Every star burned out. The Milky Way galaxy will have spiralled out of existence. The sombrero galaxy will be ripped apart and broken. The Big Dipper will have dipped. Taurus hunted down and destroyed. The Gemini twins torn asunder never to be reunited. The universe will end in blind pitiless indifference to everything humanity ever was or did or saw. And there is no one to save us.

Of course, this rather foul picture is true on atheism only. This will almost certainly be the end of all things if there is no God to intervene. I’m no fan of atheist and therefore I don’t believe this will be how it all ends. But what if atheism is true? Is life therefore meaningless, purposeless and valueless? Can we do nothing but despair? So much of existentialist literature can be summarized as the despondent cry “God does not exist! What on earth are we to do now?!”

Some theists even attempt to make arguments from the meaning of life to the existence of God, which typically take the form:

1. If God does not exist then life does not have any meaning.
2. Life does have meaning.
3. Therefore God exists.

As a theist whose belief in the existence of God is amongst the strongest beliefs I hold I have to confess I don’t find arguments concerning the meaning of life to be of much value. The first half of this argument doesn’t appeal to me. True enough if God does not exist then there is no “transcendent” meaning, no eternal purpose to life. If, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” then in the absence of God our lives no longer have this purpose. But what is supposed to follow from this? Does it follow that nothing has any meaning or purpose or value? William Lane Craig reckons that because – on atheism – man ends in nothing then he is nothing. But is that correct?

It strikes this theist as flat out false to say that if atheism is true then nothing has any meaning, purpose or value. I can imagine someday waking up after an argument with the World’s Most Intelligent Atheist” who has managed to help me see the error of my theistic ways. I pay the penalty of the encounter and I’m forced to admit that there is no God after all. Now, would it follow that in this new universe I inhabit that nothing has any meaning or value or purpose? I really don’t see how. On my first day on team atheist I wake up and go to see my son in his bedroom. He’s no longer fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, but he’s still my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. I read him the next thrilling chapter in Harry Potter and the enjoyment we both get from that time together remains just as strong. I don’t see why such moments require an external source to give them meaning or value or purpose.

It seems to me that much of what we experience in the world is experienced by us as intrinsically good; meaning good for its own sake and not for some end. I might go for a stroll along a sunny seaside. I walk on particles of sand scattered randomly by a universe that didn’t have the pleasures of my feet in mind when it threw the beach into existence. The sun warming my skin isn’t there for my benefit. The wind blowing through my hair doesn’t care if I find it annoying or pleasant. And yet as I stroll along the experience may well be an incredibly pleasurable one. Moreover, this isn’t an experience for some end. It’s not that there’s some transcendent meaning behind it. It’s simply pleasurable. It’s enjoyable. I like it.

In the same way if atheism is true and there is no greater purpose to our life, nothing that stretches into eternity, no divinely given mission or goal, there still remains this phenomenon which we might call the joy of mere being. This is the enjoyment we derive simply from being alive, from living in and enjoying our little corner of the universe. From watching a sun-set, or hiking up a hill. It’s the sheer intrinsic pleasure of sitting with my son in a tent in the back garden and listening to the rain outside while we eat chocolates and sweets in abundance. We have an entire universe at which to marvel, and no prohibition on the extent to which we may explore it.

Moreover most of us are blessed with family and friendships. I’d hazard a guess that for the vast majority of human beings on the planet the greatest moments in life are shared with other people. And again, these experiences needn’t have any transcendent meaning. We simply enjoy them for their own sake. I don’t see why such experiences would be meaningless or somehow devoid of meaning or value in an atheistic universe. Most of these experiences are completely self-contained – they don’t require anything external to them to make meaningful or valuable.

And whilst it’s true on atheism that some day it will all end and be forgotten, it is still very real to each of us. As Marcus Aurelius reminds us we live only in the present; the past has gone, the future is not yet with us. All we ever really possess is the present moment and thus it doesn’t matter whether we live for eternity or merely 70 years. Even if one day I will be extinct and forgotten by a universe that doesn’t care, my life now is worthwhile – to me and to many others. Life is worth living for its own sake.

Which brings me back to the World Cup. It might be nothing more than a bit of rather pointless play. But like life itself it’s enjoyable, it’s engaging, and even inspiring. So even if it might all really be for nothing in the end it was worth it at the time, and if you’re reading this you can be glad that the final whistle has not yet sounded.

Stephen J. Graham

***

For a meaningless task try to spot the football references/terms in the article :)

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Internet Atheists Say the Darndest Things

An atheist I follow on Twitter recently tried to get #atheism trending by getting as many atheists as possible to tweet the silliest things they’ve heard theists say. I confess I rolled my eyes, here we go again with another caricature fest – arrogant atheists versus stupid theists. But, I guess it’s really just a bit of fun. As my own writing has somewhat stalled with the arrival of the football World Cup I thought I’d keep the blog ticking over with my own experience: the silliest things I’ve ever heard from internet atheists.

In no particular order:

1. In one instance I presented a form of Plantinga’s ontological argument for the existence of God. I admit, I was just trying to be a smart-ass and presented it to baffle more than to enlighten (and who hasn’t been baffled by ontological arguments?!) But I didn’t expect the response I got. I was told the argument was invalid. I was certain it was logically water-tight so I asked where my atheist interlocutor saw a flaw. He told me premise 2 didn’t follow from premise 1 and premise 4 didn’t follow from 1-3. Seemingly my opponent on this occasion knew diddly squat about how arguments are constructed: premises do not have to follow from other premises, but rather the conclusion must follow from the premises. So much for his claims to philosophical sophistication.

2. My favourite ever Twitter atheist was an Australian lawyer who attacked everything I wrote about theism with venom. Nothing wrong with that, but I asked him what arguments for the existence of God he had considered and found wanting. His response was that he had considered all of them, and in fact had refuted every single argument ever for the existence of God on his blog site. I wonder do professional atheist philosophers know of this incredibly talented Aussie lawyer who has – as a hobby when he’s not in the court room – managed to refute every argument ever for the existence of God. Intrigued but justifiably skeptical I had a look at his blog site. As I had guessed he had made the same mistake that many make after reading an introductory philosophy of religion text. In introductory texts we tend to see an examination of classical arguments – such as Aquinas’ cosmological arguments, or Paley’s argument to design. It’s easy to get the impression that little has been written since. But, of course, there are many modern versions of all these classical arguments. I saw no evidence that this guy had considered any of them, much less refuted them. Objection! Sustained!

3. Just this week an internet atheist presented me with a pretty massive facepalmer. We had been discussing whether Hitler was an atheist or a Christian. I claimed that it hardly mattered and that neither atheism nor Christianity can properly be said to support or motivate something like the holocaust. My atheist opponent seized his opportunity to proof-text. He threw two verses at me to overturn my contention that Christianity could not support or motivate something like the holocaust. Regrettably one of these proof-texts was from the Qur’an. What to say in response? No idea. I should pray to Allah in the name of Jesus for the answer to that one.

So, whilst it’s true that theists often say silly things, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that theists have the monopoly on daft utterances.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Attraction of Universalism – Reflections

Universalism has never been Christian orthodoxy though it has always had its defenders, from early days with Origen right up to recent times with John Hick. The reason it has never become orthodoxy is because the Bible nowhere teaches it. Those who argue for universalism typically do so by way of inference from other theological propositions they assent to. Despite this fact the case for universalism has strong appeal.

First and foremost it has a strong emotional, or psychological, appeal. Human beings naturally desire that everything will work out for the best; that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich put it. Even with respect to the worst representatives of humanity – say, Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot – we rightly desire the best. Not, of course, that we would wish well upon them in their wickedness, but rather we wish that even those we regard as hideously wicked would change, would realize their wickedness, would become good; in short that they would repent. Nietzsche once warned of those people who had an unhealthy obsession with punishing others. Surely this applies to Christians as strongly as to anyone else, given that salvation is by grace, and if justice were to have the final word who could stand?

Secondly, universalists are correct to point out possible and plausible roads of inference from certain other Christian beliefs to universalism. For example, the philosopher Peter Kreeft thinks of Hell as in some sense self-inflicted. It is a choice to reject God and thus the damned must live with that consequence. Kreeft even thinks that the damned could turn and accept God but they simply refuse to do so. He even speculates that Hell and Heaven could be objectively the same place – the immediate presence of God – but the damned experience this presence as torturous and rather than turn and face the light they prefer to chase their own shadow – forever.

The late John Hick would, I think, chastise Kreeft for not taking his view to its logical conclusion. God – a being who is all-loving and who desires all people to come to Him is reasonably thought of as a being who would never give up on any of his creatures. He would never stop trying to win them over. Of course, God could never force their will and make them accept Him. But, argues Hick, if we really believe God is the greatest being in the universe – a being possessing omnipotence and omniscience – and if He has all of eternity in which to work, is it not perfectly reasonable that eventually all of the damned will stop “chasing their own shadow” and be won over by God?

Hick admits that it’s strictly logically possible that some free creatures will continue shunning God forever, but regards it as practically impossible. He invites us to consider the analogy of William James, in which a master chess player is playing against a novice. It’s logically possible that the novice will win, but it’s a practical certainty that the expert will, eventually, get the check-mate.

There is, so it seems to me, real force in Hick’s position considered against that of Kreeft as it stands. Those who adopt a Kreeftian approach to Hell will have to reckon with Hick’s argument, and at the very least be open to the possibility that all will eventually be won to salvation.

More conservative approaches to Hell are not faced with this problem. On these views human beings, during their earthly lives, make a final decision for or against God and the salvation He offers. Thus, more conservative theologians think Kreeft is incorrect to suppose that the damned could turn to God but choose not to and thus remain in Hell. On the conservative viewpoint the door of Hell is irreversibly locked. There is no escape. The damned are lost forever, not primarily by dint of self-separation, but rather as a punishment for their sin.

Universalists typically think this is simply unjust, and presents the Christian theist with the enormous difficulty of squaring the doctrine with the goodness and justice of God. Here again there is strong intuitive appeal in the universalist case. It does indeed seem (prima facie) perverse that a human being should be lost for all eternity – completely cut off from God – as a result of his or her finite sins. William Lane Craig argues that it is at least plausible that the sin of rejecting God is of such magnitude that it warrants eternal punishment. But don’t we rightfully ask: Are such people really irrevocably evil such that not even God in all His majesty could bring them to their senses? I confess I find that a very difficult idea to accept. It’s seems so alien to much of our experience of other people.

What then for the non-universalist? He could take refuge in the doctrine of conditional immortality – the idea that those who reject God simply go out of existence. Or perhaps he or she will point out that reactions to the traditional doctrine – such as mine above – simply don’t reckon at all fully with the depths of the depravity of sin. The defender of the traditional picture might simply point out that since we know God is all-powerful, wholly good and perfectly just, and since Jesus Christ certainly seems to have been no universalist, then the existence of Hell is compatible with God’s goodness and justice even if we can’t see how. Perhaps in our sinful state we grossly underestimate the holiness of God. Perhaps our sin itself blinds us to the depths of our sin, making us poor judges of such matters. And thus with Abraham we can simply cry “Will not the Judge of the earth do right?”

Which brings us full circle to a point I made at the beginning: universalism is not taught in scripture, and I can’t see any plausible way of interpreting scripture in universalist terms, or squaring universalism with the teaching of Jesus Christ. Universalism, however attractive, cannot therefore be adopted as a Christian doctrine – that doesn’t mean we can’t hope that it will be true. True or not the Christian hope is simply that the Judge of the earth will indeed do right.

Stephen J Graham

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Hell versus Theodicy

John Hick’s main contribution to the problem of evil debate came with his masterful book “Evil and the God of Love.” This text deserves to be read, re-read, discussed, underlined, quoted, digested, memorized, margin-noted, and read again by anyone – scholar or layperson – Christian, atheist, or undecided – who is interested in this most fundamental and age-old question. And even if you’re not interested you should get interested and read this book. It is, quite easily, the greatest discussion of the problem of evil in print.

I don’t say this as some kind of rabid Hick groupie. In fact I disagree with Hick on a number of points. For instance, his critique and dismissal of Leibniz’s position is all too quick, and I have shown in other articles that Leibniz’s position can be easily modified to defuse Hick’s criticisms of it.

In this article I want to focus on another point of disagreement with Hick: his dismissal of the doctrine of Hell as somehow being incompatible with theodicy, the quest to defend the goodness and justice of God in the face of the evil and suffering in the world.

Hick on Hell

Hick agrees that a central plank in any viable Christian theodicy is the idea that God will eventually bring an over-riding good out of the evil in the world. However, Hick sees a problem here. If, as certain traditions of Christianity teach, few are saved and most are lost to Hell, then what we have is not the drawing of good out of evil but rather an endless series of sin and suffering which is, says Hick, “an evil that is never turned to good, but remains forever a blot upon God’s creation.” Hick wonders then, whether Hell itself might simply be part of the problem of evil. He writes: “those exigencies of Christian theology that have led to the doctrine of eternal punishment are directly in conflict with those other Christian impulses that underlie the search for a theodicy.”

It’s important to know what Hick means when he speaks of Hell: “eternal suffering inflicted by God upon those of His creatures who have sinfully rejected Him.” Since such sufferings are unending they can never lead to any constructive end beyond themselves – it is, thinks Hick, “utterly pointless and wasted anguish.” Hick has little time for theories, such as that advanced by William Lane Craig, that the damned continue to sin and therefore deserve to be punished. Hick thinks even this idea is fatal to theodicy, viewing it as amounting to unending evil – even a much greater frustration of God’s purposes than the misery of the damned. In such a world, argues Hick, sin would never be defeated, and creation would be eternally shadowed and spoiled by evil.

We come then to the crux of Hick’s argument, which he presents in the form of a dilemma: Hell presents problems for either God’s sovereignty or perfect goodness. Why? “The doctrine of Hell,” argues Hick, “has as its implied premise either that God does not desire to save all His human creatures, in which case he is only limitedly good, or that His purpose has finally failed in the case of some – [or most] – of them, in which case he is only limitedly sovereign.”

Hick continues by denying the route of annihilationism to escape his argument, since in this case God’s purpose would have failed with respect to those whose fate is extinction: “To this extent evil would have prevailed over good and would have permanently marred God’s creation.” And this brings us to the core of Hick’s solution: “God will eventually succeed in His purpose of winning all men to Himself in faith and love.”

Hick-Up on Hell

Before I tackle Hick’s dilemma, I want to pick a few holes in his conception of Hell. Not all theologians are in agreement that Hell is a place of eternal suffering inflicted by God. Some thinkers – Kreeft and CS Lewis, for instance – see the essence of Hell as a self-separation from God. On this conception the existence of Hell simply follows from the existence of Heaven and free will, as a place for those who freely reject Heaven. Even those who adopt a more traditional understanding of Hell – such as JP Moreland – deny this torture chamber image. Moreover, I don’t think Hick has done enough to reject those views – such as William Lane Craig’s – which hold that Hell could be self-perpetuating as the damned continue to sin and therefore accrue more punishment on their own heads. The view of punishment underlying Hick’s argument is that unless punishment is restorative it is pointless, a view that is far from obvious. Punishment might well be perfectly meaningful and legitimate purely on retributive terms. It seems to me that a case could be made that the retributive punishment of sinners is a good, not an evil. Rejecting the idea that Hell as a place of retributive punishment is an evil, Augustine writes: “since there is happiness for those who do not sin, the universe is perfect; and it is no less perfect because there is misery for sinners. . . the penalty of sin corrects the dishonour of sin.” This means that the perfection of God’s universe is not marred by the existence of Hell, since all sin is balanced immediately by just punishment.

In any event, is there any reason to suppose that the existence of Hell is a massive frustration of God’s purpose? Does the existence of Hell necessarily mean that God’s creation is eternally spoiled? I want to agree first of all with the first horn of Hick’s dilemma: if God does not desire to save all then He is only limitedly good. I think that’s something that most (certain breeds of Calvinist aside) would agree with. But is it true that the existence of Hell means that God’s purpose has finally failed in the case of some people, and thus that God is only limitedly sovereign? I don’t see how that follows at all.

Hick appears to think there is something inconsistent between these propositions:

(1) God can accomplish everything he desires to accomplish.
(2) God desires that all be saved.
(3) All are not saved.

The problem is that God’s desires are arguably a tad more complex than Hick allows. Whilst God might desire that all be saved, he might also equally desire that all be saved according to their own will. Further, God may also desire that those who wish to reject Him are permitted to do so. God’s desire that all be saved might be called a secondary desire. His primary desire is to create free creatures that can reject Him if they wish to do so. God remains fully sovereign; nothing happens without his say so or permission.

Holding propositions 1-3 above is no more inconsistent than holding:

(A) Stephen can help his son with his homework test, and if he does his son will pass.
(B) Stephen desires his son to pass his homework test.
(C) Stephen’s son fails his homework test.

As with the case of God there are other desires at play, making the situation more complex than it appears at first glance. In this instance whilst I desire my son to pass and can ensure he does so by giving him all the right answers, I also desire to see the true level of his ability, to see where his weak points are, and for him to learn the lesson that good results often come only with hard work. The point is that desires are complicated and often qualified by other desires we have.

Oddly enough we could throw Hick’s argument right back at him. Presumably God wants all to be saved now. And yet, some will not be saved now but they will in, say, 10 years time. Why, on Hick’s understanding, is this not regarded as a frustration of God’s will and thus a question mark against His sovereignty?

I think then that the dilemma that stands at the heart of Hick’s argument is a false one. It is no barrier to theodicy to hold that God wills to save all but respects the humanity of those who freely refuse Him. If Hell is a just punishment for sin or a freely chosen self-separation from God then there needn’t be any problem presented for theodicy by the existence of Hell.

Stephen J. Graham

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