Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Incompleteness of Temporal Life & God’s Eternal Existence

Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” [Psalm 90:2].

To the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority before all time and now and forever.” [Jude 25]

The Psalmist was a poet, Jude was writing an exultation; neither writer was a philosopher, and neither spell out for us an account of God’s eternal existence. So, just precisely what is the eternal mode of God’s existence? At the very least to be eternal means to be without beginning or end. In other words God did not come into existence and will not go out of existence. However, theologians have debated precisely what this amounts to. There are two broad conceptions of God’s eternal existence: interestingly each reflected in one of the verses cited above.

1. Omnitemporality. This view is that God exists in time. At any point in time stretching into infinity past we will find that God exists and at every point in the future God will exist. God therefore exists at every point in time. God existed 30 million years ago. He exists now. He will exist in 1000 years. This is the sense of everlastingness that is perhaps captured by the Psalmist.

2. Timelessness. On this view God exists outside of time altogether. So, God exists but he doesn’t exist “now.” God transcends time, having neither past nor future. This is perhaps what Jude means when he says “before all time,” (though Jude complicates it somewhat by then speaking of “now” and “forever!”).

In any event the biblical data on God’s eternal existence is generally regarded as under-determinative on just how God exists in relation to time. It is therefore to philosophical arguments that we must turn.

In this article I want to examine just one popular argument in favour of divine timelessness: the argument from the incompleteness of temporal life.

Advocates of divine timelessness – such as Brian Leftow and Eleonore Stump – seek to show that temporal existence is in some way an incomplete mode of being. Our past has gone, never to be relived, whilst the future is constantly just outside our grasp. In fact, our only hold on existence is this brief and fleeting present, which is continually passing us by and carrying us to our inevitable death. As temporal beings this is the only hold on existence we possess. Advocates of divine timelessness think such a mode of existence is in some way incompatible with God being the most perfect being.

Is this a good argument? I don’t think it’s half as good as its advocates think. Of course, it’s true enough that we find as we get older that our days slip away from us never to be lived again. Our past is gone – forever. William Lane Craig, who isn’t an advocate of God’s essential timelessness despite expressing sympathy with this argument, writes: “Time has a savage way of gnawing away at existence, making our claim upon existence tenuous and fleeting.” In a very real way being temporal beings harms us.

But must a perfect being – as God is supposed to be – possess his life all at once, such that it never passes away and is never yet to come?

I don’t think so. In fact the argument is rather anthropomorphic, resting on a human experience of time’s passage rather than temporal passing in and of itself. Human beings are indeed ravaged by time’s passing; our grip on existence is indeed tenuous. But such is not the case with respect to a being whose existence is of a different order to ours in a number of very significant ways. Why is time so savage to us? Because we age, we lose memory of the past, we weaken as we move into the future, and ultimately we will waste away and die with all the loss of opportunity, sadness, worry and pain that this often entails. We grow anxious and uncertain about the future. We regret many things we have done in the past and can no longer fix, or else we regret not doing things we no longer have the health for.

However, God doesn’t exist in the same way. Firstly, being omniscient, God does not forget his past. He can remember and relive it vividly at will. God’s mental faculties do not decrease as the years go by. Moreover, he knows the future just as fully as he knows the past and the present. Secondly, as an omnipotent being, his powers and abilities do not weaken with age. He does not get slower, he loses not an iota of his competency, and his strength is the same now as it was 50,000 years ago. Time does not weary Him, nor do the years condemn. Thirdly, his omnipresence allows Him to be aware of and causally active at every point of space. He thus misses no opportunities; there is no point of reality He misses out on. Lastly, though temporal he would still exist necessarily – meaning he did not come into existence and cannot go out of existence. Therefore, to describe His temporal existence as “fleeting” or “tenuous” neglects one of His core attributes: necessity.

For such a being the passage of time would not at all be the melancholic affair it inevitably is for finite and contingent beings like us. The argument from the incompleteness of temporal life rest chiefly on very strong intuitions about the loss experienced as time passes, but such intuitions are – alas – all too human ones. The problem is really with finite existence, not temporal existence.

We could leave the matter there, but we can go even further by presenting a positive case: stating why the life of a perfect being doesn’t necessarily imply a timeless existence, but rather that a temporal existence may well be preferable in a number of ways. I will briefly mention three:

(1) Even from our human point of view we experience that the flow of time can be a wonderful thing: as when we watch a play or listen to a piece of music. Many pleasures may well require a temporal existence to enjoy.

(2) A timeless being would not, it seems to me, be capable of interacting with his creation. Such a being wouldn’t be able to do anything at all: he couldn’t act or react and would be completely unrelated to us. In fact, could such a being really be a creator in the true sense of that word and remain timeless? I have my doubts. It would appear, then, that such a mode of existence is not obviously perfect.

(3) If God is timeless then he doesn’t know tensed facts – such as, “Stephen Graham posted a blog article today,” or “Bob was born 36 years ago,” or “there is currently an uprising in Ukraine.” A tensed fact concerns the relationship of an event to the present moment. However, in order to know a temporal fact a being must be temporally located. If God is a perfect being then he is omniscient – maximally cognitively excellent. If God is maximally cognitively excellent then he knows all tensed facts, and if he knows all tensed facts then he is temporal. Therefore, not only is temporal existence compatible with perfect being it might even be entailed by it.

It is fair, then, to conclude that it is not at all obvious that a perfect being would necessarily exist timelessly. There are, of course, other arguments for divine timelessness but this very popular one turns out to be less than persuasive. I’d say that its popularity is due more to its intuitive appeal than to any real cogency it possesses. In the final analysis it confuses temporal existence with finite existence.

Stephen J Graham

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Our Lady of the Illogical Leaps

Sometimes it’s hard to be a theist. You work hard to show the intellectual credentials of theism and then this happens:

In Holy Mary Parish Church in Rathkeale, County Limerick, Ireland 2000 people have signed a petition to prevent the removal of a tree stump from the grounds of the church. Are they diehard environmentalists? Nope. Eccentric tree-huggers? Nope. Hippies with a respect for every square inch of Mother Earth? Alas, no. They reason they’ve signed a petition – and set-up a makeshift shrine – and held prayer vigils complete with Rosary beads and candles – is because the tree stump bears the image of the Blessed Virgin herself. Allegedly.

Of course it’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Several years ago the Mother of God appeared to mark the passing of Pope John Paul II. Did she appear in a blinding light before the masses gathered in St. Peters square? Apparently not. Did she descend over Poland with a heavenly choir singing a thousand hallelujahs? Not quite. Instead the blessed virgin chose a more humble – albeit rather obscure – means of giving the divine thumbs-up to the deceased pontiff.

Mary appeared on a concrete wall of a grimy Chicago underpass. The human-sized yellow and white image seemed to have formed from road salt and rainwater that over time had spilt from the Kennedy Expressway overhead. Nonetheless, believers insisted that the stain was miraculous. To my eyes the stain looked fairly unremarkable; not so to the eyes of many faithful Catholics. To them it was most certainly a picture of Mary with her hands clasped in prayerful thanks and adoration. I tried as hard as I could – even with the help of an artists impression – I still couldn’t see how this water stain resembled what it was supposed to resemble. The best I could do was to see a man with a long beard and rather sinister eyes (much more Bin Laden than Blessed Virgin), and then only by holding the picture diagonally and squinting a bit.

Anyhow, 1000’s of people had eyes – and imagination – to see, and flocked en masse to the subway to pay tribute. The underpass was transformed into a shrine, complete with flowers and candles, and the faithful were found kneeling before the wall, praying and clutching rosary beads. Moreover, in an age in which traditional religious adherence is plummeting in western countries, church leaders on this occasion were more than happy to sit back and allow the hysterical idiocy to continue unchallenged and unquestioned. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago even contended that the apparition reaffirms people’s faith, whether it is real or not. “These things don’t happen every day,” Jim Dwyer, a spokesman, added. Indeed they don’t, but they could if people wanted them to. Just look at the clouds, close one eye, and before long you could see a white fluffy image resembling God himself on his throne (perhaps with Elvis sitting on his right hand side).

Such things may indeed encourage people’s faith, but they do little for the credibility of religious believers. Moreover, many religious folks are shown to display a rather cavalier approach to truth: in effect they’re implying that they don’t give a toss if something is true or not, just whether or not it builds the faith of the brethren. But, shouldn’t truth be much more important than that?

Such phenomena are merely the latest in a long line of supposed theophanies. In years gone by we have had the name of Allah make an appearance inside a tomato, a hindu cow-god statue drinking milk (gotta love that porous rock, eh?), the face of the devil coming from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre buildings in the billowing smoke and fire, and, my personal favourite: the image of Mary gazing lovingly out at the faithful from a partly eaten ten year old cheese toastie, that was subsequently auctioned on Ebay, bought for $28,000 by an internet casino company, wrapped in plastic, and sent on a nationwide celebrity tour of the USA. The virgin Mary obviously likes her food as she has also been found lurking in a knob of popcorn and on a bacon flavoured potato crisp.

The truth is that people will see what they want to see, and we learn this fairly early on in life. Most of us as children have been out one day with a parent who decides to play the age-old “cloud game” – to see what shapes you can find up in the sky. We can find all sorts of things, but as any sane and rational person knows full well the things we see are not real. There isn’t really a giant mile-wide seagull in the sky. Just a big fluffy white cloud. Human beings, due to some weird quirk of psychology, are particularly adept at seeing faces in things. There’s a wonderful Twitter account called “faces in things” which testifies to some wonderful examples of this – many much clearer than divine tree stumps and cheese toasties.

It’s certainly not unusual to have a fascination for the mysterious. I can’t remember a time in my life when religious matters didn’t fascinate me. But I’d like to think that my approach was and is rational: investigating religious claims, studying religious practices, and reflecting on the phenomena of religious experience. Unfortunately a rational approach is of little interest to vast numbers of people who can’t be bothered putting the time and effort in. Instead they want a quick fix, an easy answer, an instant miracle to be a part of; and they want it so desperately that they’ll dive at any report – however wacky – so they can feel like they’re part of a generation that witnessed the miraculous. They care not for the leaps of logic required to reach their conclusions. Such types are highly frustrating, as reason simply will not penetrate the dark caverns of their credulous minds.

To be fair, in the case of the tree stump the church in question is officially taking a stance of scepticism. The parish priest has warned against worship of the tree, saying: “There’s nothing there . . . it’s just a tree. You can’t worship a tree.” Indeed, but other locals are more than willing to brush that off. One parishioner offered: “It’s doing no harm and it’s bringing people together, from young and old to black and white, Protestant and Catholic, to say a few prayers so what’s wrong with that?” And there we have that same old cavalier attitude to truth raise its ugly head again.

Noel White, chairman of Rathkeale Community Council’s graveyard committee has since given assurances that the stump will not be removed – despite only being a stump, right? Well, he adds: “Nature has a funny way of showing things up and let it be a freak of nature or something else but whatever it is, surely it is a wonderful thing to see so many people coming out to pray, especially young people who have been saying the Rosary in the church for the past few nights.” And thus I suspect the local church authorities are perhaps quite happy with the superstition. It’s swelling the ranks of the faithful, and probably bringing a significant cash benefit in its wake too.

“Maybe this is Our Lady’s way of getting people back to the church.”

Maybe that’s your way of not speaking the truth because the superstitious nonsense is bringing you congregants and cash?

It strikes me a really rather silly. Surely even just a smidge of rudimentary thinking can dispel the illusion. To those who think they see Mary: I’d really love to know how you have any idea what she looks like. Did I miss that part of the Bible that provides her vital statistics? Or did Saint Luke release an illustrated version of his Gospel? We are told that she was a young Jewish woman, but that hardly narrows it down. Presumably some young Jewish women were fat, some thin, some tall, some small, some hideously ugly, others stunningly attractive. For all you know you could actually be bowing before a Hindu goddess of destruction. Lets face it, this apparition is only Mary because a Catholic saw it first and said it was.

And just how well does this kind of thing build your faith? Do you believe in God even more now that you have looked at a tree stump and have seen an obscure image that you dubiously assume to be Mary? The next time a sceptic asks you to defend your grounds for believing in God, or challenges your faith in some way, it probably isn’t wise to open your defence with, “ah, well I saw this tree stump once that looked like the Virgin Mary.”

The reaction to this fluke of nature illustrates perfectly what so many people find distasteful about religion. Rather than engage in rational discourse too many religious people are happy to resort to illogical mental gymnastics. In this instance there’s a dodgy starting premise – that this stump is, objectively speaking, the image of a woman. From this highly questionable position we are asked to make the leap to believing that it is there as a result of design rather than accident, when there are no grounds whatsoever for believing it to be so. Only when we can say it was not a result of accident can we raise the question of who actually designed it. But such issues simply don’t arise in the minds of the miracle-hunters. It is simply assumed that it wasn’t a human being, but rather a certain God who is responsible. Again, there is no rational basis given for this belief. In fact, it might much more plausibly be a joke on the part of a lumberjack. Next, we are expected to leap further into supposing that this woman carved by the hand of God is indeed the virgin Mary rather than someone else. And finally, we are to presume that she is there to call people back to the church. None of this testifies to anything remotely like a reasonable approach to religion, and until such religious folks drop the silliness they will fail to convince anyone other than the most gullible.

Stephen J. Graham

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Contra God

Contra God
An all too quick survey of anti-theistic arguments

Philosophy of religion has been my “chosen specialist subject” for the past 18 years (half my life now!) and in all that time I’ve come across many arguments for and against God, ranging from the standard arguments of “Philosophy 101” classes to the often weird and wonderful musings of internet “philosophers.”

As a theist I believe there are good arguments in favour of the existence of God, but I’ve been asked on previous occasions what I consider to be the best arguments against the existence of God. Considering the various arguments against one’s position is a good exercise for anyone to do: theists, atheists, Kantians, utilitarians, socialists, libertarians, physicalists, dualists, a-theorists, b-theorists, and agnostics.

So, what is the best anti-theistic argument?

Many of the offerings floating around cyberspace can be ruled out straight away as little more than lazy slogans. For instance, some atheists will argue against the existence of God with the slogan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The existence of God is, apparently, an extraordinary claim and therefore in the absence of “extraordinary evidence” we should reject it. It’s rarely spelled out exactly what amounts to an “extraordinary” claim or “extraordinary” evidence. In any event it’s patently false to think that as the extraordinariness of a claim goes up so must the extraordinariness of the evidence. For example, if my wife makes the rather ordinary claim that there is a red car outside then all I need to do is look out of the window to verify it. But if my wife makes the much more extraordinary claim that there is a herd of elephants down the street, how do I verify this? In exactly the same way: with nothing more extraordinary than the ‘miracle’ of sight. In any event, probability theorists are well aware that it simply isn’t the case that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to establish their probability.

Other silly arguments that are all too common include: “Who created God!?” and “Can God make a stone so big he can’t lift it?!” The former question is typically asked by those who don’t understand the nature of theistic arguments and the sort of being they conclude to. For example, many theistic arguments conclude to a being that is uncaused. To ask who created this being is therefore an incoherent question: Who caused this uncaused being to exist? That’s meaningless. [for more on this point see: HERE] A similar point holds with respect to God making a stone so heavy he can’t lift it. It’s a meaningless task. There are various versions of the concept of divine omnipotence, but no one I’m aware of defines it as God’s ability to do the logically impossible (Descartes was an exception). Omnipotence is more often defined in terms of God’s ability to actualize certain states of affairs along such lines as logical possibility and consistency with God’s good nature and character.

Of course there are also good arguments against the existence of God. Two of the most popular are the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness.

The former comes in various guises and I have written about it on several occasions on this blog and elsewhere [see: HERE and HERE]. Even in its strongest versions I find the argument far from conclusive. The logical problem of evil has been more or less abandoned even by atheist philosophers, while the probabilistic problem is contentious on several points. (1) The incredible difficulty of assigning meaningful probabilities in a case such as this. (2) Even if we can conclude that the existence of God is improbable given evil, this doesn’t tell us anything about the rationality of theism whatsoever, which could still be rationally held given other evidence we have. (3) The fact that humans are finite – limited in space, time, intelligence and insight – makes it highly dubious that we can with any certainty make such judgments about whether or not there are morally sufficient reasons for God to permit the various evils we find in the world. (4) Most damning, the fact that even if successful the problem of evil wouldn’t show that God does not exist, unless it can be shown that necessarily if God exists he is both omnipotent and all-loving.

Is the divine hiddenness objection any better than the objection from evil? Well, like the problem of evil it’s certainly a worthy argument. However, in the same way it can never be conclusive. This argument says that God, if He existed, would leave more evidence of his existence. God could very easily have made his existence obvious and prevented unbelief entirely. However, why would God do that? If, for instance, Christianity is true, then it doesn’t chiefly matter to God whether people believe He exists or not. God is primarily interested in people coming to saving faith in Him. Do we know that in a world where more people believe God exists that more would come to have such saving faith? It seems we have no way of knowing that at all. And if so then there is little in the claim that if God existed there would be more evidence. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig goes even further: “if God is endowed with middle knowledge, so that He knows how any free person would act under any circumstances in which God might place him, then God can have so providentially ordered the actual world as to provide just those evidences and gifts of the Holy Spirit which He knew would be adequate for bringing those with an open heart and mind to saving faith. Thus, the evidence is as adequate as needs be.”

Whilst I think both arguments can be satisfactorily answered, other theists may simply appeal to mystery: we don’t know what the answer is but we know God is all-powerful, all-loving, and just in his dealings with his creatures and therefore we trust that God will do right, and that he has morally sufficient reasons for setting up the world as he has. Hiddenness and evil are then puzzles for the theist, but they need not amount to defeaters of theistic belief.

And this brings me finally to the arguments that I think are best: those against the coherence of the very concept of God. In my view, these arguments are far more threatening to theism. If a successful argument could be constructed along these lines then it’s as close to a disproof of the existence of God as the atheist could ever hope to find. Unfortunately (for the atheist, not for us theists!), such arguments are incredibly difficult to construct, and most versions tend to be highly implausible if not downright fallacious. In fact, the “heavy stone” argument dismissed earlier is a form of this sort of argument. What tends to help the theist out with respect to incoherence arguments is the fact that theologians and philosophers of God enjoy incredible latitude in drafting coherent accounts of the various attributes of God.

However, there are two incoherence arguments that I think amount to the best arguments against theism (note, I don’t say either is a good argument!).

(1) The argument against the possibility of a timeless person
(2) The argument against the possibility of a bodiless person

If it could be shown that either idea was incoherent then theism would be in real difficulties. The reason is that God, if he exists, is supposed to be personal, and if personhood is incompatible with the mode of God’s existence then the concept is flat out incoherent.

Some theologians might deny that God is “timeless,” and perhaps claim that he is everlasting through time – from infinity past. To my mind this escape isn’t satisfactory. Firstly, it faces the problem of traversing the infinite. Secondly, it faces the problem of the existence of an actual infinite. Thirdly, there’s Leibniz’s interesting question: why didn’t God create the world sooner? Lastly, there are good reasons – scientific as well as philosophical – to hold that time itself had a beginning at the Big Bang. The philosopher of religion must hold that either God is necessarily timeless, or at least timeless without creation – and either way must face the problem of timeless personhood.

These are the two arguments I’m currently working on, so I’d like to wrap up with some pointers towards a solution to each.

With respect to timelessness and personhood much will depend on what criteria we lay down necessary for personhood. This is a question that’s hotly disputed in other areas of philosophy such as the ethics of abortion and artificial intelligence. Two strategies can be adopted by the defender of timeless personhood: (1) He could deny that the criteria given by the critic are in fact necessary for personhood at all. (2) He could agree that the criteria are necessary for personhood but show how a timeless being could possess them.

Three broad areas of personhood criteria tend to be proffered: criteria on the basis of conscious states, criteria on the basis of intentionality, and criteria on the basis of inter-personal relationships. Minimally, I think, a person should be a self-conscious being, but I fail to see why a timeless entity couldn’t be self-conscious. With respect to intentionality there is no necessity that intentionality need be inherently future directed. Lastly, a timeless God could be capable of inter-personal relationships even if it is the case that were he to enter into such relationships by creating persons He would no longer be timeless. In any event, the Christian doctrine of the trinity (and in particular the notion of perichoresis) shows how the persons of the Godhead exist in inter-personal relations timelessly. So much more needs to be fleshed out here, and I am currently writing a research paper to that end – snippets of which will appear on this blog site in the coming weeks.

What, then, about the coherence of incorporeal personality? It seems to me that much here will depend on wider debates in the philosophy of mind between physicalists and dualists. Arguably, even human persons are not essentially physical either. So says the dualist and not without reason. For example, the dualist will point out that mental states are not identical with brain states. The former have properties – for instance, intentionality or “aboutness” – that the latter do not possess. As with the argument from timelessness, much will depend on what we mean by a person. If being a person is an inherently physical and temporal notion then the concept of God is in trouble. Whether or not there is any reason to limit personhood in this way is far from contentious. On the contrary, it strikes me as false, which is what I intend to show in my paper.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Atheism, God, Hiddenness, Problem of Evil

Eternal Life: Meaningless & Boring?

The full text of a reflection (for a popular Christian audience) on the common charge that eternal life would be boring and meaningless. Text awaiting publication.

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A friend of mine once quipped that eternal life would never get boring, since his wife would always find something for him to do.

But not everyone is so optimistic. In his essay, “The Problems of the Self,”[1] philosopher Bernard Williams argues that eternal life is not desirable and death is something we should welcome and appreciate. If we never died life would become one big bore-fest, and would, reckons Williams, ultimately be meaningless. Williams cites a story by Karel Copec (1890-1938), in which the character Elina Makropulos drinks an elixir of life. The story joins her at 42 years old, the “age” she has now been for 300 years. Her life is presented as having become meaningless and boring.

Such a complaint is often found on the lips of unbelievers, and I must confess that often we Christians have spoken of eternal life in ways which make it a less than thrilling proposition. One preacher speaks of “singing one glorious hymn after another for all time.” Does that excite you? For many folks this sounds as thrilling as flossing for all eternity. Presenting eternal life as one never-ending church service has done the notion of eternal life incredible damage in the eyes of an unbelieving world, most of whom struggle with an hour on a Sunday a few times a year. How then should we speak of eternal life?

I should point out straight away that reflection on eternal life – even for us Christians – will always be somewhat speculative, and we can really offer little more than some imaginative suggestions (hopefully more imaginative than singing one glorious hymn after another). We do after all only see through a glass darkly and cannot possibly fathom what God has prepared for those who love him. But I think reflecting on this is still worthwhile, if only to help change the popular perception that life eternal would be a meaningless bore-fest.

It might be useful to start with what we do know: our own earthly existence. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Elina Makropulos. Would life really become boring and meaningless, even after a mere few centuries?

I want to deal with the charge of boredom first. I find it almost unthinkable that eternal life would become boring. Firstly, this world, as the creation of God, is an amazingly fascinating place. If I lived 300 lifetimes I couldn’t imagine anything other than barely scratching the surface of the riches God has made and given us access to.

Take just a few simple examples. My son loves the museum, and when we visit I find myself overwhelmed with interest in so many different things. I’d love to know more about things like the dating of fossils or to be involved in finding and studying them. How fascinating are Egyptian hieroglyphics! How wonderful it would be to study archaeology and head off to exotic locations on a “dig” (complete with Indiana Jones hat, of course). If you visit a museum and don’t come away with a sense of how fascinating and wonderful our world is then you haven’t opened your eyes!

Or consider all those places you see from the air as you pass over in a plane en route to your destination, places you just don’t have time to visit. The earth is full of fascinating places, most of which we’ll never see in one – or even 100 – lifetimes. Think of the wonders of the world both natural and manmade: Niagara Falls, the Taj Mahal, Mt Everest, the Grand Canyon, the Sinai desert, the Great Wall of China, and the Amazon rainforest. The earth is full of such glorious riches! And we’re not even off the planet yet! Consider the immensity of the cosmos, the stars and the galaxies. Physics is constantly bringing us face to face with new wonders, and showing us all the time how incredibly awesome – and often wonderfully weird – the cosmos is.

Imagine having lived from the time of Christ until today – 2000 years. There are so many fascinating and amazing events you could have witnessed or been a part of. This life, our planet, the biological world, the cosmos, is far too wonderful and immense to grow bored with if we view it with open minds and open eyes. And that’s before we consider all the great books we could read, plays we could watch, campaigns to fight, and people to meet. Or I think of one of my own loves: philosophy. One of my great frustrations is having to skip over ideas and personalities simply because I just don’t have time for indulging such curiosities and heading down every intellectual rabbit hole that takes my fancy.

Lastly, I should also mention what I call the “joy of mere being.” This has nothing to do with doing anything or going anywhere or striving for any goal. It’s the joy we derive simply from being alive. I’ve experienced this profound sense of joy on several occasions: gazing at a mountain range on a bright morning, or lounging on a beach and watching the sea, or holding my son for the first time. These are moments we wish could last “forever.” Ironically, we don’t have so many of these experiences due to being so busy getting things done before our time runs out.

I think if we can say all this about an eternal earthly life, we can certainly say it about eternal life in a new heaven and new earth. We can’t say precisely what such an existence would be like, but we do know that it will far outstrip what we do know. Moreover, we know that we will experience the presence of God himself in a wonderful way that currently eludes us. And this brings me to the charge that eternal life would be meaningless.

It is true that eternal life by itself may well be meaningless. One story tells of an astronaut hopelessly lost in space. He has two vials: one containing a poison and the other containing an elixir that will give him immortality. Seeing how hopeless his situation is he decides to drink the poison, but mixes the vials and ends up drinking the potion that makes him immortal. Thus he is doomed to spend eternity floating aimlessly through the cosmos; a life without meaning.

However, we mustn’t think that death or dying is what gives meaning to our existence. The ultimate source of meaning for our life is God. Consider briefly the very bad news that follows if atheism is true. William Lane Craig writes, “On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental by-products of nature who have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called planet Earth – lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe – and are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.”[2] Or Richard Dawkins, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”[3] This doesn’t sound like a very meaningful existence to me. Nor does it sound like much fun.

Over and against this Christian theism holds that God is the one in whom we “live and move and have our being.”[4] Christ came “that you may have life and have it to the full.”[5] And if we remember nothing else of our catechism, we do know this: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[6] We mustn’t make the mistake then of conceiving of immortality as simply never-ending existence. That in itself may not be very meaningful or joyful. But rather we must always keep in mind that our eternal life will be of a certain quality too, a quality based on the very being of God Himself. Theologians refer to the beatific vision – the enjoyment by the saints of the full revelation of God himself, in all his glory and perfection, directly to them.

Such is difficult for us to grasp in this life. After all, as Paul puts it, we merely “see through a glass darkly.”[7] But we can know for sure that eternal life for the saints in heaven will be the fulfilment of existence and more joyful than we can possibly imagine.

I suspect, therefore, that there will be far more to do and enjoy than singing one glorious hymn after another; and eternal life will certainly be more joyful and meaningful than the never-ending list of chores my friend envisions.

Stephen J. Graham

NOTES

[1] Cambridge University Press, 1973

[2] William Lane Craig, “Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org 2012

[3] Richard Dawkins River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic, 1996)

[4] Acts 17:28

[5] John 10:10

[6] Westminster Shorter Catechism

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:12

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To ban or not to ban…that is the question…

To ban or not to ban. That was the question facing the artistic board of Newtownabbey Borough Council regarding the launch of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s three-month UK tour of “The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)” at the Theatre at the Mill.

The play – which eventually opened on 29th January – had been cancelled because it was deemed to be blasphemous, an offense to Christians, offensive to God, contrary to morality, and much else besides. Of course, the real irony of the ban was that it provided widespread publicity for the play. In fact, before the ban – and the inevitable publicity it generated – only 150 of the 800 tickets for the show had been sold. When the ban was lifted the show sold out within hours, and due to demand more shows are now being planned for Northern Ireland. Define counter-productive. It reminds me of the old Father Ted episode where a certain risqué film was to be shown at the cinema in Craggy Island and the hapless Father Ted and Father Dougal Maguire are sent by the bishop to protest outside – with banners reading “down with this sort of thing!” and “careful now!” Of course, all they manage to do is publicize the play and guarantee a massive rise in audience numbers. Seemingly real life is as humorous as fiction.

The play’s cancellation caused widespread anger in wider society – particularly the arts community – and attracted international attention. Northern Ireland was, once again, some silly little fundamentalist backwater. Most of the reasoning behind the various arguments in favour of the ban related to its blasphemous nature (despite the fact that those who banned it hadn’t seen it), and the offense it would cause to Christians.

[I want to note in passing that the situation is slightly complicated by the fact that the play – like most arts events in Northern Ireland – was publically funded. However, it seems that for most Christians this didn’t ultimately matter – even if the play was totally private it still, according to them, should have been cancelled.]

The issues of blasphemy and offence are tricky beasts, not least of all because they are incredibly subjective. Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” might be offensive to some Christians, but not to others. It’s often a matter of taste, and, frankly, maturity. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the play is indeed blasphemous and offensive to the majority of Christians. Is this good enough reason to ban it? Surely not.

“I’m offended.” These two words are incredibly irksome, not least of all because they are constantly abused, misused and overused. It’s becoming something of a societal creed that we have some sort of right not to be offended. Of course, the correct response to “I’m offended” is, to put it bluntly, “so what?” You’ll survive. The sun will still rise tomorrow. The rain will still fall. Nothing bad is going to happen to you because you’re offended. It would be obscene if we lived in a society where a small number of people could get anything they like banned on the basis that they find it offensive. Given the subjective nature of offence this would be an incredibly dangerous road to go down. I wonder what kind of world these people wish to live in – a nice little toy world full of cotton wool and cushions where everyone is always safe and protected, regardless of the damage to our freedoms? I find that the level of maturity – intellectual and emotional – displayed by a person is inversely proportional to the ease with which they are offended.

Taking offence, as I said above, is an entirely subjective matter. Everyone and anyone can claim anything is offensive, and subsequently demand the corrective of censorship be applied to ease their pain. Laws and policies are at their most dangerous when they are defined in subjective terms as opposed to objective because no one really knows where they stand, and the only boundaries are the ever changing whims of peoples feelings.

It seems to me, however, that calling for bans in the face of offense is ultimately damaging to those who claim to be offended. Take the case of Christianity. When Christians call for bans on plays or publications which ridicule their beliefs they are asking for the machinations of government to protect their beliefs, and this implies that those beliefs are not robust enough to stand in the arena of ideas on their own two feet. Moreover, it looks as if Christians are incapable of rational discussion and persuasion. I can’t remember a single case of a Christian group seeking a ban on something which was anything other than a public relations disaster for the gospel. It all adds to a generally negative image for Christianity. Why couldn’t Christians have taken a totally different approach in the case of this play? Perhaps they could have bought tickets for their non-Christian friends and gone to watch the play with them. Maybe afterwards they’d have an excellent opportunity to chat to their friends about their faith and issues raised by the play. Wouldn’t that have been far more constructive and much less damaging to the public persona of Christianity?

Most importantly, however, allowing freedom of speech for critics and “blasphemers” is a guarantor of free speech for the Christian. Take one other example: a few years ago a number of homosexual groups produced an advertisement linking homophobic attacks to the Bible; while Christian groups produced advertisements linking homosexuality to the breakdown of family life in Britain. Both sides wanted the adverts of the other lot banned. This tit-for-tat scenario means that by calling for the other side to be silenced you are, in effect, risking being silenced yourself by consenting to the principle that crying “offense!” is a good enough reason for censorship. In the case of the Bible play, if the Christian councillors are supporting the premise that they have a right to ban it because they are currently the majority, then I hope they are prepared to gladly swallow their own medicine if ever the tables are turned. A much better scenario is to allow individuals and groups to argue and market their case and allow people to use their own rational powers to decide whose case they support. In other words the only rational and moral solution is to allow everyone to take their chances in the arena of ideas wherein force becomes persuasion, bans are replaced by arguments, and personal rationality triumphs over moral authoritarianism.

With the free speech that is left to us we must shout, scream, rage against the growing culture of inoffensiveness. We don’t need protecting from “offensive” speech, plays, music, or advertisements. And we should not pander to the subjective feelings of thin-skinned, hyper-sensitive souls.

Freedom of speech means absolutely nothing if it doesn’t include the offensive, the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative. As Gareth Crossman of Liberty says, “In a democracy, criminalizing even the most unpalatable, illiberal and offensive speech should be approached with extreme caution.”

Amen to that.

Stephen J Graham

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If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist…

Below is a draft of an article which is to be submitted for publication soon. The article considers the problem of gratuitous evil in the context of different approaches to evil by theists and atheists.

The article is intended for a popular/lay readership – not academics. Comments on this draft are welcome.

**********

Amongst the various arguments against the existence of God the problem of evil is the most recalcitrant, with a history stretching back millennia. The problem is responsible for the spilling of rivers of ink from the pens of theists and atheists alike; the former trying to explain it, or at least reconcile it with the existence of an omnipotent, all-loving God, while the latter use it as evidence against the existence of such a being.

Throughout the history of philosophical thought the problem has come in various versions. Some thinkers have held that the mere existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God. Others make the more modest claim that the sheer amount of evil we find in the world makes the existence of God improbable. These arguments have been unsuccessful. With respect to the former, very few atheist philosophers would offer the problem of evil as a strict logical problem. Largely thanks to the work of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga it is generally agreed that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil. With respect to the latter – what has been called the “probabilistic problem of evil” – it has been shown to be incredibly difficult to establish the improbability of God on evil; but in any event, even if we grant that the existence of God is improbable with respect to the evil in the world it might still be incredibly probable once we take into account the total evidence, perhaps various arguments for the existence of God, or our own sense of the divine – the “sensus divinitatis” as John Calvin called it.

And so in recent times we see the argument cast in yet another guise: focusing on the alleged existence of “gratuitous” evil. Gratuitous evil is evil that doesn’t serve any purpose, has no point, and lacks any justifying reason whatsoever. The atheist might grant that some evils exist as necessary to some greater good or purpose, however, he reckons, an all-powerful and all-loving God surely wouldn’t allow gratuitous evil. Therefore, the existence of gratuitous evil, it is claimed, is strong evidence against the existence of God. We might cast the argument in formal terms like so:

1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
2. Gratuitous evil does exist.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

There are atheists who regard this as a water-tight argument and claim to be baffled as to why Christians can’t see the logic of it. But it seems to me that the argument goes wrong on several counts. Granted, if premises 1 and 2 are true then the conclusion logically follows, but do we have any reason to grant premises 1 and 2? It seems to me that both are questionable, but in this article I want to focus only on premise 2.

What reason do we have for supposing that premise 2 is correct, that gratuitous evil does, in fact, exist? Since this argument is the atheist’s argument it is he who bears the burden of proof for its premises. Unfortunately for the atheist this premise is incredibly difficult to establish. The reason for this difficulty lies in the fact that human beings are finite – limited in space, time, insight and intelligence – and thus not in any intellectual position to make such judgments. Certainly we can grant that some evils look gratuitous, but how do we know they actually are? Some seemingly gratuitous evil could in time lead to some great good – perhaps even decades later and in another country. In the world in which we live things are intricately interconnected in such a way that even very small events can turn out to have massive unforeseen consequences. Think of the common illustration, from the science of chaos theory, of a butterfly fluttering around a plant setting in motion events which lead to a hurricane off the coast of Florida. Intellectually limited as we are, humans can’t possibly know or predict the long-term effects of such events. Without such knowledge it is difficult to claim that any given evil is in fact gratuitous.

Even worse: it seems that unless one is already committed to atheism there is no reason to accept premise (2). Those of us who believe in God might counter-argue as follows:

4. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
5. God exists.
6. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

So, if God exists no evil is gratuitous. It all has a plan and purpose in God’s providential ordering of the cosmos. This means that the problem of evil is not independent of our prior commitment – or lack thereof – to the existence of God. The atheist’s argument need not therefore have any appeal to theists. Whether or not gratuitous evil exists depends on whether or not God exists.

This exposes a problem in this form of the problem of evil. Atheists often present it as an argument against belief in God, one they reckon should convince theists. However, they tend to ignore the fact that theists in general – and Christians in particular – approach the problem from a very different perspective. As Christians we believe in God already. Whilst the intellectual credentials of Christian belief are good, most of us probably believe in God because we experience God as a living reality. Our God is not just the God of the philosophers, the conclusion of a deductive argument. Rather our God is the living God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who took on human flesh and pitched his tent amongst us; the God whose Spirit dwells within us. He is a God of history, working out his redemptive plan day after day and year after year.

An illustration will help show the difference between the atheist and the Christian outlook. The atheist position views the world with its evils like a picture with blemishes and ugly stains all over it. But, a picture is static, it doesn’t change: a picture is only a snapshot in time, not the whole story. In contrast, the Christian view is that the world with its evils is more like a drama. A drama moves across time, it changes. Horrors from an earlier scene can find their meaning and redemption in the end. If we focus on one scene – perhaps where the hero is imprisoned, the villain imposing his will, and little hope in sight – we may well despair. But of course the meaning of a drama isn’t found in any one scene. The meaning of a drama is often only revealed at the end when the drama reaches resolution. The end puts earlier scenes in a new light. We often get glimpses into this sort of thing in our own lives. How often do we look back on something and see it in a different light? Hindsight can be a wonderfully illuminating thing.

One of my favourite illustrations of this kind of principle comes from the movie “Sliding Doors.” [Spoiler alert!] In the movie the lead character is running to catch a train. At this point the movie branches off into two “sub-movies”: in one she catches the train, and in the other she misses it. The movie shows how her life goes in two completely different directions as a result of one seemingly mundane event: catching or missing a train. In one world she goes on to be incredibly successful, while in the other she goes through various trials, frustrations and hardships. However, in the life in which she is successful she ends up dying much younger; while in her other life she finally turns things around. Imagine one day in eternity God shows her just what would’ve happened had she caught the train. She might then be grateful for missing it, even though it brought hardship and frustrations for a time.

We also see glimpses of this principle in scripture. The apostle Paul was able to write in the midst of his hardships: “So we do not lose heart. . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to things that are seen, but to things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” [2 Cor 4:16-18]. Paul understood that the Christian lives in the light of eternity. This life is not the end of the story. Earthly life is infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life awaiting us. As we live in this eternity the sufferings of our present life will shrink towards an infinitesimal moment, a speck on the horizon. Even though there may be evils serving little or no good (from an earthly human viewpoint), they may well be permitted by God so he might overwhelmingly reward in eternity those who go through such trials in faith.

Imagine standing as one of Christ’s disciples watching his crucifixion. The one you followed as Lord, Messiah, healer, preacher, and friend, is nailed to a cross. It’s over. All your hopes are crushed. This was the death of one cursed. This was not meant to happen to the Messiah. For the disciples it was an evil that brought their world to an end. Frozen in time the events of the cross might appear gratuitous, useless, and purposeless; it looks like evil has triumphed. But we know that the story didn’t end here. There’s the resurrection, the appearances, the Great Commission, Pentecost: in short, there’s redemption. Evil is defeated. Good has triumphed. God is not dead. The drama of redemptive history continues.

No one can rightly condemn or adversely judge an artist on the basis of an unfinished piece. Whilst the atheist is content to judge God on the here and now, the Christian need not be so inclined. Our God is one who turns crucifixion to resurrection; fall to salvation; sin to redemption. And whilst we may freely acknowledge that we can’t comprehend all the evils we see and experience, we also know that the Director is still at work, and the curtain has not yet fallen…….

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The Euphemisms of “Pro-Choice”

The issue of abortion is rarely far from the public consciousness. My own opposition to abortion is well known amongst those who know me, in particular those who have debated the issue with me recently. However, I must confess to a deep disappointment in those I have debated from the “pro-choice” lobby in recent weeks. The arguments in favour of abortion have been virtually non-existent, replaced instead mostly with ad hominem attacks. In 3 cases after I presented a pro-life case or questioned the “pro-choice” position I was immediately attacked for being a man and therefore, somehow, having no right to an opinion on the matter. Seemingly in the minds of these people having a penis somehow impedes my ability to analyse the scientific evidence concerning the beginning and nature of human life. In a further case when I asked for an argument from a “pro-choice” advocate I was told that “there’s no point in arguing with people who are religious so I won’t bother.” This was strange since up to this point nothing in our debate had been religious or spiritual in nature or content.

In almost every case my opponents wrote about abortion in terms which are grossly inaccurate. John Powell once was remarked that, “Language is something like the sugar coating on the ideas which we swallow and digest.” When an idea is repugnant it’s easier to get people to swallow it if we dress it up in language that suggests something else. Way back in America in the 1970’s the abortion debate was raging in the aftermath of the Roe v Wade and Bolton v Doe decisions (which legalised abortion on demand in all 50 States for the full 9 months of pregnancy). When the proponents of abortion were making their case they knew that public opinion would be against them if they spoke of the ending of a human life in the womb; so they needed a vocabulary to speak of abortion that avoided mention of the tiny human killed in each act. One of the terms coined way back then remains in popular usage: “terminating a pregnancy.” Proponents of abortion knew it was easier to gain public acceptance for killing babies in the womb if they called it “terminating a pregnancy,” and avoided mention of the human life altogether.

Occasionally I do meet “pro-choice” advocates who deny that abortion really is the ending of a human life. Such a viewpoint is pure wanton ignorance for which there is no scientific support. Doctor Bernard Nathanson (one of the leading pro-abortion voices in American until converting to the pro-life cause) wrote:

“Why did I change my mind? Well, to begin with, it was not from religious conviction, because as I have stated on many occasions…I am an atheist…In any case, the change of mind began with the realisation, the inescapable reality that the fetus, that embryo, is a person, is a protectable human life.”

Doctor Jerome LeJeune put the matter like so:

“Life has a very, very long history but each individual has a very neat beginning, the moment of its conception. . . To accept that fact that after fertilisation has taken place, a new human has come into being, is no longer a matter of taste or of opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.”

Or Doctor Matthews-Roth, “…it is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception, when the egg and sperm join to form the zygote, and that this developing human always is a member of our species in all stages of its life.”

To flog the goat a little more, Doctor DeMere says, “From the medical standpoint there are mountains of documents to show that the human embryo is a separate person biologically distinct from the mother.” This human life which exists from conception becomes viable the moment it implants in the mother’s womb. Once it has done so a woman is pregnant, a new human being will grow and develop.

Therefore, owing to the sheer weight of scientific evidence proving beyond any reasonable doubt that human life begins at the moment of conception, most “pro-choice” advocates have no option but to quietly accept that this is so but do all in their power to avoid mention of it publically. Hence “terminating a pregnancy” rather than “terminating a human life.” “Terminating a pregnancy” is a euphemism, the sugar-coating on a horrendous idea that its advocates want us to swallow.

I have discovered that this is often the real reason “pro-choice” advocates complain so aggressively against the kinds of images made public by pro-life advocates. It is true that these pictures are grizzly, greatly disturbing, and deeply saddening. These images have haunted me. They’ve made me sick. They’ve made me shed tears. But they illustrate the horrible truth that in every abortion a human life is ended, either by having his or her body crushed or cut to pieces, or by having his or her skin and internal organs burnt and dissolved by chemical solutions. They expose the “pro-choice” euphemism of “terminating a pregnancy” and show us exactly what that means: the destruction of a human life.

Regrettably the “pro-choice” case is full of this kind of language, this sort of sugar coating to make repugnant ideas more palatable. Another popular form of language is that of the “private choice” of women to do what they want with “their own body.” Again, all mention of the human life being taken is conveniently glossed over in this attempt to close off all discussion and critique under the auspices that abortion is none of our business and should be left to the individual woman to decide what she does with “her own body.” Of course the plain truth is that abortion is not a private moral decision at all. We’re not talking about the right of women to have cancerous growths cut out from their bodies. We’re talking about the destruction of a human life, a life that is biologically distinct from the woman’s own life. The human life in question has his or her own genetic code, blood-type, fingerprints, beating heart, nervous system, and of course can be a completely different sex from the mother altogether. Furthermore, this human life feels pain independently of the mother, can be healthy even when the mother is unwell, can be awake even when his or her mother is sleeping.

For this reason abortion must be seen as more than just a “private decision.” There are two lives – two bodies – involved: not just one.

Amongst the more ridiculous examples of a pro-choice advocate trying to lessen the weight behind the fact that abortion ends a human life came at me a week or two ago during a debate. My opponent’s contention was that abortion kills a foetus but not a baby because a foetus does not become a baby until 24 weeks. When I challenged her on this she made no attempt at a justification, either scientific or ethical. Instead I was told I was a man and therefore had no right to an opinion. This response surprised me as I had merely asked a simple question: what is different between a foetus at 23 weeks and one at 24 that suddenly confers “baby status” on it? Moreover, given that a 4 year old child could in many cases be more advanced than a 5 year could it not also be the case that in many instances a 23 or 22 weeks old “foetus” be more advanced than a 24 week old foetus? What scientific grounds are there for such an arbitrary line between “foetus” and “baby?” “You’re a man, what would you know.” There’s nothing like a good piece of ad hominem when your opponent unmasks your ridiculous position for what it is, eh?

What my opponent conveniently overlooked is that the word “foetus” simply refers to a particular stage of human development, (in fact the word literally means “unborn child”). Throughout our lives we are called by many names: zygote, embryo, foetus, baby, infant, toddler, child, teenager, adult. We are fully human the entire time regardless of what particular stage we’re at. We tend to use the word “foetus” to describe a human being in the womb, and the word “baby” to describe a human being once it has left. From foetus to baby there is absolutely no fundamental biological change.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching my own son grow in the womb of my wife. I’ve seen the scans – more than most people get to see because of certain complications we had to face during the 9 months which required more frequent hospital visits. I still remember him at 12 weeks the very first time I saw him: spinning, moving – frantically moving – twisting, turning and so full of life. Of course everyone – me, my wife, relatives, doctors, midwives, nurses, GPs – referred to him as “baby.” But when a baby is earmarked for destruction the “pro-choice” advocates suddenly adopt a very different language – a language of dehumanisation. Other terms are used: “clump of cells,” “potential life” (a ridiculous term you’ll never hear a biologist use), “product of conception.” But these are words no-one ever uses in any other context. No woman ever says “wow, my clump of cells just moved there,” or “the potential life just kicked,” or “I saw the product of conception sucking its thumb.” We know the truth: there’s a human being in there. “Pro-choice” advocates wish to obscure this truth and once again the tactic of choice is euphemism: get the general public to swallow horrendous ideas by covering them in sugar-coated language that masks reality.

Abortion is an issue that isn’t going to leave the debate scene anytime soon. But whether we are for it or against it we should at least be accurate about what it is: the destruction of a human life.

Stephen J Graham

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