Monthly Archives: June 2014

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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