Monthly Archives: December 2016

Short Article 9: Does Matthew 20 contradict Mark 10?

Justin Schieber of Real Atheology recently suggested that there was a discrepancy between these two passages:

(1) Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left…” (Matthew 20:20–21)

(2) Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left….” (Mark 10:35–37)

Schieber shrewdly observes that whilst Matthew says the mother of John and James makes the request of Jesus, Mark says that James and John made it themselves. Take that inerrantists!!

Now, what follows from this claim? First of all it doesn’t follow that the event never happened. After all, many modern media outlets provide conflicting accounts of real events all the time. Schieber, however, means to say that these passages present a problem to the one who believes in inerrancy. Such “discrepancies” are nothing new, but this one in particular is hardly troubling to the inerrantist, unless we insist on ridiculously wooden readings of the text.

There are, of course, certain explanations which clearly won’t do. For instance, one suggestion is that Matthew and Mark report different events: one in which James and John ask Jesus this question, and the other when their mother does on their behalf. The accounts strike me as far too similar for that suggestion to be plausible. I think we can safely say they are intended to report the same event. Even here there are several possibilities discussed by inerrantists, but I want to mention just one which seems to me (a non-inerrantist) eminently plausible.

In order to understand this rather simple explanation let’s take a detour through the world of criminal law. In criminal law we find a principle called “joint enterprise.” Let’s say Bill and Ben plan to murder Mary. They organise their venture, set off and break into Mary’s house. While Bill goes to find her valuable possessions, Ben holds her at gun point. After a few minutes of taunting her, Ben pulls the trigger, killing Mary, and then he and Bill make their escape. Suppose a newspaper ran a feature on Bill 5 years later in which he was called a murderer. Is the newspaper feature wrong, since it was Ben who fired the shot? Not at all. Under the doctrine of joint enterprise both Bill and Ben are guilty of Mary’s murder.

Let’s return then to James, John, and their mother. It seems to me a rather simple reading to see the matter as a “joint enterprise” in the same way. In Matthew’s version the mother speaks, but she does so on behalf of her sons. She is speaking what they want to say. It is their words that come out of her mouth. She makes the verbal petition, but it is actually James and John behind it. So, in Mark’s version the mother is simply ignored. Even though she spoke the words Mark reports them as the words of James and John. Why? Because the words were those of James and John even if spoken by another. Even though literally “Their mother said,” it remains true that “John and James said.”

There is, therefore, no significant problem here for the inerrantist. There is only a problem if we, (as I suspect Schieber has done), confuse the doctrine of inerrancy with biblical literalism.

Stephen J. Graham

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Theodicy Revisited

The wonderful folks at On Religion magazine have published ny most recent article “Theodicy Revisited,” a follow up to my earlier article, “The Drama of Evil.”

Stephen J. Graham


In my previous article (see Issue 13 of On Religion) I discussed one version of the problem of evil and I contended that one of the premises of this argument – “gratuitous evil exists” – is not one which the theist is obliged to accept. In fact, arguably this premise is only true if it is the case that God does not exist; but this is precisely what is at issue. Moreover, the chances of the atheist demonstrating that any particular evil is in fact gratuitous are not very good given our cognitive limitations.

In response, one critic opined that saying “God moves in mysterious ways” simply “doesn’t cut it.” However, nowhere did I suggest that the solution to the problem of evil is simply “God moves in mysterious ways.” I was merely offering a defence against one particular argument from evil. Just because I wasn’t offering a full-blown theodicy – an attempt to provide positive reasons why God causes or permits evil to exist – does not mean I think the problem of evil can be settled by saying “God moves in mysterious ways.” In fact, I think there are several positive things we can say about evil.

Now, when we offer a theodicy it shouldn’t be taken as an explanation of God’s actual reasons for allowing evil or as an exhaustive list of all the reasons God could have. Moreover, a theodicy isn’t a failure if it only addresses certain evils but not others. All a theodicy needs to do to help weaken the argument from evil is to provide plausible reasons which God might or could have for causing or permitting certain evils.

As there isn’t space in a short article to give a fully developed theodicy, I wish simply to outline some of the main themes that emerge in the various theodicies on offer.

1. Free Will

Most theodicies rely on the notion of free will at some stage and to some degree. God has endowed us with free will as an important part of being creatures made in his image with significant choices to make in this world. Without free will our moral life would be impossible, in fact life itself would be reduced to something of a farce. However, our life and our choices really do matter. We are not automatons; God has made something much more valuable and significant than that. Philosophers of religion such as Alvin Plantinga have developed this use of the concept of free will in relation to the problem of evil, such that it seems to many to be an effective response at least to the evils that result from the abuse of free will by human agents. Other philosophers go even further than this and extend the use of the notion of free will to the existence of natural evils – earthquakes, tornadoes, or tsunamis, for example – seeing them as the result of the free actions of demonic agents. However, there is another way of applying free will to such things, which brings me to the second theme.

2. The Fall

The most common way to view the evils of nature – inspired greatly by Saint Augustine – is to regard them as the consequences of the Fall. So, philosopher of religion Peter Van Inwagen writes: “All evil is the result of the primordial act of turning away from God; there is no source of evil other than creaturely rebellion.” In this turning away from God human beings caused the corruption not only of their own nature, but also of the created order. We are now living with the consequences of that act. Christian theologians add that it was to reverse this act of rebellion and its disastrous consequences that God became flesh to atone for sin, making salvation possible. God is now in the business of bringing creation to its ultimate purpose: where everything will be made new and all sin and suffering will be dealt

Now, it isn’t the case that all the pain and suffering a person faces are regarded as punishment for their own sins. It is no part of Christian teaching that when bad things happen to a person then there must be sin in his or her life which has brought them suffering and pain. The Old Testament book of Job is a decisive refutation of such theology, as is the life and crucifixion of Christ. However, there is a strand of biblical thought – most explicit in the book of Judges – that shows us that there are occasions when suffering and pain is caused either by sin itself or in the form of punishment for sin. Moreover, sometimes in the natural world there are certain consequences that go along with certain actions. For instance, those who are sexually promiscuous are far more likely to suffer sexually transmitted diseases. This suffering is not “punishment,” but is a likely consequence of certain forms of behaviour.

Again, it must be stressed that this should not lead us to a theology of retribution where every instance of suffering is interpreted as the result of a person’s sin: it clearly isn’t. Pain and suffering is, on this view, simply the result of living in a fallen world, a result which will in time be remedied.

3. Soul Making

There is a minority tradition in Christendom that doesn’t accept this interpretation of human beginnings. This tradition is actually older than the Augustinian approach but it never achieved the same systematic development. This alternative view is often associated with Irenaeus.

Irenaeus made the distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity, corresponding to two stages of creation. The former concerns our basic nature as rational agents capable of relating to God; the latter refers to our final perfecting by the Spirit, a goal which we must ourselves cooperate with. Irenaeus argued that whilst humankind is created in God’s “image” (the first stage of creation) we are not perfected in God’s “likeness,” (the second stage of creation). We must use our moral and rational faculties to grow towards this perfect nature, a nature which must be freely chosen and developed, and which will be rejected by some. Ireneaus argued that this way of creating humankind is morally superior to the direct creation of a perfect finite being because it’s good to grow and develop in moral knowledge; it’s good even to experience failure and suffering because through them we experience the great goods of forgiveness and mercy and have a deeper appreciation of God’s love and grace.

For this second stage of creation to be realised we require a certain type of environment, and in particular one allowing us a significant level of freedom from God. In order to possess any kind of significant autonomy in relation to God, humankind must be set at epistemic distance from God. This means the reality and presence of God is not impressed upon human beings in the coercive way in which the natural world forces itself upon our attention. To some extent then the world must appear as if there is no God. God will be a hidden deity, veiled by creation, and knowable only by a mode of knowledge which requires a free personal response on the part of each individual person. This context will secure for humankind the necessary cognitive freedom, from which we may either be aware or unaware of our Maker. So, the hiddenness of God – so often used as an argument in favour of atheism – is actually to be expected. It guarantees our cognitive freedom, and makes it possible for us to ignore God if we wish and live as if He were not there. On the
other hand creation remains fit to mediate the presence of God for those who choose to step towards Him. As Pascal put it: There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”

When we consider the kind of character the world must have so as to give humans freedom vis-a-vis God it seems that a world of the kind we occupy is a fitting environment to this end. In our world we do not dwell in the direct and unmistakable presence of God, but rather in a context in which we may freely welcome the knowledge and presence of God or hold it at bay. Our world can be experienced and interpreted in religious or atheistic terms. The state of the world is then a necessary condition for the realisation of an incredibly great good: the perfection of beings which comes through redemption.

4. Greater Goods

This highlights another popular theme in theodicy – the idea that God causes or permits evil and suffering because by doing so He brings about goods that weren’t otherwise possible. If we judge the world on the extent to which it promotes pleasure to all, then it fails. However, in Christianity – and virtually all other major world religions – the purpose of life is not hedonism or worldly pleasures. The purpose of life is the knowledge of God, which brings ultimate human fulfillment. Knowing God – the creator of the universe, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the locus of infinite goodness and love – is an incomparable good, the fulfilment of our existence. The evils we find in the world are pointless in so far as creating a nice environment for promoting our own desired pleasures, but not necessarily with respect to achieving the kinds of goods God desires for us. For instance, innocent human suffering could lead to deeper reliance and trust in God (though of course whether this purpose is achieved will depend on a person’s free response), or perhaps moral and natural evils are often the means God uses to draw people to Himself. Not every evil we face is obviously connected with a greater good, but many evils are at least plausibly connected to greater goods. When so many evils are at least plausibly connected with greater goods we can perhaps have hope when faced with evils for which no greater good can be presently conceived that even they too are not gratuitous.

5. Eternity

For the Christian, God’s purposes extend beyond this life and into eternity. If earthly life is a grain of sand, eternity is the Sahara. Many who bear suffering and sorrow in this life will receive heavenly joy and recompense beyond earthly comprehension. 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.” Earthly life is infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life awaiting us. The sufferings of our present life will shrink towards an infinitesimal moment, a speck on the horizon.

There is much more to say, but ultimately the Christian’s response to evil rests on his or her hope in the sovereignty, love and justice of God. There is no evil outside of God’s control; no evil that doesn’t serve a divine purpose; no evil that won’t be dealt with in the fullness of time.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article 8: Skepticism & The Banshee of Castlederg

The word banshee comes from the Irish term “Bean Sidhe,” which means “woman of the hill.” In Celtic mythology as the ancient gods of Ireland where decreasing in power and influence, they all got their own little hill – Sidh (pronounced “Shee”) – in which to live. Many were downgraded from “divine” status and became simply “fairies.” Goddesses soon become “women of the hills” – bean sidhe – or banshees. Lots of folk tales grew up around the banshees, who were rumoured to appear on hill tops and wail into the night. Their appearance was typically taken as an omen of a death in the family of those who saw them.

My mum recently told me one particular delightful story about her grandfather – Granda Wilson – which made me smile, particularly in light of my own well-known scepticism of all such phenomena.

My Great Grandfather Wilson lived in County Tyrone just outside of a small down called Castlederg. He was a farmer, and as such lived a tough life. However, such farmers were hardy folk, with a wonderful ability to get on with life in the face of hardships, and even to be jolly as they did so. Apparently my Great Grandfather was no exception, and my mum loved to spend time with him on his farm over the summer. In fact she became his shadow and followed him everywhere he went: except when he went to face a banshee.

The weather was stormy and at night a ghostly figure was spotted wailing into the night. Others were called and confirmed that this was indeed a banshee. What else could it be? Word spread around the area and many people were afraid. The old tales of banshees were well ingrained in rural consciousness and banshees were never rumoured to bring glad-tidings! The hill was avoided, particularly at night.

But my great granda Wilson was a hardy farmer, a man too well acquainted with the earth and its natural rhythms to be afraid of any otherworldly nonsense like this! He wasn’t afraid of anything. He was going to put an end to this silly talk and find out once and for all what was going on at the top of this hill. A small group gathered to watch him as he resolved to confront the banshee. He grabbed his coat, a stick, and a torch and headed off.

The small crowd followed him to the bottom of the hill and watched. From the bottom of the hill the people could see the banshee waving and wailing at the top as it had done now for several nights. After a few minutes they heard the huge hearty laugh of my great grandfather Wilson. A few minutes later he reappeared in jolly good spirits. “A banshee?” he laughed. “Did no-one notice in day light the big bloody tree at the top of the hill had a sheet stuck on it!?!”

Yep. Apparently an old bedsheet had blown off someone’s washing line in the storm and got stuck in the tree. In the stormy weather the trees branches wailed and the sheet flapped in the wind like a ghost. What else could it be but a banshee?

The story reminds us of a number of lessons which must be borne in mind when considering all such phenomena:

1. The power stories can have over our collective consciousness,
2. The ability of groups of people to convince each other of things for which there’s a perfectly normal explanation,
3. How our perception of reality can be skewed and affected by the things we believe, and
4. That exposing the plain truth can often be achieved simply by shedding a little light on the matter.

Stephen J. Graham (proud to be 1/8th Wilson)

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