Monthly Archives: September 2017

Reflections on Suffering & the Time I Could’ve Died

And now for something completely different. Well, a little bit different. I thought I’d write this piece as a personal reflection on the value of suffering, rather than a philosophical piece. It was inspired by a question I was asked recently: rather than allow someone to go through suffering and then deliver them from it, wouldn’t it be better if God had kept them from the suffering in the first place? It made me think of the worst moment of my life.

About 20 years ago I was part of an adventure group on a “coastal walk” at the North coast of Northern Ireland. Don’t be deceived by that description. This was no leisurely stroll along the beach. This involved rock climbing, jumping off small cliffs into the sea, bouldering, and swimming. At one particular point in our journey we had to swim from one side of a bay to another. In the middle there was a small rocky island which we had to swim to first to get a short rest before continuing on.

Some rough weather had been stirring and as we were making our first swim we soon became aware that the conditions were much worse than we had thought. We had to get to safety pretty quickly, so we all made for the little rocky island. The sea had become so rough that the edges of the island were being pounded, so we had to wait until the last wave crashed and then swim in and climb up the rocks before the next wave hit. I timed my swim OK but as I attempted to climb up my foot caught on some seaweed and I slid. I was left half-lying and half-clinging to the rocks hoping that I might be able to bear the hit of the wave. I’ve never felt a force like it. Trying to hang onto the rocks was utterly futile (in fact the skin of my hands got badly torn in a few places). I was washed straight across the rocks and into a huge swell of water. Had I not been wearing a helmet my head would, in all probability, have been crushed. I was swept into a huge swell of water, unable to breathe, and too stunned to help myself. One of the others in my group was a trained lifeguard and I was fortunate enough that he was able to get me out and (with a huge effort on the part of the group) onto the island. I was in shock for some time afterwards and couldn’t believe how fortunate I was. I still remember the lifeguard’s words to me: “When things like that happen you realise just how fragile we are and that your life is really quite a precious thing.”

How easy it would have been for some small detail to have been different that would have left my family in mourning. If my helmet had been too loose. If the winds had been just a little bit different and sent me straight onto rock instead of into the sea. If we hadn’t had an experienced lifeguard with us. So many things could’ve been different, and had they been different my life may well have ended that day. Imagine two worlds: the current world and another possible world in which events conspired to kill me off that day. If we compare those worlds as they each look at 9am on 14th September 2017 there will be certain big differences. Consider all the people I have interacted with – for good or ill – in the last 20 years. Many of their lives would be quite different, some hugely so. My son wouldn’t exist. My wife would’ve married someone else and different children might exist who are missing from our actual world. Over time these children might have children, and so on. It’s mind-boggling how even one small event which could have so easily turned out differently can send a wave through time and have such massive consequences, and that’s before we think of the billions of events in billions of lives every single day. This fact is the main reason why I think arguments from suffering fail: they under-appreciate this feature of reality that even small events can have huge and unforeseen consequences that can radically change the future in ways we can barely comprehend.

But what about me? Why would God allow me to go through such an experience rather than prevent it in the first place? Admittedly, my experience on this day was (and remains) the worst experience of my life. At the time, I would’ve preferred that it didn’t happen at all. But on reflection it did change me a lot and taught me a few things I wouldn’t have learnt or appreciated except for having gone through the experience. And thus it seems to me that it might indeed make sense for God to sometimes save us from the midst suffering rather than spare us from it in the first place. In other words, whilst God might have good reason for causing or permitting suffering in the first place, He could also have good reason for saving a person from the midst of it.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article 14: Prayer, Providence, and Natural Disasters

As hurricane Irma was bearing down on the Caribbean, Cuba, and the US, many religious people took to prayer. The typical internet atheist retort went something like: “Really? You’re praying to the God who didn’t see fit to stop the hurricane in the first place?” Or, “If hurricanes are part of God’s providential ordering of things, why bother to pray for those caught up in one?” The point appears to be that it’s stupid or pointless to pray for God to help people, since if God really wanted to He could easily have swept the hurricane from existence altogether.

To my mind there is little substance to this complaint. The atheist here appears to be operating under some assumption such as:

 

(A) If a being – S – causes some event – C – then S cannot rightly or rationally or justifiably be appealed to for help by those affected by C.

 

The problem with this assumption is that it is flat-out false and we can easily think of a whole host of cases where it fails to apply. For instance, suppose my son goes to school one day to join his class. When seated the teacher presents them with an incredibly difficult sheet of mathematics problems, invites them to work through it, and then sits at her desk reading some Bertrand Russell. In this scenario, would it be silly or pointless for one of the pupils to approach the teacher for assistance, despite the fact that the teacher is wholly responsible for the pupils’ predicament? Not only would it not be unjustifiable or silly, but it would make winsome sense to do so, and in fact might be part of the reason for the exercise in the first place. Perhaps the teacher is seeking to illustrate a more general lesson to the class beyond pure mathematics. Perhaps she is testing their ability to cope in the face of a seemingly intractable problem. Or perhaps she wants to teach them the importance of seeking assistance from those who can offer it. It matters not what the purpose is – and I’m not trying to say God sends hurricanes to teach us things – I’m simply illustrating that just because S causes C doesn’t mean those affected by C cannot rightly appeal to S for assistance – in other words, that the hidden assumption in the atheist’s complaint does not hold.

In the face of natural disasters, Christians (and presumably those of many other faiths) will resort to the spiritual discipline of prayer, despite knowing that such an event has occurred only within the providence of God who either directly caused it or permitted it to occur. However, I can’t see any reason to suppose that praying is therefore pointless, (though someone could think it is pointless on totally different grounds). The critic seems to understand God’s providence in fatalistic terms: God has ordained everything to happen as it does, therefore there is nothing we can do about it by prayer or any other means. This is a common understanding of providence at the popular level, but it’s wholly lacking in nuance, (not to mention involving an overly narrow view of prayer).

It isn’t my intention to explicate a doctrine of divine providence here, but rather to point out that since the assumption behind this complaint is false, the atheist owes us an argument as to why it’s unjustifiable or absurd to say that although God causes or permits some event He can still be appealed to by those affected by it. To put it another way: what reason is there for thinking that if God has some purpose in allowing C to occur then He cannot also have a purpose in assisting someone in C in response to prayer?

Stephen J. Graham

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Ten Prophetic Techniques to Amaze Your Friends

When it comes to so-called “prophetic people,” I’ve seen and heard pretty much everything. I used to believe in it myself and I know loads of incredibly intelligent people who still do. The problem is prophets are incredibly convincing people. They are in the same category as psychics, magicians, and mentalists. Not that I want to label all such people as frauds, of course. Magicians are playing make-believe with us: we all know that it’s an illusion but we are delighted at how the magician leaves us wondering “how the hell did they do that?!” Others – perhaps some psychics – are simply deluded, thinking they have some otherworldly power when in fact they’ve just picked up a few techniques. Many are, of course, frauds. I’ve witnessed “prophets” who (I think) genuinely believed in their ministry, and others who seemed quite clearly to be scam artists.

When I’m engaged in a debate about modern prophecy, I’m typically presented with some scenario in which the person witnessed a prophet give an uncannily accurate prophetic word, and then I’m challenged with “so, how do you explain that?!” The correct answer is always: “I don’t know because I never witnessed the phenomenon and I don’t know anything about the so-called prophet in question.” In fact, as a theist, I have no a priori commitment to the notion that God cannot give supernatural knowledge to a person. However, before we jump to the idea that some prophet has a hot line to heaven, we do well to remind ourselves of the many techniques and tricks that deluded and false prophets are known to use.

(1)    Hot Reading

Hot reading takes many different forms but fundamentally it involves the prophet finding out information beforehand or using information he or she already knows about someone and passing it off as prophetically bestowed. Sometimes the prophet will have a number of people travelling with them and during proceedings they will call them out in front of the gathering and “reveal” all manner of things about the person. To the congregation it looks like an amazing case of divinely bestowed knowledge. Others have used assistants who mingle with a congregation beforehand to glean information that can be used during the service. Sometimes it’s more blatant: people are asked to fill out a “prayer card” before the service which provides the prophet with a wealth of information that he or she can use to amaze. In these days of the internet people put a crazy amount of personal information online, such that if a prophet is going to some church it won’t be difficult to find out who the regular attenders are and what’s currently going on in their lives.

(2)    Warm Reading

A prophet who lacks information about a person beforehand can still engage in warm reading. Warm reading is when the prophet tailors their pronouncements to a person on the basis of the demographic to which that person belongs. One well-known charismatic author speaks of a prophecy in which he was told that he had issues with his father, and that he had unrealised athletic ability. Of course, these kinds of things would be pretty common amongst middle-aged men, and provide a good illustration of warm reading. Warm reading can also involve what psychologists refer to as “Barnum statements” – phrases that sound incredibly specific but could apply to loads of people. We might like to think we are unique, but in reality we are very much like others, and prophets can exploit that fact to deceive.

(3)    Cold Reading

Cold reading is a much subtler technique and involves a person being responsive to the prophet’s words by feeding information back to the prophet, often without even knowing. A prophet who has mastered this technique can make it look like the information was in fact supernaturally revealed. The information given to the prophet is often unnoticed by most other members of the congregation – a simple nod or shake of the head, for example.

(4)    Scattergunning

Churches tend to be medium-large gatherings of people. The chances of there being someone called John, or someone with arthritis, or someone who has recently experienced a bereavement, is high enough that a prophet can address a prophecy to the entire congregation and manage to get a hit. It looks impressive, especially to the average person who has little grasp of probability.

(5)    Vagueness

The more vague a prophecy the less chance of its being proven false. “God’s going to bless you this year with a wonderful gift,” could be interpreted to mean many different things. Being precise ties a prophet down. It’s really quite rare to hear a prophet give a future prophecy that is so specific it could be conclusively proven or falsified.

(6)    Infallible Questions

 This technique involves asking questions of people in such a way that no matter how they respond it can be presented as supernatural knowledge on the part of the prophet. Suppose he or she says “I don’t suppose you’re interested in mission trips?” No matter what the reply is the prophet can pass it off as supernatural knowledge: “no, because I felt God saying you had a heart for your local community,” or “yes, the Spirit was testifying to me that you have a heart to win the lost in distant places.”

(7)    Ambiguous Pictures

Here the prophet presents a person – or group of people – with a picture, maybe even an incredibly surreal one. Such pictures invite the listener to run all manner of searches through their past experiences to see if they can find a match for the picture that the prophet has presented. I once heard a prophet claim to have been given the picture of a racing car going gradually faster round and round a track. The picture was then interpreted to mean the church and it’s four elders. Just as the car needs its 4 tires, so this church would need its 4 elders working together to help it drive forward on its mission. But, really, with a bit of imagination we could interpret it to mean 101 other things if we wanted it to.

(8)    Punt to the Future

Often a prophet gets it wrong. Sometimes he addresses the wrong person with information meant for someone else. Sometimes he misreads someone entirely, perhaps taking them for being wealthy when they are in fact poor, and gives a prophetic word to them that seems a million miles away from where they are. No problem here: just say something like, “This sounds crazy to you now, but God will bring this about in your life. Nothing is impossible with God. Just keep trusting him.” It’s fool-proof.

(9)    Stories of Past Glories

Here the prophet spends a considerable amount of time telling stories of amazing feats that God worked in their ministry somewhere else in the world. If he or she tells enough of these stories then people will talk about the events as if they actually witnessed them first-hand. It all helps to build the reputation of the prophet, and of course encourages people to dig deep in their pockets to support such a God-anointed global ministry.

(10) Thees and Thous

At a certain Pentecostal church I used to attend there was a point in the services when a prophet would stand up and deliver a message directly from God – in the first person: “And I, your God, sayest unto thee…” Speaking directly from God is a risky business, but it can lend a certain gravitas and authority to your words, such that even if you say something way off people are less likely to question it because “God said.”

So, next time you hear a charismatic prophet in full swing, keep in mind that it might well be little more than smoke and mirrors.

 Stephen J Graham

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Short Article 13: Can God Change His Mind?

In Christendom God has typically been regarded as “immutable.” Sometimes this is defined as “unchangeable,” other times as “unchanging.” The former conception is a much stronger one than the latter, for the former means that God cannot change in some respect, not just that he simply doesn’t change. Of course, those who adhere to the stronger conception of immutability are careful to nuance the definition. They don’t think God is frozen into immobility and unable to act in the world. Instead, they typically mean that God doesn’t change in a number of crucial ways. For example, God’s existence doesn’t change: he has always and will always exist (“From everlasting to everlasting thou art God,” as the Biblical writer puts it). Further, God is considered to be unchangeable with respect to His character. His moral character of loving-kindness, grace, faithfulness and mercy never changes, and thus He can be relied upon by all who trust Him.

In a recent Twitter poll I asked “Can God Change His Mind?” 53% of respondents said “No, and I think they are right.

Many Christians might be tempted to think God does indeed change His mind, since salvation history includes a number of episodes in which it seems that God does precisely that. In fact, He is even said to “repent” of some action and change his course. If we are to take these passages at face value then it seems that we must affirm that God changes His mind.

However, I think we have good grounds for resisting that conclusion. One of the best-attested attributes of God through the Bible is His omniscience, and it is this attribute that should give pause for thought with respect to how we think of God’s immutability. God’s omniscience means that He is all-knowing. He has complete knowledge of the past, present, and future. There isn’t a true proposition He fails to believe, and He believes no false proposition. Now, think of what happens when we change our mind about something. We change our mind whenever we come to be in some new epistemic situation. Perhaps we come to learn some new fact. Or perhaps upon reflecting on the things we do know we come to see certain connections between them that we didn’t see before. Further, our depth of moral insight might develop in such a way that we come see some action as wrong or not as good as some other action. This is fairly typical for beings such as we are, limited in intelligence, depth of insight, and moral development. However, it seems to me that an omniscient being wouldn’t have any cause to change His mind. He already knows all the facts. He already knows how things will pan out in the future. There’s nothing lacking in His cognitive situation that could bring about a change of mind. If a being knows that X is going to happen, then the being will have taken X into account already.

Passages describing God as changing His mind are anthropomorphic: human ways of describing relations to God and attempts to make sense of what He is doing. These passages are not theological treatises and we shouldn’t expect rigorous philosophical precision from them. They are stories of people as they wrestle with and attempt to understand their experiences of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As such the stories simply give a human perspective on what God is doing. Take, for example, the classic case of Hezekiah, in which it seems on the face of it that God changed His mind in response to prayer to allow Hezekiah to live for a while longer. It only seems this way from our point of view. God always knew Hezekiah would pray for his life to be extended, and already knew what He was going to do. From God’s point of view there isn’t any change at all, though from Hezekiah’s standpoint it seems that God relents and give him 15 more years.

Some readers may be uncomfortable with my saying that such passages do not mean to describe God literally. However, God is regularly described (particularly in the Old Testament) in ways that clearly aren’t meant to be taken at face value. He doesn’t really have eyes, ears, legs; nor does He breathe out smoke while riding on clouds. Biblical literalism would lead us to an incredibly distorted concept of God indeed, and we should resist it where necessary (and it’s often necessary!).

In this case, literalism should be resisted, unless we are prepared to sacrifice God’s omniscience.

Stephen J. Graham

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