Moral Intuition, God, and Revelation

Sometimes theistic believers discover an awkward tension between their moral intuitions and the ethical teachings of their religion. For instance, some Christians are uncomfortable with the biblical teachings about women in ministry and homosexuality.1 How should believers think about the conflict between their moral intuitions (roughly: our basic senses of what is right and wrong) and moral teaching that purportedly comes from God?

I will give a tentative answer that gives our moral intuitions weight when determining whether a revelation is from God, but then give three reasons why we shouldn’t expect a genuine revelation to be completely intuitive. 

To begin, suppose God exists. By definition he is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. It might be the case that God has directly communicated some propositional truths to certain individuals which they tell to the rest of the world.2 I’ll refer to this as a revelation. 

Furthermore, suppose we have some reason to believe that a particular purported revelation is genuine (that is, divinely inspired in some sense). Maybe our sensus divinitatis3 is activated when reading it, maybe we are convinced by historical arguments in its favor, or maybe we think it’s written in such a way that no human could write. However, among the moral commands it gives there are several that seem incorrect. How should we handle this? 

The first thing to note is that moral intuitions are not nothing. In fact, Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne thinks we can test purported revelations with our moral intuitions. In his book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy, Swinburne lays out four tests to discern if a supposed revelation is genuine. One of them is that a revelation can’t be, “intrinsically improbable on grounds independent of the revelation.” He thinks one way a purported revelation can be improbable is by contradicting our deepest moral intuitions:  

“…a candidate revelation must not contain moral claims incompatible with any clear intuitions we have about what are the necessary truths of morality. If it tells us that rape and lying, murder and theft… are good, then that is good reason for supposing the candidate revelation not to be a genuine one. ”

This makes sense. It seems like we know (based on our moral intuitions) that a morally perfect being wouldn’t commend rape. This is not to say that our moral intuitions are perfect. However, in my view, we should treat our moral intuitions the way we treat our other faculties: accurate unless we have reason to believe otherwise. 

Swinburne makes two important qualifications in the above quote: the moral intuitions in question must not only be clear, they must also be about the necessary truths of morality. Necessary meaning (roughly) could not be otherwise.4 Contrast necessary moral truths like rape is wrong, with contingent moral truths like you should drive on the right side of the road.

So that’s one side of the issue: a genuine revelation will not be extremely morally unintuitive. 

However, there are several reasons why we shouldn’t expect a revelation from God to be completely morally intuitive. 

First, it might be the case that our moral intuitions are wrong. Given our fallible nature, there is no reason to think that our moral intuitions are perfect. We’ve all probably been wrong about moral issues before. So God might give a revelation to correct people’s flawed moral intuitions about ethical issues. 

Second, there are some circumstances where it is impossible for God to give a completely morally intuitive revelation. To see this, consider the position God is in before giving a revelation. If it is directed to many people, there is a good chance they will have conflicting opinions on moral issues. If that is so and God is going to give commands regarding those moral issues it is logically impossible for God to give a revelation that “fits” everyone’s moral intuitions because people have contradictory moral intuitions.5

Third, it seems like the point of a revelation is to tell us something new, something we don’t have the ability to figure out for ourselves.6 As Swinburne puts it, “…the point of a revelation is to tell us things for which we do not already have adequate evidence…” If God gave us a perfectly intuitive revelation, that would be redundant and that seems out of character for a perfect being.7 

In light of these three points, it’s unlikely that a revelation from God would be completely intuitive. 

So if I’m right, both extremes are unlikely: a genuine revelation wouldn’t perfectly fit our moral intuitions, but neither would it contradict them on necessary truths of morality. A revelation from God would be somewhere in the middle.8 

Here’s a possible objection: the Bible has many warnings about the wickedness of the human heart. Therefore, we can’t trust our moral intuitions on some issue as important as testing a revelation. 

I think this response is biblically dubious. Scripture itself tells of a number of people who had clear and correct moral intuitions before any of the Bible was written. Consider Joseph and Job, scripture clearly implies that they had knowledge of right and wrong even though they didn’t have the Bible. 

Also, Romans one speaks of mankind’s knowledge of God and of their moral culpability before him. Presumably this applies to people who don’t have the Bible, since it speaks of people being without excuse and of having knowledge of God, “ever since the creation of the world…” If moral culpability implies moral knowledge, then that means people had moral knowledge before the Bible was written.

I could imagine a skeptic responding to this essay with something like, “God would ‘connect the dots’ to help people understand the reasons for his moral commands. Thus helping people conform their intuitions to his perfectly good will. An unintuitive revelation from an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good being is an oxymoron.”9

This is a good objection that I need to think about more. In order for my essay to be persuasive, I might need to integrate some some theistic responses to the problem of divine hiddenness. 

[1] I realize that the correct exegesis of the relevant biblical passages is debated. I use them as examples because the way the church has historically interpreted those passages contradicts the moral intuitions of many modern people. 

[2] My paraphrase of Swinburne’s description. 

[3] “Sense of divinity”, used by John Calvin to describe mankind’s knowledge of God. 

[4] Swinburne says, “the existence and actions of God can make no difference to what are the necessary moral truths, for since they are necessary truths, nothing can make any difference to them.” Swinburne has a long and sophisticated account of God’s relationship to morality in his book. 

[5] The probability that it’s logically possible for God to give a completely morally intuitive revelation goes down the larger the target audience, and the more moral issues the revelation addresses. 

[6] As far as I can tell, among religions that believe God has given a propositional revelation, it is an infrequent occurrence. God usually lets us discover things for ourselves. This is a good thing because if God was constantly revealing things to us, it would probably reduce the incentive to study, experiment, and debate. Why try hard to learn things if God might reveal them the next day? I might have gotten this point from Swinburne.

[7] I got the basic thrust of this point from Swinburne. He says, “…the point of a revelation is to tell us things for which we do not already have adequate evidence…” He doesn’t elaborate. 

[8] If someone asks, “Where is the line?” I have no idea. This is a rough and tentative sketch.

[9] I got this general idea from Justin Schieber. The “connect the dots” phrase is his too I think.

Thinking About God and the Gay Christian

God and the Gay Christian is a book with a bold thesis: “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.” The author, Matthew Vines, writes well, and I appreciate the lack of inflammatory rhetoric that often accompanies this topic. I’ll discuss my agreement with Vines, and then a disagreement. But first, I have a personal note to share.

Several months ago, I was talking to a friend about this book, and he made a comment that stuck with me, “I think most people just believe what they want to believe.” Maybe my friend is right. Maybe most people read Vines’ book merely to rationalize their pre-existing beliefs about sexual ethics.1

The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. You, dear reader, have a choice. You can be different. You can acknowledge your beliefs and desires but be willing to surrender them if reason proves otherwise. You can orient your heart toward truth. That’s what I’ve tried to do.

Agreement: 

When discussing his argument for same-sex marriage, Vines takes a step back and discusses the theology of marriage in the Christian tradition: 

Human marriage, Ephesians says, is a “profound mystery” that points to the ultimate relationship: Christ’s eternal union with the church. Given that Christ’s covenant with us is unbreakable, our marriage bonds should be equally enduring. So the most important aspect of marriage is the covenant the two partners make. 

Perhaps the dominant message about marriage in modern society is that it’s primarily about being happy, being in love, and being fulfilled. Nearly everyone desires those things, of course. But what happens to the marriage bond if one spouse stops feeling fulfilled? What if one partner falls out of love, or they both do? 

For many in our society, the answer seems obvious: the couple should seek a divorce. Why should two people who no longer love each other stay together? 

I agree  – many people have a marriage-is-about-happiness view. I’ve even heard Christians talk about marriage this way. He goes on: 

But that is not the Christian message. For Christians, marriage is not just about us. It’s also about Christ. If Christ had kept open the option to leave us behind when he grew frustrated with us or felt like we were not living up to his standards, he may have abandoned us long ago. But the story of the gospel is that, although we don’t deserve it, God lavishes his sacrificial love upon us anyway. 

In marriage, we’re called to reflect God’s love for us through our self-giving love for our spouse. God’s love for us isn’t dependent on our day-to-day feelings toward him, on how hard we work to please him, or even on how faithful we are to him. It’s grounded in his nature and his covenant. Eph 5:1 tells us to be “imitators of God” (NASB) Because God’s love is boundless, ours should be as well. That means marriage isn’t at its deepest level, just about our happiness and fulfillment. At its core, marriage is also about displaying the nature and glory of God through the covenant we make – and keep – with our spouse.

Vines is exactly right. Marriage is not about happiness, it’s about Christ. I’m distressed when I hear Christians talk about divorce as a legitimate option solely because both partners want it. This view of marriage runs afoul of Jesus’ teachings on divorce and Paul’s analogy of marriage as Christ and the church.

Now for a disagreement with Vines. 

A Failed Argument from Celibacy 

In chapter three, “The Gift of Celibacy” Vines argues that the traditional Christian doctrine of celibacy is correct and that it contradicts the traditional doctrine of homosexuality. I’ll provide an overview of his argument, and then critique it.  

Vines sums up the traditional understanding of celibacy in the following way: 

Christians throughout history have affirmed that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and calling, not a path that should be forced upon someone. Yes, permanently forgoing marriage is a worthy choice for Christians who are gifted with celibacy. But it must be a choice… Celibacy [is] a spiritual gift and a choice – not… a mandate…

Vines is clear: celibacy is a choice and can’t be forced (made morally obligatory) on people. 

He argues that Jesus supported a voluntary view of celibacy. He elaborates: 

After Jesus told a group of Pharisees that a man may not divorce his wife, Jesus’s disciples responded by saying, “if this is the situation, then it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Jesus then said, “Not everyone can accept this word,” referring to the decision not to marry, “but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (verses 11-12).

Elaborating on this passage he says,

Jesus’ teaching does not support mandatory celibacy for people to whom celibacy has not been given. If even some gay Christians lack the gift of celibacy, we have reason to doubt interpretations that force celibacy upon them.

Later in the chapter, he quotes Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 7:

“Paul talked about the gift of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7 , and though he didn’t give an objective test for determining who has the gift, he indicated that it’s a matter of individual discernment. “Since sexual immorality is occurring,” he wrote, “each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband (verse 2)…  “I saw this as a concession, not as a command,” Paul continued. “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that” (verses 6-7). 

Individuals have to decide if they have the gift of celibacy, others can’t make that choice for them. 

Moving from scripture to church tradition, Vines quotes Augustine and Ambrose: 

Augustine in the fourth century, approvingly quoted the prevailing view that “no one can be continent unless God give it.” Ambrose wrote around the same time that lifelong “virginity cannot be commanded” and that it “is the gift of few only.”  

Again, we see that celibacy is a gift and not a mandate. 

Later in the chapter, Vines quotes Luther, Calvin and Pope John Paul II to provide further evidence of the widespread agreement on the traditional view of celibacy. 

So how does this understanding of celibacy cohere with the traditional view of homosexuality? Vines argues that it doesn’t. The traditional Christian understanding of sexuality is that everyone is called to abstinence before marriage. However, for gay people, Vines says that: 

it goes much further… denying them the very possibility of marriage. According to non-affirming Christians, gay people’s sexuality is completely broken, so mandatory, lifelong celibacy is their only real option.

For clarity, I’ve formulated Vines’ argument into a syllogism:  

  1. Any view of sexual ethics that forces celibacy on people is wrong. 
    1. Jesus taught this (Matthew 19:10-12). 
    2. Paul taught this (1 Corinthians 7:2-7). 
    3. The broad Christian tradition (both Catholic and Protestant) has taught this.
  2. The traditional view of homosexuality forces celibacy on people. 
  3. Therefore, the traditional view of homosexuality is wrong. 

I think premise one is false. 

Suppose there was someone with an innate and unalterable attraction to children and only children. Furthermore, suppose he didn’t feel called to celibacy. Couldn’t he make the same argument?2

  1. Any view of sexual ethics that forces celibacy on people is wrong.
    1. Jesus taught this (Matthew 19:10-12). 
    2. Paul taught this (1 Corinthians 7:2-7). 
    3. The broad Christian tradition (both Catholic and Protestant) has taught this.
  2. The traditional view of pedophilic relationships forces celibacy on people. 
  3. Therefore, the traditional view of pedophilia is wrong.

This reductio ad absurdum shows the mistake in Vines’ reasoning: the universal nature of premise one. Presumably, he wouldn’t affirm pedophilic relationships.3 So if pressed on this point, Vines would probably respond by noting that sexual relationships must have additional criteria to be moral, such as mutuality, a minimum age threshold, life-long duration, etc. 

But if Vines agrees to those additional criteria, that is a tacit admission that there are possible circumstances in which it’s right to “force” celibacy on people, and that contradicts premise 1, and thus collapses the argument. 

I agree with Vines that, in general, celibacy shouldn’t be forced on people. However, that’s contingent on there being a moral way to express the sexual desires in question. We can all agree that there are some desires that have no moral expression. The question is which those are. 

Vines’ mistake is understandable because having unfulfilled sexual desires for a lifetime is undoubtably very difficult. Indeed, the suffering involved was probably a substantial motivation for him making the argument. 

Now, someone might object: 

There’s abundant evidence of gay people with unalterable sexual desires. But you haven’t provided any evidence that there are any people with unalterable pedophilic desires.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve provided no evidence. It doesn’t matter if there is none. A universal statement (like premise 1) can be disproved by citing a counter-example that is simply possible

For instance, take the famous child-in-a-pond thought experiment posed by Peter Singer: imagine you’re walking along and see a small child drowning in a shallow pond. There is no one else there but you and the child, and you can safely save the child because the pond is shallow. You are about to rush in and save the child, but then you realize that doing so will ruin your expensive shoes. Should you still do it? 

Obviously, you should save the child. Singer uses this thought experiment to (roughly) argue for drastically increased donations to charitable organizations. Does it matter that he hasn’t provided any evidence for the existence of this child-in-a-pond situation? No, it doesn’t. What Singer is doing is using his imagination to create a hypothetical scenario that helps us think clearly about moral obligations. This is a very common and widely accepted technique in applied ethics. In my critique of Vines’ celibacy argument, I’m trying to do the same type of thing. 

Perhaps someone could try to salvage Vines’ argument by adding qualifications to premise 1. Maybe something like: the sexual desires of the person in question must be oriented to certain characteristics: monogamous, adult, human, etc. However, then the debate would just collapse back into the broad sexual ethics debate and it would no longer be an argument from celibacy. 

Endnotes: 

1. The same could be said for people with the opposite of Vines’ views.

2.  At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not saying homosexuality is morally equivalent to pedophilia. 

3. There are other examples that could be plugged into this syllogism. Consider people with unalterable and lifelong sexual desires for: bestiality, promiscuity, incest, etc. 

For further reading:

Matthew Vines’ website and his God and the Gay Christian book

A Christian Perspective on Homosexuality by William Lane Craig: Craig gives a broad overview of the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality. He doesn’t get into much depth with the exegesis, however, he does give some “secular” reasons to be oppose homosexuality. I’ll let the reader decide if he is successful or not. 

Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family and Life by Richard Swinburne: In this essay, Swinburne gives a broad overview of traditional Christian teaching on social issues. Then offers reasons why God might give these teachings. The section on homosexuality is relevant, and I think his points are worth considering, but I don’t know if he’s right. 

Sexual Ethics: An Exegetical Argument: In this essay I point out several flaws in an argument against the church’s traditional view of homosexuality. 

Matthew Vines and Sean McDowell’s debate on the Bible and homosexuality: As far as I am aware, this is Vines’ only public debate.

The Problem of Evil by Peter van Inwagen (2 of 2)

This video is the second in my series on Peter van Inwagen’s book, The Problem of Evil: The Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of St Andrews in 2003.

Watch part one first here.

If you’re interested in exploring these ideas further, here are some of van Inwagen’s relevant works:

Three Essays on the Problem of Evil:

The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy

The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God

The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence

Video clips:

Does Evil Disprove God?

Big Questions in Free Will

Does God’s Knowledge Quash Free Will?

Christian Philosophers on Hell #3: J.P. Moreland

“[The doctrine of hell] is one of the chief grounds on which Christianity is attacked as barbarous, and the goodness of God impugned.” – C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

This is my third post summarizing what Christian philosophers think about hell. For this entry, I’ve chosen to write about Dr. J.P. Moreland’s philosophy. Moreland is a Professor at Biola University, and has written or co-written 30 books and many articles. My source is an interview with Moreland in Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Faith.

At the start of the interview, Moreland sets out a methodology:

I think people should try to set aside their feelings… The basis of their evaluation should be whether hell is a morally just or morally right state of affairs, not whether they like or dislike the concept.

I appreciate this perspective. Often people approach these discussions with strong emotions that keep them from rationally evaluating the arguments.

Early in the interview, Moreland notes that those who despise hell are in good company. God also hates it. Moreland cites Ezekiel 33:11:

I take no pleasure at all in the death of the wicked, but rather that he wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways!

In spite of this verse and others like it, many people think that God damns people arbitrarily with an obey-my-rules-or-else methodology. Moreland disagrees, he says, “The essence of hell is relational.” People don’t want relationship with God, and God grants their wish by separating them from himself. It’s incredibly tragic, but not arbitrary.  

Moreland elaborates:

God is the most generous, loving, wonderful, attractive being in the cosmos. He has made us with free will and he has made us for a purpose: to relate lovingly to him and to others… if we fail over and over again to live for the purpose for which we were made – a purpose, by the way, which would allow us to flourish more than living any other way – then God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve ask for all along in our lives, which is separation from him.

God offers his love to everyone, but some reject him and he gives them their wish.

Moreland then digs into the specifics of hell, noting that it’s not a torture chamber:  

Hell is punishment – but it’s not punishing. It’s not torture. The punishment of hell is separation from God, bringing shame, anguish and regret. And because we will have both body and soul in the resurrected state, the misery experienced can be both mental and physical. But the pain that’s suffered will be due to the sorrow from the final, ultimate, unending banishment, from God, his kingdom, and the good life for which we were created in the first place.

So it is punishment. But it’s also the natural consequence of a life that has been lived in a certain direction.

At this point, Strobel pushes back – doesn’t the Bible’s frequent references to flames imply hell is a torture chamber?

Moreland reminds him that the Bible has several images for hell and if you take them literally, they contradict. For instance, hell is described as a place of utter darkness (Matt 8:12), and yet also as a furnace of fire (Matt 13:42). How can this be, since the flames would light things up? Moreland concludes the flames aren’t literal.

At this point, Moreland clarifies that he isn’t trying to water down the Biblical teaching to make it more plateable. On the contrary, the flame imagery has a literal point – the judgement of God. He cites Revelation 19:12 as an example of flames symbolizing judgement. Moreland also notes that God is described as a consuming fire in Hebrews 12:29, but “no one thinks God is a cosmic Bunsen burner.”

Strobel then presents Moreland with several objections to the doctrine of hell. One of the most challenging is:

Why are people punished eternally for finite sins?

Moreland points out that the time it takes to commit a sin isn’t the issue. Murdering someone can take 10 seconds, but stealing a few valuables can take all day if you have to break into the house. The moral severity of the deed (not duration) is the key for determining the length of punishment. Moreland argues that the worst thing we can do is to reject our creator:

The most heinous thing a person can do…  is to mock and dishonor and refuse to love the person that we owe absolutely everything to, which is our Creator, God himself.

You have to understand that God is infinitely greater in his goodness, holiness, kindness, and justice than anyone else. To think that a person could go through their whole life constantly ignoring him, constantly mocking him by the way they choose to live without him, saying, “I couldn’t care less about what you put me here to do. I couldn’t care less about your values or your Son’s death for me. I’m going to ignore all of that” -that’s the ultimate sin.

And the only punishment worthy of that is the ultimate punishment, which is everlasting separation from God.

Moreland’s point is simple: the worst sin deserves the worst punishment.

Why couldn’t God just force people to go to heaven? Wouldn’t that be better than hell?

Moreland responds:

If God has given people free will… then there’s no guarantee that everybody’s going to choose to cooperate with him. The option of forcing everyone to go to heaven is immoral, because it’s dehumanizing; it strips them of the dignity of making their own decision; it denies them their freedom of choice; and it treats them as a means to an end.

God can’t make people’s character for them, and people who do evil or cultivate false beliefs start a slide away from God that ultimately ends in hell. God respects human freedom. In fact, it would be unloving – a sort of divine rape – to force people to accept heaven and God if they didn’t really want them. When God allows people to say “no” to him, he actually respects and dignifies them.

If God forced the unwilling into heaven, he would have treated them like means to the end of increasing the population of heaven, not as intrinsically valuable beings who are ends in themselves. Moreland claimed that would be immoral.

Why did God create people he knew would reject him?

Couldn’t he have just not created those people and only created the ones he knew would choose him?

Moreland argues:

If God had chosen to create just a handful of four, six, or seven people, maybe he could have only created those people who would go to heaven. The problem is that once God starts to create more people, it becomes more difficult to just create the people who would choose him and not create the people who wouldn’t.

Because one of the reasons God put us here is to give us a chance to affect other people.

Do you recall the Back to the Future movies? Remember how they went back in time, changed one small detail, and then when they returned to the future the entire town was completely changed? I think there’s an element of truth to that.

The simple fact of the matter is that we are impacted by observing other people.

Moreland elaborates with possible scenarios of how his childhood and decision to follow Christ could have been different if certain people weren’t there to influence his actions through good and bad examples.

I think he’s using non-technical language to draw a distinction between possible worlds and feasible worlds. A possible world is a maximal state of affairs. For example, God could have created a world in which there was one less atom, and that would be a different possible world (probably not very different from our own). As far as I understand, any state of affairs is a possible world unless it involves a contradiction – for instance, there are no possible worlds with square circles or married bachelors.  

Feasible worlds are a subset of possible worlds that are dependent on the choices of free creatures. Logically prior to creation, God was limited by the choices that free creatures would make under any possible circumstance. These truths are called counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs).

Certain possible worlds might not be feasible for God to create because of the truth values of CCFs. Thus, it might be the case that accomplishing certain ends required incorporating the decisions of free creatures. In other words, God had to play the cards he was dealt with the CCFs. This may have involved creating people he knew would reject him, because they would affect the choices of others.

Why doesn’t God give people a second chance after death?

The Bible says “It is destined for people to die once, and after this comes judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27) Strobel queries “If people tasted hell, wouldn’t that give them a strong motivation to change their minds?”

Moreland replies:

This question assumes God didn’t do everything he could do before people died, and I reject that. God does everything he can to give people a chance, and there will be not a single person who will be able to say to God, “If you had just not allowed me to die prematurely, if you’d have given me another twelve months, I know I would have made that decision.

The Bible tells us God is delaying the return of Christ to the earth to give everybody all the time he possibly can so they will come to him.

He cites 2 Peter 3:9:

The Lord…[is] not willing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance.

God’s will is that everyone should come to saving knowledge of him, and so Moreland says that God won’t allow time to be an obstacle between him and his children:

If all a person needed was a little bit more time to come to Christ, then God would extend their time on this earth to give them that chance. So there will be nobody who just needed a little more time or who died prematurely who would have responded to another chance to receive Christ.

God is fair. He isn’t trying to make it difficult for people. I believe it’s certainly possible that those who respond to the light from nature that they have received will either have the message of the gospel sent to them, or else it may be that God will judge them based on his knowledge of what they would have done had they had a chance to hear the gospel. The simple fact is God rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

Strobel ends the interview by asking Moreland if the doctrine of hell makes him feel uncomfortable. His answer is yes, but that’s not the end of the story:

…feeling uncomfortable about something is not the same thing as having a rational, considered judgment that it’s wrong. I believe that hell is morally justifiable, but I don’t feel comfortable about it because it’s sad.

Keep in mind that God doesn’t feel comfortable about it, either. He doesn’t like it. So what’s the proper response to feeling uncomfortable? It’s not to try to create a view of the afterlife that keeps me from feeling uncomfortable. That’s a terrible way to approach truth. The proper thing to do is to admit that hell is real and to allow our feelings of discomfort to motivate us to action.

For those who don’t know Christ, it should motivate them to redouble their efforts to seek him and to find him. For those of us who know him, it should cause us to redouble our efforts to extend his message of mercy and grace to those who need it.

And we need to keep the right perspective through it all. Remember that hell will forever be a monument to human dignity and the value of human choice. It is a quarantine where God says two important things: “I respect freedom of choice enough to where I won’t coerce people, and I value my image-bearers so much that I will not annihilate them.”

One of the last things that Moreland said struck me as very practical:

People’s character is not formed by decisions all at once, but by thousands of little choices they make every day without even knowing about it. Each day we’re preparing ourselves for either being with God and his people and valuing the things he values, or choosing not to engage with those things. Hell is primarily a place for people who would not want to be in heaven.

Let’s strive to become the people who are suited for union with God and the joys of heaven.

Christian Belief, Arrogance, and Religious Diversity

I am absolutely against any religion that says that one faith is superior to another. I don’t see how that is anything different than spiritual racism. It’s a way of saying that we are closer to God than you, and that’s what leads to hatred. – Rabbi Schmuley Boteach1

The plurality of world regions, their many devout adherents and the divergence of their teachings can pose challenges to Christian belief. Accusations like this are common:

You Christians are arrogant for thinking you’re right and the millions of people in other religions are wrong.

I’m going to argue that this statement is incorrect, and that there is nothing arrogant about believing Christianity. Consider the law of non-contradiction (LNC):

Some proposition P cannot be both P and non – P at the same time and in the same way.

LNC states that assenting to the truth of a proposition entails rejecting the opposite. If I believe the proposition “Pluto is a planet” that necessarily implies that (if I’m being logical) I must reject the claim “Pluto is not a planet”. Hence, every time someone assents to the truth claims of Christianity, they are logically obligated to reject contrary beliefs.2 So rejecting the opposing claims of other religions is the logically consistent thing for Christians to do.

It’s worth noting that Christians are under no obligation to think other religions are false categorically. Religions are (at least) collections of truth claims, each of which has to be evaluated individually. For instance, Christians agree with Muslims that giving to the poor is an important moral principle, and that God revealed himself to Abraham, but also strongly disagree about the deity of Christ. Logic only compels disagreement when the beliefs of other religions contradict (have the opposite truth value of) one’s own.

Perhaps the arrogance charge is along these lines:

It’s arrogant to believe something that is a minority opinion and for which you don’t have arguments that would convince people who disagree.

It’s true that most Christians don’t have arguments that could persuade people in other religions. However, does believing in spite of that make them arrogant? Alvin Plantinga argues that the answer is no, and has a helpful historical example:

The eighteenth-century Quakers believed slavery was wrong. They realized, of course, that most of their contemporaries did not share that belief, and they also realized that they had no arguments that would convince their contemporaries. Given that they were thus out of step with the majority, they no doubt reflected carefully on this belief. If, on reflection, slavery still seemed to them wrong, seriously wrong, could they really be doing something immoral [or arrogant] in continuing to believe that slavery was wrong? I don’t think so.3

Most people would probably agree that the Quakers displayed no arrogance by believing ideas that their contemporaries didn’t share, and for which they had no convincing arguments.

Let’s take a more common example of the same phenomenon: political views. In his essay Non Est Hick, Peter van Inwagen analogizes religious and political beliefs to argue that if you believe religious views are arrogant, you have the same problem with political views. When it comes to believing minority ideas for which for which we lack arguments that would convince those who disagree, don’t we all do that with politics?

If you believe that the government should implement universal healthcare, or looser gun laws, or tax cuts, or tariffs, the nature of belief and basic logic imply that you think everyone who disagrees is wrong. No matter what your political views, there are multitudes of people who disagree, and most of the time, your attempts to persuade them are probably unsuccessful. Is everyone with political views arrogant just for being politically opinionated? That seems false.

Obviously, there are differences between political philosophies and religions, but is there some feature of religious belief that makes a Christian arrogant, that doesn’t apply to a Reagan conservative, a Rothbardian libertarian, or a Rawlsian liberal? I doubt it. As van Inwagen says, both religious and political views are, “Making claims to how the real world really is.”4

The critic could concede that Christian belief isn’t arrogant in itself, but that it leads to arrogance by virtue of beliefs about salvation: “We Christians are going to heaven and you non-Christians are not.” However, this attitude is patently unchristian, as van Inwagen says in his essay:

The members of the Church can… take no pride in her unique relation to God, for that relation is His doing and not theirs.5

His point brings to mind Ephesians 2:8-9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Salvation is a gift from God and Christians have no ground for pride.

If the critic is unconvinced by my points thus far, let’s assume for the sake of argument that I’m wrong: there is something arrogant about being a Christian. There is something to the critic’s accusation: “You’re arrogant for thinking your religious beliefs are right, and those who disagree are wrong!”

Is the critic arrogant here? For surely, he thinks he’s right about Christian arrogance, and believes those who disagree are wrong. If the critic is arrogant by his own standard, his accusation looses its punch.  

Indeed, it’s hard to see who isn’t arrogant. Imagine the most inclusive universalist possible, let’s call him Joe. He thinks all religions are human attempts to respond to ultimate reality, and the doctrinal differences are just surface level or illusory. Joe (naturally) thinks that everyone who disagrees with him (like Christians) is wrong. Is Joe arrogant? Under the, it’s-arrogant-to-think-your-religious-beliefs-are right-and-those-who-disagree-are-wrong criteria, he is, and if he is, who isn’t?

I’ve argued that there is nothing arrogant about believing Christianity and rejecting all opposing claims. Once it is accepted, the nature of belief and basic logic imply this conclusion.6


Endnotes:

[1] Quoted in The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, p. 203.

[2] Here a critic could object:

“What you’ve said only follows if Christianity claims to be objective truth. I believe in Christianity in a subjective sense – an edifying philosophy that teaches love and self – sacrifice.”

I do accept Christianity as a set of objective truth claims – meaning it’s true regardless of whether any human thinks it’s true. Frankly, I can’t understand Scripture and the Christian tradition as anything other than claims to objective truth. The apostle Paul spoke for me when he said, “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless…” (1 Cor. 15:17).

[3] Knowledge and Christian Belief, p. 110.

See also Plantinga’s essays Pluralism: A Defense of Exclusivism and Ad Hick.

For a quick introduction to his thought on the issue of religious pluralism and arrogance, watch this interview: Can Many Religions All be True?

[4] Video: Peter van Inwagen – Do Diverse Religions Give Complementary Insights?

[5] Non Est Hick, p. 214.

See also van Inwagen’s essay A Reply to Professor Hick.

[6] Notice, I haven’t argued Christianity is true, or that Christian belief is rationally justified. I’ve focused solely on the narrow point that there is nothing arrogant about believing it’s true.

Video: The Problem of Evil by Peter van Inwagen (1 of 2)

This video is part one of my series on Peter van Inwagen’s book, The Problem of Evil.

Contents:

0:00 Introduction

0:37 Some Definitions

1:33 The Global Argument from Evil

1:59 What is a Defense?

4:18 The Free Will Defense

5:17 Free Will vs. Determinism

7:19 Are Free Will & Determinism Compatible?

9:02 Free Will Defense Narrative Reading

17:42 Natural Evil

18:41 Conclusion

If you’re interested in exploring these ideas further, here are some other of van Inwagen’s relevant works:

Three Essays on the Problem of Evil:

The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy

The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God

The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence

Video clips:

Does Evil Disprove God?

Big Questions in Free Will

Does God’s Knowledge Quash Free Will?

Sexual Ethics: An Exegetical Argument

As far as I can tell, the traditional view of the church on homosexuality goes something like this:

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures… Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 625, section 2358. (emphasis mine)

I’m not going to argue that this view of homosexuality is true; rather, I’m going to argue that one argument against it is a failure.

The argument runs like this:

  1. If specific practices were unknown to the writers of the Bible, the text can’t be properly understood as prohibiting them.
  2. Monogamous homosexual relationships were unknown to the writers of the Bible.
  3. Therefore, the Bible can’t be properly understood as prohibiting monogamous homosexual relationships.

At first glance, premise 1 seems fairly plausible. After all, the Bible, like any book, was written at a particular time, in a particular culture, by an author with particular ends in mind. The authors of the Bible were no different, and so stretching the meaning of particular verses beyond their historical context is a faulty hermeneutic.

However, if the Bible is divinely inspired, premise 1 loses much of its initial plausibility. By inspiration I mean God is the primary author of scripture – he guided the human authors of the Bible to write what he wanted them to write, but in their own languages, styles and cultural contexts. So, if the Bible is divinely inspired, it’s very plausible that God would have worded the commands so as to apply to situations and actions unknown to the human authors and recipients of the Bible. After all, God in his omniscience would know the possibility of new ethical dilemmas arising, or new sexual lifestyles becoming prevalent.

Even if the Bible is not inspired, but is just a collection of ordinary human texts, premise 1 is still not necessarily true. For instance, it is possible that the writers of the Bible had a very specific vision for virtuous sexuality, and viewed anything outside that vision as immoral. In other words, suppose the biblical writers believed sexual relationships were only legitimate in X context, and therefore sexual relationships in Y and Z contexts would be considered immoral under the ethics of the biblical writers, even if they were unknown to the authors at the time of their writing the Bible. So, if it’s possible that the Bible can be legitimately interpreted as prohibiting sexual relationships in some contexts unknown to the original authors of the text, then premise 1 isn’t necessarily true.

What about premise 2: “Monogamous homosexual relationships were unknown to the writers of the Bible.”?

This statement is not self-evident. It’s an assertion about the past whose truth or falsity is an open question. Therefore, whoever makes this argument should produce some reason to think it’s true. In the original discussion that was the catalyst for my writing this post, premise 2 was simply asserted, not argued. There may be reasons to believe it is true, but I’m not aware of them.

Strictly speaking, premise 2 is almost impossible to verify, because we can’t get inside the minds of the biblical authors other than through their writings. What we can do, however, is look at other ancient sources to see what they say about monogamous homosexual relationships. If other ancient authors wrote about them, that should severely undermine confidence in premise 2. I will quote several such sources.

The first source is Plato’s Symposium, written in the intertestamental period, c. 385 – 370 BC. The dialogue is primarily a discourse on love, particularly male to male eros.

Pausanias, one of Plato’s characters, gives the following speech:

“But the Eros of the Heavenly Aphrodite, first, does not partake of female but only of male – it is the eros for boys – and next is elder, and without share of outrage or wantonness. This is why those inspired by this Eros turn to the male, delighting in what is by nature stronger and possessed of more intelligence. One might recognize those moved purely by this Eros even in the love of boys itself: for they do not love boys except when they begin to get intelligence, that is, when they are on the verge of getting a beard.

Those who begin to love them at this point, I think, are prepared to be with them through the whole of life and pass their lives in common, rather than deceiving them by catching them in the thoughtlessness of youth and then contemptuously abandoning them and running off to someone else.” (122, emphasis mine)

As you can see, Pausanias is clearly discussing monogamous homosexual relationships. He cites the lifelong duration of these relationships – “the whole of life” – as well as their exclusivity, contrasting them with relationships in which one lover “abandon[s]” the other and “run[s] off to someone else.”

Later in the dialogue, another participant, Aristophanes, narrates a Greek creation myth. In this story, humans were originally genderless, but Zeus split them into men, women and an androgynous gender in order to keep them distracted and less able to rebel against the gods. Aristophanes says:

Each of us then is but the token of a human being, sliced like a flatfish, two from one; each then ever seeks his matching token. Men sectioned from the common sex, then called androgynous, are woman-lovers; the majority of adulterers are from this sex, while on the other hand women from this sex are man-lovers and adulteresses. Women sectioned from a woman pay scant heed to men, but are turned rather toward women, and lesbians come from this sex.

Those sectioned from a male pursue the masculine; because they are slices of the male, they like men while still boys, delighting to lie with men and be embraced by them… When they reach manhood they love boys and by nature pay no heed to marriage and the getting of children; it suffices them to live out their lives unmarried, with one another. So this sort becomes wholly a lover of boys or a boy who loves having lovers, ever cleaving to what is akin.

When the lover of boys and any every other lover meets his own particular half, they are then marvelously struck by friendship and kinship and Eros, and scarcely willing to be separated from each other even for a little time. These are the people who pass their whole lives with each other, but who can’t even say what they wish for themselves by being with each other. No one can think it is for the sake of sexual intercourse that the one so eagerly delights in being with the other. Instead, the soul of each clearly wishes for something else it can’t put into words; it divines what it wishes and obscurely hints at it.  (133, emphasis mine)

In the same vein as Pausanias, Aristophanes describes the lifelong nature of these relationships, referring to “people who pass their whole lives with each other.” Additionally, these unions are not simply carnal, but deeply meaningful, with each lover’s soul “clearly wish[ing] for something else it can’t put into words.”

The second source is a journal article that quotes many primary sources: “A History of Same-Sex Marriage” by William N. Eskridge of Georgetown University Law Center. 

A key document Eskridge cites is Sifra, “an exegetic midrash interpreting the book of Leviticus.” Finding estimates on the time of Sifra’s composition is difficult; however, one Jewish educational institution dates the text to c. AD 250 – 350. This puts it significantly after the composition of the canon of Scripture. However, given that Sifra cites events occurring many hundreds of years earlier in Israel’s history, it is plausible that the ideas contained in this passage go back much further than when they were written down. It would be odd if the writer of this midrash simply invented the idea of homosexual marriages in the land of Canaan hundreds of years after Israel’s interactions with the inhabitants of the land.

The midrash takes the form of question and answer:

If “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt… or of the land of Canaan,”

Might one think that they are not to build their buildings or plant vineyards as they did?

Scripture says, “nor shall you follow their laws”:

I have referred only to the rules that were made for them and for their fathers and their fathers’ fathers.”

And what would they do?

A man would marry a man, and a woman would marry a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, a woman would be married to two men.

That is why it is said, “nor shall you follow their laws.” (1438, emphasis mine)          

The wording here is unambiguous: men married men, and women married women.

Later in his article Eskridge argues that:

The evidence of marital practices – whether for different – or same sex unions – is particularly sparse for Egypt; few records illuminate the intimate practices of the region, and no authoritative legal texts survive. Yet some artifacts have depicted same-sex couples in familiar poses, perhaps providing evidence that Egyptian society at some points in its history was accepting of same-sex relationships.

For example, a tomb for two male courtiers of the Fifth Dynasty (circa 2600 B.C.) includes bas-reliefs of the “two men in intimate poses, holding hands, embracing, noses touching, poses that are strikingly more erotic than those depicting different-sex couples in Egyptian tombs. Social historian David Greenberg argues that the men were lovers whose same-sex relationship was apparently accepted by the state, because the Pharaoh provided their tomb. Indeed, the tomb of at least one Pharaoh, the renowned Ikhnaton, contains figures of the Pharaoh and his male consort posed even more intimately. (1437 -1438, emphasis mine)

If Greenberg is right, and these relationships were sanctioned by the state, they were likely of a long-term nature. After all, what interest would the state have in recognizing casual sex?

This is obviously a very limited historical survey. However, I believe the documents I’ve quoted cast significant doubt on premise 2. At minimum, they show that the idea of monogamous homosexual relationships is not a modern invention, but rather dates back to at least within several centuries of the composition of the Bible, and probably earlier.

In conclusion, because both of the premises are dubious at best, this argument against the church’s traditional understanding of homosexuality is a failure.

Racism: A Definitional Issue

It’s a common idea that racism = racial prejudice + power (here’s an example). I find this definition deeply flawed for two reasons.

1. The definition implies an absurd conclusion. If racism = racial prejudice + power, then if a group or individual doesn’t have power, they can’t be racist. However, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out, to say racism requires power implies that the Nazis weren’t racist in the early 1920s when they were a small political party with no power. It’s intuitively obvious that any definition of racism whereby the Nazis weren’t racist is absurd.

2. The definition leads to using different terms for two practically identical actions. Let me use a thought experiment: Imagine a black man and a white man who each go out and beat up an innocent person. The black man beats up a white person, and the white man beats up a black person. Each of them does so because they have severe racial prejudice against the other race.

Now, because both of these individuals committed the same type of action based on the same motivation, it seems like the same word should describe both. However, people who use the prejudice + power definition of racism, are typically committed to the idea that black people can’t be racist. According to them, in the above scenario the white man would be racist, while the black man would be merely acting out of racial prejudice. The black man wouldn’t be racist, because he wouldn’t have the institutional power to sanction his actions. This view seems semantically unhelpful at best because it uses different terms for the same type of action flowing from the same motivation.

Let me address an objection:

“You are a white man, who hasn’t experienced racism. Therefore you should leave the definition of racism up to the people of color who have actually experienced it.”

This is a classic example of the red herring fallacy: “This fallacy consists in diverting attention from the real issue by focusing instead on an issue having only a surface relevance to the first.”

This objection is a red herring because none of my points depend on personal experience. They are based on reasoning ideas to their logical conclusions and evaluating the consequences. If this exact post was written by someone of a different race, it would be neither more nor less true. Logic is colorblind.

For a humorous exploration of these ideas, watch FreedomToons’ video Racism Explained.