A brief case against euthanasia and physician assisted suicide

Opposition to euthanasia (or physician assisted suicide – I count these together in this article though they have important differences) can seem extremely counterintuitive at a very superficial level. We put dogs down when they suffer – why do we treat humans worse than dogs? Why do we cruelly force people to continue living when they desperately wish to die? In this short piece I will try to summarise the main reasons why people oppose euthanasia. There is much more that could be said – this is intended only to be a short piece summarising the main reasons.

Some reasons to oppose euthanasia are inherent moral reasons to oppose it: reasons to think euthanasia is inherently wrong. Other reasons are practical reasons which concede that even if euthanasia is not morally wrong in itself, legalising euthanasia would, on balance, be bad for a variety of reasons. It is helpful to be aware of this difference – you can think that euthanasia is not wrong while still opposing the legalisation of it for pragmatic reasons and the effect it would have on society more generally.

Arguments against euthanasia

So why should people oppose the legalisation of euthanasia? In no particular order:

1 Conscientious objection

It would likely be included as part of medical care with an expectation for healthcare professionals including doctors to actively participate or refer onwards[1], which would be a considerable conscience violation. Given that only ¼ of physicians would be prepared to participate themselves[2], this is a substantial concern.

2 The psychological impact on healthcare professionals

Performing euthanasia can take a considerable psychological toll on doctors, as the evidence from Holland and the US has shown[3].

3 The opposition of palliative care specialists

The overwhelming majority of palliative specialists in the UK oppose the legalisation of PAS[4]. These are the experts in end of life care and they overwhelmingly disagree that there is a need for euthanasia as opposed to good quality palliative care.

4 The disincentivisation of palliative care

Euthanasia/PAS disincentivise palliative care both societally and individually. Holland’s palliative care has been widely criticised[5], while the UK has been at the forefront of palliative advances precisely because we opted to develop palliative care. It is even common for patients in Holland to ask for euthanasia because of a fear of poor palliative care[6].

With the economic arguments in favour of euthanasia, it is extremely difficult to believe that economic considerations would not exert themselves with considerable force, even if they are not the initial motivation for legalising euthanasia/PAS. Ageing populations require vastly increased welfare expenditure[7], and the healthcare expenditure alone in the last year of life is disproportionately high[8].

Given that we already see hints of economic thinking in quality of life discussions at present, it is easy to see how those economic considerations would be transposed to deciding on whether to euthanise someone. As Baroness Warnock, one of the UK’s leading bioethicists in the last century, chillingly put it, ‘If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service… if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they’re a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die… …there’s nothing wrong with feeling you ought to do so for the sake of others as well as yourself.’[9]

This has been seen on the individual level too. We have already seen cases of patients being refused treatment while being offered euthanasia instead, for reasons of cost[10] – several people in Oregon each year opt for PAS for financial reasons[11].

Palliative care is thereby disincentivised both in its development (why develop better palliative care if people are opting to die instead?) and in its implementation (it will be financially limited, and healthcare professionals will also be more inclined to learn about the easier way out rather than all the complex details of palliative care).

5 The increase in suicide rates

Legalising EPAS increases suicide rates more generally: Jones and Paton showed it is associated with a 6-12% increase in the total number of suicides, particularly affecting vulnerable groups such as women and the elderly[12]. The EPAS rates in Holland, Belgium, Oregon, etc., are far higher than the rate of people going abroad from the UK, and there appears to be very little evidence that a large number of people in the UK want to be euthanised – certainly nothing approaching the rates abroad[13].

6 Pressure on the vulnerable

This is part of a wider concern that legalising EPAS puts substantial pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives. Studies from Oregon have shown that since legalisation of PAS, the number of people undergoing PAS for the reason that they feel they are a burden to their family/friends has gone up dramatically, from 2 in the first year and 8 in the second year to 91 in 2018[14].

It is for this reason (among others) that Lord Sumption of the UK Supreme Court, when reviewing the evidence from other countries, found much evidence that this pressure existed, was significant, and was aggravated by negative attitudes to old age and disability[15].

There are people who are particularly vulnerable to a particularly malicious form of pressure: a majority of elder abuse is perpetrated by family members[16], and pressure on doctors from family members to euthanise their relatives is reasonably well documented[17]. It is difficult to work out safeguards preventing families (or others) from encouraging EPAS in the hope of financial gain.

7 The slippery slope

There are many reasons to suppose that a number of slippery slopes will eventuate: the slippery slope from PAS to euthanasia, from adults to children and infants, from voluntary to involuntary euthanasia, and from terminal physical illness to chronic and mental illness or even healthy patients. The reasons are:

    1. That is exactly what has happened in other countries – despite the fact that these countries initially had very restrictive conditions and would have opposed the slippery slope from the start as well[18]. See below for the evidence from other countries.
    2. Slippery slopes are pretty standard when a major shift in bioethical thinking and policy occurs. Abortion is an excellent example – when abortion was legalised in 1967, it was with the sentiment that abortion was still wrong and a bad state of affairs – legalising it was just the lesser of two evils[19]. Abortion is now seen as entirely normal, and even a part of basic healthcare. When it was warned that the clause which allowed abortion up to birth for disability could also include minor ailments like cleft palate, Lord Steel himself said that this idea was ‘totally discreditable’, and Harriet Harman said that the legal scholars making the claim should be reported to the Law Society or Bar Council. Frank Doran MP called it ‘pure scaremongering’. We were told by Warnock and Steel that this clause existed only for children who were ‘incapable of living any meaningful life’. In fact, we now have several abortions for cleft palate under this clause each year, and many hundreds for Down Syndrome. We were told by Lord Brightman that the abortion of viable babies was unthinkable – ‘a doctor does not need an Act of Parliament to teach him that elementary duty [to try and deliver the child alive]’. He and Warnock claimed there was no need to mandate doctors to take ‘reasonable steps to secure that the child is born alive’[20]. In fact, now we have several hundred abortions for babies after 22 weeks every year (and hundreds more in the weeks leading up to 22 weeks)[21]. Doctors and other healthcare professionals were initially given substantial conscience protections. We now have burdens on doctors to refer patients for abortions against their conscience and even when there is no clinical indication[22], we have considerable pressure on healthcare professionals to actually perform abortions (become reality in other countries[23]), and we have imposed duties on healthcare professionals to be involved in facilitating abortions against their conscience as long as they are not actively participating in the operating room itself[24]. Finally, we had probably at most 10,000 abortions a year before abortion was legalised[25]. We now have over 200,000 a year in the UK[26].
    3. Once the gates have been opened to doctors killing their patients, it is difficult to see how economic pressures would not impose themselves. There are very powerful economic arguments for expanding the scope and practice of euthanasia once we allow it in some forms.
    4. More generally, the powerful reasons in favour of euthanasia are precisely why it is so dangerous – the fact that autonomy, compassion and economic arguments have so much power is precisely why a slippery slope is so plausible.
    5. The arguments for euthanasia themselves logically lead to considerable expansion. If autonomy is the driving motivation, then why should we impose any limits on euthanasia other than consent? If children or healthy adults or adults with eating disorders want to end their lives, who are we to get in the way of their autonomy? Likewise, if compassion is the driving motivation, it is difficult to see why we should impose any limits at all, even the requirement for a voluntary decision. As we will see below, these limits have been expanding in countries which have introduced EPAS, including extending EPAS to patients without their consent (sometimes with capacity, sometimes without)[27].
    6. A slippery slope is precisely what campaigners want – they have stated their ambition to introduce more widespread EPAS than initially proposed[28].
    7. Doctors are too under-resourced (especially in the UK) to do due diligence to the scope, level and quality of assessment needed to ensure that people meet the criteria for EPAS. There is simply no way doctors will be able to look at all the evidence that people are making the decision voluntarily, for example, even if doctors did have special training to ensure this. As an aside, those in Holland and other countries who have been tasked with this have spectacularly failed to ensure that patients meet the requirements before authorising their deaths – even when panels were set up who had the specific job of checking these cases[29]. Professor John Griffiths, perhaps the leading defender of Dutch euthanasia, commented that the results of the first two government surveys were, ‘as far as the effectiveness of control is concerned… pretty devastating.'[30] Professor Henk Leenen, described by The Lancet as ‘the guiding hand behind legislation in the Netherlands on euthanasia’, said as far back as 1990 that there was an ‘almost total lack of control on the administration of euthanasia’ in the country.[31]
    8. More generally, it is impossible to regulate the practice in these ways. The failings in other countries have been profound and have proven difficult to remedy (see below)[32].

8 The failure of euthanasia in other countries

The experience of other countries has been horrendous – even though these countries initially introduced EPAS in highly restrictive legal contexts. Take Holland, for example. In Holland, the 1995 review of euthanasia cases showed 135,500 deaths in the year, 3,200 of which were voluntary euthanasia, with another 400 PAS. In addition to this, there were 900 cases of involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia, many of whom were competent patients who had not expressed a wish to die. These cases of what most of us in the UK would deem to be murder were treated with absolute impunity. In addition, there were 90 cases of euthanasia for newborn babies with disabilities (mainly spina bifida). There were also 14,200 cases of involuntary passive euthanasia – people killed by the withdrawal of treatment without their consent, with the intention of shortening the patient’s life[33]. These are huge numbers for such a small population and are profoundly worrying. Now euthanasia accounts for 4% of all deaths in Holland, but this proportion goes up hugely when including the more recent phenomenon of terminal sedation, where patients are sedated and then starved/dehydrated to death, often with the intention of shortening life. This alone accounts for 12-18% of all deaths in Holland, and has been devised to work around the few legal restrictions that do remain[34]. In Holland there are also now attempts to formally legalise euthanasia for those who are entirely healthy but simply ‘tired of life’[35]. There is already euthanasia for patients with depression and eating disorders[36]. Virtually every legal safeguard has been removed in the country over time. Remarkably, a top bioethicist defended the non-voluntary euthanasia in Holland (which he claimed constituted a substantial 40% of cases) by saying that it was voluntary because the family and doctors had chosen it – a bizarre inversion of the concept of voluntariness[37]. There are similar issues in other countries such as Belgium. In Belgium, for example, euthanasia without consent has been responsible for between 1.7-3.2% of all deaths, and even over 5% of all deaths in some regions[38], 50% of euthanasia nurses have been involved in cases where the patient did not consent[39], and 50% of all cases are entirely unreported[40]. Children of any age can be euthanised – this was even happening when it was illegal because of the cultural changes from legalising EPAS[41]. Organ donation from euthanasia in children is also permitted in both countries[42]. In Holland, euthanising newborn babies – usually because they have spina bifida – is reasonably common, to the number of around 100 each year[43].

Arguably, the most alarming part of all this is the lack of regulation and persistent illegal forms of euthanasia to which the state turns a blind eye. The examples are too many for this short post, but we have already seen that half of cases in Belgium are not even reported, despite the legal mandate. A particularly revealing example, though, is the case of Dutch GP, Dr van Oijen, who was one of the pitiful number people to actually be investigated for widespread illegal euthanasia, was actually convicted of murder, because he breached every single one of the key guidelines. There was no explicit request – in fact, the patient had declared that she did not want to die; there was not unbearable suffering (she was comatose at the time); there was no consultation with another physician; the drug had exceeded its expiration date after being left over from euthanising a previous patient; and he lied when reporting the death, saying it was by natural causes. Dr van Oijen was given a short suspended jail sentence, a suspended fine (because he lied on the report), and was given only a warning by the medical authorities[44].

Given breaches of regulations are so widespread (including lack of reporting, non-voluntary euthanasia, etc.), this is only the tip of the iceberg. But there are so few investigations for breaches in Holland (despite the known large number) that details of individual cases emerge only from time to time. There are far more details of the lack of regulation to be found in John Keown’s book (see references).

Indeed, the state of EPAS in Holland, Belgium and elsewhere, has filled volumes of books, and though I would like to repeat much of it here, I can only repeat a small bit. But it is worth closing this section with some comments from the United Nations Human Rights Committee – certainly no adamant pro-lifers:

“The Committee learnt with unease that under the present legal system more than 2,000 cases of euthanasia and assisted suicide (or a combination of both) were reported to the review committee in the year 2000 and that the review committee came to a negative assessment only in three cases. The large numbers involved raise doubts whether the present system is only being used in extreme cases in which all the substantive conditions are scrupulously maintained…

The Committee considers it difficult to reconcile a reasoned decision to terminate life with the evolving and maturing capacities of minors…

The Committee is gravely concerned at reports that newborn handicapped infants have had their lives ended by medical personnel. The State Party should scrupulously investigate any such allegations of violations of the right to life (article 6 of the Covenant), which fall outside the law…”[45]

This has not been assuaged. A more recent HRC report reiterated that ‘The Committee remains concerned at the extent of euthanasia and assisted suicides in the State Party’, noting that the lack of need for judicial review was a significant problem.

9 The inviolability of human rights

Our basic human rights are inviolable such that we are not even entitled to abdicate them ourselves. Take, for example, the right not to be enslaved, as enshrined in the ICCPR[46]. Most people are agreed that we do not have a right to sell ourselves into slavery as chattel slaves – to do so would be to degrade ourselves and disrespect our own humanity, as well as to set an unacceptable precedent for how human beings may permissibly be treated. Likewise, since the right to life is the most basic right, it is reasonable to suppose that we may not violate our own right to life.

10 The intrinsic value of life

Life has intrinsic value – this is the only way to explain human equality. Humans are equal regardless of their ‘quality of life’ or capacities, and most of us (for now – but not in Holland, etc.) are agreed that involuntary euthanasia on the grounds of disability is wrong. But if the value and dignity of our lives is not based on quality of life or capacities, then the ultimate value of human life must be intrinsic, not instrumental. If so, then it is hard to see how that value could be overridden by essentially disability considerations.

11 The inegalitarian infrastructure of euthanasia logic

This reflects the deeply inegalitarian intellectual infrastructure of the euthanasia advocacy movement. It is difficult to separate euthanasia advocacy from inegalitarian thinking. This is reflected most clearly in the history of the euthanasia movement: in the ancient world it was performed routinely on disabled and female infants, and when the movement renewed in the modern world it was primarily centred around the euthanising of mentally disabled people and other eugenic ideas. This is why it was such a central part of the Nazi movement – and was rejected soundly after World War 2 because of these links. For more on the history of the euthanasia movement, see my lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGDAeF-UCcU&feature=emb_title

12 The inconsistency of moderate euthanasia laws and egalitarianism

Any ‘moderate’ euthanasia law that allows euthanasia in some cases but not others (as most advocates propose) will likely have the implication that some lives are worth less than others. But this is deeply inegalitarian. It will likely facilitate a cultural shift that will be reflected through our treatment of disabled people in other spheres of society.

In short, to sum up the last few points, our foundations for human equality and dignity are more deeply tied to notions of intrinsic value than we might have thought, and more fragile/accidental too.

13 The existential – not pain-filled – crises behind euthanasia

Surveys show that primary problems driving EPAS are existential – a lack of autonomy, dignity, etc[48]. These are not ultimately medical problems, but to give up on patients rather than trying to find solutions to these problems is not only not honouring our duties to vulnerable people suffering existential crises, but also to disincentivise the more general search for solutions for these widespread problems.

Arguments for euthanasia

To briefly respond to the arguments for euthanasia:

Autonomy

This is clearly a powerful argument for those of us living in a society which puts a premium on autonomy. But there are a number of concerns here:

  • It is not frequently explained why autonomy has such a central position in our moral discourse, or what its value consists in. Certainly, it is difficult to see why it should be the foremost moral consideration above all others. And it is not obvious that the general liberal emphasis on autonomy over the last century or two has led to considerably happier or more flourishing societies – on the contrary, it seems to have contributed to a general lack of sense of meaning in life and life satisfaction in the West.
  • There is a question about whether autonomy should override other values. If it does, then it is hard to see why euthanasia should be limited at all – any one, even healthy young children should be able to opt for it, or people with eating disorders, or people ‘tired of life’. If it does not, then the argument from ‘autonomy’ to legalising euthanasia is far from clear.
  • Legalising euthanasia may (though this is far from clear too) facilitate the autonomy of some individuals opting for euthanasia, but it may at the same time limit the autonomy of many others. This is made much clearer by the aforementioned evidence that there is considerable pressure put on others to undergo EPAS once EPAS is legalised – and it seems like these numbers are far larger than the number of people whose autonomy might be facilitated by legalisation. And it certainly does not facilitate the autonomy of the many thousands of people who are involuntarily or non-voluntarily euthanised in jurisdictions which have liberalised EPAS laws.
  • It is questionable whether legalising EPAS even facilitates the autonomy of those undergoing euthanasia, for the reasons described in the last point. It is a myth that legalisation is the only impediment to autonomy and that legalising something automatically gives someone a significantly freer choice whether or not to pursue it. We are simply subject to far too many and diverse pressures as humans for this to be plausible, especially in the case of euthanasia.
  • We often limit autonomy, either to prevent harm to others (see point 3 in this section) or even to prevent indignity to oneself. There are many things we prohibit people from doing to themselves (and enlisting others to help) precisely because we think that they should not be allowed to harm themselves in such ways: for example, female genital mutilation, dwarf throwing for entertainment, slavery, elective limb amputation, duelling, driving without a seatbelt, and gay conversion therapy are all illegal (or thought should be illegal) even when consented to.
  • Almost every euthanasia advocate does, in fact, put limits on autonomy in the case of euthanasia: as when they limit it to people who are terminally ill, or chronically ill, for example. So there is a tacit concession already that autonomy is not an overriding value.

Compassion

Again, it is immediately obvious why someone would intuit that allowing EPAS is the compassionate, and therefore the right, thing to do. This instinct is entirely natural and understandable. However:

  • If EPAS is allowed on these grounds, it is again difficult to see how it should have any limits such as those described above. In particular, it is difficult to see why it should be limited to adults, or even to those who consent. This is, of course, why involuntary euthanasia of adults and children is so common in places like Holland.
  • Not everything motivated by compassion is genuinely compassionate – 80-90% of foetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted in the UK[49], often on the grounds that it is the compassionate thing to do. But studies suggest that 99% of people with Down Syndrome are happy with their lives[50], such that it is obviously not compassionate to end such people’s lives before their birth. Likewise, as with the previous examples (point 5 in the autonomy section), there are many things which may be compassionate to allow in the sense that someone may sincerely and desperately desire them, but which are not ultimately compassionate because they violate the basic respect due to human persons. In short, not all relieving of desperate desires is compassionate.
  • Compassion is possible without helping someone to commit suicide. We normally accept this in the case of depressed or otherwise suicidal patients – we agree that the most compassionate thing to do is to do our very best to relieve them of their suffering without killing them.
  • Most EPAS is not performed for reasons of pain[51] – as described before, the primary driving factors are existential. It is not compassionate to give up on the alleviation of these factors either individually or societally.
  • It is not compassionate to allow EPAS for the many reasons I gave at the start of this post: it is not compassionate to disincentivise palliative care, to expose thousands of vulnerable people to unwanted pressure to end their lives, to advance the slippery slope of EPAS, to violate the most basic rights of human beings (even with their consent), to express the view in law that some lives are worth more than others and thereby dive into inegalitarian thinking, or to give up the principle of the intrinsic value of life. EPAS may certainly be motivated by good, compassionate intentions, and it may of course relieve some people of some very desperate feelings, but that does not suffice to render it the most compassionate policy option, all things considered.

Thanks very much to anyone who had the patience to read through all this. References are available on request, though I highly recommend John Keown’s Cambridge University Press book ‘Euthanasia, Ethics and Public Policy’ and John Wyatt’s ‘Right to Die?’ to anyone interested.

References

  1. See GMC guidance on conscientious objection: https://www.gmc-uk.org/ethical-guidance/ethical-guidance-for-doctors/personal-beliefs-and-medical-practice/personal-beliefs-and-medical-practice#paragraph-8
  2. See RCP poll, page 3. https://www.gmc-uk.org/ethical-guidance/ethical-guidance-for-doctors/personal-beliefs-and-medical-practice/personal-beliefs-and-medical-practice#paragraph-8
  3. See Kenneth Stevens’ paper here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/20508549.2006.11877782
  4. See RCP poll, page 2. https://www.gmc-uk.org/ethical-guidance/ethical-guidance-for-doctors/personal-beliefs-and-medical-practice/personal-beliefs-and-medical-practice#paragraph-8
  5. See John Keown’s Cambridge University Press book ‘Euthanasia, Ethics and Public Policy: An Argument Against Legalisation’, 119-120.
  6. Keown, 234-235.
  7. See e.g. the brief parliamentary report at https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/key-issues-for-the-new-parliament/value-for-money-in-public-services/the-ageing-population/.
  8. See Aldrige and Kelley’s paper here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4638261/
  9. Warnock’s comments are available here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2983652/Baroness-Warnock-Dementia-sufferers-may-have-a-duty-to-die.html
  10. See, for example, the case of Barbara Wagner: https://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=5517492
  11. See the official Oregon report: https://www.oregon.gov/oha/PH/PROVIDERPARTNERRESOURCES/EVALUATIONRESEARCH/DEATHWITHDIGNITYACT/Documents/year20.pdf
  12. See Jones’ and Paton’s paper here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26437189
  13. In 2014, those travelling to Switzerland from the UK numbered 126 (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/20/one-in-five-visitors-swiss-suicide-clinics-britain-uk-germany), while many thousands are legalised every year in Holland and Belgium – despite vastly smaller populations.
  14. All the data for Oregon is available at: https://www.oregon.gov/oha/PH/PROVIDERPARTNERRESOURCES/EVALUATIONRESEARCH/DEATHWITHDIGNITYACT/Pages/ar-index.aspx
  15. See the Supreme Court judgment, page 83: https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2013-0235-judgment.pdf
  16. See the National Center on Elder Abuse’s summary here: https://ncea.acl.gov/What-We-Do/Research/Statistics-and-Data.aspx#perpetrators
  17. Keown, 235.
  18. See all of Keown’s book for  a lengthy, detailed exposition of the experiences in Holland, Belgium, the US, Canada, and Australia.
  19. See the comments from David Steel here: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/24/politics.topstories3
  20. See Finnis on all these claims: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3599848/We-warned-them-they-mocked-us-now-weve-been-proved-right.html
  21. See table 5: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/808560/2018_Abortion_Statistics_-_Data_tables__1_.ods
  22. See GMC guidance again: https://www.gmc-uk.org/ethical-guidance/ethical-guidance-for-doctors/personal-beliefs-and-medical-practice/personal-beliefs-and-medical-practice#paragraph-8
  23. See, for example, the recent case in the US: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49515372
  24. See the recent Supreme Court case: https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2013-0124-judgment.pdf
  25. See the BMJ editorial: https://www.bmj.com/content/359/bmj.j5278
  26. See table 1: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/808560/2018_Abortion_Statistics_-_Data_tables__1_.ods
  27. See Keown’s book for great detail on this.
  28. See, for example, Dying With Dignity Canada’s vision: ‘All Canadians have the right to choose their good death’: https://www.dyingwithdignity.ca/strategic_plan
  29. See Keown, chapter 14 and passim.
  30. Keown, 143.
  31. Keown, 151.
  32. Again, see Keown, passim.
  33. See Keown, chapter 11 for all of these statistics
  34. Keown, 188-193.
  35. See, for example: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29395542
  36. See John Wyatt’s ‘Right to Die?’, 37-39.
  37. See Robert Young’s SEP contribution: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/euthanasia-voluntary
  38. See Cohen-Almagor’s JME paper: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2614587
  39. See Inghelbrecht et al.: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2882450/
  40. Cohen-Almagor, ibid.
  41. See Raus: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11673-016-9705-5
  42. See Bollen et al.: https://adc.bmj.com/content/104/9/827
  43. Keown, 138-139.
  44. Keown, 163-164.
  45. See the UNHRC report, page 78: http://docstore.ohchr.org/SelfServices/FilesHandler.ashx?enc=dtYoAzPhJ4NMy4Lu1TOebEPcGQ%2BYYGAQfcsLRzRFogZ74bJjVjU5%2B6UTfECS2iq5hzy3uM2EQhsQfT5sTAP9UuCzOa42RrEgD7trRpL98nMEmbGo%2FTZJpMPZRRApJzcB4MvhsQemKiGDZXAxmc3Ngg%3D%3D
  46. See the UNHRC report, page 69: http://docstore.ohchr.org/SelfServices/FilesHandler.ashx?enc=dtYoAzPhJ4NMy4Lu1TOebFtU5BqeqKxX7regwxwKT5%2BLP6%2BVtuZTsZ5bmD4iSHPoUvgJYSKOEgGobXs9cXzHtj2gBlQb2hL6lwVIu%2B5N21MBPNQrXIXL%2FOS5XFXqBojQnGM40yDy%2FyJkjfd3CyE3DQ%3D%3D
  47. See article 8: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/ccpr.pdf
  48. See, for example, the data for Oregon: https://www.oregon.gov/oha/PH/PROVIDERPARTNERRESOURCES/EVALUATIONRESEARCH/DEATHWITHDIGNITYACT/Pages/ar-index.aspx
  49. See: https://www.thejournal.ie/factcheck-babies-abortion-3823611-Feb2018/
  50. See Skotko et al.: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21910246
  51. See, for example, the data for Oregon: https://www.oregon.gov/oha/PH/PROVIDERPARTNERRESOURCES/EVALUATIONRESEARCH/DEATHWITHDIGNITYACT/Pages/ar-index.aspx

Yes, New York’s abortion-up-to-birth law is as extreme as it sounds

In the last week, the state of New York has passed a law liberalising abortion law in the state. The law allowed abortion, effectively, up to birth. After fierce political debate a few years ago, partial birth abortion – that is, killing the baby while half of it has already been delivered – was banned. But this was not easy: Bill Clinton vetoed the ban, the majority of Democrats voted against it, and 4 of the 9 Supreme Court judges voted against it. That is to say, the former President, nearly half of US legislators and nearly half of the top judges upholding justice in the country thought that it should be permissible to kill a baby while it is halfway out of the womb.

Fortunately, we are not in that place now. But we are close enough. The new law in New York allows abortion up until the moment before birth. Of course, many media outlets were quick to report harrowing stories of women in awful situations that no one would be wished to place in – where the woman’s life is at risk, for example. What they did not mention is that these women are being used as political pawns to push an absolutely radical abortion agenda that fights for abortion up until birth for any reason whatsoever.

due baby

Just how radical is this? Well, just 13% of Americans think that abortion should be legal in the third trimester (and only 28% think it should be legal in the second trimester. And it is not clear that they mean ‘on demand’ in these cases). Move to other countries in the West and the extremity of this viewpoint is made clear: only 1% of the UK population – for the most part more liberal than the US – think that abortion up to birth should be legal. For comparison, to see how extreme this is, remember that 5% of Brits don’t believe the Holocaust took place, 20% of Americans think that homosexuality should be illegal, while 40% of Americans believe in creationism. 5% admit to feeling negatively towards Jews and 24% towards Muslims. Third trimester abortion is far more extreme and outlandish than even these. It is utterly crazy. The only countries in the world that allow abortion on demand up to birth are North Korea, China, and Canada (and possibly Vietnam, though this is unclear). This is not flattering company. Remember that babies can survive from 22 weeks outside the womb. There is no denying – regardless of your views on early abortions – that third trimester abortion involves the killing of a real baby who could live outside the womb. But that is what New York has committed themselves to.

Can this really be the case? Many people are claiming that the law only intends to legalise third trimester abortion when the woman’s life is at risk. This is straightforwardly false. Begin by looking at the law. It allows abortion if ‘the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.’ This sounds reasonable enough to those unfamiliar with health exceptions in Anglo-American law. But what the addition of ‘health’ – with no other qualifiers – achieves is abortion on demand. Why? In Anglo-American abortion law, ‘health’ is interpreted broadly, so that literally anything can count as a threat to mental health. In the UK, even sex-selective abortion – aborting a baby because it is a girl – is legal up to 24 weeks if a woman claims (or if a doctor, more familiar with the law, suggests to her, as is more usually the case) that having a baby girl would threaten her mental health. In American law, this has been explicitly enshrined in Supreme Court judgments: on the same day as Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Court also issued Doe v. Bolton, which clarified that ‘health’ is not just a ‘serious threat to physical health or life’, but ‘all factors – physical, emotional, psychological familial, and the woman’s age – relevant to the well-being of the patient.’ It does not matter, in the law, that abortion is probably causally associated with worse mental health, and drastically increases a woman’s mortality risk. In the law, abortion improves health by fiat alone.

If New York wanted a law that allowed abortion where the mother’s life is at risk, they could have said that. They added ‘health’, knowing the infinitely flexible legal understanding of that term. If they wanted a law that allowed abortion where there is a risk of grave injury to the mother, they could have formed a law like the UK’s, which says ‘grave permanent injury’. They said ‘health’. A happy term that surely no one could object to – until you realise that ‘health’ can mean literally anything – sex-selective abortion and all. This is abortion on demand up until the moment before birth.

Contrary to common opinion, abortion to save the life of a woman is exceedingly rare. Documentation is poor in the US, but in the UK we have good data for the reasons for abortion. Of nearly 200,000 abortions in the UK in 2017, 188 were performed to save the life of the mother or to prevent grave permanent injury (and not all of them were late term abortions). And yet there were at least 1,895 abortions performed past 22 weeks (the rough viability limit). This figure increases by many hundreds each week earlier. In the US, there are over 5,000 abortions performed past 21 weeks annually – and this is a significant underestimate as it does not include the data for California, Florida, Illinois, and a few other states, whose combined population is 80-90 million or so, and in largely very pro-choice states. It is simply not remotely plausible that these 5,000+ abortions are to prevent death or grave permanent injury.

Aside from the statistics, though, we know that late term abortions are performed for social reasons, because we have heard the same thing before. When partial birth abortion was debated, we were told time and time again that it was only in tragic circumstances, where the baby was unviable or the mother’s life is at risk. And yet abortionists later admitted that it was utterly false: that it was in the vast majority of cases performed on healthy mothers with healthy babies, after 20 weeks of pregnancy. “The abortion-rights folks know it, the anti-abortion folks know it, and so, probably, does everyone else.”

The abortion industry has lied to us about late abortions before. There is no reason to think that anything has changed. Late abortion has not become less common, nor less legal, nor has the abortion lobby changed. They are pushing for just as radical laws as before (see the support website for the New York law). They want abortion up to birth for any reason whatsoever, and in the New York Law, they have achieved it by transparent legal euphemism. And that is the cruel irony of the World Trade Center, whose memorial includes the names of unborn children killed in that cruel and vicious attack, celebrating the new law by lighting up with pink lights. The memorial below commemorates 11 unborn children whose lives were cruelly taken 18 years ago. The memorial above commemorates thousands more.

wtc

Update: Secular Pro Life has a number of blogs giving other reasons (including direct testimony from the doctors) to think that late abortions are not usually done for medical reasons. See here, here, here, and here.

Jesus and the early church on abortion

It is sometimes claimed that the Bible has nothing to say on abortion, and often assumed that Christianity has never really made its mind up on the topic, paving the way for disagreement among Christians on abortion. But in fact the church has always been unanimous on abortion, from a very early point – from the same time as the New Testament was written, in fact. Although abortion isn’t explicitly referenced in the Protestant New Testament, it was explicitly prohibited in the Didache, written in the late first century (i.e. the same time as other works in the New Testament), and which has always been seen by the church as a helpful work, just not rising to the level of scripture (at least, not everyone thought it was scripture).

The reason for this post is mainly to provide a (non-comprehensive) list of early church writing on abortion to demonstrate just how forcefully and how unanimously it was rejected from the very earliest stages of the Christian church. My other post on how Christians rejected all forms of killing humans (which obviously relates!) is here. There is much more to be said on the Christian approach (both ethically and historically) to abortion, which I can’t recite here yet, though I have done so to some extent here. I recommend David Albert Jones’ “The Soul of the Embryo”, John Wyatt’s “Matters of Life and Death” and a short chapter in Scott Klusendorf’s “The Case for Life” on this if you’re not convinced. But I want to offer what the early church said and a few preliminary thoughts. Again, much more could be said about all this (and I will in future), but I wanted to get this blog post out ASAP. So don’t assume this is all there is to the story.

1) Some things aren’t mentioned explicitly in the Bible because they weren’t common cultural problems or because they are covered by other commands. The Bible doesn’t mention FGM because it wasn’t common in Hebrew culture. Likewise, because the culture was very pro-life and in particular valued having children, abortion was not a common problem (bear in mind how much pride people in the OT took in having many children, and how much of a curse lacking children was seen as). But the Bible does claim that human beings are made in God’s image and that all killing of humans is wrong. And since the unborn are living human beings (which we can learn from science, independently of the Bible, but the Bible also seems to gesture in this direction: see Psalm 139, the prophets being called in the womb, and John the Baptist leaping for joy at Jesus’ conception – when he was presumably just a few cells big!), the Bible prohibits it indirectly. This is certainly how it has been interpreted throughout church history. The Bible is silent on lots of specific things and this has been exploited for great evil in the past (for example, Christian proponents of slavery used the lack of clear prohibition of slavery as an argument for it, even though the Bible clearly denounces all the wrong things about slavery and so bans slavery by implication).

2) The reason it was unnecessary for Jesus to denounce it in Jewish culture was because Jewish culture already forbade abortion except to save the life of the mother. Hence various Jewish documents from the time make this clear: Pseudo-Phocylides (written around the time of Jesus) explicitly prohibits abortion and infanticide together, clearly seeing them as parallel, and the Sibylline Oracles does likewise. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian who tells us about Jesus himself,  and by far the best source we have for 1st century Israel, says clearly that the law prohibits abortion and infanticide, and in fact calls those who perform abortions murderers. So there was no need for Jesus to repeat what was already clear Jewish law – just as he didn’t have to reaffirm the rest of it!

It is sometimes claimed that Exodus 21:22-25 shows that the unborn are not treated as full rights-bearing human beings in the Bible. David Albert Jones has the best discussion of this; I can only offer a few points for reasons of space: 1) This appears to be literally all the pro-choice proponent has: one tiny, controversial passage in Exodus. That is not a strong precedent. 2) The Old Testament is not the final authority for Christians. 3) Even if the pro-choice interpretation is correct, the action is still strictly illegal. 4) Believing that there should be different penalties for different kinds of killing doesn’t mean that one sees some victims as less than human. Most people guilty of killing in UK law are given different penalties. 5) The passage is deeply controversial and always has been. It could well refer to premature live birth vs miscarriage, in which case the lesser penalty is because the baby survives. Indeed, the verb used (‘yatsa”) is more often used for live birth than for miscarriage in the Hebrew scriptures. And the author specifically avoids a more standard term for ‘miscarriage’ which the author has already used (‘shokol’)! So the textual evidence itself suggests that causing miscarriage is not what is in mind. 6) Even those later Jewish scholars and interpreters who did think it referred to miscarriage thought that abortion should be strictly illegal in any situation except where the mother’s life is at risk. The Mishnah, which allows this exception, still describes abortion as dismemberment, ‘limb from limb’. And there are certainly parts of the Talmud which prescribe capital punishment for abortion.

3) We often learn a lot about how people view the unborn from their language about them. Pro-choicers tend to call them ‘clumps of cells’, ‘parasites’, ‘tumours’, and so on. Pro-lifers tend to call them babies. The New Testament in Greek calls them βρεφος (‘brephos’, singular, Greek), as when John the Baptist is described in Luke 1:41-44 as being a ‘brephos’, leaping for joy in the womb. What does ‘brephos’ mean? The rest of the New Testament makes clear. In the next chapter, Luke calls Jesus a ‘brephos’, lying in the manger while people come to worship him. And, astonishingly, in Luke 18:15, it is the exact word used when Jesus illustrates those who inherit the Kingdom of God: “People were also bringing babies (brephé) to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”” Likewise 2 Timothy 3:15: “From childhood (brephous) you have known the sacred writings…”; 1 Peter 2:2: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” and, remarkably, Stephen’s description of Pharaoh forcing the Israelites to expose (i.e. leave to die) their babies as a paradigm example of Pharaohs wickedness: “He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive.” The New Testament is as clear as medical science is: unborn babies really are babies, and are no different in standing from newborn babies.

4) Surrounding cultures practised infanticide for much the same reasons as people today justify abortions: infants are poorly developed, can’t really think for themselves, aren’t ‘persons’, etc. But yet the Jewish and Christian proto-‘pro-life’ movements regarded this as heinous and likewise condemned abortion. The evidence for this is clear throughout the Bible and early Christian literature. Indeed, Christians were the reason infanticide (which was often done for reasons of disability or female gender, just as in today’s world) in the Roman Empire was outlawed, and pagans would leave their babies at the doors of Christians because Christians had such a reputation for looking after babies.

5) The early church (even by the end of the first century) was clearly in opposition to abortion, presumably addressing this issue slightly later than the gospels and epistles because the gospel finally spread to cultures where abortion was more common. Hence the Didache (which, we recall, was probably written in the first century and even accepted as scriptural by some early Christians) forbids abortion expressly. The rest of the church fathers do so in very strong terms, time and time again. I list here merely some of the condemnations of abortion by early Christian writers.

  • You shall not kill a child by abortion nor kill it after it is born.’ Didache
  • ‘even worse than murder … Why then do you abuse the gift of God … and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?’ John Chrysostom
  • ‘Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born’ Epistle of Barnabas
  • ‘And these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion’ Apocalypse of Peter
  • ‘There are some women among you who by drinking special potions extinguish the life of the future human in their very bowels, thus committing murder before they even give birth’ Minucius Felix
  • ‘those women who use drugs to bring about an abortion commit murder’ Athenagoras
  • ‘There is also (another instrument in the shape of) a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: They give it, from its infanticide function, the name of εμβρυοσφακτης, ‘the slayer of the infant,’ which of course was alive … [they] all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive.’ Tertullian
  • ‘See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time!’ Hippolytus
  • ‘(Christians) marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring.’ Diognetus
  • ‘Those who use abortifacient medicines to hide their fornication are causing the outright destruction, together with the foetus, of the whole human race’ Clement of Alexandria
  • ‘Some when they sense that they have conceived by sin, consider the poisons for abortion, and frequently die themselves along with it, and go to Hell guilty of three crimes: murdering themselves, committing adultery against Christ, and murder against their unborn child’ Jerome
  • ‘The rich women, to avoid dividing the inheritance among many, kill their own foetus in the womb and with murderous juices extinguish in the genital chamber their children’ Ambrose

It appears, then, that the early Christian approach to abortion was clear. We cannot pretend otherwise. There is much more that could be said, and I recommend again the books I mentioned at the start. But the early church was also clear about something else: about God’s complete and unassailable grace. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, Paul writes in Romans 8. Complete freedom, complete forgiveness, and a complete wiping away of every sin we have ever committed is promised to those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. That is a promise as certain and as complete as the rest of God’s promises. What a Saviour we have, and how free we are!

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. ” Ephesians 2:4-7

 

The scientific evidence on abortion

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1 As conceded by, for example, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, p. 10: https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/guidelines/abortion-guideline_web_1.pdf

2 See, for example, David Fergusson’s 2013 study in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0004867413484597. David Fergusson is a pro-choice Emeritus Professor of Psychology whose primary studies showing this association are highly regarded and published in top psychiatry journals.

3 See e.g., P. Levine’s 2004 paper in the Journal of Law and Economics: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/380475, his 2003 paper in the Journal of Health Economics: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167629603000638, and New’s 2011 study in State Politics & Policy Quarterly: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1532440010387397, all of which show that restrictions on abortion lower abortion rates.

4 Hence the details on ‘feticide’ in the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ guidelines, pp. 57-58: https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/guidelines/abortion-guideline_web_1.pdf

5 See the report on Savita Halappanavar’s death, pp. 85-96: http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2013/06/savita-halappanavar-hse-report.pdf

6 See e.g. the independent ComRes poll showing that, for example, 70% of women in the UK think that the time limit for legal abortion should be lowered: http://www.comresglobal.com/polls/where-do-they-stand-abortion-survey/

7 For example, see Skotko’s 2011 study showing that nearly 99% of people with Down Syndrome are happy with their lives: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3740159/ and the contrasting rate of abortion in many countries with liberal abortion laws (to near eradication of people with Down Syndrome in Iceland): https://www.cbsnews.com/news/down-syndrome-iceland/

8 See, for example, the Care and Quality Commission report on Marie Stopes in Maidstone: http://www.cqc.org.uk/sites/default/files/new_reports/AAAF4825.pdf. ‘Staff were concerned that ‘Did Not Proceed’, the term used when women decided not to proceed with treatment, was measured as a KPI and linked to their performance bonus. They felt that this encouraged staff to ensure that patients underwent procedures.’

9 See the UK government report from 2016, showing only 6 out of 185,000 abortions were done as emergencies to save the life of the woman, and only 99 non-emergency abortions: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment _data/file/679028/Abortions_stats_England_Wales_2016.pdf

 

What can we know about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection without using any Christian sources?

What can we know about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection without using any Christian sources?

It is sometimes alleged that all the sources for Jesus’ resurrection come from biased early Christians, and so cannot be trusted. I do not agree with this approach for a number of reasons: for one thing, that the early Christians were persecuted heavily for their faith suggests that they were not insincere propagandists but probably sincerely believed what they taught about Jesus, including that he was resurrected. And I (along with many New Testament scholars) think that there are other very good reasons to trust at least the basic gist of events as characterised in the New Testament, and particularly those relating to the last week of Jesus’ life. The wealth of independent sources for the crucifixion, for example, far exceeds almost any other event in ancient history, and is hard to explain simply by Christian bias. So let us not underestimate the strength of the historical evidence of Christian writers. The evidence I give here – from writers who not only denied Christianity but despised it – is a radical underestimate of the evidence in favour of Jesus’ identity and ministry.

But there is another reason this objection fails. It is that we can actually know a remarkable amount about Jesus’ final days without using any Christian sources at all. Some people will be familiar with some non-Christian sources for his life, perhaps in the form of the odd reference to his existence and perhaps his death. How much can they really tell us? Indeed, even Christian apologists tend to act as though non-Christian sources just tell us Jesus existed and was crucified, and not much more. So in preparation for a debate a couple of years ago, I made the game harder for myself. I determined to make a case for the resurrection using not a single Christian source. This does, of course, make things much harder. And as I noted at the start, it is not necessary for an honest, robust historical case for the resurrection. But when I took the task seriously, I surprised myself with the power of the case I ended up making. I want to relay some of that evidence here. Of course, I cannot hope to cover non-Christian corroboration of everything in the gospels – there are far too many relevant archaeological and literary finds to hope to cover in an article like this. And of course, much of this evidence supports the reliability of the Gospel authors, indirectly supporting the veracity of the resurrection narratives. But let me focus on more direct evidence for the resurrection in non-Christian sources and see how far we get. I will quote the passages fairly fully but embolden the relevant pieces – the reader may skip the rest of the quotes to save time if they wish.

Turn first to Tacitus, the Roman historian. In his Annals, which covers the history of Rome from 14-68 AD, he turns his attention in Book XV to the fire in Rome under Nero in 64 AD, for which Nero subsequently used Christians as scapegoats. He relates:

But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man. (Book XV, 44)

The key points:

  • Christians were persecuted very severely under Nero in 64 AD
  • Christians were already disliked
  • Their founder was known as ‘Christ’ (i.e. the Greek for ‘Messiah’)
  • Christ had been executed in the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD), sentenced by Pontius Pilate himself (Prefect/Procurator of Judaea from 26-36 AD)
  • The movement stopped temporarily after his death
  • The movement then restarted in Judaea
  • It spread to Rome in large numbers

The Jewish writer Josephus, having defected to the Romans after being captured in the Jewish-Roman War, later put together Antiquities of the Jews, a history of the Jews from the beginning of the world through to the war. The work contains three central references to Jesus or his companions. And while the first of these is routinely discarded by lay sceptics as inauthentic, it is fair to say that the weight of scholarly opinion thinks there is an authentic core of the passage, even though scholars typically grant that there are Christian interpolations. The latter passages, of course, suffer from little to no such concerns regarding authenticity.

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Book XVIII, 3.3)

Probably (though not certainly, since Jews had vastly differing concepts of Messiahs, and it is possible Josephus thought Jesus was a Messiah despite not being worthy of significant devotion) Josephus did not call Jesus ‘the Messiah’, although it is very plausible that he thought Jesus was held to be the Messiah by many people (in any case, his being titled ‘Christ’ early on is fairly uncontroversial). And he likely did not believe that Jesus had been resurrected. But he nevertheless otherwise confirms:

  • Jesus was known as a wise man and the Messiah
  • He performed ‘surprising feats’ and was a teacher
  • He won over Jews and Gentiles
  • On accusation by Jewish authorities, he was crucified under Pilate
  • After this, he was still followed by a group who became known as ‘Christians’
  • (Possibly), he was held to have been raised on the third day

Josephus shortly after goes on to describe the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army by Aretas IV and its interpretation as divine punishment for John the Baptist’s execution. He had previously just explained Antipas’ marital scandals:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behaviour. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus, the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod. (Book XVIII, 5.2)

While John the Baptist is not mentioned as connected to Jesus in this passage, virtually no scholar doubts the relation between them. So, making one tiny exception to my rule of using no Christian sources, we can assume that John the Baptist was an associate of Jesus. But then we learn a few more very interesting facts:

  • John the Baptist was executed by Herod Antipas
  • He was known as a good person who encouraged lives of righteousness and piety to Man and God
  • He baptised fellow Jews and taught that righteousness was necessary for certain worship rituals to be acceptable to God
  • He won crowds with charismatic preaching
  • Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet governor of Galilee, was alarmed at John’s teaching and worried it would lead to sedition
  • John the Baptist was relatively popular among the Jews

Finally, Josephus references James, the brother of Jesus, just subsequent to Festus’ death in 62 AD. He describes James’ execution by Herod Agrippa II:

Upon learning of the death of Festus, Caesar sent Albinus to Judaea as procurator. The king [Agrippa II] removed Joseph from the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to this office upon the son of Ananus, who was likewise called Ananus. It is said that the elder Ananus was extremely fortunate. For he had five sons, all of whom, after he himself had previously enjoyed the office for a very long period, became high priests of God—a thing that had never happened to any other of our high priests. The younger Ananus, who, as we have said, had been appointed to the high priesthood, was rash in his temper and unusually daring. He followed the school of the Sadducees, who are indeed more heartless than any of the other Jews, as I have already explained, when they sit in judgement. Possessed of such a character, Ananus thought that he had a favourable opportunity because Festus was dead and Albinus was still on the way. And so he convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned. Those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were strict in observance of the law were offended at this. They therefore secretly sent to King Agrippa urging him, for Ananus had not even been correct in his first step, to order him to desist from any further such actions. Certain of them even went to meet Albinus, who was on his way from Alexandria, and informed him that Ananus had no authority to convene the Sanhedrin without his consent. Convinced by these words, Albinus angrily wrote to Ananus threatening to take vengeance upon him. King Agrippa, because of Ananus’ action, deposed him from the high priesthood which he had held for three months and replaced him with Jesus the son of Damnaeus. (Book XX, 9.1)

They key point, of course, is that Ananus convened the Sanhedrin to put James, the brother of Jesus (known as the Messiah), to death.

Turn next to Pliny, governor of Bithynia (northern Turkey) in the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD). Pliny and Trajan shared many letters still extant, one of which concerns Pliny’s approach to Christians in Bithynia:

It is my custom to refer all my difficulties to you, Sir, for no one is better able to resolve my doubts and to inform my ignorance.

I have never been present at an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know the nature or the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed. Nor am I at all sure whether any distinction should be made between them on the grounds of age, or if young people and adults should be treated alike; whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity, he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name.

For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished. There have been others similarly fanatical who are Roman citizens. I have entered them on the list of persons to be sent to Rome for trial.

Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons. Among these I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

Others, whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ. They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.

I have therefore postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you. The question seems to me to be worthy of your consideration, especially in view of the number of persons endangered; for a great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. It is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult. I think though that it is still possible for it to be checked and directed to better ends, for there is no doubt that people have begun to throng the temples which had been almost entirely deserted for a long time; the sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse are being performed again, and flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it. It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be reformed if they were given an opportunity to repent. (Letters, XCVII)

Pliny here confirms a number of details:

  • Christians in Bithynia were punished severely
  • There were certain crimes associated with Christianity
  • Christians were stubborn in their beliefs and persisted to their execution
  • Some were Roman citizens
  • Christians were freed if they denied Christ and ritually worshiped the Roman gods and Emperor
  • True Christians had a reputation for never doing any of these things
  • Some Christians in Bithynia had ceased to be Christians 20 years previously – and so Christianity was likely in Bithynia at least 20 years previously
  • Christians met on a fixed day before dawn to chant verses
  • Christians worshiped Christ ‘as if to a god’
  • Christians bound themselves to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and to commit to loyalty and financial integrity
  • Christians reassembled later to take ‘ordinary, harmless’ food
  • Christians, including women, were tortured
  • The Church had ‘deaconesses’
  • Christianity was seen as a degenerate, extreme cult
  • Christianity had broad demographic appeal and extended into rural areas
  • There was a desertion of temples, Roman cultic rites and animal sacrifice associated with the spread of Christianity

Trajan’s response is also extant:

Trajan to Pliny

You have followed the right course of procedure, my dear Pliny, in your examination of the cases of persons charged with being Christians, for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be. But pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age. (Letters, XCVII)

Trajan adds little new, but confirms that Christians were punished harshly, but spared if they denied Christ and worshiped the Roman pantheon.

Suetonius was a Roman historian most famous for his De Vita Caesarum – a set of biographies about the Julius Caesar and the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Domitian. He has two separate excerpts of note, the first of which is in his Claudius, regarding the Roman emperor reigning from 41-54 AD:

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome. (Claudius, 25.4)

Although there is some debate regarding whether ‘Chrestus’ is a misspelling of ‘Christus’, the Latin word for Christ, most scholars agree that it is, according to which the well-known expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius in 49 AD was particularly related to the new Jewish faction started by Jesus – Christianity. So we have here confirmation that Christians were of a sufficiently large number in Rome in 49 AD to warrant the expulsion of Jews from the city. This fits well with the other evidence we have so far considered.

But Suetonius also discussed Christianity in his biography of Nero, who reigned from 54-68 AD:

During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city. (Nero, 16.2)

Both passages from Suetonius mention Christians fairly incidentally, in lists of new policies instituted by the respective Emperors. But here Suetonius again confirms more clearly that Christians were severely punished under Nero, and that Christianity was a new phenomenon which was causing some sort of trouble.

A letter survives from Mara bar Serapion, a philosopher from Roman Syria, to his son Serapion. The dating is unclear, and stands sometime between 73 AD and the 3rd century. Nevertheless, it seems to be another non-Christian reference to Jesus’ life:

What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defence? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the ‘new law’ he laid down.

Mara bar Serapion hints at Jesus’ description as a ‘wise king’ – likely a reference to his status as Messiah among his followers – and the fact that his followers still existed following his law despite his execution.

Ending our discussion of Roman historians, let us look at Lucian, the satirist and historiographer who lived from 125-180 AD. His The Passing of Peregrinus recounts a pejorative biography of Peregrinus, a philosopher who he claims lived among Christians and exploited their generosity. While Lucian was a novelist, he also wrote works on historiography wherein he laid out stringent rules for historians recounting events of the past, and it is generally accepted that this work is broadly biographical rather than pure fabrication. But his clear antipathy towards Peregrinus lends us some scepticism towards the details. In any case, we need not be concerned with the reliability of the details of Peregrinus’ life in the account, since we are concerned with how Lucian portrays Christians here. He gives hints at various points:

It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be?—in a trice he made them all look like children; for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. (11)

Indeed, people came even from the cities in Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succour and defend and encourage the hero. They show incredible speed whenever any such public action is taken; for in no time they lavish their all. So it was then in the case of Peregrinus; much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it. The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody, most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk. (13)

In 16 he also goes on to mention that the Christians have food forbidden to them. So we learn from Lucian:

  • Christianity was based in Palestine
  • Christians were associated with synagogues/Judaism
  • Christians worshiped a man crucified in Palestine who introduced the religion
  • Christianity was prevalent in Asia (i.e. Turkey)
  • They were extreme and generous
  • They believed in an afterlife, and therefore do not resist punishment, including capital punishment
  • They considered themselves brothers after abandoning Roman gods and worshiping the crucified man, whose way of life they followed
  • They did not care much for material things and shared them as common property
  • They had forbidden food

Turning briefly to non-Roman sources (except Josephus, whom we have already discussed), we move into slightly more controversial territory. A relatively late source (5-6th century, though very likely based on much earlier tradition) the Babylonian Talmud. Of course, it is not sympathetic to Christianity, and notes:

It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days [proclaiming]. “He will be stoned, because he practised magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favour come forward and plead for him.” But nothing was found in his favour, and they hanged him the day before Passover. (b. Sanhedrin 43a)

This confirms Jesus’ death at Passover, and his reputation for practising ‘magic’ and ‘leading Israel astray’.

Closer to the time of Jesus, we find that the Sanhedrin in the 80s AD formulated the following prayer:

For the renegades let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom soon be rooted out in our days, and the Nazarenes and the minim perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant.

References to the ‘minim’ and the ‘Nazarenes’ in the Talmud normally refer to Christians, suggesting that we here have a very early reference to Jewish antipathy (and probably persecution) towards Christians in Judaea – and a confirmation that Jesus was held to be from Nazareth, i.e. a very small Galilean (and therefore maligned) town.

We turn finally to a marginal case: 7 examples of the Sator Square have been found in Pompeii, necessarily dating to before 79 AD. This set of letters – whose meaning is to scholars unclear – can be arranged into a cross shape spelling ‘Pater Noster’ (Our Father), with two As and two Os – ostensibly transliterations of Greek Alpha and Omega. If this interpretation of its unclear significance is correct it would confirm Christian presence in Italy at this stage. But the evidence is so unclear, and the evidence for Christian presence in Italy at this stage so strong in any case, that I will not use it henceforth.

Of course, this evidence can all be augmented enormously by uncontroversial details taken from the New Testament and other Christian literature, but part of my point here is to emphasise the strength of the case even on the (wildly implausible) assumption that Christian literature has nothing of value to tell us. The sources discussed here are those from within roughly 100 years of Jesus’ life. This is extremely impressive given the insignificance of Jesus’ life by secular Roman measures (bear in mind that the main sources for the Emperor Tiberius are broadly the same as the sources here), and given the ordinary nature of ancient sources for lives: the much larger time disparity between other ancient figures and their biographers is well known and does not need rehearsal here. So let us see what we have in total:

Jesus was from Nazareth, a small and maligned village in Galilee. He performed ‘surprising feats’ and ‘magic’ and was a respected teacher/wise man who won over Jews and Gentiles alike (Sanhedrin prayer, Talmud, Josephus). His movement was associated with John the Baptist, who was known as a good person who encouraged lives of righteousness, piety towards Man and God, who baptised fellow Jews, taught that righteousness was necessary for worship to be acceptable to God, and won crowds with charismatic preaching. John the Baptist was popular among the Jews and was executed by Herod Antipas, who was alarmed at his teaching and the possibility that it would lead to sedition. This may also have been related to Antipas’ marriage (Josephus).

Jesus himself was known as ‘Christ’ (i.e. the Greek for Messiah) (implied by ‘Christian’ in all authors, explicit in several), and as a ‘wise king’ (Mara bar Serapion). He started a new movement which was still associated with Judaism (Suetonius, Lucian).

He was executed (most authors) in the reign of Tiberius and sentenced by Pontius Pilate (26-36 AD) in Judaea (Tacitus, Josephus) at the request of the Jewish authorities (Tacitus, Josephus, Talmud, Mara bar Serapion), because he practised magic and led Israel astray (Talmud). This happened by crucifixion (Tacitus, Lucian, perhaps Talmud) and took place on Passover Eve (Talmud). The movement stopped temporarily after his death (Tacitus).

The movement then restarted in Judaea (Tacitus), perhaps related to a belief in Jesus’ resurrection on the ‘third day’ (Josephus). It persisted after his death (Tacitus, Josephus, Mara bar Serapion; implicit in all). It spread very quickly and in large numbers to Rome, northern Turkey, and perhaps other parts of Italy (Tacitus, Pliny, Lucian, Pompeii, Suetonius). They were present in sufficiently numbers and sufficiently devout to cause disturbances in Rome and Bithynia (Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny) and empty temples and ruin the sacrificial market in Bithynia (Pliny). It had broad demographic appeal in age, class, gender and citizenship (Josephus, Pliny) and extended into cities and rural areas (Pliny).

The movement was widely reviled (most authors) and persecuted early on by Romans and Jews alike (Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny, Trajan, Suetonius, Lucian, Sanhedrin prayer), including torture of women (Pliny). They did not fear death and gave themselves over to capital punishment (Lucian). Reasons for this included being scapegoated, being widely reviled, simply being ‘Christian’, not worshiping the Roman gods and Emperor, stubbornness, transgression of the Jewish law, degeneracy, extremism, stirring up trouble, and perhaps depraved rituals related to food (very slightly later evidence confirms this as a charge of cannibalism) (Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny, Suetonius, Lucian). Jesus’ own brother, James, was executed by the Jewish authorities for having transgressed the law (Josephus). They were freed in Bithynia and probably elsewhere across the Roman Empire if they denied Christ and ritually worshiped the Roman gods and Emperor (Pliny, Trajan).

Finally, the movement was both associated with Judaism (Suetonius, Lucian; implicit in most authors) and yet reviled by it (Josephus, Sanhedrin prayer, Talmud). They worshiped Christ ‘as if to a god’ (Pliny, Lucian). They were stubborn in their beliefs until execution (Pliny, Lucian), known for their extremeness and generosity (Lucian), and had a reputation for never denying Christ or worshiping Roman gods (Pliny). They met on a ‘fixed day’ (apparently Sunday), chanted verses, bound themselves to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and to commit to loyalty and financial integrity (Pliny). They had a suspicious food-based ritual (Pliny). They believed in an afterlife and ‘despised death’, apparently not fearing it (Lucian). They considered themselves brothers and followed the way of the crucified Jesus (Lucian). They did not care much for material things and shared them as common property (Lucian). They had ‘deaconesses’ (i.e. ‘servants’ in the Church).

So we really know a rather impressive amount from non-Christian sources alone – much more than that Jesus was executed in the 1st century AD! What we need to do now is explain the data. We know from Josephus (certainly from the interpolated version, and plausibly from the original version) that Christians believed in Jesus’ resurrection. In any case, it is not at all controversial that Christians believed in his resurrection at an early stage after his death. And this firm conviction explains almost everything we see after his death – the martyrdom, the despising of death, the persistence of the movement. Indeed, it would require something like this: a crucifixion victim was cursed according to Jewish law, and Messianic movements invariably died with the failure of the movement and the death of the Messiah figure.

So we have to ask what would cause belief in the resurrection. NT Wright’s work is most helpful here. He demonstrates ably the difficulty of explaining a belief in the resurrection in this case without appearances of the risen Jesus, and without an empty tomb. ‘Resurrection’ meant a bodily raising from the dead, and the Jews were well acquainted with grief hallucinations, visions, subjective feelings, and so on. They had terminology for those other than ‘resurrection’. And the idea of a resurrection before the end of the world was entirely anathema to Judaism. So it would take a radical experience to really convince Jews that someone – most especially a crucifixion victim from Galilee – had been raised from the dead. They would not have believed it if they did not see Jesus risen from the dead. And the movement would have died if Jesus’ tomb were not empty. That the holy day changed from Saturday to Sunday (implied by Pliny) fits the suggestion of Josephus that it was on the ‘third day’ that Christians held Jesus to have been raised. That it started in Judaea (not Galilee) after Jesus’ crucifixion there suggests this as the likely location.

This is not the place to go into detail on alternative explanations of these facts. But I do want to point, at least, to the non-Christian evidence for Jesus’ burial. It is often alleged that Jesus could easily have been not buried, or that his followers might have got the wrong tomb. I explain in a separate blog post (forthcoming) the non-Christian evidence for Jesus’ burial as a necessary part of Jewish practice, including for criminals. It is almost certain even without any Christian sources that Jesus was buried and that the location would have been known.

What was Jesus himself like? He was a Galilean who performed surprising feats, taught wisdom, and was linked with John the Baptist’s movement encouraging righteousness and authentic worship. This movement used baptism and was ended by Herod Antipas’ worry about sedition. He likely taught a stringent and radical moral code detailed above, which included extreme generosity and appeal to outcasts. He probably saw himself as the Messiah, perhaps as a sort of king (which lends itself most naturally to messianic interpretation), and may have instituted something like the Eucharist, perhaps near to Passover. He taught that his followers became brothers, and started a movement that soon worshiped him ‘as if to a god’ – perhaps implying stronger claims than we have made here. These claims very well explain his title as a ‘king’ and Antipas’ worry about sedition.

The question then arises as to the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. Messianic expectations were ordinarily (though not entirely) military, and his controversial execution as a politically unstable time must have required significant claims or trouble on his part, such as the charge of sedition. But in that case, why is there no hint of any military activity on the part of Christians? The natural interpretation is that he saw his kingdom as spiritual, not military. Of course, this is what we find in the gospels, but it is at least heavily implied by the secular writers.

We noted also that the new movement was heavily linked with Judaism and yet reviled by Jewish authorities. This fits perfectly with all we have said so far: Jesus was a messianic figure, but from many perspectives a failed one. And if he had made claims related to divinity, invited Gentiles and outcasts into his kingdom, and rejected the strict interpretation of the Sabbath for his believers, it is not difficult to see why he would be hated by the authorities.

What we end up with, therefore, is the same basic case made in normal arguments for the resurrection. I do not have space to make those arguments here, although they will be made as comprehensively as possible on my website in due course. But the fundamental question is how we explain the data here. Jesus was a remarkable figure, a unique man, who claimed to be the Messiah and perhaps made claims to divinity, who claimed to institute a spiritual kingdom on Earth, who taught a radical moral code and inspired a group of followers who spread across the world and persisted despite threat of death. After his crucifixion his tomb was empty and his followers (and others) had experiences of him risen from the dead.

All this evidence, of course, vindicates what the canonical gospels say about Jesus. So the evidence presented here in the first places gives us great reason to trust the gospels more than we might otherwise have done. But more acutely, the evidence here impresses upon us directly a picture of Jesus which itself needs explanation. And it is my considered judgment that the most complete, unifying explanation of these facts, given all the historical evidence, is that Jesus really was who he claimed to be. He was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, who changed the world with his teaching and revealed the way to abundant life through following him and trusting in him. Through his healings and his death he ended the reign of corrupt humans and evil on Earth and instituted the reign of God himself. As a seal vindicating this ministry, God raised him from the dead, so that his followers, and we too, might despise death and be given to this new and mischievous superstition.

 

The meaning of the crucifixion

The Meaning of Easter – Part I

Introduction
I have set out a vision elsewhere on the significance of resurrection in new creation in more detail elsewhere in the context of eschatology (technically the ‘last things’, more broadly God’s direction for creation – see my Christian Eschatology), but I am convinced that this is the key to understanding Easter. For many, it will seem natural to give a treatment of the crucifixion first, thinking about the cross as an act of atonement and then reflecting on the significance of the resurrection. My problem with this is that it can all too easily make the resurrection a bonus, something which is not all too important in itself but which adds the icing on our Easter weekend cake. Jesus has done the important bit in dying for our sins – his resurrection just rounds off the story neatly. After all, he would have gone to heaven after dying anyway, right?

I find this inadequate, and I think we ought to. I think that a treatment like this gives inadequate and sometimes disabling views of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. Consequently, I will begin with the resurrection, arguing that it holds the key to at least a partial understanding of the crucifixion.

We often say that Easter is about new life, and some of us may be able to relate a commercialised Easter into this analysis – our chocolate eggs represent the new life that comes from an egg, etc. But what does this really mean? Does it mean that Jesus has been raised? Well yes, that is part of it, but what significance does it have beyond that?

What God has been doing so far
Our understanding of the world, our vocation, and where we are heading must change drastically[1]. From Genesis to Revelation (and it is conveniently these two which particularly emphasise this point), the Bible is an overwhelming affirmation of the ultimate goodness of creation. Of course, it is one that has been corrupted and one which cries out in agony (cf. Romans 8:22), and there are no neat answers given for why this is so[2]. Sometimes this is from humans’ uncooperation, at other times the righteous are inexplicably held captive and persecuted (e.g. the Israelites in Egypt, the suffering righteous one in deutero-Isaiah, Daniel, and particularly characters in the inter-testamental literature like the Maccabees). But the entire story of the Bible is one of redemption – time and time again, God’s purposes for creation are thwarted for whatever reason, but the consistent response is one where God promises, through covenant, to redeem that situation. This is so in smaller narratives such as the story of Joseph at the end of Genesis, more prominent themes in Israel’s history like the Exodus narrative and, I will argue, the meta-narrative of Scripture, the whole story of God’s plan for creation.

We often ignore the Old Testament context for Jesus’ ministry in order to affirm, on the basis of a few New Testament epistles and perhaps slightly too much attention to a monocultured, Westernised Church history, that Easter is primarily about Jesus dying as the punishment for our sins. I think the Old Testament and New Testament both provide us with more than that. To understand this, we must go back to Abraham. Genesis opens with a few disjointed tales of human disobedience and arrogance, and these are quite profound. Whether they offer an exhaustive account of evil is not the issue here, what is important is that they have set the context of a world desperately in need of redemption. In chapter 12, God calls a nomad, Abraham, and promises to bless the whole world through his family. This theme is repeated throughout the Old Testament, with God promising to restore creation to its purpose, using Israel as his vehicle of redemption. Israel is to be a light to the Gentiles, and the Old Testament context of this theme finds its fulfilment in the Gospels, with Jesus being heralded as that light, Israel’s representative to bless the nations. More of that particular fulfilment later. As we move through the Old Testament from Abraham to the inter-testamental period, the problem of how God will use Israel becomes more complex, as Israel itself decides to turn away from God individually and on a corporate level. But what is so striking about all these narratives, and this is the important point, is that God always remains faithful to his covenant, and he does so in order to bring the world back to its original purpose. When Israel are exiled from the promised land, God does not decide that the land has become too corrupt anyway and try to find a new abode. He leads them back to the promised land, always trying to find a new way to continue his plan of redemption.

Where we are going
And so it is now. To ignore that covenant is to neglect all that God has been doing to redeem our world, and it can disable us from taking part in that covenant. Jesus, arguably, saw himself as recreating a new Israel (e.g. by choosing twelve apostles to represent the twelve tribes of Israel), in order that they might be a light to the world (cf. Matthew 5). Paul takes this further, effectively interpreting the church as constituting a second incarnation – we are the body of Christ, he says, effective to bring about massive change in the here and now. It is impossible to overemphasise this point – we as the church are called to embody Christ’s will, to be part of the same covenant God made with Abraham so that we might redeem this world. And so, understanding this principle of the covenant people mediating redemption, we might now suggest that the answer to where we are heading is nowhere. Our vocation is to renew the world we live in, as was Abraham’s vocation, as was Israel’s, and as was Jesus’. We are under the same covenant God made with Abraham to bless the world, and we forget that at the greatest cost. There is no talk in the New Testament of us going to heaven when we die, much less of us leaving earth permanently. It is illuminating that all talk of an afterlife in the Judeo-Christian tradition came after hundreds of years of focussing strictly on this life. Until the very latest Old Testament books (e.g. Ezekiel, Daniel), Jewish afterlife was pretty non-existent. The dead went to the grave (Sheol), and had a pretty shadowy existence[3]. The real message of the Old Testament covenants and prophets was a call to action now. Let us have justice on earth, let us live out God’s calling to bless the nations, let us live out God’s calling to renew the world; this is the vocation of a pre-Christic believer (and, of course, of a post-Christic believer).

All of which brings us to Jesus. As with the prophets in the tradition preceding him, Jesus’ concern was ultimately in making the Kingdom of God manifest here. This is the proper sense of ‘parousia’, often translated in terms of Jesus’ second coming to whisk away the elect to heaven. No, ‘parousia’ means, literally, ‘presence’ – Jesus is to be present with us in the renewed creation.[4] When Jesus talks of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew is using ‘Heaven’ as a reverential synonym for ‘God’. Thus, Jesus is not preaching a Gospel of leaving Earth to go to heaven, but of a renewed Earth where God’s reign is clearly manifest. We are to be co-creators with God, we are to bring about his Kingdom on Earth (have we forgotten that line of the Lord’s prayer?), and we are to bring the new creation of the future into the present.

The Resurrection
This, I propose, is (some of) the context and significance of Jesus’ resurrection. It is not a bonus to our salvation as already bought by the crucifixion, it is not just an excuse for us to aimlessly yell about Jesus still being alive. No, it is a symbol of that new creation, of God’s future Kingdom of justice and love being brought into the present to empower us for action. And how empowering it is! The crucifixion and resurrection are not events that remain in the past, having done something important for us and now staying tidily out of our way while we aim for heaven. To the contrary, says Paul at the end of his magisterial chapter on the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15), it is precisely because we have the hope of new creation in us, by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, that we are able to strive for justice and for God’s Kingdom here and now. “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.”

Let us return to the overarching theme of the Bible of God’s covenant to bless and renew a broken world, and let us be empowered by the resurrection and its promise of new creation. Let us focus on bringing justice and peace, on offering mercy and forgiveness so that God’s Kingdom may be manifest through us on Earth as it already is in heaven. As a Church, we are not to do good deeds merely for our individual salvation, or even as an expression of our salvation. We are to do all these things, by the power and promise of the resurrection, in order to bring Heaven to Earth, that all the Earth might be blessed. The call of the Gospel is no less.

(Part II on the crucifixion hopefully coming soon. This is by no means exhaustive of the significance of the resurrection, but I have tried to point towards the theme and context I find particularly empowering).

Footnotes

1. Due to time constraints and the fact that I have already attempted some justification for this elsewhere, forgive me if I tend to state things dogmatically here.
2. This is contrary to the insistence of some that suffering is always a result of punishment, or that the free will defence sorts everything out. The Bible is so diverse in its explanation of the origin of evil that whole books argue for different perspectives (and, of course, give different perspectives within themselves). Scattered around is the affirmation that suffering can be a result of God’s wrath – not necessarily as an active damning punishment, but God’s decision to allow humans the natural consequences of their own misconduct. A slightly more tame form of this is found in the everyday wisdom of Proverbs – act stupidly, and you’ll get in trouble. Job is dedicated largely to the repudiation of using sin as an explanation of evil as a whole, as is Jesus’ remark in John 9:3, and, in fact, most of the Bible. Ecclesiastes seems to give up altogether, finding no hope in the ‘suffering-from-sin’ model… or, indeed, anything at all.
3. It may be argued that some Old Testament authors denied an existence after death at all.
4. Passages traditionally interpreted as referring to hell are, I would argue, in the most case referring to something quite different, a judgment on Israel and the contemporary sacrificial system as it stood then, not the eternal fate of unbelievers for all future generations.

Christian Eschatology

Christian Eschatology

I thought it was time for another one of these. After watching a little discussion on the Christian notion of heaven, I thought I’d give my views on it, and related ideas. No doubt much of this could be wrong and will probably be revised, but I’d like to outline my views at the moment. I’m using a somewhat revised definition of ‘eschatology’. Typically, it is seen as the events of the ‘end times’, from ‘eschatos’ (Greek εσχατος- last), but in my view, ‘end times’ terminology tends to bring up too many unhelpful images of heaven, hell, and ones that have no doubt been distorted by political medieval thinking, and an inappropriate literal reading of hell. I have no intention of discussing hell here, but I would like to redefine ‘eschatology’ for present purposes as, perhaps, ‘God’s future goal, plan and purposes for humanity’. I do not hope to go into too much depth, and most of this is copied from my writings elsewhere, but I felt it was time for an overview.

It often seems as though many Christians simply speculate on heaven, eschatology, and the ‘afterlife’. In my experience, at least, people often tend to just guess at what heaven will be like, or even simply interpret it as whatever they want to be. This idea of heaven simply as a place where a select few *go* to after death, in my view, ought to be abandoned, and I see little Biblical support for it. Similarly, we ought to dismiss the idea of heaven and hell as simply polar opposites, future realities where we simply get lumped into one or the other at the end of time. I will elaborate on heaven later.

Creation and eschatology
According to the common usage of ‘eschatology’, one might see it as an entirely independent theology, or one with not much relevance to modern day life, or other areas of theology. Sure, we can talk about atonement, natural theology, or whatever, but what use are the precise details of the end of the world? Does the exact chronology of the last days affect my daily life? Does the precise nature of Christ’s return have anything to do with the world until then? On this view, it is easy to see eschatology and creation as self-sustaining theologies. Perhaps they are the two ends of a linear progression, both related to God, but separated by the fog of the present, fog that we are caught up in ourselves. Too seperate to add much significance to each other, we think. God began the world, God will end the world. One is in the past and we are unable to change it, the other is entirely God’s prerogative, and damn us if we interfere!

I would like to challenge this. For me, creation and eschatology are inextricably linked, and we cannot hope to understand one without the other. Not only this, but they link in such a way that affects us, and in such a way that we can affect it. God has brought about this universe in the hope of realising a purpose, and this brings us our doctrine of creation. He hopes to guide the universe towards this realisation, and this brings us eschatology. Creation is not just about origins; that is deism, God pulling out a toy for his child and leaving him to play with it, regardless of whether it is harmful. Rather, Theism is the idea that he and his child share in the joy the toy brings; if the child is injured, God redeems the situation if the child will allow him to get near. There are new ways of using the toy, new situations that arise, but all point towards a common goal. Every moment of the universe implies a creative act by God, God upholds creation *throughout* time, and his decision to sustain the universe at each moment is one of creativity. Similarly, eschatology is not just concerned with the end, but with the realisation of God’s purpose in each moment of creation, in individual moments and as a whole. In the old view, creation is the seed of a tree, sufficient to start it off but then insignificant. Now, creation is the roots, upholding the tree, while eschatology is the way the gardener uses the tree for its overall purpose, the roots a necessary component. Analogies, however, can only go so far.

God’s general purpose in creation
It would therefore be appropriate to consider some issues in creation, and God’s purpose, in brief[1]- this necessarily precedes a discussion on the ‘afterlife’, at least. I would argue that the Bible advocates a Christ-centric idea of creation- this point is key to understanding Christian eschatology. Paul emphasises it throughout his writings; everything that has been made, has been made through Christ, in Christ, and for Christ. Creation is by God’s Word (to be identified with Christ) in Genesis, and this Word is portrayed through the figure of Wisdom in Old Testament and other Jewish writings. This is what creation centres around, and Paul leaves us in no doubt: God’s Word is the means and the goal of creation. Christ becomes a ‘type’ or even ‘blueprint'[2] for us, something which we are to fulfill, yet revere as unique. We are to become part of the body of Christ, doing his work and sharing in his love. Humans are made in God’s image (imago Dei) in Genesis, and by becoming more like God, we become more of what he intended us to be. Paul sees this image as culminating in Christ; the Spirit transforms us ‘into his likeness’, as he puts it in his second letter to the Corinthians. He is the ‘visible image of the invisible God’, assuming bodily form to give a unique revelation of God’s purpose for us. We are to take up our cross daily, take action in doing God’s work, and follow Christ in his life of self-sacrifice, love and, contra some ideas with emphasis on ascetism, joy. Through the transforming power of the Spirit, we become increasingly Christlike (Christian)- our humanity is emphasised through Paul’s comparison with Adam, and our transformation is compounded through Paul’s vision of us as followers of Jesus[3]. This sets the tone for Christian eschatology. We are created by God by his Word (he is our Creator), for his Word (he is our Lover), and in his Word (we are his image-bearers). God has a plan, not for us to destroy ourselves, but to redeem us, transform us into his likeness, and be in communion for him. By Christ becoming human (the Incarnation), he shares in our humanity and our sufferings. By Christ’s death, we are redeemed from our sin and self-centredness. By Christ’s resurrection, we are given a promise.

Jesus and eschatology
This promise is, for me, the heart of Christian eschatology. Through creation, we learn of our humanity, the condition of our humanity, and the goal of our humanity. This much is known, and is affirmed as part of our purpose through the Incarnation. God rejoices in who we are, despite our need for redemption. ‘The Word became flesh’ as an example to us, and so that God might share in our humanity. What next? Whence eschatology? I would like to draw on two aspects of Jesus’ ministry.

First, there is Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. This is one of the most well attested facts concerning the historical Jesus. The overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars agree that Jesus talked of the Kingdom of God, and saw himself in a unique position to initiate a new manifestation of it. The phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ is translated from the Greek ‘basileia tou theou’ (βασιλεια του θεου), ‘basileia’ being translated as kingdom, kingship, or reign. Jesus is demonstrating the coming reign of God, but what significance it would have had for the earliest Christians! In some sense, they are the words of a madman. In another sense, they are quite profound. In any sense, they are revolutionary. Israel, occupied under Roman rule, was expecting a military Messiah to overcome the Romans and liberate themselves. Jesus performs the miracles expected of the Messiah, yet nothing seems to change on a big scale. “Lo, the Kingdom of God! Follow me!” he cries. A few fishermen listen. Jesus teaches on the Kingdom of God, “Here it is! There will be no more death! Follow me!” All we witness is a slightly eccentric preacher from the suburbs. Time passes. The preacher dies, a gruesome death on a cross. No more Messiah. But what is next? “The Kingdom of God is here!” cry the rabble of fishermen. “You are drunk”, is the reply. More time passes. The Romans destroy the Temple. God has finally left Israel. “God is dead!” they shout, pre-empting Nietzsche, “Long live Caesar!” And STILL, repeat the scrawny group, “Jesus is Lord! Caesar is History! The Kingdom of God is here! The reign of Caesar is over!” … The rest is history.

Why this madness? It will be different for various New Testament scholars. For me, it is the resurrection. My aim here is not to discuss the historicity of the resurrection, but a brief few sentences on the resurrection are necessary for understanding eschatology. Through Jesus’ resurrection, death is conquered. The Kingdom of God is on its way. Jesus is vindicated as the son of God, and Messiah, and initiator of a new reign of God. The Kingdom of God is on its way. Jesus is, as Paul puts it, the ‘firstfruits of the resurrection’. The Kingdom of God is on its way. Jesus is brought into new life through the resurrection, God has raised him from the dead, and this gives us a promise. By becoming Christlike, by becoming part of Christ’s body, by doing his work to take care of the poor, shelter the foreigner, and heal the leper, we are following Christ into the Kingdom of God, into his resurrection, into this new life he brings. This is the heart of being ‘born again’, and it is in this context we must look at look at the nature of Christian eschatology.[4]

The ‘afterlife’ in Christianity
We have considered God’s general purpose, creation, Jesus’ ministry from an eschatological perspective, and we have taken note of our own role in bringing about the Kingdom of God, the focus of Christian eschatology. We will now turn to the nature of the ‘afterlife’, briefly.

Let me state plainly that I consider the idea of a body-soul dualism to be a contamination of Hebraic thought, from Greek (specifically Platonic) dualism. Hebraic and Judaic thought has always emphasised a psychosomatic unity, and it was only the influence of Hellenic philosophy upon early Christian thought that led to this kind of dualism, which became prominent in the thought of philosophers like Descartes. The reality is that the traditional Christian view has always meant to emphasise an unashamedly physical creation, and that the afterlife is not so much an escape of the soul as in the Eastern traditions, but rather a transfiguration and redemption of the *whole* person (as an embodied soul) by God, to bring about his ultimate purpose. One might say that the soul is not trapped by the body, but at home in it. My contention is that Biblical thought, from Genesis to Revelation, is very much content with a psychosomatic unity as a view of humanity, and that this is an essential part of our nature.

If we are to be content with the physical realm, what happens to us? As I have repeated, we are not a soul trying to escape from our body, we are people as a whole. God delights in our physical nature, he delights in our spiritual worship. We are instruments designed to bring about his Kingdom, through following the example of Jesus. This is where the figure of the archetypal Christ/Word enters, again. We are portraits of Christ. We are paintings, he is the real thing. We follow him into the image of God, we follow him into bringing about the Kingdom of God, we follow him into death, and we follow him into resurrection. We stand on the edge of the ineffable, we are on the tip of a paintbrush, guided by the genius of the divine. This is his crowning glory for man. From a world of decay and death, we are brought into a new creation at the end of time. We are brought into new life, with Christ as the firstfruits of this promise. All those who are willing to participate in the Kingdom of God are brought into a new creation. While it’s debatable whether it refers specifically to resurrection, I would argue that, at least as a prototype, God’s vision for humanity is beautifully pictured in Ezekiel 37:1-6,

“The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me to and fro among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
[5]

Despite this not necessarily being a picture of the resurrection, we can see a hint of God’s plan for us here, to bring us into new life. We see God’s plan for the new creation; there is a new earth where God fully reigns, where the Kingdom of God is manifest in all its glory. There is new life, we are resurrected into a new, glorified, transfigured, physical body. We are to be clothed in Christ, to be clothed in a body which can never decay, and to be active creatures revelling in the love of God, in relationship with him and with others. This is the picture Christianity paints of the ‘afterlife’, though I would rather call it ‘new life’. It is an even more full life, free from ‘death or mourning or crying or pain’, as John pictures it in Revelation, ‘for the old order of things has passed away’. Here, finally, the Kingdom of God is manifest. Justice reigns, mercy triumphs, and righteousness rolls on like a never-ending stream.

NB: It will be pointed out by many that there is a part I haven’t mentioned, and this is simply because I do not feel I have the knowledge to reflect on it at all. It is the idea of Sheol, a kind of waiting place before the final resurrection. This is where the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory comes from, and there are different interpretations of it. For more, see http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html

Heaven and conclusion
Where then, does heaven enter? Heaven is difficult, there seem to be different uses of it, in various contexts. I should also add that this is much more speculative, and my personal interpretation of what heaven might mean in the context of the Bible and Christianity. The general idea, to me, is that heaven is the dwelling place of God, and the presence of God where he is recognised in the fullness of his glory. NT Wright calls it ‘God’s space’. Obviously, this must be some sort of metaphor. Any Christian who has meant that heaven is a place where God *is* in the sense that God is part of a spatio-temporal world has surely not grasped the concept of the metaphor, and I would argue that seeing heaven as God’s dwelling place is, rather, acknowledging all the different situations and senses in which God is seen as sovereign creator and Lord of all: essentially, the heart of worship. One might argue that Matthew sees it similarly, using the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’, rather than ‘kingdom of God’. God is therefore not *in* heaven in a physical sense, but rather heaven is the culmination of all things disposed towards reverence for the Creator, and this is the reason for the metaphor of God being in heaven. The way we relate to heaven, then, is that heaven and Earth ‘collide’ in places (to use Wright’s metaphor), and that certain times in this physical world, there is a revelation of God, or even in somewhat mundane circumstances, a general didactic or ineffable revelation of his nature. This can be from natural theology, or through revealed theology, the more specific Christian claims, such as the Incarnation (some would argue that it is also a part of other world religions, probably myself included). When heaven collides with earth, there is a clear manifestation of God at work in our world, and we are aware of a future promise.

I should clarify that the afterlife is absolutely *not* equivalent to heaven. My personal preference would be to avoid the use of the term ‘heaven’ to avoid confusion, although heaven is obviously an important part of Christian theology. The afterlife is grounded in physical experience, but with heaven ‘colliding’ with the ‘new earth’ so clearly that all of creation will cry out with praise to God. All of creation will appreciate the Sovereignty, beauty, and goodness of God, and will bow down in worship to him. We can see heaven as not just a future reality, but as a present reality. God makes his dwelling among us, and at times we fully appreciate him. Even now, we can picture angels ‘in heaven’, rejoicing at God’s goodness, far from the end of the world. I wouldn’t like to say that heaven is metaphorical in the sense that it is only a symbol of something, but it is metaphorical in the sense that God couldn’t possibly ‘inhabit’ it! Heaven is a reality, and a present one. We are called to bring about the Kingdom of God, through treating those around us with compassion, justice, mercy, and love. God created us for Christ’s glory, with Christ as our archetype and goal. We work for Christ, through Christ, and towards Christ. Christ leads us into new life and resurrection. Our eschatology focusses around how we respond to Christ’s call to “Follow me”. We are to become part of a new creation, where God is God. Now let us get on with being Man.[6]

Footnotes

1. I hope to elaborate on creation at some point.
2. Thanks to Prof. P. Clarke for the blueprint analogy.
3. For example, cf 1 Cor 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
4. To clarify on what the Kingdom of God actually *is*, Wright writes, “His invitation to people to ‘enter’ the kingdom was a way of summoning them to allegiance to himself and his programme, seen as the start of God’s long-awaited saving reign. For Jesus, the kingdom was coming not in a single move, but in stages, of which his own public career was one, his death and resurrection another, and a still future consummation another.”
5. Bones were considered one of the strongest symbols of the physical body for Jews, when the flesh had decayed on a dead body, they would collect the bones, put them in an ossuary, and rebury the bones ready for the final resurrection.
6. As Anthony Phillips put it.

Bibliography

Joel Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life (Michigan: Grand Rapids, 2008)
Anthony Phillips, God B.C. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)
The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and NT Wright in Dialogue, ed. R. Stewart (London: SPCK, 2006)
Keith Ward, God, Faith and the New Millenium (Oxford: Oneworld, 1998)
Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science and Religion (Pennsylvania: Templeton, 2008)
David Wilkinson, Darwin, Creation and the Fall: Theological Challenges, Chapter 1, ed. R. Berry and T. Noble (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009)
Tom Wright, Simply Christian (London: SPCK, 2006)
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007)
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003)

Post-debate thoughts on Prof Atkins’ arguments

On 27th April 2012, I engaged in a debate with Prof. Peter Atkins, at Christ Church, Oxford. The topic was, “Does God Exist?” Prof. Peter Atkins is the former Professor of Chemistry at Oxford, and has written the seminal textbook on physical chemistry. He was very cordial and polite before and after the debate, and very generous in giving his time – I had a great time at the debate. Of course, I disagree strongly with his arguments, and so offer my thoughts here – I responded to as much as I had time for during the debate, but there were inevitably issues left untouched. Hopefully this will be a more comprehensive review. The debate video is available here.

Arguments for atheism

As blunt as it might sound, I’m still not convinced that Prof. Atkins actually offered an argument for atheism – that is, the proposition that, probably, God does not exist. Indeed, he explicitly noted at the start, “all I can do is to assemble evidence that… leads to the conclusion that God is not necessary for any aspect of the current world, and that there is a far simpler explanation for everything.” Note that it does not follow at all that God does not exist, or that God probably doesn’t exist. So it seems to me that, at most, we are left with agnosticism. As I argued in my opening speech, unless we have an argument for why theism should be improbable, or evidence against theism, we ought to remain agnostic. Nevertheless, Prof. Atkins did offer some arguments to at least some kind of problematic conclusion for theism, so I will address them more comprehensively here.

1. God is complex

Prof. Atkins’ argument here is that “an entity as functionally unbounded as a God must be of extraordinary complexity.” But this seems to me to be little more than an assertion, so I’m not sure what reason we have to accept it. While I would accept that simplicity is an indicator of a priori probability and complexity an indicator of a priori improbability, God simply doesn’t seem to be complex in this way. Prof. Atkins gave no account of what simplicity is: I gave a generally well accepted account. Simplicity consists of positing few entities, few kinds of entities, few properties, few kinds of properties, and so on. This is what Occam’s razor suggests. It has recently been more precisely expressed as fewness of independent adjustable parameters, and there have been some attempts to try and quantify simplicity more rigorously (some have gone for information theory, looking at things like Kolmogorov complexity), but either way, it seems far from clear that Prof. Atkins’ assertion is correct. At the very least, there needs to be some alternative account of simplicity, to the generally accepted “Occam’s razor” type simplicity, which it seems to me clear that God fulfils. And, as I explained in the debate, Prof. Atkins’ view seems to commit him to the view that Newton’s law of gravity is extremely complex: after all, it suggests that there exist tiny, invisible particles, which exert a force on every other particle in the universe at infinite speed (consider that “functional unboundedness”). But, of course, we recognise Newton’s law of gravity to be extremely simple. Moreover, it is typically characteristic of a good explanation that it explains a lot of data – and it can only explain a lot of data by having many powers, in this way. Hence, Prof. Atkins holds Darwinism to be a very good theory on similar grounds: “it is arguable that the theory of natural selection is one of the most powerful theories ever proposed, for from a simple acorn of an idea, a great forest of consequences follows”.

Moreover, it seems to me that any explanation for the universe has to be extraordinarily powerful – after all, it has to have the power to cause a universe to come into existence. And, again, it seems to me that the neatness of omnipotence – limitless power – is simpler than a large, finite amount of power, because it does not raise the question of why this incredibly powerful entity has precisely that limit. Infinite degrees of properties can be seen to be simpler than large, finite degrees, by other examples from the history of science: as I noted in the debate, the speed of light was held to be infinite until empirical observations showed otherwise – because it was a simpler hypothesis.

2. Theism is a lazy hypothesis

I hope I responded to this well enough in the debate. Firstly, in any case, it does not mean that it is less likely to be true, so we are again left with agnosticism at most. But I also made the point that many explanations we give do not provide mechanisms, as Prof. Atkins wants – but that does not prevent us from finding out such mechanisms. My example was with alcohol abuse and liver damage. To say that alcohol abuse caused liver damage, and even that liver damage is evidence of alcohol abuse, does not give us a mechanism in terms of molecular or cellular effects of alcohol on the liver. But clearly it does not prevent us from finding out such mechanisms, and clearly the liver damage can still be used as evidence in favour of alcohol abuse, despite the mechanism not yet being made clear. So it’s a complete non-sequitur to say that theism halts science on these grounds: indeed, if I am right in my own argument, it is theism which provides us with the rational ground needed to engage in science in the first place.

3. Theism is unnecessary

Once again, this does not show that theism is false, or even that it is improbable. Moreover, as I note, no scientific hypothesis is strictly necessary to explain some data – there will always be some contrary hypotheses at least compatible with the data. But this is hardly a mark against the hypothesis, and it does not show that the data do not constitute evidence for the hypothesis. I think these considerations should suffice to rebut this point.

4. The problem of evil

Aside from Prof. Atkins’ opening remarks about theism’s being unnecessary, complex and lazy, this was the only ostensible argument given against theism. And, I must confess, my ADHD actually allowed me to completely miss this point: I was only told after the debate that it had even been raised. So I am obliged to address it, at least very briefly, here.

It seems to me that Prof. Atkins didn’t give much by way of argument for his claim that the suffering in the world is evidence against the existence of God. But, of course, it will not do simply to assert that some datum is evidence in favour of a hypothesis: some argument has to be given, as in my opening speeches, for why that datum should be likely on a hypothesis and unlikely otherwise. So I am not even convinced that Prof. Atkins’ assertion should be found persuasive as evidence against theism, even in the absence of a response from me. But my lack of response in the debate was nevertheless a glaring omission on my part, and has compelled me to consider Ritalin before taking part in future debates. I will give a few brief thoughts.

As I explained, in order to argue that something is evidence in favour of a proposition (in this case atheism), one needs to show that it is unlikely given that the proposition is false (theism), but reasonably likely if the proposition is true. It doesn’t seem to me that Prof. Atkins justified either of these claims, but I think we have good reason to be sceptical of both. Firstly, I do not see why suffering is particularly unlikely on theism. Most people would accept that, on some occasions, there is some suffering which serves a greater purpose – that is, there is often a morally permissible reason for permitting suffering. Whether this is for teaching purposes, or a surgical procedure, we all generally agree that there can be morally permissible reasons for permitting suffering. This fact alone leaves us able to easily doubt the premise. But we can also give at least plausible reasons why God might permit suffering in a universe. We are not committed to saying that any of these are the actual reason God might permit suffering – only that they are possible reasons, which ought to make us doubt the idea that a theistic universe would be extremely unlikely to include suffering. For example, some unique goods simply cannot be instantiated without suffering, or without the possibility of suffering. For example, free choices, which very plausibly allow for much more meaningful commitments and relationships, necessarily involve the possibility of suffering and evil. Or, consider other unique kinds of goods which cannot be achieved without evil: forgiveness, grace, mercy, comfort, compassion, and so on. These greatly enrich our world, and yet would not be possible without evil. So we have reason to at least moderately expect evil or suffering, on theism. It also seems to me that the critic here is committed to the idea that this universe was, on balance, not worth creating. The argument suggesting that the world would have slightly less suffering, on theism, seems to assume not only that such a world would be overall better, but also that that world doesn’t, in fact, exist. But there seem to me to be no such restrictions on God’s creation – it seems to me perfectly possible that he not only created the best of all possible worlds, but is free to create any worlds which are, on balance, morally better to create than to not create. And when we bear this in mind, that this world may not even be the best kind of world overall, but merely better to be instantiated than to not be instantiated, then I think we have very strong reason to doubt this premise.

But I also think we have reason to doubt the premise that suffering would be reasonably likely on atheism. There doesn’t seem to me to be any good reason to accept this. For one thing, suffering requires consciousness, but consciousness seems to be a very strange, ontologically awkward appendage on atheism – it’s far from clear that we should expect consciousness to arise at all on atheism. But it would, of course, fit very neatly on theism: since the ultimate explanation for everything would be in terms of a conscious agent, it is easy to see why consciousness would arise. And, of course, the fine tuning required for suffering of embodied agents is extremely unlikely on atheism, as I argued in my opening speech. So I think we have ample reason to doubt the premise that suffering would likely arise on atheism.

Finally, of course, I argued in my opening speech that one of the reasons God would likely become incarnate is in order to share in our suffering. Permitting one’s creation to suffer (think parents and children) generally gives one at least some kind of obligation to share in that suffering to at least some extent – to take on some of that burden. Now, if this is the case, this only seems to confirm my argument for the resurrection, since it gives us far more reason to suppose that God, if he existed, would become incarnate. If God would very likely become incarnate, and if Jesus is the best candidate for that, then this acts in confirmation of the claim that, if God existed, we would likely to expect the resurrection facts to obtain. It then follows, as long as the resurrection facts are unlikely otherwise (a non-controversial claim), that they are evidence for theism.

Now, Prof. Atkins criticised me for not addressing all the arguments in his opening speech, but it seems to me that most of the rest of the opening speech did not actually consist of arguments against theism – at the very most (and even then, not all of them), they were intended as responses to typical arguments for theism. So, unless I actually advocated these arguments, it does not seem as though I am really rationally compelled to address them at all. For example, Prof. Atkins first gave an overview of some of the scientific issues in contemporary cosmology and studies of the origin of the universe. Well, sure. There’s nothing really to be said there. Similarly, Prof. Atkins addressed the argument from purpose by saying that there is no evidence of purpose. Aside from the fact that this begs the question against people who argue from purpose (or for purpose?), it seems irrelevant to my own presentation. Almost exactly the same is true of Prof. Atkins’ argument to do with miracles – again, it does not argue for atheism – at the most, it begs the question against those who argue for (and from) miracles. And the section on morality was, again, not an argument against God. So, the only argument offered which was non-question begging and which at least plausibly stood a chance of undermining my case, was his response to the fine-tuning argument, which I shall deal with next. (Prof. Atkins also offered some alternative hypotheses to the resurrection, which I shall also address).

Arguments for theism

1. Argument from order

It’s not clear that there was really a response at all to this argument. There was an explanation of how order (in some sense) can arise from disorder (in some sense), but nothing that really addressed the premises of the argument, and especially not all the data I used in my argument. Let me make a few points:

Firstly, it would be no criticism of my argument that order can arise from disorder – that is perfectly compatible with my argument. If anything, it might seem to be an admission of the second premise. But moreover, the argument is far from diminished in case one law is explained by a more fundamental law. Of course some laws are explained by more fundamental laws – my example in the debate was that Newton’s laws might be seen as following from Einstein’s (and Kepler’s from Newton’s). This ought to serve as a rebuttal to Prof. Atkins’ claim that, on my view, light travels in straight lines “because God says so”. Clearly this simplistic strawman is a misrepresentation of my view: my view is that God sustains the most fundamental regularities (both temporal and spatial, though no doubt the dividing line between the two has become blurred in the last century of physics) in the universe, and that other regularities arise from the more fundamental ones (as with Einstein, Newton and Kepler’s laws, for example). While I am not well versed enough in physics to speak authoritatively on the nature of light, in particular, it seems to me that Prof. Atkins’ example here clearly only shifts the problem one step further: instead of the regularity that light travels in a straight line, we are told that light travels in all directions and takes every possible route to a particular point. Aside from concerns about how true this is, it doesn’t seem to help us out here: all we have done is appeal to a more fundamental regularity, namely, that light travels in all directions and takes every possible route to get to a particular point (as opposed to simply taking some routes, for example). Of course I accept that some regularities can be explained in terms of other regularities, but appealing to a regularity in explanation is unpersuasive when it is the existence of fundamental regularities themselves which we are using as a datum to support theism over atheism.

Prof. Atkins’ other example was to do with the conservation of energy and the uniformity of time. According to Prof. Atkins, if time is uniform, then energy is conserved. Again, I am not sufficiently educated in physics to know if the conservation of energy follows necessarily from the uniformity of time – I suspect it doesn’t, but am open to being persuaded – but I will even grant this, for the sake of argument. The argument was that, supposing the universe emerged from nothing, then that ‘nothing’ was uniform. Therefore, if that uniform ‘nothing’ gives rise to something (by “nothing happening at all”), then whatever it gives rise to will assume that uniformity henceforth – leading to the uniformity of time.

There seem to me to be obvious problems with this. Indeed, the reason I did not use the kalam cosmological argument is because I think it is a caricature of the atheist’s position to suppose that they think that the universe really did come to exist from nothing – I wouldn’t expect any atheist to actually accept that. But, bizarrely, Prof. Atkins seems to. The problem with the kalam cosmological argument, as I see it, as that to “come into being” seems to denote a temporality such that there was, at one point in time, absolutely nothing, and at a later point, a universe. But, of course, time itself began with the universe, according to the standard Big Bang model, and so on no view would it be the case that there was originally nothing, and then something at a later date. But Prof. Atkins’ presentation of his view seems to imply exactly that. The problems with this are obvious: absolutely nothing lacks the potential for anything (or else it would be something), and so it can hardly be said to give rise to anything. And, of course, in the absence of time, it remains to be seen what sense can be made of Prof. Atkins’ view that uniformity is preserved with the inception of the universe – preserved over what? Time? It cannot be preserved over time, since there is no time.

But even if we take Prof. Atkins’ view more literally for the sake of argument, we see that it begs the question entirely, in a way similar to the light example. For the key assumption of Prof. Atkins’ view, even if it did maintain coherence in light of the above considerations (which I strongly doubt), is that uniformity is preserved over time (or whatever other parameter is supposed to connect nothing existing and the universe existing). But this is precisely one of the data that I am using in the argument: Hume’s whole problem of induction is that we have no good reason to believe that the uniformity we observe extends into the unobserved: the spatially distant and the temporally distant (namely, the future). So appealing to some regularity to explain the regularity is, I think, utterly impotent. So Prof. Atkins’ view here is not only contradictory; it also fails completely to explain either past order (spatial or temporal) in the universe, and brings us nowhere nearer to solving the problem of induction.

2. Argument from fine tuning

It is in order to give a few brief thoughts on Prof. Atkins’ response to my fine tuning argument. I noted in the debate that there were other problems with his alternative hypotheses which I didn’t have time to go into, so I will go into just a small bit more detail here. Note that both Prof. Atkins’ alternative hypotheses, necessity and a multiverse, are irrelevant to the argument as I have presented it: presenting possible alternative hypotheses does not diminish either of the premises of my argument, but this is especially emphasised when the alternative hypotheses are themselves very improbable or problematic. I will give a few considerations here:

Multiverse

As I mentioned in the debate, the primary difficulty with the multiverse is its gross violation of Occam’s razor, which tells us to posit as few entities as possible to explain the data (NB: this latter clause explains what is wrong with Prof. Atkins’ suggestion that nothing is the simplest explanation at all, which implies that God doesn’t exist – I agree that nothing is very simple, but it is also causally impotent, and so does not explain the universe – I hope this point would already be obvious to anyone watching, however). This ought, also, to answer Prof. Atkins’ question, “If there is more than one universe, then there is no obvious reason why there is not an infinite number of universes. Why stop at 2? Why stop at 42?” The answer seems obvious: Occam’s razor.

And so, if we have an alternative hypothesis for which there is no independent evidence, and which is itself extremely complex by violating Occam’s razor in the most incredible way possible, this will do nothing to damage the argument at all. The prominent physicist Paul Davies, himself a deist, puts the problem this way: “In spite of the power of the many-universes theory to account for what would otherwise be considered remarkably special facts about nature, the theory faces a number of serious objections. The first of these I have already discussed in chapter 7, which is that it flies in the face of Occam’s razor, by introducing vast (indeed infinite) complexity to explain the regularities of just one universe. I find this “blunderbuss” approach to explaining the specialness of our universe scientifically questionable … my conclusion is that the many-universes theory can at best explain only a limited range of features, and then only if one appends some metaphysical assumptions that seem no less extravagant than design. In the end, Occam’s razor compels me to put my money on design.”

Moreover, it is hardly a more “natural” or “scientific” hypothesis. The whole point of the hypothesis is to explain why our “nature” is the way it is, by positing a multitude of different universes, completely contrary to the laws of our own, one of which is life-permitting. While the demarcation between science and non-science is a very controversial area, it is hard to come up with any epistemically privileged notion of ‘science’ according to which the multiverse hypothesis would be scientific and theism would not. As John Polkinghorne puts it, “people try to trick out a ‘many universe’ account in sort of pseudo-scientific terms, but that is pseudo-science. It is a metaphysical guess that there might be many universes with different laws and circumstances.” (And, indeed, Prof. Atkins himself admits elsewhere that one of the proposed models supporting a multiverse, M-theory, “might not be science”).

Now, a brief look at some of the theoretical models which Prof. Atkins claims gives the multiverse some credence. The first group, random fluctuation models, aim to explain the low entropy of the universe by positing a field with generally high entropy, but which has random fluctuations giving rise to small ‘islands’ of entropy. The problem with this is that such a model would lead us to expect that any given observer would be in a tiny region of order, no larger than our own brain, and especially no larger than our solar system. As Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees writes, If Boltzmann were right, we would be in the smallest fluctuation compatible with our awareness  – indeed, the overwhelmingly most likely configuration would be a universe containing nothing but a single brain with external sensations fed into it”. But in that case we should expect far less entropy than we currently observe. The conclusion? Either our not being a so-called “Boltzmann brain” serves as a defeater for the random fluctuation model, or it is probable that we are, indeed, Boltzmann brains, and thus should consider any external reality to be highly misleading, illusory, or otherwise unreliable. Both, I suspect, will be unfavourable conclusions to Prof. Atkins.

The only theoretical models which have even theoretical plausibility (though no evidence, as Atkins concedes, and perhaps even in principle no experimental tests available to verify it) are those based on a mix of inflationary cosmology and superstring theory (M-theory might be seen as an elaboration of the latter). I’ll give a brief overview of some of the problems with each.

One problem with inflationary cosmology is it’s simple disagreement with observation: as Bennett et al. put it, “[inflation’s] prediction of a perfectly flat universe seems to disagree with observations showing that the total density of matter (including dark matter) is only about 25% of the critical density.” And, of course, there is little (if any) independent evidence for inflation’s being true – Prof. Atkins himself notes that “inflationary theories are highly speculative”, and Earman and Mosterin note: “In sum, inflationary cosmologists have never delivered on their original promises. The newer models to which they have been driven depart radically from the original goal of improving the standard big bang model by means of a straightforward modification. And the link to concrete theories of elementary particle physics that initially made inflationary cosmology so exciting has been severed. The idea that was “too good to be wrong” has led to models that an impartial observer might well find contrived or fanciful or both.”

But, perhaps most importantly, inflationary models seem themselves to require fine tuning, and arguably make the problem worse in some respects. Even if it does solve the problem of low entropy (though it doesn’t, as we shall see), it only serves to emphasise the fine tuning of the cosmological constant: as physicist Robert Brandenberger writes, “the field which drives inflation … is expected to generate an unacceptably large cosmological constant which must be tuned to zero by hand. This is a problem which plagues all inflationary universe models.” And, of course, as I mentioned in the debate, it makes the problem of low entropy far worse, Penrose explaining: “it is fundamentally misconceived to explain why the universe is special in any particular respect by appealing to a thermalization process. For, if the thermalization is actually going anything … then it represents a definite increasing of entropy. Thus, the universe would have had to be more special before the thermalization than after. This only serves to increase whatever difficulty we might have had previously in trying to come to terms with the initial extraordinarily special nature of the universe … invoking arguments from thermalization, to address this particular problem, is worse than useless!”

String theory and M-theory are barely more helpful – Atkins concedes that string theory is “an example of a theory that appears to be experimentally untestable”, and that it “might not be science”. Michio Kaku, the prominent physicist writes, “Not a shred of experimental evidence has been found to confirm … superstrings.” And on M-theory, Atkins concedes: “what direct experimental tests it suggests … [are] likely to be forever outside our technological capabilities … there is no direct experimental motivation for M-theory: it is a gorgeously beautiful idea, with suggestions of how it can resolve deep questions, but it has not made a single numerical prediction.” And, he concludes, “scientists working on M-theory rightly yearn for it to be true, as it is so beautiful; but I have said before, and must emphasise again, that the satisfying warmth of faith alone is insufficient in science.” The chemist has spoken.

Necessity

There are also problems with this response. Again, of course, it doesn’t respond to the argument – no premise is denied, in the absence of any positive reason to think that the constants necessarily had to have the values they do. As I mentioned in this debate, this kind of pure speculation would stultify scientific enquiry: if it were really a serious objection against a hypothesis being used to explain some datum, then there is nothing stopping us from suggesting that any datum might be necessary – but this would hardly be convincing – there’s no obvious contradiction in saying that the gravitational constant is 4 m3 kg-1 s-2, so it remains to be seen how this is any more than sheer conjecture.

Moreover, this is contrary to the practice and beliefs of theoretical physicists – those physicists frequently make ‘toy’ universes with different laws. As Davies explains, “There is not a shred of evidence that the Universe is logically necessary. Indeed, as a theoretical physicist I find it rather easy to imagine alternative universes that are logically consistent, and therefore equal contenders for reality.” And, of course, even if the values of the physical constants were logically necessary, the initial conditions of the universe are an entirely different matter. Davies goes on: “Even if the laws of physics are unique, it doesn’t follow that the physical universe itself is unique … the laws of physics must be augmented by cosmic initial conditions … There is nothing in present ideas about “laws of initial conditions” remotely to suggest that their consistency with the laws of physics would imply uniqueness.”

Finally, it seems that Prof. Atkins’ response to the argument is multiply contradictory. He argues that the multiverse is possible, but note that this necessarily commits him to the view that other universes are possible – in other words, he is committed to the view that it is not possible that this universe is the only possible universe. Indeed, the theoretical models which he cites as ostensibly “giving credence” to a multiverse, explicitly allow the possibility of other universes (cf. for example, Stephen Hawking: “Does string theory predict the state of the universe? The answer is that it does not. It allows a vast landscape of possible universes, in which we occupy an anthropically permitted location”). So it is literally contradictory for him to offer both a multiverse and a necessity-type response to the argument. Moreover, this response is inconsistent with his empiricist philosophy and his antipathy towards logic. For the ultimate irony is that, if this is really the only logically consistent universe, then we should, in principle, be able to work out the structure of the universe, all its laws and initial conditions, by logic alone – all we would have to do is take logic as far as possible and avoid a contradiction! But Prof. Atkins explicitly claims that logic alone will not get us anywhere, and that we have to look at the world to gain a posteriori knowledge about contingent facts. So, ironically, Prof. Atkins’ view is contradictory here, too. So, even aside from its sheer speculative nature and contrariness to theoretical physics, Prof. Atkins’ view is also multiply contradictory, and so need not be considered as a reasonable objection to my argument.

3. Historical argument

As with any historical enquiry, there is an enormous amount of material that could potentially be covered here. It’s not really clear that Prof. Atkins responded to the actual argument at all: there were a few assertions about other possible explanations (on which, cf. again, my opening speech) and about how the gospels are wholly unreliable, but none of the key facts or the actual argument were addressed. In a sense, this makes it harder to respond: Prof. Atkins’ bare assertions that the gospels are not to be trusted in anything contradicts the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholarship, including non-Christian historians. This is wholly apart from the fact that many of the resurrection facts I mentioned can be established through Paul’s writings alone. Let me say it plainly: irrespective of whether gospels are to be trusted in each minor detail, there is overwhelming agreement on these particular facts which I used in my argument. And the reasons I gave for the actual argument were not challenged. For time, I am not going to provide the evidence for the resurrection facts here – this can easily be found elsewhere, and I am happy to respond to e-mails on them. So, just a brief word about the suggestions Prof. Atkins did make – you will have to trust that there is a lot more to be said than is outlined here: I am currently revising for exams, so do not have time to go into much depth at all.

Swoon hypothesis

Prof. Atkins, remarkably, suggested the swoon hypothesis – that Jesus didn’t actually die, but was in a coma and recovered on his own. This, really, was put to death in the 19th century, and has not been advocated by any reputable historian since. Back in the 19th century, the German New Testament scholar David Strauss – who denied Jesus’ divinity – put it this way: “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening, and indulgence, and who still at least yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”

This point alone is, I think, sufficient for us to discard the swoon hypothesis – even if true, it has no explanatory power whatsoever to explain the faith and experiences of the disciples. But there are other serious problems with the hypothesis: for one, it would make Jesus a deliberate deceiver, which is extremely unlikely given the evidence for his sincerity during his life. It also fails to account for the overwhelming evidence and prior probability that Jesus was, indeed, dead. Aside from the prior improbability of Jesus surviving purely on the grounds that he was crucified as an attempted execution (and such people generally die – executioners could get in big trouble if they didn’t make sure the victim died), we have multiple attestation of Jesus’ death, no evidence of medical help, evidence of a burial (with no fluids for 3 days) and evidence of specific death-ensuring practices (e.g. the spear in Jesus’ side). Moreover, if one takes Jewish burial practices seriously, as well as the evidence for Jesus’ burial in a tomb (and the guard story), we have yet more obstacles to Jesus pushing away the tombstone and escaping beyond the guard to demonstrate to the world that he had been raised from the dead – as much in grave need of immediate medical attention as he would be. So it seems to me that, when one is multiplying extraordinary improbabilities by extraordinary improbabilities in order to come up with a hypothesis which itself does very little to explain the data we have, we are not here faced with a hypothesis that need be taken very seriously.

Wrong tomb hypothesis

Once again, this hypothesis, even if true, would do very little to explain the data we have – most notably because of the appearances, but also for other reasons. Let me give a very brief overview of some of the factors counting against this hypothesis.

For one, note the gospel attestation to women noting the burial place – if this were a made up story, it is extraordinarily unlikely that women would be the witnesses, given their perceived negligible importance as witnesses in that context. This story, which has a priori plausibility because of the importance of proper burial, anointing and ossuary-making in Jewish society (cf. for example, Josephus: “Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset”), thus seems to be confirmed beyond doubt from this datum alone. It is inconceivably unlikely that a Jewish figure so important to a good number of people, would have been buried so carelessly such that the burial place remained unknown. As the renowned historian Craig Evans writes, “suggestions that Jesus’ followers would not be able to find the correct tomb in which their master had been interred … have not impressed qualified historians and archaeologists. The conspiracy theories are even more ludicrous, not only unable to explain how it is that such a grotesque secret was kept by so many, but also unable to discover a cogent motive for such a caper in the first place.”

And, of course, all this is supported by the specific evidence we have for Jesus’ burial: the multiple attestation in the gospels (including in the very early material in the Markan passion source), the independent attestation from the very early creed (c. 2 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, maximum) in 1 Corinthians 15, the unlikelihood of a sympathetic Sanhedrin member being created by the early Christian community, the lack of any competing burial story (or shrine veneration elsewhere) and the fit with Jewish burial practice in general. Thus, there is substantial agreement on the burial of Jesus even among the liberal end of New Testament scholarship: the late JAT Robinson concludes, “the burial is one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.” And Bart Ehrman argues that “we can conclude, with some certainty, that Jesus was in fact buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb and that three days later the tomb was found empty.”

Miscellaneous

And so I am convinced that neither of these two alternative hypotheses carry much weight at all, and can comfortably be dismissed as untenable. So, in addition to Prof. Atkins not really addressing my argument, and in addition to my point about possible alternative hypotheses not showing that some data are not evidence for the proposed hypothesis, but the alternative hypotheses which Prof. Atkins advanced are abject failures when it comes to having any prior plausibility, and when it comes to explaining the data. I conclude, therefore, that my argument remains very much intact. There remain just a few points of clarification and contention.

Firstly, I hope to have sufficiently dealt with the idea that the resurrection facts arose because of, or are explained by, deceit on the disciples’ part. It beggared belief to see this objection still launched in the face of all the evidence of the disciples’ persecutions and martyrdoms, as well as the evidence of the persecution of James and Paul, who were unsympathetic to Jesus during his ministry. In his closing speech, Prof. Atkins made the point that plenty of people die for false things, and so it doesn’t prove that what they believe is true. This is a strawman of my position: I never argued that this proves that it is true, only that it shows that they were sincere about their beliefs, and thus the narratives’ being deceitful, political propaganda, is an untenable hypothesis.

Similarly, the idea of Jesus as a composite image of a typical Jewish rabbi is undermined by enormous marks of dissimilarity relative to his Jewish context. Some of the features mentioned in the debate were the claim to be the Son of Man, the idea of a crucified Messiah and the claim of a resurrection before the end of time. Indeed, these facts strengthen my case, since it implies that something truly extraordinary must have happened to account for the disciples believing these propositions, despite their being completely contrary to Jewish expectations (it also puts an enormous dent in the hallucination hypothesis, since hallucinations typically involve experiences of something expected).

Finally, clarification. Prof. Atkins alleged that I made the argument that Jesus must exist because he was so inspiring. I hope it is clear from the video alone that I never made this absurd argument but, just in case, that was not my argument. The point was that this is one of the marks we might expect from an incarnate God – and thus that Jesus fulfilling this criterion raises the likelihood of God vindicating him – thus supporting the premise that we would moderately expect the resurrection facts to obtain on theism. A second point of clarification: I do not have to believe in the virgin birth simply because the gospels say so. I am not committed to biblical inerrancy, and so believe in the virgin birth for quite different reasons. And finally, as much as I expect those set firm in their beliefs that all religious people are brainwashed to disagree, I have not been brainwashed. I do not know when exactly I began believing that Jesus was God – though I know for certain that I did not believe it until I was 16 and a half, at the earliest. I was then convinced by looking into the historical evidence more thoroughly. I should hope, despite the speculative assertions and emotional protests of others, that the period of extreme vulnerability to indoctrination would have finished by then. And I should think that my disagreement on plenty of points with most Christians should make it obvious that there is no indoctrination there. In any case, there is little here to support Prof. Atkins’ assertion other than sheer determination that he is right, and perhaps the psychological force audiences perceive this assertion to have because of his prominence in academia. But for those of us concerned with arguments, evidence and reason, I think it is obvious that we should remain unpersuaded.

As I said, there is plenty of material I have not had the time to engage with, and I may even have missed some points entirely. But I hope what I have offered here suffices to respond to Prof. Atkins’ arguments reasonably comprehensively, and I am happy to respond to queries (including suggestions for further reading on some of these points I may not have demonstrated sufficiently persuasively) by e-mail.

Why do apologetics?

Here, I hope to give an account of why I feel apologetics is appropriate for Christians, and to a small extent, what I hope to gain from the website.

Criticism of religion

It does not take a religio-sociologist to observe that, for the last century or so, there has been a wideheld belief permeating Western thought that religion is a fairytale. “Believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus”, “Darwinian evolution by natural selection has removed the need for a creator God”, and “Religion is superstitious nonsense, only to be believed by deluded nutters” are just a few of the motifs that are particularly common in today’s society.

God wants us to think

While I would, for the very nature of this website, contend that many of society’s perspectives on religion, in particular Christianity, are somewhat misled, I have always approached Christianity with a ‘healthy’ dose of scepticism myself. It is, I believe, essential to establish that one may fully accept Christianity, and simultaneously retain a well nourished, fulfilled, healthy intellectual outlook on life. The God of Christianity was never about trickery, deception, or superstition. Quite the opposite – throughout the Bible, Christians are encouraged to challenge superficial, immediate perspectives on important matters. The Jesus we read about did not always follow the social constructs of his day[1], he did not give straight forward answers to questions (indeed, it was often considered rude to do so), he did not command us to strictly hold on to dogmas. The Jesus we read about radically opposed 1st century Jewish culture by relating to women, lepers and prostitutes as no man would, he most often gave quizzical answers to challenge us to think. He resisted explicit self-identification in many cases – he did not reel off a list of who he was to Simon Peter, but instead asked, “Who do you say that I am?” This is a primarily challenging Jesus.

Jesus never laid out a doctrine and taught people to obey it for no reason, but instead let his identity be demonstrated in all sorts of different ways through his ministry; it is Simon Peter who acknowledges Jesus as the Christ, before Jesus confirms it verbally. I am reminded of a thought-provoking quote I found a while ago, “…the four gospels record Jesus asking 307 questions and being asked 183 questions, but only choosing to answer three of them directly … considering this, it is really rather amazing that the church became an official answering machine and a very self assured program for ‘sin management'” (http://www.ttrp.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=80&Itemid=39). I could reel off question after question, rhetoric after rhetoric that Jesus used to provoke thought from those around him- this was not merely on simple matters, but on the most fundamental aspects of his identity. We are constantly challenged, constantly told to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21a), always reminded that God gave us a brain for a reason![2]

Our call to apologetics

Which brings us onto apologetics. 1 Peter 3:15-16 is perhaps the main Biblical passage on apologetics, outlining a few important points, but it in particular reminds us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason (Greek απολογιαν or apologianfor the hope that you have.” His very use of the word ‘apologian’ (Greek απολογιαν) indicates that we are to have a rational, logical basis for our beliefs. Considering Jesus’ picture of Christian belief, not once do we find him putting across a philosophy suggesting that we should believe what we *want* to be true. Indeed, there are many articles highlighting aspects of Jesus’ teaching which were completely counter-intuitive! But leaving this aside, what’s important is that Jesus taught that he IS the truth. He leaves not the slightest sense of ambiguity, nothing of wanting the truth, knowing the truth, having the truth, or trying to be the truth, Jesus asserted that he is the way, the truth and the life, and it is this conviction which we are to account for. In the same way, he remarked to some of his followers, “…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Paul regards the truth of utmost importance aswell, telling us in 1 Corinthians 14:20 not to ‘[think] like children’. Christianity is not a matter of ‘belief without evidence’, nor is it solely an intellectual fulfillment.

Conclusion

It is with my strongest conviction that I can approach Christianity with both a challenging, rigorous, academic mind, and also with a heart that is ever seeking after a deeper personal relationship with God. While I wish to make clear that we need not negate intelligence to believe in God, I would not for a moment let this take away from the heart of the Christian faith[3], the personal reconciliation of ourselves to God for the purpose of building for his Kingdom. Intellectual arguments have a place in talking about God, but there is a danger of the discussion about Christianity becoming too erudite[4]. In short then, what do I hope for this website to achieve? I hope, ultimately, that this will destigmatise Christianity, allow people to understand more about its claims, and compel them to pursue it. This may serve as a resource for Christians who want to know what to say to their friends when they raise objections, it may help those dipping into Christianity to find out if it’s for them and quieten any qualms, it may even be used to subdue the arguments of the fiercest antitheist. Whoever you are, I hope that you learn something from this website, and that it draws you closer to who this is all about, the God that we can know personally and who loves us dearly.

Footnotes

1. I had originally omitted ‘always’; thanks to N. Baines for correction.

2. It is true that Jesus commended the childlike in their faith, but this is not the same as childish- Paul reminds us not to be childish in our thinking, but instead to think about things reasonably (1 Corinthians 14:20)

3. Which, as I hope to explain in other articles, is NOT ‘belief without evidence’, or some kind of blind fumbling for a magician in the sky!

4. After all, do Christians really envisage a God who would limit himselves to those with a considerably high intellectual capacity? It is doubtful.

Why was God so cruel to Job?

Why Was God So Cruel to Job?

A lot of answers have been given for this one. Some point to the enormous reward Job gets at the end of the book1, whereas others might mention that ‘the adversary/accuser’ (Heb. ‘ha-satan’) is not to be thought of as the devil of later Christian thought, but just a particularly clever member of the heavenly court2 (these ideas among others). These are both true, though I would hope they are still considered morally unsatisfactory for most readers. I would like to suggest a different perspective on where the theology of Job lies.

It begins with the disjointedness of the book hinted at by the varied portrayal of Job’s character, the varied use of God’s names and the very brief role of the satan, among others3. This has led many to believe that “[t]he book consists of a much older tale, into which has been inserted the Dialogue between Job and his friends (3-27, 29-31), a wisdom poem (28), the speeches of Elihu (32-7), and the reply of God (38-42:6).”4 Or, “[t]he assumption underlying this commentary is that a poet used an existing popular story as the framework for exploring the possibility of disinterested righteousness and the different answers to the problem of innocent suffering.”5

And so we can quite reasonably suggest that the Prologue (where the afflictions occur) was not intended to be taken as historical or of theological interest by the author of the Dialogue. It was taken from an earlier story as a framework for the real theological meat of the book, which comes in the middle. The emphasis is not on the story, but on the discussion – the genre is not narrative but debate and framing narrative. This explains the disjointedness of the story (particularly the change in Job from a submissive character in ch. 1-2 to an indignant protester in the rest of the book) as well as, for example, the blamelessness of Job (an idea many evangelicals would be unwilling to concede!). After all, if the book were simply a narrative of God testing Job, it would seem as if the answer comes as early on as 2.9-10, with the rest of the book seeming superfluous. Rather, the Prologue gives a setting and a hypothetical reason for the suffering which Job and his friends contemplate on in the Dialogue. “But after the Dialogue, is it any longer possible to take seriously the details of the Prologue, to base one’s theology in the consent of God to Satan’s test? For the whole point of the Dialogue is that it is thoroughly agnostic about the origin of suffering. The author doesn’t know and so cannot answer why men suffer unjustly…All the prologue does, then, is to explain how a certain situation arose – Job’s wretched state. But while it reserves for God his ultimate omnipotence in that he is made to give consent to Satan’s experiment, it is not intended as a theological explanation of the origin of evil…the Prologue of Job has no subsequent influence on the story.”6

All this suggests to me that the Prologue, where Job is gravely afflicted by God and the satan, was not to be taken as historical, even less so definitive for explaining the reason for a historical Job’s afflictions or for explaining the origin of evil. Indeed, much of the point of the subsequent Dialogue is rooted in the belief that righteous men often suffer inexplicably, but that they will also be vindicated. There seems to me, therefore, no Biblical warrant to believe that a Job (less still a historical Job) was afflicted in the way Job 1-2 suggests.

Footnotes

1. “The conclusion to the book…is a fairy-tale ending in accord with the beliefs of the times. Job receives the maximum reward that man can have on earth and can go peacefully to Sheol.” Phillips, Anthony. God B.C. 68-9.
2. Ibid., 55.
3. For example, the ignorance of Elihu by YHWH, the interruption of Job’s final speech with a poem in ch. 28, the conflict between 40.5 and 42.1-6. Crenshaw, James L. The Oxford Bible Commentary. 331.
4. Phillips, Anthony. God B.C. 55.
5. Crenshaw, James L. The Oxford Bible Commentary. 331.
6. Phillips, Anthony. God B.C. 69-70.

What, if anything, has caused you to question your faith?

What, if anything, has caused you to question your faith?

I would first like to make clear that I am not certain Christianity is true, nor am I certain that God exists or anything like that. I have come to believe in certain truths such as these because they seem most probable, not because they are beyond all possible doubt to me. So, for me, it is not a question of being sure of Christianity and occasionally having isolated issues or arguments that seem to undermine that, but rather this concerns the balance of probability and how strong certain factors may be. For example, I normally grant that arguments from suffering have some strength as evidence against the existence of God, but that it is not sufficient to make theism improbable.

Granted this, I believe that there are certain factors which may count against Christianity. I do not ignore these issues in order to hold onto my faith, nor do I believe even more avidly *because* of them- I have heard this response before by those defending Christianity (or some other worldview), and I see it as entirely unreasonable. It is merely that I do not think that the arguments are strong enough to make Christianity improbable. One example would be the enormous extent of suffering in the world, and sometimes this has more force to me as an argument against Christianity than at other times. Natural evil (for example, earthquakes and floods) is particularly difficult to explain. Another example would be related to severely diminished cognitive capacities among particular individuals, disorders that may severely limit their response in relationships, both among humans and towards God. Whether this has any force depends on which particular type of Christianity one holds to. For someone who believes in universal salvation, it may not pose much of a problem since they would probably hold that God would, to the extent that cognitive diminution restricts an individual’s capacity to form and act in relationships, ultimately redeem those difficulties so to allow a fully effective relationship with God and others.

So I am willing to admit that there are difficulties, and happy to try and think of some more. One important point, however, is that simply *not knowing* something given a Christian worldview does not necessarily count as evidence against that worldview. To say that I do not know why, for example, God created crocodiles does not mean that the existence of crocodiles counts against Christianity. A Christian not knowing the answer to a particular question would usually only count as evidence against Christianity if either:
a) If Christianity were true, it would be probable that the Christian would know the answer
b) An exhaustive list of possible answers is produced, each of which, if true, would undermine the truth of Christianity.

There are other instances (and feel free to get in contact if you want me to elaborate) where a Christian not knowing the answer to a question would undermine their faith, but it should be clear that not knowing an answer to a question, how to resolve a particular difficulty or how to alleviate a particular doubt does not count against Christianity unless it is demonstrated that one of the above situations holds.

I hope that helps!

Calum Miller

What good action can a Christian do that a non-Christian cannot?

What good action can a Christian do that a non-Christian cannot?

To begin, forgive me if this is not the correct wording. I only recorded it in my phone as ‘Hitchens’, since Christopher Hitchens is a familiar proponent of this question (or at least something similar). I assume that the question was borrowed from his work, or we have at St Hugh’s someone with very similar thought to one of the most popular atheists around!

As was mentioned briefly at the session, there definitely needs to be some clarification to the statement. There is nothing, according to the generally accepted standard of morality (that is, basically secular) which Christians can do but atheists cannot. There are good, moral things which Christians may do more than atheists (e.g. tithing towards a particular charity), and there may similarly be good, moral things which atheists do more than Christians. But there is nothing in common morality which, in principle, Christians can do but atheists cannot. This must be admitted by all. If that is the basic meaning of the question, then we can answer it with a straight ‘none’. It would also be worth saying that this is in no way contrary to Christian belief. Christianity holds not that Christians are better people than atheists, nor even that they *usually* are. Rather, Christianity would hold that, if a person is particularly open to God’s transforming Spirit (that is, His Spirit which would cause transformation to a more moral way of life, among other things) then that person will become morally better than what they would have otherwise been. This is not to say that they will be better than anyone else regardless of religious persuasion, only that one particular individual will become a better person than that same individual would be if they were not open to being transformed by God’s Spirit. Though not agreed on by all Christians, I would personally want to suggest that this Spirit may indeed be operative in those who have not explicitly professed faith in Christ. This may imply that it is now much more difficult to tell who is open to that transforming power and who is not, and hence whether it is efficacious. So be it. A Christian worldview which makes a split between those who explicitly claim faith in Christ and those who do not, in terms of common morality, are mistaken in my opinion.

This does, of course, leave open questions of specifically Christian morality. For example, only one who explicitly claims faith in Christ and expresses that faith through some form of praise can, by tautology, claim faith in Christ and express that faith through some form of praise. To the secularist, this will (quite rightly) not be seen as a morally good act. Perhaps morally bad to some, but generally morally indifferent. On a Christian worldview this may be seen as a moral act, although to most theologians it would probably be in a different category to morality altogether. At this point, it really depends on what we mean by morality. If by morality we mean a generally accepted standard of behaviour towards others, then the Christian has no problem with affirming that atheists and Christians can be moral alike, with no significant difference between the groups. If we allow some other definition of morality where confessional acts such as those outlined above are relevant, then clearly there are some things that can only apply to Christians. I would want to suggest, however, that such a definition would not be helpful in discussing what I believe to be the point of this question.

As ever, if you want to discuss further or receive clarification, feel free.

Calum

Was Jesus’ crucifixion really that bad?

[Underdeveloped]

Was Jesus’ Crucifixion Really That Bad?

This is an underdeveloped article. It gives a brief comment on arguments suggesting that, because Jesus attained heaven, in some sense, after his resurrection, his suffering and sacrifice were not really that valuable.

– The purpose of the crucifixion is not for Jesus to go through as much pain as he possibly could – that is mere sado-masochism. Focusing primarily on Jesus’ pain and taking the merit of the crucifixion from his maximal pain will only serve to sentimentalise it and allow for what can be a manipulative view of the crucifixion (manipulating particular emotionally sensitive people, that is). Of course, although crucifixion was not chosen as a punishment primarily for its pain value but rather humiliation, Jesus did go through a huge amount of pain and that is still significant.

– Christianity suggests that Jesus took on evil, fully, in his death and resurrection. This is a culmination of political evil[1], relational evil[2], sub-personal evil[3] and covenantal evil[4], and won a victory over it that his followers are to implement and fully realise in their lives. Whether we want to say that evil is not really so powerful (and particularly in light of heaven) is up to us individually (though, of course, arguments can be made for or against the extent of this evil to convince others), but I would maintain that the centre of the crucifixion is not an issue over quite *how much* evil Jesus can inflict upon himself, but *that* he takes on evil in all those different ways and wins a victory over it that is to be fully realised in the future.

Footnotes

1. e.g. being crucified by oppressive Rome.
2. e.g. by his followers deserting him.
3. e.g. some ‘forces’ (I use that term hesitantly, aware of the magical connotations it can bring up, and implore the reader to try to lay aside any such suggestions) which seem to work on a different level to human decisions, but cannot really be called supra-personal since they are fundamentally against being properly human in the sense of bearing God’s image.
4. e.g. in the sense of Israel not living up to their vocation to be a light to the Gentiles, hence Jesus condemning the way the Temple was being used, etc.

Christianity’s moral failings: A response to Paula Kirby

This is a response to a talk given on Thursday 25th November at Oxford University’s Atheist Society, by Paula Kirby, on ‘Christianity’s Moral Failings’. I hope to have made it accessible to those who didn’t attend the talk, although it is to be noted that the article is primarily responding to specific criticisms of Christianity, rather than positively affirming the morality of Christianity’s teaching. Shorter version published on the Atheist Society’s blog.

Christianity’s Moral Failings?
It is customary in my field to declare any conflict of interest when publishing an article; alas, as an evangelical Christian I must admit a slight bias not to present Christian Theology as morally intolerable. Nevertheless, I would like to show that Paula Kirby’s moral objections to Christianity are not insuperable, and maintain rational integrity while doing so. I offer my apologies in advance for any lack of structure: this will essentially be an immediate elaboration on each of the points I noted down during the talk.

There was a lot I enjoyed about the talk. Before the event, I was hoping that it would not just be a list of ecclesial atrocities. Kirby obliged and went further in noting that, in particular, debates about the religious/irreligious beliefs and motivations of Hitler and Stalin trivialise the suffering of their victims. I found this quite profound, and was grateful for a discussion of the morality of Christian (or, in some cases, pseudo-Christian) Theology rather than a repetition of moral failures by those proclaiming Christ, of which we are all well aware.

I also empathised with Kirby on many points. For example, it is my conviction that a theology which makes life simply a test for the rest of eternity, or which undermines the importance of this life in its view of the afterlife, is one of the most abominable things to have ever come from the Church. Green and Baker note that atonement theology, in particular, has often been used to encourage resignation to injustice: “The least, the left out and the lost of society are thus urged to welcome the decay of their lives or communities, and those who suffer abuse, the harassed and the ill-used are encouraged to submit quietly, for in this way they can “be like Jesus”…Feminist theologians have been quick to observe that [the popular conception of atonement theology] legitimates and perpetuates abuse in human relationships, not least in the home… locating Jesus, characterized as the willing victim of unjust suffering, at the heart of the Christian faith is for some tantamount to idealizing the values of the victim and advising the abused to participate in their own victimization.” And so I lament, with Kirby, any form of Christianity which encourages victims or observers of injustice to accept it as divinely-ordained quasi-masochism. But, as Green and Baker go on to note, “This, however, is not to say that the cross is a symbol of resignation. The suffering of Jesus, as well as that of Paul and Barnabas, was grounded in their active pursuit of the mission of God, their struggle against those who opposed God’s purpose.”

Third, I valued Kirby’s appreciation of diversity within the Christian tradition as she, on the whole, distinguished between those features which she took to be fundamental to Christianity and those which apply only to some sects within Christianity. I will try to represent this distinction as faithfully to her as possible, but as my note-taking isn’t perfect, there may be some ambiguity. I will not offer an exhaustive list of responses to the talk; it may be assumed that those issues which I do not address are peripheral ones where I do not subscribe to the Christian position that Kirby described.

We begin not so much with an inaccuracy as with an ambiguity. It did not seem clear to me what Kirby used as her basis for Christian Theology, including Christian ethics. At times it seemed to be the Bible, with the invocation of a rather simplistic hermeneutical model (exegesis is the process of working out what an author meant by what he wrote, while hermeneutics is concerned with thinking about how, precisely, what is written in the Bible is prescriptive for Christians). For example, biblical authority (even biblical inerrancy) is not simply a case of reading X and then saying that X is true. On such a simplistic hermeneutic, one could quote “there is no God” from Psalm 14.1 and offer it as prescriptive for Christian orthodoxy! While I do not accuse Kirby of being quite this rudimentary, there did seem to be an element of “the Bible says that [sentence], therefore Christianity believes in the truth of [that sentence],” which clearly must not be taken as a proper understanding of how Christian belief is formed. To talk about what Christian orthodoxy is meaningfully, one must do more than quote the Bible. At other times, the standard for orthodoxy or ethics seemed to be the teaching of Jesus. With regard to ethics, the standard of the Decalogue was offered. With regard to systematic theology, the defining content seemed to be a quite parochial, Western, Roman Catholic theology, or a modern, fundamentalist one (fundamentalism as a quite specific Christian theology arising in the early 20th century, as opposed to any kind of ideological dogmatism or extremism). Appeals to these positions were not just in the peripheral issues Kirby discussed; I will argue that the limited perspectives of these theologies which she provides also have implications for her ‘terrible trio’ of ‘core’ Christian beliefs. As will hopefully be demonstrated, a rigorous basis for Christian orthodoxy and ethics is enormously important for declarations about what is core to Christian belief among other things, and there was not a clear discussion about the essential formative elements of Christianity. With this in mind, we now turn to individual problems in the talk.

Firstly, the Decalogue was held up as formative for Judeo-Christian ethics and was portrayed as no more than, and no less than, a summary of Christian ethics. This was reflected in Kirby’s criticism that half of the commandments are not even related to morality. I do not know where the understanding of the Decalogue as being basically about morality came from. I might take a guess that its centrality in the Law/Torah (the first 5 books of the Old Testament, which include as much narrative as instruction) along with a conflation of the ethical, religious and legal elements of life led to an understanding of the Decalogue as essentially a summary of moral instruction, but I offer it only as a guess. I would be perfectly happy to concede that the Decalogue does indeed have a central place in the Torah, and that it was, as Houston notes, “a prime expression of the covenant demands.” But, as Houston continues, “it is obviously designed to include all the most basic religious and moral requirements over a wide sphere of life… it is the most basic statement possible of the conditions on which Israel may be in relationship with YHWH. It combines in one text the specific demand for Israel to worship YHWH alone with those few moral requirements which are essential in one form or another for any human society.” As Kirby reflected on some individual commandments, so does Houston comment on the first: “Modern preachers interpret this comment in a moralistic way: anything which absorbs a person’s devotion is his/her God. But this is not what it means in the OT context.” So, contra Kirby, I would maintain that the Decalogue never intended to be a summary of moral rules. It was a summary, indeed, but it was a summary of a particular covenant which, when read, can be seen to have a much broader scope than ethics. Even the sacrificial system, normally understood to be so intimately linked with misbehaviour, was not used exclusively to represent and atone for immoral conduct. (As for the 10th commandment [9th and 10th if you’re Roman Catholic or Lutheran], which Kirby also undermined as a moral command, Houston notes, “there is also an interpretation which sees it as concerned with overt action to dispossess one’s neighbour. Even if the Hebrew word refers primarily to desire, the concern is for the danger to one’s neighbour posed by one’s covetousness; and in particular the kind of covetousness described in Micah 2:1-2.” See also Mark 10.19, where Jesus appears to interpret the commandment as being about fraud. It certainly seems to me that Jesus’ teaching ought to be the most formative element in Christian ethics!). So Kirby’s portrayal of the Decalogue as the pinnacle of Christian ethics is unfounded, and her criticisms of it as an exclusively ethical document therefore a category error.

Secondly, we saw, in the discussion of Christian ethics, at least a danger of the ambiguity in source that I described at the beginning. There seemed to be the implication that Old Testament ethics ought to be prescriptive for Christian ethics. Now, this is clearly true in some cases. Jesus often quoted the Old Testament favourably, often implying partial ethical continuity. However, he also superseded some of the teaching there, most notably in Matthew 5 (“You have heard that it was said…but” and so on). While this does not permit the Christian to dismiss the Old Testament ethical teaching a priori or on a cultural whim, it does demonstrate that the Christian qua a Christian, that is, a follower of Christ, is not compelled to invariably follow Old Testament ethics. Nor is he or she compelled to see all Old Testament behaviour favourably.

For our third difficulty, we move onto the ‘terrible trio’. I am glad that Kirby offered a slightly more sophisticated version of original sin than most critics (and proponents, for that matter), exploring it as a disease and proclivity towards evil rather than simply confusing original sin with original or inherited guilt. Original guilt, by the way, being a quite distinctly Augustinian and Roman Catholic initiative – it’s certainly rejected by many Protestants and was barely present, if at all, in the writings of other (including earlier) Church Fathers – Irenaeus is a good example of a theologian who wrote quite extensively on the idea of original sin (if not by name) without really implying our guilt from birth at all.

Here, however, there are some difficulties. Kirby still presents a picture of original sin which not all Christians accept, thereby using Christian diversity and the consequent lexical ambiguity to create a false dichotomy. She argued that original sin is the belief that everyone is prone to do evil from the moment of birth, a definition that certainly is not universally accepted by Christians. I need not even refer to particularly liberal Christians; I know several conservative, fundamentalist (self-identified) Christians who believe that the category of original sin only applies to the cognizant, and that talking of babies having original sin is thus a category error. Nor do all accept that original sin necessarily involves being prone to doing evil in the sense of committing moral atrocities – many would see it simply as not being fully oriented towards God from the beginning, which seems much less objectionable. (On this point, I believe that Kirby also included the description ‘meriting an eternity in hell’. I do not know if she saw this as essential to the doctrine, but if she did, then the same applies to this clause).

Kirby argued for the centrality of original sin to Christianity on the basis that, if the doctrine of original sin is not true, there is no need for us to be saved. In doing so, she has set up a seemingly harmless dichotomy (though even this is still false. Perhaps we need to be saved because of something other than original sin?) which we’d probably agree to unless we were feeling particularly pedantic. But when we realise that Kirby’s presentation of the dichotomy involves a very specific idea of original sin which is certainly seen as objectionable by many Christians, we note that there may yet be abundant reason for us to need salvation other than simply a proclivity towards evil, and that the Christian can therefore still hold to original sin as a core component of his or her faith while at the same time rejecting those non-essential aspects of the doctrine which Kirby emphasises. By ignoring other articulations and treatments of original sin then, Kirby has actually presented us with this dichotomy: either every human being is prone to do evil from birth, or there is no reason for them needing to be saved. When articulated this clearly, the dichotomy is patently false. Not only do many non-Christians, despite not believing in original sin, feel the need to be ‘saved’ (e.g. from poverty, or from another dangerous situation) whether they articulate it that way or not, but the language of salvation and deliverance (essentially synonymous in the Bible) are often used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to, for example, redemption from slavery, centuries before a doctrine of original sin was ever articulated. It is simply not true that, unless Kirby’s idea of original sin is true, there is no reason we need to be saved, and so the conclusion that her idea of original sin is a core part of Christianity is fallacious.

Fourthly, it is not clear why her conception of original sin is so objectionable anyway. Given that sin is not necessarily seen as the sum total of evil acts or thoughts (in fact, I would go further; it is rarely seen as the sum total of evil acts or thoughts) but rather, minimally, a particular attitude towards God, there is a lot to be desired in terms of the reasoning for thinking that it is a grossly immoral belief to hold. Of course, it may be that Kirby’s articulation or any other articulations of original sin are grossly immoral. But it was not made at all clear why we should think that, other than a crude appeal to prima facie disgust. Incidentally, while we’re discussing the morality of beliefs, it would be interesting to see what is meant by calling a belief immoral. Is there not the possibility that it is a true belief? If so, would it still be morally abominable?

The second of her ‘terrible trio’ form the basis for our fifth difficulty. She argued for the centrality of hell in Christian orthodoxy on roughly the same grounds as those for original sin, that if there is no hell, there is nothing to be saved from. Again, however, the lexical ambiguity leads to the false dichotomy. Since hell, that is, a temporally unspecified state of disunity with God, as a reality is indeed central to Christianity, the dichotomy of hell ‘existing’ (that is to say, is at some point a reality) or humans having nothing to be saved from does indeed seem reasonable (unless, of course, we need saving from something other than hell). However, to try and argue that Christianity is intrinsically morally inept, Kirby used a particular definition of hell which is certainly not core to Christianity and, in so doing, again set up an awkwardly false dichotomy between either being mentally, emotionally or physically punished/tortured for eternity, or having nothing whatsoever to be saved from. One can see the obvious logical difficulties![1]

Her point about hell’s being used a scare tactic as a moral deplorability is true, of course. Whether the citation of an anonymous American theologian who claimed that most of the teaching about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself can be trusted is debatable. Of course, I do not doubt that an American theologian said such a thing. But we ought to ask for more substantiation than the word ‘hell’ appearing in our English Gospels and being attributed to Jesus, in order to also attribute to him the conception of hell that Kirby describes, and which her and I both deplore. The word Jesus used which is translated as ‘hell’ in our Bibles is γέεννα (known as Gehenna in English), which was the name of a place just outside Jerusalem where, for example, children were sacrificed. It came to be used as a metaphor for the destination of the wicked but was, on the whole in Rabbinical literature, not eternal and not a place of torture. The Old Testament does not give it an eschatological dimension at all, and it didn’t always have an eschatological dimension in Jesus’ time either (hence him calling the Pharisees ‘children of Gehenna’ without making any claim on their eternal destiny). Now, it may be that Jesus believed in eternal torture, but it certainly needs more substantiation than, “Jesus talked about hell a lot”. So it does not seem clear to me that Kirby has effectively argued, on either soteriological or Christic grounds, that her conception of hell is a core Christian belief.

I will be slightly more lenient hereafter, since I do not recall her saying that anything described below is core to Christianity. Our sixth main difficulty is analogous to the other two parts of the ‘terrible trio’, and involves another oversimplification of doctrine. Kirby claims to be attacking substitutionary atonement, but in fact ends up attacking an even more particular theory, that of penal substitution. While substitutionary atonement, that is, Jesus mediating reconciliation by doing something we could or did not do, is a key theme in Christianity, simplistic expressions of penal substitution are not. Penal substitution goes further than normal substitutionary atonement by saying that Jesus took our punishment for us, rather than just doing something in place of us. Now, it does not seem as if there is anything particularly immoral about Jesus doing something on behalf of us, so it seems that we can remain content with core Christian belief on this issue. Instead, we must turn to the difficulty with portraying penal substitution as a key Christian teaching on atonement, since this seems to be what Kirby finds morally disturbing. The difficulty, essentially, is this: penal substitution, especially as the primary expression of atonement theology, is a relatively modern innovation. It has roots in the medieval period, building on Anselm’s satisfaction model of the atonement, which itself was a modern, parochial interpretation formed to explain atonement in a very particular context, namely, feudalist 11th century England. It was not until centuries after that that penal substitution, in a culture with a penance and retribution-based criminal justice system, that penal substitution really began to flourish and become dominant among evangelical theologians. There have always been, and continue to be, other theories of atonement which, other than in the last couple of centuries’ evangelical traditions, have been more popular (cf. Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa on Christus Victor as recapitulation and ransom respectively, or Abelard on the moral influence model, for some examples). Many theologians today reject penal substitution, at the same time holding to the truth of a substitutionary model of the atonement and keeping their orthodoxy intact. So we have been presented with no reason to see penal substitution as central to Christianity.[2]

Seventhly, there was the allegation that Christianity is morally lacking because it asserts that the only forgiveness it values is God’s. One must immediately wonder why Jesus gave so many injunctions to forgive and why he calls people to ‘be reconciled to [their] brother and sister’ before making an offering ‘[when they] have something against you’. There can’t be much more said about this, since there is no obvious reason to assert that Christianity only values God’s forgiveness.

Eighthly and ninthly, the issues of eternal souls and a heaven/hell polarisation were brought up. Again, I do not know whether Kirby sees either of these as a core part of Christianity, but I would certainly maintain that the ideas of an immaterial soul and a heaven/hell based eschatology do not have good backing in either Biblical or early Christian tradition, and it is up to those who assert these as core parts of Christianity to demonstrate why that might be so.

Tenthly, Kirby accuses Christianity of encouraging childish modes of thought, including not questioning anything. Again, the issue of Kirby’s sources for Christian orthodoxy must be raised here. If she is simply drawing on the New Testament (as she mentioned when talking about ‘faith’), then we are struck with the obvious injunctions against childish thinking (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14.20 – “Do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults”; this, of course, being perfectly consistent with Jesus’ command to ‘be like children’), as well as the irony that all children ever seem to do is ask questions. Biblical quotes can be rolled off anytime (e.g. the command in 1 Thessalonians 5.21 to ‘test everything’), but the burden of evidence for childish and unquestioning ways of thinking in the New Testament is really on Kirby here. It is not enough to simply assert it in the hope that those who blindly follow assertions by certain charismatic speakers about the definition of words like ‘faith’ will uncritically accept it.

Eleventhly, Kirby claimed that Christianity is ‘fundamentally dishonest’ on the precise grounds that it claims to know things which it cannot possibly know. Again, this was unsubstantiated, and can only really be countered by presenting myself as a Christian who doesn’t claim to know anything which is not an analytic truth, and challenging her to elaborate on how, precisely, I am out of line with Christian orthodoxy. The same goes for Bible contradictions, and for saying that Christians have a monopoly on morality. I don’t recall ever maintaining that the Bible has no contradictions, and I have never even witnessed anybody claim that non-Christians can do no moral acts. I do not know if Kirby sees these latter two as fundamental to Christianity, or if she’s met someone that sincerely believes that Christians have an ethical monopoly, but there certainly is a long way to go in terms of substantiating them as criticisms of Christianity as a whole.

So, in summary, Kirby’s failure to provide a rigorous basis for Christian orthodoxy and ethics led to a number of problems, particularly when she aimed to criticise what she claimed were ‘core’ Christian beliefs. This is most clearly manifest in her treatment of original sin and hell. Essentially, it led her to claim that either babies are prone to evil and deserve eternal emotional, physical and mental torture, or there is no need of any form of salvation and so “the whole thing falls apart”. I have highlighted at least 11 secondary difficulties of this hermeneutical failure, of which only a few are potential generalisations. First, Kirby failed to provide a rigorous basis for Christian ethics, erroneously invoking the Decalogue as a summary of Christian ethics. Second, she appealed to other Old Testament narrative and injunction as formative for Christian ethics, which is not only unsubstantiated, but demonstrably false when considering the supersession in Matthew 5. Third, she used a very particular conception of original sin to create a false dichotomy, and failed to demonstrate why her conception is core to Christianity. Fourth, she failed to provide adequate reasoning for why her conception of original sin is morally inadequate, and to justify her realism in declaring beliefs to be immoral. Fifth, she used a very particular conception of hell to create a similar false dichotomy, and failed to justify her invocation of Jesus’ teaching to reinforce an eternal, torturous, penal notion of hell. Sixth, she failed to justify penal substitution as a core part of Christianity, confusing substitutionary and penal substitutionary theories of atonement and failing to appreciate the modern roots of the latter, while giving no mention to the theories which have been much more prominent historically. Seventh, she made wild, unjustified claims about Christianity only valuing God’s forgiveness. Eighth and ninth, she portrayed eternal souls and a heaven/hell-based eschatology as Christian orthodoxy when they, again, are quite local to Western Christianity, in particular Roman Catholicism. Tenth, she claimed New Testament support for encouraging childish modes of thinking with no citations, and despite clear evidence to the contrary. And finally, she made poor use of rhetoric in claiming that Christianity is ‘fundamentally dishonest’, by appealing to things which have in no way been shown to be ‘fundamental’ to either the Bible, Jesus’ teaching, or early Christian creeds or other expressions of faith. I therefore conclude not that Christianity is morally good, or morally superior, but that Kirby gave us no adequate reason to believe that Christianity is inherently immoral.

Footnotes

1.The point may be made that Kirby did not articulate her argument using these dichotomies. However, taking her treatment of hell as an example, we can see that they are implicit in her arguments for the doctrines’ centrality. Kirby discussed hell as eternal torture and punishment before noting that she was well aware that many Christians do not believe in hell. She dismissed this as a possible Christian position on the basis that, unless hell ‘exists’, there is nothing for us to be saved from. Yet, interestingly, she provided no discussion of hell as something other than eternal torture and punishment (as I suggested above), thereby setting up a false dichotomy between believing in her conception of hell or rejecting a core Christian belief. With only a straw man of the ‘core’ Christian position attacked as immoral, then, we have been given no reason to believe that Christianity is fundamentally immoral on this basis.
2. I must admit that I did not hear any argument for why penal substitution is immoral, in any case. To the contrary, she seemed to favourably quote Christopher Hitchens in suggesting that taking a punishment may be acceptable, but that taking responsibility is not. If such a premise is accepted, then there seems no problem with penal substitution at all, since Christianity most certainly affirms responsibility, whether or not it holds to penal substitution. But, in this case, I will give the benefit of the doubt and put it down to my own poor attention!

Christianity vs. Other Religions with historical founders

There are several religions with historical founders. What is distinct about Christianity that makes it true, as opposed to other religions?

Many religions, though they may have evolved significantly, were founded by historical figures. Buddhism generally claims to follow the teachings of Siddharta Gautama, Islam claims to follow the teachings of Muhammad and Mormonism claims to follow the teachings of Joseph Smith Jr[1]. It seems to me a fairly sound historical judgement that these figures existed and advocated some particular teaching which then developed into a religion. Likewise, it is certain by all historical standards that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified, and we can be reasonably sure that, minimally, he understood himself as a prophet with a particular vocation to preach a message about the coming Kingdom of God. We have here several historical founders of religions who all had a particular message promoting a particular worldview (and there are many more). Some claimed divine revelation, others were not theistic in the Western sense of the word- Eastern approaches to religion (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism) have had quite different conceptions of the divine, if they believed in such a thing at all. So far, so good.

We really need a brief discussion of what this question might mean. A polarisation of true or untrue with respect to a particular religion is clearly deficient. Christians must believe that there is some truth in most religions, and often quite profound truth. They generally agree with theistic religions insofar as there is a God. They agree with Islam that Jesus was a prophet of God (though obviously they believe he was much more than that as well). They agree substantially with Judaism, their own religion being a Judaic derivative, and so on. Hence, we can clearly see that if the question is to mean, “What makes Christianity correct and every other religion wrong?” then we will not get very far at all.

Beyond this, there could be a whole range of different meanings. Presumably it is something along the lines of, “What reasons are there to think that God was in some sense embodied in Jesus, and that Jesus died, was buried and was raised from the dead by God as an inauguration of God’s Kingdom?” Even then, we must not immediately suppose that these claims are to the detriment of other religions. Though, for example, Islam denies some of the central concepts in Christianity such as the death and resurrection of Jesus, there may still be a significant coherence between Christianity and other faiths. The obvious example is Judaism- Jews and Christians tend to follow the same scriptural meta-narrative (overarching story of their holy scriptures) until the end of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and this is a huge dimension of both faiths. Though the majority of Jews reject some of the central claims in Christianity (e.g. that Jesus is the Messiah), many Jews who do accept Christianity still hold on to their Judaism, seeing Christianity as the fulfilment of it. Lest that be a trivial example, it is interesting that the same idea is often transferred to other faiths, usually those that antedate Christianity. There is a significant movement in Hinduism that has converted to Christianity, and I may even go so far as to suggest that a rejection of Hinduism in these contexts might be relatively rare. Many Christian converts from Hinduism see their Hindu scriptures as (roughly) equivalent to the Old Testament[2]. These scriptures offer a model of thinking about and living through God which they see as perfectly consistent with the message of Christianity and which, in retrospect from their conversion, can be seen as leading to and being fulfilled in Christ.

I appreciate that the majority of my response is highlighting the insufficiency of a right/wrong polarisation, but I think it massively important. So why might a Christian believe that God revealed himself in Jesus, as opposed to being simply a distant, universal architect? I do not intend to expound any arguments here, but rather offer a starting point.

Christianity is based firmly on the person of Jesus Christ. He is the primary reason for holding Christianity to be true. There are certain historical points which are agreed on by the majority of New Testament historians, Christian and non-Christian alike. These would include the crucifixion and burial of Christ, and the discovery of his empty tomb on the third day after. Further, the unanimous scholarly consensus is that his disciples experienced appearances of him afterwards, and that some people particularly hostile to the early Christian message were consequently converted to become passionate advocates of Christianity (e.g. Paul and James). It is also relatively uncontroversial that Jesus understood himself as proclaiming the approaching Kingdom of God. I would personally (along with a significant backing in New Testament scholarship) argue further that Jesus believed himself to the Messiah of Israel, that he believed his actions were not only proclaiming but inaugurating the Kingdom of God, and that he would go through some extreme suffering, perhaps even death. Further, he held that despite this, his message would be vindicated by the God of Israel, and it seems very reasonable historically to believe that he believed he would be raised from the dead.

Though I do not have space or time to give a detailed response as to why I believe the following, I would propose that the best explanation of all these well supported historical facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead. This would explain the prior facts of his self understanding, actions, words and miracles, and it would explain the posterior facts of his empty tomb, appearances and the origins of Christianity. Not only that, but it would explain them well. I would also contend that there are no plausible naturalistic, alternative hypotheses that adequately account for these facts. Although this is only a very concise exposition of a defence of Christian revelation, I would contend that it ought to be explored further and, when considered in detail, is highly plausible and a very reasonable justification for Christian belief.

Please do get in contact if you would like to discuss this further.

Calum Miller

Footnotes

1. I deliberately left out Judaism since, although there are particular characters with unique roles (e.g. Abraham with whom God originally made his covenant), there is no one human whose teaching could be said to be constitutive of Judaism. Many characters in the Hebrew Bible are, of course, historical, but the origins are much more complex than simply attributing a body of teaching to a particular individual.
2. Clearly there are differences, e.g. in that Jesus understood his vocation within the context of Judaism and not Hinduism, but this is not hugely relevant to the point.

Further Reading

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian
Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate

How can God allow eternal punishment?

How Can God Allow Eternal Punishment?

Hell is a difficult topic: for many, the most difficult in Christian Theology. Indeed, the doctrine of hell is one of the main reasons many reject Christianity. It is therefore the point at which it is most clear we must speak with utmost sensitivity, but also with loving honesty. As part of my medical training, I’ve come face to face with those who know that they are in the last few months of their lives, and who are faced with this stark reality. Similarly, I’ve met those who would be in that situation if they didn’t start taking some course of action, whether that’s a drug, a lifestyle change, or surgery of some sort. Now, in order to properly love them and do what’s best for them, I have to be plainly honest about their condition and about what will probably happen to them. Some diagnoses are crippling: no one wants to hear that they have a terminal illness, or that they don’t have very long left. And, of course, there are right and wrong ways to be honest: honesty does not necessarily imply insensitivity or tactlessness. But nevertheless, I would be doing people a disservice if I wasn’t honest with them about their condition or their fate. Love requires honesty, and especially so when honesty has the potential for healing.

But when it comes to hell, we seem to have adopted an attitude where it has become, in some sense, socially unacceptable to say that people are ‘going to hell’, even more so to say it about someone in particular. It is not often clear what the objection is, exactly, but it seems to suggest that saying people are going to hell violates some sort of social law, that it is ‘bad etiquette’, that it is offensive. Of course, there are right and wrong ways to advocate a position on hell (e.g. someone going to hell is never something to take pleasure in, nor is it something to say out of spite, or as an insult in an argument), but it is important that we are allowed to speak honestly, whether that is politically correct or not – there is no reason why we should not adopt similar principles to when talking to someone who is severely ill. None of this is to say that I think we CAN speak definitively about the fate of other individuals – as it happens, I don’t think we have good reason or authority to do that. But what is most important is that we object to this for the right reasons – because it is rationally, philosophically and theologically unconvincing and unwarranted, not just because it’s politically incorrect to do so.

And so we must make every effort to have a rational discussion about hell – there is inevitably an emotional element, and we should not let reason disguise that, but in order that we might have appropriate emotions about hell, it is important to UNDERSTAND it. This includes understanding our own view of it (whether or not we think it exists) and understanding other views of it. Caricatures of other people’s views based on emotional dissonance, anger, or plain ignorance are particularly easy to come by when discussing hell, and that’s why it is so important to recognise them for what they are – caricatures.

And so in this article, I am going to do something slightly unusual. I do not personally believe in the traditional understanding of hell (I will soon offer an introduction to the different views of hell) – nor do I disbelieve it. Those who have been in dialogue with me will know that I haven’t come to a conclusion about what I believe hell is, and that I often sway towards and away from particular positions at different times. But I’m here going to defend the traditional understanding (that hell is eternal punishment), or at least offer some considerations which might make it more palatable. These would not take away from the horror and tragedy of the traditional (or any) understanding of hell, but I think they go some way in explaining how such a doctrine might be compatible with a loving God. They are considerations which make me think that the traditional understanding is at least compatible with the God of the Bible (and a loving God, if you think that the God of the Bible isn’t), and which allow me to see it as, at least, a possibility.

1) One of the problems is a confusion between the type of hell one believes in and what one believes about who goes there – if I said, for example, that I believe in eternal torture, most people would assume that I would therefore be taking a conservative approach on all issues and so would believe that only consciously-affirming Christians avoid hell. But this does not logically follow – nor is it what I personally believe, even if I accept traditionalist hell. No matter whether hell is temporary or eternal, I don’t think we have good reason to believe that only Christians will avoid it, or that the amount of people there is particularly large.

2) There is nothing to suggest that those who are in hell are pity-evoking humans in any recognisable sense; that is, they may have diminished their humanity so much that they cease to be human at all, and so to have pity or empathy for them would not be apropos – it would be as nonsensical as feeling pity for a stone being crushed, or for some snow being melted. This is not to say that, if some humans were horrible enough, then it would be wrong to feel pity for them. The point is that these creatures have themselves rejected their humanity entirely, and so cannot even be considered as similar to the most cruel humans we now know. It must be emphasised, of course, that this would not be the case for anyone we know on earth now, since there is no reason to think that anyone has fully and irreversibly chosen not to be human in their current life.

3) Nor is the Christian scripturally compelled to believe that those who are in hell have realised their folly or evil, or that they recognise their punishment as punishment. In particular, if one takes a view of hell that has historical elements, e.g. that people are in some sense ‘in hell’ now, in that they are separated from God and living in a self-destructive way already (cf. Matt 23:15; Jas 3:6), then this is made particularly important. For if people are currently living separate from God, and living in ways which are destructive to others and to themselves and enjoy it, and we do not have any reason to believe that this will change qualitatively, then the ‘punishment’ of hell will only come as the fulfilment of this way of living, and will allow their wallowing in and love for their own destruction to flourish. It’s not a case of them suddenly changing their mind about how rewarding living selfishly is – to the contrary, it would be a natural progression, confirmation and intensification of the pleasure they get from selfishness. It is, of course, a complete perversion of pleasure and joy, and a terrible one at that, but that mustn’t force us to conclude that it will be perceived as terrible for them.

4) Nor must we assume that the people in hell have the potential for good in them in the same way that anyone on earth does: these people may have shaped their characters to such an extent that they absolutely hate love and hate all that is good, and instead delight in selfishness, abuse, mistreatment, hatred, and so on. They may enjoy (in a perverse and caricaturistic way) their isolation and hatred, and the abuse of others. Again, our appropriate pity and hope for redemption of those on earth must not fool us into thinking that those who are no longer living are necessarily redeemable or with a tiny bit of good in them. For all we know, they may be incorrigibly, passionately evil and inhumane.

5) Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we do not need to believe that the ‘punishment’ of hell is administered by God in any direct, vengeant sense. Indeed, we have no good reason to believe that the punishment of hell is significantly different from that which is the self-destructive nature of sin as we know it. Sin is already self-destructive and self-punishing; it is just usually not recognised as such. But there seems a fairly good Biblical attestation to the idea that punishment or ‘wrath’ is received welcomingly on earth (cf. Romans 1 where God’s wrath is the “giving over to their own desires“, and results in things which presumably are perceived as pleasurable or rewarding). If this is the case, then it may just be that hell is continuous self-punishment (in that rejecting God is a punishment in itself), manifest in things which many today consider pleasurable.

And so even a traditionalist view of hell (that of eternal punishment) can make these allowances: I am not saying that these possibilities are necessarily true, but that they are perfectly consistent with an evangelical Christian framework. It may be that hell is a ‘place’ for those who have irreversibly, explicitly and knowingly rejected God, who no longer evoke pity because they have given up their humanity, who to continue to love hatred and selfishness, and who enjoy their punishment. A bolder apologist might even argue that this idea of hell is in some way more palatable than the state of the world today: at least those in hell have knowingly decided not to be proper objects of pity – contrast this with some humans today, who have the potential for redemption and for whom we do appropriately pity for their selfishness and self-destruction, and yet who still decide to delight in hatred.

Of course, this cannot be interpreted as an attempt to make hell seem less terrible – hell is the most terrible possible fate for a human being, and only the most crude of emotionalists would think that eternity without God is any ‘better’ than the hell in medieval art. The issue is not about whether hell is a terrible fate or not – it categorically is. The issue is about whether the existence of a traditional understanding of hell is compatible with the God of the Bible, and with a loving God. And the reason I think that these clarifications are helpful is this: I do not think that the moral objection behind most of our opposition to hell is to do with the principle of eternal separation from God – that is the only possible consequence unless God compels people to love him and come into relationship with him. Rather, I think the problem we have is with seeing the ‘punishment’ of hell as something that God inflicts directly in petty revenge, and in which he takes pleasure. Separation from God is understandable, we think, even if not desirable. But the idea that God goes beyond that to happily torturing the damned in revenge is where we rightly take issue. Once we see then, that this latter picture of hell is in no way warranted scripturally, then I think that we can at least understand how a loving God might allow some sort of ‘eternal punishment’, as Christians have traditionally (though not universally or consensually) believed.

Though I am not personally convinced that the traditional understanding of hell is correct, I hope to have made some defence of it here so that it is not mischaracterised in future. I do not think that Christians are compelled to believe in this understanding, let alone any of the features we find particularly insulting (e.g. that God directly punishes), but nevertheless I felt that this might be useful material for those who do want to defend traditionalism, as well as offering some clarifications for a more fruitful discussion of hell in future.

Do ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’?

NB: This post is several years old now. I will update it at some point, and cannot confirm that I agree with everything in it. Nevertheless, I am leaving it here on the website to provoke some thought.

This was copied almost verbatim from a response I made on a forum a couple of minutes ago, and so I have not spent a huge amount of time on it. As such, it is rather unfurnished and may not read particularly well out of context, but I have tried to tidy it up. Some ideas have inevitably come from other sources and minds, to which due credit will be given in the footnotes, but the articulation, presentation, structure, some sub-arguments, and the general arguments are my own work.

Do ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’?

This essay is a general response to the argument appropriated by sceptics in reference to the reliability of the New Testament (and other theistic claims)- not in terms of general history or any general theology, but specifically deliberating over the philosophical and historical nature of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The argument may come in the very vague form, ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'[1], or they may be sentiments that have been elaborated on slightly more, such as David Hume’s idea ‘that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.'[2] I commend Hume’s articulation, as it seems to give the admission that some supernatural miracles could hypothetically be more probable than certain events occurring given their falsehood. However, most arguments of this kind are not as clear as Hume’s (whose own still gives some ambiguity), and rely on a vague description involving probability to the general notion that “Miracles are exceptionally improbable, and it is therefore almost certain that Jesus did not rise from the dead”. This is admittedly a weak form of the argument, but I hope that my essay will clarify and illumine some of the flaws so that a better articulation is constructed. I may give a suggestion on how this may be done at the end.

The argument put to me

The original argument I was given then, was this:

“- When judging evidence, we should consider probabilities. Is it more unlikely that the event happened, or that the source of the claim is incorrect? Whichever is more unlikely is the one we reject.
– For most of us, all our sensory experience points towards nature. Furthermore, claims of contemporary supernatural events are, in almost all cases, rejected by everyone as being mistaken. Supernatural events are extremely unlikely.
– The evidence for the supernatural events in Jesus’s life are of a good standard for the time they were written, but they are not of an exceptional standard. The gospels are written perhaps 50 years after Jesus’s death, and are secondary sources that are drawn from two or three (possibly) primary sources. They seem to be written from the perspective of followers of Jesus (rather than people who observed the miracles and were convinced), and were written in a superstitious time. We can say that the evidence is good for the time, but not of an extremely good standard compared to the evidence for other historical events. It is not extremely unlikely that the gospels are mistaken.
– It is more unlikely that the events happened than the gospel writers made a mistake.
– We do not have good reason to accept the historical evidence for the supernatural acts of Jesus.”

This argument in particular was a general response to an argument concerning the unlikelihood of Christianity starting, unless the resurrection were true, which will be referenced in my rebuttal. Let us then, begin.

While, of course, I wouldn’t build a case for the existence of God solely on the historical evidence, I do think there are certain problems with the ‘extraordinary claims’ argument. They all link together, but I will try to separate them to an extent.

The vague and subjective nature of ‘extraordinary’

Firstly, the Saganised form (ie the title) relies on a very ambiguous idea of ‘extraordinary’, which is likely to involve biased, subjective judgements on how ‘extraordinary’ a particular event is. Of course, ‘extraordinary’ may simply mean anything out of the ordinary, in which case we most certainly have enough evidence for Christianity, on the basis of the New Testament. True, resurrection is an unusual event, but the series of events surrounding the supposed resurrection are, to my mind, unique among antiquity. However, it is clear that ‘extraordinary’ in this context is being used relatively- and it is this aspect I am criticising. It is, in fact, an appropriate criticism to any argument of this nature, as all will invoke some subjective, personal, biased judgements on how ‘extraordinary’ or ‘improbable’ something is. It is therefore immediately clear that we should not give the argument any more credibility than is due, as all approaching the issue will have some sort of bias- an ontological naturalist will have a bias that excludes any supernatural action, a priori attaching an infinitessimal likelihood to ‘miracles’ (I will elaborate on why this is unfair in another post), whereas a devout theist will have a natural tendency to explain phenomena in terms of a personal God, perhaps giving the likelihood of a supernatural occurrence more probability than is appropriate.

The misunderstanding of the Christian claim

Secondly, it seems to rely on a very ambiguous conception of probability, especially with regard to establishing the ‘extreme improbability’ of a supernatural event. It is difficult to verify exactly what we mean by this. Of course, it is (for the sake of this argument, though this can be disputed) extremely improbable that the laws of nature we suppose (and have supposed since the dawn of modern science- ironically the child of a ‘religious’ worldview) should, at any given moment, cease to function with no warning, rationale, explanation, or purpose. When we see a feather floating in the air, we are justifiably inclined to suppose that it is a windy day, as opposed to the spontaneous cessation of gravity. When something contrary to our immediate sensory experiences happens without a rationale, it is fair to assume that there is another explanation behind it. However, this is not the Christian claim. It should be remarked that the Christian claim is based on the observations we do have, not the observations we should expect to make at any arbitrary moment in history. Certainly, if no explanation, expectation or reasoning was given for Jesus’ apparent resurrection, it would not be such a forceful or important claim. If he was supposed to have naturalistically risen from the dead, we might consider that of such an extreme probability as to dismiss it. This, however, is not the proposition. The proposition is that Jesus was the anticipated Messiah[3], sent by God to bring about a new covenant with his people- and not only that, but it was God who (by fair reason) raised Jesus from the dead. The converse of this is not that people generally tend to stay in their graves, but that Jesus did not, and it is this evidence we should be assessing. Christianity does not contend that the laws of nature are inconsistent, and are prone to random distortion. After all, they too live on the basic assumption that nature is fairly consistent (it would have to be for the Christian doctrine of free will [4]), they buy a house on the basic assumption that it should not burst into flame and crumble every so often. Indeed, it follows this general assumption with regard to most other corpses (contemporarily, at least- this ignores the Jewish notion of the final resurrection of the dead at the end of time), but what is instead being proposed is that Jesus rose from the dead. In order to refute this, then, we must look at the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, not the lack of resurrection of most other people in history. Now, certainly, we should not be led into some sort of naivety to suppose that everything that seems prima facie contrary to nature is some sort of supernatural act- but when there is an expectation (Old Testament prophecy), a fair explanation (that, if it were true, should increase the probability enormously, ie the action of YHWH), a reasoning given (to initiate a new covenant for human salvation[5]), and plenty of other reason to believe in a quasi-Christian God[6], the proposition is not so absurd. Again, the Christian argument is not that Jesus rose from the dead naturalistically and arbitrarily (as that is, indeed, improbable), but that Jesus conquered death after prophecy, expectation, and for a purpose, through power that was appropriated to him through He who supposedly created the (general) laws of nature to be contravened.

The unqualified use of ‘probability’

The third point is related to the second- on the general notion of the vagueness of ‘probability’. As demonstrated from the second point, we are not concerning ourselves with a simple, arbitrary, statistical or physical probability- one that is concerned with probabilities of the nature, “that one person arbitrarily picked from history has come back from the dead”, or, “that any given person in the future should spontaneously and naturalistically be resurrected”. The probability we are assessing is of a different nature- using ‘abductive’ reasoning, or ‘inference to the best explanation’. Not only do we assess the probability of explanation A (in this case the resurrection of Jesus), which I have explained is a flawed premise, but we also assess the likelihood of the observations had not-A occurred. I commend Hume for noticing this idea in his articulation of the argument, although with my final point I will contend that his conclusion was unjustified. The idea that we not necessarily need extraordinary evidence for all unlikely events is portrayed reductio ad absurdum by philosopher William Lane Craig: “…this standard would prevent you from believing in all sorts of events that we do rationally embrace. For example, you would not believe the reports on the evening news that the numbers chosen in last night’s lottery were 4, 2, 9, 7, 8, and 3, because that would be an event of extraordinary improbability. The odds against that are millions and millions to one, and therefore you should not believe it when the news reports it. Yet we obviously believe we’re rational in concluding it’s true. How is that possible?…if the evening news has a very high probability of being accurate, then it’s highly improbable that they would inaccurately report the numbers chosen in the lottery. That counterbalances any improbability in the choosing of those numbers, so you’re quite rational to believe in this highly improbable event.”[7] This principle can be applied throughout history- it may be considered extremely improbable for someone to have conquered the known world by the age of 33. Yet it is reasonably accepted that Alexander the Great had done so, and there is plenty of evidence to verify it[8]. One can strengthen this point even further by illustrating it through the example of the existence of homo sapiens. It is considered fantastically improbable for, not only the universe to provide the physical laws necessary for life to arise, but combined with the unlikelihood of the human race being exactly as it is now, we are faced with an extraordinarily improbable event. However, it is abundantly clear that the human race is as it is (this is no more than mere tautology), and so we can see that what may originally seem improbable is in fact the best explanation of a given circumstance. And so, ironically, the more emphasis that is placed on the original argument, the less we can accept the theory of evolution, or even our own existence! The weaker the argument from the New Testament becomes, the stronger the teleological argument becomes- and so to use the “too extraordinary” argument as an argument against the existence of God is literally self-refuting![9] Note that this is not a defamation of evolutionary theory; I believe the evidence is perfectly sufficient to conclude that evolution by natural selection has occurred, this merely illustrates the implausibility of the original argument. Now, when discussing the historicity of the New Testament, we might point out the masses of manuscript numbers (over 5,000 in Greek) in comparison to other works of antiquity, we might point to the early fragments, we might point to the corroboration from several different sources[8] and conclude that, if it were a secular pronouncement, it would be the most well attested event in all history; certainly a vast multitude of historians would share this conclusion. However, I have included that all important clause- “if it were a secular pronouncement”. This, says the sceptic, is the clause that ruins the argument from the New Testament. For, though we have strong historical evidence, we are trying to verify an immense claim, one that requires a huge amount of evidence. This is a fair criticism, and will be dealt with in the following points, but the point to be remembered is that ‘probability’ has a wide range of uses, from the statistical, to the physical, to the inductive, to the abductive; the sceptic argument generally invoking a very vague description.

The unfair demand for evidence

The fourth point is related to each of the previous points, and may be posed by a question, “What would count as ‘extraordinary evidence?’ Most of the replies I generally receive are not particularly sensible, and generally resemble the clichéd refrain, “I’d believe in God if he appeared out of nowhere and moved mountains for me when I said so,” with various paraphrases. Now, ignoring the suspicion that this may not be true in many cases, the lack of a sensible answer in most cases highlights the implausibility of the sceptic’s demands. True, there are some fair remarks (eg, if the resurrection were true, we may expect to find accounts of appearances at the end of Mark’s Gospel), but generally they involve an implausible demand. “Why did hardly any secular historians mention Jesus’ resurrection?” is a typical example. To demonstrate, I will suggest why this is an unfair requirement, and why we would not expect there to be a multitude of secular historians attesting to Jesus’ resurrection. Firstly, the question presupposes that there were many 1st century historians who could look at the evidence and remain a sceptic. This is a simple point- some of the first century historians (eg Luke) converted to Christianity because of the strength of the evidence, and so it is unfair to ignore those historians who became Christian. Second, Jesus died a third of the way through the first century, and because oral tradition would successfully retain the story early on, there would be no need to write events down until a few centuries later. This greatly reduces the amount of time possible for historians to mention Jesus’ ministry. Third, Jesus was not of any great concern to secular historians around the time of his ministry. Of course, he is rightly worshipped and of utmost importance now, but to most secular historians in the 1st century he was merely the crucified leader of a Jewish cult. Historians were far too busy writing accounts of wars and the like. Fourth, we would not expect a secular historian to be strengthening the case of Christianity if he did not believe it. Again, this is an elementary point. We have no expectation of someone who wasn’t a Christian to start writing accounts confirming the central Christian message! Fifth, there are secular accounts of Jesus’ ministry. True, they do not attest to the resurrection, but we have people like Josephus and Tacitus verifying important aspects of Jesus’ ministry fairly soon afterwards. From these points, we can see that the sceptic’s claims are often implausible with regard to expecting ‘extraordinary evidence’. The reason we may not have it is because we would not expect it, and that is a perfectly fair defence. This only highlights a problem with evidentialism (something the objector often treasures more than life itself), as opposed to a deficiency in Christianity.

The undermining of the strength of the Christian case

Finally, I think we DO have very strong evidence for the resurrection of Jesus; as demonstrated from point three, it is inference to the best explanation that is appropriate in this context, as opposed to a weighing up of each side while trying to keep them distinct. The original article in question[9] is the main ‘advocate’ of those things observed that we should not expect if Jesus had not been resurrected, and I feel they do add up to an incredibly strong case- certainly invoking a large improbability. Because that article and the general claim of the predisposition of early Christians to adopting Christianity are well known (I have referenced the link), I do not feel it necessary to repeat these arguments in detail here- we are talking generally of the likelihood of a movement starting around a crucified Messiah, an egalitarian social philosophy, a divine figure who displayed a lack of omniscience, omnipotence, and who displayed typically ‘weak’ emotions like weeping; the list goes on. On top of this, of course, are the empty tomb and resurrection appearances, but again, these are well known[10].
A further point on this: it does seem to me that the ‘extraordinary claims’ line crops up when a sceptic has no other defence for an atheist position. The likelihood of Jesus’ resurrection does not prove conclusively that God exists, only that it is more probable. It is therefore perfectly within the capability of an intelligent atheist to give other grounds for supposing that the Christian God does not exist- why not just accept that the 1st century phenomena increase the probability that the Christian God exists, and then give further evidence to suggest that the Christian God does not exist? It does often tend to be a strong reliance on the “onus of evidence is on the theist” claim (one which I disagree with, and will expand on in other posts). To take a simple example of how one phenomena increases the probability of Jesus’ resurrection (and hence the Christian God’s existence), we can look at the empty tomb. If we accept the historicity of the empty tomb, we can establish a Bayesian confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection. If A is Jesus’ resurrection, and B is the empty tomb, Bayes’ Theorem states that P(A|B) = [P(A)P(B|A)] / P(B). That is to say, the probability of Jesus’ resurrection given the empty tomb, is equal to the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection (P(A)), multiplied by the probability of the empty tomb given Jesus’ resurrection (P(B|A)), divided by the prior probability of the empty tomb (P(B)). If P(A) (that is, the probability of Jesus’ resurrection without considering the empty tomb) remains constant (which it shall do in this case, since it is unaffected by whether there is an empty tomb or not), it follows that, if P(B|A) is larger than P(B), it is more likely that Jesus was resurrected than is otherwise so. This seems well established: if Jesus rose from the dead, it is very very likely that there would be an empty tomb, and therefore P(B|A) is high. Without taking into account whether Jesus rose from the dead or not, there *are* still reasons why an empty tomb would be present, but the probability is not particularly high. It then follows that P(B|A) > P(B), and therefore the probability of Jesus’ resurrection is made higher by the empty tomb. I realise this is perhaps confusing, and I did not have time to elaborate in this post on Bayesian proof. I will therefore elaborate on this in another post, to which a link will be given in time. My general point, however, is this: there are evidences that make Jesus’ resurrection more probable than it would have been without them, and the sceptic often tends to ignore this, and the fact that they could criticise Jesus’ resurrection on other grounds.

Conclusion

It is therefore my conviction that this argument fails on several grounds:
1. The ambiguous and subjective nature of “extraordinary”.
2. The lack of clarification of the Christian proposition, and what it means to say it is ‘unlikely’.
3. The ambiguous nature of “probability” and the absurdities it can lead to.
4. The unfair demand for evidence which we would not expect to have if the resurrection had occurred.
5. The incredibly strong affirmative evidence we do have for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I have shown my respect for Hume’s formulation of the argument, and I think his argument fails instead, on the first and fifth points. What must be done to refute the New Testament is to clarify the nature of probability as Hume (and others) have done, and then refute my fifth point, perhaps showing that the evidence we do have is not as strong as it seems. As I am personally convinced that the evidence for the New Testament is strong enough to suggest that Jesus did rise from the dead, my formulation of a sceptic’s argument would be to suggest that perhaps it is a matter that cannot be resolved historically. True, we have as much evidence as we would expect, but perhaps this is not enough evidence to base a whole life upon. This, again, invokes subjectivity, but I would point out as I did at the start, that there are other evidences (and that some degree of subjectivity is necessary to retain our free will- this then moves onto the argument from hiddenness which is not appropriate to discuss here). To refute the resurrection, either we conclude that we cannot make a decision of such magnitude on the New Testament, which would be criticising the domain of competency (of evidentialism) as opposed to the actual argument (and as I have demonstrated in this essay, is a particularly fallacious attitude), or we try to refute the evidence for the resurrection itself- the resurrection of Jesus that is, not everyone else in history.

Thank you for reading, feel free to leave a comment or mail me for more information!

NB: I hope to improve and expand on this to deal with how improbable miracles really are, and whether ‘extraordinary claims’ really do require ‘extraordinary evidence’ (further). It is probable that I shall use CS Lewis, CB McCullogh, and John Earman (Author of ‘Hume’s Abject Failure’) when doing so, but revision is a bit heavy at the moment.

Footnotes

1. Generally attributed to Carl Sagan with no one particular reference.
2. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
3. Some even claim the Old Testament prophecies pinpoint a specific time for the arrival of the Messiah, cf. the Book of Daniel predicting Him a certain time after the reign of Artaxerxes of Persia.
4. See CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 20-25.
5. See Anthony Phillips, God B.C. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 36-39 for a brief discussion of the understanding of this new covenant prior to Jesus.
6. As given in, for example, Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
7. Lee Strobel quoting William Lane Craig, The Case for Faith, 88-89.
8. See CARM, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, http://www.carm.org/evidence/extraordinary.htm
9. That is, if you take evolution to count against the teleological argument (many don’t, perhaps myself included). A more appropriate example to use in place of evolution would be our own ability to reason. It seems to me greatly improbable that, if naturalism were true, we should have true beliefs about the world. For more on this argument, see CS Lewis, Miracles, Chapter 3, ‘The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”, 17-36. Alvin Plantinga and Victor Reppert are contemporary advocates of this argument.
10. For further reading on these, see FF Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
9. See JP Holding, “The Impossible Faith”, http://www.tektonics.org/lp/nowayjose.html
10. See Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ. There are better books out there, but that’s a good one for beginners. Ask me for more if you want.

Further Reading
Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science and Religion (Pennsylvania: Templeton Press, 2008), chapter 4.
CS Lewis, Miracles (London: Harper Collins, 2002)
Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), ‘Objection #2: Since Miracles Contradict Science, They Cannot Be True’ pp. 77-117

Can God create a stone which He cannot lift?

Can God create a stone which she/he/it cannot lift?

While omnipotence is now commonly seen as the ability to do absolutely anything (even apparently meaningless combinations of words), it has not always been understood that way. Traditionally, it would come with several clauses, one being that omnipotence does not include the ability to perform an act which, if performed, would lead to a logical contradiction. Since a stone too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift would, it seems, be contradictory, creating such a stone would not fall under omnipotence. This is consistent with, for example, Aquinas’ understanding: “Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.”[1]

Such a conception of divine omnipotence has been wisely recognised in the modern academic sphere: philosopher Richard Swinburne writes, “God is omnipotent in the sense (roughly) that he can do whatever it is logically possible that he do. The qualification in the last clause is important. There are some apparent states of affairs, the description of which involves a logical contradiction-for example, me existing and not existing at the same time. God cannot bring about such apparent states, not because he is weak, but because the description ‘me existing and not existing at the same time’ does not really describe a state of affairs at all, in the sense of something that it is coherent to suppose could occur.”[2] Similarly, popular writer C.S. Lewis wrote, “It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”[3]

So we can see that, although we have only considered limited examples here, there is an understanding throughout the Christian philosophical tradition of seeing omnipotence as limited in certain respects, viz. that omnipotence does not include logical contradictions. So, since the state of affairs in question is logically inconsistent, we can affirm that God cannot create such a stone, but also that his not being able to create such a stone is in no way inconsistent with his omnipotence.

Footnotes

1. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. I, Q XXV, art. 3.
2. Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. 94.
3. Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. 18.

Introduction to the Kalam Cosmological Argument

[NB: I do have some reservations about this argument. This is not supposed to represent an endorsement of the argument, but merely serves as an introduction to it].

Introduction to the Kalam Cosmological Argument

This is a particular form of the cosmological argument developed in a modern form primarily by William Lane Craig. Though cosmological arguments in general have been one of the traditional groups of arguments for theism, the kalam cosmological argument has not enjoyed as much attention until Craig’s more recent exposition. It has now become an extremely popular argument both in apologetics as well as Philosophy of Religion. As Quentin Smith puts it, “[m]ore articles have been published about Craig’s defense of the kalam argument than have been published about any other philosopher’s contemporary formulation of an argument for God’s existence”. Though it has roots in ancient (Aristotle) and medieval (Aquinas, al-Ghazali) philosophy, modern interpretation and proposition of the argument has seen Craig’s work as formative, and we will primarily consider his line of argument here.

The argument begins with the syllogism:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

A criticism typically advanced is that this doesn’t show that God exists – only that the universe has a cause. This is an unfortunate consequence of the fact that most debates involving the argument tend to spend most time discussing this part of the overall argument, and this sub-argument is often seen as constituting the kalam argument in its entirety. The reality is that most proponents of kalam recognise that this part of the argument has relatively limited conclusions, and give further arguments for why the cause might have further attributes of God.

Another objection to cosmological arguments is that they do not explain why, if the universe needs a cause, God does not also need a cause. Putting the argument this way will make it clear why this is so, but yet the objection is occasionally still made. God, on this argument, would not need a cause because only things that begin to exist have a cause – this does not include God. “So how do you know the universe began to exist?” We will answer this question imminently.

Everything that begins to exist has a cause

Craig holds this to be evidently true, and more plausibly true than its negation. Indeed, its negation would be, in the words of philosopher of science Bernulf Kanitscheider, in “head-on collision with the most successful ontological commitment” in the history of science, namely, the metaphysical principle that, out of nothing, nothing comes. This principle of ex nihilo nihil fit is the primary reason Craig gives for accepting premise 1: “To suggest that things could just pop into being uncaused out of nothing is to quite doing serious metaphysics and to resort to magic. Nobody sincerely believes that things, say, a horse or an Eskimo village, can just pop into being without a cause. But if we make the universe an exception to [this principle], we have got to think that the whole universe just appeared at some point in the past for no reason whatsoever.” With an abundance of evidence vindicating this metaphysical axiom, then, and no known evidence to the contrary, it seems reasonable to accept this premise as being probably true.

Moreover, critics do not give good reasons why universes would constitute an exception to this principle. It is not enough to say that the Causal Principle applies only to things inside the universe, since it is a metaphysical rather than a contingent, physical principle. Nothingness cannot be discriminatory, according to Craig, since it has no properties. Why should nothingness have the capacity to birth universes, yet not have the capacity to give rise to any of its constituent parts? Indeed, if we accept the idea that the universe can exist uncaused, we have also put an end to the main competing (or complementary) search for universal origins: astrophysical cosmology. Objections that things at a first moment of time need no explaining are similarly unconvincing, since they rarely give any reason why there is a relevant difference in the causal question between first moments of time and embedded moments of time.

Finally, there is overwhelming experiential confirmation of this principle – “[s]cientific naturalists thus have the strongest of motivations to accept it”. Even JL Mackie conceded that it is “constantly confirmed in our experience”, though he thought that creation by a god was even less plausible than the Causal Principle’s negation. And, similarly, Mackie’s refutation of the cosmological argument made an appeal to Hume, who himself wrote that he “never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a cause”.

The Universe began to exist

Both philosophical and scientific arguments have been offered for this premise, the former related to the existence of actual infinites and the latter pertaining to cosmological evidence for a beginning point of the universe, and of time.

In philosophy, the argument might run as follows:

1. An actual infinite cannot exist.
2. An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.
3. Therefore, an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist.

The first premise here follows Aristotle in affirming that no actually infinite magnitude can exist. At this point, many might offer putative examples of infinites – one could divide up any finite length of time into an infinite number of sections, and thus have an infinite number of existing things. But here the distinction between actual and potential infinites – a distinction found in Aristotle but taken up by the great Cantor later on – becomes important. Indeed, it is telling that it is a finite length of time which is here divided into an infinite number of sections – Aristotle would agree that something might be infinitely divisible, but this is far from the actual infinite which would be constituted by a series of past events. Most people will only be familiar with potential infinites, denoted by ∞. These are the kind found when, for example, curves on a graph “tend to infinity”, but the reader will note that the curves never actually reach some kind of “infinity”. Actual infinites, in contrast, are denoted by א (the Hebrew letter aleph) and are widely held to be limited to transfinite arithmetic and similar domains – and not present in reality.

Craig usually presents some examples for why the idea of an actual infinite is absurd – the foremost being the hotel of the famous mathematician David Hilbert where all א of the rooms are occupied, and yet there is still room for more guests to stay in new rooms! Such a hotel, according to Craig, would lead to any number of absurdities: “suppose that the persons in rooms #4, 5, 6, … checked out. At a single stroke the hotel would be virtually emptied, the guest register reduced to three names, and the infinite converted to finitude. And yet it would remain true that as many guests checked out this time as when the guests in rooms #1, 3, 5, … checked out! Can anyone believe that such a hotel could exist in reality?”

Craig offers a second philosophical argument, namely that P1) a collection formed by successive addition cannot be an actual infinite, P2) the temporal series of events is a collection formed by successive addition, and therefore that C) the temporal series of events cannot be an actual infinite. It is not the task of this introduction to go into depth on these arguments; much more has been written elsewhere.

All of this is confirmed, it is argued, by emerging scientific evidence that the universe (including time) did indeed have a beginning. This has, in the past, been extremely controversial: until partway through the 20th century, it was taken as axiomatic that the universe had existed eternally in the past. Take, for example, von Weizsacker’s recollection of an event in which Walther Nernst challenged von Weizsacker’s presentation on the age of the universe:

“He said, the view that there might be an age of the universe was not science. At first I did not understand him. He explained that the infinite duration of time was a basic element of all scientific thought, and to deny this would mean to betray the very foundations of science. I was quite surprised by this idea and I ventured the objection that it was scientific to form hypotheses according to the hints given by experience, and that the idea of an age of the universe was such a hypothesis. He retorted that we could not form a scientific hypothesis which contradicted the very foundations of science. He was just angry, and thus the discussion, which was continued in his private library, could not lead to any result.”

As with the Copernican revolution, then, this traditional cosmology required a Kuhnian shift when increasing amounts of evidence emerged that supported the universe having a beginning. This led renowned physicist Stephen Hawking to state: “All the evidence seems to indicate, that the universe has not existed forever, but that it had a beginning, about 15 billion years ago. This is probably the most remarkable discovery of modern cosmology. Yet it is now taken for granted … [T]he universe has not existed forever. Rather, the universe, and time itself, had a beginning in the Big Bang, about 15 billion years ago.”

Craig cites the work of Arvind Borde, Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin, who demonstrated that “any universe which is, on average, in a state of cosmic expansion throughout its history, cannot be infinite in the past, but must have a past space-time boundary”. And elsewhere, Craig and Sinclair write, “[o]ur survey shows that contemporary cosmology is quite supportive of the second premise of the kalam cosmological argument. Further, this conclusion is not reached through ferreting out elaborate and unique failure conditions for scores of individual models. Rather, the repeated application of simple principles seems effective in ruling out a beginningless model … It seems that the field of cosmology, therefore, yields good evidence that the universe began to exist.” As with the philosophical arguments, there are volumes that could be written, but that is not the purpose of this introduction.

With good support for both the first two premises, then, that everything which begins to exist has a cause and that the universe has a cause, it follows necessarily that the universe has a cause.

What must the cause be like?

It is often assumed that the argument finishes at this point, with the rather unsatisfactory (yet still controversial) conclusion that the universe has a cause. “But that doesn’t prove that God exists!” complains the critic. Indeed, this first part of the argument was never intended to demonstrate that God exists – but there has also been a great deal of literature dealing with the question of what properties a cause of the universe must have.

Uncaused: This is not strictly implied by the argument, for one could posit a plurality of explanatory steps – the universe might be caused by X, which in turn is caused by Y, which in turn is caused by Z, and so on. But this seems to violate the principle of parsimony expressed by Ockham’s Razor – we ought not to posit causes beyond necessity. Since our primary cause of the universe would not begin to exist, it would not need a cause on the grounds of the arguments given above, and so it is simplest to suggest that it is, itself, uncaused. This is especially so if the arguments from infinity work, and are applied to an infinite number of causal entities.

Beginningless: If the first premise of the kalam argument is true, that everything that begins to exist has a cause, it follows that nothing which is uncaused can begin to exist. If, therefore, we accept the parsimony of our cause of the universe being uncaused, it would follow from this, along with premise 1 of the original argument, that this cause does not begin to exist.

Changeless, immaterial and atemporal: Changelessness is different from immutability in that the latter affirms that the cause cannot change, whereas we are affirming only that, sans the universe, the cause does not change. The cause’s changelessness, immateriality and atemporality are all closely linked, with each tending to imply the others. For example, atemporality implies changelessness (since change requires time), and changelessness in turn implies immateriality, since matter is constantly changing at the micro-level. But yet both the cause’s immateriality and its atemporality is implied by its causing space and time (the universe) and therefore transcending it. Similarly, the cause’s spacelessness is implied by these latter two, in that no spatial entity can be both immaterial and atemporal.

Powerful: It follows also that this cause must be incredibly powerful, “since it brought the entirety of physical reality, including all matter and energy and space-time itself, into being without any material cause.” This is not necessarily omnipotent, but it is still extremely powerful.

Finally, Craig offers three main lines of argument for why the cause is plausibly, but not necessarily, personal. First, he draws on Richard Swinburne’s distinction between personal and scientific explanation, where the former explains something in terms of agents and volitions, and the latter explains something in terms of laws acting on initial conditions. Since there is no time before the universe, it cannot be explained in terms of laws operating on initial conditions, and therefore it can only be accounted for by personal explanation.

The second argument relies on the characteristics the cause has already been demonstrated to have: there are, Craig argues, only two categories of things which are potentially immaterial, beginningless, uncaused, timeless, and spaceless. These are, on the one hand, abstract objects, and on the other, unembodied minds. This is not to say that humans have unembodied minds, or even that human minds are not dependent on the brain, but rather it is to admit the possibility of such an entity. But since abstract objects cannot cause anything, it follows that the only plausible cause is something similar to an unembodied mind.

The third reason for agent-causation is that a first temporal effect from a changeless cause can only arise from free, personal explanation. If the necessary and sufficient conditions existed changelessly and eternally, it is hard to believe that the effect would not also exist changelessly. But clearly the origin of the universe is not eternal and changeless, so how can this be? Craig answers, “The best way out of this dilemma is agent causation, whereby the agent freely brings about some event some event in the absence of prior determining conditions.” His conclusion? “On the basis of the kalam cosmological argument, it is therefore plausible that an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful.”

Is the argument useful?

This is one of the primary points of doubt when considering the kalam cosmological argument. Even if the argument succeeds in demonstrating all this, the objector says, it ultimately has no value, since it doesn’t show that God exists – it has nothing to say about God’s moral character, and especially about particular Gods. This type of objection is exemplified by Stephen Law’s “Evil God” hypothesis, where there exists an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful. The only difference is that this God is exceedingly malevolent. On the kalam argument, Law contends, this Evil God is just as probable as a good God, and therefore the argument does not demonstrate that a good God exists, and does not even form part of a cumulative case for such a God.

There are different ways to respond to this, the first being to respond in agreement with the objection, but without conceding that this weakens the argument. Perhaps the argument isn’t intended to prove a good God, only to serve as a defeater for atheism. As Craig put it in his debate with Law, “it is a strange form of atheism, one not worth the name, that admits that there is a beginningless, uncaused, spaceless, timeless, immaterial, enormously powerful, personal Creator of the universe.”

But Law’s claim that the kalam cosmological argument cannot form part of a cumulative case for God, on the grounds that it also supports the Evil God hypothesis is palpably false. Suppose we were investigating a murder and found a gun at the crime scene, from which a DNA sample was obtained and traced back to Thomas. We would all reasonably count this as quite substantive evidence that Thomas was the killer. Even if it turned out that Thomas had an identical twin, John, would we really count the evidence worthless, and maintain that it did not support the case against Thomas at all? Of course, it wouldn’t be conclusive evidence, but it is most unreasonable to suppose, just because the evidence pointed also towards John, that it does not constitute substantive evidence towards the culpability of Thomas. After all, it seems to rule out a great number of other suspects, and unless the DNA evidence distinguishes between Thomas and John, we may reasonably suppose that it increases the probability of their culpability proportionally:

And so it is difficult to see why the existence of some other hypothesis, for example, Evil God, should reduce the kalam argument’s inductive force. Swinburne puts it well:

Note that it is no objection to a P-inductive or C-inductive argument from e to h that some contrary hypothesis h* is also compatible with e, as some writers on the philosophy of religion seem to think. They seem to think that if, for example, the order in the universe is compatible with ‘God does not exist’, then there is no good argument from it to ‘God exists’. But one has only to think about the matter to realize that this is not so. In any non-deductive argument from e to h, not-h will be compatible with e; and yet some non-deductive arguments are good arguments.

But what of Law’s argument? For Law is not simply saying that Evil God is compatible with the existence of the universe but that, if the kalam argument is sound, then the argument supports Evil God as much as it does a good God. But Swinburne goes on:

Note also a further interesting feature of good C-inductive arguments. In such an argument from e to h, P(h|e&k) > P(h|k). It may be the case that also for some contrary hypothesis h* there is a good C-inductive argument from e– that is, also P(h*|e&k) > P(h*|k). The fact that certain evidence confirms a hypothesis does not mean that it does not also confirm a rival hypothesis. Once again, this should be immediately clear if one thinks about it.

And so we might represent the kalam argument similarly to our example with Thomas and John – unless kalam offers us reason to differentiate between a good God and Evil God, then it seems reasonable that they should fill up the probability space left by the exclusion of other hypothesis in a manner proportional to their prior probabilities. And, since Law’s entire objection is to the effect that kalam does not let us differentiate between the two, that is what we will do:

Of course, there are some other hypotheses compatible with the kalam argument, but the point is clear: the success of the kalam argument is perfectly compatible with both God and Evil God being more probable in retrospect. When seen this way, it is very strange that people should deny there is any cumulative force in the argument, so long as it works to its conclusion.

And finally, note that this can be applied also to the first steps of the argument, to the conclusion that the universe has a cause. Since this excludes the possibility of an uncaused universe, it seems reasonable that it should raise the probability of theism as an explanatory hypothesis accordingly, even if it simultaneously raises the probability of other explanatory hypotheses.

As hinted by Swinburne, this can be more clearly seen by a Bayesian analysis. Since this is only an introduction, I have tried to stay away from introducing Bayesian probability analysis, but it is worth noting that it would be a most fruitful way to demonstrate the probabilistic force of kalam, given that one is familiar with Bayesian theory.

Conclusion

Personally, I am not convinced of all parts of the kalam argument. I am convinced that it has some cumulative force as per the last section, and I think it is more than reasonable to conclude that the universe has a cause. The move to a God-like cause, though not as illogical as many would assume, is not yet entirely convincing to me, but I hope to have provided a basic introduction to and defence of the key aspects of the argument.

Further reading

For more, see Craig, W.L. & Sinclair J.D. (2009) The kalam cosmological argument. In Craig, W.L. & Moreland, J.P. (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, 101-201. Oxford: Blackwell.

Full defence of the fine-tuning argument: Part 5

5. Justifying premises 5 and 6: Groundwork

With most of the groundwork now out of the way, we are now ready to consider the key question, namely, what we would expect given our two explanatory hypotheses, T and NSU. I shall argue that the answer to this question is partly determined by whether, on the two hypotheses, we would have any reason to expect a given universe to permit embodied moral agents rather than other universes in what we will call the Epistemically Illuminated region (EI region). It will also depend partly on how many universes we would expect on theism – it seems reasonable that the more universes there are, the more chance there is of there being an EPU. And so it would follow that the more universes there are on theism, the higher the ratio P(EPU|T & k’)/P(EPU|NSU & k’) and hence the more EPU supports T over NSU.

First, we will need to briefly explicate the type of probability involved, as well as the appropriate background information k’ involved. Only after this will we be in a position to demonstrate that EPU supports T over NSU. Much of this, along with the last few sections, will also be of relevance to the further argument that EPU supports T over ¬T.

5.1 Conditional epistemic probability

It is at this juncture where the commonly cited anthropic principle, among various other objections, is confused. I will discuss the anthropic principle more fully in a later section, but reading through this account first will serve to pre-empt some of those objections, and will hopefully make clear what is meant by the probability claims expressed in premises 5 and 6. We can begin by distinguishing epistemic probability from other kinds of probability, including logical probability and physical probability. Whereas physical probability is concerned with genuinely indeterministic chance processes (for example, the probability of a future quantum state being realised), epistemic probability is the kind of probability implied when we say, for example, that humans probably evolved from single-celled organisms (E). It is not to say that whether humans evolved is still undetermined, and will be determined by some future chance process. Rather, it is to do with the degree of warrant we have for supposing that humans did indeed evolve. We might be wrong, but to say that it has a high epistemic probability is to say that there is overwhelming warrant for accepting it over its negation.[5] As explained in section 2.2, we need not assign exact numerical values to epistemic probabilities. It is often the case in scientific discourse that we say some observation is strongly expected under certain hypotheses, and not under other hypotheses, despite not being having precise values for the probabilities.

Conditional probability, simply, is the probability of some proposition/event given some other information. Thus, the conditional probability P(A|B) is the probability that A is true given that B is true.[6] The calculation of these probabilities need not assume that B is in fact true, but rather says what the probability of A would be if B were true. Or, in terms of the likelihood principle, it tells us the extent to which we should expect A to be true if B were true. While B can refer to our total background information (k), we ought to note that it does not have to include all of our background information. So while we can judge the conditional epistemic probability of P(E|k) to be very high (that is, given all that we know, there is a high degree of warrant for accepting E over ¬E), we can also judge conditional epistemic probabilities for which B is not our total background evidence. For instance, suppose we have just spun a roulette wheel 20 times, and that it has come up with a zero every time. Though we had no suspicion beforehand, we see in retrospect that this is somewhat peculiar. In order to assess the hypothesis that the roulette wheel was biased versus the hypothesis that the roulette wheel was unbiased, we decide to calculate the two conditional probabilities P(Z|Bi) and P(Z|¬Bi), where Z is the 20 zeros result, and Bi is the hypothesis that the roulette wheel was biased. We calculate P(Z|¬Bi) to be roughly 4.3 x 10-32 and suggest that, though we cannot give a precise value for P(Z|Bi), it is not quite this low. On these grounds, we conclude that Z constitutes substantial evidence towards Bi over ¬Bi.

Now, if we were to include all our background information in the calculation, we would have to include all the information we have showing that 20 zeros really did come up (such as, for example, the fact that all the witnesses present claim to have seen 20 zeros come up). But if this is the case, then both probabilities P(Z|Bi) and P(Z|¬Bi) equal 1, since we know from the witnesses that Z is the case. But it is entirely counterintuitive to suppose that Z therefore does not count as evidence towards Bi. Clearly, we can make judgments of conditional epistemic probability that do not include everything we know in place of B. For these calculations, we ask: what degree of rational warrant would B give A, independent of other warrant for A? We therefore “bracket off” or ignore any warrant we have for A which is not included in B, so as to judge how probable, on B alone, A would be.

The perceptive reader will see the relevance to the argument from fine tuning here. Indeed, there are multiple salient features of this example. Firstly, note that we do not have to include all our information, and that removing all the warrant for the explanandum from our background information is not a contrived, arbitrary procedure conjured up just to get the result we want. To the contrary, the whole point of using these conditional probabilities is to see how probable, on each hypothesis, our explanandum is. And this necessarily requires that, for any useful calculation, we have to take out the explanandum (and its other warrant) from our background information. Insisting that all our background information has to go into the calculation would prevent us from ever testing any hypotheses, since our background information would necessarily include the very thing we are trying to explain and thus give us a probability of 1 under any hypothesis. This is not to say that we will not eventually need to include all our background information to make a final judgment of the overall epistemic probability of a given proposition – indeed, I think we ought to eventually include such information – but there is no plausible reason to reject this bracketing procedure, and its ubiquitous use in scientific hypothesis testing gives us good reason to accept it.

Secondly, the roulette example is retrospective. That is, the evidence we are using to support the bias hypothesis is from the past, and was cognised before we came up with the bias hypothesis. Although I think we have good reason to reject the evidence as retrospective (as I will explain later), it is not at all clear that evidence being observed before the hypothesis renders it obsolete – no one would argue that the sequence of zeros observed on the roulette wheel does not constitute evidence for the bias hypothesis simply because we had not come up with the bias hypothesis until after the sequence was observed. Recourse to potential future verification is similarly unconvincing – if the roulette wheel were dismantled or otherwise inaccessible, we would still count the past evidence as evidence for the bias hypothesis.

Thirdly, although we have a numerical probability for the non-bias hypothesis, we do not similarly have a precise number for P(Z|Bi). This is analogous to the case of fine tuning, where we can arguably assign a crude numerical value to P(EPU|NSU & k’), but not to P(EPU|T & k’). Yet we can still say, plausibly, that P(Z|Bi) > P(Z|¬Bi). That is to say, it is not a sufficient objection to note that we do not have a precise measure for one of the probabilities involved – we can still make judgments as to which is more probable despite not having these refined quantitative measures. Of course, sheer improbability alone does not disconfirm the chance hypothesis in favour of some other hypothesis. If P(EPU|T & k’) is just as low as P(EPU|NSU & k’), then EPU confirms neither hypothesis over the other. The question, then, will come down to whether, on the two hypotheses, we can give a plausible reason why our observed fact would be the case, and thus whether, on each hypothesis, we have a reason to expect a particular observation. In the case of roulette, we can give such plausible reasons for Z – a sequence of 20 zeros has semiotic significance, and might be expected rather than any other sequence of 20 numbers, all of which will be extraordinarily unlikely (though not as unlikely as 20 zeros, since zero is the only number to appear only once in the roulette wheel).This might be because the casino might stand to gain from people betting on, for example, red or black, and thus losing out when zero comes up. In contrast, the sequence: 5, 25, 24, 19, 23, 8, also has an extremely low probability of obtaining, but in this case there is no conceivable meaning to the numbers, and so we refrain from rejecting the chance hypothesis in favour of some other hypothesis. Any contrary hypothesis which would explain this sequence would be extremely contrived, being at least as a priori implausible as the sequence itself and unlikely to have independent motivation. In the case of fine tuning, I will later that we can give plausible reasons for why, on theism, EPU would be preferred to other universes in the appropriate range, and hence why we can justify the crucial claim that P(EPU|T & k’) > P(EPU|NSU & k’).

5.2 Comparison ranges in k’

We now turn to the question of finding appropriate comparison ranges for the life-permitting ranges of values for the different constants of physics. Since it is not clear what we would mean by a “comparison range” for the nature of the laws of physics (4.1), and since we have already discussed possible phase space as the comparison range for the initial conditions of the universe (4.3), we shall focus here primarily on the constants. This section is relevant to multiple objections to fine tuning arguments, notably the normalizability objection and what we will call the EPU density objection.

Following Collins, I propose that the most sensible comparison range is the Epistemically Illuminated (EI) range; this is the range of values of the constants for which we can determine whether such a universe would be life-permitting. Here we are taking a sample of all the possible universes and seeing how small the proportion of life-permitting universes in that sample is. The universes in the EI region constitute the largest plausible sample we can have – since, by definition, we cannot plausibly judge whether universes outside the EI region would be life-permitting, it would make little sense to include those universes in the comparison range. We can therefore include the fact that the constants of physics fall into the EI range (call this information CEI) in our background information k’. So long as the arguments for the restricted principle of indifference in the next section are sound, it would follow that the probability of a particular constant being in the life-permitting range, given NSU and k’ (including the fact that the constant falls into the EI range) is equal to the proportion of life-permitting values in the EI range for that constant.

5.2.1 EPU density objection

This will help us respond to one objection often raised to the fine tuning argument, namely that the proportion of possible universes which are life-permitting may be very large – we are just in a particularly sparse group of possible universes. We will call this the EPU density objection. Others have responded to this by giving analogies with intuitive force: consider, for example, an illuminated dartboard with a minute bullseye in the middle. Suppose a dart comes from a significant distance, and we see that it lands perfectly within this bullseye. We would rightly count this as evidence of the dart being aimed, and we would hardly by persuaded by the speculation that the region outside the illuminated area might be densely populated with large bullseyes. It is standard practice in science to take a sample group from the total possible range, and to use this as a reference class. As long as we have no reason to believe that this sample is biased in a pertinent way, this is justified. When clinical trials are testing the efficacy of drugs among a small group of patients, they typically take only a small proportion of the possible target population, making the assumption that it will be appropriate to apply the results to a much wider group unless they have reason to think the sample class is relevantly biased. As with the dartboard example, we would not reject a new drug policy on mere speculation that the patient group outside of the sample might respond to the drug very differently. And so it is with EPU density – unless we have good reason to suppose that the density of EPUs is much greater outside the EI region, it will suffice to take the EI region as a sample population of universes. If anything, we would expect the universe in which we exist to be in a group of possible universes which are more propitious for life. And so the EPU density objection actually only serves to reinforce the fine tuning argument, since the only evidence for any bias in the sample population of universes (namely, the EI region) is evidence that EPUs are more concentrated in the sample. If we excluded CEI from our background information, then, this would only reduce the probability P(EPU|NSU & k’) even further. So for these reason, the EPU density objection seems to me to be wholly unpersuasive.

5.2.2 Normalisability objection

A second objection related to the question of comparison ranges is that proposed by McGrew, McGrew and Vestrup. This issue of normalisability is concerned with the apparently infinite comparison range. As they put it, “Probabilities make sense only if the sum of the logically possible disjoint alternatives adds up to one … But if we carve an infinite space up into equal finite-sized regions, we have infinitely many of them; and if we try to assign them each some fixed positive probability, however small, the sum of these is infinite.”

But it is not clear why all the logically possible values for the constants must be included, in any case. Our argument does not depend on calculating the probability P(EPU|NSU & k’) where the universe in NSU can take on any constant – we have said, rather, that k’ includes the information CEI, where CEI says that the universe’s constants are in the epistemically illuminated range. Since the epistemically illuminated range is finite, we can quite easily come up with a probability without a denominator of infinity. For the normalisability objection to have any sway, it has to give a compelling reason why we must exclude CEI from the background information. No such reason seems to me to be forthcoming.

As long as we have plausible, non-arbitrary candidates for limits, it seems to me that we can have a finite comparison range to calculate probabilities from. Such a non-arbitrary comparison range might be from 0 to the current value of a particular constant. In the case of the strong nuclear force, for example, we know that a 0.5% decrease in the strength of the force would prevent a life-permitting universe. Even taking the strong nuclear force’s current value as being the upper bound, we would still here have significant fine tuning, as described in section 4.2.4. But a better candidate for a comparison range would be, as explained above, the epistemically illuminated region. This is the range of values for the constants for which we can determine whether such a universe would be life-permitting or not. This seems to me to be an eminently reasonable, non-arbitrary comparison range. This is all the more so when considering what such a comparison range would be.

To say that something is not logically inconsistent is not to say that it is meaningful. Some variables have natural limits, even if there is no obvious contradiction in saying that its value is increased or decreased by a certain amount. For example, many physicists have suggested that it makes no sense to posit a length shorter than the Planck length, which is roughly 1.6 x 10-35 metres. But yet there is no obvious contradiction in talking about something half this length. Similarly, Newtonian physics is not suited to describing especially fast, massive or small objects, even though there might not be any discernible logical inconsistency in so doing.

What we see here is that there is often a particular domain within which a law or type of explanation operates, and outside of which the law loses applicability or meaningfulness. There is very plausibly a similar limit to the applicability and meaningfulness of the constants relevant to the fine tuning argument. The strong nuclear force has limited applicability, as it results from the colour force between quarks. But the colour force, as part of quantum chromodynamics, is only applicable to low energy transactions, and so there will be a finite limit for the strong nuclear force, above which the energies involved will render the model meaningless. We simply cannot say what would happen, if it were meaningful, if the strong nuclear force was increased by a factor of 101,000.

It turns out that there are similar cut-off energies for most of the constants, where the pertinent model is no longer applicable. We are not even in a position to say that the idea of a force strength would still make sense at extremely high energies – and our past experience with the advent of quantum mechanics and special relativity ought to guard us against assertions of universal applicability. Our models simply cannot yet be meaningfully applied to very high energy transfers, which is what an increase in many of the constants would involve. While there is still a dispute over what the cut-off energy is for the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces, we do have some commonly assumed points. One suggestion is that they are no longer applicable at the Planck scale, which would be reached by increasing the strong nuclear force by 1021. An alternative is the grand unified theory scale, which would be reached by a 1015-fold increase. The precise cut-off point is not important, nor is it necessarily well-defined (since we would expect a continuous decrease in applicability, rather than a sudden obsolescence). What is important is that there is a large, finite range of values which we can meaningfully use as the upper bound of the comparison range. We are thus amply justified in using this epistemically illuminated region as our comparison range, having a meaningful probability for P(EPU|NSU & k’), and hence rejecting the normalisability objection.[7]

Finally, even if there must be an infinite comparison range, it is still not clear that the argument should be discounted. Collins offers some responses here: firstly, that the criticism relies on the principle of countable additivity. Finite additivity is the probability calculus principle dictating that, for example, “the sum of the probabilities of a die landing on each of its sides is equal to the probability of the die landing on some side” (so long as the number of alternatives is finite). Countable additivity, by contrast, extends this principle to example with a countably infinite number of alternatives. Collins provides a counterexample to this latter, more controversial principle:

Suppose that what you firmly believe to be an angel of God tells you that … there are a countably infinite number of other planets … the “angel” tells you that within a billion miles of one and only one of these planets is a golden ball 1 mile in diameter … Accordingly, it seems obvious that, given that you fully believe the “angel”, for every planet k your confidence that the golden ball is within a billion miles of k should be zero. Yet this probability distribution violates countable additivity … McGrew and McGrew (2005) have responded to these sorts of arguments by claiming that when the only nonarbitrary distribution of degrees of belief violates the axiom of countable additivity, the most rational alternative is to remain agnostic … I do not believe this is an adequate response, since I think in some cases it would be irrational to remain agnostic. For example, it would be irrational for a billionaire who received the aforementioned message to spend millions, or even hundreds, of dollars in search of the golden planet, even if it were entirely rational for him to believe what the “angel” had told him; it would even be irrational for him to hope to discover the planet. This is radically different than cases where people are legitimately agnostic, such as perhaps about the existence of extraterrestrials or the existence of God; for example, it seems rationally permitted at least to hope for and seek evidence for the existence of extraterrestrials or God.

The implausibility of being agnostic in the “golden planet case” is further brought out when one considers that if the billionaire were told that the universe was finite with exactly 1010,000 planets with civilizations, clearly he should be near certain that the golden planet is not near Earth. But, clearly, if the billionaire is told that there are even more planets – infinitely many – the billionaire should be at least as confident that the planet is not near Earth; and, certainly, it should not become more rational for him to search for it than in the 1010,000 planets case, as it would if he should switch to being agnostic.

Collins concludes,

Rejecting [the coarse-tuning argument] for the reasons the McGrews and Vestrup give is counterintuitive. Assume that the fine-tuning argument would have probative force is the comparison range were finite. Although they might not agree with this assumption, making it will allow us to consider whether having an infinite instead of finite comparison range is relevant to the cogency of the fine-tuning argument. Now imagine increasing the width of this comparison range while keeping it finite. Clearly, the more WR increases, the stronger the fine-tuning argument gets. Indeed, if we accept the restricted Principle of Indifference … as WR approaches infinity, [the probability of a particular constant having a life-permitting value given NSU and k’] will converge to zero, and thus [the probability of a particular constant having a life-permitting value given NSU and k’] = 0 as WR approaches infinity. Accordingly, if we deny that [the coarse-tuning argument] has probative force because WR is purportedly infinite, we must draw the counterintuitive consequence that although the fine-tuning argument gets stronger and stronger as WR grows, magically when WR becomes actually infinite, the fine-tuning argument loses all probative force.

In sum, then, I think we have good reason to use a non-arbitrary, finite comparison range, but even if we did not, then we still have a plausibly substantive argument.

(For more recent thoughts on this, see here.)

Footnotes

5. For more, see Swinburne 2001; Plantinga 1993; Hacking 1975; or Keynes 1921. ^
6. P(A|B) can be demonstrated to be equal to [P(A)•P(B|A)]/P(B), this being the basis for Bayes’ Theorem. ^
7. It is even harder to see that this objection could be persuasive when considering the often neglected initial conditions of the universe. It is far from clear that there is a non-normalisable range of possible phase space, which I demonstrated in section 4.3 to be the pertinent range when considering the initial conditions. It ought to be noted that this is one of the most astounding instances of fine tuning, equal to one part in 10x, where x = 10123. ^

Contents

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Some preliminaries on formulation

Part 3: The basic shape of the argument

Part 4: Justifying premise 4

Part 5: Justifying premise 5

Full defence of the fine-tuning argument: Part 4

4. Justifying premise 4

There is often a great deal of misunderstanding over what, precisely, is meant by “fine tuning”. What is the universe fine tuned for? How can the universe be fine tuned for life if most of it is uninhabitable? Here, I hope to clarify the issue by giving a definition and defence of the truth of proposition F. This is that the laws of nature, the constants of physics and the initial conditions of the universe must have a very precise form or value for the universe to permit the existence of embodied moral agents. The evidence for each of these three groups of fine tuned conditions will be slightly different, as will the justification for premise 5 for each. I consider the argument from the laws of nature to be the most speculative and the weakest, and so include it here primarily for completeness.

4.1 The laws of nature

While there does not seem to be a quantitative measure in this case, it does seem as though our universe has to have particular kinds of laws to permit the existence of embodied moral agents. Laws comparable to ours are necessary for the specific kind of materiality needed for EMAs – Collins gives five examples of such laws: gravity, the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism, Bohr’s Quantization rule and the Pauli Exclusion Principle.

4.1.1 Gravity
Gravity, the universal attraction force between material objects, seems to be a necessary force for complex self-reproducing material systems. Its force between two material objects is given by the classical Newtonian law: F = Gm1m2/r², where G is the gravitational constant (equal to 6.672 x 10-11 N(m/kg)², this will be of relevance also for the argument from the values of constants), m1 and m2 are the masses of the two objects, and r is the distance between them. If there were no such long-range attractive force, there could be no sustenance of stars (the high temperature would cause dispersion of the matter without a counteracting attractive force) and hence no stable energy source for the evolution of complex life. Nor would there be planets, or any beings capable of staying on planets to evolve into EMAs. And so it seems that some similar law or force is necessary for the existence of EMAs.

4.1.2 The strong nuclear force
This is the force which binds neutrons and protons in atomic nuclei together, and which has to overcome the electromagnetic repulsion between protons. However, it must also have an extremely short range to limit atom size, and so its force must diminish much more rapidly than gravity or electromagnetism. If not, its sheer strength (1040 times the strength of gravity between neutrons and protons in a nucleus) would attract all the matter in the universe together to form a giant black hole. If this kind of short-range, extremely strong force (or something similar) did not exist, the kind of chemical complexity needed for life and for star sustenance (by nuclear fusion) would not be possible. Again, then, this kind of law is necessary for the existence of EMAs.

4.1.3 Electromagnetism
Electromagnetic forces are the primary attractive forces between electrons and nuclei, and thus are critical for atomic stability. Moreover, energy transmission from stars would be impossible without some similar force, and thus there could be no stable energy source for life, and hence embodied moral agents.

4.1.4 Bohr’s Quantization Rule
Danish physicist Niels Bohr proposed this at the beginning of the 20th century, suggesting that electrons can only occupy discrete orbitals around atoms. If this were not the case, then electrons would gradually reduce their energy (by radiation) and eventually (though very rapidly) lose their orbits. This would preclude atomic stability and chemical complexity, and so also preclude the existence of EMAs.

4.1.5 The Pauli Exclusion Principle
This principle, formalised in 1925 by Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli, says that no two particles with half-integer spin (fermions) can occupy the same quantum state at the same time. Since each orbital has only two possible quantum states, this implies that only two electrons can occupy each orbital. This prevents electrons from all occupying the lowest atomic orbital, and so facilitates complex chemistry.[2]

4.1.6 Conclusion
As noted, it is hard to give any quantification when discussing how probable these laws (aside from their strength) are, given different explanatory hypotheses. Similarly, there may be some doubts about the absolute necessity of some. But the fact nevertheless remains that the laws in general must be so as to allow for complex chemistry, stable energy sources and therefore the complex materiality needed for embodied moral agents. And it is far from clear that any arrangement or form of laws in a material universe would be capable of doing this. There has to be a particular kind of materiality, with laws comparable to these, in order for the required chemical and therefore biological complexity. So, though there is not the kind of precision and power found in support for F in this case as there is for the values of the constants of physics or for the initial conditions of the universe, it can yet reasonably be said that F obtains for the laws of nature.

4.2 The constants of physics

In the laws of physics, there are certain constants which have a particular value – these being constant, as far as we know, throughout the universe. Generally, the value of the constant tends to determine the strength of a particular force, or something equivalent. An example, mentioned previously, is the gravitational constant, in Newton’s equation: F = Gm1m2/r². The value of the gravitational constant thus, along with the masses and distance between them, determines the force of gravity.

Following Collins, I will call a constant fine-tuned “if the width of its life-permitting range, Wr, is very small in comparison to the width, WR, of some properly chosen comparison range: that is, Wr/WR << 1.” This will be explicated more fully later, but for now we will use standard comparison ranges in physics. An approximation to a standard measure of force strengths is comparing the strength of the different forces between two protons in a nucleus – these will have electromagnetic, strong nuclear and gravitational forces all acting between them and so provides a good reference frame for some of our comparison ranges. Although the cases of the cosmological and gravitational constants are perhaps the two most solid cases of fine tuning, I will also briefly consider three others: the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force and the proton/neutron mass difference.

4.2.1 The gravitational constant
Gravity is a relatively weak force, just 1/1040 of the strength of the strong nuclear force. And it turns out that this relative weakness is crucial for life. Consider an increase in its strength by a factor of 109: in this kind of world, any organism close to our size would be crushed. Compare then, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees’ statement that “In an imaginary strong gravity world, even insects would need thick legs to support them, and no animals could get much larger”. If the force of gravity were this strong, a planet which had a gravitational pull one thousand times the size of Earth’s would only be twelve metres in diameter – and it is inconceivable that even this kind of planet could sustain life, let alone a planet any bigger.

Now, a billion-fold increase seems like a large increase – indeed it is, compared to the actual value of the gravitational constant. But there are two points to be noted here. Firstly, that the upper life-permitting bound for the gravitational constant is likely to be much lower than 109 times the current value. Indeed, it is extraordinarily unlikely that the relevant kind of life, viz. embodied moral agents, could exist with the strength of gravity being any more than 3,000 times its current value, since this would prohibit stars from lasting longer than a billion years (compared with our sun’s current age of 4.5 billion years). Further, relative to other parameters, such as the Hubble constant and cosmological constant, it has been argued that a change in gravity’s strength by “one part in 1060 of its current value” would mean that “the universe would have either exploded too quickly for galaxies and stars to form, or collapsed back in on itself too quickly for life to evolve.” But secondly, and more pertinently, both these increases are minute compared with the total range of force strengths in nature – the maximum known being that of the strong nuclear force. This does not seem to be any consistency in supposing that gravity could have been this strong; this seems like a natural upper bound to the potential strength of forces in nature. But compared to this, even a billion-fold increase in the force of gravity would represent just one part in 1031 of the possible increases.

We do not have a comparable estimate for the lower life-permitting bound, but we do know that there must be some positive gravitational force, as demonstrated above. Setting a lower bound of 0 is even more generous to fine tuning detractors than the billion-fold upper limit, but even these give us an exceptionally small value for Wr/WR, in the order of 1/1031.

4.2.2 The cosmological constant
As Collins puts it, “the smallness of the cosmological constant is widely regarded as the single greatest problem confronting current physics and cosmology.” The cosmological constant, represented by Λ, was hypothesised by Albert Einstein as part of his modified field equation. The idea is that Λ is a constant energy density of space which acts as a repulsive force – the more positive Λ is, the more gravity would be counteracted and thus the universe would expand. If Λ is too negative, the universe would have collapsed before star/galaxy formation while, if Λ is too positive, the universe would have expanded at a rate that similarly precluded star/galaxy formation. The difficulty encountered is that the vacuum energy density is supposed to act in an equivalent way to the cosmological constant, and yet the majority of posited fields (e.g. the inflaton field, the dilaton field, Higgs fields) in physics contribute (negatively or positively) to this vacuum energy density orders of magnitude higher than the life-permitting region would allow. Indeed, estimates of the contribution from these fields have given values ranging from 1053 to 10120 times the maximum life-permitting value of the vacuum energy density, ρmax.

As an example, consider the inflaton field, held to be primarily responsible for the rapid expansion in the first 10-35 to 10-37 seconds of the universe. Since the initial energy density of the inflaton field was between 1053ρmax and 10123ρmax, there is an enormous non-arbitrary, natural range of possible values for the inflaton field and for Λeff.[3] And so the fact that Λeff < Λmax represents some quite substantial fine tuning – clearly, at least, Wr/WR is very small in this case.

Similarly, the initial energy density of the Higgs field was extremely high, also around 1053ρmax. According to the Weinberg-Salem-Glashow theory, the electromagnetic and weak forces in nature merge to become an electroweak force at extremely high temperatures, as was the case shortly after the Big Bang. Weinberg and Salem introduced the “Higgs mechanism” to modern particle physics, whereby symmetry breaking of the electroweak force causes changes in the Higgs field, so that the vacuum density of the Higgs field dropped from 1053ρmax to an extremely small value, such that Λeff < Λmax.

The final major contribution to Λvac is from the zero-point energies of the fields associated with forces and elementary particles (e.g. the electromagnetic force). If space is a continuum, calculations from quantum field theory give this contribution as infinite. However, quantum field theory is thought to be limited in domain, such that it is only appropriately applied up to certain energies. However, unless this “cutoff energy” is extremely low, then there is considerable fine tuning necessary. Most physicists consider a low cutoff energy to be unlikely, and the cutoff energy is more typically taken to be the Planck energy. But if this is the case, then we would expect the energy contribution from these fields to be around 10120ρmax. Again, this represents the need for considerable fine tuning of Λeff.

One proposed solution to this is to suggest that the cosmological constant must be 0 – this would presumably be less than Λmax, and gives a ‘natural’ sort of value for the effective cosmological constant, since we can far more plausibly offer some reasons for why a particular constant has a value of 0 than for why it would have a very small, arbitrary value (given that the expected value is so large). Indeed, physicist Victor Stenger writes,

…recent theoretical work has offered a plausible non-divine solution to the cosmological constant problem. Theoretical physicists have proposed models in which the dark energy is not identified with the energy of curved space-time but rather with a dynamical, material energy field called quintessence. In these models, the cosmological constant is exactly 0, as suggested by a symmetry principle called supersymmetry. Since 0 multiplied by 10120 is still 0, we have no cosmological constant problem in this case. The energy density of quintessence is not constant but evolves along with the other matter/energy fields of the universe. Unlike the cosmological constant, quintessence energy density need not be fine-tuned.

As Stenger seems to recognise, the immediate difficulty with this is that the effective cosmological constant is not zero. We do not inhabit a static universe – our universe is expanding at an increasing rate, and so the cosmological constant must be small and positive. But this lacks the explanatory elegance of a zero cosmological constant, and so the problem reappears – why is it that the cosmological constant is so small compared to its range of possible values? Moreover, such an explanation would have to account for the extremely large cosmological constant in the early universe – if there is some kind of natural reason for why the cosmological constant has to be 0, it becomes very difficult to explain how it could have such an enormous value just after the Big Bang. And so, as Collins puts it, “if there is a physical principle that accounts for the smallness of the cosmological constant, it must be (1) attuned to the contributions of every particle to the vacuum energy, (2) only operative in the later stages of the evolution of the cosmos (assuming inflationary cosmology is correct), and (3) something that drives the cosmological constant extraordinarily close to zero, but not exactly zero, which would itself seem to require fine-tuning. Given these constraints on such a principle, it seems that, if such a principle exists, it would have to be “well-design” (or “fine-tuned”) to yield a life-permitting cosmos. Thus, such a mechanism would most likely simply reintroduce the issue of design at a different level.”

Stenger’s proposal, then, involves suggesting that Λvac + Λbare = 0 by some natural symmetry, and thus that 0 < Λeff = Λq < Λmax. It is questionable whether this solves the problem at all – plausibly, it makes it worse. Quintessence alone is not clearly less problematic than the original problem, both on account of its remarkable ad hoc-ness and its own need for fine tuning. As Lawrence Krauss notes, “As much as I like the word, none of the theoretical ideas for this quintessence seems compelling. Each is ad hoc. The enormity of the cosmological constant problem remains.” Or, see Kolda and Lyth’s conclusion that “quintessence seems to require extreme fine tuning of the potential V(φ)” – their position that ordinary inflationary theory does not require fine tuning demonstrates that they are hardly fine-tuning sympathisers. And so it is not at all clear that Stenger’s suggestion that quintessence need not be fine tuned is a sound one. Quintessence, then, has the same problems as the cosmological constant, as well as generating the new problem of a zero cosmological constant.

There is much more to be said on the problem of the cosmological constant, but that is outside the scope of this article. For now, it seems reasonable to say, contra Stenger, that Wr/WR << 1 and therefore that F obtains for the value of the cosmological constant.

4.2.3 The electromagnetic force
As explicated in 4.2.1, the strong nuclear force is the strongest of the four fundamental forces in nature, and is roughly equal to 1040G0, where G0 is the force of gravity. The electromagnetic force is roughly 1037G0, a fourteen-fold increase in which would inhibit the stability of all elements required for carbon-based life. Indeed, a slightly larger increase would preclude the formation of any elements other than hydrogen. Taking 1040G0 as a natural upper bound for the possible theoretical range of forces in nature, then, we have a value for Wr/WR of (14 x 1037)/1040 = 0.014, and therefore Wr/WR << 1. See also 4.2.4 for an argument that an even smaller increase would most probably prevent the existence of embodied moral agents.

4.2.4 The strong nuclear force
It has been suggested that the strength of the strong nuclear force is essential for carbon-based life, with the most forceful evidence for a very low Wr/WR value coming from work by Oberhummer, Csótó and Schlattl. Since we are taking the strength of the strong nuclear force (that is, 1040G0) as the upper theoretical limit (though I think a higher theoretical range is plausible), our argument here will have to depend on a hypothetical decrease in the strength of the strong nuclear force. This, I think, is possible. In short, the formation of appreciable amounts of both carbon and oxygen in stars was first noted by Fred Hoyle to depend on several factors, including the position of the 0+ nuclear resonance states in carbon, the positioning of a resonance state in oxygen, and 8Be’s exceptionally long lifetime. These, in turn, depend on the strengths of the strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force. And thus, Oberhummer et al concluded,

[A] change of more than 0.5% in the strength of the strong interaction or more than 4% in the strength of the [electromagnetic] force would destroy either nearly all C or all O in every star. This implies that irrespective of stellar evolution the contribution of each star to the abundance of C or O in the [interstellar medium] would be negligible. Therefore, for the above cases the creation of carbon-based life in our universe would be strongly disfavoured.

Since a 0.5% decrease in the strong nuclear force strength would prevent the universe from permitting the existence of EMAs, then, it seems we can again conclude that F obtains for the strong nuclear force.

4.2.5 The proton/neutron mass difference
Our final example is also related to nuclear changes in stars, and concerns the production of helium. Helium production depends on production of deuterium (hydrogen with a neutron added to the proton in the nucleus), the nucleus of which (a deuteron) is formed by the following reaction:

Proton + proton -> deuteron + positron + electron neutrino + 0.42 MeV of energy

Subsequent positron/electron annihilation causes a release of around 1 MeV of additional energy. The feasibility of this reaction depends on its exothermicity, but if the neutron were heavier by 1.4 MeV (around 1/700 of its actual mass) it would no longer be an exothermic reaction. Thus, it seems plausible to suggest that we have another instance of fine tuning here, where a change in 1 part in 700 of the mass of the neutron would prohibit life.

4.2.6 Conclusion
In contrast with the fine tuning of the laws of nature, we here have some reasonable quantitative estimates for the fine tuning of the universe. We have relatively reliable judgments on the life-permitting range of values for the different constants, along with some non-arbitrary, natural comparison ranges. This allows us to calculate (albeit crudely) some measures of Wr/WR, and therefore to establish the veracity of F for several different constants of physics. Several things must be noted here: firstly, that we have been relatively generous to detractors in our estimations (where they have been given in full, e.g. in 4.2.3) – it is likely that the life-permitting ranges for each of these constants is smaller than we have intimated here.

Secondly, we need not assume that all of these values for constants are independent of each other. It may be that some instances of fine tuned constants are all closely linked, such that the proton/neutron mass difference is dependent on, for example, the strong nuclear force. Indeed, there are almost certainly different examples of fine tuning given in wider literature which cannot be considered independent examples of fine tuning. To this end, I have tried to present examples from as wide a range as possible, and for which claims of interdependence are entirely speculative and hopeful, rather than grounded in evidence. Moreover, even the serial dependence of each of these on another does not provide a solution – we would still be left with one fine tuned constant, for which Wr/WR is extremely small. This alone would be sufficient to justify premise 2. What would be needed to undercut all these different instances of fine tuning is some natural function which not only explained all of them, but which was itself significantly more likely (on a similar probabilistic measure) to generate life-permitting values for all the constants when considered in its most simple form.[4]

Finally, we are not assuming that, on the theistic model, the constants are directly set by a divine act of God. It may well be dependent on a prior physical mechanism which itself may have been instantiated directly by God, or which may be dependent on yet another physical process. So, for example, if quintessence did turn out to be well substantiated, this would be perfectly compatible with the design hypothesis, and would not diminish the argument from fine tuning. All it would mean is that the need for fine tuning would be pushed back a step. Quintessence may, in turn, be dependent on another fine-tuned process, and so on. Thus, we need not consider caricatures of the fine tuning argument which suppose that advocates envisage a universe all but finished, with just a few constants (like those discussed above) left to put in place, before God miraculously tweaks these forces and masses to give the final product.

It therefore seems to me to be abundantly clear that F obtains for the constants of physics, and thus that premise 4 is true. The argument that F obtains in this case seems to me far clearer than in the case of the laws of nature – if one is inclined to accept the argument of section 4.1, it follows a fortiori that the argument of 4.2 is sound.

4.3 The initial conditions of the universe

Our final type of fine tuning is that of the initial conditions of the universe. In particular, the exceedingly low entropy at the beginning of the universe has become especially difficult to explain without recourse to some kind of fine tuning. Though arguments have been made for the necessity of fine tuning of other initial conditions, we will limit our discussion here to the low entropy state as elaborated by, among others, Roger Penrose. In short, this uses the idea of phase space – a measure of the possible configurations of mass-energy in a system. If we apply the standard measure of statistical mechanics to find the probability of the early universe’s entropy occupying the particular volume of phase space compatible with life, we come up with an extraordinarily low figure. As Penrose explains, “In order to produce a universe resembling the one in which we live, the Creator would have to aim for an absurdly tiny volume of the phase space of possible universes” – this is in the order of 1/10x, where x = 10123, based on Penrose’s calculations. Here, again, the qualifications of 4.2.6 apply, viz. that it may be the case (indeed, probably is) that the initial condition is dependent on some prior process, and that the theistic hypothesis is not necessarily envisaging a direct interference by God. The responses to these misconceptions of the fine tuning argument are detailed there. It seems, then, as though we have some additional evidence for premise 4 here, evidence with substantial force.

4.4 Conclusion

In sum, then, I think we have given good reason to accept premise 4 of the basic argument. This is that the laws of nature, the constants of physics and the initial conditions of the universe must have a very precise form or value for the universe to permit the existence of embodied life. I note that the argument would still seemingly hold even if one of these conditions obtained, though I think we have good reason to accept the whole premise. We have found, at least for the constants of physics and the initial conditions of the universe, that the life-permitting range is extremely small relative to non-arbitrary, standard physical comparison ranges, and that this is quantifiable in many instances. Nevertheless, it has not been the aim of this section to establish a sound comparison range that will come later. The key purpose of this section was to give a scientific underpinning to the premise, give an introduction to the scientific issues involved and the kinds of fine tuning typically thought to be pertinent.

We have seen that attempts to explain the fine tuning typically only move the fine tuning back a step or, worse still, amplify the problem, and we have little reason to expect this pattern to change. One such attempt, quintessence, was discussed in section 4.2.2, and was demonstrated to require similar fine tuning to the cosmological constant value it purportedly explained. Moreover, quintessence, in particular, raised additional problems that were not present previously. Though we have not gone into detail on purported explanations of other examples, it ought to be noted that these tend to bring up the same problems.

A wide range of examples have been considered, such that claims of interdependence of all the variables are entirely conjectural. As explained in 4.2.6, even if there was serial dependence of the laws, constants and conditions on each other, there would still be substantial fine tuning needed, with the only way to avoid this being an even more fundamental, natural law for which an equiprobability measure would yield a relatively high value for Wr/WR, and of which all our current fundamental laws are a direct function. The issue of dependence will be discussed further in a later section.

Finally, it will not suffice to come up with solutions to some instances of fine tuning and extrapolate this to the conclusion that all of them must have a solution. I have already noted that some cases of fine tuning in wider literature (and plausibly in this article) cannot be considered independent cases – that does not warrant us in making wild claims, far beyond the evidence, that all the instances will eventually be resolved by some grand unified theory. It is likely that some putative examples of fine tuning may turn out to be seriously problematic examples in the future – that does not mean that they all are. As Leslie puts it, “clues heaped upon clues can constitute weighty evidence despite doubts about each element in the pile”.

I conclude, therefore, that we are amply justified in accepting premise 4 of the basic fine tuning argument, as outlined in section 3.2.

Footnotes

2. It is likely that the laws mentioned in 4.1.4 and 4.1.5 are dependent on more fundamental laws governing quantum mechanics. See 4.2.6 and 4.4 for brief discussions of this. ^

3. This is the effective cosmological constant, which we could say is equal to Λvac + Λbare + Λq, where Λvac is the contribution to Λ from the vacuum energy density, Λbare is the intrinsic value of the cosmological constant, and Λq is the contribution from quintessence – this will be returned to. ^

4. See later for the assumption of natural variables when assigning probabilities. ^

Contents

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Some preliminaries on formulation

Part 3: The basic shape of the argument

Part 4: Justifying premise 4

Part 5: Justifying premise 5

Full defence of the fine-tuning argument: Part 3

3. The basic shape of the argument

3.1 Definitions

Let F be the proposition that the laws of nature, the constants of physics and the initial conditions of the universe must have a very precise form or value for the universe to permit the existence of embodied moral agents (EMAs).
Let EPU be the proposition there exists a material, spatiotemporal domain which permits the existence of embodied moral agents.
Let NSU be the proposition that there exists one (and only one) universe in which the laws and constants of physics are roughly similar throughout.
Let T be the proposition that there exists an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, personal being who is modally prior to the universe and thus transcends it.

3.2 The argument

P1) The restricted likelihood principle is sound.
P2) EPU obtains.
P3) T was advocated prior to the discovery of F, and has independent motivation.
P4) F obtains.
P5) If F, then the conditional epistemic probability P(EPU|NSU & k’) << 1.
P6) If F, then the conditional epistemic probability P(EPU|T & k’) is not much, much less than 1. That is, ¬[(EPU|T & k’) << 1].
C) Therefore, necessarily, EPU constitutes evidence for T over NSU.

Now, the first 3 premises seem uncontroversial. I have already explicated and defended the restricted Likelihood Principle in section 2, justifying premise 1. Premise 2 simply defends the truth of proposition EPU, viz. that there exists a material, spatiotemporal domain which permits the existence of embodied moral agents. It would be hard to deny this – our universe is a material, spatiotemporal domain, and we are both embodied and moral agents. Similarly, premise 3 is palpably true: theism, including the type considered here, was advocated long before F came to light (T was proposed millennia ago, F discovered in the last few decades) and has other, sincere putative arguments in support, even if the arguments turn out not to be sound. So the conclusion of the argument rests on the latter 3 premises. I will attempt to justify each of these in turn, but first, a word about the conclusion.

This is a relatively limited conclusion, of course, though it is still a significant one. After I have defended premises 4, 5 and 6, I will turn to the question of whether we can make additional arguments to the conclusion that P(EPU|T & k’) > P(EPU|NM & k’), where NM represents the naturalistic multiverse hypothesis. After that, I will argue that, whether or not the above argument is sound, we will still be able to conclude from the core argument that P(EPU|T & k’) > P(EPU|¬T & k’), and therefore that there is evidence for T over ¬T in this argument. Finally, I will discuss how this relates to the question of P(T|EPU & k’ & F).

Contents

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Some preliminaries on formulation

Part 3: The basic shape of the argument

Part 4: Justifying premise 4

Part 5: Justifying premise 5

Full defence of the fine-tuning argument: Part 2

2. Some preliminaries on formulation

2.1 The Likelihood Principle

This version of the argument will use the Likelihood Principle (LP) – this roughly states that, if some observation O is to be expected under a hypothesis h1, and if it not to be expected (or expected to a lesser extent) under h2, then O counts as evidence in favour of h1 over h2. This is not to say that h1 is made more overall probable than not, nor even that h1 is overall more probable than h2. It is only to say that O confirms h1 over h2.

More formally, then, the likelihood principle says that if the conditional probability P(O|h1 & k’) > P(O|h2 & k’) – where k’ represents appropriately chosen background information[1] – then h1 is confirmed over h2. It is not necessarily the case, however, that P(h1|O & k’) > 0.5 or that P(h1|O & k’) > P(h2|O & k’). Similarly, ¬h1 can be substituted for h2 so that, if a particular observation is more likely given h1 than given ¬h1, then h1 is confirmed over ¬h1, and thus h1 is made more probable than otherwise. This demonstrates quite neatly how one might use the fine tuning argument in a Bayesian framework, where P(h1|O & k’) = [P(h1|k’)·P(O|h1 & k’)]/P(O|k’). Here, P(h1|k’) represents the prior probability of h1 – the probability of h1 being true based on the background information alone. It follows from Bayes’ Theorem that, if P(O|h1 & k’) > P(O|¬h1 & k), and therefore P(O|h1 & k’) > P(O|k’), then P(h1|O & k’) > P(h1|k’). That is, the probability of h1, given O, is greater than it was before O was considered. Thus, O constitutes some evidence for h1. Note also that the ratio P(O|h1 & k’)/P(O|k’) determines the degree to which h1 is confirmed, and thus the strength of the evidence. The main point of contention with Bayesian arguments is their use of prior probability – it is a controversial issue as to how meaningful prior probability is, and how it can be reliably judged. If one is happy with prior probability and Bayesian arguments, then the argument can be interpreted as Bayesian. If not, then one can avoid the problematic issue of prior probability by simply using the Likelihood Principle.

The Likelihood Principle is relatively uncontroversial, and seems to me a foundational aspect of our reasoning about the world. When we talk about evidence for a hypothesis, what we generally mean is the observation of things which we would expect to observe if the hypothesis were true, and which we would expect less if the hypothesis were not true. Thus, fingerprints of X at a crime scene ‘confirm’ X’s culpability – if X were guilty, we would expect there to be fingerprints, and this would be less likely if X were not guilty. This does not prove culpability conclusively, but it does constitute some evidence. The LP is used in prospective, experimental science (through prediction) and in retrospective, historical science; the latter will be of relevance for the ‘old evidence’ problem, as well as the ‘anthropic principle’ objection. The principle is exemplified most strongly in prospective science: we consider a hypothesis h, and make predictions based on what we would expect if the hypothesis were true. We then perform experiments to see if the predictions are correct. If they are, then we have an observation which satisfies the LP criterion. If they are not, then the hypothesis is disconfirmed. But, importantly, the principle is also fundamental to retrospective science. Much evidence for scientific study of the past is not found through experiment, but through discovery. Thus, fossils often constitute evidence for Darwinism despite not being the result of human experiment. This is because, if Darwinism were true, we would expect to find certain types of fossils, especially compared to the likelihood of finding them if Darwinism were not true. It does not matter that this evidence was not found through prospective prediction and experiment – it still constitutes evidence.

2.2 Objections

Though the LP is uncontroversial, there are two objections that might be made, and which invite clarification. The first is that this seems to suggest that absurd, ad hoc hypotheses are confirmed by certain observations. For example, the fact that the lottery numbers this past week were 4, 10, 37, 41 and 49 is more likely given that there is an omnipotent, invisible hippopotamus who has a proclivity towards making lotteries come up with those results, than it is otherwise. But does it not seem counter-intuitive to suggest that this confirms the hypothesis? I do not think so. For any hypothesis with such arbitrary contingencies has an extraordinarily low prior probability, such that even the very strong evidence here would be insufficient to make it all probable. But, even if theism has a reasonably low prior probability, it does not seem at all clear that it has a comparably low prior probability, since it does not incorporate similarly arbitrary contingencies.

Though I think it ought, this account of prior probability may not satisfy a non-Bayesian, and so we might tackle the problem by creating a restricted version of the likelihood principle (cf. Collins, 2009). This excludes hypotheses which are particularly ad hoc, which have no independent motivation for their advocacy and which generate obscure contrivances in retrospect, in order to explain the observation under scrutiny. If there had been a group of hippopotamus-followers who declared, prior to the lottery, that they had good reason to believe their hero would predict these exact numbers, we would be far more inclined to take them seriously. We would not necessarily accept their claims, but we would typically give them far more credence than if it had been advanced after the fact. So I think there is good reason to accept the LP despite this purported difficulty.

Secondly, the LP (along with Bayes’ Theorem) has been criticised for its lack of quantitative precision – but this seems trivial. We can’t give exact numerical values to the probability of finding particular fossils (PF) given Darwinism (D) and given ¬D, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t roughly compare the probabilities: we can still say that P(PF|D & k’) > P(PF|¬D & k’) and therefore that PF constitutes evidence for D. To undermine the LP, then, would undermine much of the scientific enterprise, as well as an enormous deal of our ordinary, elementary reasoning.

Footnotes

1. Which background information this includes will be discussed in a later section. ^

Contents

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Some preliminaries on formulation

Part 3: The basic shape of the argument

Part 4: Justifying premise 4

Part 5: Justifying premise 5

Full defence of the fine-tuning argument

Part 1: Introduction

Here I attempt an in-depth, comprehensive defence of the fine tuning argument. Before accusations of plagiarism, I note that I draw heavily on the work of Robin Collins here, though I have presented it in my own words and with my own examples, and the defences against objections will be largely my own. I will argue that the form and constant-values of the laws of physics, as well as the initial conditions of the universe, provide evidence for theism over the naturalistic single universe hypothesis (NSU), and over atheism. I have attempted to lay it out as clearly as possible so that, for example, if one already agrees with premise 4 of the argument, one can skip that section entirely and read the rest as free standing.

Contents

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Some preliminaries on formulation

Part 3: The basic shape of the argument

Part 4: Justifying premise 4

Part 5: Justifying premise 5

Millican and fine-tuning

Millican and Fine Tuning

Here is the letter I wrote to Prof. Peter Millican after his debate with William Lane Craig, asking him for his thoughts on a Collins-ian fine tuning argument. Hopefully the beginning of an extended dialogue on it!

Dear Peter,

I hope you’re well – was good to see you again briefly at the Sheldonian the other week! Sorry I’ve taken a while to write, I’ve spent the last week in hospital for my leg, so have had lots to catch up on. There were a few things we talked about (Galileo, Genesis, etc.) but for now I’d like to hear your thoughts on the following kind of fine tuning argument, which follows Robin Collins’ work very closely (some of it being verbatim). I much prefer a probabilistic approach, which I think this kind of version exemplifies. I’ll try to keep it brief, though this will inevitably be at the expense of some cogency and completeness:

F = the laws and values of the constants of physics, and the initial conditions of any universe with the same laws as our universe, must be set in a seemingly very precise way for the universe to support life.
LPU = there exists a material spatiotemporal reality that can support embodied moral agents, not merely life of some sort.
NSU = there is only one universe, the existence of which is an unexplained, brute given, and that within that universe the laws and constants of physics do not significantly vary from one space-time region to another.
T = there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, everlasting or eternal, perfectly free creator of the universe whose existence does not depend on anything outside itself.

1) F obtains.
2) Given F, LPU is very, very epistemically unlikely under NSU, that is, P(LPU|NSU & k’) << 1, where k’ represents some appropriately chosen background information.
3) Given F, LPU is not very, very epistemically unlikely under T, that is, ¬[P(LPU|T & k’) << 1].
4) T was advocated prior to the discovery of F, and has independent motivation.

If these were true (and LPU obtains), it would seem to follow, given the restricted likelihood principle (i.e. the likelihood principle, but with ad hoc hypotheses excluded), that LPU strongly supports T over NSU. Arguably, this can be extended to the conclusion that LPU also supports T over ¬T, and hence provides some evidence for T – though this would not make any claim about whether T was overall more probable than not.

Now, (4) seems palpably true – theism was advocated long before F came to light, and has other sincere putative arguments in support, even if they also fail. Similarly, LPU clearly obtains. So the potential problems will be justifying the first three premises.

Premise 1

This can come in 3 forms – the laws of nature, the constants of physics and the initial conditions of the universe. I’ll save spelling out the details, and simply assert that it seems probable, given a material universe, that this universe would have to have very particular parameters to be capable of sustaining life. It seems that laws comparable to those of gravity, the strong nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, Bohr’s rule of quantization and the Pauli Exclusion Principle are necessary for the specific kind of materiality needed for embodied moral agents. Similarly, the life permitting range of many values of the constants of physics (e.g. the strength of gravity, and the cosmological constant) seems to be a small proportion of the epistemically illuminated comparison range (i.e. that range for which we can determine whether a particular value for the constant would be life permitting). And, finally, the extraordinarily low entropy at the beginning of the universe seems to be a very strict requirement for LPU. For brevity, I’ll leave it here – but do let me know if you see this premise as one of the more contentious points, and perhaps then I can go into greater detail.

Premise 2

Obviously a lot of work has to be done here in developing the notion of epistemic probability, defining background information adequately and coming up with some way of judging epistemic probability without always having clear quantitative measures. But it does not seem as though quantitative measures are strictly necessary, and that there is quite a large, yet rational, role for intuition in many instances. As Collins puts it, “[i]n science, many times epistemic probability is determined by an appeal to intuition … for example, those arising in conjunction with the Thesis of Common Ancestry, continental drift theory, and atomic theory. These probabilities clearly were not justified by an appeal to statistical improbability – for example, we have no statistics regarding the relative frequency of life on a planet having those features cited in favour of evolution either under the evolutionary hypothesis or under some nonevolutionary hypothesis. Indeed, these judgments of epistemic probability were never rigorously justified in any way. Rather, after (we hope) doing their best job of looking at the evidence, scientists and laypersons made judgments of what kind of world we should expect under each hypothesis, and then they simply trusted these judgments. This sort of trust in our judgments of epistemic probability is a pervasive and indispensable features of our intellectual life … Of course, the more widely shared these judgments are by those who are relevantly informed, the more seriously we take them. In this regard, it should be noted that, given the fine-tuning data, the judgment that LPU is surprising under naturalism is widely shared by intelligent, informed individuals, as evidenced by the various attempts to account for it, such as the multiverse hypothesis.”

Moreover, I think we can reasonably have some rough quantitative evidence. The restricted principle of indifference would be that “when we have no reason to prefer any one value [or range of values] of a variable p over another in some range R, we should assign equal epistemic probabilities to equal ranges of p that are in R, given that p constitutes a “natural variable””. This seems to me reasonable, and would allow us to come up with some crude quantitative measure for the constants of physics and, arguably, the initial conditions of the universe. When we use this principle, it does indeed turn out that the probability of getting a life permitting value for a constant is particularly low on NSU, which seems to justify this premise. The only problem here might be the normalizability problem as explained by McGrew, McGrew and Vestrup – that is, the difficulty of assigning these probabilities when the comparison range is infinite. This does not seem to me to be a problem, both because we can choose a non-arbitrary comparison range (for example, the epistemically illuminated region, or the ‘level’ of physics in which a particular law/constant makes sense – it is dubitable whether it makes sense for the strong nuclear force to be 10^1000 times its current strength, and in any case we cannot know to any reliable extent what would happen if it was increased that much, and so we can limit our comparison range to a maximum of 10^1000 times the current strength) and because I’m not entirely convinced that there can be no assigning of epistemic probability given an infinite range.

Premise 2, therefore, seems to me to be correct. The background information is most relevant in discussions of the anthropic principle, but if I have understood your position (only from your debate), then you don’t think this would have much force as an objection unless it was conjoined with the multiverse hypothesis. That is, I think you would agree that we can reasonably exclude the information “we exist” from the background information.

Premise 3

This is not a particularly strong claim – only that it is not as extremely improbable on T (relative to NSU) that LPU would obtain. All that needs to be done to justify it, I think, is to give some plausible reason why God might prefer a universe that contained embodied moral agents, ceteris paribus. This is easily done – embodied moral agents, plausibly, contribute to the overall moral and aesthetic value of reality, and they are a unique good which a good god (ex hypothesi) would plausibly want to bring about.

Your objections

I note that your rejection of the fine tuning argument in your debate with Bill wasn’t immediately dismissive or brash, as it could well have been. It seemed to emphasise caution and scepticism of the argument rather than anything else, but you did proffer some potential points of contention. I’ll try to look at where these fit in and address them, respectively.

“No idea of the range of possible scenarios” – this seems to address the issue of appropriately chosen comparison ranges, and could be dealt with as follows: contrarily, we do have some idea of the range of possible scenarios – we have a natural limit to our varying the constants of physics beyond particular points, and it is questionable whether varying them beyond that would make sense. Indeed, the epistemically illuminated region and the “proper level of physics” provide two examples of possible non-arbitrary comparison limits. In any case, we do know that there is a comparison range which is at least very large and finite – it is epistemically possible (excluding our antecedent knowledge to the contrary), for example, that the force of gravity be 10 times its actual strength. The question then becomes whether the comparison range is very large and finite or infinite. But, unless one thinks that the aforementioned normalizability problem (for an infinite range) is substantive, it is difficult to see how this would diminish the force of the argument. If the comparison range is large and finite, then the epistemic probability of LPU on NSU is very small – if the comparison range is infinite, then the epistemic probability of LPU on NSU is smaller still, and so the argument would still work. What matters is whether or not there is a large comparison range which is not life-permitting, and this does seem to be the case.

Of course, your objection might be that there might be possible universes far beyond the epistemically illuminated region which are life-permitting. But the response to this could be two-fold: firstly, that the epistemically illuminated region is a sample of possible universes, and therefore (by the same rules of normal sampling in science) ought to be taken as at least indicative of the density of life permitting universes unless we have reason to believe that there is a bias – that they are more abundant outside of the EI region. But we have no reason to believe this, and we even have evidence against it, viz. that the universe in which we exist is likely to be in a group of universes which are more propitious for life. So, although it is clearly a very limited sample, I don’t think this objection holds much weight. But secondly, it is not clear why we could not include the information Q, that the universe’s constants fall into the EI region somewhere, in our background information k’. Unless Q is intrinsically biased towards theism, then its modal priority (or lack of posteriority) to LPU should allow us to include it in the background information. In that case, the argument would be that P(LPU|NSU & k’ & Q) << 1, and that P(LPU|T & k’ & Q) is not comparably low. This would entirely avoid the objection, and is not an evident abuse of the likelihood principle or epistemic probability.

I’ve realised that I’ve probably given you plenty to read through already, so will save my response to your other objections for the future – all I would note now is that this formulation of the design argument makes those objections difficult to place, and may make them inapplicable. For example, this version of the design argument doesn’t claim that fine tuning supports T over anti-God, but only that it supports T over NSU (though I could conceivably extent that to T over ¬T). Some of the objections seem to be responding to the unfortunate tradition within natural theology that tried to get every argument to prove every attribute of God. Taking a quasi-Bayesian approach seems to avoid these entirely, and seems to me a lot more reasonable.

Anyway, your thoughts will be much appreciated and mulled over, and I look forward to hearing which objections you think would be most pertinent to this formulation of the fine tuning argument.

Take care, and speak soon,

Calum

Why Savita Halappanavar’s death has little or nothing to do with Irish abortion law

The tragic case of Savita Halappanavar’s death was inevitably going to be a major part of the Repeal the 8th debate. According to Repeal the 8th activists (and indeed many activists globally), Ireland’s abortion law forbade a termination in Savita’s case, leading to her death and thereby being responsible for it. The law should therefore be changed.

The above story is, however, false. This is demonstrably clear simply from reading the report on the case – written by a pro-choice advocate, Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran – although it does help to have a medical background, as I am privileged to enjoy in the United Kingdom. In this article I explain objectively why the above story is false, as well as correcting exaggerations made by some pro-life advocates on the same topic. Remaining as objective and focussed as possible, I do not seek to discuss any other issues relevant to Irish abortion law, polemics, medicine, or the like. I will not discuss relative maternal safety in Ireland, the ethics of abortion, or the character of the activists on either side. I do not intend by my terminology to imply that I agree with the standard medical terminology in this area. I use it only to be as clear as possible medically and legally.

The law as it stands

The most fundamental problem with the Repeal claims is identified clearly in Appendix A of Arulkumaran’s report: namely, that Irish law already gives legal protection to women and doctors seeking abortion in order to prevent a pregnant woman from death. Peter Finlay SC clearly lays out the legal basis for this in Constitutional, Statutory and Case Law, but since we are specifically addressing those in favour of repealing the relevant constitutional amendment, I note his key conclusions on the mother’s-life exception to the 8th Amendment.

These stem primarily from Attorney General v X & Others (1992) (the 8th Amendment was added in 1983). Finlay notes the relative clarity of the judges in this case, summed up by Chief Justice Finlay:

“I, therefore, conclude that the proper test to be applied is that if it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy, such termination is permissible, having regard to the true interpretation of Article 40, s. 3, sub-s. 3 of the Constitution.”

In 1995 Chief Justice Hamilton gave a similar judgment:

“The Attorney General v. X. [1992] 1 I.R. 1 … established that having regard to the true interpretation of the Eighth Amendment, termination of the life of the unborn is permissible if it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother and that that risk can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy.”

Finlay concludes:

“As is evident from the foregoing, a termination of pregnancy which is likely to impact adversely upon the constitutional right to life of the unborn is nevertheless lawful under the terms of Article 40.3.3° if both of the two conditions are established as a matter of probability, namely (1) that “there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as opposed to the health, of the mother” and (2) that “that risk can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy.””

The matter is, therefore, relatively closed. Irish Law does not prohibit women from abortion where the life of the woman is endangered by continuing the pregnant. So if Savita’s life was endangered by continuing the pregnancy (as, I argue later, it was – though this is very rare), the decision not to terminate was not applying the law correctly. The law is sufficient as it stands. Savita’s tragic death is not a consequence of it, and so not a reason to change it.

It is nevertheless worth commenting on the medical facts to see what, exactly, should have been done, and why this tragedy occurred. Arulkumaran does this ably, comprehensively, and for the most part clearly (there is one key ambiguity, which I shall discuss).

Let us start with one key fact, probably the only fact in the case which could be used as support for the Repeal claims. Medically speaking, in order to treat Savita to give her the best chance of survival, the foetus should have been delivered earlier (almost certainly leading to its death, as the pregnancy was only 17 weeks advanced). Thus, claims such as the following:

“Abortion is not a cure for septicaemia (or any other medical condition)” (www.savitatruth.com/errors)

are misleading. Although it is open to debate whether delivery of the foetus in this case should be characterised as ‘abortion’ (since it was almost certainly going to die anyway), and although it is technically true that abortion never cures septicaemia (infection in the bloodstream, which usually originates from one particular part of the body), and that abortion is not in general a treatment for septicaemia, it is recommended in these cases that to improve the chance of the mother’s survival, the foetus should be delivered. I will briefly relay the story of what happened until this later stage (the report is much more detailed).

The history of the case

On 21st October 2012 Savita came twice to the gynaecology ward with a history of severe back pain and a sensation of something ‘coming down’ in her pelvis. She was seen by the registrar whose assessment was that she was likely suffering an impending (and inevitable) miscarriage. On 22nd October at 00:30 she suffered a spontaneous rupture of her membranes and vomited. From this point, Arulkumaran notes, she was at gradually increased risk of serious intrauterine infection (infection is a common cause of SROM, and given the vomiting and elevated white cell count the previous evening it is plausible that she already had the infection at this point – at the very least it should have been in the minds of the doctors – but we cannot guarantee that she had an infection at this point). She was also increasingly likely to deliver her non-viable foetus – and it was virtually certain that she would not retain the foetus until the point of viability (around 21 weeks at the very earliest). Later that day she had an increased heart rate, a sign of systemic infection. She was prescribed antibiotics, apparently only on the grounds that she had suffered rupture of membranes and so was at risk of developing an infection. The antibiotics were started over 24 hours after presentation. The plan was to await events (in the absence of known infection) and for 4 hourly observations. These observations did not occur this regularly – a central criticism made by the report.

Early in the morning of 23rd October, Savita’s blood pressure was slightly low, another indication of possible infection. Shortly after, Savita and her husband were told that miscarriage was inevitable (though the foetus was still alive at this point). At this point, they also enquired about a termination. Then:

O&G Consultant 1 stated that the patient and her husband were advised of Irish law in relation to this. At interview the consultant stated “Under Irish law, if there’s no evidence of risk to the life of the mother, our hands are tied so long as there’s a fetal heart”. The consultant stated that if risk to the mother was to increase a termination would have been possible, but that it would be based on actual risk and not a theoretical risk of infection “we can’t predict who is going to get an infection”.

The implication seems to be here that no suspicion of an infection had yet been made despite the markers (which, granted, at this stage were still relatively subtle and non-specific). Throughout the day, however, Savita’s heart rate gradually increased significantly further beyond normal bounds. Savita felt weak that evening. She was left to sleep by the time the doctor managed to see her that night.

At 4:15AM on 24th October, Savita felt cold and shivery, an indicator of sepsis. She also vomited, confirming this. It was noted that the room was cold. She had a low grade temperature at 37.7C (i.e. slightly higher than normal, but not so clearly high as to indicate sepsis). No heart rate or blood pressure measurements were taken. At 6:30AM all observations were taken, the combination of which clearly demonstrated that Savita had (severe) sepsis – though with no indication yet of the origin of the infection. At the subsequent assessment at 7AM she exhibited tenderness in the lower abdomen, and had a ‘foul-smelling brownish discharge’ suggestive of intrauterine infection – this is important since intrauterine infections are treated very differently from other kinds of infections in the context. The diagnosis was given as likely chorioamnionitis. She was started on intravenous antibiotics and fluids. At the ward round she was diagnosed with chorioamnionitis by the consultant.

The aforementioned ambiguity lies here. Although a provisional diagnosis of chorioamnionitis was given, the consultant retrospectively confirmed to the investigation that the focus of the team was to find the source of the infection. Perhaps the most charitable way to interpret this is that they thought it was likely chorioamnionitis but still had some uncertainty. The report notes that they were explicitly awaiting a mid-stream urine sample result at this time – suggesting they were still looking for urinary tract infection as an alternative source. This is important, since RCOG guidelines say that delivery of the foetus during maternal instability (e.g. in severe sepsis) increases maternal and foetal mortality rates (and is thereby not recommended), unless the source of the infection is intrauterine (i.e. in chorioamnionitis). So if the infection were from somewhere else (e.g. her lungs), delivery of the foetus would harm both the patient and the foetus.

At this point, the consultant also retrospectively said that they did not think the patient was in septic shock (a late point in severe sepsis) because the blood pressure was OK. This was erroneous. The plan was to induce labour later in the day if the patient did not improve and if there was no foetal heartbeat present. The white cells came back shortly afterwards as very low – another sign of severe sepsis. The blood pressure by midday was low. The patient was shortly afterwards diagnosed with septic shock, likely (but still not certainly) to be secondary to chorioamnionitis.

At this stage, the infection was life-threatening, and the consultant discussed with another consultant the need for a delivery. A delivery in this context would have improved the chances of Savita surviving (though by no means made it overall likely), and if the foetus were viable, would likely have improved the chance of its survival too.  Sadly, it is virtually certain that the foetus would have died either way in this case.

Around this time, misoprostol was prescribed to induce delivery. It was not administered because Savita delivered the foetus spontaneously shortly afterwards. From this point Savita was transferred to a High Dependency Unit and then Intensive Care. Sadly, she passed away on 28th October.

Many factors contributing (and some not contributing) to Savita’s death were identified by the investigation, including: difficulty of diagnosis of sepsis in mid-pregnancy; lack of clear local or national guidelines for management of early 2nd trimester inevitable miscarriage; lack of use of Obstetric Early Warning Score Chart; delay in using empiric broad-spectrum antibiotics; lack of clear arrangements for following up blood test results; lack of attention paid to early markers of infection (e.g. raised white cell counts); lack of clear communication and handover; lack of expedition of delivery, failure to follow hospital guidelines on management of sepsis, and others. It is plainly evident to anyone studying the case that – even if Irish law is problematic in this respect – it would only be one part of a large chain of errors or failures of optimisation and so probably not the determinative factor. However, as we have seen, the law allows terminations in situations of such severity – the problem is that the clinical team did not appreciate the severity for a large variety of reasons.

Arulkumaran does note clearly that concern over the law influenced the clinical judgment of the team. It is not clear how or why this was the case, since they knew that the law allowed termination of the pregnancy in case of life-threatening emergency, and that sepsis secondary to intrauterine infection was a life-threatening emergency. Our best guess is that there was some residual uncertainty over the source of the infection making him doubt whether termination was appropriate. However, any such uncertainty about legality of termination was paralleled by uncertainty about the medical propriety of termination: as noted by the RCOG, delivery in the setting of maternal instability is not recommended unless the infection is intrauterine.

What appears to have happened in this case, then, is that there was a severely delayed recognition of the likelihood that Savita had an infection (signs of which were present very early on – infection is a common reason for spontaneous rupture of membranes and so should have been investigated straight away, and the blood tests later on the first day confirmed this), and of the likelihood of increasingly severe infection at each moment after membrane rupture occurred. There was also significantly delayed recognition of the probable cause of the sepsis as intrauterine. This meant that termination of the pregnancy was delayed and was a contributing (though by no means the causative) factor in Savita’s death.

So we are clear. Irish law permits termination of pregnancy in the case of risk to the life of the mother, and that is the situation Savita was in. The only thing to be said in favour of the Repeal claims in this case is that perhaps the law is misinterpreted by clinicians, or is ambiguous with respect to what level of risk is necessary. But clearly Savita had exceeded this level of risk far earlier than the clinical team thought – the issue is that the clinical team did not recognise the extremely high likelihood that the sepsis had an intrauterine source. These were errors of clinical judgment, with probably a small element of ambiguity over what level of risk constitutes a sufficient level. But what is clear that if Savita’s condition had been recognised appropriately in accordance with clinical standards and guidelines, termination would have legally been offered at an earlier stage. Even given the severity of her condition, however, and given the manifold clinical problems apart from a delayed offer of termination, it is far from clear whether she would have survived or not. My suspicion (though only an educated, informed clinical conjecture) is that she would not have. There were already too many delays on account of the clinical team failing to come to the right clinical diagnosis.

There is thus no reason to think that repealing the 8th Amendment would prevent similar situations happening again, and no reason to think that the 8th Amendment is to blame for this case. If there is any problem with the law (which I doubt, but that is not the topic of discussion), it is a problem of ambiguity, not a problem of substance. But that can be amended without repealing the law, since clearly the law already allows for termination when the mother’s life is at risk. I leave it to my readers to decide on the basis of other evidence whether or not the 8th Amendment should be repealed: but this case is certainly no help to determining the answer.

Response to Biggs et al. on mental health and abortion

M. Antonia Biggs et al. recently published a study on mental health and abortion showing (again) that there is negligible evidence that abortion improves mental health. In this case, it has mostly been spun in the context of undermining laws requiring physicians to explain the mental health risks of abortion to women considering one. I sent a letter to the editor of JAMA Psychiatry, where it was published, which was rejected. So instead of letting the effort go to waste I thought I might as well post it here:

A recent article in JAMA Psychiatry1 argues, inter alia, that ‘there is no evidence to justify laws that require women seeking abortion to be forewarned about negative psychological responses.’ While the paper is a valuable contribution to the field, I must register dissent from this conclusion.

Firstly, despite the authors’ own study showing no significant difference in mental health outcomes between the relevant groups, the overall picture is more equivocal. Most pertinently, the authors introduce their study by way of a sweeping conclusion that ‘Studies finding a negative effect on women’s mental health owing to abortion have been critically refuted.’ But this is hardly the case, since some of the most widely acclaimed studies—those of Fergusson et al.2-4—suggest precisely the opposite conclusion. The authors are surely cognisant of Fergusson’s work, yet there is not a single criticism of any of his studies in any of the references the authors here adduce (there is one brief, indirect allusion to the 2008 study, which nevertheless went unrefuted). Criticisms made almost entirely without reference to the best studies supporting the opposing view will not suffice. Moreover, they insist that their study improves on the methodological shortcomings of previous literature, omitting the facts that the specific flaws cited are addressed in Fergusson’s work, and that Fergusson offers both a more comprehensive treatment of confounding factors and a broader range of mental health disorders than do Biggs et al.

Secondly, supposing we grant the generalisability of their results, the normative conclusion still does not follow. The fact that overall rates of mental disorder may not increase after abortion does not entail that abortion does not cause mental disorder. It may be that it causes different kinds of mental disorder than does the continuation of pregnancy. The evidence does, in fact, suggest this to be the case—it is relatively uncontroversial that some psychological sequelae are abortion-specific.5 But then—just as women must weigh up the pros and cons of any other treatment using detailed relevant information, rather than simply being told that a treatment offers or does not offer ‘overall’ benefit—so they ought to be informed that abortion and continuation of pregnancy each confer their own separate mental health risks. This is consonant with and indeed supported by the authors’ claim that ‘women will vary in their responses to having an abortion or being denied an abortion’. The conclusion here is undermotivated.

References

  1. Biggs MA, Upadhyay UD, McCulloch CE, Foster DG. Women’s Mental Health and Well-being 5 Years After Receiving or Being Denied an Abortion: A Prospective, Longitudinal Cohort Study.JAMA Psychiatry. Published online December 14, 2016.
  2. 2 Fergusson, DM, Horwood LJ, Boden JM. Abortion and mental health disorders: Evidence from a 30-year longitudinal study. Br J Psychiatry. 2008; 193(6):444-51.
  3. Fergusson DM, Horwood LJ, Boden JM. Reactions to abortion and subsequent mental health. Br J Psychiatry. 2009; 195(5):420-6.
  4. Fergusson, DM, Horwood LJ, Boden JM. Does abortion reduce the mental health risks of unwanted or unintended pregnancy? A re-appraisal of the evidence. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2013; 47(9):819-27.
  5. Astbury-Ward E. Emotional and psychological impact of abortion: a critique of the literature. J Fam Plann Reprod Health Care. 2008; 34(3):181–4.

Why People Voted for Trump

Whether or not you’re happy/excited/relieved about a Trump presidency, it is important to understand why people voted that way. It is perhaps especially important the more scared you are about him – if you want to avoid it happening again, it is important that the alternative candidates and activists address the reasons he was voted in.

I am personally disinclined to accept the prevailing view in my home country (the UK) that Trump voters only did so out of racism, stupidity, or some other such disreputable reasons. Almost every single Trump voter I know (I know many) voted reluctantly, and many voted primarily against Clinton as the lesser of two evils than for Trump: given that exit polls showed Trump was still perceived more unfavourably than Clinton, these voters make up a large proportion of Trump voters. I hope that the criticisms they had of Trump in the primaries will continue to be voiced to keep him accountable. But the point is that many Trump voters recognise his horrific flaws, and voted in spite of them rather than because of them.

What follows is a Facebook post from a good friend of mine who lives in the US, where he asked his Trump-voting friends to explain why. It is better to hear it from the horse’s mouth than from anywhere else, in my view. This will not be entirely representative – my friend has a wider range of friends than anyone I know, but I don’t think anyone’s Facebook friend list is a fully representative sample of the American electorate. Nor do I think it will be comprehensive – there are (probably many) reasons people voted Trump that do not appear in this list. Some voters do not like the Democratic Party’s failure to address some problems in government such as spying through the NSA, drone strikes in the Middle East killing innocent civilians, and Guantanamo Bay. It is equally undeniable that malicious reasons like racism motivated at least some voters – a recent post-election video showed a white supremacist group celebrating Trump’s victory and claiming it would embolden them (there is not much evidence to suggest they form more than a tiny minority of Trump voters. But any proportion of white supremacists is still too high a proportion, so it is important to root it out, and equally important to acknowledge that it exists). There are also very insightful posts commenting on general trends on various media outlets. This does not cover those.. But my hope is that this list of responses will give a far deeper insight into the election result than is typically given by most of my peers and most of the UK media. I trust that, for that reason, it will both allow understanding of Trump voters and alleviate some of the antipathy towards many of them, as well as helping the country to address the issues which motivate Trump voters, so that we have a better chance of electing someone fit for the job next time around. I have anonymised the responses, but my own response (a few comments down) will be kept de-anonymised.

(A final note: I won’t add how many people liked each comments – but bear in mind that a significant number of people liked various comments, suggesting that many of the comments here are representative of the thoughts of more than just one commenter).

(A second final note: I have commented in red text and square brackets after some of the posts to explain what may be in mind with some of the unclear comments or comments which may not make sense e.g. to non-American readers. I cannot guarantee that these are the thoughts of the commenters, and I have tried to give as objective as possible clarifications).

Initial post:

Any Trump voters out there want to say what their primary reasons were for voting for Trump? Non-Trump voters please don’t comment, this is for information purposes only.

Commenter:

As a small business owner I voted for Trump to hopefully bring some sanity to the oppressive costs of the Affordable Care Act. It was also a vote against the “political establishment.” I am not a big fan of Trump the man but I like the ideas he stands for like smaller government, responsible government spending, conservative ideals hopefully leading to strict supreme court justices who adhere to a strict interpretation of the constitution…

[The Affordable Care Act was introduced during Obama’s presidency and made it mandatory to purchase health insurance, while preserving/expanding healthcare for the poor under Medicaid. Many Americans found that their insurance premiums increased dramatically and were either unable to afford the level of healthcare they previously had, or else struggled to afford it more generally.

The Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS) has really significant judicial power on a number of important social issues. So, for example, it is a Supreme Court ruling from the 1970s that is responsible for the relatively liberal abortion law all over the US. This is a ruling which cannot really be overturned by the ruling Party other than by nominating a sufficient number of new Supreme Court justices to eventually overturn the ruling. There are 9 places on the Supreme Court, and they have life tenure – only replaced when one justice dies or retires. There is currently a vacancy due to the recent death of Antonin Scalia. Because of the life tenure, the political influence of nominating Supreme Court judges potentially spans multiple generations – compared with the 4 year tenure of the President. Because of both he length of tenure and because of the power they have on issues related to the constitution (which affects law on abortion, guns, marriage, and so on) they have far more power in some important respects than even the incumbent President.]

Commenter:

In favor of term limits

[This was a response to the above post. I don’t know to what it refers, but it may refer to SCOTUS term limits. This would limit the power of SCOTUS justices, which to many people seems disproportionately great. But as far as I know, Trump has made no comment on this. He has, however, been in favour of term limits for members of Congress (similar to the Houses of Parliament). Members of Congress do not have life tenure, but they can in many cases be re-elected as many times as possible, effectively being in position for life. Trump advocated term limits as part of his ‘Drain the Swamp’ pledge, which is (in turn) part of his anti-establishment drive. The idea is that term limits put some limit on nepotism, elitism, authority, and corruption within government by limiting the amount of time a single person can serve. The proposal is unlikely not least because it would require Congress voting to set term limits on themselves.]

Commenter:

He was the Republican nominee. I’m a Republican.
I’d rather have a President that will likely pick Supreme Court Justices that I like versus a President that definitely will not.

I am generally a two issue voter, guns and taxes. Recently I’ve added abortion, but my position on that is evolving ( I used to be pro choice, not so much anymore)

I am a Republican but not necessarily a conservative, at least on many social issues. Neither is Trump particularly socially conservative.

Commenter:

Disappointingly and honestly, it was primarily anti-Hillary.

It was Supreme Court Justices, late-term abortions, Benghazi, Libya, emails, firearms, and ACA. It was her stance on oil & gas, which is my livelihood and how I provide for my 3 children and wife.

It was some pro-Trump also…small government, taxes, pro-business and entrepreneurship, less socialistic attitudes, and having a business savvy individual making smarter economic decisions.

And the last large part, I’m tired of lifetime politicians.

Trump is far from the ideal candidate, and far from a great candidate but I feel he will lead this country far better than any other candidate in this year’s election. Thus, he garnered my vote.

[Hillary Clinton was deeply unpopular for a great number of reasons, so many voters voted Trump as the lesser of two evils, and many of the main things tarring her reputation appear in this post. Democrats are typically pro-choice while Republicans are typically pro-life. There is some reason to think that liberal justices would liberalise abortion law even further, for example, legalising partial birth abortions, whereby foetuses are killed after most of their body has been delivered through the vaginal tract – for example, SCOTUS voted only narrowly in favour of the view that the government can ban partial birth abortion. This would likely have been overturned had a liberal justice replaced Scalia under Clinton.

The Benghazi incident refers to the attack on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The official response of the White House was that this was a spontaneous, unpredictable attack that resulted from anger over an anti-Islam video. A US Ambassador and three other Americans were killed. It later emerged that the attacks were pre-meditated terrorist attacks and that calls to the state department of which Clinton was in charge for extra security were rejected prior to the attack. Clinton’s opponents typically allege that when the White House described the incident as a spontaneous protest, they knew that it was a planned act of terrorism and were thus lying to the American people and to the families of those who had died.

The e-mails incident refers primarily to Hillary Clinton’s use of a non-secure server for her e-mails (including classified information) when she was supposed to use the secure government server. Her critics allege, firstly, that this seriously compromised government and potentially national security, and secondly, that she lied about using the non-secure server. The FBI found that: ‘Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information’. Finally, they allege that people in other positions who had committed the same crimes would have been charged, pointing to similar cases. They see this as part of the corruption of the establishment elite which the ‘Drain the Swamp’ movement is fighting hard against.

The e-mails have recently become about more than this, as many have been leaked via Wikileaks. There are many e-mails that have been criticised for various reasons among those, but two often thought to be particular important are her telling bankers that she had public and private views, and that she privately supports open borders and free trade. This is taken to be evidence that she is dishonest with the public. Many other e-mails have been an extra source of concern to her opponents.]

Calum:

I was close to supporting voting for him (though this is different from supporting him – it would be supporting voting for him with my nose pinched and as the lesser evils) but ultimately decided I supported abstaining completely/voting third party. But (some of) the reasons I nearly endorsed voting for him:

1) The nepotism, entitlement and corruption of the establishment is pretty incredible. The establishment is a flaming heap of turd. More dangerously, imo, a Hillary victory could have seriously compromised both the vulnerability of the political elite and the Constitution. On the former, because as far as I can tell someone not in her position who had committed similar crimes would have suffered under the penal system quite severely (whether rightly or wrongly), and on the latter because the disregard for proper interpretation of the Constitution shown by liberal SCOTUS judges seriously undermines the Constitution. I do not think the Constitution is perfect, nor do I take it as a second Bible. But in a world where liberty is now seriously at stake and the dominant narrative of inevitable progression towards freedom/democracy/yada yada has been shown to be quite demonstrably false, that there is a world superpower with a Constitution which enshrines certain important rights in law and focuses on freedom is, in fact, remarkable and important. So it is important to preserve it. I do not think the SCOTUS is doing that well.

2) More importantly, from my perspective, the Dems are quite clearly pursuing an ever more radical policy in terms of abortion. You know the arguments here and you know the issues. Trump probably won’t overturn Roe vs Wade. But a Republican Party which has stronger support for the pro-life position than in a very long time can make serious changes, and can halt the inevitable march of the Dems towards pro-abortion legislation, provision, lack of accountability, and the educational component that goes along with these (as in, think of the reason most young people are Dems and many are pro-choice). Republicans might not make major changes. But Democrats are virtually certain to drive things even further towards lack of protection for the unborn. And their support for Planned Parenthood, who not only perform thousands of abortions but have been caught selling parts of the dead babies to research companies, is absolutely intolerable. Not only that, but the attempt by liberals to prosecute the people who uncovered this illegal activity simply for doing so worries me deeply.

3) Along similar lines to the above, but less seriously (I think religious freedom is important, but I can cope without it. Abortion is more important), I cannot see that the current SCOTUS or trend of Dems currently provides much support for conscientious objection. I find it pretty unconscionable that, for example, people want businesses to provide contraception (including, as far as I understand, emergency ‘contraception’) against their conscience (and, in the case of emergency contraception, against the moral law).

Trump is an oaf, a buffoon, a demagogue, a boor, probably reckless, a liar, probably guilty of sexual assault. I just sympathise with the view that, as bad as these things are, when compared with point 2) in particular, it is very, very difficult to make the case that they are clearly worse. (I also think that the more egregious of Trump’s crimes are at least partially paralleled by sins of the Clintons – I probably do not need to tell you which, in particular, I am thinking of).

[This is by no means comprehensive, or as detailed as it could be, or as articulate as it could be – this is just what I wrote as a brief response at the time. The final remark in the comment refers to the allegations of sexual assault made against Bill Clinton, along with the responses to the alleged victims made by Bill and Hillary Clinton.]

Commenter:

To shift the Overton window, destroy the credibility of the press, and to Make America Great Again

Commenter:

Supreme court nominees, pro-life policies, free exercise of religion in churches, schools, businesses — including slowing the rate at which private institutions are forced to accept a particular understanding of human sexuality, modest hope for a smaller and less intrusive federal government.

Everything else about him? Hated it. Didn’t vote for him in the primary. Didn’t decide to vote for him in the general election until morning of.

[The free exercise of religion likely refers to a variety of factors: firstly, that part of the Affordable Care Act meant that certain businesses had to provide health insurance for their employees. However, this included the contraceptive mandate, requiring companies to provide contraception as part of the health insurance. This ended in multiple lawsuits against the government – most notably by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious organisation providing care for poor elderly people in the US – which were eventually won (in SCOTUS) by the conscientious objectors. The alternative would have been these religious charity organisations shutting down. They do not think that they should be forced to pay for someone else’s contraception use (including emergency contraception, as far as I know, which is often abortifacient) if they have a conscientious objection to it. This SCOTUS ruling would, again, likely have been overturned under a Clinton government.

Secondly, there are concerns from many Republicans that, rather than just legalising gay marriage and making certain law prohibiting hate crime against, for example, transgender people, there is a movement to silence, punish and sometimes prosecute those who hold traditional views. So, for example, a county clerk who refused to process same-sex marriage licences. When it was charged that she was discriminating, she refused to issue any marriage licences at all. She was later jailed for contempt of court over this. Similarly, many worry that anyone who holds traditional views on sexuality will increasingly be punished (e.g. for hate speech or for discrimination in cases of conscientious objection) for airing their views or for conscientiously objecting. There is a concern that this will intrude too much into what they think ought to be personal decisions – e.g. whether a company decides to keep gender-segregated bathrooms, and so on. Again, I cannot claim that this is what this commenter had in mind.]

Commenter:

Pro-life and the Supreme Court

Commenter:

Pro-life, Supreme Court nominees, gun control, freedom of religion, hopefully less government control of our lives, sovereignty of our nation, trade imbalance/bring manufacturing back to the U.S.

[Just a quick note: the focus on manufacturing jobs, in particular, has been credited with the crucial radical swing in the Midwest towards Trump. These states are traditionally Democrat but had a huge swing this election towards the Republicans, many people think, because Trump promised to bring manufacturing jobs back to regions of high unemployment in those areas. These areas are often very deprived and have problems other than unemployment (for example, the Flint water crisis) and there is some suggestion that there is an element of the ‘not much to lose’ sentiment motivating their voting for Trump after what they see as a Democrat government which has failed them.]

Commenter:

I voted Trump for 3 reasons. Supreme Court (abortion), avoid war with Russia, and to #DrainTheSwamp.

Commenter:

For me, this election long ago became about something other than who the top-of-the-ticket nominees were. Both candidates were repugnant for the well-known variety of reasons, but the gulf between R & D platform, ideology, the VP candidates and the rest of the team(s) each would assemble, etc., is vast. So, I discounted the occupant of the office and looked at the whole enchilada. Choice became pretty easy that way.

Commenter:

I voted for a value system, not just one person. I voted for the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, for supporting Israel… I voted to repeal and place ObamaCare, and to dissolve the Iran deal. I voted to dismantle the corrupt establishment elite so that the powers of the government would return to the people. And finally, I voted for Constitutional Supreme Court picks.

[The Iran deal refers to a global agreement involving Obama which lifted economic sanctions and boosted Iran’s economy significantly with the requirement that Iran reduce its nuclear programme, to reduce the risk of Iran getting nuclear weapons. It was criticised by the Republicans who said that Iran cannot be trusted not to tone down their nuclear programme, so that all the deal did was give them far greater economic power to invest in it.]

Commenter:

I’ll answer: to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House

Commenter:

Supreme Court nominees and avoiding war with Russia were my top reasons.

Commenter:

He wants to tax individuals making under $25K/year and couples making under $50K/year 0%. He’s for smaller government. He wants to secure the border with Mexico. He wants to slow down immigration from nations that hate us. He wants to keep potential terrorists out of our country. He didn’t take millions from Saudi Arabia (foreign donations are illegal, foreign donations from countries where gays are publicly executed and women have shit rights is immoral), he made his own money and wasn’t bought out by “donors”. He never charged a $400K “speaking fee”. He didn’t mishandle classified information. He wasn’t the cause of the 4 dead Americans in Benghazi. Our nation needs to fix our security first, and the SJW social issues second because we can’t be offended at everything if we’re hiding out from a foreign invasion.

[The donations from Saudi Arabia refer to the Clinton Foundation, which has been criticised for lack of transparency, accepting enormous amounts of money from foreign sources (some of which include governments deemed to be immoral), and funding non-charitable endeavours, like Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, among other things.

The $400K speaking fee refers to money Clinton was paid by Goldman Sachs, a banking company, for giving speeches there. The general concern of many Republicans here is that she is too close to corporate elites, not sufficiently in touch with the working-class (or the middle-class), and using her position for significant personal financial gain. This is closely related to the ‘Drain the Swamp’ movement mentioned earlier.]

Commenter:

I am a believer in conservative values, and the people behind Mr. Trump (his VP, the justices he vowed to nominate, his potential cabinet, etc.) are more (much more) in line with conservative values than those in Hillary’s. I could not find a single thing about Hillary’s positions that was in line with conservative values. And so, I voted for the “camp” which most embraced conservative values.

Commenter:

Plenty of reasons.

But the biggest by far: I’ve always been pretty much a single-issue voter when it comes to defense of the unborn.

Saving innocent children’s lives is my primary moral duty in voting, as I see it.

Our country alone has eclipsed Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Stalin’s purges in terms of the lives we’ve legally ended through abortion.

Of the four candidates, Jill, Gary, and Hillary give varying degrees of support of abortion, but they all do support it.

Donald is the only one who has promised to defund PP, appoint pro-life judges, overturn Roe v. Wade, and put the practice in the course of ultimate extinction.

I am fervently against abstaining from voting, so my choice came down to which candidate will do the most good in the service of Life. That candidate was Donald.

Again, there are others, far more general Conservative principles. But this alone was enough for me to be certain of my vote.

[PP is Planned Parenthood, the organisation which carries out an enormous number of abortions in the US, and which receives large amounts of government funding. They were secretly filmed on camera talking about the sale of parts of aborted foetuses, and were criticised for this allegedly illegal action, as well as the tone with which they discussed both abortion/foetuses and the money going through the organisation. Under Obama’s presidency, Congress passed a bill to remove government funding of Planned Parenthood, but this was vetoed by President Obama. The thought is that Congress will do the same now but without any veto from Trump.]

Commenter:

Pro life, Pro second amendment, Supreme court Justices, Affordable healthcare Act, Fair Trade,Term Limits in congress, Benghazi, Freedom of religion, and the fact that Hillary is a murderer, a crook and a thief who has no business being in any form of federal government, too many people have died at her hands.

[It is unclear what the ‘murderer’ comment is referring to. It may relate to her support of abortion, it may relate to parts of US foreign policy, or it may refer to the allegation made by some opponents that she is responsible for the deaths of some people related to the Democratic Party whom they suggest were at risk of getting her indicted.]

Commenter:

I am hoping that I fall into the category of “people of goodwill” that you mentioned in another post. My vote was most definitely not motivated by hate (and I don’t think it was motivated by fear). I struggled over my decision even as I was standing in line yesterday morning at the polls. I came very close to not voting at all because I was so conflicted. I do not feel good about Trump as a man (at all). I am a lifelong supporter of equal rights for women, the LGBT community, and racial minorities. I was proud of the stance that the Catholic Church took when it came to refugees. But the two primary hats that I wear are as a small business owner and a health care professional. Concerns related to the Affordable Care Act were the primary thing that caused me to cast my vote for Trump. This country’s disease management system (it is not a health care system) is a mess and is very rapidly getting worse. From my point of view, another Democratic administration making tweaks to the ACA is not the solution, we need to go back to the drawing board. 100% of my household income comes from my small business and I am hoping that a Trump presidency will mean tax policies that leave more money in my pocket to spend on feeding my family, growing my business, paying my employees, and sending my kids to college.

Commenter:

If you’ll accept second-hand information: I spoke with young, female, non-white Trump supporter this morning. She told me that she preferred Trump to Clinton because she saw Clinton as a political insider who has been bought by special interests, and that she would rather upset the apple cart, so to speak, and see what happens. She had no regrets.

Commenter:

My husband is military. I fear that Secretary Clinton would strip the military to bare bones and make us weak and vulnerable. I felt Mr. Trump would actually create a stronger military & actually value our beloved veterans. Actually I was voting for Evan McMulllin until I watched Mr. Trumps remarks at the Al Smith dinner- not clips shown by the media outlets, but the full 12 minute speech.

Commenter:

I will add to the above with “I couldn’t get past the classified info handled so carelessly.”

Commenter:

Views on abortion and gun control and possible supreme court appointee’s. I don’t believe HE is the answer to what we all seem to call America’s problems. A return to Christ. HE is in control no matter who is president. I have complete rest in that.

Commenter:

One reason only: to keep Hillary out of the White House.

Commenter:

Supreme Court Justices, small government, less taxes, pro-business.

Commenter:

Supreme court justices, national security, leaner government, lessening business/industry-killing regulations, AND he wasn’t part of the D.C. elite………. which brings up another issue. The “elite” [media, political or other self-described sub groups, oxford comma, et alia] are not actually elitists but, rather, provincialists with narrowly defined biases.

Commenter:

Only voted for him to cast a vote against Clinton!

Commenter:

Being [not from the US], I could not vote in the US elections but I would have voted for Trump, as the lesser of two evils.

What I like about him is that he strikes me as being someone who does not do politics or spin, who does not pretend to be moral when really he is flawed, and in spite of all the insane things he has said, he is no fool.

Commenter:

Combination of Mr. Trump being both NOT Hillary (a despicable & truly evil being) and a relative outsider to the pro-globalist political establishment.

Commenter:

I did not vote this election cycle, but if Texas were in play, I would have held my nose and voted for Trump. The reason for my abstaining are the character issues that surfaced AFTER the primaries. But that’s another story.

Here are the things that impress me about the man:

Love him or hate him, this guy knows how to get things done. Whether it’s beating 16 other experienced politicians in the primaries, or single handedly (yes, singlehandedly) taking on one of the most efficient, well funded, and ruthless political machines of our generation with Hillary at the helm, he has proven that one should not bet against the man. I kept telling my friends throughout the campaign that we should not bet against him. With two weeks to go, I pretty much conceded that Clinton was going to win. Boy, was I wrong. I do hope that Mr Trump uses his superpowers for good and not for evil.

The main reason I supported Trump during the primaries was the fact that he seems to instinctively know the extent of the corruption in Washington. Having bought a few politicians in his day, he understands how government works from the donor perspective. In this sense he does appreciate the extent of the festering that has taken hold on our government. Again, I finish my point with the hope that he will not use this knowledge for evil, but for good.

Last, but not least, I do believe that the two party system is bad for the country. Trump’s win is a hostile takeover of the GOP, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do hope that there will be some soul searching within the GOP regarding the events of the past year or so. I know that the Democrats dodged a bullet by being able to silence crazy Bernie. But their day of reckoning is coming soon.

Commenter:

Abortion and the Supreme Court. Also he recently became a Christian, so I believe the Lord is working in his life.

He became pro life after a personal experience with abortion that he does not discuss .As a Christian I will never vote for a Party or individual who blatantly support tax payer funded abortion. Nearly 60 million unborn babies murdered since Roe vs Wade.

USA/Los Angeles trip

Dear friends,

In April-June next year I will be in the USA (mainly LA) doing some research in philosophy. I will be available to speak or debate at apologetics events or philosophy/theology societies during that period, mainly on the West Coast but with a chance of being able to do elsewhere too. If you would like me to speak at an event, please do let me know and we can sort something out. The best way to contact me is at c.miller@oxon.org or via my Facebook. Look forward to meeting more of you soon!

Calum