Challenging Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracies do happen. Lots of people think they are common. 71% of Americans think the government are hiding the truth about UFO’s, 9/11 was an inside job, and the Apollo moon landings (or at least the first one) was a hoax. But how likely are these conspiracy theories? And what logical tools can we use to explore them?

First – here’s a real conspiracy. On June 17th 1972, burglars were arrested in the Watergate complex in Washington DC. They were discovered to be part of a small group connected to President Nixon’s re-election campaign, seeking to wiretap phones and steal documents.[1] Conspiracies are about small groups of people attempting something immoral. Watergate failed because the group was exposed.

So – what about UFOs and the Apollo moon landings?

Ken Samples points to five questions we can ask of these claims to test the logical basis of the conspiracy claim.[2] These logical tools reveal the majority of conspiracy theories to be false.

1 – Does the theory hold together?

Does it have a solid foundation or is it contradictory? For example, think about the claim that aliens are visiting the planet. Given the vast distances that would have to be travelled, and the physical laws that would have to be overturned in order to achieve this, the theory starts to look contradictory. The facts required for the UFO government conspiracy don’t hold together.

 

2 – Does the theory comport with the facts?

Good theories don’t only fit with all the facts, they also tie them all together. The Watergate burglars were where they should not be, with wire tapping equipment, and one of them had the telephone number of Nixon’s government office. These are simply facts. But the theory that they are conspiring to steal information they should not lawfully have – ties these facts together.

A bad theory will reject some of the facts because they are inconvenient to the theory. For example, people who try to claim that the Jewish Holocaust did not happen during WW2 have to reject the data available from Jewish, Axis and Allied sources. They may mount a theory, but they will have to hide certain facts that the theory does not comport with.

 

3 – Does the theory avoid unwarranted assumptions?

Often when you start to investigate a bad theory, people make unwarranted claims to make the theory stand. For example, consider the claim that the Apollo moon landing was faked. The documented evidence shows that 400, 000 people were employed on Apollo and over 20,000 industrial firms and Universities were active in the enterprise. It was a massive undertaking in financial terms and man hours. It was also massive in the sheer number of people that had to be involved to make it happen.

If we are to claim that the astronauts did not reach the moon, then we have to make the assumption that all these people, or at least a significant proportion of them, were willing to keep this secret. But not just that, but they were all able to KEEP this secret in the face of jubilation around the world, and fifty years of celebrations. This starts to sound like an unwarranted assumption. After all, it would only take one person to crack … and the game would be up! Yet in fifty years, there has been no whisper of falsification by those actually involved. Just by people with a conspiracy axe to grind.

 

4 – How well does the theory handle counter evidence?

When counter evidence comes to light, how well does the conspiracy theory deal with this? For example, on the moon landing, how does the hoax theory cope with counter evidence like:

  • the photographic evidence from American and Chinese satellites showing the Apollo equipment remaining on the landing sites.
  • the bouncing of lasers off of instrumentation on the moon.
  • moon rocks.

 

5 – Is the theory open to falsification? If so, how?

Can a theory be proven false under certain circumstances? Or is it simply impossible to falsify it? Conspiracy theories tend NOT to be open to falsification. There is always another unwarranted assumption that stops the process of falsification.

However – a good theory IS open to falsification. This is one of the reasons that a good theory has rational weight. For example, if there was no connection between the Nixon government and the Watergate burglars, the conspiracy theory could have been quickly falsified.

 

 

Conclusion

It’s fun to kick conspiracy theories around. But when we put them through these logical filters – most of them drop out as false.

So – the next question is – what happens when we expose the theory that Jesus rose from the dead – to these logical tools? Well – the theory comes out to be a sound one. I’ll talk about that next.

[1] Watergate Scandal, History, accessed 29th August, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/1970s/watergate.

[2] Logically Questioning Strange Ideas and Controversial Theories, Reasons to Believe, accessed 29th August, 2019, https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/read/reflections/2017/07/11/logically-questioning-strange-ideas-and-controversial-theories.

Why Write An Apologetics Blog?


Someone asked me recently, “Why do you waste your time writing a blog about theological issues? Can’t you do something a bit more useful with your time?”

Oh – sure. If we categorically knew that God did not exist – I agree, I would be wasting my time. It would be like spending time blogging furiously about the popularity of married bachelors. Pointless. Because married bachelors don’t exist.

But no one can make that claim about God.

If it is possible that there is a God who is responsible for creating the Universe and everything that lives in it, and it is possible to know something about that God – then is writing this blog really a waste of time? Particularly if that God expects us to use our rational capacities to do this work of getting to know him during our lives? No – from that perspective, writing this blog could be one of the most important things I do with my time.

You see – I don’t think we have to look very far to begin to learn something about what God may be like.

Nature
For centuries of human history, thinkers have looked at nature to see what we can learn about God. Any designer is going to reflect himself in what he makes. Right?

Enlightenment thinkers challenged the idea we could learn anything about God this way. David Hume thought that, “no inferences we make from the physical to the metaphysical are viable …. their conclusions go beyond what is supported by the evidence.”[2] Immanuel Kant agreed, saying that “knowledge requires some sort of experiential basis. If we don’t have sense data, then we cannot have knowledge. And because we do not see, touch, taste, smell or hear God directly, Kant’s model does not allow divine knowledge to come from the physical world.”[2] The enlightenment was not kind to Natural Theology.

Well – I think Hume makes an excellent point. It is simply unhelpful for theologians and apologists to make more of the evidence than they are warranted to. But can’t we say that nature could point us to God? Here are just two examples (there are many more). Can’t we logically consider that biology simply looks designed because it is … the result of a designing intelligence? Further, what do we do with the continuing discovery of the fitness of the Universe for the existence of life? Doesn’t this give a very strong evidence for design?

For more on design pointers, check out Jim Wallace.

What about Kant? He is right that we cannot access God directly with our senses. But can’t we encounter God indirectly via our senses? When police detectives arrive at a crime scene, they don’t usually have the criminal standing there saying, “Hello. I killed the victim. Please take me to jail.” No – they explore the scene for clues, they form the most logical hypotheses for the explanation of this evidence, and these hypotheses hopefully lead them toward the person who committed the crime. The detective’s senses are critical. They perceive the perpetrator indirectly, before they see him directly.

Maybe our senses will never allow us to sense God directly in the here and now. But they do allow us to view pointers towards him. Leaving us the promise of a future face to face encounter with Him.

Scripture
I’ve written here about the way the Bible points towards God as a historical work. Yes, Christians say it is special revelation. But before its special, it’s simply historical.

Conclusion
There are pointers littered throughout our lives that direct us toward the God who is partially concealed in the here and now. I think it’s important to reflect on that possibility, and to explore the possibilities it presents. So, that is an important reason why I write this blog.

 

[1] James K. Dew JR. and Mark W. Foreman, How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014), 134.

[2] Ibid.

Couldn’t God Create a World Where Evil Doesn’t Exist?

If there IS a God, then why didn’t he create a world where there is no evil?

Well – if you are willing to give up free will, then anything is possible. If God took away our ability to exercise free will, then I’m sure evil would stop in the world. But the question is – would you want to lose your ability to exercise your free will?

Libertarian free will” – this is how I understand the universe. In other words, reality is not determined. I can make choices, and I have free will to exercise this choice. This assumption underpins everything in our lives.

Some people will disagree, saying, “I only think I have free will. But really, reality is determined.” They might point to different determining factors. For example, biology, the laws of physics, even God. This view is called Compatibilism. But Compatibilism has many problems. I don’t think it allows us to make sense of how we live our lives. And it certainly undermines my ability to understand what the Bible is saying.

Problem 1 – Compatibilism and Life

We live our lives dealing with people, and organizations, asserting power upon us. Perhaps they demand us to pay our taxes, or they expect us to take out the bins at home. Also, we try to exert our power on other people to make them do what we want them to do.

The existence of power in the world is a problem for the Compatibilist.

For example:

  1. If Compatibilism is true, then all events are necessitated (whether I realise that or not).
  2. If all events are necessitated, then there are no powers.
  3. Free will consists in the exercise of an agent’s powers.
  4. The world is full of agents exercising power.
  5. Therefore these agents have free will.[1]

Compatibilism doesn’t square with how the world works. Libertarianism, on the other hand, does.

 

Problem 2 – Compatibilism and the Bible

The Bible is full of statements like, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’ Come back to your senses … stop sinning.”[2] If I don’t actually have the free will to choose how to behave, then it is meaningless for the Bible to challenge my behaviour. Because my behaviour is necessary.

Yet – I do actually have free will. This is evident from the opening story in Genesis when Adam and Eve chose to assert their free wills against God. Without this understanding, I simply cannot understand what the Bible is saying. It is saying – “I’m a free being, and I must use my free will to love and follow a good and just God in my life.”

 

Libertarian Free Will and Evil

So – back to the first question. If there IS a God, then why didn’t he create a world where there is no evil?

For a start, evil’s not a thing. Rather, evil is “a corruption of the good, and evil arises from the misuse of the will.”[3] So disease and man’s inhumanity to man are two evils. They are a corruption of what is good, and misuse of personal freedom.

God wants us to be able to freely exercise our God given, libertarian free will. He made us this way. But because we use our free will to hurt other people, we live in a world where evil exists.

So – couldn’t God take away our free will? Well – would we want to live lives without any free will? Clay Jones points out that, virtually every science fiction story touches upon the issues around free will.[4] Maybe its Blade Runner, where replicants are seeking to free themselves from oppressive human beings. They want freedom … “and more life.” Maybe it’s Star Trek, and the Borg are seeking to take away our uniqueness and distinctiveness. They want us to join the collective and become just another drone. No – every fibre of being aboard the Enterprise fights against that notion. We are free beings. And the audience replies – amen! Human beings believe they are free, and they assert their power to maintain that freedom.

 

God Cannot Make a Free World Where there Is No Evil

So – in the final analysis, it turns out that there are some things God cannot do. He cannot create a square circle, and he cannot create a world full of free beings like us where there is not a possibility of evil.

If you want a world without evil, then welcome to the Borg collective. Which ironically, would be the ultimate evil for free people like us…

 

[1] Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, A new argument against compatibilism, Oxford Academic, accessed 22nd August, 2019, https://academic.oup.com/analysis/article-abstract/74/1/20/301393?redirectedFrom=fulltext.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:33, NIV.

[3] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions, (Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2017), 20.

[4] Clay Jones, Sci-Fi, Free Will and the Problem of Evil, Clay Jones, accessed 22nd August, 2019, https://www.clayjones.net/2015/07/sci-fi-free-will-and-the-problem-of-evil/.

Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

Sometimes people will say to me something like, “I might believe there was a God if there wasn’t so much evil in the world.” I’ve always scratched my head at this response because it seems to me that evil is MAN’S problem – not God’s problem. The perpetrators of great evil in history have been people.

So, why is it that good people seem to suffer? Take my little sister Anne, for instance. She died of a horrible disease at age 37…way too young. Anne was the nicest person you could ever meet, and she was a source of strength, kindness and hope to many people. But – I know Anne. She would have hesitated at agreeing with you that she was truly a GOOD person. Why? Because as a Christian she knew the real state of her heart and what she was capable of if she let her guard down.

I don’t think Anne is that different from anyone else. Certainly not that different from her big brother. We are all capable of evil acts. Elie Wiesel survived the Jewish Holocaust, and said “man isn’t only executioner, victim and spectator. He is all three.”[1] Clay Jones suggests that perhaps human niceness is more of a survival strategy than anything else. We tell ourselves we are good, but actually we fear the consequences of the evil that we know lurks in our hearts. Do flirty co-workers avoid affairs because of innate goodness, or because they fear the loss of the reputation is they are found out? Do murderers stop at red lights because they are good people, or because they fear the possibility of a car accident if they keep going? The fact that much good is done in the world does not mean that good is done by good people, just normal people who are doers of particularly good acts.[2]

But why is there so much suffering in the world? I would suggest three reasons:

  1. Because people are capable of making other people suffer.
  2. To wake us up to the mess the world is in, and to drive us to God. He really does have a project underway to transform people’s hearts from the inside out. “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.”[3]
  3. To wake me up to my own personal guilt, and to drive me to God. But not to bury me under despair. Rather, as an incentive for me to stop rejecting God’s transformative project and to get on board with it myself.[4]

 

Yes. I know, it’s tough to hear about the next heart breaking event on the news. But – I do genuinely think that hope and light bleeds through each act that brings pain and darkness. We all face the end of our lives one day. And…

“If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins – make a clean breast of them – he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing.”[5]

 

[1] Elie Wiesel, The Town Beyond the Wall, trans. Stephen Barker (New York: Avon, 1970), 174.

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2017).

[3] Colossians 3:10, New Living Translation.

[4] Ibid.

[5] 1 John 1:9, The Message.

 

Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

Dealing With Fallen Heroes

It’s not easy when people you look up to are found to be less than perfect.

I’m a Christian, and have been involved in the work of the church for my whole life. I experienced “hero disappointment” around Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church last year. I visited Willow Creek as a twenty year old. He has challenged and inspired me for over 25 years. Yet last year, he went into sudden retirement amidst a (still growing) realisation that he regularly abused his position of power and authority. Some of those closest to him are reportedly still coming to terms with their bad experiences of Bill.

When you are hit by these sorts of revelations, you go into a kind of grief cycle. There’s shock followed by anger and bargaining. But – you do eventually come to accept it. When public Christian leaders fall – this sort of grief will be known by people inside and even outside of Christianity.

I know people who may be similarly affected by the news of Hillsong Church leader Marty Sampson this week.

The question is – how should we speak about a fallen Christian leader in the midst of the fallout? Well – the New Testament goes into some detail on how to treat conflict in the church, and how discipline must be handled in the church.[1]

That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m asking how we should WE speak about public figures who have suddenly brought the Christian church into disrepute?

 

Well – I think there is good evidence to suggest the authentic Christian answer is – “respectfully.”

 

Why do I say that? Consider the following.

 

Do you feel hurt and betrayed by this leader who has fallen?

Perhaps we feel we have somehow been mistreated by them … or feel outraged that the church has in some way been mistreated? Well – if we hang onto these feelings, they can undermine us. That’s why Jesus spoke directly to this problem:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”[2]

They are another human being, as well as a fallen Christian leader. So – Jesus’ command is relevant. And – it is important for our health too. This is one reason being a Christian makes sense – it’s about making healthy life choices like – choosing to love and forgive those who hurt us. Even if it takes us time to do so.

 

Is your belief in Christianity is being challenged  by this painful situation?

This can happen for some people. When our leader suddenly fall off the path, we can find ourselves wondering whether we’ve wasted our time in following them. Some may ask, “Is Christianity still true? Even when the Christian leader I idolized has gone?“

Well – idolizing other people is always going to be a problem. So we need to adjust our attitude. Only one person is not going to let you down. And that’s Jesus. Other people – in my experience – will let us down regularly.

But there’s another issue here. Maybe this fallen leader’s life poses a question to us – “Do I still believe that Christianity is true?” How should we respond?  Sometimes, it isn’t a person’s words that challenge our beliefs. It is often how other Christian people treat us that leave us wondering, “Do I still believe? Even in the face of this nightmare?”

The Bible says:

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”[3]

We must look to the foundations we have with Christ first, not any church or church leader. Revere Christ as Lord, it says. We need a strong foundation with someone who won’t disappoint you. That’s going to be Jesus and no one else. Christianity is still true cos Jesus is still Jesus.

While standing on this firm foundation, how do we speak about the fallen leader who has challenged our Christian belief by their actions? We must speak words of confident Christian convictions with gentleness and respect. The only way you can do this, is by having firm foundations in your life on Christ.

By the way – the Jesus who is the foundation for gentleness and respect – is also the Jesus who forgives us when we confess we have not lived this way. His forgiveness is available.

 

Do you simply feel contempt for this fallen leader?

In that case, I think we need to reflect on the fact that Jesus was always for those who were the outcasts in society. And – he had harsh and challenging words for those who shunned them. Particularly those in the religious establishment. The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Jesus. It’s ultimately his responsibility to deal with situations like this one.

Surely that’s worth reflecting on?

Surely it’s better to aim to speak about people who have disappointed you – with gentleness and respect?

 

 

 

 

 

[1] For example, Matthew 18.

[2] Luke 6:27-28, NIV.

[3] 1 Peter 3:15, NIV.

I Feel for Marty Sampson

I feel for Marty Sampson.

 

I’m working from people who saw his recent Instagram post, which has now been taken down. He expressed his wrestles and doubts with Christian belief, and he gave us a list of these.

  • Church leaders who fall
  • apparent Bible contradictions
  • eternity for the unsaved (Jesus in the Gospels refers to this place as Gehenna – we translate this as Hell)

…his list went on. I get it. These are real issues to grapple with. After each one, he complained that no one was talking about these things. I’ve spent years talking about these things. They need to be discussed. Why on earth wasn’t Marty doing so in his church?

He apparently concluded that he was not a Christian any more. “It’s not for me … Christianity just seems like another religion at this point.”[1] If that’s where he is, then that’s a real shame, because he put his finger on something really important in his Instagram post. Something that, if he allows it to, could move him forwards in a positive way.

 

“I want genuine truth, not just the “I believe it” kind of truth.”[2]

 

I totally agree with him here. That’s what I think Christianity is. Christianity is about genuine truth, not “I believe it” kind of truth. It has ALWAYS been this. But it sounds like … Marty hasn’t realised this before. True Christianity has never been about saying, “Just believe it. Have faith and your faith will get you through.”  If you are a Christian believer and you think that your Christian belief is grounded on faith alone…like Marty…then one day you are going to be in trouble. Serious – trouble. And – it’s just a matter of time before the wheels start coming off. Unfortunately for Marty, this has happened in a very public way.

 

Yet people will ask, “isn’t faith important?” Of course it is. “So – why can’t Christianity be grounded on faith alone?”

 

Well – you’ve got to understand what the word “faith” means. Faith is not the ground of knowledge about anything. Faith is our RESPONSE to the knowledge of the revelation about Jesus we have received. Faith does not give us any knowledge about God, we need to find that knowledge about God elsewhere. This is what doing theology is all about, folks. If we don’t do the work of understanding the Bible, then there will be no source of knowledge to ground our beliefs on. Oh – we may go along with the crowd in church. We may develop as a leader, find ourselves repeating what the other leaders say, and feel we are right because other people are impressed and believe what we say. We may even advance in the use of our gifts and talents in various ways. But inside … we will always be thinking … “is this stuff really TRUE? Can I bet my life on Christianity or not?”

 

Faith isn’t about saying “I believe it.” Any environment which fosters this … and teaches Christianity this way, is an unhealthy environment. Rather – faith is about choosing to trust and act on the basis of the God you are truly coming to know and believe.

 

Faith isn’t knowing what we don’t know, or believing something in spite of the evidence. Faith is not a source of knowledge at all! Rather – faith is simply our active choice to respond with TRUST in the God we have come to believe and know because he has made himself known to us.

 

What is Christian faith? It is holding on to the God we’ve learned about when the storms of doubt come raging in our lives. But we can only hold on in the first place … because we already genuinely and truly know the God who we are holding on to.

 

I’m praying Marty gets that so that he can move forward in that way. God loves you and – “he is still calling you out upon the waters,” Marty.

 

 

[1] Leah MarieAnn Klett, Hillsong writer: ‘I’m genuinely losing my faith’, The Christian Post, https://www.christianpost.com/news/hillsong-writer-reveals-hes-no-longer-a-christian-im-genuinely-losing-my-faith.html.

[2] Ibid.

Can You Know Whether or Not the Bible Contains God’s Special Words?

He smiled at me.

“So it sounds like you believe that the Bible is special, somehow. That even though it was written by people, it was inspired by God. That somehow it contains God’s special message to mankind.”

I braced myself for the inevitable onslaught. “Yup. That’s what I believe.”

The onslaught didn’t come. Instead, he asked a simple question. “How do you know, Stuart?”

 

It’s a reasonable enough question. Right? It’s one thing to BELIEVE…it is quite another thing to KNOW. Knowledge claims require solid justification. How do I know that the Bible contains God’s special words?

If Christians believe the Bible to be special revelation…do we know that just because the text claims that it is so? That sounds a bit weak. Do we know because we feel it is true? Well – yes, scripture is properly basic to Christians, but that’s not going to help the sceptic who needs some logical argument supporting our claim about how special the Bible is. Besides, Muslims would say the same thing of the Qu’aran.

 

Jonathan Morrow lays out a non-circular argument to support the claim that the Bible contains God’s special and true words.[1] This argument appeals to the historical reports in the most recent part of the Bible – the New Testament. The argument doesn’t require these scriptural claims to be special in any way…just that they accurately reflect what happened in the past. This is a logical, historical justification of the claim that the Bible is God’s special revelation to mankind.

 

  1. Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God.

He claimed authority that God alone possesses. For example, control over nature[2],  speaking for God,[3] ability to forgive sin[4] and authority over the final judgement.[5]

He owned special titles from Judaism pointing to his divinity. I’m talking about Messiah, Son of God and Son of Man. All were understood by the original audience as pointers to divinity.

 

  1. God authenticated his radical claims by raising Jesus from the dead.

We know this based on five minimal, historical facts that must be explained when considering the claim that Jesus rose from the dead:

      1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
      2. Jesus’ disciples claimed he rose and appeared to them.
      3. The Christian persecutor Saul was radically changed to chief proclaimer of the Christian faith.
      4. The sceptic James, Jesus’ brother, was also suddenly changed and became a Christian leader.
      5. Jesus’ tomb was found empty.

These facts are typically accepted even by the most sceptical and antagonistic historians.

 

  1. Jesus of Nazareth taught the divine inspiration and the authority of Scripture.

He recognized the Old Testament’s authority:

  • He did not come “to abolish the Law … but to fulfil.”[6]
  • He submitted himself to the moral authority of the Old Testament, often using the words “It is written…”
  • Jesus submitted himself to his God given mission, understanding that he “must suffer many things and be rejected … and be killed, and after three days rise again.”[7]

He provided for the writing of the New Testament:

  • He appointed the apostles himself as ministers of the New Covenant.
  • He promised the Holy Spirit to them, who will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”[8]
  • The apostles recognised they were writing with the authority of Jesus.

 

  1. Since Jesus of Nazareth is Divine, his endorsement of the Bible carries the authority of God.

 

So – why is it reasonable to say that we know the Bible is God’s special revelation?

The answer hinges on the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words:

“if God raised Jesus from the dead, then the most likely reason was to confirm the truthfulness of Jesus’ teachings. If we are correct in this, then the inspiration of Scripture follows as a verified doctrine, affirmed by God Himself when He raised Jesus from the dead.”[9]

 

[1] Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014).

[2] Luke 11:20.

[3] Matthew 7:28-29.

[4] Mark 2:1-12.

[5] Luke 12:8-9.

[6] Matthew 5:17.

[7] Mark 8:31.

[8] John 14:26.

[9] Gary R. Habermas, Jesus and the Inspiration of Scripture, Areopagus Journal 2, no. 1 (2002), 15, quoted in Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible.