Best of 2019

Hope you had a great holiday period, and I warmly wish you all the best for 2020. May this be a decade that is full of exciting new opportunities for you.

 

This year, I continued submitting content and my readership grew. Thanks to everyone who helped me there! I also further refined the purpose of Respond blog.

 

The Purpose of Respond blog

My aim is to present compelling arguments that support the Christian worldview. In as much as people wish to discuss aspects of these arguments, I’m very happy and willing to do so. It is one of the reasons I invest my time in this blog, in fact.

For those who simply wish to “shout down” my blog, then my response is – “Okay. God bless you. Feel free to move along now.” My goal is absolutely not to shout louder than these folks. Quite the opposite. I am confident in the cogency of these arguments. I do not need to shout louder.

Please feel free to discuss the arguments and associated conclusions in a congenial manner … I wish to talk in this way, thank you.

 

The Top Four Blogs

Of the 67 blogs I published this year, my most popular posts are:

#1 DNA and an Argument for God

I’m arguing that biology isn’t simply like highly engineered artifacts of engineering, biology really is a highly engineered artefact in its own right.

 

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

I’m arguing that God cannot create a world of genuinely freely willed creatures, where there is no evil present in that world.

 

#3 Why Doesn’t God Save People From Natural Disasters?

Apart from the story of my own one time – seemingly miraculous rescue, here I’m arguing that it would not do us any good if God miraculously rescued everyone all the time.

 

#4 “Evolution” Doesn’t Get You to Human Morality

Despite what many people think, I’m furthering the argument that evolutionary arguments don’t get you to human morality. They don’t even get us to truth, because they are only about survival.

 

Most Influential Books

I’ve read lots this year. And I’ve grown as a Christian believer. Here’s are my top four. I heartily recommend all of them to you.

Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis

I used to view C S Lewis as a distant and brilliant academic. He is still both of these things. But, he’s also a man after my own heart. His journey from childhood belief to hardened and cynical atheism thru to full devotion to Christ and the life of the Christian mind…is truly breath taking to me. I am so grateful to Lewis for writing his autobiography. And I’m also grateful to Jerry Root for opening it up to me this year in a fresh and compelling way.

Pierced for Our Transgressions, Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach

Often, I find people’s understanding of how the Bible presents the crucifixion of Christ to be simplistic and one dimensional. I’m aware that often I treat it in simplistic ways myself. But in Pierced, I’ve seen a wonderful treatment of the issues and the implications of the death of the Son of God, his punishment in our place.

The Soul, J. P. Moreland

I have made further advances in understanding “substance dualism” this year. And I am indebted to the beautiful soul who is J. P. Moreland for teaching me. Both in the classroom at BIOLA University, and this glorious yet accessible treatment.

Scientism and Secularism, J. P. Moreland

It is – quite simply – a myth that Christianity is at war with 21st century science. It isn’t. They are complementary. My thumb and my forefinger might point in different directions. But used together, I can grasp things. Well, J. P. lays out the real enemy of the Christian faith today. It’s called scientism, the idea that only the application of the scientific method is capable of attaining real truth and truthful discovery. Apart from the fact that this statement is self-contradictory, it is also highly noxious and dangerous for people. Whether we realise this or not!

Does the Multiverse Theorem Solve “Fine-Tuning”?

I have have been exploring the observations around cosmic fine tuning, and I’ve explained the possible explanations for it are either:

  • Natural necessity
  • Chance or
  • Design

Given the incredible coincidences that Sir Fred Hoyle observed that makes nature life permitting, seems like an incredible assumption to say either that the universe HAS to be this way, or it just happened to be this way by chance.

To increase the odds for a finely tuned universe by chance, some have suggested that perhaps there are an infinite number of parallel universes, all with slightly different configurations of cosmological constants. If that is how things are, then there are just a few life permitting parallel universes in existence, and we happen to inhabit one of them.

SO – the universe is not designed by a designer (God). Rather, we just happen to inhabit a parallel (or bubble) universe that is life permitting. It was bound to happen some time, given the infinite number of parallel universes that exist.

I love Star Trek as much as the next guy. But – I don’t buy this idea. There are problems.

First – it seems to violate Occam’s Razor. William of Occam was a Franciscan Friar who observed an important problem solving principle. “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” In other words, when we look at the WHOLE problem, to identify the correct solution we should not make it more complicated than necessary. We should go with the simplest possible answer that meets the conditions reflected by the whole problem.

When we posit the multiverse, we are ignoring three simple solutions (chance, natural necessity and design) and positing a much much more complex solution. An infinite number of universes, and a mechanism for generating each one.

The multiverse theory would not violate Occam’s Razor if I can show that none of these simpler options work. But I’ve heard no one prove to me that a universe designed for life is impossible. So – until that happens, I’m going to be sceptical of a solution that’s just too complicated (the Multiverse theory).

Second – the multiverse theory requires that an impossible, infinite series of events has and will occur. An infinite number of universes will pop into existence. The problem here is another philosophical one. You cannot have an actually infinite number of events in the real world, although you can have the idea of an infinite number of events in your mind. Why?

Imagine you have laid out a line of dominoes and you start them dropping, one at a time. Each one knocks the next one over until you reach domino 1, which then knocks over the final domino 0. You can actually do this experiment if the number of dominoes is an absolute number (say N). You start at N, and drop the dominoes till you reach 0. But if N is infinite, then there are an infinite number of dominoes in the line. You will never reach dominoes 1 and then finally 0, because you cannot step through an infinite number of events one at a time in nature.

The multiverse theory posits the idea that an infinite number of universes have existed, and then another one pops into existence, and then another. Like dominoes 1 and 0. This does not make sense.

If there is a multiverse, then it must have had an absolute beginning, an ultimate origin, and a particular number of parallel universes have appeared. This idea has been confirmed by the Borde-Guthrie-Vilenkin theorem which requires an absolute beginning to an expanding universe. This would apply to one universe, or a parallel set of universes.

An infinite multiverse is logically and naturally incoherent.

Third – there is absolutely no empirical evidence that a multiverse exists. It’s a very cool idea that allows the rebooting of beloved franchises (Star Trek) in the real world. But nothing more. Worse, scientific methods cannot prove or disprove it. Therefore to try to solve the fine tuning problem by appealing to a baseless assumption sounds like a really bad idea!

Fourth – a universe generator still needs to be fine tuned. Right? Because there has to be an absolute starting point for a finite number of parallel universes, there has to be something that causes these universes to come into existence. This therefore pushes us back to the original problem. Why is the multiverse generator finely tuned to produce multiple universes?

Fifth – chance and natural necessity seem unlikely explanations for the multiverse generator. But a cosmic designer seems a much better explanation. And so we are back to God as the inference to the best explanation for the existence of the universes.

Summary

I don’t buy multiverse as a solution to the fine tuning problem, though I do accept it as a solution to the cinema, TV and literature problem…how do we keep this story moving forward?

How Can You Justify the Claim, “Nature is Fine Tuned for Life”

Can you reasonably claim that nature is fine-tuned for the existence of life? I’ve been discussing this question with some folks this week, and I’ve noticed that there’s some scepticism about this claim.

This is interesting to me as astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle discovered the “fine-tuning” phenomenon last century, and the tasks of scientists ever since has been to try to account for such a state of affairs. Can you claim the universe is fine-tuned for life? Yes.

 

What does “fine-tuned” mean?

It does NOT mean designed. This has been an area of confusion in my discussions. When I say the Universe is fine-tuned for life, I am not initially saying the universe is designed for life (tho I do go on to form an argument suggesting it is).

“The term ‘fine-tuning’ is used to characterize sensitive dependencies of facts or properties on the values of certain parameters.”[1] The parameters we are talking about here are the parameters that appear in three categories of nature:

  1. The laws of nature.
  2. The constants of nature.
  3. The initial conditions of the universe.

In all three categories, there is a very sensitive dependency on many values in nature relating to the existence of carbon-based, biological life. These are just highly specific settings in nature, just numbers. These numbers are not set by natural laws, they are numbers discovered by scientists that operate and setup these laws.

Fine-tuned does not mean designed. It means set up in a highly particular and dependent way

 

Is “fine-tuning” Controversial Among Scientists Today?

It seems that most scientists concede that the universe is setup to support life. This is not a controversial topic. For example:

The late Stephen Hawking – “The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned … [o]ur universe and its laws appear to have a design that both is tailor-made to support us, and if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration.”[2]

Freeman Dyson – “The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”[3]

 

What is the evidence for “fine-tuning”?

There’s a lot of evidence in nature for fine-tuning. Much of it appears in some amazing coincidences that appear in nature. One example is the formation of the carbon atom in the heart of stars. Carbon is the building block for life in the universe.

Hoyle realised that carbon should not, under nuclear physics, be able to form. That is, unless there was an amazing resonance that just “happens” to prolong the lifetime of an unstable beryllium nucleus for 1 hundred billion billionths of a second, long enough for the chemical reaction to proceed and for Carbon to be the result. If it wasn’t for the fact that nuclear resonance exists at just the right energy, there would be virtually no carbon in the universe, so probably no life.[4]

Hoyle went on to describe a series of surprising “put up jobs,” coincidences that occur in nature. There are many, many of these. If these coincidences did not occur, then this would change the basic parameters of physics, and this would prove lethal to life. It’s worth pointing out the following.

First – physicists cannot create an alternative universe with alternative cosmological constants. We have to view the universe from our vantage point within it, not outside. However, the point about the mathematical predictability OF the universe is, we can observe the effect of a possible change to the constants in the mathematical equations themselves. And the results are startling. “The cliché that ‘life is balanced on a knife edge’ is a staggering understatement – no knife in the universe could have an edge that fine.”[5]

As scientist Paul Davis has said, you can claim that these parameter values are simply a given, “but that attitude seems a bit unsatisfactory. We can certainly imagine a universe in which [the constants are set differently]. The facts that the value[s] … are just right for life (like Goldilocks’ porridge) cries out for an explanation.”[6]

Second – there are over thirty of these fine-tuned parameters. Not all are life dependent, but many of them are.

 

 

What if the fine-tuning is Controlled Be Another Super-Law?

Someone might just say, once physicists discover an overall theory of everything (TOE) then the fine-tuning problem goes away. The TOE will explain the fine-tuning.

Will it? If a TOE is found (and there’s no guarantee it will be) then won’t that just shift the subject under discussion? It will no longer be, “Why are the parameters finely tuned for life?” Instead it will be, “Why is the TOE fine tuned to set the cosmological constants in the parameters that lead to life?” In other words, a glorious TOE would bring together the physical laws under one theory, but it won’t explain there is such a state of affairs in the first place. The “why” question remains open.

 

Couldn’t the Universe Just Have Looked Different If It Had Different Cosmological Constants?

Could other laws permit other life forms? If the fine tuning looked different, could other types of life be evident? Possibly! But that’s not really the point. The point to draw from the finely tuned cosmological constants is that the region of life permitting values in nature is incredibly small compared to all the possible values for these parameters in nature. And this state of affairs cries out for an explanation.

But am I just presupposing that life must be as it is, because that is what we have to work with? Isn’t it possible that life would simply have been different if the coincidences had lined up a different way in nature? We wouldn’t have carbon based life, we would have had some other form of life?

One problem with this idea is that many of the fine-tuned cosmological constants do not require carbon-based life. Yet there appears to be careful dependencies between the many cosmological constants that set up different aspects of the universe’s ability to support life. For example, Robin Collins observes the cosmological constant, which controls the formation of stars. “If the cosmological constant were much larger … no stars could exist. Without stars, however, there would be no stable energy sources for complex material systems of any sort to evolve. So, all the fine-tuning argument presupposes is … [life] in our universe require[s] some stable energy source.”[7] So we aren’t just saying here that the laws determine the form of carbon based life we are familiar with, but rather that the overall finely tuned system of nature is setup very particularly to form any type of life that could exist at all. The universe isn’t just finely-tuned for us … but for any kind of life.

Besides, whether or not we are comfortable with the idea of fine tuning, we must be careful about playing the “science fiction card” to avoid its implications. “Any genesis of life we consider must be based in science, not science fiction. Any universe in which life can arise must provide the conditions for the storage and processing of information; a thin soup of only hydrogen and helium simply does not provide this.”[8]

 

Conclusion

The universe is finely-tuned to support the existence of life.

Why? Well, there appear to be 3 options:

  • Natural necessity (it had to be that way and there’s no reason)
  • Chance (we are lucky it is this way)
  • Design (it is intentionally this way)

Hoyle’s famous quote gives you his knee-jerk “why” response to his discovery of fine-tuning:

“Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly miniscule. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”[9]

[1] Fine-Tuning, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, published 22nd August, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fine-tuning/.

[2] Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2010), 161-162, quoted in Melissa Cain Travis, “Science and the Mind of the Maker”, (Eugine: Harvest House Publishers, 2018), loc 847.

[3] Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 250, quoted in Melissa Cain Travis, “Science and the Mind of the Maker”, (Eugine: Harvest House Publishers, 2018), loc 847.

[4] Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma, (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 153-155, summarised.

[5] Davies, 170.

[6] Davies, 157.

[7] William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), 276.

[8] Lewis and Barnes, A Fortunate Universe, 13, quoted in Melissa Cain Travis, “Science and the Mind of the Maker”, (Eugine: Harvest House Publishers, 2018), loc 896.

[9] Fred Hoyle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle.

It is the Most Spiritual of All The Trek Movies

A vast cloud has been detected in outer space, and it’s heading toward Earth. Every being who has crossed its path has been lost. Admiral James Tiberius Kirk sees in this crisis an opportunity to escape a tedious desk job, and get back to his first love. Hopping galaxies in the star ship he used to call home.

So begins Star Trek the Motion Picture (TMP), which is – to my mind – the most spiritually aware of all the classic Trek movies. It’s also probably the most “Star Trek” of those films, because it touches on themes that affect us all. No, it doesn’t have “God” in it, or the famous line “What does God need with a star ship?” That’s left to the inferior Star Trek V. But the spiritual themes are more mature and deeply embedded in this first one.

During the torturous pre-production period for TMP, the Paramount Studio executives reportedly urged Gene Rodenberry to elevate the story to religious sorts of levels. They didn’t want a swash buckling Star Trek on the big screen. They wanted 2001 a Space Odyssey, a thoughtful and inspiring tale.[1] Right or wrong, I think that’s kind of what they produced.

It is forty years since TMP was released. I vividly remember going to see it in Glasgow during Christmas 1979. Of being amazed by how incredible it looked, but confused by the different feel to the TV Show I loved. Yet even as a youngster, I sensed the weighty themes at play in this movie.

So – what spiritual themes are found here? Someone might say – “It was just slow. It dragged. It was boring. Just like church is.” Well, that’s not quite what I was thinking of.

The Need to Know Who We Came From

It turns out that the cloud threat, V’Ger, is heading to Earth. But not to destroy it. Rather, V’Ger is travelling vast distances to meet with and to eventually join with its creator. Spoiler alert – V’Ger is actually NASA’s Voyager 6 probe, repurposed by a distant and advanced civilisation that made it sentient and sent it home again.

There’s a sense in which mankind’s religions have a similar aim. It is the attempt of the individual to somehow reach and to understand the greater reality, the one who is responsible for us being here in the first place or some state of ultimate spiritual fulfilment. So many people want to somehow relating to this bigger reality that has to do with where they came from. In the TV cut of TMP, Commander Decker actually says that V’Ger has done what people do, it has make God in their own image.[2]

The Need to Become, So That We Can Know

As the star ship Enterprise intercepts the cloud, V’Ger has to take the form of a member of the Enterprise bridge crew in order to engage and interact with Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest. They lose their bridge officer, Lieutenant Ilia, only for her to return again in a slightly different form. While taking a shower. Go figure!

By using Ilea, V’Ger trying to understand and engage with the crew of the Enterprise, to learn everything it can, becoming like them so that it can know and understand more. V’Ger has to change itself, and take on something knew so it can know more.

The Need to Live a Significant Life

Admiral Kirk has been on his own quest, to recover past glories, and get back to his hearts deepest desires. Being Captain of a star ship. Yet in doing so, he finds that the Enterprise has changed. She’s not the same vessel she used to be.

Kirk has a need for fulfilment in life, of feeling that he is able to contribute in a significant way. Surely this is a longing within each of us? And it has similarities to the longings within V’Ger. Is this all I am? Is there nothing more? Kirk intuitively knows what he’s good at, and he wants to reclaim this position at all costs. Even if he must sacrifice other people to achieve it. Perhaps he realises that life is short, and in the end you need to spend the years you’ve got doing what you love, and doing something that makes a difference somehow?

The Journey to the Next Level of Life

Probably my favourite character arc is that of Spock. Kirk’s friend has been on a quest of his own for 10 years since we last saw him. His aim has been to finally purge all emotion from his life thru Kolinahr. And yet tragically Spock has failed in this quest. In an attempt to understand why, he realises that he must discover just what V’Ger is and what it’s aims are. And he uses the Enterprise and her crew to do that. But are his aims noble? Or … like Kirk may be doing … would he put his needs above those of others on the ship? It’s a fascinating tension there in the second act of the story.

Spock’s overall journey is one of abject failure which results in a reconnection with the people who had previously been his adopted family on board the star ship Enterprise. Spock finds what he needs in his interactions with V’Ger, and experiences a break thru from the failures and disappointments of the past into a new place of purpose and significance and belonging in his own life.

What about Bones? Sadly – he’s just along for the ride in this picture! What a shame.

The Need to Know and Be Known

V’Ger, has been travelling the universe learning all that can be known. Who cannot relate to the sense that there is so much that we do not know? But we have the urge to learn more. And what about so many big questions? Who am I and what is my purpose in life? I long to understand. Yet there is more. More than knowing answers, is actually being known by another. Personal intimacy is more important and vital than all the learning one can do, particularly with the one who originally created us.

 

The Themes

It turns out, Star Trek the Motion Picture is a story about knowing:

  • Knowing that you have managed to make contact with the person who created you
  • Changing to become like someone else so you can know what they are like.
  • Knowing what you want, and doing everything you can to get it.
  • Knowing that you have failed, and needing to find out whether you can move to the next stage of your life or not.
  • Coming to the realisation that knowing everything that can be known is not enough. The more important thing – is being known by the one that made you.

 

Christianity

It is fascinating for me then that, while TMP reflects human spirituality in its thematic structure, it is a very human form of religion we find there. Yet Christianity turns the tables on this very human search for meaning and knowledge. We might not realise it, but Christianity shows that it is not possible for the creature to restlessly reach for the greater thing. In the end it’s not mankind’s role to be like V’Ger, and seek to join with its creator. Actually it is the opposite. God comes looking for us instead.

Are Christians making God in our image here? Well, who would have imagined that the transcendent creator would stoop so low as to come in search of little me. It’s an absurd suggestion, it’s wonderful, it’s Christianity.

God wants to be known by me, and is willing to find us to let that happen. We are the people who have gotten lost and are in deep need of being rescued. God’s the one looking for us, not the other way around. He has the resources to become like us to find us, and to help us know what our purpose is in life. He can help us connect with him, to achieve what V’Ger, Kirk and Spock were all trying to get to. A life of true meaning, being known and loved for ever.

 

 

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”).” Matthew 1:23, NIV

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10, NIV

Though he was God,[a]
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges[b];
he took the humble position of a slave[c]
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,[d]
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:6-11, NLT

 

[1] They were also confused about whether they wanted a movie or a new TV series. Eventually, Star Trek Phase II was dropped in favour of a new movie in the wake of the success of Star Wars at the box office.

[2] “In Thy Image” is actually a title for a proposed episode for a new Star Trek series which never happened, and instead was used as an inspiration for TMP.

Real Theistic Design Arguments Aren’t Circular

I had a fascinating discussion with someone recently who posed an interesting argument. He said that theists who point to the incredible unlikelihood of the appearance of life, and so conclude that God designed the universe, are actually proposing circular fallacious arguments. He said it like this:

 

“by using high improbabilities in an argument for ID [design] you inadvertently presuppose that humanity was the purpose of the universe. Obviously, presupposing that humanity is the purpose of the universe [also] presupposes a purpose owner. So, using high improbabilities in an argument for ID makes the ID argument circular in that it presupposes its own conclusion.”[1]

 

In other words, he is claiming that Theists argue for design like this:

1 – Nature looks designed.

2 – If nature is designed, there was a purpose behind that design.

3 – A purpose is owned by an agent.

4 – Only God is a powerful enough agent to design the universe.

5 – Therefore God designed the universe.

 

Unfortunately, this argument is fallacious. It is an incoherent argument. Why? It begs the question. How? Because God appears as a premise in the argument (4) and also a conclusion to the argument (5). The argument therefore assumes what it proports to prove. That’s a pointless exercise, right there! It’s a bad argument for God.

 

I must say I agree with my friend here. And if scholarly theists were putting forward this argument in the fields of either Intelligent Design, or the fine tuning of the universe, then they would be rightfully shut down. This argument does not prove that God exists at all.

 

My friend’s problem is – that scholarly theists DON’T use this argument. Why? I guess for many reasons. But possibly because they see no need to make the logical leap he decides to make in premise (2).

 

Fine-Tuning of the Universe

Our discussion started around the fine-tuning of the universe. This is the scientific observation that the range of life permitting values for the constants and quantities in our universe is incredibly narrow. If they were altered by the narrowest of margins, life could not exist because the universe would be life-prohibiting. We simply have to accept these incredibly specific and arbitrary values. It is how nature works. If they were set to any other value, life would not exist.

 

While theists point out the mathematical probabilities regarding the universe, they do not directly infer some divine purpose as a result. Rather, they simply say – the universe is mathematically precise. But they don’t immediately presuppose therefore that it was designed. Rather, they consider the possible explanations for that precise state of affairs.

 

6 – Nature looks fine-tuned.

7 – The fine-tuning of the universe is either due to physical necessity, chance or design.

8 – It is not due to either physical necessity or chance.

9 – Therefore it is due to design.

 

The conclusion of design is an inference to the best explanation, because neither chance or necessity work as explanations. Having inferred the “design” explanation, they then go on to explore the options for the Designer. And this leads the Theist eventually to conclude that God would have the power, wisdom and immaterial nature to be this Designer.

Mathematical improbabilities are therefore used to build the theistic case, but do not suppose any conclusion.

But, you might be asking – hang on. Why does premise (8) say physical necessity or chance aren’t good candidates for explaining cosmic fine-tuning?

 

Why Does Physical Necessity Not Work?

Perhaps this is the only way the universe could be? But the problem is that the constants and values are not determined by nature. Rather, they form nature as we know it. So why would these values be necessary then? Couldn’t they be set to a different value? Of course if they were, then life would not be possible in the universe.

To say that the universe HAS to look this way is also saying that a life-prohibiting universe is impossible. Those are pretty big claims. And there seems to be no way to justify these claims beyond shrugging and saying, “I like it better this way.”

Yet when we look at the probabilities involved, it suggests that a non-life permitting universe is MUCH MORE LIKELY than a life permitting one. So non-life permitting universes are likely, and so the physical necessity explanation breaks down.

 

Why Does Chance Not Work?

Often the non-theist will say, it’s just by chance that we are here. Hey – someone has to win the lottery. Right? It’s unlikely you’ll win, but someone has to and this happens every week…it’s a mundane occurrence (tho not for the winner!). Given this analogy, it is wrong to think of a universe designer, because that would effectively be tantamount to rigging the lottery.

Craig observes at this point that the skeptic has misunderstood the argument for design. In its place, he suggests this analogy.[2]

Imagine a lottery where billions and billions of white balls are mixed together with a single black ball. And on the night of the draw, a single ball is withdrawn from the ball container. If it’s the black ball, you get to live. If it’s a white ball, then you are shot dead.

Notice that when any particular ball is drawn, the result is improbable. The odds against a particular ball are astronomical. BUT – that fact is IRRELEVANT. We are not trying to explain why a particular ball was picked. Getting a white ball is no more probable than getting the single black ball. But its MORE probable you will get the white ball.

The point is – if the black ball is drawn from the lottery, and it happens that way five weeks in a row, then you would be within your rights to assume that this lottery had been rigged. And this is what the fine-tuning argument is doing. It’s not trying to explain why THIS universe exists. Rather, it’s trying to explain why a LIFE PERMITTING universe exists.

Notice, it’s not actually about the odds at all. Rather, it’s about WHY the black ball comes out 5 times in a row. Just saying, “some ball had to be picked” is not the issue. So – the chance conclusion does not work, and does not do a solid job of explaining the fine-tuning of the universe.

 

Summary of the Cosmic Fine-Tuning Argument

What if we rearranged my friend’s argument to be something closer to what theists say? It would be this:

10 – Nature is fine-tuned.

11 – The fine-tuning of nature is either the result of natural necessity, chance or design.

12 – Fine-tuning is not the result of natural necessity or chance.

13 – Fine-tuning is the result of design.

14 – God owns the attributes to be identified as the designer.

 

[1] @stuhgray, twitter conversation, 07/12/19 – 08/12/19.

[2] William Lane Craig, On Guard Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, (Colorado Springs:David C. Cook, 2010), Loc 1856 – 1878, summarized.

 

Is the Reported Birth Place of Jesus Fictional?

Bethlehem. Skeptics have sometimes rolled their eyes at the claim that Jesus was born there … in Bethlehem. “There’s no good evidence,” they say.

 

What’s their argument? Well, Dickson lays out a common skeptical argument that goes like this.[1]

 

The Argument Against Bethlehem

First – the gospels of Mark and John do not claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Second – one Old Testament prophecy declares that the Jewish Messiah will come from Bethlehem.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

    though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me

    one who will be ruler over Israel,

whose origins are from of old,

    from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2, NIV)

Surely the gospels that do mention Bethlehem as Jesus birthplace HAD to place him there to fit with the old prophecy in Micah?

Think of this like an example of first century “retcon.” Movies and books do this all the time, bringing in new information to impose a different interpretation on previously described events. If you’ve ever watched a prequel to an established movie, you’ve probably experienced retcon.

So the skeptic is claiming that gospel writers were just bringing in a new but false piece of evidence to retcon Jesus’ real birthplace so that his birth would seem to fit with Micah 5:2, he would appear more linked to the Davidic line, and therefore he would look more Messianic!

 

I don’t buy it. Why?

 

The Argument For Bethlehem

First – because just as important as the fact that Mark and John do not mention Bethlehem, Matthew and Luke absolutely do! The silence of two gospels cannot be louder than the clear statements of the other two. For example:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” (Matthew 2:1, NIV)

 

“So Joseph also went … to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David… While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” (Luke 2:4 – 6, NIV)

 

Second – if Mark and Luke didn’t feel it was important to retcon the story and “place” Jesus in Bethlehem, then what is the evidence that Matthew and Luke DID retcon the story of Jesus’ birth? There is no evidence. If this was a manufactured, rather than a true incidental detail in the gospel account, you would expect all of them to follow each other in the retcon. They don’t. So this tends to neutralize the sceptical argument.

Herod Killing the Male Children in Bethlehem

Here’s a bonus point.

Sometimes skeptics also roll their eyes at the claim in Matthew’s gospel that King Herod tried to kill the baby Jesus by slaughtering all the new born male children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16) “There’s no historical evidence,” they say.

Well – Matthew’s gospel is giving you historical evidence. But why do you expect this event to be recorded by anyone else, like the Roman historian Josephus? He doesn’t mention the killing of the male babies. But so what?

Bethlehem was a little hamlet in the first century. Why do you think any historian would have such a small, localized and minor atrocity on their radar? Particularly given the much bigger atrocities that King Herod is reported to have committed, like killing a group of dignitaries to make sure that people grieved at the time of his death, and did not give a sigh of relief![2] Surely you would only expect a writer who is particularly focussed on the birth of a single child – Jesus – to think it important to record this event? That’s what Matthew was doing.

Conclusion

It is very reasonable then just to take Matthew and Luke at face value, and accept that Jesus was born in the little town of Bethlehem.

 

[1] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

[2] Josephus, Antiquities, 17.6.174–175.

 

An Astrophysicist Talks About the First Christmas Star

Christmas is all about twinkling lights. It’s one of the special things that makes this season so magical for little ones. And – of course – every year, it means we adults need to untangle the Christmas lights again from our box of decorations. Hey – I put these away so carefully back in January. Why are they in such a tangle now?!

Matthew’s gospel describes a star … a particular aspect of Jesus’ birth that is recorded in a curious way. He records that Magi (wise men from a King’s court) arrived in Jerusalem from the East. “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2, NASB) Clearly they were putting 2 + 2 together here? Both an astronomical sign … and probably prophetic promises from the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament). For example, Numbers 24:17 says,

I see him, but not now;

I behold him, but not near.

A star will come out of Jacob;    

    a scepter will rise out of Israel.[1]

But as these Magi continue their journey, the star is said to guide them. “…they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.” (Matthew 2:9, NASB)

It seems like an odd way of describing what was going on. But, like the other details we read in the Christmas story, it is very specific. It’s described from the perspective of people on the ground, but  how could a star be seen to lead these Magi?

Astrophysicist Luke Barnes observes that the great thing about cosmology is that you can wind time back and predict what was going on in our night sky at a point in history. So, we should be able to determine what was going on at the time of Jesus’ birth (around 5 BC, described here.) Luke says there are three main theories about what the “star” recorded by Matthew could have been.[2]

 

First – it could have been a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. When this occurs, from our vantage point on earth, we see the two planets cross over each other and so they appear much brighter in the sky and can be mistaken for a star. A triple conjunction is named this way because the crossover happens 3 times over a period of a month, or so. Appearing at different points in the night sky.

But did this happen at that time? There was one that occurred around 7 BC. But that seems a little early for Jesus birth.

 

Second – it could have been a nova or supernova, a vast nuclear explosion in space which is visible to us on earth. Astrophysicists are able to examine the remains of the star to work out when it blew up, so they can date the nova. Historical record and astro-evidence agree that a nova was visible in the sky in 1054 AD. We are not aware of one dated 5 BC (when Jesus was born), though Barnes admits we may simply not have found it yet.

 

Third – it could also have been a comet. The word for “star” is understood to be used by the ancients to refer to comets. Roman historians Josephus and Pliney both refer to them as signalling good or bad omens.

The thing about a comet is that it is indeed moving, and we can observe that from our vantage point on earth. So, over a period of weeks and months, it could conceivably be seen by the Magi from their perspective in the East, then the West and the South.

Of course, the thing about a comet is that it also has a visible tail caused be dust and gas being given off by the object as it travels thru space. Perhaps if the tail was seen as pointing upwards, then it could look to people like a pointer pointing down at a particular point, and so “standing over” Bethlehem. Also, the star and sceptre in that prophecy from Numbers 24 sounds like it could describe how a comet might look to the naked eye.

But are there any good candidates for this comet in history?

Haley’s comet was visible around 12 BC, which would be too early. However, Chinese astronomers claim to have evidence of a visible comet around 5 BC. The record is not very complete tho. There’s no record of it moving across the sky, although it would be reasonable to assume that it could have done that from the perspective of our planet.

 

Summary

While this subject has been debated for a long time, there seem to be reasonable candidates for the astronomical event described in Matthew’s account for the birth of Christ. But does a natural account of the star empty the story of any supernatural quality? After all, Jesus birth is described as being very special indeed. This wasn’t just any birth, it was the event when God came to earth to live as a person. Well, it seems to me that miracles aren’t just about God stepping into the physical universe at a point in time. They are also about God giving particular and special meaning to natural occurrences in the normal course of events. Surely, that could describe what was going on then in the night sky?

[1] Numbers 24:17, NIV.

[2] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

 

When Was Jesus Born?

If Jesus wasn’t born on the 25th December (see here), then when WAS Jesus born? Or, to put the question another way, when did BC turn to AD (Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord)? Surely a Christian believer would shrug and say, “He was born in AD 1.”

Well – not so fast! Scholars don’t think Jesus was born in AD 1.

Why?

There is some historical data to refer to here:

FIRST – Matthew and Luke’s gospels were written independently, and they agree that Jesus was born during the reign of the Roman appointed King, Herod the Great.

SECOND – the Roman historian Josephus places the dates of Herod’s rule from 37 BC to 4 BC. So, Jesus must have been born before 4BC.

THIRD – Matthew places Jesus birth around Herod’s reign. [1]

FOURTH – Luke says during the 15th year of Tiberius Ceasar, Jesus was about 30 years old.[2] Tiberius was Ceasar between AD 14 and AD 37, so the 15th year was about AD 28. Counting backwards 30 years or so, we reach 6 BC.

 

Scholars today have reached a consensus that Jesus was probably born in 5 BC.[3]

 

SO – the question then is – how can Jesus be born 5 years BEFORE CHRIST (BC)? That seems to make no sense at all!

 

Dickson points out that the reason for this is pretty straightforward. In AD 525, Pope St. John asked mathematician and theologian Dionysius Exiguus to create a chronology of events based on the limited historical records available at the time. He dated Jesus’ birth as accurately as he could, and then the Western church decided to use his chronology for the purpose of dating.

Today, we simply have more accurate historical dating of both Herod the Great and Emperor Tiberius than the ancients had. So – this lets us confidently place Jesus birth 5 years earlier than Dionysius originally thought.

 

It seems to me that, like before, it’s less important exactly when Jesus was born. The important thing to grasp is that he was born in the first place. Because that means we have to then grapple with the reports of his claims about himself (I can do what God does), and the reports of the miraculous things he did at that time in the first century. Crucially – his reported resurrection from the dead.

 

 

[1] Matthew 2:1.

[2] Luke 3, summarised.

[3] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

Was Jesus Actually Born on 25th December?

December 25th has, for so many people on the planet, been the date when the celebration of Christmas happens. The celebration of the birth of Christ. BUT – was Jesus actually born on the 25th of December?

 

In the first century, the day we now know to be 25th of December (on our later Gregorian calendar) was a big party in the Roman empire. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was a celebration of the return of the invincible sun god. This was an opportunity for folks in the northern territories to celebrate the point in winter when the days begin to get longer again.

 

Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman empire, so why celebrate Christ’s birth on 25th December? Did the Christians try to compete with the Roman celebration? Did they copy it?

 

John Dickson recounts two possible theories for why Christmas lands on the 25th December.[1]

 

One – the date is just a coincidence! Some people in the early church actually thought Jesus might have been born on 25th December. They based that on the assumption that he must have been conceived on the date of his crucifixion, and they put that at 25th March. So – nine months later would be 25th December. Yet – to be honest – this all seems a bit tenuous to me.

 

Two – the Church reclaimed the pre-existing Roman party on 25th December. The Christians decided not to cancel the party that so many people had grown up with and looked forward to each year. They didn’t want to stop the celebration of the “return of the sun.” Instead, they decided to RECLAIM the party as a celebration of the coming of “the SON of God.” They weren’t saying that Jesus was actually born on December 25th. They were saying his birth was worth throwing a party about…and the pre-existing party seemed a great time to do it.

 

And so – those in the Western Church have celebrated Christmas on 25th December ever since. It’s not his actual birth date. It’s the date when the fact of his birth is celebrated.

 

By the way – Dickson reminds us that the Eastern Church (everything East of Greece) celebrates Christmas on 6th January, not 25th December.

[1] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

 

Are the Gospels Trumpian – Getting Some Details Right, But the Story All Wrong?

At Christmas time, the Christian churches return to the gospel accounts of Christ’s birth and re-read the events as they are described. In a recent conversation between Peter J Williams and sceptical theologian Bart Ehrman, there was an exchange of views about the reliability of these Gospel accounts. This was a discussion around the question, “How reasonable is it to accept the Gospels as history?” [1]

It’s important to recognise that the Gospels present themselves as historical accounts. Many scholars think they present as a first century literature form of biography, which was sometimes written in a particular form about important public figures. Jesus certainly qualifies as one of those.

It’s also important to realise that I am talking about using reason as we examine the Gospels, not some form of blind acceptance. There are good reasons to believe that, even though the Gospel writers sometimes give a different perspective on some events, that they were qualified to record these historical events.

First, they wrote them very quickly after the events occurred. The average person on the street might assume they were written hundreds of years after the fact … like legends. Yet the evidence points to a few decades after the fact. In historical terms, writing an account a few decades later is incredibly early, and few historical events we assume to be reliable have such excellent documentary support.

An important line of evidence towards the accuracy of the Gospels that Peter J Williams presented is the consistent correctness of the minor details. For example, geographic details about first century Palestine, names of people and places and the distances between these locations. So…

  • the writers clearly know the area
  • this suggests they must have been there
  • they get the small details correct in their account

Given these points, why should we believe that the bigger details around Jesus and his life were fabricated?

In response, Ehrman reminded Williams about President Trump’s inauguration ceremony in Washington DC. If you remember, there was some controversy surrounding Trump’s claims on the number of attendees at this ceremony. He claimed a high number of people attended, while photographic evidence at the time points to a much much smaller representation. So what? Well, Ehrman says that Trump got the details right. There was a ceremony, and people attended and he was there. But just because these things are true does not automatically result in accurate reporting. Not at all. He clearly misrepresented the important issue of how many people attended! He is not a reliable witness.

You could apply this argument to the Gospels. Just because they got the small details right doesn’t mean they are reliable witnesses. Or can you? The reason people were sceptical of President Trump is that he is prone to exaggerate when he talks. Documented evidence of his exaggerations is easily available to us. So, this put his claims around his inauguration under sceptical scrutiny.

Yet no such precedent exists for the New Testament Gospels. K. Albert Little points out that there are no first century accounts that contradict the Gospel narratives. If they were manufactured, it would not have been difficult for the historians at the time (Josephus, Tacitus, etc) to set the record straight. Wouldn’t we expect to find this contrary evidence if the Gospel accounts were fabricated? Yet no such first century evidence exists. [2]

In the case of President Trump, we have experience of his exaggerations and we have photographic evidence of the event in question and this raises scepticism at President Trumps claims. Yet no such data exists on the Gospels. We cannot reasonably doubt the Gospels in the way we can doubt President Trump.

Albert Little goes further and points out that In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul points to hundreds of people who could verify the stories about Christ’s life, death and resurrection. If you don’t believe me, Paul is saying, speak to them! If Trump had made this claim, he would have been found to be a bad witness. He could not do so. Yet Paul could easily do so because his account was solid and reliable.

Getting the small details right lends credence to the Gospel claims, and given that there are no contemporary voices disagreeing with their claims and no outside sources giving alternative version of events, we have no alternative data to cause us to doubt their claims. Remember that the likes of Josephus and Tacitus were writing towards the back end of the first century and they could have set the record straight if it needed to be done. And the early second century Church Fathers quote the Gospels liberally, showing that they were in heavy circulation well before then. There are good reasons to accept the Gospels as history.

[1] Peter J Williams & Bart Ehrman, The story of Jesus: Are the Gospels historically reliable?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuZPPGvF_2I.

[2] K Albert Little, Did the Gospel Writers Get Facts Right But Their Stories Wrong?, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/albertlittle/the-gospels-are-reliable-and-ehrman-is-wrong/