Nature and Reason Point to the Existence of God

road-sun-rays-path

Richard Swinburne proposed this argument for the existence of God[1] during a debate at Oxford University. His argument’s uses an approach called “natural theology” because it appeals to nature and human reason when arguing for the existence of God.

 

I often hear people dismiss the idea of God. “We just don’t know”, they say. Swinburne appeals to nature, and to human reason, and takes issue with this claim.

 

Swinburne’s proposition is that God is a personal being. Clearly, we are too. But unlike us, God has no limits or constraints placed upon him.

 

Further, God’s also perfectly good and free from irrational inclinations. Unfortunately, we can’t consistently do the right and good thing. Partly, that’s because we don’t always do the rational thing. There are many complicated reasons for this. But God’s not subject to this limitation – we might not fully understand why he does certain things (he’s God and we’re not) but God acts on reason always. He’s free – and he is good.

 

Swinburne proposes that if this God exists and is responsible for the universe – then that would explain two interesting observations.

1 – that there IS a physical universe in the first place.

2 – the Universe is governed by laws (captured by theories like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity).

These laws mean that every single particle in the universe has the same power and liability to influence any other particle in the universe.

 

 

Why would Swinburne’s description of God explain the existence of our ordered universe?

First – a good God would naturally seek to bring about good things. Fundamentally, human beings are intended as good things. It’s good for me that we all exist…and its good for you too. Of course, we face choices on how to treat each other. And we don’t always choose the good thing. But – its good for us that God has delegated this choice to us. We have free will because God intended it that way.

 

Second – for beings like us to exist, God must provide the necessary conditions. We are limited beings, embodied and our physical bodies require a physical universe.

If we are to be able to act as free beings in this universe, it has to be an ordered and regular universe. Not a chaotic one. What does this mean?

1 – we can predict what will happen. For example, if I feed you then – all things being equal – you will live. If I poison you…you will die.

2 – in a chaotic universe, it wouldn’t matter what I did…I would never actually know how it might affect you…. either positively or negatively. A regular universe is required for us to see how things behave. And this regularity is captured by certain laws, like physical laws, and these lead to general principles. For example, food nourishes and poison kills.

 

Swinburne’s claim is – if this sort of God exists – then you would expect to have a universe which is ordered.

 

 

What if there wasn’t a God like this. Would we expect this sort of ordered universe?

First – think about our physical universe.

Every particle of matter stretching across our mind-bendingly vast universe. Not only do these particles of matter exist in the first place…they are completely regular. Each and every one is composed of the same sub-atomic building blocks and behaves exactly the same way.

Now – how likely would this be if there was no God? Wouldn’t this be a bit like winning the lottery…not once…but a trillion-trillion times in perfect sequence?

Yet some people who do not believe in God might say – that’s just how the universe is.

But to believe that every particle of matter behaves as every other particle of matter – yet then proceed to decide that this state of affairs doesn’t require a meaningful explanation – seems deeply unscientific.

1 – you are faced with an overwhelmingly enormous number of coincidences.

2 – you can explain them all by a very simple explanation – there is a God.

3 – to stop at the coincides and to live with them, flies in the face of the scientific method.

 

So – we have data about how our universe is structured and behaves. Matter exists, and there are conscious beings who are able to recognise and analyse that fact. If there’s a God, you would expect that data. If there’s no God – if the physical laws are somehow ultimate and there’s nothing and no one beyond them – then you would not expect this data. It’s just astronomically unlikely.

 

Second – think about human moral choice.

We are faced with the choices whether to help or hinder other people…to hurt or to benefit. I face this choice, and evil results when I abuse the privilege of this choice. God’s good, and he’s interested in making people who are good and who will live forever.

The way human beings work, the choices we repeatedly make form our characters. Every time we choose to do the good and right thing, its easier to make that choice again. Likewise, every time we compromise, its easier to compromise in the future. God allows us the freedom to make these choices – but his goal is to help us develop good character.

So – what about human suffering, then? The fact that human beings suffer seems to fly in the face of this. Does suffering disprove the existence of God because it takes away human moral choice?

Well – to develop good character, we must have serious problems to face and to overcome. If I become ill, then the question is how will I deal with this? Will I grow in resentment and become a negative influence on the people around me? Or – will I face this challenge good naturedly?

Isn’t it reasonable to assume that God would provide difficult situations as an opportunity – during our limited time on this planet – to give us the chance to develop a good character? While this does not cover all issues related to human suffering, it poses a serious challenge to me. How will I choose to respond when I am suffering?

So – human freedom – and the choice to build a good or reprobate character – points to the existence of God.

 

 

In summary – this is the sort of world you would expect to have if there was a God. If there was no God – it would just be unbelievable that such a world would exist.

Therefore – on that basis – Swinburne proposes that there is a God.

 

 

Image courtesy of pexels.com.

[1] Richard Swinburne, Religion Helps Society | Richard Swinburne | Oxford Union, OxfordUnion, Youtube, accessed 23rd January 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_QXll-_qhQ.

RESPONDblogs: The Hero Who Never Fired a Bullet

hacksaw ridge

 

From the opening frames, you can see this isn’t going to be an easy watch.

It took me a while to work up to watching this movie. I find images of war profoundly disturbing, and I know Mel Gibson’s talent at portraying horror and man’s inhumanity to man. In this movie – he did nothing less. He’s a master at it.

But – incredibly – this is not a war movie at its heart.

I’m going to give some important plot details now…go watch the movie if you don’t want to be spoiled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss. Raised by a Christian mother, Desmond grew into a devout young man who decided to shun violence. When war broke out – the patriot within him longed to fight for America’s freedom. But – he could not bear to take up arms himself. Rather – he dreamed of entering the Army in a non-combat role – as a Medic.

This got him into all sorts of trouble during his Army training. His refusal to use a rifle almost landed him in an Army prison for the rest of the war. Yet through some profoundly moving circumstances – Desmond was spared Court Marshall. And instead – he was sent with the 77th Infantry Division to the bloodiest theatre of war…Okinawa in the South Pacific…unarmed. The army men who had labelled him a coward for refusing to fight…began to see saw his bravery as Desmond faced the horrors of Hacksaw Ridge carrying nothing but medical supplies, and a willing heart to bring comfort to the wounded and the dying on the battlefield.

That any of Desmond’s Detachment survived Hacksaw was pretty miraculous. The Japanese counter attack was fierce. Gibson’s movie portrays events as follows. After the first day of fighting, the 77th seem to have survived and dug in on Hacksaw Ridge. They survive the night – yet at first light, the Japanese counter attack pushes them back to the edge of the cliff again. Those who can, scramble down the cliff face to safety, leaving dead and dying friends remaining on the ridge with scores of Japanese soldiers who wander the battlefield, finishing off the wounded men that remain.

The movie shows this as the pivotal moment in Desmond’s story.

As his buddies flee for their lives…he stands at the cliff edge…feeling he could have done more. He prays to God – “speak to me. Show me what to do.” And through the confusion…the cries of wounded men reach his ears. Desmond knows his next step.

Instead of climbing down the cliff face to safety, he heads unarmed…back onto the battlefield…carefully dodging Japanese soldiers on the grotesque, body strewn battlefield. One by one, Desmond drags wounded soldiers towards the cliff edge…lowering them down the ridge cliff face to safety. He even rescues some enemy soldiers that way. The movie shows him lowering each life down to safety…and returning to the horrors of the battlefield with a single prayer – “Lord, just one more…let me save one more.” In total – he saves 75 wounded soldiers who faced certain death on Hacksaw Ridge.

Actor Andrey Garfield was interviewed about his role, and he shakes his head at Doss’s heroic actions. “Whatever it was that gave him the power to do that…it was just incredible…” Some of the Hacksaw Ridge filmmakers were quick to point out two interesting things about this true story.

First – that Desmond Doss shows that there’s a different thing between Religion and Faith. While religion is often seen as a defining demarcation line between people – often resulting in tensions and conflicts – faith is something different. It’s the power to trust, to look beyond yourself – and do incredibly acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. Whatever Desmond’s religious persuasion – he was a conservative Christian – Desmond showed how powerful faith in God can really be. I think there’s some truth to this.

The second point the filmmakers make – is that even though Desmond was a Christian, this principle he showed is not confined to Christianity alone. It simply shows the positive impact that spirituality in general can have in this world.

I am quite sure that people of all religious persuasion are capable of acts of bravery, self-sacrifice and honour. It’s happening around the world right now during terrible conflict. I’m in awe of every sacrificial person – whatever their religious background. And from my current place of comfort and security – I cheer each of these people on for their actions.

But – I’d like to point something out about Christianity. It seems to me that – there’s something uniquely Christian about Desmond Doss’s story. Why?

We consistently read that Jesus spent time with those in his Jewish society that were the lowest of the low. The religious establishment looked down their noses at Jesus for doing this. Yet Jesus made a point of explaining his actions. You can read his reply to them in Luke chapter 15 in the New Testament. He takes three instances where something of great value had gotten lost – and someone decided to go looking for that thing, even though it cost them greatly. The lost sheep…the lost coin…the lost son. There is something about Jesus that is just not content to stop when there’s even one lost person in our world…Doss echo’s the heart cry of Jesus Christ – ”give me one more…let me save one more.”

I’m suggesting – there’s something distinctively Christian about putting oneself in harms way to have the opportunity to rescue someone who is lost. We all reflect Jesus when we do it – whether we like that or not.

I’m grateful to the Hacksaw Ridge filmmakers who have helped me learn about how Desmond Doss modelled Jesus Christ in a moving and awe-inspiring way during the World War 2 battles in the Pacific.

RESPONDblogs: Did the First Followers of Jesus Believe in an Empty Tomb?

empty_tomb_1

People sometimes look sceptically at the New Testament account of Jesus’ resurrection, suggesting the original Christians didn’t claim Jesus tomb was empty. Rather, the idea of Jesus’ physical resurrection evolved over time.

Richard Carrier says the earliest Christian thinking on post-crucifixion Jesus is in Paul’s letters, but Paul doesn’t talk physical resurrection, instead he says Jesus returned to heaven as a spirit. This portrays the empty tomb as a legend from Christians who misunderstood Paul’s teaching. The story “that Jesus actually walked out of the grave with the same body that went into it, leaving an empty tomb to astonish all, was probably a legend that developed over the course of the first century.”[1] The Gospels, written after Paul’s death, contain these legends.

Everybody LOVES a good conspiracy theory. But what does Carrier base his proposed conspiracy theory on? Is his foundation secure? If not, then his theory won’t be any good.

Carrier’s foundation is the idea the earliest Christians didn’t believe Jesus was raised physically, but spiritually. There was no empty tomb; resurrection was just a clever idea to build a movement on. Let’s look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to see whether Carrier’s right.

Paul’s Argument for Resurrection

“They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.”[2] Paul’s talking about two types of body, contrasting natural and spiritual bodies. So, is he contrasting a physical body with a ghost-like spirit? Or are our western minds reading this into the text?

Paul’s original greek contrasts soma psychikon (translated natural) and soma pneumatikon (translated spiritual). The word psychikon refers to something as soulish, while the word pneumatikon refers to something as spiritual. Paul’s contrasting soulish and spiritual bodies.

There’s no reference to physical body here. The ancients had ways of contrasting physical and non-physical things, but they didn’t use these words. Ironically, if a 1st century reader saw the phrase soma psychikon and was looking for a physical/non-physical contrast, they would think soma psychikon referred to the non-physical side![3]

If Paul’s not talking in terms of physical vs ghostly non-physical resurrection body, what is he doing? He’s contrasting soulish and spirit empowered bodies.

Here’s another interesting point about Paul’s choice of language. Adjectives with the ending -ikos have ethical meanings, they don’t refer to material composition.[4] So Paul’s not thinking about the resurrection body’s composition, rather he’s talking about its power source.

Carrier thinks Paul’s speaking about a “ship made of steel or wood,” but actually Paul’s talking about a ship “driven by steam or wind.”[5]

Let’s look at Paul’s argument for the resurrection body.

1 –Bodies are Physical

Some Corinthians believed the body was unspiritual and something to escape from. The idea of a physical resurrection body wouldn’t be good news.

Paul responds by teaching a right understanding of the resurrection from the dead, and he appeals to God’s original creative work. Adam and the garden were physical things, and Adam relates to Christ. “The first man, Adam, became a living person. But the last Adam – that is Christ – is a life-giving Spirit. What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later.”[6] He’s saying, we all know soulish bodies exist (soma psychikon), but bodies animated by God’s spirit are also real (soma pneumatikon). Jesus’ resurrection body is an example of pneumatikon.[7]

If Paul didn’t think Jesus’ resurrection body was a physical thing, then why would he bother to link Christ with his original physical creation?

2 – Jesus’ Resurrection Body is Like Our Future Body

He goes on to say that, “Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.”[8] Our own resurrection bodies will be like Christ’s. Jesus’ resurrection body was physical, so ours will be too.

3 – Our Soulish Lives will be Swallowed Up in Spirit Empowered Lives

The aim isn’t to leave our bodies for spiritual existence, the aim is “to let the present ‘heavenly’ life change the present earthy reality”[9] and look for a future where God’s intended “pneumatikos state…swallow(s) up and replace(s) [a] merely psychikos life.”[10]

Our current, corruptible soulish bodies can’t inherit God’s kingdom, but our future non-corruptible spirit empowered bodies will.

 

Conclusion

Carrier thinks Paul taught a non-physical resurrection body, and his letter to Corinth “discourses on metaphysical minutiae…resolving some misunderstanding about the nature of the resurrection body.”[11] Yes, but Paul’s not discoursing on the body’s nature, but on what empowers it; soul or spirit? Based on Christ’s resurrection, Paul assumes Christians will have a future body that will be “animated by, enlivened by, the Spirit of the true God.”[12]

Carrier misrepresents Paul’s argument, claiming he didn’t believe in physical resurrection bodies. No, Paul assumed Jesus’ physical resurrection and likened it to the Christian’s future, Spirit empowered body.

Carrier’s conspiracy theory about the evolution of Jesus’ resurrection accounts isn’t therefore grounded; the earliest Christians did believe both that Christ was physically raised, and in the future, we will be too.

[1] Richard C. Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, eds. Robert M. Price, and Jeffery Jay Lowder (New York: Prometheus Books, 2005), Loc. 1259, Kindle.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:44, NLT.

[3] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (London:Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 350.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] 1 Cor 15:45, NLT.

[7] Wright, 354.

[8] 1 Cor 15:49, NLT.

[9] Wright, 355.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Carrier, Loc., 1486.

[12] Wright, 354.

 

Image courtesy of Pexels.

RESPONDblogs: The Case for a Personal First Cause

sky-lights-space-dark

I find myself scratching my head when someone asks, “What caused the universe to exist?” What confuses me is that – often people will lead with a scientific answer to that question. Why is this an odd thing to do? Science is about using natural law to explain effects in nature. Yet before the universe, there were no natural laws…they started at the beginning of the universe. Surely science isn’t the appropriate tool to answer this origin question?

 

Perhaps philosophy is a safer starting point when exploring these issues. And using philosophical argument, you can mount a case for a personal First Cause…

 

First – the First Cause is wholly other than the Universe.

We’ve got to try to understand what CAUSED the universe in terms that are unbound BY the universe. Why? Because a cause is always greater than an effect. For example, we may love the characters and the plot of a novel or a movie. But that first cause of that “world” is of another order than that fictional world. The story is fictional – but its cause is real and has thoughts, abilities and a history that goes far beyond the bounds of the fictional world they wrote about.

 

The First Cause of the universe has caused space and time to exist. So, it transcends both. What does this mean?

Changeless – if it is timeless, then it does not react to the passage of time. We change over time. Things change over time. The First Cause is outside of time, and so does not change.

Immaterial – the universe is composed of matter. The First Cause is of another order to that and is not bound by the constraints of matter. It is therefore immaterial. This might sound tricky to accept…but those story characters I mentioned earlier are also immaterial. So are the thoughts about the thoughts that led to the story! So is truth, beauty and Justice. We are quite used to dealing with immaterial realities in our lives.

Uncaused – everything in the universe is caused. The First Cause is other than the universe and so is uncaused. What does this mean? It means that, unlike our experience of nature, there is no antecedent cause for the First Cause. The buck stops with the First Cause. Otherwise, we find ourselves asking…so who caused the First Cause? And that question can go on back and back for ever. No – the First Cause is uncaused. Again – this is very reasonable.  Ocam’s razor isn’t a shaving implement – it’s a problem-solving principle that states something like, “Among competing hypotheses, the simplest one is best.” There’s only one First Cause. Simples.

Powerful – the First Cause is pretty powerful to create a universe that looks beautifully infinite out of nothing…right?

 

Second – the First Cause is a person.

This is where things get tricky for many people. Perhaps we don’t like the thought of natural laws being the result of some super intelligence like God. Certainly, if we are opposed to the idea of God, then I get why we wouldn’t like that. But, I think the proposition that the First Cause is a person…makes a lot of sense quite apart from religious views. Why? Here are two reasons why.

First – the Personal explanation type gives a fuller explanation.

William Lane Craig points out that there are typically two types of explanation of an event. A scientific explanation, talking about the laws and initial conditions for the event, and a personal explanation, dealing with agents and their wills and choices. Both of these are good explanations.

He asks us to imagine a boiling kettle on the stove in the kitchen. And he asks, why’s the kettle on the boil?

The scientific explanation would say, “The heat…increases the kinetic energy of the water molecules…and are thrown off…[as] steam.”[1]

The personal explanation would be something like, “My wife’s making a cup of tea. Would you like some?”

Which explanation do we turn to when explaining the origin of the universe? We cannot use the scientific explanation because the laws and initial conditions that science deals with were caused when the universe began. There was nothing before the universe. That only leaves the personal explanation – an agent willed it. And only persons have wills. So, the First Cause of the universe is a Person.

 

Second – the Personal explanation solves the Temporal Effect and Timeless Cause Dilemma.

This one was tricky for me to grasp. But the dilemma is this. If a timeless cause has caused the effect of the Universe, then why isn’t the universe timeless…or eternal as well as the cause?

Again, Craig invites you to consider two different ways that events are caused:

1 – a brick shattering a window – in this case, one event (a kid throwing a brick) causes another event (the shattering of a window). You can call this EVENT / EVENT causation because it involves related events.

2 – a log floating on the water – this case is different. Here, one state of affairs causes another. Because the water has a certain surface tension, the log floats on it. This could be called STATE / STATE causation. In this causal relation, the effect need not have a cause. The log could have been floating there eternally. If someone threw it into the lake…then that’s EVENT / EVENT causation instead.

 

So – what about the causation of the universe? Here we seem to have a confusing situation – STATE / EVENT causation. The cause of the universe is timeless, but the effect isn’t timeless because it occurred at a specific point in time (around 14 billion years ago). Usually, the state has the same type of effect. But not in this situation.

 

This is a philosophical dilemma. And the way out proposed by Craig is a personal First Cause who “freely chooses to create a universe in time.”[2] This isn’t EVENT / EVENT causation. And it’s not STATE/STATE causation. Philosophers call it agent causation. And we are very familiar with this concept. Whenever I raise my hand in class to ask a question, my hand goes up as the result of agent causation.

 

 

So – where does this leave me?

The First Cause of the universe cannot be described using scientific means (the laws of physics). And the First Cause isn’t bound by the same constraints we ourselves experience within the universe. The First Cause is an eternal, immaterial, powerful Person. And that…sounds a lot like most people’s description of GOD. And if He’s really there…maybe the Bible’s been right all along. We can get to know who He really is?

 

Image courtesy of Pexels.

[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith Christian Truth and Apologetics 3rd ed, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 152.

[2] Ibid.