Monday, December 29, 2008

The Power of Prayer: Anecdotal Evidence

James 5:16b: The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

Matthew 17:20: And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”

The Bible makes a number of very bold claims about the power of faith and prayer. Personally, I have seen faith greater than a mustard seed and I haven't seen any mountains move. I suppose most people have shared this experience. In light of how clearly false a literal interpretation is, it's not much of a surprise that most Christians think the mountain moving part is a metaphor. But a metaphor for what?

With few exceptions, the power of prayer is seen only through cool stories of how God works, rather than in verifiable claims. For now, I will meet the stories on their own ground.

About a month ago, I was driving home from Maryland in the dark and in pouring rain. I'm not sure why (probably to earn macho points), but I thought it would be a good idea to see if I could make it all the way without stopping. Three hours later, I had made it to my exit, but it was raining so hard that I didn't see the exit ramp until right after I passed it, even though I knew it was coming. If there's a good way to turn around on the New Jersey Turnpike, I still don't know it. A sign could have been proclaiming “Miss your exit? Go here, stupid” and I still couldn't have seen it through the rain. Half an hour later, I stopped at a gas station to ask which way was up. They gave me go-until-you-see-Wawa-then-turn-right-and-go-down-that-road-for-a-while style directions. After driving down that road for “a while,” I was still lost.

In the style of a Christian stopping to pray, I stopped for about a minute to collect my thoughts and simmer down. An hour ago, I was 15 minutes from home – that's gone, don't dwell on that. Anger is irrational here – adrenaline will just get me killed, so let go. Viewed from the bigger picture of say, today, a lost hour or two isn't really that bad. Prayer was very intentionally left out – I didn't go through some facade of “just in case.” I apply Pascal's Wager to an honesty loving deity rather than a faith loving deity, so I don't pray.

I found another gas station, and stopped to buy a detailed road map and have the clerk point out where I was. But he had a better idea. Despite the fact that I was 14 miles from home, he lived less than two miles away from me. Not only that, his ride home had just canceled on him, and his shift ended in ten minutes. Needless to say, I was more than willing to give him a lift for free. Heck, I almost gave him a tip.

If I had been a Christian, this would have been among my more dramatic examples of an answered prayer. Thank you God for making his ride cancel on him, and for leading me to that exact gas station! God hears before we even ask!

But I didn't ask. So why should I be impressed when Christians tell similar stories about what happened when they did ask? Either God is a rewarder of sincere disbelief, or stuff like this just happens without any deity calling the shots.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Book Reviews

In the last year, I've devoured numerous books on religion. My ranking are based on their relevance to the question “but is it true?” In order of best to worst:

1. Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity – John Loftus

Head. And. Shoulders. Above. All. Others. If your book shopping is based on my recommendations, stop reading my blog and go buy it right now.

2. C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion – John Beversluis
3. Beyond Born Again, chapters 5-7 – Robert Price
4. The History of God – Karen Armstrong
5. Incarnation and Inspiration – Peter Enns

Two through five were all excellent, and highly recommended if you are interested in the particular topic.

6. The End of Faith – Sam Harris

I'm not filling stockings with this one, but it was worth my time.

7. The Problem of Pain – C. S. Lewis
8. Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris

These last two were complete lemons.

In more detail:

1. Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity – John Loftus

“Why I'm not Evangelical” would be a more appropriate title, as the focus is not a rejection of any concept of a god, but rather a rejection of the Bible and Evangelical theology. Its target audience is theologically and biblically informed evangelical laypeople/college students.

Rather than bashing the reader over the head with how ridiculous the whole thing is, Loftus patiently covers Christianity from start to finish. He begins with explaining why people should believe things based on actual reasons, and why Christianity must pass the outsider test to be a defensible belief. The rest of the book shows that not only is Christianity not required or suggested by reason, but it doesn't even come close to possessing the slightest shred of reasonableness.

Most of his arguments are a one-two punch of philosophy and biblical analysis. The first hit shows how (insert doctrine of choice) is meaningless/contradictory/impossible and the second hit undercuts the support for the idea actually being true. His philosophical analysis is consistently stellar – he dismantles all the little things in theology that you are supposed to learn but not think about. His biblical arguments switch between the rifle and shotgun approach – he spends the better part of a chapter on a few individual problems, and with others issues his gives a long lists of problems with little elaboration. The contents of the book could probably be divided into 50-100 articles, each of which addresses enough problems in the Bible/theology to justify deconversion or a least a major theological shift.

I don't think the book offers any new arguments that scholars haven't seen before, but that's not its goal. The goal is to communicate to evangelicals ideas that are already out there but are not usually phrased in ways that have a good chance of penetrating through their intellectual defense mechanisms. Pure-bred atheists, or unbelievers coming out of nominal religious backgrounds simply can't do this because it takes a former preacher to really understand the evangelical mind, and not just evangelical beliefs.

60% philosophical/theological, 40% biblical

2. C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion – John Beversluis

This book is meant to be a complete rebuttal to all of Lewis' primary arguments for faith. After reading this book, I feel the intellectual pull of none of his reasons. The main targets are the argument from desire (If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world), the Trilemma, the moral argument, the argument from reason (without God why think our thinking leads to truth?), and a series of rebuttals to Lewis' changing answers to the problem of pain/evil.

The book is heavy philosophically – I didn't make it through a couple of the chapters with understanding. However, Beversluis does an excellent job writing to the more philosophically inclined while allowing more left-brained people like me to listen in profitably. For instance, in one chapter he discusses how Lewis' life and books fit into the discussions of the philosophy of religion that were raging in his generation. Beversluis doesn't assume the reader is up on the philosophical developments of the '50s, but manages to transform what sounds like an extremely esoteric tangent into a highly informative lesson on the modern history of thought.

This book played a major role in pushing me from deist to atheist, but I imagine that many other books would have been better at accomplishing this particular goal, especially one that's a bit easier.

50% philosophical, 50% rebuttal

3. Beyond Born Again, chapters 5-7 – Robert Price

The topic here is rebuttals to the standard historical arguments for the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. It's written at an extremely accessible level and online for free. My top two books take 50-100 pages to fully get started – this one takes about 3. If you aren't sufficiently convinced by the possibility that Christianity might be false to think skeptics' arguments are even worth taking seriously, this is a great place to start because the time investment is low. This book is my first recommendation to Christians.

However, I do have a couple criticisms. Price takes apologists seriously in that he accurately represents their arguments and provides serious rebuttals. However, he doesn't take them seriously rhetorically. While he doesn't cross the line out of civil discussion, I'd bet it takes a bit away from it's persuasiveness to those who don't agree with him. However, it's not more insulting than, say, a typical partisan editorial or the way C. S. Lewis talks about skeptics.

Price was some sort of liberal Christian when I wrote it, but it's not at all surprising that he's now an atheist. His left-handed concessions to apologists that Jesus might still have been raised even if it's not historically defensible are distracting at times, but that's where Price was at at the time – thinking it might be true, but that apologists use bad arguments.

100% rebuttal

4. The History of God – Karen Armstrong

This is the history of man's concept of God as it has changed from paganism to Judaism to Christianity to Islam. I'm only 1/5 the way through, but this alone is an eye-opener. As the book is chronological, I don't think finishing it will be important to my evaluation of the beginning.

Armstrong explains with great clarity how Judaism developed out of paganism. The opening points come from some pre-biblical archaeological finds of pagan religious writings. This includes a creation story that is suspiciously similar to the Genesis creation story. The name of the Canaanite high god was El. Abraham begins by worshiping El Shaddi (El of the Mountain). It's not until Exodus 6:3 that Yahwah is reveled to be the same God as El Shaddi, the God of Abraham.

The Bible is chock full of stories and theology that doesn't quite add up. Armstrong goes through the Bible's history and explains what is really going on. At numerous points, I had noticed the discrepancy she was talking about (has anyone seen God's face, for instance?) Rather than just leave it as a contradiction and walk away in biblical debunking victory, she does something with the discrepancies. They are clues for learning the history of the writing of the Bible and the changing of man's concept of God along the way. In the end, you see that the God of the Bible does not appear paradoxical because he actually is paradoxical, but because of the jamming together of different concepts of God that were not meant to go together.

This book is informative rather than persuasive. In many places I have questions about how we know something that Armstrong claims. When how we know is not important to understanding what her position is, the reasons are usually a reference in a footnote. Seldom are dissenting views given a hearing or rebuttal. So while the book is excellent background on what secular/liberal scholars think is really going on in the OT, it's not a great source for arguments that these secular/liberal scholars are correct.

Had my criteria been best-written book in a literary sense, this would probably be number one.

The part I have read is 50% historical, 50% biblical.

5. Incarnation and Inspiration – Peter Enns

Surprisingly enough, a book by an evangelical scores highly on my list. Enns professes acceptance of “inerrancy”, but IMO, the way in which he describes this term is sufficiently different from traditional definitions that he should use a new word.

The premise of the book is an analogy between Jesus and the Bible. Just as the incarnation resulted in a fully human person the inspiration of the Bible involves a book that was fully written by human but is also more. Enns three primary topics are the influence of the surrounding cultures on the OT, the theological differences within the OT, and the NT's use of the OT. In each case, he first argues that the problems are not just surface misinterpretations, but real issues. Next he argues why this doesn't undermine God's role in inspiring the Bible.

Anecdotal evidence supports my opinion that this book could easily shake the faith of a conservative Christian, and could easily cause a conservative losing their faith to settle on a more moderate theology. This book unofficially led to his peaceful removal from Westminster Theological Seminary.

90% biblical, 10% historical

6. The End of Faith – Sam Harris

Harris picks up the political side of the case against faith. It's extremely quotable, but not all that relevant to my questions of if religion is actually true. He is trying to shake up moderate and liberal believers and to answer the question “So religion is false – what now? To what degree should it be tolerated and to what degree should it be actively opposed?” While I slowly liberaled out a number of opinions before deconverting, I was always theologically conservative at heart, so most of his criticisms miss my prior positions.

His primary target of criticism is Islam. His secondary targets are liberals with an unhealthy respect for Islam, Christians, and religious moderates because any concept of faith that isn't based on evidence serves to perpetuate a culture that empowers the extremists. Ironically enough, I agreed with more of his criticism of liberals than of Christians – he rarely (never?) expresses awareness of the concept of people believing because they think the evidence supports their belief. I often thought his case for just how bad religion is was overstated by means of going after all the worth instances of religion rather than after a representative sample, but it was well-worth reading while keeping in mind that there is another side.

Harris's opening story is so memorable that I cannot resist a lengthy quotation. Harris begins with a narrative about the last minute in the life of a suicide bomber. After describing the explosion, he then writes:

“These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the young man. Is there anything else that we can infer about him of the basis of his behavior? Was he popular in school? Was he rich or was he poor? Was he of low or high intelligence? His actions leave no clue at all. Did he have a college education? Did he have a bright future as a mechanical engineer? His behavior is simply mute on questions of this sort, and hundreds like them. Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy – you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy – to guess the young man's religion?”

Other brilliant quotes include,

“But faith is an impostor. This can be readily seen in the way that all the extraordinary phenomena of the religious life – a statue of the Virgin weeps, a child casts his crutches to the ground – are seized upon by the faithful as confirmation of their faith. At these moments, religious believers appear like men and women in the desert of uncertainty given a cool drink of data.”


“The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not 'cowards,' as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith – perfect faith, as it turns out – and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.”

30% political, 30% historical, 30% philosophical, 10% rant

7. The Problem of Pain – C. S. Lewis

I read this several years ago and was a bit confused by it, but I liked it. I re-read it early 2008 and realized that much of my confusion was the result of assuming the soundness of Lewis' less-than-stellar reasoning. The central thesis is this “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Given that many consider the problem of evil/pain to be the most common reason for modern Christians to lose their faith, I dare say that God's megaphone appears to be malfunctioning.

100% philosophical

8. Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris

(**Update 2/4/09**: I first read this in May '08 and had a confusing mix of emotions. My December review was based on this sour memory. I have since re-read it and changed my mind. If you grit your teeth and say the truth of Christianity has nothing to do with the behavior of Christians, as I did the first time through, then Harris offers little. But on the other hand, one significant reason many believe is due to the positive effects they think Christianity is having on the world - this is an argument deserving of a rebuttal. As he's taking on Christians' illusion that their morality is helpful, rather than something like a scholarly textual argument, rhetoric with much more bite than I usually provide is both appropriate and needed. I'm not deleting my extremely negative review, but I no longer agree with what follows.)

This is a letter from an atheist telling Christians just how bad they really are. I read this one in one siting in a Border's Books. The coffee I drank while reading it was of more lasting value. The biggest reason I'm glad I didn't buy it isn't the saving of my money, but rather the knowledge that I'm not part of a system that financially supports this approach. In the introduction or foreword or somewhere not worth looking up, he admits this is a rant because more civil approaches have failed. And then he rants. At times, it was hilarious, but if you just want a simple laugh at religion's expense, watch The Life of Brian or Religulous. These are two excellent movies that fully stand up to all the academic rigor we have come to expect out of R-rated comedies. (But seriously, they are good movies. They are also comedies.) The book did help make me glad my faith was gone, but I felt this was done through appeal to baser aspects of my mind. He has plenty of real arguments – I wish his passion didn't get in the way of his expression of them.

The real problem with books like this is that no matter how ridiculous the position being defended, emotional arguments can be crafted that are every bit as compelling as these. Thus, even if he's right, the mud-slinging obscures our vision of if he has really won. Moving the battle into turf like this takes away any debate advantage the truth should have possessed due to being true. I don't want an atheist version of Ann Coulter to exist – we can be better than that. (For the record, Harris is better than Coulter, but he's far too close.)

X% rant, (100-X)% political, where X is large

The Unfinished

I started reading The Design Matrix by Mike Gene, but I lost interest in it with my faith. It's an argument for Intelligent Design that assumes evolution (you read that right.) Science isn't the turning point for me anyway, and ID alone only pushes me toward deism. I might finish it, but not soon.

I started The Case for Christ, but I was unimpressed enough that I couldn't bear to slog through. Basically Lee Strobel starts off as an agnostic journalist, and then interviews Christianity's best apologists and scholars. Through the process, Strobel becomes a Christian. Inspiring stuff, but what you're reading is a bad skeptic losing to Christianity's finest. Mixing in all sorts of narrative detail makes the book psychologically persuasive, but it's irritating when you just want to read the case for Christ. I don't care how much confidence Habermas delivers his arguments with, I want to read his arguments and see how they stack up against skeptical rebuttals and vice versa. I may finish this one, but only as a conversation piece.

I'm still reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis. I have every intention of finishing both and may review them in the distant future.

My Upcoming Religion Reading List:

Unweaving the Rainbow – Richard Dawkins
Who Wrote the Bible? – Richard Friedman
The End of Biblical Studies – Hector Avlos
The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? – Meic Pearse
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark – Carl Sagan

In the unlikely case that a professor of mine reads this, yes, this is one reason why mathematically speaking, I accomplished so much less this semester than normal...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Bible's Most Mythical Story

Genesis 6:4 “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.”

Christians don't all agree on what the Nephilim were. I will make the case that the Nephilim were a mighty race of the half-demon/half-human.

Unless you have something against the idea that at times the Bible is as implausible as a fantasy novel, this is the most natural reading of Genesis. “Sons of God” is contrasted with “daughters of men,” so one group comes from God and the other from men. Also, “sons of God” is also used in Job 1:6 “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them.” This further established that “sons of God” takes its natural meaning of angels/demons. This alone is enough to make my case.

If you accept the inspiration of the NT, the case is even stronger. The author of the book of Enoch agreed with me in 300-200 BC. Enoch 6:2-3a “And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: 'Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.'”

At first glance, Enoch is irrelevant to Genesis. Enoch is neither contemporary to Genesis nor canonical. However, no less than Tertullian, the man who first articulated the doctrine of the Trinity, accepted this book as canonical. One reason he accepted it is that Jude quotes from Enoch:

Jude 14b-15 “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.”

Enoch 1:9 “And behold! He cometh with ten thousands of His holy ones
To execute judgement upon all,
And to destroy all the ungodly:
And to convict all flesh
Of all the works of their ungodliness which they have ungodly committed,
And of all the hard things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.”

While this is not a full endorsement of Enoch by Jude, it does suggest that Jude had the ideas of Enoch in mind in other parts of his letter, and these ideas should be considered when trying to determine what Jude meant. Jude 6-7 fairly clearly communicates that demons bred with women:

“And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh.”

Looking at the phrase “they in the same way as these indulged” it's clear from context that they = angels and these = Sodom and Gomorrah. Thus, Jude believed demons engaged in some kind of gross sexual sin. As this happened through the abandoning of their proper abode, the best conclusion is that they sinned sexually after leaving heaven and coming down to earth, thus with humans. Especially in light of Jude's connection to Enoch, the conclusion is inescapable. If you accept the Bible as the word of God, you should also believe the Bible's most mythical story.

I would like to pause and savor a few choice implications the Nephilim have upon our understanding of the world:

1. Demons are straight, so we should reconsider Paul's whole being-evil-makes-you-gay line of reasoning.
2. Due to the reproductive compatibility of demons and humans, demons should be referred to as homo sapiens minionus, as they are clearly at least a sub-species of homo sapiens.
3. If we found the right ancient remains, and if Jurassic Park were not so obviously fictitious, we could genetically engineer demons, or at least creatures whose might comes from their demon DNA.
4. Homo sapiens minionus have needs, too.
5. In the throughs of a nasty break-up or divorce, women occasionally wonder if the man for whom she fell is really a demon. This is a possibility that deserves more serious consideration than it typically receives.

The Bible is myth and superstition. Why is this a controversial statement?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

C. S. Lewis' Trilemma

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.” – C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, page 52-53

The Trilemma is perhaps C. S. Lewis' most famous argument. Jesus claimed to be God. Either these claims were true or they weren't. If they weren't, either Jesus knew they were false or he didn't. If he didn't know, he was a lunatic. If he did know, he was a liar, and a fiend because of it. The only remaining possibility is that what he said was true. Therefore, Jesus is Lord.

I will show that this argument fails on four different lines, any of which is sufficient to refute the argument.

Problem 1: Biblical reliability

Like virtually all skeptics, I do not trust the historical reliability of the Gospels enough to believe that Jesus said all the things attributed to him in the Gospels. The Trilemma doesn't even get off the ground when facing the position that the words of the biblical Jesus are not always those of the historical Jesus.

However, the Trilemma argument is not designed to get past this problem, so while it is a valid reason to not be persuaded, it is off the topic of direct criticism of Lewis' argument. I will leave this argument to future posts and from here on grant the assumption that Jesus said everything that the Gospels say he said.

Problem 2: Jesus was not a great moral teacher

What's wrong with the possibility that Jesus was a lunatic or fiend? Many people in history have been liars and many have been fools. Why not Jesus? What's wrong is that Jesus was a good teacher, and thus the lunacy and liar options are implausible. Lewis plays off this assumption rhetorically with “You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon...” so that one's moral outrage is raised by such insulting statements being leveled at such a good teacher.

I disagree with generalizations about Jesus being a good teacher. At the last supper, Jesus had a chance to save millions of lives killed in his name by just clarifying whether or not the bread and wine were literally his body, or just a metaphor. Jesus did a terrible job explaining that salvation was through faith in him and not through selling your possessions and giving to the poor. Jesus spoke in parables so that people would not understand – if that's not poor teaching, I don't know what is.

Jesus spoke as though adultery of the heart is as bad as actual adultery. So why not treat them as equivalent in practice? As long as one is guilty of the former, why not go ahead and make oneself guilty of the latter? Applying the same approach to charity as to sin, should we not admire the ethics of a person who thinks long and hard about giving to the poor and then doesn't?

Also, Jesus' message is tarnished a bit by not coming to unite, but to divide. He wanted people to abandon their families in following him. He told the disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords, and then scolded Peter for using his sword at the opportune time. Coming from the side of faith, these can be explained away. But Lewis is talking to skeptics, and these explanations fall flat when the goodness of Jesus as teacher is still in question, rather than when looking back and rationalizing as believers do.

Finally, even if Jesus' teachings were good, this wouldn't make him a good teacher in the sense that Lewis needs him to be for the Trilemma. A statement about the goodness of Jesus' teachings does not necessarily translate into a statement about the goodness of Jesus himself. I look at many of Jesus' sayings and acknowledge their wisdom because they appear wise to me, and not because I recognize the legitimacy of Jesus' words for the mere reason that they came from Jesus. Only claims about Jesus the person take away from the plausibility of the liar and lunatic options. The goodness of many of Jesus' teachings is not a claim about Jesus the person.

Problem 3: Lunacy is an open option

By “lunacy,” I merely mean the possibility that Jesus wasn't more than a man, but honestly thought himself to be – a clinically diagnosable disorder is not needed to fit under the second option of the Trilemma. Lewis dresses up this possibility with a great deal of rhetoric by claiming that this would be “on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg.” I disagree. I think that to be as superstitious as the common people in the first century already borders on lunacy by modern standards.

After Paul performs a miracle in Acts 14, the crowd becomes convinced that he's a god come down in human form – despite Paul's protestations that he's not a god. And then some Jews are able to get the crowd to turn on Paul and stone him. Whether or not Paul performed a miracle is not the question here – what is clear is that first century people were either able to be convinced that a man was a god on the basis of no evidence, or were able to be dissuaded of the evidence of a miracle by means of no evidence. In a culture like this, how crazy would someone have to be to think that They were a god? This is less crazy than a person in modern times believing they are the reincarnation of Elvis. Delusional, yes, but they may actually be a talented musician capable of getting a job and living a life outside a mental hospital. Due to his time and place of birth, to fit under the “lunacy” option, Jesus did not have to be nearly crazy enough to warrant a lunatic label.

Next, Jesus' words and actions are consistent with someone who is a little crazy. He wandered around the countryside preaching. He got angry at a fig tree for not having any figs, and so he cursed it. He didn't give straight answers, but spoke in parables [in the synoptics, at least] so that the people would hear but not believe. He seems to have said the stars would fall from the sky before this generation passes away. Also, do not his mere claims to be God and have the power to forgive sins further support the lunacy theory? Why must we think Jesus to have been sufficiently sane to know he wasn't God?

And finally, perhaps Jesus was a perfectly sane moral teacher when he conducted his memorable moral teaching. Only later did he grow to believe the hype about himself and turn into a lunatic.

To argue that Jesus could not have been mistaken about his identity seems to require some sort of appeal to his miracles or Resurrection. Unfortunately for Lewis, he is not arguing from the Resurrection, but still trying to argue toward the Resurrection, so this line of reasoning is not available to him.

Problem 4: Jesus didn't say who he was

According to Christian theology, Jesus was fully man and fully God. He got his body through embryonic development inside Mary, even though he has always existed. He existed in certain physical locations, although as God he was everywhere at once. He needed food although God needs nothing. He had to grow in wisdom, because he was born lacking wisdom even though as God he was omniscient. Jesus was part of the Trinity, an entity which is one in essence. He prayed to himself in the Garden. The next day he asked himself why he had forsaken himself – I don't ask “why” so much as “how.” Three (meaning two) days later he was somehow able to raise himself from the dead, even though he was dead. These ideas just don't go together all that well. At this point, I'm not addressing the question of if there is any way to justify calling these “apparently” contradictory rather than actually contradictory. I'm suggesting that the incoherence of who he supposedly was increases the level of clarity needed in Jesus' words to justify talk of who Jesus said he was.

The closest he comes to explaining his identity is in John 10: “I and the Father are one ... the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” This can reasonably be taken to mean that he is God in some sense, and separate in some sense. However, Jesus never even approaches the subject of being fully God and fully man or what this would even mean. How is the Christian answer accepting that Jesus is “just what He said?”

Looking at Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and leaving out the last Gospel written, it's not even clear that Jesus thinks he is God. He certainly thinks himself to be the Messiah, but there are lots of possibilities between mere mortal and God himself. For instance, he could be the Son of God who was delegated the power to forgive sins without a Trinity to make the Son of God equal to God. The differences between the Synoptics' Jesus and John's Jesus is the subject for another post, but for now note that John is needed to defend the claim that Jesus claimed to be God, so claiming that Jesus thought he was God is not based off the testimony of the four Gospels, but based on John's Gospel alone.

Suppose someone accepts that John is a reliable source of what Jesus said, the implausibility of the lunatic/liar descriptions of Jesus, and that we should thus take seriously who Jesus said he was. The lack of a clear statement by Jesus describing himself as both God and man and the incoherence of all the different things he is supposed to have been should point back to the conclusion that we are confused about what he meant. He also called himself a door, bread, and a vine, but that doesn't mean he was lying, insane, or any of these things literally speaking. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus gets frustrated with the disciples for misunderstand what he is saying. Even if the Gospels were written by disciples, we should not uncritically accept the disciples' understanding of what Jesus was talking about.

No matter how far-fetched one thinks the lunacy or liar theories are, they merely need to compete with believing someone whose self-description appears contradictory, who offers no reconciliation of the contradiction, and who never even recognizes that this part of his message and identity is so confusing that it must merely be accepted as a “mystery.”


We have had millions of crazy people and liars throughout history, and at most one God-man. Thus, before considering the evidence, the lunacy and liar theories are millions of times more plausible than the Lord theory. The fact that Jesus founded a religious movement only gets this number down in the thousands or hundreds.

For the Trilemma argument to work, what is needed is reliable Gospel accounts, reason to accept Jesus as at least a good teacher, reason to exclude the lunacy option, and a clear statement from Jesus concerning what he was. All four hurdles must be overcome with a level of certainty sufficient to overcome the fact that the lunacy option starts out vastly more plausible than the possibility that Jesus is “just what He said.” I am neither convinced nor impressed by Lewis' most famous argument.

(Kudos to C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion by John Beversluis. This book provided the basic idea of at least half my arguments.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Paul's Conversion Story Grows

Story 1

This first version is presumably based on a story Paul told Luke.

Acts 9:3-7 “As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?' And he said, 'Who are You, Lord?' And He said, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.' The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.”

The men with him hear a voice, but see no light and remain standing.

Story 2

The second version is probably Luke's eyewitness account of what Paul said while in the temple.

Acts 22:6-9 “But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?' And I answered, 'Who are You, Lord?' And He said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.' And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me.”

The men with him hear a voice and see the light. It is implied that they are not knocked to the ground.

Story 3

The third version is probably Luke's eyewitness account of Paul's testimony before King Agrippa.

Acts 26:13-14 “At midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'”

This time, the men with him are knocked to the ground. It is implied that his friends see the light and hear the voice.

If someone is in a group when they see/hear something noteworthy or miraculous, a really important first question to ask the witnesses is what everyone else saw/heard. It might be the case that it was real yet only one person saw it, but this is a pretty crucial detail. Whether intentional or not, this shows that Paul sometimes stretches the facts when trying to convince someone Christianity is real. This is worth keeping in mind when reading his list of Jesus-sightings in I Corinthians 15, or reading about the “third heaven” in II Corinthians 12.

What did the Voice say?

In the first version, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? ... I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.”

The second version is essentially the same, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?' ... I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting. ... Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.”

But in the third version, the voice says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads. ... I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.”

Due to paraphrasing, maybe Paul just left these details out at first. But based on the information available to me, it looks like Paul was told far, far less on the road to Damascus than he reported the voice as saying while before Felix.

Story 0, aka, Guessing at the Truth

How big of a story would it have taken for Paul to come up with the Acts 9 account? Maybe he looked at the sun, had a heat-stroke, and a nightmare about Jesus that he took a little too seriously. Of course, this is just a guess.

However, what must be recognized is that our only source of what actually happened to Paul is in Acts 9 and presumably based on the testimony of Paul. And in two instances appearing in Acts, Paul exaggerates the story. This should profoundly influence the degree to which his first story is believed.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Hermeneutics of Paul: Seed and Seeds

Galatians 3:15-16 “Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as referring to many, but rather to one, 'And to your seed,' that is, Christ.”

Paul opens the section by highlighting just how important it is to take a covenant with God seriously. He takes it so seriously that he is willing to base an argument on a precise grammatical point, namely the singularity of the word “seed.” And at a glance, the Holy Spirit is quite clever at foreshadowing. The author of Genesis somehow knew to use the singular of 'seed' so that people would one day realize that all nations will be blessed not through the Jews as a group, but through Jesus in particular.

With this in mind, it's quite deflating to look back at what Genesis says. Paul is not clearly referring to any one particular verse, so a broad view will be necessary. In most of the relevant places in Genesis, the phrase is translated in the NASB as “Abraham's descendants.” In Hebrew or other English translations, the clash isn't quite so strong. In Hebrew, the same word would have been used regardless of whether singular or plural is intended – context must be used to determine if it is singular or plural, just like the English phrases “Abraham's offspring” or “Abraham's seed.” The NASB translators thought it was plural, as would any reasonable person reading God's promise to Abraham in context. Some of the particular verses I'm referring to are:

Genesis 12:7 “The LORD appeared to Abram and said 'To your descendants I will give this land' So he built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him.”

Genesis 13:15-16 “for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered.”

Genesis 15:5 “And He took him outside and said, 'Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them' And He said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.'”

Genesis 15:13 “God said to Abram, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.”

Genesis 17:5-7 “No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.”

The contexts of “descendant” are being given land, as the dust of the earth, as the stars of heaven, enslaved for four hundred years, and multitude of nations throughout generations. This is my case for Genesis' seed being plural – I challenge those who disagree to find a verse to support the singularity of Genesis' seed.

As far as I can tell, this is completely fatal to the more conservative definitions of biblical inerrancy. Paul starts by instructing us to take the covenant seriously. He then bases an entire theological argument off a grammatical point, when the grammatical point is demonstrably false using purely biblical evidence. If this isn't an incorrect statement, just how wrong must a statement be before being considered actually wrong? The problem isn't that Abraham's promise was plural and Christ is singular – analogies are flexible things. The problem is that Paul said the promise is singular and it's not.

Premise 1. In Genesis, seed is plural.
Premise 2. Paul says that seed in Genesis is singular and not plural.
Premise 3. Singular is not plural.
Therefore, Paul was wrong.

I don't see how you can get much purer of a syllogism than this. However, much can be said in defense of more moderate views of inspiration, or at least, the competency of Paul.

My first impression after looking back at Genesis was to think Paul was a complete hack who barely knew the story of Abraham or at least didn't bother to read it again while composing his letter. But this opposite side of a pendulum swing is as poorly supported by the text as the view of full inerrancy.

Galatians 3:29 “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise.” Here, Paul refers to the exact same promise within the exact same chapter, and this time lets “seeds” be plural to refer to the entire church! If 3:16 was a sly maneuver, he wouldn't have highlighted it by using the word “seeds” again. It couldn't have been an honest mistake due to ignorance or forgetfulness of Genesis, because he expresses his knowledge of the plurality of seeds. Whatever, Paul was doing, it looks like it was intentional and that he wanted his readers to see what he did. This is consistent with neither being a mistake nor deception.

Apparently, this kind of thing was kosher back then, or so the apologetic defense goes. The fact that the same word is used for plural and singular invited a sort of grammatical flexibility, even when the entire context shows that the grammar was not actually flexible when read by modern minds (i.e. people trying to figure out what it actually says.) Peter Enns makes a strong case for this in Inspiration and Incarnation using extra-biblical texts to support the claim that Paul's hermeneutics would have been seen as acceptable in the first century. Thus, if an orthodox Jew read this in the first century and was unconvinced, he would not call foul over Paul's grammar, but would argue against the conclusion along different lines. So viewing Galatians as its original audience would have viewed it, Paul did not make a mistake. And if you believe Paul was inspired, and the central message of the Bible is Christ, you have reason to trust his conclusions even while expressing skepticism of how he gets there.

After this point, evangelical scholars and I diverge. The irony of reading Galatians as its original audience would is that to do so requires the understanding that Paul did not read Genesis as its original audience would. That's just fine for a scholar studying a secular document, but it's quite problematic for maintaining a level of biblical trustworthiness. All biblical interpretation, and hence essentially all Christian doctrines, rest on how the Bible is to be read. The Bible doesn't tell its readers to begin the interpretation process by reading it as its original audience would – evangelicals only do so because it is so transparently obvious that when reading a book you should try to determine what the author meant.

Paul's hermeneutics undercut this assumption underlying all biblical interpretation.

If it's obvious that Christians should seek to know what the original biblical authors meant, then it's obvious that Paul's approach was wrong. If it's not obvious, then the Bible has become so relativized that it's difficult to use as a guide to anything. This would imply the consistency of “Isaiah didn't mean X” and “from Isaiah we know X is true.”

The more serious problem is that when Paul is given so much latitude, it's hard to not justify giving the same latitude to other people. (There is a grain of reality in the coming comparison. But please note that it's meant to be an analogy, not an accurate depiction of the contents of the Koran, Islam, or the seventh century. A religious studies scholar could probably find a real example – I'm making one up.) The “Koran” argues that John 14:16's predictions of sending “another Comforter” means Muhammad. Thus, the Bible foretold the coming of Muhammad. Christians reply that's not what Jesus was talking about – Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by the other things Jesus said about the Helper that are not consistent with the Helper being Muhammad. Muslims then recognizes that to argue Jesus was talking about Muhammad is grammatically indefensible through looking at John alone. However, this is what people in the seventh century really thought about John. It was common practice for people in the seventh century to take a series of vague prophecies and accept the pieces that fit while discarding the one's that didn't. The Muslim recognizes the weakness of such reasoning in the “Koran” when viewed by twenty-first century eyes, but you have to look at it in the context of its culture, when that would have been acceptable reasoning. Also, the “Koran” is inspired by Allah, so that means the conclusions are still true.

The Christian response would not be to check out if that's how they really thought in the seventh century. The Christian response would be that if the words in John don't predict Muhammad now, and the words of John didn't predict Muhammad in the first century, then the words in John didn't predict Muhammad in the seventh century either. The argument puts Christians in the exact same situation with respect to Islam that Jews are in now with respect to Christianity. Christians ask Jews to believe that Christianity is the correct strain of Judaism when the Bible clearly uses the Jewish Scriptures to say things that they don't really say when read in context. The Muslim is asking to Christian to believe Islam is the true strain of Christianity based on readings of Christians' Scriptures which make it say things that it clearly doesn't say when read in context. To reject the Muslim's argument and accept Paul's argument is a double standard.

It's possible to rationally believe without seeing the work of God in some of the following: the writing of the Bible, the influence of the Bible, the person of Jesus, evidence for the Resurrection, fulfilled prophecy, creation/science, the power of prayer, the testimony of the church, personal religious experiences, etc. But to believe without seeing the work of God in any of these is highly determined ignorance. Galatians 3 goes a long way toward removing the work of God in writing the Bible from the list of possible places to find a reason to believe and placing it on the list of reasons to disbelieve.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Logic of Paul: I Timothy 2

Instead of continuing with the reasons that pushed me from disillusioned Christian to unbelief, I'm going back to a factor that brought me to disillusionment in the first place. The one goes all the way back to ninth grade when I memorized I Timothy 2 for Bible quizzing.

First, I would like to draw a distinction between two easily confused words: irrational, and non-rational. By non-rational I just mean anything that isn't logic. By irrational, I mean things that try to make sense and fail. “I believe in the Trinity” is non-rational. “I'm convinced the Trinity makes perfect sense” is irrational. While there are of course problems with being non-rational, I should note that to begin thinking one must make the non-rational assumption that one is capable of thinking and logic is in some sense true – non-rationality is often necessary. Of course, I consider “more” non-rationality to be bad, but that's not what I'm going after here. I'm going after irrationality in Paul. In the context of instructions on worship, he writes

I Timothy 2:11-14 “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

I'll suppose for the sake of argument that Paul's command for women not to speak or have authority over a man [in church] is not unfair and merely critique the logic behind the command. If Paul had just said “do it this way, because I'm Paul, and God is speaking through me – do what God says” as he does in I Corinthians 15:34-37, this would be non-rational. (This is a rational argument for why you should obey, but a non-rational argument for why is it commanded.) This would cause all the usual gender role issues, but I wouldn't have had this particular problem with the chapter.

The problem here is that Paul tries to explain the rationality of the instruction, and it doesn't work. His first reason given is that Adam was formed first. What does that have to do with anything? In the second creation account at least, animals were formed before Eve, but this would make a horrible first step in arguing that animals should rule over women. 35-year-old women were formed before 34-year-old men, but seniority still makes for a poor argument that the latter should not be permitted to have authority over the former. Even this seniority argument is better than Paul's because at least the person who is older was actually formed first. Women alive today were not formed after men who are alive today. At best, Adam having been formed first justifies why Adam should be over Eve, not why men should be over women.

The second reason Paul gives is that Eve was the one who was deceived. This is a very strange accusation. Paul is implying that Adam wasn't deceived, or was at least less deceived than Eve. If they both sinned, this would mean that Eve's sin had more to do with being innocently wrong, whereas Adam's sin had more to do with willfully choosing wrong in the face of knowing what was right. If Eve was the one who was deceived, does this not mean Adam's sin was the greater one? I'd prefer a leader who is sometimes wrong to a leader who sees the right thing to do and doesn't do it.

Next, Eve wasn't deceived in Genesis 3. She knew what God said and chose to disobey – she even recites her specific instructions right before sinning. The only talk of deception is in her excuse – which should be taken with more than a grain of salt, even when assuming Genesis is inerrant.

(Update, 11/1/08: As has been pointed out to me, Eve was deceived. A recap should be 1) Eve understands what actions are sin. 2) The snake deceives her into thinking that sin pays. 3) Eve sins knowing full well she is sinning but while deceived into thinking the results will be favorable.)

Furthermore, Paul doesn't even mention that fact that Adam had anything to do with what went wrong. He talks of Eve being deceived and becoming a sinner and just leaves it at that – as if Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden due to Eve's sin alone. Genesis 3 provides a different picture. Eve eats the fruit, brings it to Adam, and only after they both eat does the narrator tell us their eyes were opened. Adam ate the fruit before Eve's eyes were opened – it's like Genesis is going out of its way to make them share the blame. But Paul merely takes up Adam's banner of “blame the woman.” From this perspective, “Eve was the one who is deceived” is a perfectly logical accusation. It's her fault. Paul argues as if Eve's “I was tricked” and Adam's “stupid woman” excuse is correct. If I believed Genesis and was still deciding about I Timothy, I might reject I Timothy for this reason.

Perhaps Paul is not trying to make his own argument regarding the reason for gender roles, but is merely referring back to Eve's curse in Genesis 3:16. If so, this is quite a clumsy reference. Also notice that this curse is Adam over Eve. Taking this to husband over wives is not explicit, but is one reasonable interpretation. Paul takes this one step further by saying men over women. Furthermore, men could be over women without revoking women's right to speak. Elders are over younger men and yet younger men still get to talk. What is his justification? He merely fakes an answer by giving the justification for the lesser command of Adam over Eve.

In a similar passage, I Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul gives another reason “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.” Where in the Law does it say women are to be silent?

(Update, 11/21: As has been pointed out to me, "as the Law also says" likely refers to "subject themselves" and not also to being silent. Genesis 3 is part of the Law, and "he shall rule over you" is close enough to "subject themselves" that my criticism is not justified.)

Why not just say “thus sayeth the Lord” in I Timothy 2? That's really all that's going on anyway. Why must Paul use irrational arguments to try and defend the rationality of his view of gender roles?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why I Reject Presuppositional Apologetics

(“Why I reject” instead of the more natural “why I rejected” is intentional. I was never a true insider into presuppositional apologetics, so I am making no attempt to refer to what changed historically.)

Presuppositional apologetics are an attempt to show that Christianity is rationally defensible in a unique way, namely, without providing evidence.

The approach is this – take every (or at least many) worldviews, and then show the inconsistencies present in all but Christianity. As the last man standing, Christianity must be true, or at least has been shown to have a rational defense in that it has been shown to be better than all others.

The debate typically comes down to the difference between “apparent contradiction” and “true contradiction,” which means that the vaguest position usually has the advantage. As the phrase “apparent contradiction” suggests, they often look just like real ones. When suggesting a resolution to an apparent contradiction, there is no difference between an explanation whose validity is highly probable, and an explanation that is remotely possible – both prevent the collapse of the worldview, and that's all that is needed. “What you think is really a contradiction” is the only standard. This is an approach which is just screaming for both sides to dress up their positions in as much rhetoric as possible in an attempt to push an apparent contradiction into an actual contradiction. I think the approach is fundamentally flawed, so I am much better off just arguing that, instead pretending that the presup rules of debate can lead anywhere worth going.

I'm not at all saying that presups have nothing worth saying. My arguments here do not refute any particular presup argument used as a complement to an evidential approach. I'm making a very narrow point: a pure presup approach is fundamentally flawed.

The first problem is that it is really easy to craft a logically consistent position, so logical consistency proves very little. The easiest way to do this is to have a built-in catch-all rebuttal that does not have to deal with the substance of any dissenting argument. Here, I will be listing several positions that are internally consistent and consistent with Christians' observations.

1. I am somewhat certain that no one can be more than somewhat certain about anything, because reality is merely what we perceive it to be.

2. The Matrix, plus religion X. Religion X is true. Your brain is locked in a vat. Scientists or sentient computers are experimenting with how your mind will react when presented with an imaginary world in which Christianity is apparently true.

3. Christianity's evil twin. Every miracle in the Bible is literally true, and God inspired the Bible. Christians' perceived relationship with God/answers to prayer are all based on real experiences are real evidence. The only way this differs from Christianity is the after-life, and one of the hidden attributes of god. Namely, god is a cosmic prankster, and after lying to us in the Bible, he's decided to send all Christians to hell and everyone else to heaven.

For contrast, Christians think unbelievers are “spiritually blind” or “unable to comprehend the things of God.” Presuppositionalists think that no true common ground of reason is held between non-Christians and Christians. Presuppositionalists [usually?] view evidence much like the extreme post-modernists view reality. The way they would say it is that evidence is always interpreted in the framework of the observer; the corollary I see to this both logically and in practice is the idea that evidence does not say anything in and of itself. Thus, when it comes to the question of what evidence says, there is no absolute truth, only what you perceive. The convenience of these ideas rivals that of my three examples.

Of course, it doesn't mean that Christianity is wrong or ridiculous. My agnostic cop-outs of “I don't know” are even more convenient – I don't pat myself on the back for not losing when I don't compete. What it does mean is that Christianity contains the sort of fail-safe mechanisms that make logical consistency count for very little. (Not that I'm conceding the consistency of Christianity...)

The other major problem is that the presuppositional approach rejects brilliant ideas if they still contain flaws whose solutions are not yet known. Right before the discovery of the special theory of relativity, observations made about the speed of light were contradictory, or at least no scientist could explain how they were not. At this point, should scientists have rejected the concept of observation as a means to learning about science?

One of Einstein's assumptions was that because the preceding theories had been built up from observations, while they were technically “false,” they were accurate enough that they would be an extremely useful source of knowledge in crafting a new theory. And sure enough, they were useful. Although his discoveries lead to the rewriting of nearly everything in physics, the early theories were not embarrassed, but rather shown to be a useful level of knowledge that helped lead to the next level of knowledge. A presuppositional approach cannot distinguish between insanity and a good idea that that is not yet finished. Right before Einstein, “the universe is irrational” could have beaten “the universe is comprehensible” in a debate under the presuppositionalists' terms. Evidentialists rule the day in science, which is why it advances.

The alternative approach is bottom-up, not top-down. Don't start with a grand theory and evaluate its coherence. Start with observations and evidence, and build up from that – experiential evidence of a relationship with God is not excluded a priori, nor is the possibility that a miracle was observed, or that prayer changes things. If two pieces clash with each other, don't instantly decide to reject one – if both were built up from evidence, they are useful pieces of knowledge, even if one or both is not technically true. This is how knowledge has advanced in every area of thought for the last several centuries.

(It's worth noting that to be consistent, I must reject a few common arguments against the Bible. In particular, if there is evidence that Bible is inspired by God, and the Bible really teaches the Trinity, then I am forced to accept the rationality of believing in the Trinity. Similarly with God is love/God commanded genocide, Jesus is God/man, the Bible is 100% written by man/inspired by God, etc. All of these are relevant problems, but to an evidentialist, they should not be fatal to faith. Granted, they raise the bar higher regarding how much evidence should be needed, but they are not the main point. That was my justification for years, and I still consider this justification to be valid. But everything rests on the claim that there is evidence for the inspiration of the Bible and/or resurrection, and everything crashes very suddenly without it.)

Consider two people who are arguing over the color of the sky. One of them believes that the proper way to determine the color of the sky is to look at it. The second presuppositionally supposes that the sky is green and that he should look down. All he sees is grass, and this grass is green. So based on all the evidence available to him, his position is internally consistent. He also notices that sometimes the first person thinks the sky is black or gray or blue, and the first can't really explain why – this is inconsistent because truth is absolute; the sky cannot be all black, all gray, and all blue. The second one then notices that both of them are equally bound to their conclusions by their presuppositions. Everyone who looks up comes away believing the sky is many colors (usually blue), and everyone who accepts his own manner of thinking comes away believing the sky is green. Next, he reasons as follows: “The sky is green. Looking at it causes one to think it is not green. Therefore, one should not trust their eyes to tell them the color of the sky, and thus I am even more certain I should look down.” The second person may be assuming the color is green, but the first person is assuming that their eyes are a useful tool for discovering truth – both sides have assumptions that effectually force the conclusion.

It's not that I'm stacking the deck against presuppositionalists by making them be the side that is wrong. I'll reverse it. Suppose two people have lived their entire lives underground without seeing or hearing about the color of the sky. The first one just assumes a priori that the sky's color is not fixed, but changes for some reasons but is usually blue or black – he doesn't know what the reasons are. The second goes outside for the first time at midnight, looks at the sky, decides that the sky is black, and then goes back underground. The next day a third person runs outside, concludes that the sky is blue and runs back inside. The presuppositionalist points out that evidence has clearly led one or both of them to a false conclusion, so he concludes that his approach is correct, as the last one standing. Here, the presuppositionalist is the one who is right, and the evidentialists are the ones who are wrong. And yet, common sense still sides with the evidentialist as the one whose approach is wiser as it has a chance of eventually leading to the truth and learning about weather and the rising/setting of the sun; the presuppositionalist is right due to luck and cannot progress further.

The difference is an ontological presupposition versus an epistemological presupposition. An ontological presupposition makes specific claims about reality, an epistemological one describes a means of learning about reality.

There certainly is the imperfection that an evidential approach assumes the usefulness of reason and observation. But I'm not claiming an epistemology with no assumptions – I'm doing what I can with what I have. However, note that the presuppositionalist must also assume a human capacity for reason when arguing for/against internal consistency. Also, centuries of science make it strange that this should be suggested as a weakness. An evidential approach put a man on the moon. Satellites don't stay in orbit because people's philosophies say they should – they actually stay in orbit. Nuclear power plants keep working not because scientists want their philosophies to be validated – they actually work. Maybe the pioneers of science made an unjustified assumption in trusting their capacity for reason, but that should no longer be a question in the twenty-first century.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Life Begins at Conception?

One of the most politically significant Evangelical beliefs in modern America is that life begins at conception, and therefore abortion and creating embryonic stem cells for research are forms of murder. Whether or not this is biblical is a question with which I will not be concerning myself.

In particular, I will be making the case that for at least several days, the embryos have no soul (assuming there is such a thing). This will not directly lead to any conclusion about abortion, but it will lead to very definite conclusions about stem cell research and contraceptives that work after conception.

For the first several days after conception, the embryo is a growing mass of stem cells. Nature performs for us the otherwise morally questionable experiments needed to establish its non-humanity.

First, identical twins provide a challenge for the Evangelical view. For the first several days at least, the mass of stem cells can split in two and eventually result in two identical twins. Spiritually speaking, what just happened? Did God create two souls at conception that both inhabited the same cell and later split apart? Did God create one soul to begin with, and then a second soul due to the geographic change of half the mass splitting off from the other half? Pro-lifers rightly argue that if a seven-month old fetus was outside the womb it would be a constitutionally protected person. In other word, God clearly doesn't just create a soul for a baby due to geographic changes. It is equally ridiculous to believe God creates a soul when half of the cells change their geographic location.

But the much more severe problem is human chimeras. Not only can a mass of stem cell split apart, two different masses can fuse. This can result in an apparently normal individual, known as a chimera. Some things about chimeras are a bit odd, like different body parts having DNA that doesn't match, or a mix of different blood types. But someone could be a chimera and not know it. If a soul is created at conception, and two different embryos merge, what happened to the extra soul?

This is a continuum v. discrete problem. The question “is it human?” is yes or no. But the change from sub-human sperm/egg to a fully human baby is gradual. No matter where you choose to draw the line, looking very closely at the line will leave one wondering why the line is here and not there. Even if you say life begins at conception, this problem is only swept under the rug through not thinking about it. Suppose you take a microscope and record the process of conception, and then look at a series of photographs separated by nanoseconds. Can you look at one and honestly say “it's not human here, but in the next one, you can see that God has created its soul?” Even if you could, then take 100 pictures between these two frames and try again. I'm not just being difficult – the way this question is answered determines which forms of birth control are acceptable and which forms are murder. To use a tired analogy, it's like lining up a million shades of gray spanning the spectrum between white and black, and being forced to put them in two categories. Drawing the line is above all of our pay grades.

Ironically, one objection many Christians have to evolution is the way it blurs the line between man and beast. This difficulty is far less severe than reconciling a concept of the soul with embryonic development.

The only reconciliation I found requires the concession that whatever “in the image of God” or “possessing a soul” means, it's not a property of our physical body. Thus, God draws the line, and perhaps at different places for different people. But this accidentally surrenders every single pro-life argument I have heard and more. If “human” is something we cannot determine through physical properties, then why argue “medical fact: life begins at conception?” Why argue that abortion stops a beating heart? Why insist that American Indians have souls based on the fact that they no different? Playing the we-can't-know card in one place is a slippery slope to playing it in other places – quoting Acts 17:26 merely begs the question who is part of a “nation.” The fact is, every position is standing on a slippery slope to horrible atrocities – the safer positions are the ones that realize this and hence step carefully.

This posed an even greater challenge for my faith when I stepped back and looked at what was going on. I was scrounging for the slightest possibility that both reality and my beliefs were true and upon finding one, I was clinging to it for dear life. Nowhere in this line of reasoning had my beliefs been useful for understanding or accurately describing the world, and all throughout they had held me back. I was beginning to believe not because of evidence, not in the absence of evidence, but in the very teeth of evidence to the contrary.

If the way to learn about reality is to look at it, then it's clear that whatever is going on later, there is no soul immediately after conception. In India, sacred cows roam at will while people starve rather than violate the religion over there. In America, medical advancements go undiscovered because experiments with sacred blobs of stem cells violate the religion over here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Lazarus and Lazarus, or just Lazarus?

The primary skeptical alternative to apologists' arguments from the Gospels is that the stories of Jesus were legends that may contain an ounce of truth, but have grown enough to be unreliable.

Here, I will continue to make this case, again with a purely biblical argument. In particular, I will be comparing two stories that I believe to be parallel, although Christians will certainly disagree.

The first is Luke 16:19-31. This is a fictional story Jesus told. (I've heard Christian and skeptic alike argue that this was meant to be a true story. For the sake of this particular argument, it matters little.) It concerns Lazarus, a beggar who dies and goes to heaven, or somewhere similar. While in heaven, he has a dialog with an evil rich man who has died and is in a place similar to hell. The main point, or at least a main point of the parable is the final piece of dialog, where the rich man pleads to Abraham for Lazarus to be sent back from the dead and warn his brothers. Abraham replies that they have the Scripture, and if they are not convinced by the Scripture, they will not be convinced by Lazarus returning from the dead.

The second is John 11:1-53. This is presented as a true story, and contains the Bible's only other [mention of] Lazarus. Lazarus dies but is then brought back from the dead. Despite this, the chief priests who know the Scripture better than anyone do not believe in Jesus, but instead try to kill him.

There are three ways to look at this:

1. It's a coincidence that Luke has a hypothetical Resurrection of a Lazarus and John has a Resurrection of a real Lazarus.
2. Some other non-coincidental explanation.
3. Lazarus' Resurrection is a fish story that grew out of Jesus' parable.

At a glance, it would make sense to suggest that Jesus intentionally used the parable to foreshadow a real event. Until you consider what this would imply about Luke and his research.

This would mean that Jesus actually raised a man from the dead, many people believed because of this, this was the key event in Jesus life leading the chief priests to their murderous rage, and yet somehow Luke couldn't find a single witness to justify writing about this! And yet somehow, he found a witness who remembered the details of Jesus parable, all the way up to the name of the character Jesus used in his parable.

Furthermore, Luke 19:45-47 suggests that the chief priests wanted to kill him after he drove out the money changers. This suggests that Luke would have disagreed with what John thought the reason was. John also mentions that the money changers were thrown out in John 2:13-21. Do you see what John just did there? In Luke the key reason was the cleansing of the temple and in John the key reason is the resurrection of Lazarus, so John moved the temple cleansing to the beginning of the story.

Of course, Jesus could have cleansed the temple twice, and I'm not suggesting that anything is implausible about that. What I'm suggesting is that the Gospels fit together better from the perspective of “how are these stories changing with time?” rather than “how can I make these events fit together?”

A misconception apologists often have is that skeptics discount biblical miracles simply because they are naturalists. That is not the case. Here, I have given a purely biblical reason to think the resurrection of Lazarus never actually happened.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Matthew, the Colt, and the Donkey

Matthew 21:2-5: “[Jesus said] to them, 'Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them.' This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

The first thing to notice is that Matthew is telling us about a colt and donkey, while Zechariah 9:9 mentions a colt and donkey as well. That's probably not a coincidence.

However, Zechariah was actually talking about one animal, not two. The first part of the prophecy shares the surprise that their king would ride a mere donkey rather than a horse. In the second part, the word “even” is adding to this surprise; the extra detail of its age makes it even less majestic.

The authors of Mark, Luke, and John seem to have figured this out, as all three refer to the one animal on which Jesus rode. Mark 11:2-7 and Luke 19:30-35 say it was a colt. John 12:14-15 says Jesus found a “little donkey” and then paraphrases Zechariah 9:9 to say that a donkey's colt was to be ridden. This is a double affirmation, as John used little donkey and donkey's colt interchangeably, and also thought that a paraphrase of Zechariah involving one animal was accurate.

So if Zechariah was talking about one animal, and it's not a coincidence that both he and Matthew mention a colt and donkey, what are the alternatives?

One possibility is that the author of Matthew was intentionally describing Palm Sunday in a way that made Jesus look like a fulfillment of prophecy as much as possible. He wanted people to believe that Jesus fulfilled prophecies, and this was more important to him than limiting the details of his story to things that actually happened. The beginning of Matthew is already sufficient to reveal that convincing people was more important than not saying false things about the OT. Here, I'm suggesting that convincing people was also more important than not saying false things about the events in Jesus' life.

Another possible source of the story is poor reasoning that does not involve intentional deception. Suppose Jesus actually rode on a colt, and an early Christian heard this story. But then they looked at Zechariah, and mistakenly thought that it spoke of two animals. Here's their train of thought: “Zechariah is true, Zechariah prophesied about a colt and a donkey, therefore Jesus' triumphal entry involved both a colt and a donkey.” And so when the story was retold, a second animal was added. With this possibility, the person who made up the detail sincerely believes it to be true, and the author of Matthew need not be the one who misunderstand Zechariah.

This is a concern whenever a prophecy's fulfillment is only reported by people who were already certain that the prophecy was true. The prophecy itself is enough to convince a true believer that its fulfillment occurred. This results in a story that the teller honestly believes, despite that fact that they observed nothing.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Arguments of Josh McDowell: The Seventy Weeks of Daniel

In the book A Ready Defense: The Best of Josh McDowell, an argument is made which demonstrates all the worst aspects of apologists. If you read his argument uncritically, it sounds really, really good. But not only are the rebuttals to it effective, they refute McDowell with a thoroughness that shocked even post-Christian me.

About half of the general arguments I make come from someone else's post on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. The details and examples are my own work.

Daniel 9:24-26 "Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined."

McDowell's Argument

Artaxerxes gave the decree to rebuild Jerusalem on March 5, 444 BC in Nehemiah 2:1-8. The sixty-nine weeks are "weeks of years." A year in the Bible means 360 days. For instance, in Revelations 12:6 and 12:14, 3.5 years = 3.5*360 days = 1260 days. Sixty-nine weeks = 173,880 days after this decree was Monday, March 30, 33 AD, the day Jesus was presented to Jerusalem as Messiah the Prince.

(You can read the argument in full here, by searching for "seventy weeks." Amazon will let you look at five pages: the page hit by the search, two forward, and two back. The relevant pages are 57-59.)

At a glance, this looks unbelievably impressive. Surely, the faith it takes to believe this is a coincidence is greater than the faith needed to believe Daniel was a prophet. But there are issues with his start day, the length of time, and the end date. When taken together, this is merely a demonstration of a determined seeker not discovering the meaning of a prophecy but creating one.

Time Interval

For starters, "69 weeks of years" is an interpretation, not a quotation. What Daniel 9:25 actually says is "seven weeks and sixty-two weeks." I haven't thought too hard about the given reasons for a day = a year, so I'll grant it and move on. What's more of a stretch is to count a year as 360 days. This lines up with neither common sense nor the Hebrew calendar. They used a lunar calendar, with one month being one lunar cycle, and a "leap month" 7 years out of 19. Just as now, 73 years meant 73 cycles of seasons, not 73*360 days = about 72 cycles of seasons. Imagine someone in 500 BC saying that someone is 73 years old. Would their friend ask in reply "solar years or biblical years?" or just effortlessly understand what "year" means?

Concerning Revelations 12, notice that 1260 days = 3.449 solar years. So if in Revelations, "year" just meant ... well, year ... then John rounded by 1.7%. He nearly got two significant figures right, which compares favorably with several other biblical authors. In 1 Kings 7:23, the mathematical pi is rounded to 3.0, which is a 4.7% change. Matthew 12:40 says Jesus would be dead for three nights, a "rounding" of 50%. (I'm not suggesting that Matthew thought Jesus died on Thursday. Matthew 27:62 makes this clear. I'm suggesting that he was intentionally loose with numbers to make Jonah and Jesus look parallel.) Also, Revelations doesn't even say the time period is "three and a half years" but "a time and times and half a time."

"Week" could just as easily mean 7 days, 7 solar years, 7 biblical years, or really seven of just about anything. It could be "weeks of weeks," or "weeks of months." It could be seven years, where year = 365.25 days as on the Julian calendar and not 365.2422 days. I mention the imperfections of having a leap year every four years as a serious objection, because over the course of 483 years, this is several days which could make or break an "exact day" prediction. Or maybe "years" means different things in different contexts. Maybe "year" meant 360 days for the first 488 years, and then started meaning 365.25 days once the Julian calendar started being used in 45 BC. Or maybe 46 BC is the correct date for the switch, because the calendar was introduced then but not in common use. Or maybe "year" meant 365 1/3 days, because of the messed up way leap year was used at first. Or maybe from 45 BC on, "year" doesn't have a fixed meaning, but just counts however it was that they counted back then, regardless of if mistakes were made. This means that the leap years were 44, 41, 38, 35, 32, 29, 26, 23, 20, 17, 14, 11, 8 BC, 4 AD, 8, and 12 etc. Keep in mind that every little detail determines whether or not it was to the exact day, and every little detail is a fudge factor at the disposal of the apologist.

Suppose that exactly 483 solar years later, Jesus came. Would not Christians say the Bible was correct to the exact year? If a skeptic then said that a year = 360 days, so 483 OT years = 476 solar years and thus the Bible is wrong, Christians would have a good laugh over how dumb atheists are. Similarly, if Jesus came 483 days later, Christians would laugh if a skeptic of the Bible said it really meant 483 years.

Next, once you have the day count, do you count both the day of the decree and the day of completion, only one, or neither? Personally, I think McDowell would have a better case if he used this fudge factor, so that the target would be Palm Sunday, rather than "Palm Monday."

The Starting Time

The starting point is not clearly labeled but is described as "the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem." McDowell wrote that the potential starting points are 539 BC (Ezra 1:1-4), 519-518 BC (Ezra 5:3-7), 457 BC (Ezra 7:11-16), and 444 BC (Nehemiah 2:1-8). I haven't checked if these are valid or comprehensive – I'm just taking his word for it here. But how do we know the exact day of the year of the decree? All Nehemiah 2:1 says is "And it came about in the month Nisan."

The Ending Time

Next, the prophecy doesn't clearly describe what event will come at the end. It says "until Messiah the Prince." There are quite a few events in Jesus life that could be the fulfillment of this. (His birth, coming out of Egypt, the arrival of the magi, in the temple at age 12, Luke 4:21, his baptism, the sermon on the mount, the last supper, his crucifixion, his resurrection, etc.) In fact, pretty much any event could be justified. Or even no event would be sufficient; if the time period terminated on some nondescript day of Jesus ministry, it would still satisfy sixty-nine weeks until the verb-less "Messiah the Prince." Also, why is "until Messiah the Prince" the ending point? Maybe that phrase is just being general, and the ending of the sixty-nine weeks was really supposed to be Daniel 9:26 "Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing." (Which could be either good Friday or the Saturday afterward.)

I also find it very strange that McDowell gives a Monday as the ending day and describes it as "the presentation of Christ Himself to Israel as the Messiah as predicted in Zechariah 9:9." Zechariah is talking about the Messiah riding a donkey, which happened on Palm Sunday. While there is an easy fix, what this shows is how willing he is to bend the truth to make it line up with the Bible.

The Total Fudge Factor

Next, I will measure the total room for fudging. There are at least 10 meanings for "week" comparably plausible to 7*360 days, 5 possible start years, 30 possible start days of the month, and at least 20 possible ending events. This gives a total of 10*5*30*20 = 30,000 different interpretations of the prophecy that all line up with McDowell's general framework. And there are even more if different things are fudged, such as finding different historians with different dates for particular decrees, doing something with the sixty-two weeks without the seven weeks, or adding a gap between the seven and sixty-two weeks.

Like McDowell, I do not consider the accuracy of the prophecy to be a coincidence. Unlike McDowell, the reason is that I use the word coincidence to describe things that are improbable.

Dissenting Opinions

At least six different interpretations of prophecy and history line up exactly. While googling seventy weeks daniel is hardly a stellar research technique, it brings up some interesting results. The top five hits are all different Christian sites explaining how well the historical events line up with the prophecy: gives the starting point as somewhere in March/April 444 BC without claiming to know the particular day and gives the ending point as Palm Sunday, March 29, 33 AD. This is one day away from McDowell, and is by far the closest any two of these six will come. gives the starting point as "very early in the month of Nisan in 445 B.C." and the ending point as Palm Sunday, April 9, 32 AD. bases their starting point off McDowell's starting point, and for the ending point "the dates that I have seen in my review of other people's research is April 6, either April 6, 32 AD, or April 6, 33 AD." disagrees with the time interval. I didn't read the details, but the bottom line is that they think a biblical year is a normal year, and the appropriate time interval is just the sixty-two weeks. 440 BC was "the beginning of the rebuilding in times of distress" and Jesus was born in 6 BC, giving 434 years = 62 weeks in between. Based on this and some other meaning for the first seven weeks, they conclude: "The dates are too exact to be dismissed lightly, and they stand well as a firm apologetic for the Divine/supernatural character of the prophecy." gives the starting point as "King Artaxerxes decree in 457BC" and the ending point 69 weeks = 483 years later as "Jesus Christ arrives as Messiah in the exact year 27AD."

It reminds me of a joke that I'm adapting:

Jack is accused of borrowing John's pot and returning it cracked, so John sues. The defense produces four witnesses who all attest to Jack's innocence. But the prosecution cross-examines the witnesses to produce the following four stories:

1. Jack never borrowed the pot.
2. The pot was already cracked when Jack borrowed it.
3. The pot was not cracked when it was returned.
4. There is no pot.

The defense persists that while the witnesses disagree on the details, we have four different witnesses who agree with the underlying idea: Jack is innocent. Each of the four stories is believed by three members of the jury. They pontificate over technicalities for a while, but quickly tire. Eventually, they just decide that all that matters is the bottom line of Jack's innocence, so they acquit Jack unanimously.

The Answers of C. S. Lewis: Genocide, Vessels of Wrath, and the Bible

The influence the moral argument against the Bible had on me was not so much as a positive argument itself, but rather as a rebuttal to the moral and anthropomorphic arguments for the existence of the Christian God. It was through Lewis that I learned about the moral argument for God, so I find his rebuttal quite interesting.

John Beversluis noticed an inconsistency in the way Lewis dealt with the problem of pain and wrote to him about it. The entirety of his reply follows:

"Dear Mr. Beversluis

"Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him 'good' and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.

"To this some will reply 'ah, but we are fallen and don't recognize good when we see it.' But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen at all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: 'Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?' -- 'What fault hath my people found in me?' And so on. Socrates' answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham's, Paley's) leads to an absurdity. If 'good' means 'what God wills' then to say 'God is good' can mean only 'God wills what he wills.' Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.

"But of course having said all this, we must apply it with fear and trembling. Some things which seem to us bad may be good. But we must not consult our consciences by trying to feel a thing good when it seems to us totally evil. We can only pray that if there is an invisible goodness hidden in such things, God, in His own good time will enable us to see it. If we need to. For perhaps sometimes God's answer might be What is that to thee?' The passage may not be 'addressed to our (your or my) condition' at all.

"I think we are v. much in agreement, aren't we?

"Yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis"

So Lewis would agree with me – the same moral arguments that get one to the existence of a God get one away from the concept of God as revealed in the Bible. Lewis got around this by holding some parts of the Bible to not be inspired.

This quotation comes from pages 295-296 of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion by John Beversluis, a book which I highly recommend. As Beversluis writes in the introduction:

"C. S. Lewis needs to rescued: not only from the evils of excessive loyalty. His apologetic writings deserve better than cavalier rejection or uncritical acceptance. He believed that Christianity is not only true but rationally defensible, and he was willing to debate it with all comers. An open forum of this kind is rare. In the following chapters, I take up his challenge and reconstruct and critically examine his 'case for Christianity.'"