Book: The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a successful church in New York. He’s written a book, The Reason For God, which he says is for people doubting Christianity, and for Christians wanting to answer questions from their non-Christian friends. nlj21 lent me the book, and I read it while on holiday recently. If you’d like to see Keller in action, you can watch his talk at Google, which rehearses some of the arguments from the book.

The success of Keller’s church sounds surprising when you learn that the church is pretty evangelical in theology, because (going by the people he quotes objecting to Christianity) New York is apparently full of the American equivalent of Guardian readers. But having seen Keller’s style, I can see why he’s successful. He deals sensitively with the human problems people might have had with the church or with conservative Christians as well as the factual arguments. He admits where arguments are only suggestive rather than conclusive, and he mentions the arguments against his position. He admits that there’s no argument that will persuade everyone, so the best thing is to look for arguments that will persuade most of the people, most of the time.

Ultimately, though, I think Keller shows more good will than reason, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. Keller shows that you can construct a Christianity that hangs together, that a belief in God isn’t completely crazy. That’s certainly necessary, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it. A lot of the book is assertions without evidence for them, when evidence is precisely what is required.

That said, since the book is better than most Christian attempts at evangelism I’ve read or seen lately, I thought I’d do a couple of posts on it, of which this is the first.

Arguments against God

The book is divided into two parts: one dealing with the arguments against God, which Keller wants to show are faulty; and one dealing with the arguments for God. We’ll look at his responses to objections, using the chapter headings from the book.

There can’t be just one true religion

<lj-cut>There’s no logical basis for such an argument, as Keller rightly says, because there might actually be one true religion.

What people voicing this objection really seem to be worrying about is the danger that thinking you have the Truth will make you arrogant or even violent towards those who don’t agree. Keller says that the bad stuff done by Christians was against the teachings of Christianity, that is, that those people weren’t True Scotsmen.

Someone like Keller wouldn’t have gone on a Crusade and wouldn’t shoot abortionists, so those things are certainly against Keller’s sort of Christianity. However, Keller’s assertion rests on his interpretation of Christianity being the True Christianity (or at least, Truer), a view which wasn’t shared by Crusaders. As God is silent, how can Keller persuade Crusaders of his rightness? A general caution against arrogance when you think you know the absolute truth sounds like a good idea. Perhaps we should try believing things to the extent that we have evidence for them, for example?

How could a good God allow suffering?

<lj-cut>Keller argues that modern philosophers don’t accept that evil can be used to disprove God. God might have reasons for doing stuff which we don’t currently understand, and in fact, if he’s much cleverer than us, reasons we may be unable to understand.

This is true as far as it goes, and indeed leaves some possibility that God exists and is good. But, once again, I recommend believing in stuff to the extent that we have evidence for it. To use Gareth’s analogy, if we’re told someone is a chess grandmaster, yet is is apparently playing very badly, we might at first think that he is adopting some strategy we don’t understand, but as the game goes on, as his opponent hoovers up his pieces without apparent effort, we might begin to suspect we’ve been misinformed about this so-called grandmaster.

Some Christians might respond that a dramatic reversal is on the way, but their evidence for that is poor. Even by the late New Testament period, teaching about the Second Coming is being shored up by suspicious pre-emptive excuses for why it hasn’t happened. So far, the state of the board is evidence against the idea that God is good and able to intervene.

Keller goes on to say that atheists have no moral basis for calling something evil, re-iterating the moral argument discussed in a previous entry. He’s wrong, of course: the basis is our dislike of our own suffering, and our empathy for others, two things which are basic experiences in most people. Someone without these might not have a moral basis for expecting God to do something about suffering, but if you don’t like suffering and aren’t a sociopath, you’ve got a basis for worrying about theodicy.

Christianity is a straitjacket

<lj-cut>The objection to Christianity which Keller is responding to here seems to be a sort of “The Man is keeping you down, Man” statement, with God as the ultimate party pooper/Daily Mail reader/imperialist. It seems to come from woolly relativists who turn up to Keller’s church in New York. There’s no logic to this objection, since there’s no reason why such a God couldn’t exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.

The Church is responsible for so much injustice

<lj-cut>Along with C.S. Lewis, whose works Keller treats as a sort of New New Testament, Keller argues that you shouldn’t judge Christianity by Christians, because the church attracts strange and damaged people (like me, for example) and when you meet someone, you don’t know what they’ve been through in their past.

The assumption here is that there’s a good reason for changes brought about by God to take a long time. It’s odd that it does for some people and not others, though, isn’t it? If God can turn around Saul and those former drug addicts you get giving their testimonies at some churches, you’d’ve thought he wouldn’t have so much trouble making some Christians (who the Bible says have God living in them, remember) less insufferable, for example. It’s almost as if there’s no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

The rest of the chapter is the religion vs secularism murder drinking game (drink if the theist mentions Pol Pot or Stalin, drink if the atheist mentions the Crusades or 911, down your glass if anyone mentions Hitler). This can be fun and can motivate your side, but I’m not sure it moves the theist/atheist debate anywhere, so while I have engaged in it in the past, I now think is pretty pointless. I don’t see any way of showing that Christians are any better or worse than atheists, so the original objection that Keller is responding to doesn’t seem a good one. Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.

How can a loving God send people to Hell?

<lj-cut>Keller says that our problem with judgement is cultural, and that other cultures exposed to Christianity like the judgement stuff but don’t like the turning the other cheek stuff. He says he asked one person who objected to Hell whether she would say that her culture was superior to non-Western ones. The right answer to this is “Well, I think my personal morality is, otherwise what the Hell am I doing?” or possibly “Well, maybe not in general, but I’m fairly sure eternal torture is a bad thing”. Keller’s politically correct one-up-manship is a good way to make woolly relativists back down, so presumably works against the liberals who turn up at his New York church.

Keller then moves on to argue that God doesn’t send people to Hell, as such. His view of judgement owes more to the bowdlerisation of Hell in C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament than it does to the New Testament. Lewis and Keller think that Hell is a continuation of the soul’s trajectory at death, that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside, that Hell is ultimately God saying “have it your way”. Lewis says “It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us, there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud”.

To support Lewis’s ideas, Keller quotes Romans 1:24-26, a passage about God “giving people over” to their sins. This passage is actually about red-hot girl-on-girl action, not the fires of Hell. The New Testament is a bit less reticent about God’s role in sending people to Hell than Keller. Reading it, you’ll find that God has appointed a day, and a judge who will condemn people to the fire. It’s hard to fit this positive action from God into Keller’s scheme.

So where did Keller’s ideas come from? Lewis’s (and hence Keller’s) Hell is the Buddhist Hungry Ghosts realm, but without the possibility of rebirth. People in Keller’s Hell are dominated by their addictions, but these cannot satisfy them, and this continues forever. The fires of this Hell are the disintegration caused by self-centredness and addiction.

Alas, you’ll find none of this stuff in the Bible, where the fire is punishment from God (the correct evangelical term is eternal conscious torment). Keller quotes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in support of the Hungry Ghost Hell. His exposition of the passage talks about how the Rich Man is self-centred in that he still expects Lazarus to fetch water for him, but unfortunately ignores the fact that this is because the Rich Man is being tortured by fire.

Since Keller’s Hell is the Hungry Ghosts realm, I wondered what his response would be to people attempting to avoid self-centredness by other means. Keller says that “When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy”. This claim is asserted without evidence.

Keller offers poor evidence for believing Lewis over the Bible about hell. The Bible’s actual view is less palatable than Lewis’s, and evangelical Christians (like the rest of us) need to face up to the parts of their beliefs which hurt to think about. Hell is torture at God’s express command. If you believe in the Bible’s version, you think your non-Christian family and friends morally deserve to be in torment forever, and you accept that they probably will be unless they convert. Somehow, in tandem with this, you must try to believe that God is loving and very intelligent. Good luck with that one. It’s no wonder that most evangelicals (with some notable exceptions) believe they should believe in Hell, but don’t actually believe in it.

Science has disproved Christianity

<lj-cut>Keller, quoting Nagel, argues that naturalism is a philosophy which science uses but cannot prove. So, he says, if anyone’s arguing there can’t be a God merely because they have a prior commitment to naturalism, they’re assuming their conclusion. I wouldn’t disagree here.

Keller goes into an extensive digression about how many scientists believe in God. Like the murder drinking game, we need to be a bit careful here, both when reading Dawkins and when reading Keller. What counts as evidence for God’s activity (or lack of it) is the opinion of domain experts in areas where God is said to have acted (like, say, the opinion of biologists and geologists on creationism, or the opinion of psychologists and anthropologists on religious experiences). The rest is pretty much irrelevant: there’s nothing so stupid that you can’t find someone with a PhD who believes it.

He talks a lot about evolution, probably because creationism is an embarrassment to Christianity for scientifically educated people who turn up at his church. He says he accepts some form of evolution, but, unlike Dawkins, he doesn’t accept evolution as a worldview. The argument is quite confused at this point, and it’s not clear what he means by “evolution as a worldview”. Quotable quote: “When evolution is turned into an all-encompassing theory explaining absolutely everything we believe, feel and do as the product of natural selection, then we were not in the arena of science, but of philosophy”. Keller appears to have mixed up Dawkins’s views on evolution with Dawkins’s general belief in naturalism, since I doubt Dawkins supports the quoted position.

Keller says he himself believes that God guided some kind of process of natural selection (making it a process of supernatural selection, I suppose). Keller has effectively retrofitted Genesis to modern scientific theories. God presumably knew he used evolution to create life when he inspired Genesis, so it is a little odd that he doesn’t mention it. A Bronze Age level explanation of evolution would have been no more wacky than many other creation myths, and would have the advantage that the Bible would look a lot more impressive when a scientific culture discovered it was right.

Keller tells his readers not to worry about all this disagreement among Christians about evolution. Look at the core claims of Christianity, he says, not at this side issue. Unfortunately, some of those core claims conflict with evolution. For example, there’s the claim that, just as death entered the world through Adam’s sin, Jesus’s death for humanity’s sins conquered sin and hence death, as demonstrated by the Resurrection. Does Keller think that the Fall was an event in history, and is he arguing that nothing died before the Fall? If Keller has answers to those sorts of objections (which usually come from other Christians, namely the creationists), he doesn’t tell us what they are and how he knows they’re right.

He rightly says that the evidence for the conventional theory of evolution can’t be used to show that theistic evolution didn’t happen, which is sufficient to do away with the objection he’s responding to, if the objector specifically has evolution in mind. It’s a pretty poor objection, though, as science doesn’t really prove anything. Perhaps a more interesting objection to claims of God’s activity in the world would be to say that God is inert and ask someone like Keller to show why anyone would believe otherwise.

You can’t take the Bible literally

<lj-cut>Keller limits himself to talking about the Gospels. He says that they were written too soon after Jesus’s life to be fictionalised accounts, because their first readers could have checked up on their accuracy; their content isn’t what we’d expect of legends composed by the early church (the female witnesses to the Resurrection, Peter’s denial of Jesus when Peter went on to head the church); and that the gospels have the literary form of eye-witness accounts, but the modern novel had not been invented yet, so they are intended as reportage.

I’m no historian, so I’m not really able to check these claims out. I’d be interested to know what my readers think, and I’ll probably be looking into this stuff at some point in the future. My meta-problem with this stuff is having to rely on ancient written accounts of stuff I give very low credence to by default. Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature? I can think of easier ways to convince me.

Keller then addresses cultural, rather than historical, objections to the Bible, arguing, along with New New Testament author C.S. Lewis, that such objections may be assuming that older societies were “primitive”, but that our grandchildren may find some of our beliefs equally primitive. Imagine Anglo-Saxons and modern Brits reading two stories, Jesus’s claim that he will judge the world, and Peter’s denial of Jesus and later restoration. The responses to the two stories will be quite different, Keller argues, so who are we to say that judgement is bad and wrong but Jesus’s forgiveness of Peter is right.

So, Keller argues, rather than saying “bits of the Bible are sexist, therefore Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead” (which is, as he says, a non sequitur), we should decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, and if he is, we should have confidence in what the Bible says because the Bible tells us Jesus had such a high view of it (even of the New Testament and New New Testament, which hadn’t been written yet). This is a perfectly valid argument.

Summing up

Some of the objections Keller gets from New Yorkers are ill considered, and Keller bats them aside easily. In other cases (theodicy and Hell), his method is to argue that there’s still a chance that Christianity is true, so the objections aren’t completely conclusive. I don’t find this that impressive, because the sensible objector isn’t claiming that their objections are conclusive, merely that they’re strong evidence. To defeat that, one must produce stronger evidence, which as we’ll see in the next part, Keller fails to do.

96 thoughts on “Book: The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller”

  1. there might actually be one true religion.

    I kind of don’t think this is the key issue. Why do (some) people get hung up on the idea that having more than one religion is a problem? I see no particular difficulty in the idea of having a single, ineffable God, who might or might not be the creator of the universe and might be the arbiter of all that is moral, to whom practitioners of different faiths have different approaches.

    It is certainly true that some of these approaches are seen as competing (although often, as with bickering siblings, the greatest competition is seen between the most similar approaches); it is even true that some practitioners define their belief as belonging to the “true” God who is different to “other” Gods. But that sounds like nonsense to me. It seems to me much more like a question of defining an approach, a relationship, than defining a God.

    I don’t see any reason for either a theist or an atheist to manufacture a problem from there being more than one way to have a relationship with God.

    1. Your view is exactly the one that Keller is arguing against. He’s an evangelical Christian who thinks that his religion is the true one and the others are false, and he’s trying to argue against the objection that it can’t be.

      One of the things he argues against is the assertion that we’re all just feeling different parts of the elephant. His argument (due to Newbigin) is that the parable-teller’s claim that there’s a single, ineffable elephant is actually a claim to true religious knowledge, so using it as an argument that there can’t be true religious knowledge is self-defeating. (I’d add that the elephant parable is obviously about science, anyway).

    2. Subject: One Religion
      The overarching problem for multiple religions is the when those religions postulate a completely opposite doctrine on behavior, action, and most notably salvation. It’s essentially saying that A and non A are both correct. Logically it’s inconsistent. To assert a morality is to assert an A, thus asserting one right solution.

  2. There’s no logic to this objection, since there’s no reason why such a God couldn’t exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.

    I’m not sure whose point of view this sentence is supposed to be said from. I’m presuming that you don’t think every atheist’s life is a continual debauch, but does Keller think so? Or does he think God would say so? Or does he (and/or you) merely think that God could say so without being logically inconsistent?

    (I have to say, also, that if an atheist’s life is supposed to be a continual debauch then I’ve been shortchanged somewhere!)

    1. I’m not sure whose point of view this sentence is supposed to be said from.

      Mine, in a sarcastic sort of way. I don’t recall Keller saying that atheists’ lives were continually debauched (although he may have got into the whole sexual morality thing, as that is presumably a large part of this objection).

      (I have to say, also, that if an atheist’s life is supposed to be a continual debauch then I’ve been shortchanged somewhere!)

      I was very disappointed by that when I became an atheist: where was all that sex I was supposed to get?

  3. That’s certainly necessarily, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it.
    As I imagine you already know – most Christians would refer to an encounter with God that is sufficiently compelling.

    Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature? I can think of easier ways to convince me.
    I thought Craig addressed this in BeThinking: Religious epistemology, but maybe he didn’t. He has made the point before though that the means through which we’d expect God to provide sufficiency for belief would not be through a means that requires someone to be an expert in history, greek and hebrew, philosophy, etc… we’d expect it to be through a means that was available to the average person (and the sub average person).

    1. As I imagine you already know – most Christians would refer to an encounter with God that is sufficiently compelling.

      Jolly God. I’d better hope a sufficiently compelling encounter with God happens before I die, I suppose.

      I thought Craig addressed this

      I liked the first bits of that, but gave up after Craig’s assertion we’ve no reason to think that God writing “JESUS WOZ HERE” across the face of the Moon would make more people come into a loving relationship with God. That’s obvious nonsense. Craig’s only evidence for this is that miracles happen in the Biblical narrative and people still don’t believe. In the first place, that’s asking us to believe the Biblical history is accurate, and in the second, the Israelites aren’t doubting God’s existence, but rather whether he’s a better bet than the many other gods around them. Their position is quite different from the modern agnostic or atheist. Belief in God isn’t sufficient for a relationship, as James’s epistle points out, but it’s certainly necessary.

      1. ‘I liked the first bits of that, but gave up after Craig’s assertion we’ve no reason to think that God writing “JESUS WOZ HERE” across the face of the Moon would make more people come into a loving relationship with God. That’s obvious nonsense.’

        Craig can say it is wrong that such obvious signs of God would make more people obey God’s commandment to freely love him.

        But for Craig to say ‘there is no reason’, just makes me wonder about him.

        I don’t believe in a deity, but I would never write that there is ‘no reason’ to believe in some sort of deity. After all, people do have reasons, so there clearly are reasons for people to believe in God.

        1. Craig is not claiming there’s no reason to believe in a deity. In the bit in question, he says that there’s no reason to think that God making it blindingly obvious that he exists would make more people have a relationship with God.

    2. Christians don’t need to study all that to be justified in being Christians, according to Craig?

      Does this mean atheists really do have to study all that sort of stuff before they can justify their atheism?

      Or do Christians attack Dawkins for not having a level of education in theology that few Christians even aspire to?

          1. You’re the one making unsubstantiated criticism here Steven.

            When I debate with people on blogs I try to understand where they’re coming from and see if I might be wrong. AFAICT you act like a Christian tar pit.

            And no, I won’t be engaging in further debate with you here because I don’t want to ‘feed the trolls’ as it were.

            1. What is ‘trollish’ about asking whether Dawkins is justified in being an atheist, if he has a higher level of knowledge of Christianity than most Christians (WHich is a plain fact, as most Christians don’t even know the names of the Gospels)

              After all, Craig would never claim that a Christian has to know the names of the Gospels to be justified in being a Christian (That would be a nonsensical position for anybody to take)

              1. It’s not just me who has noticed you act in this way Steven. As Chris Tilling (NT scholar at St Mellitus College and St. Paul’s Theological Centre London) said:

                I used to try an answer [Steven’s] questions here – and did do so often – but soon realised that you did not attempt to dialogue, to enter into a mutually edifying communication – so I thought I wouldn’t bother wasting my time. Hence I won’t now try to answer your question.

                Instead, I thought I would start to respond to your questions with questions of my own (which you do not answer, I would note). Sorry to be preachy, but perhaps it will help you to learn to value proper dialogue, and for your own good.

                    1. Somebody had posted a link to a site claiming there were no vestigial organs, and that all organs had an important role to play, if not always a vital role to play.

                      I asked why this alleged god commanded people to chop off foreskins when foresksins had an important role to play.

                      Chris Tilling responded that this was the ‘Why the Willy?’ question.

  4. Hope you don’t mind if I drop my thoughts in one by one rather than I big response. Here’s my first one:

    I don’t think the chess analogy works well, because you a placing yourself in a similar level of information as the chess grandmaster. A better analogy would be a grandmaster playing against someone who could only see one square of the board. You might see one of the grandmster’s pieces being taken on the square, you might even see a few being taken, but really you are in no position to be able to say how the grandmaster is doing.

    1. Hullo, who’s that? Is it the artist formerly known as nlj21?

      I suppose that the analogy relies on us having some idea of what the end state looks like. Even if we’re weak chess players, we can recognise a win, I suppose, and we know the things (losing your queen, say) that make a win less likely during the game. (Oddly enough, Yudkowsky talked about this recently, though not in the context of theodicy).

      It also relies on the future being causally related to the past by a commonly understood set of rules, whereas the Christian expectation of a Second Coming is more like God wiping the board, because God sets the rules (perhaps a better analogy from a Christian PoV would be to Mao).

      Nevertheless, I can imagine ways in which the world could be better than it is, and God has allowed some pretty horrific stuff to occur, which you might imagine was like losing his queen. Predicting the future from the past seems to be doing OK as well. While I can’t rule out a sharp break in the rules in the future, I don’t have a good reason to believe it will happen, so it’s no more rational to believe it than it would be to believe in a sharp break in the past. That is, believing in the Second Coming is something like believing in Last Thursdayism or that one is a Boltzmann brain, only with the time axis reversed.

      Where are the squares we can’t see, in your analogy?

      1. Sorry. I meant to sign-off as nlj21. Yes, it is I.

        I’d disagree with you statement that losing your queen makes a win at all less likely. I have played and won many chess games where I have deliberately let me queen be taken as part of a strategy to win the game; and it has worked. I’d argue such an example supports my point, that from a small set of the available game information (they’ve had their queen taken) you are completely unable to predict if the game is likely to be won/lost.

        In my analogy the squares we can’t see are most things. One big set of squares would be “the future”. I’m not too sure how to respond to your assertion “Predicting the future from the past seems to be doing OK” as this is quite clearly wrong! There are numerous bust hedge funds and investment banks who will testify to this! In fact, I am unsure what you mean by this? What will happen in the next 10 years? Will I be alive? Will Britain be underwater? Will we be at war? Will Britain be bust? Will Clive still be teaching on Mondays? Will you have children? What will they be like?

        I can’t see how in any meaningful way you can claim to be OK at predicting the future. Maybe I’ve misunderstood your point; if so please do clarify it.

        I would also add, this idea the bad things can have good results which might not be known at the time, isn’t a specifically Christian observation. For example, I was recently reading Lance Armstrong’s biography. He isn’t a Christian. He suffered a serious cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy, etc.., which was all pretty nasty. One of the consequences was this made him alot more careful about his nutritional intake and fitness levels when recovering. Which when he recovered left him with fitness levels which meant he could win the Tour de France…repeatedly.

        When he looks back at his time in hospital he is able to say that he was grateful for it because it made him the athlete he was today, even though it was horrible at the time. (which doctors could not predict – they though his lungs would be irrepairably damaged and he’d never be able to compete again).

        1. There’s a big difference between “learning that a chessplayer has lost his queen should lower your estimate of how likely he is to win” (which I think is true, though maybe it becomes false if you know that the player is very good and playing against someone who isn’t much stronger) and “chessplayers never sacrifice their queens and go on to win” (which is obviously false). Your having won plenty of games in which you sacrificed your queen refutes only the second.

          There’s also a big difference between “predicting the future from the past works pretty well for us” and “we can predict everything about the future, and never make awful mistakes”; again, I think the former is true and the latter obviously false. And, again, your examples are evidence only against the latter. (And, in fact, I think the answers to some of your sample questions aren’t so totally unpredictable. You will probably be alive — an actuary could give a better probability estimate than I can –, Britain will almost certainly not be underwater, will probably not be at war, will almost certainly not be bankrupt; if Paul has children, they will share a lot of his genes, be smaller than him, not yet have jobs, etc., etc.) Furthermore, the earth will still be orbiting the sun at about 3×10^-8 Hz, proton decay will still be very slow if it occurs at all, light will still travel at about 3×10^8 m/s, human beings will still have 23 pairs of chromosomes each, still tend to die when heated above 100 degrees C for prolonged periods, etc., etc., etc., etc.

          What’s happening here is that the fact that we’re good at predicting lots of things about the future is so familiar that we don’t think of it as predicting the future at all; we use “predicting the future” to mean something like “predicting the future better than most of us can usually do”. Which is fair enough, but then the fact that we generally can’t “predict the future” in *that* sense is vacuous.

          No one (I think) would deny that generally-bad things can have good consequences, sometimes even good enough to make them good on the whole. None the less, generally-bad things generally have bad consequences, which is why they’re generally bad. When we look around us at the world, we see hugely many things that appear to be bad and not to have anything like sufficient good consequences to outweigh their badness. Of course it’s *possible* that somehow they all turn out to be good on the whole, just as it’s *possible* that actually all the people I know are really spies who are pretending to be who I think they are, or that all the physics experiments that have appeared to confirm that relativity is more accurate than Newtonian mechanics look that way because of a lengthy series of huge experimental errors. But, just as with those cases, something can be very good evidence without being watertight proof; just as with those cases, it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that the obvious conclusion is probably correct.

          1. You first paragraph would suggest that you agree that suffering in the world doesn’t logically demonstrate God doesn’t exist, it merely makes it less likely. I obviously would agree with the first half of that, but disagree with the second. So I would respond:

            1) If so, how much less likely? On what basis do you claim the post priori probabiliy is significantly lowered to make it reasonable to conclude the abscence of God.

            2) If you assumtion was correct that observation of suffering decreases the probability of God, then one might assume that those who have had the most experience of suffering would be the least likely to believe in God. But round the world we can see this not to be the case.

            As to predicting the future, I agree there are certain categories of things which we can be very successful at making predictions about. But my point (which I agree my previous examples didn’t make particularly well) are that there are large categories of things which we can’t make succesful predictions about. And that the suffereing/goodness aspect falls into these categories.

            A better set of questions would be thins like. In 10 years will you be happy and content, or restless and depressed? etc.. Will 2009 be a good or bad year for me? The categories of bad-things/good-things happening to us I do not believe we do have the power to predict.

            Of course, another related question to address is what are good/bad consequences. As in the Christian worldview death is not the worst thing that can happen. In fact, I was recently watching a video from some persecuted Christians and they said there main request for prayer was not that they would be kept from death, but they would be kept firm in their faith. If death is not the ultimate badness then I think you assessment of good/bad consequence is radically different.

            1. (Aargh, stupid LJ won’t let me post a response long enough to answer everything you’ve said. This is part 1 of 2.)

              Yes, my position is that suffering — more precisely, the appearance that there is lots of suffering that serves no plausible justifying higher purpose — makes the existence of God less likely rather than outright impossible. (In fact, my position is that all evidence, always, merely makes things more or less likely rather than certain or impossible.) I think it’s a mistake to isolate suffering here, by the way; the real issue is that there’s lots in the world that seems inconsistent with (1) what the Christian god is supposed to care about and (2) what any plausible candidate for a supremely good and wise being who loves us would care about. In what follows I’ll use “Evil” as a shorthand for “what we observe about all the bad stuff in the world”. (Not, please note, for “the fact that sometimes bad stuff happens”; it’s much more plausible that *some* bad stuff is justified than that all the bad stuff we actually see is justified.) And, while I’m in definitional mode, “God” is hereby shorthand for something like “a supremely good, wise and powerful being who loves us”. Of course other definitions are possible, and in some contexts better.

              1a. How much less likely? Difficult to quantify, but my best estimate for P(Evil|God) / P(Evil|no God) is well below 1/100. In other words, in the face of Evil we should revise our odds ratio for God : no God in favour of the latter by at least a factor of 100.

              1b. Why is that enough to conclude that there’s no God? Well, of course it isn’t *on its own*, nor could anything be. What makes it (in my view) reasonable to conclude that there’s probably no God is the fact that the evidence against (of which Evil forms part) is stronger than the evidence for (such as reports of miracles, the fact that lots of people believe in God, etc.).

              2. Shouldn’t people who suffer most believe least in God? Only if, to a good approximation, people decide whether to believe in God rationally. That’s fairly obviously untrue (e.g. because there surely shouldn’t be so much correlation with geography and parentage if everyone’s deciding rationally, and because people so often come up with totally daft arguments when asked why they believe or disbelieve what they do). I’d hazard a guess that if you control for things like religious background, socioeconomic status, education, intelligence, etc., then you’d probably find that suffering *does* correlate with reduced tendency to believe — but it’s only a guess, and I don’t think either of us should be much disturbed in our beliefs whether it turns out to be right or wrong.

              1. Sorry for the delay in replying, I’ve been musing on this which has resulted in me slightly changing my argument.

                I agree we the general methodology you describe in 1b, consider the evidence for god, the evidence against, make some sort of judgement of the relative probabilities and see which wins, as being a reasonable why to discuss this. That’s the sort of framework I’m working in, and like to use to think about such things.

                So where we seem to disagree is in the probabilities, particularly in this case P(Evil|God).

                I was originally going to make, what I think is WLC’s argument which robhu is making elsewhere, that there is so much we don’t know, as God by definition is outside of our realm of direct experience, we have no basis on which to judge this probability. Hence the existence of evil can’t form an evidentialist basis for rejecting God.

                But after further thought, I think I can do better than that.

                Firstly, just for clarity, when I’m saying God. I’m talking about the one who created the universe, revealed himself to Abraham and chums, came to earth as Jesus, and spoke through the Bible, etc….

                This God is clear that there will be evil in the world till he returns in judgement, and that it should not currently surprise us. So I think

                P(Evil|God) = 1

                where Evil = there is evil in the world
                and God = the Christian God exists as he has revealed himself in the Bible

                I think the only way we can deviate from that probability judgement is if we are instead talking about a god we’ve made up in abstract, in which case I would agree that such abstract gods doesn’t exist.

                Anyway, the collorarly is if P(E|G) = 1 there is no way P(E|G)/P(E|!G) will be .01

                I’ll admit, I think my argument above sounds too neat, so there might well be a fatal flaw in it. But I would be keen to hear your thoughts, and more particularly on what basis you think your probabilities are reasonable and mine is unreasonable.

                1. Yes, I think there is a fatal flaw in your argument. Sorry. 🙂 Let me try to illustrate it by an analogy. I have just invented a religion called Fnordism. It declares the existence of the Omnific Fnord, who created all that is, seen and unseen and invisibly pink. It also asserts that the world will be *almost exactly the way we currently find it to be*. What I mean by that is that its scriptures include a copy of the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the statement “Thus saith the Fnord: This is pretty much exactly the way things are.”

                  Now, I hope we can agree that Fnordism is *even better* than Christianity in “predicting” the existence and the extent of evil. Its holy books, after all, have lengthy articles on famine and war and suchlike. Therefore, of course, Fnordism is more likely to be right than Christianity is. But wait: it gets even better!

                  As every faithful Wikipedian knows, Britannica isn’t always right. And the chances are that, what with the progress of science and all that, some things in it will eventually prove to be badly wrong. At which point the Church of Fnord will triumphantly point to that *other* bit of the Fnordist scriptures, where it is written: “And lo, the Fnord spake and said: Britannica is frequently quite badly wrong.” Wow, Fnordism gets *everything* right!

                  Obviously, this is all rubbish. I think two things are wrong with it, which by an astonishing coincidence parallel two things that I think are wrong with your argument.

                  1. Adding details to a claim — God says X, appeared to Y, did Z, etc. — typically makes it *feel* more plausible, but actually makes it less probable. (“There is a God” is clearly more probable than “There is a God who became incarnate in the Middle East about 2000 years ago, got nailed to a piece of wood, rose from the dead, forgives sins and will preside over a final judgement”, despite the verisimilitude given to the latter by those corroborative details.) If you take a version of theism that doesn’t include “there is such-and-such an amount of evil” among its doctrines and then add that in, the increase in posterior probability it gets from saying the right thing about evil is at least matched by a corresponding decrease in prior probability from being so specific.

                  2. I think Christianity involves beliefs that are inconsistent, or at least very hard to reconcile, with one another. For instance, it says (at least in your version) that Evil (in my sense) exists; but it also says that God is supremely good and supremely powerful. If I’m right in thinking that those attributes make the existence of Evil very improbable, then saying that Evil exists is a near-contradiction in Christianity and (here I’m kinda repeating myself) lowers its prior probability.

                  There’s a third problem, which I didn’t bother including in my analogy: I am not at all convinced that Christianity *does* say that Evil (as opposed to mere evil) exists. Certainly, P(some evil|Christianity)=1, but the point of the argument from evil (at least in the versions I prefer) isn’t just that *some* evil exists; it’s that the amount and distribution of it, and the connections it appears to have with the rest of the world, don’t seem to fit with the existence of a supremely good, powerful and wise being who loves us.

                  1. I think you first points are all about P(G) which while I agree is what we are trying to get to in the end, I don’t think are relavent to the bit I am particularly interested in here P(E|G).

                    I think you Fnordism analogies as all about the evaluation of P(E|!G) relative to P(E|G) and using this to evaluate P(G) so I’m not sure it is actually relavent to the point at hand, the evaluation of P(E|G).

                    The second point I think you’ve changed you view on. I thought we had agreed that there wasn’t a strict logical argument that evil disproved God (which incosistencies would allow you to conclude), instead we were in the realm of assessing the probabilities of evidence.

                    You make in that point assertions about God’s attributes making Evil very improbable. This is the statement I want some justification for, which as far as I can see you’ve just asserted and haven’t justified on what basis you are getting this low probability.

                    I’m not too sure I follow what the difference you’re trying to make between “Evil” and “some evil”. God’s people in the Bible undergo some pretty horrific things which I think would qualify as “Evil” (although that’s hard to say without know the point you are making)

                    1. The point is that you can’t (well, shouldn’t) really consider P(E|G) in isolation from P(G). You can always make P(E|G) much bigger(*), at the cost of making P(G) correspondingly smaller, by adding details to G that match what we know about reality.

                      (*) That is, much nearer 1. I think we should really work with logarithms of odds ratios, rather than probabilities, and those go from -oo to +oo, so if I talk about probabilities being “large” that’s the sort of thing I have in mind :-).

                      I don’t understand why you think I’ve changed my view. I *don’t* think there’s a purely-logical refutation of the existence of God, still less one based on the existence or amount of evil; if Christianity (either as such, or as commonly believed) is inconsistent, that doesn’t disprove the existence of God. Still less if all it is is on-the-edge-of-inconsistency, which is probably a better description (since most people — Christian, atheist, whatever — have religious or irreligious views with enough “fuzz” to them to avoid strict inconsistency, or indeed strict anything else.)

                      My claim that P(Evil|God) is very small (taking “God” here, as before, to denote the general proposition “there is a supremely good, powerful and wise being who cares about us” rather than any much more specific claim) isn’t based on anything terribly subtle or startling. (Except in so far as theists sometimes offer sophisticated reasons why it might not be so, and I think they’re wrong, sometimes for other sophisticated reasons.) I’m quite sure you aren’t unaware of the issues here, and it seems pretty obvious that *on the face of it* it looks like P(Evil|God) is low; if you really disagree then please say so and I’ll have a go at offering a justification from scratch, but if what you really mean is that you have an objection to the usual obvious arguments then I think we’ll make more progress faster if you say why you object.

                      The distinction I’m trying to make between “Evil” and “some evil” is just that the two are not the same, and that what God (in your more-specific sense) allegedly says doesn’t come close to a declaration that there will, or should, or must, be the sort of amount and distribution of evil that there actually is. If I gave an impartial third party a copy of the Bible and asked “On the basis of what this says about God, how would you expect him to react to a crazed dictator wanting to massacre millions of Jews?” or “On the basis of what this says about God, would you expect a prominent feature of the world to be enormous natural disasters every few years that kill hundreds of thousands of people?”, I don’t think their answer would be much like “Oh yes, this says that there will be Bad Stuff, so obviously those things will happen”.

                      (They might say something like “Well, the god described here seems pretty arbitrary and vindictive so sure, why not?”, if they agreed with the likes of Richard Dawkins about the character of God in the OT. But that corresponds to increasing P(Evil|Bible) while decreasing P(God|Bible), given that I’m taking “supremely good” as part of the definition of “God”. As I’ve said above, it’s possible to trade off probabilities in all sorts of ways; the key probability I’m interested in is P(God|all-the-evidence).)

                2. What do you mean by ‘evil’? According to the OT, God did some things that seem evil to me – for example, genocide. So yes, if the Bible is true then P(Evil|God) = 1. Is he good? That’s the question.

            2. (Part 2 of 2.)

              Predicting the future: I don’t think what’s needed is the ability to make specific predictions about whether any given year will be better or worse than average. The key question is something like: How plausible is it that at some point in the future, somehow, a given instance of Evil will turn out to have been for the best? So far, it seems to me, the evidence we have suggests that we do reasonably well at predicting that: in other words, when something seems like a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, we don’t usually find later on that we were badly wrong. It really is, on the whole, usually a bad thing to get cancer. It really is, on the whole, usually a good thing to get a pay rise. At least, so far as we can presently tell.

              Now, I repeat, *of course* it’s possible — in principle — that in some future turning-upside-down of the whole world, as anticipated in one form or another by many Christians, it’ll turn out that everything has been for the best in this best of all possible worlds, and that the world will turn out to be ineffably wonderful in some way that couldn’t possibly have been achieved without having 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. (Or thousands of children starving to death every day; or billions of people going through their entire lives without discovering the truth about God; or any of the many, many other things that seem on the face of it like God wouldn’t want them.) The question is: if we have to guess at the relative likelihood of that, and of there being no God after all, which is more credible?

              And the other question is: If God’s ways are so very, very inscrutable that all those atrocities and abominations are — despite appearances — part of the world he has willingly brought into being and sustains at every instant, then how can you possibly have any confidence in any alleged revelation from him? I mean, when you believe what’s in the Bible or in the Christian tradition, or what you think God is saying directly to you somehow, underlying that belief is the idea that God *just wouldn’t* deceive you badly, or let you be badly deceived in such matters, right? But why is that any more obvious than that God would want (and be able) to do better than all the Evil in the world?

              It seems to me that this skeptical response to the problem of evil, emphasizing the incompleteness of our knowledge and understanding and the ineffability of God, is self-defeating: if taken really seriously, it does at least as much to refute revealed religion as it does to deal with the problem of evil.

              Death: I don’t think anything I’ve said assumes that death is “the ultimate badness”; in any case, I don’t think it is the ultimate badness. Damnation as traditionally understood by Christians, for instance, would certainly be worse than mere death. And that is something that, according to most Christians, awaits billions of people; probably the majority of the human race; quite possibly a very large majority. Various particular ways of dying are clearly much worse than death itself — e.g., ones that involve gradual mental degeneration or prolonged agony — and many of those are commonplace too. Arguably, moral depravity is a fate worse than death when properly regarded, and plenty of people are morally quite depraved. There’s no shortage of Bad Things other than death, alas.

    2. In no position to say how the grandmaster is doing?

      Just read Keller’s book! The grandmaster is doing fine, in fact he is all-good at chess.

      How come Keller can say how well the grandmaster is doing, when we are in ‘no position to be able to say how the grandmaster is doing’?

      1. Keller (I don’t have to book infront of me, so I am speaking from what I would be saying if I was him, so might not be his words) isn’t so much say that the Grandmaster is going well because he is following his strategy by watching his game.

        He is saying he knows his a Grandmaster because a number of other people have written down about his greatest match, where his strategy resulted in him defeating his ultimate opponent. This was Kasporov vs Karpov. Halfway through people thought he’d been defeated, but as a result of a sacrifice he managed to win in the end.

        On the basis of this he concluding he is a Grandmaster. Not by trying to figure out his strategy mid-game at the moment.

        1. Ah, OK. nlj is saying that he already knows God exists based on other evidence, so bad stuff happening does not change his beliefs. Gareth is judging whether God exists based on the state of the world, so comes to different conclusions. Fair enough.

          What I don’t get is why God has to do such complicated things to win the game. nlj, who or what is Karpov in this analogy? Is the force of evil really (nearly) as powerful as God?

          1. I don’t think the force of evil is more powerful than God (it err, doesn’t really make sense to say that as there is no force of evil).

            Craig’s article on evil (which I think is a chapter from one of his books) is interesting reading (although it is moderately long, but then you’d expect it to be).

            From memory (while checking bits of the page) his arguments about the probabilistic version of the problem of evil were:

            1. Relative to the full scope of the evidence God’s existence is probable
            2. We are not in a good position to assess with confidence the probability that God has no morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils that occur
            3. Christian theism entails doctrines that increase the probability of the co-existence of God and evil.
            4. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.

            Although it’s quite long it’s well worth a read, especially because Craig (always being a bit over ambitious) argues that in fact the existence of evil is evidence for God rather than against God.

            1. Subject: Re: some more
              I’d agree with you that there is no force of evil. (But I’d be interested to know whether you believe in a literal Devil).

              I’ve read the article, thanks. One of the justifications for evil that Craig gives is that It may well be the case that natural and moral evils are part of the means God uses to draw people into His Kingdom., for example:

              It is estimated that 20 million Chinese lost their lives during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Christians stood firm in what was probably the most widespread and harsh persecution the Church has ever experienced. The persecution purified and indigenized the Church. Since 1977 the growth of the Church in China has no parallels in history. Researchers estimate that there were 30-75 million Christians by 1990. Mao Zedong unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history.

              Do you think that the deaths of 20 million Chinese people (and the accompanying suffering) in the Cultural Revolution are a good thing?

              1. Subject: Re: some more
                But I’d be interested to know whether you believe in a literal Devil
                I do think there is an actual being who we refer to as the devil.

                Do you think that the deaths of 20 million Chinese people (and the accompanying suffering) in the Cultural Revolution are a good thing?
                I think it’s not ideal. But here ‘ideal’ assumes that God could make anything happen, which I don’t think is true (some things he is logically prevented from doing for instance). I think Craig may be right in thinking that this world is the best possible world.

                There is a big debate in Christian theology (well mainly among lay people I think) over whether God uses evil things for good, or whether he brings them about for good.

                The arguments in favour of God bringing things about tend to be about God being sovereign over everything, omnipotent, and omniscient, so how could he not be bringing everything about?

                There seems to be good Biblical support for this idea. Look at Genesis 50:20, Joseph says that while his brothers intended evil towards him by putting him in the pit, God intended this for good. The implication in that passage being that (and his apologia of their actions relies on) actually God being behind what happened to him in another sense along side their intentions towards him.

                Or, more strikingly, look at Acts 2:23 “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” In a number of places the Bible refers to how Jesus’ death on the cross was something God not only foreknew but also planned and intended. The most evil act of man was something that God intended to occur. Long before the creation of the world.

                1. Subject: Re: some more
                  Which brings us back to my original question: why is it all so complicated? Kasparov may move in mysterious ways when playing against Karpov, but on his own he can arrange the pieces on the chessboard however he likes.

                  I think Craig may be right in thinking that this world is the best possible world.

                  Have you read Candide?

                  1. Subject: Re: some more
                    Which brings us back to my original question: why is it all so complicated? Kasparov may move in mysterious ways when playing against Karpov, but on his own he can arrange the pieces on the chessboard however he likes.
                    I don’t understand your question.

                    Have you read Candide?
                    Nope.

                    Should I add it to my (ever increasing) list of books to read?

                    1. Subject: Re: some more
                      I don’t understand your question.

                      I think the question is why the chess analogy seems appropriate, that is, why does it seem as if God is struggling against an opponent who’s nearly as good, if not better, at chess than him. Zoroastrianism sounds more likely to be true than Christianity.

                      It’s all very well to argue that God might have reasons for permitting evil, but I can’t see why he cannot attempt to explain such reasons to us. It’s almost as if there isn’t a God and those reasons are said to be too complicated for us to understand because Christians haven’t got a good explanation.

                      Should I add it to my (ever increasing) list of books to read?

                      You should watch Bernstein’s musical version on YouTube instead.

            2. Subject: The inner witness of the Holy Spirit – poor reception in certain areas
              ‘We are not in a good position to assess with confidence the probability that God has no morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils that occur’

              Really? Why not? Can we never rule out the possibility that there is a morally sufficient reason for permitting abortion?

              Even if we have no idea why permitting abortion is good, we ought to allow evils , because there just might be a reason for killing babies, even if we are practically certain there is no good reason to kill babies?

              Would this alleged god permit Christians to believe in Heaven and Hell, perhaps in an attempt to get people to behave better, although Heaven and Hell do not actually exist?

              It would be an evil if God permitted Christians to have false hopes of salvation.

              But Craig claims God permits evil.

              Based on this new found doctrine of humans being unable to work out which evils a god would and would not permit, how can Christians claim to know their alleged god would never permit them to believe false doctrines about salavtion?

              Or do Christians claim there is an ‘inner witness’ of the Holy Spirit which communicates reliable cognitive faculties, except when atheists ask them to explain why God allowed the Holocaust.

              This ‘inner witness of the Holy Spirit’ then goes deathly quiet, and Christians claim their reliable cognitive faculties about evil and good can’t be relied upon to say there is no reason to permit 6 million Jews to die.

              The ‘inner witness of the Holy Spirit’ tends to be pretty good at answering questions about whether or not somebody has a calling to preach at a church, but is really bad at telling Christians why atheists are wrong to say that the Holocaust should have been prevented.

          2. I think the question of why God has to do complicated things to win the game depends on your point of view. From our point of view they look complicated, because we are not very good at chess.

            Maybe the analogy would work better if I replaced Karpov with board 1 on the Trinity College chess team. Kasporov wouldn’t find such a match complicated, but to me it would look complicated.

            So from out point of view, down here, evil looks like it is almost as powerful as God. From God’s point of view, there is no challenge, he’s in control.

    3. The point of this analogy is that God is playing with real people. (The chess grandmaster analogy originated with a Christian – see my debate with Pate)

      He ‘sacrificed’ 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, but he still wins the game.

      Of course, sacrificing a piece of plastic to be able to take another piece of plastic is moral.

      But sacrificing millions of lives, is immoral.

      Even such idiots as Black Sabbath knew that it was wrong ‘treating people just like pawns in chess.’

        1. Subject: God the perfect chess player
          I see. So the answer to why God the perfect chessplayer seems to lose games so badly, is not that he is sacrificing pawns and pieces, it is that the enemy is taking God’s pawns and pieces.

          If I send 6 million people to their deaths against my enemies, I cannot be blamed, because it was the enemy who killed them, not me.

          1. Subject: Re: God the perfect chess player
            God didn’t command the German people to commit the holocaust, the German people chose to commit the holocaust.

            Your analogy is like a mass murdering arguing that he isn’t guilty because at birth the state should have put him in prison in solitary confinement.

            It is the height of arrogance to assign the evil we commit of our own free will to someone else. Now what does this remind me of? Oh yes, the account in Genesis where Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. Nothing changes, eh?

            1. Subject: Re: God the perfect chess player
              It was a Christian who came up with the analogy of evil as being like God sacrificing things.

              ‘I have played and won many chess games where I have deliberately let me queen be taken as part of a strategy to win the game; and it has worked. I’d argue such an example supports my point, that from a small set of the available game information (they’ve had their queen taken) you are completely unable to predict if the game is likely to be won/lost.’

              Now we find that this alleged god doesn’t let any of his pieces be taken.

              If 6 million Jews are killed, then this doesn’t detract from this alleged god being the perfect chess player, allowing queens to be taken as part of a brilliant strategy which we can’t see.

              Why does God allow millions of Jews to be killed, when it is not part of his game-plan?

              I think the chess-watching audience are about to burst into choruses of ‘You don’t know what your’e doing’.

            2. Subject: Re: God the perfect chess player
              ‘Oh yes, the account in Genesis where Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. Nothing changes, eh?’

              By the way, that never happened.

              Somebody sat down and made that story up.

              What ‘changes’ is that atheists look at the real world where this alleged god supposedly exists and lets his beloved children be gassed to death rather than lift a finger to help them.

              In response Christians turn to made up stories of talking snakes as their contribution to rational debate.

            3. Subject: Re: God the perfect chess player
              The German people (some of them, anyway) chose to perpetrate the Holocaust. And God, if God there be, chose not to stop them and not to do anything to stop it killing millions of people (and, in anticipation of the “oh, you atheists always exaggerate the importance of death” response, leaving millions bereaved, shattering the lives of millions more in other ways, making a whole lot of people abandon their belief in God, etc., etc., etc.).

              Christians (and Jews and Muslims) used to believe in a God who is active in the world to make things more the way that he wants them. (Unfortunately this commonly involved massacre and genocide, if the OT is to be believed; but that’s another matter.) But with every war, earthquake, tsunami, etc., theists come to realise more clearly that *of course* God can’t really be expected to step in and make the world better, because that would have deprived Hitler of his freedom to massacre Jews, which would be so bad that giving millions of Jews the freedom to go on living couldn’t outweigh it. No, wait, I mean because interfering with the beautiful regular operation of the world would spoil God’s design, just as if someone’s playing the violin you can’t expect them to intervene to stop a brutal murder for fear of spoiling the performance. No, wait, I mean because we have to be free to choose to love him, and having a world that didn’t look exactly as if he isn’t there would make it impossible to make that choice freely (just as I can’t freely choose to love my wife, because I inconveniently know that she exists and something about what she’s like). No, wait, I mean … well, I dunno, but it would surely have *some* really bad consequence. We can tell that, because otherwise he’d do it more often, and he doesn’t.

              As you have probably noticed, I am not greatly impressed by any of this :-).

              It is the height of arrogance to assign the evil we commit of our own free will to someone else. Well, here we’re talking about the evil committed by some other people entirely; whatever might be wrong with blaming God for Hitler, I don’t see how it can be arrogance. Anyway: it can easily happen that two people are to blame for something. I borrow something from you and carelessly leave it unattended in an area known to be crawling with thieves; someone steals it; both I and the thief are to blame. You see a crime in progress, and happen to be a police officer accompanied by several colleagues; you decide not to intervene, and someone dies; both you and the criminal are to blame. God makes a world with genocidal dictators in it, and stands by idly while they do their genocidal dictatorial thing; seems to me that God and the genocidal dictators are both to blame. What’s arrogant (or indeed wrong) about any of that?

              1. Subject: Re: God the perfect chess player
                God is gracious in not acting as you would like him to, if he acted rightly to punish the acts of sinful men like you and me (and Hitler) now we would not enjoy the consequences (I’m sure you’ll jump in here and say that you think that God doing bad things to Hitler is OK, but you’re an OK sort of chap, but that’s just your relativism and assumption that your rejection of and rebellion against God is not really all that bad as far as things go). We are lucky that God is patient with us.

                But God does act to ensure justice for the atrocities that are committed – Hitler will receive his just punishment for his actions.

                I find your assertion that theists are now waking up to how God does not intervene in Tsunami’s etc, to be quite misinformed. The Old Testament is full of the Jewish people suffering all kinds of things which for one reason or another God does not immediately intervene to resolve. Consider the oppression by the Romans as one simple example.

                It is arrogant because it is putting ones self in a position where we are so lofty that we think we can make judgements on God, even to the extent that we blame the act of mankind (or ourselves) on Him.

                We will fundamentally disagree on this because you think you are in an appropriate position to stand in judgement of God. You think you understand things well enough, are smart enough, and that your system of morality (whatever it might be) is an appropriate place from which to launch an attack on the creator.

                You state that “having a world that didn’t look exactly as if he isn’t there would make it impossible to make that choice freely”, yet many people (including me, a lot of very smart people, stupid people, and everyone inbetween) do find that the world looks as if God is there.

                I must add that I don’t really have the time to discuss any of this further at the moment.

                1. Subject: Re: God the perfect chess player
                  1. No, I will not do what you say you’re sure I will do. I didn’t say anything about *punishing* Hitler. I couldn’t care less whether he, or any future potential Hitler, gets punished. What I want is for them to be *stopped*.

                  2. I am not a relativist.

                  (Two confident pronouncements about me, both completely wrong, in one paragraph. If that’s what Christianity teaches you to do, then I submit that UR DOIN IT RONG.)

                  3. I didn’t say that theists are now waking up to how God doesn’t intervene. What I do think is happening is that the traditional response (anguish over why God isn’t doing more, given that as Everyone Knows he’s an active, intervening sort of chap) is increasingly giving way to a new sort (the idea that *of course* God can’t be expected to intervene, for one or another bogus reason). I don’t find either sort of response satisfactory, but you already guessed that :-).

                  4. I’m not making judgements on God. I don’t think there’s any such person, remember? I’m making judgements on *people’s beliefs about God*. There is nothing arrogant about saying “your belief leads to such-and-such conclusions, which seem silly” or “if what you say is true, then this being whom you claim to be perfect has such-and-such characteristics, which seem very imperfect”.

                  (Hmm, *three* confident wrong pronouncements about what I think and do.)

                  5. Yes, some people do indeed think that the world looks exactly the way we should expect it to if there’s a supremely good, supremely powerful being who loves us and cares for us. I have never understood how they manage it; it never looked that way to me even when I believed that there was in fact such a being. My impression, which may well be wrong, is that the great majority of theists don’t find that the world looks exactly the way that they’d expect given their belief in God.

                  1. Subject: Re: God the perfect chess player
                    I should expand a little on point 1. I would not mind at all, so far as I can currently tell, if God (assuming his existence for the sake of argument) arranged that all my actions-with-really-bad-consequences either didn’t happen or didn’t have their natural bad consequences.

                    (Possible exception: it wouldn’t be astonishing if, given our society as presently constituted, the only way to avoid all very bad consequences for others (indirect ones included) would be a life of such self-sacrifice as to make one’s own life wretched. I might mind having that forced on me. But if that’s so, then I bet it’s just because of the asymmetry; applying the same restriction to everyone wouldn’t leave everyone wretched.)

                    you think that God doing bad things to Hitler is OK […] assumption that your rejection of and rebellion against God is not really all that bad as far as things go: I do hope I’m wrong here, but it looks as if you’re suggesting that looking carefully at the available evidence and arguments and being an atheist on that basis is just as reprehensible as starting a world war, committing genocide, and running concentration camps. Since I’m not talking about punishment at all, this isn’t terribly relevant; but, in any case, gosh.

  5. Next point. (from nlj21)

    “Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.”

    I thought Keller’s argument that exactly the opposite was true. Christianity calls sinners, so we should expect our churches to attract the worst in society, not those who think they are better than others.

    I think his analogy with a hospital works well. Where do you find most sick people? In hospitals. Should we expect people in hospitals to be clearly healthy than those without. No. (Ignoring any points about MRSA). Who is the church for? Sinners.

    I think the statement which would make sense would be:

    “Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Then delta-goodness for Christians ought to be greater.”

    as Christianity claims to change people in preparation for heaven (through God living in them as you point out).

    1. “Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Then delta-goodness for Christians ought to be greater.”

      I’m not sure why the absolute goodness of Christians should not be greater, too. Is God living in some people less than others, or unable to bring about dramatic changes in some people? What happens to those people who aren’t very good in absolute terms when they die? (Lewis’s answer is “Purgatory”, BTW, but last time I looked evangelicals didn’t approve of that idea).

      1. People in Keller’s Hell are dominated by their addictions, but these cannot satisfy them, and this continues forever.

        nlj21, I don’t know whether you agree with Keller’s explanation of Hell. He seems to be saying that if people die still addicted (to whatever), they will end up in the hell of that addiction. But some Christians die still addicted to stuff since, as you say, Christianity calls sinners. So do people go to hell because they haven’t given up their addictions, or because they haven’t accepted Christ? It doesn’t appear to be the same thing.

        1. I don’t know what nlj21 thinks for sure, but I think he’s a traditional Evangelical Christian, so I assume he thinks that people go to hell because they deserve to go to hell (rather than because of some addictions), and that accepting Christ is the only thing that prevents this (because Christ takes (or rather took) the punishment the person deserves on their behalf).

          1. nlj21 mentioned to me the other day that he thought my interpretation of the NT on Hell was wrong, which may mean he is a closet follower of the Lewisan heresy (or it may mean he thought I’d got something else wrong, I suppose).

        2. I’m pausing on commenting on Kellar’s explanation of Hell till I’ve re-read his chapter (and maybe the Great Divide again). pw201, are you at GD on Friday? If so, if you could bring the book that would be much appreciated.

          In terms of the process I think that people will be judged because of their addictions (etc. I’m going to label this sins), but they will be saved from the punishment this entails because they have accepted Christ. (Which I think is what robhu also says below).

          So both of those causes are necessary for people to end up in hell. People go to hell because of their sins, and because they haven’t accepted Chris. So I reject your assumption that it is either/or. They’re not the same thing, but that doesn’t been they can’t both feature as part of the process of judgement and codemntation.

        1. Biblical support for his idea?

          Are Christians not allowed to make up new things?

          Are they restricted only to what people have already made up?

          Where is the evidence for this Hell that Keller writes about, other than made-up stories about a rich man and Lazarus, or a story that C.S.Lewis made up?

          Are atheists allowed to use made-up stories about Christians torturing young girls on the pretence they are ‘witches’?

          We know Christians are superstitious people who believe in vampires and ghosts. Just look at any priest in a Hammer horror movie, stories as well-founded as those in The Great Divorce or Luke 16.

        2. I think (was awhile since I read it) at the end of his book “The Great Divide” (which Kellar is grabbing his imagery from) he describe Purgartory as being what Christians will think of this world once we are in heaven. We’ll look back at this world as a time of suffering where we were being transformed and prepared for the real life which starts when we die.

          Which I think is different to how other people would define Purgatory.

          Lewis doesn’t tend to give biblical support for his ideas, as he’s not writing a systematic theology, rather he’s trying to paint a picture of what Christianity is like, so his writings should be judged in that way. Although having said that, you are right that his imagery should be checked against the Bible, and I do think, while much he says which is helpful, he does have flaws and I think his views of judgment are an area where he is weak.

      2. He is able to bring about dramatic changes in all people he is living in. The question is why do you think God should do this in a second rather than a lifetime.

        Exactly the same happens to people who aren’t very good in absolute terms, as happens to everyone else. They die once, and then face judgement, where they are found guilty of their “not very goodness”. It what heppens next which is the question…

  6. Subject: Chessplaying analogies
    Gareth’s analogy of an alleged grandmaster playing badly?

    I came up with that analogy.

    See http://www.theologyweb.com/forum/showthread.php?t=41111

    God, of course, might have unknown reasons for letting people believe in Heaven and Hell when they do not exist. After all, parents have reasons for letting their children believe in Santa Claus.

    Keller might claim it was an evil for this alleged god to allow people to believe in Heaven and Hell, when they do not exist.

    That would be a refutation of my point, if Keller did not claim that his god allows all sorts of evils.

    So how can Keller claim to know Heaven and Hell exist, if his god has unknown reasons for evils?

    1. Subject: Re: Chessplaying analogies
      I expect lots of people have independently come up with the same analogy. I wasn’t consciously echoing you, and so far as I can tell I wasn’t unconsciously echoing you either :-).

        1. Subject: Re: Chessplaying analogies
          Bishop J A T Robinson made a similar analogy (though not with the same purpose as you, or me, or Gregory Boyd) in a book about eschatology published in 1950. He says he’s adapting “a well-known simile of William James”; see http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&id=hqugs0tb58wC&dq=%22the+will+to+believe+and+other+essays%22&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=YoJNNCghdE&sig=0ILtwZ0opTElwoiWVV8Xqyr3gRw&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=3&ct=result#PPA181,M1 (yow!) for what he’s adapting.

          (No offence taken.)

          1. Subject: Re: Chessplaying analogies
            Oh, and of course there’s the Rubaiyat, though I’m not sure how much is Khayyam and how much FitzGerald: “‘Tis all a Checker-board of nights and days, / Where Destiny with men for pieces plays, / Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays, / And one by one back in the closet lays”, or something of the sort. But there isn’t any particular suggestion there that the expertise of the player is of much interest.

  7. Some of the objections Keller gets from New Yorkers are ill considered, and Keller bats them aside easily.

    This is quite interesting; it suggests that atheist popularizers like Dawkins might being doing useful work in helping atheists to disbelieve for rational and coherent reasons, so that they are not easily flustered by arguments of the form “your rationale for atheism is poorly conceived and badly expressed; therefore Christianity is true”.

  8. Subject: some
    Hello. dragging myself out from under an intellectual rock to sputter a bit at your demolition of one of my mentors. You gave Keller a serious reading and I respect your objections, so there’s not a lot to say. I almost resisted the temptation to reply, but then found myself irresistibly drawn, probably by Satan.

    1. So far, the state of the board is evidence against the idea that God is good and able to intervene.

    You haven’t shared with us your thoughts about time, a puzzle which bears directly on the comments of Peter the Impetuous. Jesus says: Things will get better someday. [n.b. also sez: they will get worse first.] The next day comes and goes; evidently, it was not the day in question. The next week: still waiting. The next year: likewise. The next millenium: likewise.

    Your use of the word “evidence” suggests to me that we can scientifically say that the rearriving God is now clearly fictional, while in the 1st century he was only moderately tardy.

    ***

    2. … if you don’t like suffering and aren’t a sociopath, you’ve got a basis for worrying about theodicy.

    The trick is “basis.” The thrust of Keller’s claim is that we have no alternative but to take a faith position, and that the faith position implicit in the Christian life can provide a coherent basis for ethical reasoning. Are you denying that faith positions are obligatory? Or rather that Christian faith is a suitable basis for ethics?

    ***

    3. It’s almost as if there’s no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

    Indeed. It’s no more supernatural a process than that by which seeds that fall on different kinds of soil flourish or perish in different ways and on different timetables. (This is not an original analogy on my part.)

    ***

    4. Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.

    Yeah. I think, if you take the trouble to get to know the Christians within arms’ reach and they’re clearly worse than the general population, you are justified in ignoring the whole mess. That’s the profound truth behind the “no true Scotsman” fallacy – it’s of enormous importance whether or not Christians act as Jesus taught them to act.

    ***

    5. If you’re going to quote Matthew 25:41 as a proof-text of God’s self-identification as a purveyor of infinite torment, you should engage with the fact that the goats, in this peculiar story that Jesus is telling, were condemned for withdrawing from the poverty and suffering within their own communities, and failing to act compassionately. And the ones who are saved are explicitly portrayed not as religious zealots (“Jesus? What did it have to do with Jesus? We didn’t see you around…”) but strictly on the basis of their actions. How bizarre!

    ***
    6. Keller says that “When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy”. This claim is asserted without evidence.

    What kind of evidence should he have provided? If he’s wrong, it should mean that people can build their lives on things other than God without needing that thing to be happy. Or else maybe you feel that worship is optional, that the idea of people “building their lives” on anything is a religious construct to begin with.

    1. Subject: Re: some
      You haven’t shared with us your thoughts about time

      I’m not sure what you mean, but I did talk about predicting the future in one of my replies to the Artist Formerly Known as nlj21.

      Are you denying that faith positions are obligatory? Or rather that Christian faith is a suitable basis for ethics?

      I think it’s a common Christian apologetic technique to say that everyone must have a position or a worldview, that these are all equivalent since they all rely on faith, and therefore Christianity is no worse than any other. I’ve been meaning to make a post about that for a while but I’ve not got around to it yet, but the gist of a response would be that some things require less faith than others. If we’re taking a position on ethics, as I said somewhere else recently, it seems to require less faith to say that eating babies is wrong than to say that God is the basis for morality. That is, I would encourage people to take joy in the merely good and not worry that our ideas of what is good would have no purchase on minds radically different from ours.

      Indeed. It’s no more supernatural a process than that by which seeds that fall on different kinds of soil flourish or perish in different ways and on different timetables. (This is not an original analogy on my part.)

      🙂 If you think so, fair enough. But you do see Christians claiming that “God turned me around” in a way that was miraculous.

      I think, if you take the trouble to get to know the Christians within arms’ reach and they’re clearly worse than the general population, you are justified in ignoring the whole mess

      Not just that: if they are not clearly better, going by the idea that God lives in them. The Christians I know are pretty decent, on the whole, but then, so are the non-Christians. (Interestingly, a Christian arguing about this sort of thing with gjm11 in a newsgroup a while back said “That’s all very well for your middle-class existence, but you should see the difference between Christians and non-Christians in my rough neighbourhood”: maybe there’s something in that, but it seems giving people a better life would serve just as well as making them Christians, in that case).

      5. If you’re going to quote Matthew 25:41 as a proof-text of God’s self-identification as a purveyor of infinite torment, you should engage with the fact that the goats, in this peculiar story that Jesus is telling, were condemned for withdrawing from the poverty and suffering within their own communities, and failing to act compassionately. And the ones who are saved are explicitly portrayed not as religious zealots (“Jesus? What did it have to do with Jesus? We didn’t see you around…”) but strictly on the basis of their actions. How bizarre!

      I’ve genuinely forgotten the standard evangelical get-out to explain that this passage is actually teaching justification by grace through faith, although I assume I must have known it at one stage. Are you saying you don’t want to use the get-out?

      What kind of evidence should he have provided?

      Well, quite. I think there’s some truth to the idea that people can make idols of things (we’ve all met people like that), but I don’t think everyone does it (the evangelical idea that everyone does it is another “well, you do this anyway, so why not just switch your faith position?” apologetic). I find it hard to think of one thing I base my life around, for example: I like my wife, my friends, my job, and dancing, and if I lost any of them, I’d be upset and maybe struggle to cope, but I’m not sure how this is a failing in the way that Keller seems to paint it. Those things seem more reliable than God, after all, who seems to have vanished from the scene 🙂

      1. Subject: Re: some
        maybe there’s something in that, but it seems giving people a better life would serve just as well as making them Christians, in that case

        No kidding. You have just nutshelled the rationale for the whole social-gospel movement and Christian flavors of liberalism overall.

        The thing about C.S. Lewis is that even if we (like Keller) idolize him, the great thing about his New New Testament is that, unlike the NT, we can skip all the crap and go right to the “good parts,” kind of like a theological Princess Bride. And some of CSL’s parts are really really good. (?!) (I don’t mean body parts.) (Though I’m sure they were very nice too.) Anyway, pick up that Mere Christianity you keep on hand and reread his chapter on “Nice People or New Men,” or whatever it’s called. He articulates very very well why we shouldn’t stop at trying to make human institutions better (although it’s a very good thing to start doing!), why there is still a need for salvation by faith.

        About the Sheep and the Goats: no need for a get-out, I’m asking you to get-in. Nothing wrong with the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, but when Christians start to lose perspective, we should keep this little story (disturbing how he doesn’t really call it a parable!) in mind. There’s a tension between Jesus and Paul, in their emphases – you would do well to follow the ins and outs of N.T. Wright in the evangelical world, and you’ll see the tension in action. If it refutes Christianity that it isn’t a fine-tuned whole, then Christianity stands refuted – but was that ever the point?

      2. Subject: Re: some
        Interestingly, a Christian arguing about this sort of thing with gjm11 in a newsgroup a while back said “That’s all very well for your middle-class existence, but you should see the difference between Christians and non-Christians in my rough neighbourhood”: maybe there’s something in that, but it seems giving people a better life would serve just as well as making them Christians, in that case
        It’d be interesting to discover whether non-Christians who are already pretty decent who become Christians end up being even more decent. I suspect (but don’t know) that there is a certain amount of low hanging fruit that God tends to help people fix in their life if they’re not obviously decent people, and beyond that the stuff that changes is less obviously observable externally.

        That’s not to say that I don’t think that people shouldn’t become ‘better’ morally if they become Christians, but the changes might only be visible to people who knew them really really well (e.g. a spouse), or might be moral improvements in things that you would consider morally neutral or morally detrimental.

        The one example I feel like sharing (and have done a few times) is a situation where I purchased some clothes at an incorrectly reduced price due to the price being incorrect on the till / database compared to the price on the ticket / sign above the clothes. Previously I would have just been happy that I’d got the clothes for a cheaper price. This is a minor example, but I don’t generally want to share the inner workings of my moral life on the internet (especially to hostile atheists).

        There should be an expectation that Christians will increasingly exhibit Reply

        1. Subject: Re: some
          The basically-pretty-decent people I’ve known who have switched from Christianity to atheism or vice versa seem to me, for what it’s worth, mostly to be about as good afterwards as before. It’s almost as if it’s character and environment that determine how well people behave, rather than what their religion is :-).

          (I’m quite sure that some people *do* behave drastically better or worse after a conversion or deconversion (not necessarily respectively). But that doesn’t, from my limited experience, appear to be the norm. I’d also expect that recent [de]converts would quite often behave better, for various reasons that I’ll sum up as “because they think they ought to”. For what it’s worth, my reaction to a few things you’ve blogged about along the lines of “I didn’t/won’t do X because I’m a Christian” has been roughly “er, that’s a matter of minimal moral decency; whatever is Christian-specific about it?”. But perhaps I’m a “hostile atheist”, though I don’t *feel* terribly hostile.)

          1. Subject: Re: some
            Well, strangely, my experience has been rather the opposite (and I said that even when I was a hostile atheist myself). I have found that Christian people are more loving and self sacrificial than those who are not Christians, and I’ve seen peoples lives be transformed by Christ.

            1. Subject: Re: some
              Noted. (I don’t think it’s all that surprising if different people have different experiences in this regard. The sample sizes are typically small, and there’s no reason why your acquaintances should be just the same as mine.)

  9. Subject: some more
    ***

    7. Keller offers poor evidence for believing Lewis over the Bible about hell. The Bible’s actual view is less palatable than Lewis’s, and evangelical Christians (like the rest of us) need to face up to the parts of their beliefs which hurt to think about. Hell is torture at God’s express command. If you believe in the Bible’s version, you think your non-Christian family and friends morally deserve to be in torment forever, and you accept that they probably will be unless they convert. Somehow, in tandem with this, you must try to believe that God is loving and very intelligent. Good luck with that one.

    On the one hand, I want to say: preach it. This is exactly why my first attempt to be a Christian foundered. It seemed to me that, according to the Christians’ own book, God is the landlord of Hell and sends all infidels there (which removes Hell from any legitimate association with justice, because it’s not about someone’s righteousness or un-, but only about their creeds… what could be more absurd or repulsive??).

    Having been there, I know the unwisdom of trying to talk you out of it. So, on the other hand… there’s just this other hand.

    ***

    8. God presumably knew he used evolution to create life when he inspired Genesis, so it is a little odd that he doesn’t mention it. A Bronze Age level explanation of evolution would have been no more wacky than many other creation myths, and would have the advantage that the Bible would look a lot more impressive when a scientific culture discovered it was right.

    The inspiration God gave the Biblical writers was not this kind of abstract, “Take dictation,” kind of secret message-in-a-bottle for later generations: people wrote the same way anyone else wrote, to communicate meaningfully to the people around them. As Christians, we trust that this normal kind of writing was God’s instrument for communicating, not only to that generation, but also to later generations.

    ***
    9. Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature?

    No.

    This is a perfectly valid argument.

    (I love how you use hyperlinks. Have you created some kind of macro for sticking all these links in? How do you do it?) Anyway, you might consider reading Keller more charitably. There are good reasons to consider the claim that Jesus is the Christ central if not primary to Christianity. It was that claim folks were engaging with 2000 years ago, not (as you have noted) a set of unwieldy claims about awkward documents not yet written. Keller is saying, sure, you’ll never take Jesus seriously without placing some credence in at least part of the Bible. (Hence his stress on the gospels. The most important issue to address is that of Jesus. Did he exist? Is there any reason to think he rose from the dead? If you find some reasons, and begin to take Jesus seriously, then you will take the Bible seriously, and there will be a non-arbitrary basis for considering some issues of Biblical interpretation more critical than others.) If you are trying to consider Christianity globally, as some kind of whole (as so construed by you) and ask, “In the abstract, is the Bible trustworthy?” then the answer has to be no and Christianity should be rejected as false. It may indeed be false, but you would have arrived there by a non-sequitur.

    1. Subject: Re: some more
      This is exactly why my first attempt to be a Christian foundered.

      So now you’re a universalist, right? 🙂

      Keller can have his Hungry Ghosts Hell if he likes, my only objection to it (other than that there’s no evidence for it, obviously) is that Keller’s supposed to be an evangelical, and the Hungry Ghosts Hell doesn’t seem to fit with all that stuff about propitiation of God’s righteous wrath that evangelicals were so keen on, stuff which they seemed pretty sure was backed up by the Bible (and if it’s not true, why did Steve Chalke have to die for our sins?)

      If I were making up my own afterlife, I think I wouldn’t fix someone’s trajectory at death (and after that, judgement), but rather, would keep trying to turn them round. Perhaps I have been corrupted by scribb1e, but the boddhisattva seems holier than the divine judge, to me.

      As Christians, we trust that this normal kind of writing was God’s instrument for communicating, not only to that generation, but also to later generations.

      Sounds to me like you’re rejecting the verbal inspiration of scripture, you heretic.

      No

      Tell that to Lee Strobel. (Seriously, it’s a pretty popular Christian apologetic technique to at least convince you that they’re experts in ancient history, if not that you should become one yourself).

      (I love how you use hyperlinks. Have you created some kind of macro for sticking all these links in? How do you do it?)

      I do a Google search and cut and paste. I’m not bothered by HTML, it’s simpler than a programming language. The style where the text says one thing and the link says another was borrowed from various humour sites.

      While I agree with Keller that the Bible being sexist isn’t a reason for rejecting Jesus’s resurrection, he commits an equal non sequitur (on p. 113 in the copy I borrowed from TAFKA nlj21), which was my point. He gets into some arguments that the gospels are historically reliable (which I’m not really qualified to comment on), but then takes a step too far with the “Jesus believed the Bible” argument.

      1. Subject: Steve Chalke
        Paul, if everyone gave every one of their many roles as much gusto as you give to your role of ex-evangelical, the world would be a better place. A good ex-evangelical should absolutely be a collector of embarrassing stories about evangelicals – when one is tempted to return to the fold, he has only to look at his collection for three minutes to be reminded of how much godawful bullshit he avoids having to care about or even hear about by staying away. I envy you.

        The Steve Chalke story is indeed embarrassing. I’m sure you have a million of these. I’ll do you a favor and point you to one more, about Peter Enns:

        http://www.wts.edu/about/beliefs/statements/theological_discussion_documen.html

        Actually, it’s very pertinent to your comment on verbal inspiration.

        90% of everything is bullshit, (I can’t even use that word right now without thinking “bullshytte” a la Anathem… amazing how those terms get in your head) and Christianity is no exception. I think Christians should be credited – at their better moments – with remembering that Jesus himself was the only man to not be composed chiefly of shit. We affirm that Jesus is really really important – and by doing so, in theory, relegate everything else, including our own egos, to the category of only “really important.” At our wisest, we can recognize that some things are not important at all.

        So the only criticism I would mount to you on a certain subset of your points (which are made by pointing out how your interlocutor is trying to distance himself from the more embarrassing aspects of his adopted tribe) is that you know very well that losing all sense of proportion is not OBLIGATORY for Christians, and the fact that it is an occupational hazard has no bearing whatsoever on the existence or significance of Jesus.

        About Keller on the Bible. What I read is: “If Jesus is the Son of God, then we have to take his teaching seriously, including his confidence in the authority of the whole Bible.” (p113) Where does he fall into non sequitur? I sincerely don’t see it. That whopper of a conditional would seem to avoid any impropriety on Keller’s part.

        1. Subject: Re: Steve Chalke
          he has only to look at his collection for three minutes to be reminded of how much godawful bullshit he avoids having to care about or even hear about by staying away.

          I try to view evangelical Christianity with the appropriate degree of levity, rather than getting all riled up about it. At least in the UK, it’s just silly rather than threatening (in fact, the evil secularists here are winning). Someone in the USA might take a different view, I suppose.

          I knew about Enns. Last I heard he’d got away with it, but scribb1e happened to find something recently which said he’d been drummed out after all.

          amazing how those terms get in your head

          I’ve adopted the Anathem word “planed”, as well as “Diax’s rake”, a principle which ought to have a handy name for it on our world, as Occam’s Razor does.

          I think I’d term certain sorts of liberal Christianity bullshytt in the Anathem sense, in that I consider them not even wrong (after all, if you don’t say anything, you can’t be wrong, see this comment on Rob’s journal for what I mean).

          which are made by pointing out how your interlocutor is trying to distance himself from the more embarrassing aspects of his adopted tribe

          Assuming my interlocutor is Keller, I don’t have a moral problem with Keller distancing himself from the nastier bits of conservative evangelicalism in order to worship a God who’s a bit less of a monster, my point about the Hungry Ghosts Hell is that:

          (a) Keller also wants to argue that the Bible is reliable. While I don’t want to make the evangelical mistake of assuming that means you must read it the evangelical way (“what the Bible says” and so on), as far as I can tell the New Testament talks in terms of God’s explicit judgement, so Keller is inconsistent.

          (b) He gives no particular evidence for the Hungry Ghosts Hell, Biblical or otherwise (even if he had established the reliability of the NT, which he hasn’t, that won’t help him when he says something different to what the NT says).

          What I read is: “If Jesus is the Son of God, then we have to take his teaching seriously, including his confidence in the authority of the whole Bible.” (p113) Where does he fall into non sequitur?

          Where does Jesus express his confidence in the authority of the New Testament?

    2. Subject: Re: some more
      On the one hand, I want to say: preach it. This is exactly why my first attempt to be a Christian foundered. It seemed to me that, according to the Christians’ own book, God is the landlord of Hell and sends all infidels there (which removes Hell from any legitimate association with justice, because it’s not about someone’s righteousness or un-, but only about their creeds… what could be more absurd or repulsive??). Hell is considered to be the punishment that all people deserve. It’s not that acceptance of a creed saves someone, it’s Christ through his death on the cross, but that salvation is not something that is forced on people, it’s optional. The creeds only exist to codify what Christians believe, they are in and of themselves irrelevant to salvation.

      1. Subject: Re: some more
        It’s not that acceptance of a creed saves someone, it’s Christ through his death on the cross, but that salvation is not something that is forced on people, it’s optional.

        Trying to actually put theology into play in a discussion that reaches across the divide between those committed to a Christian worldview and those committed to some other worldview is, IMHO, a mistake. Saying “it’s optional,” for example, implies that you get to exercise that option, which would really be a kind of salvation by works. We could go on and on about this, which would only demonstrate the justness of a dismissal of religion on the grounds that it generates reams and reams of fruitless discussion.

        To the infidels for whom Hell is supposedly an urgent matter, who don’t benefit from the mental flexibility produced by all this fruitless discussion, it has got to seem as though the dividing line between the saved and the damned is a faith commitment: a creed. Assent to certain propositions. To get beyond that perspective on Hell, as Keller has demonstrated by failing to persuade Paul, you need someone to adopt various presuppositions. Why would anyone not already committed to the worldview do that?

        The larger question here is: IS there such a thing as apologetics, or is there just rhetoric and manipulation?

  10. Subject: Why does God send people to Hell?
    Amazingly, Keller claims people in Hell are selfish and self-absorbed, and he cites as evidence a novel by C.S.Lewis.

    Can you imagine the laughter if Dawkins had taken a novel about Christians and cited it as an example of how evil Christians are?

    If Dawkins had taken a Hammer horror movie about a Witch-finder General and cited the Witch-finder General from the movie as an example of how Christians love torturing people?

    But Keller can do the same sort of thing, and win a reputation as a great Christian apologist.

  11. Paul, I found this article from your link on The Uncredible Hallq.

    I wrote a very long and detailed review of this same book on amazon.com, and I see that you have some of the same objections to the book that I do.

    You write:
    If God can turn around Saul and those former drug addicts you get giving their testimonies at some churches, you’d’ve thought he wouldn’t have so much trouble making some Christians (who the Bible says have God living in them, remember) less insufferable, for example. It’s almost as if there’s no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

    I don’t disagree with you, but in Keller’s talk which I attended here in Berkeley, he actually said that evidence of changed lives of people who become Christians does not count as a good reason for believing the claims of Christianity, because some people change their lives significantly for the better without religion at all. I think Keller deserves a lot of credit for being honest about that.

    1. Sorry about what LJ has done to your links. It does it as an anti-spam measure for anonymous commenters and I can’t turn it off. I’m not sure whether it’d be friendlier if you logged in with OpenID (which would also give you a consistent name attached to your comments: if you have a Yahoo or Blogger account, you probably have an OpenID). Anyway…

      he actually said that evidence of changed lives of people who become Christians does not count as a good reason for believing the claims of Christianity, because some people change their lives significantly for the better without religion at all

      Yes, I wasn’t saying that Keller had claimed that changed lives counted as evidence, but rather that, given what evangelical Christians say about the change that takes place on becoming a Christian (I added the “evangelical” there because it’s clear that not all Christians agree), it’s odd that significant life changes aren’t the norm. nlj21 (the other anonymous commenter) has been arguing that we’ve no reason to expect these changes to happen instantly.

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