belief … the problem of evil and suffering 1 (RJS)

Francis Collins, in the brief stretch between stints as head of the Human Genome Project at NIH and, now, Director of NIH, put together a book, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, an anthology of readings he finds helpful in discussing rational reasons for belief in God. The anthology is, in some sense, a supplement to his book The Language of God. The essays  and excerpts in this book will not provide a proof for the existence of God – no such proof is possible. But they do provide arguments and reasons for belief.

Three of the excerpts or essays included in this book explore faith and the problem of evil and suffering. Art Lindsley explores the concepts of good and evil in post modern thought. Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel put flesh on the abstract. We live in a world where evil – true evil exists. And yet we have faith and hope. I am going to look at these excerpts from the writings of Lindsley, Tutu and Wiesel this week and put out some questions for discussion … Today Lindsley; on Thursday Tutu and Wiesel.

Art Lindsley is a scholar-in-residence at the C.S. Lewis Institute in Annandale VA. The excerpt included is from his book True Truth: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World. The title of his book puts forward a key question that must be considered.

Are good and evil merely human valuations in the context of a culture or is there a foundational absolute truth?

Is there absolute evil or merely local and relative evil?

If we come to the conclusion that there is absolute evil and that there is a moral law written into our being we can also pose a related question, pertinent in the context of recent discussions of heaven, hell, and the fate of much of mankind:

Does the moral law described by Paul as written on our hearts shape our view of justice, judgment and destiny? Should it?

Consider Romans 1:18-32.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

… Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

According to Lindsley:

Paul contended that each of these evils in the list is, in fact, known by all people. He describes this law as “written in their hearts,” or on their consciences (Rom 2.15). This conscious awareness of the law can be dulled or perhaps (in the case of a sociopath) lost, but it is usually retained to some degree, even in the most calloused people. Even totalitarian dictators or terrorists show care for their own families and have friendships with some people around them. (p. 135-136)

This moral law, written on the hearts of all, is an absolute moral imperative. There is almost universal agreement on the primary issues, but disagreement on some secondary issues – waffling about those to whom one must behave appropriately. In general there is a self-interest at play in the selection those toward whom we must behave morally. But denial of absolute truth, good and evil, leaves us with no leg on which to stand other than local cultural consensus.

Lindsley gives an example (p. 142):

For instance, a believing friend of mine took graduate classes under Richard Rorty, a leading postmodern philosopher.  In one such class he met a woman who was Jewish by heritage but was actually an atheist and a feminist. Being influenced by Rorty’s teaching, she claimed there were no absolutes. My friend, knowing what she cared about, said, “I can prove to you that you believe in absolutes.”

“No you can’t”

“Yes I can. I’ll give you two: rape and the Holocaust are morally wrong.”

She thought for awhile and said “you’re right.” Yet she had no basis on which to hold these values.

Any oppressed person, any person whatsoever who can imagine being oppressed, has a fundamental view of good and evil.  We tend to view slavery as practiced in  eighteenth and nineteenth century America as fundamentally wrong. Yet it was a culturally accepted empirically effective foundation for a “just” society based on law and consensus. It was “just” in the sense that it preserved the peace, prevented chaos, and treated beings according to their “place.” Do we really have any basis on which to judge this as wrong?

Likewise throughout much of our cultural history, and in many places yet today, women were valuable (or not so valuable) property… not always viewed as moral autonomous individuals. Parts of India, if not today certainly in the past, and Saudia Arabia are cases in point. Do we have any ground, do I have any ground, for viewing this as wrong?

Lindsley does not deal with the evolutionary argument for moral law – that it is an empirically effective means of achieving fitness and reproducing the gene. But this too is unsatisfactory. It defines morality as nothing more than survival in a general global sense. Rape and ‘slavery’ or hard patriarchy may in fact be the best way to ensure survival. This is true of many systems and species in nature. Why is it not true for humans?

Lindsley suggests that the genuine reality of good and evil requires a foundation that establishes a basis for judgment and valuation. As a Christian we believe that this foundation is God himself. The moral law, written on our heart, is of God. But the mere existence of a moral law does not demonstrate that Christianity is true, it only eliminates those positions that assert the absence of absolute good and evil – according to Lindsley atheism, radical post modernism, pantheism, and neopaganism, even perhaps Hinduism and Buddhism.

What do you think? Are there moral absolutes?

Does moral law point to the existence of God?

I’d like to bring up another point here as well. The discussion of Love Wins in yesterday’s post looked at the view of Hell and the deep sense of discomfort that many have with the idea that God either does not love and did not save large swathes of humanity, or that he condemned to eternal conscious torment large segments of humanity for the sin of being human. Frankly animals are treated better. They simply die. Of course animals don’t bear the guilt of Adam … or so some will claim. God is holy, God is just, thus we all deserve to be tortured forever. But God in his love chose to forgive and save some. This very idea seems to run counter to that moral law written on our hearts.

I am not trying to be unnecessarily provocative, and I am not a universalist – but if there is a moral law, written on our hearts, it seems to me that this law at its very best should play a formative role in how we think about God, his judgment, his justice, and his mercy.

If this moral law described by Paul is written on our hearts, God given and God revealed, are we wrong to allow this to shape how we view God as Holy, God as Love, and God as Just? If so why?

Is it possible that some of our visions of Hell reflect the depravity of mankind rather than the nature of God?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • Jason Lee

    I’m frequently around hard postmodernists who deny the existence of evil, i.e., the essence of “wrong” in any absolute sense. They acknowledge harm and consequences, but claim these are situational and that different groups identify different things as “harm.”

    My read on these folks is that once you get past the philosophizing and get to more of the practical level of interaction and behavior, moral law is there inside of them. But I’d estimate that its considerably dulled in some areas. I’d say (ironically) morals are also heightened for them in certain areas (if you argue that something is truly “wrong” in all times and places they’ll come at you like a moral crusader). So it seems certain philosophies (e.g., postmodernism) can give people new moral bearings that may enhance, override, or be neutral to moral absolutes that Christians would affirm.

    One question that comes to mind for is, why should Christians be immune to being colonized by other moral philosophies in similar ways? How do Christians know when its moral law guiding their views or some philosophy they’ve imbibed? How do they know when an alien philosophy is guiding their reading of scripture…their interpretation of the Spirit’s promptings?

    No agenda here, just floating honest unsophisticated questions. Peace.

  • Jason Lee

    By the way, thanks for this really interesting question: “Is it possible that some of our visions of Hell reflect the depravity of mankind rather than the nature of God?”

  • Tim

    “Lindsey does not deal with the evolutionary argument for moral law – that it is an empirically effective means of achieving fitness and reproducing the gene. But this too is unsatisfactory. It defines morality as nothing more than survival in a general global sense.”

    Why is this unsatisfactory? Can someone explain this to me? Is this unsatisfactory in the sense that it cannot or is unlikely to be true? Or is it unsatisfactory in the sense that one would wish that it is not true, as that would just be too depressing? If the latter, how is this not a case then of wishful thinking?

    Again, I’ve posted before on my view that morality has a basis in both God, in an absolute and universal sense, in human biology, in a universal sense relative to our species, and in our culture, as relative to our societies. So my own belief in the absolute basis for morality does recognize God. But I also don’t dismiss arguments simply because I don’t hold them to be true as a matter of belief for myself. And thus far I see no weaknesses in the moral argument from evolution. None whatsoever. The most common criticism, as we just saw above and as quoted in the beginning of this comment, is “But it can’t be true, because that would just be awful!”

    Let’s take another look here at a related concept to morality – empathy. Is empathy universal among our species? Sure. Is it universal among our closest evolutionary cousins? Sure. Is there an adequate evolutionary explanation for empathy? Yes – it facilitates pro-social interactions that are helpful to the community, and thus benefit the survival of the humanity and propagation of genes therein. So, let’s say that you are an atheist who believes that all there is to empathy is its evolutionary function and basis. Does that mean that you then should cease being empathetic? No! Why would you? Empathy is just as natural to us as any other expression of our humanity, why would we cut that out? Do we disavow love? Or hunger? Our desire to mate? Now, extrapolate more comprehensively to morality, why would the atheist cut that out as well? It’s a part of being human. Even chimpanzees have pro-social “rules” that are normative for their behavior. So do humans.

    I suggest taking on the evolutionary argument for morality fairly, rather than just dismissing it out-of-hand. But that’s just me. I don’t consider broad dismissive statements as compelling arguments.

  • Tim

    ***should be (correction in caps): “Yes – it facilitates pro-social interactions that are helpful to the community, and thus benefit the survival of the COMMUNITY and propagation of genes therein.”

  • rjs

    Tim,

    First, empathy is not universal among species – in our “closest relatives” perhaps.

    But an evolutionary explanation is insufficient because it is by definition utilitarian. Empathy is of value, evolutionarily, if and only if it causes preservation of the species. It has no and can have no intrinsic value.

    Rape is not universal among species – nor is it absent. It simply “is” and because moral behavior isn’t accorded to animals we don’t view it as either right or wrong. But for humans it is intrinsically and always without fail wrong – not just as a utilitarian means to have an unchaotic society, but in and of itself.

    Note that I said insufficient – I didn’t say evolution wasn’t part of the story.

  • http://www.whatismore.wordpress.com Travis Pickell

    Great post. Just FYI its Art Lindsley (not Lindsey)

  • rjs

    Thanks Travis – I’ve corrected the spelling in the post.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    “First, empathy is not universal among species – in our “closest relatives” perhaps.”

    I think you misread me, but perhaps my language was ambiguous. I was conveying that empathy is universal among those species that are our closest evolutionary cousins (e.g., apes & chimpanzees). Not that it is universal across all species of course. We don’t see empathetic snakes for instance :)

    “But an evolutionary explanation is insufficient because it is by definition utilitarian. Empathy is of value, evolutionarily, if and only if it causes preservation of the species. It has no and can have no intrinsic value.”

    Let’s follow the logic here RJS:

    1) The only thing that makes morality meaningful is some absolute basis that lies beyond our mere base biology and relative culture.
    2) Evolutionary explanations of morality deny any element to morality outside our base biology and relative culture.
    3) The axioms of A & B lead to the necessary conclusion that Evolutionary explanations of morality are not meaningful.

    Do you see what’s happened here? Your limiting what constitutes “meaningful” morality be definitional fiat in (1)!

    Others do not necessarily share this definition RJS. Some consider morality meaningful, just as they consider love meaningful, because they identify with their humanity and they value what it is to be human, and to experience life in all its grandeur as human. Its who we are. Sorry to say, some people value who they are.

    As far as the rape thing, yes, rape is an action that stems from universal traits of lust, aggression, social dominance, etc. Those traits are universal, though the expression of rape is not necessarily so. But we define morality as pro-social behavior, or that basis underlying pro-social behavior. Rape is hardly pro-social. It’s not to say it isn’t human, or rather a behavior that can result from very human tendencies, but it represents a different aspect to being human than morality. Our inclinations are not monolithic. Love is different than hunger. Morality is different than sexual aggression.

  • Tim

    …oh, I see where the confusion came from. By “our species” I meant yours and mine. The human species. Not collectively all species. Language is an ambiguous medium :)

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Rape and ’slavery’ or hard patriarchy may in fact be the best way to ensure survival. This is true of many systems and species in nature. Why is it not true for humans?

    Because humans aren’t, say, insects? Look up “traumatic insemination” sometime.

    Humans aren’t like that physically. We’d kinda expect different behavior because of that.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Is it rape when a woman does not want to do that yet her husband appeals to obedience from the bible and the command to multiple, thereby overruling her?

    Is it morally wrong to kill the inhabitants of a land that your god told you to take and told you to kill?

    I don’t mean to be flip about this, but in all sincerity I tried to think of the situation when rape and the holocaust will happen and be tolerated and they both involved god.

  • Glen

    I’ve often thought that our natural repulsion to the notion of hell as an eternal torture chamber deserves more weight in the discussion. If our internal moral compass comes ultimately from God, then our moral inclinations should reflect the values of God, however imperfectly. Because we are fallible, we fall short of moral perfection, but shouldn’t our moral compasses at least point in the same general direction as God’s? So, for example, we have an inclination to be merciful, but not as merciful as God.

    If so, our revulsion for hell as torture chamber may indicate that it does not fit with the character of God, who is the source of our moral impulses. Otherwise, one must admit that our moral compass is completely flipped upside down in this matter – and if we’re that far off in one area, can our moral inclinations really be trusted in any meaningful sense?

  • Randall

    Glen, you just gave voice to my concerns and thoughts regarding our notions of Hell as a torture chamber given that it seems, to me at least, to be associated with our fallen sense payback and get-evenness and seem, to me at least, to be in conflict with the character of the One Jesus is calling father. If we can’t trust our moral compass at all here, where else is it upside down? Does faith call us to pursue what seems depraved to us and call it good? It feels like something is ‘off’ with our notions of hell at least as it involves God’s character. But, as always, maybe I’m wrong.

  • Luke Allison

    Dr. McKnight,

    “If this moral law described by Paul is written on our hearts, God given and God revealed, are we wrong to allow this to shape how we view God as Holy, God as Love, and God as Just? If so why?”

    The tension, I think, comes when we factor in the effects of sin on that moral clarity. How much has the Fall blurred or fractured the pristine nature of the moral Law? Enough that we can see the need for justice without being able to truly fulfill that need? Enough that we can see the “ought to’s” while simultaneously falling deeply into “ought not’s”?

    “Is it possible that some of our visions of Hell reflect the depravity of mankind rather than the nature of God?”

    This question has to go both ways, however. Could depravity (not moral corruption primarily, but the natural desire to throw off God’s love) cause us to see Hell through the lens of “I wouldn’t do that, so God shouldn’t either”? Certainly views of torture and demonic sadism come from an unrenewed part of our nature, but can’t we argue that views heavily influenced by cultural “common sense” structures also come from a depraved place?

    I think we need to dwell firmly in the tension which this question creates, rather than attempting to break it.

    Love your commentary!

  • rjs

    Luke,

    Dr. McKnight didn’t write this post, I did. The fact that it appears here does not mean that he either agrees or disagrees with me.

    I do think that our so-called “common sense” can be wrong, but how do we even begin to judge what is and what is not wrong?

    The idea that moral law is written on our hearts, from God, so that all are without excuse must mean that there is some basis of ultimate good that we all know.

    When we read the New Testament we find that forgiveness and mercy are inherently good, that we are to forgive as the father forgave us, that we are to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect and that this is connected with love for enemies (after all even the tax collectors and gentiles love their brothers).

    Don’t you think it likely that this all combines to help us understand something of the nature and perfection of the father?

  • K. Reux

    DRT (comment 11)–I think your definition of rape is more broad than what is being referred to.

    I’ve tried to think of instances where rape and holocaust would happen and be tolerated and they both have to do with paganism and atheism. So I am not certain of your point.

    I would think there were several instances where a ruler would tell his subject women they should have sex with him because he was the manifestation of whatever god they worshiped. While I haven’t particularly researched it, I would imagine that it’s a man or male issue. Wherever there is a man who has ultimate or near ultimate power and authority–religious or otherwise–the potential for manipulating women to give sex is there. (I am certain those politicians and CEOs who have manipulated women to giving sex weren’t particularly invoking God).This certainly doesn’t have to be something where God (or even a god) is invoked.

    And holocaust? How about the Holodomor of Ukraine and the mass murders in the USSR under Stalin or the Killing Fields? Or the “Holocaust” itself? These were under atheistic governments. These were the very first things that popped into my mind.

  • Glen

    Luke (#14), I hear what you’re saying. But in my mind, our fallen nature leads us to be less loving, less forgiving, less merciful than God – never more so. Yes, our sense of justice and fairness is compromised, and God’s justice is greater than ours, but are we warped in such a way that would lead us to be more merciful than God?

    I don’t think so – God’s mercy must be greater than mine. If not, how can it be said that my inherent moral values are derived from God?

  • Luke Allison

    RJS
    “Dr. McKnight didn’t write this post, I did. The fact that it appears here does not mean that he either agrees or disagrees with me”

    Oopsies. My fallen nature kept me from perfectly seeing your signature at the end. Very fitting. :)

    “I do think that our so-called “common sense” can be wrong, but how do we even begin to judge what is and what is not wrong?”

    Are you referring to all people in all places, or Believers in particular? For the Believer, I think this can largely become an issue of hermeneutic. You using Romans 1′s text as you have goes significantly further than many Christians (of the admittedly more liberal variety) would take it. I appreciate that greatly, because it gives Paul’s treatise an authority that speaks to all people in all places everywhere. Taking that same hermeneutic (with care to context, genre, prescriptive vs descriptive, etc.) and applying it to the rest of the Scriptures can potentially help us here.
    For all people in all places, however, this is a very messy question. I don’t know.

    Ken,
    “Yes, our sense of justice and fairness is compromised, and God’s justice is greater than ours, but are we warped in such a way that would lead us to be more merciful than God?”

    I think we’re warped in such a way that would lead us to presume our SENSE of mercy is more merciful than God’s. Isn’t that the argument of the New Atheists? “We can figure this stuff out on our own without an ‘eye in the sky’ who doesn’t exist and I hate Him?” Mercy can be a tricky one. Does mercy always entail relief? Or can mercy sometimes mean pain and suffering? Is cancer ultimately only a curse for a believer, or could it potentially be a grace? I’m not willing to make a definitive statement on that.

    Great thoughts though, brother. I’m always wrestling with this stuff.

  • Glen

    Luke (#18) “Mercy can be a tricky one. Does mercy always entail relief? Or can mercy sometimes mean pain and suffering? Is cancer ultimately only a curse for a believer, or could it potentially be a grace? I’m not willing to make a definitive statement on that.”

    Good thoughts here. I agree, mercy can entail pain and suffering, but for this to be so there must be an end purpose that benefits the one suffering. An eternity of torture without any hope of restoration does not have any redeeming benefit that could turn it into something that is ultimately positive for the one who is suffering.

    Hopefully I’m not going too far afield from the topic here!

  • Luke Allison

    Oh, and one more thing….on the Hell question (I prefer to call it negative eternal judgment), is there ever a point where we go with Paul in Romans 9:20-24 in saying “God’s got this, and you’re not Him”? I happen to believe that faith is primarily an act of rationality, but at what point are we guilty of putting “God in the dock” as it were? The thought that God is Just, therefore no one will wind up in Hell who does not deserve to be there has been a comfort to me when wrestling with that subject. I know it sounds downright “conservative neo-Reformed evangelical”, and that may or may not describe me, but there is a value to suggesting that God is God, despite our objections to the way He expresses that Godness.

  • rjs

    K. Reux,

    I think we can come up with cases in the history of the church where evil was pursued in the name of God and church. One of the more obvious is the Spanish Inquisition where rather sickening torture was used to extract confessions from Jewish converts not thought to be completely converted. Failure to confess meant death.

    This wasn’t millions of people – but thousands is bad enough.

    Was this right, neutral (i.e. neither good nor evil), or are we rightly repulsed by it?

  • Luke Allison

    Glen,

    “An eternity of torture without any hope of restoration does not have any redeeming benefit that could turn it into something that is ultimately positive for the one who is suffering”

    I completely agree, but I think “torture” has more to do with Dante and the Far Side than the Scriptures. “Torment”, on the other hand, is a slightly different monster. Torment can easily come from within a person (the trajectory of a self-centered, God-belittling, etc. life), while torture seems to imply God in a bondage costume whipping people. An unsavory thought.
    If “torment” and “agony” are primarily internally manifested, then the Scriptural idea of Hell is somewhat palatable even to the most genteel modern mind, I think.

  • Glen

    Good point Luke. My comments are directed more towards traditional concepts of hell, wrongly informed as they may be.

  • Luke Allison

    “Good point Luke. My comments are directed more towards traditional concepts of hell, wrongly informed as they may be”

    I help teach a course at our Church called “Skepsis”, where we talk through all the big difficult questions of the faith. The Hell talk was the most frustrating for both the agnostic/seeker types and the Believers. The former wanted me to come give what amounted to John Hick meets Joseph Campbell pluralist message, while the latter wanted to hear more about suffering and wrath and whatnot.
    I frustrated the Believers by using Romans 1 as a template for how God’s wrath is actively expressed as a “turning over”, and offended the unbelievers by implying that God had wrath in any way shape or form. Hard to win.

  • rjs

    Luke,

    I don’t have a problem with judgment or justice and I think we need to be honest about judgment and justice – both are very real. Admittedly it will be hard to win in our “anything goes” culture.

    Judgment expressed as “turning over” i.e. allowing people the freedom to rebel and take the consequences for that rebellion does not hit a nerve with me or call into play this idea of moral law. I think that this can be illustrated in a way that will provoke thought, perhaps offend, but not disgust the unbeliever. The wrath of God is just.

    But justice demands an opportunity for response – and this is where I run aground with much of the expression of judgment and hell in our church. Especially those who teach an exclusivity to us and ours. There seems to be no justice. Coupling this with the idea that this is OK because God is God and we are not just doesn’t cut it. The justice and mercy of God are consistent and overflowing, not capricious.

    It seems to me that God is true to his nature and to his promise. God’s mercy and grace is at least as big as anything we see as good and fair, and probably exceeds anything we see as good. This means that our innate sense of “fair” and “just” at its very best is a reasonable guide for thinking about the justice and mercy of God.

    We are repulsed at the idea of oh, say, a 10 year old, subject to great abuse, dying at the hands of an abuser being raised to an eternal existence of conscious torment (taking out the word “torture” doesn’t actually make it any more palatable) because such a view is contrary to the nature of God revealed in scripture.

  • rjs

    Tim (#8)

    I am not sure what you are arguing. And I am not sure why what I said got this response. Many people live “good” moral lives without rooting it in anything outside of the current cultural norm.

    If evolution and relative culture are sufficient to define morality how can we judge the practice of Child sacrifice in Incan culture (Inca children were fattened-up before sacrifice ). As far as they were concerned this was appropriate pro-social behavior. Therefore it is “good” (for them then).

    If evolution and relative culture are sufficient, then the most we can say is that child sacrifice and slavery are wrong now – but we cannot claim that they were wrong in the past, and we may again come to a time in the future when slavery is right and good, a natural part of culture.

    It is repulsive today … but that is because we live here today.

  • Luke Allison

    “We are repulsed at the idea of oh, say, a 10 year old, subject to great abuse, dying at the hands of an abuser being raised to an eternal existence of conscious torment (taking out the word “torture” doesn’t actually make it any more palatable) because such a view is contrary to the nature of God revealed in scripture.”

    I’ll agree somewhat with what you’ve said. I think we need to wrestle with the fact that (as repulsive as it may seem), the Scriptures include details of more “active” expressions of God’s judgment. The children of Israel would have lost their first-born presumably if they had stepped out from underneath the covering of blood as effectively as the Egyptians had. The solution was the same for everyone…which could raise the thought that if Egyptians sacrificed a lamb and painted their doorpost, the destroyer would have passed over as well. Either way, the deliverance was the same.
    I’m not necessarily overjoyed with that sentiment, but I think we need to do more than just dismiss it off hand. I for one would not be considered a pure exclusivist (call me a conservative inclusivist), but I still believe the remedy is the same. The thief on the Cross recognized the value and innocence of the Lamb, and that apparently was counted to him as righteousness. If we never recognize the value and innocence of the Lamb for deliverance from destruction (no matter who is inflicting it), then what ground is there to stand on? God seems to be more schizophrenic when we imply that He saves by grace as well as honest adherence to idolatrous religion. It’s hard for me to budge on that one.
    I really appreciate this conversation, however.

  • rjs

    But Luke, as tragic as the passover was for those who were not passed over, as tragic as other events in this life are, they are limited to this life. They are part of God’s interaction with a fallen creation for a purpose.

    In the discussion of hell and eternal torment we are talking about new creation, the culmination of God’s plan and purpose. Eschatology is an important part of this discussion.

    Hell – for the sin of being born human, and thus heir of Adam, rather than being born an animal – continues for ever and ever. It is part of the eschaton – is this part of God’s eternal purpose?

    I do believe in judgment and in hell – but in a hell that is chosen rather than a hell that is default unless one is lucky.

  • Luke Allison

    “I do believe in judgment and in hell – but in a hell that is chosen rather than a hell that is default unless one is lucky.”

    Yeah, I hear you. I think speculating on the worst case scenario can sometimes create a spiral of despair. I’ve done it many times myself.

    I have a friend who lost his 6-year-old girl due to an extreme asthma attack. He comes out of a very rough background and has been spottily walking with God for a little while. He asked me some similar questions when it happened. All I could tell him was that the God of the Universe is good and does good, and that the Cross tells us that He cares, no matter what we experience. His daughter had never formally “accepted” Christ. That is a very difficult situation. I once heard a wise pastor who had a stillborn baby claim that he trusted God with his baby, but he was more worried about the people listening in that moment. His response went somethign like: Let God worry about my baby, and you follow Him. That might be the best response any Believer can give in the midst of loss.
    This is all speculative, of course.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    We went to a church a decade ago and my wife went to it quite often. The matriarch was old, and in pain, very much in pain. One day the husband shot her then himself. At their service they all said how it is too bad that they will not see them in heaven. We never went back.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    rjs, your post #25 is wonderful.

    Specifically, I wholeheartedly agree with you about judgment, because judgment does not dictate action, it dictates and attitude. And you view on justice hits home to me something that has been bothering me for a long time here. That is that the justice so often expressed is an extension of some sort of punitive action and since our lawyerly view of that is punishment we assume that punishment is just. While you are (and the others are) right that justice dished out by god must be just, by definition, you add the thinking part that justice can be with mercy at a level that we are unaccustomed to seeing. Justice by our sensibilities could be executed with punishment, but it also could be executed through mercy.

    I like that whole response a lot.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Wow, sorry for the bad english, it is my first language and I take it for granted.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    K. Reux –

    How about the Holodomor of Ukraine and the mass murders in the USSR under Stalin or the Killing Fields? Or the “Holocaust” itself? These were under atheistic governments. These were the very first things that popped into my mind.

    Hitler wasn’t an atheist. He sure wasn’t a traditional Christian, of course, but he was sort of a neo-Pagan para-Christian who explicitly rejected evolution and based his racism on the idea that the ‘races’ had been created separately. The Holocaust owed far more to the virulent strain of anti-Semitism that Martin Luther embraced and fostered. That was certainly the motivation for the majority who actually carried out the crimes in person.

    As to the states under Stalin and Mao – they were atheist, absolutely, but they were also communist. It’s interesting to note they also explicitly rejected neo-Darwinian evolution and embraced (and enforced) Lysenkoism instead. The resulting crop failures when reality failed to match up to “worker’s science” killed millions, accounting for a substantial chunk – possibly a majority – of the death toll from those regimes.

    Ironically, the people under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao would have been much better off if those ‘leaders’ had accepted neo-Darwinian evolution.

    Plenty of atheists take Stalin and Mao (and the Terror before that) as object lessons that atheists can be just as dogmatic as theists. There’s plenty of blame that atheists can take – there’s no need to erroneously add Hitler.

  • Tim

    RJS (#26),

    “I am not sure what you are arguing.”

    Well, you’ve made some statements concerning the inadequacy of a purely evolutionary framework (or any other that “assert(s) the absence of absolute good and evil”) in explaining morality. But nowhere do I see where you’ve demonstrated such inadequacy or insufficiency among the evolutionary model. Not at least with respect to internal consistency among the worldview of the proponents, nor with respect to how it accounts for universal expressions of morality across mankind.

    So what I am doing is challenging you to substantiate these statements. But thus far, it seems you’ve just asserted your metaphysical preference for a “meaningful” morality based on a spiritual absolute. Your argument here seems to be, “I would really be happy if the basis for morality was absolute, therefore the basis for morality must be absolute” That seems like a non-sequitur to me. In a nutshell, it seems that there is some expectation that the reality of morality ought to conform to your metaphysical preferences.

    But why should this be the case? Why should your metaphysical preference for a more “meaningful” basis to morality than our shared cultural (relative) and biological (universal) heritage as human beings can provide weight in any way the scales of reality on this issue? In other words, you prefer for morality to be absolute, but so what? As a matter of reality, why should that matter?

    Now, with respect to horrific moral practices such as Incan child sacrifice, the evolutionary model views culture as a highly significant mediator behind expressions of biologically rooted human universals. So, relative to Incan culture, child sacrifice was “moral”, but with respect to universal traits we all share as humans, we tend to view it as not moral. Child sacrifice violates core aspects of our innate pro-social inclinations, not the least of which are empathy and a tendency to care for our young. But culture can, given the right conditions, over-ride these innate qualities – as clearly happened in the Incan culture with respect to child sacrifice. So, relatively Incan child sacrifice was not wrong – it was an accepted societal practice. Universally, it goes against much of what it means to be human.

    Regarding your statement:

    “I am not sure why what I said got this response. Many people live “good” moral lives without rooting it in anything outside of the current cultural norm.”

    I would say that the issue I am taking on here is not assertions that atheists can’t be good people. Many Evangelicals, yourself I’m sure included, happily acknowledge that atheists, Muslims, Hindus, what have you can be “good people.” What normally is asserted is that their worldview fails in some way. Critiques of other worldviews (particularly the accusation that they are internally inconsistent) is a favored pastime among many (not all) Evangelical communities. Statements in your post above such as…

    “But the mere existence of a moral law does not demonstrate that Christianity is true, it only eliminates those positions that assert the absence of absolute good and evil – according to Lindsley atheism, radical post modernism, pantheism, and neopaganism, even perhaps Hinduism and Buddhism.”

    …seem in line with this.

  • rjs

    Tim,

    When you call Incan child sacrifice horrific and then assert that it was not wrong because it was an accepted societal practice you make the point that I am trying to make and deny that it is significant.

    Because it seems to me that if it was not wrong locally, then it cannot go against what it means to be human, it is simply one expression of what it means to be human. Who are we to judge it horrific?

    Look – we can deny the existence of moral law, in fact we cannot prove that moral law exists. We can assert that all morality is relative to a given situation, defined by evolutionary tendencies and empirical effectiveness. Perhaps this is right. I certainly know many people who think it is right. An internally consistent world view that denies the existence of good and evil is certainly possible.

    But either there is absolute truth and true good and evil, or there is not. If there is not, then we should stop trying to pretend there is. If, in our gut, we think that there is good and evil, then we should own up to what consistency in this belief means.

    Note that I am not saying that I know, or even behave according to, that moral “right,” true good. I am certainly not saying we are right and everyone else is or was wrong. In fact I am certain that we are often very wrong. Every view of history, including the history of the church, should lead to profound humility as we contemplate both good and evil.

    I am saying that absolute good and evil exist and can and should be aspired to. (Added – that is the good can and should be aspired to.)

  • Luke Allison

    “Critiques of other worldviews (particularly the accusation that they are internally inconsistent) is a favored pastime among many (not all) Evangelical communities.”

    To be fair, you don’t really have any reason to be here arguing this stuff according to your own worldview. Just saying.

    I’m somewhat confused about the stance you’re taking: Are you criticizing evangelicals for attempting to deconstruct other worldviews because you believe all worldviews are equal? Or are you criticizing evangelicals because you don’t believe in God? If the former, that’s something we can discuss. If the latter, I don’t understand why you care about any of this at all.

  • Tim

    RJS (#35),

    “When you call Incan child sacrifice horrific and then assert that it was not wrong because it was an accepted societal practice you make the point that I am trying to make and deny that it is significant.”

    &

    “Because it seems to me that if it was not wrong locally, then it cannot go against what it means to be human, it is simply one expression of what it means to be human. Who are we to judge it horrific?”

    In answer to your question as expressed in the 2nd quote, all we can really do is set a reference point.

    You set the reference point at God. Which would be fine if God is the source of all morality, but by no means is that point conclusively proven. Those with purely evolutionary views can, with intellectual integrity, reject such a proposition and set their reference point elsewhere. But this does not necessarily lead to postmodern relativism.

    A postmodern, relativistic view would merely advocate tying reference points to culture. So one could never have a universal basis for saying something like, “the holocaust was wrong” or “child sacrifice is abominable.”

    However, an evolutionary view allows one to tie their reference point to the pro-social biological inheritance of humanity. Such a reference point is universal. As noted, however, expressions of morality are often heavily moderated by one’s culture. So, there is universality as well as relativism. But postmodernism this isn’t.

    But of course, the question can be raised, why set the reference point at humanity’s shared pro-social heritage? The answer is no one “has” to. In an atheistic worldview, you can set your reference point wherever you like. But we find that again and again, people tend to identify with their pro-social, universal human heritage. And when you consider how deeply ingrained this heritage is within us, how it so dominates our lives and bonds us together in family and social units, this is hardly surprising. So call it convention, but it is a fairly biologically ingrained one.

    So, when an atheist with a purely evolutionary worldview says something like “the Holocaust was wrong”, they can easily set the standard by which mass genocide is judged against the reference point of humanity’s shared and deeply ingrained (and deeply felt) pro-social inclinations.

    Now, concerning the 1st quote above, I would note that having set this reference point to our universal pro-social heritage, we can then judge cultural expressions of morality that deviate from this universal as, well, deviant – or “immoral.” So, practices such as child sacrifice, while deemed “moral” by an individual culture, can still be deemed “immoral” from a universally human perspective. So “morality” here is not monolithic. More composite. We have universal morality, as well as relativistic morality based on our culture. Sometimes the two are more harmonious in some areas, sometimes more discrepant than others – on occasion, dramatically so.

    “But either there is absolute truth and true good and evil, or there is not. If there is not, then we should stop trying to pretend there is.”

    In response to this statement, I would say that the atheist could say there is universal (to our species) “good” and “evil”, just not absolute (as in having some reference point outside of our species). How many atheists claim “absolutes” on anything pertaining to morality though? I can’t think of too many myself, but maybe you’ve run across a few.

  • Tim

    Luke Allison (#36),

    “To be fair, you don’t really have any reason to be here arguing this stuff according to your own worldview. Just saying.”

    And what is my worldview Luke? I’m arguing for the intellectual integrity of a purely evolutionary take on morality. This is true. But this isn’t my own worldview. On aesthetic grounds, I believe in God. I consider the deep beauty in both nature and each other as a powerful pointer to God. But I happen to consider the moral argument rather weak. But even if I had the worldview you see me defending for others, why would that strip me of any “reason” to argue worldviews? Can only theists argue worldviews? If so, why?

    “I’m somewhat confused about the stance you’re taking: Are you criticizing evangelicals for attempting to deconstruct other worldviews because you believe all worldviews are equal?”

    No, I am not criticizing Evangelicals for critiquing worldviews. Nor do I feel that all worldviews are equal. I’m not a postmodernist.

    “Or are you criticizing evangelicals because you don’t believe in God?”

    No. I believe in God. You’re certainly keen on motivation hunting aren’t you?

    “If the former, that’s something we can discuss. If the latter, I don’t understand why you care about any of this at all.”

    Luke, we live in a society where people’s worldviews impact one another. So we should engage each other in conversation concerning worldviews.

    For example, look at the impact creationist worldviews have on the teaching of evolution in our schools (fairly watered down if addressed at all as science teachers don’t want to be “controversial” or stir up animosity among the children’s parents). You could also look at homosexual persecution. Or even atheistic persecution (consistently rated among the most “untrustworthy” among the general public, though they have high representation among the scientists an exceedingly low representation in the prison population).

    So, we should talk to each other. Challenge each others ideas. Dispel misconceptions. Learn where possible. We all share this world together, so what we think of each other and how we should relate to each other matters.

  • rjs

    Tim,

    I don’t think it is possible from a purely evolutionary point of view to assert any universal “good” other than survival – and the best mechanism for survival is necessarily relative to the circumstance and environment. This says nothing much about what we view as human morality. We may have certain instincts and “beliefs” because they enhanced survival in the past, but they may or may not be the best way to enhance survival in the future. Those who adapt appropriately to changing circumstance will survive.

    But there is no pro-social, universal human heritage to which we can appeal for judgment. Empirical survival is the ultimate and only judge.

    No it isn’t postmodernism, but so what?

  • Luke Allison

    “And what is my worldview Luke? I’m arguing for the intellectual integrity of a purely evolutionary take on morality.”

    Sorry, my Fallen nature acted up again and I didn’t read the comments closely enough. I lumped you together with Ray Ingles.

    “You’re certainly keen on motivation hunting aren’t you?”

    Yes, because it keeps me from making assumptions like the one I just made with you. :)

    “So, we should talk to each other. Challenge each others ideas. Dispel misconceptions. Learn where possible. We all share this world together, so what we think of each other and how we should relate to each other matters.”

    Too true. I have many colleagues who are of the “there is no God and I hate him with a passion” variety of atheism. I’m not used to gentle arguments.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    “I don’t think it is possible from a purely evolutionary point of view to assert any universal “good” other than survival – and the best mechanism for survival is necessarily relative to the circumstance and environment.”

    I disagree, and let me give you a concrete example.

    We are evolutionarily geared to protect our young. There is an evolutionary advantage to passing on our genes. So, even if we, as adults, need to place ourselves at risk to ensure the safety of our offspring, we do so, correct? I don’t believe you would dispute this.

    Now. As advanced, self-conscious and self-reflective beings with the capacity to understand our own evolutionary heritage, what do you do in the following situation:

    Your daughter steps out in front of a moving car. You have seconds to save her but the odds aren’t so great. Maybe 1 in 5 you make it, 4 in 5 you both go splat. What do you do? Let’s say you and your wife are still young. You have many child-bearing years ahead of you. You could lose this one child and have 5 more. You’re best bet to pass on your genes, clearly, is to let your daughter die and go on procreating. But you wouldn’t do this would you? The vast majority of parents, whether atheist or theist, would step out right in front of that car and try to rescue their daughter. And it is “human” to do so. Universally so. I would bet in prehistoric times, seeing a predator lunge at your child the hunter-gatherer parent would do the same. Risk life and limb to protect their young, even if the chances aren’t so great. Like I said, this is universal to our species.

    Now remember, you are a highly advanced, self-conscious, self-aware being who understands your evolutionary heritage. What do you do now? Knowing all this about how evolution has instilled this desire to protect your young such that you can pass on your genes, does this change your natural course of action to protect your young? Do you think it would change anything for the atheist? Not likely. The fact is, the drive, the deeply ingrained, powerfully felt inclination to protect one’s young is within each and everyone of us. So even if conditions change and the inclination that was adaptive to passing on gene’s becomes non-adaptive, or even anti-adaptive, the fact remains that the deeply ingrained inclination is still there. Our emotions, drives, and inclinations don’t change with the situation to suit survival. But they do make us much of who we are.

    So, in response to your statement…

    “there is no pro-social, universal human heritage to which we can appeal for judgment.”

    …I would disagree. Parents put themselves at risk to protect their children. There’s one universal example. It’s universal across our species and our history. While individual cultures may at times have encouraged deviations from this, such as child sacrifice, those are the exception, not the rule – and such deviations require powerful cultural impetus to override humanity’s pro-social inclinations.

    *You could look at the lives of ascetics for a non-moral parallel here. Culture can override the impulses of the appetite as well. But do we say the desire to nourish our bodies isn’t universal due to such deviations? Hardly.

  • Tim

    Luke Allison,

    Thank you for your kind comments in #40 :)

  • rjs

    Tim,

    Nothing you’ve written makes the case that saving one’s child is “good” it only makes such an inclination a useful trait. Good is simply evaluated by empirical success that programmed us into what we are today.

    And yes useful traits can survive even when they’ve lost their usefulness – such may eventually lead to extinction.

    So what? There is still no inherent “good” only empirical survival.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    You seem to be limiting the use of the word “good” to either a Darwinian “good” or an absolute, transcendent “good.” I don’t see why this is appropriate.

    Let’s return to the reference point. Let’s take “good” to mean in accordance with where you pin the reference point, and “bad” to mean in discordance with where you pin the reference point. This is essentially like a game of pin the tail on the donkey.

    (1) Does the reference point get pinned to God? In this scenario, you have morality based on God’s will/character/being/etc.. “Good” is in accordance with God’s will. “Bad” is in discordance with it.

    (2) Does the reference point get pinned to one’s culture? In this case you have postmodern relativism. “Good” as well as “Bad” are set by cultural norms.

    (3) Does the reference point get pinned to the evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest? In this case you get Social Darwinism. “Good” promotes gene survival, while “Bad” decreases survival.

    (4) Does the reference point get pinned to the will of the individual? In this case you get Nietzschean nihilistic narcissism. “Good” is in accordance with your will, whereas “Bad” is in conflict with your will.

    Now, I would imagine that, if one were to constrain this the options for how one frames morality, this would present a fairly optimal landscape for apologetic purposes. All the non-theistic scenarios are unpalatable to some degree or another, and the theistic one comes out looking relatively sterling. But what of the scenario where the reference point gets tied to our deeply ingrained pro-social inclinations? Inclinations that the vast, vast majority of humanity associates with and identifies with in some deeply felt way. Why is this precluded as a reference point?

    So let’s go with (5): Humanity’s pro-social inheritance. “Good” is in accordance with universal pro-social tendencies, and “Bad” is in discordance with universal pro-social tendencies.

    So what is your objection to accepting this model? Just because evolution is the theoretical framework that allows atheists to universalize morality, does not mean that they have to pin the “tail” of the reference point on the evolutionary “process.” Rather, it can be pinned on the pro-social “result” as pertains to our species.

  • rjs

    Tim,

    Sure, I think we would agree that “good” is in accord with humanity’s pro-social inheritance. And many will make this argument.

    But it is still without any basis or foundation – it is simply a decided upon norm we use for judgment. I think (but cannot prove) that this is the appropriate norm (with some nuance) because it is grounded in something deeper than evolutionary expediency.

    But the tail, as you put it in the last paragraph, is pinned to nothing but consensus decision, there is no donkey.

    I am not actually talking though about that to which a nontheist or scientific naturalists pins morality when discussing the evolutionary process. I am talking about the reason for having that sense of morality in the first place. If we have simply an evolutionary basis – then the sense of morality we possess developed only to enhance survival and cheating on this sense is normal because limited cheating also enhances survival. It becomes a complex mathematical problem.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    If what you are saying is that without an absolute referent, there is no absolute referent – of course, this is correct (though it seems redundant).

    But I would note that it isn’t merely some arbitrary convention that “pins” the tail of “good”/”bad” to the “donkey” of pro-social inclinations (see I knew there was a donkey :) ). But rather, the pro-social inclinations themselves are, according to a purely evolutionary view, the actual source of our “moral” sense.

    In fact, even before the religious idea developed that God was the source of morality, humanity still, quite naturally, followed followed their innate pro-social tendencies (as modified by culture of course) in determining how to conduct themselves morally. Aspects of the “Golden Rule” can be found throughout all of human history. However, the evolutionary explanation for this is completely satisfactory, as is of course the theistic explanation.

    So, I would argue that, according to the evolutionary model, we are biologically “geared” to pin the tail of “good” and “bad”, as a practical matter, on our pro-social inclinations. Our beliefs can vary of course. But on a practical level, following our natural pro-social inclinations does appear to be how we are “made” to function.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Tim, I’ve discussed this stuff with RJS before: http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2010/03/09/what-role-naturalism-1-rjs/

    I’ve accepted that we just aren’t going to see eye-to-eye.