God Questions - a dialogue

Carl Stecher

Peter, thank you for participating in this dialogue with me. My sister, a devout Christian, has observed that perhaps 90% of believers and nonbelievers alike have become so without the heavy lifting of serious and sustained thought, many without even much emotional involvement. In this dialogue, I have had the privilege of encountering a Christian theist who is not satisfied to be one simply because of the influence of his parents or others that he respects. I think you have presented the strongest possible case for theism, and you’ve responded to my challenges with the best possible answers. Less obvious to the reader is your enormous scholarship. A letter that you sent me in February of 2001 (regular mail) was 98 single-spaced pages long and had 403 footnotes. It began “Dear Carl,”. In early versions of this manuscript you buttressed your arguments with a huge number of quotations from Christian scholars; when I edited them out because I thought them redundant or stylistically inaccessible for most readers (myself included), you cheerfully acquiesced in my judgment. That by-and-large you have failed to convince me I attribute to the inherent impossibility of successfully defending theism on rational grounds. You, of course, see the problem quite differently and think me to be stubbornly embracing error. Or perhaps, because you are a most charitable fellow, you see how my sense of reality just differs radically from your own, how an argument that seems rational to you seems perverse or question-begging to me. But if ever I were accused of a heinous crime, I would want you to be my defense counsel, fully convinced of my innocence. Surely, at the very least, we have emerged from this dialogue with special feelings of friendship and respect.

So where are we now? What has this dialogue accomplished? At this point I can only speak for myself, as we clearly remain in profound disagreement. I’ll begin with a summary view of the chapters of dialogue.

Following our initial statements which make clear our religious background and present religious beliefs, the dialogue begins in Chapter 1: Objective Morality and the Biblical God. Peter gained an immediate rhetorical advantage by defining "objective moral values"; in such a way that they are possible only if the God of theism exists and is their source. (Peter tells me this is how most philosophers use the term.) I chose not to challenge this definition because in our correspondence, when I suggested that "objective"; in common usage means other things than "not originating in finite minds"; (check any dictionary) the only result was an endless and fruitless wrangle over the definition of this word. My position is that Peter’s argument is circular, question-begging, in that "objective moral values"; are defined in such a way that they can only find their source in God, and then the alleged existence of such values is used in turn to ‘prove’ the existence of God. I further argue that the God of the Bible cannot be the source of true moral values since he condones, commands or commits almost every conceivable crime against humanity. Peter responds with a series of arguments evidencing the existence of objective moral values (all of them, to my understanding, equally question-begging) and another series defending the morality of the Biblical God: allegorical interpretation; hyperbole in Biblical accounts; the victims deserved to be exterminated; apparent injustices will be righted in the afterlife; progressive revelation; the Bible must be taken as a whole; moral laws applicable to humans often don’t apply to God; it’s not necessary to understand all of God’s actions to have faith in His goodness. Peter recommends many book-length studies for a proper understanding of these defenses. I respond that such defenses simply whitewash the Biblical God and undermine all morality. Peter replies “Of course, given belief in God (which I think can be supported by various arguments and experiences) it follows that whatever God has done must be justifiable!” He also argues that the morality of God cannot be challenged by anyone who doesn’t accept the theistic position that to be objective (ie. real) a morality must necessarily have its origin in God.

I propose a humanistic basis for morality: first, the sense of right and wrong that has become almost universal in Western and many Eastern societies and that has been sanctioned by international law, and second, more specifically, the standard of human freedom limited by the need of the community as a whole to survive and prosper. Peter labels this basis for morality merely subjective, and hence invalid.We debate whether his theistic or my humanistic standard of morality provides clearer guidance. I challenge him to make his supposed objective standards more specific, pointing out how the Biblical God Himself violates standards of simple decency and international law; Peter counters that I have no basis to judge God unless I first accept his definition of objective moral standards. Peter holds that we know the existence of these standards intuitively, even if we can invest them with no specific content beyond a few moral truisms. I end with an analysis of morality based upon category fallacy, arguing that moral values are ideas and as ideas are all within the same category whether they are worthy or hateful (“Thou shalt Love thy Neighbor” or “ Thou shalt Kill all Infidels”). This being true, we have compelling reason to reject the claim that moral values originate in God. I also use a passage from Twain’s Huck Finn which illustrates how community values are absorbed and then mistakenly attributed to God. Peter asserts that my basis for moral values, not being ‘objective’ as he uses the term, could validate the depravities of Nazi Germany. I am perfectly willing to let anyone who has read this dialogue judge whether such a conclusion – or accusation – has any merit.

Turning from this discussion of one of Peter’s arguments for the God of theism, in Chapter 2 we debate my principle argument against such a God: the problem of evil and the related free will defense of God. Peter begins by reprising the argument of the previous chapter, that the problem of evil cannot be raised unless I accept an ‘objective’ definition of evil which concedes the existence of God who is by definition completely good. I reject this theistic fancy footwork and argue that we can debate the issue in terms of nearly universal standards of law and justice. Peter then argues that, putting aside all issues of plausibility, the logical problem of evil has been resolved in favor of theism because it is possible there are reasons we do not understand for the existence of evil in a world created and ruled by a morally perfect and omnipotent God. I concede this point, but quote two holocaust survivors to illustrate the insignificance of this resolution of the purely logical problem, and argue further that by the same standards, I can prove the logical possibility of flying elephants and of giraffes which are the source of all moral standards. Peter then ties the possibility of God to the necessity of God through the ontological argument; I hold that the ontological argument is absurd. Peter concedes that much suffering is unnecessary, but he thinks it is still allowable, and defends God by questioning what amount of suffering is allowable (six, 6,000 or 6,000,000 innocent victims). I answer that no unnecessary suffering is allowable.

Turning to the question of free will, Peter contends that both a world with libertarian free will, in which human decisions are made independent of or even contrary to the strongest motive, and a fallen natural world full of evil and sin are necessary preconditions of heaven, which he describes as a place where some have voluntarily given up their earthly free will, and hence their ability to sin, to gain admittance. I argue that there is no reason for heaven to require a previous world of sin and misery; Peter argues that it is a necessary precondition of heaven because of the enhanced value of human beings entering into such a world through free choice. Peter also argues that if humans were not inherently sinful, they would not be "morally praiseworthy"; in choosing to renounce their sinful condition and accept God’s offered mercy. I counter that if this is the only way of being morally praiseworthy, neither Jesus nor God earn this description, since, by Christian teaching, neither has the capability of sinning.

Moving to the question of libertarian free will, essential for the free will defense against the problem of moral evil, I present Edwards’ analysis that all human actions are necessary responses to the strongest motive. I challenge Peter to present a single instance where this analysis can be shown to be false, Peter does not but argues that if Edwards is right, we must abandon all moral judgments. I respond that moral judgments are very much a part of motivation, and that we must necessarily judge and be judged to live in community. Peter next challenges Edwards’ analysis on the grounds that it precludes rationality; I demonstrate that this is not true, and that it is necessary to differentiate desires, which influence our beliefs, from motives, which determine our actions.

Finally, we move from moral evil, the evil which humans must accept some responsibility for, to natural evils, which are completely beyond the control and responsibility of humans. I ask Peter to consider the case of a four-year old child playing with matches leading to catastrophic consequences for the boy and his family. Could not God have quietly intervened? Don’t such tragedies happen to millions of people, and God, who is claimed to be a loving father, does nothing? Peter answers by summarizing an argument made by Kelly James Clark. I responded by summarizing Clark’s argument:

[CS] Peter, I think Clark’s point is well-taken. No one should make too much of the parent / child – God / human analogy. Clearly what we would universally expect and demand of a human parent – that the child be adequately fed, clothed, sheltered, immunized from disease, (when possible) educated, protected from foreseeable harm and made to feel loved – we cannot expect from God. God might have, as Clark suggests, many other things on His mind. Or God might be taking care of us in ways that we do not understand – in an afterlife, for example. And we are often unable to understand God’s purposes and ways in this life.

In turn, Peter’s response is to congratulate me on starting to think like a theist! But this only demonstrates how far apart we remain. My point was to make a searing indictment of God, to show how impossibly removed God is from the idea of parenthood. If anything, God, the supposedly all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving Father, is a classic deadbeat dad.

In Chapter 3, Peter and I debate the Cosmological and Design Arguments for the existence of God. Peter begins with the illustration of a train which, no matter how long, must have the 'Little Engine that Could' to get moving. So too, Peter argues, for the universe to exist, in which it appears that every part of it is in cause-and-effect relationship with other parts, something outside of the universe must have existed as the first cause for everything else. I answer that we know the universe exists, probably as the ultimate and eternal brute fact; there is no reason to see its existence as dependent upon a God we don’t know exists.

Peter argues that the cosmos, like a watch, displays unmistakable evidence of intelligent design; he buttresses this argument by quoting several scientists who see irreducible complexity in human beings and statistical improbabilities in the emergence of intelligent life so staggering that the fact of intelligent life can only be explained by the theory that the cosmos was so designed that such life would emerge.

I confess my inability to account for this irreducible, specified complexity (having no scientific background, I can’t even assess the evidence for this conclusion), but assuming it to be true, I question what inferences can be safely drawn. I argue that in all (im)probability, there must be trillions of other facts of the cosmos which are equally unlikely, and that it is gross presumption to identify the one improbability of the emergence of intelligent life (here we are, folks!) as the purpose, or any part of the purpose, of the universe. I suggest that if I take the theistic reasoning to its logical conclusion, given the incalculable odds against my personal existence, I can infer that the whole cosmos was created so that I might be.

In Chapter 4, Peter and I agree to forgo discussion of the historical authenticity of the New Testament. Instead, Peter testifies to the significance of Jesus to Christians generally and himself in particular. I acknowledge the many attractive teachings of Jesus and the general excellence of his character, but taking the text as it has come to us, I question whether Jesus was a failed prophet, whether he was a sound financial advisor, whether he consistently lived himself in accordance with his teachings. Peter defends Jesus against each of these challenges.

In Chapter 5, entitled Desire and Religious Experience, Peter contends that since we long for God and eternal life, this evidences that both must exist, because, as C.S. Lewis argued, we long for food and food exists. I think Lewis’ argument almost embarrassingly foolish, and offer a similar analogy: "Robins desire worms. And there are worms. C.S. Lewis desires Paradise. Therefore Paradise exists."; A sufficient food supply is a physical necessity for life of any sort, but a physical necessity is hardly equivalent to a metaphysical yearning. I also suggest that the longing for God might be explained as part of our evolutionary heritage. Social animals need an alpha-male to keep order in the community and provide security against external threats; humans alone understand their own mortality, and seek a super alpha-male who alone can be imagined to provide security from death. Peter argues that I cannot introduce my alternative explanation for theistic belief unless I first prove beyond reasonable doubt that God does not exist. Otherwise, Peter argues, I am begging the question. I counter that the argument from experience itself clearly begs the question, while my offering an alternative explanation for belief in God does not. I illustrate this with an Email from God which could be either authentic or a prank. No question is begged. Peter makes a perfectly valid point: if our belief in God is based upon our need to find a super alpha-male, this might be God’s way of revealing Himself. (Just as God might reveal Himself by sending Emails.)

Peter next argues that religious experience provides strong evidence for the existence of God, acknowledging that it is more persuasive to those who have it than to those who don’t. He uses the illustration of his friend Andy, who, hoping for a communication from God, felt that someone mentioning the name ‘Andrew’ during a prayer service in which someone had visualized a tug-of-war, was evidence that God was calling him. I counter with a story, told by my friend Tom, which involves an equally strange coincidence. We differ sharply on whether such coincidences have theological significance.

Peter contends that because theists feel they have experienced God, their belief is "properly basic" or "warranted" and should be accepted as true until proven to be false (the principle of credulity). The burden of proof falls on the non-theists, Peter holds, and to prove the God of theism doesn’t exist skeptics must mount a positive argument such as the Problem of Evil or the incoherence of theistic belief. I think that Peter would have to agree that since flying elephants are logically possible, their non-existence cannot be proven. In contrast to the presumed innocence of an accused in a court of law, the first principle of any debate is that the burden of proof rests on the affirmative.

In Chapter 6, Peter describes Heaven in three stages: all Christians are in heaven in their present life because of their relationship with Jesus; when they die they will be in heaven in that they will be disembodied spirits awaiting the return of Jesus and the Final Judgment; from that point on they will exist as material but spiritual bodies in a material / spiritual cosmos, these last free from all sin and suffering. When I query specifically on what the final stage of heaven will be like, from my point of view his answers hide vague and fuzzy ideas with very grandiloquent language.

I argue that the capstone of Heaven completely demolishes the theological system it is meant to complete, and this without even considering the related Christian concept of Hell, traditionally a concept of fiendish cruelty. As Peter argues, without heaven, theism provides no “foundation for hope”; it denies “our existence and adequate purpose”; it gives no “ultimate answer to the problem of evil and suffering”. But to accept the doctrine of Heaven – for Heaven to exist – it must first be established that the God of theism exists. None of the arguments for such a God – arguments from objective morality, from design, the cosmological argument, arguments from desire and experience – withstand careful scrutiny. Peter suggests that the arguments taken together establish the existence of God, but five or ten bogus arguments are no better than one, just as zero added to zero added to zero still results in a sum of zero. I do concede that the argument from experience carries some small evidential value, but suggest a plausible alternative explanation for it.

If anything, the failure of theists to find any valid argument for the existence of God as they define Him, despite their ingenuity and dogged persistence, strongly suggests that no such argument can be found, for no such God exists. Furthermore, the intractable Problem of Evil reveals the total implausibility of such a God existing; the answering free will defense is dependent upon a mistaken analysis of human freedom. That the moral and natural evils of the present world are a necessary precondition of Heaven is demonstrably false, because however human freedom is understood, God could have given us the choice between a good earth and companionship with good people or a perfect relationship with Himself, at the sacrifice of some earthly good. No capstone could be erected upon such a flimsy and defective structure, and the ‘capstone’ itself is dependent upon a fantasy that is totally contradicted by modern science, which makes clear the absolute link between the human personality and a functioning brain.

Peter believes many things that I do not. To list a few:

1. There exists a supernatural being outside of the Cosmos, who, existing immaterially but eternally, created the universe billions of years ago, in all its unfathomable immensity, so that in a tiny corner of it human creatures would one day evolve, some small proportion of them to choose to come to know Him and exist with Him in joy forever

2. Since it is not logically impossible that God exists – no more impossible than moral giraffes and flying elephants – God must necessarily exist.

3. Humans have a soul, understood to be personality and self-awareness that can exist and function independent of a functioning brain. After death but before the general resurrection these souls exist – some of them for thousands of years, in a disembodied, brainless state, just as God exists. Perhaps they communicate telephatically.

4. Humans have libertarian free will to do good or evil, which means that human choices can be made independently of, and sometimes in contradiction to, the strongest motive.

5. This libertarian freedom is a necessary precondition of Heaven, which will be, finally, a glorious spiritual / material existence with God but without libertarian freedom to do evil.

6. God in His wisdom balanced our contrary impulses to virtue and sin correctly to maximize our freedom.

7. The natural evil in the world is necessary because of the laws of nature and the fact of human sin; in the final stage of heaven, when those who are saved will be truly themselves, the laws of nature will change so there will not be evil.

8. Libertarian freedom was also given to invisible spirits called angels, some of whom rejected fellowship with God and became demons, responsible for at least some the natural evil in the world.

9. Those millions or billions of humans who freely choose to reject God will ‘go to hell,’ which Peter thinks means eternal annihilation, but which many Christians think of as a place of eternal torment.

10. Humans are able to freely choose or reject God even if they live in a culture in which the theistic concept of God is completely unkown.

11. Hell is necessary so that a choice to have a relationship with God is not coerced.

12. There exists an eternally true, objective morality, known by intuition but as real as a turnip, reflecting the very nature of God and evidencing His existence.

13. Moral standards based upon the survival and well-being of the community and the freedom and happiness of its members are invalid because they are ‘subjective’. Being subjective, they are only a matter of personal taste and are objectively no better than the values of Nazism..

14. The character of the Biblical God cannot be meaningfully discussed unless the existence of ‘objective’ moral standards grounded in His character is first accepted.

15. Whatever God does must necessarily be good.

16. Some evil in God’s creation is unnecessary but allowable.

17. Anyone who does not believe in the God of theism as a supernatural being and an afterlife of reward or punishment must, to be consistent, live a life of meaninglessness and despair.

18. If your otherwise sane wife sincerely reports that there was a zebra in your living room, you would and should believe her.

19. Some reptiles may be immortal. (Perhaps Peter was being facetious here.)

Many of these beliefs are interdependent, some crucially so. It’s pretty much a package deal.

The final question, a question that I have deferred until the end of this correspondence. Can life be meaningful and fulfilling if God does not exist? Peter writes:

[PW] Calling our desire for God ‘a desire for happiness’, we might search out that which would make us happy, and, I submit, discover that the only object which answers our desire is God, so that our desire for ‘happiness’ was in fact a desire for God…. To reject this understanding of human desire would force us to take a gloomy view of life as ultimately unfulfilling…. It would surely be difficult to dismiss the universal human experience that nothing in this world brings final or lasting satisfaction for our deepest desires and longings

Peter is free to articulate his view of reality, and I am sure many others, including some famous atheists, share his view. But it is hardly, as he claims, “the universal human experience”. Unless I have for all for all these years somehow missed the "universal human experience";, Peter is simply wrong in this assertion. Peter’s view of the life we are living here and now is depressingly negative. I will not presume to generalize beyond my own experience and direct observation – admittedly, a very limited perspective – but life as I have known it is quite wonderful and perpetually amazing. And I know I am not alone in thinking this.

I admit that my experience has not been typical. I have had a life of privilege and rare good fortune. I had a happy childhood in a warmly loving and supportive family; I managed adolescence with very little angst; I have nothing but happy memories of the college years; I love my mother, who is active and well at the age of 90, and my brother and sister; I have been happily married to a wonderful woman for thirty-nine years; I have a few wonderful friends and no enemies that I am aware of; I am prodigiously proud of my two adult children, with whom I have excellent relationships, and my two granddaughters and grandson; I have found great satisfaction in my vocation as a professor, loving the teaching so much that I have passed up several earned sabbaticals; I have had almost unfailingly good health; I have never been the victim of personal violence – even emotional violence; and I have never suffered as the result of a natural disaster. And I suspect my serotonin pump works overtime. Thinking of myself, I am reminded of a statement of an acquaintance recorded by James Boswell: “I try to be philosophical, but cheerfulness keeps breaking in.”

I recognize that all this great fortune might end in any instant – I could drop dead typing this paragraph – or my end might be protracted, painful, pathetic. I live in some dread of where and how terrorists – religious fanatics – will strike again. Some catastrophe might befall one of my loved ones. I did witness, to a certain extent, my father’s long and eventually fatal decline due to Alzheimer’s disease, and I realize that I am not invulnerable. I know that inevitably there is pain in life. And I am not so deluded as to think that I deserve my extraordinary good fortune, or that others deserve their much harder lot.

I accept my mortality. Life has been wonderful, and perhaps even more precious, more appreciated, because it will not last forever. As Wallace Stevens put it, “death is the mother of beauty”. My delight in life is intensified by the knowledge that it will someday end, I try to live intensely in the present moment. “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” I could list specifically what and where I find joy in life, but the list would be very long and not very edifying.

I cannot resist two illustrations. I love to hit a tennis ball. Sometimes everything works and the ball jumps off my racket and goes just where I want it to. Usually it doesn’t, but over many years I have learned that it doesn’t really matter. All my life I have lost far more games than I have won, no matter how inept – or ept – my opponent. But I have finally learned to laugh at my bad shots, take joy when everything goes right, and to keep score only so that I will know when it’s the other guy’s turn to serve. I play every point as well as I can, and when I lose, as I so often do, look for consolation in the joy I have given to my opponent, in all probability a less philosophical fellow.

I also love to fly. Over the years I have flown hundreds of times, but I still always want a window seat. Taking off and landing and seeing the world from 30,000 feet is still an exciting experience for me. I actually “have seen clouds from both sides now”. Less than a hundred years ago no human being had ever flown! And all I hear around me are complaints about poor airline service and lousy in-flight food. I see people bored and restless. completely unappreciative of the fact that they are participating in one of the great accomplishments of the human race. But at the airport I also see the long lines for the multiple security checks, and national guardsmen patrolling with automatic rifles. So I cannot ignore the fact of human greed, cruelty and fanaticism and the appalling consequences of terrorism and war.

One last illustration. Last night as I was proofreading this manuscript, a tiny, barely visible creature fluttered in and out of my field of vision. I restrained myself from swatting it, remembering a paragraph written by Chet Raymo in a recent Boston Globe column:

The sandfly is smaller than a pepper grain, but under the microscope it has everything you’d expect of a bug: six legs, wings, eyes, antennae, bristles. At a deeper level of magnification one might see the vast and beautiful molecular music that plays unceasing, the chemistry of life. Somewhere among my books and papers I have a wall-sized chart showing the chemical pathways and cycles of human metabolism; it is as dazzlingly complex as the plan of a vast petrochemical factory, and as satisfyingly beautiful as Michelangelo’s Pieta. The sandfly’s metabolism is hardly less complex or less beautiful.

I have no idea why, but against stupendous odds, I have had the incomparable, incomprehensible privilege of life and awareness. In the words of William Blake, it has been possible for me…

To see a world in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of my hand
And Eternity in an hour

I know that millions have experienced so much misery and pain that they cannot see their earthly lives as something to be enjoyed, but, at best, only endured. For some, the hope of something better after this life is sustaining. I am saddened by this. If the God of theism with all His supposed attributes existed, such want and unhappiness would not exist. But for me, life is still, as it always has been, wonderful and mysterious. Sometimes, I admit, it is very frightening. But in my more objective moments I can see even these times as part of the awesome, magnificent and never ending pageant. I regret only the times when I have been sleepwalking through it… and those times do happen, as hard as I try to stay fully awake. There will be plenty of time for sleep later.

Peter S. Williams

As our dialogue draws to a close, what have we achieved? Some might say, not a lot. After all, neither of us convinced the other to change his worldview. But perhaps we have helped you, the reader, to change, or to reaffirm, your worldview. I think it significant that we each moved closer to understanding the other’s worldview, and thus to understanding each other. As Charles Taliaferro notes: “Philosophical arguments and debate, even when it is quite intensive and sustained, can be part of a joint undertaking in which different parties work collaboratively to understand one another, to explore each other’s points of view, and to undertake this task in a good-hearted context of respect, camaraderie and affection.”[1]

The Importance of Dogmatism

G.K. Chesterton defended the importance of a dogmatic dedication not merely to the basic worldview questions, but to seeking those truths that correctly answer them: “The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms.”[2] According to Chesterton, ‘man’ can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas:

“As he piles ... conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy ... he is ... becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a rarefied scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.”[3]

Chesterton concluded that if there is to be intellectual advance, it must be “in the construction of a definite philosophy of life [spirituality]. And that philosophy of life must be right and the other philosophies wrong ... no man ought to write at all, or even to speak at all, unless he thinks he is in truth and the other man in error.”[4]

No one could accuse either Carl or myself of a turnip-like, broad-minded vagueness! There are some very definite points of disagreement between us, and where we disagree I believe that I am right and he is wrong. Of course, Carl believes that he is right and I am wrong. If we didn’t believe this then we wouldn’t have bothered writing to each other in the first place!

What is the Question?

The central theme of our debate has been the fundamental question of Ultimate Reality and its consequences. As Thomas V. Morris asks: “Is the most basic truth about ultimate reality a personal truth, or is it an impersonal truth? Are human persons small anomalies blindly thrown up by natural processes for a temporary, transient existence in an otherwise hostile universe, or could it be that we may have both eternal value and everlasting existence?”[5] Carl and I give opposite answers to this question, and we can’t both be right! Good and evil are either as objective as turnips or not; humans either have free will, or we don’t; God either exists or he doesn’t; Jesus is either the incarnate Son of God or not; the hope of Heaven is either genuine or a fraud. On all these matters Carl and I differ. However, we both agree that truth exists, that truth matters, and that two people with different worldviews can unite around the value of truth and proceed to disagree with each other’s dogma without finding each other disagreeable.

Which Answer do you Want?

Pascal wrote: “God has set up ... signs to make Himself known to those who seek Him sincerely, [but] he has nevertheless so disguised them that He will be recognized only by those who seek Him with all their heart: then, I ask, what advantage can [sceptics] derive when, indifferent as they profess themselves to the search for truth, they cry out that nothing reveals it to them... ?”[6] I suspect that many atheists empathize with Thomas Nagel’s candid comment: “I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”[7] Dallas Willard gets to the heart of things when he writes: “The issue is, what do we want? The Bible says that if you seek God with all your heart, then you will surely find him. Surely find him. It’s the person who wants to know God that God reveals himself to. And if a person doesn’t want to know God – well, God has created the world and the human mind in such a way that he doesn’t have to.”[8]

Clark Pinnock has a point when he writes that: “The challenge of atheism, and the nihilism that so often accompanies it, is best countered by a clearer vision of God’s fair beauty, not by intellectual arguments.”[9] The God I know is not a God one can sensibly want not to exist; but as Pascal observed: “Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it may be true. To overcome that difficulty we must ... lead good men to hope it is true; and then show them that it is true.”[10]

The Christian Answer

The Christian answer to the question of Ultimate Reality is that the Ultimate Reality is God. God, who created and thus transcends the cosmos, is a necessary, independent, personal being possessing maximal goodness, beauty, power and knowledge. Moreover, God has revealed Himself, especially through the person of Jesus, to be a tri-unity of divine beings in one divine being, a Trinity that loves humans and desires to enter into an eternal relationship of love with them.[11] According to Pascal:

“The Christian religion consists of two points; it is of equal concern to men that they should know both, it is equally dangerous to be ignorant of them, and it is equally due to His mercy that God has given indications of both ... that there is a God whom men are capable of knowing, and that there is an element of corruption in themselves which renders them unworthy of Him... Knowledge of only one of these truths gives rise to the pride of philosophers, who have come to know God but not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of atheists, who know their own wretchedness but not the Redeemer [who is Jesus Christ], the end of all, the centre to which everything tends...”[12]

The Despair of Atheists

Pascal’s “despair of atheists” is the objective wretchedness of life without God, of a life that is missing out on its true end, “the centre to which everything tends”, and which therefore finds itself at the dead end described by atheist Will Provine: “No God. No life after death. No free will. No ultimate meaning in life and no ultimate foundation for ethics.”[13]

Objective meaning requires an objectively good purpose that only God can supply. The world is either objectively meaningless or created and sustained by God. In the final analysis our worldview choice is thus between some kind of theism, or the no meaning, no purpose, no value, postmodern worldview. To say that it is objectively good to accept this postmodern view, or that it is rationally bad to accept theism, is self-contradictory, because postmodernism requires the denial of such normative concepts. Therefore the choice is ultimately between theism and self-contradiction. While the postmodernists may shrug their shoulders and demand, “So what?”, those of us who remain on the sunny side of the metaphysical street can find no rational or moral motive for crossing over. As Roger Scruton concludes: “The announcement of the death of God is less a statement about God, than a statement about us.”[14]

I don’t deny that Carl experiences life to be meaningful or valuable (it is); or even that he (rightly) believes it to be so. I simply think his conviction that existence is meaningful contradicts his belief about Ultimate Reality. I see Carl’s advocacy of a postmodern worldview (no afterlife, no libertarian free will, no objective purpose, value or meaning) as perfectly consistent with his denial of God’s existence, but at odds with his heartfelt experience that life is in fact a meaningful and worthwhile venture.

To my mind, Nietzsche, who proclaimed the ‘death of God’, was wholly consistent when he wrote: “My life now consists in the wish that it might have been otherwise with all the things that I comprehend, and that somebody might make my ‘truths’ appear incredible to me.”[15]

Arguing for Theism

Contemporary philosophers have defended and refined the traditional arguments for God, and have presented powerful criticisms of the naturalistic worldview.[16] Particularly noteworthy is the massive growth of sophisticated, scientifically informed and philosophically rigorous design arguments.[17] Here, as elsewhere, several new arguments have been advanced. The more we discover about the cosmos – from the fine-tuned nature of the Big Bang or the specified complexity of DNA, to the irreducibly complex nature of some biological structures – the more the evidence points to an intelligent, aesthetically aware, powerful, supernatural designer with an interest in sentient life.[18]

Arguing for Christian Theism

In addition to such philosophically established theism, Christianity makes a set of historical claims, culminating in the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. The truth of such claims will be hard to accept given the assumption of naturalism, but in the context given above I think that a careful study of history shows that these claims are credible. The minimum number of multiply attested (and generally admitted) historical facts about Jesus’ death, burial, empty tomb and resurrection appearances not only resist naturalistic explanation, but are best explained by the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.[19] In the final analysis, given his claims and credentials, Jesus’ identity is best explained by the Christian claim that he was God incarnate.

The result of this cumulative case is not only that God exists, but that the fullest available understanding of God is found within Christian theism. And it is only within Christian theism that we discover a God who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus reveals a God who desires to enter into a genuine and eternal relationship of love with us, and who, to this glorious end, willingly suffers the sin that results from our misuse of the freedom He gives us: “it is in the Cross that the problem of evil is most clearly manifest, for here, contrary to the view that God must be indifferent to our suffering, he becomes the victim of evil in order to overcome, on our behalf, the evil we have inflicted on him.”[20]

Good and Evil

Carl’s main argument is that theism, and especially Christian theism, is morally untenable. I may believe that Carl’s worldview, being non-theistic, is ultimately without meaning; but he believes my God to be a moral monster. If Carl is right then Christianity is false, because Christianity claims to be good news! Carl accepts that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and evil (a point accepted by the majority of contemporary philosophers).[21] However, he seeks to press the evidential problem of evil (holding that evil overwhelmingly disconfirms the existence of God).[22]

My main response has been to argue that since moral subjectivism provides one with no grounds for formulating a sound argument from evil, and since moral objectivism is tied to the existence of God via the moral argument, no argument from evil has any force against theism per se. As Stephen E. Parrish says: “One of the greatest weaknesses of arguments against God’s existence from the problem of evil is the fact that they assume notions of objective moral value that have no metaphysical basis in the naturalistic worldview. Their arguments assume a notion of moral value that is viable only if the God they are trying to disprove actually exists.”[23]

Francis J. Beckwith defines moral subjectivism as: “the view that when it comes to questions of morality, there is no absolute or objective right and wrong; moral laws are merely personal preferences and / or the result of one’s culture or society.”[24] Moral objectivism, on the other hand, is the view that “moral values ... are based on a moral law that exists apart from what people or their society may prefer or think, and that these standards are the ones against which the standards of every person and society should be evaluated.”[25] Carl recognizes that the existence of God follows from the existence of objective moral values; and it seems to me that this is why he rejects objective moral values, while atheists who do not recognize this link (eg. Michael Martin) are happy to accept moral objectivism.

If God’s existence is implied by the existence of objective moral values, the only question is whether or not such values exist. The recognition that objective value and God go hand in hand does not invalidate the moral argument as Carl thinks; rather, it is the perfectly acceptable premise of the moral argument that some people (rightly) accept and others (wrongly) reject. The moral argument says that:

1) If objective moral values exist, then God exists
2) Objective moral values exist
3) Therefore God exists.

This argument is a simple instance of a “valid form of deductive reasoning, or inference, called by logicians modus ponens [if A, then B; A; Therefore B].”[26] It should be remembered that: “In deductive logic, a valid argument is an argument of such a form or nature that, if all its premises are true, then we have an absolute 100 percent guarantee that its conclusion is, too.”[27] Carl’s (unique) objection to this argument is that it is invalid because, given that God’s existence is a necessary condition of objective moral value (premise 1), the moral argument implicitly assumes God’s existence in the act of affirming that objective moral values exist. This criticism badly misunderstands the nature of modus ponens.

God’s existence is a necessary ontological condition of the existence of objective moral value (they don’t exist if God doesn’t exist), but knowing that God exists is not a necessary epistemological condition of knowing that objective moral value exists. One can know, and argue, that objective moral value exists without knowing, or arguing, that God exists.

I have argued that belief in objective moral value is justified prima facie, and that subjectivists have not advanced any arguments against objectivism sufficient to defeat this justification. I have also argued that embracing moral subjectivism leads to such morally unacceptable results as being unable to say that Nazi ideology is worse than democratic ideology.

If one accepts that objective moral value is a reality (perhaps upon the basis of such arguments), one might ask what sort of existence we are to attribute to objective moral value. Obviously it has some sort of objective existence, but what sort of objective existence? Is it material or immaterial? Is it personal or impersonal? Necessary or contingent? The fact that an objective moral value is objective shows (by definition) that its existence cannot be explicable in terms of finite minds (and this is all it shows). The fact that an objective moral value is a moral value (ie. that it has the form of an ideal prescription we are obligated but not determined to heed) shows that its existence cannot be explicable in terms of any impersonal reality. We are thus led to conclude, by a process of elimination, that there must be an objective, infinite, personal reality. As Francis J. Beckwith asks: “which metaphysical perspective best explains the existence of the moral law [?]”[28] One might suppose, says Beckwith “that moral laws are free-floating, Platonic-like forms that are in no mind whatsoever...”[29] But such a view has serious flaws:

“First, it is inadequate in explaining the guilt and shame one feels when one violates the moral law. For it is persons, not rules or principles, that elicit in us feelings of guilt and shame. Second, our experience indicates that moral obligation ... is deeply connected to our obligations toward other persons... Third, Platonism implies that moral values (or principles) that have no purposing agent behind them can in some purposeful way anticipate the existence of agents ... who can apprehend, appropriate, and employ these principles... It seems easier ... to believe that the self-existent Creator of all that is, the God of classical theism, is the source of moral principles than some variation on Platonism...”[30]

We can expand this conclusion to include much about the nature of this personal source of morality:

“the source of morality could not be a contingent being, one whose existence and moral authority are dependent on something outside itself. For in order to be the ground of morality, a being must not receive its existence and moral authority from another... [Moreover] the source of morality must be the sort of being who has the moral authority to enforce universal moral norms. Thus, if moral laws are known nonmaterial realities that are a form of communication for which we have a sense of incumbency and feel painful guilt when we violate them, it seems that the moral law must have a personal, eternal, transcendent, and perfect source.”[31]

Evil and Hermeneutics

While I understand Carl’s concerns about the morality of certain biblical stories (concerns that have absolutely nothing to say about theism per se), I believe that these concerns can be handled by a correct approach to biblical hermeneutics, and by being weighed in the balance against the overwhelming positive warrant and evidence for Christian theism in general and the loving goodness of God in particular. Carl’s criticism of the Bible are often grounded upon misreadings that stem from trying to understand parts of the text without regard to their literary or historical context.[32] With theologian Clark Pinnock: “I accept diversity among the biblical witness and recognize the dialogical character of the Bible. Being open to its overall drift, I try to enter into the struggle for truth that is going on there.”[33] As Alvin Plantinga recently wrote in response to just such concerns as Carl raises about the biblical record:

“a Christian will read the Old Testament in the light of the New; if God’s promulgating the Christian law of love seems incompatible with his ordering the destruction of the Canaanites, the latter won’t be taken at face value. Where what seems prima facie to be taught seems also to conflict with what we learn of God in other places, particularly but not only in the New Testament, one doesn’t accept the initial appearance. Still further, a Christian may be thoroughly puzzled as to what it is that the Lord intends us to learn from a given story or passage. This is perhaps particularly poignant with respect to portions of the Old Testament, but the same also goes for some parts of the New. In some of these cases one remains puzzled even after considerable thought; in others, resolutions sometimes suggest themselves. So ... perhaps I do have defeaters for such propositions... I don’t think God would do such a thing, and do not know what to make of that passage. But of course that doesn’t give me a defeater for Christian belief, let alone belief in God.”[34]

Two Roads

My dialogue with Carl has given me a new appreciation for the central importance of objective value to the Christian worldview and its apologetic defence. In my considered opinion, anyone who agrees that value is an objective feature of reality should be led to conclude that there exists a transcendent, wholly good personal being who exemplifies goodness, who obligates and commands humans to exercise their free will in choosing good over evil (with the reality of libertarian free will following from the reality of objective moral obligation). Anyone who accepts this conclusion will be favourably disposed towards arguments showing that the cosmos depends upon a transcendent Cause and exhibits signs of transcendent design. The application of Occam’s razor to this data will result in a rounded theistic concept of God. (Of course, there is nothing inherently irrational about believing in God in the absence of evidence.[35] We should agree with Pascal that, “considering what ... this religion is, one should not refuse to obey the inclination to follow it, if it enters one’s heart...”[36])

Given the existence of God, one must admit that miracles are at least a possibility. I contend that anyone who examines the historical evidence concerning Jesus without the assumption of naturalism should conclude that Jesus is, as he claimed, divine as well as human. It is this conclusion that secures a belief in Christianity and which outweighs any concerns one might have about the initial appearance of certain biblical passages. This conclusion also presents one with a significant choice; between placing one’s faith in Jesus or rejecting him in the full knowledge that he is both Lord and Saviour.

Alternatively, anyone who denies the objectivity of moral value thereby denies the reality of God, since God is by definition the objectively greatest possible being. The price to pay for this rejection is the conclusion that existence has no objective value, purpose or meaning. Death has the last word, and life is, as Camus argued, absurd: “Make no mistake”, writes Charles Colson, “there is a collision of world views... One says ... there is no meaning, there is no purpose, everything is relative, and there are no absolutes. The other says God is. He is not silent.... there is ultimate meaning, and it is in God.”[37] You can’t choose one of these opposing views to be true; you have to choose which of these opposing views is true. I leave you with the thoughts of one-time skeptic Lee Strobel:

“When I was an atheist, I realized that I would have to do more than merely raise random objections in order to cripple Christianity; I would have to come up with a nontheistic scenario that would better accommodate all of the facts... But atheism cannot credibly account for the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the universe, the emergence of life, the existence of moral laws, the supernatural confirmation of the Bible, and the Resurrection. The only hypothesis that explains them all is that there’s a divine Creator whose unique Son is Jesus of Nazareth.”[38]

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[1] Charles Taliaferro, Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, (Blackwell, 2001), p.9.
[2] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, (House of Stratus, 2001), p.125.
[3] Ibid, pp.125-126.
[4] Ibid, p.126.
[5] Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of it All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, (Eerdmans, 1992), p.21.
[6] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, (Everyman’s Library, 1960).
[7] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, (Thomas Nelson).
[8] Dallas Willard in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, (Zondervan, 2000), p.253.
[9] Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A theology of God’s Openness, (Paternoster, 2001), p.2.
[10] Pascal, op. cit.
[11] On the nature of God. Cf. Thomas V. Morris, Our Idea of God – An Introduction to Philosophical Theology, (Notre Dame, 1991).
[12] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, (Everyman’s Library, 1960).
[13] Will Provine, in Russell Stannard, Science and Wonders.
[14] Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Philosophy, (Duckworth), p.95.
[15] Walter Kaufman (ed.), The Portable Nietzsche, (Doubleday, 1954), p.441.
[16] Cf. William Lane Craig (ed.), Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, (Edinburgh University, 2002); William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (eds.), Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, (Routledge, 2001).
[17] Cf. http://www.arn.org; William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
[18] Cf. Peter S. Williams, ‘Intelligent Design, Aesthetics and Design Arguments’ @ http://www.arn.org/docs/williams/pw_idaestheticsanddesignarguments.htm.
[19] Cf. Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, (Paternoster Press, 1995).
[20] Alban McCoy, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Catholicism, (Continuum, 2001), p.27.
[21] Cf. John Perry, Dialogue on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God, (Hackett, 1999).
[22] Cf. Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.), The Evidential Argument from Evil, (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1996).
[23] Stephen E. Parrish, ‘A Tale of Two Theisms’, footnote 53, in Francis J. Beckwith et al (eds.), The New Mormon Challenge, (Zondervan, 2002), pp.459-460.
[24] Francis J. Beckwith, ‘Moral Law, the Mormon Universe, and the Nature of the Right We Ought to Choose’, in Francis J. Beckwith et al (eds.), The New Mormon Challenge, p.220.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Thomas V. Morris, Philosophy for Dummies, p.52.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Francis J. Beckwith, op. cit., p.227.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid. Cf. Paul Copan, ‘Can Michael Martin be a Moral Realist? Sic et Non’ @ http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/pdf/Michael-Martin-a-moral-realist.pdf; William Lane Craig, ‘The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality’ @ http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/meta-eth.html; J.P. Moreland, ‘The Ethical Inadequacy of Naturalism’ @ http://afterall.net/papers/24.
[32] Cf. ‘How could a God of Love order the massacre / annihilation of the Canaanites?’@ http://www.christian-thinktank.com/qamorite.html; Roger T. Forster and Paul Marston, God’s Strategy in Human History, (Highland, 1989).
[33] Clark H. Pinnock, op. cit., p.21.
[34] Alvin Plantinga, ‘Internalism, Externalism, Defeaters and Arguments for Christian Belief’, Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Volume 3, Number 2, 2001, p.389.
[35] Cf. Peter van Inwagen, ‘Is It Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone, to Believe?’ @ http://www.faithquest.com/home.cfm?main=docs/philosophers/vaninwagen/clifford.cfm [No longer available at this site. See now http://comp.uark.edu/~senor/wrong.html. Ed.]
[36] Pascal, op. cit.
[37] Chuck Colson, Chuck Colson Speaks, (Promise Press, 2000), p.40.
[38] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, (Zondervan, 2000), pp.252-253.

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© 2010 Carl Stecher & Peter S. Williams
This dialogue, edited by the authors in 2002, is now being published for the first time on bethinking.org, by the kind permission of both authors.