Jul 1 2012

Slaughter of the Innocents

Almost every system of values has its supreme goal or highest good. Depending on the ethical theory, this could be something like happiness, or self-interest, or tolerance, or the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people. From a Biblical standpoint, the highest good is to love God and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6; 1 John 5:2). On this view, my actions are morally right if they demonstrate a love for God and are consistent with what God wants me to do. In ethical circles this is often dubbed the Divine Command Theory (DCT).

A long-standing criticism of the DCT is that it could end up condoning acts of horrific cruelty. We might have to accept, for instance, that torturing animals for fun and profit is right and good if God commands it. As a matter of fact, the God of the Bible has condoned no such thing, but that’s not the point. If God told me to torture animals then I, as a dutiful servant of God, would have to agree that it was the right thing to do. If I don’t agree, then I would have to concede that right and wrong depend on something other than God.

Atheists are fond of this argument because it follows a similar line of reasoning developed by Plato in his Euthyphro dialogue.[1] But the gods in Plato’s sights – the Olympian gods of popular Greek religion – were notoriously cruel and arbitrary. Plato never knew the God of the Bible. He never knew a God who was both all-powerful and all-good. From the standpoint of Biblical morality, it is right to obey a divine command, not because it comes from a God who happens to like the idea, but because it comes from a God who is just and loving.

This is a more nuanced version of the Divine Command Theory, but critics still see chinks in the armor. The problem now is not what a supremely powerful being might command, but of what the God of the Bible actually did command. If God is a just and loving God then why, for instance, did He order the slaughter of innocent children?

We cannot paper over this problem. As the Israelites were preparing to enter Canaan, God ordered the “complete destruction” of its existing inhabitants (Deuteronomy 7:2). It wasn’t long before they put this plan into effect at Jericho: “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old” (Joshua 6:21). And it was still in effect when Saul attacked the Amalekites. “Do not spare them,” God says, “but kill both man and woman, child and infant” (1 Samuel 15:3).

How do we respond? First, it was a case of kill or be killed. This might offend our modern sensibilities, but the Israelites faced overwhelming numerical odds (Deuteronomy 7:1). Their opponents would give them no quarter, and the Israelites could afford to give no quarter in return. Like it or not, these were the rules of engagement. But why was it so important to win at all costs? This brings us to the second and most significant point: if the Israelites failed to survive as a covenant people, then there would be no Christ, no Lion of the tribe of Judah, no Root of David, to win a final victory over sin and death (Revelation 5:5).

In rehearsing some of these same points, William Lane Craig reminds his skeptical readers that they are the beneficiaries of an ethical tradition that values human life.[2] Their squeamishness over the treatment of non-combatants would not be possible without the final and full revelation of the Biblical worldview. When Richard Dawkins subsequently denounced Craig as an apologist for genocide,[3] we have to assume that Dawkins has a low opinion of genocide, and then we have to wonder how he arrived at that opinion. It didn’t come from nature or evolution, and it certainly didn’t come from the Bronze Age Canaanites.

The broad sweep of redemptive history reveals a God who is loving and just (Romans 3:21-26). When this same God ordered His own people to destroy or be destroyed then perhaps, and only perhaps, can we begin to understand how desperately we needed His plan to succeed.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, July 2012, p. 8.]



[1] Louise M. Anthony, “Good minus God,” The New York Times, December 18, 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/good-minus-god/

[2] William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites.” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites

[3] Richard Dawkins, “Why I refuse to debate William Lane Craig,” The Guardian, October 20, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/richard-dawkins-william-lane-craig

 


Mar 7 2012

Of Magick and Miracles

When atheists are looking to blame Christianity for all that is wrong in the world, they are inclined to run through the usual litany of crimes against humanity, including the Crusades and the house arrest of Galileo.[1]

My first reaction is to say that this has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. My second reaction is to point out that much of what we think we know about these events comes to us from people who have an axe to grind against the medieval Catholic Church, Christianity, religion, or all the above. Real historians have done their best to set the record straight, which the New Atheists blithely ignore as they regale the unfaithful with sordid tales of Christians acting unchristianly.

The same rap sheet usually includes the witch-hunts of the late 1500s and early 1600s. According to some estimates, around 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft, and as many as 60,000 may have been executed.[2] Critics blame these horrors on what they take to be the inherent evils of religion. In the Enlightenment, the medieval church was faulted for its irrational belief in witchcraft. Today, in the cultural morass we call Postmodernism, the medieval church is faulted for using witchcraft as an excuse to pick on lonely elderly women, or practitioners of pre-Christian pagan beliefs, or both. The first angers the feminists, and the second has become a cause célèbre of New Age Wiccans.

Again, I would reply that the witch hunters were hardly following the teaching of Christ and His apostles. Nor were they following legal precedent from the so-called Dark Ages. In 785, Charlemagne enacted martial law on the newly conquered pagans of Saxony. Article 6 of that law blamed belief in witchcraft on the deceits of the devil, and imposed the death penalty on anyone who burned a witch.[3] Misguided vigilantes posed more of a threat to life and property than a few pagan “witches.” So much for the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne and his contemporaries wrote magic off as a pagan fantasy. In this respect, they were closer to the Christian worldview. From a Biblical standpoint, nature works in a regular way until God intervenes. There is no room for magic and witchcraft because God reigns supremely over both the natural and the supernatural. The great witch hunts of later centuries undermined this view by giving witchcraft a newfound credibility.[4]

The whole point of magic – or maybe that should be magick – is that there are hidden forces within nature that can be manipulated for good or evil. Don’t get this confused with magic used as a plot element in Lewis’ Narnia series or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And don’t get this confused with the stage magic used by entertainers who pull rabbits out of their hats. To claim that magick is something more – that it is metaphysically real – is to deny the Biblical worldview.

This is why the Bible takes a no-holds-barred approach to magick, sorcery and divination. Under the Old Law, sorceresses were put to death (Exodus 22:18). This may sound harsh, but sorcery represented a clear and present danger to God’s chosen nation. If the Israelites could be conned into thinking that a pagan sorceress had real gifts of sorcery, then perhaps they could be conned into accepting her prophetic guidance as well, which could lead the people into soul- and life-threatening situations.

This helps us understand a potentially difficult passage in 1 Samuel 28. On the eve of his final battle, Saul consults the medium of En Dor. He asks her to conduct a séance with the dearly departed Samuel and, indeed, the spirit of the prophet appears in their presence. But is Samuel’s appearance a genuine piece of sorcery, or the work of God? The woman’s reaction gives it away: she cries out in a loud voice (vs. 12). She is shocked because she has never been able to summon the spirits of the dead. Her mediumship is a fraud, and she knows it. This is the work of God.

The same skepticism holds throughout the New Testament, and especially in Acts. Luke repeatedly draws a distinction between the real power of the apostles and the fraudulent claims of people like Simon and Elymas (8:9-25; 13:4-12). The apostles’ miracles are not tricks; they are not demonic; they are not self-serving. Their power is from God, just as the Gospel they are preaching is from God.

Mystics and charlatans were not the only ones with a magic problem. Christians in Ephesus still clung to their magical scrolls (19:18-19). Their worldview was confused and incomplete.

It has to make us wonder: How much stock do we put in black cats and four-leaf clovers? Maybe it’s not witches or magick for us. Maybe it’s something else, like astrology or evolution. But clearly there are consequences for not building a thoroughly Christian worldview.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, March 2012, p. 8.]



[1] Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian. London: Routledge, 2004[1957], pp. 22,123,161; Richard Dawkins, The Devil’s Chaplain. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 148,159; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. London: Bantam, 2006, pp. 1,37,41,166,308,312. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell. New York: Penguin, 2006, 30,43,408; ad nauseum.
[2] Edward Peters, “Witchcraft,” Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Garland, 2000, p. 1069. Peters’ figures are at the high end of estimates.
[3] See Arend Quak, editor, Speculum Saxonum. Rodopi: Amsterdam, 1999, 34 fn. 21. Article 6 reads as follows: “If anyone, deceived by the devil, believes, in the way pagans do, that some man or woman is a witch (strigam) and eats people and if for this reason he burns her and gives her flesh to be eaten, or eats it himself, he is to suffer the capital punishment.”
[4] Karen Jolly, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. London: Athlone, 2002, pp. 23-26.

Jan 9 2012

Blind Hopes

Whether they like it or not, evolutionists find themselves having to dabble in theology and philosophy. Typically they’re not very good at one, or the other, or both, but they don’t have a lot of choice. They know that religious belief predominates, and they know that the inference to design in nature is profoundly intuitive. It certainly was for David:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. – Psalm 139:14

To overturn three-plus millennia of what almost everyone knows very well is a tall order, and so hyper-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins know where they must begin:

Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.[1]

They also know where the entire enterprise must end. Materialistic science leads to the soul destroying conclusion that there is no morality and no meaning. It’s a hard sell.

One brutally honest approach is to put the unadulterated wares on sale knowing that the local fast food chains will have better luck selling tofu burgers at their drive-through windows. This was Richard Dawkins in a more honest moment back in 1995:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.[2]

Another approach, and the preferred mission model of the New Atheists, is to gussy up the product with a sprinkling of religion, or something that looks a lot like religion. It’s not always possible to tell whether this approach is unintentional, with religion sneaking in the back door, or just plain cynical, with atheists charging out of the portcullis to raid the enemy’s stores.[3] This is Dawkins in his latest outing, The Magic of Reality (2011).

What might be new for Dawkins is old hat for E.O. Wilson. “The evolutionary epic,” Wilson wrote back in 1978, “is probably the best myth we will ever have.”[4] Like many atheists, Wilson takes his myth-building cues from Prometheus – the old titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it back to man.

The true Promethean spirit of science . . . constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.[5]

In the ancient Greek tragedy, Prometheus Bound, the rebellious titan not only stole fire from the gods, but “caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom.” That seems a worthy enough goal, at least at first glance. After all, who wants to go through life knowing that Zeus is about to blast the whole of humanity into Hades? Except that Prometheus adds deception to his crimes: “I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.”

The greater context of the “blind hopes” line is what makes militant atheists both less like and more like Prometheus than they usually admit. They’re less like Prometheus  because at least the titan saved humanity from the wrath of Zeus. Last time I checked, atheists have saved exactly zero souls from eternal punishment. (They haven’t done much for the living, either.[6]) And they’re more like Prometheus in that they need to offer a piece of deception along with their gift of all that counts as knowledge. If materialistic science is the only game in town, then “hope” is an answer to a question that nobody is allowed to ask. What can they pretend to offer in its place?

Unfortunately, evolution – the central creation story of materialistic science – is the perfect engine of despair. Not only is it depressingly “red in tooth and claw,”[7] it is entirely backward facing. Evolution cannot look forward to the next day, the next ice age, or the next asteroid impact. Evolution is blind. “It has no vision,” as an earlier Dawkins reminds us, “no foresight, no sight at all.”[8]

But not to worry: materialistic science will win the day. It will tell us everything we need to know.

And therein lays the deception. Materialism has shown itself to be entirely incapable of explaining the mind, the universe, life, and pretty much everything else important to the human experience. It can do even less for “the deepest needs of human nature.” Even if we lump the best of science and technology into this picture we will have no more than Prometheus’ gift of fire. It will give us something useful, perhaps, but not hopeful. It will allow us to plan and scheme based on what we see right in front of us, on what the devilish Uncle Wormwood would call “real life,”[9] on what crops we are growing and barns we are building,[10] but all such hopes are blind. What humanity needs so deeply is a future good, and nothing here and now will ever satisfy that need.[11]

[A version of this article appeared in Think, January 2012, p. 11.]



[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, p. 1.

[2] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York: BasicBooks, 1995, p. 133.

[3] Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion. London: Routledge, 2002, p. 131.

[4] Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 201.

[5] Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 209.

[6] See, e.g., Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

[7] Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam, lvi.

[8] Dawkins, Blind Watchmaker, p. 5.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. New York: Macmillan, 1961, p. 8.

[10] Luke 12:16-21.

[11] Romans 8:24; 1 Corinthians 15:19.


Dec 15 2009

A Messy Business

Life is messy, like making sausages. When you think about it, a lot of food is like this. Pretty much everything from milk to steak to lettuce to mushrooms goes through at least one not-so-pretty stage as it passes from farm to fridge.

Most of us city folks are happy with the hosed-down, shrink-wrapped groceries to be found in the aisles of the nearest megamart. Even there, however, we dare not poke our noses behind the mysterious swinging doors. After several summers in a grocery warehouse, and cleaning up a bakery every night after school, I can personally attest to the principle that ignorance is bliss when it comes to store-bought food.

A little mess along the way is not always a bad thing, of course. A farmer, a mechanic, a construction worker will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that getting your hands dirty is part of the job. Indeed, an entire series on the Discovery Channel is predicated on this principle. Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, always begins with this word of explanation: “I explore the country looking for people who aren’t afraid to get dirty – hard-working men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.”

What about making eternal life possible for the rest of us? In one sense, the task of redemption was a very orderly business. God made a plan and stuck to it. But a lot of the people we encounter along the way are messy. There was nothing neat and tidy about David’s life. We can say the same thing about the lives of Solomon, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rahab… well, you get the picture.

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Dec 14 2008

Running with the Devil’s Chaplain

In the brilliant movie Expelled we are treated – if that’s the right word – to the inner workings of the worldwide Darwin industry.[1] According to Richard Dawkins, the evolution lobby is “desperately wanting to be friendly to mainstream, sensible religious people.”  The strategy is “to tell them that there’s no incompatibility between science [i.e., evolution—TM] and religion.”
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