Thursday, 14 May 2009

Five things I never learnt in science class

This post has been written by the Associate Editor of Case,
Roberta Kwan

Apologies to science teachers, but I hated science at school. Unfortunately my only memories are the rather stereotypical horror of dissected rats and frustration over chemistry experiments gone pear-shaped. Maybe a combination of this natural dislike and personal ignorance is why I’ve kept my distance from science since school.

However, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that, as a Christian, ignorance is not the best policy. This is because of the position taken on science by many atheists, particularly those within the New Atheism movement. Science, they say, is the opposite of religious belief. As such, the broad discipline of science has been co-opted for the atheistic cause. This apparent dichotomy is expressed in non-intersecting, categorical terms such as naturalism versus supernaturalism, rational versus irrational/superstitious and educated versus ignorant; in the inflammatory words of Richard Dawkins: ‘Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists’ ‘No heaven, no hell, just science’ sums up the catch-cry of the New Atheists, whose mantra is now prominent in popular consciousness.

Therefore, I think it’s important for Christians, even Christians of the non-scientific variety like me, to do some thinking on the issue. In recent weeks, while putting together the current issue of Case magazine that is focusing on science and faith, I’ve been helped by Christian scientists (not an irreconcilable union of two nouns) to see the falsity of the science versus faith dichotomy and, more exactly, the science versus Christianity dichotomy. In brief, here are a few helpful things I’ve learnt that may also be useful for non-scientific people such as myself:

1. Modern science developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from Christian convictions. In particular, science arose from the belief, grounded in the Bible, that God is orderly, rational and trustworthy, and that his creation reflects his character. It is this belief that opened the way for the experimental, systematic study of God’s natural world, primarily by Christians, called ‘science’.

2. It is possible to be a respected scientist and a Christian. Francis Bacon, Isaac Newtown, John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins are prominent examples from today and yesteryear.

3. By definition, the study of the supernatural is not an activity of science (which is the study of the mechanisms of the natural world). It’s not the task of science to prove or disprove the existence of the supernatural.

4. Atheism is not the inevitable conclusion of evolutionary theory. The theory of evolution does not discredit or destroy belief in God and, specifically, Christianity. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, Christianity stands on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and will only be destroyed if it is proved that Jesus did not rise from the dead. ‘... if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.’ (1 Corinthians 15:17)

5. The third definition of ‘religion’ in the 2007 edition of The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus is ‘a pursuit or interest that is very important to someone’. In this respect, the New Atheism could be called a religion as it is very important for its proponents to convince others to adhere to their pursuits. As Dawkins says, ‘I’m quite keen on the politics of persuading people of the virtues of atheism’ . The language of New Atheism is that of religious rhetoric.

'Wake up people!! We are smart enough now to kill our invisible gods and oppressive beliefs. It is the responsibility of the educated to educate the uneducated, lest we fall prey to the tyranny of ignorance.’
You can view part of the highly-charged exhortation from New Atheists here.

The use of science to argue against religion has, in more ‘extreme’ cases, moved from a scientific argument to a religious one. John Lennox puts it succinctly: ‘I see the conflict as not between science and religion at all, it's between two world views: atheism and theism ...’

These points have given me greater confidence in the God of the Bible (and in science!)


Anonymous said...

Hi Trevor, thanks for your blog. I have two questions: 1. I’m sure you have heard this objection before (a kind of problem of evil), but I would be interested in your response: If evolution is the mechanism by which we arose, then, if Christian theism true, this would suggest that God chose to ‘create’ us by using a bloody, painful and violent process. But an omniscient God would have forseen the suffering that evolution would entail; an all-loving and benevolent God would have been repulsed by the mere thought of it; an all-powerful God could have easily used a different method. Hence, the truth of evolution would seem to render Christian theism highly unlikely. So are they compatible after all?

2. You say that “Christianity . . . will only be destroyed if it is proved that Jesus did not rise from the dead.” But historical methodology is founded upon the same epistemological principles as science, namely, methodological naturalism. It is not the task of history to ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ supernatural claims. It follows that we cannot use history, on its own, to prove or disprove that Jesus rose from the dead. So, in your view, is the resurrection in fact falsifiable? And if so, upon what basis do you think it could be ‘proved’ false? Regards, Sola Ratione.

David McKay said...

Point of order: be careful who you count as a Christian. Isaac Newton was a theist, but his views were not orthodox Christianity, as far as I am aware.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for the comments Sola Ratione and David. Since Roberta Kwan wrote this post I'll let her respond to both as soon as she gets a chance. Regards, Trevor

Roberta said...

Dear Sola Ratione and David,

Thanks for your comments and apologies for my less-than-prompt response (a combination of email problems and working part-time).

Sola Ratione, with regards to your first question, I have a few thoughts. Firstly, my main point (and apologies if this didn’t come out clearly) is that evolution is a theory of secondary causes that may help us understand the natural world. As such, it cannot prove or disprove the existence of a first cause, or answer the metaphysical question of why the creation exists. This is why I said that, contrary to the predominant rhetoric in the public domain, atheism is not the inevitable conclusion of evolutionary theory. I wasn’t arguing for the compatibility of evolution and Christian theism but for breaking the illogical nexus between the theory of evolution and atheism.

Having said this, I do accept your point that the secondary causes may in some ways reflect the character of the first cause. So, if God chose to create through a process of evolution (I should say that from my perspective I am relating to evolution as a theory rather than as ‘truth’) why did it involve so much pain and death? And at this point I must admit scientific ignorance and defer to Denis Alexander, one of the contributors to our upcoming issue of Case who, in a paper entitled ‘Does Evolution have any Religious Significance?’ wrote:

‘First, the kind of carbon-based life that God has brought into being on planet earth depends entirely for its existence on the kind of universe that God has created. … Carbon-based life is only possible because the universe is as old as it is. And death is intrinsic to carbon-based life. All biological organisms belong to massive interlocking food-chains in which the chemical energy put into making complex carbon-based compounds is then passed on to the next organism in the chain. In fact every cell in every individual animal has a biochemical programme which can be switched on to cause the suicide of that cell by the process known as apoptosis. Biologically, life is impossible unless there is also physical death.

Second, biologically speaking life would be impossible without pain. All biological organisms have complex warning signals which communicate both external and internal dangers. Our survival depends on our possession of pain receptors - otherwise they wouldn’t be there.’

These reflections don’t provide a complete answer but they do indicate both that pain and death are not meaningless and that there is a more complete answer, but one that we may never be privy to if God is indeed God. As Denis Alexander says, ‘… we are in the final analysis in the same position as Job - at the end of the day he had to admit that God was God and that he was on the earth as a created being, not the creator, and that he actually didn’t know all the answers.’ I don’t know if and ultimately why God chose to create through an evolutionary process. But I do know that the Bible recognises both the pain in the natural world and the evil in the world. I also know that the goodness and trustworthiness of God were demonstrated by his loving choice to take on human flesh and the associated pain, for the purpose of dying a painful, undeserved death, in order to deal with this pain and evil.

With regards to your second question, I think the claim of the Bible is that the resurrection (as well as the life and death) of Jesus is where history and the supernatural intersect. Rising from the dead, conquering death, is obviously a supernatural phenomenon. And yet the Bible and Christians throughout history have always had confidence in this phenomenon because of methodological naturalism, because of historical evidence—an empty tomb, the fact that Jesus’ dead body could not be produced, many eye-witness accounts of his bodily appearances. This is where the intersection occurs.

The apostle Paul begins 1 Corinthians 15 by reminding his Christian recipients of the basis of their Christianity. This basis, Paul asserts, is an historical one:
'For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.' (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Paul appeals to verifiable evidence—the death and burial of Christ and his bodily appearance to many people—as the foundation of Christianity – the things he considers to be of ‘first importance’. We could say that he uses historical methodology. Indeed, Christianity has always staked its existence on history, and in particular the historicity of Jesus, and has always been willing to have its historical foundations challenged (with the possibility of being proved false).

Later in this particular chapter of the Bible, Paul shows an acute awareness of what is at stake if the historical foundations of Christianity are proved to be false:
'And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.' (1 Corinthians 15:14-15)

David, thanks for your helpful refining of my point. I did wonder about including Newton’s name - I don’t know a lot about Newton’s beliefs but do understand that some may not be mainstream Christian beliefs. However, I left his name in as my main point was that he was both a scientist and someone who believed in God.

Thanks again to both of you for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Roberta, for taking the time to respond to my questions.
In relation to (1), I am grateful for your honesty and 'epistemic humility'. It does look like one of those 'unanswerables', at least if one limits oneself to biblical data, rather than, say, giving full rein to theological speculation. (Just one small, but important quibble: I think most scientists would find the statement "I am relating to evolution as a theory rather than as ‘truth’" somewhat problematic. The site explains the issue well.)
On your point about God's 'loving choice', I'm afraid that, the way this is put, it does give the impression that God is simply 'dealing with' a problem for which he was himself ultimately responsible (i.e. the creation of carbon-based life-forms in which pain and death are unavoidable). Is there another way of putting it, perhaps?
With regard to (2), thank you for that response. Just to make sure I have understood you correctly, is the logic of the situation this: History is able to establish certain key natural facts (the empty tomb, the fact that people reported appearances, etc.), but not the resurrection itself. To support that claim, we need to make the inference that this particular supernatural phenomenon is the best explanation of the historical facts, taken together. Thus, the resurrection is falsifiable in two ways: first, the key natural facts can be proved false or unlikely by the historical evidence; second, it is possible to come up with an alternative ‘best explanation’, that is, one that makes better sense of the natural facts than the resurrection (e.g. this might include a purely naturalistic explanation or even a different kind of supernatural explanation). Am I on the right track here?
Thanks again.
Sola Ratione

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments Sola Ratione.

I think for me it’s more a case of ‘epistemic realism’ rather than epistemic humility. If there is a creator God – a first cause of everything – then it follows that his knowledge far surpasses mine—it is complete while mine is partial—and, while he knows all there is to know about me, there is no equivalent reciprocity. The surprising thing about the biblical God is not that we don’t know everything about him but that he has chosen to reveal so much of himself to us in the Bible. That’s why I don’t think that I can say the biblical data is ‘limiting’ – instead, I consider it to be intellectually and personally liberating. Indeed, your use of the words ‘data’ and ‘speculation’ reinforce for me both this liberation and the necessity of epistemic realism. We can speculate, but ultimately we cannot be certain about the purpose or character of the first cause from our observance of secondary causes. But I do know enough about God through the biblical data to know, as I wrote in my first response, that he is good, trustworthy and powerful.

More specifically, I know that he did not turn a blind eye (please excuse the anthropomorphic metaphor) to the suffering and evil in this world, but he got involved and dealt with the root cause of it – what the Bible terms human ‘sin’. The Bible is clear that sin is a result of human beings exercising our real will in rebellion against God – God did not cause it. Yes he created us with a real will, but every human being is responsible for using our wills to live in ways that prioritise ourselves over God (and hence over his blueprint for the way his creation should be). Has God, therefore, lost control? No. He could have obliterated us – that would have shown his power and sovereignty. But instead he showed his sovereignty and power (and love) in choosing to forgive and redeem us through the death (for sin) of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection from the dead (showing that he has conquered death) that points forward to a promised new creation where there will be no death, pain or suffering for anyone who has embraced his offer of forgiveness and redemption. Which takes me neatly, or not so neatly, to point 2! I'll post my response to point 2 in a separate comment.

Roberta Kwan

Anonymous said...

Hi Sola Ratione,

My comments continue.

On point 2: Yes I think you’re on the right track – thanks for summarising my thoughts so succinctly. I think the resurrection is falsifiable in the two ways you suggest. I don’t have the time or space to elaborate on the natural facts (a small selection of which I listed in my previous response), but can recommend two books that were written after thorough research into the life, death and alleged resurrection of Jesus using methodological naturalism: ‘Who moved the stone?’ by Frank Morrison and ‘The Case for Christ’ by Lee Strobel. Both authors began their investigations as sceptics – indeed Strobel identified himself as an atheist. After their investigations both were convinced of the fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and became his followers. Christianity is not afraid of having its historical origins investigated.

Given that there is significant positive evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus then, as you suggest, the principal question becomes one of ‘best explanation’. Once again I don’t have the time or space to critique alternative explanations, but will state my position in two quotes from Strobel. Firstly: ‘... my journalistic scepticism toward the supernatural had melted in light of the breathtaking historical evidence that the resurrection of Jesus was a real, historical event. In fact, my mind could not conjure up a single explanation that fit the evidence of history nearly as well as the conclusion that Jesus was who he claimed to be: the one and only Son of God.’ And: ‘... in the face of this overwhelming avalanche of evidence in the case for Christ, the great irony was this: it would require much more faith for me to maintain my atheism than to trust in Jesus of Nazareth!’

A serious examination of the natural facts will reveal that something extraordinary happened in our world about 2000 years ago. The prevailing and dominant naturalistic world view dismisses (and at times ridicules) any sort of supernatural explanation; but what if there is more than the natural world? What if our moral instincts, our teleological natures, our ability to imagine and create and so forth show that we are more than our physiological make-up? What if there is a God? If there is a God, and if Jesus was God incarnate, then it makes perfect sense that God could, and indeed must, conquer death. It would make much less sense that he would allow death to defeat him, for then he would not be God at all.

Thanks for a thought-provoking interaction Sola Ratione. Roberta

Anonymous said...

Dear Roberta, thank you for taking the time to respond. I hope you don’t mind if I continue the conversation a little longer. Your comments answered, but also raised a number of questions for me:

1. I can see how free will might release God from the responsibility for human sinfulness. But there are other ‘evils’ that don’t fall into this category, such as the pain and suffering of animals, various microbes that now cause human deformities and diseases, etc.. Given that these natural evils existed - potentially or actually - long before homo sapiens arrived on the evolutionary scene, how could our sin have been ‘the root cause’?

2. You say that God has a ‘blueprint for the way his creation should be’, and suggest that death is an alien intrusion caused by sin. But death is an intrinsic part of the process of natural selection. We wouldn’t be here without it. So to say that, if there is a God, he would ‘conquer death’ is like saying that, if there is a God, he would ‘conquer sexual reproduction’! Do you have some way of resolving this tension?

3. Apologists like W.L. Craig, C. S. Lewis and Strobel appear to think that the best explanation inference from the historical facts to the resurrection will not stand on its own. This is largely because methodological naturalism, on its own, will only countenance a supernatural explanation if the evidence is overwhelming. (Otherwise, science would continually be frustrated by ‘God of the gaps’ arguments.) Few apologists would argue that the historical evidence for the resurrection is THAT good. The best one could say is that something odd happened 2000 years ago, but we don’t know what it was. However, if you can produce an independent philosophical case for the existence of God (which I think is what you were getting at with the ‘What if there is a God . . .’ approach), then the probability of the resurrection increases markedly – or so the apologists argue.

If, as it seems, you agree with this, I would be fascinated to hear your response to something that has always puzzled me. How do you get from a belief in a God to a belief in the distinctively Christian God – that is, the kind of God that would become incarnate in Jesus, that has revealed himself in the Bible, and so on? What is the argument that connects these two beliefs?

In addition, how would one show that, if there is a God, he is more likely to be a Christian God than an Islamic or Judaic God? After all, the philosophical arguments for God will only give you a generic God (i.e. the omni-attributes, a creator, etc.). They do not point clearly in the direction of one monotheistic religion rather than another. Moreover, one cannot simply appeal to the NT miracles (e.g. the incarnation) as a way of justifying the distinction, since that would beg the question against the alternative explanations of these same miracle-reports as provided by the other monotheistic religions.

Look forward to your response.

Sola Ratione.

David McKay said...

G'day Sola
How do you get from a belief in a God to a belief in the distinctively Christian God – that is, the kind of God that would become incarnate in Jesus, that has revealed himself in the Bible, and so on? What is the argument that connects these two beliefs?

We can't reason our way to the Christian God. He has revealed himself to us in the natural world, but we would know little about him if he had not chosen to give us more [in fact, all we need to know] through speaking to the prophets and giving us the Scriptures and in incarnating himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

Trevor Cairney said...

Roberta may want to reply to all of your comments Sola Ratione but I thought I'd pick up on one of the points in your last comment.

"Apologists like W.L. Craig, C. S. Lewis and Strobel appear to think that the best explanation inference from the historical facts to the resurrection will not stand on its own. This is largely because methodological naturalism, on its own, will only countenance a supernatural explanation if the evidence is overwhelming....Few apologists would argue that the historical evidence for the resurrection is THAT good."

Firstly, lumping Craig & Strobel with together with Lewis is misleading. Craig is definitely a supporter of classical apologetics, which employs natural theology to establish that theism is the correct worldview. Once God's existence has been established he presents evidence to the truth that Christ is the Son of God, that the Bible reveals this truth etc. Classical apologists don't pursue apologetics this way because they don't trust the evidence. Lewis adopted an approach to apologetics which some term the 'Cumulative case' method. Like a number of other apologists Lewis drew on evidential proofs, but he also drew on arguments about the nature of the cosmos, religious experience, the objective truth of morality and the historical facts of Jesus life, death and resurrection. It's true to say that many apologists don't rest purely on natural theology, but few who would see the historical proof as not being "THAT good" as you imply.

Timaahy said...

1. Modern science is also indebted to the non-Christian societies of the Arabs and the Chinese. We must also never forget that, more often than not, Christianity has attempted to stifled new scientific knowledge, be it Galilleo's heliocentric model of the solar system or modern stem cell research.

2. It is only in fairly recent times that people have felt comfortable enough to "out" themselves as atheists, so of course scientists of yesteryear would have presented themselves as religious. There is no real way of knowing whether any of them were genuinely religious, or merely trying to avoid the stake. A quick survey of the modern scientific community will show that the balance has shifted entirely the other way.

3. Can't argue with this one. Science is all about proof. And nothing in the supernatural world can be proven one way or the other. The other point to note is that, all through human history, supposedly supernatural questions have been shown by science to be easily explainable natural phenomena, and there is no reason to suppose that this trend won't continue.

4. Again, techincally true. But evolution certainly calls into question a large part of the theistic world view. And the inconsistencies in the Biblical accounts of the resurrection certainly cast down on its veracity.

5. I wish I could claim this as my own, but I once heard someone say that "Atheism is a religion as much as not stamp collecting is a hobby". And I think that says it all.

Greg T said...

Sola Ratione raises a number of interesting points. At this stage I will make a few suggestions concerning just one of them: the evidence for the Resurrection.

The basic outline of the historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead can be summarised as follows: He was pronounced dead by people whose job it was to get such things right; his body was laid in a tomb whose location was noted by a number of people who had a lot invested in knowing where the body had been put; two days later, some of those same people went to the tomb and found it empty; and over the next few weeks, Jesus – unmistakeably the same man – was seen, on a number of occasions and by many people, indisputably, corporeally alive.

I tend to agree that for us to believe that this necessarily constitutes a supernatural event (as against merely something “odd”) involves an assumption of the existence of the supernatural (which for a skeptic is obviously begging the question). We have no comparable supernatural events to compare it with so as to establish truth by analogy, for instance. It is also – just – conceivable that there might be an alternative explanation of the evidence that eliminates the need to appeal to the supernatural (though I have never seen one that does not have major flaws). On the other hand, many former skeptics have found it to be compelling evidence for the existence of the supernatural!

Viewed in isolation, what is described above might possibly be seen as no more than an odd event. However, as a Christian, I do not view it as an isolated historical event, but rather in certain contexts. Some of these are: 1) The testimony of the early church, which clearly saw the Resurrection as a real, immediately verifiable event based on the actual experiences of many of their number. Sometimes I think we lose sight of that fact if we think of the gospels merely as ancient manuscripts. 2) Jesus’ clear and repeated telling of his followers that he was going to die and rise from the dead. The fact that they did not fully understand this until after it had happened is simply evidence of their fear and lack of faith. 3) The bible as a whole (i.e. Old Testament as well as New), which clearly points to the person of Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of its message of how God deals with and redeems mankind.
These contexts add weight to the bare facts of the historical evidence.

Hope this helps.



Anonymous said...

Dear Trevor,

Thank you for your response.

First, I’m more than happy to bow to your knowledge of C.S. Lewis, and my apologies for having misconstrued his position. I suppose I was misled by the following passage, which seemed to me to be rather similar to Craig/Strobel: “ The result of our historical enquires thus depends on the philosophical views which we have been holding before we even began to look at the evidence. The philosophical question must therefore come first.” (C.S. Lewis, “Miracles”, HarperCollins 2001: p. 2).

Second, you say that there are “few [apologists] who would see the historical proof as not being ‘THAT good’ as you imply.” I should perhaps clarify what I meant. In doing so, I must apologise in advance if I have misunderstood your point - and even more so if, as I suspect, my clarification turns out to be 'old hat' to you.

The kind of quality that would be required for the historical evidence for the resurrection to stand on its own two feet would have to be utterly astonishing. Here is why: Laws of nature, by definition, are universal (e.g. ‘All As are Bs’). So if a law of nature is true, there can be no exceptions (e.g. “This A is not a B”). Suppose we inspect any miracle report using only the lens of methodological naturalism. In that case, we must take the report as making this kind of claim: An exception to some law of nature has occurred (e.g. ‘Human beings do not rise from the dead AND Jesus Christ has risen from the dead’). But this is just to say that methodological naturalism must view any miracle report as containing a self-contradiction. For the report is of an event that, under methodological naturalism, must be understood as an exception to exceptionless laws of nature. And how much evidence would you need to overturn a self-contradiction?

This is the sense in which I meant that the historical evidence for the resurrection is unlikely to be ‘THAT good’. (You could run a similar argument using probabilities, but the outcome would be virtually the same).

Now if there is a God, then this problem seems to dissolve. God’s actions are not ‘covered by’ the laws of nature (what else could 'supernatural' mean?), and so they fall outside the proper ambit of methodological naturalism. So if God exists, then miracles suddenly become possible. Indeed, they could become highly probable IF the occurrence of a miracle turns out to be the best explanation of the historical evidence. That is why any case for the resurrection REQUIRES, in advance of any historical investigation, an independent argument for the existence of God. It is also why one cannot sensibly argue FROM the resurrection (or any other miracle) TO the existence of God.

In short, if there are apologists who hold that the historical evidence for the resurrection is sufficient unto itself, then perhaps they haven’t understood the enormity of the problem.

Thanks again for taking the time to respond. I do appreciate the opportunity to discuss such important matters, and look forward to your reply.

Warm regards,
Sola Ratione.

Roberta said...

Thanks everyone for your responses. I’ve been unwell so not in a position to reply before now (that was written last week when I sent off this response – it seems that it was lost in cyberspace so here it is again). I think I'll have to send this in two posts as it's too large to fit in one.

Sola Ratione thanks for your continued interest in the topic. I think you partly answer your first point with your second – ‘death is an intrinsic part of the process of natural selection’. I think it’s also important to distinguish between ‘evils’ and the ‘natural’ consequences of living in an imperfect world – death, decay etc (which I could have done better). According to the Bible (and our own experience), this present world is not perfect (Romans 8:22 describes it as ‘groaning’). A purely naturalistic view of the world cannot accept this as an explanation because if this world is all there is the naturalist sees it as his/her only chance.

But the biblical world view asserts that this world is not all there is. Yes, we experience the natural (and potentially painful) consequences of this imperfect world and, we are daily worn down with our own ‘sin’ (our wilful preference of self over God and others) – and that of others (we suffer as a result of others’ wilful preference of self over God and others). And if this is all there is then living existence would appear futile. But God has promised a new creation where all the imperfections will no longer exist. He has guaranteed this new creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus – Jesus died in order to take upon himself the consequences of human rebellion and his resurrection is what the Bible terms the ‘firstfruits’ of a new life without sin and the evil that emanates from it for all people who trust in his death on their behalf. But it’s not just humanity who will be redeemed – the Bible says that God will redeem the whole of the creation along with humanity (Romans 8:21 says that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay).

Apologies for using Christian shorthand, but when I wrote about Jesus conquering death I was referring not just to physical death but also to spiritual death that is a consequence of sin. So, in saying that Jesus ‘conquered death’ this is the death I was referring to. We know that in our world there is still death, but Christians are also sure that the death and resurrection of Jesus means we won’t face spiritual death.1 Corinthians 15 (an oft-quoted chapter of the Bible in this blog exchange!)says, ‘"Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (verses 55-57)

About your third point, the only thing I would add (to the comments from David, Treovor and Greg) is that the reason why Christianity connects a belief in God with a distinctively Christian God is because Jesus insists on this connection. Jesus makes the exclusive, and potentially arrogant and outrageous claim about his personal divinity (for example in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.") and we need to respond to these claims. In the words of C.S. Lewis he is either a liar, lunatic or Lord. If he is a liar he should be condemned for misleading so many people throughout history (some to their deaths). If he is a lunatic he should be pitied and dismissed. But if he is Lord then he needs to be treated as such.


Roberta said...

To continue ...

Thanks David and Trevor for your comments.

Thanks Timaahy for your reflections. Some quick responses:
1. I may have overgeneralised a little, but it is interesting to note that, for example, Francis Bacon, who was highly influential in starting the Scientific Revolution in England said: ‘For in the entrance of philosophy, when the second causes, which are next unto the senses, do offer themselves to the mind of man, if it dwell and stay there it may induce some oblivion of the highest cause; but when a man passeth on further, and seeth the dependence of causes, and the works of Providence, then, according to the allegory of the poets, he will easily believe that the highest link of nature’s chain just needs be tied to the foot of Jupiter’s chair. To conclude therefore, let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both ...’ (In The Advancement of Learning and New Atlantis). The consciously Christian approach to science of Bacon and many like him has, today, been replaced by a discourse that positions science as the domain of naturalistic philosophy.

I think you have bought one of the more popular false arguments that posits a dialectic between science and Christianity, that is one that insists that Christianity is anti-progress whereas science is and that is articulated in your statement that 'more often than not, Christianity has attempted to stifle new scientific knowledge'. On the contrary, the Bible encourages people to investigate the world God has made. Christians have not attempted to stifle stem cell research but have moral objections to the application of this research using embryonic stem cells. But this has been twisted to saying that firstly, Christians are against any sort of stem cell research and then more broadly to say that therefore Christians are anti-scientific progress. (By the way, it has been shown that the use of adult stem cells actually achieves better and less problematic therapeutic results than embryonic stem cells, and Christians are embracing the use of this and other ethically sound medical treatments.)

2. From the mid-1800s Thomas Huxley and his friends determinedly set about to align science with an atheist agenda. Has anyone done a quick survey of the modern scientific community? I’m not saying that I have any numbers, but I know plenty of scientists who are also Christians.

3. Yet science has not been able to explain the supposed coming to life again of Jesus Christ from the dead.

4. I’m not sure what you mean by the inconsistencies in the biblical accounts of the resurrection. If you mean that the four gospel accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus don’t say exactly the same thing this is actually evidence that the gospel writers did not collude to synchronise their ‘stories’. Independent eyewitnesses to events will never say exactly the same thing in their report of an event.

5. We can quibble about our definition of ‘religion’ but there is no doubt that on the agenda of New Atheists is a conscious and unashamed ambition to win others over to their perspective.

Thanks Greg for pretty much encapsulating everything I would have liked to have said but had to be subsumed under ‘don’t have time or space’ in previous responses.


Anonymous said...

Dear Roberta,

Thanks for your response. I hope you're feeling better.

To respond to your points:

1. "God has promised a new creation."

But why is creation in 'bondage to decay'? Why is it imperfect? Human rebellion alone simply cannot account for this. The arrival of homo sapiens on the 'world-stage' is merely the finger tip on an extraordinarily long arm of evolutionary history. If there is a God, then he must have built in the imperfections and decay from the start. But why would he do that? It doesn't make any sense. It is hard not to suspect that God's promise of a "new creation" and the redemption of humanity is God's way of telling us that his original design was, regrettably, somewhat flawed, and that he'd like to have another go. Sorry if that sounds flippant, but I am simply trying to point out the 'incoherence' that results when you try to combine the facts of evolution with evangelical theology.

2. "If this is all there is then living existence would appear futile."

I think it would be helpful to be more precise about what you mean here. Most non-believers would agree that there is no 'external' meaning to life, in the sense of a Creator who bestows our lives with whatever meaning he chooses to give it. But they would strongly object to the suggestion that their lives are therefore 'futile', in the sense of having no 'internal' meaning – i.e. purpose and fulfilment that we experience and design for ourselves. It is entirely possible to live a wonderfully rich life, full of the meaning and purpose that comes with love, compassion, kindness, courage, music, joy, stories, science, friendship, and so on.

3. "Apologies for using Christian shorthand, but when I wrote about Jesus conquering death I was referring not just to physical death but also to spiritual death that is a consequence of sin."

What you seem to be saying is this:

We cannot avoid physical death. The Resurrection of Jesus and his atonement hasn't 'conquered' that fact in the slightest. Nor has it altered the fact that every human being will survive their physical death, and go on to a spiritual existence of some kind. There is some part of us (our souls, spirits, whatever) that God has created as eternal. So what Jesus has done, then, is to rescue us from the 'spiritual death' that is otherwise known as Hell.

If that's the jist of it, then saying that 'Jesus conquers death' is a little worse than mere 'short-hand': it is positively misleading, given that 'death' normally means 'the end of one's existence'.

It also brings into question the whole meaning and purpose of Christ's resurrection. This is supposed to provide us with evidence that (a) Jesus was the Son of God, and (b) atoned for our sins on the cross, (c) thereby rescuing us from Hell. But if we all survive our physical death anyway, then the resurrection of Jesus is no different to our own resurrection: he just hung around for a few days, like Lazarus and others in the bible. So what makes him so special? How does his resurrection provide confirmation of any particular doctrine?

4. Lewis' Trilemma

This one will take a little more time, so I'll come back to it. But thanks again for your response.

Sola Ratione

Trevor Cairney said...

Thank you Sola Ratione for your response, I’m sorry your comment didn’t appear earlier. In my last comment I wasn’t trying to overstate the importance that apologists place on historical evidence, but rather, I was responding to what I thought was implied in your comment - “Few apologists would argue that the historical evidence for the resurrection is THAT good. The best one could say is that something odd happened 2000 years ago, but we don’t know what it was.” I thought you were suggesting that some (including C.S. Lewis) might not have had sufficient trust in historical evidence. My simple point was that apologists approach the question of the resurrection of Christ in varied ways, but they do this to add strength to their argument, not because they don’t trust the historical evidence. There is of course a faith requirement in accepting that Christ was who he said he is. Apologists use varied evidence and argument. They might start by arguing from what they see as the truth of Christ’s resurrection and then suggest that accepting the evidence ultimately requires acceptance of the truth that God exists. Apologists like C.S. Lewis obviously understood that presenting the case for Christ isn’t simply a formal argument, nor can it rely simply on methodological naturalism, but rather, it can draw on many lines of evidence and approach, including philosophical views and argument, textual evidence, historical evidence etc. It’s not that the historical evidence isn’t trusted, but simply that most apologists bring forth every evidential proof that can be mustered (sometimes in different orders) to make the point that Christ rose from the dead. Anyway, the confusion was probably all in my mind, thank you for your clarification and your various excellent comments. I’ve appreciated your contribution to this discussion. Regards, Trevor

Anonymous said...

Thanks Trevor for your response, and for your kind words. I, too, apologise for not being sufficiently clear in my initial post.

Your explanation does clarify the issue for me. So I am very grateful for your thoughts.

Best wishes,
Sola Ratione

Greg T said...

Hi Sola Ratione,

I’d like to make some suggestions concerning the first point in your last post. Due to size considerations I will keep my explanations fairly general.

Views among Christians vary on this point, and no doubt some would disagree with what I am about to suggest. I would also like to make clear that much of this is in the realm of speculation, and is something I am not at all dogmatic about: the biblical data are, I believe, susceptible of differing readings.

You ask: “But why is creation in 'bondage to decay'?” I believe it is possible, based on the relevant parts of scripture (particularly the first three chapters of Genesis), that disease, pain and (physical) death have always been part of the created order – and therefore part of the world that God saw to be “good”, and finally “very good”. This, I would suggest, implies that the world was not intended to be “perfect” from a human perspective. In this view there is not necessarily anything intrinsically evil about such features of the natural world as described above (notwithstanding the possibility that God may always have intended that what we see as the natural order should be temporary, and in some sense perfectible – a point that I won’t go into in detail just now).

When discussing pain and suffering, I think we need to define our terms carefully. While pain (and equally, we should remember, pleasure: should we curse God for the things we don’t like about his creation while neglecting to praise him for the things we do?) may always have been a part of the natural order, simply by virtue of the fact that humans and the higher animals have nervous systems, I think suffering ought to be seen as an essentially separate experience, since it involves consciousness – the preserve of humans alone. Without going into detail, I think it is arguable that this is what occurred at the Fall: humans, as a result of the “proto-sin” described poetically in Genesis 3, became imbued with consciousness, and therefore “like God, knowing good and evil” – and as a consequence capable of suffering.

This wasn’t the only consequence of the Fall: sin also ruptured the right relationship with God that humans had enjoyed until then, and it is probable that this had cosmic consequences, affecting the whole of the natural order. A human analogy might be the way in which the corruption of the manager of a company will affect adversely the company’s employees, and the company itself: the “knock on” effects of human sin might include the degradation and corruption of nature – something exhibited most blatantly in the environmental destruction evident as a result of human activity, which is explicitly prohibited in Genesis 2:15.

(to be continued...)

Greg T said...

(previous post continued...)

The “death” that Jesus conquered by his death on the cross I see as being first and foremost the death that goes hand in hand with the rejection of God’s rule i.e. sin. This is not to say, however, that physical death will not one day also be done away with: God’s promises extend even to the elimination of the (for us humans) merely inconvenient, as well as the positively evil. When Paul says in Romans 8 that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay”, we might understand his meaning in some of the above senses: first and foremost from the bondage to sin that all who trust in Christ will be freed from; also from the awareness of pain that suffering (which is caused by sin) encapsulates; and also, ultimately, even from the painful aspects of the natural order that affect the whole of creation.

It is interesting to note, in this connection, that many of Jesus’ acts of physical healing in the gospels are accompanied by his forgiving of the sufferer’s sins: it was not merely people’s physical pain that Jesus removed, but also their sin, and their sin-related suffering. As far as I can recall (others can correct me if I am wrong), Jesus is not recorded as having healed animals, though he would doubtless have encountered some in pain: his healing generally seemed to have as its goal something beyond the mere physical relief of pain.

Why, one might ask, would a perfect God apparently “build into” his creation the possibility (indeed, it seems, the inevitability) of imperfection? Here we can really only assume that it was in some way consistent with his purposes: creating a physical world where living creatures can experience pain as well as pleasure, sickness as well as health, death as well as life is the way God chose to raise up a people who would worship him and magnify his glory. To suggest that God could have done it differently is probably not a meaningful proposition, since we are by and large not privy to the intricacies of his will and purposes.



Timaahy said...

Hi Roberta,

Thanks for replying.

1. I perhaps should have been more specific... the Church's stifling of new scientific knowledge applies mostly to new knowledge of man's origin and place in the universe (heliocentricity, evolution, the Big Bang, etc). Christianity is not against science per se, just the encroachment of science on what Christians see as "their turf".

2. Lots of surveys have been done! A 1998 survey of the (American) National Academy of Sciences (by Larson & Witham, and published in Nature) showed that just 7% believe in a personal God. A similar survey of the British Royal Society (conducted by Cornwell & Stirrat in 2006) showed that out of the 225 respondants, only 12 were believers in a personal God. Meanwhile, Paul Bell, of Mensa, looked at the 43 studies since 1927 that investigated a link between religosity and IQ. Of the 43 studies, all but 4 found an inverse relationship.

Of course there are some Christian scientists, but they are few and far between.

A quick Google yielded this link:, which makes for interesting reading.

3. Your comment presupposes that Jesus' resurrection actually occurred! But the burden of proof lies with Christianity, not science, and the evidence is far from conclusive. As mentioned elsewhere in this post, a large part of the belief comes down to faith - which is simply belief without evidence.

4. That is indeed what I was referring to. It is true that eyewitness accounts often differ, but is this not usually with relatively minor details? For example, in a robbery, one witness might say the thief wore a blue jumper, while another might say the thief wore a grey t-shirt. Or one heard two gunshots while the other heard four. But the fact that there was a robber, and he was male, and he used a gun, would generally not be in dispute.

Unfortunately, it is in major details that the gospels differ. In Matthew, the two Marys see an angel roll back the stone blocking Jesus' tomb. In Mark and Luke, the stone is already rolled back when people arrive. In Matthew, an angel is sitting on the rock outside the tomb, in Mark a youth is inside the tomb, and in Luke, two men are inside. In Matthew, the first people there are Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. In Mark, it's the two Marys and Salome. In Luke, it's the two Marys, Joanna, plus some others. In Matthew, the two Mary's rush from the tomb in fear, run to tell the apostles, and meet Jesus on the way. In Mark, they run from the tomb and don't tell anyone anything. In Luke, they run from the tomb to tell people but do not meet Jesus on the way.

John is different again. In John, only Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, she sees no angels or men there, but then runs and tells the apostles (but does not see Jesus on the way), and they believe her and follow her to the tomb.

These are pretty fundamental details, and certainly call into question the veracity of the gospel accounts. And this is not even covering the inconsistencies in the days leading up to Jesus' supposed Ascension!

5. Not true! The desire is simply to get people to believe things on evidence, not blind faith.


Anonymous said...

Comment from Roberta

Thanks everyone for a stimulating blog exchange. I think it will soon be closed. I just have two quick, final comments.

Firstly, I think it’s great that we have had such thorough debate over the resurrection of Jesus. Timaahy, I realise you were only giving an example, but I would think that the colour of the shirt of a thief and the number of gunshots heard is of relative importance. But, as you say, the fact is there was a robber etc. Similarly, with the resurrection of Jesus, the pertinent fact is that all four gospels refer to the fact that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb and there were eyewitnesses to the fact. There needs to be an adequate explanation for the missing body.

Secondly, and finally, I think if a non-believer, or more precisely, a true naturalist, really thought about it, life in the closed world as conceived of by naturalistic philosophy is devoid of purpose and futile. This understanding is articulated by Francis Crick in 'The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul' when he said, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules ...” The fact that very few people live as though neither their lives nor living existence in a more global sense are without purpose or meaning highlights the limitations of naturalism. Of course, as a Christian I don’t think that life is devoid of purpose or futile for either believers and non-believers because we are all created to both reflect the character of and relate to the God of this universe who embodies goodness, compassion, love, purpose, joy and so forth. Being created by him automatically gives any human being dignity, purpose and a soul. Being ‘re-created’ by him through having our sins forgiven through the death of Jesus Christ and the promise of relationship with him in this life and for eternity through the death-defeating, life-giving resurrection of Jesus Christ means that Christians know the source, reason and content for and of our dignity and purpose and the One who can fully satisfy our souls.

Thanks again to all who have participated in this blog. Roberta