Category Archives: Top Ten Posts of 2013

#1 Post of 2013 – You Might Be a Hyper-Skeptic of Christianity If . . .

After producing the TQA blog for 5 years, we have had hundreds of skeptics comment on our blog posts. With so many skeptics, I’ve seen patterns of behavior that have led me to refer to some of the skeptical commenters as hyper-skeptics. A hyper-skeptic is someone who will not ever consider any evidences, arguments, or reasoning given for Christianity.

For those fair-minded skeptics out there who don’t want to become like this, here are the warning signs I’ve seen. What makes a person a hyper-skeptic? Well, you might be a hyper-skeptic if …

You don’t need to read anything actually written by Christian scholars, because you are just smarter than they are (and you’ve heard it all before).

You think it’s doubtful that Jesus ever lived.

You believe that Christian apologists are lying most of the time.

You actually think that the evidence for a flying spaghetti monster is as good as the evidence for the Christian God.

When you read a blog post written by a Christian, you aren’t reading for understanding; you’re reading to find isolated phrases or sentences that you can attack.

You believe that Antony Flew renounced atheism only because of old age and senility.

You don’t understand theology or metaphysics, but you’re certain it’s just a bunch of made-up mumbo-jumbo.

You almost never agree with anything a Christian apologist writes, even on the most uncontroversial subjects.

You believe that if you ever publicly agree with a Christian, you are contributing to the downfall of civilization.

You are 100% certain that people cannot rise from the dead, and no amount of historical evidence would ever be convincing.

You think that the strength of the historical evidence supporting the stories in the Book of Mormon is roughly equivalent to the strength of the historical evidence supporting the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

You think that The God Delusion is a tour de force that annihilates all of the best Christian arguments for God.

You think that the Bible contains nothing of value.

There are plenty of fair-minded skeptics that comment on the blog, and I appreciate them (at least I try to). But if you’re a skeptic and you find yourself fitting much of the criteria I’ve listed above, you need to step back and ask yourself why. Why have you become as dogmatic and fundamentalist as the religious folks you like to deride?

If you are a hyper-skeptic, you are not reasonable and you are not thinking clearly when it comes to Christianity.  Take some time off from the blogosphere and figure out why you’ve crossed this line. I sincerely doubt it is a purely intellectual issue.

#2 Post of 2013 – If God Cannot Change, Then Why Should We Pray?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The Bible teaches, and theology argues, that God cannot change. This is called divine immutability. But if God cannot change, then why do we pray to him? After all, when we pray, aren’t we trying to change God’s mind?

Norm Geisler answers this question in his Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation. Listen to what he says:

God is omniscient . . . , and an all-knowing Being cannot change His mind. If He does, He is not really all-knowing. Therefore, God cannot change His mind in answer to prayer.

When we pray (or have prayed), God not only knew what we were going to pray, but He ordained our prayer as a means of accomplishing His purpose. Prayer is not a means by which we change God; it is a means by which God changes us.

Prayer is not a means of our overcoming God’s reluctance; it is a way for God to take hold of our willingness. Prayer is not a means of getting our will done in heaven, but a means of God getting His will done on earth.

If you think about it for a minute, we don’t want to change God’s mind anyway. After all, who knows what is best? Us or God? Geisler reminds us of why we should rejoice in the fact that God is immutable:

Since God is unchangeable, we can trust His Word: “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Num. 23:19).

Also, we can trust God’s promises completely: “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end” (Ps. 102:25–27).

Further, we can be sure of our salvation, because “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). What is more, God’s immutability provides an anchor for our souls: “Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged” (Heb. 6:17–18).

Finally, we have a stable foundation for service. Paul wrote, “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

God is unchanging and we can all give praise for that. I don’t know about you, but I would have a hard time worshiping a God whose mind I could change.

#3 Post of 2013 – If God Can Kill, Why Can’t We?

Critics of Christianity sometimes point to passages in the Bible where God takes human life, and they ask, “Isn’t God breaking his own commandment to not kill?” If God can ignore the sixth commandment, then isn’t it hypocritical for him to expect us to obey it?

Does this argument really work, though? No. It fails in multiple ways.

First, the sixth commandment is not a blanket command to never take human life. It is a command to not take human life without proper justification. This can be clearly seen by reading the commandment in context with the rest of the Bible. God allows human life to be taken in self-defense and he upholds the right of the state to administer capital punishment. Clearly, then, the sixth commandment does not simply mean, “Never kill for any reason whatsoever.”

Second, the ten commandments were God’s commands to mankind, so they are not to be applied to God in the same way they are applied to us. God is infinite in being; we are not. God is the first cause of everything that exists; we are not. God is the creator (efficient cause) of human life; we are not. God is all-knowing; we are not. God is all-wise; we are not.

Third, since God possesses divine attributes that we do not possess, it is a gross error to compare God’s taking human life with our taking human life. As the guarantor of life after death, philosopher Paul Copan reminds us that “any harm caused [by God] due to specific purposes in a specific context would be overshadowed by divine benefits in the afterlife.”

This is a crucial point: God promises an afterlife for everyone. Only he can do that, as no human has that power. As the all-wise, all-knowing guarantor of the afterlife, he is uniquely justified in taking human life.

Analogously, we grant judges the power to send people to prison because they are in a unique position to know the facts of the case, and they are uniquely trained to know and administer the law. We don’t allow random citizens to sentence criminals, as they lack the knowledge and experience to imprison people in a just way. Power over human life is granted depending on the knowledge and wisdom of the one who would be in power.

Why can’t we kill? Because we lack God’s knowledge, his wisdom, and his creative power. We are finite beings who see through a glass darkly. That is why we leave life and death decisions to God.

#4 Post of 2013 – When Did the Idea That Jesus Never Existed Originate?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Contemporary Jesus mythicists like Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Earl Doherty have argued that Jesus, as a historical figure, never really existed. They, however, are hardly the first to make this claim.

Biblical scholar Robert Van Voorst, in his book Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, traces the historical development of Jesus mythicism from the 1700’s in Europe. It is fascinating to see how this movement began. According to Van Voorst,

At the end of the eighteenth century, some disciples of the radical English Deist Lord Bolingbroke began to spread the idea that Jesus had never existed. Voltaire, no friend of traditional Christianity, sharply rejected such conclusions, commenting that those who deny the existence of Jesus show themselves “more ingenious than learned.”

Nevertheless, in the 1790s a few of the more radical French Enlightenment thinkers wrote that Christianity and its Christ were myths. Constantin-François Volney and Charles François Dupuis published books promoting these arguments, saying that Christianity was an updated amalgamation of ancient Persian and Babylonian mythology, with Jesus a completely mythological figure.

These ideas, however, did not seem to gain much traction until another gentleman, Bruno Bauer, came on the scene in the mid-1800’s to further the arguments.

Bauer was the most incisive writer in the nineteenth century against the historicity of Jesus. In a series of books from 1840 to 1855, Bauer attacked the historical value of the Gospel of John and the Synoptics, arguing that they were purely inventions of their early second-century authors. As such, they give a good view of the life of the early church, but nothing about Jesus.

Bauer’s early writings tried to show that historical criticism could recover the main truth of the Bible from the mass of its historical difficulties: that human self-consciousness is divine, and the Absolute Spirit can become one with the human spirit. Bauer was the first systematically to argue that Jesus did not exist. Not only do the Gospels have no historical value, but all the letters written under the name of Paul, which could provide evidence for Jesus’existence, were much later fictions. Roman and Jewish witnesses to Jesus were late, secondary, or forged.

With these witnesses removed, the evidence for Jesus evaporated, and Jesus with it. He became the product, not the producer, of Christianity. Christianity and its Christ, Bauer argued, were born in Rome and Alexandria when adherents of Roman Stoicism, Greek Neo-Platonism and Judaism combined to form a new religion that needed a founder.

How can Bauer’s arguments be summarized? Van Voorst explains that

Bauer laid down the typical threefold argument that almost all subsequent deniers of the existence of Jesus were to follow (although not in direct dependence upon him). First, he denied the value of the New Testament, especially the Gospels and Paul’s letters, in establishing the existence of Jesus. Second, he argued that the lack of mention of Jesus in non-Christian writings of the first century shows that Jesus did not exist. Neither do the few mentions of Jesus by Roman writers in the early second century establish his existence. Third, he promoted the view that Christianity was syncretistic and mythical at its beginnings.

Obviously Bauer’s arguments were highly controversial. How did academia and church authorities respond to him?

Bauer’s views of Christian origins, including his arguments for the nonexistence of Jesus, were stoutly attacked by both academics and church authorities, and effectively refuted in the minds of most. They gained no lasting following or influence on subsequent scholarship, especially in the mainstream.

Perhaps Bauer’s most important legacy is indirectly related to his biblical scholarship. When the Prussian government removed him from his Berlin University post in 1839 for his views, this further radicalized one of his students, Karl Marx. Marx would incorporate Bauer’s ideas of the mythical origins of Jesus into his ideology, and official Soviet literature and other Communist propaganda later spread this claim.

The ideas of Bauer, however, have obviously not died. In the next post, we’ll look at the most prolific contemporary proponent of Jesus mythicism, a man named George A. Wells.

#5 Post of 2013 – How Does Atheism Answer Our Most Important Questions?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Old-school atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche recognized that atheism utterly failed to answer the most profound of human questions, and thus atheism, he believed, led inexorably to nihilism.

Nowadays, most atheists are very uncomfortable with nihilism and want to distance themselves from their intellectual forefathers. Just because God doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that life can’t be vibrant and meaningful, right?

Well, it seems that not every atheist has abandoned Nietzsche’s insights. Atheist professor Alex Rosenberg provides the following summary of atheism’s answers to life’s most profound questions (as quoted from the Reasonable Faith website):

Is there a God? No.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Is there a soul? Are you kidding?

Is there free will? Not a chance!

What is the difference between right/wrong, good/bad? There is no moral difference between them.

He concludes, “So much for the meaning of history, and everything else we care about.”

Rosenberg left out other depressing atheist answers like the following:

Will there be justice for all those who have been wronged? No way.

Is there life after death? Are you joking?

Where did mankind come from? A prebiotic slime.

Wow! What a positive outlook on life! No wonder more people don’t become atheists. It casts such a stunning vision for mankind, doesn’t it?

#6 Post of 2013 – Can We Know Moral Values Without Knowing God?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Clearly the answer must be “yes.”  In fact, the apostle Paul teaches this very truth in the book of Romans. There are some moral truths that can be known without a person ever acknowledging God’s existence. In fact, the world would be a complete disaster if everyone had to agree on the existence and attributes of God before anyone could know moral truths.

But it seems that atheists often think that Christians are making this claim. They think that Christians are saying a person cannot be moral or know right from wrong without believing in God. No Christian thinker of any stature has ever said this, though.

When Christians present moral arguments for God’s existence, or when they argue that moral values cannot exist unless God exists, they are making a very different point. David Baggett and Jerry Walls explain what is going on in their book Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality:

[I]t might seem inconsistent to argue that moral truth is dependent on God if we can know it without even thinking of God. This alleged inconsistency can be dispelled if we recognize, as numerous classical thinkers have pointed out, that the order of being is different from the order of knowing. That is, the order in which we come to know things might be different from the order in which things exist, or have come to exist.

The order of being has to do with metaphysics and the order of knowing has to do with epistemology. Christian arguments about God and morality are almost always about metaphysics (the order of being) and not about epistemology (the order of knowing). Baggett and Walls add:

Certain moral truths might be as evident to us as anything can be, but may still leave unanswered the question of where morality came from. Likewise, the foundations of morality might be at a greater distance from us in terms of immediate knowledge than morality itself. This is a fundamental distinction, but one that is often missed, resulting in needless confusion.

Baggett and Walls point out that many atheists just seem to completely miss this distinction:

Recent books defending atheism have perpetuated this confusion, unfortunately, but not surprisingly. For instance, Richard Dawkins seems to ignore this distinction when he asks, “if we have independent criteria for choosing among religious moralities, why not cut out the middle man and go straight for the moral choice without the religion?”

Nobody disagrees that we can gather a bunch of people from different worldviews together in a room and agree on a basic set of moral values.  This simply is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the question of where these moral values come from. Answering this question is what atheists need to work on.

#7 Post of 2013 – You Might Be In a Cult If…

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

I watched a Dateline special the other night on the FLDS and the downfall of their “prophet,” who is now imprisoned for life. Here are some things I noticed about the FLDS that would apply to other cults as well. You might be in a cult if…

Your leaders tell you to never believe anything anyone says but them.

Your leaders tell you that everyone in the outside world are liars.

You are told to never question what your leadership tells you.

You are discouraged from reading any opinions about important topics outside your group.

You are told that certain things about reality that are obviously true are false.

You are discouraged from interacting with those who disagree with your beliefs.

You find yourself fearing or hating those who disagree with your beliefs.

You are absolutely 100% convinced that everything you’ve been taught by your leaders is true.

You believe that the more you learn on your own, the worse off you’ll be.

You believe that everyone outside your group has totally evil motives.

You have been told that even the smallest doubts about your beliefs will ultimately lead you to ruin.

#8 Post of 2013 – Do Moral Disagreements Mean There Are No Moral Facts?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Moral realists believe that there are real, objective, moral facts. For example, a moral realist would say that it is a moral fact that raping for fun is wrong. Moral anti-realists disagree and would say that there are no moral facts. Statements such as “raping for fun is wrong” are not true or false in the sense that other facts are true or false (e.g., the statement, “the earth revolves the sun”). Moral statements merely express individual or cultural preferences which are completely subjective.

To prove their point, moral anti-realists often argue that the way we know that there no objective moral facts is that individuals and cultures differ in their moral values. One culture is supportive of female genital mutilation and another one isn’t. These disagreements, they argue, prove that moral values are not facts that are true or false, in the same way that scientific facts about physics, chemistry, and biology are true or false.

This argument seems obviously flawed to me, and “New Atheist” Sam Harris agrees. Harris dislikes moral anti-realism almost as much as religion. Here is Harris in his book The Moral Landscape:

I am simply saying that, given that there are facts— real facts— to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice.

What about the fact that there is no consensus on some moral issues?

Another thing that makes the idea of moral truth difficult to discuss is that people often employ a double standard when thinking about consensus: most people take scientific consensus to mean that scientific truths exist, and they consider scientific controversy to be merely a sign that further work remains to be done; and yet many of these same people believe that moral controversy proves that there can be no such thing as moral truth, while moral consensus shows only that human beings often harbor the same biases. Clearly, this double standard rigs the game against a universal conception of morality.

The deeper issue, however, is that truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: one person can be right, and everyone else can be wrong. Consensus is a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.  There are surely physical, chemical, and biological facts about which we are ignorant or mistaken.

Although I disagree with Harris on virtually every other subject, he is right to chastise moral anti-realists. The fact that moral disagreements occur no more disproves the existence of moral facts than disagreements in biology disproves the existence of biological facts. It simply does not follow that a lack of consensus on a subject means that there are no facts about that subject.

#9 Post of 2013 – What Are the Earliest Christian Writings?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Perhaps you’ve read or heard that the New Testament (NT) books were produced at the same time as other Christian writings, and that these other writings were unfairly  and unceremoniously kicked out of the NT canon. Is this true?

New Testament professor Michael J. Kruger says no. In his blog post, “Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize: #1: “The New Testament Books are the Earliest Christian Writings We Possess,” Kruger reminds us of some critical facts.

First, why is it important that the NT books are the earliest? For the simple fact that earlier dates “bring us the closest to the historical Jesus and to the earliest church.   If we want to find out what authentic Christianity was really like, then we should rely on the writings that are the nearest to that time period.”

Most of us consider the four gospels to be the most important books in the NT, so were they the first gospels written? Kruger explains that the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,

are the only gospel accounts that derive from the first century.  Sure, there are a few scholars have attempted to put the Gospel of Thomas in the first century, but this has not met with much success.  After all the scholarly dust has settled, even critics agree that these four are the earliest accounts of Jesus that we possess.

Virtually all of the other letters/books contained in the NT were written in the first century and pre-date all other extant Christian writings. Kruger does raise a couple of qualifications. A few of the NT books are disputed with regard to their dates of origin. Kruger points out that

some critical scholars have argued that some New Testament books are forgeries written in the second century.  Meanwhile, other scholars have defended the authenticity (and first-century date) of these books.  This is a debate that we cannot delve into here. However, even if these debated books are left aside in our discussions, we can still affirm that the vast majority of the New Testament writings (including the four gospels) still remain the earliest Christian writings we possess.

Further, there is the issue of 1 Clement, which is a Christian writing that dates to the first century, but is not in the NT canon. Kruger responds:

True, but the consensus date for 1 Clement is c.96 A.D.  This date is later than all our New Testament books.  The only possible exception is Revelation which is dated, at the latest, around 95-96 A.D.   But, some date Revelation earlier.  Even so, this does not affect the macro point we are making here.

Why is it important that most, if not all, the NT books are the earliest Christians writings? Because, as Kruger argues, “it seems that the books included in the New Testament are not as arbitrary as some would have us believe.  On the contrary, it seems that these are precisely the books we would include if we wanted to have access to authentic Christianity.”

#10 Post of 2013 – How Do We Know the Universe Hasn’t Existed Eternally?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

For those of you who look to science to answer every question, cosmologists are pretty unanimous in agreeing that our universe is not eternal, and in fact begun about 14 billion years ago. You may not like this answer, and so go running toward alternative cosmologies to escape the standard big bang model of the universe. Unfortunately, there is no salvation there either.

As summarized nicely on the Wintery Knight blog, “The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin [theorem] shows that every universe that expands must have a space-time boundary in the past. That means that no expanding universe, no matter what the model, can be eternal into the past. Even speculative alternative cosmologies do not escape the need for a beginning.”

So it would appear that science is no help to those who want to desperately cling to an eternal universe. What about philosophy?

The dominant ancient metaphysical traditions have also demonstrated why the physical universe cannot be eternal. Here we quote from Edward Feser in an article he wrote for First Things:

In general, classical philosophical theology argues for the existence of a first cause of the world—a cause that does not merely happen not to have a cause of its own but that (unlike everything else that exists) in principle does not require one. Nothing else can provide an ultimate explanation of the world.

For Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, for example, things in the world can change only if there is something that changes or actualizes everything else without the need (or indeed even the possibility) of its being actualized itself, precisely because it is already “pure actuality.” Change requires an unchangeable changer or unmovable mover.

Feser goes on to consider other great thinkers of the past:

For Neoplatonists, everything made up of parts can be explained only by reference to something that combines the parts. Accordingly, the ultimate explanation of things must be utterly simple and therefore without the need or even the possibility of being assembled into being by something else. Plotinus called this “the One.” For Leibniz, the existence of anything that is in any way contingent can be explained only by its origin in an absolutely necessary being.

But why can’t the first cause, the necessary being, “the One,” be the universe itself instead of God? What is the difference between an eternal Creator and an eternal universe?

The difference, as the reader of Aristotle or Aquinas knows, is that the universe changes while the unmoved mover does not, or, as the Neoplatonist can tell you, that the universe is made up of parts while its source is absolutely one; or, as Leibniz could tell you, that the universe is contingent and God absolutely necessary. There is thus a principled reason for regarding God rather than the universe as the terminus of explanation.

So, positing the universe as an eternally existing thing that is the cause of everything else both collides with modern science and with classical metaphysics. I happen to think the metaphysical arguments are stronger, but maybe you prefer the science. Either way, it don’t look good for an eternal universe.