Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Why eyewitnesses remember things wrong...

This could be an interesting journal article, if only I could get it out from behind the paywall:



Sunday, July 09, 2017

God is not the answer

Reflecting on some apologetics I've been listening to recently, and on a book I'm reading at the moment, I have realised that quite often "God" is not an adequate answer to the question posed.

For example, how did life emerge out of non-life? Or how did consciousness arise out of non-consciousness? Or where do 'objective' morals come from?

In each of these questions, and many others like them, the apologist finds the answer in God. But God is not a satisfactory answer to any of these questions. God cannot explain the origin of life, because we assumed that God is and has always been living - God merely gives inanimate matter a property he already possesses. Similarly with consciousness, it is assumed that God has always been conscious, so consciousness really has no origin. Likewise, God has always been moral, so morals never began anywhere. 

So the God answer does not actually answer the question. In each case, proposing God as the solution is really saying "you're asking the wrong question, that thing you think had an origin really didn't and has always been." So the question is never answered.

The next layer of questions, however, are never asked. How did God become living? When did God become conscious? How did God develop his morality? The believer assumes that God never became living, or conscious, and he certainly didn't ever develop any of his attributes.

For the believer, therefore, the fundamental essence of reality (i.e. God) has always possessed a complex set of attributes and properties. Kind of like the so called 'fine tuning' of the universe, a set of fundamental properties that must have been there since the outset, and could not have changed or developed.

So which is it, did all of reality start out with a complex set of improbable parameters, or did all of reality start out with a complex set of improbable attributes and personality traits and sentience?

Both options seem ridiculously improbable, and yet here we are. What I can't see is a good reason why the complex personal set of attributes should be more likely than the complex impersonal set of parameters. Indeed, if I had to weigh up the two seemingly improbable options, Occam's razor might suggest we should cut off the 'more complex' option including personhood. But there's not a lot in it.

Where we end up is one of those places where 'I don't know' is a perfectly valid answer. Indeed, it is impossible to truly 'know' one way of another, using only this line of thinking. But with regard to this issue alone, there is no compelling reason to choose theism over atheism.

By the way, "42" is not a satisfactory answer to the questions either...

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Accidental

I've heard a lot of debates between Christians and atheists where the Christian has presented the options for the origin of life on earth as being either (a) intentional design by a creator, or (b) an accident. That is, the word 'accident' is used as if it is the opposite of the word 'design'. I don't think it is, and I think this is a biased way of phrasing the question.

The word 'accident' carries with it loads of negative connotations. People die or are injured in car accidents. Accidents are generally when something goes wrong. The word accident does not just convey the idea of a random event, but it carries the connotation of an unfortunate random event. The word actually implies that there is some right-occurrence which could have happened, but did not happen, and the wrong-occurrence happened instead. The claimed dichotomy between design and accident is false.

The naturalistic atheist does not claim that life evolves by a sequence of unfortunate random events, if anything, the opposite is true. Live evolves because of beneficial, positive random events. Not accidents. There is a better word for this: Serendipity.

Of course the question remains, is life the product of design or serendipity? But that is a better question than is usually presented in these debates.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Meaning and purpose in life?

I was listening to a podcast earlier that touched on the old question of where do meaning and purpose in life come from? The usual Christian/apologetic argument is that without a creator or a higher being, there can be no meaning or purpose in life, and thus your life, and indeed the entire universe would be without meaning and purpose if there was no God.

Quite often the atheist debater in such discussions concedes that there is no 'ultimate' meaning or purpose, but sometimes we can define our own meaning and/or purpose in life. The Christian apologist usually doesn't think much of this and prefers to believe in a God who gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

This morning I found myself wondering if God himself (herself, itself, whatever) has a meaning and purpose in His life? I'm sure most Christians would claim that God does. So where did God get this purpose? From His creator? From some higher power? Or did he just give the meaning and purpose to Himself?

I'm sure that most Christians faced with this question would have to admit that if God has any purpose in his own existence, that he somehow devised this purpose Himself. In other words, beings can give themselves purpose without a higher power.

If God can give himself purpose, why can't we find meaning and purpose for ourselves? Why do we need a higher power when He does not?

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 6)

Dear D.,

We're getting near the end of your book now, having worked our way through eight chapters of your book [1-3, 456-7 and 8], and now we come to Chapter 9: Maranatha. I think this may be the first chapter in this book with no actual apologetics in it. You're in preacher mode throughout.

You talk about the end of the world, heaven and hell, and your only justification in believing in any of these claims is that Jesus spoke about them in the Bible. Jesus said it, you believe it, that settles it.

I guess you'll not be surprised to find that many skeptics (or is it sceptics, I'm never sure?) don't find this line of reasoning particularly compelling. Why should there be any life after death? You don't explain. Is there any life after death? You offer no evidence. Why should the Christian explanation of heaven & hell be preferred to any other (after-)world view? You don't justify it. This is not an intellectually challenging or satisfying chapter.

This chapter, as with many discussions of heaven & hell that I've read, ends up simply quoting C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Truly, the best explanations of heaven and hell are to be found in fantasy fiction. Why should the version presented in Matthew's gospel (you don't notice this, but all your 'Jesus' quotes about heaven and hell come from Matthew's pen, not the other gospel writers) be any more real than the version presented in "The Last Battle"?

Have you ever noticed that Matthew is obsessed with heaven and (particularly) hell, in a way that Mark, Luke and John are not? And have you ever noticed that hell is (almost) entirely absent in the Epistles of Paul? Paul's message is one of salvation for those who are in Christ, but not one of damnation for those who are not.

Anyway, let's move on to the climax of your book, Chapter 10: Magnificent... where you remain in preacher mode and basically explain why apologetics only gets you so far. Indeed, you appear to dismiss the value of apologetics, which is odd in a book of apologetics. You also go in for a bit of atheist bashing, but I'm not really interested in that.

So you present no further evidence or argument for your case, but just list lots of theological reasons why Jesus is important to you. I suppose that's fair enough, but I'm sure adherents to other religions could give similar lists about Krishna, or Bahá'u'lláh, or Sabbatai Zevi, or Haile Selassie, or whoever. The justification for all your reasons is, essentially, because it is in the Bible.

Your book repeatedly takes the stories and claims of the Bible at face value, without question, and this is the greatest weakness (as I see it) of your case. It would appear that you've never needed to justify to yourself that the Bible is an authority, so you don't really need to justify it to your readers either.

For me, it was not the debates between science & Christianity, or by consideration of the big philosophical arguments for or against God, but the failings in the Bible itself that ultimately led to the erosion of my faith. The Bible is factually wrong in places, the Bible is internally inconsistent in places, the Bible records as history things that cannot have happened (and in some instances demonstrably did not happen) in history. The Bible tells stories about God and Jesus. If it is wrong about the other stuff, we have to at least consider the possibility that it is wrong on these subjects too.

After much study, I came (somewhat grudgingly) to the conclusion that the Bible is an errant book, and was written by human authors with human agendas. In your book, you have shown that you base your life on the Bible, but you haven't managed to convince me that the Bible comes from God. You've not even shown me why you came to that conclusion.

Your magnificent obsession concerns a man who comes to you through the pages of a flawed book. I agree, if the stories about Jesus are true, then he is worthy of this obsession, but for now at least I have reasonable doubts about the truth regarding Jesus, so I think your obsession is misplaced.

Regards,

R.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 5)

Dear D.,

Following my comments on the first seven chapters of your book [here, herehere, and here], we come to Chapter 8: Modern. I came to read it following a few weeks break after reading the last ones, so I was pleased to find you started the chapter with a recap. The problem with the recap is, however, it doesn't just recap the stuff you've already established in earlier chapters, but sneaks a few extra things in there to make it look like you've already provided more of a case than you actually have. Your recap covers:
  1. God, the creator
    You've not actually gone there yet. You've not even tried the cosmological argument. Up until now, God the creator is a presupposition underlying everything else in here, but you've not even tried to justify or defend this presupposition. Now you're implying that we can take this for granted? Sorry, you still have work to do here.
  2. Made humans in His own image
    Similarly, I don't recall you justifying or defending this claim either.
  3. Freewill and the fall of man, bringing creation down with us
    You've gone into the issue of sin a bit in previous chapters, but have provided no case that we have freewill. You've certainly not explained or justified the claim that the sin of man could ruin all of creation. Why should that follow?
  4. God's redemption plan: Jesus
  5. Jesus: his miraculous birth
  6. Jesus: taught God's message
  7. Jesus: showed God's power
    Ok. You definitely have covered these. I'm not convinced, but I'll grant that you went there.
  8. Jesus: died our death and suffered our hell
    Yes, you went there, but let me remind you that Jesus descending to hell isn't actually in the Bible.
  9. Jesus: raised from the dead, and ascended
    Have you talked about the ascension? I don't remember that bit.
  10. The Holy Spirit
    Yes, we've touched on it, or is it Him?
Hmmm. So while your focus in the book thus far has been almost exclusively on Jesus, you basically want us to take God, the Father and Creator, as a given. Not sure that's how apologetics (a defence of the faith) actually works. To defend something, you need to actually defend it, not simply presume it or assert it. But anyway, on with the chapter...

Your aim in the first part of the chapter is to show that Christianity isn't dying out and isn't bad or irrelevant. You take swipes at hypocritical Christians, celebrity atheists, Bono, Stalin and Hitler along the way. Your trump card here seems to be a quote from Matthew Parris, an atheist, who observed that Christianity is making a positive change in parts of Africa because Christianity changes lives in a 'real' way. Of course, you can't prove anything by anecdote, but this seems to you to settle the question.

Sometimes, converting to Christianity is hugely beneficial for people and makes them better, kinder, more hopeful people. Does that mean Christianity is true? Not necessarily, it simply means that the Christian worldview is better than their previous worldview. Maybe there's a better one beyond Christianity that they could move on to? Then they might be even more kind and even more hopeful. Maybe.

Of course, the flip side of all this is all the miserable Christians that we've all met. And the useless ones who are 'too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good', and the ones who are downright horrible people and yet use Christianity, the Bible or God to justify this. For every anecdote there is an equal and opposite anecdote.

All you've really done here is show that for some people, being a Christian is a positive thing. I don't deny that. But that doesn't mean that Christianity is true, just that it can work as a positive worldview.

You claim that the Church is growing, and that where it is growing, it is growing particularly through attracting young people. I can't deny either of those facts, viewed worldwide, there is a definite trend towards church growth in superstitious societies. People who believe in all sorts of nonsense are coming to believe the Christian message, because it is more rational than the thing they believed previously.

But. Have a look at societies where Christianity has been dominant for a long time, there the picture is different. When I was young, in the 1970s, I seem to recall that about 12% of Scots were regular church attenders. When I was a student, in the 1990s, the number had dropped to about 10%. Now, in 2017, the latest numbers show that only 7% of Scots regularly attend church. Following that trend, I fully expect that we'll see numbers below 5% within 20 years, and maybe as low as 3% in our lifetimes. The Church in Scotland is dying. In particular, the established church (CofS, Scottish Episcopal, etc.) has pretty much already lost all its young people and is slowly losing members as its congregations die off. Of course, you will offer statistics that show that some churches are growing. Indeed. An increasingly smaller number of non-traditional churches are growing. They're growing primarily by hoovering up all the younger Christians who still believe, but have become disillusioned by the traditional church. The church I still attend has a congregation of about 200 folk every week, where 3/4 of the congregation are families with school age kids. But it is the exception, not the rule.

And finally I want to get onto the question of church growth through attracting young people. Of course this is happening. Evangelistic campaigns aim to attract young people. Some of those young people convert. This is mostly a matter of psychology. Young people's minds are still 'plastic' - they can adapt to new ideas and belief systems much better than older people. As we age we do get more set in our ways. It is much easier to change the mind of a teenager than it is to change the mind of a retiree. That's a matter of human nature. So evangelistic organisations work primarily among schools, universities and other groups of young people. Thus it is not surprising that those churches which are growing by conversion (a tiny minority of churches in my UK-based experience) are seeing this growth among young people. Its because they don't aim for conversion of older people, and would find it harder to do if they tried.

Fundamentally, what you've shown in this chapter is that Christianity works as a worldview, and works better than some other worldviews, and may be justifiable in comparison to some other worldviews, but haven't in any way demonstrated that it is true.

Regards,

R.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 4)

Dear D.,

Following my comments on the first five chapters of your book [here, here and here], I now get to Chapter 6: Meaning. It is a strange beast, touching on a number of different topics, not as focused as the previous ones.

You start with the 'eyewitness testimony' of the disciples and the old claim that people don't die for a lie, again. Furthermore you claim that if Jesus had remained dead in the tomb, then the authorities could have just dug him up and demonstrated that the stories the disciples were preaching were false.

Once again, you are using a story told in one part of the Bible to 'prove' the historical accuracy of a story told in another part of the Bible. We have no secular evidence that the disciples preached anything at all about the death and resurrection of Jesus in the vicinity of the supposedly empty tomb, in the weeks or months following the alleged resurrection event. No, the only evidence that such events ever happened is contained in the book of Acts.

Of course, you believe the book of Acts is accurate reportage. To counter that assumption, may I mention that the "Acts Seminar" - a bunch of proper Bible scholars who spent years studying and debating the book of Acts - gave as the primary conclusion of their study that the book of Acts was a work of fiction, most likely written in the early 2nd century? Conservative evangelicals disagree of course, but I think the impartial observer has to at least consider the possibility that Acts is - or contains - fictional elements.

If the gospel was not preached until years or decades after the supposed event, and perhaps then not by the supposed eyewitnesses, who could dig up a body to prove anything?

From here you go off on a rant about some of the usual 'new atheist' authors and arguments. Fair enough. But you don't really present your own case, you merely attack their weaknesses. Eventually you get to your point, that Jesus is God, and we finally get to the Trinity. You call this the 'cornerstone of Christian thinking' but, of course, can't explain it, because nobody can. It is literally a mystery. Or possibly a nonsense. 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. How can you believe something you can't explain?

You then touch on the 'but who made God?' question and don't really get anywhere. This discussion never gets anywhere because it is obvious to the believer that nobody made God and it is obvious to everyone else that the chain of cause and effect can't go back to something as complicated as an eternal and infinite triune Godhead. You can solve almost every finite problem by invoking an infinite and unseen solution, but you can't solve the problem of an infinite and unseen thing by invoking anything else.

You go a bit preacher for a while, revelling in the claim that Jesus is God, and then come back to some semi-apologetics questions, like why the Trinity isn't in the Old Testament (your answer: it is), and why did God have to become man to become our redeemer. 

Finally you get to the question of where Jesus is now and why could he not stay on earth. You don't actually address the first of those that well, considering that there are some biblical passages that imply that Christ remains in his human (perfected) body even now, i.e. he remains localised, while other passages speak of him 'filling all things' and the like, implying that he is anything but localised. I've heard your answer to the second of those before, and heard it from others than you. Of course Christ had to leave the earth, because if he didn't go, the Spirit could not come. Huh? So the Spirit and the Son are two distinct persons, but they can't both be on earth simultaneously? Why?

Through all of this you imply that the Trinity is the clear teaching of the Bible. It isn't. Sure, you can read the Trinity into the Bible in a good many places, but it is far from clear that all the Bible authors would agree with such a concept if you presented it to them. So at the end of this chapter I remain unconvinced that the Trinity actually makes sense. Oh well.

On we move to Chapter 7: Mission in which you defend the Church, by pointing out that it is made of flawed human beings. Yes it is. I don't really have much to comment on here. 

The only thing I really want to mention here is when you attack the straw man of "The Bible was compiled by the council of Nicea". While I have heard this claimed by Dan Brown and the like, this is a bit of a red herring. I'm far more convinced by David Trobisch's claim that the original NT was compiled and edited by Polycarp, and then widely distributed. But anyway, that's enough for now. I'll move on to Chapter 8 next time.

Cheers,

R.


Thursday, April 06, 2017

The simplicity fallacy

Just listened to last week's Unbelievable show on "Can atheists believe in human rights?"

The basic argument put forward by the Christian guest on the show was that humans would have no 'human rights' if there was no creator God to give those rights to people. The atheist guest on the show more or less conceded this point and claimed that human rights are a human construct, and are not really inherent.

The details of the debate are largely irrelevant to the point I want to make here. But it struck me, while listening to this podcast, that I've heard the same basic form of argument for God in debates (both on Unbelievable and elsewhere) many times over.

The basic, underlying, argument is this:
The [thing we are talking about] is much simpler to explain in a universe created by a God than it would be in a universe not created by a God. Therefore we can conclude there is a God.
The same argument has been made concerning human rights, morality, reason, science, etc., etc.

Its just not a very good argument. The fundamental flaw in this argument lies in its implied appeal to Occam's Razor. Two options are presented, one is made to look simple, one is made to look complex, thus the simpler one is the preferred (by which it is assumed we mean 'true') option.

I agree, human rights would be much easier to justify if they were granted by a higher power, relative to if they were not. But the two opposing sides in this situation are not:

  1. Complex justification of human rights with no granting authority, vs.
  2. Simple justification of human rights with a granting authority, 
but rather:

  1. Complex justification of human rights with no granting authority, vs.
  2. Simple justification of human rights with a granting authority PLUS very complex justification of the existence of the infinitely powerful granting authority.
Given that the argument itself is usually being framed as an attempt to prove the existence of God, it usually overlooks all the circular reasoning and begging the question that is going on here. The whole thing presupposes that God can do anything, which of course makes anything that God can do into a simple task. But you can't have that presupposition when trying to justify the existence of God.

God is anything but 'simple'. Any argument suggesting that something would be 'simpler' by assuming God is fallacious. 


Sunday, April 02, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 3)

Dear D,

While these posts may appear in quick succession, several months have passed since I read the last chunk of your book and formed my thoughts on it, so sorry if this appears a bit disconnected from the previous posts. My comments on the first three chapters of your book can be found here, and my comments on chapter four are here.

Now we get to Chapter 5 "Marvellous" in which you tackle the subject of the resurrection. You believe it happened, and you believe this because you believe that the Biblical stories are true. I don't think you have really given us any story of how you came to believe that these stories are true so far.

For myself, I believed that these stories were true because my family and Church family all believed that these stories were true and managed to embed that belief in me from an early age. I may not have made any personal commitment to be a Christian until I was in my late teens, but the fundamental belief in the truth of the Bible was always there from the word go. I suspect that much the same is true of you. We are both products of a Scottish Christian upbringing.

Suppose you weren't though. Suppose you happened upon this book with no preconceptions about its author or authority. What would it take to convince you that this book conveys truth? I've wrestled with this question in other posts on this blog, so I'll leave it out for now, but I do think there is something in John Loftus's "Outsider test for faith" idea.

Anyway, the resurrection... or rather, sin. You start by talking about sin. Indeed, you get to the doctrine of total depravity quite rapidly. I always find it interesting that the so called 'good news' needs to start with the 'bad theory' - once you've convinced people that they are bad, then you can sell them your way of fixing the perceived problem that you gave them in the first place.

Before really getting into the question of sin, though, you jump (abruptly) to the question of evidence. Your imaginary correspondent apparently raised this question somewhere off stage left. And you skirt around this issue in a really unsatisfying way by saying:
"There is plenty of evidence for what I assert. I can't list it. Whole books have been written..." 
Most of these books you don't cite, so I'm not sure how your reader is supposed to test your claims.

But the central claim of this chapter is that, unlike most of the other things you claim, that you can prove the resurrection. Strong claim. So let's look at your proof.

At least you start from common ground here: "Resurrections just don't happen." At least we agree on that. Then you dismiss a few straw-man theories, the 'swoon' theory, the 'conspiracy' theory and the 'cock-up' theory. All of these theories are bunk, I'll agree with you there, but the fundamental flaw in all of these theories is that they accept some of the details of the gospel story as true and accurate, and only cast doubt on one or two details. This is 19th century rationalism - only people who believe that the Bible is true, but that miracles don't happen have to resort to such theories. How about the theory that the whole thing is fiction? You don't go there. And yet that is the most likely scenario.

Resurrections just don't happen. But stories of resurrections do happen. Loads of them. This story could be complete fiction. Why don't you even consider this 'theory'? Because your responses to all the theories rely on the assumption that some of the details in the gospel stories are true, and from this basis you will attempt to prove that other details in the same stories must also be true.

Your first port of call is Bauckham's book (which I read and reviewed six years ago), which you take to be conclusive proof that the gospels were written by actual eyewitnesses. The assumption is that if someone who was there wrote this, then the story is completely accurate. Really? Read some of the actual eyewitness testimony from the Salem Witch Trials! People who were actually verifiably somewhere at a given point in history can and did report absolute nonsense about what they apparently saw. With the gospels we don't even have that.

Next you raise the old turkey of the women. If this was made up, surely the fabricator would have made a man the central character!? Why? Why would a man go to the tomb? Culturally, it was the women who would go to embalm the body. In the context of the story, it has to be the women who are the first witnesses. The story demands that the women discover the empty tomb, whether the story is true or not.

Then you take the conflicting gospel reports head on and claim that the fact that they disagree with one another somehow makes the accounts more likely to be true. You don't really address the actual irreconcilable differences between the stories, you do broad brush strokes and paint a picture that works. Its a shame that a detailed look at the evidence shows the opposite. Have a look at my post "Why did the angels say what they said?" for more on this.

Next you (once again) use the evidence of some details in the story to demonstrate that other details in the story are true. The if the resurrection appearances are true then the resurrection must also be true. Well, yes, but claiming that 500 nameless people saw Jesus at one unspecified time, in an unspecified location, doesn't really help us much. As far as I know, the only other reference to 500 people (other than in Corinthians) who could have seen the resurrected Jesus comes from the Gospel of Nicodemus which specifies that there were 500 guards placed at the tomb. Not sure I believe that story, maybe the author of 1 Corinthians 15 did...

Finally you cite the evidence that nobody dies for a lie. Well, aside from the fact that that we know some folk have died for lies (Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, springs to mind), this doesn't help us much - the stories of the martyrdoms of the disciples are part of the same literary tradition that contains the Bible stories. Once again, you are using one part of a story to prove another part of the same story.

You close the chapter with anecdotes about people believing in the resurrection. The fact that people believe it is not in doubt. Whether they have good grounds for believing in it is the question, and I'm not sure your case for that is very strong.

Cheers,

R.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 2)

Dear D,

I commented on the first three chapters of your book, Magnificent Obsession in my previous post. I've now got to Chapter 4: Murdered, which raises a few issues worthy of discussion.

In my previous post I noted how you slipped out of the role of apologist in Chapter 3, and into the role of preacher. You do that again in Chapter 4. Rather than try to defend the notion of a spiritual reality and a devil, you ask the reader to "grant the existence of the devil for a moment" and from here on in attempt to show that the Christian message is internally consistent (you seem to assume that the 'moment' extends for the duration of the chapter). Actually, I'm not sure that the Christian message is completely internally consistent, but leaving that aside for now, you do nothing here to convince the reader that the Christian worldview (there is a God, there is a devil, Jesus's death has saving and atoning power) is consistent with reality, you simply ask the reader to grant you that worldview and then proceed as if it is reality.

I suppose that one possible reason there are so many "false teachings" going around in the many flavours of Christianity is that the devil has stuck his oar in and messed it all up, but another reason could be that there is no "true teaching" and the many different flavours are all just human attempts to interpret a selection of confusing and occasionally conflicting scriptures in the light of different varieties of human experience. If you want to convince me toward one rather than the other, there needs to be some evidence to back this up. (For what its worth, I think the Christian conception of the devil is an evolved hybrid concept combining aspects of the OT serpent, the OT Satan, the Canaanite chaos monster (who appears in the bible as Leviathan), the Zoroastrian Ahriman and the Philistine "lord of the flies" Baal-zeebub... but that's going waaaay of topic, so I'll leave that discussion for another time.)

Anyway, you express your opinion that God "would express himself through his Word", that this Word is "supposed to be the message of Christ" but do acknowledge that there are "issues where more than one interpretation is equally valid". Hmmm. So God expresses himself in ambiguous ways? But you then assert your opinion that the Bible is beyond scrutiny - it is true and who are we to query it?

If you want your readers to accept the Bible as ultimate truth, I think there needs to be some justification of this. You seem to be slipping into presuppositional apologetics. That never gets anywhere, in my experience.

But anyway, we now get to the death of Jesus and what its all about. Or rather, you start with "the atonement" and assume that Jesus death has atoning power. Again, I think you've jumped ahead of yourself here. Not all the gospels claim Jesus death has atoning power. The concept is absent in Luke-Acts as I have blogged about in the past.

When we get to the question of "Why did He die?" I agree with you that Hitchens created a straw man caricature of the Christian concept of the atonement, but I think there are issues with the very notion of the atonement that other 'new' atheists are right to question. You say that "He was suffering in our place" as if that somehow solves the problem. Why do we deserve suffering and death? (Not merely one or the other, but both, apparently.) What is it about sin that requires suffering to repay the debt? And how can an innocent party take the penalty for the guilty in a just court?

Suppose someone 'sins' against you by crashing into your car and writing it off. In order to fix that situation, all that is needed is that you get a replacement car, and perhaps a bit of financial compensation to cover the inconvenience. While you probably do want the guilty party to suffer in some way for this, you'll probably be reasonably satisfied when someone else (the insurance company) pays the bills. Here it is entirely justified to have a substitute pay the price.

But suppose someone 'sins' against you by murdering your children. There actually is no way to repay that debt. Nobody can replace the lost child, not even if someone were somehow able to give you more children, this wouldn't repair the damage. Here, if the guilty party goes free and a substitute takes the penalty, there is no justice. It doesn't matter how much pain or even death is imposed on the substitute, nothing can repair the damage. Indeed, inflicting pain and death on an innocent party only serves to make the injustice greater, not less.

Atonement theology confuses these two different types of substitution. It is claimed that we have sinned against God in the latter manner, hurting him in a way equivalent to murder. Yet the payment follows the former manner, assuming that justice can be served by letting the innocent pay. The justice of the cross is no justice at all.

You ask, "After all, who would want to live in a universe where there was no justice?" This is just begging the question. We don't have a range of universes to pick from. We only have this one. Whether we want it to be just or not has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not it is just. From observation, it would seem that there actually is no justice. Innocent people are born, live their lives in misery and famine and then die. Meanwhile others are born into privilege, become mean and selfish, exploit others, make money, live a long life of luxury and die, peacefully in their sleep, at an old age. You can invent a postmortem judgement, heaven and hell to try and restore justice to the grand picture, but without evidence, that really is just wishful thinking. Any finite problem can be solved by an imaginary, infinite and unseen counterweight, but without any evidence for the counterweight, it is 'just a theory' (and not in the scientific sense of the word!).

Anyway, on the subject of sin, we now get to your 'simple experiment': "see if you can go one whole week without saying, doing, or thinking anything bad." You then ask "Why do we find that impossible?" I'll tell you why we find it impossible, because the society that we live in (which derives its morality in large part from 'Christian values') defines many normal and natural aspects of human nature as 'sin' or 'bad'. By nature we are made to try to satisfy our desires, whether for food, sex, or position in society. It is not wrong to desire any of these things, but the bible has branded the desires themselves as sinful, even if they are never acted upon. Part of growing up to function in a group society is learning when not to act on those desires. One of the terrible things the church has done countless times in history is to convince people who have literally done nothing wrong, that their very thoughts are sinful, the ones they haven't acted upon. Indeed, that their very human nature is sinful. Some people haven't been able to live with the pressure of that guilt and there have been many casualties along the way.

You now move on to hell. As I said above, hell is just an unseen, theoretical counterweight. Without evidence, of which you offer none, the argument is worthless. "Jesus suffered hell so that we don't have to." Really? I don't think that's even in the bible!

The message that Christ died in my place is powerful and can be liberating, unless you think about it too much. As soon as you ask the 'Why?' and 'How?' questions it all becomes a bit less certain, and loses its power. I'm more of the opinion that belief that Jesus has paid for the burden of your sins, can effectively reduce the psychological burden of guilt (a guilt that is probably there because of the church's teaching in the first place). There doesn't need to be any reality to it. That is why faith is so important. Not because its true, but because faith itself works, on a psychological level at least. Which is why it works in all religions, maybe not for everybody, but for some.

So grant the non existence of the devil for a moment... and no hell, no sin and no damnation... and no God, no atonement, and no saviour... take away the imaginary, infinite and unseen counterweights... then look at the world. Doesn't it look just like the sort of jumbled chaos you'd expect if there weren't supernatural beings in control of everything?

You end with Mark 10:45, one of the verses that Luke could have used when he was working up Mark into his longer gospel, but chose not to use. Have you ever wondered why? Its worth thinking about.

Until next time,

R.