Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The atoning death of the 2nd person of the Trinity...

Christianity (or at least most branches of it) claims that God is three persons in one being, the Trinity. And it (or at least most branches of it) also teaches that Jesus Christ, the second person of this Trinity, died on the cross as an atoning sacrifice on our behalf, and was resurrected to life three days later. Christianity (or at least...) also teaches that there is a part of a person which survives death, that is, the soul. Now some (but by no means most) versions of Christianity claim that Jesus went to hell during his three days dead, while some (but...) claim that hell, by definition, is a place where God is not.

So put all that together. The result is incoherent.

Who or what really died on the cross? The one being of the Godhead? No, merely one of the three persons. But if that person is inexplicably and inseparably linked to the other two persons, then how could he die without them also dying? Or did the Trinity get reduced to a Binity for three days? Surely nobody who holds to the idea of the Trinity could accept that? But if the second person of the Trinity didn't separate from the life of the other two, then what was it that died?

And what was actually sacrificed? Jesus was apparently without a physical body for somewhere less than 36 hours, and then got a better body. That doesn't actually seem like a sacrifice, more like an inconvenience. An exceptionally painful inconvenience, I'll give you that, but not actually a sacrifice. The whole point of sacrifice is to give up something that you don't get back again. Ever. So the resurrection completely undoes the sacrifice. Its like me putting a tenner in the offering plate on a Sunday and then coming back on Wednesday to reclaim the tenner, and actually getting fifteen pounds back. No significant sacrifice, certainly not when viewed on the eternal timescale.

And what about the 'harrowing of hell' thing? If God went to hell, then surely hell ceased to be hell. By definition. Maybe Rob Bell is right and







I've got no major point to make here other than that when you scrutinise some of the doctrines of Christianity, they don't actually work. And especially, when you try and harmonise them, they don't always work together.

For what its worth, having wrestled with both issues over the past few years, I no longer find either the doctrine of the atonement or the doctrine of the Trinity actually makes sense. It may be that someone died on a cross two thousand years ago, but I can no longer accept that that person was inseparably part of God or that there could be any transaction in that death which took my place in some death that I should actually have died myself. There would be no justice in such a deal.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Corrective contradictions #1

Mark 13v26-33:
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.
This is one of those passages where Jesus is recorded as saying something and then immediately seems to retract it and say something contrary. There are a number of these in the gospels and I'll comment on a few others in different posts, if I can find the time.

Here, regarding "the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory", he says:
  • "this generation will certainly not pass away until these things have happened", and
  • "about that day or hour no one knows, not even [...] the Son, but only the Father"
How do we reconcile these two statements? Here's all the possibilities I can see:
  1. Assuming Jesus actually said both things, he wouldn't have said the former if he really had no idea about when the events would take place. So the only way I can see to reconcile these is to actually take the latter statement at face value - Jesus didn't know the day or hour, but he did know the month, year or decade. He knew the 'Son of Man coming' event was coming soon (within a generation) but just didn't know the precise details. This leaves us with two possibilities, either:
    • Jesus incorrectly predicted the 'Son of Man coming' event. It didn't happen. The world has gone on as before for nearly two thousand years since the time Jesus predicted. That is to say, Jesus was wrong and uttered a false prophecy. Or
    • Jesus used allegorical language to talk about an event which did happen within a generation. That event can only have been the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD. That being the case we should interpret all other '2nd coming' discussion in a like manner and give up all belief in the future return of Christ. The 2nd coming has already happened.
  2. Assuming only one of the two statements is original to Jesus, there are other ways we can interpret the passage:
    • Assuming the former statement to be original, the latter statement must have been added by the compiler of the book to mitigate the former saying. This would make sense if the compiler was writing at a sufficiently late date that he could see that the former prophecy had failed, that is, the generation had passed away before the time of writing and the 2nd coming had not occurred. The addition of the latter statement was putting words (fictitiously) into the mouth of Jesus to try and salvage his reputation as a prophet.
    • Of course, we could rather assume the latter statement to be original to Jesus, but if that was the case then the entire, much longer, preceding passage would have to be the fiction. Why would anyone invent a definite, testable, prophecy and put it side by side with a statement that contradicts it? The only think I can think of is if someone in the days after the destruction of the temple thought that Jesus must have predicted such a cataclysmic event, and so invented the story and put it in the narrative at around the same point Jesus was talking about not how he didn't know the dates of future events.
  3. Of course there is also the possibility that both statements are not original to Jesus, but then we may simply be sealing with the situation of the compiler working with two distinct (and contradictory) traditions, and trying to reconcile them. Considering this doesn't really help us much in trying to determine the truth.
The one doctrine that doesn't come out of this study unscathed is the 2nd coming as it is commonly understood by contemporary evangelicals. No evangelical reading of the text as inerrant, authoritative or 'God breathed' lets us assume that either one of the statements is fictitious or that Jesus uttered false prophecy. The only way you can take this passage seriously as an evangelical is therefore to realise that the 'Son of Man coming' event Jesus was talking about must have been the destruction of the temple in the 1st Century and that there is therefore no other 2nd coming to look forward to.

I know there are a minority of evangelicals who do view this passage in this way, most notably N.T. Wright, but I have to say that, in my experience, most evangelicals are still looking forward to the 2nd coming, and they've been expecting it to be 'soon' for nearly two millennia so far.

But what if we approach this as a non-evangelical? Viewed from this perspective it seems clear to me that the narrative was compiled at least a generation after the events allegedly took place. The former prophecy (whether original to Jesus or not) has been shown to be false, and somebody (may or may not have been the compiler) has devised a corrective saying to mitigate the effects of the earlier saying being shown to be false.

I find the whole passage to be very hard to unravel. Jesus appears at certain points in the story to be talking clearly about the destruction of the temple, but at other points he is clearly talking about the 2nd coming and the end of all things, the escahton. From our point in history it is clear that the eschaton did not happen with the destruction of the temple. The only thing that makes sense to me is that the 'little apocalypse' was composed by someone (not Jesus) shortly after the destruction of the temple, but still during the period of the Jewish war - the author assumed that the destruction was the beginning of the process and the 2nd coming wasn't far off. However, some time after this, the compiler of the gospel is able to see that the eschaton didn't happen as predicted, and so added the corrective saying to mitigate the failed prophecy.

So what I deduce is that the gospel we call Mark was compiled some decades after 70AD, and not prior to 70AD as most evangelicals (who have an opinion) think.

Of course, if Mark wasn't written until decades after 70AD, and Matthew and Luke (and maybe John) are both dependent on Mark, then we have a real problem in terms of dating the gospels. Another possibility, of course, is that the little apocalypse was inserted into an already existing gospel, dating from an earlier decade, but I haven't heard that theory proposed before.

As to whether there is anything original to Jesus in here, I think if there is, then it is only some vague (and not time limited) prophecy about the coming of the Son of Man, and was nothing (originally) to do with the destruction of the temple. However, it makes just as much sense if none of this goes back to a historical Jesus.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The fine tuning argument revisited

I just listened to last week's Unbelievable podcast on the subject of 'Atheism's New Clothes', featuring a discussion between (academic scientist and Christian) David Glass and (academic philosopher and atheist) James Croft. The discussion was loosely based around the issues raised by Glass in his recent book 'Atheism's new clothes' (sadly not on Kindle yet) which is a response to the books and arguments of the 'new atheists' such as Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and others (Dennett is usually mentioned in that list, but I don't think he was mentioned in the programme, so I don't know if he is addressed in the book either).

The discussion was supposed to cover all the issues raised in the book, but got bogged down on the issue of the 'fine tuning' of the universe. While Croft did a remarkably good job of shooting down Glass's fine tuning argument and discrediting his flawed use of probabilistic reasoning, he never managed to convince Glass that his take on the fine tuning argument was anything less than water-tight.

The fine tuning argument is summarised in this way on Wikipedia:
"The fine-tuned Universe is the proposition that the conditions that allow life in the Universe can only occur when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different, the Universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is presently understood. The existence and extent of fine-tuning in the Universe is a matter of dispute in the scientific community."
The point is that certain universal constants are built-in to the universe, and without these constants the universe could not sustain life (or, at least, life as we know it), yet there is (so it is claimed) no scientific explanation for why the constants should have those values, and not other values, which would have resulted in a universe incapable of producing life.

The main theistic argument here goes like this: the probability that the constants could have just happened upon the 'correct' values 'by chance' is so vanishingly small that it didn't happen. Those constants must have been selected by an intelligent designer, so therefore there must be a God.

Atheistic counter arguments usually go two ways:

The first is to propose a multiverse type arrangement where there are an infinite number of possible universes, each with a different set of universal constants. These universes may either be in series in infinite time, or in parallel in infinite dimensions. Given enough coordinates in probability space, then it becomes highly likely that somewhere in all this probability there will be a universe with the 'correct' set of universal constants. This way of thinking is favoured by a great many scientists. Of course, this raises the issue of the unseen infinite which I have blogged about before - you can demonstrate that anything can be achieved if you can invoke the explanatory power of an unseen but infinite factor.

The other way is to show that the issue is being looked at the wrong way around. It is not that the universe was fine tuned for our kind of life to emerge, but rather that our kind of life is a product of the kind of universe in which we are. Universes with different sets of constants, should any exist, would produce different emergent types of life, but in every instance it would appear (to the emergent life) that the universe was fine tuned for them to exist.

The show set me considering whether the theist actually has a valid argument. I actually found myself wondering this way:

Suppose the universe was created by a supernatural being who preset the fundamental constants, how did that being decide what the constants should be? Did he (lets stick to convention here and refer to the deity as masculine) try out any other sets of constants in other universes only to discover that they didn't work? How many times did he do this? Even if he only did a 'thought experiment', this is still working through all the possible alternatives until a solution is found. Following this line of reasoning you very quickly end up with the multiverse type arrangement (again with the inherent unseen infinite problem) and God is reduced to the mere mechanism by which the various universes choose their parameters.

Of course, no theist really thinks like this. It is obvious to them that God would just know what the 'correct' parameters should be. But why? For the theist it is not that God had to work out the right parameters, he just knows them. I suppose you could say that the correct parameters for the universe are just there in the mind of God. But how is this thinking any different from the non-theist explanation which thinks that the correct parameters are just built in to the universe and couldn't be otherwise?

In order to demonstrate that the parameters are 'fine tuned' you actually need to be able to demonstrate that the parameters could have been otherwise. As far as I know, no theist has ever done this. As far as we can tell, those parameters are necessary features of our universe and not variables.

Fundamentally, the fine tuning argument for God does not and cannot explain how God came up with the set of fundamental constants that appear to be built into our universe. In other words, it has no explanatory power.

It boils down, basically, to these two options:

  1. The universe has a set of physical constants built into it at the outset. We do not know how these constants were fixed. Or
  2. The universe has a set of physical constants built into it at the outset. They were put there by God. We do not know how these constants were fixed in the mind of God. We do not know how God came to be there.
It looks to me that God doesn't really play a part in the argument. He actually complicates the origin model rather than simplifying it. With God in the picture there are more questions and more unknowns.

Should we use Occam's razor here?

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Science vs. Religion

I seem to have read and listened to a number of things in the 'Science vs. Religion' debate recently. Are they compatible? Are they complimentary? Are they 'non-overlapping magisteria'?

Reflecting on these questions I have come to the following conclusions:
  • Science and religion must be compatible if and only if we live in a universe with a supernatural component, that is, if there is a God.
  • Science and religion must be incompatible if and only if we live in a universe with no supernatural components, that is, if there is no God.
So, fundamentally, believers in any religion can come around to believing that religion and science are compatible and complimentary - because their world view requires this. However, materialistic 'hard line' atheists will, if they think logically, come to the conclusion that religion and science are incompatible - their worldview requires this.

The answer to the question is therefore: it depends who you are and what you believe.

This is not very useful. To me it looks like we're asking the wrong question here. The question is not are science and religion compatible, the essential question is this: Is there a God? If you can answer that question, then the other question is solved along with it.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Debate rules...

What the hell is going on?

Fair point, well made.