October 11, 2009
Unresolved Obstacles to Becoming a Christian
Hi Dr Craig
I'm not a Christian but I am still a big fan of yours. I love your clear and concise debating style.
Over the last few months I've been listening to your debates and whilst most issues you've tackled there are still a few questions that I have that I felt haven't quite been answered yet (by anyone) and I thought I'd try my luck at asking you directly.
Some background: although I'm Agnostic, I do want God to exist desperately as I recognise that life indeed has no objective meaning without God, I further recognise that morality cannot be objective without God. This scenario is very bleak for us if true.
Ok, my first issue is Biblical inerrancy. Most Churches and Christians I know hold it as a major doctrine the belief that the Bible is inerrant. I get the feel from your debates that you believe the Bible is not inerrant. Please correct me if I'm wrong.
You could argue that the major doctrines don't depend on this, but for me personally (and many others), this was a big disappointment and source of doubt for me, as I was told to anticipate inerrancy but yet I discovered otherwise. I'm sure you could give me a good argument as to why God would let errors creep in, but also realize that the errors and contradictions in the Bible are also consistent with naturalism and such problems would be predicted. Human agents tend to make errors when a perfect God doesn't guide them.
First question is: is there anything special or divine about the Biblical documents in themselves (excluding the claims they make for now) that could be seen as evidence that it's something special/authored of God and not just a human product? For example, Biblical inerrancy would've constituted such evidence if it were true.
The resurrection of Jesus
The success or failure of this argument relies on our presuppositions. If I believe in God it would seem sensible to assume he could act in the world and could very easily raise Jesus from the dead. If I don't, I will defer to naturalistic arguments because I don't believe miracles are possible to begin with.
Assuming God exists, it's indeed the best explanation for the facts, but constitutes a very poor explanation if you aren't sure that God or miracles happen in the first place.
So basically, the reason I'm sceptical of a supernatural explanation here is because I simply have not seen any direct/positive evidence of God or miracles. I can't say it makes a good explanation because I don't know that supernatural things can happen, period.
I don't think this is a good argument for God; it's more a supporting argument to an assumption already made.
In conclusion, I think absent a direct spiritual experience of God or of miracles (an experience I would accept) I could not comfortably say I know what may or may not have happened to Jesus in that time.
We observe a few things that seem to point in the direction of intelligent design:
• The universe had a beginning.
• The universe appears to have constants necessary for our sort of carbon based life to exist.
We also observe a few things that seem to point in the direction of randomness:
• The universe is wasteful. It's HUGE and most of it is empty space devoid of life.
• Even on earth the process of life was very wasteful. The majority of species have gone extinct.
As far as the beginning is concerned I will concede that it would seem that the cause of our universe would need to be something not bound by usual physical laws and somehow have properties that allow it to escape the need to be caused. This could imply a Creator or maybe this is a gap that future science will be able to fill, I don't know, this I can't explain.
Secondly, you could argue that the physical properties of this universe are necessary for life, but they are only necessary for the sort of life we know. It's possible that other sorts of life (or other thinking entities) could arise given different physical properties.
As for the massive waste in the universe and in biology, I have heard you make an argument that because God is not limited by time, that he wouldn't care to be efficient. I find this very unconvincing. While you are logically consistent I don't think it's a very good argument.
I am a Software Engineer, and from my perspective, the efficiency of a program is more related to the proficiency of the programmer, rather than related to the time it takes. In almost any program there is redundant code and bugs, but these are mistakes, and they creep in because we're human and imperfect, not because we want it there. Regardless of the time given to a project, I will try to program it as efficiently as possible, in fact the more time I'm given for a project, the more efficient my program will be as I have more time to iron out the bugs and optimise the code. A perfect programmer would make perfect and efficient programs, regardless of time.
So, what could account for this? I see 3 possibilities, all metaphysical I know.
1) The multi-verse hypothesis.
2) There is a Creator, but this designer is not all-powerful, not perfect and not very efficient.
3) God exists and is perfect. But for some inexplicable reason chose the inefficient route.
1 & 2 seem to have better explanatory power when it comes to explaining the detail along with the waste. If anything, it seems 2 is the most plausible given the evidence? I would like to hear your comments.
I'm so glad that your desire is for God, Mike, because an open heart is the most important pre-requisite to finding faith. Let me respond to your questions in their logical order, rather than the order in which you pose them, since so doing will shed light on why I answer them as I do.
The first and foremost question is, does God exist? You handle this under the heading "Cosmology." In my work I defend a number of different arguments for God's existence, including the contingency argument (or Leibnizian cosmological argument), the kalam cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, and the ontological argument. Together these constitute a powerful, cumulative case for God's existence.
Your comments on the kalam cosmological argument based on the beginning of the universe lead me to think that you find this argument to be pretty good. The kalam argument gives us a beginningless, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, enormously powerful, Personal Creator of the universe. Your only reservation is that how the universe began "is a gap that future science will be able to fill." Notice, though, Mike, that that reservation is appropriate only with respect to the scientific confirmation of the premiss that the universe began to exist. It has no applicability to the philosophical arguments I give in support of that premiss. Even if the scientific confirmation were unexpectedly to evaporate, that would not affect the philosophical arguments for the past's finitude. And you also need to beware lest you fall into assuming a sort of "naturalism of the gaps," whereby one appeals without justification to future unknown naturalistic explanations just to save the day for naturalism. The appeal to unknown, future theories as grounds for doubting a present theory could be lodged against any scientific theory whatsoever and, if allowed, would thereby destroy science. The premiss is supported by the best scientific evidence we have, so that those who deny it are the ones resisting the evidence.
As for the teleological argument based on the universe's fine-tuning, your only reservation seems to be that "It's possible that other sorts of life (or other thinking entities) could arise given different physical properties." Again, be careful: what's at issue here is not what's logically possible but what is biologically reasonable. When scientists talk about a universe's being life-permitting, they're not talking about just present forms of life. By "life" scientists mean the property of organisms to take in food, extract energy from it, grow, adapt to their environment, and reproduce. Anything that can fulfill those functions counts as life. And the point is, in order for life so-defined to exist, whatever form it might take, the constants and quantities of the universe have to be unbelievably fine-tuned. Otherwise utter disaster results. In the absence of fine-tuning not even matter, not even chemistry, would exist, much less planets where life might evolve. So in the absence of fine-tuning it's reasonable to think that life could not exist.
So these arguments alone give us good grounds to think that a Creator and Designer of the universe exists. Now against this conclusion you oppose two considerations. First, "The universe is wasteful. It's HUGE and most of it is empty space devoid of life." Ah, but Mike, recall that it's one of the insights of the fine-tuning argument that the universe must in fact be very large, since the heavy elements like carbon of which our bodies are made are synthesized in the interior of stars and then distributed throughout the cosmos by supernovae explosions. But it takes billions of years for the stars to go through such a process, and all the time the universe is expanding. So the size of the universe is a function of its age, and that is a pre-condition of our very existence. So all that empty space is not at all a waste! Besides, how do you know it is devoid of life? Maybe there are intelligent beings who exist elsewhere in the cosmos who are also God's creatures. Why be closed to that idea?
Second, you object that "Even on earth the process of life was very wasteful. The majority of species have gone extinct." But is it true that life was wasteful? The primeval forests were the basis for the oil and coal deposits that make modern civilization possible. (Try to think of human culture ever evolving very far in the absence of fossil fuels!) The extinct creatures that existed during those times were part of the eco-system that made the planet flourish. And don't you think that God, if He exists, delighted in the dinosaurs and other marvelous creatures now extinct? I think He did!
That brings us to the real crux of the problem, in my opinion. The implicit assumption seems to be that God wouldn't create such extravagant waste. God is like a super-efficient engineer who wouldn't engage in such waste.
Mike, I love you engineers because you respond so well to my approach to apologetics! But you've got to be really careful about creating God in your own image and projecting your values onto Him. As I said to Quentin Smith, who originally raised the efficiency objection, God may be more like an artist than like an engineer, someone who delights in the extravagance of His creation, in far-flung, undiscovered galaxies, in flowers that bloom unseen on a remote mountain hillside, in beautiful shells lying in the ocean's unexplored depths. I see no reason at all to think that God should be like the engineer rather than the artist. Efficiency, as I said, is a value only to someone with limited resources or limited time, or both. But God has unlimited time and resources, so why shouldn't He be extravagant? Granted that your engineer would marshal his time and resources carefully; but suppose God isn't (just) an engineer?
So I think your third alternative "God exists and is perfect" is the best alternative, with the caveat that we can give reasons why He would create a universe so large or a planet characterized by so long a leadup time to man. But notice as well, Mike, that even your other two alternatives aren't atheistic! The arguments I've given so far don't prove either God's omnipotence or perfection and so are consistent with the second alternative, and there's no reason God couldn't have created a multiverse, which is the first alternative. So why resist the conclusions implicit in the cosmological and teleological arguments?
On top of these we've got the contingency argument, the moral argument, and the ontological argument. So theism seems to be in pretty good shape!
Now we come to the resurrection of Jesus, your second topic! I agree with you that given theism, as established by the previous arguments, the resurrection is "indeed the best explanation for the facts." So in my published work I consider the evidence for the resurrection only after presenting a case for theism. I do think that the evidence for Jesus' resurrection can be part of a cumulative case for theism; but that's not really its proper place. It's properly part of Christian evidences, not natural theology. (See in this connection my discussion of Dale Allison's essay of the evidence for the resurrection.)
But note: even the agnostic has to be open to the resurrection as the best explanation of the evidence. Only if you have sound arguments for atheism can you justifiably dismiss a miraculous explanation, and even then, if the evidence for a miracle like Jesus' resurrection is powerful enough, you may find that it overwhelms your atheistic arguments. In any case, all this is academic, since you don't offer atheistic arguments and find some of the theistic arguments fairly convincing. So you should follow the evidence concerning Jesus to where it points.
Finally, your third point: biblical inerrancy. By this time, if you've followed my argument, you should believe that God exists and has raised Jesus from the dead, thereby vindicating his radical personal claims to be God's Son and the Jewish Messiah. So you become his follower.
Now what do you do about the letters and biographies composed by those who were his earliest followers, which have now been collected into the New Testament? Were their human authors led by God to compose these works? Are they inspired? What does inspiration entail? Inerrancy? Inerrancy in matters of faith and morals? Inerrancy in all that the authors teach? I think you can see that these are in-house questions to be discussed and decided upon by Christians. They certainly don't need to be settled by someone who is contemplating becoming Christ's follower!
In answering these questions, you've got to be very careful not to impose what you think is an appropriate doctrine of inspiration on these documents, rather than let them teach you what inspiration entails. I find that many people have an essentially Muslim understanding of inspiration, which amounts to a dictation theory of inspiration. But unlike the Muslim view of the Qur'an, Christians do not hold to a dictation theory of inspiration. We hold that the humanity of the biblical authors shines through, even as the Holy Spirit guided them. (Look at my article on a middle knowledge perspective on biblical inspiration.)
I think you evince similar assumptions when you ask for something "special or divine about the Biblical documents in themselves (excluding the claims they make for now) that could be seen as evidence that it's something special/authored of God and not just a human product." The Bible isn't a magical book of that sort. The New Testament is a collection mainly of occasional letters, along with some biographies of Jesus and a history of the early church. Let it be what it claims itself to be. Your disappointment is only the result of imposing false expectations.
This is not to say that the Bible isn't inerrant. I affirm that it is (see Questions of the Week 10 and 11). But it is to say that this is an issue which you don't need to settle before becoming a Christian. Mike, you've got all the good grounds for making that step now, and you can study the doctrine of inspiration and its entailments later on at your leisure.