Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Further correspondence with the atheist

In my last post I showed you a letter I wrote to an atheist I had a conversation with a few weeks ago. He responded by totally ignoring what I said, and instead he sent me a list of "atrocities" and "contradictions" in the Bible. I will go through all that he sent in a subsequent post, but I'm going to let you see what I sent to him in response.

Dear David,

Enclosed as requested is your list of Bible difficulties. I was disappointed you didn’t respond to anything I wrote. The issues I have raised need to be addressed first because before I can deal with “atrocities” and “inconsistencies” you need to define your terms, and by refusing to deal with the issue of the grounding for objective morality, rationality and free will, you have left yourself without a foundation upon which to rest your arguments.

You have listed a lot of supposed atrocities in the Bible. I will ask you again to explain what evil means to an atheist. Is it a departure from some objective and obligatory standard, or is it just your opinion? Please tell me what basis you have as an atheist for condemning any behaviour as evil – you might not like certain behaviour, but then you might not like brussel sprouts, why are others obliged to care about your preferences? Why do you get to impose your preferences on others? What objective, obligatory standard do these actions fail to meet? What objective, obligatory law was being broken by these actions? Remember, you as an atheist cannot point to any divine standard, because you don’t believe in any such standard, yet this is what you did in our discussion. You see, the point you need to understand is that you can’t argue against Christianity without standing on a Christian foundation. The Triune God is the only rational ground for objective morality, so if you reject that God then there is no basis for condemning any behaviour.

Furthermore, you as an atheist have no foundation for affirming free will, so you have no more reason for condemning the actions of people in the Bible as you do for condemning a hurricane for causing death and destruction. If we are just a collection of chemicals (as atheism implies we are) then we do not act freely, but we react deterministically. We are doing what chemicals do at this temperature and in these conditions and can do nothing else, if atheism is true. So atheism cannot account for the consciousness you have, and the rationality you use and the morality you hold to.

Once you can provide a rational, coherent foundation for an atheist affirming free will and pronouncing any action as objectively evil, I will respond to all the “atrocities” you have mentioned. While it is just your opinion that these actions are evil, since you are not God and your opinions aren’t binding on or authoritative over anyone, they do not need or merit a response. Besides, the vast majority of the things you record are things that scripture records and does not approve, so it is not really sensible to present them anyway, (even if you did have a rational foundation for condemning them).

When critiquing literature, humility and open-mindedness are essential. Perceived inconsistencies or atrocities could be the fault of the reader rather than the writer. You would show a more open-minded attitude if you said, “These things are a puzzle to me, I wonder what the author meant, maybe I’m misunderstanding something, perhaps Christian Bible scholars can explain them” rather than presenting them as unanswerable.

Some of your objections are explained by consulting a Lexicon or commentary. Neither you nor I are Hebrew or Greek scholars or ancient historians, and I am glad to consult those who are on issues of language and culture. You really could be helped by consulting them too.

The others can be answered by simply reading the text carefully, completely and contextually. For example, if you had read between Romans 2:13 and 3:20 you would have discovered that Paul was working towards a conclusion. 3:19-20 shows the conclusion of Paul’s argument – no one has met the standard of 2:13 thus justification cannot be by the law – we’re all guilty. This is exactly the point we were making when we discussed the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 and the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. If you keep the whole law completely you’ll be justified – but we haven’t. It’s quite simple really. Do you really think Paul forgot what he’d written in 2:13 by the time he got to 3:19? You may not believe the Bible is the Word of God but it seems you think the writers of the Bible were idiots who would contradict themselves in a matter of a few sentences.

If you took the same attitude to novels or newspapers as you do to the Bible you would really struggle, but if you took the same attitude to the Bible as you do to other literature you would get on much better. Reading requires a recognition that there are different genres, literary devices and figures of speech, and that words have semantic ranges, meaning the same word can mean different things in different contexts. Not every statement is intended to be taken literally. For instance, when you say in your letter about being saddled with another’s crime, speaking off the cuff, snatching at straws or little things bugging you, you meant none of those things literally, but I had no trouble understanding what you meant. If those words were translated into a different language and given to someone hundreds of years from now, they might struggle to get what you were on about, so they would have to look at other literature from that language and culture to see what was meant – that is why you really could be helped by consulting lexicons and commentaries.

You see, it is easy to point out “absurdities” if you are being unfair about the matter, uninformed about the language and culture, and uncharitable in your attitude. I’m not saying there aren’t things in the Bible hard to reconcile or understand, but the things in your list are so easily answered that it makes it look like you aren’t interested in answers.

Your "little puzzles" didn’t cause too much head-scratching, in fact. There is nothing in the list that hasn’t been answered long ago and lots of times.

You say that once I have answered them I could write a book. Are you unaware that there have been loads of books written addressing these things? Have you never sought answers? What books have you read on the subject?

If you have not actually taken the time to do any research then you can read any of the following. You will find your objections have all been dealt with. Gleason L. Archer Jr, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties; R.A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible: Alleged Errors and Contradictions; Sidney Collett, The Scriptures of Truth; Tim Chaffey, Bodie Hodge & Ken Ham, Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions; William Arndt, Robert G. Hoerber & Walter R. Roehrs, Bible Difficulties and Seeming Contradictions; Edward D. Andrews, An Introduction to Bible Difficulties; John Taylor, Bible Contradictions?; William Arndt, Does the Bible Contradict Itself?; James Montgomery Boice, Dealing with Bible Problems: Alleged Errors and Contradictions in the Bible; Mark Mittelberg & Lee Strobel, Confident Faith; Hank Hanegraff, The Bible Answer Book; Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith; Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?; Morris & Clark, The Bible has the Answer; Timothy Keller, The Reason for God; H. A Ironside & C. L. Daniel, The Bible’s Seeming Contradictions; N. L. Geisler & R. M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences; R. Rhodes, The Big Book of Bible Answers: A Guide to Understanding the Most Challenging Questions; N. L. Geisler & T. Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties; William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary.

That’s just a small sample of what is available. Christians have nothing to fear from your list.

I’ll just mention a couple of things you mentioned in your letter. You say you didn’t ask to be born and you have been saddled with the consequences of Adam’s sin. You say this is morally unjustified – by what standard, David? Who are you to say what is justifiable or not? Are you God? Are your opinions authoritative? I will keep saying it, and hope you don’t keep ignoring it, as an atheist you have no foundation for saying anything is morally justified or unjustified. Besides, how could you have been asked? You did not exist prior to your conception. This is self-referentially incoherent. To be asked if you wanted to exist presupposes your existence. Is this atheistic clear thinking? It sounds like the argument from the huffy teenager when he’s told to clean his room – “I didn’t ask to be born!” Hopefully once the teenager gets over his huff he realises that these people gave him life and are a proper authority over him and he owes them trust, respect and obedience. God has given you life, and the opportunity to come to know Him which is where true satisfaction and real joy can be found.

Adam’s sin does have consequences for us, to be sure, because God has created us as a community, as relational creatures. Our actions affect others, and we are not isolated individual islands. However, if you read Paul’s letter to the Romans you will find that you will not be punished for something you did not do or could not help, you will be punished for your acts of deliberate sin. Despite your atheism allowing you no foundation to condemn anyone or hold anyone responsible for their actions, you are still made in God’s image and you know better, you know that people are responsible for their actions and have done wrong, and you have too, which is why you need the salvation Christ provided.

You say Jesus Christ was no more than a man, and His cry from the cross proves this. Strange how the disciples didn’t see it like that, and they believed Him to be the divine Son of God despite what happened on the cross. This is something you have to account for. What led these monotheistic Jews to worship as God a man who had been publicly crucified and apparently abandoned by God? If He was not who He claimed to be then He was a lunatic or liar, and the disciples were blaspheming, idolatrous apostates. The only answer as to why they would worship a man who had been hanged on a tree and accursed by God is the resurrection. After the Lord’s resurrection they saw that His death had been prophesied, which is one of the reasons why He cried “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He was citing Psalm 22, a graphic, vivid description of His crucifixion hundreds of years before crucifixion was invented – which is another issue you have to deal with. He was forsaken by God, His Father, and left to bear the judgment due to sinners. Thus the Lord is the Substitute of all who repent and trust in Him, and they righteously go free.

You ask why He didn’t appear to His enemies – He did! Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of Christians, and James, His brother, who had been an unbeliever. What lead this opponent and this sceptic to worship this man? By the way, you don’t know who else He appeared to, but on one occasion He appeared to 500 at once (1Corinthians 15). The Lord didn’t appear to others for a reason (see Luke 16:31). You are wrong when you say raising the dead was common place. It wouldn’t have been much of a sign if it were, would it?! N.T. Wright’s book, The Resurrection of the Son of God shows you to be incorrect. You would do well to read it. It gives an insight into the Messianic expectations of second Temple Judaism, and their beliefs about the resurrection.

You list the stringent claims Christ makes on all who follow Him – that He is to have first place etc. You have a problem with this. Yes, David – just who did this man think He was?!

You ask why Christ, if He knew the future, didn’t say do not persecute. He clearly knew the future, as evidenced by His statements about the destruction of the temple, but to address your question: What about saying, “My Kingdom is not of this world: if My Kingdom were of this world then would My servants fight” (John 18:36)?

The very nature of the Gospel shows that Christianity in the Biblical sense cannot be coerced by force – God calls on people to genuinely repent and sincerely believe – that cannot be done produced by persecution. Persecution might produce professions of faith, but it can never produce genuine faith. By the way, when you speak about the inquisitions you are talking about the actions of the Roman Catholic Church, which bears no resemblance to anything seen or taught in scripture, and on a point of accuracy, tens of thousands were not killed during the inquisitions, at least according to my sources. If you have historical sources that say otherwise please reference them.

Any persecution done in the name of Christianity happens contrary to the teaching of Christ and His apostles (Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 12:17-21; 1Peter 4:12-19), but when we think of the mass murders committed by atheists – Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot etc. (more than 100 million murdered at their hands – more than all religions combined have been responsible for), there is nothing in atheism that says that their actions were wrong – no God, no rules, no justice, no punishment.

In conclusion then, you have ignored what I wrote, and have left yourself with no foundation for condemning any behaviour as immoral. If you want the discussion to continue please tell me what you mean when you say an act is evil, and why your opinion is authoritative and binding on others. Please show how there can be free will if atheism is true. Please explain how there can be rational thought if atheism is true and we are just matter in motion. Once we have dealt with those issues then there is a foundation upon which we can discuss atrocities and inconsistencies, but until then, you are borrowing from a Christian world-view in order to attack it, because “atrocities” don’t exist in an atheistic world-view, and you have to be “inconsistent” to object to it, because you are using tools that atheism can’t account for – reason, consciousness, free will and morality.

This is written with a sincere concern for you – terrible if you were wrong, David. Thanks for your time.