Sunday, February 19, 2017

Life in the minefield

There's a formidable sense in which death is a curse. It's a curse for the damned. And it's a curse for survivors who lose loved ones. 

Yet there's a sense in which death can be a mercy. A fallen world is a minefield. So many things can go terribly wrong. Suppose humans were immortal in a fallen world. Suppose humans were youthful, ageless, and healthy. 

But that could just be a different kind of hell on earth. If you live long enough, your luck will run out. If you live long enough, you will step on a land mine. The longer you live, the more heartache you'll experience.

At best, life in a fallen world will be tedious. Imagine the unbearable tedium of immortal life in a fallen world. It's my impression that some people stay married because they get to a point in life where it's too late to start over again. It's not because the couple is so devoted to each other. It's that they have too much to lose by divorce and remarriage. But if sinners were immortal, how many marriages would last for the duration? 

Likewise, how many friendships would end in betrayal or boredom? By the same token, how long could your Christian faith hold out? Wouldn't the Bible become interminably familiar? The sameness would become deadening. 

Natural immorality doesn't make you indestructible. Just that you can't die from old age or disease. But you could still be killed. Or horribly maimed or disabled. And you'd stay in that condition indefinitely. 

If immortality means the body has greater regenerative resources, evil men could torture you, wait for you to recover, then renew the torture ad infinitum. Yank your teeth out with pliers every few months. 

One advantage of death in a fallen world, especially for Christians, is that suffering, now matter how horrendous or depressing, will come to an end. There's only so many times the worst thing can happen to you. When you die, you put all that behind you. Nothing worse can happen to you. Nothing bad can happen to you anymore. The worst is behind you, and you only have happiness to look forward to from hereon out. 

And however bad things are, life is short. Like a prisoner, you can mark off the remaining days on the calendar. (I'm referring to Christians. For the damned, it's just the opposite.)

Ancient Israel's history

Saturday, February 18, 2017

"If Calvinism is true, the gays are right!"

I was referred to this video:

Normally I wouldn't bother commenting on Leighton Flowers or Steve Gaines because that's low-hanging fruit. Out of fairness, I generally critique high-level proponents of a position rather than popularizers. However, it's possible to be too high-minded for one's own good. Most freewill theists aren't getting their freewill theism from sophisticates like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Alexander Pruss, and Peter van Inwagen, but from popularizers like Flowers, so there's some value in commenting on Flowers. Flowers says wants to hear how a Calvinist would respond to the challenge. We'll see about that.

I didn't listen to the clips he played of White. That doesn't interest me. I'll begin by quoting from the video:

Do homosexuals have a point when they say I was born like this? I was born with these desires. I was born with same-sex attraction. God made me like this. If what the Calvinists teaches is true with regard to total inability and meticulous determinism, then are they correct in their defense? Do they truly have that excuse? Is it true that God has ultimately determined which choices they will make and the desires that will ultimately determine their choices? And thus I'm not really responsible for my choices. I can't really resist this temptation. I can't stop being homosexual because this is the way God made me. I want to hear what a Calvinist would say in defense of that. If you believe that God is responsible for everything that happens…you can't have it both ways. If God predestined it then God is responsible. 

That's rife with confusions:

i) Calvinism has a doctrine of absolute predestination, and Calvinism has a doctrine of meticulous providence.

Calvinism per se doesn't have a theory of the will, or human psychology. Calvinism doesn't imply that our desires ultimately determine our choices. That may or may not be true, but it's not an implication of Calvinism. Calvinism doesn't have a theory of causation. 

ii) Calvinism doesn't imply that our choices are determined by our nature, genetics, or hormones. Calvinism is neutral on physical determinism and genetic determinism. Those are not theological positions.

According to Calvinism, a human agent can never think, choose, or act contrary to how he was predestined to think, choose, or act. A human agent is never "contra-causally" free in that regard.

But Calvinism is neutral on whether a human agent is free to resist his hormones, genetic programming, social conditioning, environmental controls, &c. Those are not theological positions. Rather, those are philosophical or scientific positions. According to Calvinism, most events come to pass through ordinary providential means, but Calvinism doesn't specify what those means are. 

iii) Flowers seems to be using idiosyncratic terminology. In standard Reformed usage, we talk about total depravity and spiritual inability, not "total inability". In the classic formulation of the Westminster Confession, fallen man has "wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto" (WCT 9.3). 

That's not equivalent to "total inability". 

iv) What does it even mean to say a homosexual was born with homosexual impulses? The sex drive doesn't kick in until adolescence.

Perhaps that's a clumsy way of saying homosexuals were born with a genetic program that will cause them to develop homosexual impulses with the onset of adolescence. Some people are hardwired to experience homosexual propensities when they hit puberty. Maybe that's what he means. But as it stands, the way Flowers has framed the issue is nonsensical.

v) I daresay most homosexual are atheists. So they don't think God made them that way. I daresay most of them say that just to put Christians on the spot, and not because that's what they really believe.

vi) I'd say that according to Calvinism, God is responsible for everything that happens. But that doesn't mean God is solely responsible. And that doesn't mean God is culpable. 

vii) Predestination doesn't entail that homosexual impulses are immutable. According to Calvinism, if you're a teenage homosexual, that's because God predestined you to be a teenage homosexual. But that doesn't imply that you will be a twenty-something homosexual, a middle-aged homosexual, or lifelong homosexual. What God has predestined you to be at present doesn't predict for what God has predestined you to be in the future. 

To take a comparison, if you were predestined to be a teenage atheist, that doesn't entail that you were predestined to be a twenty-something atheist, a middle-aged atheist, or lifelong atheist. Some people change–because God predestines change. 

viii) Likewise, if you succumb to temptation, that's because God predestined you to succumb to temptation. But by the same token, if you resist temptation, that's because God predestined you to resist temptation. Predestination in general doesn't imply that you can't resist temptation. Rather, it depends on what God predestined in any particular situation.

Calvinism does not imply that a sinner can't act contrary to his sinful impulses. Rather, Calvinism takes the position that a sinner can't act contrary to whatever he was predestined to do. 

So why not just create a bunch of people who want to worship him from the beginning and do away with all the pain and suffering and heartache and millions upon millions of people eternally burning in hell…There's no reason for the suffering unless there's true contra-causal freedom. 

i) It doesn't occur to Flowers that a fallen and redeemed world has distinctive goods that can't occur in an unfallen world. Take soul building virtues. Those are second-order goods. They presuppose the existence of natural and moral evil.

ii) Likewise, an unfallen world won't have the same bunch of people as a redeemed world. The alternative which Flowers proposes eliminates pain and suffering at the cost of eliminating many individuals, including heavenbound individuals, whose existence depends on a world history where pain and suffering exist. Absent the Fall, Flowers wouldn't exist–or his parents and grandparents. He's the end-result of chains events that include pain and suffering. So there are tradeoffs. 

God unchangeably determines man's desire and circumstances so that he cannot refrain from acting out in his homosexual tendencies and desires as was ordained by God.

That's confused. According to Calvinism, God unchangeably predetermines whatever happens. But that doesn't mean God predetermines that nothing changes. To the contrary, God predestined change. God predestined the timeline. Events happen, things change, according to God's antemundane plan.

When you remove choice, when you remove freedom, you ultimately have God redeeming his own determinations, which certainly doesn't make any sense.

Some people make statements that seem self-evidently true to them because they don't consider obvious counterexamples. For instance, drama is typically defined in terms of conflict and conflict resolution. A novelist or dramatist or screenwriter or director first creates a dramatic situation in order to then relieve the dramatic tension. There's nothing counterintuitive about a creative agent who intentionally causes a problem in order to solve the problem. That's because the problem is a source of dramatic potential. And the resolution leads to enlightenment. The characters undergo a transformative experience that raises them to a higher plane than before the crisis. 

I'd like to make a final observation. If Arminians like Leighton Flowers and Steve Gaines believe in liberty of indifference, then they presumably think human agents are constantly poised a knife-edge between good and evil. You can be humanitarian one moment, and a serial killer the next. You can flip at any moment as you teeter on the precarious balance between good and evil. Nothing causes your will, so your morality is chronically unstable. 

That would make social relationships incredibly hazardous. That would make Flowers and Gaines incredibly dangerous to be around. Dare not turn your back on them. 

Yet in general, people exhibit a certain fixity of character. How do Arminians like Gaines and Flowers account for that stability if the will is uncaused? 

The Coming Flood

Earthquakes and rainbows

13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds…15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh (Gen (9:13-15).

i) From time to time I defend both the global and local flood interpretation. Gen 9:13-15 is a strong prima facie prooftext for the global extent of the flood. The argument is that since local floods recur throughout history, this must refer to something categorically different. How, if at all, might a local flood interpreter respond?

ii) Perhaps he'd say that while there's nothing exceptional about local floods, per se, Noah's flood was the most massive flood in the history of the ANE. Or that it was the most destructive to human life, given the concentration of humans in the ANE at that time. Even a local flood can be unexampled. 

iii) But here's another consideration. Let's take a comparison:

the world is established; it shall never be moved (Ps 93:1). 

the world is established; it shall never be moved (Ps 96:10).

He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved (Ps 104:5).

the world is established; it shall never be moved (1 Chron 16:30).

That's a recurring motif in Scripture. Some take it to be prooftexts for geocentrism. However, there's no evidence that OT Jews shared the Greeks' theoretical interest in celestial mechanics. Moreover, these passages say nothing about the earth in relation to the motion of the sun and planets. So geocentrism just isn't in view.

But what, then, does it refer to? I think it's using seismic imagery. Palestine is a seismically active region. So the claim is that God will protect his people from catastrophic earthquakes. For further corroboration of the seismic interpretation, consider these passages:

who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble (Job 9:6).

when he rises to shake the earth (Isa 2:19,21).

Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry (Ps 18:7).

It's the same stock imagery. Among natural disasters, earthquakes may be uniquely terrifying, because humans are land animals, so there's no escape from an earthquake. People can sometimes dodge floods by building on high ground or repairing to high ground as flood waters mount. They can sometimes outrun wildfires. They can take refuge inside during storms. Volcanoes tend to give warning signs of impending eruption. But earthquakes are sudden, and there's nowhere to go. 

iv) However, it might be objected that God hasn't protected his people from catastrophic earthquakes. But I take that to mean the imagery is figurative and hyperbolic. Yet if Scripture makes hyperbolic and figurative use of seismic imagery to symbolize providential protection, Scripture could just as well make hyperbolic and figurative use of meteorological imagery (e.g. rainbows) to symbolize providential protection. 

v) So what do promises of divine protection mean? What do they amount to? It's clear, both in Bible history and church history, that God often allows his people to suffer horrendous harm. 

In terms of life on earth, it may have a corporate rather than individualistic meaning. God preserves a people-group. God preserves a remnant. He doesn't allow the Jews to be exterminated. He doesn't allow Christians to be exterminated. He extends enough protection to keep the faith alive from one generation to the next, until the Parousia.

And it may also refer to eschatological protection. God will shield his people from the final judgment that awaits the wicked. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

What do we know about refugees?

Van Til's enduring value

Cornelius Van Til was a controversial figure in his lifetime, and he remains controversial. Much of the controversy swirls around the correct interpretation of his views. What, if anything, is the enduring value of his work?

i) Both believers and unbelievers take many truths for granted. It's useful, especially in apologetics, to consider all the other things that must be true for any particular thing to be true. What must reality be like for your fundamental beliefs about the possibility of morality, modality, knowledge, induction, human significance, &c., to be warranted?  

For instance, apostates commonly lose their Christian faith, but retain many residual beliefs that are inconsistent with atheism. They didn't stop to consider how many of their fundamental beliefs were implicitly grounded in God's existence. They fail to ask what's a necessary condition for their belief to be possible. 

Or they do it backwards. They begin by rejecting God. Then cast about for some alternative to ground their fundamental beliefs. But if they don't have the answers in advance, then their apostasy was intellectually premature. 

ii) It's possible not only to argue for Christian theology, but to argue from Christian theology. That's not viciously circular, because some Christian doctrines have independent explanatory value. It's not necessarily an argument from biblical authority to appeal to Christian doctrine. Rather, you can show how some Christian doctrines make better sense of what we must believe than secular alternatives. 

iii) Apropos (ii), philosophy and theology overlap. It's a mistake to separate the two.

iv) In apologetics we attempt to find common ground with the unbeliever. But sometimes it's necessary to challenge their tendentious or arbitrary rules of evidence (e.g. methodological atheism).

v) If Christian theism is true, then mind is prior to matter. Reality is ultimately personal rather than impersonal. And that has greater explanatory value than physicalism. 

vi) Van Til's rationalist/irrationalist square of opposition is useful. 

Snakes in Malta

28 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The native peopleshowed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3 When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. 4 When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice[b] has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god (Acts 28:1-6).

Critics say Luke is mistaken, since there are no venomous snakes on Malta. But that raises a raft of issues:

i) If it wasn't recorded in the Bible, and if critics didn't think this was an account of a miracle, I doubt you'd have their knee-jerk skepticism. Rather, they'd regard this as historical evidence that possibly venomous snakes used to inhabit Malta.

ii) It isn't all that clear that the snake is venomous. Ancient writers didn't have our detailed taxonomic designations. 

iii) Some scholars think it's a viper, but it doesn't behave like a viper. I'm not a herpetologist, but to my knowledge, vipers typically have a rapid strike and release technique. They inject their prey with retractable hypodermic fangs. 

By contrast, venomous snakes with fixed fangs are more likely to fasten onto their prey, to aid the process of envenomation. So I wouldn't expect a viper to cling to Paul's hand. 

A critic might say Luke's description is inaccurate, but that poses a dilemma for the critic, since he depends on Luke's account to impugn the accuracy of Luke's account, so he can't have it both ways.

iv) It isn't necessary the case that the snake is indigenous to Malta. Snakes can be introduced into foreign habitant. For instance, ancient ships attract rats, which attract snakes. Some snakes are stowaways. 

v) To my knowledge, Malta has been deforested over the centuries. That leads to loss of habitat for snakes. 

vi) Many people kill venomous snakes on sight. If you live in an area that's infested with venomous snakes (e.g. jungle), it isn't possible to begin to kill them all, because there are too many, and they are too well camouflaged. However, not only would deforestation automatically reduce the snake population, but with fewer snakes and hiding places, it would be easier to exterminate the remaining venomous snakes. All the more so considering that Malta is a small island. 

vii) Humans sometimes introduce animals into foreign habitat that threaten snakes. 

viii) The account is basically told from the viewpoint of the natives. It relates their reaction. They thought the snake was venomous.

I've seen nature shows in which a white guy had to explain to natives the difference between the venomous and nonvenomous species in their area. It seems a bit paradoxical that an outsider would know the difference, while the natives wouldn't. Perhaps, though, the natives are so afraid of snakes in general that they just assume the worst. They don't wish to find out the hard way which species are venomous and nonvenomous. So even though you might suppose they'd know by experience which is which, and even though it would be in their self-interest to know the difference, they don't seem to be that attentive or discriminating where snakes are concerned. 

In that event, the natives of Malta might assume the snake that bit Paul was venomous–whether or not that's actually the case. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Black Robe

Martin Scorsese's film Silence has gotten a lot of buzz among Christians. That's due both to the content and the fact that Scorsese is a legendary director, so his movies naturally garner much attention. Here's a review of a similar, but far less familiar movie:

Judging the judiciary


From John Lennox in his book God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (pp 52-5):

The great mathematician David Hilbert, spurred on by the singular achievements of mathematical compression, thought that the reductionist programme of mathematics could be carried out to such an extent that in the end all of mathematics could be compressed into a collection of formal statements in a finite set of symbols together with a finite set of axioms and rules of inference. It was a seductive thought with the ultimate in 'bottom-up' explanation as the glittering prize. Mathematics, if Hilbert's Programme were to succeed, would henceforth be reduced to a set of written marks that could be manipulated according to prescribed rules without any attention being paid to the applications that would give 'significance' to those marks. In particular, the truth or falsity of any given string of symbols would be decided by some general algorithmic process. The hunt was on to solve the so-called Entscheidungsproblem by finding that general decision procedure.

Experience suggested to Hilbert and others that the Entscheidungsproblem would be solved positively. But their intuition proved wrong. In 1931 the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel published a paper entitled 'On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems'. His paper, though only twenty-five pages long, caused the mathematical equivalent of an earthquake whose reverberations are still palpable. For Gödel had actually proved that Hilbert's Programme was doomed in that it was unrealizable. In a piece of mathematics that stands as an intellectual tour-de-force of the first magnitude, Gödel demonstrated that the arithmetic with which we are all familiar is incomplete: that is, in any system that has a finite set of axioms and rules of inference and which is large enough to contain ordinary arithmetic, there are always true statements of the system that cannot be proved on the basis of that set of axioms and those rules of inference. This result is known as Gödel's First Incompleteness Theorem.

Now Hilbert's Programme also aimed to prove the essential consistency of his formulation of mathematics as a formal system. Gödel, in his Second Incompleteness Theorem, shattered that hope as well. He proved that one of the statements that cannot be proved in a sufficiently strong formal system is the consistency of the system itself. In other words, if arithmetic is consistent then that fact is one of the things that cannot be proved in the system. It is something that we can only believe on the basis of the evidence, or by appeal to higher axioms. This has been succinctly summarized by saying that if a religion is something whose foundations are based on faith, then mathematics is the only religion that can prove it is a religion!

In informal terms, as the British-born American physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson puts it, 'Gödel proved that in mathematics the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts'. Thus there is a limit to reductionism. Therefore, Peter Atkins' statement, cited earlier, that 'the only grounds for supposing that reductionism will fail are pessimism in the minds of the scientists and fear in the minds of the religious' is simply incorrect.

That there are limits for reductionism in science itself is borne out by the history of science, which teaches us that it is important to balance our justifiable enthusiasm for reductionism by bearing in mind that there may well be (and usually is) more to a given whole than simply what we obtain by adding up all that we have learned from the parts. Studying all the parts of a watch separately will not necessarily enable you to grasp how the complete watch works as an integrated whole. There is more to water than we can readily see by investigating separately the hydrogen and oxygen of which it is composed. There are many composite systems in which understanding the individual parts of the system may well be simply impossible without an understanding of the system as a whole – the living cell, for instance.

Besides methodological reductionism, there are two further important types of reductionism: epistemological and ontological. Epistemological reductionism is the view that higher level phenomena can be explained by processes at a lower level. The strong epistemological reductionist thesis is that such 'bottom-up' explanations can always be achieved without remainder. That is, chemistry can ultimately be explained by physics; biochemistry by chemistry; biology by biochemistry; psychology by biology; sociology by brain science; and theology by sociology. As the Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Francis Crick puts it: The ultimate aim of the modern development in biology is, in fact, to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.'

This view is shared by Richard Dawkins. 'My task is to explain elephants, and the world of complex things, in terms of the simple things that physicists either understand, or are working on.' Leaving aside for the moment the very questionable assertion to which we must return below that the subject matter of physics is simple (think of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics or string theory), the ultimate goal of such reductionism is evidently to reduce all human behaviour – our likes and dislikes, the entire mental landscape of our lives – to physics. This view is often called 'physicalism', a particularly strong form of materialism. It is not, however, a view which commends universal support, and that for very good reasons. As Karl Popper points out: 'There is almost always an unresolved residue left by even the most successful attempts at reduction.'

Scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi helps us see why it is intrinsically implausible to expect epistemological reductionism to work in every circumstance. He asks us to think of the various levels of process involved in constructing an office building with bricks. First of all there is the process of extracting the raw materials out of which the bricks have to be made. Then there are the successively higher levels of making the bricks – they do not make themselves; brick-laying – the bricks do not 'self-assemble'; designing the building – it does not design itself; and planning the town in which the building is to be built – it does not organize itself. Each level has its own rules. The laws of physics and chemistry govern the raw material of the bricks; technology prescribes the art of brick-making; brick-layers lay the bricks as directed by the builders; architecture teaches the builders; and the architects are controlled by the town planners. Each level is controlled by the level above. But the reverse is not true. The laws of a higher level cannot be derived from the laws of a lower level – although what can be done at a higher level will, of course, depend on the lower levels. For example, if the bricks are not strong there will be a limit on the height of the building that can safely be built with them.

Or take another example, quite literally to your hand at this moment. Consider the page you are reading just now. It consists of paper imprinted with ink (or perhaps it is a series of dots on the computer screen in front of you). It is surely obvious that the physics and chemistry of ink and paper (or pixels on a computer monitor) can never, even in principle, tell you anything about the significance of the shapes of the letters on the page; and this has nothing to do with the fact that physics and chemistry are not yet sufficiently advanced to deal with this question. Even if we allow these sciences another 1,000 years of development it will make no difference, because the shapes of those letters demand a totally new and higher level of explanation than physics and chemistry are capable of giving. In fact, complete explanation can only be given in terms of the higher level concepts of language and authorship, the communication of a message by a person. The ink and paper are carriers of the message, but the message certainly does not arise automatically from them. Furthermore, when it comes to language itself, there is again a sequence of levels. You cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics, or the grammar of a language from its vocabulary, etc.

As is well known, the genetic material DNA carries information. We shall describe this later on in some detail; but the basic idea is that DNA can be thought of as a long tape on which there is a string of letters written in a four-letter chemical language. The sequence of letters contains coded instructions (information) that the cell uses to make proteins. But the order of the sequence is not generated by the chemistry of the base letters.

In each of the situations described above, we have a series of levels, each higher than the previous one. What happens on a higher level is not completely derivable from what happens on the level beneath it. In this situation it is sometimes said that the higher level phenomena 'emerge' from the lower level. Unfortunately, however, the word 'emerge' is easily misunderstood, and even misleadingly misused, to mean that the higher level properties arise automatically from the lower level properties without any further input of information or organization – just as the higher level properties of water emerge from combining oxygen and hydrogen. However, this is clearly false in general, as we showed earlier by considering building and writing on paper. The building does not emerge from the bricks nor the writing from the paper and ink without the injection of both energy and intelligent activity.

Mariolatry and images of Jesus

Here's an interesting comparison:

On the one hand, Puritans say it's wrong to make images of Jesus because (among other reasons) an image of Jesus can't represent his deity. So images of Jesus are Nestorian. 

On the other hand, Catholics say that if you deny that Mary is the Mother of God, that makes you Nestorian. 

Poses a bit of a dilemma for Puritans. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Splitting the moon

The Koran never explicitly attributes a miracle to Muhammad. One possible candidate is surah 54. The Koranic reference is elliptical, but when supplemented by the Hadith, it attributes a miracle to Muhammad, to verify his prophetic credentials. Here's one discussion from a standard reference work:

The first two verses of al-Qamar ["The Moon"] are understood by the vast majority of commentators as a reference to a miracle performed by the Prophet. One evening, he was addressing a group of disbelievers and Muslims on the plain of Mina, just outside of Makkah. The disbelievers had been disputing with the Prophet for several days, demanding a miracle as proof of his prophethood, and they began to do so again. The Prophet then raised his hand and pointed to the moon, whereupon it appeared to separate into two halves, one on either side of the nearby Mt. Hira. He then said, "Bear witness!" (IK, T) and the line of separation disappeared. All were left speechless, but his opponents soon discredited it as an illusion produced by sorcery. According to one account, one of the disbelievers said, "Muhammad has merely bewitched us, but he cannot bewitch the entire world. Let us wait for travelers to come from faraway places and hear what reports they bring". Then, when some travelers arrived in Makkah a few days later, they confirmed that they too had witnessed the splitting of the moon (IK). "The Moon," Seyyed Hossein Nasir, ed., The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (HarperOne, 2015), 1299. 

1. One obvious problem with this report is that it relies entirely on Muslim sources. 

2. But a deeper problem is the scale of the reported miracle. For the phenomenon would be visible to everyone on earth who happened to be facing the moon (assuming clear skies in their neck of the woods). And many of these involve literate civilizations. Add to that the fact that ancient people took a keen interest in celestial portents and prodigies, and you'd expect to have multiple surviving records of this event from geographically diverse localities. So a reported miracle that's cited to verify Muhammad's prophethood actually undercuts his prophethood, given how unlikely it is that a natural wonder of this magnitude would leave no trace in historical records outside the Muslim world. 

3. Perhaps a Muslim apologist would counter that if this is a problem for Islam, then there's a parallel problem regarding Joshua's Long Day (Josh 10:12-14), the sundial of Ahaz (Isa 38:8; 2 Kgs 20:9-11; 2 Chron 32:31), and darkness during the crucifixion (Mt 27:45; Mk 15:33). 

i) But even if (ex hypothesi) these were problematic for the historicity of Scripture, that doesn't let a Muslim off the hook. That doesn't resolve his own problem.

ii) The miracle attributed to Muhammad (7C AD) is far more recent than the NT example (1C), much less the two OT examples (8C BC & 2nd millennium BC). It's unsurprising that records wouldn't survive for much earlier events.

iii) The crucifixion darkness may simply be darkness over "the land" (i.e. Erez Israel). Indeed, that's practically an idiomatic synonym for Palestine. In that event, it's not on the same scale as the miracle attributed to Muhammad. 

It might be caused by swarms of locusts covering the sun. That would be a suitable omen of divine judgment. 

iv) Commentators often compare the crucifixion darkness to the Ninth Plague (Exod 10:21-23). That, however, was a local rather than global spectacle. Moreover, Goshen was exempted–which, again, stresses the local nature of the miracle. So it's not on the same scale as the miracle attributed to Muhammad. And if that's truly analogous to the crucifixion darkness, then that's another argument for the local nature of the phenomenon. 

v) The sundial of Azaz was evidently a local miracle, confined to the land of Judah (2 Chron 32:31). Had it been a global phenomenon, Babylonian emissaries wouldn't travel to Judah to enquire about the sign. Rather, they were following up on a report–given Babylonian interest in astronomical portents and prodigies. 

The accounts don't describe anything happening directly to the sun. Rather, they describe the counterclockwise effect of the shadow. Perhaps a preternatural or supernatural optical illusion. 

vi) Regarding Joshua's Long Day, it's hard to pinpoint the nature of the phenomenon because we lack a direct description of the event. The passage is poetic, and filtered through a secondary source, which makes it hard to identify the "mechanics" behind the miracle. But in context, the miracle involves prolonging daylight to give the Israelites extra time to defeat the enemy, so, at a minimum, a preternatural or supernatural optical effect is in view.

Outlaw alligators

Here's why it's not enough to ban guns–we need to ban gators:

What Set Christianity Apart In The Ancient World

A New Testament scholar, Larry Hurtado, recently published a book about how ancient Christianity differed from and changed the world of its day. The book is titled Destroyer Of The Gods (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2016), and I recently finished posting a series of quotes from it on Facebook. Here's a listing of some of the topics covered, with links to each post:

Introduction, Why Christianity Succeeded, Constantine's Motives

Monotheism, Exclusivism, How The Christian View Of God Differed From A Jewish View

How Roman Opposition To Christianity Differed From Opposition To Other Religions, Christianity's Economic Impact

Early Christianity's Contribution To Religious Liberty

The Literary Character Of Early Christianity, Apologetics

Images, Altars, Sacrifices, Priesthood, Buildings, Baptism, Weekly Meetings, Prayer

Abortion, Infant Abandonment, Violence, Sex, Gender, Slavery


Conversions to Christianity Among Highly Educated Chinese

Here's an interesting footnote:

[20] Plaisier (Ibid., 341) cites a study of the Chinese Academy of Social Science affirming that 69% of the people converted to Christianity in the last two decades indicated the healing of a family member or themselves. See also

The entire paper is worth reading.

HT: Steve Hays.

History, dreams, and forgeries

Unbelievers are skeptical about the Gospels. That's a self-defeating skepticism on their part, because it commits them to general skepticism regarding testimonial evidence, yet they themselves rely on testimony evidence for most of what they believe. 

1. However, I'd like to consider a limiting case. Take dreams. At best, dreams are at least one step removed from reality. Indeed, we usually classify what we experience in dreams to be a paradigm case of something imaginary–in contrast to what we experience when we're awake. Philosophers use dreams as paradigm-examples of illusion. Some researchers classify dreams as hallucinations. 

Suppose a biographer's only source of information about the subject was his dreams. Suppose a biographer had direct access to the subject's dreams. The biographer could see what the dreamer was dealt. How much could a biographer reconstruct about the subject's actual background from his dreams? That doesn't seem like very promising raw material. 

Perhaps the least reliable part of dreaming is the plot. The plot is imaginary. Even if, in a sense, you dream about what happened to you that day, when you were awake, the overall dream plot will deviate significantly from what really happened.

Dreams have two other unrealistic features. We dream about imaginary characters. Strangers. People we never met in real life. And we dream about them just once. 

Likewise, we dream about imaginary places. Strange, sometimes surreal landscapes we've never seen in real life. 

However, dreams also have features that correspond to real life. Sometimes we dream about real people. Acquaintances. Usually family and friends–or coworkers. When we dream, we recognize certain people–unlike strangers we encounter in dreams. 

Likewise, sometimes we dream about familiar places. Where we live and work, or used to live and work.

In my observation, recurring dream characters are based on real people. Likewise, recurring dreamscapes are based on real places. And when we dream about familiar places, these can be detailed and fairly accurate.

If all I knew about you was your dreams, one way I could sift the core biographical elements from the imaginary elements is by distinguishing the recurring characters and recurring dreamscapes from one-off encounters and one-off dreamscapes.  

A biographer could figure out the time period in which you lived from the cityscape in your dreams. If it's a 20C cityscape rather than a 19C cityscape or 18C cityscape or medieval cityscape or ancient Near Eastern cityscape. He could draw the same inference from the way people dress. And the cars. Or furniture in houses. Interiors as well as exteriors. So he could place you within a particular period in history. This is true even when you dream about strange places you've never seen in real life. For imaginary scenes will still reflect your generic experience of architecture from your own time and place. 

By the same token, if you dream about high school on a regular basis, he could reasonably infer that you're a teenager. He could infer that from the setting, and classmates–if they're recurring characters. 

He could infer your nationality from the language you use other dream characters use. He might well be able to infer your social class from the dream characters you hang out with. 

If you have erotic dreams, he could infer if you're heterosexual or homosexual.

From recurring dreams and nightmares, he might be able to infer your unrequited yearnings and deepest anxieties. 

If the dreamer is religious, that will sometimes be reflected in his dreams. 

2. Let's consider another limiting case. Take forgeries. In the nature of the case, a forgery stands in contrast to history or reality. Typically, a forger impersonates an eyewitness about a time and place other than his own. What makes it detectably a forgery is the telltale presence of anachronisms. That's because the forgery knows his own period better than the period he feigns. Indeed, he's so conditioned by his own period that he can't put enough conscious distance between himself and his impersonation to be aware of the anachronisms. 

And therein lies a paradox. Although a forgery is an unreliable or worthless window into the fictitious past setting, it can be quite informative about the forger's background and interests. The Koran's garbled versions of OT events and the life of Christ are historically worthless. However, the Koran is highly revealing about Muhammad's time, place, character, loves, hates, foes, and followers. Likewise, although the Mormon "scriptures" are historically worthless in reference to the fictional past they clumsily portray, they unwittingly reveal a lot about Joseph Smith's character, interests, and the religious currents of the day. Same thing with apocryphal Gospels. Paradoxically, even an unreliable source can be indirectly reliable in terms of what it unintentionally divulges about the circumstances and agenda of the author. They tell you nothing about the projected situation, but quite a lot about the situation of the forger. 

My point is to mount an a fortiori argument: if it's possible to learn a lot about a person from his dreams, or forgeries, surely it's possible to learn a lot about a person from historical sources, even if those are generally unreliable.