Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Making Excuses For God

Any monotheistic religion that posits a loving and all-powerful God has a problem: Why does evil happen?

The book of Job suggests evil is God testing us to see if our faith is strong; God is actively involved in tempting you to do wrong to test your faith (and this is why the Lord's Prayer has that bit "Lead us not into temptation"). Later, Satan became the source of evil - which does not sit well with monotheism, but so what? Modern Christianity has got more sophisticated, but in the end makes no more sense.

Here is an article by Frank Turek on why God allows evil, specifically discussing why God allowed the terrorist attack in London, and is a great example of the nonsensical reasoning these people use to delude themselves.
Because evil doesn’t exist on its own; it only exists as a lack or a deficiency in a good thing. Evil is like rust in a car: If you take all of the rust out of a car, you have a better car; if you take the car out of the rust, you have nothing. Evil is like a wound in your body: If you take the wound out of your body, you have a better body; if you take the body out of your wound, you have nothing. (That’s why we often describe evil as negations of good things. For example, we say the attack on London was immoral, unjust, inhumane, not right, etc.) In other words, there would be no such thing as evil unless good existed, but there would be no such thing as good unless God existed.
That is quite an admission. True evil can only exist if God does. There are truly evil things happening in the world, therefore God must exist. If there were no evil things happening, if we all lived in peace and harmony, then that would make the existence of God less certain.

Is that really the Christian position? No. What he is really arguing is that only Christianity gets to call things evil, therefore if we are labelling stuff as evil, then Christianity must be true! Meanwhile, terrible things happen in the world, whether they get labelled as evil or not.

And God chooses to allow them all.

Turns out plenty of other religions also have a concept of good and evil, and the Christian concept may well have come from Babylonia (via Judaism).

But even if it was exclusive to Christianity, that would still be a problem for Christianity - because it shows a huge inconsistency in Christian doctrine.

  • Christianity says the London attack was evil
  • Christianity says it is wrong to allow evil to happen when you could stop it
  • Christianity says God allowed the London attack to happen
  • Christianity says God is perfectly good

These more statements cannot all be true - and yet Christianity claims they are. And it does not matter whether evil really exists or not, either way Christianity is internally incoherent.

Turek on Christian morality

The sexual abuse of children? It’s only wrong if God exists.
Think this through. He is saying that the only reason child abuse is wrong is because of God. Seriously? This guy cannot see that abusing children is wrong in itself?

And this is the mentality of many Christians. This is why the atrocities of the Bible are swept under the carpet. According to this moral view, genocide is fine as long as it is sanctioned by God.

And it is only a short step from there to the terrorist attack in London. Scary stuff.

Turek on Atheism

Regardless of the reasons, evil is a problem for every worldview including atheism. But Christianity is the only worldview equipped to handle it.
How is evil a problem for atheism? Atheism states there is no god, which is why no god intervened during the London attack. Simple as that, Frank.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Beliefs of St Paul the Apostle

Paul's conversion on the Road to Damascus seems pretty certain to have happened. We have an account in Acts probably written by a companion of Paul's, and we have the obvious fact that Paul was a Christian later in life. Both Acts and Paul's letters indicate Paul was originally involved in persecuting Christians.

So what did Paul believe before and after that event?

The Pharisees


Paul was a Pharisee originally, charged with rooting out Christians. Curiously the best source of information about the Pharisees is the Christian New Testament, with Josephus (who was probably a Pharisee himself) being the second of two. Neither are exactly objective!

The defining feature of the Pharisees was the belief in a set of spoken laws, supposedly given to Moses, to accompany the written laws of scripture (this Oral Law was eventually written down in the Talmud). They believed Israel had been conquered because it had failed to keep God's laws, and so were extremely careful to keep his laws in every particular. In Jesus' time, of the many religious divisions within Judaism, the Pharisees were the most popular with the common people, and modern Judaism has its roots in Pharisaic Judaism.

The Pharisees believed that once the Jews were sufficiently observant of the laws, God would send a messiah, a man, a new King of the Jews and therefore a descendant of David, who would overthrow the Romans and usher in a new age of peace. This was the coming Kingdom of God, and is what Christian's anticipate (perhaps without realising it), in the Lord's Prayer, when they say "Your kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven". This coming of the Kingdom of God would be accompanied by the resurrection of the dead.

Here is Josephus on the Pharisees:
14. But then as to the two other orders at first mentioned, the Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws, and introduce the first sect. These ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, - but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.
- Jewish War 2.8.14
The bit "removed into other bodies" I take to mean that the good are given new bodies, rather than to suggest reincarnation (see also here). It was the practice at the time to bury the dead in a tomb until the body had rotted away, and then to put the bones in an ossuary, so clearly the resurrected would need new bodies.

Jesus and the Pharisees

Jesus rejected the Pharisees' strict observance of the law (for example, Mark 2:27), and this meant that Jesus could not possibly be the messiah in the eyes of the Pharisees, and we read of numerous clashes in the gospel accounts.

Paul was one of those assigned to sort out the Christians. The motivation was clear: these Jews were failing to be properly observant, which meant that God was delaying sending the messiah, which meant more years under the rule of the Romans. It was up to Paul, and others like him, to stop Christianity, and so hasten the arrival of the messiah.

Paul's Conversion

Paul went from persecuting Christians to becoming one himself, which is quite a change, but just how much did his beliefs change?

He already believed in a messiah, he already believed in the resurrection of the dead. What changed was the identity of the messiah. And given what he experienced, he had good reason to do so! He was expected a man who would usher in a new age, who would start the resurrection of the dead. Here was a man, resurrected!

This should not be trivialised; Paul originally thought a strict observance of the rules was vital, was required by God, and undoubtedly this was a deeply held belief. He dropped that (and we know he did, given much of his argument with the disciples was about not observing the law), when he saw the vision, so clearly it was a powerful vision.

The strict observance of the laws was a means to an end, and Paul became convinced that that end had been achieved. It logically followed that the strict observance of the laws could be abandoned, and this became Paul's new position, a position that put his at odd with the disciples on more than one occasion.

Paul in Acts

Paul still believed in a messiah, a man, a new King of the Jews and therefore a descendant of David, who would usher in the Kingdom of God, and begin the resurrection of the dead. Thus, straight after his conversion:
Acts 9:20-22 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
Here is Paul preaching:
Acts 17:30 Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge [u]the world in righteousness [v]through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men [w]by raising Him from the dead.”
It is important to realise that Paul was not starting a new religion; he was Jewish, and he was promoting Judaism. Acts 13:16 onwards describes him preaching in a synagogue to Jews, explaining how Jesus fitted the existing religion. This is just some highlights:
Acts 13:16 Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said,
“Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen: 17 The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and [b]made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He led them out from it. .... 21 Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. 22 After He had removed him, He raised up David to be their king, concerning whom He also testified and said, ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My heart, who will do all My [c]will.’ 23 From the descendants of this man, according to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, ...
... 33 that God has fulfilled this promise [h]to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘You are My Son; today i have begotten You.’ 34 As for the fact that He raised Him up from the dead, no longer to return to decay, He has spoken in this way: ‘I will give you the holy and [i]sure blessings of David.’ 35 Therefore He also says in another Psalm, ‘You will not [j]allow Your [k]Holy One to [l]undergo decay.’ 36 For David, after he had [m]served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and [n]underwent decay; 37 but He whom God raised did not [o]undergo decay. ...

Paul's Epistles

Romans 1:3 concerning His Son, who was born of a [b]descendant of David according to the flesh, 4 who was declared the Son of God with power [c]by the resurrection from the dead, according to the [d]Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord,
Jesus being a descendant of David was vital to Paul, because he saw Jesus as the messiah, the earthly king of the Jews, and so Jesus had to be a male-line descendant of David. The virgin birth had yet to be invented! Paul frequently called Jesus "Lord"; Jesus was not a god or a part of the godhead, Jesus was the king!

Also, note that God declared Jesus as his son at the resurrection. Paul believed Jesus was the Son of God by adoption, following the tradition of the Jewish Kings (2 Samuel 7:12-16, Psalm 2:2,7), just as Mark did, but while Mark had Jesus adopted as his baptism, Paul believed he was adopted at his resurrection.

That did mean Jesus was divine, but divine in the way the earlier kings of the Jews had been divine; as God's adopted son.
1 Corinthians 15:20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.
Jesus was the first fruits, the prototype of the coming resurrection of the dead. It is interesting to compare this to Matthew (Mat 27:52 The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the [aa]saints who had fallen asleep were raised; ); was this thought to be the second wave of resurrections?
1 Corinthians 15:35 But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” ...
42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown [l]a perishable body, it is raised [m]an imperishable body;
Just like Josephus, Paul believed the resurrected would be given new bodies.
1 Corinthians 15:51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised [r]imperishable, and we will be changed.
Paul expected the resurrection of the dead soon, because Jesus was the prototype, the first fruits. He believed the resurrection of Jesus was the first step of the coming of the Kingdom of God, and so the last trumpet would sound within his lifetime (and of course Jesus also predicted it within the lifetime of some of his disciples).

Also of note here is that Paul is saying everyone will get a new body, not just the dead. Why? Because he had seen Jesus, and Jesus' post-resurrection form was quite different to his physical body. Jesus had a new heavenly body, so presumably everyone would get that too.
Romans 8:23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.
Paul believed Jesus was adopted as the Son of God, but Jesus was the prototype, and Paul was looking forward to everyone (who was worthy) getting the same. Everyone would be adopted as the Son of God when they got resurrected (at least in some sense).
Galatians 4:5 so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

Ephesians 1:5 He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will,
The adoption idea is seen here too.
Gal 4:1 Now I say, as long as the heir is a [a]child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is [b]owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and [c]managers until the date set by the father. 3 So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the [d]elemental things of the world. 4 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under [e]the Law, 5 so that He might redeem those who were under [f]the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir [g]through God.
The passage is a little contradictory, as it suggests God sent Jesus into the world, but at the same time has this idea of adoption as the son of God. Romans 8:3 also has this idea of God sending Jesus.

Christians (eg here) make a big deal about Paul called Jesus Lord, and point out that in the Old Testament, this was how God was referred. But the truth is that Paul clearly distinguished between Jesus a Lord and God, as this text illustrates:

Romans 1:7 to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

It must be acknowledged that there are parts of Paul's epistles that suggest he believed otherwise, but we have to remember that all his writing comes to us via the Christian church, and every epistle exists today only because Christians made careful copies of them, and so it is entirely plausible that each has been massaged to reflect mainstream Christianity. It is important to note that the opposite is not true; it is not plausible that later Christians would have a tendency to introduce adoptionist material into the texts.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Resurrection in Acts

Elsewhere I have cited Paul as the earliest source on the resurrection. The books of Acts has comments that are reported to have been made even early, and it is worth looking at them, if only for completeness.

Paul in Acts 13

Acts 13:29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb.
It must be pointed out that Luke was written around 90 AD, perhaps 40 years after the event. No one can remember a conversation from that long ago verbatim; these must necessarily be a case of the author of Luke putting words in someone's mouth. I think it reasonable to assume Luke sincerely believed this was broadly what was said, but that could have easily been coloured by the author's own beliefs.

So does that show that Jesus was buried in a tomb? That could be the case, but a perfectly plausible explanation here is that Paul said Jesus was buried, and Luke, who clearly believed Jesus was buried in a tomb, and after forty years could not recall exactly what Paul said, misquoted him.

If you are claiming this as proof, then you are claiming that Luke could remember exactly what Paul said decades later, and further that Luke was more concerned with accurately recording those words rather than presenting an apologetic. I think both those claims are misguided.

Peter in Acts 2

This is the first text, which is a bit longer:
Acts 2:29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven,
The book of Acts is often attributed to Luke or perhaps another companion of Paul. As far as I know, no one believes the book was written by someone present when Peter was preaching. This is certainly not the best recollection of a man who was there, this is at best second hand information, recorded well over fifty years after it had happened.

In passing, it is worth noting that verse 30 would contradict the virgin birth. When Peter was preaching, the virgin birth had yet to be invented, and Jesus was claimed to be a direct descendant of David; this was a necessary requirement for the messiah, who was the expected King of the Jews, and so had to be of the royal line.

Peter is generally believed to be referring to Psalm 16:10, which is traditionally credited to David:
Psalm 16:10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful[b] one see decay.
According to Luke, Peter has changed this to apply to a distant descendant of David, rather than David himself. I can imagine this was not unique to Peter, and was quite a common belief among the Jews of the time, who longed for a messiah and had to deal with the fact that David was indeed dead, and his body had rotted away a long time ago.

Okay, but what does this tell us about the resurrection (if we assume for the moment that Peter actually said it)?

What we can see is that Peter believed Jesus had been resurrected, that Jesus' body did not see decay and that Jesus ascended to heaven.

The Ascension event is something that only appears in Luke and Acts, which makes me suspicious that Luke invented it. I cannot imagine the authors of Matthew or John skipping this very significant event if they were aware of it (I accept Mark could have). However, what Peter could be referring to is Jesus going to heaven in a more general sense, and presumably the belief at that time was that that had happened.

Obviously Peter believed Jesus had been resurrected in some form; was that a bodily resurrection, as the later gospels would have us believe? Or was it resurrection in a new body, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15? Christians will say that the point about the body not decayed indicates this was Jesus in his original body, but in fact this argues the other way. Paul is very explicit that the resurrected body, the new body Jesus received, would not decay, and this fits perfectly with what Peter is proclaiming here.
1 Cor 15:42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown [l]a perishable body, it is raised [m]an imperishable body; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

Peter in Acts 10

More from Peter's preaching:
Acts 10:39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.
This again must be second-hand at best, and again recorded decades after the event.

It comes across are rather odd that Peter blames the Jews for killing Jesus, when he and all the rest of the disciples were Jews. It is doubtful that any of them saw themselves as founding a new religion; they preached to their fellow Jews, and that preaching was largely about how Jesus fulfilled the Jewish scripture. They would have considered themselves Jews, not Christians. By the time Luke was writing, the distinction had become rather more important, and the early church was trying to appeal to the Romans.

There are two points I find fascinating here is. The first is that the text says God appointed Jesus. This sounds like the adoptionism of Mark's gospel; Jesus was adopted as God' son at his baptism. Is this a trace of the earlier beliefs?

More germane to the resurrection is that Luke suggests God made Jesus visible to some people. That is not what we would expect from a guy in his original body... but it does fit the narrative of the Road to Emmaus, where two disciples are talking to Jesus, but fail to recognise him. This is not Jesus in his physical body, nail wounds and all, this is Jesus in a new heaven body.

Further reading

Not directly related to this post, but interesting nevertheless: