CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: see here for the previous entry; and see here for the first entry of the series. (It explains what I'm doing, and how, and contains the Johannine prologue.)

Time for my favorite secondary characters in all the Gospels to arrive! {g!}

Blood of Kings and Children

Now when the eight days were fulfilled (the Scholar says), to circumcise the Child, His name was called 'Jesus'--as called by the angel before His conception in the womb.

And when the days of her purification were also completed (from the birthing blood), according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord; for it is written (says the Scholar, referring to precepts delivered in the books of Exodus and Numbers) that "Every first-born son opening up the mother shall be declared holy to the Lord". Also, they gave a sacrifice (for thanks and sin atonement) according to the declared law of the Lord (in Leviticus): "A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

Now look!--there was a man named Simeon in Jerusalem!--a man of fairness and devotion, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and a holy spirit was on him. [See first comment below for extended footnote here.]

And the Spirit of the Holy (One) had alerted him (as of a secret), that he would not see death before he saw the Lord's Anointed King.

So into the Temple he came, within the Spirit.

Now as the parents are bringing in the Baby Jesus, in order to do for Him what was the custom of the Law, Simeon (perhaps acting as their priest for this ritual) receives Him into his arms; and blessing God, he says:

Now You dismiss Your slave in peace, O my Owner!--
just as You said!--
For my eyes have seen Your Salvation
Which You are making ready to fit
the face of all the peoples!
Yes! the Light (as it is written) for revelation to the nations;
and the glory of Your people Israel!

And Joseph was marveling, along with His mother, at the things being said about Him; and Simeon blesses them...

...but to Miriam, His mother, he said:

"Look here! This One is appointed for the fall and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed--and you also shall be pierced with a sword to your heart!--so that the reasonings of many hearts shall be revealed."

At that very moment, the prophetess Hannah came up to them--Hannah, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, far advanced in her years to the age of eighty-four, widowed after seven years of marriage, and (virtually) living since then in the Temple, serving with fasting and prayers day and night. And she also began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of this Boy (carrying onward, as a prophetess herself, the word given through Simeon) to all those who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

Now when they had accomplished everything according to the Law of the Lord (says the Scholar), they returned to the Galilee region, to their own city of Nazareth.

Now, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea (says the Disciple, taking up his turn of the tale, adding another piece to the story), in the days of Herod the king--

Behold! Magoi ('great ones') from the East are arriving in Jerusalem!

And they are asking: "Where is He Who is born King of the Jews!? For in the East, we perceived His star; and we have come to worship Him!"

Now, when King Herod heard of this, he was troubled; and all Jerusalem with him.

So, gathering all the chief priests and scribes of the people, Herod began questioning them: "Where is the Anointed King to be born??"

They answered him: "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written through the prophet (Micah):

'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah
are you in any respect least among the mentors of Judah?
For out of you shall come "Mentor"
Who shall shepherd My people Israel!'"

[Footnote: Hebrew/Aramaic has "Ephrathra" instead of "land of Judah", which is from the LXX.]

Then Herod, secretly summoning the magoi, inquired of them as to the timing of the appearing star; and then sent them on to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and make careful search for the little boy. And if ever you find him, report back to me, so that I may also be coming to bow before him!"

Now having heard the king they went.

And look!--the star they had perceived in the East is going on before them, until it comes to stand over where the little Boy is! And seeing the star, they are rejoicing with exceeding great joy!

Now they are coming into the house (Joseph not having left the region yet), and they see the Child with Miriam His mother; and falling, they worship Him. And opening their treasures, they bring Him approach-presents (like ascent-offerings in a temple)--gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

But being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they depart for their own country by another road.

While they are departing for their own country, look! Joseph is having a dream! A messenger of the Lord is appearing to him, saying: "Get up! Take the little Boy and His mother, and flee to Egypt (50 miles south-southwest of Bethlehem or so), and stay there until I speak to you again--for Herod plans to search out the Child, to destroy Him!"

So, being wakened, he took the Boy and His mother and fled for Egypt by night; staying there (probably in a Jewish settlement just over the border) until the death of Herod.

And this happened (says the Disciple) so that the declaration by the Lord through the prophet (Hosea) might be accomplished: "Out of Egypt did I call My Son."

Then Herod, seeing the magoi had scoffed at him, became exceedingly furious; and sending forth (his soldiers), he slew all the children in Bethlehem and its nearby settlements (such as the caravanserai), from two years old and younger, according to the timing he had learned from the magoi.

[Footnote: the options being (a) they had seen the sign two years ago, so Herod decided to be thorough in his typical paranoia, or (b) the family lived in Bethlehem for about two years, with Joseph's people, before fleeing to Egypt briefly to escape the wrath of Herod.]

This (believes the Disciple) fulfilled the declaration through Jeremiah the prophet:

A sound in Ramah is heard!
Lamentation and much anguish;
Rachel lamenting her children;
and she would not be comforted,
--for they are not.

But at the death of Herod (in the spring of 4 BCE), look!--an angel of the Lord is appearing to Joseph in Egypt, again in a dream, saying: "When you awake, take along the little Boy and His mother, and return to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the soul of the Boy are dead."

So when he woke, he did take the Baby and His mother and go into the land of Israel. But, hearing that Archelaus now reigned in Judea in the place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there (to Bethlehem where his own family was.)

So being once more warned in a dream, now he departs for the Galilee region (says the Disciple), and goes to live in the city of Nazareth.

And this happened (adds the Disciple) so that what was spoken through prophets might be fulfilled: "He shall be called a Nazarene."

[Footnote: the Disciple is taking "Nazareth" to be an extra fulfillment, by verbal pun, of the Messiah being a "branch" of David. i.e. descended from David, but also coming from Nazareth. The Disciple has a tendency to look for clever 'hidden' prophetic links after-the-fact, and do midrashic topical commentary on them. Most of those are here in the Matthean Nativity prologue, but there are a couple of others scattered through GosMatt, too.]

So (continues the Scholar)... the Child grew, becoming strong in spirit and filled by Wisdom; and the grace of God was on Him.

Now the Boy's parents went every year up to Jerusalem, for the Feast of Passover (in the spring).

One year, when He was twelve, they went up to the Feast, as was their custom; and after spending their full number of days there, they were returning home--but the Boy Jesus had remained behind in Jerusalem, and His parents did not know this, figuring He must be elsewhere in the caravan.

At the end of the first day's journey, they began searching for Him among their relatives and friends; and not finding Him, they returned to Jerusalem, hunting for Him.

Three days later, they found Him in the Temple!--seated amidst the rabbis, listening to them and asking questions, and amazing everyone who heard Him with His understanding and His own answers.

Seeing Him there, his parents were astonished; and His mother said to Him: "My son!--why did you do this to us!? Don't you see that your father and I have been in pain, seeking for you!?"

Yet He said to them, "Why were you seeking Me? Hadn't you seen that I must be among My Father's things?"

But they did not understand He had made a declaration to them.

So He went down with them out of Jerusalem, and returned to Nazareth, and continued to be under their authority.

But His mother was treasuring all these words in her heart as well, pondering over them.

(And giving them later, by implication, to the Scholar...)

Matthew 1:25b
Matthew 2:1-23
Luke 2:21-51

[Next time: The Forerunner of the King.]

Mason Murch has located a quote by the bombastic Richard Dawkins that is . . . well, not in line with his so-called devotion to reason. In a post entitled Dawkins Wishes Us a "Happy Christmas", Murch points out:

Richard Dawkins says:

“For better or worse, ours is historically a Christian culture, and children who grow up ignorant of biblical literature are diminished, unable to take literary allusions, actually impoverished. I am no lover of Christianity, and I loathe the annual orgy of waste and reckless reciprocal spending, but I must say I’d rather wish you “Happy Christmas” than “Happy Holiday Season”.

Most people in western civilization, I think, are aware Dawkins is an atheist. He does, however, propagate some problematic ideas. Psychiatry might even label him as someone suffering from cognitive dissonance. Decrying Christianity as a delusion, while singing the praises of the cultural benefits derived from it, apparently doesn’t seem to bother Dawkins. I suppose there are millions like him.

Long ago, in 1902, another Brit wrote an essay on the subject of life without God. George Bernard Shaw said in A Free Man’s Worship,:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving: that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” (The Elements of Moral Philosophy, by James Rachels, pp 45).

I think what happens with the Dawkins’ of the world, is that at some point it dawns on them that Shaw’s “firm foundation of unyielding despair,” is all they have without God. When that dawning awakens them to the reality of their belief system, some grasp for “cultural Christianity,” as does Dawkins, and too many of the rest commit suicide.

Of every 100,000 people ages 65 and older, 14.3 died by suicide in 2004. This figure is higher than the national average of 10.9 suicides per 100,000 people in the general population. From the National Institute for Mental Health.

I do like Dawkins’ idea that our children should at least be taught the Bible as literature, if for no other reason than they are diminished and impoverished without it. Too bad the so-called leadership in the United States, is so “diminished,” and “Impoverished” they cannot understand what Dawkins and Shaw are saying.

Shaw left us in despair and Dawkins proposes using what he hates – the Bible – as a means to cope, via “cultural Christianity.”  I wonder what the next “genius” will come up with?

I agee with Mason. Long ago, St. Augustine noted in The Confessions, "Oh Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." When people in our modern society abandon belief in favor of a cold, meaningless cosmos, they are ultimately left grasping for some type of meaning. Some (those who actually think about such things) find their meaning in-short term ideas -- many borrowed from Christian morality and teaching -- such as being good to the poor or the environment. Others try to find ultimate meaning in work or family. But these things are necessarily temporal and cannot provide the ultimate meaning that man seeks.

For someone like Dawkins to say he prefers saying "Happy Christmas" because our culture is impoverished by a lack of Biblical knowledge, while at the same time arguing that religion (including Christianity) is ultimately bad strikes me as a serious defect in thought.

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

There are many devout people who rightly (I believe) value a faith in God above all other possessions, but who will also see my attempts as striking against a true relationship with God.

I think they are quite correct (as I will discuss much later) that it is better to have a living relationship with God and to work with Him, than only to understand God in some technical sense. Furthermore, I agree that if it is possible to discover the existence and character of God by reasoning from neutral propositions, this neither can nor shall ultimately benefit the thinker unless he takes the next step and chooses to work with God personally. [See first comment below for a footnote here.]

But although I agree with these notions, I do not think it logically follows from these notions that such a discovery by logical analysis must necessarily fail. Consequently, these notions do not stand in the way of making attempts along this line.

Yet again, for some people, that is just the problem with my attempt: I am using reason to build (or to build up) faith, and they have been taught all their lives that faith and reason are mutually exclusive. These people would say, at best, that my book must fail to reach any useful conclusion; maybe even that I am blaspheming by even suggesting that human reason can search out the Infinite.

This sort of opinion comes and goes throughout Christianity's history. [Footnote: it certainly isn’t restricted to the history of Christianity, but it seems best for me to focus there, as a Christian apologist.] In this case, it last rose in ascendance between the middle of the 17th century and the beginning of the 19th, where it climaxed into a supposed schism between 'religion' and 'science'.

The roots of the widespread acceptance of this strategy are too complex for more than a brief summary in this entry. But the result was that during this period great sceptical thinkers were becoming more numerous than they had ever been previously; great sceptical moralists were culminating a barrage on the abuses of the various branches of the Church (and there were certainly abuses taking place for them to legitimately snipe at); and the Church had managed to remove or suppress the majority of its own great thinkers who might have met the opposition steel-for-steel in philosophical dispute.

The various branches of the Church became aware that they were losing ground. They had to choose between educating people to be able to take care of themselves (because people were becoming increasingly exposed to alternate viewpoints in the media--a situation obviously still in effect today); or else setting up an ideological fortress mentality.

But the branches had previously, in their complacency, let the opposition get too far ahead for anything less than a multi-generation educational program to work. They had few resources to begin such a task, and such a plan might entail the loss of massive numbers of people from the Church until the regrouping and regrowth could be established--and I remind the sceptic that most Christians would equate such a departure with the damning of those souls. [See second comment below for a footnote here.]

Aside from all this, such a program would have had serious political ramifications; and the Church at that time, although divesting itself (slowly) from the political arena, was still very much more a political creature than we find her today. [See third comment below for a footnote here.]

Thus, erecting a fortress mentality must have seemed the safest, quickest, most (relatively) effective means of ensuring that as many people as possible were not deceived by these opponents and, thereby, lose their souls. And, when it came to it, these new generations of vocal opposition were formidably skilled; disputing with them would be dangerous and difficult. [See fourth comment below for a footnote here.]

So, near the turn into the 19th century, we find a long-running development in Western thought to the effect that religious 'Faith' and intellectual 'Reasoning' must be considered to be mutually exclusive operations. [See fifth comment below for a footnote here.]

Naturally, this sort of lesson went down very smoothly for the vast numbers of people who had no great mental strength or training themselves: they need not worry about the arguments of the opposition (or even worry about the scripturally sanctioned duty of understanding their own position as well as they can); for they have Faith. [Footnote: I still have had to be very brief, even overly brief, in covering this issue; though hopefully I have done so in a fashion that a sceptic will find recognizeable.]

It would be a caricature (although one occasionally employed by sceptics who prefer dealing with straw men) to say this is the final position of any Christian since those times--or at least (they might say) the final position of any Christian who really is a Christian and is not really something else (merely claiming Christian coloring for, say, political purposes or social standing).

But there have also been Christians responding against this dichotomous division of principle, especially as the 19th century began changing to the 20th; who have truly and seriously been engaged in defending a 'rational faith'. [See sixth footnote below for a footnote here.] As in every field, not all these people have been especially proficient; and so the actual number of Christian 'apologists' who are worth time disputing (or paying attention to) remained small. Here, at the beginning of the 21st century, there are more of these people doing better work than ever; yet they are still drowned in Christian literature (and in Christian outreach programs) by primarily emotional appeals. And this disproportion can leave the 'taste' that 'real' religion (including ‘real’ Christianity) is not concerned with positively analytical thought.

For many people, then, a division of faith and reason remains a cornerstone of 'real religion'--particularly, of 'real' Christianity.

And here is the crushing irony: it is a lesson that sceptics have learned very well from believers.

What does the typical sceptic see and hear when, by happenstance, she is exposed to a typical Christian witness? She receives the impression that to accept Christianity she must reject her own ability to think; and/or that there can be no 'reason' to believe in God--she must have 'faith' instead.

She is given no reason to believe. Not surprisingly, she doesn't believe.

“Well, tough for her!” the believer may snort. “I don't know ontological or cosmological arguments either, and I believe. I ‘only’ have Faith; if I can do it, she can do it. Therefore, she should have done it!”

But such a reply (felt at bottom, I suspect, in many believers although not usually expressed so directly!) flies against a charitable attitude towards witnessing.

The sceptic does not have any of the advantages a believer already has (presuming the believer is in fact correct). The believer may be mistaking his privileges for humble submission on his part and sinful intransigence on the sceptic's. Is he quite sure he would accept Christianity given no reasons at all (plus what seem to be many reasons against it, which the sceptic may be exposed to and the believer often will not have been)? And if any particular reasons may help ground an accurate religious belief, then for all one can know beforehand other reasons may work just as well or better! The cases must be judged on an individual basis.

“Yes,” the believer may reply, “but as it happens, I am quite sure I would accept Christianity if I were like her and given no reasons at all; for I have been given no reasons and I accept it.”

In Proverbs chapter 14, verse 15, Solomon (the attributed author) states that "The simple believe everything while (in contrast) the prudent man considers his steps." That whole chapter and many of the surrounding ones equate the prudent man with the good, and both with the man who fears and obeys and loves God. So, if you really have no reasons to believe--if you are not "prudently considering your steps"--which of these two men described by Solomon do you represent if you nevertheless give assent to a 'belief'!?

“But this case is different!”


“Because now we are talking about a belief in God!”

What makes that a different case?

“Because... the rewards and perils and duties are the greatest?”

[Footnote: I am obviously dealing in this entry with a fairly common and unsophisticated version of the question of faith and reason. A few entries from now, I will be considering it from a far more technical standpoint.]

But this begs the question: how do you know there are rewards and perils and duties?

“The Bible says so.”

Why should we believe it?

“Because it is true.”

How can a sceptic know it is true?

“She cannot, she must just trust it.”

In other topics you would call this the irresponsible behavior of a credulous fool. [See seventh comment below for a footnote here.] You yourself would not agree to a belief on other topics in this manner; you would consider it an insult for other people to assume that you would or require that you should. She does not know these scriptures should be trusted, and you give her no means of help.

“God will help her.”

Then your witness is useless; God must come to her in some other way than through Christian witnesses.

“He can reach her through the Bible.”

The Bible says that God has chosen to work effectively through us as witnesses; you have just testified this is functionally impossible! Why should she trust Scripture when you yourself deny it speaks sensibly on such a basic issue?

“There is no reason why she should, she simply must.”

Then Scripture is no help to her either.

“God will help her.”

But apparently not through Scripture or Christian witnesses. You (not I!) would say this essentially denies the superior truth of the Christian religion. No wonder she is a sceptic! Who is God more likely to punish for this: her or you!?

As I have just illustrated, a denial of a link between faith and reason not only erects an unnecessary barrier between a sceptic and the truth (as I think Christianity to be), but also undermines any claim Christianity (or any other theism) may have to truth--even if we stick to a 'simple' faith.

But an even more pernicious problem rises in this situation; and although a believer of this sort may not recognize it, the sceptic very probably will...

[Next week: so, how exactly was that believer getting to his own belief after all?]

A few days ago I was thumbing through the The Empty Tomb, by Robert M. Price and Jeffrey Jay Lowder which is a book which (according to the inside cover) "scrutinizes the claims of leading Christian apologists . . . and critiques their efforts to provide the best historical explanation for the resurrection."

In a rather rambling prologue, Robert M. Price tries to point out what he sees as an irony of Christian apologetics: that Christians believe in a God who really was resurrected and that Christians seek certainty of that resurrection. He does so visiting a wide array of subjects making claims that are, in my view, silly. But he finally gets to the point:

And thus apologists love to make the claim (a claim that will be exploded many times in the course of this book) that the resurrection is the best attested event of history. The irony here is that the claim is always made amid a plethora of probabilistic arguments the very existence of which demonstrates that the resurrection is anything but an open-and-shut case. If apologists themselves did not realize the difficulty of their case they would waste no more time with skeptical objections to the resurrection than they do refuting, say, beliefs that Jesus was a space alien.

Now, I personally find this entire excerpt to be absurd. I intend to deal with his claim that the position taken by apologists is ironic in a future post. However, I first wanted to deal with his statement that "apologists love to make the claim . . . that the resurrection is the best attested event of history." What may come as a surprise to some people who have read this blog, I agree with Price that an apologist should not make such a claim because the resurrection is not the best attested event in history.

However, merely because I agree with Price on that single point is hardly cause for anyone to conclude that I think the resurrection is either not well-attested or that it is a myth.

Assuming that Price is correct that Christians are asserting that the resurrection is the best attested event of history, then I agree that they are mistaken. I am positive without checking that there is more evidence of the actions taken by Bill Clinton during his presidency than there is for the events that occurred in the life of Jesus Christ. But, of course, no one is asserting to the contrary.

Christians who make claims similar to the one asserted by Price are referring to "ancient history" -- roughly speaking, events that would have taken place more than 1000 years ago. While I am not an historian, it seems obvious that events that occurred in the last 100 years are generally better attested than the events that occurred more than 100 years ago. Likewise, events that occurred within the past 200 years are generally better attested than events that occurred more than 200 years ago. In measuring the attestation about Jesus' resurrection, the claim is necessarily made in the context of other events that happened in that same time period. So, let's start by amending the claim to read that the resurrection is the best attested event in ancient history.

But even that modified claim is, in my view, an overstatement.

Julius Caesar's life, for example, is the subject of a great deal of attestation. We find in the historical record documents that appear to have originally been written by Julius Caesar (such as the Commentarii de Bello Gallico). A contemporary historian, Sallust, also wrote favorably about Julius Caesar (of course, applying the same rules as many skeptics seem to apply to the books of the New Testament, the fact that he favored Caesar means that his writings should be thrown out as utterly worthless). Julius Caesar also has mentions made of him in the writings of Cicero and Catulus, both contemporaries. In addition, I am betting that you can find references to Caesar in other writings of the period from outside Rome because Julius Caesar, being the most powerful man in the world's only dominant superpower of the time, should certainly be mentioned since what he did impacted countries that Rome didn't even control. (Of course, if Julius Caesar isn't mentioned in other countries' writings, should we use that as evidence that Caesar didn't exist? Since skeptics argue -- at least on Internet message boards -- that the failure of people outside of the New Testament to mention Jesus is evidence that He didn't exist, I think that would be a fair conclusion to reach.)

Does the attestation for Jesus reach that level? My subjective viewpoint (even as a Christian) is that it doesn't. But that doesn't mean that the skeptics have won the battle.

When Christians make claims to the effect that the resurrection of Jesus is the best attested event of ancient history, that claim is based on the fact that there are multiple sources to the event (the four Gospel accounts plus the stripped down account from Josephus) two of which were allegedly written by eyewitnesses to the event, one of which was written by a man who claims to have personally investigated the facts, and the final of which was the writings of the recollection of another eyewitness. Three of the four major accounts (perhaps all four) were written within 40 years after the event and were able to be checked against the oral histories (common at the time) that were shared among the communities by others who also were eyewitnesses to the events or who had learned the accounts from eyewitnesses. The people who wrote these accounts and followed them were willing to die in support of these accounts when faced with persecution, and to contend (as skeptics must do) that they were willing to die for something which they would have known to be a lie is not very convincing. Moreover, we have many copies and portions of copies of manuscripts (numbering in the thousands) of these books that can be traced back to older copies in different areas that gives assurance that the copies of these books that we have today or extremely close to what was written into the original. The fact that the books make reference to people and places that actually existed (despite doubts raised from time to time by various scholars) that are remarkably accurate confirms that the writers knew the people and places involved and took care to be accurate in their descriptions. The fact that many of the places where the events described in these accounts are said to have occurred have been venerated from ancient times also adds credence to the events themselves.

Certainly, there are other events that may have more substantial evidence for attestation. For example, the fact that the Colosseum was built is attested to by the fact that the Colosseum is still standing. But Jesus' acts were not acts that would necessarily or even probably leave an archaeological artifact. Jesus didn't build buildings. Jesus didn't move vast armies. Among other things, Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, walked on water and self-volitionally resurrected from the dead. These types of things don't leave archaeological remains. Does anyone really expect to find remants of the breadcrumbs from the miraculous feeding of the 5,000? Do we expect to find footprints left behind from when Jesus walked on water? Of course not.

Moreover, Jesus' position in life did not lend itself to great biographies being written about Him. The fact that Julius Caesar served as Caesar is attested to by many individual writings, but that would be expected for the most powerful man in charge of the most powerful empire on Earth. Jesus, being born a poor non-Roman Jew in a backwater part of the Roman Empire who was neither a military figure nor a political figure, would not be expected to attract the attention of the Roman biographers. There was no CNN-Jerusalem in 31 A.D. to report on the curious events happening there -- and even if there were, the press would certainly only have reported on events that would be expected to effect the Empire. Jesus, being who He was, appeared to pose no threat to Rome -- even Pilate thought that. Yet, the information we have on Jesus under those circumstances is really quite astounding.

So, overall, I think that the claim that the attestation to the life of Jesus is "the best attested event of history" is definitely wrong, and the claim that it is "the best attested event of ancient history" is also an overstatement -- but not by much. Certainly, given the circumstances of the time, the amount of information available about Jesus from the contemporaneous biographies is (to my knowledge) unprecedented.

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: see here for the previous entry; and see here for the first entry of the series. (It explains what I'm doing, and how, and contains the Johannine prologue.)

And Merry Christmas to all our readers around the world; for the birth of Christ is indeed good news to all the nations!

The Birth of the King

Now it came about in those days (says the Scholar) that a formal decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census should be taken of 'the inhabited lands'. [Footnote: as we would say, 'the civilized lands'; a term for the Roman Empire.] This first (or prior) registration occurred in the Syrian governorship of Kyrenius.

And all went to be registered, each to his own city.

So Joseph left Nazareth in the Galilee region, and went up into the hills of Judea, to the 'city of David', also called 'Bethlehem' ('house of bread'), because he was descended from David, to be registered with Miriam, she having been betrothed to him as wife, being squirming inside. [Footnote: the term is literally 'in-teeming'. The baby was about to be born.]

Now while they were in Bethlehem, her time was fulfilled; and she gave birth to her first-born Son; and after wrapping Him in swaddling cloths ('navel-bands'), she laid Him in a feeding trough--for no (private) place had been found for them within the off-loading ring.

[Footnote: David would have had family there, but between the registration requirements and a probable holiday season, they would have been looking for somewhere more private than some crowded houses with only a few rooms, especially given the ritual uncleanliness of birthing. The 'kataluma' or caravan-serai, is not an 'inn' in the sense we would think of, but a place where animals can put down their loads after a journey. (Of course, an inn could be named after such a place--as the Scholar hints at much later in the story...!) The feeding trough area was probably in a small cavern; later tradition imagines it might even have been the cavern King David had hidden in centuries previously, when fleeing from Saul. Of course, they would move to a family house as soon as feasibly possible.]

On this same night, a group of shepherds were standing watch over their flocks out in the nearby hills.

[Footnote: these would still well-pasturaged in late September; and particularly susceptible to thieves if this happened during a religious festival involving lots of sacrificial animals. Indeed, the shepherd flocks near Bethlehem were expressly dedicated to sacrificial use in the Jerusalem Temple; and one tradition, still preserved centuries later in rabbinic teaching, claimed that the Messiah's birth would be announced (or even seen?) from one of the nearby flock watchtowers. Later in the year, the shepherds would be less likely to be out with their herds at night.]

Now look!--a messenger from the Lord stands by them!--and the glory of the Lord shines round about them!--and they are terrified!

But the angel says to them: "Fear not!!--for behold, I am bringing to you good news, of a great joy which shall be for all the nations! For on this day (the new day having begun at the descent of the sun beneath the land) a Savior has been born to you, who is the Anointed King, the Lord, within the city of David! Now here is the sign for you to seek: you will be finding this Baby lying swaddled in a feeding trough!"

Then suddenly, a number of the heavenly armies are joining this messenger, raising their voices in praise of God, crying out:

Glory among the highest to God and on the land!
Peace among men of His delight!

After this, as the messengers were departing from them to the sky, the shepherds began saying to one another: "By all means!--let us go down into Bethlehem, and see this outpouring ('gush-effect') which has happened, and which the Lord has made known to us!"

So hurrying, they came and found both Miriam and Joseph, along with the Baby lying in the trough. And having seen this, they began proclaiming to everyone what they had heard declared about this little Boy; amazing and confusing the people who heard what they said.

But Miriam preserved all these declarations, pondering them in her heart.

And so the shepherds, praising the glory of God for everything they had seen and learned--just as had been told to them--returned (to the hills and to their flocks).

Luke 2:1-20

[Next time: Blood of Kings and Children]

Here's a story that I find very difficult to understand -- apparently, the Archbishop of Canterbury made some comments that questioned some of the details of the Christmas story and has been criticized for doing so. According to Archbishop of Canterbury's Comments on Nativity Spark Debate Among American Christians, Archbishop Rowan Williams called portions of the Christmas story "legend" and is described as actually "debunking" portions of the story. According to the article:

In an interview with BBC Radio Five earlier this week, Archbishop Williams debunked various details Christians have come to associate with the birth of Jesus Christ — including the number of wise men, whether they were kings, the snowy weather and the Dec. 25 date.

In the full text of his interview, the Archbishop's comments cover the full range of the usual events surrounding Christmas -- the manger, the birth by the Virgin Mary, Joseph, snow on the ground, the visit by the three wise men and the star. His answers on each aren't what I would call particularly eloquent, but they can be rounded out this way:

1. Was Jesus lain in a Manger? -- Probably. "I should think so. the Gospel tells us he was born outside the main house, probably because it was overcrowded because it was pilgrimage time or census time; whatever; yes; he's born in poor circumstances, slightly out of the ordinary."

2. Was Mary the mother of Jesus? -- Yes.

3. Was Mary a Virgin? -- Yes, but it is not essential to believe the Virgin Birth to be a Christian.

4. Did Matthew mistranslate "Young Woman" in Isaiah as "Virgin"? -- No. The word in Isaiah can be translated as either and Matthew wasn't wrong to translate it as virgin.

5. Were shepherds present? -- Yes.

6. Were there three wise men with gifts of gold, frankincense, and Myrrh - with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason? -- We don't know the number of wise men, whether they were kings, where exactly they came from or their race. Moreover, they weren't there at the same time as the shepherds. They may have been astrologers, but that doesn't lend credence to astrology.

7. Was there snow on the ground? -- Probably not. We aren't sure the date or even the time of year Jesus was born, and we probably see it as being winter because of the later association of Jesus birth with December 25.

8. Was there a star of Bethlehem? -- Probably not one that moved before the wise men and came to rest with its light shining down on Bethlehem, but it makes sense that there was some type of heavenly event that alerted the wise men.

That's it. That's the extent of his comments. My reaction: with the exception of his comments about the manger and the star, I have no problem at all with what he says. In fact, I largely agree with him. You see, for the most part his criticisms of the Christmas story are not criticisms of the Biblical account of the Nativity. Rather, they are proper and appropriate corrections of some of the details that have built up around the Biblical accounts which are either unbiblical or which are based only very loosely on the Biblical texts.

The Bible provides the source and the best details regarding the birth of Jesus. The account of Jesus' birth is found in two of the Gospels: Matthew and Luke. These two New Testament books give us the details about the star, the manger, the shepherds the kings and Jesus' miraculous birth. And whether people want to admit it or not, the story that we often see portrayed at Christmas has all types of material added that make a nice story but have almost no basis in Matthew and Luke.

One place where people seem to become rather unnecessarily defensive is their efforts to defend the idea that Jesus was born on December 25. Quite simply, the Bible doesn't tell us when Jesus was born. Many people (incuding my fellow-blogger Jason Pratt) prefer a Spring or Summer date for Jesus' birth based on extrapolations from evidence found in the Bible itself. I have no problem with their reasoning, and (in my view) it is more valid reasoning than was used for deciding to settle on December 25 as the date of Christmas (which was based on the idea of the "integral date" in early Christian teachings). But while my friend Jason and others like him make a good argument, their argument only makes it more likely that Jesus was born in the Spring; these arguments certainly don't provide an exact date for Jesus' birth. So, why is it that anyone should get upset when the Archbishop admits the obvious: we don't know if there was snow on the ground because the Bible itself doesn't say that Jesus was born on December 25, or even in the wintertime? Biblically-based Christians should simply acknowledge that December 25 is no more than a date that we agreed to adopt as the date for celebrating Jesus' birth, and should not try to defend anything as ridiculous as the claim that we know that Jesus was born on December 25.

Likewise, the idea that three kings visited Jesus on the night of his birth is also decidedly unbiblical. Matthew 2:1 begins with a very strong refutation of this idea by saying, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jersualem . . . ." In fact, when they arrive in Bethlehem, they find Jesus in a "house" (Matthew 2:11). The Bible never says how many wise men there were -- that is derived from the fact that three gifts are identified in Matthew 2:11: gold, incense and myrrh. There is no suggestion that they were kings, and beyond calling them "magi" there is nothing more stated about either their races, identities or vocations. The fact that they knew something about astrology or astronomy is noted by the fact that they said that they had seen the "star" of the "one who has been born of the king of the Jews" in the east and had come to worship him. Again, there is no point to defending the non-Biblical retelling that places three kings in the stable on the night of Jesus' birth.

The star is perhaps the most troubling in this scenario. The Archbishop says that he doesn't know if there was a "a star above the place where the child" was. He notes that stars don't ordinarily act the way the star described in Matthew acts, but notes that there are other possible answers that suggest that there was some type of heavenly event. To the extent that the Archbishop might be read to suggest that there was no star at all, I disagree wholeheartedly. To the extent he is merely saying that there was not a star that moved ahead of the magi as they travelled, I don't think that such an answer is in any way unbiblical.

The Archbishop seems to be ready to accept some type of star or sign in the heavens that led the magi to inquire about the "one to be born king of the Jews" in Jersualem. The problem arises because Matthew 2:9-10 seems to suggest that the star was physically moving and going ahead of the magi as they travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Those verses read:

After [the magi] had heard [King Herod], they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

As the Archbishop correctly notes, "we know stars don't behave quite like that". Some would point out (and I think that they would be justified in doing so) that this particular star was not an ordinary star. In fact, it wasn't really a "star" in the sense that it was a blazing ball of hydrogen that was hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth, but it was something different that merely appeared to be a star to these magi. That, it seems to me, is a legitimate way to view the star even though it raises questions about why this phenomenon was not particularly widely noted by other ancient astronomers.

Alternatively, one can view the language in verses 9 and 10 figuratively. Many portions of the Bible contains parables, prophetic language and figurative language which is not intended to be taken literally, and this may be one of those places. What this could mean (and I believe that one could be justified in reading the text this way, as well) is that the magi saw the star while they were in the east, and having determined that it was the star of the "one to be born king of the Jews" followed the star (in the same way that someone follows a dream) to the city of Jerusalem (which is where one would expect to find the king of the Jews born). Having learned that God's prophesy was that the "one to be born king of the Jews" was actually to be born in Bethlehem, they followed the star (again, as one follows a dream) to Bethlehem where they reached their destination (which is described figuratively as saying that the star "stopped over" Bethlehem).

Which is correct? I don't know. I believe that both views are within the acceptable views of the text and both are defensible. The Archbishop appears to accept the figurative reading over the more literal reading. Is that cause to take up arms against his views simply because he holds to a more figurative reading? Absolutely not. It is not necessary to hold to a moving star preceding the wise men to be within the broader understanding of the text. The only difficultly I would have with the Archbishop's views is to the extent it could be read as his possibly rejecting the existence of the star at all, but I don't think that he is doing that.

In fact, the only place where I really have any difficulty with anything the archbishop says is his less than enthusiastic response to the question whether Jesus was lain in a manger. Luke quite clearly states that the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and that his mother Mary "placed him in a manger (Luke 2:7). If the Bible is the source of the best knowledge about the birth of Jesus, then the Biblical account should be accepted until some better evidence is presented to say that it was in error. No such evidence has been found. However, in his answer he never said Jesus wasn't lain in a manger. He said that he "should think so", i.e., that Jesus probably was lain in a manger. That isn't a particularly strong "yes," so I am critical of him on that point.

Still, I don't think that believing that Jesus was lain in a manger is essential to being a Christian -- in fact, it is even less crucial than the question of the Virgin Birth. However, in my experience, whenever someone in Christianity begins to separate truth from the Bible, it ordinarily starts a downward slide where the person picks and chooses what to believe -- and that is the road that has been followed by too many of the mainline denominations as they have fallen into error. So, whenever I see a leader of the church suggesting that it is not necessary to believe any single aspect of the Bible, it raises concerns.

Even so, I personally find it very disturbing that some people should be attacking the archbishop for his views. By and large, the Archbishop's statements are really not controversial to anyone who has spent time actually reading the Bible accounts of the Nativity and comparing those accounts to the "Christmas story" regularly being taught to us by too many Christmas carols and Christmas specials. He's right about virtually everything he said. As Christians, we should be devoted to the truth above and beyond everything else, and that shouldn't be controversial.

Understanding that the Problem of Evil has already been addressed on the CADRE, I thought I would do a short exposition on the problem and how it proves to be more a problem for skeptics than for Theists.

Skeptics, often invoke this problem known as the “Problem of Evil”, as source of rejection of a divine being. The argument goes as so:

1.) The Divine Being is claimed to be All-Powerful (Omnipotent) and All-Good (Omnibenevolent).
2.) If the Divine Being is Omnipotent, It has the power to stop Evil.
3.) If the Divine Being is Omnibenevolent, then It wishes the greatest good for all creation.
4.) Evil exists
5.) Therefore, God does not have the power to stop evil and is not Omnipotent or God has the power to stop evil, but is not Omnibenevolent.

Though it does not follow from this argument that “God does not exist”, many skeptics tend to take that very route when using this argument. The question that remains is if this argument is truly sound. In the course of this article, I will be tackling this problem from multiple angles. Rationally and emotionally, this problem requires several different arguments together in order to provide an adequate rebuttal to the skeptics’ dilemma. This comprehensive argument will be presented as followed: (1) The Epistemological Necessity of Evil, (2) The Need for an Objective Standard of Morality, (3) The Afterlife Gives Meaning to the Concept of Justice, and (4) Free Will is Required.

(1) The Epistemological Necessity of Evil

First, it needs to be understood what “evil” actually is. Many people tend to give different answers to what they understand to be “evil”; however, most people tend to agree on what constitutes evil; Needless death, suffering, and pain tend to all be the first things mentioned when describing evil. While I may be partial to describing evil as those things that are opposed to God’s Will, this is not the universal definition accepted by all person’s, even if it includes the former things mentioned. For the sake of the argument, whenever I state the word “evil”, I only mean the three things mentioned earlier: Needless death, suffering, and pain. It should also go without saying that anyone who creates any of the following is performing an evil action.

So when a skeptic states that there is evil in this world or that there is too much evil in this world, and presents that as a case against a personal Deity (or any for that matter), how do they know evil exists? Does one need to be a rocket scientist to understand that there is evil in this world? Of course not, but the difficulty that I am about to present for the skeptic has nothing to do with intelligence, rather it has to do with opposites and a matter of realization and appreciation,. How does a person know or appreciate an object without knowing the properties that exist opposed to it? For instance, how could I know what heat was if I didn’t know cold? A skeptic might scoff at this idea and say, “Of course you can know what cold or heat was without experiencing the other!”, but to that I would disagree. Let us draw out a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say, that our planet only experienced a temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit and that we humans never knew any other temperature below or above said degrees, would we then really believe there were such things as “cold” or “heat”? There would be no possible distinction, neither would there be any need to mention the degree of temperature at all, because there is nothing else to compare it to. Of course, this analogy can be challenged by merely stating that there are in fact differences in degrees on all parts of the planet, but as I stated earlier, this is purely a hypothetical situation and not reflective of reality. There are in fact distinctions in degrees, which allow us to measure and to also think things to either be cold or hot.

Now, let us change the analogy and mention God and creation. Let’s imagine for once that God created a world without any possibility of evil and that we humans never experienced or even knew what evil truly was. Would we then know what good was? Without an opposite, there would be no realization that what we are experiencing, in any way, good,. We would have no realization of good, all it would be would be a feeling that we have inherent within us just like the beating of our hearts or our intake of oxygen; completely and utterly ignored. Though it is a stretch to say that the beating of our hearts or oxygen intake are ignored, because often times they are not , in fear that it is beating too much or too little or that we are in-taking too much or too little, but this merely solidifies my point: even the slightest differences help to provide us with realization and appreciation of what we know.

The skeptic, hopefully not denying this obvious truth, may go on to say that distinctions are necessary, but that there is in fact too much evil in this world. While I can sympathize emotionally with this claim, I cannot take it very seriously because it is a rather empty statement. How do we truly know there is too much evil in this world or even just a little more than good? How do we measure that? Maybe there is too much evil in this world, but even then, how is that an argument against God? We have already concluded that evil is necessary epistemologically, so the claim that there is even a fraction of evil in this world, which disproves a Deity, falls flat on it’s face. For the irony is, in order to percieve and wish for good (a matter of appreciation), one must be able to perceive evil. So those that wish for a “perfect” world, would not recognize that it is perfect without first having experienced a world that is not perfect.

(2) The Need for an Objective Standard of Morality

Secondly, in order to claim that something is truly evil a person must be able to state so objectively. What I mean by objective is: Something that is outside of mere opinion and not self-affirmed. So when someone claims that something is “wrong” or “right”, it is wrong or right independent of that person thinking so. Subjectivism is contrary to objectivism in that it is purely within the limits of human opinion and nothing more. So when a skeptic believes that there is evil in this world (or too much of it), they must appeal to something outside of themselves in order for their beliefs to be true. Their feelings alone do not amount to a proper justification for these claims. If they were, my tastes in ice cream could very well amount to a moral choice no less good or bad than the Cambodian Killing Fields. So in order for a skeptic to say and believe there is “evil” in this world and have that be a truthful statement, he or she must believe that good and evil exists independently of his or her own feelings and are grounded in something beyond themselves. This standard, I would argue, is God: an immutable, personable Being that is beyond the Universe. Now, a skeptic may say that the ultimate standard need not be a Deity, but then I would question what else there possibly could be. The skeptic may go on to say something along the lines of a purely naturalistic source as being responsible for our existence and moral order. To this, I would believe raises more problems than it answers. The most common toted mechanism for morality among non-believers in God is evolutionary theory, which is used to argue that our morality (ordered behavior) adapted over time for the sake of our survival. The problems with this theory are numerous. For one, the claim that our morality is for the sake of survival is in and of itself a moral judgment. What is morally good about survival? It does not even seem to be ingrained within our biology, as many people seem to value more than their own survival, the survival of other people. Of course, an objection could be raised that biologically, we try to help the entire species survive and not simply ourselves. But wait, are we not too part of the species? So when a person kills another person, say, for money, how is that not part of survival of the species? We detest stealing so much, but we seem to believe that property itself it independent of human appeal. Similarly, we think the same way of human rights. We treat these special rules and conditions as being independent of human invention all together. How then, can they be part of this great scheme of survival?

Another problem is that there is no real value or purpose behind the morality we have if it is independent of a great mind or the product of indifferent motions working throughout the universe. If in fact, we are the product of this ‘chance machine”, then there is no true value or meaning behind even the slightest notion of differences between one behavior and the next. So when a skeptic says that something is wrong, he only means to say, “I don’t like it” or better yet, “I am genetically programmed to not like it.”

Another issue is that evolution does not provide us with an immutable standard of morality. If our morals changed over time, then they can change again. There is no law governing the status of these moral laws. Something that is considered morally good one day could very well be morally bad another day. Rape could be considered a good way to spread genes in the future, as it may have been in the past. Murder may be excusable for those that hold higher authority, etc (if it isn’t already). These naturalistic explanations are pitiless, purposeless, and ultimately indifferent to everything. It is a by-chance, arbitrary mechanism. It is not immutable.

Perhaps the greatest objection that a skeptic could give regarding appeal to a Deity is that such a Deity must also appeal to an objective standard in order to have any authority at all, but this is stretching the limits of what objectivity actually entails. Let us consider for a moment that God is subjective; would it follow logically that human morality is subjective? No. Human being are still appealing to something outside of themselves, therefore their morality is still objectively based. But if God is subjective, does this make our objective morality ultimately on a whim? I would argue that it does not. First, there is a difference between something being arbitrary and something being subjective. Humans tend to be both, in that they change their minds and morals constantly and only wish to appeal to their own intuitions. To be arbitrary, God would have to one day consider something like murder wrong and then the next, change it. This would ultimately destroy the status of a standard. In order for God to be a standard, He must be immutable. Could He be arbitrary and ultimately morality ceases to be anything valuable at all? Yes, it is a possibility, but not one conceded by a Theists, but it is conceded by a skeptic that morality is utlimately arbitrary.

Getting back to God’s subjectivity, does this imply there is no objective standard of morality? It has already been claimed that humans do not lose the objectivity, but it must be addressed that at some point, there can only be one ultimate standard. There has to be a point that cannot be superceded in order for standards to exist at all. If there were an infinite regress then there would never be any real standards because there would be an infinite chain of causation and infinite appeals to authority. So ultimately, there must be a final stopping point; a necessary thing or Being. This, I argue is God. How can the standard appeal to anything other than itself? It cannot if it is the ultimate standard. At some point, justifications must end in order for there to be any sort of justification at all. This is only rational.

So in order for the skeptic to rationally believe there to be an absolute evil or an absolute good, he or she must appeal to an objective standard that makes these two things possible: a personal, immutable Being.

(3) The Afterlife Gives Meaning to the Concept of Justice

Thirdly, for there to be any concept of justice in this world, one must believe in an ultimate Law Giver, Judge, and ability for that Justice to be given. What I mean by justice is: the proper ordering of rewards and punishments for good doings and wrong doings.

When people do evil or experience evil, they believe to have been done an injustice. In fact, evil and injustice are two concepts that go hand in hand. No one thinks evil to be a good thing, for it would be a contradiction in terms and ideas. When people are dealt evil, they do not consider the action or the experience a justified one, for that too would be a contradiction of the term “evil”. Justice, by its very nature, is a requirement against evil; it is the remedy of evil and is identical in many ways to what we consider good. I would argue, that the very concept of justice relies on the idea that there is an objective standard of morality, which is founded in an Ultimate Being as argued previously. Not only that, but an afterlife is also required for the concept to even mean anything at all. When a skeptic rejects an afterlife, saying that in the end there is nothing, but death, he or she also rejects the concept of justice. Let us take for instance, the act of murder. How is murder an unjust act towards the victim? The skeptic might say that it is unjust in that it was not the victims’ choice to die so soon or to have his or her life robbed of them. But isn’t this assuming that the victim actually realizes or cares that this is an injustice? If the person is dead and there is nothing left of them, how do they perceive this as anything at all? It doesn’t seem possible to have this be an injustice if personal identity has been stripped away from them at death. Further, it doesn’t seem possible to have justice without appeal to a standard that is not simply within the opinions of human beings. One could say that it is more of an injustice to the living persons of humanity as a whole and not the victim themselves, but then human value is no longer intrinsic. Human rights are merely something people agree on and hope that another group of humans doesn’t take away by force. If someone didn’t love the poor old beggar that was murdered under the bridge, then his or her life means absolutely nothing. And even if one person loved that beggar it really is all still meaningless because that person’s life really had no value at all; it is based on the mere feelings of another person, which is no different than every other person’s feeling on the planet, especially those of the person that kills the old beggar under the bridge.

The Afterlife, then, gives the opportunity for ultimate justice to prevail. It allows for there to be yet another time where evil will be dealt with and the murdered to be recompensed. It gives value to human life and true meaning to death and suffering.

(4) Free Will is Required

Fourth, Free Will is necessary for there to be any significance between the choices of good and evil at all, as well as for there to be any acts of justice or injustice. Free Will is defined as: The ability to choose freely between one choice or the other. Naturally, previous things cause all of our choices. Our choices, however, are not forced by these causes. The causes themselves, whether they be upbringing, environment, etc. are all free agents in and of themselves that can be opposed. In some sense, there is no complete free will. We are limited to the choices we make and to some extent, how we make those choices, but the point is that we can still make choices. In order to combat a purely deterministic point of view, I would bring up the fact that at some point in our ability to make choices, there is always a state of limbo. This “limbo”, is the state of hesitation. Arguably, if our choices were all determined, it would appear that this state of limbo would not exists, as one choice would already been predetermined over the other before that choice was made. It would be needless, to say in the least, for there to be a point of hesitation at all. And what a determinists cannot have in their world are needless choices. Every choice, must in fact be a necessity of a previous cause that cannot be undermined or even considered to be undermined if it is already stronger than any cause that preceded it. Now, one would be hopeful that a skeptic would believe that we have Free Will, but it seems difficult to assume that we have Free Will in a purposelessly determined universe, as exemplified in the appeal to evolutionary ethics. In essence, our genes rule who we are, and there are no “good” or “bad” genes. Our actions are ultimately determined by our biological makeup and our natural surroundings. Free will, much like human rights and a Deity to a hard line skeptics’ eye, are mere illusions. Without the ability to choose freely between one choice and the other, however, evil and good lose their significance as well. If we cannot choose between two things, then have we really committed any good or evil decisions and actions? Is a criminal truly responsible for their crimes of injustice if they did not choose to do so freely, and does justice even still carry any such meaning after the individual has been robbed of their choice to commit it?

In Conclusion

I feel that these issues are far more troublesome for the skeptic than they are for any Theists. If a skeptic is to affirm that there is evil in this world and that it is a problem for belief in God, then they must, ironically, confess that there is a necessity to know that evil in order for them to even ever consider it a problem. Likewise, they must know evil to truly appreciate what good is. Further, I feel that morality expressed by most non-Theists is ultimately self refuting, if not, completely meaningless. Perhaps the Problem of Evil is indeed a problem, but for those that do not affirm a Theistic worldview, the problem of evil is no problem at all, much less anything worth caring about. It could be argued there is no Problem of Good either.

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

Now I will examine another set of tactics, similar (in ends if not in means) to those of the negative agnostics. I will do this, not only to (at least partially) justify myself to some of my brethren, but also because (thanks to those same brethren) a sceptic might think she had grounds we have chosen, for dismissing my attempt before I have even begun. [Footnote: please keep in mind that my goal throughout this chapter, as is often the case throughout this section of chapters, is to see whether a particular stance or set of stances properly prevents me from trying with any good hope to reach conclusions that can be legitimately shared by opponents and myself, on metaphysical topics. Keeping this in mind will help avoid misunderstanding what I'm actually trying to do here; and will also help avoid critiques of what I am not actually trying to do.]

There are two subgroups of Christian proponents (and I think I can safely assume they have their mirrors in Judaism and Islam) who would agree with the negative agnostic that philosophical analysis cannot (by its very character) reach useful and/or true conclusions about God's existence and His characteristics.

Both these groups may be called Presuppositionalists, and I distinguish them as Scriptural Presuppositionalists and Theological Presuppositionalists.

Both types of thinkers are typically devout and loyal to God, and to what they (in many cases 'we'!) believe to be writings He has to one degree or another inspired. Furthermore, both types of thinker are likely to hold Scripture to be not only inspired, but also utterly inerrant (no errors or mistakes of any kind were allowed by God in the material, even down to our present-day translated copies) and virtually dictated to the writers in all instances by God.

These people are, in essence, likely to attribute Divine characteristics to scriptures. [Note: see first comment below for extended footnote.] Again, these people do this very largely out of loyalty to, and love for, God.

Sometimes certain individual proponents of these two stances will choose this tactic in order to avoid direct confrontation with the opposition--while still trying to confront the opposition. I do not think this makes sense; mainly because I think it flies in the face of any successful Christian witness on our part. I do not consider flinging grenades onto the field and then crouching behind our benches--hoping the grenades will somehow do our responsibilities for us--to be fulfilling Christ's Great Commission. The proponent of such a tactic needs only to ask himself how he would probably respond as a sceptic to this sort of bullyragging; or perhaps (if he is a traditional Christian) he should consider what he would think of Jehovah's Witnesses (for instance) trying the same tactic on him. If he would reject such a tactic applied against him, would he consider himself to be doing so out of willful rejection of the truth? Or because such a presentation gives him no good reason to change his mind? (On the other hand, I would say ‘staying home’ in such a fashion out of a humble recognition of lack of skill, would make fine sense as far as it goes; but by default this would not involve opposing opponents.)

However, not all Presuppositionalists are trying to safely toss grenades onto the playing field (despite what some sceptics might be tempted to suspect!) Instead, they may be operating according to this concern: they quite consciously start with a set of beliefs they want to preserve, and so they (with equal intent) put those beliefs first as the only possible way of successfully interpreting reality.

So, a person who is a Scriptural Presuppositionalist will (in essence) start with the following propositions: only God can be the ground for any true proposition, and the only way of discovering aspects of God is through the Scriptures He has inspired. Therefore, the Scriptures (being our only pipeline to ultimate truth) must be used as the standard for deciding the truth of any other proposition.

To their credit, they don't have to mean by this that every single question must rely on Scripture for an answer: they do not turn to Scripture to learn how to find the sum of 41 and 39; nor to find the best ways of planting seed; nor to learn how to make an airplane (or a horse-cart for that matter).

But, they would say that any answer that contradicts 'clear' scriptural teaching must be wrong, no matter how correct the answer otherwise may look. [Note: see second comment below for a footnote here.]

On the other hand (and of much more importance for my immediate topic), if a conclusion does match a position of theirs, they may admit the conclusion is technically correct--because otherwise they would be denying their own position! But they will also say the conclusion could not really have been reached by the method used.

Thus, even if an argument seemed to conclude that a supernatural Creator God must exist (with any further details inclusive to that theism), these people would say that the argument simply cannot be doing what it looks like it's doing, because it isn't using Scripture to get to that conclusion (and only Scripture is capable of giving us those kinds of truth). [Note: see third comment below for a footnote here.]

The Theological Presuppositionalist takes a similar yet distinctive view. She would begin with the proposition that only God's existence (and perhaps other characteristics), used as a ground, can provide a coherent non-contradictive philosophy. She then attempts to illustrate that God's presumed existence allows us to account for more of reality than another presupposition would.

Depending on how she goes about it, this is not necessarily a faulty method; but it should be presented as an abductive argument (at least for purposes of arguing in favor of God's existence and characteristics), instead of a deductive one, and would share the weaknesses of an abductive argument.

If she tries to make it deductive, it becomes circular, and thus invalid:

Step 1, Presume (for sake of argument) x-type God exists.

Step 2, Demonstrate that the notional system based accepting the existence of this God doesn't 'crash', and provides us with a working basis for the conversion of philosophy into, for instance, valid sciences for discovering and predicting true facts about our world.

Step 3, Demonstrate that true facts about our world mesh with the system; preferably some facts the system predicted in advance.

Step 4, Conclude therefore that this God must exist.

Even if steps 2 and 3 can be shown to work, step 4 cannot legitimately follow, because step 2 requires step 1 to be true first--and step 1 equals step 4, so the argument goes nowhere, like triggering an empty revolver at a target that has already been shot. However, stopping at steps 2 or 3 can still be useful: demonstrating that a proposed system 'works' is certainly important, and at least provides a valid option. [Note: see fourth comment below for a footnote here.]

But, if the proponent insists on trying to make a safely certain deductive argument from this process, it can only offer a very backhanded sort of ‘help’.

What is a sceptic supposed to say to an argument like this? "So, if only I will accept God does exist, then I will see that God must exist?"

That may be true, but it isn't worth saying! To 'see' (or accept as a belief) that God exists, on this plan, the thinker must essentially begin by accepting that God exists! I do not think a rejection of this type of plan by a sceptic necessarily indicates sinful obstinance or imbecility: it might indicate a sensible and ethical virtue on the part of the sceptic--not to accept a supposed 'argument' that by its very characteristics cannot show what its adherents claim for it!

The circular Presuppositionalist may understand what I mean, if the tables are turned. Nature prevents us from presenting comprehensible cases simultaneously to each other, so one or the other must 'go first'. Therefore, let us say an atheist happens to go first.

He begins with the assertion that God does not exist: that the rock-bottom most basic Fact in reality upon which all else depends is not itself sentient. He then proceeds to demonstrate that useful and accurate philosophies and sciences can be built upon this assertion. Therefore, he concludes, God must not exist.

Would the Presuppositionalist agree with him? I hope not! This atheist's 'conclusion' that God must not exist, requires as a necessary presumption that God does not exist!

I do not mean this atheist would have accomplished absolutely nothing: if he does get this far he will have demonstrated, to use my earlier simile, that the revolver does indeed cycle and click. But dry-clicking a revolver does not accomplish the end for which the gun is intended.

The (circular) Scriptural Presuppositionalist has an even harder job, because claims of self-grounding written material tend to cancel out one another; and the advocates can easily end up (perhaps even literally) waving books in each other's faces like crucifixes against vampires, yelling "Bible" "Koran" "Bible" "Koran" "Little Red Book"--before everyone loses patience and starts shooting.

Yet, in one way, a debate between two philosophical types of Presuppositionalists--for instance a theist and an atheist--may accomplish something worthwhile. Both sides can get into what I call a system-check duel, where they pick at problems (or perceived problems) in the opposing systems while defending their own. This could (potentially) lead to a Last Man Standing situation: the last one with a working system may reasonably be considered to be the winner!

However, both sides have massively complex arguments; and not only is there no motivation, there is virtually no provision for keeping the entire argument of either side in view at once. Also this method highlights (and indeed magnifies) the adversarial aspect of the exercise.

And in such a strategy, the 'loser' always has an infallible escape hatch: he can always say that some new development in the future might re-open the case. Insofar as an inductive argument goes, he would be within boundaries to try clinging to this hope.

I would rather try a different route. I would, in short, prefer to grow a theist rather than merely weed out atheists. [Note: see fifth comment below for a footnote here.]

I agree that some presupposition (or limited set of presuppositions) must be proposed, upon which the rest of the argument can then be built. Therefore, near the beginning of my second section I will try to find a notion with which both my sceptical reader and I can positively agree in a shared mutual advantage. Then I will deduce implications from that starting point, and from there draw further deductions; to see if I can rule out option branches without cheating.

Meanwhile, I know some sceptics have seen the unclear (and often circularly argued) results of Presuppositionalist views; or have heard that if Christianity (or some other theism) is true, it cannot be discovered by reasoning but merely asserted. You will not, however, hear that from me! I hope I have shown why I do not consider either of those factors to be good grounds for concluding beforehand that these types of issues cannot be satisfactorily resolved to some real and useful degree by logical analysis. (And I will touch on this point occasionally throughout the rest of my book, in one fashion or another).

The question of assertions vs. reasoned conclusions, however, does (as a matter of historical fact) involve the question of religious faith; a topic that has been drastically misunderstood for several centuries. These misunderstandings have been, and still are, propagated by strong factions among believers and unbelievers alike; and since these misunderstandings can often bring a useful dialogue (much moreso a process of shared discovery) to a crashing halt before either side can even begin making their case, I had better try to resolve this issue.

[Next week: but isn't a faith/reason dichotomy necessary for believing religious claims?!]

It is Christmas time and so time for skeptics to grinch their way into our celebrations by trying to spread Christmas doubt. I have responded to such attempts in the past, which my co-blogger BK was nice enough to reproduce here. More recently, the good folks at Triablogue have been doing some fine posts on the Nativity as well. They have helpfully put together two posts, one on Matthew and one on Luke, that link to their previous posts on the respective infancy narratives. These links include several references to the recent work by Jason Engwer on neglected evidence related to Luke's census.

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: see here for the previous entry, which also happens to be the first entry of the series. It explains what I'm doing, and how, and contains the Johannine prologue.

The Messengers of the King

Most excellent Theophilus! (salutes the Scholar)

Since many have, in fact, already put their hands to drawing up an account of certain matters--of which we are fully assured among ourselves, as sure as those who, having become eyewitnesses and deputies of the Word since the beginning, have passed those things down to us--it seemed fitting for me, having traced everything carefully from the very first, to also write it out for you in consecutive order; so that you may know the certainty of the words about which you have been taught!

So: in the days of Herod, King of Judea, there came to be a certain priest, who served (his yearly duties ministering in the Jerusalem Temple) during the course of Abijah. [Footnote: priests of this course would serve in the temple on June 13-19, and Dec 6-12, by our calendar reckonings; plus both of the great eight-day feasts, of Passover and Tabernacles, with all other priests.] His name was Zechariah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron (of priestly descent), and her name was Elizabeth. And they both were fair-minded, carefully keeping the commandments and services of justice under God.

Yet, they had no child, for Elizabeth was barren, and they both were advanced in their years.

Now one day, while he was performing his priestly service before God according to the order of his division (apparently June 13-19, based on what happens later), he was chosen by lot to enter the altar-room of the Temple to burn incense, while the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.

But being disturbed, he looked to the right of the altar of incense, and perceived an angel of the Lord standing there; and fear fell upon Zechariah.

Yet the angel said to him: "Fear not, Zechariah!--for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will call his name John! ('the Lord rejoices')

"And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he will be great in the eye of the Lord!

"Now, neither wine nor any intoxicant may he be drinking under any circumstances; but he shall be filled by the Holy Spirit, even while in his mother's womb!

"And many of the sons of Israel will he be turning back to the Lord their God--for he shall be coming under His eye and before Him, in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children' (as Malachi the prophet had said) and the disobedient to the wisdom of fairness; so as to make ready a people who are prepared for the Lord!"

But Zechariah said to the angel, "How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in her years."

The angel answered and said: "I am Gabriel! ('God-disposer')--who stands beside the presence of God!--and I have been sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news! So: because you do not believe my words, which shall be accomplished in their season, behold!--silent shall you be, and unable to speak, until the day when these things have been occurring!"

Now, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and were wondering at his delaying inside the Temple. Yet, when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; so they realized he must have seen an apparition in the Temple: indeed, he kept nodding to them and making gestures, and continued to be mute.

So it came about, when the days of his priestly service were ended (June 19th), that he went back home.

And after this his wife did become pregnant (June 21st or thereabouts); and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying: "This is the way the Lord has dealt with me: to look with favor upon me, to remove my disgrace among men!"

In the sixth month (afterward; Dec 21st or a little later), the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee, called Nazareth; to a maiden engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, descended from King David. And the name of the maiden was Miriam ('best beloved').

And approaching her, he said to her: "Rejoice, receiving joy, O blessed among women! The Lord is with you!"

This troubled her, when she heard it; and she tried to figure out why she was being greeted this way.

But the angel continued: "Fear not, Miriam; for you have found favor with God! Now see!--you will conceive in your womb, and bear a Son; and you shall be calling His name Jesus. ('the Lord saves' or 'the Lord is salvation')

"He will be great, and shall be called 'Son of Highest'!--and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His ancestor, David (the King); and He will reign over the house of Jacob, for all the ages to come; and of His kingdom, there shall never be an ending!"

"So..." said Miriam to the angel, "how is this to come about? For I have not yet known a man."

But answering her, the messenger said, "The Holy Spirit shall descend upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; this is why the Holy One, having been born of you, shall be called 'Son of God'.

"Now, look! Your relative, Elizabeth, has also conceived a son in her old age; and she is now in her sixth month, who once was called barren. Therefore, be sure that it will not be impossible for God to fulfill His every declaration."

So Miriam said: "See!--the slave of the Lord. May this happen with me, as you have told."

Then the angel went away from her.

Within the next few days (Dec 25 or thereabouts), Miriam made diligent preparations, and then went with haste into the mountains, to a city of the Judah region (not far from Jerusalem... some later traditions indicate the town of Juttah); and going into the house of Zechariah, she called out for Elizabeth.

At that very moment, as Elizabeth heard Miriam calling, the baby jumped in her womb, and Elizabeth, being filled by the Holy Spirit, shouted out in return: "Blessed are you among women! and blessed is the fruit of your womb! How has this come to be--that the mother of my Lord is coming to me!? Look here!--as soon as I heard you, my own baby leapt for joy within me!

"Oh! blessed are you for believing--for now what has been spoken to you from the Lord shall come to maturity!"

Miriam, hearing this, sang out:

My soul exalts the Lord!
And my spirit exults in God my Savior!
For He looks upon the lowliness of his bondsmaid,
and behold! from now on all generations will call me happy!

For the Mighty One does great things for me,
oh Holy is His name--
And (as it is written) His mercy is for the generations and generations
toward those who fear Him!

He does mighty deeds with His arm;
He scatters the proud in the understanding of their hearts;
He pulls down powers from their thrones;
And raises up the lowly.

The hungry (as it is written) He fills with good things;
the rich He sends away empty-handed!

Now He has given help to His servant-boy, Israel;
remembering the mercy He promised us
as He spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed for the age!

Miriam stayed with Elizabeth (says the Scholar), until her relative's time was complete.

So (about three months later, March 21st or thereabouts), Elizabeth gave birth to a son; and her neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her, in the Lord's great mercy toward her.

On the eighth day afterward, it came time to circumcise the little boy; and her friends and family wanted to give him his father's name, Zechariah.

But his mother, answering, said, "Indeed not!--but he shall be called John."

"None of your kin are named John," they replied; and so they nodded to his father, expecting him to name the boy as he wished instead.

But after requesting a tablet, he wrote upon it: "John is his name." This astonished them greatly.

At that moment, his mouth and tongue were freed, and being filled by the Holy Spirit, he praised God--and he prophesied:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel!
For He visits us, fulfilling redemption for His people,
And rouses a horn of salvation for us
In the house of David, His servant-boy!

As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets
who are from of old:

'Deliverance from our enemies!--
And from the hand of all who are hating us!'

Yes, to show mercy toward our fathers
And to remember His holy promises
that He swore, by His oath,
to Abraham our father:

that we, being rescued
from the hand of our enemies,
might offer Him fearless and divine service
in kindness and fair-togetherness
before Him, for all of our days!

Now you!--my little boy!
You shall also be called
a prophet of the Most High;
for you shall go, under His eye ('before His face'),
before Him (as it is written) making ready His roads!--
by letting His people know they shall be saved
in the pardoning of their sins,
by the tenderness and mercy of our God,
in which the Sunrise from on high
shall visit us!--
to shine (as it is written)
upon those who sit in darkness
and upon those under the shadow of death
directing our feet
onto the path
of peace!

Upon hearing this prophecy (says the Scholar), a holy fear fell upon all those living in the area; and everyone who heard of it pondered it in their hearts, saying among themselves, "So, what will this child be??" For the hand of the Lord was clearly upon him.

And all these things were being talked about, among the people in the hill country of Judea.

But Miriam (now three months pregnant herself) quietly left the area; returning to her home in Nazareth.

Now Miriam (says the Disciple, as he joins his voice to the story), was living with Joseph son of Jacob son of Matthan, of the lineage of David (the King); for they were betrothed to one another, but were living in the year between their promise and their marriage; so they had not yet slept together.

It soon became obvious, however, that Mary was carrying a child.

(Joseph, already her husband legally, had the right of the law, to sentence her to death, if she ever betrayed him in adultery.) But being a fair man, and not wanting to smear her name, he was planning to take her somewhere else to dissolve the marriage quietly (leaving her free to follow whomever he thought she'd been loving instead).

Yet while he was thinking of this; behold!--an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying: "Joseph, son of David! Do not be concerned about accepting Miriam as your wife; for what is being generated in her is of the Holy Spirit. Soon she shall be bringing forth a Son, and you shall be calling His name Jesus ('the Lord is salvation'); for He shall be saving His people from their sins!"

Now all this occurred (believes the Disciple, knowing what he does about the rest of the story) so that the declaration of the Lord through the prophet (Isaiah) could be fulfilled: "See here! The maiden shall become pregnant and shall be bringing forth a Son, and they shall be calling His name Immanu-el!" ('with us is God')

So, being roused from his sleep, Joseph did as the messenger of the Lord had commanded him; he accepted his wife, completing their betrothal in marriage.

But, he did not sleep with her in marriage, until she gave birth to her Son.

Matthew 1:18-25a
Luke 1:1-79

[Next time: The Birth of the King]

I have started a new blog called Atheist Watch. Its general concern is keeping up with the developments in the atheist movement in general, and refuting their ideas. Part of that mission is to keep tabs on a segment of atheism that I think is rapidly developing into a hate group. This is the fringe, probably no more than about 10% at most. I don't say they are a hate group, but that they are becoming one. I think the atheist community has a duty to use peer pressure to keep them in line. But the atheists are incensed about it. They are angry about the site. Atheists have always been hyper-sensitive to any sort of criticism. That is my experince on message boards anyway.

The site is totally my own and has nothing to do with the views of the CADRE.

As atheist named "Peter," on the comment section of this blog, the post on atheist hymn said:

This blog is used to drive traffic and attention to "The Atheist Watch". I would like to know what the other members of the Christian CADRE think about "the Atheist Watch" blog. Is it a hate site? Do you (silently?) approve it, condemn it or don't care about it?

The atheists seem very upset by the site, yet I was very careful to say I am not claiming that all of atheism is a hate group. I think there are fringe elements in the atheist movement and it behooves the mainstream rational atheists to keep them in check. It's their social duty to use whatever peer pressure they can, because I think they helped create the situation which allows them to flourish.

Now how that can make me a hate monger is beyond me.

Do I hate atheists? I am very angry at them. So angry I can almost forget some are dear friends. I find most atheists to be very irrational and uninformed, not very analytical, sometimes totally dishonest and self-deceived. Does that mean that I hate them? I think the same thing about my sister, who is a Christian, I don't hate her. And man is she going to kill me when she reads this!

Atheist Watch Is a new site it's still in formation. I will take all the comments into consideration and use them to shape the boundaries of discussion on the site. I will put some of the comments that I feel are most through and thought provoking, those by atheists friends such as Peter, and answer them, on Atheist Watch itself.

I hope you will all take a gander and let me know what you think.

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