CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

RBC Ministries, the company that publishes the devotional booklet "Our Daily Bread", has undertaken to erect a website that I am certain will be useful to believers but criticized mightly by skeptics as being too limited in scope and detail. The new site is named, Answers to Tough Questions and seeks to address some difficult questions posed by the Bible.

The main categories covered thus far are: Relationships, Personal Struggles, Contemporary Issues, Ethics, World Religions, The Paranormal, The Bible, Christianity and God. Each of these categories is broken down into subcategories, and some of the subcategories are further broken down into additional sub-subcategories.

Winding through the various strata of categories, the questions that are asked are reasonable and the answers are fairly concise and useful. For example, under the subcategory of the Existence of God is the following question: "Is it inconsistent, as Richard Dawkins claims, for believers in God to look for scientific explanations of natural things, if they don’t think it is necessary to seek scientific proof of God’s existence?" Now, the answer to this question should seem obvious to all but the most hardened atheist: of course it isn't inconsistent. After all, if Richard Dawkins makes the claim there has to be a flaw in the reasoning. However, for those who want a fuller argument as to why this is not inconsistent, here is the answer provided:

This is a classic example of comparing apples to oranges. Infinite Spirit can’t be examined the same way the physical world can.

According to the Bible, the characteristics of the physical universe have been shaped by God. As the apostle Paul writes, "God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Romans 1:20). Because the natural world has been created and designed by God, it reflects His power and divine nature. However, God is of an entirely different order of being. He is not physical, but Spirit, of a higher dimension of being that encompasses our universe but which cannot be directly observed and measured by the physical sciences.

But if God can’t be directly investigated by physical science, are there no compelling reasons to believe that He exists? Someone with a naïve faith in evolution might say there are no compelling reasons, but more objective scientists acknowledge that the rational basis for God’s existence is being continually strengthened as science progresses.

Even if it could be demonstrated at some future time that evolution is a seamless natural process with no "gaps" where God can be demonstrated to supernaturally intervene, atheists have to account for the components and circumstances that make the process possible. Physicists who believe in the probability of God’s existence don’t do so because of gaps in evolutionary theory, but because of the mind-boggling, overwhelming complexity of the circumstances within which natural macroevolution would have to occur.1

The fact that circumstances of such infinite, or nearly infinite, complexity exist as the necessary background to life implies design. The idea that the universe has no origin is a counterintuitive faith assumption, as everything in our experience that is complex is derived from something more complex. It’s hard to see how Dawkins and other atheists consider it more reasonable to believe that the infinite complexity of the natural world is rooted in chance.

The existence of randomness as part of the process of evolution within the space/time universe is not—as some atheists claim—evidence against design. Randomness itself appears to be an aspect of the design, making possible the development of self-aware, free beings (such as we are). Thus the existence of randomness and freedom within the context of natural law imply a much higher order of complexity than a mere "clockwork universe."

So it isn’t unreasonable to believe in God, even if we can’t "explain" or "define" Him in scientific terms. The choices are to either take the mind-boggling complexity of a universe containing self-aware beings as mere accident, or to assume that the complexity we see within and around us is evidence of a supernatural God.

1. One of the most startling developments to come from modern physics is that the universe, in some very fundamental way, seems to have been “designed” or “tuned” to produce life and consciousness. Actually, what physicists have discovered is that there are a large number of “coincidences” inherent in the fundamental laws and constants of nature. Every one of these coincidences or specific relationships between fundamental physical parameters is needed, or the evolution of life and consciousness as we know it could not have happened. The collection of these coincidences is an undisputed fact and, collectively, have come to be known as the “Anthropic Principle.” (From the essay, “The Holistic Anthropic Principle,” by Joseph P. Provenzano and Dan R. Provenzano.)

Is this a reasonable answer? Of course it is. Is this going to satisfy the hardened atheist? Of course not. Is this site going to be criticized for its lack of depth? Of course. Is it wrong? Not obviously. Is it a good resource to use for speaking with the people in your life who are not believers but have not yet fallen into the deep intellectual abyss of the New Atheists? Definitely.

A favored tactic of John Loftus is to try and play Christian scholars off against each other. Consistent with this tactic, in his book, Why I Became an Atheist, John Loftus leads off his assault on the empty tomb with this assertion:

Several mainline Christian scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, argue against the empty tomb, including C.H. Dodd, Rudolf Bultmann, Raymond Brown, Reginald Fuller, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, D.H. Nineham, along with many others.

Ibid., page 365.

Loftus provides no citations to support this assertion. When I read this passage while thumbing through his book, the listing of Raymond Brown quickly caught my attention. A moderate Catholic scholar, I seemed to remember that he was at the very least sympathetic to the empty tomb story. I did some research and confirmed my initial reaction, but because I had not read everything written by R. Brown and scholars sometimes modify their positions, I e-mailed John Loftus in April 2009. I asked for his basis in listing Raymond Brown.

Loftus responded that he would check on his information and get back to me. When I did not hear back from Loftus for over two months, I e-mailed him again and asked if he had found a source regarding Raymond Brown. By this time I had also become curious about his inclusion of C.H. Dodd on the list, another moderate Christian scholar who I was surprised to see listed as someone who "argued against the empty tomb." Accordingly, I also asked Loftus if he could provide a source for C.H. Dodd. Loftus replied that he could not find any support for listing either on the list but insisted that "[a] reliable source led me to mention their names, but I failed to research it myself."

I asked Loftus who the reliable source was and why he trusted this source so much that he did not research himself the claims he was making in his book, but Loftus has not responded to my query. I did some google searches to see if anyone else had made such a claim and the closet I found was an assertion by J. Shelby Spong:
If the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed except by assenting to the fantastic descriptions included in the Gospels, then Christianity is doomed.... If that were the requirement of belief as a Christian, then I would sadly leave my house of faith. With me in that exodus from the Christian church, however, would be every ranking New Testament scholar in the world--Catholic and Protestant alike: E. C. Hoskyns, C. H. Dodd, Rudolf Bultmann, Reginald Fuller, Joseph Fitzmyer, W. E. Albright, Raymond Brown, Paul Minear, R. H. Lightfoot, Herman Hendrickx, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, Phyllis Trible, Jane Schaberg, D. H. Nineham, Maurice Goguel, and countless others.

John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop's Search for the Origins of Christianity, page 238 (as cited by a couple of skeptical online articles).

All of the pertinent scholars are mentioned as is the claim about "Catholic and Protestant" scholars being represented. However, the assertion does not address the empty tomb but the resurrection as recounted in the gospels and it includes scholars that Loftus did not mention by name. So this is suggestive but perhaps there was a mediating "source" for Loftus. Only he can say. In any event, whether originally descended from Spong or elsewhere, the question is whether there is substance to Loftus' particular assertion.

I have spent more time reviewing the claims packed into the statement at issue and believe it contains two significantly problematic assertions. The first is that all of these scholars argue "against the empty tomb." I take this to mean, as it plainly states, that these scholars are not advocates for the empty tomb nor are they agnostic on the issue. That is, for Loftus to be right in his characterization, each scholar must affirmatively argue that the empty tomb was a legend or has no historical basis. It is not sufficient that they say that we do not or cannot know whether the empty tomb story is historical. The second problem is Loftus' assertion that all of the scholars listed are "mainline Christian scholars" of the Protestant or Catholic variety. I take this to mean that they are at least loosely orthodox in their adherence to either tradition, though not necessarily inerrantists or conservative in their doctrine.

So far as I have been able to tell, at least three of the scholars listed by Loftus advance arguments in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb though they may not think such a conclusion is certain: R. Brown, C.H. Dodd, and Reginald Fuller. A fourth, Karl Rahner, contends that the empty tomb tradition is very early but is less than specific about his ultimate conclusion on its historicity. In any event, he does not seem to argue "against the empty tomb." I am open to correction, of course, and would appreciate any clarifying citations from any of these scholars.

R. Brown adduces many arguments in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb in The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. Brown rejects the notion that the empty tomb was invented for apologetic purposes, observes that "our earliest traces of Jewish apologetics against the resurrection do not reject the empty tomb," and contends that "were the story entirely an apologetic invention, women would not have been chosen as the ones to discover the tomb, since their testimony would have less public authority." Ibid., page 122 n. 204. The meat of Brown's case is his contention that it is "reasonably certain that either the tomb was not known, or that, if known, it was empty." Ibid., page 126. The answer to R. Brown is the latter because he spends a substantial amount of time -- in this book and in his later epic work The Death of the Messiah -- arguing that the tomb of Jesus was known because the story of Joseph of Arimethea is historical in its essentials. As he states in The Virginal Conception, Brown notes that "an almost insuperable obstacle" to the notion that the location of Jesus' burial was unknown is "the person of Joseph of Arimathea who appears in all four gospels. It is virtually certain that he was not a figment of Christian imagination...." Ibid., page 113.

C.H. Dodd also advances arguments in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb. "I should be disposed to conclude that while the general tradition held that Christ 'rose from the dead' (commonly understood to mean that he emerged from the tomb in which his body had been laid) it preserved also a genuine memory that on that Sunday morning his tomb was found broken open and to all appearance empty. At first the discovery was disconcerting and incomprehensible; later it was understood to mean that Jesus had in some way left his tomb. Whether this meaning was rightly attached to it, and if so in what sense, is another question, and one which lies no longer in the sphere of the historian. He may properly suspend judgment." Dodd, The Founder of Christianity, Chapter 9 (available online) (emphasis added).

R. Fuller argues that the empty tomb "belongs to the primary stratum of Gospel tradition despite its absence from Paul." The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, page 179. Fuller contends that the story of Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, finding the stone rolled away and the tomb empty "stands right at the beginning of the history of the tradition and is doubtless very early." Ibid., page 56. He acknowledges that Paul does not narrate or proclaim the empty tomb, but contends that "a resurrection from the grave is implied by the statement, 'God raised Jesus,' since the apocalypitic conception of resurrection is precisely resurrection from the grave." Ibid., page 49. Fuller concludes that the women thought they found an empty tomb, but whether "the women's story was based on fact, or was the result of a mistake or illusion, is in the last resort a matter of theological indifference. The historian will never known the answer to this question."

Next is Karl Rahner, a leading Catholic theologian influential at the Second Vatican Council. I have not found any evidence that he "argued against the empty tomb." He may have thought -- at times -- that it was irrelevant to the more important theological issue of its significance, whether literal or other. In Incarnation and Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding, Paul Molnar notes the following:
Rahner does not have much to say about the empty tomb. In his Theological Investigations he expresses the belief that it is part of the oldest NT tradition and he also states that the empty tomb is "an expression of a conviction which had already spread for other reasons -- the conviction that Jesus was alive." (TI:17.20).

Ibid., page 143 (emphasis added). Although K. Rahner's theological writings leave it unclear whether he believes history is required and where belief is sufficient, I have not found any reference to him arguing against the historicity of the empty tomb. Rather he thought it part of the "oldest" New Testament tradition. It appears, therefore, that Loftus' listing of K. Rahner was erroneous as well though not as egregious as the previous three scholars.

But how about the rest?

R. Bultmann and H. Kung clearly argue "against the empty tomb" in the sense that they deny there is any historical basis to the narrative. However, as Loftus should have known, neither can be called a "mainline Christian scholar" with a straight face. Not while doing any justice to those terms.

R. Bultmann was a German theologian. His goal -- notably presented in his lecture New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Message -- was to "demythologize" Christianity by stamping out any supernatural elements attributable to the primitive mythological barnacles of the first century Jewish mindset. (A helpful review of R. Bultmann's theology is provided here). This included rejecting any accounts of miracles, including the resurrection. It is clear, therefore, that Bultmann had theological reasons for denying the empty tomb. It should have been clear to Loftus that R. Bultmann, with his "Christianity" excised of all supernatural elements, could not fairly be classified as a "mainline Christian scholar."

Nor does Hans Kung qualify. Although Kung was a Catholic theologian at one point his rejection of so many basic doctrines compelled the Catholic Church to revoke his status as such and remove him from his professorship. Far from being a mainline Catholic, he rejected core Catholic and Christian doctrines and was ashamed of the Catholic Church:
[T]he Sacred Congregation waited only seventy-two hours after his trial before condemning another progressive theologian, fifty-one-year-old Hans Küng. Because of his "contempt for the magisterium of the Church" on the issue of papal infallibility—expressed most recently in his Kirche—Gehalten in der Wahrheit?—as well as on the issues of the divinity of Jesus and the virginity of Mary, the Congregation declared Küng barred from his chair of dogma and ecumenical theology at the State University, Tübingen, in West Germany. "I am deeply ashamed of my church," he told reporters, and a day after the decree was announced he defied the Pope by holding a public lecture in which he told two thousand cheering supporters that he would fight the Holy See's Lehrverbot.

(bold added).

This leaves D.H. Nineham. I have uncovered little about Nineham other than he was a British theologian described as liberal. This obviously does not mean that he argued "against the empty tomb," but it is possible. I would appreciate any information on his views on the empty tomb or even more generally about historicity and the Christian faith.

All told, it appears that Loftus misrepresented the arguments or theological positions of at least 6 out of 7 of the scholars he relies on. They either advance arguments in favor of the empty tomb, claim it is part of the earliest NT tradition, or cannot fairly be characterized as "mainline Christian scholars." Although I am open to correction or clarification of their views, it seems clear that Loftus -- at the very least -- did not do his homework. How could he get the views and dispositions of so many scholars wrong in such a short space? Who or what is the "reliable source" that provided him with this list? How many other arguments in this book and elsewhere has he accepted from such other sources without doing any of his own research?

Addendum: It is unclear whether Loftus intended to include Uta Ranke-Heinemann in his list of "mainline Christian scholars." Just after referring to "along with many others" Loftus quotes her as arguing against the empty tomb. Ranke-Heinemann was a professor of Catholic theology and there is no doubt that she rejected the empty tomb. She also rejected the virgin birth. Because of her literally unorthodox views, she was excommunicated. So she could not be fairly characterized as a "mainline Christian scholar."

I recently began reading Literary Texts and the Roman Historian, by David S. Potter. He begins by quoting a letter Pliny the Younger had written to a friend:

I heard a true story, but one that seemed like fiction, and one worthy of your broad, deep, and plainly poetical genius. I heard it at a dinner party when various extraordinary stories were being passed back and forth. I trust the person who told it, although what is true to poets? Still, the person who told the story is one of whom you might think well if you were to write history.
Literary Texts and the Roman Historian, page 5 (citing Pliny the Younger, 9.33.1).

What I found interesting is the distinction Pliny draws between "fiction" and "history." As Potter writes, "What is perhaps most interesting is the conceptual framework within which Pliny introduced the story. Reliability is defined in terms of dichotomy between poetry and historia, forms of narrative that are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of narrative representation. Pliny's framework is worth thinking about because it rests upon two assumptions: that history will be "true" and that the expression of this "truth" will be in the form of a narrative." Id. Although ancient authors could blur the lines or fail to live up to their own standards, just as they can today, Pliny demonstrates a desire to pursue history as truth rather than as simply useful or exemplary fiction.

Tacitus' reference to Christians in relation to Nero's persecution, including a reference to Jesus as the founder who was executed "by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate," has been widely discussed. Annals 15.44. Its authenticity is a settled question among academics and historians. Less well known, however, is a possible second reference to Christians by Tacitus. The gaps in the manuscript traditions leaves ample room for such a reference. The manuscript tradition for Annals is incomplete, ending around 66 AD -- well before resolution of the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem. Tacitus' Histories is likewise incomplete, ending in early 70 A.D. when it is believed to have recorded events through 96 A.D.

As is usual for ancient writings, fragments of Tacitus survive beyond and outside the manuscript tradition in secondary sources who cited his works, including Annals and Histories. One such fragment may be found in the writings of Sulpicius Severus, a Christian writer born in the mid-fourth century. His best known work is Chronicle or Sacred History, written in 403 A.D. According to Louis Feldman, "most scholars have . . . adopted the suggestion of Bernays that Sulpicius's source was none other than a lost portion of Tacitus' Histories." Feldman, Studies in Hellenistic Judaism, page 2. James D. Dunn suggests that the citation may come from the lost portion of Annals, noting that it "breaks off in book 16, when his account had reached the year 66, before the outbreak of the Jewish revolt." Beginning from Jerusalem, page 58, n. 25.

Here is the reference:

Titus is said, after calling a council, to have first deliberated whether he should destroy the temple, a structure of such extraordinary work. For it seemed good to some that a sacred edifice, distinguished above all human achievements, ought not to be destroyed, inasmuch as, if preserved, it would furnish an evidence of Roman moderation, but, if destroyed, would serve for a perpetual proof of Roman cruelty. But on the opposite side, others and Titus himself thought that the temple ought specially to be overthrown, in order that the religion of the Jews and of the Christians might more thoroughly be subverted; for that these religions, although contrary to each other, had nevertheless proceeded from the same authors; that the Christians had sprung up from among the Jews; and that, if the root were extirpated, the offshoot would speedily perish.

Severus notes that "it is said" ("it is reported" in other translations) by someone about the council involving Titus and the decision to destroy the Temple. This strongly suggests that Severus is relying on an earlier source. Although Severus does not identify the author of his source, this is not at all unusual for the time or genre. We know that Severus is otherwise familiar with Tacitus' Annals and quotes the passage referring to the Neronian persecution of Christians in the passage just prior to the one at issue (2.29). Notably, in the previous section Severus does not explicitly reference Tacitus as his source. So, there is no reason to expect him to have done so here.

Further, Severus relies elsewhere on Josephus but does not do so here. The passage at issue directly contradicts Josephus' account. Josephus reports that Titus opposed the destruction of the Temple. Severus' source reports that Titus supported the destruction of the Temple. Why divert from Josephus here unless he had good reason to do so? And if he was not relying on Josephus for his source then who? The inclusion of an account of the same council in Tacitus provides some reason for the departure, the fact that such an account refers to Christians whereas Josephus makes no such reference provides another. Moreover, Tacitus almost certainly wrote about the destruction of the Temple and had good sources for the period. Finally, a number of studies have shown that the language used by Severus in this passage is consistent with and may be indicative of Tacitus' style. (The first such study was by Jacob Bernays in 1861. More recently see Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, Ed. M. Stern, Vol. 2, pages 64-67). For these kinds of reasons, most historians have concluded that the passage is indeed a fragment from Tacitus' lost writings.

I would add that the passage fits well with the historical context and Tacitus' earlier reference to Christians. Tacitus and other Romans were aware that Christianity had its origins in Judea and Judaism. But they also appear to have understood that Christianity was somehow different. Further, Tacitus and the Romans viewed Christianity with disfavor, even though it was "contrary" to Judaism, which was also often viewed with disfavor. These elements are found in the passage at issue: Titus knows that Christianity has its origins in Judaism but that the two religions by this time were in conflict. Obviously Christianity is viewed with disfavor as its destruction is a matter of state policy.

There is no suggestion in the passage that Christians are linked directly to the Jewish Revolt. Christianity is not just another sect within Judaism like the Zealots or the Pharisees, but another religion whose origins are Jewish but that is "contrary" to Judaism. Moreover, there is no suggestion that Titus believes that the destruction of the Temple will itself be a deathblow to Christianity. Although it would be going too far to credit Titus or other Roman officials with a sophisticated understanding of the differences between Christianity and Judaism at the time, they may have known that Christianity -- at least as known outside of Judea -- was not dependent on the Temple. The strategy seems to be that destroying the Temple will shatter Judaism and that, "if the root were extirpated, the offshoot would speedily perish." In any event, to the extent that Titus and the Romans had contact with Christianity in Judea, it is possible that -- consistent with the portrayal of the Jerusalem Church in Acts -- they learned that the Temple played some role in the lives of Jewish Christians in the area.

When I first came to college I was sure I wanted to be a theoretical physicist. I took the most advanced introductory classes in mechanics and electromagnetism along with multivariable calculus, linear algebra and differential equations and was on my way to classical and quantum mechanics when I realized that I was more interested in the 'big' questions traditionally addressed by philosophy and theology: why is the world the way it is, what makes science possible, what is the place of human beings in the Universe? I decided to major in religion, but my interest in science did not abate, and I continued to explore my interests in neuroscience, computer science and philosophy of mind. The goal that drove my investigations was to achieve an integration of the best science and the best theology in an intellectually rigorous yet spiritually satisfying worldview. That goal still animates me, as it does some of the greatest scientists alive today (not coincidentally also those who have actually wrestled with philosophy and theology instead of just dismissing them as 'metaphysical hand-waving').

That commitment implies eschewing simplistic construals of the interaction of science and theology. Both are hugely complex social and intellectual phenomena with a rich and varied history of conflict, tension, cooperation and mutual support. This much is well established by historical investigation. The steady retreat of theology before the relentless advance of materialistic science is a myth, part of the story that early modern philosophes told in order to advance their socio-political agendas. It is easy to understand from a psychological point of view why adherents of a particular worldview would like to claim the prestige of being 'scientific', given science's enormous instrumental success and its connotations of being objective, universal and (relatively) certain knowledge. But despite atheist materialism's rhetoric the truth is that this materialism did not gain any further legitimacy due to the advance of science than it already had, and too many failed metaphysics (such as Comte's 'religion of humanity', eugenics, Marxism, etc.) have claimed the title of 'scientific' for that boast to be taken seriously, at least without a lot of detailed historical and philosophical argumentation.

But this commitment also implies eschewing the simplistic, evasive and/or triumphalist rhetoric of some believers. History shows that while conflict between science and religion was not inevitable, nevertheless it did break out on occasion. Whenever believers of any traditional affiliation make empirical claims (for example, by predicting the exact date when Christ will return to Earth or arguing that the Universe is only 6,000 years old) they expose themselves to the possibility of being proven wrong. The advance of empirical science CAN make certain worldviews seem increasingly implausible. It's no wonder that ancient Greek religion, for example, with its insistence that the gods lived on Mount Olympus is no longer a live option, because anyone can go up to the summit and see that there is no temple, no dwelling place of the immortals (arguably this is not an instance of empirical science per se rendering such beliefs implausible, because it is simply a matter of observation; this only shows how difficult it is to demarcate science from other human intellectual activity, as we will see).

Nevertheless, in this brief essay I want to argue that there is no genuine conflict whatsoever between empirical science and a properly nuanced Christian theism, where by genuine conflict I mean a tension that makes adherence to both at the same time rationally impermissible or even suspect. On the contrary, I find a very fruitful and satisfying consilience between them and both contribute immensely to my overall worldview. To accomplish this I will examine the different levels of interaction at which conflict is alleged to arise and show that in each case the conflict is either 1) real but not very momentous, 2) real but based on a conflict at a metaphysical rather than scientific level or 3) illusory, the product of misleading rhetoric from one side or the other.

There are two main levels at which science and theology can come into conflict: the level of content and the level of method. We'll examine each in turn, focusing on content issues in this post.

It seems pretty clear that particular facts or theories of science can directly conflict with particular religious beliefs about the world. For example, our best science shows the age of the Universe to vastly exceed 6,000 years. For anyone who believes, based on a certain interpretation of the Bible, that the Universe is 6,000 years old, there is a direct conflict between their religious beliefs and our best science. What should be noted here is that this kind of conflict, while real, is of little significance for most believers, because a belief about the exact age of the Earth is peripheral in their web of belief, not central. There are few sophisticated believers who will say that, if the Earth is more than 6,000 years old, our faith is in vain. The same arguably goes for a great many other particular empirical facts, like the historicity of Adam and Eve, the exact mechanism of cloud formation or the shape of the Earth. What we often find in these cases of direct empirical conflict is that Christians (and Israelites or other peoples before them) have unconsciously assimilated the understanding of their immediate cultural environment to their theology. So if the author of Genesis 1 understood the heavens to be a literally solid 'vault', with holes in it to let light through being the sun, moon and stars (as Baruch Halpern argues), that was just the cultural framework from which he gave expression to his belief that God was the creator and orderer of all things, just as Christians today can express the same beliefs in the context of modern cosmology.

The upshot is that central theological affirmations, such as belief in God as creator of heaven and earth, have a very tenuous connection to specific empirical facts: it is very hard to specify which exact set of empirical facts would be compatible or incompatible with that affirmation. For example, some Christians think the multiverse hypothesis is clearly inconsistent with divine creation (see William Dembski, The End of Christianity, pp.32-33), while others think it provides a remarkable illustration and confirmation of divine plenitude and generosity (see Nancey Murphy and Robin Collins). It is not at all clear that the doctrine of human beings made in the image of God demands a particular metaphysical conception of human nature (such as dualism). But in this Christian theology does not differ from any other metaphysic, including physicalism, which has a notorious problem with defining what it means by 'the physical' in giving particular content to its worldview and how it relates to current or future science (known as Hempel's dilemma). Problems like these have led many philosophers to propose that the facts of empirical science underdetermine the range of metaphysical views compatible with it. As Eric Reitan puts it,

"The deeper question [in the science-religion discussion] is whether scientific discovery speaks to a particular metaphysics--whether what we now know about the empirical world tells us that a naturalistic/materialistic metaphysics is the most plausible one. Here, the historical fact that naturalism has emerged alongside science is insufficient. The methodolical naturalism of science--the focus on looking for naturalistic explanations for empirical phenomena--might slide readily into a metaphysical naturalism, but the explanation would be psychological rather than logical."

To illustrate the complex interplay between empirical science and metaphysics, consider another, more serious case of conflict between science and theology: the alleged impossibility of divine action (or even mind-body interaction in the case of substance dualism) due to its conflict with our understanding of the laws of nature. The claim is not just that divine action would be unusual in the context of our perception of the regularity of nature; it is that we have knowledge of certain universal laws that absolutely define the range of possible behavior of matter, and exclude the deliberate action of a divine agent. One formulation of this claim involves the principle of conservation of energy. If energy cannot be created or destroyed, how can God act in the physical world without violating this law in such a way that we could detect it empirically? The problem, however, is that a universal interpretation of the law of conservation of energy goes well beyond what empirical science tells us. COE is an example of a symmetry or invariance principle that places constraints on acceptable physical theories. The great theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner argued that "the spatiotemporal invariance principles play the role of a prerequisite for the very possibility of discovering the laws of nature." However, as Brading and Castellani point out, "Wigner's starting point...does not imply exact symmetries — all that is needed epistemologically is that the global symmetries hold approximately, for suitable spatiotemporal regions, such that there is sufficient stability and regularity in the events for the laws of nature to be discovered." Similarly, Robert Bishop argues that the causal closure of the physical-which states roughly that physical events have their chances of occurence fixed by purely physical causes-is at best a typicality condition of modern physics, which tells us what happens in the absence of any non-physical influences.

Thus a Christian can perfectly well affirm the regularity of nature as described by science which accounts for its spectacular instrumental success (and which is also affirmed on theological grounds, as in Matt 5:45: "For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.") without thereby being committed to an understanding the laws of nature that excludes the possibility of miracles. One intruiging possibility for conceiving of miracles in the context of modern science arises by analogy with the relation between Newtonian and relativistic mechanics. Just as the former holds approximately in a certain range of conditions (namely where objects are neither very massive or moving very fast), so we can understand the laws of nature that we have so far discovered as holding approximately, to the best of our knowledge, in a certain range of conditions, while the true order of the world, which is divine, includes those laws as a subset of the more comprehensive order God has established to accomplish His will.

Of course some believers will insist that a larger set of empirical facts is necessary for the plausibility of Christian belief, perhaps including the historicity of Adam, the fall of Jericho and others. For those believers, the undermining of those facts by historical investigation will cause cognitive dissonance and strain their plausibility structures. But it is worth pointing out that these problems are a result, not strictly of empirical scientific investigation into the structure of the world (except in a few cases like the age of the Earth), but of application of more general investigative principles. It is considerations like these that Philip Kitcher has in mind when he argues that the conflict between science and religion arises not primarily due to difficulties in one isolated area of investigation, but as a result of investigations in a wide range of fields, including natural science, biblical studies, comparative religion, etc. (see his essay 'The Many-Sided Conflict Between Science and Religion' in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion, pp. 266-282, and his recent book Living With Darwin; for a critical review of the latter, see here) This is not so much a conflict between theology and empirical science as a (potential) conflict between a Christian worldview and the totality of evidence from human experience. Of course, the latter is the BIG question on which the rationality of Christian belief hinges. But a simple appeal to natural science is not enough to substantiate Kitcher's challenge. What's more, as long as the set of empirical facts necessary for the plausibility of Christian belief is controversial even among Christians themselves, it is hard to see how one can argue that theology and science are incompatible at the level of content. The central points of empirical contention, such as the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances, are the same as they always have been. Modern science did nothing to change the terms of that debate, unless to contribute dubious hallucination hypotheses for the use of hyper-critical bible scholars.

I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt even if their religious views strongly differ from mine. I assume that they are honest, intelligent, genuine seekers of the truth with real questions about the world and (possibly) God. I don't like stereotyping and over-generalizing.

But these replies (in the comments section) to a mock request for questions addressed to the deity make me seriously question my general assessment of the intelligence of atheists. I'd like to think even people like Hume and Russell would cringe at this kind of self-indulgent silliness.

In their defense of the historical reliability of the Gospel traditions evangelical scholars often appeal to the controlling influence of the eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry: the twelve apostles, other followers of Jesus such as the Seventy, the women who ministered to him, who were present at his crucifixion and who discovered the empty tomb, sympathizers among the Jewish (such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) and Roman (the centurion whose servant Jesus healed) authorities, Simon of Cyrene and many others. The argument is that these witnesses would not have allowed false rumors and legends to become embedded within the traditions, and they ensured that these traditions were handed down accurately in missionary, catechetical and liturgical contexts.

To many skeptics this argument seems unconvincing. Leaving aside the question of whether the eyewitnesses themselves were involved in fabricating stories about Jesus, how could they possibly quelch all false rumors about Jesus wherever they arose? They would have had enough trouble keeping track of all the stories circulating about Jesus in Palestine itself, let alone throughout the Greco-Roman world. David Friedrich Strauss put the problem as follows:

"[It is] very incomprehensible, replies the objector, how in Palestine itself, and at a time when so many eyewitnesses yet lived, unhistorical legends and even collections of them should have formed...[B]ut who informs us that they [the legends] must necessarily have taken root in that particular district of Palestine where Jesus tarried longest, and where his actual history was well known? And with respect to eye-witnesses, if by these we are to understand the apostles, it is to ascribe to them absolute ubiquity, to represent them as present here and there, weeding out all the unhistorical legends." (D.F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, quoted in Kris Komarnitsky, Doubting Jesus' Resurrection, p.150, emphasis mine)

We should first note that the apostles were not the only eye-witnesses to Jesus, as I mentioned above. They were people from all social strata and all walks of life. Nevertheless Strauss is right to focus on the apostles, because as the ones chosen specially by Jesus and given authority to preach and heal in His name, as well as to proclaim the message of the Resurrection, they would be the ones most responsible for formulating the 'official' story and attempting to ensure its reliable transmission. The picture Strauss would have us imagine (and reject as completely implausible) is that of apostles desperately running from place to place, contradicting each and every false story being told on every street corner and in every house, as if they were playing a losing game of whack-a-mole. Is it really plausible to imagine that the apostles were successful in making sure legends and false rumors about Jesus didn't take root in the tradition, given the sheer geographical and logistical challenges to such an undertaking?

I think three points suffice to answer the question in the affirmative:

1) There should be no doubt that, regardless of their ability to do so, the apostles were intensely interested in making sure people got Jesus' story right. Paul reacted forcefully to the news that his Galatian converts were turning to "a different gospel" (Gal 1:6-9), and chided the Corinthians for doubting such a crucial component of the Christian faith as belief in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:12). From the other side, the intense controversy with which Paul's preaching was met and the challenges to his apostolic authority (implicit, for example, in 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8) indicate that the 'pillars' of the Jerusalem church were also concerned that self-described apostles' claims to speak for Jesus were in line with the official teaching (a concern that Paul shared: "Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain," Gal 2:2).

2) Given that the apostles were concerned to keep the official story intact, all the evidence suggests that they had extraordinarily efficient communication networks to accomplish this. Paul had coworkers constantly going back and forth between his churches, updating him on their condition and any controversies that had arisen (i.e. 1 Thess 3:2, Phil 2:19, 25, etc.). The news reached the Judean churches fairly rapidly that their former persecutor was now preaching the faith he had tried to destroy (Gal 1:22-23). The 'circumcision party' from Jerusalem had no trouble penetrating as far as Antioch to disrupt Paul's missionary work, and apparently also Peter's conciliatory gestures toward the Gentile believers (Gal 2:11-13). Overall the controversy over whether the Gentile converts should be required to keep the law shows spectacularly how much news travelled to and from the various Christian churches, and how quickly. Given that Paul became very easily aware of his Galatian converts turning to a different gospel, we should imagine generally that the other apostles would also have easily become aware of any major changes in the Jesus story circulating in any of the major Christian missionary hubs.

3) Even granting these two points, we should also concede that the apostles could not be everywhere at once, and they could not stop all legendary stories about Jesus being passed around casually on street corners, or in believers' households, or even preached by enthusiastic but ill-informed missionaries. The crucial point, however, is that, for our purposes as historical investigators of Christian origins, they didn't need to. As long as the apostles got the story straight in certain important contexts, it didn't really matter what the 'word on the street' was about Jesus. As I mentioned briefly above, these contexts would include evangelism (the initial preaching of the Gospel to new audiences, whether in synagogues, homes or the marketplace; an important example is that of Apollos in Acts 18:24-28; Apollos had accurate but incomplete knowledge of Jesus, which Priscilla and Aquila made sure to fill out), catechism (the initial training of new converts) and liturgy (the ritual reminiscence of Jesus' words and deeds during the Eucharist and other occasions; see for example Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66-67).

Maybe even in these contexts they weren't entirely successful. After all, there were many heterodox Christian communities with their own gospels based on their own evangelistic and liturgical traditions. The only issue which concerns us is, was the Jesus tradition accurately preserved along the currents that fed into our canonical Gospels? Here it is important to remember that despite some skeptics' claims, the evangelists did not just write down whatever they heard on the street. The evangelists clearly devoted meticulous effort to the theological and pastoral presentation of their material, and we should imagine this effort being extended to the research they did in the traditions their communities had inherited. True, the average believer may have been content to accept whatever she heard about Jesus from friends or passers-through, but given the above evidence of the apostles' interest in making sure the official story was passed on and the efficient communication networks they had available we can be fairly confident that for the careful investigator the truth was there to be found.

So the apostles did not have to squash every false rumor about Jesus wherever it sprang up in order for the tradition to be reliably preserved. It only had to be preserved in certain important contexts, so that when the evangelists put pen to paper they had access to accounts of Jesus' life and teachings that went back to the faithful testimony of those "who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." (Luke 1:2)

Last Sunday morning, Dr. George Tiller was murdered in the Lutheran Church which he attended Sundays. Dr. Tiller, known for his late-term abortions, was gunned down by Scott Roeder -- a man described by his family as mentally ill. According to Roeder's ex-wife, Lindsey Roeder,

"There has to be mental illness there. He couldn't cope with day to day life," she said. "He couldn't cope with the struggle of paying bills. He couldn't cope with not being able to make ends meet."

There appears to be little doubt that Mr. Roeder's actions were finally motivated by his anti-abortion views and the late-term abortions performed so infamously by Dr. Tiller. According to a news article posted on (which labels Scott Roeder a terrorist), Lindsey Roeder further believes her former spouse killed because of his views on abortion:

"He was determined that if the abortion doctor killed the baby then he didn't have any right to live either, it was justifiable," said Scott Roeder's ex-wife Lindsey. She says her ex-husband's views were so extreme, she knew he was capable of murder. "I think I knew that if he snapped, if he went that far, that he could actually do it," she said.

As a pro-life apologist, I am appalled by the killing of Dr. Tiller. I know that I am not alone in this. No one I have spoken with about the murder since Sunday morning has said, "Wow, that's great" or "That's a justified murder" or any other claim to that effect. Dr. Tiller, mistaken as he was about the wrongness of his actions, was still a human being created in the image of God who was not justly murdered by Scott Roeder. The idea that somehow killing people in the name of ending abortion is somehow promoted by Christianity or the pro-life movement in general is simply wrong and mistaken.

Don't get me wrong: I am certain that there are some wackos out there who probably argued that Scott Roeder was justified in killing Dr. Tiller -- just as his wife suggests. My argument is very simple: the segment of people who would hold this position is quite minuscule. My own sampling of people who I have dealt with in arguing for the pro-life movement leads me to conclude that less than one percent of all pro-lifers would hold to that view.

Even when Terry Randall and the clinic bombing by his extreme pro-life group was being debated, few that I can recall was advocating killing anyone. The focus was always on destroying the tools needed to commit the abortion, i.e., the clinics. There were some arguing by analogy that killing Hitler to stop the Holocaust would have been a good thing, therefore, killing an abortionist to stop abortion would have been a good thing. This argument was rejected by virtually everyone on several grounds. The most obvious reason was that God did not put into the hands of private individuals the power to kill others. Rather, God put into the hands of government only the power to execute for crimes. It is wrong for a private individual to elect himself the judge, jury and executioner.

At the same time, while I am appalled that someone killed him, I find that I am not particularly saddened by the fact of his death. If he had died of a heart attack instead of being murdered, I would have had no hesitation in saying that the death of George Tiller was a good thing for the thousands of babies he would otherwise have killed over the next few years through his late-term abortions. While it is probable that someone else will step in and take over his obviously profitable abortion practice, until that happens there are many babies in advanced stages of development who will not be sliced-up by this particular abortionist.

Does the fact that I can see good out of the death of George Tiller mean that I think that he should have been murdered? Absolutely not. Evil as his actions were, he was operating within the law and it is beyond the power of any individual to take the law into his own hand and kill another human being. Killing Dr. Tiller was completely contrary to the most fundamental beliefs of the pro-life movement that holds that every human life -- even the life of the morally confused Dr. George Tiller -- has value and should not be murdered.

A portion of a blog entry on the Vision Forum Ministries weblog by Doug Miller entitled George Tiller is Dead: For Whom Shall We Mourn?, raises some interesting arguments. I think that the language used by Mr. Miller is way-overblown. I think it is hyperbole that does not advance the conversation. However, he makes two points that I want to repeat, but in softer language. Miller says,

The tragedy is two-fold: First, by breaking the law of God (murder) in order to advance the law of God (punishing a murderer), the shooter demonstrated that he was a lawless individual and that, whatever his motivations, his cause was unholy. He cannot expect the blessing of God on his efforts, but rather the contrary. God was certainly capable of shutting down George Tiller without private individuals breaking His law by taking matters into their own hands. The ends do not justify the means. Pragmatic responses to evil produces short term victories and long-term heartaches.

Second, Tiller’s executioner has played into the hands of the community of abortion apologists — those in the press and elsewhere who look for every opportunity to shift the debate away from the bloodshed of babies. These individuals are hell-bent to justify America’s idolatrous practice of child sacrifice to the gods of feminist self-determination, and the wrongful killing of an abortionists only furthers their cause.

To state it differently, George Tiller attended church. Yet, he apparently either never heard that abortion was wrong at his particular church (which, given what I know from personal experience about the Lutheran church, is quite probable), or he ignored the teaching either to make money or because he justified that the killing of babies was actually a good thing (as taught by the pro-abortion movement). But the argument put forth by the pro-life movement about the teaching of the Bible is quite clear and compelling. The idea that the fetus is not a living human being -- especially a late term fetus such as Dr. Tiller regularly aborted -- flies in the face of scientific knowledge. What Dr. Tiller was doing was wrong in the eyes of God. But God doesn't seek for someone commit murder to end the sinful practices of an abortionist. We are called to respect the law and seek to change the law. That is largely what the pro-life movement is doing, and it is only the crazies and the nuts who would argue that Scott Roeder's actions were somehow Godly.

Second, the murder has not advanced the pro-life movement -- it has set it back. Roeder advanced short term goal of saving a few babies' lives at the cost of painting those working to end abortion legally across the entire country as people promoting illegal killings -- even identifying us as potential terrorists. I am certain that it won't be long before everyone who argues that abortion is wrong will be labeled as promoting violence against abortion clinics, abortion providers and women seeking abortions. That presents a further obstacle to promoting a cause that is already vilified by the pro-abortionists.

In sum, George Tiller is dead. While I am not sorry that he will no longer be killing babies, I am very sorry that he is dead, that he died without recognizing his sin, and that he was murdered by someone supposedly seeking to advance the pro-life cause. The manner of Dr. Tiller's death is probably going to make it much more difficult for the 99% of right-thinking pro-lifers to make their case for changing a very wrongful legal situation.

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