Existential Reasons for Believing in God

Everyone should check out Paul Copan’s web site, Worldview Bulletin Newsletter (https://worldviewbulletin.substack.com/), and in particular, in the July 26 edition, Clifford Williams’ “Existential Reasons for Believing in God.”

I am provoked to think: If God exists; if He created us; and if He loves us; then it is more likely that discovering what He wants for us will lead to our fulfillment.

Does believing in God solve all our problems?  Of course not!  But is there any peace in relief from guilt, shame, and fear?  Is there any joy in beholding the exalted character of the Son of God, or from imagining ourselves becoming like him?  There is!  And when we experience that joy and peace, it confirms what our reason has already shown us: God is with us!

 

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Fine-Tuning for High-Tech Civilization

Astronomer Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe (reasons.org), of whom much is heard in these pages, has long emphasized that all of natural history prior to mankind was fine-tuned to prepare the cosmos not for mankind simply, but for mankind and his development of high-tech civilization.  He even categorizes the features of the physical universe by their tendency to foster either simple, single-celled life, or large, air-breathing organisms, or human civilization, or – high-tech human civilization.

I have long wished for some elucidation from Ross as to the reasons he considers high-tech civilization in particular to be the goal in God’s creative activity.  An answer has occurred to me; and while I can’t say I actually heard this from Ross, it strikes me as something he would probably readily endorse.

The last 70 years has seen an explosion of scientific discovery, fueled, to a large extent, by the development of science technology that has enabled us to study the cosmos in ways that were not possible until now.  That science technology – the space telescopes, the super-colliders, the computers – would never have been developed by itself, apart from the advance of technology generally.  Modern science is indeed the invention of a broadly high-tech civilization.

And what have we discovered with our sophisticated and very expensive new kit?  Everywhere we look, we find the unequivocal signs of active intelligence.

So I think Ross would say that God prepared a planet for advanced civilization so that we would find him.

It gives a fuller understanding, it seems to me, of Romans 1:20:

[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Those invisible divine attributes – God’s existence, his divinity, and his power – were evident even to primitive man.  Our study of Creation continues to make God’s power, genius, wisdom, and love more and more obvious; yet somehow men still deny him.  Can judgment be far off?

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Toward an Epistemology of Love

N. T. Wright, Loving to Know: The 2019 Erasmus Lecture (First Things Magazine, February 2020, pp. 25-34.)

 

To transcend the divided field of knowledge – the antitheses between fact and value, objective and subjective, reason and faith, science and religion – requires an epistemology of love – a love, that is, which recognizes the material universe for what it is, “the loving gift of a wise creator.”

N. T. wright places the origin of these antitheses in ancient Epicurean philosophy, which held that “The gods may exist, but they are in an entirely different sphere to ourselves, taking no notice of us and certainly not intervening in our world.” He traces this view of the cosmos through the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution to the present.  To this day, he says, “most Westerners – including, alas, many Christians! – don’t realize that they are looking at the world through Epicurean spectacles.”

The intellectuals of the Enlightenment were receptive to Epicurean philosophy because it justified their “antipathy to  [hierarchical] top-down social, political, cultural, and religious systems . . . which were perceived as denying a proper aspiration for freedom.”  What they failed to realize, and what many today also do not realize, is that Epicurean cosmology is just as “top-down” as divine creation.  It says, essentially, that since the gods are not involved in mundane things, the universe must therefore create itself – “so that the evolution of species was approached not simply as a newly discovered bit of inductive knowledge from below but as the necessary postulate from . . . the Epicurean assumption that if the gods do not act within the world then the world must make itself.”

Wright’s observations help explain how it is that modern science acquired its naturalistic bias.  It is indeed a thing requiring some kind of explanation.  It is completely evident, after all, that naturalism – the prejudice that the material world of space, time, matter and energy is all that exists – is not something that science has discovered.  It was not found in a test tube, or on a distant planet.  Where did it come from?

Epicurean philosophy pre-dates modern science by more than 1800 years, so it was ready and waiting when the Enlightenment philosophers needed it.  Wright says that this helps to show that “modern Western culture is not a new thing based on modern science as is so often assumed, but an ancient worldview with some modern twists and footnotes.”

Wright’s antidote is to view the cosmos as a gift from a loving Father, and he has an answer for those who charge that theism’s openness to divine activity in the universe discourages scientific inquiry:

An epistemology of love, seeing the creation as the outflowing of divine creative love, must pay attention to that creation.  It isn’t enough to know that it is God’s creation, and so to infer that we already know all that’s important to know about it.  Love demands patient curiosity.  Love transcends the objective/subjective divide, because as the image-bearing stewards of creation, as liturgists of creation’s praise, as prophets called to speak creation’s reality, we humans are called not to a cool, detached appraisal of the world, nor to a self-indulgent grasping of it, but to a delighted exploration and exposition, in which respect and enjoyment go together.

. . . .

. . . Our delighted, sensitive, respectful, and curious exploration of creation is the response of love to the love we have received.

 

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Climate Change Notes

Here are the notes I took while listening to Dan Britt’s lecture.

21:00 When India collided with China, the uplift of the Himalayas resulted in greatly-increased rock weathering, which pulled 80% of the CO2 out of the atmosphere, rending the climate very sensitive to the changes in solar input that result from the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit around the sun.

Climate results from oscillations in:

Eccentricity of the earth’s orbit around the sun, a cycle of 100,000 years;

The tilt of the earth between 21 and 24 degrees, a cycle of 41,000 years; and

Precession, which is the movement around the earth’s orbit of the time of year when the earth is closest to the sun, a cycle of 23,000 years.

Presently we are closer to the sun in the winter, producing cooler summers and warmer winters.  Cooler summers allows snow to accumulate, producing glaciation – an ice age.  Also, warmer winters tend to be snowier.

But our glaciers are nevertheless melting.  Greenhouse gases are delaying the next ice age.

It’s the interplay of these factors which, by causing variations in the amount of solar radiation which reaches the surface of the earth, causes ice ages and periods of warming.

If you put global average temperatures on a graph, you can see all of these cycles.  The net effect is known as the Milankovich cycle after the Bulgarian scientist who discovered it in the 1920s.

For the last million years, our climate has been characterized by long glacial periods and short warming periods.

Global temperature followed the path predicted by these factors until about 8,000 years ago, when agriculture was introduced.  We cleared the forests and planted crops.

And 5,000 years ago we invented rice cultivation and terracing and domesticated livestock.  Cows are a major source of methane.

In the preindustrial period we put all the carbon in 10% of the global biomass into the atmosphere, which increased the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from 260 parts per million (ppm) to 280 ppm.

Despite all of this, solar radiation was still declining, so that in the middle ages the climate was actually getting colder.

Starting in about 1850 we began tapping fossil fuels – first coal, then oil, then natural gas.

The pre-industrial atmosphere had about 600 billion metric tons of carbon.  (A metric ton is 2205 lb.)  By burning fossil fuels, we are presently adding about 8 billion metric tons per year.  (He doesn’t say whether that’s in addition to the agriculture and livestock contributions.)

Volcanoes are the largest natural input, at about 0.2 gigatons/year, 1/45th of the contribution of fossil fuels.

39:30 In the short term we are heading into a period of increasing sunspot activity, and he predicts that for the next 4 or 5 years we are going to have extremely hot summers.

There has been strong warming in the last 150 years.

In 1950 we were putting out about 1.3 gigatons of carbon per year and atmospheric carbon was 310 ppm.  Now we are putting out about 9 gigatons, and it is 390 ppm.

China’s GDP has exploded.  They want the same things we do.  They are producing a gigawatt-sized coal-fired power plant every two weeks.

We are in an ice age.  Continental glaciation is very unusual.  Human action has increased atmospheric CO2 by 25% and has stopped the currant Milankovich cycle in its tracks.  We should be seeing glacial advance, and what we are seeing is glacial retreat.

“If you don’t have continental glaciation, you don’t have Miami.”

2.5 to 6.5’ rise in the ocean by 2100.

The Greenland ice sheet will melt.  We don’t know how fast.

 

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Climate Change

Much is being said about climate change: is it real?  Are we causing it?  What can be done?  I have recently come across three fascinating discussions of how human-caused increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide may relate to various natural cycles, and how, too, it provides an amazing object lesson in the fine-tuning of the Earth and solar system.   Essential reading/listening.

How Ice Ages Happen: https://youtu.be/iA788usYNWA.

The Hiawatha Asteroid: https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/todays-new-reason-to-believe/read/todays-new-reason-to-believe/2018/12/17/did-a-giant-collider-help-give-us-extreme-climate-stability

Geologist Dan Britt, Orbits and Ice Ages: the History of Climate (2012): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yze1YAz_LYM&feature=youtu.be

 

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Pray for the Church in the Middle East

May God strengthen and protect our faithful brothers and sisters.  Read this message from Martin Accad of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, here.

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Genesis as Allegory

This is the fourth in a series on the old earth/young earth controversy.

Paul in Galatians 4:21-31 refers to the birth of Isaac to Sarah and of Ishmael to Hagar (Genesis 16), as an allegory.  Some have appealed to this text as warrant for treating Genesis 1 also as allegory.

Here is the Galatians text in the King James:

21 Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?

22 For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.

23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.

24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.

25 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.

26 But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.  [My emphasis.]

The critical word in the Greek is ἀλληγορούμενα·

I do not have any Greek, and I appeal to the Greek scholars among us to correct my mistakes.

The English Standard Version (https://www.esv.org/Galatians+4/) also:

Now this may be interpreted allegorically.

The New International Version takes a slightly different approach:

These things are being taken figuratively.

But there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference between “allegorically” and “figuratively.”  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “the word [allegory] traces back to the Greek word allēgorein meaning “to speak figuratively,” and means “a work of written, oral, or visual expression that uses symbolic figures, objects, and actions to convey truths or generalizations about human conduct or experience.”

It may be noted, of course, that the dictionary definition is neutral as to whether the events which carry the allegorical meaning are themselves true, or whether the allegorical meaning is true. And in the case of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, clearly Paul has no intention of questioning the historicity of the births of Isaac and Ishmael.  Genesis could, likewise, be both history and allegory, no?  What if it is?  Would its allegorical quality have any bearing on the meaning of the Six Days of Genesis 1:3-31?

Paul’s comment on Genesis 16 is very helpful, in that it shows that in regard to any given biblical text, a figurative interpretation cannot be ruled out a priori.  Essentially, Paul gives us permission to ask the question.

Genesis 1 doesn’t sound much like an allegory.  An allegory uses actors and actions to represent other, deeper things.  What deeper things do the waters and the mountains and the fish and the birds represent?  They represent themselves, do they not?  The uncertainty as to the duration of the Six Days isn’t resolved by any attempt to interpret them as allegory: how is a 24-hour day an allegory for some longer period of time?  How is a longer period of time deeper than a 24-hour period?

This is to be contrasted with Genesis 2 and 3, however.  A Tree of Life, a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and a talking snake look everything like symbols of greater things.  But if Genesis 2-3 are an allegory, would that make a figurative understanding of Genesis 1 any more plausible?

It might, particularly in light of the apparent need to read Genesis 1 together with Genesis 2 and 3; for they both contain accounts of the creation of man, and the latter account does sound figurative.  The man is formed out of the dust of the ground, God breathes life into him.  There also seems to be a connection between the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and Genesis 1, in that Eve was created on day 6, and 1:27 and 2:8 together show that the Garden and the Trees came before Eve (perhaps even as early as day 3).  2:16-17 shows that some time on day 6 but before creating Eve, God commanded Adam not to eat the fruit of the Tree.  (There is no positive indication that God made that command to Eve directly, since she didn’t yet exist – Adam may have informed her about it later.)  All of this shows that even if the Fall did not occur until day 7, the command concerning the Tree must have come on day 6.  To me, the Tree looks everything like an allegory.

I would like to mention here the possibility that we are Adam (and Eve) – and I mean literally!  Modern genetics shows that every human being has a genetic endowment inherited from our first parents.  Isn’t it Adam who now walks the fields and the streets of the world?  Weren’t we literally in Adam at the Fall?  In some mysterious yet literal way, didn’t we also repudiate God on that primordial day?  Taste the fruit?  Isn’t this both an allegory and literally true at both levels of meaning?

Galatians 4 shows that the at least some of the people and events of the Old Testament – people who actually existed and events which actually occurred – were providentially ordered so as to teach deeper things about God and his plan for redeeming the cosmos.  It does not enable us to rule out the possibility that Genesis is history or that it is allegory or that it is both.

Genesis seems to describe universal human experience in a way which is unfathomable, at least until now.  Genesis is somehow my biography, and yours.  Genesis tells me that being human may be a greater mystery than any of us realizes.

But at present, I remain unconvinced that it is necessary to take one view or the other or, if one takes one view or the other, to convince anyone else that one is correct.  Why?  Because what we do know, through other lines of reasoning, is that whether it took him 6 days or 13 billion years, God created everything that exists.  Together, nature and the Bible assure us that there is a God who wants us to know him, and that our happiness is in knowing him.  If we know this, then we are free, and how is it then necessary to pledge loyalty to one interpretation of Genesis or another, and why should we feel compelled to try to convince anyone else that our view is the correct one?  Better minds have wrestled with this, to no clear conclusion.

I do not intend (obviously) to suggest that it is not worth the attempt; and again, we have not yet looked at the scientific arguments and counter-arguments.

 

Posted in Age of the Earth, Theology | 2 Comments

A Challenge to Intellectual Engagement

This is why I love William Lane Craig.

To those who think there is no real truth, what history teaches is:

that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism.  The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather, it is not to think you are right at all.

. . . [T]he very concept of tolerance entails that one does not agree with that which one tolerates.  The Christian is committed to both truth and tolerance, for he believes in Him who said not only, “I am the truth,” but also, “Love your enemies.”

(From “In Intellectual Neutral – a challenge to Christians to intellectual engagement.”   Read the entire essay at https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/apologetics/in-intellectual-neutral/.)

 

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Genesis: Four Views

I recently read Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Kindle edition; J. B. Stump, ed.; Zondervan 2017, contributions by Ken Ham, Hugh Ross, Deborah Haarsma, and Stephen C. Meyer).  I will be posting my ruminations about it from time to time.

This is the third in a series on the old earth/young earth controversy and the first on Four Views.

Chapter 1: Young Earth Creationism by Ken Ham.

Ham writes:

. . . [C]reation is cursed, whereas Scripture (the written Word) is not. Without the biblical revelation about  the cosmos-impacting fall of man, the creation gives a confusing message about the Creator.5 Therefore, we start our thinking about origins (as in all other areas) with Scripture, God’s inerrant, holy Word.  [Kindle Location 292.]

From the fact that the creation is cursed it does not follow as a matter of logical necessity that God’s revelation in nature is confusing.  It certainly can be, of course, and there is no question that the scriptures teach much about God and a great many other things which cannot be discerned in nature.  But Paul writes to the Romans that God’s power and deity are readily apparent from nature.  Paul’s view is vindicated by Big Bang cosmology and the Fine-Tuning of the laws of physics, which prove God’s existence[1]; and that is no small thing.

Moreover, Ham here claims merely that nature is confusing without the revelation of the Fall; but none of the other contributors deny the Fall.  So is Ham conceding that nature is not confusing, as long as the Fall is in view?  Then he is not making much of a claim.  It might be more pertinent to observe that in light of the Fall, we should adopt a healthy skepticism with regard to all our judgments, and be cautious about human interpretation of both Genesis and the book of nature.

To me it is not the meaning of the word “day” which is most interesting about the Genesis account, but the phrase, “and there was evening and there was morning.”  It’s pretty hard to interpret that as having anything in mind other than one period of darkness followed by one period of light.  This may be YEC’s best argument.  There are other compelling arguments, based on Exodus 20:8-11 (“in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them”), the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11, and the question why it would have been necessary to save the animals in an ark if the flood was not global in extent.

Yet the findings of science appear to be at great tension with these texts.  The question is whether there is a way to resolve that tension without stretching either the biblical text or the science to the breaking point.

My present bias is that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe much older.  If, at the end of this project, I remain of that opinion, then I may be forced to say that I do not understand the biblical text.  I do not think I will be forced to say that I do not believe the biblical text.  Instead, I might say that it belongs in the catalogue of the many unanswered questions that I have about the universe, God, and his plan of redemption, right up there with the Trinity, the Incarnation, and atonement for sin.  I do not understand those things either, yet I believe them because the Bible clearly teaches them, they make very good sense insofar as I do understand them, and I have very good, independent reasons to believe that the Bible is the Word of God.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Ham does not go into YEC’s responses to mainstream geology and astronomy, and I intend to reserve judgment until I can review all of that.

I do very much doubt I’ll change my opinion.  It’s like my views on same-sex attraction (SSA).  I read widely and have been doing so for many years.  I noticed pretty much everything that was said about gay rights from the time I was in law school starting in 1971; but I did not take notes, and would not have been able to marshall the evidence against the notion that SSA is inborn and immutable.  Yet I was sure that that evidence was out there.  When, ultimately, the task of marshalling the evidence became unavoidable, I researched the matter thoroughly.[2]  I was not certain, when I began that project, that my opinions would be confirmed, but they were confirmed.

It is like that here.  I have been paying attention for a long time to the debate over the age of the earth, and have not been convinced by YEC arguments about the unreliability of radiometric dating, geological strata, ice corp samples, or astronomical measurements.  But until now I was not taking notes, and I confess I have not heretofore had the motivation to entertain young earth theories seriously and carefully as I now, God willing, hope to do.

[1] See joshualetter.com/blog, June 28, 2018 post, “The Existence of God: Four Philosophical Arguments.”

[2] See joshualetter.com/blog, July 4, 2015 post, “What is Homosexuality?  A Survey of the Scholarly Literature.”

Posted in Age of the Earth, Theology | 1 Comment

“And There was Evening and There was Morning”

(Third in a series on the old-earth/young earth controversy.)

I am reading Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2017), a sort of symposium presenting an interchange among Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis for young-earth creationism (YEC), Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe for old-earth creationism (OEC), Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute for intelligent design (ID), and Deborah Haarsma of BioLogos for evolutionary creationism (EC).

I was already aware of the omission of the phrase, “And there were evening and morning, the [nth] day” from the discussion of the 7th day (Genesis 2:1-3), but had not fully appreciated the implications until now.

In context, the omission is very conspicuous and requires explanation.  Perhaps the most popular explanation is that the 7th day did not end, that it indeed continues to the present.  God rested from his creation activity and continues to rest from it.  “God rested” would be taken to imply “God rested permanently,” or at least until further notice.  I suppose that would become the eighth day.  (Wow, we could form some sort of eschatological movement and call it “The Eighth Day”!)

It would certainly be difficult to show that explanation to be implausible.  But if the 7th day did not end, then it was longer than 24 hours; and if the 7th day was more than 24 hours, then on what basis can we confidently say that the first six days were themselves 24 hours long?  Isn’t it young earthers’ argument that we are addressing an ordinary 7-day week?  But if the 7th day was more than 24 hours, that alone would mean that it was not an ordinary 7-day week.

And if we cannot confidently say that the first six days were 24 hours each, then we also cannot confidently say that the Genesis account is incompatible with standard interpretations of modern scientific observations.

There is no need to show this explanation to be true: if it is even possible, OEC’s fidelity to scripture is established.

And yet . . .

Yet the text nevertheless recites, after each of the first six days, “and there was evening and there was morning, the [n]th day,” which unavoidably seems to imply the phenomenological effects of the rotation of the earth, once around.  How else can one make sense of it?  How far do we stretch the ordinary meaning of the text in order to reconcile it with what modern geology and astrophysics seem to be telling us?  I think this remains a challenge for OEC.

Presently I don’t have an answer.  My solution is simply to leave the question open in the hope that someday I will understand.  Emphatically, I do not throw Genesis out the window; but then, neither do I throw modern astrophysics out the window.

God is the author of both the scriptures and nature.  What he has revealed about himself in each must be compatible with the other.  If it appears otherwise, the defect is not in the revelation but in our understanding, and requires further inquiry.

In the meantime, I prefer to emphasize what we do know.  Science has vindicated the biblical world view in very impressive ways, both generally and specifically.  We know there is a God, and everything science tells us about his attributes (personal, intelligent, powerful) is true to the biblical revelation.  Knowing all of that, it becomes possible (and permissible, I think) to tolerate the uncertainty we have about the proper interpretation of Genesis.

And we have barely begun our investigation.

 

Posted in Age of the Earth, Science and faith, Theology | 1 Comment