Q&A – The Kalam Cosmological Argument and the God-of-the-Gaps.

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“You erroneously paint the origin of the universe as an atheist problem. It’s not – it’s a Physics problem. And science continues to work that problem, but you know what? It’s a hard problem. Give them some time. There are countless phenomena that science didn’t understand – until they did. Your whole argument is essentially a “god of the gaps” one. And if history is any predictor of the future, the number and sizes of the gaps that theists can attribute to their god(s) will continue to shrink day-by-day.”

-Pendergrast.

Pendergrast doesn’t deny that the beginning to the universe is a “problem,” in fact he calls it a “hard problem.” However, he contends that it isn’t a problem for atheism, rather it’s a problem for physics and thus a scientific problem. This, he argues, proves that arguing for God’s existence, as a metaphysically necessary being, from the Kalam cosmological argument (KCA) commits a god-of-the-gaps fallacy. Essentially he believes that I am plugging in a lack of of knowledge concerning the beginning to the universe by putting God in as an explanation. In other words, why put God as the explanation of the origin of the universe when a naturalistic explanation might at some future point become available? To this there are several replies I wish to make.

Firstly, the KCA cannot commit a god-of-the-gaps fallacy because it doesn’t actually mention God at all. Syllogistically it reads:

1 – Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2 – The universe began to exist.
3 – Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Note premise 3 the conclusion, “Therefore, the universe has a cause.” That’s not plugging in God as an explanation and therefore the Kalam cosmological argument cannot be said to be a god-of-the-gaps argument. In other words, contemporary cosmology provides persuasive evidence in support for a conclusion that has theological significance. Thus, since the argument uses scientific evidence to prove, not the existence of God, but the beginning of the universe it cannot be accused of god-of-the-gaps reasoning. Moreover, what the argument persuasively implies is that there is a transcendent cause to the universe. At this point the cause is not inferred to be God. Instead, we first deduce several properties of this cause, namely that it is timeless, spaceless, beginningless, uncaused, changeless, immaterial, powerful, and personal. Now, there are two entities that could fit this description, either abstract objects or God. We can disqualify abstract objects simply because abstract objects cannot cause anything, and thus the existence of the universe can only be found in the existence of God.

Subsequently, the beginning of the universe is not comparable to a gap. Rather, it is a closure, a stopping point. There isn’t anything on the other side of a beginning so there can’t be a gap since a gap would imply there is something on the other side. Essentially, the logical deduction of the KCA is exactly that the cause of the universe must not be natural, since nature came into being via the Big Bang. That deduction is clearly problematic for atheists, hence why we’re correct to note that this is a problem for atheism.

Thirdly, the beginning of the universe is certainly not a “physics” or a scientific problem. It’s also not a scientific question. Science deals with phenomena that already exists within the universe, and thus the beginning of universe is a metaphysical question. The universe is the domain of physics and in order to look beyond the universe one must look beyond physics. And since there was no physics before the existence of the physical, including the universe, physics can have nothing to say about how physics began to exist.

Fourthly, and finally, we can turn this on Pendergrast. Essentially he accuses us of a god-of-the-gaps, which we’ve now seen is misplaced, but we could easily challenge him on proposing an equally fallacious naturalism-of-the-gaps. Just because in the past science has discovered natural causes for phenomena doesn’t necessarily mean that in the future science will discover natural causes. In fact, science is very much against Pendergrast’s atheism since it is he who is the one resisting scientific evidence for the universe’s beginning. Why, one might ask, does he refuse to follow the evidence where it leads? Well, that’s easy to answer because he doesn’t like the supernatural implications implied by the KCA. His atheistic naturalism prevents him from following the scientific evidence since, he almost certainly hopes, that it will be able to uncover an internal nature of the universe. Naturalism thus proves to be a hindrance to consistency and good science.

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21 responses to “Q&A – The Kalam Cosmological Argument and the God-of-the-Gaps.

  1. Hugh Ross just released his latest book on the intricate design present in the universe, Improbable Planet. Books like this show that pointing to a designer is not “god-of-the-gaps,” but that it is the best, most logical answer resulting from the evidence.

  2. 1) Re My God of the Gaps comment, it was in response to your comment that “Of course it smacks of divine intervention precisely because we are dealing with a creation event from nothing that could only be reasonably explained by the creative act of a creator.”

    2) The term “God of the Gaps” rarely, if ever, is used to refer to a gap in a literal sense. It refers to a gap in knowledge.

    3) You declare that the origin of the universe is NOT a scientific question. That assertion is patently false, as demonstrated by the fact that scientists continue to learn more about the early universe and its beginnings. You paint Physics into a small corner, and declare that it must remain within that space. The term “Physics” was once synonymous with “Newtonian Physics”. It has since expanded to include electrodynamics, nuclear and atomic Physics, relativity, quantum Physics, etc., each of which resulted in massive expansion of the depth and breadth of the field. You’re clearly making assertions about a field that you know nothing about.

    4) And you continue to defend the KCA, without addressing my fundamental argument against it. You acknowledge that classical Physics can’t explain the origins of the universe, yet you continue to apply (via the KCA) the classical Physics notions of causality to the problem. I’ll repeat what I said before: “The mistake that you and other apologists consistently make is the assumption that the normal laws of causation in classical (i.e. Newtonian) Physics apply in all aspects of the universe. They don’t. They don’t apply in the realm of quantum Physics, and they don’t apply when you’re discussing the boundary conditions that existed at the moment of the big bang.”

    5) What’s really absurd is to declare the origins of the universe to be a metaphysical question. That statement is (yet again) a “God of the Gaps” argument – stating that science hasn’t explained it, arbitrarily declaring that science will never explain it, and claiming therefore, that it can only be answered by philosophers. But the world has countless experts each declaring their own version of the metaphysics. None of them have the slightest evidence for their own creation myths.

    6) Regarding your final point, you declare “naturalism of the gaps” to be fallacious. You’re correct that the fact that science/naturalism has closed countless gaps in the past, is no guarantee that it will close this one. But given the track record of science in closing past gaps (including numerous ones that Christianity formerly claimed to have answered), the rational person will put his money on science over philosophy/metaphysics. You suggest that I’m unwilling to follow the evidence where it leads. What is your basis for making that claim? I resist the KCA because of its fatal flaw, that I’ve already pointed out (twice now), and that you’ve ignored. Is there some other evidence that you have for Creationism?

    7) Even if science never comes up with an explanation for the origins of the universe, that will not mean that the origins must have been supernatural. As I said before, it’s a hard problem, and only a fool would argue that there are no limits to what humans can accomplish. But I think the odds are good that science will solve it – though perhaps not in my lifetime. But who knows what will be accomplished in another hundred years, or a thousand, or a million?

    8) Your statement that “Naturalism thus proves to be a hindrance to consistency and good science.” is likewise absurd, and (once again) just demonstrates your lack of understanding of science. Naturalism is a fundamental principle of science. The scientific method would be worthless if we tossed out naturalism. As an example, even with basic experiments, that have been successfully repeated thousands of times, the anti-naturalist could argue that “just because it worked that way every time you’ve done it, doesn’t mean that it will continue to do so. God could have been directing that outcome every time, and might not do so the next time.”

    9) The name is spelled “Prendergast”.

  3. Hi James,

    I find this paragraph problematic:

    “Moreover, what the argument persuasively implies is that there is a transcendent cause to the universe. At this point the cause is not inferred to be God. Instead, we first deduce several properties of this cause, namely that it is timeless, spaceless, beginningless, uncaused, changeless, immaterial, powerful, and personal. Now, there are two entities that could fit this description, either abstract objects or God. We can disqualify abstract objects simply because abstract objects cannot cause anything, and thus the existence of the universe can only be found in the existence of God.”

    I don’t agree that we can disqualify abstract objects “simply because abstract objects cannot cause anything”. How do you know that? The wind can cause leaves to blow, and perhaps more on topic, I’ve read about particles jumping in and out of existence in quantum physics – while I’m not a scientist myself, this certainly seems to suggest the possibility of something being created by an “abstract object”.

    But more importantly, I have a problem with your deduction that the cause is “timeless, spaceless, beginningless, uncaused, changeless, immaterial, powerful, and personal”. I believe that you’re making these deductions based on the cause being outside of our universe, but I don’t see how those properties follow from that.

    To give a counterexample: What if we are living in something like the Matrix? The universe as we know it could just be a simulation on some supercomputer, and we could all just have been created by a bunch of programmers. Those programmers could all exist in their own universe, and could very much have beginnings, be time-bound, etc. I’m not saying that we’re living in the Matrix – just saying that the existence of a counterexample should show that you seem to have made a leap in logic?

    But to be honest, my biggest question about cosmological-type arguments is: why would you want to use it to argue for a particular religion? Even if everything you’ve said were correct, you’d still need to have arguments to show that your particular religion is the correct one – so unless they’re directly tied to the properties you’re trying to prove God has here, this argument doesn’t really achieve much. So while I get that there might be merit in trying to argue that there is SOME God, I am wondering why you would try to use this argument to justify your beliefs as a Christian?

  4. One thing I’ve always wondered about the god of the gaps critic is that it seems to directly contradict atheism. If, as they say, atheism is nothing but a lack of belief, would it be too far to say the claim of god-of-the-gaps shows a knowledge far superior to their definition of atheism? We know far too little about the universe to rule out the possibility of a God and His intervention. I believe we shouldn’t rule out any possibility until we know with all certainty it’s false. Whenever I see people bring up the god-of-the-gaps towards someone to shows God AS A POSSIBILITY of the origin of the universe, is it wrong to say “prove my hypothesis is wrong”? I’ll be hard pressed to think of a reason it is.

    • Atheism is specifically a lack of belief in the existence of god(s) – not a broad-brush lack of belief in everything. Science actually knows quite a bit. It knows, for example, that the universe is MUCH older than 6000 years (contrary to the claims of young-earth creationists). There are several problems with your recommendation (don’t rule anything out until you know for certainty that it’s false:

      1) Most significantly – it’s impossible to disprove the existence of god, since no matter how much evidence we might compile, one can just modify the definition of their god, to fit that evidence, or just postulate some more miracles, to explain away the evidence. For example, some young-earth creationists have suggested that the reason we can see starts that are billions of light-years away, is that God started those photons on their way to us 6000 years ago, to fool us . Others have postulated that the speed of light changed dramatically, or just claimed that science is wrong.

      2) There are thousands of gods worshiped around the world. Are you suggesting that science should keep an open mind about all of them? Shall we also keep an open mind about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy (since their existence has never been disproved)? In order to consider these “possibilities” there would have to at least be some objective evidence for which the “God hypothesis” fits the data better than any other explanation. There is no such evidence.

      So the answer is, YES – it is wrong to say “prove my hypothesis is wrong”. When one makes claims of any kind, the burden of proof is always on that person, and even moreso when those claims are of a fantastic nature. As an example – if I claimed that I could fly, would the burden be on you to disprove my claim, or on me, to prove it?

      • “Atheism is specifically a lack of belief in the existence of god(s) – not a broad-brush lack of belief in everything.”

        If that’s how you want to define it, go right ahead.

        “Science actually knows quite a bit. It knows, for example, that the universe is MUCH older than 6000 years (contrary to the claims of young-earth creationists).”

        I agree.

        “Most significantly – it’s impossible to disprove the existence of god, since no matter how much evidence we might compile, one can just modify the definition of their god, to fit that evidence, or just postulate some more miracles, to explain away the evidence.”

        Firstly, I would argue it is possible to prove a negative, you just have to show something disobeying the law of non-contradiction. Regarding changing definitions of god, this certainly cannot be denied. However, I also cannot ignore honest declarations of “I was wrong.” There’s a difference between changing a definition to fit a pre-existing bias (i.e. trying to show they were right all along in a sneaky manner) and changing a definition because of evidence. James has done this brilliantly on the issue of Biblical inerrancy. I have also changed my views on young earth creationism. I used to hold to YEC, but scientists such as Hugh Ross has convinced me otherwise.

        The question is, when do you decide when one has rightfully changed their views to fit evidence and when one has not? Would it have to be conversion to atheism before the changing of one’s views is honorable and correct?

        “There are thousands of gods worshiped around the world. Are you suggesting that science should keep an open mind about all of them?”

        It doesn’t need to. Do you know how many of those have been proven false? Here’s one example of the god Sai Baba:

        http://unmaskingsaibaba.blogspot.com.au/

        Science doesn’t need to keep an open mind on deities that have been disproven (by showing their contradictory nature). Take a little time to research and you’ll find the number decreased from thousands to hundreds and lower. Once that is done it’s only a matter of showing what ones are false and this is already happening. There are apologists disproving Islam and the New Age movement (James is already doing this himself) quite radically, and many others. Most notable is Ravi Zacharias.
        I wouldn’t include Santa and the Tooth Fairy into the group of remaining religions unless someone has built a following of people who believe they exist. If there’s no movement or following then it’s a category mistake. If you think they’re a religion you’ve got the burden of proof there, my friend.

        “If I claimed that I could fly, would the burden be on you to disprove my claim, or on me, to prove it?”

        If you have more than a mere claim and you have actual evidence and arguments, then I’ll step up to the plate 🙂

        • It’s not my definition of atheism – it is THE definition.

          No, I wouldn’t demand that someone change their views to atheism to consider their views to be “honorable and correct”. First off, I’m not sure I would have chosen those the first adjective. I don’t believe that the views of most theists (including Christians) are dishonorable. From my own perspective, I believe they are misguided (though of course, they believe the same to be true of my views).

          In my particular case, I choose not to believe in a god, because there is no objective evidence for one’s existence. I don’t declare with any certainty that there is no god. Some folks would therefore put me in the category of an “agnostic atheist”.

          You bring up the test of non-contradiction for determining whether a god may be disproved. Using that argument, a common challenge that atheists have mounted against the Christian God is related to the claims that he is all-powerful, loving, kind, just, and merciful, and is personally involved in the lives of his “children”. And because of those beliefs, his followers pray to him regularly for all sorts of things – such as cures from various diseases (e.g. cancer, etc.). The evidence, however, shows that his followers contract those diseases, and die (often after horrible suffering) from them with equal frequency as nonbelievers, in spite of any amount of prayer.

          So the evidence indicates that either he is unable to cure those diseases, or is unwilling to, so most atheists believe that the evidence contradicts his purported nature. The usual Christian response to this observation is that “God has a plan”, which really seems to be a cop-out, as, if his plan really was to allow his “children” to suffer so horribly, it’s really a pretty crappy plan (and again, is not consistent with the definition of a loving, kind, merciful father). I’ve even had some Christians respond with the argument that I shouldn’t try to impose human standards of “loving, kind, just, and merciful” on God, that somehow those words mean something different when applied to God. My response to that, has been to try to point out (usually unsuccessfully) that if we those words (loving, kind, just, and merciful) mean something different when applied to God, then there’s really no point using those particular words at all. We might just as well just say that “God is flark”, and just admit that we don’t know what God is at all, since we’re apparently incapable of describing him in human terms.

          So – a great many non-Christians would argue that the Christian God has been falsified for reasons such as described above. Christians, of course, don’t agree. While I haven’t researched all the thousands of gods you claim have been falsified, I suspect their followers would be equally adamant that the arguments against their god are inadequate.

          Millions of people believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, so it seems they should qualify per your definition. Admittedly, most are under the age of six, but you didn’t indicate any particular mental maturity or competence standard.

          But aside from that, why is any following required at all? Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, etc. all have many millions (or billions) of adherents. Clearly, all those religions can’t be true, so the existence of a following, no matter how large, is no indicator of truth. And of course, all of those religions (including Christianity) started out with no followers, then a few, and then grew from there. Surely you wouldn’t argue that any measure of absolute “truth” would have changed through their history, as the religions grew. Christians believe there was “one true God” before there were Christians (or Jews). So if there is a god, why should we assume that ANY of the world religions necessarily has it right? Isn’t it possible that God hasn’t chosen to make himself known to us yet, but might some time later, when he thinks we’re ready? Maybe tomorrow, he’ll reveal himself for the very first time, to some special person he chooses. Or maybe he never will. Bottom-line, I believe your standard for a “following” is an unnecessary constraint.

          Finally, on my question about flying, what sort of evidence would you require? Would it be enough if a few anonymous people wrote stories, describing having seen me fly 40 years ago? Would that be enough to prove it to you?

  5. Richard, I’ll reply here as it will make my comment really thin otherwise.

    “a common challenge that atheists have mounted against the Christian God is related to the claims that he is all-powerful, loving, kind, just, and merciful, and is personally involved in the lives of his “children”. And because of those beliefs, his followers pray to him regularly for all sorts of things – such as cures from various diseases (e.g. cancer, etc.). The evidence, however, shows that his followers contract those diseases, and die (often after horrible suffering) from them with equal frequency as nonbelievers, in spite of any amount of prayer.”

    That’s a challenge I can’t relate with as I don’t agree with that proposition of prayer. I don’t believe prayer should be used to obtain things or to be spared from suffering. It’s certainly not how the ancients interpreted it either. They worked within what was known as a client-patron relationship. Prayer was not a request for things but a legal formality or a submission to authority. No one asked for whatever they pleased. It was only the most pious who were shown worthy of such a position, and even then they asked only what the patron (God) willed. The purpose of prayer was to honor God, His will, and His authority. That was a given. So I fail to see any contradiction between Christian suffering and God’s mercy. Again it’s important to note the Biblical context of mercy, which the ancient world would take as a fulfillment of a covenantal promise.

    “So the evidence indicates that either he is unable to cure those diseases, or is unwilling to, so most atheists believe that the evidence contradicts his purported nature.”

    The answer is simple, He isn’t obligated to. Modern views of love, mercy, etc. aren’t what the ancients held as a collectivist culture. Love was more along the lines of Agape, caring for the greater good of the community. It wasn’t merely curing individual cares, which was seen to be fulfilled in Christ anyhow (i.e. the story of the woman touching Jesus’ robe).

    “While I haven’t researched all the thousands of gods you claim have been falsified, I suspect their followers would be equally adamant that the arguments against their god are inadequate.”

    I don’t think it’s so black and white. Some may think that way, but is that any excuse to not even bother? I hope not.

    “Millions of people believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, so it seems they should qualify per your definition. Admittedly, most are under the age of six, but you didn’t indicate any particular mental maturity or competence standard.”

    I shouldn’t have to indicate a particular competence standard, that should be a given. Children “believing” in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is not a religion the same way children aren’t Christians until they have made the decision themselves. I don’t believe anyone adheres to a particular religion until they choose to believe it. If someone was raised in a Christian family, it is my view that they aren’t Christian until they have voluntarily entered the covenant bond with Christ. This should happen at a mature age when they can think for themselves.

    “But aside from that, why is any following required at all? Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, etc. all have many millions (or billions) of adherents. Clearly, all those religions can’t be true, so the existence of a following, no matter how large, is no indicator of truth.”

    You misunderstood me. No, there doesn’t need to be a following of millions to be regarded as a religion, just a group of individuals not tied to relational bonds. This could be as small as three or four. I never argued the validity of a religion is based on its followers, I argued a religion needs followers in order to be labeled as such.

    “on my question about flying, what sort of evidence would you require? Would it be enough if a few anonymous people wrote stories, describing having seen me fly 40 years ago? Would that be enough to prove it to you?”

    A few eyewitnesses and some circumstantial evidence would make me think. For example, if I saw you standing under a tree, holding a kite I saw stuck on top just an hour ago, that would move me a little. Would it “prove it”? No, but it would make me take your arguments seriously. 40-year-old stories would also help. And, of course, I may have a personal experience. If I lifted from my bed one night, I would definitely look at you differently 😉

    • 1) If you don’t believe in my stated proposition of prayer, you are clearly on a different page from a substantial percentage (I’d guess a large majority) of Christians. So this is yet another significant piece of Christian theology in which Christians can’t even agree, indicating that the notion of a “Christian God” is misleading, since there are many different definitions of the “Christian God”

      2) Nobody used the word obligated. The point is, that there is zero evidence of mercy – none whatsoever within this earthly life. And claims of mercy in the afterlife are of course predicated on the assumption that there actually is an afterlife (which is, and likely always will be unproven. But given the usual (but also not universal) Christian claims that anyone who doesn’t believe in God will be sentenced to an eternity of unspeakable torment – well that doesn’t sound like mercy either.

      3) Re: “I don’t think it’s so black and white. Some may think that way, but is that any excuse to not even bother? I hope not.” I think you missed my point. If every religion lays claims to having falsified the others, while rejecting claims of their own religion’s falsification, then I’m not sure that the falsification discussions will never be particularly useful. As an example, you and James reject the concept of Biblical Inerrancy, presumably because there is overwhelming evidence against it, millions of Christians still believe in Biblical Inerrancy. In my experience, they either reject any contradictory evidence out of hand, or make excuses (such as when discussing the contradictions within the Bible), usually claiming that we are misinterpreting the scriptures.

      5) While I agree that some standard of competence ought to be a given, I strongly suspect that somewhere in the world, there are a few seemingly competent adults who DO believe in Santa Claus. But without belaboring that issue, I still come back to my earlier point that you didn’t address – Why should we need to impose the criterion for a following at all. As I noted, Christianity declares a bunch of things to have been true, long before there were any Christians or Jews. At some point, a single person (one way or another) established some new belief system (whether made-up, or by revelation), and each religion grew from that seed.

      6) So are you saying a few anonymous eyewitness accounts alone wouldn’t be enough to convince you that I could fly?

      • 1) Mmhmm, I know it’s not a common view. What I do know is that it’s the right view, at least as far as the Biblical authors are concerned. There is one “Christian God.” His name is Jesus Christ human incarnate who was crucified and rose again. I’d be hard pressed to find someone bearing the title of Christian who believes otherwise. Further theological aspects require research and study. Why should we expect anything less? Most Christians today don’t take the time to read scholarship so that’s why false views are rampant. Just because we have a Joel Osteen and a C.S. Lewis hardly means both are wrong altogether.

        2a) Pilch and Malina in their book “Handbook of Biblical Values” explain Biblical mercy as “the debt of interpersonal obligations for unrepayable favors received.” In other words “Lord have mercy,” meant something along the lines of “Lord, pay up your debt of interpersonal obligation to us!” as Tekton’s article sufficiently put it. I would also wholeheartedly argue there is evidence for the miraculous (just read Professor Keener’s two volume set). However, even if there wasn’t, that still doesn’t mean mercy is absent. As J.P. Holding states,

        “Another example [of mercy] would be favor shown within a relationship of love in the collective, interrelational sense. Mercy can be shown simply by entering into such a relationship with someone, and beginning the process of reciprocal exchange of favor.”

        In other words, the mere process of positive change and circumstance in a person’s life, when they enter a covenantal relationship, is a sign of God’s “process of reciprocal exchange of favor.”

        Again, looking at a client-patron relationship, mercy also means fulfilling one’s respective role. What does God promise us as a patron? That our needs will be met (i.e. daily bread, forgiveness of sins, etc.) is most prominent. Thus fulfilling these is a sign of mercy, at least the way the Biblical authors saw it.

        2b) Regarding the afterlife, there may be no physical evidence for it, however, we can deduce what both places are like within Biblical context. The social world of the Bible functioned within an honor-shame dialectic. With this in mind what they saw as ultimate punishment was the act of shaming and separation from honor. Thus Hell is not a place of literal burning and torture, but of shame and exclusion. If this is so, Heaven would be a place of honor. With respect to Biblical mercy, there is no contradiction. Excluding someone from honor, because they never entered the covenantal bond with Christ, is God simply fulfilling His role as king. If you weren’t loyal to the king, why should you gain the reward of his kingdom?

        3) I apologize if I misunderstood you. Although I’m not too sure what you mean by, “I’m not sure that the falsification discussions will never be particularly useful.” If you mean to say falsification discussions are useful, then I would agree. But this isn’t what your previous comment seemed to imply. To me, you implied that since there are so many religions we can dismiss the idea of God altogether. I would argue that this isn’t the least bit conclusive. Objective truth exists. Would I give up my search of Waldo simply because people are wearing the same hats on the same page?

        4) “I still come back to my earlier point that you didn’t address – Why should we need to impose the criterion for a following at all.”

        I use this criterion because religion is regarded as a cultural movement or system of behaviors. Can a religion start with one person? I never argued it couldn’t. What I am arguing is that it wouldn’t be a religion until there’s a substantial following, it would simply be a personal belief. Religion is first and foremost culturally centered (again, goes back to the Biblical social world being a collectivist culture).

        5) I did not say a few eyewitness accounts alone would make me believe. I said it would make me think. If anything, it would take me from 100% doubt to maybe around 70 or 60, depending on how many accounts there are and if they’re from people who aren’t your friends. Then other factors such as personal experience can lower those numbers further. I know what you’re alluding to 🙂

        • 1) Of course the Christians who hold any number of other views are equally convinced that theirs is correct, and make arguments much like yours as to why they are right. Many Christian scholars disagree with you as well. Also – I wasn’t suggesting that there aren’t a few common elements of the wide variety of Christian beliefs.

          2) Your suggested interpretations of the word “mercy” is VERY different from any conventional English usage (which normally refers to treating others better than they necessarily deserve). You suggest it means nearly the opposite (i.e. getting exactly what they DO deserve). So when you’re arguing that the word meant in biblical times (presumably in the Greek), what you’re really saying, I think, is that the translators fundamentally got it wrong, in choosing an English word that means something VERY different from the original meaning of the Greek sources. While I won’t claim to be a Biblical Scholar, I have to say that I’m skeptical of your position.

          2b) While I’ve heard definitions of Hell, similar to yours, I’ll reiterate that a great many Christians (including scholars) have different views. And as with many topics, There is sufficient variation within the Bible to support a variety of interpretations. Not entirely surprising, given that the Bible was written by a variety of different men.

          3) No, I must apologize. I intended to say “I’m not sure that the falsification discussions will EVER be particularly useful.” I agree with your point that objective truth exists. My problem is that while I might claim to have falsified one religion or another (just as I believe that Biblical Inerrancy has been falsified), the arguments seem to consistently fall on deaf ears among the believers, as there is inevitably a response that I just don’t understand the claims that I purport to have falsified. I pointed out earlier what I believed would falsify the Christian claims of a merciful God, to which your response was that mercy doesn’t mean what it normally means (in ANY standard English usage).

          I’m not suggesting that you (or anyone) should give up their search. It’s just the reality that I’ve seen too many debates between either different Christians, or Christians and adherents of other religions. The vast majority of people seem to be unable to put aside their biases, and consider the possibility that their beliefs might be wrong.

          4) While religion certainly is a cultural movement, I thought the whole point of this discussion was an evaluation as to whether a set of religious beliefs should be considered as having the possibility of being true (in an absolute sense). Absolute truth should not depend on whether anyone believes it or not.

          5) So for comparison, James has posted articles that try to assert the resurrection as a virtual certainty. But the only evidence we have is:
          a) four gospels, written by anonymous authors, who in all likelihood, were not first-hand witnesses to the reported events. Three of the four gospels (the Synoptic gospels are all widely regarded to be of essentially common derivation, so we really only have two independent stories. The original gospel of Mark actually made no reference of post-resurrection appearances. Those references are believed to have been added later (by other early Christians).
          b) Acts of the Apostles, written also by Luke, but again – nobody really knows who Luke was, other than that he was apparently a companion or associate of Paul. Acts describes appearances by Jesus to groups of apostles.

          So to compare with my flight analogy, we have a few ancient anonymous authors who are reporting some truly fantastic events that they may or may not have personally witnessed, with the stories themselves being written decades after they supposedly occurred. The authors were obviously Christians (i.e. followers of Jesus), so this would be loosely analogous to flight stories written by anonymous friends of mine. So to draw the comparison more closely, Let’s say you had a few stories, written by a anonymous people, who described an event where, they claimed, multiple people (let’s say 500 people for the sake of discussion) saw me fly at one time or another. But these stories were written decades later, and either the people who were reported to have witnessed the flight were all dead, or they weren’t named specifically, so there’s no way to corroborate the claims. How much credence would you give to those reports? Would you conclude that it was a virtual certainty that I had flown? Beyond that, all you know is that there are other people who have read these same stories and believed them. Would that influence your opinion?

          Need more evidence? What if there’s another couple of stories, written by one of the same anonymous authors, that describe someone else having a vision in which he says he saw me fly. But those stories don’t agree on all the details, and they weren’t published until many years after the purported visionary died… so we also can’t corroborate the specifics of that story. But we do know that the purported visionary did believe that I could fly, even though – until that vision, he was utterly convinced that I could not fly. So that makes it sound like it may be true. BUT… under the assumption that visions could be either real, literal events, could be metaphors for some other events altogether, or could, in fact, be hallucinations, one could hardly use the visions and his change of heart as absolute proof that I could fly. We know, in the case of hallucinations, that people often are convinced of their reality, in spite of any/all objective evidence. Also, since the story was written anonymously by a third party, we really don’t know for sure that any of it happened as described, since the man who purportedly had the vision never went into much detail about the event.

          So given all the above, most rational people would not claim that I had proven that I could fly. Nor would they feel a burden to prove that I couldn’t. Most would still be VERY skeptical, and would continue to be skeptical until such time as I proved I could fly.

          But then we move forward another 50 years. This is long after I’m gone, so there’s no longer any ability or pressure for me to prove I could fly, and the burden of proof somehow shifts to the skeptics, Meanwhile, the small core of believers has gradually convinced more and more people that I could fly. The cult of the Flying Rich has grown substantially, and now people are adding the argument that it must be true, or there wouldn’t be so many people who believe it.

  6. 1) Many Christian scholars? Sorry, this doesn’t ring true at all. I’ve read many specialists of ancient history and culture (David DeSilva, Bruce Malina, Craig Keener, etc.) and I’ve also read works by people who disagree with me (Richard Carrier, Bart Ehrman, etc.) you’ll find I side with the majority of modern scholarship (and not with wackos like Carrier). At this point, all you are doing is saying some people disagree without actually engaging with what I have stated. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, though. Scholarship is probably not your field.

    2a) Re; “when you’re arguing that the word meant in biblical times (presumably in the Greek), what you’re really saying, I think, is that the translators fundamentally got it wrong, in choosing an English word that means something VERY different from the original meaning of the Greek sources.”

    That’s that limitation of the English language I’m afraid. The original Greek simply has more words to describe things. Just look at love. Greek has multiple words for love such as Agape, Philia, Eros, etc. While English has love alone. As I’m not an advocate for inerrancy I don’t see this as much of a problem, you just have to do the legwork.

    2b) I disagree completely that the Bible supports many different interpretations of Hell. I read the Bible the way the authors saw things, and they saw things through an honor-shame based society. It’s not possible to interpret it as anything else because anything apart from honor and shame didn’t exist. Any further interpretations (i.e. literal fire) are exclusively modern.

    3) Nothing much to say here. I pretty much agree.

    4) Re: “Absolute truth should not depend on whether anyone believes it or not.” Again, I agree.

    5) The Gospel authors weren’t anonymous. That’s something skeptic Steven Carr has claimed, however, there is plenty of reasons to suggest that he is wrong. I won’t get into all of them, however, I will look at the basics. The criteria for finding authorship is separated into three tests:

    Test 1# Internal Evidence: Attribution.
    If I take a book such as the Annals of Tacitus, the Internal Evidence of Attribution would be his name on the front cover or wherever else his name as author is mentioned within the book.

    Test 2# External Evidence: Attribution
    This is claims outside of the document regarding the author. Looking back at the AoT, we don’t get direct external attestation of Tacitus’ authorship until 340-420 A.D. by the church leader Jerome, over two hundred years after the book was finished in 116 A.D. The question is, why has the authenticity of The Annal’s of Tacitus rarely, if ever, been doubted, but the Gospels have constantly been? That’s something I’ll leave up to you…. What I will say is that someone’s testimony about who wrote a certain book should come from one who’s in a position to know the author. A modern example would be a publisher or editor.

    Test 3# Internal Evidence: Content
    This is the test of finding if the content of the book lines up with what we know about the author. An overexaggerated example would be a poorly written vampire novel that’s been supposedly authored by William Lane Craig. Since we know he doesn’t write vampire fiction and that he’s an excellent writer, we have good reason to believe he isn’t the author.

    This is broken up into subjective evidence and objective evidence. Subjective evidence cannot be seen as conclusive as it puts writers into a box. So we can’t rule out the possibility of Craig writing vampire fiction. Objective evidence, on the other hand, is conclusive. For example, if I read in a book such as Exodus that an airplane took the Israelites out of Egypt, that tells me that the book wasn’t authored by Moses. If there’s an anachronism, the book is most likely a forgery and a fake. This is how scholars have debunked books such as the Gospel of Thomas. It contains way too many anachronisms.

    Beyond this is only a matter of research and application.

    The rest of your comment depends on authorship issues and authenticity, so I’ll leave it here. This will also be my final comment as I can see this isn’t getting through to you.

    • I’ve never met someone who holds your position before, so I’ve found this exchange quite intriguing. I hope you won’t mind a question: what would it take for you to be convinced that you’re wrong? Not trying to be sly, it’s just a question that I think anyone searching for the truth should have answered at some point.

      • Thank you. I don’t mind the question at all. The major thing that would convince me is if they found the Resurrection to be false. I’m not talking about mere hypothesis like hallucinations or moving the body, they’ve been refuted by many scholars in the field. It would have to he solid evidence that it never happened or that Jesus didn’t exist at all.

    • Also losing steam, as my arguments don’t seem to be getting through to you. So I’ll just touch on a few of your points.

      2a) Are you really arguing that “mercy” is the English word that most closely represents the concept you described? The words “fair” and “just” would be far closer, for starters.

      2b) Again – others disagree. The Bible describes Hell (in some places) as a furnace or a lake of fire.

      5) I won’t disagree with your tests, though most of them deal more with authenticity than anonymity. Are you actually claiming that the authors of all four gospels identified themselves???? Christian scholars today STILL debate who wrote each of them.

      • They did, that’s why I’ve been able to address them.

        2a) It’s fitting because of the origin of the relationship. The role of a patron was a role God willingly assumed on our behalf. The favor He bestows came from Him first, then we reciprocate that favor back onto Him through service.

        2b) Considering the apocalyptic genre of Revelation why couldn’t it be a metaphor for judgment? Everything in the Bible that seems to support literal torture (i.e. weeping and gnashing of teeth) can be explained by their culture. Weeping and gnashing of teeth was an outward sign of someone who was shamed, for example, not physical torture.

        5) The internal evidence of attribution is solid in all four Gospels, although it’s the least conclusive test because anyone can stick a name on the front cover. The debate goes beyond the title of the Gospel and into the content itself, which is why test three is the most conclusive.

        • Yes of course – you claim to have fully understood and addressed my comments, while arguing that I have failed to understand or address yours. Really???

          2a) You’re changing your story. First you claim that “mercy” in the Bible didn’t mean what it normally means in English – that it meant “something along the lines of “Lord, pay up your debt of interpersonal obligation to us!”” Now you say that it really means “have mercy on us, and then we’ll worship you”

          2b) And here’s where we get to the major fallacy of your arguments. Like all Christians, you selectively interpret the Bible (which is unavoidable, since it’s internally inconsistent). You select the overall interpretation that you like. Any verses that agree with that, you declare to be literal. Any verses that don’t agree, you declare to be metaphorical. But of course the Bible itself often doesn’t give any hints that “this is literal, folks…”, or “hey – this is just a metaphor, but…”. So you’re basically saying that in Revelation, we have no idea what any of it really means. Everything may be metaphorical, or maybe just some of it is. You’ve already allowed that you don’t believe in Biblical Inerrancy. Why should you assume that other references (and your interpretations of them) to the nature of hell are correct (and inerrant), and the parts of Revelations that tell a different story are metaphorical.

          This leads me to a broader problem on matters of morality (vs. theology). When there are differences in moral teachings (as between the OT and NT, or between what Jesus taught and what Paul taught), Christians can’t agree on which to follow. They either:
          i. Declare that Jesus fulfilled the OT Law (which makes little sense, when they then turn around and claim that morality is absolute)
          ii. Argue that Jesus’ teachings don’t apply in some case or another – that somehow, some specific case is different – as when pursuing hateful and discriminatory policies against homosexuals, because they would somehow be condoning sin. Of course they have no problems whatsoever with condoning divorce and remarriage (a topic on which Jesus was unequivocal), presumably because it’s ok if it’s between heterosexuals. And when Jesus said (many times) we shouldn’t judge others, they claim (essentially) that he didn’t mean we shouldn’t judge others.
          iii. Argue that some small potential risk to themselves overrides ANY considerations of loving their neighbors and their enemies (as when they wish to deny aid to Syrian refugees who are in such dire needs). They argue that it’s totally ok to ignore the parable of the Good Samaritan, and Jesus’ teachings on “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers…”. They pontificate about being persecuted themselves, and proudly proclaim that they’d be willing to die for their faith, but are unwilling to incur even the slightest personal risk, to actually live the way Jesus taught.

          I can’t tell you how many different people I’ve had debates with such as this. Some brag about the fact that they know ancient Greek, and on that basis, claim that they know the truth of what the Bible really means. But they each come up with their own, very different interpretations. You have yet a different interpretation. Countless well-known Biblical scholars and theologians also disagree. The evidence is overwhelming that IF there is a correct interpretation of the Bible, we can’t assume that people can ever know with any certainty what it is, since intelligent and sincere people, who spend their lifetimes studying it, can’t agree on their interpretations. But that doesn’t stop millions of Christians from carrying the conceit that THEY have it all figured out. They presume that others who came to different conclusions were either biased, were not as smart as them, didn’t work as hard to find the truth, weren’t as sincere in their quest for truth, or didn’t pray hard enough for revelation.

          OK – enough of that diversion (/rant).

          5) Yes, anyone can stick a name on a cover, but that’s presumably when the other tests would come into play, to see if the evidence is consistent with the name. But in the case of the Gospels, of course, there WAS no name on the cover. That makes them anonymous by definition. Somebody else later put a name on the cover, and scholars have been arguing ever since, as to who those people really were. The best they come up with is things like “Luke the Evangelist”, but they really don’t know whether his name was Luke, and all they know about him is what they’ve inferred from his writings. By any standard definition – the book is anonymous. Somehow you’ve twisted the fact that we know a few things about him to mean that it’s NOT anonymous. Authorship of the other three gospels has the same problem, though we have even less information on their authors, since at least we have the benefit of both Luke and Acts writings for “Luke”.

          If I had posted all of my comments here under a pseudonym (Joe Anonymous”, and included a fake email address (joe@anonymous.com), you could infer a great deal about me from my writings, but they’d still be anonymous.

  7. 2a) And that still stands. God instigates a patronage relationship with an underserved people while us, out of gratitude, repay the favor by service. It’s not us demanding God to give us “mercy” before we worship him.

    2b) Re: “And here’s where we get to the major fallacy of your arguments. Like all Christians, you selectively interpret the Bible (which is unavoidable, since it’s internally inconsistent). You select the overall interpretation that you like. Any verses that agree with that, you declare to be literal. Any verses that don’t agree, you declare to be metaphorical.”

    I believe the Bible is a collection of 66 books containing collections of many genres of ancient literacy, including Proverbial and poetic genres. Taken the entire Bible as literal commits the fallacy of misplaced literalism. I don’t choose what’s literal or not because I like the interpretation, I do so because that’s where the evidence leads. An example would be John 14:26 that says the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things.” Does He intend to mean He will teach the disciples how to bake cookies or do advanced rocket science? Or is it more along the lines of hyperbole to drive a point? Obviously, there’s an implied limitation there.
    Likewise when it comes to Hell we have instances where it’s known as a place of darkness (i.e. Matthew 8:12, 22:13, etc.) and fire (i.e. Matthew 25:24 and Revelation). Either Matthew contradicts himself by a mere three chapters OR we can deduce based on what we know from social science that shame and exclusion were the worst possible outcome in their eyes, akin to or worse than being burnt alive because they knew their actions had weight and would be judged thusly. In addition, the context of Revelation 20, especially the latter verses, is about God’s judgment which supports this thesis.

    “So you’re basically saying that in Revelation, we have no idea what any of it really means. Everything may be metaphorical, or maybe just some of it is.”

    We do have an idea. Grab a few commentaries by those who specialize in the field. Craig Keener’s Bible Background is a major source for me. Beyond this, you could also grab the three volume set by David E. Aune on Revelation. There’s no excuse for ignorance.

    “in the case of the Gospels, of course, there WAS no name on the cover.”

    I’ll just cover Luke here as that is the one you brought up. Firstly, all copies of Luke name him as the author, that’s the overwhelming consensus among historians and scholars so I’m really puzzled as to who your sources are. Although for sake of argument I’ll say you’re correct. Does this mean we have no idea who the author is? Not likely. Firstly, I will grant that the internal evidence of attribution is less than convincing as he never names himself directly within the text. The major evidence we do have comes from external sources. Irenaeus, for example, offers an early witness to Luke, Paul’s traveling companion, as the author of Luke-Acts. This is supported by the author’s presence within his text since in prologues to both books he speaks of his activity, purposes, and methods (i.e. Lk 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2). Then we have internal evidence of content that agrees with the traditional consensus that he was a physician or someone with vast knowledge: he was a well-educated writer, was culturally centred, and knew Greco-Roman rhetoric. It’s also important to note the autobiographical nature of the “we” passages in Acts that have supported the view that a fellow traveler of Paul authored it. Luke has been held as the best candidate among Paul’s travelling group to have authored Luke-Acts because it was a common practice among educated historians of the time to reveal their own firsthand participation in the history they wrote. As we have overwhelming external evidence for Lukan authorship, reasonable content evidence that he was an educated follower of Paul, and an audience that could ascribe authorship accurately, I think early church tradition stands a good chance of being correct. And that’s if the original copies are completely anonymous, which they aren’t.

    In addition, Richard, you have avoided explaining how your arguments work if I apply them equally to secular ancient documents whose authenticity and authorship are never questioned but are every bit as “anonymous” as the Gospels. I go back to the Annal’s of Tacitus here. I originally pointed out that the first external evidence for his authorship of the Annals was well over a century after its written date, much later than the external attribution for the Gospels. I should also mention that the internal evidence of attribution is the same in Tacitus’s case as the Gospels. They’re named only by title. And if you read the works of Tacitean scholar Clarence W. Marshall you’ll find the external evidence of the Gospels FAR outweigh that of the Annals, yet its authorship is never questioned. So who isn’t treating the evidence fairly?

    As your position seems to disagree with the majority of scholarship I think it would be fair if you provided some textual evidence that names were added on at a later date and why it is not supposed that secular documents far less well attested have been treated the same the way. If you cannot do this then I think this discussion should close.

    • As a final note on the anonymity of the Gospels let me tell you why they would not have been entirely anonymous.

      The Gospels were intended for a wide audience. This is important because for practical reasons a tag would have been placed on the scroll after its completion in order to be stored in libraries since there was no concrete way to discern what was inside ancient scrolls apart from external appearance. And so whenever and by whomever the Gospels were written they would not have been left unidentified simply due to practical reasons. If it was intended to be read by a large audience it would need a title and descriptor at the very list before it could be moved to a library. And I’m not making this up. Historian of religion, Martin Hengel, notes this in his book The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ,

      “Anonymous works were relatively rare and must have been given a title in libraries….”

      If critics could find a copy of Matthew attributed to someone such as Philip, for example, you’d have a better case. However, critics have not provided any evidence of a Gospel (bar one exception in Matthew) without a title. “There is no trace of such anonymity [concerning the Gospels],” as Hengel notes. And again, external evidence of attribution for all Gospels is vastly wide. So I simply find it hard to see how this is not enough evidence when far less is accepted for secular texts and their attribution.

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