Mark Driscoll on Open Theism
 
 
I posted a link to a Mark Driscoll clip in which he talks about how we tend to take our emotional states and then make assumptions about ultimate reality based upon those states. He names a number of worldviews he thinks we fall into when things aren’t going well for us.
 
Open theism and process theism are two views that he mentions. He rightly characterizes both views as holding that god wants to be good and wants to help us, but every other point he makes about these views is a misrepresentation. The first misrepresentation is that both views are aberrations of Christian theology, and the second is that both of these view god, to use his words, powerless, impotent, and unable to help. Now, whether or not process theism falls into what could properly be called a “Christian” theology, Open Theism is very very clearly an orthodox form of Christian theology. What is most unfortunate here is that he mischaracterizes both of these views where they are actually the strongest… on the personal and existential levels. 
You see, in both open theism and process theology, God can actually respond to His creation, including human petitions and concerns. In fact, they are the only major theistic views in which God can respond to our concerns. It is true that in process theism God can’t absolutely determine anything, or make sure that something happens no matter what. But God can work to influence things by raising and lowering the likelihood of his will coming to pass, and He can do so in response to our concerns… even our prayers. In fact, he influences the entire world simultaneously. That’s a considerable amount of power. But God can do all that and more in Open Theism, with the ability to actually determine His will comes to pass. Don’t believe me? Let’s hear about open theism from the source…. the mouths of some of those who have developed the theory:
 
"open theists have been quite insistent that, while their position lies somewhere between the classical theism of high-medieval orthodoxy and process theism, they mean to stay squarely on the classical side of that divide with respect to creation ex nihilo and the power of God unilaterally to intervene in the created order as he desires.” p. 2-3 or “He can unilaterally intervene in it as he pleases.” p. 3 - Alan Rhoda
 
 
 
I unequivocally affirm that God possesses every divine perfection, including the attributes of omnipotence and omniscience. I believe that God is the sovereign Creator and Lord, leading history toward his desired end, yet granting freedom to his creatures as he wills. He knows and can reveal all that he has determined about the future, thus declaring “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10).” - Greg Boyd
 
 
 
According to openness theology, the  triune  God of love has, in  almighty  power, created all that is and is  sovereign over all.” - John Sanders
 
 
 
we’re saying that God appears in the Bible to know some things for certain because he planned them” - Clark Pinnock
 
Now, I appreciate Driscoll’s concern in this video. He finds that it’s existentially important that we have a God loves us and wants to be good and can help us. But he may not realize this, but being a Calvinist who rejects open theism, either his view is that God determines everything, or logically implies that God determines everything.
The first upshot of his view then, is that God *can’t* respond to humans, because we have no autonomy whatsoever from God anyways. God can’t respond to us because we don’t exist as separate entities to be responded to. God can only respond to himself. So God “responding to your situation” would be more like God taking an antibiotic for his own infection, than say, giving you and antibiotic for your infection. Or you might say it would be more like God mending one of his puppets than it is like healing a person. The second upshot is that under Calvinism, God is the reason for all your adversity in the first place. How then, at any given time, are we supposed to think God, to use Driscoll’s words, “wants to help us and wants to be good?” In Driscoll’s view, God created the problem, gave himself the infection, made you a shoddy puppet. At any rate… it’s kinda ironic that Driscoll is trying to encourage you how to think about God here, because if his theology were correct, you wouldn’t have a choice what to believe about God anyways, because it’s God who is making you believe what you do, and it’s just the luck of the draw as to when God would let up on you and correct your picture about him.  
When characterizing the powerlessness of God in process and open theology, he is probably comparing them to the power of his God. And while it is certainly true that the God of process theism is not all powerful, you simply can’t say that about the open theist God. In open theism, God is all-powerful, he’s simply decided to use more restraint than the Calvinist God because he wants to share that power with His creatures. To illustrate, a bodybuilder who isn’t currently lifting weights could be much more powerful than one who is. Somebody not using their power doesn’t mean they don’t have power to use. Similarly, there’s no reason to think that an open theist God is less powerful than a Calvinist God.
 
What is most strange and ironic, is that the last part of this clip in which Driscoll says that the truth is that God is good and loving and sinless, and sin comes from humans and demons and Satan, is perfectly in line with Open Theism, and in fact is the thesis Open Theist Greg Boyd defends in his excellent book “Satan and the Problem of Evil.”
But the ironic part is that while Driscoll will say this on the one hand, his Calvinism will contradict it on the other. I wonder if Driscoll realized that his theology is contradictory, which side of the contradiction he would choose?
The (possible) Partial Extinction of the Human Race

(A young man and woman unaquainted with each other have been sitting next to each other on a plane. They’ve been at cruising altitude for a while, at this point both feeling relaxed and comfortable. He (Thomas) has been occupied by his book since the plane took off, and she (Pricilla) has been anticipating her destination.)

Pricilla: Do you read alot?

Thomas: Yeah, I do. I read all the time. I like to stay informed.

P: So you’re a nonfiction kinda person?

T: Yeah. For the most part.

P: What r’ y’ reading?

T: Have you ever heard of Richard Dawkins?

P: I have. I haven’t read any of his books, but I’m familiar with some of what he has to say. (She finds her composure after deciding not to start an argument with him, but to converse nonetheless.) So I take it you’re an atheist?

T: That’s right. In fact, I’m reading The God Delusion right now. (He shows her the cover.) Dawkins shows how the universe doesn’t need a designer. You should read it! P: Maybe I will some day. So are you a strong atheist - believing that there is no God?… or a weak atheist - simply lacking belief in god?

 

T: Oh… so you know something about this stuff. Well… I don’t think the two have to be mutually exclusive. 

 

P: Interesting. Explain.

 

T: So if the definition of negative atheism is ‘lacking belief in a God,’ then that of course is compatible with believing that God does not exist. In fact, believing that God does not exist entails that one lacks belief in God.

 

P: So you are both?

 

T: Sort of. I am merely a negative atheist in the respect that for all I know, there are some conceptions of God which are coherent, and thus I can’t demonstrate that they don’t exist, so it would seem to me unjustified to disbelieve them. On the other hand, some conceptions of God are internally contradictory, some are inconsistent with what I already believe, and some are inconsistent within the theological system in which they are embedded… and all three of those warrant disbelief.

 

P: That’s a lot for me to take in… but I think I got it. Sounds like you’ve parsed that out nicely. So what Gods do you disbelieve in?

 

T: I haven’t had contact with that many theological traditions other than Christianity, but I’d have to say that I’m a positive atheist regarding the Christian deity. I believe the Christian God doesn’t exist.

 

P: Why?

 

T: Hell. That’s the biggest reason. I think the idea is dispicable. And the god of traditional Christianity is supposedly morally perfect, but he sends people to hell? Please!

 

P: Ouch!

 

T: Oh, you’re not a Christian, are you? 

 

P: No, I mean ouch… you stepped on my toe when you said that.

 

T: Oh… sorry, about that.

 

P: At any rate… yes, I am a Christian.

 

T: Really? Oh, okay… then I’ve got to ask you some questions…

 

P: Go for it.

 

T: Since you’re a Christian, you believe that God is love, right?

 

P: That’s right.

 

T: And I take it that what that means to you is that since God can’t act contrary to God’s nature, He can’t ever do anything unloving, right?

 

P: Yes.

 

T: So you must believe then, that sending people to hell is a loving thing to do.

 

P: That’s right.

 

T: Really!? Isn’t hell conceived in the bible as the most terrible place imaginable? which means that you have to believe that God is being loving when he sends people to the most terrible place imaginable, right?

 

P: That’s right. (holding her composure)

 

T: Oh boy… (squeezes forehead in frustration) How could that be? Can’t you see that that’s impossible?

 

P: Let me ask you a question! Why do you think there is only one view of hell?

 

T: Huh?

 

P: Well… you talk as though you have a single concept of hell in mind. What is that concept… what image comes to mind when you think of hell?

 

T: People being tortured forever for not believing in Jesus as the Son of God.

 

P: I definitely wouldn’t subscribe to that. And what people don’t know is that the nature of hell is debated by theologians. People normally think of Hell as this place in which people are tormented forever. But there are at least two other biblically informed views of the matter.

 

T: Doesn’t that discredit the theological enterprise then? I mean, if there’s so much disagreement about this stuff, why think there is some fact of the matter to have a theory about in the first place?

 

P: We could apply the same reasoning to the scientific enterprise, couldn’t we? I mean… how many cosmological models of the universe are there? There’s the oscillating universe, the steady state expanding universe, the cosmic inflation universe, the eternal inflation universe, the cyclic universe, and I’m sure there’s more. And then there’s something like twenty different interpretations of quantum mechanics, right?

 

T: Huh… that’s a good point, actually. Are there lots of perspectives on hell?

P: Well… first let me say that all theories agree that hell is separation from God. With that at the core… there’s universalism, in which everybody eventually goes to heaven. Maybe they go to hell for a little while and then to heaven, or maybe straight to heaven… but in any case everybody ends up there. And there’s the most popular theory which you might call eternal conscious torment… which is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s annihilationism, in which some people go to hell but are eventually annihilated.

 

T: I think I’ve heard of this universalism idea, but I’ve never heard of annihilationism.

P: Right. That’s because universalism has been around since the second century. Annihilationism is basically new, but there may actually have been some adherents since the first century.

T: So why does this everlasting torment idea get such a large hearing?

P: I’m not sure, really. It seems pretty darn scary to me, and honestly, I agree with you that it seems incompatible with a loving God. There might be some historical reasons for it, but I’m not really competent enough in my history to go there. 

(silent thinking)

T: Okay… so why do people believe the other positions?

 

P: Well… aside from there being scripture passages which can be interpreted to support either side, I’d say that most adherents of the other two views would agree with your intuition that there something inconsistent about the thought of a loving God keeping people in torture forever. 

 

T: I’m glad some people see that point, at least. It seems obvious. Where are you at on the issue?

P: I think the eternal torture idea has it right that we can ultimately choose for or against God. But if God is really loving, then he couldn’t allow the eternal torture to be that bad… because if it were that bad, it would seem like it was God’s fault for creating the world such that humans could be in such a terrible situation for so long. So for eternal torment to be consistent, the torment couldn’t be so bad as to shine poorly on God.

T: But from what I’ve read, Jesus seems to pose hell as a genuine threat! 

P: Right! Which would mean that if eternal torture were true, Jesus would have been disingenuous in posing hell as a genuine threat. And I don’t think Jesus was disingenuous in characterizing hell as genuinely terrible, so I reject the eternal torture idea. But universalism doesn’t seem right because if it were, then one of two things must be true. Either everybody has a genuine chance to ultimately choose God but ends up doing so without coercion, which seems highly unlikely, or people are eventually coerced by God to be with Him, which doesn’t seem loving. Both options seem theologically problematic to me.

T: Okay, so you’re an annihilationist, I take it. 

P: That’s right.

T: Which means that those who go to hell are there for a while and then cease to exist. 

P: That’s right.

T: But why would your God send people to hell at all if He were the kind of God who forgives his enemies?

P: Now that is a really good question! I’m at the point of speculation here…. but I’ll throw some things out there. First, I’d say that I don’t think the reason people go to hell is because God sends them there out of retribution. If that were the case, then God would obviously not have forgiven. I would imagine that hell is for the sake of deterrence. 

T: Two problems… first of all, torturing people for the sake of deterrence has been shown not to deter. Second, even if it did work, you would have to believe in the Christian hell in the first place in order for the deterrence to work… and most people on this earth don’t even believe in the Christian hell, much less in the Christian savior.

P: Once again… really good points. But regarding the first one, I’d say that I don’t think God Himself actually tortures anybody. But I see how you could get that from the language I’ve been using in characterizing hell. Let me frame the situation. God rules those who want to be ruled by Him, and He does so with the methods that are fitting for a perfectly loving God. So God rules people by loving, healing, and serving them. Satan, on the other hand, rules those who want to be ruled by Satan, and does so with the methods which are fitting for the foremost enemy of the perfectly loving God. Thus, Satan rules by blame, destruction, violence, and deceit. So it makes sense to me to say that when you make your final decision, God simply lets you be ruled by the one you yourself choose to be ruled by. 

(short silence)

T: Huh… I actually kinda like that. It would make sense out of the dynamics of how good and evil work in this world as well. 

T: Exactly!

(short silence)

P: And all I can say about the latter part of what you said is that you’re right. The threat of hell doesn’t deter unless you believe it actually exists. And it’s really only really understood in the context of the whole of the gospel, which is why it is important for believers to not just preach about hell, but to preach about the rest of the gospel as well.

T: Okay… well… that all makes a lot of sense. That’s not to say that I think Christianity is true or anything… I still think there are a lot of other problems with Christianity. But hell has been a major reason for my rejecting it.

 

P: I wouldn’t expect for you to come so far as to accept the whole gospel just in this one conversation. I just like having these kinds of conversations with people, and engendering respect between people of different opinions. And by the way… I appreciate how respectful you’ve been during this conversation.

 

T: Likewise. You know, atheists often get dehumanized or marginalized in this country, and that’s probably at least one reason for us being so mad oftentimes. 

 

P: Sure… I can see that. I bet that the fact that our dollar bills say “in God we trust” on them doesn’t help to respect where you’re at, huh.

 

T: Yeah… I mean… *I* don’t trust in God.

P: And there are plenty of God’s I don’t trust in, either. I mean… I don’t see how it’s at all virtuous to trust in some God whose character might be questionable! So I think we might have more in common than you think! Ultimately, I believe in a God of perfect love. And I don’t blame *you* for not settling for less. Your friend Richard Dawkins has said that everybody knows what it is like to be an atheist regarding other god’s, he just goes one step further. I just think people go one step too far when rejecting a God of perfect love.

 

 The pilot gets on the intercom and tells everyone to buckle their safety belts and prepare for descent. Priscilla and Thomas banter on about where they live and work, and eventually exit the plane satisfied by a good conversation.

Here’s the biblical evidence for annihilationism. Quite a strong case, indeed!http://www.edwardfudge.com/JETS_final_end_wicked.pdf

Thinking About Responsibility

There’s an issue surrounding debates about freedom and determinism which center around whether freedom and determinism are logically compatible with each other. Compatablists say that they are, and incompatablists say that they are not.

Now, determinism (for our purposes here) is the view that every human act is necessitated to come to pass as it does, by something outside of the respective human. We play no part in our destiny. If I grow up to be a sexist-racist-homophobe, determinism says that there’s no other way I could have turned out. Such misfortunes are simply a matter of my genetics, environment, neurology, and/or God making my body and thoughts behave in sexist-racist-homophobic ways, and that’s all there is to it. Freedom, on the other hand, is the idea that at least some of our destiny is really up to us, that our experience of choice is not just an illusion, that we are more than just the circumstances we were placed in.


The nature of the debate between compatablism and incompatablism centers around the fact that (1) determinism and human freedom seem to contradict each other (2) some sort of human freedom seems necessary for moral responsibility, and (3) most everybody, including most determinists, want to retain their belief in moral responsibility. Such determinists have therefore advocated for a modified kind of freedom which they see as compatible with determinism, in an attempt to save their belief in morality. This special kind of freedom is often called “compatablistic freedom” or “soft determinism.” The idea here is that someone is free if and when they can act as they desire, rather than against their will. Now, clearly this concept of freedom is compatible with determinism, for external causes (i.e. God, ones’s neurons, one’s environment, etc.) could easily determine somebody to desire something and achieve the goal of that desire. Nobody really disputes that. But the compatablist wants something more than just any kind of freedom: she wants a freedom that allows for moral responsibility. And lots of people think you can’t get moral responsibility unless determinism is false. I am one of those people.
 
Consider a thought experiment. Daisy throws a good-natured party at her house, when a seemingly innocent but maliciuos student of neuroscience named Damon spikes her drink while she isn’t looking. She soon becomes drowsy and finds a room to pass out in and falls into a deep sleep. Damon hooks up electrodes to her brain while she is sleeping so as to stimulate parts of it that excite anger and malice. Damon leaves to an empty room and turns on the electrodes, causing her to wake up with an insatiable desire to destroy everything she comes into contact with. This causes her to go back out to the party, start fights with her friends, and break beer bottles over their heads, hospitalizing them. Is she morally responsible for this? If you said no, then like me, you’re an incompatablist. This brings out something that I think is necessary for morally responsibility: the morally significant act must originate in the person acting. This is why Daisy (I would argue) isn’t guilty for injuring her friends.

So what is the upshot of this? Well… it depends on who you are. If you believe that humans are morally responsible at least some of the time, then you should reject the idea that determinism is true and accept the idea that humans originate some acts. Conversely, you should also not hold people morally responsible for actions that did not originate with them. To the extent that an act did not originate with someone, that person is not responsible for it. This is immensely important for many human activities, most obviously our systems of justice. But it is also important for a humble chap like myself who works on the care staff at a hospital. Sometimes I come across patients who are coming out of anesthesia, and it is my job to keep them from pulling out their IV’s, feeding tubes, and other friendly devices that might be harassing their bodies at the time. If I were a compatablist, I might have cause to get very frustrated with them. But since I’m an incompatablist in the know that their attempts to pull these things out doesn’t originate with them but rather with determined neuro-psychological factors, I can’t hold them responsible (though of course I still have to keep them from hurting themselves).

When do you have reason to suppose that somebody’s harmful acts don’t originate in them?

The Prosblogion: The Work of Christ

This guy’s theory basically articulates most of the thoughts I had regarding the atonement before I started reading about the atonement in extra-biblical sources. I still find his account highly plausible.

http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2011/04/why-did-jesus-h.html#more

$10.40 for Peace

Dear IRS agent,

"Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they train for war.” (Micah 4:3)
 
Enclosed is a check for what I owe to the IRS in taxes this year. But as you will notice, the check is $10.40 short. This letter and my withholding are acts of peaceful protest in the movement $10.40 for peace. It is intended to get your attention and rouse your conscience regarding the achieving of goals by coercion and violence used by the U.S. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, thus it is a deep conviction of mine that I am to love others indiscriminately, just as Christ gave himself for us while we were yet his enemies. As such, I am all for giving money to the government in the name of educating our children, providing healthcare for those who can’t afford it, disaster relief efforts, and other ways of achieving humanitarian goals through humanitarian means. But my soul wells up with tears for the lives lost and families destroyed by the death of fathers and mothers and sons and daughters both on the side of America and of America’s “enemies.” I cringe at the destruction of ecological systems by warfare. I’m nauseated by what goes on behind the scenes in the School of Americas. I’m saddened by the diminished livelihood of veterans with PTSD, alcoholism, and depression. I’ve worked at a Veteran’s hospital sifting through the lists of 20-50 medications prescribed to nearly every one of these wonderful vets. I find it laughable that all this is done in the name of “peace.” 

"For those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52)

America’s use of military force for the sake of protecting our homeland and protecting our allies abroad has often been of noble intent, but examples abound of far more creative and sustainable ways of doing so than how we have thus far. Walter Wink’s book “Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way” catalogues some of these nonviolent efforts. The work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi supply the most well known evidence that we can break the backs of injustice without violence, and without the subsequent massive damage to families, environment, animals, and those on the front lines of battle. What if we spent as much money, time, and energy in supporting peacemaking efforts and nonviolent resistance movements as we do in war? What if we trained people in conflict resolution to the extent that we train people to use weapons? Nonviolent movements are overall far more dynamic, constructive, prolific, positive, and even effective than the dehumanization, chaos, and tumult that goes into and results from war and violence. 


"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old is gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

So I am happy to let you know that I’ll be spending the $10.40 that would have gone to the government this year, and far more than that, including much time and energy, into laboring toward a peaceful creation using means that are as peaceful as the ends God seeks to achieve through me.

Blessings,Jacob Hunt

The Possibility of Miracles

I just recently started an apologetics reading/discussion group. Any kind of person is allowed: Christian, atheist, agnostic, buddhist, whatever. I’ll probably air thoughts that I’ll have in response to the discussions, since I think much more clearly when I’ve got time to work things out carefully in writing.

The book that we’re reading (‘Lord or Legend: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma’ by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy) purports to demonstrate that as long as one believes that miracles are possible, it can be shown using standard historical methodology that the gospels are generally reliable. I’m not going to get into the arguments which support that conclusion, for that would require relaying the whole book. But I would like to talk about miracles.

One of the fine fellows in the group claimed to deny that miracles are possible, which of course, sets him up to take the whole book as superfluous. When pressed as to why he denied the possibility of miracles, he chanted an old line of reasoning, not unfamiliar to many of us in it’s tone and texture. He explained that time after time, people have reported of miracles happening, and under investigation said miracles have been uncovered as shams. So why, he asks, should we chalk our lack of explanation up to God again?, for we are bound to be let down as we have been so before.

This is basically the charge that to chalk an explanation of a particular phenomenon that occurred in time up to God is to play “God of the gaps,” not look for a real explanation in terms of natural laws. The sentiment, put in argument form, looks like this:


(premise) Every miracle that we have investigated has turned up a sham.
(conclusion) Therefore, miracles don’t happen.


What are we to think of this argument?


The absolute interpretation

First, lets look at the conclusion. Note that it is ambiguous. Let’s deal with one way to take it. Call this “the absolute interpretation.” The absolute interpretation goes like this: “Miracles can’t happen.” Is this conclusion supported by the premise? No, and this is why.

The absolute interpretation of the conclusion involves what philosophers would call the “modal” status of things. That is to say, it involves the issue of things being possible or impossible (the topic of modality involves other things as well, but we won’t get into those here). So then, if we are to really understand the absolute interpretation, we must understand the nature of possibility and impossibility. For, to say that “miracles can’t happen” is to say that miracles are impossible.

For starters, we know that something is possible if it is not impossible, and we know that something is impossible if it is not possible. So part of the nature of possibility and impossibility is that they oppose each other; one negates the other. But that much is pretty obvious, for we can tell as much by looking at the words. Second, we know that some thing or event is impossible if it involves a contradiction or is somehow fundamentally incoherent. So then, judging by what we know about the relationship between possibility and impossibility (i.e. that they oppose/negate each other), we also know that if it does not involve a contradiction or fundamental incoherence, it must be possible. Let’s look at some things and events to get our feet wet in this.

A square circle (impossible)

A square quadrilateral (possible)

If the table is under the bottle, then the bottle in on the table. (possible)

If the table is under the bottle, then the bottle is not on the table. (impossible)

The light is either green, red, or yellow. The light is neither green nor red, so the light must be yellow. (possible)

The light is either green, red, or yellow. The light is neither green nor red, so the light must be red. (impossible)

The proposition “all men are created equal” weighs five pounds. (impossible)

A married bachelor (impossible)

If all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal (possible).

Now, ask yourself, is there anything impossible about a miracle? Obviously not. There’s nothing contradictory or incoherent about the thought, which means that miracles must be possible. Of course, we could define a miracle in an incoherent way, such as:

"the breaking of an unbreakable law of nature"

but then we would just be defining the incoherence into existence, and thus failing to consider the true nature of a purported miracle(regarding it’s modal status). And that would be cheating. Thus, the absolute interpretation of the conclusion “miracles don’t happen” in the aforementioned argument:

"(premise) Every miracle that we have investigated has turned up a sham.
(conclusion) Therefore, miracles don’t happen.”

makes the argument particularly bad. The experience of dismantling reported accounts of miracles has nothing to do with the modal status of miracles.


The general interpretation

So let’s give another interpretation of the conclusion. Call this, “the general interpretation.” The general interpretation can be stated thus: “miracles generally don’t happen.” How does this interpretation fare in relation to the premise? Well… consider some similar arguments:

(premise) The Giants have won 11 out of the past 12 games.
(conclusion) Therefore, the Giants will win the next game.

(premise) Every time I have eaten cheese, my stomach has gotten upset.
(conclusion) If I eat cheese, my stomach will get upset.

(premise) The summers in Portland are sunny and beautiful.
(conclusion) This summer will be beautiful in Portland.

They all fare great! And they do so by the same logic that we infer from “every miracle that we have investigated has turned up a sham,” that “miracles (generally) don’t happen.” But of course, that doesn’t show by any means that miracles can’t happen; that they aren’t even possible. Indeed, I have no problem at all conceiving of a miracle, and that seems to me to be pretty darn good evidence that miracles are, in fact, possible.

But perhaps…

But perhaps my mind is misleading me, and my capacities to conceive of things don’t give me good insight into the possibility-status of things and events (I don’t actually believe this, but some philosophers do). Still, being as we don’t have any reason to reject that miracles are possible, we must be open to the evidence that they are. And this is all that we need to give the arguments of the authors a run for their money.

Critique of Penal Substitution

I heard an interesting attempt at stating the “penal substitution” theory of the atonement the other day.

"Humans are sinners. We deserve to die. Jesus died in our place."

As it is stated, it isn’t necessarily an articulation of “penal” substitution. For, “penal” substitution says that it was specifically God who killed Jesus. But the above articulation doesn’t specify who the executioner was. As much is true of the Christus Victor view of substitution, in which it was actually Satan who carried out the execution.

 
Much can be said about the contrast between God killing Jesus and Satan killing Jesus, and even how God’s sovereignty might play into the equation, but I’ll leave that for another day. For right now I want to focus on a thought I’ve had regarding the assumed notions of “justice” and “deserving” in the above statement of atonement, understood in Penal Substitutionary terms.   The notion of “deserving” here is an outworking of the penal substitution concept of justice. Here it is said that it is a mandate of God’s justice that since he is so holy and righteous, he can let no sin go unpunished. Most formulations (that I know of) of penal substitution say that even the smallest sin must be punished with no less than eternal conscious torment in hell. For, it is said, God’s holiness is so great that a crime against this God is infinitely egregious. For God to fail punish sin with such extreme punishment would be for God to fail to live up to the perfect standard of justice which is inherent to his nature. So he must. But God is also infinitely merciful, so he punished Jesus on the cross instead of us sinners, thus cooling His anger so He could express His mercy and forgiveness towards us. If we accept Christ’s punishment on our behalf, we can escape hell and go to heaven to be with God forever.

Yikes.   But let’s start out with what I can agree with. I want to agree with the underlying sentiment that nothing is worse to God than sin. God hates sin with a burning passion. And I would even say that there is a sense in which we are sometimes *deserving* of punishment for sinning against God.  
 
In criticism:
But this whole framework assumes a notion of the moral law that is founded upon a proportional relationship between the value of a person and the holiness of a person. The less holy someone is, the less valuable that person is.    That view freaks me out.   But it might strike some of us as very normal. Such a belief is why some states have capital punishment. It is thought that some lose their right to life if their crime is bad enough, and the victim of the crime can even watch in some instances. Viewing this is supposed to make the victims feel better that some supposed “justice” has been done.

But what are Christians to think of this matter?
  Doesn’t Jesus assume otherwise? Didn’t he make it a point to reach out and love sinners? Didn’t he ultimately give his life for sinners instead of taking it from them? If so, then this causes a problem for those who believe penal substitution and believe that the fullness of God dwelt bodily in Jesus (Col 2:9), that in seeing Christ we see the Father (John 14:7-9), that Christ was in very nature God (Phillipians 2:6), and that Christ was one in being with the Father (Council of Nicea). For if the verses I just mentioned (and creedal statement) are true, then God has the *exact* same character as Jesus. But the penal substitution view of God contradicts such character, and two sides of a contradiction can’t be true. So the Penal Substitutionist either has to give up the plain reading of these verses and creedal statement, or give up penal substitution.

In defense of penal substitution: But perhaps the penal substitutionist has a reply. The penal substitutionist could say that God was looking ahead to the cross from eternity past so that He could be this way toward sinners. Jesus then, as well as the rest of the Godhead, would have had the future penal substitution in mind during the whole of Christ’s bodily existence, thus cooling the whole Godhead of anger during Christ’s earthly stay so Jesus could be merciful toward sinners.
 
In criticism of the defense:
First, keep in mind that the bible says that “God is love (1 John 4:8).” The Greek word for love used here is “agape,” which is a love that seeks the good of the other. My understanding of this verse here is that it uses the Greek word for ‘essence’ to convey the idea that God’s essence is agape. What is an essence, you might ask? An essence is what makes a thing what it is. Inasmuch as a thing lacks it’s essence, it fails to be that kind of a thing. If God is love then, inasmuch as God is not loving in an agape-ish way, He fails to really be God. And since God cannot fail to be God, He cannot do anything that is not out of agape-ish love. This last point is big, so I’m going to sum it up and state it like it’s a big deal:
  Anything God does must be done out of agape.

Now, consider what reasons someone might have to punish someone. They might do so for the sake of deterrence, reform, protecting others from the perpetrator, or retribution. In penal substitution, what kind of punishment does God inflict upon Jesus? God is supposedly “getting even” with sin, thus the execution is retributive. The punishment is an outworking of this kind of “justice.” We’ll sidestep the strange thought that God is said here to get even with sin by punishing someone who committed no sin whatsoever (perhaps we’ll save that for another day too. The important thing to note is that God is here not exacting punishment for the sake of reform, deterrence, or protection, but for the sake of retribution.

As I mentioned earlier, agape is a love which seeks the good of the other. Now ask yourself if there is any way in which retributive punishment can seek the good of the other? What good could this possibly achieve for the punished? The two replies I could imagine people giving are 1) that the one punished will “learn his lesson,” or 2) that the offender will then “know what it is like” to feel whatever the offended felt. In either case, I can’t see how this would be good for the one punished. How could it be? The retributive punishment is actually out of a desire to maintain God’s supposed “just” character. But he must maintain this “just” character at the *expense* of the good of the other! So then, God couldn’t be motivated by agape here because it does not serve the good of the other. The Penal Substitutionist partly gets off the hook here though, because God punishes Jesus for the greater good of forgiving humans and not having to punish them. So then, God’s legalism is motivated by love. But is that even possible? Isn’t it the nature of legalism that it is motivated by selfishness?

So what we have seen here is that the bible’s depiction of God’s character is contrary to that of the god of penal substitution. So Christians ought to give up penal substitution in favor of another way of seeing God’s atoning work. Perhaps we could view the atonement as Christ bearing the weight of the human condition to relate to us so that we might relate to God and share in His joy and love. Perhaps we might view the atonement as Christ ultimately overcoming evil with good so that He might ultimately overcome the evil in us with good. Perhaps we might view the atonement as the perfect life being given to God in our place as a gift of sorrow for our rebellion, or as a gift of gratitude. There are many facets of Christ’s atoning work, and there is no need to cling to penal substitution. Indeed, I think we should reject it.

I believe that so much more can be said in criticism of penal substitution, but this ends my discussion of penal substitution’s conception of punishment as an outworking of retributive justice. Perhaps someday I’ll show how it might be that we “deserve” punishment for sin, and a kind of “restorative” justice this kind of punishment might flow out of.

3 years ago 1 ♥
The gift of freedom

Most Christians have gave given at least a passing thought as to how God’s foreknowledge and human freedom might relate to each other. But rarely is it something people pursue a satisfying answer to, save some theologians and philosophers. This isn’t surprising, given that a satisfying answer to this question doesn’t readily present itself. It can perplex one, and it perplexed me for quite a while. But my own perplexity subsided when I discovered an elegant answer, which has come to bear fruit in my life. I’d like to share what I’ve come to.
 
Most believers think our relation to the world is kind of like that of an orchestral arrangement: the song is entirely pre-written ahead of time. The future of the song is in some sense already there for anyone with a privileged view (i.e. God’s “outside of time” view) to see. That is how I used to think of things. Now I think of the world much more in jazz terms: the chords and tempo give us a general structure to play within, and we all have a vital part in creating the future of the song as we go, so the future of the song is not all “out there” to be seen. Only part of the future is pre-written, the rest is waiting to be created. Within the chords, tempo, and general song structure that God has created, there is a lot of improvising to do.
 
If someone were to ask the band leader of a jazz group before the song started, how her musicians would play the next song, you could imagine her responding, “It very much depends on how my musicians decide to play it. Jack starts his solos either in dorian or mixolydian mode, but he also changes things up sometimes. Betsy tends to start out hitting her note changes on the down beat, and then she kicks it up a notch by syncopating a lot. But sometimes she starts out syncopating.” And so on. This is exactly the type of world I think we live in. God gives us a myriad of possibilities, such that within parameters, there are various ways the world might turn out. This is why in the bible God sometimes talks about things in terms of what might and might not come to pass. And we also have tendencies that can be anticipated to some degree, but we can act against our tendencies as well.

This is also why the bible describes God as putting people in morally significant situations to test them *so that He can know* their hearts. We often get confused when the bible says stuff like this, because it seems to assume that God was ignorant of these things (as though He weren’t omniscient). But if we live in a jazz piece, every fact of the matter about our characters hasn’t always existed. Rather, some facts about our character come into existence at the time we make character-forming decisions. So God acquiring knowledge through time of them as they are created is no remedy for some supposed previous ignorance on His part. We create the facts of our free decisions as the song is played, so that’s when God comes to know them - not because He was ignorant of them, but because they didn’t exist until then.

In the same way that I can’t be ignorant of the fact that there is Chili on Mikhail Gorbachev’s head because there’s no chili on Mikhail Gorbachev’s head; in the same way that I can’t be ignorant of the fact that chinchillas are dogs because no chinchillas are dogs; in the same way that I can’t be ignorant of the fact that I am a good joke-teller because I’m really not that great of a joke-teller; God can’t be ignorant of what we will freely choose when there is no such fact of the matter.


"God shares His future-making power with His image-bearing creatures."
-Brandon Rhodes (Biblical Theologian)




*The central analogy comes from a talk given by philosopher Robin Collins. This particular development of the theory comes from Greg Boyd, Tom Belt, and Alan Rhoda.

My first blog (aside from my myspace blog)

Well folks, here it is. My first blog. What might you find here? I don’t want to call the shots too far ahead of time, because I might eventually want to use this blog for things that I can’t now anticipate. But for now, I expect that you will find 1) musings on conversations I’ve had with people in my daily life, and 2) me communicating in an accessible manner my ideas about philosophy, theology, apologetics, and that kind of stuff. My biggest hope is that people will interact with my ideas and comment with their own thoughts. But should that fail to happen, I’ll be content to simply have a forum to express my more intellectual side and to develop my writing and communication skills further. Thank you to all future subscribers!