Does Romans 9 teach predestination? (part 2)

In part 1 of this Bible study, I explained that the saying “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” does not refer to either the salvation of Jacob or Esau or to any other individual. It has a specific application concerning the nature of the election of Israel within God’s purposes.

The Apostle Paul then anticipates certain objections. He lays these out at length in the following passage (Romans 9:14-24):

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he said to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy. For the scripture said to Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore has he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardens. You will say then to me, Why does he yet find fault? For who has resisted his will? No but, O man, who are you that reply against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why have you made me thus? Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor? What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had before prepared to glory, even us, whom he has called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (Emphasis mine)

Let us just stand back from this passage and consider the following question: why would Paul have needed to anticipate these (highlighted) objections from the believers at the Church in Rome? It doesn’t take immense powers of inference to read between the lines and work out how these early Christians thought. Paul knew how they thought, and clearly they had a strong sense of fairness, which was related to a person’s level of accountability before God. If this was not the case, then Paul’s words make no sense. Paul felt the need to address this issue, because he knew that it would cause some difficulty for at least some of his audience.

Roman ‘fairness’
Now I will anticipate an objection! Some perhaps may argue that Paul was trying to reform the thinking of Christians, by encouraging them to dispense with their current view of ‘fairness’ and replace it with a complete submission to an idea of the sovereignty of God which precludes ‘fairness’, at least as we understand it. Perhaps Paul believed that his brethren had picked up some kind of moral virus from the surrounding pagan culture, and his role was to disabuse them of this false notion. Well clearly this is absurd. Roman society was anything but fair! It was an authoritarian society, which made a mockery of the ideas of equality and fairness. Some people were free citizens and others were mere slaves. Some had a right to privileges by reason of birth, and others could not hope to obtain such benefits. So there is no way that the believers in Rome could have been infected by some kind of sinister “fairness bug”.

Good and wild grapes
The reason the believers in Rome would have objected to Paul’s ostensibly shocking argument is because they held to a healthy view of justice, because God is just. We know from numerous texts of the Bible that God upholds what we normally understand by ‘justice’. A good example is Isaiah 5:1-7:

Now will I sing to my well beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well beloved has a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: and he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the middle of it, and also made a wine press therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? why, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?

And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor dig; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry. (emphasis mine)

If the Calvinist view of reprobation is true, then God would not have made this appeal to His people. He would not have asked them to judge between Himself and His vineyard, in order to appreciate that His punishment of it was fair. He would simply have said: “I have decided to fashion this vineyard in such a way so that it does not and cannot bring forth good grapes. That is my decree. And because it has not brought forth good grapes, I will then destroy it. If you then think that is unfair, because I was the one who made it barren, then who are you to question Me?! I will do what I like whether it seems fair to you or not. End of.”

If this really is the way God speaks to His people, then there is no sense in explaining that He is judging the vineyard, because He has good reason to do so, on the basis that He did everything He could to enable it to bring forth good grapes, but instead it brought forth wild grapes. The people whom the vineyard symbolises have genuine free will, and they brought forth evil, because they wilfully resisted God’s work in their lives. God looked for justice from these people. He expected it. He had invested in these people, such that they would produce a moral return. But instead they wilfully rebelled against God. There was nothing forcing them to act in the way that they did. They could have obeyed God, but chose not to. Therefore God’s justice can easily be seen to be totally fair. Nothing to do with predestination, of course, and everything to do with their own stubborn will.

A controversial explanation
On the basis of this kind of text it is not surprising that the believers in Rome would have been horrified at any understanding of God’s activity, which appeared to be unjust and trampled on a person’s level of moral accountability. Hence Paul’s need to write: “You will say then to me, Why does he yet find fault? For who has resisted his will?” Paul was not merely hypothesising, setting up imaginary objections just to knock them down like an intellectual parlour game. No. He said “You will say then to me…” He knew how the brethren in Rome thought, and he realised that what he was trying to explain was controversial.

So why did Paul approach this subject in this way?

Was he really saying that God deliberately creates some people to be recipients of blessing and salvation and others to be evil and therefore worthy only of eternal damnation? If so, then this clearly contradicts the revelation of God’s justice in Isaiah 5, as quoted above, which reveals that it is possible to resist God’s will.

And if Paul is not saying that, then why not reassure the believers in Rome concerning the nature of God’s justice? Why is Paul’s answer to the objections a kind of ‘put down’, which stifles any attempt at thought, and, frankly, makes God look like a tyrant? How can we possibly trust such a God? After all, if His will is inscrutable and we cannot hope to understand even the basics of His idea of fairness, and if we are required to believe that He creates the wicked and willingly consigns people to everlasting torment purely by irresistible decree, then how can we trust Him and love Him as our Heavenly Father? After all, if He is willing to damn that person, then He is also willing to damn me and anyone else who happens to read this article. And He does so simply because He wills it. (And if anyone argues that “God would not do that to me, because I am elect”, then that person needs to understand that he could be mistaken. After all, if God’s will is inscrutable, then we have no right to use that kind of logic against God. No one is safe under such a divine regime.)

The Egyptian connection
The solution to the problem involves an understanding of how God works in the midst of evil and suffering. There is a profound mystery to suffering, and although the Word of God encourages us to have a healthy understanding of justice and fairness (hence the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5), sometimes this needs to be put on hold when we are faced with seemingly intractable problems in our lives. One of the most formative periods in the life of Israel was their captivity in Egypt. The miraculous deliverance from Egypt is repeatedly referred to throughout Scripture. It is as if this event is a model for understanding suffering and deliverance.

Paul specifically refers to God’s dealings with the Pharaoh, who ruled Egypt at the time of the Israelites’ slavery there. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not allow the Israelites to leave. This is an example of what could be called ‘reprobation’. It would appear that God deliberately caused Pharaoh to be an oppressive tyrant, and then judged him for being so. This appears to be grossly unfair to Pharaoh. The Calvinist would perhaps say: “So be it”. But an investigation of the book of Exodus does not support this interpretation. The question we need to ask is this: did God harden Pharaoh’s heart from the outset, or only after he had first hardened his own heart?

The second answer is the correct one.

In Exodus 5:1-2 we read: And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus said the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness. And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.

Pharaoh’s response was to increase the burdens on the people of Israel, and there is no mention of God hardening his heart. This is also the case in the account given in Exodus chapters 6 to 8, where we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart. It is true that Exodus 4:21 and 7:3 state that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, but we can only assume that that divine action began when the text states as much. All we can rely on is the evidence of the text, and it is not until chapter 9, verse 12 that we read that “the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh”. There are numerous references prior to this verse that inform us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart or that “his heart was hardened” (7:13,22; 8:15, 32; 9:7). We also have to remember that Pharaoh was already oppressing the Israelites; he had proven himself to be a brutal ruler for many years prior to the appearance of Moses and the period of the plagues.

Furthermore, God reveals His purpose for hardening Pharaoh’s heart: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3). Clearly therefore if God had created Pharaoh an evil man, then the signs and wonders would have been evident in Egypt from the moment Pharaoh began to act in a malicious and oppressive way. Even the earlier reference to God’s promise to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21) indicates a future event, and yet we know at that time that Pharaoh was already a despot. Therefore it is not possible to say that God created Pharaoh to be a reprobate, but rather that God made use of an evil man to work out His own purposes.

At the potter’s wheel
This hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is the context of Paul’s reference to God fashioning “vessels for dishonour” (Romans 9:21). The metaphor of the potter and the clay of Romans 9:21 was well understood, and may be a reference to its use in Jeremiah chapter 18, verses 1-12. This passage is God’s call to the wicked to repent:

“O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? said the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do to them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, with which I said I would benefit them.” (Jeremiah 18:6-10. Emphasis mine).

This text in Jeremiah makes a complete mockery of the claims of Calvinism. If God creates people to be evil (“vessels for dishonour”) then how can they possibly be expected to repent? If the nation threatened with punishment is expected to repent, then how can it if it is reprobate, according to the eternal decree of God? And if God intends to do good to a nation, how then can it rebel against Him, if it is elect according to an eternal divine decree? Clearly the biblical metaphor of the potter and the clay does not support the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination.

God enduring His own will?
Romans 9:22 also informs us that God endured the vessels for dishonour “with much long-suffering”. How strange? If it was God’s will and pleasure that these people should be reprobate, then why would He have to ‘endure’ them at all? Surely, if the doctrine of reprobation is true, then it is His pleasure that they should be in this spiritual condition, isn’t it? After all, that is what Calvinism teaches! Are we to believe that God is some kind of masochist, who has deliberately caused some people to be profane, evil and corrupt, with the result that it grieves Him? How ridiculous!

The fact that God has had to endure these people with much long-suffering indicates that it is manifestly not His will for them to be in this spiritual condition of reprobation.

Likewise, why does the Apostle Paul have sorrow in his heart over the condition of Israel (Romans 9:1), if Israel has been rejected by God by decree? Surely Paul should be rejoicing in submission to the will of God, and delighting in the fact that God’s will is being done in the spiritual destruction of some of the nation of Israel? That is what predestination to reprobation implies. Surely Paul is admitting that he is grieved at the will of God (which is tantamount to blaspheming!).

Clearly the Calvinist interpretation is entirely false. It is a delusion. The text simply cannot bear this strange construction that has been put on it.

However, we do need to ask why Paul presented his argument in the way that he has.

A reassuring truth
There is no doubt that God is indeed sovereign. God in His sovereignty has created man with free will, but that does not mean that man can presume to live completely independently of his Maker. The reassurance that Paul is giving the Christians in Rome is that even the lives of the wicked – who are evil by their own choice – can be fashioned by God in such a way as to serve His purposes. This is the true meaning of the potter and clay analogy. For Christians suffering persecution within the Roman Empire, it is an important truth. God is not absent even when evil flourishes, but He is working out His purposes through those who persecute His people. The wicked are still responsible for their actions, even when the sovereign God uses those actions for His higher purposes. We don’t need to understand what God is doing in such situations, but we need simply to submit to His authority.

This is a far more positive and coherent interpretation than the Calvinistic theory. God is glorified, even when evil flourishes.

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Does Romans 9 teach predestination? (part 1)

This is rather a long Bible study, so I am presenting it in two parts.

Chapter nine of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome is often interpreted to affirm the theory that God has eternally decreed who will be saved and who will be damned. This is the fatalistic doctrine known as ‘predestination’ and is commonly associated with Calvinism. A couple of verses from this chapter are often used by proponents of this doctrine as a way of silencing anyone who questions their claim, by asserting the immense gulf between the position of God and man: “No but, O man, who are you that reply against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why have you made me thus? Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor?” (Verses 20-21, AKJV).

It has been my experience that anyone who dares to question how God can be just – never mind merciful – if He brings people into existence for absolutely no other reason than to cast them into the fires of everlasting hell, is rather condescendingly told that he has no right to question the wisdom of Almighty God. End of argument (if indeed this can rightly be called an ‘argument’!). The supreme irony, of course, is that such a put down can be used by anyone asserting any theory, including the rebuttal of Calvinist claims!

A close examination of this chapter in Romans, however, reveals that the text supports no such interpretation. In fact, an accurate and logical reading of the passage – taken in context and read with the rest of the testimony of the Bible in mind – reveals a truth which is completely at variance with the Calvinist idea.

Let us start at the beginning of the chapter. Verses 1-5 read as follows:

I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh: who are Israelites; to whom pertains the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. (Emphasis mine).

This is a passage specifically about Israel: the “flesh and blood” Jews, of which race Paul was a member, and, as he mentions, so was Jesus Himself. The highlighted phrases make clear that Paul is not referring to “spiritual Jews” (as he does earlier in Romans in chapter 2, verses 28-29), but to the physical race of Israelites. This point is very important, to set the context for what follows. God gave this race of people a unique spiritual status and certain blessings, which Paul lists: the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises…

Now because Paul has made clear that he is referring specifically to the physical nation of Israel (with reference to another associated nation – Edom, as I will explain), then it is, at best, poor exegesis, and, at worst, dishonest to assume that what follows is a revelation concerning God’s dealings with mankind as a whole. This will become obvious as we investigate the text.

Paul acknowledges the unique spiritual status of Israel, but in verse 1 we have read that he is in a state of continual sorrow over the spiritual state of his nation. Now why is this? Paul then goes on to explain why: not all Israelites are actually the “children of promise”. Verses 6 to 8 read as follows:

Not as though the word of God has taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall your seed be called. That is, they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. (Emphasis mine).

I will repeat one phrase from the above text: they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God. There is a unity to Paul’s argument in Romans, and I have already referred back to Romans 2:28-29. These verses state that “…he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”

Even though the physical Israel is very important (as Paul also emphasises in the verses that follow in Romans 2), it is clear that a child of God is not someone who just happens to be a member of the “chosen race”, but rather is one who is in a right relationship with God spiritually, and whose heart, rather than whose flesh, has been circumcised – ‘circumcision’ here being used to denote a spiritually transformed life.

During His ministry on earth, Jesus told some of the Jews that they were of “their father the devil”, despite the fact that they saw their spiritual security in their descent from Abraham (see John 8:33-44). “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham” (v. 39).

John the Baptist also warned his hearers not to put their trust in their lineage from Abraham: But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said to them, O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham as our father: for I say to you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. (Matthew 3:7-9).

The message is clear. The Israelites were not acceptable to God simply because they were “children of Abraham”, that is, merely members of a certain race, but they were acceptable to God on the basis of their spiritual condition. If their spiritual condition was right before God, then they were not only “children of Abraham”, but also, and more importantly, “children of the promise” (See Romans 9:8).

Paul explains that the promise relates to “the seed of Isaac”. Isaac was the promised child, borne by Sarah in her old age, and redeemed by the ram (symbolising Christ) when God commanded Abraham to go to Mount Moriah to offer him up as a sacrifice (Genesis 22). Isaac was therefore representative of those who are redeemed by God, being the product of a miracle, and having been atoned for (symbolically) by the ram. Those who are the true children of God are therefore children of Isaac, hence the saying to Abraham “In Isaac shall your seed be called” (quoted by Paul here in Romans 9, verse 7, and originally from Genesis 21:12).

Paul then elaborates on this by explaining the significance of the children of Isaac:

For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son. And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calls); it was said to her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. (Romans 9:9-14, emphasis mine)

Now I suspect that many people will recoil in horror at this passage of Scripture. How can the God of all righteousness, justice and mercy just decide to love one person and hate the other, purely on the basis of His incomprehensible will? Does not the Scripture state clearly that “God is not a respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), which, of course, simply means that God does not show favouritism? Is this not therefore a glaring contradiction in the Bible?

The Calvinist would say that we just have to humbly accept it, and if it appears unfair or the Bible appears to contradict itself, then we have to submit to the inscrutable will of the sovereign God. Not only does that response contravene Proverbs 4:7, in which we are commanded by the sovereign God to “get understanding” (as well as Isaiah 5:3-4, in which God specifically challenges us to understand the logic of his justice), but it is also a device which the opponents of Calvinism can use. If it is impious and impudent to question Calvinistic doctrine by refusing to submit to the sovereignty of God, then it could equally be argued that their attempt to explain away God’s desire for all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) is also impudent and impious and a refusal to submit to the will of God. If God has said clearly that He desires all people to be saved, then who are we to question Him? Yet Calvinists do that very thing! How very insolent!! It works both ways.

But I am not going to resort to such a devise, because I do not need to. The Bible clearly indicates that we are not to apply the idea of “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” to the entire human race. In fact, it doesn’t even apply to Jacob and Esau as far as salvation is concerned, but the meaning is entirely limited to the granting of the blessing, which is normally given under the right of primogeniture, hence the fact that Jacob had to cheat his way into receiving the blessing reserved for Esau (see Genesis chapter 27).

A wonderful act of reconciliation
In Genesis chapter 33 we can read the account of how Jacob and Esau were reconciled. It really is a stretch to imagine that God was not working in the life of Esau to bring about this reconciliation with his younger brother, who had cheated him out of his blessing. When Jacob went out to meet Esau he was frightened that his brother would take revenge on him. But in verse 4 of this passage we read: “And he (Jacob) passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.” And what did Jacob say of his brother (to his face)? Did he say: “You are a totally depraved unregenerate worm predestined by God to burn in hell forever”? No. Did he say: “I am so sorry that God has passed you by and refuses to offer you salvation, because he hates you. But you just have to accept it, because God is sovereign”? No. No, he did not do anything or say anything to indicate that he was in the presence of a thoroughly evil and depraved person.

What Jacob actually said to his brother was this:

“No, I pray you, if now I have found grace in your sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen your face, AS THOUGH I HAD SEEN THE FACE OF GOD, and you were pleased with me.” (Genesis 33:10 – emphasis mine).

The highlighted phrase completely demolishes the Calvinistic theory. There is simply no way, in the light of this indisputable biblical evidence, that Esau could be regarded as reprobate, that is, predestined to damnation. The ‘elect’ Jacob recognised the presence of God in and through Esau. Are we seriously to believe that this level of personal forgiveness is not evidence of the presence of God in someone’s life? Are we seriously to believe that the manifestation of this kind of love, through which former enemies are reconciled, is not the work of the Almighty? If the Calvinists are to be believed, then we have to wonder quite what God actually does in someone’s life, if this is not evidence of His presence and activity? And are we to believe that the elect – represented by Jacob, who had truly experienced the presence of God (see Genesis 28:10-17) – are so utterly lacking in discernment that they see what they think is the presence of God where, in fact, only the devil is present? How absurd.

Clearly it is a gross perversion of the Word of God to interpret “Esau I hated” as referring to his own personal standing with God. It is not referring to the idea of reprobation, because the evidence from Scripture is indisputable: Esau manifested the redeeming work of God in his life.

The moral status of foetuses
Furthermore, if we come back to the passage above from Romans 9, it states clearly that God chose Jacob over Esau while they were both in the womb, and before they had done any good or evil (see verse 11). So let’s get this straight. The Calvinists believe that Esau was reprobate, that is, damned by God by decree, or “predestined to damnation”. But this divine decision would have been made before Esau committed any moral act, whether good or evil. If that is the case, then we have the scenario of God condemning someone at a time when he had never sinned. This is a totally blasphemous suggestion, because it makes a complete mockery of the justice of God. James 1:15 tells us in the clearest possible terms that sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death. This completely contradicts the Calvinist idea that spiritual death is imputed before any sin has ever been committed! Again, this is more biblical evidence to show that the “hating of Esau” has nothing to do with his personal salvation. The Calvinist may then counter with a reference to God’s foreknowledge of Esau’s future sins, but this does violence to the text of Romans 9, which clearly states that God made his decision at a particular point in time, because that decision did not relate to the works of Jacob and Esau. To argue that this was really a provisional decision that only really “kicked in” when Esau committed his first sin, contradicts the phrase “not of works”.

Edom my brother
“Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” is actually a quotation from Malachi 1:2 and refers to God’s judgment on the Edomites, who were the descendants of Esau. If God had decreed that Esau should be reprobate and this was applied to his descendants, then why did the Lord issue the following command in Deuteronomy 23:7 – “You shall not abhor an Edomite; for he is your brother”? Are we seriously to believe that God is commanding His people to accept the Edomites, affirm them as brothers, even though He has decreed that they are everlastingly reprobate? Is there really a form of righteousness commanded by God, but which does not reflect His righteousness? Of course not! And what a far cry the Calvinist idea is from the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who when commanding us to “love our enemies”, explained that this action reflected the perfection of God (see Matthew 5:48 and the preceding verses). God’s desire was for Israel to love (or, at least, not abhor) the Edomites, because He did not abhor them. The commandment of God reflected the will of God. His ‘hatred’ of the Edomites, as expressed in the prophecy of Malachi, therefore specifically related to His judgment on a wilfully evil nation, and not because they were under some eternal decree of reprobation.

So to sum up the evidence relating to God’s ‘hatred’ of Esau we have:

1. The evidence that God had clearly been working in Esau’s life to effect reconciliation with Jacob, and the latter, being someone who had previously powerfully experienced the presence of God at Bethel, recognised God’s presence in his brother.

2. God’s ‘hatred’ of Esau was unrelated to Esau’s moral state, being still in the womb and not having done anything good or evil, and yet the Bible makes clear that spiritual death and damnation is the result of sin, not of non-sin.

3. We have the evidence that the descendants of Esau – the Edomites – were not reprobate, because God expressed His will through His law to Israel, commanding them not to abhor an Edomite “because he is your brother”. God’s law reflects His will. How can any Christian dispute this?

Against this wealth of biblical evidence all the Calvinist has to offer is his insistence that the saying in Romans 9:13 refers to eternal salvation and damnation and should apply to the whole human race and every individual within it. No supporting evidence given for this daring extrapolation.

So what does this saying mean?

Overturning primogeniture
Esau was the firstborn son of Isaac, and for that reason he had the right to inherit a special blessing from his father. This is the right of primogeniture. It is a natural inheritance of blessing and rights by the firstborn. God, however, came and overturned the natural right of primogeniture by deciding that “the elder shall serve the younger”. Jacob and Esau were the sons of Isaac, the “son of promise”, miraculously given to Abraham and Sarah. The message is clear: the election of Israel was not based on human factors, but had its roots in a miracle (the conception and birth of Isaac to an elderly woman), in an act of atonement (Isaac being redeemed by the ram on Mount Moriah) and in the overturning of natural rights, in this case, the right of primogeniture (God’s choice of Jacob over Esau). Thus Israel’s status as the ‘chosen people’ is not based on the rights of natural descent, but solely on the work of God.

For all nations
Now a Calvinist would agree with this. Election is God’s choice. However, election cannot be understood to mean that God chooses some people for salvation in preference to others, who are then predestined to damnation. Election does not imply reprobation. In Genesis 12:3, God told Abraham that “in you shall all families of the earth be blessed”, and this promise is reiterated to Jacob at Bethel: “in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 28:14). God’s intention was that Israel should be a blessing to all nations. Israel was not chosen in order that other nations should be cursed, but rather Israel’s election was the means by which other nations should be blessed. It’s a kind of win-win situation. This is further confirmed by the prayer in Psalm 67:1-2 – “God be merciful to us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine on us; Selah. That your way may be known on earth, your saving health among all nations.” (emphasis mine).

God’s ‘hatred’ of Esau was nothing more than a symbolic way of emphasising that God does not work His purposes out through the application of natural rights, but through the application of His grace, a grace that chooses some people as a means to bring blessing to all people.

Paul then anticipates certain objections….

To be continued…

The Intolerance of Truth? Really?

Is ‘truth’ intolerant?

In one sense it could be argued that objective truth, by its very nature, is absolutely ‘intolerant’. The sum 2 + 2 = 4 is ‘intolerant’ in the sense that the operation “2 + 2 =” cannot possibly accept any answer other than ‘4’. The answer ‘5’ is as intolerable as the answer ‘1,236’ and is no more intolerable than the answer ‘4.001’; all these three proposed solutions to the operation are, in a sense, equally intolerable. They are intolerable on the basis that they are simply wrong, according to the rules of arithmetic. Just as the human body cannot ‘tolerate’ the ingestion of certain substances, so the arithmetical operation “2 + 2 =” cannot ‘tolerate’ any answer except ‘4’. Any physical application of a calculation that included “2 + 2 ≠ 4” would, more probably than not, have disastrous, or at least, embarrassing, consequences.

Category error?
Now it may be argued that my use of the word ‘intolerant’ is a category error. Truth can no more be ‘intolerant’ than pink can be hungry or the number 15 could be angry! It is simply an inapplicable adjective to the noun being qualified. And that is true. I am using the word ‘intolerant’ in a metaphorical sense, because essentially the concept of ‘tolerance’ applies to attitudes held by people, rather than to the inherent validity of propositions.

Unfortunately, however, intolerant attitudes are frequently justified with reference to truth, by which I mean “true truth” – Truth with a big ‘T’ – rather than “my little subjective truth”. This is evident not only among many religious people, but also among many vocal atheists. There is a constant appeal to ‘truth’ to justify at best, a subtle exclusion and disdain for those with differing views, and, at worst, a complete scorn and condemnation of those people. Even worse perhaps is a rather patronising form of ‘love’ for those with whom we disagree, in which we pity their ignorance and delusion (or ‘lostness’) and try to convert them to our point of view (but in a way that fails to listen to anything they actually have to say to us, and to respect their own ability to reason).

The unpleasantness of dogmatic, proselytising and bigoted attitudes could lead us to assume that ‘truth’ is too dangerous and too divisive a concept to entertain, except perhaps at the rather less controversial level of practical science and applied and pure mathematics: “as long as we get science and maths right, then all the other religious and metaphysical stuff can be regarded as an airy fairy irrelevance”.

At times I cannot help but sympathise with this attitude!

However, is it really justifiable to appeal to ‘truth’ to promote a view of reality in which the human race is so sharply and clearly divided between those who are “with us” and those who are “against us”? In a limited sense there are inevitably divided views about all manner of topics, and therefore there is validity to this position. But how far can we take this?

The Bible and absolute truth
As a Christian, I am concerned primarily with how this subject relates to the attitudes and actions of both myself and my fellow believers. Does Christianity – or, more specifically, the Bible – promote this view of truth?

Now there is plenty of ammunition in the Bible for those who wish to champion the exclusivity and divisiveness view of truth. One popular verse is a saying of Jesus Himself: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

This is often quoted to justify the divisive nature of Christianity, and, dare I say, provides an excuse for those who profess faith in Jesus, but who act in the most obnoxious way, such that they attract thoroughly deserved rejection from others. They can then claim to be ‘persecuted’, and this martyr status provides a psychological fillip, which then perpetuates their unfortunate behaviour. (Interestingly this saying of Jesus could be interpreted completely differently. The context is rejection by one’s own family, and it could very well be the case that someone, who makes a stand against bigotry and prejudice, could suffer just this kind of fate!)

The unique Saviour
Another saying of Jesus also seems to dismiss the views of billions of people, and provide comfort for those who take a more exclusionary view of the Christian faith. This concerns His status as the unique Saviour of the world: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) This is confirmed by the Apostle Peter’s words in Acts 4:12 – “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

The message of these verses seems indisputable: to be saved (which ultimately involves going to heaven when you die rather than hell) involves consciously believing in Jesus Christ, and if you fail to do so then you will be damned.

Here we have an example of ‘truth’ (big ‘T’ Truth), by which we can divide the human race into the saved and the damned, the redeemed and the lost, and the factor by which we can make this distinction is “the conscious and active profession of faith in Jesus”. In other words, if you are a Christian, you are saved, and if you are a non-Christian, you are damned.

Superficially this seems to be the message of the Christian gospel.

But is it?

Let us just explore this a little bit further…

Here is an analogy. The only way to get from where I live near London to New York within a day is by air. I could say that if I needed to get to New York by tomorrow then “there is no other method within the transport methods on offer by which I can achieve this other than by air” or “no one gets from London to New York in one day except by air” (to paraphrase the above two Bible verses). I cannot fly myself to New York. All I can do is consent to be flown there. This ‘unique’ method of transportation is not dependent on my efforts.

Now suppose someone suffered from a serious health problem, and he urgently needed some specialist treatment in a New York hospital (no criticism of our health system; it’s just an analogy!). Let us suppose that he was also in a coma. He was then flown from London to New York quite without his knowledge or consent. In this scenario, is the method of transportation any less unique than if he had consciously consented to the journey? Of course not! The uniqueness of this method of travel within this context and time-frame does not depend on any subjective factor on the part of the traveller. Its uniqueness is an objective fact.

Or let us suppose that the traveller was suffering from some condition in which he was overcome by powerful delusions, and he needed treatment in New York. He was in no fit mental state to consent to the journey, but he was taken on the plane nonetheless, and, as a result of his delusions, while in the air he was utterly convinced that he was travelling somewhere by sea. Does the fact of his mental state, which did not correspond to the reality of the journey, compromise the uniqueness of the method of transport of the journey he was taking? Again, of course not!

The point of this analogy is to explain that the status of an objective fact is not dependent on subjective factors.

A biblical analogy
This is further supported by a biblical analogy, which is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan is presented as the person who ‘saved’ the man who fell among thieves. There is no indication from the parable that the man being rescued consented to his deliverance, and, in fact, he could very well have been lying there unconscious. There is no indication that the injured man had to profess a “correct view of the nature and work of the Samaritan” in order for the latter to help him. In fact, the injured man could very well have hated Samaritans, and yet he was still rescued by a Samaritan. Nothing about the state of the wounded man related to the unique status of the Samaritan as his ‘saviour’.

But the doctrine of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour is often presented as it were dependent on the human response. Thus the doctrine has been changed from what is, for Christians, an objective fact, to merely a description of human religious affiliation. Thus the Bible is subtly rewritten to read: “No one comes to the Father except by conscious belief in Me” and “there is no other belief system under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”.

Man as co-saviour
The implications of this are obvious. Jesus saves. The uniqueness of Jesus’ role in salvation is not dependent on the state of the person being saved. In fact, if it did, then Jesus would not be the ‘unique’ Saviour, but He would be the co-saviour with the person being saved, given that the latter has to make a contribution to the process. This is the supreme irony of exclusivist Christianity.

Now some may argue that this smacks of predestination, which rides roughshod over human free will. I certainly believe in the importance of human free will and I also believe in God’s desire to save all people and that Christ died for all without exception. But the exclusivist view actually undermines human free will. Unless we believe in reincarnation, then we have to accept that no one chose to be born into this fallen world. Billions of people are brought into this world, without any reference to their consent, and various systems of thought are imposed on them through the culture in which they grow up. If God does not take the initiative to save these people, because it would violate their consent, then one has to ask why God has allowed their consent to be violated by allowing them to be born into a non-Christian system of thought. By refusing to save these people, is God not actually violating their consent?

But then someone may object by saying that if God simply saved these people by decree, doesn’t that imply universalism, which is clearly unbiblical? My answer to this is: no, it does not imply that, because God may accept a person on the basis of the light He has given them, while that person is free to resist that conviction of the Holy Spirit.

A humbling truth
God, in His sovereignty, is at work throughout the world in different cultures among people with vastly different levels of spiritual accountability (as the Bible says: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” – Luke 12:48 – with the obvious corollary: “to whom little has been given, from him little shall be required”). Therefore we don’t know exactly what God is doing in the lives of the millions of apparent non-Christians around us. Salvation is His work, not ours, and, as Jesus said concerning being “born again”: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). The work of the Holy Spirit cannot easily be subjected to the scrutiny of man, even of the most spiritually minded in the Church. As Jesus said, it is a mystery. The proper response to mystery is, of course, humility.

Therefore there is no contradiction between upholding the objective truth of the uniqueness of Jesus as the only Saviour of mankind, and believing that God’s work in the world is rather more inclusive than we are often led to believe by some teachers and preachers in the more conservative parts of the Christian Church. The doctrine of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour simply tells us that… Jesus saves. How man is supposed to respond to that, and how we are to assess who is ‘saved’ and who is not, is rather more complicated.

Commanding the sun!
As I have mentioned, the supreme irony is that the doctrine of the exclusiveness of a particular kind of response to God as a condition for salvation actually undermines the uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour, in much the same way that if I had to speak to the sky to command the sun to rise every morning, one could not say that the motion of the earth turning on its axis was an operation completely independent of my actions. Just as the rising of the sun has nothing to do with me, so, in a sense, have the actions of God.

The truth of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour of mankind should therefore cause us to respond to others with humility, not intolerance.

What is a “lukewarm Christian”?

In Revelation chapter 3, verses 15-16, Jesus described the church at Laodicea as ‘lukewarm’. What does this actually mean? Does the text give us any indication as to how to interpret this saying accurately?

The passage is as follows:

3:14 And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things said the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
3:15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I would you were cold or hot.
3:16 So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.

3:17 Because you say, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
3:18 I counsel you to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that you may be rich; and white raiment, that you may be clothed, and that the shame of your nakedness do not appear; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.
3:19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
3:20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
3:21 To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
3:22 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches.

It appears (from numerous sermons, articles and videos) that the most popular and prevalent interpretation of the highlighted verses goes as follows:

An unbeliever is ‘cold’.

A fervent, zealous and utterly committed radical Christian believer is ‘hot’.

An undisciplined, half-hearted, worldly, lazy, cowardly, non-committal professing Christian is ‘lukewarm’.

Jesus has told us that He would prefer a Christian to be an out-and-out unbeliever than to be a half-hearted believer. Thus ‘cold’ is preferable to ‘lukewarm’.

The text in Revelation therefore presents us with a spiritual thermometer, in which the mercury rises as spiritual commitment increases, and yet our Lord hates the middle temperature more than the lower one.

A legalistic measuring stick
This interpretation thus provides the ammunition for certain church leaders to castigate their flock with accusations of “not doing enough for Jesus, not giving enough time or money; not evangelising enough and so on”. Those who wish to crush and control Christian believers with guilt and fear naturally champion such a reading of this text. Interestingly there are many images on the internet under the phrase “lukewarm Christian” which feature a thermometer. Clearly the idea of “cold – lukewarm – hot” is promoted as a rather legalistic measuring stick to assess a Christian believer’s level of commitment.

It might come as something of a shock to such overbearing leaders that this interpretation is completely false, as the application of common sense logic will reveal. A different – and indeed far more radical – interpretation can be deduced from the text itself, and this is supported by some background information regarding geographical context.

In verse 15 of the above mentioned biblical text we read: “I would you were cold or hot”.

Jesus made clear that He wants the believers at Laodicea to be either ‘cold’ or ‘hot’. Does Jesus Christ want professing Christians to be unbelievers and totally alienated from God? If this is what ‘cold’ means, then that is exactly what He wants! In the context of the entire testimony of Scripture, this is clearly absurd.

Scale of preferences
Of course, some may argue that what it means is not that Jesus really wants Christians to be out-and-out unbelievers, but that He would prefer that to their being ‘lukewarm’. There is a certain feeling of plausibility to this reading, but it is not supported either by the testimony of the rest of Scripture or indeed by this passage of Revelation. The verb ‘prefer’ or an equivalent does not appear in the text.

The original Greek word for “I would” is ophelon. W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Zondervan: 1940) explains that “Ophelon (the 2nd aorist tense of opheilō, to owe) expresses a wish, “I would that”, either impracticable, 1 Cor. 4:8, R.V. (A.V., “would to God”); or possible, 2 Cor. 11:1; Gal. 5:12; Rev. 3:15.”

Clearly the verb expresses desire, and the use of the aorist tense indicates that the action should be understood to relate only to the immediate context in which it is relevant. Concerning the use of the aorist tense, the New Testament Greek scholar J.W. Wenham in his book The Elements of New Testament Greek (Cambridge University Press: 1965) states: “The action of the verb is thought of as simply happening, without any regard to its continuance or frequency.” (emphasis mine).

Therefore the use of “I would that” relates directly and immediately to a particular church, that is, the Church of Laodicea, in which all to whom our Lord was speaking were professing believers in Him. Now it clearly makes no sense for Jesus to say to such people: “I would prefer that you were unbelievers than non-committal, compromising believers”. The point is that they were already believers, at least nominally. Was it really our Lord’s desire that they should completely unlearn and ‘unknow’ what they knew about the Christian faith and remain in that state of ignorance?

This would be as absurd as saying that a mathematics teacher, who is concerned about the educational attainment of his pupils in this subject, would say to those who are lazy and fail to do their homework: “I really want you to forget all about mathematics. Reject the subject and do all you can to obliterate all you have learnt from your memory.” Of course not! A responsible teacher would say: “What I really want is for you to knuckle down, do the work and get a good grasp of the subject”.

If the “spiritual commitment thermometer” reading of Revelation 3:15-16 is correct, then the only conceivable desire Jesus could have expressed is: “I would that you were hot, and not cold or lukewarm.” Now, as mentioned, someone may counter this by bringing up the question of preference: “OK, it is true that Jesus would really want believers to be ‘hot’, but He would prefer believers to be ‘cold’ rather than lukewarm.”

As I have already stated, this view sounds superficially plausible. The only problem with it is that it contains a terrible irony.

Second preference compromise
The whole point of this interpretation of Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea, is that it speaks against compromise. Compromise is seen as the worst of all worlds. How then can such a position be defended by imputing compromise to our Lord? If what Jesus really wants for believers is complete commitment described by the adjective ‘hot’, then why would He state a second preference, namely, ‘cold’, and settle for that as long as His people were not ‘lukewarm’? The whole point of this interpretation is that there are no second preferences! There is no tolerating a ‘Plan B’ that falls short of God’s perfect and uncompromising desire for the Church. It is “all or nothing”.

Thus the interpretation shoots itself in the foot. How can we be expected to uncompromisingly serve a compromising God? It simply does not add up.

If the interpretation is not that of a spiritual commitment thermometer, then what is the correct reading of this text?

A question of water supply
Clearly both ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ are equally desired by Christ. Both describe genuine spiritual commitment and fruitfulness. In the context of the original saying, it really is not hard to understand that this is the case. ‘Hot’ and ‘cold’ concern the temperature of something to drink, which is, quite obviously, water. In a hot climate a cold drink is refreshing. Hot water can be therapeutic.

This interpretation is supported by the geographical and historical context of the city of Laodicea.

Laodicea was located near two other cities: Hierapolis to the north-west and Colossae to the south-east.

Hierapolis (today known as Pamukkale) was a spa town, with a natural spring producing hot water. This natural benefit induced the inhabitants to worship Heracles, the god of health and hot springs. Today there are seventeen hot springs at Pamukkale whose water ranges in temperature from 35 to 100 degrees centigrade.

Colossae was situated on the Lycus river, which disappeared underground for about 900 metres just north of where the city was located. The phenomenon would have cooled the water, and hence it explains the presence of cold springs near the city. It is understood that the ceiling of this underground chasm collapsed in the earthquake of AD 60.

Unlike these two cities, Laodicea, despite being the wealthiest city of the region, had no natural source of water. Water had to be piped in from other areas via an aquaduct. When the water arrived it was usually lukewarm and contaminated with various minerals.

It is therefore easy to understand how the Laodicean Christians would have understood Jesus’ words. Their water was neither refreshingly cold nor therapeutically hot. Being lukewarm, it had an emetic quality, likely therefore to cause vomiting.

The geographical context of the Laodicean Church strongly indicates that ‘cold’ cannot possibly describe anything other than spiritual blessing. In a hot climate cold water cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered ‘bad’.

Therefore ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ represent qualities of spiritual blessing and fruitfulness, with neither one being superior or more desirable than the other. Both are facets of Christian commitment. For this reason Jesus desires them both and they simply characterise different approaches to the work of the gospel. This is further confirmed by other biblical references to cold water, representing the work of the Holy Spirit, for example, John 4:6-15, when Jesus, being wearied from His journey, asked the Samaritan woman to draw water from the well and give Him a drink. Obviously this water would have been cold water, and Jesus then likens it to “the living water” that He can give and that will become in the person receiving it “a well of water springing up into everlasting life”. Are we seriously to believe that the drink Jesus asked for really represents “unbelief and a lack of a relationship with God”, because it was a drink of cold rather than hot water?! Clearly this is nonsense.

Set against the ‘good’ of “hot and cold” is the evil of ‘lukewarm’. The adjective ‘lukewarm’ clearly describes the kind of ministry and spiritual life, which falls short of providing the benefits that, spiritually speaking, “hot and cold water” provide. Cold water brings refreshment in a hot and arid land. Hot water has a healing property. Cold water relieves those who are burdened and exhausted, while hot water comforts and heals those who are broken by illness. By contrast lukewarm water falls short of providing both these benefits.

The message is very clear.

What a lukewarm Christian is not
The lukewarm Christian is not someone who just doesn’t measure up against a legalistic “spiritual thermometer”. It does not describe someone who isn’t giving enough in terms of time, money and commitment to the local church. But rather it is someone who manifestly fails to bring refreshment, healing and deliverance to those who are weak, burdened, ill and suffering.

Those who take it upon themselves to trouble other Christians with accusations of half-heartedness and compromise, really ought to consider whether they themselves are actually candidates for being vomited out of Jesus’ mouth. Burdening other Christians with guilt and playing on their vulnerability and fear of God’s judgment is not consistent with ministering the cold water of refreshment and the hot water of healing.

Those who refuse to live in the liberating grace of God and discourage others from doing so, are the true “lukewarm Christians”. As Galatians 1:6-7 indicate, they are “preaching another gospel”: the gospel of legalism. For this reason they are the ones who, tragically, will suffer the kind of judgment described in Revelation 3:16. Continue reading

Reason, freedom and atheism

There are few things in life more precious than ‘reason’ and ‘freedom’: the ability to evaluate claims and arguments with recourse to logic and evidence rather than merely conforming to imposed dogma, and the right to express one’s point of view and make one’s own decisions without unreasonable pressure from any person or organisation (‘unreasonable’ meaning “pressure beyond the moral duty to treat others with respect and dignity”).

In contemporary culture (certainly here in the UK) there is a general – often tacit, and therefore subversive – assumption that religion is inimical to the values of rationality and liberty.  We are frequently reminded by the many vocal atheists, who have their say in the media and on the internet, that it is their view of reality, which upholds reason and guarantees personal and social freedom:  “If only we would discard our primitive superstitions – a regrettable hangover from the confused traditions of the past – then society would become more moral, more compassionate, more free and, most of all, more intelligent and rational” (so the popular narrative goes).  Theists are frequently accused of abandoning reason in favour of ‘faith’, and being bound up with burdensome duties relating to the practice of their religion – pointless disciplines which drain all the joy and colour out of life, and which create unnecessary divisions within society.  Religious believers are therefore apparently neither rational nor free.

“Reason and Freedom Will Prevail”

Just the other day I received a circular email from the Richard Dawkins Foundation, with the title “Reason and Freedom Will Prevail”.  This was in response to the recent barbaric attack on the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.   I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment that reason and freedom will prevail, and that these values ought to prevail against the rise of violent extremism under whatever banner or creed it may be expressed and justified.

But what I find rather strange, in the light of Prof. Dawkins’ long, vocal and public campaign against ‘religion’, is the insinuation that it is atheism, which will deliver a future of reason and freedom.  I find it curious that the concepts of ‘reason’ and ‘freedom’ should be considered the natural outworking of that philosophy on which atheism depends, namely, the philosophy of naturalism (also loosely termed materialism and physicalism).

A wholly physical process

If the philosophy of naturalism is true, then reason is merely an emergent property of natural selection, a wholly physical process by which species develop in order to survive.  Within this paradigm there is no ultimate intelligence above and behind the universe, but rather an abyss of brute mindlessness.  There is therefore nothing objectively real about the universe other than matter and energy.  Thus reason and intelligence are merely properties – one could actually say ‘illusions’ – which have come into being as an aid to the ongoing existence and flourishing of the species known as homo sapiens.  Ideas are reduced to mere neuronal events: cerebral experiences, which confer some measure of utility on the organism, whose brain produces them.  These noetic experiences exert a psychological force on the organism to feel and act in a certain way with a resulting benefit in terms of personal well-being.  Such concepts operating in the brain are merely tricks to stimulate the organism to act in its own self-interest, and they are then passed on to the next generation to be perpetuated throughout the course of history.  The longevity of these ideas thus confer a ‘feeling’ of truth or validity.

Now clearly this understanding of the origin of reason has very interesting implications.

Hyperactive Agent Detection Device

Let us take the “idea of God”.  No informed person can question that throughout human history a vast proportion of humanity has believed in some concept of a Supreme Being believed to be the first cause and creator of the universe.   Are all these people essentially mistaken?  Well, according to the atheist, of course they are.  Those who subscribe to the philosophy of naturalism offer an explanation as to why so many people believe and have believed in God.  One such theorist is the atheist Daniel Dennett, who proposes this view in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

Dennett’s view is that the big brain of homo sapiens has caused self-awareness and also awareness of other people’s self-awareness.  This anatomical phenomenon has led to the development of what is known as HADD: a “hyperactive agent detection device” operating within the human organism.  This device has the useful property of alerting humans to the presence of potential predators, but also suffers from the unfortunate side effect of projecting agency onto inanimate objects.  Thus rocks, trees and rivers are believed to be inhabited by fairies and nymphs and all other manner of fantastic creatures.  This is animism, which (so we are told) led on to polytheism and ultimately monotheism.  The belief in and appeasement of these spiritual entities became convenient as a way of explaining natural phenomena and coping with scarcity of resources, and the ultimate deprivation, namely, death.  And thus the positive feelings generated by these imaginary ideas bucked up the spirit of man and helped his survival within a totally hostile, mindless and ultimately meaningless universe.

A truly fascinating theory!

There is just one rather major flaw with it.  In fact, the error is so fundamental that it strikes at the very foundation of the theory and the entire edifice collapses into dust, as I will explain…

Conclusive evidence

There are many different types of evidence, such as mathematical proof, compelling empirical evidence (doubted only by recourse to hyper-Cartesian doubt), inductive and abductive evidence, the evidence of personal experience and so on.   Most types of evidence fall short of being absolutely conclusive and what we usually term ‘proof’ describes a level of certainty “beyond reasonable doubt”.  But there is one kind of evidence – or rather proof – which is completely conclusive.  The only way to doubt this evidence is to reject the validity of logic itself (and then all knowledge and truth claims collapse).  This is the evidence of self-refutation.  If an idea refutes itself, then it cannot be true (as long as, of course, we have accurately assessed that it is indeed self-refuting).  An idea, whose inherent nature is to kill itself, is obviously impossible.  It cannot live.  It cannot conceivably describe or reflect reality.   Anyone who thinks that such an idea could be true clearly cannot claim to be rational by any stretch of the imagination.

Daniel Dennett’s claim about the natural origin and development of belief in God is one such idea.  It is logically impossible to make this claim, because the presupposition on which this theory is built is unjustifiably made immune from the theory’s own method of verification.

Dennett is assuming that the philosophy of naturalism is true.  This philosophy is also known as “metaphysical naturalism” (not to be confused with “methodological naturalism”).  It is the metaphysical belief that what we call ‘nature’ – the physical world described by the laws of physics – is all that exists, or all that we can know or assume exists.  This is not a view that is proven or even supported by the empirical scientific method, given that there is nothing within a truly scientific explanation, which automatically rules out the existence of non-empirical dimensions of reality (a view scientists cannot deny, given the theorising about the unobserved multiverse and the problems posed by quantum physics).

Utility and survival

If we assume that the philosophy of naturalism is true, then it follows that all ideas within the human brain are an emergent property of natural processes, such as natural selection.  These ideas have come into being, and have been believed, for reasons of utility: in order to confer fitness on a species to aid survival.  If any metaphysical idea circumvented this process, then the philosophy of naturalism would not be true, because another source of reason – a non-natural source – would be required.  It is self-contradictory (dare I say Orwellian?) to claim that all ideas originate in this way (as must be the case if physical nature is all that exists), but only some metaphysical ideas are imaginary and others objectively ‘true’.   If the “idea of God” is the product of an entirely natural and utilitarian process and does not reflect objective reality, then the same judgment must be applied to the “idea of philosophical naturalism”.  If the former idea is judged to be essentially ‘untrue’, then the same applies to the latter.

Thus the epistemology of naturalism is self-refuting.  Whatever judgments it makes about other ideas, it also makes about itself.  Just as it is possible to write a book explaining how humans have needed the idea of God to aid their well-being and survival, so someone could write a book explaining how 20th and 21st century atheists believe in the philosophy of naturalism to aid their well-being and personal survival.  The argument works both ways!

This evidence of self-refutation is conclusive proof that the philosophy of naturalism has no means to explain reason without killing itself in the process.  The fact that atheists manage to pull off this trick is, I would suggest, largely due to the popular conflation of philosophical with methodological naturalism. The understandable reverence for science, based as it is on the method of the observation and measurement of the physical universe, leads many to the unwarranted conclusion that nature is, in fact, the only objective reality. There is indeed a semblance of logic to this conclusion, but it is actually a leap of faith into a quasi-religious dogma, not a rigorously justified inference from scientific data.

An alternative explanation

Without an objective basis to reason, naturalism collapses in on itself.  The alternative is a truly objective intelligence and reason, which brought human reason into being.  Either rationality was caused by something of the same or similar nature to itself, or it was not. I have already considered the latter theory, and found it self-refuting. The alternative theory therefore needs to be considered. The inference of this alternative theory constitutes strong evidence for the existence of an intelligent creator of human rationality. It is not unreasonable to consider that this originator of reason is a person, on the basis that it is inconceivable how an ultimate, primal and uncreated intelligence could operate in the absence of personality and consciousness.

Free will: reality or illusion?

The other value championed by atheists is ‘freedom’.

There is absolutely no doubt that throughout history personal freedom has often been undermined by various forms of organised religion, and I can appreciate that many people have discovered a sense of liberation in atheism after having escaped the tyranny of a religious sect or cult. I have a great deal of sympathy for such people. The certainties of natural science must come as a welcome relief after years of suffering the torment of a dysfunctional spirituality.

While atheism may have some utility as a reaction against corrupt forms of religion, there is, however, the serious question of truth. This leads me to ask whether the concept of ‘freedom’ actually coheres with the philosophy of naturalism.  ‘Freedom’ operates through the faculty of free will.  If, as the philosophy of naturalism states, we are nothing more than genetic machines in a brute and mindless universe – mere configurations of molecules produced by an environment completely unsympathetic to our existence and well-being and only permitting us to exist by sheer chance – then clearly free will is an illusion.  A programmed machine has no more free will than a stone.  The prominent American atheist Sam Harris has said as much in his book entitled Free Will.

Now it may be argued that theism offers no justification for free will, and indeed some interpretations of monotheistic belief fall into that category.  But I am not here to defend every interpretation of theism.  I am investigating aspects of reality: in this case, reason and freedom, and asking which paradigm logically explains the existence and function of these elements.

Some may argue that free will is not part of reality.  If so, then they need to explain why nothing in human society could function in denial of this faculty.  Probably over 80% of media news concerns moral issues in some form or other.  But moral responsibility is an illusion in the absence of free will, because without it all behaviour can be justified.  No one who champions moral issues can therefore deny the reality of free will.

The persuasion paradox

Furthermore, many atheists seek to convert people to their point of view.  All attempts at persuasion imply a tacit belief in the reality of the operation of free will.  If I was convinced that no one could ever change their mind about some idea or claim by means of reasonable persuasion (rather than psychological manipulation), then I would think it futile to express my point of view.  Just what are atheists complaining about when they despair at the prevalence of religious belief?  If we are all nothing but machines, programmed by our genes, and free will is an illusion, then obviously some people are religious because that is how nature made them.  To criticise such people is therefore to criticise nature itself.  And if nature is so incompetent that it causes some people to be religious, then one must call into question all that nature has allegedly created, including the intelligence of atheists themselves!  Another example of self-refutation (actually the same example in a different guise).

Clearly free will can only have been created in or conferred on humanity by some source above nature, given, as I have argued, that nature is a wholly inadequate origin for this human faculty.  Free will could not have been constructed by brute mechanics.  On the contrary, the originator of free will must be the kind of agent, which could produce something fundamentally different from that formed by deterministic material reactions.  Could an impersonal force pull this off? By definition it could not, because it would produce an effect in accordance with its own character, that is, another impersonal mechanism. What is needed is a personal creator. Just as intelligence is the source of human reason, so personality is the source of human free will.  Again, this is strong and compelling evidence for the existence of a personal God.

Cause and effect

It seems remarkable to me that any careful and informed thinker should consider it irrational to infer that the nature of a proposed cause (intelligence, personality) should be of the same or a similar nature to its effect (reason, free will), and then affirm that the only possible rational position is the theory that reason had its origins in unreason and that free will (if it exists at all) arose from impersonal and deterministic forces. Those who think otherwise are dismissed as “enemies of reason” (to use one of Richard Dawkins’ phrases), and, through the popular media, we are frequently urged to respect this quite audacious, and frankly, nonsensical judgment (hence the recent pronouncements on the BBC about the origin of life by the popular atheist scientist Prof. Brian Cox).

Atheism is operating by stealing the ideas of ‘reason’ and ‘freedom’ from the very world view it deplores and seeks to consign to the dustbin of history. It is a kind of intellectual parasitism.

In the light of this, I would suggest that if “reason and freedom” are truly to prevail, as Professor Dawkins hopes, then the future of atheism looks very bleak indeed. Once the parasite has killed its host, then where does it go?