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 Was this Resurrection Really Necessary?


By Elton Higgs

Recently a pastor friend asked me how I would have answered a question from a member of his congregation: “Wouldn’t Jesus’ death on the cross have been enough, without the resurrection?”  I can see how someone with only a casual or beginning knowledge of the Bible could ask that question, since we often speak of Jesus dying for our sins, without reference to his resurrection.  The questioner may well have thought, “The animal sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament period were sufficient for reconciling children of the Covenant to God, so why would not the perfect sacrifice of Christ not be sufficient to take care of all human sin?” I told my pastor friend that my initial answer to the questioner would be short and simple: “No, the death of Christ alone would not have been sufficient for our salvation!”  But the question deserves a fuller answer, one that addresses the misconceptions and misunderstandings that the question embodies and makes clear the basic theological principles embedded in the statement, “Christ died for our sins.”

The bottom line about the necessity of Jesus’ resurrection is found in Paul’s exposition on the matter in I Cor. 15, where he concludes (addressing those who “say that there is no resurrection from the dead” [15:12]) that the resurrection of Jesus is at the core of the deliverance promised by the gospel.  “If Christ has not been raised,” he explains, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . .  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (15:17, 19).  The phrase “in this life only” launches us into a discussion of the key difference between sacrifice for sins under the Old Covenant and the sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of all humankind, a distinction which is the subject of the central block of chapters in the epistle to the Hebrews.

Hebrews 4-10 makes clear several key facts about the necessary function of animal sacrifices under the Law of Moses, but also about their insufficiency to deal completely with sin (“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” [10:4]).  That insufficiency rested in their inability to cancel the ultimate penalty of sin, eternal death.  To put it another way, sacrifice under the Law dealt only with temporal forgiveness for failing to live up to the standards of the Law.  Obedience to the laws of sacrifice and penitence were sufficient to restore the worshiper to good standing with God, but neither that obedience nor that sacrifice had the power to cancel the ultimate consequence of sin, the death of both body and soul.  Some biblical interpreters have said that the effect of animal sacrifice under the Law was to “roll forward” the sins of the people in anticipation of the perfect, complete sacrifice of the spotless “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  Catholic doctrine speaks of two kinds of absolution, “de culpa,” from the guilt of sin, and “de poena,” from the penalty of sin.  In those terms, forgiveness through animal sacrifice under the Law is only “de culpa,” whereas forgiveness through the death of the perfect Lamb of God is both “de culpa” and “de poena.”  But for Jesus’ innocent death to overcome death as the penalty for sin, His body had to be resurrected to complete that victory, and for that victory over eternal death to be applied to those who accept Him as Savior.

The book of Hebrews also makes clear that the same Jesus who died in human form on the cross, in ultimate obedience to His Father, also became the heavenly High Priest for all who accept His sacrifice in faith and are thereby made to be children of God (see the whole of chapters 7 and 9, and chap. 10:1-23).  We, like our dying and resurrected Savior, will achieve the final victory over death when we are clothed with a new body like His and are taken to dwell with Him, forever alive.  Consequently, both now in anticipation and one day with all the saints in our eternal home, we can sing, “Thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (I. Cor. 15:57). It is a glorious victory, won through efficacious dying turned into triumphant resurrection.

God and Cosmos Chapter 3: The Problem of Evil, Freedom, and Moral Responsibility

Summary by Frederick  Choo

Part 1

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls talk about the problem of evil. This is not the problem of evil as often heard in philosophy of religion (Why is there evil if a good and all-powerful God exists?). Instead, they refer to Susan Neiman who traced the problem of evil in modern thought. The problem of evil is that the world is not as it should be. There is a gap between how the world is, and how the world ought to be. Questions arise, for example, what reason do we have to think that some event ought not to happen? The answer is clear in Christian theology of course, that evil is at odds with God and His purposes. It is a problem that God Himself is working to overcome with His plan of salvation and redemption that will ultimately be fully accomplished.

Baggett and Walls review three influential modern thinkers. The first thinker is David Hume. Philo (a character in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion who is said to represent Hume) thinks that the designer of our world is neither good nor bad. This is because if the designer was good, he would will the happiness of his creatures. However, it is apparent that our world is not designed to achieve this end. Hume’s argument for God’s moral indifference dissolves the problem of evil. It explains why the natural world is indifferent to human happiness. Baggett and Walls note here that it is odd that an amoral God would give human beings the ability to make moral judgments.

The second thinker is Immanuel Kant. Kant thinks that the nature of the highest good includes both virtue and happiness. He thinks that happiness and virtue should be tightly connected. The problem then is that the natural order is not arranged such that happiness and virtue correspond. The world for him is no less hostile to morality than it is to human happiness.

The third thinker is Friedrich Nietzsche. His problem was that Christian morality was hostile to happiness, restraining us from expressing our instincts. For him, the real problem of evil is that we thought it was a problem. Without God and objective morality in his view, he thinks that we have no reason to think that the world should be good in the Christian sense of supporting either our happiness or moral virtue. Sigmund Freud seems to agree with Nietzsche’s view. Freud argued that religious belief is an illusion fostered by childish needs for security in a frightening world. Instead, he thinks that evil is part of life to be expected and coped with. There is no reason to think that the world ought to promote human happiness. Hence Nietzsche dissolves the problem of evil.

Neiman thinks that the problem of evil gives us the choice to either give up making moral judgments, or to come to terms with the demoralizing reality that the gap between what is and what ought to be will never be closed. Neiman herself takes the latter option and argues that recognizing evil as a problem is essential to our humanity. Instead of denying the problem of evil, we should accept that there is a conflict that will never be resolved. Baggett and Walls agree with Neiman that evil is a problem to humanity, but they want to argue that there are options other than resigning oneself to accept a conflict that will never be resolved. On the Christian story, there is another option, namely, that the gap will one day be resolved.

The main point being driven here is that God’s nature as the best explanation of moral good, and the fact that He created us in his image, constitute an excellent explanation both of why we cannot avoid making moral judgments about the world and of why we cannot escape seeing evil as a problem. We will constantly see a gap between the way the world is and the way it ought to be, as long as we live in a fallen world that is “groaning for redemption.” Naturalism, on the other hand, has no reason to believe that there is a problem of evil. Consider Richard Dawkins who thinks that the ultimate reality is morally indifferent (similar to Nietzsche and Hume). Evil and suffering is not surprising. There is no gap between the way the world is and the way it ought to be.

Part 2

Having discussed the problem of evil, Baggett and Walls turn to discuss freedom and responsibility, by examining an exchange between three naturalist philosophers. This exchange started after Daniel Dennett reviewed Bruce Waller’s Against Moral Responsibility. Most philosophers are compatibilists, who think that determinism (the view that every event and state of affairs is completely determined by antecedent states of affairs and the laws that govern the physical world) is compatible with both human freedom (defined as doing what one wants to do) and at least some measure of moral responsibility. Waller however argues that while determinism and naturalism are compatible with freedom, they are not compatible with moral responsibility. Waller defines moral responsibility in a strong sense that holds praise/blame and reward/punishment as justified because moral agents deserve so. It is intrinsically good for offenders to suffer. This is known as the retributivist view of moral dessert that rejects consequences as relevant for punishment or blame. Contra Waller, Dennett thinks that moral responsibility should not be understood in these terms. He adopts a consequentialist account of just desserts and punishments. Punishment is needed to keep civilization from disintegrating; it is a practical necessity. Dennett uses the example of promise making and making contracts. The threat of punishments deters one from breaking one’s promises or contract. This threat is essential for the glue of civilization to hold.

9780199931194Tom Clark, the organizer of the exchange, makes a few points. First, he says that Dennett should give up the language of “just desserts” which implies the retributivist view. Second, the traditional account of moral responsibility is strongly shaped by a long history of believing in libertarian freedom (a stronger view of freedom than determinism is generally thought to allow). Hence, many think that dropping the retributivist view of just desserts alters the concept of moral responsibility. Third, he thinks naturalists should focus on debunking libertarian freedom to undermine the appeal to such freedom to justify punishment. Fourth, compatibilists must change how they think of humankind. They have to be honest that in their view, no one has the unconditional ability to do otherwise. He accuses Dennett of suppressing his commitment to determinism in attempting to make moral sense of punishment, just desserts, and deterrence. Dennett responds by highlighting the practical necessity of punishment to protect society from criminals. We should use force to quarantine muggers, enroll them in rehabilitation programs, and warn society to avoid them. Dennett says that if Waller and Clark agree to this but say we should not blame the muggers, then they are simply engaging in a rhetorical dodge. Waller continues to press the point that the system of moral responsibility is unfair, even if he has no better alternative system to offer.

To give further insight to the discussion, consider Dennett’s discussion of Bernie Madoff. Madoff is infamous for costing people millions of dollars lost in his fraudulent financial schemes. Surely in such a case, punishment is necessary. Dennett writes, “If somebody’s unavoidable mistake led to similar financial loss, we wouldn’t do that, would we? It’s because we deem Madoff guilty that we consider that we have the right to rescind his rights (under the moral responsibility game) and do all these things to him that he doesn’t want us to do, and which we couldn’t justifiably do if he weren’t guilty. That’s punishment. Not retributive punishment, but punishment and blame, all the same.” From this example, it is easy to see why Waller and Clark criticized Dennett for helping himself to the traditional view of moral responsibility and retributivist punishment. Dennett says that it is not fair to blame someone for something over which they had no control. But in Madoff’s case, Madoff was determined to defraud each of his clients by casual factors prior to him, over which he had no control. There is no alternative possibility. Next, Dennett emphasizes that we are justified in punishing Madoff, because Madoff is found guilty. This seems to be the retributivist position that Madoff did something to deserve punishment.

Baggett and Walls think that this debate makes many points against naturalism. Both freedom and moral responsibility fit far more naturally in a theistic account of morality. The whole notion of promise keeping also better makes sense on libertarian terms than on compatibilist terms. Thomas Reid had observed that “when I plight my faith in any promise or contract, I must believe that I shall have power to perform what I promise. Without this persuasion, a promise would be a downright fraud.” However, compatibilists believe that no one who fails to keep a promise had the ability to do otherwise (except in the counterfactual sense of being able to do otherwise if they’d wanted to). Whenever one makes a promise, it is possible that the natural order is arranged such that when the appointed time comes, one shall be determined to will not to keep one’s promises. Hence this is at odds with making promises, since doing so assumes that we can both keep our promises or not, and it also assumes that we have control over our actions. The reality of conscious control over our actions make better sense on libertarian freedom than the view that our actions are determined by a causal chain that preceded our very existence, and over which we had no control. On compatibilism, the agent has no alternate possibilities, and the agent is not the ultimate originator or source of his actions, since there is a causal chain external and prior to them, that is sufficient to determine those exact outcomes.


Twilight Musings: Random Ruminations (and a Couple of Aphorisms)

By Elton Higgs 

Rumination # 1

There is something to be said for the non-believer who manifests a common-sense, pragmatic positive approach to life. Such a one may admit that he does not perceive designed reasons for his existence, but nevertheless he or she says, “Even though I don’t see the point in the God thing, I can focus my attention on the good that it is possible to experience in life. Although I have to recognize that I live in an imperfect world, I might as well make the best of it, without being bitter.” Thinking thus is compatible with either agnosticism or a sanguine kind of atheism (as opposed to militant atheism). But one who accepts life without bitterness and tries to live it constructively in spite of its downsides has already given a nod in the direction of the objective existence of good and evil and has tried to make a responsible choice between them. He/she is manifesting a kind of stoical common-sense decision to accept the ambiguity of the world at face value without feeling persecuted or mistreated.

On the other hand, there is also some sense to be made of a person with faith in God, or at least in Divine Purpose, who is willing to deal with the philosophical complications that such faith brings in order to be in touch with mysteries that enrich life beyond merely “making the best of things.” That, too, is internally consistent, and it shows once again a responsible choice to exercise discernment toward the mixture of good and evil in the world.

There is, however, a third position one often encounters which is totally inconsistent, i.e., angrily indicting God for cruelty or malice and making that a reason for refusing to submit to Him. It is ironic when one believes in God’s existence only to have someone to blame for the ills of the world.
Rumination # 2

It is interesting to contemplate the idea that if it were not for evil, love could not be fully manifested. Extreme love can be seen only through a willingness to incur hardship for the benefit of the beloved. If people had no impediments to their happiness and no bad character traits, what significance could be attached to their being loved? One may ask whether God Himself could have shown supreme love had it not been for the needs of sinful mankind (the idea of felix culpa, or “happy fault”). And since supreme love involves sacrifice, what was God to give that would be a real sacrifice for Him, since He is wholly sufficient within Himself? He could only give a part of His own nature—His Son. God’s love is most fully reflected in us, not when we love those who are easiest to love, but when we show the love that sacrifices even for the unworthy.

And a Couple of Aphorisms

• No one can be ill-tempered if he is convinced that God loves him.

• The way people justify their behavior does not always explain it.

• Christian living begins in creative despair.


Image: “Think” by R. Frasser. CC License. 

The Christian Answer to Suffering

Editor’s note: Stanley Jones (1884-1973) served much of his life as missionary to India, ministering among the most disenfranchised—members of the lowest castes and the outcastes. Known affectionately as the Billy Graham of India, Jones sought to present the gospel disencumbered from Western ideologies, looking for means of translating Christianity in South Asian cultural terms. This work gained Jones inroads to the higher castes, including students and academics, and made possible interreligious lectures that he delivered throughout the continent. His most important writing is The Christ of the Indian Road (1925), which sold over one million copies.

by E. Stanley Jones, Asbury College Radio Program

Audio available here

I’m going to talk to you this morning about the Christian answer to suffering, merited and unmerited. It’s a world of suffering and getting worse. It’s going to steal into many a heart and embitter it, and we have to be able to answer this question. Suffering, not answer it as a verbal thing but as a vital thing. I can understand merited suffering. It’s a world of moral consequence. I am free to choose, but I am not free to choose the results of my choosing. Those results are in hands not my own. It’s a world where I don’t break the laws of God; I break myself on the laws of God. Action is followed by reaction, and it’s according to the quality of the action that determines the quality of the reaction. I can understand that I must reap what I sow. If I do wrong, the consequences of that wrong are going to come back on me, unless of course God steps in and takes it on himself and bears it and delivers me of the consequences of my wrong through forgiveness and the new birth. I can understand merited suffering, but what about this unmerited suffering? Why should people suffer when they don’t do wrong? Other people do wrong, and the consequences of that wrongdoing hit the innocent. Why should little children suffer? This war, very few people chose it, and yet here we are in a world of suffering because of the sin of not many but a few. It’s at the place of unmerited suffering that the mind of man reels and sometimes rebels.

Differing systems coming to this whole question give differing answers. One answer is the Greek answer, the Stoic. He said, “My head might be bloody, but it will be unbowed under the bludgeonings of chance.” He would match his inner courage against the circumstances of life. It was a noble creed. Good, but not good enough. Then there’s the answer of Omar Khayyam, the great Persian poet. He said he’d like to take the steam of things entire and smash it and remake it according to the heart’s desire. It’s lovely poetry, but you and I can’t take hold of the steam of things entire and smash it. We have to work out our destiny under things as they are in large measure. Margaret Fuller once said, “I accept the universe,” and Carlyle’s comment was, “Gad, she’d better.” There’s nothing else to be done.

The ancient Buddha had his answer. He sat under the Bodhi tree at Gaya and pondered long and deep upon the problem of suffering and came to the conclusion that existence and suffering are one. As long as you’re in existence, you’re in suffering. The only way to get out of suffering is to get out of existence, and the only way to get out of existence is to get out of action. The only way to get out of action is to get out of desire. At the root of desire, even for life, as we stop the weed of existence from turning round, and then you go out into that passionless, actionless state called Nirvana, the state literally of the snuffed out candle. I asked a Buddhist monk once whether there was any existence in Nirvana. He laughed and asked, “How could there be? There’s no suffering, and if there’s no suffering, there can be no existence.” In Buddha we get rid of the problems of life by getting rid of life. We would get rid of our headaches by getting rid of our heads. Too big a price.

The Hindu has his answer. He says that the thing that comes upon you from without isn’t from without really. It’s the result of your sins of a previous birth. They’re finding you out now. Whatever is, is just. So where there is suffering, there has been antecedent sin. A Hindu said to me one day Jesus must have been a terrible sinner in a previous birth because he was such a terrible sufferer in this one. According to the strict law of karma, that’s right. But I would suspect a premise that brought me to that conclusion.

The Mohammaden has his answer. He says that which comes from without is the will of God. Everything that happens is God’s will; bend under it. Islam literally means submission to the will of God. But I question whether everything that happens is the will of God. If so, what kind of a God is there? His character is gone. When I turn to the Old Testament, I find several answers. One is, “No plague will come neigh your dwelling. Only with your eyes will you behold and see the reward of the wicked.” In other words, the righteous will be exempt. The Old Testament prophets had difficulty in fitting that in with the facts of life. They saw that the righteous did suffer. They were puzzled.

When we come to the New Testament, a great many Christians give the Mohammaden answer: “It’s the will of God, bend under it. Accept it as the will of God.” Others give the answer that the righteous will be exempt. Oh, I grant you that they are exempt from a good many things that come upon other people. They know how to live better in a universe of this kind. They’re not breaking their shins on the system of things all the time. They know how to live better in a universe of this kind. But they’re subject to other sufferings which do not come upon the unrighteous. The world demands conformity: if you fall beneath its standards, it will punish you. If you rise above its standards, it will persecute you. It demands a grey, average conformity. But the Christian is a departure upward. His head is lifted above the multitude. Therefore, that head gets whacked. And if it doesn’t get whacked, well, it’s not above the multitude. “Woe unto you,” said Jesus, “when all men speak well of you.” You’re like them. If you’re different, you get hurt.

A man said in one of my roundtable conferences in India, he said, “You know I’ve lost my faith. I asked God for something anybody could have answered. My brother was wounded in the last war. I prayed that he might get well and might be spared. And when he wasn’t spared and he died, my faith died too.” A professor walked across the street in Chicago and was knocked down by a motor truck, leg broken. After many weeks in the hospital, he came back to the university chapel service and said, “I no longer believe in a personal God. Had there been a personal God, he would have whispered to me when he saw me in that danger. But he didn’t whisper to me, so when my leg was broken, my faith was broken.” These converge upon one idea, namely if you’re only righteous, you’ll be spared. And when they weren’t spared, their faith crashed.

Well, let’s look at it. Suppose that were true, what would happen? First of all, to religion. Well, we’d take out religion, as you’d take out a fire insurance policy. You’d say, “I want to get through the fires of suffering, and therefore, I’ve become religious to be exempt.” And religion would be degraded to the level of a fire insurance policy—no more, no less. Besides, what would happen to the character of the universe? The universe would soon become an undependable universe. You wouldn’t know what to expect. If a good man leaned over the parapet too far, the law of gravitation would be suspended. If a bad man leaned over too far, he would need an operation. You wouldn’t know whether the laws of nature would be in operation or suspension because you wouldn’t know the character of the person concerned. Now I know if I lean over the parapet too far, the law of gravitation isn’t going to ask whether I’m good, bad, or indifferent; it’s going to pull me down. So I don’t lean over too far. It’s a hard school, but I know the rules.

Suppose it could be proved that motor trucks would not knock you down, what would happen to the character of the righteous? Well they’d become the champion jaywalkers of the world. They’d roam around amid the traffic meditating and vegetating. And that quickness of decision which comes from a world of chance and circumstance would be taken away, and that elimination would be their exemption. Now when I walk across the road, I know if I don’t belong to the quick, then I will belong to the dead. So I watch, both ways. I belong to the quick. No, that’s not the answer. If that were the answer, the righteous would be the petting child of the universe, and the petting child is always the spoiled child.

What, then, is the Christian answer? It’s none of these. But it’s more wonderful than all of these put together. It’s this. That you can take hold of suffering and sorrow and frustration and injustice and not bear it, but use it. Almost everything beautiful in the pages of the New Testament has come out of something ugly. Almost everything glorious has come out of something shameful. They don’t ask to be exempt. They don’t ask to be taken out of suffering. All they ask is inner soundness of spirit so they can take hold of the raw materials of human life as it comes to them—justice and injustice, pleasure and pain, compliment and criticism. And they can take it up into the purpose of their lives and transmute it and make it into something else. That is an open possibility of living—in spite of.

I know a man who went out to China on an adventure of service and love for his master, he and his family. And they came back from China a shattered, battered remnant of that campaign for Christ. The father caught an infection of the eye, which left him blind. The mother died of a painful illness, cancer—long, lingering illness. One son died of Addison’s Disease; another got an abrasion upon the heel on a sports field and died from that infection. The daughter was stricken with infantile paralysis and hobbles around on crutches. The only remaining son had to give up his course at the seminary to undergo a major operation. But on an airfield in Miami, Florida, at midnight, he took me by the hand and said, “I’m proud of my family.” And well he might be.

What happened to that family? The only two remaining ones at home were the father, blind, and the daughter, a cripple. Between them, they had a seeing-eye dog and a pair of crutches to come back to life with. Were they beaten? Oh, no. The father has a church where he is on the pastorate, preaches all over the country evangelistic sermons with his seeing-eye dog. And the daughter organizes the games of the church, hobbling around on crutches, and keeps house for her father, still hobbling on her crutches. Between them, they have a seeing-eye dog and a pair of crutches. Oh, no. They have an unconquerable spirit. No wonder that boy at midnight said to me, “I’m proud of my family.” Well he might be. You see, they’ve taken hold of injustice, apparent injustice, and turned it into victory.

General Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang are wonderful people. I was talking to Madame Chiang one day in China, and I said to her, “Is General Chiang a real Christian?” She said, “Yes, he is. He reads his Bible every day and prays, gets strength from God.” But then she turned to me and said, “You must remember that he’s only a babe in Christ.” It was interesting. He was seated right there, and his wife was saying that he was only a babe in Christ. How did he become a Christian? Three influences really helped him to be a Christian. One was his mother in law. You can chalk that up in favor of the mother in laws who are so often maligned. Sometimes we should call them mothers in love. The second influence was a Negro evangelist who prayed for a child in that home where Chiang Kai-shek was, and the child was healed. . . . And the third influence was a doctor.

When Chiang Kai-shek’s army swept across that country, in the early days, there was a communist left wing, and they looted a hospital belonging to a missionary left with a shell, his life work went to pieces. But he followed after the army and tended to their sick and their wounded. When Chiang Kai-shek heard about it, he said, “What makes that man follow after and tend to the sick and wounded of the very people who looted his hospital? What makes him do it?” And they said, “He’s a Christian. That’s why he does it.” Then said Chiang Kai-shek, “If that’s what it means to be a Christian, I’m going to be a Christian.” Then, in the midst of an anti-Christian movement that was sweeping that country, to the astonishment of everybody, Chiang Kai-shek announced that he was a Christian. That doctor had calamity come upon him, but through that calamity, he showed his spirit. And through the revelation of that spirit, he won one of the greatest men of this age. And through him, it may win a great nation. You see, he took hold of injustice and turned it into something else. He had mastered a way to live. And it may be that through your suffering and frustration and defeat, you can show a spirit, and that spirit will do far more work than all your years of work. They’ll look through that little revelation, and they’ll see something eternal abiding in that moment. That’s the Christian answer. The Christian answer is to take hold of everything and make it into something else. That is victory.

Image: “Pain” by H. Amir. CC License. 

Apocalyptic Love and Goodness

By Jeff Dickson

While much attention has been given to the conquest narratives in the Old Testament (which skeptics commandeer to disprove a loving and good God) and how Christians can responsibly advocate for divine love in lieu of these episodes, one potential issue has gone relatively underappreciated and therefore unanswered—How is God’s love witnessed in the eschaton in which His wrath is existentially poured out on the world? Would a loving God really destroy a world and the majority of its people, sending them to an eternal lake of fire, and only preserve those who follow Him? Or, as has been popularly promulgated, does love win in the end and everyone eventually receive a reward in glory?

The book of Revelation seems to argue that God’s love does win in the end—God’s special love for his people—and this, as will soon be argued, seems to be an argument in favor of divine goodness. However, to understand this appropriately, one must appreciate at least one important image that is employed throughout the Canon to illustrate the love and goodness of God—marriage.

Both God and the God-man have been portrayed as a husband for thousands of years. However, God is never portrayed in Scripture as being married to the world. Instead, he is said to have been and is depicted as married to Israel in the Old Testament (Isa. 54:4-8; 62:1-5; Jer. 3:14; 31:31-33; Hos. 14:-20) and to the church in parables (Matt. 22:1-14; 25:1-13), comparisons (Eph. 5:22-33), instructional material (2 Cor. 11:2), and prophecies (Matt. 26:26-30; Mk. 14:22-31; Lk. 22:14-23). The marriage image is even revisited at the very end of Revelation itself as it describes the much anticipated marriage supper of the Lamb.

“Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. Then he said to me, ‘Write, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”’ And he said to me, ‘These are true words of God.’” (Rev. 19:7-9)

These passages not only portray the love exchanged between God and humans, but something of its exclusivity. To be sure, theists believe that God loves the world (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). However, these same theists also affirm that God’s love is not applied in the same way to everybody. Instead, as depicted above, God appears to especially love certain groups (see passages above). This special love, applied to Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament, is ultimately and in part a product of God choosing (volitionally) those who have pleased him (upon his evaluation) and will persevere in a relationship with him that will continue to the end.

In fact, “choice” is something engrained in the very semantics of “love” as it appears in the Scriptures. For instance,  אהב seems to involve choice in the context of Malachi 1:2-3 when it says, “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated.” Not only that, but the New Testament suggests that in order to follow the Lord one must choose Him over one’s family and oneself—signifying superior love for the former, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 14:26). Most agree that “hate” in both these contexts is not equal to disdain as much as it is comparable to allegiance in relationship. In other words, Jacob was chosen and therefore involved in a special relationship with God and, in that relationship, and object of God’s special affection. Similarly, Luke 14:26 suggests that anyone hoping to be a disciple of Jesus chooses Him over and above all others, thereby entering into a relationship with him that does not compare to anyone else.

Nowhere is this most appropriately encapsulated than within the context and image of marriage. In a marriage, a groom has chosen a bride above all others to remain with him until death. He does so in the best of situations, not under compulsion, but because his wife is pleasing to him and within the context of their marriage, he knows that she will consistently bring delight and affection into their home. Most, even in today’s morally deprived world, agree that a man who loves his wife in special and exclusive ways can be called “good.” If he loved every woman in the same way, he would otherwise be labeled a reprobate and/or womanizer.

The same is true of God as witnessed in Revelation. God’s hatred and wrath poured out over a world that has rejected him (witnessed in John’s graphic apocalyptic and prophetic presentation) indicates not only his holiness and justice, but his incomparable love for His wife—the church. God’s love, and by proxy, his goodness, might be called into question if he showed the same love and granted the same rewards to everyone in the end—even those who never responded positively to his constant overtures.

Therefore, one might say that “love wins” in the end, but not in the way it is popularly promoted. God’s love for his bride wins in the end and this is an eschatologically significant consideration pertaining to His goodness. If love for all wins, God’s love would not be particularly special or meaningful—God would not be as good as the faithful husband he is presented as through the Scriptures in general and in the book of Revelation in particular.

Image: “Jesus” by x1klima. CC License. 

To Know the Cross

by Thomas Merton

I pray that we may be found worthy to be cursed, censured, and ground down, and even put to death in the name of Jesus Christ, so long as Christ himself is not put to death in us. – Paulinus of Nola

The Christian must not only accept suffering: he must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering.

Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mere cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.

Suffering is consecrated to God by faith—not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God. Some of us believe in the power and the value of suffering. But such a belief is an illusion. Suffering has no power and no value of its own.

It is valuable only as a test of faith. What if our faith fails the test? Is it good to suffer, then? What if we enter into suffering with a strong faith in suffering, and then discover that suffering destroys us?

To believe in suffering is pride: but to suffer, believing in God, is humility. For pride may tell us that we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is in ourselves. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek him in suffering, and that by his grace we can overcome evil with good. Suffering, then, becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to receive more abundantly from the mercy of God. It does not make us good by itself, but it enables us to make ourselves better than we are. Thus, what we consecrate to God in suffering is not our suffering but our selves.

Only the sufferings of Christ are valuable in the sight of God, who hates evil, and to him they are valuable chiefly as a sign. The death of Jesus on the cross has an infinite meaning and value not because it is a death, but because it is the death of the Son of God. The cross of Christ says nothing of the power of suffering or of death. It speaks only of the power of him who overcame both suffering and death by rising from the grave.

The wound that evil stamped upon the flesh of Christ are to be worshiped as holy no because they are wounds, but because they are his wounds. Nor would we worship them if he had merely died of them, without rising again. For Jesus is not merely someone who once loved us enough to die for us. His love for us is the infinite love of God, which is stronger than all evil and cannot be touched by death.

Suffering, therefore, can only be consecrated to God by one who believes that Jesus is not dead. And it is of the very essence of Christianity to face suffering and death not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning.

To know the cross is not merely to know our own sufferings. For the cross is the sign of salvation, and no one is saved by his own sufferings. To know the cross is to know that we are saved by the sufferings of Christ; more, it is to know the love of Christ who underwent suffering and death in order to save us. It is, then, to know Christ. For to know his love is not merely to know the story of his love, but to experience in our spirit that we are loved by him, and that in his love the Father manifests his own love for us, through his Spirit poured forth into our hearts. . .

The effect of suffering upon us depends on what we love. If we love only ourselves, suffering is merely hateful. It has to be avoided at all costs. It brings out all the evil that is in us, so that the one who loves only himself will commit any sin and inflict any evil on others merely in order to avoid suffering himself.

Worse, if a person loves himself and learns that suffering is unavoidable, he may even come to take a perverse pleasure in suffering itself, showing that he loves and hates himself at the same time.

In any case, if we love ourselves, suffering inexorably brings out selfishness, and then, after making known what we are, drives us to make ourselves even worse than we are.

If we love others and suffer for them, even without a supernatural love for other people in God, suffering can give us a certain nobility and goodness. It brings out something fine in our natures, and gives glory to God who made us greater than suffering. But in the end a natural unselfishness cannot prevent suffering from destroying us along with all we love.

If we love God and love others in him, we will be glad to let suffering destroy anything in us that God is pleased to let it destroy, because we know that all it destroys is unimportant. We will prefer to let the accidental trash of life be consumed by suffering in order that his glory may come out clean in everything we do.

If we love God, suffering does not matter. Christ in us, his love, his Passion in us: that is what we care about. Pain does not cease to be pain, but we can be glad of it because it enables Christ to suffer in us and give glory to his Father by being greater, in our hearts, than suffering would ever be.

Editor’s Note: This essay comes from the devotional, Bread and Wind: Readings for Lent and Easter, published by Plough Publishing House in Walden, New York, in 2003. It’s found on pages 43-4


Image: By Drawn by Gustave Doré, engraved by J. Gauchard Brunier. Scanned by Michael Gäbler with Epson Perfection 4490 Photo. – Wood engraving drawn by Gustave Doré, engraved by J. Gauchard Brunier. Printed in: Heilige Schrift 1867 by Stuttgarter Druck- und Verlagshaus Eduard Hallberger. Reproduction by this reprint: Die Heilige Schrift des Neuen Testaments illustriert von Gustave Doré, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2005., Public Domain,

Twilight Musings “Severe Mercy”


By Elton D. Higgs

Recently we had to make sudden arrangements for our disabled adult daughter to be removed from our home and placed elsewhere.  She had to be taken traumatically by force from our house to a hospital mental health ward, since her behavior had become very belligerent and dangerous to herself.  This came after our having cared for her from infancy, through a normal delightful childhood and the insecurities of early adolescence, to the last five years in which her psychological and physical health has deteriorated from the effects of Huntington’s Disease, which is invariably fatal after years of decline.  We had wanted to care for her until the end, but now she’s gone from our house, and she won’t be coming back.

In the few days immediately following her departure, my wife and I both commented on how radically different the house was—I described it as “eerily quiet.”  I think our feelings about the necessary removal of our daughter from our care are somewhat like the feelings one has after having had an amputation, or the removal of an internal organ.  If pain is relieved or our life is saved as a result of the operation, we rejoice; but there is also some sadness at having to give up an integral part of us that at one time functioned well and contributed to our overall health.

Without faith in God’s love and providence, we focus on what has been lost, but the eyes of faith see God’s benefit overshadowing what has been lost, and we may even recognize that sometimes the enforced loss was necessary for us to experience the benefit.

This experience put me in mind of a book from several years ago by Sheldon Vanauken, entitled A Severe Mercy, which is a phrase from one of C. S. Lewis’s letters to Vanauken.  He and his wife had close contact with Lewis for a few years, both through letters and through their visiting him in England, so he knew the couple well.  They started the relationship as unbelievers, but ended up being converted to Christ.  However, they struggled to get past what had become, according to Vanauken, an all-absorbing pagan bond of love between them, which left no room for children or even God.  When his wife unexpectedly became ill with a fatal disease, and they were forced finally to submit their love to God, Lewis was bold enough to say that it was a severe mercy, a deprivation that perhaps had saved their souls.

In the past, my wife and I have experienced a number of changes in our lives and in the lives of others which were appropriately described as “severe mercies.” The concept is definitely helpful in understanding the necessity of our daughter’s being transferred from our care to the care of others who are better able to see to her needs at this point.  The trauma of separation is severe, but God’s mercy is showing through the pain of giving her up.  The familiar hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” expresses beautifully this form of God’s provision and teaching, especially in stanzas 3 and 5:

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

           (William Cowper)

The writer of Hebrews also articulates this principle of profit encased in pain in speaking of God’s discipline of His children.  He first quotes from the Book of Proverbs, and then expands on that passage.  (Read in each occurrence of “son” a gender-inclusive “child.”)

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him.  For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” [Prov. 3:11-12].  It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons . . . .  For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.  (Heb. 12:5b-8, 11, ESV)

Here lies the core of the difference between how believers and unbelievers view the things that are taken away from them.  Without faith in God’s love and providence, we focus on what has been lost, but the eyes of faith see God’s benefit overshadowing what has been lost, and we may even recognize that sometimes the enforced loss was necessary for us to experience the benefit.

Finally, when the thing lost was a good thing from God and not something harmful to us, we have a treasury of memories of God’s blessings during that time.  In our case, my wife and I are thankful that we were able to take two long trips requested by our daughter in the last two years, which, in spite of some blips involving her behavior, were rich and rewarding times together.  The memories of those trips, and the ways in which God made them possible and fruitful, will never be taken away.  And we hope that our cognizance of God’s goodness, past, present, and future, will always absorb any sense of loss.

Image: “Grace” by R. Alexander. CC license. 


A Critical Review of Is Goodness without God Good Enough?

Editor’s note:  “Sloan Lee has been one of my [David Baggett] dearest friends since we attended graduate school together at Wayne State in the 90s. He’s as passionate as he’s brilliant when it comes to philosophy and we’re thrilled to welcome him to as a contributor.”

by Robert Sloan Lee

book coverIn 2001 William Lane Craig and the late Paul Kurtz met at Marshall College (in Huntington, West Virginia) to debate the question: Is goodness without God good enough?  Craig argues “no” and Kurtz argues “yes.”  The transcript of that debate serves as a jumping off point for scholars of various persuasions to weigh in on the issues and offer some analysis of the original exchange between Kurtz and Craig.  The outcome is a book edited by Nathan L. King and Robert K. Garcia entitled Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: Lanham, Maryland, 2008).

While we will not deal with every issue raised in the debate, we will address some of the critical points – and other issues will be explored further when examining the responses to the debate by the other authors.

Chapter One: Paul Kurtz and William Lane Craig, “The Kurtz-Craig Debate”

Opening Statements

kurtzPaul Kurtz interprets the question of the debate as asking: Can someone without belief in God behave morally?  Can they be a moral person?  He mentions a number of historical individuals who rejected belief in the existence of God, but who were nevertheless moral.  Unfortunately, he gets some of his facts wrong.  As it turns out (despite what Kurtz says) Hume, Kant, and Socrates all believe in the existence of God (and Immanuel Kant even makes the supposition that God’s existence is a requirement for the rationality of ethics).  Further, the founders were not all deists as Kurtz suggests (though a few of them were), given that most of them were devout Anglicans.  He says that while a great many non-believers have lived moral lives, we are told by propagandists for religion that atheist and skeptics must be immoral (but he doesn’t say who these propagandists are).  He then turns from a defensive strategy to an offensive strategy by raising a number of questions and objections to the idea that belief in God is needed to be a good person.  He says that people who believe in God disagree as to what things should be considered moral and what things should be considered immoral (e.g., on the issues of divorce, polygamy, contraception, and abortion).  Further, he suggests that basing morality on an unchanging and inflexible religious authority is not well suited for a world that is rapidly changing and creating new moral problems and dilemmas.  He adds that secular humanists are aware of their moral responsibilities and that the best way of solving moral problems is the method of ethical intelligence – and that we should not rely on ancient religious books to help us think about moral issues.  Unfortunately, he neither says anything about this method in the debate (not that one expects a full exposition of the method in a debate format) nor why one cannot learn moral truths from a book just because it happens to be ancient.

craigWilliam Lane Craig begins by agreeing with Kurtz.  He says that those skeptical of God’s existence can (and often are) impressively moral people – but that the question of importance is not whether one has to believe in God’s existence in order to be moral, but whether there is such a thing as goodness without God.  In short, he is saying that non-believers are moral, and that their morality counts as evidence for the existence of God (because there would be no foundation for morality if God did not exist).  More specifically, Craig advances two central claims.  Craig’s first central claim is laid out in the following proposition:

[A] If theism is true, then we have a sound foundation for morality – because:

  1. Theism gives us a basis for objective moral values (because God’s nature, he contends, is the source of objective moral values).
  2. Theism gives us a basis for objective duties (because God’s commands – stemming from God’s nature – constitute our duties).
  3. Theism gives us a basis for moral accountability (because God will ensure that evil is punished and that righteousness is vindicated).

Craig’s second central claim is expressed as follows:

[B] If theism is false, then we do not have a sound foundation for morality – because:

  1. Atheism gives us no reason to think that humans are the basis for objective moral values (because without God, there is nothing special about humans and no reason to think that humans are any more moral than other animals – and what we call “morality” is just a method adapted as a survival strategy and nothing more).
  2. Atheism undercuts the idea that there are objective moral duties (because mere animals attempting to survive have no obligations – and it doesn’t matter what you do for there is no objective right or wrong).
  3. Atheism undermines the notion of moral accountability (because, given the finality of death, harming or helping others will neither be punished nor rewarded).

Kurtz and Craig’s First Rebuttals

Kurtz highlights Craig’s concession of his first point – namely, that skeptics about God’s existence can (and often do) live moral lives.  He adds that such individuals have lives which they take to be personally satisfying and meaningful.  Unfortunately, while all this is correct, it misses Craig’s point – namely, that there are no objective grounds for living a moral life on those terms.  Therefore, while a person may choose to live a moral life, there is no objective obligation to do so.  Further, while a person might find their own life satisfying and meaningful, there is no objective sense in which their life is significant or meaningful.  Kurtz’s argument strikes closer to home when he points out that Craig has not explained how the theist is supposed to choose between the many different religions or between the many different conceptions of God.  Further, even if we determine which God is the right God, we still have the difficulty of trying to determine what that God commands.  The fact that God exists, says Kurtz, doesn’t solve the problem of moral disagreements – even where everyone involved in that moral dispute agrees that God exists.

Kurtz then turns his attention to the claim that God exists.   He claims that the problem of suffering is the “Achilles heel of the classical notion of an omnipotent and beneficent God” and that theism is riddled with “contradictions.”  More formally, Kurtz’s argument can be presented as follows:

  1. If God exists, then there would be no suffering in the world.
  2. There is suffering in the world (for example, the 3000 people that died in the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11).
  3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist. [from 1 and 2]

The problem with Kurtz’s argument against the existence of God here is that he did not keep up with the philosophical progress on this issue – specifically, Alvin Plantinga’s book, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).  There, Plantinga shows that it is at least possible that God have a good justifying reason for permitting evil to occur.  So, instead of saying that God would permit no suffering in the world, the theist can say that God permits no unjustified suffering in the world.  Given this, the theist does not have any reason to think that premise (1) of Kurtz’s argument is true.  Those who want to know more about advances made on this issue should consult Daniel Howard-Snyder’s anthology, The Evidential Problem of Evil (Indiana University Press, 2008), or the more accessible work of Michael L. Peterson, God and Evil: An Introduction To The Issues (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998).

Kurtz concludes by returning to the theme that humanists have obligations in terms of their relationships to other people and that they can “abhor” inhumanity and refuse to treat others in degrading ways – and that, further, Craig is wrong to say that humans would act like “despots” without the existence of God.  However, this misses Craig’s view completely, because Craig neither said that people would act like despots without God nor did he say that people would treat each other in degrading and inhumane ways if God did not exist.  What Craig said was that we have no objective grounds for choosing to behave morally without God – given that wickedness can go unpunished and that righteousness can go unrewarded (and given that there are no obligations beyond what we arbitrarily choose).  Craig, again, did not say that we would lack “moral sensibilities” without God.  Instead, he holds that those sensibilities would have no objective grounding.

Craig’s rebuttal consists in reiterating just these points – namely, that Kurtz has apparently not given us any objective account of morality or moral obligations on humanism.  So, what we are left with is nihilism (that is, the view that there are no enduring and objective values upon which we can base our lives).  Craig also goes on to point out that they are not debating the existence of God.  So even if Kurtz is right (when he incorrectly suggests that suffering is logically incompatible with the existence of God), that will have no bearing on Craig’s claim that the nonexistence of God entails that there are no grounds for objective obligations.  In short, Craig is arguing that objective morality is simply an illusion (at best), if there is no God (and that this is true whether or not God exists).  Craig says much the same thing concerning the question of how one decides which conception of God is correct – namely, that this is a secondary issue to his central claim (and that one can try to figure out which view of God is correct at some later point).  He concludes that while there may be standards that are relative to human desires, on Kurtz’s view, there are no “unconditional, objective, categorical moral principles or standards…” – and just as evolutionary processes have produced no “guinea pig morality or horse morality,” those processes are incapable of producing an objective morality for humans.

Kurtz and Craig’s Second Rebuttals

In his second rebuttal, Kurtz claims that how we know what is right or wrong is a question that comes before the question of what the objective grounds of morality are.  In short, moral experience must precede moral ontology.  This is an interesting claim, but one would like to see it developed further and its impact on the debate made explicit.  Beyond this, Kurtz simply repeats the questions and claims of his first rebuttal when he asks Craig which version of theism should be endorsed.

Craig responds by saying that the question of which account of God is correct “is not the question of the debate.”  In short, it is off-topic.  He says that he is happy to come back to Marshall College again to face Kurtz in a debate on the existence of God but that this is not the debate they are currently conducting.  Unfortunately, Craig does not respond specifically to the claim that Kurtz makes concerning moral epistemology being prior to moral ontology. (Ed.–Craig could have replied that such epistemic priority does nothing to undermine the ontological primacy of God; this site has explored such issues before in explicating the way the order of being can be different from the order of knowing.)

Kurtz and Craig’s Concluding Statements

The concluding statements add nothing new – with Kurtz saying that many who deny the existence of God live exemplary moral lives, and Craig responding that this is not the point.  Instead, Craig says, atheistic humanism is a “noble lie” that helps those who hold it avoid the nihilism that unavoidably and undesirably follows from that view.

In the following installments, we will examine how various philosophers respond to the claims made by Kurtz and Craig.  Fortunately, both Craig and Kurtz were also provided with the opportunity to reply to these essays at the end of the book.  Joseph Joubert made a telling point: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it” [Pensées of Joubert, edited by Henry Attwell (London: George Allen, 1896; page 35)].  Whether or not Craig, Kurtz, and the other authors settle the issues broached in the course of this discussion, they at least do us the service of engaging the debate.


Image: “Milk Way goodness” by Leo Vaha. CC License. 

His Truth Is Marching On: Selma’s Clarion Call

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at Christ and Pop Culture. 

By Marybeth Davis Baggett 

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s a poignant scene towards the close of Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma, a scene made all the more compelling by its prescience. John Doar, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, warns Martin Luther King of credible threats against his life that await him in Montgomery, the destination of the Selma march protesting barriers to African American voter registration.

Doar implores King to drive—rather than walk—into the capital and to nix the planned speech, to minimize his exposure and prevent any possible harm. “Don’t you want to protect yourself?” Doar asks. King’s response here is telling, as it speaks of his convictions and highlights the worldview animating the film and, more importantly, the nonviolent resistance movement whose story it portrays.

I’m no different than anyone else. I want to live long and be happy, but I’ll not be focusing on what I want today. I’m focused on what God wants. We’re here for a reason, through many, many storms. But today the sun is shining, and I’m about to stand in its warmth alongside a lot of freedom-loving people who worked hard to get us here. I may not be here for all the sunny days to come, but as long as there’s light ahead for them, it’s worth it to me.

The specific threats of violence against King echo the egregious wrongs perpetrated throughout the film—the disenfranchisement of black citizens, the murders of innocent children and protesters, the brutality of local and state police against unarmed marchers. And yet the activists refused to be intimidated. “We go again,” Dr. King says after so-called Bloody Sunday—the brutal attacks by police and posse alike on the protesters during their first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The injustice on display in Selma is heart-wrenching. Few will leave the theater dry-eyed after witnessing the powerful using their positions and privilege, their weapons and words, to dehumanize others. Again and again, the protesters are at the receiving end of such abuse. They suffer indignity after indignity in exercising basic human rights—registering to vote, checking in to a hotel, protesting peacefully.
This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength.

The scenes projected on the screen provoke outrage and disgust. And yet, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King rejected retaliation in kind, however tantalizing the temptation. After one particularly humiliating and damaging attack, several protesters plan to round up some guns, only to be reminded that the police and government force will always be much greater than theirs. “We have to win another way,” SCLC leader Andrew Young counsels.

Resisting the logic of lex talionis—an eye for an eye—seems counterintuive and countercultural at best, foolhardy at worst. Achieving victory by turning the other cheek seems impossible. Conceived in secular terms, victory over subjugation requires defeating one’s foes by force—be it legal, corporal, psychological, economic. But justice in Selma goes well beyond tactics; it points to a radical conception of reality itself.

Justice in the minds of the Selma freedom-fighters is a metaphysical fact, a real state of affairs promised and being worked out by a good God who is setting the world aright at the incalculable cost of his own son. And driven by their Christian convictions, the SCLC embraces the privilege and responsibility of participating in this process, of co-suffering with Christ.

While the scenes of outrageous abuse will infuriate viewers, the resolve of the protesters not to multiply evil through retaliation will inspire. What Marilyn Adams writes in a different context is attested to by the protesters’ courageous example: “To return horror for horror does not erase but doubles the individual’s participation in horrors—first as victim, then as the one whose injury occasions another’s prima facie ruin.”

Without granting its theological foundations, King’s campaign was worse than foolish. Knowingly placing himself at the mercy of those who would oppose with appalling force the truths he preached took courage, courage borne from the conviction that justice is the natural bent of the universe. The values of the kingdom of God turn those of this world on their head.

As Selma testifies, King understood that his real enemies weren’t government officials assassinating his character, racists and segregationists who thought themselves superior, nor even the man who would eventually kill him. No, he fought instead “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And he knew that in the face of an all-powerful and all-loving God, these spiritual forces of darkness and entrenched systemic evils would not and could not stand.

Selma gives us a glimpse into how this redemption works in our own lives here and now; it’s terrifying, convicting, and inspiring all at once. This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength. In our personal lives we all face indignities, abuses, and wrongs—all of which Selma magnifies in horrifying detail. We can thus sympathize with King’s weariness, his call for support, his pleas for divine intervention, his temptation to give in and give up.

In the crucible of this maelstrom, we see, too, the resurrection of hope, the power of community, the hardiness of righteousness, an enactment of the gospel. We see the church at work, Christ’s body setting the world to rights little by little, through the most powerful weapons there are, and the only truly efficacious ones—faith, hope, and love.

The saga of Selma echoes its clarion call to Christ’s body today to be faithful heralds of truth and justice, to live and labor in the hope of what we still can’t see except in fleeting glimpses and furtive glances. It is a glorious and sober reminder that if Christ be raised we have seen manifest the first-fruits of a coming victory so resounding, and a glory so amazing, that it will dwarf and eclipse any and all of this world’s sufferings. Like Dr. King, let this blessed assurance inspire us to proclaim truth with boldness, battle injustice with hope, and daily carry our cross with courage.

Does God Intend Evils?: A Summary of a Paper by Mark Murphy

By David Baggett

Today begins a new series that will last for several months. Every other Monday, I’ll give a summary of one of the papers that was given at the October 2015 Inaugural Theistic Ethics Workshop at Wake Forest University—in an effort to give those who didn’t have a chance to attend an opportunity to get a flavor of what the conference was like and where some of the current discussions in theistic ethics stand.

The first paper I will summarize is Mark Murphy’s “Does God Intend Evils?” Murphy teaches at Georgetown and is a terrific philosopher, who’s done some terrific work in theistic ethics, natural law, divine authority, and other areas. He also makes a delightful conversationalist over dinner. In this talk Murphy discussed three issues related to the question of whether God intends evils. First, while it is obvious that there are evils in creation, and that God bears some important positive causal relationship to the existence of those evils, is it nevertheless true, as some have claimed, that God does not intend these evils? Murphy responds positively: there is a straightforward, very far from trivial sense in which necessarily God does not intend evils.

Second, Murphy argues that there is at least an initially plausible argument from evil based on the fact that a being that qualifies as God does not intend evils: that we have good reason to think that some of the evils in this world, if God exists, had to have been intended by God.

Third, Murphy provides a sketch of a response to this formulation of the argument from evil: that it is an error to think of the evils of this world as intended; while God indeed makes use of various foreseen evils, these evils are not divinely intended.

God does not intend evils. By ‘evils’ Murphy has in mind something like what van Inwagen calls bad things. On this view, not all setbacks to human well-being need count as evils. For example, it’s coherent to think that if a setback to someone’s well-being is deserved as a result of his or her wrongdoing, it may not be a bad ting that he or she suffers, even if it is bad for him or her to suffer. Is it possible for God to intend evils? There have been some recent treatments of the question by natural law theorists arguing that God can’t intend evil, but these appeal in Murphy’s view to contentious readings of authoritative Catholic teachings and rely on rather inadequate arguments for that thesis. There are mixed views, like Leibniz’s, on which there are some kinds of evil that God can intend (physical evils) but there are some kinds that God cannot intend (moral evils). But Leibniz’s view seems to Murphy unstable: we should think either that God can’t intend either sort or that there are evils of both sorts that God can intend.

For Murphy a guiding principle here is that if God can’t intend evils, it’s because God has decisive reasons not to intend evils. God’s perfect freedom of choice and action entails that God does not necessarily refrain from doing something unless there are decisive reasons to refrain. God has a (requiring) reason not to intend evils; where a requiring reason to Φ is a reason that a reasonable, informed agent acts on in the absence of reasons to the contrary (in contrast with a merely justifying reason).

Murphy argues that necessarily God does not intend evil. The argument rests on an account of what it is to intend something: it is to take it as part of one’s plan of action, such that it is a success condition of one’s action. This is true whether what is intended is intended as an end or as a means. But God’s successful agency cannot be constituted by evil. This seems to be a mark against God’s complete perfection of agency, and seems contrary to the holiness that is ascribed to God. By contrast, what is brought about by God’s causal activity, if foreseen but not intended, does not constitute part of God’s plan of action. So nothing that Murphy says here, in itself, gives any reason to think that God does not  bring about foreseen evils, or foreseen evils of some type, or foreseen evils in some quantity, or in some distribution.

Again, Nagel, in The View from Nowhere, writes that “the essence of evil is that it should repel us. If something is evil, our actions should be guided, if they are guided at all, toward its elimination rather than toward its maintenance. That is what evil means. So when we aim at evil we are swimming against the normative current.”

On this basis we can construct this argument:

  1. An agent has (requiring) reasons for his (success in) action not to be constituted by evil and not to be constituted by evil himself.
  2. If an agent intends an evil, then both the (success in) action and the agent are constituted by evil.
  3. So, the agent has (requiring) reasons not to intend evils.

In the divine case, (1) God does not exhibit agency worse than God might exhibit; (2) God has decisive reasons not to exhibit agency worse than God might exhibit; (3) In the absence of countervailing considerations, God would be exhibiting agency worse than God might exhibit if God intended evils; (4) So, God has (requiring) reason not to intend evils.

Are these reasons decisive? Are there the relevant considerations to the contrary? Well, noncomparatively, God’s intending evil mars divine agency. It’s at odds with the holiness of God to intend evils, so the reasons are decisive. And comparatively, the only reasons that would be relevant are based in creaturely goods. It seems unlikely that these could provid the relevant justification.

A new argument from evil? Here is an argument from evil distinct from the standard sort:

  1. Necessarily, any being that qualifies as God does not intend evils
  2. This world contains evils such that, if there is a being that qualifies as God, then that being intended them
  3. There is no being that qualifies as God

As Murphy noted already, the fact that there are a lot of evils in this world is of itself no reason to think that God intended those evils. What we would need is some special reason for thinking that these evils, were there a God, had to be intended by God. Here is the sort of case that Murphy thinks some folks will find plausible: that we have reason to think that God, if God exists, intends the existence of rational creatures. One often reads, in treatments of various issues in philosophical theology, that God would want there to be free beings endowed with reason. While Murphy is dubious of such reasoning, one might think that the existence of such a divine intention is given, or confirmed, by special revelation. Suppose, then, we think that we have reason to believe that if there is a God, then the existence of rational animals was intended by God. But the way that rational animals came into existence was an evolutionary process that involved the dying young of countless creatures the dying young of which counts as ‘bad stuff.’ And so one might say: God intended the existence of rational animals, and the means that God employed to bring these rational animals into existence was the mechanism of natural selection, which involves lots of bad stuff. If God exists, then, God intended loads of evils as a means to th existence of rational creatures. So if a being that qualifies as God does not intend evils, whether as ends or as means, then there is no God.

The failure of even this limited argument from evil. Nevertheless, Murphy thinks that it is a mistake to think that a new argument from evil, based on God’s never intending evil, can really get going. The mistake here is in thinking that since the dying young of all these critters is in some sense a means to the coming into existence of rational animals, therefore it is intended by God. The ideas here are painstakingly worked out by Frances Kamm in her Doctrine of Triple Effect, but Murphy thinks that they are familiar and not dependent on Kamm’s distinctive take. The idea is that we can take some goal to be worthwhile, foresee that bringing it about will have some bad effects, and set ourselves to making use of those bad effects without intending them. What is intended is not the bad stuff, but the making use of it. (Murphy gives this example: “I may have a dangerous job, and anticipate my dying young as a result, and thus take out a life insurance policy that will care for my children when I die young. I do not intend my death thereby; I do make use of my death in order to care for my children.) This model can be plausibly applied to the divine case, even given the data of special revelation posited above. God may well value rational creatures, and all other species as well that arise through the processes of natural selection; God might well make use of the bad things that occur in the natural world in bringing about the existence of rational creatures, and other valuable creatures besides.

Murphy’s provisional response to arguments from evil based on divine intentions is this: If some evil appears to be such that if God exists, then God intended it, either (1) it is an evil, but it is not intended (instead it is allowed, made use of, etc.) by God, or (2) it is intended by God, but it is not an evil (instead, while it is (e.g.) bad for some creatures, it is not a bad thing that it occurs).


Image: “Deerfire high res edit” by John McColgan – Edited by Fir0002 – taken by John McColgan, employed as a fire behavior analyst at the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –