Tag Archives: Evil

The miracle of Squanto’s path to Plymouth

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)
“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

God’s providence in action, as reported by Eric Metaxas in the Wall Street Journal.

Full text:

The story of how the Pilgrims arrived at our shores on the Mayflower—and how a friendly Patuxet native named Squanto showed them how to plant corn, using fish as fertilizer—is well-known. But Squanto’s full story is not, as National Geographic’s new Thanksgiving miniseries, “Saints & Strangers,” shows. That might be because some details of Squanto’s life are in dispute. The important ones are not, however. His story is astonishing, even raising profound questions about God’s role in American history.

Every Thanksgiving we remember that, to escape religious persecution, the Pilgrims sailed to the New World, landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. But numerous trading ships had visited the area earlier. Around 1608 an English ship dropped anchor off the coast of what is today Plymouth, Mass., ostensibly to trade metal goods for the natives’ beads and pelts. The friendly Patuxets received the crew but soon discovered their dark intentions. A number of the braves were brutally captured, taken to Spain and sold into slavery.

One of them, a young man named Tisquantum, or Squanto, was bought by a group of Catholic friars, who evidently treated him well and freed him, even allowing him to dream of somehow returning to the New World, an almost unimaginable thought at the time. Around 1612, Squanto made his way to London, where he stayed with a man namedJohn Slany and learned his ways and language. In 1618, a ship was found, and in return for serving as an interpreter, Squanto would be given one-way passage back to the New World.

After spending a winter in Newfoundland, the ship made its way down the coast of Maine and Cape Cod, where Squanto at last reached his own shore. After 10 years, Squanto returned to the village where he had been born. But when he arrived, to his unfathomable disappointment, there was no one to greet him. What had happened?

It seems that since he had been away, nearly every member of the Patuxets had perished from disease, perhaps smallpox, brought by European ships. Had Squanto not been kidnapped, he would almost surely have died. But perhaps he didn’t feel lucky to have been spared. Surely, he must have wondered how his extraordinary efforts could amount to this. At first he wandered to another Wampanoag tribe, but they weren’t his people. He was a man without a family or tribe, and eventually lived alone in the woods.

But his story didn’t end there. In the bleak November of 1620, the Mayflower passengers, unable to navigate south to the warmer land of Virginia, decided to settle at Plymouth, the very spot where Squanto had grown up. They had come in search of religious freedom, hoping to found a colony based on Christian principles.

Their journey was very difficult, and their celebrated landing on the frigid shores of Plymouth proved even more so. Forced to sleep in miserably wet and cold conditions, many of them fell gravely ill. Half of them died during that terrible winter. One can imagine how they must have wept and wondered how the God they trusted and followed could lead them to this agonizing pass. They seriously considered returning to Europe.

But one day during that spring of 1621, a Wampanoag walked out of the woods to greet them. Somehow he spoke perfect English. In fact, he had lived in London more recently than they had. And if that weren’t strange enough, he had grown up on the exact land where they had settled.

Because of this, he knew everything about how to survive there; not only how to plant corn and squash, but how to find fish and lobsters and eels and much else. The lone Patuxet survivor had nowhere to go, so the Pilgrims adopted him as one of their own and he lived with them on the land of his childhood.

No one disputes that Squanto’s advent among the Pilgrims changed everything, making it possible for them to stay and thrive. Squanto even helped broker a peace with the local tribes, one that lasted 50 years, a staggering accomplishment considering the troubles settlers would face later.

So the question is: Can all of this have been sheer happenstance, as most versions of the story would have us believe? The Pilgrims hardly thought so. To them, Squanto was a living answer to their tearful prayers, an outrageous miracle of God. Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford declared in his journal that Squanto “became a special instrument sent of God” who didn’t leave them “till he died.”

Indeed, when Squanto died from a mysterious disease in 1622, Bradford wrote that he wanted “the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven.” And Squanto bequeathed his possessions to the Pilgrims “as remembrances of his love.”

These are historical facts. May we be forgiven for interpreting them as the answered prayers of a suffering people, and a warm touch at the cold dawn of our history of an Almighty Hand?

America is truly a blessed nation. Why this story is not taught in all the schools of the nation is beyond me.

Presenting the ontological argument for God’s existence

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

My friend Günter Bechly has started a new blog, and his first post is about the ontological argument. A lot of smart philosophers really like this argument, but it’s out of favor with evidentialists like me, because… well, it’s just the opposite of evidence in every possible way. And evidence is awesome. Evidence makes the world go round.

But if I’m going to take my philosophical medicine from anyone, I’m going to take it from Dr. Bechly. Because at least he has a doctorate in STEM, and that makes him not a squishy-head:

I am a German scientist (paleo-entomologist), specialized on the fossil history, phylogeny, and evolution of insects, the most diverse group of animals.

I am also a conservative evangelical Christian. I strongly reject atheism, materialism, naturalism, and scientism, and privately support Intelligent Design Theory.

Anyway, here is the new post from his new blog:

The Ontological Argument is a highly sophisticated philosophical argument for the existence of God that is often poorly understood by believers and universally dismissed or even ridiculed by atheists, who usually do not properly grasp the argument either. In his anti-religious pamphlet “The God Delusion” Richard Dawkins made a complete fool of himself with the embarassing remark that the defendants of the Ontological Argument even “felt the need to resort to Modal Logic”, which showed that he was completely ignorant of the fact that this argument simply is an exercise in modal logic (see this Q&A by William Lane Craig). The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell once mocked the Ontological Argument as nothing but “a case of bad grammar”. We will get back to him at the end of this post.

With this very first posting on my new blog, I want to provide an introduction to the famous Ontological Argument, and show how simple but ingenious and unrefuted it really is. When I first truly understood this argument for God’s existence, I was absolutely thrilled by its force, and I hope you will be too.

If you do not like to read lengthy blog posts like this, you find an excellent introduction to the modern modal version of the Ontological Argument in these two short YouTube videos.

That’s the intro, and here is the horrible argument, which contains no evidence, and is therefore evil.

For the purpose of this essay, I reformulated the argument as follows:

  • Premise 1: If a maximally great being exists, it must exist necessarily.
  • Premise 2: If the existence of a being is necessary, it exists in all possible worlds.
  • Premise 3: If the existence of a being is possible, in exists in at least one possible world.
  • Premise 4: It is possible that a maximally great being, aka God, exists.
  • Conclusion: Therefore God exists in one possible world, which implies that he exists in all possible worlds, including the actual world.
  • Therefore, God exists!

A greatly simplified version of the argument makes it even more obvious:

  • Premise A: If a being that has the essential property to “exist in all possible worlds” is demonstrated to exist in one possible world, than it must exist by definition in all possible worlds.
  • Premise B: The existence of a maximally great being that necessarily exists in all possible worlds is possible, so that it exists in at least one possible world.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, such a being exists in all possible worlds including ours.

This argument is a deductive argument in the modus ponens and is universally accepted as logically valid (= properly formed according to the laws of logic). This means that the conclusions follow necessarily from the premises. Thus, our atheist friends cannot simply dismiss the argument because they do not like the conclusion. The only way to refute the argument is to show that one of the premises is false. Premise 1 has been established by Hartshorne and Plantinga as true. The truth of premises 3 and 4 (or of premise A in the simplified version) follows necessarily from modal logic and thus is undeniable.

Therefore, the only chance for the atheist is to deny premise 4 (premise B in the simplified version), which means that he has to deny that God (a maximally great being) is possible. The atheist has to claim that God is logically impossible, because the concept of a maximally great being is incoherent or self-contradictory, like a “round square” for example.

I hope none of you will ever use this evil argument, even though it probably works, and smart people like Craig and Plantinga really like it.

I have been friends with Gunter since last year, when he was interested in intelligent design, which I like, but still not a theist. Then he became a theist, and now a Christian. So, I really like that. I hope everyone will click through and read his article, and then you can all annoy me by telling me how much you like the post, how great philosophy is, and why I need to add it to my list of arguments for Christian theism. It’s an argument tailor made for all you people who don’t like STEM. Sigh.

Can you have eternal life with God by being sincere and doing good things?

Bible study that hits the spot
Theology that hits the spot

Here’s an article from Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason.

He answers the question “Am I going to Hell if I don’t believe in Jesus?”.


Sometimes we have to reframe a critic’s question in order to give an accurate answer. The questions, Am I going to Hell if I don’t believe in Jesus?, is an example. As it is asked, it makes it sounds as though Jesus were the problem, not the answer. As though failing a theology quiz sends us to Hell. Instead, we need to reframe the question to answer accurately and show that sin is the problem, and Jesus is the only way because He alone has solved that problem. Sinners don’t go to Hell for failing petty theology quizzes.

While giving a talk at a local Barnes & Noble, someone asked why it was necessary for him to believe in Jesus. He was Jewish, believed in God, and was living a moral life. Those were the important things, it seemed—how you lived, not what you believed.

To him the Christian message depicted a narrow-minded God pitching people into Hell because of an arcane detail of Christian theology. How should I answer?

Remember that the first responsibility of an ambassador is knowledge—an accurately informed message. What is our message?

One way to say it is, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’ll go to Hell. If you do believe, you’ll go to Heaven.”

That’s certainly true, as far as it goes. The problem is it’s not clear. Since it doesn’t give an accurate sense of why Jesus is necessary, it makes God sound petty.

So how do we fix this? Here’s how I responded to my Jewish questioner. I asked him two simple questions.

Read the rest of the article.

Christians all need to understand how to explain why sincere beliefs and good works are not enough to satisfy God’s moral demands on us. God is more concerned that we understand the truth about his existence and character – that is the whole point of sending Jesus to die as an atonement for our rebellion. The problem isn’t just that we lie, cheat, steal and murder. The problem is that we want to get our own happiness apart from God, without wanting to know him as he is, and without having to care about his goals and his character in the relationship.

Here’s what God wants us to know about ourselves:

  • we have to realize that what we really are is rebels against God
  • rebels don’t want God to be there
  • rebels don’t want God to have any goals or character different from their goals and character
  • rebels don’t want God to place any demands on them
  • rebels don’t want to have any awareness that God is real or that he is morally perfect
  • rebels want to be liked as they are now – they don’t want to change as part of a relationship
  • rebels want to conceive of their own way to happiness, and to use other people and God for their own ends
  • rebels don’t want there to be a mind-independent objective reality, they want to invent their own reality that allows them to be praised and celebrated for doing whatever makes them happy at every point along their lives
  • rebels would rather die that put their pursuit of happiness second
  • rebels have no interest in rules, judgments, accountability or punishments

Here’s what God wants for us to be saved from our rebelling:

  • we have to know his real character so we have a genuine relationship with him
  • the best way to know his character is by taking time to study what Jesus did in history
  • what the incarnation tells us is that God is willing to humiliate himself by taking on a human nature
  • what the crucifixion tells us is that God is willing to die in our place even though we’re rebelling against him (Jesus is Savior)
  • part of being saved is to trust God by allowing his character to transform our desires and actions (Jesus is Lord)
  • as we grow in letting the character of Jesus inform our actions, we build a set of experiences that are like Jesus’ experiences – i.e. – we obey God rather than men, and we suffer for our obedience – just like Jesus

So don’t Christians have to do good things? Yes. But a Christian’s good deeds are the result of identifying Jesus as Savior and Lord, and then following him by making decisions that respect his character. God doesn’t need you to solve all the world’s problems – he could do that himself. It’s not what you do, it’s who you know and trust that counts. The good deeds are just your way of trying to be like him and trying to feel the same thing he felt when he gave his life for you. You have a friend and you want to be like him in order to know what he feels so you have sympathy with him.

The main point is that knowing Jesus as the revelation of God’s character, and then following Jesus, is more important than doing “good things”.

The first commandment, according to Jesus, is found in Matthew 22:34-38:

34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.

35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

38This is the first and greatest commandment.

The second commandment which comes after that one has to do with loving your neighbor. But the second one is not the greatest commandment. You can’t love God unless you know God. That it, unless you make knowing about his existence and character a priority in your life to the point where you find out the truth about his existence and character. And not as your own opinion, or as the opinion of the people around you, or as the faith-tradition you were raised in. No. You have to value God enough to respond to his overtures to you. You have to know him in truth, not as a quick checkbox that you check off for an hour on Sundays to make your life “easier” because you are happier and the people around you like you. You have to know him before you can act to love him – who he is and what he’s done.

The way that Protestants like me draw the line is as follows – justification (how your rebellion is canceled) is God’s job. He draws you to him while you are still in rebellion, but you have a choice to resist him or not. If you resist his action to save you, then you are responsible for rejecting him. Sanctification (about doing good works) is not about canceling your rebellion, it’s about the later step of re-prioritizing your life, so that you make decisions that reflect the character of Jesus, so that you become more like him. Even your desires change as the relationship progresses. It is something you work at – you study and experience, study and experience. The whole point of studying apologetics is to build yourself into a love machine that fears nothing and holds up under fire, because you know the truth and the truth makes you free to do what you ought to do regardless of the consequences (e.g. – failure to be recognized and requited by someone you loved well).

The most important relationship is not the horizontal relationship with your neighbor, it’s the vertical relationship with God himself. And when you know God as he really revealed himself in history, then your desires – and consequently your actions – will change naturally. When you know God as a person, you freely make all kinds of sacrifices for him. You put yourself second because you want to work on the relationship. You start to believe that your own happiness isn’t as as important as working on the relationship. It’s like building a house. You don’t notice the sacrifices.

Sometimes, I think that the whole point of Christianity and that vertical relationship is so that we know God better. We sympathize more with him than we do with ourselves, because of how unfairly people treat him, how good and loving he is, and how right his goals are. It’s not that he needs help, because he’s God – he’s sovereign. But the relationship gets to the point where it becomes reasonable for you to put yourself second with God, and to let his goals become your goals – you want the relationship with a loving God more than you want to be happy. You get tired of ignoring the person who loves you most – you start to wonder what it would be like to actually respond to him. For Christians, the demands of this other being eventually seem to be not so terrible after all – and we try to put aside our own desires and to give him gifts and respect instead of worrying so much about being happy all the time.

It’s not irrational to be kind to the person who loves you the most – who sacrificed the most for you.

A possible reason why God permits suffering and evil: the soul-making theodicy

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Steve Hays has a post up at Triablogue about one my favorite defenses to the inductive problem of evil – the soul-making theodicy.

He writes:

The soul-making theodicy was popularized by John Hick. In Augustinian anthropology, Adam and Eve were finished products. They fell from a state of moral perfection. Hick contrasted that with his own position, according to which Adam and Eve were created with the potential for moral growth. They were still in the process of creation. They had the potential for moral maturation. (Mind you, Hick denied the historicity of Adam and Eve.)

There’s some truth to this analysis, although it suffers from equivocation. To say unfallen Adam and Eve were morally “perfect” simply means they were sinless. It doesn’t mean there was no room for moral improvement.

Paradoxically, fallen humans can be both better and worse than unfallen humans. Inasmuch as they are sinners, they are worse. Yet Christians can have a moral grace that surpasses the mere sinlessness of Adam and Eve. Saints have virtues that angels lack.

3. Let’s take an example: Suppose you have a family of five. Both parents are social climbers and overachievers. The husband is consumed with career advancement. The wife is a tiger mom. She makes sure the kids are enrolled in all the right student clubs and extracurricular activities that will look good on a college application. The two teenage sons and a daughter are into the usual things kids in their age-bracket are into. At dinner, each member of the family is glued to the display on their smart phone.

The members of the family aren’t Christian. Aren’t into meaning-of-life questions. They lead superficial lives.

One son starts to forget routine things. At first this is amusing. They think he’s absent-minded. Distracted by too much multitasking. But he begins to complain about headaches.

His parents take him to the doctor, and he’s diagnosed with brain cancer. Suddenly their priorities come to a screeching halt.

They now have a sick family member who will just get sicker. Their social world contracts. Their center of gravity shifts.

Instead of being frivolous and self-absorbed, they make the most of the remaining time with their dying family member. The wrenching experience changes them. Deepens them. Makes them better people. Develops their unrealized moral potential.

Perhaps, in their distress and despair, they turn to God. They regret the missed opportunities. Regret taking life for granted. Regret taking one another for granted. Regret all the things they should have said and done differently, in retrospect.

That kind of regret can refine character. Moving forward, that prompts them to treat others with greater patience and understanding.

This is hypothetical, but there are real life examples of Christians like Eric Liddell and Ernest Gordon who exhibit moral heroism in the face of extreme adversity.

The rest of the article considers some objections to this defense.

Have you ever had that happen to you? Where something terrible happened and you found yourself having to pray, and care for others, and drop all your plans, and be unselfish? It’s happened to me. In fact, I think this is one of the main things that Christians should be doing. We ought to respond to setbacks as if they were opportunities for us to show our real character. Don’t treat the needs and sufferings of others as something to avoid, treat it as your opportunity to be more like Jesus. I know that we all have dreams of things that we would like to do and achieve. But sometimes, an opportunity arises for us to imitate Jesus by being obedient with suffering, or by caring for the suffering of others by putting our own needs and desires second. It’s tempting to think that our super-duper plan to change the world is the most important thing, but it really isn’t. Don’t miss the chance to form your character when you suffer, or when someone close to you is suffering.

I have to mention Dina, who has been busy visiting the elderly in a hospital for the last two weeks. She is a busy lady, and has things she would rather be doing. She hasn’t done any cross-stitching in months, because she is so stressed with work. Nevertheless, she didn’t take that as an excuse to put herself first. She found some people close to her who were suffering and thought “here is an opportunity for me to imitate Jesus by putting myself second, and serving others first”. Evil and suffering gives you the opportunity to be who God wants you to be.

Can evolution, empathy and well-being account for the existence of moral facts?

J. Warner Wallace: God's Crime Scene
J. Warner Wallace: God’s Crime Scene

J. Warner Wallace is publishing blog posts related to the material covered in his newest book. This latest post is related to that big discussion we had last week about whether atheists can ground objective moral values and objective moral duties.

He writes:

How are we to account for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths? Some philosophers, like Sam Harris, believe “moral values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” Well-being (also described as human “flourishing”) is, according to Harris, the purpose of our existence as human beings. Since human biology transcends human culture, moral truths (if they are rooted in human biology), would also transcend culture. As a result, we can account for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths without having to ground them in a transcendent moral truth-giver (like God). Harris believes these kinds of truths are simply grounded in the well-being of our entire species, and according to Harris, can be ascertained and apprehended by simply studying the science of human flourishing. Harris argues “that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. There are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.” But this attempt to ground objective, transcendent moral truths in human biological flourishing is misguided for several reasons…

Here’s one of the reasons:

This View Assumes a Moral Definition of “Well-Being”
What is Harris’ definition of “well-being” in the first place? Is it merely survival, or is it a particular kind of survival? Even philosophers who hold this view readily admit some behaviors (like subjugating slaves and stealing the resources of opposing groups) can actually aid in the survival of a people group. But these same thinkers simultaneously believe these kinds of behaviors are detrimental to the group’s well-being. This implies, however, there’s a right way to survive and a wrong way. Did you spot the logical inconsistency here? Those who believe the pursuit of human well-being is the origin of moral truth, begin with a definition of well-being already infused with moral truth. Who gets to determine the right or wrong way to survive or flourish? This approach to moral truth argues for something more than mere biological survival of the fittest. It argues for a kind of moral survival (described as “well-being”) before it has adequately explained the source for moral truth.

The minute you are talking about well-being, you have smuggled in a concept of what counts as good, and what counts as evil.

And here’s another reason:

This View Fails to Determine Whose Well-Being Is Most Important
Why would any of us consider the well-being of strangers prior to the well-being of our own families and communities? If history is any indicator, humans are far more inclined to care for themselvesthan for others, even when the activities of their own group may ultimately harm the survivability of the entire species. Who gets to define “flourishing” when cultures and individuals disagree about notions of happiness, compassion, contentedness, or physical and psychological health? When competing interests collide, whose definitions (and whose well-being) warrants our consideration? As philosopher Patricia Churchland observes, “no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs of two, or the needs of one’s own two children against the needs of a hundred unrelated brain-damaged children in Serbia.”

Even if we are only interested in the well-being of an isolated group, should we be more concerned about total well-being or average well-being of the group? Those concerned with total well-being prefer a world in which the most people possible are able to live with at least moderate well-being. Those concerned with average well-being prefer a world in which smaller groups maximize their well-being, even if others suffer, so the average for the species is elevated. If we derive moral value from an action’s impact on the well-being of the entire species, why should I, as a law enforcement officer, care at all about murdered gang members such as Jesse’s victim? Shouldn’t I be more focused on the fate of those better educated, wealthier or more intelligent contributors to our society than those who are actually preying on our society? Aren’t those in the first group more likely to contribute to the well-being of our species than those in the second? Assessing an action’s moral value on the basis of its ultimate consequence is nearly impossible to accomplish and leads to disturbing discrimination.

In fact, the “well-being” view pushed by Sam Harris and others is really just utilitarianism, and I posted something about the many problems with that view previously.

Why does objective morality matter? Well consider a previous post where I looked at a debate between Matt Dillahunty and David Robertson. Robertson asked Dillahunty whether it was an objective fact that Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp, was morally evil. Dillahunty’s reply? “I don’t know”. And that is consistent with his atheistic view. The answer to EVERY question about moral facts for an atheist is “I don’t know”. They have to not know. If they did know, then God would have to exist to ground that moral fact, because it would exist independent of personal preferences and cultural customs.They have to say I don’t know, or give up their atheism. And that’s why moral facts are nowhere grounded in an atheistic worldview. They use the words, but the words refer to nothing that exists independent of personal preferences and cultural conventions – which vary over time and place.  If you agree with Dillahunty’s ignorance about whether concentration camps are moral evils as a matter of fact, then you can be an atheist.

God’s Crime Scene

Some really good blog posts are coming out on Cold Case Christianity blog related to this new book. Just judging from the table of contents and the podcast he did on it, it looks like it covers 8 of the good, substantial arguments for God’s existence. I always like the science arguments more than the history arguments, and history arguments more than the philosophical arguments, because I’m an engineer. Really looking forward to a quiet weekend with this new book. I got the audio edition in addition to the book itself.