Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Exemption of the Corporation

                We have all experienced the feeling of helplessness when dealing with a company or corporation.  The context is often making a purchase of goods or services.  More precisely, the context is often the aftermath of a mistake by the corporation.  Just recently, I witnessed a circumstance where a customer of a very large company was nearly brought to tears because of the senseless inefficiency of the company and his bank.  A working class man came into the business because he had purchased a service earlier that week, and during the purchase he was double charged.  When he went to make the purchase he was told that his credit card was not being accepted and that he would need to use a separate card.  Reservedly, the man used his debit card, and by extension, funds that were really needed for other bills due in the coming week.  The company has a policy that if a customer uses a debit card a $200 deposit is held until the final checkout after the service is used.  At that time, the $200 is credited back to the customers debit card.  The problem arose for this customer when he realized that somehow the first card had been charged, as well as the second card, and somehow $200 of his money was now in electronic limbo.  The customer’s mortgage was due the next day and some of the money that he needed was floating around between the company and the customer’s bank account.  The manager of the company could not figure out what happened, but did acknowledge that the man was owed $200.  There was no timeline for when that money would be credited back to the man, so he asked if the money could be credited to his debit card.  It was possible, but then there was no guarantee of when the bank would process the transaction.  A quick call revealed that it may take 7 to 10 days to credit back to the man’s account.  7 to 10 days!!!  In a day where information can be sent around the world in less than a second, this should not be!
                This post is not a rant of the erosion of society by technology or an ideological critique of corporations, big business, or Capitalism.  In truth, I believe that all those things do more good than harm.   However, my observation is that modern society as allowed the corporation and its implementation of technology to be exempt from the standards of efficiency in implementing what is due to the customer.  If customers act in the same way, there are significant consequences.  To continue the example from above, it is very likely that the customer was not able to pay his mortgage on time this month due to the fact neither the company or the bank would act quickly to ensure the man received what he was due.  On the other hand, we can make an educated guess on some of the consequences of this man being just hours late on his mortgage.  The man would almost certainly be charged some sort of penalty fee, and it is possible that the man’s credit would be adversely affected, which could have numerous negative impacts for the man and his family.  In this light, it is right that I have described the freedom of corporations to operate on their own extended timelines as an exemption.  Anyone who purchases a good or service must compensate the vender at the time of or even prior to receiving the good or service.  However, the corporation is allowed to take valuable time with no consequence.
                I am not old enough to have experienced how business was done prior to modern technological advances that businesses use.  At the same time, it is not difficult to imagine how a similar situation to that above would have been handled prior to the technology typical for businesses today.  When a business realized that it owed a customer money, it would be expected to refund in cash or a check on the spot.  No customer would stand for being told that they would have to come back in 7 to 10 days in order to receive their refund.  When was this balance of responsibility between the business and the customer cast into the wind?  The development of technology that can instantly take money out of a customer’s account via the swipe of a card can certainly put it back just as easily.  The barrier to doing so is put in place by the corporation (vender, bank, etc.) for their own benefit.
                I have used the concept of giving the customer their “due” intentionally, and in the same way classical philosophers used similar concepts to define justice.  The concept of justice does not begin after a party has been offended, though that is most often how the concept is used today.  When a crime is committed, the victim desires retributive justice, and rightfully so.  I suggest, however, that the concept of primary justice, that the people we come into contact with are due a particular nature of interaction depending on the circumstance, should be… well, primary.  In this case, the business owes the customer a refund just as much as the customer owed payment for services rendered.  The company should be just as quick or face penalties similar to those that a customer would face.  If acting justly was at the forefront of business ethics, the barriers that delay honoring what the customer is due would not have been constructed.  That is not to say that some balance of efficiency in favor of the customer and security for the corporation is not a concern, but that acting justly towards the customer ought not be sacrificed for the sake of the corporation’s convenience.  To be sure, there are many other aspects of corporations that should be challenged, and which are probably more pressing.  However, the principle will essentially be the same.  Somehow, society has allowed corporations and other large organizations to sacrifice acting justly for the sake of some perceived need or convenience, without consequence.

Friday, December 28, 2012

God Does Not Seek to Make Us Comfortable in the Darkness

      In this broken world, we often find ourselves in the midst of darkness.  It may be a personal time of trouble, an unfortunate circumstance involving family or friends, or a national crisis such as the terrible shooting in Connecticut that took place only a couple weeks ago.  When faced with these times of darkness it is natural for us to ask “why”.  We often hear, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” in response to such awful events.  These statements suggest that the dark events we experience are orchestrated by God to bring about some other good or to keep some greater evil from happening.  There are Christian theological traditions that have such a strict view of God’s sovereignty that these types of responses are all that can be offered.  But what are we really communicating to those that are grieving when we say that the evil they have experienced is ordained by God?  What are we saying to those that have committed the evil?
     It seems that when we tell someone that a terrible event is the will of God, we are really saying that this darkness, where we all find ourselves in at one point or another, is where they should be.  Against all their God given rational and emotional inclinations, the grieving should recognize that what they are experiencing, no matter how terrible, is the will of a perfectly powerful and good God.  We are telling them that it is alright to dwell in the darkness of this broken world, and that God’s role in ministering to us in those times is to make us comfortable in the darkness he has created for us.  This sounds off to me, and I hope it does to you too.
     It seems quite clear that Scripture gives Christians another perspective from which to address the darkness of this world.  1 John 1:5 tells us “that God is light and in him is not darkness at all.”  The Christian God seeks to bring light to a world that, in one way or another, choose to be in darkness.  God does not wade into the darkness to dwell with us in misery, but draws us out of the darkness of this world and into his light.  Those that have entered into the life of God “were once in darkness”, but are now to “walk as children of light”, exposing the works of darkness (Ephesians 5:8).  So, how then should children of light react when confronted with the darkness of this world?
     I believe that the first thing that we should do is acknowledge the darkness of a situation.  God has given us the ability to recognize evil when we see it.  When a child is lost at far too young an age, or a husband is lost leaving a young family broken and in sorrow, we should acknowledge with the family that things are now not as they should be.  I think it is clear that God desires for children to grow up and for families to be healthy and whole.  Yet, we do live in a world where things are not as they should be.  It is not helpful to merely lift up the brokenness of this world to the status of “God’s will”, but expose the brokenness for what it is.  For some that are grieving, this acknowledgment of the rightfulness of their grief is all that is desired.  When the grieving has passed and the time for healing comes, it is then that those affected can see the hope that is available in a live in God’s light; the hope and faith that though life is not what it should have been there is still goodness and meaning in the life lived in the light of God.  Together, with the grace of God, the people of God may usher in a world where there is peace and wholeness.
     But there is another side to the darkness of this world that is not often addressed.  Though I have often heard God’s will offered as comfort to the victim of evil, I have never heard one say that the drunk driver, the rapist, or the murdered should be comforted or justified in the fact that they were participating in God’s will.  Yet this seems to be the correct response if they are merely carrying out the will of God, and that their actions presumably were necessary for a greater good or to prevent a greater evil.  If the grieving are to be comforted by the fact that their suffering is part of God’s will, then why should the cause of suffering not also be lifted up as the facilitator of God’s will.  Obviously, this is not how people react to the perpetrators and causes of suffering.  They are held accountable for not doing what ought to have been done, or billions of dollars are spent to fight diseases that take the life of the young, all because we know that things are not what they ought to have been, not matter what theological commitments one espouses in academic journals or on Facebook walls.
     What, then, do we say to those that commit the evil acts that cause so much suffering?  I think we again begin with acknowledging the evil that has been done.  Those that cause suffering have made poor choices, and will face consequences for them.  However, these people are not a soiled rag that God has used to do his bidding and that he will now toss to the known consequences of human society and to be condemned to hell once they have lived out their live of punishment and regret.  These are broken people that are living in darkness and their brokenness and darkness are seen in the choices they make.  We also must acknowledge that these people are loved by God no less than the most righteous among us.  Our job as the Body of Christ, is not to leave those that have caused suffering to dwell in the darkness of their brokenness, but to offer our reflection of God’s light as hope for even these.  It is not God’s will that people remain lost in their darkness, but that they find the life they were meant to live.  We are to minister to them so that they can “cast off the works of darkness”(Rom.13:11), and enter into the divine life where they too may be made whole.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Presentation of Satan Figures in the Old Testament

The following is an examination of satan figures in the Old Testament that I recently wrote for an Old Testament Class.

           When one hears the word “Satan” images of red horns and pitch forks automatically comes to one’s mind.  Even before such imagery was introduced to Western popular culture, Satan was known to be the embodiment of evil and the antithesis of the Holy God of Judaism and Christianity.  Satan as an individual being that works against the purposes of God is one of the most well known aspects of Christian theism by both believers and non-believers.  Being such a prominent aspect of Christian theism one would be justified in assuming that Satan and his work is equally as prominent in the Scriptures.  To be sure, the New Testament contains a fair amount of mention of Satan and his opposition to God, and there is not any reason why one would not expect the same presentation of Satan in the Old Testament.  However, in reading through the Old Testament one finds that Satan is largely absent.  In fact, it is not immediately clear that Satan as presented in the New Testament emerges at all. 
The focus of this paper is to examine the three passages in the Old Testament that includes the noun form of the Hebrew word satan in the context of a heavenly being that is often seen to be in opposition to God and his purposes.  Through this examination it will be demonstrated that a single Satan figure is not found in the Old Testament, and the satans that are present are not presented as the embodiment of evil the name carries today.  In order to make this demonstration this paper will briefly describe the meaning and use of the Hebrew term satan in the Old Testament, examine the satan figures in Job, Zechariah, and 1 Chronicles.

Meaning and Use of satan
            The Hebrew noun satan can mean “adversary”[1] or “accuser”[2], which is often used in a legal sense.  Each meaning for satan is used to refer to both humans and spiritual beings various times in the Old Testament.  In reference to humans, satan is used in five contexts (1 Samuel 29, 2 Samuel 19, 1 Kings 5 and 11, Psalms 109).  Likewise, the term is used in reference to spiritual beings in Numbers 22, Job 1-2, Zechariah 3, and 1 Chronicles 21. 
            In 1 Samuel 29:4 satan refers to David, as the Philistines are worried that he may become an adversary if they go into battle together.  In Numbers 22:22 the term is used in reference to the “angel of the Lord” who is clearly acting on God’s orders.  These are both important examples of the use of the term satan, because they demonstrate that the term is used with no evil connotation, nor do they suggest any opposition to God.  It is important to discard such a unimplied connotation as other satan passages are examined.  Though the passage in Numbers 22 is discussed above it will not be examined below since the Numbers satan is clearly not in opposition to God and is most often not suggested as an example of Satan in the Old Testament.

Satan in Job
            Job contains the most substantial depiction of a satan in the Old Testament, and sets the framework for understanding the use of spiritual satans in the passages in Zechariah and 1 Chronicles discussed below.  The familiar story begins with the assembly of the “sons of God”, seemingly some sort of heavenly court.  Immediately, the satan enters the scene and states that he has just come from roaming the earth in response to God’s question of his whereabouts.  Without prompting from the satan God asks him to consider Job.  The satan answers that Job is faithful because God has places a “hedge” around him and if that hedge was removed Job would curse God.  So God lifts the hedge around all that Job has, and puts it all under the power of the satan.  The next verses describe Job’s loss of all his wealth and posterity, yet Job continues to bless the Lord.  At the beginning of Job 2, the heavenly assembly meets again and God tells the satan that Job remains faithful, in spite of the satan enticing God to act against Job for no reason.  The satan answers that Job will surely curse God if his life was in jeopardy, and is given permission to take Job’s health, but to spare his life.  The satan then inflicts Job with “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head”(Job 2:7), and leaves the story line.
            These first two chapters of Job are often taken to show that the satan figure is secluded and in opposition to God and the rest of the sons of God.  Gregory Boyd points out that the satan is said to have “also” come among the gathered, which he reads to mean that the satan is not a normal participant in the assembly and therefore distinct from the other members of the assembly.  Additionally, Boyd reads God’s question of “Where have you come from?”(Job1:7) to suggest that God was not expecting the satan and reveals that the activity of the satan was not entirely controlled by God, although he admits that this is not demanded by the text.[3]  Boyd also suggests that there is “something sinister” about the satan’s desire to destroy Job, and that the satan is not merely an neutral figure carrying out his role as the “accuser”.[4]
            Though Boyd’s reading of the satan in Job is similar to the popular understanding of the figure, not all scholars agree that the satan in Job is actually presented in that way.  The satan in Job can be viewed as a regular member of the heveanly, but also a member with a special purpose.  Wray and Mobley read the satan as just such a member with the special purpose of auditing human virtue.  They note that there is no indication that the satan is causing any trouble during his time on earth.[5]  When faced with Job’s piety the satan simply questions the sincerity of a man who is receiving special protection from God.[6]  The satan essentially asks, “Who wouldn’t be righteous if they were rich and healthy as a result?” With that question, something of a wager is made between God and the satan.  In inflicting havoc on Job’s life the satan always acts within the boundaries set by God.  There is no sense in which the satan defies God or even opposes his purposes. 
            Peggy Day purposes that the question of Job’s righteousness is not simply a side issue that the divine council stumbled upon, but the reason for assembly in the first place.[7]  God’s presentation of Job then is not out of place, but the central issue.  However, the satan has an objection that has less to do with Job, and more to do with the world order God has set up.  The satan’s objection is a “moral order in which the righteous unfailingly prosper.”  In order to prove that God has not sustained such a world where the righteous always prosper the hedges around Job must be dropped so that the satan can be proved wrong. [8]
            Day reminds the reader that Job is a story of folklore which enables the book to make its point more clearly.  The reader is first brought into a fanciful setting of a heavenly court where the supposed world order is that the righteous prosper and the wicked do not, which was exactly the mindset of the original audience.  Then the reader is dropped into a setting much more recognizable, but where the righteous, even the most righteous, do suffer.  This would have been a disturbing scenario, but it serves to make the point of the book.  The world order Job experiences, is the world that the readers live in.  The righteous do sometimes suffer.[9]  With this perspective in mind, the satan is not pushing for the torture of Job, but for a moral world.  The world in which the author of Job suggests the reader finds themselves.
            In assessing the various readings of the satan in Job it seems the more straightforward reading is that the satan is a regular member of the divine council, with no particular malicious quality.  Even Boyd admits that text does not demand that Satan was off after his own purposes while roaming the earth.[10]  Then the only reason to read the satan’s independent and, by extension, less than upright actions into the story is importing associations from other texts.  If, then, the satan was not working his own purposes he must have been under God’s instruction.  Furthermore, Day makes a convincing argument for the satan’s concern being a just moral order rather than the harassment of a righteous man.

Satan in Zechariah
            The brief mention of the satan occurs in chapter 3 of Zechariah.  In this passage Zechariah is having a vision concerning Joshua, Zechariah’s preferred candidate to be the high priest of Israel after the remnant returned from Babylon.  Zechariah sees Joshua in the midst of the divine council, standing before the angel of the Lord and the satan that is ready to “accuse him”(Zech. 3:1).  Before any accusation is heard from the satan, he is rebuked by the Lord saying, “Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?”(Zech. 3:2).  Joshua’s filthy clothes are then exchanged for “rich apparel” as a symbol his iniquities being taken away. 
            The book of Zechariah is often dated to the late 6th century B.C.E. which makes it very close to the writing of Job.[11]  As a result, the examination of Job above will be helpful in discerning the satan in Zechariah.  The imagery of the divine council is very similar to that found in Job.  The council has clearly assembled to determine if Joshua is fit to serve as the high priest.  Again, there is a dissenter, the satan, in the council that objects to Joshua.  We are not privy to the objections, but the fact that the angel of the Lord declares the iniquities of Joshua are taken away suggest that there were issues that needed to be resolved. Day suggests that Joshua’s ancestry may have been an issue.  If Joshua was a direct descendent of the priesthood that desecrated the office and temple before the exile, is it appropriate for Joshua to assume the role as high priest?[12]
            In any case, the divine council has saw Joshua to be fit for the office of high priest.  As a result, the satan, was rebuked.  Boyd makes the point that the satan’s rebuke is a sign that God and the satan are at odds.   “It is clear that, once again, God and the satan are not on the same side.  God is for mercy, and for Joshua’s high priesthood; Satan wants only comdemnation.”[13]  However, God’s rejection of the objections brought by the satan does not indicate that the satan is anything like a devil figure that lives in opposition to God’s purposes.  Marvin Tate makes the point that people favorable to God may be rebuked as in Proverbs 17:10 and Ecclesiastes 7:5.[14]
            Boyd also objects to the satan being seen as a normal member of the divine council.  He notes that the text does not specifically demand that the satan was supposed to be in attendance or not, but that it certainly does not demand that the satan be viewed as a “member in good standing”.[15]  It seems to be a stretch to entertain the idea that someone present at the divine council was not intended to be there when there is no evidence in the text to suggest it.  Again, the only reason to make such a claim is due to imported assumptions about the nature of the satan.  Additionally, if considered in light of the presentation of the satan in Job, there is more reason to conclude that the satan in Zechariah is a member of the divine council who either has a dissenting opinion or has been charged with task of pointing out objections.

Satan in 1 Chronicles
            The text that contains a satan reference is 1 Chronicles 21:1, “Satan stood up against Israel and incited David to number Israel.”   This text is a modification 2 Samuel 24:1 which reads, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them saying, ‘Go count the people of Israel.’”  1 Chronicles contains the only use of satan as a noun without a definite article.  As a result, many scholars see this passage as portraying satan as a distinct personality.[16]  The modification is seen to be designed clean up the depiction of Yahweh by removing God from the instigation of David’s sin.  It is also seen as an indication that Judaism is progressing towards a more dualistic metaphysic where Satan is operating in direct opposition to God.[17]
            Day, again, has a very convincing alternate view of the depiction of satan in 1 Chronicles.  She argues that satan is not used as a proper noun in 1 Chronicles due to the fact that whichever of the two suggested dates for 1 Chronicles, the book is at least 200 years older than the first clear use of satan as a proper name.  During the 200 year gap, specific names for demonic figures are found, but satan is not used as a proper name.  As a result the text should be read as, “and a satan took a stand against Israel.”[18]
            Secondly, Day argues for different motives for the changes the Chronicler made.  The problem with the original passage was not that God was connected to sinful actions.  If this were the case, then it makes little sense for the Chronicler to include God’s sanctioning of a “lying spirit”(2 Chr. 18:18-22), or for causing Rehoboam to reject the advice of his older advisors, which led to the splitting of the kingdom.  The goal of the Chronicler was to depict a strong relationship between God and David, and the original text clearly does not depict a cozy relationship.  The revision has the twofold result of not depicting a strained relationship between God and David as well as shifting the blame to Joab for not completing the census.[19]
            In light of the above arguments Day suggests that the satan in 1 Chronicles should be understood as an “accuser” from an implied divine council in order to replace the “anger(wrath) of the Lord” contained in the 2 Samuel passage.  The announcement of God’s anger is a legal expression, so it is fitting that satan be taken as an “accuser” in order to maintain the context of the 2 Samuel passage as well as refer to an unidentified heavenly accuser.[20]  Additionally, this usage meets the goal of the Chronicler to soften the tension between God and David by including a middle man, so to speak.
            Considering Days argument above which she convincingly submits as a closer, better reading of the text one finds a very different view of satan.  As in the other examined passages, the satan figure is not presented as an evil being opposed to God, nor as a recurring entity that has been presented elsewhere.  However, the function of a heavenly accuser does potentially occur again as it clearly does in the Job and Zechariah passages.

            This paper is not meant to argue that no Satan figure exists in reality, as it has not dealt with the figure of Satan that appears in the Intertestamental Period or the New Testament Scriptures, and it is not a theological pursuit.  There are also several other passages that traditionally are read to refer to Satan that are not addressed.  These passages are worthy of study, but space did not allow for such a study here.  However, this paper does demonstrate that a reasonable argument can be made for the absence of the Satan figure as presented in the New Testament and believed by most Christians today.  It has been shown that the satans in the Job, Zechariah, and 1 Chronicles are not portrayed as evil beings working in opposition to the will of God, rather that they are more likely working on the behalf of God.  Maliciousness on behalf of the satans seems to be derived from an import of traditional assumptions rather than by a plain reading of the text.  Additionally, it has been shown that though the satans may perform similar roles, there is no indication that the figures represent a single being.  There is much more to be examined pertaining to Satan, including influences from other Near East Cultures and development of Satan as a prominent figure in Judaism and Christianity.  However, it can be said with confidence that Satan is not included in the Old Testament Scriptures.

[1] Peggy L. Day, An Adversary in Heaven: Satan in the Hebrew Bible (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 25
[2] Ibid, 26
[3] Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1997), 146-7
[4] Ibid, 147
[5] T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York: Palgrave Macmillian), 60
[6] Ibid, 60
[7] Day, An Adversary in Heaven, 80
[8] Ibid, 81
[9] For a well developed formulation of this perspective on Job see Day’s chapter on Job.  Day, An Adversary in Heaven, 69-106
[10] Boyd, God at War, 147
[11] Wray and Mobley, The Birth of Satan, 65
[12] Day, An Adversary in Heaven, 120
[13] Boyd, God at War, 153
[14] Marvin E. Tate, “Satan in the Old Testament”, Review & Expositor, 89 (1992): 464
[15] Boyd, God at War, 153
[16] Johnny Awwad, “Satan in Biblical Imagination”, Theological Review 26 Vol.1 (2005): 115
[17] Marvin E. Tate, “Satan in the Old Testament”, 465
[18] Day, An Adversary in Heaven, 130-4
[19] Day, An Adversary in Heaven, 136-42
[20] Ibid, 144

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Brief Survey of the Problem of Evil

The following is essentially a very short paper that I wrote for my Suffering and Christian Faith course.  It gives a brief outline of two major formations of arguments against the existence of God, and some responses to those arguments.

           There are two ways the problem of evil or the argument from evil has been presented.  The first type of problem is called the logical problem of or argument from evil.  The argument basically goes that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good (OOG) god exists.  This OOG god would naturally know about all evil, have the power to stop evil, and, being perfectly good, have the will to stop all evil that is not necessary for a greater good or for stopping a greater evil.  Yet, unnecessary or gratuitous evil exists.  Therefore, there must not be a god, or at least not an OOG god as espoused by the monotheistic religions of the world.  This argument played out most definitively between J.L. Mackie and Alvin Plantinga decades ago. 
In short, Mackie essentially presented the argument as I have just laid out.[1]  Alvin Plantinga responds with his Free Will Defense.  It is important to note that Plantinga responds with a defense and not a theodicy.  A defense merely blocks an argument, that is, it shows that the argument does not hold.  On the other hand, a theodicy attempts to give an explanation for evil.  Plantinga defines a few terms in his defense that are important.  Plantinga defines omnipotence basically as power to do all that can logically be done.[2]  This is opposed to Mackie’s assertion that there is no limit to what an omnipotent being could do.  Second, Plantinga makes clear that what he means by freewill is libertarian or incompatibilst freewill. He goes on to challenge Mackie’s premise that an OOG would stop all unnecessary evil by arguing that humans could have been granted freewill by God.  If it is the case that humans have freewill, they can choose to do evil things that God could not logically stop without taking away their free will.  In this way, God can be omnipotent and perfectly good and allow for human evil since it is not logically possible to both grant freewill and restrict choice or negate the effect of human choices.  Therefore, by extension, it is not possible for God to create a world that has human freewill and no possibility for moral evils.
Plantinga extends his freewill defense to apply to natural evil by stating that it is possible, but not necessarily true, that natural evil is caused by nonhuman free agents such as demons.  It is important to remember here that Plantinga is only presenting a defense and not necessarily suggesting that demons are, in fact, the cause of natural evils.
The logical problem of evil was essentially set aside soon after the exchange between Mackie and Plantinga, with Plantinga providing a formidable defense against the logical problem.  However, a second form of the problem of evil still remains as the evidential problem of evil.  The evidential problem of evil does not suggest that there is a logical contradiction between theistic belief and evil, but asks whether given the evil in the world the existence of an OOG god is probable or plausible.  A simple rendition of the strongest form is that (1) Gratuitous evil exists. (2) If (OOG) God exists, no gratuitous evil exists. (3)  It is unlikely that God exists.
William Rowe is one of the best known proponents of this type of argument.  He does not maintain that theistic belief is inherently irrational, but adheres to what he calls “friendly atheism” and suggests that atheism is more reasonable than theism, given the gratuitous evil in the world[3].  Rowe even attempts to present the reasonableness of theism on a scale from 0 to 1, i.e. 0.1, 0.2, etc.[4]  Some theists like Daniel Howard-Snyder and Michael Bergmann engage William Rowe in this sort of numerical pursuit, but most use a more traditional approach.  I see this statistical approach as dubious and creating a larger disconnect between the academic discussion of the problem of evil and the reality of the problem more so then there already tends to be.  Therefore, I also prefer a more traditional approach to the issue.
            A popular defense against the argument is to attack the premise that there is indeed gratuitous evil in the world.  Wykstra, Bergmann, and Howard-Snyder have engaged in the Skeptical Theist argument which essentially argues that finite humans are not in a position to determine if there are such instances of gratuitous evil, that is, evil that does not lead to a greater good or prevent a greater evil.  Skeptical Theists argue that finite humans do not have the ability to know whether any particular instance of evil has a higher purpose, because they cannot see all the current and future effects that God is privy to.  Therefore, evil does not diminish the reasonableness of theistic belief.  This defense is similar to elements of various "greater good" theodicies that explain evil by suggesting that any evil event is actually necessary for a greater good or to prevent a greater evil.
A valid criticism of this defensive approach made by Michael Peterson is that it suggests humanity’s ability to judge the senselessness of evil is not simply finite, but is generally unreliable.  As a result Peterson takes another defensive approach that challenges the premise that God would not allow any gratuitous evil.  His defense employs the argument similar to Plantinga’s Free Will Defense and states that, in short, if God grants humanity free will then it follows that humans will sometimes commit completely unnecessary moral evils.  Additionally, a world with free will needs a static medium in which free decisions and actions can be produced.  Peterson, like C.S. Lewis, looks to the nature of the physical world and natural law for such a medium.  If nature acts as a system on its own, it is only natural that at times the system will produce some, what we call, natural evils.
          Furthermore, Peterson suggests that not only does evil in a world described above not make the existence of God less plausible, the existence of evil can actually be evidence for the existence of God!  Given the more sophisticated view of theism and the type of world God would create, such as with a stable natural existence and genuine, libertarian freewill, we would expect both moral evils and natural evils to occur.[5]  In fact, it can be argued that the human sense of morality by which evil is recognized is best explained by a theistic world, and can be said to be the burden of naturalist philosophers to explain in a proposed non-theistic world.

[1] Mackie, J.L. “Evil and Omnipotence” In The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, edited by Michael Peterson, 89-90. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991
[2] Plantinga, Alvin. “The Freewill Defense” In The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, edited by Michael Peterson, 108. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991
 [3]Willam L. Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,”  American Philosophical Quarterly , Vol. 16, No. 4 (1979), 9
[4] William Rowe, Daniel Howard-Snyder, and Michael Bergmann, “Is Evil Evidence Against Belief in God?”, In Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, ed. M. Peterson and R. VanAaragon,  Oxford: Blackwell (1994), 4
[5] Michael L. Peterson, “Evil as Evidence for the Existence of God”, 127-8

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Genesis: Myth, Truth, False Dichotomy?

When I was in middle school I began to become interested in what I know now to be theology and biblical studies.  I had heard of that dubious scientific theory called evolution, and how belief in it could only lead to the abandonment of the Scriptures.  I began to read all types of "books" by Ken Ham and others that explained how a literal interpretation of Genesis could be supported by science.  Everything from the 6,000-10,000 year age of the earth to the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans was made perfectly clear.  I was confident that the Bible fit my interpretation, and it wasn't until years later that I realized there was a problem.

As I progressed through my undergraduate education I was confronted with differing views on just about every aspect if Christian theology.  It was not merely dissent from atheists and naturalists, but of Christian scholars, all professing a high view of Scripture.  I began to think that it might be more important for me to allow the Bible to teach me truth rather then find ways to make it say what I already believed.  It is not an easy task, and I have not really had the tools to do so until beginning seminary.  I want to make clear that this post is not meant to degrade any proponents of theological positions along the spectrum.  My intention is to share how I have come to view biblical interpretation and theological formation using the creation story in Genesis as an example.

A good summation of my foundational presumption is that "all truth is God's truth".  I have come to have a great appreciation for science since my days in middle school.  I believe that science is a noble pursuit and has something to say to the theological community.  Evolutionary concepts among the fields of science (biology, geology, genetics and cosmology tending to be the most influential to theological considerations related to Genesis) is the driving force behind advances.  Not surprisingly, considering the majority consensus views in various scientific fields has forced me to examine just what Genesis can tell us about the creation of the universe, the beginning of humanity, and various other issues.  This need to reexamine my approach to Genesis has led me to take seriously other important aspects of interpreting Scripture generally and Genesis particularly.

If I have learned nothing else about biblical interpretation from my time in seminary, I have learned that context in general and historical and literary context in particular is essential for understanding.  By taking these things into account we are better able to allow the text speak the way it wants to, rather than forcing our modern preconceptions on the text.  In applying context to the creation story in Genesis, one must consider literature in the Ancient Near East (ANE) that was contemporary to it.  The early chapters of Genesis read similarly to other ANE myths as far as literary genre.  The story of Noah particularly stands out as nearly every ANE culture had a global flood story.

No doubt some Christians, maybe most, would take exception to me referring to Genesis containing  myths.  To people of the 21st Century the term "myth" is loaded with meaning.  Many people immediately think of Greek Mythology and how it is dismissed by modern people as stories that spring from the imagination of ancient people.  However, to say that a story is myth does not necessarily mean it is devoid of meaning or truth.  Peter Enns makes this point in his book Inspiration and Incarnation, which I am currently reading for my Old Testament course.  As I reflected on this point I realized that throughout history people have used stories to communicate truth, many of which are not considered be actual historical events.  Examples are the various fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.  Most of us would agree there is little chance the events of these fairy tales are historically true.  At the same time we can still agree that these communicate truth.  It is not a good idea to walk alone through the woods or walk into a stranger's house (or oven for that matter).  My point is not to say that Genesis and fairy tales are equivalent.  The point is that we can label Genesis an ANE myth and also derive truth from it, even divine truth.

Some may say then why not say the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, has divine truth also.  Well, my first thought is that the Enuma Elish is not part of global religious tradition that has spanned 4,000 years.  Secondly, there are stark differences that make the Genesis standout among myths.  In the other ANE myths creation is the result of feuding gods.  In Genesis, a loving God creates out of nothing and with intention.  Creation is not the dirty byproduct of warring gods, but a masterpiece God called "good".  Likewise, in other ANE myths people are dirty accidents destined to be the slaves of the distant gods.  In Genesis, humanity is created with love and intention in order to be in relationship with their immanent God.  Lastly, the Genesis flood story is also meaningfully different.  In one ANE flood story humanity is wiped out for... being noisy.  The gods were fed up with all the commotion that humans were causing and so they sent to flood.  The only reason humanity survived is because a god was particularly fond of a human and told him to build a boat behind the backs of the other Gods.  In the story of Noah, humanity has become so depraved that God decides he needs to wipe the slate clean.  However, God sees that Noah is a righteous man and instructs him to build the ark to save life on earth.

It is clear even from the crude descriptions given above that the Genesis stories are radically different in the message that is intended to be conveyed compared to other ANE myths.  The Genesis stories would have been very familiar to the people of the ANE, yet the differences would have been glaring.  Genesis was written/told in a way that was meant for people of the ANE.  In order for people of the 21st Century to understand we must be willing to see the text as it was intended to be communicated.  We often are tripped up over reconciling the literal text with our modern understanding instead of focusing on the deeper, intended communication of the text.  To be frank, I believe it is an idle pursuit to continue to try and reconcile Genesis with our modern understandings.

Obviously, there are many more issues that can be discussed about Genesis that are both internal to the text and contextual.  Evolution, the age of the earth, history of humanity, and the Flood will continue to be topics of debate at seminary and in popular culture.  The seminary I attend does not specifically teach any position, rather it equips students to make interpretations by exposing us to as much scholarship as possible.  Though, I would guess that most of the faculty take view that the early chapters of Genesis are not historical in nature.  At any rate, the focus is on education and not the propagation of particular theological views.

Friday, September 7, 2012


I love my life as a seminary student.  I enjoy constantly being in the thick of theological, philosophical, and biblical studies discussion and study.  I am lucky enough to be married to a wonderful woman who is also a seminary student, which means I usually have someone to bounce ideas off even when I am not in class.  Unfortunately, she too has a limit of how much of my musings she wants to hear at any one time.  The overflow is being diverted to the readers of this blog and/or the abyss that is the internet.  That is not to say that my posts will be limited to academic reflections.  I am a firm believer that if the academic insights of a seminary student do not translate to reflection in other areas of a student's life there is a problem.  As a result, I hope to post about less academic topics as well as about the lighter things in life.

I have been thinking about starting a blog for a while, but I wasn't sure if I had the motivation regularly post.  I'm still not sure, but I intend to post weekly.  Not that there is a vast audience anxiously awaiting my posts...  At any rate, I hope there will be some readers as my reason for posting is not to spew, but begin discussion.