Can Free Will Explain the Conversion of Sinners?

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How many times have you heard someone say, “I chose Christ of my own free will”? In many Evangelical circles such a notion is so self-evident as to be proverbial. “Well, of course we must exercise our free will in order to be saved!” So goes the conventional wisdom. Christians sling the phrase free will about with the same ease Tom Brady throws footballs to Rob Gronkowski. But do most really have any idea what they mean when embracing the notions that stand behind these overwrought words? Free will is part of the stock parlance of Arminian theology, and those who employ it with a little sophistication mean something like that which is advanced by philosophers known as libertarianism. And no, we are not talking about Gary Johnson! On the other hand, Calvinists have usually disparaged the use of the term, avoiding it like the scourge of Black Death. But of course Arminianism and its many step-children believe that Calvinism puts the grip of death upon the freedom and responsibility of human beings. In their mind, the dreaded Calvinists would have all humans beings consigned to a vast kingdom of droids.

Is this true?

A modest renaissance of sorts is occurring with a little known brand of Calvinistic thought that, while opposed to the libertarian impulse of Arminianism, embraces a wholly different kind of free agency. It is known as compatibilism and serves as a useful way to frame what the Bible really says about this slippery notion of free will. This understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility was most clearly articulated in Jonathan’s Edwards’ magnificent tome Freedom of the Will. Edwards picked up where Luther and Calvin left off in their carefully crafted works on the subject. Of course, they all stood on the shoulders of Augustine as he tried to grapple with the Biblical text.

In what follows, I offer a humble ode to the thinking of these theological giants on the complex issues that surround the sovereignty of God in salvation and what takes places in sinners who are converted to Christ. In order to understand the dynamics of conversion, one must understand the often neglected doctrine of regeneration. I suggest that regeneration is not only ill-conceived in Arminian theology, it bears little consequence for how we make sense of the metamorphic miracle that transpires when a sinner enters the glorious kingdom of Christ. That supernatural transformation can only be explained by the Calvinistic interpretation of the relevant Biblical data. Furthermore, only Calvinistic compatibilism can make sense of the conundrums that have plagued our understanding of the tension that resides between absolute divine sovereignty on the one hand and human freedom and responsibility on the other.

Let us consider some definitional points first.

Libertarianism and Compatibilism

Libertarianism holds to two basic notions. First, it is adamant that our choices as human beings can in no way be determined by anything outside of the autonomous power of one’s individual will. No outside influences of any kind are allowed to have sufficient determining power so as to cause us to make one choice or another. Not even our inner deliberations, desires, motives, preferences, and what not, are sufficient causes for the choices we make. And of course, God himself cannot interfere with the human will so as to determine any choice we make; otherwise we can be neither free nor responsible in making those choices.

The second fundamental tenet of libertarianism is known as the freedom of contrary choice. This simply means that no matter what choice one makes, in order to be truly free, an alternative choice must be a genuine possibility and able to be made with equal ease. So for example, in order for a person to exercise a free and meaningful choice to believe upon Christ for salvation, he must be able equally to choose not to believe. Without this unhindered equanimity in choosing Arminians believe humans cannot be held responsible for their choices.

There are many serious problems for this notion of free will from a practical, philosophical and especially theological perspective, but I will not canvas those problems here. I direct people to my full length book on the matter, What About Free Will? What I wish to do instead is consider a positive case for an alternate view of free agency based upon a careful inquiry into the Biblical witness. The Bible embraces a view of human choosing that is consummate with compatibilism. A Biblically framed compatibilism holds that free and responsible choices are compatible with a God who also sovereignly determines what we will or will not choose. In other words, there is a dual explanation for every choice we make. God is the primary yet remote cause of our choosing while we humans are the secondary yet proximate cause of our choosing.

Now in case one is not inclined to think that God is meticulously sovereign in all things—well, what page of the Bible do you wish to be referred? I take this as one of the few truly undisputed suppositions in matters that lie before us.

The Three Compatibilist Mechanics of Human Choosing

Before I consider a theology of conversion it is important to understand the notion of choosing from the strictly human side of the compatibilist equation I have stated. This helps define how one’s choices are determined not simply from the divine perspective, but from the temporal, situational, and personal angle of what goes on in our internal faculties. Three important propositions are affirmed by a compatibilist view of human choosing.

First, we always choose what we want to choose. Nobody ever makes a choice they don’t want to make. This is axiomatic. But immediately some will raise a question here. Don’t we in fact sometimes choose things we don’t want to choose? Little Billy sometimes cleans his room even though he doesn’t like to. Incredibly, he can and does often do what he doesn’t want to do. Would we not agree there is some truth here? But doesn’t this show that libertarian notions of contrary choosing win the day? Not quite. When you examine the matter closer, you discover that there are determinative reasons why one make choices they otherwise would not. We never stand at a fork in the road and choose one direction or the other without some particular reason, even if those reasons are not particularly strong. This is not what libertarians and Arminians would have us believe, but I think it is easy to show they are mistaken. In little Billy’s case of the messy room, perhaps good ole dad stood behind him with threats of the woodshed; and so the properly fearful lad had a compelling reason to pick up those errant Legos. Billy wanted to clean his room because he didn’t want the alternative!

Let us put the matter another way. You can analyze every choice you make and you will discover that you always choose that which you perceive to be in your best interest at the moment of choosing. Go ahead! Think of something. We never choose things we think will harm us. Blaise Pascal said it well:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end…. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Even people who choose suicide are deluded in thinking at that tragic moment that self-inflicted death is the best choice for them. They think it will benefit them. Of course it will not benefit them, but we are often deluded about what really benefits us. Sin, temptation, and deception hold hands very tightly.

This principle of self-interest is embedded in the second greatest commandment—to love your neighbor as yourself. In making this statement (and others like it), the Bible assumes that we have a natural love for ourselves—a natural interest in our own happiness and in making choices that we believe to be to our benefit. Of course, in principle there is nothing wrong with this so long as our choices truly are in our best interest. Only God can define the choices that are in our best interest. We do not retain that prerogative. What brings glory to him is always what brings the greatest benefit and subsequent happiness to ourselves. When we are deluded by what brings glory to ourselves (the true definition of selfishness) is when we are truly harmed by our choices.

Secondly, compatibilism says that all of our choices are determined by whatever our motives and desires are. Now there are many conditions, external and internal to ourselves, that can influence our motives and desires, but when all is said and done we never act against those motives—in particular, the strongest ones. If a contrary choice presents itself it will always have its own particular compelling reasons. Humans don’t do random. Even if we analyze the so-called willy-nilly things we do we find that there is some hidden dormant factor that sufficiently explains the direction we take. For the better part of the day we are barely conscious of the reasons that drive most of our choices. But let us reconsider Billy. The reason why he cleans his room when he otherwise hates to is because he is motivated by the threat of punishment if he doesn’t. Of course, maybe he is brave enough to test his dad’s resolve, but that would simply point to another set of sufficient reasons for doing so. Every boy now and then thinks he can get away with murder in a messy bedroom. Bravery can be a stubborn thing. The point is, you can analyze all your choices by what motivates you. The strongest motives that underpin the perception of what is in your best interest at the moment of choosing are what determines the choices you make.

But there is a third very crucial component here. And in this case, we are particularly concerned about our moral and spiritual choices. This is what the Bible is primarily concerned about and so this is where we must pay closest attention. What is it that motivates us to make moral and spiritual choices? Where do the motives for these choices come from? They proceed from our fundamental nature as human beings. In this regard, when the Bible uses the word “heart” it often has reference to our fundamental moral and spiritual disposition as human beings. Solomon says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). The heart here represents our core nature. It is our mission control central; and from the heart flow the course of decisions that we make about life.

The Fallen Nature of Humanity

But what is the condition of our heart? The Apostle Paul tells us that we have inherited a sin nature from Adam (Rom. 5:12-19). This means a fundamentally corrupted heart. Consider what the Bible says here: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Paul instructs the Ephesians believers to “walk no longer just as the Gentiles [unbelievers] also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:17). Notice not only is the heart hardened here wherein our basic affections and desires lie; but our core nature includes our minds that operate in futility, emptiness, and uselessness in regard to spiritual things. This is the default mode of every human being who lives apart from the holy well-springs of the life of God.

Paul puts this another way when he says: “The mind set on the flesh [sinful nature] is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7). The sin nature is hostile toward God and the things of God. It does not want to obey God’s moral imperatives in a way that brings him glory alone (Rom. 3:23). Thus we cannot please God in our natural sinful state. In fact, Paul says we are not even able to do so. As sinners infected by the curse of Adam we are unwilling and unable to do anything that pleases and glorifies God. All of our best attempts at goodness are like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), tainted by every dark hue of sin our hearts can devise.

Furthermore, there is nothing we can do to alter our desperate condition. The prophet says, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23). Jesus says the same thing employing some other color metaphors:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. (Matt. 12:33-35)

Jesus uses the idea of a tree to represent the basic nature of human beings. There are either good trees or bad trees. There are either trees that are poisonous and produce poisonous fruit or there are good trees that produce good, nutritious fruit. In order for a tree to produce good fruit it must be made good. It must undergo a radical transformation. The heart is either full of good treasure or evil treasure. Jesus is summarizing what a Biblically oriented compatibilist view of the human will tells us. If you have a corrupted nature then you will only have corrupted desires and motives which produce corrupted choices.

So the question of crucial importance here is this: what must happen in order for the tree to be made good?

The Need for Regenerated Natures

We have a need for regenerated natures. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes very graphically the transformation that takes place in the sinner who is changed into a Christ follower. He begins by depicting the pre-Christian state of his readers.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:1-3)

The unregenerate are dead in trespasses and sins. Spiritual silence—stone cold death. They are dominated by the dark designs of the flesh—the sin nature we inherited from Adam and in which we freely and gladly indulged. Yes, Satan, the prince of the power of the air, has a powerful grip upon sinners, but every sinner willingly (freely we might add) follows after the devil’s sinister plots of provoking humans unto disobedience to the moral will of God. They can do no other despite the protests of Arminians who espouse an illusory freedom of contrary choice. What we might regard as average people who go about the normal routines of life have no inclination to spiritual things, rather they are by nature children of divine wrath. All people are born children of wrath and immediately enslaved to their sin nature (Psa. 51:5; John 8:34). Spiritual stillbirths litter the whole landscape.

With this framework of human depravity in mind, consider the following question. Could any person repent of their sin and believe upon Christ while being enslaved to this condition? Many Arminians like to think that our condition as unbelievers is not spiritual death but spiritual weakness or sickness. Within our sickly condition we still have a spark of spirituality in our souls. We can still reach out to Christ for salvation, however feebly. To be sure, divine grace is necessary in this scheme, but it is not sufficient for salvation to obtain. That rests with the libertarian free will of man.

But this scenario simply does not comport with the picture of our human depravity. The desperate catalog of our condition in Romans 3:9-18 says otherwise. No one who lives under the curse of sin is good or righteous (vss. 10, 12). No one has a capacity or a set of motives whereby they seek the true God (vs. 11). They have all turned from him to paths of self-destruction (vss. 12, 16). The sinner has no regard for a holy God (vs. 18). Such persons are in no condition to repent of their sins or to exercise faith in Christ. We might indeed say they are free, but they are clearly in bondage at the same time. They freely choose according to the corrupt desires of their corrupted nature, and can do no other. They cannot defy their nature, but it is important to note that they don’t want to defy their nature. This is why freedom of the will must be defined no more broadly than choosing according to one’s most compelling desires. The unbeliever has no desires for anything other than what their sinful nature dictates.

Think about the implications of this for a moment. Why is it that some people believe the gospel and others do not? Would we not say that faith and repentance are morally good and God glorifying actions? In fact, would we not say that these actions represent the climax of morally good choices? What could be better than falling upon your knees before a holy God in brokenness and utter contrition; of humbly acknowledging the depth of your depravity; and of seeing that faith in the wondrous Christ, who offered his life as an atoning sacrifice to pardon such depravity, is your only hope? Likewise, would we not say that to hear the clear and powerful message of the gospel and of the mercy of God and of forgiveness of sins and then to turn away from this message in unbelief—is this not tantamount to the most egregious of sins? But what causes a person to repent of their sins and trust Christ for pardon? Is it something that proceeds from one’s own good nature? Of course not, unless we want to deny the inherent sinfulness of human beings as the Bible so clearly describes it. Bad trees don’t produce good fruit. Something has to change. Something radical has to take place; something that results in the virtuous actions of repenting of sin and entrusting one’s desires and affections to a glorious Savior. A radical transformation of our nature must take place before such choices can be made. This leads us to the lynchpin of conversion, the doctrine of regeneration.

The Doctrine of Regeneration and Conversion

This is precisely what Paul has in mind as we further consider his flow of thought in Ephesians 2. After describing the pre-Christian state of human beings (vss. 1-3), he goes on to outline this glorious transformation of regeneration:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-7)

The believer in Christ went from death to life. How did this happen? Was it because sinners had the good sense to take their dead souls and infuse new life into them? No. People couldn’t do that even if they had the desire to do so. It was the sovereign God’s mercy toward vile dead sinners. It was the magnificence of his love for his elect even as they remained dead in sin, in an unperturbed state of constantly turning away from God, despising his moral imperatives, walking in their own way, and indulging in the corrupted desires of their hearts. God in his rich mercy and great love arrested appointed sinners in their tracks and he infused new life in them.

Paul says elsewhere: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5). Peter rejoices with similar words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). We did not cause ourselves to be born again, God did. No one causes their own birth. And yet without this new life we could not have the living hope Peter and Paul speak of. More importantly, for our purposes, we could not choose to repent and believe.

Remember our basic thesis about the mechanics of choosing. We always choose what we want to choose, and what we want to choose is what we believe to be in our best interest. Furthermore, the moral and spiritual actions we want to choose are rooted in our most compelling desires and motives. But these are inextricably tied to our basic spiritual nature. If we have a spiritually dead, intractable corrupted nature, then we will only have corrupted motives that produce corrupted choices. In order to make good, God pleasing, God glorifying moral and spiritual choices we must have a new nature implanted within us. As God tells Israel through the prophet Ezekiel:

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezek. 36:25-27)

God does this out the grace that flows from his own sovereign freedom. To be sure, we repent of our sin and trust Christ as an act of our own choice, freely and willingly. But we would never do so unless a change in our natures took place. That is something we cannot do. We are wholly passive as God replaces our heart of stone with a soft, pliable, pure, good heart that then suddenly develops desires for salvation it never had before. Our renewed heart then actively chooses salvation in response to those new desires; free of divine coercion, unhindered in any way, made completely voluntarily and yet in full concert with a sovereign God who made his choice first.

And this returns us to our compatibilistic equation. God is the primary cause of our actions, no less in the normal routines of life, but particularly as it concerns our spiritual transformation. But this does not somehow dismantle our responsible and freely made choices. Divine sovereignty is never to be equated to fatalism—a distinctly pagan notion. We are not lifeless marionettes dangling from the Master Puppeteer’s strings. We are responsible creatures who participate in his story in a necessary nexus of cause and effect. Regeneration is the supernatural side of the coin that initiates the work of salvation—the cause. Conversion is the effect—the natural and human side of the coin whereby we respond in faith and repentance to the effectual calling of the Spirit (John 6:44; 2 Tim. 1:9). Thus, the saving grace inherent in regeneration must precede faith.

In regeneration our wills are passive. In conversion they are active. Put another way, regeneration is the primary cause of our coming to Christ. Conversion is the secondary cause. God’s work of transforming our natures and infusing them with new life is largely silent and imperceptible, whereas our response in conversion is obviously tangible and self-conscious. The priority of regeneration is the only way to make sense of the gracious nature of salvation. It is the only way that prevents us from boasting and taking credit where no credit is due (1 Cor. 1:26-31). The honor and the praise are reserved for God alone. But what a privilege he has afforded us in having this strangely unique, personal, and beautiful part in the wonder of salvation. It is pure joy to be an actor in the divine Playwright’s grand story of redemption.

There are many questions this understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility raises—maters that go far beyond the conversion of sinners. This dual matrix for explaining divine and human action pervades the whole of Scripture and touches upon matters like sanctification, prayer, evangelism, the problem of evil, and more. I encourage you to investigate these issues more fully in my book What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty.

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My book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty is to be released on February 29. It was 2 years ago that I began working on this book and the day of its publication is finally here! You can order the book from Amazon here. The book also has its own website here. If you sign up on the website you will begin receiving a number of resources connected to the book that are not available elsewhere.

Book Review: The End of Christianity

End of Xianity

William A. Dembski is a well-known proponent of Intelligent Design. But in his book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World he makes an interesting foray into theology, specifically the question of theodicy. Dembski holds to the standard age of the cosmos as accepted by the scientific consensus. Nonetheless, he also holds to the divine inspiration of the Bible and thus he seems to accept the literal existence of Adam and Eve as the parents of modern humanity. He also maintains the orthodox Christian belief in the Fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden which he also seems to accept as a literal event in a literal place in the Genesis account of origins. But like other old earth creationists, Dembski holds that animal death, parasitism, disease, and natural calamities like tsunamis and earthquakes occurred prior to the Fall. These affirmations set up the dilemma Dembski seeks to solve in this book. Dembski believes that the Fall of Adam and Eve, which constitutes a collapse into moral evil, is responsible for natural evil (i.e. death, disease, calamity, etc.). Again, this is standard Christian orthodoxy. But since Dembski believes that natural evil existed prior to the Fall then how can he hold that the Fall into moral evil is responsible for pre-existing natural evil? This is the problem he seeks to solve (46).

Dembski proposes some novel moves to make the case that moral evil is the cause of pre-existing natural evil. He sees the effects of the Fall acting retroactively. In other words, the effect occurred before the cause (50). He points to the retroactive saving work of the cross to prove his point (50, 110). Jesus’ death was not only an atonement for sins that occurred after the fact, but also before the fact. This event in time and space transcends time and space and has a retroactive saving impact upon Old Testament saints (Rom. 3:25-26). Both historical situations are possible due to the transtemporal nature of God who is unbound by time (50). Because God is unbound by time He can rewrite the story of history “while it is being performed [like a play] and even change the entire backdrop against which it is performed—that includes past, present, and future. An infinite God who transcends time can redeem a botched performance by acting in creation so that those effects, though attributable to the Fall, come temporally prior to it. In other words, the effects of the Fall can be retroactive” (110).

Dembski is critical of young earth creationism even though he acknowledges that this has been the position of the Church historically (55). He asks, “Within young-earth creationism, all divine compensatory action to redress humanity’s sin occurs forward in time from the Fall. But why should God be limited in that way?” (111). His solution to the problem is a self-conscious attempt “to preserve theological orthodoxy regarding the Fall and scientific orthodoxy regarding [modern] geology [among other indicators of an old earth]” (111).

In making his case, Dembski argues that natural evil is not morally significant prior to the Fall. It only takes on moral significance once humans experience it (78-81). In this regard, he holds that hominids likely existed prior to Adam and Eve who represent the first true ‘humans’ (i.e. homo sapiens). With their existence, God’s breathing life into them (Gen. 2:7) is not a supernatural act of imparting physical life into the couple, but rather the life of God’s image (154-55). In other words, this event signifies the moment God created human beings which are primarily marked by giving them “cognitive and moral capacities” to match His own intelligent moral identity (158). After such moral creatures come into existence pre-existing natural evil suddenly takes on moral significance.  Presumably hominids had no moral sense and therefore could not experience the discomforting existential realities of pain and suffering that come with a less than perfect world.

Divine transtemporality is important in Dembski’s view that God acts retroactively in history. He appeals to Newcomb’s Paradox for scientific support of this view (128-29). In this respect, “divine omniscience [i.e. specifically foreknowledge] and omnipresence means that God is able to anticipate events and human actions by acting in response before they occur” (131). Retroactive answers to prayer seem to confirm this belief. He explains further:

Because God knows the future and can act on this knowledge by anticipating events and directing their course, divine action follows not a causal-temporal logic but an intentional-semantic logic. This logic treats time as nonlinear… and sees God as acting in the world to accomplish his purposes in accord with the meaning or significance of events. The causal-temporal logic underlying the physical world and the intentional-semantic logic underlying divine action are not at odds—they neither contradict nor are reducible to each other. Notwithstanding, the intentional-semantic logic is ontologically prior to the causal-temporal logic. God has always existed and acted on the basis of intentions and meanings. The world, by contrast, has a beginning and an end. It operates according to the causal-temporal logic because God, in an intentional act, created it that way. Divine action is therefore a more fundamental mode of causation than physical causation (132).

Dembski furthers this line of thinking by appealing to two uses of words for time in the Greek. The term chronos refers to chronological time as in a succession of events in a linear cause-effect relationship (125). This corresponds to his notion of causal-temporal logic in the physical world (142). Whereas, the term kairos is the “ordering of reality according to divine purposes” (126). It speaks of that which is eternal and invisible (i.e. immaterial, metaphysical reality) and relates to the intentional-semantic logic of God’s perspective (142). Dembski’s appeal to lexical sources for these distinctions is not very convincing. It is doubtful kairos has this sort of specific meaning in any Biblical passage.

Dembski employs these distinctions to the creation account of Genesis 1-3. The predominate time markers in the account are not speaking of literal time (as in young-earth or other old-earth accounts – i.e. chronos) nor are they metaphorical literary devices, rather they speak of “episodes” in God’s mind when he intended to create (142). In order to make this case, Dembski has to really generalize. He does not explain such specific time markers like “evening-morning” or the use of ordinals to describe the “days” (i.e. Hebrew yom) of creation. How this language fits the very specific definition he gives to kairos is left unexplored.

What shall we make of Dembski’s thesis? I believe it is unconvincing for several reasons. First of all, Dembski’s affirmation of pre-existing natural evil resulting retroactively from the Fall means that Adam and Eve never really experienced the “good” creation God initially made. In fact, it seems in Dembski’s scheme there never was a “good” creation to begin with. Furthermore, the first humans had to suffer the consequences of their sin prior to committing that sin. Dembski anticipates both these problems.

With regard to the first, he says God creates a kind of double creation. “God, in Genesis 1, creates a perfect world…. As a conceptual act by a perfect God, it cannot help but be perfect.” This is the first creation. “In Genesis 2-3, we find the ‘second creation,’ which starts off great but quickly ends in ruin” (111). Dembski does not elaborate, but it seems that his notion of the initial creation as perfect is only a conceptual reality corresponding to his motif of God’s intentional-semantic logic. God conceptualizes a perfect world in his mind, but the causal-temporal reality is something less than ideal. This is like some bad Platonic dream, where perfect concepts exist in the mind of God, but reality fails to match up to those ideal notions.

When it comes to the problem of Adam and Eve suffering the consequences for their sin retroactively, Dembski supposes that the Garden of Eden was a specially protected environment untouched by the natural evil that existed elsewhere in the world. Because Adam and Eve’s existence was confined to the garden, they never actually experienced animal violence, death, disease, natural calamities and so forth. The traditional view of the creation account is that the whole world was created in a state of perfection. But Dembski asks “why God would need to plant a garden in a perfect world untouched by natural evil? In a perfect world [such as young-earth creationists posit], wouldn’t the whole world be a garden? And why, once humans sin, must they be expelled from this garden and live outside it, where natural evil is present?” (151). As long as the couple stays in this “island of sanity” (152) they are untouched by natural evil. Once God expels them from the garden they experience what the rest of the world has already experienced for millions of years (151).

This is highly speculative at best. There is nothing explicit or even implicit in the Genesis account to suggest Eden was some haven in the midst of an otherwise evil world of death, violence and calamity. Over and over we are told the whole of the creation was good. This is not a conceptual reality in God’s mind, his “good” intention, but a physical reality. Nor is God’s “good” intention confined strictly to Eden (153). His good intention extends to the whole of the cosmos, not a tiny fraction of it. Dembski must engage in extreme exegetical and theological gymnastics in order to affirm that the Evolutionary paradigm that rules science cannot abide by a such a perfect primordial world. Furthermore, what about the serpent in this scenario? How did he penetrate this island of sanity undetected by God? Or did God’s permissive will allow him to enter? If so what was the purpose? That is the bigger question of theodicy and Dembski never attempts to ask or answer it.

Dembski’s reconstruction of the creation account undermines the whole storyline of Scripture traditionally outlined as Creation-Fall-Redemption. Since his conception of the whole of creation was already cursed from the beginning, it calls into question the goodness of God. Confining the good creation to a tiny spec in the cosmos called Eden will not do. Romans 8:18-22 will not admit of any such reductionism.  The whole of creation was created good and then temporally subjected to futility according to the most natural reading of Genesis 1-3. In other words, there was no strange kairotic (to quoin a Dembski-like term) transtemporal time tricks going on here. This is not to deny God’s transtemporality. It is simply to say that there is no exegetical or theological warrant to employ it with regard to the creation and fall of man. Furthermore, if the creation was not wholly good then Christ’s redemption work whereby he restores “all things” (Acts 3:21) loses its meaning. There is no good to restore. It was largely corrupted from the get-go.

Dembski’s scheme wreaks a great deal of havoc upon the storyline of Scripture in his effort to save the Bible from what he regards as the more sure interpretation of science. Dembski is willing to force a dubious interpretation upon Scripture because its plain meaning cannot stand up to the infallible pronouncements of the scientific establishment. This is not disparaging the scientific enterprise. The Christian worldview is not anti-scientific. Rather it questions the many presuppositions that have entered the debate on origins when that matter was highjacked by an avowed anti-supernatural agenda. Modern science in the guise of Darwinian evolution (in its various manifestations) has an axe to grind with Biblical Revelation and too many believers have been duped by its unquestioned pronouncements about the natural world and its origins.  The fact remains, no matter how much energy is poured into theorizing about origins, science has no absolute way to make pronouncements about it. We simply cannot reconstruct it. The only way to know how it all came bout is to have a reliable witness. The Genesis record, in the plainest of terms, gives just such a witness—from the perspective of the Creator Himself. That record never came under question until the powerful priests of Darwinism pronounced it null and void.

Book Review: The Problem of Evil

Evans_PoE

Trying to reconcile the notion of a good and powerful God with the existence of evil has been a perennial problem that Christian theism has had to face from its inception. The matter has been taken up in earnest over the last several decades. One contribution is The Problem of Evil by Jeremy A. Evans, an associate professor of philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Evans is part of the thriving resurgence of Christian philosophers that have proliferated the field of philosophy for some time now.

Serious Christian responses to the problem of evil are dominated by philosophers and I find this unfortunate. That is not because I think philosophical responses are problematic, rather they are inadequate. In other words, I believe they are necessary but not sufficient.  Comprehensive theological, biblical and exegetical responses are wanting. It seems that a great deal of those who engage in systematic and biblical theology have conceded the problem to the philosophers and this is not helpful to the church at large.

Having said that, Evans’ contribution is a worthy effort, but overall, it is not entirely satisfying. First of all, because of the philosophical approach, this volume will be tough sledding for most readers. Although he does not get bogged down with standard scholarly philosophic/ logic notation and complicated syllogisms, there is enough philosophical language to keep non-specialists on their toes. The bottom line—only those who are conversant in at least moderate levels of philosophical discourse will be able to benefit from Evans’ work. However, there are many places where his argumentation is clear and pithy, making those sections more accessible and profitable for us neophytes.

Evans employs the Free Will Defense (FWD) as his basic approach to the problem. This is no surprise. Ever since the venerable dean of Christian philosophy, Alvin Plantinga, applied this approach to the problem of evil (especially in God, Freedom and Evil), virtually every Christian philosopher has followed suit. Plantinga presented a well-argued response to philosophers like J. L. Mackie and convinced many philosophers, both believing and unbelieving, that he provided an adequate ‘defense’ (not a thoroughgoing theodicy) to the problem of God and evil. Although libertarian free will has had its able defenders in secular accounts, I do not believe Christian philosophers have made a credible defense of it on Christian grounds. Perhaps more to the point, they have not made credible exegetical and theological arguments from the data of Scripture itself. In the case of Evans (and many others) he has not sought to defend the basic libertarian premises in his argumentation. Libertarian free will is assumed to be true without defense.

And this is precisely the point at which accounts like Evans falls short. Reformed/ Calvinistic theologians have provided far better exegetical and theological defenses of divine determinism over and against libertarian freedom from the data of Scripture that seems largely ignored in Christian philosophy. Furthermore, compatibilistic accounts of human freedom and responsibility accord more with the Scriptural data (see my forthcoming book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty – P&R Publishing, February 2016). I think Christian philosophy has become so myopic and specialized that scholars in the field are not conversant with serious theological materials that contribute to a more faithful theodicy.  Furthermore, most works of Christian philosophy simply are not conversant with Scripture. Scripture is not the starting point for their apologetic. This doesn’t mean most Christian philosophers don’t seek to defend Scriptural doctrines. Scriptural concepts are retained in general, however, they are defended by appeal to rationalism first and revelation second. This is not always the case. Evans often makes appeal to Scripture and I applaud him for doing so. But it is often done in a cursory way. In other words, theology and Biblical exegesis plays the handmaiden to philosophy instead of the other way around. This is what leads to the wholesale acceptance of concepts like libertarianism that has scant support from the actual data of Scripture even though it serves to solve the dilemmas of theodicy much more conveniently.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is because Reformed theology has historically been regarded as the harder theology to adopt an acceptable theodicy, even among Reformed theologians themselves. If libertarianism were true, it would solve the problem with greater ease and with greater acceptability among non-believing critics of the Christian faith. I think that is why it has been a more appealing avenue for Christian philosophers and Arminians in general. The problem is the data of Scripture gives unequivocal support for meticulous divine determinism on the one hand; and on the other, its account of human and divine responsibility does not in any way cohere with libertarian accounts of freedom.

Christian philosophers love to quote Augustine, Aquinas and the scholastics along with Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, et. al. but have little room for Calvin, Luther, Owen, Turretin, Bavinck and Berkouwer. Historians have long acknowledged the genius of Jonathan Edwards, but few philosophers have grappled with his magisterial Freedom of the Will where he ably defends a nascent brand of compatibilism (the idea that human freedom and responsibility is compatible with divine determinism—that is, meticulous providence). Perhaps that is because he was a theologian first and a philosopher second. Ignoring Edwards has become unfortunate.

Evans acknowledges that the real problem of evil is not the logical problem. Plantinga has solved this with the FWD and others who hold to divine determinism have shown the logical problem is not a problem at all (e.g. John Feinberg, Paul Helm, James Speigel, Thaddeus Williams). The notion of gratuitous evil is where the problem largely centers—and let’s be honest, this is where it has always centered. Why does God allow evils that have no apparent reason or purpose? Evans seeks to solve the problem first of all by putting theism in perspective. He argues that there are many other avenues of apologetic value that have sought to vindicate the existence of God. In this regard, he shows his hand as an evidentialist, the most common form of apologetics among Christian philosophers. I favor presuppositionalism.

Evans then provides 2 syllogisms:

1. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2. Gratuitous evils do exist (or, there is at least one gratuitous evil)

3. Therefore, God does not exist.

1’. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2’. It is very likely that God exists.

3’. Therefore, it is very likely there are no gratuitous evils. (28)

Evans obviously favors the second of these two arguments. Both arguments are valid, but which is more likely to be sound? The first argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence that gratuitous evils exist (premise 2). The second argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence for God’s existence (premise 2’). Whichever of these 2 premises has better support will determine which argument is more sound. Evans goes on to argue that God always has some good for evils we don’t understand. The fact that God does not reveal what those reasons are is no argument against their existence. There is of course nothing wrong with this argument. The problem is it does not have much persuasive power. When a mother holds the lifeless body of her 5 year son who caught a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting, saying God has an unknown reason for his death is not terribly helpful though perhaps true. This is where our efforts to construct a theodicy have to be far more pastoral than cold syllogisms.

One of the more fruitful arguments Evans provides is a sort of modified version of John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. He speaks of the defeat of evil. At this stage Evans’ theodicy is two-pronged. First, the FWD responds to the “why” of evil. Secondly, since evil cannot be prevented, there must exist a reasonable response to mitigate its unseemly characteristics. This is the “what now” response (59). It requires the defeat of evil—“To remove its hold on the content of our experience” (59). We must necessarily partner with God in the defeat of evil, because we can’t do it on our own. Trying to doing things on our own is what brought evil into existence in the first place (59). This defeat of evil has special value for the Christian. “The reason that conversion is the summum bonum of soul making [adopting Hick at this point] is that in the act of conversion the condition of the heart is restored” (49). I think Evans is on to some very provocative ideas here, unfortunately I do not believe he develops them enough. Furthermore, they are hampered by his endorsement of libertarianism. A more robust Biblical theology would tease these ideas out, but that moves beyond his philosophical focus.

Evans’ section on hell may be his best contribution to the problem of evil. The question revolves around the unfairness of the eternal nature of hell. Why would God punish finite sins with infinite punishment? Typically, Christians argue that those in hell never stop sinning and thus they ever incur fresh waves of never-ending judgment. Evans thinks this argument is weak. He says, “The real problem attending the denizens of hell is that they have a disposition that is bent against God” (100). “Sin deforms our character” (100) such that a person reaches a point at which he becomes perverse in his opposition to God. Evans highlights the fact that the word “transgression” speaks of a specific sin in Scripture that highlights “intentional defiance against God” (100). Evans cites Isaiah 59:12-13 for this (101). “Persistence in transgression… ultimately yields a heart hardened against God” (101). “Scripture indicates… the effects of transgression on a person is that as we persist in these choices we forge a character toward a particular destiny, the culmination of which (in the negative sense) is a completely hardened heart against God” (101). This corresponds to Pharaoh’s hardened heart (though I disagree with Evans’ libertarian interpretation of the account in Exodus) and Romans 1 in which God “gives people over” to greater indulgence in sin. Evans argues that this sort of abandonment and hardening of hearts takes place prior to the sinner’s entrance to hell. “Hell is not what hardens a person; instead, hell is a place for hardened persons” (102). He further argues that although hell is sheer horror and why would anyone want to remain there, that is not really the right question. The alternative is to embrace God and acknowledge his Lordship and repent of sin and that is decidedly more repugnant to the “denizens of hell” than the horror it holds for them (102).

Evans also has a profitable discussion of a divine command theory of ethics, which states that an action’s moral value is determined by God. This is commonly met with the Euthyphro objection: “Is something good because God loves it, or does God love something because it is good?” (136). The Euthyphro objection presupposes that attributes of God exist independently of him. Evans answers this with an exposition of the doctrine of divine simplicity which indicates that God cannot be divided into parts as if attributes are added to his person. The reality is they exist as essential to his very being. Evans contends that the notion “God is good” should be “more precisely phrased ‘God is identical with goodness’ (quoting Norman Kretzmann). To be more specific, “God is goodness made real, not just the property of goodness. He is the reality of goodness” (180). Thus the very nature of God is the ground of ethics and of human moral obligation.

Evans moves on the application of divine command theory to one of the more thorny problems in this regard: Genesis 22 and the command to Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Evans makes a remarkable statement. “Every moral command imposed by God has as its root the same concern, namely whether one holds anything in a higher priority than one’s relationship to God” (193). I love this statement. Basically, Evans argues that God’s intention with commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was not to bring about a particular state of affairs (i.e., in this case, the death of Isaac), rather his intention is “to bring about obedience with regard to the content of what is commanded” (194). The intention of God is the same in every command he gives to human beings. “What is this intention? To obey the known commands of God and have no other perceived good to be held in higher esteem than him” (195). Evans quotes Hebrews 11:17-19 to vindicate his argument  that God never intended the death of Isaac; although Genesis 22:12 confirms this analysis when God tells Abraham that he knows that he “fear[s] God” above the son he loves.

All this discussion sets up Evans’ attempt to exonerate God from culpability for evil. Although Evans endorses libertarian freedom for humans, he denies it to God since God maintains perfection in his attributes and therefore cannot act contrary to his nature. He appears to affirm a higher theology of providence that Arminianism, but one that falls short of the divine determinism embraced by Calvinists. Here is where interaction with compatibilism would have been fruitful for Evans, but alas, no mention of it. He sounds awfully close to speaking like a compatibilist but staunchly maintains his libertarianism. He quotes Hugh McCann to show that God’s providence is like that of an author to a novel. God creates and determines the circumstances in which human choices play out, yet somehow those choices remain independent of any causal connection to God. This seems rather odd in light of an analogy used more often by Calvinists than Arminians (I am thinking specifically of Wayne Grudem and John Frame). Unfortunately Evans does not tease out some of the implications of his model of providence which would have been helpful.

All-in-all Evans’ book has some useful material for evaluating the problem of evil. He develops some fruitful avenues of thought in seeking to solve at least some of its problems. I believe the work is marred in two ways. First, it embraces libertarianism as a given. If libertarianism is shown to be insufficient as an explanation, then the basic Free Will Defense Evans (and most Christian philosophers) employs fails significantly.  Secondly, he does not employ the solid work of standard Christian Systematic and Biblical theologies. In particular, I believe Reformed theology provides the most faithful and rigorous exposition of Christian doctrine. The work of John Frame, John Feinberg, D. A. Carson, and Paul Helm provides some important perspectives that remain untapped among Christian philosophers with regard to the problem of evil. Feinberg and Helm, in particular, are quite conversant with philosophical accounts of the problem of evil; and Feinberg’s massive tome, The Many Faces of Evil, is rarely consulted in other works of theodicy. This is unfortunate. By all means, read Evans, but read widely from these others as well.

The Shattered Visage

Man is a god in ruins – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Broken mirror

What Are We?

What is man? The question has captivated this worldly existence no less today than it has in the current of history. The Greek philosophers saw man as rational. The Eastern religions saw man as mystical. The Scientific Revolution saw man as material. The Postmodern age sees man as existential. None of these has captured the essence of man. Is man a glorified animal? Is he a demythologized god? Or is he nothing more than a mystery? Christianity offers an answer to the question that remains un-assailed. It maintains that man is a creature of unique dignity, however marred he might be. The account of man’s creation in Genesis says he was created in the image of God. He and she bears the imago Dei. But Eden could not sustain the man and the woman for long. Soon after the forbidden fruit stained the lips of Adam, mankind saw his visage shattered, and God’s image was obscured. Emerson may be unwittingly accurate.

If man bears this unique resemblance to God, what is it? The Reformer John Calvin maintained that man cannot know himself until he has first looked into the face of God. Jonathan Edwards carefully pondered that the two most important kinds of knowledge are of God and of one’s self. To understand who man is most certainly entails knowing his Creator. The imago Dei in man is a reflection of what God is. The notion of “image” and “likeness” in the creation account is not merely the equation of God with the original and man with the copy. Man is not just a “Xerox” of God; a cheap imitation. Human beings in their very essence retain an authentic correspondence with the nature of God. But does this make them little gods?

Man is certainly not an animal, but neither is he divine. There will always be a remarkable distinction between the Creator and the creature. God is the supremely self-sufficient being in that He depends on nothing outside of Himself.  All things outside of God are in fact dependent on Him; they derive their existence from the creative power of God’s self-existence. God simply spoke and out of nothing all came into being. As a creature, man’s being is derivative, he is not his own. God has indelibly impressed upon the essence of mankind, including all of his innate capacities, a finite reflection of the infinite God Himself.

Although humans by virtue of their finite nature could never attain certain attributes predicated of God alone, nonetheless, the imago Dei is not merely the possession of attributes that are like that of God. We must reach deeper for what alludes us. The Bible never precisely defines the image of God in man, and since knowledge of man requires knowledge of God, the panorama of God’s self-disclosure is necessary to define it. The more we know who God is, the more we know man. Theologians have understood the image of God as focused on the immaterial nature of God as reflected in man. However, some have wondered whether the image is reflected in the physical body. The Bible makes it clear that God is spirit and has no body, yet there is some argument that the Bible views the material and immaterial aspects of man as a unity. Perhaps it is best to say that the body reflects the image of God only in a functional way as an instrument of the image retained in the soul.

How Like God We Are

The immaterial dimension of the imago Dei takes features that liken humans to the Creator and distinguishes them above all other creatures. Of all God’s creatures, man alone has the capacity for self-transcendence, self-reflection, and spiritual awareness. Such allows him to even ask the question, “What is man?” The following characterizes what Calvin called the sense of the divine in all human beings.

(1) God created man as a spiritual being. He is by nature religious and has an instinct for worship.  He must satisfy his need to relate himself to something sacred. He cannot exist in the lonely charters of the profane.

(2) This shows man is also a relational being. He must bear some kind of relationship to his Creator and to his fellow humans. God did not create Adam as an androgynous creature; “. . . male and female he created them.” Man is complimented in his social dimension by a counterpart in marriage and needs other humans for fellowship. But above all, man is in desperate need to always be rightly related to his Creator.

(3) God created man as a moral being. He has a conscience so that he knows right and wrong. He also knows this ethical sense within him did not originate there, but elsewhere. Man’s ethical self-awareness unequivocally points him to a righteous and just God, who alone is the standard of all moral judgments.

(4) Man was created as a volitional being. He is able to make informed choices and is granted freedom.

(5) Man was created as a rational being. Man alone can think intuitively, making logical connections between disparate realities, drawing inferences from either concrete or abstract propositions and forming cohesive and intelligible arguments.

(6) This also demonstrates that man is a linguistic being. He can string together abstract thoughts, turning all sorts of metaphors and ethereal symbols into meaningful concrete expressions of communication. His natural knack for language sets him apart from all other creatures who communicate.

(7) Man was created as an emotive being. He displays a complex web of various affective dispositions in varying degrees allowing him to appreciate every other dimension of his immaterial nature.

(8) Man was created as an aesthetic being. He derives a particular significance from beauty. It stimulates his soul to rise above the mundane that would otherwise corrupt meaning in his environment. He has a playful and purposeful imagination involving him in all manner of arts.

(9) Man was endowed as a creative being. God alone is genuinely creative, able to make something out of nothing. However, man can creatively reconstruct out of pre-existing resources all sorts of practical and efficient devices and inventions. His command over the rest of creation progresses to unprecedented limits.  He is technological and always advancing in knowledge. In contrast, the animal kingdom ever remains inert.

 These features of the imago Dei serve as the structural or formal component. They are those aspects which endows humanity with personhood. The functional or material dimension of the image corresponds with man’s responsibility as a representative of God on earth. Properly speaking, this is the manifestation of the image and not part of it. God called Adam to exercise dominion over the creation. As God’s representative man is to reflect the will of God in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness to one another. When viewed as a whole, the various elements described of the imago Dei (by no means exhaustive of all that is implied) form a network of interdependence that distinguishes man as the crown of creation, a being of unequaled gravitas. It thrusts man high upon the pinnacle of the universe and boldly manifests his nobility within the cosmos. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How express and admirable! In action how like an angel. In apprehension how like a god!”

In spite of such accolades, all is not well with man.

How Unwell We Are

The mirror has faded and has been grossly fractured. Man can no longer look at himself and see with clarity the radiant glory of his God.  The face of man has dimmed. As Calvin said, the imago Dei after man fell into sin remains but a “frightful deformity.”  In fact, fallen man has worked hard to erase any trace of God. He has sought to replace God.  What remains of the likeness, man supposes has emanated from himself. Thus he has become a god, a god of his own making—“a god in ruins.” The self-absorption of humanity has swept the Creator under the cosmic rug of his consciousness and he can no longer relate to God or make sense of his own existence. He must create his own meaning and despise responsibility. As Reinhold Niebuhr astutely judged, man’s penchant for self-deception and self-justification in nearly infinite. This leaves man in a state of forlornness, though so often he scarcely recognizes it. J. Gresham Machen has pointed out that sin has not destroyed the image of God in man; however it no longer makes it “a blessing but an unspeakable horror and curse.”  All of fallen man’s divinely reflected capacities are used not to glorify God, but himself.  What Adam formerly retained in perfection is now exercised in corruption by his progeny.

How Well We Can Be

The broken hopes of man are not lost on his own disavowal of what was good in the original creation. The Creator has provided for reparations on our behalf. For the true follower of Jesus Christ the renewal of the imago Dei is being carried out in a methodical transformation of his shattered visage via the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Christians are being re-conformed to the image of the true God in Christ, or as one theologian has said, they are experiencing “Christiformity.” Once, Moses walked into the midst of the camp of rogue Israelites with his countenance ablaze with the shekinah glory of God, having conversed face to face with Him at great length. Moses needed to veil his radiant appearance. Paul tells the Corinthian believers that they too bear the glory of God in their faces: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). God is taking scrap from the heap of smoldering ruins and is fashioning a magnificent edifice to honor His glory and majesty. Each man or woman who has given their life to Him for that purpose becomes one of the glorified building stones. Whereas, Adam before the fall was posse non peccare et mori (able not to sin and die), when believers receive their final glorification they shall non posse peccare et mori (not be able to sin and die). They will live in eternity in confirmed holiness as perfect bearers of the image of the perfect Christ.

Are We Alone in the Universe?

I recently read some interaction on a blog site in which some Christian responders were wondering if the discovery of life on other planets should cause our faith to be shaken since the Bible seems to assume that God created life only on earth. The consensus was that such a discovery would not be so earth shattering (!).

Andromeda_galaxy

This got me to thinking. Should we have any reason to expect that God created life elsewhere? Actually, I think the question needs to be more focused. Do we have any reasons to reject the idea that “intelligent” life exists elsewhere?

First, we must understand what is meant by “intelligent” life. What most people think of as intelligent life is some sort of beings that are human-like. We usually have in mind sentient beings with self-awareness, complex systems of language and communication, and the capacity to grow in wisdom and knowledge. Intelligence involves imagination and complex creative skills that are put to use in various aesthetic pursuits and technological advances.  Such intelligence requires the capacity for problem solving in a multitude of disciplines. Others of course would add that intelligent beings are moral beings, those who have a conscience and are endowed with some sort of free agency. It includes the ability to express a wide range of emotions. We expect such intelligent creatures to form intimate personal relationships on a small scale and complex societies and governing structures on a large scale. Other things could be added, but you get the picture.

When the Bible speaks of such intelligent life it is centered on the creation of human beings. We humans are distinguished from all other living creatures by the existence of these features. But some may ask about angels. Certainly angels (fallen and unfallen) are endowed with many of the components of intelligence, but they differ from humans in two ways. (1) They are incorporeal beings, and (2) they do not procreate. Thus, they do not fit the biological conditions of the rest of living creatures that we associate with the possible existence of life on other planets.

But there is another feature that distinguishes humans in the Bible. The creation narrative in Genesis points out that humans are uniquely created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Theologians generally have two concepts in mind when they speak of the Imago Dei. It indicates not only our essence—bearing some of the characteristics of God—but also our function—that is, we are God’s representatives on earth. In fact, the creation account clearly indicates that the earth is the central theater of God’s glory and we were placed here to make use of the resources of earth to magnify God. In fact, the whole tenure of Scripture places the earth at the center of God’s most important activities. This does not necessarily mean that the earth is the physical center of the universe (however, there is evidence that our galaxy is. See here). Nonetheless, it is certainly the center of the conceptual universe the Bible paints. Our planet is unique and at the center of its existence resides the pinnacle of God’s creation—human beings. Even angels are at best secondary and in fact function in part to serve God’s purposes in the lives of earth-bound humans.

This geo-centric focus is especially clear when we consider what the Bible describes as God’s greatest work—the redemption of human beings. Furthermore, this work is most magnified in the incarnation of Christ. When Christ took upon himself the specific flesh and blood of a human being it happened upon the earth alone—in the little town of Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. The incarnation culminated in his death and resurrection in the city of Jerusalem 33 years later. God’s greatest work is not centered anywhere else in the universe and of course it is not centered on any other intelligent creatures except those He created to inhabit the earth. Christ is forever the God-man—the second Adam (Rom. 5:14). Adam was originally designed and created to rule and represent God only on earth. His failure set up the plan of God to redeem His fallen creatures through the promise that a descendant would arise from the seed of Eve—a human redeemer with a divine origin (Gen. 3:15). This is why Luke traces the genealogy of Christ back to the beginning as the “son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). He died once and rose again once on earth for earth bound humans. He lives forever as the glorified God-man and the center of his eschatological rule will be upon the restored “new earth” with His redeemed earth-bound human creatures.

What is the significance of this for our question about extra-terrestrial life? Some Christians like to say that if God created intelligent life elsewhere in the universe that He has a redemptive plan for them as well. But it obviously could not involve the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, God’s only Son, since those are unique consummative events clearly accomplished once for all. The Bible pictures Christ as forever tied to his incarnation as a human being with the present and future earth being the center of all His activity. Thus, I do not see how it is possible for God to have any kind of focus upon intelligent creatures elsewhere. I suppose it is possible that non-intelligent life could exist elsewhere and that such a discovery would not shatter our faith in the Biblical worldview. However, I think there is good reason to suppose that intelligent beings reflecting the image of God exist only on earth.

What About Free Will? (Part 9)

I am writing a book on the ever thorny, controversial, misunderstood topic of free will.  Over the course of several few weeks, I am blogging about the issue.  I invite your feedback, as this will help me fine tune the contents of my book.

time-bomb 

Libertarians say we are only held liable for our actions if we could have acted otherwise.  In some cases, this may be true, but that is not principally where liability lies. Compatibilism holds that we are held liable for our actions in direct proportion to the degree that we voluntarily (intentionally) engage in such actions. Let us consider this proposition.

To the Degree we Act Voluntarily we are Liable for our Actions

Almost all human actions are voluntary, but some actions are more coerced than others thereby mitigating their voluntariness. The more voluntary one’s actions are the more one is liable for those actions and vice versa. Thus, if a compelling force causes a conflicting motive within a person to act in a way one would otherwise not act, such a person is not as liable for the action. If one feels forced to act against what his conscience tells him is clearly wrong then he is not held as liable for such actions.

Freedom from coercion and the ability to act voluntarily and responsibly is reflected in most systems of jurisprudence where just measures are used to assess guilt (blame) or innocence. Manslaughter is the killing of another without malice of intent, whereas murder is the killing of another with malice of intent. Voluntary manslaughter involves intentional killing, but when mitigating factors make the intention less culpable.  For example, a sudden provocation leads to a fight resulting in the death of the provocateur. Involuntary manslaughter refers to accidental killing in which the death occurred without intention. For example, a person driving her vehicle hits and kills a pedestrian by accident. One is held less liable for something they did accidently or reluctantly under duress. Conversely, one is held more liable for an immoral action if they did it freely (i.e. more intentionally). In fact, what makes it immoral is directly connected to the intentions of the perpetrator (James 1:14-15).

Sam Storms relates a poignant illustration that highlights this proposition. The story involves a pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells who robbed a bank while an explosive device was strapped to his body. He fled the scene with the bomb intact and was later apprehended by the police where he pleaded for their help. He claimed he had been forced to rob the bank by the real perpetrator of the crime who forcibly placed the device on him and threatened to detonate it if he didn’t comply. If his confession was true, what other choice would he have? Under such circumstances our justice system is obligated to exonerate him of culpability for the crime even though he robbed the bank.  The compelling motive to rob the bank is not rooted in some mal-intent but the preservation of his life.

However, under such circumstances one would not be without an alternative choice. Technically, due to the absence of absolute constraint, he was not forced against his will to rob the bank, it was done willingly. The difference is it was also done reluctantly due to extreme duress. All things being equal we can suppose his conscience would not allow him to engage in such a criminal act. But the strongest of any motive or compelling desire within a person at any given moment is always the one that directly influences the will, in this case the coercive influence of the main perpetrator. However, he could have taken his chances and refused to commit the robbery. He could have said I would rather die than cause distress to the bank and its customers and risk their deaths should the perpetrator detonate the bomb in the middle of the robbery. In this sense, he is free to act contrary but only if corresponding contrary motives prevail. The point is the will is the absolute servant of the motive that most powerfully influences it and it never acts in a contrary manner.

People are also not considered liable for actions if other legitimate hindrances prevent them from acting responsibly. For example, Christians ought to attend church on Sunday morning (Heb. 10:25).  But if they are sick and bed-ridden we do not hold them liable; they have a natural inability to act otherwise. But if they don’t go to church because they preferred to watch a football game, they are more liable because they had a natural ability and a moral responsibility to do so. They were under no constraints preventing them from acting responsibly. Likewise, one would not be held liable for saving a drowning victim if he was unable to swim. His natural inability prevents him from doing what is morally right. However, if he is able to swim and doesn’t make the effort to save the drowning victim he is held liable. In this case, he is held liable not because he is unable to swim but because as Stephen Holmes wrote, he is “unable to care.” Thus, liability lies not just with natural ability but as always with one’s intentions.