This is the twenty second post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this chapter I will discuss his ninth chapter, Possible and Impossible Gods. This chapter functions partially as a summary of his work, and partly introduces new arguments.
The opening part of the chapter discusses model building, both in science and other fields. In particular, he considers models of God. These models provide a definition of God that has certain attributes. Professor Stenger states that he cannot disprove all possible models of God, but he can disprove those whose attributes disagree with the empirical data. He then summarises his conclusions from previous chapters, stating that these conclusions rule out the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic God in particular. I would agree that if his conclusions were true, then Christianity would be false. However, the arguments that he bases this on are distinctly questionable. Having already written far more than I ought to have done in a book review, I need not go over old ground again. Refer to the previous twenty-one posts.
Possible proofs of God
He also states that this was not a given, and the universe could have been such that the Judaeo-Christian God was correct.
- Purely natural processes might have been proved inadequate of producing the universe. This, of course, carries on with his assumption that purely natural processes operate independently of God, which theists reject. Indeed, if there were events not explicable through either the scientific law (understood as a description of God's acts of general providence) or a miracle, then this would be evidence against theism.
- He also suggests that evidence disproving evolution would support the idea of God. Perhaps, but the theist interpretation of science and evolution are perfectly compatible with each other, so this is not really necessary.
- We might have special mental powers. Since this is not predicted by theism, I am not sure why Professor Stenger includes it in his list.
- A person who has been declared dead by every method known to science might return to life with detailed memories of an afterlife, and information which nobody could have known. Except that has happened. Christians would point to the resurrection of Jesus, but there are more recent examples as well. I link to that video since it seems to be the same report where I initially heard the story; it contains a reconstruction of the events, interviews with the people involved, and video footage taken at the time. Would that be enough to convince hardened sceptics? Almost certainly not. The main doubt seems to be over whether he was truly dead. This account doesn't contain information which nobody could have known, but there are other NDE accounts which claim to do so. The subject of near death experiences is fascinating, but not something I have personally looked into in any depth.
- Somebody might have been communicated with the exact date of the end of the world, which happens on schedule. Not the best example. Clearly if it had happened, we wouldn't be having this debate.
- Physical and historical evidence could have been found for the miracles of Jesus. Most of the miracles are not the sort that would leave aside physical evidence; for example Lazarus rising from the dead would be great for people at the time, but hardly leave anything behind aside from the testimony of those present. Professor Stenger suggests evidence for the earthquake that stuck Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion. The problem with this suggestion is that the region has a lot of earthquakes, most quite minor, so correlating one with the quake mentioned in Matthew's account would be difficult. There is some evidence of a stronger earthquake at about the right time, but I doubt this will convince any sceptics of the validity of Matthew's account, simply because earthquakes are common, the dating is imprecise, and it is almost impossible to conclusively link the geological data and scriptural record.
- The void might have been found to be stable, requiring action to bring something into nothing. Here Professor Stenger is relying on speculative theories of quantum gravity. As I have emphasised, our current established physics demands substance causality, which suggests that a void with no quantum particles would be stable baring a miracle. But the physics of the early universe is not well enough understood to really comment too much.
- The universe might be so congenial to human life that it would clearly have human life in mind. Except, of course, it is congenial to human life since we are here. What Professor Stenger is referring to is that we are constrained to just this one small speck in the universe. But so what? Even that we have this much requires fine tuning of the laws of physics. A larger planet would have killed us with its gravity; messing around with the laws of physics to have weaker gravity would kill us in other ways. It is not clear that it is logically possible in a universe governed by scientific law (which is what we expect from theism) to have more than what we do have. We don't know what interesting things God has going on around other stars, so it is a bit much to say that God should have created life there, when maybe He did, or maybe He didn't feel the need to.
- Natural events might follow a moral law, such as lightning only striking wicked people. Except, according to Christian doctrine, we are all wicked people. Lightning does only strike people who deserve it. The injustice is that most people who deserve it don't suffer like that (but suffer in other ways instead). In short, it is not clear that this hypothesis is what we would expect from Christianity; and if it happened would be evidence against Christianity (for example, against the observations of the book of Job) rather than for it.
Believers might have had a measurably higher moral sense than non-believers. But how do you objectively measure moral standards? How do you distinguish regenerated believers from those who are only nominal? And given those difficulties, how do you know it is not true? For example, today, the vast majority of anti-abortion campaigners are also Christian. If you think (as I do) that supporting the murder of innocent people (and yes, I know they are just barely developed cells at that stage -- they are still living humans, and thus individual elements of a rational substance, and thus people) through abortion is utterly morally repugnant. By this measure, Christians do perform better than those outside the Church, at least in Western cultures. And this is not what Christianity promises. It does not promise to make Christians better than others; it promises to make the Christian better than they would have been without God's grace through repentance and sanctification. In other words, the comparison is not a direct observable.
Of course, there have been many people who have joined the Church, claimed to be Christian, and then turned bad. There are also many people who have joined the Church, claimed to be Christian, and then turned good. Those must also be taken into account when making an assessment. For the first group of people, the Christian answer is that they were never true Christians in the first place, or they fell away from Christianity, or they always had that sin inside them, but it only manifested itself in action later in life.
This defence sounds like the no true Scotsman fallacy. However, the no true Scotsman fallacy occurs when we take something which is accidental to the definition (whether that is a Scotsman or Christian), or a property which people in that category may or may not have, and treat that property as though it it were part of the definition. "No true Scotsman eats porridge on a Sunday!" There is nothing in the definition of being a Scotsman concerning when he does or does not eat porridge, and so some true Scotsmen could eat porridge on a Sunday and others not. "No true Scotsman is an Englishman." But that is certainly correct, because an implication of the definition of being Scottish is that you are not English.
Now a Christian is defined as someone who follows Jesus, and Jesus' first command, and the start of the Christian life, is for his followers to repent. That is to turn away from their existing sins, and not to pick up any new ones. Clearly, none of us are perfect, and (as Paul described in Romans 7) the power of sin is still active in even the best Christians. But the discussion is not over these lesser moral errors (they are still a problem, but within the range of what is to be expected), but the larger ones which even the pagans are ashamed of. To consciously fall into grievous error, and refuse to be grieved by it or acknowledge it as an error, or, if necessary seek help for it, and to keep doing it, is inconsistent with a life of repentance. As such it is one of the things inconsistent with following Jesus, and thus inconsistent with the definition of a Christian. At least until the person does repent. This is, however, a contentious matter. There are lines to be drawn between what I have called lesser errors and grievous sins, and this is not the place to discuss where they should be.
Professor Stenger views that none of these have happened is suggestive that God is false. But how? He has just created an arbitrary list of things, ignoring the evidence that is actually there. Some of this list are things that would, if they were true, refute rather than confirm classical theism. Others are nonsensical. Others even if evidence were found (and in some cases it has been presented), the sceptics would (and have) find ways of dismissing it -- perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly. It can hardly be a solid litmus test if even if evidence is found the goalposts would be moved or set so tightly to deny it.
Deists and dice rolling gods
Professor Stenger considers two theories of the divine he has not ruled out. Firstly, there is 18th century deism, where God creates a universe with deterministic laws and just watches it unfold. He sees a contradiction here with the most common interpretations of quantum physics, which point to a non-deterministic universe, and I agree with him.
Secondly, he considers a God who creates a universe with non-deterministic laws, and just watches how it plays out. So there is no goal to create a particular life form such as humanity; God just sets up a framework where the conditions are right for it to happen. He then starts the system up and sees what He gets. Professor Stenger argues that this sort of God, while it can't be ruled out, is incompatible with the major religions, and ultimately would have no influence on our lives, since His presence or absence makes no difference to anything we observe. A God who makes no observable effect on the universe is indistinguishable with one which does not exist. Again, I agree with him.
Where I disagree with Professor Stenger is where he assumes that the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims, who plays a primary moment-by-moment role in every phenomenon, should have been detected by now. But Professor Stenger here has made a key assumption, which theists would reject: that the laws of physics operate independently of God. Instead, I would suggest that the laws of physics are a description of the primary moment-by-moment role God plays in every phenomenon. The problem is that Professor Stenger adopts a deist or mechanistic philosophy of physics, but then tries to apply it to theism. He finds a contradiction, and claims theism false. But of course there is a contradiction, because you are introducing two contradictory models of how God interacts with the universe, one to interpret your science, and the other to interpret the theology. All he has proved is that theism and deism lead to different philosophies of physics. But we already knew that.
I don't know how Professor Stenger would respond to this counter-argument, because he never seems to have considered it. Perhaps he would respond by saying that God does not appear in our mathematical expression of the laws of physics. But then, why would we expect Him to? The argument only has force if a theist construction of the mathematical laws describing the movement of particles would differ (in broad principles; it is unlikely to be perfectly precise) from that uncovered by theoretical physics. The mathematical expression contains representations of those things we choose to put into it. We represent physical particles, in space and time, and the equations describe the possible interactions between those particles and give how likely it is for each interaction to take place. But they do not tell us why the particles interact in that way; why those rules to calculate the amplitudes and not others. To a certain extent, you can reduce the rules to symmetries, but then why those symmetries and not others? Now think about how a theist would represent material particles mathematically. He might not include God in the equations, since it is difficult to know how to represent God mathematically. So you would have particles, and various ways of calculating how God would move those particles in different ways, including through the generation and corruption of other particles (which would resemble an interaction). The rules would be constrained by symmetries which reflect the divine attributes. In other words, you would expect the same sort of system of equations that has emerged from theoretical physics. So the argument -- God would appear in the correct laws of physics if theism is true; God does not appear in the laws of physics; therefore theism is false -- is not correct because it is not clear that the first premise is true.
The argument from divine hiddenness
The argument from divine hiddenness begins with the premise that no empirical evidence exists for God. This is how Professor Stenger presents the argument:
- If there is a perfectly loving God, then all creatures capable and desirous of a relationship with God (who have not shut themselves off from it) will be able to enter into a relationship by simply trying to.
- To enter into such a relationship, one first has to believe that God exists.
- Therefore, all creatures capable and desirous of a relationship with God will believe that God exists.
- It is not the case that all creatures capable and desirous of a relationship with God believe that God exists.
- Therefore there is no perfectly loving God.
So the question is why would God remain hidden from us? Surely a morally just God would show himself more clearly? The real force of the argument is to attack those theists who argue that God deliberately remains hidden from us as a way of avoiding other arguments for atheism.
This argument is no threat to Christianity for two main reasons.
Christianity denies that people are naturally desirous of a relationship with God. We are naturally in a state of rebellion against God. We can, by evaluating the evidence for God, move away from that state of rebellion. But we cannot become Christians simply by trying, or by our own efforts. It requires an act of grace (unmerited favour) from God. We participate with that act, and need to be in a position to accept it, but the initiator is God.
Ephesians 1:3 (ESV) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
John 15:19 (ESV) If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
The language of God choosing us and predestining us is an indication that God is the driver of the Christian conversion. A little later we read,
Ephesians 2:8 (ESV) For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Again the emphasis here is that we do not become Christians by trying to be Christians. It is the gift of God; albeit one which we can refuse (unless you are a Calvinist).
Christians would deny that God is hidden, and that there is no observable evidence for Him. Firstly, of course, there are the philosophical and scientific arguments for theism. This is pointed out in several places in the Bible, and has been taken up in Christian tradition.
Psalm 19:1 (ESV) The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their measuring line goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them,and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
Romans 1:18(ESV) For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Clearly atheists would dispute that God's invisible attributes are clearly perceived, but that is due to adopting a particular philosophy of physics, one which I would argue does not fit all the data. The evidence is there; but we still need to interpret it correctly.
Secondly, Christians believe that God has made himself visible in the world through direct and obvious intervention. This is most importantly in the person of Jesus Christ. Most Christians, at least except those never presented any alternative to the faith, are Christians because they believe that the historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead and claimed to be divine is overwhelming. Obviously, atheists look at the same evidence and dismiss it. But just because some people dismiss the evidence, which others accept, does not mean that it isn't there. Many atheists I have seen who dismiss the evidence for Jesus are already disinclined to believe it for philosophical reasons (such as accepting an argument against miracles, or thinking that science makes God redundant), or for moral reasons (such as disliking Christian ethics, and what it would mean for them).
And, of course, the revelation hasn't ended with Jesus. God continues to be active, through miracles, and personal revelation. Again, one can question whether this evidence is sufficient for people to accept it (and atheists would), but it is usually convincing for those who directly experience it.
So how would we come to knowledge of these experiences? For those who directly witnessed them, through their senses. But for the rest of us, through historical records, and testimony. A historical record can always be doubted, even when it makes little evidential sense to do so. The one who does not want to believe will always find an excuse to ignore the evidence. As Jesus himself said,
Luke 16:30 (ESV) "And he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'"
Somebody rising from the dead is pretty strong evidence against most forms of atheism. For people who are open to believing, if the evidence is strong enough, it will lead them to believe. But for many other people it would not sway them.
So if these experiences are true, then God is not hiding himself, and the divine hiddenness argument is based on a false premise. The issue is not that there is insufficient evidence for God, but that there is sufficient evidence, but you still have to be prepared to evaluate it honestly. And if Jesus did not physically rise from the dead, then Christianity is false, and the divine hiddenness argument is irrelevant to the Christian.
So what of the argument made by Christians that God deliberately hides himself for his own benefit? This is misstatement of the argument. The argument runs that God does not want to force people to believe in Him; He wants repentance to be a free choice. In other words, God wants to create a Kingdom of people freed from sin, and who voluntarily desire to be part of that Kingdom. The motivation needs to be a repugnance at one's own moral failures, and then gratitude for God for overcoming sin and corruption through the atonement for Christ. It is after recognition of your sin, and realisation that no human power can overcome it, that people turn to God and Christ. This means that the evidence needs to be carefully balanced. Too blatant, and you effectively force even those most hardened sceptics to believe, but for the wrong reasons. You also deny their free will; for rebellion against God is an embraced choice to live in a world without special providence. But if the evidence is too slender, then those who seek to repent won't find God -- the divine hiddenness argument would then become valid. There is a balancing point in the middle -- not no evidence, and enough to convince those who honestly seek it, but not overwhelming and blatant evidence either. And for the Christian, God has found that balance in the Old Testament, New Testament, and subsequent Christian experience.
The argument from moral repugnance
Professor Stenger mentions one solution to the problem of divine hiddenness, which he encountered at a conference. The argument was this:
One of God's chief desires is to create a community of people devoted to good, with God Himself as the chief participant. There are preconditions in entering this community. It may be the case that God's universal self-disclosure would be less effective at creating this community than a policy of selective self-disclosure.
The first two sentences of that argument are a standard part of Christianity, evidenced throughout the Old and New Testament. The third sentence I would quibble with. Paul's argument in Romans 1 is that knowledge of God, or at least enough to get started, is available to everyone through observation of the natural world. Evidence for the moral failures of humankind is also obvious. Of course, some people reject that knowledge, or draw their own conclusions from the evidence. Equally, the evidence for Christ is widely available, if not quite so universal. Again, some people for whatever reason reject that evidence, but that doesn't mean that it isn't there. So I would say that there is universal self-disclosure by God, but not to an extent that it becomes overwhelming. But for those who pick up on those hints there is more personal disclosure as well, which is important in developing a Christian life. But I think the general point is reasonable: a Christian has to assume that the amount of disclosure that God has done is the optimum one to build up the community that God is seeking.
Professor Stenger characterises this as saying that "God does not wish to spend eternity with all human souls, but only a chosen few who, by blind faith in the absence of all evidence, accept a Jewish carpenter who may or may not have lived two thousand years ago as their personal saviour." I would criticise how this is phrased. Firstly, God longs, in one sense, that everyone comes to repentance and lives (Ezekiel 18:23, 2 Peter 3:9), though not at the expense of overriding a possible choice to reject Him. So, yes, the majority of people are not going to be part of God's Kingdom. That is ultimately through their own choices; although we as Christians have to trust that God will judge fairly based on the opportunity available to each person. Secondly, I would dispute that accepting Jesus is in the absence of evidence or against the evidence. I would say the opposite, that to reject Jesus is to ignore or incorrectly judge the evidence. Then we have the mis-characterisation of Christian faith, not as (as a Christian would define it) a trust based on beliefs that you have good reason to accept, but as (as the new atheists define it) acceptance without evidence. There is no question that Jesus lived; to deny that is to dismiss all the evidence and break every rule of common sense. Then there is the description of the community: it is not precisely "human souls" that God wishes to spend eternity with, but humans as a whole, in resurrected bodies. I highlight this just to show how poorly Professor Stenger understands Christianity, if this is his characterisation of it.
Professor Stenger concludes from this that Gandhi and the Jews killed in the holocaust are burning in hell alongside billions of others who have died without accepting Jesus. Now, it is not my place to put myself in God's place as judge, and say who is and isn't condemned. But, in general, that is the teaching of the New Testament (e.g. John 14:6; Acts 4:12, Mathew 7:12-13, Luke 13:23-30, and many more examples). So why is Gandhi excluded (if indeed he was), as the plain reading of the New Testament would seem to imply? Because although he was a good person, indeed in human terms better than the overwhelming majority of people who have lived (including, quite possibly, myself and most Christians), he still wasn't good enough. That is the core message of Christianity: we, as a species, are intrinsically not morally good enough. There is nothing we can do ourselves to change this, but we have to rely on God to change us. To reject to trust wholly in God by relying, even in part, on one's own efforts apart from God in order to make the grade or improve your character is one of the two things that exclude you from God's community (the other being a complete rejection of goodness entirely). So, yes, unless Gandhi did ultimately place all his trust in God and count his own efforts as dross, he is not part of the Kingdom of God, so he is consigned to suffer the natural consequences of that pride.
Professor Stenger criticises this view as suggesting that God is unloving, hideous, and something which, even if logically possible, he wants nothing do do with. Fine. That's his choice. Whether something is or is not seen as hideous depends on one's prior moral convictions. Clearly, if Christianity is true, then Professor Stenger's moral values are in error, and thus so his judgement of what is and isn't hideous.
But I ought to respond to the claim that the doctrine of hell implies that God is unloving. Love is defined as a desire for goodness, and that is what characterises the community that God is seeking to create. There is no point in having a resurrection if the world afterwards is just the same as the world we see now, with all its violence, lies, and hatred. The resurrected life is one of moral perfection. That can only be achieved through the act of God, which people have to consent to. That community is, of course, very good -- humanity as it is meant to be -- and its establishment is thus a fitting end goal of divine love. Why can it not extend to everyone? If you introduce a liar into heaven then it will no longer be heaven. If you introduce a proud man into heaven, it will no longer be heaven. Those who reject Christ, either directly or implicitly, cannot be part of heaven, because they will bring with them their flaws, which would make what is meant to be the perfect society imperfect.
So what of the rest of us? Annihilation might be one option, but existence is a good in itself so it is not clear that it is the best option. Even in hell there is some good.
The alternative is to also resurrect everyone else, but place them somewhere where they can live out their now eternal lives, including their lies, rapes, and other evil desires, which, as they wish, are entirely apart from the special providence of God. The tortures of hell are, I think, in part self-inflicted: the natural end result of people who cannot die but move further away from God's influence for their good. What happens when you put a large group of selfish and angry people together, including some very nasty people indeed. But there is also the element of divine justice there. Justice follows from love: it is the desire to reward the good in proportion to their good, and consequently punish the evil in proportion to that evil. Is eternal punishment fair? Yes, because it is a response to the character of those in hell (which would remain eternally imperfect, and probably grow worse over time), not just their actions in this life. Without God's intervention, personal vice is never going to be eliminated. There is also the matter of God's wrath against evil, which includes those people who do not desire to distance themselves from their own evil. This is also a consequence of God's love, since to cling to the good entails a hatred of evil, and wrath against those things which bring down someone who would otherwise be good into evil. So eternal torment is the natural result of a rejection of God and an immortal resurrected body. While people would not want to remain in hell, experiencing what it means, they would still lack any desire for heaven, in all that entails for their character.
Hell is the natural and logically necessary end point of fallen humanity. It is what we all deserve, myself included, because none of us are naturally good enough for heaven, and nor can we be without divine intervention. This, then, is God's love: not that the majority were punished, as that was always going to happen, but that a remnant are saved from sin and from the wrath of God. Professor Stenger has it the wrong way round. God's love is not so much in the punishment of hell (except indirectly through justice), but in that some are rescued from it.
Professor Stenger can dismiss this rescue from hell as hideous and unloving if he likes. But is he right to do so? I would say that he is proceeding from incorrect moral assumptions. Possibly one of these assumptions is Rousseau's contention that people are naturally good, and only made evil through external forces. It is easy, from that perspective, to conclude that people are naturally deserving of heaven but unfairly cast out of it, or perhaps, if they can't have heaven, deserve some lesser punishment than hell. (Although, even in the Christian view, there might be degrees of punishment in hell -- the Biblical sources don't go into detail here so we can speculate.) This view is certainly very fashionable today. But, if Rousseau was wrong -- as a Christian must maintain -- then we have to draw a very different conclusion. We then draw the conclusion that people are naturally deserving of hell, but some are unfairly taken into heaven. Why is it bad that God spares from hell as many as possible, albeit still a relatively small number?
So Professor Stenger's disgust has at its root a flawed moral premise. Sadly, it is now too late for him to adopt the right premises, and modify his views accordingly.
So the argument from divine hiddenness fails primarily because God hasn't been hiding himself. But neither does it suit God's purposes to reveal himself too clearly. God wants a community of people who genuinely desire goodness and fellowship with Him. There is enough evidence out there for those people to come to knowledge of God and the truth. But the evidence is not so overwhelming that it nullifies free choice. If people don't want to be in fellowship with God, they can still convince themselves that the evidence is invalid, or close their eyes to it. It is far from proved that the balance which we observe is not the optimal one to meet God's purposes.
Thus the argument from hiddenness against the existence of God is invalid.
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