That leads me into your question to the other writer, who said, "I want so badly to embrace Christianity . . . to embrace faith in God . . . ", to which you responded, "why? why? why?" Well, I can't answer for the other writer, but speaking for myself, it's quite simple ‑‑ there are two reasons.
First, I don't want to die. The thought of my own extinction leaves me a huddled, quivering, amorphous mass of abject, incoherent terror. I can't stand it that when things age to a beautiful level of depth and maturity and wisdom and peacefulness, they die. I can't stand it that when humans who keep learning throughout life get old, they've finally figured out how to live right and are truly beautiful to contemplate, and then they die. Someone once asked me, "Isn't your own discontent with the state of things as you think they are evidence itself that maybe you're wrong?" You asked a similar question of the other writer: "is this not evidence ITSELF of your faith in such a wondrous God, who 'rewards those who seek Him' (Heb 11)?" My answer: No. There's a major difference between wishes and facts. The fact that I want something doesn't make it true.
I THINK I addressed part of this in that “Seeking” piece, but let me make a couple of brief observations here:
First, I cannot tell whether the ‘other person’ you speak of was suggesting that your discontent was PROOF, or rather was merely evidence, or rather still was merely interpretable as evidence…and evidence that needs to be evaluating and interpreted—to the best of your ability. Someone’s discontent over not being 6 foot 4 inches tall doesn’t PROVE that they SHOULD be that tall. Discontent over not being able to ‘have your own way’ all the time doesn’t PROVE you should be crowned emperor. Discontent over seeing a news story about child abuse or political torture doesn’t PROVE these acts should not be done, but it might provide EVIDENCE for built-in moral notions (especially if others around you share your ‘discontent’ at atrocity). Discontent over treachery, oppression, and injustice doesn’t PROVE they are ‘wrong’, but it may provide EVIDENCE for built-in standards of morality. Your discontent over death doesn’t PROVE that you should live forever, but it may provide EVIDENCE of a built-in ‘moral rejection’ of death. It—like a desire to rule the world—might be selfish, but it might also—like a desire to see atrocity cease—be indicative of a ‘high’ nature inside. But you still would have to evaluate that (along with the many other things that might be evidence, which I mentioned in the Seeker piece)
Secondly, I am not sure anyone is suggesting that your WISHING for non-extinction proves the FACT of your non-extinction at all. At most it might provide evidence that your existing state is ‘out of synch’ with what you were ‘originally created’ to be. No Christian I know argues that ‘wishing for something makes it true’…But ‘wishing for something’ might SUGGEST that it was ‘true’ or at least 'possible to be true' (as in “build-into” your aspirations, etc)…
Thirdly, my comment to the writer was about his discontent with his experience of God, which showed an openness and sensitivity to that relationship. In that case—as in ALL personal relationships—being concerned about a dysfunctional relationship is a POSTIVE sign, and evidence that insight was present. In that context, ‘discontent’ was a sign of health. In your case, with the fear of death, the ‘discontent’ (fear) is a motivation (and perhaps a suggestion that another outcome is possible). I consider it also, personally, a ‘sign of health’ in that many people—Christian and non—do NOT take this reality seriously, and do NOT ask the hard questions of honesty and ‘have I overlooked something?’ and ‘am I REALLY confident of my expectations?’, etc….
Fourthly, there are worse things than extinction, friend. There is having to live in a prison of one's own making--isolated by habits of isolating others, close-minded because of habits of resisting truth, being exiled because of violent character, perpetually anxious, because of chronic self-deception, forever being distrusted by others, because of failure to ever trust others, etc. Remember C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce…
So, I think it is a legitimate reason to re-consider God, and although you might come under fire by some for being ‘selfish’ or ‘utilitarian’ in re-opening this question for this reason, I cannot find anything ethically questionable about self-preservation (as long as it is not at the involuntary expense of others, of course) and indeed find plenty of biblical support that God ‘built it in’ and desires us to know peace and confidence when faced with what seems to be an intruder in our universe.
Second, I sometimes think of myself as an atheist who loves goodness and virtue--maybe EVEN IF its connected with a 'god'. It's only half (if that much) a joke. I feel a definite emotional pull toward phrases like, "Be ye perfect," and "Whatever is good and true and beautiful and pure, think on these things." Once, when recently pondering what my life's ambition is, I came up with the answer, "I want to be a virtue 'saint'." I find the call to consecrate every aspect of one's life to the highest and best to be compellingly attractive. Bizarre stuff for an atheist, eh?
Not bizarre at all—unless you hang out with a different kind of atheist than I know(!)…the few I know “up close” aspire to truth (but take very few epistemic ‘risks’—in the sense of William James’ “will to believe”) and certainly aspire to good, altruistic behavior. They evidence clear appreciation for beauty--and, like you, they love their kids.…So, since I, fortunately, don’t know the really rough crowd of them that YOU apparently hang out with (chuckle), I have no reason to be surprised…you word choice of ‘virtue saint’ of course, might be a bit ‘provocative’ but your skeptic friends might be able to make that semantic leap, once they knew what YOU meant by that…
But there’s still an ambiguity here, friend—faced by us all--and one which Jesus advanced to the Rich Young Ruler…he aspired to the highest, but Jesus confronted him with the need to follow the servant-path, to consecrate his life to others’ experiences of compassion and help, and to share Jesus’ solidarity in suffering and rejection by the powerful, the elite, the ‘educated’, the religious authorities…Jesus had to take Peter’s zeal-for-good down a notch, and had to revolutionize Rabbi Saul’s quest for purity within Israel…as long as ‘highest and best’ means a solidarity and servant commitment to helping the ‘lowest and worst’ among us, then that aspiration is pure beauty and iridescent love…
My own life is a continual refinement and re-learning of what IS the good/true/beautiful…and where my part is in that path…sometimes my heart’s motivation is clouded or mixed for it—do I seek the good for its own sake, for my ‘pleasure’ in experiencing it, for the “glitter of man’s praise” once I ‘achieve it’, for some psychic/other reward in the New Future, for the ability to share it with others when it becomes part of my life? Or what? Or what mixture of these?
You passionate desire for this is a good, good fire…but you must make sure it is also pure and warm and tender…can you be the Good Samaritan without being self-conscious about how ‘good you look’ in so doing? Can you accept the task of helping others and never receiving thanks from humanity (how many cured lepers returned to give Jesus thanks?)? Motivations are so key in this search, friend…as I wrote in that Seeker piece, the first show-stopper is arrogance or self-centered pride…but your passionate desire for the good (like mine) will need continual examination and self-honesty…
So, along comes the next question that people ask me: "Isn't that emotional longing in itself evidence that what you are seeking exists?" And again, my answer is: No. At least not in the sense of the existence of a deity or other "externalized" source of the things I love. My best (extremely abbreviated ‑‑ I don't want to get sidetracked here and waste your time) explanation for my emotional desire is that there are objective moral values hard‑wired into our very nature ‑‑ that just as eating vegetables is good for us and eating rocks is bad for us, truth and honesty and benevolence and purity are good for us and deceit and hypocrisy and malevolence and evil intent are bad for us ‑‑ not good or bad for us in the sense of "the greatest good for the greatest number", and not "bad for me and good for someone else", but good or bad for EACH INDIVIDUAL human, because he or she is by nature human. And that we respond with love to things that we perceive as being good for us and with hate to things that we perceive as being bad for us. We love those entities (people, animals, etc.) and things that embody our deepest values. We want to be "right" with respect to the virtues necessary for living, so we aspire to "goodness".
You are quite right that we would get sidetracked here, and anyway, I wrote a little on that topic in the Seeker piece…I would suggest, however, that this view of ‘aspiration to goodness’ is (a) less than obvious, given the scale, pervasiveness, and variety of human atrocity in the world; (b) could be interpreted as evidence for some transcendent aspect of your character, since you would also have competing ‘desires’, perhaps more bestial, at the same time you had the ‘pull to the good’; (c) the ‘hard-wired’ aspect would be ambiguous, supporting either view [as ALL ‘naturalistic’ mechanisms are…they ‘underdetermine’ the results…they can be interpreted as evidence of ‘nothing else’ OR as evidence of clever design…I use a couple of cases of it as evidence of design in a couple of places in the Tank, as does C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity (if I remember correctly)]; and (d) I am not at all sure the definition/formulation of virtue you make here is even conceptually coherent (e.g., the contrast between ‘for all individuals’ and ‘for most individuals’ gets one into practical trouble very quickly when dealing with issues of distribution of scarce or limited resources). The ethics of governance carry such additional difficulty over the ethics of individual choice—I am appreciating the difficulty and burden of governance more and more each day… My comments might be entirely off-base, and I might be ascribing thoughts to you that are not at all present in your brief comment (if I have misrepresented you, I apologize). You aims are no doubt noble, and you obviously recognize the pull of goodness (which I agree is built-in, but I understand that to be God-designed within the human species…since empathy, for example, does not seem to be present in animals--as I have documented elsewhere on the tank).
But your belief in the existence of objective moral values implies the ability of humans to violate those values, and thus creates the possible scenario of ‘sin’ and the need for apologies/restitution to violated parties (and perhaps even acts of exile from the community in the case of recalcitrant violators of others)…the father who destroys his family through heroin addiction, repeated child molesters, serial killers, investment fraud, the “friend” who destroys someone’s marriage and family through infidelity, vandalism against the elderly—all occur DAILY and rip holes in hearts and trust and relationships and hopes…and weakens the ethics of others in the process…
So ‑‑ I find myself looking on wistfully at people who profoundly believe it's true that we are immortal and that nothing we do is wasted in this life, and that our deepest desires for virtue and goodness will someday be fulfilled. But I see absolutely NOTHING (except perhaps in the area of near‑death‑experience research and hypnotic regression studies of previous incarnations) to make me think that there is any factual basis for their beliefs. As I said, by now I've read far more sophisticated apologetics than YYY and ZZZ, and found that essentially they contain the same old arguments, phrased in different ways, with different illustrative examples, but all still containing the same gaping holes. Rather than getting into a detailed rebuttal of all of the classic apologetic arguments, I'll just say that I recently came across an excellent summary of many of the holes I found long ago in arguments I find so bad that I am embarrassed on behalf of the Christians who assert them: it's contained in ABC's site. It's available on the web at XYZ. I could go into a detailed rebuttal of each of the arguments myself, but I'm trying to save you time and effort in reading this letter; if your response to my letter hinges on my positions on the classical apologetic arguments, the chapters on evangelical apologetics in this piece would be a good starting point.
Nah, if you read all the stuff, there’s no point in me restating the arguments…but I must say that I hope your analysis and criticism of the better apologists is considerably stronger and in-depth than ABC’s and that your rhetoric-to-rigor ratio is much better…I have respect for many atheists and skeptics on the Web, but ABC is not one of them…I struggle here to avoid lapsing into the long list of my ‘issues’ with the caliber of his work (especially of a Ph.D!), but his failure to ask the hard questions of the fringe data he so cavalierly uses reduces much of his writing into the category of “clever whining” in my opinion…(but more on this later, when we get to the HomeWork section…smile).
Instead, let’s start with a basic test of understanding. When I taught philosophy in college, one of the first principles I taught my students was that they could not ‘attack’ a opponent’s position until they could restate the strengths of the opponent’s position, to the opponent’s satisfaction.
In scholarly, in-print debates, of course, all sides must be able to state the opponent’s view fairly—or they get their face ripped off in the next issue of the journal, under the sub-title “Who’s Who of superficial thinkers and straw-man builders”…Pursuit of truth and evaluation of ‘opportunities’ such as those ‘offered’ by the biblical worldview—a personal relationship with the Living God(!)—requires a serious level of non-petty interaction and rejection of ‘one-upmanship’ approaches…It is not enough to find ‘holes’ in the opponent’s arguments—one has to evaluate the overall strength of the position and the overall strength of an equally comprehensive alternative set of beliefs…
Let me try to explain this a little more—I realize this is terse and unclear…
Take the case of predictive prophecy. We have already mentioned above some four ‘defeaters’ of such a case (post-dating, deliberate fulfillment, fulfillment vagueness, and historical context suggesting a lucky guess), to which we could also add charges that it actually wasn’t fulfilled. If we use the example of Ezekiel’s prophesy of the destruction of Tyre, we can find massive amounts of discussion about that on the web. I don’t want to resolve that issue one way or another here, but what I want to focus on is simply what level of ‘over-throwing’ might one ‘standard’ objection have in this case.
The prophesy of Tyre’s destruction has one feature I want to draw your attention to: the scraping bare of the city into the sea. Ezky starts off the prophecy with a declaration that God will bring ‘many nations’ against Tyre, using the image of ‘waves’ pounding the surf (26.3). There is a vagueness about this, even though it is clear that there will be plurality of assailants. Then, in the amplification section (26.7ff), one specific nation is mentioned under the rulership of Nebuchadnezzar. The description of his action included breaching the walls and entering through the gates. There is a obvious pronoun/number switch in verse 12, where the walls are now described as broken down and everything thrown into the sea.
Conservative and moderate biblical commentators note that the pronoun shift may indicate a shift from Neby/Babylon to other future invasions (another ‘wave’ of the ‘many nations’—possibly including the Persians, Greeks, and Romans). After the pronoun shift, the description of scraping the city into the sea is mentioned again.
Historically, we know Neby did NOT do any scraping, but did breach the walls and hauled off some of the wealth (much of it probably was cloistered away to the Island before his arrival), before making it a vassal city. But later, after the city had passed from Babylonian to Persian hands, Alexander the Great “scraped” the landside city into the sea, to make the causeway to the island fortress. Under the conservative/moderate understanding of this passage, we have Ezekiel prophesying of one specific event several centuries before its occurrence.
Now, the most common skeptical argument advanced against this (there are others, but my point here is to use this illustratively) is that Ezekiel was dead wrong—that he thought Neby was the one to do the scraping. As such, it does NOT constitute a case of predictive prophesy, but au contraire demonstrates that the bible is clearly errant and/or that Ezekiel was a false prophet because he made a mistake.
Now, when I back up and look at this I wonder why no one seems to wonder how Ezekiel could have prophesied something so ‘unthinkable’ as the scraping ever happening to Tyre (or any major coastal town, for that matter). One never destroyed important seaports, one merely subjugated them. One never ‘scraped bare’ a town, one always preserved the best buildings for the ‘new owners’ (you only destroyed fortifications and such). One never threw away/dumped building materials (especially good Tyrian lumber!) into the ocean, one always reused them. To do what Alex did was quite unforeseeable to someone in those days. Thus, the prediction by Ezekiel was ‘bizarre’ and probably not even believed by his contemporaries(!), but in retrospect, was fulfilled by SOMEONE in the future quite literally.
Now, this fact—that Ezky saw something relatively specific, and CERTAINLY above and beyond the normal ‘doom, gloom, and judgment’ images the prophets “normally” predicted for enemy capital cities (i.e., breached walls, captivity/death for the elite, plunder of the palace, burning the surrounding landscape), and something UNEXPECTED—seems to me to be quite ‘stubborn’ and difficult to explain away. EVEN IF we say he made a ‘mistake’ in ascribing it to Neby, we STILL have a phenomenon very difficult to dismiss.
In other words, the argument about ‘who’ might be trivial compared to the fact of ‘what’…that ALONE might tip the scales on the ‘why’ of the plural of verse 12 in favor of referring to ‘another wave’ of the ‘many nations’ of verse 3f. [If the only force involved in 7-14 is Neby, of course, you cant make sense of ‘many nations’ and ‘waves’…you raise a DIFFERENT problem as to why some idiot would contradict himself within a verse or two…but that’s a different matter.]
My point is this: we CAN raise many and varied skeptical objections to just about every point within the Christian belief-system (just as we can raise similar responses to the skeptical positions), but at the end of the day YOU will have to make a judgment call on which data is more ‘stubborn’…
Some objections merely cast doubt on a proposition (e.g., Ezeky was referring to Neby), without removing all of its force (e.g., the bizarre accuracy of the prediction). Some objections merely reduce the ‘confidence level’ we might have toward something.
Let me digress for a moment—onto this topic of ‘degrees of confidence’…
Some of the propositions that I believe I have almost zero psychological uncertainty about (e.g., my mother exists). Other propositions that I believe I have a great deal of uncertainty about—even though I still believe them to be true (e.g., some fuzzy childhood memories).
Some the propositions that I believe about the bible I also have zero psychological uncertainty about (e.g., God exists, God is good-hearted). Other propositions that I believe I have much less confidence in—but I still would have to say “yes” to a “yes or no” question about whether I believed them or not (e.g., the sequence of certain events in the life of Jesus, or the date of the exodus). And the strength with which I hold a certain conviction or belief can vary with time, temperament, and study. Some objections to a position are insufficient to overthrow it, but MIGHT cause the ‘slider’ to move down a notch in terms of certainty for some (e.g., if even ONE of the ‘stones, timbers, rocks’ of Tyre remained, some people would discount the prophecy a little—as if ordinary language was expected to manifest the rigor and precision of the predicate calculus). But in the end, one has to weigh the arguments pro and con, separate the quibbles from the substantive, and make a choice on typically a wide range of criteria.
For your journey, what this might mean is that you should go back through your objections and ‘rank them’ in terms of “to what extent do they reduce the confidence one might have in the original Christian position” and “to what extent does the original position still have force?” In other words, review your own position for whether it really ‘defeats’ an argument, or merely ‘casts doubt on’ / ‘reduces confidence in’ the original position…
When I first launched the Tank, I had a survey form in which I asked the readers for what they thought were the three strongest arguments FOR the Christian position and the strongest arguments AGAINST the Christian position. Many Christians would come through and say there WERE no arguments against the faith, and many skeptics would say there were NO arguments FOR the biblical position. The whole exercise showed how many people were either ignorant of the issues or dishonest about the whole matter. But frequently I would get a believer that could identify the weakest spots in the Christian worldview, and I would find skeptics that could identify the main strengths in the Christian position—and I knew I had ‘real’ people in front of me.
It is my experience, both personally and as an observer of thousands upon thousands of people who have sent in questions/comments to the Tank, that the main challenge in getting to the truth is oneself. Scripture consistently enjoins us with ‘he that trusteth in his own heart is a fool’; the calls to self-examination and self-criticality are legion (I document many of these passages in the Tank); and the warnings against deception, self-deception, and “voluntary” ignorance/forgetfulness are pervasive…Arrogance of knowledge is a constant impediment to further knowledge (“knowledge puffs up”), and when accompanied by ‘warrior orientations’ (e.g., ‘gotcha!’ or “boy, I shut HIM up” or “nailed that argument shut”) can deaden the heart and dull the faculty of sensitivity and discernment.
My own experience is a constant watchfulness against these…every time I sense a beginning ripple of ‘glee’ or ‘gloat’ over some argument I think is ‘superior’, I drop my guns and pray, asking God to keep my heart oriented toward truth and openness and sharing, and away from combat, one-upmanship, and striving to ‘beat someone’…we are all in community, trying to share what we have learned and are learning, with each other…its not about ‘winning arguments’ or ‘shaming the competition’ or ‘looking good’—its about truth…I learned a long time ago that it was “easier to be bright than to be right”…and that God wanted ‘right’—truth and honesty.
The challenge of this at the personal level for all of us is to be sure we know what we really believe deep inside…when I am responding to someone’s question or position, I sometimes find that I can make a decent/convincing case on some sub-point, but that inside my heart I am not comfortable with my level of confidence in that. In other words, I believe that I am correct in that specific area of the argument (and might could ‘get away with it’, and eventually 'mute' the internal dissonant conscience), but also that something is ‘bothering me’ about it. And so, given my understanding of God’s desire for me to believe AND be at peace with myself about that belief, I cannot rest there—I MUST try to find the cause of my epistemic unease and dig further and further until the issue and its resolution (or re-configuring, if I have misunderstood the problem) has a much higher level of clear-conscience confidence associated with them. I am constantly having to ask myself my degree of confidence and degree of conscience-comfort about my own arguments and evidence and data and perspective and weighting and judgment…
For the case of an atheist, I think a possible effective tool for plumbing the depths of one's heart might be to do this thought experiment:
Imagine for a moment that you ended up being wrong about this, and that you are standing post-mortem before an exalted God-man Jesus (fair-minded, gentle-mannered, with the nail-prints, but very, very omniscient and before whom you are standing in court/judgment—about truth). Jesus asks you “Why did you reject Me during your life?” and you reply something like “Because the stories I received about You and other supernatural aspects of life had too many errors in them for me to believe them, and I couldn’t see any other evidences of God that could be trusted”. And then Jesus says, “If you really believed what you just said, I would not fault you and would honor your integrity—BUT your words do not match what is in your deepest heart—your heart has always somehow sensed My reality and the core truthfulness of my story. You toyed with arguments pro and con, and delighted in discussions—but inside all along you KNEW, didn’t you?”…So, what THEN do you say to an Omniscient God, who can display your own innermost thoughts, feelings, and intuitions before you as evidence of what you really knew/believed was the case? Will those thoughts and feelings “betray” you? Will they testify that you REALLY did find the evidence adequately (not “overwhelmingly”) persuasive? Will they testify that you knew the ‘errors’ you found were only incidental and that you truly perceived the reality of the Incarnation and reality of the Loving in-break by a God who cared for you? Or will your heart say the opposite—that your conscience is clean and that you never had the conviction that there really was an Artist behind each sunset, and a Mathematician behind each galactic swirl, and a genuine experience of the Risen Christ behind the earnest writings of the gospels?
Now, this thought experiment is intended solely to encourage the thinker to ponder what is really deepest in their soul—not what arguments ‘look the best’. It will do no good when we stand before God if we have a perfect, flawless defense of agnosticism, atheism, Christianity, whatever—if our very heart will testify against us! So, this experiment for the atheist (there is another very, very serious version for the believer, btw, with EXACTLY the same issues of what does my heart reveal about my 'confession') is simply to help them isolate and get in touch with that lower-level ‘intuition’ and see the REAL effect of the evidence offered by the scripture, believers, and nature (many of which I mentioned in that Seeker article) on their heart. The only real way to cut through the apologetic/skeptic ‘clutter’ is to try to formulate—as honestly as possible—the strengths of the ‘rival’ positions, to look again at the proffered evidence in scripture, nature, and history; and then to plumb your heart—deeply and honestly—as to what you ‘ended up believing’…
Believe me, I know how hard a process this is—it will humble you often, if you do it right—because I have to do it constantly about my beliefs, about my morals, about my values…are my beliefs merely convenient and ‘pleasing’, or are they forged from honest response to truth? Are my morals merely self-justifying and license-granting, or are they wise and based on transcendent values of community, integrity, and loyalty? Are my values merely self-centered and low-risk, or are do they grow from love for others and appreciation for true beauty and grace?
I realize I have rambled a good bit here, friend, but I went where my heart took me…I hope some of these perspectives will be useful to you, in sorting through the ‘winds of arguments’ that you have been immersed in for so long.