Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible Study, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion

The Light Given

Sometimes, skeptics of Christianity will criticize its approach to justice by asking what happened to the souls of all the people who died before Jesus’s ministry, assuming that since they couldn’t have had faith in him, they were consigned to Hell. But many Christians believe they can address this issue easily by pointing to Romans 2 and saying that all people will be judged “by the light they’ve been given.”

Incidentally, I can’t find the origin of that particular phrase. It certainly doesn’t come from Romans 2 — at least not any translation I’m familiar with. Perhaps some evangelist came up with the phrase years ago, and it’s made its way through Christian circles since. I don’t know.

Anyway, the idea is that people who have never heard of Jesus, whether it’s because they lived before his time, or because they were never exposed to Christianity, are simply judged by other means. Romans 2 deals with the issue in this way:

There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
— Romans 2:9-11

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
— Romans 2:14-16

Paul’s statements here get a little wordy, but he seems to be saying that people who are unaware of God’s law are not really held accountable to the law. Instead, they are saved by the “law written on their hearts” — in other words, their conscience. That appears to be a nice, tidy solution, and it shows that skeptics who try to malign Christianity along these grounds are doing so out of ignorance. Christianity actually has a decent answer to this problem.

However, when we peel back the layers even further, it turns out that things aren’t quite so simple. While it’s true that Christianity has a good answer for what happened to people’s souls before faith in Jesus was a requirement, I think Christians are pulling a bit more from it than is warranted. And I believe they’re misusing Romans 2 in the process.

What Is Paul’s Point in Romans?

Romans is an interesting book with a lot of complex themes, so to fully understand what Paul is trying to say in chapter 2, we should consider the fuller context. He states the book’s main thesis in verses 16-17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

The gospel is the means of salvation for Jews and Gentiles alike. That’s the point he’s trying to make throughout the book. To that end, the rest of chapter 1 is dedicated to laying out why Gentiles were in such need of Jesus. Paul’s rhetoric here is rather inventive, as he finds a way to acknowledge that the Gentiles had no direct knowledge of God, yet still should have known that idolatry would be wrong. It’s a little long, but it’s worth reading:

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. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

It’s pretty impressive, when you think about it. Paul knows that Gentiles never received a direct revelation from God, since the Jews were God’s chosen people. Yet, he argues that they should have known there was a God simply from looking at nature — and to be fair, most people throughout history have done that very thing. But for some reason, he thinks that they shouldn’t have strayed into paganism and idolatry.

In verses 26-32, he explains how their idolatry caused God to somehow withdraw from them even further, which led to homosexuality and all kinds of terrible things. It’s another fascinating bit of brainstorming, but digging any further into those verses would take us off topic.

Then, in chapter 2, Paul does write the bit that I started this post with: that Gentiles are simply judged by what they do, whether they knew the law or not. Good, moral Gentiles may be excused on the Day of Judgment (though it’s hard to say if any could pass Paul’s no idols policy).

But here’s where it gets more complicated: in chapter 2, Paul is talking about the law — i.e., the Law of Moses.

Yes, in chapter 2, Paul is giving some cover to Gentiles who had not been covered by the law and didn’t know Jesus. Salvation was not completely lost to them, because God would judge them in a different manner. Jews, on the other hand, were judged according to the law.

But Paul doesn’t leave it there, and that’s why it’s dangerous for Christians to point to this passage as though God will still judge people according to some non-specific moral law. Paul begins to argue at the end of chapter 2 that the law was not sufficient for the Jews either, because they couldn’t keep it perfectly. He sums up the argument in 3:9 and verses 19-25:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

Paul believed that without God, most Gentiles were reprobates, while Jews were burdened with a law they could never live up to. In his mind, Christ made the perfect solution to both problems.

The next few chapters explore this theme in more detail, but I think we’ve covered enough to make my point.

It helps when you realize that Paul is not writing about two distinct groups of people in this book, he’s writing about three: Gentiles, Jews, and Christians. Chapter 2 is not talking about a dichotomy between “God’s people” and Gentiles who are ignorant of God — it’s simply the midpoint of an argument that states why Gentiles needed Jesus, why Jews needed Jesus, and how both groups can be saved as Christians. So really, chapter 2 doesn’t answer the question of how God will judge those who don’t know about Jesus now that Christianity is not some brand new religion.

Can Non-Christians Still Be Saved?

It’s already clear from the New Testament that perfection is not a requirement for salvation. All of Paul’s letters make that case, and we also have the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27), which clearly shows that God prizes effort over ability. But that’s how God deals with Christians. How does he deal with non-believers?

It happens that there are some very clear passages about this:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life… Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.
— John 3:16,18-19

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
— John 3:36

These passages are rather plain, but to be fair, can we be sure that they apply to people who’ve never even heard of Jesus? Couldn’t these verses be talking about those who have heard about Jesus, but rejected the teachings? Let’s check out a couple of other passages:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
— Hebrews 11:6

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all
— 1 Tim 2:5-6

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
— John 14:6

To me, these passages sound like hard and fast rules. Perhaps there’s some exception buried in there, but it’s hard to see room for one. What we really need is a passage that discusses the policy that was in place before Christianity came on the scene (as talked about in Romans 2), but also explains whether or not that policy changed with the introduction of Christianity. Turns out, we have a pretty good candidate:

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
— Acts 17:30-31

The author of Acts claims that this statement was made by Paul when he was addressing a group of pagans in Athens. While walking among them, he was studying the various temples and altars to the Greek Pantheon, when he came upon an altar to “the unknown God.” Never one to miss an opening, he began to speak to a crowd and explained that this “unknown God” is actually the only God — the Judeo-Christian god who created the Universe and sent his son to die as an avenue for salvation. This particular verse is the culmination of his argument — that God had left the Gentiles to their own devices in the past (as Romans 1 and 2 state), but now “commands all men everywhere to to repent.”

Paul creates a dichotomy here. He acknowledges how things were done in the past, which is the system he described in Romans 2, and he contrasts it with how things are supposed to work moving forward. Is there room for this notion that all people will be judged “according to the light they’ve been given”? I think it’s hard to make a scriptural case for it.

Why Should We Care?

As an atheist, I prefer moderate Christianity to the fundamentalist variety, but that doesn’t mean I think moderate Christianity is some great thing. I think it gives cover to the fundamentalists, and I think it prevents many people from being able to think clearly about certain topics (we can get into those later). Most moderate Christians know plenty of people who aren’t Christians at all, and they can see that non-Christians aren’t bad people. And if they learn more about why these non-believing friends of theirs are skeptics, they can usually concede that we have some decent reasons, even if they disagree with them. This makes them question why good people can’t be saved, just because they aren’t Christians. Enter the “enough light” argument.

Hey, it’s a great notion. If there really is a god out there who would bother to judge humans on anything, I tend to think he/she would judge us on the kinds of people we are, not which superstitions we happen to hold to. So this comforting idea eases the burden that moderate Christians feel. They don’t have to experience all that cognitive dissonance about how a good God could punish good people; therefore, Christianity evolves and hangs on even longer. So even though this is not an obnoxious or offensive doctrine, I think it’s important for us to see that there’s no real basis for it in Christianity. In fact, the way the Bible deals with it throws even more doubt onto Christianity. Why would God pick the first century as the time to stop overlooking people’s ignorance, especially if he planned for his new religion’s authority to come primarily from written texts that weren’t yet written, were centuries away from being compiled, and were millennia away from being accessible and readable by the majority of the population?

Sometimes cognitive dissonance is good, because it can expose bad ideas and help us find better ones. Hopefully, pointing out the flaw in this doctrine will help sow a little dissonance.

64 thoughts on “The Light Given”

  1. UnkleE,

    I don’t mean to get between a conversation you’re having with nate, but your questions to nate stood out to me.

    They are interesting and difficult questions, but many of them also could still be presented to Christianity.

    – Like the one regarding freewill – Did Pharaoh have freewill when God hardened his heart? And if freewill is why we sin here on earth, then will freewill be taken away when the faithful get to heaven, or will it only be a matter of time before the faithful are cast out like satan and his angels were when they sinned in heaven?
    – How did God arise out of nothing, or how can something have no start?
    – Is the universal declaration of human rights true when the NT has God saying things like slaves to be good slaves and slave owners must be good slave owners?

    Idk, to me it seems like religion only backs these questions up one step, while mayebe even creating some new questions…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. CS, did stone age men know there would be a cashless society, with the implemented system of computers/id chips, tattoos, and tracking?

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  3. Yeah, this whole issue has always been confusing.

    Like, if people were basically saved without ever knowing about Christ, so long as they were good people, then it seems odd to be told to teach them about Jesus… Because, if they didn’t find the story believable, due to virgin births, raising from the dead, etc, then it seems weird to then condemn them to hell, despite them being good, moral people, based solely on whether or not they believe in some larger than life, supernatural stories…

    But yeah, like a few of the others have said here, it seems to be more of an effort to patch holes in the religion – like kids who are playing a game that they made up. While they play they encounter some issue with a rule (or lack of rule) that they hadn’t previously anticipated, so they make a new rule to patch it, and they keep playing… until they encounter a similar issue, maybe even arising from one of the new rules, so they make another one to patch it, and on and on and on….

    And it’s kind of fascinating, because I can see how this keeps going – it can become an exercise that makes one feel like they’re growing in wisdom and understanding, instead of making them think the effort if ridiculous…

    fascinating…

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  4. Why do I need someone else to instruct me on how to live my life , especially when their instruction comes from an ancient book of rules they themselves adhere to very little. As I pointed out on John Zande’s blog last week, go google the 613 Laws of the Mitzvot which were handed down by Moses as his God had revealed them to him. I’m already doomed because I love to eat shellfish. 🙂

    Where does one receive the right to hand pick which rules we live by today ? It would seem to me , if God could reveal his rules and requirements to some, he could multitask and reveal them to all of us at the same time.

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  5. KC, you nailed it! But of course, those that “believe” will have all sorts of reasons why you’re wrong-wrong-wrong … all based on that ancient book of rules they themselves adhere to very little. 😀

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  6. @ KC

    Unklee has stated he acknowledges that the Pentateuch, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Exodus (as recorded) is primarily geopolitical fiction and apparently has no problem rejecting it as such.
    The typical Christian hypocrisy, and theological two step takes centre stage when he then tries to assert there is historical veracity in the resurrection.

    That he accepts that this is fact , and then tries to build any and all cases upon this, no matter how tacitly, is evidence of the man’s disingenuity.
    He will always argue around the peripherals without ever addressing the core issues of the fantasy that he claims governs his life.
    As do all believers ….

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  7. I’m a bit confused about why Nate’s conception of moderates giving “cover” to extremists is difficult to accept. This is an extremely common fact of human life.

    Extremist Muslims exploit the existence of moderate Muslims for “cover.” If there were only extremist Muslims, then societies would not try to distinguish between ordinary, peaceful Muslims and jihadist Muslims. The existence of moderate Muslims gives extremists a degree of freedom, trust and acceptance that they would not enjoy without the cover of moderate Muslims.

    What about abortion? The more extremist elements within each party routinely use the more moderate elements as cover to push their own more extreme ideas. “Americans don’t want to take away a woman’s right to choose” is used not just to defend basic abortion rights, but to extend them to small children and to prevent even minimal regulation of abortion facilities. Conversely, “Americans just want basic, common sense restrictions to protect the life of a baby” is used by people whose goals are really to eliminate all abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.

    Of course the more extremist/radical/fundamentalist Christian groups get “cover” from the more moderate Christian groups. It would be difficult to see how that could not be true.

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  8. @Jon.
    As long as they all acknowledge the resurrection of the character, Jesus of Nazareth, they can, and often do ”forgive” the other sins (sic) as simply being misguided.

    Furthermore, as it is no longer fashionable to try to liquidate Christian heretics or relieve them of their souls by
    torturing them to death, most Christians seems comfortable to let Jesus (when he next turns up) sort out the ones who have got the wrong end of the stick and are currently beating about the burning bush with it and hope that Jesus tosses the miserable bastards into Hell as they rightly deserve. Because he loves them.
    Amen.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think you ask fair questions, Unklee. Here are some brief answers….

    Do we have free will? If so, how? If not how can any choice be based on evidence rather than brain processes?

    I think we have the impression and appearance of free will. I don’t know that we have “libertarian free will”, in the philosophical sense, though. The universe is (basically) deterministic, and I don’t have any evidential reason to believe we are exempt from that determinism. That said, I don’t know if it matters. We feel and behave as if we have free will, so whether we are making choices somehow independent of physical causation or just experiencing the “choices” as they happen, the result is the same.

    How did something arise out of nothing? (Or how can a series of events have no start?)

    I don’t know! But then, I also don’t know that A) something did arise out of nothing, B) something cannot arise out of nothing, or C) there was ever a “nothing.” Perhaps the brute fact is the universe itself (whether it is our own universe, or some parent universe whose quantum fluctuation gave rise to our universe, or whatever).

    This, I think, is the best question that religion asks. The rest — the nature of morality, miracles, specific religious stories, spiritual experiences, etc — seem mundane and easily explainable. But this one, to me, is genuinely interesting. Unfortunately, I do not think religion provides a compelling answer. Instead, it just asserts a series of claims (original cause is a God with XYZ characteristics, etc) that require premises it has not proven.

    Is the “fine-tuning” of the universe caused by design, chance or necessity?

    I don’t know that we really agree what “fine-tuning” means, or that any definition of the concept can avoid question-begging. The results of the universe are what they are because of the nature of the universe. If the universe were different, the results would be different.

    If the universe were “fine-tuned” for human life, why did it take 13.79 billion years for humans to arrive on the scene? If the universe is fine-tuned for human life, why is the universe so hostile to life in any form? If the universe is fine-tuned for life, why is life so poorly designed in so many cases?

    My own guess is that the nature of the universe comes down to some brute fact(s). Whether that brute fact is “this universe”, or some metaverse, or some supernatural being (god or programmer!), I don’t know. That said, “three-persons who act in unity as God” seems like an unnecessarily complex “necessary being.”

    How can you say miracles don’t happen when there are so many millions of reports?

    I can discount them for the same reason I discount the many reports of effective homeopathic remedies, alien visitations and abductions, haunted houses, the Loch Ness Monster/Bigfoot, and various other poorly evidenced claims. The existence of such claims is not surprising. But in every case I have ever looked into, the result was one of three things: 1) the claim was completely debunked (see James Randi), 2) there was a plausible natural explanation, or 3) the claim was uncheckable and usually hearsay.

    Of course, I cannot possibly prove that every miracle claim is false. But the facts that A) it is easy to fool and be fooled, and B) we repeatedly encounter miracle claims that turn out to be examples of people being fooled, mistaken or lying strongly suggest that “they were fooled, mistaken or lying” is more plausible for any given claim than “a miracle happened.”

    I will give an example. Recently, somebody trying to persuade me of the reality of miracles mentioned Craig Keener’s book (Miracles) and specifically a story Keener related about a club foot being miraculously and spontaneously healed in front of a doctor’s eyes. A doctor! Proof!

    So I looked into it. And it turns out, Craig Keener had simply relayed a claim made by another author, Jamie Buckingham, in a book about the famous faith healer, Kathryn Kuhlman. Kuhlman was the Benny Hinn of her day. I mean, she was literally Benny Hinn’s inspiration, he modeled his work on her own services and her organization endorsed Hinn. A (Christian) doctor looked into 25 of her miracle claims in the early 70’s and found that none of the people had been healed. Zero.

    I was, frankly, surprised that a scholar with the reputation of Craig Keener would include such non-credible testimony in his book. But it took time and effort to discover that the “doctor’s” testimony was laundered through at least one or more charlatans, and I seriously doubt many people who read Keener’s book actually attempted to double-check all the hearsay it contained.

    So how do I explain all the reports of miracles? Easy. People want to believe, and other people are willing to exploit that.

    Is the universal declaration of human rights true?

    No, it is an assertion of values.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Hi Nate, thanks for your reply. Just two brief comments.

    1. In still don’t think the idea of “cover” works, except maybe in some general sense that would equally apply to almost any viewpoint about anything (including atheism). In which case, it is hardly a point to be made against christianity.

    2. My comment about the benefits of religion was simply to point out that if are judging religious belief and practice based on outcomes, the sum total is slightly but definitely favourable, despite what atheists here and elsewhere say to the contrary. The scientific evidence is clear. And it is logical for a naturalist, for religion wouldn’t have survived the evolution of the human race if it didn’t confer some advantages.

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  11. Hi William, obviously I’m only able to give brief answers here, but here’s a few thoughts on your questions.

    “Did Pharaoh have freewill when God hardened his heart?”
    I don’t know if that story is historical or legendary, not do I know if it is an accurate description of God’s actions (the early OT seems to be based on views that God contested through the prophets and Jesus).

    ” And if freewill is why we sin here on earth, then will freewill be taken away when the faithful get to heaven, or will it only be a matter of time before the faithful are cast out like satan and his angels were when they sinned in heaven?”
    I don’t know, and I would expect to know. But my guess is that we will have freewill then the same as God has, but we won’t want to choose wrong any more than he does.

    “How did God arise out of nothing, or how can something have no start?”
    God didn’t arise out of nothing. And a thing (God) which is eternal and outside time doesn’t need to have a start. (This was well known to cosmologists when, before the big bang was shown to be true, they postulated a steady state universe, and said it didn’t need a start.) My comment was that a series of events must have a start, quite different statement.

    “Is the universal declaration of human rights true when the NT has God saying things like slaves to be good slaves and slave owners must be good slave owners?”
    The NT doesn’t anywhere say that slavery is good. In fact it says that people should take the opportunity for freedom if it came to them (1 Corinthians 7:21). And it lists slave trading among the sins that Paul doesn’t approve of (1 Timothy 1:10). I think you may be confusing the realities of life for a minority and persecuted sect within a brutal empire and the limited amount of life issues addressed in the NT, with approval.

    And now, if you are OK with this, I’d like to ask you a question please. You say: “like a few of the others have said here, it seems to be more of an effort to patch holes in the religion – like kids who are playing a game that they made up” Why is it that when a scientists changes his hypothesis because new information come sin, we call it following the evidence and applaud, but if a christian changes his or her mind for the same reason, it is like kids playing a game? Would you rather we stuck to our beliefs <despite the evidence?

    Thanks.

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  12. Really? That conversation has transpired, and it leads to an argument from incredulity on his part.
    I mean, it is your time and space, but why bother?

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  13. UnkleE,

    you asked,

    “Why is it that when a scientists changes his hypothesis because new information come sin, we call it following the evidence and applaud, but if a christian changes his or her mind for the same reason, it is like kids playing a game? Would you rather we stuck to our beliefs <despite the evidence?"

    I keep forgetting that we approach the bible so differently.

    But I guess verses like Jude 1:3 ("…the faith which was once delivered unto the saints."), 2 Pet 1:3 ("…seeing that his divine power hath granted unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness…"), etc – seem to indicate (at least to some Christians) that the bible is perfect and that it should not be altered or changed.

    And two, to me, the changes made to religion, or the rules added at the creation of a religion don't always appear to be made because better information or data has been gathered, but because it was realized their perfect religion, from their perfect god, had a hole, had something that was missing or some other issue that needed to be repaired.

    You can build a boat by studying fluid dynamics, strength of materials, buoyancy, etc – or you can build a boat my slapping some boards together and tossing it in the water and then randomly attaching other stuff to it in the hopes that it will end up making a seaworthy vessel.

    I'm saying that science seems like the first approach to boat building, while to me, religion often seems like the latter.

    But I am reminded that you and I approach religion and the bible differently.

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  14. Hi Jon, thanks for your thoughts on “cover”. I am interested in what people mean, but I honestly can’t see that you’ve provided any reason to accept the idea. Yes, I agree that extremists sometimes tone down their rhetoric to make their views seem more benign, as you say, but that could and would happen whether or not there are people with moderate views. The moderate views can be expressed regardless. I can’t see how “cover” works at all. Extremist views aren’t covered up by moderate views. They exist whether there are moderate views or not.

    I appreciate your comments on the questions I raised with Nate, and we will have opportunity to discuss them further when Nate posts on some of them. So I will briefly make two general points which apply to most of the issues.

    1. If Nate thinks that the inability of christians to explain the idea of “the light given” is a reason to doubt christianity, then surely an inability of atheism to explain some of these questions is a reason to doubt atheism? We must be consistent, surely? And there are two sorts of explanation, a why (cause) and a how (mechanism). Both viewpoints have difficulty explaining the how, but christianity has a why answer whereas on your own admission, you do not (for some at least).

    2. Free will is an issue in itself, but it affects all other issues as well. Reason depends on there being a connection between the truth of a proposition and our brain processes. But if naturalism is true, how does truth find its way into the purely physical processes in the brain and allow a choice to be made? If our choices are indeed determined by our brain processes, then we didn’t have any real choice and the processes determined our conclusion, not the truth of the matter. This means it is hard to see, if naturalism is true, how we can have any meaningful discussion of what is true and what isn’t. This is a deep issue that won’t go away easily.

    Hopefully we’ll be able to discuss further later. Thanks.

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  15. Hi William, I can agree with you that “to some Christians … the bible is perfect and … it should not be altered or changed” and also that “the changes made to religion, or the rules added at the creation of a religion don’t always appear to be made because better information or data has been gathered”. And therefore I agree that “you and I approach religion and the bible differently” I have bolded some of your words to point out that while this sometimes occurs, on your own account it doesn’t mean it always occurs.

    So if you think I or another christian has modified our view for unworthy reasons, surely it is up to you to put the case for that conclusion rather than just assume it.

    For my part, I can say very few of the ideas I express here arise in trying to answer the questions asked of me here. In most cases, where my views have changed from when I was first a believer, it has been because of my own questions and reading, sometimes decades ago. I would hope you would applaud anyone willing to change their views because of the evidence, rather than inferring other motives. Thanks.

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  16. UnkleE, yeah, i get it.

    But I’ve read a lot of the bible too, and study other things related to it, so it’s not like am forming opinions base don nothing.

    I know my example of boat building was less than flattering, and I really didn’t mean for it to be. For myself, the evolution of my rationality related to religion wen through several stages, and often times I was some guy slapping boards together, hoping it worked…

    It’s just how it seems to me. I like you, and like nate, I prefer your take on Christianity over the fundamentalist hardliners, but that’s only because it’s more accepting or at least least offensive, not because I understand it better.

    But one example that i think of right now is hell. I can agree that the descriptions of hell may not be literal, as in there may not be a literal fire, or literal worms, just like heaven probably wasn’t really intended to imply that it had literal streets of gold or a literal pearl gate, etc…

    But hell is called eternal just like heaven is. Hell is identified as a real place, much like heaven. Hell is a punishment where heaven is a reward. So with hell, i dont understand where the idea that it really means “annihilation” or something similar. I do not see that thought as being based on anything except to fix what what seems like a contradiction – the contradiction of a loving and just god torturing souls forever due to crimes that range in severity from disbelief, and violent pedophilia…

    It seems like this change in views shows the bible has issues, yet those who hold it want it to be seaworthy, so instead of seeing a crappy boat, they cover the hole up and pretend it’s not there.

    I could be wrong, but based on the information I have now, that is my current opinion. I have no doubt that you are where you are due to the current info you have. So I dont hate you because of differences, just as I trust you do not hate me – but we fall on opposing sides, and may have difficulty understanding one another.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Hi UnkleE,

    If Nate thinks that the inability of christians to explain the idea of “the light given” is a reason to doubt christianity, then surely an inability of atheism to explain some of these questions is a reason to doubt atheism?

    I don’t view it that way. To me, atheism should be the default position toward all god claims. I see atheism as saying “I don’t know, and I’m not convinced” when it comes to the question of deities. So when someone else comes along and says “this is the god that did it all,” they have a burden of proof. If there are holes in the doctrines that they’re presenting, then yeah… that’s a problem.

    At the same time, it’s always good to have an explanation for a question. So if something other than atheism comes along and can answer the questions that atheism can’t, without creating worse holes, then it would make sense to leave atheism in favor of this other view. I just don’t think Christianity comes anywhere close to that standard.

    And there are two sorts of explanation, a why (cause) and a how (mechanism). Both viewpoints have difficulty explaining the how, but christianity has a why answer whereas on your own admission, you do not (for some at least).

    But “why” might not even be a relevant question. And honestly, almost any myth or fantasy can answer the “why,” but that says nothing at all about how reasonable an explanation it actually is.

    Liked by 5 people

  18. Unklee

    I honestly can’t see that you’ve provided any reason to accept the idea.

    I’m unsure what is unclear. As I described it, the sociology of extremists/radicals (using the terms broadly, not just referring to violent/anti-social groups) getting “cover” from more moderate/mainstream groups is not at all unique to Christians. So why would Christians be exempt from this dynamic? If you can explain why the dynamic doesn’t exist — or why Christians are exempt — I’m all ears. Otherwise, it seems like you would have to acknowledge that Nate is describing something real.

    Extremist views aren’t covered up by moderate views. They exist whether there are moderate views or not.

    I don’t think Nate is suggesting anything like that. Of course extremist views exist regardless of moderate views. Here is a simple example.

    If all Christians believed in snake-handling, refused medical treatment in favor of prayer, spoke “in tongues”, and refused to celebrate any holidays, then society would regard Christians as strange and radical people. Christians would suffer social rejection and ridicule.

    While most Christians don’t believe any of those things, some Christians do believe in each of those things. But if a Christian Scientist meets some people and calls himself a Christian, nobody bats an eye because they assume he’s a mainstream Christian and not a radical who refuses medical treatment.

    Similarly, most Christians don’t want some sort of theocratic government and so most people think of those Christians rather than the Dominionists who do want theocratic domination of culture and government.

    If Nate thinks that the inability of christians to explain the idea of “the light given” is a reason to doubt christianity, then surely an inability of atheism to explain some of these questions is a reason to doubt atheism?

    In a philosophical sense, I agree. An incomplete model is a model that should be questioned. I can’t speak for Nate, but I doubt he would disagree.

    That said, it would be absurd to say we should not reach conclusions until we have perfect information. We should just reach tentative conclusions and remain open to additional information.

    there are two sorts of explanation, a why (cause) and a how (mechanism). Both viewpoints have difficulty explaining the how, but christianity has a why answer whereas on your own admission, you do not (for some at least).

    I would argue that Christianity has an assertion, a speculation, not an answer.

    If our choices are indeed determined by our brain processes, then we didn’t have any real choice and the processes determined our conclusion, not the truth of the matter.

    This is a complex topic. I am not well-versed on the matter, so I won’t attempt to answer except to say that I don’t think religion has a particularly good alternative hypothesis. Christians can’t even agree on whether we have free will.

    Liked by 4 people

  19. G’day William,

    “I could be wrong, but based on the information I have now, that is my current opinion. I have no doubt that you are where you are due to the current info you have. So I dont hate you because of differences, just as I trust you do not hate me – but we fall on opposing sides, and may have difficulty understanding one another.”

    I appreciate this comment, thanks, and totally agree with it. I only raised the other matter because I think it is a common human trait to demonise people we don’t agree with, and to “trash talk” them. I guess it sort of helps us cope with the fact that someone is different to us, and helps us reinforce our commitment to our tribe.

    This happens a lot between christians and unbelievers, on both sides, and I don’t believe it is helpful in any way. It just leads to misunderstandings and lack of courtesy, and can sometimes go much deeper and nastier. So I sometimes choose to question people about it (on both sides) and I try to avoid it myself. I don’t ever accuse anyone here of bad motives in not believing in God, and if I ever give that impression I apologise, because I genuinely don’t mean it – I cannot know people’s motives, so I try to take them on face value.

    So I thought it worthwhile pointing out that while some christians (just like some atheists) may have illogical reasons for their views, some christians (as well as some unbelievers) develop and change their views as they get new information.

    Just a brief comment on hell, and three Greek words in the NT. There isn’t really a word for hell in the Bible, the word is “gehenna” and it is a Greek version of a Hebrew (or maybe Aramaic) word meaning the valley of Hinnom, which was just outside Jerusalem and was the place where rubbish was burnt. It was a place of destruction and was not a nice place in Jewish thought. So it is an image of something less tangible, and words like fire and worms are part of the image. How literal they were meant to be is quite doubtful.

    The word Jesus uses to describe the fate of unbelievers is best translated as “destruction” or “final end”, so there is no NT mention of everlasting torment. That is an idea based on the immortality of the soul, which was Greek idea, not a Jewish one. Yes, the smoke goes up forever, and the worm doesn’t die, etc, but they are images portraying the finality of it all.

    The final Greek word is the one translated “eternal” or “everlasting”. It is “aionios”, and it describes the age to come. The Jews believed they lived in a present evil age, but when the Messiah came he would usher in the age to come when things would be good. It does not mean everlasting – though christians do believe that the age to come will last forever, that isn’t the meaning of the word (I have that on the authority of a Professor of New Testament Greek).

    So the doctrine of hell as held by many christians is quite contrary to the teachings of Jesus (Paul never mentioned the word, which is telling). Jesus was warning the religious leaders of God’s judgment on their intransigence, that would see them miss out on the glorious age to come which was the focus of their hopes, not threatening everyone with ongoing torture as is so often thought. I say this not to make you feel better or to better justify my faith, because it is true to the Greek, and something I have known for 40 years or more. I hope that at least removes some misconceptions. Best wishes.

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  20. Hi Nate,

    “I don’t view it that way. To me, atheism should be the default position toward all god claims. I see atheism as saying “I don’t know, and I’m not convinced” when it comes to the question of deities.”

    I think the problem here is the two different definitions of atheism. Sometimes atheism means agreeing with the proposition that no gods probably exist. The definition you use here is really saying you have no proposition. (Though as we have discussed before, I think you do agree with the proposition that no gods probably exist, you just stress the uncertainty a little more. As I’ve said before, I think we could resolve this matter by everyone give a notional numerical probability to the possible truth of the two propositions “No gods exist” and “A God exists”. I doubt you would give about 50% probability to each, which is strictly necessary to be agnostic, but I’d be interested to know what probability you would give.)

    My point was simpler. If inability to give an explanation counts at least somewhat against a proposition (which I agree with), then it applies to both negative and positive propositions about God’s existence.

    “But “why” might not even be a relevant question. And honestly, almost any myth or fantasy can answer the “why,” but that says nothing at all about how reasonable an explanation it actually is.”

    Our assessment of how reasonable a proposition is should consider all the information. Ability to explain an observed phenomenon is just one piece of information. Bayes Theorem is a well established way of doing this mathematically, and it says exactly that – if an event is more probable given one hypothesis than given its negation, then the probability of that hypothesis being true is increased. So if an observation is more probable if a myth is true, then that myth increases in probability. But it will be defeated by other facts. We must be rigorous about these things.

    So the God hypothesis explains the cause of the universe and its design, in that those observed phenomena are extremely unlikely if there is no God (for there is no explanation), but less unlikely if God exists. This, by Bayesian logic, is evidence for the existence of God, and anyone who wants to be rational should either agree with this or offer an explanation. Of course you may disbelieve in God on other grounds, but to deny this particular argument without an alternative hypothesis is (I believe) not rational.

    But perhaps we should wait until you have a full post on this question? 🙂

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  21. “While most Christians don’t believe any of those things, some Christians do believe in each of those things. But if a Christian Scientist meets some people and calls himself a Christian, nobody bats an eye because they assume he’s a mainstream Christian and not a radical who refuses medical treatment.”

    I’m sorry Jon, but I can agree with most of what you say, but I don’t see how it adds up to the idea of “cover”. If a snake-handling, Ku Klux Klan extremist christian walks off the street into a shop unannounced and asks to buy a white sheet, the sales staff sell it to him unaware of what he may use it for, because he is a human being and a customer. But we don’t say being human or being a customer gives cover to extremism! It is easy to think of other examples.

    So the reality surely is that we can categorise people in all sorts of ways – by their appearance, race, political preference, gender, religion, hobbies, etc. The extremism or otherwise of their religious, or any other, views, is just another category. We can treat people in different ways according to which category we know they belong to, and if we learn a new category, we may treat them differently. That is true for extremist christians as it is true for any other category, but I don’t see how the rather ill-defined concept of “cover” helps us understand this better. And I wonder why it is that atheists seem to like to apply it to christians, but not to themselves or much to anyone else. It just seems to me to be another way to demonise someone they disagree with.

    “Christians can’t even agree on whether we have free will.”

    I’ll await Nate’s future posts before engaging further on the other important matters you have commented on, but I should point out that this is a completely different thing. The freewill question in philosophy and neuroscience is based on the apparent physical impossibility of freewill in a physicalist world. I am not a Calvinist, but most of those who do deny freewill believe we do indeed have the physical ability to choose, but being sinful we are unable to choose the good. It is different.

    Ciao.

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