October 30, 2008

On the Implications of Consensus and Gospel Ubiquity

James has posted several responses to my article More on Faith over at Wordpress. I've broken my response into several parts. The first addresses, Is Your Religion True an older article by James.

General Arguments Against Faith

In "Is Your Religion True" James essentially makes two arguments against belief in God: (1) lack of consensus and (2) lack of ubiquity.

Lack of Consensus

Frankly, this is a poor argument in general.

  1. Especially during an election season, it is clear that people are not always guided purely by reason and in many cases may not even devote sufficient time and consideration to even some of the most important issues to make a well informed decision.

  2. If consensus is so important and inevitable, James should be wondering why only 2.32% of people in the world are atheists instead of why only 33.32% of people are Christians. [1]

That said, James advances two more specific arguments in this vein:

Religious Denominations vs. Scientific Consensus

James argues that major religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam have splinter groups numbering in the hundreds and perhaps thousands whereas the scientific community has relative consensus. This more specific argument is in error because of the reason above, but is flawed in two other ways as well.

First, by focusing on the broad range of disagreements, ranging from major doctrines such as the Trinity to relatively minor disagreements over church government, and ignoring large areas of consensus, such as the existence of God, the existence of good and evil, etc., the argument presents a deeply divisive view of religious people. Conversely, by attempting to focus on the relatively narrow range of natural laws and focusing on large areas of consensus, such as General Relativity and Biological Evolution, and ignoring areas of disagreement ranging from possible unification theories and forces behind evolution (leaps, gradual, divinely directed), the argument presents a highly skewed comparison.

Second, to skew this comparison even more, it divides religious people according the general public, but focuses only on a highly focused group of people when considering views on science. Notice the words used. When speaking about religious people, the claim is that "the world should be moving towards some kind of consensus with regards to the true and proper religion" whereas the relevant people related to scient are "the scientific community".

Attempts to support this comparison by remarking that trained religious leaders share no such consensus are also misleading. Not only is the claimed consensus of scientists exaggerated, but unlike scientists who receive a more unified education, religious leaders are generally trained according to their particular sect.

Divine Persausion

The second argument James attempts to make to support the idea that any true religion would inexorably achieve universal consensus is that God is a much better communicator than we are and essentially should be able to convince us all that He is right. Basically, the claim is that God's problem is a presentation problem, that if He really existed and wanted us to believe, He could perform a sign or present the right reasons for us to believe. However, this assumes that everyone would approach God's presentation rationally and fairly. Not only do people frequently act irrationally, it seems clear that many people do not want to believe everything God might have to say. Acceptance of our own failings, moral pronouncements, thou shalts and shalt nots, the acknowledgement of a higher power who cares what we do, etc. As a result, it is unsurprising that many people disagree on the truth and would continue to do so even if God tried to convince them.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar outside his door both died. The rich man went to hell and Lazarus went to Paradise. Seeing Lazarus in Paradise with Abraham, the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus back to bring the truth to his brothers. Abraham gave the following reply:

Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. - Luk 16:29-31


The second argument James presents is much more powerful. The argument is essentially that if there is a God who is not a respecter of persons and desires to reach out to mankind in general, He would not leave gaps in the availability of the truth. Two prominent examples of religions that readily claim such gaps are Mormonism and Islam, which basically claim that God's original revelations in the Bible were corrupted and that after hundreds of years, He finally decided to set the record straight.

This is a huge problem for these religions because it clearly implies that God simply abandoned the world to spiritual darkness, ignorance, and ultimately judgement for many generations at a time. This argument demonstrates a solid reason to reject any religion that does not at least claim historical ubiquity.

Clearly, James believes this critique extends to Christianity as well. However, it does not for two reasons:

Historical Ubiquity of Special Revelation

James claims that if Christianity is true, it implies that God's message was delivered "at an arbitrary time in human history and at an arbitrary location to a handful of people in just one language". Christianity does not teach that God finally revealed His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ in roughly AD 30. To the contrary, God revealed His plan as soon as it was necessary. That even though we had violated God's righteous standard, separating us from Him, He still loved us. To atone for our sins, Jesus Christ, the divine man, payed the penalty for our sin, allowing us to be reconciled with God for eternity future and that all who looked forward to it were saved, just as we look back and are saved.

Even before pronouncing judgement on Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit, God tells them that a future descendent would defeat the serpent [Gen. 3:15]. It also seems clear that God communicated more than that to them. In Gen. 3:21, we see God making coats of skins for them and in Gen. 4 we see Cain and Abel apparently had at least a basic understanding of the sacrificial system and dealt directly with them. We also see God advising Cain and Cain disregarding God's advice.

By making the first revelation to the parents of the rest of the human race, God not only provided the necessary truth to them, but ensured that at least all mankind had revelation from the beginning of time that could be passed on. This doctrine of ubiquitous revelation over history sets mainstream Christianity apart from some other religions, such as Mormonism and Islam.

Global, Ubiquitous General Revelation

However, as James points out, just having revelation available to some people at all points in time is not enough. It is necessary that some revelation be available to all people at all times. The Bible teaches there are 3 aspects of General Revelation to all men.

First, in Romans 1, Paul declears that the Creation is part of God's general revelation to all men, so that they are without excuse:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: - Rom. 1:18-20

Second, conscience is given to all men, that they may know there is a moral standard and they have fallen short:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another - Rom 2:14-15

What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one...Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God
- Rom.3:9-10,19-23

Third, the inner light. The exact function of this revelation is not entirely clear, but it is a clear reference to Christ as the light, which would imply a divine ministry to all people:

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. John 1:9

Judging the Ignorant

James anticipates the argument that only those who hear of Christ must accept Him. The rest are judged on relative merit. This is, as he concludes contemptible, for it would transform the good news of the gospel into a message of condemnation for those who hear the gospel and reject it, while giving those who don't hear it a relatively free pass.

Scripture clearly does not teach this position. Jesus is unequivocal on the ways to God:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. - John 14:6

Clearly, there is only one way. But the gospel is very simple:

(1) - There is a God
(2) - We have all sinned, justice demands punishment
(3) - Someone else must take our punishment, that someone, is Jesus Christ

It seems reasonable that most of that message is available to all through general revelation (Creation -> God, Conscience -> sin & judgement). Most people get the third leg from God's Special Revelation in the Bible, whether directly by reading or indirectly through others. However, as James points out there is a lot of time between the coming of Christ (and before that) during which the Americas in particular seem cut off from that source of revelation.

Fortunately, enough revelation was given to Adam and Eve to save them, enough of that may be passed on in cut off cultures to allow enough truth to be clear to those who seek it. Also, not all general revelation is thoroughly understood, particularly the ministry of Jesus Christ as the inner light to all people. The essential point is that if Christianity is true, God has provided sufficient revelation to any person that has ever lived that they can reject or accept and if they accept God can make sure they receive the truth they need in order to come to the Father through Christ.

[1] CIA World Factbook


James said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond in such detail. I actually think that you did a wonderful job breaking down the issues and arguments from my rambling post into discrete points. This is also helpful in that it indicates to me places where I need to clarify some things, in addition to objections not originally considered.

Arthenor said...

You are welcome. I'd like to thank you for giving me considerable food for thought as well.

James said...

With regards to the last section, you seem to be arguing that nobody is truly 'ignorant' of God's revelations (of which you list three). However, your final paragraph, which attempts to support this idea (I think) is extremely vague. You simply assert that God has provided "enough" revelation to everyone so that they can be saved and that this "may" have been passed down from the beginning of our species (somehow).

Are you saying that pre-1492 Native Americans (for example) were already aware of 1-3? If not, they cannot be saved according to your earlier statement. If I understand you correctly, one must not only be aware of 1-3 but also believe and accept 1-3 as true to be saved. If so, I see no evidence for it. Native Americans were not even monotheistic, let alone subscribed to (2) and (3). There doesn't seem to be any evidence to suggest that these populations had any sense of Christian beliefs about creation and salvation prior to contact with missionaries. The same could be said about remote African, Asian, and Australian populations that were only later Christianized (in part) through European colonizations and imperialism. Indeed, I've read that there still exists some populations deep in the Amazon that still have not had any outside contact.

Some further clarification on these final and important points would be helpful.

Arthenor said...

I'm saying that 1-2 is clearly available to all. The availability of the 3rd leg is less clear. However:

1 - It is not necessary that all receive it. 1-2 is enough for people to reject the truth. Having rejected that part of the truth, there is no need to reveal the 3rd leg to them.

2 - If anyone only exposed to 1-2 were to accept the truth they had, God clearly must provide the 3rd leg. This is generally provided by special revelation in the form of the Bible, whether through reading or the preaching of another. In cases in which that may not have been available, God clearly has other options, such as the inner light or some knowledge passed on from Adam and Eve (this would not be the primary belief system of these pagan cultures, although it may be extractable from a pagan religion as some of these common themes we have been discussing).

The bottom line is that scripture is not as clear on 3, but there are mechanism's enumerated in scripture which can fill that gap. God has provided a general revelation to all men via creation and conscience that we can know He exists, that there is a moral standard and we have fallen short of it. God, being not willing that any should perish [2 Peter 3:9] will provide more information to those who need it.

Scripture does not provide or promise exhaustive knowledge. It does provide enough information to conclude that no person who ever lived will be condemned simply because he lacked information, the key premise of the argument of non-ubiquity.

James said...

That 1-2 were 'clearly' available to all is not clear to me at all. The idea of a monotheistic God and that all humans are inherently sinful upon birth would be foreign to many non-Christian cultures both before and after Christianity appeared in the Levant. Especially cultures that tended to be polytheistic or animistic.

Now, you might respond that all of these cultures rejected the 'clear' truth of these claims but I would require more justification than mere assertion. I would want to see clear indication that these people we aware of these doctrines but chose to reject them.

You then claim that in cases where the Bible was not available, the biblical message of salvation was made available through some inner light or through transmitted knowledge. Neither are convincing in even a slight degree. This talk of an 'inner light' sounds to me like some sort of metaphorical or mystical hand-waving. And I do not accept that Adam and Eve were historical individuals and am not aware of any evidence that suggests that the Christian religion spread to places orally long before actual Christians showed up with their Bibles.

Finally, about your concluding remarks, saying that no person will be condemned for a lack of knowledge is not the same as saying that no person ever had a lack of knowledge - which is what you are really trying to say and failing to demonstrate.

Arthenor said...

The fact that many cultures rejected the general revelation of God through Creation and morality through conscience and chose instead to worship many false gods and spirits does not contradict the premise that Creation and Conscience provided evidence of those truths. There is no need to examine individual cultures for evidence that they were aware of these truths either. First, it is clear that at least as a culture, they rejected those ideas. Second, there is no need to demonstrate that all people are exposed to the existence of Creation or the idea of morality. The existence of the universe challenges all people with the question of creation and the idea of absolute morality vs. anarchy challenges us with the question of a law giver.

What we are both unaware of could fill vast libraries. If you hold out for exhaustive examination of facts to prove any point, your standard of proof is humanly impossible, rendering discussion meaningless. I have admitted that the role of the "inner light" is not clearly enumerated and that the primary mechanism for spreading the 3rd point is clearly from scriptured people to unscriptured people. Also, notice that I have not attempted to make any significant arguments proving the existence of Adam and Eve. My argument is focused on demonstrating that if Christianity is true, it meets the challenges given. Proving Adam and Eve historically existed is a different question with a significantly larger burden of proof.

The meaning of the two statements may be marginally different. I intentionally stated it that way because it is quite possible that many people are never challenged with the 3rd leg of the gospel. The reason for this, however, would be their own rejection of the first 2. Therefore, it is possible to be condemned and be ignorant of the 3rd leg. However, this condemnation would not be because of ignorance of the 3rd leg, but rejection of the knowledge that was given. Therefore, it is true that it is not lack of knowledge which condemns, but rejection of whatever knowledge was given.

James said...

"There is no need to examine individual cultures for evidence that they were aware of these truths either. First, it is clear that at least as a culture, they rejected those ideas."

To reject any idea one must first be consciously aware of it. So yes, it is absolutely necessary for you to provide evidence that these other cultures were aware of what you claim in 1 & 2 and understood them sufficiently enough to reject them. Otherwise your argument falls apart because it is clear that the 'evidence' of 'creation and conscience' does not always lead people to the general monotheistic and ethical understanding of Christianity.

And that is my whole point. It is an ignorance of the 'correct interpretation' not a rejection of that interpretation.

But then you state that the reason people are not presented with scripture is because of this rejection. Even taking that at face value, it is still a strange claim. Christian scriptures, once they were produced, were slowly copied and passed around Christian circles in the near eastern and mediterranean regions (and the NT canon was not finalized for another several hundred years). Thus, whether or not an individual person received the scriptural message was very much dependent on coincidences of time and place. If a Native American in 600 CE suddenly figured out 1-2 and was ready to accept them it doesn't matter because the message still has to be physically transported to his particular location at his particular time and that could not have physically happened.

So, either way you fail to substantiate the claims that you are making.