Saturday, July 16, 2016

The whole world

I'll comment on this answer by Craig:

At face value, it seems incredible to think that Christ died only for the elect. You couldn’t get a much clearer repudiation of this view than I John 2.2: “he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Reformed thinkers are forced into exegetical acrobatics in order to explain away the prima facie meaning of such scriptural statements. 
So what in the world would compel someone to re-interpret such passages in order to make them compatible with the view that Christ died only for the sins of the elect and not for the sins of every human being? The reason is a theological inference that forces one into such contrived exegesis. One is forced into this position by a theological argument that implies the limited extent of the atonement.

i) Evidently, Craig takes "the world"–or perhaps "the whole world"–to mean "every human being". Well, let's compare that to another statement in 1 John which uses the same compound phrase:

We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (1 Jn 5:19).

If "the whole world" means "every human being", then it must mean the same thing in both verses. Yet it can't mean that in 5:19, for in 5:19, the second clause stands in contrast to the first clause. The first clause refers to Christians, in apposition and opposition to "the whole world". John doesn't think every human being is in the Devil's thrall, for he exempts Christians. Therefore, the scope of "the whole world" must be narrower than "every human being". Craig needs to be consistent. As one commentator observes:

John here returns to the duality between the world and God's children that is so characteristic of his thinking. The inclusive "we" refers to those who have been born of God and therefore are no longer of the world, a world that lies under the power of the evil one, the devil. The reason the devil cannot "touch" or take hold of one of God's children is that they are no longer within the realm of his power. K. Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John (Zondervan, 2014), 238. 

ii) Craig's response reflects the power of subliminal conditioning. John doesn't actually say the "world". John didn't write in English. Rather, that's simply a traditional English translation of kosmos. When translators render a text from one language to another, they attempt to find synonyms in the receptor language that correspond to the donor language. Sometimes that's straightforward. However, words in the donor language may have a different semantic range than words in the receptor language. So translators must sometimes settle for words with an overlapping semantic range. Even so, a word in the donor language may have different connotations than a word in the receptor language. 

In addition, a writer may have his own idiolect. As standard works in Greek lexicography document, John often uses kosmos with a pejorative connotation.  

In fact, Reformed thinkers themselves recognize this truth in distinguishing between redemption as accomplished and as applied. They will say that our redemption was accomplished at the cross but that it is applied individually when persons are regenerated and place their faith in Christ. This distinction is vital because otherwise the elect would be born redeemed! They would never be unregenerate sinners but would be justified and saved from the instant of their conception. But Scripture teaches that we once were “children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2.3), and many of us recall our pre-Christian days. But how can such a distinction make sense if Christ won our actual redemption at the cross? If I was actually redeemed in AD 30 (never mind that I didn’t exist then!), how can I not be redeemed at every moment that I do exist? The undeniable distinction between redemption accomplished and applied makes sense only if we say that Christ’s death wins our potential redemption and that that potential is actualized in individual lives through repentance and faith.

That's confused:

i) In Reformed theology, the elect are, indeed, born redeemed. But although they are actually redeemed from the moment of conception–the full benefits of redemption don't accrue all at once. For instance, they aren't glorified at the moment of conception. There are stages in the application of the atonement. Craig's argument is fallacious. 

ii) In addition, Craig doesn't bother to explain how faith actualizes a potential redemption. 

I don’t see any problem of “double jeopardy” here. That is a convention of our human criminal justice system in the United States which cannot be automatically applied to God’s dealings with humanity. 

It's as if Craig is ignorant concerning the history of the argument. It goes back to John Owen, a 17C English Puritan. So, no, I don't think Owen was influenced by the American jurisprudential system!

In any case, it is not as if the unrepentant person is being tried twice for the same crime. There is only one Judgement Day, and that is the only time a person is tried. If he has freely rejected the pardon Christ offers him, there is no one else to pay for his crimes.

That doesn't begin to engage the argument. Again, it's as if Craig is dependent on a truncated, secondhand version of the argument. The dilemma is how God can justly punish impenitence or unbelief if Christ made atonement for every sinner, or every sin, or the guilt of every sin. In that event, what are the just grounds for condemning an unbeliever? Is unbelief culpable? Is impenitence culpable? But if Jesus paid the price for your sin, then unbelief and impenitence are covered. 

Isn’t the view I suggest biblical? The Old Testament sacrifices availed for nothing unless they were conjoined with a contrite and repentant heart on the part of the person for whom they were offered.

That's terribly confused. The OT sacrifices were merely emblematic placeholders. They didn't lay the basis for a sinner's forgiveness. Animal sacrifice didn't really contribute anything to a sinner's forgiveness. They never had a latent power to remit the guilt of sin in combination with a contrite heart. 

But suppose you do think that Christ dies only for the elect. Does that imply that “most people couldn't even possibly be saved”? I don’t think so. There are two ways in which salvation could be universally accessible. First, if we take election to be primarily corporate, then it is up to us whether we want to be part of that corporate body which is the object of Christ’s redemption. Christ died only for the elect, but anyone can be part of the elect by repentant faith. 

If election is after the fact, what difference does it make to the outcome? 

Or, second, we could adopt a middle knowledge perspective, holding that God knew who would freely receive God’s grace and be saved, and so He sent Christ to die for them alone but not for those persons who He knew would freely reject Him. 

That depends, in part, on how you define grace. What if grace is, in part, like a psychotropic drug that restores sanity to a mental patient? The patient is in no condition to accept or reject it. Unless and until a person is in a right state of mind, he lacks the mental competence to rationally consider a proposal. 

If someone who remains unrepentant were to place his faith in Christ, then God would have included him in Christ’s atoning death. 

That counterfactual scenario is true in Calvinism. 

Once again, we see the astonishing power of the doctrine of middle knowledge to open up unexpected options theologically. 

There's nothing astonishing about the ability to toy with hypothetical scenarios. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

There is no scientific method

Is atheism irrational?

An interview with Alvin Plantinga.

A reform agenda

War grooms

i) Atheists like to quote Deut 21:10-14 as a case of Scripture sanctioning rape or sex slavery. I've discussed this before. The passages makes provision for war brides, not sex slaves. 

ii) In addition, it's fallacious to infer that a law code condones whatever it regulates. For instance, a libertarian legislator might propose a law to decriminalize possession of Marijuana, not because he approves of potheads, but because he thinks the "war on drugs" is more detrimental than letting people smoke pot. 

iii) The contention that this is rape or sex slavery is based on the fact that it's a forced marriage. However, one problem with that objection is that it disregards the circumstances in which this issue crops up. The setting involves a warrior culture in which the able-bodied men were killed in combat, thereby widowing their wives. The women no longer have any men to protect them or provide for them, which is a dire situation for women in the ancient Near East. 

So it's a question of how to play the hand you were dealt. We are often "forced" into situations we dislike, "forced" to make decisions we dislike, due to onerous circumstances beyond our control. 

iv) However, I'd like to approach the issue from a different angle. Suppose the scenario involved war grooms rather than war brides. Suppose you have a queen. The army fights at her behest. Her army defeats the enemy. Some of the war captives are handsome men. She wants to marry one of them, and she exercises her royal prerogative to do so. The male war captive is "forced" into a marriage with the queen. 

Is that rape? If they were honest, I doubt people would characterize the arrangement in those terms because they don't think men must be forced to have sex. 

Or let's vary the illustration. Suppose the queen adds some of the handsome male war captives to her harem. They are her sex slaves. They are available for her pleasure.

Is that rape? The male war captives didn't choose to be harem boys to service the lascivious monarch. But even if they find the prospect distasteful, is it rape?

This poses a dilemma for atheists. Many atheists pride themselves on their egalitarian views of men and women. They champion feminism. If they think men and women should be treated alike, if they don't think a queen who has sex with a harem boy is raping him, then the war bride scenario isn't rape. 

If, on the other hand, they admit that men and women are wired differently in this regard, then they must forfeit their feminism. Opt for one or the other: you can't have both!  

The 7 biggest problems facing science

"The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists"

Prayer and prevention

Hemant Mehta@hemantmehta Why would anyone #PrayforAmerica when it hasn't prevented any of the previous tragedies? America needs people who can take action, not God.11:56 PM - 7 Jul 2016

Mehta seems to have quite a following in secular circles, yet this is such a dumb objection. Consider those science fiction scenarios in which a time-traveler goes back in time to change the past to avert a future tragedy. A side-effect of his success is that when he instantly returns to his own time, he has no recollection of what he did. By producing a new timeline, his action erases all evidence of the old timeline. No one remembers that past because that past never happened in the new timeline in which they now exist. There's nothing for them to remember. 

God preempting a tragedy is similar to that except it doesn't suffer from time-travel antinomies, inasmuch as the tragedy never happened in the first place. So how would Mehta be in any position to know that God hasn't prevented any previous tragedies, in answer to prayer. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ’s-death-death-death-christ

Blue Bloods

One problem with the current debate over law enforcement is that you have pundits and special interest groups who act as though there are only two sides to this issue: either give police carte blanche or view police as the enemy. Our adversarial political climate fosters these simplistic binaries. 

I. The Confederacy redux

On the one hand, there are pundits and special interest groups who view law enforcement as the Confederacy. After losing the Civil War, somehow Confederates had the foresight to infiltrate the police force in Northern states and cities. 

Despite the fact that many big cities have minority mayors, city councilmen, judges, district attorneys, police chiefs, and police, the shadowy white establishment exerts subliminal mind control on all these minorities in government and law enforcement to make them practice Jim Crow. 

Social Justice Warriors are schizophrenic about law enforcement. On the one hand, they lobby to pass laws that coerce compliance with their political agenda. Yet they simultaneously distrust and demonize the law enforcement agencies on which they depend to impose these laws on the general public. 

In addition, the liberal establishment suffers from a collective death wish. It is spearheading policies, like unrestricted immigration and open contempt for the Constitution, that will reduce the US to a banana Republic. 

II. Blue Bloods

On the other hand, you have old-guard conservatives who automatically back the police. They have a Blue Bloods image of law enforcement. They view any attack on the police as an attack on the public because the police exist to protect the public from the criminal element. 

I watched the first season of Blue Bloods. I enjoyed Tom Selleck. But that's the only thing the show had going for it. The Jesse Stone movies are better vehicles for Selleck. 

Blue Bloods presents a sanitized, idealized view of policing. Not just from the police side of things, but an equally unrealistic depiction of what the police are up against. 

As I've remarked before, the job of the police isn't to protect the public but to enforce the law. If you have protective laws, then law enforcement will be protective. But that's a side-effect of policing. If you have oppressive laws, then law enforcement will be oppressive. To a great extent, the police are pawns of the political class. For good or ill, they do what the political class requires of them. 

In addition, you have for-profit policing (e.g. ticket quotas, civil forfeiture). That isn't to protect the public. Rather, that's a cash cow for City Hall. And it's a corrupting incentive. 

There aren't just two sides to the current debate over law enforcement. That's a false dichotomy. The alternatives aren't that logically partitioned. 

Rape Jihad

David Wood interview

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ark Encounter

i) Ken Ham's new theme park on Noah's ark and the flood instantly garnered a hostile reaction from the atheist community–as well as BioLogos, the flagship of theistic evolution. It's striking how threatened these groups feel by the very existence of Ken Ham's theme park. For them, it's unbearable that that viewpoint should even be in the public domain. 

ii) As I've often remarked, it can be a useful exercise to visualize Biblical descriptions. Stepping into an imaginary time machine to consider what the scene would look like if you could travel back into the past and see it for yourself. 

iii) Genesis gives us a sketchy description of the ark, rather than a blueprint, so any reconstruction will include a fair about of conjecture. It's important for Christians not to equate historical reconstructions with the Biblical record, since there are different ways to fill in the gaps. Many of us have been conditioned by popular reconstructions to think we know what the text is describing, but that could be way off the mark. Consider, for instance, Ben-Uri rhomboidal design for the ark:

iv) There's a certain irony in the fact that Ham's model ark was constructed with power tools. If only Noah had a crane! 

I wonder who the technical consultants were for designing Ham's model ark. There are so many judgment calls regarding the exterior and especially the interior. 

v) Depicting animals on the ark may present something of a conundrum for Ham. In YEC, extant species are variations on prediluvian natural kinds. So the animals on the ark don't necessarily resemble any contemporary species. Rather, they are the progenitors of modern species, which may be fairly unrecognizable in relation to the occupants of the ark. 

vi) In the age of video games, CGI, and Virtual Reality, there's a sense in which Ham's physical mockup is rather retro. We can produce computer simulations of the ark. We can produced detailed computer modeling of the ark, inside and out. Take a virtual tour.

In fact, we now have the wherewithal to produce video game representations of creation, the Flood, the Ten Plagues, the visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation, or picturesque vignettes in Isaiah–to take few examples. It is possible to create an immersive, audiovisual experience of these literary descriptions. 

That, of course, involves many interpretive judgment calls. But that in itself is an instructive exercise. 

For instance, suppose you did a computer simulation of Revelation. Do you depict the imagery as is, or do you update it according to what you think it stands for? The futuristic counterparts? 

In fact, you don't have to choose. You could do two different video game versions of Revelation: one which preserves the original imagery, and another which gives the viewer an interpretive future projection. 

I think it would be pedagogically informative for geeky Christians to use CGI to produce immersive representations of Biblical narratives, including–or especially–the more surreal descriptions of Scripture. That would also be a great way of getting boys interested in the Bible. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Where is the promised coming?

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet 3:4).

i) The Bible doesn't have much to say about atheists. That's in large part because the ancient world was very religious. And while there were undoubtedly some closet atheists or agnostics, it was politically hazardous to dis the state religion or undermine a lucrative industry (cf. Acts 19:23ff.).

You had some pockets of religious skepticism in Greco-Roman philosophy. But NT writers had little occasion to comment on that. 

ii) Ancient religious skepticism wasn't necessary a bad thing. It was directed against pagan superstition. Heathen divination. Moreover, most pagans had little precious little evidence that the gods actually intervened in human affairs. Did prayer to Baal or Juno really make any tangible difference? 

iii) It's not possible to reconstruct Peter's opponents with certainty. From what he says about the false teachers, their position has some affinities with Epicureanism. However, heretics don't necessarily have a coherent position. The position of the false teachers may have been a ragtag affair, with no philosophical consistency.

iv) Apparently, the false teachers call themselves Christian. They have infiltrated some Christian communities. Their background is gentile. 

Although there's a danger of drawing excessive inferences from Peter's scanty descriptions, their position seems to be deistic at best. It's not even clear if they believe in divine creation. "Creation" may simply refer to the chance origin of the world. In any event, they apparently reject divine providence and miracles. Their position borders on atheism. A noninterventionist God is scarcely distinguishable from a nonexistent God. At most the "ground of being". 

v) One might ask how they could view themselves as Christian at all. Yet we have other examples of this. For instance, Leibniz and Maimonides have little room for miracles in their system. Bultmann viewed the universe as a closed system. Or take someone like Peter Enns, who denies many Biblical miracles. Indeed, he probably denies more miracles than he lets on to. 

There are different ways to finesse that in relation to Scripture. Some people allegorize the miraculous accounts in Scripture. Others outright deny all or most Biblical miracles, but claim that's inessential to what Christian faith is ultimately about, viz. Schleiermacher, Tillich, Don Cupitt, D. Z. Phillips, Bishop Robinson. 

vi)  This is where evidence for modern miracles can be useful. Even for true believers, it can sometimes feel that we are waiting for something that never happens. Is it just wishful thinking? So it's helpful to have some well-attested examples of divine intervention above and beyond what Scripture reports. And it doesn't take much to disprove a universal negative. Even a little encouragement is logically sufficient. 

It can't mean that!

What do Arminians and unitarians have in common? Take this notorious statement by John Wesley:

But you say you will prove it by scripture. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture that God is worse than the devil I cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it never an prove this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, "What is its true meaning then" If I say, " I know not," you have gained nothing; for there are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it mean besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will it cannot mean that the Judge of all the world is unjust. No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works; that is, whatever it prove beside, no scripture can prove predestination.

Unitarians strike the same pose. No matter how many prooftexts we furnish for the deity of Christ, no matter how meticulously we exegete the prooftexts for Christ's deity, unitarians exclaim that whatever else they mean, they can't mean that! Both Arminians and unitarians rule out interpretations in advance that run contrary to their position. They won't allow any evidence to falsify their a priori commitments. 

Confirm your calling and election

Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall (2 Pet 1:10).

i) This is sometimes thought to pose a problem for Calvinism. If Calvinism is true, how can we do anything to make divine election more certain than it already is? Is it possible to drop out of the elect? A few brief clarifications:

ii) There's a danger of overinterpreting Peter's usage. We need to distinguish between technical usage and ordinary usage. When we encounter words like "election" and "calling," there's a risk of reading later dogmatic usage back into Peter's vocabulary. But we can't assume Peter is using "election" and "calling" in the sense of God's eternal, unconditional election, or effectual calling. That may overload the usage with subsequent refinements in theological nomenclature. 

His usage may not be that specialized. Indeed, he may be using "election" and "calling" as synonyms, for emphasis. The same definite article governs both nouns. So the pairing may be rhetorical.

iii) If his usage is nontechnical, then "calling" and "election" refer to God's initiative in salvation. We are saved by grace. It begins with God. 

iv) In Reformed theology, although regeneration is the result of God's prior, unilateral action, once a person is born again, there's a sense in which he can "cooperate" in the process of sanctification. Sanctification involves the cultivation of godly attitudes. "Mortification of sin". Using the "means of grace". These are conscious actions on our part. Moreover, holiness is a matter of edge. Some Christians are more saintly than others. As A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield explain in their article on sanctification:

(1) The soul after regeneration continues dependent upon the constant gracious operations of the Holy Spirit, but is, through grace, able to cooperate with them. 
(2) The sanctifying operations of the Spirit are supernatural, and yet effected in connection with and through the instrumentality of means: the means of sanctification being either internal, such as faith and the cooperation of the regenerated will with grace, or external, such as the word of God, sacraments, prayer, Christian fellowship, and the providential discipline of our heavenly Father. 
(3) In this process the Spirit gradually completes the work of moral purification commenced in regeneration. The work has two sides: (a) the cleansing of the soul from sin and emancipation from its power, and (b) the development of the implanted principle of spiritual life and infused habits of grace, until the subject comes to the stature of perfect manhood in Christ. Its effect is spiritually and morally to transform the whole man, intellect, affections, and will, soul, and body. 
(4) The work proceeds with various degrees of thoroughness during life, but is never consummated in absolute moral perfection until the subject passes into glory.

v) In Reformed theology, "cooperation" with sanctifying grace isn't "synergistic" in the libertarian sense. Our cooperation is, itself, the result of grace. Moreover, the outcome is assured. 

vi) Salvation begins with God's initiative, but it doesn't end where it begins. Having revived those who are dead in sin, they can pursue the journey of faith until they arrive at their final destination. In that way we "validate" God's initial intervention. 

Monday, July 11, 2016


I'll make another comment on Jeff's post:

1. A basic problem with his post is that he barely engages the issue of oblivion. Drawing distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic value is a separate issue.

Most atheists believe that brain death entails the irreversible loss of consciousness. The extinction of personality. 

I'm not suggesting that immortality is a sufficient condition for a meaningful life. The question, rather, is whether immortality is a necessary condition for a meaningful life.

It's possible to take an Epicurean view of death, where death is not a deprivation, based on the alleged symmetry between nonexistence before conception and nonexistence after death. 

It is, however, arguable, that if we cease to exist when we die, that's the most drastic deprivation imaginable. We lose everything at one stroke. We lose the present. We lose the future. We lose the past. We lose hope and memory, love and happiness. 

The question is whether human life can be meaningful if death zeros out our existence. That's not merely a Christian view of oblivion. Rather, that's an intellectually serious issue for atheists. Not something they can just wave aside with hortatory rhetoric.

2. For several reasons, I think many atheists wax impatient about the charge of existential nihilism:

i) Most atheists aren't intellectuals. Most atheists aren't deep thinkers. In addition, some people are temperamentally upbeat. It takes an intellectual effort for them to consider the desparing consequences of their position. 

ii) Atheists have a disincentive to give existential nihilism much consideration. Because they don't believe in the afterlife, they think it's pointless to obsess about something we have no control over. It would be a lot better if we didn't pass into oblivion at the moment of death, but since that's the reality of our situation, there's no point despairing over that fact. Better to ignore it. Make the best of the hand you've been dealt. 

But there are basic problems with that response:

iii) If atheism makes life meaningless, then you can't make the best of it. There is no good to salvage from that prospect. That superficial response reflects a failure to come to terms with the grim implications of  existential nihilism. 

iv) It's a mistake to duck the depressing consequences of atheism. If atheism entails moral nihilism, then that's a powerful reason to reexamine your commitment to atheism. Atheists cling to atheism with pigheaded pride, but that's irrational. You have nothing to lose by abandoning atheism if it nullifies the value of your own life, as well as the lives of your loved ones. By avoiding the bleak consequences of atheism, the atheist has no overriding incentive to question his toxic belief. He needs to appreciate the unredeemable badness of atheism to motivate a change of heart. Once you know it's poisonous, why keep injecting toxins into your veins? How is that rational? If atheism isn't good for you, if atheism can't be good for you, then jettison your virulent atheism and consider something more promising. 

3. From a secular perspective, what advantage does a dead atheist have over a dead Christian? If atheism is true, then when you're dead, it makes no difference to you if your corpse is a Christian corpse or atheist corpse.

And if living a fantasy makes you happier, why not live a fantasy? In a godless universe, no one can say it's wrong for me to live a fantasy. What I do with my little life is up to me. 

Is there a tipping-point in police shootings?

i) When I read some evangelical black pundits on police shootings, they act as though there should be a tipping-point in white evangelical perception of police shootings. Whenever you have a new incident of a cop shooting a black, they exclaim: "See, I told you so! How many times does this have to happen before you wake up!"

The problem is that cumulative incidents like that will never reach a tipping point, because it's irrelevant to the nature of the claim. It's parallel to gun opponents who seize on each new shooting spree as if that should be the tipping-point to support gun bans and gun confiscation. Or atheists who seize each new natural disaster as if that should be the tipping-point to renounce Christianity. 

But incidents like that never add up to a tipping-point. In the case of police shootings, in a nation of about 323 million people, there's bound to be police shootings. They will happen with a certain frequency. Indeed, they may happen on a daily basis. That's to be expected. 

Raw numbers don't establish a pattern. If the claim is that cops are targeting blacks, you need to document a pattern. And to document a pattern, you need statistical evidence of a disparity that's not accounted for by rates of criminality. 

ii) To take a comparison, there are about the same number of men and women. However, men are shot by police far more often than women. Is that because cops are targeting men? No, that's because men commit far more violent crimes than women.

iii) By the same token, you have to factor in the disproportionate rate of black criminality, especially among young black males. The percentage of the population is offset by the percentage of offenders. It isn't just percentage of shootings relative to population, but percentage of shootings relative to criminality–which invites altercations between police and perps. 

iv) Speaking of statistics:

Black officers had more than three times greater odds of shooting than white officers. This finding runs counter to concerns that white officers are overrepresented among officers using lethal force, but is consistent with numerous previous studies of officer race and police use-of-force.

v) In addition, in many big cities, you have black mayors, black city councilmen, black police chiefs, black District Attorneys, as well as black, Asian, and Latino police. Therefore, to try to blame the disparity on systematic white racism is implausible.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Early Orthodox Christianity Was Superior To Its Heretical Rivals

It's often suggested that we have no reason to think that what we today call orthodox or traditional Christianity was superior to its earliest rivals who also claimed to be Christian. Why prefer traditional Christianity to Gnosticism? Or Marcionism? Or other early alternatives? How could we tell that one group has a better claim to truth than the others?

There are a lot of ways to compare these groups. We can look at their size, the character of their leaders, what evidence the groups offer for their claims, the internal consistency of their claims, etc. What I want to do in this post is discuss several examples.

Atheism and existential nihilism

I'll comment on a post by Jeff Lowder:

Jeff's analysis is dependent on Erik J. Wielenberg's Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.

intrinsically meaningful life: a life has intrinsic meaning if the life is good for the person who lives it overall. 

Take the head of a Latin American drug cartel. He enjoys the best of everything. Sexy women, gourmet food, yachts, mansions, sports cars, &c.

He has business rivals murdered. He has their family members murdered as a deterrent. He bribes judges and police. Those who can't be bribed he has tortured and murdered. 

It's a very good life for him. He enjoys the perks. In fact, due to his sadistic streak, he even enjoys the vicious policies necessary to sustain it. 

Doesn't that meet Jeff's definition?

If Jeff objects that it isn't "good" in the appropriate sense, does Jeff have a noncircular definition of "good"?  

intrinsic value: something is intrinsically valuable if the thing’s value is inherent to the thing’s own properties, as opposed to its value being derived from the properties of another thing. 
extrinsic value: something is extrinsically valuable if the thing’s value is derived from the value of another thing.

Is it that cut-and-dried? Take a facsimile of Da Vinci's The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. 

In one respect, the reproduction is valuable in its own right. If the original was destroyed, the reproduction would still be valuable. In that regard, the reproduction has a value independent of the original. 

But in another respect, its value derives from its correspondence to the original–as an accurate reproduction of the original. So its value is, in that regard, relational. If the original is valuable, and the reproduction closely resembles to the original, then the reproduction is valuable. 

By the same token, the original is a reflection of Da Vinci's artistic vision. A concrete expression of his visual idea. Although the painting has properties that make it precious in its own right, there's another sense in which its value is derivative. It derives from the mind of the artist. If it was destroyed, Da Vinci could, in principle, produce another original from memory. The painting is a concrete representation of his mental image. 

First, if, as I think, life has intrinsic value, its intrinsic value does not derive from God’s existence. This follows from the definition of intrinsic value: if life is intrinsically valuable, its value lies in its own intrinsic properties, not the properties of God (such as God’s valuing life). Second, if value realism is true, then it seems highly plausible that life is objectively intrinsically valuable and, again, this value doesn’t come from God. 

i) That suffers from some of the equivocations I just noted. 

ii) In addition, it doesn't show that life has intrinsic value in a godless universe. At best, it attempts to show that whether or not life has intrinsic value is irrespective of God's existence.

iii) I, for one, am not arguing that life has value because God values it. To recur to my illustration, Da Vinci's The Virgin and Child with St. Anne isn't valuable because Da Vinci values it. 

iv) Let's take a different comparison. A father played football in junior high and high school. He has nostalgic memories of his experience. He wants to give his son an opportunity to share the same enjoyment. 

He spends time alone with his son. Takes his son places. Takes his son to a playground where he can teach him the basics of football. It's one way of expressing affection for his son. And his son, in turn, loves doing things with his father. That's an emotional bond. 

But from a secular standpoint, is that good? From the standpoint of naturalistic evolution, paternal love is instinctual. Filial love is instinctual. Evolutionary psychology has brainwashed us to feel that's meaningful. To feel that's good. 

And yet, from a secular standpoint, that's an illusion. There's nothing objectively good about it. For one thing, the evolutionary process is mindless and amoral. There's nothing benevolent about naturalistic evolution. Nothing intentional about naturalistic evolution. 

Natural selection favors behavior that contributes to reproductive fitness. That's by process of elimination. Adaptive behavior serves no purpose. Evolution is blind. Rather, that's an incidental outcome. Organisms with certain traits survive and thrive.

In addition, the instinct is arbitrary. Evolutionary psychology could just as well brainwash us to have very different instincts. 

In some species, the mother cannibalizes the runt of the litter. Or his siblings cause him to die of malnutrition by squeezing him out at nursing time. Lions kill the cubs of a rival male. Drakes rape hens. Ever see ducks at mating season?

In evolutionary psychology, there's no underlying good to back up our sense of good. No reason it should be that way. There's just the groundless sense of good. Although we have an instinctual sense of good, once we begin to reflect on our evolutionary programing, we realize that our sense of good is delusive. We've been manipulated by an evolutionary process. Yet evolution isn't good or bad. It simply is. 

What do you do when no one is watching you?

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Mk 11:24). 
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 24:45-51; par. Lk 12:42-48).

i) I'd like to comment on the implications of this parable for the problem of unanswered prayer. The Markan verse is a typical example. There we have an unqualified promise. And it's not an isolated example. The NT contains similar promises. But, of course, in real life, prayer doesn't bat a thousand. Indeed, I doubt the batting average for most Christian at prayer is anywhere near that.

And not just for Christians in general. Do we really suppose the NT writers always got what they prayed for? I doubt it. 

ii) So why doesn't God answer prayer more often? I've discussed this before, but I'd like to attack it from a fresh angle. 

To begin with, it's a mistake to take certain truths to a logical extreme. That might sound counterintuitive to say. Indeed, I think it's a good thing to take abstract truths to a logical extreme.

However, that's not necessarily the case concerning some practical truths. That's because, especially in a fallen world, there's the problem of competing goods. Taking one practical truth as far as you can may lead to neglecting another practical truth. Sometimes we need to balance one off against another. They modify each other. Otherwise, taking two (or more) practical truths to a logical extreme may put them on a collision course. 

iii) Although the parable is about the Parousia, it involves a general principle. How do people behave when they think no one is watching? For instance, you have people who behave differently under the gaze of a security camera. But if they forget about the security camera, or if they think it's off, then they may lose their moral inhibitions. If God was a hovering presence, many more people would feign to be God-fearing. 

Or consider the cliché plot of trusting parents who must take a business trip out of town. They leave their home in the hands of their teenage kids. Of course their kids promise to be responsible in the absence of their parents. But when, due to unforeseen circumstances, the parents return early, they find a party in progress, with alcohol, drugs, hookups, and so on.

iv) Apropos (iii), unanswered prayer is a test of fidelity. Sometimes God plays the role of the absentee master in the parable. If God made his presence conspicuous by routinely answering prayer, that would be like having a security camera running in every room of the house. To be on your best behavior when you know the cops are watching you says nothing about your character. Consider what happens in a blackout or emergency when police are so overwhelmed that looters feel free to ransack stories with impunity.  

God not answering prayer is like the master whose return flight is canceled due to inclement weather. Or so it seems. The security camera is off. Or so it seems.

Prayer promises are counterbalanced by unanswered prayer, because God's apparent absence is a test of fidelity. If God routinely answered prayer, that would function as an artificial deterrent to infidelity. You'd be faithful because you knew God was watching you. You'd know God was watching you due to the regular evidence of divine intercession. But to be faithful when God seems to be absent or indifferent is the acid test.