Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Was the atonement obligatory?

In the book of Romans, 5:7-8, Paul says:

"Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners."

A problem with this paragraph is that if God hadn't 'made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf' (2 Co 5:21), then we would have kept our sin and consequently suffered separation from God when God could have done something about it. In this situation, it doesn't seem as though dying for us is especially praiseworthy, because it seems obligatory for God to step in and save us if He can do so.

But I'm not entirely sure that this analysis is correct.

Take a situation where someone is a very heavy drinker and has made the choice to drink themselves into unconsciousness as often as they can. A family member or friend would be right to feel concerned about the heavy drinker, but are they obligated to stage an intervention and forcibly commit the heavy drinker to some kind of rehabilitation?

On the one hand, if the heavy drinker knows what they are doing, then perhaps the family member or friend should accept the heavy drinker's choice and let them destroy their life. On the other hand, maybe feelings of concern make it right to commit the heavy drinker to rehabilitation. Is there an obligation to do the latter?

What if staging an intervention is very costly to the family member or friend? Suppose that the family member needs to give up his/her life savings to pay for the heavy drinker to be rehabilitated and as a consequence they must accept a much lower quality of life whenever they stop working. Is there an obligation on the family member/friend to arrange an intervention at great personal cost?

I believe that if someone is making a very self-destructive decision, then an intervention may be obligatory if it does not come at a great personal cost, depending on the situation. However, if an intervention comes at a great personal cost, and the person who is destroying their life knows what they are doing, then I doubt there is an obligation.

How does this relate to God and the quote in Romans, though?

It seems reasonable to imagine that before someone becomes a Christian they don't really care that much about the Christian God and don't wish to commit themselves to that God. It's also reasonable to think that before someone becomes a Christian the prospect of an eternity living without God is not a particularly frightening prospect, unless they follow another religion where this is that religion's idea of hell.

This implies that when God saves someone God has to change our desires so that we will not want to go through an eternity apart from, and not giving recognition to, God (Eph 2:1: "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,")

In this respect, God is like someone intervening in someone's life because they think someone is going down the wrong track, when that person doesn't want their help (at that time) and, if someone is OK with the prospect of not being with God forever, knows what they are doing.

The other point is that God had to pay an enormous personal cost in saving us. If God performs a miracle so that you receive $1,000,000,000, then that doesn't really cost God anything even if we really appreciate it. God is all-powerful after all. But Jesus' death for us on the cross is perhaps the only good thing God has done that cost God immensely (1 Co 6:20: "for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.") The cost that God paid was not simply being crucified, but included bearing all of humanity's sins, which may have involved pain and suffering that we cannot imagine. God did it because of the joy He would have in seeing us come to know Him for an eternity (Heb 12:2: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.")

The conclusion is that if you combine 1) someone intervening in someone's life to help them when they know what they are doing and they do not want help, with 2) the intervention coming at a great personal cost, then there is not necessarily any moral obligation to help. This means that Paul is right when he praises God for saving us, assuming our situation fits with (1) and (2).

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Defining faith

Faith is often said to be irrational and to involve believing in things against evidence or without evidence. But let's look at what the Bible says about faith.

Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

2 Corinthians 5:7: "We live by faith, not by sight."

The interesting thing about these verses is that sight, which it talks about, is an unusual type of evidence. Sight is probably the most direct form of evidence that we have. There are many other forms of evidence that are not like this, such as an airplane pilot relying on their instruments rather than what they see outside the cockpit window, that is, indirect evidence.

If these verses were written with this idea in mind, if there was a specific and purposeful mention of sight-type evidence, then 'faith' in the Bible can include relying on indirect evidence.

If 'sight' excludes faith, but other forms of evidence do not exclude faith - less direct forms - then faith is extremely common. A pilot could be said to have faith in their instruments according to this definition. A person could be said to have faith in the reliability of their car, in this definition, if they haven't directly observed why their car is reliable, but rely on the engineers, salespeople, etc.

This would make Biblical faith something that is reasonable, because we rely on indirect evidence all the time, and so it would be a virtue to have Biblical faith in a lot of contexts.

Actually, this view has support when you consider how the Bible makes an argument in various places for the Christian life, God's existence, Jesus' claims, moral issues, etc (e.g. Rom 6:2, Rom 1:20, Matt 12:39-40, Rom 5:8).


Monday, January 10, 2011

Who deserves the credit when Christians become better people?

When someone has been a Christian for a while they should show signs of moral improvement, they should get better at 'Doing unto others.' But does this imply that Christians rather than God deserve the credit for improving themselves morally?

Philippians 2:13 says, "for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure."

A way of illustrating how God can deserve all the credit comes from the 'objective'-'subjective' distinction.

The objective is what is outside someone's mind, and the subjective is what is going on inside someone's mind.

To put it abstractly, if an objective force changes a person's subjective mind, then you can always say there are two causes to the change. Objectively, the force has changed the person. Subjectively, the person who has been changed will need to see how they rationally ought to be different, or they've been changed into a crazy person who doesn't have rational reasons for doing things. The person seeing how they rationally ought to act differently is the subjective cause of the change.

When it comes to Christianity, once someone accepts Christ then God will start changing that person, as per the Philippians quote, objectively. But who experiences those changes? The Christian subjectively does. So God's objective changes are going to be experienced subjectively as that person looking closer at how they relate to other people and then making e.g. more kind decisions. But the cause of those changes wouldn't, in that case, ultimately come from the subjective. It would come from what God is doing, the objective.

So any time that God affects someone it can always be 'read' as that person becoming better through their own efforts, because God's work will lead to subjective changes within someone's mind. And that person will wake up and suddenly see things they hadn't noticed before, look more at things from other people's perspective, etc. But, actually, the subjective changes that are experienced in those cases are caused by an objective process occurring outside that person's mind, that is, God's grace.

So this is how God can deserve all the credit for improving Christians morally rather than them despite, possibly, no evidence that this is through anything other than that Christian waking up one day and deciding to be more responsible, more kind, etc.


Saturday, January 01, 2011

What does it mean for people to be equal?

What does it mean for people to be equal? There aren't any two people in the world who have equal abilities in every respect. Some people are more intelligent, some people are better looking, some people have more wealth, status or power, and so on and so on. So what does it mean for people to be equal?

Equality doesn't mean that I pretend I'm as fast a runner as Usain Bolt so that everyone is equal when it comes to short distance running ability (Usain Bolt is the fastest short distance runner in history). Equality doesn't mean that I and my friends create a socially acceptable delusion whereby, for the sake of equality, we all pretend that we're as fast as Usain Bolt.

So believing in equality has to include a sensible acknowledgment of differences in people's abilities and gifts.

So if equality doesn't involve pretending that people have equal abilities, then what does it mean?

I think equality refers to the way that you process someone being relatively better or worse at something than yourself. It refers to how you choose to act on the fact that people have different abilities.

I think the Bible gives a good explanation of this view here:

Gen 1:27 "And God made man in his image, in the image of God he made him: male and female he made them" (everyone is equally made in God's image).

Rom 2:11 "For one man is not different from another before God" (because everyone is equally made in God's image).

1 Co 4:7 "For who made you better than your brother? or what have you that has not been given to you? but if it has been given to you, what cause have you for pride, as if it had not been given to you?" (everything we have outside of our own choices is a gift from God).

The Bible makes it clear that every good thing we have that's outside of our own choices we received from God (we also receive grace and the rest of our choices are heavily influenced by what God gave us), James 1:17. And what abilities and gifts we received from God we received not because God liked any of us more than anyone else (as we're all equally made in His image), but purely because it fitted more with God's plan for us to receive what we received.

So if someone is better than someone else because of their choices, then maybe there's a reason for boasting there - unless someone's better choices are a result of God's grace, because then they were a gift from God (grace is a gift offered freely to all). But if someone is better than someone else because of what's outside their choices, then they shouldn't boast about it, because everything outside our choices was given to people without God liking anyone more than anyone else.

This means acknowledging differences in people's abilities as long as that difference isn't used to attack someone in some way. Because you can't attack people based on a gift that you received from someone (in this case God), when the gift wasn't intended to privilege you over them.

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