Why trying to explain away God with science is an ERROR

Posted on October 17, 2012 By

In order to please my readers, I have made the bold decision to begin this essay in an utterly groundbreaking fashion…by providing a surprise bonus feature (that will, at first, seem unrelated to the topic of this essay):  I will now explain the mystery of the JFK assassination. The decades of waiting are finally over. Sit tight…here it goes:

The ignition of a powder mixture consisting of the chemicals sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter caused a rapid expansion of gasses which, consistent with Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, forced a lead projectile down a metal tube at a supersonic velocity. The collision of the projectile against certain of Kennedy’s vital organs caused a transference of kinetic energy, which severely damaged these organs, resulting in death.

What’s that I hear you say? You’re disappointed?! You were suspicious of my bold claims from the outset?! All I did was describe aspects of a gunshot (and subsequent wound), in pretentious scientific terms, rather than explain the assassination? You were hoping I would explain who the guilty parties were, and what their motives were?

Scientific description cannot continue past the level of physical/natural laws. Science can only describe “the rules of the game,” not the events or outcome of the game.

Well, you were justified in feeling suspicious and then disappointed. The same suspicion, and then disappointment, should surround any bold claims atheists make about science “explaining” things without the need for God. As I note in The God of the Gaps: Why God and Science Are Not Competing Explanations, atheists commit what is known in philosophy as a category error any time they declare that science and God are competing explanations for natural phenomena. Below is an excerpt from the Wikipedia post for Category Error:

“A category mistake, or category error, is a semantic or ontological error in which ‘things of one kind are presented as if they belonged to another’, or, alternatively, a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. Thus the claim that ‘Most Americans are atheists’ is not a category mistake, since most Americans could be (contingently) atheists. On the other hand, ‘Most bananas are atheists’ is a category mistake. This is because bananas belong to a category of things that cannot be said to have beliefs.”

Just as bananas cannot have beliefs, science cannot provide complete explanations for natural phenomena.

A statement such as, “Living things were not caused by God, but rather, by natural processes,” is every bit as much of a category error as the statement, “Aircraft are not caused by humans, but rather, by manufacturing processes.”

Bold declarations from atheists that “science explains things without the need for God” amount to a category error. Bo Jinn writes in Illogical Atheism:

“In no way does it logically follow that something was not designed and built from the mere fact alone that that something could be understood scientifically. The law of gravity and Newton’s Laws of motion are to God and the universe what binary strings and electronics are to Alan Turing and the computer processor. Function and agency account for two entirely different explanations as to how and why something exists.  Aristotle explained this over two thousand years ago… Aristotle stated that everything in the universe could be understood in terms of:

A formal cause, a material cause, an efficient cause and a final cause.

Science accounts for only two of those causes; the formal and the material. If we were to apply Aristotle’s theory to the Harrier jump jet in the allegory above:

-The Harrier’s material causes are the components from which it was constructed.

-Its formal causes are the laws of mechanics, aerodynamics and internal combustion.

-Its efficient causes are Ralph Hooper, Sir Sydney Camm and Sir Stanley Hooker [the designers of the jet].

-Its final cause is to be flown in dogfights.

Only the first of those categories of causes were open to the scientists in the story. Only the first two of those categories are open to science in the study of the universe.”

Science, in short, does not even address efficient and final causes in regards to such issues as the origin of the universe or the origin of life. Therefore, a statement such as, “Living things were not caused by God, but rather, by natural processes of evolution,” is every bit as much of a category error as the statement, “Aircraft are not caused by humans, but rather, by manufacturing processes.” God and human agency are proposed efficient causes. Evolution and manufacturing processes are proposed formal causes. Atheist reasoning commits a category error when it confuses different levels of causation. Further, atheist reasoning suffers an explanatory failure when it disregards the need for explaining all levels of causation.

Science describes natural phenomena in terms of laws, but it does not explain where those laws came from, who (or what) enforces those laws, or why the universe has laws in the first place (rather than just chaos). Scientific description, in other words, ends at the level of natural/physical laws. So how does theism explain the above mentioned phenomena? The answer is simple. As I put it in I Believe In Science, Why Do I Need Religion?:

Such laws are the result of a lawgiver (God). Moreover, theism asserts that matter is nothing more than a manifestation of consciousness (God’s consciousness), which is the view most compatible with modern physics, as I demonstrate in God Is Real: Why Modern Physics Has Discredited Atheism. Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry, summarized the theistic explanation of why matter follows physical laws succinctly when he said: “The nature of this or that body is but the law of God prescribed to it [and] to speak properly, a law [is] but a notional rule of acting according to the declared will of a superior.” [the word “notional” italicized by me]

Or as James Joule, the propounder of the first law of thermodynamics, for whom the thermal unit of the “Joule” was named, put it: “It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed.”

Albert Einstein marveled at the existence of physical/natural laws, and the exquisite order (rather than the chaos that we should a priori expect) which lies therein. He wrote (as also cited in The God of the Gaps: Why God and Science Are Not Competing Explanations):

“…a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way. The kind of order created by Newton’s theory of gravitation, for example, is wholly different. Even if man proposes the axioms of the theory, the success of such a project presupposes a high degree of ordering of the objective world, and this could not be expected a priori. That is the ‘miracle’ which is constantly reinforced as our knowledge expands.”

But this is only the beginning of the problem for atheists when they claim that science “explains” things without the need for God. The next problem is that there is much in nature that cannot be described by referencing physical/natural laws. Edgar Andrews writes in Who Made God?:

“…When we play chess, the laws determine the moves we can make but not the moves we do make. That is, the laws are not deterministic; they don’t impose a particular outcome for the game. In the same way, the laws of nature determine what is and what is not physically possible, but they do not determine what actually occurs within the multitude of available possibilities.”

A similar point is made by the former Manhattan Project physicist, and leading information scientist, Hubert Yockey, in the primary text on the application of algorithmic information theory to the origin of life, titled Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life (also cited in Why God? Why Not Just Plain Luck?):

“The laws of physics and chemistry are much like the rules of a game such as football. The referees see to it that these laws are obeyed but that does not predict the winner of the Super Bowl. There is not enough information in the rules of the game to make that prediction. That is why we play the game. [Mathematician Gregory] Chaitin (1985, 1987a) has examined the laws of physics by actually programming them. He finds the information content amazingly small.”

“The reason that there are principles of biology that cannot be derived from the laws of physics and chemistry lies simply in the fact that the genetic information content of the genome for constructing even the simplest organisms is much larger than the information content of these laws.” (Yockey 1992).

This is why Yockey concludes that the origin of life from non-living matter is “unsolvable as a scientific problem.” Scientific description cannot continue past the level of physical/natural laws. Science can only describe “the rules of the game,” not the events or outcome of the game. And, more importantly, it cannot describe who or what is playing the game in such “games” as the origin of life from non-living matter, and the origin of the universe (or universes if you prefer multiple universes) from a state in which there were no universes.

Further, both above mentioned “games” involved an almost unimaginable information specificity and complexity. As I mentioned in Why Life Could Not Have Emerged Without God, the simplest living thing (the first self-replicating molecule) is several orders of magnitude more complex than anything humans have ever produced…supercomputers, spacecraft, anything.

Regarding the immense information content contained in the language of life (the language of DNA), Nancy Pearcey writes in her book Total Truth:

“…in principle, laws of nature do not give rise to information. Why not? Because laws describe events that are regular, repeatable, and predictable. If you drop a pencil, it will fall. If you put paper into a flame, it will burn. If you mix salt in water, it will dissolve. That’s why the scientific method insists that experiments must be repeatable: Whenever you reproduce the same conditions, you should get the same results, or something is wrong with your experiment. The goal of science is to reduce those regular patterns to mathematical formulas. By contrast, the sequence of letters in a message is irregular and non repeating, which means it cannot be the result of any law-like process.”

“To illustrate the point, let’s invoke our imaginary Scrabble game… but this time when you organize the letters, you decide to follow a certain formula or rule (an analogy to laws of nature). For example, the formula might require that every time you have a D, it is followed by an E. And every time you have an E, it’s followed by a S, then an I, then a G, and an N. The result would be that every time you started with D, you would get DESIGN, DESIGN, DESIGN, over and over again. Obviously, if the letters in a real alphabet followed rules like that, you would be limited to spelling only a few words—and you could not convey very much information. The reason a real alphabet works so well is precisely that the letters do not follow rules or formulas or laws. If you know that a word begins with a T, you cannot predict what the next letter will be. With some minor exceptions (in English, q is always fol-lowed by u ), the letters can be combined and recombined in a vast number of different arrangements to form words and sentences.”

So who or what is the author of the codified information contained in DNA? It is not merely the case that science has failed so far to answer this question. Rather it is that science can never, even in principle, answer this question. And one is more likely to get a coherent answer to this question from a banana than from an atheist. As I point out in Why Life Could Not Have Emerged Without God, the cream-of-the-crop atheist scientists have proposed answers to the question of the origin of life that include such gems as aliens-brought-life-to-earth-in-their-spaceship (called “directed panspermia”), and life-came-to-earth-from-space-without-alien-assistance (just “panspermia” without the “directed”), and life emerged as a result of a piggyback ride on crystals.

And how did a universe (or universes, if you prefer) emerge from a state in which there was no universe…and therefore no space, no time, no matter, no energy, and no laws? As the great astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington put it,

“The beginning [of the universe] seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.”

Or as Allan Sandage, who was widely regarded to have been the greatest living cosmologist (until his death in 2010), put it:

“I find it quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing.”

Put another way, naturalistic explanations are simply insufficient for explaining why there exists a natural world for us to explain, in the first place. (Please read OK…I Want Numbers. What is the chance that the universe is the result of chance?  and Is There A God? (What is the chance that our world is the result of chance?) for a further discussion of the origin of the universe).

Just as the scientific description of a gunshot that I gave at the beginning of this essay provides an incomplete explanation for the JFK assassination, scientific descriptions of natural phenomena provide an incomplete explanation for those natural phenomena. Because science cannot provide complete explanations to such questions as the origin of the universe and the origin of life, the suggestion that science provides an alternative to God is an open-and-shut category error.


15 comments


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    I’m on board a hundred percent. Now if we can just keep religiously minded people from inserting their belief du jour into science. Ken Hamm, Perry Marshall, and Deepak Chopra should all go away and pray.


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      Gerry Denaro says:

      Dennis wrote
      “Now if we can just keep religiously minded people from inserting their belief du jour into science. Ken Hamm, Perry Marshall, and Deepak Chopra should all go away and pray.”
      I think you forgot to mention the latest Pew research 2011 that says over 50% of scientists believe in God. If your going to attack someone’s argument then at least suggest how their arguments might be fallacious. Making hit&run ipse dixit assertions about the source of such arguments without any attempt to substantiate your opinion, is a typical response seen on YT, not forums like this. As Bertrand Russell pointed out “ad hominem is the last ditch defence of the losing side.”

      Can I humbly suggest you read Scott’s article “if you think science leads to atheism” for a litany of the most eminent scientists who conclude there is no conflict between religion and science.” The fanciful theories that atheist cosmologists like Hawking and Krauss are now embracing to explain creation ex nihilo without a transcendent cause, would be laughable if they werent so tragic. From years of debating atheists I have concluded that many have vested interest in rejecting God. The abundant use of emotional diatribes, insults and sheer lack of argumentation prove the issue is not intellectual, nor science related, but MORAL:
      a few science quotes appear below
      Sir Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Prize in physics: “Science and religion are apposed , just as the fingers and thumb are apposed, so that between them we may grasp everything.”

      . “The deeper one penetrates into nature’s secrets, the greater becomes one’s respect for God.” (Einstein, as cited in Brian 1996, 119).

      “In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.” (Einstein, as cited in Clark 1973, 400; and Jammer 2002, 97)..
      quantum physicist John Polkinghorne “there are SIX known fundamental constants in nature whose values have to be very close to their presently observed values if any intelligent, carbon-based life is to come into being anywhere in the universe. In some cases these values have to be astonishingly accurate: e.g, lambda, the expansion rate of the universe in relativity, has to be a factor of 10 to the 120th power smaller than such an explanation would have considered NATURAL.”

      From many years debating atheists allow me to observe that some are motivated for personal reasons to deny God, especially as a moral Law Giver. If a person abhors the idea of God as a moral tyrant, they will oppose even the possibility of His existence, with any evidence ignored or rationalized away.. Using circular logic, ATHEISM irrational worldview is exposed by celebrated philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, “if God exists I am not free. Since I am free therefore God does not exist.” Google the “psychology of atheism” it may just set you free


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    Gerry De naro says:

    The question of whether the Bible or God condoned slavery needs to be addressed. A careful read of scripture reveals that slavery predates Christianity and that the Bible does not condone it, only regulates it. Slavery must be understood in its proper cultural context of in OT times, which is not to be equated with more modern understandings of slavery. Christianity tolerated slavery under Roman domination until it could be abolished. Finally, the Christian worldview provides a foundation for equality and human dignity, whereas atheism does not. Israel as described in the Old Testament is not God’s ideal society how God can’t just eradicate slavery all at once and still retain human freedom. Therefore, when the Bible is properly interpreted and applied, we see that, far from enthusiastically endorsing slavery, the truth is that God’s people tolerated it with unheard of compassion and humanity until it could finally be abolished.
    As for the historical Jesus and his miraculous deeds: “The disciples had nothing to gain by lying and starting a new religion. They faced hardship, ridicule, hostility, and martyr’s deaths. They could never have sustained such a charade with unwavering motivation if they knew what they were preaching was a lie. The disciples were not fools and Paul was a cool-headed intellectual of the first rank. There would have been several opportunities over three to four decades of ministry to reconsider and renounce a lie.” “If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception—without a fundamental faith experience—then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself.


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    Gerry De Naro says:

    The question facing openminded scientists
    today is which universe would be more
    plausible if atheism is true, given the data we have:
    one which is finite in the past,rationally
    intelligible, defined by the most complex
    set of abstract laws and fine-tuned physical
    constants OR one which is a random, lawless,
    lifeless chaos?
    Now be honest!


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      Scott Youngren ( User Karma: 43 ) says:

      Gerry,

      You hit the nail on the head. Atheists often cite natural laws as an alternate explanation to God for various natural phenomena. But the existence of natural laws is something which underlies science (meta-scientific). Science cannot address such questions as 1) Where natural laws come from 2) Why the natural laws which we have allow for order rather than chaos, and 3) Who or what enforces these laws.

      Such questions are ontological questions…NOT scientific questions. Therefore, an atheist who cites natural laws as an alternative explanation to God for a natural phenomenon is committing a category error (in philosophical terms, as the above essay discusses).

      Albert Einstein put it best (as I cite him in Riddles for Atheists):

      “You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world (to the extent that we are authorized to speak of such a comprehensibility) as a miracle or as an eternal mystery. Well, a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way… the kind of order created by Newton’s theory of gravitation, for example, is wholly different. Even if man proposes the axioms of the theory, the success of such a project presupposes a high degree of ordering of the objective world, and this could not be expected a priori. That is the ‘miracle’ which is constantly reinforced as our knowledge expands.”

      Scott


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    Michael says:

    “Rather, atheism is stuck with asserting that these laws just are and that matter (and energy) follow these laws because it just does. Even the most elite atheist physicists are at a loss to provide more substantive explanations than these…as this New York Times book review of A Universe From Nothing by the atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss alludes to. And please note that they just are and it just does are arbitrary assumptions, rather than explanations…and therefore point to a major failure of the atheist explanatory framework.”

    And so what? WE do not claim to know everything. to explain everything, to see into the future, to know the plans of some OmniMAx being whose mind is so superior to ours we cannot understand it.

    No. We neither offer an explanation of “why” or regard the question as particularly interesting or relevant and certainly not answerable.

    Yet.

    What we do NOT do is make up fairy tales to explain away our ignorance.


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      Michael:

      Regarding your comment “We neither offer an explanation of ‘why’ or regard the question as particularly interesting or relevant and certainly not answerable,” Bo Jinn writes in Illogical Atheism:

      Let us try and understand the ‘God argument’ in terms of a criminal murder case presented before a court of law:  

      We have a set of facts, in which the corpse of victim ‘A’ was found at the scene of the crime.   We have a prosecutor and the accused. The prosecutor’s job is to bring evidence to support the hypothesis that the accused killed victim ‘A’.   Ask yourself; is it enough for the counsel for the defense to simply express skepticism toward all the evidence presented by the case for the prosecution? Obviously not. Assuming the suspect values his liberty, he might either provide an alternative explanation for how the victim was killed, or else demonstrate by way of an alibi that he couldn’t have possibly been the killer.   Either way, abstinence from engaging the case isn’t going to get our suspect very far. Not only that, but the accused must provide his own evidence in support of his explanation. If the plaintiff can prove beyond reasonable doubt that the best explanation of the facts is the hypothesis that the accused murdered the victim, then the guilty verdict is produced.  

      In the above allegory; the plaintiff is the theist, the defendant is the atheist and the fact that cries out for a hypothesis is the universe and everything within it, to which the theist submits God as an explanation.

      The question of how matter can be compelled to follow natural laws is only “not answerable” (in your words) from within the explanatory framework of atheism. In other words, atheism CANNOT provide an alternative explanation to this question. Rather, it can only ignore the question or try to sweep it under the rug. How it is that matter can be compelled to follow natural laws is a CRUCIAL question.

      When you make comments such as, “What we do NOT do is make up fairy tales to explain away our ignorance,” you are trying to use strident rhetoric in order to compensate for your lack of a logical argument. As I have said to other atheists: Much as a nervous tick made by a poker player is a “tell” that he is holding a weak hand, the use of rhetoric by an atheist (in place of a logical argument) is a “tell” that he DOES NOT HAVE a logical argument. No matter how you slice it, rhetoric such as “fairy tales” cannot substitute for a logical argument.

      The more you use such rhetoric (in place of logic), the more you advertise the weakness of your stance.

      Below is an excerpt from Riddles for Atheists relevant to this topic:

      How can an inanimate thing be made to follow a law? (Such as the laws of physics, chemistry, or thermodynamics). How can such a structure of laws (or “regularities” if you prefer) that govern the universe exist in a truly random world? Please note that this is a question that science can never answer because it is not a scientific question. Rather, it is an ontological question.

      In the theistic model, it is immediately obvious why matter follows natural laws: The same mind that creates matter (God’s mind) also directs it. As Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry, put it: “The nature of this or that body is but the law of God prescribed to it [and] to speak properly, a law [is] but a notional rule of acting according to the declared will of a superior.” [italics added]

      Or, as James Joule, the propounder of the first law of thermodynamics, for whom the thermal unit of the “Joule” was named, put it: “It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed.”

      Or, as the knighted mathematician, physicist and astronomer Sir James Jeans put it in his book The Mysterious Universe:

      “There is a wide measure of agreement which, on the physical side of science approaches almost unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter. We are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail mind as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.” (italics added)

      What answer does the atheistic model provide to the question of how an inanimate thing can be compelled to follow a law? Only various versions of “matter follows laws because it just does.”


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    EJDolce says:

    Bro. Scott-

    So grateful that I came across your blog and this page via a “random” search for apologetics on tumblr. May the LORD Himself bless you for your faithful, direct, yet humble defense for the reason(s) you maintain hope in Him. You have certainly encouraged at least one Christian with your article and subsequent responses to detractors who could not embrace the Truth.


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    L.W. Dicker says:

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2012/11/north-korea-says-they-unearthed-unicorn-lair/59483/

    Gentlemen, we now have official evidence of unicorns.

    It is surely only a matter of time before we have evidence that the invisible fairy in the sky decided to turn itself into a man in the ancient Middle East desert two thousand years ago for the ultimate purpose of allowing himself to be hung to a tree and savagely tortured to death by a superstitious bunch of ignorant peasants in the most disgusting manner possible as a blood atonement for the apparent sins of his own creation.

    Let’s all take a moment and pray that this preposterous, idiotic, asinine, Neanderthal bunch of superstitious bullshit is actually true.

    Praise Jebus. Praise his holy fucking name. Amen.


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      Scott Youngren ( User Karma: 32 ) says:

      L.W:

      You might be surprised to learn that, far from being offended, I actually love it when atheists make comments like these. As a Christian, I certainly do not approve of your blasphemy, but that being said, comments such as yours actually play right into my hand. What do I mean by this?

      Any intelligent viewer of your comment knows that caricature (“invisible fairy in the sky”, etc.) and strident rhetoric (“superstitious bunch of ignorant peasants”, etc.) are language devices that only people without a logically coherent counter argument (or rationally constructed rebuttal) must resort to. The tacit message that your comments communicate is: “I don’t have an effective counter-argument, and this makes me mad, so I am going to lash out in anger.” You are loudly advertising your inability to respond to the logical arguments I make in my essay for everyone to see. Further, you are advertising the emotional, rather than logical, basis for your views.

      Just think about it…when Einstein was discussing his theory of relativity with people, did he need to say things like, “Anyone who disagrees with my theory is an idiotic, asinine, Neanderthal”? Of course not, and if he had said such things, it would have made people take him far less seriously.

      Scott


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        Mike says:

        PTL – fabulous. God bless you


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    Kavik says:

    First, I would say that a description of gravity is in fact an explanation for why we are held to the floor instead of hitting the ceiling (as per your first quote) while a description of gravity is not an explanation of gravity, it is in fact, an explanation of why we are held to the floor. I would recommend removing the first quote, as it makes no sense. It’s not your work so don’t take that harshly.

    Second, while this may make a logical argument for god, how do you make the leap from “there is a god” to “this long-dead desert tribesman who whipped tax-enforcers and yelled about houses in paradise for anyone who followed him, is god”

    I’m not an athiest, for reasons similar to those you described. But that doesn’t prevent the Christian religion from still being ridiculous. If there’s so much order made by god, why is the bible full of him breaking his own laws? If god is love why does he kill so many people, by his own hand, even after Jesus is born? (Annanias and Saphira, Herod) Why did god make laws such as the levitical ones, where slavery is okay and a woman is a bit of property?


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      Scott Youngren ( User Karma: 32 ) says:

      The reason that a description of gravity cannot be equivalent to an explanation for gravity is this: A description of gravity references a physical law but does not explain where physical laws come from or how they are enforced. Theism provides an explanation as to where physical/natural laws come from and how they are enforced…but atheism does not. Rather, atheism is stuck with asserting that these laws just are and that matter (and energy) follow these laws because it just does. Even the most elite atheist physicists are at a loss to provide more substantive explanations than these…as this New York Times book review of A Universe From Nothing by the atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss alludes to. And please note that they just are and it just does are arbitrary assumptions, rather than explanations…and therefore point to a major failure of the atheist explanatory framework.

      Regarding your “long-dead desert tribesman who whipped tax-enforcers and yelled about houses in paradise for anyone who followed him” comment: Please note that this is a caricature of Jesus and that caricatures are a hindrance to rational discussion. Arguments that are rational in nature do not utilize caricatures. But to learn a bit of the reasoning behind my belief that Jesus is the son of God, I will refer you to my essay titled Which God Is Real? as well as my essay titled Isn’t Christianity a Myth?. I also recommend the website y-jesus.com (although I haven’t explored it thoroughly).

      Regarding your question “Why is the Bible full of [examples of God] breaking his own laws?”: It is not. This is a common mistake. David Robertson’s replies to this idea in The Dawkins Letters:

      …you need to learn the basic principles of reading the Bible. You must always read it in context – that includes historical, literary, theological and biblical context. To read out of context is to misread. Then you must recognize that much of the Bible is descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, it is telling us what went on rather than what should have happened.

      How are biblical events taken out of context so as to accuse God of such things as allowing slavery, killing, etc.? Paul Copan answers in Is God A Moral Monster?

      Despite the North’s victory, the Emancipation Proclamation that preceded it (January 1, 1863), and the attempt at Reconstruction in the South, many whites did not change their mind-set in regard to blacks. As a nation, we’ve found that proclamations and civil rights legislations may be law, but such legalities don’t eradicate racial prejudice from human minds. A good deal of time was required to make significant headway in the pursuit of racial justice. Let’s switch gears. Imagine a Western nation or representatives from the West who think it best to export democracy to, say, Saudi Arabia. Think of the obstacles to overcome! A radical change of mind-set would be required, and simply changing laws wouldn’t alter the thinking in Saudi Arabia. In fact, you could probably imagine large-scale cultural opposition to such changes. When we journey back over the millennia into the ancient Near East, we enter a world that is foreign to us in many ways. Life in the ancient Near East wouldn’t just be alien to us—with all of its strange ways and assumptions. We would also see a culture whose social structures were badly damaged by the fall. Within this context, God raised up a covenant nation and gave the people laws to live by; he helped to create a culture for them. In doing so, he adapted his ideals to a people whose attitudes and actions were influenced by deeply flawed structures.

      As we’ll see with regard to servitude, punishments, and other structures, a range of regulations and statutes in Israel reveals a God who accommodates. Yet contrary to the common Neo-atheists’ caricatures, these laws weren’t the permanent, divine ideal for all persons everywhere. God informed his people that a new, enduring covenant would be necessary (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). By the Old Testament’s own admission, the Mosaic law was inferior and future looking. Does that mean that God’s ideals turn up only in the New Testament? No, the ideals are established at the very beginning (Gen. 1–2). The Old Testament makes clear that all humans are God’s image-bearers; they have dignity, worth, and moral responsibility. …Certain prohibitions in the law of Moses against theft, adultery, murder, and idolatry have enduring relevance. Yet when we look at God’s dealings with fallen humans in the ancient Near East, these ideals were ignored and even deeply distorted.

      As the biblical scholar N. T. Wright affirms, “The Torah [law of Moses at Sinai] is given for a specific period of time, and is then set aside—not because it was a bad thing now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose had now been accomplished.”3 This is the message of the New Testament book of Hebrews: the old Mosaic law and other Old Testament institutions and figures like Moses and Joshua were prefiguring “shadows” that would give way to “substance” and completion. Or as Paul put it in Galatians 3:24, the law was a “tutor” for Israel to prepare the way for Christ…incremental Steps toward the Ideal. How then did God address the patriarchal structures, primogeniture (rights of the firstborn), polygamy, warfare, servitude/slavery, and a number of other fallen social arrangements that were permitted because of the hardness of human hearts? He met Israel partway.

      As Jesus stated it in Matthew 19:8, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” We could apply this passage to many problematic structures within the ancient Near Eastern context: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted servitude and patriarchy and warfare and the like, but from the beginning it has not been this way.” They were not ideal and universal. After God invited all Israelites—male and female, young and old—to be a nation of priests to God, he gave them a simple covenant code (Exod. 20:22– 23:19). Following on the heels of this legislation, Israel rebelled against God in the golden calf incident (Exod. 32). High priests would also have their own rebellion by participating in deviant, idolatrous worship (Lev. 10). As a result of Israel’s turning from God, he gave them more stringent laws (Jer. 7; cf. Gal. 3:19). In the New Testament, Paul assumes that God had been putting up with inferior, less-than-ideal societal structures and human disobedience: • Acts 17:30: Previously, God “overlooked the times of ignorance” and is “now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.” • Romans 3:25: God has now “demonstrate[d] His righteousness” in Christ, though “in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” Like two sides of the same coin, we have human hard-heartedness and divine forbearance. God put up with many aspects of human fallenness and adjusted accordingly.

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