John Piper Being Honest About the Problem of the First Sin

The problem of the first sin is a huge issue in Christian theology given its background presuppositions, especially for Calvinism.  John Piper is an example of someone who forthrightly admits this.  After all, “How could a perfectly good being with a perfectly good will and a perfectly good heart ever experience any imperfect impulse that would cause the will to move in the direction of sin?” [1]  Piper admits that this problem is one of the greatest mysteries in his theology and that he doesn’t have a good answer [2].  He ultimately settles on saying “I don’t know”, though he does speculate that God might have cloaked his glory from Lucifer on purpose to bring about a sinful choice [3].  There are a few issues with this solution, however.

First, It appears to be a huge stretch to generalize as much as he does from the prophetic texts used to speculate about this, and to be fair he does admit that it’s just speculation.  Second, it seems like a passive action akin to “cloaking glory” being responsible for the first evil impulse goes against everything compatibilism stands for.  According to compatibilism, external circumstances don’t cause us to act in an evil manner, they just reveal the evil already inside our hearts.  If that is true, it’s hard to see how the external circumstance of “cloaked glory” could cause a heart to move towards evil unless it already had evil within it – hence the conundrum for compatibilists.

For more thoughts on this problem, see here.

 

  1. John Piper, Where Did Satan’s First Desire for Evil Come From?
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid

 

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A Battle of Basic Beliefs

It is often claimed that a person can know that God is real or that the Bible is true on the basis of “spiritual sight” – and this is the bread and butter of Presuppositional Apologetics and Reformed Epistemology.  One reason that this is appealing to Christians is because it allows one to believe that the millions of people around the world who have very little education can know the gospel is true in their hearts with certainty, even if they don’t understand how they know it [1].  It is claimed that the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit should trump all arguments in the end, and a person is justified in being a Christian even if it appears that the evidence is stacked against Christianity [2].  These are amazing admissions, because they unintentionally defang the strength of almost all Reformed apologetic approaches.  How so?  The traditional Reformed route is to *claim* that the person they are talking to cannot account for reason, morality, etc given their current non-christian belief system [3].  But imagine a person answered in the following way:

If I adopted your belief system, I would have to accept that children dying in infancy deserve eternal conscious torment [4].  If I know anything at all to be self-evidently true it is that babies don’t deserve to be tortured, and believing that they do seems insane.  This is a basic belief to me, akin to moral perception.  I may not understand how I possess this knowledge, but I don’t need to “know how I know to know that I know” [5].

This sort of approach could be used to argue against the many examples of questionable morality found in the Bible if a person was so inclined.  Whether or not you think this approach is valid, notice that this is the same strategy that historically reformed folks use to defend their beliefs – so it can’t be “unfair” for others to use the same strategy against them.  Moral/Spiritual perception can be used to justify a whole host of beliefs, not just the ones you happen to like.

 

  1. Why I no longer go to church, sermons like these; John Piper (Starts at the 28 minute mark)
  2. Is Religious Experience a Reliable Method for Determining Truth?
  3. See my post: An Exercise in Special Pleading for some thoughts on presuppositionalism
  4. The Implications of the Reformed Doctrine of Original Sin
  5. Randal Rauser, “‘Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive’: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide,” Philosophia Christi 11 (2009): 24-41.  Rauser makes a similar argument to show the immorality of killing babies, but I applied his method of arguing to a different topic (though it is related).  Read the full paper here.

 

 

Does the Problem of Evil Presuppose God?

In order to block the effectiveness of the problem of evil, many Christians try to turn the question around and argue that the objector needs to assume the existence of God in order to even pose the question.  On the view of some Christians, God must exist if necessary moral truths exists.  The problem is that this claim has been disputed in philosophy, even by Christian philosophers [1].  Disagreements about that fact aside, Christians and other theists are missing the point when they try to turn the tables.  The argument from evil should be seen as a challenge to the internal coherence of a theistic worldview.”

Consider this way of putting it:

Look. You theists believe that X, Y, and Z are evil. You theists believe that God is good. You theists believe that good persons are opposed to evil. So you theists need to explain why a god who is good (in your sense of ‘good’) would allow so much apparently pointless evil (in your sense of ‘evil’). If you can’t explain it, then that is a problem for the internal coherence of your worldview [2].

When it is put this way, the questioner doesn’t “presuppose” anything about morality [3].

 

  1. Preliminary Thoughts on the Moral Argument
  2. Jeffrey Jay Lowder, Advice to Critics of the Argument from Evil
  3. Ibid

 

The Argument from Fine-Tuning and the Problem of Evil

People who formulate evidential arguments from evil generally claim that the “known facts about the types, quantity, and distribution of good and evil are much more probable on naturalism than on theism” [1].  Or at the very least, a person could attempt to show that traditional notions of God as all powerful and all loving are false given these types of evils without committing themselves to metaphysical naturalism.  Either way, the typical theistic response goes something like this:

We have far too limited an understanding of the interconnectedness of things to make such a judgment with confidence. On the assumption that theism is true (and there exists a morally perfect and omniscient being), there could easily be reasons, way beyond our understanding, why such a being would allow the facts about good and evil to obtain [2].

This is another way of saying that we don’t have enough information for the argument from evil to be persuasive.  Whether a person agrees with this assessment or not, notice what the theist is admitting when they do this:  That it is perfectly rational to appeal to ignorance to block the effectiveness of an argument.  This is a huge admission, because the fine-tuning argument claims that “the life permitting conditions of our universe are much more probable on theism than on naturalism” [3].  But consider the typical response from critics of that argument:

We don’t know that. We have far too limited an understanding of the early universe, the total mass-energy of the universe, quantum gravity, etc. to make such judgments with confidence. (Cosmology is a very young discipline and there is much we still don’t know. For example, 95.1% of the total mass-energy of the universe is mysterious, composed of either ‘dark energy’ (68.3%) or ‘dark matter’ (26.8%).) On the assumption that naturalism, a/k/a source physicalism, is true (and there was no one around at the earliest stages of the universe’s history to make physical observations), there could easily be mechanistic explanations, way beyond our understanding, why our universe is life-permitting [4].

This is the exact same move made by many theists with the evidential problem of evil – we don’t have enough information for this argument to be persuasive.  So it seems to me that if a theist thinks appealing to ignorance defeats the problem of evil, it must also defeat the fine-tuning argument in the same way, or else they are being demonstrably inconsistent.

 

  1. Jeffrey Jay Lowder, When Are Appeals to Human Ignorance a Legitimate Defeater of an Evidential Argument?
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

 

Preliminary Thoughts on the Moral Argument

As most people who pay attention to religious arguments are aware, many attempt to reason from the existence of necessary moral truths to the existence of God.  This is an area that I am especially interested in because for a long time this was one of the most convincing arguments to me for God’s existence.  But before exploring the argument in depth (which I plan to do at a later time), I want to make two observations:

  1. Many religious people who use this argument and find it convincing (my past self included) haven’t really done any research into competing moral theories.  This may be because they are unaware of them, or they have accepted the false dichotomy that is often presented to them by religious leaders (Our God, or nihilism).  There are other options.  For example, atheist philosophers like Erik Wielenberg and Evan Fales have both defended objective morality without God.
  2. Related to the last point, not only are there other moral theories that allow an atheist to hold to necessary moral truths – not even all religious philosopher’s agree that God is necessary to ground moral truths in the first place!  A few examples are Richard Swinburne, one of the foremost Christians in philosophy of religion, and Keith E Yandell.

Obviously these are just observations, not arguments. But I think they are helpful starting points for consideration.  I leave it to the reader to research the views of those mentioned, though I will link to a short video of Richard Swinburne here. 

Why the Kalam Cosmological Argument Proves too Much

The Kalam Cosmological argument is one of the most popular arguments used in discussions about the existence of God.  It was popularized by William Lane Craig and his version goes like this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause [1]

Accepting the rationality of this argument actually proves more than many Christians realize, however.  The problem comes when we begin to think about premise 1 in relation to the first sin, because sins after the fall can be partially explained by a fallen nature.  However, Orthodox Christian doctrine teaches that Adam and Eve had no evil in their nature at creation, nor was there anything deficient.  Let’s reword the argument this way to illustrate the problem:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The first evil inclination in Eve’s heart began to exist
  3. Therefore, the first evil inclination in Eve’s heart had a cause

Calvinists are consistent here and admit that the ultimate cause of all things, including the fall, is God (though the tap-dancing ensues on how God could be without sin in this state of affairs) [3].  This is coupled with a doctrine of original sin that many people don’t really think through (for more on that see The Implications of the Reformed Doctrine of Original Sin).  Libertarians with respect to free will, however, cannot make that move.  What is the cause of Eve’s first evil inclination on this account?  Did she “decide” to have an evil inclination, and if so did that decision begin to exist?  What was its cause?  Can an evil desire pop into being out of nothing in the heart of a person who is created with a morally upright nature?  It seems necessary to trace the causal chain back to God if premise 1 of Kalam is true.  Philosopher Raymond Bradley explains:

One way of avoiding this unpalatable conclusion is to say that genuine free will involves a break in the causal chain, that our free acts are uncaused by anything other than ourselves, and hence that it was we…who bring about all the evils in God’s universe.  But on this so-called “contra-causal” account of free will Premise 1 [of the original Kalam] is false.  It makes us uncaused causes of our free acts.  Hence the theists dilemma: Either accept Premise 1 and make God causally responsible for evil, or reject Premise 1 and abandon the cosmological argument for God’s existence [4].

Which will it be?

 

  1. Search the argument’s name along with Craig’s to see it defended
  2. Raymond Bradley, God’s Gravediggers: Why No Deity Exists, p. 145-146.  As a side note, this book was an interesting read – though there were certainly sections where I felt that the author was overstating his case.
  3. The Moral Dilemmas in Reformed Theology
  4. Raymond Bradley, God’s Gravediggers: Why No Deity Exists, p. 145-146

 

 

 

The Implications of the Reformed Doctrine of Original Sin

The doctrine of Original Sin as expressed in Reformed theology has an underbelly whose consequences have most likely not been considered by the average Calvinist layperson.  If one looks closely at the Reformed confessions, they will clearly begin to wonder what happens to children dying in infancy.  What kind of answers are given?  As long as the infant is elect, they can be saved by Christ’s work through the Spirit [1].  This clearly means what it appears to mean.  As Chad Van Dixhoorn, an expert on the minutes of the Westminster Assembly writes:

Often there is a tendency to drop the qualifying word ‘elect’ from the word ‘infants’, with the suggestion that all babies go to heaven.  The scriptures do not allow us to draw this conclusion.  Apparent innocence does not rise to the height of an eternal entitlement.  Second, the confession is not saying that infants and the mentally handicapped are saved or elected because they are infants, or because they are handicapped [2].

It follows that

If one were to be elect on the basis of foreseen faith or obedience, what parents could have hope for their dying baby, or for their aging, but mentally inhibited child? [3]

Don’t miss what he is saying here.  The reason that election is good news is because without it, dying babies deserve to wake up for the first time in God’s eternal torture chamber [4].  To put this concept more forcefully, if a dying baby were to wake up for the first time to millions and millions of unending ages of the omnipotent floodgates of the fierce wrath of God that is vastly disproportionate to her strength to bear it, this would be fair.  A confessional Reformed Christian must believe this, and does not even have the authority to claim that this does not in fact happen some of the time.  After all, this is the historical Reformed view.  Regarding Augustine, J.V. Fesko at Westminster Seminary California writes:

Augustine was willing to hold to his view even in the face of what were difficult consequences. Unlike his predecessors, who taught that infants were born free of sin but were mortal because of Adam’s sin, Augustine believed that infants ‘are held in bondage by original sin alone, and because of this alone go into damnation.’ In other words, because infants bore the guilt of original sin they would be damned to hell if they died unbaptized. Baptism, according to Augustine, removed the stain and guilt of original sin, and without this remedy infants were subject to damnation even if they had committed no personal sins [5].

Calvin writes in his commentary on Deuteronomy 13:15

We may rest assured that God would never have suffered any infants to be slain except those who were already damned and predestined for eternal death [6].

Jonathan Edwards concurs that this ghastly vision is “most just, exceeding just”:

One of these two things are certainly true, and self-evidently so: either that it is most just, exceeding just, that God should take the soul of a new-born infant and cast it into eternal torments, or else that those infants that are saved are not saved by the death of Christ. For none are saved by the death of Christ from damnation that have not deserved damnation [7].

Modern Calvinist writer Tim Challies agrees:

The teaching of Scripture is clear: even if I never committed a sin throughout my entire life, I would still be justly condemned to hell because of the original sin of Adam…If we are to believe that Christ stands as our representative in the act of redemption, we must also believe that Adam stands as our representative in the act of becoming a fallen people. We cannot have one without the other. [8]

After doing much study and reflection on this topic, I find myself simply shaking my head and realizing I am unable to know from Scripture what happens to all infants who die. While I would like to believe that all children are immediately ushered into heaven, I simply do not find Scripture to support the idea that God will categorically overlook the imputation of Adam’s sin that is held against all humanity, and even the tiniest child.  It seems to me that those who adhere to the view that all children are saved must gloss-over or downplay original sin, and that is something I cannot do. Children who die in infancy are as fully implicated in Adam’s sin as I am and are thus fully deserving of hell. [9]

Unlike Challies, many (not all) modern Calvinists are unwilling to bite the bullet and accept the implications of their theological system. Many Calvinists might concede what we have discussed so far (they would have to), but would seek to defang the doctrine by essentially claiming that “God would never do that”.  Challies is right to argue that there is no historical or biblical* precedent to argue this way.  The only precedent in the Reformed tradition is to offer hope to Christian parents that their children dying in infancy are part of the “elect” group of infants (See WCF Chapter 10 and The Canons of Dort article 1/17).  The Canon’s of Dort comforted Christian parents who lost a child not by arguing that babies never go to hell, but by claiming that their children are distinct from the children of unbelievers by virtue of connection to the covenant.

And even if you take the view that all children dying in infancy are elect, you would still have to conclude that it would be fair for infants who die to be tortured forever upon waking up for the first time to God’s presence, even if he decides not to do it.  This is just one example among many of the moral and logical dilemmas in the Calvinist system (I have written on these dilemmas extensively, for more see here and here).  But this specific dilemma brings together the implications of meticulous divine sovereignty, original sin, God’s freedom in election, and hell (seen as eternal conscious torment) in a particularly unsettling way.  It is no wonder so many people are inconsistent on this point, and I don’t blame them.  However, it may be more fruitful to question the integrity of the theological system than to maintain such inconsistencies.  After all, if it doesn’t make sense to you to hang a serial killers 7 year old daughter along with him for his crimes, why would you think that guilt can transfer from one person to another?  Isn’t this as illogical as a square circle? [10]

*If Calvinism is the theological system through which you interpret the Bible

  1. Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 10 – As a side note, when I mention “Reformed Theology” and “Calvinism” I am referring to theology that adheres to the historic confessions of Calvinism, or at a minimum to the soteriology expressed in the Canons of Dort.  
  2. Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 155
  3. Ibid, p. 154
  4. For why this is not an uncharitable misrepresentation of the “eternal conscious torment” view of hell, see here.
  5. J.V Fesko, Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation.  Loc 401 (Kindle)
  6. Quoted by Andrew Stephen Damick, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Finding the Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious Landscape, Chp 3
  7. Source (Entry N)I originally saw this referenced here
  8. See here
  9. See here
  10. David Bentley Hart attacks inherited guilt using similar terms in this lecture, though I don’t remember the exact minute/second.