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How can God have a will if He’s omniscient? How can (our) Free Will be “free” if it’s wholly created?

At first, the title’s question might seem ridiculous. What’s the problem with God having a will if He knows everything? But the issue becomes a little more complex when we realize two things:

  1. If God is omniscient, did He know what choices He made before He made them? But to know what choices He makes He must first make them – or they’re not choices and there was something He didn’t know and hadn’t decided yet. So the explanation becomes circular and the information comes out of nowhere (!).
  2. If God knows and creates all, that means there is only one way anything could’ve happened. In other words, there were never any possible alternatives to any path reality took; possibilities do not truly exist. So how can God have any “true” will if there was always only one way He could and would do anything without the possibility of any slight divergence?

These two questions are, of course, connected and the same response would answer both. But they are nuances that need to be dealt with separately.

To begin with, the words “before” and “could have” are temporal qualifiers and this is the crux of the issue. The problem arises not because of an incompatibility between God’s traditional Christian attributes and logic, as many of the old Deists and atheists concluded from this, but because these issues deal with topics that are outside the rules of causality; more specifically temporal causality.

A classic, but very oversimplified example of why causality is often a fallacious objection (or justification!) is to imagine a circle and ask: “Where does it start and end?” Anywhere you pick, of course, which in reality means nowhere and that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Similarly, at what “point” do two points on the number line “touch”? If a dot is mathematically 0-dimensional, how can it exist at all? This very question with is real-life application to black holes, whose singularity is literally 0-dimensional, is what caused Einstein to reject their very existence.

Causality and Time: The Monty Hall Problem

To illustrate that temporal causality is misleading and can lead to contradictions when mixed with the atemporal, consider this classic statistical exercise – the Monty Hall Problem:

You’re a contestant on a game show. There are three doors, behind one of which is a car you can win, and the other two each have a goat. You can pick any of the three doors. After you pick one, the host opens one of the other two doors that doesn’t have the car and you have the option of either staying with your current door or making a switch. What are the chances that switching the doors will win? 50%? No – 66% and 33% if you stay!

The fact that switching doors makes you twice as likely to win the car baffled so many people that many of them, including hundreds of PhD’s wrote back to the column writer saying she was dead wrong. Even a very famous mathematician remained unconvinced for a while.

God’s Omniscience vs His Will

What does any of this have to do with our original topic?

If we think about why the Monty Hall Problem has the solution it does, we will recognize that it is because of the factor of temporal causality. If we are asked to choose after the host has already opened one of the donkey-doors, our chances are, of course, 50%. But since we’ve already made a choice before he does this, meaning he can’t open our door if it does have a donkey, the chance is 33%-66%. The real-time scenario misleadingly causes us to suppose that if we pick Door 1 and it has the car, the host can then open either Door 2 or Door 3 an equal amount of times as when the car isn’t behind Door 1. But since you can only pick the car from the start in one way, whereas you can pick a goat in two different ways (simultaneous options), the atemporal statistics of opening Goat-Door 2 or 3 is not allowed an equal number of times as if you didn’t pick the Car-Door from the start (half as many exactly). This is somewhat related to the fact that something valid isn’t always necessarily true.

To put it a little more simply, but perhaps less convincingly, imagine the simple math equation: 2+2=4. It’s true in any universe (disregarding tricks like the Banzhaf Power Index). If you have 2 apples and you buy 2 more, you have 4. But do you need to physically buy and add the two apples for 2+2=4 to be true, apple-wise or not? 2+2=4 is a logical fact before any actual (temporal) action has happened. Yet it’s undeniable that we are adding the two 2’s to each other (atemporal causality), right? It’s exactly this relationship that can confuse and is ultimately rendered meaningless if we apply causality the way we understand it through experience.

To apply this to our first question, God can be omnipotent and have a will in the same way that 2+2=4 is true “before” and “after” the 2’s are technically added.

Do possibilities exist for God?

What everything above boils down to is that the implied premise that a will necessitates contingent options is untrue, not just for God but for anyone. This is because of the absence of time and not because of some illegitimate redefinition of ‘will’.

We can easily then ask, “How can God be omniscient in our universe?” Although God foreknew any choice He would make within our world and lifetime long before he created the universe, it would be incorrect to say that He is flowing through it like a river set upon its own course whenever He impacts it. Many times you can see God “changing” his mind and course of action depending upon the situation (=choices of the individuals in question); and this is not some mere euphemism or language from our point of view (or else God doesn’t have an actual will), but an actual change in every sense of the word. How then can Numbers 23:19’s famous description of God as One who “does not change His mind” be true? In the same way that in our Monty Hall example, the chances of one of two doors being the winner is 33%-66% temporally, yet at the same time, the same example being 50%-50% with respect to non-conditional (atemporal) probability, such as to an outside observer. There is a similar situation with the infamous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. This is how Philippians 2:5-8 can be true and how Jesus can be fully human and fully divine, while at the same time not knowing certain things in the truest sense of the word.

God can have a will before there was any possible alternative to it, while He still had a choice amongst different courses of actions within His power.

To illustrate this second question a bit more clearly, we can ask the following:

  1. Could God have willed the Earth with two Moons instead of one? Yes.
  2. Did God ordain that the Earth have one Moon? Yes.
  3. Could the Earth have had more than one Moon if God ordained since before all time that it only have one? No.
  4. Therefore God couldn’t have willed the Earth with two Moons instead of one.

Essentially, it pits God’s power, or more specifically, His will against itself by asking: “How could there have been the possibility of God creating more than one Moon?” In this way it is very similar to the question, “Can God make a rock so heavy not even He can lift?” However this case is more nuanced; the issue is more of realism vs hypotheticals and it cannot be resolved by saying God cannot violate logic because we are denying the implied conclusions, not the facts. The problem isn’t the effects of power upon reality, but upon God’s will.

The issue seems resolved, to my mind, by these realizations about causality. We unconsciously assume an additional source of power and information (some sort of natural law/fate) to which we make God subservient, not realizing that not only is this an unnecessary addition because of the forced erroneous causality, but that this power itself needs a power to explain it and so on. The usual solution is to of course discard the possibility of God’s omniscience, omnipotence, or both, but this doesn’t resolve the problem at all as Zeno’s Paradox of Place (“Where is ‘space’ located in/within?”) reveals. This is exactly what Douglas Kutach means when he says that all mechanistic theories of causation ultimately “bottom out”:

Suppose we want to explain why the population of London dropped by about 100,000 people in 1665…The simplest explanation for the reduced population is the Great Plague that struck London in early 1665…A more thorough explanation…includes causal processes (rats, ships, humans, fleas, bacteria)…Someone could object at this point that we have not satisfactorily explained the population loss…someone could demand a yet more detailed biochemical account of the mechanisms used by the bacterium to spread throughout the body…

Unless there are infinitely many lower levels, we will eventually reach a point where the interacting parts have no parts themselves. Since we cannot explain these phenomena in terms of the interaction of their parts, we cannot explain them in terms of mechanisms. This level is often thought to be explained by fundamental physicals laws instead. [Douglas Kutach, Causation, pp.54-55, Polity Press (2014)]

One can suppose it goes on infinitely, but this cannot escape Zeno’s Paradox of Place, which has to have some sort of existence outside (temporal) causality. And with respect to matter, the laws of nature that work away from this principle (gravity and other forces that use “action at a distance”) refute the “infinite level” argument.

One can, of course, always try to pretend that any conscious decision is the result of misunderstood natural occurrences, but this is more of the mistake that knowledge is obtained only through proof (see Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems – where even natural processes/knowledge cannot exist by this definition and criteria).

Can man have Free Will if it is created by God or has some finite, temporal origin with respect to its choices?

The final question of how man (or perhaps even God) can have a will if it is created is similarly answered by understanding that cause and effect do not have to apply for connected events. Even in physics, action at a distance such as gravity, depends on this logical principle. Some of Zeno’s Paradoxes aptly explore this topic (particularly his Paradox of Place as we noted), and their solutions by Cantor’s Set Theory resolve the perceived contradictions. The fact that something (including our universe) can be created in the sense that it was generated, yet be uncreated in the sense that it wasn’t compulsed into any certain course of action is also possible by this and defended logically by, for example, the Banach-Tarski Paradox.

After all, what is a chair’s existence dependent upon? Its own existence? Nothing? Its atoms? Who are dependent upon the laws of nature? Which are dependent upon…?

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Why was Jesus baptized?

Introduction

Since the early Church and ancient Israel, baptism symbolized repentance. But repentance entails a sinner. Since Jesus was sinless, the question naturally comes up – why was he baptized?

In Matthew 3:15 Jesus answers, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (ESV). Aside from this very confusing response which can be interpreted in a million ways, the usual criticism is that the Gospels are trying to cover up that Jesus never pretended to be a sinless Messiah (at least not at first), and that he was originally a disciple of John the Baptist.

Thus goes the argument from non-conservatives: the Gospels and their Christian traditions mythologized Jesus to the point where he was a miracle-worker Savior of the world. But they couldn’t/wouldn’t hide the fact that he was baptized by John (all four mention it), and only one of them bothers to explain why with literally one cryptic sentence. Clearly no one was embarrassed by this and everyone understood why. This also shows the early Christian tradition was reliable and could not be made up; at least not on the large scale non-conservative scholars maintain it was.

Significance of the Sacrament and Jesus’ Baptism

Oscar Cullmann, who is no biblical conservative, wrote a very interesting examination of baptism and its role in New Testament theology. In Studies in Biblical Theology, No.1 (1950), he explains how Jesus’ baptism had a very deep significance both for his purpose and in connection to the Old Testament:

“At the moment of his Baptism he receives the commission to undertake the role of the suffering Servant of God, who takes on himself the sins of his people. Other Jews came to Jordan to be baptised by John for their own sins. Jesus, on the contrary, at the very moment when he is baptised like other people hears a voice which fundamentally declares: Thou art baptised not for thine own sins but for those of the whole people. For thou art he of whom Isaiah prophesied, that he must suffer representatively for the sins of the people. This means that Jesus is baptised in view of his death, which effects forgiveness of sins for all men. For this reason Jesus must unite himself in solidarity with his whole people, and go down himself to Jordan, that ‘all righteousness might be fulfilled.’

In this way, Jesus’ answer to the Baptist…acquires a precise meaning. The Baptism of Jesus is related to dikaiosune [righteousness], not only his own but also that of the whole people. The word pasan [all] is probably to be underlined here. Jesus’ reply, which exegetes have always found difficult to explain, acquires a concrete meaning: Jesus will effect a general forgiveness. Luke (like Mark) does not use this word, but he emphasizes in his own way the same fact at 3. 21: ‘Now when all the people were baptised…, Jesus also was baptised.'” [ibid., p.18]

What Cullmann basically says is that Jesus’ baptism inaugurated his mission, one as the [suffering] Servant of God – and the Bible agrees: Luke 3:23 immediately after the baptism episode says “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age…”; Mark and John simply open with this episode without even an introduction like Luke or Matthew.

The symbol of the servant who is an example to others was a powerful exhortation for upright life in the early Church (Hebrews 2:14-18; Philippians 2:5-8). The baptism in that light, as Cullmann says, makes not only perfect sense, but is basically what one would expect (Rom. 8:29). Imagine a teacher who tells his elementary school students not to eat in class because he knows they’d make a mess, but is then seen eating in the classroom by them – it’d be a bad example for kids who wouldn’t understand.

This view, supported by John’s Gospel as Cullmann points, is connected to Jesus’ use of the word “baptism” in connection with his death and resurrection (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). To this the meaning of the Christian’s baptism is intimately connected with being born again (John 3:3) as a new person in Jesus’ death (Rom. 6:3-4).

There are many more points and deeper connections and levels of significance as the author writes, but this best summarizes his idea:

“It is clear in view of the voice from heaven why Jesus must conduct himself like other people. He is distinguished from the mass of other baptised people, who are baptised for their own sins, as the One called to the office of the Servant of God who suffers for all others.” [ibid., pp.18-19]

Summary

Jesus’ baptism accomplished the following:

  • Inaugurated his mission as the Servant of God: both as a symbol and in front of others (John 1:29-34)
  • Symbolized his taking of mankind’s sins as the voice echoes Isaiah 42:1 (cf. Isaiah 53)
  • Set an example for his followers via a meaningful connection to his purpose and temporal destination (death and resurrection)

It is for this reason that Matthew 3:15 rightfully says that this was to fulfill all righteousness.


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Baptism is the new birth

Paul consistently taught that those receiving baptism are dead, meaning not saved prior to baptism. There is only one explicit instance under the New Testament that arguably people were baptized after they were already saved in Acts 10, and this was done in order to demonstrated that Gentiles can also receive the Holy Spirit. Dead people get baptism according to Paul. He did not teach born again believers get baptized, he taught believers get baptized to become born again! According to St Paul we are buried in baptism–this alludes to being dunked in the water–this metaphor loses much meaning if the baptism is dry and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Paul teaching baptism is death and resurrection, that is the burial of the old man and a resurrection with Christ through faith:

in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been BURIED WITH HIM in BAPTISM, in which you were also RAISED UP with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the UNCIRCUMCISION of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions–Colossians 2:11-13

Paul is saying people getting baptized are:
1) Dead and being buried with Jesus
2) Uncircumcised
3) Without forgiveness of sins
4) Are then made alive and resurrected with Christ through faith
5) Become ‘circumcised’
6) Have the forgiveness of transgressions
Colossians 2 on baptism and Ephesians 2 (saved by grace through faith) are parallel passages
On top of this, Colossians 2 is a parallel passage of Ephesians 2 which teaches salvation by faith because of grace. Many of the terms are the same used, both chapter speak of “being dead in transgressions,” “raised up” with Christ, being “circumcised.” Then goes on like Colossians 2 about not being required to keep Mosaic dietary and ceremonial laws.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were DEAD in our TRANSGRESSIONS, made us ALIVE together WITH CHRIST (by grace you have been saved), 6 and RAISED UP with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through FAITH; and [h]that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. 11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “CIRCUMCISION,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands–Ephesians 2:4-11

So, the conclusion is Ephesians 2:8-9 passage teaching salvation by faith because of grace is about baptism itself, since its in the exact same place Paul puts in in Colossians 2!
Paul teaching Baptism is being clothed with Christ and links to being a son of God through faith

 

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.–Galatians 3:26-27

Paul teaches baptism–“washing of regeneration” saves, not deeds

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit –Titus 3:5

 

Paul teaching remission of sins by the mercy of God thru the “washing of regeneration” (baptism) and renewing by the Holy Spirit. This is the same teaching as Ephesians 2:8-9, Colossians 2:10-13, Acts 2:38

If Paul wanted to teach baptism was purely symbolic he sure failed by consistently mentioning baptism when talking about regeneration, being a son of God, being clothed with Christ, being raised alive with Christ.


Romans 6: Paul teaches Baptism is burial with Christ and resurrection, those getting baptized are considered dead and come up alive
 

Romans 6, Paul again teaches baptism=buried with Christ, going from dead in sins to new life:

How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.–Romans 6:2-4


Then, Paul goes on to say that we were crucified with Christ! So. a person being baptized is crucified->buried->resurrected.


Paul was saved at baptism

 

Paul’s conversion, when was Paul saved? He believed on the road to Damascus and when he appeared to Ananias, but was he saved? No.

Luke tells us what Paul died to wash away his sins–call on the Name and be baptized:

Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’–Acts 22:16

 

John 3 Jesus preaches on being born again then starts baptizing
 
John 3 Jesus preaches on the need to be born again, and mentions its by WATER AND SPIRIT. The rabbinical literature we have confirms baptism=new birth, yet Nicodemus did not understand this, which explains why Jesus is astonished he doesn’t know what born again means. Immediately after Jesus preaches on new birth and that He is the Savior–that VERY first thing he does is baptize people:

 

After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing. –John 3:22


Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel says God cleanse iniquity with water and gives a new heart and His Spirit
 
Ezekiel teaching watered is used to cleans from “all uncleanness,” “idols” then goes on to say He will give a new heart, and THEN place the Spirit with in you–same thing the NT, Paul, Jesus say about baptism–afterwards you are give the baptism of the Spirit, while the first baptism was Christ’s.

 

And I will sprinkle CLEAN WATER upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and ye shall keep Mine ordinances, and do them.–Ezekiel 36:25

 
Does the New Testament teach the Holy Spirit Baptism saves and not water Baptism?
 
The “baptism of the Holy Spirit” in Acts caused the “speaking of the tongues” and was called the “gift of the Holy Spirit” which every time except in Acts 9 happened AFTER water baptism by laying on of hands.

the GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, they could hear them speaking in TONGUES and glorifying God.–Acts 10:45-46

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had upon us at the beginning, and I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’–Acts 11:15-16

Therefore, ‘gift of the Holy Spirit’=’speaking in tongues’=’baptism of the Holy Spirit, and elsewhere =”laid hands” (Acts 19:3)

Gentiles were give the Holy Spirit prior to water baptism to show Jews they were accepted by God, every other instance in the NT water baptism comes first then Holy Spirit baptism

 
Was the “good thief” baptized?
 

The Bible does not tell us for certain, but we are told is that 1) Jesus baptized more than John, 2) John baptized all of Jerusalem and Judea, 3) many people apostatized because Jesus’ teaching of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.” So if Jesus baptized more than John and John baptized the people of Judah and Jerusalem, its possible that the thief/insurrectionist may have been included, but apostacised as some of Jesus’ disciples did when not believing Jesus’ doctrine.

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John–John 4:2

And ALL THE COUNTRY of JUDEA was going out to him, and ALL THE PEOPLE OF JERUSALEM, and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.–Mark 1:5

As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. –John 6:66

In conclusion, it IS possible the thief died baptized as a repentant apostate. Regardless, if he was or not, the NT does not say baptism is the SOLE means of becoming born again–ordinarily calling on the Name is part of baptism–but when not available–all those “who call upon the Name of the Lord will be saved.”


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Do the Ends Justify the Means?

“Would you steal bread to feed your family?” The theft is wrong, but the preventable starvation of your family isn’t a great outcome either.

Morally and Ethically the Ends do not and cannot justify the Means

Interestingly, the education reformer, John Dewey, who was also a philosopher, logician, and an atheist has a clever little proof that the ends never justify the means. He points out that, in fact, the two are morally indistinguishable, and that the means ARE the ends: they are only separated by time and space, which have no bearing on ethics or morality: only intent does. In such a situation, risk vs. reward does not have a place because one is comparing apples to oranges. That would apply if one is calculating the risk of being caught + the sentence versus the outcome if he didn’t at least try.

An Objection from Knowledge

If we agree that none of us are omniscient, how can one know what the true “end” of something is? This is the basic critique that the Soviet spy and defector, Walter Krivitsky has of communism. When he saw hungry, local peasant children being purposefully denied food, he met with this reasoning:

“We are on the hard road to socialism. Many must fall by the wayside. We must be well fed and must recuperate from our labors, enjoying, for a few weeks each year, comforts still denied to others, because we are the builders of a Joyous Life in the future. We are the builders of socialism. We must keep in shape to continue on the hard road. Any unfortunates who cross our path will be taken care of in due time. In the meanwhile, out of our way! Don’t pester us with your suffering! If we stop to drop you a crumb, the goal itself may never be reached.” [Krivitsky. In Stalin’s Secret Service (Enigma: 2000), p.xviii]

He accurately comments:

“So it runs. And it is obvious that people protecting their peace of mind in that way are not going to be too squeamish about the turns in the road, or inquire too critically whether it is really leading to the Joyous Life or not.” [ibid.]

The Answer from Relative Morality

Yet, a person could easily say that feeding one’s family with stolen bread easily achieves a clear, immediate goal – saving lives. After all, you could use the above logic to say that no one should really try to do anything, including good, because you just don’t know where you’ll end up. This is a valid point, and it’s completely accurate with respect to wisdom. This is the point of economist Alfred E. Kahn’s “tyranny of small decisions” – small, immediate, seemingly positive actions can ultimately add up to a large negative one.

But in ethics, a certain physical outcome is not relevant if it’s not a moral problem. For example, if I help a friend in need with $300, the fact that I might not be able to go with another friend on vacation is irrelevant, even if it’s an unexpected outcome. In a sense, knowledge is presumed to govern ethics here – if I didn’t know my family is starving, I wouldn’t have stolen the bread. Moreover, the theistic moral model presumes that God knows the result and that the action of the human is what’s relevant, not the outcome – because it’s His plan.

Why Relative Morality is No Morality

So, can either answer to the question be justified? It’s important to note the distinctions in this topic. If we assume that physical well-being is more important (at certain times?) than moral well-being, then that’s the premise we’re working with if we say, “Yes.” Perhaps it’s not wrong to take from someone who has a lot in circumstances like these. But we have already, unconsciously or not, replaced morality with physical health in such circumstances.

I want to point out the following: would you steal poisoned bread to feed your family? Of course not, it defeats the whole point. What if there was a 50% chance of it being poisoned? Still, probably no – one would just go steal it from someone else. What about a 5% chance? What if this was the only bread within miles and it was now or never? (cf. Rom. 14:23).

The point I’m making is that we’ve already lost sight of the moral question in favor of survival. The above scenarios would be answered the same way by someone willing to steal the bread, whether the bread was stolen or being offered for free; and this is the point that John Dewey makes in saying that the “means” are in fact the “ends.”

An important point that John L. Mothershead makes in his Ethics: Modern Conceptions of Right (1955; 2nd ed. 1967), is that right and wrong aren’t true or false questions. What he means by this is not relative morality, but that one person can’t judge the moral expression and understanding of another (Rom. 14:5). If the Greeks considered burial a proper way to honor deceased relatives and friends, they can’t accuse the Persians of disrespect for leaving theirs above ground.

Conclusion

The way this relates to our question is to point out that, if a person is willing to steal bread, then he can claim that he’s still ethical. But nor moral. Because with respect to principles, he has placed a utilitarian value on his actions, rather than a moral one. To prove this and point out the inconsistency, we can easily ask a question in the vein of “Sophie’s Choice”: would such a person steal bread from one of his family members (who would then starve) to feed another?

This is very similar to the “Trolley Problem,” although that’s different because the action of changing the course of the trolley is debatably right or wrong (or the whole action/outcome is, which makes it an excellent example). Here, we’ve presumed that theft, which is defined as wrongful taking, is an immoral action, at least when unnecessary.

In conclusion, it’s usually difficult to speak in universals, which is why it’s wise to rarely resort to them as it can often confuse and produce inflexibility.


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Meaning of Jesus

Upon the release of his, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the scholar Reza Aslan gave a talk to a local group of people. One of the points he made was that if Jesus was God, then all of his suffering was far less meaningful. He literally says, “If Jesus is God and he dies/suffers, you say: ‘So what? He’s God.'”

I suppose with this logic, a man who is a king can be subjected to more pain than a peasant simply because one would feel less sorry for the king? This type of partiality is exactly what justice seeks to avoid: the status of a man or being does not reduce or increase his punishment.

Aslan reasonably misunderstands (or simply doesn’t know) that Jesus as a man had emptied his powers (Philippians 2:7-8) – something completely possible for the infinite (God) to relate to the finite (man), if one understands the applications of Set Theory. Not that it matters whether Jesus was human or not – an offense is just as repugnant regardless of the recipient’s treshhold for pain. God is hardly to be disrespected more simply because “He’s God” and “knows how to deal with it.” This and the self-centeredness of (the immoral) man makes it hardly surprising that God describes Himself as “a jealous god” in the Bible.

But I think that out of the ashes of Aslan’s misdirected objection (to Jesus’ deity), a much more subtle question and point can arise. Proper sacrifice naturally produces meaning. If I give up my free time to help a friend with something, I’m accomplishing something which no amount of leisure can do for me. Of course, this isn’t the only way for something to have significance. Discoveries and inventions are another good example, which don’t necessarily involve sacrifice.

But since Jesus is God in Christian theology, is his example as powerful as had he been merely a limited (ultimately), “lowly” human being? After all, the former is a prestigious, bound-to-win scenario, and the latter would be a “true” achievement.

I think this ignores a very important perspective. Jesus gave up a lot to humiliate himself in many ways (not having his power; being put to a shameful death; being rejected as Messiah). I don’t think an ordinary person would be putting as much on the line, or be as caring as that (especially if we take his fallen nature into account!). True, it’s not like he can (he can’t choose to be God and then “unchoose” or give it up). But given the fact that we’re all sinners whose sins had no logical justification (by definition), I don’t think such a person could exist.

Even if we assume such a person could exist for the sake of argument, then both this “regular” human and Jesus are giving up just as much as they had or would have had. What I mean by this is that the man who only makes $10 a day and donates $1 has donated just as much as the one who gives $100 and makes $1000 (arguably more, but that’s beside the point – one can adjust the variables). This is Jesus’ point in Luke 21:1-4, which can be seen in wisdom across all cultures and times (a parallel exists in a 1600’s Chinese wisdom book to a young woman). And Jesus already paid the “$100.” So even if the “regular” human would do the same, this doesn’t cast any shadows upon Jesus’ example at all! The fallacy with Aslan’s reasoning is ultimately that he unconsciously or not, presumes out of bias that Jesus wouldn’t have done the same had he not been God. And that only attempts to play on our emotions: “He’s God and hasn’t made a “bigger” sacrifice by being a non-divine human who does this – as if that even has any significance either” – something which I think he proved he would by the fact that he was a powerless human who emptied himself and did this nonetheless.


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The Problem of Evil

No other theological question is more popular and has been more persistent throughout history than the question of, “Why would God allow this bad thing to happen?”

And it’s a good question. After all, if God is all-powerful and good, some evil is really baffling.

The typical answers usually go something along the lines of:

  1. “Evil does not negate the existence of God.”
  2. “For all the bad, there’s even more good out there”
  3. “No one is innocent.” – citing verses like Romans 3:23
  4. “Evil doesn’t actually ‘exist.'”
  5. “Ultimately all bad things have a purpose.”

These answers always bothered me as incomplete or incorrect:

  1. Evil negates the Christian God’s existence as portrayed in the Bible, particularly the New Testament.
  2. It’s highly questionable that good outweighs evil, especially for some people, who neither asked nor deserved their misfortunate fate.
  3. No one is innocent with respect to God. This doesn’t give someone the excuse to do anything to others, because the offenses are not with respect to him. However, one can’t really apply this to children by simply stating this.
  4. This answer, which finds its origin with St. Augustine and is popular with many modern theologians (e.g. Alvin Plantinga) is for me unconvincing. If evil doesn’t exist as a technical entity (e.g. a chair, table, spoon), then neither does good, and this answer misses the point. Information doesn’t technically exist either with these definitions and so the answer doesn’t respond in any meaningful way.
  5. Aside from the questionably defensible ‘means justifying the ends’ here, even if ultimately bad might serve good in some instances, we can’t prove it does so in all. Let’s say for the sake of argument it does (God would know and direct it so). But then one has to wonder why this has to be God’s tool at all and this explanation inevitably strikes one as a rationalization.

It might seem strange, but the Bible is replete with responses to this issue, but they’re often stated in subtle and more practical ways for the subject matter’s purposes.

We have to remember why bad things exist. It’s not that God has no control or is indifferent. Quite the opposite – God even orchestrates these events and explicitly states so (the Flood, the subjugation of the Canaanites, the fall of Jerusalem).

Sin is the reason why bad things happen – everyone in antiquity knew this. But people misunderstood the connection between sin and the degrees of suffering. So any time someone seemed to suffer more than the majority, the question was “what sin did he or his parents commit?” This was the case with the man blind from birth (John 9:2) as well as 18 workers upon whom a tower collapsed (Luke 13:1-5).

This is why the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day ignored all the unfortunate in utter contempt – if they’re suffering, it’s because they sinned and brought it upon themselves, just like the forefathers of the Israelites when Babylon sacked Jerusalem. If someone was poor, it was his transgression of the Law that did this. After all, doesn’t Proverbs 22:4 say that, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life”?

Of course, the various laments in Proverbs and Psalms regarding the occasional mistreatment of the righteous and triumph of the wicked is ignored in favor of a universal, hyper-literal “he that is rich and well is righteous” interpretation. That riches are not always physical is not taken into account. But that’s not a problem for the immoral mind as this thought never crossed his mind in the first place.

The resulting attitude logically becomes indignant contempt and self-serving pride. This easily morphs into legalism. The result allows for the reinterpretation of the whole spirit of the Torah into whatever teaching suited the interpreters. This is what Jesus criticizes in Mark 7:9-13. Under such circumstances, hypocrisy can proliferate without objection, and is committed nearly unconsciously by the man whose values lie elsewhere (Matt. 6:1ff).

BUT, we have to understand the true connection between sin and temporal punishment. Yes, although God loves both the wicked and the upright and sends rain and sunshine upon both (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17), one can still cross the line. Moses struck the rock twice, and for this righteous man’s record, it was too far – he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Agrippa I, on the other hand, in his infinitely sacrilegious pride allows a crowd to flatter him “like a god” as Josephus and Acts tell us and God strikes him dead within 5 days.

Jesus’ response when asked why over a dozen workers were crushed by a collapsed structure is: “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Lk 13:4-5).

It’s easy to interpret this as impotent acceptance of an immutable reality. One can easily think that Jesus is basically saying, ‘these things happen, focus on what’s more important,’ and be basically avoiding the question as unimportant. But this is not at all the case and he is answering it profoundly, correctly and in a quick and provocative way that is characteristic of his speaking style so that the dialogue doesn’t lose momentum (similarly to the question-counter-question the rabbis constantly employ in the Talmud; can be seen in places like Matthew 15:2-3).

Simply, as sinners, we are all enjoying unlimited mercy insofar as we’re able to lead the lives we’re accustomed to. More on this can be found here, but the basic idea is that one of our smallest sins is an immeasurable offense against God and for Him to delay (or even abstain from!) carrying out their punishment is an undeserved gift, even for the righteous man (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:20). The only way someone can maintain that his circumstances are unfair, brutal, or evil is if his purview is so self-centered, that his crimes become irrelevant.

And, of course, now we can say that such and such calamity had a purpose – Judah was destroyed so that out of the ashes would emerge a nation of Israelites stronger and more faithful than ever, exactly what we see under the guidance of leaders like Nehemiah and Ezra. This is why God “couldn’t” forgive the bloodshed committed under the king Uzziah, who ruled for 50 years prior to the destruction. Despite the fact that Josiah more than made up as a devout king who completely destroyed all the idolatrous “high” places and reinstituted the Mosaic laws. And yet this seemingly juvenile lack of forgiving does not contradict where God says that He’d change His mind upon destroying a nation (Jeremiah 18) if they repent (like Nineveh in Jonah). And that His anger is quick to stop and that He’s forgiving.

This, then, explains why Jesus answers his followers regarding recent calamities on “innocent” victims by saying, “Don’t sin so that something worse (hellfire) doesn’t happen to you.” It’s not an indifferent, “Bad things happen, deal with it, stay religious,” which response seems to say with our naturally self-centered point of view.

The suffering of children of course falls under this topic. But before we join Job in bringing God to trial, we have to remember with respect to whom we’re discussing fairness. No one can justify intentionally harming a child out of his own rationale. But the fate God ordains isn’t for the same reasons as ours, as Isaiah 55:8-9 says:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

We were all children once. As adults, we’re no longer innocent. But if we predicate fairness and justice based upon time and space, we’ve lost the basic tenet of any ethical system: intent. A child can be innocent with respect to mankind, but his (future) sins are easily visible to God. What a person would have done, but is prevented from doing so for one reason or another, is no less subject to judgment than if he actually goes ahead with it.

This is what Jesus tells us sinning in one’s heart is (Matt. 5:27-28), and is an easily provable concept if we remember that the only difference between actual sin and “would have done it” (definition of desire in one’s heart) is inability due to time and space – the limitation occurs in physical ability, not intent. Therefore, since intent is the only thing one uses to establish ethical right or wrong (hence why God only looks at the intent), one cannot be considered innocent merely because of circumstances – because one wasn’t capable of carrying out his intentions, even if these intentions would be present in the future (God knows all things), or under different, but equally reasonable circumstances (1 Cor. 10:13).

So with respect to the whole, a baby Hitler would be ethically no less repulsive than the full grown maniac. And all of us were once children, which child bodies are now long gone, replaced by our adult sinful ones – exposing the subconscious bias that can guide us here. Jesus was the only truly innocent human being. His willing suffering was equally unfathomable to the disciples, and most of all for Mary, for whom, like all mothers, a son is never anything but a child.

In this sense, God always has a plan for any suffering. But since no one is truly innocent, to attempt and justify it with respect to justice from the human point of view is going down the wrong way, and is a non-sequitur that is ultimately bound to fail because one is unwittingly comparing apples to oranges.


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The Luke 2:1 Census

Anyone who has studied New Testament history long enough knows the controversial Luke 2:1 census. The relevant verses (Luke 2:1-5) say:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

The problem is that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 AD, far too late for the events described in the nativities of Luke and Matthew to be reconciled with the above. Moreover, there was no such universal census that would’ve counted Joseph, who was not a Roman citizen, and Joseph would not have had to go to Bethlehem just because he was a descendant of David, who was born there: this is impractical, does not reflect Roman custom, and all of the Roman empire would’ve had to relocate itself if so.

Quirinius

But this does not reflect Luke’s often confusing expressions and narrative style. The verse that mentions Quirinius could easily be interpreted as “this was the census before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:2). The census that Quirinius took in 6 AD was famous because it produced a massive revolt in Judea, and was a dating and reference point for many historians such as Josephus. Therefore Luke would have wanted to differentiate this one from it so that his readers are not confused, achieving quite the opposite.

Joseph Fitzmyer objects to this by (rightfully) pointing out that the grammar does not permit this interpretation (Anchor Bible Commentary, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, p.401). However, this grammatical rule wasn’t followed half the time, least of all by Luke, who has numerous omissions, vague dating, and a mish-mash of a chronology and descriptive style. This alleviates the need to debate whether Quirinius could’ve been a governor of Syria twice, especially since there is no time for him to have been one around the birth of Jesus (c.5 BC).

The Universal Census under Augustus

The universal census was held by Augustus to count all citizens of Rome in 28 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD. Of these, only 8 BC could qualify to coincide with Jesus’ birth, taking a few years to fully implement in a backward province like Syria (Palestine/Israel was a part of it at the time). We know from Josephus that whenever the Romans taxed Israel, even just the Roman citizens, Herod took it upon himself to tax everyone, which he loved doing for whatever excuse (this happened, for example, when a Roman commander arrived once, for example). So Joseph could’ve easily been “counted”.

The Need for Joseph to Return to Bethlehem

The question of why he has to return to Bethlehem has an equally simple answer: he had some kind of property there. But for whatever reason, possibly family disputes, he wasn’t practically in possession of it so relocated, or preferred to work/live in Nazareth. Nazareth was not the backwater village modern writers make it out to be (its location is actually unknown because the modern Nazareth has no “brow of a hill” that Luke 4:29 says it was built upon). Yet it must’ve been a relatively big enough city since Josephus tells us that the land in Galilee was fertile and therefore no settlement had fewer than 15,000 people. There are in fact more archaeological sites than we have names for in Palestine, so we cannot say there is a mistake here. In any case, Joseph had property in Bethlehem, and this is supported by Matthew 2:11. Joseph and Mary can’t find a place for Jesus into the “stable” according to Luke (the first floor of houses were where the animals lived), because of the issue of not living there. Under such circumstances, we know that Roman censuses actually demanded the return of the person to this location (for example, see here).

Finally, Luke 2:4 seems to suggest that Joseph went to “his” town because he was of the lineage of David. However, here is an example, just like in Matthew 27’s midrash on the death of Judas (plus the general conflation of prophets – e.g. Mark 1:2), of Luke giving a theological reason guiding a historical one which had different origins with respect to Augustus. What I mean by this is that Joseph returned to Bethlehem because he was of the lineage of David not with respect to the census, but with respect to God – God caused the census to happen which technically required Joseph to go to his property in Bethlehem, but ultimately because he was of the lineage of David so that the Messiah would be born there (Micah 5:2).

Additional Comments

There is at least one author (I can’t recall his name or the book) who considered the passing reference to Quirinius’ 6 AD census in Acts 5:37 (Luke and Acts were written by the same person) to show that the Evangelist knew of the famous census everyone accuses him of mistaking and didn’t confuse it with the one in Luke 2:1. “Judas of the time of the census,” is easily a stock expression he took over from his sources or traditions, and he is in no way obliged to know it was in 6 AD.

However, since he was a careful historian (calls Pilate a “prefect” and not “procurator,” unlike his contemporaries such as Tacitus, himself a good historian, etc), and no ancient historian, Roman or not (e.g. Josephus), got such a major chronological marker wrong, it’s presumable that Luke did in fact know that this census occurred about 10 years after Herod’s death. The argument that Luke thought Jesus was born around this time (and that Herod died around 6 AD), is untenable because Herod was notable enough for Luke to have known when he would have died, and more importantly, he dates Jesus’ 30th year roughly to the 15th year of Tiberius (28/29 AD – probably the origin of the erroneous by ~5 years calculations for our modern AD/CE system), which means he could’ve in no way thought Jesus was born in 5/6 AD. If we subtract 30 from 28/29 AD we get 3/2 BC (no year 0, thus 1 year prior to 1 AD is 1 BC), which is much closer to 5/4 BC than it is to 5/6 AD. If he knew of Augustus’ 8 BC decree, he knew the census was in 6 AD and not earlier, and wasn’t talking about it.