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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.


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 Pompey was in Syria). 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).

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Anthropomorphic Features of God in the Old Testament

The title intends to explain why God seems to be more fallibly human in the beginning of Scripture than later on. For example, in the New Testament, God is and acts exactly how we perceive Him to be: omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. He doesn’t need anything, such as the Old Testament sacrifices, which in the Ancient Near East (ANE) were thought to feed the gods who would die without it (!), and blood was for their thirst.

If we start from the very beginning, we see God conversing with Adam and Eve like a neighbor (which He was at that point). Then He is more and more distant. After the Flood one needs prophets. It isn’t until Jesus comes (which indirectly may signify his deity) that this indirect relationship is briefly truncated (cf. “Ask for things while I’m with you” [John 14ff.] – whereas surely God can do anything whether He’s in the flesh or not, right? But that’s the point of our essay, the Problem of Evil [cf. Matthew 17:17]; John 11:21 – Jesus proves, like the Centurion’s son, that he doesn’t need to be present the way folkloristic magic, what the people believed (and what he entertained, important for later!) at the time).

God’s omnipotence, omnipresence, and especially omniscience can easily be challenged in the beginning of the Bible. This is not because those were more “primitive” times – The Old Testament was written from 1500-~300 BC, and if you’re not a conservative on this issue, the argument is even more in the conservative favor, because you’d place that composition at ~800-150 BC, and theology didn’t really change much on this basic issue (sacrifices existed into New Testament times, etc).

So, God asks Adam and Eve in the beginning, “Where are you?” “Who told you that you are naked?” etc. This is a rhetorical question, because there’s no one in the world (literally) that could tell them they were naked, except I suppose the snake, which again wouldn’t need a question. The same is true of God’s (metaphor physically expressed) sending the two angels to Sodom and Gomorrha to “find out” if there were even 5 righteous people there (they only find Lot and his wife and two daughters – 4; a questionable number indeed since his wife disobeys the divine messengers and turns around in full obstinance (like sin) to what people back then never did when told, and the two daughters as we know begin the Moabite and Amonite races in ways that are beyond the scope of this essay..). BUT, the angels do not check Gomorrha which is destroyed at the same time. This is therefore an illustration to Abraham that God is not 1) indifferent to our queries, 2) knows better. “But couldn’t he have made Abraham know that He knows?” Sure. Does He need to? Not really. Then we’d ask why Abraham had to have physical characteristics of such and such nature, which is irrelevant because it’s arbitrary and doesn’t need to be otherwise. If anything, the message and symbol are more effective this way, not to mention that we learn better through stories than lectures (which could again be remedied, but is again unnecessary and worse in view of the lost opportunity for the symbol, whose substance, our natural laws, essence, etc, is also arbitrary and not necessary to be otherwise (actually impossible – see Euthyphro Dilemma)).

Moving on, the Old Testament (OT) sacrifices reflected this same “catering” that Jesus did in his day for the people – why re-establish a whole mentality (which didn’t change frequently at all in those days – the Mesopotamian writing style didn’t change for thousands of years), whereas God could work with a system rather than reinvent the wheel (and yes, He could replace everyone’s “mentality,” but again, no point, and may reflect the fact that He wants to remain hidden for good reasons + several types of symbols and purposes – see The Great Deception [2 Thessalonians 2:10-12]). This is why God is referred to as “El,” which was the main ancient Canaanite deity (but not as popular as the storm god Baal and the other baalim). In the New Testament (NT), in several places it’s acknowledged that God doesn’t need anything: neither a temple built by human hands (a late OT “admission” as well), nor sacrifices or anything of the like since He created the world and couldn’t logically need what needed Him in the first place (Genesis 1 admits this). Scholars like Ernst Haenchen maintain that this is a late influence from Greek philosophy (Stoicism), but while Paul certainly knew of Greek philosophy, this concept was known to the OT quite well – Psalm 50 (51 in the Orthodox canon). Haenchen inexplicably rejects this as not being universal, which is quite obviously the case. No ancient mythology had a deity creating the world Ex Nihilo, hence could not logically be independent of the “chaos” that reigned in the beginning.

The most peculiar of the anthropomorphic features of God is the fact that any Israelite who saw Him (or even His angels in later times – cf. Judges 13), would die on the spot. This was clearly some ancient pagan belief, but God, as we’ve said, entertained it, perhaps even sarcastically. In Exodus 19:19-25 God seems to “forget” He told Moses that anyone who came up to the mountain would die; yet Moses’ memory is untarnished on this point. When God appears to Moses in Deuteronomy 33-34, He has to show only his backside and Moses has a leftover glow. Paul interprets this metaphorically in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 (while clearly believing in the event as literal and historical). In typical midrash, which is often misunderstood, Paul uses the lesson in this. In Galatians, Paul “erroneously” uses an argument his Greek audience would understand for convenience’s sake (like how mathematicians use 0!=1 for convenience), similar to how God decides to deal with things. Paul’s argument, like God’s actions, hinges not on the technicality of it, but the meaning, so trying to refute midrash whose intent doesn’t utilize details like this at its base, is starting off in the wrong direction (the word for seed in Galatians 3:16 has a plural in Greek but not in Hebrew; although the LXX translates it in the singular in Greek, clearly the intent is plural. But Paul is hinting at another, deeper significance). After all, Jesus was flesh and blood, which is fallible, but his essence and significance were far deeper than these superficial traits. Similar reasons are probably behind the seemingly malicious reasons God has for the confusion of languages (Genesis 11:8). And this is why also Hebrews 9:4 refers to a golden pot of manna whereas this is unstated in Scripture. But we know from Philo of Alexandria that it was common Jewish tradition. And it makes sense: if the rest of the items were golden as Scripture says, it only stands to reason that the pot wouldn’t be a rusty broken item from your grandmother’s closet.

The later prophets seem more developed for these reasons. Jeremiah says that God never asked for sacrifices in the desert exactly for these two points we are making: 1. It was never the original intent that God needed anything and was self-centered, rather than “us”-centered, so long as we were obedient to what was right. 2. The midrash of the rabbis, when used correctly, is not an error of an imaginative tradition (which was actually quite pedantically literal if one reads the Talmud) – it might actually reflect something older than the 2nd century BC in some ways. Often the earlier works reflect later concepts which non-conservative scholars immediately chalk off to “later editors.” For example, Amos, a northern prophet who presumably would’ve had no interest in Judea’s affairs especially with the looming sword of Damocles that was the Assyrian empire, writes in Amos 9:11-15 about how Judah will be re-established. This is treated as a later addition by a post-Exilic author who for some reason decided to give a northern prophet the honor of this ex vaticinu prophecy. Not to mention that this type of textual criticism is unknown and unknowable actually in Old Testament texts due to their antiquity and as a result lack of manuscript verification. The complex methods of analysis for Amos specifically actually prevent these types of arbitrary excisions, and ultimately are a result of the accuracy and shock of these daring prophecies. If one wants to see genuine development (frequently in the wrong direction) of theology, one only has to examine the history of Christian theology and the numerous heresies. The Bible’s uncompromising uniformity and rejection of what was popular but sinful does not compare at all!

Some direct proof of this is the fact that God tells Abraham to go along with Sarah’s unjust and inhumane request, while clearly disagreeing with her (Genesis 21:12-13). This was not only contrary to God, but the general law at the time forbade the exile of a slavewoman and her children even if the man’s main wife conceived. God does something similar at Samuel’s anointment of David by telling Samuel how to trick Saul. But when push came to shove, always with a dual purpose (that of showing the Israelites who their, and everyone’s God is), God doesn’t hesitate to act just like with the Exodus. Another way of God showing His power for more than one reason and in more than one way (also for the Egyptians and this was not just gloating), while knowing that same generation would consistently aggravate Him. In the end, the reason why God had/has all those anthropomorphic features is because He wanted to show that He was with us. As Jesus says in John 14:15-18:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him…I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

This is why God the Father was with the Israelites from Abraham and on, Jesus during his ministry, and the Holy Spirit with all Christians now: God was with all mankind from the beginning, not just His technical reappearance to Abraham c.1750 BC (see our upcoming Chronology); He appeared to Balaam, Melchizedek, as well as Enoch, Noah, and many other pre-Abrahamic believers. Jesus’ technical existence was in Israel and with the same types of metaphors we consistently see throughout the Bible, for “Israel” only, yet he was meant for all mankind. And the Holy Spirit reflects this reality.

This might all sound like a “cop-out” trying to hide the influence of man upon religion, in this case Judeo-Christianity. But tact is different from compromise (in the negative sense). Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship when necessary, appealed to his Jewishness when amongst Jews, and quoted Greek writers when speaking to Greeks as both Acts and his letters show. As he says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23,

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

This is the general theme that pervades the entire Bible consistently. This is not hypocrisy on Paul’s part, and this is not evidence of human development in the Bible. If the presentation changes, but not the intent, there is no syncretism – something opponents of the Bible and religion in general frequently fail to realize. For example, many churches were built on top of previous pagan shrines. Many religious customs were originally pagan, but were given a Christian meaning. Muhammad did the same with customs that the Medinans had by saying, “You can keep the same customs, as long as they’re directed at Allah.” Imagine you are a pagan and you have a certain way of praying: kneeling, hands opened and lifted, looking up at the sky like the ancient way – the way Moses (and the ancient Semites) prayed. If you started praying that way to a different deity, are you now a syncretist? Of course not. If the purpose remains the same, and the outward ritual reflects this and isn’t just a cover, then it is not a corruption of the philosophy. For example, a Greco-Roman philosopher once debated the Roman emperor Trajan. Trajan came up with an erroneous argument which the philosopher could’ve easily refuted but refrained from doing so. When asked why, he stated, “one does not debate a man who is master of 120 legions (approximately 600,000 soldiers, which is about twice what the Romans ever had at their peak).” Weak-willed? Yes, if important, given his reasons. Did he change his mind? No. In Romans 14 (as well as 1 Corinthians 8), Paul develops an ingenious argument to alleviate the Roman Christians’ concern over pagan sacrificed meat. Basically in those days, any meat sold on the market had a chance of having been used as a pagan sacrifice by Roman priests who then sold the leftovers to the market. This naturally bothered Christians. However Paul explains that since the Roman gods don’t actually exist, their sacrifice has no actual blasphemy or idolatry – it’s all just made up rituals over a real substance (the meat), and so they shouldn’t worry. Was this occasioned and “developed” because of a man-made need? Yes! Is the argument therefore incorrect? Not at all, those gods don’t exist one way or another. In Genesis 30:37-43, Jacob, in a Mendelian-like pseudo-scientific effort makes his flocks stronger and striped. The sticks he places in the troughs are typical magic of the time, yet this wasn’t why the animals speciated with stripes and spots – it was because God saw Laban’s injustice as Gen. 31:10-13 makes clear. Yet Jacob clearly wasn’t chastised by saying, “Stop doing this,” since he believed this was from God (due to the dream) and not from magic, yet didn’t know how else to bring about speciation in an age more than 3000 years before genetics were known. Another obvious example is the fact that any non-Levite Israelite was immediately struck dead when he touched or even saw the insides of the Ark of the Covenant. Yet the Philistines were able to carry it away with “only” bubonic plague as a result (the rats with swells they left in the inside represented the disease as was their medicine back then). Clearly God never intended for legalism to reign over the metaphor that his strict laws represented (an issue that Jesus brought up as proof against the Pharisees’ hyper-literalism in Matt 15//Mark 7 when he pointed out David ate of the holy bread and how the priests can circumcise on the Sabbath). The various seemingly brutal killings of Israelites who out of curiosity looked at the Ark’s insides, or when someone touched it, even to straighten it out from falling from the bulls (who are unharmed, unlike when Joshua took various Canaanite cities), is explainable by the fact that in those days people were extremely conformed mentally and it took a lot of bold and unashamed audacity to do something like this; it wasn’t like our day where everyone has their own opinion by nature and it’s ok. For example, Mesopotamian writing style didn’t change for thousands of years.

When obvious syncretism and moral errors came from the Israelites, the Bible vehemently resisted them. This starts from Moses’ day with his Israelites, who like the unbelievers in Jesus’ day had witnessed miracles but were indifferent to the reality they knew they represented. And continues to the numerous godless kings of Judah and Israel, all the way down to Herod Agrippa I, who was struck by God for accepting blasphemous praise as both Acts and Josephus tell us. He persecuted the Apostles for this same crime, quite obviously as the Bible tells us because he liked the favor of the Jews (and contrary to Josephus’ usual filtered presentation of the king as a “tolerant and great one”). Like Trajan’s opponent, he remained silent, but his conscience was wounded as Romans 14 describes. He obviously accepted the praise, like he did from the Jews when persecuting Christians or whatever was popular, which amounts to confirmation, whether silent or not. Even without approving, silence can be damning as 1 Corinthians 8 tells us regarding the “weak” brother. But with respect to intent, one’s silence cannot be interpreted as either admission or denial, as we know from Jesus’ trial.

At any rate, there are numerous times when the Bible and individual prophets of God went against what was popular at their own (physical only!) peril. Despite maintaining that Judaism was just an offshoot of Canaanite religion, E. A. Elmer unwittingly or not contradicts this in his “The Old Testament in Light of its Canaanite Background” (1936) by telling us how the popular religious traits of the Middle East in Old Testament times had two major characteristics from Mesopotamia to Palestine to Egypt that the Bible never shared: 1. Reverence for the baalim, 2. Various hedonistic pleasures that accompanied all of ancient Near Eastern religion. The Bible incessantly fights the former and never even deigns to entertain the latter. Rudolph Bultmann maintains that the persons consecrated to God and Judaism were Temple prostitutes. This is an untenable opinion based on the aspects of ancient Near Eastern religion, but there is no evidence from the Bible. Samuel is one such person and there is no such hint. In fact mere fornication (from men, not just women as in Deuteronomy 22) seems to be forbidden when David tells the priest Ahimelech that his men have kept from women in general, let alone on a holy mission (1 Samuel 21:5). When Eli’s sons did this, which was tolerated only because it was so commonplace in the rest of the known world, the whole family line was cursed for all eternity! Even if there were supposedly competing traditions that made their way into Scripture, if one group could hold their ground so firmly for what would be virtually no reason, clearly we have something more than merely natural religion here. At any rate, there would have been evidence of the Baalim had there been such competing traditions at play.

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The Origin of Evil

How can God, who is infinitely holy, be the Creator of this impure world? How can He even have any contact, direct or indirect, with it such as in the forms of revelations, miracles, prophecies…love? Can water and oil mix? How can hatred and love both exist in the world? How can sin exist at all if God detests it and is all-powerful?

God doesn’t shy away from the issue at all. Famously in Isaiah 45:7 He says,

I form light and create darkness;
    I make well-being and create calamity;
    I am the Lord, who does all these things.

It was God who ordained the Flood, who allowed Job to suffer (at the behest of Satan no less), and Who ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites. The verse may mean naturally bad things (earthquakes, etc), and not morally. But still, sin’s physical expression and technical existence comes from somewhere, right?

The Calvinists connected this with election to mean that God chooses some to be saved and some not to be saved and it’s all fair because it’s God’s world/universe/existence. If you have 10 sheets of old, used up paper, and you pick only 2 of them to not be thrown into a fire, are the other 8 supposed to complain? Aren’t you doing a favor to the two, whereas they all deserved it – this is mercy, not malice. This is Double Predestination (to Heaven and to Hell).

The Lutherans realized this monstrous frame of reference, or never bothered with it at all, and took away Double Predestination so that individuals consigned to the flames deserve it of their own accord, but those who do good were chosen (how? It’s the same thing basically: to intentionally save a ship from sinking and allow the other one to go, is the same as intentionally doing both).

This is related to another, seemingly unconnected question. If God is the origin of everything, how can He judge us for “our” sins? Free will’s origin must’ve come from Him, so how can it be “caused by Him,” yet “caused by us”? James 1:13 agrees that God isn’t the active agent in or of evil. But James 1:14-15 gives us an answer as to the origin of these things that doesn’t fully explain things.

We can’t redefine omnipotence in a more correct way. This is neither a fallacy such as “Can God make a Rock so Heavy, not even He could lift?” nor does saying Free Will’s origin is “unknown” or “other” rescue us, because it means God is punishing us because of some other supernatural law/force, which is also not our fault, which He can’t and shouldn’t judge, because He didn’t make it, so it’s no one’s fault as opposed to a parent who taught his child not to do something and the child disobeyed. This is also brings up the Euthyphro Dilemma in an unsolvable context – His moral code is arbitrary and therefore obsolete and irrelevant with respect to us (this is why the created pot can’t judge and complain the potter – Romans 9//Jeremiah 18 – not because God is God and can do as He pleases with His omnipotence as the Calvinists interpret it). Therefore even non-omnipotence doesn’t save us from this one.

The answer lies in understanding the nature of existence (and similar properties) and causality. Is my action an action in and of itself, or is it an action only because I made it? The Muslims had a serious problem with this. In the High Middle Ages the following question arose: If the Qur’an is God’s Word, then it must’ve existed eternally. But Arabic is a human construct. The one school of thought took the approach that the Qur’an was created when Allah spoke to Muhammad. The others supposed that Arabic must’ve been a divine language: all the words that were borrowed from the local languages (Farsi, Ethiopian, Greek, etc) were actually cases where those languages borrowed from Arabic! Is then human speech which the Qur’an is spoken by also a divine aspect? There’s even proper dialects in which to speak it.

We end the absurdity by pointing out that at some point there is no more “before” or “further” within a given action or within an object’s existence. What I mean by this is perfectly illustrated by Zeno’s Paradoxes. The idea is proven by the Banach-Tarski Theorem, which means something can come out of nothing both naturalistically as well as supernaturally.

If you think about it, the origin of everything has to be ultimately from nothing, whether you are a Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist, or Hindu (even in the case of an infinite regress of causes, the origin of this infinite regress has to be unknown and indeterminate). This is because, contrary to some philosophers, “nothing” is not a thing, nor a convenience of language. For example, natural numbers cannot exist nor be represented by objects if that were the case – zero demands that it is both nothing, not even a number, and is very “real” in the sense that it doesn’t exist (so it is an expression from language, but it represents a real, though intangible and non-predicable, concept).

So if an object or force can exist simply by virtue of its existence, we can suppose that God can do the same without actively being the originator of this force’s elements, yet having actively created them (non-temporal causality). If the object/force can come into existence as the Banach-Tarski Theorem implies, then all God or whichever force pre-existed it has to do is stand back and allow it to exist – so it is created by God either way. This is actually how God allows Satan to inflict evil on Job and reconciles the fact that Isaiah 45:7 says God makes calamity, whereas we see temptation and bad things come from the “evil one”. This means Free Will is both “caused” and “uncaused” – a paradox but only a contradiction if one doesn’t realize the correct point of view (temporal vs atemporal). So it is “us” but “not us” and “God” and “not God” at the same ”time” (but not in the same sense).

From this we can see that the technical existence of sin can easily be created and “upheld” by God’s power. This was never a problem because sin is a relationship of Free Will and God’s (holy) command. So the problem is basically a misunderstanding of active and passive force and how far they extend.

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The Conscience and Its Relationship to Judgment

I want to briefly address the following questions:

  1. Is it fair that a man is to be punished for moral crimes when he wasn’t informed of the law he had to keep, his crime (before and after it was done), having broken a rule, or the invisible Prosecutor?
  2. Is it fair that this man was never told of the penalty, which might have caused him to not make this mistake?
  3. Is it fair that, without knowing this penalty, he is subject to the technically valid with respect to logic, but maybe not him, infinite punishment?

The first question is fairly straightforward. We all have a conscience which tells us what law there is for us morally. This means we know what the crime would be before we make it and afterwards when we do commit it. This means (justifiable) negligence is not punishable. But you don’t need to be informed that you are/have broken a rule, as the crimes against humanity charges at the Nuremberg Trials show, which also means you don’t have to be aware that there will be someone you’d need to account to for it to be a more justified charge against you, or for circumstances to be made easier for you to not make this mistake (or afterwards).

The second question is also simple enough: his true nature is revealed by the lack of knowledge (though in some cases this is necessary for that and fairness). If someone doesn’t know the penalty for an unjustified and unprovoked act of disrespect, that doesn’t make it any less of a wrongdoing, whether morally or socially. The presence of a judge or the threat of retribution or any such addition/variation in no way weighs in on the issue ethically.

The final question, which is closely related to the others and leads up from the second, is a bit more involved, but just as simple to illustrate. The meaning of Question #3 is basically to ask how a person who is physically unaware of the stakes he has put up (his eternal fate), can be justifiably punished for his finite, with respect to him, sins? Even if the solution is technically valid, is it still valid if the person never knew and was therefore unaware at the lot he was casting and the prizes awaiting him for that throw?

This is actually simple to demonstrate. Imagine a driver knowingly and willingly cuts off another car recklessly, causing an accident. It’s his fault whether he knew this would happen or not. He didn’t even intend for that to happen. But a part of him said, “I don’t care if it might” (cf. Rom. 14:22-23). This is why inexcusable negligence is also sinful alongside full-blown malicious intent (1 Cor. 8:9-13, Rom. 14:13-21; Luke 12:47-48). Compare Agrippa’s open blasphemy in Acts 12:20-25 and the parallel in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities 19.343-350 versus the idolatry towards which Paul says God was lenient due to the “times of ignorance” (Acts 17:30; in Romans 1 he condemns those who knowingly changed worship of the True God to idolatry in the distant past (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-2). Most of those who followed in ignorance still did not follow their conscience – Rom. 1:27, 29-32).

The Universality of the Conscience

Knowledge itself is neutral, or good (since it isn’t sinful). However, this carries with it a (welcome) burden. If you know you can do some good, barring obstructions, you need to do it. The definition of righteousness is the avoidance and abstinence from sin. This is why in Jesus’ prayer he asks God to not place temptation in our path (Luke 11:4). Interestingly, the 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer supposed that happiness is also achieved this way: through the mere avoidance of suffering, not the pursuit of pleasure (Counsels and Maxims, Chapter 1).

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (ed. Ted Honderich) maintains that at times Paul makes no clear distinction between conscience and knowledge. But this is because the two are inseparable in the relationship which Paul presumes his readers to understand, whether out of his writing or out of experience, and as usual like himself and the Semitic way, does not delve too deeply into complex technicalities but prefers nuance (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-10, 2 Peter 3:15-16).

Amorality in its technical meaning, viz. no morality, is a misunderstood idea. Sociopaths and psychopaths exist, yes. These can be quite moral – they simply don’t have the negative, inner feelings of guilt that most of us, even animals, experience, which themselves are possibly artificial and quite modern (see the works of Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh). But the knowledge, both social and religious, is in no way predicated upon mere feelings, which are only a reflection, like works are of true faith, and not the essence of the actual thing itself. On this note, mentally ill psychopaths, or mentally infirm individuals can be both quite moral and immoral if the circumstances permit them, or are otherwise like children and may be held blameless. The question of infant baptism and salvation doesn’t really concern us and isn’t really an issue, as we point out that physically carrying out a sin’s result isn’t necessary for the sin itself. The old joke that God does things publicly that He privately abhors notwithstanding, one can suppose that all children and those who never heard the Gospel were/will be saved or not (only the righteous).

Yet temptation plays a very integral, truth-revealing role in the life of man. A star can’t shine without darkness, and a man’s character isn’t revealed without a shift in his environment that moves him to action. This isn’t to say that God can’t operate without sin or temptations, both of which He condemns (Luke 17:1, James 1:13-15). But he uses these to create a physical manifestation of an otherwise unexpressed truth that He knows, and the Bible is replete with examples of God’s metaphorically expressive way. This is why Satan fell “as fast as lightning” from Heaven (Luke 10:18), whereas the unrepentant have decades here on Earth. One can always withstand temptation (1 Cor. 10:13), and it’s not something one needs to inflict on one’s self if it can be avoided (1 Cor. 7:8-9; Romans 14:5 – though the opposite, that it must be rejected no matter what even in seemingly trivial matters, is also always true: Romans 14:23).

The conscience itself comprises of the God-given knowledge all mankind possesses (Romans 2:12-16). We see the moral code of the basic, non-culturally related laws (like the ban on eating pork for Jews in Torah), throughout the world. Some of these are necessarily socially forbidden offenses, like theft (economics; fairness). Some are possibly natural in a way that can be argued is merely naturalistic (murder). But some things exist across cultures. The Code of Hammurabi (Mesopotamia, c.1750 BC) is near-identical to the prescriptions of the Law of Moses. Egyptian morality was very similar to that of the whole ancient Near East. The virulent anti-Christian atheist, Joseph McCabe, mentions Arabian pre-Islamic morality as being very similar to that of the Old Testament. In general he supposes morality to be a social construct by using other cultures to the same extent, which by necessity it largely is (“Love thy neighbor” – how else than by his cultural understanding?). The Stoics, whose moral code dominated ancient Greece and Rome, such as Cicero and Marcus Aurelius were virtually held as pre-Christian saints by the ancient and medieval Church. Unlike the oft-erroneous assumptions in Greek theological and logical philosophy, ethics was easily integrated into Christianity:

“He [Cicero] translates and paraphrases Greek philosophy, weaving in illustrations from Roman history and suggestions of Roman mould in a form intended to make it, if not popular, at least comprehensible, to the Roman mind. How well he succeeded is evidenced by the comparative receptivity of Roman soil prepared by Stoic doctrine for the teachings of Christianity. Indeed, Anthony Trollope labels our author the “Pagan Christian.” “You would fancy sometimes,” says Petrarch, “it is not a Pagan philosopher but a Christian apostle who is speaking.” No less an authority than Frederick the Great has called our book [Cicero’s On Moral Duties] “the best work on morals that has been or can be written.” Cicero himself looked upon it as his masterpiece.” (Walter Miller, Cicero Vol. XXI, On Duties (Loeb Classical Library: 1913), p.xii)

The same is easily said about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. If we look at the Roman philosopher, Musonius Rufus, we find him saying, among other things, that sexual relations outside marriage for the purpose of procreation to be wrong. Not just adultery, but homosexuality, and fornication, even with one’s own maid who is one’s property, whether she is unmarried or not! (Cora Lutz, Musonius Rufus Stoic Fragments (1947), Chapter XII, pp.85-89). In his day, homosexuality was neither naturally nor socially necessary to be abhorred. Animals frequently do this in nature, more out of a socially misplaced instinct of excitement as many dog-owners would know, rather than being “born that way,” and the ancient world never had a problem with it, where there was consent. To the question of how fornication out of wedlock, a “victimless crime” could be a sin, he answers that something vile makes one a wrongdoer regardless of whether it affects those around him or not – in other words he appeals to the conscience (though in Chapter VII, p.57, he refers to the error as “intemperance,” but this only shifts the question as to why this is intemperance, so it’s the same answer). I personally think that temperance with meaning is the right answer: excess in anything, good or bad, is detrimental. If we can feel pride in beautifying a household or workplace during the holidays, we can feel justice in a moral command not to have sex before marriage, or to fast, or any other seemingly impractical (though not irrational) service. One of the more peculiar laws in the Torah is not to breed two different kinds of cattles (e.g. mules), or sow two different types of crops on the same field, nor to make clothes of different types of material (Leviticus 19:19 – goodbye polyester!). As Adam Clarke observes, “And if all these were forbidden, there must have been some moral reason for the prohibitions, because domestic economy required several of these mixtures, especially those which relate to seeds and clothing.” He goes on to suppose that the prohibition on mixed clothing could be due to pride. It is this same type of metaphor that is more or less behind Matt. 6:24.

Other aspects of the universal conscience: the shame of nakedness is reported by Bartolomé de Las Casas amongst the natives Columbus first encountered (The Devastation of the Indies (Herma Briffault (tr.), Johns Hopkins University Press: 1992, p.28). The Spanish priest praises the natives quite highly: “And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient…by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome…” (ibid.). His praise is unending. However, when Columbus left back for Spain, upon his return he saw that another nearby tribe had wiped out the few settlers he’d left behind. De Las Casas himself notes that Columbus was on a course to reach Florida and its war-like natives, and had he not seen a flock of birds that led him South-West, reasoning that they were either going towards or away from land and betting on the former, we would’ve never heard of him or his voyages. So we know that there was selfishness, murder, war, and greed amongst the natives – de Las Casas was simply so repulsed by the injustices he witnessed from the soldiers that he tried to contrast them as much as possible. Isolated societies have very similar ethical precepts as this video shows with an expert talking on the British show The Big Questions, saying we don’t need the Bible for moral guidance (the Anglican Bishop typically steals the show and masterfully responds that this objection by pointing out the conscience).

Religion also exists universally. This might be taken as evidence for either what the Bible teaches (Romans 1, Acts 17) or naturalism (the “primitive,” religious man). Yet, it’s possible that even Neanderthals had a religion. They were certainly organized, advanced, and human-like even 150,000 years ago, and the stereotypical name never applied to them at all as this article notes. I remember a story of a 19th century German who wished his son to never even hear of religion and kept him living at his mansion without going outside – private tudors and what not educated him. He found his son worshipping the Sun one day, while in his garden. I don’t find this story very believable, but according to the Journal of Cognitive Psychology, all children, whether to atheistic or religious parents, believe in God until about the age of 12 when the atheistic ones sharply decline in their belief. This is 7th grade and around the time they teach evolution (I can’t for the life of me find the reference to this in the journal, but I’ll keep trying). It’s a bit unlikely to me for religion to have evolved into man, rather than for it to be a social construct if it’s something artificial and not God-given. We don’t see apes displaying any such behavior, humanoid or not, nor any other animal really. If one wants to argue that religious belief is naturally evolved, perhaps our ability to look into the future might relate to this. I personally can’t say. But I can give two very good and obvious examples as to why this is an artificial explanation to replace what, as Musonius Rufus put it, “everybody knows,” is true – the conscience. Would it matter if you cussed out a deaf person behind your back and no one ever found out (and it didn’t affect you negatively nor was it a sign of some kind of misanthropy)? Or imagine you were visiting the grave of a deceased relative only to find out you’d been going to the wrong grave for some time – surely this wouldn’t be irrelevant to you if you cared about that relative, even though the intent and meaning haven’t been compromised. No matter how many times I read the Sermon on the Mount, I always find myself that I’d forgotten its full beauty and depth, and to me it’s the biggest example of the conscience laid out without any human “decoration” as if to beautify the facade to an incomplete thing.

The conscience can be wounded in a way that it becomes numb, but not oblivious to incorrect actions – seared off (1 Tim. 4:2). This might seem like an excuse for those who suppose the conscience to be an artificial, human construction. But one can easily see this isn’t so. Suppose the conscience is a social yardstick: you can often be offensive in a way that you know is offensive (socially), yet be completely numb to it, and not just because of unintentional habit, but by using habit in a very conscious and intentional way. A very good example is Nietzel and Welzer’s, “Soldiers: Diaries Of Fighting, Killing and Dying (Knopf: 2012).” The two authors sifted through 13,000 secretly recorded transcripts of WWII German POWs’ conversations with one another. One bomber during the Polish campaign memorably says that when his bombs missed their targets and hit civilian houses, on the first day it really bothered him, the next day it bothered him less, until finally he didn’t care at all:

“The people didn’t bother me, but I will feel sorry for those poor horses until the end of my days…”

This is a typical example of devaluing, for one reason or another (self-resentment or pure hatred), consciously or not, what you know is more important because of your own inner failure. Sour grapes is a classic example in a social, results-oriented context. It’s a little like the example Ronald Knox uses for why relative morality is no morality: suppose you gauge the density of some kind of mineral in a test tube. If you have different temperatures in your lab, the water could be liquid, or ice, or vapor, giving you completely different readings. Just because the rock you measure falls on top of ice and the measurement is nowhere near the line you expect, doesn’t mean you have the wrong fluid or none at all! It’s the difference between applying the right conditions (lab temperature – knowledge, habits). It’s a little like having an empty and full bucket versus no bucket at all.

Not only this, but all indigenous religions basically have an all-powerful, original Father Creator, typically vilified, who is rejected and replaced by a lesser, but more popular, deity. The Greeks have this with Uranus vs Zeus. The pre-Islamic Arabians of the Hijaz had Allah, who had no idol in the Ka’ba, only to be superseded by the originally Syrian moon god Hubal. An interesting story from a 16th century half-Spanish half-native writer tells us of a pre-Columbian king who built a separate altar with no idols, dedicated to an unknown god. This story is likely a legend, derived from Acts 17, but it illustrates that the idea of a religious pagan who followed his conscience is not anything new. Melchizedek (Gen. 14) is one example. Job and Noah and if we take Ezekiel 14:14 to be the ancient Near Eastern exemplification of a moral man, Dan’el, to not be the Israelite Daniel, there’s another example. Isaiah 44:28 calls Cyrus God’s shepherd – a typical Middle Eastern image of the good and dutiful man (the literal meaning of bishop/presbyter = pastor/overseer). This is why Paul says in Romans 10:17-18: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for

“Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
    and their words to the ends of the world.”

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How is Infinite, eternal punishment for finite sin fair? (and other questions)

“Is it fair that the sweet old lady across the street who simply didn’t believe in Jesus goes to Hell for eternity?” An excellent question to a fundamental issue in Christian theology.

Atheists aren’t murderers, thieves, or any of those morally and socially wrong things. They’re ordinary people who simply choose not to believe in any deity. Why is it that they should suffer in eternity when maybe, as they often say, they didn’t find any convincing evidence for the existence of a god. So we have two questions: 1) Why does the legalism of such technicalities lead to such penalties?, and 2) How can these penalties be justified, even in the case of the immoral, unrepentant lifelong thief?

The first question we can quickly answer: it is not the intellectual aspect of a man that condemns or saves him, but his works (Matt. 7:21-23; 11:25). The atheist isn’t condemned because he didn’t find good enough evidence for or against God’s existence. Someone who has plenty of evidence but is unrighteous easily shares the same fate. The demons know of God’s existence (James 2:19) – they aren’t “angels” morally. If miracle workers who are unrighteous aren’t spared in Matt. 7:21-23, what waits for us lesser mortals? Doctrine itself is never the key for salvation (James 2:14-26), but only reflects what one has on the inside (Psalm 14:1 – “fool” = immoral man). Doctrine isn’t necessarily a good indicator of faith, as the Bible uses it: that’s the conscience (Romans 2:12-16).

The second question is also easy to understand and far more interesting. Let’s say a man has literally one personal wrongdoing in his entire life: he stole a T-shirt from a store whose employees were always disrespectful to him. How is it fair that he goes to an eternity of torture if he doesn’t repent?

The answer is simple. A Coptic friend of mine once gave a very clear analogy. Imagine you are an elementary schoolteacher. You unjustly disrespect one of your students – give him detention when he wasn’t doing anything wrong. How do you make up for your mistake? You apologize, maybe give him a box of chocolates, and the boy will forgive you. Now let’s say you disrespect a co-worker. The penalty might be higher: suspension, maybe even termination. Now keep going with this train of thought: if you offend God, what could you possibly do to make up for even the smallest of sins? One can already see that not only is this not injustice, but it’s pure mercy that any of us even have a moment of respite despite all these transgressions (Matt. 5:45). We’re simply looking at a self-centered point of view when we accuse of injustice in this case. St

The first objection that easily comes up is that it’s the highest form of perversion of justice to presume the same crime against one man is less of a crime against another. Is murdering a rich man a heavier crime/murder than taking a poor man’s life away? But this objection ignores a fundamental difference. We’re not talking about judgment based on person, but based on quality and relationship. This is why it’s a bigger crime to assault a police officer, than it is a regular civilian. The crime is infinite against God not simply because “He’s God!” but because God is holy and sinless (aside from being our Creator, which deserves at least an additional ounce of credit). That is what the idea and definition of “God” naturally associates in our mind, but it is a justified association, not simply bias. An example of favoritism of some sort would be the following. In the Clint Eastwood 1992 Western, Unforgiven, Richard Harris’ character, English Bob, remarks on the recent assassination of James Garfield by saying, “I can assure you…the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed and you would stand… how shall I put it? In awe. Now, a president… well I mean…why not shoot a president.”

The next objection that one can say is the logical progression of irresponsibility trying to defend itself: “I never asked to be born and this ‘all or nothing’ [Heaven/Hell] situation with these impossible standards [sinlessness] was imposed upon me without my consent.” Fair enough. But aren’t there laws you have to follow that you never asked to be under, but certainly would agree to, such as man’s inalienable rights? It’s the exact same situation, except without the legal loopholes and outdated or imperfect laws. You didn’t ask to be born in that case either.

As far as the impossible standard, this is a more subtle situation. Let’s consider the following. We are human and subject to temptation. None of us are tempted beyond what we can handle (1 Cor. 10:13). Would we make the same mistakes without temptation? Clearly not all of them. What about some of them? This was the case with Satan and the other demons (2 Peter 2:4). They weren’t tempted in any ways of the flesh, and their choice was purely one out of contempt of the law above them. Why did they do it? It’s not a question of “Why?” but “Did they want to?” What I mean is that true intent can be hidden by motivation – “why did he do/didn’t do something or other crime?” – “He did not steal the car because he saw a police car nearby.” Actual commitment of an action is not necessary for sin (Matt. 5:28). The opposite is also true: having been spared due to circumstances (to even be inclined to sin) does not mean one is exempt; this is why temptation exists and why God tests people. In this way, our genuine nature, “Whether we would choose evil or good (John 12:46; John 3:19)” is revealed. This is why full knowledge isn’t always disclosed to us (Matt. 13:34-35; 1 Cor. 13:8-12; cf. when God tells Samuel to give an impartial truth [1 Samuel 16:1-3]). Therefore, the standard is not impossible at all because it is out of our abilities, but because it’s a factual “it’s never gonna happen” scenario.

This last answer, however, brings up more questions. First of all, if the elect would be the “good angels” vs the damned being like Satan and his cohorts (if we were all made angels, instead of humans [cf. Mark 12:25]), why did God make any of the saved into human beings? True, most of the world lives in unrighteousness (Matt. 7:13-14). But why are any of the righteous put on it to be tortured? What’s the point of even making anyone human and not consign the unjust to darkness (2 Peter 2:4), and the good to eternal bliss from the very start? Let us suppose that some of these “good angels” would sin but then would wish to repent, unlike the demons (for whatever reason and through whichever way, just like the unrighteous). In this case, God can easily make us, deserving, with less prestige by giving us mortal bodies, since the elect are the Prodigal Sons and not the elder brother who never fell away (elect angels) – Luke 15:25-32. Perhaps this will result in more sins (compare James 5:20), as opposed to if the elect (and damned perhaps) would’ve been angels that were granted repentance like in Islamic theology minus the physical world, but the existence of sin in and of itself is not an issue; it having been committed is, and from this God is exempt, but not the (unrepentant) sinner. God can articulate the expression of a sin and its meaning, much like sarcasm mimics the genuine words of the object of derision without impugning guilt upon itself. Besides, these sins as we learned, would exist anyway, just not physically expressed. And how He chooses to express Himself, by making a physical world, is irrelevant – a rabbi was asked by a Gentile, “Why did God make the Sun to rise in the East and set in the West,” and the rabbi answered, “If it rose in the West and set in the East, you’d ask me the same thing.”

Nevertheless, this last point brings up a fundamental question. Let us say that we have the elect and the damned into two separate piles. If we ask, “Why do the damned go to Hell for eternity?”, the typical but erroneous answer that comes to mind is, “Had they lived for eternity, they would have sinned for eternity.” So one doesn’t need to actually carry out his sins to have them as we saw – God would know this. This is, after all, the reason why God allows us to reach the point at which we can commit sins and doesn’t kill us off as babies (how merciful?) – related to the absurdity of suggesting the Christian should want to die to go to Heaven (yet see Philippians 1:23-24). In my opinion, this also explains why God made people He knows would go to Hell and why He doesn’t make us all have no free will (contrary to Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense, which follows Augustine) – He knows it’s not really “us.” To make a free will that God makes sure doesn’t sin would be “us” and not “us” at the same time would switch the violation of justice to a mere impossibility given that God wants one to account faithfully to one’s own actions in the true sense of the word, and not by circumstance or a foreign origin.

Two things can be easily elucidated. A prisoner longs for one thing and one thing only – his freedom. He envies all who possess it. With our freedom, we see the things we’re missing and in turn we might look to others who have them. The point isn’t that we don’t appreciate things, but that the prisoner is focusing on his most important problem, while missing the fact that freedom without meaning is a prison far worse than one made of bars. This is the oft-cited, counter-climactic point of movies with happy endings like The Graduate (1967), where the happy, reunited couple seem to be at a loss as to what they’ve actually accomplished and where their road to happiness is. This shows, first, that our bias guides us in ways that we can sometimes scarcely even consider, let alone believe. Second, that “would be” scenarios are neither to be rejected because they condemn something that never happened, nor are a tyrannical perversion of justice where, for one, a man has no choice but to fall under the sword of fate, and they are a valid way of gauging someone without foreign influences one way or another.

A more straightforward way of illustrating this is by the following simple scenario: imagine everything with Free Will – angels, demons, humans – had the omnipotence and omniscience of God; what would they do? Would they be fair or not? Loving or cruel? This is the basic question which is answered by God with hellfire or Heaven, as there can be no in-between in such a fundamental matter as our example shows (cf. Matt. 12:30 – “With us or against us”).

But wait a second. Aren’t we all sinners? Would the elect magically stop sinning at all (as is required by this hypothesis), after a certain point in their would-be infinite life? Certainly not.

How do we then explain the fact that repentance has any value if we would all have an infinite amount of sins (as well as “non-sins”)? The question can be better illustrated by the following example. Suppose you turned a light on and off, then on again and off. If you do this for eternity, is the light at the “end” on or off? Neither or both? I think the answer was “neither,” because technically there is no end really. Possibly a way of thinking about this is as follows: you have an interest two subjects in school. However, while in the middle of one of them, you frequently think of the other, and vice versa. Do you like both of them (since you think of both), or neither (since you think of the other quite a bit while in one of them)? This is possibly related to the Trinity and things God “can’t” do.

However, we know that there are different orders of infinity. That means there is something “bigger” than infinity! Something beyond it. For example, even though there are an infinite number of natural numbers (1, 2, 3, 4…), as well as an infinite number of odd and even numbers, whose amount isn’t lesser or greater than their parent set of “natural numbers,” the amount of irrational numbers is actually larger than the amount of rational numbers, even though both are infinite! Cantor proved this with his Diagonal Proof in the 19th century, and it’s very well explained in this Youtube video by Vsauce (2:07-6:03). We don’t need to, but if we removed causality, we could probably simplify this dilemma. At any rate, since God is the absolute cardinality (as Cantor referred to Him), He would be beyond this situation, and would know who would stay repentant till the “end,” which for us is exemplified by a finite, rather short compared to turtles and elephants, lifespan.

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The Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro Dilemma is one of those little things in life, and philosophy in particular, that jolt the intellect. Like stepping on a small but sharp object, it’s impossible to ignore or overlook. The name comes from the eponymous title of a work by Plato.

This is the basic question: “Is what is morally right right because God has declared so, or did he declare it because it was morally right?” If God wholly decided everything that was right or wrong, then morality is arbitrary. If God only upholds what was always, eternally moral, then morality has an origin independent from Him and His will.

Tricky problem, isn’t it? Worse than those papercuts that just won’t go away, hence the apt name “dilemma.” Socrates sided with the second option: the gods loved what is holy because it was always holy. For him this was not a problem: the ancient Greco-Roman deities were neither omnipotent, nor even morally perfect half the time: they were subjected to the power of Fate more or less.

But the Christian, Jew, and Muslim have a problem. How can God be omnipotent if He didn’t make morality of all things!? What does it imply if morality has a different origin from Him? From where did it come and what is the significance of this origin: is it another Euthyphro Dilemma? Or is it just an indiscriminate, supernatural law (which must be obeyed?)? Could God deviate from this? Could He make His own morality in addition, or is it identical?

The questions become endless (but certainly not tedious!). But it should be obvious by now that the second option is unacceptable if we suppose an omnipotent and wholly holy deity. So is morality arbitrary? This question is misspoken. If we think about the definition and nature of morality, we will understand why.

The Answer

As usual, St. Anselm, who apparently left no stone unturned in these types of questions, comments on this. He considers the issue to be resolved similarly to Kant’s idea that attributes (such as existence) are relationships and not predicates (e.g. a chair upon which some action can be taken). Basically morality is created by God, but this isn’t a meaningful way to describe it because it is a reflection of God and His holiness. Therefore it’s not something relevantly arbitrary because it is like saying God Himself is arbitrary, which has no meaning, or is irrelevant: it’s like asking why does the Sun rise in the East and not the West – what difference is there if it rose in the West instead? This is similar to my thoughts, though I don’t think this resolves the issue fully, or perhaps clearly (at least to me), because the question of arbitrary morality still seems to loom a bit – moral actions are not God or His actions, and they do exist, even they aren’t objects.

The simple answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma as I see it is that God created morality in that He made it with respect to us and Himself: love. This means that morality is arbitrary, but only its technical existence: not in its relationship, to which this question never applies (nor can it, as it deals with predicates, not relationships).

Let me explain. If a man has brown or blond hair, does God love him? Yes. If we had three legs instead of two, would He loves us all the same? Yes. So the creation of the objects to which morality applies are indeed arbitrary, but this does not in any way apply to the relationship between those objects. Think of it this way: pain is subjective, both by experience and definition. An animal’s pain is relative only to its own self, but it’s a real experience even if it has a different brain. But this is not an objective description when deprived of meaning as the Euthyphro Dilemma does – the purpose is the same as that of an anti-virus program telling you of malware on your computer, even though we don’t recognize the computer to be feeling pain.

And this is exactly the subtlety the Euthyphro Dilemma hides behind. It doesn’t deal with the moral nature of ethics: it only discusses the technical aspect of its existence. This might seem like it’s the same thing, but it’s the difference between a man who sells a car and the person who drives it recklessly. It’s like saying that sarcasm is agreement with the entity it satirizes because it repeats the same words: it’s mere legalism.

In summary, God creates arbitrary objects, and imposes the one and only Law, there since the beginning (1 John 2:7-11), upon them: love. This law is arbitrary in the sense that it could’ve been anything else. In that sense nothing can be “non-arbitrary” since it must have some kind of origin, whether from a deity or not. But one cannot complain about this law, nor can one find a better “arbitrary” command.

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Science vs Religion?

An anti-religious professor, an even more old-fashioned version than Sigmund Freud, stereotypically bearded, with glasses and frazzled hair, dressed in old, traditional clothes, is telling his elementary students why God is evil: “Did He create everything? Then He created evil.” A young boy defends his beliefs by using the same logic to refute his argument and stuns both the teacher and the entire class. This is at least the episode, fictionalized or not, between Albert Einstein and one of his teachers depicted in this Macedonian commercial, which ends with the white text on black font: “Religion is Science too.”

In today’s world, we view the religious as completely different from the scientific. One is magical, the other is technological and all the other “-logical”s including just plain logical. The idea of applying anything other than mysticism to religion does not occur to the average modern person: it’s like counting how many apples you have at your orange tree.

Is science diametrically opposed to the basic layout and fundamental structure of religion? Is rationality inconsistent or contradictory to faith? Certainly not synonymous with it! After all, wasn’t Galileo imprisoned (house arrest, but still arrest), for defying the millenia-old belief of geocentrism, held since the days of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks (and even earlier)? Weren’t there countless witchhunts across Europe and America, despite the ban on the mere belief in witches as superstition since the Middle Ages (Council of Paderborn, 785 AD)? Modern technology has come about only through science, not religion.

Those unacquainted with the history of theology, at least as far as Christianity is concerned, can be forgiven for thinking that the issue is as simple and clear as that. But since the first step that Jesus’ foot took on his ministry, to the last book written on him and his church, every major Christian writer used all the modern methods and knowledge available to him in his day. Jesus constantly proved who he was claiming to be to the Jews with miracles, and not the kind a faker or impostor or even demon could make (cf. Matt. Acts 16:16-18; 19:11-20; Gal. 1:8; 2 Cor. 11:14; 2 Thess. 2:9-12. See also Luke 9:49-50). The Apostles, like Jesus, used both reason and proof (Mark 12:35-37; Acts 2:22-23) as well as prophecies from Scripture (Luke 24:27; Acts 3:17-26; 8:30-35). Paul used proof, not blind belief, when he referred to the witnesses to the Resurrection (1 Cor 15). The countless Christian apologists since then, such as Quadratus (c.125 AD), Tertullian (200 AD), Origen (~230 AD), St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), St. Anselm of Canterbury (†1109), St. Thomas Aquinas (†1274) all use reason in their discussion of belief.

In fact, the biblical word for “faith” is not a set of doctrines to be blindly believed: it is a living dedication to correct behavior – fidelity, faithfulness, not simply “belief” (Hauer and Young, Introduction to the Bible (7th ed.), p.157). Nowhere is blind faith demanded and Paul praises the Jews at Berea for verifying his claims and coming to their own conclusions through reasoning (Acts 17:11).

Which is Greater: Reason or Faith?

But it would be a mistake to consign faith, trust in the unseen and unknown, to the corner and relegate it to the background in the face of reason and facts. Since Kant in the late 1700’s, it’s been a major philosophical premise that true knowledge is an assumption, albeit a well-working one, but not justifiable as any kind of absolute, immutable proof. One is well-off settling for the golden approach of the probable, like Cicero. Think of it this way: you’ve never had to prove that bread feeds you or water quenches thirst. If we delve deeper and show how the food is converted into energy and the water into plasma and cytoplasm, we’ve gone a step further into our quest for confirmation.

But how do we know that the connection is real and there isn’t another unseen force at work, like gravity was for the pre-Newtonian age when many deemed it ridiculous, especially in ancient times? Occam’s razor can’t help us, not least of all because it’s also a philosophical presumption that can easily be due to assumption (e.g. a magic trick with a complicated sleight of hand). The further we go in proving an original suggestion or seemingly obvious fact, the even more we have to go to prove that next step. This is basically what Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems proved: there are things that can be true, but are unable to be proven. We can know they’re true, but not by our presupposition of “Knowledge only by proof,” or “reason, logic, and facts.”

And this is all assuming that what we’ve presumed to discover is true. Many philosophies and theories have existed which might be self-consistent, and therefore valid, but not sound. Ptolemy’s model for planetary motion is one example. It fit all the data. But in the end it was the Copernican model that was true. Wisdom is certainly a powerful weapon against ignorance and its results: suffering. But in a miscalculated direction it can often end up being the sword upon which one falls. It is because the authorities and scientists of Copernicus’ day were so adamant about their superior understanding of the universe, the printer of the first edition of his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium felt compelled to include a preface stating that the writing was a work of fiction – a “what if” scenario for amusement purposes. Thankfully Copernicus never saw it when it was presented to him on his deathbed. This is why John 7:14-18 (and Augustine’s commentary on it) says not to place trust in one’s own reasoning over revelation: the result is often erroneous and usually leads to, if not already the product of, one’s own vanity (cf. 3 John 1:9; 2 Cor. 10:10-12; 11:5-6; 12:11). The 12th century philosopher, Peter Abelard, had similar sentiments and saw this as one of the main origins of heresy:

“Those who claim to be dialecticians are usually led more easily to [heresy] the more they hold themselves to be well-equipped with reasons, and, to that extent more secure, they presume to attack or defend any position the more freely. Their arrogance is so great that they think there isn’t anything that can’t be understood and explained by their petty little lines of reasoning. Holding all authorities in contempt, they glory in believing only themselves—for those who accept only what their reason persuades them of, surely answer to themselves alone, as if they had eyes that were unacquainted with darkness.” (Theologia christiana 3.20)

Hence why the Bible both praises (Proverbs 4; 1 Cor. 12:8; 13:11; 2 Cor. 11:6) and mocks wisdom (1 Cor. 1:17-25; 3:19). It’s probably for this reason that the well-known verse in Ecclesiastes 1:18 tells us that, “much wisdom brings much grief,” “and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (compare Ecclesiastes 1:16-17 and Acts 26:24, 1 Cor. 13:1-3). There must be a balance of the correct point of view so that it could be actual, useful wisdom (Matt. 10:16; 1 Cor. 2).

Famously, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica ends abruptly; unfinished. The story goes that Aquinas received a vision of amazing things, which compelled him to stop writing. His perception of his work, a mighty compendium of argumentation, now a tiny plaything in the hands of fate. Was he so mesmerized by a glimpse of what “ear has not heard, and eyes have not seen” (1 Cor. 2:9), like Moses seeing God on the mountain? Or did he see how little he knew compared to the advances of science in the future? Whatever the case, he felt this dwarfed his knowledge and it proved to him how little he or anyone knew. It is exactly with such humility that we must approach anything that originates in ourselves. My sentiments couldn’t be better expressed than by St. Anselm of Canterbury. Unequaled in erudite scholarship in his day, he strove that, “nothing whatsoever in these [philosophical] matters should be made convincing by the authority of Scripture, but whatsoever… the necessity of reason would concisely prove.” However, he summarizes the relationship between reason and revelation much as the original title of one of his works, the Proslogion, as:

‘”faith seeking understanding”, which intended “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God”. Once the faith is held fast, however, he argued an attempt must be made to demonstrate its truth by means of reason: “To me, it seems to be negligence if, after confirmation in the faith, we do not study to understand that which we believe”. Merely rational proofs are always, however, to be tested by scripture and he employs Biblical passages and “what we believe” (quod credimus) at times to raise problems or to present erroneous understandings, whose inconsistencies are then resolved by reason.’

His position can be summarized as: “The Christian ought to go forth to understanding through faith, not journey to faith through understanding” (Christianus per fidem debet ad intellectum proficere, non per intellectum ad fidem accedere) and “The correct order demands that we believe the depths of the Christian faith before we presume to discuss it with reason” (Rectus ordo exigit, ut profunda Christianae fidei credamus, priusquam ea praesumamus ratione discutere)

Philo of Alexandria wrote, “The pursuit of the truth of God, even if one fails to achieve it, is the most noble cause.” Of what use is knowledge if it has no purpose? No one buys a tool if it’s not going to have a purpose (Matt. 25:14-30). And what could this purpose be? Of what use is education if it doesn’t produce a career? Of what use is knowledge or anything else, if it doesn’t bring happiness? Quite simply, the whole point of Christian apologetics and of revealed religion overall, the same as the Greatest Commandment: to love God and your neighbor (1 Cor. 13:8-13).