Formal Debate: Can Christianity Be Rationally Defended?

willhud9 vs Byron

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Re: Formal Debate: Can Christianity Be Rationally Defended?

#21  Postby Byron » Oct 08, 2013 8:02 pm

Will's curiosity is hereby satisfied!

My introduction ties hell back to Jesus of Nazareth, followed by a statement of why heaven and hell are irrational, illustrated by Calvinism and Arminianism, universalism, and heresy burnings. The conclusion lays down the challenge for the rebuttal. And boy, what a challenge it is.

To Gehenna With You

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire.

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Gehenna?

There's more, much more.

These specimen counts, one from each synoptic gospel (Mark 9:43, Luke 12:4-5, Matthew 23:33), serve to illustrate the point. Jesus of Nazareth, ground zero of Christianity, is recorded as believing in the fires of Gehenna, the origin of Christianity's hell. It's unsurprising. As Dale Allison notes*, the language of the apocalyptic prophet was the language of extremes, the language of judgment and damnation. Yes, the church could have inserted the hellfire-sermons into Jesus' mouth (if this tack is taken, it cedes biblical reliability, and is thus a self-defeating argument from an orthodox perspective), or Jesus could have been wrong and still divine (calling into question the Incarnation). The first option is possible (and the second is beyond the scope of historiography), but the third is the more probable. Jesus likely spoke in this way. It fits.

Jesus, being a self-proclaimed herald of Adonai's judgment by fire, wasn't concerned with building internally-coherent theological systems. Waste of time when the God of Moses was about to remake the world into paradise. Adonai was perfect. He would judge who he would judge, by his own standards, which account to no mortal person. Where were we when God made the Leviathan? We are Job, standing wretched and in awe of God's power, and we don't get to question the heavenly bossman. Slaves don't get a vote.

Yet here we stand. The eschaton never happened, and Christianity's been left with 2,000 years to rationalize Jesus' doomsday preaching, an exercise as pointless as trying to rationalize hate or desire.

Christianity's pillars have crashed to the ground under the burden of their structural flaws. Its doctrine of salvation is all that remains.

Let's finish this.

Salvation Woes

Hell is irrational, for the reason that what precedes us has been irrational: it contradicts the rest of Christianity's claims.

Christian orthodoxy tells us that God in Christ is all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing. It also claims that this omniscient and omnipotent God of love deliberately created billions of human lives with the foreknowledge that they would be tortured for eternity. By him. Hell, we are told, exists at God's pleasure. He chose to create it, as he chose to create beings that he knew would fall short of his merciless code of justice, cast adrift by his imperfect salvation plan of performing a blood sacrifice of himself to himself. The potter is responsible for the pot.

Since the mechanism of salvation is irrational, heaven is taken out along with hell.

If the orthodox picture of hell is correct, God is worse than Satan. At least the Devil is acting under duress. The Trinity has no such excuse. The buck stops at the heavenly throne.

Calvin and Arminius: Cartoon Theology

The mess that Christianity gets itself into by defending the indefensible is illustrated to perfection by these two competing schools of protestant soteriology. Team Calvin sacrifices all on the altar of internal-consistency, and it succeeds, at the price of making God a monster. Arminianism tries to salvage something of God's love, at the cost of incoherence. Neither are compatible with Christianity's wider claims.

The two schools are named after two 16th century theologians: Arminianism, the Dutch theologian Jakob Hermanszoon, Latinized as Jacobus Arminius; Calvinism, the French John Calvin.

The minutiae of these two schools is an excellent alternative to a horse tranquilizer, as are the debates about whether their namesakes believed in them. Here, it'll serve to lay out the basics, and leave the rivet-counting to the theology geeks. They're welcome to it.

Calvinists take the logical route, and say that an all-powerful God decides who to save and who to damn before anyone is born. Double-predestination, as it's called in the jargon of the trade. God is made a consistent psychopath, contradicting the "love personified" stuff most effectively.

Arminianism balks at this, and says that people are responsible for their own fate. Well, sort-of. Various contortions involving God's role in allowing us to make our own choices are worked in. One for the rivet-counters. It doesn't get God in Christ a pass, since he remains all-power. If people are given a choice, it's on terms set by the Almighty, and no person's sin could justify an eternity of fire. In the Arminian framework God's "mercy" is nothing but buck-passing. Always, the potter is responsible for his work.

This is the mess that the doctrine of hell leads to. Is there another way?


For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Paul of Tarsus (Romans 11:32)

Jesus of Nazareth (likely) preached that humanity would be split into the saved and the damned. Paul of Tarsus, Pharisee and convert, preached that all would be saved. His letter to the Romans builds up to a climax in which God redeems all of his people Israel. The above quote isn't cherry-picked: it's the culmination of Paul's argument. He declares that "a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in," and then, "all Israel will be saved." Paul is here operating within the same Jewish apocalyptic framework that Jesus preached from, but his message is taken to a radically different endzone.

The Bible says, plainly, that the damned will be cast into the everlasting fire of Gehenna. It also says, plainly, that all will be saved. It contradicts itself, as well it might, having different authors with different understandings. Another kick in the teeth for "biblical reliability," if one were needed.

Universal salvation is a thread of mercy that's run through Christianity since the beginning. It's not rational, although it fits Christianity's axioms a damn sight better than heaven and hell, but it is a beautiful idea. If the religion had embraced it then perhaps it would have been the force for good that it wants to be, and, in the actions of its finest adherents, on occasion is.

Christianity didn't embrace it. It chose to embrace the harshest edge of Jesus' teaching. Not simply because it was believed to come from his lips, either. Orthodox Christian institutions have set aside all that awkward stuff from the Galilean about selling you goods to feed the poor, embracing peripatetic austerity, being perfect, and following your convictions unto death. No, hell had an appeal that those demands lacked, and it's not an appeal that's rooted in rationality. Heaven and hell, judging your fellow women and men, casting your enemies into fire, that reaches to the darkest part of us. A part of us that's the antithesis of reason.

Paul of Tarsus wasn't immune to this instinct. As E.P. Sanders has noted, Paul wasn't a systematic theologian: he was a charismatic leader, operating on the fly. His letters are inconsistent. Paul does, in what's probably his earliest surviving work, his apocalypse-drenched letter to the Thessalonians, talk of God's wrath -- but by the time of Romans the better part of Paul had won-out. Perhaps the better part of Jesus of Nazareth would have won-out had he not gotten himself killed in the belief that Adonai was about to end history. We'll never know. What we can know, if we let ourselves see it, is that Jesus was a very human man, subject to very human instincts, for good, and for ill. He wasn't God's Word incarnate. He was a man, irrational as all men sometimes are. His preaching of Gehenna made emotional, not rational, sense.

Context casts such different light on things. In the mouth of a disempowered folk-prophet, a belief in Gehenna, that springs from a yearning for justice denied, is sympathetic. It's when Jesus' teaching was fused with the power of Christendom that belief in hellfire fulfilled its terrible potential. Christianity transformed Jesus' cry in the wildness into a mechanism of oppression.

We are back to power. Back to the appeal to the cudgel.

Find Something to Burn

What can we do, there's nothing to do
about sickness and hunger and dying.
What can we do, there's nothing to do
nothing but cursing and crying.
Fine something to burn.
Let it go up in smoke.
Burn your troubles away. ...

Caryl Churchill, Vinegar Tom

How did the saintly Thomas More justify making bonfires of his enemies in the name of the church? By the very quality that lead to him embracing martyrdom and being declared a saint: a dogmatic belief in his ideals. There's no contradiction between the man of conscience and the heretric-hunter. They're one and the same.

Heretics and their writings were burnt as a diseased corpse was burnt: to stop contagion. The scariest thing is that, from More's perspective, lashing people to a pyre and burning them alive made sense. It was, in reality as he saw it, the merciful thing to do. He wasn't a monster. He was doing what he honestly believed to be good. As so many evil men do.

The curious thing isn't why More burnt, but why the church ever stopped.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn't mince its words**:
Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire."

If you honestly and truly believe this, it makes sense to burn the books that contain heresy and the heretics who preach it. What's a moment's agony compared to an eternity of flame?

Yet again, we're confronted with actions that contradict dogma. The modern church doesn't believe what its catechism claims to, not really, or it would be seeking to light the fires still. Vatican City would host the burning of heretics under the protection of the Swiss Guard. It doesn't, because, giving the lie to anti-Catholic hysteria, the church has become a good deal more merciful in practice than its catechism ought to allow, as protestants have stopped hanging witches and "sodomites." Deep down, it balks at the implications of its teaching. It's become better than its supposedly divine revelation should allow. Reason has, in its small way, triumphed over dogma.

The dogma however remains. It is a naked appeal to force. Do what God says or he will torture you for all time. The catechism's justification?
The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny.

They are an "urgent call to conversion." Scaring people into compliance is rational from a viewpoint of amoral institutional survival. It is irrational from a viewpoint that claims God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. The Calvinists' brute logic makes claims that "God is love" meaningless, "love" here stripped of any substantive meaning, reduced to William Lane Craig's Divine Command Theory. Love is whatever God says love is. If God says hell is love, then love it is. If this Humpty Dumpty God exists, he's no more than power, making words mean whatever he says they mean. Not good, just strong.

That isn't the orthodox Christian assertion. It is, however, the inescapable outcome of its doctrine of salvation.

... Sometimes its witches, or what will you choose?
Sometimes its lunatics, shut them away.
It's blacks and it's women and often it's Jews.
We'd all be quite happy if they'd go away.
Find something to burn.
Let it go up in smoke.
Burn your troubles away.


Orthodox Christianity claims that an omnipotent god, who is love and goodness personified, creates sentient creatures with the intention that they are tortured in fire for eternity. If this is so, the words "good" and "evil" are stripped of any substantive meaning, and are reduced to "whatever God says that they mean." Euthyphro is decided squarely in the arbitrary column. We are reduced to cowering before the God of Job, who ruins lives, and slays loved ones, to win a bet with Satan. If such a god exists then rationality is meaningless. Power is all.

The irrationality of the premise is highlighted in the theological trainwreck produced to make it fit together. Every effort is made to strip God of responsibility for his own actions, while simultaneously, forcing humanity to take full responsibility for theirs. The attempts fail. If God in Christ is, as orthodoxy claims, all-power, then everything leads back to him. Hell exists only because God allows it to exist. People are tortured in hell only because God allows them to be tortured. People enter the kingdom of heaven at God's whim. He could, if he wanted, save all. He choses instead to torture many for all time.

Christianity has produced so many attempts to ameliorate hell that it's plain that many Christians are appalled at the implications of their doctrine. The salient thing is that they haven't changed it.

The seeds are there, in the universalism of Paul of Tarsus, and early church fathers like Origen (himself a hair's breadth away from being declared a heretic, albeit for other teaching). Christianity hasn't let them sprout, because to do away with hell would be to do away with dogma, not to mention a useful recruiting sergeant. Christianity's irrationality is again highlighted in its intransigence. It knows that the dogma of hell is wrong, but won't end it, because to do so would be to challenge the power of the church and its claims. Power is what it's about. What it's always been about, ever since the threat of Gehenna fell from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago.

* * *

Will is now tasked with explaining why the Christians' God of love tortures people with fire for all time, for the sin of not believing in him, when God has chosen to create them with that failing.

"Good luck" appears superfluous, but I wish it, all the same.

* Allison, Dale C., "The Problem of Gehenna," Resurrecting Jesus, T&T Clark, 2005
** Catechism of the Catholic Church, IV, Hell
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Re: Formal Debate: Can Christianity Be Rationally Defended?

#22  Postby willhud9 » Oct 14, 2013 4:39 am

My opponent predictably sites the several Scriptures in which this placed called Gehenna is mentioned. But what is Gehenna? Is it indeed Hell?

A quick Wikipedia search would inform us that Gehenna was actually a geographical location with a very symbolic meaning.1 The Wiki article reads:

Gehenna (Greek γέεννα), Gehinnom (Rabbinical Hebrew: גהנום/גהנם) and Yiddish Gehinnam, are terms derived from a place outside ancient Jerusalem known in the Hebrew Bible as the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Hebrew: גֵיא בֶן־הִנֹּם or גיא בן-הינום); one of the two principal valleys surrounding the Old City.
In the Hebrew Bible, the site was initially where apostate Israelites and followers of various Ba'als and Caananite gods, including Moloch, sacrificed their children by fire (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6). Thereafter it was deemed to be cursed (Jer. 7:31, 19:2-6).

But the article would in the next paragraph say that in Christianity Gehenna was believed to be a destination for the wicked and that Gehenna was translated as Hell in Anglo-Saxon.

So what does this mean about Gehenna? Well first of all, we have to try to do the difficult and place ourselves within the mind of a 1st century Jew. Well Gehenna was a place where the sinners of Caanan and worshippers of Ba'al and Moloch allegedly practiced child sacrifice and burned them. The symbolism of fire is very much prevalent when imagining Gehenna for a first century Jew. It was a cursed place, and a name used to frighten and conjure images to haunt another. In Rabbinical Judaism, Gehenna is a place of purgatory for wicked souls to redeem themselves. So when Jesus comes on the preaching scene and he mentions Gehenna does he ever discuss an eternity in Gehenna? No, quit opposite!

"Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (γέεννα)." ~Matthew 10:28. The Him is of course God, but Jesus is saying God kills the soul in Hell. What? But it is a place of eternal suffering in accordance to conservative theology. But again as my original argument stated, hell was not considered a place of eternal suffering, but a place where the wicked, those who went against God and his people, were sent. It doesn't even make mention of a punishment aside from their destruction.

To understand Orthodox Christianity we are going to have to throw aside the baggage that our Western traditions have placed upon the concept of Hell. Let us continue!

We have to be careful from applying tradition to the facts. While Dale Allison is not technically incorrect, he was not wholly correct either. The mentions of Gehenna were not just a figurative place, it was a real geographical location with a real symbolic history. The "rival" gods the Israelites once committed idolatry with were worshiped in a gruesome manner in Gehenna and to a Jewish person, the very thought of being cursed to Gehenna was one fear and despair.

It is doubtful the church added the hellfire sermons into the teachings of Jesus as they match the hypothetical Q source. I will also not argue Jesus was wrong as that defeats the entire premise of my Orthodox argument, but the third option is only half wrong. Yes, Jesus spoke about Gehenna. But not in the way my opponent is arguing.

My opponent makes the bold claim that Jesus was proclaiming Adonai's judgment by fire. Except, even in the most apocalyptic Gospel, Mark, this claim is very loose.

"After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee, preaching the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!”"

The theme all throughout Mark was about repentance. Jesus was urging repentance, not damnation. Did Jesus talk about what happens to those who do not repent, sure. Did Jesus preach about damnation as his focus? No. The extreme examples Jesus used in the verse my opponent quoted was because Jesus wanted people to repent. John's Gospel sums it up perfectly in the world's most known verse John 3:16.

My opponent then makes the assumption that Jesus' preaching of the Kingdom did not happen and therefore the church has been failing to rationalize its doctrine of salvation. But does Byron provide a successful rebuttal against it? Well I don't think so. Let's begin.


Hell is not irrational when Hell is understood for being a place separate from the Kingdom. A place for the wicked where the Kingdom is for the righteous. Is it a place of punishment? No. There is no support for that theology aside from later Catholic traditions.

Again I will quote NT Wright2:

And hell is what happens when human beings say, the God in whose image they were made, we dont want to worship you. We dont want our human life to be shaped by you. We dont want, who we are as humans to be transformed by the love of Jesus dying and rising for us. We dont want any of that. We want to stay as we are and do our own thing. And if you do that, what youre saying is, you want to stop being image bearing human being within this good world that God has made. And you are colluding with your own progressive dehumanization. And that is such a shocking and horrible thing, that its not surprising that the biblical writers and others have used very vivid and terrifying language about it. But, people have picked that up and said, this is a literal description of reality. Somewhere down there, there is a lake of fire, and its got worms in it and its got serpents and demons and there coming to get you.

But I think actually, the reality is more sober and sad than that, which is this progressive shrinking of human life. And that happens during this life, but it seems to be that if someone resolutely says to God, I'm not going to worship's not just Ill not come to church. It's a matter of deep down somewhere, there is a rejection of the good creator God, then that it the choice humans make. In other words, I think the human choices in this life really matter. Were not just playing a game of chess, where tomorrow morning God will put the pieces back on the board and say, Ok that was just a game. Now we're doing something different. The choices we make here really do matter.

I think Wright nails it flat on the head. The concept of Gehenna was a terrifying one. It symbolized separation from God and therefore the destruction of the soul, the essence of a person. To many a Jew the concept of a future resurrection of Israel, thanks to verses found in Isaiah became a hope for many, and the thought of losing a soul was a travesty to Jewish thought. But the destruction of the soul is very different from the West's interpretation of eternal damnation for the wicked. Oh it makes a nice conversion story, but it fails to hold any theological weight to scrutiny.

My opponent then leaps into the fray with the statement that God created hell at his own pleasure. Powerful stuff, but did he? There is no theological case for the creation of hell, since hell was not really discussed in the creation accounts. However, the concept of a New Jerusalem and Gehenna make perfect sense. The New Kingdom and New Jerusalem were oftentimes paralleled with each other (see Revelations). Gehenna was a valley just outside of Jerusalem. So in the eschatology of the Christian, this New Gehenna, or Hell, is rather the place just outside the new Jerusalem. In fact, Revelation 21:6-8 reads:

“It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

Notice the contrasts for the symbolism and remember this is in regards to the New Jerusalem. It is promised to those who are victorious will inherit the waters of life. But the *insert wicked people* will get fire of death. It matches the descriptions found elsewhere in Scripture of Gehenna. The concept of fire, plays with the fact that the rituals of child sacrifice involved setting the children on fire. Those who were once "Children of God" have chosen to reject God and therefore are cast out of the New Kingdom/New Jerusalem. The symbolism is that they are like the children who were sacrificed on the altar of the false gods. They are cursed.

But we must understand that is symbolism being used, and while many in the West assumed a literal rendition of it, we can see by evaluating Greek and Russian orthodox theologies that not everyone assumed the literalness of these passages.

So with Hell taken care of, we need go to the next critique my opponent tackles. The method of salvation.

Jesus died on the cross to save the world. John 3:16. We all know the Bible lesson. The end.

But is it rational? My opponent mentioned Calvinism vs. Arminianism and I shall start this off with talking about total depravity. This doctrine holds that humankind has sinned and is incapable of achieving salvation by themselves i.e. it is human nature to reject God due to a fallen nature. Without God salvation is not possible. The theological concept of grace is at effect. Well what is grace? It is an unmerited favor from God i.e. it is not deserved or earned.

So humans are depraved and need salvation. Since human nature is naturally rejecting God, God sends his Grace to save what Calvin called the elect. This is called the indomitable spirit. The Holy Spirit comes upon someone and they come to know God. But wait?! There are unbelievers, how can a loving God purposefully not send his Spirit onto them? This is where many people misinterpret Calvinism as my opponent also did. You see unconditional election is just that. God unconditionally sends out his Spirit to save his elect whom he unconditionally loves. But can people reject the Spirit? No, but they can quench it. By living a life of sinfulness, in Christian theology, a person can quench the Spirit's influence on us making its influence small and worthless. As well as quenching the Spirit a person can deny the Spirit. It's not rejecting it, it is simply hardening oneself against it. Scripture calls the phrase a "hardening of the heart." These things hinder people from receiving the grace of God.

So does the Spirit come to everyone in Calvinistic doctrine? Arguably yes. Does everyone receive the Spirit in a transforming manner? No, and this is because of the sinful nature of the people quenching the Spirit. In this manner, God is liberating those in bondage to sin, but there are those who refuse through their sin that liberation.

Is this view wholly Calvinistic? No, and for good measure, the original Calvinistic view was a product of its time and also believed in a literal Hell of eternal fire and damnation, thanks to the sensationalism of the Middle Ages. The people who followed Calvinism, also took many of Calvin's original points found within Institutes and exaggerated them to fit alternative theological models. But it does present a logical methodology as to why salvation, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not illogical.

Which brings us to Paul and my opponent's section on ἀποκατάστασις.

My opponent mistakenly states that Jesus preached in salvation and damnation and Paul preached all would be saved. I have already argued that Jesus preached repentance for all and not damnation and as this is clearly seen by reading the entirety of the Gospels, I feel this alone can refute the entire premise of my opponent's argument. But he goes onto argue that Paul in Romans preached salvation for all. This is a very mistaken view taken by universalists.

First of all, the context is about Israel and Israel's past. Why did God have Israel go through all of what it was. Paul says they went through an era of sin, so they could be saved through the era of Christ. Paul is not talking about individuals being saved, he is talking about God's plan for Israel. Paul is saying God's plan was to literally shut Israel out to live as a condemned and humbled existence without Christ, and then through that condemnation bring about the salvation existence through Jesus Christ.

Second of all, ἀποκατάστασις is only found one in the New Testament and that is in Acts when Peter explains that Jesus "must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore ( ἀποκατάστασις) everything. (Acts 3:21)

The belief of many liberal universalists of the 19th century were based on the argument that early Christians such as Origen were universalists. This is far from the truth. Modern scholarship in fact would show that church patriarchs such as Origin and Clement of Alexandria were not universalists in the belief that all would be restored, but believed there would be those who would reject God. They believed in a restoration and believed sinners could be restored, but only through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Finally, my opponent makes a very loose and odd argument that because of the people's belief in hell it causes them to stick to a dogmatic view. He also cites that More actually burned people at the stake. I would hope that as a history lover, Byron would have known that aside from a few Protestant sources, there are no reliable historical sources which confirm that More burned or even tortured any heretics. Since many Protestants would of course be biased against More, their testimony cannot be taken with full confidence in accuracy, especially when More argues specifically against claims of torture. So my opponent's last argument begins on an historically incorrect assumption, and not fact. Perhaps for sensationalism?

My opponent than cites the Catholic catechism. I have, I think sufficiently, argued that the Catholics view on hell is far from the truth of the matter and is definitely irrational. But the reality of hell, as being a place where those who reject God go while the righteous inherit God's Kingdom, makes rational sense.

My conclusion:

Orthodox Christianity does not hold in an irrational hell of sensationalist torture for eternity, but rather is a place of separation from God, where those who disobeyed God will be sent. It is a cursed place, but is it the place of intense fire and brimstone? As I argued, a literal hell does not fit in the model of eschatology in which the sinners will be placed in the "New Gehenna" outside the "New Jerusalem." The symbolism is too strong to simply assume a literal rendition of the text. Therefore salvation is not irrational.

I await my opponents rebuttal!

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Re: Formal Debate: Can Christianity Be Rationally Defended?

#23  Postby Byron » Oct 16, 2013 8:47 pm

A good forceful reply, Will! I've enjoyed the challenge of wrestling it down. :D

My introduction rebuts Will's use of evangelism to defend hell, and notes his concession of this section. I then revisit Gehenna to argue that it was central to Jesus' message, and criticize eternal separation as a wrongheaded compromise. The concept of grace is held up as a microcosm of Christian irrationality. Following brief stopovers in universalism and historical accuracy, the conclusion ties the threads together, and argues that Christian soteriology is, like its wider theology, irredeemable.


Evangelism is central to Will's defense of Christian salvation.

This works on a pragmatic level only. Carrot and stick encourage compliance; those mechanics are not a justification. They do nothing to explain why people need to convert before their death, instead of going to heaven by default. Or why, if God wants to maximize belief, he created this imperfect world at all. If heaven, or the Kingdom on earth, is God's desired endzone, why not begin there? Conversion is only necessary because God has kept us ignorant with a flawed creation and partial revelation. As highlighted previously, in the Christian framework, we don't live on earth to learn, because God knows all, and will reveal all to us after we die. If Christianity's claims are true, there's no reason for God to have created the world as it is. Evangelism should be redundant. Like Christianity in general, all that evangelism is a powerful testament to is its own irrationality.

This, however, is not what torpedoes Will's argument.

It sinks because Will fails to justify eternal torture. Actually, it's more scuttled than torpedoed. Far from defending hell, Will has actively refuted the orthodox Christian view!
I have, I think sufficiently, argued that the Catholics view on hell is far from the truth of the matter and is definitely irrational.
Really, we could leave it here. Will has not only conceded this section of the debate: he has, literally, made my case for me. The Christian doctrine of salvation is so repulsive that even the person tasked with defending it balks, and attacks his own position!

Instead of leaving it there, I'll look at the case Will has made. Unlike the threats of Christian orthodoxy, it's nuanced and smart, but serves only to reinforce why traditional Christianity is irrational, beyond hope of salvation.

Gehenna Redux: Jesus Preached A Helluva Time

Will draws a false distinction between repentance and hellfire in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Gehenna and repentance are two sides of the same coin. Jesus' teaching is saturated with this duality.

Matthew c.10 has Jesus telling his disciples that towns that reject them will suffer a fate worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. Chapter 25 of the same gospel has the "Son of Man" separate the nations of earth as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats; the damned will go to "eternal fire" while the righteous go to "eternal life." This comes after a parable of a master sending bad slaves into the "outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (The origin of a fine anecdote about Ian Paisley: after the king of dour protestants quoted this parable in the pulpit, a member of the congregation shouts, "But I ain't got no teeth!" Paisley snaps back, "Teeth will be provided!") Luke c.16 features the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, which ends in the rich man being tortured in Hades, and Abraham denying him water.

Will misses the point when he says that Jesus didn't teach "eternal suffering in accordance to conservative theology," but "destruction" of the "wicked." Whether Jesus did or did not preach everlasting suffering -- theologians' lives are squandered in argument over whether the Greek means "eternal" or "very long time" -- the gospels record Jesus preaching that Adonai would inflict his opponents with a deeply-unpleasant fate post-mortem. It's an illustration of just how brutal Christian soteriology is that annihilation in fire is viewed as a better option. When eternal torture is your baseline, anything's an improvement.

Yes, Gehenna was a real place, and was used by Jesus as a metaphor. As Will's go-to theologian, N.T. "Tom" Wright, likes to say, a metaphor, fine: a metaphor for what? If the metaphor that Jesus chose was burning in conscious torment for (at best) a good long while, we can, it's safe to say, interpret Jesus' threatened destination as, well, hellish.

What gets you sent to Gehenna? Jesus' criterion for salvation, so far as we can tell from the gospel accounts, was righteousness, being "perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect," a righteousness displayed by following Jesus, the "Son of Man," whom Adonai had appointed as his herald of judgment. This is irrational for the same reasons that hell is irrational -- reasons already given, and reasons that will be returned to.

Jesus' hellfire preaching is not a coherent theological system: it's the jeremiad of a doomsday prophet, delivered with passion and fury beneath the blazing desert sun. More rational men than the Galilean have tried to make sense of it. Will's inability to defend salvation is but the latest example in an apostolic succession of failure.

Eternal Separation: Moderate Christianity's Cowardice

Orthodox Christianity teaches that the post-mortem fate of the damned is eternal conscious torment. Moderate Christianity seeks to ameliorate this barbarism, but, as with its incoherent "critical biblical authority," the result is a mess, neither orthodox nor rational.

Eternal separation from God, like annihilationism, is merely less repulsive than the hellfire baseline. It remains tortuous, and answers none of the questions posed by universalism: if God in Christ desires that all are saved, and is all-powerful, then what's stopping God from saving all?

You can't compromise your way out of an illogical proposition. It's a lesson that the moderates refuse to learn in their devotion to the golden mean fallacy.

Why doesn't moderate Christianity have the courage of its convictions, and state, plainly, that hell is an odious doctrine, and that God will save all? Is it for the pragmatic reason that Will offered, a motive to evangelize, and keep the church militant in congregants and funds? Perhaps that's part of it, but the numbers could be kept up in other ways.

No, I think the answer is more fundamental.

Moderate Christianity refuses to admit that the church was wrong about hell for the same reason that it refuses to admit that the Bible is wrong about miracles, women, and gay people: authority, and its power. If hell doesn't exist, then either Jesus was wrong about Gehenna, or the biblical record of his words is inaccurate. Neither possibility can be countenanced by the moderates, because then Christianity would have no revelation to fall back on, no bully-pulpit from which to preach. Christians would have to accept that their claims be judged as other claims are judged, by tests of evidence, experience, and reason. Christianity would have to make a case instead of assert a revelation.

Christianity would, in short, have to be rational.

There exists a test for Christians whose harshness is justified by its probative value: what happened to Anne Frank?* Did Anne awake in the afterlife following her death in Bergen-Belsen only to discover that she was going again to the ovens, ovens where she would be conscious as she burned, and where the flames would never die? Orthodox Christianity would pass the test, and torture Anne Frank with fire forever. Congratulations. Moderate Christianity would lock Anne in solitary confinement for eternity. How very merciful. Perhaps God might allow her paper and pen?

OK, maybe I was too harsh with the solitary quip. Maybe God only slings nonbelievers into gen. pop., where they might live forever separated from their born again loved ones, or, if they are lucky, have their unbelieving family around them in tolerable conditions, but be tortured for all time by the knowledge that they, through no fault of their own, have missed out on paradise.

Such is the mercy of the moderates. Liberal Christians, women, and gay people know it well, and give it the answer it deserves.


The concept of grace encapsulates all that's wrong with the Christian doctrine of salvation.

The Christian afterlife offers two extremes, bliss and torture. (Purgatory is merely a decontamination chamber outside the pearly gates.) Your entry pass? God's grace. Christianity claims that we all deserve hell, but God, in his mercy, allows some of us into heaven. Why only some? Because God says so, of course. If heaven is undeserved, there's no rational basis for denying it to some while gifting it to others. If some can be saved, all can be saved.

No wonder the question of who gets in is such a tangle!

In order to defend the indefensible, Will attempts to redefine Calvinism into its opposite:-
By living a life of sinfulness, in Christian theology, a person can quench the Spirit's influence on us making its influence small and worthless. As well as quenching the Spirit a person can deny the Spirit. It's not rejecting it, it is simply hardening oneself against it. Scripture calls the phrase a "hardening of the heart." These things hinder people from receiving the grace of God.

This isn't Calvinism at all, since Calvinism's foundation is that God chooses who to save, and who to damn, before anyone is born, and effects his decision with "irresistible grace," in other words, God compels a person to believe. Will claims that his model (which isn't orthodox Christianity, either) is "a logical methodology as to why salvation, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not illogical." It isn't, since it does nothing to explain why, if "humans are depraved and need salvation," they must shoulder the blame for their condition. God made humans. There is no defense for an all-powerful god who blames his work for its design flaws. If people sin, their choice is made within a framework that God created. If "humans are depraved and need salvation" the blame lies with the manufacturer. People screw up because God has screwed up.

Will doesn't answer the objection that the potter is responsible for the pot, here or elsewhere. He doesn't even address it. Why? Because, I suspect, there is no answer.

Will's scheme also falls into the trap that, as Calvinists rightly say, Arminians fall into: Christianity teaches that all salvation is undeserved, bought through the death of Jesus the Christ, yet if people get into heaven for belief, they're being rewarded for backing the right horse. They've earned their slot in paradise by accepting God into their lives. This isn't grace, it's a payout.

Calvinists, however, shouldn't rest on their laurels, as they miss the wider point. If none deserve salvation, why can't all receive it? If God is merciful, why isn't he merciful to all?

Neither they, nor Will, provide an answer.

All Shall Be Saved?

Will objects that Paul of Tarsus and Origen were not universalists.

Well, maybe they weren't. There's no way to prove it. It's a matter of interpretation. I think that Paul's references to God being merciful to all mean what they appear to mean: Paul believed that God would save everyone through Christ. Alternative interpretation is of course possible. Isn't it always?

If Will is right, it does nothing to help his case. If Paul and Origen backed eternal torture, it just shows that Christianity is less merciful, and more irrational, than even I claim it is.

Will is working to make his opponent's case across the board. What greater testament could there be to its merits?

Historical Accuracy

Will and myself agree that six men were executed for heresy during Thomas More's chancellorship: James Bainham, Richard Bayfield, Thomas Bilney, Thomas Dusgate, Thomas Hitton, and John Tewkesbery.

We disagree about how More's actions should be interpreted.


Will concludes his case for Christian soteriology thus:-
Orthodox Christianity does not hold in an irrational hell of sensationalist torture for eternity, but rather is a place of separation from God, where those who disobeyed God will be sent.

This fails on its own terms. Will claims that God in Christ, all-loving and all-merciful, will eternally shun people who honestly disbelieve in God's existence. They didn't intend to disobey him; they were unable to believe. (Fundamentalist Christians feel compelled to insist that no one is "really" an atheist because they're locked into this disobedience model.) No civilized justice system condemns those who lack a guilty mind. Who made nonbelievers like this? If Christianity is true, God. Blaming people for God's handiwork is as irrational as a programmer blaming their code for crashing.

Christianity goes to great lengths to argue that it is our fault, but the argument fails, and its failure is emphasized by Will not even attempting to argue that an omnipotent and omniscient god of love is cleared of responsibility for the flaws in his own creation. Will doesn't argue it because it can't be argued.

Instead, Will has argued, most effectively, that eternal torture is "definitely irrational." He has argued a great deal less effectively that eternal separation from God is a rational alternative, but in any case, eternal separation is not the teaching of Christianity. Not in Catholicism, not in Orthodoxy, not in protestantism. The teaching of orthodox Christianity is that God will torture the damned for eternity. The criteria for damnation vary, from unbelief, to being in a state of mortal sin, to falling off the ladder of theosis, but the torture at God's hand remains. At God's hand? Yes. Satan is but God's proxy. Christ Pantocrator, God all-power, could choose to end the suffering of the damned, could have chosen never to inflict it, but he does not. Hell is not harrowed. In traditional Christian theology, protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, those on whom God's favor does not rest are tortured forever, and feel it forever.

Defenses for hell such as inflicting the consequences of free will fail. If people freely choose to suffer the fire of hell when they could leave at any time, they must want it for some unfathomable reason, and in that case, it's not a punishment. If they would not choose hell, their choice was not made in full possession of the facts, and the blame for this rests squarely with God in Christ and his partial revelation.

There is just no way to make the building stand, to reconcile Christianity's irreconcilable claims. Christian soteriology, along with the rest of the faith, is rooted not in logic, but in the apocalyptic passion of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, and those other early Christians who preached an imminent judgment. The judgment didn't come, and in its place, the judgment of history has tested Christianity, and found it wanting.

Christians no longer have confidence in their own creeds. Not even the person playing devil's advocate in this debate is willing to defend them. Heaven and hell are irrational. Only the irrational still attempt to say otherwise.

* "Did Anne Frank go to hell?", Rachel Held Evans, November 2010
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Re: Formal Debate: Can Christianity Be Rationally Defended?

#24  Postby THWOTH » Oct 17, 2013 6:38 pm


By mutual agreement the participants are to be afforded the opportunity to address any outstanding points they may not have had the time or space to deal with above.

A post and a rebuttal each will now follow, after which they will proceed to their concluding remarks.

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Re: Formal Debate: Can Christianity Be Rationally Defended?

#25  Postby willhud9 » Oct 21, 2013 10:48 pm

The purpose of this post was as THWOTH stated a chance for Byron and I to go back and pick up several points the other said in each of the sections and address those issues.

I have chosen to stick with one point each from the individual sections.

On the Existence of God

The Christian god is internally incoherent, inconsistent, and his means of communication is consistently found to be drowned by static and confusion. Everything we "know" of him is rooted in human assertion, which paints a veneer of reason on a rusting heap of received assertion, assertion that, when challenged, swiftly retreats to the authority fallacy. Rational terms are used to defend an irrational spirit-realm, which contradicts everything we have been able to observe of material reality, and overturns the observed norms of the universe at a whim.

This is an often claimed fact by many arguing against Christianity. God is just inconsistent throughout the Bible, God doesn't make any sense, his means of communication are not clear etc.

I want to take this time to clarify an issue I have always had with this line of argument.

First of all, notice that this is a rebuttal for God. God is irrational therefore God most likely doesn't exist. That is a non-sequiter. The conclusion does not follow the premise. Byron makes the argument that because he does not understand God in a rational, or consistent manner that his existence is cast into doubt and I have to ask why?

First of all, this does not point in a direction of a rebuttal of the rationality of his existence. God could be irrational and still rationally exist because of a variety of evidences which I presented in my first argument post.

Second of all, my opponent relies on pinning the blame on an authority fallacy. I have not argued God exists because the Bible says so. Sure the Bible gives good support for God, but there is extrabiblical evidence for God which I have poignantly given.

So what is my point exactly?

Well the Bible actually tells us that humans, as subjects in God's creation cannot fully understand God:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” ~Isaiah 55:8

Essentially meaning God will do and think of things that we cannot fully comprehend. In many ways, we may even find these ways to be irrational or inconsistent with what we have come to expect. But that by no means offers evidence against God's existence. It gives support to the idea that God cannot truly be rationally understood. But for the matter of the rationality of Christianity, it does not hinder the case at all.


To which I reply: what's God got to prove? God in Christ is, according to Christian orthodoxy, omniscient and omnipotent, and intends to remake the world into paradise, where none suffer, and none want, and all shall be well. This is God's stated desire (as "revealed" by his self-appointed mouthpieces in the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church). Miracles are a "sign" of a destination that God in Christ could bring about this instant. Moreover, by Christianity's own terms, God had no reason to create this imperfect reality to begin with: he doesn't learn anything from it (he's all-knowing); we don't need to learn anything from it (one day, God will reveal all); it is, literally, pointless. It is not rational for an all-powerful god to create a reality that is opposed to his desires and revealed will. The conclusion is at war with the premise.

My opponent in his rebuttal to my miracles post jumped through many of my holes in my argument and I will concede on many of those points that they are indeed weak, but the one hole Byron attempted to hurdle himself through was in this statement and I feel he missed the mark.

First of all, God doesn't have to prove anything. He performs/allows the miracles because he wants people to recognize Him. But He doesn't want faith through seeing, but faith through believing. Now you may say that is irrational, but is it really? I can see that my mother is giving me gifts and she is telling me she loves me. But I don't believe her. I believe she is trying to manipulate me. See that faith is weak. Oh sure I saw my mom's love, but I don't believe it. Likewise, the same is said about God and miracles.

Second of all, I felt Byron casually tossed aside my point about omniscience. Since Omniscience is nowhere found in Biblical literature, but is actually inferenced through certain passages, we do not have to assume a total omniscience for God.

My opponent would be correct in stating that God does desire a remake of the world into His new Kingdom. But where my opponent falls off is that he assumes God created this imperfect reality. If God chose to remain ignorant about whether Adam and Eve would disobey Him, it is very well that God chose to remain ignorant about such a thing. Since Adam and Eve are obviously allegory for the nature of man, man chose to disobey God's natural laws. Paul explains this in Romans.

As for what we learn from it: Lots actually. You see, as I mentioned in my last post I wrote, mankind is living in a state of total depravity according to Christian theology. The point of living on Earth, which God said was good, so I would hardly call it imperfect, is to prepare us in our depravation to understand the mercy and love of God. This reality is not opposed to His desires or will. Therefore I disagree with my opponent strongly on the matter.

Historicity of Jesus Christ

The resurrection stories conflict with Paul's account and with each other. The divergence between Paul and the gospel material is the greatest. Paul groups his resurrection experience with those of the other apostles, the same in kind.

Byron uses this, and the differences in the resurrection accounts as evidence for the fact that it is unlikely the resurrection occurred. But I don't think that is a fair assessment. For example, the resurrection stories do not conflict with Paul's account.

Paul states in Galatians 1:11-12 that it was through a revelation of Jesus Christ that he received the Gospel he was preaching. This reaffirms "Luke's" writings within Acts where Paul has the Damascus Road experience where Jesus reveals himself to Paul. This is not contradictory, nor was it seen as contradictory. Furthermore, let us look at the verse in Acts:

And as he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" And he said, "Who are You, Lord?" And the Lord said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads." So he, trembling and astonished, said, "Lord, what do You want me to do?" And the Lord said to him, "Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.”

So we see that Paul did not physically see Jesus, and nowhere does he say he physically did. But Jesus did reveal himself to Paul. John 7:39 says that Jesus was not yet glorified. What does that mean? It means he was not yet given his new "form" (for lack of better term). The resurrected Jesus had open wounds that did not bleed, could appear and disappear at will, could still perform miracles, could disguise himself, and death has no power over him. Paul writes in Corinthians that this is the Spiritual body that is promised onto the Church through the death and resurrection of Christ.

So what does this mean for Paul's story? It means the light and voice Saul was experiencing was the glorified Jesus. Sure, Jesus was ascended, but that means nothing to the glorified Christ, and he could still reveal himself to Saul, whom he chose as an apostle. But does this mean that Paul did not experience the resurrection? Of course not. The only way a glorified Jesus could reveal Himself to Paul would be if he did rise from the dead. Therefore I think it is safe to say the Gospels are not contradicting themselves with Paul's accounts.

Reliability of Scripture.

Textual criticism is devastating to claims of biblical reliability. It's found that swathes of the Bible aren't written by their claimed authors: the Pentateuch isn't the work of Moses, but a compilation of sources; the gospels are anonymous and copy one another; half of Paul's letters are forged, as are the New Testament letters in the names of Simon Peter and John.

This particular part of Byron's rebuttal was I think devastating to just let fester so I decided to tackle this one most of all.

Too begin with, aside from the several forged letters of Paul, in of which many of those suspect letters are still heavily debated within Biblical scholarship and so should not casually be dismissed as fake, many books in the Bible give no author. Therefore tradition has taken it upon itself to attribute authors to the various books. This is the fallacy of tradition, however, and not of the Bible.

Why would the Bible's reliability not be affected by a change in author/many authors? Because the Bible is a tool used by God to assist his people. Just like the church is. The main help for Christians God sent was the Holy Spirit, but the study of Scripture can put perspective and understanding in a Christian walk. It is still useful for teaching, and correction, but only with the Spirit. It is like operating a motor vehicle without a key, or trying to bake a cake without egg or flour. It won't get you anywhere unless you possess everything.

Now the reliability of Scripture is still not called into suspect as much of the information given in Scripture is not factually incorrect. It may be exaggerated, as is fitting for an early middle eastern nation, but it is not incorrect.

So to address various of things. 1) Sure the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but there is no evidence saying the origins of the books did not occur with Moses especially via oral tradition. 2) The Gospels may be anonymous but the tradition of the church in attributing authorship actually makes sense. While sure the community of the church eventually developed them on a whole, there is no reason to doubt a Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John from having any influence on the works at large. Yes they were modified over the course of years, but there is nothing to suggest a sudden authorship in the late 1st century. In fact, because of the meticulous nature of all the Gospels, an early draft hypothesis makes reasonable sense. 3) Paul's letters are highly contested. The pastorals are the only ones that are generally disregarded as being authentically Paul's. 4) The authorship of Peter and John remains contested. While it is unlikely Peter himself wrote the epistles, the rhetoric found with those epistles bear striking resemblance to Peter's rhetoric found within Acts and the Gospels. Bart Ehrman, while he says it is pseudographical even admits that a disciple of Peter most like wrote it in honor of Peter. That doesn't dismiss its importance as the disciple was speaking with the authority of Peter's teachings. So in conclusion, the change in authorship does not truly change the significance or reliability of the Bible, as Byron makes it out to do.

And finally:


Will's scheme also falls into the trap that, as Calvinists rightly say, Arminians fall into: Christianity teaches that all salvation is undeserved, bought through the death of Jesus the Christ, yet if people get into heaven for belief, they're being rewarded for backing the right horse. They've earned their slot in paradise by accepting God into their lives. This isn't grace, it's a payout.

My opponent believes I miscatergorised the Calvinist position and indeed I changed several features of it. Why? Because Calvinism, as much as I once was a strong 5 Pointer, falls flat in light of the truth of Orthodoxy. It was a product of John Calvin's time in which Luther was challenging salvation by works with Bone Fide and Calvin took it one further with predestination. My opponent does I feel misrepresent Calvin's theology with the double predestination. God does not choose whom to send to hell as we have no idea whom the elect is or how God chose the elect in the first place. Making a statement like that has no backing from the Calvinistic theology is a criticism based on a nitpicking. The basis of Calvinism is God's sovereignty.

But as I said I disagree with a lot of Calvinism and Arminianism both. But when you combine the two, the theology gets closer to the foundational Christianity. Essentially, what does the Bible, in particular Paul say about salvation?

Romans 10:9-13

If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation. Now the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on Him will not be put to shame, for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Out of the preacher's mouth. Salvation is not complex. It is based on a belief, all those who call out to the Lord will be saved. But it is man's nature to rebel against the law's of God. It is against man's nature to obey God. How can man save himself when man is so full of doubt and sin? Ergo the Holy Spirit gives a person the power to do so. But some people reject the Spirit by quenching him, or grieving him, thus they can never experience the grace of God.

So no it isn't a payout in the slightest. God made it clear he wanted humankind to return to him and he even sent Jesus to die for that measure. It isn't a matter of Pascal's Wager, but rather a matter of biblical love.

So these were my points I have chosen. I am curious to see what Byron has chosen!
Fear is a choice you embrace
Your only truth
Tribal poetry
Witchcraft filling your void
Lust for fantasy
Male necrocracy
Every child worthy of a better tale
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Overview of Will's Case

#26  Postby Byron » Oct 25, 2013 11:28 pm

Will's curiosity is hereby sated! I thank him for his challenges, and anticipate my response. First, a challenge of my own.

* * *

These two problems recur throughout Will's argument:-
  • a failure to engage with the underlying issues
  • a tendency to cherry-pick Christian orthodoxy
I understand why they recur -- Christianity is irrational to the core of its being, so Will is forced to make the best of a bad hand. If I were arguing that Christianity is rational, I've no doubt that I would be forced into similar contortions by the poverty the position that I was tasked to defend.

I will highlight examples from each of the five sections in order to illustrate the recurrence of avoidance and cherry-picking in the defense of Christian rationality, in the hope that, at the last, we can cut through the edifice of dogma and assertion, and examine the first principles that lie beneath.


Avoidance and cherry-picking have intertwined from the start of Will's case. They form a scaffold for irrationality, a double helix that threads its way through the debate, and breathes life into claims that would otherwise wither and die. Smoke and selectivity are the DNA of all attempts to rationalize the irrational.

The Christian bible made an early showing in our debate, and Will's reference to it starts as he will go on. In his first rebuttal, Will says
The Bible, which I shall get to in more depth I promise, assures us of God's plans and gives us confidence in his promises. This is not a God of irrationality which would essentially breed chaos, but rather a God of clear and rational intents.

Will goes on to say that, "Faith is a confidence or trust," but does not explain why God values belief formed on the basis of insufficient evidence. Defining faith as "trust" is here a distinction without a difference, since Will's example of friends trusting one another is different in kind to a demand that we believe Christianity's claims, since a friend's trust does not conflict with the observed norms of the universe. (Strike that if your friend is a televangelist who swears on a stack of bibles that there's no truth to any alleged incident involving blow, buff young men, and airport restrooms.)

Likewise, Will asserts that "nowhere in the Bible is God inconsistent," but he does not show it, any more than he shows that it makes sense that God in Christ "is strict and cannot tolerate sin" when Christianity claims that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing creator, who has chosen to construct a reality in which sin exists and in which people commit sins. Divine responsibility is the elephant in the room that Will does not confront, let alone answer. This failure to acquit God of responsibility for God's own actions will recur again and again throughout Will's case.

As will the selective application of Christian orthodoxy illustrated by Will's stance on divine pronouns. "Despite the personal pronoun of He, God is genderless," Will breezily declares. No big. Except that God's gender is a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy, used by evangelicals to deny women "headship" in ministry, and in the Catholic and Orthodox churches to deny women ordination. Will's argument casts aside something that millions of Christians believe in with such vehemence that they are willing to cast half the human race into subservience. For the best part of two millennia, it was used to cast women into a condition barely distinguishable from slavery, justified by a tangled, irrational web of claims about the sin of Eve and the patriarchy of God. Today, this continues in the claim that women exist to "complement" men, "equal but different" reborn.

Throughout the debate, Will's argument yo-yos between Christian orthodoxy and liberal scholarship. The goalposts of his case are tethered by elastic, snapping back and forth depending on the angle of attack. This tendency is on full view in the next two sections, miracles and the resurrection.

II. & III.
Miracles & Resurrection

I'll take these two together, as they're so closely linked. Cherry-picking, and the avoidance of underlying issues via redefinition, are at work throughout.

Will calls miracles "grand displays of God's power," which "are not meant to be a guide to faith, but rather a response to faith." OK, it's an explanation, but it's an explanation that fails to engage my point that an all-powerful god has no need to tease his creation with occasional displays of power. When this power-play is done on the Q.T., it fails on its own terms. It in any case fails to address an underlying issue. According to Christian theology, God all-power could reveal everything, indisputably, at a time of his choosing. He doesn't. Moreover, why did he hide himself to begin with?

In his rebuttal, Will does not meet my challenge that "There shouldn't be a problem to fix," because reality should not be so flawed that God "must periodically ignore its operational norms."

Instead, the tendency to play fast and loose with Christian orthodoxy emerges as Will defines "omniscience" to suit the purposes of his argument, something that fails even on its own terms: if God does, somehow, limit what he knows, and somehow has a good reason for doing so, it does not explain God's failure to actualize his desire for a perfect reality, called Eden in Genesis, the Kingdom in the gospels. This failure isn't fixed by redefining one of God's characteristics. It's not solely a question of God's omniscience, but also his omnipotence and unchangeability. It's hard to read Will's concept of self-limited omniscience as anything besides special pleading for God, redefining his nature to avoid the implication that Christianity's all-powerful and all-knowing deity is responsible for the acts of beings he created, acts that an omniscient god should have foreseen and prevented. Will may dispute the definition of omniscience, but seeking to evade the logical consequences of a proposition with special pleading is the definition of irrationality.

Rather than confront these underlying issues, Will asserts that God gains something from people suffering and becoming stronger for it. He doesn't explain why God benefits from tortured lives. Christianity doesn't like "why?" questions, at least, not ones that refuse to quit when offered Christianity's assertions. Never has, never will. Christianity likes obedience. Always has, always will, unless the day dawns in which its orthodox manifestation is no more. It's unsurprising that this mindset saturates Christian apologetic.

Will also plays fast and loose with the supernatural nature of miracles, via that apologetic standby, Quantum Mechanics, in an argument that would have its cake and eat it by claiming that God works within a natural framework, but also, doesn't.

This is something that's again weak on its own terms, but is also contradicted in short order, as Will comes on to the claimed miracle of Jesus' resurrection, and says, "In honesty, liberal Christianity that removes the supernatural from Christ and portrays him just as a good teacher, is weak." The yo-yo is at work. Will is now back in the orthodox camp, chastising liberal Christians for being too rational. He'll soon return to the liberal camp when we come round to the Bible, but before then, his argument takes a standard apologetic approach to Jesus (the alleged) Christ's (alleged) rising from his tomb.

As with miracles in general, this argument swerves around the underlying issue: my challenge that it is impossible to make probability judgments about miracle claims, since they overturn the observed norms of our existence. Will knows his scriptures as well as anyone, but like his team theologian, N.T. "Tom" Wright, he does not apply what he knows towards a rational end. Will does not explain why God in Christ made a reality at-odds with God's (allegedly) stated desires, and does not explain how you calculate probability without a stable point of reference. Those were the issues I presented, and they went unanswered.


Because if Will were to answer them, he would be compelled to present Christianity's irrationality in his answer. His argument reserves the right not to incriminate itself. Avoiding the challenge does not, however, make it go away, as Will showed again in his penultimate chapter on the Christian canon of scripture.


Here, the twin strands of avoiding underlying issues, and playing fast and loose with orthodoxy, are realized in full, as Will fails to explain how biblical reliability, a claim predicated on assertions about the supernatural nature of scripture, is not based on the authority fallacy.

Will cites N.T. Wright's "story authority" line, but does not explain how this works (any more than Wright can), and then, snapping back from dismissing liberal Christians as "weak," Will uses their methods to an incompatible end in the idea of critical biblical authority, a revelation unearthed by human reason, incoherent because revelation is supposed to supplant reason, not be uncovered by it, as revelation supposedly gives answers that reason can't. This is why the 16th century reformers claimed that God's Spirit guided their interpretation. Using a flawed method to discover a flawless answer is a nonsense. This is not Will's invention, of course -- it is the invention of moderate Christianity, a compromise position that seeks to mask orthodoxy's irrationality instead of to challenge it.

Dogmatism in a cheap suit.

It's no wonder that Will ends his posts on the Bible with this string of non sequuntur:-
A thorough understanding of historical context and hermeneutics is a necessary function of a rational approach to scripture. Instead of blindly accepting a text or an interpretation of the text, a Christian should be challenged to think critically about the text. In doing this, the Christian gains an understanding of the text and can better yield the lesson from the text. By following the lessons of the text, the Christian affirms the authority of Scripture, an inspired tool used for God's plan, and likewise the Christian grows in righteousness and it carries over into the non-Christian world. Living with the authority of Scripture allows the Christian to be firm on their beliefs, but at the same time gives them textual support for their beliefs in which a spiritual belief alone does not have. Therefore Biblical authority, in its proper application is quite rational..

Will does not explain how the Bible controls its interpreters, instead of empowering them and their opinions, any more than he explains how human reason can unearth revelation from a canon that he admits is flawed. He does not rebut the central, damning issue of authoritarianism being fallacious.

The final section, heaven and hell, displays the process of avoidance and cherry-picking at its most pronounced.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as orthodox a document as you can get, is junked by Will as "definitely irrational," since it arises from "later Catholic traditions." The cherry is picked, found to be sour, and spat out.

Christianity's internal tensions are evident throughout Will's posts. Christian orthodoxy is, like all totalizing systems, very much in the eye of the beholder, but shibboleths have emerged over the centuries that are shared across the orthodox Christian spectrum, and in his defense of salvation, Will hurls them overboard in a desperate attempt to keep his case afloat.

Will, as throughout, does not meet my challenge that God is responsible for everything. Divine responsibility is the pachyderm that will not budge. Sin only exists because God created people with the capacity for it. If God did not want sin, it isn't the duty of people to avoid sin, it is the duty of God to create people differently. Will does not address God's own responsibility with his rejigged "hell isn't torture, but separation from God" line, and it is unsurprising, because to do so would be to undermine the core tenet of Christianity, one that links everything, from its interpretation of Jewish creation myths, to the life and death of Jesus, to its map of the afterlife.

That tenet? People are irredeemable and need salvation.

Will does not explain how God's will is thwarted. Does not explain why an all-powerful God who desires that all should be saved is incapable of saving all. He does not explain why people are responsible for flaws instilled by their creator. He does not explain why an inter-trinitarian blood sacrifice that only partially succeeds is a rational fix for God's self-imposed problem.

What links all these things is, once more, the inability of the supposedly omnipotent Christian god to actualize his (allegedly) stated desires. If God wants something, and is all-powerful, he should be able to get it. If he can't, the chain of reasoning is severed, and Christianity breaks free, proud in its irrationality. It might be true for all that. Heaven help us if it is. We are not debating God's existence here. Only Christianity's rationality.

Will does not rationalize Christianity's contradictions because they cannot be reconciled: the conflicting propositions can only be asserted as truth, their incompatibility papered-over, not resolved. It's not reason, it's a confidence trick. Christendom used to enforce Christianity's claims with threats and violence. It must now rely on more subtle means of control, but, behind its walls of bluff and obfuscation, its undergirding irrationality remains, the only solid foundation it has.

* * *

Throughout his posts, Will has been flexible and inventive, and has done his damnedest to juggle incompatible and incoherent axioms, but his inventiveness serves only to illustrate my point to its fullest extent. Christianity is irrational through and through. Even a debater as smart, learned and creative as Will cannot defend an indefensible proposition. Christianity is irrational from top to tail, from beginning to end, for the simple and repeated reason that its conclusions are at war with its premises, and its premises at war with one another.

Christianity contradicts itself across the board.

Christianity's claims are based on the authority fallacy, not reason.

Before we wrap, it would be good if Will could set aside the twin strategies of cherry-picking and avoidance, and confront the underlying issues, but I do not blame him if he chooses instead to stay the course. If Will does strip away the masks, and confronts the underlying issues head-on, I suspect that he would be committing dialectical seppuku. As would anyone.

It's a heady challenge to make, and in making it, I would like to be proved wrong. Over to you, Will!
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Re: Formal Debate: Can Christianity Be Rationally Defended?

#27  Postby willhud9 » Oct 30, 2013 1:57 am

This is my last rebuttal post in this debate so I hope it is sufficient to tackle the points Byron raised.

On God

My opponent raises objection to the method in which I set about arguing for God's rationality. In fact when I challenged Byron in the fact that "nowhere in the Bible is God inconsistent" I was deflected with a burden of proof. Except I was not the one making the claim, Byron was. But this small nuance aside, my opponent makes some very simple mistakes which I shall address.

The biggest is the claim that I am selectively switching between orthodox and liberal theologies. And while on an external effect that may be true, on the larger internal level, it is not quite accurate. I am basing most of my theology off of sola scriptura for most general theologies, but in regards to scripture I view it with a rational liberal approach. This blend is not unorthodox nor is it completely liberal, but what it does is allow us to view Christianity in a very logical and rational manner.

Now Byron insists that it is flip floppy and I disagree as my stances are not flip floppy, just the theological method of acquiring my position. But nowhere does Byron actually address my points, only my method. Perhaps in his rebuttal he could be so gracious as to do that!

On Miracles and Resurrection

Byron makes a very interesting observation in relation to the claim of why in regards to Christianity. Does Christianity like the question, "why?" No not really. But not because why is not important, because it is, but rather Christianity focuses on the "how" of a question. How does this help me? How does this improve my life? How does following this religious practice increase my relationship with others? Etc. The why question is answered. Because God. It sounds to simple, but simple answers are generally the most accurate.

Furthermore my opponent expressed frustration in my refusal to answer a set of questions namely why did God create a reality different from the one he desires. The answer is not irrational, nor was that why I refused to answer, but it was a tricky answer. The ultimate answer is most likely because God wants his Creation to know Him to a fuller extent through our life in this reality so that the relationship with Him in the next is much more significant. But the final answer is really: who knows? It is not a question which is really devastating to the rationality of Christianity.

On the Bible

My opponent again expresses discontent in regards to a failed answer of mine. Namely I failed to explain how the Bible influences its reader. Well luckily for me this answer is rather easy.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. ~John 14:26

The power of the Holy Spirit, something not really mentioned in this debate much is enough to influence a person's understanding of the Bible so that it will effectively teach. A person who lives daily by the fruit of the Spirit yields a greater reward and understanding from the Bible than a person who does not, and that includes many Christians as well.

So by all means the Holy Spirit allows the reader of the Bible to take away much knowledge and appropriate understanding of verses well outside their historical context.

On Salvation

Byron insists that I have cherry picked certain aspects of various faiths I liked and to a degree I concede with that. But not because I was cherry picking, but because where a faith denomination got something right oftentimes it got another thing wrong. The same is true with my run through of salvation. Saying catholicism or protestantism is wrong does not discredit the rationality of Christianity, merely the rationality of those two specific denominations.

Next I did not avoid the question of God's responsibility. My opponent makes an assertion which I find strange. God made humans with the capacity of free will. Is that a flaw? Not at all. Human erred in the sight of God and therefore sin entered the world. God did not create sin, as sin is simply the disobedience of God.

In the story of Adam and Eve there is an even a strange hypothetical: what if Adam and Eve had confessed their sin instead of hiding and then pointing fingers? It is a theological puzzle we won't know.

But God had a plan to restore his creation. God probably could recreate everything right now and start over, but that is not how God operates. God has a plan and a purpose behind what he does. What that plan or purpose is might be is not entirely known, but again the faith and trust that comes with knowing God is essential for the Christian religion.


My next and final post will be my concluding posts in which I will sum up my argument and present my rationale for why I successfully defended the rationality of Christianity.
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#28  Postby Byron » Nov 03, 2013 7:52 pm

I thank Will for his rebuttal, but it's a rebuttal that serves only to reinforce the points in my opening. The underlying issues are avoided, or worked around, and the case for Christian rationality is D.O.A.

The image conjured up by such tactics is not of an advocate striding back and forth as their rhetoric enchants and persuades, but of the sweating, twitching subject of a Senate hearing, whispering in their counsel's ear, trying to explain away the evidence against them, and when their explanations run out, giving up and claiming the Fifth. At times, it's of a suspect chained to an interrogation table, plaintively begging for a lawyer and a telephone call and just wishing that it would all be over.

That, of course, isn't Will. It's what anyone who argued his case would be reduced to when stripped of Christianity's rational tactics for masking the irrational. If I was tasked with defending the rationality of the Christian religion, and denied its props of pulpit, obfuscation, mockery and threat, denied the theater of power, then I too would be shackled by my borrowed arguments, begging for the end.

Not to worry, it's close at hand.

It just goes to illustrate what I've claimed from the beginning: Christianity is objectively irrational. No one, however skilled, can succeed in its defense.

The only rational thing about Christianity is its aversion to rational tactics. Will admits as much in his first rebuttal.

Strike One: God

Will says, "God could be irrational and still rationally exist because of a variety of evidences which I presented in my first argument post."

Well yes, God could. What you would have then is an irrational being who happens to exist. The debate isn't, "Does a god of some kind exist?" but, "Can Christianity be rationally defended?"

The claim is not that Christianity is internally senseless. Just the opposite, Will has been trying to give a rational defense of five of its tenets. To switch, at the eleventh hour, to "It might be irrational and exist for all that" would be an example of the elastic goalposts that I highlighted in my opening. The proposition defended at the end would not be the proposition defended throughout.

It would be a bait and switch, and it would fail for that reason.

Strike Two: God's Works

Just as before, Will does not even address, let alone rebut, my claim that we can't make probability judgments about miracle claims, due to the absence of a stable frame of reference.

Instead, he attempts to operate within Christianity's system, by comparing one biblical account to another. As I said the first time around, "This game can be played all day long, and it is. People make careers of making the Bible into what Christian dogma needs it to be." Now, as then, I won't play within a rigged deck. To do so would be to allow myself to be distracted from the underlying issue that Will utterly fails to overturn: biblical authority is a fallacy.

Instead of Will producing a case that biblical authority isn't fallacious, the yo-yo does its thing, and Will rows back from liberalism to orthodoxy, with a retreat to his argument that "Scripture is not factually incorrect. It may be exaggerated, as is fitting for an early middle eastern nation, but it is not incorrect." The underlying issue is once again cast aside, but for naught, as Will serves up a procession of claims that undermine the very critical scholarship that he previously defended!

When you attack your own case for deserting you, it really is best to avoid incriminating your position further, and to reserve the right to remain silent.

Advice that also holds true for when Will selects cherry-picking over avoidance, as he does in defending his inventive take on the Christian god's omniscience. To give Will his due, this is real tap-dancing angels stuff, impossible to refute -- not from rational merit, but from its incomprehensibility. God chooses to remain ignorant of something, but to make that choice, God must first foresee it, then, presumably, induce divine amnesia. This introduces a swathe of problems to the Christian notion of God, foremost among them its implication that a timeless, unchanging deity thinks in a linear way.

God once again resembles a human creation.

It not only fails to address God's responsibility for human actions, it exacerbates it, by implying that God resorts to trickery and loopholes to allow his creation to do something that goes against God's stated desires. "God cannot truly be rationally understood," says Will. When the claims about him rest on obfuscation like this, it's no wonder.

Strike Three, You're Outa Here: Salvation

We done yet?

Nearly. Just the incoherence of salvation to cover. It starts with a factual claim to refute, for which I thank Will. At least we have something tangible to work with:-
My opponent does I feel misrepresent Calvin's theology with the double predestination. God does not choose whom to send to hell as we have no idea whom the elect is or how God chose the elect in the first place. Making a statement like that has no backing from the Calvinistic theology is a criticism based on a nitpicking. The basis of Calvinism is God's sovereignty.

In Calvin's words*,
We say, then, that Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment.

Will once again produces a non sequitur: our ignorance of God's reasoning does nothing to absolve God of responsibility for God's decision of who to save and who to damn. That responsibility is an unavoidable consequence of Christianity's premise: God is all-power; God therefore must decide who goes to heaven, and who to hell. To deny this would be to deny Christian orthodoxy and concede the debate even more conclusively than it's already been conceded. If such were possible, and I don't believe it is.

Will ends by retreating once more to scripture, Paul's letter to the Romans. Paul asserts that we must accept Jesus as Lord. Paul also, I believe, thought that God would save all, a universalist bent that Will rejects. It's no matter. Will does not explain how this mechanism, if it works as he claims it does, is not a reward for human choice, contradicting his own (and Calvinism's) assertion that humanity is worthless, deserving hell, and receiving salvation only through God's mercy.

Will has done everything he can to acquit God of responsibility for the reality that Christian orthodoxy claims God created, and fails, because even if you're as good at this as Will, you can't do what can't be done.

* * *

So, that's Will's opening dealt with. As I've not even hit the halfway point yet, I'll address some of the points raised in his rebuttal.
* * *

God's Inconsistency

Will says that I haven't introduced evidence of God's inconsistency from the Bible. I disagree, since, to pick one example of many, the inconsistency of God's actions in the Genesis story comes from the Bible. Much the rest of Christian orthodoxy is similarly tied back to its canon of scripture.

If Will means instead proof-texts, what would be the point? He can come up with an explanation for any of them. A God of love ordering that men, women and children be put to the sword? Butchery in love, obviously!

Will says that I have not addressed his points here. If he means finding inconsistency from within the canon of scripture, as noted above, I believe that I have done so. If he means something else, he hasn't specified it, so I cannot answer. His method of sola scriptura, by scripture alone, says only that all of Will's arguments must be rooted in scripture. It does nothing to absolve them of the burden of being coherent, which they fail time and again.

Miracles Ahoy?

"The why question is answered. Because God," says Will succinctly. Truly, truly, I tell you, no more concise a summary of Christianity's irrationality could you ask for. Thank you, Will.

Will's claim that we live in an imperfect reality in order to know God "to a fuller extent through our life in this reality," and thus improve our relationship with him, collapses, as before, in the face of Paul's claim in his first letter to the church in Corinth that we will come to know all.


In answer to the logical mess of biblical authority, Will, literally, gives up the ghost, and hands over to the magic of the Holy Spirit. This is not a rational answer. It in effect says, "It works because it works," as the Spirit comes and fixes the problem without addressing it. A Pentecost for the information age. Assertion over reason. Where else can an irrational faith go?

In the words of N.T. "Tom" Wright, "It will not do!"

On You, God

And we wrap, appropriately, with divine responsibility.

Will says,
My opponent makes an assertion which I find strange. God made humans with the capacity of free will. Is that a flaw? Not at all. Human erred in the sight of God and therefore sin entered the world. God did not create sin, as sin is simply the disobedience of God.

The evasion fails. According to Christian orthodoxy, God created people with the capacity for sin, in giving them free will. If God did not like this consequence, God did not have to bring it on himself. If God values free will so much that he was willing to burden himself with disobedience, he should suck it up, not cast people into eternal torture by fire for acting within the constraints of a nature that God created.

God is acting as irrationally as a programmer would if they created an Artficial Intelligence and then complained that it wouldn't obey them. Don't like it, don't use those parameters.

* * *

And so it ends.

Christianity has been tied down, interrogated, and exposed time and again as an irrational system based on assertion, assertion rooted variously in texts, subjective experience, and institutions. The unreasoned cruelty that arises from vesting human opinion with infallibility has also been exposed and lamented.

All that is left is to be kinder to Christian orthodoxy than it ever would be to us. Your lawyer is here, you've been exposed for what you are, you're free to go. Try and sin no more, and enjoy the time you have left to you. I suspect that your next 2,000 years will be a lot less enjoyable that your first.

* Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Chapter 21
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Re: Formal Debate: Can Christianity Be Rationally Defended?

#29  Postby willhud9 » Nov 10, 2013 5:12 am

My closing remarks:

When I set out on this debate sojourn my goal was not to prove Christianity, but to rationally defend it. The difference between proving something and defending something is I think key in this debate. My opponent has in many places shown why my defense is not a proof of anything. But I feel I have both uniquely and intelligently defended Christianity with rational premises.

In relation to God, I set out to not jump straight into Christianity, but take a circumvent route to show the plausibility of a deity was not out of the realm of rationality and then zoomed in to why the God of Christianity is also plausible. I then brought the discussion to miracles including the Resurrection to discuss the mechanisms in which that God could be at work. The Bible was not so much a discussion about God per se more so than than a reality that most of the knowledge of God comes from the Bible and that the books can be rationally viewed. The final piece on salvation was to show that even a belief in the afterlife is not so irrational as many believe.

My opponent has been quick to refute my claims as being anti-protestant, anti-Catholic, anti-Orthodox, etc. and he would be correct. I was going to outline orthodox Christianity. But then I realized there is a lot about the various denominations that I do find irrational. Not the fault of the religion, but of the dogma attached to it. I set out to eliminate that dogma to rationally defend Christianity, instead of embracing the dogma that serves to keep Christianity in a sense of irrational perception, I challenged it in a manner which allowed me to use it.

Was my argument fool proof? No and I didn't plan for it to be. Is my argument rational? I do believe so.

I would like to thank, Byron who has been a gracious, well mannered, and intelligent opponent, and friend.

I would like to thank the Moderators, especially THWOTH, their allowance of this debate and for managing our posts.

and finally I would like to thank those who watched this debate and participated in our peanut gallery which I hope once Byron and I can join the discussion might come to life again.

Thank you Rational Skepticism. This concludes my end of the debate.
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#30  Postby Byron » Nov 16, 2013 12:25 am

I open by accepting and heartily returning Will's good wishes.

It has been a pleasure to debate, and debate hard, with such a gracious and inventive opponent. Will has not pulled his punches, and neither have I, and far from detracting from the debate, this friendly argument has been the making of it. When focused and controlled, structured argument is a crucible, that burns away the surface to reach the core. It was my privilege to contribute.

It's been a blast, man.

Thanks are also extended to the mods for their support, and to the peanut gallery. I trust we entertained!

All good things, however ...

I open by summarizing the core of my case for Christianity's irrationality, and why I believe it has been met. I give a final example, and then close by returning to what I said on the resurrection: it doesn't have to be like this.

The Sleep of Reason

I saw a slowly-stepping train --
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar --
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore. ...

... The fore-borne shape, to my blurred eyes,
At first seemed man-like, and anon to change
To an amorphous cloud of marvellous size,
At times endowed with wings of glorious range. ...

... 'O man-projected Figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive? ...

Throughout, my case for the irrationality of Christian orthodoxy has rested on these three pillars:-
  • Christianity has no basis for its claims
  • its claims are incoherent
  • its claims contradict one another

Any one of these pillars would be fatal to Christianity's claim to be a rational faith: combined, it's a wipeout. Orthodox Christianity substitutes power-backed assertion for evidence-based reason. It demands obedience instead of holding debate. It doesn't search for the truth because it believes that God has already revealed it. It is the definition of irrationality.

Will says in his closing, "I set out to eliminate that dogma to rationally defend Christianity, instead of embracing the dogma that serves to keep Christianity in a sense of irrational perception, I challenged it in a manner which allowed me to use it." What greater testament could there be to the irrationality of the Christian faith than its advocate's refusal to defend its tenets? This is the gospel we receive, and unlike the gospel of orthodoxy Christianity, it convinces.

Will is not holding back in saying this. He has argued vigorously and passionately throughout. He is saying it, simply, because he is a rational person defending an irrational position, and that is where the evidence leads. If I was arguing his position, I'd have to say it, too. Christian irrationality is not a matter of opinion. It is an objective fact.

Bold claim? Yes, and here, for a last time, is an illustration.

It's A Sin Because It Is

... Some in the background then I saw,
Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,
Who chimed as one: "This is figure is of straw,
This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!" ...

Thomas Hardy, God's Funeral

As I said when we covered biblical reliability, Paul of Tarsus is not even wrong when he includes, in the first of his letters to the church in Corinth, his unjustified condemnation of all homosexual lovemaking. But don't take my word for it: here is Stanton L. Jones, the Provost of Wheaton College, writing a composite of meetings that he has had with gay people.* In response to the armor-piercing question, "Why?" Jones says:-
I am not sure I have a great answer for that. The Scriptures relate the commands but do not give extensive justifications of those commands. Here are my few tentative ideas.

The authority fallacy at its purest. God commands, we obey, ours is not to reason, just to shut up and do as we're told. Will has said that Christianity isn't much good at the "why" questions. No kidding.

OK, maybe that's just Mr. Jones. One of the charges laid at those who criticize the faith is that they seek out easy targets. They are taken to task for not seeking out sophisticated moderates.

Right, so let's do that.

Rowan Williams, scholar and former Archbishop of Canterbury, is as sophisticated and as moderate a Christian as you could hope to meet. What's his justification for condemning all sexual activity between people of the same gender?
I think ... the scriptural and traditional approach to this [gay sex] doesn’t give much ground for being positive about it. The Church at the moment doesn’t quite know what to make of it ...**

His response, when the interviewer from the London Times asked for Williams' personal opinion: "Silence, then: 'Pass.' "

Well, by saying nothing, that says it all.

Williams, sophisticated, moderate Williams, is no different in substance from the evangelical (himself a "sophisticated moderate" within his own sphere). Gay sex is wrong not for any reason, but because a source of authority, be it scripture or tradition, says so. Lesbian and gay Christians are commanded to live frustrated, sexless lives of shame and self-loathing because they are ordered to do so by an ancient text buttressed by habit. Sophisticated moderates figure that this senseless cruelty is, somehow, made OK by words on a page. Just obeying orders, y'see.

Such is the working of the mind enslaved by dogma.

Call it might makes right, call it authoritarianism, call it power-worship: what you cannot call this unreasoned demand is rational. Reason offers proposition and justification, dogmatism barks orders. The command was irrational when it was penned, and it's irrational now. Only an irrational faith in thrall to power would compel its members to be bound by it.

The are bound because their dogma, a dogma that Will himself rejects, has frozen in time a dead worldview, rooted in the cosmology and assumptions of 2,000 years ago. If Christianity has a future, it must escape the chains of its beginning.

Let My People Go

... The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, ...

As I noted early in this debate, Orthodoxy Christians remain shackled by the chains of their faith's apocalyptic birth.

The failure and death of Jesus of Nazareth has led to an edifice of irrationality built to explain the unpalatable fact that Jesus was wrong. He predicted the end and it didn't come. As I said when discussing the claimed resurrection of Christ, early Christian writings -- the anonymous gospel attributed to John, the forged letters of Peter -- start to offer explanations for the tardy endtime, and they've been coming ever since. Christianity just happens to resemble a series of saving-throws for Jesus, the flawed human who inadvertently founded a religion that remade the world.

The orthodox can break free without abandoning their religion. They would, however, need to regenerate it. As I said in my first post:-
Liberal theology sought to reconcile Christianity and rationality by removing the supernatural. It did so because it recognized the conflict between authoritarianism and rationality. Christianity's tragedy that its majority have ignored this wisdom, retreating to a never-never land of evangelical fantasy and magisterial assertion.

Christian orthodoxy is not, as it claims, timeless truth, but a time-bound human creation. It might have enjoyed a measure of reason when we knew less. The idea of original sin is an understandable response to the tendency of humans to be enslaved by instinct. When you know that it is instinct, know that we are evolved primates, carrying with us the genetic heritage of our forbears, the rational course is to reject and replace the previous hypothesis. Christianity orthodoxy instead makes it a dogma, one it attempts, with varying degrees of success, to reconcile with new data.

This dogmatic mindset unites the fundamentalist and the evangelical and the moderate. They are different in degree, not in kind.

What if orthodox Christians did break free? What if they could admit that Jesus was a man who was sometimes wrong, that Paul was a man who was sometimes wrong, admit that the Bible is a human creation, in authorship and canonization, admit that revelation claims of all kinds rest on flawed human assertion? What if they finally, after twenty centuries of rapture, misery, exaltation, suffering, kindness and cruelty, and all in-between, admitted that orthodoxy is nothing but a human construct, based on power, not reason?

Would they still be Christians? Yes, why not? You do not reject authoritarianism in orthodoxy in order to employ it yourself. Words record usage, they do not dictate it. The definition of Christian can expand.

They could still meet, celebrate the Eucharist in memory of Jesus, still tell the stories of his life, and be inspired by them to make the world as it is into the world as they believe it should be. Not Christendom reborn, but a world where we are kinder to one another in that crucial measure.

These Christians would be living their lives in memory of Jesus. The example of his life -- and just as importantly, its effect on his earliest followers -- could transform theirs. He would, in no supernatural way, but in a way no less actual or profound for that, be their savior. Salvation obtained not through divine blood sacrifice but through example and the opening of a potential once unknown.

They could believe in an external god of some kind if they wanted. The undiscovered country beyond death is not open to inquiry, although the cold inference from reality as we perceive it gives little hope to many who refuse to proceed beyond where the evidence can lead. Those who feel differently would have faith, while acknowledging that such faith is tentative, and never grounds to over-ride evidence, however painful that evidence may be to accept.

This is not some fallacious golden mean. There is no middle way between dogmatism and rationality. The two are enemies, at-odds, and irreconcilable. As I have illustrated time and again throughout this debate, and once more in this closing, the "sophisticated moderates" are different from the Bible-thumpers in degree only. If you allow dogma an inch, you are enslaved, and either do harm yourself, or give aid and comfort to the harmful acts of others. What you can never be is rational. A rational dogmatist is not just a contradiction in terms, it's a contradiction in essence, since dogma and reason are at war in their function.

One or the other, but not both.

World Without End?

Perhaps the birth of a rational Christianity is a futile hope, and Christianity will go on has it has done, inspiring some, crushing others, in the name of its ancient creeds.

Maybe the prognosis is worse still. Perhaps rationality is a blip in our human story, and the flint of theocratic power-worship will rise again. Again perhaps, but if it does, it might crush its opponents, but it can never win the argument.

Christian orthodoxy is the creed of the heartbroken reborn, rooted in the emotions of women and men who experienced joy in the face of Jesus' failure. It is irrational to its core and will remain so, for rationality follows the evidence where it leads, and the foundation stones of Christian orthodoxy are denial, its walls dogma, its buttresses power.

Radicalism goes back to the roots. Christianity got it wrong at the beginning, but it does not have to get it wrong now. It can start over. A second resurrection, rooted not in denial, but acceptance and hope.

If this renaissance never comes, the best that can be hoped is that orthodox Christianity will stay in its ghetto, a ghetto that contracts under the weight of societal rejection, until it implodes, and is done.

If that's the path, it's a sad end, and not an end that I would wish on the faith.

For Will is right to say that dogma isn't its all. Christianity gave us pogroms, witch-hunts, the divine right of kings and the divine subjugation of the enslaved; and it gave us cathedrals, frescos, sacrificial love, the poetry of Milton and the courage of Maximilian Kolbe. It is a human construct in the best and the worst of ways. The good is separable from the bad.

Or that's what I believe, anyway. I cannot prove it. I claim no revelation to comfort me nor dogma to guard me. In the end I have only faith.

* * *

... Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

Thank you Will, thank you all.

* Jones, Stanton L., "Help, I'm Gay," Leadership Journal, Fall 2013 -- relevant quotes included at Patheos
** Williams, Rowan, interview with the London Times, September 2010
I don't believe in the no-win scenario.
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Re: Formal Debate: Can Christianity Be Rationally Defended?

#31  Postby THWOTH » Nov 16, 2013 1:43 am


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