Apologetics, Journal Topics

Why Science Can’t Explain Morality

Copan, Paul-Naturalism Ground Genine Moral

Review: JAS275 | By Paul Copan

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 29, number 6 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, is a best‐selling author whose books include Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe. The Science of Good and Evil (Henry Holt and Company, 2004) is yet another engagingly written book by this former “born‐again Christian” and “born‐again atheist” who currently holds the view of “agnostic nontheist” (p. 3). He believes that, “by the criteria of science and reason,” God is an “unknowable concept” (4). After all, we cannot “prove or disprove God’s existence,” says Shermer, although he is open to some proof of the divine materializing in the future (p. 5).

Shermer distinguishes between morality, which “involves issues of right and wrong thought and behavior,” and ethics, which “involves the study of right and wrong thought and behavior” (7). The first half of his book covers “The Origin of Morality,” and the second half covers “A Science of Provisional Ethics.” Shermer believes that religion evolved as a social structure to reinforce rules regarding altruism and cooperation. Instead of accepting supernaturalism, Shermer opts for an evolutionary basis for connecting God, religion, and morality. He thus approaches evolutionary ethics (a subdivision of evolutionary psychology) in a “scientific” manner, drawing on anthropology, sociology, social psychology, and evolutionary biology.

Taking the position of a “transcendent empiricist” (19), Shermer claims that he can (a) “leave God out of the ethical discussion altogether” and, in order to avoid pure relativism or culturally determined ethics, (b) “adopt the methodological naturalism of science” (17). Morality, he claims, exists “outside of us”; it is a universal human trait (18). The impersonal force of evolution created our moral sentiments and behaviors, even though we may fine‐tune and tweak them according to our cultural preferences and historical circumstances (18–19). The existence of morality, according to Shermer, is not the result of religious influence, although religion creates social institutions that canonize and reinforce moral principles. Evolution generates moral sentiments, and culture (including religion) helps codify these principles into societal rules.

Shermer argues that moral rules are not absolute (i.e., they do not apply to all people in all cultures under all circumstances all of the time), but that they are not relative either. They are provisionally true (i.e., they apply to “most people in most cultures in most circumstances most of the time” (20–21) and operate according to various provisional moral principles (which I will discuss below).

Shermer preserves a place for human freedom and moral responsibility despite evolution (19–22), and appeals to scientific evidence to bolster his claims. He explores such issues as the myth of the noble savage in light of warfare and hostility as well as ecocide among primitive civilizations (ch. 3).

The following will summarize some of Shermer’s key points. More important, it will address some of the most philosophically and apologetically significant problems in his work.

The Problem of Moving from Is to Ought. Shermer holds that somehow we are morally obligated to act according to drives that have been genetically passed down to us, which create certain moral feelings within us and are reinforced by group pressure (56–57). To ask “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry or horny?” Shermer insists that “the answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love” (57). If so, then all Shermer can do is describe how human beings actually function, but he can’t prescribe how humans ought to behave. There’s no difference between whether I ought to be moral and whether I ought to be hungry since both are functions of evolutionary hard‐wiring. These states just are. Naturalism ultimately can give us a description of human behavior and psychology, but it can’t ground genuine moral obligation. Moral obligations in a world of naturalistic scientific descriptions are odd indeed. They fit quite nicely into a theistic world, however.

Furthermore, Shermer’s belief that human persons are self‐aware, reasoning, morally responsible agents who possess free will and human rights actually is better explained against the backdrop of a supremely self‐aware, rational, good, free, personal Being (who made us in His image) than that of a nonconscious, nonrational, valueless, deterministic series of material causes and effects.

The Problem of Knowing vs. Being. Shermer asserts throughout his book that “morality need not be the exclusive domain of religion” (64). Shermer approvingly cites biographer Jared Diamond, who says, in light of three decades of research in New Guinea, that he has “never heard any invocation of a god or spirit to justify how people should behave toward others” (36). Shermer devotes chapter 5 to the question, “Can We Be Good without God?” He claims that most believers think people cannot lead moral lives “without recourse to a transcendent being” or construct ethical systems “without religion” (149), but that, regardless of a person’s religious views (or lack thereof), “certain moral principles hold” (156).

One section reveals Shermer’s confusion here. He asks, “What would you do if there were no God?” (154); would you rape or murder or rob? Without God, however, this is a meaningless question, for there would be no rights‐bearing, intrinsically valuable, morally responsible humans. How could blind, valueless processes produce such beings? Shermer wrongly thinks he can rest content in knowing moral truths concerning human rights and obligations (i.e., in the realm of epistemology) and yet ignore the basis for those truths (i.e., the realm of metaphysics). Theism, on the other hand, acknowledges that metaphysical basis, which gracefully transfers from a supremely valuable Creator to His valuable human creatures who have dignity and rights. Thoughtful theists agree that people can know and live by objective moral values even if they do not believe in God or have the Bible. This is so because theists and nontheists alike are made in God’s image.

The Problem of Freedom and Responsibility vs. Determinism. In chapter 4, Shermer points out that there are varying degrees of guilt; morality is not black‐and‐white. He devotes a good deal of space to John Hinckley, who, in order to get the attention of film star Jodie Foster (his obsession) tried to assassinate former president Ronald Reagan. Hinckley’s actions involved a combination of free will alongside factors that were beyond his control—namely, severe mental disorders.

If we are the products of evolutionary forces, then, how did moral freedom and responsibility emerge? Shermer claims that sometime during the Paleolithic period, humans shifted from being under “mostly biological control to mostly cultural control” (47). He observes that “it is obvious that there are necessitating forces at work in history,” and “it is equally obvious that contingencies push and direct historical sequences” (136). Shermer matter‐of‐factly asserts, “We can make a difference. Our actions matter” (137). He believes that the contingencies and necessities of atoms moving about in space suggest a “helpful analogy” (136) for deterministic evolutionary forces and free human actions as they shape the course of morality.

The more pressing matter, however, given the radically different natures of mindless atoms and human agents (which make for a very unhelpful analogy) and given our supposed materialistic, deterministic origins, is how free will or moral freedom emerged. How did thinking, conscious beings emerge from mindless, nonconscious processes?

Naturalists such as Jaegwon Kim, Colin McGinn, and Ned Block admit that they are baffled that consciousness exists at all. Beyond this, many naturalists simply deny free will precisely because science has no place for personal agency. New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel believes there is “no room for agency in a world of neural impulses, chemical reactions, and bone and muscle movements”; naturalism strongly suggests that we are “helpless” and “not responsible” for our actions.1 Atheist John Searle admits that we have intuitions of free will, but says free will itself does not exist, since it interferes with the “scientific” idea of “the causal order of nature.”2

Shermer, therefore, cannot simply assert that free will is possible because of contingency and necessity in nature, because the metaphysical context of his view suggests otherwise. Theism, on the other hand, which posits that we have been created by a free, personal Being, offers an excellent context for affirming free will and moral responsibility.

The Problem of Absolute vs. Provisional Morality. Shermer defines “absolute” morality as an inflexible set of rules for right and wrong thought and behavior derived from a social group’s canon of ethics (158), which he believes leads to people establishing themselves as the final arbiters of truth and morality. (Shermer offers many negative examples of popular religious extremism, but he ignores the more nuanced, thoughtful, and reflective voices within the Christian community.) “Relative” morality is a set of moral rules that is defined by a social group and is dependent on situation and culture (161). Shermer advocates a “provisional” morality or ethic (which he believes is analogous to scientific facts), to which we can offer “provisional assent” and aim to do the best we can (167), since “absolute morality” cannot be lived out in the real world. There are, nonetheless, “absolute” morals: it always is wrong to torture babies for fun, to abuse children, and to rape. I doubt that Shermer really thinks that these are provisional.

In chapter 7, Shermer elaborates on four principles or higher moral values of provisional morality: (1) The ask‐first principle: to find out if an action is right or wrong, ask first (e.g., asking your spouse if it is okay to commit adultery likely will elicit a firm negative response). (2) The happiness principle: seek happiness with others in mind, never pursuing happiness for yourself when it leads to unhappiness for another. (3) The liberty principle: seek liberty with others in mind, never pursuing liberty for yourself when it leads to loss of liberty for another. (4) The moderation principle: avoid extremism and promote moderation.

The Problem of Misunderstanding Theistic Ethics. Shermer points out the difficulties in biblical ethics, particularly in the Old Testament (e.g., 36–40, 182–85), but he does not appear to appreciate the nuances and historical/ theological contexts that bear on reasonable solutions to these difficulties (see the writings of Christopher Wright, Gordon Wenham, and Walter Kaiser for such solutions). Shermer believes, for example, that not all killing (murder, manslaughter, slaying in self‐defense) is the same, but fails to realize that believers can agree with him in this.

He also considers it morally permissible to deceive Nazi soldiers in order to protect innocent Jews, but does not seem to understand that Christians find this permissible as well. Scripture permits deception under certain conditions; for example, in warfare (e.g., 2 Chron. 20:22, where God Himself sets ambushes) and when there is criminal activity or innocent life is endangered, such as when the God‐fearing Hebrew midwives deceived Pharaoh (Exod. 1) or when Rahab hid the spies and deceived the authorities (Josh. 2) or when God Himself gave Samuel a deceptive excuse against the capricious Saul (1 Sam. 16:1–2). Most Christians, as well, have no problem turning on houselights at night when they go out for dinner!

Theistic ethicists, moreover, often allude to the existence of prima facie duties; that is, they believe that certain moral obligations self‐evidently supersede other moral obligations, and that one should fulfill lesser moral duties (e.g., never to deceive) as long as they do not conflict with greater moral duties (e.g., to save innocent life). In instances where one must choose, say, between deception and saving a life, then deception is permissible. Another area Shermer discusses is abortion. Here, again, he dislikes the either/or, binary thinking of the absolutists. He says the matter of “when a fetus becomes a human” is “difficult to resolve” (203). Science is very straightforward on this matter, however; the fetus is always human. Shermer makes the mistake of assuming that human functions (e.g., brain activity, thinking, and self‐awareness) are more fundamental than human nature. Humans, however, do not lose their value when they are asleep or unconscious. Our functions do not make us what we are; our nature does.

Shermer further supports the preferences of women over those of the unborn, because women can voice their preferences; the unborn cannot (207). He ironically points out that when it comes to rights of animals, even though chimps cannot speak, we can observe their nonverbal communication when they are placed in cages —“they are none too pleased about such arrangements” (221). Ultrasounds of unborn infants being aborted, however, reveal their fierce resistance to invading lethal instruments; these voiceless humans—I write this with deep sadness—“are none too pleased” about their pain. Finally, why should Shermer pit mother against unborn and support only the former? If the unborn are human, he should support them as well. Is it not a mark of virtue to care for all those who cannot care for themselves?

Shermer goes on to fault Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., for their “morally ineffective, even dangerous” turn‐the‐other‐cheek ethic because they paid for their beliefs with their lives (the “sucker’s payoff”): “Turning the other cheek only works if the opposition is inherently benevolent or has chosen a purely cooperative game strategy” (59). Of course, a slap on the cheek in Matthew 5:38‐42 is more of an insult than an act of violence, as Lamentations 3:30 suggests. Some Christians may interpret this passage differently, but one can make a good case that self‐defense or stopping an evil aggressor in a just war situation (e.g., against Hitler) isn’t in view here. Indeed, the passage “do not resist the evil one” in Matthew 5 is better translated “do not resist by evil means,” which is precisely the point of other biblical passages harking back to the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Rom. 12:17–21; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Pet. 2:21–24). Christian peacemakers are to return good for evil; we aren’t vengefully to use evil means, but good means to overcome evil. We are to resist the devil (James 4:7), and Jesus himself everywhere resists evil— even when He, though innocent, is physically struck in a law court (John 18:22‐23)!

Shermer’s dismissive comments reveal a naturalistic ethic that cannot truly “rise above” (the title of chapter 8) to reach the level Christ modeled of loving and doing good to one’s enemies, of going beyond the call of duty, or of laying down one’s life for another. These are out of step with self‐preservation and self‐interest (or group‐interest).

The Problem of Inadequacy. Other problems and oversights pepper Shermer’s book. For example, he presents the logical problem of evil (i.e., the alleged contradiction between the existence of evil and the existence of an all‐powerful and all‐good God) as if he is unaware of existing philosophical discussion (66). Though evil is a challenge for any worldview, the logical problem of evil is passé in philosophical circles (especially if God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil). Atheist William Rowe observes: “Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God. No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim.”3

Shermer correctly points out (in ch. 3) the error in considering certain persons “pure evil” and others “good,”4 because people with no history of deep evils, in certain circumstances, can end up committing horrendous acts. Shermer recognizes the potential depths of human depravity that Scripture affirms. On the other hand, Shermer’s explanation for evil falls short. Philosopher Gordon Graham observes that naturalistic concepts (i.e., those of “statistical abnormalities” or “deviations”) cannot describe profound, horrendous evils adequately.5

Despite Shermer’s sometimes helpful insights and perspectives, his naturalism leaves us looking for something more. That something is the Christian theism that he once embraced, but that he also, it seems, misunderstood.

Paul Copan (PhD) is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is author and editor of various books, including (with William Lane Craig) Creation Out of Nothing (Baker/Apollos, 2004), The Rationality of Theism (Routledge, 2003), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of religion (Routledge, forthcoming), and Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues (Blackwell, forthcoming).


  1. Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 111, 113.
  2. John R. Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science (1984; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 87–88, 92.
  3. William L. Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (October 1979): 41n.
  4. Augustine pointed out that evil is not a substance, but the absence or corruption of goodness in God’s creation.
  5. Gordon Graham, Evil and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Faith that Works

Hanegraaff, Hank-FaithWorks

Are works required to keep your salvation?

The point in James, particularly, teaches that we are saved not by works but by the kind of faith that produces good works. And that’s why James says, “What good is it…if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (Jas. 2:14).* The rhetorical response, of course, is absolutely not! Just “as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without deeds is dead” (Jas. 2:26)—Faith without deeds is dead.

James goes on to say that a person is not justified by faith alone (Jas. 2:24), and in saying that he means that a person is not justified by mental ascent alone. That’s why he says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (Jas. 2:18). In other words, when you work, you are demonstrating that you have genuine faith, the kind of faith that produces good needs, not mental ascent alone, but faith that produces good works.

You are not saved by what you do, but saving faith does cause you to do good deeds in gratitude for what God has so freely given to us.

This is sort of with James when he says a “person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24), and then Paul says a man is justified by faith, apart from observing the law (Rom. 3:21ff; Gal. 3:11; Phil. 3:8-11). These words are in harmony because James is countering the false assertion that a said faith is a substitute for a saving faith—by “said faith” I mean someone just saying they believe—and Paul is countering an equally fallacious notion, and that is the notion that salvation can be earned by observing the Law. No it can’t be earned by observing the Law, but those who have genuine faith will observe the Law because they want to be pleasing to the Lawgiver Himself.

For further related study, please see the following:

What is the Biblical Definition of Faith? (Hank Hanegraaff)

Did James teach Salvation by Works? (Hank Hanegraaff)

Do Works Contribute to or Confirm Salvation? Philippians 2:12 in Perspective (Moyer Hubbard)

Do James and Paul Contradict Concerning Grace? (James White)

Robbing Paul to Pay Peter and James (James Patrick Holding)

Understanding the Lordship Salvation Controversy (Bob Lyle)

Adapted from “Are Works Required to Keep Your Salvation.”

* All Scripture cited from The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), unless noted.

Apologetics, Journal Topics

Suffer the Violinst: Why the Pro-Abortion from Bodily Autonomy Fails

Poupard, Richard-Suffer the Violist2

Article: JAA025 | by Richard J. Poupard

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 4 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org


The argument from bodily autonomy claims that one human being does not have the right to use the body of another human being for its survival. Abortion advocates have advanced this argument in order to justify elective abortion even if one grants that the fetus is a rights‐bearing individual. This allows pro‐ abortion choice proponents, then, to concede the major premise of the pro‐life position and still justify elective abortion. This argument was illustrated by Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous violinist analogy, and has recently been defended by legal scholar Eileen McDonagh and philosopher David Boonin. The bodily autonomy argument and their defenses of it fail for at least four reasons. First, the argument fails to account for situations in which a mother harms but does not kill her child; given its logic, it would affirm a mother’s decision to intentionally take a medication that will cause birth defects in her child, for example. Second, the argument assumes that prenatal parental responsibilities are largely voluntary. Third, the analogies used to support the argument fail to take into account the difference between diseased and healthy physiological states. Fourth, the argument results in absurdities if taken to its logical conclusion. Taken as a whole, then, the bodily autonomy argument does not give us justification to jettison our deepest moral intuitions that mothers should not intentionally kill their offspring, whom proponents of this argument concede are rights‐bearing individuals. Intentionally killing human fetuses in the act of elective abortion thus remains a great moral wrong.

A few years ago, I was preparing to perform third molar surgery under intravenous (I.V.) sedation, which is a common procedure in my clinical practice, on an adolescent girl. As I began the I.V. line and started to administer the sedative medication, the patient mentioned something that distressed me greatly. She stated, “I guess I should tell you that I just found out I’m pregnant.”

There was an important reason for my concern. I had already administered midazolam, which is known to cause birth defects in a prenatal child when taken in the first trimester. I quickly gave the patient an agent that reverses the sedative effect of the midazolam but does not remove the drug from her system. As she became more aware, I prepared to tell her the difficult truth that she received a drug that could cause harm to her unborn child. I expected this to be one of the more difficult discussions I have ever had with a patient, informing her that I may have caused harm to the child she was carrying.

I informed her, and she was quite upset, but for a different reason than I suspected. She was upset that I had not gone ahead and completed the procedure. In fact, she stated that she did not care that I had given her a medication that could have harmed her child. At first, I was quite alarmed by her attitude, but what she then told me helped explain her situation better. She told me that she was scheduled to have an abortion the following week. She returned a few months later (no longer pregnant) and I completed her surgery.

One moment, I was very concerned for the child that I inadvertently may have harmed; in the next moment, that concern was simply irrelevant. The child, in all likelihood, was going to be killed intentionally by another physician the following week. What struck me was that we were talking about the same human being. The only change that occurred from one moment to another was the knowledge that this child was unwanted by her mother.

This situation presented a challenging ethical dilemma. Virtually all medical professionals who treat pregnant women acknowledge that there are two human beings of concern in these situations. For example, when they prescribe a medication, they realize that the drug affects both mother and child. Every drug handbook lists a medication’s FDA pregnancy category, which gives information about the potential harm to a mother’s fetus. A physician frequently needs to balance the best treatment for the mother with the safety of her child in mind. This intuitively is the most ethical course of action. There is an argument, however, that has been presented, and recently defended, in support of abortion rights that disputes this view. I term this the argument from bodily autonomy.


Most arguments concerning the abortion issue hinge on the moral status or standing of the fetus with regard to the rights he or she possesses and the obligations others directly owe him or her. These arguments typically fall along the following two lines. Pro‐life advocates argue that all human beings, including those in the fetal stage of development, have intrinsic value that confers to them the right not to be unjustifiably killed. Pro‐abortion choice advocates claim that the human fetus lacks some accidental quality (usually termed “personhood”) that affords it any rights or significant moral status.

The bodily autonomy argument, contrary to moral status arguments, does not focus on the “personhood” of the fetus. At least for the sake of argument, it concedes that the fetus is a human person with some degree of moral status. The bodily autonomy proponent argues that no human being, regardless of moral status, has the right to use the body of another human being against his or her will. The human fetus, then, does not have the right to use the body of his or her mother for sustenance or survival against her will. The mother who wishes to support her child by sustaining the pregnancy is performing a virtuous act, but one that she is not obliged to perform.

Bodily autonomy proponents thus view a pregnant mother who allows her child the use of her body as a “Good Samaritan,” particularly because performing such an act places a burden on her own body. A mother who seeks an abortion is doing so merely to retain autonomy over what occurs in her own body, and in this view is therefore justified. To accomplish this, the child, unfortunately, must be forcibly removed, thus resulting in his or her death.

This argument is well illustrated by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in her famous violinist analogy. Thomson asks us to imagine a scenario in which a woman is involuntarily attached or connected to a “famous violinist” for nine months in order to save him from a fatal disease.1 No one would argue that the violinist is not a valuable human being with a right to life, but it seems intuitive to most that the woman is not under a moral obligation to use her body to support him for those nine months. Proponents of the bodily autonomy argument believe that just as that woman is under no moral obligation to use her body to support the violinist, she is under no obligation to use her body to support a child she does not want.

If the violinist analogy holds, the pro‐abortion choice advocate can concede what pro‐life advocates have been trying to prove, and abortion still would be morally permissible. Pro‐life apologist Greg Koukl declared when he first heard this argument, “It shook me up so much I almost had to pull over.”2 Thomson’s analogy, as it originally was offered, was criticized roundly. Other scholars, however, recently have refined and defended Thomson’s idea that a mother’s right to bodily autonomy allows her to kill her offspring in order to remove the unwanted person and keep him or her from using her body against her will.

Legal scholar Eileen McDonagh defends Thomson’s view based on the legal concept of consent.3 According to her view, a mother who does not consent to pregnancy has no obligation to continue to provide support for her offspring while it is using her body. The human person developing inside her is an unwanted threat to her, and it is permissible to defend herself against this threat by using deadly force.

McDonagh uses a variety of polarizing terms to explain the relationship between mother and fetal offspring. The fetus “intrude[s] massively on the body of another,”4 “imposes wrongful pregnancy,”5 and makes a woman “a captive samaritan by taking her body and liberty against her will to serve its own needs” (emphasis in original).6 She describes a normal pregnancy in an interesting way when she states what “the fetus does to a woman when it coerces her to be pregnant: namely, the fetus seriously injures her, even in a medically normal pregnancy, by forcing pregnancy on her against her will” (emphases added).7 Following in her footsteps, Philosopher Margaret Olivia Little describes a nonconsensual pregnancy as “the evil of unwanted occupation.”8

McDonagh argues that if a fetus is a rights‐bearing individual, it strengthens her argument that abortion should be legal. She states, “The pro‐life premise that the fetus is a person strengthens rather than diminishes a women’s right to an abortion and also to abortion funding” (emphasis in original).9 In other words, if the unborn is a human person with intrinsic rights, as pro‐lifers argue, then the state not only must allow abortions, but must also use public funds to pay for them.

Philosopher David Boonin has also made a significant contribution to this argument. Prominent pro‐life philosopher Francis Beckwith called Boonin’s book A Defense of Abortion “arguably the most important monograph on abortion to be published in the last twenty years.”10 Boonin defends the bodily autonomy argument (which he terms the Good Samaritan argument) by arguing that although the mother is responsible for the creation of her offspring, she is not responsible for the neediness of her offspring. In other words, he believes that since a mother bears no responsibility for the fact that she created a human person who is dependent on her for his or her life, she has no moral obligation to continue her support. He states, “The violinist’s right to life does not include or entail the right to be provided with the use or the continued use of whatever is needed in order for him to go on living.”11

Do mothers have the right to intentionally kill their offspring even though they are human beings with moral status and the right to life? I believe that the violinist analogy and the bodily rights argument that it illustrates fail for a number of reasons, which I will discuss in the following sections. I also believe that we can demonstrate that a mother’s right to control her own body does not override her obligation to sustain her unborn child’s body.


The bodily rights argument is compelling if and only if we grant that a woman’s right to control her own body is so sacrosanct that carrying another human being inside of her has no bearing on that right. In other words, for this view to prevail, we must concede that because of the autonomy she has over her body, a pregnant mother has the absolute right to do whatever she wants with it in order to retain that autonomy, regardless of what it does to the child she is carrying. This includes killing the child in the case of elective abortion.

It is easy to demonstrate that the position described in the last paragraph is clearly false. Isotretinoin (Accutane) is a drug that is used to treat acne but that causes severe fetal injury and birth defects.12 The FDA restrictions for isotretinoin are so tight that before the medication can be dispensed, a woman of childbearing age must pledge to use two forms of contraception13 if she is sexually active. Prior to filling the prescription, she also must verify the types of contraception she is on via the Internet or telephone14 and take two pregnancy tests (one administered by her doctor and one by a certified laboratory), both with negative results. She must use the most accurate tests available (never home pregnancy tests) to confirm that she is not pregnant.15 We accept these as reasonable restrictions on a woman’s right to bodily autonomy in order to optimize the safety of her child. How, then, would we react to a pregnant patient who wishes to continue isotretinoin (Accutane) therapy for her acne despite her awareness that it causes severe fetal injury and birth defects?

Similarly, what about a pregnant mother who insists on taking thalidomide to treat her symptoms during the first trimester of pregnancy, despite her awareness of the harm it would do to her child? Thalidomide is a drug that was given to treat nausea and insomnia in pregnant women in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. It was never officially available in the United States, but it was taken by thousands of women in Canada and in countries in Europe and South America.16 Soon after thalidomide was available, physicians began to notice an increase in severe birth defects, ranging from malformations of the ears to absence of the arms to phocomelia (hands [or sometimes feet] attached to abbreviated arms [or legs]).17 Researchers have yet to discover a medication that they deem safe to treat nausea and insomnia for pregnant women that is as effective as thalidomide.18

It is likely that no one reacted negatively to the women who took this medication 45 years ago, since they had no idea that their children would be harmed. How would we react today, however, to a pregnant mother who acquired thalidomide even after her physician refused to prescribe it, and took it anyway, which resulted in her child being born without arms? Would we applaud her actions based on her right to bodily autonomy? According to the bodily autonomy argument, the fetus, after all, is an uninvited guest who has no right to use her body, let alone a right to a healthy or pathogen‐free environment.

If the right of bodily autonomy is absolute, as it needs to be to defend the ultimate act of intentionally killing a human person, how could we fault the mother in this case? Which is worse: causing harm to a child or intentionally killing that same child? If a mother can kill a child because it is intruding on her bodily autonomy, then it is unreasonable to disallow her to harm the same child using the same reasoning.

The symptoms that thalidomide was meant to treat are a direct result of pregnancy. In fact, nausea and insomnia are symptoms that proponents of the bodily rights argument use to justify a woman’s decision to procure an abortion. Boonin lists “nausea” and “difficulty sleeping” in a list labeled “Physical Costs” in his response to the “different burdens” objection.19 McDonagh lists nausea among the symptoms that she describes as a “serious injury” to the mother.20 If it is permissible, however, for a mother to kill her unborn child in order to stop experiencing these symptoms, it ought to be permissible for her to take a medication such as thalidomide that would cause sub‐lethal harm to her child in order to treat her symptoms, since, although the fetus would be harmed, he or she would not be harmed as much as in elective abortion.

One may respond that a mother who agrees to allow a pregnancy to continue has an obligation to make the environment of the fetus as safe as possible. This is consistent with Boonin’s brief discussion of a parent as guardian.21 Boonin argues that since a mother has elected to allow the use of her body by the child, she has an obligation as its guardian to not harm her child.

Let us examine this argument by assuming that the woman in Thomson’s analogy agrees to let the violinist use her body (a great kindness, according to Thomson). Two months into the treatment, the woman suffers horrific nausea that can be treated with a certain medication. Unfortunately, this medication carries the risk of harming the violinist, however, by making his hands unusable. Would it be ethical for the woman to take the medication? Does it make a moral difference that she volunteered to be the violinist’s life support system?

It seems there would be three options for the woman. She can suffer through the nausea, she can take the medication and possibly harm the violinist, or she can choose to detach or unplug the violinist, resulting in his death. According to bodily autonomy proponents, she has an absolute right to bodily autonomy; therefore she has no obligation to suffer through the vomiting. Of the remaining two options, then, who (other than bodily autonomy proponents) would state that it would be better for her to kill the violinist than to take a course of action that could cause possible harm to the violinist? Death, in fact, is the ultimate harm. If the violinist could voice his opinion to the woman, he would surely choose the option that would preserve his life.


The bodily autonomy proponent assumes that prenatal parental responsibilities are largely voluntary. Proponents argue that because the mother is the only one who can provide a safe environment for the child, it is morally permissible for her to deny the use of her body even if such denial results in her child’s death. Let me offer a thought experiment to challenge this argument. Suppose that a woman who faces an unplanned pregnancy decides to gift her child for adoption to another couple. In other words, she agrees to allow the child use of her body during the period of gestation but explicitly states that she is unwilling to care for the child after the birth event.

This mother takes a vacation in a cabin in the mountains when a freak snowstorm strikes and closes down all the roads in and out of the area for at least two weeks. The cabin has adequate food and water stores for the mother, but there is no baby formula, and there are no baby bottles or supplements available for a newborn child. As the storm strikes, the mother goes into labor and delivers a healthy baby girl.

The only way the newborn can survive is to feed on the milk that her mother’s breasts naturally provide. There is no formula to feed her, and no means to give the child hydration except for breastfeeding. Does the mother have any moral obligation to use her body (against her stated desire) to feed this child?22 Per Boonin, although the mother is responsible for the existence of the child, she is not responsible for the child’s neediness or the circumstance that has placed that child in need,23 despite the fact that the mother can easily fulfill that need in a natural, healthy way. According to Boonin, therefore, the mother appears to have no obligation to share her body with her own child, even if the baby girl dies from dehydration.

Suppose the mother also brought a young kitten with her to the cabin. The kitten would be in the same position as the baby girl. What if, instead of allowing her own child to drink her milk, the mother elects instead to give it to her young kitten? After all, she wants the kitten, and she has already stated that she did not wish to care for the child after the birth. She reminds herself of the slogan “My Body, My Choice” as she watches her child die.24

If the authorities find her child dead from dehydration two weeks later, how would we judge her actions? What if we found the child dead, but the kitten alive, even well? Would we consider her actions powerful assertions of her right to autonomy, or see them as morally unconscionable acts of selfishness? It would be very difficult for the mother to justify allowing her own child to die based on her desire to keep her body to herself. Further, granting that the mother does have an obligation to feed her child in this scenario would indicate a weakness of her bodily autonomy rights in other situations. The right to bodily autonomy is not strong enough to override the moral obligation we have to our children.


Thomson’s analogy, in all of its forms, presents someone in a seriously diseased state. Her violinist develops a kidney ailment that threatens his life if not for the aid of another. This is the reason why he needed to be “hooked up” to the unsuspecting patient. Virtually all of Boonin’s analogies that directly address the bodily autonomy argument involve a serious pathology of some sort. Are these situations truly analogous to most pregnancies?

The difference between how we view physiologically healthy states and physiologically diseased ones is profound. For example, a mother who intravenously injects medications that cause profound effects such as nausea and vomiting into her healthy child is committing an unspeakably immoral act. The same mother performing the same action on her child who is suffering from leukemia is showing courageous virtue. The difference between these two cases is the presence of a diseased state, and that difference is essential.

The vast majority of pregnancies involve physiologically healthy situations. The woman’s body is functioning as designed. In fact, one may say that every unwanted pregnancy in some way occurs because a woman’s reproductive system worked too well. That is because physiological health functions independent of one’s desires. A person’s situation may not coincide with his or her wishes, but it still can be one of health. For example, someone who injects himself with narcotics for its euphoric effects may desire that the drug stay in his system as long as possible, yet his liver and kidneys remove the drug from his body. No one would claim that the person’s liver and kidneys are unhealthy for functioning independently of his desires.

John Wilcox has challenged the violinist analogy on the basis that pregnancies are natural.25 Not only are pregnancies natural, they usually are healthy. We may not have an absolute obligation to use our bodies to support another human being who is in a pathological situation, but this does not compel us to deny a mother’s obligation to her offspring in an otherwise healthy situation. Pregnancies are usually completely healthy for both mother and child, so analogies that confuse pregnancy with disease states are not appropriate.


Given that bodily autonomy argument proponents concede at least for the sake of argument that the fetus is a rights‐bearing, fully human individual, it is easy to demonstrate some odd consequences if we take the argument to its logical conclusion. For example, although we frequently speak of a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, all pregnancies “terminate” naturally at some point in time. In some sense, imposing our will via voluntary abortion changes the natural end to pregnancy. In other words, abortion dictates that the pregnancy will end when the woman desires it to.

Suppose, however, that the ending of pregnancy is a completely voluntary process and that births occur only via a voluntary action of the woman. If the woman does not agree to have the birth, the child continues to develop all of its normal capacities (awareness, etc.) but stays small in stature. The only way for the child to be delivered, detached, or “unplugged” from the woman’s body is through the woman’s body (thus violating her bodily autonomy) in a painful process similar to childbirth.

What if the mother does not give consent in this scenario? The child essentially, then, would continue to be bound by his or her mother for as long as the mother desires, even to his or her natural death.

If the mother’s right to bodily autonomy is absolute to the point that she can intentionally kill the developing child inside her, what moral principle would be available to compel this mother to consent to the birth of her child? It seems that if bodily autonomy proponents can use bodily autonomy to justify killing a child, even a child who is a full human being with a right to life, they would also use it to deny a child his or her liberty in this situation. If bodily autonomy proponents carry their view to its logical conclusion, then the child would always be a slave bound to his or her mother.


It is basic moral intuition, as well as a bedrock foundation of society, that parents have certain moral obligations to their children, especially when those children are vulnerable. Stories of parental abuse and neglect, as well as reports of intentional killing of children at the hands of a parent, bring out some of the deepest moral disgust imaginable.

The proponents of the bodily rights argument for abortion have a gargantuan task in overcoming these deep moral intuitions. This is the reason they use such odd and distorted analogies. They compare innocent human beings who are at their most vulnerable to rapists who impose their will and force pregnancy on unsuspecting women. They compare the relationship of mothers and children together in one of the most natural and healthy human states with that of those who are in some of the most horrific pathological disease states.

I respect the work of these thinkers; I can’t help but conclude, however, that the extent that they need to stretch reality to justify their support of abortion rights indicates a clear weakness in their position. In the end, their arguments, though thoughtful, fail to overturn the truth that it is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human offspring.

Richard Poupard is a board-certified oral and maxillofacial sugeon in private practice in Midland, Michigan. He is a speaker for Life Training Institute (LTI) and a frequent contributor to the LTI blog.


  1. Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion.” Reprinted in The Abortion Controversy: A Reader, eds. Louis Pojman and Francis Beckwith (Boston: Jones and Bartlett, 1994), 113‐27.
  2. Greg Koukl, “Unstringing the Violinist,” Stand to Reason, http://www.str.org/site/ News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5689.
  3. Eileen McDonagh, Breaking the Abortion Deadlock: From Choice to Consent (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996).
  4. , 9.
  5. , 10.
  6. , 11.
  7. , 89.
  8. Margaret Olivia Little, “Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2 (1999): 295–312.
  9. McDonagh, 13.
  10. Francis Beckwith, “Defending Abortion Philosophically: A Review of David Boonin’s A Defense of Abortion,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 31:2 (2006), 200.
  11. David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 137.
  12. S. Food and Drug Administration, “Accutane (isotretinoin) Questions and Answers,” Department of Health and Human Services, FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, http://www.fda.gov/cder/drug/infopage/accutane/accutane_QA20050812.htm.
  13. , under “What must a patient do to get isotretinoin under iPLEDGE?” http://www.fda.gov/cder/drug/infopage/accutane/accutane_QA20050812.htm#patient.
  14. , under “How should female patients who can become pregnant who do not have access to the internet or a telephone access the iPLEDGE program monthly?” http://www.fda.gov/cder/drug/infopage/accutane/accutane_QA20050812.htm#pregnant. See also “The iPledge Patient Information Introductory Brochure,” The iPledge Program, https://www.ipledgeprogram.com/Documents/10617_Intro%20Brochure_Mv5.pdf.
  15. S. Food and Drug Administration, “Accutane (isotretinoin) Questions and Answers,” Department of Health and Human Services, FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, under “Can pregnancy testing be done using a home pregnancy test?” http://www.fda.gov/cder/drug/infopage/accutane/accutane_QA20050812.htm#testing. (Although beyond the scope of this article, this fact challenges the idea that a woman’s reproductive health decisions are only between her physician and herself.)
  16. Linda Bren, “Francis Oldham Kelsey: FDA Medical Reviewer Leaves Her Mark on History,” FDA Consumer Magazine (March– April 2001), available at http://www.fda.gov/ FDAC/features/2001/201_kelsey.html.
  17. Widukind Lenz, “The History of Thalidomide,” Extract from a Lecture Given at the 1992 UNITH (Union Nationale pour l’Insertion du Travailleur Handicapé) Congress, Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, available at http://www.thalidomide.ca/ en/information/history_of_thalidomide.html.
  18. Thalidomide presently, however, is given to women who are not pregnant and is used to treat conditions such as multiple myeloma and erythema nodosum leprosum.
  19. Boonin, 239.
  20. McDonagh, 84–91.
  21. Boonin, 232–33.
  22. This is a modification of an example originally offered by Scott Klusendorf in “The Great Abortion Debate: Scott Klusendorf Vs. Amber Dolman and Rob Silver,” audiotape available at Stand to Reason (www.str.org).
  23. Boonin, 168–88.
  24. I am indebted to Steve Wagner for many of the ideas presented in this paragraph gleaned in a personal communication with him.
  25. John Wilcox, “Nature as Demonic in Thomson’s Defense of Abortion,” The New Scholasticism 63 (Autumn 1989), 463‐84.
Apologetics, In the News

About Barack Obama’s Bathroom Edict

Hanegraaff, Hank-Barack Obama’s Bathroom Edict

May 17, 2016

I was thinking today of President Barack Obama’s bathroom edict. Do you remember John F. Kennedy envisioned a man on the moon? Obama envisions a man in a woman’s bathroom.

Think about the paradoxes, in our crumbling post-Christian culture, we’re steeped in a naturalistic worldview; therefore, on one hand, children are told that human beings are mere molecules in motion. In other words, there is no room for a subjective first person point of view. Yet, in an ironic twist, children are now to walk lockstep in the belief that they are not determined gender wise by objective biology but by an individual first person subjective conscious feeling regarding gender. Think about it? It is a mind warp.

Today I was reading an article by David French titled “President Obama’s Transgender Proclamation is Far Broader and More Dangerous than You Think.” He’s absolutely right. French points out that on May 9th Vanita Gupta , head of the Civil Rights Division of Justice, said,

Here are the Facts. Transgender men are men—they live, work, and study as men. Transgender women are women—they live, work and study as women.

In other words, according to the Department of Justice, it is a simple fact that a man can have a menstrual cycle, and a woman can have a penis, and that men can get pregnant.

Then 3 days ago, May 13 the administration threatened

Every single public school in America with the loss of federal funds unless it adopts the administration’s point of view that gender is defined not by biology but instead by personal preference.

French makes a number of points. First of which is that

Teaching biology and human physiology will be hate speech unless it’s modified to conform to the new transgender “facts.” Teachers will have to take great pains to note that chromosomes, reproductive organs, hormonal systems, and any other physical marker of sex is irrelevant to this thing called “gender,” which, “factually,” is a mere state of mind.

At least according to this narrative! Secondly,

Any statements of dissent — from teachers or students — will be treated as both “anti-science” and “discriminatory.”

In other words, it’s against science and it’s discrimination.

The argument that a “girl” with a penis remains a boy will be treated exactly the same as an argument that blacks are inferior to whites or Arabs inferior to Jews.

Third point is,

Public schools will now be even further opposed, doctrinally and legally, to orthodox Christianity.

Children are going to be taught, not only that their churches are factually wrong in their assessment and gender but they’re actually bigoted and hateful, kind of like White Supremacist.

Because the Administration’s edict is tied to funding not even civil disobedience can block the enforcement.

Unless schools can declare their full and complete independence from federal funding, they will continue to face escalating pressure from the federal government to use their classrooms to transform American culture and values.

Think about a remark on May 9th of Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She

Very deliberately compared the DOJ’s aggressive actions to guarantee male access to women’s restrooms (and vice versa) to the fight against Jim Crow. These words were an unmistakable declaration of political war against people of orthodox faith.

When she uttered those words she didn’t just grotesquely exaggerate the plight of the transgender, she minimized the reality the memory of past discrimination.

No one understands this subject in my view as well as Joe Dallas, who has an incredible article, “The Transsexual Dilemma” He points out

Traditionally, if a man felt like a woman yet inhabited a male body, his feelings, not his body, were viewed as the problem. They were considered something to be resisted, modified if possible, and contrary to what was. Currently, what one is is being determined by what one feels—an ominous trend when one considers its implications. It is, in essence, an attempt to define reality by desire, knowledge by intuition.

Then Joe talks about a counseling session with a person named Kim.

“I know I’m a man because I feel like one!” Kim screamed at me as our session continued, leaving me stunned that an intelligent, educated woman subordinated a verifiable truth—her born, inalterable state—to subjective (though strongly held) perceptions.

The only way in which we ultimately change culture is by changing the hearts of people. So many people look at the Presidential race that we have going on right now and I heard one key evangelical voice say that now we have a choice of the lesser of evils and therefore we shouldn’t vote in this election. We should abstain from voting. The truth of the matter is the Presidential candidates reflect our culture. That’s the reality. They always will. We should still be involved in voting because our vote is going to have enormous implications for the years that lie before us as yet.

We have to ultimately recognize our responsibility as Christians to be able to give cogent, clear, concise, and compelling answers to the questions that the culture is asking. We need to learn how to reach rather than repel.

When Christians do not understand how to think clearly about these issues they lose by default. The bathroom edict narrative, as I pointed out, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The minute you start thinking about it you see the ironic twist. You see the self-stultifying statements. The problem is the narrative is repeated over and over with such dogmatism that unless you can respond with gentleness and with respect but clearly the thought is that there is no cogent response on the other side of the ledger.

So we as Christians must learn discernment skills and must take seriously our responsibility to train our children in such a way that they themselves can think. They need to learn discernment skills.

—Hank Hanegraaff

(Adapted from the 5/17/2016 Bible Answer Man broadcast)

Apologetics, Journal Topics

Does John 3:3 Support Reincarnation?

Rogers, Gregory-Reincartionist Eisegesis

Article: JAR133 | By Gregory Rogers

This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 4 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

New Agers and proponents of Eastern mystical thought frequently cite John 3:3 to prove that the Bible teaches reincarnation. Here Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”1

According to premiere cults authority Walter Martin, New Agers interpret this verse to mean that “Jesus was referring to cyclic rebirth when He said that one must be born again.”2 “Born again,” then, is said to refer to the soul’s reincarnation in other bodies in order ultimately to reach nirvana. One may raise the question, however, as to whether such New Age interpretations do full justice to the cultural and theological context of this passage.

Rebirth and the Rabbis. First, there is the matter of the Jewish context of that time. Scholars long have noted parallels between New Testament teaching on “new birth” and rabbinic proverbs of the day; for example, Jews often said, “The proselyte” or Gentile who wished to convert to Jewish faith “is like a new‐ born child.”3

William Barclay describes the transformation of one who experiences this “rebirth” as follows: “So radical was the change that the sins he had committed before his reception were all done away with, for now he was a different person. It was even theoretically argued that such a man could marry his own mother or his own sister, because he was a completely new man, and all the old connections were broken and destroyed. The Jew knew the idea of rebirth.”4

In this instance the said new birth had nothing to do with reincarnation, but with conversion to a belief system, namely the conversion of the Gentile proselyte to Jewish faith. This would imply that Jesus’ “new birth” ought rather to be interpreted to mean entry into Jesus’ new covenant of grace and appropriation of its necessary benefits.

“Rebirth” in Jesus’ economy extended beyond the mere affirmation and acceptance that the rabbis preached, of course, and included a tangible transformation from within through the agency of the Holy Spirit. This will be demonstrated in greater detail below.

Rebirth in John. Any interpretation worthy of academic respect must take note not only of the author’s cultural context, but of his theological context and intentions. An honest application of the principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture reveals that for John “new birth” has nothing to do with reincarnation, but rather refers to vital, immediate transformation from within at a crucial point of choice in this life.

A worthy interpretation must note further that John makes a clear distinction between two classes of people: those who have and those who have not experienced this “new birth,” where the former are commended and the latter are condemned. John does this in parallel passages such as John 1:11–13: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (emphasis added). The “new birth” is experienced by those who choose to receive Jesus as Lord in this life, and such born‐again believers are sharply contrasted with those who reject Him. Note also that John contrasts, rather than equates, this “new birth” with physical birth.

This distinction is again found in the immediate context of the John 3:3 passage, where Jesus emphasizes the difference between these two births in that “flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (v. 6). Once again John contrasts the “new birth” with physical birth, and views it as a spiritual phenomenon wrought by the Holy Spirit.

Notably too, Nicodemus (like many New Age apologists) appears to be under the impression that “born again” refers to physical birth, remarking, “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (v. 4). Interestingly, Jesus rebukes him for this assumption, pointing out instead that being “born again” refers to spiritual transformation (v. 5).

John makes the element of choice between life and death, salvation and judgment, clear in the remainder of the section (John 3:14–21, 36). He refers to the famous incident of Numbers 21:1–9, where God instructs rebellious Israelites who are bitten by poisonous snakes to look upon a bronze image of a serpent on a pole in order to be healed, and makes the following comparison: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).

By implication, being “born again” (vv. 3 and 7) refers to one’s transformation in this life as a result of choosing Christ’s work of redemption, rather than to one’s transmigration after death as a result of choosing one’s own works in reincarnation. The choice regarding salvation is clear; thus the immediacy of Jesus’ challenge to Nicodemus.

The distinction between the “two births” is also apparent in John 20:22. Here, following His resurrection, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Commentator Raymond Brown points out that the language of John 20:22 “echoes” and forms a deliberate parallel with that of the Septuagint5 in Genesis 2:7, “the creation scene.”6 In Genesis 2:7, God breathes the breath of life into the first man, Adam, and he lives, as God’s creation. In John 20:22, by comparison, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples as a symbol of “new birth,” and they live anew, as God’s new creation. The first birth is physical; the second birth is spiritual, and transformative from within.

The gospel of John thus ends as it starts, by making a distinction between believers who have received Christ and the Holy Spirit and have experienced the new birth, and unbelievers who have not (cf. John 1:12–13). This granting of the Holy Spirit as the means of salvation and transformation is an ongoing theme in the gospel of John (see John 1:33; 3:34; 7:39; 14:26; 15:26).

Cementing this theological paradigm is the fact that Scripture often depicts the coming of the Spirit as an act of creation, whether of nature (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 104:30); of the humanity of the Messiah (Luke 1:35); or, in fulfillment of John 3:3, of the Church and its members (Acts 2:2–4).

John follows similar reasoning in his first epistle, where to be “born of God” likewise means to undergo inner transformation in this life. In 1 John 5:4, “Everyone born of God overcomes the world,” and in 1 John 4:7, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (emphasis added). Most notable is 1 John 3:9, where “no one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him” (emphasis added; see also 2:29; 5:1, 18). Here, “seed” underscores this notion of spiritual birth.

Rebirth as a Biblical Principle. This reading of “new birth” is uniform for the rest of the New Testament. According to Titus 3:5, for example, “he saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” “Rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” here strongly resembles the language of John.

According to Peter, God has “given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). Like John, moreover, Peter tells Christians that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable” (1 Pet. 1:23, emphasis added; see also James 1:18).

Elsewhere, believers are compared to children (Matt. 18:11), who are either given “milk” or “solid food” (1 Cor. 3:1–2; Heb. 5:12–14); and who have become a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). As many authorities point out, the roots of New Testament teaching on regeneration lie in passages such as Ezekiel 36:26–27, which speaks of transformation associated with reception of the Spirit.7

Religious Intolerance? It is clear from the natural flow of the biblical context that the Eastern doctrine of reincarnation or the transmigration of souls has no place at all in the broad gamut of Christian theology, yet many followers of Eastern religions try to force it on to the Bible despite the context. By contrast, if Christians were to attempt to explain away the relevant Hindu texts pertinent to reincarnation by divorcing them from their contexts, there would be no small outcry. It is an act of gross intolerance to make a religion say what it does not in its own context say simply to make it conform, ironically, to current pluralistic political trends.

It is clear that the Bible was written largely by Hebrews and reflects a thoroughgoing Hebrew mindset; furthermore, much of the time it was written by conservative Hebrews to counter aberrant doctrine or heresy. Many times those Hebrews were martyred for the conservative statements they were trying to make.

It is apparent that “rebirth” had similar connotations even in pagan Greco‐Roman culture. According to William Barclay, a new convert to the ancient Greek mystery religions was often referred to as “twice‐ born,” and “in the Phrygian [mystery cult] the initiate, after his initiation, was fed with milk as if he was a new‐born babe.”8 Barclay concludes that “the ancient world knew all about rebirth and regeneration. It longed for it and searched for it everywhere.”9

Walter Martin succinctly distinguished between the Eastern and Judeo‐Christian traditions in his interpretation of this passage. As he concluded, “The context of John 3:1–12 is clearly referring to spiritual rebirth, not physical rebirth10 (emphasis added).

Reincarnationist interpretations of biblical “rebirth” are clearly guilty of eisegesis, of reading Eastern religious sensitivities into a profoundly Judeo‐Christian religious expression. As this article has demonstrated, a scholarly approach to understanding context is imperative in this matter.

Gregory Rogers is an internationally published writer in theology. He is currently enrolled at the South African Theological Seminary (SATS) on the honors level.


  1. All Bible quotations are from the New International Version.
  2. Walter Martin, The New Age Cult (Cape Town: Struik Christian Books, 1990), 93. See also Swami Nirmalananda Giri, “May a Christian Believe in Reincarnation?”Atma Jyoti, http://www.atmajyoti.org/sw_xtian_believe_reinc.asp.
  3. William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume I (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Saint Andrew Press, 1965), 115. See also A. Ringwald, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. I, ed. Colin Brown (Exeter, England: Paternoster Press, 1975), s.v. “gennaw.”
  4. Barclay, 115.
  5. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament; often abbreviated LXX.
  6. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to St. John XIII‐XXI (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 1037.
  7. L. Kynes, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scott McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), s.v. “New Birth.”
  8. Barclay, 116.
  9. Martin, 93.

Baptism for the Dead: Discerning Historical Precedent from Mere Prose

Article: JAI015 | By Steve Bright

Bright, Steve-BaptismDead

This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 29, number 6 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

There have been instances in which the Christian church has built a doctrine or practice on some historical account recorded in the New Testament. It historically has viewed the accounts in Acts of the water baptism (e.g., 2:41; 8:12, 36; 10:47–48) and regular gathering (e.g., 20:7; cf. Heb. 10:25) of believers, for example, as setting a precedent for Christian doctrine and practice.

A group is on shaky ground, however, when it bases a doctrine or practice on an obscure or isolated statement or an incidental historical detail that is mentioned in a biblical passage. There are groups, for instance, that cite Paul’s surviving a snake bite in Acts 28 as a precedent for Christians to handle snakes.

Latter‐day Saints (LDS, Mormons), likewise, point to Paul’s mention of the practice of “baptism for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29 as a historical precedent for their doctrine and practice of baptism by proxy (i.e., by authorized substitute). They believe that a person cannot attain salvation without water baptism. They also believe that a living believer may be baptized on behalf of an unbaptized dead person so that the dead person might attain salvation.1 In Doctrines of Salvation they explain, “Water baptism is an element of this world, and how could spirits be baptized in it…? The only way it can be done is vicariously, someone who is living acting as a substitute for the dead.”2

This raises a question: if Christians accept the instances of baptism mentioned in Acts as precedent for their doctrine and practice of water baptism of believers, then are Mormons correct to accept the baptism mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15 as precedent for their doctrine and practice of baptism by proxy? Let’s look at this passage in its context and in light of several factors that help us to answer this question.

The Context. The church that Paul had planted in Corinth (Acts 18) was made up of mostly Gentiles. It was full of life, but it lacked spiritual maturity and retained some of the views and ways of the pagan culture that surrounded it. Paul had received reports of problems within the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 1:11) and his lengthy first letter to it was intended to correct and instruct its people on a number of issues of Christian doctrine and practice.

In chapter 15 Paul indicates that he had heard that some people in the church were denying the resurrection of the dead (v. 12); he then argues that the resurrection of Jesus, which was confirmed by eyewitnesses, guarantees the resurrection of the dead. He points out a series of conclusions that follow logically from the claim that the dead are not raised: if the dead are not raised, then Christ was not raised (v. 13), the apostles’ preaching and the Corinthians’ faith is vain (v. 14), the apostle’s witness that God raised Christ from the dead is false (v. 15), (again) Christ was not raised (v. 16), (again) the Corinthians’ faith is worthless and they remain in their sins (v. 17), dead believers have perished forever (v. 18), those who hope in Christ for resurrection are to be pitied (v. 19), those who are baptized for the dead do so in vain (v. 29), Paul puts himself in danger for the gospel for no reason (v. 30), Paul’s battle against wild beasts (his enemies?) was useless (v. 32), and there is nothing left but the gratification of appetites (v. 32). In the remainder of the chapter he explains the nature of the resurrected body and believers’ victory over death (vv. 35–58).

Paul here uses what is known in logic as an argument to absurdity. In other words, if we follow a claim to its logical conclusion, and that conclusion is absurd (or false), then the claim must be false. He argues that if the claim that the dead are not raised is true, then a number of conclusions follow logically; but those conclusions are false, which means the claim itself must be false. He appeals to a series of beliefs and practices that the Corinthian believers already accept as true in order to show them that the conclusions he lists are false. For example, for the Corinthians to recognize that the conclusion Christ was not raised is false, they must already believe Christ was raised. This is true of each of the items he lists, including baptism for the dead. Understanding Paul’s argument here will help us to understand this passage better, as we will see below.

The Doctrine. The Mormon doctrine of baptism by proxy presumes that baptism is required for salvation, and that those who die without baptism and therefore without salvation may still be saved if someone living is baptized on their behalf. Numerous other biblical passages on the subject of salvation, however, contradict these presumptions. The Bible says that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8–9), apart from baptism. John, for example, cites belief as the only condition for salvation (e.g., John 1:12; 3:16; 20:31), Luke records several instances of people who believed before being baptized (Acts 2:41; 10:47), and Paul separates baptism from the gospel that saves (1 Cor. 1:17).

It also says that after death comes judgment (Heb. 9:27), not another opportunity to be saved. Since God’s word cannot contradict itself, one thing we can be sure of is that Paul was not advocating the Mormon doctrine of baptism by proxy. This does not, however, answer the question of what practice Paul was actually referring to and whether he was actually advocating it, so let’s examine the practice.

The Practice. No other biblical passages besides 1 Corinthians 15:29 even mention the practice of baptism for the dead, so we must discover what it means from the passage itself or from sources outside the Bible. Scholars have proposed as many as 40 different interpretations of what practice Paul was referring to in this passage. None of them are without problems.

For example, some interpreters observe that Paul uses the pronouns “we” and “you” in his entire argument in this passage, except when he says “they” baptize for the dead. They say that this change of pronoun suggests that Paul was referring to a group among the Corinthians who were engaging in this aberrant practice. In this view, Paul did not need to condemn this practice explicitly as he did other errors because it was so obviously wrong; rather, he assumed the false practice simply to make a point. He was saying, in essence, “If the dead are not raised, then even the (false) practice of baptism for the dead that ‘they’ engage in is absurd.”

The problem with this view is that if Paul assumed this false practice to make a point, then it is the only false item in a list of such fundamental truths as the resurrection of Christ, the hope of the believer, and the purpose of Paul’s ministry. This sort of rhetorical move on Paul’s part would be out of place with his explicit purpose in the letter to correct false doctrines and practices among the Corinthians. It is more likely that Paul would correct them on this matter rather than assume it to be true for the sake of his argument.

Other interpreters believe that baptism for the dead was a practice that Paul approved or at least allowed. Some of them suggest, for example, that the phrase refers to the baptism of new believers who replaced those church members who had died. Others propose that it refers to the baptism of persons who had become believers and had been baptized in response to the pleas of loved ones who had died. Still others suggest that “for the dead” refers metaphorically to the baptized believer’s own death and resurrection.

The problem with these views is that they do not adequately account for Paul’s use of “they,” which singled out those who baptized for the dead, rather than “you,” if the Corinthians generally accepted the practice, or “we,” if he also approved of it. The phrase “the dead,” moreover, cannot be a metaphorical reference, such as to “the spiritually dead” or “one’s future dead body,” since that would provide no support for his argument for a physical resurrection.

There are nonbiblical references to a practice of vicarious baptism for the dead among later heretical groups, including some Corinthian sects, but the text of 1 Corinthians 15:29 is simply too vague to be identified with any of them. We are left, unfortunately, with only educated guesses as to what this practice might have been, and as such this passage provides no support for dogmatic arguments one way or the other.

The Precedent. The general principle here is that we cannot treat an incidental historical detail as an intentional historical precedent without adequate textual support. In other words, to consider any text to be set precedent rather than mere prose, we must be able to demonstrate from the text that the author intended it to be so. This cannot be done, however, with the practice mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Paul’s explicit intent was to argue against the claim that the dead are not raised (i.e., to prove logically that the dead are raised), not to teach about the practice of baptism for the dead, whatever it means. Paul’s mention of the practice, then, is incidental to his argument. This does not mean that baptism for the dead still might not be acceptable, but this text is insufficient support for saying that it is, especially since no other biblical passages even mention the practice.

The fact that Paul does not explicitly condemn the practice of baptism for the dead also allows for the possibility that he permitted or even approved of it, although the practice he mentions, as previously discussed, cannot be baptism by proxy as the Mormons understand it. This possibility alone is not a sufficient biblical reason to view baptism for the dead (whatever it means) as a precedent for all believers to follow, as is the case with believers’ baptism derived from accounts in Acts.

Discerning historical precedent from mere prose is one of the most difficult aspects of interpretation, which is why we must always have a solid textual foundation on which to base our conclusions in this regard. If we assume more than the text actually supports we risk adding to the word of God.

Steve Bright holds an M.A. from Southern Evangelical Seminary and is associate editor of the Christian Research Journal.



  1. See Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‐day Saints 128:12–18, http://scriptures.lds.org/en/dc/128. It should be noted that the LDS doctrine of salvation is different than the orthodox Christian doctrine of salvation.
  2. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1975), 2:141. This practice is one reason the LDS Church researches and maintains copious genealogical records.

Evidence Leading to Doubts about Darwinism

Hanegraaff, Hank-Intervies Thomas Woodward-Doubts Darwinism

Hank Hanegraaff invited Thomas Woodward onto the May 3, 2016 edition of the Bible Answer Man broadcast. The following is a highlight from their discussion.

Hank Hanegraaff: Life and truth matter indeed, and when truth is vanquished, there are dramatic consequences. Think about this. Other than the Bible, Darwin’s magnum opus, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection could well be said to be the most significant literary work in the annals of recorded history. I remember Sir Julian Huxley calling the evolutionary dogma the most powerful  the most comprehensive idea that has ever arisen upon the earth, the most fundamental of all intellectual revolutions, and the father of the intelligent design movement, Michael Denton, saying that the twentieth century could not be comprehended apart from the intellectual revolution that the theory produced. The far reaching consequences of that cosmogenic myth are felt in virtually every field, in every discipline of study, every level of education, and every area of practice. I think the most significant consequence is that it undermines the very foundations of the Christian faith, because if indeed macroevolution is reflective of the laws of science, then Genesis must be reflective of the flaws of Scripture, or so it is thought. If the foundation of Christianity is flawed, then the superstructure is designed to fall.

Now all of that is just prologue to something that I want to impress you with, and that is a book by Thomas Woodward. It is titled Doubts about Darwin. It’s a history of the intelligent design movement, a movement that allows truth to lead wherever it will. This book ought to be one of the great classics of literature, and CRI has republished this book because we have a deep and abiding confidence that this book can make a dramatic paradigm shift in the way people think about Darwinian evolution.

If you think I am excited about this subject, I always have been. From the very beginning, I’ve said how one views their origins will ultimately determine how they live their life. So we’re not talking about an apologetic issue here, we’re talking about the apologetic issue. The author of Doubt’s about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design, Thomas Woodward joins me now. Hi Tom!  

Thomas Woodward: Hi, great to be with you, thank you so much for that very warm welcome…

Hank: You know, I am so delighted that we’ve had the opportunity to republish this book because I do think it is a classic. You’re a professor at Trinity College in Florida, you teach history of science, communication, systematic theology, and the significance of systematic theology, you’re a founder and director of the C.S. Lewis Society, and you lecture in universities around the world, but this book, I think, could be a lasting legacy, because it pointing the finger squarely at doubts about Darwin and why we ought to have them.

Thomas: I think that your opening there is so on target. I mean talk about hitting the nail on the head. This is where the departure from truth hinges. It kind of sprouts from here and heads everywhere. One of the main theorist today has described Darwin’s theory is like a universal acid. It eats through any preexisting major paradigm, theory, concept, worldview, partial or in full, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized worldview, which has at its core this new god substitute—Darwin’s meandering blind process. You know, of course, natural selection we can go into the details, but I think that what really struck me is when I presented some of the accounts of the challengers of Neo-Darwinism to my agnostic professors, at the University of South Florida here in Tampa Bay, they were engaged. Here were scientists, here was a law professor Philip Johnson at Berkley, here were top biochemists who were challenging the theory, and my agnostic professors saying this is really interesting, give us more. They were not theists, they were not interested in, you know, in any kind of defense for the Bible. They were saying, this is genuine, there is something new under the sun, give us more. And they egged me on to write the history. So that’s kind of a strange background but I thank my, you know, kind of secular, skeptical, and agnostic professors for lighting the fire that allowed this book to be written.

Hank: I think what’s important at the very outset to talk about is the terrible price that is paid when you try to counter what is thought of in academia as settled science. You’re telling people look put on a different pair of glasses and what you see will be entirely different as well. So, one of the things that I love about this book and I really commend you for is that you have underscored and underlined and emphasized the people who have taken a hit professionally and personally to follow truth wherever it leads.

Thomas: Well that’s been my focus I would say from the get go as I began to hang out with some of these amazing, spectacular, researchers, and thinkers, many of them scientists, some of the professors at elite universities. They have stuck their neck out. I mean, you talk about the apostles. I’m not saying I’m going to put them in the rank of Peter, Paul and others in the Book of Acts, but these guys in their own way have as you said paid the price. Michael Behe at Lehigh University, you know kind of a quasi-Ivy League school, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Behe has suffered the ongoing shock or dismay, you might say, of having a disclaimer on his own biology department web site or webpage saying we do not subscribe to Michael Behe’s views, they are religious. Of course, that is so painfully and mistakenly absurd because he doesn’t use one religious argument in his book Darwin’s Black Box; it’s all empirically driven, but he labors on and others with him. I mean it’s really a moment of marvel for me to see the courage of these gentlemen.

Hank: I want to quote something that you have written Tom, and have you comment. You say the cultural stakes of the Darwinian design debate are high. The debaters are contending over the fundamental cultural story of human kind, and those who succeed at crafting and telling the most convincing story of origins, hold in their hands supreme cultural authority. If any group, religious or scientific, gains the authority to present its own story, as uniquely true, and then label other stories as mythological, that group functions as the high priesthood of our time. That I think is a powerful statement.

Thomas: That’s where I think so many people do not realize that if they subscribe to Neo-Darwinism and all its trappings and all its variations, they are embracing, something that has never really since Darwin’s day been supported by empirical evidence, a powerful idea. I can say the same thing about many powerful ideas that can be traced all the way back to Epicurus, Lucretius before Christ. The ideas of evolution has been floating in the air, have been floating in the air for twenty, or twenty-twenty-two centuries  before Darwin came along and came up with this new mechanism. He even admitted, you know, I cannot offer any direct evidence, but I can reasonably extend from what we see going on with animal breeders. Wow, now that’s quite a leap. Animal breeders make minor tweaking. They back and forth, you know, variations of the size, or shape or color of some organ, some wing, some fur on a sheep, but they do not fundamentally change those animals, and yet that’s what Darwin’s theory has to account for. It’s been struggling. It’s been a theory in search of evidence. I like to use that phrase. I got it from Philip Johnson, our common friend. A theory in search of evidence ever since it came out in 1859 and now defenders are turning really, how shall I put it, brittle and defensive and almost vindictive, ferocious at times, if you dare to question their theory, when Darwin himself was really welcoming those kinds of responses or critiques.

Hank: Let me pick up on that because this is one of the points that you make that doubts about Darwin are not relegated to those who doubt Darwin but Darwin himself had doubts about his own theory. In other words, he was open to evidence to the contrary.

Thomas: Yes and I have to qualify that, I think that doubts about—he’s wondering why is the evidence so terrible in so many areas where I want it to be splendid? So in that sense they were bracketed, you know, doubts here doubts there, why is the evidence not supporting me. Of course, the most blatant example is the fossil record, which was dead set against Darwin. He admitted it in his chapter on problems with my theory, admitted it again in his discussion of the geological record, and I think we would say today it is ten to a hundred times worsts than it was in Darwin’s day. The evidence, and we can go into this in more detail, for the expectation of Darwinism verses what we see in the fossil record is an overwhelming loud embarrassment. Darwin said if it could be presented, any complex organ’s existence, this is a quote from his book, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications; my theory would absolutely break down. And of course that’s quite a statement. He is opening up himself for testing. I would say based on what we see now in the micro-machinery of a cell, his theory has again overwhelmingly broken down. We can credit that, of course, to Michael Behe, and before him, Michael Denton, and Phil Johnson brought out those points, but this was even evident in Darwin’s day. There were contrary evidence and he was receiving letters all the time from scientists. Well that’s part of the story that’s never told.

Hank: What I’d like you to do is to just take a minute or so and explain the transcendent importance of this particular topic.

Thomas: I would be delighted to tackle that exciting opportunity. Darwin’s theory is the reigning paradigm. It’s not just a theory. It’s a whole worldview. It’s like a broad structured thought that sort of links everybody together looking that the same issues raising the same possibility, but excluding certain possibilities ahead of time, and that’s a betrayal of science. So what we’re dealing with in the Neo-Darwinism period—if there’s an opportunity at some point today or another day I can share about some huge cracks that have opened up in the edifice in the last two or three weeks—but Darwin’s theory is now the reigning like determination of what is to be admitted within the scientific community. If it’s not materialistic, if it deals with intelligent causation, it’s ruled out ahead of time. Well, that’s not scientific at all. Darwin’s theory is the tip of a very bleak kind of situation where science has come under the control primarily of a worldview. A worldview that goes by a couple of different names but naturalism, the worldview of naturalism is probably the most common label. It means that you rule out ahead of time that anything non-material exists such as souls, spirits, God and certainly anything above the universe. As we see this triumphant theory aging and cracking it’s quite an exciting time of history.

Thomas E. Woodward is a research professor and department chair of the theology department at Trinity College of Florida. He is also the founder and director of the C.S. Lewis Society and lectures in universities on scientific apologetics and religious topics. Doubts about Darwin is one of the most significant works of Woodward for out times.

To get your copy Doubts about Darwin of click here.


Using Analogies to Reach the Lost and Refute the Cults

Herrera, Max-AnalogiesReachLostRefuteCults

Article: JAA175 | by Max Herrera

This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 28, number 5 (2005). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to:  http://www.equip.org

Throughout history, preachers and teachers of God’s Word have used analogies to communicate truth. In the first century, Jesus used many analogies to teach His listeners. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, the apostle Paul used analogies to teach the saints and evangelize the lost. Today, on any given Sunday, pastors all over the world use analogies to preach and teach God’s Word. It is strange, however, that although analogies are prevalent in Christian preaching and teaching, one rarely hears a lesson on how to use analogies effectively. I would like to explain three ways that analogies can be used to reach the lost and refute the cults, and suggest some guidelines for using them.

What’s an Analogy? An analogy is a comparison between two things that are similar; they are the same in some respect and different in some other respect(s). For example, Jesus said that faith is like a mustard seed: they are the same in that both can be small and yet can grow into something large; but they are different in that a mustard seed is an actual kernel that grows in dirt, but faith is not.

Explain Concepts. One way analogies can be used is to explain difficult concepts. Analogies help explain what is unknown in terms of what is known. For example, most people are not familiar with the concept of substance dualism, which is a view of relation between the soul and the body. You could explain this concept by saying, “Substance dualism is the view that the soul and the body are ontologically separate entities, and that the soul acts upon the body.” This explanation is correct, but it does not communicate very well to those who are not already familiar with the concept. A better way to explain it would be in terms of something simple with which your audience is already familiar. You might say, for example, “Substance dualism says that the soul is to the body as a hand is to a glove. The hand is not the glove and the glove is not the hand; they are separate things. The glove, moreover, cannot perform any action without the hand. Similarly, the soul and the body are separate things, and the body cannot perform any action without the soul.” By using images and concepts that are familiar to your audience (i.e., the relation between a hand and a glove), you can explain concepts that are not familiar to them (i.e., a view of the relation between the soul and the body).

Make Arguments. A second use of analogies is to make arguments. One common form is called an a fortiori (“all the stronger”) argument, which asserts that if something is true in one case, it is probably true in a similar case in which the reason for it being true is even stronger. The parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18:1–8 is an example of this type of argument. In it, Jesus tells the story of an unjust judge who executed justice on behalf of a widow who continued to nag him. Jesus then asks a rhetorical question: “Will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?” (v. 7 NASB). The implied answer is yes, God will speedily bring about justice for His elect who continually cry out to Him. Jesus used an analogy to argue that if an unjust judge grudgingly renders justice to an oppressed widow who is persistent, how much more (a fortiori) will God, who is a just judge, speedily render justice to His oppressed elect who are persistent.

Using an analogy to make an a fortiori argument can be an extremely effective tool when witnessing to unbelievers. I remember street witnessing years ago in New York, when a lady came up to the corner where I was standing. I said, “May, I ask you a question?” She replied, “Sure.” I responded, “If you were to die today, where would you go?” She responded, “I don’t know. I never thought about it, but I think I would go to heaven.” I asked, “Why do you think you would go to heaven?” She responded that she was a good person. I replied that all our “righteous” deeds are like filthy rags before an infinite holy God, so it is impossible for us to get to heaven based on our own merit. I then said to her, “Imagine that you committed some crime, and the judge sentenced you to 20 years in prison. Would you want to serve the prison time?” She responded, “No way!” I said, “What if there were a person who was willing to serve your time and the judge allowed it; would you go for that deal?” She responded, “What’s the catch?” I said, “The only stipulation is that you must trust the person who serves your time and believe that he is always looking out for your best interest.” She responded, “I’d go for that deal.” I then told her that God is a judge and we are all guilty before Him, and because of our sin we will be sentenced to an eternity apart from God; however, Christ died on the cross so that we do not have to spend an eternity separated from God. Christ was willing to serve our sentence, but we must trust Him. I then asked her, “If you are willing to have someone serve your 20‐year sentence on earth, are you not willing to have someone serve your eternal sentence?” She said, “Yes, I would be willing.” I then led her in the sinner’s prayer. The a fortiori argument by analogy did not save her, of course, for only God saves; but God can use analogies to touch people’s heads so that He can also touch their hearts.

Refute Arguments. The third way analogies can be used is to refute bad arguments. If you change the content of a bad argument, but keep the same logical form of the argument, you can show that the conclusion of the argument does not follow from its premises. This is not as difficult as it might sound. For example, Mormons and certain Word Faith teachers assert that God has a body. One of their favorite passages is Genesis 1:26–27, which states that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Those who assert that God has a body reason as follows: man is made in the image and likeness of God; man has a body; therefore, God must have a body. The logical form of their argument is as follows:

x (man) is made in the image and likeness of y (God); x (man) has z (a body); therefore, y (God) has z (a body).

By replacing the content of x, y, and z with similar content, you can show that the conclusion does not follow from its premises. For example, suppose x = a statue, y = Abraham Lincoln, and z = a marble head. Just because a statue is made in the image and likeness of Abraham Lincoln, and the statue has a marble head, it does not follow that Abraham Lincoln has a marble head. Similarly, just because man is made in the image and likeness of God, and man has a body, it does not follow that God has a body.

Guidelines for Using Analogies. There are several things that should be kept in mind when using analogies. First, use simple things that are familiar to your audience. Jesus and Paul, for example, drew many of their analogies from things that were familiar to the first‐century Jewish culture in which they and their listeners lived (e.g., seeds, sheep, wineskins, the temple, etc.).

Second, the greater the similarity between the things that are being compared, the better the analogy; conversely, the less the similarity, the poorer the analogy.

Third, arguments that use analogies render only probable conclusions. The two things (or relationships) being compared are only similar (e.g., an unjust judge’s rendering justice to a nagging widow compared with God’s rendering justice to His elect); therefore, what is true of one is only probably true of the other. The more alike the two things are, the more likely it is that the conclusion is true of both things.

Finally, when comparing two things by analogy, you should compare those characteristics that are essential for making your point. For example, William Paley argued that just as a watch requires an intelligent designer, so does creation require an Intelligent Designer. In his writings, however, Paley emphasized the beauty of the watch, the material of the watch, and other characteristics that do not necessarily indicate intelligent design. Charles Darwin picked up on the fact that Paley’s analogy rested on nonessential features and responded: “The old argument of design in nature as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man.” Darwin was correct that neither beauty in itself nor being an artifact in itself indicates intelligent design; however, the essential characteristics in Paley’s analogy actually were specified complexity and irreducible complexity, which have always indicated intelligent design. Darwin, therefore, was wrong when he concluded that such artifacts cannot be used to argue for the existence of an intelligent designer.

Now, as lights of the world, go let your light shine by using analogies to present the gospel to the lost and refute the cults.

Max Herrera is a graduate of Southern Evangelical Seminary and is coauthor, with Norman L. Geisler and H. Wayne House, of the Battle for God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism (Kregel, 2001). He is completing a Ph.D in philosophy at Marquette University.


  1. Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 335.
  2. Showing that the argument is invalid does not demonstrate that the conclusion is false; instead, it shows that the conclusion does not follow from its premises. The conclusion may still be true, but it has not been demonstrated from its premises.
  3. Charles Darwin, Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1958), 87.
Apologetics, Journal Topics

Sam Harris’s Armory For Secularists Against A Christian Nation

Article: JAH222 | By: Douglas Groothuis

Harris, Sam-LetterChristainNation2

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 2 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

National Public Radio recently aired a program to discuss Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. To frame the discussion, the host asked, “Since religion is based on faith and not reason, should it have a say in public policy?” The question the host posed committed the fallacy of “the complex question,” whereby one assumes what needs to be proved, and then asks a question based on that assumption.

Harris claims that religious faith cannot be based on reason; therefore, if we want a rational public policy, religion should be excluded. Harris writes, “The primary purpose of this book is to arm secularists in our society, who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy, against their opponents on the Christian Right” (p. viii). If solid reasons can be given for Christianity, however, everything changes.

Sam Harris experienced a meteoric rise to fame with the release of his first book, The End of Faith, a strident attack on all traditional religion as irrational, backward, and dangerous. The book surprisingly became a bestseller. Harris was stirred to write such a book after the terrorist apocalypse of 9/11. The answer to the persistent hazards of religion globally, according to Harris, is thorough‐going secularism. Letter to a Christian Nation was written as an addendum to The End of Faith in light of the many responses Harris received to his first work. He summarizes the ideas of his earlier book and sticks the knife in once again: religion is a harmful (not harmless) delusion. It must be abandoned, not tolerated. In just 96 pages, he sets out “to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms” (ix).

Harris’s polemical efforts have been supplemented by other works written in the same spirit: religion must be rejected root and branch for the betterment of humanity. The God Delusion by scientist and long‐ time militant atheist Richard Dawkins, and Breaking the Spell by a similarly inclined philosopher, Daniel Dennett, have contributed to what has been called “the new atheism” by Wired magazine. Their arguments against religion are not new, but the rhetorical tone of the attacks surpasses what is common for unbelievers. The gloves are off.

Harris’s attack in Letter to a Christian Nation focuses on three main areas: (1) How Christians (and other religious people) believe, (2) what they believe, and (3) the ethical implications of what they believe. As in The End of Faith, Harris asserts that to “have faith” means that no reasonable warrant can be offered for that faith; there are only ad hoc or unsatisfying reasons, which are really window dressing for pure fideism (faith without or even against reason). It is sadly and shamefully true that many Christians hold their beliefs in this manner; however, Harris errs by painting with such a broad brush.

“Irrational Belief.” Throughout the history of Christianity, top‐notch thinkers have engaged unbelievers rationally. This begins in the New Testament itself when Jesus challenges His followers to love God with all their minds (Matt. 22:37–40), and when the apostle Peter commands Christians to be ready to have an apologetic for what they believe (1 Pet. 3:15). We find this in the rational strategies of Jesus1 and Paul, for example. Paul held his own with the Athenian philosophers of the day and became a model for philosophical engagement with learned unbelievers (Acts 17:16–34).2 Harris makes no mention of these aspects of Christianity, nor does he even allude to the rich history of Christian engagement with philosophy, an engagement that has often resulted in apologetic efforts.3 Christians stand on only their irrational faith, argues Harris, with no incentive to defend it rationally and without apologetic models. These unfair and misleading omissions make for a distorted presentation.

The resurgence of Christians in professional philosophy (led by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga) in recent years even prompted atheist philosopher Quentin Smith to lament that beliefs of many atheists were in rational jeopardy.4 Harris, however, mentions none of this, omitting references to high‐level philosophical defenses of Christianity (such as those of Plantinga, William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, and Richard Swinburne), as well as more popular but intellectually serious efforts, such as those by Lee Strobel.5 He commits the straw‐man fallacy by presenting caricatures of theistic arguments, then rejecting the caricatures, as when he gives a fallacious version of the cosmological argument and rejects Intelligent Design arguments with little more than a wave of the hand (71–75).

Harris, like Dawkins, thinks that the question, “Who created God?” puts an abrupt end to theistic arguments, since this would mean an infinite regress of explanation (73). A designing mind would have to be as complex as the creation itself, so the creation is never explained. Cosmological and design arguments, however, rest on the existence of finite and contingent states of being. They argue that the universe does not explain itself—either in terms of its origin or its form—and therefore, the best explanation is something outside of the finite and contingent universe: God. God, unlike the universe, is not a collection of finite and contingent states that require explanation. God is understood to be nonfinite and noncontingent. God’s character as designer and creator, therefore, does not demand explanation, as does the universe and its form. God is self‐explanatory and explains everything else rationally.6

Before turning to Harris’s attacks on what Christians believe, readers should note that Harris often refers to the religious beliefs of Muslims, which he takes to be irrational and dangerous, despite the fact that the book is addressed to Christians. “Consider: Every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian” (6). These reasons, for Harris, are mere appeals to religious authority: the Qur’an or the Bible. This is part of Harris’s scorched earth policy on religion: since it is all irrational, an attack on any religion is an attack on every religion. This commits two logical fallacies, however. First, it begs the question concerning the irrationality of every religion. Some religions may be constitutionally irrational (such as Islam), while other religions may not be. Second, it employs guilt by association. Muslims who believe in God and think they are doing God’s will (by engaging in terrorism) are considered to be in the same camp with North American Christians who believe in God and think they are doing God’s will.

An equivalence of this type could only be sustained if both parties appealed to religious authority utterly without rational warrant. Many Christian thinkers have taken Islam as a whole and Islamic terrorism to task along just these lines, arguing that the Qur’an denies well‐established history (that Jesus was crucified), that it misrepresents the Trinity (as God, Jesus, and Mary), and that Islam has perpetuated itself far more through the sword than by the word.7 Muslims often make a bare appeal to the authority of the Qur’an (apart from corroborating evidence), but Christians can argue that the claims of the Christian worldview are internally consistent, fit the facts of history, and give objective meaning to life, death, and eternity.

The Qur’an was supposedly revealed through an angel to one man (Muhammad) who memorized it and recited it to others who wrote it down. This book contradicts key claims of the New Testament about Jesus and His message. By contrast, the books of the New Testament were written by several eyewitnesses or those who consulted eyewitnesses, and were written shortly after the events described. Many historical references made in the New Testament (particularly in the Gospels and Acts), moreover, have been verified by extrabiblical sources, either from historians or from archaeology.8 The Qur’an, which was received in the early seventh century, can claim no such historical credentials. Blind leaps of faith are required for Muslims, but not for the thinking Christian.

One would never know, according to Harris’s story, that Christians have analyzed Islam rationally, by standards that they also apply to the rationality of their own worldview. How could the blind critique the blind? Harris taunts the Christian reader, “Why don’t you lose sleep over whether to convert to Islam?” (6). The answer for the informed Christian is this: “Because Islam is supported by neither history nor logic. Its threats are, therefore, null and void. Christian faith, on the contrary, is well established historically and logically.”

“Offensive” Beliefs. To his credit, Harris realizes that the prudential stakes are high with respect to what Christians believe. “The Bible is either the Word of God or it isn’t. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:16), or he does not. We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so. If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of hell” (3–4). He also rightly chastises theological liberals for muddying the waters with references to “mystery” where the Bible is clear. What Harris takes to be clear concerning “the wisdom of the Bible,” however, he profoundly misunderstands.

Harris tries to discredit the Bible morally by appealing to passages in the Old Testament stipulating capital punishment for crimes outside of homicide, laws about slavery, and holy wars that God commanded. He likewise deems the New Testament barbaric, since Jesus endorsed the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17–20) and taught the doctrine of hell. He also claims that the first four of the Ten Commandments have nothing to do with morality, and that whatever is truly good can be known through common sense.

Of course, Christians (and Jews) have written at length about the ways in which the Bible sometimes offends our moral sensibilities.9 The short answer is this: when viewed as a whole, the moral principles (pertaining to commands) of the Bible can be divided into three basic categories: the ceremonial law, the civil law, and the moral law. (Harris does not address the ceremonial law, but its relation to the New Covenant is spelled out in the Book of Hebrews.) Crimes punished severely during the days of the Old Testament—elements of the civil law—were part of God’s special administration of His Kingdom in a theocracy where people were held to strict standards in light of the clarity of the revelation they received. The movement of God’s Kingdom, however, is away from a theocracy toward the dispersion of the Kingdom of God to all nations, in which God’s people act as salt and light (Matt. 5:13–16). Jesus endorsed the divine authority of the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17–20; John 10:35, etc.), but His life and teaching demonstrated that He was bringing into reality a new chapter in the unfolding of God’s Kingdom, not reinstating a theocracy. The Mosaic Law, then—given under unique conditions by God Himself— contained numerous penalties that we may chafe at, but this does not entail either that: (1) God did not stipulate them, or (2) they should be applied in any literal manner today. Christian thinkers have approached the Old Testament in a variety of ways with respect to ethics, but almost no one has advocated a wholesale adoption of Mosaic Law for today.10

The situation is similar with respect to divinely sanctioned wars in the Old Testament. The covenant Lord of Israel used His people to bring judgment on incorrigibly corrupt cultures. There is no indication in the rest of Scripture, however, that such a situation would ever occur outside of ancient Israel, since God no longer works in this manner.11 Christians today may abide by the deep moral principles of the Ten Commandments in light of the further revelation given through Jesus and His apostles, without fear of being led into executing rebellious children or declaring holy war on individuals or nations, Sam Harris to the contrary.

Harris, of course, believes that the first four commandments traditionally understood to relate to God are morally irrelevant, since he is an atheist. If the biblical God exists, however, these commands form the foundation for all that follows, since God is the Lawgiver of the universe. Jesus understood this when He was asked what was the greatest commandment. He answered: first to love God with all our being, then to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–40).

To address the doctrine of hell adequately would require far more space than is allotted here. Suffice it to say here that the truth of this doctrine is based primarily on the authority of Jesus, His moral character, and His supernatural status. If the authority of Jesus can be supported historically and logically, His teachings—even difficult ones—should be accepted. The Christian worldview, given its views of God’s holiness and human sin, also makes sense of hell.12

“Harmful” Beliefs. Harris further inveighs against Christianity by assailing the moral beliefs of Christians. Harris makes few distinctions and emits more invectives than arguments. He assumes from the start that religious beliefs have no rational foundation, and that any moral claims based on religious convictions therefore must be irrational. He dismisses opposition to stem‐cell research as blind prejudice and overstates the promise of creating embryos for the purpose of research (which means their destruction).13 He also cites extreme statements against all forms of contraception (even to prevent the spread of AIDS) as more evidence of religious irrationality, when many Christians would not oppose this. (There is a categorical moral difference between abortion and contraception, one that most evangelicals acknowledge.)

I could go on about Harris’s straw‐man presentations and logical fallacies. The upshot of this small book is that it is thin in actual arguments. It is a literary hand grenade thrown into the enemy’s camp, which turns out to be a dud.

— reviewed by Douglas Groothuis


  1. See Douglas Groothuis, “Jesus as a Philosopher and Apologist,” Christian Research Journal, 25, 2 (2002): 28ff (http://www.equip.org/article/jesus-philosopher-and-apologist/).
  2. See Douglas Groothuis, “Learning from an Apostle: Christianity in The Marketplace of Ideas (Acts 17:16–34),” Lecture Hall, TrueU.org, Focus on the Family, http:// www.trueu.org/Academics/LectureHall/A000000459.cfm.
  3. For a historical overview of Christian apologetics, see Avery Dulles, A History of Apologetics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Ignatius Press, 2005).
  4. Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo 4, 2: Philo Online, http://www.philoonline.org/library/smith_4_2.htm.
  5. See Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998); The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000); The Case for a Creator (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
  6. Some Christians also have argued that God’s existence is absolutely simple, lacking in parts. If so, the complexity issue would not arise at all concerning God’s existence.
  7. For example, see Abdul Saleeb and Norman Geisler, Answering Islam, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002). Against the idea that Christians and Muslim worship the same God, see Douglas Groothuis, “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?” Lecture Hall, TrueU.org, Focus on the Family, http:// www.trueu.org/Academics/LectureHall/A000000113.cfm.
  8. For an overview of these arguments, see Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), chaps. 2–3.
  9. On issues related to the Old Testament, see Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1982).
  10. The one exception today would be the Reconstructionist or Theonomy movement, originated by R. J. Rushdoony and defended most ardently by Greg Bahnsen. Only a very small percentage of Christians today endorse this agenda.
  11. For contrasting views on the meaning of holy war in the Old Testament and the rest of the Bible, see Stanley Gundry, ed., Show Them No Mercy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).
  12. Concerning Jesus’ teaching about hell, see Douglas Groothuis, On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003), 47–49; on His authority, see Ibid., chap. 8. On the logic of hell from a biblical worldview, see Douglas Groothuis, “What about Hell?” Christian Research Journal, 19,3 (1997): 8ff (http://www.equip.org/articles/the-doctrine-of-hell/).
  13. For a philosophical defense of humans as deserving of respect as embodied souls from the time of conception, see J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae, Body and Soul (InterVarsity Press, 2000).