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).
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, 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.
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).


Apologetics, Journal Topics, Reviews

Empty Villages of People Erased from Space and Consciousness

Burge, Gary-Ethnocracy not Sustainable


On the April 6, 2016 edition of the Bible Answer Man, Hank Hanegraaff invited Dr. Gary Burge onto the broadcast for an interview. Gary is a professor of New Testament at Wheaton. He holds a PhD in New Testament studies from Aberdeen University in Scotland. He’s the author of two incredible books; one is entitled Whose Land Whose Promise, and the other Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to Holy Land Theology.

Hank Hanegraaff: Just a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending some time with Dr. Gary Burge in the West Bank and I am delighted to have you on the broadcast.

Gary Burge: Thanks Hank. It’s really great to be with you again.

Hank: I want to quote from your book Whose Land Whose Promise and get your reaction. I saw this up close and personal once again a couple of weeks ago but the quote from Bethlehem pastor Mitri Raheb. He says,

I am a Palestinian [Christian] living under Israeli occupation. My captor daily seeks ways to make life harder for me. He encircles my people with barbed wire; he builds walls around us, and his army sets many boundaries around us. He succeeds in keeping thousands of us in camps and prisons. Yet despite all these efforts, he has not succeeded in taking my dreams from me. I have a dream that one day I will wake up and see two equal peoples living next to each other, coexisting in the land of Palestine, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan.

The reason I bring up this quote is I want to start by asking you whether this is simply a vain dream in light of the strong Zionist predilection to completely cleanse the land of everyone but those who can legitimately say they are Jews and that based on a theology, a theology called Christian Zionism.

Gary: Yeah, Hank, thanks for that, that is a marvelous quote from Mitri Raheb. Mitri Raheb is one of the most famous Palestinian pastors who reside in Bethlehem, of course, and your listeners may not know, but, he’s an amazing pastor and theologian, prolific writer as well. I don’t think it’s a vain dream at all. I think that what’s unfortunately happening today is that too much of the politics of both the Palestinian side and the Israeli side are conducted by sort of outspoken extreme voices, and moderate voices, like Mitri’s, and there are many moderate voices inside of Israel as well, understand that this land, this country between the Mediterranean and the Jordan intimately will have to be shared. This idea of building what we call an ethnocracy—rule by a race—is just simply not going to be sustainable. So, I mean today, for instance, 49% of the population of greater Israel between Mediterranean and the Jordan is Palestinian, and they have a really high birth rate. So everyone knows that in 50 or 60 years the population will be majority Palestinian. Minorities cannot rule majorities and have a sustainable future. It just doesn’t work that way. It didn’t work in South Africa, it won’t work here. So I tell my friends who really do love Israel, and I think we all should, you know, love both peoples in this conflict, it seems to me that the only future that Israel has is to become what I call a bi-national state, that is to say, two nations, two peoples, learning how to share this world together. Otherwise, if you simply have a policy of containment, like Mitri describes—right now Palestinians of the West Bank, over 2 ½ million of them, live behind a 30 foot wall, electrified fences, check points everywhere, regular shootings—this experience just makes a population explode., and I don’t believe there’s a future for that at all.

Hank: You contributed to the Christian Research Journal a Summary Critique Review, a review of the book Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948. It’s a book by Noga Kadman. An important book in that the story of what happen to the Palestinians in the birth of modern Israel in 1948 is not well known to most Christian intellectuals in the West. I would say most Christians period.

Gary: No. Most Christians don’t know this part of the story. Actually I think, I’m really, really glad that the Journal had us review this book because most American listeners that I meet and speak to when I’m out on the road at conferences is they don’t realize that when Israel became a nation in 1948, the Jews were actually in a strong minority in the country. They did a British census in 1948; there were 1.3 million Palestinians and 600,000 Jews. So, therefore, the Israelis knew as they began their state, they had to do a couple things: they had to move out a huge population—we call it ethnic cleansing—and that they destroyed the villages that these people came from or they gave their homes and properties to incoming Jewish settlers.  But what Noga Kadman has done is she has written the definitive book telling about how this ethnic cleansing worked like, just like machines, it was just incredible. Then what she does is she quantifies exactly what happens in all these villages. So, she did case studies of how villages were cleansed, how populations were moved, and at the end of the book, she actually gives you a catalogue of all four hundred some odd villages, and what was there, what’s left today. If you go to Israel as a tourist, you’ll never be shown this stuff. This is the dark secret. I think of it as the dark hidden secret which is in Israel and every Israeli knows it but they can barely talk about it. To build the state they had to cleanse the land, they felt, and this led to enormous suffering for three quarter of a million people, about 750,000 people were essentially affected by this. So, yeah, Kadman’s book is really, really important indisputable evidence of the cleansing of the land.

Hank: You are a New Testament theologian, and ideas have consequences, you think about the Christian Zionist notion that the cleansing, the ethnic cleansing of the land is a divine command. For Zionists, secular Zionists, this is a defensible cruelty, but for Christians it’s a divine command. And this gets down to a hermeneutical issue doesn’t it?

Gary: Oh, it does. It really does, because, in fact Hank that’s exactly right, because what they do is they read the land promise to Abraham, say in Genesis 12, and what they do is they jump from that to the Book of Joshua, and see how Joshua then used military violence to cleanse the land of Canaanites,  and then they jump from there to the twentieth century, and they think that those models for land promise and land reclamation, these all ought to be in play today. What they have jumped over are the prophets of the Old Testament and they jumped right over the New Testament and that’s why I wrote that book Jesus and the Land because I think that as Christians we need to think theologically about land promise and what we believe as Christians about territory and God’s presence in the Holy Land.

Hank: A couple of weeks ago I was speaking in the West Bank and talking about the gospel in the face of religious extremism. Now I pointed out that two fault lines run through the Zionist landscape: one is the promises God made to Abraham were not fulfilled in the past, and, therefore, they must be fulfilled in the present or the future, and the second thing is that God has two distinct people; your comments.

Gary: Well, I think the issue here is that—I think in the Old Testament they understand that that promise of land was actually fulfilled in the arrival of Joshua, the establishment of the tribal lands under judges, and the establishment of the monarchy in the Old Testament. I think the important thing for us to remember is the New Testament is reconfiguring what it means to understand land in God’s providence. What the New Testament has done is it says, look even though Judaism is territorial, we as Christians do not embrace that territorialism. In other words, God’s interest, God’s project today is a different project that He had in the days of Joshua. God’s project today is the reclamation not of the Holy Land from one people, but it is the reclamation of the entire world for all people. So you have a kind of universalizing of the message, a universal embrace of all cultures and nations, and of all lands. That is why the church has always had a worldwide mission because we believe that God does love all cultures and places. So there is no hint inside of the New Testament of the construction of you might say an empire, a nation, a kingdom in the Holy Land, there is instead a charge to go out broadly into all lands. You can actually, Hank, I believe you can find that kind of Christian Zionist impulse right in the Book of Acts. In Acts 1:6 when Jesus arrives in His resurrected glory, the first question that the apostles have for Him is Lord are you now at last in all of your power going to restore Israel’s kingdom. It’s a political question they have. So they have fallen to that low point of thinking God’s interest is in the reconstruction of American political sort of kingdoms. And Jesus deflects the question entirely as, no you are supposed to go to the ends of the earth. So, in other words, the providence, sort of the location of God’s interest is not in the Holy Land; the location of God’s interest is in all lands and therefore go out.

Hank: I’m talking to Gary Burge, he is a professor of New Testament, contributor to the Christian Research Journal, and we’re talking about a review that Gary did on a book entitled Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948. One of the things you write in this review is that,

Both sides had witnessed terrible things but nothing can quite compare with the Palestinian losses of life, residence, and culture that we see…it is difficult to imagine the expulsion of 700,000…people, the demolition of their homes, and the many atrocities they suffered after 1948.

Gary: Right. I know. In fact that’s one of the parts of this whole story that I find the most frustrating personally because, Hank, as you and I know, as you travel in those areas and you do research on what actually happened, when we come back to the United States and we try to describe the Palestinian narrative of their experiences, so many of us either don’t understand it, or really find it hard to acknowledge it. To be sure, Palestinian violence against Israelis is indefensible, and it’s horrible, and it’s subject to condemnation. I understand that. But, what we don’t understand is that there’s violence that goes the other direction as well from Israel to Palestine. It is not always defensive and the number of Palestinians who have been killed is so out of proportion to the Israeli deaths. It’s just hard to believe. Really it’s the loss of hope. You know, you and I, Hank, we have hope because we believe that we have a future. We believe that we can, you know, have a safe home to live in, a career, we have a family, we have a lot of freedom here. The Palestinians have lost hope because they live in containment. It isn’t going to be long before some people are going to look at this and begin to describe it with that horrible word that was used in South Africa. At what point does this become kind of an apartheid situation? Everyone hates to use the word, I understand that, it’s an explosive word, but we have to give these people hope and freedom or else their containment becomes a situation just like that.

Hank: Gary Burge, you are a hero of the faith to me and I deeply appreciate your contribution to the Christian Research Journal.

Gary: Thanks Hank.

Get Jesus and the Land (B1059) by Gary Burge. To order, click here.

Get Gary’s review of Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 (Indiana University Press, 2015) by Noga Kadman in vol. 39 b, 1 (2016) of the Christian Research Journal. To order, click here.

Subscriptions to the Christian Research Journal are available. To order, click here.

Journal Topics

On the Obligation of Blessing “Abraham’s Seed”

Abraham and Isaac

This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 05 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org/christian-research-journal/

“Now the LORD had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Gen. 12:1–3, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.).

The entire remainder of the Bible after these verses can be viewed as an exposition of God’s fulfillment of the promises contained in this remarkable passage. On this point most Bible scholars agree. What is less unanimous among believers is precisely what those verses actually are predicting.

Promises, Promises. These verses enumerate certain promises made to Abram (a.k.a. Abraham), and comprise what is usually referred to as the “Abrahamic Covenant.” The promises pertain, primarily, to some unspecified “blessing” that would be received by Abram and distributed to all other families of the earth through him. Furthermore, there would be “blessings” on those who “bless” Abraham, and all the families of earth would be blessed “in” him. In many subsequent passages, we find a virtual repetition of these themes, often with the addition of new details—especially the important fact that these promises do not pertain so much to Abraham alone as to his “seed” (Gen. 12:7; 13:15f; 15:5, 18; 17:7ff; 21:12). Many newer translations, unhelpfully, paraphrase the word “seed” with the more interpretive “descendants.”

One popular viewpoint, of relatively modern origins, holds that the Abrahamic promises pertain to the Jewish race as the “seed” of Abraham, and that their ultimate fulfillment awaits the millennial kingdom, after the future return of Christ. Many who hold this view identify the “blessings” due to Abraham and his seed with temporal prosperity, political independence, and, eventually, exaltation to prominence above all the nations. Thus, they have interpreted Genesis 12:3, with its stated obligation to “bless” Abraham, so as to teach that Christians should recognize a special status of national/ethnic Israel, and “bless” them by giving them their unconditional political, economic, and moral support. Some even appear to believe that such an obligation to bless Israel defines one of the leading duties incumbent on Christians living in the last days (which would include the present time).

Who Gets Blessed? In seeking to understand the nature and fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, we face a two-pronged challenge: we must (1) identify the “seed” of Abraham to whom the promises pertain and (2) identify the nature of the “blessing” promised.

To read this article in its entirety, please visit: http://www.equip.org/articles/obligation-blessing-abrahams-seed/

Journal Topics

A Thief in the Night


This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 35, number 06 (2012). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org


The director Peter Jackson is making J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic fairy tale, The Hobbit, into a film. Three films, to be precise. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, guardian of his father’s flame, objects to what he sees as the filmmaker’s “commercialization” of the story. If he is correct and Jackson is cashing in, allowing mercenary motives to override esthetic considerations, the situation could not be more ironic because The Hobbit is above all a story about greed and the overcoming of greed. The dragon Smaug, the avaricious dwarves, the addicted Gollum—they are all in thrall to gold. On the other hand, Gandalf and the eagles and Beorn the bear-man are free from its power, as is Bilbo Baggins, the appointed “burglar” of the story, a hobbit with a disarmingly innocent attitude to wealth. It is Bilbo who breaks the logjam caused by dwarvish cupidity and he does so in a surprisingly Christlike fashion. Tolkien’s tale shows us that the love of money, the root of all evil, can only be overcome by a “thief in the night.”

When the director Peter Jackson announced that his movie adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit would come in two parts, I suspect most people were surprised but basically approving. The Hobbit is sufficiently rich in invention to be able to survive a two-movie treatment, and the tale falls rather naturally into two sections in any case. The first part consists of Chapters 1 through 9 and tells of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins’s enrollment as official “burglar” to a party of thirteen dwarves who intend to recapture the gold stolen from them by the dragon Smaug, and of their early adventures escaping trolls, goblins, wolves, spiders, and elves; also of their meeting with the eagles and with the bear-man, Beorn, and of Bilbo’s discovery of a ring of invisibility. When the ninth chapter ends with the protagonists floating downriver in barrels, “but whether alive or dead still remains to be seen” (161),1 Tolkien is deliberately signaling the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two. Of course, they are still alive, and the latter half of the story is entirely concerned with the adventures surrounding Smaug and the getting of the gold.

Moreover, as Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis noted, there is a distinct change in “tone and style”2 as the story progresses. Its flavor at the start is that of a fairy tale “dressed up as ‘for children’” with plenty of knowing asides about two-headed trolls, the origin of golf (a feature that Tolkien later regretted), and so on. By the end, the tone is almost that of a tribal bard chanting an ancient epic: “Ere long the vanguard swirled round the spur’s end…and already their cries and howls rent the air afar” (238).

Given that The Hobbit falls neatly into two parts, both in its action and in its tone, Peter Jackson’s initial decision to make a two-part film adaptation seemed not only excusable, but sensible.

To read this article in its entirety, please visit: http://www.equip.org/articles/thief-night-christian-ethic-heart-hobbit/

Journal Topics

Dawkins’s Youth Ministry

Richard Dawkins has redefined himself again. Earlier, Dawkins transitioned from academic works of theoretical biology to his popular atheistic manifesto, The God Delusion. Now, Dawkins has moved on to the scientific education of youth. Combining lavish color illustrations by David McKean with his own supple and enthusiastic prose, Dawkins aims to inspire a new generation with the belief that naturalistic science is the only source both of knowledge and of true “magic”-the poetic wonder of discovery.

The book would not be much of a problem if it stuck to data and theories. But throughout the text, Dawkins inserts fatherly asides to caution the reader against supernatural, superstitious nonsense-the enemy of true science. The procedure is to offer sober science and an atheistic worldview as a package deal. C. S. Lewis discerned a similar danger in the “Green Book,” ostensibly a work of English grammar, whose actual effect was to inculcate moral relativism: “The very power of [the book] depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy…who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory which they put into his head, but an assumption, which ten years hence…will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.”1

Dawkins’s approach is to mold impressionable minds with the presumption that all that really exists is a closed physical universe of pitiless indifference (p. 235). Pursuing the logic of natural selection, he concludes that a living creature is simply “a survival machine for genes. Next time you look in the mirror, just think: that is what you are too” (74–75). This means that the “poetic wonder” of scientific discovery has no ultimate significance. There are no valuable truths to discover, nor valuable people to discover them: we are lumbering robots in a meaningless world. Like the Green Book criticized by Lewis, Dawkins’s book will likely produce more people “without a chest,” closed to the transcendent realms of God’s moral law and saving work.

Propaganda. Throughout Dawkins’s entertaining text, which explores biology, astronomy, chemistry, physics, natural disasters, and alleged miracles, Dawkins seeks to discredit biblical revelation by citing its stories as myths alongside pagan myths and modern “urban legends.” Thus Genesis is presented with Norse mythology (34–35) and Dawkins repeats the old chestnut that since there are elements in common between the flood account in The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Genesis flood, the latter is cultural borrowing (140–43). Although there are some similarities, many of these would be expected in any flood account, and there are also marked differences. Most importantly, Dawkins does not seriously consider the possibility that both accounts arise from an actual historical event. Worse, when archaeologists do find evidence of the historicity of a biblical event, Dawkins attributes it all to purely natural causes anyway (208–9). And he relies heavily on David Hume’s famous critique of miracles (254–65), with no reference to John Earman’s devastating critique, Hume’s Abject Failure (Oxford, 2000).

Invincible Ignorance. Evidently, Dawkins has adopted a position that makes it impossible for him to contact transcendent realities. Dawkins tells us he would never accept a supernatural explanation regardless of the evidence, “Because anything ‘super natural’ must by definition be beyond the reach of a natural explanation” (23). But refusing to allow supernatural explanations does not show they are false. And Dawkins continues to complain that “none of the myths gives any explanation for how the creator of the universe himself…came into existence” (163), refusing to allow the idea of a necessary being that has no origin.

Interestingly, Dawkins never considers the possibility that theism might give a better explanation than materialism for the success of the science he prizes. Why does the world conform to orderly laws? Why should we expect our minds to be capable of discovering them? If he faced these questions without prejudice, Dawkins might begin to see that there is a deeper magic still.

–Angus Menuge

Angus Menuge, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Concordia University, Wisconsin. His book review, “Dawkins’s Youth Ministry” appears in the Volume 35, No. 1 special “Origins” issue of the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL available by donation only.


1. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 16–17.

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To view this article in the PDF format, please click here. 

The article above is from the current, special origins issue of our award-winning magazine, the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL | What Were the Origins of Life on Earth? This special issue is packed full of compelling articles by many of the biggest names in the Intelligent Design movement, relating to all aspects of the origins problem—scientific, theological, philosophical, hermeneutical, and apologetic (see the Table of Contents here). But not only so, this special issue also features a sneak peek at Hank Hanegraaff’s forthcoming Creation Answer Book!

Journal Topics

How the Gospel Frees Us from Psychological Oppression

The following article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL | Homosexuality, Teens, and Bullying , Volume 34, Number 03 (2011).

Christianity is often pejoratively referred to as “dirty rotten sinner” religion. Our detractors will often say something like this: “Christians tend to be so guilt-ridden. They feel that they have to go through life degrading themselves in order to win God’s approval. I find that very depressing. Instead, I want a spirituality that’s positive, freeing, and one that will make me feel good about myself.”

This type of reaction is very understandable. We all want to be happy, and it might seem that the gospel is a one-way street into a medieval village where the Inquisition is diabolically entrenched, seeking to wipe away every smile. While it’s a hard sell merely to claim that the gospel will set us free from so many of life’s torments, a story might prove helpful.

For the first few years that I was teaching Bible and theology at the New York School of the Bible, I was assailed by such intense feelings of unworthiness, shame, and self-contempt that they co-opted my thought life. Driven by such powerful feelings, my self-doubts seemed to speak with unassailable authority: “You teach? What type of Christian are you anyway? You think you really have faith? Look how selfish and self-absorbed you are. How are you going to help anyone? What a charlatan, posing in the front of the class as some type of authority! What do you think their reaction would be if they really knew you?”

Devastated by these indictments, I wanted to disappear and to have the buildings of New York City implode over my head and swallow me up without a sign. Many times I thought of calling my school to say, “Find yourself someone else. I’m not your man.” But gradually, the gospel began to take root.

Good Christian. In my longstanding pre-Christian struggle to attain some sense of significance and value, I’d ward off the shame and self-contempt through positive affirmations: “I’m a good person; no, I’m a vastly superior person. I’m _____, _____, _____, and more. I’m a once-in-a-lifetime person!” There was no end to the superlatives. In fact, I was always inventing new ones—whatever I needed to tell myself to keep the shame at bay. However, these never sufficed, and so I always needed to up the superlatives in order to overcome the ubiquitous feelings of shame.

As a Christian, I learned that it was wrong to engage in such self-stroking. But I had to do something about the poisonous arrows of my own demons. I needed to prove myself, and now I had a new vehicle with which to do it. I would excel at spirituality! I would prove, at least to myself, that I was worthy of God’s grace.

I reassured myself that I was more deserving of salvation than others. I was more spiritual; I had chosen God because I wasn’t as carnal as most of the human race. I had the keenness of mind to recognize the surpassing value of the things of God, and I had a great destiny, not just in heaven, like all the other Christians, but I would also lead the way here.

God loves us too much, however, to allow us to continue in our delusions. He closed my hand to all my dreams of spiritual accomplishment. Even more difficult to endure, I began to see my own poverty of spirit, my utter unworthiness. My levees were overwhelmed, and the demons of shame and self-contempt came roaring back. I feverishly sought to rebuild the levees with good works—anything that would tell me, “You’re OK!”

However, in my torment, I began to read the Bible with new tear-filled eyes, hoping to find a God tucked within its pages who would be far more merciful than I had ever dared to hope for. Jesus told a parable about two men who entered the temple to pray. One was a self-assured Pharisee, the other a broken sinner who lacked the confidence even to look up to heaven (Luke 18:9–14). I had become that broken sinner, now defenseless against the internal raging. I had been stripped of confidence and any sense that there was something about me that would merit even a glance from a holy God.

Paradoxically, this was the beginning of psychological freedom. I had been stripped bare of all my defenses, and for the first time in my life, I gradually found that I didn’t need them. I could finally let go of my miserable fig leaves, because I was beginning to know a God who wanted to clothe me with His forgiveness, His righteousness, and His sanctification (1 Cor. 1:29–30). I was beginning to learn that I was complete in Him (Col. 2:9–10), not because of who I am, but because of who He is.

It took me a while to learn these lessons. The Bible was my thought life foundation, but it seemed to say such contradictory things. On the one hand, it assured me that salvation, along with everything else I needed, was absolutely free. But then I observed that other verses seemed to say that God’s “gifts” also required some labor on my part. These “contradictions” first needed to be resolved before I could decisively confront my demons.

However slowly, that day did come. Now, when demons accuse me of my failures and unworthiness, I’m ready for them: “Satan, you’re right! I am totally unworthy to serve God, let alone to teach. I don’t deserve the slightest thing from Him. But I have an incredible God who is everything to me—my righteousness, my sanctification, and whatever else I need. He loves me with an undying love and will never leave me. It is He who has given me the privilege to serve Him by teaching. I’m so glad that I’ve been reminded of my unworthiness, because this just prompts me to be grateful, and makes me want to sing His praises.”

Understanding the truths of Scripture becomes a wellspring of peace (Col. 2:1–4). I’m now rid of some baggage that had been too heavy to bear. As Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32 NKJV). The truth has set me free—free from the need to defend myself, free from struggling to prove myself, free from shame and self-contempt, and free from the fear of failure. Well, not absolutely free, but free enough.

This freedom would never have come without seeing the depths of my unworthiness. Had I not come to this crushing point, I would never have discovered true grace, and without receiving this incredible grace, I never would have found the confidence to lay aside all the inner struggles and finally to accept the fact that I’m an utter sinner saved by grace. Not everyone’s experience is as intense as mine was, but we all have a conscience that tells us things we don’t want to hear, and we all have attempted to beat it down one way or another (Rom. 1:18–21). We all yearn to prove ourselves and, to accomplish this, we resort to self-deception.

This isn’t merely a biblical point of view; this is the prevailing view of psychology. Shelley Taylor writes, “As we have seen, people are positively biased in their assessments of themselves and of their ability to control what goes on around them, as well as in their views of the future. The widespread existence of these biases and the ease with which they can be documented suggests that they are normal.”1

While for the successful and admired, these biases are easy to maintain, for the depressed, they require more effort than can be sustained. Ironically, the more successful we are at maintaining our comforting self-delusions, the more we sacrifice mental flexibility, freedom, and joy. As paradoxical as it might seem, the road to freedom compels us on a humbling journey through the “valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4 NKJV), where our old armor and defenses are stripped away so that we can be reclothed in splendor. No wonder Jesus tells us, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14 NKJV).

Blessed Assurance. How then do we come to this place of assurance of God’s grace in the face of our spiritual brokenness? It’s not possible on our own. Jesus had taught emphatically against the idea of self-salvation (Matt. 19:26; John 3:3; 6:44). He made it equally clear, however, that spiritual growth is also impossible without His involvement (John 15:4–5). Knowing this, we have to trust Him to perform for us the humanly impossible and to cry out for His intervention.

Spiritual desperation is a lens that brings grace into focus. It’s this mourning that sharpens our eyes to the reality of grace (Matt. 5:3–4; Ps. 25:8–9; 14–15). But what if we don’t see our neediness? We have to embrace the prayer of David: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23–24 NIV).

Trust Him in this. He has promised to reveal to us our spiritual deficiencies as He also did for the churches of the book of Revelation (chaps. 2–3). As Paul proclaimed: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained” (Phil. 3:14–16 NIV).

The more we grow into the assurance of the gift of His acceptance, the more we will grow into self-acceptance. With self-acceptance, we can begin to be transparent about our failures and inadequacies and even to laugh at ourselves. I used to think that in order to show Christ off to the world, I had to exhibit Christ-like perfection. Well, I’ve learned instead that I’m far from perfect, but I have a Savior who is perfect. I’m inadequate, but He is fully adequate. This has given me not only a freedom to be me, but also a lowliness and a confidence to draw other broken people to the One who can make all the difference.

—Daniel Mann

Daniel Mann has taught at the New York School of Bible since 1992. He is the author of Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God’s Way.


Shelley E. Taylor, Positive Illusions (New York: Basic Books, 1989), 46.

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In the News, Journal Topics

Mormon Leaders Want To Stop “Unauthorized” Baptisms for the Dead

Howard Berkes for National Public Radio reported that this coming Sunday (March 11, 2012), Mormon leaders are formally warning followers to stop controversial baptisms for the dead, particularly of “unauthorized groups” such as “celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims,” and a letter will be read in every congregation stating: “Our preeminent obligation is to seek out and identify our own ancestors…Those whose names are submitted for proxy [baptisms] should be related to the submitter.” There is also concern over non-Mormons being offended in finding out their deceased family members had been baptized into Mormonism.

The complete letter to be read has been published in The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints Newsroom article “First Presidency Issues Direction on Names Submitted for Temple Ordinances.” It is as follows:

We would like to reiterate the policies first stated in 1995 concerning the submission of names for proxy temple ordinances:

Our preeminent obligation is to seek out and identify our own ancestors. Those whose names are submitted for proxy temple ordinances should be related to the submitter.

Without exception, Church members must not submit for proxy temple ordinances any names from unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims. If members do so, they may forfeit their New FamilySearch privileges. Other corrective action may also be taken.

Members are encouraged to participate in FamilySearch indexing which is vital to family history and temple work.

Bishops are asked to post this letter on their meetinghouse bulletin boards. Church members may seek the assistance of the family history consultants in their area for additional information, if needed. Name submission policies are also clearly stated on New.FamilySearch.org.

We appreciate the faithful adherence to these policies by all members of the Church.

Sincerely yours,

Thomas S. Monson

Henry B. Eyring

Dieter F. Uchtdorf

The First Presidency

Baptism for the dead is one of several Mormon Temple Rituals vital for attaining godhood, which Hank Hanegraaff contends have no biblical sanction. Although just exactly what the apostle Paul meant in speaking of the “baptism for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a matter of some debate, the Mormon interpretation and practice is clearly not consistent with the teaching of Scripture. The Christian Research Journal has well-critiqued baptism by proxy and set forth viable interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15:29 in the articles “The Mormon Doctrine of Salvation for the Dead: An Examination of Its Claimed Biblical Basis” by Luke P. Wilson, and “Baptism for the Dead: Discerning Historical Precedent from Mere Prose” by Steve Bright.

—Warren Nozaki, Research

For further study on Mormonism, CRI recommends the following bookstore resources:

Memorable Keys to the M-O-R-M-O-N Mirage by Hank Hanegraaff

Mormonism 101 by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson

One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church by Richard Abanes

Mormonism’s Greatest Problems Package featuring Bill McKeever, Eric Johnson, and Sandra Tanner