Easter Examined: Could Jesus have risen from the dead?

As a child I learned many ‘fantastic’ stories surrounding our religious holidays.  I learned that a jolly fat man lived in the North Pole and flew around the world with reindeer, climbing down chimneys to give gifts to good girls and boys on Christmas.  I learned about the Easter bunny that gave out eggs and chocolates to the same good girls and boys at Easter time.  As I grew older I realized that these stories were cute but not true – I could look back and smile on them – but I would (and did) outgrow them.

Is the Resurrection story of Jesus credible?

I also learned other ‘stories’ about our religious holidays.  These stories had shepherds seeing angels, wise men following stars, a baby born in a manger – stories that form the basis of the Christmas celebration.  But perhaps the most dramatic was the story of how Jesus died on a cross, but that three days later he came back to life again – stories forming the basis of Easter.

These second set of stories, taken at face value, seem as fantastic as the first set.  The question I had when I got a little older and realized that the first set of stories were not ‘really’ true was – Is the second set also false?  After all, these stories seem equally incredible!  This is especially true of the Easter story which claimed that three days after his death, Jesus underwent a physical resurrection and came to life again.  This is probably the most audacious story across all religions, one perhaps fit for a tabloid headline – ‘Dead Man Comes Back to Life’.  Could it be true? Or even credible?  Was there any reasonable evidence to substantiate it?

The Resurrection: A Life-and-Death Issue

These are hard questions to answer.  But surely it is worth some adult thought since it touches on our mortality.  After all, as Woody Allen reminded us in ‘The Wisdom I learned from a filthy-rich, hard-drinking playboy’ death is inevitable for you, me and all others too.  If Jesus has in some way defeated death then it would have huge implications for all of us.  So in this and the subsequent post I want to briefly summarize some things I have learned in studying and thinking through this question.  There are more detailed videos in Session 7.

Perhaps the best way to try to answer this question is to work through all the possible alternatives and see which alternative makes most sense – without prejudging by ‘faith’ any supernatural explanation.  That Jesus lived and died a public death that has altered the course of history is certain.  One need not even go to the Bible for that.  We looked at some external evidence for this in Session 4.  But here let’s review a couple of secular references to Jesus and the impact he made on the world of his day.

Tacitus’ Testimony relating to Jesus and the Resurrection

The Roman governor-historian Tacitus made a fascinating reference to Jesus when describing how Nero martyred 1st century Christians (in AD 65) as scapegoats for the burning of Rome.  Here is what he says:

‘Nero.. punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also’ (Annals XV. 44)

The interesting point about this statement is that Tacitus corroborates that Jesus was: 1) a historical person; 2) executed by Pontius Pilate in Judea; 3) by 65 AD (time of Nero) the Christian faith had spread across the Mediterranean to Rome from Judea – and with such an intensity that the emperor of Rome felt he had to deal with it.  Notice as well that Cornelius Tacitus is saying these things as a hostile witness since he considers what Christ started a ‘pernicious superstition’.

Josephus’ Testimony relating to Jesus & the Resurrection

Josephus was a Jewish military leader/historian who wrote to a Roman audience.  In this writing he summarizes the history of the Jewish nation from its beginning up to his time.  In so doing he covers the time and career of Jesus with these words:

‘At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous.  And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive’… (Antiquities xviii. 33)

So it seems from these glimpses back into the past that the death of Christ was a known and discussed event and the issue of his resurrection was being forced unto the Roman world by his disciples.

Acts on Events in Jerusalem just after Jesus’ Crucifixion

Luke, a physician and historian provides further details as to how this movement advanced in the ancient world.  Here is his excerpt from Acts:

‘The priests and the captain … came up to Peter and John … They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead…They seized Peter and John… put them in jail…When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished… “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked’.. (Acts 4:1-16)
‘Then the high priest and all his associates,… arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. …they were furious and wanted to put them to death….They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.’ (Acts 5:17-40)

One can see from this account that the political/religious leaders were going to great lengths to stop this ‘pernicious superstition’ (as Tacitus called it).  We should note that these events were occurring in Jerusalem – the same city where only a few weeks earlier Jesus had been publicly executed and buried.

An Empty Tomb: Reasoned from Historical Testimony

Having surveyed the pertinent historical data we are in a position to work through the possible explanations that surround the hypothesized resurrection of Christ.  To start with, we have two (and only two) possible alternatives concerning the body of the dead Jesus.

Options for the Jesus' Tomb occupied or empty
Options for the Tomb of Jesus

As the figure shows, the body of Christ was either in the tomb or was not.  Let us assume that his body was still in the tomb.  As we reflect on the unfolding events recorded in history, however, we are quickly confronted with absurdities.  Why would the religious/political leaders have to go to such extremes to stop such exaggerations of an alleged resurrection if the body was still in the tomb, a few minutes walk from where the disciples were publicly proclaiming his resurrection?  If I had been one of those religious/political leaders, I would have waited until Peter or John had reached the climax of their speech concerning the resurrection and then publicly paraded the body of Christ before all – audience and disciples.  I would have discredited the fledgling movement without having to imprison, torture and finally martyr them!  And consider – thousands were converted to belief in the physical resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem at this time.  If I had been one of those in the crowds – listening to Peter, pondering and wondering if I could believe his incredible message (after all, this belief came with a price of persecution) I would have at least taken my lunch break to go down to the tomb to take a look for myself.  If the body of Christ was still in the tomb this movement would not have gained any adherents in such a hostile environment with such incriminating counter evidence on-hand.  So Christ’s body remaining in the tomb leads to absurdities.  This alternative cannot be seriously entertained.

Tomb was not occupied

Of course this does not prove a resurrection.  There are several natural possibilities for how a tomb can get empty.  In my next post I look at some.

The Septuagint Part 2

In my previous post I introduced the Septuagint as a book that has changed history.  As I noted, the Septuagint is an important textual stream for the Old Testament and is used as such. But probably the biggest significance of the Septuagint on us today and one reason I say that it has changed history is its influence on the New Testament.  The Old Testament is quoted throughout the entire New Testament.  And all the New Testament books were written in Greek (due to the Hellenization of that world as explained in my previous post).  Therefore, when these New Testament writers quote the Old Testament they quote from the Septuagint rather than from the Hebrew Old Testament.  It would have been counterproductive to have a book written in Greek with Hebrew quotes in it since very few readers would have been able to understand the quotes.  The primary significance for us today then of the Septuagint is how it is used and carried into the New Testament.

The Septuagint use by early Apologists

But this leads us directly to another reason that the Septuagint has changed human history.  Its use did not end at the close of the New Testament period.  The people who followed in the wake of the apostles also quoted from the Septuagint.  These early apologists, as they were called, wrote to both Jewish and pagans alike in the Greco-Roman world.  Their writings are extensive.  In fact a compilation of the writings from 95 AD – 315 AD (i.e. the end of the apostolic era to Constantine’s edict finally making Christianity legal in the Roman Empire) that are extant, or survived to this day, make a 14 volume encyclopedia set!  These writers quoted extensively from both the Septuagint and the New Testament documents.  And because the language used was Greek throughout, their readers were brought to clearly see Jesus in the Septuagint Old Testament.  In fact these apologists for the gospel did such a good job using the Septuagint to persuade Jewish people to the gospel that the Jews quietly stopped using the Septuagint in the 2nd century – even though it always had been a Jewish work.  As an introductory article to a modern Septuagint translation (the EOB) states

“As Christianity began to spread, the Septuagint was used with persuasive effect by Christian apologists – so well, in fact, that in time the Jews of the dispersion replaced it with newer works.” EOB  Rick Grant Jones (p64)

These apologists also used the Septuagint to write to their pagan contemporaries.  In fact some of their writings were directed straight to the Roman Emperors of their day so confident were they of the reasonableness of the gospel.

And their writings had an effect.  Gradually their main contentions started to circulate and gain a hearing.  Over a few generations educated thinkers were persuaded so that in time the course of the Greco-Roman world changed – and human history changed.  The Septuagint was foundational to this change.

Session Six – Following the lead of these apologists

My hope in Session Six is to capture some of what these people saw and to follow some of their arguments. Session Six is now completed and all content is uploaded.  I invite you to follow some of the greater deliberations that were discussed and argued in the decades following the New Testament apostolic period. And like their readers you can consider for yourself whether you agree or come to other conclusions.  That is part of the richness in considering the gospel.  This introductory article is a good place to start.

Considering the Septuagint: Today’s forgotten book that changed human history (Part 1)

In the Welcome Article for this blogsite I raised the remarkable phenomenon of how the gospel spread so quickly and pervasively when it burst onto Greco-Rome of classical times – even though it was met with ferocious and bloody opposition from that same world.  So what fueled such a forceful advance?  Several reasons stand out, but the one that I want to focus on for the next while has to do with what the people of that era saw in the Bible of their day.  But to better  appreciate what they saw, we need to re-discover their Bible since it has become a mostly forgotten book in our day.  So with this endgoal in mind, I introduce the Bible of that era – the Septuagint.  But first let’s back up abit in history.

Historical Background to the Septuagint

When Alexander the Great conquered the then known world he brought the Greek language, culture and philosophy to the civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia.  When he died in 323 BC at the age of 32 he left behind a world that almost universally adopted the Greek language, thought and culture (known as Hellenism), thus unifying the world so that ideas and writings could be exchanged by all in one universal language – Greek.  And the Roman Empire which succeeded his short-lived conquests continued to use, and thus increase the influence of, Greek.

Greek was the principal language of the classical world from about 300 BC – 300 AD, and thus a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek was made around 200 B.C. by a group of Jewish rabbis in Alexandria (a city in Egypt present till today and founded by Alexander the Great).  Known as the Septuagint (or LXX), it was widely used in the Greco-Roman world and was of critical importance in the development of the Gospel for several reasons.

Impact of the Septuagint

First of all, the Septuagint translation was made because in that Hellenistic world the Jewish people were slowly losing their grasp of Hebrew and many were becoming primarily Greek-speakers and the LXX thus allowed them to continue reading their scriptures in their new language.  But it also allowed the writings of the Old Testament to be read and assessed by basically all Gentiles (non-Jews).  And in the spirit of that age in which philosophy, history and religion of various cultures were read, for the first time many non-Jews were exposed to the writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets.

Septuagint impact on New Testament times

We see the impact of this in the New Testament historical accounts.  John 12:20 tells us that Greeks (i.e. non-Jews) were worshiping at a Jewish feast in Jerusalem and asked to meet with Jesus.  Why are Greeks ‘worshiping’ at a Jewish festival in Jerusalem?  It is the influence of the Septuagint.  The book of Acts records the travels of the apostles subsequent to the ministry of Jesus and it notes how they would come upon (and even look for) non-Jewish converts to Judaism.  Why are there non-Jewish converts to Judaism dotted around the Greco-Roman world in the period 30-60 AD (the period covered by Acts)?  Again, the influence of the Septuagint having been read, heard, and brought to the attention of non-Jews for more than two hundred years had fostered this development.

And what did these people ‘see’ in the Septuagint?  For starters they saw ‘Christ’ in the pages of the Old Testament because the word was used directly in it.

Septuagint in Modern Textual Criticism and Translation

The Septuagint is also significant in textual criticism.  We noted in the 2nd video of Session 3 (the one dealing with Old Testament textual reliability) that we basically have two families of Hebrew manuscripts with which we access the Hebrew Old Testament and translate it into a modern language.  The more traditional stream is the Masoretic family of manuscripts, which has extant manuscripts dating from about 900 AD.  This is the traditional source for the Old Testament in today’s Bible.  I noted that the second stream, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were only recently discovered in 1948 and are dated back to about 200 BC.  Thus in the DSS we have a much older family of manuscripts than the Masoretic text.  And I noted that these two families of texts are basically identical – showing how well preserved the Hebrew Old Testament is.

The Septuagint gives us a third stream of text to access the Old Testament.  Since the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew around 200 BC we can see (if in a sense we reverse translate) what these translators had in their Hebrew manuscripts that they translated from.  The most widely accepted view today is that the Septuagint provides an  accurate record of an early Hebrew text, now lost, that had some variance from the ancestors of the Masoretic text.  And so it is used as a supplemental source in translation today.  This is why you can see some footnotes in modern translations of the Old Testament where our modern translators tell us what the Septuagint says in some particular passage.  In other words, translation scholars use the Septuagint to this day to help them translate some of the more difficult passages of the Old Testament.  Greek is very well understood and in some passages where the Hebrew is obscure translators can see how the Septuagint translators understood these obscure passages.  As an example, when the New International Version translates the last phrase of Job 7:20 to ‘Have I become a burden to you?’ they are helped by the Septuagint. How do I know this?  The footnotes indicate it. The overall contribution then of the Septuagint to the Old Testament is that it provides another manuscript stream supporting the reliability of the Old Testament as well as providing insight for some more obscure passages.

Septuagint in the Orthodox

But even more than a supplement to translate the Old Testament, followers of the Gospel in Eastern Orthodox traditions (Greek, Coptic etc.) to this day use the Septuagint over the Masoretic text (either in reading from the LXX directly or in translating primarily from the LXX rather than the Hebrew text).  It is their preferred manuscript family.

Extant Septuagint Manuscripts

Of course, just like we do not have the originals of the Hebrew Old Testament, neither do we have the originals of the Septuagint (ie the scrolls that the original translators back in 200 BC developed).  We have manuscript copies of these.  The oldest extant manuscripts of the LXX include fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy dated to 2nd century BC (Rahlfs nos. 801, 819, and 957), and 1st century BC fragments of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Minor Prophets (Rahlfs nos. 802, 803, 805, 848, 942, and 943).  Complete manuscripts of the LXX are found in the Codex Vaticanus (325 AD) and the Codex Sinaiticus (350 AD). (See Session Three if you need a primer on what these Codices are.)

Summary of Old Testament development with Septuagint

We can summarize what we have covered of the Old Testament text using a timeline shown in the figure below.  The individual books of the Old Testament were written down in Hebrew over more than a thousand year period .  They were translated into the Septuagint (LXX) around 200 BC so from then on there was a Greek as well as a Hebrew text stream.  The Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (from early-mid 300’s AD) are extant copies of the LXX.  The Hebrew text was preserved by the Masoretes, from whom we have extant manuscripts dating approximately 900 AD.  The Dead Sea Scrolls was another Hebrew textual family dating to around 200-100 BC that was essentially identical to the Masoretic text.  Translations into English today primarily use the Hebrew Masoretic and Dead Sea Scrolls, but the LXX is also used to inform translators on meaning and choice of words.

History of the MSSs including LXX that give us modern BiblesBut these are not the primary reasons why the Septuagint ‘has changed human history’  We consider that in our next post.

Richard Dawkins and our Moral Tao – Part 2

In my previous post I looked at how Richard Dawkins argues that experimental evidence shows that we have a universal moral grammar hardwired into our brains.  At simple face value this is easily explained as a result of a moral agent doing the hardwiring of our brains.  But this is a metaphysical explanation, and not being able to accept such an explanation because of his materialistic worldview, Richard Dawkins instead attributes our moral grammar (or Tao as per the post on it) to natural selection.  In his view, emerging humans in the distant past actually did have subjective and random morality but the process of selection across all peoples over time has weeded out all other moral alignments so that only this current one remains.  Our Tao today is just due to the selective advantages that this Tao had over other past ones.  Thus (in his view) it appears to us today to be an absolute Tao (both in terms of how it operates in us, and that people all share a similar Tao) but in the emerging primitive tribes there were some Taos that extolled lying, greed, cheating, dishonesty, cowardice etc. as virtues but these were selected out because these tribal societies could not compete with those who had the Tao that we have today.

Dawkins:  Natural Selection as the cause of our Moral Tao

Dawkins puts forward explanations of why our modern Tao rather than other ‘selfish’ ones have greater survival value and thus would be selected for.   Let’s read his explanation:

“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.  First, there is the special case of genetic kinship [a gene that programs individual organisms to favour or be ‘moral’ to related kin].  Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback [‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’].  Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.  And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising”[1]

In other words, according to Dawkins, there are four reasons why natural selection could cause the Moral grammar or Tao that we have today.  First because this Tao allowed us to better cooperate with kin, and close kin would carry more or less the same genes and this cooperation allowed this gene expression to be selected for.  Secondly, again within a group of emerging humans, our current Tao increased a symbiotic cooperation of helping and being helped (‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours’) and thus increased survival.  Third, with enough cooperation in the group there would then be a reputation for generosity and the reputation, in and of itself, would enhance survivability and thus selection.  Finally, again within a group, extraordinary generosity would be a sign of dominance, and since they could afford to pay for this generosity they would have higher fitness.

None of these reasons that Dawkins gives are moral reasons, they are solely utilitarian and survival-based.  If these are the reasons that brought about our current Tao it would only prove that morals are indeed ‘an illusion’ (as Provine calls them in Session Two).  They only exist and are ‘moral’ because they selected for certain survival traits.

Dawkins:  Why Biblical Morality is Deficient

Unfortunately for Dawkins, we know from the rest of his book that he himself does not believe his own reasons.  For these reasons to be even conceivably plausible they must operate within a social and kin-based group where individuals can help their blood relatives, gain reputation, help each other out, and be conspicuously generous.  Now just a few pages further on in his book Dawkins attacks Biblical morality and Jesus’ maxim to ‘love thy neighbour’.  The point of his attack is to show that these moral teachings were ‘only’ meant to apply solely within Jewish society.  Referring to Hartung who wrote about this he says:

“Hartung clearly shows that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was never intended to mean what we now think it means.  It meant, very specifically, that thou shalt not kill Jews.  And all those commandments that make reference to ‘thy neighbour’ are equally exclusive.  ‘Neighbour’ means fellow Jew. …  For me, this demonstrated that our morals, whether we are religious or not, come from another source; and that source, whatever it is, is available to all of us, regardless of religion or lack of it”[2]

Dawkins: Contradicting himself

OK.  But he just argued that supposedly our morality was forged because people were within a blood-related social ‘in-group’ which favoured the selection of ‘altruistic’ genes in that society, and hence favoured that society.  The Jews of the Bible precisely formed such a blood-related social in-group.  If he really believed that selection in such a group brought about what we now know as ‘morality’ then he would be showcasing the Jewish Old Testament as proof positive of this process.  But he does the opposite – saying their morality was deficient.  So he gives us a deeper insight into our Tao by criticizing Biblical morality as fake or deficient precisely because (he thinks) in their case it was only to be applied among kin and not universally.  He makes us ask, in effect, “Which is a better morality – one where I am good only to my blood relative, or where I am good to all people?” And we instinctively agree with him that an ‘in-group’ morality is in fact deficient, that it does not measure with our Tao.  But he cannot have it both ways.  Kin-based natural selection cannot both be the cause that forged our moral Tao while this same Tao tells us that kin-based morals are deficient or immoral.  He really believes morals are ‘good’ when they are universal, and we agree with him on this point.  But this contradicts his Darwinian speculations about their ‘in-group’ basis.  In his zeal to discredit the Bible, to show its deficiency, he helps us see that our Tao cannot have such an ‘in-group’ root.

Our Moral Tao – from where?

Thus we are left with his statement that ‘our morals … come from another source…’.  Now Dawkins is absolutely correct in saying that since all people have a similar Moral Tao (this universal moral grammar) that religion is not the source.  The cause is deeper than religion.  And that is why we have a moral Tao whether we are religious or not.  And since natural selection is not the cause of our morals we are once again back to ultimate metaphysical causes – the Moral Lawgiver – who hardwired this into us regardless of our culture, our religion, or our lack of religion.

Biblical view of Morals

So what is this other source?  The Biblical explanation is that we were originally made in the image of God – giving us our moral Tao – but then mankind had a fall into corruption, so that we cannot grasp in practice the morals that we can glimpse.  The Biblical view shrewdly captures the essence of our morality, and from the beginning of its narrative unfolds the Divine Plan to restore us from our condition.

[1] The God Delusion.  P.219-220

[2] The God Delusion p.254-255

Richard Dawkins and the Moral Tao – Part 1

In my previous post I introduced the term ‘Tao’, borrowed from CS Lewis, to designate reality as having values of an essence that demands appropriate (moral) responses from us.  Perhaps surprisingly, Richard Dawkins, in his well-known book The God Delusion, cites experimental evidence supporting this view of the Tao.  I briefly mentioned this in the videos of Session Two.  In this post I want to explore it further.

Morals built into our brains – the tests of Marc Hauser

Dawkins references the work of biologist Marc Hauser where Hauser had developed experimental tests given to people posing a series of moral dilemmas.  The dilemmas involved hypothetical cases of people about to die in accidents, with possible ways to save them that sometimes involved risk to others.  The goal of the tests was not to determine the right course of action in each situation, but to see how and why people responded as they did.  As Dawkins reports:

“The interesting thing is that most people come to the same decisions when faced with these dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger than their ability to articulate their reasons.  This is what we should expect if we have a moral sense which is built into our brains, … as Hauser himself prefers to say like our capacity for language (the details vary from culture to culture, but the underlying deep structure of grammar is universal)”[1]

“In an intriguing venture into anthropology, Hauser and his colleagues adapted their moral experiments to the Kuna, a small Central American tribe with little contact with westerners and no formal religions…the Kuna showed the same moral judgments as the rest of us”[2]

“Hauser … compared the verdicts of atheists with those of religious people… there is no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making these judgments”[3]

Hauser’s work is experimental corroboration of CS Lewis’s Tao.  When we reason morally we are not inventing morals, we perceive absolute moral truths.  And this ability flies beneath the radar of our awareness.  This is why sometimes it seems unnatural to even ask the question “why is dishonesty wrong?”  Our moral sense just tells us that it is though our ability to articulate why does not come as readily.

Mankind: Equipped with a universal moral grammar

Dawkins and Hauser conclude that:

“Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind that evolved over millions of years to include a set of principles for building a range of possible moral systems.  As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness”[4]

Dawkins and Hauser both attribute this moral grammar (i.e. ‘Tao’) to evolution, but there is nothing in the fact of its existence that requires an evolutionary explanation.  It is simply that their worldview requires that everything must be explained by naturalistic evolution.  But stand back and look at the big picture: the concept of innate moral laws hardwired into our brains fits readily with the idea of a Lawgiver who put them there.

Human Morals – Built into us like SciFi robots with Laws

Dawkins concludes from these experimental results that since non-westerners with no formal religion (the Kuna), as well as religious westerners, and atheists alike all have the same moral Tao, that therefore religion does not change or improve morality.  But this is to miss the point.  The important question is not whether religion improves our Tao; it is rather ‘Do we have a Tao grounded in absolutes outside of society’?  Dawkins and Bertrand Russell (in the first video of Session Two) themselves, using two distinct approaches, have shown us that we do.  Without intending to do so, they have actually helped us to see through our culture’s current widespread misconception that morals are relative.

Russell (in Session Two) has done so by showing how morals actually worked in him when he was ‘wronged’; in his indignation, when he forgot he was not trying to create a case for subjective morals, he showed us that in him they were absolute.  Dawkins showed that morality is a capacity within us that is like a ‘universal moral grammar’. We are morally aligned alike, with a moral ‘up’ and ‘down’, as if in reference to an absolute standard.  If this is the case, then morals are rooted outside of us and outside of society; they are absolute.  For us science fiction buffs, it is analogous to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics in his books and the movie I Robot.  These were moral laws planted into the circuitry of robots to give them ‘robot morals’.  But they were hardwired in by the robot creators – humans!  If a moral circuitry is wired into us, in a similar way, it hearkens back to the Creator who made us – a Moral Creator.

So Dawkins does not want this moral basis because this raises the natural question: where does this absolute moral reference come from?  As Dawkins puts it.

“Not all absolutism [ie an objective moral Tao] is derived from religion.  Nevertheless, it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones” [5]

He knows he is flirting one step away from admitting that a Lawgiver stands behind this Moral Law.  So instead, he advances reasons why natural selection (ie physical rather than metaphysical reasons) can explain why we have an objective morality.  In our next post I want to examine these reasons.

[1] The God Delusion.  p. 223

[2] Ibid. p. 225

[3] Ibid. p. 225-226

[4] The God Delusion. p. 223

[5] Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion” 2006 p. 232

Glimpsing the Moral Tao … But not able to Grasp it

In the 2nd video of Session Two I summarized the ethical teachings of major world religions of today.  What I found striking when I first studied them was their degree of congruence.  Every teaching upholds honesty, truthfulness, self-control, chastity as morally right.  None teach that cowardice, fickleness, unfaithfulness, dishonesty, greed etc. are virtues.  Though there are differences in emphasis and detail there is uniformity in direction.

We also looked at moral teachings from ancient Egyptian & Babylonian religions.  Again we noted the striking degree of congruence in their moral teaching – with each other, with us, and current world religions.  C.S. Lewis noted this congruence of values across cultures and called it the Tao, borrowing the term from the ancient Chinese.  He used it to signify an intrinsic values ‘compass’ that exists in people.  He explains:

“In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta … Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality.  Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’… The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao.  … It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road…. It is also the Way which every man should tread in … conforming all activities to that great exemplar.

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.  … What is common to them all is something we cannot neglect.  It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain values are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are….[it is to] recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not”[1]

Examples of the Moral Tao from ancient moral thinkers

Consider the following from esteemed thinkers in history – again coming from diverse cultures -articulating ‘good’ and ‘right’ behaviour.

Analects of Confucius – Ancient Chinese

  • Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.
  • The master said, “Respect the young”.
  • Gentlemen must learn to be faithful to their superiors and to keep promises.

Cicero De Off. 1. Vii – Ancient Rome

  • Men were brought into existence … that they might do one another good

Homer  Iliad ix 340 – Ancient Greece

  • Every good man, who is right-minded loves and cherishes his own

Christopher Hitchens Helps us Glimpse the Moral Tao

Though not trying to advocate objective values, well-known humanist Christopher Hitchens (whom I covered in these previous posts: The Passing of Christopher Hitchens: Carrying Misconception to the Grave, Christopher Hitchens and the Efficacy of Pascal’s Wager, Christopher Hitchens & North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il: Is it really Religion that Poisons Everything?) gives a modern-day example of what Lewis means by the Tao.  Hitchens tells the story of how a Muslim cab driver searched him out to return a large amount of cash that his wife had mistakenly left in his cab.  When Hitchens offered him some money the cab driver refused saying that he was only doing his duty in returning the forgotten money.  Hitchens comments:

“And if all Muslims conducted themselves like the man who gave up more than a week’s salary in order to do the right thing, I could be indifferent to the weird exhortations of the Koran.  If I search my own life for instances of good or fine behaviour I am not overwhelmed by an excess of choice.  I did once, shivering with fear, take off my flak jacket in Sarajevo and lend it to an even more frightened woman who I was helping to escort to a place of safety.”[2]

It was the ‘right’ thing to return the money.  It demanded a response from the cab driver that he was free to make or not.  Hitchens, the cab driver – and we ourselves – recognize this.  Hitchens admires this value so much that he says he would move from hostility and opposition to Islam to being neutral about it – if all Muslims would consistently exhibit this Tao in their behaviour.  Hitchens thinks in his own life that it was ‘right’ (in a situation that demanded a response which he was free to make or not) to help someone more vulnerable than he when they were both in a dangerous situation.  In these situations the basis of what made the action good had nothing to do with benefits to society or preferences of the individuals.  They were just what ought to have been done.  The Tao, to borrow from Lewis, is the Way – the Good Way – that we can all glimpse.

The Moral Tao – Hard to Grasp

But Hitchens also lets us on to something else.  He does not find this conformity to the Tao in the behaviour of most Muslims.  But closer to home, he says that in his own estimation about his own life he is not overwhelmed by evidence of actually practicing – or grasping – behaviour demanded by the Tao.  In fact, elsewhere he says it is impossible.  His own Tao is able to judge his own actions – and by his own words he does not find many instances where he himself grasped the Tao.

The Tao: Glimpsed but not Grasped by the Vikings

Being of Swedish origin I learned much about the activities of the Vikings 1000 years ago.  Though they were fearless explorers, discovering and colonizing Iceland, Greenland and even North America, they were also feared throughout Europe for their plundering, raping and pillaging raids.  They also traveled east raiding the Byzantium Empire and used the Volga River to launch raids into Russia.  Therefore I had always assumed that my ancestors of that era had no sense of moral values – a Tao – to speak of.  How surprised I was to learn something of what they taught about values.  Consider the following:

In Nastrond (=Hell) I saw … murderers … beguilers of others’ wives … the perjurers

Volospa 38, 39 (i.e. these things are vices)

Brothers shall fight and be each others’ bane

(Account of the ‘evil’ age before the World’s end showing that fighting among brothers to be a vice) Volopsa 45

This first I rede thee; be blameless to thy kindred.  Take no vengeance even though they do thee wrong

Sigrdrifumal 22

Anything is better than treachery

Havamal 124

Their ability to glimpse the Tao resonates both with ours as well as that of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians from the 2nd video of Session 2. But when we read of their raping and pillaging raids that terrorized Europe in the Middle Ages we see a discrepancy between what their moral intuition glimpsed and what their actions grasped – a discrepancy that parallels (though perhaps not as big) the discrepancy that Hitchens noted in his own life.  We noted this ability to glimpse the Tao (but not the term) along with a corresponding inability to grasp it in the previous post about the Iranian movie A Separation, amongst both the religious and the less religious in the modern Shia Islamic society of Iran.

The Tao: Glimpsed but not grasped today in Hindu India

The world’s largest recurring festival, the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival where devout Hindus travel long distances to wash ‘their sins away’, also shows how our ability to glimpse but not live morals crosses cultures, languages and religions.

The Biblical View of Morals

How do we explain this paradox that we humans can glimpse the moral, but not grasp it in how we live?  The Biblical explanation is that we were originally made in the image of God – giving us our moral Tao – but then mankind had a fall into corruption, so that we cannot grasp in practice the moral plumb line that we can glimpse.  The Biblical view shrewdly captures the essence of our morality, and from the beginning of its narrative unfolds the Divine Plan to restore us from our condition.

CS Lewis was a theist – a Christian even.  His view of morality was foundational to his belief in God.  Surprising as it may seem, Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent atheist today, also frames an objective basis for morals.  How he does so, and what it means, we look at in our next post.

[1] C.S. Lewis.  1944.  The Abolition of Man.  p.10-11.  This book, though not as well-known as his other books, has influenced me more than his other writings.  The moral statements from Confucius, Homer, Cicero & The Vikings come from the appendix in this book.  They, in turn, come from the Encyclopedia of Religions and Ethics (ERE)

[2] Christopher Hitchens.  god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything  p. 188

An Oscar Nominee hints at Objective Truth

A couple of weeks ago I was staying with some Iranian friends.  After supper we watched an Iranian film, A Separation, which is being nominated for two 2012 Academy Awards – Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.  It is a gripping tale of an upper-middle class couple in Tehran divorcing because the wife wants to leave Iran to provide a better life for their young daughter while the husband wants to remain and care for his father who has severe Alzheimer’s. Continue reading “An Oscar Nominee hints at Objective Truth”

From Soapberry Bugs to SuperBugs: Nature’s slippery slide down.

In the second video of Session 1 I documented immense confusion in attempts to try to identify a natural process which can be observed to increase the information and/or functional content in biological organisms.  And given the confident (but mistaken) claims of its detection and operation it is obvious that naturalists (in the sense of those who believe natural processes can explain life through an evolutionary process) expect it to be observable, i.e. the implicit prediction is that this process should be detected.  I surveyed the stickleback fish case study – written about in many university textbooks and popular books on evolution – and showed from what they themselves say this was simply a loss process – a slide down, not a gain up.  Then we saw that though birds can lose wings, and mutations can cause Apert’s Syndrome, these are not examples of gain-of-function processes – even though they are touted as such in the textbooks.  Natural selection, though observed, is also not a gain-of-function process.  They all decrease the information – that is – these processes of nature slide genomes downwards, not push them upwards to more functionality.

In our previous post we saw the cell function at the microscopic level, a point-of-view that convinced long-time atheist Antony Flew to change his mind for Intelligent Design.  But what rebuttals are given in university texts?  Let’s take a look at a prominent one: The Evolution of the Soapberry Bug.

The Soapberry Bug: A Case Study in Evolution

It took me some time (and a lot of reading) to arrive at this conclusion.  And if this is a new thought for you I am sure that likewise this will require more consideration.  But I am not just maliciously picking on some ‘mistaken’ examples in a sea of correct ones.  The examples I covered in the video are endemic across the literature.  But how can this be?  Analyzing another case study, taken from Evolutionary Analysis by Scott Freeman and JC Herron, can help us better understand how it occurs.

Soapberry bugs: Before & After
Soapberry bugs: Before & After the New Host Plant

In this study, soapberry bugs in Florida had traditionally fed on the Balloon vine fruit as shown in this figure taken from the text.

But in 1926 a new host plant for this bug was introduced and almost immediately biologists noticed a change in the beak length.  Our text concludes that:

the soapberry bug population evolved …the characteristics of soapberry bugs … have changed substantially (pg 41)

So again, an example of observed evolution is claimed.  A graph of beak lengths over time is presented from the text to support this conclusion.  I added the green vertical 1926 line which is the point at which beak lengths changed.  So what can we conclude?  As you can see, before 1926 soapberry beak lengths ranged from 9 to 5.5 millimeters – a 3.5 mm range.  After 1926, when this new tree was introduced the beak size range was reduced from 7.5 to 5.5 millmeters – a 2 mm range.  The title for the graph (which I circled) states this as ‘evolutionary change in soapberry bugs’.  But was anything new gained or developed?  Were even new beak lengths, not previously seen, observed?  No! Not at all!  All that happened was that after the new tree was introduced, beak sizes from 7.5 to 9 millimeters disappeared.  Information was lost!  A certain allele that produced long beaks was selected against in the new environment and was now gone.  Change –Yes!  Natural Selection – Yes!  Evolution – definitely not!  Their own data refutes it!

Evolution: Not just any Kind of Change

But how can this case study, which simply documents a loss (of longer beak lengths), be touted as an example of evolution?  It is simple.  The authors have equated ‘evolution’ with ‘change’.  But that is erroneous at best and misleading at worst.  Evolutionary naturalism as the establishment’s answer to Design is a claim to account for the origin and development of all life, and is supposed to be a process that over long time produces new information, genes and structures that were not previously there.  That is not just any kind of change, but a certain kind of change – one that increases genetic information and function.  To reason like these authors is like saying that increasing company profits is simply a change in the balance sheet, and thus if one can show any balance sheet change – such as a corporate loss  – this would demonstrate increased profits since a change has occurred in the balance sheet??!!   This is such a basic logical error – called the fallacy of equivocation – whereby the definition of a key term is subtly modified during the reasoning process (in this case ‘evolution’ is modified from ‘change with new function and information’ to ‘any change’) that I found it breathtaking to see it not just once, but again and again in so many university textbooks and books promoting naturalism and evolution.

Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics: A Case of Evolution?

And this is also true of the cases of Superbugs, perhaps the strongest cases in the public mind of observed evolution.  We have all heard of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics, having thus ‘evolved’, and now threatening humans with an epidemic.  What is happening in these situations?  Are new enzymes, processes, or organelles that were not previously there being developed by these bacteria?  That is what I had originally thought.  If so that would be an example of an innovative evolutionary process.

Natural Selection on Pre-Existing Traits: Not Evolution

But if we examine the literature we find this is not the case.  Consider the following:

‘most cases’ antibiotic resistance results from selection of an existing genetic trait, especially those traits that are highly variable, such as the natural defences that all organisms possess[1]

In other words in most cases, there were bacteria prior to the introduction of the antibiotic that already had the resistance.  The other bacteria were selected away by the antibiotic and we are left with the resistant bacteria.  For example, there was a 1988 University of Alberta study of bacteria on the bodies of Arctic explorers frozen in 1845.  Investigators discovered that some of the bacterial strains were resistant to antibiotics. The study, which evaluated six strains of Clostridium on three men who had been buried in permafrost, found the bacteria were particularly resistance to clindamycin and cefoxitin, both antibiotics that were developed over a century after the men died.[2]

Conjugation: Not a Gain of New Information

Bacteria can also physically transfer DNA from one organism to another – a process called conjugation.  In 1990 “a strain that was resistant to cadmium, penicillin, kanamycin, neomycin, streptomycin, tetracycline, and trimethoprim. … could resist, to varying degrees, some thirtyone different drugs. … The most common mode of passage was conjugation: one bacterium simply stretched out its cytoplasm and passed plasmids to its partner.”[3] This is similar to how we transfer information from one computer to another by using a USB stick.  But transferring information from one organism to another (or one computer to another) is not a process that is making or developing new information.  It is simply copying existing information.

Mutation in Streptomycin: Degradation not Evolution

Certain antibiotic resistances do occur from mutation.  But again these mutations do not develop new enzymes, processes or organelles.  They in fact damage existing enzymes and degrade the function of the bacteria.

Perhaps the best known example of this is resistance to the antibiotic streptomycin.  The figure on the left shows how this works.  Mycin antibiotics attack bacteria by having the right ‘fit’ to attach to a specific receptor site on the bacteria’s ribosomes, and thereby interfering with their protein-manufacturing process.  As a result, the proteins that the bacteria produce are non-functional – and they die.  Mammalian ribosomes do not contain the specific site where myosin drugs can attach, and for this reason the drug does not interfere with their ribosomes. Therefore, mycin drugs adversely affect bacterial growth without harming the host (us).

With resistant bacteria, mutations cause the bacteria to become resistant to streptomycin if the ribosome site where the streptomycin attaches is damaged by the mutation. As a result, the streptomycin no longer can bind, and therefore does not interfere as well with the ribosome function.  This is shown in the next figure.

Streptomycin with mutant resistant bacteria
Streptomycin with mutant resistant bacteria

Streptomycin-resistant bacteria actually are weaker in the wild for several reasons. The major reason is the ribosome’s specific shape is degraded in bacteria that become resistant to streptomycin, and as a result the ribosomes’ ability to translate certain RNA transcripts into protein is less effective.  Thus the mutations that confer resistance decrease the fitness of bacteria in environments without antibiotics. As a result they do not reproduce as quickly as non-resistant bacteria.  Evidence discovered so far indicates that these mutations render bacteria less fit in the wild because the mutant strain is less able to compete with the wild type.

No Observed Gain-of-Function

The mutations causing resistance to mycin is a case similar to birds on remote islands losing wings – it may be an advantage since there are no predators on those islands – but it is not an example of gain-of-function.  In the specific antibiotic environment, having a misshapen ribosome prevents the antibiotic from readily attaching and there is thus resistance.  But the ribosome does not function as well as non-mutant ribosomes and thus these bacteria are selected out (eliminated) in the wild.

Bacteria: No Evolution Observed

French biologist Pierre Grasse remarked on the irony of using bacteria as a showcase to try to observe evolution.  He stated:

Bacteria, the study of which has formed a great part of the foundation of genetics and molecular biology, are the organisms which, because of their huge numbers, produce the most mutants . . . bacteria, despite their great production of intra-specific varieties, exhibit a great fidelity to their species. The bacillus Echerichia coli, whose mutants have been studied very carefully, is the best example. The reader will agree that it is surprising, to say the least, to want to prove evolution and to discover its mechanisms and then to choose as a material for this study a being which practically stabilized a billion years ago.[4]

Resistance to Insecticide: No Evolution

These same processes also explain insect resistance to DDT and other insecticides.  Evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala reports that:

Insect resistance to a pesticide was first reported in 1947 for the housefly (Musca domestica) with respect to DDT. Since then the resistance to pesticides has been reported in at least 225 species of insects and other arthropods. The genetic variants required for resistance to the most diverse kinds of pesticides were apparently present in every one of the populations exposed to these man-made compounds.[5]

Fruit Fly Mutations: No Observed Evolution

The fruit fly is another small insect from which investigators have tried to ‘observe’ evolution. Rifkin writes about this

The fruit fly has long been the favorite object of mutation experiments because of its fast gestation period (twelve days). X-rays have been used to increase the mutation rate in the fruit fly 15,000 percent. All in all, scientists have been able to “catalyze the fruit fly evolutionary process such that what has been seen to occur in Drosophila (fruit fly) is the equivalent of many millions of years of normal mutations and evolution.” Even with this tremendous speed-up of mutations, scientists have never been able to come up with anything other than another fruit fly.[6]

The ability to observe this alleged process has eluded scientists since Darwin so eloquently argued for it.  However, instead of coming clean about this, textbooks and news articles confuse us in a slippery way by equivocating evolution with ‘change’.  And this is always presented as a scientific (ie observed) answer to Design.  But Soapberry bugs to SuperBugs simply attest, along with all other observed changes, that Nature is simply on a slide downwards.  To-date there is no observed alternative to Design.

[1] Palumbi, S.R., Evolution—humans as the world’s greatest evolutionary force, Science 293:1786–1790, 2001; p. 1787

[2] McGuire, R., Eerie: human arctic fossils yield resistant bacteria, Medical Tribune, 29 December, 1988, pp. 1, 23

[3] Garrett, L., The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 1994. P 413

[4] Pierre P. Grasse, Evolution of Living Organisms. New York, Academic Press, 1977 p.87

[5] Francisco Ayala. “The Mechanisms of Evolution” Scientific American  Vol 239 September 1978.  p 63

[6] Jeremy Rifkin,  Algeny 1983  p.1983

Origins: Evolution or Design – why touch it?

This site is about the gospel.  Yet Session 1 and several of my posts deal with origins, dissecting university textbooks and other books on evolution.  Why bothering getting into this confusing and sometimes touchy subject?

It is a good question and someone challenged me on it a little while ago.   After all, it can be such a polarizing topic – why go there?  I thought I would address it with a five page pdf article which I have attached with this post.  In it I show how what we think about our origins is foundational to everything we understand about ourselves.  It affects all areas of human inquiry.  This includes our understanding of ethics, as we will see in Session 2.

I hope you take the 5-10 minutes you will need to read this article.  I do not argue for the correctness of any belief of system – evolutionary or otherwise.  I only show that it is an important question.  And important questions demand informed answers, not politically correct silence.  As the article says, it is well worth the fuss.

Evolution and origins – why the fuss?

Antony Flew Considered Intelligent Design

When I was a university student, Antony Flew was considered to be one of the outstanding philosophers alive at the time.  He was also a prominent – world famous even – atheist.  In fact one of his contributions in the early 1970’s was an essay arguing that the very concept of God was meaningless since it was not testable in any rational way.

Antony Flew was born in the early 1920’s, and by the late 1930’s had concluded that there was no God.  But in 2007 he co-authored a rather remarkable book entitled There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. So what caused this man to change his mind? In a 2005 interview he explained:

It seems to me that Richard Dawkins constantly overlooks the fact that Darwin himself, in the fourteenth chapter of The Origin of Species, pointed out that his whole argument began with a being which already possessed reproductive powers. This is the creature the evolution of which a truly comprehensive theory of evolution must give some account.

Darwin himself was well aware that he had not produced such an account. It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.[1]

In his 2007 book Antony Flew stated that “the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries” and that “the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it”.  He stated the issue succinctly in his book:

The philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and “coded chemistry”? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem.[2]

In late 2006, Flew joined 11 other academics in urging the British government to teach intelligent design in the state schools.[3]

I am not generally swayed solely by opinions of leading people.  But I rarely ignore them.  I want to know the reasons which these people base their opinions on.  So what was it that Antony Flew learned about the cell that was not known in the 1930’s when he first decided that there was no God?  Take a look at some of the following videos that have been made recently to teach students how parts of the cell work.  As you watch them ask yourself these questions.  How could this cellular machinery put itself together to start cellular life?  Can this work if only half the components are present ‘waiting’ for the other half (and remember these are basic cells functions that are essential for life)?  Could this be assembled by chance (one cannot invoke natural selection since there is no reproduction until these processes work)?  Follow Flew’s lead and Consider Design at the cellular level.

Intelligent Design:  ATP Synthase

This one shows ATP Synthase – the enzyme that makes ATP, the molecule used for energy in all cellular functions.  Without this energy there could be no life.  Each cell in all bodies has many mitochondria organelles where the ATP Synthase is lodged in its membrane.  While you watch this video you will have generated trillions of ATP.

Intelligent Design: RNA Transcription

This one shows how information in DNA is transcribed to RNA.  Without this capability life could not make proteins – the building blocks of cells.  Notice that it requires ATP to do this while the ATP Synthase requires DNA-RNA transcription.  A decidedly chicken-and-egg problem.

Intelligent Design: Photosynthesis

This one shows how photosynthesis works.  This process is found in cyanobacteria, the simplest cells, and is the prerequisite function to convert solar energy into chemical energy, without which life could not function.  Notice again how ATP Synthase is required here.

I encourage you to watch the many fascinating educational videos on how the cell works.  You can find them (Virtual Cell) at http://vcell.ndsu.edu/animations/home.htm

Certainly at an intuitive level, these cellular functions look like machines, and machines are made by intelligent agents.  So what is the naturalistic evolutionary rebuttal?  When I understood that is was a more-or-less blind appeal to ‘natural selection’, showcased at the university textbook level with examples like the evolution of the Soapberry bug, it was not hard to spot that this was simply a case of loss of functional information, not a gain of anything new.

When I also understood that the evolutionary argument from homology could just as easily be interpreted as evidence from a common designer I changed my mind.

I can also see why Antony Flew changed his mind.

[1] My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: an exclusive interview with former British atheist Professor Antony Flew by Gary Habermas, Philosophia Christi, Winter 2005

[2] Antony Flew: There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind,” New York: Harper One, 2007, p124.