Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Kalam Argument, Eternalism, and Transfinite Arithmetic

Here is a paper I wrote some time ago on the kalam cosmological argument. It's one of the most convincing arguments I've come across for the existence of God. The notation for the transfinite arithmetic is very elementary, since I was just beginning to learn the subject at the time. But I think the reasoning is still correct. But I would like to see more clarity in the connection between inverse operations and what is always possible in reality.


The purpose of this paper is to show that the kalam cosmological argument is upheld despite arguments from some critics based on eternalism. The kalam cosmological argument has been vigorously opposed by highly respected philosophers of science such as Adolf Grunbaum. Many of these opponents have rejected the kalam type argument by taking an eternalist view on time. However, if the eternalist view on time is true, and if time does not have a beginning, then time can be thought of as an infinite set of finite durations of time. By looking at the metaphysical implications of transfinite arithmetic, I will argue that the existence of an infinite set of finite objects is metaphysically impossible, and hence the kalam argument is upheld on either an eternalist or presentist view of time.

This paper is structured to first give a brief overview of the two prevailing theories of time: presentism and eternalism. Then I will review the implications of these two views on time on the kalam argument. Finally, I will show that transfinite arithmetic implies that, if one adopts the eternalist view of time, an infinite regress of causes is impossible, and hence the kalam cosmological argument is upheld.

Presentism and Eternalism

A much more complete presentation of the history and definitions of presentism and eternalism is given in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

For this paper, it suffices to understand these two by asking the question, “are objects in the present all that exist, or do objects in the past and future exist just as much as objects in the present?” The presentist view of time is the most intuitive. It would answer the above question by saying that all that exists are objects in the present. Objects in the future do not exist but will exist, and objects in the past do not exist now but have existed. This is sometimes also referred to as the tensed theory of time, since the terms “will exist” and “have existed” are thought to not be reducible concepts.

In contrast, the eternalist views objects in the future and past as just as real as objects in the present. Time is viewed very much like the dimensions of space, in the sense that different objects can exist at different points in space at the same time. Similarly, future objects are different from present objects, but they both hold existence. Time exists as a dimension, and any sense of time passing is something that is only experienced by minds. This is sometimes viewed as the “tenseless” view of time because it does away with the verbs “will be” and “have been”. Everything simply exists at different points relative to each other in time.

Two Versions of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

The kalam cosmological argument is a particular kind of cosmological argument for the existence of God that argues for an absolute beginning to the universe based on the philosophical impossibility of an infinite amount of time to have passed. There are essentially two different approaches to the kalam cosmological argument, as put forth by Craig et. al.

Craig expresses the first of these two approaches as:

1) A collection formed by successive addition cannot be an actual infinite.

2) The temporal series of events is a collection formed by successive addition.

3) Therefore, the temporal series of events cannot be an actual infinite.

This is a very solid and straightforward argument. The first premise can be shown true through a version of Zeno's paradoxes where the intervals used are infinite rather than finite. A very solid argument is given in Craig (2009).

However, some philosophers such as Grunbaum and Craig have pointed out that this argument is only valid when one adopts a presentist view of time. Under the eternalist view, time is no different from any of the dimensions of space. On this view of time, there is no notion of temporal becoming, and time is not formed by successive addition. Instead, it exists as a completed dimension where each point of time in that dimension is just as real as the next. Eternalism undermines this particular version of the cosmological argument by denying that time is a temporal series of events, and hence it denies premise (2) of the argument. Craig defends his argument by attempting to show that temporal becoming is indispensable. However, since presentism and eternalism are still highly controversial topics in metaphysics, I propose to sidestep this difficulty by arguing for the second version of the kalam argument as put forth by Craig.

  1. An actual infinite cannot exist.
  2. An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.
  3. Therefore, an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist.

Craig mentions several arguments in support of premise (1), particularly thought experiments. He also mentions the contradictions in trans-finite arithmetic, but does not go into detail explaining exactly what gives rise to the contradictions. He also seems to not recognize the power of this argument to carry the conclusion despite the challenge of eternalism. Craig writes, “From start to finish, the kalam cosmological argument is predicated upon the [presentist] theory of time.”

However, this argument here can be slightly recast to remove any notion of temporality. Instead, I argue that any infinite dimension or array is not metaphysically possible.

  1. An actual infinite set of finite objects cannot exist.
  2. Time without a beginning is an actual infinite set of finite objects.
  3. Therefore, time must have had a beginning.

It is without question that premise (2) is true by definition of an eternalist view of time without a beginning. All that remains then is to show that premise (1) is true.

Trans-finite Arithmetic and Inverse Operations

The notion of infinity has had a long history, beginning with Aristotle. Today, the most respected treatment of infinities is Cantorian theory, which was established by the mathematician Cantor in the late nineteenth century.

In transfinite arithmetic, it is important to distinguish between a potential and actual infinity. A potential infinity is some set that goes to infinity without bound, but does not achieve it. However, at any moment, a potential infinite is actually finite. In the context of time, a good example of a potential infinity is the time between now and the end of time. Presumably time will continue without end, so that at any point in time, there will be a finite amount of time between now and some point in the future. On the other hand, an actual infinity is some quantity that does achieve infinity. The most famous example of an actual infinity is the set of positive integers, called aleph zero. This set of numbers is already infinite in the sense that it has already achieved an infinite quantity, rather than going towards infinity.

The method that mathematicians have used since Bolzano to tell whether one set was equivalent in size to another is to see if the two sets can be put in a one-to-one correspondence with each other. An example of placing two sets in a one-to-one correspondence with each other is any function f(x). For example, the function f(x)=2x is able to place the set of positive integers into a one-to-one correspondence with the set of even integers. This led to the famous definition proposed by Dedekind in 1963 for the infinite: any set is infinite if a subset of that set can be put into one-to-one correspondence with the original set.

Addition with transfinite numbers and integers can be done easily by shifting the elements in one’s transfinite set and inserting the integers one would like to add. Imagine the transfinite number aleph zero:

0, 1, 2, 3.....

In this paper, I will use Ω to refer to aleph zero. We can write down the equation 3+Ω by placing a 0,1,2 in front of Ω in the series:


I have put a prime on the numbers from the 3 so that there will be no ambiguity. This set can be put into a one-to-one correspondence with Ω itself, and therefore we have found that 3+Ω=Ω. However, when one tries to add Ω+3:


This is distinctly different from 3+Ω because we can see clearly that 2’ is the largest element, whereas there is no largest element from the set 3+Ω. Therefore, we cannot say that Ω+3=Ω in the same way we can say that 3+Ω=Ω, since we cannot put the elements in this series into a one-to-one correspondence with the elements in Ω. The point of this exercise is to note that addition is not commutative in transfinite arithmetic.

Note that nothing has been said that leads transfinite arithmetic into trouble thus far. However, when it comes to the inverse of these operations, the results will be ambiguous. For instance, consider any finite integer π, and a transfinite number ß We already know that the equation Ω+π=ß has an answer, and this operation can be inverted to find π. However, trying to solve π+Ω=ß by right hand subtraction will yield an infinite number of solutions for π. We know this is true because we already showed that 3+Ω=Ω, and in fact, any number π added to Ω will still yield Ω. Since any number solves the equation, the solutions are contradictory. A similar kind of logic in transfinite arithmetic will show that division also yields an infinite number of solutions, and hence is equally forbidden in transfinite arithmetic.


If it is true that subtraction with transfinite numbers lead to contradictions, then it is clear that an actual infinite quantity cannot exist for any thing that can be subtracted in the real world. In reality, we can subtract lengths, times, or any other quantity that we like. Clearly, we cannot subtract qualities, but for any object that can be quantified, we can subtract. If subtraction is allowed in the real world, and if this subtraction will lead to a contradiction if the quantity is an actual infinite, then it must be true that it is metaphysically impossible for an actual infinite to exist. This part of the argument can be put more explicitly as follows.

1) Right handed subtraction in trans-finite arithmetic implies a contradiction.

2) Any operation that implies a contradiction is metaphysically impossible.

3)Therefore, right handed subtraction of an actual infinite is not metaphysically possible.

4) Right handed subtraction of any quantified object is always metaphysically possible.

5) Therefore, actual infinities are not metaphysically possible

This kind of reasoning has very far reaching consequences for our beliefs concerning space and time. Any dimension in space or time can be thought to be marked out evenly into finite segments. If actual infinities are metaphysically impossible, then it is impossible for any dimension to extend infinitely in any direction.

Spatially, it turns out that the current theory of space is that it is not infinite but closed in on itself like a 4-D version of a balloon. The idea is that if you were to travel infinitely in any one direction then you would eventually come back to the point where you started, just as you would if you were confined to travel on the surface of a balloon. Scientific theory therefore seems to at least be consistent with the idea that a spatial dimension cannot be infinite.

For the kalam argument, it is important to note that time, as viewed by the eternalist, is a dimension not unlike the three dimensions of space. Therefore it would also be confined to a finite length, based on the arguments above. Time must have a beginning point, since any finite series has a beginning point. Hence, it is impossible to both believe in the eternalist view of time and to believe in an infinite past.


One objection that may be brought up concerns whether or not time can extend infinitely into the future. If this argument is correct, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that there must be an end to time? After all, a set with a beginning but no end is just as infinite as a set with an end but no beginning. It seems that this is the conclusion that an eternalist would have to make as well. However, for the presentist, the only objects that are real are those that exist now. Under that view, time may go on into the future but will never actually achieve infinity, and hence it is just a potential infinite. It is important to note that the proofs in this paper with transfinite arithmetic apply only to actual infinities and not potential infinities, since a potential infinite is not infinite at any given moment.


In summary, I have presented the kalam cosmological argument as follows.

1) Right handed subtraction in trans-finite arithmetic leads to realizable contradictions.

2) Any operation that leads to a realized contradiction is metaphysically impossible.

3)Therefore, right handed subtraction of an actual infinite is metaphysically impossible.

4) Right handed subtraction of any realized object is always metaphysically possible.

5) Therefore, actual infinites are not metaphysically possible

6) Time, as viewed by eternalism as an infinite pre-existing dimension, is an actual infinity.

7) Therefore, an infinite dimension of time is metaphysically impossible (from 5-6).

8) Anything that is not infinite is finite.

9) Therefore, time is finite in length (i.e. has a beginning) (from 7-8).

10) Anything that has a beginning has an external cause.

11) Time (and hence the universe) has an external cause (from 9-10).

The eternalist view of time has for some time been used by philosophers as a way around the kalam argument. However, I hold that the arguments presented in this paper show that even if one assumes the eternalist view of time, the kalam argument remains valid support of the existence of God.


1 Markosian, Ned, "Time", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/time/>.

2 Craig et al, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. A John Wiley & Sons, pp. 101-201, (2009).

3 A. Grunbaum, A new cirtique of theological interpretations of physical cosmology. British Journal for the Philosophy of science, vol 51, pp. 1-43 (2000)

4 Craig et al, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. A John Wiley & Sons, pp. 183-184, (2009).

5 J. W. Dauben, George Cantor: his mathematics and philosophy of the infinite. Princeton University Press, pp.105-107, (1990)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cosmic child abuse?

A common objection that I hear from non-believers when they first hear the gospel is that it is "cosmic child abuse." A good, loving, and just God would never sacrifice Christ, an innocent third party, instead of the people who deserve judgement. In addition, many people refuse to accept Christianity on the grounds that they themselves would never want to put their sins on Christ, or subject Him to that kind of punishment. They would rather bear the guilt on their own. Here is a quote from "The Cross of Christ" that explains that the cross is anything but cosmic child abuse.

We began by showing that God must "satisfy himself," responding to the realities of human rebellion in a way that is perfectly consonant with his character. This internal necessity is our fixed starting point. In consequence, it would be impossible for us sinners to remain eternally the sole objects of his holy love, since he cannot both punish and pardon us at the same time. Hence the second necessity, namely substitution. The only way for God's holy love to be satisfied is for his holiness to be directed in judgment upon his appointed substitute, in order that his love may be directed toward us in forgiveness. The substitute bears the penalty, that we sinners may receive the pardon. Who, then, is the substitute? Certainly not Christ, if he is seen as a third party. Any notion of penal substitution in which three independent actors play a role -- the guilty party, the punitive judge and the innocent victim-- is to be repudiated with the utmost vehemence. It would not only be unjust in itself but would also reflect a defective Christology. For Christ is not an independent third person, but the eternal Son of the Father, who is one with the Father in his essential being.
What we see, then, in the drama of the cross is not three actors but two, ourselves on the one hand and God on the other. Not God as he is in himself (the Father), but God nevertheless, God-made-man-in-Christ (the Son). Hence the importance of those New Testament passages that speak of the death of Christ as the death of God's Son: for example, "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son" (John 3:16), "he... did not spare his own Son" (Romans 8:32), and "we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son" (Romans 5:10). For in giving his Son he was giving himself. This being so, it is the Judge himself who in holy love assumed the role of the innocent victim, for in and through the person of his Son he himself bore the penalty that he himself inflicted. As Dale put it, "The mysterious unity of the Father and the Son rendered it possible for God at once to endure and to inflict penal suffering." There is neither harsh injustice nor unprincipled love nor Christological heresy in that; there is only unfathomable mercy. For in order to save us in such a way as to satisfy himself, God through Christ substituted himself for us. Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice. The cross was an act simultaneously of punishment and amnesty, severity and grace, justice and mercy.
Seen thus, the objections to a substitutionary atonement evaporate. There is nothing even remotely immoral here, since the substitute for the law-breakers is none other than the divine Lawmaker himself. There is no mechanical transaction either, since the self-sacrifice of love is the most personal of all actions. And what is achieved through the cross is no merely external change of legal status, since those who see God's love there and are united to Christ bye his Spirit become radically transformed in outlook and character.

A question on language and mathematics.

I've been thinking a bit about big words lately, and why they seem to be so common in theology, philosophy, and physics books. And at this point all my thinking has led to a question. I haven't found a good answer yet, so this blog post is going to have a very open ending. But it's an open ending that should make you think. If that bothers you, don't waste your time here and go read something else. If you have any comments or ideas then definitely post them.

When you read academic books, they often have to spend a significant fraction of their time just defining their terms. It's as if the dictionary definitions of common words have to be redefined depending on their context so that they precisely convey the meaning that the author wants. But even after the word is defined, the author will generally give some exceptions to the definition, or say something about how the definitions still don't completely fit the ideas.

The Cross of Christ by John Stott is one of my all time favorite theological works, mostly because it's the most life changing book that I've read that is also very academic. In this book, he devotes an entire chapter to what we mean by "self-substitution" in theology. There is another chapter devoted to defining the word "self-satisfaction." And in each of these chapters, Stott uses a massive diversity of quotations and words of his own in order to narrow down what he means. But each time he repeats himself and each time he quotes another author, he uses slightly different words that refine his ideas, and look at it from an ever-so-slightly different angle.

The reason why Stott repeats himself from different angles is quite obvious. The most important area to have a very accurate understanding is the cross and the work of Christ. Pascal claims that Christianity is the key that fits the lock of the human heart. God designed our hearts to fall in love with and depend on Him. If that is true, then the only way for us to be completely satisfied is by knowing God and the work of Christ the way it truly is. We need an accurate understanding of the shape of this key, because the better we know Christ the more we will naturally fall in love with Him.

However, language itself is limited. Diderot was right to a certain extent. There is a limitation to the precision that our words can describe concepts, and after reading through Stott's book, it does appear as though he is losing words to describe the wonder of the Cross. This shouldn't be surprising. The gospel is reality, and reality is nearly always very complex. In particular, the cross is a complex idea that should captivate us with wonder for eternity. But how are we to push past our barrier of language?

The curious difference between the way physicists and mathematicians communicate and the way philosophers and theologians communicate is their use of words and notation. Physicists and mathematicians use a very powerfully formulated system of shorthand notation (called variables) and well defined rules of logic that use the shorthand notation (called mathematics) to describe their concepts. On the other hand, theologians and philosophers stick with the dictionary definitions of words to represent basic ideas. They also use a well defined system of logic, but the system of logic is based on words rather than variables. So, physicists and mathematicians use a much more concise system called mathematics to represent their ideas and derive their theorems, while philosophersand theologians have historically used words and theorems that are expressed using language. Are there any other differences between language/reason and mathematics?

There is a distinct advantage of using mathematics over language, and the advantage is simply that mathematics is so much more concise. In a few dozen symbols, one can express all of Maxwell's equations in mathematics. Maxwell's equations completely determine all of electromagenetic theory and the nature of light, all in a few dozen symbols. I can't think of any equivalent statement in philosophy that can be expressed in such a shorthand notation, but at the same time completely determines an entire field of study.

So, why don't philosophers and theologians develop a type of mathematics for their fields? Would that be very beneficial? It definitely seems so at a first glance to me. It definitely seems that there would be fewer fallacies and more efficient work done in the humanities if they simply had their own type of mathematics.

On the other hand, I don't think it would offer any more precision to their ideas. And here's why. Any variable in mathematics or physics is always defined in terms of words. Therefore, it's only as good as the words behind it that specify what it means. The shape and mechanics of an electric field can be described completely by mathematics, but each of those variables in the mathematical expression (such as charge, force, distance, etc) must be defined in terms of dictionary words. Even if they weren't described in terms of words, the metaphysical meaning of the electric field may (or may not) extend beyond simply the movement of charges. If the electric field is a thing in itself, then we can only describe and define the nature of it in terms of words.

Okay, I have just two more comments. The first is more of a question. Why is it that we always have to go back to words? Why do we always need words to define variables in mathematics? Concepts in our minds are not words. We know that because you can have a concept in your mind and call it by whatever word you like. Our brains are not tied down to any specific words. So is there a way to get around that?

Finally, I hope that this blog post will help the physicists and philosophers have a greater appreciation of each other's work. I know so many people who become physicists just because they thrive in mathematics as a mode of communication, and so many people who become philosophers just because they thrive in language as a mode of communication, even though reason and logic are the fundamental roots that connect them both. But the physicist cannot ultimately do without words, and the philosopher may benefit from using a concise and systematic mode of communication like mathematics.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Perceiving Perspective.

I don't know why they had to choose ME for this job…. I am by no means a brilliant scientist. The department head didn't even respond the first time I sent him my CV. I was only taken on begrudgingly and then used, in the same way as one accepts an unwanted gift, not because it is useful, but only because a friend gave it that you do not wish to offend.

Well, actually, I do know why I was chosen. You must understand that the capacity to communicate in any form other than the language of mathematics and numbers is completely absent in my line of profession. Writing was never my forte either, but once it was discovered in our lab that I could put pen to paper, I was given all of the unwanted communication with the rest of the known world. But still…. I never signed on to be the bearer of bad news. I only progress in my career by pleasing people: telling them what they want to hear. Honesty doesn't get anyone anywhere.

It all began two weeks ago. One of the graduate students, a man who was possibly one of the brightest scientists (and knew it), barged into the office where my research professor and I were documenting the results from his last experiment. What followed was what we thought would be the greatest finding of the century.

There is life on Mercury.

Then we realized, no one would ever believe it. Which is why the project was entirely turned over to me. No one wanted to put their names behind such an unbelievable claim. The idea was to let me spread the word among the conspiracy theorists, the people who acted as if they knew more than anyone but really knew nothing at all, until it grabbed enough attention to be at least considered by the rest of the academic community. In this world, there is no way to completely disagree with the consensus of all scientists while keeping your job. Even if that wasn't the case, professors enjoy and bask in their status and fame. None of them would dream of being labelled a conspiracy theorist, or even worse: religious. For myself, I wasn't important enough to have the privilege of an objection.

The life that was discovered was human in appearance, and, unscientifically put, it was very beautiful. Or at least, they were thought to be beautiful on the first day that we discovered them. The creatures (for…. we cannot really give them the respect that we give to our own evolved species, however beautiful they may be) are tall, slender, with their heads held high and eyes gazing down upon each other. Through our instruments, we managed to discover beautiful cities and technology that we are still unable to completely ascertain. It is as yet unknown how they live seemingly without working.

That was the first days' discovery. Of course, no one will believe my story, so there is no point in trying to convince anyone. We did learn that no one has observed life on Mercury before because these creatures do not reflect light in the wavelengths visible to human eyes. They reflect light in the ultra-violet part of the spectrum, so ascribing a color to them doesn't make sense to our human minds. They can see each other perfectly well, of course, since their eyes can detect UV rays.

The next night we immediately set all of our UV telescopes to work scanning the surface of the planet and observing as much as we could of the people. But this time, what we saw was appalling. We had configured our telescopes to translate the ultra-violet light from the creature's bodies into white light that we could see, and what we saw can only be described as pure evil. Beautiful, terrible, consistent, premeditated evil.

In our world, we have (apparently) evolved in such a way that we can only survive is by working together. And therefore we do. Families, societies, governments, and business only succeed by cooperation. It appears that this was once the case among the creatures, but not any longer. As we observed on the first day, their technology has brought them to a state where they need not work any longer. The earthly problem of scarcity is nonexistent on Mercury. Or at least scarcity of food and pleasure, if they are stimulated by the same things that we are, which appears to be true. But, as a result, they need each other no longer for any purpose. And the result is terrible to behold.

On the streets, murder is everywhere, if they can get away with it. It seems like there was once some sort of law and order, but this has long turned to anarchy as the government became corrupt. There may be no need to have slaves for the pleasures that they provide, but removing scarcity hasn't removed the raw desire to have power and dominate. It's not a desire for sex, or food, or other people's property, for they have all the artificial pleasure stimulators they could desire. It's the intended evil that is the attraction: the malice, the pride, the desire to leave others destitute.

Families are nonexistent, in our sense of the word. Of course children are born by some mechanism (we aren't sure how yet), and survive by the same technology that allows everyone else to survive. But the older creatures consider the younger to be dirty, ignorant, and less valuable than themselves. There is plenty of sex and plenty of offspring, but there is not a father or mother to be found among them.

That was day two. It was a busy day. But day three brought even more challenges. This day, we discovered their library. It was found that education was free and wirelessly broadcasted to the whole population. We were able to tap into their signal and peruse so much knowledge that was far beyond our own.

But, we were observing the creatures, which meant we focused on what we could learn about the creatures through their library. In their psychology research, it appears that they have completely fathomed the complexity of their own brains. Their brains are not identical to our own, and we cannot assume that ours work in the same way. But at some point, it appears that their research on their minds came to a screeching halt just as it reached it's climax.

They discovered that they have no freedom to make choices. They are completely a product of their genes and circumstances and the electrons whizzing around in their individual networks of neurons. This definitely does not mean that they don't want to do everything they do. No one ever does something they don't want to do, even in our own society. The creatures want evil, and they find it.

It is not as though they have no conscience or notion of morality. They do have a morality, and some of them take pride in "doing the right thing". They will refuse to do the worst actions performed by the others, and avoid murder of those who not in their way if they can. They form groups and societies and look down upon the other creatures, and occasionally wage war upon them, destroying man, woman, and child. We thought these may be the hope of their society, but then it was found that their goodness was only superficial. Within their own ranks, they lie, compete, and even kill each other to achieve the ranking positions. Officially, murder is justified if the creature is over a certain age and their death is expedient.

Not much else remains to be said from what we learned of them that day. Our research continued, just verifying what we had observed before. The whole atmosphere in our lab was changed as we, day after day, observed a society more evil than any we could have imagined ourselves.

The next day, we discovered what we thought at first was a comet coming unusually close to earth that was not forecasted in our astronomical models. Then, using our ultraviolet scopes, we were horrified to discover that one of the creatures was on her way towards earth. We haven't the least idea what she will do when she arrives, but none of us expect anything good. There is no reason to think that they may conquer us. Their technology removes the problem of scarcity, but no military strength has been found.

The question of what to do remains up to us. The creature has no free will. But does that matter? By it's nature, it cannot do anything but pure evil, and will certainly follow its nature when it arrives.

Okay, I've had my fun. I''m a rubbish fiction writer. I wish I was better. But everyone has to start at some point. And there is a point to the fiction. It is setting up a scene to demonstrate a moral point. One of the most common viewpoints about God that I've heard is, if we are better than most people, or if we do more good than bad things in our lives, then we will get into heaven. After all, isn't God love? Isn't He fair? How could a good God really send people to hell?

This is where the analogy with the creatures from mercury is valuable. They would have been from a society where a certain level of "goodness" is the norm. As they compare themselves against each other, the better ones may have thought, "hey, I'm a good person. I haven't killed any children. Only the people that annoyed me. And I'm definitely better than 90% of my neighbors." Now take one of those creatures and plop it in our society. I don't think that any one of us who believes in morality would let them off if they behaved that way in our world.

Now consider, still hypothetically, that there was another society looking down on our own in the same way that we were looking down at Mercury. Except this society that observes us really is good in comparison to us. Divorce is unheard of. Fathers sacrifice themselves in love for their children and wives, and no one would dream of aborting a baby because it is convenient. No one lies, no one looks at another with pride, lovers are faithful, children share their toys and love their parents, and people choose to give to the poor instead of having to be coerced by some government to do good. Do you think that they would let any one of us off for the things that we have done? In their eyes, would it not be better if we were wiped away from the universe as the giant puss hole that we are?

That is the way that God looks at us. Except He isn't just some more moral society. He is the inventor of the good. He IS love. In light of the analogy, those words should now be terrifying rather than a comfort to us. The God of the universe who invented love, pleasure, and every good thing there is, is also aware of us, of you, and of me, and of all of our deeds. The reason why we think that God should let us off is because we've grown up in a fallen world. We don't know any different. We don't know what good is really like.

By the way, recall the world that was better than us and observed us. Now, assume they were much much better than us, but still less than perfect. Then imagine another society that observed them, except this society was so close to perfect that they were shocked at the evil doings of the former society. They would have reason to think that the former society was evil as well, and probably would come to the same conclusions as we did about the creatures from Mercury. The point is that, if there is morality, no one who is not perfect ought to escape judgement. (Notice that it's a calculus-ish limit-to-infinity form of argument).

"You who are of purer eyes than to see evil

and cannot look at wrong."

-Habakkuk 1:13a

There is a standard of perfection that is defined by God, and any society that falls short of that standard should be condemned. To our ears that sounds really ridiculous, because we are so used to admiring the "better" ones in our society, and thinking that we will get into heaven if we are good enough.

So, the answer to the question of how can a good God send humans to hell is that we haven't properly understood just how good God is, or how evil each one of our sins are. I hope the story helps you understand the former. I tried to put a little bit of the latter into preamble of the story, but it really deserves it's own blog post.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Humility of the Incarnation

"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

As many of my close friends know, I am attending a church in Guildford, UK called Chertsey Street Baptist. Chertsey Street is very much involved with students from the University of Surrey, and last semester I took part in a Bible study there for the students every Wednesday night. We were taking an in-depth look at the book of Philippians, and one week I was very much struck at the significance of this passage. I don't know how anyone with a half understanding of the depravity of man and the glory of God can look at the plain reading of this passage without being completely blown away. It is a peak into the heart of God and His attitude towards His people.

Paul's primary motivation for writing this is to give us an example of true humility. Lewis' idea of humility in The Screwtape letters is very helpful: "The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools." (Spoken from the Devil's perspective.) Humility is not lying to yourself. Christ knew He was the holy and only Son of God, and thus "did not consider it robbery to be equal with God." Humility is sacrificing all your own glory at the altar of love.

The funny thing about all of that is that this analogy doesn't even really apply to us at all. For He really was the Son of God. We are greedy, lusting, self-absorbed, glutinous animals and baby-killers who like to act as if we were God. The truth is that we have no glory in the first place. How much more atrocious it is that we should ever be arrogant! To think that the Holy God became human flesh, and that we love few things more than flattery and praise from other men. If, by some miracle of God, we ever actually do anything good and as a result receive some misplaced praise from man, then we need to apply this passage and put on the mindset of Christ. But most of the time, we should simply be on our knees.

That speaks to our sin. But this passage isn't just bad news for us, for it speaks to our only hope of redemption as well. Christ is humbling Himself and putting on the likeness of sinful human flesh in order to be our substitute. This speaks volumes about what exactly happened on the cross. There is a reason why Christ had to become human before suffering for our atonement. He couldn't have just suffered some cosmic-scale punishment afar off without becoming human first, for one simple reason. As much as when God looks at us He sees the Son of Man on the cross paying the price for our sins, when He looked at the Son of Man on the cross, He saw us. That is a terrible thought if we are honest about what we really are like. He saw you, your sin, all of your darkest moments and motives. He saw Cain, He saw Hitler, He saw Sodom and Gamorrah. And thus, the Son of Man came into the likeness of human flesh in order to represent mankind and all of our fallenness on the cross.

This appears to me to be one reason why our catechism teaches us that Jesus must have been both fully man and fully God. He must be fully man in order to take on our sin and judgement, and fully God in order to be completely blameless and defeat death. Of course, when we say "fully man," we clearly cannot mean that He was Himself sinful. This would clearly contradict the notion that He was blameless and thus able to atone for our sins. Instead, He "made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of men." He came in the likeness of human flesh, and yet lived a perfect life. He came in the likeness of fallen (not pre-fall) man.* Thus, humility is not clever men actually becoming fools, or pretty women actually trying to become ugly. How would that ever bring glory to God? Instead, it is clever men abandoning every attempt to be viewed by others as clever and simply using their intelligence to love God and their fellow man.

The love of Christ demonstrated in the incarnation doesn't even begin to stop there. The story continues on to the resurrection of Christ. Christ rose bodily from the grave, and He ascended bodily. The angels then tell the disciples that just as Christ departed, so will He return. All of this means that Christ has forever physically committed Himself to humanity because of His resurrection. It is not as though we may be one of many species of creatures that God has created and we are all equal in His sight. No, the Bible never speaks of atonement for angels and demons, only of God's just judgement. Even more than that, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us! And since the church is to be the Bride of Christ, isn't it fair to say that He will always dwell among us? How blessed are we that the very Son of God has become ours forever, just as we are forever His?

Sometimes, strangely, it is the small actions that can speak just as loudly to our hearts as the epic. It is the gift of flowers, the note slipped under the door, the word fitly spoken. One of these small actions that is too rarely remembered is to be found in Matthew 26:27. "Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." When I first read this, I could hardly believe it, and thought for sure that I must have misunderstood. But Christ is really saying that He will not drink of wine until He can drink it with us at the wedding feast of the Lamb. He cannot mean that He is waiting for some kind of religious communion ceremony, first because He says He will not taste the "fruit of the vine" at all, and second because Christ taking communion doesn't really make sense at all. (It would kind of be like… self-cannibalism) He really means that He has promised to fast from the pleasure of wine until that great feast, when He will drink in joy over His redeemed people.** Are there any words that can be said in response at all?

*Skeptic side note: Fully God and fully man does sound like a contradiction at a first glance. But then again, so does wave-particle duality to the physicist, so does a derivative to the mathematician (division by zero), and so does the sovereignty of God and human responsibility to the theologian. Sometimes, reality holds things that are too far separated from our human experience for us to imagine. As long as there is still good reason to believe it, then we should be okay with believing things that we cannot always wrap our minds around. For this one, some of the reasons for believing it are found in John 1 (granted, if you believe the Bible is true), and perhaps the discussion above.

**This is one more reason to believe that Christ will remain forever in His physical body, committed to us. Wine, food, and pleasure are all physical things. One of the most comic scenes in the Bible is when Christ is proving to His disciples that He is not a ghost but has physically risen from the dead. He says, "Have you any food here?" And then the disciples give him a piece of broiled fish and honeycomb, and I can just imagine that He says, "Now…. watch." The food was to prove that He really was risen "in the flesh." Since Christ will drink of the fruit of the vine at the wedding feast, we can be sure that He will be "in the flesh" with us then.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is God Vain?

"The Scotch catechism says that man's chief end is 'to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.' But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him." -C S Lewis

For years, I have struggled with scriptures and people who speak of God commanding us to praise Him, specifically because I thought they portrayed God as vain. Hopefully, none of you have had the same struggles, and I know that the answer is obvious for some. But for me, I don't think I fully understood these passages until I read C S Lewis' book, Notes on the Psalms.

"Whoever offers praise glorifies Me", Psalm 50:23. As lewis says, "it was hideously like God wanted to be told that He was good and great." For me, it seemed like God's only reason for having anything to do with humanity was so that He would be told that He is good and great. Even worse, the Psalmists bargain with Him worship in exchange for favors. He seemed to punish those who did not worship Him, and reward those who did. In Psalm 31:9, the author is begging God to save his life, but only for the reason that there would be no one to praise Him if he dies. "What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your truth?"

Just to be clear, I don't think the issue is a lack of love for God. It is a fair question to look at what we are reading and ask if it is portraying God as vain, frivolous, and manipulative towards humans. That is both a distressing thought and inconsistent with the loving Father who would sacrifice His Son for us. If we love God, then we should be appalled by any accusation against His character and goodness.

Most people respond to this question by saying that God has a "right" to be praised. Since He alone is worthy, He has the right to demand worship. Lewis points out that this is correct, but a horrible way of putting it. I think it still gives the impression that His only reason for having anything to do with man is to fill up His praise tank, or to have all His right praise buttons pushed.

The response is twofold. First, God clearly is not vain. He is a God who is jealous of our worship, just as any husband is jealous of his wife's love. But if God wanted to be praised, then do you really think that He would come to US, sinful, tone-deaf, and squeaking human beings, to fill His praise tank? "I will not take a bull from your house, nor goats out of your fields. For every beast of the forest is Mine, And the cattle on a thousand hills.... If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine, and all its fullness." (Psalm 50). The greater the being who is praising, the greater the praise. If some small boy off the street told you that you were a nice person, it wouldn't mean much to you. But if the president of the US came, knocked on your door, and broke into song about how amazing you are, then you would be completely floored. Similarly, if God wanted great and fantastic praise, then He would create some beautifully magnificent and powerful archangel to worship Him. But as Lewis says, "I don't want my dog to bark in approval of my books."

Secondly, why does God command humans to praise Him? Lewis starts with the analogy of a painting. What do we mean when we say that a picture is admirable? We do not mean that it deserves something in the sense that you (hopefully) deserve the wages you earn at your job. Instead, we mean that praise is the appropriate and natural response to a beautiful painting. I hadn't ever fully appreciated this until I moved to the UK. In August, I moved into a smaller English Medieval town called Guildford to take courses at the University of Surrey. Guildford is beautiful, quaint, and full of history. During my first week, I took some time to explore the town, visit the castle, and "appreciate" the beauty of the place where God has brought me. As I stood there under the shadow of a 13th century Norman castle next to a river with beautiful gardens, I wanted so desperately to exclaim to the person next to me how amazing it is. But I was alone. There was no one with me to hear my praise of the castle, or the quant town, or the old-fashioned pubs. Living in Europe is incredible for an American, and yet the worst thing about it is not being able to rejoice in it's beauty and history with other people. The pleasure involved with simply observing something beautiful on your own is nothing compared with the pleasure of praising it to others. "I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment."

Praising true beauty is pleasant because it is the natural (or designed) response. As I pointed out in the last post, we are happiest when we follow the natural design of the human heart. We are designed to praise things that are beautiful, and as a result, "The world rings with praise: lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside... I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious minds praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least."

Now think how great and glorious Our Lord is, who created all these things that we enjoy. Lewis takes the limit as God's greatness goes to infinity: "If it were possible for a created soul fully (I mean, up to the full measure conceivable in a finite being) to appreciate, that is to love and delight in, the worthiest object of all, and simultaneously at every moment to give this delight perfect expression, then that soul would be in supreme beautitude." This is our final destination, our end to which Christ is guiding us. Until then, we are just tuning ourselves as the Body and Bride of Christ in preparation for the Great Praise.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness

In theology, I have often been told that people cannot seek God on their own, and He has to interfere in order to stop us from our own best efforts to go straight to hell. But I had never before seen what it is inside us that makes it impossible for us to truly love Him without Him first loving us. Ever since I came to the UK, God's been showing me several of these mechanisms within our hearts that make it impossible for depraved man to find Him on his own. The most striking one is The Problem of The Pursuit of Happiness. There are two rival ideas concerning happiness (which I will go over very briefly), one of which is correct and the other isn't, but neither are effective without Christ. I apologize for this background information which I am sure most of you are well aware of already, but I think the background information is worthwhile on its own merits for those who have not heard it.

"All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man, including those who go and hang themselves." - Blaise Pascal, Penses

There is nothing which anyone desires more than happiness, nothing else which any man can help but to desire. There is nothing that we do that is not ultimately motivated by our own pursuit of happiness, and that is how we decide what kind of person we are going to be. But what we ultimately decide depends on what we think happiness is, and what we think will make us happy. That is why it is extremely important to understand The Pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness is not easy to define, because the definition has recently changed in the West. Today, most people believe that happiness is being satisfied with pleasures. They believe that it is a feeling that depends on outside circumstances. People become gluttons for entertainment, food, houses, and other temporary things of this world. It is a theory called hedonism, where the goal of life is to increase pleasure as much as possible with as little pain as possible. For the mathematicians out there, a hedonistically happy life is defined as one where the integral of the pleasure versus time curve is large. The result is that we will use anything in life to serve our own appetites, including their friends, family, or even God. (There is a psychologist named Martin Seligman who has written some good papers on the topic, and he argues that this increasingly popular mindset is partially the result of today’s age of consumerism and general prosperity. He also says that the loss of faith in God and family has left individuals with nothing else to live for other than themselves. If you would like to read some papers on the subject, then feel free to send me an email.)

There is a second way of thinking about happiness that Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Christ, and other ancient philosophers held in common, and is therefore called the "classical definition of happiness." Aristotle argued that true happiness comes from living out the purpose of life for human beings. Aristotle believed that this purpose, or function of humans, was reason in accordance with virtue. He referred to this kind of life as eudaimonia, which literally means, “to be living in a way that is well-favored by a god”. As Christians, we know that our ultimate purpose and function is to love and glorify God through a relationship with Him. Hence, true happiness is a life lived for something outside one’s self, namely God and His glory. It is not dependent on external circumstances, nor is it short lived like pleasurable satisfaction. Christ says in Matthew 16:25, “For whoever will save his life shall lose it: and whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Assuming that God exists and has created us with a specific purpose and intended us to be happy in that purpose, then it would be folly for us to think we will find happiness outside of His plan. It would be like putting water in your gas tank and still expecting your car to run properly. Our hearts were designed to not be at rest until we rest in Him. If you live entirely for yourself, then your life will have no meaning, purpose or significance outside of your own little existence. Essentially, you will have no reason to live, and you will ultimately decide to “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Suicide is now among the highest causes of death among young people today.

This is what I had understood from the time when I was in high school, and I was quite proud of my "higher understanding" of happiness. But throughout high school, and my first year at NCSU, I still found myself dry and depressed. I had all the right ideas about happiness, and yet I found that I could not apply them. I wanted to be happy, and that is why I wanted to live for God and others. It took over two years for me to discover (or as I realized later, for God to show me) what was wrong with all my grand and proud theories about classical happiness.

Eventually, God made me realize that even though happiness does come from living for something greater than yourself and from living the way I was designed to live, I was powerless to put it into effect. It is true that living for something greater than ourselves is the only way that we can be happy, yet we are powerless to do that. And the reason is actually quite simple. Anytime you choose based on your own will and out of your own strength to live for something greater than yourself, you are doing it for the only reason you ever do anything: for the sake of your own happiness. It becomes self defeating. If you are trying to be happy by living for something greater than yourself, then you will never succeed because your own happiness is your only motive. I was trying my hardest to live for Christ, but my only motivation was my own happiness, so I was ultimately living for myself. I was powerless to defeat the cycle. There is nothing that anyone can do to seek happiness on their own, because any attempt to become non-narcissistic is going to be inherently narcissistic.

The only hope for us is for some other power outside of ourselves to lovingly step in and change our hearts. It must be natural, in the sense that it cannot be a conscious decision we make for ourselves. If the we did it ourselves, it would be an inherently selfish decision and therefore powerless. Furthermore, no being weaker than us would be able change us, and no being that did not love us already would choose to rescue us from our own misery. Fortunately for us, there is One who knows and has power over the most inner-workings of our hearts, and loves us with a depth and intensity that makes the most passionate marriage seem trifling. There is also a mechanism that God uses to change a man's mind, motives, and heart in a natural way. That mechanism is His love manifested to us in action: the cross. God woos our hearts with His love and thereby transforms us. When we realize God's love and simultaneous justice and strength, it changes our hearts naturally so that we love Him in return and love Him before all things. "We love Him because He first loved Us. And by this we know love: that He laid down his Life for us." The choice isn't even ours to make for our own happiness, and it cannot be. All we do is fall in love with Him as He steps in and rescues us from our helpless state of The Pursuit of Happiness.

For skeptics, I am not offering this as an argument for God's existence. I assume that the readers of this particular post believe in Him already. I am not a pragmatist, and I don't believe that you should ever choose to believe in God just because you think it will make you happy. Pragmatism fails for the same reason that classical happiness fails: if God doesn't actually exist, but you seek happiness through religion anyway, then it will fail because you ultimately have selfish motives. Nothing can make a person happy unless there is some being greater than themselves that will change their inescapably selfish hearts, and therefore we will all be miserable unless God exists in objective reality. And hence, religion can only ultimately succeed in satisfying us if God actually exists. Unless of course you believe that you can find happiness in fleeting earthly pleasures and inevitable death.