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Sunday, 23 March 2014

Logical arguments against the devil's existence: (2) the argument from theism

This is the second part of a three-part series looking at logical arguments which have been raised against the existence of a supernatural personal devil. In the previous installment we looked at the empirical argument, which denies the devil's existence on the basis of a lack of empirical evidence for his existence. We saw that this argument requires the professing Christian to maintain a double standard, because s/he is happy to believe in angels and the Holy Spirit in the absence of empirical evidence for their existence.

Another argument claims that if a supernatural, personal devil existed this would contradict the theistic view of God as omnipotent and absolutely good. If the devil roamed about wreaking havoc, this would imply either that God is unable to stop him (and therefore not omnipotent) or else that God is unwilling to stop him (and therefore not absolutely good). Thus we must either reject theism or else reject the existence of the devil.

In fact, this is nothing other than a special case of the argument from evil which has long been used by atheists to argue against the existence of God! The atheistic argument from evil goes like this:

1) A theistic (all-powerful and all-good) God would not allow evil to exist.
2) Evil exists.
3) Therefore, no theistic God exists.

The argument against the devil’s existence basically replaces ‘evil’ in the above syllogism with ‘the devil’ and then observes that if we assume the devil’s existence (premise 2) we arrive at an unacceptable conclusion, namely atheism. However, this argument is again self-defeating. If the above syllogism is valid then no theistic God exists, regardless of whether there is a devil. Hence, every professing Christian must reject the syllogism, and to use the very same logic to argue against the devil's existence would appear inconsistent.

On what basis do theists reject the above syllogism? The theist admits premise 2 but denies premise 1, at least with respect to every kind of evil whose existence he or she admits, such as nuclear disaster-inducing tsunamis and genocidal tyrants. How can theists deny premise 1? One approach is to argue that God may allow evil because in so doing he allows a greater good to be achieved than would be possible otherwise. This greater good could include things like free will, the prevention of even greater evils, character development through trials, and the joy of deliverance and salvation.

If a theist wanted to rework the syllogism above into an argument against the devil, s/he would need to show that, while premise 1 does not hold for evil in general, or for specific instances of evil such as tsunamis and tyrants, it does hold for a supernatural personal devil. The question is, why would premise 1 hold for a supernatural personal devil if it does not hold for any other kind of evil? What is it about the devil that makes it impossible for God to allow his existence but possible for God to allow Hitler's existence? Is it that a supernatural devil would be more evil and more powerful than Hitler? How far then does a being have to slide on the ‘evil scale’ or ‘power scale’ before it stops being morally justifiable for God to allow his existence and becomes morally reprehensible?

Put another way, if God could allow a being as evil and powerful as Hitler to exist because doing so allowed some greater good to be achieved, then couldn't God do the same for an even more evil and powerful being such as the devil? To deny that God could is to deny his omnipotence. Thus, ironically, the argument which sought to uphold theism actually undermines it.

The only other conceivable way to rescue premise 1 in the special case of the devil is to argue that the natural/supernatural or human/angelic distinction fundamentally alters the logic. However, such ontological distinctions are of no logical consequence. An archangel and an ant are equally powerless to thwart the prerogatives of an infinite God.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Praise for Christadelphians

Over the last couple of years, a large proportion of my blog posts have been on theological topics, and specifically topics on which I disagree with Christadelphian teachings. To some I probably come across as quite obsessed with some of these topics, particularly the biblical devil. This is because it's an issue on which I'm firmly convinced that my previous understanding was simply wrong, and it's an issue that has real implications for our walk with God and our struggle against sin. These issues are fascinating to me and I am passionate about exploring the depths of biblical revelation and sharing whatever insights I can glean with others.

Since I believe Christadelphians are mistaken on some of the points by which they distinguish themselves from other Christian denominations and sects, I do wish to reach out to Christadelphians in whatever small way I can. However, I don’t enjoy disagreeing with Christadelphians. Indeed most of my family and many of my dearest friends are zealous members of the Christadelphian community.

For this reason, I've decided to dedicate this post to highlighting seven praiseworthy qualities which I think characterize the Christadelphian community. This is not intended as flattery. It may perhaps be an olive branch. But mostly it's just my own authentic opinions.
  1. Simple Faith
Christadelphians are, organizationally speaking, very simple. The movement is united by its name, its very specific set of core beliefs, and the network of personal relationships at the local and global levels that make it a community. There is also a certain 'culture,' based on shared history and practice, that is uniquely Christadelphian. However, the cohesion that exists within the community is achieved through consensus rather than being imposed hierarchically.
  1. All Hands on Deck
The various duties involved with maintaining the spiritual life of a Christadelphian ecclesia are generally spread quite evenly among the members. This means that nearly everyone can make a meaningful contribution to the ecclesia if they are so inclined. While not investing in clergy has certain disadvantages, it does put the onus on those in the pews to do their bit, since there is no one to point to and say "But he's paid to do it!" It also allows an ecclesia to run very cost-effectively.

     3.  People of the Book

Several Christian denominations, including Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists, have been known to describe themselves as 'People of the Book.' I have heard the term applied by Christadelphians to themselves as well, and not without justification. Christadelphians are strongly encouraged to follow a daily reading plan which takes them through the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament twice a year. The proportion who engage in such rigorous Bible reading are undoubtedly much higher than in most other denominations and sects.

I have little doubt that if a random sample of ordinary Christadelphians were taken and compared to a random sample of Evangelical pastors, the Christadelphians would, on average, show greater general knowledge of and familiarity with the entire Bible. As a result, Christadelphians have an excellent grasp of the unifying thread of divine truth which runs through the whole Bible, sometimes known as the promise-plan of God.

    4.  Quality over Quantity

If one compares Christadelphians numerically with some of the other new religious movements that arose during the 19th century, such as Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, the relatively smaller size of Christadelphians may suggest a failure in terms of evangelism. In general it is probably fair to say that Christadelphians have not prioritized missionary work and planting of new congregations to the same extent as these other movements. Christadelphians prefer quality over quantity. They are not interested in instantaneous (and perhaps temporary) mass conversions, but instead work methodically to win converts whose faith will abide. This is probably a reason why, while the Christadelphians have seldom experienced rapid growth and still have little name recognition among the general population, the group has persisted and persevered where others have dwindled into oblivion.

    5.  Close-Knit Community

Any Christadelphian would tell you that one of the coolest things about being part of the group is the idea that you can show up in just about any corner of the world where there are Christadelphians, find a name and number in an ecclesial directory, and soon find yourself enjoying hospitality in the home of a family you've never met. I suppose it's one of the perks of the quality-over-quantity approach.

Importantly, Christadelphians manage to maintain a small, close-knit community while avoiding most cult-like social characteristics, such as devotion to a charismatic leader, insulation and isolation from the outside world, brainwashing with sectarian literature, and shunning of ex-members. Christadelphians are, by and large, ordinary people who are productive, exemplary members of society. Yet they share a very special bond with those of their own.

    6.  Doctrinal Strengths

19th century Christadelphian theology anticipated a number of the important results of 20th century biblical scholarship (even if Christadelphians themselves historically eschewed such scholarship). They emphasized the continuity of the Old Testament promises with the gospel, the resurrection of the body, the future kingdom of God to be consummated on earth, and the continuing relevance of natural Israel at a time when these ideas were neglected in large sectors of Christianity.

    7.  Moral Integrity

Christadelphians have some distinctive moral positions, for instance non-participation in voting, politics, the military, police force, juries and litigation. These stances have in some cases been maintained in the face of persecution or great personal loss, which is a testimony to the integrity of the group.

In conclusion, there are numerous characteristics which can generally be found among Christadelphians which are admirable. A number of the above traits can be disadvantageous if taken to an extreme, as sometimes occurs. Nevertheless, they collectively show the vast potential that exists within the Christadelphian movement. No doubt God has a purpose in this community.