Opening Statement: The Greater Reasonableness of Christian Theism

(2003)

This opening statement will defend two theses; the first of these is that it is more reasonable to be a theist than a nontheist, and the second is that it is more reasonable to be a Christian than it is to reject Jesus Christ. In order to show that theism is more reasonable than unbelief, I will present a series of arguments that demonstrate that the belief that God exists is more plausible than the belief that God does not exist. I will then argue that all reasonable people who are presented with the evidence for the existence of God and the reality of their sin, should accept Jesus Christ as their savior. I will not be debating the finer points of Christian doctrine, but only arguing for the essential aspects of Christian belief, namely that Jesus has redeemed humanity from sin through his suffering, death and resurrection.

The debate between atheists and theists is essentially an attempt to define the nature of the most basic reality. Theists believe that the ultimate reality is something like a creative mind that brings all dependent things into being, whereas atheists believe that the most fundamental reality is some substance acting according to blind natural processes.

The Argument from Simplicity

Here is the first argument pointing towards the existence of God:

  1. The ultimate reality (i.e., that which does not depend on anything else for its being) is either complex or it is noncomplex. [Something will be considered complex if and only if it has parts.]
  2. It is not the case that the ultimate reality is complex. [This follows from the fact that anything that is complex always depends on something simpler for its being. For example, in the case of a complex entity like a chair, it is dependent on the existence of simpler things, like individual molecules. These complex molecules are, in turn, dependent on simpler things, like atoms. It would be absurd to say that a chair is the ultimate reality, for it is obvious that the chair is dependent on more basic substances for its being.]
  3. The ultimate reality is noncomplex. [From 1 and 2]

Whatever is the most fundamental reality must be totally independent of simpler things, and therefore cannot be complex at all. This noncomplexity entails the absence of spatial dimension, for if something has spatial dimension, then it is divisible into parts, and therefore is complex because it depends on those parts. Nonspatiality, in turn, entails nonmateriality, for whatever is material must also have spatial dimension.

Since all complex substances ultimately depend on that which is not complex, we can formulate the next argument:

  1. The ultimate reality grounds the existence of complex things either by composing them with its own substance, or by creating them out of nothing. [There is simply no alternative.]
  2. It is not the case that the ultimate reality grounds the existence of complex things by composing them with its own substance. [If the ultimate reality were to compose things out of its own substance, then it would need to be something that has at least some spatial dimensions, for something with no size at all cannot contribute to the composition of an object. For example, it would be absurd to say that a pen is made up entirely of objects that have absolutely no size.]
  3. The ultimate reality grounds the existence of complex things by creating them out of nothing. [From 1 and 2]

Since it is inconceivable that the ultimate reality composes other things with its own substance, the only option remaining is that it creates from nothing.

Quentin Smith, who is probably the most broadly educated and technically advanced atheist philosopher of our time, agrees that the ultimate reality is something that is absolutely simple, and transcends space and time. Smith writes:

I agree that there is a cause of space-time’s beginning to exist. Further, I agree with many theists that a simple being caused space-time, where simple means here has no parts. I also agree with some theists, such as Brian Leftow, that the cause of space-time exists timelessly. And I agree with theists that the cause of space-time is essentially uncaused and exists a se (i.e., is not dependent upon any concrete object).[1]

Even though it must be concluded that the ultimate reality is something simple that transcends the physical realm, it has not yet been shown that God exists. This next argument fills in the gap:

  1. In order to attempt to understand the means by which the ultimate reality creates from nothing, one can use either mechanistic (i.e., process-based) or personal (i.e., mind-like) models for the explanation. [There are simply no other available explanatory concepts.]
  2. It is not the case that mechanistic models can be used. [Mechanistic models necessarily involve objects interacting in space and time, and therefore always involve at least some level of complexity. Mechanism necessarily implies one object interacting with some other object in a process that is not absolutely simple. Consequently, attempts to explain how the creation takes place in terms of a mechanistic process are incoherent, and should be rejected.]
  3. Personal models of explanation must be used. [From 1 and 2]

In answer to the question of “How does the ultimate reality create from nothing?,” there are two competing modes of explanation: mechanistic and personal. The contest is decided rather quickly, for mechanistic explanations are logically incompatible with the notion of simplicity. By contrast, there is no problem in positing that the ultimate reality is something like an immaterial mind, with no parts, that wills other things into being in one simple changeless act. There is nothing in the concept of a timeless mind that entails complexity. Since mechanism can be ruled out as the means of creation, and since there is no other explanatory model available other than the use of personal concepts, it follows that personal concepts should be used as the only available means to attempt to explain how the ultimate reality creates from nothing.

The Argument from Freedom

The following argument offers further support that the nature of the ultimate reality can best be likened to a mind:

  1. The ultimate reality is either:
  1. an impersonal set of blindly interacting deterministic or probabilistic causes (this is the nontheistic view);
  2. a personal, free will (this is the common theistic view); or
  3. something transcendent to the positive concept of a personal free will, but is not something less than that notion (this is the mystical theistic view).
    [So, either the ultimate reality is limited to acting deterministically (like a machine), probabilistically (as in quantum mechanics), or it is something that can best be likened to a free will.]
  1. Given the existence of human free will, option (a) can be ruled out since there is no way that free-willed beings can be caused to exist by the blind interactions of deterministic or probabilistic causes. [Consider, for example, the possibility that humans are made of nothing but chemicals, and chemicals are limited to acting in a deterministic way. If the entirety of human substance is such that it can only act deterministically, then free-willed actions are impossible. It does not matter how complex the nonfree process that constitutes human beings becomes, for it is still just a deterministic or probabilistic process. Similarly, if the ultimate reality is something that acts only deterministically or probabilistically, then it can never produce any results contrary to this mode of action.]
  2. Therefore either (b) or (c) must be the case. [From 1 and 2]

This argument shows that if anyone has ever made even one free decision in all of history, then the ultimate reality is something like what has been traditionally called God. It can justifiably be concluded that human free will is a reality, for people can directly experience their freedom through introspection. Reflection on one’s inner life reveals a decision-making process that operates on the assumption of a multiplicity of available options. The choice between these options is presented to the human mind as an immediate reality. There is a direct experience that at least some decisions are not the result of either compulsion or probability. It seems very unnatural and counterintuitive to reject this immediate experience in favor of a view that says that nobody has ever made any real decisions at all. Belief in freedom of the will, however, entails that the ultimate reality must be an adequate cause for the existence of free willed beings. Such a cause cannot be something that is limited to deterministic or probabilistic action, but can only be something like a free will.

The Argument from Morality

One can know more about the nature of the ultimate reality through the recognition that there is such a thing as moral obligation:

  1. If God does not exist, then real moral obligations do not exist. [If there is no God, then there is no objective basis whatsoever for believing that a given act, such as torturing children for fun, is morally wrong in every circumstance. Without a creator who gives ultimate meaning and value to life, it follows that there is nothing special about human beings; they are just elaborate chemical reactions. Consequently, on the atheistic hypothesis, the notion of moral obligation is illusory.]
  2. Moral obligations do exist. [This is intuitively obvious. No reasonable person would believe that it is ever morally right to torture children for fun.]
  3. God exists. [From 1 and 2]

Atheists insist that humans are the chance products of the motion of matter, and that people are ultimately reducible to the mere interactions of chemicals. In the same way that this makes free will impossible, it also makes moral obligation impossible. Given that moral obligation is a fact, it is clear that the atheist position is false. Theists believe that moral values are rooted in the nature of the ultimate reality; God creates humans for the sake of their good, so human life is objectively valuable, and should be respected. The existence of God gives objective meaning and purpose to life. On the theistic view, the existence of moral obligations can be explained, but without God, moral obligation, much like free will, is an illusion.

At this point, anyone who wants to maintain atheism must undertake the full-time job of denying the basic intuitions that people have free will and moral obligation. Since there is no reason to think that these intuitions are illusory, it must be concluded that theism is more plausible than atheism.

The Argument from Negative Properties

The next line of argument proves the existence of God in a logically compelling way, and does not require an appeal to any intuitions about the nature of the human person. Richard Gale, an atheist philosopher, has established criteria for deciding whether a given property is positive or negative. Gale writes:

A property P is negative if and only if it specifies no property which is not of the same quality…. Positive properties, in addition to specifying other positive properties, also specify negative properties, i.e., properties of different quality. E.g., blue specifies, in addition to color, non-red, but non-red, as the wide complement to red, specifies no positive property, i.e., property differing in quality from it…[2]

By this criterion, a property such as “being material” is positive because it entails properties of differing quality, like “being spatial” and “being nonangelic.” By contrast, a negative property, such as “being noncolored,” entails only properties of the same quality as itself, like “being nonred.” Gale also offers a second criterion based on the fact that negative properties are always compatible with each other:

Another difference between positive and negative properties in respect to their logical relations, which can also serve as a criterion, is the following: A property P is negative if and only if there is no property of the same quality as it with which it is incompatible. To say that two properties are incompatible means that it is logically impossible for them to be coinstantiated. Red is incompatible with blue, which is of the same quality as it, but there is no property of the same quality as nonred with which it is incompatible.[3]

The qualifications to these criteria are addressed in the notes.[4], [5], [6]. These qualifications will apply throughout this debate. There is presently no counterexample to either of these criteria.

From Gale’s logic, it follows that there is a possible world in which there is something that exemplifies all of the negative properties together. This is a direct consequence of the notion that any conjunction of negative properties is coinstantiable. Whatever being possesses all of the negative properties has an essence that is entirely negative, and also possesses an infinite number of nonessential negative properties, such as not being worshipped by Christians, and not being creator of the universe.[7] While, given Gale’s criteria, such a being must exist in some possible world, it seems clear that there cannot be something that exemplifies all of the negative properties in the actual world, for any actual being must have at least some positive relational properties just by the fact of coexisting with other beings in contingent situations. Despite this, there is nothing that prevents the negative essence of such a being from being exemplified in the actual world. This essence would be the maximal conjunction of negative properties that can be possessed essentially by one being. Such a conjunction of properties will be called the divine essence, since a being with this essence corresponds to the mystical notion of God in the apophatic theological tradition. Consider the following quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God—’the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable’—with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God. Admittedly, in speaking about God like this [using the positive religious terms and analogies within Christianity] our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. [This means that positive analogical language can help elevate our thoughts towards divinity, but can never be literally true of God.] Likewise, we must recall that ‘between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude’; and that ‘concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.[8]

The mystical tradition within Christianity affirms that the essential attributes of God can only be conceptualized negatively. The question to be faced now is whether this divine essence is exemplified in the actual world. The answer to this question can be found through an analysis of the property of being contingent.

Something is contingent if and only if its existence and nonexistence are both logically possible. That is, a contingent thing exists in some possible worlds, but fails to exist in others. Something is noncontingent if and only if it exists in all possible worlds, or none at all. According to Gale’s criteria, being contingent is positive because it entails properties of differing quality, such as being dependent, and not being a proposition. Noncontingency, or necessity, is such that it does not meet any of the entailment criteria for being positive, and is therefore negative.[9] The negativity of noncontingency is also shown by the fact that it is the complement of the positive term contingency, and the complement of a positive property is always a negative property.

Whatever is contingent or noncontingent is that way essentially; it is that way in every possible world in which it exists. So, given that the divine essence is the maximal conjunction of negative properties that can be held essentially, it must be concluded that one of the negative properties that characterizes the divine essence is the property of noncontingency.

In light of the foregoing considerations, a sound ontological argument can be constructed in the following way:

  1. Either the exemplification of the divine essence is logically necessary or logically impossible. [The divine essence entails the negative property of noncontingency, and whatever is noncontingent is either logically necessary or logically impossible.]
  2. It is not the case that the exemplification of the divine essence is logically impossible. [This follows from Gale’s principle that all negative terms are coinstantiable, and therefore it must be possible that there is something that exemplifies the strictly negative divine essence.]
  3. The exemplification of the divine essence is logically necessary. [From 1 and 2]

If the exemplification of the divine essence is logically necessary (i.e., if it is exemplified in every possible world), then it is exemplified in the actual world. Therefore, God (as conceived by the mystics) exists.

One could attack this argument by attempting to show that the property of noncontingency fails to be negative, or that Gale’s conclusion about the coinstantiability of negative properties is incorrect. But both of these positions seem quite secure, so it is best to conclude that this is a sound ontological argument for the existence of God.

What is the Nature of God’s Relationship to Creation?

One of the negative properties that must be included in the divine essence is the property of not being deficient in any sense. This property is the denial of all qualitative inferiority, privation and evil. For example, the property of being bad at sports is a deficiency, so something that has the property of not being deficient in any sense cannot also have such a property. This is not the same as saying that something nondeficient must be proficient at playing sports, for a truly nondeficient being would be such that it transcended sports entirely. Being good at sports entails deficiencies of its own, such as being dependent on space and time.

Even though one cannot have positive knowledge about God’s essential nature, it is possible to deduce many positive nonessential properties concerning the relationship of God to creation. The following is a series of conclusions that follow from the nondeficiency of God:

  • God must be that on which the created universe depends. If this were not so, then a greater being could be conceived, namely one who is the source and sustainer of all created things.
  • It is not the case that God created the world for the sake of leaving people in a state of want and dissatisfaction, but for the greatest possible good they can receive according to their natures. If God did not create for the sake of the greatest good of people, then one could ascribe all kinds of deficiencies to God, such as selfishness, malice, arbitrariness of action, recklessness, stinginess, etc.
  • The greatest good that humans can experience is love, and the greatest possible object of love is God. If there were something that could surpass God in this aspect, then God would be deficient in some sense, and would not be the God shown to exist by the foregoing arguments. Therefore, it must be concluded that humans were created for the sake of being in a love relationship with God.
  • Given that God creates for the sake of the greatest possible good of persons, and since an infinite lifespan in a perfect love relationship with God is a greater good than a finite lifespan in such a situation, it follows that the human soul is immortal.

Why Christianity?

Considering that humans have free will, it follows that people can accept or reject the ultimate good for which they were created. To reject this good in favor of a lesser one is what is called sin. Here are some basic ways in which sin is committed:

  1. People put other things ahead of their love relationship with God, and therefore imply that these other things are more important than the ultimate good for which they were created.
  2. People act in ways contrary to their own dignity as persons created by God, and thereby imply that they do not care that God created them for the sake of their ultimate good.
  3. People treat others as if they had less worth than themselves. Consequently, they imply that they do not care that God created others for the sake of their ultimate good.

Any of these modes of action, when done deliberately, involves a transgression of the created order, because people were made to live in perfect relationship with God. Free will allows humans to participate in a love relationship with God, but it also makes it possible for them to violate God’s order of things. Whenever a free-willed being chooses to do something contrary to the purpose for which he or she was created, some event that should never have happened in God’s creation is brought into being. As a result, the individual sinner becomes something that should never have existed.

When people commit sin, they are no longer that which they were created to be, and so are evicted from the joy that would result from being exactly what they ought to be, namely persons in a perfect love relationship with God. Furthermore, since sin never should have existed in the first place, all subsequent actions that the individual sinner performs belong to the class of events that should never have happened. This is because these actions occur in the context of the person having sinned, and are therefore also outside of the created order. As a result, sinners get progressively further into the mire as time goes on, and become less and less like what they were created to be. Consequently, their unhappiness increases over time.

There is now a choice to be made: a person can be satisfied with despair, knowing that the joy for which he or she is created is forever out of reach, or that person can search for a solution to the problem of sin. It is clearly irrational to be satisfied with despair, for rational action should always correspond to ones best interests. So, the rational choice is to search for a solution. In order to qualify as a real solution, however, whatever is proposed must have at least the following essential characteristics:

  1. The solution cannot be the result of the efforts of sinful beings. Since sin should never have occurred, the efforts of sinners to make amends for sin are also events that should never have occurred. This is not to say that acts of repentance are bad in themselves, but these acts do contain elements of disorder (for the reason given above). Such imperfect acts are therefore inadequate to solve the problem that sin creates, viz. the deviation of creatures from the order of creation.
  2. The solution cannot simply be that God forgives us. This would not solve the problem of the consequences of sin, namely that sinners have (ontologically) become that which should never have existed. The problem is not that God holds sins against people, but that sinners are in an objectively disordered state of being, and cannot return to harmony with God by dint of their own actions.

One proposed solution to the problem of sin that meets the above criteria is that which is offered by Christianity: Jesus Christ, who is God incarnated as man, took all of the effects of human sin onto himself by his death on the cross. Christianity states that Jesus has taken the burden of our sins, so that humans do not have to be alienated from God, but can have eternal life with God through the saving work of Christ. After dying on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead, and offers people the opportunity to be grafted into his perfect and sinless nature. Those who accept this opportunity are then dead to their former selves, and newly created in him. God has established a new order of creation in Christ; the old order is ruined by sin, and is passing away, but in Christ, all things are made new.

The purpose of this brief exposition is not to attempt to explain the mystery of exactly how Christ’s act of atonement saves the human race. The point is to show that Christianity is merely a proposed solution to the problem of sin that meets both of the necessary criteria set out above. Sinful humans do not achieve salvation by their own efforts; they simply turn from sin and accept what Jesus has done. Christianity also deals directly with the consequences of sin, in that all of the disorder caused by sin is directed at Jesus, who voluntarily suffers it for the sake of the human race.

The reader may be under the impression that Christianity is simply one of many available solutions to the problem of sin. In truth, it is the only plausible solution. The reasons why Christianity is the only real option in response to the problem of sin are as follows:

  1. There is simply no competing solution that meets the necessary criteria. Consider that every other extant philosophy or religion either fails to recognize the problem of sin in its full reality, or fails to meet at least one of the criteria for what would constitute a real solution. For example, all non-Christian religions that acknowledge the reality of sin teach that humans can amend their relationship to God by their own efforts.
  2. Christianity is historically sound. The Church can be historically traced back to the time of Jesus himself.
  3. There are countless miracles that occur in the name of Jesus Christ even in modern times. Although there are many fraudulent claims, it remains that many miracles within Christianity have been investigated by science without any signs of fraud being found. These miracles occur all over the world today, and can be witnessed firsthand by those who search for them.
  4. There are no good reasons to think that Christianity is false. (Drange’s arguments against Christianity will be considered after they are presented.)

Obviously, the above line of reasoning does not count as a proof that Christianity is true, but it does show that it is more reasonable to be a Christian than not. Since God exists, and the problem of sin is real, and since there is no known solution that even begins to address the problem other than the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it follows that reasonable people should accept Jesus Christ as their savior.

Consider this analogy: There is a man who has a terminal disease, and there is only one medicine available that is purported to be able to cure the disease. The dying man either needs to take this medicine, or reject it. It seems that (assuming he is rational, and wants to live) he would need to have very good reason to reject the medicine before being justified in the choice to abstain. Given that there is no good reason to abstain, it follows that he would be irrational in refusing the medicine. The same is true of the choice to accept Jesus Christ. People are doomed to the consequences of their sins without a savior. Jesus is the one solution available, and there is no good reason to think that Christianity is false. Indeed, there are many good reasons to think that Christianity is true. Hence, acceptance of Jesus Christ is more rational that the refusal to believe.

Notes

[1] Quentin Smith, “Time was Created by a Timeless Point” in God and Time: Essays on the Divine Nature ed. Gregory E. Ganssle & David M. Woodruff (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] Richard M. Gale, “Negative Statements.” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3 (1970): 206-217, p. 215.

[3] Gale, “Negative Statements,” p. 215.

[4] Gale writes: “[This criterion] must be restricted to qualitatively homogenous properties; for nonred color, an obviously negative property, is incompatible with some other property of the same quality—non-colored” (“Negative Statements,” p. 215).

[5] Gale writes: “It might be contended that there are properties not of the same quality as non-red which it specifies, viz., being an entity, being something, being self-identical with itself, etc. These ‘properties’ will not be counted as properties, since they logically must have a universal extension. We shall also not countenance as properties any property that must have a null extension” (“Negative Statements,” p. 215).

[6] Properties that do not entail any other properties at all must have a different criterion for being considered positive or negative. This criterion is as follows: A nonentailing property is positive if and only if it is entailed by every other property of the same quality. An example would be the property of possessing at least some positive properties. This property is entailed by every positive property, and by no negative properties. A nonentailing property is negative if and only if it fails to meet the criterion for being positive.

[7] The essential properties of something are those properties that are possessed in every possible world in which that thing exists. For example, an essential property of an apple is being a type of fruit, while a nonessential property of an apple is being eaten by Eve.

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995), p. 22.

[9] At this point, I want to address an error that occurred in my debate with Doug Krueger. I used the same ontological argument in that debate, and I wrote in several places that the property of being necessary was a positive property. After discussing the argument with Graham Oppy for several months, I realized that this is a mistake, and that being necessary actually fails to meet any of the entailment criteria that would make it positive, so it is really a negative property. This does not affect the soundness of the argument used in the debate with Krueger, but I thought that this mistake should be made known.


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