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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Should We Take the Slaughter of the Canaanites Literally?

I read a recent column by Meghan Daum in the Los Angeles Times where she decried the decision by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to update the definition of the word "literally." Daum writes:
"The entry defines the adverb 'literally' as 'in a literal manner or sense; exactly: the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the roundabout. ' But then it adds a note: 'informal, used for emphasis while not being literally true: I have received literally thousands of letters.'

"The latter, say the editors, 'is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.'"1
Daum recognizes in the article that language is fluid and meanings change. (When was the last time you heard someone use the word gay in a sentence and had it mean happy?) But she complains that literally should not mean figuratively, which is its opposite. She continues:
"I'm sorry: 'Literal' does not mean the same thing as 'not at all literal.' It is not a contranym, like 'sanction,' which means both to punish and to condone, or 'garnish,' which means both to add on and to take away. It's a plain old word with a plain old meaning."
I have another take on the word.  I think that people are not using the word "literally" with the intent to mean figuratively. I think they are using another rhetorical device called hyperbole. Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement intended to "evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is not meant to be taken literally" according to Wikipedia. This is generally the way I see the word work in speech, as when my wife says "it will take me literally five minutes to get ready." Believe me, if I used a stopwatch at that point, I would be in big trouble!

Because "literally" is being employed as a rhetorical device, it means one must understand the statement at the level of the sentence, not the word. Of course, it can cause a bit of confusion when the word "literally" is in a phrase that asks you to not take the phrase literally! People today have a common understanding of this, but I wonder how such conversation will be interpreted in, say, a thousand years.

All of this brings me to reflect on a charge that atheists like Richard Dawkins bring against the God of the Bible. Dawkins asks how any God that would command the slaughter of the Canaanites—even women and children—can be considered a good god? In his objection, Dawkins employs charges of "genocide" or other loaded language. But I believe there are people who are earnestly concerned about this question, so it does require a thoughtful response.

Dr. Paul Copan, in his book Is God a Moral Monster?, does a great job of explaining that part of the problem with the passages in the book of Joshua is that Joshua employed hyperbole in warfare language which was common to all those in the ancient Near East. This is borne out in the fact that while Joshua records his efforts resulted in "all the land captured, all the kings defeated, and all the Canaanites destroyed ( cf. 10:40-42; 11:16-23),"2 If this description is to be taken literally, then how come the book of Judges opens with an attack on Israel by the very same Canaanites that should have been non-existent? It seems that Joshua's description is more like an avid football fan who proclaims "We killed those guys!" upon a game ending with a score of 9-7.

Copan notes that this idea of overstating one's case isn't exclusive to Israel. He point's to Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen's work and lists examples of similar hyperbole from the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Moabites, and the Assyrians.3

Of course, there are other mitigating factors that also undercut the charge of divine genocide, but I wanted to focus on this one right now. Given that today we understand how the word "literally" is used (and we seem to be aware of when to take "literally" literally), why should it be such a stretch to acknowledge that people from the past would use similar rhetorical language, especially concerning such an emotionally charged topic as warfare? It would be as irresponsible to charge the Israelites with genocide as it would be for me to pull out my stopwatch with my wife, and the end result may be as messy.

Thoughtful questions require a thoughtful response. However, with folks like Richard Dawkins they continue to use the objection without even understanding how the language of the day was used. Thoughtful questions do require thoughtful responses. But with folks like Dawkins, when a thoughtful response is given, it isn't thoughtfully accepted.


1. Daum, Meghan. "To thine own selfie be true – literally." The Los Angeles Times. 12 Dec, 2013:,0,6736521.column#ixzz2nNfBYwVp 13 Dec 2013.

2. Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011). 170.

3. Ibid. 172.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Of Mice and Men - How Our Assumptions Color Our Understanding

In my time as an apologist, I've come more and more to realize just how much the presuppositions of people will influence their interpretation of facts and truth-claims. All of us carry biases and it is important that we recognize and are sensitive to our own biases as well as those of the person with whom we're discussing things of God.

I was reminded of this just recently. When I used to commute to Los Angeles, I would pass a recycling facility. At one corner of the facility's yard is a large mound of debris that was compiled many years ago. The rubble is weathered and mature weeds grow from the artificial hillside. None of this is particularly worthy of note, except that there is a chain link fence surrounding the pile with both barbed wire and razor wire protecting its cache from any trespassers.

I thought it kind of interesting that a trash heap would be fenced off and protected to such a degree. Letting my mind wander, I thought "What would an archaeologist make of this discovery in a thousand years? He might assume that the contents of that pile were very valuable at one time, seeing as it's so well protected." Of course, I realized that the fence and wire were there to protect wayward explorers from injuring themselves and possibly suing the facility. But if someone didn't have that cultural understanding of our society, they could look at the same evidence I saw and come to a drastically different conclusion.

I further imagined that if this scenario came about the contents of the rubble pile would be cataloged and examined. Academic papers would be written, debates over the importance of this stone versus that one would surface and countless hours would be devoted to rebuilding whatever was supposed to have been originally housed at the site.

A Big Mistake Identifying a Little Animal

Now, this may sound a bit extreme; surely the science of our day is too sophisticated to make such an error! But the skirmish over a little mouse in Wyoming, as reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer underscores my point.(1) In 1954, Professor Philip Krutzsch identified a new subspecies of Meadow Jumping Mouse from examining the skulls and skins of several samples. The new species was named the Preble's mouse. In 1998, this study was offered as evidence to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help list the Preble's mouse as an endangered species, which the agency did.

Now, according to the Post-Intelligencer, "after six years of regulations and restrictions that have cost builders, local governments and landowners an estimated $100 million, new research suggests that the 'threatened' Preble's mouse in fact never existed." The newspaper reports that recent mitochondrial genetics studies, performed by a team from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science show that the mouse is identical to the Bar lodge mouse, a species common enough not to need protection at all.

Now the critic might say that this proves nothing since modern science caught its own mistake. However, I find it interesting that the only way we could have caught such an error is because we have existing specimens today. We're able to do such things as DNA testing. Remember, Krutzsch's original findings were based on skeletal and skin samples and they were considered acceptable at that time as the article points out. If no live samples of the so-called Preble's mouse were around to be tested, I wonder if the error would have been caught at all.

Evolution's Identity Problems

In fact, that's the whole reason for this discussion. Evolution as a field of study is based pretty much on the evidence of skeletal remains. We have some fossilized skin patterns, footprints, and such. But most of all the advances in evolutionary theory are from fossilized bones. If a modern day professor got it wrong about a mouse that he was able to observe, than how much more likely is it that paleontologists make mistakes interpreting fossils. In fact, author Luther Sunderland asked David M. Raup, a noted evolutionist and Curator of Geology at the Field Museum of Natural History at the University of Chicago, about the practice of naming the same creature by different species names when it's found in different period rocks. "He acknowledged that it used to be a very common practice and still occurred… it was done purposely because of an a priori theoretical mode, but he thought most of these had 'been cleaned out now'."(2)

So here we have evidence that the bias of the scientists come into direct play when they seek to identify a new species. In fact, Raup noted that many times this was done on purpose to try and make the evidence conform to the theory instead of the other way around. He later tells Sunderland that "approximately 70 percent of species described are found to be the same as existing species, so 70 percent of the new species named should not have been, either through ignorance or because of the rules used by taxonomists."(3)

As the debate over evolution continues to heat up, Christians have recurrently been accused of ignoring the evidence because of their beliefs. Is this charge true? Perhaps in some cases. However, the history of paleontology shows just as large a bias on the part of the evolutionists. So, the next time you are discussing the issue with a friend or colleague, make sure you're sensitive to the assumptions that lie behind the assertions. Their facts may be as tenuous as a rat in a trap.


1. Gruver, Mead "New research shows endangered mouse never existed"
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Friday, June 11, 2004
2. Sunderland, Luther D. Darwin's Enigma: Fossils and other Problems
Master Books, El Cajon, CA 1988 p.131
3. Ibid.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Would Torture be Good if God is Evil?

Recently on my Facebook page, I was presented with this video from philosophy professor Stephen Darwall of Yale University who argues that one cannot hold to a view that morality comes from God.Because Darwall is a professor of philosophy, his arguments are more cogent than most, but I believe he gets the basis for good and bad wrong. In the following discussion with an atheist friend, I show how God's goodness is grounded in His nature, and also answer the question "Could there be such a thing as an evil God?" To see the complete thread, click here.

Lenny: This is an interesting video, Bernie. I appreciate that it is a thoughtful look at morality. However, the Divine Command Theory espoused here is not the same as the beliefs that I or historic Christendom has held. I don't believe that a value is good simply because God says so. That runs smack dab into the Euthyphro dilemma.

I believe that goodness is intrinsic to God - that is it is part of His nature. God tells us what is good because God is good. As a parallel, human beings are by nature communicative. We don;t choose to think using words and language, we do so because it is part of our nature to do so. So, there is a difference between the explanation above,which relies on God making proclamations that could be made another way and God making proclamations because they correspond to His nature.

For a counter-argument, this video by an atheist does a great job in describing the problems with rooting morality in a human framework. Check it out:
Moral Nihilist: The Intellectually Honest Atheist

Bernie: RE: "God tells us what is good because God is good. "

So that means that "good" is defined by "God" or more specifically defined by God's nature, correct? If so, makes me wonder where God got his nature from; and could it have been any different, and if so, then that different would have been the new "good?"

Lenny: I would word it more like good is that which corresponds to God's nature.

Bernie: So IF it were God's nature to be mean, then that would be considered "good?"

Lenny: That's Stephen Law's argument, but it begins to become confused. First, if we understand what evil is (a privation of the good), then we must realize that good can exist wholly apart from evil, but evil cannot exist apart from the good. That is, a wholly malevolent being who is also self-existent (as the term God is understood) cannot exist. Evil can only exist as a measure against the good, just like a dent cannot exist by itself but must be considered a defect in the original shape of another object. You can have a fender with no dents, but you cannot have a dent with no fender!

Secondly, William Lane Craig makes the point that If God is God, then he would be a being worthy of our worship. however, an evil anti-god is no such being.

Lastly, if an evil anti-god created the universe and his goal was to perpetuate evil, how would we then know what we're doing is evil? if we are following our telos, our purpose, then is such a thing even considered evil at all? You can see that positing a malevolent god starts to have some serious issues associated with it. I can't make any sense out of it based on objection #1 alone.

Bernie: RE: "That is, a wholly malevolent being who is also self-existent (as the term God is understood) cannot exist."

But you said the nature of God, whatever it is, is good. So if a god had an attribute of what we consider to be bad now, it would then be considered good, because it was the god's nature.

Lenny: Right. So the phrase "mean god" is akin to "square circle" since the word mean holds a moral value already.

Bernie: So if it would have turned-out that god thought torture was fun, we would all call that good, correct? Because, that is his nature, which defines good. Is that what you are claiming?

Lenny: No, for two reasons. First you are using a word like torture that carries moral weight. For example, would you say that a person is torturing a tree by picking off its apples? Of course not! The tree has a purpose - it provides food. To consume the fruit of the tree is neither torture nor cannibalism, but recognizing the value the fruit of the tree provides.

Moral values and duties are not arbitrary nor independent of the design of the one acting or of the thing being acted upon. Capricious morality (where God simply determines what's right and wrong by fiat) is more closely associated with Islamic concept of God than the Christian one.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Pagan Christmas Trees and the Burden of Proof

Many times when we seek to defend the faith, we can get caught taking on a bigger burden of proof that we should. I was recently reminded of this when a couple days ago I had two Jehovah's Witnesses visit my home. Given that it's three weeks before Christmas, we discussed the Christmas celebration and its roots. The Witnesses pointed to my tree and claimed it was originally a pagan symbol and Christians shouldn't be bringing such pagan symbols into their homes.

Now, I've heard this charge before. We hear tales of the yule log being tied to celebrations of the winter solstice and Christmas trees symbolizing a pagan concept of new life resurrecting through its ashes. This claim isn't limited to atheists; I found the following story on the Facebook page of a man who claims to be a Christian. In his article, he shouts that following holiday traditions is Baal worship and provides the following as "unequivocally historical." I've shortened the section a bit, but the words are his:
"Nimrod of Babylon whose wife Semiramis deified his memory by implementing an observance to replicate his death and this in the Yule log which was also chopped up to a stump, then she birthed an illegitimate child (Tammuz) through another man, and claimed this new child was Nimrod resurrected anew.

"To memorialize this she instituted a brand new young green sappling (Christmas tree) the next morning and sold this lie that on the night before Christmas the slaughtered and quartered former demi-god Nimrod entered into the fire of purification as a cut down tree (Yule log) and through being made pure as the savior of the world, he resurrected and regenerated the following morning as a new being, i.e. the green tree."
Christians who hear such charges are quickly put on the defensive, and they normally seek to explain how the Christmas tree (or Easter eggs, bunnies, or other symbols used in holiday celebrations) no longer holds their original meaning. They have been integrated into the Christian tradition and now carry Christian meanings—at least for the person with the tree in his house.

I agree that such an argument is valid. Even though we call the fifth day of the week Thursday, doing so in no way implies that we wish to exalt the Norse god Thor even if that's the origin of the day's name. But, as I've been researching Christmas origins, I've found that the real problem isn't with the pagan origins of Christmas traditions, but the spurious origins of the belief that Christmas traditions ever were pagan in the first place.

Did pagans ever use Christmas trees?

Let's look at the concept of bringing a Christmas tree into your home. Critics will try to point to some ancient rite or festival prior to Christianity where trees were used and force a connection between them. For example, Jacqueline Farmer, in her children's book O Christmas Tree, writes that the ancient Egyptians used palm branches to decorate their in celebration of the winter solstice. She then points to the Romans celebrating Saturnalia and says they also used evergreen branches to brighten their homes. Both are offered as the genesis for Christmas trees.

But, why should we believe that? It is no surprise that ancient people would decorate their homes to mark significant events, including the beginning of a new growing cycle. It is also no surprise that trees would play an important symbolic role across many cultures. Trees live much longer than people and can be identified as existing from generation to generation. Also, because fruits and nuts will grow on trees, they can be a source of food. Finally, the shedding of leaves and the new blossoms that accompany the seasonal cycle makes trees a natural symbol for these ideas. This is easily shown by looking at the practice of Northwest Native American tribes, who had no connection with Egyptian or Roman culture whatsoever, would take a tree to carve and decorating it as a totem pole.

Assuming the worst

Behind each of the assertions that Christmas and its traditions are rooted in paganism lies the flimsiest evidence. There is just no historical connection to Christmas trees and pagan rites. There are some scholastic works on the history of Christmas traditions that try to make the connections, but these tend to come from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and are woefully out of date.

Simply pointing to some festival that used a log or a tree and then claiming that this proves Christmas to be rooted in pagan worship is on the same level as one who would point to totem poles and say that their origin lies in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. The evidence for both is the same: cursory and unconvincing. Why not go even further and argue that since the Bible used the symbol of trees (the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) in its creation story, perhaps the Romans borrowed their use of trees from the Bible!

While Christians can make a case for symbols in modern culture adopting new meaning, I don't think it's necessary. It seems to me the burden of proof is on those making the charge of paganism, and I see no evidence to believe their charge has merit.

Friday, December 06, 2013

A Brave New World: Why Science Cannot Replace Religion

Many times in popular articles commentators will state that old religious dogmas are being replaced by the new knowledge that comes from scientific discoveries. In fact, many people believe that science and religion cannot coexist - that fact and faith are contrary ways of understanding the world. Usually when this argument is asserted, it is to bolster the view that science is a better and truer way of seeing things; that humanity is in the process of abandoning its myths in order to come into a new enlightenment.

Unfortunately, those who advance such notions don't realize that they've made a fatal flaw in their thinking. They've not abandoned religion; they've simply substituted one belief system over another. What's more, to substitute science for religion is a proposition destined to fail. Let's look at the roles of both and see why.

The Role of Religion In The Life of Man

Throughout history, humanity has sought the highest meaning of life through religion. Christian scholars set out to try and understand the ultimate reality of our existence and to establish a cohesive worldview. People would turn to the cleric as a trusted source of knowledge in their search for the truth.

Christianity specifically has always held the view that the world can be knowable. The Christian worldview teaches that God created the material universe. Since the universe is designed by a rational being, it should behave in a predictable way. In other words, the world as we know it should act in accordance with certain observable physical laws and that would allow us to predict how objects will react in specific circumstances. This is the origin of modern science.1

Today, however, the understanding of religion has changed. Come up to a person today and say you want to talk about religion and you'll usually get an interesting reaction. Many people get uncomfortable discussing religious topics; they feel that religion is a personal matter and that spiritual matters should be a private affair.

The New Role of Science

Science, on the other hand, is treated much differently. New scientific breakthroughs are trumpeted in newspapers and discussed at the water coolers the next morning. Scientists are now looked upon as the ultimate arbitrator of truth. If science says something is true, it receives widespread public acceptance. Even corporate America has discovered that the credibility of a product will rise dramatically when a man in a white coat advertises its benefits.

It is because of the amazing achievements we've seen through science that many people have jumped to the conclusion that science is capable of explaining everything. However, science by itself is useless. It cannot answer the most important questions of morality and ethical actions. Science is primarily a way of understanding the material world. Science can tell us what is the case, but it cannot tell us what should be the case or what we ought to do about it.

Where Science Falls Short

A recent meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology highlights this difference with frightening clarity. Several shocking announcements were made in the name of advancing the science of human reproduction. Robin Marantz Henig of the Washington Post reports "An American scientist, Norbert Gleicher, announced that he and his colleagues had successfully inserted cells from a male embryo into an early-stage female embryo, creating a mixed-gender chimera that some journalists called a 'she-male.'"2 Gleicher allowed the embryo's cells to duplicate and grow for three days before killing the embryo.

In another announcement at the same conference, a group of scientists from Israel and Holland extracted egg from aborted female fetuses and kept them alive in the hope that the "aborted foetuses could one day be used to obtain eggs for fertility treatment, leading to the possibility of babies being born from mothers who were themselves unborn."3

Both these examples are pure science - those involved followed the scientific method in their experiments. And the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the UK agency responsible for licensing such research said there was no law that expressly forbade such experiments.4 So why do people recoil in horror at the thought of such experiments? Because it is our understanding of morality that tells us life shouldn't be used like tinker toys. Denying a fetus life and then using its remains as spare parts strikes us as repugnant. Fertilizing a human embryo to only experiment on it and destroy it is obscene.

Science without ethical guidelines is not a boon to mankind, but an unwieldy power capable of evil. It has no way of determining good. There is no scientific test for the moral. It is religion that tells us not only what is, but what's right. It is only when we practice our science with an overriding goal of pursuing the good that science can serve man at all.

The Category Problem

The problem is really one of misunderstanding. Those who try to exalt science to the ultimate arbitrator of truth are committing a fallacy that is known as a category error. Science serves only to explain a small subset of the human experience - the way the material world behaves. Religion is an entirely different category - one that seeks to answer to what our purpose in life should be.

Now, the scientific progress that's been made in the last 100 years is astounding. It's allowed us to travel great distances with ease, given us the ability to communicate instantaneously, and overcome disease more easily than ever before. Neither are most scientists like those we've seen above. However Christians need to be aware that good science does not fly in the face of Christianity, but Christianity is its source. It is only when we grasp that science gets its worth from theology—the appreciation of God and his relation to the world—that we can use this tool to benefit mankind.


1. - Hodgson, Peter "The Origin of Modern Science"
Video lecture accessed at
2. - Henig, Robin Marantz "Think Baby Louise, And Don't Be Afraid"
Washington Post Sunday, July 13, 2003; Page B01
3. - Ibid
4. - Sinclair, Keith and Collins, Vicky "Science creates she-male human hybrid"
The Herald July 3, 2003
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