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Friday, March 12, 2010

Paul Copan's Comments on the "Original Sin" Post

Paul Copan posted some comments today in response to my blog post Christian Philosophers Attempt to Defend "Original Sin"--Part Two

I am delighted he did and below are his comments with my response.

Hi Paul,

Thanks for your quick reply and your willingness to engage in dialogue. I appreciate your kind spirit in the comments.

I understand you are very busy, as I am as well, so this exchange will probably not satisfy either of us. I would be pleased to meet you, so don't hesitate to let me know next time you are in Atlanta area. Alas, I am not in south Florida very often (with the weather here today, I envy you).

Now on to your comments.

Thanks, Ken, for devoting a post to my essay. I'm sorry you've given up on Christ/the Christian faith--a very painful withdrawal, no doubt. Knowing what little I do of your story saddens me. Not to pigeon-hole you, but I've met so many who have come from a "Christian fundamentalist" background who have similar narratives. Maybe next time I'm in the Atlanta area (in November), we can get together for a cup of coffee.

I am open to the evidence wherever it might lead me. I once believed very similarly to how you believe now and changed. I will change again if I am convinced that it is merited. By the way, I attended most of the sessions at the 2009 Apologetics conference in November. I want to hear the very best that evangelicalism has to offer in terms of defending the faith. I met Bill Craig and Mike Licona briefly.

As for the "fundamentalist" background, yes I know Bob Jones University has a reputation for taking some extreme positions (in fairness though, this was due largely to the administration not the faculty). However, when I use the word "fundamentalist" to describe my former beliefs, I am using it in the historical sense of the term. For the first half of the twentieth-century, there was little or no difference between the terms "fundamentalist" and "evangelical." Of course, that has since changed but my criticisms are focused against traditional evangelical theology, not some contemporary fundamentalist caricature.

I'll try to respond briefly and won't be able to hit all of your points. As you know, the problem of evil is a problem for everyone, and agnostics/atheists have, in my estimation, both the problem of evil and the problem of goodness do respond to (see below). Getting rid of God provokes more problems than solutions. Furthermore, focusing on the problem of evil to the neglect of the wide range of evidence for God is all too common and typically skews the discussion (see below on this too). But we are discussing an aspect of the problem of evil; so let's jump in.

I don't think that the non-believer in the Christian god, which is how I prefer to characterize myself, has a problem with regard to the existence of evil; at least not to the extent that the Christian does. I don't have to explain how a perfectly good God has allowed things to happen the way they have. In my case, I can simply say that, Yes, moral evil exists and it is attributable to the fact that people sometimes act in selfish ways. They don't always act in selfish ways and, therefore, there is good in the world as well. Natural evil, which I think is an insurmountable problem for the evangelical Christian, is attributable to the fact that this is the way our world exists. Its explainable purely on naturalistic terms.

1. The "damage" view I've taken is held by a number of orthodox Christian theologians and philosophers (Bruce Demarest, Millard Erickson, Thomas Morris, etc.).

Okay, fair enough. I never said it was heretical or outside the pale of evangelical orthodoxy. I think, however, to use it as a theodicy, i.e., that sinning is not necessary, leads one very close to Pelagianism. Of course, Pelagius believed that a few people never sinned which I think would be required if your theodicy were to work.

2. Theism's being better able to "deal with" evil than non-theistic worldviews seems borne out by atheistic thinkers like Richard Dawkins (who states that in a world of electrons and selfish genes, there is no good or evil--just mere "blind, pitiless indifference"), Bertrand Russell ("the foundation of unyielding despair"), physicist Steven Weinberg (the more the world seems comprehensible, the more "pointless" it seems). This common position isn't too surprising if matter constitutes all reality. If God exists, though, objective purpose does as well. This is powerfully analyzed in Gordon Graham's *Evil and Christian Ethics* (Cambridge).

I fail to see why the non-believer has a problem here. The world is the way it is; there is both good and evil. The Christian, on the other hand, has to explain why there is evil (both moral and natural) even though his God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

3. To further reinforce my point, your argument assumes that human beings (perhaps creatures in general) have value and ought not to be harmed. But why think this? How do you move from "is" to "ought" (the naturalistic fallacy), from valuelessness to value? Stacking up lots of collocations of valueless atoms won't get you to value. Affirming value slyly borrows from the metaphysical capital of theism. In opposing harm, you assume intrinsic value exists, yet this has somehow arisen from valueless processes. Plenty of atheists/agnostics (including existentialists and nihilists) understandably reject objective value given the worldview context of naturalism. Again, if a good God exists, finite value derives from the Creator's value.

Why do I need a God or a holy book to tell me that people are valuable? I am a person and obviously I consider myself valuable. I love other people and I consider them valuable. I can deduce from this that all people have value. On the other hand, when I look at the Bible, I see that some people have more value than others. The Canaanites had little value apparently. Slaves and women in the OT had less value than men, and so forth. If I use the Bible as my guide, I might conclude that not all human beings have value.

4. In my book *Loving Wisdom* (Chalice), I argue that God's nature and existence account for many things that naturalism/non-theism simply cannot (and I cite plenty of non-theists to reinforce the point): beauty, the use of reason, the beginning of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, human dignity/worth/rights, consciousness, free will/moral responsibility. These features make excellent sense and are reasonably expected if God exists, but are difficult to account for and not predictable given naturalism.

Perhaps. However, I don't think we have to postulate a God and certainly not the Christian God to explain beauty, reason, beginning of universe, etc. As for beauty, its in "the eye of the beholder," meaning its subjective. Reason has to exist because if it didn't we would not know it. The origin of the universe, assuming it had an origin, is something that has not yet been explained and may never be explained. To simply say that "God did it," however, is not in my opinion an answer.

5. As for the charge of defaulting to middle knowledge (the fixer of fixers!) and how "Copan knows this," note my wording ("Perhaps it's the case..."). Furthermore, I would say the following: (a) there is biblical warrant for middle knowledge (e.g., David at Keilah); (b) we assume this as intuitively plausible ("if only I had done X instead of Y"); (c) I am seeking to reconcile this intuitively plausible philosophical (and biblically-supportable) concept with the biblical affirmation that God desires that none perish/all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9); and (c) so long as this suggestion is at least logically possible (even if it's not the exact solution), then this seems to be a plausible point.

I would grant, based on my knowledge of the Scripture and the traditional description of God's attributes, that middle knowledge is certainly harmonious with the Christian concept of God. What I don't grant, however, is that anyone can prove that all the people who have been born on this earth would have done exactly what Adam and Eve are said to have done. To me, that is an ad hoc argument. Our experience tells us that people do different things in different circumstances. Sometimes they act in ways we would never have predicted. So, I just don't accept the assumption (and at the end of the day, that is all that it is), that every person would have done what Adam did.

6. As for the Canaanite question, see my response to this in the essay "Yahweh Wars" at the Evangelical Philosophical Society website ( anticipates a larger work *Is God a Moral Monster?* (Baker, January 2011).

I did read your article, Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites: Divinely-Mandated Genocide or Corporate Capital Punishment? Responses to Critics in Philosophia Christi and frankly I found it disappointing. In my mind, your response did not answer the criticisms raised by both Wes Morriston and Randall Rauser. In addition, Hector Avalos wrote a reply to your original article which you did not answer in your second article. I reviewed your articles previously on my blog and also reported on Hector Avalos' article. If you desire, you can view them here.

I do look forward to your upcoming book on the subject because I honestly don't think there is any way to justify the slaughter of the Canaanites but I am willing to listen to what you have to say.

7. As for Louise Anthony's example, there *is* a difference between children and adults! I would be careful about pushing this too hard. Also, God wasn't expecting our first ancestors to know what evil was, but he rightly expected them to trust in his goodness and the rightness of his command, even if they didn't know the outcome.

I would agree that there is a difference between children and adults. However, how long had Adam and Eve lived, in your opinion, before they were tempted? Did they have all the experiences and training that a person would normally have by the time they reached adulthood?

8. As for the question the unfairness of our bent to sin, I think it is important to keep in mind that God is more concerned about our agreeing with and living in accordance with our disposition to sin--not individual sins per se. We are self-condemned when we agree with our self-centered tendency against God/goodness. Also, far from Pelagianism, I acknowledge that divine grace is needed to remove the stain of sin/damage that has come to us all. Further, I point out the notion of the moral gap--that our falling short of the moral ideals of which we are aware can, if we are willing, prompt us to seek outside assistance ("grace").

You say that we are condemned when we agree with our self-centered tendency against God. How can we not agree with it, at least some of the time? If we are capable of not agreeing with it all of the time, then we are capable of not sinning and if we are capable of not sinning then we have arrived at Pelagianism.

9. As far as the charge that professing Christians have (yes, sadly) been as guilty as others of immorality throughout history, I'm surprised you take this somewhat ad hominem tack (do counterfeits disprove the genuine article, Jesus and his teachings?). Also, even the noted atheist philosopher Jürgen Habermas has argued that the singular impact of the Jewish-Christian worldview on human rights and the West's moral development is intellectually inescapable: "everything else is postmodern chatter." Have a look at Alvin Schmidt's book *How Christianity Changed the World* (Zondervan).

I mention the inhumanity of Christians ONLY because you were arguing that the Christian religion provides the only cure for man's degeneracy. If your assertion is correct, then should not it be empirically verifiable that Christians live a less degenerate life than non-Christians? As far as positive benefits produced by Christianity throughout history, I would not argue with that. I would only say that it has been a mixed-bag. For example, conservative Christians in the south defended slavery from the Scripture for many years. Conservative Christians have used the Bible, and some still do, to keep women on a lower plane than men. The examples could be multiplied.

I could say more, but this will have to suffice, and I'm afraid, given all I have on my platter, that I may not be able to come back to the discussion. Again, let's connect the next time I'm in town. And if you're in the West Palm Beach, FL area, please look me up. it would be a pleasure to get to know you.

Many good wishes to you.


Paul, thanks for taking the time to respond. If you have time to write more, I would certainly be pleased to discuss these matters further. I don't claim to have all the answers but I think I have learned most of the questions :)

Take care,


1 comment:

  1. It was nice of him to respond. He did as good a job as one can, considering the insolubility of the problem. (You didn't seem to have much trouble upending his arguments.)