A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology

OUTLINE

Intelligent Design and Natural Theology

Natural Revelation in the Psalms

Justice in Job and Ecclesiastes

The Teachings of Paul

   Paul and the Philosophers

   Wild Times at Lystra

   Paul’s Letter to the Romans

   A Case Study in Ingratitude

   Beyond This World

   The Form of Paul’s Witness to the Corinthians

The Early Fathers on Nature and Gratitude

Concluding Thoughts

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Intelligent Design and Natural Theology

The modern Intelligent Design movement attempts to identify gaps in our knowledge of how the features of the natural world can be explained by ordinary physical laws. This leads to the claim that an Intelligent Designer must be invoked to account for these features.

I have earlier criticized Intelligent Design on scientific grounds, pointing out where its advocates have exaggerated the magnitude of our knowledge gaps in areas such as the Cambrian explosion of animal life, “junk” DNA, and human/chimp/gorilla gene similarities.

Intelligent Design is also subject to question on theological grounds.  Intelligent Design proponents are, for all practical purposes, practicing natural theology by claiming that the existence of an Intelligent Agent can be inferred from the features of the biological realm. This Intelligent Agent must be eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient, or nearly so, in order to have implemented the purported design features in the genomes of organisms over the past 3 billion years. Indeed, the majority of principals at the Discovery Institute are evangelical Christians, who see this Intelligent Designer as none other than the Judeo-Christian God. Intelligent Design is a modernized version of William Paley’s 1802 teleological argument that the existence of a complex, functional entity (such as a watch found lying on the ground) implies the existence of an intelligent “artificer” who designed and formed that entity.

Natural theology involves making inferences about the existence and nature of God using reason and observations of the physical world.  This contrasts with revealed religion, where God takes the initiative to make himself known by some more direct means, e.g. through direct epiphany or by communicating propositional truths to or through humans.

In modern thought, natural theology is a branch of philosophy. Natural theology has gone in and out of fashion over the centuries.  Its history is described in detail in this article in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  This article concludes with a summary of the status of natural theology today:

Outside neo-Thomistic circles, natural theology was generally out of favor throughout the twentieth century. Due to neo-Kantian criticisms of metaphysics, an extreme confidence in contemporary science, a revival and elaboration of Humean empiricism in the form of logical positivism, as well as existentialism among Continental thinkers, metaphysics was thought to be forever eliminated as a way of knowing or understanding truth about God (or anything at all for that matter). Natural theology was thought to have suffered the same fate as being part of metaphysics. It is fair to say that in many places metaphysics and natural theology were even held in contempt. Towards the second half of the twentieth century, however, the tide began to turn – first in favor of the possibility of metaphysics and soon afterwards to a revival of natural theology.

Natural theology today is practiced with a degree of diversity and confidence unprecedented since the late Middle Ages. Natural theologians have revived and extended arguments like Anselm’s (the so-called “perfect being theology”). They have also re-cast arguments from nature in several forms – from neo-Thomistic presentations of Aquinas’s five ways to new teleological arguments drawing upon the results of contemporary cosmology. Arguments from the reality of an objective moral order to the existence of God are circulated and taken seriously. Ethical theories that define goodness in terms of divine command are considered live options among an array of ethical theories. Discussions of divine attributes abound in books and journals devoted exclusively to purely philosophical treatments of God, for example, the journal Faith and Philosophy. Debates rage over divine causality, the extent of God’s providence, and the reality of human free choice.

A number of modern Christian thinkers, such as Karl Barth, have rejected the notion that humans are capable of coming to a genuine knowledge of God apart from God’s particular self-revelation in Jesus Christ. A Reformed blogger, Michael Bauman, recently wrote along the same lines:

Knowing God is not a matter of arriving at this or that true statement about Him, however elemental or tautological that statement might be.  That is not Biblical knowing.  In order to have Biblical knowing, you cannot substitute for its methods and content your own definition of knowing, your own methods for knowing, your own ideas about God, and still think you have knowledge of Yahweh that meets Jesus’ criteria for knowing God.  Call it whatever you wish, but Jesus does not call what you have knowing God, even if you do.  Knowing God is about relating properly, well, and intimately to a Person, as Adam knew Eve and as Joseph knew Mary…To think you know Yahweh by independent personal cogitation apart from Christ is merely pagan metaphysics masquerading as Christian theology.  It arrogantly assumes that it can span the gap between us and the transcendent God all on our own, without Immanuel, without the transcendent God becoming immanent. 

I think most Christians would agree that the mere inference of some facts about God falls far short of a proper relationship with Him. That does not mean, however, that apprehending truths about God has no value at all. For many people, reading the well-reasoned works of C. S. Lewis has been a means of opening their hearts as well as their minds to Christ. James Barr devoted his 1991 Gifford Lectures, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, to refuting Barth’s viewpoint. Barr argued that the Bible not only endorses elements of natural theology, but is heavily dependent on natural theology both in its composition and for its responsible interpretation.

Natural theology in its most rarefied philosophical sense would be out of place in the Bible, which is, after all, a book of revealed spiritual truths. However, statements do appear in the Scripture concerning how God’s character and operations are displayed in the natural order. It may be appropriate to use the term “natural revelation” rather than “natural theology”.  “Natural revelation” implies initiative and positive agency on God’s part towards self-disclosure, whereas “natural theology” is more linked to man’s efforts to comprehend matters on his terms.

While much more can and has been said on this subject, my main interest here is to examine some key Bible texts that touch upon it. These passages include two of the Psalms, Paul’s speeches in Acts 14 and 17, and the first chapter of Romans. All citations are from the New International Version. These are the passages that are usually cited regarding natural theology. For an examination of verses in the Gospels which touch on natural revelation, see Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear .

 

Natural Revelation in the Psalms

The most-quoted Old Testament passage on this subject is Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.  It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.  [Psalm 19:1-6]

The thought in this Psalm moves smoothly from God’s general revelation in the natural order to the special communication in His law:

The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.  [Psalm 19:7-8]

According to verses 1-4, some sort of declaration or revelation regarding God’s glory and creative craftsmanship is provided by the physical skies. This revelation is not in the form of verbalized propositions, but is mediated by optical observation of whatever is visible overhead. Presumably this includes the sun, clouds, and blue expanse by day, and the moon, stars, and planets set against the black night skies of the preindustrial age. This celestial proclamation is made to all people everywhere (not just to Israel), even as the sun shines on everything under the heavens.

It is not stated exactly how this revelation works. There is no effort to demonstrate, in Greek philosophical categories, that the observation of some specific feature in the sky proves that God exists. However, it is reasonable to infer from the vastness of the heavens and successful functioning of their moving parts that their Creator and Sustainer is immensely powerful and skillful. A common human response to the glory of the heavens is awe, which in a wise person is directed towards the Creator.

However, some people will take the position that the vast universe (or multiverse) just happens to exist, as a brute, unexplained, uncreated fact.  This atheistic alternative was known to the Psalmist, who put it this way: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ “ [Ps. 14:1].

As our knowledge of the vastness of the universe has grown, simple awe at the celestial spectacle can give way to despair over how small the earth and its inhabitants seem to be in a cold, lifeless expanse.   Astronomer Owen Gingerich notes:

We are no longer in ecstasy about the beauty of creation, but we are instead crushed down by our insignificance in the vastness of the universe. Rather than Psalm 19, we turn to Psalm 8:3-4a.

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou has ordained;     What is man that thou art mindful of him?”

Psalm 104 is also cited in discussions of natural revelation. Here are some representative excerpts:

He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth:  wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. [vv. 14-15]

He made the moon to mark the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens. Then people go out to their work, to their labor until evening. [vv.19-23]

How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small.

There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. [vv.24-26]

All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. [vv. 27-29]

Again, the agency of a Creator is assumed. This Creator has devised a complex, well-functioning web of being, which is indicative of his “wisdom”. He is represented as involved in an ongoing way, in what later theologians would term “providence”, in the gracious provision of food for man and beast, and even for “wine that gladdens human hearts.” Also, he seems pleased with the natural order, which includes Leviathan (possibly the crocodile) which He formed to “frolic” in the vast and teeming sea.

This Psalm does not shy away from realistically describing the full circle of life: although a species or a phylum may endure for eons, any individual animal will die and its nutrients will “return to the dust”. The lions roar and seek their prey “from God”, as part of the natural order, which is not depicted as fallen or evil.

Will a hardboiled skeptic be convinced of God’s wisdom and beneficence by observation of the complex, effective interactions of the biosphere? Generally not, for at least two reasons. First, we now know, at least in outline, how this complexity has developed from the earliest single-celled organisms, and also how the earth itself developed from supernova detritus to become a suitable habitation for life.  This does not obviate the most basic question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, but it does push the key creation event back by at least 13 billion years,  to the formation of an expanding space-time continuum possessing  the finely-tuned properties that would allow the existence of matter. It could go even further back, to the formation of a quantum vacuum or a multiverse from which our local universe may have sprung. The further back and more obscure the creation becomes, the harder it is to see the hand of God in it.

Second, all is not sweetness and light in the biosphere. The prey of that roaring lion experiences pain, and probably terror, in the process of being hunted and killed. As Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species (6th ed., p. 49):

Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult—at least I have found it so—than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind. Yet unless it be thoroughly engrained in the mind, the whole economy of nature, with every fact on distribution, rarity, abundance, extinction, and variation, will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood. We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that, though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.

Thus, the case for God’s beneficence here is nuanced. This issue will be revisited below.

Justice in Job and Ecclesiastes

The book of Job is an epic poem concerning a man who was righteous, yet had his life ruined by losing his children, his health, and most of his belongings. As he is sitting in the ashes, scraping the boils on his body, three friends come to try to help him out. They work from the then-common assumption of retributive justice: in this life, God sees to it that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Thus, Job must be guilty of some huge, hidden transgression to merit this horrible fate. Job’s friends try, for his own good, to get him to acknowledge this and to confess and forsake his sin.  Job stoutly maintains his innocence, citing his honest and benevolent dealings with everybody. Like his friends, Job believes that justice should be expected in this life, and cries out for a hearing with God so he can prove that he really is a good man who deserves better treatment.

Job eventually gets a response from God, but it is not the sort of answer he had expected. God describes at length the powerful and providential care He exercises over all aspects of the creation, including providing food for the ravens and (as in Psalm 104) for the lions, and (also as in Psalm 104) making the formidable Leviathan. This discussion is framed in the limits of ancient physical understanding. (If God had a comparable dialog with a twenty-first century accuser, it might include questions like, “Do you know when a particular uranium nucleus will spontaneously split?”, or “Where were you when I created quantum fields?”)

Job is never given an explanation of why he experienced the suffering he did. The personal encounter with God apparently gave him renewed confidence in God’s general power, competence and care, such that he no longer required a justification of his particular circumstances.

The three friends of Job were rebuked for incorrectly speaking of God – – presumably their retributive justice theme was flat-out wrong. Although at the end Job himself was restored to health and wealth, no promise is given that justice will generally be displayed in the natural order.

There are many passages in the Old Testament that foster the expectation that only good things happen to good people, but other passages show an awareness that this is not always the case. Psalm 73, for instance, goes on at great length on how the wicked prosper, and get away with oppression and impiety. They have a successful, healthy life and an easy death. The Psalmist is deeply troubled by this, and only finds solace by contemplating that justice will be eventually be served in some future episode, perhaps after death.

The book of Ecclesiastes is concerned entirely with natural wisdom, as opposed to special revelation. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes relies on his own wits to try to understand what happens in this world (“I devoted myself to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven”) and is agnostic about what happens after death. He advocates enjoying everyday life as best we can, and not worrying about what we cannot control or understand. His teaching [3:1-8] that there is a time and a place for everything in life was the basis for the 1965 #1 hit song Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together…

The Teacher believes it will somehow go better for a reverent man (8:12), and God will eventually judge every deed (3:7), but justice is not always manifest in this life:

In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness. [7:15]

There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.   [8:14]

In fact, the affairs of life seem rather random to the natural eye:

“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (KJV: “All is vanity”)  [1:2]

The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.   Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come. [9:11-12a]

Although this viewpoint (“time and chance happen to them all”), is realistic and is congenial to modern evolution, it militates against trying to conclude much about God from the observation of human affairs.  As in Job, the book of Ecclesiastes stresses the limits of human understanding. Although the Teacher “increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled in Jerusalem” [1:16], he found that “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” [8:17]

In more recent times, the philosopher Immanuel Kant has noted that, while the human mind can do a good job thinking about physics, it is simply not well-equipped to process metaphysical categories. This argues for a degree of humility as we pursue our reasoning about God and nature.

The Teachings of Paul

Paul and the Philosophers

The clearest recorded encounter of the apostle Paul with classic Greek thought is in Acts 17. It describes how Paul addressed a meeting of officials and philosophers at the Areopagus court in Athens. He was brought to this council by some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who wanted to call him to account for what he was preaching. This was a tough crowd; Paul had to chip away at a whole cluster of their existing beliefs in order to clarify and justify his message. Nevertheless, he did make a few converts, including at least one member of the Areopagus itself.

In his speech, Paul begins by seeking common ground with his hearers. He notes that the Athenians were very religious, having made various objects of worship, including an altar to “An Unknown God”. Paul then proposes to teach about that God which was heretofore unknown by them. The rest of his address goes like this:

24 The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

Given his starting point of a Creator God, Paul proceeds to build a reasonable case as to how this God should be worshipped. Most of his learned hearers could agree with him that any god or God would not be confined to a temple building; they surely did not think Athena was cooped up in the Parthenon, any more than Yahweh was localized in the Jerusalem Temple. In arguing against idolatry, Paul does not say, “God forbids that in the Torah!” Rather, as Barr notes, Paul makes a rational argument, using “the enormous qualitative difference between the piece of stone or wood, and the transcendent deity, creator of the world” to discredit idolatrous worship.

Furthermore, if God is in some sense our father, his nature must be at least as elevated as man’s; hence, we should approach God as one would approach an intelligent, personal being. This is another argument against reverencing an idol.

The transcendent God, who needs nothing from human hands and who graciously “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” is also immanent. God has arranged that people should seek Him, with the possibility of actually finding Him.  Paul quotes two of the Greeks’ own philosophers or poets to establish God’s accessibility: “For in him we live and move and have our being,” and “We are his offspring.”

Paul probably had most of his audience with him to this point, at least provisionally. The Epicureans believed that God needed nothing from men, and the Stoics saw God as the source of life. However, neither school believed in life after death, or in accountability to a relational God. When Paul transitioned from talking about God in general, to the particulars of Christ, the Resurrection, repentance, and final judgment, his cordial reception at this meeting was over:

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”  At that, Paul left the Council. [Acts 17:32-33]

In order to justify belief in these Christian particulars, Paul claims that God “has given proof of this to everyone by raising [Christ] from the dead.” Acts 1:3, written by a Christian for Christians, describes in some detail the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus, referring to them as “infallible proofs” (Greek techmerion). In speaking to the Greeks in Acts 17:31, however, Paul uses a milder word (pistis) for “proof”, which is often here translated as “assurance”. This connotes reasonable grounds for belief, not necessarily an airtight Euclidian deduction. Paul does not try to explain in detail to these foreigners about all the early Jewish witnesses to the Resurrection. Nonetheless, he does offer this objective historical event (not merely his own opinion) to authenticate Jesus as the standard of final judgment.

Wild Times at Lystra

Acts 14 tells the story of Paul’s misadventure at Lystra, in what is now Turkey. After he and his travelling companion Barnabas arrived at the city, Paul’s word of faith healed a man who had been crippled from birth. The crowd erupted in a religious frenzy, shouting “The gods have come down to us in human form!” They called Paul “Hermes”, because he was the chief spokesman, which made Barnabas “Zeus”.  The local priest of Zeus geared up to offer a sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, honoring them as gods. This was certainly not the response Paul was aiming at, so he and Barnabas did some quick damage control:

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.  In the past, he let all nations go their own way.  Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” [Acts 14:14-17]

This speech is similar to Paul’s later talk in Athens, using appeals from nature and logic. The Creator of heaven and earth must be far superior to any idol or local god. This God is gracious, overlooking their prior idolatry. He has demonstrated His kindness by giving rain and crops and food and general human happiness.

With this impassioned speech, Paul and Barnabas (barely) managed to prevent these excitable people from sacrificing to them, and presumably brought a degree of further enlightenment. However, all this required the apostles’ inspired teaching regarding God and nature. Left to themselves, with only natural revelation, the locals would have remained mired in pagan idolatry.

Stephen Spencer, a skeptic regarding natural theology, comments, “Though the people of Lystra had lived their entire lives surrounded by God’s witness to himself by his generous gifts, they did not seem to have profited from it. In their natural condition, surrounded by God’s witness in the natural environment as viewed naturally, i.e., apart from Scripture, they did not affirm and worship the true God. They even misunderstood the sign-miracles and message of the servants of the true God.”

(To finish the story here: Later, the crowd in Lystra turned against them, stoned Paul, and dragged him out of the city as dead. After he revived, he got up and went back into the city and encouraged his disciples. )

Paul’s Letter to the Romans

A key passage in the New Testament regarding natural revelation is found in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In this letter Paul develops his theology of salvation via faith in Jesus Christ, rather than by carrying out works of the law. Paul starts by noting the general culpability of humans before a holy God:

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. … 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

Paul makes a far-reaching claim regarding what is revealed in nature: “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” As we have noted earlier, the Creator of this world must be powerful and, in some sense, very wise.

Why doesn’t everyone then worship and serve the true God? It is not that the natural revelation is objectively insufficient, but rather that people subjectively do not want to accept it. In fact, they actively “suppress the truth”, according to Paul, in order to justify their unbelief. They do not want to be accountable to their Creator. They are not epistemologically neutral; at some level, many actually hate God (Rom 1:30).

This issue of confirmation bias characterizes how humans approach most issues which have emotional overtones. I have elsewhere noted that political liberals and conservatives see issues through their own narrow lenses, and that young earth creationists are literally incapable of perceiving the evidence that shows their view is incorrect.  Everybody thinks that they themselves are fair-minded, but only a conversion-like experience can open them to see the full sweep of reality. According to Paul, unbelievers are no exception to this common conceptual failing. “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD” (Prov. 16:2).

The primal sin here is not pride or lust, but ingratitude. Failure to honor and thank the Creator leads inevitably to futile thinking and darkened hearts and so on. Humans claim to be wise but are in fact foolish as they choose to exchange the truth for a lie, and set their hearts on created things rather than the Creator.

A Case Study in Ingratitude

As I was googling references on natural theology, I ran across a 2012 blog post by University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne. Coyne’s article consisted of gratuitous sneering at some religious meditations on evolution offered on the Biologos website.  What interested me more than his article were the comments on his post. At the end of his article, Coyne posed to his readership the following question:

What characteristics of God do you see from studying nature and evolution?

The responses to this question form an interesting case study on how folks can express their perspectives on God and nature. Let us first consider what a fair-minded response to this question from a typical non-believer in the West might entail. At one level, the reader might respond: I don’t see any evidence of God in nature and evolution – – things just roll along with natural regularity, with no outside intervention. Fair enough.

The reader who engages the question at a deeper level (i.e. assuming for the moment that there is a Creator who is responsible for the existence of our world) would have a range of considerations, such as:

Hmm, what kind of a world do we have here? As I look out my window here, it’s pretty impressive – – trees, birds, squirrels, functioning ecosystems, all produced by evolution.

On the other hand, there is a lot of death lurking in the background – – eventual death of every individual and extinction of every species. On the other hand, these individuals and species were granted the gift of life, at least for a season; and on a finite earth, if yet more individuals are to have their day in the sun, then others must disappear and contribute their nutrients to the circle of life. It is not reasonable to expect every seed to develop into an oak tree, or every tree to live forever.

Look at all the babies born with severe genetic defects; and look at the many more babies born healthy.

I am outraged by abuse and exploitation of children, animals, and the environment, and I am appalled at all the human and animal pain and tragedies for which I see no possible justification, such as cancer and tsunamis and the holocaust.   On the other hand, as a materialist, I recognize that my visceral responses to abuse and injustice are merely emotional phenomena in my brain; there is no objective standard “out there” on which I can base moral judgment. My feeling that there is way too much suffering is nothing more than a feeling, but for me it is a very strong feeling.

That said, I personally have much to be grateful for. I have been granted the privilege of existence. I don’t have to worry if I will be able to eat tomorrow. I have access to education and to the tablet or computer on which I am reading this right now. I am aware of courageous and compassionate deeds that are done by people every day in this world. I have meaningful friends and family; these individuals exist only because the evolutionary history of the world was exactly what it was.

Thus, a fair assessment of this world shaped by evolution would include appreciation of its good and beautiful aspects, and of one’s own privileges, along with the registry of unhappiness over the amount of apparently unjustified suffering. Darwin’s closing words in The Origin of Species struck that kind of balance:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

How do the comments on Coyne’s post stack up? In the first two days after this article was published (Oct 1-2), over a hundred comments were posted. Many of these were side comments, or mini-debates on other topics like mysticism. My estimate is that about 33 of these comments represented independent, more or less direct answers to the posed question (“What characteristics of God do you see from studying nature and evolution?”).

Of these 33 comments, about a quarter were fairly neutral. These replies mainly focused on the lack of discernable divine interaction.  These responses included:

Absence

None   Random mutation. Natural selection (drift, gene transfer)  Chemistry. Physics.

The rest of the comments ranged from negative to very negative. These all pointed out the aspects of death and suffering in nature, with no balancing acknowledgement of the good. Some excerpted examples here:

[God] provides for his creatures in each moment… Except when he doesn’t and he leaves them to starve to death, or die of innumerable ghastly diseases..

My avatar on this site is a good example of God’s care for his creatures. It a fossil of a Pterosaur that died apparently because it got a plant jammed through it’s lower mouth and starved.

How does God deal with the conflicting interests of a parasite, like the organism causing malaria, and its host? If God is a provider, he is like an arms dealer who supplies both sides during a war that he himself instigated.

Callousness. I think that whenever I consider Antarctica, and of the lush ecosystems it used to host, only to be slowly killed off as the land drifted ever southward.

Epic bloodlust. The flipside of Evolution is a huge pyramid of pointless death. Countless gametes, embryos, eggs, young, adults that got infected or eaten.

Surely we can see the blessed mercy of our savior in his design of cancer cells. And the AIDS virus. And birth defects, Smallpox, the Black Plague, Polio, Malaria, etc.,etc.,etc.,   Can I get a big PRAISE JEEZZUSSSS!!????

Stendahl, French playright and general polymath in the early 19th C, stated it succinctly: ’God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist’.

The prime characteristic of God that I draw from studying nature and evolution is that God is a villain in an inexplicably popular anthology of really bad ancient faery tales.

Mind-boggling cruelty and an inordinate fondness for horrible people.

In all these comments, I was unable to detect the slightest glimmer of gratitude or appreciation for anything in this world. These commenters simply expressed their underlying contempt for God. This fits the pattern of biased ingratitude described by Paul in Romans 1.

As an aside, these issues with unexplained suffering are a subset of the general “problem of evil”: How could a good and powerful God allow these distressing events? I have dealt with the intellectual problem of evil elsewhere, following Greg Bahnsen’s treatment.

The bottom line is that it is eminently reasonable to infer that an all-good and all-powerful Creator would have a morally sufficient reason for the evil that exists, whether or not He reveals to us that reason. Thus, within theism there is no actual philosophical problem of evil. The unbeliever, however, finds this explanation offensive to his sensibilities. As Bahnsen notes, the problem of evil is not a valid intellectual basis for a lack of faith in God. Rather, it is the expression or consequence of such a lack of faith:

What we find is that unbelievers who challenge the Christian faith end up reasoning in circles. Because they lack faith in God, they begin by arguing that evil is incompatible with the goodness and power of God. When they are presented with a logically adequate and Biblically supported solution to the problem of evil (viz., God has a morally sufficient but undisclosed reason for the evil that exists), they refuse to accept it, again because of their lack of faith in God. They would rather be left unable to give an account of any moral judgment whatsoever (about things being good or evil) than to submit to the ultimate and unchallengeable moral authority of God.

This addresses the problem of evil at the level of cool logic. For a treatment which integrates the intellectual and personal aspects of suffering, see “How Not to Solve the Problem of Evil” on the site of philosopher Dan Herrick.

Beyond This World

Even with an appropriate acknowledgment of all the good in the world, some folks will still conclude that existence is a net negative. Interestingly, Paul would actually agree with that assessment, if one’s perspective is confined to this present physical universe. He described this viewpoint as being “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). It bears repeating that, while the Bible claims that God’s power and wisdom are displayed in the natural order, it never claims that divine justice is likewise displayed in nature.

The second half of his own life was marked by toil, suffering, and disappointments. We described above his experience at Lystra. That was pretty typical for Paul. He was constantly being imprisoned and beaten. He shared with his friends at Corinth:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. [II Cor. 11:24-28]

What kept Paul going was the hope of a future resurrection. He told the Corinthians that if their only hope was for things to go well for them in this life, they were “of all people most to be pitied” (I Cor. 15:19). If the dead are not raised, then the Epicurean approach of just maximizing current pleasure would make sense: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (15:32).

This hope allowed Paul to put pain in this life into a larger perspective: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Cor. 4:17-18); and “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).

In the next life, we shall see clearly and “understand fully”. At present, however, we see only “dimly” and understand only “in part” (I Cor 13:11-12).  This present life, with all its uncertainties and distress, is the arena where we can exercise courage, demonstrate trust in God’s character, and perform good works whose value will endure for eternity (I Cor. 3:12-15).

In the next life, all that is unworthy, even the vivid memory of shame and pain and injustice will vanish (the imagery is that they are consumed in a refining fire), while every act of faithful goodness will be celebrated forever. The grief at losing a child will be no more; all the joy of the child’s early days or years will remain, and the child herself will be present in the company of God’s people.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. [Rev. 21:1, 3-4]

A heavy emphasis on the next life could potentially lead to detached other-worldliness or inhumane behavior such as crusades, jihadism, or burning widows. Not so for Paul. For him, the highest virtue was not coercion or abstract contemplation, but a positive and engaged love for God and for other people:

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (I Cor. 13: 2, 4-7, 13)

In his long-term optimism Paul went so far as to say, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him”(Rom 8:28), and “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … For I am convinced that neither death nor life… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35, 38a, 39b).

He held that not only God’s people, but the whole creation would someday undergo transformation. He affirms that this present world is marked by suffering: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom 8:22). However, in God’s time, “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

Besides his robust expectation of a better experience in the next life, Paul enjoyed the comfort of the Holy Spirit here and now: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day”. (II Cor. 4:16). This Spirit confirms to believers’ hearts that they have been adopted as beloved children, which in turn acts as a guarantee or down-payment of the future redemption (II Cor. 5:5).

I doubt most people would object to experiencing exactly one second of excruciating pain, if that were the only pain they ever had to endure in their whole life. That pain would seem bearably brief. Unfortunately, the sufferings of this life may drag out for years of disability or pain, as happened with my father before he died. As we experience time, that seems long, far too long. Logically, however, the whole of a man’s or woman’s life is like the blink of an eye in comparison with eternity.

Thus, to focus entirely on the balance of pain and pleasure in this present physical world is to miss the larger reality. If a man cuts himself off from the hope of a future transformed life and from the current comfort of God’s presence, it is not surprising if he views reality as inconsistent with a good Creator. But this is as much a statement about this man’s presuppositions as it is about the world itself. Nothing in life makes sense, except in the light of eternity.

The Form of Paul’s Witness to the Corinthians

In his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul rehearses how he presented the gospel to them. This, then, serves as a window into whether Paul routinely invoked natural theology in his teachings. From I Cor. 1:

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

And from I Cor. 2:

1…When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…

14 The person without the Spirit [lit. “the natural man”] does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

Paul stresses that he presented the gospel to them in a straightforward manner, with no rhetoric or flattery (cf. II Cor. 2:17). He did not pander to demands for philosophical proofs or for miraculous signs, and did not alter his message to make it seem more appealing. Some people received his message and some did not; Paul accepted that outcome, trusting that God would grant enlightenment to at least some of his hearers. Without that enlightenment, his message would seem “foolishness”.

Paul repeatedly distances himself from relying on natural reasoning to support his message to the Corinthians.  This would seem to rule out classic natural theology altogether. This seems quite different from his approach to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17. This may in part reflect a different audience. Paul consciously tailored his style to his hearers (I Cor. 9:22). Corinth was a bustling port city, where sailors and former courtesans would likely outnumber cultured aristocrats in his flock. Paul reminds them (I Cor. 1:26), “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.”

At first blush this seems like raw fideism: “Don’t think or ask for reasons, just believe what I say!” However, Paul does allude to other grounds of faith for the Corinthians. In 2:4-5 he notes that his message came “with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” This was not merely forceful preaching. From II Cor. 12:12 we learn that Paul demonstrated among them “the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles.” He could not write thus to the Corinthians and maintain his credibility  unless they had in fact experienced notable miracles under his ministry.

In the accounts in Acts, healing miracles were a hallmark of Paul’s evangelistic method. Indeed, this sort of supernatural activity continued among the Corinthians even in Paul’s absence. Chapters 12 and 14 of I Corinthians are devoted to the regulation of spiritual gifts such as prophecy and healing, and even “workings of miracles.” Paul notes in passing that the utterances of the prophets in the Corinthian church were so insightful that they could serve as evidence to unbelievers: “But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’ “ (I Cor. 14:24-25).

Towards the end of this epistle Paul circles back to how he first shared the gospel with the Corinthians. In I Cor. 15:1-7 he writes:

 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,  and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Here Paul is engaging in classic evidential apologetics, building a case for the Resurrection by citing the testimony of eyewitnesses, such as Peter (“Cephas”) and James, the brother of Jesus. We know from Gal. 1:18-19 that Peter met with these two apostles within just a few years of the Resurrection, so this would all be vivid and real in his mind as he shared his faith with others. For us, two thousand years later, the Resurrection is an event of ancient history, albeit an exceedingly well-documented event as ancient history goes.

Paul mentioned two main types of divine intervention in the physical world, namely, the appearance, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and healing miracles. These interactions have to do with particular people at particular times, not with general cosmological speculation. The Spirit’s inner confirmation of the truth of the gospel message is probably the most critical “intervention” for an individual to come to faith, but that would be considered supernatural, not natural revelation.

The Early Fathers on Nature and Gratitude

I have collected about ten pages of excerpts from some of the earliest (c. 100-200 A.D.) Christian authors here: Church Fathers.  As disciples of the disciples, these writers offer a valuable perspective on the interpretation and outworking of the canonical Scriptures. Here are a few passages from these fathers of the church which relate to issues raised above. From the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians [c. 96 A.D.]:

…Let us look steadfastly to the Father and Creator of the universe, and cleave to His mighty and surpassingly great gifts and benefactions.

…The heavens, revolving under His government, are subject to Him in peace. Day and night run the course appointed by Him, in no wise hindering each other. The sun and moon, with the companies of the stars, roll on in harmony according to His command, within their prescribed limits, and without any deviation. The fruitful earth, according to His will, brings forth food in abundance, at the proper seasons, for man and beast and all the living beings upon it, never hesitating, nor changing any of the ordinances which He has fixed. The unsearchable places of abysses, and the indescribable arrangements of the lower world, are restrained by the same laws. The vast unmeasurable sea, gathered together by His working into various basins, never passes beyond the bounds placed around it, but does as He has commanded.

… For the Creator and Lord of all Himself rejoices in His works. For by His infinitely great power He established the heavens, and by His incomprehensible wisdom He adorned them.

According to Clement, the observed heavens display the power and wisdom of God. There is no contemplation here of unnatural gaps in the operation of the universe which require periodic miraculous intervention. Rather, the ongoing functioning of the world is entirely in accord with natural laws. Clement does not see that as evidence for God’s absence or redundancy. Instead, he presents this smooth, harmonious operation of the natural world as evidence for God’s peacefulness and good will, which in turn is a model for the Corinthians to follow (he is writing to urge them to stop their internal squabbling).

Aristides was a philosopher in Athens who became a Christian. Aristides came to faith in a Prime Mover by considering the orderly arrangement of the sun and moon. He wrote and presented his “Apology” (i.e. “Defense”) to the Emperor Hadrian when Hadrian visited Athens around 125 A.D. In the paragraph below, he describes the Christians’ way of life:

They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning and every hour they give thanks and praise to God for His loving-kindnesses toward them; and for their food and their drink they offer thanksgiving to Him. And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby. And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins.

Decades earlier, Paul had enjoined believers to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thes. 5:16-17). The Christians of Aristides’ day were practicing this radical gratitude, thanking God “every morning and every hour” for practically everything. This is the opposite of the pagan ingratitude discussed above.

Justin Martyr was another a philosopher who converted to Christianity. He retained his philosopher’s robes, and proclaimed Christianity to be the true philosophy. Justin, like most of the early prominent churchmen, was killed for his faith, hence the surname “Martyr”.  The passage below is excerpted from his First Apology, presented to the emperor Antonius Pius c. 155 A.D. Here he is addressing the accusation that Christians are “atheists”, since they do not worship the usual Greco-Roman gods with animal sacrifices:

What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things with which we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honor that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by prayers and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him.

Justin here contrasts pagan religious practice, which was to waste meat by burning it as a sacrifice, with the Christian approach, which was to give thanks for it and use it as food. Again, the Christians were distinguished by a lifestyle of gratitude for the natural world, giving thanks “for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons”.

Concluding Thoughts

Paul’s experience at Athens, where he got pushback as soon as he moved from a general God to the Christian particulars, illustrates an inherent limitation in natural theology: to a hearer who is open to the notion of a Creator, we can make reasonable arguments that the Creator must be very powerful and very smart, and in some sense beneficent. We can also make arguments from the common moral law within us that we all fall short of full goodness. However, it takes verbalized special revelation to move further, to the ultimate revealing of God’s purposes in Christ.

For today’s atheist, who holds that the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be, it is hard to see how classic natural theology would have any traction. The formational economy of the universe, as best we can tell from scientific study, shows no breaks in the natural order starting from the Big Bang, through primordial clouds of hydrogen and helium, their condensation into stars, the generation of heavier elements via supernovae explosions, the accretion of planets, and the evolution of life.  The main lacuna in the narrative here is how the first living cells arose, but, at a high level, most other knowledge gaps have been or are being filled.

Theists argue that the Big Bang itself is the granddaddy of all formational gaps. Atheists counter that, maybe, our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes which happen to pop into existence. The otherwise awkward fact that our universe is exquisitely fine-tuned to allow the existence of ordinary matter (and thus carbon-based life-forms) is thus conveniently explained away: out of an infinite number of all possible universes, some will allow matter and have life, and we just happen to live in one of those. This multiverse theory, however mathematically pleasing, is beyond hard empirical verification, and thus is every bit as faith-based as theism. So these cosmological arguments seem to end in a draw.

There are other, more philosophically abstract, arguments for the existence of God which may be cogent, but they are apparently not persuasive to atheists.  The indirect, but self-vindicating quality of beauty in the world may be a more effective mediator of God-consciousness to the modern or post-modern mind than the direct arguments of cosmogony or ontogeny.

Intelligent Design (ID) proponents try to identify gaps in evolutionary history where they can invoke the necessity of an effectively supernatural Intelligent Agent. ID errs on several counts. First, it confuse gaps in our current understanding with genuine gaps in the natural order. Second, its advocates routinely misrepresent the actual state of our knowledge. As noted above, in areas such the Cambrian explosion of animal life, “junk” DNA, human/chimp/gorilla gene similarities, and the overall fossil record,  ID proponents suppress relevant evidence to make our knowledge gaps seem much bigger than they are. This dishonesty is contrary to biblical teaching, and gives outsiders the impression that the Christian faith is built on a foundation of lies.

Finally, the expectation of discernable gaps in the natural order is not supported by our survey here of biblical natural theology.  Whatever aspect of nature Paul had in mind when he asserted in Romans 1 that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are displayed in nature, it had to be something that was readily accessible to everyone everywhere, not requiring lengthy explication by Christian apologists. Presumably Paul was referring to the size and intricate functioning of the universe, which demonstrates the power and skill and care of the Creator.

Some people respond to the gift of existence with gratitude to their Creator, while others shrug it off and focus on created things. Paul writes that God’s attributes are “plain” and “clearly seen” from the natural world. Nevertheless, Romans 1 emphasizes that unbelievers can and do dismiss this natural revelation.  There are reasonable grounds for Christian faith, but the evidence is not of the type to compel assent by someone who does not choose to believe.

This lack of proof on our terms, of itself, does not justify unbelief. Our most important decisions in life are often made in the face of uncertainty. We routinely commit to marriage or to conceiving a child in the absence of complete information or guarantees as to how it will turn out. I would not think much of a suspicious fiancée who demanded proof of my whereabouts every hour.  Also, much of what we believe about the world (e.g. in realms such as world geography and nuclear physics) is not based on our personal observation and verification. Rather, we have faith in the truthfulness of those who communicated these concepts to us, though of course we test any new learning for consistency with our existing beliefs.

The net result is that the choice to trust and follow Jesus Christ is (in the absence of human manipulation) a free, uncoerced decision. This comports with the New Testament presentation of relationship with God being more of a love affair or familial relationship than a matter of giving cold intellectual assent or of following a set of rules: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  [Mat. 22:37-39]

Matt Rossano addressed the question, “Would Evidence for God Mean the End of Atheism and Christianity?” :

A complaint often voiced by scientific atheists is that there is simply no evidence for God and therefore belief in the old codger is thoroughly unjustified. Frightened witless by this snort, creationists (and I include intelligent design advocates here) scurry about frantically trying to provide just such evidence. But what would scientific evidence for God look like, and what implications would it hold?…

Imagine obviously intentionally engineered artifacts descending harmlessly from the sky (God doesn’t want to hurt anyone!) each with an engraved label saying “made by God.” Scientists are able to perform definitive tests on these artifacts and conclude beyond all doubt that they have been fashioned by an omniscient, all-powerful agent…..

[While being the end of atheism, this would also be] the end of Christianity… How so? A fundamental tenet of Christianity is free will. It is no stretch to say that Christianity without free will is simply not Christianity anymore. The Christian God grants humans free will and will not interfere with its exercise. Humans are free to believe or not believe, free to follow God’s laws or free to sin and separate themselves from God…

Luckily for everyone, scientific attempts to prove or disprove God are all doomed to failure. We live in exactly the world the thoughtful Christian would expect to find. For those who believe, hints of God are everywhere. But none are convincing. Faith remains a requirement and atheism remains an option. A God who values free will would set it up just that way.

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About ScottBuchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, folding scooters, and composting toilets. Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 80 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas.
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9 Responses to A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology

  1. Great post thanks Scott

  2. JimV says:

    “What we find is that unbelievers who challenge the Christian faith end up reasoning in circles. Because they lack belief without good evidence in God, they begin by arguing that evil is incompatible with the goodness and power of God. When they are presented with a logically adequate and Biblically supported solution to the problem of evil (viz., God has a morally sufficient but undisclosed reason for the evil that exists), they refuse to accept it, again because of their lack of belief without good evidence in God.”

    This argument also requires you to send me half of your life savings immediately. If you knew what I needed it for you would be happy to do so, but unfortunately the details are too complex for a layman to understand, so you must trust me. This is logically adequate, and also is supported by a book which my colleagues and I have written. To refuse me would be to argue in circles.

    • Jim,
      I’m not sure you caught Bahnsen’s point here. He is noting that if Christians believe God is good, then it is a reasonable inference that He has a morally sufficient reason for the evil that exists, independent of whether that reason is revealed to us. In other words, IF God is good, THEN He has good reasons for what He does.

      That puts an end to the supposed problem of evil, at least on the intellectual plane. This is plain logic, independent of whether God actually exists or the evidence for that. Bahnsen’s criticism of the critics of Christianity is that they cannot seem to accept this straightforward resolution, and they continue to claim that the problem of evil is some dire inherent contradiction for theism. These critics are equivocating, treating God as both good and not good. That is the “reasoning in circles”.

      To your financial example: IF I held to the proposition that your investment firm was a good steward of people’s money in general, THEN, yes, it would be reasonable for me to conclude that you would be a good steward of my money in particular, and to send you half of my savings.
      Cheers…
      P.S. Speaking of stewarding money — check out the MORL leveraged mREIT fund, yielding about 20%. I’m in! (in a small way)

  3. tuftsflyer@comcast.net says:

    We appreciate receiving your “letters”. Your theology requires study, bit by bit, as we have time. I recall kneeling by the very stream where Lydia was converted; looking out over the Mediterranean as dawn broke over the Olympic stadium. The past was very present. Looking forward to having you and Grace with us. Nate

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