Has Lot’s Wife Been Found?

[H]asn’t there been actual physical evidence to prove the story of Lot’s wife being turned to salt?

This is, unfortunately, one of those stories that gets repeated a lot (pun intended) without people doing much fact-checking. Sodom and Gomorrah, which God destroyed for their wickedness (see Gen. 19), were near the Dead Sea. As it happens, there is a rock formation that looks like a woman looking behind her, and that formation has been called “Lot’s Wife.”

There are reasons, however, to reject the claim that this is actually the woman whom God turned into salt for disobeying Him. The most obvious is that the rock is simply much larger than any human being. The second is that there is no reason to believe that a rock formation in the shape of a human would have survived thousands of years, and even if it did, it is less likely that it would still look like a person all these years later.

Apparently, such rock formations, from small to large, are not uncommon in that area. It’s certainly possible that one of them could be Lot’s wife, but it would be impossible to identify which one it would be.

While we’re on the subject of Lot’s wife, though, I would like to point out one more common misunderstanding. Gen. 19:26 says, “But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” Most people argue that she “looked back” because she longed for her life back in Sodom, and that is the real reason for her judgment. Such an idea is certainly consistent with the rest of Scripture. James 4:4 says that to be friends with the world is to be enemies with God. But I think a closer examination of the passage teaches a much deeper lesson.

Lot took his wife and two unmarried daughters with him (Gen. 19:15), and most people just assume that these were the only children Lot had. Yet the same story also says that Lot tried to warn his sons-in-law, but they thought he was joking (Gen. 19:14). That means that Lot had other daughters who were married, which means it is still further possible that he had grandchildren. So why did Lot’s wife turn back? It is certainly possible that she may have longed for her life in Sodom, but try to put yourself in her shoes just a moment. It was not just her home and social life that was being destroyed. She had children and possibly grandchildren still in the city. Her emotional devastation at losing them clouded her judgment.

There is a direct correlation in the New Testament to this. Jesus said in Luke 14:25-27,

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

God demands absolute love for Him. Few Christians appreciate just how radical this really is. It is easy to say that we should love God more than our families when our families are, with us, striving to please God. But what happens when following Him puts us at odds with them? Christians throughout the centuries have learned the hard way that sometimes they have to choose between Him and their loved ones. Lot’s wife experienced just such a choice. Would she obey God, or would she disobey Him for the sake of her family? Her sin was not that she loved her children so dearly. It was that she chose them over the will of God.

There is a lot that we can learn from her story. Whether or not we ever find her physical remains, her judgment stands in our mind as a firm reminder of the dedication God requires from His children.

Can God Create A Rock So Big He Can’t Lift It?

One of the most common charges atheists make is that the concept of God is incoherent, that is, that is contradicts itself. For example, a married bachelor is incoherent because the two terms are mutually exclusive. If I am married, I can’t be a bachelor, and if I’m a bachelor then I can’t be married. That is a simple example of incoherence, but others are very complicated. For instance, it is common to hear politicians accusing one another of being incoherent. Recent examples in American politics include Democrats accusing Republicans of worrying about deficits while blocking tax-increases and Republicans accusing Democrats of being for the lower and middle class while both blocking energy policies that would decrease gas prices (i.e., off-shore drilling) and simultaneously proposing policies that would increase them (i.e., “cap and trade”). If a position is incoherent, it can’t really be true.

Arguments about whether or not “God” is a coherent term run from very simple to very sophisticated. The simplest of these is to ask questions such as, “Can God create a rock so big He can’t lift it?” The implication is that if God is able to do anything, then He should be able to create such a rock. Yet if He does, then He would not be able to lift it, which would mean that He wasn’t really able to do anything. Or some may ask, “Can God remember a time He didn’t exist?” to imply that God is either omnipotent or omniscient, but He can’t be both.

These types of questions focus on God’s omnipotence by defining it as “the ability to do anything.” It is important to acknowledge here that, in one sense, the critic is right. There are some things that God cannot do. Many Christians have been tempted to respond by saying, “No, God’s omnipotence just means that He can do anything that can be done.” On the one hand, technically, they are correct, but it leaves them open to rendering God impotent. For instance, this may allow someone to say, “Well, God can’t do miracles, because miracles aren’t things that can be done.” If we accept the fact that miracles are impossible, then the statement must be true, but a God that cannot do miracles hardly seems worthy of being called God, and, in any case, is not the God of the Bible.

It is better to maintain the definition of omnipotence as “the ability to do anything” and insist that we are actually talking about any thing. Incoherent concepts themselves aren’t really things, because self-contradictory things aren’t real. Married bachelors can’t possibly exist, so it is meaningless to talk about them. The “idea” turns out not to be an idea at all. We can’t ask God to make a married bachelor, because God can do anything, but married bachelors aren’t things.

In other words, omnipotence means that God can do anything that actually has meaning.

Self-contradictory ideas like a rock so big that an omnipotent being can’t lift it are self-contradictory and thus have no meaning. They may sound like they mean something, but actually they are just words strung together. Even God cannot violate the law of non-contradiction, not because He is under that law, but because that law derives its meaning from what God already is. God is One. God Himself does not be and not be at the same time, and since everything gets its being from Him, then nothing in the universe can both be and not be at the same time. To say that anything does is meaningless, and so to ask god to do anything that violates the law of non-contradiction is meaningless.

There are serious debates that can be had about the coherence of the God-concept. Silly questions like “Can God create a rock so big He can’t lift it?” isn’t an example of one.

Isn’t That Just Your Interpretation?

How can we know our interpretation of the Bible is what God intended?

It’s common in Bible study to hear statements like, “that’s just your interpretation!” Sometimes, when we talk about the Bible, the objector is more sophisticated and will say, “Don’t confuse your understanding of Scripture with Scripture itself,” implying rightly that our understanding is fallible but wrongly that we can’t know what the Bible teaches.

The central question is whether or not we can be objective in our interpretation. That is, can we understand what the text means in and of itself, apart from our pre-conceived notions. That last clause is extremely important. One of the hardest parts about getting the Bible right is getting rid of our presuppositions. For example, if you just presume that any reference to burning refers to Hell, you are very likely going to misinterpret Hebrews 6:4-6.

The vast majority of theorists, even in Evangelical circles, have concluded because of this that objectivity is impossible. They say that we cannot approach the text without presuppositions, and therefore, that objective interpretation is a myth. Unfortunately, what they don’t acknowledge is that if all interpretation is merely subjective, then there is absolutely no way to know what the Bible does teach. Truth cannot be known, so we may as well give up on “Thus saith the Lord.”

There are good reasons for thinking this is not the case, however. While it is true that we all approach the text with some presuppositions, two points are in order. First, when someone says that objectivity is impossible, they are assuming that they know something about the way the world works objectively. In other words, if all interpretation is just personal opinion, how can anyone know that all interpretation is just personal opinion? If that were true, then even the statement “all interpretation is just personal opinion” would itself subject to personal interpretation. We would have no way of knowing, and no reason to believe, that it represented reality at all. It appears, then, that objectivity really is possible on some level.

Second, the statement that all people come to the text with presuppositions is itself a presupposition. Now, if presuppositions can be changed (I can change my view of the idea of burning in the Bible), then what about the presupposition that all of us come to the text with presuppositions? Can that be changed? If not, then some ideas are immutable and necessarily true. And if some ideas are necessarily true, then we have an objective ground on which to interpret the text.

As it turns out, there are many of these unchangeable, necessarily true presuppositions. The law of non-contradiction is just one more example. Nothing can both be and not be in the same way at the same time. You can’t say that words “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” means both that God created the earth and that He didn’t create the earth in the same way. Both may be wrong, but both cannot be right.

And by the way, this principle isn’t just true for biblical studies. It’s true for everything. There are many people who actually argue that we can’t know anything, because everything we know is tinted by what we already believe. But, of course, is that is true, then we can’t even know that we can’t know anything, nor can we know that our beliefs effect what we know. All such claims are self-defeating.

Biblical interpretation isn’t easy. Some complain and argue that it should be, but the Bible was written two thousand years ago (and some parts much further back) in different languages, in different cultures, to different people with different problems. Those barriers can be crossed, however, and given the right tools, we can be confident that we know what it teaches. If two people disagree, they can examine their reasons for taking the text like they do and discover which one (if not both) has not considered an important piece of evidence. Biblical interpretation can be objective. It doesn’t have to be just your interpretation.

Why Would A Good God Allow Bad Things To Happen? (Part 2)

We have already taken a first look at the question “Why would a good God allow bad things to happen?” There, we argued rather simply that the question itself is based on a false assumption, namely, that humans are good and therefore don’t deserve to suffer (for if we did deserve to suffer, then no one could or would complain that God allows it!). In and of itself, that answer is sufficient, but I want to take some time and look at another aspect of that same answer.

The fundamental problem with the Problem of Evil is that it assumes equality with God. We have already seen how it assumes moral equality. There is, however, another way in which equality is assumed that is equally absurd, namely, that we are omniscient. It goes without saying that bad things happen on a regular basis and that often times this evil goes unexplained. So often, our general question is recast in the specific: “Why would God let this happen to me?”

Notice that the question looks to find a particular reason, a justification, for any given evil. Here, we have to distinguish between reasons why things happen and reasons why God lets things happen. The answers to the former are often much clear than answers to the latter. A man may know the reason he lost his job was because his company is losing money. A woman may know the reason her identity was stolen was that she accidentally used an ATM that identity-thieves were monitoring. But why would God allow a company to lose money or thieves to monitor an ATM in the first place? Why would He allow such evil to happen? We will offer a general answer in another post. For now, we will note that rarely we are able to discover the reason (see Joseph’s explanation of why God allowed him to be sold into slavery by his brothers in Gen. 50:20). But before we do that, it is more important to put the question in its proper context.

Even if no answer is given, it does not follow that no answer exists. A person cannot conclude that there is no answer just because he cannot find one.

And yet, people are willing to condemn God on a regular basis for evil, even when it is possible that He has a perfectly good reason of which they are unaware. The only way they can judge God in this fashion is to assume omniscience. Their argument must go:

  1. I know of no reasons for this evil to have happened;
  2. I know every possible reason this evil could have happened;
  3. Therefore, there is no reason this evil could have happened.

    The Sanhedrin put God on trial two-thousand years ago. Amazingly, both Christians and non-Christians still do so every day.

The second statement, however, is obviously a claim to omniscience. Who among us can possible claim that they know everything about anything? Humans are barely capable of processing all the ramifications of what we intend to do. When we add all the contingent possibilities of what might happen if other people were to do other things in light of what might or might not happen in any given case, the potential reasons may as well be infinite. In essence, then, to say categorically that God was wrong in allowing something to happen is to assume complete knowledge of all reality, both actual and potential. It is, in other words, to claim to be God Himself.

This same problem presents itself when people accuse God of not preventing the most disastrous events in human history, be they man-caused or natural. Perhaps we could agree that God is within His rights to allow minor suffering, but He certainly could and should have prevented the worst of evils. But, again, this makes an unfounded claim to knowledge. How do we know that God has not stopped more catastrophic events? If He did, we would likely never know of them. There is always a “worst.” Perhaps the Holocaust or the Cambodian Killing Fields rank a full ten on the “evil scale,” but what if that is only because God has prevented far worse events? In other words, what if God had prevented those specific things. Then the things that would rate, say, an eight or nine on our hypothetical evil scale would be perceived by us as a ten, since then they would be the worst things experienced by humans.

In short, we don’t know the extent of what God has or has not done on our behalf. We don’t know why He might or might not have allowed things to happen. To pass judgment, then, on God for allowing evil is tantamount to a jury passing a guilty plea before hearing the first witness. We simply do not, and never will, have enough information to be justified in declaring God guilty of anything!

Finally, we should note that this is God’s own defense. In Job 38:2-3, He asks the defiant Job, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” He then proceeds to barrage Job with questions he is completely unable to answer. The point is clear. If Job’s knowledge is so limited, what right does He have to challenge the reasons of an omniscience God?

People would do well to remember God’s challenge. Evil and pain hurt. They are, however, no basis on which to judge God. To do so is to stand in His very place and claim the right to sit on His throne, and that is a position that no one except He is qualified for.

Who Has the Burden of Proof?

In the 1970s, Anthony Flew, one of the world’s leading atheists who converted to deism late in life, wrote a book called The Presumption of Atheism that changed the atheist/theist dialogue forever. In it, he argued that atheism should be assumed until theists prove that God exists. In other words, in the absence of strong evidence for God, one should be an atheist. Further, one was not required to put forward arguments in favor of atheism, because it was, he believed, the default position.

Modern atheists have taken his argument further. Traditionally, the word “atheism” referred to the belief that God did not exist. It is a standard rule of debate that if a person makes an assertion, they are required to provide evidence for its truthfulness. Therefore, if an atheist declares “God does not exist,” he is required to give reasons for his disbelief. The word was redefined, however, to mean “a lack of belief in God’s existence.” Under this new scheme, atheists began to argue (and still do today) that they don’t have to justify their disbelief for the simple reason that they do not positively disbelieve; they simply lack belief. Therefore, since they make no positive assertions, they need not prove their case. It is the theist, they say, who has the burden of proof. Since we advocate God’s existence, we are the ones who have to prove our case.

Between these two arguments, atheists have built a defense system that is often difficult to penetrate. On the one hand, the atheist (as it is now defined) does not have to defend his or her position. They are content to deny arguments for God’s existence, which, according to this system, ends up justifying their disbelief as atheism is the assumed position. What makes this particularly difficult is that atheists themselves are often unclear on what qualifies as sufficient proof to justify belief in God.

In general, there are two strategies theists can employ when they find themselves talking to someone who holds this view.

First, we can point out that one who merely lacks belief has been traditionally understood as an agnostic, which is one who does not know whether or not God exists. Whether or not they accept the label, once they admit that they do not hold to a positive belief in God’s non-existence, we can hold them to that position when citing future arguments. For instance, if we use the Moral Argument and they insist that morality must be subjective because God doesn’t exist, we can remind them that they can’t assert God’s non-existence. In other words, we hold them to their stated neutral position.

Second, we can challenge their basic position. Do they really just lack belief, or do they positively belief God does not exist? In reality, they probably hold something of a middle ground. If they were to rate their disbelief on a scale of one to five, with one being complete neutrality and five being convinced that God is impossible, most self-professed atheists would admit to being somewhere around a three (at least, in my experience). But in that case, any degree to which the atheist moves away from absolute neutrality, they are required to give evidence for their position.

Beyond all this, we can argue that Flew was simply mistaken, and that a prima facie case may be made for the presumption of theism. No culture in human history has ever been discovered that was naturally atheistic. Human beings, as modern science is now finding, seem hardwired for belief in God. While the atheist can attempt to explain that as a factor of evolution, the theist may point out that shy of any good reason to believe that is the case, there is no compelling reason to believe that every culture is wrong. In fact, if God really does exist, we would expect Him to make Himself known on at least some level to everyone, which seems to me exactly the case. Further, when we consider the basic human desire for purpose and meaning, and when we realize such things are empty without God, their presumption–that is, the assumption we should make before we get to the evidence–certainly should be that God does exist.

Many arguments can be put forward to offer evidence for God. We will look at a great many of them. In the meantime, we should not allow atheists to argue that only the Christian has the burden of proof for his position. If they are truly neutral, they should be able to present reasons to ignore the surface evidence of all human history (not just present an alternate explanation!) to justify at least their neutrality; if they actively disbelieve, they’re in the situation as we are. If we are to be honest, we all have to justify why we believe what we do. No one gets a free ride.

Can A Person Be Moral Without God?

Can a person be moral without God?

Atheists are often attacked by Christians as being inherently immoral. The Bible certainly does not speak very highly of atheism (Ps. 14:1), and polytheism and idolatry are condemned as ignorant and immoral positions (Isa. 44:6-20). Indeed, the first of the Ten Commandments is a declaration that one must worship only the One, True, Living God (Ex. 20:2-6). But does this mean that atheists cannot be moral?

There are actually three answers to this, depending on how the question is interpreted.

First, if “being moral” is interpreted in the popular way of “being good” or “doing the right thing,” the obvious answer is that, yes, an atheist is perfectly capable of being moral. In fact, as Christians, we must insist that biblically they can be as moral as anyone else. The Scriptural proofs for this are easy enough. Rom. 2:14-15 says:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (NIV).

Gentiles were those who did not believe in Yahweh. It doesn’t matter whether they were atheists or polytheists. Denying the True God is one way is the same as denying Him in another. And yet in this passage, Paul asserts that they have the moral law “written on their hearts.” In other words, they know right from wrong. But they do not merely know it, they “do by nature the things required by the law.” Thus, Paul says explicitly that unbelievers actually do behave morally! To argue, then, that an atheist cannot be moral is to deny Scripture. Further, the Bible consistently speaks of God’s judgment on sin, even against the heathen nations. If they were not capable of doing good and did not know right from wrong, on what basis would God judge them? Finally, our own experience confirms Scripture. Who does not know an atheist or a member of any other religion who is not a kind, loving person, who takes care of their families and looks after the needs of their neighbors? It is obvious, then, from any perspective, people can be moral without God.

A second interpretation of the question is to take “be moral” as referring to one’s essential moral character. Is it possible for a person who does not believe in God to be considered a “good” person. It must be stressed that this is a theological interpretation. Under this view, the answer is no for three reasons. First, unbelief is a sin, and no person who sins can be considered good or moral. Second, everything not done from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). Thus, in this view, even the good the atheist does is worthless, theologically speaking, because, like all sin, it is rooted in the desire to serve the self rather than God. However, before Christians even consider pointing the finger and declaring atheists immoral, we should note that we are in the same boat! Rom. 3:23 says that everyone has sinned, which means that none of us are good or moral. Further, Jesus Himself declares that in the theological view, there is only One who is good, which is God (Matt. 19:17). Christians, then, are no more good than atheists are, a fact that Paul recognizes in Rom. 7:18, saying, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (NASB). So again, in this view, no one can be moral without God, but by the same taken, no one can even be moral with Him in this life.

Finally, the question may be interpreted philosophically to mean “Can a person behave in a fashion that can truly be called moral if God does not exist?” Here, the answer is certainly no. We should note, however, that this view of the question has nothing to do with atheists or theists. It has to do with atheism or theism. That is, if God does not exist, there is simply no such thing as morality, and if there is no such thing as morality, then it makes no sense to call anyone moral!

But why should we believe that without God, morality doesn’t exist? The reason is simply that in His absence, all moral statements are merely matters of preference. You would never say the statement “Chocolate is better than vanilla” is moral or represents anything real in chocolate itself. It only expresses your own view. In fact, it is just shorthand for, “I prefer the taste of chocolate over vanilla.” Thus, perhaps surprisingly, whenever two people are arguing over which book, movie, food, song, etc. is “better,” neither can truly claim to be right and the other wrong. If I say, “This is a good song,” I am actually saying, “I enjoy this song.” It makes no sense to respond with, “No it isn’t! It’s a terrible song.” All you are really saying is, “I do not enjoy this song.” Both people are exactly right because they are only speaking about their own taste preferences. Shy of an objective definition of what makes a song “good,” such statements are nothing more than opinion.

When we take this line of thinking to morality, we discover that statements like “slavery is wrong” really only mean “I don’t like slavery” if God does not exist. Some may try to avoid this conclusion by saying that slavery is wrong because it harms others, but then all they done is move the problem back one step. Now they are simply saying, “I don’t like hurting others,” rather than “Hurting others is wrong” as they think they are saying. Still others will argue from an evolutionary perspective that people treat one another in a certain way because it is good for the species and helps us survive. There are two problems with this answer. First, the statement “It is wrong to do what hurts the species” is still just a personal value statement that actually just means, “I don’t like doing what hurts the species.” Morality still has not been grounded in any objective reality. Second, even if we grant somehow that this morality is objective, there is no objective reason for holding up this value rather than another. If evolutionists are right and morality is just a tool we developed over time to help us survive, then there is no real reason to maintain the ethic. Perhaps rather than valuing what is good for humanity, I value doing what is good for me, regardless of the pain it brings others. If I can be guaranteed to avoid the consequences of my behavior, in this view, why restrain it? To say my behavior is “wrong” is only to say that I have rejected your personal opinion.

Against all this, if God exists, it is obvious that moral statements can have real meaning. If God created the world to operate according to certain laws and intended mankind to treat one another in a specific way, then for us to reject that order and behave as we see fit is truly is wrong. We truly ought to do one thing and instead we do another. We can say such things are wrong because they truly violate reality as it actually is. Such statements have objective meaning. Thus, it only makes sense to talk about a person being moral if God exists. If He does not, the best we can say is that we approve or don’t approve of people’s behavior.

As Christians, we must be very careful to handle Truth with care. When we tell atheists that they cannot be moral in the first sense of the question, we are simply being unbiblical. When we tell them that they can’t be moral in the second sense, we are just being hypocritical. And we can’t tell them that they can’t be moral in the third sense, because God really does exist, which means we really can credit them with moral behavior, despite the fact that they ignore the foundations of such statements.

Questions, comments, cries of outrage?

What About Atrocities Committed In God’s Name?

One of the most common criticisms against Christianity and the belief in God in general is the millions of people who have been killed by religious extremists and in religious wars. Don’t all the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity disprove it or at least make it highly unlikely?

From a strictly logical perspective, the question makes little sense. Just because the adherents of a system do bad things, that doesn’t make the belief system false. To argue it does is to commit a particular logical fallacy called a “genetic fallacy.” For example, suppose your first grade teacher who taught you your multiplication tables turned out to be a murderer. That wouldn’t mean that the math he taught you was false, would it? The point is that arguments have to be decided on their merits rather than on the quality of the person from which they came. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t matter how many Christians do evil things. The question is whether or not the evidence for Christianity withstands scrutiny.

As sufficient as that answer is, however, it still leaves a deeper question unanswered. If the God were real, how could He let such things happen? We may appeal to free will to explain suffering generally, but what does it say about the character of God if He allows His followers to abuse others in His name? Does that not imply that He condones such actions?

Christian atrocities are a sad part of our history. The Salem Witch Trials are just one such example. It is important to remember that just because an action is taken in God's name does not mean it was sanctioned by God.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes that God somehow needs defending. The implication is that God’s followers are His representatives, and that our actions reflect on Him. Yet the Bible nowhere describes us as such. In fact, the closest description we have of that shows the fallacy of this kind of thinking. Gen. 1:26-28 says that we were made in the image of God. That image does imply representation. Literally, we are the visible representation of the invisible God. Yet the entire point of the story of the Fall is that mankind chose to represent himself rather than God. Our atrocities are our own, not His. To illustrate, imagine a group of men who stole a country’s flag and under that flag attacked a village, killing its residents. At first glance, it would appear that the country represented was responsible for the attack. Upon closer inspection, however, we realize that though the actions may have been taken “in the name of” that country, they were unsanctioned.

No sin is sanctioned by God, therefore, no sinful act in His name represents His intentions. Anyone, Christian or not, can claim to do anything they like. The Bible consistently warns against false prophets. These were men who claimed to speak in the name of God. It is instructive that God warned us against such men rather than stopping Him themselves. They will have their judgment along with everyone else. Likewise, God will judge His own who acted falsely in His name.

As an aside, some try to get around this question by arguing that such people are not “true Christians.” I would strongly encourage people not to use that argument. It may be true that such people are false Christians, but the theological implications of using behavior as a test of salvation are dangerous indeed. Belief, not behavior, decides one’s relationship to God. The point is that anyone, Christian or not, can claim to act in the name of God. He will sort out in the end who did and who did not, and those who did not will bear their shame.

There certainly have been many crimes committed by Christians. We must not shirk away from that. Paul recognized his own struggle with sin in Rom. 7:14ff. Yet we must recognize that Christianity itself can never properly be used to sanction sin, no matter how much twisting people do with Scripture. Our job is to be on guard against such people. The blame is on them, not God.