Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Problem of Saul

This is an excerpt from a larger work in progress. The statements by "Presuppositionalist" are actual quotes from an individual who corresponded with me some time ago.

Thesis: If the Christian god wants human beings (whether all or only some) to believe in it, then it should reveal itself to them in an obvious way, as the book of Acts says it did to Saul on the road to Damascus; otherwise non-belief in such a being is warranted given the lack of evidence, and it can even be pointed out that such a god is inconsistent since it claims to be no respecter of persons.

Presuppositionalist response:

God is sovereign and is under no obligation to reveal himself to any man in the way he revealed himself to Saul. Indeed, God is no respecter of persons, and Saul by no means merited or deserved the revelation he received. It served God’s purposes to meet Saul on the road to Damascus; so too, it serves God’s purposes not to reveal himself today in the same ways as he did to Paul, Moses, etc.

None of these points answers the objection that has been raised, and all appear to be little more than an effort to subdue doubts that the objection raises in the mind of someone who wants to believe Christianity is true. For instance, to claim that “God is sovereign and is under no obligation” to do one thing or another, is irrelevant, since the objection neither charges nor requires that the Christian god has any obligation to begin with. The question is not what this god is obliged to do, but what it wants to be the case in the world it allegedly created. If the Christian god wants human beings today to believe in it, why not do for them what it allegedly did for Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus according to the book of Acts?

Recall that Saul was not merely a doubter or non-believer, but an active persecutor who aggressively pursued the Christians of his day. He was what today’s believers would call in unison a hostile enemy of the body of Christ. The objection does not make pronouncements about why the Christian god might have chosen to reveal itself to Saul, other than that it simply chose to do so, nor does it suggest that it had any obligation to do so. The objection is wholly compatible with the view that the Christian god could have chosen not to reveal itself to Saul. All the objection does is point out the logical course of action given a desired end. In other words, it is a simple application of the principle of final causation: the end determines the means. It does not stipulate that the end in question is actually desired by any supernatural deity; indeed, if there is no god then it could hardly desire to reveal itself to anyone. But if such a being did exist and it wanted men to believe in it and accept its sacrificed son as their Lord and Savior, what better way to accomplish this end than to reveal itself in an obvious way before them, just as the book of Acts says it did for Saul of Tarsus?

The objection solidly rests on what Christians should be more than willing to take as biblical precedent, and, as mentioned above, upon the principle of final causation: a desired end determines the most fruitful and surefire means of achieving it. What we are expected to believe is that, instead of appearing before us as it allegedly did for Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, the Christian god actually prefers to send fallible men armed with flimsy arguments and no objective evidence to go through the hit-or-miss motions dictated by Christ’s “great commission.” This, we are told to believe, is the preference of a loving god which does not play favorites. On top of this, believers themselves – the ones who come to us with these flimsy arguments and lack of evidence – claim that they were moved to belief by an invisible “Holy Spirit” which “worked” in them a faith and desire to know this god, quite different from Saul's experience. The biblical precedent of Saul’s conversion by means of a personal self-revelation of Jesus in empirical form remains confined to the pages of the storybook and is denied to those who exist today, regardless of whether or not they end up "believing." And while they claim, contrary to what we're supposed to believe about Saul of Tarsus, that their belief is the result of the moving of an invisible magic spirit which somehow influences their minds in some fundamental but poorly explained manner, it is a striking coincidence how many of these same individuals were raised up in the Christian tradition from their youth. The claim that the spirit of the Christian god somehow "moves" in minds of believers, simply does not ring true, and all it has going for it is personal testimony, i.e., an unsupportable claim. Unfortunately, it reduces the Christian claim to the same level as other religious claims: the believer is unable to show how one can reasonably distinguish between what he calls "God" and what he may merely be imagining.

In response to the objection, it is pointed out that “Saul by no means merited or deserved the revelation he received,” but according to the story of his conversion, he got a private visit from this god all the same. This, mind you, from an omnipotent being which is claimed to have “so loved the world” that it gave its only begotten son (cf. John 3:16), and is claimed not to be given to partiality toward any of its creatures (cf. Acts 10:34). Pointing out that Saul did not deserve a personal revelation, does not address the objection. On the contrary, it only makes the matter all the more complicated for the apologist. For now he has to reckon with the claim that the Christian god does not play favorites while at the same time choosing to reveal itself to one individual (one who was actively hostile toward the church in fact) but expecting the same devotion from everyone else.

Saying that “it served God’s purposes to meet Saul on the road to Damascus” also does not address the issue, for it is already granted that the Christian god had a purpose in revealing itself to Saul of Tarsus by granting that it has the ability and the choice to do so. It could likewise have a purpose in revealing itself to human beings of today as well. The objection does not require that the Christian god act without purpose. Indeed, if it exists and desires that men believe and worship it, the purpose in revealing itself to modern human beings would be, among other possibilities, to make its existence incontestably certain to those individuals to whom it reveals itself. That it does not do this is consistent with the premise that it does not in fact exist to begin with.

On this account, the Christian god strikes me as either non-existent or wholly indifferent to the plight of men. Moreover, the very idea that an immortal, indestructible and perfect being would have any purpose to begin with is conceptually specious. Such a being would certainly have no need to act for any purpose, for it wouldn’t have any deficiency to overcome. To say it has needs would only imply that it is somehow incomplete, and that it needs to take action in order to secure something that makes its existence possible, as in the case with biological organsims (such as human beings). In response to this, apologists seek to dumb the matter down to the level of a mere desire rather than a need: the Christian god’s purposes are based on its desires (wishes and wants), not needs that it must satisfy in order to sustain itself or any attribute it might possess. But if such a being were to have any wants, wishes or desires which could provide a basis for any purpose it might set before itself, they would be purely arbitrary. Here apologists prefer to call their god’s purposes “mysterious,” which is a euphemistic signal to shut down all inquiry in preference for “just believing.” At best they can only hope to appeal to passages like Psalm 115:3, which suggest that pleasure of the moment is the final arbiter of their god’s choices and actions, all the while ignoring the fact that the characteristics they attribute to their god would mean that it could refrain from all choices and actions for all eternity, and still be what it is.

All this suggests that it is men, having adopted a worldview philosophically based on the primacy of consciousness and allegorically based on the narratives of a storybook, who are in charge of a god that exists only in their imaginations as they scramble to work out the implications of the assertions they make in describing what they claim to worship.


This objection intimates that God has not already provided sufficient revelation of himself to all men.

That depends on what one considers “sufficient revelation.” Who determines what is "sufficient" when it comes to something labeled "revelation"? “Sufficient” for what exactly? This is not explained. Was “sufficient revelation” available at the time Saul of Tarsus was supposedly persecuting Christian believers? How would one determine this? Saul had the testimony of the believers he personally persecuted - some of whom could have been eyewitnesses to the resurrection if we go by the accounts - and that was presumably not sufficient. If the testimony of eyewitnesses or their immediate comrades is not sufficient, why suppose that a 2000-year-old storybook is sufficient?

Believers of course reserve the right to say what they choose to say in response to such questions, and posture themselves as speaking for their god. That’s fine - they can imagine and say whatever they want. But notice how the apologist has to keep back-pedaling on this question and dragging it off to irrelevant matters. Today’s non-believers did not invent the example of Saul of Tarsus being converted on his way to Damascus. If Christianity wants to keep Paul, they have to deal with the implications that the story of his conversion introduces. But this is something that believers tend to shove under the rug and ignore. If it were the case that “God’s revelation of himself” were sufficient at the time Saul was persecuting believers, then the personal appearance paid to Saul by Jesus would be superfluous and, worse, all the more an instance of “respecting persons.” And if it were not sufficient, then whose fault is that? Saul’s? If so, he sure got redeemed in a jiff!

And who is to determine whether something is sufficient for another human being? Does the believer reserve for himself a place of privilege here, claiming that in spite of his poor answers to objections raised against his god-belief, its “revelation” is nevertheless sufficient anyway?

by Dawson Bethrick