Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Christadelphian theology has nothing to fear from evolution or the New Atheists. Here's why

There's an old saying which says that if you can only afford one newspaper, buy that of the opposition. Sound advice. For years I've followed sceptical / atheist blogs and forums mainly to see what they consider to be the 'killer arguments' against Christianity. Although it would be a mistake to consider your average internet atheist polemic representative of the sort of argument that would cause your average Christian to stop and ponder, [1] as these are the arguments to which your average young believer will be exposed, lurking at sites such as Freethought Blogs will give you a ready feel for the depth and nature of arguments that are trotted out.

Have the New Atheists driven a stake through the heart of Christianity? Well, that depends on what instantiation of Christianity you are talking about. If your theology is contingent on the literal descent of every human being alive today from two people who lived 6000 years ago, maintains a penal / satisfaction theory of the atonement and believes in the innate immortality of the soul, then you do have problems. However, as Christadelphians, we are in the position of having a theological position which not only is unaffected by evolution, but is not logically or morally incoherent.
At de-conversion, a blog which provides 'resources for skeptical, deconverting or former Christians' a recent post seeks to take the fight up to apologists by claiming that they no longer attempt to defend core Christian doctrines, but instead focus on tangential issues:
The good news is that today’s apologists find their own core belief indefensible. This is leading to an attempt to draw the debate away from the many core logical absurdities found in the “gospel”, and to a focus on arguments absent from what has lead most of them to their faith. These are just a decoy. Any proposal of a spherical cube of gold can be immediately dismissed due to the impossibility of a spherical cube, evidence of gold not withstanding. In like manner, any proposal of the logically impossible Christian god can be dismissed based on the impossibility of that god, in spite of proffered evidence of “changed lives” or “fine tuning” or perceived weaknesses in evolutionary theory or the need for “objective purpose”. 
I'll certainly grant that if the idea of the Christian God really is logically impossible, then it would be a little difficult to justify Christianity. Furthermore, I categorically reject the idea that evolutionary theory has weaknesses such that it makes common descent untenable. Any Christian who thinks that is simply wrong. The author of this post summarises his thesis in chart form, in order to illustrate his claim that modern apologists no longer seek to explicitly defend core Christian doctrine:

Certainly, I agree that his four logical impossibilities are problems for any Christian who maintains them. However, I don't see Biblical Christianity in these points:

1. The Bible does not teach that we inherit the guilt of Adam's sin. We die because we are organic creatures. We remain dead if we have never heard of the gospel message, or a sentenced to eternal death if we have rejected God's message. The Westminster Confession states of  Adam and Eve that "they being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation." [2] That certainly is not fair. It would be unjust. However, the Reformed view of Original Sin is a distortion of the Bible, owing much to Augustine, and little to the Bible.

2. Eternal torture for finite sins is morally reprehensible. However, the Bible does not teach eternal torment, a point which evangelical Christians are increasingly accepting [3] so this is yet another doctrine which is not Biblical.

3. Any view of the atonement which sees the death of Christ as some sort of payment misreads the Bible completely. I agree that the penal / satisfaction view of the atonement is morally and logically incoherent. However, a participatory model of the atonement is not affected by these problems. Christ gave us an example to follow, and if we emulate that example, we will overcome. As Peter put it, "for you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps. "[4]

4. This point is - well - misleading, or at the very least trading on a view of Christianity with which he may be familiar, and falsely extrapolating from it. I don't believe in blind faith. I want a faith that is rational, evidence-based and logical. I would cease to believe tomorrow if I found evidence which falsified my position. The author of this piece may not have encountered such believers, but they do exist.

So, that disposes of those four problems. They may affect some instantiations of Christianity, but not mine. But what about miracles and unanswered prayer? I look for natural explanations for everything as a matter of course, so I am not surprised that contemporary claims of miracles - and by miracles I mean spontaneous regeneration of amputated limbs - have not been verified. Then again, I don't expect them. Nor is my faith contingent on them. As for prayer, I do not believe that its purpose is to act as a hotline to God for the dispensing of favours. In a world where random acts of senseless misery occur on a daily basis, answering prayers for a few believers while leaving countless millions to suffer in misery would pose considerable moral problems. Not quite at the Epicurean Dilemma level, but dangerously close.

As for the arguments in the box, I freely admit that I regard the existence of something rather than nothing (and pace Lawrence Krauss, I do not regard a vacuum state in a relativistic quantum field as the ultimate privative, so his work strikes me more as a form of atheist apologetics. Colour me unimpressed. But I digress.) 

Yes, the 'why is there something rather than nothing?' question does not give you Yahweh. At most it gives you a deity which may have zero interest in the universe it has created. What it does do however is show that the 'universe from nothing' claim is - well - something of an exaggeration.

What about the resurrection? I can't prove it. I agree with Bart Ehrman [5] and Geza Vermes [6] that we have evidence of a first century charismatic exorcist who was something of an apocalyptic prophet, and was executed, a picture which to a first approximation is consistent with the picture found in the gospels. There is also the claim that he was raised from the dead, as made by Paul and the writers of the gospels. Again, natural explanations should always be sought, particularly since dead people have a habit of staying dead. The problem here is that - assuming that the gospel narratives contain an authentic memory of Jesus, and I am reasonably convinced that they do [7] - the natural explanations strike me as unconvincing. Mass hallucination, wrong tomb, bribing of guards by disciples don't cut it for me. Again, this is not proof. It is false to claim that the resurrection is the best-attested historical fact in history. It isn't. However, there is enough evidence  for the theist to feel justified in claiming that in this case, Occam's Razor favours the supernatural explanation posited by the authors of the gospels.


Claims such as those made in the de-conversion post referenced in this article are useful, in that they point out the logical and moral incoherence of theological claims made by some Christians. They are even more useful in showing that Christadelphian theological claims tend to escape unscathed. 


1. Examples of these can be found in The Secular Bible by respected Biblical scholar and atheist Jacques Berlinerblau.
2. Chapter VI: The Westminster Confession of Faith (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

3. Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (Third Edition; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011)

4. 1 Peter 2:21 NRSV

5. Ehrman, Bart D. "Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth" (2012  Harper Collins, Inc)

6. Vermes, Geza "Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea" AD 30-325 (2012 Penguin UK)

7. Le Donne, A. "Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?" (2011, Eerdmans)