Christianity and Violent Self-Defense

swordThe issue of Christian ethics and the use of violence in self-defense has been hotly debated. The recent surge of hostility against Christians, including beheadings, church bombings, etc. has led me to more deeply examine the questions: Is it morally permissible for Christians to use violence to protect themselves and others when faced with an imminently fatal situation? Does Scripture have anything to say about this issue one way or the other, or are we left to extrapolate our ethic–as best we can–from examples set by biblical figures? Here I will argue that there are contexts in which violent defense is completely justified and supported by Scripture. Some preliminary discussion is in order.

First, it should be emphasized that Christians are called to love our enemies:

But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Jesus, in Luke 6:27-28)

Furthermore, Christians are instructed to be peacemakers:

Blessed are the peacemakers, because they will be called sons of God. (Jesus, in Matthew 5:9) 

The obvious conclusion from these passages is that we should go to the greatest length possible to avoid violence and achieve peace with our fellow man. Insult, robbery, or minor physical aggression are not justifications for retaliation, including the attempt to physically harm another human being:

If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks from you, and from one who takes away your things, don’t ask for them back.(Jesus, in Luke 6:29-30 ) 

Often, Christians who advocate for pacifism at all costs will often misuse Luke 6:29 (above) in making their case. Note that this verse says nothing about what we should do in a life-threatening situation, therefore it cannot be cited as support for avoiding violent self-defense. 

Another common argument employs the “Jesus example.” In the Gospel of John, we find an armed mob, led by Judas, arriving to arrest Jesus. Simon Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, Malchus (John 18:10). Jesus miraculously heals Malchus and says to Simon Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). There are two important things to note here: The High Priest’s mob was heavily armed, but Jesus’ life was not in immediate danger. The mob had not come to kill Him, only to arrest him. But far more importantly, this situation was wholly unique to the Messiah–He was acting in direct obedience, doing what was required of Him for the salvation of mankind. In parallel fashion, Jesus subsequently endured merciless scourging and Roman crucifixion.

Martyrs throughout Scripture are sometimes upheld as examples for us to follow in the event that our very life is demanded by fellow men as a consequence of our Christian faith. I believe this, too, is a flawed argument. The account of Stephen’s martyrdom, for instance, doesn’t support the idea that we should calmly submit when our life is threatened. Before his stoning began, God gave Stephen a vision of God’s glory and of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This was another unique situation, one in which God was directly communicating with Stephen, showing him that his appointed time of departure was near. Nothing in the passage indicates whether or not Stephen tried to defend himself during the stoning, though he certainly demonstrated bravery, forgiveness, and dignity at the end. The account of James’ martyrdom isn’t detailed, it simply says that King Herod had him killed with the sword (Acts 12:2). But nevertheless, the issue of martyrdom is unique and must be carefully distinguished from other cases where violent self defense is necessary.

So, what case can be made for the morally-permissible use of violence in self-defense or the defense of the vulnerable (someone who is unable to defend themselves)? The fact that human life is sacred can be easily supported by Scripture. Thus, its preservation is of the utmost importance. If an attempt is made on your life or the life of your child, and your only course of protection is to deter the attacker in a manner that could be fatal to said attacker, doing so is not only morally permissible, it is a moral duty. Though human lives are equally valuable, situations arise in which innocent life necessarily trumps that of the one attempting to wrongly take life. It should be noted, however, that this is completely different from actions of retaliatory violence.

Besides the sanctity of life, is there a more direct endorsement of violent defense of life in Scripture? Yes, and it came from the mouth of Jesus, no less. Before he was arrested, He had a serious conversation with his disciples in which He prepared them, mentally and practically, for the days to come. Things were about to change for all of them on a cosmic scale, and tremendous danger would dog their footsteps for the rest of their lives. Jesus instructs them:

But now, whoever has a money-bag should take it, and also a traveling bag. And whoever doesn’t have a sword should sell his robe and buy one. (Luke 22:36)

 I don’t believe there’s any other way to interpret this statement; Jesus knew they should be equipped with weapons of self-defense as they faced the looming persecution.

My conclusion is that violence is to be avoided when at all possible, but not at all costs. Scripture clearly supports the defense of human life “by the sword.”  In our day, most of us don’t walk around with a sword strapped to ourselves (now that would be incredibly cool), so you’re probably thinking about modern weapons. Without getting into the numerous complexities of responsible firearm legislation, I will simply say that I believe the right to bear arms for the purpose of defense is, in essence, the right to be able to preserve human life under the worst of circumstances. 

John Locke’s Argument for the Existence of God

(The famous 17th century English philosopher, not the bald guy on the Island.)

LockeJohn Locke (1632-1704) is considered one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. His treatise, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, discusses the limits of human knowledge in relation to a wide range of topics. In Chapter 10 of Book 4, he offers an argument for the existence of God that reminded me of the debt contemporary apologetics owes to great thinkers of the Western Tradition.

Following Descartes, Locke declares that nothing is more certain than that we ourselves exist. To doubt that we exist is to affirm that a doubter exists! Remember Decartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am”). Locke argues that from the fact of our own existence, we can demonstrate the existence of God. This is how he proceeds:

In the next place, man knows, by an intuitive certainty, that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles….If, therefore, we know there is some real being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration, that from eternity there has been something; since what was not from eternity had a beginning; and what had a beginning must be produced by something else.

In other words, nothing can’t produce anything–from nothing, nothing comes. All things that have come into being must be traced back to a source that has existed from eternity (if the dreaded infinite regress is to be avoided). If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is roughly the second premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which states: Anything that begins to exist must have a cause of its existence.

Locke goes on to explain how he believes we can deduce some of the attributes of this first cause of all being:

Next, it is evident, that what had its being and beginning from another, must also have all that which is in and belongs to its being from another too. All the powers it has must be owing to and received from the same source. This eternal source, then, of all being must also be the source and original of all power; and so this eternal Being must also be the most powerful.

He is saying that because we have some powers (abilities), our source must have powers, even greater than our own.

The final leg of his argument is what I find most interesting and relevant to the current project of apologetics. Men, he says, find themselves to be knowing, rational creatures, and from this fact we should infer that an intelligent being is our source. To materialists who would claim that there was a time in cosmic history when “no being had any knowledge,” he responds:

I reply, that then it was impossible there should ever have been any knowledge: it being as impossible that things wholly void of knowledge, and operating blindly, and without any perception, should produce a knowing being, as it is impossible that a triangle should make itself three angles bigger than two right ones. For it is as repugnant to the idea of senseless matter, that it should put into itself sense, perception, and knowledge, as it is repugnant to the idea of a triangle, that it should put into itself greater angles than two right ones.

If, nevertheless, any one should be found so senselessly arrogant, as to suppose man alone knowing and wise, but yet the product of mere ignorance and chance; and that all the rest of the universe acted only by that blind haphazard; I shall leave with him that very rational and emphatical rebuke of Tully, to be considered at his leisure: “What can be more sillily arrogant and misbecoming, than for a man to think he has a mind and understanding in him, but yet in all the universe beside there is no such thing: Or that those things, which with the utmost stretch of his reason he can scarce comprehend, should be moved and managed without any reason at all?”

(“Sillily,” as in: absurdly.) Just as it is impossible for the interior angles of a triangle to exceed a sum of 180 degrees (two right angles–yay, geometry!), so it is impossible for perception and knowledge to result from blind chance acting upon matter.

Arguments related to human reason, since Locke, have become more sophisticated, but at their root is this very idea, that it is nonsensical to propose intelligence ever developing from any non-intelligent source.

For further reading on related (and quite powerful) arguments, I recommend (in order of increasing difficulty): C.S. Lewis’ Miracles, Dr. Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies, and Dr. Angus Menuge’s Agents Under Fire.


The Hidden Toxicity of Bible-Belt Suburbia

I live in what is arguably the most conservative state in the nation, in a conservative suburb of a large city. Several churches in my town (and the greater metropolitan area) are stereo-typically mega–with membership numbering in the thousands to the tens of thousands. With the exception of the Starbucks parking lots and the annual homeschool convention, I rarely see anti-religion bumper stickers or humanist demonstrators picketing something or other that has offended their brain chemicals. The community is considered a highly desirable area for Christian families looking for a safe, friendly place to live life. The demographic leans sharply towards well-educated professionals: dentists, surgeons, oil chemists, college faculty, and attorneys make up a good fraction of the populace. I’d venture to guess that the overwhelming majority of public school teachers are Christians. It feels insulated and almost idyllic…maybe not quite Stepford Wives, but I’ve heard it compared to that! However, in my years of living here, I’ve come to see that in one important respect, Bible-belt suburbia can be

A worldview that goes largely unchallenged is rarely fortified, and the world then suffers. When you go through life surrounded by like-minded people, particularly when your entire social group consists of fellow church members, there’s likely no sense of urgency to equip yourself to correctly articulate Christian doctrine and defend its truth claims. Unfortunately, I have the common experience of seeing Christ-loving men and women forsake the requisite training because of not having “enough space in life right now.” Often, a myriad of sports practices, music lessons, social events, and self-help “Bible studies” take priority over reading even a few challenging, instructive books throughout the year. They’ve fallen for the Christianized version of the American Dream.

This state of affairs makes me want to shout from the rooftop: “Why on earth are we here?!” I haven’t resorted to that, because I fear I already know the answer I would get: “We’re here to share the love of Jesus!” Well, yes, of course we are, but WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Jesus didn’t travel the countryside with the mission of making people feel good about themselves; He wasn’t some hippie of antiquity just “spreading the love” to gain followers; He was a Radical Truth Teller! He didn’t sequester himself within a bubble of comrades, being careful never to offend anyone on the outside. He purposefully challenged even the greatest political powers of his day in the name of Truth. He was gentle and loving but unafraid and uncompromising.

One of the main underlying problems, I think, is that Christians are much too worried about being liked by the rest of the world. Terror is struck in their hearts by the word “intolerance.” So, many simply go around “doing good” in order to “show the love of Jesus.” But we’re kidding ourselves if we think such actions are unique to Christians. There are plenty of secular philanthropic organizations out there, extending the same kindness and generosity to people in need. In other words, belief in Christ isn’t a requisite for demonstrating a Christ-like love. So—-

WHAT IS THE CHRISTIAN DISTINCTIVE? Alongside of a Christ-like attitude of grace and love, we alone are able to offer ultimate Truth. In this era of religious pluralism, moral relativism, and scientism, a great and growing need we must be able to meet is intellectual in nature. Sure, there are always going to be people whose hearts are touched by emotional and material kindnesses, but what about those who are in desperate need of rational answers to the deepest questions of existence? Showing the love of Christ to these souls involves mental sweat on our part, not a gift basket and a churchy platitude.

And this is why I think Bible-Belt Suburbia can be toxic; the Christian faith is rarely challenged, thus Christians feel no pressing need to equip themselves to be an intelligent voice in the face of philosophical opposition. When challenges eventually arise, from extended family members, coworkers, or perhaps our own college-age children, a major opportunity to carry out the Great Commission (our raison d’etre) is laid before us. It’s [spiritual] fight or flight.

Let’s be armed and ready to love God and others with our minds.

Six Characteristics of Adolescent Atheism

A while back, I posted an article entitled, “What an Apologist’s Job is Not,” in which I advised fellow apologists on how to recognize (and stop wasting time in) futile interactions. This post is sort of a follow-up, in response to the ongoing positive feedback I’ve received on the piece. My objective this time is to outline six common characteristics of “Adolescent Atheism”–a brand of poorly-informed, logic-disregarding, verbally hostile atheism that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

NOTE: I do not use the term “adolescent” in the pejorative sense here; rather, I mean it in the technical sense–the condition of not being fully matured. Adolescent Atheism is a state of arrested intellectual development with marked characteristics that I will discuss below. Please also note that I am not stereotyping all non-believers; I fully recognize that some are careful to avoid the following errors.

1. The tendency to accuse Christian scholars of pushing their religious agenda for emotional (as opposed to rational) reasons. The main problem with this tactic is that it doesn’t address any argument whatsoever. For example, the statement: “Francis Collins is a brilliant scientist who is emotionally motivated to believe and promote Christianity” says absolutely nothing about whether or not Collins’ views about Christianity are actually correct; his reasons for holding his views are entirely irrelevant to the discussion. It has been argued (and I agree) that anyone who promotes a particular metaphysical view (theistic or atheistic) is emotionally motivated. That doesn’t mean that the person is exclusively motivated by emotion and hasn’t also examined their belief system for rationality and coherence, and it says nothing about truth or falsehood.

2. A refusal (often a poorly-disguised inability) to interact with key scholarship in philosophy and theology, often dismissing it as a “word salad” or “verbal diarrhea.” This attitude is rather amusing, because it is so self-incriminating; it comes across as nothing more than an arrogant cover for the inability to comprehend the complexities of philosophy and theology. Recently, I came across an article in which Dr. Sam Harris (neuroscientist) referred to the works of Dr. John Polkinghorne (theoretical physicist and theologian) and Dr. N.T. Wright (theologian), by saying: “…when you consult their work, you get just pure madness. It is just a word salad, which is foisted on scientifically illiterate people by scientifically literate people for reasons that are patently emotional.” (Notice that this statement also displays characteristic #1.) I’ve heard very similar remarks from individuals who failed to grasp arguments made by esteemed atheist philosophers regarding the intellectual respectability of theism. If there’s no direct interaction with the philosophical and theological assertions themselves, the credibility of the detractor instantly dissolves. Side note: It’s interesting that some atheist scientists find it entirely acceptable to be outspoken about disciplines they are not trained in themselves, but woe to those in other fields who dare to talk about science without “proper” credentials. 

3. A penchant for attacking the character of the Christian theist with high-voltage language in an attempt to cast doubt upon their viewpoint. This is the classic fallacy known as ad hominem. It often involves expletive-laced name-calling, but I just as frequently see it manifested (and experience it) as accusations of purposeful dishonesty. I sometimes receive emails–dripping with angry arrogance–that accuse me of lying about the historical evidence for Christianity. When I provide scholarly references for my claims (carefully avoiding the fallacy known as “appeal to authority”), I either get chirping crickets or the attack is shifted to the cited scholars in the form of statements such as “they’re not a legitimate scholar.” It seems that a PhD from Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Caltech, etc. is only legitimate if the graduate is an atheist.

4. Habitual use of worn-out straw men in place of orthodox Christian doctrine. A favorite tactic of Adolescent Atheism is using misleading or silly portrayals of Christian beliefs in an attempt to make the beliefs seem absurd. For example, they might refer to God as a “wish-granting genie in the clouds.” The irony is, orthodox Christians don’t believe in that god, either (divine attributes are definitive). Another common approach is to interpret Scripture with a hyper-literalism–completely ignoring the genre or context of the passage–and then knocking down the alleged teaching of the text: “Voila! The Bible is rubbish!!” I often see this done by self-described “former Christians” who mutilate cosmological and eschatological passages. (I do not deny that part of the blame for this phenomenon rests upon churches that should be doing a much better job of teaching biblical exegesis and doctrine.)

5. The [intentional?] failure to include important historical details–which sometimes results in a grand irony. On Christmas day this year, atheist scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweeted, “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642.” What Tyson conveniently omitted was the fact that Newton was a Christian theist who wrote reams of material on theology (perhaps even more than he did on science) and took an unmistakably theistic view of the cosmos. In his famous scientific treatise, The Principia, Newton said, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being…This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God…” A couple of days ago, in a comment thread of a news article about Tyson’s tweets, someone listed other famous scientists of Western history who were Christians, and a self-described atheist responded that Galileo lied about being a Christian so that he wouldn’t get in trouble with the Catholic Church. Someone who has studied Galileo’s writings (including his personal letters) for more than ten minutes will likely recognize how ludicrous this statement is. Christianity has a broad and rich intellectual history involving great men and women of science, and the better-informed acknowledge this rather than sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug or trying to explain them away.

6. The ceaseless effort to continue riding the dead horse of scientism (the self-refuting belief that only science can be the source of well-grounded knowledge). A major problem is that those holding this view have many firm beliefs about reality that actually cannot be confirmed through the project of scientific investigation. Many who embrace scientism also like to claim that science has demolished the case for God; therefore, those who take science seriously and are intellectually consistent do not believe in God. For a full discussion of this mistake, see my recent article, “Sorry; No Such Thing as a Scientific Argument Against the Existence of God.”

Christian apologists have differing opinions on whether or not correctives to Adolescent Atheism should even be offered. Some say that we shouldn’t bother, because it’s rare that it will make much difference in the thinking of the Adolescent. But, as I’ve said before, some of the chief objectives of public apologetics are to equip other Christians to think clearly and logically and to encourage them to use their time and energy wisely rather than getting swept up in emotionally-charged conversations. To be sure, any public interaction with an Adolescent should be brief, to the point, and done primarily for the benefit of the observers, not in an attempt to influence the interlocutor (though, in rare cases, progress is made).

ruse bookI’ll end by saying that there are atheist and agnostic scholars of past and present that do not display the above characteristics and have made respectable, erudite contributions to the age-old debate about the existence of God. They are thoughtful (interacting with the ideas rather than haughtily dismissing them, and not attacking people), are usually considerate of those with whom they disagree (some even maintaining genuine friendships with Christian scholars), and are knowledgeable about the relevant history, philosophy, and theology. A few who immediately come to mind are Dr. Michael Ruse (Florida State University), Dr. Bradley Monton (University of Colorado), and Dr. Thomas Nagel (NYU). This is not to say that I have not found points of theological and philosophical disagreement with these scholars; but they demonstrate seriousness of thought and a desire to correctly understand and portray opposing views. I’m looking forward to reading Ruse’s latest book, Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know, and I have enjoyed the writings of Nagel and Monton as well. I’ve recently begun reading some of Bertrand Russell’s work for a research paper I’ll be writing in the spring. Stay tuned for my observations and reflections.

The Astounding (Undesigned!) Inner World of the Living Cell

Here’s a little treat for you today–computer animations of the intricate processes going on in living cells–a symphony so finely orchestrated it’s difficult to even wrap your mind around. No human contrivance has come anywhere near this level of sophistication, and our scientific knowledge of cellular biology isn’t even exhaustive.

VIEWER CAUTION: We should take care, lest we forget that this is all thanks to the self-organizational powers of stardust, followed by the serendipitous chemical formation of a self-replicating molecule, followed by the fortuitous conglomeration of diverse materials into a reproducing primitive cell, followed by billions and billions of accidental DNA replication mistakes that eventually led to the high-functioning brains of the computer engineers that designed these animations. Don’t be fooled into thinking that any of what you observe was planned or intentional, ladies and gentlemen! We must be more intellectually responsible than that, or the grand edifice of science will collapse!!! ;-)