Confessions of the Antichrist: A Reply to Bob Murphy

I agree with Bob Murphy that many libertarians are too quick to dismiss religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as irrational and absurd. Hence I was surprised to find him counting me among their number. I recently criticised the orthodox Christian interpretation of the crucifixion in several blog posts: see a) God So Loved the World that He Did What?, b) Why Jesus Is Not God, and c) Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Jesus? Dr. Murphy infers (on the basis of reading just the first one, I think) that I am therefore “anti-Christian” and indeed “anti-religious.” I cannot agree with Dr. Murphy’s apparent assumption that the particular version of theology he accepts enjoys a monopoly on the term “Christian” (let alone on the term “religious”!). The mainstream interpretations of the incarnation and atonement did not become orthodoxy until the fourth and twelfth centuries respectively, and there have always been dissenters who rejected those doctrines precisely because they found them not only philosophically but theologically and scripturally unsound. Dr. Murphy rightly charges many of Christianity’s critics with being careless in their attacks; but I fear I must chide him for a similar error. Dr. Murphy has, I suspect, a certain image of what a critic of orthodox christology is likely to believe, and so he automatically views my remarks through the lens of that image. For example, he takes me to task for asserting that “Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God,” and even cites some scriptural passages designed to convince me otherwise. But I never made the assertion he complains of. No doubt his stereotypical secularist opponent makes such an assertion, but what has that got to do with me? I reckon Dr. Murphy saw the phrase “nowhere to be found in the Bible” and made an associative leap, without due attention to the context; but the doctrine I was referring to was the orthodox understanding of the incarnation and atonement, not the status of Jesus as son of God. My purpose in my blog posts was to criticise, not Christianity per se, but a particular doctrine which has acquired great popularity among Christians but which in my judgment has no place in Christianity. (I wasn’t raising the question of whether Christianity itself is right or wrong; though for the record, I think the answer is “some of each.”) My chief purpose in the present essay is not to continue that criticism (I can do that on my own blog) but to rebut Dr. Murphy’s charge of being one of those “libertarians who ridicule those who believe in Christ.” I suppose I do think orthodox christology is crazy, but I certainly don’t think everyone who believes it is crazy (analogy: the theory that minimum wage laws benefit workers is crazy, but most people who believe it aren’t crazy); nor, of course, do I think that “those who believe in Christ” must thereby accept orthodox christology. Athena forfend! Feuding Clans and Spitballs I do want to respond, however, to the two analogies that Dr. Murphy offers. First he asks us to consider a clan patriarch who cares “not only for his own children, but also for you and the members of your family, notwithstanding the unending stream of crimes and insults committed against him” by your own vicious clan, and so decides to send his son as an emissary “to live amongst the filth, disease, hopelessness, and misery that you and your clan called home”; the patriarch instructs his son to “give wise instruction,” “point out the error of your ways,” and “lead by example.” Although the emissary is abused and finally murdered, many of your clan’s members are impressed enough by the emissary’s example to repent and change their ways. I think this is actually a pretty decent analogy to Jesus’ mission as the Gospels present it (though the absence of anything corresponding to the resurrection both weakens the analogy – as I read the New Testament, the meaning of the crucifixion depends crucially on the resurrection – and makes the patriarch’s treatment of his son look rather shabby). But it doesn’t rescue the aspects of orthodox christology that I was criticising. In the feuding-clans case as Dr. Murphy presents it, the patriarch is not omnipotent and so has no more efficient way to deal with the problem; the emissary is not himself the patriarch in disguise; the emissary comes to save the clan from earthly conflicts they’ve been bringing upon themselves, not from post-mortem tortures the patriarch himself is threatening them with, protection-racket-style; and although the emissary does get executed, the chief point of the emissary’s mission is not his death but his life and teachings while he lives with the clan; allowing himself to be executed may be part of leading by example, but it is not the chief point. Hence Dr. Murphy’s story makes the orthodox view look reasonable by leaving out all the aspects I criticised. A question, by the way, for those who favour the orthodox view: suppose that Jesus hadn’t been able to find anyone willing to execute him? I’m not asking you to imagine a world in which everyone is too virtuous to need Jesus’ redemptive example in the first place; suppose, rather, that there had been plenty of vicious folks who were happy to have Jesus insulted, imprisoned, flogged – but they never actually had the nerve to kill him. (Maybe they were French.) Would this have ruined Jesus’ whole mission? It seems that on the orthodox view the answer has to be yes; the crucifixion is the crucial event on which redemption turns. But on the story Dr. Murphy gives, the execution of the emissary doesn’t seem to have anything like the same central importance. (Incidentally, given that on the orthodox view being crucified was not just part of God’s plan but the centerpiece of that plan, I’m not sure why Dr. Murphy objects to the phrase “got himself nailed to a cross.”) Dr. Murphy’s second example is a philosophy professor who “spends countless hours preparing supplemental notes” to help students who mock his efforts and “throw spitballs at him.” When the professor complains “I’m really trying to help you all get a passing grade in this class,” the students respond that “after all it was the professor himself who made the class so tough,” and if he “really wanted everyone to pass, he should just give them all an ‘A.'” How should we evaluate this example? It depends, first, on whether one accepts theological voluntarism or theological intellectualism. According to theological voluntarism (also known as “theological subjectivism” or “divine command theory”), the rules of morality are the product of God’s free choice, and he can alter them as he pleases; God’s decrees are what make actions right or wrong. According to theological intellectualism (also called “theological objectivism”), by contrast, the rules of morality are logical truths that even God cannot change; in the Thomistic version of theological intellectualism, this is because to be God is to be objective goodness personified, and so God cannot alter the requirements of goodness without ceasing to be God, i.e., without destroying himself. (Many Christians try to combine the voluntarist and intellectualist positions by saying “Of course God could command murder, since he’s all-powerful, but he wouldn’t, because he’s all-good.” But this compromise position won’t work – since if God did command murder, then on the voluntarist thesis murder would then be good, and so God’s goodness can be no bar to his commanding it.) Suppose we accept theological voluntarism. Then all analogy between God and the philosophy professor vanishes. Although the professor made the rules for the course, those rules are not arbitrary; they reflect the objective requirements for what success in learning philosophy requires, and the professor lacks the power to change those objective requirements. But for voluntarists God’s rules do not and cannot reflect any deeper requirements to which God’s decisions are answerable. (If the professor could alter at will not just the rules for his class but the objective requirements for learning philosophy – making the latter easier, for example – then the students’ complaints would be perfectly justified.) Does the example work if we accept theological intellectualism instead? I don’t think so, for reasons I’ve already discussed on my blog and so won’t belabour here – except to say that while students who refuse to study deserve to flunk, I find it hard to believe that any plausible account of an objective moral law is going to yield the result that people who refuse to accept Christ deserve to be tortured in hell for all eternity.

March 3, 2004