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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

What Your Opinion of Artificial Intelligence? (Siri etc)

Thanks for your question. 

My opinion of A.I. is that it will become more and more powerful and bring computing power to a very high level to more and more people.  But I don't believe it can ever become sentient as many people fear (Like Elon Musk for example).

Also, I think SIRI and Alexa are currently laughably far away from anything remotely resembling real intelligence or sentience.  Though such programs may get much closer to "feeling" like real people, I don't believe they ever could be.

As far as potential dangers involved in A.I., I believe they mostly involve prematurely entrusting too many processes, or life or social functions to the dictates of a program, no matter how sophisticated.  

The only reason we might launch ourselves into such a dangerous future is because A.I. will probably create increasing credibility in areas where we specifically take control out of the hands of people with greater and greater success.  For example:  with self driving cars.  Or in flight controls.  In some applications, the amount of data that a human operator has to sort through in a moment is just too great, and our machines can and will do a better job of it.  

The Boeing Osprey one example - a hybrid helicopter/plane, the idea was brilliant, but it crashed a lot early on for various reasons, but often because no pilot could manage the changing flight characteristics between rotary and winged flight, especially in difficult conditions.  The Osprey was about to be trashed before engineers developed an A.I. to manage flight control and now the aircraft is viable again.

However, we shouldn't forget what a computer is.  It runs algorithms.  An algorithm is a program, a set of rules that intelligent agents provide, followed by problem solving operations.  A computer is a really complex "if this, then this" machine.  When attached to all sorts of inputs, like images, temperature, air speed, language, musical notes, math laws, or sound waves, programs can crunch numbers a lot faster and enhance many human functions that approximate intelligence or even personhood.  

But a computer just runs programs, it doesn't think for itself.  Or, if you insist that future computers could have "thoughts" it never can have thoughts about its thoughts.  If you fear a computer could somehow become conscious, imagine a computer inside a room, then ask yourself where its mind is located.  You can't do it.  What will forever separate Mind from "A.I."?  Free will, and creativity.  Innovation.  There is an autonomy in real intelligence that A.I. can't imitate.

Part of the fears of A.I. come from people buying into a materialistic worldview ideologically.  Because I don't believe consciousness is an emergent property of matter, I don't believe it can be an emergent property of A.I.  If you believe that all there is, is matter then you must believe that mind emerged from matter over long millennia.  That's just an article of faith - regardless if no observation or science says it can.  And if you buy that, as many do, then you will believe much more easily that the collated matter inside computers could spontaneously evolve into minds as well.

The only problem with this is that we become super confident in materialism at preciously the point where it's the weakest.  Evolution can tell us how genomes change over time due to shifting frequencies of certain genes due to survival differences in offspring.  That's it.  Meanwhile, the facts show the gene itself is a book, it's data!  The gene is written in a 4 letter chemical alphabet, but it's "meaning" transcends the chemical components it's written on.  That's what information is.  And right now, we don't have a clue how information could arise spontaneously from non-living, random chemicals.  Nevertheless, if you are told enough times that information can come from random bits, and that free thinking entities came from non-living matter, we become susceptible to the idea that mind and consciousness could come from a Turing Machine! 

Not possible.

We see this exact same assumption-set in our overblown fears about the Alien question.  At preciously the point in the theory of evolution where it's the weakest (a self-reproducing cell arising spontaneously from non-living chemicals), we imagine that this unsupported theory is in operation all over the universe producing life randomly.  We don't have any working model for how it happened here yet, but that doesn't stop of us from postulating that it HAS to be happening all over the place.  Come up with a viable way non-living chemicals self-assembling into self-replicating complex biological machines could happen here first, then I'll believe the same process is making little green men all over the galaxy.

Science is now pointing to the fact that Mind underlays the universe, from its finely tuned laws to its irreducibly complex machines, to its code at the center of life.  Atheist Thomas Nagel surprisingly makes this very point in his book, Mind and Cosmos.  So it seems, Mind is fundamental, matter an emergent property of mind.  To turn all that observation around and begin to think matter could generate mind is not logical.  

I believe A.I. could kill us only if we prematurely entrust too much responsibility to our machines, but make no mistake, A.I. is just a machine.  Machines that enhance preexisting human intelligence and abilities, using human language, bound by rules given by human developers and having all its goals set by free thinking, creative humans.  The result is an obedient machine - like a car or a calculator - a really complex awesome machine, but a machine nevertheless.  You can't get a person out of these machines, even if they can produce music (which they can) or can outwit a Jeopardy champion (which they can).

The Discovery Institute challenges the prospect of "strong A.I." here: and  here:

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Why Is Moses' Life Saved by His Wife Circumcising His Son?

QUESTION: Why is Moses saved by Zipporah circumcising his son in Ex 4:24-26?
On the trip, at an overnight campsite, it happened that the Lord confronted him and sought to put him to death. 25 So Zipporah took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at Moses’ feet. Then she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So He let him alone. At that time she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood,” referring to the circumcision. (HB)
ANSWER: No matter how you slice it, this passage is a little strange!  We seem to be plunged into some kind of weird spat that lacks any description of prior context, and without detail of important preceding action that might tell us what this is all about.  So even the best scholars are left with a fair amount of speculation to fill in those blanks.  This answer will therefore have plenty of speculation, but a core lesson is still very clear.

We begin to make sense of it, if we consider a few of the bare facts of the story:  Moses has had two sons.  They are clearly several years old by this point, and yet they have never been circumcised.  Why not?  This is a critical question but it's never answered in the text.

Moses is a Hebrew, and circumcision is what they do – it was a command given to their forefather Abraham and all his descendants (Gen 17:9).  Some have speculated that the Jews, living under Egyptian oppression, weren't allowed to for hundreds of year, so Moses also didn't do it.  But this cannot be true since there is no mention of a society wide neglect of this sign of the Abrahamic covenant for hundreds of years.  In fact, we do know the Hebrews neglected this rite when the freed slaves lived through the desert wanderings for forty years (Joshua 5:5).  But that very verse also notes that the previous generation that first came out of slavery were all circumcised.

So it might have come from family pressures, from Zipporah and/or Jethro (his father-in-law).  They were Midianites and thus probably ‘outsiders’ to circumcision.  Zipporah`s harsh reaction in 4:25 seems to indicate that the whole thing is arcane, disgusting, strange or unnecessary to her.  But Moses is not an outsider to circumcision; he must know it's a required sign of his participation in the Abrahamic covenant with Yahweh – the God his mother no doubt taught him about, the God he met personally in Midian at the burning bush.

Therefore, there is an implicit disobedience being exposed in this story.  And that begins to explain the seeming blindside God gives Moses as he travels from Midian to Egypt to challenge Pharaoh.  What if this is no blind side at all?  What if this is the culmination of a long standing tension between Moses and God and perhaps also between Moses and his in-laws?  What if Moses has not circumcised his sons, to please his in-laws ahead of pleasing God?  A God whose character and laws he is going to represent to the world in very short order!  And yet he, the law giver, hasn’t obeyed the first, most simple law!?

It’s like a preacher getting ready to go on a church planting tour and he’s never been baptized himself!  Or he’s never explained the gospel to his own family! 

Now, the weird thing is, Zipporah knows God is about to take his life for this offense.  So Moses' predicament can’t be a private revelation known only to himself.  Somehow, Zipporah knows that Moses is on death’s door.  And she also seems to know immediately what will turn away the curse.  This is interesting because it probably mitigates the horror we feel that God "sought to kill" the very man he, moments ago, chose graciously to be his instrument of liberation.  We should ask, how does she know Moses life is in danger?  How does she know it's God who is threatening that life?  And how does she know what to do about it?

I would suggest, all this implies that God had not made a verbal confrontation with Moses (as he had at the burning bush), but that perhaps Moses had become deathly ill on the journey.  The English says "God confronted him" which sounds like a harsh, physical fight, or a private threat.  But the Hebrew word simply means "came in contact with" - pagash.  So "confront" is not a bad translation, but I think we can put out of mind any kind of physical fight like the one between Jacob and the Angel.  There's no record of any words spoken in this confrontation.

Instead, a circumstance like a deathly illness would clearly be interpreted by them both as the hand of God and not some random event - especially since they were on such a great mission directly from God.  So perhaps Zipporah might have asked Moses why God was seemingly against them.  It might have been that Moses might then have confessed the problem:  “I haven’t done the simplest act of obedience to the Lord and his hand is against me.”

There's a subtle but important difference if we view the events unfolding like this.  To read that God sought to kill Moses, seems like God would off him for what we think of as a minor misdemeanor, meanwhile jeopardizing the much more important mission of liberating the Israelites without a care for either.  But what if the situation was more like Jonah?  The storm is a threat and directly allowed by God, and it was potentially deadly.  And Jonah knows it's deadliness is directed at him (Jonah 1:5).  It looks to Jonah and the men of the boat that God has come to kill the negligent prophet.  But no matter what it looks like in the short term lens, we know God has great plans for Jonah and the deadly storm will not end in death, and killing Jonah was never the point.

So likewise, here in Exodus, if circumstances came about which were potentially deadly, and were interpreted as discipline from God, the ancient author might look at the potential end (death) and speak of it as the end God was seeking.  But in reality it merely would be the threat of death which God wanted, in order to bring about change in Moses, before his great calling could come to pass.  The end of the story proves the threat of death was God's true aim, not to actually kill the man he has just commissioned.

So, if you are Zipporah and the threat of the death of your husband is before you, and he, (or you by some revelation) are told that disobedience in circumcision is the cause, you might feel manipulated!  Especially if it's your resistance to the rite which you know is the reason Moses hasn't performed it on his sons.  "You're going to die unless we do this repulsive thing?  Great!"  But now, what choice does she have?  So in anger she does the deed – is none too happy about it judging by her comment in verse 25!

You might ask why, if Moses knows the problem, can’t he fix it himself?  Well, this is another reason to presume a deathly illness has fallen on him that they interpret as God's death threat: if he’s literally on death's door, he can't do it himself… so she has to.  Then, she brings the evidence and throws it at his feet with her comment about him being a "bridegroom of blood".  In other words, “you have become a husband who required of me a strange, bloody sacrifice to keep you alive.”  The threatening plague (or whatever it was) lifts, Moses is healed, and off he goes to his greater mission, having finally (by force!) taken care of business at home – his first mission.

Now, regarding her phrase, “bridegroom of blood…” one scholar I read had a much softer and more romantic interpretation.  He also speculates that Moses has somehow come under a curse, an illness perhaps… but he says that it is Zipporah alone who is given insight from God as to the reason for this plague or curse of imminent death.  She is therefore heartbroken at the potential of losing her husband, and also that there is a standing offense against God in their home!

So, resolutely, she circumcises their son, and she touches Moses feet with the foreskin to associate the act with the father.  Not in spite or anger (the more natural reading), but rather as a request to God to graciously accept it as coming from Moses whose responsibility it should have been to do it.   All of this is an act of servanthood and love on her part.

But what about her comment, “Bridegroom of blood”?  This interpreter said it was a way of saying, “you were on death’s door, you were lost to me, but now, by this blood, its like you were given to me all over again, my ‘bridegroom of blood’.”  In other words, it's a reference to her gratitude in getting Moses back from the dead, "From Blood (Death), a Groom!".  Or yet another way: her marriage was threatened with termination but it's renewed through blood and she’s relieved and happy to have her husband back.

This second view is a much nicer way to read Zipporah’s attitude, certainly!  She’s a loving wife who hears God, takes action, and saves the day and is thrilled with her husband’s recovery vs. begrudging rescuer not at all thrilled with her man.

But either way, the passage has this to say:  Moses has clearly been disobedient about 'first things first'.  So you can see that this strange little story contains a profound lesson for ministers of the gospel needing to attend to their first ministry before they ever seek to venture into their larger Kingdom callings.  As Paul says to Timothy, when examining potential elders – make sure their "house is in order" first.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Isn't Science Better than Faith?

QUESTION:  I'm leaning toward atheism, because I think it offers a much richer description of the world than a faith perspective does.  All my Christian friends seem to shut their eyes when I challenge their understandings which they get from the Bible.  Science is a more elegant and authentic perspective on everything.  Isn't that a nobler path than religion which has entrenched ignorance and denied science?

RESPONSE: I really empathize with your frustration with Christians who shut down conversations about the nature of things, with the phrase, "the Bible says".  No end of damage has been done to civil discourse and a true understanding of the Christian faith by perpetuating a science versus faith war.

I understand what your Christian friends are thinking - they are probably a bit scared that some bit of scientific discovery refutes a particular biblical claim and thus the Christian faith looks vulnerable.  They don't want to entertain that.  And I understand what this looks like from your perspective:  that Christianity itself is constantly in retreat, being pushed back by science at every turn. It may seem to you that this is a reason to embrace atheism.

But i would suggest this is only a good reason to embrace science and not atheism.  And I would further suggest that the reason science is even a thing and the reason why it is "elegant" rests entirely on premises that only make sense inside a Christian worldview.   In other words, science depends deeply on spiritual/religious and specifically Christian ways of thinking about the world.  So a more reasonable and noble way to go would be to embrace both.

In his book “Stealing from God” Frank Turek makes the claim that all of science’s descriptions and even it’s very impulse borrows everything it has from the Christian worldview. The great scientific claim (by that I mean the primary hypothesis on which all other scientific hypothesis’ were ever built) is basically this threefold assumption:

  • the world is ordered and lawful, 
  • we can understand this, 
  • it is good to understand it. 

  • All science rests on those assumptions.  You won't do science unless this hypothesis makes some kind of sense, or you have some reason to accept these as starting premises.  Therefore, it is the grandest of all scientific hypothesis'.

    But think about it, there is no reason, on atheism, why anyone would ever make those assumptions about the world. They are faith leaps, a priori “givens” that one either feels about the universe or does not. And on atheism, there is no inherent or logical reason anyone would go there.

    Why, if there is no ordering Principle, no Mind, no Logos behind the world, would one think that at bottom, it would be ordered?  That is, layered with regular patterns, “obedient”, as it were, to invisible demands that are constant and unchanging? Wouldn’t the more natural assumption on atheism be that at bottom it would be disordered and chaotic?  Unstructured?  Un-mind-like? Unreasonable?  Un-math-like?

    And even if it was ordered, on atheism, what confidence would one have that a human mind, a result of pure, unguided processes could understand any of this? (Darwin himself struggled with that notion mightily as he confesses openly in Decent of Man…). 

    And even if you could assume we can understand it, on atheism, why would it be good to try to do so?  What's the point?  What is "noble" after all, on atheism?  It's a subjective feeling of a worthy enterprise, which is objectively meaningless.

    Only Christianity provided the fertile ground to propose and explore the great scientific hypothesis, believing the world was a result of Mind, therefore it had inherent order, and therefore, we, made in the image of that Being, could have minds which correspond to the world made by that Great Mind, and therefore, it was good to understand it, as we were worshiping and glorifying the Maker by better knowing what he had made.

    All pagan ages, and even pre-Christian atheistic thinkers (like some Greek philosophers) never thought that the world was understandable.  It was often specifically seen as the work of forces of chaos.  How could it be understood?  There was no benevolence or order to it, only mystery and fear-inducing arbitrariness.

    There is a reason science was launched (only) in the Christian West – it wasn’t dumb luck. 

    So now that Christians found out that all three assumptions behind Science were reasonable and supported by the evidence, atheists are happy to take those assumptions for granted and keep the study of the world going – but very few of them realize that every discovery they make about the world is actually confirming the spiritual premises on which all of science is built.  

    There is a reason why only the atheists who live after the scientific revolution think that science is cool.  They stand on the shoulders of Christian giants, like Kepler, Newton, Pascal, Copernicus, Galileo etc.  Rodney Stark makes the bald point in Victory of Reason, that all the early scientists were not scientists in spite of their Christian worldview, but because of  it.  They were very explicit.  The idea that faith is a science blocker stands refuted on the inarguable historical fact that science was invented by Christians of deep faith.

    So, no true scientific discovery ever refutes Christianity, but rather is another brick in the edifice of the worldview Christianity presents:  The world is a machine, a book, and it can be read and even reverse engineered.  For all our best designs come from looking at nature.

    Now, I admit freely, it may refute some superficial understanding of the world we had which we thought was taught in the Bible.  Those are the places where the atheist loves to camp out and talk about faith losing the war with science.  

    But they usually don’t realize that every time real science dispels an area of ignorance they are helping the larger cause of making a spiritual/ordered/Word-like/intelligible world a given, and that world does not make sense without God.

    Tuesday, February 6, 2018

    Did God Accept Jephthah's Sacrifice of His Daughter?

    QUESTION: In the story of Jephthah, chapters 11-12 in Judges, Jephthah vows to God that if God allows him to win the war against the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first thing to walk through his door to greet him when he comes home as a burnt offering. God does not object, but accepts all of this, never once intervenes to tell Jephthah what a fool he was to make such a promise, he doesn’t spare the girl. He happily accepts the human sacrifice, and she is burnt to death as an offering to God.  Why is this?

    ANSWER: Thanks for your question.  First, I should mention that many people believe Jephthah did not actually sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering.  Instead, they believe that Jephthah gave his daughter in service to the Lord as a lifelong virgin.  This view notes how the text stresses that she remained a virgin, not that she died.  This is possibly what happened, but it relies a bit too heavily on a unique rendering of the Hebrew and is contrary to a straightforward reading of the text.  For a good example of this approach look here.

    Rejecting that, we're left with Jephthah actually sacrificing his daughter, tragic and horrifying as that is.  Every time I’ve read this, my heart revolts.  But then I remember that this is in fact, what you are supposed to think as you read the entire book of Judges.  Truly!

    The theme verse of Judges is “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (17:6, 21:25).  During this, post-Moses, pre-King period, the nation of Israel is a loose federation of tribes.  Their religious identity doesn't have a strong unifying tradition and without that, everyone is just acting according to their own lights, doing whatever seems best to them.

    So the entire culture of Israel is not really seeking God, not looking to his moral instruction, doesn't yet have a robust priestly tradition or king to enforce that instruction, and so they're just assimilating to the culture's values around them.  Look at the backstory of Jephthah and you see this clearly:  he was a son of a prostitute, from a polygamous home that rejected him and drove him away from the family inheritance, where he became a mob boss!  Which part of this situation looks like it was guided by any of the 10 commandments?

    So the real message of Judges is that everyone was doing it their own way, including (in some ways), the Judges!  For more evidence, just keep reading to the story of Sampson.  Sampson was also a Judge, and yet also a liar and fornicator and extremely foolish in trusting wicked people, and he marries outside of Israel - something God explicitly forbade (Deut 7:1-4).  This doesn't discount that he was used by God to protect and save his people, as with Jephthah.

    There are many more examples in Judges, but the writer is clearly wanting you to get a feel for the depravity of that time where there is no king, no overarching authority in the land, and while God was supposed to be the King, people had installed themselves as King in God’s place.  This is what is being taught. And that gets to a very important rule for correct bible interpretation:  you must discern the difference between what is being PREscribed, and what is being DEscribed.  

    Do you actually think God is prescribing child sacrifice in this story? It's OK to kill your kid 'if you promised to' - do you really think that the Jews took that as the lesson?  So perhaps the problem is simply that God doesn’t say explicitly to Jephthah, “hey dude, if you sacrifice 'whoever comes out of your house', it might be, like, a human, and I uh, believe I was very clear about the whole, don't kill people thing..."  We all want God to step in and be more clear with Jephthah that it's wrong to kill your children... but how could God have been any clearer than this:
    Lev 18:21-22: “You are not to make any of your children pass through the fire to Molech. Do not profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.” ?
    If you think God should have repeated himself, there's this:
    Deut 12:31-32: “You must not do the same to the Lord your God, because they practice for their gods every detestable thing the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” 
    Jephthah knows all this, since he seems to be very familiar with Mosaic history (Judges 11:12-28).  Yet he still kills his own grown child to fulfill a very foolish vow he made.  You have to dig a little to realize just how foolish it was.  Even if you assume Jephthah assumed an animal would come greet him, what if it was an unclean animal?  It would have been unacceptable!  Also, God says that one should never make a vow that will violate our conscience to carry it out (Prov 20:25).  He says never make an impulsive vow (Eccl 5:2-5).  Also, if Jephthah was so grieved by his vow, he should have known Moses allowed for a sin offering if a man had to void a impulsive oath (Lev 5:4,5).  It's no wonder there's no mention of God instigating this vow, there's nothing godly about it.

    So here's how you should understand this:  Jephthah had heard the laws, probably knew them, but was influenced by the Canaanites (for whom child sacrifice was normal) and so felt more obligated by his vow, no matter how immoral or rash, than by the explicit law of God.

    This ought to change the assumptions you've made about how God feels about Jephthah.  You assume, “God accepts this”, you even say “God happily accepts all this.”  What in the text gives you the impression that God happily accepts all this?  If you read the entire book (and remember no Bible author assumed people read only cut out verses without getting the whole picture), you see the author is saying the exact opposite.

    Now, you might push back on that and say, but Jephthah is “anointed by the Spirit of the Lord”, so shouldn't we understand that everything he does has the sanction of God?  Actually, no.  In fact, back to Sampson, the idea of him being God's instrument as a Judge is directly tied to his disobedience to God's Law!!  He takes a wife from the Philistines, something God expressly forbade (Deut 7:3-4) yet this was "from the Lord" (Judges 14:4) as the means God would use to engage the Philistines to throw off their oppressive rule.

    We simply have no biblical warrant for assuming that any person said to be used or anointed by God had God's approval for all he/she did.  David was said to be a man led by God’s Spirit, and yet he did several things that were explicitly horrible.  Same with Saul.  The only difference in those accounts is that their sinful actions are specifically condemned by a prophetic voice, which gives the reader God’s explicit feelings on the sinful action.

    Yes, we lack such explicit condemnation here, but we would be very presumptuous to argue from that silence that “God happily” accepts child sacrifice – especially when we know very well how God feels about child sacrifice over and over again: Jer 32:35: “I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing. What an incredible evil…”  So much for “happily”.

    Furthermore, it is a Jewish writing style to be frustratingly coy about such things.  I’ll give you an example.  Read the entire account of Solomon’s greatness in 1 Kings 4-11.  At first you are led to think, this author believes Solomon can do no wrong!  But if you know the backdrop of Moses (and all the writings of the Old Testament should be read with that knowledge), you realize that the author is not, in fact, praising Solomon, but condemning him!  For in acquiring all his wealth and power and foreign alliances and women, Solomon is breaking almost every single command Moses had laid out for kings in Deuteronomy 17!  

    This is how the ancient Jews wrote.  They assumed you, the reader, knew some things; like, God’s hatred for child sacrifice, for example.  If you get that, then you know the author could not be whitewashing a Judge, he’s showing how bad it is that even the Judges had fallen to Canaanite practices.  The community wide sorrow at the end of the story does nothing to diminish this impression.

    Now that anguish felt by Jephthah and his daughter is expected given the tragedy, but it also shows how they both seem to think that fulfilling the vow is the only viable moral course of action.  Basically his daughter says, "you have to do it" (Judges 11:36).  What an interestingly lopsided moral development – to believe God would value honoring of a vow (no matter how foolish) over the value of a human life.  As mistaken as he is, it does show a stunning commitment to promise keeping!  And that is what is behind all lopsided moral developments.  They are usually not driven by purely amoral lawlessness.  No, they are driven by putting one good value (in this case, honor) over all others (the sanctity of life, love, compassion etc).  And based on what?  What is "right in our own eyes".

    So, speaking of lopsided moral developments, perhaps we've done the opposite today.  Our culture puts the value of honor so extremely low that, rather than put up with great personal cost to fulfill our responsibilities, we would prefer to treat literally millions of babies as badly as this one man did his grown daughter.  Is our moral moment, when people today also do “whatever is right in their own eyes” any better; We who dismember the bodies of fetuses who have done no wrong?  I think not.  If we were to write the moral history of our time, just the last 100 years or so, when the peoples in charge have explicitly rejected the ways of Israel’s God to do what is right in their own eyes, it would be a ghastlier read than Judges, by a landslide.

    Wednesday, January 24, 2018

    Isn't Christianity Merely Borrowed Myth From Other Ancient Religions?

    Mithras Surrounded by the Zodiac
    QUESTION: I have had conversations with people telling me that the story of the Savior and a virgin birth is a story that has been told in different forms for millennia in other religions predating Jesus. Same story with different players. For example, I heard in the popular “Zeitgeist” Youtube movie that the Egyptian god Horus was born on December 25 of a virgin: Isis Mary, and that he was supposedly crucified and resurrected after three days.

    ANSWER: The “Didn’t Christianity just borrow from other religions all its main features?” is an old question and mostly been thoroughly debunked a long time ago – like, in the 1890’s long time ago. But in the age of the Internet you get a lot of skeptics swallowing these theories or passing them on without critically looking at the counter arguments.

     “How do you know that?”, is a really great question to use when faced with the bald assertion that Christianity is merely a profane bit of religious plagiarism and totally untrue.  It leads to a search for original sources, not assertion-filled rants.

    I’ll answer your question fairly briefly and give you some examples, but I won’t answer all the claims made in the Zeitgeist movie for example.  So, I’ll link you to two more in-depth answers, the second of which links to sources to help you do a deep dive on this if you want.

    Basically, all the alleged comparisons between Christianity and other mystery cults of the ancient world break down due to the following four factors:

    A – the “common” feature is totally exaggerated (like the cult of Mithras allegedly doing baptism before Christians, when their “baptism” was putting the initiate in a pit and gutting a bull over him, spilling the guts and blood – ya, not the same thing!, or like Mithras is said to have had 12 disciples, but all we really have is one carving where Mithras is shown surrounded by the 12 signs of the zodiac, etc.)

    B – the cultic feature actually POST-dated Christianity and so was borrowed from it rather than the other way around (like the mystery cults having love feasts, or baptizing chairs and houses – something we only know about AFTER Christianity was growing and popular, not before.)

    C – the feature is indicative of some other feature common to a lot of religions and regions (like celebrating the Sun God’s “birth” on winter solstice [around December 25th] which was an important date for all agrarian cultures, including the Jews; or Mithras having 12 disciples, when 12 was an important number all over in the ancient world, a lot of culture’s math was in a base 12 system, and the 12 signs of the zodiac were very old etc.)

    D – the story of Jesus stands or falls on the evidence for the validity of the testimony about him, regardless if that story has some features that correspond to other religions or myths or not.  Turns out, the evidence that a real man, Jesus, really lived and really was crucified under Pontius Pilate is one of the most well attested facts of the ancient world.  So, if we have good evidence for that, then his story stands even if features of that story correspond to fables and myths and mystery religions.  Of course, when you read them those other stories have a very distinct “once upon a time” feel, and the NT starts out in serious history, as Luke will begin, 
    "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas..." (3:1,2) etc. 

    Here’s a deeper answer on this question from

    Here’s another response on this from a Catholic site with links to non-Christian sources:

    Wednesday, December 13, 2017

    Can A Woman Be A Pastor?

    QUESTION: I was talking with an AC3er and we were looking at the question: Can a woman be a pastor or preacher?  We came upon the answer from this site and I was hoping you could comment on it: 

    My friend was under the impression that female pastors would be acceptable since Paul was only saying women should not preach due to the lack of reverence that the people would assign to them, and men would be held in higher regard. But the gotquestions video seems to go against this idea. Especially with the bible verse, 1 Timothy 2:13-14 seemingly bashing women for Eve's mistake.

    ANSWER: "Gotquestions" is a good site.  And in regards to this subject, they have correctly laid out two things at the outset - one, this is not an issue about chauvinism or discrimination.  This is an issue of interpretation.  If the Bible is to be our guide, the main question is simply what does it teach, when understood in its total context (historic, linguistic, cultural setting etc), and in light of its progressive revelation?  Based on those factors, and not on cultural pressure, we at AC3 would simply align differently on this issue than the good people on this site.

    But second, they acknowledge the legit controversy in the church over this issue.  And, in spite our strong feelings about women in leadership, we do hold this issue with an open hand and do not break fellowship with churches that do not allow women to be pastors or hold positions of authority in the Church.

    The main scripture they draw from to justify their stance is 1 Tim 2:11-15.  While they try to address many potential objections to their view, I think they did not address the most important objection which I'll get to below.  But first, they seem to minimize the many references in Scripture to women in leadership roles overall.  If there were no examples of godly women in leadership in the Bible we might be forced to agree that the view restricting women from leadership was a slam dunk (given the 1 Timothy passage).  But beginning far back in the Old Testament we see many women in leadership.

    For example, Huldah and Miriam are prophetesses, and Deborah is a military, judicial and spiritual leader in Judges 4.  Gotquestions mentions these examples, but their only response to these amazing examples (amazing given the context of entrenched ancient patriarchy!) is to say that in the Church, God has set up new rules and Old Testament examples of women in spiritual leadership are therefore irrelevant for the Church.

    But surely it's too simple just to pass these examples off as irrelevant!  These women were honored and appointed by God and they were clearly not “silent” in their roles. The inference is that God was moving the Church away from any vocal female spiritual leadership, even though he blessed it before.  Which would put forward the notion that under the Gospel, God was retracting former, divinely granted and sanctioned freedoms for women.

    Is this the true trajectory of the gospel? 

    I want to be careful here, to not make too much of a "trajectory" argument.  It could be used to justify all manner of culturally faddish liberation movements, under the rubric "gospel liberation".  Still, it's significant that before Jesus came, godly women clearly were called by God, used by God and affirmed by God in leadership.  Would Jesus' Kingdom emphasis on "freeing captives and liberating the oppressed" lead to less of this kind of godly feminine leadership or more?

    What adds to the argument based on gospel trajectory is simply the overwhelming anecdotal evidence of how the New Testament community embraced female ministry and leadership in a myriad of roles after the Holy Spirit came; beginning definitively on the very first day the Holy Spirit descended!  As a sign of God’s favor on women teaching and leading publicly, his Spirit fell on them just as He did on the men on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) to proclaim the Kingdom.

    That the disciples spoke in other languages was considered scandalous (Acts 2:13), but additionally the fact that it was women speaking aloud God's mysteries was a further scandal.  It needed justification.  So Peter quotes the Prophet Joel and his great prophesy about the Day of the Lord when Scripture predicts the Spirit would fall on every Kingdom person, not just men but women also, and not just freeborn but slaves also!

    Was there a lower status person than a female slave?  Yet Peter declares that God had long ago decreed even this person would be anointed by God himself for ministry in the Messianic Kingdom!

    Now, it's utterly shocking (again given the Jewish and the Roman context) how quickly after this that women show up in all aspects of ministry, in the Apostolic church, including in leadership.  Examples are to be found everywhere.  Women are affirmed as intercessors (Acts 1:14), as helpers (Acts 9:36, Mark 15:40,41), as deacons (Rom. 16:1,2), as prophetess' (Acts 21:9), as teachers (Acts 18:26), as apostles (Rom. 16:7), as messengers of good news (John 20:17, 18), as evangelists (Phil. 4:2,3) and as leaders of house churches (Col. 4:15).

    This last passage is a very simple, short greeting but very informative.  We can assume Nympha (Col. 4:15) was a functional elder since most scholars would argue that the first churches did in fact meet in the homes of elders.  This assumption could also be argued from the fact that Nympha's name was often changed to a masculine form in several copies of this verse down through the centuries, as some scribes wanted to avoid the clear implication of a church meeting in the home of a woman: Paul had appointed a woman as a leader of a church!

    Taken all together these examples mean women were functioning in any role in which they were gifted in the young churches.  And Paul never felt the need to tell churches when discussing gifts that some spiritual gifts could never be given to women, such as the gift of teaching or leadership or apostleship or evangelism (1 Cor 12).

    Of course, all these wonderful examples had their foundation in Jesus ministry as he brought women into his extended band of disciples (Luke 8:1-4), teaching them with his other disciples (Luke 10:38-42) and accepting them and talking to them in public (John 4).  The disciples attitude in John 4:27 reveals the cultural context and just how radical a shift Jesus was setting for female value and freedoms in His Kingdom.

    Now, against these awesome descriptors of women's diverse service in the early church, we have the passage in question, 1 Tim 2:11-15.  There's just no question that Paul is limiting women's teaching and authority role in the Ephesian church.  There is, however, a question as to whether this restriction is a binding principle for all churches at all times, or is it a special case based on special circumstances?

    So along with all the anecdotal evidence of women in leadership and teaching roles I've just listed, we have, in 1 Cor 11:5, the explicit permission for women to prophesy in the public worship environment.  Now, gotquestions affirms this freedom, but distinguishes it from a teaching role over men under discussion in 1 Timothy.  But is there a real distinction to be made?

    How was the prophetic gift, which female disciples clearly had, exercised?  In Paul's own instructions about the gift, prophecy is giving public instruction from the Lord.  1 Cor 14:3-5 says, "the person who prophesies speaks to people for edification, encouragement, and consolation."  If there are men in the audience, as there certainly were, this means that female disciples gifted with prophesy were publicly speaking to men for their edification, encouragement and consolation.  IE, they were spiritually teaching men!

    This directly refutes the gotquestions claim that Paul was opposed to women ever "preaching to men, teaching men publicly, and exercising spiritual authority over men".

    What if we approach the 1 Tim passage (which was written after 1 Corinthians) with this backdrop of women regularly edifying believers (male and female) in Christian worship services?  What it would suggest is that there must be some special context for Paul to restrict what he himself allows in all the other churches (and he does explicitly say this is what "ALL" the churches do - 1 Cor 11:16).

    We get many clues that this is, in fact, a special case.

    Consider the contrasts:  Paul says women should prophesy to the Corinthian church but in 1 Tim he says, "women should learn in silence".  To single women in Corinth he says, "Stay single if you can, to enhance your devotion to the Lord" (1 Cor 7).  To single women in Ephesus, he says, "get married, have kids" (1 Tim 5:14).  Same Apostle, totally different teaching to women.  These are our first two clues that maybe the restriction banning women from teaching or authority in that church wasn't meant for all churches.

    If you research the letters to Timothy, in fact we do find a crisis in that church that gives insight into why his instruction here is so different.  First, there were renegade elders in Ephesus that needed to be rebuked (1 Tim 1:18-20).  But most importantly for this discussion, was their association with trouble making young widows.  This is a repeated theme in both letters.  Young widows were going from house to house teaching things they shouldn't teach (5:13).  These young, single women were being sexually promiscuous (5:11, 2 Tim 3:6) - probably with the renegade elders.  These young widows were selfishly living off the church's benevolence (5:11).  These young widows were being taught the gospel, but never getting it (2 Tim 3:7). 

    So in light of this clear crisis with corrupt elders and women in that church, Paul tells Timothy that the women can't teach or have (probably, "usurp") authority over a man.  Clearly this is a restriction, but what is often missed is that this is actually a retraction.  That is, a withholding of a previously granted freedom.  We not only infer this because the Corinthian women were obviously not "silent" and were teaching publicly in their worship services, but also because in the Roman context women simply didn't teach at all!

    Why would Paul feel the need to keep female teaching from happening unless it were, in fact, happening?  Yet, if it were happening, why was it happening?  Was it because they were importing "liberated" Roman cultural values which were super-accepting of women in leadership roles?  Hardly!!  In Roman culture, women were chattel and unless of some wealth or royal birth, they were completely uneducated.  So the cultural context lends credence to the idea that the normal operation in the Ephesian church, as in others, had been the counter cultural, radical practice of women teaching in public ways.  Why else does Paul have to tell them not to do it?  They took this freedom from the gospel, as other women in other churches did.  Now, it's true, they might have taken the freedom from a misunderstanding of the gospel.  They had clearly misunderstood other parts, which is why Paul is now banning them from public roles.  But that Ephesian women were teaching directly because they were Christian women I think is indisputable.  And the fact that so many other women were not silent with Paul's full blessing infers that the restrictions of 1 Tim 1:12 are not normative.

    Here's another amazing thing, again given the context:  Paul does not give such a strict retraction without first telling the women they must learn (2:11)!  Now, that seems demeaning at first, especially with the modifying, "in silence and submission".  But remember, women didn't learn in those days.  Most Roman women didn't even know how to read!  But here is Paul commanding them to go to school on the Gospel and learn!  His frustration with them is not that they learned and started teaching, it's that they didn't learn (2 Tim 3:7), but started teaching anyhow (1 Tim 5:13)!  Learning precedes teaching, but it seems that some Ephesian women had put the cart before the horse.

    Now, the moral laxity of this group of women also helps explain that baffling phrase about "being saved through childbirth" (2:15).  We know how often Paul says Christians are saved by grace!  So most likely that entire verse is Paul's way of saying, “if these immature women, will settle down, stop talking and start learning the gospel, and repent of their sensuality and prove it by marrying and having kids – they'll be saved.  But of course, they have to have the prerequisite of faith expressing itself in love etc.”  He's not really saying that a woman's salvation is secured through the work of having children... it's just in this situation, childbirth would be a key sign of true repentance, which would indicate faith, through which they are saved (15b).

    Also, it should be noted that the pronouns are odd in this verse.  In Greek it literally reads, "woman (singular) will be saved through childbearing if they (plural) continue in faith, love..."  This would suggest Paul may be talking about Eve and the Ephesian women separately - indicating Eve is the one saved by childbirth, because her Seed crushes the Serpent, but the Ephesian women are saved by faith.  Either way, Paul is clearly calling women here and elsewhere in these two letters into marriage and family, exactly opposite his advice elsewhere.

    Another clue to the crisis: the false male teachers were teaching that marriage itself was a sin (4:3).  Paul's concerns for this faction were justified because an antinomian Gnostic cult developed in early Christendom that basically relaxed all sexual propriety.  So the instruction about child bearing would also counter the “marriage is evil and sexual relationships should be open", idea that was developing there.  So again, it’s very revealing that Paul would give this advice to widows and singles in Ephesus, when in 1 Corinthians he specifically tells widows and singles to stay single if they can (1 Cor 7:8). 

    If we don't acknowledge the context of the two letters, we have no answer to why the Apostle would change his advice so radically to the singles in this church (1 Tim 5:14) and we're left with a real contradiction.  But it makes perfect sense if there is a unique crisis in Ephesus – which lends a lot of weight to the idea that Paul's restriction on women should also be seen as unique and bound to that church and for that crisis.

    It was a bad situation.  A frat party had broken out in Ephesus, heresy tied directly to sexual promiscuity.  So here's Paul writing to settle it all down, not just the problems with women, but also with men:
    "ok, Timothy, let's get this thing under control.  Fire these male leaders (1 Tim 1:20), pull the young women back (2:12), they're abusing the freedoms the gospel has given them (5:13), but don’t abandon them, tell them to go back to basics and learn (2:11), call them to settle down (5:14) and have kids (2:15) to demonstrate their faith in Christ and repentance from acts that lead to death... and the men that do lead must be thoroughly checked out (3:1-13) and not appointed quickly (5:22).  It's time to clean house, Timothy."
    Read 1 and 2 Tim in one sitting and the crisis with young widows and renegade elders will pop out at you.

    We have written a position paper on this topic for AC3 that we make available if you're interested in going into more detail on these and other Scriptures.  Read it with your Bible open and you'll have a great study of the issues involved in this key question!

    Tuesday, December 5, 2017

    Don't The Conquest Passages Mean Non-Combatants (Women & Children) Were Slaughtered?

    QUESTION:  Hi Rick.  In your recent message you said that there were no woman and children killed when the Jews defeated a city.  How do you explain then in Joshua 10 and 11 for example when scripture states in several places that "everything that had breath" and "every person in the city" was destroyed?  Looking forward to hearing back from you. 

    RESPONSE: I'm so glad you came to AC3 this weekend!  Also grateful for your question, let me see if I can clarify.

    My research leaned on Paul Copan, in his book, "Is God a Moral Monster?" and the work of Old Testament scholar Richard Hess and Philosopher William Lane Craig.  Copan makes the claim that the specific and repeated phrases used to recount the conquest, for example in Josh 10:39, "He destroyed everyone in it, leaving no survivors" is not unique to the Bible.  He suggests this is indicative of Ancient Near East hyperbolic ways of speaking effusively about military victory.  Related, Hess talks about what archaeology shows regarding the nature of the cities like Jericho and Ai, that they in fact were military garrisons, and not centers with large civilian populations.

    So based on that work, I suggested the possibility that while the commands are to destroy everything in the Land, this amounted to destroying everything that remained in the land, as the Israelites "drove them out".  And it is a striking note of the conquest narratives over some 20 chapters that there is not one mention of women or children being killed.  So Copan doesn't argue with the descriptors in Joshua 10 and 11, "there were no survivors" and "he completely destroyed everyone in the land" - he just makes the point that we are not bound to believe that those who were destroyed MUST have included non-combatants.

    Something I didn't include was that in Joshua 11:19 the author says that no one "made peace with Israel" except Gibeon, which suggests that while they were to "make no covenant" with the inhabitants, terms of expulsion were nevertheless offered and in most cases not received.  Given Israel's success, Gibeon's fear and desperate attempt to save their own necks shows that any who remained to stand against this onslaught were only those fully prepared to stay and fight to the death.  Remember I said the phrase "drive them out" outnumbers the phrase "destroy totally" by 3 to 1 in the conquest narratives.

    The bible further confirms some kind of treaty was possible, when it says God hardened them against such possible peaceful expulsion, so that he might execute judgement against them, Judges 11:20.  Also, confirming the suspicion that non-combatants fled and hid and were not part of the destruction is the fact that when you open the book of Judges, directly after the conquest, there are Canaanites everywhere!  (Judges 2:2-23).

    While acknowledging these factors, I also said we still have to deal with the commands to kill "ALL", whether or not they entailed the actual killing of non-combatants.  So I endeavored to also cover that much harder problem when I discussed the "divine command" theory of moral duty.  It was not wrong to destroy all in the land because God commanded it but would have been, if he did not.  The question then is, are these commands consistent with God's love and justice?  And there I said they were, given the eternal stakes involved.

    I think you might be helped by a deep dive into the topic.  William Lane Craig, despite evidence that non-combatants were not involved, sees full justification for the conquest even if all the verbiage of "men and woman", "everything that breathes" was literally carried out.  He does that in this Q & A post:

    If you go there, please click on the other link embedded, where he gives a longer answer to the question of God's justification to command to slaughter of innocents.

    To read a summary of Copan’s paper on this, go here:

    Here is a video of Dr Richard Hess on this topic: