I don’t know if you have ever realized this, but the Gospels are quite embarrassing. No, I don’t mean that the Gospel itself is embarrassing, but that the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are embarrassing. Well, let me be a bit less provocative and a little more precise: the Gospels contain many accounts of the Christ story that, if true, would cause early Christians to blush.
Criterion of Embarrassment
I want to briefly talk about the “criterion of embarrassment.” This is a criteria that helps historians determine the truthfulness of historic accounts. The basic idea is this: when people lie, embellish, or make stories up, they normally do not include material that causes them to lose credibility. Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd call this “self-damaging” material (The Jesus Legend, 408). E. P. Sanders calls it “against the grain” (although that it a bit too close to the “criterion of dissimilarity”). Most people don’t make stories up about losing a fight or being the bank employee who failed to lock the safe the night before. We normally cover up our mistakes or embarrassments in order to look more polished. When someone gets pulled over by the police late at night and the officer asks if they have been drinking, they would not say they had been drinking if they really had not. People don’t lie on resumes and say they did not graduate high school when, in fact, they have a masters degree.
In the ancient world, this was no different. It was the tendency to omit, change, or lie about things that would bring shame upon the writer or his community. When histories are written by a nation, those in power want their nation to look as good as possible; therefore, they only include accounts that put them in the best possible light. For example, the Assyrian Lachish Relief is the story, carved in stone, of Sennacherib’s conquest and defeat of Judea in the 8th-Century BCE. This story was proudly displayed by the Assyrians in order to show their power and intimidate outsiders. This was a common practice. Rarely, if ever, do we discover similar instances where nations make prominent displays of their failures.
The basic idea is this: people always want to put their best foot forward when introducing themselves. How much more would we expect this to be the case in the Bible when the first Christians are attempting to convert others to Christianity? But, as we will see, there are many stories in the Gospels, having to do with the historic Jesus that are quit embarrassing and hard to explain if the story was made up.
Here are 8 of the most embarrassing moments in the Gospels:
Jesus’ Baptism (Mark 1:4-11John the Baptist was called the “baptist” not because he belonged to a particular denomination, but because he nuanced an initiation rite of baptism adopted by the Christian community. John’s baptism is explicitly said to be a baptism of repentance for sins (Mark 1:4, Matt. 3:1-2, 6). Yet we have Jesus, who did not need to repent because he never sinned, being baptized by him. Why? John Meier puts it this way: “Mysterious, laconic, stark Mark recounts the event with no theological explanation as to why the superior sinless one submits to a baptism meant for sinners” (A Marginal Jew, 168). Matthew, writing later, seems to recognize the difficulty and adds the discourse between John and Jesus before the baptism where John attempts to prevent Christ from being baptized, expressing his unworthiness in comparison to Christ (Matt. 3:14-15). While this takes away a bit of the sting, it still provides no precise theological explanation as to why Jesus was baptized. John, when he writes, leaves the baptism out all-together.
Jesus’ Family Did Not Believe
John 7:5 tells us that even Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him. This is a difficult saying since one would presume that they would have better knowledge of who Christ was than anyone else. Yet on more than one occasion, we are told of their disassociation with him, even to the point that they thought he “lost his mind” and needed to be restrained (Mark 3:21).
John the Baptist’s Doubt
This is perhaps one of the least expected turns that Matthew takes in his Gospel account. John the Baptist was the first to recognize that Jesus was the Christ. Luke even has him leaping in his mother’s womb at the presence of Mary who was just pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:41). When John baptized Jesus, he witnessed as the Father spoke from heaven and identified Jesus as his son (Matt. 3:17). Jesus himself said that there was no greater man, born of woman, than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11). Yet John is seen at the end of his life sending his disciples to Christ to inquire whether or not Jesus was really the Messiah (Matt. 11:2-3). This is probably the reason why the rest of the Gospel writers left this out of their story.
The Disciples Doubted After the Resurrection (Matt. 28:17)
Related closely to John’s doubt is something else we don’t expect. After Christ’s resurrection he told the women whom he saw to gather the disciples and have them meet him in Galilee. Once there, Matthew 28:17 records this: “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Mat 28:17 ESV). This would not be too surprising if only one of the disciples doubted since we know that John records Thomas doubting. But this is some of the disciples (or, possibly, all of them according to D. A. Hagner, Matthew [WBC], 2:884). And unlike John who shows how Thomas’ doubt is resolved, Matthew leaves it open. Since this is so damaging (from a certain perspective), it is hard to know why Matthew would include this if it were not historical.
Jesus Does not Know the Time of His Coming (Mark 13:32)
In Mark 13:32 Christ expresses his ignorance about the timing of his coming: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (ESV). Luke does not include these words at all and in the parallel in Matt. 24:36 the manuscripts do not agree. Some include “nor the son” and some omit it. It is quite possible that an early scribe left these words out so that Christ might save face. The early church had the tendency to magnify the divine attributes of Jesus, so it is difficult to make the case that this is not historical.
Women are the First to Witness the Resurrection
This is one that is often brought up. Craig Keener puts it well enough: “The witness of women at the tomb is very likely historical, precisely because it was so offensive to the larger culture — not the sort of testimony one would invent. Not all testimony was regarded as being of equal merit; the trustworthiness of witnesses was considered essential. Yet most of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries held much less esteem for the testimony of women than for that of men; this suspicion reflects a broader Mediterranean limited trust of women’s speech and testimony also enshrined in Roman law.” (Keener, The Historical Jesus, 331)
Jesus Cursed a Fig Tree
In Mark 11:13-14 Jesus curses a fig tree for not having any fruit due to his hunger. While their may be true prophetic significance to cursing the fig tree (played out immediately after as Christ cleanses the temple), from the standpoint of the narrative, it carries some embarrassment as it depicts Christ becoming angry at a tree for not producing figs, even though it was not the season for figs (Mark 11:13). Another embarrassment implied in this is that Jesus did not know the tree had no figs on it. It seems unlikely that the early church would, again, share a story that illustrates Christ’s ignorance of something.
Death and Resurrection of Christ
This easily escapes our notice since the basic story of Christ is so well known. However, both the death and resurrection of Christ are, from the standpoint of the culture of the day, embarrassing and damaging. Concerning the death of Christ on a cross, Paul sees this problem: “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). The word used for “stumbling block” is skandalon. Louw-Nida defines this as “that which causes offense and thus arouses opposition.” Why? Because the Jews would never have thought their Messiah would have been hung on a tree. “Cursed is one who hangs on a tree” (Gal. 3:13; Deut 21:23). The Greeks thought of the resurrection as foolishness as they were dualist, essentially believing that the material world was evil and the spiritual world good. They would have scoffed at the idea that Christ returned to physical form. This is why later Greeks attempted to adapt the Christ story, doing away with the physical resurrection. Marcion is the most famous promoter of this view (see Docetism).
In other words, in the culture of the Apostles, the death and resurrection of Christ would be a very unlikely story to make up and expect people to devote their lives. But somehow this story took the world by storm in the first centuries of the church. This only makes sense if it were true.
Other Possible Examples
Jesus’ encouragement to “hate” one’s family and love him (Luke 14:26)
Betrayal of Christ by one in his inner circle (Judas)
Christ had trouble healing a blind person (Mark 8:22-35)
Christ Could not Heal People in His Hometown (Mark 6:1-6)
The criterion of embarrassment does not provide absolute assurance in any case. There is always the possibility that what we believe to be embarrassing today, might not have been so to the people of the day. But from what we know, the list provided here is substantial. It is hard to believe that anyone would make up events such as these. In the context of the day, if the Gospels were fabricated stories, these examples could do nothing but damage the credibility of their story. But if the Gospels were true, this is exactly what we might expect and hope to find.
This belief has been a source of contention with many people, even Christians, in the past. But the more I research, the more I find it to be the case that Christianity is the only viable worldview that is historically defensible. The central claims of the Bible demand historic inquiry, as they are based on public events that can be historically verified. In contrast, the central claims of all other religions cannot be historically tested and, therefore, are beyond falsifiability or inquiry. They just have to be believed with blind faith.
Think about it: The believer in the Islamic faith has to trust in a private encounter Muhammad had, and this encounter is unable to be tested historically. We have no way to truly investigate the claims of Joseph Smith (and when we do, they are found wanting). Buddhism and Hinduism are not historic faiths, meaning they don’t have central claims of events in time and space which believers are called upon to investigate. You either adopt their philosophy or you don’t. There is no objective way to test them. Run through every religion that you know of and you will find this to be the case: Either it does not give historic details to the central event, the event does not carry any worldview-changing significance, or there are no historic events which form the foundation of the faith.
This is what it looks like:
A few months ago, I was emceeing an apologetics event in Dallas hosted by the Christian Renaissance Apologia Conference. The scholars present were Dan Wallace, Darrell Bock, Gary Habermas, and Craig Evans. Each of these are men that I admire and trust, as I believe they are seeking truth and not a confirmation of their prejudice. I asked them during the conference if there are any other religions or worldviews that they knew of that had apologetics conferences the way Christianity does. In other words, can other religions pull together enough objective intellectual backing to form a solid defense for their faith? Each of them responded with the same: no. They went on to express the same sentiments of my present argument. “Even atheists,” Habermas said, “have nothing but ‘negative apologetics’.” In other words, Christianity has a significant amount of historically verifiable data which forms the bedrock of the faith. This is “positive apologetics.” An atheist conference, for example, does nothing but belittle the claims of other religions (primarily Christianity). “There is no positive defense that one can give for naturalism,” Habermas concluded. Therefore, the only thing available to the atheist is an attempt to overturn the massive amount of evidence that Christianity has.
This makes a lot of sense. If I decided to start a religion, deceptively or not, I would not make false claims to recent historic events that did not happen. Why? Because I know those claims could be tested. Also, I would not give details about the time, place, and people involved. More than that, I would not invite contemporaries to investigate these claims. For example, if I were to say today that in 1965 there was a man named Titus who was born in Guthrie, OK and traveled about Oklahoma City doing many miracles and gaining a significant following, this could easily be falsified. I would not say that Mary Fallin, the governor of Oklahoma, along with Tom Coburn, US Senator from Oklahoma, had Titus electrocuted. I would not detail that the electrocution was in Bricktown on January 13, 1968 at 9am. I wouldn’t claim that Titus rose from the dead and gained a significant following throughout Oklahoma City which has spread across America. Why wouldn’t I make these claims as the foundation of my new religion? Because they can be easily tested and falsified. This religion could not possibly get off the ground. If I were to make up a religion, all the events which support the religion (if any) would be private and beyond testing.
This is why you don’t have religions based on historic events. They are all, with the exception of Christianity, based on private encounters which cannot be falsified or subjective ideas which are beyond inquiry. The amazing thing about Christianity is that there is so much historic data to be tested. Christianity is, by far, the most falsifiable worldview there is. Yet, despite this, Christianity flourished in the first century among the very people who could test its claims. And even today, it calls on us to “come and see” if the claims are true.
The only reason why I can say Christianity survived in the midst of such historic volatility is because it is true. And this is exactly what I would expect if there were an all-powerful God who created and loves this world. When he intervenes, he makes a significant enough footprint that historic inquiry is demanded. Think about that next time you are critiquing the Christian faith. The only reason you can is because it is the only religion that has opened itself up to such critique. Simply put, Christianity is the most falsifiable religion there is and yet it has survived. Why?
C.S. Lewis on Natural Law and Divine
April 11, 2014 By Melissa Cain Travis
There are two rather typical responses from materialist scientists and philosophers to the suggestion that a creator God guides the development and sustains the order of nature:
1) Our current scientific theories on the evolution of all things are sufficient to explain all natural phenomena. The idea of a creator has been rendered superfluous.
2) Science doesn’t have it all figured out, and truth be told, it may never give us comprehensive knowledge of natural history or a full explanation for the stability and regularities of the cosmos, but plugging God into these knowledge gaps is no better than the ancient Greek practice of attributing thunderstorms to Zeus.
Standard practice for an apologist faced with such statements is to describe the evidence for cosmic and biological design or the shortcomings of naturalistic theories when it comes to explaining the indications of rationality in nature. The apologist uses science to argue for a God-designed, God-guided natural world. This is a solid technique and one that I often use. However, it isn’t the only angle from which to approach such a discussion, which is great news for faith-defenders lacking scientific expertise.
In the C.S. Lewis collection God in the Dock, there are two essays that are incredibly insightful and instructive. Lewis was not a scientist, though he knew a great deal about the reigning theories of his era and commented upon them in many of his writings. But he was wise to the fact that, more often than not, the core issue is philosophical, though the materialist scientist rarely recognizes this. Lewis’s tactic for dealing with materialist claims such as those above was quite powerful, as we see in “Religion and Science” and “The Laws of Nature.”
In the first essay, Lewis addresses the question of divine intervention in nature. He sets up a Socratic dialogue between himself and a materialist who insists that “modern science” has proven that there’s no transcendent cause for the workings of nature.
“But, don’t you see,” said I, “that science never could show anything of the sort?”
“Why on earth not?”
“Because science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists—anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”
This is a key point that is all too often missed by those claiming that science has ruled out the existence of God. But Lewis’s interlocutor persists in his objections:
“But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them.”
In other words, because there are “laws of nature,” it is impossible for anything to disrupt the regular course of nature. Such a thing would, he says, result in absurdity, just as breaking the laws of mathematics would.
But Lewis demonstrates, in his typically charming yet utterly logical fashion, that natural laws only tell you what will happen as long as there is no interference in the system from the outside. Furthermore, those laws can’t tell you if such interference is going to occur.
Science studies the material universe and can say quite a lot about how it operates under normal conditions. What it cannot rule out is the existence of something independent of the universe with the power to intervene in natural affairs. This supernatural activity would entail a cosmos that is an open system rather than a system closed to “outside” immaterial causation. Again, the limitations of science preclude it from ruling out such a state. Says Lewis, “…it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.” It is, it turns out, a philosophical question.
In the second essay, “Laws of Nature,” Lewis examines the question of God’s guidance of the natural world and whether or not the prayers of mankind have any bearing on the course of events.
Lewis walks us through his own thought process in dealing with the assertion that nature is deterministic, functioning according to a set of laws, like balls on a billiards table. But look, declares Lewis, no matter how far back you go in the causal chain of natural events, you’ll never reach a law that set the whole chain in motion. He says, “..in the whole history of the universe the laws of Nature have never produced a single event. They are the pattern to which every event must conform, provided only that it can be induced to happen. But how do you get it to do that? How do you get a move on?”
Natural laws are completely impotent when it comes to event causation; they only tell what happens after ignition, so long as free-willed agents (God included) do not interfere. About the laws Lewis says, “They explain everything except what we should ordinarily call ‘everything.’” Indeed.
“Science, when it becomes perfect,” he explains, “will have explained the connection between each link in the chain and the link before it.But the actual existence of the chain will remain wholly unaccountable.”
There is, then, no contradiction between natural law and the acts of God, for he supplies every event for natural law to govern. Everything in nature is providential! In other words, we don’t need gaps in scientific explanation to have a place for postulating divine activity. But, nota bene, this is not to say that there aren’t real gaps in the explanatory framework that materialist science, by nature, cannot fill.
What does all this mean about the effectuality of human prayers? If a causal chain is already in motion, what difference could prayer possibly make? To answer this, we must be mindful of God’s timelessness and omniscience:
“He, from His vantage point above Time, can, if He pleases, take all prayers into account in ordaining that vast complex event which is the history of the universe. For what we call ‘future’ prayers have always been present to Him.”
And, it’s out of the park, ladies and gentlemen.
As of June 1, 2017 we are currently preparing a series on evolution. These articles will cover topics concerning the history, classic evolutionary theory, evidence for and against evolution, and findings from recent scientific studies. This is a fascinating topic that reveals much about human nature. Because ‘evolution’ has been called the on-ramp to atheism we will cover the topic in some detail.
The next topic below is a very fine summary document of the topic. Although a bit longer than our typical articles…you are encouraged to grab a cup of coffee and plow through this article…once or twice!
Stay tuned for additions to this section.
By: John C. Murphy
There is much talk around the topic of evolution. But one question is key to everything: Is evolution true?
The evolutionary debate is complex on its own, but it is often further complicated by the use of a logical fallacy known as equivocation. Equivocation occurs when someone uses a term with more than one meaning in a misleading manner by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time.1
This fallacy permeates the evolutionary debate because the word “evolution” has multiple levels of meaning. Even though equivocation is often unintentional, when exploring a question like “Is evolution true?” it is important to be able to understand and recognize it. Therefore we will discuss two subcategories of the broad word “evolution” (specifically, microevolution and macroevolution) that lead to much of the misunderstanding.
In 1859 Charles Darwin published his classic work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In it Darwin proposed an explanation of how populations and organisms evolve. Darwin’s theory involved two main mechanisms:
Hereditary traits: In any population of organisms, individuals will exhibit slight variations. Often those variations are hereditary, meaning specific traits can be passed down from generation to generation. Natural selection: Individuals with variations favorable within a particular environment are more likely to survive and pass on those variations to the next generation than individuals with less-favorable variations.
The concept of hereditary traits was already well known by Darwin’s time. The idea of natural selection was Darwin’s greatest contribution to the scientific community, and it is that for which he is most remembered.
Darwinian evolutionary theory proposes that over time these twin mechanisms can cause a population to look entirely different, demonstrating that species are not fixed.2 A common textbook example used to illustrate Darwinian evolution is the Galapagos finches.3 Since 1977, biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have directly observed the evolution of beak size in the population of Galapagos finches.
Within the Galapagos Islands, environmental factors such as drought and rainy seasons impact food source availability. Different beak shapes and sizes of some finches are more advantageous for gathering specific food sources, which depend upon the environmental conditions. Finches with these favorable beak characteristics are therefore able to survive challenging environmental conditions and pass along their traits. This is an example of natural selection driving microevolutionary modifications: changes that help an organism adapt and survive.4
When he proposed his theory, Darwin knew that traits were heritable, but he didn’t know why. As science advanced, we began to learn about genetics. We learned that some traits already exist in the genome and other traits arise due to mutations. With this revelation, the twin mechanisms of Darwinian evolution became genetics/mutation and natural selection. This revised theory is now called neo-Darwinian evolution.5
It might surprise many to learn that, so defined, most creationists accept neo-Darwinian evolution. Many prominent, reputable creationist leaders and organizations accept the mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection, acknowledging that, when combined, they have the ability to produce changes in a population, as illustrated by the Galapagos finches. This part of Darwin’s theory is demonstrable and generally uncontroversial; it accurately details how microevolutionary modifications can help an organism adapt and survive.
The controversy arises in regard to further assertions. In addition to mechanisms to explain the diversification of species (e.g., different beak shapes), Darwin proposed that these microevolutionary changes could gradually accumulate to the point where we see genuine creative potential. He believed the same mechanisms that could alter the size and shape of the beak could also explain the actual origination of the beak and the bird, as well as any other features we observe in life. Hence, macroevolution is the eventual construction and introduction of new features, systems, and body plans—not merely the alteration of existing features, systems, and body plans, as in microevolution.
In addition to microevolution and macroevolution, some have further categorized evolutionary processes:
Chemical evolution: the origin-of-life hypothesis that suggests a complex chemical mixture of simple compounds was able to self-organize into the first life-forms Microbial evolution: transformations within single-celled organisms Speciation: when a new species arises and no longer mates with the parent species, which leads to common ancestry (e.g., all species of Galapagos finches share a common South American ancestor)Common descent: when multiple kinds of animals share a common ancestor (e.g., the belief that all primates share a common ancestor from 5–7 million years ago)Universal common descent: the belief that all life-forms share a single common ancestor6
This is the point at which many creationists begin to dispute the theory of neo-Darwinian evolution. The concepts of chemical evolution, macroevolution, common descent, and universal common descent simply do not enjoy the same empirical demonstrability as microevolution, microbial evolution, and speciation. Creationists assert that chemical evolution, macroevolution, common descent, and universal common descent are assumed to be true by their proponents though they have not yet been demonstrated. As such, for creationists, these theories remain open questions within science.
It is important to recognize that proponents of evolution will often provide examples of microevolution, microbial evolution, or speciation—which are widely accepted and generally uncontroversial even within the creationist community—and reason as if they are demonstrating the legitimacy of macroevolution, common descent, or universal common descent. This is a textbook example of equivocation. The validation of one kind of evolution doesn’t necessarily substantiate the veracity of a different type.
Examining the Fossil Record
You will find similar doubts expressed within the evolutionary community itself. Many evolutionists question whether the same neo-Darwinian mechanisms that validate microevolution, microbial evolution, and speciation are capable of constructing the sort of comprehensive transformations required to account for macroevolution, common descent, and universal common descent.7
Darwin himself recognized that the fossil record, at the time, failed to support his theory. He noted:
The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed on the earth, [must] be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.8
Darwin then offered predictions as to the sort of transitional fossils he would expect to be found in the future, stating that he anticipated the record to be much more supportive and confirmatory in regard to his theory.
However, over a century later, paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould publicly acknowledged that the fossil record consisted mainly of sudden appearance and stasis (a period of little or no evolutionary change), which fail to demonstrate the gradual macroevolution of life that Darwin proposed:
Paleontologists just were not seeing the expected changes in their fossils as they pursued them up through the rock record. . . . That individual kinds of fossils remain recognizably the same throughout the length of their occurrence in the fossil record had been known to paleontologists long before Darwin published his Origin. Darwin himself . . . prophesied that future generations of paleontologists would fill in these gaps by diligent search. . . . One hundred and twenty years of paleontological research later, it has become abundantly clear that the fossil record will not confirm this part of Darwin’s predictions. Nor is the problem a miserably poor record. The fossil record simply shows that this prediction is wrong.9
Convinced that the fossil record was failing to corroborate the macroevolutionary part of Darwin’s theory, Gould and Eldredge proposed their own theory—known as punctuated equilibrium—claiming that macroevolution must occur in sudden jumps (known as saltationism) as opposed to Darwinian gradualism.10
In 2007, Gene Hunt, from the department of paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, published a peer-reviewed paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hunt’s team conducted a comprehensive study of the fossil record and determined that the fossil record fails to support gradualistic, directional models of evolution such as Neo-Darwinism.
“Directional evolution,” Hunt noted, “is rarely observed within lineages traced through the fossil record . . . very few sequences provide unequivocal support for this model. . . . The rarity in the fossil record of lineages with this degree of directionality is therefore meaningful, and it requires explanation.”11 Hunt’s team concluded that the sudden appearance and lack of directional evolution documented in the fossil record, from an evolutionary perspective, was more supportive of saltationist models such as punctuated equilibrium. (It is worth noting here that a fossil record consisting of sudden appearance and stasis would also corroborate creationist models of existence.)
Gould and Eldredge are not alone in their assessment of the neo-Darwinian explanation. Dr. James Shapiro, a professor in the University of Chicago’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology, has critically noted:
There are no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations. It is remarkable that Darwinism is accepted as a satisfactory explanation for such a vast subject—evolution—with so little rigorous examination of how well its basic thesis works in illuminating specific instances of biological adaption or diversity.12
Dr. Shapiro published a peer-reviewed paper in 2010 and a book in 2011, in which he observed that gradualistic neo-Darwinian evolution appears incapable of constructing new biochemical or cellular systems. Dr. Shapiro proposed the concept of natural genetic engineering as a possible alternative saltationist solution to the macroevolutionary leaps that, from an evolutionary perspective, must have occurred in nature.13
In 2007, Dr. Michael Behe, a professor of biological science at Lehigh University, published his book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. Appealing mostly to evolutionary studies in the HIV virus and malaria parasite due to their abundant population sizes and rapid mutational rates, Behe argues that the neo-Darwinian mechanisms appear to have a boundary—an “edge” as he calls it—in their constructive potential. He summarizes:
The bottom line: Despite huge population numbers and intense selective pressure, microbes as disparate as malaria and HIV yield similar, minor evolutionary responses. Darwinists have loudly celebrated studies of finch beaks, showing modest changes in the shapes and sizes of beaks over time, as the finches’ food supplies changed. But here we have genetic studies over thousands upon thousands of generations, of trillions upon trillions of organisms, and little of biochemical significance to show for it.14
To be clear, Gould, Eldredge, Hunt, and Shapiro remain proponents of evolution. Even though they doubt the neo-Darwinian mechanisms can provide a complete explanation of our existence, they do believe macroevolution has occurred. Creationists will often quote scientists critiquing various elements of evolutionary theory as evidence that “evolution” as a whole is not yet demonstrated. However, doing so is misleading and deceptive.
Whether vs. How
Many proponents of evolution proclaim that the truth about whether or not macroevolution has happened is being confused with theories involving how it happened. They assert that whether or not macroevolution has happened is an established fact: it is beyond doubt that it did. How it happened, they acknowledge, is still open to debate.
For example, Eldredge himself has stated:
The common expression “evolutionary theory” actually refers to two rather different sets of ideas: (1) the notion that absolutely all organisms living on the face of the Earth right now are descended from a single common ancestor, and (2) ideas of how evolutionary process works. Creationists love to gloss over the rather clear-cut, simple distinction between the idea that (1) life has evolved, and the sets of ideas on (2) how the evolutionary process actually works.15
Let’s take a look at this argument. To start, we must recognize that Eldredge’s statement is another example of equivocation. In his first mention of point 1 he refers to evolution in the sense of universal common descent. When he revisits point 1, the definition has changed from “absolutely all organisms . . . are descended from a single common ancestor” to merely “life has evolved,” which could mean simply microevolution or speciation. In the first example Eldredge refers to a definition of evolution that remains disputed even among proponents of evolution; he then switches to a definition of evolution that few—even creationists—would argue. Although likely unintentional, statements like this are deceiving and confuse the issue.
In response to the questions of whether or not and how, the creationist argues that evolutionists are missing the point entirely.
For example, imagine that the police are called to a residence because a person has been reported as deceased. Initially it appears to be death by natural causes; however, family and neighbors report that they are certain the spouse was responsible for the fatality. The police now have to determine whether or not there was a murder. In order to establish this fact they will need to ascertain how the victim perished. If they are unable to verify how the victim died, then many would assert the police are incapable of truthfully answering the question of whether or not a murder took place, despite the strongly held beliefs of the family and neighbors.
The point of the analogy is that there are alternative, viable explanations. The evidence is not sufficient to establish the validity of one (the murder charge) over the other (death by natural causes) until the police are able to establish how the person perished. Along these lines, many creationists assert that the veracity of macroevolution, common descent, and universal common descent are merely assumed, not demonstrated. Similar to the question of whether or not a murder took place, if one cannot establish how macroevolution has occurred, then one is unable to validate the question of whether or not it has.
But the evolutionist who embraces materialistic naturalism—which is defined below—believes there to be no viable alternative explanation. From this perspective, some form of macroevolutionary explanation must be true. Therefore, it is assumed to be a fact, even though the evidentiary details remain unknown.
The Flaw in Materialistic Naturalism
Now, if materialistic naturalism accurately represents the nature of reality, then this could be a reasonable inference. However, materialistic naturalism is merely a philosophical assumption—one that contains a major conceptual deficiency in regard to explaining human existence. Materialistic naturalism cannot provide even a theoretical account for the evolution of conscious, mindful, rational agents possessing free will in a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless physical particles.
Let’s examine this issue more closely, starting with the basic definition of materialistic naturalism. The Center for Naturalism explains:
Naturalism is simply the understanding that there exists a single, natural, physical world or universe in which we are completely included. There are not two different worlds, the supernatural and natural. . . . Naturalism says we are completely physical, material creatures, a complex, highly organized collection of atoms, molecules, cells, neurons, muscles, bone, etc., produced by evolution. So we don’t possess immaterial souls, or spirits, or any “mental” stuff inside us that’s separate from our physical being. . . . We are not “causally privileged” over the rest of nature, that is, we don’t get to cause without being fully caused ourselves. To think that would be to hold a supernatural view of ourselves, the opposite of naturalism.16
So materialistic naturalism, by definition, denies the reality of anything immaterial. However, the existence of our libertarian freedom—our ability to think, act, and reason freely—seems to require some mental or spiritual reality that is independent and capable of directing the biological machine that is our body. Put more simply, the reality of libertarian freedom just cannot be explained by the current understanding of evolution. Though the existence of this “self” appears evident to each of us, materialistic naturalism implies that this is merely an illusion. Consequently, so is free will.
Cornell University’s Professor William Provine clarifies this issue:
Modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with mechanistic principles . . . free will as it is traditionally conceived—the freedom to make uncoerced and unpredictable choices among alternative possible courses of action—simply does not exist. . . . There is no way that the evolutionary process as currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make choices.17
Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris confesses, “Many scientists and philosophers realized long ago that free will could not be squared with our growing understanding of the physical world. . . . The problem is that no account of causality leaves room for free will.”18
I think it would be more accurate to say that “no account of causality from the perspective of materialistic naturalism leaves room for free will.” And yet, immaterial thoughts, rationality, and free will still appear to be a demonstrable part of life, an observable component of human existence. This stubborn fact can’t simply be reasoned away or swept behind the veil of a philosophical worldview.
Internationally respected atheist and philosopher Thomas Nagel acknowledges this in his book Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False:
For a long time I have found the materialistic account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes . . . it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that flies in the face of common sense . . . the origin and evolution of life and mind will not be explainable by physics and chemistry alone. An expanded, but still unified form of explanation will be needed, and I suspect it will have to include teleological elements [i.e. elements of purpose and design].19
Earlier we noted that if materialistic naturalism accurately represents the nature of reality, then assuming a macroevolutionary explanation to be factual could be a reasonable inference, despite its inability thus far to demonstrate how macroevolution may have happened. However, if materialistic naturalism is incapable of explaining something as visibly apparent as our ability to think, act, and reason freely, then this worldview is inadequate. Moreover, if this philosophical position is shown to be dubious, then there is no rational basis for simply assuming that a macroevolutionary account of our existence is a fact.
So Is Evolution True?
If we are referring to microevolution, microbial evolution, or speciation, then we can confidently answer yes. All three appear to have been demonstrably validated and are considered by most to be uncontroversial.
However, if we are referring to chemical evolution, macroevolution, common descent, or universal common descent, then the answer isn’t so simple. Many proponents of evolution have assumed from a naturalistic perspective that these have occurred and must be true. However, in perusing the scientific literature, the question as to how they could have happened remains very much open. Furthermore, if libertarian freedom is a real part of our existence, then even materialistic naturalists seem to admit that no evolutionary theory appears capable of explaining that existence. There simply isn’t enough empirical evidence to validate these theories as factual.
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Aaron Larsen and Joellie Hodge, The Art of Argument: An Introduction to the Informal Fallacies (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2010), 194.
Alton Biggs, Whitney Crispen Hagins, and Chris Kapicka, “Section: 18.1: Natural Selection and the Evidence for Evolution, Darwin’s Explanation for Evolution,” Biology: The Dynamics of Life (Westerville, OH: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 1998), 427.
For a more detailed account, see Jonathan Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Beak of the Finch (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).
Stephen C. Meyer et. al., Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism (Victoria, Australia: Hill House Publishers, 2007), 88.
Dr. Fazale Rana, “Long-Term Evolution Experiment: Evidence for the Evolutionary Paradigm?, Part 1 (of 2),” Reasons to Believe, November 12, 2009, http://www.reasons.org/articles/long-term-evolution-experiment-evidence-for-the-evolutionary-paradigm-part-1-of-2. Also see Stephen C. Meyer and Michael Newton Keas, “The Meanings of Evolution,” in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, ed. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2003), 136–144.
Ibid., 155. Stephen C. Meyer and Michael Newton Keas detail an impressive list of published dissenters in the endnotes of their essay “The Meanings of Evolution.”
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, ed. William Bynum (London: Penguin Classics, 2009), 250.
Niles Eldredge and Ian Tattersall, The Myths of Human Evolution (West Sussex, England: Columbia University Press, 1982), 45–46.
Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory In Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1985), 192–195.
Gene Hunt, “The Relative Importance of Directional Change, Random Walks, and Stasis in the Evolution of Fossil Lineages,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (November 20, 2007): 18404–18408, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0704088104.
William A. Dembski, “Introduction: The Myths of Darwinism,” Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (Wilmington, DE: Isi Books, 2004), 308. This quote is cited in the endnotes. The original quote came from James A. Shapiro, “In the Details . . . What?,” National Review (September 16, 1996), 62–65.
See “Mobile DNA and Evolution in the 21st Century,” Mobile DNA Journal (December 2010). On page 1, Shapiro writes, “The origins of complex adaptive novelties at moments of macroevolutionary change” remains an “unresolved question in evolutionary theory.” On page 9, he writes, “Single amino acids changes (the neo-Darwinian mechanism) are more suitable for modulating existing functional properties than generating capabilities that did not exist previously.” Also see Evolution: A View From The 21st Century (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press Science, 2011), 128:“Little evidence fits unequivocally with the theory that evolution occurs through gradual accumulation of ‘numerous, successive, slight modifications.’ On the contrary, clear evidence exists for abrupt events of specific kinds at all levels of genome organization.”
Michael J. Behe, PhD, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (New York: Free Press, 2007), 140.
Niles Eldredge, The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism (New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLc, 2001), 24. Also see National Academy of Sciences, Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 28: “Those opposed to the teaching of evolution sometimes use quotations from prominent scientists out of context to claim that scientists do not support evolution. However, an examination of the quotations reveals that the scientists are actually disputing some aspect of how evolution occurs, not whether evolution occurs” (emphasis in original). Also see Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution, (New York: Free Press, 2009), 17: “Biologists often make a distinction between the fact of evolution (all living things are cousins), and the theory of what drives it” (emphasis in original).
“Q & A on Naturalism,” Center for Naturalism, www.centerfornaturalism.org/faqs.htm.
As quoted by Phillip Johnson in Darwin On Trial (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 126–127.
Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 103–104.
Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 5, 33, emphasis added.
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