God is Good, God is Great

I first heard William Lane Craig (WLC) two months ago at an apologetics conference in Dallas. When I read his chapter in the book he edited, it seemed like it was almost verbatim his presentation at the conference -- even including the line "I don't have time here for the other arguments." Most famous authors have one good insight, which they repeat over and over under different titles. This book is obviously inspired by neo-atheist Christopher Hitchens's book god is Not Great (GING) and others like it, and somebody needs to be answering those objections. Foolish as they are, if nobody refutes them, it looks like we cannot. WLC is mostly good, but there is a lot of variability among the other chapter authors.

The book is divided into four sections, three chapters each on the existence of God and His goodness, then four each on His greatness and why it matters. I consider each chapter in turn, by author, and then consider the fascinating postscript chapter, an interview with the recent and famous convert from atheism, Anthony Flew.


The first chapter purports to be aimed at Richard Dawkins. You can read my response to his earlier book The Blind Watchmaker here. The substance of this chapter is to present four of the classical arguments for the existence of God, mostly in modern revisions designed to evade the atheists' criticisms. These arguments are important to me personally, because I would probably be an atheist if I could not defend the existence of God (see my essay "What Really Matters").

I find the Cosmological Argument persuasive, although I doubt I could defend it against the atheists if they parry with an infinite regress of causes. Especially I like WLC's argument for a personal Cause from the (relatively) recent beginning.

I find the Moral Argument persuasive if its first premise ("If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist") can be established. The more honest atheists often admit that is why they are atheists, but Hitchens implicitly denies the premise (without supporting evidence) on page 6 (and also elsewhere) of GING, by claiming "We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion." On the whole, I think the Argument is sound.

I find the Teleological Argument (based on fine-tuning) persuasive even in the face of infinite regress (actually "multiverse" but it's the same thing) because the cosmological constants are a matter of science -- that is, testable -- while the alleged infinity of alternate universes is inherently unscientific, a failure the theistic alternative lacks.

It's the Ontological Argument I have a problem with, because it appears that it goes from being able to imagine a maximally great being to that being existing with nothing more than mental steps. The Creator God in Genesis spoke the universe into existence ("and it was so"), but apparently the philosophers are able to create God by merely thinking about it, which makes them greater creators than God Himself. That bothers me. Until the conference last month, I was able to explain away the difficulty by observing that "existence is not an attribute" (Immanuel Kant's defense against this argument), but WLC points out that Plantinga's revised formulation no longer depends on existence as an attribute. Therefore there must be some other problem with the "proof". Here are the six Propositions of the syllogism:

1.  It is possible that a maximally great being exists.

2.  If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

3.  If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.

4.  If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

5.  If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

6.  Therefore a maximally great being exists.

WLC waves his hand over Propositions 2-6 of this argument with the observation that the atheists do not object to them. Perhaps the atheists are indeed too stupid to do their homework, but it seems to me that Proposition 3 appears to beg the question.

I do not remember much from the modal logic segment when I took Symbolic Logic at college in Berkeley, but I did need to work with modality (particularly paradoxes like the "set of all sets not members of themselves") when I was inventing an ontology for my Bible translation engine. It may be that WLC has a ready explanation of how Plantinga can get to a universal quantifier from a single possibility, and if so, I would like to see it. However, my efforts to communicate this request to him have so far failed. That's a constant problem between nobodies like myself and famous people like WLC.


Moreland argues against so-called scientific atheism from five properties of the "image of God" in us that defy a naturalistic explanation. A "Grand Story" like naturalism should explain everything in a satisfying way with minimal fix-ups (otherwise known as Occam's Razor). Moreland offers these failures:

1.  Consciousness and the mental. Naturalism offers Darwinism as the source of consciousness, but Moreland points out that it only deals with effects (what the organism does that confers survival), not causes; unconscious behavior could generate the same effects, so this is not an explanation.

2.  Free will. However much the naturalists want to argue that free will is an illusion, Moreland reminds us that it is not possible to act as if it is. Furthermore, it is impossible to reconcile moral imperatives with the absence of free will. Moreland also seems to think free will implies the truth of the Cosmological Argument (a need for a prime mover), but I'm not sure I follow.

3.  Rationality. Moreland quotes Christian philosopher Victor Reppert, "The necessary conditions for rationality cannot exist in a naturalistic universe." That's probably true, but it may need some (ahem) rational argument supporting it, and Moreland's brief offering is not up to the task. I can, in principle, design a computer program that has behavior resembling rational thought. Such programs exist and are getting better (by design, not by "evolution" ;-) but they only prove at most that rationality can be designed into a machine by a rational being. We do not have any evidence that it can evolve out of nothing by time, chance, and natural causes -- however much the Darwinists sincerely have faith that it did. However, the existence of such programs disproves most philosophical arguments against rationality arising naturally in a naturalistic universe.

4.  Unified selves. This is even harder for either the Christians or the atheists to argue clearly, mostly, I suspect, because we don't really know what the "self" is. Until we can model it (in a computer) or prove why not, we will remain two ships passing in the night. Moreland's argument sounds good, but it's not overly persuasive.

5.  Intrinsic, equal value and rights. This is a hands-down win for the Christians, but only because the atheists have covertly adopted and continue to promote Christian values as their own. Darwinist dogma, followed logically to its conclusion, clearly teaches that there are no rights, and that the "better" (fittest) win and the others lose. Moreland makes his case differently but no less persuasively. At the end of the day, the naturalist will simply abandon the notion of equal human rights, just as they did a hundred years ago, before Hitler made that so unpalatable. That may offend us as Christians, but when we are in the minority, it is no worse than living under Shari'ah law. Moreland says none of that.

Paul Moser

This chapter argues from a (Christian) theistic basis to the moral authority of God. It seems to me that once you accept the theistic base, the conclusion is unavoidable; otherwise, if you are an atheist -- and this book seems to be arguing against atheist dogma -- then the premise has not been established. I found this chapter to be a waste of time.

John Polkinghorne

This chapter essentially presents details of the Teleological (fine-tuning) Argument from a theistic evolutionary perspective. Polkinghorne accepts everything the atheists tell him about the physical universe, then claims that it's a good argument for theism. It probably is, but after a lifetime of trying -- and failing -- to find rational justification for the atheist cosmology over against the classic Christian cosmology (aka Recent Creation), it is less than satisfying. However, to an atheist who accepts the premises, it's likely to be a good argument. Their efforts to evade this argument are becoming as baroque as the epicycles of the Ptolemaic universe was in the face of the Copernican solar system. Yes, they explain things, but Occam's Razor argues otherwise. Polkinghorne essentially says that in his section on the Multiverse.

Michael Behe

Michael Behe achieved his "15 minutes of fame" by inventing the idea of Irreducible Complexity as an argument against Darwinism. This chapter says some of the same things, but using different data. Elsewhere Behe seems to claim to still be an evolutionist, so it's unclear exactly what he believes. The fact remains, when you look closely at the data the Darwinists use to support their dogma, it actually does not. Some of that disconnect comes out in this chapter.

Michael Murray

Murray's chapter accepts as probable and true the recent findings that human nature seems to include an innate ability and willingness to believe in God, and speaks to the atheistic inference that this tendency disproves that there actually is a God. It's much harder to bungle a narrow focus like this than some of the broader topics in other chapters, and he does not. On the other hand, it does not prove much either.

I marked numerous lines as insightful, but out of context they don't seem quite so brilliant. I leave you instead his conclusion, that "for the moment, it seems perfectly acceptable for Christians to hold that God created the world, human beings and human minds in such a way that when they are functioning properly, they form beliefs in the existence of rocks, rainbows, human minds and . . . God." [sic]

Chad Meister

Chad Meister is listed as the second editor of the whole book. His own chapter speaks to the problem of evil, and he begins by going on the offensive: For evil to be a problem, evil must exist, that is, there are such things as objective moral values binding on all people. Meister looks at each of the vocal "new atheists" and sees that they all claim to believe in objective morality, but Harris gives no basis for his belief at all. Dennett presupposes "transcendent values of truth and justice," without justifying how anything in a naturalistic universe can be "transcendent." Meister wants to know what makes them more than mere subjective opinions, and Dennett does not say. Dawkins offers four naturalistic explanations for doing things that we might consider to be morally good -- I would argue against them individually, but Meister does not. Instead he notices that these are preprogrammed behavior in Dawkins' view, therefore not moral behavior. If there is no objective basis for the existence of moral notions such as good and evil (and the atheists do not offer any), then for the atheist such notions must not exist.

Other atheists are more honest in claiming that morality is an illusion, but they are not among the so-called New Atheists. Meister concludes with C.S.Lewis that "moral laws require a moral lawgiver," and the atheists need to face up to that fact. This is why I keep saying that the atheists have uncritically and unknowingly adopted Christian morality. That's not a bad thing (and Meister agrees), but it is inconsistent with their belief system.

Alister McGrath

The next chapter argues against the atheist notion that "Religion is evil." First, there is no such thing as generic "religion." There are worldviews, some of them theistic, some not. McGrath uses the word "worldview" to express what I more broadly call "religion" (for example in my refutation of Hitchens). And as I also did there, McGrath demolishes any atheist claim that atheism is benign compared to religion. His conclusion is that making binary divisions between people to denigrate "the other" is a sociological fact unrelated to religion, except that sometimes the distinction happens to be religious -- and sometimes it's the atheists making the distinction, for example Dennett's "bright" label, which McGrath called "a public relations disaster."

Paul Copan

The next chapter further narrows the question to whether the Old Testament laws were evil. Partly Copan argues for seeing the laws within their context, where they turn out to be moral improvements, rather than the evil they appear to be from our Christian perspective. In a footnote (page 142), he reaches into the Hebrew to show that Deut.25:11-12 is generally mistranslated; it requires a shaming of the woman who has shamed the man, not amputation. I know enough Hebrew to see that he is correct, but not enough to have figured it out myself. Other criticisms he defuses by literary devices (some statement "is clearly hyperbolic") which might be unsatisfying to an inerrantist like me, but better than the moral criticism against it.

Jerry Wallis

In a slightly different tack on the problem of evil, Wallis addresses the morality of such a place as Hell, and claims plausibly (but not from Scripture) that Hell is created by those who choose other than God's love. I myself base a similar argument on Luke's Parable of the Minas, where those who "do not want this man to reign over us" are given their wish by consigning them to the one place where that king does not reign.

Charles Taliaferro

Beginning the section on relevance, Taliaferro sets out to establish the Christian message, specifically the authenticity (and thus authority) of the Bible. Traditionally, says he, this has been done on the grounds of miracles, religious experience, and various kinds of coherence. He lists four reasons for denying divine revelation, and speaks first to the problem of an inadequate framework. If miracles are defined out of existence, then of course there can be no miracles. But that essentially invalidates the objection. Taliaferro didn't say it exactly that way, but it's an obvious inference from what he did say. His answers to the four objections:

The problem of fairness (why to the Jews and not to some or all other people?). First of all, the good news is for all people, and the Jews were given the job of spreading the message. But if God is personal, then His interaction with humanity must also be personal, which implies particularity. It's a good response.

Vanity and the jealousy of God. If God is indeed Good, then worship merely pays proper respect to that Goodness. Again excellent.

The inadequacy of religious experience, as argued by Daniel Dennett, is easily refuted by the (ad hominem) observation that Dennett himself cannot live by the criteria of his own objection. I find this to be a rather strong rebuttal, which Francis Schaeffer used effectively three decades ago, for example, in denying the credibility of modern nihilists like John Cage, who as an amateur mycologist, knew very well that some wild mushrooms were edible and some were poisonous.

The no miracles objection. Once you allow the possibility of theism, miracles cannot be dismissed out of hand. Taliaferro probably could have developed this argument better, but I suspect he had a space constraint.

Taliaferro concludes his chapter with a remarkable discussion of values that I cannot summarize in this space.

Scot McKnight

The next chapter implicitly argues against the claim that Jesus was merely what people expected and wanted to find, by describing how Jesus was instead "The Messiah You Never Expected" in ten different ways. I personally found his arguments interesting but less than compelling. But I never argued the other side, either.

Gary Habermas

Habermas does an outstanding job of narrowing the gap between the actual Resurrection of Jesus and the first recorded reports of it, to much less than a decade. The early Pauline epistles have never been critically attributed to any other author, and in them -- already hardly two decades after the event -- Paul points to a body of confessions much older. Habermas establishes from these confessions, and from Paul's reported trips to Jerusalem to consult with the Apostles, that the earliest confession of the Resurrection "was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus' death" [his emphasis]. He goes on to argue that there were no other religious traditions with resurrection stories for Christianity to copy from. It's an outstanding demolition of the common atheist objections to the origin of the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection.

Mark Mittelberg

The final chapter is essentially an altar call. Mittelberg credibly insists (and I have elsewhere agreed) that "everybody has faith -- in something." His purpose is to explain why that "something" should be Jesus, and yes, it is important. The arguments are not particularly novel, but they need to be there in a book that might be given to unbelievers to read.

My first impression of the book as a whole was that it is a mixed bag, but it seems less so as I now go back over it for this review. Some chapters are great resources -- or rather starting places, with substantial additional readings suggested -- for building an apologetic to answer the New Atheists. Or the book could be given directly to an atheist to encourage him to look beyond his narrow focus, and hopefully to see the Light. I think it does a better job of speaking to the atheist in his own terms, than the way they speak to us Christians (as I point out at the beginning of my refutation of Hitchens).

Anthony Flew

When I was in college at Berkeley during the 60s, I signed up for a wide variety of electives, one being "The Philosophy of Religion" taught by none other than A.J.Ayer. I did not at the time know who he was, nor much about the atheism he evangelized, but Flew was among the writers we were required to read. I came away convinced that a lot of religious writers were muddled, but still in possession of a faith that was fortified the following year by a similar course taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School by John Warwick Montgomery. This experience set me on a lifetime of Christian rationalism the likes of which I have seen in none other -- until today, reading this dialog between Gary Habermas and Anthony Flew (except that I am more accepting of the evidences for the Resurrection, which forces me into the center of the Christian camp, instead of Flew's mere deism).

Flew finds the (scientific) Argument from Design most compelling, as do I. He is a little less accepting of C.S.Lewis, in particular his moral argument than I am, but it might be that I do not fully understand it.

The dialog touches on a variety of topics. Flew is absolutely correct in observing that "the Supreme Court has utterly misinterpreted the clause in the Constitution about not establishing a religion, misunderstanding it as imposing a ban on all official reference to religion." [p.235]

Flew is utterly hostile to Islam. "Whereas St.Paul, who was the chief contributor to the New Testament, knew all the three relevant languages and obviously possessed a first-class philosophical mind, the Prophet, though gifted in the arts of persuasion and clearly a considerable military leader, was both doubtfully literate and certainly ill-informed about the contents of the Old Testament and about several matters of which God, if not even the least informed of the Prophet's contemporaries, must have been cognizant." He calls this "a knock-down falsification of Islam: something which is certainly not possible in the case of Christianity." [p.242]

While admitting that the problem of evil started him on his path to atheism, Flew nevertheless considers "The problem of evil is a problem only for Christians." For Muslims, everything (including evil) is just the will of Allah. Apparently not many people (Flew apparently not among them) see it as I figured out a couple decades ago, that evil is an unnecessary consequence of free will which carries with it the possibility (but not necessity) of the free choice to do harm. But the existence of evil does necessitate a doctrine of Hell, a place where evil-doers can be sent so they do not make the rest of the universe less than Heaven. And God does not need to actively participate in the tortures of Hell, nor does Scripture clearly say He does; the evil-doers themselves can and probably will do it to each other.

Flew clearly says, "I still hope and believe there's no possibility of an afterlife." [p.238] There's no reason to believe in an afterlife at all, unless somebody has been there and returned to tell us about it. Jesus is the only such candidate in history, and Flew was not yet ready to accept his account, but he does admit that near-death experiences might also be such evidence. Flew's main problem with an afterlife seems to be the philosophical problem of a soul being a "substance rather than merely a characteristic of something else" such that it can "be said to leave its present residence and to take up or be forced to take up residence elsewhere." [p.236] Flew rather likes (and twice quoted) Bishop Butler's observation, "Memory may reveal but cannot constitute personal identity." I hope that's true, because I've always had a lousy memory.

Flew came out of a Methodist background, and considers that "Methodism [among the working class] made it impossible to build a really substantial Communist Party in Britain." [p.243] It's an interesting insight, giving substance to my continued opinion that Christianity is a force for Good in the world. Too bad Anthony Flew could not take that final step in his logical pilgrimage.

Tom Pittman
rev. 2012 December 5