A couple of months ago, Catholic apologist Trent Horn debated atheist Dan Barker on the question, “Does the Christian God exist?”
I am going to post a two-part review of the debate which focuses on their opening statements. In this first installment of the review, I will summarize and critically engage with Horn’s 15-minute opening statement.
A Quick Overview
When Trent Horn is in debate mode, not a word is wasted. That will become manifestly clear as I provide a brief summary of his jam-packed fifteen-minute opening statement.
I have divided Horn’s statement into three parts. The following summary is mine and may not represent Horn’s preferred brief description of his own arguments.
Part 1: On God’s Existence
Horn begins by providing three mutually supporting cosmological arguments for the conclusion that God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe.
- Argument from First Cause: the universe cannot have always existed given that it is impossible to traverse an infinite regress; thus, God provides the first cause for the existence of the universe
- Argument from Motion: even if, per impossibile, the universe were backwardly eternal, God would still be necessary as the first cause of motion
- Argument from Existence: There are only three explanations to the question of why something rather than nothing exists: (i) there is no reason; (ii) the universe explains itself (i.e. it is necessarily existent); (iii) the universe is brought into being by an external cause. (i) is no answer at all, and (ii) is false because the universe is contingent. This leaves (iii): the universe is brought into existence by an external cause
Part 2: On Identifying the Cause of the Universe with the Christian God
Next, Horn seeks to identify the God of his first three arguments with the God of classical theism generally and of Christian classical theism specifically.
- General Argument for the God of Classical Theism: the universe may require a cause, but why think that cause is the Christian God rather than one of the innumerable finite gods from ancient mythological polytheism? The problem with the mythological gods is that they are all finite, imperfect, contingent beings which, as such, would fail to provide the metaphysically necessary (agent) cause of the universe. Only the concept of God shared by the classical theisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam provides a suitable candidate for explaining the universe.
- Specific Argument for the God of Christianity: the God of classical theism should be identified with the God of Christianity based on the historical evidence for the supernatural resurrection of Jesus and the failure of alternative natural explanations of the evidence including, specifically, the failure of Dan Barker’s attempt to explain the appearances of Jesus as grief hallucinations.
Part 3: Rebutting Barker’s Moral Objections to the Christian God
In his book, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, Dan Barker provides evidence that the God of the Bible is morally evil. This evidence, if successful, would undermine Horn’s attempt to identify the God of classical theism with the God of the Judeo-Christian revelation. And so, in his final section, Horn seeks to rebut the claim that God, as described in the Bible, cannot plausibly be considered the God that created the universe.
To that end, Horn presents a wide-ranging and somewhat piecemeal rebuttal to Barker:
- God benevolently provides rules to ensure the well-being/flourishing of his people
- God benevolently protects his people from violent enemies
- God justly punishes wicked nations while retaining the right to withdraw human life when he chooses
- Since God transcends human experience and conceptual frameworks, God is often described in non-literal (e.g. metaphorical/analogical) language; this language includes a developing theology that often does not distinguish between God causing x punitively and God allowing x.
Impressively, Horn concludes his opening statement one second before the fifteen-minute buzzer rings.
Rather than provide an overview of Horn’s entire opening statement — an argument which is impressively squeezed into a bare fifteen minutes! — I will focus my comments on some selected aspects of the argument that I find to be particularly interesting … and perhaps contentious.
The Purpose of a Debate
Horn’s three cosmological arguments are clearly stated with lucid examples, though given the speed at which he moves, and the abstract nature of much of the content, one must wonder how many audience members would succeed in understanding and processing much of what he said.
That raises an important question: what is the purpose of a debate such as this? Is it to present accessible and memorable content to the audience such that that audience learns that content? Or is it to persuade the audience that the speaker has a powerful argument even if (most) in the audience never successfully follow and/or remember that argument?
In addition, given that the online audience for a debate like this ends up being far larger than the audience who watched it live, I wonder to what extent expectations about that future online audience (and their ability to pause and replay for clarity and understanding) affect the amount and abstract nature of the content that is included.
Resurrection and Classical Theism
Horn provides a decent argument for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, at least as good as 3-4 minutes would allow. However, he doesn’t devote much time to explaining how this unique event would support the conclusion that God should be identified with the God of Christianity. To note one famous example, the Jewish theologian Pinchas Lapide famously defended the resurrection of Jesus while remaining a practicing Jew. With that in mind, it would have been helpful if Horn had taken a moment to explain more clearly why he believes the resurrection of Jesus should be interpreted as confirmation of Christianity.
Classical Theism vs. Polytheism
Next, I’d like to address the way that Horn contrasts the concept of God in the classical theism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with the concepts of finite gods in ancient polytheism.
To begin with, I heartily concur with Horn that the gods of polytheism do not have the, er, metaphysical gravitas to provide an explanation for the existence of the universe. (For further discussion, see my chapter on “Why Zeus, at least, isn’t God,” in The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails.)
However, it is also worth pointing out that the concept of God as described in classical theism is not unique to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Indeed, this conception of God is often called the “God of the philosophers” because it is, first and foremost, a philosophical construction. For example, one could be a deist or mere theist and accept classical theism. Conversely, one could be a Christian and reject classical theism. In fact, many Christians believe that classical theism is incompatible with various aspects of Christian doctrine. And over the last several decades, many Christian theologians have repudiated various attributes of God in classical theism including impassibility, simplicity, atemporal eternity, and meticulous divine foreknowledge (or omniscience).
One of the problems facing the Christian is that God, as presented in portions of Scripture, appears to be more like the finite anthropomorphic deities of ancient polytheism than the sophisticated, abstract notion of deity one finds in classical theism. For example, he becomes enraged, changes his mind, learns, and has regrets. This is grist in Dan Barker’s mill.
Of course, Horn is well aware of the complexities of identifying God-as-depicted-in-Scripture with the God-of-classical-theism. His fourth point noted above (i.e. the use of non-literal language) constitutes one way to remove the logical incompatibility of these claims. The critic might concede that with enough ingenuity one can support the identity claim in principle and still insist that this reasoning appears implausibly ad hoc.
Divine Punishment/Protection, and Genocide
Arguably, the weakest point of Horn’s argument comes with his attempt to neutralize moral objections to the presentation of Yahweh in the Bible in support of the identity thesis.
First, Horn says that God benevolently provides rules (especially the Torah) to ensure the well-being and flourishing of his people. But what happens when some of those rules appear to be contrary to human well-being and flourishing? Consider, for example, the deep problems with biblical teaching on corporal punishment. As William Webb has argued, much of the biblical teaching on corporal punishment is actually destructive.
Webb attempts to address this issue by adopting a redemptive-movement hermeneutic in which God accommodates to incomplete and even harmful ethical instruction in order to lead his people to fuller understanding. (See my review of his book here.) I have serious concerns about the adequacy of Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic. But here I’ll simply note that the extent to which Horn adopts it is the extent to which he must concede that some biblical teachings only finally serve the well-being/flourishing of God’s people when they are abandoned.
Corporal punishment is only one example. Among other examples of apparently destructive and brutal punishments in the Torah consider punitive appendage amputation and stoning. As Soraya M., a modern victim of stoning cried out as she was murdered, “How can you do this to anybody?” I would challenge anybody to watch the dramatic reenactment of her murder in The Stoning of Soraya M. (see my review here) and tell me that the punitive act of pelting people to death with rocks constitutes an advisable means of cultivating societal flourishing.
Horn also defends God and the Israelites by arguing that God is simply protecting his people from violent enemies and justly punishing other nations and further that God has the right to take life when he will. In reply, I would simply point out that several biblical texts describe actions which would qualify today as ethnic cleansing and genocide by international law (e.g. Deut. 20; Josh. 2-11; 1 Sam. 15). For further discussion, see my article “Did God Really Command Genocide? A Review (Part 2)“. And a critic might be suspicious at the claim that an omnipotent and perfectly good God commanded actions which are now considered to be categorically immoral crimes against humanity.
Causing or Permitting?
At one point in his remarks, Horn argues that the biblical writers sometimes fail to distinguish between God causing actions and God allowing actions. He notes, for example, the disturbing metaphor of God lifting a woman’s skirts to humiliate her as a metaphor for the humiliation of Israel and of God causing parents to eat their children as a horrific description of famine. The Israelites interpreted these actions as divine punitive acts, but Horn suggests that they may, in fact, be better understood as God allowing human beings to experience the consequences of their individual and collective choices.
This is an intriguing analysis. But one might wonder whether Horn has gone far enough in applying it. If the Israelites were in error in thinking God actively punished them in a famine, for example, could they have likewise been in error to believe God commanded the eradication of ethnic groups or the stoning of insubordinate children?