Mailbag: The Best Progressive Arguments for the Acceptance of Homosexuality and a Traditionalist Response

Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, we shared an article, “African Methodism will not bow the knee to US progressivism”, on social media. Charlie commented the following:

So, I would consider myself for this topic to be part of the aforementioned US Progressives. However, this article, while being very pointed, seems to a good job representing the African Church. 

I do have a request though, would it be possible for you guys to release an article on the, honestly, strongest argument presented the conference for the One Church Plan? I feel like they're missing the component of the opposing argument and I would really appropriate the honest response to the US Progressive camp from an evangelical perspective as opposed to an article very caught up in the political side (money, power, etc)

We asked our resident Methodist scholar, Dr. Tom Thomas, to give a reply.

Thank you very much for asking for the best arguments for the acceptance of homosexual practice, marriage and leadership in the church and an evangelical response.  That you are interested in thinking through this difficult issue by examining both the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ encourages me.  Too often today both sides of an issue are not given fair opportunity for rational interaction.  Permit me to make this proviso: our subject is way too long for a piece this short.  Nonetheless, your request is a worthy exercise.  Let us try to drill down to main arguments.  May this piece spur your study of fuller treatments.   

The determinative factor of both the progressives (those advocating acceptance of homosexual practice) and traditionalists (those advocating sexual relations only between one man and one woman in marriage) viewpoints is their take on the shared text:  Holy Scripture.  One’s assumption here is the basis of a continental divide between whether Scriptural commitments on homosexuality run east, or west!  Progressives reassure traditionalists ‘we love the Bible’ and ‘believe in its authority’.  ‘Good’, says the traditionalist, ‘but cannot one also love the United States Constitution and believe in its authority’?  Is not the paramount question whether the Holy Scripture is the God-breathed Word to human authors who unfailingly express what God desires written; or, whether it is a record of humanly, gifted people’s reflections of their experiences of God?  The traditionalist sees Scripture as God’s revelation to his people; the progressive as human revelation of God-experiences.  For the traditionalist the issue is not Scriptures’ authority but its supreme authority.  Is or is not the Bible God’s inspired, infallible word preeminent over every authority? While progressives privilege ‘the totality of human experience’ and subject all texts to it, the traditionalist submits every authority to Scriptural authority.

In assuming this, therefore, the progressives can say the debate over homosexuality is not about words in the Bible but about what the words ‘mean for us today’.    The GC 2019 Delegate newsletter of the pro-acceptance United Methodist group ‘Mainstream UMC’ says the meaning of the Bible’s words change over time.  Much of the Bible is ‘descriptive truth’ which means what was ‘true’ in former times and cultures is not ‘true’ today.   The traditionalist responds the authors’ words mean today just what they meant then, in South Korea or Kansas.  The meanings’ ‘significance’ may vary and continuing research enlightens the contexts, but what God meant to say then God means to say today.

You can see this play out in specific biblical texts (called ‘clobber texts’ because they are overwhelmingly negative regarding homosexuality) invariably at the center of the debate.    Leviticus 18: 22 (also, 20:13) states, ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.’  Receiving accolades for his recent theological argument for same sex covenantal partnerships, Durham University Professor Robert Song acknowledges with traditionalists that it is difficult to see any other reference here than to homosexual anal intercourse.   However, Professor Song and other progressives typically discount the force of the prohibition.  They are seen privileging contemporary experience over Scriptural authority when they argue such a law as the above was part of an Old Testament Jewish ritual, purity code fulfilled in Christ.  Like ritual, dietary laws (eating pork), they are no longer binding on Christians today.  Traditionalists in a long tradition beginning in the New Testament distinguish between Jewish purity practices which are obsolete for Christians and Old Testament moral prescriptions such as homosexuality which are not.   The New Testament renews and reinforces these moral prescriptions (not ‘descriptions’) in the manner of Jesus who said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

 A second major passage in the homosexual debate is Romans 1: 18-32. Herein the apostle Paul describes how rather than honoring God as God, persons rebelled against Him and exchanged the worship of the Creator for the creation.  This idolatry subverted the creative order God established in Genesis 1.  God constituted the nature of ‘Adam’ (Man, humankind) in His image and likeness, gender-differentiated, opposite-sex pairings, male and female.  Human revolt against God results in a dishonorable disordering of creation plainly demonstrated in males having sexual intercourse with males and females with females. Professor Robert Song basically agrees.  However, Professor Song says, the reason same-sex sex is a sin for Paul is only because it is non-procreative sex.  Procreative sex producing children is the only reason for gender differentiation.  Paul rejects homosexuality on the grounds it prevents offspring.  Professor Song declares Paul’s concern for procreative sex of two opposite genders is now superseded.  Christ’s resurrection has brought in a new, eschatological order, a new age, which reorients male-female procreative sex.  Jesus, speaking of this new age says, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage’(Luke 20: 34f).  A new vision of resurrected life makes the old age heterosexual marriage with its procreative sex obsolescent.  Resurrection life envisages a trajectory of life beyond marriage and procreative sex.  Song comments that same-sex covenantal partnerships might have been impossible for Paul and the New Testament.  Are they not now possible for us?

A traditionalist’s response is threefold.  First, the complementarity of gender differentiation of male-female pairing is not limited, as Song says, to the difference in male-female genitalia (responsible for children).  They run as deep as every cell’s sex chromosome pairings, whether xx (female) or xy (male).  The implications of gender differences of anatomy and physiology extend well beyond the necessity of procreation.  Second, Robert Gagnon, acclaimed New Testament scholar who has written exhaustively on homosexuality, notes Paul, in contrast to others of his day, recommended sexual intercourse in marriage not just for procreation but for mutual satisfaction of desire that might otherwise result in promiscuity (1 Corinthians 7: 2-5). Third, when Jesus speaks of those who ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage’, he is speaking not of the ‘in between times’ in which we Christians now live but the end of time when mortal death is no more and ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ have come.  The new creation has not transcended heterosexual, procreative sex!

Progressives submit the possibility of accepting same-sex covenantal partnerships on account of the church changing its mind over the years on such social issues as slavery, women’s issues, and divorce.  Logically speaking, this argument digresses from the moral issue at hand, homosexuality.  Further, every one of these subjects is a distinct issue which must be discussed in its own right.  The Church may be, and has been, at variance and back and forth on certain positions but God’s Word is constant in its meaning.  However, as Robert Gagnon states, where churches have moderated positions you can usually find a New Testament trajectory that has opened a countervailing possibility. Nevertheless, for instance, in regards to slavery, the New Testament never affirms slavery is a good institution.  New Testament scholar Ben Witherington shows Paul takes God’s people where they are but like Philemon, moves them to realize the Gospel’s implications and treat Onesimus as a free brother in Christ.  The early church worked to emancipate slaves but some churches in the nineteenth century did not.

Be that as it may, the Church and its theologians with roots in Old Testament teaching have never wavered, until very recent times, and always regarded the practice of homosexuality a sin. 

Progressives claim Jesus never spoke of homosexuality and the word is not even in the Bible.  They say the issue is not important to the New Testament.  Traditionalists respond Jesus reinstituted the natural, created order of marriage of Genesis as a biological, spiritual and interpersonal union of the complementary pairing of one man and one woman.  Jesus’ statement on marriage excludes the legitimacy of homosexual behavior, or, for that matter, any extra marital sex.  Indeed Jesus condemns porneia (fornication) in Matthew 15: 19 denouncing any sexual intercourse outside of the marriage covenant.  True, the actual word ‘homosexual’ is not used in the Bible (neither is the word ‘trinity’) but a rose by any other name is still a rose.  In another critical passage, 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 Paul says ‘male prostitutes (malokos), sodomites (arsenokoitai)…none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.’   Progressives assert Paul is not here condemning loving, same-sex partnerships but only homosexual prostitution.  This follows what they deem is the problem in Genesis 19 - homosexual, gang rape and not consensual, homosexual acts when the men in the town seek to have sex with the visitors in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Their contention Paul is condemning unloving, brutal homosexual acts centers on Paul’s use of two debated Greek words, malokos and arsenokoitai.  Malokos means ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate’ and is likely a young male posing effeminately as a woman as the passive partner to attract another male (often for prostitution).  The second word arsenokoitai is literally translated ‘men who take males to bed’ and means active, consensual partners in homosexual intercourse. When one considers Paul’s Jewish, religious culture’s aversion to homosexuality, traditionalists affirm with New Testament scholars and Robert Gagnon these two terms together comprehend every conceivable passive and active type of same-sex intercourse which Scripture altogether condemns. To summarize, Paul in 1 Corinthians 6: 9 and elsewhere with Jesus condemns all forms of sexual intercourse outside the marriage of a man and a woman.

A prominent, persistent narrative of progressive and homosexual proponents is that homosexuals are ‘born that way’.  I have no doubt homosexuals feel this way.  Professor of Medicine Emerita of the University of Kansas Dr. Barbara Lukert states ‘there is consensus among human sexuality researchers and therapists that homosexuality is unchosen and in most cases unchangeable.’  National proponent for homosexual inclusion in the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Tom Berlin states, ‘We believe sexual orientation is a way a person is created by God rather than a sin they commit against God.’  Believing that this is an immutable, human quality like skin color, progressives assert the church is discriminating against and excluding, oppressing, and hurting homosexuals as it has other minorities.  As a traditionalist, I feel their passion about this; yet, I know of no traditionalist pastor who either desires or acts to exclude any member of the LGBTQIA community.  Pastors want any body and every body to be in worship on Sunday!  In fact, most traditionalist pastors have homosexuals in their church.

Nevertheless, truth and falsity are not emotional categories.  Though progressives are highly motivated to land this argument, truth and falsehood deal with what is and is not, regardless of how one feels.  In the 1990’s William Byne and Bruce Parsons of Columbia University reviewed the entire literature on the biology of homosexuality.  Their conclusion: there is no biological or genetic theory for homosexuality which has scientific consensus.  The New Atlantis journal reported in 2016, ‘Some of the most widely held views about sexual orientation, such as the “born that way” hypothesis, simply are not supported by science.’  The American Psychological Association states: there is no scientific consensus on the cause of homosexuality.  Objectively speaking, we cannot claim homosexuality is inherent.  Even if there were some biological connection, as is suggested in alcoholism, the Bible speaks not of one’s proclivity or orientation, but of one’s behavior. The progressive lament that traditionalists by their rejection of homosexual behavior are oppressing and discriminating against homosexuals whom God has created this way is neither scientific nor biblical but emotionally manipulative.

Nevertheless, progressives contend those who disallow homosexual behavior are ‘judging’, condemning and rejecting homosexuals as unacceptable and to be excluded.   Indeed, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God but Jesus welcomed and accepted all sinners.  Jesus said, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone...‘do not judge in order you may not be judged’ he said.  Traditionalists agree with progressives Jesus sought out and radically loved marginal persons (including sexual sinners).  Traditionalists are heard to be condemning the practice when they say ‘no’ to homosexual behavior.  Often they are in a position of having to condemn the practice before they are able to show they accept the person.  Our heart is to accept the person though not the practice.  Is not this Jesus’ emphasis?  Like the woman who interrupted his dinner, she had been a notorious sinner, guilty.  She left a cleansed sinner forgiven. Jesus said to her, ‘Go and sin no more’.  At this point progressives and traditionalists part company.  For the reasons recited above, when they say Jesus loves and accepts homosexuals, they mean ‘lock stock and barrel’ – person and behavior.  We love the sinner - but hate the sin.

Indeed, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1, ‘Judge not’.  That is, do not be a judgmental person putting dark constructions on ambiguous situations.  Do not pronounce eternal condemnation on anyone.  Nonetheless, Jesus says in Matthew 18: 15 ‘rebuke’ those who sin.  Bring their sin to light.  Point it out so that it may be forgiven.  ‘Open rebuke is better than hidden love’ says Proverbs.  Identifying same-sex sex as sin is not judging.  It is trying to bring to bear grace and mercy. 

Our differences range over Scriptures’ absolute authority, textual interpretations, theology, and even science.  At the end of the day, through such interchanges as this, the clarity of truth will shine like gold in a stream and the fullness of grace will come.




Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Mailbag: Why Would God Harden Pharaoh's Heart?

Question: Can you offer any insight into God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? If God is good, why would he do that?

Answer: Eleonore Stump, in her magisterial Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (and an older article on sanctification, freedom, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart), offers some very useful insights that may shed some light on this topic. In a nutshell, we’re as human beings all of us, to one degree or another, internally fragmented, double minded, and in a real sense our deepest freedom is compromised when there’s a fundamental disconnect between our (1st order) desires and our (2nd order) desires about our desires. So if I have an overwhelming desire to gamble but a desire not to have that desire, I’m in that sort of dissonant state and my deepest agency is somewhat compromised.

Suppose I ask God for help and to take away my desire to gamble, and in an act of miraculous deliverance he does. He’s not thereby vitiated my freedom by this gift of sanctification; to the contrary, he’s enhanced it, by enabling my first order and second order desires to move into alignment and for me to live more effectively as the person I want to be.

An inverted example is a case like Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Nazi propagandist, who wanted his own heart to harden so he wouldn’t feel compassion for the suffering Poles when he saw a graphic account of the hideous atrocities they were suffering at the hands of German soldiers. “Be hard, my heart, be hard,” he told himself. On reflection his choice was to be that kind of uncompassionate person. His first order desire, at least fleetingly, was one of compassion, but his second order desire, which more accurately reflected who he wanted and deliberatively chose to be, was not to have those compassionate desires.

If God, suppose, were to intervene and harden Goebbels’ heart, taking away some of that compassion, he would be bringing Goebbels’ lower and higher order desires into alignment, making him a more internally integrated person. Rather than detracting from his free will, in a real sense he would be enhancing it a bit. He certainly wouldn’t be making Goebbels less free. God would be giving Goebbels what he really wanted down deep, what he chose when, presumably he could and should have done otherwise. (For all we know, God doing this might help Goebbels see the horror of his choices and choose to repent and change course.)

So when Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God hardened it even more, God was actually honoring Pharaoh’s choice, not detracting from his freedom. God loves us, and desires that none would perish; love isn’t just what God does, it’s who he is. But God will also honor our choices if we decide to hold on to sin tighter than we hold on to him; if we renounce the only ultimate source of Joy there is, we may just get what we want.

That’s the basic idea, and I think it’s a helpful analysis to get our minds, at least a little, around what’s going on in the Pharaoh passage that, for many, poses quite the bête noire of OT stories. Of course the clearest picture we have of the immeasurable love of God is the cross; the Pharaoh passage is one of those challenging ones we have to think about a bit more to understand—in light of the cross.


With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He is working on a sequel with Walls that critiques naturalistic ethics, a book to be called God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. They are under contract with Oxford University Press for a third book in the series, a book that will chronicle the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA.  

Mailbag: Some Questions on Satan, Free Will, and the Nature of Evil


A colleague passed this question along from a student:


Hello, throughout my life I have always sought ought the guidance and insight of pastors of my churches and the Christian teachers at my schools. I base my religious view on history, faith, reason, and observation. I weigh most heavily on reason and try to figure out specific things that test my faith. Through this reasoning I have grown closer to the Lord. I have formed multiple questions that aren’t usually told in Christian school or churches, but questions that beckon my mind and soul. A lot of the question I have my personal answer to (and some are difficult to truly know the answer to until I can ask the Lord face to face in heaven), but I thoroughly enjoy asking other people their thoughts so that I may get insight on what they believe and possibly adapt my own view to fit what makes the most logical sense by means of a Christian standpoint. So, with all of that said, I have a question for you… 

The Lord created all things, but Satan is able to distort such things and taint them. So, if God created everything, why did he allow evil to be even a thing? God gave humans and angels the ability of freewill so that we are not mindless drones who blindly love Him; because true love has to be voluntary. But why did He even create evil to be an alternative? He could have allowed for freewill without evil being an option. Why create sadness and pain? Sin and torment? Anger and distortion? It is a bit difficult to explain, especially since humans aren’t fully able to understand a world without all of this stuff, so the meat of the question can get lost In the folly of my ability to explain. But why would God create such evil and bad things? Satan could still have the freewill to love God or not love Him without the factor of evil being an option. Satan is unable to create matter. No one can. Only God can. Matter cannot be created; it can only be reformed and repurposed. So, that means Satan tainted life and caused sin to be defined as a tainted version of something God created (in a paraphrased sense), so then how come sin was even able to be created? Why is something being tainted an ability that God gave us? Again, it is hard for the human mind to understand in this fixed plane of existence, but what if God had allowed something even worse than sin to be able to come into being? Where would we be then? Why would God allow for such pain? Such with Job, who did everything unto the Lord. God allowed Satan to destroy his life to test if he would still love the Lord. Why would God need any more assurance that Job loved him? Why would He allow his people to be subject to such pain and sorrow? Sure, Job got stuff in the end, but nothing could replace certain things that he lost. That is like a father allowing a bully to beat up his kid just to see if the kid would still love his father (even though he knew that his dad told the bully to beat up his son). So why is such distortion and sin and pain and sorrow and evil even a possibility? Freewill can still be existent without evil. Why would God find it necessary to create such things?


Here's my reply:



Thanks so much for passing along your student’s intelligent and thoughtful questions. I’m happy to try my hand at addressing some of them—addressing, more than answering. Some of the questions, to my thinking, don’t lend themselves to easy answers at all. At best we can list some clues and hints, not necessarily anything systematic that can tie it all up in a bow. We continue to see through a glass darkly, and coming to terms with our epistemic limitations is a good thing. We should certainly use the minds God’s given us, but at the same time epistemic humility is a virtue, and acting like we know more than we do is a mistake and ultimately dishonoring to God. All of that to say: these are hard questions and don’t lend themselves to quick, pat answers, by any stretch of the imagination.


The way your student is seeking guidance and insight from pastors and teachers is a good practice. There’s wisdom in an abundance of counselors. At the same time, he may have contributions of his own to add to the conversation. As members of the church, we all have a part to play, and who knows? Perhaps some of these burdens on his heart correspond to directions God’s laying on him for his own ultimate vocation. Each of us is instructed to seek wisdom, and the older we get, the more we have to balance our expectations about answers that others can provide with what God may be teaching us. God may want to speak through this student, who may one day become a great teacher himself.


As a philosopher, I’m a big fan of “reason” too. There’s nothing wrong with asking hard questions, nor with using the steam of general revelation and clear thinking to make progress in answering them. Often the very practice of asking and working hard to answer questions is itself a quite formative process, the culmination of which has for its most important result not just an answer, but the wisdom that comes from the struggle. I’m also aware, as a philosopher, of reason’s limitations. We don’t always get all the answers we want. The problem of evil, the topic of discussion here, is notorious for leaving us less than completely satisfied. The simple fact is that there are mysteries here, and though we can do our best to untangle knots, mysteries will remain. Sometimes we need to trust God and his goodness despite not finding all the answers we might want. We’re promised all the answers eventually, but not always within timetables of our invention. I think this is especially true with existential aspects of suffering. God promises to give us strength to get through, and to be with us through whatever we might be called to endure…but he doesn’t offer specific reasons for every trial we might have to go through, and expecting otherwise is bound to disappoint. Folks who claim to know all those specifics often strike me as inordinately presumptuous and overly confident in their own analyses.


Okay, then, Satan—yes, the Bible has a lot to say about Satan. On connections between Satan and the problem of evil, a new book is forthcoming on the topic by John Peckham. I wrote a blurb for it; it’s well worth the read. The book’s called Theodicy of Love, and it at least partially treats some of the questions your student raises. Now, why did God allow evil to be a thing? How we ask a question is revealing. For evil to be a thing, it sounds like some “reification” is going on. It may well be a thing in some sense, but not a substance or material object or anything like that, but a certain heart orientation. And I suspect that’s what it is. Suffering is nonmorally bad, but gratuitously inflicting needless suffering is morally bad, even evil. Immanuel Kant had this insight that nonmoral badness has to do with consequences, but evil is a distinctively moral category of the heart.


Now, I rather like the appeal to free will your student mentions (not that this is all that needs to be discussed in this context, but it’s a good place to begin), but he wants to suggest that, though free will might be necessary for genuine love relationships (which seems right to me), God perhaps didn’t need to “create evil” as its alternative. But though this is certainly an intriguing suggestion, it’s not clear to me that this was an actual possibility. Not to love as we ought, particularly not to love God as we ought, introduces sin into the world. It’s not clear we can have the ability to resist God and avoid evil; this may well be the very essence of evil at its root. If so, evil wasn’t created by God, but rather its possibility was introduced when God conferred freedom on us. God’s not, at least on my theology, the author of sin. Perhaps he would be on certain models of meticulous providence, but I don’t buy that theology. So the idea that God could have allowed for free will without evil being an option is not obvious to me, and I suspect it’s somewhat contrary to the standard Christian theology on this matter. 


Next, why create sadness and pain? These are examples of what I think are nonmoral bads. One fairly standard sort of reply is that these were introduced into the world because of rebellion against God. Why sin and torment? Sin, again, was introduced by human willfulness against God’s best for us. Torment? Sin intrinsically leads to torment, in one sense, because it goes against the grain of the universe; it’s not how we were meant to live, and it invariably detracts from our happiness, and the more entrenched we get into it the more tormented we become. Anger and distortion? Well, anger isn’t necessarily a morally bad thing; Jesus experienced righteous anger. Anger isn’t sin, or else we wouldn’t be told in our anger not to sin. In a perfect world, though, anger will be banished. But we’re not in a perfect world, but a fallen one that God’s in the process of redeeming. I could go and discuss distortion along similar lines, but the point is this: Why did God allow any of these things? (I wouldn’t say “create” as that’s misleading; at the least if we use that language it requires very careful unpacking.) Why allow them? Presumably because he knew that ultimately through his redemptive plan he could use our failings to produce more complex goods not otherwise possible, or something like that. Looking at the world at this moment is just a snapshot of something fully in motion toward a particular glorious end, if Christianity is true. It’s not yet the world as God intended it to be, but it will be when redemption has had its full effect.


“Why would God create such evil and bad things?” He made valuable agents whose existence introduced their possibility, is the way I’d put it. “Satan could still have the freewill to love God or not love Him without the factor of evil being an option.” I doubt it; not to love God is indeed evil; God is worthy of our worship. Again, the claim put forth is not at all intuitively clear to me, and stands in variance with Christian teaching. The idea that Satan twisted something in creation into what it wasn’t intended to be is right; this is very much the Augustinian account of evil. The student then asks why sin was even able to be created? Why did God give us the ability to taint his creation? Perhaps that question addresses, once more, the value of free will. If such freedom entails the freedom to resist God, then that may well entail this tainting ability. We don’t have to talk about Satan in this regard; we have this ability as well, and why? Well, perhaps the ability to love God requires freedom that entails such distortion capacity. It’s not clear this isn’t the case, at least to me. Your student may simply disagree; fair enough. But on that matter perhaps we’d just end up disagreeing. But what bolsters my conviction is that the sort of requisite robust freedom we need has big implications, among which is that sin is really, really bad—a violation of our telos, a disordering of creation, a subverting of God’s intentions, and all the rest.


I’m not trying to offer a definitive response to every question here, but just offer my first spit balling sort of ad hoc reply.


Next, what if God had allowed something even worse than sin to be able to come into being? Where would we be then? That’s what philosophers call a counterfactual, but more than that, it may well be a counteressential—an impossible scenario. What would be worse than sin? It’s not clear anything is. Sufficient are the actual sufferings of this world and the next; I’m not sure it’s a good idea to launch into a defense of counterfactual, perhaps even counteressential sufferings.


In terms of Job, I think there’s a lot to say about that book beyond that God did it to see if Job still loved God. I’d suggest reading some really good commentaries on Job. There are profound insights in the book. Reducing it to whether Job would still love God leaves way too much out. Just one example: In Job we see a minor theme of the OT that becomes a major, if not THE major theme of the NT: the redeeming value of innocent suffering.


And so my final point is just that: in the NT we see the clearest picture both of suffering and God’s use of it for redemptive purposes. None of this discussion can get off the ground, from a Christian vantage point, apart from the wondrous mystery of the cross of Christ, where God didn’t merely watch us suffer, but came and suffered himself, indeed took our suffering on himself. And we’re told that those who trust him may suffer for a little while here, but in the life to come there will be such glory it will make the sufferings of this world, as horrific as they can be, pale into insignificance by comparison. That’s a lovely promise to hold onto.


Again, pain and suffering are tough topics. Personally I think they raise the most difficult questions we face as Christians. At the same time, I can’t imagine any other worldview nearly as equipped as Christianity to offer us hope rather than despair in the face of sufferings.


Thanks for the chance to reflect. I hope your student keeps thinking and that God blesses his efforts!




Mailbag: A Question on Atheistic Moral Realism

  Dear Dr. Baggett,

I'm a Christian from Malaysia that has been interested in philosophy for the past few years now, and I have a burning question about the moral argument that I hope you'd be able to help me with.

Why can't the naturalist posit that moral laws are normative in nature just like the laws of logic are? I think J. S. Mill took this approach. Both the laws of logic and morality are prescriptive; the laws of logic prescribe how we ought to think if we want to be reasonable, while moral laws prescribe how we ought to behave if we want to be morally good.

The naturalist can claim that just as the law of noncontradiction can exist without having a logical lawgiver, moral laws can exist without the need for a moral lawgiver.

I think I got this from the moralapologetics website where Trent Dougherty interviewed Wielenberg on the issue. Was hoping you could help because something *feels* wrong about this response; it shouldn't be that simple. Yet I can't seem put my finger on what exactly is wrong with this response to the moral argument.







Hi Declan,

Thanks for the question. It's a good one. Here are a few thoughts at least. Some do indeed argue that moral facts aren't significantly different from other normative facts--be they logical or epistemic or even aesthetic. All of these normative standards do share some things in common alright. Both logic and morality, for example, as you note, are prescriptive--the former for theoretical rationality, the latter for practical rationality.

Philippa Foot once argued even the standards of etiquette are more than hypothetical imperatives because they too prescribe certain behaviors even for those indifferent to etiquette. But the contextual relativity of such standards, and their lesser gravity, still seem to distance etiquette from morality, at least until they start shading into one another.

Logic's a bit of a tougher case than etiquette because it has greater gravity. But I think Wielenberg's unwillingness to see a significant difference between logical and moral norms is a mistake. It may well be the case that all genuine norms have their locus in God--reflecting aspects of His nature--His rationality, His beauty, His goodness, etc. J. P. Moreland argues that to be so in his work. I'm quite open to this because it makes sense that, as Plantinga once put it, necessary truths may well best be thought of as reflections of God: thoughts God thinks, owing to who He is, in this and all possible worlds (modal realities).

Nevertheless, despite whatever all the various norms may hold in common, moral ones seem distinct in an important sense. Both logical (and epistemic) and moral norms may all be both authoritative and prescriptive and unavoidable, but moral norms are, additionally, the sort of standards whose violation should make us feel guilty. I don't think of such guilt merely or primarily as a feeling (another way my view is a bit different from Wielenberg's). I see it as an objective moral condition. It's not that the violation of every moral norm results in guilt; not every moral norm is a duty; some are values. But the neglect of some values, anyway, violates a moral duty, and in such cases we are guilty. I don't generally see violations of logical or epistemic norms in the same way.

"Oughtness" may apply to them all, but this shows an important way oughtness locutions can be variously construed. Usually it's only the moral ought whose violation properly generates guilt. We often use ought language to point to prescriptions that don't attain to the level of obligations. As in etiquette. In the case of logic, the normative standards do give us reasons to make some sorts of inferences and refrain from others. And sensitivity to such reasons is good--expansively construed. Robert Adams says sensitivity to good reasons is a form of excellence, and I agree. But the violation of constructive dilemma or modus tollens doesn't, or shouldn't, generate guilt, a need to be forgiven, or alienation from others that forgiveness can fix--features of shirking moral obligations all.

I think Wielenberg, Parfit, McGinn, Enoch, and others put the cart before the horse. It's true that norms are connected with reasons, but moral obligations possess distinctive features. By my lights, we don't find reasons to act and then presume we have explained moral obligations. Rather, moral obligations themselves give us compelling reasons to act. Inverting this has been one of the ways a number of secularists have watered moral obligations down, neglected one of their most important distinguishing features, and mistakenly acted as though moral obligations can be explained merely by adducing a certain set of normative reasons to act. Acting and thinking rationally does not constitute a full explanation of moral belief and practice. Morality carries extra clout and punch, which needs accounting for.

Hope that helps!

Blessings, Dave


Photo: "Mail" by T. Johnston. CC License.