Posted by: davidlarkin | July 12, 2014

A Prayer for John Shelby Spong

Spong Here I Stand

Photo:  Cover of John Shelby Spong’s autobiography

I recently read the autobiography of John Shelby “Jack” Spong, Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality. Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey for 24 years before his retirement in 2001. He is a prolific writer, and his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, was published in 2013 when he was 82 years old. He is 90 years old now, and he has had a stroke so his latest book, Unbelievable (2018), he dictated to his wife. It is more of the same dogma of unbelief in Biblical Christianity that had made him famous with those who reject the Scriptures as authoritative, and also with those for whom the Scriptures are authoritative, like me.

Bishop Spong considers himself to be a prophet of a new age of Christianity, a post-modern age where science speaks to Spong louder and with the authority that the Holy Scriptures no longer have for him, if ever they did.  Born in 1931 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jack Spong’s long life is very interesting from a human point of view. He was a civil rights activist, leading his southern dioceses in integrating their cities in the early 60s, and always preached and lived the social gospel.  While he was active in issues of social justice, he also began early in his ministry to question the authority of Scripture, finding it difficult to relate to the old stories from two thousand or more years ago in the modern age of science. Consequently, he gradually discarded the Holy Scriptures, the personal God, the deity of Jesus, the incarnation of God in the flesh, the atoning sacrifice and death of Jesus on the cross, for a god compliant with modern science of Spong’s making.  Spiritually, it was a difficult task to finish this book because my faith is in a different God and a different Jesus.  I am a Christian for whom the “Five Solas of the Reformation” are the foundation principles of my faith:

Sola Fide, by faith alone.
Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone.
Solus Christus, through Christ alone.
Sola Gratia, by grace alone.
Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone.

 Over time, Bishop Spong rejected the five solas, replacing them with a new faith, a faith that he considered to be the beginning of a new reformation of Christianity.  He was very proud of his intellectual creation of a post-modern “Christianity” that used Christian nomenclature, but with anti-orthodox meaning, rejecting the Scriptures as the Word of God, but rather, as man’s writings to men in ancient times, writings that no longer had meaning to modern scientific men and women like John Shelby Spong.  He is also very proud of his academic and intellectual accomplishments, repeatedly referring to his academic and professional achievements and accolades, interactions with prominent famous names, thus, relying on the praise of mankind outside the orthodox church of God for confirmation of his radical anti-theology.  He has very unkind things to say about conservative Christians who hold to the traditional orthodoxy.  For example, he had disdain for evangelism and those who took the Great Commission seriously: at a gathering of the Episcopal House of Bishops, Spong writes, the day devoted to Evangelism “hit a new low in content and in attendance, . . . and while our conservative evangelical bishops droned on about how they sought souls for Christ and how we should follow their good example, the crowds around the coffee tables in the hall grew larger and larger.” [p. 301].   He and his liberal brethren did not take seriously Jesus’s Scriptural command to go into the world and make disciples, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Matthew 28:1-20  Spong rejects the personal God of the Bible, the physical resurrection of Christ, the incarnation of God in the man Jesus and his divinity and redefines Christianity in his own terms on his own authority, Sola Spong.  Spong proudly considers himself the new progressive Martin Luther, when in fact, he is the anti-Luther.  In his 1999 book Why Christianity Must Change or DieSpong announces his creation of a new “Christian” religion, calling his work, “a manifesto calling the church to a new reformation.”  As he states in the appendix to Here I Stand,

In that book I sketch out a view of God beyond theism, an understanding of the Christ as a God presence and a vision of the shape of both the church and its liturgy for the future.

“Theism” is generally defined as “belief in the existence of a god or gods; specifically : belief in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.  Spong arrogantly wants to go beyond a belief in the Christian God who is a person with whom we have a personal relationship with, pray to, and rely on for our salvation.  He wants to replace God with a “god presence,” an impersonal force. Praying to God is an antiquated concept for Spong.  All four Gospels proclaim that Jesus prayed to the Father, more than 25 times.  The night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane:

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.  Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.  So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.  Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

Matthew 26:36-46 [ESV]

Spong rejects this depiction of Jesus himself praying to God, the Father, as a person who hears our prayers.  Spong has summarized his anti-theism with a sorry mockery of Luther’s 95 Theses.  On 31 October 1517, Luther posted the ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, which is considered the commencement of the Reformation.  Luther was calling for a reformation of the Church based on the authority of Scripture, sola scriptura.  Spong, by contrast, is calling for a reformation of the Church by a rejection of the Scripture.  Spong is very proud of his technical fluency with Scripture, but he does not believe that the Scripture is the word of God. Reading his biography, Spong never speaks of any faith in the trinitarian God of orthodox Christianity.  He does not mention God at work in his life, he abandons prayer early in his ministry as meaningless, and he gives himself credit for all his achievements, no credit to God, whose minister he publicly and proudly pretends to be.  He has no faith that the Holy Spirit preserved the Scriptures for the faithful to find revelation of God’s plan of salvation.  Spong has no personal relationship with God because, for him, God is not a person with a name who hears us call on His name and saves us.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Acts 2:21 [ESV]

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Romans 10:13 [ESV]

Here, the anti-Luther makes his proclamation which are Bishop Spong’s 12 Theses of unbelief, with my comments and Biblical references in brackets:

A Call for a New Reformation

1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

[The Bible clearly speaks of a personal God who is Lord and has a name, which we translate from the Hebrew as Yahweh (archaically translated Jehovah).   Yahweh or Lord is a personal name, a proper name, that is called upon by His people by name.  Yahweh or the Lord is also a person.  John M. Frame, a Reformed theologian, explains the Biblical doctrine of a personal God as follows:

Scripture rarely if ever uses the word person to describe God, or even to refer to the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit.  But like Trinity, person is an extrabiblical word that is very nearly unavoidable for us.  It is the word in our vocabulary that applies to beings who speak, act intentionally, and so on.  The Biblical term living reinforces this picture. God is the living God against all the nonliving gods of the nations. (See e.g. Deut. 5:26, Josh. 3:10, 1 Sam. 17:26, 2 Kings 19:4, Psalm 42:2, 84:2, Jer. 10:10, Matt. 16:16, 26:63, Acts 14:15, Romans 9:26)

Frame, John M., The Doctrine of God, p. 25 (P&R Publishing 2002)

As R. A. Torrey summarized the personality of the God of the Bible:

God is a living God.  He hears, sees, knows, feels, wills, acts, is a person. He is to be distinguished from idols, which are things, not persons.  He is to be distinguished from the works of his hands which he formed. 

Torrey, R. A. What the Bible Teaches (1957)]

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

[Paul wrote to Titus of the identity of Jesus with God:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Titus 2:11-14 (ESV)]


Posted by: davidlarkin | June 29, 2014

For We Saw His Star

Adoration of the Magi after restoration tourist photo

In March 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished masterpiece “Adoration of the Magi” emerged from a six-year restoration cleaner, brighter and with a depth that hasn’t been seen for centuries.  Here a visitor to the Uffizi museum in Florence, Italy snaps a photo.

The familiar Bible story of the Three Wise Men, the Magi, tells of a star that appeared to them, signifying a great historic event. Somehow, a “star” acted as a travel guide. The event is commemorated in the historic church holy day of the Epiphany, January 6 on the Anglican/Episcopal Liturgical Calendar.

As the Bible story goes, when Jesus was born, these three men from the east saw his star in the sky, and somehow, guided by the star, they traveled to the stable in the “little town of Bethlehem” where Jesus was born, in diapers in a manger, and giving him luxurious gifts, they worshiped him, intuitively knowing by the grace of God, that they were in the presence of God.  Here is the familiar Christmas passage from Scripture:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

. . .

 And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11 (ESV)

I have read attempts to explain this phenomenon of the star as an actual historic astronomical event, like a super nova.  However, if that were the case, it does not explain how this astronomical event “came to rest over the place where the child was.”  It is a difficult passage to explain objectively in modern scientific terms.  Science, of course, undoubtedly requires this event to be disposed of as myth.

For those who believe that God is a God of miracles, and that He can give a heavenly sign to three men alone who believe in signs from God in the heavens, as a guide to witness the new birth of the Messiah, the Lord and Savior, there is likely a supernatural explanation that will evade natural history in this life.

I attended the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California for a time in the 80s.  The Church on the Way was an early “megachurch” with thousands of members, notably then, Pat Boone and his daughter, Debbie Boone, who sang at the Christmas service when I attended.  The Pastor was Jack Hayford, a brilliant Bible teacher and man of God.  I remember Jack Hayford giving us a lesson about how God will make a way for the Gospel to be heard by those who are waiting to hear it.  He told us a story about an evangelist who attended the Lausanne Congress, the First International Congress on World Evangelism held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974.

“The congress was a conference of some 2,700 evangelical Christian leaders that was held in the Palais de Beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974 to discuss the progress, resources and methods of evangelizing the world. The conference was called by a committee headed by U.S. evangelist Billy Graham and brought together religious leaders from 150 nations.’

Source: Wikipedia

One of the evangelists in attendance was an African man who carried the Gospel message on his bicycle to the rural tribes in his native African country.  He told the story of how he had heard the Gospel and was saved.  He was living in a tent in the bush lands.  He felt a need to know God.  He prayed that the God of the universe would reveal Himself.  He said he then saw a light outside his tent.  He followed the light overland through the bush country until he was led to the tent of a Christian missionary.  He told the missionary he was led by a light to his tent and he wanted to know the true God.  The missionary shared the Gospel with him and he was saved. He then dedicated his life to sharing the Gospel with his countrymen and women, thankful for the supernatural grace he was shown by the Living God, who led him by a light to Jesus, just like the Three Wise Men were led by a light to the Lord.   We will never know what kind of light led the Wise Men.  Certainly, a light in the sky that was revealed only to the Magi would appear as a “star” to them, but under the circumstances of the birth of the Savior, we can be sure that God did a miraculous work in leading them to a Bethlehem stable from afar.

The African evangelist was drawn by God to Himself when he sincerely petitioned God for revelation of His existence.  By grace, he was given the faith to ask and to believe.  It takes faith to be blessed with the experience of the supernatural presence and work of God.

And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.

Matthew 13:53-58 [ESV]

Who were the Magi? This discussion from the January 8, 2015 Tabletalk Devotions with R. C. Sproul is a good summary:

Present among the figurines in the nativity crèches found everywhere at Christmastime are usually three regal men bearing gifts. As we know, these kings are supposed to represent the wise men.

Unfortunately, this depiction of the wise men takes liberties with the text. Matthew never tells us how many wise men come to see the Messiah. The tradition of three wise men probably comes from the three different gifts mentioned in Matthew 2:11. Moreover, the first gospel does not say the magi are kings. This idea goes back to the church father Tertullian (around 200 a.d.) and is likely due to his reading of passages like Psalm 68:31 and Isaiah 49:7.

Who, then, are the wise men? Precise identification is difficult, but we do know they are “from the east” of Judea (Matt. 2:1). Persia, Babylon, and Arabia are all possible countries of origin, with Babylon the likeliest option since contact with its large Jewish community would have prompted the magi to come looking for a king in Jerusalem. The Greek term for “magi” (magoi) refers to a group interested in predicting the future via dream interpretation, magic, and other methods, such as astrology, which explains their interest in the star.

Posted by: davidlarkin | May 11, 2014

Susan Larkin’s Message

Susan Larkin

My wife, Susan Larkin, was asked to give a message on her walk with Jesus this past year to her women’s Bible study group at our church, Arizona Community Church.  This is the message she gave last week summing up what God had put on her heart to share with the ladies:

Looking back on this year ‘Walking with Jesus’, what came to mind first is how thankful I am for the new friends I have met here and the ones I am getting to know better, just the sweet fellowship and the wisdom of the women as they each share their own walk with the Lord.

I am thankful too, for the women in the prayer for our adult children group because while each of us are praying the same things for our children, we hear the fresh insight and perspective the Lord gives each mother.  We can have unity of spirit and a new vision at the same time, knowing God hears our prayers for our children and trusting we can influence their lives with prayer.

Another great thing is a darling prayer partner the Lord brought me this year – she is in this room tonight. I’d had a prayer partner for about 15 years and she broke up with me 9 months ago, so I was delighted when this new sister came and she has been a true blessing.

I learned about the power of prayer long before I became a Christian. I was a flight attendant in the mid-70’s, so 40 years ago, and worked on international flights. I had 2 close calls one after another. The 1st time our pilot almost landed us in a jungle in Africa. I remember feeling the descent, looking out the window and seeing all green when there should have been concrete, and hearing the first officer scream “Pull up, pull up, pull up!!!”. Suddenly we were zooming up. When we did land, it was on the runway in the right city. I never did find out what happened that day, the pilots did not want to talk about it but it was really scary.

Another time was in a DC10 over Calgary Canada going from London to Oakland when the plane dropped about 5,000 feet in just a few seconds. We dropped so fast that everything and every one that wasn’t secured hovered in the air before crashing down – people, beverage carts, everything. The sharp descent was followed by lots of dramatically serious vibration, it felt as if the plane would break apart. Many people were badly injured, and if you ever thought you were going to die, you never forget it. So after my time off, I was really frightened to get back on a plane.  My boyfriend, not a Christian, suggested I pray for peace to go back to my job. And it worked! I asked for protection every time we took off and I thanked God every time we landed safely – and I still do. I flew for several more years after that. So I knew God answered at least emergency prayers for sure.  The Lord (I believe) later revealed to me that as a professional baseball player, that boyfriend likely had a team chaplain who flew with the team regularly and had the Lord’s wisdom to pray with the young men as they flew back and forth across country all season long year after year.

But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.
When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar; he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth.  He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.

 Jeremiah 10:12-13 (NIV)

When I first became a believer, someone gave me a laminated prayer card with a list of things to pray for because I only knew the Our Father & Hail Mary from my days at Catholic boarding school. It listed prayers for the leadership of the church, people in government, the schools, police officers and so on, and on the list was prayer for the harvest. I lived one valley over from the Salinas valley, a large agricultural area, so for about 6 months I prayed fervently for the broccoli, strawberries, lettuce and artichokes before I found out that the Harvest, capital “H” meant the unsaved souls.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  Matthew 9:35-38 (ESV)

I thought the Lord had such a sense of humor in my early prayer days as a Christian to let me pray on and on about the farm workers, the rain and the fertilizer – nothing wrong with that, farmers do it all the time.  

Kathy has been using Scripture to teach us about the Lord’s compassion. One of the ladies in our prayer group shared that she lost her wallet, she left it on top of her car when she bought gas and drove off. You can imagine her distress, she went back to search for it, but of course it was gone. The next morning she got a call from her apartment manager that there was someone in the office who wanted to speak to her. And there was a young man covered in tattoos, kind of scary looking, someone she said you would instantly make a judgment about and not a positive one. But he had been riding his bike, found the wallet and wanted to return it. She thanked him of course, gave him some money because it was all there – and she invited him to our church. It was such a lesson to me how if we could only see the heart, the inside of a person and not only the outside  – like Jesus does, we would treat people so much differently.

And God forbid that young man should come to our church and I would judge him by his appearance instead of seeing him as he really is, as God sees him. It was a great lesson to me to be so much more generous in my assessment of others.

The Lord does not look at the things a man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV)

When my girlfriend read this, she said it reminded her of when she lived in San Francisco.  She said she was reading the Bible while riding the bus and she saw this ‘gay guy’ looking at her and she thought – a derogatory word you might think about homosexuals. But he approached her and said, “It is wonderful to see someone reading the Bible, it reminds me of when I read the Bible with my family.” Needless to say, she was profoundly ashamed before the Lord for judging that man.

Sometimes I encounter someone who at a glance I think I have nothing in common with and my first impulse is to avoid that person. Our Lord did exactly the opposite – He sought them out if they had an infectious disease, were known sinners or homeless and destitute, were mentally ill, demon possessed, crippled, or blind. Even the Samaritans who were despised as a mongrel race by Judaism, were tenderly regarded by our merciful Messiah. He went out of His way to connect with them and offer what He could and so did His disciples. So the theme of compassion this year really has convicted me that I am not really that Christ-like at all. I think Kathy wanted me to talk about what I had learned, but I’m afraid this is about what I haven’t learned.

I often forget that we are the rich of the world that the Bible speaks of and that everything I have is a gift from God, but it belongs to Him, it isn’t mine alone. I have a home, clothes and shoes, I never miss a meal all because of His grace and goodness. Mother Teresa told a story about a dying man brought to her shelter in Calcutta, as she visited with him he was crying. She asked him why. He said it was because it was the only time in his whole life he had ever laid in a bed – the day he was dying – and it was just a wire cot, but he was thankful. She said once, “I wouldn’t touch a leper for 1,000 pounds, but I will willingly care for him for the love of God.”

When we see someone begging we might think they should get a job … but if they have dirty clothes, no place to shower or brush their teeth, no phone or transportation, they are unlikely to be hired unless they get some help. I have heard fellow Christians declare that they refuse to give money to someone they see begging, even if holding a sign saying they are hungry, for fear they may use it to buy alcohol.  In Proverbs 31, the mother of young King Lemuel advises her son to avoid alcohol because, “It is not for kings to drink wine…lest they forget what the law decrees and deprive the oppressed of their rights.”  She continues, “Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more”.  We need not worry about what someone who humbles themselves to beg before us chooses to buy. The Queen Mother goes on to advise that the woman of virtue “…opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy”.  

I met a man who had been a respiratory therapist at a hospital, they reorganized and moved him to another area of the hospital, his license lapsed and then a new administrator downsized his dept. and he was terminated. He didn’t have the money to renew his license and he had been trying but he hadn’t found a job. He said he never could have imagined himself begging in his wildest dreams but he had 3 children he needed to feed and he was begging because he was desperate and determined to care for them.

In Luke 6, Jesus said ‘Give to everyone who asks of you.’ and to be merciful and not to judge. In Matthew 25:31-46, He tells us whenever we provide for someone who is hungry, thirsty or we visit the sick or the prisoners, the ‘least of these’, as He calls them, we do it for Him. As Paul says, “not that I have achieved it yet, but I can press on”, keep trying and thank Jesus for demonstrating compassion so I can know exactly what it looks like. I praise God we have His promise that He Who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it.

Let’s pray. Lord, would You give me the heart of love that You have. Let me remember that every person on earth is someone You love so much, You gave Your only Son’s life so that one day they could spend eternity with You. Amen.

I know all were blessed by her words.



Posted by: davidlarkin | April 13, 2014

Now is the Favorable Time


Christ Blessing the Little Children, by Jan Aertsz Marienhof (1626 – 1652), a Dutch Golden Age painter.

Jesus said:

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

Now is the favorable time for salvation:

For he says,

“In a favorable time I listened to you,
and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

2 Corinthians 6:2 (ESV)

In the 80s I was attended the Hiding Place Church that met at a middle school next to the Mormon Temple on Santa Monica Boulevard in West LA.  A humble fellowship in the shadow of the proud Mormon showpiece.  I met a middle-aged woman there who was on fire for the Lord.  She was not ashamed of the Gospel, and was a personal evangelist working on the streets of Hollywood with those who the Lord appointed for her to meet.  She told me about a neighbor of hers in her apartment building in Hollywood.  He was a very bright young man in his thirties, she said, who was working in a business where he had great opportunity for material success, he told her.  One night she had the opportunity to share the gospel with him, declaring to him that Jesus died for his sins and rose again, and is alive and ready to save him from his sins, and give him the gift of life eternal, if he will only call on the name of the Lord, repent and ask forgiveness and let Jesus be his Lord and savior.

She told me that he listened intently, and told her that he believed what she said.  He believed that he needed to be saved, and that he wanted to have life after death in heaven.  But, he told her, he was not ready to give his life up.  He wanted to be rich, and he wanted to be able to enjoy the worldly pleasures now.  He said that once he has success, he will get saved.

She was disappointed for him, she said, but she had shared the Gospel, and he had heard it.

The next day, she had been away from her apartment and returned to find an ambulance outside the building.  As she was about to enter the building, the paramedics brought her neighbor out on a stretcher, and put him in the ambulance.  They had put him in a straight jacket, and he was lying on his back with a blank expression on his face.  She asked the paramedic what had happened, and was told that he had lost his mind,  and a neighbor had called the police because of his loud screaming.  He was sedated and taken away.  She said he did not return.  She told me that she saw this as God’s instant judgment on the young man for hearing the gospel, understanding it, and sincerely rejecting it.  The story was and remains chilling because that may have been his last chance for salvation.  As the scripture cited above says, “now is the day of salvation.”

Salvation is the sovereign act of God, not a voluntary choice we can make when it is convenient.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)

There may be a point in a man or woman’s rebellion against God where God gives the person up to his or her sins for good.  As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Romans 1:18-32 (ESV)

Three times Paul writes that “God gave them up,” for the “wrath of God from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”  The young man who heard the Gospel from my friend apparently reached his last chance, and God gave him over to a debased mind, in fact, God took his mind away from him, perhaps for good, but arguably, in reaction to his sincere rejection of the truth, that we are sinners, and that we are called to repent:

From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Matthew 4:17 (NKJV)

“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

Luke 5:32 (NKJV)

“unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:3 & 5 (NKJV)

How long will God wait for a man or woman to repent and call on Him?

And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment,  

Hebrews 9:27 (NKJV)

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.  If you have not called on the Lord for your salvation, now is the time, and you may pray this prayer to be saved and to obtain the gift of eternal life: 

Dear God in heaven, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I acknowledge to You that I am a sinner, and I am sorry for my sins and the life that I have lived; I need your forgiveness.

I believe that your only begotten Son Jesus Christ shed His precious blood on the cross at Calvary and died for my sins, and I am now willing to turn from my sin.

You said in Your Holy Word, Romans 10:9 that if we confess the Lord our God, that is, if we declare Jesus to be our Lord and Savior, and believe in our hearts that God raised Jesus from the dead, we shall be saved.

Right now I confess and declare Jesus as the Lord of my soul. With my heart, I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. This very moment I accept Jesus Christ as my own personal Savior and according to His Word, right now I am saved.

Thank you Jesus for your unlimited grace which has saved me from my sins. I thank you Jesus that your grace never leads to license, but rather it always leads to repentance. Therefore Lord Jesus transform my life so that I may bring glory and honor to you alone and not to myself.

Thank you Jesus for dying for me and giving me eternal life.


If you said that prayer sincerely, and are truly sorry for your prior rejection of God, and sorry for your sins, you have been saved by God.  You have the promise of heaven. You should ask God to help you find a Bible-based church that teaches the word of God and then be baptized.  You can talk directly to the Lord.  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV)

Posted by: davidlarkin | April 11, 2014

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset.”

Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925)

Scientists today estimate the adult human body is composed of trillions of cells, upwards of 37.2 trillion.[Source: National Geographic, October 2013]  There are approximately 200 different types of cells all working together expressing themselves as one conscious person.

One of the enduring mysteries of biology is that a variety of specialized cells collaborate in building a body, yet all have an identical genome. Somehow each of the 200 different kinds of cells in the human body — in the brain, liver, bone, heart and many other structures — must be reading off a different set of the hereditary instructions written into the DNA.

The system is something like a play in which all the actors have the same script but are assigned different parts and blocked from even seeing anyone else’s lines. The fertilized egg possesses the first copy of the script; as it divides repeatedly into the 10 trillion cells of the human body, the cells assign themselves to the different roles they will play throughout an individual’s lifetime.

New York Times, February 23, 2009 [Obviously, scientists differ in their estimate of the number of cells in the human body, 10 trillion in this 2009 article and 37 trillion in the 2013 National Geographic article cited above, but qualitatively, there is little difference for purposes of acknowledging the mystery of how billions of individual cells can cooperate to manifest one person]

If you are able to stand back from the massive accumulation of knowledge of the physiology of the human body, the neurons in the brain, the interaction of the billions of cells and their individual differences acting as one person, you cannot miss the glorious mystery and gift of life.  We are a reflection or the image of the incomprehensible God and Creator of the Universe.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Genesis 1:26 (ESV)

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

Genesis 2:7 (ESV)

We should praise God for the wonder of life and creation and especially for his saving grace as the Scripture teaches:

But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the Lord!”

Psalm 40:16 (ESV)

For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

Hebrews 2:2-4 (ESV)

From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Matthew 4:17 (NKJV)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

1 Peter 1:3-5 (ESV)

Here is a short prayer of praise for God’s creation and the gift of life:

O Lord and Maker of all things, from whose creative power the first light came forth, who looked upon the world’s first morning and saw that it was good, I praise You for this light that now streams through my windows to rouse me to the life of another day.

I praise You for the life that stirs within me;
I praise you for the bright and beautiful world into which I go;
I praise you for earth, sea and sky – billowing clouds and singing birds;
I praise you for the work You have given me to do;
I praise you for all You have given me to fill my leisure hours;
I praise you for my friends and family;
I praise you for music and books and good company.

John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 7th Day, Morning

Posted by: davidlarkin | December 14, 2013

New Every Morning

At day’s end, it is often discouraging to reflect on the day’s activities. A sincere review will reveal failings and sinful actions and thoughts. As the Apostle Paul wrote:

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Romans 7:18-20 (ESV)

It is common, therefore, to find confessions of sin and failures in daily evening devotionals, like John Baillie’s A Diary of Daily Prayer. We can be troubled by the past days misfortunes, sins and errors, and be worried about what will come tomorrow, both leading to sleeplessness and a troubled mind.

Paul McCartney recognized the problem of worry and sleeplessness in the Beatles song from the White Album, “I’m So Tired,” only he appeals to his lover, who is breaking his heart, for peace, as the troubled lovers so generally do, rather than to God:

It’s doing me harm, you know I can’t sleep
I can’t stop my brain, you know it’s three weeks
I’m going insane

You know I’d give you everything I’ve got
For a little peace of mind

Things often seem at their worst when I awake in the middle of the night and my mind is stirred to worry and I can’t stop it, losing sleep. The old saying, “The darkest hour is just before the dawn,” captures that late night worry about my life’s problems, my loved ones, or my work and also that feeling of nebulous doom I sometimes feel when I wake up in the middle of the night, with nothing specific worrying me. See Bob Dylan, “Meet Me in the Morning” and Crosby Stills and Nash, “Long Time Gone.”

It would be nice to have memorized a well-crafted prayer especially for the middle of the night, so I don’t have to muddle along with a sleepy rambling prayer.  I am sure, of course, that the Lord will accept any sincere and humble prayer in my moments of distress. Typically, I appeal to God to stop my brain and give me peace.   This requires trust in His faithfulness.  As I grow older in the Lord, 42 years now, I am more aware of His presence, and more constant in communicating with Him and seeking reconciliation.  As a result, I am able to fall asleep and when I awake in the middle of the night, fall back to sleep easier, although there are occasional times when I have to get up and do some online legal research on a case that is troubling me, which I consider a blessing that the Lord has prompted me to do that work, even in the middle of the night.

The blessing of communicating with God at the end of the day, or even just before the dawn — asking forgiveness, petitioning for peace and for a good day to come — is that the believer can awake with the joy that he has made peace with God and start the day walking in the Spirit as if he were starting anew.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:8-9 (ESV) [See my previous post, A Daily Confession]

When we fall, the Lord is there to lift us up and begin as if anew.

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way;
though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the Lord upholds his hand.

Psalm 37:23-24 (ESV)

Alexander Whyte (1836-1921), a Scottish minister, professor at the University of Edinburgh and prolific writer, wrote:

The victorious Christian life is a series of New Beginnings.

The mercies of God are new every morning.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

Posted by: davidlarkin | September 21, 2013

A Reader’s Prayer

My Favorite Bookmark

Books to the ceiling, books to the sky.
My piles of books are a mile high.
How I love them!
How I need them!
I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.

I am a reader. I have too many books left to read, and more are available to read everyday. The photo above is my favorite bookmark. When I reached 60 years old, I realized that I would not be able to read all the books that I had hoped to read over the years.

I am grateful to have the time to read and that I am compulsive about making the time to read.

Today, I was reading John Baillie’s A Diary of Daily Prayer, Day 21 morning, and included in that daily devotional was a petition to God for reading guidance that can be used as a prayer on its own. So for dedicated readers who want divine help in choosing what to read for profit or recreation, and in being a better steward of his or her time, I offer this Reader’s Prayer for you to copy and paste, which I adapted from Baillie with modification to include internet reading:

A Reader’s Prayer

Leave me not, O gracious God, in such hours as I may today devote to the reading of books, magazines, internet websites, newsletters, and blogs or newspapers. Guide my mind to choose the right books and other written works, having chosen them, to read them in the right way. When I read for profit, grant that all I read may lead me nearer to you. When I read for recreation, grant that what I read may not lead me away from you. Let all my reading so refresh my mind that I may the more eagerly seek after whatsoever things are pure and fair and true.

Adapted from A Diary of Daily Prayer, Day 21, Morning Prayer by John Baillie

Now that I am 71 and I have many books unread, I have added to my prayer the following:

Help me and strengthen me to overcome with wisdom and faith the discouragement of so many books to read with insufficient time remaining to read them, and give me the confidence and peace that I will choose what to read according to your will for me and for your purposes, to used my time wisely, both for profit and for recreation.

So, my Reader’s Prayer, with the senior citizen addition inserted, for you to copy and paste, is as follows:

A Reader’s Prayer

Leave me not, O gracious God, in such hours as I may today devote to the reading of books, magazines, internet websites, newsletters, academic papers, blogs or newspapers. Guide my mind to choose the right books and written works and having chosen them, to read them in the right way. Help me and strengthen me to overcome with wisdom and faith the discouragement of so many books to read with insufficient time remaining to read them, and give me the confidence and peace that I will choose what to read according to your will and for your purposes, and to use my time wisely, both for profit and for recreation. When I read for profit, grant that all I read may lead me nearer to you. When I read for recreation, grant that what I read may not lead me away from you. Let all my reading so refresh my mind that I may the more eagerly seek after whatsoever things are pure and fair and true.

Adapted from A Diary of Daily Prayer, Day 21, Morning Prayer by John Baillie

Posted by: davidlarkin | April 20, 2013

A Violent Week

This has been a violent week.  The tragic drama of the Boston Marathon bombing and the gripping manhunt has left us all emotionally exhausted.   What can I write that we all have not thought or experienced about this horrific event.

Closer to home, however, we had a shooting at our office complex on Thursday morning.  I was at the dentist when I received a call from my wife that our office complex was a crime scene, someone had been shot.  Fortunately, my wife and I, who work together at my law office, did not arrive at the office until after the shooting, and were not harmed or in danger.  Nevertheless, I left the dentist immediately and went to meet my wife at the office, where we waited while the police secured the crime scene and took the shooter away.

We heard a report that the criminal attorney in another office, two doors down from us, was involved.  My first thought was that he had been shot by a criminal client.   The criminal lawyer’s father works for him, and had been arrested a few months earlier for pulling a gun on a client, apparently in self-defense, but had not shot the gun.  My wife and I were very uncomfortable having the criminal law practice so close and considered moving, but did not.  Now with this shooting, we were physically and emotionally shocked.

It turns out that the shooting had nothing to do with the criminal lawyer’s law practice or criminal clients.  The lawyer was the criminal.  He was 48 years old, married with children, and he was having an affair with his office receptionist who was in her twenties.  He was representing her in a paternity action against her ex-boyfriend.

The lawyer  came to the office that morning with his .357 handgun to meet the ex-boyfriend.  The 25-year-old victim was sitting in his car.  The lawyer approached him holding the gun, and ordered him out of the car.  The young man grabbed the barrel of the gun and tried to duck out of the way but the lawyer fired a shot, striking him in the back.  The victim ran to a nearby medical office and collapsed.  He recorded the incident on his cell phone which police recovered at the scene.

After the shooting, the lawyer stood over his victim saying something like, “Do you feel that … that’s you dying boy,” according to court documents.   Others in their office who heard a pop, went out to the parking lot, saw him standing there holding the gun, and called 911.  The lawyer went back to his office and called police to turn himself in.  See news report here.

I first met the lawyer on Tuesday this week in the parking lot where he was arriving with his receptionist.  I suspected they were having an affair because I had seen her driving to work in the morning in the lawyer’s Mercedes and opening the office.  My suspicions were correct, and his adultery was the source of the emotion and evil intent that led to his attempted murder of the young man.

So, this week has been a week of violence for us along with everyone else in America.  Today, April 20, is the 14 year anniversary of another day of violence in America, the Columbine High School massacre.  Reading through the One Year Book of Christian History in my morning devotions, today’s entry was about a young teen, Rachel Scott, who attended Columbine High School in 1999.  Here is the remarkable April 20 entry from the book:


God gave us a glimpse of the future.

RACHEL SCOTT was just eight when her father, Pastor Darrell Scott, walked out on her mother Beth, leaving her with five children. A year later Rachel’s grandparents helped her mom move to Littleton, Colorado, and buy a home.

When Rachel was twelve, she had a life-changing spiritual encounter.  She later wrote in her Journal, “Everyone was there at the altar, and I felt so drawn to it.  You have to understand that I was so young . . . to be drawn that way, it was nothing short of God . . . .  That night I accepted Jesus into my heart.  I was saved.” From that time on her family saw a spiritual depth beginning to develop in Rachel.

Two years later, Rachel’s mother remarried.  During this difficult adjustment Rachel became increasingly withdrawn and private.  When she was sixteen, her mother gave her a journal, the first of many.  Rachel began to chronicle her spiritual journey and commitment to Christ — a commitment that cost her deeply.  She broke up with the boy she loved in order to keep herself chaste and was rejected by five of her closest friends for talking openly about her faith.  On April 20. 1998,  one year to the day before she died, she wrote these words:  ‘I have no more friends at school.  But you know what . . . it’s all worth it to me . . . . If I have to sacrifice everything I will.”  Rachel had no idea of the sacrifice she would ultimately make.

On April 20, 1999, Rachel sat outside the cafeteria when two troubled students armed with guns came up the stairs at Columbine High School.  They opened fire, hitting her three times.  After leaving to find more victims, they returned to where Rachel lay in pain.  One of them lifted her head by her ponytail and jeered, “Do you believe in God?”  She answered, “Yes.”  He put the gun her temple and killed her.

About a month after Rachel’s funeral, her father received a phone call from a stranger who told him about a dream he had.  As Darrell recalled it, “He dreamed about her eyes and a flow of tears that were watering something that he couldn’t quite see in the dream.  He was adamant about the eyes and tears and wanted to know if that meant anything to me . . . . He told me that dream had haunted him for days, and he knew there was a reason for it.”

Her father had no idea what the dream could mean.  Several days later he picked up Rachel’s backpack from the sheriff s office.  Inside were two journals, one with a bullet hole through it.  He turned to the last page of her most recent diary and was dumbfounded to see a drawing of her eyes with a stream of thirteen tears watering a rose.  The tears appeared to turn into drops of blood as they touched the rose.  The number of tears matched the number of victims at Columbine.  It practically took his breath away to see in Rachel’s final diary exactly what the stranger had described to him a week earlier.

Looking in previous diaries, her parents discovered that same rose drawn a tear before Rachel’s death.  The earlier drawing simply showed the rose with the bloodlike drops, not her eyes or the clear tears, and it showed the rose  growing up out of a columbine plant, the state flower from which Columbine High School got its name.


It was like “Pop, Pop, Pop.”  A Christian couple hid in the bathtub with their dog praying for safety.  Click Here for the video interview by NBC anchor Brian Williams with the Watertown, Massachusetts couple who heard the gun fight between the Boston Marathon terrorists and police taking place in their front yard.

After a week like this, the Apostle Paul’s words are a comforting source of rest.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7 [NIV]

Posted by: davidlarkin | April 7, 2013

A Daily Confession

“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” 

Luke 5:32.  

Thus, Jesus summed up his mission to mankind.  He did not come to heal the sick, make the blind see, or make the lame walk.  These were signs of his power and authority.  But he came to lead sinners to repentance, and by believing and repenting, receive the gift of eternal life.

Jesus also came to earth to die for the sins of the redeemed, and those who are redeemed are redeemed through God’s sacrifice of his son.  This was Jesus’ mission for mankind.  Who can understand this?  Fortunately, we are not asked to understand this, but to believe:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 [ESV]

True repentance, however, will not come without belief.  As a Calvinist, I believe that God’s chosen are first regenerated.  We are born again or receive new birth or are reborn from above.  Regeneration is followed, perhaps instantaneously, by faith, which is belief that Jesus is my Lord and that he died for my sins and was raised from the dead, alive today as you or me.  Regeneration and Faith is followed by repentance, again this can be instantaneous.  But it is elementary that you must repent to be saved.  And this is saving faith.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,

Titus 3:4-6 [ESV]

But what is it about true belief that leads to repentance?  In our encounter with the holy, with a holy and perfect God of all creation, we recognize that we are sinners who need to be reconciled to a Holy God.  We need forgiveness for sin and we experience the gift of godly sorrow:

For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.

2 Corinthians 7:10 [NKJ]

Godly sorrow is a gift.  Oswald Chambers has described it wonderfully in one of his daily devotions in the Christian classic, My Utmost for His Highest:

Conviction of sin is best described in the words:

My sins, my sins, my Savior,
How sad on Thee they fall.

Conviction of sin is one of the most uncommon things that ever happens to a person. It is the beginning of an understanding of God. Jesus Christ said that when the Holy Spirit came He would convict people of sin (see John 16:8). And when the Holy Spirit stirs a person’s conscience and brings him into the presence of God, it is not that person’s relationship with others that bothers him but his relationship with God— “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight . . .” (Psalm 51:4). The wonders of conviction of sin, forgiveness, and holiness are so interwoven that it is only the forgiven person who is truly holy. He proves he is forgiven by being the opposite of what he was previously, by the grace of God. Repentance always brings a person to the point of saying, “I have sinned.” The surest sign that God is at work in his life is when he says that and means it. Anything less is simply sorrow for having made foolish mistakes— a reflex action caused by self-disgust.

The entrance into the kingdom of God is through the sharp, sudden pains of repentance colliding with man’s respectable “goodness.” Then the Holy Spirit, who produces these struggles, begins the formation of the Son of God in the person’s life (see Galatians 4:19). This new life will reveal itself in conscious repentance followed by unconscious holiness, never the other way around. The foundation of Christianity is repentance. Strictly speaking, a person cannot repent when he chooses— repentance is a gift of God. The old Puritans used to pray for “the gift of tears.” If you ever cease to understand the value of repentance, you allow yourself to remain in sin. Examine yourself to see if you have forgotten how to be truly repentant.

Chambers exhorts us to examine ourselves.  He likely means to examine ourselves at least daily.  Repentance is not a one-time initiating event in the life of a Christian.  The great 19th century British preacher Charles Spurgeon put it like this:

Sincere repentance is continual. Believers repent until their dying day. This dropping well is not intermittent. Every other sorrow yields to time, but this dear sorrow grows without growth, and it is so sweet a bitter, that we thank God we are permitted to enjoy and to suffer it until we enter our eternal rest.

Spurgeon on 2 Corinthians 7:10.

After 42 years of Christian life, one would think that I have less sin to confess each day.  However, it seems my sins have not diminished, just changed.  It is like a whack-a-mole game.  You get control of one type of sin, and another one pops up.  A loss of self-control, and angry unnecessary comment, when we notice and remember, needs to be confessed.  I thank God I don’t remember all my failures, and that I remember so few.  Jesus said:

 You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’  But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.

Matthew 5:21-22a [NKJV]

Or all of a sudden, my memory punishes me with a thought of the sins of  my youth.  How could I have done that?  And I ask God’s forgiveness, even 45 years after the fact.

There are Scriptures that seem to say once saved, the Christian no longer sins.  For example, from the King James Version:


 Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

1 John 3:9 [NKJV]

However, this is mistranslated from the Greek text.  Modern translations recognize that the Greek verbs are referring to continuous sinful conduct.  Here is the recent English Standard Version, a translation whose General Editor is the scholar Wayne Grudem, a conservative reformed Evangelical theologian.

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.

1 John 3:9 [ESV]

This conforms to the Scriptural fact that we have a sinful nature which remains in the flesh after salvation, to be wrestled with daily with the help of the Holy Spirit.  As Jesus admonished us:

Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Matthew 26:41 [ESV]

Further, when he gave us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus reminded us that we do not cease sinning when we are saved, and that we must ask God’s forgiveness daily.  In addition for thanking God for our daily bread, we pray as well

Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.  And lead us not into temptation.

Luke 11:4 [NIV]

To help me with confession and forgiveness, I have composed a Prayer of Confession that I put on my Amazon kindle which I read in my daily devotions.  My prayer begins with a Scriptural acknowledgement of my sin:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:8-9 [ESV]

Once acknowledged, realizing that we must approach God sincerely and personally, one-on-one, my prayer follows with Scriptural encouragement and further acknowledgement of the privilege of the redeemed in Christ:

Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession . . .  Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:14, 16 [NKJV].

Finally, my prayer ends with a confession, adapted from the Holy Eucharist service in the Anglican/Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, with a pause where I can insert those specific sins that the Holy Spirit brings to my attention and prompts my memory to reveal to me:

I will confess my sins unto Almighty God

Most merciful God,
I confess that I have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what I have done,
and by what I have left undone.

[Specifically, I have . . .]

I have not loved you with my whole heart;
I have not loved my neighbors as myself.
I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on me and forgive me;
that I may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.


All together now, here is my daily prayer of confession:

A Prayer of Confession

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [1 John 1:8-9]

Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession . . . Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. [Hebrews 4:14, 16]

I will confess my sins unto Almighty God

Most merciful God,
I confess that I have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what I have done,
and by what I have left undone.

[Specifically, I have . . .]

I have not loved you with my whole heart;
I have not loved my neighbors as myself.
I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on me and forgive me;
that I may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.


Posted by: davidlarkin | June 2, 2012

The Holy Spirit and Divine Action in the Material World


“Pentecost” by El Greco c. 1596-1600, Museo Del Prado, Madrid

Christians believe that God works in the world, that He interacts with the world and with us, that He is a physical causal influence on events in the material world. Divine action in the world may be general or special. God can be said to act generally through the regular structures of the world, matter and the laws of nature, which God created and sustains. This General Divine Action (GDA) parallels and is the means of General Revelation, that God reveals himself in nature. As poet Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote —

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

from Hopkins’ poem, God’s Grandeur

And as David wrote in Psalm 19:1 (NIV):

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.   

Thus, God reveals himself generally in nature through General Divine Action.

I have written in a prior post about the constant work of God in holding the material universe together.  God is the essence, the active power of the forces that we describe as doing that, namely, the physical forces including gravity, and the strong and weak forces that hold the repellent subatomic particles together. See What is a Force?

Theologically, the constant holding of the universe together, the divine order manifested in His laws of nature set in motion by God, the prime mover, at the moment of creation, would be the work of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus or the Word of God.

In the beginning was the Word,and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
. . .
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-5, 14 (NIV)

Speaking of our Lord Jesus, Paul writes:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things,and in him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:17 (NIV)

We believe in this divine activity despite our simultaneous acceptance of a theoretical scheme of natural laws which on a physical level, science tells us, determine physical events, subject to an underlying and inherent modern indeterminacy: events occurring as a matter of an ambiguous and uncertain probability labelled as quantum or chaos. Clearly, there is room for God to work in a quantum world or an unknowable chaos of events beyond or hidden from observation. Contemporary theologians speculate about this locus for the interactive Special Divine Action sometimes referred to as “SDA.” This special or particular divine action parallels the special revelation of God’s redemptive plan revealed in the Scriptures, as general revelation is God revealing Himself in nature through general divine action.

God may be interacting as well in the internal world of the mind, moving our spirit to make choices, or gain wisdom in our subjective minds or souls. We believe that God is interacting with us and with our minds, hopefully influencing somehow our desires and choices.  He carries out his will with particularity through particular or special divine action.  With the source or physical locale, if any, of the human consciousness unknown to science and philosophy, what is referred to as the hard problem of consciousness, faith stands firm in our Christian experience of the interaction of God with us in our subjective worlds of our minds.  In faith, we rely on God to give us wisdom, to lead us, protect us and provide for us. We pray for these blessings. In our desire to carry out the will of God, in faith we look for signs, or simply trust that he is with us as we make our choices and walk as strangers in a strange land. The material comfort we enjoy can make it a challenge to remember that we are not of this world. We need to be reminded. Here, the Apostle Peter admonishes us:

Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.

1 Peter 1:17 (NIV)

With the faith that God is acting in the World, the Hebrews used the Urim and Thummin, some device of randomness used for making decisions and determining the will of God, like an oracle, where God guides the random process to deliver a message.

Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the LORD. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD

Exodus 28:30 (NIV)

After Jesus was crucified and Judas Iscariot had committed suicide in shame, the Apostles were short one of the twelve. They decided to choose a successor by casting lots, allowing God to intercede in the action of a seemingly random act, as Aaron did with the Urim and Thummin, telling the Apostles who His choice was to succeed Judas:

(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)

“For,” said Peter, “it is written in the book of Psalms,

‘May his place be deserted;
let there be no one to dwell in it,’
‘May another take his place of leadership.’

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts 1:18-26 (NIV)

This practice of choosing a successor to the Apostles by casting lots continues today in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt:

On the day of his consecration the Patriarch Elect of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt is traditionally led to the cathedral having spent the previous night in chains keeping vigil by the dead body of his predecessor.  When he arrives at the cathedral he is taken to the altar and stands between the bishops as his deed of election is read aloud to the congregation:

We besought the Spotless Trinity with a pure heart and an upright faith to
reveal unto us him who (was) worthy of this meditation … Therefore, by an
election from above’ and by the w’orking of the Holy Spirit and by the assent
and conviction of us all, it was revealed unto us to have regard unto N for the
Apostolic Throne of the divinely-prophetic Mark.

What is particularly interesting is the procedure adopted by the Copts to manifest most reliably God’s choice and revelation of their new Pope the election from above and working of the Holy Spirit is invoked by means of a wry ancient tradition.  In the election of their sixty-fifth Pope, HH Shenute II (1032-1046): the Copts adopted a process analogous to the Nestorian custom of choosing their patriarch by means of picking lots.  Throughout the next nine hundred years this process was only used occasionally until it became accepted as the standard method of selection in the twentieth century with the election of the patriarch, HH Shenouda III, on 31 October 1971.

HH Pope Shenouela III was chosen by the process of al-Qur’ah al-Haykaliyya, which literally means “the choice of God from the Altar.”  The names of the final three candidates for election are written on identical slips of paper and placed into a sealed box.  During the Mass a very young boy is selected from the congregation.  He is blindfolded and the priest opens the box.  As the congregation pray the Lord’s Prayer and chant “Lord have mercy” the boy chooses one of the slips inside.  The name picked is that of the new Patriarch.

Of course there are certain things we can say about how God brings about this revelation.  Central to the modern Coptic ceremony is the belief that God helps to form the intentions of all of those involved in the selection of the three names that will be written on the lots and many intercessionary prayers are made to ask for God’s guidance in this matter.  In the ceremony of the young boy choosing the slip there are two further implicit statements about God — both of which have Biblical parallels: that God has knowledge of the configuration of the slips in the box and knows which slip has which name written upon it: and that God can make his specific intention known to the mind of one child who then chooses in accordance with that intention without himself knowing which slip to choose.  Both of these are essential claims about the extent of God’s knowledge of the natural world — the exact configuration of the slips in the box, and the nature of the boy’s thought processes.  The latter element also includes a claim that God is capable of acting in the world on the level of human mental processes and accordingly instigates the child’s movements.

A strong element of the selection of the Coptic Patriarch is that God is capable of guiding a chance-like process and has knowledge of how to effect that process in a suitable way to select a desired result.  Put another way, God acts with intention to determine an otherwise random selection by virtue of knowledge and foresight of the implications of that determination.  .  .  .

[emphasis added) Nicholas Saunders, Divine Action & Modern Science, p. 1-4.

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Ecclesia semper reformanda est

This is Part 2 of a series of posts on Annihilationism, the Christian doctrine that the eternal destiny of lost souls is eternal death, annihilation, after the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. This doctrine is contrary to the traditional orthodox position that lost souls consciously suffer eternal torment in hell fire, which I will refer to as “Traditionalism” and those who subscribe to the doctrine as “Traditionalists.” Part 1 of this series on annihilationism is found here on my blog.

As I previously contended in Part 1, Annihilationism is supported by Scripture, and the traditional doctrine of conscious eternal torment is not supported by Scripture, despite more than 17 centuries of acceptance of Traditionalist doctrine as orthodox. Traditionalism relies on the premise that the soul is immortal, a doctrine that is not found in Scripture. In fact, the Bible teaches that the soul is not immortal.  This post will further discuss the false doctrine of the immortal soul, the foundation upon which the doctrine of conscious eternal torment of the lost rests.  I will begin with some review of the Annihilationist doctrine as discussed in my prior post. Annihilationism is generally coupled with conditional immortality. Immortality is the gift of eternal life given to those who believe which is conditioned on election.

As I wrote in Part 1, the Biblical support for the Annihilationist view begins in Genesis, Chapter 3.

And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.

Genesis 3:22-23 (New International Version 1984)

Whether you understand this passage and the Genesis creation story as literal history, or as a true myth provided by God as revelation of the fallen nature of humankind, or consider the Bible to be just an ancient text, in this passage God banishes mankind from the Garden of Eden expressly so that we cannot live forever. Sin entered the world accompanied by death.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:23 (New International Version 1984)

Who gets eternal life?  Those who believe in Jesus Our Lord!  John affirms the gift of immortality to those who believe in this familiar passage:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 3:16 (King James Version)

Here, those who do not believe “perish.” The primary meaning of “perish” is to die. However, when a Traditionalist reads this, he or she substitutes “. . . should not suffer eternal torment in hell” for “. . . should not die.” In discussing this passage with a Christian friend, my wife asked her what the word “perish” meant. Without hesitation, her friend responded, “Eternal torment in hell.” If the word “perish” is used anywhere else to describe what happened to someone, in the newspaper describing a house fire, or an auto accident, we think “death”, the cessation of life. But we have been brainwashed to read “eternal torment in hell” whenever a Bible verse is referring to the fate of the lost, whether death, destruction, perish, or eternal punishment or destiny.

John 3:16 is clearly referring to eternal destiny of the believer, eternal life, and clearly should be read as referring also to the eternal destiny of the unbeliever; he or she will “perish”, will die.

You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.

John 11:50 (NIV)

In fact, the Traditionalist makes this substitution for all of the references to the “death”, “destruction”, and eternal “punishment” of the lost souls. It should be obvious that cessation of existence forever is an eternal punishment, but Christians tend to ignore this because of the strength of Traditionalism in the Christian Church and in our Western culture.  Capital punishment is the most serious punishment that we have in our human system of justice, and the Bible authorizes this punishment beginning in the Old Testament proportional system of punishment summarized in the well-known Biblical passage:

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Exodus 21:23-24 (NIV).  In order to accept the doctrine of eternal torment, the Christian must be able to accept the justice of eternal suffering in hell, conscious suffering forever, as justified by a temporal life of sin on earth which may be as short as a moment, if you believe that unbaptized infants go to hell, or 13 years for a teenager who dies an accidental death without a saving faith in Christ.

John Furniss was a 19th Century Roman Catholic priest who was known for his ministry to children.  In a book authorized by the Roman Catholic Church, Furniss mercilessly describes the fate of the child who dies without baptism, condemned by original sin:

“The fifth dungeon is the red-hot oven. The little child is in the red-hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out; see how it turns and twists itself in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor. God was very good to this little child. Very likely God saw it would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished more severely in hell. So God, in his mercy, called it out of the world in early childhood.”

quoted in Henry Constable 1868 – Duration and Nature of Future Punishment, pp. 141-142.  To write this, Furniss or anyone would have to overlook the barbaric injustice, and rely on some mysterious divine judgment that could justify such disproportionate and clearly sadistic punishment to an innocent infant without rational conciousness.  God gave us our conscience and moral sense.  Why would He have us believe that He would do this to an infant who dies without grace?

Henry Constable was an Anglican minister who wrote a definitive argument for Annihilationism in his 1868 book — the entire book in pdf is available here:  Henry Constable 1868 – Duration and Nature of Future Punishment.  The recent theologians who have argued for Annihilationism are indebted to Constable, including Edward Fudge, whose exhaustive 466 page study of the doctrine of eternal punishment, originally published 1982, examines Biblical references from Genesis to Revelation, and extra-Biblical references as well from the period between the Old and New Testament to look at what people at the time of Jesus thought about eternal destiny, arguing persuasively against the Traditionalist dogma of eternal conscious torment in hell, The Fire that Consumes.  As I wrote in Part 1, in reading Fudge’s book, I was surprised to find that F.F. Bruce, a prominent mainstream Evangelical historian/scholar, wrote the Foreward, commending Fudge’s work, claiming himself to be agnostic like C.S. Lewis on the question of eternal torment versus annihilation.  I highly recommend both Constable’s and Fudge’s books.  I also recommend Glenn People’s excellent paper, Why I Am an Annihilationist  which is among his work on annihilationism and other theological and philosophical subjects found on his blog.

For the Traditionalist, not only does the lost person suffer incredible torment forever for his temporal sins and inherited fallen nature, but the elect, the chosen ones, saved by the mercy of God, are supposed to rejoice.  Here, Jonathan Edwards describes what the saints in heaven will experience looking upon lost souls suffering torment in hell:

Every time they look upon the damned, it will excite in them a lively and admiring sense of the grace of God…The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven.

Jonathan Edwards, “The Eternity of Hell Torments,” IV.

As Evangelical theologian and scholar Clark Pinnock, an Annihilationist, has described this unfathomable eternal schadenfreude as follows:

Not only is it God’s pleasure so to torture the wicked everlastingly, but it will be the happiness of the saints to see and know this is being faithfully done. It would not be unfair to picture the traditional doctrine in this way: just as one can imagine certain people watching a cat trapped in a microwave oven squirming in agony and taking delight in it, so the saints in heaven will, according to Edwards, experience the torments of the damned with pleasure and satisfaction.

Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper], p. 6 [First published in Criswell Theological Review: 4.2 (1990), 243-259]. Pinnock’s paper is the best short defense of Annihilationism I have read, and I recommend it highly.  I rely on it extensively in this post.

How can this be?  I cannot imagine feeling such joy, or being changed so that I put natural affection and empathy aside to experience “joy” at such eternal suffering.  If you believe that the lost souls suffer eternal torment in hell, it is apparently logically necessary (and psychologically necessary as well, to avoid cognitive dissonance), to also believe that the sanctified soul in heaven must rejoice in the sufferings of the lost because the Christian believes that there is no sorrow in heaven.   Surely, even if you are a Traditionalist and believe this is a Biblical doctrine, if you are honest and have any sense of empathy or pity or mercy, you must admit that this is a miserable doctrine to attribute to the loving God that we find in the Bible, regardless of His wrath and hatred of sin which offends His pure and holy nature.  As Pinnock further writes:

Let me say at the outset that I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed. How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon His creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself. How can we possibly preach that God has so arranged things that a number of His creatures (perhaps a large number predestined to that fate) will undergo (in a state of complete consciousness) physical and mental agony through unending time? Is this not a most disturbing concept which needs some second thoughts? Surely the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is no fiend; torturing people without end is not what our God does. Does the one who told us to love our enemies intend to wreak vengeance on His own enemies for all eternity? As H. Küng appropriately asks, “What would we think of a human being who satisfied his thirst for revenge so implacably and insatiably?”

Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper], p. 8.

I reviewed arguments for Annihilationism in my first post on the subject.  Now I want to concentrate on the foundation of the Traditionalist doctrine — the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  The Bible says there is one who is immortal, God.

God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal . . . . 

1 Timothy 6:15-16 (NIV)

Paul clearly tells us that the gift of eternal life clothes us mortals with immortality.

To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.

Romans 2:7 (NIV) and further, describing the believer’s transformation, clothed with the gift of eternal life, Paul writes:

 I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. . . . For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

1 Corinthians 15:52-54 (NIV)

Immortality is the gift of eternal life given to those who believe, not to those who are damned.  And yet, in order for souls to suffer eternal torment they must also be given eternal life.  If lost souls literally suffer torment in fires of hell, then, as Glenn Peoples puts it, either the lost must be given an infinite mass in order to be consumed in fire forever, or God must constantly regenerate the resurrected body cast into hell as it is consumed by the eternal fires of hell moment by moment forever. The honest traditionalist admits that the lost soul must also be given immortality in order to suffer in hell for forever, even though there is no Biblical support for a gift of eternal life to the lost, only to the saved.

Pinnock sums up succinctly as follows:

Belief in the immortality of the soul has long attached itself to Christian theology. J. Maritain, for example, states: “The human soul cannot die. Once it exists, it cannot disappear; it will necessarily exist forever and endure without end.”18 To this we must say, with all due respect, that the Bible teaches no such thing. The soul is not an immortal substance that has to be placed somewhere if it rejects God. The Bible states that God alone has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16) and that everlasting life is something God gives to humanity by grace (1 Cor. 15:51-55). Eternal life is not something we possess by any natural right according to Scripture. Immortality is not inherent in human beings. We are dependent on God for what happens to us after death. Rather than speaking of immortal souls, the Bible refers to resurrected bodies, to persons being reconstituted through the power of God (Phil. 3:20). In a word, Jesus Christ “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).

Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper], p. 14.

How did this happen?  As Constable and others have written, in the 3rd century, the Christian Church incorporated the Greek concept of the immortal soul into the theology of eternal destiny.  Augustine was the Church father who is most responsible for the adoption of the immortality of the soul, and the consequent doctrine of eternal torment.  In his theology, Augustine adopted the Platonic belief of the immortality of the soul, though he did not believe in the Platonic belief in the preexistence of the soul.  According to Peter Brown, writing in Augustine of Hippoin the period just before Augustine’s conversion to Christianity and his baptism in 387, Augustine absorbed himself in the writings of the neo-Platonists where he learned his Platonism.  Plato’s own writings were not available to him then.  In that same year of his baptism, Augustine published a series of “sketches” titled On the Immortality of the Soul.   There, Augustine argues for the immortality of the soul from reason, not from Scripture.  For Augustine, the soul is the Platonic form of the body, the eternal idea derived from God, the Supreme Good, and the body is animated by the soul. The body gets is form and its life from the soul which is derived from God, the Supreme Good.  As such, the soul is immortal.  Augustine reaches this conclusion by arguing that the soul and reason are inseparable because he also has found that the mind and reason co-exist and that the soul and the mind are one.  He concludes:

Consequently, if, as we said above, the soul is a subject in which reason is inseparably (by that necessity also which it is shown to be in the subject), neither can their be any soul except a living soul, nor can reason be in a soul without life, and reason is immortal; hence the soul is immortal.

A Christian relying on revelation in Scripture could easily call this nonsense, but this is Augustine, and apparently, the Church has not been interested in tracing his belief in the immortality of the soul.  This immortality comes to us living in our body on this earth in this life through our soul.  Plato equated the form of the Good, the ultimate form, with God, and Augustine does as well, for example, in Chapter XV of On the Immortality of the Soul, Augustine writes:

The soul is prior to the body in connection with those supreme and eternal principles which survive unchangeably and are not contained in space; and the soul’s connection is not only prior but also greater; as much prior as it is nearer, and for the same reason as much greater as it is better than body.  And this nearness is not in place but in the order of nature.  According to this order it is understood that the supreme essence bestows form upon the body through the soul by which it exists in whatever degree it does exist.  Therefore, the body subsists through the soul, and it exists to the extent that it is animated, whether universally, as the world, or particularly, as some animal or other within the world.

This is philosophy.  It is not theology.  There are no citations to Scripture supporting the immortality of the soul in Augustine’s On the Immortality of the Soul.  The soul is immortal for philosophical reasons, based on a Platonic idea of God.

Later in life, Augustine wrote a masterpiece, the City of God, comparing the world with the kingdom of God using the analogy of two cities (from which my blog gets its name).  In the City of God, Augustine is arguing against annihilationists of his time who believed that the lost, those who die without Christ, do not live forever in torment in hell.  Without any reference to Scripture regarding the immortality of the soul, which is unusual for the mature Augustine, Augustine refuted the annihilationist by assuming the soul’s immortality as follows:

The soul gives life to the body by its presence: it rules the body; and this soul itself can suffer pain, while incapable of death. Here we have found something which feels pain and yet is immortal. This property, which now, as we know, belongs to the souls of all men, will at that time belong to the bodies of the damned.

Augustine, City of God, Book 21, Chapter 3, Penguin Books (2003), Trans. Henry Bettenson (1972).

Martin Luther did not believe in the immortality of the soul.  He considered it to be a Roman Catholic lie, as he wrote with colorful language:

However, I permit the Pope to establish articles of faith for himself and for his own faithful—such are: That the bread and wine are transubstantiated in the sacrament; that the essence of God neither generates nor is generated; that the soul is the substantial form of the human body that he [the pope] is emperor of the world and king of heaven, and earthly god; that the soul is immortal; and all these endless monstrosities in the Roman dunghill of decretals—in order that such as his faith is, such may be his gospel, such also his faithful, and such his church, and that the lips may have suitable lettuce and the lid may be worthy of the dish.

(emphasis added) Martin Luther, Assertio Omnium Articulorum M. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X. Novissimam Damnatorum (Assertion of all the articles of M. Luther condemned by the latest Bull of Leo X), article 27, Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, vol. 7, pp. 131, 132 (a point-by-point exposition of his position, written Dec. 1, 1520, in response to requests for a fuller treatment than that given in his Adversus execrabilem Antichristi Bullam, and Wider die Bulle des Endchrists).

Interestingly, early Church father and theologian Origen also assumed the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul and further adopted the Platonic belief in the preexistence of the soul.  However, because Origen believed that Scripture teaches that God eventually eradicates evil, and death and hell, Origen taught that the souls in hell eventually were saved, adopting a universalist position on salvation.

Constable describes the contradictory positions that resulted from Augustine and Origen’s belief in the immortality of the soul:

Before the preaching of the Gospel, the highest order of heathen philosophy had framed for its satisfaction a theory of the immortality of the soul. While the great mass of mankind had absolutely no hope of any future life; and while far the greater number of philosophers taught that death was for all an eternal sleep; there were “high spirits of old” that strained their eyes to see beyond the clouds of time the dawning of immortality. Unable, as we are able, to connect it with God as its source, and with his promise as their assurance, they framed the idea of an immortality self-existing in the human soul.  Egypt, the prolific mother of religious error, appears, from the best authorities in our hands, to have been the source of this idea. But it was extracted from the tombs and the hieroglyphics of Egyptian priests by the brilliant and restless curiosity of Greece. Socrates, and his great pupil, Plato, presented it to the human mind wherever the Grecian intellect penetrated, and the tongue of Greece was known.  Cicero recommended the theory of the Academy to his contemporaries in his “Tusculan Questions.” They did not indeed teach it at all consistently, nor do they appear themselves to have relied with any firmness on its reality.  It was with them a great hope fitfully entertained, rather than a sober conviction. “I have perused Plato,” Cicero sadly complains, “with the greatest diligence and exactness, over and over again; but know not how it is, whilst I read him I am convinced; when I lay the book aside and begin to consider by myself of the soul’s immortality, all the conviction instantly ceases. It is indeed doubtful whether any of the great minds of antiquity in their esoteric or inner faith held more than the tenet of Buddhism, which teaches that the soul, originally derived from Deity, is at length to be re-absorbed and lost in Deity again:

“That each, who seems a separate whole
Should move his rounds, and fusing all
The skirts of self again, should fail,
Remerging in the general Soul.”—TENNYSON.

5. However this may be, those of whom we speak presented to the common mind an idea not so vague as this. The conception of it kindled their imagination, and the discussion of it afforded a theme for their logical powers. According to it, the soul was possessed of an inherent immortality. It had no beginning and could have no end. What was true of one soul was equally true of all souls, good or bad. They must live somewhere, be it in Tartarus, or Cocytus, in Pyriphlegethon, or the happy abodes of the purified. This idea, sublime for a heathen, passed readily and early into the theology of the Christian Church. Philosophers, converted to Christianity, brought with them into their new service too much of their ancient learning. Heedless of Paul’s warning voice against philosophy in general, they considered that a considerable portion at least of Plato’s philosophy must be exempted from the apostolic condemnation. We find accordingly the Platonic philosophy of the soul’s immortality running through and blending with the theological reasoning of Athenagoras and Tertullian, of Origen and Augustine.  Teachers who should have consulted only the oracles of God, leaving behind them their heathen lore as Moses left behind him the learning of Egypt, supplemented those living oracles with theories drawn from a brilliant Greek philosophy, which was in its turn suggested by the priest-craft taught in Egyptian temples. Their theory was that the life of the wicked must be as eternal as the life of those here redeemed and brought to Christ, because every soul of man was immortal.

6. A moment’s reflection will show us that a dogma of this kind could not remain idle. It must influence irresistibly in one direction or another this whole question of future punishment. It must mould the entire doctrine of the Church upon the subject.  According as men connected it with one truth of Scripture or another, it must give rise to two opposite schools of thought. Connect the immortality of the soul with the scriptural  doctrine of the eternity of punishment, and you inevitably create the dogma of eternal life in misery, i.e. of Augustine’s hell. Connect it with another great truth of Scripture, the final extinction of evil and restitution of all things, and you as inevitably create Origen’s Universal Restoration. For each of these opposing theories there is exactly the same amount of proof, viz.:—Plato’s dogma and a dogma of the Bible; and if Plato’s dogma could be proved to be a scriptural doctrine, then, by every law of logic, Scripture would be found supporting two contradictory theories, or, in other words, would itself destroy all its claims to authority.

7. Accordingly, this philosophical idea of Plato is found influencing most powerfully and most unfairly the interpretation of Scripture from the second century down to our own time. An example of this will probably show this more forcibly than any words of ours. Tertullian is commenting upon our Lord’s teaching in Luke xix. 10: “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost.” (Vulgate, quod perierat). No one knew better than Tertullian the primary and proper meaning of the Latin verb pereo, and that it meant, “to vanish,” “to die,” “to perish,” “to be annihilated.”  Why would he not attach this meaning to it when he was commenting upon the text of the Latin version? Here is his own account:  “We, however, so understand the soul’s immortality as to believe it lost, not in the sense of destruction, but of punishment, that is, in hell. And if this is the case, then it is not the soul which salvation will affect, since it is ‘safe’ already in its own nature by reason of its immortality; but rather the flesh, which, as all readily allow, is subject to destruction.”  Such was the influence upon the interpretation of Scripture which his theory of the soul forced upon Tertullian. It led him to deny to the terms of God’s word what he knew to be their primary and proper meaning, and to affirm that the salvation of our Lord had no relation to the human soul, but only to the bodies of men! A similar influence this theory has had upon theologians down to the present day.

[footnotes omitted]  Henry Constable 1868 – Duration and Nature of Future Punishment, pp. 14-19.

There are several passages of Scripture that Traditionalists use as proof texts that have been discussed by the prominent scholars who believe Annihilationism is supported by Scripture, including John Stott in “Essentials”  See  john-stott-discusses-hell.  Clark Pinnock discusses the passages that support Annihilationism followed by the passages cited by Traditionalists in the previously cited article, which since this is a blog, is worth citing in its entirety as follows:


What I want to do is what I am assured cannot be done, namely, to show that the Bible does not teach Augustine’s version of the doctrine of hell.  Almost all who defend his view admit that the idea of everlasting torment is a genuinely awful concept, but they go on to defend it anyway on the assumption that it is nevertheless mandatory scriptural truth (much as a strict Calvinist argues in defense of his doctrine of the sovereign reprobation of the nonelect—recall Calvin’s reference to “the horrible decree”).  They tell us that they do not like the doctrine any more than anyone else but have to espouse it because it is a biblical idea and they have no choice but to uphold it. They make it sound like the infallibility of the Bible were at stake. Let us ask then whether the traditional doctrine of hell is biblically and theologically sound. In my view it is not.

1. The strong impression the Bible creates in this reader with regard to the fate of the finally impenitent wicked is a vivid sense of their final and irreversible destruction. The language and imagery used by Scripture is so powerful in this regard that it is remarkable more theologians have not picked up on it. The Bible repeatedly uses the language of death, destruction, ruin, and perishing when speaking of the fate of the wicked.  It uses the imagery of fire consuming (not torturing) what is thrown into it. The images of fire and destruction together strongly suggest annihilation rather than unending torture. It creates the impression that eternal punishment refers to a divine judgment whose results cannot be reversed rather than to the experience of being tormented forever.

Frankly it is a little annoying to be told again and again by the defenders of everlasting torment that there is no biblical case for the annihilation of the wicked. A. Pink, for instance, calls the position an absurdity, while W. Hendriksen says he is aghast that anyone would argue otherwise than for hell as everlasting torment; and Packer attributes the position to sentimentality, not to any scriptural ground. But is it not really quite the other way around? Does the burden of proof not rest with the traditionalists to explain why the strong impression of the destruction of the wicked which the Bible gives its readers should not just be believed?

A brief overview of the Bible will show what I am driving at. The Old Testament gives us a clear picture of the destruction of the wicked (perhaps because it is more oriented to this world than the next) and supplies the basic imagery of divine judgment for the New Testament as well. Consider Psalm 37 where we read that the wicked fade like grass and wither like the herb (v. 2), that they will be cut off and be no more (vv. 9, 10), that they will perish and vanish like smoke (v. 20), and be altogether destroyed (v. 38). Listen to this oracle from the prophet Malachi: “For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (4:1). The message is plain—the finally impenitent wicked will perish and be no more.

Turning to the New Testament, Jesus’ teaching about the afterlife is sketchy in matters of detail. While he certainly referred to a destiny beyond the grave either of bliss or woe, he did not bother to give us a clear conception of it. He was not a systematic theologian but a preacher more concerned with the importance of a decision here and now than with speculations about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell. At the same time Jesus said things which support the impression the Old Testament gives us.

He presented God’s judgment as the destruction of the wicked. He said that God could and perhaps would destroy body and soul in hell, if He must (Matt. 10:28). Jesus’ words are reminiscent of John the Baptist’s when he said that the wicked are like dry wood about to be thrown into the fire and like chaff to be burned in the unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:10, 12). He warned that the wicked will be cast away into hell like so much rejected garbage into the Gehenna of fire (5:30), an allusion to the valley outside Jerusalem where sacrifices were once offered to Moloch (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6), and possibly the place where garbage actually smoldered and burned in Jesus’ day. Our Lord said that the wicked will be burned up there just like weeds when thrown into the fire (13:30, 42, 49, 50). The impression is a very strong one that the impenitent wicked can expect to be destroyed.

The Apostle Paul communicates the same thing, plainly thinking of divine judgment as the destruction of the wicked. He writes of everlasting destruction which will come upon the wicked (2 Thes. 1:9). He warns that the wicked will reap corruption (Gal. 6:8). He states that God will destroy the wicked (1 Cor. 3:17; Phil. 1:28). He speaks of their fate as a death they deserve to die (Rom. 1:32) and which is the wages of their sins (6:23). About the wicked, he states plainly and concisely: “Their end is destruction” (Phil. 3:19).

It is no different in the other New Testament books. Peter speaks of “the fire which has been kept until the day of judgment and the destruction of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:7). The author to the Hebrews speaks of the wicked who shrink back and are destroyed (Heb. 10:39). Peter says that false teachers who deny the Lord who bought them will bring upon themselves “swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1, 3). They will resemble the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which were “condemned to extinction” (2:6). They will perish like the ancient world perished when deluged in the great Flood (3:6, 7). Jude also points to Sodom as an analogy to God’s judgment, being the city which underwent “a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). Similarly, the Apocalypse of John speaks of the lake of fire consuming the wicked and of the second death (Rev. 20:14, 15).

At the very least it should be obvious to any impartial reader that the Bible may legitimately be read to teach the final destruction of the wicked without difficulty. I am not making it up. It is not wishful thinking. It is simply a natural interpretation of Scripture on the subject of divine judgment. I think it is outrageous for traditionalists to say that a biblical basis for the destruction of the wicked is lacking. What is in short supply are texts supporting the traditional view.

2. Some advocates prefer to call their position conditional immortality rather than annihilationism because it sounds more positive to the ear. Underlying the doctrine of annihilation, after all, is a belief in conditional immortality, the understanding that our immortality is not a natural attribute of humankind but God’s gift. This is clearly an important issue in our discussion because belief in the natural immortality of the soul which is so widely held by Christians, although stemming more from Plato than the Bible, really drives the traditional doctrine of hell more than exegesis does. Consider the logic: if souls must live forever because they are naturally immortal, the lake of fire must be their home forever and cannot be their destruction. In the same way, the second death would have to be a process of everlasting dying and not a termination of existence which is impossible. I am convinced that the hellenistic belief in the immortality of the soul has done more than anything else (specifically more than the Bible) to give credibility to the doctrine of the everlasting conscious punishment of the wicked. This belief, not holy Scripture, is what gives this doctrine the credibility it does not deserve.

Belief in the immortality of the soul has long attached itself to Christian theology. J. Maritain, for example, states: “The human soul cannot die. Once it exists, it cannot disappear; it will necessarily exist forever and endure without end.”18 To this we must say, with all due respect, that the Bible teaches no such thing. The soul is not an immortal substance that has to be placed somewhere if it rejects God. The Bible states that God alone has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16) and that everlasting life is something God gives to humanity by grace (1 Cor. 15:51-55).  Eternal life is not something we possess by any natural right according to Scripture. Immortality is not inherent in human beings. We are dependent on God for what happens to us after death. Rather than speaking of immortal souls, the Bible refers to resurrected bodies, to persons being reconstituted through the power of God (Phil. 3:20). In a word, Jesus Christ “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).19

The Greek doctrine of immortality has affected theology unduly on this point. It is one of several examples where there has been an undue hellenization of Christian doctrine. The idea of souls being naturally immortal is not a biblical one, and the effect of believing it stretches the experience of death and destruction in Gehenna into endless torment. If souls are immortal, then either all souls will be saved (which is unscriptural universalism) or else hell must be everlasting torment. There is no other possibility since annihilation is ruled out from the start. This is how the traditional view of hell got constructed: add a belief in divine judgment after death (scriptural) to a belief in the immortality of the soul (unscriptural), and you have Augustine’s terrible doctrine.

Nevertheless, I do not call my position conditional immortality. It is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of my view. Conditional immortality has to be true for a negative reason—to make the destruction of the wicked conceivable, but it does not positively establish annihilation simply because it would still be possible that God might give the wicked everlasting life and condemn them to spend it in everlasting torment.  Conditional immortality then, while necessary to belief in annihilation, does not prove that annihilation is true. The key issue remains my first argument: the Scriptures suggest the destruction of the wicked.

3. As I intimated earlier, everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom He does not even allow to die. How is one to worship or imitate such a cruel and merciless God? The idea of everlasting torment (especially if it is linked to soteriological predestination) raises the problem of evil to impossible dimensions. A. Flew was quite right (I think) to say that, if Christians want to hold that God created some people to be tortured in hell forever, then the apologetic task in relation to theodicy is just hopeless.  Stott seems to agree: “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.”  I even wonder what atrocities have been committed by those who have believed in a God who tortures His enemies?

Naturally, various attempts have been made by the traditionalists to hide the gruesome problem. C. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, for example, make use of postmillennial eschatology to argue that very few persons (relatively speaking) will go to hell anyway. Presumably we do not need to worry much if only a negligible number is tormented while a numerical majority is saved. Such a calculus, however, achieves little: first, because few today would accept the postmillennial premise to begin with, and second, because the tens of millions still suffering everlasting torture even under their scenario are tens of millions too many.

Alternatively it is common to try to hide the moral problem by redefining hell. C.S. Lewis tries this when he pictures hell in The Great Divorce as almost pleasant, if a little gray, being the kind of place from which one can take day trips on the bus into heaven and return again to meet with the theological society which meets regularly in hell.  This resembles Sartre’s picture of hell in No Exit as consisting of being cooped up with the other people forever. In these terms, hell is nasty and inconvenient, but certainly no lake of fire. Thus by sheer speculation the biblical warnings are emasculated and the moral problem dealt with by fancy footwork devoid of exegesis. The fact is that the biblical warnings spell a terrible destruction awaiting the impenitent wicked, and if hell is everlasting there is no way to make it other than endless torture. I understand why traditionalists want to take the hell out of hell, but it should not be permitted, because it breaks the concentration and prevents people from seeing the need for theological renewal on this point.

4. The need to correct the traditional doctrine of hell also rests upon considerations of the divine justice. What purpose of God would be served by the unending torture of the wicked except sheer vengeance and vindictiveness? Such a fate would spell endless and totally unredemptive suffering, punishment just for its own sake. Even the plagues of Egypt were intended to be redemptive for those who would respond to the warnings.  But unending torment would be the kind of utterly pointless and wasted suffering which could never lead to anything good beyond it.  Furthermore, it would amount to inflicting infinite suffering upon those who have committed finite sins. It would go far beyond an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. There would be a serious disproportion between sins committed in time and the suffering experienced forever. The fact that sin has been committed against an infinite God does not make the sin infinite. The chief point is that eternal torment serves no purpose and exhibits a vindictiveness out of keeping with the love of God revealed in the gospel. We should listen to H. Küng:

Even apart from the image of a truly merciless God that contradicts
everything we can assume from what Jesus says of the Father of the lost,
can we be surprised at a time when retributive punishments without an
opportunity of probation are being increasingly abandoned in education
and penal justice that the idea not only of a lifelong, but even eternal
punishment of body and soul, seems to many people absolutely monstrous?

5. Finally, from a metaphysical point of view, everlasting torment gives the clear picture of an unending cosmological dualism. Heaven and hell just go on existing alongside each other forever. But how can this be if God is to be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28) and if God is making “all things new” (Rev. 21:5)? It just does not add up right. Stott asks: “How can God in any meaningful sense be called ‘everything to everybody’ while an unspecified number of people still continue in rebellion against him and under his judgment?” It would make better sense metaphysically (as well as biblically, morally, and justicewise) if hell meant destruction and the wicked were no more. Otherwise the disloyal opposition would eternally exist alongside God in a corner of unredeemed reality in the new creation.

6. Nevertheless, the reader may be asking, have I not forgotten something important? What about the texts which have always been taken to support the doctrine of everlasting conscious torment? In regard to them I would say that their number is very small. The texts which can be taken to teach this doctrine are few in number and capable of being fairly interpreted in harmony with the majority of verses which teach the destruction of the wicked. I deal with these “difficult” texts in the way that biblical inerrantists or high Calvinists deal with the difficult passages they face.

(1) “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).  This imagery is taken from Isaiah 66:24 where the dead bodies of God’s enemies are being eaten by maggots and burned up. It is safe to say there is not a hint of everlasting suffering in the verse. The fire and the worm destroy the dead bodies; they do not torment them. The fire will be quenched only when the job is finished, not before. The tradition simply misreads the verse.

(2) “They will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). I admit that the interpretation of everlasting, conscious torment can be read out of this verse if one wishes to do so. Such a meaning is not at all impossible from the wording, especially if one smuggles the term “conscious” into it as is very common.26 But there are considerations which would bring the meaning more into line with what I judge to be the larger body of evidence. Jesus does not define the nature of eternal life or eternal death in this text. He just says there will be two destinies and leaves it there. One is free to interpret it to mean either everlasting conscious torment or irreversible destruction. The text allows for both possibilities and only teaches explicitly the finality of the judgment itself, not its nature.  Therefore, one’s interpretation of this verse in respect to our subject here will depend upon other considerations. In the light of what has been said so far, I think it is better and wiser to read the text as teaching annihilation.

(3) But did not the rich man suffer torment in the flames in a famous parable of Jesus? (Luke 16:23ff.). Yes, this is part of the Jewish imagery Jesus uses. But one should keep two things in mind here: first, the mention of Abraham’s bosom (v. 22) should alert us to the fact that we are dealing with imagery, not literal description; and second (and more importantly), the story refers to the intermediate state between death and the resurrection and is not really relevant to our subject. This point should not be missed given the fact that the passage is used regularly (and erroneously) in the traditionalist literature to describe hell, not the intermediate state.

(4) But what about those passages in the book of the Revelation of John which speak of Satan, the false prophet, the beast, and certain evildoers being tormented in fire and brimstone (Rev. 14:11; 20:10)? Only in the first case (14:11) are human beings at all in view, and it is likely that what is being described is the moment of their judgment, not their everlasting condition, with the smoke going up forever being the testimony to their final destruction. In the other verse (20:10), it is the Devil, the beast, and the false prophet who are the only ones present, and they cannot be equated with ordinary human beings, however we should understand their nature. John’s point seems to be that everything which has rebelled against God will come to an absolute end. As Caird comments: “John believed that, if at the end there should be any who remained impervious to the grace and love of God, they would be thrown, with Death and Hades, into the lake of fire which is the second death, i.e. extinction and total oblivion.” I think it would be fair to say that the biblical basis for the traditional view of hell has been greatly exaggerated.

Positively I am contending that Scripture and theology give solid support to the doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked. The case is impressive if not quite unambiguous, and the traditional view looks less likely in comparison with it. Yet I would not say that either side wins the argument hands down largely because the Bible does not seem concerned to deal with this question as precisely as we want it to. But it is amusing to hear traditionalists claiming that they alone hold to the infallibility of the Bible as illustrated by their holding to everlasting torment of the wicked.  Their position is in fact very weakly established biblically.

[footnotes omitted] Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper], p. 11-19.

In conclusion, the Traditionalist doctrine, that the lost suffer conscious eternal torment in hell, relies on a false doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  Scripture strongly supports the Annihilationist doctrine.   In his paper, Clark Pinnock has strong initial words expressing his outrage at the defenders of the Traditionalists who argue that the Annihilationist position is grounded in secular sympathy for the lost.  His words are worth pondering:

How should I begin? Shall I treat the subject in the calm way one would when dealing with another issue? Would it be right to pretend to be calm when I am not? To begin calmly would not really communicate a full account of my response. I do not feel calm about the traditional doctrine of hell, and so I will not pretend. Indeed, how can anyone with the milk of human kindness in him remain calm contemplating such an idea as this? Now I realize that in admitting this I am playing into the hands of the critics, when I admit how disturbed the doctrine makes me. They will be able to say that I have adopted arguments on the basis of sentimentality and a subjective sense of moral outrage. In a recent paper, J.I. Packer has said that he dislikes the idea which critics of everlasting conscious punishment seem to have of their moral superiority, when it is not spiritual sensitivity, he says, but secular sentimentalism which motivates them (referring in the context to none other than his esteemed evangelical and Anglican colleague J. Stott).  Nonetheless, I will take the risk of beginning at the point of my outrage and hope people will hear me and not put it down to sentimentality. To such a charge I would reply: if it is sentimentality which drives me, what drives my opponent? Is it hard-heartedness and the desire for eternal retribution? Such recriminations will get us nowhere fast.

Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper], p. 7-8.

Our God is a loving God, who shows mercy to us who believe as a matter of grace alone.  In addition to conforming to Scripture, it is fitting that a righteous judge whose nature is love would justly punish the lost after the first death, and then end their existence in the second death, rather than punish with conscious excruciating pain forever.

I conclude with a video of a lecture by Edward Fudge on “Three Views of Hell.”


For reference, Part 1 of my discussion of the doctrine of conscious eternal torment of the lost in hell and Annihiliationism is found by clicking here.

Posted by: davidlarkin | April 15, 2012

Susan Larkin’s Testimony

Here is the testimony of my wife, Susan Osborn Larkin:

I want to give a little background, before I tell what the Lord did with my life. I am an only child, my mother took her own life when I was 3. I was told I was present, although mercifully I don’t remember. She’d had several miscarriages after I was born and she was suffering grief and depression.  I myself had 4 miscarriages after our son Wyatt was born so I can relate to her grief and sorrow in that respect. Miscarriage is a clinical word for a medical event that in no way speaks of the life of the baby who died.  It was going to be my son’s baby sister or someone else’s first grandchild, a person that was loved and held great hope for its family.  Pastor Jack Hayford wrote a wonderful book called “I’ll Hold You in Heaven”.  (He was founding pastor of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys and my husband’s pastor who baptised him.)  The book is out of print, but can be found online. It will give confident assurance that any infant or child, no matter how it died, is in the arms of Jesus, safe in His care.  I only have two memories of my mother, one is of her taking me to church and I also remember the song “Jesus Loves Me” from that time in my life. So I have hope that I may meet her one day in heaven.

Barely a year after she died, my father married a woman he had known in medical school. She was recently divorced from a man who she discovered had been unfaithful to her. As a result, she had been excommunicated from the Catholic church and she was a very angry and bitter person. My stepmother did not like children and particularly did not like me…I was little and looked like my mother whom she had known – secretary to the dean of the medical school they went to – and my father loved me, that was enough for her.

As soon as I was old enough, around 5 or 6, she started sending me away. I really grew up in summer camp, boarding school and with relatives, anywhere but home. I would sometimes spend the entire summer at the camps, early June through end of August. One of the strongest childhood memories I have was of being homesick for a home that didn’t really exist. I wanted to go home, but then I would get there and it would be just awful. She was frightening and cruel to me. But mostly, I was just terribly lonely. Her parents were lovely people, she had 3 sisters and 2 brothers and they were wonderful to me, so spending summers with them wasn’t all bad. My dad loved me, but I never got to spend enough time with him.

Although I spent many years in Catholic boarding school, we never went to church and there was virtually no mention of God in our home, other than profanity. The nuns always tried to get me to be baptized and become a Catholic. We used to collect dimes to “buy a pagan baby” in Africa and what that meant was to buy a baptism for them. They always joked that we are saving the dimes to get Suzie baptized.

My understanding from the nuns was if you were white, well off (Joan Crawford and ZsaZsa Gabor sent their daughters there) and Catholic you could go to heaven. I felt a sense of hypocrisy which I didn’t understand at the time and I just didn’t quite believe them. I wanted to belong and I tried but I just couldn’t believe what they did. They were absolutely in love with Mary. We were always supposed to be ‘Mary-like”, not a bad thing – they stressed modesty and reverence. Our school papers were always titled, “All for Jesus through Mary”. But we should have been Christ-like.

After 10 really turbulent years, my father divorced my stepmother when I was in high school , it was the happiest day of my life.  Almost immediately he remarried a nurse he met at work. My new stepmother was 9 years older than I, so I was 15, she was 24 and he was 49. When he first brought her home, she was so young, I thought she was supposed to be a friend for me. Dad, I have friends and they’re way cooler than her! It was a very peculiar situation, but over the years she and I have grown very close; she is the only mother I have ever known as well as a sister and dear friend, and she has always loved me both for my father’s sake and for my own and she is very precious to me.

And by the way, God did a healing work in my spirit and I have been able to truly forgive my first stepmother for the heartache and rejection of those early years. I understand her better as an adult than I did as a child, among other things she was an alcoholic, which explains a lot I didn’t understand then.  I was told by adult friends that she was bitterly jealous of me which I will never understand, but that was part of the trouble

While I was still in high school, the Monterey Pop Festival came one town over from mine.  It was a turning point in our culture and certainly in my life. If I say hippie or flower child just imagine the direction my life took.  There was nothing at all off limits as far as I was concerned.  I smoked pot and took psychedelics; I had a leather dress, drove a Volkswagen bus and, of course, wore beads and flowers in my hair. I look back on that time with great shame now, I was so very lost

After high school I started college but I dropped out and I spent the next 20 years or so moving from job to job, boyfriend to boyfriend, city to city. I had some interesting adventures. I lived in a hippie commune in the Haight Ashbury down the street from the Haight Ashbury. I worked on a pot farm in Mendocino for two summers – it was dangerous work because of the sheriffs who flew over in helicopters – they never found our ‘garden’. We made a lot of money doing that and I lived on a sailboat in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico with the farmer from Mendocino for a year.

I worked as a flight attendant for an international airline for five years. I traveled all over the world. I went everywhere I ever dreamed of and places that never crossed my mind. The most exotic and beautiful cities in the world were our regular destinations (my first flight was to Rio de Janeiro) although we also had some dark and depressing flights.  We evacuated the refugees from the Viet Nam war, the sorrow of those people was heartbreaking as they left their country, homes, villages, families, friends, culture, language and everything they had ever known for a new life in America. We took Nigerian Muslims to Saudi Arabia for their Hadj pilgrimage to Mecca – that was harrowing in the extreme.  I had a boyfriend during those years who was a well-known (cover of Sports Illustrated) professional athlete so I was always excited to get back to America no matter where we had traveled.

I worked in the television and film industry for about five years after that. I was in the Star Trek V movie filmed in part at the Monterey Aquarium, worked 2 seasons on Doris Day’s Best Friends, soap operas, commercials, music videos. I was in a terrific car accident at one point, in which neither I nor my passenger were injured, but I was sued and that was a interesting and horrible experience. So interesting that I went to paralegal school which I found fascinating and I worked for some lawyers after that.

When I was about 36, I was living in the small town in northern California that I grew up in, Carmel, kind of an artist colony, tourist destination, but also a retirement community. I had an apartment, a job, a cat and a pretty empty life. About that time, two things happened to begin to change the course of my life. I had a job that  sent me to Bali for 3 weeks and I missed my best friend’s wedding.  So I went to visit her in the Bay Area when I returned. We had flown together and partied and carried on  for years during the disco era in San Francisco. I was really impressed with how well marriage suited her. She had been such a wild woman. She was calm and happy and sober and that made a huge impression on me. It crossed my mind to reconsider never getting married because I had decided a long time before-when I was 11 or 12 – never to get married or have children. (You would have to have really known my stepmother.) I had just so rarely seen a long-lasting marriage that was happy.  The women’s lib movement had solidified my determination.

So I was thinking about marriage. The other thing that came to my mind about that time was that I needed some sort of a “spiritual life”. I had no idea what I meant by that, I was thinking maybe Buddhism, something to do with “inner harmony” or peace, maybe the ‘supernatural’. I just didn’t want anything that was going to take up too much time or make me change in any way.

About 2 weeks later I ran into a man named David whom I had met several times before. The first time I was having lunch with my stepmother Dale, he was introducing himself to everyone in this little café and asking people to vote for him, he was running for city council. I read later in our little town paper, the Carmel Pine Cone, he was a lawyer from LA. And I thought ugh! I’ll never vote for him and I didn’t. It turns out I actually married him, but I didn’t vote for him. (He was not elected either.)

So outside my work one day we started talking. We actually intersected outside my building, I was walking home for lunch and he walked with me. It was a Wednesday and he asked me to go to church with him that night to a Bible study at the Calvary Chapel in Pacific Grove. I thought, this is really strange, not dinner or cocktails or the movies, but church? People go to church at night? Why? I hadn’t been on a date in a long time and I thought well, either he is weird or he’s special but I said I would go. He made it clear he was a born again Christian and he got saved reading the Bible twenty years earlier in college.

And what do you know? The pastor was teaching on sin that night, I remember it was the gospel of John. I was positive that everyone in that whole church knew who the sinner was that he was talking about. I felt as if there was a spotlight on me, not knowing the first thing about the Holy Spirit and how He works. I remember the pastor saying that God does not grade sin like humans do, in other words that some are severe and others are not so bad. He said that you either live your life in God’s will or your own, that there was no fence to sit on.

He specifically talked about some activities and behaviors that God calls sins which I considered at that point in my life a form of entertainment…sleeping with people you weren’t married to, drug and alcohol use (abuse), gossip and backbiting, things I had done for years and so did almost everyone else I knew. I almost always felt bad after I had done these things, but just kept doing them anyway time and time again.

But the pastor’s words from the Bible rang true like nothing I had ever heard and were such a comfort to me. I found out that there was a way to live and feel good about yourself and know what was right and why. After the service, I told David I don’t know if you want to bring me back on Sunday, but I am definitely going to be here. He said he would bring me back.  He said he’d be happy to bring me with him.

I told you my mother had taken her own life when I was three. My father had killed himself when I was 28. It was absolutely the shock of my life. I loved my father completely and after that I had periods of severe depression and I was troubled with suicidal tendencies for years. I sometimes felt as if I couldn’t control them. I didn’t want to die, but I often didn’t want to live either. It was an emotional burden that I always carried with me. I always thought when things got rough, well if your parents can just check out and leave you, why not? One counselor I did talk to helped me to understand it a little, he said if someone you loved had been murdered, you might feel like killing someone, you identify with their experience – it made sense at the time. About a week after I met David and had been to church twice, the thoughts of suicide were overpowering. I had actually scheduled an appointment with a psychologist.

I saw this woman and she said how horrible it all was that my parents both killed themselves and how I would have to be in therapy for at least a year, I would likely need medication and there was no assurance that she could help me but it was just so depressing. So afterward I went by Dave’s office and immediately he asked what was wrong with me. I just met him and I really wanted him to like me and I didn’t want him to know how messed up I was, but I just felt drawn there, so I told him all about it and he asked if I had ever prayed about it.

Well, of course not. This wasn’t a problem for God, this was my problem. He had to run the universe. What could God do or what would He do? I really didn’t know who God was. The only prayers I knew for sure were Our Father and Hail Mary and I was pretty sure that wasn’t what I needed.

Since I was so upset and didn’t know what else to do I went home. I had never prayed anything but emergency prayers in my life, you know, God pleeeeeease don’t let this airplane fall out of the sky, I had had a couple of close calls, one in a jungle in Africa and believe me, I was praying. Or God, if you get me this job, I promise I will do something, not do something. I truly did not know how to talk to God but I remember saying, “You know how terrible I feel and I don’t want to die and I don’t want to live like this any more. Please help me”.

The Lord spoke to my heart for the first time I ever really heard Him. His message was clear and unmistakable, in words I heard in my brain not in my ears. These are the exact words He said, “Forgive those people. Don’t look behind yourself at them, look ahead to Me.” Instead of the suicide thing that is what filled my brain! I almost fell over, I could not believe that God Himself had a message for me. I was surprised to know I needed to forgive my parents, but I immediately did. I didn’t even know the Lord but I was already experiencing His power. He was “calling me out of darkness into His marvelous light”. That was the moment I knew I could take God at His word. The Lord delivered me from that oppression that held me in bondage for so many dark years at that moment 27 years ago and I never felt suicidal again

After that 1st Bible study, I kept asking Dave questions. I wanted a rational intellectual explanation about God and why someone ought to make a commitment to follow Him. So he always would point me to a Scripture, give me a tape (he had 100’s of them, it seemed, one for every question) or give me a book that I could find answers in, but he never tried to convince me himself. About 2 weeks after that first night at church, I prayed with Dave at the beach and committed my life to the Lord. I confessed that I was a sinner in need of a Savior and asked Jesus to be the Lord of my life. I have joy on earth in place of the emptiness and loneliness of all those years and I know for certain I have the promise of heaven. One of my favorite scriptures is from Isaiah, also found in Romans 10“I was found by those who did not seek me, I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” So true in my life!

I have two dear younger cousins who are Christians who had prayed for me for 10 years. When I called the older sister Jenny to tell her I was saved, we were weeping with joy. She said, “I prayed for you and my brother for ten years and you were both saved the same year. You were on my ‘impossible list’, but God doesn’t have an impossible list!” So I want to encourage you to continue to pray for that impossible person, because He saved even me! Don’t give up!  Psalm 27:10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me. Amen!!

I had a bad habit that I hadn’t quit and that was soap operas. Don’t take this wrong if you watch soaps, some things are okay for some people that aren’t for others – it was spiritually unhealthy for me. I had gotten hooked on them many years earlier living with a roommate who watched them. Later I worked on some soaps and I actually met Nicki and Victor and Ashley. If you are smiling, you know who they are. I would tape 3 or 4 soaps every day and watch them at night. If you are unfamiliar with this particular bad habit, I suppose it is similar to pornography, it can be very addictive. Maybe not wrong for everyone, but not good for me as a new believer.

So one morning all of a sudden I had this terrible burning pain in my stomach. I was in my kitchen and I doubled over. I was standing in front of the refrigerator and when I opened my eyes I saw this magnet “The Young and the Restless”. I knew the Lord was telling me it was time to give it up. I went to the VCR and took the tape out and promised Him I would not entertain myself with TV shows, movies, magazines and things like that that were ungodly. With His grace, I have been faithful to that promise.  The pain began to subside and as I walked back to the other room, it suddenly came again. Much more painful, like I had swallowed acid. If I had not been a believer I would have dialed 911, but I began to pray instead for relief. I lay on the bed curled up and the Lord began to remind me of many of the times and people I had had the opportunity to be a good example to and I was not. He reminded me of people I had totally forgotten and things I had done. He spoke to my heart that when I put the name of Christ over my own, I had a commission to be His representative on earth. He took away many ungodly desires that day and delivered me. (I just recently remembered I got rid of the refrigerator magnet that day too.)

A lot of other things happened during that time. I had a back injury 15 or more years earlier and it caused a lot of pain in my hip, particularly while sitting. Every Sunday at the end of the service our pastor read from James 5:14, If any man is sick …. he should be anointed with oil, and the elders will pray for him. I had been going to a chiropractor for the pain for years, but every Sunday when he read that I could sense the spirit of God urging me to go forward. For some reason, I just wouldn’t do it. Self conscious, embarrassed, I don’t know.

After months, finally one Sunday I went forward. I told the two elders why I was there and they asked if I believed that God could heal. Of course I did. They asked if I had faith for God to heal me. I did not and I said so. They said, well, that’s all right because we do, very enthusiastic, very confident, I’m thinking, yeah right. As they prayed I thought I sensed a warmth flowing through my body, but I convinced myself that it was my imagination. However, that particular pain left that day and I am sure my chiropractor wondered what happened to me, but I never needed him again. I do have some back problems. I found out I have spina bifida, scoliosis, bone spurs, some fused discs, arthritis and of course I still have damage from that injury, but that particular pain, pain from sitting, they prayed for went away.

David and I dated for about a year and he asked me to marry him, about a year after we had met. The Lord directed us to move to Arizona after the wedding in 26 yrs ago this past December and we spent the first night here in a hotel. We went to bed and I couldn’t sleep. I was seized with the most paralyzing fear. I had left my home, my family, friends, church, pastor, job, town and moved to this place –I remember he said the Phoenix metropolitan area was 400 square miles and that terrified me, my home town city limits are one square mile–I didn’t know anyone here.

I just said what have I done? Who will be my friend? The room was absolutely pitch black and at that very moment I had a vision of Jesus. His eyes were looking right at me, His hair and skin and robe were luminous golden silver light and He spoke to me, not out loud, but He said, “Don’t be afraid. I will be your Friend.” Immediately the fear was replaced with the most incredible peace and I went to sleep. (I know this was a miracle because I couldn’t see anything with out my contacts and I could see Him perfectly, even His eyelashes.) He truly has been my Friend and has blessed me with many others over the years here.

The same month we got married, I became pregnant which was such a surprise and blessing. I guess it always is, but I was almost 40 and didn’t know if I could become a mother so that was a joy and still is. I once told David that people told me when they heard this story they were surprised that God delivered me so quickly in so many ways when they had struggled for years with some of the same things, quitting smoking for example. He replied, “Well, Susan, when I met you I had walked with the Lord for 20 years. I prayed for God to send to send me a wife for 8 years – not a girlfriend, a wife. He had to bring you to a level of faith quickly in order for us to be equally yoked. I couldn’t wait another 8 years for you to grow up spiritually so we could be married!”

My husband encouraged me to share a story that really impacted our family.  When Wyatt was 2 his dad and I worked at the same office of course. But Dave left at 8 and I left with Wyatt at 8:30, dropped him at the babysitter and went on to work.  One morning he said, “I want Daddy take me Mary Grace.” I said, no honey, we’ll watch Sesame Street” – that’s what we had done every morning for 6 or 8 months.  He repeated it, I want Daddy take me Mary Grace.  His dad was in the room and he said, it’s ok, I’ll take him.  After they left, the beds were made, the dishes done and I went into my room to pray the way the nuns teach you (for some reason I can’t remember).  You kneel by the bed, close your eyes, fold your hands and bow your head. But I couldn’t pray…in my mind all I could hear was “Call the mechanic, call the mechanic.”

I had an old car and it had play in the steering wheel for about 4 weeks. So I called the 2 Italian Christian brothers – Giovanni and Luigi – who fixed my car.  Whoever answered said  – don’t drive the car, put it on a tow truck and get it down here, whatever you do, don’t get behind the wheel. When he called me later, he said there is a steering box, it functions to connect the steering wheel to the tires.  It had 3 bolts, 1 was missing, 1 was hanging loose and only 1 was connected.  We lived at the time at the top of North Mountain, Point Tapatio, 7th street, very steep. There were 7 lanes at 45 mph.  In those days the baby car seat was in the front seat, facing front. If I had lost the ability to steer my car going downhill at rush hour I could have been a catastrophe. When I got the car back and drove to work the next time, when I opened the door, there was the bolt lying right where I parked every day.  We believe the Lord used the baby to save our lives and possibly others that day.

I’ll tell you the first time I shared my testimony and why. We were in a little church in Tempe, I had been a Christian for about 2 years, we had a newborn baby. The pastor said a lady was going to start a prison ministry and she wanted to tell us about it and see who wanted to help her. I thought, “That’s nice, crooks. No thanks.” And I really wasn’t listening to her at all, because the whole time she was talking, the Lord was speaking to me “Susan, I want you to go. Susan, I want you to give your testimony.” And I was saying “No, no, no, no!” I don’t remember hearing a word she said, just this dialog in my head with the Lord. So afterward I went up to her and said, “God wants me to go jail with you.” – with a major attitude, and she was so excited, oh that’s great, praise God. So we went one Friday night a month, we took the church band, my husband played electric guitar and after several months of ministry, I did have the chance to share the story you just read.

But the interesting thing was the work he did in my heart the first night. We sang a song, “Change my heart oh God, make it ever true, change my heart o God, let me be like you.” And he showed me, basically told me there is no difference between you and them, just a blue suit – you’re on one side of the door and they’re on the other. I’m the One who decides who is where. Plenty of things you have done that could put you in one of those seats, sister. And it really did change my heart. But the sweetest thing would happen after service. We would sit in groups with the women and pray with them. It would absolutely break your heart. “Pray that my child would send me a postcard, I haven’t heard from him in 3 years.” “ My mother is sick, please pray that she won’t die before I get out.” “ Pray that my daughter will forgive me.” So that prison ministry that I dreaded became the thing I looked forward to the most and the chance to tell them my story helped them to trust me.

Joel 2:25 says the Lord will redeem the years the locusts have eaten and he was so merciful to bless me, in spite of my rejection of Him for all that time, I feel like the locusts didn’t just eat those years, but I fed my life to them.

1 Cor 2:9 says, “No eye has seen, nor ear has heard, no mind conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.“So the Lord has blessed me with a wonderful stepmother in place of the mother I never had, her husband, my stepfather who I love dearly to replace the father I lost, the husband I never wanted, the child I never dreamed of and now I have a step-sister and step-brother, 4 sister in laws, 3 brother in laws – 1 is in heaven already, he got saved the day he died, lots of nieces and nephews, truly a big family, and of course, all the brothers and sisters in Christ and many other dear and wonderful friends. Not only that, I have four children and three siblings in heaven waiting to meet me.  God is so good!

So one last thing. A few years ago Beth Moore came to speak at Grand Canyon University, she’s a gifted Christian speaker. Some of you were there and the weekend’s topic was scars-really, scars. What she meant was our scars are evidence of wounds healed by Jesus. She said tomorrow I am going to ask some of you to tell how Jesus healed your wound. And they could be physical but also mental, emotional even spiritual – e.g. if you were raised in a cult.  My darling friend Margi was on death’s door, days away and the Lord provided a transplant that saved her life-she has lived eleven years now, praise God, and she’s so thankful when she sees her scar.

Next day, all the way across the stadium, a young girl stood up and you could see at that great distance her arm was badly scarred. She said when she was a tiny girl she had been attacked by a dog, almost lost her arm. While she was still in the hospital the doctor asked her father if she liked music, well she’s 4 I guess so. The doctor suggested she be taught violin so instead of a useless, atrophied arm the muscles and tendons would develop and it could be strong and useful. And her testimony was that because Jesus healed that terrible wound, she was 1st violin in the symphony in the city she lived in, an amazing accomplishment for such a young woman. She was so thankful she has a talent, a passion and a profession.

If you are here today and you have a wound, one that is not yet healed, seek a confidential, godly woman who will pray with you. Or if you just can’t share it with another, do what I did with the open wound of suicide and loss-take it straight to the Lord. He wants to heal you and deliver you from that burden. Just ask Him.

It could be in an instant or it could be a process but nothing is too big, too bad, too much for our God. Psalm 30:2 O Lord my God, I called out to you for help and you healed me. His Name is Jehovah Rapha The God who Heals…He heal bodies, minds, hearts, relationships, lives.

So let’s pray. Father in Heaven, thank you for the abundance of love, mercy, blessing and healing you pour out on us every day. Make us an example of the life of your Son Jesus, and expression of His abundant love and an exhibition of His mighty power so You may be glorified in all we do. In Jesus Name, Amen


Click here for Susan Larkin’s Message to the Arizona Community Church Women’s Bible Study Group

Click here for David Larkin’s Spiritual Memoir



Posted by: davidlarkin | April 15, 2012

Why Must God’s Saving Grace be Irresistible?

Why do Calvinists believe that God’s saving grace is irresistible?  Simply, if God’s saving grace was not irresistible, no one would be saved.  The Calvinist or Reformed Christian believes that Scripture teaches that the natural fallen man is dead in his sins.  The natural man is without  the ability to discern spiritual things, let alone choose to believe and trust in the Lord Jesus, to believe that He died for our sins, was raised from the grave on the third day, and is alive today preparing a place for us in the heavenly realms.  Even godly sorrow, necessary for true repentance, is not natural and requires the grace of God.

Thus, Calvinists believe that salvation is entirely a sovereign work of God.  Hence God’s sovereign election of those sinners to whom he shows His mercy and extends His grace is necessary that anyone be saved.  Salvation is solely a work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of men and women whose minds have been blinded to the truth:

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

2 Corinthians 4:4 (NIV)

But without reading what John Calvin wrote, from the way Calvin is referred to in the history books, and commonly referred to in the public sphere, one could conclude that Calvinism is uniquely Calvin’s own doctrine of grace, somehow different from what the Bible teaches.

Hardly.  Calvin relies on Holy Scripture, Paul primarily, and Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings (in which Augustine also relies on Paul), when he develops his argument for sovereign election of the saints, God’s chosen elect.  In this selection from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge), Chapter 34 from Book Three, Chapter 2, “Of Faith. The Definition of It. Its Peculiarities.“, Calvin explains how and why the work of the Holy Spirit is necessary for us to receive saving faith.

34. But as Paul argues, “What man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man but the Spirit of God,” (1 Cor. 2:11). If in regard to divine truth we hesitate even as to those things which we see with the bodily eye, how can we be firm and steadfast in regard to those divine promises which neither the eye sees nor the mind comprehends? Here human discernment is so defective and lost, that the first step of advancement in the school of Christ is to renounce it (Mt. 11:25; Luke 10:21). Like a veil interposed, it prevents us from beholding divine masteries, which are revealed only to babes. “Flesh and blood” does not reveal them (Mt. 16:17). “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned,” (I Cor. 2:14). The supplies of the Holy Spirit are therefore necessary, or rather his agency is here the only strength. “For who has known the mind of the Lord? or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34); but “The Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God,” (1 Cor. 2:10). Thus it is that we attain to the mind of Christ: “No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.” “Every man therefore that has heard, and learned of the Father, cometh unto me. Not that any man has seen the Father, save he which is of God, he has seen the Father,” (John 6:44, 45, 46). Therefore, as we cannot possibly come to Christ unless drawn by the Spirit, so when we are drawn we are both in mind and spirit exalted far above our own understanding. For the soul, when illumined by him, receives as it were a new eye, enabling it to contemplate heavenly mysteries, by the splendor of which it was previously dazzled. And thus, indeed, it is only when the human intellect is irradiated by the light of the Holy Spirit that it begins to have a taste of those things which pertain to the kingdom of God; previously it was too stupid and senseless to have any relish for them. Hence our Savior, when clearly declaring the mysteries of the kingdom to the two disciples, makes no impression till he opens their minds to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:27, 45). Hence also, though he had taught the Apostles with his own divine lips, it was still necessary to send the Spirit of truth to instill into their minds the same doctrine which they had heard with their ears. The word is, in regard to those to whom it is preached, like the sun which shines upon all, but is of no use to the blind. In this matter we are all naturally blind; and hence the word cannot penetrate our mind unless the Spirit, that internal teacher, by his enlightening power make an entrance for it.

[emphasis added]

This is only one of many arguments Calvin makes with Scripture as his proof in his Institutes to explain why salvation is entirely the work of God.  It is odd to me that salvation, as entirely the work of God, is identified with Calvin, or Augustine, rather than Paul, when it is Paul who wrote:

 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—  not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:8-12 (NIV), and

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love  he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace  that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 

Ephesians 1:3-8 (NIV)

No one can understand why God saves some and others are condemned to die in their sin.  We can only testify to the truth as we are commanded to do, and let the Holy Spirit carry out the plan.  Nevertheless, it is wrong for anyone, even those who believe, to resist the truth revealed in Scripture because an imperfect human reason and moral sense cannot understand the ways of God, the Creator of the Universe, and his righteousness and justice.   As Paul bluntly says:

But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

Romans 9:20-21 (NIV).

We can only bow our heads and humbly acknowledge his glory, thankful that He chose us, and pray for the salvation of those we love, or rather, those who the Spirit leads us to pray for, including those who seem impossible to love.

 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! 
   How unsearchable his judgments, 
   and his paths beyond tracing out! 
 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? 
   Or who has been his counselor?” 
 “Who has ever given to God, 
   that God should repay him?” 
 For from him and through him and to him are all things. 
   To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11:33-36 (NIV) (Doxology)

Posted by: davidlarkin | January 16, 2012

A Laundry List of Faults

As I have written in prior posts, I have been working my way through William Barclay’s 1965 Prayers for the Christian Year which follows the traditional church liturgical calendar and provides a prayer for each Sunday of the church year and for church holy days.  The subject of the prayer for the First Sunday after Epiphany included at the conclusion of this post, is the problem of right conduct in light of human faults which are distributed to all with our fallen natures.

For the Christian, spiritual conversion is only the beginning of a lifetime process of sanctification, to approach a holy life in this life.  We must be humble and honest with ourselves, intermittently at best, to be able to recognize our sins and the accompanying habits that exhibit our faults. Prayer is a communication with God, and is surely a means to grace in the communion with God alone. Petition, however, seems to be more specific: a request for specific help from God. In the Scriptures, the authors occasionally use the words prayer and petition together in the same verse, which implies a distinction in meaning. For example, the prophet Daniel uses the words together here:

Daniel 9:17

Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary.

and Paul does so as well:

Philippians 4:6

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

And the author of Hebrews:

Hebrews 5:7

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.

A prayer as a communication with God may lack petition as in the case of a prayer of worship and praise. For example, Psalm 72 contains petitions for God’s blessing on the King, but the concluding verses of Psalm 72, verses 18-20, are words of praise which are not directed at God, but are acts of praise and worship manifesting the awareness of the greatness of God in the prayer induced consciousness of the presence of God:

Praise be to the LORD God, the God of Israel,
who alone does marvelous deeds.
Praise be to his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory.
Amen and Amen.
This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.

Also, a prayer of thanksgiving does not petition for favor, but thanks God for his provision, and should follow answers to prayer.

Nevertheless, in practice, prayer and petition are more synonymous than not: whether by weakness or design, we pray for action from God — on our behalf for ourselves or for others, or for God’s will to “be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

William Barclay’s prayer in this case, the First Sunday after Epiphany, is fully a petition to God for our own needs, in particular, the wisdom to know what we ought to do and the power to do what we ought to do. In order to act as we should, we need to be saved from the faults and habits that obstruct our ability to discern the right path and to follow it.  In this prayer, Barclay includes a comprehensive laundry list of universal human faults that interfere with our ability to act rightly and with love of God and neighbor. Honest review of the list of faults is humbling, at least it is for me. This is a prayer for deliverance from domination by evil. As Jesus taught us to pray: “Deliver us from evil.” While the habits on their face seem natural, commonplace, the fact that we are commanded to pray for deliverance reveals the supernatural source of the commonplace banal faults of humankind:

O God, our Father, give us wisdom to know what we ought
to do.

Save us from

The cowardice which will not face the truth;
The laziness which will not learn the truth;
The prejudice which cannot see the truth;
The stubbornness which will not accept the truth;
The pride which will not seek the truth.

Save us from

The folly that is deaf to conscience;
The arrogance which will not accept advice;
The self-conceit which resents all rebuke;
The shut mind that bars the door to the entry of the
Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth.

O God, our Father, give us grace and power to do what we
ought to do.

Save us from

The weakness of will which is too easily deflected from
its goal;
The lack of resistance which too easily yields to temptation;
The procrastination which puts things off until it is too
late to do them:
The want of perseverance which begins a task but cannot
finish it.

Save us from

The love of ease which chooses the comfortable way;
The fear of men which cannot stand alone;
The faint heart which will not venture for your name.

So grant us wisdom clearly to know and power faithfully to
fulfil your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Prior posts with William Barclay prayers:

Ash Wednesday Prayer for Christopher Hitchens

Prayer for the Church Invisible

Who Are the Hypocrites?

Morning Prayers

Posted by: davidlarkin | January 12, 2012

Lucian Freud Paints Isaiah Berlin

I wrote about celebrated 20th Century British Oxford philosopher/historian Isaiah Berlin and an old friend in my prior post, An Elegy for Lifelong Friendship. Another noteworthy event in Berlin’s life with an old friend occurred in 1996, a year before Berlin’s death. The British National Portrait Gallery offered artist Lucian Freud, Sigmund Freud’s grandson, a commission to paint a portrait of his choice.  From a universe of choice, he chose to paint his old friend Isaiah Berlin.  Lucian Freud first met Isaiah Berlin in 1938 at tea with Sigmund Freud at the Freud quarters in London at Maresfield Gardens, now the Freud Museum.

In 1996 in a studio on Kensington Church Street in London, Lucian Freud, 74 years old, and Isaiah Berlin, 86 years old, met again to make art.  Berlin sat for Freud more than a dozen times. Freud completed a charcoal drawing of Berlin’s head, but the oil portrait of Berlin sitting in an old armchair was never finished. Berlin’s biographer, Michael Ignatieff, describes Freud at work:

Isaiah sat in an old battered armchair while Freud sketched him first in pencil and then began to paint him in oils.  The time passed in gossip and then in silence, broken by the sound of charcoal on paper and paint on canvas.  As Freud worked, Isaiah passed in and out of sleep.  In the charcoal drawing, roughly eight by ten inches, Isaiah’s eyes are closed, his head back against the back of the armchair, his mouth shut, the curvature of his upper lip is perfectly caught, as is the shape of his bare forehead and his cheeks sunken and hollowed with age. In the oil painting, not much larger than a regular sheet of paper, Isaiah is shown leaning back with his head resting on the back of the battered armchair. Unlike the pencil sketch, his eyes are open. He is looking away to the left, full of melancholy, at something we cannot see.

(Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, a life, 1998: p. 296)

At the end of his life, poet Stephen Spender, a lifelong friend from Oxford who died in 1993, sent Berlin a poem by a ninth-century Chinese poet, “which was an elegy for their lifelong friendship.” This poem may be found at this blog post:

An Elegy for a Lifelong Friendship

Posted by: davidlarkin | January 12, 2012

An Elegy for Lifelong Friendship

Isaiah Berlin by Lucian Freud

Isaiah Berlin, portrait by Lucien Freud

Isaiah Berlin was a 20th century (1909-1997) Russian-born Oxford Don, philosopher, historian of ideas, and conversationalist extraordinaire. He is most famous for his essay Two Concepts of Liberty. The two concepts are referred to by Berlin as negative and positive liberty or freedom. Simply stated, negative liberty is the freedom from interference with individual choice of conduct, the freedom of the libertarian, and positive liberty is the freedom of the traditional liberal, freedom to flourish with the aid of rational collective action, e.g., traffic signals limiting the freedom to freely drive through an intersection. The traffic signals are collective recognition that limiting the freedom to drive also prevents harm from accidents which may interfere with an individual’s freedom to flourish, especially if the individual loses his or her life in an accident from an unregulated intersection.

Berlin’s biography, Isaiah Berlin, a Life, was written by Michael Ignatieff, Canadian writer, Oxford and Cambridge academic, and former politician (the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and Leader of the Official Opposition from 2008 until 2011). Berlin, a Russian-Jewish British immigrant, had an incredible life, a friend of international scholars, artists, poets, politicians, and aristocrats. During the 40s, Berlin was a confidante and intermediary between Zionist leaders Chaim Weitzman and David Ben Gurion during the movement which established the nation of Israel. Berlin died in 1997. I refer you to the biography for his life.

At the end of his life, poet Stephen Spender, a lifelong friend from Oxford who died in 1993, sent Berlin a poem by a ninth-century Chinese poet, “which was an elegy for their lifelong friendship”:

We are growing old together, you and I
Let us ask ourselves, what is age like?
The idle head, still uncombed at noon.
Propped on a staff, sometimes a walk abroad;
Or all day sitting with closed doors.
One dares not look in the mirror’s polished face;
One cannot read small-letter books.
Deeper and deeper, one’s love of old friends;
Fewer and fewer, one’s dealings with young men.
One thing only, the pleasure of idle talk,
Is great as ever, when you and I meet.

Isaiah Berlin, A Life p. 287-88.

Idle talk between old friends is certainly exempt from any moral consequence, a fleet passing pleasure of conflict free company and is “great as ever” — even by facebook and email.


Click here for my post Lucien Freud Paints Isaiah Berlin

Posted by: davidlarkin | December 6, 2011

The Sea Ranch

On November 5, 2011, while walking for exercise, I thought of a former pastor of a large church we attended for seven years, from 2000 through 2007.  Call him Pastor John.  When I got home from the walk, I sent him this email:

Pastor John:

I was walking today listening to Matthew’s gospel on my iPod, and I thought of you. We attended your church for nearly seven years.  I still listen to your doctrines of grace series on my iPod once a year or so. About nine or ten years ago you spoke in your sermon about vacationing at the Sea Ranch in Northern California. In 2002 I read a short poem, “Afternoon Walk: Sea Ranch” in Poetry Magazine, and I meant to send it to you. I forgot. I remembered today, found it in my archives, and hope it is God’s timing. I lived in Carmel, CA in the late 80s and drove by the Sea Ranch several times driving up Highway 1, looking out over the ice plants at the sea as I drove by. The poem moved me and I only drove by the Sea Ranch. Here is the poem, and I have attached it as PDF in case you like it and want to share it.


In memory of E.L.G.

Late light, uneven mole-gnawed meadow,
gullies, freshets, falls, whose start and speckle
Hopkins would have loved – and you – you too,
who loved the sheen and shade, the forest dapple
where grass meets cypress just beyond the house –
you’d praise the mushroom-sprout, the chilly glisten
as the hedgerow folds into the solstice
and suddenly the last crisp leaves unfasten . . .

This time of year, this place, light dims at the pace
of a long late afternoon walk, light seems to slow
and sorrow as the meadow turns its face
into your unlived season, the winter hollow
where only a steep sky, in quarter inches,
adjusts descending sun, ascending branches.


October/November 2002

The “Hopkins” reference is surely to Gerald Manley Hopkins and his memorable nature poems written in 1877, of which this is his most famous:


The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


The first poem in the email that I had forgotten to send him for 9 years describes the memory of walking through the Sea Ranch, a Northern California resort on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, with a deceased loved one, likely the poet’s spouse.

A few days later I was at Starbucks and noticed a younger man reading a book by R. C. Sproul, a favorite Christian theologian and writer.  He was also writing in a notebook.  I struck up a conversation, telling him how much I admired R. C. Sproul, and that Sproul’s book Chosen by God was one of my favorite books — a clear and concise discussion of predestination and Calvinism.  He said it was also one of his.  We were both Calvinists.  [As I see it, John Calvin adopts the doctrine of election and predestination first articulated by the Apostle Paul in his letters, and then by  St. Augustine.  Calvin relies on Scripture and Augustine, and states the doctrine so well, that his name was attached to the Biblical doctrine.  Martin Luther also accepted the Augustinian view of predestination and election].

The young man said he was a pastor of a church nearby, that he had come to Calvinism gradually, having been educated at an Arminian seminary, and was now a Presbyterian pastor, in the same denomination as Sproul.   Calvinists believe that God alone saves people — He chooses His elect before the foundation of the world, his grace is irresistible and once a person is saved, he will persevere.  Arminians believe that God, and man through the grace of God, and his free will, chooses God, that therefore God elects believers who choose Him, His grace is not irresistible, man can resist, and that once saved, a believer can fall away and lose his salvation.

I told him that I had come to agree with Calvinism over time in the late 90s, and that I became firm in that doctrine from the teaching of Pastor John, to whom I wrote the email above.  He said he was a good friend of Pastor John.  Then, he told me that Pastor John’s wife had died a week ago.  I had not heard about her death.

I was shocked to hear this.  I had just sent Pastor John a poem about walking at the Sea Ranch with a deceased loved one within a week after his wife had died, a dear loved one with whom he had surely walked at the Sea Ranch.  I hope that God wanted Pastor John to have that poem now, and that it was a blessing to him in his grief, and something he could refer to in the years ahead to recall fond memories.   If it was as I hope, then surely it was God’s timing for me to remember to send it to him after 9 years!


Here is a link to a subsequent post where I explain why God’s grace must be irresistible if we believe the Bible.

Why Must God’s Saving Grace Be Irresistible


Posted by: davidlarkin | November 5, 2011

Darkness at Noon

O God, you will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are fixed on you: for in repentance and rest shall we be saved; in quietness and trust shall be our strength.

Isaiah 26:3 and 30:15 (Adapted)

This devotional passage, which combines two verses from Isaiah, is adapted from the noon reading in the daily devotionals in the Anglican/Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (“BCP”). I prefer and have replaced “returning” in the BCP reading with “repentance” in the passage as the Hebrew is translated in the New International Version 1984.

I have the BCP daily devotionals as a personal document on my kindle for my use. Today I noticed the wisdom of placing this passage in the noon devotional. Mid-day is when we are half way through the stress of the work day and a pause for prayer for peace is just right. Noon can be a time of spiritual darkness – worry, anxiety, confusion, or just longing for the end of the work day or the work week as we contemplate a lonely sandwich, or skip lunch because there is no time.

In the mid-1980s, I remember waiting for a bus in Los Angeles while my spirit and mind were highly distressed about my life. Likely I was running out of money and wondering where I would find a job. I was carrying a pocket New Testament and I remembered Paul’s wonderful remedy for worry and stress:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:6-8 (New International Version 1984)

Paul tells us not to worry, and that through prayer for peace, we will have it. And with “thanksgiving” to give thanks, and to remind us of our dependence on God, and how He supplies our needs, including our emotional needs. Further he admonishes us to think on good things as a means to continuing peace. I remember reading that passage as a prayer waiting for the bus, and because it worked. It was the first time I had applied the passage in real time and I remember it vividly. The noon passage from the BCP is a very short prayer and petition for peace, hence the wisdom of including it at noon for devotions.

Paul’s admonishment is a practical application of Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-34 (New International Version 1984)

Ecclesia semper reformanda est

This past February 2011, some college classmates of mine from the 60s were having a good time arguing the physics of hell on our class email discussion listserv. Is Hell endothermic or exothermic? While some argued hell was endothermic, absorbing heat, as the only Christian in the discussion, I argued from Scripture, and what I recalled from physics, that hell was exothermic, oxidizing all that was thrown into the consuming fire, and giving off heat. Arguing that hell-fire was consuming, I was reminded of the annihilationist interpretation, and wrote about it to my classmates, who I suspect had never heard of that concept. “Annihilationism is the view that eternal life is the gift of God, and that those who do not receive this gift will not live forever.”

I began to study this — beginning with the controversial writing of John Stott. I first discovered in 1996 that there was another view besides “Traditionalism,” the doctrine that the lost suffer eternal conscious torment in hell, when I read an interview with John Stott, the saintly British Evangelical theologian/evangelist /writer, who died this year.  The Christianity Today obituary calls Stott “an architect of twentieth century evangelicalism [who] shaped the faith of a generation.” Reading the interview in 1996, I was surprised to find that he was agnostic on whether the Bible taught “annihilationism” or “eternal torment.” In February, I started my study reading Stott’s controversial statements in a long out-of-print book he wrote with David Edwards, Essentials – A liberal-evangelical dialogue, published in England in 1988, and a year later in the U.S. as Evangelical Essentials – A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue. David Edwards, the liberal, had credit as the author “with” John Stott. The American version changed the title to Evangelical Essentials, even though Edwards positions were not Evangelical, and John Stott responded to the liberal view with the Evangelical view. The name change must have been made for marketing purposes because of the larger Evangelical market in the U.S. I obtained a used copy of the 1988 British version, and read the controversial section written by John Stott on “Judgement and Hell” in response to Edwards liberal universalist view that all mankind is eventually saved by God. John Stott’s argument against universalism, but in favor of Scriptural support for annihilationism is found in an excerpt from Essentials by clicking here, John Stott discusses Hell I commend this passage to the reader as a courageous and powerful Scriptural case for annihiliation as the fate of the lost over the traditional dogma of eternal torment. The significance of this argument in the face of tradition is highlighted by Stott’s words of response to Edwards on pages 314-15:

You rightly say that I have never declared publicly whether I think hell, in addition to being real, terrible and eternal, will involve the experience of everlasting suffering. I am sorry that you use in reference to God the emotive expression ‘the Eternal Torturer’, because it implies a sadistic infliction of pain, and all Christian people would emphatically reject that. But will the final destiny of the impenitent be eternal conscious torment, ‘for ever and ever’, or will it be a total annihilation of their being? The former has to be described as traditional orthodoxy, for most of the church fathers, the medieval theologians and the Reformers held it. And probably most Evangelical leaders hold it today. Do I hold it, however? Well, emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it. As a committed Evangelical, my question must be -and is not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say? And in order to answer this question, we need to survey the biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilation, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture.

He then follows up with nearly 15 pages of Biblical exegesis, i.e., the critical interpretation of the passages relevant to fate of those who do not believe, those who are not given eternal life with God in Heaven.  After the excellent and consciously controversial argument, Stott confesses his discomfort with challenging orthodoxy:

I am hesitant to have written these things, partly because I have a great respect for longstanding tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture, and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the world-wide Evangelical constituency has always meant much to me. But the issue is too important to suppress, and I am grateful to you for challenging me to declare my present mind. I do not dogmatise about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.

I will briefly describe the fundamental Annihilationist view as I understand it.   The Biblical support for the Annihilationist view begins in Genesis, Chapter 3.

And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.

Genesis 3:22-23 (New International Version 1984)

Whether you understand this passage and the Genesis creation story as literal history, or as a true myth provided by God as revelation of the fallen nature of humankind, or consider the Bible to be just an ancient text, in this passage God banishes mankind from the Garden of Eden expressly so that we cannot live forever. Sin entered the world accompanied by death.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:23 (New International Version 1984)

Everyone knows that Christian doctrine teaches that the lost sinner goes to hell to suffer conscious torment forever and ever.   As John Stott commented, this is the traditional orthodoxy for both Catholic and Protestant.  It is embedded in our Western Christian culture. Everyone is familiar with Dante’s travels through the levels of hell in his Inferno.  Cartoons frequently feature devils and naked souls commenting on the eternal accommodations.  So, who needs to quote scripture to support the awful doctrine?

There has been an ongoing argument for centuries about the eternal fate of the lost, the damned, the wicked. The majority view since around 200-300 A.D., the “Traditionalist” view, is that the Bible teaches that the lost spend eternity in conscious torment in a place called hell. The minority view is that the lost do not have immortality, but their fate is annihilation, a final second death, perhaps after a period of punishment after death. Those who hold this view are referred to as “Annihilationists” or sometimes, “Conditionalists,” who specify that life is conditional, that the soul is not immortal, as the Genesis quote above supports, and immortality is only promised to those who place their trust in Jesus Christ, as Jesus promises those who believe in Him.

John Locke, the great 18th Century British Enlightenment philosopher and political theorist, questioned whether the Bible teaches “endless torment, in hell-fire.” In 1695, in The Reasonableness of Christianity As Delivered in the Scriptures, on page 6, referring to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden passage of Genesis quoted above where God banishes them so that they will not live forever, Locke wrote:

Death then entered, and showed his face, which before was shut out, and not known. So St. Paul, Rom. v. 19, “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin,” i.e. a state of death and mortality : and, 1 Cor. xv. 22, “In Adam all die;” i.e. by reason of his transgression, all men are mortal, and come to die.
This is so clear in these cited places, and so much the current of the New Testament, that nobody can deny, but that the doctrine of the gospel is, that death came on all men by Adam’s sin; only they differ about the signification of the word death: for some will have it to be a state of guilt, wherein not only he, but all his posterity was so involved, that every one descended of him deserved endless torment, in hell-fire. I shall say nothing more here, how far, in the apprehensions of men, this consists with the justice and goodness of God, having mentioned it above: but it seems a strange way of understanding a law, which requires the plainest and directest words, that by death should be meant eternal life in misery. Could any one be supposed, by a law, that says, “For felony thou shalt die;” not that he should lose his life; but be kept alive in perpetual, exquisite torments? And would any one think himself fairly dealt with, that was so used?

You can spend decades as a church-going Evangelical Christian in America and never hear from the pulpit or anywhere in the church that there are Scriptures that support annihilation as the fate of the lost instead of conscious eternal torment.

Although “eternal punishment” appears in Scripture, in Matthew’s gospel which I will discuss shortly, the term “eternal torment” does not appear in Scripture. Instead, Scripture most frequently refers to the fate of the damned as “death,” “destruction,” and “perishing,” but never eternal torment or torture. The doctrine of eternal conscious torment rests on a few ambiguous Scriptures that defy the clear teaching that only those who are saved receive the promise of eternal life. The Scriptures consistently promise death and destruction to the lost, not eternal life in torment in hell.  Jesus said:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-46 (New International Version 1984)

For years when I read that parable, I substituted in my mind the concept of “eternal torment” in hell as I was taught by the church and Western culture for the express term “eternal punishment.” I never considered that the punishment might be death: final and eternal capital punishment. I never considered that the opposite of “life” is “death”, that the promise of life was to the saved, and the lost were not promised life, and that you would have to receive eternal life if you were going to suffer consciously for eternity in hell. Today, I do consider these things.

I have been a Christian for 40 years this past Spring 2011. For most of that time I believed that the lost, those who did not have salvation in Christ, were eternally damned to suffer conscious torment in Hell.  When I read the terms “death, “destruction,” and “perishing,” I apparently subconsciously substituted “conscious eternal torment in Hell.”  But according to Jesus, God saves us from “perishing”, not from “eternal torment,” and perish has always meant “death” to me:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 3:16 (King James Version)

I have read this promise thousands of times over the years, thought of it every time an NFL team tried an extra point or a field goal and someone in the crowd behind the goal waved a John 3:16 sign, but until February this year, 2011, I never considered the exclusiveness of the promise of eternal life, to those who believe, and the negative implication, that those who do not believe have eternal death instead.

In another familiar passage, Jesus discussed eternal destiny in a different way:

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Matthew 7:13-14 (KJV)

Over the years I must have subconsciously substituted “broad is the way that leads to eternal torment”, instead of “broad is the way that leads to destruction” because “destruction” is not synonymous with eternal life in torment and I never questioned whether what Jesus says here conflicts in anyway with the traditional view of hell.

The Apostle Paul also warns of destruction:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.

Galatians 6:7-8 (New International Version 1984)

In another passage, Jesus warns,

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28 (New International Version 1984)

The Annihiliationist Christian believes that the lost are punished with death.  After death in this life, whether there is a time of punishment thereafter or not, the final fate is death, annihiliation, and not eternal conscious life in torment in Hell separated from God. Annihilation is final, eternal, eternal destruction, eternal punishment, eternal separation from God, but not eternal life in Hell. I did a cursory investigation of the concept in 1996 when I first read about annihilation as an alternative fate for those who do not believe, but did not make a judgment about it, did not think much about it, effectively becoming agnostic about it like Stott claimed to be. I assumed there must be something hidden from human view about the magnitude of rebellion in the fallen soul, something unconscious, I supposed. I did not dwell on it, and rarely have I been able to think seriously about what it could be like to exist without hope in eternal torment, until my recent study this year of what the Scriptures have to say about the eternal destiny of the lost.

In 1982, a Evangelical seminary graduate, Edward Fudge, published an exhaustive 466 page study of the doctrine of eternal punishment, arguing against the traditional dogma of eternal conscious torment in hell, The Fire that Consumes. I read Fudge’s book after reading Stott’s argument. I was surprised to find that F.F. Bruce, a prominent mainstream Evangelical historian/scholar, wrote the Foreward, commending Fudge’s work, claiming himself to be agnostic like C.S. Lewis on the question of eternal torment versus annihilation. I had never heard of Fudge, but I had several of Bruce’s historical works, including a New Testament History and a history of the canon of Scripture.

Apparently, there was a great outcry in reaction to Stott’s public articulation of the controversial view, especially coming from such a well-respected orthodox Evangelical Christian, who wrote the bestselling foundational Basic Christianity, a Christian classic among his other standard Christian works. I found a Evangelical response to John Stott (and Fudge) by J.I. Packer, a prominent and highly respected British Evangelical Anglican theologian and scholar. In his response, Packer respectfully argued the Traditionalist view, but pointed out that the controversy should not cause Christians to break fellowship, easier said than done. Stott was branded a heretic by the most rabid dogmatist Traditionalists (try googling “John Stott” “heretic”). Edward Fudge went to law school and became a Texas class action trial lawyer. After reading Fudge’s excellent book, one must speculate that God blessed Fudge with a career change after suffering the persecution of speaking the truth as his conscience required. J. I. Packer described the violent Traditionalist reaction to the credible annihilationist challenge of Stott, Fudge and others, writing:

Annihilationist ideas have been canvassed among evangelicals for more than a century, but they never became part of the mainstream of evangelical faith, nor have they been widely discussed in the evangelical camp until recently. In 1987 Clark Pinnock authored a punchy two-page article titled “Fire, Then Nothing,” but this, though widely read, did not spark debate, any more than the 500-page exposition of the same view, The Fire That Consumes (1982) by the gifted Churches of Christ layman Edward William Fudge, had done. In 1988, however, two brief pieces of advocacy came from Anglican evangelical veterans: eight pages by John Stott in Essentials, and ten by the late Philip Edgecumbe Hughes in The True Image. These put the cat among the pigeons.

At Evangelical Essentials, a conference of 350 leaders held at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, in 1989, I read a paper portentously titled “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation: New Challenges to the Gospel: Universalism and Justification by Faith.” In that paper I offered a line of thought countering the view of these two respected friends. It turned out that the conference was split down the middle over the annihilation question. The Christianity Today report said:

Strong disagreements did surface over the position of annihilationism, a view that holds that unsaved souls will cease to exist after death . . . the conference was almost evenly divided as to how to deal with the issue in the affirmations statement, and no renunciation of the position was included in the draft document.

After this, at the request of John White, then president of National Association of Evangelicals, the late John Gerstner wrote a response to Stott, Hughes and Fudge under the title Repent or Perish (1990); and in 1992 the papers read at the fourth Edinburgh Conference on Christian Dogmatics came into print as Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell. Included were John W. Wenham, “The Case for Conditional Immortality,” and Kendall S. Harmon, “The Case Against Conditionalism: A Response to Edward William Fudge.”

Nor was this all. Semipopular books reaffirming the reality and endlessness of hell began to flow: Ajith Fernando, Crucial Questions About Hell (1991); Eryl Davies, An Angry God? (1991); Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News (1992); William Crockett, John Walvoord, Zachary Hayes and Clark Pinnock, Four Views on Hell (1992);16 David Pawson, The Road to Hell (1992); John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (1993); David George Moore, The Battle for Hell: A Survey and Evaluation of Evangelicals’ Growing Attraction to the Doctrine of Annihilationism (1995); Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (1995). All these books argue more or less elaborately against annihilationism. The debate continues.

(footnotes ommitted, emphasis added)

Interestingly, when J.I. Packer retired from his endowed professorship at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture, John Stackhouse, a prolific historian/writer/scholar, was appointed his successor. Recently, Stackhouse has expressed his concurrence with the annihilationist view. You can listen to his lecture “Hell and the Goodness of God” available for purchase and download from Regent College.

I was a Christian in the 1980s, but I missed the controversy, and was surprised to read this past Spring that the 350 Evangelical leaders who met to discuss this in 1989, as Packer describes, were “split down the middle over the annihilation question.”  I thought this referred to a 50% split on whether the Bible teaches the Traditional or Annihilationist view.  However, according to a comment to this post below, the vote was “split about was whether eternal conscious punishment should be included among the essentials of evangelical faith.”  That seems likely because, to this day (when this post was first written), in 40 years I have never met an Evangelical Christian who claimed belief in annihilation over eternal torment, or who admitted to this.  There are some cults, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, that deny eternal torment, but no mainstream Evangelical groups, although I have read that the Anglicans tolerate the doctrine.  Both John Stott and C. S. Lewis were Anglicans. It is improper for a Traditionalist to try to associate Evangelicals who embrace annihilationism with heresy or unorthodoxy, Glenn Peoples has written:

. . . any traditionalist who tries to smear annihilationists by associating us with Jehovah’s Witnesses has opened the door to a barrage of similar attacks on his own position. Mormons and Muslims, for example, believe in eternal torment. Does that make it false?

I have attended large megachurches, and I would suppose that there were those who were educated on this issue who subscribed to the annihilationist view, but kept their belief to themselves to avoid being branded a heretic. For example, my wife was impressed with John Stott’s argument in Essentials and shared a copy of the excerpt linked above with her friend. Her friend was shocked, and believing my wife and I had succumbed to heresy, she ceased communications with my wife because of “the elephant in the room” as she referred to this theological issue.  And she and my wife had been close friends for 15 years, or so my wife thought. Apparently, my wife’s friend bases her salvation on her prior fear of eternal torment, and delivery from that fate. I believe that a Christian should base his salvation on the truth of the gospel, and the promise of eternal life, not delivery from death, but this may be a semantic point, because foundationally, I believe that God saved me by his mercy and grace and nothing I may have thought or believed about the moment I believed has any truth or merit, other than thankfulness to God for saving me.  I have not found that scaring people with fire and brimstone is an effective way to explain the love of God and his plan for salvation.

I have not read all the works written in reaction to the annihilationist arguments of Fudge, Stott and others cited by Packer. I have read Glenn Peoples work. “Who is Glenn Peoples?”, you may ask. Glenn Peoples is a bright articulate New Zealander who has a graduate degree in theology, as well as a Ph.D in philosophy. I first heard him debating on the British Evangelical Christian talk and debate program, “Unbelievable” hosted by Oxford University educated Justin Brierly. I was impressed by People’s intellect and articulate defense of his position. Peoples has published a lengthy scholarly explanation in a draft for a podcast, Why I Am an Annihilationist on his blog Right Reason, where he states plainly and simply that “Annihilationism is the view that eternal life is the gift of God, and that those who do not receive this gift will not live forever.” He has written An Open Letter to My Traditionalist Friends where he shows with many examples from the most respected Traditionalist responses to the Annihilationist view, including some of those cited by Packer above, how the Traditionalist arguments are not well-stated or convincing. He introduces his letter

Dear friends

Not just friends, but brothers and sisters. Some of you might think that I am feigning my treatment of you as both friends and even family. I’m not sure how to persuade you that I’m genuine, but I am. I’m writing this open letter because I don’t know you all personally (in fact I don’t know any of you personally), and I also think other people might benefit from seeing what I have to say.

Who are you? In the long and protracted debate over the biblical teaching on judgement and final punishment, you’ve gained the label “traditionalists.” You say that the Bible teaches that God will punish the lost with eternal torment. There’s a range of different terms that many of you use, but that’s a reasonable summary. Some of you use those terms, while others prefer what you take as less crude language like “eternal separation from God.” But you believe that it will last forever, it will be a conscious experience, and it will be horrific. In particular, I write this for those of you who are apologists for this belief. The people I have in mind have contributed to a veritable torrent of books, articles, public talks and sermons on the subject, assuring the church and the public that the Bible teaches eternal torment.

I don’t believe you’re correct. I am persuaded that the Bible teaches annihilationism. You don’t like that fact. Many of you are on record telling people that annihilationism is false and unbiblical, that it is clearly so, that it undermines the Gospel, that it misrepresents God, that it underestimates sin, that it is a concession to postmodernity and so on. Many of you swarm theological organisations, gatherings, websites and so on, reassuring your peers and your readers that you hold the solid, clearly biblical position, and that annihilationists quite clearly lack biblical support for their view, and many of you encourage theological organisations and colleges that would literally exclude me from working or even studying there because I am persuaded as I am.

Other readers who perhaps do not wade into theological controversy and who might not be familiar with this issue will likely find this letter rather dreary and irrelevant. They can simply ignore it, I suppose. But I am writing to you. What’s more, I have nothing personally to gain in writing this. Your colleges will continue to be unlikely to hire me because of my beliefs on this issue (and writing this will certainly not help this situation), and mainstream colleges will be uninterested in the fact that I have an interest in the subject at all. I will not increase my number of friends, but may potentially increase the number of people hostile to me. But I’m writing to you anyway.

As you know – and some of you express dismay over it – if this theological disagreement were a war, you would be losing. Christians are turning away from your point of view. In spite of the fact that you have spilled more ink than anyone else in this disagreement, evangelical Christians are, more and more, adopting different views on hell from yours. In particular, the doctrine of annihilationism now has more evangelical adherents than it has, I believe, ever had before. I’m writing this letter to tell you why I think this is happening.

Why do you need this commentary? It’s because of this: I believe that you are partly responsible for this shift. Now ultimately I think the teaching of Scripture and a changing attitude to tradition is responsible for this shift, but you have certainly contributed. I suppose if you had simply remained silent, the change would be happening anyway, but you would be mistaken to think that you are stemming the tide. You’re not. Please hear me out. I am going to say some things that you will not like. I am not setting out to offend you, but that may happen. Some Christian scholars do not react to criticism very well at all. When some of my criticisms of one of your author’s arguments was published a few years ago, he accused me of making personal attacks on him. To this day I do not know what he was referring to. When I, a couple of days ago, told one of you that his book really didn’t contain any new arguments for eternal torment that had not been addressed before, he told me, “I take exception” to being told this. I don’t know how else I could have stated the facts. I don’t think reactions like this are appropriate. If you have chosen to enter an ongoing discussion and to criticise the beliefs of others, then you need to make yourself teachable, and you need to be willing to listen to the criticisms that other people present you with. Or at least, you need to not take personal umbrage when they do it.

I’m going to explain why your published arguments have not helped your case, in the sense that they have not caused a swing back to traditionalism – and why they are unlikely to do so in future. These are not pleasant things to be saying, but they are true. I am going to tell you that your endless stream of apologetics on behalf of your doctrine of eternal torment is very poorly argued, fallacious, tiresome, ineffective and even just lazy sometimes. That will appear very blunt. Those sound like insults to some people. But if they are true, then you are not helped by not being told these things. You need to hear them. There has to be a context in which you are willing to hear people tell you these things if they believe they’re true.

There is a sense in which I am also expressing personal frustration with you. That’s not necessarily an inappropriate thing to do. However, I will attempt to be truthful and clear without letting that frustration get in the way of the fact that I do regard you as, all things being considered, being on the same “team” as me. We have a lot more in common than not as fellow believers in Christ.

With these things said, let me get to what I take to be the facts.

Peoples then goes through the flaws he finds in the arguments of Traditionalists, citing examples of poor scholarship and faulty argument.  For example, he writes:

. . .

2 Your exegesis sometimes engages in special pleading

I have already said (and will say more) about specific points of exegesis in other sections, so let me be brief here. Sometimes – especially at really crucial points in your argument for traditionalism or against annihilationism – you engage in special pleading. This is where you appear to need a word or words, or a biblical motif, to work fundamentally differently from the way it normally works, in a context where your case needs it to work differently.

For example, annihilationists have pointed to verses like Matthew 10:28 where Jesus says that God will destroy the lost in Gehenna, “body and soul.” Many of you have asked us to believe that apollumi here does not carry the strong sense of killing or destruction, but rather “ruin” or “loss.” Perhaps you think that Jesus meant that God will lose a person’s body and soul in hell, but “ruin” is more likely what you have in mind. However, it is relevant to note that when the word is used as a verb form everywhere else in the Synoptic
Gospels to describe the actions of one person or agent, it does mean kill or destroy in the strong sense that annihilationists see in Matt 10:28. For example, Herod wanted to actually kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:3), a demon tried to throw a boy into water or fire to kill him (Mark 9:22), the owner of a vineyard actually killed the workers in his vineyard (Mark 12:9) and so on. Every single instance where these factors are present (used as a verb, present in the Synoptics, used to describe the actions of one person or agent against another), the meaning is the same. To ask us to make one exception for the sake of your case against annihilationism then is rather obvious special pleading.
A similar thing occurs in the book of Revelation. When you are not thinking about how to defend your doctrine of hell and attack annihilationism, you recognise a range of things that are relevant here. For example, you recognise that when death is thrown into the lake of fire, it means that death will be no more. Of course the action isn’t literal, but that’s what this action signifies. You recognise that the “beast” referred to is not a literal creature, but rather a kingdom, a corporate entity, and that this image is drawn from the book of Daniel, where we also see the beast being destroyed as a symbol of worldly kingdoms being destroyed and God’s kingdom being established. But suddenly when it comes to defending the doctrine of the eternal torments of the damned in hell, the symbolic nature of much of the language in the book of Revelation disappears. Now all of a sudden, but only when defending your doctrine of hell, you interpret the lake of fire, apparently, as a literal place where people burn (or else a symbol of something just like that, minus the burning, where people suffer in some other way). It stands out that for people who are not known for their bizarre literalism in general when it comes to the book of Revelation, you suddenly become literalists when the doctrine of hell is in question.

Surely this too is special pleading. I grant that it is not as obvious a case as the previous one, but it is special pleading nonetheless, as it involves a sudden change of rules when it suits your position.
. . .
4 Your exegesis sometimes appears to intentionally exclude important evidence from the very
texts it is meant to be explaining.

We understand that there are some texts that become “favourites” when looking at what the Bible says about specific issues. That’s normal. Some texts do speak more clearly about some issues than others. One of the favourites among those who think the Bible clearly teaches eternal torment, and clearly teaches against annihilationism, is Isaiah 66:24b. This part-verse reads: “…. for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Many of you regard this text as especially important because Jesus is recorded as quoting this verse in Mark 9:48 when referring to the fate of the lost. A number of you claim that this passage in Isaiah teaches the doctrine of eternal torment of people who are consciously enduring the anguish of hell.

Not long ago on the Stand to Reason radio show Christopher Morgan spoke with host Greg Koukl. One of Morgan’s comments was that Isaiah 66:24 “talks about where the worm doesn’t die and the fire is not quenched and the permanence of the suffering of the wicked.” The first thing to say is that this third element is simply incorrect. Yes Isaiah speaks about the worm and the fire as Morgan correctly observes, but it says nothing in addition to this about suffering. But in addition to adding in claims that the text never makes, there’s a deeper problem with Morgan’s exegesis, and he is certainly not alone. Many of you have done this, whether you are quoting from Isaiah 66 or from Mark 9, which quotes Isaiah 66 verbatim. The problem is that many of you have snipped out the last few words of Isaiah 66:24 and quoted them all by themselves, when in fact the whole verse, if it had been quoted, would have painted a different picture. The entire verse reads:

“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm
shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

What a different scene from the one typically painted by traditionalists when they quote only 24b. When we step back just a little to see the whole verse, we realise that contrary to what Morgan (like many of you) says, there is no reference to people consciously suffering. These are dead bodies. And when we step back one more level and read the paragraphs that come immediately before this, any excuse that you might have had for misunderstanding this evaporates:

For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.  For by fire will the Lord enter into judgement, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many.  Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord.

For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them.  And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord.And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.

For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord.

And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

Any hope that you might have had of saying that perhaps the last line was ambiguous is gone. When you quote verse 24b, why do you not tell your audience about 24a, which tells us that the verse speaks of dead bodies? Why do you not tell your readers that the whole passage depicts a great onslaught of God directed at his enemies, when he comes and slays them with the sword, leaving them lying dead on the ground for all to see? Why do you leave out such important information? Why do you instead tell people that this is about the sufferings of the damned in the flames of hell?

What’s interesting is that biblical scholars who write commentaries on these texts and who are not attempting to score a theological point in their favour do not miss out these facts. Douglas Hare is a normal example:

It is clear in the Isaiah passage that the apostates whose worm and fire are unending are “dead bodies.” There is no suggestion that these evil persons will suffer eternally; their carcasses will remain indefinitely as a reminder of their rebellion against God.

Glenn People’s letter to Traditionalists is obviously worth quoting at length.  Although Edward Fudge’s work, The Fire that Consumes, is required reading, People’s Why I am an Annihilationist is a good start, compactly comprehensive, 43 pages in pdf. After sufficient reading, People’s open letter describes in scholarly fashion, the difficulty having civil argument with Traditionalists.

Another excellent scholarly argument for annihilationism by Clark Pinnock is here:   Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper] I discuss Pinnock’s paper in Part 2 of this series of posts on Annihilationism and conditional immortality. The link to Part 2 is at the conclusion below.

I cannot do the quality of work that these scholars can do, and I highly recommend the resources I have cited and included links to above.  Researching the history reveals that the immortal soul is a concept borrowed from the Greeks when the early church fathers, like Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr  began synthesizing Christian doctrine with Greek thought, quoting Plato with praise.  Somehow it became incorporated into Christian doctrine such that the gift of eternal life to the saved is matched by the curse of eternal life to the damned, spent in some kind of burning hell.  After 1800 years, it is difficult to stand up to the doctrine, but I have always been a Berean since I was saved reading the Bible in 1971, as described in my Spiritual Memoir tabbed above.  The Bereans who lived in Berea, where else, (a small city in Greece north of Mount Olympus) heard Paul preach the Gospel on one of his missionary journeys.

Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Acts 17:11 (New International Version 1984)

When I look at the Scriptures I cannot find anywhere that would support God giving those who are not saved, but lost for eternity, eternal life in order to suffer conscious torment.  I see the lost are destroyed, perish, or punished with death, like we humans punish our most serious crimes, with death.  There is a death that is eternal, a final second death after this death.  That seems to be the fate of the lost as I read Scripture.

That God would destroy for eternity those He does not save is keeping with his nature.  God is not a torturer.  He is a God of love.  Though the lost condemn themselves, as John’s Gospel says, they forego eternal life, receiving death and destruction instead.

Nevertheless, the proponents of Traditionalism vigorously cling to the eternal torment of those who are condemned.  R. C. Sproul is a gifted Christian teacher and writer.  His book Chosen By God is for me the clearest and most convincing exposition of the Doctrine of Grace and Predestination, much more accessible reading today than John Calvin.

R. C. Sproul’s teacher and mentor at Pittsburgh Seminary was the late John Gerstner.  Gerstner was cited by Packer above as one of the staunch defenders of the doctrine of eternal torment in Hell. Sproul told a story about Gerstner as follows:

One student asked Dr. Gerstner, “How can I be happy in heaven if I’m aware that one of my loved ones is in hell?” Dr. Gerstner responded: “Don’t you know that when you are in heaven you will be so sanctified that you could look at your own mother in hell and rejoice in the display of the justice of God.” And Sproul burst out laughing, informing Dr. Gerstner that his statement was absolutely ridiculous.

Sproul was a student then, and maybe now he doesn’t think it is so ridiculous since he is a Traditionalist today.  But it hurts me to think that to be Holy and Sanctified would cause me to lose all natural affection for my mother and rejoice at her suffering in Hell. The Gerstner response assumes eternal torment, then conforms his vision of sanctification accordingly.   I’m pretty sure my mother  is in Heaven, but nevertheless there are others I have loved and who have died, perhaps without the Lord  . . .   After reading God’s Word for 40 years, that does not sound like God to me.  If a 13 year old boy who likes to play violent pagan themed video games and whose parents are heathens who never took him to church dies in a car crash without knowing Christ, is it just to torment him in eternal fire for 13 million years, let alone infinity?  That does not sound like something my God would do.  I do not believe I can posit God changing me to rejoice in the suffering of children in torment for eternity, for example.

How can this judgment be proportional to the sinfulness, regardless of how cold-hearted the 13 year old adolescent boy whose brain was not mature, might have been? How can a God who is love torment this child for eternity? After 40 years of reading the Bible, this does not seem to me to conform to the nature of the loving God that I know. The Godly principle of proportionality in judgment and punishment is revealed in the Mosaic law:

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Exodus 21:23-25 (New International Version 1984)

Jesus himself modified this principle for mankind in his sermon on the mount:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Jesus implies that God will punish the evil person, so we should not take personal vengeance proportionately or at all.  But He is not abrogating the proportionality principle of justice.   Jesus promises death and destruction to those who are perishing.  Capital punishment is reasonable and just, according to the Scripture.  There is no Scriptural authority that would support eternal torture as a reasonable and just punishment for fallen humans with their short lives on earth.   As the Psalmist says:

“You have made my days a mere handbreadth;  the span of my years is as nothing before you.   Each man’s life is but a breath.”

Psalm 39:5 (New International Version 1984)

We get our sense of justice from the Lord.  He made us in his image, and we have the mind of Christ.

keyword search of the New International Version 1984 for “immortal” brings up 7 verses.  Among them are these:

In the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality  Proverbs 12:28 

 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. Romans 2:7 

So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,  but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 2 Timothy 1:8-10

Immorality, Eternal life, is the gift of salvation.  Death is the sentence for not believing in Jesus who was sent by the Father to redeem His people. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans:

But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?

Romans 9:20-22 (New International Version 1984)

And again, Jesus’s admonishment:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28 (New International Version 1984)

I cannot say that I know this to be Biblical truth, but I am persuaded that it is supported by the Scripture, and great men of God, like John Stott and C. S. Lewis have found it to be so substantially supported in Scripture that they could no longer claim that eternal torment is the fate of the lost, rather publicly claiming to be tentative or agnostic on the destiny of the lost.  No matter how convincing the argument may be for annihilationism, the courage required to stand up publicly against 18 centuries of tradition is likely more than most can muster.

Here is a video of a lecture by Edward Fudge on “Three Views of Hell.”  In this comprehensive lecture, Fudge explains how the Greek doctrine of the immortal soul entered the Church in the 3rd and 4th centuries, especially in the work of Augustine.

This concludes the first part of my two part analysis of the doctrine of hell.  As I look at my two parts, I think of this first part as more of an introduction when compared to the discussion in the second part which shows the Augustinian source of the false doctrine of the immortality of soul and the horrible misrepresentation of the God of the Bible and the New Testament teaching.  I encourage you to read further in Part 2 of this series on Annihilationism or conditional immortality.



This Post is also located at the Tab above “Hell?”

Posted by: davidlarkin | July 24, 2011

Can We Give Freely without Selfish Interest?

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Matthew 6:2-4 (New International Version 1984)

In this passage, Jesus instructs us to have a pure unselfish motive when we give to the poor. We are not to give charity publicly in order to receive the praise of men, and satisfy our pride. Instead, we are to give freely and secretly, and so freely and so unconsciously, that even our left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. It seems that Jesus is purposely warning us that our own consciousness of our charity is corrupting and stains our good work. He tells us that God, who sees the good work and the motives of the heart, will reward us. However, Jesus does not want us to act out of selfish desire for a reward. Otherwise, the admonition to keep the act secret, even from our conscious self, were it possible, such that the cells in our body outside the right hand that gives the alms are not aware of the charitable gift, would be empty. It is difficult to imagine giving without some selfish thought entering our mind and motivation.

In the beginning of Thomas Hobbes‘ 1651 masterpiece, Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common Wealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil, [as it says on the back of the Cambridge edition, arguably the greatest piece of political philosophy written in the English language], Hobbes works through his theory of the psychology and actions of the individual, a theoretical precursor to a theory of moral legitimacy of the political state which he calls the Leviathan. In discussing the relations of man and his relationship to people and things, and specifically the transfer of the right to possession of things, property (or money), he defines the free gift as follows:

Free-gift When the transferring of Right, is not mutuall; but one of the parties transferreth, in hope to gain thereby friendship, or service from another, or from his friends; or in hope to gain the reputation of Charity, or Magnanimity; or to deliver his mind from the pain of compassion; or in hope of reward in heaven; This is not Contract, but GIFT, FREEGIFT, GRACE: which words signifie one and the same thing.

As Hobbes defines the free gift, there is no mutual exchange — the transfer of right to property or money appears gratuitous, the giver giving without receiving anything material in return. He lists reasons why the giver gives, assuming that we necessarily act with a reason, though our reasons may be various. In each of his reasons, however, there is the hope of personal gain from the gift at root, i.e., gain in the friendship or service of others, gain in reputation as a charitable person, avoidance of the pain of compassion for suffering, and lastly, personal gain in the promised reward from God.

These reasons or motives that Hobbes attributes to a free gift reveal Hobbes’ belief that we always act out of selfish desire, even when we give alms. Even if we are not getting something that gives us pleasure in this life, like friendship, good reputation, or freedom from suffering guilt, at a minimum we act in exchange for the hope of a future reward from God in the afterlife.

However, even though Hobbes was writing as a professed Christian in a 17th century Christian Europe, it seems un-Christian to give in order to get, even if it is a heavenly reward. Jesus would not have warned us not to let the left hand know that the right hand just gave a beggar a twenty dollar bill. He would have said to give in order to get the heavenly reward. Jesus knew that fallen creatures like us cannot easily do anything without some selfish motive, if it is even possible.

Hobbes was being realistic, then. He could not think of a reason for giving a gift without some selfish motive, so the tag “free” only refers to the lack of material exchange for the right, but not that our act of giving is actually a free gift. We expect something immaterial and emotionally pleasurable in return. Thus, for Hobbes, a “free” gift is free to the recipient, but not freely given by giver, who acts for selfish gain, whether immediate or in the hereafter.

Likely, it is impossible to give with a pure unselfish motive, even anonymously, or with a pure attitude of unconditional love. How can we keep our mind from considering the pleasure, or the reward, even if we believe in God and the world expects us to act in holiness, and not as the hypocrites?

We can have a primary good motive though. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th Century American theologian and preacher, wrote that our will is determined by our strongest motive or desire at the moment, such that our acts are the result of our competing desires.

Hobbes did not consider that we may have competing or complementary desires and motives. He also did not include the desire itself to help another in need as a reason for a free gift. He assumed personal gain as the general reason motivating all voluntary action. Acting out of love is not necessarily pleasurable, as in the case of “tough love” interventions or withdrawals of support for loved ones who are suffering from addiction. But even in that case, there is a hope for the recovery of the loved one, and freedom for a time, whether brief, from despair for their life.

We strive to act from unconditional love, but few of us have the ability to act even out of love without considering the impact of the proposed act on our selves. Can I afford it? Do I have the time? Will he become dependent? Will he get the wrong idea? These thoughts despoil the purity of charitable acts.

In my own life, despite my Christian beliefs, I struggle to give freely. I have often found that whenever a charitable proposal enters my mind, there is a counter-argument for not giving presented to my consciousness. There is nothing I can do about it.

Thus, it seems that the more I can keep myself out of the deliberation and charitable conduct, the more I satisfy the Biblical standard of purity of motive. I believe that the act of charity is the work of the Holy Spirit, whether we believe or not. For a Christian believer, however, in order to allow the Spirit to inspire us to do our good works, we need the grace of God. As Paul the Apostle wrote:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:8-10 (New International Version)

If I act in blind obedience to God’s command to honor the request from the beggar on the street (or the inclination to respond to any charitable request), careful not to think about it or try to discern whether the beggar is deserving, I can approach a purity of motive, even though there is a natural discomfort to obey left in my nature that tries to gain my attention.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

Luke 6:30 (New International Version 1984)

Taken literally and without the counsel of requirements of stewardship for what God provides, there would seem to be no limit to giving. To follow such a stringent command, we have to act in obedience and trust that God will only bring those into your path that you have the means to help.

In summary, I believe the best habits to develop are to pray for circumstances and desires that are God’s will for giving to others, and when we give charitably, to act out of obedience first and primarily, with an attitude of love for God and man, and dismiss as best we can, the thoughts of gain and good feelings that we cannot help but endure most of the time. Otherwise, the gift is never freely given, always done with selfish gain in mind, as Thomas Hobbes believed to be the case.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing hereinabove is intended to be or should be construed as a condemnation of quiet humble participation in public and civic charity and philanthropy. No trumpets sound when we write checks to large charities, and certainly no trumpets sound at the IRS if and when our charitable deduction is reviewed or entered into a database. Taking a charitable deduction for tax purposes is good stewardship, and is a legal incentive to help the needy.

Posted by: davidlarkin | June 11, 2011

Who Are the Hypocrites?

Everyone hates hypocrites. No one wants to be a hypocrite. In the political sphere, there is a constant investigative spirit seeking to call out the hypocrites. A Google search of the phrase, “Democrats are hypocrites” brought up “About 52,800 results (0.25 seconds).” A Google search of the phrase, “Republicans are hypocrites” brought up “About 119,000 results (0.26 seconds).” I am not willing to speculate what the disparate results mean, but obviously, it is not good to be a hypocrite. We want the words to match the principles, our actions to be consistent with our words.

In the Christian Bible, St. James admonished the first century Christians to make their actions consistent with their faith, their beliefs:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

James 2:14-26 (New International Version 1984)

Though this passage is sometimes mistakenly cited as evidence that salvation is earned by performing good works, St. Paul makes it clear that good works are ordained by God and follow from salvation:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:8-10 (New International Version 1984)

It is a mystery how good works can be pre-ordained, and yet the Christian is admonished by James to do good works. But clearly, if we profess to be a man or woman of God, and our works do not conform to our words, as is unfortunately frequently the case, the world repeats the excuse not to seek God of the Christian because the Church is full of hypocrites, as if human failure was an excuse not to investigate the truth of the Gospel. Salvation does not immediately sanctify the sinner, and Christians will always fail to live up to the perfect standard of holiness that God asks us to strive towards.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:8-9 (New International Version 1984)

Jesus admonished the hypocrite who criticizes his brother without first examining himself and his own sins:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:3-5, same passage Luke 6:41-42 (New International Version 1984)

We should, therefore, be first concerned with our own tendencies and moments of hypocrisy. How do we do this? How do we overcome a natural aversion to self-criticism and occasions of self-deceit or purposeful ignorance of our faults?

The Christian solution would be to pray for deliverance from hypocrisy, and for wisdom to discern our hypocrisy. I was inspired to write this post after reading a prayer composed by British theologian, William Barclay, aimed at such deliverance and wisdom. I was surprised when reading it for the first time, that I had never considered prayer for my own hypocrisy, which I recognized as a universal human characteristic, but never considered my own need to pray for my own watchfulness and discernment. A great prayer:

o God, help us at all times to make our deeds fit our words.
and to make our conduct match our profession; and grant
that we may never say one thing with our lips and another
with our lives.

Grant that we may not praise service and practise

Grant that for us sympathy may never only be a
thing of the emotions, but that it may always issue in
action to help. Grant that, when we feel sorry for
someone, we may not be satisfied until we have done
something to help.

Grant that we may not praise love and practise bitterness.

Grant that we may not sing of the beauty of loving
one another, and yet refuse to forgive one another.
Grant that we may not dream of a time of brotherly
Love, and yet be unable to live at peace with our

Grant that we may not praise honesty and practise

Grant that we may not be guilty of the hypocrisy
which says one thing with its lips and means another
in its heart, and which is one thing to a person’s face
and another behind his back. Grant that we may not
pay lip service to the truth, and yet be willing to
evade, suppress, or twist the truth, when we think
that it suits us to do so.

Grant that we may not praise generosity and practise

Keep us from the hypocrisy of singing hymns about
giving everything to you, and then grudging every
penny we give and every hour we devote to the service
of your people and your Church.

Keep us, 0 God, from bringing discredit by our life and our
actions, our words and our behaviour on the faith which we
profess, the Church to which we belong, and the Master
whom we ought to serve; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year 1965

I cannot condemn honest exposure of hypocrisy in the public sphere. However, before we do, we should be humble and take a look inwardly first. I confess I have consistently failed to do this in the past, and greatly need the blessings of God requested in Barclay’s prayer.

Posted by: davidlarkin | March 19, 2011

A Prayer for the Church Invisible

In a letter to my pastor today, I included a William Barclay prayer for the church. I decided to post it here because in addition to being a comprehensive prayer for a church that needs it, it is a wonderful summary of the needs of the church invisible, the body of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ regardless of human institutional church membership. Embedded within Barclay’s prayer is a Scriptural prescription of the duties and ideal operations of the church, the Body of Christ, in this world — whether acting as human institutions or collectively as individual saints, the “called-out ones” of God.

As I noted in my prior post, I have been working my way through William Barclay’s 1965 book, Prayers for the Christian Year which follows the traditional church liturgical calendar and provides a prayer for each Sunday of the church year. I like Barclay’s work, his commentaries on the New Testament that I have read over the past 40 years, even though he reveals in his New Testament commentaries a lack of belief in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s and the apostles miracles, other than bodily resurrection of Christ and the rest of us, by giving natural explanations for Jesus’s miracles, e.g., the feeding of the 5,000 was accomplished by the multitude present deciding to share the food that they had brought with them but had selfishly refused to acknowledge to the disciples before they reported to Jesus that the people were hungry and didn’t have food. I have always marveled that the Holy Spirit could bless Barclay with such insight and clarity in his comments on the Scripture while he could not simply believe that the Lord was not limited by 20th Century understandings of the laws of nature that seem to require God’s adherence, even though there could be no laws of nature or science, unless God decreed them. As one contemporary apparently atheist philosopher, Nancy Cartwright, put it in a philosophical paper, laws of nature logically require a law giver, or God. The only alternative as she saw it was the Aristotelian concept of capacities, in other words, there are no laws of nature, only bodies and substances with capacities to act in a certain way, attract each other, repel each other, etc. Her argument begs the question of the source of the capacities, which Cartwright acknowledged by stating she was not going to speculate on the source of the capacities in objects and substances. See Nancy Cartwright’s working paper, No God, No Laws. The logic of the natural philosopher fails or breaks down if the conclusion is the existence of God.

Here is William Barclay’s prayer for the Church on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, which was seven weeks ago. I have modified it some to acknowledge Jesus’s words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

A Prayer for the Church Invisible

O God, our Father, bless your Church,

Give her such a passion for the souls of men, that she will never be content until all men shall know your love in Jesus Christ. Give her that true sympathy and tolerance for those who are lost and do not know the truth of Jesus Christ and the way of salvation in him alone. Make her adventurous in thought that she may rethink and restate the eternal gospel in terms that men can understand.

Give her such a passion for social justice that she will ever be the conscience of the nation, and that she will engage upon a continuous crusade for everything that will benefit the bodies as well as the souls of men. Give her the conviction that each day is the Lord’s Day, and so grant that she may be involved in every day’s work and not only in one day’s worship.

Give her the adventurous spirit which refuses to be shackled to the past and which finds in tradition, not a deadweight, but an inspiration.

Make her adventurous in action, so that she may not shrink from that which is new, and so that she may not rest content in a comfortable inertia.

Make her a fellowship in which all social and racial distinctions have ceased to exist.

Give her at last that unity in which all barriers are broken down, in which all men can worship together again, and in which the body of Christ will be truly one.

Grant that the Church may be a place where boys and girls find Jesus as their friend; where young men and maidens glimpse the vision splendid; where those in the midtime find a rod and a staff for the dust and the heat of the day; where those far down the vale of years find light at eventide; where the sorrowing find comfort and the weary rest; where the doubting find certainty and the tempted strength; where the lonely find fellowship and the sinner forgiveness for his sins.

Hear this our prayer, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Adapted from William Barclay’s Prayers for the Christian Year

Posted by: davidlarkin | March 11, 2011

Ash Wednesday Prayer for Christopher Hitchens

My friend Mark emailed me about Christopher Hitchens’ interview on 60 minutes last Sunday. He thought Hitchens showed great courage, and that his comment about miracles or “surprises” at the end of the interview was amusing. Hitchens is a star public intellectual and writer and a great mind.  He is dying from esophageal cancer, a deadly cancer with a 5% survival rate.   He is well-known lately as one of the four outspoken public atheists, sometimes referred to as the “Four Atheist Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.  Hitchens wrote a best-seller decrying the God of the Bible, God is Not Great.

I have written about Hitchens, and his remarks about the virtue of Alexander Solzhenitsyn before here on this blog.

Who could argue that Hitchens does not show great courage facing death with his esophageal cancer. In the interview, when asked whether he could be open to the existence of God, he responded with surprising humility considering his public defiance, stating that he is always open-minded, and that he did not have sufficient evidence to acknowledge the existence of God, but that he “liked surprises,” no doubt referring to miracles, as my friend referred to the remark in his email.  Presumably, his epistemological objection, lack of evidence, cannot stand in the way of grace and the supernatural revelation of God without which no one can have sufficient evidence for His existence.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, signalling the beginning of Lent and a time of repentance for sin for the Christian, fasting and abstinence for the Roman Catholic, in anticipation of Easter and the commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the event without which there is no Christianity. As the Apostle Paul wrote:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

1 Corinthians 15:13-19 (NIV)

Without the resurrection, Paul concludes that hedonism becomes a reasonable alternative:

If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die.”

1 Corinthians 15:32(b)

I have been working my way through William Barclay’s 1965 Prayers for the Christian Year. Wednesday’s entry for Ash Wednesday was a prayer of contrition and for God’s grace to recognize our sins and receive a spirit of repentance and godly sorrow. Although the prayer is written as a prayer for “us”, by substituting “Christopher Hitchens” for “us,” we have a very suitable and timely prayer for Christopher Hitchens, one of God’s creatures who was greatly blessed with great intellect and talent and the personal discipline to work hard to develop his talent, but whose personal strength and pride has blinded him to the source of his success.   He needs prayer as death closes in on him.

Save especially at this time, Christopher Hitchens, O God,

From the blindness,
which is not even aware that it is sinning;

From the pride,
which cannot admit that it is wrong;

From the self-will,
which can see nothing but its own way;

From the self-righteousness,
which can see no flaw within itself;

From the callousness,
which has sinned so often that it has ceased to care;

From the defiance,
which is not even sorry for its sins;

From the evasion,
which always puts the blame on someone or something else;

From the heart so hardened,
that it cannot repent.

Give him at all times,
—- Eyes which are open to his faults;
—- A conscience which is sensitive and quick to warn;
—- A heart that cannot sin in peace,
but is moved to regret and remorse.

So Grant that being truly penitent he may be truly forgiven, so that he may find your love is great enough to cover all of his sin; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Note:  Christopher Hitchens Died December 15, 2011  In light of his death, the Ash Wednesday Prayer remains excellent, of course, for any living lost person, whether relative, friend, acquaintance, or enemy.  Substitute the person’s name instead Christopher Hitchens.

Posted by: davidlarkin | January 3, 2011

Psalm 68 and Indiana Jones

One of today’s psalms in the Book of Common Prayer daily lectionary is Psalm 68, a psalm of David, which begins:

May God arise, may his enemies be scattered; may his foes flee before him.
As smoke is blown away by the wind, may you blow them away;
as wax melts before the fire, may the wicked perish before God.

I was reminded of the fate of the Nazis in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the salvation of the righteous who kept their eyes shut.

If the Ark of the Covenant exists today, it would be an very old wooden box, the symbolic and decorative gold and valuables long since stolen. In his book I read when it was published in 2008, The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark, Tudor Parfitt, a British Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, claims to have found the Ark in Africa, and it is an old wooden box. He has pictures! Some scholars are skeptical, of course. Here is a 2008 article from Time Magazine about Parfitt’s claim.

Posted by: davidlarkin | December 4, 2010

Reason – Spearhead or Beam of Light?

Which is the better metaphor for the human faculty of Reason in the interaction between mind and matter — spearhead or beam of light? Who would care about this?

As discussed later in this post, C. S. Lewis considered this in his Christian apologetic work in the 1940s. Modern science denies any distinction between mind and matter, reducing mind to matter. For me, that reduction is merely rhetorical because the “Hard Problem” of providing a physical explanation for human consciousness has not been solved, and is not likely to be solved for reasons described below.

The past few days, we have been having an email discussion on my college class listserv about the alleged “emergence” of reason in the physicalist account of the evolution of the brain and mental phenomena. I argue that there are non-physical elements in the mental that cannot be reduced to mere biology and physics of the brain. Specifically, materialist or physicalist accounts of contemporary science, e.g. Darwinian or Neo-Darwinian accounts of random DNA mutations and genome code, cannot account for and will never be able to account for the appearance of abstract concepts like Reason, mathematics and logic in the history of human consciousness. I argue:

(1) There is a chasm between the mental events in our consciousness and the physical events in and among the neurons in our brains, i.e., we cannot reduce our conscious experience to a scientific naturalist or physicalist explanation of particles of matter acting in fields of force according to laws of nature. The best and most accessible argument for the inability of scientific reductionism to explain subjective mental events is NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous paper What Is It Like to Be a Bat?. By highlighting the example of the probable consciousness of a bat, with its sonar-like sensory viewing system, Nagel contends that there is a subjective quality of the consciousness of living creatures that cannot be reduced to physical description, but is necessarily a part of reality that science cannot partition away in order to have a unified theory. There is just something that it is like to be a bat. It cannot be reduced to the formulas of physics or code within the bat DNA. Our experience of reality includes our subjective qualitative experience. There are 5 billion subjective human experiences happening at these moments, and we can only believe that they are of the same nature, because we cannot experience and observe any of those subjective experiences except our own. This chasm between the objective physical and the subjective mental is a fact that allows for and makes possible a justified belief in an immaterial self, or person, with a will and responsibility for his or her actions. Without this chasm, science could and would triumphantly reduce us to automatons who act in accordance with the interaction of neuron cells in the brain in an order determined by laws of nature, and not by means of our personal, thinking, reasoning will that causes action. Our conscious self becomes reduced to a spectator who falsely believes he or she is a participant in his or her behavior and that personal decision-making is an illusion.

Yet, some do this reduction and believe it. There is a substantial number of philosophers, cognitive scientists and scientists who believe in a deterministic universe. All of our actions are determined by physical laws of nature, and each action is the necessary next action in the succession of events determined at the time of the Big Bang. Quantum physics may add a dimension of indeterminacy to the physical world, but that indeterminacy does not translate into an opening for rational purpose and will, but only provides an apparent randomness to subatomic physical events that cannot be predicted with certainty by any other discovered law of nature. As such, a theoretical physicist tempted to argue that there may be human actions that are not determined in a manner that we can predict with certainty with the laws of physics would need a theory to explain how that indeterminacy at the subatomic level can have consequences at the neuronal level. At the level of the neuron cell, biochemists and cell biologists confidently explain how cellular events are determined by the biochemical regularities qua laws that regulate the activities of molecules and proteins acting with predictable integrity far above the quantum level. As such, indeterminate random quantum events within atoms are not predictors of events at the macro-level of neuronal activity. We do not experience physical indeterminacy. If we did, we would see a significant gap between our actions, and our ability to find reasonable explanations for our actions because we would find ourselves acting randomly. We would certainly sense some underlying uncertainty principle in operation in our brain somewhere as we wander out into the street when we thought we were walking in the front door. The only physical indeterminacy we experience is the action of our will we believe to be freely causing actions with discursive purpose, i.e., purpose that can be expressed in language that is our reason for why we acted so, rather than an scientific explanation of our action due to the interaction of molecules in accordance with biochemical laws.

(2) In our human experience it is evident that Reason and rationality necessarily precede knowledge of truth, or apparent and pragmatically acceptable truths, about the world that we seem to need to survive in the world. We must be able to rationally assess our observations and sensations in order to make decisions about actions to take to survive. We use reason in forming our beliefs which we consider true beliefs and upon which we rely in calculating our immediate course of action or plans for action and formation of habits useful for our survival and flourishing.

(3) Reason or rationality (and mathematics) are abstract concepts that describe a phenomenon of objective mechanical operations in the brain and subjective mental events in our our consciousness. The prohibitive explanatory divide between the physical brain and our subjective mental conscious life also precludes an physical explanation. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that DNA was altered in natural history by random mutations such that the infinite and unfathomable reason and mathematics became embedded in the stem cell to be manifested in the animal brain. Even if a Neo-Darwinist could posit an explanation and reduce Rationality or mathematics to certain physical code sequences in the human genome to document the “emergence” in natural history of the capacity, the mutation of the DNA code to do this seems so conveniently and improbably the result of random mutations of DNA (without the ability of the environment to provide input into the mutation sequence as Darwinism and now biochemistry or Neo-Darwinism presupposes), that the foundation of Neo-Darwinism must tremble at the articulation.

(4) Accordingly, because of the irreducibility of abstract thought and reason and the like, the physicalist or Neo-Darwinist is faced with the problem that Plato attempted to systematize in The Republic, how do we account for abstractions, as exemplified by common thoughts and beliefs about “Ideal” forms of things mundane and ethereal and qualities like beauty and justice. Plato’s idealism caused him to posit another world of the true and real forms of ideas of things and qualities of things like ideal forms of a chair or table or the highest form of the Good, which Plato equates with God.

In thinking about these things, I was reminded of C. S. Lewis’s argument that Reason and rationality are not reducible to Nature and physical reality because rationality is God-given and not present in Nature.

I found my copy of Lewis’s 1947 work Miracles. I remembered buying my copy around 1984 or so at a Christian bookstore in Westwood, in Los Angeles across the street from Bullocks department store, which I suppose is long gone today. The paperback book is yellowed around the edges of the pages now and the bent corners evidence my progress through the book back then.

In Chapter IV, Lewis is discussing the distinction between Nature and Supernature which is the title of the chapter. Lewis argues that Nature, the material physical world we observe and live in, is irrational and purposeless. For Lewis, our rationality, and our ability to use Reason to consciously form true beliefs (to the best of our ability), is not imparted by Nature, but is imparted by God. God is a god of Reason, and because He made us in his image, we are endowed with Reason, though a humanly imperfect reason. On page 31 of my copy, Lewis has posited that God and Nature are separate, but in coexisting there must be a relationship between God and Nature. This relationship is manifested in every human mind. He writes:

. . . There is enormous difficulty in conceiving two things which simply co-exist and have no other relation. If this difficulty escapes our notice, that is because we are victims of picture-thinking. We really imagine them side by side in some kind of space. But of course if they were both in a common space, or a common time, or in any kind of common medium whatever, they would both be parts of a system, in fact of a “Nature.” Even if we succeed in eliminating such pictures, the mere fact of our trying to think of them together slurs over the real difficulty because for that moment anyway, our own mind is the common medium. If there can be such a thing as sheer “otherness,” if things can co-exist and no more, it is at any rate a conception which my mind cannot form. And in the present instance it seems specially gratuitous to try to form it, for we already know that God and Nature have come into a certain relation. They have at the very least, a relation — almost, in one sense, a common frontier — in every human mind.

Lewis believed that this chasm between Nature and God existed in the life of the human mind. Man is made in the image of God, and His Reason is imparted to us as a gift from a God of ultimate Reason, though the gift is limited and imperfect for reasons only God knows. Hence, for Lewis, Reason in the mind of man is supernatural because it is from God, and not from Nature, the two being separate. Lewis writes further:

The relations which arise at that frontier are indeed of a most complicated and intimate sort. That spearhead of the Supernatural which I call my reason links up with all my natural contents — my sensations, emotions, and the like — so completely that I call the mixture by the single word “me.” Again, there is what I have called the unsymmetrical character of the frontier relations [between God and Nature]. When the physical state of the brain dominates my thinking, it produces only disorder. But my brain does not become any less a brain when it is dominated by Reason: Nor do my emotions and sensations become any less emotions and sensations. Reason saves and strengthens my whole system, psychological and physical, whereas that whole system, by rebelling against Reason, destroys both Reason and itself. The military metaphor of a spearhead was apparently ill-chosen. The supernatural Reason enters my natural brain not like a weapon — more like a beam of light which illuminates or a principle of organisation which unifies and develops. Our whole picture of Nature being “invaded” (as if by a foreign enemy) was wrong. When we actually examine one of these invasions it looks more like the arrival of a king among his own subjects or a mahout visiting his own elephant. The elephant may run amuck, Nature may be rebellious. But from observing what happens when Nature obeys it is almost impossible not to conclude that it is her very “nature” to be a subject. All happens as if she had been designed for that very role.

Assuming it were possible to reduce the mind to physical events in the brain, a naturalist or physicalist must agree with David Hume that Reason is a slave to the passions, which arise naturally and spontaneously; Reason is a mere cognitive instrument. However, as Lewis shows and a fair appraisal of our own conscious life confirms, Reason is the capacity to judge the true from false and right from wrong in Nature, which results in our rational behavior when we are acting in accordance with the “light” of reason. Through practice or prayer, this capacity results in what we refer to as wisdom, the developed use of reason to know the world better and to act freely and effectively in it if we choose to act. If this is the case, then Reason cannot be a mere cognitive tool to carry out the irrational desires of our flesh. With Reason we are able to harness the flesh and our desires, as difficult as it may be at times, if we so choose. We are able to enjoy the creation as God does. We create with rational operation of the will and the imagination, and know, understand and conquer Nature by means of uncountable judgments resulting from our ability to Reason. To say that reason and similar gifts are inherent in a material or physical Nature is to give an immaterial and non-physical self-consciousness to particles of matter acting in fields of force according to laws of nature, which is a supernatural property and therefore contradictory.

Posted by: davidlarkin | January 26, 2010

What is a Force?


Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

If you ask a physicist what a “force” is, he or she is likely to answer with a formula for measuring the effect of a force, like F=MA (Force = Mass X Acceleration) or “W=FD” (Work = Force X Distance, which translates to Force equals Work divided by Distance F=W/D).  However, the physicist has not told us what a “force” is, only how to measure it in terms of other variables, like “mass” and its “acceleration.” A force may equal mass times acceleration, but is a “Force” in its essence, a “mass” times its “Acceleration”?

A “Newton”, named after Isaac Newton, is the classic unit of measurement of force. In the F=MA formula, force of one Newton will be the product of a mass of one kilogram multiplied by an acceleration or rate of change in velocity in the amount of one meter per one second, N=KgM/S, but this is only a quantity stated in kilogram-meters per second. That does not tell us what a force is, only how big or small it is, relative to another quantity of force.

The dictionary definition of “force” is typically something as simple as “a pushing or a pulling” or as ambiguous as “a power to influence, to cause. . .”  A “power” is a “capacity” or “ability” or “capability” which is only a word substituting for the description of the quality of an object or thing that can cause an event. Thus, “Force” is a concept used in place of whatever it is that effectively causes a push or a pull, and may be called a “power,” if it inheres in a thing.  Gravity is a force because it is an attraction between things with mass, sometimes referred to by physicists as “bodies.”  If you think about it, you can see that no one really knows what a “force” is, what its essence is, but we can see a body, or a mass of matter (unless it is too small to see or as invisible as Dark Matter).

The great polymath genius, Gottfried Leibniz, who, contemporaneously with Isaac Newton, invented the calculus, concluded that gravity was miraculous:

If God would cause a body to move free in the aether round about a certain fixed centre, without any other creature acting upon it:  I say, it could not be done without a miracle;  since it cannot be explained by the nature of bodies.  For, a free body does naturally recede from a curve in the tangent.  And therefore I maintain, that the attraction of bodies, properly so called, is a miraculous thing, since it cannot be explained by the nature of bodies.

Alexander, H.G., editor The Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence, Manchester University Press (1956), p. 30.

Isaac Newton did not know what gravity was either, but he was adamant that it was not inherent in matter. He wrote:

It is inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should, without the mediation of something else which is not material, operate upon and affect other matter without mutual contact…That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.

Janiak, A. (ed.), 2004, Newton: Philosophical Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 104, cited in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Force may be mechanical, when one billiard ball strikes another, or it may be a field, as in the case of gravity or electro-magnetism, but its essence remains undefinable. Physicists today are even using a gravity particle in their models, the graviton, to stand in the place of the force of attraction between bodies, as if bodies send invisible massless particles to cling to another body within a certain range and then the respective clouds of gravitons simultaneously push or pull the body towards their respective home bodies, with a strength proportional to the mass of the graviton’s home body, and the stronger cloud of gravitons prevails.

Do we need to know what a force is? If we do not know what it is, where it comes from, why it is here, then we do not know the ultimate source of what there is and what makes it change. We can ignore the essence of the forces in creation, respect it, fear it, or worship it.

The worlds of the Starwars films were managed by “The Force,” an impersonal mystical governing force, which was a conceptual substitute for the personal God who has filled the same role in the Judeo-Christian tradition, only with the historically revealed purposes of a conscious intelligent person.

For the Christian, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, and the person of the triune God by whom creation is carried out to completion, that divine person and spirit is the force that holds the quarks in place and manifests further as the power that is harnessed within the nucleus of the atom, holding its parts together with the strong and weak nuclear forces, until released by massive man-made fission or fusion reactions; is the force referred to as gravity that holds a star together, while though natural fusion within the star, the energy of the forces holding the atoms together is released by means of natural fusion; and is the power that attracts dark matter towards the center of mass of a passing galaxy — and is the force that sends an apple to the earth:

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:17 (ESV)

Posted by: davidlarkin | October 21, 2009

Who’s that Starring in My Dream?

I had a dream this morning that I was riding in a car with a few strangers. We were driving on a narrow blacktop road around the perimeter of a grassy square courtyard in some upscale institution, sort of a seaside cross between the Stanford University campus and a religious retreat with a Spanish Mission style, both in spirit and architecture, if that is conceptually possible. It seemed busy like a college campus, but at the same time, serious and sober like a religious retreat. There were Eucalyptus trees along with the California-themed architecture, so it was likely somewhere on the California coast, maybe between LA and San Diego in Dreamland. I dreamed that I told the strangers with me in the car that I had stayed here before in one of the rooms, impliedly available to the public, as if I was recommending a vacation destination. In the dream, I had a memory of the dusty orange earthtone painted, sparsely furnished and dusky sunlit room overlooking the sea, as I told them about it while we wheeled around the square courtyard sightseeing.

As I awoke this morning out of that dream, my thoughts were about the dream. I remembered more about the time I stayed at this same place. I remembered it as from another dream I had quite a while ago. I remembered details of the prior dream that I did not tell the people in the car, including walking around the perimeter of the courtyard and seeing a pub with a neon sign down a flight of stairs between two buildings, and seeing the light coming around a line of buildings telling me of an approaching sunset over the sea. I don’t remember watching the sunset in that dream, just thinking about it. I know that when I was telling them about my prior stay, it was me remembering the experience. So, I was in a dream telling strangers about an experience that was a memory of a real event for my dreaming persona, but in fact, I was telling dream companions about a prior dream, as if it was a memory of a real experience of my dream persona.

So, the question is whether my dream persona is the same person that is writing this post. I don’t know. Dream David Larkin seems to have his own memories that are real to him, but are only dreams to me, Awake David Larkin. Perhaps, I was just remembering the same dream from last night, fractured in two, and reversed in time sequence, like a Charlie Kaufman short with the solo dream coming out of sequence after the social dream. Maybe I need to consult with dream guru, Roger Kamenetz, who wrote the book.

Posted by: davidlarkin | July 1, 2009

Time, Time, Time, See What’s Become of Me

In John Updike’s collection of his early short stories, The Early Stories: 1953-1975, in the story “In Football Season,” Updike describes the late adolescent’s attitude toward time, as his boisterous group of high school students meander home after a football game:

. . . we taunted the cold stars with song, one mile, two miles, three miles. How slowly we went! With what a luxurious sense of waste did we abuse this stretch of time! For as children we had lived in a tight world of ticking clocks and punctual bells, where every minute was an admonition to thrift and where tardiness, to a child running late down a street with his panicked stomach burning, seemed the most mysterious and awful of sins. Now, turning the corner into adulthood, we found time to be instead a black immensity endlessly supplied, like the wind.

Updike had a precociously mature sense of time in his early writing days, passing through the young adult phase where abuse of the freedom to use time as we please has made billions for purveyors of time-wasting activities, staying long enough to identify and sample it and be able to express it. Updike began making his living early as a young writer selling stories to the New Yorker. The struggle to support his young family likely produced his respect for time, with the need to produce marketable prose. With his Olympian powers of observation, he must have experienced insufficiency of time for responsibly and elegantly expressing in writing all he had to say, finalizing the product and getting it to market. As he says,

But we would-be novelists have a reach as shallow as our skins. We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves. From the dew of the few flakes that melt on our faces we cannot reconstruct the snowstorm.

From “The Beloved Man of Boston” in his Early Stories.

When I watch my 18 year old son play a combat video game for three hours because he needs to conquer the game, I marvel at his lack of concern for time. Then, I think of myself at 18, or even 35, and how I wasted time, I forgive him and pray for forgetfulness. Like Updike’s characters, he is turning the corner into adulthood. He is off to college. Unlike me at his age, he has some career and life goals already. Does the global economy put pressure consciously or unconsciously on this generation to set long-term goals? Presumably, his career goals will help him resist the temptation to waste time better than I did. I did not have any goals when I left for college, other than a generalized aim to satisfy my over-sized curiosity. Now, at age 61 (in two weeks), I consider my time precious, but what are my goals now? I still find myself wasting time playing solitaire, or watching Billy Mays’ commercials (may he rest in peace), rather than wasting time agonizing over what I can do that is a prudent use of my time. I look at my unread books in my library I bought with unlimited hope, when, even in my fifties, time for me was still a “black immensity endlessly supplied, like the wind.” I balk at the task of deciding which are still worth reading, of those which should I read, and in what order, while I add classic novels to my Kindle for 90 cents apiece.

So, is it a prudent use of my time to try to express my thoughts in verse? If a poem is written on a computer and no one reads it, is it still a poem? As Bishop Berkeley might say, “God reads it.” So, with that audience in mind, maybe writing a bad poem is not a prudent use of my time. And if a bad poem is written on a computer and even if someone reads it, is it really a poem?

Time, time, time
See whats become of me
While I looked around
For my possibilities
I was so hard to please

Paul Simon – Hazy Shade of Winter [1967 live version – Simon and Garfunkel click here]

Posted by: davidlarkin | February 28, 2009

Evolution “Invents” a New Photoreceptor in Humans

In the December 24, 2008 issue of The New Republic, Oren Harman reviewed a book on biological clocks, Rhythms of Life: The Biological Clocks that Control the Daily Lives of Every Living Thing by Russell G. Foster and Leon Kreitzman, Yale University Press (2005). Link to The New Republic book review.

In the review, Harman explains that scientists have discovered that the internal biological clocks in animal organisms are synchronized to the outside world by cues from the environment. Syncronization is necessary for the internal biological clock to operate in the world and be useful to the organism in survival. The process is called “entrainment.” Harmon writes:

. . . while cues like temperature, food availability, humidity and even social contact can act as triggers, light is nature’s greatest entrainer of all.

This makes good evolutionary sense. Light is the most stable of these cues, and it can be used not only to signal dawn and dusk, but also, since the amount of light falling on the Earth varies precisely with latitude and season, to calculate the time of year.

In his discussion of how light “entrains” an organism’s biological clock, not surprisingly, Harman offers no explanation of how light in the environment causally effects evolution to bring about this new biological feature. Of course, it cannot because current evolutionary theory relies on microbiological change unconnected to the environment. That new mammalian receptor would have to evolve through a pathway of naturally selected random mutations of DNA uninfluenced by the light of day or the dark of night, and then be naturally selected once the pathway randomly produced the final functioning new receptor.

Presumably, historical evolutionary reptilian precursors to mammals without the new receptor would have trouble getting to sleep and waking up with no biological clock, but apparently that would not prevent survival until the receptor appeared in the evolutionary advanced human species we are. Apparently, then, the mammal with the new receptor would be be more fit for survival, for example, now able to follow the maxim: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Accordingly, he and she would dominate in the battle of the selfish genes, and the inferior time-confused genetically-older semi-reptilian brethren, rising too late or too early, would become extinct.

The alternative to development in accordance with the gradulism premise of Darwinism, would be a giant random genetic leap from reptile without the new class of receptors to a mammal with it. The massive genetic mutation necessary for the information in that leap is likely highly mathematically improbable. The gene that expresses the protein that connects the inside of muscle cells to the outside, running through the cell membrane, for example, has 2.5 million base pairs in a specific order. What precise genetic information would be necessary for a new photoreceptor containing multiple proteins?

Harman writes:

“Light has been such an important entrainer that evolution has even “invented” in mammals a whole new class of photoreceptors, different from the rods and cones used for vision, in order to bring it safely to the SCN in the brain. [“SCN” is the suprachiasmatic nuclei of 20,000 neurons in the brain now believed to be the neural center of biological clocks] The surprise existence of such receptors, discovered in Russell’s own lab six years ago, made it clear that even diseased eyes need to be kept intact in order to allow them to perform their circadian functions. Blind people, with no working rods and cones, still need their eyes for waking and sleeping.”

Thus, with great unspoken faith in evolution as an explanation, even recognizing the miraculous nature of this biological development in humans by his use of the language of creation and design, though he uses quotation marks to let you know that he is only kidding, Harman writes about evolution “inventing” this new receptor, with no thought of just how an empty-headed, dice-rolling machine of “evolution” might have done done that.

This is another example of the underlying evolutionary principle of expedient use and disuse of probability estimates in light of scientifically established historical time. For a scholarly discussion of the probability problem in micro-evolution of the species, see Stephen Meyer’s paper from the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories. If it could have happened by chance, it did, regardless of the probability in light of time available or the lack of evidence in natural history or the laboratory. That is great faith.

Posted by: davidlarkin | November 7, 2008

The Morning After

Wednesday morning, November 5, 2008, the morning after the election of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States, I opened my Bible to read the daily Bible selections from the Daily Office Lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal and Anglican prayer book.

With the prior day’s election still in mind, I was peaceful with the outcome, happy and proud that the nation had recognized the excellence of Obama’s candidacy. The first reading was Psalm 72. I was struck with the prophetic impact of some of the verses in the Psalm:

1 Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness.

2 He will [a] judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.

3 The mountains will bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.

4 He will defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
he will crush the oppressor.

. . .

12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.

13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.

14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight.

New International Version.

This is what the God of the Bible expects from the King of Israel and from government on this earth, even the United States government. This is what I hope to see from our government. I vote with this in mind. From what I know about Obama and his life and values, I am confident that Obama will bring a heart for the weak, afflicted and the needy to his policies and decisions, and hopeful that he will have the cooperation of Congress and the American people to accomplish what needs to be done. The words of the Psalmist gave me comfort the morning after the election.

My wife also follows this daily reading regimen and she had tipped me off earlier that morning that the Psalm today was prophetically significant. Hopefully, others who read this Psalm this morning after the election around the nation may have felt similar significance and comfort.

Psalm 72 is may be found here. According to commentators, Psalm 72 is both about earthly government, King Solomon, and heavenly government, prophetic statements about the Messiah. See e.g., Matthew Henry’s commentary on the Psalm written in 1706. In the Daily Office Lectionary, the 150 Psalms are arranged in a seven week pattern repeated through the year. The Psalm selections lead off the daily readings. The Book of Common Prayer is a product of the Church of England during the English Reformation. It was first published in 1549, written by Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, at the behest of Henry VIII.

Although I am not an Anglican or Episcopalian, I find Book of Common Prayer Daily Office Lectionary readings a helpful non-denominational devotional tool and daily discipline. The Daily Office is a two year program through the Bible. You will find all of the controversial parts are omitted, as my friend, the Rockin’ Rev Phil Rountree, Rector of St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Novato, California, advised when I was beginning the programmed readings. I have a hard time skipping parts of the Scripture though because it is interesting to me, except the lists of ancestors and directions for how to build something.

Posted by: davidlarkin | November 1, 2008

Inexpensive Halloween Zombie Costume



A friend having coffee at Starbucks this morning told me he was going to a Halloween party tonight. He is a professor at Arizona State University and is equipped with a Ph.D in philosophy. He asked if I wanted to see his Halloween costume. I answered “Sure,” and he handed me this card:

Zombie expert, David Chalmers, a long-haired philosopher of consciousness and mind at the Australian National University, formerly at the University of Arizona until a few years ago, writes that there are three types of zombies:

Varieties of zombies

There are actually three different kinds of zombies. All of them are like humans in some ways, and all of them are lacking something crucial (something different in each case).

Hollywood zombies. These are found in zombie B-movies. Their defining feature is that they are dead, but “reanimated”. They are typically rather mean, and fond of human flesh. The zombies pictured on this page are mostly Hollywood zombies (though I’m informed that the one at the bottom is really a ghost demon). An expert tells me that the name should be “Pittsburgh zombies”, since the most important zombie movies were made in Pittsburgh, but somehow it doesn’t have the same ring.

Haitian zombies. These are found in the voodoo (or vodou) tradition in Haiti. Their defining feature seems to be that they lack free will, and perhaps lack a soul. Haitian zombies were once normal people, but underwent zombification by a “bokor” through spell or potion, and are afterwards used as slaves.

Philosophical zombies. These are found in philosophical articles on consciousness. Their defining features is that they lack conscious experience, but are behaviorally (and often physically) identical to normal humans.

from Zombies on the Web

Chalmers has also written in his book, The Conscious Mind, that he believes that a thermostat could have consciousness. He has an interesting personal website with a generous supply of information and resources. He is the philosopher who first referred to the qualitative experience of “consciousness” as the “hard problem” in the scientific study of consciousness, in his paper Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” See also, Thomas Nagel’s seminal 1974 paper on this hard problem: “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

Based on their writings, it is evident that a large portion of cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind are materialists who are, therefore, scientific determinists. They necessarily believe that the brain is a machine, and the actions of humans are determined by the interaction of particles of matter in fields of force in accordance with laws of nature. The rigid true believers look at consciousness as an epiphenomenon, mere froth on the wave of neuronal activity, with no causal powers or connection with an amorphous immaterial soul, mind or person. For a scientific determinist then, there is no functional difference between a zombie and a human with consciousness.

Those who believe in free will must recognize a difference between a zombie and a conscious human if they believe that free will entails conscious decision-making. I believe that such free will requires an immaterial source of creative will, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this post. It may be a matter of aesthetic posturing that the promoters of scientific determinism, who may fairly be identified with neo-Darwinists, make noises like they are exercising free will, but underneath they are identical to zombies, though they do not carry cards like my philosopher friend. For me and those who consider their actions to be often a matter of free will, we often make real decisions and create actions for which we are morally responsible because of our free will choices requiring creative consideration before action, rather than mere conscious observation of the effects of our personal neuronal chain of cause and effect governed solely by scientific law and no free personal choice.

UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle believes that consciousness is a purely biological phenomena, a feature of the organic brain. In disputing the idea of a machine with consciousness, he proposes a scenario where science has discovered a way to fix the brain by implanting silicon chips to replace bad brain tissue. He imagines a person with a degenerative brain condition who little by little has his brain replaced by silicon chips until the last remaining brain tissue is replaced by a silicon chip and the persons consciousness goes to black. If he continues to be conscious without sensation, it is a black emptiness. If he ceases to be conscious, and his body remains functioning, he passes the Turing test because we continue to communicate with him as if he had human consciousness, but he is a zombie.

Searle’s thought experiment also leads to the Ship of Perseus puzzle. If consciousness is a feature of the organic brain, and the brain cells are replaced by silicon chips, does the person with the silicon brain remain the same person he or she was when there was an organic brain composed of living cells instead of inanimate silicon chips. The ship of Theseus first surfaces in print in Plutarch (Vita Thesei, 22-23):

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

An alternative scenario would be some yet-unknown emergent consciousness from the sum of the silicon parts that emerges as a new person or merges with the biological consciousness at some point and remains the same person, arguably. In his entertaining novel, Prey, Michael Crichton’s human-manufactured nano-robots come together with an emergent consciousness like the combination of human cells comes together with a consciousness.

Entrepreneur developer of voice recognition software and futurist Ray Kurzweil apparently believes in some sort of emergent consciousness from non-biological sources. In his entertaining and informative 2005 book of technological prophecy The Singularity is Near, with confident prose expressing his upbeat faith in science, Kurzweil spends some quality time introducing his prophecies of genetic science with a page or so describing how he has chemically rebuilt his body. The guy is a dynamo. He is around 60 years old. His self-designed program includes 250 supplement pills a day and half-dozen intravenous therapies each week, basically nutritional supplements delivered directly into his bloodstream, thereby bypassing his GI tract. The section, titled “Designer Baby Boomers,” immediately precedes the section titled, “Can We Really Live Forever?” He apparently believes that we will be able to keep our bodies alive long enough for technology to reach the point where we will upload our brain scans into robots and our souls will follow, although he doesn’t see any difference between our brain software and consciousness, or the soul. Time will tell. 250 pills a day is a lot of pills. I hope 250 pills kill for him the increasing creakiness and aches and pains I am feeling these days, as well as the earlier tiredness I feel in the evening.

Designer Baby Boomers

Sufficient information already exists today to slow down disease and aging processes to the point that baby boomers like myself can remain in good health until the full blossoming of the biotechnology revolution, which will itself be a bridge to the nanotechnology revolution (see Resources and Contact Information, p. 489). In Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, which I coauthored with Terry Grossman, M.D., a leading longevity expert, we discuss these three bridges to radical life extension (today’s knowledge, biotechnology, and nanotechnology). I wrote there: “Whereas some of my contemporaries may be satisfied to embrace aging gracefully as part of the cycle of life, that is not my view. It may be `natural,’ but I don’t see anything positive in losing my mental agility, sensory acuity, physical limberness, sexual desire, or any other human ability. I view disease and death at any age as a calamity, as problems to be overcome.”

Bridge one involves aggressively applying the knowledge we now possess to dramatically slow down aging and reverse the most important disease processes, such as heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. You can, in effect, reprogram your biochemistry, for we have the knowledge today, if aggressively applied, to overcome our genetic heritage in the vast majority of cases. “It’s mostly in your genes” is only true if you take the usual passive attitude toward health and aging.

My own story is instructive. More than twenty years ago I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. The conventional treatment made my condition worse, so I approached this health challenge from my perspective as an inventor. I immersed myself in the scientific literature and came up with a unique program that successfully reversed my diabetes. In 1993 I wrote a health book (The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life) about this experience, and I continue today to be free of any indication or complication of this disease.

In addition, when I was twenty-two, my father died of heart disease at the age of fifty-eight, and I have inherited his genes predisposing me to this illness. Twenty years ago, despite following the public guidelines of the American Heart Association, my cholesterol was in the high 200s (it should be well below 180), my HDL (high-density lipoprotein, the “good” cholesterol) below 30 (it should be above 50), and my homocysteine (a measure of the health of a biochemical process called methylation) was an unhealthy 11 (it should be below 7.5). By following a longevity program that Grossman and I developed, my current cholesterol level is 130, my HDL is 55, my homocysteine is 6.2, my C-reactive protein (a measure of inflammation in the body) is a very healthy 0.01, and all of my other indexes (for heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions) are at ideal levels.

When I was forty, my biological age was around thirty-eight. Although I am now fifty-six, a comprehensive test of my biological aging (measuring various sensory sensitivities, lung capacity, reaction times, memory, and related tests) conducted at Grossman’s longevity clinic measured my biological age at forty.” Although there is not yet a consensus on how to measure biological age, my scores on these tests matched population norms for this age. So, according to this set of tests, I have not aged very much in the last sixteen years, which is confirmed by the many blood tests I take, as well as the way I feel.

These results are not accidental; I have been very aggressive about reprogramming my biochemistry. I take 250 supplements (pills) a day and receive a half-dozen intravenous therapies each week (basically nutritional supplements delivered directly into my bloodstream, thereby bypassing my GI tract). As a result, the metabolic reactions in my body are completely different than they would otherwise be. Approaching this as an engineer, I measure dozens of levels of nutrients (such as vitamins, minerals, and fats), hormones, and metabolic by-products in my blood and other body samples (such as hair and saliva). Overall, my levels are where I want them to be, although I continually fine-tune my program based on the research that I conduct with Grossman.” Although my program may seem extreme, it is actually conservative-and optimal (based on my current knowledge). Grossman and I have extensively researched each of the several hundred therapies that I use for safety and efficacy. I stay away from ideas that are unproven or appear to be risky (the use of human-growth hormone, for example).

We consider the process of reversing and overcoming the dangerous progression of disease as a war. As in any war it is important to mobilize all the means of intelligence and weaponry that can be harnessed, throwing everything we have at the enemy. For this reason we advocate that key dangers-such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and aging-be attacked on multiple fronts. For example, our strategy for preventing heart disease is to adopt ten different heart-disease-prevention therapies that attack each of the known risk factors.

By adopting such multipronged strategies for each disease process and each aging process, even baby boomers like myself can remain in good health until the full blossoming of the biotechnology revolution (which we call “bridge two”), which is already in its early stages and will reach its peak in the second decade of this century.

Biotechnology will provide the means to actually change your genes: not just designer babies will be feasible but designer baby boomers. We’ll also be able to rejuvenate all of your body’s tissues and organs by transforming your skin cells into youthful versions of every other cell type. Already, new drug development is precisely targeting key steps in the process of atherosclerosis (the cause of heart disease), cancerous tumor formation, and the metabolic processes underlying each major disease and aging process.

The Singularity is Near, Viking (2005) pp. 210-212.  Kurzweil’s life extension is driven by his prophetic technological beliefs that in the future Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) will surpass human thinking and merge with humanity.  There will be no distinction between biological beings and robotic beings, and we will upload and download our conscous thinking process as software to be modified, saved and stored in our personal database, presumably synchronized with our operating system in our refurbished bodies, like an iPod. I can imagine the glitches that might occur where we accidentally and automatically download old or corrupted information from our mother database in the middle of something important and are transported to another dimension of thought and memory, or simply freeze, requiring restart. We’ll need a button for that, perhaps fittingly placed in the belly.

Wikipedia has a nice summary of Kurzweil’s predictions.  Here are his predictions for 2099:

  • The human brain has been completely reverse engineered and all aspects of its functioning are understood.
  • Natural human thinking possesses no advantages over computer minds.
  • Machines have attained equal legal status with humans.
  • Humans and machines merge together in the physical and mental realms. Cybernetic brain implants enable humans to fuse their minds with AI’s.
  • In consequence, clear distinctions between humans and machines no longer exist.
  • Most conscious beings lack a permanent physical form.
  • The world is overwhelmingly populated by AI’s that exist entirely as thinking computer programs capable of instantly moving from one computer to another across the Internet (or whatever equivalent exists in 2099). These computer-based beings are capable of manifesting themselves at will in the physical world by creating or taking over robotic bodies, with individual AI’s also being capable of controlling multiple bodies at once.
  • Individual beings merge and separate constantly, making it impossible to determine how many “people” there are on Earth.
  • This new plasticity of consciousness and ability for beings to join minds seriously alters the nature of self-identity.
  • The majority of interpersonal interactions occur in virtual environments. Actually having two people physically meet in the real world to have a conversation or transact business without any technological interference is very rare.
  • Organic human beings are a small minority of the intelligent life forms on Earth. Even among the remaining Homo sapiens, the use of computerized implants that heavily augment normal abilities is ubiquitous and accepted as normal. The small fraction of humans who opt to remain “natural” and unmodified effectively exist on a different plane of consciousness from everyone else, and thus find it impossible to fully interact with AI’s and highly modified humans.
  • “Natural” humans are protected from extermination. In spite of their shortcomings and frailties, humans are respected by AI’s for giving rise to the machines.
  • Since knowledge and skills can be instantly downloaded and comprehended by most intelligent beings, the process of learning is compressed into an instantaneous affair instead of the years-long struggle normal humans experience. Free from this time-consuming burden, AI’s now focus their energies on making new discoveries and contributions.
  • AI’s are capable of dividing their attention and energies in countless directions, allowing one being to manage a multitude of endeavors simultaneously.
  • Femtoengineering (engineering on the scale of one thousandth of a trillionth of a meter) might be possible.
  • AI’s communicate via a shared electronic language.
  • Artwork and music created by machines encompasses areas of the light spectrum and frequencies of sounds that normal humans cannot perceive.
  • Money has deflated in value.
  • Some humans at least as old as the Baby Boomers are still alive and well.
  • Computer viruses are a major threat since most intelligent beings are software-based.
  • AI’s frequently make “backup copies” of themselves, guaranteeing a sort of immortality should the original AI be killed.
  • The concept of “life expectancy” has become irrelevant to humans and machines thanks to medical immortality and advanced computers.
  • The pace of technological change continues to accelerate as the 22nd century nears.

Kurzweil may be admired for his aggressive approach to life extension, but his unbridled optimism that he will be able to live this life forever as a hybrid techno-bio-creature of blood, guts, software and hardware, may blind him to the spiritual questions that should be considered and answered before the end of this life.

There have been remarkable advances in the bio-technology of brain-machine interface. The November 2, 2008 edition of CBS’s 60 Minutes had a story on the interface between a machine and the brain of a neuroscientist with ALS. With electrodes hooked to his brain through a cap, he was able to chose letters and communicate solely through his thought. In other words, he was able to make brain waves that were mechanically recognized by a machine and converted to the chosen letter of the alphabet, one letter at a time. Despite the amazing engineering and electrical connection between mind and machine, this advance is not life extension, nor does it approach being able to replicate the creative freedom of thought we experience or the operation of the human brain by means of the estimated one hundred billion neurons in the brain, each with on average 7,000 synaptic connections to other neurons.

Unfortunately for Kurzweil, looking at the state of technology, it is apparent to an honest observer that we will never know in our lifetime if Kurzweil’s man qua robot will ever come to be, and even if it be created, whether the reborn Zurzweil is a zombie, because I sure wouldn’t take a robot’s word for it, would you? I don’t trust them.

Regarding the question whether a machine could have consciousness, or as proposed by a friend, Ben S., whether a machine could have the Lord’s breath, obviously if the Lord so willeth, it could. Disney and Pixar have an ongoing theme of machines with consciousness, e.g., Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, and most recently Wall-E (In the film Wall-E, the eponymous robot is constantly renewing himself from spare parts he keeps in his cargo container home. Near the end of the film, EVE rebuilds Wall-E, replacing nearly all of his parts, including his main circuit board).

In the Bible, Moses changes sticks into snakes and of course, the angel of the Lord causes Balaam’s ass (the animal “ass” for those unfamiliar with Balaam’s ass) to speak words which imply temporary consciousness, and passing the Turing test.

From Numbers 22:21-31 (King James English version):

And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. And God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again. And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff. And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay. Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

Posted by: davidlarkin | September 3, 2008

A Prayer from Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died last month on August 3, 2008, wrote about the horrors of the Soviet Gulag in his most famous work, the Gulag Archipelago. I read his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I was in high school. My only memories of the book are from my imagination: images of gray skies, snow, prison barracks, and Soviet prison guards with guns. I remember the cold horror I felt reading the story (and also that the book was not too long, something I appreciated in my busy high school years). He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. I was reading last week in A Pocket Book of Prayers for Busy People, published by Christian Art Gifts, and found the following prayer authored by him:

How simple for me to live with You, O Lord
How easy for me to believe in You!
When my mind parts on bewilderment or falters,
when the most intelligent people see no further than this day’s end
and do not know what must be done tomorrow,
You grant me the serene certitude that You exist
and that you will take care that not all the paths of good be closed.
Atop the ridge of earthly fame, I look back in wonder at the path
which I alone could never have found,
a wondrous path through despair to this point
from which I too could transmit to mankind a reflection of Your rays.
And as much as I must still reflect You will give me.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Christopher Hitchens wrote a eulogy for Solzhenitsyn in Hitchens begins his eulogy:

Every now and then it happens. The state or the system encounters an individual who, bafflingly, maddeningly, absurdly, cannot be broken.

Hitchens avoids connecting Solzhenitsyn’s Christian faith with the inability of the Soviet bullies to break him. As a current prophet of atheism, this is understandable, but ironic. He writes further:

To have fought his way into Hitler’s East Prussia as a proud Red Army soldier in the harshest war on record, to have been arrested and incarcerated for a chance indiscretion, to have served a full sentence of servitude and been released on the very day that Stalin died, and then to have developed cancer and known the whole rigor and misery of a Soviet-era isolation hospital—what could you fear after that? The bullying of Leonid Brezhnev’s KGB and the hate campaigns of the hack-ridden Soviet press must have seemed like contemptible fleabites by comparison. But it seems that Solzhenitsyn did have a worry or a dread, not that he himself would be harmed but that none of his work would ever see print. Nonetheless—and this is the point to which I call your attention—he kept on writing. The Communist Party’s goons could have torn it up or confiscated or burned it—as they did sometimes—but he continued putting it down on paper and keeping a bottom drawer filled for posterity. This is a kind of fortitude for which we do not have any facile name. The simplest way of phrasing it is to say that Solzhenitsyn lived “as if.” Barely deigning to notice the sniggering, pick-nose bullies who followed him and harassed him, he carried on “as if” he were a free citizen, “as if” he had the right to study his own country’s history, “as if” there were such a thing as human dignity.

Someone other than Hitchens, even an atheist, might have written respectfully of the source of Solzhenitsyn’s ability to live “as if” there were such a thing as human dignity. Hitchens ignores it as if he was unaware. Maybe he is, but I doubt it.

As a Christian, Solzhenitsyn accepted as a matter of faith that humans were created in God’s image, as the Scripture reveals, and derive their dignity from Him, as God’s beloved. Coral Ridge Ministries highlighted the irony of Christopher Hitchen’s eulogy in a video available here.

The irony here is that modern atheism has no rational source for lofty ideals of human dignity and freedom. As Richard Dawkins bluntly puts it:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

River out of Eden (1995) p.133.

As an atheist, with nothing but “blind pitiless indifference” in the universe, where did Christopher Hitchens find the source of his admiration for Solzhenitsyn acting “as if” there was human dignity? According to the scientific materialist view of human life, the source must be an accumulation of neuronal connections in his limbic system of the brain that ties memory, emotion and human action together to be presented to the soul or mind, or rather, consciousness (whatever that is, the “hard problem“, as philosopher of consciousness David Chalmers has referred to the problem of explaining the biological source of our qualitative experience of consciousness).

Surely, there is nothing inherently immoral about believing you have chosen your moral system that gives you the feeling of admiration for classic higher human values, because those higher human values are ultimately God-given and good. However, it is supremely ironic that a materialist like Hitchens could write “as if” he admires and takes human pride in moral concepts and values like “human dignity” and “freedom,” that apparently make him feel good, but are, from an atheistic point of view, purely fantasy. For the atheist, norms must be arbitrarily given as evolved from random and gradual natural selection, rather than standing timelessly apart from our time-bound natural reality as ideals which are discovered rationally and discursively over time. That there would be any higher purpose to humanity from which dignity might arise, other than mere survival, would be contrary to the core contemporary atheist belief in a universe that is blind, pitiless and indifferent.

Hitchens has since died from esophageal cancer.  When he was facing death in his universe that was for him a universe without hope. I posted this prayer for Christopher Hitchens here that he may be given godly sorrow for sin and the hope of eternal life.

Posted by: davidlarkin | August 23, 2008

Self-Control – A Meditation

Flan, one of my a favorite desserts, he said wistfully . . .

The man who, in opposition to strong temptation, by a noble effort maintains his integrity, is the happiest man on earth. The more severe his conflict has been, the greater is his triumph. The consciousness of inward worth gives strength to his heart, and makes his countenance to shine. Tempests may beat and floods roar; but he stands firm as a rock, in the joy of a good conscience, and confidence of Divine approbation.

from Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, Essay III, “Of the Principles of Action”, Part III, “Of the Rational Principles of Action”, Chap. VII, “Of Moral Approbation and Disapprobation, Sec. 8, “Operations of the faculty called moral sense.” (1788)

A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes, Diabetes, type 2. So, for serious health reasons, these days I have to limit my intake of carbohydrates, especially sugar. I now look at desserts and pastries as the enemy.

It is a battle when I visit them — cheese danish, rich chocolate brownies, classic coffee cake, blueberry muffins, petite vanilla scones — an internal debate while I am waiting in line to order my coffee at Starbucks. I have visions of french fries as I drive past a McDonalds, and potato chips, Snickers and ice cream beckon to me as I walk down the aisle to pick up my prescriptions at Walgreens. There is no way to permanently avoid these occasions of sin and temptation. Carbs are ubiquitous.

The health penalty for not avoiding these foods has limited my occasion for having a pastry with coffee, or grabbing a bag of pretzels when I wheel by with my shopping cart, but I do not enjoy the moments when I consider whether to indulge. Fighting the temptation is stressful. The danger of self-deception lurks behind my thoughts in internal debate. If I fall and eat Haagen Dazs, I have convinced myself that I have not had a sweet for a long time, or that I will lay off for a long time in the future. If I do not fall, I leave the occasion feeling good about my self-control.

But what is this self-control?

For some, self-control is found beyond the self. For the Christian, it is spiritual: a conscious and unnatural effort requiring God’s help to avoid temptation or the occasion of sin because sin offends God. Some with addiction problems seek self-control by working the twelve-steps to conquer their addiction, recognizing first, that they are powerless over their addiction, and second, that a higher power of their choosing can provide the necessary power to overcome.

But for anyone, at the natural level of experience, self-control results from a conscious decision to avoid acting in a manner determined to be against one’s self-interest. As a child, while there is a muddling of self-determination and Pavlovian-produced habit, the motivating self-interest is to avoid punishment from a parent. When we leave home, we become interested in avoiding punishment by society, so we avoid criminal acts because we do not want to be arrested and go to jail. We may tell ourselves that it is not fear of punishment, but willing adherence to our personal moral code that causes us to avoid performing anti-social acts. But we really do not know that for a fact because typically we have not been in a position where we know without doubt that we can act badly without consequences.

We do not know how we would behave given the opportunity to act without jeopardy. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon argues to Socrates that man’s nature is to act unjustly, a vision of the nature of man similar to the Christian view of original sin. We cannot help ourselves in desiring to act unjustly because it is natural. Glaucon uses the myth of Gyges to illustrate his belief that it is fear of being caught which motivates us not to act badly, our natural inclination:

Now that those who practice justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian. According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result — when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom. Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers — on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

Plato’s Republic, Bk II (359c-360d)

Gyges is able to carry out without penalty those dark thoughts that spring forth into consciousness from beneath because he is invisible. We are not invisible, but we have the thoughts and desires to do wrong. We must exercise self-control to regulate our behavior, or pay the consequences. Regardless of what may motivate us to exercise self-control, what means do we have to limit our desires? As creatures of habit, if our desires are habitual, we can change our habits. Although our objects of self-control are commonly more than mere habits of movement, the fact that we can consciously train our bodies and change our habits of movement should encourage us that we can do the same with complex desires. Our desires unchecked activate the motor system of the brain when desires become movement, i.e., eye to cookie, desire enters consciousness, mindless instruction to hand, hand takes cookie, puts in mouth, chewing, and conscious reaction emotion of guilt follows.

To change a habit of physical movement, the motor systems in the brain that manage movement and habitual movement patterns must be reworked. When I was beginning my acting classes at the Loft Studio in Hollywood in the 80s, our teacher, William Traylor, told us stand in a line facing him and relax. Then we were each asked why do you have your hands in your pockets, or why are you holding the wrist of one arm with the hand of the other, or why are your arms crossed? None of us stood with our hands at our sides. He told us that we must train ourselves to keep our hands at our sides.

The body is naturally uncomfortable with the hands. We don’t know what to do with them so we put them in our pockets or clasp them together, anything but drop them to our sides. You can tell if an actor in a film is professionally trained if their hands drop naturally to their sides. Once the actor has made the words his own, the power of the words dominate, and any hand movements will be appropriately chosen and controlled by the actor and will have power when made, rather than distracting from speech. Obviously, the point was to get control of the arms and hands, not to act at all times with hands at the side. After being taught this, I remember seeing Richard Burton standing in the rain giving a speech to Elizabeth Taylor in The Sandpiper. His hands were at his side, and the viewer’s eye was riveted to his face and the words from his lips were heard without distraction. On the other hand, untrained young actors appear on sit-coms where their uncontrolled waiving arms and hands are unnecessarily distracting from what the actor is supposed to do with voice and words.

We were told to practice standing with our hands at our sides in public places. I went to public meetings for a couple of weeks and stood in the back with my hands at my side. It took conscious effort to change that habit; it was uncomfortable with my hands at my sides, my hands wanted to go into my pocket or my arms wanted to get crossed. It felt like everyone was looking at me with my hands at my sides. If they were, it was because I looked noticeably uncomfortable. With practice, I learned to let my hands drop to the side when standing, and they still do that 25 years later. My neural circuits in my brain’s motor system were reworked by conscious effort. I must say that I am not tempted to put my hands other than at my side. It was a professional choice to rework those circuits, but the alternative of putting my hands in my pocket has no independent sensual appeal, unlike the high carb load plate of homemade pasta with marinara topped with fresh grated parmesan cheese.

Is that what we do to avoid or withstand temptation, simply rework our neural circuits? Is the exercise of my will to avoid sweets reworking neural circuits, or am I just losing interest in sweets? Is my desire itself dissipated or are new brain circuits intervening, causing me not to reflexively act to eat sweets? I suppose the nature of desire is an issue here. If desire for sweets is physiological, then it would seem necessary to establish a new habit of intervention. This would account for my need now to look at pastry as the enemy rather than with indifference. It seems that over time, a particular desire might disappear. The object of our desires obviously change over time.

So, it is not the nature of “desire” that is central to the issue of self-control, but the nature of the desire that we decide is against our self-interest, that we try to control with conscious intervention. Just saying “no” is the obvious solution, but were it that easy, there would be no Alcoholics Anonymous, no liposuction, no nicotine patches.

There is a wack-a-mole principle operating beneath the surface, with the devil pushing the moles through the holes. You make a decision to cut out the red meat, and you eat too much of everything else. Temptations persist, despite remedial efforts. If this were not so, the Lord’s Prayer would not conclude with “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” You do not have to be a Christian to see the need for this petition. Obesity is a scourge of our nation because we cannot resist temptation, whether you think it is the devil or a corporate executive behind the seductive advertising for a happy meal. The child’s eyes are tempted by the happy face behind the high carbo load in a box, and the mother is tempted by the ease of meal preparation, and not having to work to prepare a nutritious meal and clean up after. There is work involved in resisting temptation. It’s easier to fall.

Studies have shown that after resisting a temptation, the mind is fatigued, will power is sapped.

In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.

Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.

What limits willpower? Some have suggested that it is blood sugar, which brain cells use as their main energy source and cannot do without for even a few minutes. Most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, but planning and self-control are sensitive to such small changes. Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control. People who drink a glass of lemonade between completing one task requiring self-control and beginning a second one perform equally well on both tasks, while people who drink sugarless diet lemonade make more errors on the second task than on the first. Foods that persistently elevate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, might enhance willpower for longer periods.

New York Times, April 2, 2008

The economics of will-power are beyond my intended scope here, but clearly, the planning and exercise of self-control — watching your weight, cutting down on drinking, gambling, smoking, staying off the internet when your are supposed to be working, studying, writing — is stressful and often, distressing. Conquering one sin may build confidence, but it is no guarantee that the next sin will be conquered. I quit drinking 25 years ago, smoking 24 years ago, but quitting eating is another matter. Water is tasting better every day.

For the Christian, it is by petitioning God in prayer, as in the final petition in the Lord’s Prayer, where peace may be found. Psychologically, the burden is placed elsewhere and spiritually, the burden is where it is supposed to be. The alcoholic’s act of recognizing the need for the intervention of a higher power is an act of humility. Peace may be found in humility, but an attitude of humility is not easily adopted. There is pride, of course, in overcoming through will-power alone, and for those who do, they have the applause of those they impress to fortify their success, and especially a “consciousness of inward worth gives strength to his heart, and makes his countenance to shine.” (Thomas Reid, quoted above) But for most, sobriety is a humbling day-to-day battle to overcome the changing appearance of temptation, and the temporary distress of discouragement and defeat is a consistent barrier to successful self-control.

St. Augustine speculated about the psychological state of Adam and Eve before Eve ate the apple. They were in a sinless state of grace, enjoying the Garden of Eden and all its fruits but one. But made in the image of God, they had a free will to choose evil. Although Augustine does not speculate what temptations, other than the forbidden fruit, they might have had before the serpent appeared. Presumably they could have given in to a natural temptation to gluttony without the serpent’s help and gorged themselves on some especially tempting newly discovered nectarines growing miraculously on a nearby peach tree. St. Augustine writes this of Adam and Eve before the Fall:

The pair lived in a partnership of unalloyed felicity; their love for God and for each other was undisturbed. This love was the source of immense gladness, since the beloved object was always at hand for their enjoyment. There was a serene avoidance of sin; and as long as this continued, there was no encroachment of any kind of evil, from any quarter to bring them sadness. Or could it have been that they desired to lay hands on the forbidden tree, so as to eat its fruit, but that they were afraid of dying? In that case both desire and fear was already disturbing them, even in that place. But never let us imagine that this should have happened where there was no sin of any kind. For it must be a sin to desire what the Law of God forbids, and to abstain merely from fear of punishment and not for love of righteousness. Never let us suppose, I repeat, that before all sin there already existed such a sin, the same sin, committed in respect of that tree, which the Lord spoke of in respect of a woman, when he said, “if anyone looks at a woman with the eyes of lust, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” [Matt. 5:28]

How fortunate, then, were the first human beings! They were not distressed by any agitations of the mind, nor pained by any disorders of the body. . . .

St. Augustine, The City of God, Book XIV, Chapter 10. (trans. Henry Bettenson) [emphasis added]

On my doctor’s strong recommendation, I have lost 30 pounds in the past year and a half, but I have been stuck at my current weight for more than six months. I must lose another 20 pounds. I feel the pressure everyday. If I could turn down the hot fudge sundae without being distressed by any agitations of the mind and experience a “serene avoidance of sin”, weight loss would be a piece of cake. There is serenity over time with regular exercise of will power as habits are changed and the memories of pleasure dim. But each of us has to find a source for the strength of will necessary to resist unwanted desires.

The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41

The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” Exodus 15:2

Posted by: davidlarkin | August 11, 2008

Origins of Life

Miller/Urey Experiment

When I was in high school in the early 60s, I remember my zoology teacher telling us about the experiments done by scientists Miller and Urey in which they tried to create life from pre-biotic conditions, a primordial soup of chemicals, conditions they believed existed when life originated on earth. Stanley Miller, who did the experiments, was able to produce some amino acids, but was not able to combine those amino acids naturally to create the complex proteins necessary for life.

The study of the Origins of Life (“OOL”) is a research area of evolution science that has become stagnant. Today, very few scientists continue to try to create life on earth. Attempts to recreate the primordial soup of chemicals in the laboratory and with a spark of electricity create life in a test tube, as the media has portrayed the effort, have not been successful. Using a few sources, I have composed here a brief and admittedly skeptical summary of the modern history of origin of life theory and experimentation which describes the difficulties facing the OOL study today, as posed in large part by Stanley Miller himself.

In the early 1950s, Harold Urey proposed that the early pre-biotic earth had a “reducing atmosphere”

. . . since all of the outer planets in our solar system- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune- have this kind of atmosphere. A reducing atmosphere contains methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water. The Earth is clearly special in this respect, in that it contains an oxygen atmosphere which is clearly of biological origin.

from a 1996 interview with Urey’s collaborator, Stanley Miller (1930-2007).

Urey proposed experiments attempting to recreate the reducing atmosphere in the laboratory with electrical sparks simulating the lightning of the theoretical pre-biotic atmosphere. Stanley Miller was a graduate student working for Urey. He asked Urey if he could do the experiments. In Miller’s words:

The experiments were done in Urey’s lab when I was a graduate student. Urey gave a lecture in October of 1951 when I first arrived at Chicago and suggested that someone do these experiments. So I went to him and said, “I’d like to do those experiments”. The first thing he tried to do was talk me out of it. Then he realized I was determined. He said the problem was that it was really a very risky experiment and probably wouldn’t work, and he was responsible that I get a degree in three years or so. So we agreed to give it six months or a year. If it worked out fine, if not, on to something else. As it turned out I got some results in a matter of weeks.

Here is an account of the experiments taken from Leslie Orgel’s Scientific American article “The Origin of Life on Earth” (Scientific American, October, 1994) which is included in the 1996 Miller interview article:

In the early 1950s Stanley L. Miller, working in the laboratory of Harold C. Urey at the University of Chicago, did the first experiment designed to clarify the chemical reactions that occurred on the primitive earth. In the flask at the bottom, he created an “ocean” of water, which he heated, forcing water vapor to circulate through the apparatus. The flask at the top contained an “atmosphere” consisting of methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), hydrogen (H2) and the circulating water vapor.

Next he exposed the gases to a continuous electrical discharge (“lightning”), causing the gases to interact. Water-soluble products of those reactions then passed through a condenser and dissolved in the mock ocean. The experiment yielded many amino acids and enabled Miller to explain how they had formed. For instance, glycine appeared after reactions in the atmosphere produced simple compounds – formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide. Years after this experiment, a meteorite that struck near Murchison, Australia, was shown to contain a number of the same amino acids that Miller identified and in roughly the same relative amounts. Such coincidences lent credence to the idea that Miller’s protocol approximated the chemistry of the prebiotic earth. More recent findings have cast some doubt on that conclusion.

Miller’s experiment yielded organic compounds including amino acids, the building blocks of life, and catapulted a field of study known as exobiology into the headlines. But the additional steps needed to create life are a significant roadblock to success, and are not well known to the public. Miller himself was not sanguine about the prospects of making those additional steps in the laboratory. As one commentator, Casey Luskin, who took an OOL seminar from Miller, recently wrote:

OOL theorists often dramatically oversimplify how life started when talking to the public. The famous origin of life researcher Stanley Miller, however, has been more candid in some of his statements. At an origin-of-life seminar I took from him during my undergraduate studies at University of California, San Diego, Miller plainly taught us that “making compounds and making life are two different things.” Elsewhere Miller reportedly made a similar admission:

“Even Miller throws up his hands at certain aspects of it. The first step, making the monomers, that’s easy. We understand it pretty well. But then you have to make the first self-replicating polymers. That’s very easy, he says, the sarcasm fairly dripping. Just like it’s easy to make money in the stock market–all you have to do is buy low and sell high. He laughs. Nobody knows how it’s done.”(Peter Radetsky, “How Did Life Start?” Discover Magazine at

During the seminar class I took from Miller, he outlined various specific steps that would be necessary to originate life:

1. Pre-biotic synthesis and the generating of a “primordial soup”
2. Polymerization of pre-biotic monomers into larger molecules.
3. Origin of a self-replicating molecule (“Pre-RNA World”)
4. Evolution of the “RNA World”
5. Evolution of the “DNA / Protein World”
6. Origin of Proto-cells

There are problems with each of these steps, but for now I’d just like to highlight the major problem with steps 3 & 4.

Steps 3 or 4 maintain that sometime during the origin of life, there arose an RNA molecule, or pre-RNA information-bearing molecule, that was able to clone itself. If there are occasional mistakes in the replication process, those that are better able to survive and replicate tend to make more copies, and so on, and Darwinian evolution evolves it the rest of the way.

This origin-of-life hypothesis is implausible for a few reasons: Aside from the fact that chemists have not been able to synthesize RNA or an RNA-like information-bearing molecule under natural conditions and that we’ve never observed such a molecule that can adequately clone itself, the odds of getting just the right sequence of nucleotides to create a self-cloning RNA molecule is astronomically low. Even if we assume a sea of randomly sequenced RNA molecules, since there are no physical or chemical laws that mandate the order of nucleotide bases in RNA, the odds of getting a useless sequence are just the same as getting the right one. These all represent astronomically improbable events.

Imagine trying to order a relatively short RNA molecule — 200 nucleotide bases — just right, so that self-replication can occur — by pure chance and sheer luck. The odds are 1 / 4^200. This is what ID folks like to call the “Information Sequence Problem”: Making chemicals might be possible, but how do you generate the information required for life? This question confounds origin of life theorists because they do not accept that new information comes from an intelligent cause. Dr. Stephen C. Meyer explains this:

[T]he need to explain the origin of specified information created an intractable dilemma for Oparin. On the one hand, if he invoked natural selection late in his scenario, he would need to rely on chance alone to produce the highly complex and specified biomolecules necessary to self-replication. On the other hand, if Oparin invoked natural selection earlier in the process of chemical evolution, before functional specificity in biomacromolecules would have arisen, he could give no account of how such prebiotic natural selection could even function (given the phenomenon of error-catastrophe). Natural selection presupposes a self-replication system, but self-replication requires functioning nucleic acids and proteins (or molecules approaching their complexity)—the very entities that Oparin needed to explain. Thus, Dobzhansky would insist that, “prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms.” … As noted above, the improbability of developing a functionally integrated replication system vastly exceeds the improbability of developing the protein or DNA components of such a system. Given the huge improbability and the high functional threshold it implies, many origin-of-life researchers came to regard prebiotic natural selection as both inadequate and essentially indistinguishable from appeals to chance.(Stephen C. Meyer, “DNA and the Origin of Life: Information, Specification, and Explanation,” pg. 246, Darwinism Design and Public Education (edited by Stephen C. Meyer and John Angus Campbell, 2004).)

As Meyer’s article concludes:

“Experience affirms that specified complexity or information … routinely arises from the activity of intelligent agents. A computer user who traces the information on a screen back to its source invariably comes to a mind, that of a software engineer or programmer. Similarly, the information in a book or newspaper column ultimately derives from a writer—from a mental, rather than a strictly material, cause. Further, our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity or information (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source—that is, from a mind or a personal agent.” (Ibid., pg. 262)

Thus life far more complex than “just add water,” because adding water–or any other chemicals–will not magically generate the specified and complex information in life. In fact, we cannot understand how the information in life originated apart from understanding intelligent causes.

Taking a different approach, OOL researchers and astrobiologists find it much easier to just assume that life — complete with its information-rich order — can and does arise through blind chemical processes. And they know they’re right, because they must be right, for life exists.

from Luskin, The Implications of the Hypothetical Discovery of Martian Life for Intelligent Design

As a result of the standstill in OOL research, the apparent slim probability of success, and as an alternative to the origin of life on earth, a theory of panspermia, a the theory that life always existed in the universe and was transported to earth via meteor, has been promoted. Richard Dawkins endorsed panspermia as a possible solution to the riddle of the origin of life in an interview with Ben Stein in Stein’s film Expelled. Sir Frederick Hoyle (1915-2001), the British astronomer and science fiction writer became notorious for proposing this. From Wikipedia:

In his later years, Hoyle became a staunch critic of theories of chemical evolution used to explain the naturalistic origin of life. With Chandra Wickramasinghe, Hoyle promoted the theory that life evolved in space, spreading through the universe via panspermia, and that evolution on earth is driven by a steady influx of viruses arriving via comets. In 1982, Hoyle presented Evolution from Space for the Royal Institution’s Omni Lecture. After considering the very remote probability of evolution he concluded:

“ If one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure or order must be the outcome of intelligent design. No other possibility I have been able to think of… ”

Published in his 1982/1984 books Evolution from Space (co-authored with Chandra Wickramasinghe), Hoyle calculated that the chance of obtaining the required set of enzymes for even the simplest living cell was one in 10^40,000th. Since the number of atoms in the known universe is infinitesimally tiny by comparison (10^80th), he argued that even a whole universe full of primordial soup would grant little chance to evolutionary processes. He claimed:

The notion that not only the biopolymer but the operating program of a living cell could be arrived at by chance in a primordial organic soup here on the Earth is evidently nonsense of a high order.

Hoyle compared the random emergence of even the simplest cell to the likelihood that “a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.” Hoyle also compared the chance of obtaining even a single functioning protein by chance combination of amino acids to a solar system full of blind men solving Rubik’s Cube simultaneously.

Even if you propose that life originated elsewhere, or as Dawkins has proposed, intelligent life exists somewhere in the universe which had the ability to seed the earth with life, you are nevertheless stuck with the problem of the origin of that extraterrestrial life and the source of its origin, and on and on. This problem of infinite regression was well stated by Stephen Hawking in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which begins in Chapter 1:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

The lack of success in OOL has limited scientific interest and apparently limited its funding. OOL is subsumed in the scientific field of “exobiology.” In the 1996 interview with Stanley Miller cited above, when asked about the current state of research in exobiology and OOL, Miller said:

The term exobiology was coined by Nobel Prize winning scientist Joshua Lederberg. What it means is the study of life beyond the Earth. But since there’s no known life beyond the Earth people say its a subject with no subject matter. It refers to the search for life elsewhere, Mars, the satellites of Jupiter and in other solar systems. It is also used to describe studies of the origin of life on Earth, that is, the study of pre-biotic Earth and what chemical reactions might have taken place as the setting for life’s origin.

. . . It is a very small field. There is a society, the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life. It has only 300 members, a rather small society.

By it own terms, science cannot simply adopt its creation story on faith. It must provide some verification of the truth of its story using the methods of science. Yet, it is assumed by many who rely on the materialist evolution story that life must have originated through some sort of random action of material particles in fields of force billions of years ago. Looking at the history of OOL research and the probabilities associated with the story, for those who assume it to be so, it is a matter of faith, not science.

Related Posts
Stephen Jay Gould’s Dissent
Vladimir Nabokov – “Furious” Darwin Doubter
Who’s a Leftist Creationist

Posted by: davidlarkin | August 6, 2008

Small Blessings – Roland Bainton Memento

Roland Bainton painting by Deane Keller

Roland Bainton – portrait by Deane Keller which hangs at the Yale Divinity School

One of my favorite books is “Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther” by Roland Bainton (1894-1984). Bainton was Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale for 42 years. The book was first published in 1950. It remains in print, and still sells well enough to be found today on the shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble. In Here I Stand, Bainton gives a lively account of how Martin Luther bravely stood up to the Papacy, and then orchestrated the Reformation from Wartburg Castle tower under the political and military protection of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and one-time nominee for Holy Roman Emperor.

A couple of years ago I was browsing at Bookmans, a chain of busy used book stores here in Arizona, when I came across a copy of the original paperback published in 1950 by Abington Press. At $3 it was a bargain, and I bought it. Later, looking at the book, I noticed that there was a signature on the inside cover page:

I could not imagine Roland Bainton sitting at table in a New Haven or Manhattan bookstore in 1950 with a line of people getting him to sign his book. It was a religious history biography written by a scholarly professor, not a New York Times bestseller after all. So, I thought it was unlikely to be an autographed copy, though if it was, I was likely one of the very few who would value it. I noticed that the middle initial was a unique star-like character. I looked up Bainton on the internet. His middle name was Herbert, so the star was an “h”. The uniqueness of the “h” led me to believe that it might be easy to compare this signature with a known signature of his.

After a little googling, I found out that his papers were archived at the Yale Divinity School. I emailed an inquiry to the Divinity School and the archivist emailed a reply offering to mail me a copy of one of Bainton’s signatures from his correspondence. I received the following page from one of his letters:

You can see from this enlarged signature from the letter that it matches the signature on the copy of Here I Stand I bought.

This memento was a blessing to me, small on the scale of blessings I suppose, but a thrill to have found a rare autographed copy of a 1950 book by a Yale history professor that had special meaning to me. The providence of God was evident. How else would this improbable autographed book find me?

Post Script:  Five years after I posted this, I received a comment to the post from Phil Morris, who must have found the post through googling Roland Bainton.  He also has an autographed copy of “Here I Stand.”  Here is his comment:

I have a copy of Roland Bainton’s ‘Here I Stand’ which he gave to my wife and me as a wedding present in 1968 (along with several of his Christmas Cards). The signature above matches the inscription he put on the title page “To Phil, affectionately Roland H. Bainton. (and an arrow pointing to the ‘wood cut’ of Martin Luther) This is not RHB. (and a quick pen caricature of Bainton in profile) This is.”

Phil Morris — January 26, 2013.

Posted by: davidlarkin | August 1, 2008

Perugino Presages Palmer

Perugino, an early Renaissance Florentine artist (1446-1523), was so popular he needed a workshop full of assistants to meet the demand for his commissions for altar-pieces. Renaissance painter of genius, Raphael (1483-1520), learned his craft in Perugino’s workshop.

In Perugino’s “The Vision of St. Bernard” (1490-94), the Virgin Mary and her three attending angels all share the same type of feminine beauty, especially facial, when appearing in St. Bernard’s vision.

The Perugino use of similar visages for his Virgin and accompanying angels presages the vision of Robert Palmer in his 1989 music video Addicted to Love with the guitar-playing muses of similar beauty swaying behind him.

from Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love Music Video

Posted by: davidlarkin | July 28, 2008

The Twenty Million Dollar Golden Calf

Damien Hirst’s latest creation — a bull submerged in formaldehyde, with a head crowned by a solid-gold disc, and hooves and horns cast in 18-karat gold — is expected to fetch $16 million to $24 million when it is sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London on Sept. 15. “The Golden Calf,” above, with the artist, will be part of a two-day auction of works made by Mr. Hirst in the last two years, Sotheby’s announced on Thursday. In addition to the bull, the auctions on Sept. 15 and 16 will include some of his new paintings, drawings and sculptures. This is the second time Sotheby’s has held an all-Hirst auction. In 2004 it sold the contents of the Pharmacy, his defunct Notting Hill restaurant, which included Hirst-designed ashtrays and bar stools, as well as his paintings, for $20 million. Last summer Mr. Hirst’s human skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 diamonds was said to have been sold to an investment group for $100 million.

New York Times, July 20, 2008.

The official offering of the Golden Calf with pictures is set forth in the Sothebys Press Release.

At the Sotheby’s auction in September 2008, the Golden Calf sold for $18.6 million.

Hirst’s 2007 Shark in Formaldehyde resulted in a big pay day,

catching the attention of editorialists. In an editorial, The New York Times had this to say about his dead shark floating in formaldehyde, and what the high prices mean for art:

In August, the shark in formaldehyde — Damien Hirst’s signature work — will come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on loan from Steven A. Cohen, a hedge fund trader and art collector. Mr. Hirst’s shark, whose proper name is “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” is usually called a piece of conceptual art. So when you go to visit the shark (actually the second to be entombed in this vitrine) it will be worth considering the entire scope of the conceptualism surrounding it.

First, you will have to shelve any objections you might have to the idea of killing a female tiger shark in the interests of Mr. Hirst’s career. You might even wonder whether the catching of the shark, somewhere off the coast of Australia, wasn’t in its own way more artful than the shark’s lamentable afterlife suspended in formaldehyde.

But the real concepts here are money and reputation. It may appear as if Mr. Cohen is doing the Met a favor by lending this work. In fact, it is the other way around. The billionaire, number 85 on the most recent Forbes 400 has been collecting art at a furious rate since 2000, and he is being courted by museums in the way that prodigiously wealthy collectors have always been courted. Part of that courtship is, of course, endorsing and validating the quality of the collector’s eye. The only defense against the skewing of the art market created by collecting on Mr. Cohen’s scale is to appropriate the collector himself.

The difference in this case is Mr. Hirst, who has gone from being an artist to being what you might call the manager of the hedge fund of Damien Hirst’s art. No artist has managed the escalation of prices for his own work quite as brilliantly as Mr. Hirst. That is the real concept in his conceptualism, which has culminated in his most recent artistic farce: a human skull encrusted in diamonds.

You may think you are looking at a dead shark in a tank, but what you’re really seeing is the convergence of two careers, the coming together of two masters in the art of the yield.

Art critics complain that the aesthetic choices and the high prices for this type of contemporary art cheapens art. The New Republic’s long-time art critic, Jed Perl, considers work like Hirst’s to be junk, art reduced to mere commercial product. He labels the declining standard as laissez-faire aesthetics in his article, Postcards from Nowhere:

. . . I find it interesting that many commentators are far more eager to criticize the collectors and the dealers than the art stars who produce this junk in the first place. Can it be that even the most vapid machine-tooled work is still covered by the old romantic alibi, namely that the muses made me do it? The woes of the art world cannot be blamed entirely on the rapacity of a cadre of collectors, dealers, and curators. After all, it was an artist, Damien Hirst, who dreamed up the platinum replica of a human skull, paved with diamonds, that was first exhibited last year in London in a show called “Beyond Belief.”

It is the artists, and a certain line of thinking about art, that have given the people with the cash permission to buy and sell what amounts to nothing, and to do so for ever larger and more insane sums of money. All this sensational commerce is fueled by the anti-aesthetics that were born nearly a century ago among the Dadaists, and have by now morphed into the laissez-faire aesthetics that give collectors sanction to regard one of Jeff Koons’s stainless-steel balloon animals as simultaneously a camp joke and a modern equivalent of a Tang dynasty horse. (A critic in The New York Times described one of these glistening metal doggies, currently on display on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a “masterpiece.”) The artists involved–beginning with Duchamp and including Rauschenberg, Warhol, Salle, and Koons–celebrate, or toy with, a number of apparently contradictory thoughts: that art is nothing; that art can be anything; that randomness and order are the same thing; that art has no particular place in the world; that art can be found anyplace in the world; that art is just another commercial product, like tennis balls and washing machines.

Postcards from Nowhere – Jed Perl – TNR.

With The Golden Calf, surely tongue in cheek, Hirst chooses a reference from the Bible for his title, referring of course, to the idol created by Aaron for the children of Israel while Moses delayed on the Mount while God delivered the Ten Commandments to him. He is not afraid to comment on religion, and Christianity in particular, with his art. His 2007 show in a London Church was titled New Religion, and featured feet bleeding from nail wounds and this work titled The Holy Trinity, for example.

[More about Hirst at Artsy Damien Hirst Page]

When Hirst chooses to enter into the spiritual arena, he opens the door to spiritual interpretation. In The Brothers Kamarazov, Dostoyevski considers art as a spiritual battlefield:

Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Kamarazov

Even if you don’t believe in the devil, it is easy to make a claim that the devil is at work in art works, purposely devilish, who would inspire an artist to put a crucifix in a jar of urine, i.e., Piss Christ, the 1989 photograph by Andres Serano, or that otherwise make light of a religious icon or the Holy Trinity, as Hirst does.

Personally, I worry for the fate of the artist rather than suffer any injury from a work like this. There may be a relationship between death by natural causes and blasphemy or disrespect for the living God. But that would be a personal concern of the artist, not mine, other than my God-given charitable concern for the artist’s fate which leads to intercession and prayer rather than outrage.

I remember while waiting for a airline flight in Las Vegas back in the 80s, I noticed Sam Kinison was also waiting for the same flight. Kinison was a fundamentalist pentecostal preacher as a child, and, at the time we were waiting for the flight, his comedy act featured authentic blasphemy. I remember cringing at the sincerity of his blasphemy and worried that he might be struck by lightning right here on our stage. Some of his religious humor was actually funny, as when he imitated one of Jesus brothers complaining to the Virgin Mary “Stop asking me why I can’t be like my brother Jesus.” Nevertheless, waiting for the plane, I considered changing planes because I was afraid God might take Sam and the rest of us. Then, I noticed he was traveling with his mother and I had read, probably in Rolling Stone, that his mother still prayed for him. So, I decided that with his mother on board, the flight was likely a safe one. Despite the dearth of real evidence, the flight obviously made it to the destination. I have since heard from a client that claims to have sat in the audience at Sam’s shows with Sam’s mother, that Sam’s mother drank whiskey during the shows, laughing with the audience at his blasphemous comedy. Of course, she may have prayed the mornings after nursing a hangover.

I recently read that the Apostle John, the author of the Gospel of John and the Revelation in the Bible, had a similar experience. Eusebius writes in his History of the Church, Chapter XXVIII, about a time when entering a public bath, St. John saw Cerinthus, a notorious heretic and enemy of Christ, enjoying a bath and feared catastrophic collapse of the roof of the bath:

But Irenæus, in the first book of his work Against Heresies, gives some more abominable false doctrines of the same man, and in the third book relates a story which deserves to be recorded. He says, on the authority of Polycarp, that the apostle John once entered a bath to bathe; but, learning that Cerinthus was within, he sprang from the place and rushed out of the door, for he could not bear to remain under the same roof with him. And he advised those that were with him to do the same, saying, “Let us flee, lest the bath fall for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”

John also is the author of three epistles or letters in the New Testament. The first, referred to as 1 John, is a response to the gnostic heresy attributed to Cerinthus.

In April 1992, six days after Sam Kinison married his girlfriend Malika, he was killed when his white Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was struck on U.S. Route 95 four miles north of Interstate 40 and several miles west of Needles, California by a pickup truck driven by a 17-year-old who had been drinking. Kinison was 38. Kinison was later found to have cocaine, Valium, Xantac and codeine in his bloodstream. Sam Kinison’s last words when he was fatally injured in the automobile accident were in a conversation with someone who wanted Sam to go with him, and Sam objected, before giving in:

“He said, ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,'” recounted his best friend, Carl LaBove, who held Kinison’s bleeding head in his hands.

Kinison paused, as if listening to a voice that couldn’t be heard, LaBove said.

“But why?” asked Kinison, a former Pentecostal preacher. It sounded, LaBove said, as if “he was having a conversation, talking to somebody else. He was talking upstairs. Then I heard him go, ‘OK, OK, OK.”The last “OK” was so soft and at peace… whatever voice was talking to him gave him the right answer, and he just relaxed with it. He said it so sweet, like he was talking to someone he loved.”

The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, April 12, 1992

From his public work, Kinison portrayed himself as someone who did not love God. Hopefully, it was just an act, and God forgave him for it. Or, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, then he was just dreaming in vain before passing into oblivion. We look through a glass darkly relying on beliefs we make, we take, or we are given.

No question that superstition makes life interesting. I remember reading about one of the members of the entourage who traveled with the Beatles on the plane from London to New York when the Beatles first invaded the U.S. He said they were such a big deal that he knew he was safe on that plane, it would never crash with the Beatles on board. We just get these ambiguous feelings about fate, don’t we, regardless of whether we have a particular religious belief or not.

How would Dostoyevski’s character categorize the current trend in contemporary art which avoids the prominent historical artistic endeavor to create beautiful things, to create clever, often ugly things, which may shock or stun with their appearance or even their cleverness? Is this where God and the devil are fighting? If it is “beauty”, then it is. These works are grabbed by hedge fund managers cum art collectors/investors at prices formerly paid for purchase of successful businesses and prime commercial real estate. With these prices, there seems to be more going on here than a battle between God and the Devil — between devils, perhaps. When the art turns to mocking religion or God, then clearly Dostoyevski’s character would find a battle between God and the Devil with the Devil’s minion artist facing perhaps a work of God in his future.

Ed Kienholz was an American artist perhaps best described as a Pop Assemblage and Installation Artist. He assembled objects together to create works, like a diorama in the natural history museum, but manifesting a vulgar or profane vision. In 1965, Kienholz created a tribute to Columbo’s hang-out, West Hollywood dive “Barney’s Beanery.”

and the following year, Kienholz’s famous tribute to his adolescence, Back Seat Dodge ’38, now installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Towards the end of his career, collaborating with his wife, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, his work expressed his apparent contempt for American life. As described in an Art in America article:

The hypocritical excesses of a media-hound like Tammy Bakker clearly propelled the Kienholz rancor into deep space. In All Have Sinned in Room 323 (1992), a female mannequin in an easy chair masturbates beneath a portrait of the smirking evangelist while watching a pathetic Ken and Barbie doll orgy on TV. Incensed by the sanctimonious American patriotism of recent years, the Kienholzes present in My Country Tis of Thee (1991) a quartet of pantsless politician-mannequins who surround a pork barrel in a daisy chain. In this good-old-boy conspiracy, each man has his right hand on his heart while his left, behind him, clutches his neighbor’s penis.

With his not unreasonable disdain for televangelists, he was unable to separate the message of Jesus in Scripture with the charlatans who profited from his name. His last work was a large wall installation 76 J.C.’s Led the Big Charade (1994), which consists of “76 crucifixes whose bases are made from the rusted metal handles of toy wagons. Glued atop the crucifixes are kitsch prints of Jesus, ranging in mood from anguished suffering to smarmy cuteness.” Art in America, June 1995.

Shortly after installing 76 J.C.’s, on June 10, 1994, Kienholz died of a heart attack. In accordance with his instructions, he was buried

. . . in Hope, Idaho, was the artist’s ultimate act of staged outrage. As a tape deck played a loop of Glenn Miller hits, a 1940 Packard was driven by the artist’s wife and collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, down a ramp and into a freshly dug grave. Kienholz’s body was seated in the passenger seat of the Packard, which was buried with him.

I do not believe that Kienholz’s contempt for the tarnished and mammon-linked public face of contemporary Christianity resulted in divine punishment by heart attack. But his turn to the anti-religious motif at the end of his life is an expression of a spiritual emptiness and despair that is cause for pause at his sudden death.

Damien Hirst, on the other hand, likely has a long career ahead of him at these prices. I have no information or prophetic inclination to believe that he will be struck dead soon. However, he cannot capitalize on satirical religious pieces without eventually boring his rich patrons and falling out of favor. He certainly will have plenty of capital to work with when he does fall out of favor, if he does.

But despite the similar choice of title, can you fairly compare Hirst’s Golden Calf with the Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin, hanging in the British National Gallery. Are either of these works beautiful? The battle ensues.

[click on the painting for a full screen view]

Posted by: davidlarkin | July 26, 2008

Who’s a Leftist Creationist?

One of my college classmates referred to me as a “leftist creationist” today in an email on our college class discussion listserv. It struck me as funny to see me characterized as a “leftist” and a “creationist.” My friend is mostly a libertarian, apparently accepts evolution as an explanation, and is clearly far to the right on the political spectrum, such that many, if not a majority of Republicans would be leftists from the island of individuality in his mind. John McCain is the Republican presidential candidate after all.

I am a registered Democrat, a bit to the left of center. I was a registered Republican until I switched to Independent in 1994, and registered as a Democrat for the 2000 election. I favored the invasion of Iraq based on what I was told at the time, e.g., I was worried that Saddam would lob a nuclear weapon into the Saudi oil fields. I do not oppose the Death Penalty and I do oppose abortion. I embrace a capitalist economy, though one reasonably regulated by government because markets are composed of human actors not angels. I accept our democratic republic form of government. I favor a government of the people, not an ideologically determined minimalist government. Although private ownership of property is a fundamental right, there are necessary or agreed upon exceptions. For example, I consider roads and health care to be similar public goods. My cranky right wing classmate believes that health care should remain a private good, rationed by the market. He may draw the line at roads, or maybe even believe that all roads and infrastructure should be privately owned. However, anyone who favors government ownership or regulation of public goods, as we democratically determine to be public goods, is not a leftist as that word has been traditionally used in our political discourse. I will defend the poor and those disadvantaged by birth or luck, as a matter of faith and social conscience. I therefore favor government programs to help them. Using government to help the disadvantaged may make me a leftist to many conservatives, but it is a special area of concern to me, too important to leave to uncertain voluntary action.

So, it seems misleading to label a person with my views a “leftist.” But those who hurl it as an epithet are a small but vocal self-reinforcing insular crowd.

And as a “creationist”, it is true that I believe that God created the universe, but not in a literal Biblical sense, i.e., in seven 24 hour days 5,000 years ago as the fundamentalists who are generally termed “Creationist” believe. Hence it is not really fair to apply that term to me because for many it would put me in that category.

It is not so hard to believe that God created the universe. Science now accepts as fact that the universe had a beginning 13.5 or so billion years ago, and is currently expanding, that is, all matter in the universe is moving away from itself in all directions, space itself is expanding, now attributed to “dark energy,” and this expansion is accelerating by means of that “dark energy” which appears to act as a force of expansion, yet there is no consensus that the energy is a another type of “force” to add to the four we have, i.e., gravity, electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear forces. The universe could not have created itself, because it would have had to exist and not exist at the same time. At least the principle of non-contradiction has to apply at the beginning. Why do you suppose that physicists and cosmologists are writing books speculating about God, or speculating that there is some multiverse? The multiverse is the materialism faith substitute for God, a theoretical massive collection (ten to the 500th power) of possible universes devised using higher mathematics from unverifiable assumptions, a multiverse that had no beginning and pre-existed our universe, from which our universe began as a bubble from scientifically unverifiable and unobservable multiverse. What if anything separates this from myth or religious belief deserves separate treatment?

It is true that God could use evolution as a means to continue his creation. Many evangelical Christians believe this, especially those who are scientists and science professors. Evolution theory comes in several varieties.

It is non-controversial that within a species, evolution occurs through the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection. Intelligent design proponents, for example, accept this as fact. The controversial issues are first, whether there is any evidence of speciation, new species arising, through this mechanism, and second, whether evolution theory provides any credible explanation for the origin of life. I have a subsequent post on the “origin of life” issue here.

I do not find the evidence offered for speciation through evolutionary processes in the fossil record and in our modern biological laboratory history to be credible, but mostly speculation that requires considerable suspension of reality. For example, how did one-celled creatures with no nuclei (Prokaryotic) evolve into one-celled creatures with nuclei (Eukaryotic), from which humans eventually evolved, as they say? As evolutionist microbiologist Franklin M. Harold wrote in “The Way of the Cell” (a very interesting and accessible book about the cell):

The origin of the eukaryotic cell is arguably the most significant episode in the development of life on this planet, and surely the most baffling one. It is also not a single event, but a protracted process, whose roots reach deep into the early history of cellular life.

Harold, p. 174. As natural history, as speculated by scientists thus far, tells the story, the transformation was not by means of gradualism, i.e., random mutation of DNA, but by means of physical merging of separate creatures.

In his book, Harold then traces the evolution of the eukaryotic cell based on current theoretical speculations, primarily centered around Lynn Margulies who first proposed that mitochondria and chloroblasts came from bacteria that fused with a protkaryotic host. This cell geneology of fusion required separate fusions to come up with the eukaryotic cell bodies, including the nucleus, mitochondria, chloroblasts and other features. Harold writes:

In a phrase coined by F.J.R. Taylor many years ago, the eukaryotic cell appears to be the product of serial endosymbiosis.”

Symbiosis is where “one partner takes up residence in the cytoplasm of the other,” like a merger or fusion. There is no explanation for how this endosymbiosis or fusion of different prokaryotic cells or bacteria actually fused or merged. As Harold writes further,

Endosymbiosis, serial or otherwise, necessarily emerges as the god in the machine. . . .There is a fine air of whimsy about those imaginative tales, with overtones of Rudyard Kipling (“And this, O Best Beloved, is why . . . ). They [current evolutionary theorists] step insouciantly around patches of quicksand, such as what brought about early cellular fusions that are not permitted to contemporary prokaryotes [primitive unicellular organisms lacking true nucleus, cytoskeleton, and organelles], why some genes were discarded and others preserved, and how a consortium of prokaryotes acquired the architectural and functioning complexity of even the simplest eukaryotic cell [unicellular organism with nucleus, cytoskeleton and organelles].

Harold points out that multi-trillions of e-coli bacteria have been studied by microbiologists in the labs over the years without one documented case of symbiosis or fusion of those cells.

As I pointed out in a previous post, the fossil record does not support gradualistic neo-Darwinian evolution theory. So, I am not a believer in materialistic evolutionary theories which purport to explain the evolution of species, whether Darwinian, neo-Darwinian or post-Darwinian emergence theories.

Finally, in addition to speciation, evolution as applied to the origin of life, is mostly silent.

So, to label me a “creationist” is misleading. I find nothing to object to with regard to evolution within a species. I do find the neo-Darwinian explanations for development of species, particularly at the micro-level, to be unacceptable. The evidence for me requires some intervention by God to cause the leaps and miraculous natural history that we observe. While I am not creationist in the sense that one minute there is an ape, and then a human appears behind a tree, as may be the case with the fundamentalist Creationist, I do believe that there is a miraculous (if you call intervention by God in the natural world a “miracle”) intervention in nature, whether by communicating information to the genome, providing the direction of force in the small spaces of the molecule or atom, or by the force of God’s mind in action, etc, to enable the leaps in natural history that are referred to as evolution by materialists and those who accept a mechanistic natural history, even if it is believed that this natural mechanistic natural history was set in motion by God.

Alternatively, you may place your faith in science and believe that science will one day explain everything with a materialistic scientific theory. Even a believer in God may do that, especially Deists.

Franklin Harold, though a firm believer in Darwinian evolution, is cautious in his faith that evolutionary science will provide an explanation for what happened millions of years ago.

There is nothing whatever wrong with disciplined speculation — how else would we know what to look for in the ever growing heap of facts and factoids? But it does warrant the “amiable cynicism” of the Italian maxim quoted by Roger Stanier in one of the first modern essays on cell evolution: se non e vero, e ben trovato. (It may not be true, but it’s well contrived.) and one cannot help suspecting that we are approaching a limit to what can be known, set not by technology but by the nature of this inquiry into the inconceivably remote past.

So, any label purporting to characterize my politics and views on science will have to include a well-crafted definitional paragraph or essay. I have no problem applying simplistic overbroad labels to others, however.
What was it that Emerson said about consistency?

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Origins of Life

Posted by: davidlarkin | July 20, 2008

Vladimir Nabokov – “Furious” Darwin Doubter

Although I do not care to have two posts on evolution and Darwinism in a row, today I was reviewing a link here to an intelligent design blog, uncommon descent. Though it is written by some very smart people, I decided that often the tone of the blog was as dismissive, derisive and proud as the public tone of the Darwinist opponents. Though it is hard to be humble in a dispute over important ideas, I deleted it from my blog links.

For me, intelligent design is not “creationist” in the sense that those who believe that God created the heavens and the earth in seven 24-hour days use the term. After review of the evidence, I simply do not believe that in four and one-half billion years, random interactions of particles in fields of force could produce biological nature as we know it without some outside source for the information embedded in DNA, and especially the information necessary for instigating the remarkable abrupt changes in organisms giving rise to what we call species, and for the incredible biological structures and ecological adaptations, both macro and micro, found on this earth. It is too improbable. Among the many conundrums, no one can yet explain how life evolved from living cells without nuclei to living cells with nuclei. It has been proposed that fusion of one living cell with another one-celled organism, which somehow becomes the nucleus of the host is an explanation for the evolutionary leap. However, there is no convincing explanation of how that could happen randomly or otherwise. Generally, the evolution argument avoids real problems like this, relying on the inner-species mutations of pathogenic bacteria to prove the case, for example. Micro-evolution within species is not controversial, yet it does not explain the big leaps, from cell with no nucleus to cell with nucleus, punctuated origin of species, and the genesis of life itself. Hence, I find myself aligned with the intelligent design proponents and other Darwin doubters.

In googling around, I found this discussion of Vladimir Nabokov and his opposition to Darwinian evolution on another ID blog, , to which which I added a blog link. I had no idea that Nabokov was at one time a research fellow at Harvard in entomology studying butterflies. According to his biographer, Nabokov was “profoundly indifferent” to religion. Nabokov is another example, like David Berlinski, that finding intelligent design in nature is not limited to theists.

Vladimir Nabokov, “Furious” Darwin Doubter

So was Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) secretly a fundamentalist Christian, a mad man, or just plain ignorant? The great novelist (Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin) was, in his own telling, a “furious” critic of Darwinian theory. He based the judgment not on religion, to which biographer Brian Boyd writes that he was “profoundly indifferent,” but on decades of his scientific study of butterflies, including at Harvard and the American Museum of Natural History. Of course, this was all before the culture-wide sclerosis of Darwinian orthodoxy set in.

As Boyd notes in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, “He could not accept that the undirected randomness of natural selection would ever explain the elaborateness of nature’s designs, especially in the most complex cases of mimicry where the design appears to exceed any predator’s powers of apprehension.”

Boyd summarized the artist’s scientific bona fides in an appreciation in Natural History.

For most of the 1940s, he served as de facto curator of lepidoptera at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and became the authority on the little-studied blue butterflies (Polyommatini) of North and South America. He was also a pioneer in the study of butterflies’ microscopic anatomy, distinguishing otherwise almost identical blues by differences in their genital parts.

Later employed at Harvard as a research fellow in entomology while teaching comp lit at Wellesley, Nabokov published scientific journal articles in The Entomologist, The Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, The Lepidopterists’ News, and Psyche: A Journal of Entomology.

According to Boyd, Nabokov wrote “a major article,” subsequently lost, “with ‘furious refutations of “natural selection” and “the struggle for life.”‘” He completed the paper in 1941 but all that survives is a fragment in his memoir, Speak, Memory:

The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things. Consider the imitation of oozing poison by bubblelike macules on a wing (complete with pseudo-refraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis (“Don’t eat me–I have already been squashed, sampled and rejected”). Consider the tricks of an acrobatic caterpillar (of the Lobster Moth) which in infancy looks like bird’s dung, but after molting develops scrabbly hymenopteroid appendages and baroque characteristics, allowing the extraordinary fellow to play two parts at once (like the actor in Oriental shows who becomes a pair of intertwisted wrestlers): that of a writhing larva and that of a big ant seemingly harrowing it. When a certain moth resembles a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walks and moves its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner. When a butterfly has to look like a leaf, not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in. “Natural Selection,” in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of “the struggle for life” when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.

Sounds like…intelligent design?

That’s what Amardeep Singh thought. He teaches literature at the same university (Lehigh) where Darwin-doubter Michael Behe has been made to feel very unwelcome. Singh comments in a blog entry that his students are startled to read the passage from Speak, Memory. I bet.

My students, I was happy to see, were a little shocked that someone with Nabokov’s way of seeing things would say something that might even remotely be construed as Intelligent Design-ish. And indeed, Darwinian natural selection, as I understand it, does have a fine explanation for the “miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior”: any mutant variety that doesn’t exhibit a perfect imitation is going to get eaten. And if you have enough random-pattern butterflies getting eaten over time, eventually a strain that has a slightly better design is going to come around and not get eaten.

Comforting! But Singh misses the point of Nabokov’s question. It’s not the perfection of the pattern that needs an explanation. The novelist/lepidopterist asked, if a particular artistic subtlety in that perfection is beyond the ability of a predator to perceive, how did nature select it?

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Posted by: davidlarkin | July 19, 2008

Stephen Jay Gould’s Dissent

Most of the discussion of Darwinian evolution is between people who don’t know enough about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. In fact, “Darwinian” evolution is not supported by a preponderance of the evidence, if we were to apply that legal standard. It is actually disproven by a preponderance of the evidence.

Darwinian evolution assumes that evolution is gradual. As it has developed since the advent of microbiology, incremental change in a species occurs genetically with random mutations that gain dominance. Thus, in small steps, a horse becomes a giraffe as the neck gradually lengthens and the species-specific spots occur in the giraffe’s coat, allowing the giraffe to reach high up in the trees for food, and blend into the African landscape. Opposed to this principle of gradualism would be abrupt change and appearance of new species. Darwin rejected abrupt change as follows:

He who believes that some ancient form was transformed suddenly through an internal force or tendency into, for instance, one furnished with wings, will be almost compelled to assume, in opposition to all analogy, that many individuals varied simultaneously. It cannot be denied that such abrupt and great changes of structure are widely different from those which most species apparently have undergone. He will further be compelled to believe that many structures beautifully adapted to all the other parts of the same creature and to the surrounding conditions, have been suddenly produced; and of such complex and wonderful co-adaptations, he will not be able to assign a shadow of an explanation. He will be forced to admit that these great and sudden transformations have left no trace of their action on the embryo. To admit all this is, as it seems to me, to enter into the realms of miracle, and to leave those of science.

Darwin, C. (1872) The Origin of Species. Sixth Edition. The Modern Library, New York.

Science then proceeded to attempt to prove Darwin’s theory and the principle of gradualism by searching the fossil record. If gradualism is a fact, then the fossil record should reveal it. Unfortunately, the fossil record revealed the opposite from gradualism, stasis, followed by abrupt change.

In reaction to the clear failure of the fossil record to support gradualist Darwinism, Stephen Jay Gould with Niles Eldridge, became “heretics” among fellow evolutionists by claiming in 1982 that the Darwinian model was incomplete. They did not believe that the evidence for microevolution and gradualism was sufficient and proposed a macroevolutionary concept of “punctuated equilibrium” where a leap of change occurred seemingly unexplainable at the microlevel, since neither Gould or Eldridge were microbiologists and did not offer a microbiological explanation. Gould and Eldridge proposed this alternative because (1) species appear in the fossil record abruptly, and (2) organisms that make up a species commonly remain virtually unchanged for millions of years before going extinct. They theorized that random mutations in a species generally were not helpful and therefore were not naturally selected. As Gould put in more succintly in a 1977 Natural History article:

A new species can arise when a small segment of the ancestral population is isolated at the periphery of the ancestral range. Large, stable central populations exert a strong homogenizing influence. New and favorable mutations are diluted by the sheer bulk of the population through which they must spread. They may build slowly in frequency, but changing environments usually cancel their selective value long before they reach fixation.

S. J. Gould, 1977. “Evolution’s erratic pace.” Natural History 86 (May): 12-16.

Thus, according to Gould and Eldridge, abrupt genetic change appeared at an isolated environmental “periphery” of a specie’s natural history and existence over space and time such that the stasis recorded in the fossil record was faithful to the general evolutionary history of the species, which was static, and not gradually evolving. This theory caused a fury among fundamentalist Darwinists who clinged then and continue to cling to the gradualist random mutation and natural selection theory.

In Stephen Jay Gould’s 1,000 page opus “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory” (2002), he states very clearly that contrary to Darwin’s evolutionary theory of gradualism of species development, that “stasis and abrupt appearance represent a norm for observed history of most species.” p. 761. (280 pages on punctuated equilibrium theory)

According to Gould, evolutionary biologists have not been forthcoming with the evidentiary record. Darwinian evolution proposes that evolution of new species is gradual due to random mutation. Instead of publicizing findings that the fossil record does not confirm gradualism, he wrote, paleontologists mischaracterized the evidence of stasis as no evidence of anything. Gould writes in a lengthy parenthetical illustrating the profession’s unwillingness to publish the truth as follows:

(To cite a personal incident that engaged this paradox [that the “frequency of stasis in fossil species . . . was unexpected by most evolutionary biologists] upon my consciousness early in my career, John Imbrie served as one of my Ph.D advisors at Columbia University. This distinguished paleoclimatologist began his career as an evolutionary paleontologist. He accepted the canonical equation of evolution with gradualism, but conjectured that our documentary failures had arisen from the subtlety of gradual change,and the consequent need for statistical analysis in a field still dominated by an “old-fashioned” style of verbal description. He schooled himself in quantitative methods and applied this apparatus, then so exciting and novel, to the classic sequence of Devonian brachiopods from the Michigan Basin — where rates of sedimentation had been sufficiently slow and continuous to record any hypothetical gradualism. He studied more than 30 species in this novel and rigorous way — and found that all but one had remained stable throughout the interval, while the single exception exhibited an ambiguous pattern. But Imbrie did not publish a triumphant paper documenting the important phenomenon of stasis. Instead, he just became disappointed at such “negative” results after so much effort. He buried his data in a technical taxonomic monograph that no working biologist would ever encounter (and that made no evolutionary claims at all) — and eventually left the profession for something more “productive.”)

Gould, “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory” p. 760.

The origin of species cannot be “proven” in an experimental sense because it is “history.” Nevertheless, the historical fossil record unequivocally does not provide historical evidence to support Darwinian evolutionary theory. Hence, Gould and Eldridge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, a non-Darwinian theory of evolution, rejects gradualism and tries to explain abrupt appearance. However, at this time punctuated equilibrium is a macro-evolutionary theory and has no microbiological explanation to make a “preponderance of the evidence” case. (Current Darwinian theory that incorporates microbiological science that did not exist when Darwin lived is generally referred to as “Neo-Darwinism”, though technically, neo-Darwinism was coined in 1895 to limit evolution to natural selection, and exclude any Lamarckian implications of Darwin’s hypothesis of pangenesis, his hypothetical theory of genetics.) There is no explanation for how a changed external environmental requirement, whether on Gould’s “periphery” of species environment or not, could cause significant abrupt micro-biological genetic modification sufficient to adapt former species to the changed environmental circumstances. How could the DNA of a single living cell be sensitive to macro-environmental change? The significance of random mutation to Neo-Darwinism is that it removes any external causal force or condition on the living cell, whether God or nature.

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Posted by: davidlarkin | July 16, 2008

Mandatory “Fat Checks” for Japanese Workers

The United States is not alone with rising rates of obesity. According to the latest issue of Foreign Policy, Asia is in the “throes of an obesity epidemic.” Asian governments are responding promptly. For example:

In Japan, where 27 million people suffer from or are at risk of obesity-related conditions, such as diabeties and high blood pressure, healthcare costs are projected to double by 2020. In response, the government recently instituted a policy of mandatory “fat checks” for citizens older than 40. Japanese workers with waistlines greater than 34 inches are to be put on special exercise programs, and companies that fail to meet weight-loss targets will face stiff government fines. In China, where 15 percent of children are overweight, the Ministry of Education last year unveiled a series of specially designed weight-loss dances that students are required to perform in school. And in India, the call-center industry is experienceing a spike in conditions such as diabetes and heart disease due to lack of exercise, leading the health minister to pressure companies to enforce a set of health guidelines for their sedentary workers.

In the U.S., obese people are not a recognized minority protected from discrimination under Title VII. So far, one federal circuit court has held that obesity does not constitute a disability protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. I cannot imagine Congress passing a law requiring U.S. employers to enforce weight limits, but I can imagine employers firing obese employees for a number of reasons related to risk and expense.

American office employees lackadaisically participating in jumping jacks led by their team leader is sit-com material. The rigid regimen that Asian workers live with at work is culturally a million miles away from the American worker’s experience.

Here Chinese Workers Line Up at the Factory

Chinese workers in chicken factory

Photographs by Edward Burtynsky

Posted by: davidlarkin | July 14, 2008

On Turning 60

Today, I am 60 years old. If I were living in a 19th century Dickens or Eliot novel, I would be a crotchety bent-over character providing comic relief, yelling at my assistant to shake me up in my chair. Actually, I am probably older than those elderly characters. Thank God for modern medicine and nutrition.

Although I do not fear death, I realize I am closer to it. I woke up this morning with first thoughts about what would happen to my family if I died around now. We have life insurance, so remaining in my prone position in bed, I quickly moved on to other age-related thoughts. Eventually, I got out of bed. I don’t know what caused me to do that, I was just out of bed all of a sudden.

Over the past few months, I have looked at this 60th birthday as a significant milestone. All of a sudden, I realize that the things on my life’s back burner — books, films, travel, and other things that I have put off over the years with the idea I would have time later to take up — are all not likely to get done with my remaining life now consciously limited in time. My son is 17, soon to leave to start his own life. My life projects are in transition. I wonder what I will be able to do in the years that follow, with financial limitations from the impact of aging on my ability to work, and from physical limitations to come and already upon me.

Fortunately, I do have my faith in God and salvation in the work of Christ on the cross, provided me by grace. It is a comfort when thoughts of death become more frequent with age. This is heartfelt, not a cliche. Around 1988, when I was living in Carmel, California, I was running for exercise through Pebble Beach which borders Carmel, from the Highway One Gate to the Carmel Gate, when my heart rate suddenly increased to about 190. I could not breath easy and I had great pain in my chest.

I have the low heart rate of a distance runner from my years of running long distance in high school and continuing over the years, including the first Los Angeles Marathon on March 9, 1986. I ran a 3:17 in that race, my first run over 15 miles. I have a picture of me crossing the finish line with my arms outstretched like I won. I had to walk the last mile or so, and there is a turn to the finish line where the grandstands are, so I started running again for the finish, and came around the corner full blast to the cheering of the crowd. The winner had a 2:12:59, passing by the stands one hour and five minutes earlier. There were 10,868 runners in that race. The crowd that sat patiently at the finish line must have been relatives or drinking or both. We started off in a big mass, almost tip toeing after the gun, all of us looking up at the elevated platform where Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley stood after starting us. I don’t remember much from the race except when my legs stopped working at about mile 19. I had heard of “hitting the wall” in the marathon, but did not know what it was until it happened, all of my glycogen was gone and my body was out of energy for running.

So, back to my Pebble Beach run, the heart rate of 190 while running through the forest was frighteningly rapid for me; my normal heart rate while running was around 120. My heart beating in a frenzy, and the pain in my chest overwhelming, I sat down on the wooden fence on the bend in the Pebble Beach blacktop road in the forest to die. I thought I was going to die right there. I looked straight out to the forest expecting my visual screen to be replaced by some sort of angelic or heavenly vision. I was very calm and felt at peace.

Instead, my heart rate went back to normal after a few minutes, the pain went away, and I finished my run. I called my friend Frank Stark, an M.D. in Monterey at the time and college classmate. He told me that the heart’s electrical system gets out of whack now and then. Likely, it was paroxysmal atrial tachycardia. I wrote it down and memorized it. I wrote a bad poem about it, “My First PAT.”

The lesson for me was that I am not afraid of death itself because of the gift of faith. I don’t want to die anytime soon because there are things left to learn and to see and do. But it is comforting to have a place to go after death and believe it.

Now, I march on towards age 61, with 60 years and the memories of the joyful and the regretful together behind me. I have a wife and son who I love. I will not have to march alone, though I still tend to walk too fast leaving my family behind scolding me.

For the spiritually-minded or intellectually curious, see also:

My Spiritual Memoir

Posted by: davidlarkin | July 6, 2008

It’s the Economy, Again!

With economic recession closing out the Bush presidency, it is fitting to take a look back at the conclusion of the Clinton presidency. In 2000, Bill Clinton gave his last State of the Union Address. In his autobiography, he sums up as follows:

My last State of the Union address was a joy to deliver. We had more than twenty million new jobs, the lowest unemployment rate and smallest welfare rolls in thirty years, the lowest crime rate in twenty-five years, the lowest poverty rate in twenty years, the smallest federal workforce in forty years, the first back-to-back surpluses in forty-two years, seven years of declining teen pregnancies and a 30 percent increase in adoptions, and 150,000 young people who had served in AmeriCorps. Within a month we would have the longest economic expansion in American history, and by the end of the year we would have three consecutive surpluses for the first time in more than fifty years.

Bill Clinton, My Life, pp. 891-92.

Posted by: davidlarkin | July 1, 2008

Avian Infanticide in Arizona – Grackle Family Life

“Oh, birds of Arizona, who woke me yesterday with your excited chirping, where do you go to die?”

— Billy Collins, “Lying in Bed in the Dark, I Silently Address the Birds of Arizona”

For twelve years, I have been feeding the birds of Arizona in my backyard in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. The smaller birds — the sparrows, house finches, mourning, white-winged and inca doves, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, Abert’s towhees, curve-billed thrashers, and occasional feral parakeets, eat generic wildbird seed and black oil sunflower seeds in the feeders around the house and spread on the dry earth beneath the feeders, grassless from years of incessant pecking. The ubiquitous great-tailed grackles, 15 to 18 inch tall shiny black crow-like males with large square tails and sleek smaller gold-breasted females, eat dried seafood-flavored cat food that I throw across the lawn each morning. I purposely do not use the chicken-flavored cat food to avoid giving them a taste for bird. With their beaks pointing to the sky, the grackles hop across the lawn to dip and soften the crunchy chips in the large clear plastic birthday cake domes from the party store that serve as excellent water bowls. All the birds drink from the bowls, but the grackles, in addition to dipping anything they may try to eat, also use the bowls for bathing in the shade in the 110 degree Arizona heat.

When I first introduced the dried cat food, the grackles took to it immediately. For the first couple of years, I put the cat food on metal trays. The grackles would leap backwards after selecting a chip with a peck. I dropped the metal trays from the feeding program and about two years later, the mourning doves, European starlings, sparrows and Gila woodpeckers had learned to eat the cat food. Now they group by species each morning in a communal feeding frenzy after I leave the yard. Recently, I noticed a grackle taking a cat food chip from the grass and leaping backwards. Was this an old friend back again after ten years feeding elsewhere, still conditioned to leaping from the metal pans? Or maybe a child of a former customer who learned to eat with a leap from their parents?

The grackles have more than a dozen nests in the two large trees in my backyard, especially the evergreen Ficus in which I have counted at least ten nests spread through its leafy branches. The grackles are a community, sharing some duties. For example, if a baby grackle falls from the nest too soon, hiding beneath a bush, all the local grackles, males and females, will dive bomb me, screeching to scare me away, with the mother the most aggressive, of course. I have rescued a few babies, put them in a box open at the top outside overnight out of the reach of the local cats, only to find them gone the next morning, with no sign of any cat attack, apparently rescued by a parent. The fledglings who have left the nest fly with the mother for a few weeks. I see them on the lawn wildly flapping their wings with their mouths wide open waiting for the mother to hop over to feed them some cat food or some water. They fly away together. I have seen a male grackle feed the fledglings on a few occasions.

A few years ago, I went to fill the water bowls in the morning and found four dead baby grackles, all drowned in one bowl. Considering the circumstances of my backyard, only another grackle, a mother I assumed, could have killed them and left them in the bowl, but I could not imagine why they were killed. I emailed the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but they were unable to provide an explanation. One friend suggested that the mother was depressed, but I could not locate a bird psychologist to question.

Recently, I was exercising on the treadmill, watching Robert Sapolsky, Stanford Professor of Neuroscience and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship, give a Teaching Company lecture on the evolution of behavior. The evolutionary paradigm had changed over the past 50 years, Sapolsky explained. Marlin Perkins’ “Wild Kingdom” had shown in the early 60s how the heroic wildebeest would throw himself into the river, sacrificing himself to the crocodiles so the rest of the herd could cross the river while the crocodiles were distracted by their feast. The wildebeest did this, Perkins told us, for the “good of the species,” an evolutionary communal survival principle. Sapolsky explained that that “old principle” had since been proven false. In fact, he said, the younger stronger wildebeests pushed the weaker older one into the water for their own self-centered evolutionary purpose. The evolutionary principle of individual selection, optimization of the number of copies of an individual’s own genes, Sapolsky said, has replaced the old idea that individuals acted for the good of the species.

With gorillas, lions and some other mammals, a dominant male will have a harem and sire all the offspring of the group, with the other males living in an irrelevant bachelor group. Occasionally, another male will topple the dominant male from his throne. Grimly, the new dominant one will then kill as many infants as he can. This is not a Machiavellian political move, but a matter of individual selection: when the infant dies, the mother ceases nursing and soon ovulates. The new dominant male can then produce offspring with copies of his genes.

One thing I know about the great-tailed grackle from prior research is that, like gorillas, the dominant male grackle has a harem. While listening to Sapolsky’s evolutionary explanation of mammalian infanticide, it dawned on me that what I had likely seen in my backyard was the work of a new dominant male grackle committing infanticide, drowning four baby grackles in order to make a quicker start at producing copies of his genes. I do not know whether the hormonal impact on a mother grackle of the baby’s death is the same or similar to the impact on the nursing gorilla female, but obviously, the mother grackle will have more time to devote to the reproduction rites without the duties of feeding and caring for her babies. Research shows that there is avian infanticide, and although uncommon, most avian infanticide committed by males is directed at eggs, with a record of infanticide directed at fledglings occurring in a couple of species. With the help of google, I found in an obscure book entirely devoted to avian infanticide, one anecdotal account of infanticide by a male Tristam’s grackle, a species found only in the Arabian peninsula.

Answering Billy Collins’ poetic question — Where do Arizona birds go to die? — may be unpoetic, but now and then, infanticide aside, one of my Arizona birds randomly dies in my back yard in no particular place.


Posted by: davidlarkin | June 29, 2008

Music Videos and La Vie en Rose

I added some links to favorite music videos on the sidebar [Most of these links have been blocked since this post]. I was at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Bob Dylan shocked the folkies with his electric version of Like A Rolling Stone. I was 16. We were in the very back — a group of high school students from all over the country studying science in an NSF program at Brown. I have included a video of Dylan singing Subterranean Homesick Blues which Dylan has admitted to have borrowed the musical lyrical concept from Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business (which is also included). Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus in a cathedral with Leonard Bernstein conducting is breathtaking. Dvorak’s Oh Silver Moon from his opera, Rusalka, sung by Renee Fleming is a favorite of mine. I’m old now and I have gravitated to the peaceful beautiful songs.

The Edith Piaf on the Ed Sullivan Show here Milord I added to my personal links after watching the film “La Vie En Rose.” Watching Edith Piaf sing verifies that Marion Cotillard’s heartbreaking performance as Piaf deserved the Oscar.

Taxes represent the social element of income and wealth, neither of which are possible without the interdependent society and its infrastructure, markets, and people who participate. The amount of the social element is negotiated politically. This is not socialism or communism because the elements of production are privately owned. However, this does recognize that wealth and income cannot be created on a desert island. Creativity and initiative must reap a fair reward, but the social element cannot be ignored.

The best articulation of the principles of this truth I have read is from L.T. Hobhouse, the British journalist, scholar and political theorist, writing in 1911, his words still true today, from his work, “Liberalism and other Writings, Cambridge University Press (1994), from Chapter VIII, “Economic Liberalism”:


“Wealth, I would contend, has a social as well as a personal basis. Some forms of wealth, such as ground rents in and about cities, are substantially the creation of society, and it is only through the misfeasance of government in times past that such wealth has been allowed to fall into private hands.” p. 90


“The ground problem in economics is not to destroy property, but to restore the social conception of property to its right place under conditions suitable to modern needs. This is not to be done by crude measures of redistribution such as those of which we hear in ancient history. It is to be done by distingushing the social from individual factors in wealth, by bringing the elements of the social wealth into the public coffers, and by holding it at the disposal of society to administer to the prime needs of its members.

“The basis of property is social, and that in two senses. On the one hand, it is the organized force of society that maintains the rights of owners by protecting them against thieves and depredators. In spite of all criticism many people still seem to speak of the rights of property as though they were conferred by Nature or by Providence upon certain fortunate individuals, and as though these individuals had an unlimited right to command the State, as their servant, to secure them by the free use of the machinery of law in the undisturbed enjoyment of their possessions. They forget that without the organized force of society their rights are not worth a week’s purchase. They do not ask themselves where they would be without the judge and the policeman and the settled order which society maintains. The prosperous businessman who thinks that he has made his fortune entirely by self help does not pause to consider what single step he could have taken on the road to his success but for the ordered tranquillity which has made commercial development possible, the security by road, and rail, and sea, the masses of skilled labour, and the sum of intelligence which civilization has placed at his disposal, the very demand for the goods which he produces which the general progress of the world has created, the inventions which he uses as a matter of course and which have been built up by the collective effort of generations of men of science and organizers of industry. If he dug to the foundations of of his fortune he would recognize that, as it is society that maintains and guarantees his possessions, so also it is society which is an indispensable partner in its original creation.

This brings us to the second sense in which property is social. There is a social element in value and a social element in production. In modern industry there is very little that the individual can do by his unaided efforts. Labour is minutely divided; and in proportion as it is divided it is forced to be co-operative. Men produce goods to sell, that the rate of exchange, that is, price, is fixed by relations of demand and supply the rates of which are determined by complex social forces. in the methods of production every man makes use, to the best of his ability, of the whole available means of civilization, of the machinery which the brains of other men have devised, of the human apparatus which is the gift of acquired civilization. Society thus provides conditions or opportunities of which one man will make much better use than another, and the use to which they are put is the individual or personal element in production which is the basis of the personal claim to reward. To maintain and stimulate this personal effort is a necessity of good economic organization . . . an individualism which ignores the social factor in wealth will deplete the national resources, deprive the community of its just share in the fruits of industry and so result in a one-sided and inequitable distribution of wealth. Economic justice is to render what is due not only to each individual but to each function, social or personal, that is engaged in the performance of useful service, and this due is measured by the amount necessary to stimulate and maintain the efficient exercise of that useful function. This equation between function and the sustenance is the true meaning of economic equality.”

p. 91-92


The true function of taxation is to secure to society the element in wealth that is of social origin, or, more broadly, all that does not owe its origin to the efforts of living individuals. When taxation, based on these principles, is utilized to secure healthy conditions of existence to the mass of the people it is clear that this is no case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Peter is not robbed. Apart from the tax it is he who would be robbing the State. A tax which enables the State to secure a certain share of social value is not something deducted from that which the taxpayer has an unlimited right to call his own, but rather a repayment of something which was all along due to society.” p. 97


“The distinction that I would claim for economic Liberalism is that it seeks to do justice to the social and individual factors in industry alike, as opposed to an abstract Socialism which emphasizes the one side and an abstract Individualism which leans its whole weight on the other. By keeping to the conception of harmony as our clue we constantly define the rights of the individual in terms of the common good, and think of the common good in terms of the welfare of all the individuals who constitute a society. Thus in economics we avoid the confusion of liberty with competition, and see no virtue in the right of a man to get the better of others. At the same time we are not led to minimize the share of personal initiative, talent, or energy in production, but are free to contend for their claim to adequate recognition.”
p. 101


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