It is a ritual that has become all too familiar.   A gunman claiming to act on behalf of Islam, or ISIS, or simply shouting “Allahu Akbar” murders numerous people.  President Obama condemns the atrocity as workplace violence, extremist violence, or even terrorism, but studiously avoids using the terms “radical Islamic terrorism” or “jihad.”   It then becomes a deeply partisan issue as conservative politicians and other commentators point this out, and argue that his failure to name radical Islamic terrorism for what it is reflects a fundamental failure of his policy for dealing with it.  If he cannot even name it, he will never defeat it.  Indeed, the whole matter has played out most sharply in the recent exchanges between Obama, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton after the tragic shooting in Orlando.

But does it really matter?  Does this dispute identify a substantive issue, or is it useless wrangling over words or nothing more than a game of political ping-pong?

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There was an exquisitely beautiful house in the woods.   It had obviously been built hundreds of years ago, but its exact origin was controversial.  The identity of the builder was in dispute, and some said no one really knew, and a few even denied the house had a builder.   Two men were discussing the matter, and they happened to agree that a man named Mr Devine was indeed the builder, and they were both admirers of him and his work.   As they continued their conversation, one of them commented that Devine was from Edinburgh, but the other insisted that he had come from Heidelberg.   “No, I assure you, Mr Devine and his family moved here from Edinburgh in 1787, and they built the house that year.”   The other replied: “Family? What family?  Mr Devine was a lifelong bachelor, and he moved here from Heidelberg in 1792, and that is when the house was built.”  “Well,” the first man replied, “while Mr Devine indeed designed the house, his two sons played vital roles alongside him in crafting and constructing it.”

There is an ongoing controversy involving Wheaton College and its decision first to suspend, and then to proceed with plans to terminate Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor, for her statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  For many observers, her statement is obviously true, while for others it is just as obviously false and no Christian teacher should even think it, let alone declare it in public.  Both within the secular media, as well as the Christian community, still others see the debate as a matter of quibbling over words that betrays Wheaton’s true legacy, or that reflects excessive rigidity. Continue reading

The Hard Rock at the Heart of Global Conflict

The Hard Rock at the Heart of Global Conflict

At the heart of global conflict lie some basic, unyielding logical impossibilities, and this is the deepest reason the conflict is destined to continue for decades, probably centuries to come.  These logical impossibilities, moreover, concern issues of ultimate importance, which inevitably generate passionate interest on all sides.   Consider these examples.

Either God exists, or He does not.

Either God has revealed objective moral truth that we are obligated to follow, or He has not.

Only one of each of these two logically incompatible statements can be true, but one of each pair must be true.  But what is even more vital to grasp is the enormity of what hangs on which of these logically incompatible statements is true, and which is not.

Indeed, these logically incompatible claim represent the first great divide in global conflict, and it is a divide between all of us who believe God exists, whether Jews, Christians, Muslims, or other theists, and all of those who believe God does not exist.  The existence of God is the most far reaching truth claim of all, as it bears on the origin and purpose of the entire world, not to mention the meaning of our individual lives. It is moreover, directly relevant to the second claim about moral truth, since most theists believe the nature and will of God define what is morally right and wrong and provide morality with a secure objective basis.  Whether or not God exists also determines what levels of happiness it is possible to achieve, whether there is life after death and we may rationally hope for the perfect satisfaction and fulfillment that eludes us in this life.

Pascal clearly saw what was at stake, and he wrote with existential urgency about the difference it makes whether God exists and there is life after death. Continue reading

Planned Parenthood, Josh Duggar, and our Crazy, Crunchy Sense of Moral Proportion

Seldom has a dinner conversation so vividly exposed the moral drift of a culture in decline.  Seldom has the troubled heart of a nation been put on display more clearly than in those now infamous videotapes of Planned Parenthood representatives casually discussing the selling of body parts.  Over wine and salad they chatted about less “crunchy” procedures for killing these unborn human beings that would leave those organs more intact.

While many rushed to the defense of Planned Parenthood and insisted that all of this is done for noble purposes, many others were appalled by what seemed to them a barbaric display of utter disregard for human life and feeling.

But the question begs to be answered why anyone should be so shocked.  After all, we twice elected, by a sizable majority, a President who supported partial birth abortion.  If most Americans do not have a problem with their President supporting this “procedure,” why should we suddenly be shocked that mere doctors, nurses and medical administrators are practicing what has become an acceptable position at the highest levels of our government?

And really, is there anything more objectionable about the less crunchy procedure than the crunchy one that crushes those helpless unborn human beings and disposes of them as masses of tissue inconveniently growing in the wrong place?   The fact that it is legal to crush human beings as they emerge from the womb, and dispose of them, should be more disturbing than selling their body parts.

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Trinity, Advent and Longing for a Baby

sleeping babySeveral weeks ago, I got the joyous news from my son Jonny and his wife Emily that they were expecting a baby.  They had been trying for a while, so they were very excited, and I was excited with them.  Not long after, Jonny called, and the tone in his voice intimated the bad news: Emily had a miscarriage.

Recently, Emily “opened up” about the whole experience in an article that she wrote.  As I read, with tears in my eyes, her transparently honest account of her feelings during and after her brief pregnancy, and thought of other friends who long for a child, I reflected on how the whole experience captures many of the desires and longings that are at the heart of Advent.  (Since many persons can relate to this, I’ve attached Emily’s article below if you’d like to read it).

Indeed, barren wombs and miscarriages are vivid reminders that we live in a broken world, a world that still needs healing, a world where the last enemy has not yet been fully conquered.  It is a world that longs for the coming of a baby.  One of the verses of my favorite Advent hymn expresses the longing this way:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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It is not often when I’m reading a tome of analytic philosophy that I am stopped in my tracks by a passage that reads like a penetrating diagnosis of what’s wrong with contemporary America. But that happened recently, and I have not been able to get the passage out of my head. The passage appears in Alvin Plantinga’s 500+ page volume Warranted Christian Belief in a chapter where he is discussing how sin distorts our ability to see the truth.

Prior to the passage that arrested my attention, he noted that it is a matter of common sense that we are naturally disposed to accept the idea that there is such a thing as truth. Moreover, the notion of truth assumes a certain sort of relation between our beliefs and the way the world actually is. The truth accurately depicts a world of objective reality.

Unfortunately, however, some environments can be so toxic that our notion of truth can be smothered and squelched to such an extent that we end up with no concept of truth at all. Plantinga went on to give a concrete example of this phenomenon, and this is the passage that left me pondering for days.

“It is said that one of the most serious results of the long Communist tyranny in eastern Europe was just such a suppression of the idea of truth. The truth was officially perverted so often and so cynically (for example, the official organ of the Communist party devoted to the dissemination of propaganda was ironically named Pravda, i.e., truth) that people came to lose the very idea of truth. They were lied to at every level in utterly shameless and blatant ways; they knew they were being lied to, knew that those who lied to them knew they were lying and that those to whom they lied knew they were being lied to, and so on; the result was that the whole idea of truth tended to evaporate. One said whatever would be of advantage; the question of whether it was true no longer arose” (Oxford University Press, 2000, p 216). Continue reading


CS Lewis-1john-piperAs anyone knows who has even remotely been paying attention, Calvinism is alive and well in the contemporary church.  Indeed, the Reformed movement has been aggressively on the march in recent years, led by a number of young, theologically articulate pastors.  However, the godfather of the movement is undoubtedly John Piper, a senior scholar-pastor who has written numerous books and is a passionate preacher and oral communicator.  No contemporary leader has shaped the movement nearly as much as Piper.


While there is certainly much to admire about Piper, I think some of his central theological emphases pose severe difficulties when carefully examined.  Indeed, there are some deep problems and confusions in his theology.   Unfortunately, most of his young followers are not equipped to detect or critique these confusions, partly because they involve distinctions with which they are not familiar, and partly because these confusions are obscured by his powerful rhetorical skills.


I recently explored some of these problems in a lecture I gave at a conference at Azusa Pacific University.  I did so with the help of a number of passages from the writings of C. S. Lewis, who offers a profoundly different account of divine sovereignty and human freedom than Piper espouses.  But the deepest issue at stake in this debate is not human freedom, but the very character of God.  How do we understand God’s love and perfect goodness, and what truly brings him glory?


Here is the link for my lecture.



NietzscheAny time a fifteen minute conversation between the owner of a sports team and his mistress is a national news story for several days running, you can be pretty sure the story gives you a telling glimpse into the American soul.  A week ago, it is safe to guess, hardly anyone outside serious basketball fans (and even relatively few of them) could tell you who owned the Los Angeles Clippers.  But no longer.

As everyone knows by now, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fined 2.5 million dollars by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and banned for life from the league for racist comments he made to his mistress in a phone conversation she recorded.  His derogatory comments about blacks, in addition to being deeply offensive, were also highly ironic since his coach, along with most of his players, are black, not to mention that his mistress is half black!  Indeed, the overwhelming majority of NBA players in general are black.

Now what is striking about this story, but altogether predictable, is the unanimous, passionate condemnation of Sterling’s comments.  Everyone from Charles Barkley to Bill O’Reilly and virtually everyone else in America is in agreement that Sterling’s comments were outrageous and indefensible.   Americans, like most westerners, can be counted on to roundly reject and condemn racism any time it rears its ugly head.

But what is really interesting is the depth and zeal of the moral condemnation that is elicited by the attitude Sterling conveyed.  Indeed, the reaction seems to flow out of the deeply grounded moral conviction that such attitudes are egregious and profound violations of standards that must be upheld.  It is not just that Sterling’s comments are distasteful or personally offensive.  The severity of condemnation and the punishment exacted suggests that Sterling did something that is deeply WRONG, in the strongest sense of that word.

In other words, it suggests that Americans believe there are real moral truths, truths about things that are objectively right or wrong, and not just matters of personal opinion or perspective.  And if you asked WHY racism is wrong, you would likely be told that everyone is equal, that differences like skin color have no bearing on a person’s value or dignity.   It is deeply inscribed in our national DNA that that “all men are created equal,” and that racism is a glaring violation of this self-evident moral truth.

Here is where Nietzsche joins the conversation.  He viewed the modern idea of equality with disdain, and as anything but a self-evident moral truth.  Indeed, he saw the idea of equality as a dishonest and sentimental product of Christian morality that began in a “slave revolt” led by the Jews.  This “slave morality” was fundamentally opposed to the aristocratic morality that valued strength, power, domination, and beauty, and looked down on those who lacked these things as inferior beings.

Nietzsche put the matter like this: “The doctrine of equality!…But there exists no more poisonous poison: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, while it is the termination of justice….’Equality for equals, inequality for unequals’—that would be the true voice of justice: and, what follows from it, ‘Never make equal what is unequal’” (Ellipses in original).

As he saw it then, the notion of equality is a fiction invented by the weak to protect themselves from the strong,   It has no basis in reality.  And certainly, if you try to make the case for equality on empirical or scientific grounds, it is a hard case to advance.  All people are most certainly NOT equal in strength, ability, talent, intelligence, health, beauty, and so on.  That is the reality that was recognized and exploited with no sense of shame by the aristocratic morality that Nietzsche celebrated.

Of course, many Americans might appeal to the larger context of those words I cited above from The Declaration of Independence, namely, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We are all created equal by God, it might be urged, and He has endowed us with certain rights, and THIS is why equality is not merely a sentimental or patriotic slogan.  We are equal in dignity and value before the Creator of the universe and that is far more profound reality than any differences that can be measured in terms of strength, intelligence, beauty, and so on, not to mention even more superficial differences like skin color.

Certainly the idea that we are CREATED, that we were deliberately designed to exist by an intelligent Being who is perfectly good, provides a powerful resource to ground human dignity and equality.  Such a God is better equipped to endow us with rights and dignity than any merely naturalistic process of evolution guided by nothing more than impersonal forces of natural law.

However, a serious appeal to a Creator comes at a price.  For any Creator worthy of serious belief must be acknowledged as far more than a guarantor of human equality.  More specifically, any God worthy of belief will ground other moral obligations as well as the obligation to oppose racism.

And here is where our divided soul is painfully obvious.  Our culture is deeply relativistic on many, perhaps most moral issues, ranging from abortion to marijuana use to extramarital sex.  Indeed, part of the irony in the Sterling story is that the person who made public the tape of the phone conversation is Sterling’s mistress!  Now the fact that this woman is allegedly having an extramarital affair with Sterling, who is still married, is not even an issue.  That does not even register a blip on our moral radar.

Indeed, the mistress culture is part of the norm in the NBA, where many players are notorious for having multiple children with multiple mistresses. Moreover, the mistress culture is arguably itself a version of domination and exploitation by the powerful.  Every now and again, there is a story about this, but it hardly raises an eyebrow. Worse, we are a nation that tolerates late term abortions, including partial birth abortions.   But let some public figure utter racist sentiments in a personal conversation, and it will create a national furor, and the condemnation and punishment will be swift and severe.

Again, what makes this so ironic is that Nietzsche is one of, if not THE, main fountainhead of the moral relativism that is so prevalent in western culture.  His radical rejection of Christian morality, and his claim that morality is very much a historically conditioned phenomenon with a thoroughly human “genealogy” is a widely entrenched belief in contemporary secular culture.   Nietzsche urged “free spirits” to throw off the yoke of traditional morality, and heartily indulge their natural instincts, whether the instinct to fornicate or to dominate the weak.

Here in a nutshell is the divided soul of western morality. It wants no moral restraint on the first, but absolute moral restraints on the latter.  The question is how long we can sustain our moral outrage for selected issues, while lacking a principled reason for doing so.

Nietzsche would chide contemporary culture for affirming the instinct to fornicate, but lacking the courage to affirm the instinct to dominate.  He poured his scorn on his fellow modern Europeans for rejecting belief in Christianity, while holding to all or parts of Christian morality.  He was convinced that the two stand or fall together, and it was only a matter of time until the moral principles which seemed so self-evident to them would lose their luster.  He wrote: “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality….If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing  to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands.”

America is still a nation of selective moral passion.  We can still get worked up about certain issues.  But it’s much less clear how much moral substance we have left in our hands.


hellOne of the most frequently invoked descriptions of the essence of hell is that it is separation from God.  It is the eternal misery that inevitably results when a person made in the image of God is cut off the very source of joy, the eternal fountain of truth, beauty and goodness.

But is this an accurate account of hell?  The answer, I think, is both yes and no.  To see why, let us reflect on the fact that Revelation 14:9-11 pictures the suffering of the damned as taking place “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (14:10).  What does this mean?  And how should we understand this portrayal in relation to the idea that hell is isolation from the presence of God?

In short, the question is how the suffering of hell can take place in the presence of Christ if the essence of hell is being separated from God.   Isn’t this contradictory?

Well, in response to this, I’d start with the observation of the Psalmist that there is no place where we can successfully flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7ff).  The God of love is everywhere, and we cannot exist a millisecond without his sustaining grace and power.    Paul makes a similar point in his sermon at Mars Hill, where he reminds his listeners that God is “not far from each one of us.  For in him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

This latter text is particularly relevant, for Paul is applying this point to people who may be seeking God, but have not yet found him.  The point here, then, is that even people who may be “far” from God in terms of a meaningful, loving relationship are still “close” to him in the sense that he continually sustains them in existence.

So the unhappy creatures described in Revelation 14 are in the presence of the Lamb by virtue of the fact that he sustains them in existence, and they may even be aware of this fact.  However, they are utterly separated from him by their sinful rebellion.  They are close in terms of something like proximity, but far apart in terms of mutual love and intimacy.  As the song puts it, “so close, and yet so far away.”  That is the misery paradox.

It is easy to see how this uneasy situation causes misery.  Imagine a son, alienated from his father who deeply loves him.  He hates his father and resents the fact that he is dependent upon him, so he will not return his love, but is forced by unhappy circumstances to live under the same roof with him. The misery in his case would be palpable.

Indeed, the paradoxical nature of this observation may illumine why fire is used as an image of the torments of hell.  Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence (cf Deut. 4:24; 5:24-5; Psalm 50:3; Hebrews 12:29).   But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not.

Theologian David Hart has noted that there is a long theological tradition, particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy, that “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement.”[i]  Our freedom to reject the love of God makes possible this perverse refusal to open ourselves to the happiness He wants to give us.

Perhaps we can take this a step further and suggest that this may explain why the frightful passage about the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8) appears right in the middle of the most glorious description of the holy city in the whole Bible.  And indeed, right after the beautiful picture of the spring of the water of life given to those who are thirsty (Revelation 21:6).  As New Testament scholar Robert Mulholland has pointed out: “If, as John says, those in hell are in fire in the presence of the Lamb (14:10), who in the vision is seated on the throne with God (7:17), and the Water of Life flows from the throne (22:1), then both the fire image and the water image are linked to the throne.”[ii]

Again, our freedom allows us to refuse his love and go our own way, even as it remains true that “in him we live and move and have our being.”  If that is our choice, his glorious love will be experienced like a burning fire rather than “the spring of the water of life” that will deeply quench our thirst.

So as crazy and paradoxical as it is, we can choose the fire.  But I strongly recommend the water.


[i] David Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 399.

[ii] Personal correspondence with the author, in an email, January 18, 2014.  Mulholland made this observation in response to my asking whether the spring of life and the fire of hell might be contrasted as I have suggested.  See also Mulholland’s discussion of  Revelation 14 in his commentary on Revelation in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011).









I am a huge basketball fan, indeed, sports fan in general.  Since I am also a Christian philosopher, people have often assumed that I must be a fan of John Wooden, the legendary coach who won numerous national championships at UCLA.  In fact, however, I am not, and people are often surprised when I tell them so.  They are often even more surprised when I go on to tell them that I am big fan of Bob Knight, also known as the General, an equally legendary coach who won three national championships at Indiana.  How can I admire the hothead who is infamous for throwing a chair during a game more than the elegant “Wizard of Westwood”?

I have answered that question in detail in an essay entitled “The Wizard Versus the General: Why Bob Knight is a Greater Coach Than John Wooden.”[i]  Here I will briefly give the two main reasons.  First, Knight won with far less talent than Wooden.  Whereas every one of Wooden’s teams had at least one player who went on to become an NBA all-star, including some of the most dominant players who ever played the game, Knight had only one player who became an NBA all-star.  That player was Isiah Thomas, a 6’1” guard who played only two years at Indiana, but led them to the national championship in 1981.

Knight had many excellent players to be sure, and he is famous for getting the best out of them, but the talent level of his players was not even close to that of the players Wooden coached.  A good example is Steve Alford (the current coach at UCLA), a player who did not have NBA caliber athleticism, but who was a two time All America for Knight, leading Indiana to the national championship in 1987.

But the second reason I consider Knight a greater coach is the truly decisive one for me.  Whereas the General was staunchly committed to playing fair, the Wizard succeeded with the help of a booster named Sam Gilbert, a corrupt businessman who provided a variety of benefits to his players that violated NCAA rules.

I know this will come as a surprise to many people, and indeed, I recall my own stunned surprise, if not shock, when I first learned about this several years ago.  I found it hard to believe, given the impression of Wooden I had always had.  He has been held up for decades as the very epitome of coaching excellence, as a man who “did things the right way.”

To be sure, Wooden won at a level no one likely ever will again during his tenure at UCLA.  Wooden was hired in 1948, and won no championship during his first fifteen years as head coach with the Bruins.  Then, amazingly, after fifteen years with no championships, he won 10 in 12 years in the period from 1964-1975.

What changed?  Well, during this period UCLA’s recruiting was elevated when a steady stream of the top players in the nation chose to play for the Bruins.  Many think this was all due to Wooden’s famous “Pyramid of Success” but the Gilbert Factor was no doubt a significant part of the equation that explains why his fortunes turned so dramatically during those dozen years.

To be fair, Wooden won a couple championships before Gilbert got involved with the program, and had some outstanding players on those teams.   But the recruiting elevated and remained at an exceptional level during the next several years when UCLA dominated college basketball.

By contrast, Knight was a stickler for playing by the rules.  In his autobiography, Knight discussed his passion for winning, but rejected out of hand the idea of winning at any cost.  “No, absolutely not” he said. “ I’ve never understood how anybody who cheated to get a players, or players, could take any satisfaction whatsoever out of whatever winning came afterward.”

Victory bought at the price of cheating is a hollow affair.  Worse, it is a form of theft.  It steals the honor and glory from those who played by the rules, and who would have won if everyone had played fair.  And it steals the joy of celebration from the fans of those who played fairly.  I cannot admire Wooden’s record breaking accomplishments for the same reason I cannot admire those who hit record numbers of home runs, or win Tours de France by using illegal performance enhancing substances.

Here is what I find curious and deeply ironic.  Everyone who knows anything about sports knows Bobby Knight threw a chair, but even among fairly well informed fans, few know, or care, about Sam Gilbert.

So what does this have to do with what’s wrong with America?  Well, a couple of things.  First, it is an interesting window into the fact that our culture is more inclined to assess things in psychological terms than moral terms.  Our culture is far more concerned about personality and good manners than it is about character.   Indeed, it is more important to be likeable and gracious than it is to be honest.   For us, after all, image is everything.  This is true in our culture everywhere from the basketball court to the highest levels of politics, where likeability counts far more than honesty.

Wooden was gracious and gentlemanly, even a grandfather figure.   Knight is blunt, gruff and temperamental.  Our culture is accordingly quick to judge Knight but prone to ignore altogether the shadow of Sam Gilbert when assessing Wooden because it is far more concerned with personality than character.

But second, the way these two coaches are assessed also shows we have a badly distorted sense of moral proportion even when ethical considerations do come into the picture.  Several years ago, during the controversies that led to Knight’s firing at Indiana, Dave Kindred of Sporting News wrote an article in response to the fact that Wooden’s name was often invoked as a coach to be emulated, in contrast to the more volatile Knight.  After citing the evidence of Wooden’s tarnished legacy at UCLA, he concluded with what he called a “scruples question: Would you rather have a coach who throws a vase against a wall or a coach who turns a blind eye to the buying of players in his behalf?”

To me, the answer is clear.  This is not to suggest Knight a saint .  Indeed, I would guess he will need some time in purgatory before he will be ready for that honor.   Nor is it to deny that his own character flaws have marred his illustrious career.  But Knight’s flaws do not detract from his greatness as a coach even remotely as much as the corruption that Wooden ignored detracts from his.   And I would contend that to think otherwise, you must have developed quite a taste for swallowing camels.

[i] In Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint, eds. Jerry L. Walls and Greogry Bassham (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 2007), 129-144.

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