Entropy, causation and prophetic typology

For some time I have been slowly working through a gargantuan post that aims to review and comment on each and every one of the 355 Prophecies Fulfilled by Jesus (and there’s still a long way to go). In the course of that process I’ve had to put some thought into the concept of typology, which claims that some earlier entity or event (E0) is a type, or prefigure, of a later entity or event (E0+t). With regard to prophecy, the idea is that E0 is directed toward E0+t in a teleological sense – that is, E0 existed for the purpose of serving as a pointer to E0+t. As I see it, this is a type of retrocausality, in that we could say that we have E0 because of E0+t. My understanding is that this was commonly accepted as a valid perspective in the ancient world, which stands in contrast to a more modern, “scientific” conception of causality that operates only according to the arrow of time.

S = k log WHowever, I have also been reading Sean Carroll’s ‘From Eternity to Here’ which, if I’m understanding correctly, suggests that the temporal causality we see (that earlier events ’cause’ later events) is merely a macroscopic artifact of the universe having started in a low entropy condition. At root, all physical laws are reversible, such that there isn’t really a direction of cause and effect – there’s just a universal trend from lower to higher entropy because high entropy states are simply more probable than low entropy states.

So now I find myself intuitively balking at the nonsense of the retrocausality suggested by typological claims while simultaneously pondering this entropic perspective on time and the reversibility of physical laws, and subsequently wondering whether E0+t really can be a valid part of the explanation for E0. I’m not sure I’ve really wrapped my head around this, so I’m hoping for some additional insight from any readers who feel like they might have something to offer. In short, does a properly scientific perspective on time and causality lend credence to notions of retrocausality, such as we find in claims of prophetic typology?

Note that I am not suggesting that prophetic typology claims would thus become the best explanation for an identified relationship between E0 and E0+t as a result of this perspective. We can still identify the best (i.e., more probable) explanations according to the probabilistic description of entropy, which we perceive as a causal direction from past to future in accordance with physical laws. The question is only whether those prophetic claims are more compatible with a proper scientific perspective on causality versus the classical view of an inviolable temporal order from cause to effect.

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From eschatological demarcation to doxastic soteriology

Sorry about all the $2 words in the title. Even if that didn’t make sense, I hope the rest of the post still does.

The End Is NearA couple years ago I wrote a post titled “Reconciling the Crucified Messiah“, where I summarized a naturalist perspective on the origin and ascent of a religious sect that was centered around a crucified leader; which is admittedly a bizarre turn of events. That post briefly discussed the development of Christian atonement theology as a consequence of the crucifixion and how that reconciliation was critical to transforming a seemingly insurmountable setback into a hallmark of the faith. But this new atonement theology did not entail that the salvation afforded by the atonement is only available to those who believe, and so here I would like to consider another curious yet synergistic development of the Christian movement: the introduction of doxastic soteriology (doxastic = “related to belief” and soteriology = “doctrine of salvation”, so a doxastic soteriology is a doctrine in which salvation is in some sense dependent on belief). I propose that this was largely driven by eschatological concerns (i.e., related to the end of the world \ final judgment).

Despite my Christian bubble having been popped almost four years ago, it only recently occurred to me that belief in Jesus (as messiah, lord, savior, etc…) might not have been viewed as a requirement for salvation in the earliest days of the movement. A doxastic soteriology certainly doesn’t appear to have been part of the mainstream Judaism to which Christianity owes its roots and, from a naturalistic perspective, it seems highly unlikely that Jesus himself taught that people had to believe in him to be saved, despite what the Gospel of John portrays.

So what happened?

There are several points of contact which show that the Nazarenes (early Christians) shared some influences with the Qumran community (whether directly or indirectly). Among these is an eschatological perspective in which the demarcation between the elect and the damned fell not along ethnic boundaries, as was implied by traditional Judaic eschatology, but rather around ideological boundaries. To the Qumran community, the elect were those who aligned themselves with the community lifestyle and ideology. It appears that this perspective was in part driven by a perception of religio-political corruption (e.g., the “wicked priest”) and the wish to exclude undesirable religious figures from Yahweh’s kingdom – a theme that is mirrored by the gospel narratives and was quite possibly an element of Jesus’ teaching. A similar shift was also occurring throughout greater Judaism in the second temple period. Ever since the Babylonian exile, the Jews had been trying to figure out how to deal with the diaspora and cultural intermingling. The rise of decentralized worship in synagogues and the need to accommodate cross-cultural relationships spurred a decline in the traditional ethnocentric eschatology that the earlier prophets sought as they lamented the conquests of Israel. As a whole, the Judaic quest for future justice was gradually transitioning from an ethnic foundation toward ideological foundations.

Combining this with the widely accepted understanding of Jesus as an eschatological prophet, we can imagine that Jesus and his followers considered themselves to be bearers of the gospel, where the good news was not that Jesus was going to die for your sins, but rather that the end of days was imminent – perhaps even facilitated by Jesus’ prophetic ministry – and that you too could be part of the eternal kingdom if you repent and adopt the lifestyle and ideology of their sect. This message may have even neglected ethnic boundaries. From this we can see that the seeds of a doxastic soteriology were present in Jesus’ message, but were only germinating. After the crucifixion, more changes came into play.

crackFirst, we have the Nazarenes continuing to proclaim their eschatological message despite their messiah having been killed and, furthermore, cursed by Yahweh as a consequence of having been hung and left exposed on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Though the Nazarenes appear to have wanted to remain Torah observant, their message became increasingly disagreeable and divisive as they continued to exercise midrashic liberty in defense of Jesus as messiah. As a result, the gulf between their sect and mainstream Judaism grew and they were, as a whole, steadily pushed and pulled away from participation in Jewish communities.

Then, as we consider the growing chasm between the Nazarene sect and mainstream Judaism we can turn back to the Qumran example to see what happens – namely, an eschatological evolution in which the opposing party is excluded from salvation (that is, participation in the eternal kingdom). As a close relative of Judaism, the early Christians had very few distinctions that could be used to draw that eschatological line in the sand. However, above all else, there was one thing that separated them from mainstream Judaism: belief that Jesus was the messiah. And so Christianity’s doxastic soteriology was born. As that chasm continued to grow so also did the prominence of belief as a central dogma of the Christian soteriology, reinforced by the synergistic coupling of a new atonement theology that was dependent on the object of that belief and independent of the temple sacrifices. Going one step further, the adoption of this eschatologically motivated doxastic soteriology also served to emphasize the significance of Jesus and so was perhaps instrumental in his eventual elevation as coequal with God.

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Reconciling the crucified messiah (and a new way to read the Bible)

I’ve done a lot of introspection this Easter season on what Christianity is, if not truth. It doesn’t seem rational to abandon a widely held worldview without at least trying to explain why it has been accepted in the first place. So how would a naturalist explain the origin and adoption of a worldview which centers around a crucified leader, and does that explanation make sense?

The birth of Christianity in 200 words or less

CrossesA charismatic sectarian from Galilee speaks out against the religious establishment and preaches repentance in preparation for the end of days – an end which infers Israel’s divinely mandated world domination. His followers eagerly anticipated this grand reversal of fortune but then he was killed because his message and growing profile was seen as a threat to the Roman state. Something happened that led to a belief that he may have been resurrected and this coupled into a hope that maybe his mission wasn’t done. The resurrection hypothesis and the apocalypse hypothesis fed off of each other, along with a few select passages in Psalms and Isaiah, to reinforce the story. Paul comes along and is inspired by the story but is compelled to more fully explain why the messiah was killed. He develops an extensive reformulation of the Judaic sacrificial system into a robust atonement theology which grows to become the foundation of Christendom. Collectively we are left with an intriguing story of sacrificial love, redemption, acceptance and hope that offers a remedy for our desire to belong and a salve for our deepest fears.

The birth of a new perspective

The kind of explanation given above may not be new to those who have already examined these things from a critical perspective, but it is to me. You see, when all your information has come from inside the Christian bubble the logic flows in reverse. You start with the assumption that Jesus came to offer salvation and so had to die – not that he died and so that needed to be explained. This is a complete reversal to the order of operations that I’ve known my whole life and if I’m honest I have to admit that it makes a lot of sense.

The psychology we encounter from this new perspective goes well beyond the New Testament. The Old Testament as a whole is dripping with angst. Israel is sick of being a doormat. They sit at the junction between Egypt and all other world powers and are constantly caught in the crossfire. Some have suggested that the bulk of the Tanakh is effectively the rallying cry of a trampled people, saying “we have conquered once, we will conquer again”. That may be a bit of a short sell but the overall theme seems correct.

The birth of a new revelation

Valentin de Boulogne: Saint Paul Writing His EpistlesThere have been many revelations for me on this journey. It is amazing how many of the mysteries of the Bible begin to unravel once you allow yourself to see it as a human creation. The dynamic between history and theology becomes one of cause and effect. Theology is no longer a message handed down on high from God but rather a very real psychological and emotional response to the events of our world. Ironically, this has given me a profound respect for the beauty of the humanity that can be found in the Bible; more so than ever before.

On this journey I have finally allowed myself to ask “Why did the author write this?”, instead of “What is God saying to me?”. As a Christian, I treated the Bible like something of a textbook; an instruction manual to be studied. I wanted to understand what God was saying. I was oblivious to the experiences, desires and perspectives that its authors brought to the text. In retrospect it’s a bit embarrassing to admit how blatantly I ignored this, though I still find myself befuddled when trying to parse a Christian explanation of how the Bible is the product of both God and man. I guess it’s easier to just act like it came straight from God and gloss over the human role.

Where I once sought divine guidance, I now see an epic anthology that chronicles a psychological struggle to cope with the chaos of a world outside of our control and the tensions that strain our will. It’s not hard to see how this has spoken to us throughout the centuries. We all fight to see our way through the obstacles that life hurls our way and to resolve the conflicts that torment our soul (metaphorically speaking, of course). How comforting a prospect it is to suggest that this isn’t just chaos; that behind it all there is a magnificent plan that ends with a glorious victory! The full embrace of the Christian message can give us peace and rest. Who doesn’t want that? I for one wish it to be true, but that is a verdict which seems more distant with each step that I take. My rest will not be found where I am engaged in an unending struggle for truth.

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The underdog archetype and the criterion of embarrassment

The Babylonian ExileAt a recent church service the speaker gave a message that used Joseph’s story (of technicolor coat fame) as an illustration of how we need to trust God’s timing. As I contemplated the story, I was reminded just how much the theme of overcoming adversity permeates the stories of the Old Testament. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah when it seemed impossible (and after they tried to do it their own way), Jacob was the scrawny second-born but received the blessing and becomes Israel’s namesake, young Joseph was discarded by his brothers and then ends up saving them, Moses is a coward but then leads the exodus and David was the diminutive afterthought who slayed the giant, supplanted the tall, handsome king (Saul) and led Israel to prominence in spite of his transgressions. Then there’s the oft repeated prophetic theme of the nation of Israel breaking free from the dominion of the various regional powers – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and, in the case of Daniel, the Seleucid Empire. Israel was a nation beaten down only to stand tall in the end.

A few centuries later, we are introduced to Jesus. Illegitimately born (in a feed trough, no less) to a couple of unknowns in a little out of the way town up north. Rejected by his own people, misunderstood, denied and betrayed by his disciples, and then crucified like a common criminal. But that is not the whole story and, just as it was in the Old Testament, victory belongs to the underdog.

The criterion of embarrassment

Many apologists have latched onto the unflattering elements of biblical texts as evidence for their veracity. Certainly nobody would fabricate, or even embellish, such claims? This form of argumentation, known as the criterion of embarrassment, carries an intuitive appeal. Though few would suggest that it serves as conclusive evidence, it is commonly offered as a stone that tilts the scales toward upholding the truth of biblical claims. A prime example of the modern use of the criterion of embarrassment comes to us in David Instone-Brewer’s recent book “The Jesus Scandals”, for which he offers the following summary:

“If tabloid newspapers had existed during the first century, Jesus would have featured constantly in the headlines, linked with scandals of all kinds. Details of these were recorded in historical documents by both his friends and his enemies. They provide insights into Jesus’ life and teaching that have been obscured by the centuries. They tell us what his contemporaries really thought. These scandals include:  

  • his parentage and accusations of alcohol abuse and fraudulent miracles
  • the dubious status of his followers – poorly educated, ex-prostitutes and the certifiably mad
  • his anti-religious teaching on temple practices, eternal torment, easy divorces and judgement in this life
  • his thoughts of suicide, shameful execution and impossible resurrection

Faithful to the biblical text, this carefully researched book can be read as a whole or as stand-alone chapters.”

We cannot have it both ways

It is clear that ancient Jewish authors did not always shy away from including less than favorable bits in their hero stories. The criterion of embarrassment would argue that this is an indication that they are true but we often find ourselves drawn to the underdog story. In this regard, the Jews were no different – perhaps most clearly because they were the underdog. In fact, this would appear to be something of a cultural theme that had become entrenched in their identity. As a nation, they constantly found themselves under the thumb of more powerful nations and this engendered a hope which fueled the apocalyptic visions of Israel rising above the ashes. The underdog archetype was alive and well in Jesus’ time and the subjugation to Rome only reinforced it.

So something doesn’t fit. How can we argue that the embarrassing elements of the Jesus’ story only makes sense if they are true while at the same time embracing the corresponding typologies of the Old Testament? We cannot have it both ways.

Though I have never found the criterion of embarrassment especially persuasive, I have also never agreed with those who discount it altogether. While this is still true, my reflection on the presence of the underdog archetype in Jewish tradition has further diminished its power. This is not to suggest that the unsavory details of Jesus life are necessarily fabrications. Rather, my primary concern here is to point out that when the New Testament was authored there was a precedent in place. The story of the victorious underdog was the hope of Israel. We should not think it so odd that the hero of a fledgling Jewish sect would find himself in this role as well.

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Pick your poison: Either God is imperfect or “true morality” is uncomfortably immoral

Michelangelo, The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of EdenThis post was birthed out of an exchange with Prayson Daniel at his blog, With All I Am. I would like to thank him for posing the question in a way which caused me to think through the various ramifications of a free will theodicy.

The setup is simply this: there appears to be a logical contradiction between the concept of a wholly perfect God and the introduction of pain and suffering as the result of free will. The options which are available to dispose of the contradiction all lead to either accepting that God is in some sense imperfect, or to accepting that “true morality” is defined by a formulation of God’s nature which does not comfortably align with our sense of morality.

The Argument

Definitions

  1. Holiness: The collective qualities which define God’s nature. To say that God is perfectly holy is to say that he is perfectly moral, perfectly loving, perfectly righteous, perfectly just, perfectly merciful and perfectly praise-worthy.
  2. Omnipotent: Having complete or unlimited power.
  3. Omniscient: Having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight.

Premises

  1. A perfectly holy God wills the world to be that which is most compatible with his holiness. Alternatively it can be said that when given the ability to actualize one world from a finite set of possible worlds, a perfectly holy God will actualize the world which accords with his holiness better than the others.
  2. An omnipotent God can achieve any world which is logically coherent (e.g., God cannot make a square circle).
  3. An omniscient God knows everything about the world; past, present and future.
  4. A perfectly holy and omnipotent God will not violate the freedom of his created free agents (because it is a moral imperative and because freedom of will is necessary for genuine love).
  5. A perfectly holy God cannot intentionally introduce evil, pain and suffering into a world where it did not previously exist (because that would be contrary to his nature).
  6. An omnipotent God can end evil, pain and suffering at any time.

A definition of the free will theodicy

  1. God is perfectly holy (#1) and omnipotent (#2), and thus #4 applies.
  2. God has created free agents with the ability to sin or not sin at any time. This is typically explained as being necessary because the resulting world is more compatible with God’s holiness than the world without free agents.
  3. Pain and suffering was introduced by the created free agents as a natural consequence of their sinful act and God knew this would happen (#3). The consequences may also include a fallen creation which produces “natural evils”.
  4. God can end evil, pain and suffering (#6) but has not yet done so because he knows that the current state is for the best (#3) and so has sufficient reasons for allowing it to persist (as required by #1).

Putting it together

God has allowed evil, pain and suffering for some time (#9). Therefore, the world in which evil, pain and suffering endures must be more compatible with God’s holiness (by #1 and #2) than the world in which evil, pain and suffering do not endure. God cannot introduce evil, pain and suffering (#5) and cannot influence the created free agents to do so (#4). Therefore, God is completely incapable of using his own volition to attain the world which is most compatible with his holiness. This contradicts God’s omnipotence.

Possible Objections

Objection #1: God is not omnipotent
OK, you’re more than welcome to accept that. Just make sure you incorporate it into your entire theological framework and understand all the consequences. Review objection #3 to see how this is sometimes employed.

Objection #2: God is not perfectly holy
Ditto above.

Objection #3: God is not omniscient
Ditto above, and…

To be clear, this objection hinges on the presumption that omniscience includes foreknowledge and some would deny the possibility of foreknowledge. This view belongs to a growing trend called open theism, most notably led by Greg Boyd. It would seem that this view exists almost exclusively to solve this problem, though it also helps make sense of some passages in the Bible where God seems to change his mind. However, this doesn’t solve the problem on its own – review the argument to see why. Accepting this would still seem to require accepting at least one of the other objections, namely objection #1 or objection #6. If this is combined with objection #1 (God is not omnipotent), then it could be that it wasn’t just that God didn’t see this coming, but he also couldn’t stop it. That does, however, also make it difficult to accept premise #5 (future perfection). As to how this could be combined with objection #6, review the discussion there.

Objection #4: Man does not have free will, or God sometimes does violate man’s free will
Fair enough. Now lets apply this to the circumstances at hand and understand the implications. The problem we’re trying to resolve is how evil, pain and suffering were introduced. This solution only resolves that problem if we also agree that it was God who directed agents to sin and thus introduce evil, pain and suffering. To be blunt, under this objection God is the author of sin and its consequences. If God is the author of sin, then either God is not morally perfect, or “true morality” as defined by God’s character, does not preclude the willful introduction of sin and its consequences (which may or may not include eternal damnation for most). Either God wanted this world despite the fact that it was contrary to his will, or he wanted the world because it is compatible with his nature. The latter option takes us to the next objection.

Objection #5: God can introduce evil, pain and suffering because it is not in conflict with his holiness
Let’s unpack this a bit. The inference behind this objection is that if God’s nature leads to the introduction of evil, pain and suffering then that world must be the best world. When all is reduced, every act of evil, every instance of pain and every period of suffering that has ever scarred the history of mankind occurred because it was consistent with God’s nature. The fallen world is exactly what God wanted.

Yet, if God can end pain and suffering at any time (premise #5) then he could have conceivably done this at the instant it first appeared, or he could have prevented pain and suffering from being the consequence of sin in the first place. He didn’t, but, according to the doctrine of a future perfection, he will. Why will he do this in the future? Presumably because that brings about a better world. So this objection seems hold a logical contradiction: the world without evil, pain and suffering is not better than the fallen world, yet God will bring about the world without evil, pain and suffering in the future because it is better.

That said, I see how one could argue that the period of pain and suffering is a prerequisite for the future without pain and suffering (i.e., an Irenaean theodicy, or “soul building”). In that case, the better world is the one in which there is a duration of pain and suffering that is followed by the elimination of pain and suffering. This doesn’t explain, however, why sanctification is necessary in the first place. If the agents were perfect before their fall and God authored their fall as part of his sovereign plan for sanctification, then that would imply that the agents weren’t really perfect to start with even though that is the ultimate goal. So either he cannot create agents with a perfected disposition from the start (meaning he is not omnipotent) or he prefers that the perfected disposition be acquired through pain and suffering (which is uncomfortably immoral).

Objection #6: Omnipotence does not include the ability to introduce evil, pain and suffering
More explicitly, this objection asserts that God’s nature makes it logically incoherent for God to have attained the world that is most compatible with his nature. In other words, perfect holiness includes the mandate “thou shall not violate a free agent’s will”. As a result, God’s omnipotence is NOT defeated because the act which would have resulted in the best world is logically incoherent and thus not a member of the set of capabilities which define omnipotence. The world with free agents and the potential of evil, pain and suffering is the best God could do within the constraints of logic. Problem solved.

Not so fast. If God’s omnipotence does not include a capability that is required in order to attain the better world, can we still say that he is both omnipotent and perfectly holy? If the combination of God’s nature and a separate agent’s free choice could have resulted in the better world, then it would seem that this combined agency is more capable (or more holy) than God, which entails that God is either not omnipotent or is not a perfectly holy being. If you question whether that assertion is true, then it’s time to move on to objection #10.

This objection can also be combined with objection #3 (God is not omniscient) to sustain God’s moral perfection. This combination suggests that it is not only logically incoherent for God to have introduced evil, pain and suffering, but it is also the case that God did not know that the free agents would sin and bring that world about. However, if that is the case then it does seem quite odd that he’s let it persist for so long (rather than stopping it immediately), especially if you also want to accept premise #5 (future perfection). It almost seems as if you have to toss in objection #1 as well (God is not omnipotent).

Objection #7: God’s omnipotence is realized through his creation of free agents
The goal of this objection is to show that God’s omnipotence is not defeated because he actually is able to bring about the best world by relying on his omniscience regarding the behavior of the created agents. Since he knew what the agents would do, he was able to attain the best world as a result of his creative action. All this really means, though, is that God is indirectly responsible for the introduction of evil, pain and suffering. He is the CEO and the responsibility eventually falls back in his lap, which puts us back at either objection #4 or objection #5.

Or maybe not. Could it be that God is not ultimately responsible under this scenario? To examine this we need to take a closer look at point #8 in the free will theodicy. That point claims that the created agents have the ability to sin or not sin at any time. This means that, conceivably, they could have never sinned.

If we accept the possibility that the agents could have never sinned then it is possible that the fall never occurs, in which case the best world (the fallen world) is not realized. This brings us back to the very last claim of the argument, that “God is completely incapable of using his own volition to attain the world which is most compatible with his holiness. This contradicts God’s omnipotence”. To consider whether that claim holds up, please see objection #10.

Conversely, if we accept the possibility that the agents would necessarily sin at some point, then it would seem that they do not actually have free will on this particular matter. In that case, who is responsible? It would be the one who’s will was directing the agent’s will. Presumably that agent is God himself, which again puts us back at either objection #4 or objection #5.

Objection #8: Molinism to the rescue
Ah yes, Molinism. The view popularized by William Lane Craig as the answer to reconcile free will with God’s perfection and sovereignty. But does it also answer the problem of evil? Let’s examine its application to our situation here.

In Molinism, the created agents have complete free will while giving God the power to know all possible choices that the agents will make, such that God can then direct the world in such a way that those agents will make the choice which aligns with God’s will. Neither free will nor God’s sovereignty are sacrificed. If I review the argument above, however, it appears to be just as applicable to Molinism as to any other free will theodicy. God is still perfect and agents are still free. Molinism offers no help to resolve the problem of evil and must still confront the argument by appealing to one of the other objections. In fact, Molinism looks to be a complicated variation of objection #7.

Objection #9: It’s a mystery, or God is not bound by logic
This is perhaps the most popular answer to the problem. Logic be damned, God is both perfect in all regards and is not responsible for the introduction of evil, pain and suffering. We can have our cake and eat it too by invoking “mystery”. Obviously this gets you out of the dichotomy I proposed up front but in its place you’re left feeling unsettled, like you’ve just cheated and you know the victory is a fraud. Surreptitiously, cognitive dissonance begins its ascent.

I also contend that the statement “God is not bound by logic” typically implies a misunderstanding of logic. This infers that logic is a set of arbitrary rules which we happen to follow, like gravity or inertia. This is misguided. Logic is the description of relationships between symbols, which are the constituents of thought itself. If logic is discarded then comprehension itself is also discarded, which makes the statement meaningless. This kind of response is what eventually leads to negative theology, in which case you’re essentially admitting that you don’t really know anything about God.

Objection #10: God’s perfection is not defeated if he wills something other than the best world
Here we are rejecting the very first premise in the argument – that a perfectly holy God wills the world to be that which is most compatible with his holiness. To evaluate whether this is the case, consider the following: If God does not will the world which is most compatible with his holiness then we can conceive of a being who is identical except that this being wills the better world. The new being would be more holy than God, thus God is not perfectly holy. In short, perfection wills perfection and a being which wills anything less is not perfect.

One way to attempt to resolve this is to assert that it is logically incoherent for a perfectly holy God to will the introduction of evil, pain and suffering (see objection #6) and that, as a result, the hypothetical “better God” given above is not logically possible. This maneuver, however, has now moved the definition of the “best world” away from God. We are now saying that the best world is defined by something other than that which God wills. God’s nature no longer defines what is “best”. That is no small concession and implies that God is subject to some external ideal – that God is not the ultimate authority. It makes little sense to take this step when the whole reason for considering the possibility in the first place was to sustain the concept of God’s perfection.

What now?

It appears to me that the solution which is most capable of holding up under logical scrutiny and salvaging the orthodox definition of God is a combination of objection #4 and objection #5, where God is ultimately responsible for evil, pain, suffering, et al, as the natural product of his nature. This is exactly what Calvinism offers. God’s power and sovereignty win out. Despite the seemingly violent opposition to the moral law which is “written on the hearts of men” (Romans 2:15), a significant number of us are simply “objects of wrath prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22). To mitigate this, many Calvinists (including Calvin himself) will tack on objection #9.

This isn’t new. The debate has raged for centuries and, as of late, Calvinism has experienced a resurgence. I counted myself as a Calvinist for a period of time, though not because of this argument – just because it seemed most biblical. As I contemplated the implications of Calvinism, however, I eventually found that I couldn’t sustain it. It seemed so contrary to the goodness of God, a goodness which pervaded my theology and tugged at my heart. The implications of Calvinism truly did act like a poison which ate away at my conscience. So I came to decide that I simply didn’t know whether I was an Arminian or a Calvinist and that it didn’t matter. The conflict seemed interminable because both sides had scripture to back them up. I chose to resolve the problem by continuing in ignorance on the matter.

I started this post by offering a dichotomy: either accept that God is not perfect, or that the morality he defines feels strangely immoral. This is, of course, a false dichotomy. There is another option available to those who are willing to wade into the waters of blasphemy. What if these ideas aren’t from God? Maybe the foundational concepts that we are wrestling with are man-made. Maybe those who introduced them hadn’t coordinated and analyzed the consequences of their ideas as deeply as the rest of us have throughout the centuries. Maybe these issues are so difficult to resolve because there isn’t a grand conductor orchestrating a coherent backstory that brings it all together. Maybe we’re trying to mash together a bunch of random musings that were never meant to fit. Doesn’t this all make a lot more sense if the truth is that we’ve just created an artificial problem to which there isn’t actually a solution?

How will you answer that question? For me, from my current perspective, the answer is a bittersweet “yes”. Bitter because it pushes away the God that I thought I knew, but sweet because it feels like truth.

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A few comments on Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”

I don’t plan on commenting on every book I read but I was compelled to address what appeared to me to be some glaring omissions and one audacious claim in the argumentation found in Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism”. There were three particular assertions that caught my attention: (1) that evolutionary theory says nothing about whether it is unguided, (2) a logical proof that determinism is false, and (3) that unguided evolution cannot yield reliable beliefs (aka “the evolutionary argument against naturalism”, or EAAN).

There is no reason to believe that evolution is unguided?

WhereTheConflict

Ignoring the theological implications and biblical creation accounts, Plantinga says that “The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided.” I agree that it is not necessary to assert that evolution is unguided. There is no way that we can show that some supernatural agent is not overseeing the genetic changes which drive evolution. Fair enough. However, Plantinga goes on to say that “But that [the idea that evolution is unguided] isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.” What struck me is that Plantinga seemingly makes this claim without engaging with the foundational reasons why evolution is generally defined to be unguided. Instead, he chooses to review the arguments which show how complexity could arise by an unguided process. Yes, those arguments don’t prove that the process is unguided but that is beside the point. The task at hand is to find the best explanation for our observations. Is the best explanation that evolution is guided, or is the best explanation that evolution is unguided? When I survey the data, I see compelling reasons for inferring an unguided process. For example:

  1. The vast majority of species that have ever existed are now extinct. Natural selection occurs by killing off creatures with the less favorable property. Competition and death are fundamental components of the evolutionary process.
  2. It is far more likely that a mutation is neutral or deleterious than beneficial.
  3. What were once beneficial adaptations can become deleterious in the face of a changing environment.
  4. Artificial selection (for example, in dogs) has produced in hundreds of generations a degree of variation that is only comparatively realized in nature over thousands of generations.

Among others, these are all characteristics of evolution which, to me, infer an unguided process. The first observation demonstrates how wasteful, vicious and “immoral” the process is. If you want to argue that we have no reason to believe that God wouldn’t create through such mechanisms then that’s fine, but at least admit that it is not how we expect an all-loving, all-powerful, super-intelligent being to act and is among the least attractive of the possible methods (e.g., special creation). The second observation highlights how the process seems to be driven by a small fraction of changes in a probabilistic paradigm, which is almost by definition the opposite of a guided process. The third observation demonstrates that the result of selection does not always lead to a long-term benefit. Again, this seems to contradict an intelligence behind the outcomes. Lastly, the final observation reveals how inefficiently slow the changes are accumulated in nature, whereas a known intelligent agent (humans) has succeeded in utilizing the exact same underlying mechanisms to realize dramatic changes in a short period of time.

On the flip side, one could argue that the amazing outcomes of evolution – the eye, flight, the brain – are all pointers toward a guiding intelligence. I understand this view; it is truly amazing what has been wrought. I feel the draw of the design explanation when I consider the remarkable intricacies of life, but I also recognize that this pull arises because the design hypothesis is easier to relate to our experience (i.e., our intuitions are biased toward that model). This is not the place to rely on intuitions, however, so we must turn to the evidence. In a twist of irony, Plantinga has already included arguments which explain how these wonders may result from an unguided process. So the counter to the argument for guided evolution has been presented and acknowledged. As I see it, this means that the reasons for thinking that evolution is unguided weren’t addressed at all and the reasons for thinking that evolution is guided were found to also fit the unguided paradigm. I cannot agree that this conflict is merely superficial.

Determinism is logically impossible?

Though it is a minor side-note in the book, it immediately caught my attention. What an audacious claim – a logical proof that determinism is false! This warranted a closer look. The argument is as follows:

  1. A natural law is of the form “If the universe (U) is causally closed, then P.”
  2. Also take the conjunction of all natural laws to be “If U is causally closed, then P.”
  3. If determinism is true then the conjunction of all natural laws (If U is causally closed, then P) and a specific past state of the universe (PAST) necessarily entails the future (F).
  4. Using N to mean Necessarily, the above statement is equivalent to: N [if (if U is causally closed then P) and PAST, then F].
  5. Becomes:  N [if (either U is not causally closed or P) and PAST, then F]
  6. Becomes:  N [if [(PAST and P) or (PAST and U is not causally closed)], then F].
  7. This takes the form N if (p or q) then r, which means that both p and q entail r, hence
  8. N [if (Past and P) then F] and N [if (PAST and U is not causally closed) then F].
  9. The right hand side of #8 is obviously false because there is clearly a possible world that (i) shares its past with the actual world, (ii) is not causally closed (because perhaps God acted) and (iii) does not share its future with the actual world. Therefore, determinism is false.

I will admit that it took me several reads to follow this argument. In the end, however, I think I see the slight of hand (whether or not this was intentional, I do not know). It was my attempt to translate this into software code that clearly revealed the problem for me. Here’s the code:

function CreateFuture(Universe, Past) {
  if(Universe.CausallyClosed) {
    P = Universe.NaturalLaws;
  }
  return DoPhysics(P, Past);
}

My fellow software engineers will immediately recognize the bug in this function: if the universe is not causally closed then P is undefined and an attempt to use it to generate the future yields unpredictable results. This is the key to the problem with the proof. In step 5, Plantinga expands the proof to cover both branches of the conditional and infers that both branches are still bound within the definition of determinism. This then, of course, leads to the obvious result where the future created with defined natural laws may be different than the future created with undefined natural laws. Plantinga groups these outcomes together under the definition of determinism and declares that the internal inconsistency shows that determinism is false. This is completely invalid, however, because determinism is only defined to be the branch where the universe is causally closed. All other branches (or possible worlds) are something other than determinism. I am honestly a bit baffled that Plantinga chose to include this in the book.

Despite my rejection of this proof, I should note that I am not a strict determinist. I would consider myself something of a quasi-determinist. Quantum indeterminacy has shown us that we can’t (yet) predict all possible states, but the quantum effects adhere to a predictable distribution such that the macro-world, and even the molecular world, behaves according to the physical laws to the extent that we have accurately described them. In the absence of supernatural intervention the natural world is, for all practical purposes, deterministic.

Naturalism cannot yield reliable beliefs?

The central thesis of the evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is that, without a guiding force, there is no reason to believe that the evolutionary process would result in a belief forming system that yields true beliefs. As I read through the EAAN, I was eagerly anticipating Plantinga’s response to the following objection: evolutionary theory claims that well before any creature was conscious there were sensory systems that triggered responses which selected the population. Selection is dependent on beneficial interactions with the external world. If those interactions do not consistently and properly map to the outside world then they are less likely to be beneficial. Consciousness and belief formation are extensions of this rudimentary system. As such, the evolutionary processes which led to sensory response systems, and therefore also to consciousness and belief formation, are likely to produce reliable reflections of the outside world.

Finally, in chapter 10, part 5, section C he gets there. He introduces the objection with “Isn’t it just obvious that true beliefs will facilitate adaptive action?” and eventually follows-up with “Yes, certainly. This is indeed true. But it is also irrelevant.” Then comes the explanation: “We ordinarily think true belief leads to successful action because we also think that the beliefs cause actions, and do so by virtue of their content… But now suppose materialism were true: then, as we’ve seen, my belief will be a neural structure that has both NP [neuro-physiological] properties and also a propositional content. It is by virtue of the NP properties, however, not the content, that the belief causes what it does cause.” After providing several examples of how the content of beliefs result in action, he finishes with “Going back to materialism…If the belief had had the same NP properties but different content, it would have had the same effect on behavior.”

Plantinga immediately recognizes that materialism would deny that it is possible for two beliefs to have the same NP properties but different content. Then things get messy. He digresses into a brief discussion of how this isn’t the place to address how counterfactuals and counterpossibles should be used in argumentation. Then he closes the response with “..it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.” Wait a second – isn’t that where we were before this whole objection was raised?

Is it just me, or did he completely misrepresent the naturalistic ontology of belief and then dismiss the objection to that misrepresentation without offering an explanation? It seems as if he has superimposed dualism onto naturalism and then argued against this bastard child. What really confuses me is that in the pages leading up to this he clearly defined the materialistic view as one in which belief content can be reduced to NP properties. Somehow, when it came time to address the big objection, this reduction no longer applied and content was now something completely separate from the physical. How did this happen? I re-read those pages several times and I just don’t get it. Am I in over my head? Did I miss something? I can’t help but feel like I did; but, then again, I’m far from being the only one who has seen problems with this argument. This turn of events left me bewildered and I can’t give any regard to the EAAN until this is resolved.

Closing Thoughts

This was my first encounter with any of Plantinga’s books, though I was familiar with his work and was well aware of his reputation as one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers. The writing generally lived up to the standard; the text was lucid and, in most cases, the arguments were easy to follow. It was a worthwhile read. In the end, however, I was severely disappointed that his key claims – the “apparent conflict” between theism and evolution and the “deep conflict” between naturalism and science – ultimately omit or dismiss the most relevant objections to those claims. Perhaps even more alarming was that he chose to publish a clearly flawed proof that determinism is false. Collectively these observations have done nothing but tarnish his reputation in my eyes. I had hoped for something more.

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Did Jesus fulfill Daniel’s 70 weeks?

The primary goal of this post is to evaluate the claim that the timing of Jesus’ arrival fulfills the prophecy in Daniel 9. About four months ago I started writing this as part of a series on prophecies of Jesus’ birth. As I started researching, however, I discovered the controversies surrounding the authorship of Daniel and the prophecies of kingdoms and realized that I needed to address those issues before I could discuss the 70 weeks (I suggest reading those posts first before continuing on here – this post will make a lot more sense with that background). Now, after slogging through those topics and then taking some time to step away, I’m finally ready to finish this off.

What do we know?Willem_Drost_The_Vision_of_Daniel_1650

The last four verses of Daniel 9 are commonly interpreted to show that Jesus’ life corresponds with the timing predicted for the arrival of the messiah. The passage is as follows:

” 9:24 “Seventy weeks have been determined concerning your people and your holy city to put an end to rebellion, to bring sin to completion, to atone for iniquity, to bring in perpetual righteousness, to seal up the prophetic vision, and to anoint a most holy place. 9:25 So know and understand: From the issuing of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until an anointed one, a prince arrives, there will be a period of seven weeks and sixty-two weeks. It will again be built, with plaza and moat, but in distressful times. 9:26 Now after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one will be cut off and have nothing. As for the city and the sanctuary, the people of the coming prince will destroy them. But his end will come speedily like a flood. Until the end of the war that has been decreed there will be destruction. 9:27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one week. But in the middle of that week he will bring sacrifices and offerings to a halt. On the wing of abominations will come one who destroys, until the decreed end is poured out on the one who destroys.””

There are several additional pieces of information that are valuable input into determining whether this prophecy might have been fulfilled in Jesus.

First, we need to establish the meaning of “weeks”. The hebrew word used here is “shabuwa” (Strong’s 7620), which is elsewhere used and translated as weeks in the familiar sense, that being seven 24 hour days. Despite this, there is nearly unanimous consensus that the proper translation in this case is to view the week as a period of seven years. I agree with this assertion and there’s a good explanation of the reasoning for this at the Christian thinktank. I’m not going to give this any further discussion.

Second, this passage in Daniel, particularly the last two verses, appears to have ties to the other prophecies in Daniel. The other prophecies speak of a coming ruler who destroys, stops sacrifices after 3.5 years, brings abomination and then is defeated after another 3.5 years. See the discussion of the kingdom prophecies for details.

Third, there are multiple ways in which the the translation of the text needs to be considered:

  1. The phrasing that divides the 69 weeks into two periods of 7 weeks and 62 weeks has two divergent translations. The translation given above (from the NET) is closely aligned with the most prominent translation, as found in the KJV, NIV and NASB. In this translation, the 7 weeks and the 62 weeks are coupled together and collectively treated as the forerunners to the arrival of the anointed one. Another translation, as found in the ESV, RSV and JPS, separates the arrival of an anointed one as occurring after the 7 weeks, which is then followed by the 62 weeks of rebuilding. For example, the ESV reads: “Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time.” This translation is based in part on the presence of an atnah in the Masoretic version of the text, which is roughly equivalent to a semi-colon. Under this translation it is clear that an anointed one arrives after 7 weeks and a second anointed one is cut-off in the next verse after the 62 weeks. This structure would not have been evident in the original text since ancient Hebrew did not include any punctuation. The punctuation added by the Masoretes is to some extent based on Rabbinical tradition handed down through the generations.
  2. Another distinctive difference in this alternative translation is the choice of the translation for the hebrew “dabar” (Strong’s 1697). Most Christian translations render this as “decree” or “command”, whereas this alternative translation uses the more generic “word”. This generic translation is in fact the far more common translation of “dabar”, which is used extensively throughout the Old Testament in various forms. It is also used in the surrounding context in Daniel to identify the word given by the Lord to Jeremiah regarding the 70 years of exile and to identify the message given to Daniel by Gabriel.

Finally, the timeline can only be interpreted once a reference point has been established. In this case, the “issuing of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem” is the reference. The historical context for the person of Daniel makes it clear that the restoration of Jerusalem is subsequent to the Babylonian conquest and exile, which started in 597 BCE and, after years of political struggle, eventually left the city in ruins in 587 BCE. The best options for the “command” to restore Jerusalem are as follows:

  1. The earliest date comes from the possibility that the “word” to restore Jerusalem is equivalent to the prophecy in Jeremiah 30:18 and/or 31:38, where God promises that Jerusalem will be restored and rebuilt. An exact date is not available for the text in Jeremiah, but from the context (see 28:1 and 32:1) it can be most likely placed between 593 and 587 BCE.
  2. In 2 Chronicles 36 and Ezra 1 we are told that Cyrus, in his first year (539 BCE), issues a decree to build the temple in Jerusalem.
  3. According to Ezra 7, in 460 or 459 BCE Artaxerxes I allowed any Israelite to return to Israel with Ezra and to procure resources for use in the temple. Artaxerxes I came to power in August 465 BCE. The text states that Ezra left on the 1st day of the 1st month of the king’s 7th year. The first year could have been as short as the last 40 days of the Hebrew calendar in 465 BCE, or it could have considered to be the first full year. In the first case, the second year would have started in September 465 BCE, putting the start of the 7th year in September 460 BCE. In the latter case, everything is pushed back a year, such that the 7th year starts in September 459 BCE.
  4. According to Nehemiah 2, in 445 or 444 BCE Artaxerxes I granted Nehemiah’s request to return and rebuild the city, which included letters authorizing the travel and collection of resources. Nehemiah places this in the month of Nisan in the 20th year of king Artaxerxes. As above, the first year of the king has two possibilities, such that the start of the 20th year could be either September 446 BCE or September 445 BCE. The month of Nisan pushes this to March 445 or 444 BCE.

With respect to these last two options, I should note that there is some contention and confusion regarding the historical identity of the Persian kings named throughout the biblical text (see onetwo, three). I do not plan to engage in a deeper investigation of those issues at this time but I will note that the problem is legitimate because of the chronological discrepancies that arise from a plain reading of the text. The relevant point is that we are not guaranteed that the identification of Artaxerxes I serves as a solid foundation for the assignment of dates to the events recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah.

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

As with the discussion of the kingdom prophecies, there are several Christian interpretations for this passage. Two of these claim that the prophecy is, at least in part, fulfilled by Jesus. These views, which we will call the historicist view and the futurist view, are often put forth as some of the strongest evidence for the divine inspiration of the bible. The common element to both of these is that they agree with the translation which does not bring in an anointed one after the first 7 weeks. In both cases, the mashiach does not come on the scene until the 7 + 62 weeks are complete.

The Historicist View

Under the historicist view, the prophecy is entirely fulfilled (included the 70th week) by the life and death of Jesus. A brief summary of this interpretation is given below and the detailed explanation can be found here.

  1. The 70 weeks starts in 460 or 459 BCE with the decree by Artaxerxes I, as found in Ezra 7. Many versions of this interpretation count from the second full year and then identify the arrival in Jerusalem as occurring in the second half of the year, making it 457 BCE.
  2. The 69th week comes to completion in 483 years (69 x 7), putting the start of the 70th week in September of 24 CE, or sometime in the first half of 26 CE if the later date of 457 BCE is used.
  3. The 70th week heralds the arrival of Jesus, but in the middle of the week he is cut off (28 – 30 CE), bringing sacrifices and offerings to a halt (since the atonement eliminates the need for sacrifice).
  4. The destruction of the temple in 70 CE is seen as fulfillment of verse 26, the destruction of the city and the sanctuary. Though this verse precedes the text regarding the 70th week, it is seen as a reference to those events which will occur after the 70th week.

The Futurist View

With the futurist (or dispensationalist) view, the prophecy is fulfilled only through the 69th week. The most famous explanation was put forth by Sir Robert Anderson in 1894, and was later updated by Harold Hoehner. This specific view claims to demonstrate fulfillment by Jesus to the exact day and is cited in several apologetic resources, such as Josh McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. A summary of the explanation is given below and the detailed explanation can be found here.

  1. The 70 weeks starts sometime in Nisan of 444 BCE with the decree by Artaxerxes I, as found in Nehemiah 2. This decree is chosen as the starting point because it is the one that explicitly refers to the rebuilding of the city, not just the temple.
  2. The duration of the 69 weeks is based on the Jewish calendar, which has 12 lunar months totaling 360 days. This is sometimes referred to as a “prophetic year” and does not account for the leap year corrections. This duration is 69 x 7 x 360 = 173880 days. Hoehner showed that if this is properly divided into solar years, you arrive at a duration of 476 years and 25 days in the Gregorian calendar. By adding this to Nisan 1 (or March 5) in 444 BCE, you arrive at March 30, 33 CE. This was determined by Hoehner to be the date of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
  3. In some versions of this view the first 7 weeks (ending around 396 BCE) is identified as the period where “the sealing up of the prophetic vision” is accomplished. The claim is that this is about the time that Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, was written. There’s little to no support for that claim, however, so this is often excluded from the discussion.
  4. In this view, a gap of indeterminate length is inferred between the 69th and 70th week. This view agrees with the historicist view in that the destruction of the temple in 70 CE is seen as fulfillment of verse 26.
  5. The 70th week is deemed to be a still future time period and related to the events in the book of Revelation.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

This interpretation builds upon the foundation presented in the naturalist views regarding the authorship of Daniel and the kingdom prophecies. In that context, the author of the 70 weeks prophecy was writing around 165 BCE and was constructing a prophecy which culminated in the contemporary actions of Antiochus Epiphanes.

The first component of this perspective notes that the start of chapter 9 recounts Daniel’s response to his reading of Jeremiah and the realization that the desolation of Jerusalem was to last 70 years. Daniel then petitions God for mercy until he is interrupted with the message of the prophecy. It is this context which leads one to consider Jeremiah’s prophecy of Jerusalem’s restoration as a likely candidate for the “word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem”. In this case, the message from Gabriel was building upon the very scriptures that Daniel had been contemplating. Under this view, the start of the 70 weeks would then be around 593 to 587 BCE.

The relationship to Jeremiah’s prophecy is also important for understanding the choice of a 70 week duration. Within the naturalist explanation, this is an artifact of the author’s attempt to parallel Jeremiah’s prophecy rather than an exact definition of the time span. This is discussed in more detail later.

With respect to the two competing translations (the third data point in “What do we know?”), the naturalist agrees with the translation that yields two anointed ones. The preference for this translation is based on the view that it yields a better harmonization with the historical data and with the language and the surrounding text. This is supported by the following:

  1. This translation offers the best explanation for the fact that the text divides the first 69 weeks into two parts of 7 weeks and 62 weeks. Why would the 69 weeks have been split unless it was intended to demarcate two events?
  2. The division rendered by the Masoretic punctuation is the best option we have for estimating the original sentence structure since this reflects the Rabbinical tradition.
  3. If the first 7 weeks (49 years) starts from Jeremiah’s prophecy and if we take this to be around 593 to 587 BCE then that puts us somewhere around 540 BCE. Along with this, note that the first mashiach which arrives at the end of this period is qualified in the prophecy as being a prince (nagiyd, Strong’s 5057), which is used consistently in reference to a political ruler. In 539 BCE the Persians conquered Babylon and took over the kingdom. The Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the exiles to return to their homeland and, as a result, he is called God’s anointed – mashiach – in Isaiah 45. This fits well with the anointed one that comes after the first 7 weeks. In fact, it seems possible that this is inferring that God’s answer to Daniel’s petition was to reduce the 70 years to 49 years and that this was accomplished when Cyrus showed up. Under the Maccabean Thesis, the author of Daniel would have been familiar with the Isaiah text and the reference to Cyrus as mashiach.
  4. The next 62 weeks starts the period of rebuilding the temple and city after Cyrus gives the Jews freedom to return to Jerusalem. At the end of the 62 weeks the prophecy indicates that an anointed one (but not identified as a prince) is cut off. In the discussion of the prophecies of kingdoms, the naturalist view associated this person with Onias, who was murdered in the years leading into the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This would have occurred around 170 BCE, which is about 369 years after the alleged start of the 62 weeks (434 years). That date is about 65 years too soon.
  5. The prophecy states that after the 62 weeks “the people of the coming prince” (again, prince = nagiyd) will destroy the city and sanctuary. This is the start of the final week and the portion of the prophecy that is attributed to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler. The portion of the prophecy spanning the last week carries many parallels to other prophecies in Daniel. Refer to the discussion of the prophecies of kingdoms for details.

The most obvious and significant problem with this view is that the second period is 65 years too short. The naturalist argues that it is not without warrant to suggest that the author did not properly reconcile the duration of this second period. In fact, it appears likely that the author could not have accurately reconstructed the duration and may not have been very concerned with the accuracy anyway. This argument is based primarily on the following:

  1. It appears that the first standardized Jewish system for identifying the year (minyan shtarot) was not introduced until about 312 BCE. Prior to this, years were only identified relative a king’s reign. It is not clear how an author writing in 165 BCE would have obtained an accurate determination of the number of years that had passed since a known historical event 400 years earlier. As evidence of this difficulty, note that the development of the Jewish calendar appears to have introduced multiple issues which bring it in conflict with other dating systems.
  2. It is reasonable to suspect that the author was more concerned with numerology than accuracy. Note that the first period is 7 sevens (the pervasive number of perfection) and the total period is 70 sevens (matching the 70 from Jeremiah’s prophecy). The 62 week duration of the second period may have been little more than a byproduct of the author’s realization that the historical periods seemed to fit with the desired numerology.

Lastly, the natural explanation concludes with a discussion of the use of the hebrew “mashiach” (Strong’s 4899) in the prophecy. The NET translates mashiach as “anointed one” and several other translations use the transliteration into “messiah”. It turns out that the word mashiach is never actually used anywhere in the Old Testament to refer to the eschatological figure that came to be known as the messiah. The application of the word mashiach as a reference to the eschatological figure who rises to power at the end of days only began to arise in the late second century BC. If this usage in Daniel is in fact a reference to the figure implied by other prophetic texts then this is the first and only reference which applies the “messiah” terminology, even if the later date for Daniel’s authorship is accepted. Furthermore, the prophecy of the 70 weeks does not appear to be placing the focus of the prophecy on the mashiach. The end of the prophecy, with it’s eschatological implications, does nothing to incorporate the prior references to a mashiach – in fact, it leaves the mashiach as having been cut off. If this prophecy was really about the arrival of the mashiach then why isn’t he a central figure in bringing an end to the one who destroys?

Which interpretation seems more probable?

I will often develop preliminary probabilities as I research and fill in the details of a post. In this case, my preliminary estimates had favored the Christian view. After further research, the data eventually led me to split the probabilities 50/50. It seemed to me that the Christian interpretation did the better job of fitting the timing while the naturalist interpretation did the better job of fitting the language and context. However, as I continued to dig further it became apparent that I had been working under the false assumption that the author of the text had at his disposal a relatively accurate accounting of the historical record and would have used this. This assumption was gradually defeated as I began to uncover the multitude of chronological problems. In light of those issues, it would seem that it would actually be presumptuous to think that a Jewish author writing around 165 BCE could accurately recount the number of years that had passed since events some 400 years earlier. As such, there is nothing to discredit the notion that Daniel’s 70 sevens was largely devised to mimic Jeremiah’s 70 years and was not intended to reflect an accurate passage of time. This may in fact be the most proper view of the 70 sevens.

Even so, the Christian interpretations presented above do not rely on an accurate biblical chronology – they only rely on the proper identification of the person of Artaxerxes I. If that assignment holds up, then the Christian view still does a better job of fitting the timing. There are some oddities, however, such as the starting from the second year of the king’s reign in the historicist view, or using the lunar year in the futurist view (additionally, I think that the start date might be wrong). Regardless, these views would still come out to within 5 to 10 years of Jesus’ ministry, which is pretty good considering that we’re talking about a nearly 500 year span in total. Aside from the timing, however, the Christian interpretation of the passage is difficult. The relative dismissal of the split after the first 7 weeks seems unfounded. The insistence on the translation of “dabar” as “decree” is odd, particularly when more fitting options could have been used, such as “choq” (Strong’s 2706), “tsavah” (Strong’s 6680) or “dath” (Strong’s 1881), which has an Aramaic derivative that is used in Daniel to describe royal decrees. The fact that, under the Christian view, this would be the first and only use of mashiach in reference to the eschatological figure was a surprising result. And, in the case of the futurist view, there’s no clear basis for the gap leading up to the 70th week.

When I consider everything, I feel that the naturalist interpretation does the better job of fitting the context and explaining the language. When that assessment is coupled with the fact that the author probably could not have accurately counted the years leading up to the events of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and that the timing was most likely secondary to the author’s numerological goals, I am led to believe that the naturalistic interpretation does a better job of explaining the data.

Christianity
35%
Naturalism
65%

This conclusion is not without significance. The accuracy of this prophecy has long been held up as one of the most powerful evidences for the divine inspiration of the bible. If a comprehensive evaluation yields results wherein the prophetic interpretation can be considered to be less compelling than a natural explanation, that is a noteworthy outcome.

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