In the first part of our conversation, Randal unpacked his approach to apologetics, and suggested how we can have productive dialogue, so I thought we’d give it a go.
As I was reading his latest book, Conversations with my Inner Atheist, I considered that Randal’s approach to theology and the Bible was refreshing, with a lot to commend it. It was one which I could personally imagine adopting if I were still a Christian. Nevertheless, I still had a number of questions; some which I have carried with me for a considerable time, and others which emerged as I was reading.
I’ve mentioned it before, but Randal is a very informed and deep thinker. As I was typing up our conversation, I began to process what he was saying at a level which I could not quite manage as we spoke. Our conversation largely serves to open up some substantial issues and consider different theological approaches, rather than offering any conclusive arguments either way. It left me with a good amount to ponder, and a number of further questions which I hope we will have the opportunity to discuss in the future.
We begin by looking at how Randal approaches the Bible with regard to the less appealing passages which it contains. From there, we move to the end times, addressing issues surrounding judgment and universalism, and whether or not the new creation could be tainted by sin.
Turning to a few of the areas that came up in your latest book. When you approach questions around biblical violence, you appear to advocate the view that God accommodates certain commands to the culture of the time. But I wonder if that places a particular limit on God? You might look at some of the particularly violent laws and consider that they were at least a step up from the surrounding culture, but surely God could also have stopped Israel using stoning as any kind of a punishment, or he could have completely eradicated some of the harsher laws such as the killing of rebellious teenagers. Do you think there is a danger that an accommodationist view could perhaps place a limit on God’s power to affect considerable change in that community?
First, the good thing about it is it's trying to recognise and realign the text with our moral intuitions a little more closely; it's not just saying straight-up, ‘These things are good because God said it, so sometimes it's a morally good thing to pelt your children to death with rocks.’ No, it's not. So I think that part of it is good. But, yes, it has a deep implausibility to it, at least when the accommodation is presented in a particular way: ‘God wanted to move them to here, but first he had to journey through this, and so it's not ideal, but that's the best God could do.’ And you have a reasonable question: well, really?
I think that there comes a point where accommodation reaches the breaking point. In my forthcoming book I give an example from Christopher Wright, where he talks about the total Yahweh warfare in texts like Joshua. He's saying, ‘Maybe it was God's accommodation to the standard practise of war in the ancient Near East, and that was the best God could do.’ And to my mind, that’s a slippery slope. There are all sorts of other standard practises of war throughout history, such as cannibalism and systematic rape, so then could God potentially command those things because they were standard practises? That seems absurd. But then it's actually not a slippery slope, because genocide is not less bad than those things, it's just as bad; so in fact you're already at the bottom of the slope if you're saying that God can accommodate to genocide. It just seems that's unworkable.
So I agree that there's definitely some value in accommodation, we all do it, you do it as a teacher; you're going to accommodate to where your students are to some degree by using figures of speech that you know they might misunderstand for a while because it's just too complicated, or you'll give an oversimplified description of something that you know is more complex, because you know that that's what they need at that time. But there's a breaking point, and so the question is: what is the breaking point for accommodation?
What do you think the breaking point would be?
Well, there are also different kinds of accommodation. There would be one kind where God is the active agent; like the teacher, God is saying to them, ‘This is X’ or ‘This is Y,’ when in fact it is not exactly X or Y. There is also another kind of accommodation which would have God allowing them to believe he said something, even though that was not in fact said. So, I think you can go further with God allowing people to believe falsely about him than you can with God actually communicating false things.
Okay, so taking an example such as slavery, particularly the biblical slavery of foreigners which was perpetual and I think offered little protection. What would your approach be here? Do you think that God was allowing them to believe that he permitted slavery, or was he actively commanding it as an improvement on the current practice?
There are all sorts of things where I don't think God actually said X or Y, and that you have to instead take it that God was accommodating to certain standards for various different reasons. The other related concept here in addition to accommodation is progressive revelation; that God is gradually revealing himself to people over time. It's quite common in history that we project whatever our socio-economic arrangements are onto the divine will, and so I don't find it to be altogether unusual that the ancient Israelites are doing that as well.
One thing I would want to qualify without diminishing the horrors of slavery as it’s been practiced very often throughout history, is that there are all sorts of degrees of ownership or constraints on our freedom. For example, I owe money to the bank for my mortgage, and so that's a constraint on my freedom. Even a capitalist, free society has various degrees of constraints upon the self-actualization of individuals. In that sense, rather than thinking about slavery as a simple binary, we can think about it as a continuum of degrees of constraint on self-actualisation.
You can have various societies that place constraints on particular populations within the society in terms of their freedom, and so what degrees of that are acceptable and what degrees are not acceptable? What degrees of that could God command and what degrees could he allow people to wrongly believe he had commanded? I think that way we move a little bit away from just thinking about slavery as a simple binary, and thinking more in terms of this general concept that we all have some degree of constraint on our self-actualisation.
I suppose that's true, but there seems nonetheless to be a distinction between what a capitalist society might place on us, and the direct ownership of one human by another, especially if there's either no regulation for the person’s treatment or if the regulation seems harsh. So when you get commands that are quite explicit and unpleasant about the ownership of people and their treatment, would you say ultimately that those words were from a divine origin, even if they were misinterpreted? Or would you say that the prophets who claimed to speak on God’s behalf were mistaken because of their culture?
We need to first of all have the conversation: what is Christianity? That will help us contextualise. So, what are the essential things in terms of being a Christian? The first thing I would say is that it's centred on Jesus Christ; centred on God coming to history in Jesus Christ, becoming human, living a perfect life, dying for our sins, resurrecting again, ascending to the right hand of the Father. That's the core, that's the foundation on which Christianity rests, that's what you'll find in the great ecumenical creeds. What you're not going to find in the great ecumenical creeds is a lot of details about how to interpret things like the law and the history of Israel and all of these specific events that are described in the Deuteronomic History. That should then free me up to say: you know what? I can have all sorts of different opinions on that, but that doesn't go to the heart of what Christianity is about.
And then the next thing is – which is key to my reading of the text – that we should read Scripture always to the end of increasing love of God and neighbour, which is the Augustinian principle. ‘Neighbour’ is people not only from your ‘in’ group, but from all the worst out groups, those are the people you need to increase in your love of. Whatever I'm now going to do in terms of reading the rest of Scripture, it's going to be to the end of becoming like Jesus, to love God and to love my neighbour in terms of the out group, and to recognise that all this stuff I'm now going to encounter is not at the heart of the ecumenical creeds.
It's quite common in history that we project whatever our socio-economic arrangements are onto the divine will, and so I don't find it to be altogether unusual that the ancient Israelites are doing that as well.
In terms of the Deuteronomic History, when was this written? I'm not a biblical scholar, but there seems to be a lot of opinion that the dates surround the time of Josiah and the Josianic reforms, maybe five-hundred years after the events that they appear to narrate. That should give us a lot of caution in terms of arguing for any rigorous, historical commitment that this has to have happened just as it is written. So, what's going on here? All sorts of interesting questions. But I will say that the minute that your Spidey senses start tingling, or the red light starts flashing, that a particular reading of the text is inconsistent with love of neighbour – where love of neighbour is the desire for the Shalom of people from your out group – then that's a good reason to take a step back and say, let's re engage the text from another direction.
Now, I always get people with these inane Marcionite comments: ‘Well that’s Marcionism! You want to reject the Old Testament!’ No. You interpret the Old Testament in light of the New; you recognise that everything in the Old Testament is there for a particular reason, and it's the reason to make us like Jesus. If you're reading it in a way that's inconsistent with becoming like Jesus, then you need to re-read it.
I’m side-stepping the question about slavery, simply because I think that before you get into all the details or minutiae of how you interpret X or Y or Z, you’ve got to have the big framework in place, and then the minutiae are not going to be the ground for upsetting one’s faith, because you recognise that's just not in the ecumenical creeds; that's not the foundation of Christianity.
There's a lot in the New Testament as well, post-Jesus, that would set my Spidey senses tingling as you say, though admittedly most of it is from Paul rather than directly from Jesus in the Gospels.
Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of people have this unstated assumption in the inerrancy of the human voice of Scripture. While I defend a particular concept of inerrancy, it is restricted to the divine voice. So I kind of take the distinction between a sensus plenior and sensus literalis – or a full sense and literal human sense – and run with that basic framework. It’s a little oversimplified, but I think it's generally helpful to say that what God is doing with the text is not necessarily the same thing as what a human is doing.
It's possible, for example, that Paul said something in Titus about Cretans that we would consider to be racist and inappropriate, and we don't have to feel that we have to defend what Paul says, because it is possible that God allowed Paul to say that, but God's not agreeing with Paul; God’s doing something else with the text than what Paul was intending to do. Just like we can recognise in the imprecatory Psalms that the Psalmist can express ignoble perspectives about their enemies that we don't have to baptise. We can recognise them as serving another literary function distinct from what the human author intended.
It's an interesting approach, and it appears to take the text more seriously, so I absolutely appreciate that. Moving towards the end times, we talked earlier about your movement from viewing hell as eternal conscious torment to viewing it as annihilation. But I wonder, is it fair for there to be any judgement at all that has eternal consequences, based on the fact that we don't necessarily have a great deal of control over our beliefs? And if salvation is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, would it not imply, almost in a Calvinistic sense, that the responsibility lies with God for those who are not saved? I realise there’s quite a lot in that, so perhaps there is something particular in there that you would like to address!
To drill down a bit, we can summarise it like this: it seems that nobody rationally could deny the perfect Shalom that is offered to them, and if the only posture that people have that would leave them outside of God's Kingdom is an irrational one, then wouldn't God either restore them to rationality, or, if for whatever reason he could not bring them to rationality, wouldn’t he destroy them? Because the only option at that point is that they're going to keep inflicting their own maximum misery on themselves if they’re given an opportunity, or they'll have their existence withdrawn from them.
The first option described is universalism, that everybody ultimately will end up reconciled to God and Jesus Christ. That’s the Christian version of universalism, rather than some kind of woolly pluralism. Now, I think that that’s a good hope that Christians should have. There is a degree of evidence at the very least that universalism is true, and people who say ‘no’ just haven't looked at the evidence: there is a set of texts that talk about universal reconciliation in Scripture; there are certainly weighty theological arguments, philosophical arguments, practical arguments; and there is a historical witness, in that it was probably the dominant position of the Eastern Church during the Patristic era, for example. So you ought to hope that that's true.
When God removes all irrationality to the degree that an omnipotent being can, would that mean that everybody would ultimately be reconciled to God in Jesus Christ? Well, possibly. I hope so. I don't want anybody to be damned. Even J. I. Packer says, ‘If you want to see people damned, there's something wrong with you!’ And he's right. The people that don't want everybody to be saved, you've got to give your head a shake, because then why are you so okay with yourself being saved? So to know that God will do whatever is possible for him to do in order to reconcile all things to himself is an enormously comforting belief, and it should be.
For those who hold to eternal conscious torment, there's a part of me that thinks, surely they can't actually believe it. Maybe they ascribe to it, but surely no one could actually hold that view and still sleep at night, and not be running around trying to desperately claw people into the Kingdom.
What often happens, particularly with defences of eternal conscious torment, is there's a depersonalising and objectification of the ‘damned’ in order to make it more acceptable that they should be so damned. You'll have people saying things like, ‘We just don't love the glory of God enough, and we don't appreciate how despicable and wicked these creatures are that they need to be damned forever, and that it is glorifying to God that it be so!’
To know that God will do whatever is possible for him to do in order to reconcile all things to himself is an enormously comforting belief, and it should be.
What you have there is the same kind of moves that are made against Canaanites, and my Spidey senses are going off all over the place! Because what you're doing is you're dehumanising and objectifying these very people that it’s your natural impulse as a human being – let alone as a disciple of Jesus – to desire their Shalom. And so I think that that’s a moment where eternal conscious torment is really running up against some deeply-seated Christian intuitions that are contrary to it.
Absolutely. So, turning from the dark side to the light side, one question I’ve often had is about new creation. If one reason and cause for sin currently is our free will to make decisions, then if we were to retain that free will in the new creation, is there not always the possibility that sin would creep back in? I've heard it said that ‘We will be so filled with the Spirit that such thoughts won’t cross our minds.’ But that sounds to me the same as not having free will, but stated in different terms.
I don't see the same thing that you do, because I don't think that free will means unrestricted free will, it is always restricted. It still allows you to choose between various options: to choose to do ‘A’ or not to do ‘A’. That doesn't mean it also requires you to be able to choose to do ‘X’.
For example, think about a perfect buffet of food, every kind of food you can imagine. Right now I’m looking outside my window and the snow’s melting, and as I take my dog on walks, we encounter dog faeces that some dog crapped in the snow back in December and it's now reappearing. Some dogs are coprophagic; they actually like to eat dog faeces. I'm not coprophagic, I don't find that to be appealing at all. So, imagine a person who says, ‘You can eat every food of the buffet, but you can't eat that dog crap in the snowbank? You're really lacking your freedom.’ And I would say, actually, I think you're impoverished!
It is true that you have one more ability to will to do something than I have, because you could choose to eat everything here and also the dog crap, but I don't sense that as any significant existential loss. In fact, I think your ability to find it desirous to eat dog crap is actually contrary to your wellness as a creature. And so, analogous now to sin, sin to God is like dog crap. The will to sin is like the will to ingest faeces; it's disgusting. When we have our wills perfectly conformed to God in Christ, we will desire every food at the buffet, but we will never desire to eat anything like dog poop.
I'll have to have to ponder that one over, I like the analogy.
It sticks with you, that's for sure!
Thinking back again to how we make decisions, I was listening to you talk on a podcast about the problem of evil. You were saying that you'd rather live within a story where there is a purpose to suffering, and that there will ultimately be reconciliation, even if we don’t yet know what that looks like, rather than living in a story in which suffering is ultimately meaningless. So, do you think that we often make decisions based on what seems appealing?
I think that we ought to make decisions based upon what seems true to us, but often what seems true to us is not what is appealing but simply what seems to be the way things are. For example, the objection that belief in God is wish fulfilment goes back to Feuerbach in the nineteenth century: you just want there to be this heavenly father that loves you and desires your flourishing in heaven forever. But when you look at a lot of Christian doctrines, like the doctrine of Hell and alienation from God, then there's a lot about Christianity that we would not want to be the case, but it seems nonetheless that it is part of that package.
Of course, if we really want something to be true, and we want to come up with a particular conclusion, then we might have a motivation to try to justify that conclusion. We do have to be careful about that, because that can skew our reasoning processes. We can have motivated reasons about all sorts of things; it's really ubiquitous to the human condition, as all cognitive biases are. Everybody has some degree of cognitive bias, and so we all need to strive to become aware of them and how they may adversely affect our reasoning
I’ve become more aware of how multifaceted our decisions are, and what leads us to choose to live in a certain reality. To close, what would be your description of the Christian story that you live within?
It's the story of God, creation, fall, redemption, restoration. It's not an anthropocentric story, and it's a common misconception a lot of people have, that human beings are at the centre of the Christian story. On the contrary, God’s at the centre of the Christian story. But it is the grandest heroic narrative that there could ever be; a story of great alienation, a journey into the far land, a restoration, a resolution ultimately of all things, and it is, I think, the grandest and the greatest story ever told.
The above has been lightly edited for clarity and length.