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Is Belief in God like Belief in a Flying Spaghetti Monster?

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a staple of religious message boards. There is even a Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Pastafarianism) which is recognized as a religion in the Netherlands and New Zealand. I have at least one coworker who claims allegiance.

Pastafarianism is, of course, a big joke, and that’s exactly the point. Atheists argue that belief in a Creator God is just as ridiculous as belief in a Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). Of course, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but you can’t prove that there isn’t a god-like Flying Spaghetti Monster floating around in the universe either. Both are matters of “faith” and both are ridiculous.

That’s how the argument goes. But is it logical?

The “argument” fails on a number of levels. Don’t be fooled by it. First, it’s a perfect example of the logical fallacy of the straw man, where you ascribe the weakest possible version of an argument to your opponent, making it easier to refute. Belief in God – at least from a theistic perspective – bears no resemblance to belief in a flying spaghetti monster.

Even aside from the logical fallacy employed,  there’s another reason to reject the comparison as absurd, and that reason can be summed up in two words: Explanatory Scope.

The explanatory scope of an hypothesis describes how much of the evidence it is able to explain. Newtonian physics has a broad explanatory scope because it accurately describes (and predicts) the motions in the world around us.

Belief in God, unlike belief in the FSM, provides a broad explanatory scope. That is, belief in God makes sense of the world around us. It “fits” with the evidence available to our minds. Here’s what I mean:

Belief in God makes sense of both our moral senses and the existence of a moral reality. Only a transcendent, personal, and perfectly good being can form the basis of objective moral reality (See The Moral Argument).

Belief in God makes sense of the fact that their is something rather than nothing. Everything that begins to exist has a cause, the universe began to exist, therefore the universe has a cause. That First Cause is God. And God cannot be a thing “in” the universe, but uncaused, timeless, and immaterial. (See the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Leibnitzian Cosmological Argument)

Belief in God makes sense of the universe’s incredible complex and “tuning” to life. I hope to address this in a later post, but suffice it to say, the fact that our universe supports life is astronomically improbable. A creative transendent intelligence makes sense of this reality.

The list could go on: The theistic picture of God as a being outside the universe, personal, uncaused, timeless, and uncreated, makes sense of our personness, our free will, and the religious experiences of billions of people, among other things. It does so in a way that the FSM never could. That’s because there’s a key difference between the FSM and God, and the key logical fallacy that atheists make when they trot out this ridiculous comparison: God and gods are of a difference in kind.

The FSM as described is a god (small g), is a creature within the universe. Christians (and other theists) though, believe in God (big G) a Being that stands above and apart from the universe, ontologically different. And, as the prophets of the Old Testament will tell you, between the gods and God Himself, there is no comparison. Christians find the idea of gods ridiculous, too, but between those gods and God there is an immeasurable difference.


The Kalam Cosmological Argument: The ultimate Cause of the Universe

Diving right in to apologist William Lane Craig’s favorite argument for God, the Kalam Cosmological Argument is as follows:

Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause

Premise 2: The universe began to exist

Conclusion: The universe has a cause

Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause

Like premise 1 of Leibniz’s cosmological argument (anything that exists has a reason for its existence), this premise is self-evident and is constantly confirmed by our daily experience. We don’t see horses, tigers, or people just pop into existence out of nowhere. Even in science fiction, if something materializes, it does so from another place or another dimension by some causal mechanism. Everything has a cause, even if we don’t know what it is.

Yet, two objections might be raised.

Objection 1: Does this apply to God? Does God need a cause for His existence? The answer is in the premise – “whatever begins to exist…” God, in the theistic sense, had no beginning and no end. He is eternal. Specifically, most theologians would argue that He exists outside of time and that, in fact, He is the Creator of time itself. The idea that God is outside of time might be mysterious (being that we are time-bound creators) but it is not illogical or incomprehensible.

Objection 2: That everything begins to exist has a cause is true at the level of Newtonian physics, but is it true at the level of quantum physics? Isn’t it true that sub-atomic particles can appear out of nowhere uncaused? Again, the answer is no. Quantum mechanics does apparently describe indeterministic probabilities, but not exactly uncaused events. Second, sub-atomic particles do not appear in nothingness or out of nothingness, but into a “sub-atomic vacuum”, which is itself “a rich structure governed by physical laws.” You don’t get sub-atomic particles ex nihilo.

Premise 2: The universe began to exist

One need not have a creationist’s view of Genesis to agree with this premise (though it coincides well with this premise). In fact, one doesn’t need a Bible at all to agree with this premise. Science itself – even apart from belief in God – points to the universe itself having a beginning.

The mostly widely accepted view of the origin of the universe is the Standard Model, also called the Big Bang theory. This theory was developed when scientists started looking out into the cosmos and observed that all the galaxies were moving away from each other, that the universe was getting less and less dense.

If that trend were reversed over time (if we went back in time) we would see the universe getting more and more dense until it was at a state of infinite density. But that’s not to say that before this point, called the singularity, this infinite ball of matter was just sitting there waiting to explode. No, before this point (if we can speak of a “before”) there would have been nothing. In fact, it would have been at this point – or immediately thereafter – that space and time, that the universe, began to exist.

In the scientific community there have been numerous attempts to overthrow this theory in order to imagine an infinite universe without a beginning, but none have been successful (oscillating models aren’t truly infinite – the oscillation could only occur so many times – and multi-verse models still need a point of origination, it is just pushed further back). There are also philosophical reasons to believe that the universe had a beginning, like the question of how we could ever get to “here” if we had to count up from infinity (hint: we’d never get to a “here”).

A final note: The Kalam cosmological argument does not rest on the theory of the Big Bang, but it does serve as evidence that whether we think about the world theologically, scientifically, or philosophically, the conclusion is inescapable: the universe began to exist.

Conclusion: The universe had a cause

It logically follows that the universe had a cause. So, could the universe have caused itself? I’ve heard this argued on a couple of occasions. In one case, it was argued that the laws of the universe could have caused the universe, but that still leaves out the question of the origination of the laws of the universe (and is very scientifically dubious, even the person arguing for it admitted that). From a logical perspective, a self-caused universe is illogical, for it would mean that the universe would have had to existed prior to the universe existing, which is contradictory.

It follows then, that the universe had a cause and that Cause exists outside the universe and is different from the universe.

What can we learn about God from this argument, besides that He exists? We learn that He is the Creator of all things. A Being of this nature would be exceedingly powerful and would have to a will to create. He must exist outside of time and outside of the universe. Add this to the moral argument and the Leibnizian cosmological argument and we can begin to have a clearer picture of the nature of God.

Book Recommendation

On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision

Does God Exist? The Moral Argument

On March 7, I’m going to be starting a Facebook Live series: “Is Christianity True?” The intent of series is to explore the truth of Christianity. The schedule for the series is as follows:

March 7 – Does God exist? The Moral Argument

March 14 – Does God exist? The Cosmological Argument

March 21 – Can God be known and is the Bible reliable?

March 28 – Did Jesus rise from the dead?

April 4 – How could a good God allow suffering?

April 11 – Has science disproved religion?

April 18 – Is religion harmful?

April 25 – Q & A

If you’re interested in following the series, “Like” the Facebook page Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship and be prepared to tune in on the dates above, from 7:15 – 7:45.

The most basic question one must answer, not only the Christian, but anyone, is this: Does God exist? There are strong reasons to believe that He does, and the two most compelling reasons, at least for me, are the first two topics of this series: The Moral Argument and The Cosmological Argument. The Moral Argument reasons that if an objective Moral Law exists, a moral Lawgiver must also exist. The Cosmological Argument reasons that there must be a source or origin outside the universe, an unmoved Mover or Creator. The Moral Argument reasons from moral intuitions and the Cosmological from philosophy and, to a large degree, from science.

The Moral Argument

I start with the Moral Argument. I take as my two primary sources C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, book 1, and William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, chapter 4. Each frame the argument a little differently, but Craig’s approach is more systematic, so I adopt his outline.

The Moral Argument can be framed as follows:

  • If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  • Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  • Therefore, God exists

Step 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

What do we mean by “objective moral values and duties”? By objective we mean that something is right or wrong, good or evil, independently of what people think or perceive. For instance, if the Nazi’s had successfully killed or brainwashed everyone who disagreed with their worldview, would the Holocaust still be evil? A person who believes in objective moral values, believes that, even if no one recognized it as such, the Holocaust would still be evil.

The question remains, then, if God does not exist, could this still be true? Could we find the Holocaust objectively evil? There are two primary worldviews we must consider here, the Naturalist (or Materialist) worldview, and the Theistic worldview. By Naturalist, I mean, the belief that there is nothing outside of our material universe, that there is not God or Lawgiver.

Could a Naturalist find a basis for exists of objective morals and duties? It doesn’t appear so. And, in fact, many explicitly deny that we should. For instance, prominent atheist Richard Dawkins declares “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, not good, nothing but pointless indifference… We are machines for propagating DNA… It is every living object’s sole reason for being” (Craig quoting Dawkins). On the Naturalist account of the world “moral values are just by-products of socio-biological evolution” (Craig).

The most detailed account of this “socio-biological evolution” I have read is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt aims to provide (1) a sociological description of our “moral intuitions” and (2) an explanation of where they came from. He argues that they are the product of, first, biological evolutionary processes and then social processes. But he is careful to note that he isn’t referring to any objective reality when he speaks of morality. Instead, for Haidt, morality is what is good for the propagation of the tribe. Morality itself, as an objective reality, is an illusion.

On the Naturalistic view, there is no objective difference between a human and any other animal. Those who believe otherwise are guilty of speciesism. But we don’t hold animals to be moral agents. In nature, a hawk that captures a fish kills it, but does not murder it. And a second hawk that takes that same fish from the first hawk takes it but does not steal it. In the animal kingdom, rape and incest are frequent events, but we do not pass moral judgments on those species for whom it is common. Why should hold humans to a moral standard, especially if no objective moral standard exists?

The Naturalist must conclude, then, that our moral intuitions are rooted not in moral objectivity, but either in the accidental path of our biological evolution, or the even more accidental nature of our habits, customs, feelings, or fashions.

I don’t want you to misunderstand the argument. I’m not saying that you can’t be a descent person without believing in God. And I’m not saying that a person can’t recognize objective value in human beings apart from believing in God. Indeed, experience tells us that it is possible to recognize that humans are objectively morally different from animals and that objective morals and duties do exist, even without belief in God. This is what we see in Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. He cannot help by draw moral conclusions and declare moral duties, even though at the back of it all, he “knows” them to be mere illusions.

The Christian should expect this. Christians believe that God has given us each a sense of right and wrong, and that the only way to deny its reality is to consciously suppress that truth. Even if we succeed in adopting a sort of moral nihilism, though, we cannot help but make moral judgments as though there were really an external moral law to which we could appeal. Craig is careful to draw out this distinction in framing the argument: “I’m contending that theism is necessary that there might be moral goods and duties, not that we might discern the moral goods and duties that there are.” The question for the moral argument isn’t whether or not we’re able to see moral goods and duties – most everyone can – but whether or not they actually exist, or could exist apart from God.

Step 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.  

C.S. Lewis begins Mere Christianity by reminding us of a scene we’ve witnessed many times: A quarrel.

“Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’ – ‘That’s my seat, I was here first’ – ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm’”

What we learn, says Lewis, is that when people argue in this way they aren’t merely saying that they don’t like what the other person’s actions. Instead, they are appealing to some standard of fairness or compassion or empathy, which the other person has violated. This “standard” Lewis calls the Moral Law. It is what we would refer to in this context as the “objective moral values and duties.”

Now, most people recognize that this Moral Law really exists, and not only subjectively in our minds, but objectively in reality. Child abuse, rape, and genocide are evil. They violate an immutable Moral standard. Larry Nassar’s abuse of hundreds of girls was objectively wrong. We don’t simply say that we didn’t like what he did, or that it was harmful to “propagation of the tribe.” We sense in our bones, that it was really evil.

Yet, some have argued against such an account of reality. For instance, is the argument that our moral intuitions developed from “natural” biological processes, a reason to doubt those moral intuitions. If Haidt’s theory of the origin of this “moral sense” were correct, should we doubt the reality of a moral law? No. If you believe that your eyesight developed through biological evolution, would you thus doubt the objectivity of the reality which you see? That would be preposterous. At best, this argument would show (if it shows anything) how we came to sense the Moral Law, not whether or not such a Moral Law actually exists.

Again, one could argue that there can be no such Moral Law because different people and different groups have such different conceptions of what is right and wrong. Yet, Lewis points out that these differences are not so divergent after all. There are differences, to be sure, but there are even more points of agreement. And, in the case where there are differences, we intuitively judge between those differences.

Lewis, writing during the age of World War II, asks whether or not we can judge between the British and the Nazi’s: “What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom know as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had no notion of what we meant by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair.” In fact, we recognize the difference in the moral visions between the Nazi’s and the Allies, we judge them against a Standard, and we find the Nazi’s vision corrupted and twisted. How can we speak of moral progress, of say the abolition of slavery, if there is not some goal to which we are progressing?

Martin Luther King Jr. is credited as saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[1] Did his words have meaning? If we think they did, we’re agreeing with his vision of a “moral universe” and some standard called “justice” to which it could conform.

Practically, moral relativism ultimately breaks down. One moment we’ll be saying there is no Good or Evil, and the next we’ll notice some evil done to us. “It’s not fair! It’s unjust! How could they?” Or, perhaps, we’ll from the perspective moral relativism, judge those who establish a moral system we find constricting. But what are we judging them against? If it’s all a preference, how could we weigh our freedom of greater value that their restrictions? The words and feelings remain, but they have lost their meaning.

Indeed, I doubt whether anyone can really live consistently in a state of moral nihilism. I am thankful, in fact, that this doesn’t appear possible. Our moral intuitions give us a sense of moral reality, just as our physical senses give us a picture of physical reality. To deny either is to risk epistemological suicide.

Step 3: Therefore, God exists

Since it can be established that moral objective duties and values exist and that no reason for their existence can be found in a world without God, it follows that God exists.

What sort of God exists? First, He must be the source of that objective goodness, that Moral Law or standard against which we are able to judge everything else. If such a standard exists, it must exist in God. Secondly, if there are to be moral duties, if those standards are to apply to us in a meaningful sense, then He must also give us moral commands. He is the source of moral goodness – which exists as part of His essence – and he is the source of moral duties – which issue as binding commands directly from His nature.

Based on this argument alone, we’re still a long ways off from Biblical Christianity, but that’s why there are eight sessions in the series.

What questions does this post bring up? What objections might be brought against the Moral Argument?

Book Recommendations 

Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics


[1] Martin Luther King did say this, but he was quoting Theodore Parker. Also, my view of history is not as optimistic here. Every time we take a step forward – as we did in the civil rights movement – we take a step backwards. Justice will be fulfilled on the earth, but it will come in a flash, not in a slow arc.


18 Ways to Make the Most of 2018

I’ve been reflecting on Ephesians 5:15-20 as I prepare to preach this upcoming Sunday. The message of these verses is summed up in 5:15-16 “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

The phrase “making the most of every opportunity” can also be translated “making the most of the time” or “redeeming the time”. The idea is that our time, and the opportunities if affords, are limited.

Christians are called to intentionality and urgency. Our days our limited, and so are our years. 2018 won’t come again. Here are some ideas, applied from Ephesians 5:15-20, for making the most of 2018.

  1. Number your days. We’ll live intentionally if we pray with Moses “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) In 2018, attend a funeral, or spend some time contemplating your own.
  2. Make some goals. What do you need to accomplish in 2018? You might fail at 80% of those goals, but it’s still better to live with purpose than to drift.
  3. Start a Bible reading plan. “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” (Ephesians 5:17) The best way to understand God’s word is to read His Word. Download the Bible App (and become my friend) and start one of the many Bible reading plans today.
  4. Join a Bible Study group. The only thing better than reading the Bible on your own is reading it with others. Do both.
  5. Read a book that will help you think intentionally. One of the best ones I’ve read recently is Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper.
  6. Become a better manager of your time. Scripture is our primary source of wisdom, but a couple of secular books have been extremely helpful to me in terms of time management. Check out Getting Things Done or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
  7. Ask God to give you opportunities to share the gospel. When Paul instruction the Colossians to make the most of their time (Colossians 4:5) it was in the context of sharing the gospel. Ask God to open doors for you in 2018.
  8. Make the most of the opportunities God gives you. Be prepared. Then be courageous.
  9. Cut out time wasters. The man or woman who is intentional sets a course and steers the ship. The one who doesn’t drifts. How much of our time do we waste “drifting”, mindlessly scrolling through social media, playing video games, or watching TV. Consider taking one or more technology or social media fasts in 2018.
  10. Replace “leisure” with “recreation”. God built rest into the system. But there are more and less constructive ways to do it. Look for activities that help you rest and rebuild, not just ones which let you turn off your brain.
  11. Cut out the (excessive) alcohol. The foil for wisdom in Ephesians 5 is drunkenness (5:18). At first, I didn’t think I needed to include this in the list, but alas… Christians, don’t get drunk (or high)!
  12. Use money for eternal purposes. The same principle that applies to time applies to other resources as well. We have a limited amount of money. It’s temporary. But by God’s grace we ca use temporary and limited resources for eternal gains. Here’s one way to do it: Sponsor a child through Compassion International.
  13. Spend time on the relationships that matter most. You have a finite amount of time with those you love. Use it well.
  14. Take care of your body. View your body as a tool for advancing God’s kingdom. Just as you intentionally use your time and money for eternal purposes, be intentional about how you treat your body. Maintain a healthy diet and get active.
  15. Prioritize worship. In the same passage that Paul talks about making the most of our time, he talks about worship – singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Worship isn’t a waste of time. In worship we’re bringing glory to God. I challenge you to attend Sunday morning worship every Sunday in January. Bonus: Get there on time.
  16. Count your blessings. “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20). The best year without ingratitude is a waste. But godliness, with contentment, is great gain (1 Timothy 6:6).
  17. Decide to follow Jesus. We’ll never be able to perfectly live out the commands if Ephesians 5:15-20, but Jesus did. He lived the perfect life so that we don’t have to. He infuses our lives, no matter what they are, with eternal meaning and significance, not because we’re so great, but because of His great love for us.
  18. Don’t give up. 2017 wasn’t so great? Keep doing good and following God. Embrace this promise: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:9-10)

Have a blessed 2018



Manuscript Complete! What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

<EDIT>What Does it Mean to Be a Christian? is now available on Amazon.</EDIT>

I just wrapped up writing a short book called “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?” I’m grateful to those who read and edited the first draft.

I hope to self-publish this book so that I can make it easily available to new or prospective believers. To do that, I have a few more steps to take:

  1. I’ll need some cover art (more broadly, cover design). If anyone is interested in doing some pro bono work, I would gladly take it.
  2. I’ll need to go through the self-publishing process. The last time I published a book someone else did this part for me, but this time I’ll do the process myself. If anyone has expertise in this area, I’d appreciate the help.
  3. I feel good about the content, but I’m always interested in feedback. It will be a “living document” until I can publish it. My editors did a great job of cleaning up my writing, but I’m especially interested in feedback of the theological nature.

Feel free to do whatever you want to with the linked manuscript. Read, distribute, whatever.

God bless,

Steven Kopp


What does it mean to “glorify God”?

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

What does it mean to glorify God?

This is one of those questions I’ve always struggled to find a concrete answer for. John Piper in Don’t Waste Your Life offers a great illustration.

First, he says we shouldn’t think of the word glorify like we think of the word beautify. To beautify means to add to somethings beauty, to make it more beautiful than it already is. But we can’t add to God’s glory. We can’t make him more glorious, since He is already perfectly glorious.

Instead, he thinks a more helpful synonym is magnify. We can magnify in two ways, like a microscope or a telescope. A microscope makes something that is small appear large. This would be the wrong way to look at glorifying God. But a telescope makes something unimaginably great appear closer to what it actually is. To glorify God is to magnify God in this way.

Piper states in like this:

“God created us for this: to live our lives in a way that makes him look more like the greatness and beauty and infinite worth that he really is. In the night sky of this world God appears to most people, if at all, like a pinprick of light in a heaven of darkness. But he created us and called us to make him look like what he really is. That is what it means to be created in the image of God. We are meant to image forth in the world what he is really like.”

Further Reading: 
Don’t Waste Your Life


Are Christians morally obligated to vote only for candidates likely to win?

Are Christians morally obligated to vote for one of the top two candidates in an election? Is our choice necessarily binary? Are we required to do this to be responsible citizens and adults?

I’d like to examine those questions through the lens of what I’ll refer to as “Bounded Christian Utilitarianism.” This isn’t really a thing, but it wound up being a good description to how I approach the problem.

This approach will take the consequence of our political choices into account, but won’t make the consequences the end of our ethical responsibility.

First, a story:

I recently had a Twitter conversation with a thoughtful friend who was bothered that I would opt out of voting for reasons of principle:

“Isn’t there a responsibility to choose the best option? Weren’t you, like, 1% happier that [Candidate X] defeated [Candidate Y]? Isn’t the world, like, 1% better with [Candidate X] winning? Choosing the better of two sub-par options, isn’t that what we’re called to do, as adults? As citizens?”

I responded that I don’t believe I have an absolute moral obligation to vote for one of two options, though I do have a responsibility to love my neighbor.

He responded that voting was a tangible way to love your neighbor. I don’t disagree. In fact, I wrote a whole series of blog posts which made that exact argument. But voting is only one – very minor – way of loving my neighbor. It’s a piece, not the whole. And, as I will argue, it’s a piece with boundaries. This is what got me to bounded Christian utilitarianism. I’ll explain that one word at a time.

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism, put simply, is the premise that we have an ethical duty to increase the total amount of happiness in the world and decrease the amount of suffering.[1] An action is ethical if it increases the total happiness, and unethical if it adds to suffering. Since some actions might do both, you would subtract the suffering produced from the happiness produced to get an overall score. Applied to politics, you’d want to implement policies that increased overall happiness and reduced suffering. It’s a simple and elegant system.

What do I mean by Christian Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a secular system, but it could be expressed in Christian language as well, in terms of loving your neighbor. A Christian might observe that “happiness” is not the greatest of all goods. Loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean making someone happy (at least not in the immediate short-term). Instead, we speak of loving your neighbor as yourself.

If we define expressing love as “doing what is good for another person” then a Christian utilitarian might express it this way: My choice is moral if it maximizes the amount of good I am able to do to my neighbor while causing the minimal amount of harm.

When applied to politics, a Christian utilitarian votes for politicians and policies which do the most good to the greatest number of people, and minimize the amount of harm. Again, it’s a simple and understandable system. Generally, I am a Christian utilitarian in politics. Keeping important principles like freedom and wisdom in mind, I try to vote for politicians and policies which will do good to my neighbor without harming him.

What is Bounded Christian Utilitarianism?

While utilitarianism – whether expressed in its secular or religious forms – are simple and clear, they open the door for oppression and other evils. For instance, you could argue from a utilitarian perspective that it is okay to enslave a small group of people if it means great benefits for the mass of people. The math still works. The overall good outweighs the evil. But slavery is wrong all the time, regardless of whether it helps one or fifty or a thousand people. The math might work, but you still end up with injustice.

Utilitarianism can be used to justify tyranny and remove freedoms. It can justify doing evil for the sake of some greater good. It’s an ends-justify-the-means system. In fact, history is replete with people in power finding certain “sacrifices” acceptable to meet some desired, utopian, end.

So, while we should seek to do good to our neighbors, the utilitarian system must be bounded. A pure calculation like making the world 1% better isn’t the ethical choice if it means doing evil to get there.

What are the boundaries?

In politics, it can be hard to discern what those boundaries should be. Almost every policy potentially does some harm. An open trade policy will probably “lift all boats” but it will also inevitably lead to some level of job loss. A closed policy will help American workers but harm people in poverty overseas and probably also increase the cost of goods which will in turn “harm” consumers. It’s a no win. If we say that a policy or politician must do no harm, we would have to drop out of politics entirely. We would probably have to stop doing a lot of other things, too.

But there’s a difference of kind between the kind of harm done by a trade policy and the oppression or enslavement I referred to above. What’s that line? Maybe each person will draw different ones, but I have drawn two lines.

My first line is this: I will not participate in unjust systems. I’m using “unjust” as it relates to people being made in the image of God. Each person is given is endowed certain rights by God and justice upholds those rights. One of those rights is the right to life. Our abortion laws systematically rob the most vulnerable in our society of this right. It is an unjust system. So, I draw a line here. Another right I would recognize is the right to freedom. Slavery is another unjust system. So were the Jim Crow laws of the South. Thankfully, these have been done away with (though more work needs to be done to reduce racism and systems of racism).

My second line is this: I will not participate with a wicked person. Nobody is perfect. I get that. But there is a difference between an imperfect public servant and a person who is marked by a life of foolishness (in the biblical sense). My first reason for this is utilitarian: I don’t believe that private wickedness stays private. I believe that it will inevitably cause harm to others. My other reason relies on Scripture. Paul commands us not to be “partners” with those under God’s judgment because of wickedness. I interpret my vote as a partnership of sorts, and therefore a violation of God’s command.

I’m sure there are other ways to draw lines, and I know other people draw different ones than I do, but I am certain that utilitarianism needs lines. A pure consequentialist – someone who measures their actions, political or otherwise, by the outcome more than the act – will always be dangerous to justice, regardless of their good intentions. No matter how much good you want to do, if you’re okay with doing wrong to get there, you’re still doing wrong. The road to hell is well paved by the intentions of consequentialists.

In fact, while most people who object to the fact that I would choose not to vote for one of two major candidates express utilitarian arguments, I doubt most of them would refuse to draw any lines at all. Almost everyone will draw a line somewhere. (If your “choice” was between someone who wanted to bring back slavery and someone who murdered children, are you really morally obligated to vote for one or the other.) Instead, most people object to where I draw the line. Those on the Left either are not disturbed by abortion, or not as disturbed as I am, or they don’t think that a vote for a pro-choice candidate who could make an impact on abortion law is participation in the system. Those on the Right either thought the candidate was merely flawed or, if he was wicked, argued that character wasn’t really a disqualifying factor or that a vote for such a person didn’t constitute a “partnership” as I have described above. But most would have agreed that some line somewhere was necessary.

Here’s where the role of conscience comes into play. The lines I have formed have themselves been formed by my conscience. If I’ve done it right my conscience has been formed by the Word of God. But my conscience could be weak – I could have put the lines up too early. Or my conscience could be seared – I could have put them up too late. But, it is the role of the conscience to help determine where the lines need to be drawn to avoid sin.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Dilemma: The action of inaction

Those who choose not to vote, or to vote for a candidate very unlikely to win, face a dilemma. They might say that they are not acting, but in fact they are. Inaction is a form of action. More than one person said to me in 2016: “Not voting for Candidate A is a vote for Candidate B”. Or, “voting for Candidate C is really a vote for Candidate B.” While I wanted to dismiss this as linguistic and logical absurdity, there is a ring of truth to it. If I would have otherwise voted for Candidate A and choose not to, then I make a win for Candidate B a tiny bit more likely. In other words, my action – to vote for Candidate C – does have a consequence, one in which I would need to reckon.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 1: Act and Consequence

My first answer to this dilemma is theological. I separate act from consequence. I am responsible for my act. God is responsible for the result. The future is ultimately in God’s hands and He can intervene to bless or override my action as He wills.

There’s a danger in this distinction, of course. God has created an ordered world where act and consequence are linked in cause and effect. I am responsible for knowing the likely consequence of my action and so need to act in such a way to get the result that will do good form my neighbor. This is why I’m a Christian utilitarian. I am responsible for knowing the likely results of my actions, and acting accordingly. But, I’m a bounded Christian utilitarian because there are times when getting the result I want (doing good to my neighbor) would require me to act in a way contrary to God’s Word. In that instance I must act with faith, refusing to break God’s law and trust the future to God.

(As an aside, in big issues like politics people, even experts, can be pretty terrible at predicting the results of their actions. I’m not sure we should have a lot of faith in our ability to see the future even if God weren’t part of the equation!)

This is part of what it means to have faith and to act in faith, to do what you believe is right and trust that God will use that faithful action to do what is ultimately right.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 2: Aiming for a consequence

My second response is that in voting for Candidate C, I am also aiming for a consequence, for a result which I believe, in the long run, will bless my neighbor. If I believe that both parties have become corrupt, then I want to either prop up a party/candidate that is not corrupt, or at least send a message to the corrupt parties that I will not be complicit in their corruption. A few votes won’t make a difference, but a lot would. I think we suffer from a failure of the imagination. For the degree to which both major candidates in 2016 were reviled, it would have been an ideal time to send this message. But, people said, it just can’t happen and thus we shouldn’t try. But since we shouldn’t try, that’s exactly why it couldn’t happen. We’re somehow bound to a system that we all think is terrible. But we’re only bound to the system because we believe it’s the only way. We somehow think voting is the only thing that matters, but are unwilling to use our votes in a way that really would.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 3: Moving beyond voting

I said near the beginning that voting is one way to love your neighbor. It’s a part, but not the whole. In fact, it’s a very small part. A single individual can have much more impact doing other things. And, if you feel you cannot vote in a specific election don’t despair that you are failing your neighbor, and don’t let others convince you that you. Instead, get to work tangibly loving your neighbor.

This is the perfect time to reiterate something I’ve said before: The church is its own politic. It is a people with a purpose and a mission. It aims to love and glorify God and love and reach the world. The church can influence the nation politic in numerous and profound ways. We can pursue justice, speak up for the oppressed, provide for the poor, and work for justice. We can be a counter-politic within the broader politic, a counter-culture within the broader culture, acting as salt and light in the world. We shouldn’t downplay the potential role of the church within society.

But we can also work outside of the institutional church to love our neighbors, too. Get involved. Do good. Use your imagination. Don’t imagine that voting is more than it is. It’s a way, one way, to love your neighbor. Use it wisely, but remember that it is bound. Don’t let it bind you.

[1] One of the most important books I’ve read on competing theories of justice is Justice by Michael Sandel. My description of utilitarianism in this post relies on Sandel’s description of it.