The Death Myth by Brian Rossiter: A Review

Author

Brian Rossiter holds a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Trevecca Nazarene University, and is an adjunct professor at Ohio Christian University, as well as a long-time high school teacher.

 

Thesis

Rossiter hopes to show that the traditional views of the afterlife are inaccurate in some substantial way, and to offer a more plausible view, by defining terms, showing that the traditional view is not a settled consensus, and demonstrate the plausibility of his view that a human person retains his identity between death and the resurrection through some sort of “identity information kept on file by God” that provides the continuity between this life and the next.

 

Synopsis

The Death Myth is arranged into five chapters. In chapter one, Rossiter lays out his biblical case for his rejection of the traditional view of the intermediate state of the dead, what he refers to as the Temporary Disembodiment Position. (TDP) In chapters two and three, he critiques the TDP interpretation of key passages. In chapter four, Rossiter completes his case against TDP and offers his alternative, “Identity Information” view. Chapter five closes with what he sees as the ramifications of the views.

 

Analysis: The good

First and foremost, whatever view you take (assuming it is one of the options discussed in the book) Rossiter clearly affirms essential Christian doctrine. If he is wrong, his views are heterodox, not heretical. Likewise, I think Rossiter would affirm the same of those whose view he critiques. There are no ad hominem cries of “heretic!” leveled here. Additionally, it is better to challenge traditional beliefs if you think there is a problem than to simply accept them merely because they are traditional. This is especially true when the popular understanding of the traditional view goes uncorrected. Rossiter rightly points to the incompleteness of the view that when we die we go to heaven/hell forever. He affirms the resurrection and the new heavens and new earth as our hope. Moreover, wherever you come down in this debate, Rossiter is to be commended for putting his views out there for public scrutiny and discussion. Finally, but not exhaustively, Rossiter does not affirm physicalist monism. Let me also add that this book has helped me sharpen my own thinking on this issue. I will have more to say on this in my next post.

 

The not so good

Throughout the book, there are several assertions Rossiter makes that I don’t think he adequately supports. The first is that the TDP view means that the soul is its own being. What kind of being are we talking about? For the substance dualist, a whole human being is a body soul unity. If the body dies, the human being does not cease to exist because a part of the human being persists: the soul. The soul is not a whole human being because a whole human being is a body/soul unity. Just as a whole human body has two arms and two legs, but does not cease to be a human body if one were to lose his arms and legs, so a whole human being is a body soul unity, but does not cease to be a human being upon the death of the body.

The second assertion he makes is the TDP view makes the soul somehow superior to the body, and the body unnecessary. Rossiter goes as far as to say that Paul’s primary argument in 1 Corinthians 15 is to refute this view. While Alan Johnson seems to support this in his commentary:

 

Such a Corinthian view would have involved a dualistic anthropology holding that there are two different classes of people, nonspiritual and spiritual. The spiritual person (inspired by the transcendental spirit) transcends all bodily matters. The body is nothing more than a house in which the immortal soul lives. The final separation of the spiritualized soul from the body occurs at death. Not only is a resurrection of the body impossible, it is unnecessary because immortality is reached by receiving the Spirit (Holleman 1996:37).[1](emphasis added)

 

The commentary says a dualistic anthropology. Not the dualistic anthropology, and not simply dualistic anthropology. Just because a particular form of dualism holds this view, it doesn’t mean dualism is identical with this view. Repeatedly Rossiter makes mention of the claims made by scholars that the body is unnecessary. But unnecessary for what? None of the scholars he cites would say that the body is unnecessary for the existence of a whole human being. All of them would affirm that the body is not necessary for the human being to continue to exist.

Next, Rossiter notes the use of “sleep” as the term Paul chose to describe death. Many commentators note that this was a common euphemism for sleep. That is the best explanation for why Paul would choose this term. I don’t think this point does much for Rossiter’s case. What is sleeping? Not the body, if actual sleep is happening.

From there, Rossiter goes on to challenge the understanding of passages that are often cited in support of TDP. The first such passage is the story/account/parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Rossiter calls it a parable, and it may very well be. Some who cite it in support of substance dualism do so insisting it is not a parable. I don’t think it has to be a story of real persons to support TDP. In support of the idea it is not a parable, in the other parables, Jesus prefaces them with “the kingdom of God is like…” No such preface opens this one. But what if it is a parable? What is a parable? When Jesus told parables, he used the familiar to communicate the unfamiliar. If the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable, it would seem the idea of a TDP state was familiar to his audience. If it is not a parable, then it is an account of actual persons. In either case, it still seems to support TDP.

I will join Rossiter in leaving the account of Samuel as having too much mystery to press into service on either side. One of the worst examples of Rossiter’s exegesis comes in his treatment of the criminal on the cross. When Jesus tells him, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise,” Rossiter argues that the comma, usually placed “…tell you, today…” could be placed after today to read, “…tell you today, …”  This has almost no support when you look at the 50 times Jesus says, “Truly I tell you…”in the gospels. Of these,  only twice is there any time marker that follows. One is the verse in question, and the other is when Jesus tells Peter, “Truly I tell you this very night…” In no other usage does Jesus say, “Truly I tell you today…”  Why think this passage on the cross would be any different? Rossiter then hedges by saying maybe this is a special case for the criminal, but if so, how does the criminal go to paradise?

Finally, if, as Rossiter argues, death means the complete absence of life of any kind, what did Jesus mean when he told the Sadducees, “’…I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living?”

 

The incoherent

Throughout the book, Rossiter rejects the idea that there is an immaterial aspect to the self in the soul. He argues that existence must be “substantive.” It is not at all clear how he differentiates the two. The traditional claim that the soul is immaterial is to say that it is not a substance that is subject to the laws of physics. Philosophically, the term “substance” means some essence that exists. Here an essence is the “whatness” of a thing, what makes it what it is and not something else. The essence of a human being would be humanness. This is not to say the essence actually exists apart from a particular thing. There is no “humanness” that exists apart from any particular human being. (Platonists would disagree, but that’s another debate.) Substance dualists would argue that there are two substances that make up the whole human being. Human flesh (material) and human soul (immaterial.) We would agree that the human soul is substance, but not material.

Rossiter calls his view “identity information.” He says his view is of property dualism. The problem is things have properties. Properties have properties, but properties don’t exist on their own. Moreover, information apart from a knower is always third person. Information about you can exist apart from your mind, but you can only exist with your mind. There can be no “information on file” that can accurately say, “I am Brian Rossiter.” For God to unite an “identity file” with a resurrection body would be nothing more than a superclone. It could say “I am Brian Rossiter,” but it wouldn’t be the one who wrote this book.

 

Recommendation

The Death Myth is worth reading. It will make you think, and it will sharpen your thinking. I commend Rossiter for writing it. I think he is mistaken in his conclusions, but it is good to reexamine what you believe. It is best read by people who have studied these issues. I am not sure a lay person who has not studied these issues will understand the strengths or weaknesses of this book.

 

[1] Alan Johnson, 1 Corinthians 15, in The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, ed. Grant Osborn (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010, Bible Study App.

 

Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God by Wayne Rossiter, a Review.

Author

Wayne Rossiter is Assistant Professor of Biology at Waynsburg University. He received his B.S. from Otterbein University, his M.S. from Ohio State University and his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Dr. Rossiter teaches Principles of Biology, Ecology and Environmental Biology.

 

Synopsis

In Shadow of Oz, Rossiter argues that given the blatant incompatibility of Darwinian evolution and the Christian worldview, those who try to hold to both do so at the expense of the Christian worldview, and in the name of a paradigm that is in deep trouble.

The book is laid out in seven chapters. In Chapter one, Rossiter tells his own story, and that of the way Darwinian evolution undermines classical Christianity, and outlines the attempts of theistic evolutionists to hold to both. In chapter two, Rossiter argues that the two views are fundamentally incompatible. Chapter 3 is a brief(ish) explanation of the Darwinian model, as well as the problems with trying to reintroduce God into the picture. Chapter four focuses on the Christian view of man, which is the greatest area of incongruity between Christianity and Darwin. In chapter five, Rossiter argues that the theistic evolution would make God the creator of evil. In chapter six, Rossiter gives an overview of the newest findings of science, and the way they call Darwinism into serious question. Finally, chapter seven evaluates theistic evolution in light of the discussion of the previous six chapters.

 

Analysis

Rossiter’s approach is quite even-handed in that rather than evaluating theistic evolution from a particular sectarian point of view, he shows how incompatible it is with mere Christianity. Moreover, Rossiter’s critique of the neo-Darwinian synthesis is grounded in the latest research in the field of biology, not simply from the work of Intelligent Design proponents. His argument is that Christianity is not compatible with Darwinism, that holding to the best of science means one is justified in rejecting Darwinism, and therefore, theistic evolutionists are throwing the baby out with the bath water. There is, however, room for improvement.

 

In chapter 2, Rossiter notes the limited role granted by theistic evolutionists for God’s direct involvement in the world. I would add that they overlook God’s sustaining the universe in its regular adherence to the laws of physics, which itself demands an explanation.

 

While most of Rossiter’s arguments are cogent and well though-out, he seems to misunderstand the views of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. Plantinga and Craig acknowledge that “random” changes in an organism is compatible with theism just in case “random” is understood to mean “not occurring for the purpose of benefitting the organism.” Craig argues that for a scientist to go further, such as to say such changes are “undirected” is to step outside of their discipline. Both argue that such changes can look the same whether directed by God to degrade the organism, or truly undirected. Rossiter responds, “Apparently, suggesting that aliens are tinkering with mutations is fantasy, but supposing that a supernatural God is doing it behind the scenes is completely rational.”[1] Given that Craig and Plantinga can point to many points of evidence for God, while there is virtually no evidence best explained by aliens, it is in fact, rational. Rossiter goes on to claim “Craig concludes that it is logical to suppose that evolution is guided or directed by God.”[2] Actually, Craig concludes that it is logically possible that God could direct evolution, and that the scientist who denies this does so out of philosophical commitments, not scientific reasoning.

 

Recommendation

Rossiter’s book is an excellent primer on the latest in findings in the literature and why holding to Darwinism is not only unnecessary, it is ultimately a dead end. Shadow of Oz is accessible for readers with a high school education, and highly useful for understanding how a Christian ought to think about these issues.

 

 

 

[1] Rossiter, Wayne D. (2015-12-08). Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God (Kindle Locations 2149-2150). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

[2] Ibid., 2155-2156

Podcasts You Should Know Part 5

Next up in this series is one of our “friends across the pond,” Justin Brierley, with his weekly radio show/ podcast Unbelievable?Unbelievable? Airs every Saturday in the U.K. and is then released as a podcast. Each week, Brierly brings together a Christian and a skeptic to have a dialogue on matters of faith. Sometimes the dialogue is among Christians discussing an area of disagreement in theology. What really stands out in these discussion is the level of civility that is (usually) maintained throughout the conversation. While Brierley makes no secret about where he stands, he is consistently recognized by listeners and guests as a very even-handed moderator of the discussions.

In addition to the show, Brierley has a blog, and serves as the senior editor of Premier Christianity magazine. Be sure to check this podcast out.

Says Who? Part Deux: How Do We Know?

In response to Says Who, byblacksheep had some thoughtful comments that, while missing the point of the original post, I thought they were worth addressing.

Byblacksheep (BBS from here out) said,

“…if we have morals from a perfect God (we know what is good because god said so) we would expect perfect morals from the beginning.”

 

As a Christian, I would affirm that we have morals from a perfect God. As I argued in part uno, God himself is the ground of goodness. However, I would not say “we know that is good because God said so.” What I mean here is that I know of no Christian theologian who would say God has revealed his moral will exhaustively. He has revealed some things, and from those we can infer other things. We obviously can be mistaken about those inferences, but we do not claim they have the same weight of authority as clear revelation. For example, Exodus 20:15 says, “Do not steal.” We can infer from this that there is such a thing as private property of some kind, and that certain rights follow from this. As such while I think what God has revealed of his moral will is perfect, it is not entirely spelled out, which brings me to the second half of the statement above. We would expect this IF we were claiming that the purpose of divine revelation is to give us an exhaustive book or rules by which we must live, and anything that was happening that was wrong was to be called out and condemned. However, that is not the purpose of Scripture. Its overarching narrative is where we came from, what our problem is, what the solution is, and how it will all be resolved.

BBS goes on to say,

            “But our knowledge and our understanding grows…And because of that you would expect the moral codes of earlier civilizations would be just totally wrong and gradually change and be refined over time, which is what we see, globally we have moved in a direction that increases human dignity for all people. Can I definitively say we’ve moved in a direction that is “better?” No I can’t, I will leave that to the philosophers, but what i can do however is look back at the holocaust and say “they got it wrong” I can look back at slavery in the U.S., and slavery across the globe and say “they got it wrong.”

I can agree with BBS that “they got it wrong” but I do so from a worldview that can make sense of that claim. If all we are is molecules in motion, all we can mean when we say “they got it wrong” is that the “molecules in me feel icky about that.” To say they were wrong is to say that they had an obligation to not do that. That implies authority of some kind. Where does that come from? I would argue that the best explanation is a transcendent source in whose image we are made, which is why there is such widespread agreement on big issues like this such that large groups only achieve things like the holocaust by armed force. We have an intuitive sense that such things are wrong. We are also quite capable of ignoring that intuition and/or rationalizing violating it.

BBS also says,

            “…consensus really isn’t how we decide what is moral or not moral. Sure it is how we collectively agree what codes, rules, and norms we are going to follow, but that isn’t necessarily WHY we follow them.”

Again, I would agree. In fact, the why is yet another question. Many people follow moral laws against murder and adultery for no reason other than fear of consequences. While that may make their behavior seem moral on the surface,   Jesus doubled down on the commandments when he said,

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21)

 

and…”

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (verses 27-28)

 

I will end here for the sake of brevity. Keep an eye out for part drei coming up. (Yes I am using a different language for each sequel number just to be annoying.)

 

 

 

Says Who?

I was recently told that a militant atheist tweeted something to the effect of, “I believe humans are inherently good, and therefore do not need a God to save them.” It would be easy to get sucked into an argument about whether or not this assessment is accurate, but that would miss a greater irony. What does the atheist mean by “good?”

Let me tell you about myself. I am two legs tall, and weigh 100 water bottles. Does that tell you anything (other than that I have a strange way naming units of length and weight?) Can you tell exactly how tall I am or how much I weigh? One person would see me as five feet tall and another as five feet, eight inches. Which is right? One would see me as weighing 81 pounds, another as 211 pounds. Which is correct? Why is there disagreement? The one, who sees me as five feet tall, has a 30-inch leg. The one, who sees me as weighing 211 pounds, drinks from one-liter water bottles. You can see where I’m going with this. At this point you might ask, “Why don’t you just use standard measures like feet, inches, and pounds? Or, use meters and liters?” I suppose I could use these standard units, but why are they standard? Because a competent authority declared them to be so. If you are really dying to know some history of this, you can look here.

What does all this have to do with the tweet in question? The claim was that humans were “inherently good.” What does the atheist mean by “good?” As an atheist, he has rejected any competent authority who could give us a standard of goodness that is independent of our opinions. If God does not exist, then “good,” in the sense relevant to whether or not one needs a God to save them, does not exist. If “good” means “well suited for its intended purpose,” and there is no intended purpose for humans to exist, then good, in that sense, does not exist. If this is the case, good can only mean, “I like it,” or “We like it.” However, who says humans are inherently likeable? I think we all know some who are not. (If we are brutally honest, we can all think of times when we were not.) What if one person likes a group of people and another does not? Who’s to say who is right? On what basis? As Ravi Zacharias has said, “…in some cultures they love their neighbors; in others they eat them, both on the basis of feeling. Do you have any preference?”

Some, like Sam Harris, argue that morals and values refer to “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Again, however, I must ask, “Says who?” Why should the well-being of conscious creatures outweigh the well-being of creatures that have no consciousness? What about when the well-being of one (or one group of) conscious creature(s) is in conflict with that of another? Who decides?

Let’s go back to the claim. If we use Harris’ definitions, it would seem the claim is that humans inherently tend to consider the well-being of other conscious creatures. However, look around you. Look at the headlines on any given day. Racial tensions, terrorism, oppression all lead the 24-hour news cycle. Even by the atheist’s own definition (assuming he accepts the one above) it is clear that humans are anything but inherently good, and therefore without the need for a savior. However, for the atheist to claim anything is good in an objective way (independent of his own opinion) is a category error. It would be like me saying music does not exist because I have never tasted it.

Mitch Stokes would agree with many atheists in that “all value— and moral value in particular— is subjective in that all value depends on a valuer, a valuing subject. All morality is ultimately personal.”  However, if the “valuer” is merely a human being, we are right back to the original problem. However, if God exists, and he created humans for his purposes, we are valuable because he values us. Good, then, is grounded in what God values because he is the very embodiment of good. God is the competent authority from whom we can get a standard unit of goodness.

If theism is true, we can evaluate humanity in a meaningful way. What we see tells us human beings are deeply flawed and in need of help. Christian theism in particular makes sense of this, showing us that we are made in the image of God (which is why we are often capable of good behavior) but are deeply broken. Christianity offers the only remedy for this in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who made a way for us to be reconciled to God.

If the atheist’s tweet is true, atheism is false. If the tweet is false, atheism is still false, since both require a non-human valuer. If atheism is true, the tweet is meaningless.

 

 

Podcasts You Should Know About Part 2

This week I want to call your attention to not just a podcast, but another ministry that has more than one fine podcast. Reasonable Faith, the ministry of Dr. William Lane Craig, is a highly useful resource, including two podcasts: Reasonable Faith, and Defenders. Reasonable Faith is a weekly podcast hosted by Craig and Kevin Harris where they discuss recent events and debates related to Christianity and apologetics. Defenders is a weekly class taught by Craig that is accessible, yet thorough in its systematic treatment of Christian doctrine. Defenders is available as a podcast, but also can be accessed as a live stream on Sundays at 12:45 Eastern time. In addition to the podcasts, the Reasonable Faith website has a wealth of information related to apologetics, as well as philosophy. There is a whole library of videos of Craig’s teaching and debates.

Podcasts You Should Know About Part 1

Over the next several posts, I will highlight some really useful resources for Christians. Obviously, being the geek that I am, the emphasis will be on apologetics resources, but many of the websites and podcasts I will profile have a broad range of information for any Christian interested in growing in the area of the life of the mind.

 

Unlike other “Top…” lists, I will start with what I think is the number one ministry in this field, and the rest will be in no particular order. Far an away my favorite (and arguably the best) is Stand to Reason. Greg Koukl has been like a long-distance (and occasionally up close) mentor to me since around 2000. He has had a radio presence for over 20 years, and the show has been available online since before there were podcasts. It is still available as a live stream on Tuesday evenings from 4-6:00 pm PDT (7-9 EDT) or the show can be downloaded as two one-hour podcasts on Wednesday and Friday. There is also a shorter podcast released twice a week called #STR Ask.

Additionally, he offers a wide range of resources from books (two of which he has written or co-written) as well as short booklets, called Ambassadors’ Guides, which are available in paper or electronic editions. STR also offers instructional DVDs like Tactics. These resources and podcasts can also be accessed through their mobile apps.

Finally, Greg and his team are available to speak to your church or ministry. More content can be found on their blog, as well as the bimonthly newsletters, such as Solid Ground.

 

STR is a valuable resource to help Christians think more carefully about and communicate their faith.