Thomas Aquinas on Immigration

Monday, 06-10-2024


In view of the furor about legal and illegal immigration, it’s interesting to see what Thomas Aquinas has to say about how the law of the Old Testament treated such matters.

Below, then, I have condensed and paraphrased his much longer remarks in Summa theologiae, I-II, Q. 105, Art. 3, and condensed and adapted my own much longer discussion in Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Divine Law.

Does any of this apply to our own controversies?  See what you think.


The query:

Did the Old Testament Law appropriately frame the regulations about persons who were not members of the nation?


St. Thomas writes:

Relations with resident aliens, St. Thomas observes, may be either peaceful and hostile.  In his view Old Testament law appropriately regulated both kinds of relations.  Let us take them in turn.  The distinction between peaceful and hostile relations with foreigners may seem obvious, but in our own political debate nothing is easier than to find persons who think either that all such relations must be amicable or that all such relations must be hostile.  In fact, though peaceful relations are preferable, they are not always possible.

As to the first category of relations, the Jews were presented with three occasions for peaceful dealings with outsiders:

1.  When such outsiders passed through their land temporarily, as sojourners or migrants.

2.  When they came into their land to live in it, as resident aliens.

3.   When they wished to be taken completely into their community and rituals, as proselytes or converts.

The Law made compassionate provision for the first two cases by commanding “Do not discourage or afflict an outsider” and “Do not make trouble for a foreigner.”

The third case required that a certain procedure be followed.  No one was accepted into citizenship immediately.  We read something similar in Aristotle’s Politics, Book 3, where the philosopher remarks that some nations regarded persons as citizens only after their families had been present in the land for several generations.

The reason for such a rule, St. Thomas says, is that if newly arrived foreigners were immediately allowed to take a hand in the people's affairs, many dangers might result.  Some of these newcomers, not yet confirmed in love for the people's good, might try to harm them.  In view of this danger, the law distinguished between outsiders from nations that had some affinity with the Jews, and outsiders from nations that had been hostile to them.

In the category of those having affinity with them were the Egyptians, among whom they had been born and raised, and the Idumaeans or Edomites, who were descended from Jacob’s brother Esau.  These were to be allowed into the fellowship of the people after the third generation.

In the category of those who had been hostile to them were the Ammonites and Moabites, who were never to be allowed into their fellowship, and the Amalekites, who had no blood relationship with the community and had been so hostile that they were to be regarded as perpetual enemies.  This is why the book of Exodus warns that the Lord will always be at war with Amalek, generation after generation.



St. Thomas’s third category of foreigners is aliens who desire to become completely assimilated into the Israelite nation and converted to its worship of the true God.  Probably, some aliens closed only part of this gap, taking up belief in the true God and the practice of Jewish worship, but not becoming circumcised and assimilated.  Only those who went all the way are meant here.

The status of the others, sometimes called “God-fearers,” was a topic not only in rabbinical writing, but also, many centuries later, in the New Testament.  At a certain point in the book of Acts, which recounts the history of the early Church, St. Paul, invited to address the synagogue in Antioch, explicitly addresses his words about Christ not only to “men of Israel,” whom he calls “brothers” and “sons of the family of Abraham,” but also to “those among you that fear God.”  (Acts 13:16,26).

The Old Testament law welcomed those who seek full assimilation into the nation, but it was also cautious.  St. Thomas argues later that such persons were admitted into worship, but, as we see here, they were not immediately admitted into full citizenship – that is, into participation in the affairs of the community.  St. Thomas accepts the definition of full citizenship worked out in Aristotle’s Politics:  “When anyone has the power to share in deliberative and judicial powers, we say that he is a citizen of that political community, and that a political community consists of enough such citizens for a self-sufficient life, absolutely speaking” (Aristotle, Politics, 1.3).  Certainly the civil law of ancient Israel was also a religious law, and certainly it demanded adherence to the true God.  However, the distinction between the assembly of deliberation and the assembly of worship refutes the common view that the nation entirely fused civil with religious functions.

In the same place in the Politics, Aristotle points out that the idea of delaying full citizenship to the members of a family until it had lived in a country for several generations is commonly held:  “People also define citizen in a practical way as one descended from citizen parents on both sides, not only from one citizen parent (i.e., a father or mother).  And others require descent from citizens for more generations (e.g., two, three, or more).”  Though Aristotle has no objection to this restriction on citizenship, he points out that descent from citizens on both sides cannot be the definition of citizenship, because it would produce a difficulty concerning the first people of the community.  As St. Thomas remarks in his Commentary on the work, it would produce an endless regress, for “it would follow that the original people were not citizens, and so none of the others descended from them were.  And this is odd.”

The fear was that allowing outsiders who desire assimilation to share in deliberative and judicial powers right away would invite subversion, because they might not yet identify with the community and so might not regard its good as their own.  Making them wait for a few generations is a precept of prudence.

The Israelites regarded the Edomites as kin because of shared ancestry, and recognized a certain affinity with the Egyptians because the Israelites had dwelt for so long in Egypt.  Thus, Egyptian and Edomite families who desired assimilation into the Israelite community were accepted -- but only guardedly, after a probation of several generations.

How about Ammonites and Moabites?  No.  We return to the reasons for extreme distrust of the Ammonite and Moabite peoples below.


In reply to one of the Objections, St. Thomas writes:

The law did not exclude those of any nation from worshipping God or caring for the health of their souls.  This is why the book of Exodus declared that if any aliens were willing to cross over into Hebrew land and keep the Passover of the Lord, then so long as their males were first circumcised, they were to be permitted to celebrate the rite in the proper way and be accepted alongside those native to the land.

Concerning temporal matters pertaining to the fellowship of the people, however, matters stood differently.  For, as explained above, not everyone was accepted into the community at once.

The Egyptians, as well as the Idumaeans or Edomites, were accepted in the third generation.  But in utter rejection of their past wrongs, the Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekites were excluded forever.  For just as one man is punished for his sins, so that others, seeing what happens to him, may desist from sin for dread of its happening to them – in just the same way, a few peoples or cities are punished for their sins so that others will hold back from similar offenses.



The first Objector had complained that the perpetual exclusion of certain categories of foreigners from the assembly contradicts the principle that all who fear God and act righteously are acceptable to Him.  However, St. Thomas points out that there is a difference between exclusion from public deliberation and exclusion from participation in worship.  Certainly many foreigners were excluded from the former, some for three generations, others in perpetuity, as we saw above.  Quoting Exodus 12:48, however, St. Thomas argues that no foreigners at all were excluded from the latter.  After the Old Law gives instructions for the feast of the Passover, which commemorates how the angel of the Lord “passed over” the Hebrews, sparing them but striking down the firstborn of the Egyptians, the following command is given:

And when a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land.  But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.  There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.  (Exodus 12:48-49).

In Latin, the wording contains a little pun, for those willing to pass over into the land (transire) and live in it were to be permitted to celebrate the rite which commemorated how the angel of death passed over the people of Israel. 

As St. Thomas reads these passages, no one who was willing to dwell in the community and be circumcised could be excluded from the celebration of the Passover.  Public affairs were a different matter, because they needed to be protected from subversion.  From these, Egyptians and Edomites were excluded for three generations, and Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekites forever.

The perpetual exclusion of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekites from full citizenship may seem harsh.  Can’t there ever be forgiveness?  But in the first place, as St. Thomas points out, the Law distinguished between those who could worship God and those who could take a hand in the temporal decisions of the people.  In the second place, the Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekite nations were in fact in perpetual enemies of the people of Israel, and the peoples of that age had long memories.  And in the third place, it was of overpowering importance that the surrounding nations be taught a lesson which could not be forgotten about the consequences of oppressing the Jews.  For this was the Chosen Nation, the covenant community, the people through whom a light was one day to break out, not only among the Hebrew people, but among all peoples.  As God declares through the prophet Isaiah,  “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6).

Therefore, although God also punishes Israel for its sins, sometimes even using other nations to do so, nevertheless He blesses the nations that bless Israel, and punishes the nations that curse Israel: 

●  Isaac speaking to Jacob, and through him to his future descendants:  “Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” (Genesis 27:29).

●  Balaam, speaking in apostrophe to Israel, despite his commission to say the opposite: “Blessed be everyone who blesses you, and cursed be everyone who curses you” (Numbers 24:9b).

●  The prophet Zechariah, also addressing Israel apostrophically:  “He who touches you touches the apple of [God’s] eye” (Zechariah 2:8).

●  God, through Zechariah, speaking of the day of deliverance:  “And on that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.” (Zechariah 12:9).

And yet the coming Messiah, the “Servant of the Lord,” is represented centuries later, in the prophet Isaiah, as speaking as follows:

And now the Lord says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength -- he says: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:5-6).

So the hostile nations were perpetually excluded from Israel’s councils for the sake of Israel’s  preservation, and those who persist in oppression will be destroyed.  Yet Israel was preserved for the salvation for all nations -- even those who in the time of the Old Law were still excluded.


Continuing his reply, St. Thomas writes:

Even so, it was possible for an exception to be made to this rule, for a man could be admitted into the brotherhood of the people because of an act of virtue.  We learn this from the book of Judith, which relates how Achior, the commander of the Ammonites – and not only he, but also his family for all generations – were joined to the people of Israel.  We see much the same thing from the story of Ruth, a Moabite whom Boaz whom Boaz praises for her reputation as a woman of virtue – although it might be argued that the exclusion from citizenship did not apply to women, because the women of Israel were not citizens in an unqualified sense.



We see earlier in the Summa that according to St. Thomas, no exceptions can be made to precepts which embody the very idea of the direction of affairs to the common good, or more particularly toward justice and virtue -- for example the precepts of the Decalogue.  However, exceptions can be certainly be made to the subordinate precepts which merely specify the ways in which affairs are directed toward these great aims.  The requirement is that such exceptions must not be to the detriment of the just intention of the lawmaker, who is God.  Certainly the prohibition of admitting the members of hostile nations to full citizenship serves the common good.  However, there is no harm to the common good if an exception is made for someone of outstanding virtue who is friendly rather than hostile.

The first exception St. Thomas mentions is Achior, the chief man of the Ammonites, who advises Holofernes, the general of the Assyrian forces, not to make war against the Hebrews because they are protected by their God.  Holofernes is so infuriated by this advice that he commands that Achior be handed over to the enemy.  The Israelites discover him outside the gates of one of their cities, tied up and abandoned.  After untying him and learning what has transpired, they commend and console him.  Later, accompanied by her maidservant, Judith enters the Assyrian encampment, pretending to be a deserter and informant.  After several days, leading Holofernes to believe that he can ravish her, she is admitted to his tent, where he lies in a drunken stupor, and she kills him in his sleep.  As proof of the deed, she takes her maidservant and returns with his head to her people, telling them that now they will be able to rout the Assyrian forces.  “And when Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God, and was circumcised, and joined the house of Israel, remaining so to this day.”  The Vulgate adds that Achior joined “with all the succession of his kindred” (Judith 14:10).

The second exception St. Thomas mentions is Ruth, a Moabite woman, the widow of a Hebrew man who had been living in Moab.  When her Hebrew mother-in-law, Naomi, prepares to return to Judah, her homeland, where she has heard that there is more food, she urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their mother’s houses and remarry, and prays that the Lord will deal kindly with them, “as you have dealt with the dead and with me” (Ruth 1:8-9).  However, Ruth insists on going with her, saying “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.  May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you" (1:16-17)  Back in Judah, Ruth uses the privilege of the poor to glean from the fields of Boaz, who is one of Naomi’s kinsmen.  Boaz, impressed with her beauty and virtue (3:11), shows kindness to her.  Eventually she asks him to exercise the duty of the next of kin to marry the widow so that the dead man’s line will not die out.  After everything is arranged with a still closer kinsman, who would normally have exercised the duty, Boaz announces to the elders and people of the village his intention to marry Ruth, and they declare,

We are witnesses.  May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel.  May you prosper in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem; and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman (4:11-12).

The story of Ruth is particularly important to Christians because she is one of the remote ancestresses of Jesus (Matthew 1:5).  The startling fact that Christ’s lineage includes an assimilated Moabite foreshadows the opening of the people of God to the gentiles.  Thus, St. Peter declares that all followers of Christ, Jews and gentiles alike, regardless of earthly race and nation, are members of the one chosen people:  “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).  They are “aliens and exiles,” Peter says, not from God’s people but because they belong to God’s people, a nation on pilgrimage through the present life on the way to their true commonwealth in heaven (2:11).


One more thought:

As we see, St. Thomas acknowledges in passing that someone might protest his use of Ruth as an example of a Moabite admitted to citizenship, because, since women were ordinarily excluded from participation in deliberative and judicial powers, she would never have been a citizen in the full sense.  Indeed, he thinks there is a distinction among different senses of citizenship, which he explains a little later.  However, we should take note that some women of Israel did exert significant influence in its counsels.  Before the Hebrew people were ruled by kings in the ordinary sense, the woman Deborah, one in the line of heads who were called judges, led her nation to a great victory over the Canaanite oppressors, ushering in a time of peace (Judges 4-5).  After the people were ruled by kings in the ordinary sense, queens consort and queen mothers could also wield significant influence, as we see in the following anecdote from the reign of King Solomon.  To understand the incident we must bear in mind that Adonijah, Solomon’s half-brother, considers himself the legitimate heir of their father King David, and has already tried once to usurp power:

So Solomon sat upon the throne of David his father; and his kingdom was firmly established.  Then Adonijah the son of Haggith came to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon.  And she said, "Do you come peaceably?"  He said, "Peaceably."  Then he said, "I have something to say to you."  She said, "Say on."  He said, "You know that the kingdom was mine, and that all Israel fully expected me to reign; however the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the Lord.  And now I have one request to make of you; do not refuse me."  She said to him, "Say on."  And he said, "Pray ask King Solomon -- he will not refuse you -- to give me Abishag the Shunammite as my wife."  Bathsheba said, "Very well; I will speak for you to the king."  So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah.  And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a seat brought for the king's mother; and she sat on his right.  Then she said, "I have one small request to make of you; do not refuse me."  And the king said to her, "Make your request, my mother; for I will not refuse you."  She said, "Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to Adonijah your brother as his wife" (1 Kings 2:12-21).

Plainly, before hearing his mother Bathsheba’s request, Solomon expects that he will be able to comply with it.  As matters turn out, he cannot, for Abishag had been King David’s last concubine, and marrying her would have been a way for Adonijah to declare himself king.  Since this is Adonijah’s second attempt at the throne, Solomon has him put to death.  However, nothing in the story suggests that the counsels of Bathsheba herself do not continue to be held in honor afterward.



What Killing Has Done to the Living

Monday, 06-03-2024


Abortion is not just one issue among others, like capital gains taxes, tariffs, or reducing automobile emissions.  It’s like a snag in a woven sweater.  Because a snag is just the protruding loop of a strand which runs all the way through the weave, if you keep pulling on it the whole sweater comes unraveled, and you’re left holding a tangle of loose yarn.

To justify abortion –

You have to stop believing that the greatest protection should go to the weakest and most vulnerable.

You have to stop believing that we have any responsibility for our neighbors.

You have to stop believing that a child is just as human as an adult.

You have to stop believing in a natural bond between mothers and their children.

You have to stop believing that their parents should take care of them.

You have to stop believing that no one may do evil so that good will result.

You have to stop believing that murder is wrong, or else twist the meaning of murder into pretzels.

You have to stop believing that the lives of people we don’t care about matter nevertheless.

You have to stop believing that a burdened conscience doesn’t mean anything, either before or after an act.

You have to stop believing that you are answerable to the author of conscience whether you listen to it or not.

You have to stop believing that keeping it pure and unstained is beyond any price you could name.

And you have to feign ignorance of what you are doing.

This is only the beginning.  No wonder we believe so many other crazy things too.  If you can believe in abortion, you can believe anything.

We all know that abortion has killed millions, but think what it has done to the living.  Think what it has done to the mothers.  To the fathers.  To the rest of us.



Questioning the Questions

Monday, 05-27-2024


“Question assumptions.”  Sure, but which ones?  Today's culture is often called skeptical, but about some things it’s not nearly skeptical enough.  It questions assumptions which don’t need to be questioned, and swallows assumptions which really ought to be.

Often people say that the existence of God can’t be proven just because it’s possible to object to the premises of the arguments for His existence.  But it’s possible to object to the premises of any argument, isn’t it?

Whether one can doubt the premises isn’t a good test.  One should ask instead whether the premises are more plausible than what you would have to believe if they’re false, or whether the argument against the existence God leaves us with more troubling and difficult questions than the argument for.

For example, you may object to the Argument to a First Cause by saying that although things in general, like why the milk turned sour, need causes, the whole universe doesn’t need a cause.  But do you really believe that bigger facts are less in need of explanation than smaller ones?

Or you may reject the existence of God because you want to know why there is evil in the world.  But if you reject His existence, are you really uninterested in the converse question, which is why there is good in the world?

In short, we can’t question absolutely every assumption – but sometimes we should question the questions.


Highway Utopianism: Or, Legislating for How Planners Think We Ought to Be Instead of How We Are

Monday, 05-20-2024


A bedrock principle of legislative sanity is making laws and policies for how people really are, rather than for how the planners think they ought to be.  Sure, some changes in public character are possible.  If you arrest people for driving recklessly, they may come to drive more considerately.  On the other hand, Prohibition, the great Progressive project of its day, was not known as a dazzling success.

G.K. Chesterton remarked that utopian schemes “take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones.  They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon.”  He was thinking of economic utopianism, but let me give a more prosaic example:  Highway utopianism.

Municipalities like mine pour millions into the expansion of light rail systems which hardly anyone uses, because they think people ought to prefer them to automobiles.  Maybe we ought to, but we don’t.  Not only do people prefer the flexibility and privacy of personal vehicles, but they would rather not have to deal with frightening, drugged-out derelicts in rail stations (another product of our handlers’ brilliant ideas).  The planners dream that if only the systems were vastly expanded, people would prefer taking the train.  You can dream anything you wish, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Proponents cry “But we need more light rail because traffic is getting so much worse!”  Yes, it is – but why is it?  A lot of things can be done to alleviate congestion, like synchronizing stop lights.  Yet often the simplest things go undone because the planners want people to change instead.

In fact, in cities like mine, the planners do just the opposite of alleviating congestion.  As though to punish people for using automobiles, they drag out road construction projects and adopt policies which make driving more difficult.  For example, they turn all the nice four-lane roads into two-lane roads to accommodate wide new bike lanes which hardly anyone uses either, because people ought to prefer bicycling to driving cars.

Halve the available auto lanes, and presto!  Auto congestion doubles.  In the meantime, driving becomes more and more confusing.  It isn’t just that bicyclists are granted carte blanche to run stop lights, although that is quite a hazard.  Have you ever had to figure out what to do when a designated bike lane diagonally crosses over a designated auto lane, from far right to far left, instead of running alongside it?  The first time I ran across one of these, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

NOW will you planet-hating Neanderthals authorize a bond for expanding light rail?  Don’t you get it yet?  Haven’t you figured out who rules in this burg?



Harmless Vices

Monday, 05-13-2024


Every age imagines that its own favorite capital vices are harmless.  Consider one of ours.  You know which one.  The one we say “doesn’t hurt anyone.”

We begin by separating sex from procreation.  Along one line of development, this innovation leads to the taking of innocent life, for since conception occurs anyway, we invent justifications for doing away with children; even infanticide is now widely accepted among medical ethicists.  Along another line of development, it leads to insensitivity to women, whom we expect to have male patterns of sexual response, and almost to prostitute themselves for male enjoyment.  Along still another, it disorders marriage, for the husband and wife no longer see themselves as long-range partners in turning the wheel of the generations.  Along yet another, it leads to the abuse of the children who are allowed to live, because live-in boyfriends tend to resent their girlfriends’ babies, and girlfriends are ambivalent about babies that their boyfriends did not father.

Especially among the comfortable, those children who are desired are more and more viewed as lifestyle enhancements rather than as expressions of hope for the future.  At the other end of the social order are poverty, because single women must provide for their children by themselves; adolescent violence, because male children grow up without a father’s influence; and venereal disease, because formerly rare infections spread rapidly through sexual contact.  In all social classes, there develops a Peter Pan attitude in which young men and women are afraid to grow up:  Partly because there seems less and less in prospect except toiling for money so that one can have fun when one is not toiling.  The blessing of Psalm 128:3, “your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table,” comes to seem, not an expression of a universal aspiration, but almost incomprehensible.

Eventually we come to hold our very nature in contempt, as illustrated by the author who declared some time ago in a family planning journal that pregnancy “may be defined as an illness” which “may be treated by evacuation of the uterine contents.”   One suspects that even this is not the end.  The progression from one thing to another is straightforward; if we do not see it, the reason can only be that we do not want to.


The Politics of Demographic Manipulation

Monday, 05-06-2024


No one can understand contemporary politics without grasping the fact that politicians don’t just play to the interests of the demographic groups from which they expect support.  They also seek to make them bigger.  (They also seek to reduce the size of the demographic groups which don’t support them -- for example, by destroying disfavored industries and allowing whole regions to become unlivable – but I’ve talked about that elsewhere.)

Historically, the most prominent examples of the sort of thing I’m talking about have been expansions of the suffrage, for example when the “rotten boroughs” were reformed in nineteenth-century England.  Although enfranchising previously unenfranchised groups may have unanticipated consequences, it’s a sweet deal if the newly enfranchised groups can be counted on to vote for you.

Now, though, politicians of the Left manipulate demographics on a massive scale, working to expand all sorts of groups from which they expect support:  Especially illegal immigrants, unmarried women, and people who are financially dependent on the government.  The strategy employs a combination of policy and propaganda.  Abandon border security.  Pay able-bodied people for not working.  Preach to young women about the joys of single living, and about what a trap marriage is.  Frighten them with tales of Margaret Atwood dystopias.  And, of course, promote sexual disorder and family instability, which make everyone less secure and more dependent on the government.

While doing all this, pretend that it’s about rights, respect, equality, and compassion.  Don’t let anyone get away with saying that it’s about power.  For example, you can be sure that for writing the previous paragraph, I’ll be accused of being against young women.

In the long run, the strategy doesn’t always work.  For example, the descendants of lawful immigrants often resent those who broke the law to get here, and Hispanic voters, whom Democrats used to consider a solid voting bloc, are now shifting rightward as they perceive that the Left is inimical to their beliefs.

On the other hand, today’s Leftists no longer think much about the long run, and so far, their efforts to expand the other two demographic groups I mentioned have worked out pretty well for them.  Without unmarried women and people who are dependent on the government, the Democratic Party would be nowhere.



Saturday, 04-27-2024



I’ve been shaken in my faith recently by certain thoughts about “last things,” both as physics and as faith talk about them.  The natural sciences paint a world that seems pretty meaningless.  Now I don’t buy into meaninglessness, but it appears that God was acting through secondary natural causes, and sheer scale of the universe is so massive that we seem to be insignificant.  If He acted through natural secondary causes for 13.7 billion years, I can assume that he will continue doing the same. Will there be a church in the year 22 billion AD?  The sheer scale of time makes me find that promise difficult to believe.

I also have a difficulty picturing Christ coming from heaven and renewing the cosmos – that we on planet earth in this corner of the milky way are front and center to an event of cosmos wide significance.  When else has God done something like that?  In all those billions of years why didn’t do some miracle here or there that is traceable by modern science (other than the Big Bang)?

Physicists talk about the heat death of the universe.  That might align with what the bible says about this present world passing away.  And I am afraid that is what is going to happen, because the idea that Christ will come in a cloud and judge the living and the dead, and that the cosmos will be renewed, strikes me as unbelievable.  I don't think I have the full picture, but this has caused me a lot of distress.

Thanks.  These doubts were a mighty Lenten penance, let me tell you.



In one of my favorite cartoons, three young men are hanging out and talking about the Resurrection.  The first says, “Okay, so what do you think happened to Jesus’ body after he died?”  The second replies, “I think an alien intelligence converted His entire mass into energy and beamed him into space.”  The first one responds “I think God raised Him from the dead.”  Turning to the third fellow, he asks, “What do you think?”  The third fellow points to the second one and says, “I go with the scientific view.”

It seems to me that “scientific” analyses of things like what our resurrected bodies will be like and how the new heaven and earth will come about are equally comical.  They view as absolutely valid, and apply to God’s own deeds, a set of assumptions which is only contingently valid – assumptions about the relations of mass and energy which apply only at this stage in the history of Creation, and only so long as God does not suspend them by miracle.  We know nothing whatsoever about the ways in which God may manage and arrange these things.

Take the assumption that when the Scriptures speak of the heavens and earth passing away, they are referring to the heat death of the universe.  It’s true that in a closed system, the degree of disorder will always tend to increase, for just the same reasons that my kitchen gets messy over time.  My kitchen, of course, is not a closed system, and I enter it from time to time to wash the dishes and wipe the counters.  If we assume that the universe is a closed system, then it will eventually reach a point of maximum disorder; it will run down.  But if we take seriously the causal activity of God, then the universe is no more a closed system than my kitchen is.

So predictions about what will happen to the universe are always conditioned on the assumption that God just lets the natural laws take their course.  Usually, He does, or we would never be able to count on the sun rising in the morning.  But if He always did, there would never have been a Resurrection.

Let me comment on some of your remarks one at a time.

“The natural sciences paint a world that seems pretty meaningless.”

I understand that you don’t buy into meaninglessness, but I don’t agree that the natural sciences paint such a world.  Certainly materialism does, but you don’t have to be a materialist to practice the natural sciences.  It isn’t as though scientists had a Meaning Guage they could point at the developing mind of a child, seeing the needle swing over and point to Zero.  The instrument which detects meaning is the human mind.

“The sheer scale of the universe is so massive that we seem to be insignificant.”

You are assuming that bigger things are more significant than smaller ones.  C.S. Lewis astutely criticizes this fallacy with the remark that “only a lunatic would think a man six-feet high necessarily more important than a man five-feet high, or a horse necessarily more important than a man, or a man’s leg than his brain.”  So why should we think a mountain, a solar system, a galaxy, or a cosmos more important than a human soul?

The mountain isn’t made in God’s image.  You are.  The solar system cannot love, know God, or exercise free will.  You can.  The cosmos doesn’t even know that it exists.  You do.  You are immeasurably greater than all these things.  Our Adversary wants us to bow down before mere bigness.  God wants us to bow down only before Himself.

True, a certain awe is appropriate in gazing upon a mountain.  But my awe should be for God, who can conceive and make a universe so far beyond my puny powers.  It should not be for the mountain as such.

“If God acted through natural secondary causes for 13.7 billion years, I can assume that he will continue doing the same.”

God does employ secondary causes, but they don’t limit Him.  It isn’t safe to assume that He will always and forever act through the same ones in the same way,  or to assume that the only ones He uses will be natural causes, or that He will never suspend the operation of natural causes, as He has each time He has performed a miracle.  God doesn’t see natural causes lying around and then decide to make use of them.  He created them, too.

Even concerning the physical universe, it isn’t wise to assume that whatever has happened will continue to happen with no change.  There was at first no universe; now there is a universe.  There were at first no stars; now there are stars.  There was at first no life; now there is life.  I am alive now; but I will die.

With rational agents, the assumption is even less justified.  When you were eight, you probably didn’t think much about falling in love with a girl and getting married; now you do.  You once lived in South America; then North America; now another continent.  I once repudiated God; now I have returned to faith in Him.

The same-old-same-old assumption is still less justified with God Himself.  He will do nothing which contradicts His own goodness, but that leaves an awful lot of latitude.  Who could have imagined the plan of salvation?  “Thus says the Lord,” says the prophet Isaiah:  “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.  Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”

“Will there be a Church in the year 22 billion A.D.?”

Who knows?  But in the meantime, why be frightened by how far you can imagine the future to be?  All of history thus far has been the flick of a gnat’s eyelash.  We don’t know how long God will keep the show in motion.  We don’t even know how long He will maintain time itself in existence, for time, like space, is something created.  Nations fail, and civilizations collapse.  Considering how foolish we are, human contrivance couldn’t even have kept the Church in existence until 2000 A.D., yet here we are.

Whenever Christ returns, there will be only the Church Triumphant.  Until that time, the Church Militant will remain in being, for He has promised that the gates of hell will not stand against it. 

“I also have a difficulty picturing Christ coming from heaven and renewing the cosmos -- that we on planet earth in this corner of the milky way are front and center to an event of cosmos wide significance?”

We are God’s images.  Since even a single image of God is greater than the whole cosmos, I don’t have difficulty imagining that everything else was made for rational beings.  I don’t necessarily mean just for us.  For all I know, the imago Dei is also found on a  planet in orbit around Alpha Centauri A, or somewhere in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.

On the other hand, I don’t whether “the heavens” refers just to our heavens or to the whole cosmos.  Suppose it turned out that God did make many species of rational creatures, each in its own planet and region of the heavens.  Suppose, then, that the renewal of the heavens and the earth were in cosmic terms a local event, which might take place many times in many places.  I would marvel to learn this, but I wouldn’t be surprised by it.  God is able to do far more than that.

“When else has God done something like that?”

How do you know that He hasn’t?  Why should you even assume that He hasn’t?  But if He hasn’t, then why should He have to?

“Or why the first 13.7 billion years he did not do some miracle here or there that is traceable by modern science (well I guess the big bang might count).”

In fact, the Church rigorously investigates all sorts of alleged miracles, and involves scientists of various kinds in the investigation.  For example, it investigates alleged miraculous healings, accepting only those which really happened and cannot be explained in any other way.  Quite a few are thrown out!  But there seem to be rather a lot of them.  It has always seemed to me unreasonable for agnostics to protest that extraordinary claims, such as the Divinity of Christ, require extraordinary evidence -- then throw out extraordinary evidence.

There is excellent historical evidence even for that most astonishing of all miracles, the Resurrection itself.  Consider the fine article by philosopher Robert Lane Craig, “Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  I concede that we don’t have, say phonographic, photographic, or seismographic data on the Resurrection.  But if we are going to throw out historical evidence, then as Craig points out, we may as well not believe that Julius Caesar was really a Roman emperor.

“The idea that Christ will come in a cloud and judge the living and the dead, and that the cosmos will be renewed, strikes me as unbelievable.”

I don’t even know what the Scriptures mean by Christ coming “in a cloud” – biblical language for things we haven’t directly experienced is usually figurative.  But considering the Divine Omnipotence, I don’t see why the Last Things should be unbelievable.  Sheer incredulity is not a reason to be incredulous.  It is just an impediment to considering the matter.

Good heavens, these days we are even expected to believe that scientists will be able to resurrect wooly mammoths from scraps of prehistoric DNA.  Then may we not believe that the Lord of Life can raise the dead?  Tulane University physicist Frank J. Tipler believes that through the advance of science, intelligent species will literally evolve into God, bringing everyone back to virtual life in a virtual reality.  His notion  that dependent being could turn itself into absolute Being is so muddled that one hardly knows how to argue with it.  Yet not only are arguments of this sort taken seriously by serious people, but the same serious people consider it unserious to think that God is already what He Is.  That view is so silly as to beggar imagination.

I’ll tell you something I would find unbelievable:  That the Almighty God would not vindicate His justice by judging the living and the dead, or that the Omnipotent Creator of the Universe could not make all things new!