A common mistake in Bayesian reasoning

You and your friend are investigating a murder, and you have following conversation:
Alice is obviously the culprit. The knife has her fingerprints on it. 
Your friend:
Why are you ruling out Bob? It could have been Carol or Dan, too. Or anyone else, for that matter. 
Um... because of the knife with the fingerprints I just mentioned? 
Your friend:
And you actually think that's solid evidence that Alice did it? 
Of course. It's by far the best explanation for the knife, which is obviously what killed the victim. 
Your friend:
Exactly! The knife is the one thing that we can all agree on. It's the best explanation for the murder, as you just admitted. And since "the murder was committed with a knife" is the best explanation, it is in fact superior to your "Alice did it" explanation. 
What?! That doesn't explain anything. We're trying to figure out who committed the murder. 
Your friend:
Yes, and you and I both agree that the victim was killed by a knife. That eliminates any need for the victim to have been killed by Alice. 
But what about the fingerprints? 
Your friend:
That, too, is something that we both agree on: The knife had fingerprints on it. We now have a very good description of the murder weapon: it is a knife with fingerprints on it. Given this preponderance of evidence that the murder was committed with a knife, which we can describe even down to the fingerprints, I don't see why you insist in bringing in Alice into the picture at all. 
But these are Alice's fingerprints! That obviously points to Alice as the murderer!
Your friend:
See, that way of thinking introduces a number of very bad problems. Why would Alice grip the knife at that point, in that particular way? Why not hold it a few millimeters higher or lower on the grip? Why not use a reverse grip instead of the one that she supposedly used? Why not hold the knife in her left hand instead of her right? Why didn't she wear a glove, or wipe up the knife after the murder, or hire a hit-man? Given all these alternate possibilities, "Alice did it" is actually a terrible explanation for the state of the knife. 
In fact, I can think of many explanations for the knife just as good as your "Alice did it" theory. The knife may have always existed in this state. Or, it could be that a combination of oils, moisture, and heat from outside the knife left an impression that you're interpreting as "Alice's fingerprints". Or these so-called "fingerprints" are an artifact from the knife's manufacturing process. How do you eliminate all these other possibilities? 
Seriously, given all these alternative explanations for the knife, of which there are an infinite number, there's absolutely no reason to think that "Alice did it". That's a terrible explanation. 
Okay, so your friend is clearly being ridiculous here. But what exactly is the nature of his error? If we are to learn from your friend's mistake, we ought to try to understand WHY it's a mistake. We can then identify other analogous situations, avoid the logical pitfall, and reason correctly instead.

Your friend's fundamental mistake is neglecting to compare a hypothesis with its RIVALS. In my series on Bayesian reasoning, I said that you need to specify the complete set of competing hypotheses in order to use Bayes' theorem, and that one of the advantages of the odds form of the theorem is that you merely need two competing hypotheses instead of having to know the complete set. But in both of these cases, the hypotheses need to compete. They need to be rivals. They must be mutually exclusive.

In the above conversation with your friend, "Alice did it"(alone) is mutually exclusive with "Bob did it"(alone), for they cannot both be true. They are rival hypotheses, and it's appropriate to ask which one of the two better explains the evidence. That is the heart of Bayes' theorem. However, "Alice did it" is NOT mutually exclusive with "the knife did it", because obviously Alice could have used the knife to kill the victim. They are not rival hypotheses. It is therefore NOT appropriate to say "the victim was killed by a knife. That eliminates any need for the victim to have been killed by Alice."

The same goes for the "alternative explanations" that your friend offers for the state of the knife, such as the idea that the knife always existed in that state, or that a combination of oils, moisture, and heat from outside the knife left the impression of the fingerprints. What do these have in common? None of them are mutually exclusive with the idea that Alice is the culprit. They are not rivals to the "Alice did it" hypothesis.

Likewise for all of the different ways that Alice could have wielded the knife: what is the probability that Alice's fingerprints ended up on the knife in that very specific way, given that she could have held the knife higher or lower on the grip, or wiped down the knife afterwards? Admittedly, it's very small. But that's not the end of the story: this probability now has to be compared with the probability from a RIVAL to the "Alice did it" hypothesis. So, what is the probability that Bob left that fingerprint? Absolutely minuscule, even compared to Alice's probability mentioned earlier: for not only would Bob have to hold that knife exactly in the same way that Alice held it, he furthermore has to somehow leave Alice's fingerprints while doing so. The ratio of these probabilities is what makes the knife serve as evidence pointing to Alice as the culprit.

The lesson here is that you are not done with your analysis until you've connected your ideas back to a set of RIVAL hypothesis. Ignoring this condition is an outright mathematical error in applying Bayes' theorem. It's akin to thinking that the sum of the sides in a triangle must add up to 180 inches. Your friend, in the conversation above, always stopped his analysis at the knife, instead of continuing it back to a set of competing hypothesis. He should have extended his analysis of the knife back to an "Alice did it", "Bob did it", "Carol did it", or a "nobody did it" hypothesis. That would have been the correct way to make his case. Then he would have seen that the knife DOES point to Alice being the culprit, DESPITE the fact that there are more likely "explanations" for the knife, because these "explanations" are NOT RIVALS to the "Alice did it" hypothesis. But among the rivals, "Alice did it" IS the most likely and therefore the best explanation for the state of the knife.

But your friend never did any of this. This was his mistake, which lead to his incorrect conclusions about the case.

Furthermore, your friend tried to sneak in the evidence - the knife - as a part of the "not Alice" hypothesis, when it should have remained as evidence to be considered by the set of competing hypotheses. In essence, the "not Alice" hypothesis became a parasite attached to a completely unrelated (but strongly supported) hypothesis - the "victim was killed with a knife" hypothesis. This is a common cheat when one wants to shore up a weak hypothesis, which cannot explain the evidence. Your "not Alice" hypothesis can't explain the knife with the fingerprints? Just attach the knife as part of your "not Alice" hypothesis, and say that your hypothesis explains everything. You think humans haven't been to the moon, but you can't explain the photos and the videos from the Apollo missions? Just attach them to your hypothesis, by saying that they're part of the government's moon landing conspiracy. You think there's no God, but you can't explain how that would result in the universe as it actually exists? Just sneak in science as part of your hypothesis, and parasitically leech off its prestige and pretend that it belongs to your hypothesis.

I would not be writing all this, except that I see this error made repeatedly, even by people who say they understand Bayesian reasoning. For instance, I've seen people say:

'Platonism explains the orderliness of the universe as well as theism, therefore the orderliness of the universe is not any evidence for theism.' The correct way to make this argument would require you to move past Platonism, to a rival to theism such as polytheism or atheism. So, for example, 'Polytheism explains the orderliness of the universe as well as theism, therefore the orderliness of the universe is not any evidence for theism over Polytheism' would be a sound argument, if polytheism did in fact explain why the universe should be orderly. As it stands, Platonism is not a rival to theism, and that invalidates the argument.

'If the universe were a simulation designed to study life, that would explain the existence of life far better than divine fine-tuning. Therefore the fine-tuning argument is not any evidence for a creator god.' Again, the idea of the universe as a simulation is not a rival to divine fine-tuning. Obviously a god could have created the universe by fine-tuning a set of agents to run a simulation that is our universe. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, and that invalidates this argument. In order to make the argument correctly, you must evaluate the existence of life with respect to the RIVALS of divine fine-tuning, such as random atheistic chance, or a god that's uninterested in life.

'A universe designed to produce black holes is just as good an explanation for why it's suited for life as a universe designed for life. Therefore, the existence of life is no evidence for a fine-tuning God.' This is exactly like the previous case: a universe designed to produce black holes is not mutually exclusive with God creating life. God could have made the universe suitable for life by creating it to produce many black holes. In order for you to make the initial argument correctly, you must either explain why a RIVAL to the God hypothesis would be more likely to make a black hole filled universe, or be more likely to create life directly with or without black holes.

'We can construct a system of morality without God by starting from the Golden Rule, which everyone agrees on. Therefore, morality is not any evidence for God'. By this point, you should know the key question to ask: is the Golden Rule mutually exclusive with God? Of course not. The analysis is therefore incomplete. To finish this line of thought, you must argue that some rival to the God hypothesis is a better explanation for the Golden Rule. For instance, you can try explaining how an atheist is under a stronger obligation to follow the Golden Rule than a believer. That is how you would bring the argument back to a set of competing hypothesis.

Remember that a hypothesis must be judged against its RIVALS. The competing hypothesis must be mutually exclusive. According to the rules of Bayesian reasoning, you are not done making your argument until you've brought it down to the evaluation of the hypothesis against its rivals.

You may next want to read:
Basic Bayesian reasoning: a better way to think (Part 1)
Science as evidence for Christianity against atheism (introduction)
Another post, from the table of contents

Questions from seekers - short answers to common questions (Part 3)

This is a continuation of my previous post. The same caveats mentioned there apply.

Q: What happens to people who never hear about God?

A: This is essentially asking what happens to those who are not given enough knowledge to be held accountable. Quite honestly, I'm not sure. But there are some guidelines that we can see from the Bible concerning how God judges such people.

First, we know that God is a God of love. He will certainly judge such people with his love, and his justice.

Second, we are told that what may be known about God is plainly seen in his creation, so that people are without excuse. So even if someone did not receive formal instruction in Christianity, that does not excuse them from remaining ignorant about God.

Also, we know that salvation comes through Christ, and that there is no other way. Now, this does not mean that someone who doesn't hear about Jesus is necessarily condemned, just that if such a person is saved, even that salvation is through Jesus.

God also tells us he judges according to how much we know. To those who knows much (like us, who have access to the Bible and all the teachings of the church), much is demanded. To those who know little, less is demanded. He also tells us that we will be judged according to the standards that we ourselves use.

We also know that at least some people in the Old Testament, such as Moses and Elijah, are saved, although they didn't know Jesus as we know him now.

Lastly, there is a controversial verse that seems to say that Jesus preached to those who are dead after he was crucified. Perhaps this could be interpreted to mean that those who die without hearing the gospel get a second chance.

Overall, then, we can conclude that, among those who never hear about God, some are saved while some are not, depending on their actions. Exactly what the criteria for salvation is for such people, we are not told (and I doubt there is a general criteria). The only thing that we do know is that for us, there is a specific criteria, which is faith.

Q: What does the Bible say about...
Pain, where it's from
Tragic events

A: On suicide: The Bible doesn't speak directly on suicide, but we can infer a few things about it. The Bible essentially says that our lives belong to God. This would put suicide in the same category as murder, since they would both be the unlawful killing of a life that you have no right to. However, suicide is a special case, because by its very mechanism it excludes the possibility of repentance. So the question now becomes, "what happens when someone does not repent for a murder?". I personally think such a person can be forgiven if he is a Christian, but the fact that he committed suicide would make me wonder if he really was a Christian in the first place.

On pain, and where it's from: First, it should be noted that not all types of pain are bad or evil. For example, I think it's a good thing that we feel pain when we put our hand on a dangerously hot object. Also, the aches after a hard workout are sometimes quite satisfying and pleasurable.

Having said that, we now ask, "what about the evil kind of pain, or needless suffering?" Then the questions turns into the problem of evil. Why does God allow evil? The simple answer to this question is that evil is a necessary side effect of creating beings with free will. This is another topic on which much could be said, and I encourage you to look elsewhere for a more complete treatment.

On tragic events: This is closely related to the topic of pain and evil. Basically, tragic events happen as a consequence of the sinfulness of the human condition, as a consequence of free will. But one great comfort about tragic events is that God is in control. Nothing happens apart from the will of God, even tragic events, and we know that although an event may be tragic, all things work together for the good of those who love God.

On sex: The Bible's guideline for sex is found in Genesis and parts of Paul's letters. Basically, sex is the ceremony that causes a husband and wife to be joined in one flesh. The Bible also says that if someone wants to withhold himself from sex and marriage for the sake of God, that is a noble thing, but nothing should be detracted from someone who decides to get married and have sex. As a part of God's creation, sex is one of those things that God decreed to be very good.

On lust: Lust is the sinful condition that develops when sex and sexual desire is corrupted. Notice this immediately implies that not all sexual thought or activity is lustful, so it's not as if we have to repress our sexuality in order to avoid lust. Rather, lust emerges when sex is corrupted and twisted in such a way that it interferes with your relationship with God.

On greed: Like Lust, greed is a corrupted form of what is, in itself, proper and good. We should have a certain respect for money, and know how much we should earn, spend, and save. When this respect for money and your finances becomes corrupted into the love of money, all kinds of evil comes forth. The Bible thoroughly speaks against greed.

On addiction / indulgence: I'll answer these together, since the answers are related. Basically, there's this guiding principle in the Bible, laid out by Paul: " 'Everything is permissible', but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible', but not everything is constructive. 'Everything is permissible', but I will not be mastered by anything". Basically, there are things which are not specifically prohibited, and therefore are not a sin. Things like smoking, alcohol, gambling, or other things that we can 'indulge' in fall into this category. But allowing any one of these things to master us in some way, such as in an addiction, is a sin. Also, even if our partaking of such things doesn't go as far as an addiction, we still have to examine ourselves and ask, 'Is this beneficial? Is this constructive? Could I be doing something more beneficial or constructive?'.

Q: How does a God of Love send his people to hell? Isn't he sad?

A: Just the same, we can ask, 'How does a God of Justice send anyone to heaven? Don't we all deserve hell?'. And when we ask this question, the flaw in both questions is immediately seen. They are both one-sided representations of God's character. It's true that mercy triumphs over judgement, but to talk only of God's love without his justice is a misrepresentation of God.

In fact, it is probably more appropriate to ask the second question rather than the first. For we should remember that in some sense, God is under no obligation to be loving. None of us are without sin. It would be good and right for God to send the entire humanity to hell. This is the default condition. If God was somehow required to save us, then he would not be a loving God, but merely a dutiful God.

But this is what makes God's love amazing. Out of his love for us, when we were by nature objects of his wrath, when we where by nature his enemies, when he was not required to, God chose to go out of his way to save us.

So, then, the quick answer to "Why does God send people to hell?" is "because he is a just God". The answer to "Why does God send people to heaven?" is "because he is a loving God". The next question that would get asked is, "How are God's Love and Justice reconciled?", and, of course, the answer is "in Jesus Christ, in that Jesus takes upon himself the judgement of God that comes from his justice and gives out the favor of God that comes from his Love, for everyone who is in Christ".

This gives us another way to answer the question. God's love is manifest in Jesus Christ. What if someone were to reject Jesus? When God offers salvation through Jesus to us, he offers every good thing that he has to give. And when someone rejects Jesus, God will withdraw from him, according to his wishes. And since all goodness comes from God, when God withdraws, the man who rejects God will be left alone with just his sin and its consequences, with nothing good left. In other words, he will be in hell.

So God doesn't really "send" people to hell. It's not as if he's gleefully throwing people into the fiery pit. Rather, hell is a condition that a man brings about to himself by rejecting the love of God. And the love of God can do nothing for the man in hell, since it is by the rejection of that love that he is in hell in the first place.

Is God sad because of this? I'm not sure exactly how God could be sad, since there is a poor correlation between human emotions and the "emotions" of God. But to put it in a crude way, I guess you can say that people in hell make God sad. But apparently, when God thought this whole thing up, he thought the world was still worth creating. I guess that means that God happiness over the people in heaven outweighs the sadness over the people in hell.

You may next want to read:
Orthodoxy vs. living out the Gospel: which is more important?
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity
Another post, from the table of contents

Questions from seekers - short answers to common questions (Part 2)

This is a continuation of my previous post. The same caveats mentioned there apply.

Q: What happens to Christians when they don't pray for forgiveness of their sins? (whether they know it's wrong or not) does God forgive? Forget?

A: To answer this question, it is useful to remember that God is a friend. In any friendship, one person may wrong his friend (sin against the friend), then not ask for forgiveness, because he wasn't aware that he had wronged his friend, or because he thought it was too trivial, or whatever. The consequence of this would probably be an understanding, implicit forgiveness from the wronged friend. So the two people would stay as friends, but it would have been better if no wrong was committed in the first place, or if there was an explicit request for forgiveness. So it is with God. He will forgive us for sins that we don't confess, but it would be better for us to confess them.

The situation changes drastically if we know that we must ask for forgiveness, yet don't do it. This is like saying to God, "I know that I've done wrong, but I'm not going to ask for forgiveness" If this were to happen in a friendship, normal interaction between the two people would become impossible. The friendship would be strained until it broke. So if a person flatly refuses to repent for a sin that God has clearly convicted him of, then he would not be able to carry out his relationship with God normally. His spiritual life would suffer more and more, until it becomes clear that he is not a Christian.

Q: Where/when did sin first originate? Was it first in the serpent in the Garden of Eden? Because I thought it started when God kicked Satan out of Heaven, but that isn't covered in the beginning of the Bible. The Bible starts with God creating heaven and earth, the story of Adam and Eve.

A: Sin entered the human race at the Garden of Eden, right after creation, but it had existed in Satan before then. You're completely right. It's just that the Bible starts with the story of this world, as oppose to the story of the spiritual world, where Satan first sinned. We know of Satan's fall, because the Bible mentions it in passing in some other places, notably Isaiah and Revelations.

Q: What do you see/ feel/ think when you pray or think about God? Do you see the cross, a person, or what?

A: First, praying to God and thinking about God are two different things. One of the things that I have trouble with is merely thinking about God when I should really be praying to him.

When I think about God, what I see or feel depends on what exactly I'm thinking about. Sometimes I see geometric shapes, if I'm trying to draw an analogy. Sometimes I feel very relaxed, when I consider how God is in control. Sometimes I feel terrified, when I consider the magnitude of the universe that he has built.

When I pray to God, I don't think I see anything. I don't know if this makes any sense, but it is spirit communicating with spirit, and there are no images to associate with such things. Of course, if I'm praying about a specific physical event or thing, I'll have that image in my mind. And my feelings during prayer change, depending on the topic.

I should put in a word of warning about having images of God in your mind, though. Generally, it is not a good idea to give an image to God. Too often the object itself will become God, instead of representing God. And even if we recognize the image to be just a representation of God, there is no way that such an image can do justice to God. For these reasons, the second of the Ten Commandments is that we should not make any images (idols) of God. Some people take this as far as to say that we should not have pictures of Jesus. Furthermore, there is the danger that such an image will only be a projection of ourselves, with the common complaint being that we often see Jesus as white, anglo-saxon protestant republican/democratic male.

Q: If a woodchuck could chuck wood, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck?

A: I've heard that a woodchuck cannot chuck wood. I think I've also heard 700. Your guess is as good as mine.

Q: Are things in the Old Testament changed by the New?

A: In some sense, yes. Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law (the law being a very important part of the Old Testament), not to abolish it. So the spirit of the laws remained unchanging (since they were not abolished), but the letter of the law, or the carrying out of the rituals, changed. (since certain rituals no longer had any meaning, because the fulfillment of those rituals was in Jesus). So we no longer offer animal sacrifices, because Jesus is our sacrifice. But "love the Lord your God..." command still stands, since the spirit of that command was unaffected by Jesus's coming. This should really be looked at case by case.

Q: Why do bad people or people who commit big sins or crimes get rewarded, or get away with it?

A: I think this answer is from Augustine: If God rewarded every good deed and punished every evil deed in this world, then people would not believe in the next world. On the other hand, if God did not reward or punish anyone, then people would not believe that God is a just God. Thus, God sometimes rewards and punishes people in this world, with the consequence being that some people who sin get away with it (but wait 'till they get to the next world!).

Q: Is a person who believes in a higher power ( you can call him God if you want) considered a Christian? Like they know that there's a higher being that's controlling life... so is that a Christian? Or do they have to have that relationship with God by trying to get to know him and fellowship with him?

A: A person who simply acknowledges a higher power is not a Christian. Jesus himself said that nobody comes to God but through him. So for everyone who has enough knowledge about God and Jesus to be held accountable, they must explicitly believe in the God manifested by Jesus Christ to be a Christian. (For those who do not have enough knowledge to be held accountable, see the question in the next post)

Q: Since people are pre-chosen, do they still have free will, though they are under God?

A: Yes. One of the common misconceptions about predestination is that it is incompatible with free will. It is not. One of the better explanations that I have heard on this subject goes something like this: Say that I see a person doing push-ups. Of course, this doesn't mean that I'm forcing that person to do push-ups. Now, we extend to God, who is not limited by time. If God sees someone doing push-ups in the future, then that person is predestined to do so. However, that doesn't mean that God is forcing that person to do push-ups, since to watch someone do something is obviously not the same as forcing that person to do it.

This is really just scratching the surface of the free will / predestination problem. If this answer is not adequate (right now, I don't want to explore the topic in its entirety, which might be more answers than you had questions for), then there is probably more about this issue out there than I care to read in a lifetime. So go look!

Q: If God is all-powerful, why doesn't he make everyone Christian, allowing them all to go to heaven?

A: First, it would be beneficial to examine what we mean by "heaven". Heaven is a physical place (it is a different kind of physicality than that of this world, but it is still a physical place). So God can bring someone into heaven by forcing that person to be a Christian, bringing him to a location in heaven, and that person would be "in heaven".

However, and much more importantly, heaven is a state of being in relationship with God. To roughly paraphrase Jesus, 'now this is eternal life, that we may know God'. As such, all Christians, even while living in this world, are in heaven. (It is important to note that Jesus speaks of the "Kingdom of God" in the present tense in the Bible). Now, what would happen if God tried to force someone to become a Christian to put them in this kind of heaven?

The idea of a relationship would immediately be destroyed. If God forced someone to be a Christian, that is no longer a relationship. It would be like a small child playing with a doll, and pretending to be friends with that doll. Since the child is "all powerful" in being able to make the doll do anything he wants, he can certainly make the doll be his "friend". But he cannot have a relationship with this doll. Even God cannot have a relationship with a being without free will.

So a person, if forced to become a Christian by God, cannot be in this heaven of knowing God. God can even bring such a person into the physical heaven, but what would be the point? He would be about as happy there as the child's doll would be in Disneyland.

It may be disturbing to hear that God cannot do something (i.e. that God cannot have a relationship with a being without free will). But this is because the act in question is itself nonsense, and even self-contradictory. God cannot make a round square, nor create a being more powerful than himself, nor sin, nor make a statement true and false at the same time. A piece of nonsense doesn't suddenly make good sense because we put the words "God can..." in front of it. The question of whether or not God can force people to become Christians to go to heaven falls into this category.

The questions and answers are continued in my next post.

You may next want to read:
Questions from seekers - short answers to common questions (Part 3) (Next post of this series)
Can God make a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?
Basic Bayesian reasoning: a better way to think (Part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents

Questions from seekers - short answers to common questions (Part 1)

I once ran a college small group for new Christians and non-Christians. Here are some questions I got from this group, and my answers to these questions. They've been edited slightly for clarity and minor changes in my views, but they're otherwise presented as they were presented to the students. Enjoy!

Two things to keep in mind:

1. These are relatively short answers to big questions, addressed to college students in a small group setting. There is certainly much more that can be said on each question. On some of these questions I've already written a whole series of posts, or I plan on doing so in the future.

2. Don't let the little things keep you from the central message of Christianity: that although God created us to be like him, we chose to violate his laws and walk down the path to destruction. But God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to rescue us, so that whosoever would trust in Christ will not perish, but instead receive pardon from his or her sins, and the blessing of becoming the child of God.

Q: How is evolution/biology explained? Is it just a theory, or does it actually relate to things in the Bible? Was evil created along with other traits that people have?

(Edit: this is one of the questions that I devoted many posts to answering more thoroughly elsewhere. If you want to see what I actually think, apart from having to be diplomatically representative of Christianity to a group of new Christians and non-Christians, give that link a read)

A: This is a very general question, so it is not likely that my answer is satisfactory. Although I have some general ideas about the interpretation of Genesis, I am still working out some of the details for myself. You are encouraged to look into other sources if my answer leaves you wanting more.

Evolution is a theory. However, it is not "just a theory". It is a theory that many intelligent people happen to think is the correct one. Furthermore, it does have some relation to parts of the Bible, namely Genesis 1 and 2. According to evolution, one species gradually changed into another through natural selection. Genesis 1 and 2 says things like 'Then God said "Let there be birds", and there was birds. And it was the fifth day.' This is then repeated for the various types of animals. To explain evolution from the Bible, these opening chapters of Genesis has to be interpreted.

For simplicity's sake, I'll classify the many different ways of interpreting Genesis into three categories. The first school of thought is that what the Bible says is literally true. The subscribers to this school of thought believe that the world (and its lifeforms) were created in six days, and by "days", they believe mean a 24-hour period. The earth is about 6000 years old, according to them. They would claim that evolution is flat out wrong, that each species were created by God as they were, simply by God's command.

I personally admire this school for valuing the integrity of the Bible. This is by far the simplest and the most straightforward way of interpreting Genesis. They do have numerous methods at their disposal for dealing with scientific objections to their view, some of which can be convincing. Some of them would say that even though Genesis is completely contrary to evolution, the Bible must be believed simply by faith.

The most obvious weakness of this position is that it contradicts much of modern science. Also, many pointed questions detrimental to this view can be asked, such as: "if the sun was made in the fourth 'day', then how long was a 'day' before the sun was made?" So, this view has its strength in the simple, clear interpretation, but it is weakened by the necessity of having to reject evolution completely, and its narrow-minded view of the Bible, in claiming that the Bible must be interpreted literally.

The second school of thought claims that the first few chapters of the Bible are not a completely literal record, but a rough outline that compresses the billions of years into just a few pages. They would claim that life came about more or less the way science describes it, but that it was divinely guided. The "days" would represent eons, and the description of each "day" is a simplified version of the cosmological or evolutionary events taking place, written in such a way that someone in ancient times could understand it, without modern science being a prerequisite. They are quick to point out that the order of creation closely follows the order of evolution (plant life, aquatic animals, land animals, then humans). They have a very strong position in being able to point out providence in the workings of the accepted history of the universe and the earth (e.g. life starting from chance has a very low, practically impossible scientific probability, so God had to be there.). But they tend to be plagued by some minor discrepancies in their attempted synthesis of Bible and science.

The third camp would interpret the first few chapters of Genesis purely figuratively, claiming that it has no bearing on physical events whatsoever. Thus, they would not have to explain evolution at all, since this interpretation of Genesis doesn't speak about evolution. Their position can be held while still taking the Bible at its face value, but it does require some interpretational gymnastics. It is obviously good that science doesn't have to bend to accommodate the supremacy of the Bible, but this view has its share of troubles. It is somewhat tainted, because non-Christians who have no regard for the Bible can also believe that the creation is purely figurative. So by association, a person might appear to be challenging the Bible, even if he has a perfectly biblical explanation as to why the creation should be interpreted figuratively. Another possible pitfall for this school of thought is to say, "Oh, the creation account is symbolic, so I don't have to worry about it", then go on to never study anything in the first chapters of Genesis.

So, there you have it, the three different ways that a Christian can "explain" evolution. But it should be noted here, that perhaps this is not all that important. The purpose of the creation account is not to say whether evolution is right or not. It is to show that God created the heavens and the earth, that man was made in the image of God and made masters over creation, and that man fell away from God by sinning. These points are far more important than what the Bible has to say about evolution.

About the "creation" of evil, it should be said that evil was not "created". Not by God, at least. Furthermore, evil was not created along with other traits of man (I presume the question is asking whether evil developed by evolution). It is a result of man's willful disobedience to God, and therefore has it's origin in the heart (or soul) of man, and not in his physical body.

Q: Do we know that we are sinning when we sin? What happens after we sin? (We suffer the consequences?) But then God forgives us? Or has he already forgiven us? Since we know Jesus died for our sins, do people think that they would be okay if they sin?

A: We do not always know that we sin. Someone who is completely sinful would think that nothing that he does is a sin, since one of the effects of sin is to make you more numb towards sin, to deaden your conscience. Conversely, as we grow closer to God, we become better at identifying sin.

As for the consequences of sin, we (and by "we", I mean Christians) certainly do not pay the full penalties of the sins, which would be eternal damnation. In fact, God forgives us completely of all sin, to such an extent that he says that he does not remember our sins anymore. Because we have forgiveness in Jesus, God does not keep track of our sins to use against us, or hold any grudge for our sins. Our forgiveness is complete. However, when a Christian sins, he may still suffer. But this suffering is completely under God's control, and it is different from the full consequences of sin running its course, unchecked by God. We have God's assurance that all things, including suffering for sin, work together for the good of those who love God. You can think of a Christian's suffering for sin as a disciplinary action, whereas the suffering that is the natural consequences of sin, suffered by a non-Christian, is more like a punitive measure. As to exactly when we are forgiven (After we sin? Before we sin?), this gets tricky, because of the strange relationship between God and time. We know that God forgave us because of Jesus before the world began, but we still must ask for his forgiveness for any particular sin, so that we can actually reap the benefits of that forgiveness.

Yes, people do think that it's okay to sin because Jesus died for their sins. Unfortunately, they have a very bad understanding of what "Jesus died for your sins" means. As a Christian, we died to sin. How could we go on living in it? Jesus died to free us FROM sin, not to free us TO sin. We must remember that this is the purpose of God's salvation for us. Therefore if anyone rather likes their sins, then such person might want to reconsider whether they want to be saved or not. To say that it's okay to sin because Jesus died for our sins, is like an alcoholic saying that it's okay to get drunk every day since he goes to AA meetings.

Q: Does the Bible talk about the end of the world? And what does it say?

A: And thus opened the proverbial can of worms. Yes, the Bible does talk about the end of the world, notably in Revelations, and also in Daniel and parts of the Gospels. Unfortunately, these are parts of the Bible that are very difficult to interpret. As for the things we are sure of, there is the second coming of Christ, and the Judgement. The details are very complicated. I suggest that you read Revelations for yourself if you want to know more, since there's so much that I couldn't possibly write it all, and I am not sure how to interpret much of those passages myself.

The questions and answers are continued in my next post.

You may next want to read:
Questions from seekers - short answers to common questions (Part 2) (Next post of this series)
Interpreting the Genesis creation story: an introduction
How is God related to all other fields of study?
Another post, from the table of contents