Category Archives: spiritual

What Jesus’ resurrection says about politics

Easter reminded me of an essay I wrote last year at Laidlaw… We had to write about something to do with the resurrection of Jesus, and I decided to write about its political significance.

It’s pretty compacted because I was (unwisely) trying to cram a massive number of points and perspectives into a short word limit, but you may find it interesting.

Here it is if you’re keen to have a read!


Why following Jesus made me an anarchist

Well, a perpetually backslidden anarchist anyway (thanks Manu for that phrase).

Hi, here’s some essays I wrote recently for a religious studies course on ‘Jesus, the Gospels and the Coming of God’.  They represent some of my first sustained attempts to explain the non-violent/anarchical understanding of Christianity that’s been brewing in my brain for the last four years or so (well, unless you include facebook arguments, which i suppose got me ready for these essays – thanks Quentin, Levi et al… i dedicate these to you).

The first is about a passage in Mark’s gospel where two of his disciples want to be kings of the castle. I manage to work in a Catcher in the Rye quote.

The second is my answer to the question, ‘Was Jesus a pacifist? How has Jesus’ teaching on non-violence been assessed in Christian interpretation?’ I basically say – Yes he was non-violent, but No he wasn’t passive, he was a revolutionary non-violent anarchist, and the reason we Christians often don’t follow in his footsteps is because before we start reading the bible we’ve already been hoodwinked into worshipping the powers that killed Jesus.

I’m particularly happy with the second one, but i probably won’t get a very good mark because it’s triple the word limit (quadruple if you include footnotes … Oops).

here they are.

1. The way of Jesus and the ways of the world: Mark 10:35-45

2. Was Jesus a pacifist?

Comments welcome.

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Paul and politics (2 essays)

I did these in late 2009 for Religious Studies 350: “Studies in Christian Theology: Paul, the first Christian Theologian” at Victoria University of Wellington.

They’re both on the theme of what the apostle Paul thought about politics and governments.  The first looks at an infamous passage from Romans 13 which seems like Paul’s saying he loves the Roman empire, while the other one explore the idea that Paul’s theology was strongly opposed to the Roman empire.  Facebook discussion here:


"Apostle Paul" by Andrei Rublev

Paul and politics: What do we learn from Luke’s account of Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi (Acts 16:16-40) and Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1-7 about his understanding of Christian political responsibility?

Ideas of Christian political responsibility have traditionally been very conservative; particularly when looking at the apostle Paul’s opinion on the matter. This is strange given the revolutionary nature of the gospel itself and Paul’s promises of a coming kingdom that would put an end to all existing ones. The main Pauline text, indeed main Biblical text cited on the subject of governments is Romans 13:1-7[1], which reads like a ringing endorsement of the “powers that be”, and “threatens to shipwreck any but a politically conservative reading of … Paul’s theology”[2]. Yet there are many other mentions of governing authorities in the Bible, and involving Paul. One such example is Paul’s and Silas’ time in prison in Philippi; their rather unusual reaction to their rather unusual circumstances of their imprisonment is recorded in Acts 16:16-40.

This article will discuss several views of Christian political responsibility in the light of these two passages. Romans 13:1-7 will be taken as the theory, and Acts 16:16-40 as the practice; in effect, Acts 16 will be used as a test to determine how well the different interpretations of Romans 13 stack up to how Paul actually behaved when confronted with authorities. There are several limitations to this approach. Modern scholars warn against treating Romans 13 as an abstract “theory of the state”, as it is a situational statement to specific people in a specific context[3]. There can be discrepancies between theory and practice, and opinions can change over time[4]. And there may be disagreement between Luke’s portrayal of Paul in Acts and Paul’s portrayal of himself in Romans. What this all amounts to is that the Acts and Romans passages will not necessarily correlate completely as theory and practice, though we should not presume that they will disagree. A preferred interpretation of Paul’s political views will be one which is consistent with both texts.

The first way of reading Romans 13, and Paul’s political views in general, is what we will call the “legitimising interpretation”. This takes Romans 13 as saying that God supports the powers that be, and thus the Christian political responsibility is to support them too. This has been the most common way this passage has been used throughout history, and correspondingly this passage been the most common text consulted for a Christian view of the state. Martin Luther[5], John Calvin[6] and John Wesley[7] all interpreted the passage in this way, and supported secular authority even while rebelling against church authority, and there has been near-unanimity on this interpretation amongst Protestants ever since[8]. Yet perhaps more importantly than theologians, governments themselves in Christian nations have followed this interpretation to their own advantage; using Romans 13 as the standard text to justify their own power and everything they might use it for. In effect it has given carte blanche to tyrants[9]. The problem with this interpretation from a political and ethical point of view has become more obvious in recent years. The genocide wrought by the might of Hitler, Stalin and Mao in the twentieth century convinced many people that, despite what Paul seemed to be saying, might is not always right; it is often very very wrong. More and more people have been asking if that was really what Paul was saying after all[10].

A popular reading nowadays says that the passage only applies to “good” governments, a “state so properly called”. Oscar Cullmann, one of the first to prominently rethink Romans 13 in light of Nazism, takes this approach, and says that the Christian political responsibility is subjection only when the the state stays within its God-appointed limits; when it steps outside of them, other passages such as Revelation 13 apply and the Christian political responsibility is to oppose them[11]. However, it is left up to the individual to decide when a government is good enough for Romans 13 or bad enough for Revelation 13. This updates the legitimising interpretation for an individualistic modern context; instead of blessing whatever political leaders happen to hold power over an area, it blesses whatever political opinion happens to hold power over the mind of each individual – effectively neutering Romans 13 from saying anything at all. However, the text does not make any distinction between good and bad governments; it refers to all authorities, and so must our interpretation and application[12]. There are no exceptions; even Nero, who was emperor at the time Romans was written, was not an exception.

In practice, I suspect that this view usually works out to be equivalent to the classic legitimising interpretation, because people usually have rosy-coloured glasses about their own nation. To US evangelicals, the US is a “good government” while socialist regimes in Latin America are “bad governments” (televangelist Pat Robertson called for the US to assassinate Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez[13]); Latin American Catholics are likely to see it the other way around. Most Christians still seem to take from Romans 13 that their political responsibility is to support the government under which they live, so I have placed this in the same category as the legitimising interpretation.

Putting these legitimising interpretations to the practical test of Acts 16:16-40, there is some correlation. Paul and Silas obey the magistrate and accept its punishments, praising God while in prison. Even when an earthquake gives them the opportunity for escape, they do not do so. However, they certainly do not approve of their punishment, and they force the magistrates to face up to the fact that they have not even lived up to their own laws. In the process they bring into the open the hypocrisy of the laws and indeed the entire system, where rank and status largely determined how the authorities treated people[14], rather than repaying good for good and evil for evil (Rom 13:3-4). Constructive criticism of a regime can be consistent with respecting it as an institution. But they way in which they criticise seems to gel more with the third interpretation of Romans 13 which we will look at in due course.

From a theological point of view, the main problem of the legitimising interpretation is that it takes the passage completely out of context, failing to recognise that at face value, Romans 13:1-7 goes directly against the main thrust of the Bible. From the law to the prophets to the apocrypha to Jesus to the epistles to Revelation, the Bible consistently places itself firmly against the concept, beliefs and practices of empire and central government in general[15]. Recent scholarship[16] is increasingly perceiving that Paul shares this counter-imperial bent. Paul sees Jesus as Lord, which prior to our modern dualism between the religious and the political[17], meant clearly that Caesar was not Lord. Caesar thus received much veiled criticism and satire in Paul’s letters[18]. Romans is no exception; Wright says that its introduction contains many counter-imperial signals[19], while Elliott states that Romans is “nothing less than a direct challenge to the ritual and ceremony of empire”[20]. Narrowing the context down further still, Rom 13:1-7 is part of a wider passage advocating non-conformity and the love of outsiders, including enemies, and must be interpreted in this light[21].

The legitimising interpretation – especially when it is taken as the primary reference for the Christian political stance – undoes all of this counter-imperial thinking, replacing it with the usual imperial pattern that religion supports the state. Thus for almost two thousand years Christianity has held the same function in service to the states of Christendom that Hellenist philosophy held in service to the Roman empire[22], and many other religions have held in many other contexts. Observing that Romans 12-13 are largely about non-conformity to worldly patterns, and noting Mark Strom’s insistence that Paul railed against the Greco-Roman legitimising tendency[23], it would be very strange if Paul was following suit in endorsing the “powers that be”. This would be “a monumental contradiction of Paul’s thought, at several levels”[24].

Even if Paul is endorsing government on some level, there are many points at which Romans 13 doesn’t give the state anywhere near as much ground as mainstream Protestant political opinion does (or other Jews under Roman rule, such as historian Josephus, did[25]):

  • Verse 1 notably doesn’t say to obey the authorities; it says to “be subject”. Vernard Eller points out that that Paul did not hesitate to disobey authorities when it was inconsistent with obeying God (Cf. Acts 5:29) but still remained subject[26].
  • “Instituted by God” (or “ordered by God”[27]) sounds like an endorsement to our modern secularist ears, but can also be taken as a downgrading of imperial power; Jesus uses it this way in John 19:11[28].
  • In verse 2, “do what is good, and you will receive [the authority’s] approval” cannot be taken as universal; Paul’s own life shows many exceptions.
  • In verse 4, “the sword” is a symbol for Roman judicial authority[29]. It does not refer to war, despite evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s citing of this passage to call for war against Iran[30]. Paul’s reference to the sword not being held in vain (or idly) could in fact be a reference to current emperor Nero’s propaganda claiming that the sword in his hand was idle[31].
  • Although the concept of rewarding good for good and evil for evil is praised, this is still a pagan moral standard which falls short of the Christian call to repay evil with good (Cf. Jesus in Matt 5:43-48). Paul makes a clear connection between the wrath Christians must avoid (Rom 12:19) and the wrath wielded by the authority (13:4). The oft-ignored implication of this is that Christians cannot be involved in government themselves[32]. Paul does not categorically forbid participation in government the way he forbids use of the secular law courts in 1 Cor 6:1-8. Yet unlike appealing to the law courts, participation in government was not even an option to Paul’s readers. In any case, any thought of utilising or wielding the state’s retributive judicial authority is precluded by Paul’s forbidding of wrath[33].
  • Being God’s servant for good or ill is not a guarantor of God’s approval; in the Old Testament empires such as Assyria, Persia and even Babylon are said to be God’s unknowing instruments, while not giving an ounce of moral approval to them[34].

The reason this text has been stretched so far in service to the establishment is the same reason that the most ostensibly pro-government passage in all of Scripture is also the most frequently cited passage on government. There is clearly a bias towards the powers here, which is not surprising considering that the church has tended to align itself with power since Constantine. Minority Christian groups who have set themselves against the powers, such as Anabaptists, have not tended towards legitimising[35].

A second, far less common interpretation of the Romans passage is that it is saying precisely the reverse of what it seems to be saying, and advocating rebellion against the actual “powers that be” (13:1). This seems absurd, but William Herzog makes a reasonably convincing argument by drawing upon James C. Scott’s idea of “hidden transcripts”. In the imperial context, Paul was simply not able to openly criticise the government, and was forced to resort to hidden and coded attacks on the empire like those employed by Jewish philosopher Philo[36]. The lack of freedom of thought and expression in the Roman Empire is certainly something that needs to be taken into account; even if Paul is as counter-imperial as proposed, we cannot expect that he can or will “come out and say it”. Comparing Paul to his contemporaries within this context, Neil Elliott observes that Paul has many “striking examples of [subtle] antagonism”[37] to Roman thought and empire. This is an intriguing thought, but if Romans 13 can be considered a camouflaged attack on the authorities, it is so well-camouflaged that it is very difficult to prove.

In any case, whatever rebellion Paul may be calling for is certainly not an all-out revolution against Rome. As such, the fruits of this interpretation look rather similar to the forthcoming “third way” interpretation, and can even be phrased in similar ways (Yoder, a proponent of the third view, says that “’subordination’ is … the Christian form of rebellion”[38]). Lining up this most radical interpretation of Romans 13 against the Acts 16 passage, a case could indeed be made for Paul and Silas subtly rebelling against Rome. However, as we will see, it is a rather strange form of rebellion, serving larger interests than simply saving their hides, and as such, this too is better explained by the third interpretation, to which we now turn.

We have already observed that Rom 13:1-7 is not to be taken as a “theology of the state” but as advice for those outside government on how to respond to it. The upshot of this is that the passage cannot be seen to be in favour of government, but it is against revolution[39], a subtle but important difference in focus. Those who take this advice of Paul’s can think as highly or as lowly as they like about governments, but they must not rise up against them. This allows room for the third view to spring up, a view which acknowledges the critique within the revolution camp (reconciling this passage to Paul’s general counter-imperial bent), but rejects its technique as counter-productive. Christian political responsibility is seen as loving the authorities enough to be subject to them instead of rebelling, even if one is unable to obey some of their commands due to the primacy of obedience to God[40]. When their command is consistent with God’s, we must obey them, or more accurately, obey God; Cf. 1 Peter 4:12-19 which says that it is an honour to suffer for the name of Christ but shameful to suffer as “a murderer, thief, … or even … a mischief maker” (4:15). Following this interpretation of Romans 13, one’s opinion about the worth or use of the authorities is only of relative importance[41], but generally this view will believe that the authorities are illegitimate or evil, or at best a temporary necessity to be dispensed with in due time[42].

So why would Paul counsel subjection to an empire he was no fan of? There are several good reasons. The first is simple pragmatism. Violent revolution would not be successful, it would only lead to brutal repression[43] (recall that the emperor doesn’t bear the sword in vain!). Paul is effectively declaring “The empire is as dangerous as … ever … Exercise caution”[44]. Elliot points out that it wouldn’t just be the Christian community of Rome who would suffer if the sword was swung in reaction, but also the Jewish community. At that time there were occasional attempts at tax revolt, and the situation of Jews in Rome meant that they would usually be scapegoated when it happened, receiving “an effective application of terror”[45]. Paul is thus urging the Christians not to use their freedom in serving the true king Jesus to rebel against the false king Caesar, when it could cause harm to the Jews. If this is part of Paul’s motivation – and it would be consistent with Paul’s peacemaking focus throughout the epistle – it is essentially the same as what he counsels elsewhere with regards to food sacrificed to idols[46], in a scenario with more violent ramifications.

A second reason Paul may have advocated subjection to authorities was that it was “an attempt to apply love in a Christian setting in which the authorities were hated”[47]. This interpretation equates Christian political responsibility with the common New Testament principle of loving one’s enemies, placing Rom 13:1-7 finally at home in the context of chapters 12-13, especially the verses directly preceding. This principle of grace, or loving enemies, means that Christians cannot be involved in the wrathful business of government, but they cannot employ wrath against the government either. To do so would be to “play the empire back at its own game”[48]; the game of wrath, but more specifically, of violence. It is widely known, though rarely taken seriously, that government is based on violence; indeed this is the definition of the state by Max Weber[49]. Any revolution based on violence would thus be the very same sort of thing as the government which it tried to depose. Leo Tolstoy points out the irony of revolution based on resisting evil with violence, when this is precisely what the government is based on, and encouraging the cycle of retaliation only feeds the existing order[50]. The only true way to oppose government also requires opposing violent revolution; it is what Tolstoy calls “non-resistance to evil by force”, what Yoder calls “revolutionary subordination”[51] and what Paul calls being subject. It is refusing to use violence even if it means suffering violence. It is a radically non-conforming suffering love based on the cross of Christ; love unto death inspired by faith that God will redeem according to the pattern of resurrection[52].

It must be noted at this point that Rom 13:1-7 is not a balanced portrayal of Paul’s opposition to both establishment and revolution. In this particular passage Paul comes down much stronger against revolution, which Barth says is because none of his readers would have made the mistake of taking the reactionary side. Revolution is much closer to the truth and therefore much more dangerous[53].

The third reason for subjection is eschatological. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom 12:19) is more than just a prohibition of retribution, it is also a promise that God will put things to rights when his kingdom fully arrives[54]. This includes the destruction of all power and authority[55], but not until the end of times when the “kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord”[56]. While we wait and seek God’s kingdom and his justice, we cannot bring it about through human revolutionary efforts; this would be counter-productive[57]. We should acknowledge that we are still living in the “now-but-not-yet” phase of the gospel story, in which the authorities remain God-ordered[58]. Why God allows the authorities to survive in the meantime is a matter of some debate; N.T. Wright believes that they can be an advance sign of the kingdom in ordering otherwise chaotic societies and restraining injustice and evil from flourishing[59]. He admits, however, to not being a political scientist[60]. My own political education leads me to be far more cynical; I see no material difference beyond scale between “the official tyranny of appointed rulers” and “the unofficial tyranny of the bullies, the strong or the rich”[61]. Power is always seized before it is appointed, and instead of checking injustice governments often maintain and protect it; evil seems to be flourishing just fine despite (or alongside) governments. I have more sympathy for Karl Barth’s contrasting view, that authorities – all of which are ultimately based on tyranny – are only a sign of the kingdom by offering contrast to it[62]. In any case, this does not have any bearing on our political responsibility; as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “It is immaterial whether the power be good or bad, what matters is that the Christian should overcome evil with good”[63].

Returning to our Acts 16 litmus test, this model of suffering love as revolutionary subordination is demonstrated remarkably by Paul and Silas’ actions. They submit to scourging and imprisonment without trial, despite two excellent (and non-violent) opportunities to escape; appealing to their Roman citizenship which legally meant they could not be flogged[64] and escaping when the earthquake miraculously broke open the cell door and their chains. Yet it cannot be said that Paul and Silas agree with their punishment. They call their persecutors to account for their injustice by announcing their citizenship when their release order is given (the most strategic time for challenging Roman justice, but the least strategic time for avoiding punishment). The magistrates are shocked to realise that they have administered the usual arbitrary barbaric non-citizen “justice” to two citizens who are supposed to be high enough up the social ladder to be immune to it. They are afraid (16:38) lest the next rung up the ladder should turn its not-so-idle sword against them for their faux pas; so too the jailer for his (16:27). Meanwhile, Paul and Silas in “doing good” towards the evil authority, are free from fear (Rom 13:3).

Both of Paul and Silas’s choices to shun escape opportunities in favour of subjection lead to victories over the temporal and spiritual powers. Staying in the cell even after the earthquake saved the jailer from the wrath of his superiors (or his preferred option, suicide) as well as converting him to The Way. And submitting to the scourge and imprisonment allowed them to call the magistrates to account and convert the situation from one where the magistrates were persecuting them to one in which they were apologising to them (16:39). These victories are not accomplished through human revolutionary means but by the cross and resurrection model that is the modus operandi of God’s work in history[65]. It could even be said that Paul and Silas, in being subject to the authorities, were heaping burning coals on their heads (Rom 12:20).

It is apparent, therefore, that this “revolutionary subordination” understanding of Paul’s political views is far stronger than the traditional legitimising interpretation in almost every way, aside from being less apparent on a surface-level reading. This view incorporates the idea of suffering love unto death, as per Christ, as the model for Christian action with the eschatological hope that all will be redeemed by God, in his time and in his way; the way of resurrection. The subjection Paul advocates in Romans 13 and lives out in Acts 16 is a vital part of all of this. It is inspiring to imagine what the world would be like if everyone practised this non-violent, non-wrathful, non-discriminating, gracious, revolutionary love. If all made themselves subject instead of seizing power, what authority would remain to be subject to but God himself?


[1] All biblical quotations are taken or paraphrased from the New Revised Standard Version (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989).
[2] Elliott, Neil, “Paul and the Politics of Empire : Problems and Prospects,” in Paul and politics: Ekklesia, imperium, interpretation, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000), 38.
[3] Elliott, Neil, “Paul and the Politics”, 38.
Ellul, Jacques, “Anarchism and Christianity,” Katallagete (Fall 1980), 21.
Marshall, Christopher D., Beyond Retribution : A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 235.
[4] It is unlikely in this particular situation that the radicalism of Paul’s youth in the Acts story gave way to the conservatism of age in Romans, as the imprisonment in Philippi and the writing of Romans both happened around the same season of Paul’s life.
Blue Letter Bible, “Timeline of the Apostle Paul”, (accessed August 2, 2009).
[5] Luther, Martin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. by J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 163-168.
[6] Calvin, John, “Commentary on Romans,” (accessed August 2, 2009).
[7] Wesley, John, “Wesley’s Notes on the Bible : Romans 13,” August 2, 2009).
[8] Yoder, John H, The Politics of Jesus : vicit Agnus noster, Revised ed (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 193.
[9] Elliott, Neil, “Romans 13:1-7 in the Context of Imperial Propaganda,” in Paul and empire : Religion and power in Roman imperial society, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997), 184.
Cullmann, Oscar, The State in the New Testament (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1957), 55-56.
[10] Yoder, 193-194.
[11] Cullmann.
[12] Yoder, 200.
Elliott, “Romans 13:1-7”, 196n.
[13] Robertson, Pat, “Pat Robertson Clarifies His Statement Regarding Hugo Chavez,” (accessed August 2, 2009).
[14] Strom, Mark, Reframing Paul : conversations in grace and community (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 58-72.
[15] Wright, N. Thomas, Paul : In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 59-79.
Ellul, Jacques, Anarchy and Christianity, trans. by Geoffery W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 45-85.
Myers, Ched, Binding The Strong Man : A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988).
Crossan, John D., God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007).
Horsley, Richard A. ,Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003).
Claiborne, Shane & Haw, Chris, Jesus for president : politics for ordinary radicals (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
Bell, Rob & Golden, Don, Jesus Wants to Save Christians : A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
[16] Wright, Paul : In Fresh Perspective.
Horsley, Richard A. (ed), Paul and empire : Religion and power in Roman imperial society (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997).
Horsley, Richard A. (ed), Paul and politics: Ekklesia, imperium, interpretation (Harrisburg: Trinity Press
International, 2000).
Horsley, Richard A. (ed), Paul and the Roman imperial order (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2004).
Crossan, John D. & Reed, Jonathan L., In Search of Paul : How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004).
Walsh, Brian J. & Keesmaat, Sylvia C., Colossians Remixed : Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
[17] This dualism is shown heavily throughout Luther’s commentary on the Romans passage; Luther believes that while God is Lord of our internal being, the government is lord of our external being.
Luther, 163-168.
[18] Wright, Paul : In Fresh Perspective, 77.
[19] Wright, Paul : In Fresh Perspective, 76.
[20] Elliott, “Paul and the Politics”, 39.
[21] Yoder, 196-198.
[22] Strom, 58-69.
[23] Strom, 58-69.
[24] Elliott, “Romans 13:1-7”, 186.
[25] Elliott, Neil, “Strategies of Resistance and Hidden Transcripts in the Pauline Communities” in Hidden transcripts and the art of resistance : applying the work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 119.
[26] Eller, Vernard. “Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers,” (accessed August 2, 2009), ch. 6.
[27] Yoder, 201.
[28] Wright, N. Thomas, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 2, Chapters 9-16 (London, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 86.
[29] Yoder, 203-205.
Marshall, 234-239.
[30] Young, Eric, “Rick Warren raises eyebrows with ‘punish evildoers’ comments,” (accessed August 2, 2009).
[31] Elliott, “Romans 13:1-7”, 203.
[32] Yoder, 203.
[33] There is an interesting contrast here between Jesus’ passage which says that we must love our enemies (“be perfect”) because God is perfect, and Paul’s passage which says we must love them and let God avenge them. However, as Yoder and Marshall point out, God’s wrath is very different from, and not served by, human wrath. This may be a clue to understanding the nature of God’s wrath; in any case, wrath is most unambiguously God’s and not for us.
Yoder, 198n.
Marshall, 145-199.
[34] Wright, Paul : In Fresh Perspective, 65-66.
Wright, Paul for Everyone, 87.
Yoder, 198.
[35] Eller, ch. 5.
[36] Herzog II, William R, “Dissembling, a weapon of the weak : The case of Christ and Caesar in Mark 12:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 21 (1994): 339-60.
Elliott, “Paul and the Politics”, 32-33.
[37] Elliott, “Paul and the Politics”, 33.
[38] Yoder, 200n.
[39] Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. By Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Humphrey Milford, 1922), 481.
[40] Acts 5:29.
[41] Barth, 489.
[42] Barth, 483.
Wright, Paul for Everyone, 78-79.
Cullman, 50.
Revelation 11:15.
[43] Wright, Paul for Everyone, 85.
[44] Elliott, “Strategies”, 121.
[45] Elliott, “Romans 13:1-7”, 191-192.
[46] Rom 14:13-23.
1 Cor 8.
[47] Ellul, “Anarchism”, 22.
[48] Wright, Paul for Everyone, 85.
[49] “Monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force,” (accessed August 2, 2009).
[50] Tolstoy, Leo, The kingdom of God is within you : Christianity not as a mystic religion but as a new theory of life, trans. by Constance Garnett (London: William Heineman, 1894), 63.
[51] Yoder, 162-192.
[52] Yoder, 112-133.
Eller, ch. 10.
[53] Barth, 478.
[54] Wright, N. Thomas, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007).
[55] 1 Cor 15:24.
[56] Rev 11:15.
[57] Wright, Paul : In Fresh Perspective, 69.
[58] Cullmann, 50.
[59] Wright, Paul : In Fresh Perspective, 68-69.
Wright, Paul for Everyone, 85-86.
[60] Wright, Surprised, xiii.
[61] Wright, N. Thomas, “Paul, Leader of a Jewish Revolution,” September 3, 2009).
[62] Barth, 479-480, 485.
[63] Eller, ch. 6.
[64] Paul does in fact use his citizenship to avoid flogging the next time he is arrested in Acts 22:22-29, but once again he uses his imprisonment to call Roman justice to account.
[65] Eller, ch. 9.


Why do several modern scholars construe Paul’s theology as counter-imperial? To what extent is this a departure from traditional ways of understanding Paul’s political orientation?

The apostle Paul is traditionally considered to be an advocate of political quietism; either by devoting all his attention to personal spiritual matters at the expense of any regard for external and political realities, or by giving active support for the powers that be as God’s hand-picked servants. The author of the infamous Romans 13:1-7 passage didn’t even wait for modern liberal democracy before giving his blessing to the state; he went as far as supporting the relatively beastly Roman empire of his day – or at least not opposing it.  Such has been the usual way of looking at Paul in relation to politics and empire. Correspondingly, critics of imperialism both ancient and modern – if they have looked to the Christian tradition at all for support – have rarely looked to Paul. Yet in recent decades, a movement has emerged in Pauline scholarship which finds precisely this kind of counter-imperial sentiment all over the Pauline corpus and at the very core of Paul’s theology. This work by Richard Horsley,[1] Neil Elliott,[2] N.T. Wright[3] and John Dominic Crossan[4] (among others) has represented a dramatic rethink of previous assumptions about Paul’s political orientation, and his theology as a whole.

This new “counter-imperial Paul” school of thought is an attempt to take seriously the context of Paul’s writings. We must understand the religious and political conditions of Paul’s world if we want to move beyond hearing one side of a telephone conversation, or avoid anachronistically applying Paul’s words at face value to completely different contexts.[5] One of the most fundamental differences between the first and the twenty-first centuries, which must be understood if the full significance of Paul’s stance toward empire is to be felt, is that our modern clear distinction between religion and politics simply did not exist in Paul’s setting.[6] Indeed, the two questions of what was the dominant religion where Paul lived and wrote, and what was the dominant political orientation, have a single answer; the emperor cult. Caesar demanded both worship and subjection, and religious propaganda was the primary means by which political control was maintained.[7] The emperor cult surely belongs in both our modern categories of “politics” and “religion”, which Wright says “make[s] nonsense of the great divide between sacred and secular.”[8] Paul was not promoting a sequestered religion devoid of political content, but offering a political-religious alternative to the emperor cult.

The usual starting point in discussing the counter-imperial Paul is the acknowledgement that many of Paul’s favourite phrases and concepts were derived from the imperial cult. Elliott points out that, given the lack of free thought in Paul’s world, we cannot expect “a clear, consistent, uni-vocal … ‘anti-Roman’ posture” from “any first-century Jew.”[9] If Paul wanted to criticise the empire, he would have to do so in hidden ways. His favourite way to do this was by co-opting and parodying imperial language to say that that the claims made of Caesar are not true, because they are instead true of Jesus.[10] Other of Paul’s concepts and words seem to refer simultaneously to the Hebrew Scriptures as well as imperial ideology, often using the same Greek words, as Paul most often quoted from the Septuagint translation for his Gentile mission.[11] Wright measures these resonances against Richard Hays’ criteria for measuring echoes and allusions in scripture[12] and concludes that this theory of Paul lampooning imperial propaganda is “enormously plausible historically”[13] and would have been clear to his original readers.[14]

The most common title for Caesar, not necessarily a divine title, was Lord (kyrios); Paul applies it 230 times to Jesus as if to highlight each time that “Jesus is lord and Caesar is not.”[15] Another now-common term for Christ is “saviour” (sōtēr); this Paul used just once, in Philippians 3. Philippi was a Roman colonial outpost, meaning that its residents had Roman citizenship, and in time of crisis, they could expect salvation (sōtēria) from Rome.[16] Paul, on the other hand, tells the Christian community that “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Phil 3:20)[17]. These and other terms (Divine, Son of God, Redeemer, Liberator), which are now common titles for Jesus, originally referred to Caesar until Paul co-opted them for whom he saw as their rightful owner; “taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant.”[18]

Paul did not exclusively use Roman terminology for Christ’s lordship; he also, of course, hailed Jesus as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah; yet this too is a counter-imperial boast, as the Jewish understanding of their national identity meant that their king was the true king of the entire world; precisely what Caesar laid claim to.[19] Even so thoroughly Jewish a title as “Son of David” could be a dig at the emperor’s pretensions, as Roman emperors were eager to claim descent from Romulus and Remus, a 700-year legacy that was the oldest of any world ruler; in evoking his ancestor David, Paul was backing Jesus up with a 1000-year history.[20] Paul’s term for the message that Jesus is Lord and King was “gospel” (euangelion), which carried dual resonances both to the announcement by Isaiah’s herald of God’s return to Zion, and announcements by Roman heralds of some imperial “good news” such as a new emperor’s accession[21] or news of victory.[22] In rather ingeniously lining up the news of Jesus with both heralds’ announcements, Paul’s gospel “cannot but have been heard as a summons to allegiance to ‘another king,’ which is of course precisely what Luke says Paul was accused of saying (Acts 17:7).”[23]

Yet Paul’s vision of Christ as Lord and Saviour involves a radically different model of lordship and saviourhood than Caesar’s. Roman lordship is archetypical of worldly political authority; based on violence and exercised primarily by privileged élites. The emperor was merely at the top of a society controlled by “rank, status and convention.”[24] Greco-Roman philosophers and intellectuals – from the pre-Socratics, through Plato and Aristotle to Roman thinkers such as Cicero, Virgil, Seneca and Plutarch[25] – consistently reinforced the “self-evident rightness of the social pyramid.”[26] Local aristocrats such as Jewish historian Josephus had shared interests with the Roman aristocracy, so they too supported Rome.[27] The status quo, with power and modes of production in the hands of élites and the majority struggling for subsistence,[28] was maintained through shame and honour for the rich and through fear and terror for the poor majority.[29]

Thus the salvation offered by Rome’s Lord and Saviour, later dubbed the Pax Romana, was a “peace” bought and maintained “through terror, through slavery, fed by conquest and scrupulously maintained through constant intimidation, abuse, and violence”, through the emperor cult and propaganda about “the ‘naturalness’ of Rome’s global hegemony.” A slogan of this Roman sōtēria was “peace and security,”[31] which Paul mocks in 1 Thessalonians 5:3: “When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them”. Once again Paul references an imperial boast, but this time instead of transferring it to Christ he directly confronts it as a “hollow sham.”[32]

In contrast, Paul’s “good news of Jesus refuses to employ threats and the exercise of power and violence – even the law – as instruments of rulership.”[33] Paul’s salvation is “an end to the deadly cycle of power, privilege, law, justice, and violence.”[34] To Paul, Jesus’ example represents the total renunciation of power, from being “in the form of God” to “taking the form of a slave” and finally being “obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:5-8). This renunciation of power will eventually be universal; Christ will “destroy every ruler and every authority and power” and then himself hand over power to the Father; ultimately no human, even Jesus, will hold power; “God will be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:24,28).[35]

The difference between Caesar’s and Christ’s way of being Lord and Saviour is best shown by the image of the cross. Crucifixion was the typical punishment for lower classes and political insurgents, such as the six thousand crucified for participating in Spartacus’ slave revolt in 71 B.C.E.[36] Thus the cross was an “effective and feared symbol of imperial might long before it came to symbolize anything else;”[37] it represented the “exemplary violence that make[s] large-scale social control possible.”[38] Yet the cross is precisely what Paul chose as his dominant symbol of the way of Jesus; but its focus is flipped, with Jesus as the victim rather than the inflictor of the cross. The centrality of the cross in Paul’s gospel should make clear its political nature, as the crucifixion is “one of the most unequivocally political events recorded in the New Testament.”[39] The juxtaposition implied by the reclaiming of this symbol shows clearly the difference between the two candidates for king of the world; Caesar maintains control through violence, while Jesus submits to being killed – even on a cross! (Phil 2:8) – rather than resort to violence. Precisely insofar as the cross represents imperial power, it also reveals “‘the rulers of this age’ … as “intractably hostile to God”[40] (1 Corinthians 2:8). As Wright puts it, “it took genius to see that the symbol which had spoken of Caesar’s naked might now spoke of God’s naked love.”[41]

Yet if the story ends with the crucifixion, the empire and Caesar have won. The cross is where human possibilities fail for Jesus, but that is precisely where the miracle of the resurrection steps in. Resurrection is the hope that vindicates the way of suffering service, makes it possible and worthwhile (1 Cor 15.32) and spells the destruction of the worldly power represented by the empire and its cross. Wright says that “since earthly rulers have death as their ultimate weapon, the defeat of death in the resurrection is the overthrow of the ultimate enemy which stands behind all tyranny.”[42] When combined with the resurrection, the cross goes from being a symbol of Caesar’s religious-military power to “the symbol of a power which upstages anything military power can do.”[43]

Of course, this victory is not yet fully realised. “Paul sees in the cross the beginning of the destruction of the powers – but only its beginning.”[44] Paul understands that the completion of Christ’s victory – and empire’s loss – must wait until the “end of the age;” the parousia of Christ. Parousia is another political term for the coming of a king or emperor,[45] and Paul uses it  alongside a related term, apantēsis, meaning the official welcoming ceremony, or in Paul’s case the “meeting in the air” of the living and the dead at Christ’s second coming (1 Thess 4:17)[46]. Paul seems to hold an “inaugurated” eschatology, meaning that God’s future reign on earth has partially broken into the present with Jesus as the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20) of the resurrection world; there is an “overlap of the ages.”[47] This overlap allows Paul to talk of Christ having defeated the powers in the crucifixion and resurrection, while the realisation of this defeat is obviously far from complete; it will have to wait for the end of the age, “when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power” (1 Cor 15:20).

This eschatology, which places Christ at the climax of history, is a major challenge to the propaganda of Roman eschatology, which told the glorious story of Rome’s history from Venus through Aeneas and Romulus to the kings of Rome,[48] ultimately reaching its climax in Octavian (or whoever the current emperor was), when Rome became the “mistress of the world”.[49] Paul’s grand narrative of the world doesn’t centre on Rome, and moreover it involves Rome’s destruction, along with all other empires, to make way for God’s reign. Paul’s eschatology is also a challenge to the likes of Josephus who attempted to use the Jewish story to show that God had blessed Rome and their current “Jewish” emperor (and Josephus’ employer) Vespasian;[50] Paul stresses that “history was running not through but against Rome and its empire.”[51]

At this point, Paul fits within a rich Jewish tradition of resistance to empire. The Jewish people traced the birth of their nation to their liberation from the Egyptian empire, and much of their scriptures were compiled during exile in Babylon.[52] Israel’s vision was to be a nation was set apart from the pagan empires they were formed in reaction to; their law contained constant reminders of how they “came out of Egypt” and instructions to conduct themselves differently.[53] Prophetic writings such as Isaiah, Daniel and the Wisdom of Solomon, were stronger still in their “political as well as cultural resistance to Western empires.”[54] The term for this prophetic tradition is “apocalyptic”, a movement which focussed on “future deliverance from imperial domination.”[55] J. Christiaan Beker asserts that apocalyptic expectation was “the central climate and focus of [Paul’s] thought.”[56] Paul sometimes harks back to apocalyptic tradition; his statement in that all power and authority will be destroyed is a reference to Daniel 2,[57] and “what [Paul] does with the Caesar-cult stems directly from what Isaiah does with the Babylonian cult.”[58] Yet he also “radicalizes traditional apocalyptic topics”[59] with his idea that the future is already here; he does not just forecast the empire’s eventual destruction but proclaims that its destruction has already begun, and establishes counter-imperial communities in the here and now.

What makes the kingdom inaugurated rather than simply delayed is this present element, which finds expression in the communities Paul established and advised. These churches (though such a word is potentially misleading due to modern connotations) were the practical expression of Paul’s counter-imperial gospel.  Here he goes beyond creating a theoretical parody challenging the ideology of empire, he calls the Christian communities to be an active parody with their lifestyles. The communities were essentially political; the Greek word Paul used for churches, ekklēsia, was yet another political term, denoting a citizens’ assembly.[60] And they were essentially eschatological; in them ‘the day of the Lord’ which will destroy the empire “becomes a reality in the life of the community… ‘The children of the day’ are the architects of the new eschatological community in which the future is becoming a present reality.”[61]

These ekklēsiai operated with radically different values to the prevailing ethics of the rigidly hierarchical Roman society. In Paul’s vision for the ekklēsiai, “the prinicipal societal divisions of ‘this world … that is passing away’ were overcome in these communities of the nascent alternative society:”[62] “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Paul’s community ethics spell “the end of authoritarian (allegedly protective) power” which is so integral to Roman order; replacing it with “an environment of loyalty and solidarity, of fidelity and confidence, of spirit and community.”[63] One example was Paul’s championing of mutual aid, including the collection for the saints in Jerusalem. This horizontal economic reciprocity opposed the pervasive Roman system of patronage and benefaction whereby order and the status quo were maintained by the powerful buying loyalty from those underneath them.[64] These relationships were “created and practised for the benefit of the elite, and not for the poor”[65] and Paul refused to partake in them.

Paul’s ethics are modelled primarily on the example of Jesus, summed up by the cross.[66] This means overcoming evil with good, loving enemies, associating with the lowly, renouncing power, becoming a slave to all, humbly considering others better than oneself, and serving others even unto death (Romans 12:9-13:10, Philippians 2:1-11).  If this were merely advice to a following class, Paul’s advice could be construed as supporting the status quo as the Greco-Roman philosophers did.[67] Yet Paul knew no class, and service even unto death was his demand to all. There were none who could use status to avoid the injunction to serve; certainly not Paul, and not even Christ himself. Indeed, it was quite the reverse; Paul modelled this model of service to his ekklēsiai, and as for Christ – whom Paul considered the rightful owner of all the authority claimed by Caesar – Christ was where the suffering servant model came from in the first place.

It is in this gospel of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – in all its implications – that Paul sees God bringing justice to the world. Romans 1:16-17 says that the gospel unveils God’s righteousness/justice (dikaiosynē). This word carries dual resonances for Paul’s first-century readers. Firstly, it is the Septuagint word used for covenant faithfulness, and thus recalls the Abrahamic covenant to bless the entire world through Abraham’s descendants.[68] And secondly, it denotes the Roman ideal of justice. Dikaiosynē – or its Latin equivalent iustitia – had close links to the imperial regime; “Rome prided itself on being … the capital of Justice, the source from which Justice would flow throughout the world.”[69] Imperial propaganda declared that with the reign of Augustus – and later Nero – Rome had entered into a “golden age” which meant “the return of Faith and Justice to rule over the earth, the flourishing of Law and Right, a flood of piety.”[70] Elliott suggests that Paul is reacting against these boasts with his “indictment of wholesale human wickedness” in Romans 1. With his use of the word dikaiosynē, Paul is saying that true justice cannot be brought to the world by Caesar, but only by Jesus, who is God’s fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant promising just that.

So how important was this counter-imperial position for Paul? Given the first-century impossibility of ‘serving two masters,’ Paul’s understanding of the upside-down nature of Jesus’ Lordship to Caesar’s, the eschatological promise that the empire would soon be destroyed and the establishment of communities living as if it has already happened, it would seem to be vitally important. His message did not just have “a few social or political implications” but was “subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire.”[71] And his mission was “not simply catalyzing religious congregations of Gentiles, but … organizing an international anti-imperial alternative society based in local communities.”[72] Crossan says that “without seeing the archaeology of Roman imperial theology, you cannot understand any exegesis of Pauline Christian theology.”[73]

The recent counter-imperial scholarship “suggests a re-examination of what it is that Paul is against primarily.”[74] Paul has traditionally been held to be essentially responding to Judaism, promoting an alternative based on grace rather than works.  From the counter-imperial perspective, Paul’s challenge to Judaism was a transformation from within, while his fundamental, front-on target was imperial ideology.[75] As such, we cannot understand Paul without understanding his counter-imperial stance.

The movement towards construing Paul’s theology as counter-imperial is a dramatic departure from traditional ways of understanding Paul, particularly his political orientation. “The common view [has been] that Paul was uninterested in political realities;”[76] which in practice has made him a social conservative.[77] From early on, Paul’s followers were anxious to temper his political edge;[78] some of these attempts may be visible within the New Testament itself, as is  suggested for Luke[79] and Hebrews.[80] Several of the counter-imperial scholars consider that the deutero-Pauline letters represent a softening of Paul’s radical political and social attitudes; certainly in the “conservative Paul” of the Pastorals but also in the “liberal Paul” of Ephesians and Colossians.[81] Wright, denying that the latter two are post-Pauline, calls that distinction “absurd,”[82] and a counter-imperial thrust can certainly be perceived in Colossians and Ephesians too;[83] though perhaps only to the extent of a political liberal like Wright, rather than a radical like Elliott or Horsley. Elliott notes that the pseudo-Paulines stress that the powers are created and will be redeemed, while the undisputed letters do not hold back from preaching their destruction.[84]

In any case, by two centuries later, the radical politics of Paul had been well and truly betrayed when “what [had] started as an anti-imperial movement became the established religion of empire.”[85] For the next thousand years, the opinion-shapers in the established churches shared power interests with the empire, and later nation-states. They were no more likely to honour the counter-imperial tradition within Christianity than Josephus was to honour the anti-imperial tradition within Judaism. For teaching about Christian political responsibility, those passages in Paul which are on the surface most friendly to the state, such as Romans 13:1-7, have been relentlessly used and abused to promote loyalty to the established order.[86] This has led to near-consensus, at least in the established churches, that Paul was a political conservative.[87] Meanwhile, Paul’s many – usually more subtle – attacks on empire have been ignored.

The Enlightenment brought separation between church and state, meaning that the church was once again theoretically free to criticise empire,[88] but by that stage the Reformation was already well underway, with its assumption that Paul was only interested in “spiritual” matters; specifically, challenging Judaism.[89] Church and state were separated not because the way of Jesus is inherently anti-power and political power corrupts the church, but because religion and politics were by now considered separate spheres of life. And so the separation of church and state did not reverse the effect of their combination. Over “the Enlightenment’s shrunken definition of ‘religion’”[90] the church was granted free reign, but in the political sphere the state was still Lord.[91] A quick glance at Romans 13 was enough to reinforce the previous consensus that Paul was an enthusiast for the establishment.[92]

This forced separation of politics and religion – which affects other fields of scholarship[93] and “not only scholarship but whole societies”[94] – remained frozen throughout much of modernity, but in the last few decades it has been showing some signs of thawing. If the presupposition that Paul was not interested in politics was a factor of modernity, this “paradigm shift”[95] towards seeing Paul as anti-imperial is a factor of post-modernity or late modernity. Largely due to the influence of post-colonialism, scholarship in general has been realising the importance of imperial contexts; Elliott quotes Palestinian post-colonialist Edward Said that “we are at a point in our work where we can no longer ignore empires and the imperial context in our studies.”[96] Non-western voices in biblical studies have aided in the increasing awareness of the importance of empire; affecting first Old Testament studies, then historical Jesus scholarship, and finally Pauline studies.[97]

Another way in which late modernity has impacted upon Pauline scholarship is in the post-Holocaust lessons Western society has learned. The tyranny of the Nazi regime called governments into question and made it far less politically dangerous to talk of opposition to imperialism.[98] Meanwhile the eagerness to avoid anti-Semitism has prompted scholars to rethink Lutheran assumptions about Paul and Judaism, which has led to a “new perspective on Paul.” This new perspective had “gaps”[99] as it still understood Paul primarily over and against Judaism rather than imperial theology, but this “breath of fresh air”[100] in Pauline scholarship has certainly aided the burgeoning “anti-imperial perspective.” N.T. Wright, one of the leading figures in the New Perspective, has recently begun to see the relationship between Paul and empire as the “leading edge” of Pauline studies.[101]

As we have seen, there is much evidence for the idea that Paul’s theology is counter-imperial. The acknowledgement of this facet of his thinking, and the centrality of this facet to his overall theology, is a potentially massive departure from previous ways of understanding not just Paul’s political orientation, but his theology in general. “Paul and empire” is still a new field with plenty of room for new research,[102] and it remains to be seen how substantially this new current in Pauline studies will affect the church and the world. There are no doubt massive implications for modern Christians and churches in how they relate to modern incarnations of empire and imperialism; just what those implications are is another huge question.[103] Suffice it to say that Paul would not only be horrified that the history of interpretation has largely ignored the counter-imperial nature of his gospel,[104] but scathing of modern-day Josephuses within Christianity who attempt to accommodate his gospel to the current imperial order.


[1] Horsley, Richard A. (ed.), Paul and empire : Religion and power in Roman imperial society (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997).
Horsley, Richard A. (ed.), Paul and politics: ekklēsia, imperium, interpretation (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000).
Horsley, Richard A. (ed), Paul and the Roman imperial order (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2004).
Horsley, Richard A. (ed.), Hidden transcripts and the art of resistance : applying the work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004).
[2] Elliott, Neil, Liberating Paul (New York: Orbis Books, 1994).
Elliott, Neil, The Arrogance of Nations : Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).
Elliott, Neil, “The Anti-Imperial Message of the Cross” in Paul and empire : Religion and power in Roman imperial society, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997).
Elliott, Neil, “Paul and the Politics of Empire : Problems and Prospects” in Paul and politics: ekklēsia, imperium, interpretation, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000).
Elliott, Neil, “Strategies of Resistance and Hidden Transcripts in the Pauline Communities” in Hidden transcripts and the art of resistance : applying the work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004).
[3] Wright, N. Thomas, Paul : In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).
Wright, N. Thomas, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire” in Paul and politics: ekklēsia, imperium, interpretation, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000).
Wright, N. Thomas, “Paul, Leader of a Jewish Revolution,” September 3, 2009).
[4] Crossan, John D. & Reed, Jonathan L., In Search of Paul : How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004).
Crossan, John D., God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007).
[5] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 160.
[6] Horsley, Empire, 12.
[7] Elliott, “Politics of Empire,” 25.
[8] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 161.
[9] Elliott, “Politics of Empire,” 33.
[10] Horsley, Empire, 140.
[11] Strom, Mark, Reframing Paul : conversations in grace and community (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 84n.
[12] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 61-62.
[13] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 79.
[14] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 76.
[15] Smith, Dustin, “Religion and Politics : A Fresh Look at the Imperial Overtones in the New Testament”,–%20Religion%20and%20Politics.pdf(accessed September 7, 2009), 5.
[16] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 173-174.
[17] All biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989).
[18] Crossan, God, 28.
[19] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 166-167.
[20] Wright, referenced in Smith, 4.
[21] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 77.
[22] Elliott, “Politics of Empire,” 24.
[23] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 165.
[24] Strom, 58-72.
[25] Strom, 58-72, Elliott, “Politics of Empire,” 29-30.
[26] Strom, 58.
[27] Elliott, “Politics of Empire,” 30-32.
[28] Elliott, “Strategies,” 98.
[29] Elliott, “Strategies,” 119-120.
[30] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 170-171.
[31] Horsley, Empire, 3-4.
[32] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 74.
[33] Georgi, Dieter, “God Turned Upside Down” in Paul and empire : Religion and power in Roman imperial society, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997), 152.
[34] Georgi, 153.
[35] Horsley, Empire, 147.
[36] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 167-169.
[37] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 64.
[38] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 171.
[39] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 167.
[40] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 176.
[41] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 73.
[42] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 69-70.
[43] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 69-70.
[44] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 174.
[45] Koester, Helmut, “Imperial Ideology and Paul’s Eschatology in 1 Thessalonians” in Paul and empire : Religion and power in Roman imperial society, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997), 158-159.
[46] This, incidentally, is the standard proof-text for a so-called “rapture,” but the meaning of the terms Paul is appropriating, and the situational reason for Paul bringing up the subject in the first place, shows the impossibility of such a notion. Koester, 160.
[47] Strom, 87-91.
[48] Crossan, God, 15-25.
[49] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 64.
[50] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 68.
[51] Horsley, Empire, 146.
[52] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 65.
[53] Leviticus 18.3, 19.34, Deuteronomy 11:10-15, 17:14-20, 24:21-22 are some of the more explicit examples.
[54] Horsley, Empire, 146.
[55] Elliott, “Strategies,” 118.
[56] Quoted in Elliott, “Strategies,” 117-118.
[57] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 173.
[58] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 181.
[59] Koester, 166.
[60] Horsley, Empire, 8.
[61] Koester, 163.
[62] Horsley, Empire, 1.
[63] Georgi, 155.
[64] Elliott, “Strategies,” 99-105.
[65] Elliott, “Strategies,” 101.
[66] Elliot, “Anti-Imperial,” 181.
[67] Elliott, “Politics of Empire,” 29-30.
[68] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 170.
[69] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 171.
[70] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 37.
[71] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 161-162.
[72] Horsley, Empire, 3.
[73] Crossan, In Search, x.
[74] Horsley, Empire, 6.
[75] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 163.
[76] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 167.
[77] Elliott, “Politics of Empire,” 26.
[78] Horsley, Empire, 142.
[79] Georgi, 157.
[80] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 183.
[81] Crossan, God, 143-190.
[82] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 176n.
[83] Indeed, a recent book on the counter-imperial Paul chose to focus primarily on Colossians: Walsh, Brian J. & Keesmaat, Sylvia C., Colossians Remixed : Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
[84] Elliott, “Anti-Imperial,” 176-181.
[85] Horsley, Empire, 1, phrase order reversed.
[86] Anderson, Caleb, “Paul and Politics”, unpublished, 2009.
[87] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 60.
[88] Perhaps not free from persecution if they did choose to oppose empire – neither was Paul – but free from the blind spot resulting from receiving one’s pay check from the empire.
[89] Horsley, Imperial order, 1.
[90] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 162.
[91] Luther, Martin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. by J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 163-168.
[92] Wright, Fresh Perspective, 60.
[93] Horsley, Empire, 1-2.
[94] Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,”161.
[95] Elliott, “Politics of Empire,” 22.
[96] Elliott, “Politics of Empire,” 17.
[97]Horsley, Empire, 2-3.
[98]Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 164.
[99]Elliott, “Politics of Empire,” 19-22.
[100]Smith, 1.
[101]Wright, “Paul’s Gospel,” 160.
[102]Horsley, Empire, 3.
[103]A recent popular Christian book addressing this issue, albeit not specifically Pauline in its theology, is Bell, Rob & Golden, Don, Jesus Wants to Save Christians : A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
[104]Wright, Fresh Perspective, 79.

The Bible© – Goodies, Baddies and “Unknown”

This one isn’t a uni essay (It would be great if it was).  It’s something I did in January 2009 with my flatmate Josh and friend Ben.  We enjoyed ourselves.  Hilarious conversation ensued on Facebook:


by Joshua (Goody), Caleb (Unknown) and Benjamin (Baddy).

The Bible can be a confusing book, so here’s a guide to the most important characters, listed in their respective allegiances so you can know who to root for and who to root out. The Bible’s pretty noir, so there aren’t that many goodies.








King Josiah


The Good Judas



The Poor, and Aliens


Ehud (The Dagger Man)

The disciple Jesus loved

The (good) revolutionary on the cross


John the Anabaptist

Tax collectors ‘n’ prostitutes



Certain Astrologers

Certain Eunuchs

Charlton Heston










Eve/the snake





King Herod(s)

All Kings not otherwise mentioned



Job (obviously)

Doubting Thom

Jael (uppity)

Joseph (f***ing tall poppy)


Lot’s daughters

Charging interest





Most Dragons, and the little foxes that ruin the vineyards.




Uriah the Hittite




Judas Iscariot (Who betrayed Our Lord)

King Solomon





Pontius Pilate

The Holy Spirit



Jonah (not Lomu)

Possessed Swine

The Accuser


The Uncircumcised

The Rich

Jonathon (may have been G.A.Y.)



Various Simons



Bathsheba the Hottie



A.I. think therefore A.I. am.

I wrote this one in September 2008 for Philosophy 305: Philosophical Logic at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.

I really enjoyed writing this, largely because I got to reference works of fiction (and even a computer game) as much as I referenced philosophical writings.  It gets more interesting in the second half when I start delving into them more.

If you enjoy this and are hungry for more, I definitely recommend reading Philip K. Dick’s article which I reference in here. Blows your mind.

by Caleb Anderson

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia

“Those artsy-fartsy twerps next door create living, breathing, three-dimensional characters with ink on paper,” he went on. “Wonderful! As though the planet weren’t already dying because it has three billion too many living, breathing, three-dimensional characters!”
– Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

The first matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect. It was a work of art. Flawless. Sublime. A triumph only equalled by its monumental failure.
– ‘The Architect’, The Matrix Reloaded

There have been many works of fiction in recent years where characters are forced to confront the disquieting knowledge that surroundings, or their entire world, is not as real as they were led to believe. Stories like these are popular because of how they affect the reader, who begins to question whether he could be in a similar situation. It occurs to him that although he “accept[s] the reality of the world with which [he is] presented” (The Truman Show), he could in fact be “living in a dream world” (The Matrix). Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument takes this possibility one step further, and uses an indifference principle to show that if such simulations will ever exist, they probably already do, and chances are we’re in one of them right now.

The structure of the Simulation Argument as formulated by Bostrom (2003, 243-255) is that at least one of the following hypothesises is true:

(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation (Bostrom 2003, 243).

Essentially Bostrom is saying that if we believe that humans will some day have the ability and inclination to simulate consciousness, it is logical to assume that they will do so multiple times; enough that the simulated worlds greatly outnumber the real one(s). Therefore, statistically speaking it is far more likely that the world we find ourselves in is a simulation, rather than the real world. This goes against many people’s intuition, which allows the eventual possibility of artificial intelligence, but believes that right here, right now, this is real. According to Bostrom’s argument this is an irrational position to take; it is, in a sense, having one’s cake and eating it too. “Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation” (Bostrom 2003, 255). We are not forced to believe that we are living in a simulation (hereafter referred to as the “simulation menace” following Dainton). But if we cannot accept option 1 or 2, the menacing option 3 is the only one left.

The argument rests on two assumptions which Bostrom refers to as the Bland Indifference Principle and Substrate-Independence. The Bland Indifference Principle (Bostrom 2003, 248-249) is the idea that if we don’t know whether we have a certain property, but we do know what percentage of our population has the property, we should treat that percentage as our chance of having the property (analogies are drawn to the chance of having symptomless disease). Applied to this situation, if the number of simulated worlds is far greater than the number of real ones, and we don’t know if we are simulated or real, we must conclude that we are far more likely to be simulated. It seems impossible to reject the Bland Indifference Principle without throwing out all our common sense surrounding probability calculations. Weatherston, in his critique of the Simulation Argument, tries to reject the Bland Indifference Principle, or at least its application to the Simulation Argument, but it seems to be a straw man argument responding to a more general form of the indifference principle than that which Bostrom actually proposes (Bostrom 2005, 92). In addition, Weatherson (431) claims that to be “very confident that [one] is human, even while knowing that most human-like beings are Sims” is perfectly rational, because everyone does it. He misses the point that our confidence proves nothing, as we would be equally confident of our own ‘reality’ even if we were in a simulation.

The other assumption, Substrate-Independence, is the one that could make or break the argument. Substrate-independence is the idea that consciousness can exist across a variety of different media or ‘substrates’, not just carbon-based lifeforms like us. Ergo, “a computer running a suitable program would be conscious” (2003 344). Bostrom admits that this assumption is “not entirely uncontroversial” but proposes that “we shall here take it as a given”. He says it is “very widely accepted” in the philosophy of mind, does not provide any references in favour of it. He also seems to have coined the phrase ‘substrate-independence’ himself (Bostrom 2005 90) which makes it difficult to scour the literature for support. Following Dennett, Bostrom holds a weak view of what constitutes self or consciousness, where there is nothing metaphysical, such as a soul, required for consciousness – it simply appears when “the right sort of computational structures and processes” (Bostrom 2003 244) are present. But other philosophers of mind resist jumping to the conclusion that artificial consciousness is possible, such as Searle whose Chinese Room argument illustrates how a computer could act exactly like it is thinking, but not really be thinking at all. To deny substrate-independence, and say that simulated consciousness will never happen, would be the easiest way to escape the simulation menace, but this would not be disproving the simulation argument, it would merely be selecting option 1.

Another factor which cannot prove or disprove the simulation argument, but can affect which option we choose, is the current level of technology with respect to artificial intelligence. Bostrom (2003 244-247) argues that computers will very soon be powerful enough to create universe-simulations. Futurist Ray Kurzweil estimates that “by approximately the year 2050, for the then equivalent of $1,000, you will be able to purchase a computer with greater processing power than that of all the brains of all humans that have ever lived” (Jenkins 24). Yet even if it takes thousands of years for us to get there, or even if we never get there (option 1), the simulation menace (option 3) is still not ruled out; Bostrom is careful to specify that his three options are not mutually exclusive; “at least one” (2003 243) must be true. Of course, if the simulation menace is merely an uninteresting outside chance akin to a ‘brain in vat’ argument; the simulation argument is not very interesting. The interesting part is the idea that if multiple conscious simulations exist, it follows that we’re in one. In Sam Hughes’ narrative retelling of the argument I don’t know, Timmy, being God is a big responsibility, when the protagonists invent a universe simulation, they realise that they are simulated too. Current technological trends would seem to indicate that this stage in our own story – invention ergo realisation – is not as far away as we may assume.

The likelihood of the simulation menace is hard to measure. Bostrom (2008) argues that we lack sufficient evidence to decide on any of the three options, and observes that many people think it is obvious which option is true, but they all have a different ‘obvious answer’. He personally assigns a probability of about 20% to option 3, and has a hunch that option 2 is the most likely; though he admits that this is merely a subjective opinion. Personally I find option 2 – the idea that we will be able to make a large number of conscious simulations but will not due to lack of interest or moral reasons – very naïve. As far as I am aware, humans have always been creative and curious, and I can’t see us losing interest in art and science right at the point where our creative and experimental potential reaches its technological zenith. Even if it is believed by post-humans that playing around with conscious ‘Sims’ (The Sims) is unethical, that would not stop naughty programmers doing it. It is believed by modern humans that murder is unethical, but despite conscience and laws it still happens frequently. There is a chance that our enlightened descendents will prefer “direct stimulation of the brain’s reward centers” (Bostrom 2003 253), perhaps with drugs and efficiency à la Brave New World (Huxley), but this opens up all sorts of other debates about utilitarianism and what truly motivates us; Brave New World is not classified as a dystopia for nothing. The most likely causes for option 2 are provided by Peter Jenkins (36-37) who says that self-aware simulations would defeat the purpose of it, and that multiple simulations would overload the computers. He argues that this proves that any simulations will necessarily be discontinued as soon as their creatures develop the ability to create their own simulations. But this is a fairly big conclusion to jump to.

Therefore my own subjective opinion leads me to believe that options 1 and 3 are most likely. I am sympathetic to option 1 due to my skepticism about substrate-independence, and the possibility that the human race will either die out soon (Bostrom 2001) or start going backwards technologically also lends it credence. Yet I also believe that option 3 – the simulation menace – is very possible. What I find most bizarre about the argument is that it seemingly forces me to turn to science to answer deep metaphysical questions about my own reality. And it is not even science about myself, but science about things as obscure as robots, bombs and weather. The simulation menace has huge implications, not only for my personal ontology, but for concepts such as theology, free will, creativity and ethics.

The very nature of reality itself is called into question by the simulation menace, which seems to point towards ‘levels of reality’ (Bostrom 253). We tend to think that if we are not computer simulations we are real, because we inhabit the privileged position of the ‘top level’ of reality. But what does this mean for theists? If God exists, does that mean we are not real, because he has kicked us off our pedestal? And if we still claim that we are real, would not any created or simulated beings have the right to claim the same? The world around us may seem real, in fact some thinkers such as John Locke believe that our sense-impressions of the world are our only ultimate source of knowledge. But we have no other level of reality to compare our world to; perhaps the world inhabited by God is on a far higher level of reality than us. Indeed, perhaps to God we are as unreal as the computer game The Sims is to us. The film Men In Black portrays the idea that there are multiple universes within universes, with marble-sized universes found within ours, and ours being marble-sized within another. Perhaps this kind of picture can describe levels of reality as well as physical size; the reality of created worlds could be dwarfed by the superior reality of their creators. Bostrom usually talks of “ancestor-simulations” (Bostrom 2003 247) which implies that the simulations are similar to the original world. Yet perhaps it is not possible to create a simulation as extensive or real as one’s own reality, but it is possible to create smaller and ‘less real’ simulations. Even though some ‘reality leakage’ would occur, the inhabitants of each level would be unable to compare their own reality with the higher one, and therefore would not know what they were missing.

With this in mind, even the strongest theism seems to lose much of its potency. Even supposing belief in a God who (a) is on a higher plane of reality to us, (b) created our world and (c) controls and interacts with it, does not necessitate believing in anything more than another being like us, who is probably a simulation too (Bostrom 2003 252). He could be merely step 472 to our step 473, in which case it is hard to see something special or real about him as compared to us. Correspondingly, it is hard to see anything special or real about us on step 473, as compared to our own simulations on step 474. It is easy to think that if we are not in a simulation, we are ‘real’, and if we are, we are ‘not real’, but this simplistic view is complicated when levels of reality are brought into it. If we give God the ability to bestow reality onto us, but don’t give ourselves the right to bestow reality onto our own creations, we are ignoring the fact that – sans proof of where the top level is – there is no functional difference between God creating conscious carbon-creations, and us creating conscious computer simulations.

Perhaps the biggest significance of the simulation argument to theology is that it gives us a ‘God’s-eye-view’, allowing us to theorise that humans are creators just like God, and God is a creation just like us. This humanises God and can make him seem more plausible; one atheist reader remarked that the Simulation Argument was “the best argument for God’s existence he had ever heard” (Bostrom 2008) and become an agnostic. But it also has implications for our ideas of free will and omnipotence. God may be omnipotent with respect to our world, which we inhabit, but a slave to a higher god within his own. He may be a child playing computer games, whose only chance at free will is tinkering with our world. But even then he may be enslaved to the choices of the ‘first cause’ who set the ball rolling in the very first universe. In Hughes’ short story, the characters simulate a universe that’s exactly the same as theirs, right down to the simulated versions of themselves creating their own simulation-within-a-simulation. They begin to manipulate their simulation, and the same manipulations appear on all levels, including their own. They discover that they are not on the ‘top level’ and therefore are not really making any choices, and they discover simultaneously that since whatever they do to their simulation is repeated on all levels, they have near-limitless ‘magical powers’ in their own world. In other words, they realise that they have omnipotence but no free will; showing that the two supposed opposites can co-exist.

Another question that has huge implications for theology is: if there are different layers of reality, can there be communication or crossover between them? There are examples in myth and fiction of crossover, and even shifting between layers. A creator may enter his creation à la Jesus Christ, Hindu Avatars or novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who enters the narrative of Breakfast of Champions (1973) and communicates with his characters. Conversely, protagonists like Neo (The Matrix) or Truman (The Truman Show), who break out of their simulations into reality, mirror the idea of a human ‘going to heaven’ or ‘achieving nirvana’. Can religion be simply described as an attempt to transcend one’s layer of reality?

An alternative idea of the relationship between religion and simulation/creation is provided by J.R.R. Tolkien in his concept of sub-creation. He wrote not just to tell a tale and entertain people, but to perform a sacred act of creation, to echo the creation of God. “Only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall” (quoted in Morris). According to Tolkien, the highest truth is found in myth, which allows “a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth” to shine through from God. He felt so strongly about this that his poem on the subject (Tolkien) all-but-converted his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity and fantasy writing (Morhan). To Tolkien, creativity equals religion. With current technological limitations, writing fiction (whatever the medium) is the closest we can get to creating computer simulations, and perhaps fiction authors best understand the philosophy of simulated worlds and people [Footnote: This may explain why I am finding more relevant references in fiction than in academic literature]. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick says “it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know … It is my job to create universes” (Dick 1978). Shakespeare (actually one of his characters; an important distinction) said “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (Shakespeare) – raising the question of how many ‘reality levels’ this is true for.

Of course, the obvious difference between the universes we create and the one we inhabit is that our characters are not conscious. A character cannot say ‘cogito ergo sum’ (Descartes), she can only mimic consciousness, when the author wills it. But could the same not be said about us, if we are simulated or created? Dick (1978) says “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away”. Created worlds stop being real when the creator stops writing them or thinking about them. But the same can be said even if there is only one world; Norbert Elias argues that our meaning as people consists solely in what we mean to each other (33-34); when people stop remembering us after we die, we become as meaningless as a deleted computer simulation. Moreover, just as it does not occur to Dick’s characters that they may be androids (Dick 1968), it also doesn’t occur to them that they are just characters in a book; they are under the impression that they are conscious and real, just as we are under the impression that we are. How can we be so certain that they are wrong, and yet so certain that we are right?

In any case, our created characters will certainly become conscious as soon as technology facilitates it. Just as story-telling moved with the advance of technology from oral traditions to cave-drawing to writing to film to computer games, we should certainly assume that it will embrace AI technology as soon as it comes along.

Creation of characters, especially conscious ones, also has serious ethical implications. How much moral worth shall we give creatures once we know them to be mere simulations? The pro-life stance hasn’t yet been extended from unborn foetuses to created characters, but it would surely happen if AI were invented. There are already warnings against “substrate chauvinism” (Visual Worldlets Network); the idea that only biological beings carry moral worth. If for no other reason, we ought to respect simulated characters because there is a good chance that we are simulations too. Authors often harm their characters for the sake of the story, but we would not appreciate it if God harmed us for the sake of his story [Footnote: The idea of the world being ‘God’s story’ is found in theological literature, such as The Drama of Scripture (Bartholomew and Goheen) which refers to the Bible as a six-act play, and people today as improvisers in act 5]. This could be an answer to, or at least an explanation for, the Problem of Evil (Dainton 14-15). If we were only ever nice to our simulations, it would severely restrict our boundaries for art and experiment. Advising how to write effective fiction, Kurt Vonnegut said “be a sadist … make awful things happen to [your characters]–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” (1999 9-10). Yet from the inside, through one of his characters, he said that it was best to avoid creating “living, breathing, three-dimensional characters” (Vonnegut 1997 62). Which is correct depends on perspective.

There is also the question of honesty. If we decide that we have moral obligations to our conscious creations, should we not be honest and tell them that they are simulations? Or would that defeat the purpose of it all; would “breaking the fourth wall” destroy the illusion and the magic of creation? It would be difficult to run a successful simulation if the characters spent all their time having existential crises about reality, free will and sub-creation; they may prefer being left blissfully unaware of their fictional plight. The creators of our simulation – assuming we are in one – may have the same philosophy about us, although if they do, one would expect them to have deleted Nick Bostrom by now. The management of The Truman Show certainly got rid of anyone who tried to spill the beans to Truman, but to be fair, maybe God works in more mysterious ways than human television executives. In any case, is it not somewhat contradictory to say to one’s invented character ‘To tell you the truth, you’re a lie’?

It seems Bostrom has not thought of these manifold implications of his argument when he says that “the implications are not all that radical” (2003 254) and that the discovery of the argument has not changed his life much (2008). It is indeed hard to see how to respond to the argument in one’s day-to-day life; but that is because the issues it raises are so huge it takes time to think about them. Robin Hanson, who accepts the simulation menace, doesn’t seem to think it will change much either, giving the same kind of advice that could be found in any narcissistic pop-philosophy bestseller; “live more for today, make your world look more likely to become rich, expect to and try more to participate in pivotal events, be more entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happier and more interested in you” (Hanson 1). Peter Jenkins, a lawyer, explores more fully the “Motivational, Ethical and Legal Issues”, and comes to the sensational conclusion that “long range planning beyond 2050 would be futile” (Jenkins 37) as we are bound to be deleted as soon as we learn to create consciousness. But it seems that, rather than philosophers, it is authors of fiction (from Shakespeare to pulp sci-fi) that have explored the implications most fully so far.

The Simulation Argument is difficult to deny. Bostrom is correct in identifying that either there will never be multiple conscious simulations, or we’re statistically very likely to be in one right now. It is a quirk of this situation – the fact that it concerns entire ‘realities’, including our own – that means there is no middle-ground; either simulations won’t happen at all, or they will and we’re probably a good example of one. This means that the possibility that we are in some kind of a simulation is a product of the possibility of artificial intelligence. As the possibility of AI may be a reasonably likely one, the Simulation Argument has fascinating consequences for our views on ontology, theology, morality and creativity, to our relationships with worlds ‘above’ and ‘below’ us, and to our relationship with our own world.


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Wachowski, Larry and Andy et al. The Matrix. DVD. United States: Warner Bros. and Australia: Village Roadshow Pictures, 1999.

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