Columbo’s Logic, Part 3

What? You don’t have these yet??

Today, we’re finishing up a look at how Greg Koukl’s “Columbo questions” in his book “Tactics” actually build on what’s called the 3 acts of the mind from classical logic. His first question, “What do you mean by that?”, sought to clarify the words being debated and results in understanding, the first act of the mind. His second question, “How did you come to that conclusion?”, sought reasons for why we should agree to a person’s statement. That is, appropriately enough, reasoning – the third act of the mind. But understanding what someone is saying and why they are saying it both have an end goal: being able to judge whether what they’ve said is actually true, and should be accepted. Getting at the truth is the objective of Greg’s insightful questions, and this requires the second act of the mind – judgment. So let’s jump in and work through that today.

“Judge not” seems to have become the two most popular words to take out of context in all of the Bible,  but judging things (and yes, people) is still necessary. In fact, it’s required for rational thought, for truth can only be discovered through judgment. Judgment is simply to decide on the truth or falsity of a statement. If I decide to drink from the jug of milk in the fridge that I forgot about a month ago, I have mistakenly judged the statement “It’s safe to drink chunky milk” to be true. That is a bad judgment, and one I’ll likely pay for. Knowingly hiring a child molester to babysit your kids would also be a case of very bad judgment. On the other hand, good judgment is valued enough that we even pay certain people to judge other people as their full-time job. We call them… judges. As an engineer, I am given a solemn responsibility to use my “professional judgment” to protect and safeguard the public for whom I’m designing something. But what constitutes good judgment and bad judgment?

Judgment is essentially the relation of two or more concepts to each other to make a statement about them that is either true or false. Judgment is propositional in nature, in that we cannot formulate judgments without forming declarative statements about what we’re judging. Just as in grammar, those statements (or propositions) have a subject about which we have something to say, and a predicate that predicates, or says something about, the subject. I’ve mentioned in parts 1 & 2 that terms and reasoning can’t be true or false, but only clear or unclear for terms, and valid or invalid for reasoning. But here, with propositions, we have a claim being made, and the possibility of it being true or false. We may not know whether the claim is true or false, but every proposition must be one or the other. “This apple is red,” “This chunky milk is OK to drink” “Hitler was a bad man,” “Jesus is God.” Each of those statements relates two concepts (like “apples” and “redness”) in such a way that we must decide if that relation is true or not. If I am holding a Granny Smith apple when I make that first statement, you would be justified in judging it a false proposition, for Granny Smiths are famously bright green rather than red. What warranted that judgment? Simply that my statement did not correspond with reality. While this may seem like common sense, this is technically known as the correspondence theory of truth, namely that truth is what corresponds to reality.  When we are presented with an assertion that we are trying to examine, judgment is needed to decide if the proposition asserted is true or not – if it corresponds with reality. A simple enough statement may be self-evident or immediately verifiable. But many topics, and especially controversial ones, will require hearing supporting statements that must also be judged as true or false.

Let’s look at an example of a modern hot topic. Abortion supporters will often say something to the effect of “my body, my choice” to say that women have a right to an abortion on demand. At that level, it’s only an assertion. But suppose a thoughtful supporter of abortion filled in the premises to that conclusion and said something like, “I have the freedom to do what I want to my own body. Abortion is a procedure done to my own body. Therefore, I am free to choose an abortion.” Although the reasoning is valid (i.e. the conclusion follows from the premises as stated), the second premise is obviously false; there are always 2 bodies involved in the procedure and the successful procedure always results in the death of one of them. If there’s any doubt that the baby is not part of the mother’s body, a simple DNA test can confirm that beyond all doubt. This one’s pretty straightforward since it’s a scientifically verifiable fact that the fetus is not part of the mother’s body. So the supporting premise is false and the original assertion can be dismissed, right? Not so fast. As Peter Kreeft points out in his logic text, “you do not refute a conclusion by showing that it follows from false premises.”[1] The thoughtful opponent could revise their premises to validly support their original conclusion, thus proving their case. So what have we accomplished in judging that premise false? We’ve shown that their case is not as airtight as they had probably assumed. It is inconclusive, and they need to go “back to the drawing board,” so to speak. Encourage them to revise it and get back with you. “Put a stone in their shoe”, as Greg likes to say.[2] Don’t be afraid of what they’ll come back with. If their conclusion really is false, then they simply will not be able to find true premises validly built up to support a false conclusion.

Most of us don’t like to admit we’re wrong about anything. And someone proving us wrong doesn’t make it an easier pill to swallow. So a lot of times, our approach needs to be to help someone see for themselves that their view doesn’t work, because they’re the only one they’ll really listen to. But I’m OK with that. Honest dialogue is like a long journey towards truth together rather than a quick and bloody duel of opinions that goes nowhere. But as ambassadors for Christ [2Cor 5:20], we have this advantage: “Regardless of a man’s system, he has to live in God’s world”[3], and a successful search for real truth, even if it meanders and hits some bumps along the way, will necessarily lead to God, for all truth is God’s truth.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 197.
[2] Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p. 38.
[3] ibid, p144. Greg is quoting Francis Schaeffer here, from Schaeffer’s book, The God Who Is There.

Columbo’s Logic, Part 2

Recommended reading for clear thinking

Last week, we looked at Greg Koukl‘s classic book Tactics, and how his first “Columbo question”, “What do you mean by that?”, is an application of what’s called the first act of the mind in philosophy. This first act, understanding, is simply recognizing that we have to understand what we’re discussing before we can even hope to be able to decide if it’s true or not. His next critical question to ask is “How did you come to that conclusion?” While the first question addresses the what, this one addresses the why. This serves a couple of purposes: First, the person you’re talking to may have good reasons for holding the position they do, that you hadn’t thought of before, and this gives them the opportunity to share those. But secondly, it places the burden of proof where it belongs – on the person making the claim. As Greg points out, “an argument is different from an assertion… An assertion simply states a point. An argument gives supporting reasons why the point should be taken seriously….”[1] Yet many people haven’t thought through why they hold a certain position. Too often, it’s easier to sit in an echo chamber and not dialogue with people of opposing views who may challenge one’s views and legitimately ask for reasons for the claims made. But this question graciously gives your conversant the benefit of the doubt that they have thought about their position and actually have good reasons for why they hold their view. If they have, now’s their opportunity to convince you. If they haven’t, it can hopefully be a wake-up call for them to examine their beliefs. With that in mind, let’s think about the act of reasoning.

This “third act of the mind”, reasoning, is what allows humans to acquire  knowledge beyond our particular experience, and to abstract from particular truths to universal and/or necessary truths. Reasoning is also where we justify our claims by providing valid arguments. As I mentioned last week, the terms we use, by themselves, can be clear or unclear, but they can’t be true or false. Neither can our arguments; they can only be valid or invalid. What is validity? Peter Kreeft, in his Socratic Logic textbook, defines it thus: “An argument is logically valid when its conclusion necessarily follows from its premises.”[2] He further explains:

“Validity is a relationship between propositions: between the premises of an argument and the conclusion of the argument…. A valid argument gives us certainty about its conclusion. It is not absolute certainty but relative certainty, that is, certainty relative to the premises… certainty that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true.”[3]

Validity is the mechanical aspect of reasoning that allows us to know two specific relations between a conclusion and its supporting premises: when a conclusion must be accepted, and when a premise must be rejected. Let me explain. Sometimes, a case is being constructed in front of us, and we can follow the steps from defining the terms, to making statements about the terms, to “connecting the dots” with valid reasoning. In this case, a valid argument built on clearly-defined, true supporting premises will have a true conclusion. There is no other possibility given those three conditions. But oftentimes, we are simply presented with an assertion. This is the scenario Greg addresses with the Columbo tactic when he asks someone to clarify their terms and give their reasons that (hopefully) transform their assertion into a conclusion. He is working backwards, deconstructing the conclusion to check its foundation. And in this scenario, a valid argument with a conclusion known to be false guarantees that at least one of the premises is false. The validity of the reasoning isolates the problem to the premises. Kreeft likens this forwards or backwards reasoning process to following a river from its unpolluted source to its unpolluted conclusion downstream, or tracing pollution downstream back to its polluted source upstream.

These two acts, understanding and reason, are two necessary steps toward the end goal of truth. But truth is only conveyed in propositions, whether that be the supporting statements or the final conclusion. To judge the truth of those statements, we need to look next week at the 2nd act of the mind… judgement. Until then, here’s a little homework: next time you’re in a discussion with someone who holds a different view, politely try asking them for the reasons they hold that view. In the absence of any opportunities like that, examine the foundations for your own views. Are they sound? As Greg says, “Intelligent belief requires reasons”[1], and that is true for Christians, atheists – everyone.


[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p. 60.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 31.
[3] ibid., p. 194-5.

Columbo’s Logic, Part 1

The always inquisitive Detective Columbo.

2014 was a very busy year of reading for me. I’d applied to attend Frank Turek’s Cross-Examined Instructor’s Academy, and there was a veritable mountain of recommended reading to get through beforehand, both from noted Christian apologists and some of the most noteworthy atheist writers. That year was when I read a point-counterpoint debate on the existence of God for the first time. I was admittedly nervous about what points the atheist would make that might rock my world. As it turned out, I had little to fear (the atheist case really isn’t as strong as they like to pretend). But one of the books from that year that I have come back to time and again was Greg Koukl‘s book “Tactics: A Gameplan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions” (read a sample here). This is a classic book of critical reasoning that looks at concepts like self-refuting arguments, the burden of proof, and other basic principles of logic, explained well and with clear examples. One of the principal methods laid out in the book is what Greg calls the “Columbo tactic. Peter Falk’s classic bumbling detective character always ends up catching the bad guy by asking “just one more question”. The answers eventually reveal inconsistencies in the murderer’s alibi and the truth always comes to light. While we may not be hunting criminals, we are hunting for truth. And so Greg encourages a) asking questions of your fellow conversant, and b) actually listening to their responses. This is pretty radical in a world where people tend to talk (or shout) past each other, but isn’t that what actual dialogue should involve? The two primary questions Greg asks are “What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?”[1] These are simple but very powerful questions because they first clarify what is being debated, and secondly seek to uncover their reasons (or lack thereof) for what they believe.  Although I recognized when I read Tactics that these were effective questions, it wasn’t until I read philosopher Peter Kreeft’s textbook on Socratic Logic in 2015 that I understood why.  Kreeft notes at the beginning of his logic text that “there is one simple, observable behavior that clearly distinguishes humans from both computers and animals: asking questions.”[2] Well, Greg doesn’t just ask any old questions, but rather two insightful questions built on the tried and true foundation of classical logic. These directly address the “three acts of the mind”: understanding, judgement, and reason. Let’s look at each one closer over the next few weeks, starting with understanding.

Understanding, traditionally called the first act of the mind, is what Kreeft says most clearly distinguishes humans from computers: “computers understand nothing; they merely store, process, relate, and regurgitate data.” [3] While judgement and reasoning deal in propositions and arguments, respectively, understanding starts with the foundational level of terms. Terms can’t be true or false by themselves, but they can be clear or unclear. There are often multiple words that might be applicable in a particular situation, and most words have multiple meanings depending on the context. Not defining terms is the most frequent cause of people talking past each other. This is typically unintentional, as each person may simply have a different concept in mind when they hear a certain term. Defining a contentious term in a discussion locks down the word used to the actual concept intended and gets both parties “on the same page”, so to speak. This is especially important with controversial topics that can have a lot of connotations beyond the basic definition. A person may also start out using a word one way and switch mid-discussion to a different meaning. Whether intentional or not, this is actually a logical fallacy called equivocation, and is often used to seemingly prove a point – until we examine the change in meaning midstream. Asking your friend “What do you mean by that?” can help highlight (for both of you) when a word is used inconsistently.

To see how definition helps both parties in a conversation to understand each other better, take, for instance, the controversial topic of abortion. Suppose Susan makes the statement “Abortion is wrong” in a conversation with Beth. If Beth takes “wrong” to mean “illegal”, then she will likely disagree with this premise; it’s not currently illegal (here in America). They might go back and forth and get nowhere because Susan defines the term “wrong” as immoral, while Beth defines it as illegal. But of course, not everything that is wrong is illegal (i.e. killing Jews in Nazi Germany was legal, and even rewarded), while not everything that is illegal is wrong (i.e. owning a Bible in North Korea can get you sentenced to a slave labor camp or executed).

Greg’s advice to ask “What do you mean by that?” early on helps avoid the embarrassing admission after the fact of “we got in a big fight and it turned out we weren’t even talking about the same thing…” On that note, this week’s post comes with some homework: 1) look for opportunities this week to try verifying what people mean (hopefully before getting in a fight!), and 2) think about the words you might be using carelessly, and how clearer terms may help better your own understanding of issues, as well as for people with whom you’re communicating.

Next week, we’ll look at Greg’s second question and how it builds on the third act of the mind, reasoning. Then we’ll circle back to the second act of the mind, judgment, to put everything together.


[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p.49,61.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 35.
[3] ibid. p.36.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

“Christ with Thorns”, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1865-1879.

As I sat here this Memorial Day weekend working homework problems, I also thought about what this holiday means here in the US. For some, it may just be a long weekend away from work, but it’s really about remembering the soldiers who never returned home from all the various wars, soldiers who sacrificed their lives to save their brothers-in-arms next to them on the battlefield; soldiers who paid with their lives for the ultimate good of their fellow Americans back home; soldiers who often died trying to protect people they didn’t even know in other countries. They paid the highest price any person can be asked to pay, and prove the old saying that freedom isn’t free. But this reminder of selfless sacrifice brought to my mind an even greater sacrifice.

Jesus Christ told His disciples that “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”[Jn 15:13] But then He didn’t stop there. He continued, “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” It’s good to remember the cost required in the offer of “the free gift of God” [Ro 6:23]. As Paul says, the Christian has been “bought with a price” [1Co 6:20], and that at no small cost. Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, laid His perfect, blameless life down for us fallen wretches – “the just for the unjust” –  that we might be redeemed [1Pe 1:18-19]. The wages of sin (i.e. the just compensation for it) is death [Ro 6:23], yet the only one to ever walk the face of this earth who didn’t deserve to die, voluntarily chose to sacrifice Himself to pay for our salvation. And while death on the cross was certainly a painful, torturous, humiliating way to die, that paled in comparison to the agony of bearing the perfectly just wrath of God that each and every human deserves [Ro 3:23]. The grace offered us is not the “cheap grace” so palatable to the world, but rather a “costly grace”, as Bonhoeffer would say [1].

It can be easy to not grasp that cost in a culture that tends to view God as some old grandfatherly figure who should simply exist to spoil the kids (and if He doesn’t fit that silly image, then He probably doesn’t exist). After all, “‘God is love’, right? And how could He not love someone like me?” But this distorted view of God ignores the fact that we are all lawbreakers on death row, in desperate need of a pardon. And so the Gospel, literally the “good news”, doesn’t seem like such good news because we never grasped how bad our situation is. A right understanding of the Law that condemns us helps us understand why we need salvation, and why Jesus’ sacrifice was the only way to provide that salvation such that God could still be just while also the justifier of sinners like us [Ro 3:26].

As a time of solemn remembrance of the weighty sacrifice of others on our behalf passes by, it is good to remember the fragility of such human sacrifices and the endurance of Christ’s sacrifice, once for all [He 7:27].  The U.S. President Ronald Reagan once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation from extinction.”[2] Sadly, the greatest sacrifices soldiers (or any other human) can make may all come to naught, despite the best intentions, the best training, the most careful planning, the boldest action, and the most heroic effort.  Sometimes, our best effort simply isn’t enough to win the day. Other times, the success hard-won by those deadly sacrifices is undone by the foolish actions of others afterward. Those times are painful reminders of our own finitude, both in terms of power and wisdom. But Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient, complete, and impossible to undo. His victory over sin and death is unparalleled, truly epic in achievement, and confirmed by His resurrection from the dead. And yet, it is not just some distant story of past derring-do, passed down to you to think about once a year. It is a sacrifice made that you personally – right here, right now, may live – joyfully reconciled with your Creator in this life, and resurrected to be with Him for all eternity. Don’t let another year go by without considering the supreme sacrifice made on your behalf by Christ Jesus, and accepting His gift of life and His calling to be a disciple.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 45.
[2] Ronald Reagan, speech to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, 1961-03-30.

Objections to Worship

Last week’s post was about worship of God “in spirit and truth” as Jesus phrased it. But there is an objection from skeptics to God desiring worship. They say the desire for worship on the part of God, and particularly the command for us to worship Him, is petulant, arrogant, needy, egotistical, and so on. Do they have a case? Let’s work through that today.

The main problem I see with this line of reasoning is that they seem to be objecting to a perceived lack of warrant, or justification, for worship. But this is because the god they object to is too little of a god, so to speak. Like the strawman fallacy, where one creates a caricature of your opponent’s view to pick apart and easily defeat, the skeptic has made a “straw god” to be disgusted with. It would, indeed, be the height of arrogance for a mere man to demand worship as God; no matter how amazing or powerful or smart he was, he would still be, without a doubt, unqualified for that role. But that’s not the God I serve.

  • The God of the Bible is distinctly and uniquely qualified to be worshiped. God is everything we consider to be praiseworthy. For example, we might praise the gracious and persistent love of a parent for their child even when the child rebels and hates the parent; yet God demonstrated His love for us in that He loved us before we could love Him [Rom 5:8,10, 1Jn 4:19]. We might praise the self-sacrifice of the soldier that gives his life to save his comrades; yet Christ gave His life as a sacrifice for all [Rom 5:6-8, 1Jn 4:10]. We might praise the judge who stands up against a corrupt system and refuses to be bought off with bribes, but rather punishes the guilty and releases the innocent that was unjustly charged; yet God is perfectly just [Deut 10:17, Ro 2:11]. He is all of these things and more, to the nth degree. Does this mean that God is subservient to independent behavioral standards then? On the contrary, we have these ideas of exemplary moral conduct because they are grounded in the unchanging nature of God.
  • All others are not qualified to receive worship. Some skeptics charge that demanding worship is indicative of the most unpraiseworthy of humans: megalomaniacs, malevolent dictators, psychopaths and so on. So why would we consider that behavior good when God demonstrates it? I would simply note that we are repulsed by humans craving worship because we recognize they are all unworthy of being worshiped, whether they desire it or not. They are not actually omnipotent, omniscient, or even the greatest thing since sliced bread. In attempting to lay claim to something they have no right to, they seek to steal glory from God.
  • God has the right to worship. If some stranger walked up to you and demanded that you salute them when they approached, you might reasonably take offense at that assumption of superiority on their part. But suppose you are a soldier in your nation’s military, in uniform, on duty at your base, and the stranger approaching you was the base commander. Even if you don’t know him personally or even recognize him, the symbols of far higher rank on his uniform mean that he has the right to your respect and your obedience. And if you do recognize him and just don’t like him, that doesn’t really matter. You are still obligated to salute because of his position of authority over you. Of course, you don’t have to salute; but you should probably expect to pay the consequences if you don’t. The skeptic objecting to God’s command to worship Him is treating God like the random stranger walking up and making the same demands – “How rude! Who do you think you are?” But God isn’t a random peer – He is our Creator, and He is sovereign over us, like it or not. You can object to His authority. You can refuse to respect, honor, glorify, and love Him – even though these would be the only reasonable responses if you understood who He was and what He’s done – but there are consequences to that choice.
  • Lastly, praising God and worshiping Him is simply acknowledging what is true. Truth is correspondence with reality, and if God really is loving, merciful, just, holy, sovereign – and if we desire to be truthful – then it is only right that we acknowledge those statements about God.

Gary Parrett described worship as our faithful response to God’s gracious revelation. His revealing of Himself to us warrants the response we call worship, whether that take the form of trembling, reverential awe, or exuberant, joyful praise, or deeply quiet gratitude, or simple, obedient service. If you’re a skeptic, don’t miss out on being reconciled with your Creator, the one and only King of all, because you objected to a little god that was only a pretender to the throne.

Worship in Truth

“Jesus and the Samaritan Woman”, by Gustav Dore, 19th c.

A woman inquired of Jesus about the proper place to worship: was it the temple in Jerusalem, or Mount Gerazim where her people worshiped? This raises the larger question of what’s actually important in this activity of worshiping God. Does location matter? Time? What about form of worship? In His reply to her one issue, Jesus answered the bigger issue when He told her to worship “in spirit and in truth”, for those are the worshipers God seeks [Jn 4:23-24].  But what does that mean? Let’s work through that today.

First, Nelson’s Bible Dictionary defines worship as “the supreme honor or veneration given either in thought or deed to a person or thing.”[1] However, while it can be directed to anything or anyone, only God is actually worthy of worship. Let’s look at 5 distinctives of Christian worship.

  • We must worship “in spirit” because God is spirit; that is, He is immaterial. And He has created us humans with a spirit as well. We are far more than the sum of our physical body components. Our worship can not be reduced to simply chemical reactions or physical responses to stimuli. There is a relational interaction between our spirit and the Spirit of God that transcends location or language or communication skills. Reverend Watkins writes in Ellicott’s Commentary that “The yearning of the human spirit is that of a child seeking the author of his being.”[2]  As Grudem points out, “genuine worship is not something that is self-generated or that can be worked up within ourselves. It must rather be the outpouring of our hearts in response to a realization of who God is.”[3]
  • While there is a mystical, spiritual component to our worship that may be expressed in a variety of ways, Christian worship is worship “in truth”. Therefore, it is also strongly propositional. It makes informative statements. It is not just some wishy-washy, make-it-up-as-you-go “spirituality” popular among many these days, but rather objective statements about God’s attributes, His actions in the world, and His work in the lives of His people. When we sing “Up from the grave He arose!”, we are making definite objective statements about Jesus’ actions in history. When we sing “Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!”, we are making objective statements about His nature. There’s no room for “true for you but not for me” relativism in Christian worship.
  • Worship “in truth” has real content. If your worship consists of making animal noises, I would argue that you’re not really worshiping.  Or if your worship is only an emotional high, barely distinguishable from the feelings at Saturday night’s concert other than it’s on Sunday morning, I would encourage you to look a little deeper. Emotions are good, but Christian worship grounds those emotions in solid truth. There’s a saying that “We sing our theology”, and that should give us pause. In light of that, the Christian should always examine the words they sing to verify that they are truthful and correspond to what we know of God.
  • Worship “in truth” will correspond to who God is, for truth is correspondence to reality. Ellicott’s commentary on those verses in John says, “Worship which is ‘in truth’ is in harmony with the nature of the God whom we worship.”[2] Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament likewise says of this passage, “To worship in truth is not merely to worship in sincerity, but with a worship corresponding to the nature of its object.”[4] The Expositor’s Greek Testament adds that worship “is to be ἐν ἀληθείᾳ {en aletheia} – in correspondence with reality.”[5] In other words, we worship God as all-knowing, all-powerful, sovereign, and holy because He actually possesses those attributes. We don’t worship God as the sum total of the universe (pantheism) or as the Force from Star Wars (panentheism), because those propositions – those truth claims – do not correspond to reality.
  • Lastly, worship “in truth” should be free from hypocrisy. After all, hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another, which is the total opposite of corresponding to reality.

In summary, Christian worship is honoring God with our heart, soul, strength and mind, recognizing who He is, and responding appropriately. It is not limited by time or place, or status of the worshiper, or style of worship. It must be offered honestly and sincerely, not by rote, as a spiritual service to God and not to please man. For that is what God desires of us, and only that will ultimately satisfy creatures created to glorify God.


[1] “Worship”, Nelson’s Foundational Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004).
[2] John 4:23, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, ed. Charles John Ellicott (London: Cassell & Co., 1905). Section on the Gospel of John authored by the Reverend H.W. Watkins.
[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 1011.
[4] Marvin Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (NY: Scribner, 1887).
[5] John 4:23, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. Rev. W. Robertson Nicoll (NY: George H. Doran Co, 1897). Section on the Gospel of John authored by Marcus Dods.

The Benefit of Deadlines

Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Pedro Simao

As I’m preparing this year for a big engineering exam, I am reminded of the benefit of deadlines. Yes, I said benefit. As much as I hate the pressure of a deadline, whether it’s on a regular project at work or my upcoming exam, I have to admit, it’s better to have a deadline. The procrastinators out there may disagree at first, but I speak as one of you. And if you’re like me, and have procrastinated and gotten burned before, you know deep down that having an indefinite amount of time to accomplish something is the worst gift we can receive. As I can readily attest, studying can just be blown off too easily without a set goal or deadline, but having a test date set motivates us to study like nothing else. The need to study suddenly becomes very real. As I’m watching videos from a review course, and working through practice problems on my weekends now, and collecting reference books I was missing, and highlighting and underlining and tabbing my books like mad, I’m wishing I’d been this motivated over the last several years! But as important as this exam is to me, this all pales in comparison to the critical importance of being reconciled with God. The Bible warns us that it is appointed once for man to die, then the judgement [Heb 9:27-28]. Sadly, that is one deadline that we often go out of our way to ignore. It’s hard to fix a problem we don’t recognize, so let’s work through two potentially disastrous responses to life’s most important deadline.

Although scientific giant Blaise Pascal lived almost 400 years ago, he diagnosed modern American culture pretty well. He wrote in his Pensées about two dangerous responses to God: diversion and indifference. Although some of the diversions are different now, we still choose to busy ourselves with anything imaginable rather than to think about death or examine our lives. Between our jobs and/or school, and our hobbies, and social media and TV, and encouraging our kids to play on 3 different sports teams at the same time while in band and 10 different after-school activities, we don’t have a minute a day that isn’t filled with hustle and bustle. And though we complain about how busy we are, we actually want the busyness, for it keeps us from contemplation. But, as Pascal warns, “diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.”[1] No matter what we fill our days with, we must fill them with something, lest we have time to think, and, as philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it, “look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it. “[2] Man’s solution is to not think about it – “ostrich epistemology” as Kreeft calls it.

But there is also that second pitfall: indifference. The diverted person is too distracted to even notice his car is about to run off a cliff until it is too late; the indifferent see the danger but don’t care. Pascal rightly observes, “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is.”[3] And again, “Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder.”[4] Or as Kreeft puts it, “We are more put out at missing a parking place than at missing our place in Heaven”. [5] Whether this indifference is manifested in a hedonism that says “let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, or a nihilistic apathy that asks “what’s the point of caring?”, or an arrogant skepticism that says “I glanced at that and promptly dismissed it since it would interfere with the way I want to live”, it is just as inexcusable. If you’ve lived very long on this earth, you’ve known friends and family who haven’t. Death is one certainty in life, and it doesn’t take long to see that it can come to each of us at any time. Sicknesses, accidents, wars, natural disasters, malicious or negligent actions of others like robbers or drunk drivers – the list of ways we can meet our physical death is long, and nobody can predict how much time they will have. Therefore, it behooves us to make wise use of the time given us, and not put off this critical investigation until tomorrow, when tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.

Dr. Kreeft, reflecting on Pascal’s longer treatment of these two dangers,  warns that “Diversion and indifference are the devil’s two most successful weapons against faith and salvation, the two widest roads to Hell in today’s world.”[6] They are paths of no resistance, for the first blocks the victim’s view of the danger, and the second dulls the perception of it.  But just as diversion and indifference are not reasonable courses of action for me preparing for my exam, neither are they reasonable paths to follow when it comes to your eternal destiny. As Pascal said, “[T]here are only two classes of persons who can be called reasonable: those who serve God with all of their heart because they know Him and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know him.”[7] Listen then, to reason, and seek God while He may be found [Is 55:6-7].


Note: The Pensées (“thoughts” in French) are fragments of Pascal’s uncompleted magnum opus, and were left unorganized at his death at the age of only 39. Different editions organize them differently. If you get a book based on the Krailsheimer numbering, use the reference below with a K. The Brunschvicg numbering is indicated by a B.
[1] Pascal Pensées 171 (B), 414 (K).
[2] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées – Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 168.
[3] Pensées, 194 (B), 427 (K)
[4] ibid., 198 (B), 632 (K)
[5] Kreeft, p. 203.
[6] Kreeft, p. 188.
[7]Pascal, 194 (B), 427 (K)

Let Down?

“Nero’s Torches – Leading Light of Christianity” by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876

Have you walked away from God because you think He let you down? I’ve noticed in several “deconversion” stories a common thread of feeling “let down”, whether by unanswered prayers or the more general “problem of evil” that tends to assume that God can’t exist because of the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world. This past Sunday, one of the songs in church had the refrain “He’s never gonna let, never gonna let me down”[1]. What does that mean? And do the testimonies of those who clearly felt God did let them down (and concluded that God either doesn’t exist at all or doesn’t exist as portrayed in the Bible) undermine that encouraging lyric? Let’s work through that objection today.

What are some reasons people give for thinking God has let them down? Sick or seriously injured family members who died despite fervent prayers is a common one. Praying for relief from abusive situations, (often, sadly, at the hands of those who call themselves Christians) is another example I’ve read. How we define our terms will go a long ways toward determining whether we feel let down by God in those situations. But first, let’s look at some examples of people who have gone through really tough times and who didn’t come away thinking God had failed them, and see if there is anything to learn from them.

  • In 2017, at the age of only 34, Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim turned Christian apologist, died from stomach cancer after a protracted battle. He and many Christians, myself included, prayed for his healing, but it didn’t happen. Did God let him down? No.
  • In 2015, the terrorist group ISIS made the news with their video of 21 Coptic Christians being beheaded after refusing to deny Christ. Did God let them down? In spite of the lack of miraculous intervention, no, God did not let them down.
  • In the mid-20th century, when Romanian atheist-Jew-turned-Christian-pastor Richard Wurmbrand was jailed and tortured for 14 years, did God let him down? No. Or when Bulgarian atheist-turned-Christian-pastor was jailed and tortured for over 13 years, had God abandoned him? Hardly. Rather they said it was God who sustained them.
  • Corrie ten Boom, and her sister Betsy, were sent to Nazi concentration camps in WWII. Betsy died there shortly before Corrie was released. Did God fail Corrie in not delivering her sister? Not according to Corrie.
  • Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tells the stories of many, many Christians over the centuries killed for their faith, like the Christians being burned alive as human torches in Emperor Nero’s gardens in the opening artwork above. And yet they didn’t consider themselves abandoned even then.
  • Consider the apostle Paul, who counted all his previous accomplishments and credentials as rubbish compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus [Php 3:8], but got flogged, beaten, imprisoned, stoned, shipwrecked, and finally beheaded [2Cor 11:25]. No prosperity gospel for him…
  • If anyone could claim God had let them down, Job, who is the archetype for endurance of suffering, could surely say that. Yet this “blameless” man, after losing his family, his possessions, and being covered in boils, could still say “though He slay me, I will hope in Him.” [Job 13:15]

These people understood what many in our culture today have a hard time understanding: the character of God. We tend to think of God as some doting grandpa looking for every opportunity to give us whatever cool toys our hearts desire. And when that doesn’t happen, we may begin to doubt that He loves us or that He even exists. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. Yes, God is more loving than we could ever be, but He is also more just, and holy, and perfect, than we could ever be. He is sovereign, and all-knowing. In fact, He is the only being worthy of worship. And He doesn’t live for us; rather, we live for Him. Until we recognize that, passages like Acts 9:16, where God says He “will show this man (Paul) how much he must suffer for My name’s sake”, won’t make much sense. Neither will the passages in almost every book of the New Testament that speak of the suffering Christians will endure if they follow Christ faithfully. If we think God’s purpose for us is for us to be happy or comfortable, then we’ll be disappointed a lot. After all, “Into each life some rain must fall”[2], as Longfellow would say. For some, the rain seems to never stop falling. However, as Longfellow aptly pointed out, “Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.” The presence of misery in our lives no more refutes God’s existence than storm clouds deny the sun’s existence. But if we recognize, like the apostle Paul did, that God’s purpose is for us to glorify Him, then we’ll be able to say with Paul that this “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” [2Cor 4:17] And that’s a significant statement given the afflictions that he endured.

While we tend to use the term “unanswered” prayer, the reality is that God’s answer isn’t what we wanted, whether that’s a “no,” or “not yet,” or something else besides “yes.” And the history of Christianity is filled with people not being delivered from their trials and, oftentimes, their tortured deaths; but it’s also filled with testimonies of God strengthening, comforting, and even giving peace and joy, in the midst of some of the most evil circumstances mankind has dreamt up. Did God let any of those people down? From the world’s perspective, it might appear so. But the Christian knows better.  For the Christian knows he is called to be a faithful witness of God in every situation [1 Cor 10:31, 2Cor 5:20-21], and God’s light shines bright in the darkest places.


[1] “King of My Heart”, written by Sarah and John Mark MacMillan, © 2015.
[2] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Rainy Day”, 1842.

A Dangerous Perception

The 9.1 magnitude Japan earthquake of 2011, as recorded at the Hokkaido Station seismograph.

A colleague and I were talking the other day about the difficulties in conveying the dangers of rare events to people. The site conditions for projects we were each working on had triggered some seismic provisions that can be very costly to design for, and to build. Unfortunately, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other relatively rare events are easy to blow off… until they happen to you.  Who wants to spend money or time preparing for something that is (in their mind) unlikely to happen in their lifetime?  Especially when it’s going to cost a lot? It doesn’t help that our part of the world has the potential for a high magnitude earthquake (M7.0+), but hasn’t had one in just over 200 hundred years. While it’s good that major earthquakes are rare here, one bad side effect is apathy and an unspoken rule of “out of sight, out of mind”. This tendency to not appreciate danger that is perceived as distant or unlikely to occur isn’t just an obstacle for engineers trying to justify their fees to clients. People often have the same mindset when it comes to spiritual matters, and that’s what I’d like to work through today.

We’ll wear helmets on our bikes and seat belts in our cars because of the dangers of vehicle accidents; we’ll put non-slip treads on stairs because of the potential for falls; we’ll put nets and cushions around trampolines because of accidents there; we’ll even stop eating things we like and start eating things we hate to stave off various diseases – we’ll take all sorts of precautions to protect our frail physical lives that are often here today and gone tomorrow despite our best efforts, but we won’t look to the safety of our eternal souls. Isn’t that an odd ordering of priorities? Small dangers can loom large in our view while much greater dangers are perceived as unimportant. And yet, none of us are guaranteed our next breath, much less the next day/month/year/decade. Death, that heavy curtain we just can’t see past, can close on us at any time. But that is actually just the short-term danger. For the Bible tells us some of what is beyond that black curtain: judgement, but not on our terms.

I’ve heard some people say that that if they died and found themselves in the presence of the God they had denied all these years, they would surely demand that He justify His actions throughout human history to them – as if they weren’t less than a speck of dust before His might that created the universe out of nothing, as if they weren’t a moral cesspool in comparison to His perfect goodness, as if they weren’t the intellectual equivalent of a bacterium in comparison to His omnipotence and wisdom [Ro 9:20, Ps 103:14, Isa 45:9, Dan 4:35]. I pray they realize the arrogance and folly of their statements before that hypothetical scenario becomes reality for them, because that trial scene will be very one-sided, and it won’t be them asking the questions. Indeed, we will all appear before God one day [Heb 9:27], on God’s terms. What does that mean?  It means that perfection is the standard to meet [Rom 3:23, Dt 32:4]. It means that we will answer for every word and deed and thought [Mt 12:36, Heb 4:12-13]. It means that if we can’t meet that standard, then we need a proxy – a substitute – who can, and is willing to, take our place and represent us before the judgement seat of God. That one is Jesus Christ [Jn 1:29, 2Co 5:21, 1Tim 2:5-6].

Don’t make the mistake of protecting yourself from the little things that can only affect this life, and neglect the real possibility of entering eternity without having reconciled with your Creator (and Judge) on His terms. Just as many of the earthquakes of the past came when people least expected, you could find yourself standing before God in the blink of an eye. Make the investment now that will make that meeting an occasion of joy rather than terror.

Objection!

Perry Mason questioning the witness

Have you ever watched a movie where one lawyer objects to every question the other lawyer asks a witness? The multitude of objections doesn’t mean they’re valid, though, as evidenced by the judge’s response of “overruled” on many (or all) of them. You can run into a similar situation in discussions about God with skeptics. I’ll give you an example I’ve run into in the past. I’ve been on the receiving end of what I call “shotgun skepticism”, where the skeptic fires off a barrage of objections to try to overwhelm their opponent and end the discussion before it’s even started. You’ll see things like “400 contradictions in the Bible”, or “50 reasons why Christianity is obviously false.” What do you do when you get confronted by something like that? Let’s work through that today.

It can be intimidating when you are presented with what appears to be a wall of objections for why you are wrong, but you have to remember that someone’s objection doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a good reason behind the objection. Like the judge in court, you have to simply examine each objection one by one, and judge them on their own merit, not on the total quantity. And here’s the thing: when you actually start examining these mass quantity type objections, you’ll find that many of them are non-issues. Below are 3 types of objections that turn out to be more bark than bite.

  1. The false objection. Some objections are just plain wrong. I remember getting one from a friend years ago that claimed to be hundreds of contradictions in the Bible. However, when I started looking through them, some of the references simply didn’t say what the objection claimed. The objection looked intimidating at face value, until I started examining the individual parts of it, where it started to fall apart. Were there ones that were fair questions? Sure, but several of the hundreds of alleged biblical errors were themselves errors. Most of the rest fell into the next two categories.
  2. The irrelevant objection. These are statements that raise an issue unrelated to the matter at hand. It may be a legitimate question to seek answers for, but it’s not a reason to reject the particular issue being discussed.  For instance, an objection to God’s existence because “Christians are hypocrites” is simply irrelevant to the question of whether God exists. Every Christian on the planet could be a lying, thieving, murderous hypocrite, and that would only demonstrate our failure as humans, not God’s nonexistence. Likewise, claiming we can safely ignore the Bible because of apparent contradictions in it may call into question the inerrancy of the Bible, but not the truthfulness of the individual claims made in it. For instance, the Bible affirming two truly contradictory statements might  show it to have genuine errors (due to the law of non-contradiction), but as long as the statements that all humans are sinners [Ro 3:10,23] and God will judge us [Ec 12:14, 2Co 5:10] are both true, then the skeptic has a serious problem to deal with, regardless of what else is true or false. In fact, he’d better hope that John 3:16 is also true so there is a solution to that major problem. You see, all the rest of the Bible could be wrong, but if those statements are true, then there is a critical problem the skeptic needs to recognize, and an amazing solution he needs to accept in order to survive.
  3. The misunderstood objection. Among the several lists of alleged inconsistencies and contradictions I was given by my friend a while back were things like “God asked Adam where he was… but God is omnipresent.” OK… God’s omnipresence doesn’t mean He can’t ask someone where they are. As most parents are aware, you can still ask a question of your guilty kids already knowing full-well what happened. The question isn’t for your enlightenment, but rather for the child to have an opportunity to do the right thing and confess to the wrongdoing. The person raising objections like this has misinterpreted the passage objected to, either innocently or deliberately. If innocently done, the response may be as simple as clarifying the passage for them. If done maliciously, there are likely some difficult underlying issues driving the person to try to interpret passages in the worst possible manner to bolster their rejection of God. Be patient, and speak the truth in love, methodically dismantling the barricades they’ve erected between them and God.

Oftentimes, skeptics take the approach that the best defense is a good offense, and try to overwhelm you with quantity of objections; but remember that when it comes to logic and clear thinking, quality really does beat quantity. In fact, ask the skeptic to pick their single best objection to discuss. Sometimes you’ll find that they didn’t actually look through their list they forwarded or copied and pasted into a reply to you! Those are good opportunities to teach them the importance of examining their own beliefs rather than just parroting a Dawkins or Hitchens (or whatever internet site they could find in under a minute that supported their view). Make them pick one objection that they are prepared to defend. Remember that if they make make a positive claim, then they do bear a burden of proof. Despite the constant attempts to say the Christian bears the full burden of defending themselves, that’s actually not how it works. If they refuse to pick a claim to defend, you can always stop there. If they are willing to make statements but unwilling to back them up, then they’re likely not really interested in seeking the truth. But of course, we go the extra mile for those we love, and the skeptic is a person in desperate need of salvation, just as much as I or any other Christian was. So if they only want to continue talking if you engage their hundreds of fallacious objections, then I recommend picking off the easy ones that are actually misstatements first, then deflect the ones that don’t apply to the topic at hand, and focus on clarifying the remaining misunderstandings, giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are sincere misunderstandings. It can be a long trying process working with people that are peppering you with blasts of shotgun skepticism while you try to help them, but these are people that Christ died for [Jn 3:16], who may yet be used by God in bigger ways than I can ever imagine when I’m talking to them. And that’s worth working through a few (hundred) objections.

At the intersection of faith and design