Impatience & Arrogance

“Torah Scribe”, by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1876

“Patience is a virtue, and I want it now!” Or so goes a common joke. But seriously, it’s frustrating being patient, and especially learning patience, but have you ever considered how impatience is really driven by arrogance? When I’m impatient with someone, I essentially say that my desires are more important than theirs, that I take priority. And honestly, even if my desires actually are more critical than someone else’s in a particular situation, does getting impatient ever help the situation? Not that I’ve seen.

Yet, we tend, in our culture, to be very impatient with God when it comes to His revelation in Scripture. Too often, skeptics – and even Christians – dismiss parts of the Bible that aren’t immediately obvious to them. Christian theologians over the centuries have devoted their lives to studying the Bible, and the Jews studied the Torah for centuries before that; and yet we sometimes think that if it isn’t fully understandable in five minutes, it’s a waste of time. However, we don’t have the same opinion of things like learning music, or calculus, or art, or really anything else. Rather, we fully expect worthwhile subjects to take a long time to understand, and maybe a lifetime to master. So what does it say about us when we have so little patience for learning theology – the study of God? I suggest that it’s arrogance on our part based on how little we really value the Word of God. Of course, I don’t expect the skeptic to value it, but it is disappointing to see so many apathetic Christians willing to dismiss tough sayings in the Bible so casually. Then again, tough sayings are what Jesus used in John 6 to weed out the “fans” from the serious disciples [John 6:60, 66-67]. But woe to those He finds to be only fans.

Even if we do awake from our slumber and spend our lives in pursuing a deeper knowledge of God, will we figure out all those troublesome verses? Not necessarily, and I’m OK with that. Here’s why. Ever since Newton’s time, we have had a good, but very incomplete, understanding of two of the most basic things in the universe: gravity and light. Are they particles or waves? Scientists observed properties that fit both categories for both entities, and have had to just live with a paradox – a wave-particle duality.[1] For instance, regarding light, Albert Einstein stated: “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.” Recently, evidence was found that seems to have confirmed gravity is a wave [2], but several generations of scientists have had to live their entire lives not knowing the answer to that question. Newton could describe the effects of gravity on objects via his universal law of gravitation, but he couldn’t explain how those effects were actually accomplished. And neither could anyone else with certainty for the next 3 centuries. Even now, future evidence may be found that contradicts how we interpreted the “gravity wave” emanating from a distant black hole collision in 2016. And yet, those scientists, past and present, did not think there was no answer to paradoxical things like light and gravity, or that the answer wasn’t worth seeking. Rather, they sought it all the more diligently. Somehow, though, we have the audacity to think that a difficult biblical passage doesn’t warrant a little humility and extra effort on our part? It takes us centuries to figure out the details of some of the basic operations of the physical universe, and we expect the Creator of that universe to be simpler to figure out? I don’t see that as a reasonable assumption. On the contrary, it stands to reason that the One who created the universe is greater than His creation, and that an infinite being might be a little beyond the grasp of His finite creatures.

In closing, I would encourage you to work through the tough questions; study, research, wrestle with them, and seek the answers from the Author of both the easy and the difficult passages. But don’t ignore the obvious answers you do have in front of you because you haven’t found an agreeable answer to your particular question on a more obscure issue. Don’t focus, as too many do, on secondary issues as reasons to reject God, while conveniently ignoring the primary questions the Bible does answer clearly. Don’t reject the God who must necessarily exist simply because you can’t reconcile two seemingly contradictory passages in His message to us. For in the Bible, we have something that, taken as a whole, explains the human condition better than any other worldview, even if we don’t understand every part of it exhaustively. And that should temper our impatience and its underlying arrogance, and remind us of our finitude and the wisdom of humility.


[1] http://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/inquiring/questions/graviton.html
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/12/science/ligo-gravitational-waves-black-holes-einstein.html

The Design of Evangelism

Jonah Calling Nineveh to Repentance – Gustav Dore

As I sit here in Siguatepeque, Honduras, I have a question for you: why does God use us to spread His message? Why bother with humans as part of His plan? Why not just show Himself to every human directly and eliminate the “middle man”? After all, I’ve had skeptics tell me they would become Christians if God just did some miraculous demonstration (of their choosing) to convince them. Wouldn’t overcoming their objections with direct revelation be better than what He’s done? I suspect my skeptical friends would still reject God even if He appeared to them directly, just as people rejected Jesus when He was performing signs and wonders in front of them, but still, what might be His design? Design is all about choices aligned to accomplish a purpose, so let’s look at some possible explanations.

  1. That choice to use humans as part of His plan could be to force us to have some skin in the game. No matter your good intentions, you just don’t care as much about something when you’re not personally invested in it.
  2. That choice could be an act of love, for it is an act of love to allow someone to partake in your valued activities. God allows us to be part of His activity of drawing people to Him. Consider an example. If you’re working on your car, and your kid wants to help, you know he’s not going to be mistaken for a member of a NASCAR pit crew, and may be more of a hindrance than if you did it all yourself, but letting your kid help is about more than just accomplishing the task at hand efficiently. It’s about using that time to talk to your kid and teach them important life lessons in the process of working on the car. Can God not do the same with us?
  3. That kind of choice could be a demonstration of His sovereignty and supreme power in that the vast majority of those whom He draws to Himself will come to Him via interactions with very fallible instruments – us Christians. While God can appear to someone directly (like Moses or the apostle Paul), most of us come to know God through preachers, teachers, evangelists, missionaries, friends, neighbors, or even friendly strangers caring enough to tell us the best news we could ever hear. It could very well be that much of our praise of God throughout eternity will be driven by learning just how beautifully He orchestrated our salvation. 

All of these can work together to accomplish God’s purposes of saving those that will be saved, and growing them into strong and mature servants that will glorify Him now and throughout eternity. The question is whether we will accept the gift, the privilege, and the responsibility of sharing in God’s work.

To Err Is Human

Typesetting (photo by Willi Heidelbach)

As I prepare for a trip to Honduras this week, I just wanted to leave y’all with something to think about when you hear skeptics criticize the accuracy of the transmission and translation of the Bible. I was reading a blog from Sean McDowell recently where he was pointing out some of the more comical errors introduced into Bible translations over the centuries, and why these still didn’t hurt the reliability of the Bible. In the article he points out something I’d like to highlight here: while the printing press could eliminate the manuscript variations attributed to scribal copying errors,  it didn’t eliminate errors entirely. Rather, it changed the scope of them. An error could now be mass-produced so that the printed output was extremely consistent compared to the hand-copied manuscripts, but consistently wrong. This reminded me of something I’m familiar with from engineering: errata.

An errata is simply a list of errors and their corrections on a separate sheet of paper (or electronic file) that is published to correct errors discovered in books already published. Most publishers make their errata freely available as it is the result of their original mistake. As building codes and standards have grown in size and complexity, and there has been the drive to publish new versions on a regular basis (whether needed or not, and whether ready to publish or not), the significance of errata has grown. These standards often go through a long process of drafts, rewrites, public comment periods, and sometimes a roller coaster ride of last-minute changes before publication. Mistakes creep in, and leaving out the word “not” in a paragraph, or leaving out an exponent in a formula that runs the full width of the page can be difficult mistakes to find in proofreading. Nevertheless, they can also have serious consequences for designs based on those simple typos, so I’ve learned the importance of always checking for the latest errata on each publisher’s website. Some of my reference books need an errata published for each print run of each edition because more errors are found, or because new errors were introduced. And then there was the time I bought AISC’s first printing of the first edition of their seismic design manual back in 2005. Finding a definite error in a particular formula, I went looking for the errata at their site, but there wasn’t one. When I asked them about it, they informed me that that printing had so many errors, that they had recalled the book rather than essentially republish it as a huge errata! Somehow I’d missed the notification of the recall. But engineering is focused first and foremost on public safety, so mistakes in the formulas we use or the rules we apply can be deadly if not detected. Hence the importance of errata in engineering books.

It’s true that hand-copied manuscripts might have a lot of variations from one copy to the next, where they necessarily differ from the “autograph” (the original text) at one point or another. But while it’s easy to think of our advanced printing technology now and look down on those ancient scribes with their old tired eyes and shaky hands and dim lighting, it’s good to remember that each generation is susceptible to their own types of errors that are often not as obvious to them as the mistakes of past generations. This is what C.S. Lewis meant when he warned about developing “chronological snobbery”. Ironically though, the manuscript variants may be less of an issue than our current printing practices that ensure that every single copy of a printing has the exact same error. There’s no way to compare copies in a run and reconstruct what the original text was because they all have the same errors. We start to regain some of that comparative reconstructability with multiple printings of a text, but most of my engineering books are doing good if they see a third or fourth printing. We’re not exactly gunning for the New York Times bestseller list… ever. That means that out of the tens of thousands of copies of that book, there might only be 3 or 4 different texts to compare. Even though we don’t have the original text of any of the books of the Bible, we have such a rich store of manuscripts – far exceeding the number of copies we have from any secular author from that time – that we can compare and isolate errors and have a high degree of confidence that our Bible is translated from the original languages using text approaching the original. And that is only improving as we continue to accumulate more and more manuscripts and papyri to compare against. So I’d like to submit to you that the extensive hand-copying of the biblical manuscripts, even as error-prone as hand-copying may be,  was actually part of God’s long-term plan for preserving His words to us.


Sean’s blog – http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/humorous-bible-translation-errors-and-what-they-mean-for-biblical-reliability

Outside the Fishbowl (a fable)

Author’s Plecostomus contemplating the meaning of life.

Let me tell you a story I was recently privy to. I can’t vouch for all the details as I wasn’t there, but both our cats assure me they stealthily witnessed the events and overheard enough to reconstruct the following.

Our two fish were swimming in their aquarium, amidst all  their brightly colored rocks,  “plants”, and decorations.  Life is pretty laid back for them: food appears floating on the surface of the water each day, and they have an aerator, a pump, a filter, a thermometer, and a pH sensor to keep things just right for them. But these aren’t your ordinary fish that die 2 days after you get them home from the store. Despite our cats’ intense desires for fish fillets, these fish have been around a while, so they’ve had time to think. They’re surprisingly contemplative fish – philosophical fish, you might even say. They stare out the tank at the vast expanse beyond the glass walls and wonder about what lies beyond. They often talk about things like that, although they apparently disagree a lot. One fish -call him, Bob, for neither I nor the cats can pronounce what he calls himself – came to some sad conclusions about life. He felt that their world, “Aquarium”, and all that was in it, and all that might lie beyond it in the great “House” beyond the glass, even their own bodies, were simply the result of something he liked to call “chance” or “just a big accident”. There was no overarching reason for him to exist, no purpose to his life other than whatever he chose as a life goal. In fact, the vastness of what they could see outside Aquarium led him to believe that they were really a very insignificant part of all that existed. After all, the House outside the Aquarium was a huge hostile environment, so obviously fish were meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

The other fish – call him, Joe – wondered why there was anything existing in Aquarium rather than simply nothing. And why did it seem like everything was “just right” for their existence where they were?  Was there some cause or maybe even some being responsible for what he observed? Maybe the vast, unlivable House beyond served some other purpose they didn’t know about. These were just a few of the questions that kept him awake at night. Being the thoughtful (and rather talented) fish they were, Bob and Joe decided to build a vessel to explore the great unknown beyond Aquarium. After a while, they had worked out  a way to bring some of their aqueous environment with them into the ominous air beyond Aquarium, and they boarded their vessel, and went out to boldly go where no fish had gone before! They explored the wonders of the other rooms of the House, and saw many strange things they could not imagine any possible purpose for. They made a map and labeled these things “Chair” and “Couch” and “Table”, and wondered what they could signify. Bob thought they were interesting anomalies at best, or maybe an ominous confirmation of their own insignificance at worst. Joe, on the other hand, wondered if these oddities might be clues about the nature of the one responsible for their own realm.

Eventually, they came to windows that opened up onto an even bigger world beyond the House, one covered in snow and ice, so that getting near the windows made their little portable heater strain to keep the water temperature stable in their ship. Then they realized that while the House was a hostile environment to them, it was necessary for their fish-friendly environment to survive. The House supplied the power to run Aquarium’s water pump, filter, light, and water heater. As their water evaporated, it was replenished from a nearby faucet. Fish food and pH balancing chemicals and replacement filters were all stored nearby to keep the Aquarium habitable for them. But even seeing the fish food stored nearby, and the source of fresh water, and so on, they only had more questions than when they started. How did food and fresh water and filters and such get from where it was to their home by itself? Although Joe’s suggestion of some nonfish being outside of Aquarium that was responsible for these things was a more straightforward explanation, Bob assured Joe that someday they would figure out a completely natural, impersonal explanation. Joe wondered to himself why any impersonal explanation, no matter how improbable, was preferable to Bob over any explanation involving intelligent agents. After all, they themselves were intelligent agents who made decisions every day. Was it so hard to extrapolate that there might exist a being beyond them doing the same thing on a grander scale?

But then there was also the troubling aspect of the apparent design of Aquarium: they had to work long and hard to design a portable version of Aquarium’s life-sustaining environment. Yet, looking back on their home from outside, they had to wonder why this perfect little place for fish was carved out of this larger environment so unsuitable for fish. Everything about Aquarium, from its structure to its mechanical components, seemed focused on sustaining their life in a very intentional way. In fact, most of their design of their ship was simply copied from Aquarium, yet they had no problem saying they intentionally designed their ship. Even if they were insignificant compared to the scale of the House – and more so now that they had seen an even bigger, more hostile world outside of the House – that still didn’t explain the origin of the carefully built haven they had grown up in, or it’s continued maintenance and protection.

Fortunately for our piscene explorers, our cats are fat and lazy, and Bob and Joe returned home to Aquarium unharmed, with a lot of new knowledge, but even more questions to hash out in their home on the table above our eavesdropping cats.  Now, I tend to take what cats say with a grain of salt, but humans sometimes express the same views as Bob the fish, so maybe the cat was serious. People do sometimes say that the inhospitableness of the vast majority of the universe is a strike against the God of the Bible. It’s true that the universe is not life-friendly, but that doesn’t negate the fact that our little piece of the universe appears to be uniquely habitable among all we’ve observed. Besides that, God gave us rational minds far beyond any animal (even Bob and Joe), such that we really can make spaceships and actually live in space, and potentially other planets. So does the immense and inhospitable nature of our universe make me doubt God’s existence? Hardly. He just gave me a huge playground to explore! As a parting thought, it’s been said the universe is more massive than we can really grasp because the universe is not displaying our glory, but God’s. Something to chew on next time you’re looking up at the stars “outside the fishbowl.”

Armchair Engineers

I just got back from representing my state structural engineering association at the National Council of Structural Engineering Associations 2017 Summit. Besides the normal business side of being a representative in an organization, and getting to learn about new products from vendors at the accompanying trade show, there were also lots of great educational sessions on things like blast design, progressive collapse, wind and seismic design, and even design of wood skyscrapers. A little slice of “nerdvana”. We even got to hear a keynote presentation from 2 of the engineers involved in the repairs to the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument after a 2011 earthquake damaged those two masonry structures. It made for a very busy but fun week. But one thing I was reminded of repeatedly that is worth noting here is that there really is no perfect design. What do I mean by that? Let’s work through that today.

We can arrive at an optimum design, but as long as there are conflicting parameters, there can never be an actual design that maximizes everything we want to maximize (like strength or flexibility) and simultaneously minimizes everything we want to minimize (like weight or cost). We have to pick and choose, and so any designed item will always fall short of perfection in one aspect or another. And this isn’t just a structural engineering issue. The session that most brought this point home was an extended session looking at the recent publication of ASCE 7-16, the “Minimum Design Loads & Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures”. I know, we can’t even design a short name for our standards, but long names aside, that book is an integral part of most of our structural design. Changes there have major impacts on our daily work. A gripe from many engineers, myself included, has been the ever-increasing size and complexity of the overall building code, and this portion in particular. In fact, the growth from one volume into two this version was a particular incentive for a meeting to discuss on a national level the direction this was going. But as the committee chairman pointed out, we have 3 main goals – safety of structures designed to the standard, economy of structures so designed, and simplicity of applying the provisions of the standard – but you can only achieve two out those three! We certainly don’t want to  have a simple code that allows for cheap buildings at the expense of life safety. But do you make a standard that is simple and extremely conservative, that makes buildings too expensive to actually build? As it turns out, we engineers have tended to emphasize the third way: safety and economy at the expense of design simplicity. Hence, the now 800 page, 2-volume standard that is just one of an entire shelf of standards with which structural engineers are expected to be familiar. And let’s not forget all the revisions to each one of those each code cycle. So while information overload and lack of transparency are problematic, design simplicity is one of those competing parameters that just ends up having to take a lower priority.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Christianity? Well, there are some “armchair engineers” out there that like to try to say that nature testifies against the existence of God because it is evidence of “bad design” which an all-knowing and all-powerful Creator wouldn’t use. And just like the “armchair quarterbacks” out there, so insistent on what play the real quarterback should’ve executed, these skeptics are great at second-guessing God, but pretty bad at proposing better alternatives. Like armchair quarterbacks, they can criticize what’s currently in play, and sometimes throw out some quick, “obviously better” alternative, but they come up sorely lacking when the pros and cons of each option are subjected to a careful, rigorous analysis. Just like me, I could gripe about the new 2016 design standard, but sitting in a room with the chance to actually vote for how I would like to see the standard changed for the 2022 edition, I found myself reluctantly accepting of the current version. When it came to actually fleshing out what any proposed changes might entail, I found myself a lot more understanding of the ASCE 7 committee’s final version of the current standard that I had complained about before. Alternatives that seemed so much better couched in  vague terms like “less complicated”, “clearer”, and “more practical” ended up having unintended consequences that I liked less than the current book when it came to working out the real effects of those ill-defined wishes. It reminds me of what’s been said about God’s choices: “If God would concede me His omnipotence for 24 hours, you would see how many changes I would make in the world. But if He gave me His wisdom too, I would leave things as they are.”[1]

Can I always explain how God’s design is the best choice? No – I am all too aware of my limitations in knowledge. But I can easily see cases in daily life where, not seeing the big picture, I would make ultimately worse choices trying to fix what I initially perceived to be a bad choice. Then I am reminded all the more why we should always approach God with humility. It seems the drive-by allegations by skeptics of bad design in nature  are highly suspect given our very limited human perspective, especially when we do investigate certain cases and find them to be astonishingly well-designed. So I would encourage my skeptical readers to approach the possibility of design in nature pointing to God with at least as much humility and openness as we engineers (try to) give our colleagues when critiquing their designs. After all, we often don’t know all the reasons behind the decisions with which we disagree, and learning those reasons often puts our criticism to rest.


[1] J.M.L. Monsabre, source unknown.

Sin in Heaven?

The Fall of Satan, from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Illustrated by Gustave Dore, 1866.

Question: what stops people who eventually fill heaven from sinning after they get there? If it’s impossible for them to sin, wouldn’t that mean they no longer have free will and God is just a tyrant with adoring crowds only because they have no choice? Or if they have free will in heaven, and sin is a possibility, what prevents somebody from eventually sinning, just as Lucifer (Satan) did eons ago? Then that person, and any who sided with him, would have to be cast out of heaven also, just like Lucifer and his fallen angels. What would keep this from just becoming a perpetual cycle of God “starting over” every so often? How is a Christian to respond to this dilemma? Or is this a false dilemma? Let’s work through a possible solution today.

I was reading Alexander MacLaren’s Expository Commentary a while back, and he briefly sketched out a list of ways Heaven surpasses the lost Eden, among which are these 2 entries: 1) “Sinlessness of those who have been sinners will be more intensely lustrous for its dark background in the past. Redeemed men will be brighter than angels.” 2) “The impossibility of a fall.”

I think he hints at why a recurrent fall is not possible. Satan and the other angels were in God’s presence, as Christians will be, but they had never sinned. Once they did, there was no going back. They had full knowledge of what they were rebelling against when they did it. Here in this life, we see as in a mirror dimly, but there we shall see clearly [1Cor 13:12], as presumably the angels did. But we will have the added advantage over them of having tasted of sin (and gracious redemption) before being in God’s presence. We will know all too well the “wages of sin” [Rom 6:23] & never freely choose it once we are in His presence. So it seems plausible that the whole Fall and redemption were necessary in order to achieve God’s ultimate design of a people immune to sin (unlike the angels and Adam & Eve), a people eternally and freely loving Him. Indeed, it’s been said that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross was not some kind of “Plan B” for God. That would make sense if experience of sin and subsequent redemption from it were necessary stages in the development of contingent, finite creatures that could truly be sinless.

Are there any parallels to this we could relate to this side of heaven? Personally, there are some former sins in my life that are now just an absolute turnoff to me that I would never willingly choose again. I think maybe that’s a tiny foretaste of the reaction I will have to the thought of any sin when I’m finally in God’s presence. It would seem then that our free will would remain uninhibited, while God’s Kingdom would remain undefiled by sin.

Saying that the redeemed absolutely would not sin inevitably raises the question of whether they truly have free will if certain choices (like being envious, for instance) will never be made. I suspect that we could sin, in that I think we will have freedom to make choices in Heaven, and those choices could theoretically involve sin, but I don’t think they ever would come to that because of our understanding of sin gained from this life combined with our then-clearer understanding of God’s goodness, holiness, majesty, and general worthiness to be respected, obeyed, and submitted to in all aspects.
Consider an example. If you asked me if I could murder my wife or my parents or someone else I love dearly, the answer is technically yes because it’s not a logical impossibility (like square circles) and I have the physical ability to commit the deed. But if you asked if I ever would, the answer would be a resounding “Never!” The idea is reprehensible to me, and would go against both my love for them and my love for God. So even though it might be technically possible for me to commit that particular sin here on earth, I don’t think I ever would, even in the moral frailty of my earthly life. Now, some less “dramatic” sin, for lack of a better description, would be a lot harder for me to rule out here on earth. I may not want to lie, but it would be hard for me to say that I would live the rest of my life never once lying. But I suspect that in God’s presence, the smallest “white lie” would be as significant and revolting as murdering a loved one, and therefore unthinkable by choice.

I’ve tried to be careful here to not speak with certainty on this matter because I don’t want to conclude more than I can support. The Bible doesn’t seem to address this what-if scenario clearly, so I want to proceed with caution and charity toward opposing suggestions. But I think this line of reasoning 1) can demonstrate a plausible solution to the apparent dilemma of human free will versus the sovereignty of God in maintaining the purity of His eternal kingdom, 2) can highlight the possible “design intent” that could explain why God allowed all the evil involved in Satan’s rebellion and mankind’s subsequent rebellion, and 3) does not contradict the Bible in any way that I’m aware of. 


[1] MacLaren, Alexander. MacLaren’s Commentary (Expositions Of Holy Scripture) 32 Books In 1 Volume. (Kindle Locations 502-504). www.DelmarvaPublications.com. Kindle Edition.

Our Responsibility

Author’s personal photo.

I’m reading Dan Barker’s book “godless”, about his deconversion from a Christian preacher to a prominent atheist. It’s a rather heartbreaking tale of one person who should know better (but apparently didn’t) walking away from God for some bad reasons, and then proceeding to influence a lot of other impressionable people to do the same. If that isn’t a true tragedy, I don’t know what is. But what is worse is seeing how his friends and family couldn’t answer his questions/objections when he first “came out” as an atheist.  That deafening silence only strengthened his impression that Christianity had no answers. Sadly, Barker grew up in an environment that was  theologically, philosophically, and scientifically shallow, and mistakenly thought that represented Christianity, and no one he knew was able to correct those errant ideas. These were the people who had influence in his life and whose responses might’ve been meaningful early on before he hardened himself against any correction.

That brings up an important point. It’s not the job of your pastor or some famous evangelist/apologist/speaker/writer/blogger/etc to answer your friends’ or family members’ questions and objections. It’s yours. It’s mine. It’s every Christian’s responsibility – and a sacred one – to be able to answer those who ask us for the reason for the hope that we have [1Pe 3:15 NIV].  My pastor, according to the apostle Paul, isn’t expected to do it all, but rather is to equip me for works of ministry or service [Eph 4:11-15]. There are a lot of places I go to as an engineer that my pastor will never go to, and the same is true for every Christian. We all serve on a mission field whether we recognize that fact or not.

Maybe that thought makes you nervous.  Good! Becoming aware that you’re not as prepared as you should be is the first step. So what’s the next step after recognizing the responsibility we have? Recognizing the gift we’ve been given. Even though we may often get nervous about what kind of unexpected questions someone may ask us, as Christians, we sit on the richest resources one could ever hope for. In my office, I have a whole bookcase of books on structural steel design, connection design, finite element analysis, seismic design, and on and on. I have an overclocked powerhouse of a computer sitting on my desk, loaded with advanced and rather expensive analysis and design software from multiple companies dedicated to engineering computing, with thousands of pages of user manuals on how to use this advanced software. And I have knowledgeable colleagues in my office, and attend a ridiculous number of continuing education seminars and webinars every year on a variety of engineering issues. Plus, I have access to various restricted online resources for engineers as a member of several technical organizations, besides the plethora of (somewhat reliable) design information freely available on the internet. Being a Christian, in America, and not being able to answer basic objections, is like an engineer sitting on the wealth of resources I just described and saying, “The client wants to know whether this beam will support this additional load, and I just can’t figure out how to analyze it. Oh well, guess I’ll just let that work itself out.” As an engineer obligated to protect the public health and safety first and foremost, that’s really not an option. Whether I can answer immediately because I’m familiar with the issue, or whether I have to spend the next week researching and talking to other engineers, I have to be able to answer one way or another. If I don’t know, the correct answer is not saying “I don’t know” and forgetting about it; the correct answer is saying “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out.”

As an engineer, people’s lives are on the line with my designs. And yet, if I’m in a building that collapses because another engineer made a mistake, I may die physically in the collapse, but I will simply be “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” [2Cor 5:8] On the other hand, when I choose to not answer someone’s questions about our eternal fate, I’m helping that person toward a fate worse than mere physical death. Of course, people like Dan Barker make their own choices and are responsible for them, but I surely don’t care to be an accomplice. So I desperately want to be prepared to explain both what I believe, and why I believe it. Opportunities to speak truth into someone’s life when they are willing to listen are often moving targets we don’t get a second shot at, so I’d rather be over-prepared than under-prepared. That said, I’ll leave you with something to chew on, regarding just what’s at stake, from performer (and atheist) Penn Jillette:

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward — and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me alone and keep your religion to yourself — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”[1]


[1] “Penn Says: A Gift of a Bible”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6md638smQd8, accessed 2017-10-02.

General vs Special Revelation

I was listening to an atheist present his case a while back, and one of his complaints was Christian apologists wanting to start from scratch, trying to prove the existence of generic theism ad nauseam, rather than the Christian Trinitarian God we supposedly believe in. Since his talk was about why he was an atheist, addressing his rejection of theism didn’t seem that unreasonable of a place to start.  But regardless of where we start, there are two fundamental questions to deal with: does God exist? and is the biblical presentation of Him true? The claims of Jesus and the Bible are foolish at best and deceitful at worst if God doesn’t even exist. But these two questions take us into aspects of how God reveals Himself to humanity. Let’s work through that today.

Revelation is simply the revealing of something, and God reveals Himself to us in two ways: general and special revelation. General revelation is also called natural revelation, or natural theology, because it is God’s disclosure about Himself and His relation to His creation, made manifest in physical nature, human nature, and history.[1]  This is the primary focus of apologetics, because we are often talking to people who reject the authority of the Bible. But, of course, God does not leave Himself without a witness, and astronomy, biology, genetics, geology, archeology, history, and philosophy are some of the disciplines that all reveal calling cards of God, consistently pointing us back to Him. Special revelation, on the other hand, is His direct revelation as recorded in the 66 books of the Bible, written by human authors inspired for His purpose, to specific people or groups of people, but also for people of all times and places.

I think of general revelation like the title sheet of a set of contract drawings for a building, while special revelation is the drawings themselves:

  • The title sheet of the drawings tells you who’s responsible for the design of the project: the various architects, engineers, and specialty consultants. Each designer is responsible for their portion, but the architect over the project will have his stamp on there. It’s not his biography, just his stamp certifying that the drawing set is ready to be used for construction. Similarly, we only get a stamp of divine authority in the wonders of nature. You have to go to the Bible for the rest of the story.
  • There will often be a scaled map of the project site showing where the building is in relation to different streets and how it will be oriented. Nowadays, there is often a nicely rendered 3D view of the project, with cars and people to show the scale of the project.  I can tell a lot about the project just from a good title sheet. Is this from a qualified design team known for good work? Is the project in Miami, Florida or Valdez, Alaska? I would expect pretty different types of buildings depending on the location. The first would need to be designed for hurricanes, while the second would need to account for massive snow loads and earthquakes. Just seeing the project location on the title sheet can tell me about some of the design issues dealt with on that project. The 3D view of the building model might tell me that this is a narrow, 50-story office tower in a one-city-block parcel in a crowded downtown environment, or that it’s a sprawling 1-story retail store with acres of parking all around. Natural revelation tells us where we’re situated and gives us an idea of the scope of this “project” we are part of. Going from the smallest cellular machines up to the grandeur of the universe, we realize our own smallness, and God’s awesome majesty to have created everything encompassed by such extremes (and God’s love that He would care about us on this “pale blue dot” of earth).
  • Most importantly, I can’t build off of that title sheet. Sure, I do know a lot about the project from it. I know where to build, roughly how big to build, some of the loads the building will have to be able to handle. But it’s pretty obvious that that isn’t enough. I don’t know any of the internal layout of the building, or how it’s braced against those various loads like hurricane winds, or the critically-important foundations that will support it. That general overview of the project isn’t enough to actually build it. For that, I need to open up the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pages of detailed drawings and other contract documents. In the same way, I can observe the world around me and learn that God exists, and even that He is a conscious being, is powerful, intelligent, immaterial, and eternal. But that’s not enough. Just like I need detailed plans to go with that general knowledge of a proposed building if I want to build anything that will last, I need the detailed message of the gospel if I want to spend eternity with my Creator.

When it comes to your eternal fate, don’t stop at the title page and try building your life on insufficient information, when the Master Designer has made available to you the detailed plans needed to build a life that will endure forever. And don’t ignore the drawings and title sheet altogether, and say there is no Designer as you try building a life on your own. Atheists are fond of saying religion is only a crutch for weak people, but really, it’s simply that making a mess of our lives is usually what it takes to force many of us to reach out to our life’s Designer and ask for help. Sad but true. As an engineer, I put my contact info on any of my structural drawings or reports so that people will reach out to m before they build something wrong and cause a disaster. Likewise, God has left His contact info. Don’t wait until your life comes crashing down before you call your life’s Designer to figure out how it was supposed to go together.


[1] “Revelation, General”, Norm Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).

 

Old Testament Law and the Design of Redemption

Moses & the 10 Commandments, by James Tissot, late 19th century.

Why don’t Christians follow all the laws of the Old Testament? Why do we think it’s OK to ignore all those prohibitions on eating shellfish and bacon, and wearing mixed fabrics, and so on? Are Christians hypocrites in doing so? I have heard that charge from skeptics before, so let’s work through that today.

I was listening to a theology class on my phone the other day, and the teacher stated that God made the old Mosaic covenant of the Law, with all of its sacrifices and rituals, as a temporary state of affairs[1]. This made me think of how we as engineers sometimes have to plan for the lifecycle of a product. We typically design the product to resist certain loads, to survive in certain environments, and to have certain functions. But sometimes, we also have to design temporary structures or products where the end of the product life is also a significant part of the design, such as designing to facilitate deconstructing it at the end of its life. Think of something like temporary structures for large concerts where quick and easy disassembly of stages are a key part of the design. While many temporary structures for things like world expos have remained in use after the event they were built for (i.e. the Eiffel Tower),  their purpose was to fill a role tied to a specific event; and when the event came and went, they either needed to be transitioned to a new purpose, or removed. This is exactly what we see in the Mosaic laws. Some, like prohibitions on murder, theft, etc, are moral laws that will remain in effect for as long as humanity endures. But other portions that were ceremonial or cultural had a planned life cycle with a replacement in mind from the beginning.

In the beginning, God created humans with basically only one rule to follow: “Don’t eat from this one tree, and I’ll count that obedience as righteousness. Break that rule, and die.” [Ge 2:16-17] They were under a “covenant of works” [2]. But they did break that one simple rule, and spiritual death, or separation from God, was the result. The necessary consequence of sin (rebellion against God, or failing to meet His perfect standard) is separation from Him, or death. But God promised an eventual solution in the “fullness of time” [Ge 3:15, Mk 1:14-15, Ga 4:4-5, Tt 1:2-4, 1Ti 2:6], and in the meantime, made merciful allowances for humans, where He would accept animal sacrifices as substitutes for the guilty person. The animal sacrifices didn’t really do anything to cleanse us of those sins against God [He 10:4], but they were a constant reminder to us that the payment for sin is death [He 10:3], that in all fairness, it should be us paying that price, and also that God in His mercy had provided (and would provide) a substitute.  He could’ve just left humans in that state of spiritual death until they died physically, at which point they would be eternally separated from God (i.e. in hell). He could’ve  started over with new free-willed creatures each time the previous ones disobeyed. Or He could’ve made creatures without free will that would never disobey…  but also never freely love. Instead, He chose to demonstrate His love and mercy in a way, and to a degree, that would not have been possible in those other scenarios; He extended grace – unmerited favor – to them and offered a way to be reconciled to Him, through the keeping of a prescribed set of laws, though the law was “only a shadow of the good things that are coming.” [He 10:1] But really, even from the beginning, it wasn’t the keeping of these laws that saved people –  it was the trust in God’s promise of a future Messiah that resulted in the keeping of the Law. For no one born in sin could keep God’s law perfectly, so the law served not to save us, but to convict us and drive us toward Him who could save [Ro 3:20]. In fact, throughout the history of God’s interaction with man, He stated that He desired hearts that obeyed Him out of love rather than mere outward ritual [De 10:12, 1Sa 15:22, Mic 6:6-8 Pr 21:3, Ho 6:6]. But bringing that about would require a transition to a new phase of the lifecycle of redemption, where internal changes could be brought about, through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit [He 8:10, Ezk 36:26-27, Ro 8:8-9].

And so, at the right time, God the Father sent God the Son to live a perfect life, fulfilling the covenant of works that Adam & Eve failed at, and then becoming the perfect sacrifice that really could cleanse our sins. If you read through the book of Hebrews, which compares Christ’s work to that of the old Law, there are two words that summarize that book: “better” and “completed”. Over and over again, the author of Hebrews makes the point that Christ’s work is better in every way than the Mosaic Law, and that Jesus completed, or finished, what was incomplete in the Law.

Lastly, there is still another phase to go. We are told of a future time when God will remake this world, and we will dwell in a “new heaven and a new earth”, and the dwelling of God will be with men [Re 21:3]. In the beginning, God walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam & Eve, until they broke fellowship with Him. Then we were told that when Jesus was born, He would be called Immanuel: “God with us” [Is 7:14, Mt 1:22-23]. And John tells us that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” [Jn 1:14]. And after Jesus’ mission was complete, the Holy Spirit would dwell in believers permanently. But then when God’s plan of redemption is completed someday, He will dwell among a redeemed and glorified people forever. And so, through a long process (from our perspective), God will redeem His people, and restore what was marred in man’s initial rebellion. Thus God’s design lifecycle for His plan of redemption will be complete. But that first phase exemplified in the Old Testament law has already been completed in Christ, and there’s no going back to that once you’ve tasted of the goodness of that second phase of God’s plan.  So no, Christians are not hypocrites for not following various ceremonial and cultural laws of the Old Testament, but rather we are simply following along with God’s phased plan of redemption.


[1] Dr. Gerry Breshears, audio lecture, as part of Biblical Training Institute’s “Academy” program.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Ch. 25: The Covenants Between God & Man”.

Before and After September 11th

By Robert on Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been 16 years, but I still remember the shock of watching September 11, 2001 unfold as those of us out west awoke to two planes hitting the World Trade Center.  For Americans of my generation, it is “a day that will live in infamy,” just as December 7, 1941 was for my grandparents’ generation. It was a day that showed the depths of depravity and evil of which humans are capable in the attacks themselves, but also the virtuous heights of compassion, kindness, courage, integrity, and resilience we are capable of in the reactions to the attacks. For some, like Richard Dawkins, this attack by Islamic terrorists changed how they thought about religion. As he put it,

“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism.”[1]
— Richard Dawkins

Not that Richard didn’t have a low view of religion before September 11th, but afterwards, he was galvanized in his opposition, even if often misdirected. Now, for the record, some religions may do poorly in the area of evidence, and some may be taken up in desperation as a crutch, but  Richard has taken up an aggressive position against the existence of God in any conception, and in so doing has really overreached far beyond what his objections can support. In the case of my belief in the Christian religion, it is actually based on evidence and is definitely not a crutch for consolation. Though God has indeed comforted me in times of grief, I believe in His existence in general, and His revelation of Himself in the Bible specifically, not because of needing a crutch, but because I think it’s true. In fact, God makes for a rather frustrating “crutch” if that’s all one’s after, for crutches don’t normally convict you when you’re misbehaving. God is true, and oftentimes inconveniently so. But is Dawkins right about religion being dangerous?

For me, as a Christian, 9/11 didn’t change my worldview in the slightest. I know that humans are made in the image of God and are capable of truly great, beautiful things, like the heroism and selfless love displayed by first responders and ordinary civilians alike on that tragic day. But we are also corrupted, sin-enslaved creatures, fallen and capable of tremendous evil, like the meticulous planning, and carrying out, of a cowardly attack against unarmed, defenseless people. As Malcolm Muggeridge succinctly put it, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” And three centuries earlier, Blaise Pascal developed that idea in his Pensées  to show that only Christianity adequately explains this paradox of man’s goodness and wretchedness.

But there is another thing Dawkins overlooks in his rush to denigrate all religion: 9/11 didn’t change the fact that there are monumental differences between Christianity (what he really objects to) and Islam (the easier target). To lump them into the same class is to ignore the significant intrinsic differences in them (as well as the recorded effects of both religions, for good or bad, over the course of their respective histories, but that is another post). Why do some Islamic people choose to kill themselves and others in suicide attacks? Is it just that the “false courage to kill themselves” has removed a barrier to killing others like Dawkins suggests? No. The purpose is not primarily to kill themselves but to kill infidels. A Muslim who kills only himself in Jihad, and fails to kill any infidels, has utterly failed. It is the idea of physical war against unbelievers embedded in Islam, and the idea that you can gain Paradise at the expense of others that promotes these attacks. Islam is ultimately a works-based religion motivated from selfishness. And the idea that killing unbelievers will not just count in your favor, but will guarantee you entrance to Paradise when you die is powerful motivation, particularly if you’ve done a lot of stupid stuff to make up for. Now compare that to Christianity, where a supposed Christian who succeeded in murdering an unbeliever is the failure, for not only has he sinned against God in committing murder [Ex 20:13], and forfeited his own life per God’s command of capital punishment [Gen 9:6], but he has condemned that unbeliever to eternal hell when God says that He desires the wicked to repent and live [Ez 18:23,32]. Rather, Jesus confirmed that all of the Old Testament law is summed up in 2 commands: Love God, and love your neighbor (or fellow human) [Lk 10:26-28]. And just to make clear to the Jews to whom He was speaking that this really included anybody under the title of neighbor, He told them the story of the Good Samaritan, where the  hero of the story is a Samaritan, an ethnic group they despised [Lk 10:29-37]. Even more bluntly, He said to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us [Lk 6:27-36].  I don’t know that you can get any sharper contrast to the idea of Jihad.

Events often divide our lives into times of “before” and “after”. Maybe you’ve had this vague concept of “religion” that you felt was just bad, and events like 9/11 only solidified that feeling. But I’d ask you now to set a new dividing line in your life, where you say, “Eternity is too important to trust my feelings to. If there’s truth to be found in religion, I’m going to look at the evidence, and find the real deal amongst all the counterfeits.” Do that, and I assure you, it will lead you straight to Jesus Christ.


[1] “Has the World Changed?” The Guardian, October 11, 2001 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/11/afghanistan.terrorism2, accessed 2017-09-12).

At the intersection of faith and design