Genetic Identity & Chimeras

Details of bony structures in 14-week-old fetus from an ultrasound equipment manufacturer.

If you’ve followed this blog for long, you know I am pro-life, both on religious grounds and on scientific grounds. In a recent discussion on Twitter, I made a point I have made before, that the fetus cannot be a part of the mother’s body (as many pro-abortion advocates say), partly because the fetus has different DNA from the mother. Later in the discussion, an objection was raised to this point that I hadn’t heard before, so let’s work through that today.

For those who may have been living under a rock the last 60+ years, DNA is the complex molecule Deoxyribonucleic Acid found in every living cell that stores the “blueprint” for that person. First discovered in 1869, it’s structure was finally determined in 1953, and the staggering informational content fully mapped in 2003. After that slow start, our knowledge about DNA and uses for that knowledge have increased dramatically over the years. Some of the most common uses of DNA testing include determining parentage, convicting guilty criminals (or exonerating those wrongly convicted), and identifying partial or unrecognizable remains. Essentially, these examples use DNA to verify the unique identity of individual persons. Now combine that with the well-established fact that by the time fertilization is complete (within 24 hours of the joining of sperm and oocyte), and while still only a single cell, a developing baby has DNA distinct from either parent. The obvious conclusion, biologically, is that this rapidly developing organism is not the same organism as the mother.

Now, the objection raised was that unique DNA doesn’t determine how many lives are present because of the existence of chimeras. What’s that, you ask? A chimera, outside of the mythological monster from which the name is drawn, is an organism with two (or more) distinct sets of DNA. Though not “new” in terms of existence, the first confirmation of a natural human chimera was in 1953 when a woman in England donated blood and it was found to contain two different blood types in one sample. As our knowledge of genetics has grown and DNA testing has become more commonplace, so too has observance of this phenomenon. for instance, a woman needed a kidney transplant in 1998, but when her 3 sons were tested as potential donors, 2 of them were determined, based on DNA, not to be her biological sons, even though she had given birth to them. Then in 2003, a woman in Washington filed for welfare benefits for her children and was denied, with accusations of welfare fraud pending, because her 2 children were determined not to be hers. A 3rd child was born while this was being investigated, so that birth and an immediate DNA test of both mother and child were witnessed by an officer of the state. Again, the DNA test showed different parentage for the child just born. What happened in each of these cases? Each of these 3 women had been twins. The Englishwoman in 1953 had a twin brother who had died shortly after birth. Cells had been shared between the two early in the pregnancy. The other 2 women were both the result of fused embryos, or a “vanishing twin”. Two oocytes had been fertilized by two sperm, resulting in twin zygotes. Early in the pregnancy, however, the two zygotes merged into one. Because they were separate zygotes, they each had different DNA. However, because this occurs very early in development, the zygote is still a collection of totipotent cells (meaning each cell at this stage can still become any cell in the human body, i.e. they have not differentiated into their separate lines of specialized cells for organ generation). When the twin zygotes (call them A & B) fused together, some of the cell from twin A went on to form various body parts like the skin cells inside the cheek where DNA samples are often taken. Cells from twin B went on to form other body parts such as the ovaries that would be responsible for producing children “not her own”. A third scenario, Fetal Microchimerism, or FMc, is much more common and is when cells from the blood of the fetus and/or mother get through the placental barrier to reside in the other person. Cells from their children have been found in the bodies of autopsied women many years after their pregnancies.

Based on these observed cases, we know that a person can have multiple DNA. But does the existence of chimeras refute the idea that the developing baby is a unique individual distinct from the mother? I don’t think so. After all, when a patient receives an organ transplant, the donated organ will have the donor’s DNA rather than that of the recipient; but nobody considers the donor and recipient to be part of the same body. Furthermore, even though the person may have 2 sets of DNA in their body, the transplanted organ is only one organ, and cannot become anything more. A zygote, on the other hand, is capable of developing into a mature human, and is, in fact, directing much of the pregnancy. The case of cells passing between twins in utero, as in the 1953 English case, is really no different than the case of organ donation between adults. The case of fused zygotes is more extreme in that all of the “donor” has been passed to the recipient, but the concept of a donor providing some portion of a recipient’s organs still applies. Because the transfer of genetic information occurs at such an early stage, it’s impossible to know which organs formed from donor and which from recipient without some kind of comprehensive test that is not practical at this point, but it’s important to remember that neither zygote had the same DNA as the mother, so the resulting chimera is still not part of the mother’s body no matter how you look at it. As far as fetal microchimerism, we are only talking about a few individual cells from a genetically unique human (i.e. the baby) passing through the barrier that normally separates the baby’s blood from the mother’s, and residing in the body of another genetically unique human (i.e. the mother). The fact that a few of the baby’s cells migrate into the mother’s body (and vice versa) no more make the baby part of her body than an organ donor’s cells inside a recipient’s body makes the donor part of the recipient.

Does the chimeric objection succeed? No. Even with individual persons not necessarily being limited to only one DNA in their body, the baby is at all stages of development a separate, self-contained organism temporarily residing in the mother for nourishment and protective environment, and not a “part” of her that just has different DNA. All cases of chimerism, both natural and artificially induced, come about from the involvement to one degree or another of a second, genetically distinct organism. The different DNA confirms this and actually bolsters our understanding of a baby as a genetically unique individual from conception.


Further reading: “The Human Chimera: Legal Problems Arising From Individuals with Multiple Types of DNA“, by Robert Russell Granzen, Seton Hall Law School, 2014, was a thorough and interesting read on the matter.

On Turning Arguments into Discussions

“Endless Debate”, by Norman Rockwell

I had an interesting discussion with several people on Twitter last week regarding the topic of abortion,  and came away with a few observations I’d like to share today.

  • The danger of echo chambers. This discussion took place on the Twitter feed of an abortionist who proudly performs late-term abortions. It became quickly apparent that the feed was basically an echo chamber for those who agreed with her to reinforce each other’s beliefs in the rightness of their cause. There is a time and place for mutual encouragement and support, but like a closed-off room grown stagnant, our minds atrophy when isolated from opposing views. For even exposure to mistaken views or outright malicious falsehoods can still benefit us by forcing us to think through what we believe, why we believe it, and, ultimately, if our reasons are adequately justified. As the apostle Paul said, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” [1Th 5:21]. Being in an echo chamber had led several of her followers to fall for some very bad arguments. On the other hand, as a Christian, I have access to the only transcendent source of truth – God – in the forms of His written word, the Bible, and the guidance of His Holy Spirit. What a blessing! And getting support and encouragement from fellow believers drawing from that deep well of truth is a great thing. But that can turn into an unhealthy echo chamber for a Christian when it a) ends up only encouraging in spite of error that really needs correcting, or b) leads to being disconnected from the world Jesus has commissioned us to be ambassadors to [2Cor 5:20]. As an example, an American who never learned about Chinese culture would likely not be an effective ambassador to China. He would need to both represent his own country well and understand his host country enough to communicate with them clearly. Similarly, we are called to be “in the world, but not of the world” [Jn 17:14-18]. The Christian must be different, but who will ever know Christ made a difference in our lives if we stay isolated in a little Christian bubble [Mt 5:14-16]? So we need to be willing to engage with opposing views, but always with gentleness and respect [1Pe 3:15], speaking the truth in love [Eph 4:15].
  • The difference between monologue and dialogue. There were some initial insults and somewhat immature replies to my bringing science to bear on the subject of abortion, and my addressing biologically incorrect arguments seemed to be falling on deaf ears. Eventually, however, someone came forward willing to engage in serious dialogue. He wanted sources for what I was saying so he could verify them himself, so I gladly gave him quotes & references from different embryology textbooks. A civil, thoughtful discussion ensued – on Twitter of all places! Now, I’ve learned many things over the years from presentations that were essentially monologues, such as seminars without Q&A, or recorded webinars, and so forth; but dialogue is critical in discussing controversial topics. A person will only learn from a monologue if they go in willing to listen, and open to absorbing new knowledge (like a seminar I’ve paid to attend). But in a hostile situation, the other person is already defensive at having their views challenged, and dialogue with the person, instead of a monologue directed at them, is really the only hope for changing their mind.
  • The persistence of presuppositions. What was intriguing about the discussion was the repeated assumption that my objections were religious in nature, even though I’d never mentioned anything related to religion (of any kind) in my comments. It took a while to finally convey the point that a response from a user with the name “Well-Designed Faith” didn’t mean that every statement I made would be a religious statement, and that while I could make a religious objection to abortion, I hadn’t, and they would still need to deal with the scientific objections I had made. So why did that reaction happen in the first place, and why did it continue? I can’t get into anyone else’s head to determine their thought process, but it appears that those commenters had some unjustified presuppositions that anything a Christian said was related to Christianity and could be safely ignored. That is nothing more than the genetic fallacy – that the origin (or genesis) of an idea can determine its truth. For instance, the idea that a man can’t speak about abortion only looks at the origin of a message rather than the content of the message, which stands or falls on its own merits, regardless of who says it. In fact, that line of faulty pro-abortion reasoning actually undercuts the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that was judged entirely by … men. Likewise, while I am a Christian, my objection that the unborn baby is biologically not a part of the mother’s body is well-grounded medically, and is an objection raised by both Christian and atheist pro-lifers (yes, there are atheist pro-lifers…). So, just because a Christian raises the objection, that doesn’t mean one can dismiss it just because one has a low opinion of Christians. Similarly, the Christian can’t dismiss arguments without weighing them, or just because of who made them.

Just a few observations this week about being good ambassadors, as I learn “on the job” to be a better one myself. So listen to what’s out there; it doesn’t help to answer the question nobody’s asking, and not deal with the issues shaping our world. Talk with people instead at them, and remember that they’re not just icons on screen, but real people, created in God’s image (even if they reject that truth). When it seems like you’re just talking past each other, step back and look for presuppositions (on both sides) that may be preventing you and them from understanding what the other is saying. And, as Greg Koukl, that master ambassador for Christ, would say, “Get out there, and give ’em Heaven!”

An Alternative to the Emptiness of Skepticism

The Allegory of Prudence, by Titian, circa 1560. The faint Latin inscription reads “From the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future action”.

Have you ever had a friend that was overly-critical? No matter what you did, they had some negative assessment of how it could be done better?  That criticism may get wearisome after a while when you feel constantly beaten down, but sometimes that can still be bearable when they really are giving you better ways of doing things. Even if their manner is less than gracious, their knowledge may still be valid,  and you just have to try to separate the worthwhile message from the annoying messenger. But there is a worse case. Sometimes, you run into someone who is always cutting you down, but never suggesting any way to improve. Their criticism is destructive rather than constructive, negative rather than positive, crushing rather than edifying. At some point, you ask, “Well, what would you suggest?”, and are greeted by silence, or “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t do that….” Skepticism similarly cuts down everything it touches, but can never build anything up in the ruins it creates. But there is an alternative. Let’s work through that today.

Skepticism is highly encouraged today. In fact, you can subscribe to skeptic magazines, read skeptic websites, and even attend conventions with catchy names like “Skepticon”. But is the “question everything” philosophy actually consistently livable? For instance, do skeptics question their own skepticism? Do they ever ask, “Is there a point I stop questioning?” There is an old story, modified in various ways over the years, of a Hindu belief that the world was supported on the backs of several elephants, who were themselves supported by a giant turtle. When asked what supported that turtle, the answer was, another turtle. After a few iterations of this, the questioner was answered with “it’s turtles all the way down.” This is, of course, an infinite regress; but for the skeptics, I have to ask, is it “questions all the way down” for you as well?

Yet, questions – not answers – is all skepticism has to offer. Asking questions is surely a good thing when they are a means to the end of obtaining knowledge. However, in having no basis for trusting any answers produced by its questions, skepticism destroys any knowledge gained and is a slippery slope that leads to universal doubt. And yet, this doubt is inconsistent, for doubt presupposes true knowledge: to doubt the umpire’s call that the baseball player struck out presupposes that you know what a strike zone is. To doubt one proposition is to not doubt a competing proposition. But then, do you really know the dimensions of the strike zone? Did you really see the flight path of the ball correctly? Skepticism, applied consistently, undercuts itself as it goes, rendering itself unlivable.

But surely some skepticism is a good thing, isn’t it? We don’t want to be naive or gullible, but we don’t want to be the hyper-skeptic that will believe nothing regardless of the evidence presented. Probably most people reading this have gotten emails at some time promising instant riches if you only made a small “investment” first; while it’s always possible the email isn’t a scam, some well-deserved skepticism will most likely save you money. So where do you draw the line? This is where the forgotten virtue of prudence enters. To be prudent is to act wisely in the present situation to bring about true good in the future, based on sound reasoning and knowledge learned from the past. When Jesus warned His disciples that they would be persecuted for following Him, He told them to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” [Mt 10:16]. That is, be wise, but never for evil purposes or self-serving ends. In other words, be prudent. The book of Proverbs also has much to say about prudence, such as, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” [Pr 14:15 ESV]. Prudence was considered a necessary catalyst for all the other virtues since ancient times, for it applies wisdom to the other virtues to restrain them from becoming vices. Prudence moderates action to be courageous without being reckless, cautious without being cowardly, merciful without being weak, just without being cruel, devoted without being obsessive, open-minded without being vacillating. It is wisdom applied to the situation at hand. But where is one to get this wisdom to apply to our daily situations? Proverbs tells us that “the fear (i.e. reverence) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” [Pr 9:10], and James, the half-brother of Jesus, tells us, “if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all” [Jam 1:5-8].

While skeptics dig down and never find any foundation solid to build on, the Christian has a sure foundation that can never be shaken [Is 28:16, 1Co 3:11]. In God we have a grounding for knowledge. In revering Him, we develop wisdom. In applying that wisdom prudently, we have a stable platform to probe the world around us with questions without losing ourselves amidst the uncertainty of our questions. Unlike the skeptic undercutting his own foundations as he tries to build on them, we have a foundation we can build our lives on that can never be undermined. Have you worn yourself out trying to tear things down in the dark mines of skepticism? Would you like to find rest for your soul, rebuilding a new life on the sure foundation of God? Contact me, and let’s talk about it.

The Blind Faith of Atheism

“Blind” by Vasily Perov, 1878

Today I’d like to put forward an idea you might not have considered: that atheism is built on a foundation of blind faith. That might surprise you given the typical atheist vitriol directed against Christians accusing them of blind faith, or “believing in spite of the evidence”, and so forth. But let’s work through this today and see where the evidence leads.

First, let’s define key terms. What do I mean by “blind faith”? Faith is simply trust. If you say you “have faith” that a friend will do well in a performance, it’s a way of saying that you trust that they will perform well, perhaps because you have personally seen them practice, or have heard from others of the long hours they have invested in practice. The Greek word used for faith in the Bible (πιστις, pistis) was also used by secular authors of the same time to denote instances of trustworthiness [1]. And the Bible gives us a definition of faith that is very compatible with our English word “trust”: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” [Heb 11:1]. Our trust in God, based on His record of what He has done, is what gives us assurance and conviction about those things not yet done.  Consider how frequently God reminded the Israelites of His past miracles in bringing them out of Egypt. This was a constant reminder to them that He had been trustworthy in the past, and should be trusted in their current and/or future trials. That is belief because of the evidence. Now, blind faith is also trust, but it is trust without evidence. For example, while I appreciated the encouraging intent behind the comments, friends who said they had faith in me that I would do well on a recent engineering exam, without having any familiarity with my engineering work, were actually exhibiting a blind faith in me. Blind faith, or trust without evidence, can still be correct, but it is only accidentally correct, and not a place any of us should really want to stay. Now, with that understanding of what blind faith is, let’s look at 3 areas where I think atheists demonstrate this trait.

  1. Atheists tend to trust in the goodness of man. As they are fond of plastering advertisements on buses that “You can be good without God” and so on,  this seems a fair statement of their view. Of course, there’s the little problem that “good” isn’t good enough before a perfect Judge, but they also generally seem to think that humanity is on an ever-evolving upward spiral of advancement, especially compared to the “primitive Bronze-age sheepherders who wrote the Bible”. I would not only say this is without evidence, but rather that this is in spite of the evidence. Atheists like to point to a handful of people dying at the Salem witch trials, thousands dying in the Spanish Inquisition, and hundreds of thousands dying in the Crusades, but this last century has been the bloodiest in human history, with low estimates of around 60 million being killed by regimes that rejected any accountability before God (and that’s not counting any wars). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that regimes like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedung felt empowered to slaughter any of their own citizens who were perceived to be threats to their power. In an atheist state, the government is god.
  2. Atheists tend to trust in future explanations of past events that contradict their worldview. How the universe could have a beginning (as the Standard Cosmological Model, or “Big Bang” has pointed to for the last hundred years) without a Beginner defies explanation, but don’t worry: “Science will explain it someday, and it certainly won’t involve any God!” Likewise for the origins of life. Likewise for the incredible fine-tuning of both our universe and our biosphere, both balanced on a razor’s edge to support life – and advanced life at that – in a very special location. Likewise for an explanation of consciousness in this one species of advanced life on this one oasis of life in a (so far) barren cosmos. But just ignore the issues that are problems in an atheistic universe, but readily explained in a God-ordained universe; we’ll figure out the “real” answer someday….
  3. Atheists tend to trust in possible future events rather than present observation. As mentioned previously, Earth is, so far, a lone oasis of life in a cosmic desert. But we can’t be alone in an atheist universe. There must be nothing special about us in an atheist universe; for uniqueness and remarkable suitability for one’s environment can make the mind wander too close to thoughts of purpose and design and… a Designer. So while we seem to be absolutely unique in the universe so far, “Science” will someday find abundant extra-terrestrial life out there and confirm all our hopes of meaninglessness and anonymity in the crowd. For the atheist, “Science” is their savior that will someday deliver them from present signposts pointing to God.

All truth is God’s truth, for truth is the way things actually are, the way God made them. In trying to deny the existence of God, atheists must cling to unsupported dogmas because reality will always point back to its Creator. We can place our faith in a fallen humanity that will disappoint us just as much 1,000 years from now as it did thousands of years in the past. We can place our faith in future events that may never occur, or future explanations of past events that may never be answered.  Or we can place our faith in our Creator, who has left His real and present signature across the cosmos and in every cell of our body, implanted a craving for eternity in our very souls, and demonstrated His love for us throughout recorded history, but most especially in His gift of Jesus. Will you choose the blind faith of atheism, or the reasonable faith of Christianity?


[1] See my blog post from 1/12/2015, here, for more information.

An Engineer’s Hymn

“Man Singing Hymn”, by Arvid Liljelund, 1884

I admit: I am a nerd. I’ve joked sometimes that I was born an engineer – it just took a few years for my education to catch up with my desire to design. While I may not have been aware, in my youngest days, of what that desire would someday translate to professionally, it was surely set permanently in me with my first exposure to Legos.  Occasionally, that engineering mindset comes through at odd times, like singing hymns at church. But I couldn’t help geeking out a little when singing Hillsong’s “In Christ Alone (Cornerstone)” song recently.

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ name”

As an engineer, I get to design building frames to resist wind and seismic loads, and I try to design them such that they can be trustworthy. However, while the engineer’s first duty is to protect the public, we still have to recognize that we don’t know everything, that we can’t anticipate every possible future condition, and what’s considered recommended practice now may be seen as inadequate 20 years from now. But my hope as a Christian is not the wishful, unfounded emotion that we commonly mean when using the word “hope”. Rather, it’s founded on the unchanging nature of God and the completed work of Jesus’ sacrifice for me. That is a surer foundation, a stronger frame, and a mightier structure than anything I could ever design out of mere steel and concrete.

“Christ alone; cornerstone,
Weak made strong; in the Savior’s love.
Through the storm, He is Lord,
Lord of all”

The Bible refers to Christ several times as our “cornerstone” [Mt 21:42, Ac 4:11, Ro 9:33, 1Pe 2:7, see also Ps 188:22, Is 28:16].  He is that stone that establishes the overall building location and ties adjacent walls together. Even today, “cornerstones” of sorts are still significant in masonry construction where several courses (levels) of masonry blocks are built up at each corner, with the wall built from the corners inward. Therefore, the first blocks on each corner establish the total length of each wall, and any variance from standard block lengths is taken up with trimmed blocks at midspan so the wall will still look symmetrical.

“When Darkness seems to hide His face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.”

Storms can test buildings severely. On the 2nd day of my structural engineering exam, one of the long design problems dealt with proving that a given structure was adequate for the wind loads calculated based on the building being on exposed shoreline in a hurricane zone with wind speeds of 170mph. Needless to say, the building framing had to be rather substantial to resist those levels of wind. But something not addressed in that particular problem is nevertheless a critical issue in any real-world building design: anchorage. Now, this song lyric and Hebrews 6:19 that it is drawn from are both referring to ships’ anchors, but the analogy stills applies to structural anchors. As any good engineer will tell you, a well-framed structure that isn’t also well-anchored is a potential disaster waiting to happen. In fact, this has been observed quite often in surveys of tornado damage: uplift from the wind offset the dead weight of homes anchored to their foundations by a few old, corroded anchors, and houses were simply pushed off the foundation and tumbled to pieces at wind speeds of relatively moderate tornadoes.

But there are 2 aspects of anchorage: the strength of the anchor and the strength of the material anchored into. A corroded anchor into concrete and a strong new anchor into mud are both inadequate for protecting your house from “every high and stormy gale”. But the “anchor of our souls” is sure and steadfast, and “enters within the veil” [Heb 6:19]. What veil is the author of Hebrews talking about there? The veil that separated the outer area of the temple devoted to sacrifices – the holy place – from the inner chamber of the temple – the holy of holies – where God chose to make His presence manifest. This heavy veil of separation was a physical reminder of our separation from the unapproachable splendor and holiness of God. But this is where our certain hope is anchored – not in ever-changing contingencies of this life, but in the unchanging nature of God.

Yes, I tend to bring my engineering perspective to church and notice things others may not (and not notice things everyone else does). But I see a bigger application here: do I also bring my Christian perspective out in the world with me? Do you? It’s hard for me to just “switch off” the engineer side of my brain when I’m out of the office, but it should truly be impossible for the Christian to go anywhere without seeing the world in the light of Christ: a beautiful but broken world in need of redemption by its Creator. Is your Christianity something you switch on and off at the “appropriate” time, or is the Holy Spirit part of you, as the Bible says [1Co 6:18], with you in every place at every time? What would that look like in your life? People sometimes can guess the engineers in a crowd when we’re looking up at the roof trusses of the art museum instead of the art, and from all the other odd things we do, but does your Christianity stand out from the background noise of this world similarly? O that everyone would recognize in us what the Jewish priests and elders recognized in Peter and John: “they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” [Ac 4:13].

The Bible & Slavery

The Cursed Field – The Place of Execution in Ancient Rome – Crucified Slaves, by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1878.

Skeptics often like to criticize the Bible for not addressing issues they think it should’ve addressed (and often for addressing issues they would prefer it didn’t). Typically, however, it is more of a case of the issue not being answered as plainly as they would like. I get it; we all like things to be spelled out simply so we can have our answer quickly and move on. I get frustrated at times with some of the codes I have to use in engineering when I read a page that is supposed to be addressing a particular issue I’m working through, and there’s no single bullet point that says “if this, do that.” With project deadlines and impatient clients, the last thing I want to do sometimes is wade through hundreds of pages of code provisions, find some nuanced recommendations and dire warnings in the commentary, correctly interpret everything, and try to implement a solution that is safe, justifiable, and not over the top (knowing that almost anything I come up with can or will be second-guessed by someone). But, do you know what? If structural design was just picking components out of a book without needing to understand the concepts behind those choices, engineering wouldn’t be needed. In fact, “engineering judgment” presupposes an understanding of the concepts involved so as to make a reasonable choice because the engineer can “connect the dots” and foresee the consequences of a certain choice even when there aren’t explicit guidelines. So what about the Bible and slavery? Is the Bible wrong for not clearly condemning it? Or are the concepts there if we take the time to investigate? Let’s work through that today.

Continue reading The Bible & Slavery

Grief, But Not Without Hope

“Return of the Peasants from a Funeral in the Winter”, by Vasily Perov, 1880.

I attended the funeral last week of a fellow engineer and longtime member of our state structural engineers association. I had known he was sick, and had meant to visit him, but somehow was always too distracted at the office to ever remember to visit him and follow through on those good intentions. Although I hadn’t known him personally, he had always been friendly at our monthly association meetings, and encouraging to me during my tenure as President. In the course of conversations at the funeral and the visitation the night before, I learned a lot I never knew about him. But something that surprised me was the dramatic contrast in my reaction to two pieces of information in the email that he had passed away over the weekend. There was initial shock at this unexpected reminder of the ever-present specter of death. Though it wasn’t a surprise for him, given his age and his diagnosis, it was like a bolt out of the blue for me amidst my flurry of workday activity. There was also regret as I realized the worthlessness of those good intentions to visit him in his illness. And yet, I suddenly experienced relief, and even joy, upon reading the last line of the email, which described him as “an exemplary Christian.” What difference does that make? Let’s work through that this week.

The apostle Paul wrote to his Christian readers at the church in Thessalonica that he didn’t want them to be uninformed about those who were “asleep” (i.e. had died), so that they “would not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” [1Th 4:13-18]. Of course, there is still grief at the loss of a person’s physical life, and the ensuing separation from the one who died, for those of us who remain here. But for Christians, that separation is only temporary, with an eternal reunion to follow. And that is something to rejoice in!

But what about those “who have no hope”? Paul expands on what he mentioned in the Thessalonian letter in his first letter to the Corinthian church. He notes that “if the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'”[1Co 15:32]. If this life is all we have, and it can end with our very next breath, in spite of all our best efforts to prolong it, then why not live to maximize the pleasure we can scrape out of it in the little time we might have? Why bother laboring and working your life away if you might die without ever getting to enjoy the fruits of your labors? And even if death doesn’t come “early”, the longer we live, the more inescapable our impending death becomes. If there is nothing after physical death but the cessation of existence and the permanent extinguishing of the flame that was “me”, then hedonism and nihilism seem the most reasonable result.

However, Paul prefaced his summary of hedonistic reasoning with “if the dead are not raised….” Thankfully, we can know that the dead are, in fact, raised; that this physical life is only a drop in the proverbial bucket of a life that will continue on eternally, and that our soul does continue to exist after our body dies. For, as Paul explains, Jesus’ resurrection was like the first fruits of a harvest – a signal of what what to come []1Co 15:20]. He goes on to describe the triumph of Jesus over death, and what that signifies for us:

For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1Co 15:53-57]

That said, we are also told that this victory is only through Christ [Jn 14:6]. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” [Heb 9:27], but through His atoning death for us, and our trust in Him alone, we are saved from the perfect justice of God. So you see, when I read that my colleague was a Christian, I could grieve his departure, while still having hope and joy. For I could know that he was with Jesus even now, and that I would see him again someday. What about you, friend? Do you know that, if you died right now, you would be spending eternity in the presence of God?

What About the Virgin Birth?

The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1753

It’s Christmas: the time set aside each year to celebrate the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Word taking on human flesh, the birth of our Lord and Savior – Jesus, the Christ. But the way He invaded our corrupt world has long been a sticking point for some people. So let’s work through an issue related to that today.

I am, of course, referring to the “Virgin Birth”. You’ll find it recounted in the gospels of Matthew [Mt 1:18-24] and Luke [Lk 1:26-38], and noted as a core belief in the earliest creeds. At Christmas time, you may even reference it in singing carols, like the traditional verses below:

“Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.”
– “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” verse 2

“Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
’round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.”
– “Silent Night! Holy Night!” verse 1

For many, singing such lyrics is more about tradition and nostalgia than singing their beliefs. Yet this has been a fundamental part of Christianity from early on. Why is that? First off, if the Bible really is God’s special revelation to us, inspired by the One who cannot lie [Heb 6:18], then we must take seriously the clear statements in the gospels that Mary was a virgin and Jesus was conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit, not having a human father. That said, one point of clarification is that while it is typically called the “virgin birth”, it is really the unique case of virgin conception that is at issue here. The birth was presumably like any other. But back to the the main issue: a virgin conception isn’t possible, right? Of course it’s not – naturally. A new human life requires 46 chromosomes, and the mother only provides half of those. But that is what makes it a miracle: it is an occurrence in nature that requires supernatural intervention to be accomplished. However, while God has created a very orderly machine-like universe, that does not preclude the machine’s Designer and Creator from bypassing the usual workings to produce a desired result. And from the record we have of such interventions, they are far from arbitrary interference, but rather special signs to a) draw our attention to the message behind the event, and b) prove the legitimacy of the message by the inexplicability of the event apart from divine intervention. The virgin conception was no different.  It was a sign that God was at work here to accomplish something big.

But this leads to that larger purpose served by it, and I think it is something that actually makes a virgin conception necessary if Jesus was to be “truly God and truly man”, as the Chalcedonian Creed would say. Jesus could not inherit a sinful nature if he was to be the perfect, sinless sacrifice that would satisfy the wrath of God. Yet ever since Adam and Eve first disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, humans have suffered from sin, and “there is none righteous, not even one” [Rom 3:10]. How then could God the Son be born as a human, live a perfect life, and offer Himself as an unblemished, atoning, redemptive sacrifice for each of us, if He was born into sin like the rest of us [Ps 51:5, 1Kin 8:46]?

This is where I think a look at two views of ensoulment is profitable. If we recognize the existence of an immaterial “self” that is a key part of who we are, commonly considered as the soul of a person, apart from their material body, then we must ponder how that comes to be. One view is special creation: each human being’s soul is specially created by God and implanted at some point between conception and birth. Another view is called the Traducian view, from the Latin word for a branch of a vine. This view holds that special creation was limited to Adam and Eve as the first humans, and that humans since then have the distinct privilege (and responsibility) of partaking in creation as instrumental causes not just of the physical life of their children, but also of their souls as well. In this way, while mankind was created “in the image of God” [Ge 1:27], a spiritual deadness and propensity to sin are passed down to subsequent generations as part of our very nature after Adam and Eve sinned. What was created good and reflective of God was polluted, marred, corrupted. Much like a genetic defect in our physical bodies, our nonphysical souls have inherited a sin nature from our parents that we are powerless to overcome without the regenerating call to life of the Holy Spirit. What I find particularly interesting about the Traducian idea is that this does explain why the Virgin Conception of Jesus was necessary – Jesus could take on human nature but without that inherited corruption that had been passed down from Adam. Now, whether the Traducian view of ensoulment is the correct one or not, God only knows, but it seems to have significant explanatory power in answering why the virgin conception of Christ was necessary in the first place. Just a little something to chew on this week as thoughts of our Savior take center stage during this season of the year. Blessings, y’all, and … MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Moral Benchmarks

U.S. prosecutor Robert Jackson & Russian assistant prosecutor General Uri Pokrovsky listen to testimony at Nurmeberg, 1946.

We needed to buy new computers at my office a while back. Some of our engineering software has specific requirements, so it was important to make sure the new hardware would work well with our software for the next several versions. But in looking at different platforms, each company had their own claim to be the fastest/most-powerful/best-overall, and so on. If there’s a way to split hairs over words to be able to say your product is the best, creative marketers will find that way. After all, if you define your class down small enough, anyone can claim they are “best in class” – especially once they’re the only one in some ridiculously narrow category! So what’s a person to do to cut through the ulterior motives of marketers and objectively rate competing claims? Wouldn’t it be great if somebody compared each company’s product to the same independent standard so you could see if that expensive video card actually renders 3D graphics better, or if it’s just hype? Well, while it’s not perfect, such a protocol is out there, and it’s called a benchmark. Benchmarking takes each computer and runs the same load test on it to try (as best we can) to get an objective measure of how powerful that processor really is, how good those graphics really are, and so on. But the key to a benchmark is that it’s independent of the competitors. If the standard changes from one product to the next, then it’s not really a standard, and we’re back to having to sift through the hype. What about when you’re confronted not with competing computer hardware, but with competing views of morality? Is there a benchmark you can appeal to for that as well? Let’s work through that today.

Like the competing computer companies, competing cultures or nations will try to justify their actions as being right. But can some of these competing claims be right at the same time? It seems like in order for some to right, others would have to be false. Consider an example. The American Declaration of Independence claims that every person is endowed by their Creator with an inalienable right to life. The Nazi regime of Germany in WWII had a different idea. They believed Jews did not have an inalienable right to life. In fact, they believed they were doing humanity a service by “purifying” humanity of people they considered undesirable.  Both of these views can’t be right. If the American view is right, then the lowest Jew in the Warsaw ghetto had a right to life just as much as the highest SS officer in Berlin. That same American protection applied equally to the mentally and physically handicapped that the Nazis also slaughtered (or experimented on).

Of course, whether we admit it or not, we all recognize that some things we do are wrong, or else we would never bother trying to think up excuses to justify our actions. The Nazis were no different. Their justification for murdering various groups of people  was one used throughout history: simply redefine your victim as inherently different from you so that a different standard applies to them. The Nazis did the same as some slave owners in the American South of the 1800’s, who rationalized their ownership and treatment of black people by declaring them subhuman. The Jews were likewise declared subhuman, and therefore killing a Jew wasn’t murder, and trying to kill them all wasn’t genocide. In fact, the Nazi term “untermenschen” – applied to Jews especially, but also to other groups – was taken from the German translation of a book published (sadly) by an American eugenicist named Lothrop Stoddard in 1922, which referred to non-white people as “under-men”. Defining people the Nazis didn’t like as “subhuman” meant there was no problem in the Nazi moral system with experimenting on them, starving them, gassing them, and generally murdering them in any way imaginable. Convenient for the Nazis – not so much for their victims.

But were the Nazis wrong or just different? Many could (and did) say that they were simply following orders. Many could point to the legality of what they did. Many could point to the fact that not only were their war crimes not punishable in their culture, but they were rewarded for what they did to rid the world of those subhuman untermenschen. They could argue that what they did was defined as good in their culture. Who are we to condemn them just because we don’t value racial purity like they did?, they would ask.  Can we just say that we have our morality and the Nazis had theirs, and we should tolerate it? To each his own? Can a relativist society that denies the existence of objective truth and objective morality say anything else? Thankfully, America’s Greatest Generation would have none of that nonsense. They recognized evil for what it was and did not tolerate it. And in the Nuremberg trials, Justice Robert Jackson appealed to that law above all national laws that would supersede any Nazi appeal to their own law, for even rulers are “under God and the law”.[1]  And what was Justice Jackson building on but that foundation of American jurisprudence, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England?[2] William Blackstone rightly observed that “That rule which natural reason has dictated to all men, is called the law of nations.” But what is this natural law? Blackstone answers that it is to do the will of our Maker. He wrote that what we call natural law that is applicable to all people regardless of place or time, is none other than our own perception of divine law, determined as best we can through our faulty and corrupted human reason. Yet we do not have to rely on that sometimes-distorted perception of divine law, for God has explicitly revealed it to humanity through the Bible. He further comments  that “human laws are only declaratory of, and act in subordination to, the former [divine law]. To instance in the case of murder; this is expressly forbidden by the divine, and demonstrably by the natural law; and from these prohibitions arise the true unlawfulness of this crime. … if any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it, we are bound to transgress that human law, or else we must offend both the natural and the divine.” [3] That line of reasoning will likely sound familiar to anyone that’s read of the apostles Peter and John telling the Sanhedrin that in a conflict between the Council’s laws and God’s laws, they must obey God [Ac 4:19-20].

So where do we turn to find an independent benchmark for comparing moral systems across the gaps of time and place and culture? How are we to judge between competing claims of morality? Might I suggest we turn to our Creator, who is above all cultures, all times, all places, all nations, and all philosophies and ideologies, and who is the source of all true law?


[1] Robert Jackson, Opening Statement at Nuremberg, “Second Day, Wednesday, 11/21/1945, Part 04”, in Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal. Volume II. Proceedings: 11/14/1945-11/30/1945. [Official text in the English language.] Nuremberg: IMT, 1947. pp. 98-102.
[2]Blackstone’s Commentaries are considered “second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions.” – William D. Bader, “Some Thoughts on Blackstone, Precedent and Originalism”. Vermont Law Review (1995), p. 8.
[3] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1769 (Kindle edition by Wallachia Books, 2015), Introduction, Section 2: Of the Nature of Laws in General.

 

In Defense of Apologetics

“If not you, who?”

What is apologetics, and how can it help the average Christian? Let’s work through that question today.

Apologetics is the reasoned defense of the truth of the Christian faith. The word apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which referred to a legal defense in court. It is used in this way by Luke in describing Paul’s defense before both the Roman Procurator Festus [Ac 25:8], and King Agrippa [Ac 26:1]. Paul himself uses the term when he asks the angry mob wanting to kill him to “hear my defense which I now offer to you” [Ac 22:1]. Festus used apologia to refer to the Roman custom of allowing the accused to defend himself against his accusers [Ac 25:16]. So, it is readily seen that this word has a legal sense of presenting compelling reasoning and/or evidence to persuade others (whether a judge or a mob).  Then Peter used that same term in his first letter to the church when he told Christians to always be “ready to make a defense [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” [1Pe 3:15]. This is the verse that led to the adoption of the term apologetics for this discipline of the faith.

But, that’s for preachers and seminary professors and professional speakers, right? It’s not something the average Christian needs to worry about, is it? Oh, but it is!Let’s look at how apologetics is a part of the Christian life.

  • Apologetics is part of your witness. You have to know what you believe if you want to share it with others, but you also have to know why you believe if you want to be able to answer their questions. While some may be blessed with the gift (and responsibility) of specific spiritual gifts, and some may be called to specific roles in the church, being ready to give an answer for the hope that is in you is a general duty that every Christian is expected to be able to perform.
  • Apologetics is part of both loving God “with all your mind” [Mk 12:30] and “watching your life and doctrine closely” [1Ti 4:16]. These are really two sides of the same coin: the first is filling oneself with true knowledge, while the second is protecting oneself from false knowledge. God does not ask us to check our mind at the door, but rather to use it to love Him. How do we do that? By studying what He has revealed to us in His word, contemplating it, and actively pursuing knowledge of Him. Objections often mischaracterize what Christians believe, and answering those objections has forced me to actively pursue that positive knowledge of God. But apologetics also helps protect us by discerning false doctrine, whether in the church, or sitting on some Christian bookstore shelves. That’s part of why Paul tells us to “examine everything and hold fast to that which is good” [1Th 5:21], and why Luke commended the Bereans for examining the Scriptures to check that what Paul was preaching was true [Ac 17:11].
  • Apologetics is a part of daily life. The questions that apologetics seeks to answer are questions that come up all around us. At a recent talk, some of the attendees mentioned objections or “alternative interpretations” raised when visiting family. Personally, I’ve heard objections in conversations with colleagues at work in the past. These aren’t simply abstract ivory tower questions for academics to ponder, but questions that arise in daily life for many of us as we interact with friends or family, or even deal with our own doubts.

Does it make any difference? Is it worth it?

  • Apologetics helps establish common ground between adversaries. If two people both recognize the same authority (such as the Bible), it’s easy to both agree on something because of that common ground. But where there is no common ground, there is a need to reason together & establish agreement piece by piece. Where Christianity is viewed by some as irrational or superstitious, the Bible is not even given a chance to be heard. Apologetics helps demonstrate the reasonableness of belief in God, thus putting Christianity back on the table as a viable worldview option.
  • Apologetics clears a path to the cross. While it’s true that you can’t argue people into the kingdom of God, you also can’t love someone into the kingdom either [1]. But you can remove barriers to belief, both by demonstrating deeds of love and by speaking the “truth in love” [Eph 4:15]. Sometimes, people put a lot of roadblocks across the path that leads to God, and then think they could never go down that road. While they still must choose to follow Christ, at least the path can be cleared for them.
  • Apologetics is often “pre-evangelism”. Sometimes we plant seeds to be watered by others later [1Co 3:5-9]. Other times we only till the hard soil of a stubborn friend’s heart for years on end, with seemingly nothing to show for a lifetime of loving investment. Yet this may be to make it receptive to gospel seeds that will be cast down by someone else in God’s good time. Greg Koukl likens many of his conversations with people in airports and restaurants to putting a “stone in their shoe” – asking questions about their views that will bug them and make them think about the shortcomings of their own position, arousing their own curiosity so that they are receptive to the gospel later [2].
  • Apologetics deepens your own trust in God. In working through your reasons to believe, and tackling objections to Christianity head-on, apologetics helps the Christian combat the doubts that are constantly thrown against them in today’s skeptical culture by confirming the sufficiency of our reasons to believe.
  • Apologetics is an inoculation against a virus. False religions, Christian cults, atheism, skepticism, relativism, indifference, and other views or attitudes can infect people like a virus. How do we prevent that? Before traveling to Africa several years ago, I had to get inoculated against several diseases such as typhoid and yellow fever, so that my body wouldn’t be susceptible if exposed to them during my visit. Those controlled exposures protected me far better than living in a completely sheltered, unexposed manner ever could. My body could develop antibodies against the pathogens because of that previous exposure. God is more than able to stand against the false options out there, so there is no need to isolate oneself from those false views. Rather, learn why they’re false so that you won’t fall prey to them when suddenly confronted by old, long-answered objections that are simply new to you.
  • Apologetics helps us worship God. We are called to worship God “in spirit and in truth” [Jn 4:24], and when we work through the tough questions to confirm the truth and understand it more clearly, our reverence for God is increased. Words of praise become more meaningful as we work through the implications of those words.

Is apologetics useful to the average Christian? Absolutely! But don’t think of it in isolation, as something only useful at certain times or by certain people. Rather, it is a tool to be integrated into each aspect of the Christian walk, from public evangelism to private worship.


[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p. 36.
[2] ibid. p. 38.

At the intersection of faith and design