Purpose

Purpose. What is it, and does it matter? Dictionaries will define it as one’s objective, goal, intention, desired result, end, aim, or design. In fact, purpose and choice are the two pillars of design; when you design anything, you make certain choices to achieve a specified purpose. Purposes aren’t always apparent to bystanders. In my own branch of engineering, we assemble very detailed plans and instructions for fabricators and erectors so that a safe structure can be built correctly. Sometimes other trades ignore some aspect of our design because they couldn’t see the purpose in it and assumed it was a mistake. Of course, the safety of the public is always our ultimate purpose and is our first obligation in our code of ethics. But smaller purposes might include maximizing open space in an office building, maximizing resilience in a community tornado shelter, or minimizing cost or weight. But what about purpose in the “big picture” of life in general? Is there a purpose? Can we know it?

If there were a purpose for each of us in life, then not knowing it could certainly make for a frustrating life. Imagine trying to use a tool for a purpose it was never intended, like trying to make a screwdriver work as a hammer in an emergency, and you can see how a person trying to accomplish a purpose for which they are not intended might be frustrated. But how could they know their purpose? Is it just what their skills and attitudes point toward? Is my purpose just to be an engineer? That seems rather arbitrary. After all, people often change occupations throughout their life. Even when they stay in a field their entire career, they often retire at a certain point. Have they lost their purpose in life then? While some may feel that way at the time, I think not.

Does atheism offer any justification for purpose in life? Not really. Under atheism, there is no God to establish any kind of overarching purpose for humans. Under materialism, which typically goes along with atheism, there is nothing beyond the physical: you have no soul, you are simply a collection of atoms brought together by chance processes, only to disintegrate and return to the dust after a few decades on average. Maybe you live a hundred years or so, but death can come at any moment really.  If that’s all life is, why do we all seek purpose in our lives, and often despair without it? What ground is there for actually having purpose in an atheistic universe? I’ve heard atheists say people should be good “for goodness sake”, or for the “flourishing” of humankind. But that rings a bit hollow given atheism. We are insignificant blips in a thoughtless, uncaring universe if atheism is true. Why waste our short time here trying to better the world for present or future generations? Knowledge of your accomplishments beyond your lifetime is the closest thing to immortality that atheism can offer, so a person might find purpose in bringing glory to their name so that people hundreds of years from now would remember their deeds.  But even if you were one of the very small percentage of individuals in human history to be remembered for any length of time, it’s still all for naught, for it does you no good. You die all the same and become … nothing… if atheism is true. And call me cynical, but I’ve seen too many changes in command where someone with a different perspective specifically erases a predecessor’s accomplishments. So all my best efforts, whether done out of compassion or a desire for notoriety, can be rolled back by those who come after me.

Is there an alternative view that fills this seemingly universal desire for purpose in life? I think so. The Bible tells us that God made mankind in His image, or likeness. [Gen 1:26-27] This gives us all an intrinsic value regardless of our social status, intelligence, talents race, gender, or anything else. It also tells us that we were created for His glory. [Is 43:7] This is our purpose. Consequently, no matter what we do, we are to “do all to the glory of God.” [1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:23] God did not have to create humans (or anything else). But He chose to create us, and He lovingly put us in a very hospitable spot in a very hostile universe. God alone is worthy of all glory, or honor, and glorifying Him is our joyful duty. Duty? Yes, it’s our very purpose in life – “the chief end of man” as the Westminster Catechism puts it – but joyful duty! As Jesus said, His burden is light. [Matt 11:28-30] For when you fulfill what you were created for, you can be content and at peace – yes, even joyful – in the good times and the bad.

Whether you are a world leader or starving in a North Korean prison camp, whether on top of the world on Wall Street or down in the deepest, darkest mine, whether you live another 100 years or die tomorrow, you can know that your enjoyment of life doesn’t have to be shackled to your ever-changing circumstances. You can have a deeply satisfying purpose that transcends occupation, culture, fads, and the like. Fulfilling that purpose of honoring God permeates and gives beautiful meaning to everything in life from epic deeds down to the most mundane tasks. And who wouldn’t want that?

The Design Analogy

There is a theory, known as Intelligent Design (ID), that postulates that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”[1] Many people reject this theory out of hand, and yet it just won’t go away. Why is ID so persistent? I would suggest it’s because analogy is so powerful. We tend to think analogically. We use analogies to work through difficult problems. When we have difficulty understanding a concept, a common first move is to try to find some way the new concept is analogous to something we already understand. Of course, all analogies break down at some point. Otherwise the 2 things being compared would be fully identical. But analogies help us to correlate known causes or effects with newly observed ones. Think back to when you had trouble understanding something new, and a friend or mentor who knew you well enough to know what kind of concepts you understood well, said “It’s like this…” and related it to something you were familiar with, and it suddenly clicked.

The problem for the atheist seeking a materialistic explanation for the universe and the existence of intelligent life is that we can’t seem to avoid analogies – comparisons – to design. Intelligent Design is such a persistent idea because so much of nature is analogous to human design. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe many things in nature without using design-centric terminology: we commonly speak of the “genetic code” and the “blueprints” of DNA; different “body plans” of the each species; the fine-tuning of the universe with its “clockwork precision”; cellular “pumps” and “motors”, and the “wiring” of our nervous system; and the “purpose” of different natural components. Even Richard Dawkins defined biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” and speaks of our bodies as consisting of trillions of cells “organized with intricate architecture and precision engineering into a working machine….”[2]  In fact, the human body has been compared to a “system of systems” similar to a building’s structural skeleton, architectural skin and functionality, and mechanical ventilation, plumbing, and electrical systems, except far more complex than anything any human has ever designed. The analogies between what we see in nature and the results of the human design process really do seem to flow rather readily, don’t they? Of course, the bacterial flagellum has become the poster-child for intelligent design, but why not? The analogy between it and an electric motor, both in function and even in individual parts really is uncanny. When searching for descriptions for natural processes and their results, all of these design-related terms keep rising to the surface as the most appropriate, fitting, terms to use. Why is that?

To answer why this whole debate between Intelligent Design and Naturalism even arises, let’s look at the what analogy really is. Peter Kreeft addresses this topic in his Socratic Logic textbook, where he makes several relevant points.

• Analogies are often not meant as arguments to prove a case, but simply illustrations to better explain some part of it.
• Arguments based on analogy do not prove anything with certainty, only varying degrees of probability.
• Arguments from analogy are the most common kind of inductive argument and actually make up most of our daily inferences.
• “Argument by analogy is an really an abbreviated form of induction and deduction together.”[3]

Now, I would say that ID isn’t simply attempting to make an illustration, but a proper argument, so let’s lay out some terms first. Induction is (typically) the process of drawing general conclusions based on observation of specific instances. The most basic form of induction is induction by simple enumeration. Think of statistics; you measure a certain part of a test population and induce some general conclusion from the sample you measured. The more you measure the more certain your conclusion. But generally, you cannot be certain except in the case that you measure every possible instance. Deduction is (typically) the process of reasoning that applies general principles to specific instances. Provided the premises are true and the conclusion logically follows from the premises, a deductive argument will provide certainty.

Now analogy is said to be a combination of the two because when we draw an analogy, we are thinking of multiple past instances of something, inferring a general conclusion from that previous track record, recognizing (perhaps unconsciously) the common essence tying those past instances together, as well as that common essence in a new instance, and applying that general principle to the new instance. Analogies provide us a shortcut for that thought process. The more cases we’ve seen, the more similarities between those cases and the new one under investigation and the more relevant they are, and the fewer the dissimilarities between them,  the more certainty we can have that the analogy is sound.

So why won’t Intelligent Design go away? Perhaps because we can recognize an intelligent mind behind all of our human designs, can infer that a mind is what’s required to generate any design, can recognize the twin pillars of design – choice and purpose – in many natural objects and processes we observe, and can therefore reasonably apply that concept of design to them even if we haven’t figured out the identity of the Designer yet. Of course, ID is just a scientific theory, and stops short of identifying the Designer, but we can apply what we know about the necessary attributes of this mystery guest to arrive at an identity. The question for my skeptical friends is this: if the evidence points to nature being the result of design, and the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, ontologically necessary, free agent known as God in the Bible is the best fit for the source of that design, will you follow the evidence where it leads?

[1] “Intelligent Design”, New World Encyclopedia. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Intelligent_design, accessed 2017-02-15.
[2] Both quotes are from Chapter 1 of Dawkins’ 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2010), pp.329-31.

Betting It All

Previously, I highlighted another brilliant, famous scientist that was a Christian – Blaise Pascal. I also sketched out his Anthropological argument for the existence of God, which is the overarching theme of his unfinished apologetic work collected posthumously as “Pensées”. However, there is a famous part of this work that is more often associated with his name: Pascal’s Wager. It is unfortunate that his “wager” has taken so much focus from his overall case, but such is life. Let’s look at this wager and perhaps answer some objections to it.

While Pensée #418[1] develops it, #387 gives the essence in one sentence: “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.” You might say he is concerned with avoiding the ultimate buyer’s remorse: “What if I buy the spiel that God doesn’t exist, but then meet Him when I die?” Pascal’s development of this in #418 can be arranged in a table of 4 options, based on 2 objective possibilities, and 2 subjective responses to those possible realities, as illustrated below.

 Objective Reality God Exists God does not exist Our Subjective Response “I believe” Gain all, Lose nothing Gain nothing, Lose nothing “I do not believe” Gain nothing, Lose all Gain nothing, Lose nothing

If God doesn’t exist, any gains or losses in our life are minimal, and approach insignificance, with either belief or unbelief. But if God exists  – that’s what makes it a high-stakes gamble. The gaining of eternal life, of unending communion with our loving Creator, is at stake! Gain that, and gain what really matters; reject that and all the riches or pleasures of the world can’t compensate for eternal separation from God.

That’s basically his wager, but is his wager valid? Are those really our choices? Let me get one objection out of the way first: this is not an argument for the existence of God, but rather for the prudence of faith. Pascal is leaving aside the theoretical for the moment and getting very practical here to encourage the reader to look at what is prudent, or reasonable. Prudence isn’t a very common word anymore, but Thomas Aquinas defined it as “right reason applied to practice.”[2]Pascal is saying that belief is the wise choice not just in theory but in practice.

Now why is “betting on God” prudent? As he points out, we have to bet: those are, in fact, our only choices. God exists or He doesn’t – agnosticism is not on the table. Why? As Peter Kreeft says in his commentary on Pascal: “Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never’.”[3] To try to avoid betting is simply to delay it and then bet by default, to lose by forfeiting the game.

But why bet on God rather than atheism? Much has been made of Pascal’s statements in the Wager that “Reason cannot decide this question [of God’s existence],” and “Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either [theism or atheism] wrong.” Is he negating all of apologetics here? After all, apologetics is being able to “give a reason for the hope that we have”[1 Pet 3:15], is it not? Keep in mind that the Wager is found in Pascal’s notes for his unfinished defense of Christianity. His whole Anthropological Argument is abductive reasoning. Pascal’s hypothetical seeker in his case asks, “is there really no way of seeing what the cards are?” Pascal’s response: “Yes. Scripture and the rest, etc.” These are all reasons. While it’s true that reason alone cannot prove God’s existence beyond our capacity to deny it, the Cosmological, Teleological, Axiological, and Ontological arguments, as well as Pascal’s own Anthropological argument, stack the odds in favor of the existence of one and only one God – the God of the Bible. So why bet on God? General revelation (nature) and special revelation (Scripture) reasonably point us to Him. Far from a leap in the dark, Christianity “alone has reason” and “reason impels you to believe.”

Some would say that this idea of “betting on God” is a pragmatic or utilitarian religion, a selfish belief that must surely be repugnant to any good God. It’s true that God sees through any mask of belief, as well as condemns selfishness. But I think Peter Kreeft addresses this well when he responds, “To the objection that such ‘belief’ is not yet true faith, the reply is: Of course not, but it is a step on the road to it. Even if it is sheer fear of God’s justice in Hell, ‘ the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov1:7).”[4] I don’t think Pascal intended his audience (the sincere seeker) to simply stop at conceding that belief in God is prudent. He is rather driving the seeker inexorably onward to Christianity, with all that entails. The wager is simply removing one roadblock on the way there.

Lastly, Pascal reminds us at the end of his wager that it is not just a hope for some unknowable future: “I tell you that you will gain even in this life”. And again in Pensée #917,  “The Christian’s hope of possessing an infinite good is mingled with actual enjoyment….” Christians get a small foretaste of this blessing even in this life.

A “prudent bet” may sound a bit paradoxical, but as Pascal would say, here, “there is no room for hesitation, you must give everything. And thus, since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain.”[5] So, are you in?

[1] Note: I am using Krailsheimer’s translation and numbering for the Pensées. You may read Brunschvicg’s edition for free at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm. The numbering there would be: #387 = #241, #418 = #233, and #917 = #540.
[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2nd Part of the 2nd Part, Question 47, Article 2. Aquinas is condensing Aristotle’s definition of Prudence from Nichomachean Ethics Book VI, Part 5: “Practical wisdom, then, must be a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods.” Aristotle’s word φρόνησις (phronesis) is typically translated as “prudence” or “practical wisdom”.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 300.
[4] ibid., p.301.
[5] ibid., p.294.

Portraits of Christians – Blaise Pascal

For those keeping count, this the 6th portrait of a great, world-renowned scientist who was also a Christian. This compatibility of science and Christianity may surprise some of you. Well, keep reading!

Blaise Pascal was born in 1623 and died in 1662 at the age of only 39. Yet in that time, he set a high bar. With his mother having died when he was 3, and himself being ill most of his life, his father homeschooled him.[1]  Publishing his first mathematical treatise (on conic sections) at only 16, and inventing a mechanical calculator at the age of 22, he went on to contribute much to our understanding of hydraulics and probability theory. In fact, his mechanical calculator, considered the first computer,  is the reason the first computer programming language I ever learned was named after him. If you’ve used hydraulic brakes in your car, or used a forklift, or a shop press, you’ve applied Pascal’s Law. What he discovered was that pressure increases are equal at all points in a confined fluid, so applying a small force to a small area of confined fluid (like pushing the brake pedal in your car) resulted in a multiplied force at a larger area (like the pistons clamping down on your brake rotors). And if you’ve ever given or been given a shot of any medicine, you’ve benefited from another invention of his: the syringe.[2]

But Pascal realized, like the apostle Paul, that all his accomplishments were rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] And so Pascal undertook composing a defense of Christianity against the attacks of the skeptics of his day. Though it was never finished, the fragments of his would-be magnum opus were collected posthumously into what has been titled “Pensées”, or “Thoughts”. Some are barely a sentence or two, while others are meticulously edited, rigorous examinations of deep philosophical ideas. The overarching theme of Pensées is what has been called Pascal’s Anthropological argument: that mankind exhibits a greatness and a wretchedness that is best explained by Christianity,[3] and this is just as powerful an argument today as it was then.

You see, while some will try to reduce humans to simply “talking apes”, most people do recognize that there is something different about us compared to all else. Socrates defined man as the “rational animal”, acknowledging that we have a fleshly, animal nature, but that we are different from animals in our reasoning and self-awareness. Humans hold a unique position in the scheme of life, and it is not arrogance to recognize there is a degree of “greatness” associated with that. Pascal would say that “man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed,” and so nobler than all the unthinking universe.[4] But our wretchedness, as Pascal calls it, is perhaps even more obvious to the casual observer than our greatness. For as long as we have had recorded history, we have recorded incessant war, brutality, murder, theft, poverty, greed, corruption – vice after vice. If we are the top of the line, the most advanced of all intelligent life, why do we find it so difficult to “act that way”? And it’s not just the obvious cases like the Hitlers and Stalins of the world that have failed to do the right thing; it’s each one of us. When we’re alone, away from all of the distractions and busyness of our modern lives, and can take a minute to look in the mirror of our minds, we recognize our wretched condition. In those times of self-reflection, we can truly commiserate with the apostle Paul,  “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate…. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want…. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good…. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”[Rom 7:15,19,21,24] Paul strikes a chord there that Pascal builds on to make his case for Christianity. For this sense of greatness is at odds with our clear observations of our baseness. And as Pascal points out, no other view of life makes sense of this dichotomy as well as the Bible, with its description of our creation in the image of God (our greatness), but also our fall into rebellion against our Creator and the attendant consequences (our wretchedness). To put it in terms of abductive reasoning, Christianity has superior explanatory power than the competing views (atheism, false religions).

Pascal also strove to show man the need for urgency. Perhaps his own chronic illness was a daily reminder of the frailty of our physical life, and a motivation to not delay the most important of decisions and to strongly encourage others to do likewise.  Apathy regarding the truth of Christianity is the worst course of action: “It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal.”[5] As Peter Kreeft points out in his analysis of Pascal’s Wager, “to every possible question life presents three possible answers: Yes, No and Evasion. Death removes the third answer…. Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns “Tomorrow” into “Never.”[6]

In closing, Pascal’s life was a candle that burned quickly, but brightly. And his legacy as a prodigious scientist is only matched by his legacy as a profoundly insightful Christian. Rather than incompatible parts of his life, his faith and his science worked together. As Encyclopedia Britannica put it, “his religious writings are rigorous because of his scientific training”.[2] Think about that term “rigorous.” Synonyms include: extremely thorough, exhaustive, accurate, careful, diligent. Could your beliefs be described that way? Dig into Pascal and make yours a more rigorous faith that will withstand any assaults from false ideologies.[7]

[1] Clarke, Desmond, “Blaise Pascal”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/pascal/ , accessed 2016-12-14.
[2] “Blaise Pascal”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Blaise-Pascal, accessed 2016-12-15.
[3]Douglas Groothuis – Christian Apologetics 101, session 19 (audio course), published by Credo House, 2014.
[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensée #200, as found in Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, Edited, Outlined & Explained, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 55. Pensée numbers are Krailsheimer’s numbering scheme.
[5] ibid., Pensée #164.
[6] ibid., Pensée #418, footnote J.
[7] If you’ve ever started Pensées, struggled, and given up, I highly recommend Kreeft’s work, available here.

“I Fought the (2nd) Law & the Law Won”

No, today’s title doesn’t mean this post is about misremembered lyrics to 60’s songs. This is a different law, and one even harder to win against. Today, I want to review some basics of thermodynamics that point to the need for a nonmaterial, transcendent, first cause of the universe. This is a problem for atheists because the most reasonable candidate for that position is the God whose existence they deny. Let’s jump in.

The first and second laws of thermodynamics may be summarized as follows: 1) energy is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes form, and 2) the amount of usable energy in any closed system is always decreasing. The first deals with the quantity of energy, while the second deals with the quality of that energy. The measure of that decrease in usable energy is called entropy. A low-entropy system is highly ordered with much energy available to do work. A high-entropy system is approaching (or has reached) a state of uniform, random distribution, with little to no usable energy available. What does this have to do with anything? Let me quote from my college thermodynamics textbook:

Since no actual process is truly reversible, we can conclude that the net entropy change for any process that takes place is positive, and therefore the entropy of the universe, which can be considered to be an isolated system, is continuously increasing. … Entropy increase of the universe is a major concern not only to engineers but also to philosophers and theologians since entropy is viewed as a measure of the disorder  (or “mixed-up-ness”) in the universe.

$S_{gen} = \Delta S_{total} \begin{cases} >0 & \text{irreversible process}\\ = 0 &\text{reversible process}\\ < 0 & \text{impossible process} \end{cases}$

This relation serves as a criterion in determining whether a process is reversible, irreversible, or impossible.[1]

There’s a couple of relevant statements in that section. One is that the entropy of the universe is an issue for philosophers and theologians as well as engineers. The textbook author correctly realizes the implications of the 2nd Law. It has been our consistent observation that usable energy does not increase without a contribution from outside the system being studied. At best, it stays constant, like the idealized reversible process mentioned in the text (that doesn’t actually exist), but otherwise it’s always decreasing. And it can’t have been decreasing forever or the amount of usable energy in the universe would be exhausted already. This leads to the second noteworthy statement above:  the last case of the system entropy equation above defines what is an impossible process. Now, in science, we don’t take words like impossible lightly. This isn’t like watching a basketball game and seeing an “impossible” shot. No, this is more than just our typical hyperbole. If the universe is an isolated physical system that can never increase in total usable energy, and is clearly decreasing, then we have to recognize that there had to be a starting value. If the fuel tank of our universe is getting closer to “Empty”, there had to be a “Full” at one time. Things run down, disperse, and seek equilibrium, or their lowest energy state. We see this with our own sun, which should burn out in roughly 5 billion years.[2] And this is happening throughout our world, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe. Closer to home, this irreversible dispersal of energy is also why we have to keep our coffee cup on a warmer to keep it from equalizing to room temperature; it’s why we have to do preventative maintenance to keep our equipment from rusting if it’s exposed to the environment; it’s why perpetual motion machines are simply not possible.[3] Consider how bluntly Sir Arthur Eddington, the astronomer who first observationally confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity, put it:

The Law that entropy increases—the Second Law of Thermodynamics—holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations— then so much for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation— well, these experiments do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation[4]

Now, perhaps you might say that that initial description of the universe as an isolated system is rendered inaccurate by the existence of a multiverse. Although completely unsupported by any scientific observation, and believed to be beyond the ability to ever observe by our event horizon, the multiverse is a popular escape for many – a kind of magic place where anything is possible.[5] Well, that might make our universe an open system briefly, until you simply label the multiverse as your isolated system, with our universe being one subsystem and the surroundings – i.e. the rest of the multiverse – being another subsystem in the arbitrary isolated system. So, appealing to the multiverse to get around the 2nd law doesn’t really help.

Maybe there is an escape in the idea of a cyclical universe that recycles itself. Consider then this statement from Alexander Vilenkin:

It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.[6]

But what are we to do if there is a definite beginning to the universe and it can’t simply have existed eternally? Things always require a cause outside of themselves to come into existence. And that’s what worries atheist scientists. When you’re talking about all of our physical reality, what’s outside of that? Nothing according to a materialistic worldview. And so their presuppositions actually make them close-minded to viable options – options that match up with our daily commonsense observations: basic cause and effect, that things don’t simply pop into existence for no reason, that things running down can’t be running down forever. The Second Law reminds us of our finitude [Is 51:6], the existence of a beginning [Gen 1:1], and by implication, the need for a Beginner. And the Second Law… always wins. Take care 🙂

[1] Yunus A. Çengel, Michael A. Boles, Thermodynamics: An Engineering Approach, 2nd Edition, (Ney York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), pp.304-5.
[2] http://www.space.com/14732-sun-burns-star-death.html
[3] In fact, a perpetual motion machine is defined as a device that violates either the 1st or 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics. But their inviolability is why the US Patent Office has not accepted patent applications for perpetual motion machines since 1918. Thermodynamics, p. 255-257.
[3] Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, 1929, Ch 4.
[4] In the words of Alan Guth, “anything that can happen will happen—and it will happen infinitely many times.” Quoted by Paul Steinhardt in “Theories of Anything“.
[5] Alexander Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One, 2006, p.176, quoted in  William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith (3rd edition), p. 140.

Mission Failure

Anybody else remember the 3rd Terminator movie where the T-850 (Schwarzenegger) has been programmed to go back in time to protect John Connor, the future leader of the Resistance, but the new evil Terminatrix has reprogrammed him to kill John? Schwarzenegger comes lumbering toward John warning him to stay away from him because he can’t control his actions anymore. As he has pinned John on the hood of a car choking him, John asks the T-850, “What is your mission?” He replies, “To secure the survival of John Connor and Catherine Brewster.” John then delivers the classic response, “You are about to fail that mission!”

Now what does this little bit of movie nostalgia have to do with anything? Well, some skeptics try to lay the blame for a lot of the injustice in the world at the feet of Christians. Christianity is supposedly to blame for wars throughout history, slavery, the repression and abuse of women, minorities, and a host of other categories of people, the hindrance of science and technological development, the holding back of society from advancing, and so on. There’s only one problem: a lot of the things blamed on Christianity, even if perpetrated by Christians, are not compatible with the mission of Christianity. Let’s look at some of the tenets Jesus Christ and His early followers passed on to us that the skeptic needs to take into account before blaming Christianity for societal ills.

• Love even our enemies [Mt 5:43-47, Rm 12:14] and turn the other cheek (i.e. don’t seek revenge) [Mt 5:38-42, Rm 12:17-21]. This is the very opposite of hatred, jihad, starting wars, picking fights, bullying, or any other malevolent violence. Anyone who commits murder or terrorism in the name of Christ either is not a Christian to begin with, or is failing his mission badly.
• “Bear one another’s burdens” [Ga 6:2]. It’s not all about me.
• Care for widows, orphans, and family members [Jm 1:27, 1 Ti 5:8]. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world if everyone that couldn’t care for themselves were lovingly taken care of?
• The thief who becomes a Christian should no longer steal, but rather work hard so that he might be able to give to others instead of taking from them [Ep 4:28]. Christianity doesn’t simply ask the thief to stop stealing, but to start giving!
• God created humans in His image, both male and female. [Ge 1:26-27] Therefore, women are not inferior to men. In fact, all humans have intrinsic value by nature of being created in God’s image, regardless of sex or skin color. Discrimination because of sex, race, age, social status or nationality cannot exist where true Christianity is practiced [Ac 17:26-27, Ga 3:28, Co 3:11, Lv 19:32, Rm 12:16, Jm 2:1-4, Lv 19:33-34].
• Us husbands should love our wives with a self-sacrificial love exemplified by how Christ loved the church and gave His life for her. Repression or abuse is the last thing a husband should perpetrate against his wife, for she is a “fellow heir of the grace of life”. Rather, he should care for her as he would his own body and show her honor [Ep 5:25-30, 1 Pe 3:7].
• We Christians should never act such that we could be accused of evil. If we should be slandered for doing good, so be it; but we dishonor our Lord and Savior if allegations of evil conduct are ever warranted [1 Pe 4:14-15]. We are to be above reproach, avoiding even the appearance of evil [1 Th 5:22].
• We Christians should exhibit love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things, there is no law [Ga 5:22-23]. Indeed, what police chief wouldn’t love to see a community full of people exhibiting those traits?
• Even in the slavery-ridden culture of the Roman Empire, Paul commanded slave owners to be fair to their slaves, knowing that they also had a Master in heaven [Co 4:1] and for slaves to work for their masters sincerely, as for the Lord [Co 3:22-24]. All jokes about slave-driving bosses aside, that kind of work relationship sets a good model for current employer/employee relations.
• Except where civil governments order us to go against God’s commands, we are to be good citizens, obeying our civil leaders [Ac 4:18-20, 1 Pe 2:13-17, Rm 13].
• As for the charge of hindering science and technology, see my series, Portraits of Christians (here), for a series of articles on some of the “fathers” of modern science who were Christians and who were scientists because of their Christianity. For you see, the Bible tells us that God is a God of order[1 Co 14:33], and if such a God created a world, it would likely exhibit order and rational systems of laws that could be discovered through observation and be reasonably expected to be consistent and repeatable [Ps 19:1-4a, Ac 17:27, Rm 1:19-20]. Without that basis, science is simply not possible.
• Lastly, regarding the charge of Christianity holding back civilization, see Alvin J. Schmidt’s book Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization for a very thorough historical survey in response to that claim.

You see, a true Christian will live a life in line with Christ’s teachings, for we are disciples, and a disciple emulates his master. We won’t do it perfectly, especially at first, but God gives us His Holy Spirit to indwell us. He works in us to mold us and conform our desires to match His. Think of it like getting on a diet – your appetites don’t match up with the new healthy diet at first, but you choose to conform your appetites to the diet because you know it’s better for you than your old way of living, and gradually, you learn to actually enjoy the new foods. Then, living on the diet is not a burden but a pleasure because your will now matches the diet plan. But spiritually, that realignment of will can only happen through the Holy Spirit’s regenerative work in us. But many who claim the title of Christian, aren’t. In fact, Jesus gave the sobering warning that there would be many at the last judgment expecting entrance to heaven, only to hear Him say, “I never knew you.” [Mt 7:21-23] We are known by our fruit – i.e. our actions. Talk is cheap, and, as they say, “actions speak louder than words.” And indeed, the Bible repeatedly affirms that the proof of our faith is not in mere words but in our character and the actions that flow from that [Jn 13:35, 1 Jn 4:20, Jm 2:14].

Maybe you’ve seen someone claiming Christ on Sunday and living like the devil the rest of the week, and thought that Christianity really is just a big show with a rotten core underneath, that religion really does “poison everything”. But we must remember that “abusus non tollit usum” – the misuse or abuse of something is no argument against its proper use (i.e. just because a person can use an axe to murder someone doesn’t mean that axes are inherently bad). Look at the fruit of true Christianity, the fruit of those truly on mission for Christ, and you will not find any viable source for the atrocities and horrors with which atheists try to saddle Christianity. It is only in counteracting the commands of God and failing His mission for us that those kinds of results are possible.

The Fallacy of “Sub-Optimal” Design

Ever hear people like Richard Dawkins rant about the so-called “sub-optimal designs” in nature that must obviously disprove the existence of any omniscient Supreme Designer? As a practicing professional engineer, I find it a little annoying. Let me explain why.

What exactly is an “optimal design”? When I worked for a steel joist manufacturer, our designs were typically all about minimizing weight. It was often a very tight-margin business, and if we could save another pound of steel, that was a good thing. But, least weight doesn’t always equal least cost to produce. Sometimes, it was worth it to consolidate a bunch of different optimized least-weight designs into a big run of identical pieces, even if it meant some of them were a little heavier then needed. Just think about how much faster you could work at producing something if your instructions said that the next 1000 pieces would be made exactly like the first one, instead of having to look at the directions before every piece to see what had changed. The efficiency of repetition in our shop sometimes made a design that was not optimized for weight actually the most optimal design for us regarding least total cost (i.e. we traded a small material cost increase for a large labor cost decrease).

In my current role as a structural engineer, I’m reviewing shop drawings right now on a colleague’s project where I designed the seismic bracing for him. He unfortunately had some severe architectural constraints on his project with regard to permissible beam depths and flange widths in the walls these braces were in. After spending a couple of weeks trying to work out a solution with more conventional means, I finally came across an example of a different configuration in one of my reference books that we were able to make work in our situation. Would I call it an optimal design? Not hardly, but I was thrilled just to find anything that would meet those kinds of high demand loads with the restrictions we had.

Why do I bring up these two examples? To illustrate a couple of general points regarding optimum designs.

• Optimization is always with respect to specific parameters. If you’re paying by the ton of steel, the most optimum design may very well be the one that weighs the least. If you’re the contractor erecting the building, the most optimum design might be the one that can be erected the fastest, or with the fewest jobsite workers. If you’re the owner of the new building, the best design may be the one that balances material costs, construction costs, and lifecycle costs for an overall lowest cost of ownership. Parameters like weight, cost, speed, strength, resilience, flexibility, lifespan, redundancy, etc. are always optimized at the expense of others. It is meaningless to talk of an optimal design without specifying what parameter is optimized. By the same measure, it is also meaningless to speak of something being a sub-optimal design without knowing what the original designer was trying to optimize for. I can say a military tank design is suboptimal for speed, and that may be true, but that isn’t where the tank was designed to excel: that heavy 4″ thick armor that slows it down so much also responds to incoming fire far better than trying to drive a race car into battle! Just because you would optimize for a particular parameter, doesn’t mean the original designer (or anyone else) would.
• Constraints limit what is possible with regard to optimization. Looking at the end product of our seismic bracing design might appear to the fabricator to be a little odd when building it, not knowing the limits we were having to work within. Even a peer reviewer, knowledgeable of engineering design, might wonder why we didn’t simply use a much bigger beam, as is typical for these types of braced frames. But, if they’re like me, they’ve learned to ask why a puzzling design was chosen before they start throwing stones at it. In engineering, we deal with design every day – creating our own designs, reviewing the designs of colleagues, even sometimes having to try to guess the original design intent behind 100+ year-old buildings being renovated. And though it can be tempting to immediately deride some design that isn’t how I would design it, I’ve found an attitude of humility very appropriate when looking at the designs of others. For sometimes, the designs I thought were poor were actually quite innovative solutions to constraints I wasn’t aware of. But then I tried to run an alternate design that should’ve been “better,” and I ran into the same constraints the original designer did, and found the original design to be the only viable option after seeing the complete picture.

This is just a couple of reasons I think the bad design argument fails. It essentially reduces to saying “Because I, a person of limited knowledge, can’t comprehend some particular design chosen by an allegedly all-knowing Designer, He must not exist.” What hubris! Moreover, it seems to go even further by thinking that these odd cases outweigh the abundance of cases of brilliant-appearing designs in nature, many of which have spawned a whole field called biomimetics.  This field of study, which attempts to improve existing human designs or innovate new ones based on designs seen in nature, would not exist except that so many natural objects solve design problems we struggle with in ingenious ways. Indeed, I would say we have sufficient positive examples of exceptional design in nature to warrant an humble, inquisitive stance toward the supposedly “sub-optimal” cases we don’t fully comprehend yet. But really, isn’t that the attitude good science is founded on anyway?

Photo credit: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-23805-1665 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5349654

Manuscript Errors

In preparing to write about Nicolas Copernicus recently, I bought a 2-volume set of his complete works, translated into English (a big help since I am only beginning my study of Latin). However, I wasn’t expecting a translation of a Christian astronomer’s theories in the 1500’s to help me better understand how we can be confident in the integrity of biblical manuscripts from a thousand years earlier. How so? Let’s “sharpen our pencils,” as we say in engineering, and work through this problem.

The translator’s notes on the Commentariolus, Copernicus’ first draft of his geokinetic theory[1],  caught my eye for several reasons. First, we don’t have any surviving copies of the original treatise that Copernicus had dispatched to a few close friends. Second, Copernicus never put any title or claim of authorship on it. We owe that to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe years later. These are such common objections from skeptics regarding surviving Gospel manuscripts and their lack of direct claim of authorship, and yet in other historical investigations, those circumstances aren’t deal-breakers.  But third, and most significant to me, was how the original content could be rebuilt from copies with errors.

We have 2 surviving copies made from one of the originals by professional scribes hired by Brahe. These are known as the “S” and “V” manuscripts for Stockholm and Vienna, where they eventually came to reside, respectively. A third manuscript, known as “A” for Aberdeen, was made by a student copying the text of Commentariolus into the margins of his copy of Copernicus’ Revolutions in an abbreviated fashion. One scribe, it seems, was copying the original text by sight, and got off a line. He saw the same word (“orbis”) he’d just written used 6 words later, and proceeded from that point, skipping those intervening words, and garbling the sentence. The other scribe did not make the same mistake there, so that portion could be reconstructed from his copy. He did make his share of mistakes in other places, though. One in particular, was the writing of the words “ac si” for the word “axi”, a mistake that only made sense if he were taking dictation. The two sound similar, so he wrote what he thought he heard. Even if he were to read it back to the one dictating, it would sound correct. Since the first scribe was seeing the original words, he was not liable to that type of auditory error, but he was susceptible to visual errors like skipping a line. Now with only two formal copies of a text, we are able to be quite comfortable that we have the message of the autograph (the original manuscript) intact. Even the “A” manuscript, not attempting to be a word-for-word formal copy,  has still proven useful for corroborating some differences between the 2 formal copies, which were made by copyists likely not trained in astronomy. That’s because the “A” copy was made by another scholar who was  able to spot some of the copying errors in the manuscript he was reading (based on a non-surviving sister copy of the “S” manuscript) and correct them, thus bringing his copy into agreement with manuscript “V” which he never saw. The point, is the more copies we have of a manuscript, even partial copies, the more confidently we can reconstruct the original message.[2]

This is the same tactic used in data backup with RAID storage. RAID is an acronym for Redundant Array of Independent Drives. There are different levels of redundancy with RAID 0, RAID 1, all the way up to RAID 6 (currently). But the basic idea is that different hard drives will not all crash at the same time, and will not all get corrupted at the same data location. This means that if one drive crashes, the data on it can be reconstructed from the remaining drives in the array. Or if a particular file goes “bad” and won’t open anymore, the system can rebuild that file from the information in the other drives.

Now, consider how we have reconstructed an original amount of data from 2 copies of a manuscript, or from several computer drives. Do you see why objections that we don’t have any original biblical manuscripts fall flat? Or why the comparisons of the Bible to the “telephone game” don’t really pose a problem? We have thousands of manuscripts, and we keep finding more and more of them. Are they all complete? No, many are only fragments, but they overlap with other copies to provide better redundancy than any other ancient manuscript. Do some have copying errors? Sure. Do some have additions? Yes. But witness the genius of God, in that He basically set up a geographically-distributed redundant array of data stores for His Word from which we can reasonably reconstruct the original. Just as some of Copernicus’ manuscripts that only had one surviving copy were destroyed in different wars throughout Europe, one original manuscript of the Bible would be a very fragile thing. But a worldwide network of copies could never be taken out by floods, or earthquakes, or wars, or vandalism. The absence of an original manuscript isn’t a liability, it’s actually evidence of brilliant planning. But that’s the kind of God we serve.

[1] Commonly called the “heliocentric” theory, Copernicus technically theorized that the sun was near the center of the known universe of the time, not necessarily at the center. His primary postulate was that the earth moved, so “geokinetic” is more technically correct.
[2] Nicholas Copernicus – Complete Works, Volume 2: Minor Works, translation & commentary by Edward Rosen & Erna Hilfstein (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Paperbacks, 1992), pp. 75-80.

Truth Revealed

One objection to arguments for the existence of God like the cosmolgical, teleological, or axiological arguments, is that these don’t necessarily show the existence of the Christian God (i.e. the Trinitarian God of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible). That’s true, they don’t. but these arguments do lead you to the necessary existence of a first cause, a supreme designer, and a moral lawgiver – roles all fulfilled by the Being described in the Bible as God. That is a huge step in the right direction. Once you’ve gotten over that big hurdle of admitting that God does (and must) exist, the journey to becoming a Christian can be as short or long as you make it. Sometimes we like to take the long way (just to satisfy ourselves, I suppose), but even if you investigate all the world religions first, a sincere pursuit of truth will lead you back to the God of the Bible.

Now, none of those arguments for God’s existence rely on the Bible. They are all separate lines of philosophical reasoning, pointing to the same conclusion, but they don’t use the most direct explanation of the origins of the universe, life, and morality – the testimony of the Bible. That’s because there are two different sides to God’s revealing of His truth: general revelation and special revelation. General revelation is what He reveals of Himself and His actions in the world around us. That’s why it’s also called “natural theology.” Special revelation is the record we have of God speaking directly to humankind through various chosen people throughout history, and most importantly, through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. These two approaches to revealed truth are like the difference between forensics and testimony. You might try to piece together who left some incredible surprise gift on your porch from the little bits of evidence you can scrape together. You may be able to narrow down the list of suspects from the large shoe size tracks leading up to the porch, or some other forensic clues. But if you received a letter in the mail the next day from your good friend explaining that it was from him and why he did it, wouldn’t that simplify things tremendously? The Bible is that letter explaining everything!

Or consider this example from my engineering job.  The American Institute of Steel Construction publishes a rather hefty little book every so often that’s commonly just known as “the steel manual”. It’s filled with all kinds of good information relating to steel design, and I reference it nearly every day for something or other. If I couldn’t remember the formula for deflection of a beam, for instance, would I have to have that book? No, I could do an experiment with a stick over 2 supports with different weights hanging in the middle, and eventually work out the relationship between loading and deflection of beams. But it would likely take me a while, and probably wouldn’t be very exact. Or I could look in Table 3-23 and quickly confirm that the deflection of a simply supported, uniformly-loaded beam is (5wL^4)/(384EI). Now, that’s an example of something that I can determine from actual experiment or from simply reading the book. However, there are other things that no amount of experiments will tell me. For example, in design, we use various safety factors to account for variability in real-life conditions, and to provide a somewhat consistent “cushion” in case of accidental (or deliberate) overloading. Can I ever determine that from any experiments? Not really. That’s because these are philosophical reasons. We generally prefer nice, slow, ductile yielding of building framing in the event of a failure rather than sudden, brittle, snapping without warning. The first warns the occupants of the building that something’s wrong, giving them time to evacuate; the latter can result in sudden collapse and many tragic deaths. Therefore, our design philosophy is to favor ductile limits over brittle ones.[1] But that philosophy, and the values of the safety factors we derive from that goal, can only be determined by going to the authoritative source, AISC’s book.

Similarly, there are some general things about Himself that God has revealed in nature, and that we can determine from rational thinking. But for the most part, you need to go to His book. I’ve heard friends say that they would believe if God did something like write “I made you. – God” across the sky, or arranged the stars to say something similar. Ironically, they say they would believe at a rather short, simplistic message, even though God has left a long, detailed message in the form of the Bible. I encourage you to use all the resources available to you; explore both God’s general revelation and special revelation. The world-famous atheist Antony Flew finally had to admit there was a God just from the general revelation of God in the clear design of DNA. Sadly though, it doesn’t appear that he was willing to take the next logical step before he died. Don’t complain of not having enough of a message from God when He has left you His own narrative. He has taken the stand, so to speak, and testified of Himself. Don’t dismiss Him without reading what He has to say.

[1] AISC Steel Construction Manual, 14th Ed (2010), Commentary on section J.4., p.16.1-413. Also, Commentary on section K2, p. 16.1-427.

Tis the Season… but for what?

As I write this, it’s almost Christmas, one of my favorite times of year! One of the things I really enjoy about it is the Christmas carols. Not that I have any singing abilities, but I still love to sing them anyway, and unlike the rest of the year, people don’t look at me like I’m crazy when I sing them in December.

However, not all songs popular at Christmas time actually have anything to do with Christmas. For Christmas is not a celebration of magical snowmen, underdog reindeer, or interior decorating. Not that there’s anything wrong with singing about Frosty, or Rudolph, or decking the halls with boughs of holly. It’s just always been a bit of a letdown for me, hearing “Christmas” songs with no Christ in them. It’s like going to a big concert and only seeing the opening act. It’s all about the headliner, and if you miss them, you basically missed the concert. Likewise, if you miss Christ, you really missed Christmas.

So what is it about the old Christmas hymns I love so much? The story. I’ve always been a stickler for wanting to know the lyrics to songs, whether I was listening to heavy metal, dance club remixes, folk music,  or anything else. And I’ve been surprised more than once at how a good beat and some catchy riffs can get a lot of people taking in, and even singing along with, some pretty disturbing, messed-up, dysfunctional songs. But lyrics matter. Garbage In, Garbage Out, as you learn in programming. But in the old Christmas hymns I find rich veins of solid gold – little mini-sermons of good, sound theology that point me to God, and remind me of the events of long ago, why they are so vitally important, and why the gospel really is “good news”. Join me for a little buffet of Christmas carol goodness.

“Hark! The herald angels sing: Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled.”
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. “[1][Mt 1:23, Jn 1:14, Rom 5:11, 2 Cor 5:18-21]

Reconciliation between the perfect, holy God and us incorrigible sinners! What a staggering thought!How can this be? Not by anything we could do, but only by His mercy! I don’t know about you, but makes me want to sing out:

“Gloria in excelsis Deo”.[2][Lk 2:14]

“Glory to God in the highest” sang the angels as they announced the momentous event to the shepherds.  And indeed, this was the start of a most glorious phase of God’s plan: the Incarnation!

“Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar; Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born! Christ, the Saviour, is born!”[3][Lk 2:11]

“Christ” is from the Greek, and means “Anointed One”, as does “Messiah” from the Hebrew. After 400 years of silence since the last prophet had brought a message from God, an angelic choir was now belting out the news. The plan known to God from all eternity was now in full effect and being revealed to us humans. The world was ready and  all the pieces were in place as Christ the Savior took center stage, in a lowly manger of all places.

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”[4][Lk 2:7]

So often, we look to the proud and mighty to save us. Yet Jesus, through whom all was created, and who has the only real power to save, came in utter humility. No palace would’ve been too good for the King of the universe and beyond to be born in, yet He humbled Himself to be born as the lowest of the low. Why?

“Fear not, then, said the angel, Let nothing you affright.
This day is born a Savior of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might.”[5][Lk 1:34-37, Lk 19:10, Mk 10:45]

“O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.”[6][Mt 1:6, Mk 12:35 ,Mt 1:21, 2 Tim 2:8, 1 Cor 15:19]

He did not come to heal the sick, or feed the hungry or bless the poor, even though He did all those things. But He came above all else, to pay the penalty for our sin, to ransom us from the grip of Satan, to save us and reconcile us to God, to do what no one else could do, what no amount of hard work or good behavior could ever accomplish, to give His life for ours. And His arrival was accomplished through the virgin birth, not only to break the chain of human sin, but also to provide an extraordinary, naturally impossible sign that this was a supernatural work of God. Skeptics may mock the Virgin Birth, but would it really be much of a sign of something unprecedented happening if it were possible via nature alone?

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope–the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine![7][Rom 3:10-11, Phil 2:10]

Have you ever felt depressed? Worthless? Trapped in your bad decisions, your bad habits, your shortcomings, your human frailty? Now, consider how much worth must you have for the Son of God to come live as one of us, and then, in a shocking display of sacrificial love and mercy, take the punishment we all deserved? Not that we have that worth because of anything we did. Thankfully not, for then we could surely lose that worthiness by other actions. Rather, we are image-bearers of God, and loved by Him before we even existed. This was indeed a new morning compared to all that had come before. This was a game-changer that can only result in hope, rejoicing, and worship. But was that just a one-time deal?

“How silently, how silently
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.”[8][Acts 16:30-31]

This last carol reminds us that this is not simply a story of what happened once and is no longer applicable to you and me. Rather the gift of heaven 2000 years ago is a living gift that still can make you a “new creation” if you but receive it. More than anything you could ever give or receive this Christmas, this truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

What does the sampling above tell us? That God reached down to us to reconcile us to Him, that those who are willing may receive the gift of redemption He offers, that our souls feel their worth only in Him, that we can truly have hope, that Jesus was born King and God, but also our sacrifice, for Christmas is only a signpost pointing toward the atoning sacrifice of the cross on Good Friday and the glorious victory of Easter morning. That’s all -just the greatest news in all of human history!

As R.C. Sproul would say, “everyone’s a theologian”; the only question is whether your theology is true or false. This Christmas, set Frosty and Rudolph and Santa and the rest of the gang aside and take some time to reflect on what Christmas really means. Digging out some old Christmas hymns will put you on the right track.

Merry Christmas!

[1] “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – stanzas 1 & 2 – Charles Wesley, 1739. Baptist Hymnal (2008) #192.
[2] “Angels We Have Heard On High” – refrain, traditional French Carol, date unknown. United Methodist Hymnal (1989), #238.
[3] “Silent Night, Holy Night“, stanza 2 – Joseph Mohr, 1818. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), #281.
[4] “Away in a Manger” – stanza 1, attributed to Martin Luther, date unknown. Baptist Hymnal (2008) #205.
[5] “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” – stanza 3, traditional English Carol, date unknown. The Hymnbook (1955), #166.
[6] “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” – stanza 4, translated by John Mason Neale, 1851, but poem dates to 7th century. Psalter Hymnal (1987), #328.
[7] “Oh Holy Night” – stanza 1, Placide Cappeau, 1847. Baptist Hymnal (2008), #194.
[8] “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – stanza 3, Phillips Brooks, 1868. Baptist Hymnal (2008), #196.
(This was just a small sampling of great Christmas carols. Know of some more good examples? Comment with your favorites and what they mean to you!)