Hell vs Love

“Hell”, photograph by Robert Doisneau, 1952

Is the concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment incompatible with the concept of a loving God? I’m reading a couple of books right now written by atheists who both view hell not only as a moral outrage, but as contrary to the nature of God as loving. Are they right? Let’s dig in to that tonight.

Atheist David Madison wrote in 2016, “Hell and eternal punishment fall into the category of the cruel and unusual. Pain and torture that go on forever can’t be part of sound theology. ” [1] Eight years prior, Dan Barker wrote, “Love is not hatred or wrath, assigning billions of people to eternal torture because they have offended your fragile ego or disobeyed your rules….” [2] Of course, Richard Dawkins gave his own sensational statement on hell back in 2006: “I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.” [3] But this opposition to hell is hardly limited to the so-called “new atheists.” Bertrand Russell, back in 1927, stated that “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” [4]

With that brief survey of some of the objections to hell, lets consider a couple of responses.

  • Is damnation an act of ego-driven hatred masquerading as love, as Barker alleges? Actually, this has nothing to do with ego or hatred, for it is justice, not love, that condemns people to hell. Too many people construct a very one-dimensional image of God they can feel justified in rejecting, and this is just such a case. Yes, God is loving; but He is also holy, righteous, just. One might be tempted to say that the love of God should override this harsh justice, yet people don’t seem to approve if a human judge lets an unrepentant criminal go unpunished. But in God’s solution at the cross, love actually satisfied the need for justice rather than ignoring it. While God’s justice condemns us to an eternal punishment we all deserve, His sacrificial love offers us freedom if we’ll accept it.
  • Is the duration of the punishment unloving or inhumane? These skeptics, and many others, specifically object to the “everlasting” part of hell. There are two responses here. First, this objection stems from a lack of appreciation of the seriousness of sin – any sin – from the view of a perfect judge. We tend to excuse “little sins” and “white lies” and such, but anything less than perfection is a failing grade before a perfect God. True justice, when perfection is the standard, requires any infraction, no matter how minor in the defendant’s eyes, to be a guilty sentence. Another response to this objection is that the sin and lack of repentance of those condemned to hell don’t seem to stop once they get there. I don’t want to read too much into a story, but it is worth noting that in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar [Lk 16:19-31], the rich man, while being tormented in hell, continued acting selfishly toward Lazarus, even as he asked favors of Lazarus. If one never repents of sin (i.e. turns from it), then one continues in sin, and therefore in condemnation. Thus, the eternal nature of the punishment may very well be due to the eternal continuation of the sin.

Does the existence of hell rule out the love of God? Not when understood in it’s context. As Douglas Groothuis points out, “The doctrine of hell does not stand alone as a kind of ancient Christian chamber of horrors. Rather, hell is inseparable from three other interrelated biblical truths: human sin, God’s holiness, and the cross of Christ…. Only by understanding hell can we grasp the immensity of God’s love…. This is a costly love, a bloody love that has no parallel in any of the world’s religions.”[5] The tragic fate awaiting so many is not something Christians relish. On the contrary, it is concern and love for our fellow humans that drives us to warn them of the disastrous path they are on. It is a love motivated by that costly love with which God first loved us. If you are one who has rejected God because of the offensiveness of hell, I ask – no, I plead – that you reconsider, and accept God’s free gift of salvation. For in the end, if you will not have His love, sadly, you will have His justice. Choose wisely, friend.


[1] David Madison, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), p. 277. Kindle Edition.
[2] Dan Barker, godless (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p.89.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 358.
[4]  Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”,  a lecture given March 6, 1927, to the National Secular Society at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[5] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), Appendix 1: “Hell on Trial”, p. 658,660.

How Apologetics Builds a Tougher Faith

Question: would you rather find out the roof over your head was ready to collapse before it actually happened, or after? Afterward doesn’t really help, does it? Now, a question for the Christians out there: would you rather find out where your trust in God is weak before it gets put to the test, or afterward? Maybe for some of you, if you were honest, you might say, “I claim I trust that God is good, and that He is sovereign… but if I ever got cancer, or my child died, or something bad happened on a massive scale (like a tsunami), my trust in God would be destroyed.” Honesty is good; it’s hard to fix a problem if we ignore it or gloss over it. But would your sudden distrust in God, or even a change to disbelief in His very existence, change anything about Him? If He exists and is truly good, and omnipotent, and omniscient, and sovereign, would your changing belief about Him change anything about Him, or just about you? Just you, obviously. Someone can not believe I’m an engineer all they want, and it does nothing to my credentials or occupation. Likewise, God is independent of our changing views of Him. So the issue here isn’t really about God, but rather the frailty of our trust in Him. How do you toughen up a frail faith? Let’s work through that today.

I used to work as an engineer at a company that made steel roof joists – like what you see when you look up in any of the big box stores like Wal-Mart. One of the things we did was destructively test a sampling of our joists to make sure they behaved the way they were supposed to. The picture at the top of this post was one such test. You don’t want to design a roof for 30 pounds per square foot of snow load, and cut things so close that an extra inch of snow one year collapses the building. With that in mind, the Steel Joist Institute required us to have a factor of safety of 1.65: each joist needed to be able to handle an overload of 65% of its design capacity.  However, we didn’t want to be right at that minimum where everything had to go perfectly in production to meet it. Everyone involved in designing and building the joist are fallible, after all. So we liked to see tested joists not failing until loaded to twice what they were designed for. And those overload conditions did happen over the years. I remember a case where a roof drain got plugged on one building during a bad storm, and the roof collapsed under the weight of an unplanned rooftop swimming pool. Thankfully, it failed when nobody was in the building. As it turned out, that was several times what the roof was designed for, and even in failure, the joists performed amazingly well.

We began to look for ways to make our joists tougher – that is, able to handle more permanent deformation (i.e. overloading) without breaking. We found that highly-optimized open-web trusses tend to have common failure locations, like the 2nd web from each end that is noted in the picture. Under normal loading, that web has the highest compression load of any of the webs. Why does that matter? Have you ever stood on an empty soda can? If you stand on it carefully and evenly, you can put your full weight on the can without it flattening. But if you wiggle a little (adding some eccentricity to your compressive load), the can immediately crushes without any warning. That sudden buckling is what we wanted to avoid happening in our joists. Instead, we wanted the long, drawn-out failure mode of tensile yielding that gives lots of warning first (like how silly putty or the cheese on pizza stretches a long ways before it finally pulls apart). Getting back to our joists, since that second web will tend to fail first, strengthening that one member on each end can significantly increase the failure load, and the chance for people to evacuate an overloaded building. I personally got to repair a joist that had failed in testing at that web, and then watch the amazing performance as it was retested. Not only did it pass the test, it maxed out the test equipment! Such a small change for such dramatic results. That test convinced me of the value of thinking about how my designs react when taken outside their design envelope.

Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with Christianity or apologetics? The Bible tells us that we are in a spiritual war, whether we realize it or not. Chances are good that at some point in the Christian journey, your trust in God will be severely challenged – overloaded, so to speak. How will you react? Are there weak links in your life that look solid until they’re actually put to the test? I’ve seen too many tragic cases of people claiming to be Christians and leaving the church after exposure to some event or some unforeseen objection “destroyed their faith”. Maybe they grew up insulated from any objections, or worse, were told that asking questions was bad. Their trust in God was just a house of cards waiting to collapse the minute someone brought up some of the objections of atheists like Richard Dawkins or Dan Barker (as answerable as those are). Or maybe they grew up thinking that Christian faith was some kind of charm against bad things happening to them (in spite of the overwhelming testimony of almost every book of the Bible, many of the early church fathers, and the long bloody history of martyrdom of Christians the world over up to the present day). That’s called being set up for failure. But apologetics helps us in the following ways:

  • It strengthens those weak links by forcing us to examine ourselves [2 Cor 13:5] and reinforce our areas of distrust with true biblical knowledge, supporting evidence, and sound reasoning rather than just gloss over them. For some, that self-examination may even make them aware that their faith is just a charade and that there is no actual relationship with Jesus as Lord supporting their “Christian” life. That’s an important oversight to correct!
  • In seeking to give an answer to those who ask for the reason for the hope that we have [1Pe 3:15], apologetics forces us to look at our beliefs from an outside perspective, anticipate questions, and actively search for answers so that we might be prepared. Knowing why you believe what you believe will strengthen your trust in God even if nobody ever asks you about your beliefs.
  • Apologetics reminds us that we don’t have a “blind faith” but rather a very well-grounded faith in God. Even when we don’t know the answer to every question, we are reminded that we can trust God based on the positive answers we do have. That is the very opposite of the “blind faith” skeptics like to assume Christians rely on.

May you be ever-growing in the knowledge of the truth of God, knowing with certainty in whom you have believed, understanding more each day how trustworthy God is, never failing to persevere through the trials that must surely come. Grace to you 🙂

The Design of Salvation, Part 2

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

Last week, we looked at some other ways God could’ve designed our salvation, although none of them really seemed adequate. We started off confirming that we really do need salvation; but then saw that we can’t buy eternal life, or be born into it, or get it by title or position, or earn it through good deeds, or pass a test to get it. And God’s perfect justice prohibits Him just ignoring our rebellious condition and rewarding us anyway. That’s the bad news. But this week, let’s dig into the beautiful distinction that separates Christianity from all the man-made religions of the world, and what makes the gospel truly… “good news”.

What is that distinction? Grace. “What does that even mean?” Glad you asked!  God’s grace can be defined as His “goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.” [1] Salvation is a free gift of God [Rom 6:23, Eph 2:8-9], for that’s really the only way we could get it. God is never obligated to show us this favor, and the fact that He does makes faith (or trust) in Him the only reasonable response on our part.[1] Like any gift, it has to be accepted to be effective. If it’s the dead of winter, and I’m homeless and freezing, and someone gives me a big down jacket, but I don’t accept it and actually put it on, I still freeze to death!

A gift is, by definition, free to the recipient. And while God’s grace is free, it isn’t cheap. How so? As Herman Bavinck puts it, “God must punish the wrong. God is love, indeed, but this glorious confession comes into its own when love in the Divine being is understood as being a holy love in perfect harmony with justice. There is room for the grace of God only if the justice of God is first fully established.”[2] And how is that perfect justice satisfied? Jesus, the second person of the Triune Godhead, became as one of us, but lived the perfect life we never could, and then died in our place, paying the penalty we all deserved. [Rom 5:8] We each sin, and the penalty for sin before a perfect and just God is eternal separation from Him. But Jesus became our proxy, our representative, our substitute. And while I could never pay off the penalty for my sin (hence the eternal aspect of it), Jesus’ sacrifice was a sufficient and complete payment. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, this gift offered to us freely cost more than the worth of the whole universe.

And what is this gift? And how do I accept it? This is none other than the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. If you read last week’s post and understood that you don’t meet God’s perfect standard and that He doesn’t grade on a curve, then you understand that you are, like every other human ever born, a sinner. And as mentioned above, the penalty for sin is severe: death and eternal separation from God. As AA would say, admitting you have a problem is the first step; but that’s not enough. Repentance is more than just acknowledgment of a problem or even remorse over it. It is a renouncing of sin and commitment to forsake it. But we are enslaved by sin, and only Jesus can break its power over us. [Rom 6:6,22, Jn 8:34,36] We must turn from sin and to Christ, looking to Him alone, and trusting in His work to make us acceptable to God. [Heb 12:2] This trust is also called faith. Paul wrote to the Romans that if one confessed with the mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believed in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, they would be saved. [Rom 10:9-11] It’s two sides of the same coin: the sincere heartfelt trust in Jesus’ saving work (which was proven sufficient by His being raised from the dead), combined with genuine repentance of past sin and commitment to follow Christ wholeheartedly (summarized in confessing that He is Lord of your life), will save you. You can’t have Him as Savior and not as Lord. [Jn 8:31,14:23]

Why would God do any  of this? The answer is… love. That word has been watered down a lot in recent years. People say they love a lot of things these days – food, their favorite sports team, a hobby, and on and on. But love isn’t simply a feeling of enjoyment or a momentary attraction. Emotions come and go, and are often quite selfish in origin, but love is a willful giving of oneself to another. Paul writes to the Romans that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Love in word only isn’t really love, for love necessarily results in action, as God’s love for us certainly did.

In the end, God’s way of doing thing really is the best choice among the alternatives for accomplishing His purpose in saving mankind from its rebellion, reconciling us to Him, redeeming us and repairing our brokenness, and ultimately, bringing glory to Himself, for He is worthy of it. Despite the “armchair quarterbacking” of skeptics, the gospel message really is the best way to balance sovereignty and free will, and allow the maximum number of people to voluntarily take part in God’s redemption.  Only God’s grace walks that fine line between love and justice, making God “the just and the justifier”, as Paul wrote. [Rom 3:26] Only God’s grace makes the ground level at the foot of the cross for men and women of every nation to come with open hands to receive what they could never earn, whether rich or poor, old or young, powerful or destitute, educated or ignorant. Only grace could meet all God’s design parameters and accomplish His purpose with such elegance and faithfulness to His perfect nature.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 200-1.
[2] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids Eerdmans, 1956) p. 260.

The Design of Salvation, Part 1

“Golgota” by Mihaly Munkacsy, 1884

There are many critics of how the Bible describes God’s plan to save the human race, but it’s far easier to criticize someone else’s design than to work through what’s actually the best choice to accomplish a particular goal yourself. If you had the job of providing a means of salvation to a stubborn and rebellious people – many of whom don’t even think they need to be saved from anything  and want to actively resist any rescue attempt – how would you do it? How would you design salvation?  Let’s look at some alternatives and see whether those criticisms are really justified or not.

First off, is salvation even necessary? In case you haven’t read the newspaper, watched the news on TV, or gotten on the internet in a while, it’s pretty obvious that the world is a messed-up place. People are messed up. We like to think we’re not as bad as _____. Just fill in the blank with the person or group you tend to look down upon, because we all do that. Comparison comes naturally to us. But the fact is, none of us are perfect. A lot of times that doesn’t bother us because we assume that God grades on a curve. “Nobody’s perfect, but my saintly old grandma would surely get bumped up to a high A. I may not be as good as her, but I’ll certainly still pass, probably with a high B, or maybe even a low A. People like Hitler will obviously get an F. That guy that cut me me off on the highway the other day may be a borderline C, but God certainly wouldn’t fail me – I’m a good person.” Right? Well, God doesn’t grade on a curve, and there’s only 1 passing score: perfection. That’s bad news for all of us. Turns out, we’re in the same boat as Hitler and all the “really bad” people  that we feel so superior to according to our subjective grading curve. We have a serious problem, and need a serious solution. What are some options?

  • Would you make salvation dependent on earthly power? Is eternal life a gift not to be wasted on the masses? Are only the movers and shakers – the Pharaohs and Caesars of world history – worthy of it? Most of us are in that category of “the masses”, and probably wouldn’t pick that option. But historically, those in power wouldn’t have minded rigging the system to favor the powerful. However, power can actually be a hindrance in that it tends to blind us to our real needs that only God can meet. [Mk 8:36] Thankfully, God makes salvation available to the leaders of superpowers and the untouchable outcasts in the filthiest slums, and everyone in between.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on wealth? How much should tickets to Heaven cost? What value do you place on eternal life?  Judging by how much people will spend on surgery to try to retain the fleeting looks of youth, I imagine eternal life could fetch quite a price – maybe enough to price most of us out of the bidding.  There are many people with prideful hearts that would love to simply throw some money at God to purchase life eternal rather than pay the costlier price of submitting themselves to Him. “$100 to go to Heaven when I die, and I can live however I want until then? I’m in!” But what about when the price is $10,000?  $1 million? $1 billion? Even if it’s only a few dollars, any price you could come up with would be out of reach for somebody. Of course, there’s also the question of whether you would really enjoy Heaven if you just bought your entrance guarantee and spent the rest of your life living like the devil. Yet God makes salvation available to all, from the richest fat cat to the most destitute, bankrupt beggar.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on knowledge? Would people need to pass an exam, or be some type of Illuminati? Would you have a bridgekeeper asking obscure trivia like in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail?[1] The Gnostics believed one needed “secret knowledge” beyond what the ignorant masses could ever hope for. I remember struggling in certain classes in college, and the frustration of being the student that just didn’t understand what everyone else seemed to grasp so easily. It was frustrating then, and it was just a class grade on the line, not eternity! So as much as I appreciate knowledge and enjoy learning new things, I thank God He didn’t make my salvation dependent on how much I know. On a related note, what if I’m in a car accident and suffer brain trauma and have amnesia and mental retardation as a result, or if I develop Alzheimer’s and can’t even remember what I learned the day before? Would my loss of knowledge put my salvation at risk? Thankfully, it’s not our IQ or our learning that saves us, for God makes salvation available to the genius and the dunce alike, to the scholar with a string of letters after his name and the illiterate orphan.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on race or ethnicity? The idea of one group of people being intrinsically more valuable than others is generally reprehensible to us now, but preference for those like us still creeps in to our thoughts, it seems. I can’t help but notice (and be amused at) how very white and European Jesus – a Jew from the Middle East – has typically been portrayed by Western artists in the centuries since. Yet God is no respecter of such shallow traits like nationality or skin color. He makes salvation available to the Jew and the German, the Russian and the American, and every other nationality there is. Likewise for every skin color: “red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”, as the old children’s song goes.
  • Would you make salvation unconditional? Everybody goes to heaven/paradise/eternal bliss in the end? That sounds very loving and good at first. But it seems like it might be a little awkward if you were an innocent victim brutally beaten to death, and you meet your very unrepentant murderer in heaven. Might you feel a little slighted? Might you wonder where justice is when the victim and the laughing victimizer get the same reward? We have to minimize the justice of God for this option to appear feasible. Yet God offers salvation lovingly while still being just.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on good deeds? That is the probably the most common approach in man-made religions. And I get it: we understand the need for justice, and so we naturally think good should be rewarded and bad punished. But what about the one who realizes the error of his ways late in life? What good can he possibly do at the end to offset a life of selfishness, greed, dishonesty, theft, or murder? What hope is there for him? Or what of the child who gets hit by a car before she has much opportunity to earn credits in her “account”? But even with a long life of good behavior, it’s still not perfect behavior, and so it still falls short.  Works appeals to us because we do understand working and earning benefits, but also because we don’t understand the hole we’re actually in. So we think it is something we can work our way out of. In reality, if it’s on us to get ourselves out, the situation truly is hopeless.

I have to say, I’m not very impressed with any of the alternatives above. Are there other alternatives to what God did that you can think of that might’ve worked better? I don’t think there are, but I’d love to hear if you think I’ve missed something. It’s easy to criticize a plan without actually having a better option. But it’s when we work through the problems and consequences of alternatives, that we see the superiority of a plan we might’ve dismissed at first. Design is all about making choices to accomplish a specified purpose, and now that we’ve eliminated some alternative choices, join me next week for Part 2, where I’ll look at God’s actual choice for offering salvation, how it accomplishes His purpose, and why it really is the best design for rescuing us from our desperate situation.


[1] If you don’t know what I’m talking about there, your life is incomplete. Watch that scene from Monty Python on YouTube to catch up: https://youtu.be/Wpx6XnankZ8

Impatience & Arrogance

“Torah Scribe”, by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1876

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

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

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

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


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

The Design of Evangelism

Jonah Calling Nineveh to Repentance – Gustav Dore

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

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

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

To Err Is Human

Typesetting (photo by Willi Heidelbach)

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

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

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


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

Outside the Fishbowl (a fable)

Author’s Plecostomus contemplating the meaning of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armchair Engineers

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

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

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

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


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

Sin in Heaven?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

At the intersection of faith and design