Truth Revealed

“Still Life with Bible” – Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

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?

“Carols” – Nikiphoros Lytras, 1872

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
the wondrous gift is given!
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!)

Intellectual Sparring

“I Am Sir Lancelot” by N.C. Wyeth, 1922

Have you ever taken part in a debate, or watched one? A question is proposed. A champion comes forward from each side to show why their answer to the question is correct. In a formal debate, they’ve prepared well in advance. The debate may be oral or a written exchange. Some debates will have the audience vote on who “won” the debate. Hopefully, this isn’t just a popularity contest, with the winner decided based on their charisma or their pithy comebacks. Rather, it should be based on who has justified their view the best, who has defended their conclusion by supporting it with true premises using clear terms. Why? A conclusion that logically follows from true premises using unequivocal terms forms an airtight case. If one side can do that, they have won the debate. But is winning the debate the end goal? With our inherent competitiveness, that tends to be the case, but it shouldn’t be. As philosopher Peter Kreeft points out, the real goal should be for both sides to come to agree on the independent truth, regardless of which one found it first.[1] If you prove your point and win the debate, but nobody changes their mind, what have you actually won? What about the debate between atheists and Christians? Is it just about winning an intellectual battle? On the contrary, this issue, above all others, is far from simply an intellectual exercise or game. There are very serious implications. As Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, “It concerns all our life to know whether the soul be mortal or immortal.”[2]

One danger in debating the topics such as the existence of God, the deity of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, and so on, is that we can be lulled into seeing it as just a game – a sort of intellectual sparring, a competition to see who can win the argument and beat their rival. But these are not simply interesting questions to ponder, or tricky propositions to show off our reasoning prowess. These are truly life and death problems (greater even than life and death, if the warnings of the Bible are true). Luke tells us in Acts 24 of the apostle Paul’s journey through the Jewish/Roman legal system. There we read of Paul’s encounter with the Governor, Felix. After hearing from Paul’s accusers, then from Paul, Felix put them off and kept Paul under house arrest. Hoping to get a bribe from Paul, Felix would send for him often to converse with him.[Acts 24:26] But of course, Paul never offered the bribe Felix was hoping for, only frightening talk of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgement to come.”[Acts 24:25] Two years passed like this, and Felix was replaced by a new governor, while Paul continued to await a fair trial. Felix had at his disposal the author of almost half the books of the New Testament, and talked to him often. And yet, there was no repentance, no change. It was only a game to him.

Is that you today? Are topics like the existence of God and the historicity of Jesus Christ simply interesting topics to discuss, idle speculations, or maybe even amusing subjects of ridicule? Understand the seriousness of the stakes. Death is a certainty for every one of us, and it may take any of us at a moment’s notice. It behooves us then to do our due diligence when it comes to determining if there is another stage to life that we should be preparing for now, for we know not how soon we may be expected to pass through that door. It’d be good to learn what’s awaiting you on the other side. While strictly speaking, atheism only claims that God does not exist, it typically coincides with a materialistic view that there is nothing supernatural (i.e. beyond nature), and that there is therefore nothing of a person that survives physical death. Under Christianity, that point of physical death is simply a point on a person’s timeline that started shortly before and continues on afterward infinitely. It is only a transition and not an ending. It is a change in container (the material body), but not in content (the immaterial soul). That completely revolutionizes how we perceive difficulties, suffering and other unfairness in life, or the perceived unfairness of an unusually short life.

On the other hand, maybe you are not opposed to God, per se, like the atheist, but are simply indifferent. You see no reason to bother with the question. Consider another observation from Blaise Pascal:

“The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment, unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end. Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct.” [3]

Don’t make the mistake of neglecting that “first duty”. A temporary agnosticism on any subject while you are investigating it is commendable; careful considerations generally turn out better than rash decisions, after all. But prolonged agnosticism is only the trap of apathy and indifference in disguise. You may say that you refuse to choose – that you are agnostic – but as Peter Kreeft has so deftly stated, “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’.”[4] You may not have tomorrow; hence the biblical warning “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”[Heb 4:7] Have you made the right choice? Not sure? Contact me and we can discuss any questions you have.

[1] Kreeft, Peter, Socratic Logic, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 346. “Socrates sees himself and ‘O’ [the opponent] not as a winner and a loser but as two scientists mutually seeking the truth by testing two alternative hypotheses. Whichever one finds the truth, both are winners.”
[2] Pascal, Blaise, Pascal’s Pensées, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1958),  p. 63. Kindle Edition.
[3] ibid., p. 55.
[4]Kreeft, Peter, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993), pp.299-300.


Moses & The Ten Commandments - James Tissot
Moses & The Ten Commandments – James Tissot, 1902

I was talking with an atheist friend recently. After several iterations of friendly debate regarding the existence of God and reasons for belief, he brought up a curious objection. In retrospect, though, it’s one that seems to come up a lot. What my friend objected to, and what many atheists seem to object to, is the idea of God’s rules. His particular example was that he objected to the idea of some meddling, cosmic, privacy-invading, bedroom policeman telling us who we can or can’t sleep with. Now, I’d like to point out that the perception of arbitrariness in God’s rules, or His perceived “snoopiness”, really are irrelevant to His existence. Existence is a question of ontology, not character, but I digress. What’s interesting is that sex, or rather, any limitation of it, seems to be at the root of atheism many times. Whether the atheist would ever admit that or not, it seems that a lot of the attempts at “intellectual” objections are really only cover for a desire for personal autonomy, particularly regarding sex. And this isn’t anything new. Consider the words of atheist Aldous Huxley in 1937: “We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom“. He goes on to explain the answer to those opponents claiming that moral and societal restraints were embodiments of Christian meaning in the world. “There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.”[1] This is exactly what atheism does when it tells us we are a giant cosmic accident, nothing special, just “chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies,” in the words of Stephen Hawking.[2] But Huxley goes on. “[T]hose who, to be liberated from political or sexual restraint, accept the doctrine of absolute meaninglessness tend in a short time to become so much dissatisfied with their philosophy (in spite of the services it renders) that they will exchange it for any dogma, however manifestly nonsensical, which restores meaning if only to a part of the universe.”[1] Atheists like Sam Harris would have us believe we can find meaning in the “flourishing” of society in spite of the utter meaninglessness of life under atheism. Supposedly, us chemical scum can find purpose in our work, our families, in helping all of “scum-kind” flourish. But why? Huxley’s right: postulating meaninglessness is a means to an end that gives us the autonomy we may want, but only because nothing we can do, in any area of our lives, matters. And that is a high price to pay just to be able to not feel guilty.

But let’s dig a little deeper into this aversion to God’s rules. I can’t help but notice that, in general, we tend to only like rules when they’re our rules, not somebody else’s. Restraining other people with our common sense rules is nothing like the oppressive burden they want to impose on us, right? The person wanting strict speed limit enforcement in their neighborhood can easily be the same person speeding on the highway. The person mad at the “greedy” tax-evading CEO may not have any qualms about taking a cash job under the table and not reporting it on his taxes. Our ability to rationalize why  it’s OK for us to do something can be amusing if we step back and get some perspective on it. My situation is obviously different from everyone else on the planet that might be trying to get away with such-and-such activity, so that burdensome rule doesn’t apply to me. I’m special, don’t you know?

On a more serious note, though, rules are necessary in human life. We routinely make rules that we expect to be obeyed. I need only look at my own profession of engineering. A set of contract drawings is one big list of rules of what the various fabricators and contractors can and can’t do when building the structure I designed. It doesn’t matter if the fabricator has a bunch of different size bolts left over from a previous job; they’re not to be used without my permission. And if they are, and they don’t meet my design requirements, the results can be potentially disastrous, and that fabricator or erector will have only themselves to blame. The same goes for the framing sizes, the concrete and rebar in the foundations, the decking on the roof, and everything in between. As the designer, I have goals, or purposes, for the structure, such as performance and public safety.  And that means laying down a lot of rules for what I think will meet my design intent and therefore ensure the public safety.

Most rules are like guardrails for our protection. They keep us within safe limits. In engineering, we often express these as minimums or as allowable ranges of certain parameters. Other rules establish structure. We see these as rules of order in society, or “best practices” in process improvement studies, and so on. Breaking them may not kill you, but following them does generally work out for the best. And some simply enforce design intent. There are often many different ways to design a building and meet all of your objectives for it, but at the heart of design is choice. One way is chosen among all the competing options. I may design a building with a special moment frame, while the contractor may prefer a braced frame, and may even be justified in thinking it would be cheaper to build. But I’m probably not going to scrap my design and redo everything just to satisfy him. For one thing, there may be issues besides cost that he is unaware of that required the use of the moment frame. For another, it’s my name, not his, on the drawings, and I’m the one legally and ethically responsible for what gets specified. So even if the contractor doesn’t like it, the design intent will be enforced unless he can prove to me that his suggestion is better overall, taking all factors into account.

Now, should it surprise us that the Designer of all life should have some rules to be followed as well? Or that we might not be privy to all of the reasons behind them? It seems hypocritical to expect our design rules to be followed and not accept that God might have some design rules of His own to be followed. In the case of sex, I see a few possible explanations for some of the restrictions objected to.

  • God has instituted sex, first and foremost as the only natural means of reproduction for humans. This requires a man and a woman. Any other arrangement simply doesn’t have the right “plumbing” to work. So we have some inherent design constraints at work here regarding homosexuality.
  • He also established that it should take place in a committed, stable, monogamous relationship between man and woman.[Matt 19:4] This moral constraint is also the single best way to raise successive generations. A lifelong marriage of self-sacrificial love [Eph 5:25] between husband and wife provides the stability, the complementary role models, and  the security that children need, as well as providing the most stable foundational unit for society as a whole.
  • Also, men and women are not interchangeable. There are things that a father, even with the greatest sincerity, simply cannot teach his daughters. Likewise for a mother and her son. The single parents out there make valiant efforts, but there are some areas where passing on second-hand knowledge is not the same as the voice of experience, and we see the wisdom of God’s plan for marriage as combining a man and a woman.
  • When sex is confined to the monogamous marital realm, it allows trust and intimacy to blossom in ways not possible with multiple partners. These last 3 points provide good structure and really would be “best practices”, in my opinion, even if God hadn’t mandated them.
  • Lastly, it seems fairly safe to predict that STD’s would decrease dramatically in a world following God’s rules for sex. God’s limitations on sex provide guardrails for our safety.

Those are just a few reasons I see that God’s rules aren’t arbitrary or meddlesome, but rather for our best. But even so, from engineering peer reviews I’ve done, I also have to recognize that there are often good design strategies being implemented in another engineer’s design, even when I don’t discern them immediately. I try to be open to that possibility when reviewing another person’s design. So I leave you with this question: if you’ve found all of God’s rules objectionable in the past, would you be open to the possibility that those rules are there because there is a design behind them? And design entails a Designer. Something to consider.

[1] Aldous Huxley, Means and Ends ( 1937), pp.273-5.
[2] Stephen Hawking, “Reality on the Rocks”, TV Series, 1995.