Tsunamis and the Problem of Evil

The Wave, or My Destiny, by Victor Hugo, 1857

Last time, I mentioned something I came across while researching new design provisions for tsunami hazards that helped explain why the biblical manuscripts are reliable. But tsunamis often play a more adversarial role as a common objection to the Christian conception of God being both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. And it’s easy to see why: tsunamis are natural disasters that typically occur with little warning and can cause massive loss of life. The Indonesian Ocean earthquake of December 26, 2004, and its ensuing tsunami killed over 200,000 people. That’s more people than the entire population of the city where I work. Gone, mostly in that first day. The thought is staggering. But it doesn’t stop there. Those who survive a tsunami are often left homeless, destitute, with nothing more than the clothes on their back. No shelter, no transportation, no food, and no way to purchase any of those things. While many are killed, several times that number are adversely affected, many for the rest of their lives. It’s easy to see that situation and ask, “Where was God then? How could He allow all this suffering?”

That’s really the heart of the so-called “Problem of Evil”: How could a good God let tragedies happen if He is in control, powerful enough to stop it, and not evil Himself? Other cases of human suffering used to exemplify the problem of evil can often be traced back to human malevolence or irresponsibility, both the results of free choices made by humans. Think of the suffering caused by Hitler, or of birth defects caused by someone dumping toxic chemicals into a river feeding a community’s water supply. To eliminate those kinds of evil would seem to require either constant direct counteraction of human free will to negate the effects of our choices, or elimination of our free will altogether. But “natural evil” – events that do not appear to be traceable to humans, but still cause suffering – would seem to lead back to God. Do they incriminate God? Not necessarily. Let me give 3 reasons why I think not.

  • I’ve previously written (here) about how earthquakes actually appear to be a necessary part of the life cycle of earth and how astrobiologists searching for extraterrestrial life are theorizing that plate tectonics would be a requirement of any other planet for it to support complex life. Tsunamis are a necessary byproduct of certain types of earthquakes. The good news is that only subduction zones where  one tectonic plate dives under another (or is subducted) appear capable of producing tsunamis; the bad news is that when one of those faults suddenly displaces a large volume of water, a wave results that will become a tsunami as it nears shore. That’s just the conservation of energy at work. This subduction is part of the continuous recycling of our planetary crust, but thankfully, the resulting earthquakes and ensuing side-effect of tsunamis are not a continuous effect.
  •  God has given us intelligence, creativity, and skills to devise protection from natural disasters. A webinar I watched recently for continuing education was explaining how to design buildings for the severe loadings from waves and debris that occur in tsunamis. We engineers tend to think we’ve covered all our bases when we design a building for wind, rain, snow,  seismic, and maybe even flood loads (besides the normal occupancy loads). But then in a tsunami, your building might actually get assaulted by other buildings swept off their foundations, a flotilla of shipping containers, a small fleet of cars and trucks, or a yacht or two. Objects tend to not stay put, and instead become very heavy projectiles. But the engineer presenting the webinar pointed out that some buildings in the well-documented and analyzed 2011 Japan Tsunami actually did remarkably well. While the economic impact of the Japan tsunami was enormous, the death toll was less than 1/10th of the that of the 2004 tsunami. Well-designed buildings can contribute to reducing the effects of these events. We could take that rather expensive lesson learned and start designing for tsunamis like we do for earthquakes and hurricanes. And while the earthquake-induced wave that will become a tsunami as it nears shore can cross the deeper ocean at speeds of over 500mph, we now have an early warning network established to warn distant areas. This can help provide critical time for people to utilize the best option: evacuation to higher ground. Interestingly, even without advanced technology, one community in Japan was safe from the 2011 tsunami because, after getting decimated by 2 previous tsunamis in the last 120 years, they permanently moved the town to higher ground and erected a stone monument instructing residents to not build below that elevation.  That may not be an appealing option to some, but it was one decision that people could make that saved their lives.
  • Lastly, there are simply some virtues that cannot exist without adversity. Bravery, courage, compassion, empathy, mercy – these are not possible in a perfect world. Isn’t it interesting how people can come together and set aside their differences to help others when a tragedy strikes? We see some of the most beautiful stories of love and compassion and unity come out of disasters. Good times seem to magnify even petty differences and inconveniences in our minds. We focus on our different skin color and culture and language and politics and whatnot so much of the time. But then in times of disaster, we gain an all-too-brief moment of  perspective and are reminded of our similarities. That grieving man holding his dead son,  that woman searching the lists of the dead for her husband, that little brother and sister orphaned and doing the best they can to look out for each other – those could be our family, our friends, us. And strangers become friends in need, and we give money, and blood, and blankets, and clothes, and food, and medicine, and our time, and whatever else we can, to help people a half a world away that we’ve never met. Rescuers work with seemingly superhuman endurance to save just one more person, because every life matters. Many share what resources they can to help; some travel to these places and are changed, and spend the rest of their lives helping others, and inspiring the rest of us. But virtues like these have no outlet where there is no need.

Are tsunamis an indictment against God? I don’t think so.  They are an unpredictable (so far), but necessary, part of our world’s life cycle. Nevertheless, they are also one we can use our God-given minds to mitigate. They put our daily pettiness in perspective, reminding us in graphic terms of the urgency to tell the world the good news of the gospel and eternal life [Rom 10:14-15], and of the command to “love our neighbor as ourselves” [Lk 10:25-37].

Why We Don’t Clean Up the Bible

A Depiction of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Vasily Polenov, 1888

Ever had junk accumulate around your house until you finally got so sick of seeing it every day that you did some major purging? Sell it, give it away, throw it away -who cares, as long as the mess goes away? What about the Bible? Is there accumulated junk in the Bible? And if there were, shouldn’t it be eliminated?

Well, there actually are some cases of questionable material in the Bible. That may come as a shock for some Christians, while some skeptics might be saying, “Tell me something I don’t know.” But not so fast. While skeptics like Bart Ehrman make much of the textual variants between different manuscripts, like copying errors, and scribal additions and deletions, the vast majority of these variants are typos and spelling differences.  Also, the enormous quantity (and quality) of manuscripts from different times and places  allows us to trace the development of these differences and have a high degree of confidence in what the originals said. For more on the fascinating field of textual criticism, I’d encourage you to check out Dr. Daniel Wallace’s work.[1] But what about cases like the Pericope Adulterae, the story of the woman caught in adultery found in John 7:53-8:12? This is a favorite story of many Christians, but the evidence weighs heavily against it being an authentic part of John’s gospel.  If that’s the case, and we really are concerned about truth – especially in our Holy Scriptures – why does it remain in the Bible?

To answer that, let me provide a more contemporary example. Four of the states I’m licensed in fall under new design provisions for tsunamis that are being introduced for the first time in the US later this year. In the course of researching the new provisions, I came across an interesting article on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s  website regarding their investigation and compilation of historical weather data [2].  While tsunamis and hurricanes can both generate large amounts of flooding, they have fundamentally different causes. Hurricanes are atmospheric events, while tsunamis are ground events (typically earthquake-induced, but also possible from landslides, like a 600′ high tsunami in Alaska in 2015 [3]). As it stands now, only the western coast of the US and Hawaii are considered in the new tsunami risk maps, due to two fault lines of the type that can cause tsunamis. But if a tsunami had been recorded on the east coast or gulf coast, then there would be obvious precedent for requiring us engineers to consider that risk in our designs in those areas as well. Well, there was a particular case in 1909 of a reported “tidal wave” sweeping over Grand Isle, Louisiana after a hurricane, killing hundreds. Was this tragic event tied to the hurricane, or was there an earthquake along an unmapped fault line in the gulf? Further investigation and computer simulation of the storm revealed the “tidal wave” to be part of the hurricane storm surge. While no less tragic for the families of those killed, establishing the true cause of past events like this helps us to design for them correctly and save lives in the future. Now, did NOAA delete this entry out of their Tsunami database? No, and here’s their reasoning:

So how does NOAA handle a spurious data record like this one? Do we delete the record? Oddly enough, we leave it in! We include notations that “debunk” the original tsunami designation, set the validity field to 0 (not a tsunami), and indicate that this event is of meteorological origin. If we removed the record entirely, it is likely that it would show up again in some future book or Web site, unopposed by the facts. Someone would email NOAA and say, “I found this great info about a tsunami in Louisiana in 1909. Why isn’t it listed it in your database?”

Can you see the application to biblical manuscripts? When copying manuscripts and confronted with questionable source material, scribes down through the centuries would typically err on the side of including the questionable material, just like NOAA did when they included the 1909 tidal wave in their database in 2002. But the scribes, like NOAA, would also add marginalia – margin notes and symbols – to denote concerns with the text of a passage. Now, if you’ve read almost any modern translation of the Bible, you’ve seen notes in the margin telling you things like, “Some early manuscripts do not contain this sentence”, or in the case of the adulterous woman passage, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:12.” You’ll find similar statements at John 5:3, Mark 16:9-20, and 1 John 5:7-8. The idea is that it’s better to include questionable data, duly noted as such, than to possibly eliminate divinely inspired teaching. Then, later, as more and more manuscripts are discovered and catalogued, if the passage is confirmed to be authentic, it hasn’t been lost due to overzealous “cleaning.” And if it’s confirmed as not genuine, then it is noted as such in each translation, so nobody has to be fooled by an appeal to some “shocking, scandalous, newly discovered Bible verses, hidden for centuries.” Like NOAA, we want to be able to oppose any future challenges with the facts.

Indeed, Bible translations are remarkable in their transparency, noting suspect passages, textual variants, and alternate translations quite openly rather than trying to hide them. But that’s because integrity to God’s Word is of utmost importance to the Christian, and most especially to the translator with the sacred duty of making God’s Word known to people in their own language. Despite the skeptic’s cynicism, we Christians understand that we are accountable before God for how we handle His Word [2 Tim 2:15].  And woe to the one who tries to corrupt it [Rev 22:18-19]. That’s one reason why we don’t translate from previous translations, as some uninformed skeptics like to think. Rather, we go back to the original languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic), and retranslate them into the current vernacular of English, Spanish, German, and so on. And contrary to skeptics’ claims of Bible translation being like the “telephone game”, as we find more (and earlier) manuscripts, our translations become more authentic, not less. In fact, check out Daniel Wallace’s site [4] to see their extremely high-resolution (50 megapixel) photographs of many of the world’s surviving Greek manuscripts (350,000 images and counting). You simply can’t beat that kind of transparency: you can judge the translators’ interpretation of the source material for yourself. So stop blindly accepting the allegations of skeptics about the Bible and start reading all those margin notes yourself! Study up, take Dr. Wallace’s Credo House course on textual criticism like I did, learn some Greek or Hebrew, look at ancient manuscripts – dig deep!  If you do, you’ll find the Bible to be reliable in both its transmission and its content. But then the question remains: what are you gonna do with that discovery? Our Creator, who gave us the message that is the Bible, doesn’t want to be your hobby, and He tells us as much in there. There’s something to think on next time you open up a Bible.

[1] http://www.credocourses.com/product/textual-criticism/
[2] https://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/magazine/tsunami_database/or_stormsurge.html
[3] https://www.adn.com/alaska-life/we-alaskans/2016/09/11/collapsing-alaska-mountains-southeast-alaska-landslides-and-tsunamis-on-the-rise/
[4] The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

Gratitude for a Godly Mother

“Young Mother Gazing at her Child”- William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1871

Here in the US, we just celebrated Mother’s Day, a day we set aside to honor our mothers that put up with the backaches, nausea, hormonal fluctuations, mood swings, new wardrobe requirements, and various other painful trials of pregnancy and delivery that I can’t even begin to understand, in order to bring us into this big exciting world. But if that weren’t enough, then there’s those years of caring for that precious new life, providing total care 24/7 at the beginning, then teaching us to take care of ourselves more and more, until we’re finally ready to head off on our own. They sacrifice so much, and pour such a large chunk of their lives into preparing us for our own lives as adults. A lot of times it takes many years, and the benefit of hindsight, for us to appreciate just how much they sacrificed for us. For me, Mom wasn’t just my mother, but also my school teacher, as I had the rich blessing of homeschooling from 1st through 12th grade. Having the same ornery, smart aleck student for 12 years is another testament to the supreme patience and perseverance of my mother!

Looking back, I think of the things I got from Mom. There were the genetic traits that I inherited from Mom (for better or worse). There were character traits like honesty, patience, integrity, and frugality, that I learned from her direct teaching and her consistent example. There was academic knowledge that she imparted as a teacher. There were those foundational life skills that one can’t go very far without. But there is something far greater than any of those that Mom gave me: she consistently modeled, day in and day out, what it was to be a Christian. While I credit her with jump-starting my love of reading from a very young age, the book I remember her reading the most was the Bible, hands-down. Mom sought out wise spiritual mentors and taught me to do the same. Mom was diligent in not taking me to church as a chore to check off the list each week, but rather as a loving duty [Heb 10:25], a joyous privilege [Ps 27:4], and a learning opportunity [Acts 2:42] many didn’t have. I still remember her writing encouraging letters to Christians in atheist Russia, imprisoned for their faith [Heb 13:3], and standing up for the innocent unborn, murdered by abortionists here in the US [Jer 22:3].  She backed up her beliefs with action.

Would I be a Christian today if Mom hadn’t been such an example? I would say that, in His sovereignty, God could’ve brought other people into my life to fulfill that role. But it wasn’t necessary, for Mom did “train me up in the way I should go” [Pr 22:6], and for that I am eternally grateful. The apostle Paul was right when he compared all his knowledge and accomplishments and status to mere rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ. [Phil 3:7-11] When she consistently pointed me toward Jesus, Mom directed me toward the One who surpasses all that I could ever desire in life.

When I think of my Mom, I remember the words of the apostle Paul to Timothy: “For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well.” [2 Tim 1:5] Here we see a beautiful tradition of familial discipleship in Timothy’s family. It is unfortunate that we men so often forsake our leadership role, and place all the burden of spiritual discipleship on the mother of the family, but I thank God that so many of them over the centuries rose to the challenge and discipled us children well, preparing us not just for life, but for eternal life.

Of course, we are still responsible for our own decisions; our mothers can’t drag us into heaven against our will. But here’s what we can do:

  • if you’re a Christian who grew up with a godly mother’s influence in your life, thank God for that head start you were given, and thank her if she’s still alive.
  • If you’re a Christian in spite of not having a godly mother in your life, choose to give your kids the head start you didn’t have, and be that primary godly influence in their lives. Remember that the church’s responsibility is to equip you to do God’s work, at home and abroad, but discipling your kids is the duty of you, the parent.
  • If you never had that godly influence in your life, and aren’t a Christian now, then ask yourself right now, “If Christianity were true, would I be willing to become a Christian?” If not, why not? I’ll warn you ahead of time – if you seek the truth, you’ll find Christ. And when you do, commit to being that godly mother (or father, grandparent, friend, mentor) that every kid needs.
  • And lastly, if you’re that unrepentant child that a godly mother somewhere would like to drag into heaven with them, kicking and screaming, there’s room for gratitude on your part, too. You have a mother that loves you greatly if she desires your eternal salvation, and is willing to harass you about it. That’s tough love there, my friend. Give her a hug even if you vehemently disagree with her, but be forewarned: if she’s a Christian, she knows some real truth you haven’t caught on to yet. So mull over that question about Christianity being true above, and don’t be disrespecting yo’ mama!

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there!

The Dangers of Ignoring Theology

“Young Scholar in His Study, Melancholy” – Pieter Codde, 1630

“I don’t need theology; just give me Jesus.” Ever hear someone say that, or something similar? This sounds very sincere – very spiritual even – but how do you live out a statement like that? Theology is simply the study of God. Now, if you’re a Christian, why on earth would you not want to study God? He is our Creator, our Savior, our Redeemer. Consider an example: if you’re married and you love your spouse, you always delight to learn more about your spouse, don’t you? It’s hard to pick out a gift for them or make a special dinner for them if you have no clue about their favorite colors, foods, etc. It’d be an odd marriage where you could say you knew your spouse, but knew little to nothing about them.

That distinction reminds me of taking Spanish in high school and college and learning about the 2 words for “to know” in Spanish: “saber”, and “conocer”. The first is to know facts or knowledge, while the second is to know someone in a relational sense. I think Spanish does better than English at differentiating these 2 types of knowing. Now, you can know a lot about someone (like being a celebrity’s “biggest fan”) without knowing them personally. And maybe that’s where the aversion to theology and apologetics comes in for many Christians. We do recognize that key difference in those two types of knowledge. And yet, while knowledge about God isn’t sufficient (the demons know about God, after all, but still reject Him [Jm 2:19]), some amount of knowledge about  God is still necessary if we are ever to know Him relationally.  But we need to understand that you can’t really know someone relationally without knowing something about them; otherwise, you’re loving more of a concept in your mind, one that may not really match up with the actual object of your love.

R.C. Sproul once wrote a book called “Everyone’s a Theologian“, and the title is spot-on; the only question is whether your theology is accurate or not. Learning good, accurate theology is important so that you are not deceived. I like to think that if someone tried impersonating my wife on the phone, I would recognize it wasn’t her voice. But even if I didn’t, hopefully, I know her well enough to pick up on discrepancies in an imposter’s story. Learning good theology helps us to recognize spiritual imposters [1Jn 4:1].  When someone says, “I don’t worry about all that stuff – I just want more of Jesus,” I have to ask, “Which Jesus?” The Jesus of Mormonism? The Jesus of Islam? The Jesus of Judaism? The Jesus of the skeptics? The first is a man who became a god; the 2nd is a revered prophet who was definitely NOT God and never claimed to be; the 3rd was a blasphemous, possibly demon-possessed rabbi, who stayed dead after he was justly executed by the Romans; and the 4th is simply a legend who may or may not have even existed. Only the Jesus of Christianity is the real, living, eternally-existing 2nd Person of the Trinity, “very God of very God” [1], who died as the perfect atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity, and rose again to live forever, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep {i.e. died}” [1Cor 15:20], our sure hope, our Mediator between God and man [1 Tim 2:5], our Lord and Master, our Savior – Jesus, the Christ. There’s a lot of wrong answers out there, but only one right answer. That’s why theology matters.

Studying theology is often not light work, but it is extremely rewarding work. It is like the work required in building a relationship with our fellow humans:  it requires time, diligence, and patience. But the reward is a deeper, more mature love of God, grounded in a more confident knowledge of who He is,  His nature, and His will for us. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments.” [Jn 14:15] Our love for Him is shown by our obedience to Him, and yet you can’t obey Him without a knowledge of what He asks of you.

Now, am I trying to say you need to get a degree in theology to have a  sound relationship with God? No, of course not.  But I am warning about the danger of being spiritually lazy, unwilling to invest in this unfathomable privilege of knowing our Creator, for He is not the distant god of Deism whom we can never really know, who sets our world in motion and walks away, abandoning us to our own devices. On the contrary, God has revealed Himself to us so clearly if we only take the time to learn what He has shared with us! I am warning of being content with chasing an ever-shifting emotional high instead of resting in the secure knowledge of His nature that come with meditating on His word day and night like King David [Ps 119:97,148] and being diligent, like Paul, to  present yourself approved before God, a workman unashamed and rightly handling the word of truth [2 Tim 2:15]. And I am warning about the danger of being flippant and casual with a treasure worth more than all the riches of the world, the “words of eternal life” as the apostle Peter would say [Jn 6:68]. Never in human history has so much godly teaching been available to the masses of humanity. The “pearl of great price” that a man would sell all he has to obtain [Matt 13:45-46] is available at our fingertips online or in print in a few days through places like Amazon. Much of it is available for free. The average American has access to more teaching about God than the giants of the faith like Augustine and Aquinas and  Edwards could even imagine. Due to public domain works on the internet, the average person could assemble a more impressive theological library than most seminaries of years past. If we drown in a sea of ignorance, it is only from pushing away an endless expanse of life preservers.

So let me ask you, do you know Him? Would you like to know Him better?

[1] http://creeds.net/ancient/nicene.htm

“What is Truth?”

“What is Truth? Christ and Pilate” – by Nikolai Ge, 1890

“What is Truth?” Pilate asked those words of Jesus almost 2 millennia ago. Johnny Cash had a song with that title back in 1970. Some questions never go away, I suppose. While there are actually several theories of what “truth” is, I want to focus today on the classical version that, I think, is still the best. Let’s dig in!

The classical view of truth is the correspondence theory of truth: a statement is true simply if it corresponds to reality. Aristotle expressed this well when he said that to speak truth is “to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.” This seems like simple common sense, but since our culture today seems to be struggling with the very notion of truth, let me provide an example.

In engineering, we know that when we idealize a joint, it doesn’t correspond perfectly to reality, and we accept some loss in fidelity in favor of simplification for analysis… to a point. But sometimes we have to say, “This has gone beyond simplification and is now misrepresenting the object being analyzed.” Our model doesn’t correspond to the real object anymore.

For instance, we tend to model truss joints as being “pinned” – i.e. not rigid. And for most trusses like the open web steel roof joists you might see in a retail store, that’s a relatively accurate model.

Now compare that “simple” pinned truss joint to a giant truss joint like the one pictured here. That’s a pretty beefy connection and probably more accurate to assume a high degree of stiffness in that joint. Somewhere in between those 2 extremes, our model passes a point of unacceptable noncorrespondance to real joint behavior. What about these in-between situations? Just because that point is in a gray area doesn’t mean we deny the idea of truth being what corresponds to reality. Sometimes, in critical applications, it’s warranted to invest the extra work in modeling the joint as a rotational spring to capture that behavior in between a rotating pin or a fully rigid joint. Likewise, in diaphragm design, we are allowed to assume flexible or rigid diaphragms for the obvious extremes like thin metal or wood decks versus thick concrete slabs. For those unclear areas in between, we use the more accurate method of a “semi-rigid” diaphragm using a finite element analysis to analyze our floors or roofs. Why? Because our profession recognizes that truth still exists, even in gray areas. It’s just more difficult to ascertain, and requires more thorough investigation to find it. So in real life, the existence of gray areas and difficult situations doesn’t preclude the existence of a “right”, or true, answer; rather, what we are recognizing when we classify something as a gray area is our uncertainty of the truth we are seeking in those situations.  But we stillrecognize that the truth is there, somewhere, or else we wouldn’t seek more accurate answers. And this recognition of a reality holding the right answer, outside of our own interpretations of reality, points to the premise that truth is objective and not subjective. In other words, the truth about an object is based on the object itself, not on our subjective perceptions of it.  If I’m colorblind, I might perceive an object’s color very differently from another person, but the object is absorbing and reflecting photons of light in a manner independent of either observer. Therefore, the true color of the object is based on the properties of the object itself, and I describe the object truthfully when I call it by the color it has rather than the color I think I see.

Gray areas in moral and ethical questions are often used to undermine the idea that there are objective moral truths as well as physical truths like my examples above. Yet this is a similar situation to those examples: just because we can recognize the right answer in the easy,  obvious cases doesn’t mean there isn’t a right answer for those less-obvious cases. It just means we might have to dig a little deeper, and possibly remain unsatisfied with potential answers until we find the right one.  But there’s a shortcut, of sorts. The one true God who created the physical universe with its objective physical truths also established the moral truths we seek.  In God, we have that independent “third-party” that can referee between competing truth claims from different people, cultures, times, or places. And who better than the very source of moral truth, for whom it is impossible to lie? [He 6:18, Ti 1:2] Until next time, never waver in the relentless pursuit of truth!