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 –

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). Kindle Edition.

Our Responsibility

Author’s personal photo.

I’m reading Dan Barker’s book “godless”, about his deconversion from a Christian preacher to a prominent atheist. It’s a rather heartbreaking tale of one person who should know better (but apparently didn’t) walking away from God for some bad reasons, and then proceeding to influence a lot of other impressionable people to do the same. If that isn’t a true tragedy, I don’t know what is. But what is worse is seeing how his friends and family couldn’t answer his questions/objections when he first “came out” as an atheist.  That deafening silence only strengthened his impression that Christianity had no answers. Sadly, Barker grew up in an environment that was  theologically, philosophically, and scientifically shallow, and mistakenly thought that represented Christianity, and no one he knew was able to correct those errant ideas. These were the people who had influence in his life and whose responses might’ve been meaningful early on before he hardened himself against any correction.

That brings up an important point. It’s not the job of your pastor or some famous evangelist/apologist/speaker/writer/blogger/etc to answer your friends’ or family members’ questions and objections. It’s yours. It’s mine. It’s every Christian’s responsibility – and a sacred one – to be able to answer those who ask us for the reason for the hope that we have [1Pe 3:15 NIV].  My pastor, according to the apostle Paul, isn’t expected to do it all, but rather is to equip me for works of ministry or service [Eph 4:11-15]. There are a lot of places I go to as an engineer that my pastor will never go to, and the same is true for every Christian. We all serve on a mission field whether we recognize that fact or not.

Maybe that thought makes you nervous.  Good! Becoming aware that you’re not as prepared as you should be is the first step. So what’s the next step after recognizing the responsibility we have? Recognizing the gift we’ve been given. Even though we may often get nervous about what kind of unexpected questions someone may ask us, as Christians, we sit on the richest resources one could ever hope for. In my office, I have a whole bookcase of books on structural steel design, connection design, finite element analysis, seismic design, and on and on. I have an overclocked powerhouse of a computer sitting on my desk, loaded with advanced and rather expensive analysis and design software from multiple companies dedicated to engineering computing, with thousands of pages of user manuals on how to use this advanced software. And I have knowledgeable colleagues in my office, and attend a ridiculous number of continuing education seminars and webinars every year on a variety of engineering issues. Plus, I have access to various restricted online resources for engineers as a member of several technical organizations, besides the plethora of (somewhat reliable) design information freely available on the internet. Being a Christian, in America, and not being able to answer basic objections, is like an engineer sitting on the wealth of resources I just described and saying, “The client wants to know whether this beam will support this additional load, and I just can’t figure out how to analyze it. Oh well, guess I’ll just let that work itself out.” As an engineer obligated to protect the public health and safety first and foremost, that’s really not an option. Whether I can answer immediately because I’m familiar with the issue, or whether I have to spend the next week researching and talking to other engineers, I have to be able to answer one way or another. If I don’t know, the correct answer is not saying “I don’t know” and forgetting about it; the correct answer is saying “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out.”

As an engineer, people’s lives are on the line with my designs. And yet, if I’m in a building that collapses because another engineer made a mistake, I may die physically in the collapse, but I will simply be “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” [2Cor 5:8] On the other hand, when I choose to not answer someone’s questions about our eternal fate, I’m helping that person toward a fate worse than mere physical death. Of course, people like Dan Barker make their own choices and are responsible for them, but I surely don’t care to be an accomplice. So I desperately want to be prepared to explain both what I believe, and why I believe it. Opportunities to speak truth into someone’s life when they are willing to listen are often moving targets we don’t get a second shot at, so I’d rather be over-prepared than under-prepared. That said, I’ll leave you with something to chew on, regarding just what’s at stake, from performer (and atheist) Penn Jillette:

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward — and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me alone and keep your religion to yourself — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”[1]

[1] “Penn Says: A Gift of a Bible”,, accessed 2017-10-02.