A Firm Foundation

Liquefaction in 1964 Niigata Earthquake

Earlier this year, I attended an informational meeting in my area about an upcoming study of liquefaction susceptibility in my state. What’s that, you ask? Well, sandy soils, under certain conditions (mainly earthquakes), can suddenly liquefy, losing all bearing strength. This may go unnoticed when it happens in unpopulated areas, or it may be a puzzling phenomenon when a large “sand boil” suddenly appears in a farmer’s field, but it can be disastrous when it happens underneath a city full of densely populated buildings. After all, large buildings also tend to be heavy buildings, and we often have to rely on the bearing strength of the soil under the building to support it when there’s no good rock underneath. Now, the eastern part of my state has a fault zone capable of producing high-magnitude earthquakes, combined with a very thick “liquefaction-susceptible” layer, which is not a good combination. The 1964 earthquakes in Alaska and Japan are probably the most famous examples of liquefaction, and the picture above from the Niigata, Japan quake is probably the best example of the danger: no matter how well you design the building, and no matter how well you build it, if the support suddenly disappears, gravity will bring it down!

Inadequate foundations aren’t just an issue in structural design, though: people can run into the same problems in their own lives. Everything visible “above ground” can be picture perfect, but the foundation needed to survive a catastrophic event is lacking. We can have success in our jobs, be leaders in our communities or experts in our fields of study, have kids that are school valedictorians academically and all-stars athletically, and own homes that are the very picture of having “arrived”. We can achieve all our life goals and all those society thinks we should achieve – “living the dream” –  but what of our foundation? What happens when all our accomplishments are yanked out from under us like the support under those buildings in Japan? If we’re trusting in our own achievements, or our family name, or our connections to the right people, we will be in for a rude awakening. As it turns out, society can actually be quite fickle, and today’s adoring crowd can become tomorrow’s angry mob. And things like cancer and tornadoes don’t check the résumés of those they strike. Nearly anything you try to build your life on can prove to be an inadequate foundation. An accident can turn the athletic superstar into a quadriplegic and disfigure the most beautiful model; a market crash or a coup can bankrupt the wealthiest person; and the most brilliant scientist can find themselves at the mercy of a brain-ravaging disease like Alzheimer’s. What do you do when your nightmare becomes your reality? Will you topple when the solid ground under you suddenly turns to quicksand? Or does your life’s foundation extend to bedrock? Is there even any kind of “bedrock” we can build our lives on, that isn’t susceptible to failure?

Indeed, there is! And the answer is  as close as the Bible. Jesus tells us:

“Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great.” [Lk 6:47-49]

Whether it’s storms or earthquake-induced liquefaction, being locked into an unmovable foundation is key. The apostle Paul wrote that “the firm foundation of God stands” [2Tim 2:19], and that this foundation is Jesus Christ [1Cor 3:11]. The author of Hebrews wrote that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” [Heb 13:8]. In this world of shifting sand, something firm and unchanging sounds pretty good, if you ask me. They say the only constant in life is change, but, thankfully, there is one constant that does not shift or give way, and that is Jesus Christ. He is the bedrock that can keep you standing through it all. So what’s your life built on: the Rock of Ages, or the shifting sands of effort and circumstance? Choose wisely, friend.

Skipping the Easy Questions

I’ve been studying for a big engineering exam for most of 2018, and have learned a few things in the process (OK, a lot of things…). One has been the need to be familiar with the subject matter. I know, that seems more than a little obvious, but let me explain. One of the subject areas covered in the exam will be bridge design. There are plenty of areas of building design that I need to study, but bridge design is one area I have absolutely zero experience with, and never had any intention of pursuing. Don’t get me wrong; I like seeing a well-designed, aesthetically-pleasing bridge as much as anyone, but I would’ve never in my life cracked open the 1,600+ page bridge manual if it weren’t necessary for this exam. So this has been one area I’ve tended to avoid in my exam preparations. Aside from the lack of experience with that whole subject, I’ll admit that there was a bit of intimidation at the 4″ thick binder. How could I ever hope to learn enough about all the intricacies of that code to apply it correctly? But then I realized something after taking a couple of practice exams: the bridge questions I was skipping to focus on areas I was more comfortable with were actually opportunities to make up time. As I reviewed the solution keys to the practice exams, I realized that many of the bridge questions were actually relatively straightforward questions… if I knew where to look. I was only shooting myself in the foot skipping them to work out longer steel design problems that weren’t worth any more points. Now what does that have to do with Christianity? Let’s work through that today.

Too often, Christians let the objections of skeptics go unanswered because it’s unfamiliar terrain for them. And yet, I would dare say, most objections are easier to answer than people assume. It’s understandable to hear that a prominent critic of Christianity, like Sam Harris, is a neuroscientist, and be intimidated by the fact that an obviously intelligent person like him doesn’t think Christianity is true. Similarly, one might shy away from confronting a famous Oxford biologist like Richard Dawkins. Yet, if you actually look at their objections, they often are the same type of objections anyone could make; their credentials don’t really add any weight to their objections. When Dawkins, for instance, asks “Who made God?“, you don’t have to debate genetics with him to answer that. You do have to understand what Christians mean by “God” since Dawkins doesn’t. But when he leaves his specialist’s niche to discuss basic questions of metaphysics and theology, he sets aside his specialist’s credentials and proves to be just as amateur a philosopher as anyone. This is just like if an expert witness testifies in court. Suppose the leading expert in the world on forensic entomology witnesses a hit & run accident and is called to testify in court; despite his world renown as an entomologist, his credentials are meaningless when it comes to this case. He’s just another witness who may or may not have useful testimony.

So what is the Christian to do when confronted by objections to the existence of God, or the historicity of the resurrection, or other common questions?

  1. Don’t panic. These are far from shocking new objections. They’ve been answered over and over again throughout the centuries; skeptics just don’t like the cold, hard truth.
  2. Be honest. If you don’t know how to answer, admit it. Nobody likes to feel like they’re being played, so don’t just make up something untrue or questionable to try to silence the objection. Acknowledge that it’s a question you hadn’t investigated sufficiently before, offer to get back to the person, do your homework, and then actually get back to them about it.
  3. Prepare ahead of time. How? Don’t be biblically illiterate. Sadly, there are atheists who know the Bible better than many who call themselves Christians. This simply should not be. God’s Word is supposed to be our “delight” [Ps 1:2, 119:47], and yet too often it languishes on the shelf, unopened, in Christian homes. Have you ever asked a grandmother about the grandkids she delights in? Or a rabid football fan about their favorite team? Those are some “subject matter experts” that delight in their area of expertise! Can we learn God’s Word better than a sports fan learns his team’s stats? I hope so. If that’s not the case for you, here’s some questions to consider. Are you reading the Bible daily? If so, are you thinking about what you read, or just checking it off your list? When you come across a passage you don’t understand, do you follow up with prayer, reading alternate translations, checking multiple commentaries, or talking to a more mature Christian? You don’t have to memorize the Bible (although if you can, by all means, go for it!). But understanding how it’s organized, the background of each book, the key points addressed in each book, and so on, can help immensely. Learning about church history is a valuable resource as well. The creeds and catechisms written over the centuries are especially compact summaries of the Christian faith, with great thought put into every word. There are lots of good (and typically free) resources available online, but you need to find good, theologically sound sources before you’re put on the spot.

You, Christian, may be the only “subject matter expert” on Christianity that an unbeliever ever consults. There are many who mistakenly assume that a preacher has ulterior motives for speaking to them about God, and won’t step foot in church or talk to him on a plane. You may very well find that you have better opportunities to introduce people to God than many preachers do. So don’t skip the easy questions, and don’t let answerable objections hinder your friends from recognizing the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Steel Day 2018

Leslie Robertson

I’m always thinking about potential topics for future posts, but sometimes I don’t have to go looking for topics – the topics find me. Such was the case when I was watching the preview release of the AISC documentary “Leaning Out”. This was one of those rare situations where I could get continuing education credit for my engineering licensure while watching something that would be of general interest to non-engineers as well. Produced by the American Institute of Steel Construction to commemorate their 10th annual “Steel Day”, this excellent documentary combined a review of the history of the design and construction of the World Trade Center in NYC with a biography of its lead structural engineer, Leslie E. Robertson. Perhaps you’re wondering what this has to do with defending Christianity. Well… let’s work through that today.

In the documentary, Robertson shares that he enlisted in the Navy at age 16 to serve in WWII, where he saw 3 buddies killed. After the war, he became a pacifist, and campaigned against war and the proliferation of nuclear arms. But then he mentions that, after seeing his buddies killed, he could never believe in a benevolent God. That was a bit unexpected in an engineering documentary, but traumatic experiences can leave lasting impacts on us, as that experience did for him. Seeing your friends die is awful, whether in war (where it has to be at least somewhat expected given the fact that each side is actively trying to kill the other), or in the many ways lives are lost every day in the civilian world. What grieves me, though, is the lasting blinding effect on this otherwise brilliant designer, and knowing there are dire, eternal consequences for him that need not be. Spending the next 70+ years since WWII rejecting God, and facing an eternity separated from his Creator should have never resulted from the loss of his friends, thus making a tragic event much worse. But what of his reasoning, that a benevolent God would not let his friends die?

I don’t know if he’s really thought through what God “not letting his friends die” would entail. Should God alter the thoughts of enemy soldiers so they never target them? Should He miraculously alter the trajectory of incoming shells, or make bullets bounce off his friends? Not to be irreverent about the death of his friends, but saying a good God wouldn’t let your friends die, and acknowledging what that would entail, are two different things. I’m sure, like most engineers, Robertson has had a critic or two say he should’ve done things differently on a project. In fact, he did take some unwarranted criticisms after September 11th from people looking for anyone to blame for the deaths of their loved ones in the collapse of the towers. Yet he would be completely justified in saying that those people didn’t understand the extreme detail and care he poured into that design.  Could they have done any better if they were in the same situation? I think not. Yet, sadly, that is exactly what he is doing to God when he says God shouldn’t have let things happen the way they did. I have a lot of respect for him as a brilliant engineer, but he’s keeping a double standard when he defends his own designs, but doesn’t allow that God might have His own reasons as well.

Robertson’s very ability to reject God like he has is proof that the presence of evil or suffering is not an adequate reason to reject God. Free will, the ability to choose between alternative options, is a gift from God. He could’ve easily made us like robots, repeating “I love you, Lord” when programmed to do so, and singing His praises when He hit our “Play” button. But forced love isn’t really love, is it? Instead, God gave us the option to truly love Him, which also means the potential to truly reject Him. And, sadly, free will brings other consequences as well. We can freely love our fellow humans, or freely do them harm, even killing them, just as Robertson’s friends were killed. Nevertheless, the fact that He’s given us this capacity to choose between good and evil, and the all-too-observable fact that we often choose evil, does nothing to negate either God’s power, goodness, or ultimate existence. Tragedies like what Leslie Robertson witnessed don’t cause me to doubt the goodness of God, but rather the goodness of man.

Robertson’s rejection of God mirrors the old reasoning of Epicurus, which assumed God’s benevolence is in opposition to His power. For instance, “If He’s omni-benevolent, He isn’t omnipotent, because He didn’t prevent situation X from happening; or if He’s omnipotent, He isn’t omni-benevolent, because He still didn’t prevent situation X from happening.” God not acting the way we want Him to act is seen as either a sign of powerlessness to change the situation, or apathy regarding it. But this is to ignore the fact that God is a free agent. He’s not a force of nature, like gravity, which must act a certain way under certain circumstances. Just because God has the power to do something doesn’t mean He has to, or even that He should. It is entirely possible that God has other priorities than we do, and, given our very finite minds and His omniscience, it’s rather likely that His priorities are sorted out better than ours. If this has been a sticking point for you like it has for Mr. Robertson, I urge you – plead with you – to not let this issue keep you from being reconciled with your loving Creator.