All posts by Jason

I am a Christian engineer with a desire to help people understand the rational basis of Christianity.

Armchair Engineers

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

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

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

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


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

Sin in Heaven?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6md638smQd8, accessed 2017-10-02.

General vs Special Revelation

I was listening to an atheist present his case a while back, and one of his complaints was Christian apologists wanting to start from scratch, trying to prove the existence of generic theism ad nauseam, rather than the Christian Trinitarian God we supposedly believe in. Since his talk was about why he was an atheist, addressing his rejection of theism didn’t seem that unreasonable of a place to start.  But regardless of where we start, there are two fundamental questions to deal with: does God exist? and is the biblical presentation of Him true? The claims of Jesus and the Bible are foolish at best and deceitful at worst if God doesn’t even exist. But these two questions take us into aspects of how God reveals Himself to humanity. Let’s work through that today.

Revelation is simply the revealing of something, and God reveals Himself to us in two ways: general and special revelation. General revelation is also called natural revelation, or natural theology, because it is God’s disclosure about Himself and His relation to His creation, made manifest in physical nature, human nature, and history.[1]  This is the primary focus of apologetics, because we are often talking to people who reject the authority of the Bible. But, of course, God does not leave Himself without a witness, and astronomy, biology, genetics, geology, archeology, history, and philosophy are some of the disciplines that all reveal calling cards of God, consistently pointing us back to Him. Special revelation, on the other hand, is His direct revelation as recorded in the 66 books of the Bible, written by human authors inspired for His purpose, to specific people or groups of people, but also for people of all times and places.

I think of general revelation like the title sheet of a set of contract drawings for a building, while special revelation is the drawings themselves:

  • The title sheet of the drawings tells you who’s responsible for the design of the project: the various architects, engineers, and specialty consultants. Each designer is responsible for their portion, but the architect over the project will have his stamp on there. It’s not his biography, just his stamp certifying that the drawing set is ready to be used for construction. Similarly, we only get a stamp of divine authority in the wonders of nature. You have to go to the Bible for the rest of the story.
  • There will often be a scaled map of the project site showing where the building is in relation to different streets and how it will be oriented. Nowadays, there is often a nicely rendered 3D view of the project, with cars and people to show the scale of the project.  I can tell a lot about the project just from a good title sheet. Is this from a qualified design team known for good work? Is the project in Miami, Florida or Valdez, Alaska? I would expect pretty different types of buildings depending on the location. The first would need to be designed for hurricanes, while the second would need to account for massive snow loads and earthquakes. Just seeing the project location on the title sheet can tell me about some of the design issues dealt with on that project. The 3D view of the building model might tell me that this is a narrow, 50-story office tower in a one-city-block parcel in a crowded downtown environment, or that it’s a sprawling 1-story retail store with acres of parking all around. Natural revelation tells us where we’re situated and gives us an idea of the scope of this “project” we are part of. Going from the smallest cellular machines up to the grandeur of the universe, we realize our own smallness, and God’s awesome majesty to have created everything encompassed by such extremes (and God’s love that He would care about us on this “pale blue dot” of earth).
  • Most importantly, I can’t build off of that title sheet. Sure, I do know a lot about the project from it. I know where to build, roughly how big to build, some of the loads the building will have to be able to handle. But it’s pretty obvious that that isn’t enough. I don’t know any of the internal layout of the building, or how it’s braced against those various loads like hurricane winds, or the critically-important foundations that will support it. That general overview of the project isn’t enough to actually build it. For that, I need to open up the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pages of detailed drawings and other contract documents. In the same way, I can observe the world around me and learn that God exists, and even that He is a conscious being, is powerful, intelligent, immaterial, and eternal. But that’s not enough. Just like I need detailed plans to go with that general knowledge of a proposed building if I want to build anything that will last, I need the detailed message of the gospel if I want to spend eternity with my Creator.

When it comes to your eternal fate, don’t stop at the title page and try building your life on insufficient information, when the Master Designer has made available to you the detailed plans needed to build a life that will endure forever. And don’t ignore the drawings and title sheet altogether, and say there is no Designer as you try building a life on your own. Atheists are fond of saying religion is only a crutch for weak people, but really, it’s simply that making a mess of our lives is usually what it takes to force many of us to reach out to our life’s Designer and ask for help. Sad but true. As an engineer, I put my contact info on any of my structural drawings or reports so that people will reach out to m before they build something wrong and cause a disaster. Likewise, God has left His contact info. Don’t wait until your life comes crashing down before you call your life’s Designer to figure out how it was supposed to go together.


[1] “Revelation, General”, Norm Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).

 

Old Testament Law and the Design of Redemption

Moses & the 10 Commandments, by James Tissot, late 19th century.

Why don’t Christians follow all the laws of the Old Testament? Why do we think it’s OK to ignore all those prohibitions on eating shellfish and bacon, and wearing mixed fabrics, and so on? Are Christians hypocrites in doing so? I have heard that charge from skeptics before, so let’s work through that today.

I was listening to a theology class on my phone the other day, and the teacher stated that God made the old Mosaic covenant of the Law, with all of its sacrifices and rituals, as a temporary state of affairs[1]. This made me think of how we as engineers sometimes have to plan for the lifecycle of a product. We typically design the product to resist certain loads, to survive in certain environments, and to have certain functions. But sometimes, we also have to design temporary structures or products where the end of the product life is also a significant part of the design, such as designing to facilitate deconstructing it at the end of its life. Think of something like temporary structures for large concerts where quick and easy disassembly of stages are a key part of the design. While many temporary structures for things like world expos have remained in use after the event they were built for (i.e. the Eiffel Tower),  their purpose was to fill a role tied to a specific event; and when the event came and went, they either needed to be transitioned to a new purpose, or removed. This is exactly what we see in the Mosaic laws. Some, like prohibitions on murder, theft, etc, are moral laws that will remain in effect for as long as humanity endures. But other portions that were ceremonial or cultural had a planned life cycle with a replacement in mind from the beginning.

In the beginning, God created humans with basically only one rule to follow: “Don’t eat from this one tree, and I’ll count that obedience as righteousness. Break that rule, and die.” [Ge 2:16-17] They were under a “covenant of works” [2]. But they did break that one simple rule, and spiritual death, or separation from God, was the result. The necessary consequence of sin (rebellion against God, or failing to meet His perfect standard) is separation from Him, or death. But God promised an eventual solution in the “fullness of time” [Ge 3:15, Mk 1:14-15, Ga 4:4-5, Tt 1:2-4, 1Ti 2:6], and in the meantime, made merciful allowances for humans, where He would accept animal sacrifices as substitutes for the guilty person. The animal sacrifices didn’t really do anything to cleanse us of those sins against God [He 10:4], but they were a constant reminder to us that the payment for sin is death [He 10:3], that in all fairness, it should be us paying that price, and also that God in His mercy had provided (and would provide) a substitute.  He could’ve just left humans in that state of spiritual death until they died physically, at which point they would be eternally separated from God (i.e. in hell). He could’ve  started over with new free-willed creatures each time the previous ones disobeyed. Or He could’ve made creatures without free will that would never disobey…  but also never freely love. Instead, He chose to demonstrate His love and mercy in a way, and to a degree, that would not have been possible in those other scenarios; He extended grace – unmerited favor – to them and offered a way to be reconciled to Him, through the keeping of a prescribed set of laws, though the law was “only a shadow of the good things that are coming.” [He 10:1] But really, even from the beginning, it wasn’t the keeping of these laws that saved people –  it was the trust in God’s promise of a future Messiah that resulted in the keeping of the Law. For no one born in sin could keep God’s law perfectly, so the law served not to save us, but to convict us and drive us toward Him who could save [Ro 3:20]. In fact, throughout the history of God’s interaction with man, He stated that He desired hearts that obeyed Him out of love rather than mere outward ritual [De 10:12, 1Sa 15:22, Mic 6:6-8 Pr 21:3, Ho 6:6]. But bringing that about would require a transition to a new phase of the lifecycle of redemption, where internal changes could be brought about, through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit [He 8:10, Ezk 36:26-27, Ro 8:8-9].

And so, at the right time, God the Father sent God the Son to live a perfect life, fulfilling the covenant of works that Adam & Eve failed at, and then becoming the perfect sacrifice that really could cleanse our sins. If you read through the book of Hebrews, which compares Christ’s work to that of the old Law, there are two words that summarize that book: “better” and “completed”. Over and over again, the author of Hebrews makes the point that Christ’s work is better in every way than the Mosaic Law, and that Jesus completed, or finished, what was incomplete in the Law.

Lastly, there is still another phase to go. We are told of a future time when God will remake this world, and we will dwell in a “new heaven and a new earth”, and the dwelling of God will be with men [Re 21:3]. In the beginning, God walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam & Eve, until they broke fellowship with Him. Then we were told that when Jesus was born, He would be called Immanuel: “God with us” [Is 7:14, Mt 1:22-23]. And John tells us that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” [Jn 1:14]. And after Jesus’ mission was complete, the Holy Spirit would dwell in believers permanently. But then when God’s plan of redemption is completed someday, He will dwell among a redeemed and glorified people forever. And so, through a long process (from our perspective), God will redeem His people, and restore what was marred in man’s initial rebellion. Thus God’s design lifecycle for His plan of redemption will be complete. But that first phase exemplified in the Old Testament law has already been completed in Christ, and there’s no going back to that once you’ve tasted of the goodness of that second phase of God’s plan.  So no, Christians are not hypocrites for not following various ceremonial and cultural laws of the Old Testament, but rather we are simply following along with God’s phased plan of redemption.


[1] Dr. Gerry Breshears, audio lecture, as part of Biblical Training Institute’s “Academy” program.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Ch. 25: The Covenants Between God & Man”.

Before and After September 11th

By Robert on Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been 16 years, but I still remember the shock of watching September 11, 2001 unfold as those of us out west awoke to two planes hitting the World Trade Center.  For Americans of my generation, it is “a day that will live in infamy,” just as December 7, 1941 was for my grandparents’ generation. It was a day that showed the depths of depravity and evil of which humans are capable in the attacks themselves, but also the virtuous heights of compassion, kindness, courage, integrity, and resilience we are capable of in the reactions to the attacks. For some, like Richard Dawkins, this attack by Islamic terrorists changed how they thought about religion. As he put it,

“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism.”[1]
— Richard Dawkins

Not that Richard didn’t have a low view of religion before September 11th, but afterwards, he was galvanized in his opposition, even if often misdirected. Now, for the record, some religions may do poorly in the area of evidence, and some may be taken up in desperation as a crutch, but  Richard has taken up an aggressive position against the existence of God in any conception, and in so doing has really overreached far beyond what his objections can support. In the case of my belief in the Christian religion, it is actually based on evidence and is definitely not a crutch for consolation. Though God has indeed comforted me in times of grief, I believe in His existence in general, and His revelation of Himself in the Bible specifically, not because of needing a crutch, but because I think it’s true. In fact, God makes for a rather frustrating “crutch” if that’s all one’s after, for crutches don’t normally convict you when you’re misbehaving. God is true, and oftentimes inconveniently so. But is Dawkins right about religion being dangerous?

For me, as a Christian, 9/11 didn’t change my worldview in the slightest. I know that humans are made in the image of God and are capable of truly great, beautiful things, like the heroism and selfless love displayed by first responders and ordinary civilians alike on that tragic day. But we are also corrupted, sin-enslaved creatures, fallen and capable of tremendous evil, like the meticulous planning, and carrying out, of a cowardly attack against unarmed, defenseless people. As Malcolm Muggeridge succinctly put it, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” And three centuries earlier, Blaise Pascal developed that idea in his Pensées  to show that only Christianity adequately explains this paradox of man’s goodness and wretchedness.

But there is another thing Dawkins overlooks in his rush to denigrate all religion: 9/11 didn’t change the fact that there are monumental differences between Christianity (what he really objects to) and Islam (the easier target). To lump them into the same class is to ignore the significant intrinsic differences in them (as well as the recorded effects of both religions, for good or bad, over the course of their respective histories, but that is another post). Why do some Islamic people choose to kill themselves and others in suicide attacks? Is it just that the “false courage to kill themselves” has removed a barrier to killing others like Dawkins suggests? No. The purpose is not primarily to kill themselves but to kill infidels. A Muslim who kills only himself in Jihad, and fails to kill any infidels, has utterly failed. It is the idea of physical war against unbelievers embedded in Islam, and the idea that you can gain Paradise at the expense of others that promotes these attacks. Islam is ultimately a works-based religion motivated from selfishness. And the idea that killing unbelievers will not just count in your favor, but will guarantee you entrance to Paradise when you die is powerful motivation, particularly if you’ve done a lot of stupid stuff to make up for. Now compare that to Christianity, where a supposed Christian who succeeded in murdering an unbeliever is the failure, for not only has he sinned against God in committing murder [Ex 20:13], and forfeited his own life per God’s command of capital punishment [Gen 9:6], but he has condemned that unbeliever to eternal hell when God says that He desires the wicked to repent and live [Ez 18:23,32]. Rather, Jesus confirmed that all of the Old Testament law is summed up in 2 commands: Love God, and love your neighbor (or fellow human) [Lk 10:26-28]. And just to make clear to the Jews to whom He was speaking that this really included anybody under the title of neighbor, He told them the story of the Good Samaritan, where the  hero of the story is a Samaritan, an ethnic group they despised [Lk 10:29-37]. Even more bluntly, He said to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us [Lk 6:27-36].  I don’t know that you can get any sharper contrast to the idea of Jihad.

Events often divide our lives into times of “before” and “after”. Maybe you’ve had this vague concept of “religion” that you felt was just bad, and events like 9/11 only solidified that feeling. But I’d ask you now to set a new dividing line in your life, where you say, “Eternity is too important to trust my feelings to. If there’s truth to be found in religion, I’m going to look at the evidence, and find the real deal amongst all the counterfeits.” Do that, and I assure you, it will lead you straight to Jesus Christ.


[1] “Has the World Changed?” The Guardian, October 11, 2001 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/11/afghanistan.terrorism2, accessed 2017-09-12).

On Suffering, Part 2 – Alternative Views

Leprosy in India – photo by Bruno Jehle

Last week, we looked at the tough topic of suffering, and how the Christian can view it. Just as for the Christian, other worldviews can also filter how we perceive suffering, and consequently our conclusions about it. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight a few alternatives to Christianity and how they address suffering (as best as I can tell).

  • Hinduism – Hinduism is difficult to classify because it encompasses a wide variety of different and often contradictory beliefs, but they do generally seem to agree on the existence of reincarnation and karma.  While American dabblers in the Eastern religions and their derivative  of New Age spirituality tend to have an overly optimistic view of reincarnation and karma, they are actually pretty oppressive concepts focused on suffering – a lot. There is a veil of ignorance (“maya”) in this life that hides from us what the true reality is, and getting beyond that to be liberated from the cycle of suffering (called “Samsara”) is the goal. This liberation is called “moksha”, and is the end of reincarnation, when your soul (“Atman”), is reunited with “Brahman”, a kind of divine, unchanging cosmic consciousness. Since maya hides or distorts true unchanging reality from us, suffering, as well as everything material, is illusory in a way. Also, suffering may just be your lot in life, especially if you’re in a lower caste. No matter how good you are, you may have to suffer in thousands of future reincarnations to pay for mistakes in past lives. Helping those suffering is sometimes discouraged because you are potentially interfering with the karmic “justice” due them for their behavior in past lives. So “suck it up, buttercup” – you likely have many more lifetimes of suffering ahead.
  • Buddhism – When Siddhartha Gautama left Hinduism to seek enlightenment and become the Buddha, he recognized the reality of suffering (dukkha) and made it a core component of his system: “To live is to suffer”.  Suffering is not illusion, is universal, and is the result of our selfish desires (the 1st and 2nd of his “four noble truths”). But he also held onto the Hindu concepts of reincarnation and karma, and proposed that it’s up to you to escape the tragic cycle of reincarnation and karma by living ethically (i.e. following Buddha’s eightfold path).  As in Hinduism, reincarnation is not something to be looking forward to, but something to be escaped. The Buddhist escape, however, is to be “blown out”, or “quenched”, as you reach “nirvana” (which means to be blown out, like a lamp) by realizing your “non-self”. This idea that there is no persistent soul, yet there is a continuing cycle of rebirth and suffering, is a primary (and somewhat puzzling) distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism.
  • Islam – Allah is sovereign, and suffering is the result of sin on the part of humans. Consider this response on the Muslim site IslamQA: “It is a Muslim’s belief that suffering of pain, hunger, tragic accidents etc, are due to one’s sins, for Allaah wants this suffering to erase these sins which were made by this Muslim. Allaah says in Sura 42 verse 30 interpreted means:   ‘Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of the things your hands have wrought, and for many (of them) He grants forgiveness’.”[1] Whatever suffering befalls you is punishment that you deserve under Islam.
  • Christian Science” – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this most inappropriately named cult famous for their views on suffering. Really neither Christian or scientific, the cult of the “Church of Christ, Scientist”  believes that all is spiritual and the material world is only an illusion. Hence, the sickness and death and suffering readily observable in the world are problems of the mind and insufficient faith. Unfortunately, ideas have consequences, and anyone else that remembers Metallica’s “Black Album” might also remember that James Hetfield’s mother’s adherence to these ideas, and her subsequent death from untreated cancer were the impetus for him writing the song “The God That Failed”.  Sadly, many have have conflated this cult with Christianity and rejected the truth because of the counterfeit.
  • Atheism – We are essentially on our own. It’s a dog-eat-dog world of survival of the fittest. Nature is “red in tooth and claw“, as Tennyson would say. The weak will naturally suffer as they’re eventually weeded out. If you have an inordinate amount of suffering in your life, this whole universe is just a freak accident of nature, and your miserable life is just the way your dice rolled. “Life sucks and then you die.” Atheists often question why a good God would allow so much suffering, yet never stop to ask why a merciless, brutal, godless universe would allow so much goodness, beauty, and joy. Ultimately, atheism has no compelling answers regarding purpose, either bad or good, in anything.

I’ve highlighted five alternative worldviews here. There are others out there, and each, if it is to be a complete worldview has to address suffering, ether directly or indirectly. None of the views presented here can a) explain the origin and purpose of suffering like Christianity, or b) redeem suffering like Christianity. Suffering is either pointless like in atheism, or the result of something wrong with you (or a past version of you). Suffering is something to be escaped from in each system, but it’s never really redeemed and turned to good like it is in Christianity. If  you missed last week’s post on a Christian view of suffering, you can read it here. If you’re an adherent to one of these views I’ve described, and you think I’ve misrepresented your views, let’s talk about it. I don’t want to misrepresent anyone’s beliefs, but I do think each of these belief systems have intrinsic deficiencies that make Christianity the better explanation.


[1] https://islamqa.info/en/2850, Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid answering why Allah does not prevent suffering, accessed 2017-08-29.

On Suffering

“Job” by Jacob Jordaans, 1620

“Into each life some rain must fall.”  Those famous words come from the (somewhat) hopeful conclusion to the sad poem “The Rainy Day“,[1] penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow after his wife’s death.  Some lives seem to have a lot more “rain” than others. How do we explain the obvious presence of much suffering in our world? What purpose is there in it? As an engineer, I tend to think about the purposes behind things a lot because that is one of the key features of design, and one is likely to get better results if you understand something’s purpose. Using a screwdriver as a hammer may somewhat work in an emergency, but it will be more frustrating and not produce as good of results because that’s not its purpose for which it was designed. But can there be purpose to our suffering? I think so. Will we always be able to determine that purpose? Sadly, no. We are finite creatures and see things but dimly now, yet there there will come a time of clarity [1Cor 13:12] when we see things from God’s perspective and recognize His supreme wisdom. In the meantime, let’s see what we can see.

The Christian view of suffering is unique among worldviews. Suffering is real and expected, both generally because of the fallen nature of the world, and specifically for Christians because we are to be different from the rest of the world, and that often doesn’t go over well [1Pet 4:4]. In fact, most of the books of the New Testament specifically tell us as Christians to expect trials, persecution, suffering, tribulations — just a generally rough road! But the Bible also consistently tells us that we are not traveling that hard road alone, that we have a source of strength and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit who is with us through all of it. The Bible also tells us that suffering can have purpose in the following ways:

  • Suffering can have good results. As Romans 8:28-29 tell us, all things, even suffering – are ultimately for the good for those who “love God and are called according to His purpose”. What is “good”? Verse 29 tells us – it’s to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus. We tend to think of the “good” in that verse in very earthly terms, but God has a much larger plan. That may involve a lot of suffering as in the case of Joseph [Gen 50:20], Job [Job 1:13-22], or Paul (Acts 9:15-16), but remember how Paul considered all his trials nothing more than “light and momentary troubles” compared to an “eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” [2Cor 4:17]
  • Suffering can be for our moral development. [Rom 5:3-5, 1Pet 4:12-19] “Some people gotta learn the hard way” could describe all of humanity at some point or another. I used to think I did pretty well at learning from other people’s mistakes, so I didn’t have to learn the hard way, but I’ve since learned that I just hadn’t been confronted with my own pet vices at that point. I was just as difficult of a learner as anyone else when it came to letting go of the things I wanted to hold on to. Also, some virtues like courage, patience, and perseverance really can’t be developed without some kind of trial. The suffering is the process that develops the virtue, and there is no shortcut to those virtues.
  • Suffering can make us better able to comfort others. [2Cor 1:4] As much as I would like to be able to offer some meaningful words of wisdom to someone going through a particular type of problem, it just doesn’t mean as much if I haven’t gone through that problem. Even if I voice genuinely encouraging and insightful truth that is exactly what somebody in a tough time needs to hear, my words may still be seen as well-meaning but unhelpful, or as simply empty platitudes, because I don’t have first-hand experience of what they’re going through. There is a comfort in shared experience that reaches wounds in the human heart that intellectual knowledge alone can’t get to. What I say as an outsider may be very true, but if I’ve gone through that same type of situation and survived, my way of communicating that truth will likely be a lot more discerning, and will carry a lot more significance coming from a survivor.
  • Suffering can be a wake-up call. C.S. Lewis famously said that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [2] Sadly, there’s a lot of truth to that. When things are going well, we tend to feel very self-sufficient. We don’t think we need God. It’s often only when we hit rock-bottom that we finally are willing to admit that we need God.

We instinctively recoil at the idea of random or gratuitous pain and suffering. We hope for a design behind it, some reason to explain it. Hence that common question, “Why?” Only Christianity redeems suffering and points to a restorative purpose. Although we can see reasons for some suffering, there is still much that remains a mystery to us. But one thing I’ve learned (albeit imperfectly) is to trust God when I can’t see what He’s doing because of what I have seen Him do in the past. And I know that He can use whatever I’m going through to mold me into what I need to become in His plan rather than what I want to become in my plan. He can take the natural suffering resulting from storms and earthquakes, and the man-made suffering like when we reap the consequences of our own bad decisions or when we’re the innocent bystander affected by someone else’s bad decisions, and He can work that into His grand design that will simply astound us when we finally see the the completed work. In the end, even our suffering will lead us to worship God, and, as the Westminster Catechism says, that is the chief end (or purpose) of man.


[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Rainy Day, 1842 (http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=39).
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan ,1971) p.93.

The Utopia of Certainty

John Ratzenberger’s character Cliff Claven in the sit-com “Cheers” appearing on “Jeopardy”

Ever play a trivia game or watch a game show where you absolutely knew the answer? It’s like you were born to answer that question. That  felt pretty good, didn’t it? No hesitation, no second guessing, just an instant answer. Ever find yourself in one of those scenarios and get the answer wrong? Maybe you felt bewildered, wondering how you could possibly get that question wrong. Or maybe embarrassed that you got it wrong in front of all your friends. Experiences like that might lead one to a) desire complete certainty before committing to anything, or b) believe that if certainty is impossible then so is any degree of confidence. I’d like to suggest a middle way.

First off, what is certainty? The World Book Dictionary defined it as “freedom from doubt,” or “a sure fact.”[1] Wikipedia, that fount of unchanging knowledge, currently offers this definition: “perfect knowledge that has total security from error, or the mental state of being without doubt.”[2] If you notice, the definitions relating certainty to a lack of doubt are addressing our subjective views, and not the objective truth of a statement. We can have no doubts about something, but still be wrong. The definitions of “perfect knowledge that has total security from error” and  “a sure fact” relate to the objective truth of a statement. But do we actually need complete certainty in life?

In structural engineering, certainty is like Utopia – nonexistent. While we engineers are often thought to be overdesigning stuff, our paranoia comes down to certainty, or the lack thereof. Our environmental loads, like earthquakes and storms and floods are very uncertain, but even the man-made loads can be unpredictable.  Our material properties are uncertain, the quality of fabrication and construction are uncertain, the accuracy of our analytical models are uncertain — do you see a trend here? As an engineer, I have to live in a very uncertain world, and yet I still have a job to do. I have to be comfortable with a particular level of uncertainty, and finally ask myself, “Am I justified in considering this a safe structure that satisfies the project requirements?” If so, then it’s time to stop obsessing about it and move on to the next project. That obsession with being certain that I’ve covered every conceivable issue is an easy trap for me to fall into, but I’ve found that I can go over a design multiple times and still not see a particular problem. Meanwhile, a fresh set of eyes in the form of a peer review might see a particular oversight immediately. We each have different blind spots, so together we have more complete vision and achieve far more confidence in the adequacy of the design. The desire for absolute certainty leads to what we call “paralysis by analysis”; you can make every aspect of the project into an unending analysis and never actually finish the project. It’s good to try to foresee how things could go wrong, and plan to prevent that, but at some point, you have to stop looking at all the possible ways events could unfold, and look at what’s most reasonable.

I see a similar problem in talks with skeptics about the existence of God, or the reliability of the Bible. There is often a tendency to want absolute certainty rather than reasonable confidence before being willing to accept that God exists or that the Bible really is reliable. But as Pascal would say, “There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”[3] There will almost always be alternate possibilities that one can take shelter in to explain away God, because almost anything is possible. But we have to ask ourselves what’s more probable? In doing a failure investigation, I might be able to think of a  series of freak accidents, unguided by any human interaction, and happening with the worst possible timing, that explains a structural collapse — the “perfect storm”, so to speak. But if a  worker forgetting to bolt up a connection or making a bad weld also explains it, then it’s pretty clear what the more reasonable cause was.  Just like in engineering, we have to look at what’s the most reasonable explanation for something, and when it comes to this world of intelligent life residing in a finely-tuned universe, God is clearly the most reasonable explanation. Anything less is like expecting a record-setting skyscraper to appear without any engineers, architects, fabricators, erectors, or even building materials! We can also see the opposite response, of denying the possibility of any confidence in our knowledge. While there may be few things we can be absolutely certain of in this life, if you can be 99% sure of something, you’d be a fool to ignore that because of that last 1% of doubt.

Now, for the skeptic, my question is, what will you do with the evidence for God? Are you demanding a level of certainty that you would not expect of anything else in life? Both the demand for absolute certainty and the denial of any possible warrant for belief will only keep you from seeing the reasonable conclusion that’s right in front of you. Don’t hold out for Utopia when Heaven awaits.


[1] “Certainty”, World Book Dictionary, 1987 ed.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certainty, accessed 2017-08-22.
[3] Blaise Pascal,  Pascal’s Pensées (Ney York: Dutton & Co, 1858), p. 120,  Kindle ed.

Christian Continuing Education

The Book-Worm – Carl Spitzweg 1850

I just got back from a class that involved 24 hours of training over the course of 3 days. That’s a full schedule! That also included giving 2 presentations as a student, which makes for an exhausting schedule when you’re not much of a public speaker! 24 hours is  actually enough training to meet the requirements for my professional engineering licensure for a 2 year period in many of the states in which I’m licensed. But, none of this will count for any of my PE licenses. Why not? Because this concentrated training program wasn’t for my engineering profession. It was for my far more important profession as a Christian.

Allow me to highlight a few similarities I’ve noticed between the continuing education classes I’ve taken for my growth as an engineer and those taken for growth as a Christian. Some reason for taking these classes are:

  1. Pursuing continuing education instills a learning attitude. Formal training – whether seminars, webinars, correspondence classes, or traditional college classes – reminds us that learning is a lifetime process that we’ll incorporate into our daily lives. It develops a mindset of looking for learning opportunities, whether formal or informal. I could never learn everything there is to know about engineering – even my particular niche. But how much more vast are the depths of the knowledge of God! One thing that I find fascinating is that God can reveal Himself in such a way that a child can understand what he must do to be saved, yet one could devote a hundred lifetimes to studying the nature of God, and never exhaust that field of study.
  2. Continuing education expands our knowledge base. Last month I attended a 4 hour seminar on dynamic analysis of structures due to earthquakes, impact loads, and so forth. Some of those analysis methods were ones I’d heard about, but never used. One seminar doesn’t make me an expert by any stretch, but now I know what’s involved in those methods, and I have resources I can look back to if the need arises later to use those new methods. I’m more prepared for those possibilities now. Likewise, pursuing more training in things like theology, philosophy, science, and apologetics prepares us as Christians. It helps me to recognize the firm foundation I have in Christ, and be able to weather trials of life, “knowing whom I have believed in.” [2Tim 1:12] It also prepares me to answer questions and objections related to the truth of Christianity. It helps me to  “be ready in season and out” [2Tim 4:2] “to give an answer for the hope that I have” [1Pet3:15], that I may “know how to answer everyone.” [Col 4:6]
  3. Continuing education helps us stay current on new information/applications. While the basic forces of tension and compression and shear don’t change, our understanding of them and our ability to analyze them does.  In similar fashion, I was presenting last week on the ontological argument for the existence of God. I was using Alvin Plantinga’s reformulation of Anselm’s 900 year old line of reasoning. While God’s truth doesn’t change, our understanding of it with our finite minds can improve as we wrestle through certain tough applications or newly raised objections. Many times skeptics will mock one version of an argument, not realizing (or ignoring) that their objection has already been addressed by an improved version of that argument.

The resulting benefits of this commitment to ongoing training make us:

  1. Better informed. Just as shared technical knowledge makes for a more well-informed engineer, shared knowledge of doctrine and apologetics makes for a more well-informed Christian.
  2. Less prone to error. One common format for engineering ethics classes is the case study of past mistakes. The idea is to look at where an engineer went wrong, the results of that error, and how to avoid making the same error yourself. As Christians, we can also benefit from looking at past errors (like the heresy of modalism, for instance), understanding where the proponent (Sabellius in that case) went wrong, and examining our own views to verify we are not making similar errors. A good class in church history or systematic theology can go a long way toward countering unbiblical doctrine that sometimes creeps in. Apologetics, of course, also helps in that it focuses on why we believe what we believe.
  3. More involved. A commitment to learning and growing helps protect against apathy and laziness. When you’re constantly learning and seeking out new opportunities, it’s hard to not be involved. Remember how Paul told Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” [2Tim 2:2] That’s learning and then not just sitting on that knowledge, but passing it on to others who will pass it on. That’s getting involved instead of being content to hibernate your way through this Christian journey.

Now, after all that, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there is a danger in “always learning and never doing.” One could draw a parallel to James’ description of that dead faith that has no signs of life made evident in good works: knowledge that never gets applied is equally dead. But, if we comprehend what we’re learning about God’s nature and His plan of redemption and of the Gospel, we will be motivated to apply what we’re learning every chance we get, for the “harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” [Matt 9:37] So, if you’re a Christian, where are you investing your time? Are you “growing in the knowledge of God” [Col 1:10] as Paul prayed the Colossians might be? Or are you stagnant? My prayer – for myself, and every reader – is that we never stop learning of that unfathomable knowledge of God, and applying that in our lives for the glory of God.