All posts by Jason

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

Ideas Have Consequences

The Desperate Man (self-portrait), by Gustave Courbet, 1845

Last week, we looked at some of the visible results of living out the Christian life, and how these are typically recognized as good things, despite the protests of atheists that “religion poisons everything”.  That was on a more pragmatic level of observable results. Today, though, I’d like to dig a little deeper into some philosophical foundations and how they work themselves out in practice.

How we see ourselves has real results in our lives. Being the product of random chemical reactions and natural selection will have different implications for how we live our lives compared to our being the result of deliberate creation by a loving Father. For example:

  • It will affect how you see others. Are you merely the result of a lot of unguided, directionless biological mutations added to a mixing bowl (Earth) that is itself only the blind chance result of a cosmic accident? This has led many over the years into the throes of apathy, depression, and nihilism, but worse than the self-destructive belief in a purposeless life devoid of any “big-picture” meaning, is the idea that those you meet are actually competitors in a brutal game of “survival of the fittest.” Yet in the atheistic worldview, that is the supreme law of the land; we are simply advanced animals who survived the “struggle for existence” by hook or by crook. After all, it’s “survival of the fittest”, not “survival of the kindest” or “survival of the most ethical”. Acts of benevolence often reduce one’s own odds of survival. Or… just maybe, are all the people you meet – friends and strangers alike – actually fellow creatures with eternal destinies, made in the image of God, valuable to Him, and loved by Him? Are they, as the Bible maintains, broken and flawed – but redeemable! – people that God so loved that He sent His only Son Jesus to give Himself as the sacrifice for their salvation? Do you think that last view would lead to more love, more compassion, more service for others? Could there be any other result for someone who understands the implications?
  • It will affect how you look at the environment. If we are cosmic accidents who have risen to the top by a ruthless struggle for existence, then why should anyone be environmentalists? Caring for weak and defenseless animals, and especially endangered animals, is to operate contrary to natural selection. The weak aren’t supposed to survive under natural selection. On the other hand, if our natural world is a stewardship entrusted to humanity to rule over well, then there is good reason to use it conscientiously, without abusing it. A biblical view seems to be that the environment is worthy of care as something God created a) “good” [Ge 1:25], and b) subservient to human needs [Ge 1:26], but not something more important than humans as some environmentalists proclaim. This leads to a more balanced approach to environmental care than what I’ve seen from much of the environmental movement.
  • It will affect how you look at the actual living of life. If this life is all you have (around 80 years on average in the US, around 120 at the upper limit), and there is nothing after death, then you need to get everything you want in now, while you still can. And you probably shouldn’t let anyone get in the way of you enjoying your brief moment of life. After all, a car accident, a heart attack, or a hundred other tragedies might befall you tomorrow and end your existence like a bug getting stepped on.  So “Carpe diem” and all that. Of course, that’s some bad luck if you’re the victim of a childhood disease, or a violent robbery, or some other untimely fatal event that takes you in what should be the prime of life. After all, even if the deadly disease is later cured, or the killer caught, it doesn’t do you much good, does it? Is life simply an unfair roll of the dice, where the scoundrel lives to a ripe old age enjoying the finest delicacies, while innocent children die every day from starvation, longing for a few grains of rice? Even the cynic that says “Life sucks and then you die – get over it” should be able to see that there are many things in life outside of our control that we instinctively recoil from as being not the way it ought to be. Why is that? Where do we get this notion of “ought”? We can’t ground it a secular worldview. Now, lest anyone think I’m a Christian simply from wishful thinking, I’m not saying that sense of “how things ought to be” justifies Christianity. Rather, I’m saying that Christianity justifies that innate sense we have. The Bible explains why we feel like that. What if your existence continues on beyond the death of your physical body? The Bible tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts [Ec 3:11], so it’s no surprise then that we feel like there’s more than this physical life. What if justice will be served after all, even if not in this life? The Bible tells us that there will be a final judgment, from which there is no escaping [Heb 9:27, Rev 20:12]. What if you were made for a bigger purpose? People sometimes get all they ever wanted in life, and yet are miserable. That’s because we were made to glorify God. As Augustine so aptly put it, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” But when we’ve found our rest in God, our life here on Earth – whether short or long, easy or hard, fair or unfair – takes on an eternal perspective that changes everything.

Can the atheist live differently from how I’ve described above? Of course, but I think he has to do it in contradiction to his underlying philosophy, just as a hateful, racist Christian would be undercutting his own philosophical foundations with his thoughts and actions. Our ideas have consequences – some pretty dramatic and obvious, while others only reveal themselves fully over many years or even generations. I urge you then, to examine the philosophy you are building your life on, and look for the logical consequences of it. Is it pointing you toward your Creator or away from Him? Choose wisely.

“Against Such Things…”

Christopher Hitchens vs the Apostle Paul

The famous (and vocal) atheist Christopher Hitchens once wrote a book claiming that “religion poisons everything.” Is that true? Let’s work through that today.

For this topic, I’d like to narrow the scope in a couple of ways: 1) by looking at the Christian religion specifically, and 2) looking simply at some observable effects of it that Christians and atheists can perhaps agree on. Poison typically has the effect of harm, destruction, or death, so if Christianity is in that category of religions that “poison everything”, as Hitchens claimed, those effects should be readily apparent. On the other hand, if it instead redeems and heals what is already poisoned, that effect should be apparent as well. As Jesus said, we are known by our fruit [Mt 7:20, Jam 2:18].

Now, we need to start by clarifying what we mean by Christianity. I am referring specifically to the way of life characterized by sincere profession of trust in Jesus, the Son of God, as one’s Lord and Savior, and the subsequent life of living out the precepts and commands of Him and His disciples, as recorded in the Bible. For instance, if a person claims to be Christian, but is out cheating on their spouse [Heb 13:4], cheating on their taxes [Mt 22:17-21], stealing the tips off the tables in restaurants they visit [Dt 24:14-15, Jam 5:4], and running over little old ladies trying to cross the street and driving off laughing maniacally [Ex 20:13, Ro 13:9], hopefully we can all agree that person does not represent Christianity. “Poisonous” may be an apt description of that person, but we shouldn’t conclude that Christianity is poisonous based on that person’s behavior. Of course, none of us Christians represent Christ perfectly, but the point to remember is that the abuse of the term “Christian” does not negate the proper use of it. So what should we look at to judge the effects of Christianity? Let’s look at how the Bible says the Christian should live.

  • It shouldn’t be too controversial to say that murder is bad. But Jesus took the basic commands of the Mosaic law such as not murdering, and ratcheted them up quite a bit by saying that the real issue was the angry thoughts that might lead to murder Mt 5:21-22]. Jesus addressed the motivations behind evil actions [Mt15:19-20]. Do you think the number of murders or attempted murders would go down  if people didn’t get angry at each other in the first place? I should think so.
  • Jesus said the 2 greatest commands were to love God with our whole selves, and to love our neighbor as ourselves [Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18, Ga5:14, Jam 2:8]. He then went on to redefine “neighbor” in His story of the Good Samaritan as not simply those living next to us, or even those of our own tribe or group, but as anyone we extend love towards [Lk 10:25-37]. Would the world be a better place if everyone acted like good neighbors to everyone they met? I imagine so.
  • Jesus went a step further though, for the “good Samaritan” in His story hadn’t been directly hurt by the Jew he took care of. But Jesus tells us to love even our enemies, and to bless those who persecute us [Lk 6:27-28]. Would humanity living out that precept, even imperfectly, be poisonous, or be healing? It seems to me that it would be awfully hard to stay enemies with someone if both sides were committed to loving the other. And lest one think this was an isolated teaching, Jesus died forgiving the people crucifying Him [Lk 23:34]; the first Christian martyr, Stephen, mirrored that behavior as he forgave the people stoning him to death [Ac 7:60]; and the apostles Paul [Ro 12:14, 1Th 5:15] and Peter [1Pe 3:8-9] reiterated that precept to their readers years later.
  • How did Jesus say the world would recognize we are Christians? Was it by a certain style of clothing, or a certain diet, or maybe certain symbols like crosses and fish…. No, it was to be by our love [Jn 13:35] and our unity [Jn 17:20-23]. Could the world use a little more love and unity? It surely couldn’t hurt.
  • How did Paul say husbands are to love their wives? “As Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” [Eph 5:25]. Can anyone think for a minute that that kind of unconditional, self-sacrificial love would poison marriages today?
  • Peter tells his readers to expect to suffer for Christ, but to make sure their suffering isn’t simply the punishment due for bad behavior like stealing and murder [1Pe 4:15-16]. Paul tells the Ephesians [Eph 4:28] that the one who used to steal not only shouldn’t steal anymore, but should work hard so he has something to share with others in need! That sounds like the makings of model citizens to me.
  • Lastly, when Paul listed out the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – he finished by pointing out that “against such things there is no law” [Ga 5:22-23]. And that really highlights the oddity of Hitchens’ characterization of religion: things that are poisonous are usually prohibited or restricted, but the ideals of the Christian life are generally acknowledged as virtuous traits. Rather than being prohibited, these traits have historically been not only permitted, but promoted.

That’s just a sampling of the fruit of genuine Christianity, but that seems like good medicine rather than bad poison, if you ask me. Are there some false religions out there that are harmful? Certainly. Have some people claiming to be Christians also done great harm? Sure. But I would challenge anyone to show that a person actually living out the precepts of Christianity is poisoning society. Indeed, I would submit to you that Christ is the only antidote to an already-poisoned society. Don’t throw the cure out with the poison.

Follow the Load Path!

The altered load path responsible for 114 deaths in the 1981 Hyatt Regency walkway collapse.

On July 17, 1981, 114 people died, and over 200 more were injured, when two suspended walkways at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, Missouri collapsed. A connection between the 32 ton walkways and their hanger rods was poorly designed, and a more constructable connection was proposed and quickly approved. What went unnoticed was that the seemingly innocuous revision dramatically changed the load path, doubling the load on the upper walkway, overloading it, and causing it to crush the lower walkway, which then fell to the ground. Since then, this tragedy has been a constant reminder for engineers of the importance of “following the load path”. But we need to do the same when building our worldview. What do I mean? Let’s roll up our sleeves and work through that today.

Like the buildings we design, thought has structure. Good, clear thought builds on the solid foundations of true premises joined together by the strong connections of valid reasoning to achieve a stable structure in the form of a true conclusion that follows from the supporting premises. Bad, confused thought, on the other hand,  may be built on the shifting foundations of false premises, or have true premises inadequately connected by invalid reasoning, or have a true conclusion that doesn’t actually follow from the premises. Reasonable thought requires all the pieces to work together, while just one part being off can make for an untrustworthy belief. Let’s look a little closer at the premises, the logic, and the end goal: a true conclusion.

  • Premises are like the beams and columns that we build with. And a foundational principle in engineering that is applicable here is that all loads have to go to ground. There are no “skyhooks” that can support the structure without all the loads – wind, people, snow, whatever –  eventually being transferred to the ground. Now, the load path to ground better be through a well-designed structure and not via collapse. But one thing is certain: the loads won’t just magically sort themselves out; ignorance is not bliss in engineering! Therefore, as an engineer, I always need to “follow the load path” and make sure I’m not leaving any “loose ends”.  Just like all of my building loads must eventually get down to the ground, our worldviews also need to be firmly grounded in reality. We can’t make assertions without any support, and that support needs to be true; it needs to correspond to reality.
  • They say “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, and that was certainly proven with the hanger rods at the Hyatt Regency. But our premises also aren’t worth much without valid reasoning  connecting them together. In my own engineering niche of connection design, Bill Thornton, a leader in the field, has pointed out that most structural disasters have resulted from connection failures. The strongest beam imaginable won’t stay in place if you only provide one small bolt at each end. Our thoughts are similarly ineffective without being connected to one another correctly. However, when adequate framing is all connected together well, the pieces become locked into a stable, sound structure. Likewise, valid reasoning locks our true thoughts together into a sound argument.
  •  Just as a completed structure is greater than a pile of the same building materials laying on the ground, a completed argument is greater than the premises, for it gives us new information in the form of a true conclusion. For instance, the premise that “the universe began to exist”, and the premise that “anything that begins to exist has a cause” – by themselves – are like that pile of beams laying on the ground. It’s when we logically connect those thoughts together that we deduce the new truth that therefore “the universe must have a cause for its existence.”  Building on that new conclusion, we reason that the cause of the space-time continuum must exist apart from space and time.  A structure of knowledge begins to take shape as we continue adding new premises to build on previous conclusions, learning more and more characteristics of this spaceless, timeless, powerful, personal first cause that starts to look an awful lot like the God of the Bible.

I harp on logic a lot on this site, but for good reason. Whether you are checking out someone else’s view on a topic, or formulating your own, logic is your friend. For the Christian, God gave you a mind, and said to love Him with all of it [Mk 12:30]. Loving God for who He is requires learning about Him, and discerning truth from error. Moreover, we are told to test everything and hold fast to what is good [1Th 5:21], and to examine ourselves to see that we are in the faith [2Co 13:5]. Luke commended the Bereans for examining the Scriptures to see if Paul’s message corresponded to the truth of God’s Word [Ac 17:11]. Testing and examination require sound reasoning to judge what is true and determine what to do. The Christian is simply not allowed to put their brain in neutral. For the skeptics, you can attend “reason rallies” all you want, but reason is ultimately on God’s side. To paraphrase Augustine, all truth is God’s truth. That’s why I can have no doubts whatsoever that skeptics who follow the “load path” of their own worldview will find it resting on shifting sands, but if they continue to chase after truth, without rejecting God a priori, they will find their surety in God [Ac 17:26-27]. Blessings on you.

A Family of Enemies

The Good Samaritan – Vasily Surikov (1874)

We live in divisive times. It seems like battle lines are drawn along every form of differentiation possible. People have long fallen into “us vs. them” attitudes towards other nationalities or ethnicities, and politics and religion have often been points of conflict between different groups, and even among those who are otherwise friends. But it seems like every single issue that comes up these days is a source of friendship-breaking, hate-inspiring animosity between people. Pick almost any issue in the marketplace of ideas and you can find people ready to go to war over it. Some of the language used about the opposing side in a debate gets pretty crazy. But in this “mad, mad, mad, mad world”, the love of God and its effects on us stand out in most dramatic contrast. For God creates family out of enemies. What do I mean by that? Let work through that today.

  • Firstly, God turns former enemies into brothers and sisters. I am reminded of Corrie ten Boom telling the story of visiting a church in Munich in 1947 and meeting one of the former prison guards from the Ravenbrück concentration camp where she’d watched her sister die. After the war, he’d repented of his sin and accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. He’d received God’s forgiveness and was now standing in front of her asking for her forgiveness. This former enemy was now “a new creation” and a brother in Christ [2Cor 5:17]. Not only are we famously told to love our neighbors, but we are even to love our enemies and pray for them [Mt 5:44, Ro 12:14]. Both Jesus and Stephen, the first Christian martyr, exemplified this when they prayed for their enemies while being executed [Lk 23:34, Ac 7:60].  Christians have a good reason to reconcile with their enemies, for the Bible tells us that we are all created in the image of God, and all equally human with inalienable rights because of our Creator [Gen 1:27]. If my enemies are equally human, and their lives are valuable to the God who created both of us, then I should make it my mission to be at peace with all and only harm someone else as a last resort (i.e. self-defense, defense of an innocent against malicious attack, etc).
  • Secondly, as a Christian, I have more in common with any other Christian on the planet then I do with my closest political, economic, or cultural ally if they are non-Christian. Look at Paul’s list of people he thanked in Romans 16: men and women, high-ranking government officials and slaves, Jews and gentiles. As the old saying goes, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” That doesn’t mean that I or a fellow Christian can’t be wrong about something and correction be warranted, but we are to “speak the truth in love”. [Eph 4:15,25]
  • Thirdly, God makes His family out of His former enemies. While we are often enemies on a horizontal plane with our fellow humans, we still manage to form our little alliances and cliques. But if there is one thing humanity has been united in over the millennia, it has been our vertical opposition to God’s sovereign rule over us. We have all been enemies of God [Rom 5:10,8:7-8, Col 1:21-22], and it is only by God’s gracious initiative that we even can turn to Him [Jn 6:44, Eph 2:1-9]. Since we were once all enemies of God before He saved us, there is no basis for looking down on anyone else. Jonathan Edwards put it this way:

“If we are all naturally God’s enemies, hence we may learn what a spirit it becomes us as Christians to possess towards our enemies. Though we are enemies to God, yet we hope that God has loved us, that Christ has died for us, that God has forgiven or will forgive us; and will do us good, and bestow infinite mercies and blessings upon us, so as to make us happy for ever. All this mercy we hope has been, or will be, exercised towards us. Certainly then, it will not become us to be bitter in our spirits against those that are enemies to us, and have injured and ill treated us; and though they have yet an ill spirit towards us. Seeing we depend so much on God’s forgiving us, though enemies, we should exercise a spirit of forgiveness towards our enemies.”[1, Eph 4:32]

Enemies of God and enemies with each other, we say we seek unity and peace while dividing over the smallest things. Yet God works miracles in human hearts to reconcile us both to Him and to each other in ways impossible in our fallen, yet pathetically prideful, humanity. And one day, we will see  “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” worshiping God before His throne [Rev 7:9], people who should’ve been enemies on earth, but who have been adopted into God’s family, healed of hate, and united together forever. That’s a beautiful family reunion right there. Are you part of that family? Do you want to be?


[1] See Jonathan Edwards, “Discourse on How Men Naturally Are God’s Enemies” (1736),  for a lengthy treatment of man’s natural enmity toward God.

When Challenges Are Opportunities

Study Time!

Studying for the Structural Engineering exam is forcing me to tab and highlight and underline and make margin notes and explore and systematize my steel manual (and most of my other reference books) like I never have before. Why? Because I’m about to be challenged on my knowledge of it like I never have before. But that challenge is a good thing, because it’s forcing me to take the time to study hard and become a better engineer. I may not need to have have every bit of knowledge memorized, but I do need to know where to find what I need and how to correctly apply it when I find it. In the process, I’m learning about seldom-used tables and provisions that are outside of my normal practice. Yet, even in the areas I’m more familiar with, working through practice problems without the aid of the computer programs we engineers have, for better or worse, become reliant on, is helpful. And I think there’s a parallel here for Christians as well, so let’s work through that today.

I remember getting challenged about my Christian beliefs by a colleague several years ago. “How can you call yourself an engineer and a Christian at the same time? Aren’t those mutually exclusive?” I knew that Christianity and science weren’t incompatible in the least, but I’d never prepared for a challenge like that, and it took me by surprise. That challenge exposed a lot of “comfortable Christianity” in my life. What do I mean? I mean that it hadn’t been challenging to be a Christian for most of my life. I hadn’t had to really “count the cost” as Jesus had advised [Lk 14:27-28], like so many Christians around the world have had to do over the centuries, and still do today in around 50 restricted nations. I grew up in the church, and all of my friends were Christians (or at least claimed to be). My first job out of high school was working in an engineering office where many of the employees didn’t just go to church, but went to the same church. I pursued my engineering degree at a Christian college, and came back to that same Christian-friendly workplace every time school was out. It simply was not uncomfortable to be Christian (or at least to play the part), so there was little motivation to really know what I believed and why. It wasn’t like my life depended on it; my family wasn’t going to disown me for choosing that path; my employer wasn’t going to fire me over it; my professors in college weren’t going to fail me or ridicule me over it. It was easy to just float along in the stream of a predominately Christian culture.

But that challenge several years ago woke me up from my slumber, and helped me understand the importance of being able to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”[1Pet 3:15 NIV] So, for me, my Bible and a lot of my apologetics and theology books and commentaries look like my steel manual – highlights and underlines and margin notes everywhere. That’s how I learn, but regardless of how you process what you read, the main question is if your Bible is well-studied or just casually skimmed? Like the old Gatorade commercials asked, “Is it in you?” For a casual skimming won’t suffice when challenges come, whether that’s one’s own doubts, or sincere questioners, or cruel torturers. When the apostle Peter wrote to his readers that they should be able to give an answer – a reasoned defense – for their hope in Christ, he was writing to people for whom this wasn’t just an intellectual exercise; he reminds them in that same letter not to be surprised at the severe persecution they were experiencing.[1Pet 4:12-16] They needed to know that what they were getting tortured for was true, and be able to articulate why to those around them, maybe even to the very people persecuting them.

The subject matter in the Bible is simply too important to blow off, both for your own life, and the lives of those you may meet. This is why Paul encouraged Timothy to be diligent to show himself approved before God, rightly handling the word of truth. [2Tim 2:15] This is why King David would talk about meditating on the law of the Lord day and night [Ps 1:2, 63:6, 119:15,48,97,148]. So ask yourself, will I be prepared to answer those who ask before or after the opportunity has passed? And whether it’s a friendly question or a snarling challenge, it is always an opportunity to be an ambassador, so get started preparing. Familiarize yourself with the areas you’re weak in. If you like to hang out in the New Testament, study the Old Testament. If you’re a theology nerd, dig into some biblical history. Learn about the different genres, the historical settings, and the original recipients’ culture. Find a more mature Christian who can disciple you. Set aside time each week for uninterrupted study. And talk to the Author of the Book you’re studying: God. God gave us this amazing revelation of Himself in the form of the Bible, and He will honor the prayers of those sincerely seeking to understand His Word. There’s a thousand lifetimes worth of learning in there, so what are you waiting on? Dig in!

Reading License Plates

What a random group of letters & numbers….

Not all countries allow this, but here in America, we have the phenomenon of the “vanity plate” – the ability to pay a fee and get personalized license plates for your vehicle. Having a long commute to work each day, I get to see a lot of license plates, many of them personalized. What do personalized license plates have to do with apologetics? Let’s work through that today.

It’s always impressive how creatively people can convey a message with 7 characters. Some are quite amusing. Of course there’s sports cars with plates like “BAD BOY”, or “2FAST4U” and so on. There’s the pilot that gets the plate “LUV2FLY”, or the veterinarian that gets “PETDOC”. Others leave you scratching your head, thinking, “That must be an inside joke or something.” Some of the more creative tricks of personalized plates are the use of numbers that look like letters (i.e. 5 for S), or letters and numbers that look like other letters when viewed upside down or backwards (i.e. 3 for E, W for M, and so on). Those tactics can make it a little more challenging to figure out the significance of the plate. But then I have to ask myself when I see a personalized plate that I can’t decipher, what makes me think it means anything? I didn’t get the point of the characters they picked, but I assumed my comprehension was the issue, and not that there was no message to comprehend. Why is that? It’s because I know license plates in my state conform to a particular pattern of letters and numbers (3 numbers, a space, and 3 letters, sequentially assigned by the state), and when a particular plate doesn’t conform to that predefined pattern, that’s indicative of intent, or purpose, behind the arrangement. I don’t have to know the car owner’s intent in order to recognize that there was intent behind the characters picked, and that his personalized license plate is not the result of random assignment. Likewise, we don’t have to know God’s intent in creation to recognize the presence of purposeful choices that require an intelligent agent to make them. But while seeing a designed message in a customized license plate may seem intuitive, are we justified in applying that reasoning to things like nature? What about false positives – seeing design where there is none? Let’s look at how we eliminate chance and how we confirm design now.

An event conforming to an independent predefined pattern (like recognized words in English) is one way to eliminate randomness as a reasonable explanation for an event. Stephen Meyer, in his book, Signature in the Cell, uses the example of a gambler named Slick who keeps winning at the roulette wheel – 100 times in a row – by betting on Red 16.[1] Could his amazing winning streak simply be the result of chance? It’s possible, although to call it astronomical odds would be an understatement. But why would the casino, and any reasonable person, think this wasn’t simply chance, but either a cheating player or a mechanical malfunction? The consistently beneficial results make it less and less reasonable as the streak continues, and the pattern negates the chance hypothesis. While chance is eliminated, design isn’t confirmed yet; the pattern may match with physical necessity due to an unbalanced wheel that makes the ball always land in Red 16. Slick could just be just taking advantage of a pattern he noticed. Meyer then asks about a different case, where Slick bets on different numbers each time, but still wins 100 times in a row. The ball isn’t landing on Red 16 every time now, so physical necessity (like a defect in the roulette wheel) doesn’t seem to be the culprit. And yet we still instinctively reject that this is simply chance, and think Slick is cheating, or “designing” his winning streak. Why? Because the seemingly random pattern of results matches the independent pattern of Slick’s bets. These are “functionally significant” results that accomplish something – they advance the goal of him winning lots of money! And achieving a goal is the very heart of design. Both cases reject chance based on the events matching a pattern, but the second case reasonably infers intelligent design behind the pattern.

In that example, the predefined pattern (winning each spin of a roulette wheel) is framed positively. But the same applies as a negative association: when a result doesn’t conform to the known pattern that it should conform to, such as the “123 ABC” format of license plates in my state,  then we can know that something else is going on. Based on my knowledge that government-issued license plates conform to specific patterns of characters unless a person pays extra to make a non-random assignment, I can reasonably infer that a plate not conforming to those set patterns was intentional, at the least. The fact that someone paid extra for their non-random plate makes it unlikely that they then picked a combination of letters and numbers that had no meaning to them. Now, when I see things such as coded information in DNA, I can reasonably reject chance or physical necessity as an explanation. The arrangement of bases in a strand of DNA is highly contingent, yet arranged extremely specifically over a very long sequence to produce highly functional information. Now, if I’m justified in thinking 7 letters and numbers on a license plate have been deliberately arranged to convey a message, why would I not recognize the message conveyed by the information overload of over 3 billion bases carefully arranged like letters in words to store the massive amounts of information that make up our bodies? And where does that message point me? To the design hypothesis, which requires an intelligent agent beyond any human (or any physical entity, for that matter). It points me to God. Where do you look for the author of that message? Till next time, blessings on you.


[1] Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA & the Evidence for Intelligent Design, (NY: HarperOne, 2009), chapters 8 & 16.

A Matter of Interpretation

Finding gems in unexpected places…

Are there common rules for interpreting books that we can also apply to the Bible? I think so. In fact, I was reminded of that in a surprising way recently, so let’s work through that today.

Studying for an upcoming engineering exam has taken me deeper into some of the various standards and codes than I’ve previously needed to go in my job. Focusing on concrete in particular recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the American concrete code. Unable to find what I needed to solve a practice problem, I turned in desperation to Chapter 1. For many code books, chapter 1 is pretty general, introductory stuff unlikely to help with a particular equation, but I thought maybe there was some helpful tidbit, “misfiled” there, as it were. Well, my answer wasn’t to be found there, but I did come across section 1.5 on “Interpretation”, where, in a book dealing with concrete design, I found the following three truths that can be helping for interpreting the Bible.

  1. Distinguish between the Code and the Commentary. Our American concrete design code, referred to as ACI 318, is arranged in 2 columns on each page: a left column that is the official design provisions (i.e. “the Code”), and a right column that is any applicable background or explanation for that section of provisions (i.e. “the Commentary”). This particular section reminded the reader that the code is mandatory, while the commentary is not. While the code provisions are binding and enforceable, the commentary is simply there to help the reader understand the code. Now, I have several excellent, time-tested commentaries on the Bible from some brilliant theologians. But this distinction applies here especially. No matter how much you may appreciate a particular preacher, teacher, or commentator, no matter how helpful their words are, no matter how universally accepted they are – comments on divine revelation are not on par with divine revelation. This is especially important to remember with the plethora of “study Bibles” on the market now that combine a lot of extra-biblical material into the Bible as section introductions, margin notes, informational sidebars, passage commentaries, and so forth. Being included in the Bible directly can sometimes cast a reflection of inspiration on these generally helpful additions, but it is important to keep the sources of each in mind. 100 years from now, a view stated in a note in your study Bible may be proven false, but “the Word of our God stands forever” [Is 40:8].
  2. Interpret coherently. This section clarified that “This Code shall be interpreted in a manner that avoids conflicts between or among its provisions.” code committees aren’t perfect, but their intent is to write a coherent, noncontradictory standard. Interpret accordingly. This statement has bearing on interpreting the Bible for both the skeptic and the Christian.
    • For the skeptics, don’t interpret two Bible passages in such a way as to paint them as contradicting if there is a third interpretation that reconciles both. Just as I shouldn’t interpret the concrete code in the worst possible light, looking to fabricate contradictions where there aren’t any, the skeptic should refrain from doing so with the Bible.
    • For the Christian, this is a word of caution that we shouldn’t interpret Bible passages in isolation. You can see this in the false “prosperity gospel” so popular today, that latches on to verses about blessings, to the exclusion of all the many passages that speak of good and faithful servants of God suffering tremendously for obeying God. You simply must interpret all the passages that deal with a particular topic in a coherent manner. Ignoring ones that don’t fit your interpretation is no better than the skeptic trying to create textual problems.
    • The concrete code made another statement in that paragraph worth noting here to skeptics and Christians alike: “specific provisions shall govern over general provisions.” In other words, don’t think the code is in error because some general provision doesn’t work for your odd situation, if there is a specific provision that does address it. Similarly, sections like the Proverbs are general rules of life, not guarantees for every possible situation. It is no error in Scripture if a child, “trained up in the way he should go” [Prov 22:6], does, in fact, depart from it when he grows up.
  3. Use the “plain meaning” of words. ACI instructs the reader that their code is to be interpreted straightforwardly, per the “plain meaning” of the words, unless noted otherwise. Moreover, if a term is specifically defined in the book (and they do that in Chapter 2), then that definition applies to their use of the word regardless of how the rest of the world uses the same word. This is important, because words can have many different definitions, applicable in different contexts. This is especially true in technical documents where jargon – specialized terms for those “in the field” – is used as a shortcut to convey big ideas quickly and succinctly. However, our default assumption should be the simple “plain meaning” unless the context makes it clear that something else is meant. Moreover, this also means that we shouldn’t try interpreting the author’s intent based on our own “pet” definition. Atheists often want to define faith as “belief in spite of contrary evidence,” or some similar nonsense, and then decide that Christianity is simply unintelligible. Indeed, it probably won’t make sense if you read your own contradictory definitions into it first. But when trying to interpret something – anything really – you should always do so with the goal of understanding the author’s intent, not reading your own views into their work.

And there you have it – 3 tips on correctly interpreting the Bible… tucked away in with a bunch of guidelines for designing concrete structures! Till next time, keep “examining the Scriptures daily” like the Bereans [Ac 17:11], “accurately handling the word of truth” [2Ti 2:15], striving to interpret what you read correctly [2Pe 3:16-17], and applying it in your daily life, “being doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” [Jm 1:22]. Blessings on you.

Columbo’s Logic, Part 3

What? You don’t have these yet??

Today, we’re finishing up a look at how Greg Koukl’s “Columbo questions” in his book “Tactics” actually build on what’s called the 3 acts of the mind from classical logic. His first question, “What do you mean by that?”, sought to clarify the words being debated and results in understanding, the first act of the mind. His second question, “How did you come to that conclusion?”, sought reasons for why we should agree to a person’s statement. That is, appropriately enough, reasoning – the third act of the mind. But understanding what someone is saying and why they are saying it both have an end goal: being able to judge whether what they’ve said is actually true, and should be accepted. Getting at the truth is the objective of Greg’s insightful questions, and this requires the second act of the mind – judgment. So let’s jump in and work through that today.

“Judge not” seems to have become the two most popular words to take out of context in all of the Bible,  but judging things (and yes, people) is still necessary. In fact, it’s required for rational thought, for truth can only be discovered through judgment. Judgment is simply to decide on the truth or falsity of a statement. If I decide to drink from the jug of milk in the fridge that I forgot about a month ago, I have mistakenly judged the statement “It’s safe to drink chunky milk” to be true. That is a bad judgment, and one I’ll likely pay for. Knowingly hiring a child molester to babysit your kids would also be a case of very bad judgment. On the other hand, good judgment is valued enough that we even pay certain people to judge other people as their full-time job. We call them… judges. As an engineer, I am given a solemn responsibility to use my “professional judgment” to protect and safeguard the public for whom I’m designing something. But what constitutes good judgment and bad judgment?

Judgment is essentially the relation of two or more concepts to each other to make a statement about them that is either true or false. Judgment is propositional in nature, in that we cannot formulate judgments without forming declarative statements about what we’re judging. Just as in grammar, those statements (or propositions) have a subject about which we have something to say, and a predicate that predicates, or says something about, the subject. I’ve mentioned in parts 1 & 2 that terms and reasoning can’t be true or false, but only clear or unclear for terms, and valid or invalid for reasoning. But here, with propositions, we have a claim being made, and the possibility of it being true or false. We may not know whether the claim is true or false, but every proposition must be one or the other. “This apple is red,” “This chunky milk is OK to drink” “Hitler was a bad man,” “Jesus is God.” Each of those statements relates two concepts (like “apples” and “redness”) in such a way that we must decide if that relation is true or not. If I am holding a Granny Smith apple when I make that first statement, you would be justified in judging it a false proposition, for Granny Smiths are famously bright green rather than red. What warranted that judgment? Simply that my statement did not correspond with reality. While this may seem like common sense, this is technically known as the correspondence theory of truth, namely that truth is what corresponds to reality.  When we are presented with an assertion that we are trying to examine, judgment is needed to decide if the proposition asserted is true or not – if it corresponds with reality. A simple enough statement may be self-evident or immediately verifiable. But many topics, and especially controversial ones, will require hearing supporting statements that must also be judged as true or false.

Let’s look at an example of a modern hot topic. Abortion supporters will often say something to the effect of “my body, my choice” to say that women have a right to an abortion on demand. At that level, it’s only an assertion. But suppose a thoughtful supporter of abortion filled in the premises to that conclusion and said something like, “I have the freedom to do what I want to my own body. Abortion is a procedure done to my own body. Therefore, I am free to choose an abortion.” Although the reasoning is valid (i.e. the conclusion follows from the premises as stated), the second premise is obviously false; there are always 2 bodies involved in the procedure and the successful procedure always results in the death of one of them. If there’s any doubt that the baby is not part of the mother’s body, a simple DNA test can confirm that beyond all doubt. This one’s pretty straightforward since it’s a scientifically verifiable fact that the fetus is not part of the mother’s body. So the supporting premise is false and the original assertion can be dismissed, right? Not so fast. As Peter Kreeft points out in his logic text, “you do not refute a conclusion by showing that it follows from false premises.”[1] The thoughtful opponent could revise their premises to validly support their original conclusion, thus proving their case. So what have we accomplished in judging that premise false? We’ve shown that their case is not as airtight as they had probably assumed. It is inconclusive, and they need to go “back to the drawing board,” so to speak. Encourage them to revise it and get back with you. “Put a stone in their shoe”, as Greg likes to say.[2] Don’t be afraid of what they’ll come back with. If their conclusion really is false, then they simply will not be able to find true premises validly built up to support a false conclusion.

Most of us don’t like to admit we’re wrong about anything. And someone proving us wrong doesn’t make it an easier pill to swallow. So a lot of times, our approach needs to be to help someone see for themselves that their view doesn’t work, because they’re the only one they’ll really listen to. But I’m OK with that. Honest dialogue is like a long journey towards truth together rather than a quick and bloody duel of opinions that goes nowhere. But as ambassadors for Christ [2Cor 5:20], we have this advantage: “Regardless of a man’s system, he has to live in God’s world”[3], and a successful search for real truth, even if it meanders and hits some bumps along the way, will necessarily lead to God, for all truth is God’s truth.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 197.
[2] Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p. 38.
[3] ibid, p144. Greg is quoting Francis Schaeffer here, from Schaeffer’s book, The God Who Is There.

Columbo’s Logic, Part 2

Recommended reading for clear thinking

Last week, we looked at Greg Koukl‘s classic book Tactics, and how his first “Columbo question”, “What do you mean by that?”, is an application of what’s called the first act of the mind in philosophy. This first act, understanding, is simply recognizing that we have to understand what we’re discussing before we can even hope to be able to decide if it’s true or not. His next critical question to ask is “How did you come to that conclusion?” While the first question addresses the what, this one addresses the why. This serves a couple of purposes: First, the person you’re talking to may have good reasons for holding the position they do, that you hadn’t thought of before, and this gives them the opportunity to share those. But secondly, it places the burden of proof where it belongs – on the person making the claim. As Greg points out, “an argument is different from an assertion… An assertion simply states a point. An argument gives supporting reasons why the point should be taken seriously….”[1] Yet many people haven’t thought through why they hold a certain position. Too often, it’s easier to sit in an echo chamber and not dialogue with people of opposing views who may challenge one’s views and legitimately ask for reasons for the claims made. But this question graciously gives your conversant the benefit of the doubt that they have thought about their position and actually have good reasons for why they hold their view. If they have, now’s their opportunity to convince you. If they haven’t, it can hopefully be a wake-up call for them to examine their beliefs. With that in mind, let’s think about the act of reasoning.

This “third act of the mind”, reasoning, is what allows humans to acquire  knowledge beyond our particular experience, and to abstract from particular truths to universal and/or necessary truths. Reasoning is also where we justify our claims by providing valid arguments. As I mentioned last week, the terms we use, by themselves, can be clear or unclear, but they can’t be true or false. Neither can our arguments; they can only be valid or invalid. What is validity? Peter Kreeft, in his Socratic Logic textbook, defines it thus: “An argument is logically valid when its conclusion necessarily follows from its premises.”[2] He further explains:

“Validity is a relationship between propositions: between the premises of an argument and the conclusion of the argument…. A valid argument gives us certainty about its conclusion. It is not absolute certainty but relative certainty, that is, certainty relative to the premises… certainty that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true.”[3]

Validity is the mechanical aspect of reasoning that allows us to know two specific relations between a conclusion and its supporting premises: when a conclusion must be accepted, and when a premise must be rejected. Let me explain. Sometimes, a case is being constructed in front of us, and we can follow the steps from defining the terms, to making statements about the terms, to “connecting the dots” with valid reasoning. In this case, a valid argument built on clearly-defined, true supporting premises will have a true conclusion. There is no other possibility given those three conditions. But oftentimes, we are simply presented with an assertion. This is the scenario Greg addresses with the Columbo tactic when he asks someone to clarify their terms and give their reasons that (hopefully) transform their assertion into a conclusion. He is working backwards, deconstructing the conclusion to check its foundation. And in this scenario, a valid argument with a conclusion known to be false guarantees that at least one of the premises is false. The validity of the reasoning isolates the problem to the premises. Kreeft likens this forwards or backwards reasoning process to following a river from its unpolluted source to its unpolluted conclusion downstream, or tracing pollution downstream back to its polluted source upstream.

These two acts, understanding and reason, are two necessary steps toward the end goal of truth. But truth is only conveyed in propositions, whether that be the supporting statements or the final conclusion. To judge the truth of those statements, we need to look next week at the 2nd act of the mind… judgement. Until then, here’s a little homework: next time you’re in a discussion with someone who holds a different view, politely try asking them for the reasons they hold that view. In the absence of any opportunities like that, examine the foundations for your own views. Are they sound? As Greg says, “Intelligent belief requires reasons”[1], and that is true for Christians, atheists – everyone.


[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p. 60.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 31.
[3] ibid., p. 194-5.

Columbo’s Logic, Part 1

The always inquisitive Detective Columbo.

2014 was a very busy year of reading for me. I’d applied to attend Frank Turek’s Cross-Examined Instructor’s Academy, and there was a veritable mountain of recommended reading to get through beforehand, both from noted Christian apologists and some of the most noteworthy atheist writers. That year was when I read a point-counterpoint debate on the existence of God for the first time. I was admittedly nervous about what points the atheist would make that might rock my world. As it turned out, I had little to fear (the atheist case really isn’t as strong as they like to pretend). But one of the books from that year that I have come back to time and again was Greg Koukl‘s book “Tactics: A Gameplan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions” (read a sample here). This is a classic book of critical reasoning that looks at concepts like self-refuting arguments, the burden of proof, and other basic principles of logic, explained well and with clear examples. One of the principal methods laid out in the book is what Greg calls the “Columbo tactic. Peter Falk’s classic bumbling detective character always ends up catching the bad guy by asking “just one more question”. The answers eventually reveal inconsistencies in the murderer’s alibi and the truth always comes to light. While we may not be hunting criminals, we are hunting for truth. And so Greg encourages a) asking questions of your fellow conversant, and b) actually listening to their responses. This is pretty radical in a world where people tend to talk (or shout) past each other, but isn’t that what actual dialogue should involve? The two primary questions Greg asks are “What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?”[1] These are simple but very powerful questions because they first clarify what is being debated, and secondly seek to uncover their reasons (or lack thereof) for what they believe.  Although I recognized when I read Tactics that these were effective questions, it wasn’t until I read philosopher Peter Kreeft’s textbook on Socratic Logic in 2015 that I understood why.  Kreeft notes at the beginning of his logic text that “there is one simple, observable behavior that clearly distinguishes humans from both computers and animals: asking questions.”[2] Well, Greg doesn’t just ask any old questions, but rather two insightful questions built on the tried and true foundation of classical logic. These directly address the “three acts of the mind”: understanding, judgement, and reason. Let’s look at each one closer over the next few weeks, starting with understanding.

Understanding, traditionally called the first act of the mind, is what Kreeft says most clearly distinguishes humans from computers: “computers understand nothing; they merely store, process, relate, and regurgitate data.” [3] While judgement and reasoning deal in propositions and arguments, respectively, understanding starts with the foundational level of terms. Terms can’t be true or false by themselves, but they can be clear or unclear. There are often multiple words that might be applicable in a particular situation, and most words have multiple meanings depending on the context. Not defining terms is the most frequent cause of people talking past each other. This is typically unintentional, as each person may simply have a different concept in mind when they hear a certain term. Defining a contentious term in a discussion locks down the word used to the actual concept intended and gets both parties “on the same page”, so to speak. This is especially important with controversial topics that can have a lot of connotations beyond the basic definition. A person may also start out using a word one way and switch mid-discussion to a different meaning. Whether intentional or not, this is actually a logical fallacy called equivocation, and is often used to seemingly prove a point – until we examine the change in meaning midstream. Asking your friend “What do you mean by that?” can help highlight (for both of you) when a word is used inconsistently.

To see how definition helps both parties in a conversation to understand each other better, take, for instance, the controversial topic of abortion. Suppose Susan makes the statement “Abortion is wrong” in a conversation with Beth. If Beth takes “wrong” to mean “illegal”, then she will likely disagree with this premise; it’s not currently illegal (here in America). They might go back and forth and get nowhere because Susan defines the term “wrong” as immoral, while Beth defines it as illegal. But of course, not everything that is wrong is illegal (i.e. killing Jews in Nazi Germany was legal, and even rewarded), while not everything that is illegal is wrong (i.e. owning a Bible in North Korea can get you sentenced to a slave labor camp or executed).

Greg’s advice to ask “What do you mean by that?” early on helps avoid the embarrassing admission after the fact of “we got in a big fight and it turned out we weren’t even talking about the same thing…” On that note, this week’s post comes with some homework: 1) look for opportunities this week to try verifying what people mean (hopefully before getting in a fight!), and 2) think about the words you might be using carelessly, and how clearer terms may help better your own understanding of issues, as well as for people with whom you’re communicating.

Next week, we’ll look at Greg’s second question and how it builds on the third act of the mind, reasoning. Then we’ll circle back to the second act of the mind, judgment, to put everything together.


[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p.49,61.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 35.
[3] ibid. p.36.