All posts by Jason

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

“Who Made God?”, Part 2

Richard DawkinsLast week, we looked at how famed British atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell objected to God by asking the question “Who made God?” Then we saw why this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God, and actually does nothing to invalidate the concept of God. But Russell wasn’t the only one to get stuck on that question. So, this week, I’d like to review Richard Dawkins’ similar objection. Let’s work through that today by jumping straight into the relevant quotes from Richard’s book “The God Delusion”.

“The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us escape.”[1]

“Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/herself/itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe [a plant Dawkins was using as an example] (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance…. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer?” [2]

“In any case, even though genuinely irreducible complexity would wreck Darwin’s theory if it were ever found, who is to say that it wouldn’t wreck the intelligent design theory as well? Indeed, it already has wrecked the intelligent design theory, for, as I keep saying and will say again, however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!” [3]

Dawkins’ fundamental objection here is that he believes God would have to be “complex”, and that this would require a prior cause that leads to an infinite regress, like your kids asking “Why?” after every answer you give.  Now, I see two issues here.

First, he seems to be thinking of God as some kind of cosmic machine. For instance, even a simple plastic gadget might require a very complex, carefully controlled machine to manufacture it. That machine, itself composed of gears and pistons and electronics and whatnot, had to be produced by something prior. The machine’s complexity – i.e. it’s composition of multiple interrelated parts – requires explanation by a prior cause, like another machine that produced the gears, a designer, and so forth.  But the gadget and the machine that produced it are both contingent and not self-existent. Self-existence is what ends the infinite regress that Dawkins stumbles over. Of course, a materialist might opt for a self-existent universe, but even if that were possible, it can’t ever cause anything to change. You might as well wait for your pet rock to do some tricks. That need for a free agent to initiate anything drives us toward God, but that is the one place Dawkins can never let himself be taken.

A second issue is that he confuses the complexity of the brain with the simplicity (or unity) of mind. Hardly surprising for an materialist evolutionary biologist to only see the neurons of the brain at work during design, but this is an important distinction. While mind and brain are typically paired, it is mind that is essential to design. A dead brain perfectly preserved in a jar in the lab will never design anything, even though it is still quite complex. Why is that? Because design necessarily requires 2 things: purpose and choice. These two essential characteristics of design entail 1) a mind to plan out a purpose, and 2) agency to make a choice between competing alternatives so as to achieve that purpose. Therefore, rationality and consciousness are the key attributes of a mind that make design possible. God is immaterial mind, while the brain is a contingent, physical object; it is hardware that can form, develop during our lives, atrophy, and eventually cease to function. While the brain is a complex system of interconnected neurons, all of the aforementioned stages confirm that brains are also contingent; they begin to exist and cease existing at some point. Mind, however, is not complex, but simple. Now, what does it mean to speak of the simplicity of mind (not to be confused with being simple-minded)? Namely this: that mind cannot be subdivided. A mind is simple as opposed to complex; it is a unitary whole not composed of parts. In fact, if Dawkins were to open any of several systematic theology texts [4] and read the opposing side, he would find that “simplicity”, or “unity of being”, or “noncomposition”, or “indivisibility”, has been an attribute of God recognized by Christians for nearly 2000 years. If he were to argue his case for a “complex designer” because he objected to the traditional formulation of divine simplicity, I could be more sympathetic to his objection. But I’ve yet to see any indication that he has even engaged with that issue. So for him to object to God because of his complexity is to object to a god of his own making, and not to the God of Christianity.

 


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p.136.
[2] ibid, pp. 146-7.
[3] ibid. p. 151.
[4] For example:
Geisler (2011), Systematic Theology in One Volume, Chapter 30 – “God’s Pure Actuality and Simplicity”;
Grudem (2000), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Chapter 11 – “Incommunicable Attributes of God”;
Berkhof (1938), Systematic Theology, Part 1, Ch. VI., Section D – “The Unity of God”.
Boyce (1887), Abstract of Systematic Theology, Section 2 – “The Simplicity of God”;
Hodge (1872), Systematic Theology, Vol 2;  Ch. 5, Section 4 – “Spirituality of God”;
Thomas Aquinas, 1274, Summa Theologica, Vol. 1, Question 3 – “Of the Simplicity of God (in 8 Articles)”;

“Who Made God?”, Part 1

Bertrand Russell in 1924

Have you ever heard the objection, “Oh yeah? But who made God?” The answer, of course, is that nobody made God, but this has still been a stumbling block to a lot of people, so let’s work through that today.

Let’s start by looking at this question as famed atheist Bertrand Russell posed it in 1927 in his “Why I Am Not a Christian” speech. Next week, we’ll take a look at Richard Dawkins’ recycling of the question in 2006. First, let’s hear from Russell, considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, in his own words:

“I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography,  and I there found this sentence: ‘My father taught me that the  question, “Who made me?” cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, “Who made God?” ’ That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.”[1]

To speak of God (at least, in the Christian understanding of the title) as needing a cause, is to speak irrationally. That is like asking “Who moved this unmovable object?” Or ” When did this beginningless entity begin to exist?” If the terms are correctly understood, they are understood to be contradictory and the question invalid. For part of being “God” is being eternal and possessing necessary existence (i.e. He always existed, and He has to exist for anything else to exist). If you’re thinking of any entity that could be “made”, you’re simply not thinking of God.

Consider the following scenario. A clever young man gets an idea for a truly useful gadget that everyone will want. He starts making them in his garage, but quickly outgrows that, and soon he is forming a company and building a factory. More hiring, more expanding, and soon the company has grown and has to have several layers of management at multiple factories. Now several years after that humble beginning in a garage, Billy, a new worker at the newest factory is going through employee training. He learns who will be his Line Foreman, and Shift Supervisor, and Department Manager, on up the chain of command until finally, it stops at President and Owner. Now, young Billy raises his hand, and asks, “Who’s his boss?” Nobody… he’s the owner,” comes the answer. But Billy persists, “Yeah, but who appointed him owner?” The trainer responds, “Nobody appointed him owner; he’s the original owner… he founded the company. It wouldn’t even exist without him.”

Now, was the company trainer trying to trick Billy when he said nobody needed to appoint John as president because he founded the company? No, of course not. Founding a company necessarily means you exist before the company you found. But what if the “company” is, instead, all of reality? And the founder is God? His pre-existence means there can be no other entity around to appoint Him or “make” Him, and this stops the infinite regress of the causal chain that concerned Russell.

The fact that people ask “Who made God?” is actually a testament to the self-evident nature of the law of causality; we instinctively recognize the relation of cause and effect and look for it everywhere. But this also demonstrates the common misunderstanding of it that Russell also fell prey to: people tend to think that this principle states that every effect has a cause. If that really were the case, then “Who made God?” might be a legitimate question. But here’s the problem: it’s a sloppy sentence – a shortcut that doesn’t always work. While we can be intellectually sloppy like that in our day-to-day observations, applying any statement universally requires more intellectual rigor. To correct the statement, we need to say, “everything that begins to exist has a cause.” Something without beginning would not require a cause, nor could it have a cause. Russell does acknowledge this as a possibility in the last sentence quoted above, but then assumes that the eternality of the physical world (or universe) is just as adequate an explanation as God, which is his second mistake.

Most people can be excused for thinking “everything must have a cause” because everything we observe did begin to exist at some point, so the shorter wording appears to apply universally; but a philosopher of his stature should not be caught by such careless wording. Granted, he fell for this when he was young, learning it from an author he respected, but to continue to believe that confirms something observed elsewhere about the skeptic: though portrayed as intellectual rejection of God, their reasons are very often emotional or volitional instead [2]. The tragedy here is that John Stuart Mill would come to such a bad conclusion, not seek out a better explanation, promulgate his error, and that it would be picked up by someone like Russell and passed on to succeeding generations. Folks, I don’t mind if you question Christianity, and you’re certainly not going to come up with a question that’s going to stump God; so by all means, test everything and hold on to what’s good, as Paul would say [1Thes 5:21]. But don’t forget to question your skepticism too.


[1] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”, speech delivered 3/6/1927 at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[2] J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity, (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2013), p. 132.  Also online here.

The Right Answer… for the Right Reason

Know why you picked “A”…

If you’ve read this blog much this year, you know I’m hoping to take and pass a 16-hour engineering exam later this year. Needless to say, it’s on my mind a lot as I’ve been doing a lot of studying this year. Working through some practice problems the other day, I got the answer right, but for the wrong reason, and it got me thinking. In the actual test, I might not mind if I get an answer right in spite of a mistake in my calculations, or misreading the question. But when preparing for the test, the importance of understanding the why behind the answer is critical. If I get the answer right on the test by accident, then I may still get credit (at least in the multiple-choice morning session of the exam). But if I get the answer right by accident when I’m practicing for the test, and don’t verify my reasoning against a worked-out solution, then I’ll go into the real exam with a false confidence, thinking I know how to solve a problem type that I really don’t. Besides the potential repercussions at the test, there are consequences in my daily work, since the SE exam is, after all, a test of an engineer’s competence in actual structural design. For instance, suppose I find a clever shortcut for masonry shearwall design that will save me time on the exam, but I don’t realize that it only works for the particular scenario in the practice problem, and not for all cases. If I don’t understand why it worked there, then I may not understand why it doesn’t work on the exam, or why it doesn’t the next time I’m trying to meet a deadline and have a real-life shearwall to design. It’s all fun and games until real people’s lives are depending on your work being right. But… what does any of this have to do with the Christian faith? Let’s work through that today.

Don’t be content that you know the right answer; study to understand why it’s the right answer. Did you come to Christ because your parents were Christians and that’s what you grew up with? I’m glad for the end result of salvation, but, honestly, that’s a terrible reason for believing in Jesus. That’s no different than a Hindu in India, a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, or an atheist in China. Did you become a Christian because it makes you feel good? Again, if genuinely saved and that was your entry point, I rejoice at the end result, but believing anything because of how it makes you feel is also a terrible reason to believe it. Did you become a Christian because you’d hit rock-bottom and needed rescue? If that’s what it took for God to get your attention, then I’m thankful you turned to Him before it was too late. As Spurgeon said, “Happy storm that wrecks a man on such a rock as this! O blessed hurricane that drives a man to God and God alone!”[1] However, we all need rescue, whether we’re a homeless drug addict or a billionaire with a dozen mansions, and Christianity isn’t merely a self-help program for the down and out.

What is a good reason to become a Christian? Simply this: because Christianity is true. No amount of cultural acceptance or warm fuzzy feelings or self-improvement can make up for its falsity if it’s not true. But likewise, no amount of opposition can overcome it if it is true. But supposing it’s true, why should you repent of sin and confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior [Ro 10:9-10]? Is it because you need a little “helping hand”, a crutch, a nudge in the right direction? Hardly! That is like the pilot of a plane telling the passengers, as they hurtle earthward in a steep dive, on fire, the plane breaking apart from the speed of the descent, with seconds left to live before the inevitable crater and fireball, that they are experiencing some engine difficulties, and to make sure their seat belts are fastened and that they… “breathe normally”. The situation for them and us is far more dire!

You see, we are sinners. We tend to not like the condemnation that comes with that title, but it’s true, even if you were a “good kid” who’s grown up to be a model adult. Even on your best day, you still can’t say you’re perfect; none of us can. But it gets worse: when the Bible says we have all “fallen short of the glory of God” [Ro 3:23], it’s not just talking about what we’ve actively done against God, but what we haven’t done for Him. For instance, a child can be disobedient to his parents both by doing what they told him not to do, and by not doing what they told him to do. But God is the perfectly just judge who can’t be bribed, who won’t play favorites, and who will enforce a requirement for perfection in order to pass His exam. That’s pretty bad news for all of us. Can you see why a “little help” doesn’t cut it? This is why the Bible repeatedly explains that our good works won’t save us – can’t save us [Ep 2:8-9, Ti 3:5-7, Ro 11:5-6, Ga 2:16, 2Ti 1:9]. Salvation is a one-sided deal that has to come from God if it’s going to succeed.

Is it then just “fire insurance”? A “Get Out of-Hell Free” card in this Monopoly game of life? Hardly! The situation is far better than that simplistic (and frankly, selfish) view can even recognize. You see – incredibly – God actually loves us [Jn 3:16, Ro 5:8], and desires that no one perish [Ezk 33:11, 2Pe 3:9], such that He would send His Son to pay the penalty for our sins. That God would lavish such kindness and love and mercy on me is staggering! How could I reject that? And having accepted the free gift [Ro 6:23], how then could I see His gift as something to take advantage of and move on like nothing happened? No, thankfulness and worship of God are the only legitimate responses. And in fact, He created us to glorify Him, the only one truly and self-sufficiently worthy of glory [Is 43:7, 11, 48:11]. And from that gratitude and love to Him who first loved us, we give our lives in humble service to Him as our Lord [Jn 14:15].

As Christians, we are told to share what we know with a world in dire need of the Good News we have received, but may we never share false information that steers people down the wrong path. There have been far too many cases of people rejecting Christianity in response to a mere caricature of it, and often a poor one at that! As Christians who are “ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us” [2Co 5:20], we need to take that responsibility seriously. As C.H. Spurgeon once said, “Salvation is a theme for which I would fain enlist every holy tongue. I am greedy after witnesses for the glorious gospel of the blessed God. Oh, that Christ crucified were the universal burden of men of God.”[2] May we be faithful to our calling.


[1] C.H. Spurgeon, “Morning & Evening”, Aug 31.
[2] Spurgeon, “Lectures to my Students” (Hendrickson: Peabody, MA, 2014), Vol 1, Lecture 5, p.83.

Are You Certain About That?

The Discovery, by Norman Rockwell, 1956

Certainty about something brings a sense of security, but is certainty possible in matters of belief? Skeptics often recoil at the confidence Christians have in knowing that God exists, that the Bible is His message to us, and that His way is the only acceptable way to live. The nerve of those Christians! How arrogant to express such certainty about such things! Can we be “absolutely certain” of things like the existence of God, life after death, and so forth? Or are they like childhood beliefs in Santa Claus that will be seen through inevitably? Let’s work through that today.

To an extent I will grant the skeptic their case against absolute certainty, although probably not for the reason they might hope. True “absolute” certainty is only possible with exhaustive, comprehensive knowledge.[1] However, that is called omniscience, and only God possesses it. Therefore, technically, I would say absolute certainty exists but is impossible for us mere mortals, finite as we are. However, it’s “all in who you know”, as they say, and I would offer that the Christian doesn’t need to possess that ultimate level of certainty because he knows the One who does. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, said, “I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure'” [Is 46:9-10]. I know the Writer of this grand play, so whether or not I know how the next scene will unfold, I can be certain of how it ends (spoiler alert: God wins), and I can rest easy in that knowledge. As Dr. Douglas Groothuis said, “we can live wisely within ignorance if it is bracketed by knowledge.”[2]

Now, I said I would grant the skeptics their rejection of absolute human certainty, but does this mean that I don’t think Christians can be “certain” about the One whom they have staked their life on? Hardly. Absolute certainty comes with complete knowledge, which is God’s alone, but knowledge is something we may possess to varying degrees, just as we may be loving or merciful or holy to a degree, while God possesses all these attributes perfectly. Just because we aren’t perfectly loving like God, doesn’t mean we can’t understand and demonstrate love to a great degree. Likewise, we may have a more than sufficient confidence about various things in life, even if we can never attain absolute certainty. How certain can we be of things? I would suggest that our certainty is proportional to the authority from which we receive our information. For instance, if you were looking for information on finite element analysis for structural design (an interest of mine), and your choices were between me and Edward Wilson, you would hopefully go with Wilson, one of the key figures in the development of that analysis method. You could have far greater certainty in the veracity of his statements than mine given that he really did “write the book” on that now-common method of analysis. You could have more confidence in my statements on the subject the more I referenced legitimate authorities on the subject like him, or demonstrated that my statements matched up with cold, hard reality via testing or logical necessity. The closer we get to legitimate authority on a subject, the closer we get to certainty about it. The closest I can get to absolute certainty in life is when I rely on the all-knowing Author of life itself.

Of course, if it were just a matter of knowledge of data, I could misinterpret the data, just as 2 scientists can look at the same data and interpret it quite differently depending on the assumptions they bring to the table. However, it’s not data we have come to know, but rather a personal, relational Creator who knew us better than we know ourselves before we were even born. And He has set His Holy Spirit in us [Gal 4:6] as a testimony [Rom 8:16], a seal [2Co 1:22], and a pledge [2Co 5:5, Eph 1:14]. This is why the apostle Paul could speak so forcefully when he stated, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.” [2Ti 1:12] This is why John summed up his purpose in writing his first letter thusly: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” [1Jn 5:13] This assurance for the Christian comes not from turning a blind eye to evidence the skeptic thinks contradicts our beliefs, but rather from “Christ in you, the hope of glory” [Col 1:27], and that is a hope that does not disappoint [Rom 5:5] .

Am I absolutely certain that God exists and the Bible is His true revelation of Himself to us, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Due to my finitude, I would say I can’t be absolutely certain of that. But I would also say that I’m far more certain of those things than I am of my sitting here in front of a computer typing these words. I could be in a coma right now dreaming about blogs and office deadlines and commuting and all the other thousand little things in what I consider my daily life, living out my own little version of The Matrix. But even in that extreme case, when all of the external world around me is questionable, I still have the evidence of His Spirit in me, and I still know that God necessarily exists, that His Word endures forever, and that “my Redeemer lives”! And I’ll take that degree of certainty, absolute or not,  over anything else this world has to offer. Blessings, y’all.


[1] h/t to Bruce Waltke, in his lecture series on the Book of Proverbs, featured on www.biblicaltraining.org for this insight. See his lecture, “Hermeneutica Sacra“.
[2] Douglas Groothuis, Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness – A Philosopher’s Lament (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2017), p. 49.

The Need for Self-Examination

The Apostle Paul, by Rembrandt, 1657.

Some people take a Friday off to enjoy a 3-day weekend or go somewhere interesting. I used a vacation day this past Friday to spend Friday and Saturday taking a 16-hour long “practice exam”. Am I just a glutton for punishment? Too nerdy for my own good? Extremely bored with poor taste in recreational activities? Those may be distinct possibilities, but I also have a real test like that coming up in a couple of months, and the practice exam showed me areas where I was deficient and need to focus my studies. I think there’s a spiritual lesson here for Christians and non-Christians alike, so let’s work through that today.

The apostle Paul had instructed his Thessalonian readers to “test everything; hold fast to that which is good.” [1Th 5:21] when it came to doctrine they were hearing. But when he wrote to the Corinthian church, he urged the Christians there to not just examine truth claims critically, but themselves as well. “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” [2Co 13:5] Why should they be so concerned with self-examination?

  • The stakes are high. Albert Barnes wrote in his 19th century commentary on this passage: “So important are the interests at stake, and so liable are the best to deceive themselves, that all Christians should be often induced to examine the foundation of their hope of eternal salvation.” Eternity makes for high stakes indeed. As the author of Hebrews writes, “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” [Heb 9:27]. Just like with my upcoming test, it is far better to examine yourself ahead of time and find out that you are not meeting the standard while there is still time to do something about it.
  • We won’t be the ones doing the grading on Judgment Day. On my practice exam, I did better in areas like steel and wood design that I have more experience in, and worse in masonry and concrete that I have less experience in. But passing the SE exam is not based on my subjective standard, but rather on an independent standard. I can’t appeal a failing grade by saying “but look at how well I did on steel design!” I have to make sure I’m meeting the test standard, not my own. Sadly, many assume they will be able to justify themselves before God because they met their own standard rather than His.
  • t’s not a team event. Studying together is good, and encouraging each other is good, but the choices I make in the engineering exam are on me, so I need to understand what I’m doing. My colleagues can’t help me there. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if your parents were Christians, or that you have a friend “on the other side that can vouch for you”.
  • No retakes. With my test, as much as I would rather not, I can retake it next year if I don’t pass it this year. But failing the ultimate exam, with God as your examiner, will not be something you can afford to fail; all grades are final – no retakes or appeals. You can hopefully see why Paul urged believers to examine themselves.

How do we examine ourselves? Obviously, if you don’t believe God exists and/or have never trusted Jesus Christ for your salvation, then you are not “in the faith” as Paul would say, and you will not pass that final exam on Judgment Day. But perhaps you’re not that type, and you’ve actually grown up in the church and attended your whole life. Does that count? Not for salvation. Many have gone through the motions of the Christian religion without the saving benefit of Christ. One of the more sobering passages in the Bible is where Jesus says that many will say to Him “Lord, Lord…” and His response will be “I never knew you.” [Matt 7:22-23] It seems there is more to being a Christian than simply self-identifying as one. In fact, Jesus said we could differentiate between the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and genuine followers by their actions: “you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” [Matt 7:20-21] Similarly, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” [Jn 14:15].

So is it in doing good works that we earn our salvation, like every man-made religion? Hardly, for it is “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” [Eph 2:8-9] But notice the very next verse: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” [Eph 2:10] We aren’t saved by our good works, but rather for them. Ellicott, in his commentary on this verse, describes good works as “an inseparable characteristic of the regenerate life”, which dovetails well with James’ statement about the relationship of works and faith: “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? … faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” [Jam 2:14,17] Passages like John 15:8, 1 Peter 2:12, and Matthew 5:16 all highlight that our conduct as Christ followers should cause other people to glorify God, whether here on earth or at the final judgment.

That conduct – our actions – flows from our thoughts. And the Bible informs us that “those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” [Rom 8:5], and that the Christian is to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” [Rom 12:2], for we are a “new creation” in Christ [2 Co 5:17]. In fact, without God’s Holy Spirit indwelling us, our minds are “hostile toward God” and we “cannot please God” [Rom 8:7-8]. This contrast between the inclination of our old unredeemed nature and our new nature in Christ then provides a “practice test” for examining ourselves. Do I yearn for God, and to be conformed to the image of His Son [Rom 8:29], or are the things of God a chore and a drudgery to be endured? The answer to that question is telling. Of course, desire doesn’t always translate into action. Christians may still fail, even grievously, as King David, the “man after God’s heart” [Ac 13:22] still managed to do. But, as John MacArthur says in his commentary on Romans 8, “their basic orientation and innermost concerns have to do with the things of the Spirit”[1]. He continues, “A test of saving faith is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. ‘You can be certain of your salvation,’ Paul is saying, ‘if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you'”[2]. Whether I’m celebrating when I get my results back, roughly 3 months after my exam, or gearing up to retake it next year, the fact that “I know whom I have believed” [2Ti 1:12] is something to celebrate every day from here into eternity! Blessings, y’all.


[1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1-8 (Chicago: Moody, 1991), p.417.
[2] ibid., p.420.

“This Old House”

Gasometers (coal gas storage buildings) in Vienna, Austria in 1901.

Conversions of old structures for new uses is painstaking, tedious, and frustratingly limited, but also capable of producing amazing results. In fact, the results are often more amazing because of the starting point. To take an old, decrepit building, and transform it into a vibrant masterpiece that then becomes the focal point of a rejuvenated city center is even more impressive than if the same masterpiece had been built from scratch. Its history is a priceless contribution. For instance, the buildings pictured above were some of the largest storage buildings in Europe for coal gas when they were built over 100 years ago. Now, in one of the more interesting conversions I’ve seen, they are called Gasometer City, and house an entire community of over 600 apartments, plus shops, restaurants, a movie theater, and more. That’s pretty neat, in my opinion. Bringing an abandoned dead building, good for nothing but demolition, back to life and making it beautiful again is an act of redemption, and I think we see the same thing played out in the lives of people being transformed by the skilled hand of the Master Artisan and  Architect of our faith. So let’s work through that today.

I see a lot of similarities between the renovations we do to old buildings and what God does to us. In fact, God’s not just in the renovation business; He started it. And He keeps doing it day in and day out. Don’t believe me? Think about it: God could’ve just started over when Adam & Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden; He could’ve started completely over when He wiped out most of humanity and saved Noah and his family; He could’ve just razed the whole structure of the universe and started clean at any point – but He didn’t. Instead, He redeemed a broken humanity. He set in motion a plan, and sovereignly guided it every step of the way, so that spiritually dead humans would be brought to life, becoming walking testaments to the power, wisdom, and love of God.

  •  Just like the old decrepit building slated for demolition, there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves [Eph 2:1,8-9]. We needed an Investor to come along and pay to buy us off the auction block – to redeem us – and make us new again [Mk 10:45]. Sometimes, people want to convert a historic abandoned building and make it something special again, but decide the price is too high. They can start fresh somewhere else, or maybe even demolish the antiquated building and  build a new one cheaper than what it would take to rehabilitate an old building. They give up on the old building they wanted to save because the price is just too high for them. Yet, such was His great love for us that God paid an unfathomable price: the life of His Son [1Pe 1:18-19, Rom 5:8-10].
  • God takes burned-out, rock-bottom, homeless drug addicts as well as superstars that have climbed the ladder of fame and fortune and found the “top of the world” to be empty and meaningless; He takes trusting little kids and repentant old rebels on their deathbed;  His offer of salvation is open to men and women, rich and poor, young and old, illiterate and diploma-collectors, people of all colors and nationalities – everyone [Gal 3:28, Col 3:11, Rom 3:29]. But no matter where you are in life, the “before and after” couldn’t be more dramatic: you’re a “child of wrath” beforehand [Eph 2:3-5], and a child of God [Rom 8:14-17] after He purchases you. Now that’s an “extreme makeover”!
  • Generally, it’s easier to make a new building look like an older one that’s been fixed up than it is to actually restore and improve the existing structure. It’s far more challenging when you are constrained to working with what’s already there. Yet God, in His supreme power and wisdom, accomplishes His work both in us and through us, even with all our flaws and orneriness and outright stupidity sometimes. And though He makes us a “new creation” [2Cor 5:17], this isn’t like some “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers” where He replaces us with a doppelganger. Rather, there is continuity, for I am the same person I was before. Yet there is contrast of purpose as I live for the glory of God rather than my own glory. My history doesn’t have to be my future, and yet, my history is still an integral part of the story of God’s amazing work in this world. I am reminded of going to Spokane, Washington several years ago and visiting a shopping mall that had been an old flour mill. Part of the attraction of the place was the paradoxical continuity of use yet contrast of purpose – the history of what it had been compared with what it had become. Honestly, its history made it a more interesting shopping mall than the majority of purpose-built malls I’ve visited.

In closing, I leave you with some of the last words of one who knew a thing or two about God’s renovating work of conversion and sanctification. John Newton was an English slave ship captain turned minister and abolitionist, and the author of perhaps the world’s most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”.  Here, in the twilight of his life, he summed up the profound gratitude of the Christian heart for the amazing grace that redeems dilapidated wretches:

“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be; but I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”[1]


[1] John Newton,  paraphrased from the original longer quote in the Christian Spectator, Vol. 3, 1821, p.186.
h/t to Pastor John Michael for the quote 😉

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.