All posts by Jason

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

Logic

Spock_at_consoleIn the coming weeks, I want to look at some different arguments for the existence of God. But first, how can you know my reasons for believing God exists are legitimate? Maybe you don’t believe God exists, or maybe you simply don’t know. Likewise, how do I know if your reasons are legitimate? How do we discuss our opposing reasons (for this or anything else imaginable) on a level playing field? With that goal in mind, today let’s start out with a refresher (or introduction) to basic logic. Like a lot of foundational material, it may seem a little dry, but it really is the necessary foundation for any type of critical thinking. Underlined words are key terms in logic.

Let’s start with some clarification. An argument in logic is not a fight or quarrel, but rather a rational though process using a series of statements (or propositions) called premises and conclusions. As such, there are some rules for making sure the conclusions you draw are legitimate. Just like in sports, these rules help ensure that the winner really did win fairly.

Propositions are simply statements that may be either the premises or the conclusion of an argument. While you may be trying to determine a reasonable answer to a question with an argument, you can’t have a question or a command for a premise, so these are always declarative sentences. Not to bring up bad memories of diagramming sentences in grade school grammar, but these statements need a subject and a predicate. The subject is just what you’re talking about, while the predicate is what you’re saying about it. The premises are  propositions that each propose a basis for the conclusion. They give your evidence. Premises can be either true or false.  “The city of Houston, Texas is located in the country of Australia.” is a false premise, while “Mars orbits around the sun.” would be a true premise. These premises use terms that can either be clear or unclear. A term is clear if it can be understood in only one sense. For instance, a person can use the word “hot” to describe: temperature (“It’s hot outside”), attractiveness (“She’s hot!”), or questionable legality (“He wrote a hot check”).  In this case, “hot” has equivocal meanings and wouldn’t be a good term to use in a premise unless we either defined it first, or the meaning was clear from the context. Some terms are not so obviously different  in their meanings, and many a misunderstanding has happened because of this issue of equivocation (using the same term in different ways).

The conclusion either necessarily follows from the premises and the argument is valid, or it doesn’t follow and is invalid. “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” is a classic example of a valid syllogism. A syllogism is your most basic argument: 2 premises and 1 conclusion showing a clear relationship between 3 terms. If it is true that all men are mortal, and Socrates is indeed a man, then Socrates simply must be mortal. This is an example of deductive reasoning, which generally moves from a universal principle to a specific application. Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, typically moves from specific observations to a more general conclusion. Valid deduction provides certainty in its conclusion, while induction only provides a degree of probability. Just because you’ve observed many similar cases doesn’t mean all cases will be similar (the exception would if you’ve actually observed all cases). Science typically uses inductive reasoning based on specific observations, hence the tendency of scientists and engineers to always qualify what they say with disclaimers.

Understanding the principles of logic is advantageous regardless of your educational background, your culture, or your beliefs because it provides a framework for knowing that what you believe is true. If your terms are clear, your premises are true, and your deductive argument valid, then your position is necessarily true and there can be no argument against it. Likewise, if your opponent’s argument doesn’t have ambiguous terms, a false premise, or a logical fallacy, then, to be honest, you must admit he’s right. The same goes for me. And so we now have a level playing field, with the same rules applicable to and acknowledged by, both sides. Maybe you’ve listened to a talk show where two opposing guests simply stated their own views over and over again and ignored the other side. Or they simply talked past each other louder and louder? Did you walk away feeling like it was just pointless discussing some issues? There is hope, and this is where logic shines. I encourage you to not simply stop at this short  glossary of logic, but to dig deeper, learn it, and apply it in your own life.


Resources:

Socratic Logic, Edition 3.1, by Peter Kreeft, (St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), which served as a reference for much of this. This is an actual logic textbook.

Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, by D.Q. McInerny, (Random House, 2005), is also an excellent and very concise introduction to logic, and well-suited for a first exposure to logical principles.

Walking Away?

Out the doorA friend loaned me a book by Dan Barker, co-leader of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. My friend said this book was instrumental in his rejecting Christianity and becoming an atheist. Mr. Barker had been a preacher and Christian musician at one time before he “deconverted”. Does Dan Barker have the “inside scoop” to warrant walking away from Christ? Let’s look at that.

Frank Turek[1] and J. Warner Wallace[2] have rightly pointed out that the martyrdom of modern day believers doesn’t count as evidence for the truth of Christianity because anyone can sincerely hold wrong beliefs, even unto death (i.e. Muslim suicide bombers). But, they add, it doesn’t make sense for the early disciples of Christ to suffer prolonged, intense persecution and grueling deaths for something they knew to be a lie. While we were not eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, they were eyewitnesses to the events they being killed for speaking about. Like modern cases of martyrdom, do modern testimonies of life-changing experiences similarly lack evidential weight and speak more of trust than truth? Yet, providing one’s personal testimony has been a part of Christian missionary endeavors from the very beginning[3], and personal experience often resonates with an audience more than technical statements of belief.  Then should  “deconversion” testimonies from Christianity to atheism be given equal weight to conversion testimonies? Is it simply a matter of people changing their mind from one set of beliefs to another? I don’t think so, and here’s why. No offense to Mr. Barker, but the “Christian” deconverting may have been living a lie, not truly a Christian. Maybe this sounds like an excuse to you, but Jesus Himself said there would be many that would say on Judgement Day that they had done all sorts of wonderful things for Him, and yet He will still reply, “I never knew you; depart from Me.”[4] Sobering words for all of us who call ourselves Christians. Likewise, the apostle John speaks of men like Mr. Barker when he says that “their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”[5]

But what of the atheist who becomes a Christian and is then persecuted for it, like many were in Communist countries? Men like Haralan Popov and Richard Wurmbrand come to mind, among many others who didn’t live to tell their tales. This may not be of the same weight as the original apostles’ transformation, but it is surely difficult to explain unless there was a genuine transformation in the former atheist. A change of mind seems inadequate to explain a person enduring 13-14 years of torture, like the cases above, when a simple change back to what they originally believed would not only stop the torture, but set them free from prison, and result in rewards upon release. This is the same boat the apostle Paul found himself in centuries earlier, as he wrote to the Corinthians, listing out all the punishments he had endured for his belief in Jesus, a belief he had originally persecuted others for zealously.[6]  What could cause this kind of change? We’ve all been fooled at least once in our lives, but why this refusal to change back? Simple stubbornness? Shame? Pride? How meaningful are those emotions when faced with imminent (and cruel) death? We are sometimes overly concerned with punishments being “cruel and unusual” in our Western culture, but that wasn’t an issue in Paul’s day, nor in modern Communist countries. They weren’t worried about whether a lethal injection would sting. After all, the Roman punishment of crucifixion is where we get the word “excruciating”. If simply changing your mind – not to something you’ve always rejected, but back to what you had previously wholeheartedly accepted – would spare you an agonizing death, why proceed? There is something inherently, intrinsically different about a genuine Christian that will not let him “deconvert”. Paul writes to the Colossians of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”[7].  Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would dwell in them.[8] Becoming a Christian is not simply a change in what you think, though that is certainly part of it. It is actually an indwelling of the Spirit of God, our Creator, with His creation in a personal relationship. If Christianity were just another religion of rules to try to bribe your way into eternal reward, I wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving. But if Christianity is true – if we are “the temple of the living God”[9] as Paul described – then that is a total game-changer, and there is no going back from that.

In the end, the person deconverting from Christianity and the person converting to Christianity are both leaving a lie, but only one is gaining the truth. The person leaving a Christian masquerade for atheism is only exchanging one lie for another, while the person entering into a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ is gaining the ultimate truth from the source of all truth.


[1] Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2004), p. 294.
[2] J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity, (David C Cook, Colorado Springs, 2013), p. 115-116.
[3] Acts 4:19-20, Acts 22:1-21, Acts 26:4-29, NASB.
[4] Matthew 7:22-23, NASB.
[5] 1 John 2:19, NIV.
[6] 2 Corinthians: 11:22-33, NASB.
[7] Colossians 1:27, NASB.
[8] John 14:16-20, NASB.
[9] 2 Corinthians 6:16, NASB.

“Hard Evidence”

Lab Experiment“I don’t think there’s anything he could say that would convince me – I need hard evidence,” said an atheist friend when I invited him to come with me to  a presentation on the reliability of the Bible. That got me thinking about evidence and our desire for more of it. After all, “seeing is believing,” right?

This November marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein publishing his theory of general relativity. Only 10 years earlier, in 1905, Einstein had published not one, but four, paradigm-shifting papers, including his special theory of relativity and his proposal of mass-energy equivalence, from which we get the famous equation E=mc². Since then, his theories have been repeatedly confirmed. Special and general relativity did not simply provide a competing theory compared to classical Newtonian physics; they encompassed Newtonian physics. In relatively weak gravitational fields, special relativity reduced to Newtonian formulas at speeds much slower than the speed of light (our typical earthbound experience). General relativity expanded on that to provide an explanatory framework that could account for objects travelling at all speeds and through any gravitational field. It explained what Newtonian physics could and couldn’t explain. That’s powerful.

How did Einstein develop this powerful theory? Can you tour the lab where he huddled over a workbench full of special scientific equipment, or see the telescope he tirelessly spent long nights peering through, looking for evidence of gravitational lensing, or examine his lab journals of dutifully recorded experimental results? Not really. Einstein worked as a simple patent clerk in his “miracle year” of 1905, and was still doing “thought experiments” when he developed general relativity. He was short on evidence, but long on problems to think through. He proposed 3 scenarios unexplained by Newtonian physics that relativity would need to correctly explain for it to be true: 1) the slight changes in Mercury’s orbit around the sun already observed by others, 2) the deflection of light by the sun that Newtonian physics predicted, but not accurately, and 3) the color change (redshift) of light passing through a gravitational field that was completely unverifiable at that time.[1] While he could compare his theory’s predictions to  Mercury’s orbital changes measured by others, he had no way to confirm the other 2 tests. In fact, the evidence to support his theory only trickled in over many years, the most conclusive confirmations  of it after his death in 1955. Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed the deflection of light by the sun’s gravity in 1919 when he measured the slight curvature of starlight bending in the gravitational field of the sun during a solar eclipse. But it was decades before sufficiently precise measurements could confirm gravity’s miniscule color-shifting effect on light here on earth. In the years since, though, several other effects have verified Einstein’s unproven theory.

In fact, Einstein’s general theory of relativity touches most of our everyday lives  in one very real, but surprising way. Our cars, planes, cellphones, and even wristwatches now have the ability to tell us where we are because a of wonderful cold-war invention called GPS. But engineers designing the GPS satellites originally didn’t think they would need to account for gravitational redshift in the signal timing. This change in color of visible light is actually an effect of time dilation; time actually runs faster in a weaker gravitational field. And so the clock on a GPS satellite will run 38 microseconds faster, per day, than the same clock on earth, which is enough to produce invalid location results. This would also handicap our cell phones that use this precise timing to handle transferring calls to new cell towers seamlessly.

So did the lack of hard evidence in any way detract from the truthfulness of his theory? No, that’s because we don’t create truth, we only discover it. If something is true, it’s true whether we know it or not, and whether we understand it yet or not. The GPS clocks ran faster whether the original engineers admitted it or not, and whether you and I fully understand it or not. Can Christianity be true without measurable, scientific evidence? Absolutely.[2] But there’s a deeper question here. Is experimental observation the only way we come to know truth? No. In fact, the “thought experiments” Einstein relied on were simply exercises in sound reasoning that scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers have used for millennia. As Einstein understood, there are many times where it is impossible to obtain “hard evidence” for something. It may be a unique, non-repeatable event, or it may be something infeasible to test at the present time, but that doesn’t have to stop us from investigating. Albert Einstein didn’t limit himself to experimental evidence, but rather used his mind to go where science couldn’t yet, and he changed the world. Don’t let your desire for a certain type of evidence keep you from investigating the truth of Christianity and changing your world.


[1] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 87-88.
[2] Not that there isn’t a wealth of evidence for the truth of the Bible, but that’s a subject for another day.

 

Theology Among the Weeds

thistleIf only grass grew as well as weeds. I’ve seen weeds grow a foot or more in the time it takes the grass to grow a couple of inches. The weeds can completely fill in any bare spots in your lawn while the grass is ever so gingerly encroaching.

Sin is like weeds. Of course, this is not a new comparison, but it hit me while I was pulling weeds in my yard the other day. I hate redoing work, and I’ve noticed that my yard wouldn’t look so desperately in need of mowing if it weren’t for the weeds towering over what’s left of the grass. Of course, mowing the weeds doesn’t get rid of them any more than it gets rid of the grass. I tried several weed killers that made the weeds go limp for a few days before they rose again triumphant, like the mythical phoenix from the ashes. And so I went old-school: laboriously pulling each and every weed I came across, and throwing them in a burn pile, maniacally daring them, “Grow back now!” But in this war I wage against the infiltrators of my lawn, I recently noticed how sneaky and varied some of my adversaries’ tactics were. Some give up without a fight, but have been fairly successful in overrunning me with sheer numbers. Others tenaciously gripped the soil and were prickly all the way down to the ground, so that I had to wear thick gloves. Many of the weeds had firm roots, but they were still the weak link on the more fibrous, tough stems. But then some broke off above ground with almost no resistance. It was almost impossible to pull them and not leave the root behind. And by not getting the root, it’s almost guaranteed that one will come back to fight another day. So what did I take away from this excursion into the enemy-controlled territory of my yard?

  • Some sins are simple to not do, taken one at a time, but they are many. They’re all the little things like snapping at your spouse and cutting someone off in traffic. They’re the thousand decisions we make every day to not “love others as Christ loved us”. They’re so easy to commit that we stop thinking about them, and they become the template of our lives. Before long, our yard is defined more by the thousands of little weeds that we let overrun us, than it is by the grass we were supposed to be cultivating.
  • Other sins won’t be so easy to uproot. I’ve wondered if some weeds had the root structure of an oak tree before! But even if it’s easy for you to fight a temptation (anger, for instance) doesn’t mean it is for everyone. So be truthful in calling a weed a weed and a sin a sin, but with love, respect, and encouragement for the person fighting that battle. And if they’re struggling, help them; don’t sit back and criticize them for their struggle.
  • Some sin has prickly defenses to discourage us from trying to root it out. Lust is a prime example. Any guy that’s ever realized the damage porn was doing to his marriage (before it was too late) is probably familiar with the sting of the barbs, throwing away the videos and magazines and hearing the parting taunt “Don’t throw me out, you know you can’t make it without me….”
  • I like the look of my freshly cut lawn from this weekend, but unfortunately, I can’t tell where the weeds are now until they start to grow back. For a few brief days, my yard looks pretty good. But the problems I didn’t eliminate will come back, over and over and over, until I finally root them out. Some sin appears to be “taken care of”, but is still lingering below the surface, waiting to return.
  • If you let the weeds go too long, they go to seed, and multiply. Worse, they can spread to your neighbor’s yard and earn you frowning glares. Sin multiplies readily in your life if you let it become habitual. Worse, the Bible warns that “bad company corrupts good morals.” Don’t be the bad company that drags someone else down.

So there you have it. Today’s blog brought to you by dandelions, thistles, foxtails, about 10 other weeds I don’t know the names of, and … several hours of boring, tedious lawn maintenance! But seriously, remember that it’s only faith in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice that justifies us, and only the power of the Holy Spirit in us that allows us to conquer the weeds of sin.

Laughing at the Cliff’s Edge

Cliff Danger Sign“I can’t tell you why somebody would walk past those signs and not pay any attention to them.”[1]

That was part of a response from a Park Service spokesman after a recent death in Point Reyes National Park in California. The cliff at Arch Rock had developed a large crack along the top along a popular trail, and multiple warning signs were posted telling people to stay away from that area. Yet dozens of people were seen continuing past the signs that day, until the cliff finally gave way, and 2 hikers fell 70′ amidst a shower of boulders and debris. One died while the other survived with critical injuries, amazingly enough. Why indeed do people not take warnings seriously? Why do they think that a warning might apply to everyone but them? It seems so obvious in hindsight, but maybe that attitude is more prevalent in our daily lives than we’re comfortable admitting. Maybe that cavalier attitude manifests itself in our overall worldview and philosophically filters what we take seriously  and what we consider inconsequential. Consider the following small example.

The Monday after Easter, my atheist colleague at work brought me the comic from his daily desk calendar for the past Friday (Good Friday). As he dropped it on my desk, he said, “you can throw it away if you want, but I thought it was funny.” What was the comic? A picture of Jesus with the caption, “A real miracle would’ve been turning water into less expensive gasoline.” OK, haha.  I get it, and I realize it’s just a comic. It doesn’t really offend me, but it does sadden me a little. It seems like it exemplifies that same philosophical filter that helps us ignore the physical and spiritual warning signs in our lives.

That comic (and the many, many others like it) didn’t put forth any serious reasons for doubting the existence of Jesus or the New Testament’s claims about His life and His deity. It didn’t show the historicity of the gospel narrative to be false. It didn’t show the biblical narrative to lack explanatory depth or consistency. It simply assumed all of those objections to be the case and then mocked the opposing view. Of course, it wasn’t written to build a case against Christianity. It was, after all, just a joke, and a one-liner at that. But, unfortunately, many people stop at the jokes and never investigate to see if they’re on target or not. And when people assume that just because someone has made a joke about God, that He is a joke unworthy of serious consideration, that is itself the cruelest joke, with dire and very permanent consequences. The comic made light of an actual miracle by saying that a “real miracle” would’ve been doing something 2,000 years ago that only a modern gasoline-dependent society could appreciate, and that is technically simpler than turning water into fine wine.[2] In so doing, it asks us to laugh off the actual miracle instead of asking the question the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ miracles were forced to seriously consider, over and over again: namely, “What manner of man is this?” The “gospel” literally means “good news”, and to laugh off the gospel accounts in the Bible misses two signs: 1) the warning sign telling us that God not only exists, but will also hold us accountable and judge us by His perfect standard; and 2) the sign pointing us to safety, to the only way to satisfy that unyielding justice. That sign points to Jesus, and it is not just good news, but the greatest of news.

Certainly, there is a time and place for laughter[3], but when we joke about something serious, and we let our jokes keep us from seeing the danger we’re in, we really are laughing at the cliff’s edge.


[1] http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/03/23/1-dead-after-cliff-collapses-at-calif-hiking-trail/ accessed April 12, 2015.
[2] Turning water into wine would be the greater miracle than turning it into gasoline, as basic gasoline is primarily 3 elements (hydrogen, carbon, & oxygen) while basic wine has those (in the alcohol alone) plus nitrogen and at least 11 other elements in the form of minerals. And this wasn’t just barely wine, but was “good wine”. See John 2:1-11 for the actual story.
[3] Ecclesiastes 3:2, NASB.

“All roads lead to Rome”?

5-road-roundaboutMany atheists will say that all religions are the same, that “religion” as some broad homogenous category “poisons everything”. Religion is not true, contradicts reason and science, is detrimental to us,  and should therefore be abandoned, they say. Relativism, a current philosophical fad which claims that nobody is objectively “right” (except the relativist, apparently), also claims that all religions are the same, but instead that they’re all equally good. Sincere belief in any of the different world religions (or even your own made-up religion), will get you into heaven/paradise/nirvana/etc.

Are all religions the same? Do “all paths lead to Rome” (or heaven, in this case)? Both the atheist and relativist claims seem to break down under closer examination. The atheist claim that religion poisons everything ignores all of the tremendous benefits to humankind done in the name of Christianity (i.e. hospitals, insane asylums, and orphanages were all distinctly Christian inventions to care for “the least of these” who were very disposable in Roman and Greek culture[1]). Simultaneously, they magnify things Christians (or those claiming to be Christians) have done in opposition to Christ’s teaching, or group together actions of other religions with Christianity to get a negative “lump sum”. By that logic, we could lump Rolls-Royces and the old Yugos together and say all cars are worthless junk. Clearly, that would be a hasty generalization. Meanwhile, the relativist claim is self-refuting. Mutually exclusive worldviews can’t all be true. Jesus Christ stated in no uncertain terms, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; nobody comes to the Father, but through Me.”[2] Yet Islam claims Jesus was only a prophet – honorable, but nothing more.[3] B’ahai claims He was a “manifestation of God, but not, in essence, God”. Judaism views Him as a blaspheming rabbi who claimed wrongly to be God and was justly killed for it. Other religions are happy to claim Jesus as only a prophet, teacher, or sage. Likewise, while religions will generally agree that things like murder and stealing are wrong, they disagree significantly on key issues like the nature of God (or if there even is a “God” or gods, e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism) and the nature of an afterlife (i.e. individual entrance to heaven, or absorption into the Brahman and subsequent annihilation of individuality).  These simply cannot all be true.

I want to give one example that I think simultaneously addresses both the atheistic view of all religion being equally bad and the relativist view of them all being equally good.  The difference between Christianity and Islam can be best exemplified by their views on death: The faithful Christian says “I don’t seek death, but my death would be a worthwhile sacrifice if more people came to accept God’s free gift of  eternal life through Jesus Christ”, while the faithful Muslim seems to say “My death would be a worthwhile sacrifice if it condemned more unbelievers to death while guaranteeing my life in Paradise.” Big difference there. One seeks the benefit of others at the potential cost of one’s own life, while the other seeks one’s own benefit at the cost of others’ lives. Some may say that’s an oversimplification, but I think it corresponds well with the reality being observed in many parts of the world right now. For instance, Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, and the apostle Paul said that such was his love for the Jews that he would be willing to be accursed – to forfeit his own salvation – if that could guarantee the salvation of his kinsmen. Compare that self-sacrificial spirit to Islam’s “blessings of the shahid” (martyrs), where dying in battle for the cause of Allah guarantees your entrance to Paradise, 72 virgins, riches and honor, and the ability to intercede for 70 of your relatives.[4] This is not hyperbole, but a guarantee of salvation for someone and their whole family at the expense of others.

In the end, all religions are not equally good or equally bad. Rather, one is true, and we must exercise discerning judgement so as not to be deceived. As the apostle John tells us, “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”[5] The first step is recognizing the implications of one of the 3 fundamental laws of logic, the Law of noncontradiction, and not falling for the copout that all religion is the same.


[1] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, (Zondervan, 2001), pp. 151-169.
[2] John 14:6, NASB.
[3] See Surahs 5:72-75, 5:116-117 in the Qur’an, among others.
[4] Compare Romans 9:3 for the Christian with the following Muslim hadiths, here, here, herehere, and here.
[5] 1 John 4:1, NASB.

“Breadth and Depth”

Breadth Depth“Breadth and depth” is a term used to denote the knowledge expected of applicants for the Civil Professional Engineer exam. The morning exam tests for general engineering knowledge over a wide area (breadth), while the afternoon exam wears you out in one area like structural or water resources (depth). I took an online class on structural connection design last fall from Dr. Bill Thornton, one of the leading experts in the world in that area, that reminded me of this distinction. While he is a very capable engineer in general, I probably would not have signed up for the class if he had been teaching on concrete design, or timber design. I’m sure he could’ve taught me a thing or 2 in those areas as well, but the draw of his class was that he has devoted much of his long engineering career to one specialty, structural steel connection design, and become a world-renowned expert in that area. He has exemplified having a wide general knowledge base and a thorough specialty knowledge. What lessons are there for us here?

While academic and professional learning is beneficial, and striving for the higher end of the spectrum is admirable, there is an area of learning that can yield rewards far beyond one’s career, even into eternity. In Paul’s final letter before his execution, he tells Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”[1] But how do you handle accurately something with which you aren’t familiar? Your first time using any new tool, toy, computer program, or any other unfamiliar item is often pretty clumsy. How do you get better? You study it and practice it. So then, as Christians charged with the solemn responsibility to “go and make disciples of all nations”, we have to ask ourselves, are we striving to develop “breadth and depth” in our spiritual knowledge? It seems there is a spectrum of different degrees of knowledge possible, both in the secular sense (like Dr. Thornton’s career) and in the spiritual sense (like our daily walk with Christ):

  • Shallow knowledge over a narrow area – Are you an “amateur Christian?” Is this Christian life just a Sunday hobby for you? John 3:16 is powerful, but the Bible is an inexhaustible gold mine of truth being overlooked if that’s as far as you’ve explored your beliefs. God will not be a hobby for anyone!
  • Shallow knowledge over a wide area – Are you a “jack of all trades and master of none”? Do you know a lot of different Bible stories and comforting verses, but only scratched the surface in terms of meaning, significance, and connection? All those separate stories are joined up below the surface as part of God’s big story. Dig deeper!
  • Deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “specialist”? So fascinated with eschatology (end-times), angels, or some other narrow field that you’ve neglected all other areas? Focus on an area of study is great for growth, but just like an athlete that only trained one arm or one leg, unbalanced growth isn’t necessarily good. Diversify!
  • Shallow knowledge over a wide area & deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “hybrid”? Both a specialist and a generalist? Have you dived in and become an “expert witness” in one area (i.e. the historical reliability of the New Testament), but are still able to answer general questions outside that area? Great! Now pick a new area to grow in!
  • Deep knowledge over a wide area – If you’re in this boat, quit reading my blog and start your own! This level of knowledge is a rare and special blessing not to be kept to yourself, so start applying all that knowledge! Every generation needs a Charles Spurgeon, or a C.S. Lewis to shed God’s light on all different subjects in profound ways. Is there a point where you’ve “made it”? No, not this side of heaven. But like I said earlier, God’s Word is inexhaustible, so never stop learning!

So which one are you? More importantly, which one will you become? “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.”[2] Here in America, one can easily, relatively cheaply, and with zero risk to one’s life, accumulate a biblical reference library that many preachers in other countries couldn’t amass in a lifetime, and might very well die for if they did. We have multitudes of Christian radio stations that are illegal in other countries. The internet has opened the floodgates of study materials, podcasts, blogs, curriculum (often free), and even online degree programs. We have more ability to study and understand God’s Word and share with others than humans have had since Jesus was here to ask in person. We are… without excuse.


[1] 2 Timothy 2:15, NASB.
[2] Luke 12:48, ESV.

“You Can’t Handle the Truth!”

cant-handle-the-truthIn the movie “A Few Good Men”, Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson famously go back and forth in court with Nicholson finally shouting back from the witness stand the classic line “You can’t handle the truth!” The truth can certainly be a powerful, devastating force at times. But what is truth? The Bible records Pilate asking Jesus that very question almost 2,000 years ago.[1] It’s a big question, but let’s look at one small aspect now.

Truth can be defined as the “ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience.”[2] This indicates that truth is not subjective since it “transcends perceived experience”. In other words, a statement is true when it corresponds to the object it describes rather than the perception of the observer. Hence, it may be described as objective truth. A color-blind person may incorrectly perceive some colors, but the actual color may be  independently verifiable by the wavelength of light being reflected from an object. That a particular apple’s appearance corresponds to what we call “red” is then objectively true regardless of how, or even if, we perceive it. Likewise, the statement that there is life on other planets may or may not be true; but if true, it will be because of such life existing and not because of our knowledge of it.

What then are we to make of claims today that “everything’s relative”, or that something may be “true for you, but not for me”? First, isn’t it a little ironic to use an absolute term like “everything” to deny absolutes? In fact, both of these statements are actually self-refuting. They “commit suicide” as Greg Koukl would say. What’s implicit in the relativist’s first statements is that everything is relative except their absolute statement. How convenient. But “everything” includes that statement, which puts it in the same category as saying “white is black”. Their 2nd  claim implies that statements may be simultaneously true and false for 2 different people, except for their statement that is assumed to apply equally for everyone. But I can simply apply the claim to itself and say that “true for you, but not for me” is exactly that – not true for me – and ignore it. Ideas have consequences, and because of this self-refuting nature, the concept of relative truth can lead to very real absurdities. Bob may sincerely believe that he can jump off a cliff and fly (without a hang glider or other aid), while his friend John sincerely believes he can’t and pleads with Bob not to jump. Is this a case of “true for Bob, but not for John”? Is John wrong to try to help his friend see his error?  Applying his knowledge of physics and its correspondence to reality to the situation tells John his belief that John will plunge to his death would actually be true for both of them, in spite of Bob’s sincerity to the contrary. That Bob cannot fly on his own is true for all people, for all time, and in all places. That is the nature of truth; we do not create it by our beliefs or statements, but rather discover it.

We can determine when statements about our material world are true (i.e. the law of gravity) by testing them. But what about immaterial truth claims? Are these actual truths or simply opinions? Can we test for truth? Yes. A true statement will always satisfy the 3 fundamental laws of logic[3]:
The law of identity – a statement is identical to itself and different from another statement. A thing is what it is. Saying “Hitler was evil” and saying “Hitler was good” are not equivalent!
The law of noncontradiction – a statement cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same way. For a very clear (if somewhat harsh) verification of this law, the medieval Muslim philosopher Avicenna proposed this demonstration: “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”[4]
The law of excluded middle – a statement is either true, or its negation is true. There is no middle state between existing and not existing.

There are other tests for truth, but these are foundational prerequisites, for no matter how coherent or comforting a claim is, if it fails these tests, it simply can’t be true. And this is how “relative truth” fails.


[1] John 18:38, NASB.
[2] “Truth”, Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language,  1996 ed.
[3] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 132. See also D.Q. McInerny, Being Logical, (Random House, 2005), p. 26-28.
[4] Avicenna, The Book of Healing, Part IV, Metaphysics I, commenting on Aristotle, Topics I.11.105a4–5, published 1027.

Drama!

RetroTVWhat is one thing that all “reality TV” shows have in common (besides being unrelated to reality for the most part)? Drama, and lots of it! Making a “mountain out of a molehill” seems to be mandatory for all participants. But maybe that aspect isn’t too far from real life; between work, school, our friends, and our family, we may have the makings for a lot of drama in our lives, too. Some people seem to thrive on drama and make drama where there wasn’t any before. What is it that defines this type of personal drama? While drama has historically referred simply to performing or acting out stories before groups (i.e. theater), we usually have a little more in mind when we think of someone as a “drama queen”, for instance.

Drama is all about every little event being “big”, critical, life or death, whether in reality or the TV shows that lay claim to that title. Drama magnifies our little annoyances while simultaneously minimizing the sometimes big problems others are enduring. Drama focuses on the short-term rather than long-term because what seemed so important at the time often fades in significance with the perspective of time. But treating a small insult as the trivial thing it really is hardly keeps viewers “tuned in” to shows on the TV screen (or on the screen of our personal life). Yet Christ tells His followers to think long-term, seeking His kingdom and His righteousness, to expect trials and not dwell on them, and even to pray for those who persecute them.[1] The Apostle Paul tells us to bless those who persecute us and not to repay evil with evil, but rather to overcome evil with good.[2] Peter tells us it is better, if God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil and not to be surprised at suffering as Christians.[3] And the Apostle James tells us to “consider it all joy when you encounter various trials.” [4] What? Was he crazy? Putting up with trials may be admirable, but he didn’t seriously expect us to be joyful when things go wrong or people hurt us, did he? Actually, he did, because our joy comes from God, not our circumstances. And God can use our actions in those bad circumstances to cause a chain reaction beyond our best hopes.

Much of what I do as a professional engineer is built on applying Newton’s third law – that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But with people, it doesn’t seem to be such a linear, predictable relationship. Our actions, unfortunately, often cause disproportionate  reactions that can spiral in a dramatic, but vicious, cycle. But what if we broke that cycle before it even started, and our responses played out the life-changing (good) drama that only Jesus Christ can work in us and in others through us? Imagine, for example, a reality TV show where the stars didn’t take every little thing and blow it out of proportion, but instead forgave the one who had insulted them. Imagine the “constructive drama” that would unfold by living out the forgiveness and grace of God in our daily interactions with people. Could that vicious cycle become a cycle of grace and love, of “provoking one another to love and good works”[5] with results exponentially good rather than bad? It could, but not in our own strength and wisdom. Been there, tried that, failed miserably. Maybe you have, too. That’s because only the Holy Spirit in us can accomplish that superhuman love for others that is really the distinguishing mark of a true Christian: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”[6] How does this Christian love react to drama? Paul provides a famous description of this kind of drama-quieting love in his letter to the Corinthians. Though often used at weddings, this love is to color all our relationships:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”[7]

Selfish drama can’t survive that kind of selfless love. Until next week, God bless! 🙂


[1] Matthew 6:33, John 15:20, Matthew 5:44, NASB.
[2] Romans 12:14, 17, 21, NASB.
[3] 1 Peter 3:17, 4:12-19, NASB.
[4] James 1:2-4, 12, NASB. See verses 3 & 4 for why we should be joyful in trials.
[5] Hebrews 10:24, KJV.
[6] John 13:35, NASB. Also see “The Mark of the Christian”, a powerful little book by Francis Schaeffer from 1970.
[7] 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV.

The Bookcase

BooksThis week’s entry is the posting of a new page on this site called The Bookcase, a collection of some of the reference books I’ve found useful in my studies. Hopefully, you may find something beneficial for particular questions you might have as well. As this will be a growing list, I’m posting it as a permanent page rather than a weekly post. Check it out in the menu at the top of the page! If you have specific questions and want recommendations, just ask. Thanks 🙂