All posts by Jason

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

Sharpen Your Pencil

Photo Credit: W

“Let me sharpen my pencil and see if we can’t make that beam size work with the extra load the owner wants.” What does sharpening pencils have to do with designing beams? That’s simply an old expression in engineering regarding the need for greater accuracy in some particularly critical calculations. We tend to use a lot of approximations and rules of thumb that we know are not exact but will err on the side of caution. While a safe design is our duty to the public; a safe design produced in a timely manner makes for happy clients and keeps us in business. But sometimes, those typical procedures and quick approximations result in a design that doesn’t meet some project requirement. And while computers have replaced nomographs and graphical analysis methods – and the need to keep a sharp point on one’s pencil to get a more accurate result – we still use that expression to signify when the situation warrants a more detailed design. Back in the days of solving something by drawing similar triangles, the method – pencil and paper and straightedge – was often the limiting factor on our accuracy. Now, computerized methods allow us to be as accurate as we could ever need, so sharpening the pencil now is more about our assumptions. Did I assume a higher typical load than what is actually present on the current project? Did I use a simpler formula that doesn’t account for various load reductions or strength increases that actually could be applied to my current project? However, sometimes, in sharpening the pencil and wading into the details, we find that a particular situation isn’t quite as similar to past projects as we thought, and our assumptions we thought were conservative are actually overlooking critical factors. And that’s an issue I see outside of engineering as well.

One’s eternal fate is of critical importance. No one is promised their next breath, so where you’ll be a few minutes after your last breath, whenever it comes, is not something you want to miscalculate. What assumptions are you making that you need to revisit?

  • “The idea of God is outdated stone-age superstition and simply unnecessary now.”  Regardless of how old the idea of God is, that doesn’t make it unnecessary. We still need an explanation for the world around us, and scientific observation can only go so far. You can scientifically measure water boiling all day long and precisely explain how it’s boiling, and never explain why it’s boiling if you’re unwilling to admit that somebody put the kettle of water on the stove and turned it on.
  • “Science will answer everything someday.” The idea that science is the silver bullet to all our problems has a problem of its own: not all questions (and their answers) are scientific in nature. Metaphysical questions about the meaning of life and ethics are on the “ought” side of the ought-is dilemma, outside the scope of science, which can only observe what is, and not how it ought to be.
  • “Science has explained away God.” This idea that explaining the mechanics of our world does away with the need for God is a common assumption today, but this is akin to thinking one has explained the origin of a car by explaining how it works. The scientific method has allowed us to advance our knowledge of the mechanical workings of our world tremendously, but it is useless in a universe not governed by causality and logic. Our universe exhibits an organization that is best explained by a Master Designer. Indeed, modern science was based on the idea that the universe could be investigated and understood because God had created it in an orderly manner conducive to study.
  • “Religion just causes arguments and isn’t worth thinking about.” Maybe you’ve assumed that discussions about religion are just a waste of time and a needless source of feuding. But what’s the real problem there? Is it the subject matter, or the way we discuss it? Maybe civility and sound reasoning are the solution, and not indifference. Suppose you and I have gone for a flight in a mutual friend’s airplane. Beautiful, wide-open countryside passes below his Cessna 182 as we bask in the view. But then our friend passes out at the yoke. Now we are left with a very serious problem: what went up will eventually come down, one way or another. To make matters worse, we have very different ideas of how to fix the problem. But does our disagreement mean we should simply ignore the entire question of how to revive our pilot friend and/or land the plane? No! The problem remains even if we ignore it. In fact, it’s likely getting worse with each passing second. Likewise, the question of whether God exists, what we can know about Him, and what He may want of us are some of the biggest questions we can ask in life. No part of our lives are unaffected by the answers to this issue, and the urgency of finding the answer only grows the more we ignore it.

If any of those initial assumptions described your thoughts on the matter, I’d like to kindly suggest it’s time to sharpen your pencil and work through that problem again, my friend. But “time waits for no man”, and like the ground filling more and more of the Cessna’s windshield,  “the God question” can only be put off for so long before it’s too late.

Deconstructing Dawkins, Part 4 – Against the Flow

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins

It’s been a while since I’ve looked at Richard Dawkins’ objections to Christianity here, but some of his bad reasoning got regurgitated by another atheist in a book I’m wading through right now, so it seems fitting to address this issue now. This common atheist objection to religion in general is that religion is merely a cultural phenomenon. In other words, I’m simply a Christian because I grew up in a Christian culture, and would most likely be Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist if I’d grown up elsewhere in the world. Is that a legitimate point? Let’s work through that this week.

First off, let’s make sure we have the objection correct. Here’s two quotes, the first from a relative newcomer on the atheist publishing scene, David Madison, and the second from Dawkins himself.

“[I]f I had been born in Croatia instead of Indiana, I would have been taught that another religion is the only one that is worthy of my full devotion. In one of the more memorable confrontations between Richard Dawkins and a devout Christian during a Q& A session, the gentleman claimed to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Dawkins bluntly pointed out that the fellow would not even have been a Christian if he’d been raised in another culture or another era. Instead of believing in Jesus, he might believe in Thor, Wotan, or Allah.”
– David Madison [1]

Lest you think Madison’s recounting of Dawkins’ Q&A dialogue was simply an off-the-cuff remark by Dawkins made without thinking it through beforehand, the following is from Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion”, which one would hope had involved some careful review prior to publishing.

“If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents. If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.” – Richard Dawkins [2]

Now, does this actually help the atheist? Not really. For one thing, the fact that other cultures may have opposing beliefs does nothing to invalidate the Christian’s beliefs. The most Dawkins could say from that fact alone is that they can’t both be true (if  actually contradictory). In that case, one would indeed have to be wrong, but the atheist is assuming both are wrong, which just doesn’t follow. Secondly, this appears to be an example of the genetic fallacy, where the origin of a belief is attacked rather than the actual content of the belief. I did learn about Christianity from my parents, my church, and the general culture around me here in the “Bible Belt” of the US. But as long as that knowledge I received was true, then it doesn’t matter where it came from. That’s the thing about truth – it’s objective and independent of the messenger.

But what strikes me as the bigger issue is that Dawkins undercuts many of his fellow atheists with this attack. We could just as easily say that atheists in communist China aren’t atheists because of reason or “progress”, but only because that happens to be what is promoted in their culture. On the flip side, many of the atheists parroting Dawkins’ delusion (like Madison) are here in the US, which is still a predominantly Christian nation. Their own existence as members of an atheist minority in a majority “Christian” nation also demonstrates that people’s beliefs are not determined by their culture. By Dawkins’ own reasoning American atheists should be Christians (or at the very least, theists), but they aren’t. They made a choice in spite of the dominant culture around them.

Can one’s culture be a contributing factor? Certainly. If you are only presented with certain choices by your culture, then you are more likely to pick from the choices given. But even that is no guarantee. Some countries over the last century have tried to enforce state atheism and actively persecuted believers. These included the former Soviet states, the Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War, Communist China today, and Albania, the country that declared itself the “world’s first atheist state” in 1967. They all actively punished and often executed religious believers. And yet people still chose to believe in God in spite of that societal pressure. My own mom used to write to a woman who was imprisoned in Russia for being a Christian. Muslims have been converting to Christianity in the Middle East in growing numbers the last few years, also in spite of very heavy societal pressure not to, which has included being disowned by one’s family, being jailed for years, or being beheaded by ISIS (among others). While one’s surrounding culture may influence our beliefs, it clearly does nothing to support or refute the truth of a particular belief.

As an aside, is it “indoctrination” to pass on one’s beliefs to your children? Well, technically, indoctrination is simply “the act of indoctrinating, or teaching or inculcating a doctrine, principle, or ideology, especially one with a specific point of view.”[3] Kinda like atheists teaching their kids that science is the only way to know truth (This is called a self-defeating statement. Just ask by what scientific test one arrives at that conclusion. But I digress…) It’s actually pretty cumbersome to teach anything without some specific point of view. The real issue is whether the doctrine being taught is true or not. If it is, then we shouldn’t shy away from that, but rather seek to teach that.

In closing, I did grow up in a Christian home, and my faith does happen to be the same faith of my parents. But Christianity does not recognize belief by proxy. My parents’ beliefs will not save me, so it is still on me (and you) to decide, regardless of what our parents or peers believe. Every person who will be saved must make that decision for themselves. Moreover, mere lip service, “going through the motions”, or performing rituals without any understanding of them and without sincerity of heart (i.e. “just repeat these words after me”) are repeatedly condemned in the Bible. Saving faith requires knowledge of the truth of the Gospel, belief that it is true, and trust in Christ’s sufficient work, regardless of culture or geography.

[1] David Madison, “Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith”, (Tellectual Press, Kindle Edition, 2016), pp. 152-153
[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 25.
[3] “Indoctrination”,, accessed 2018-04-03.

Exceeding Expectations

The Entry into Jerusalem – Giotto, 1305

Oftentimes as an engineer, my solution to a client’s problem isn’t what they wanted to hear: a building owner (or his architect) may have a daring, grand, idealistic vision of their building that the laws of physics simply won’t permit. And so structural engineers sometimes have to be the bearers of bad news. Of course, in the long run, their building not falling down and killing them is actually pretty good news, in my humble opinion. Occasionally, clients have much more realistic expectations, and I get the opportunity to exceed those expectations. They’re hoping for a bearable solution to one problem, and I get to help solve multiple problems. Those are good times that remind me of what I love about engineering.

The Jews had a similar “down to earth” expectation of what their Messiah would be. If you’re not familiar with Church lingo, “Messiah” comes from the Hebrew word for “Anointed One”. And while many think of the word “Christ” as being part of Jesus’ name, it’s actually just the Greek word for that same title. Christ and Messiah are synonymous. Now, to be clear, it’s not so much that the Jews had low expectations, per se – they just didn’t didn’t have high enough expectations. God’s plan was so much bigger than anything they were anticipating, that many didn’t even recognize it. Even with the clarity of hindsight, many today still don’t. The Jews were looking for a bold, triumphant solution to one problem – oppression of their nation (by the Romans at that point) – while Jesus brought the bolder, but humbler, solution for the problem of all humanity. They wanted the conquering hero riding in to Jerusalem on a war horse, not the sacrificial “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, riding in on the foal of a donkey [Jn 1:29, Mt 21:6-11]. Even Jesus’ disciples, after the resurrection, were still stuck on this idea of restoring the kingdom of Israel rather than the Kingdom of God [Act 1:6]. How sad it would be for all of us Gentiles (non-Jews) if God had given them the merely localized, national  salvation they wanted. But instead, He sent Jesus to free all who will receive Him: Jew and Greek, men and women, citizens and slaves, kings and peasants – even Americans like me! And this freedom is not some temporary thing that can be taken away by the next empire to rise up; Christians from the catacombs of ancient Rome to the prison camps of modern North Korea have experienced this freedom, even in their bondage. Rather than a divine King “dwelling” with His people like when God led the Israelites out of Egypt, we have the Holy Spirit residing in each Christian believer [1 Cor 6:19-20].

However, God’s good news of salvation can sometimes sound like bad news to our sin-plugged ears. Like the building owner or contractor who wants the project engineer to say “yes” to some requested deviation from the plans, we don’t like the idea of submission or obedience, or limitations on our supposed freedoms by God. We think, in our insecurity, that we’ll be cheated by God. And yet, He takes our “freedom” that is actually nothing more than enslavement to sin, and gives us true freedom [Jn 8:32,36]: freedom from fear of our circumstances[Ps 56:11]; freedom from the fear of death now, and ultimately from death itself [1Cor 15:54-57]; freedom to love and serve God as we simply could not do on our own [1Cor 2:14, Heb 11:6]; but most importantly, freedom to bring glory to God, which is actually what we were designed to do. As long as we run from our Creator and His solution to our problem, we will always be falling short of our true, ultimate purpose in life.

But we can trust the omniscient One who “sees the end from the beginning” [Is 46:9-10]. In spite of the temptation to think (in our arrogant finitude) that “if I were God, I would do such-and-such”, His ways really are better. I can’t really fault Israel for underestimating God: it seems pretentious to hope for as much as God has lavished on us. As Paul wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” [Ro 11:33] Indeed, understanding that His perfect plan will far exceed our expectations, we can truthfully say with Paul, “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” [Eph 3:20]

Have there been times in your life where you’ve only seen how God was working in hindsight? Have you gone through bleak trials and come out on the other side knowing that the trial, though unwanted, was the best thing for you in the end? It’s been said that God desires our holiness rather than our comfort, and that getting us there may be an uncomfortable, though necessary, process. Have you gone through that molding process and, looking back, realized the wisdom of God’s ways over ours? Something to chew on this this week. 🙂

Dangerous Assumptions

Ever assumed you knew something that turned out to be completely different? I know I have. It doesn’t take long to learn how embarrassing hasty assumptions can be. Yet we still have to make a lot of assumptions in life every day. I have to assume when I go to bed each night that my truck will start in the morning, and I don’t actually need to get up at 2 in the morning and run an ultra-marathon just to get to work on time. A dead truck is a possibility, but practically speaking, my assumption of reliable transportation is a fairly safe assumption given that truck’s history of dependability. In engineering, we have to make a lot of assumptions that can drastically change the results, and we’re expected to be able to judge whether those assumptions are justified or not. Assuming certain vibrational characteristics for a project, only to find out your structure’s resonant frequency actually matches the frequency of the average person’s walking gait, can change a client’s bold, cantilevered office building with a view into a nauseating life of trying to do office work on the end of a diving board. Assuming a connection to be rigid when it’s not, or assuming a high frictional resistance that may or may not be present can completely alter load paths, and divert force into components never designed for it. Assuming a beam is adequately braced when it’s not can change the mode of failure from a nice slow yielding to a sudden lateral-torsional buckling, drastically lowering the safe load on the beam, and possibly resulting in a structural failure. Just like assuming a snake isn’t poisonous, a lot of engineering assumptions can pack a deadly bite.

So what is it about assumptions that can be so disastrous? The issue is how close they are to, or how far they are from, reality. In essence, it’s a matter of how truthful the assumption is, for truth is simply correspondence to reality. If I assume the max unbraced length of a 30 foot long beam is 5 feet and it turns out to be 6 feet, then I’m fairly close to the truth of the matter , and I’ve erred on the side of caution, so my design should do well. If I assume it’s 30′ and I don’t need any bracing at all, then I’m working off a false premise, and I’m flirting with disaster. Sadly, a lot of people are making an even more dangerous assumption every day, many never realizing it until it’s too late.

What is this deadly assumption, you ask? Let’s work through some examples of it and find a common denominator:

  • “God is love, so that means everybody goes to heaven, right?” This assumes a very one-dimensional caricature of God, who is also just and righteous and holy. One could just as easily state, “God is just and we’re all sinners, so that means everybody goes to hell, right?” Or we could see Him as He has revealed Himself to us, and recognize that His love provided a way for us to be reconciled and justified before His perfect unbending justice, but only if we don’t reject it. Thus, some will be saved and some won’t.
  • “I’m a pretty good person, so God surely wouldn’t send me to hell.” This assumes that an absolutely perfect and holy God grades on a curve. We may lower our standards but why assume a perfectly just God would do the same?
  • “I don’t need God to be a good person, and that’s what counts, right? – Leaving the world a little better place than I found it?” This common misconception is based on a relativistic notion of “goodness”. But unless you happen to be the one perfect person in the whole world, good isn’t good enough to meet God’s perfect standard. And besides that, a lot of people throughout history have convinced themselves their heinous actions were actually for the “greater good.” So beware of subjective standards of “goodness”.
  • “I don’t like this God yours, so I’m going to just find one I like better.” My preference often has little to do with reality, and this dangerous assumption makes the mistake of thinking one’s dislike and rejection of God somehow circumvents the need to deal with God’s independent existence (and our potential obligations to Him) on His sovereign terms.
  • “I hadn’t really thought about what happens when I die, but I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end.” When has apathy and sticking one’s head in the sand ever been a good strategy for anything? The person saying this isn’t really sure of anything other than that they don’t want to think about anything that might require them to change course.

There’s a common assumption at the base of all of these statements – that we, as individuals with our finite comprehension, somehow know better than our omniscient Creator how He should’ve done things. It’s the notion that our way – our personal and very subjective way – is the right way, instead of God’s way. Ultimately, it comes back to pride, which, as the Bible wisely warns, “goes before destruction” [Prov 16:18]. So be wise and learn from the mistakes of others, and avoid the eternal consequences of these most dangerous assumptions.

The Stabilizing Influence of Logic

Spock, logic’s most famous advocate?

We live in a very emotion-driven culture now. Don’t get me wrong – emotions are good, but usually not when they’re in the driver’s seat of our lives. While our emotions may produce great poetry and stirring songs, they make for very short-sighted guidance counselors. Ever done anything really stupid when you were mad? I know I have. It felt like the right thing to do at the time… but later my lapse in judgement was all too obvious. Yet we are bombarded with messages every day discouraging us from slowing down and thinking through our actions, and instead doing what “feels right”.

“Obey your thirst.”
“Just do it.”
“Order in the next 5 minutes!”

Whether it’s advertisers appealing to our lust with bikini-clad models eating burgers, or politicians competing in a popularity contest to see who has the biggest cult of personality, or popular songs glorifying “acting like we’re animals”, it is typically our emotions and baser urges being appealed to. But are we just animals driven by instinct and momentary urges? Aristotle would say “no”. His classic definition of man is that we are “rational animals”, different from mere animals because we are capable of reasoning. Christians can also agree with Aristotle on this, for the Bible tells us that we are “created in the image of God”.[1] In other words, we have the distinct ability as humans to reason, even if we refuse to do it sometimes. So how do we combat this reductionist obsession with mere animality and reclaim our humanity? I’d like to suggest a reacquaintance with logic.

A solid grasp of classical logic is one of the best life skills one can develop because it hones the reasoning that’s needed in every part of your life. That this is a skill sorely lacking in today’s world is highlighted by the first 5 words to Peter Kreeft’s excellent Socratic Logic textbook: “This book is a dinosaur.”[2] If you’ve ever wondered why “common sense” doesn’t seem to be very common these days, that’s because it is quickly going the way of the dinosaur, for logic is the heart of common sense. The 3 Laws of logic (Identity, Non-contradiction, and Excluded Middle), are so basic and self-evident that small children can easily grasp them. Once these are understood, various principles like the Principles of Sufficient Reason and Causality follow and build on them.[3] And yet, these are precisely what relativistic, “post-modern” views denigrate.

But there is something else that logic provides: stability. Emotion is a chaotic and fickle thing, ebbing and flowing, always threatening to rise to such extremes as to overwhelm us. Logic is the always predictable, all-deadening countermeasure that dampens both high and low extremes. Stability is achieved when logic steadies emotion, guiding it in its general course while allowing those variations that make us human. It provides a foundation for clear thinking based on objective truth that doesn’t change. Emotion may tell you to run the guy off the road that cut you off; that “if it feels good, just do it”; that “love” is love even if twisted into something harmful; that gender is just a social construct even if biology says otherwise; but logic reminds us that our actions have consequences and that the truth is what corresponds to reality and cannot be ignored. Logic helps us ride out our emotional roller coaster and remember that life won’t always be as good as it is in our best times, nor as depressing as it may be in our worst times. It helps us to articulate our beliefs coherently (or figure out that our beliefs aren’t coherent in some cases). It helps us to see through the deceptions of others and to be honest ourselves, for the Law of Identity corresponds to truth itself. It helps us to dialogue with others by reminding us that both parties in a debate serve the “common master” of truth, as Peter Kreeft would say. We should not seek to win a debate or quarrel at any cost, but rather seek out the truth of the matter with our opponent: no matter who wins, may we both scour our beliefs of error and draw nearer to truth.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I keep harping on logic on a site about defending the Christian faith. That’s because logic is more compatible with Christian thought than any other worldview. Eastern religions are sometimes justified as using a “both-and logic” instead of an “either-or logic” that Westerners are used to (of necessity because of the Law of Non-contradiction). But this notion that truly contradictory statements can be compatible has one problem: it’s simply not compatible with reality. On the other side, atheists often have to oppose causality to get out of the need for a Creator that comes with the universe having a beginning. Christianity does not have these problems. Indeed, logic and reasoning are part and parcel of the Christian faith. So the more people become familiar with sound reasoning, the more they will find themselves in conflict with any other view besides Christianity.

[1] See Genesis 1:27, 9:6 in the Bible. See Augustine’s City of God (Book XII, Chapter 23) and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (Part I, Question 3, Article 1, Reply to Objection 2), for examples of traditional Christian interpretations of the imago Dei.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, Edition 3.1, 2010), Preface.
[3] Although there are different formulations of the laws and principles mentioned above, Kreeft summarizes them as follows (Kreeft, ibid, pp. 220-1):

  • Law of Identity: x is x. Or, whatever is, is. (Yes, it really is that simple).
  • Law of Non-contradiction: x is not non-x (i.e. “The same property cannot both belong and not belong to the same subject at the same time in the same respect” – Aristotle).
  • Law of Excluded Middle: Either x or non-x (i.e. there is no 3rd, middle alternative between existence and non-existence, between true and false, or between a statement and its negation).
  • Principle of Sufficient Reason: Everything that is has a sufficient reason why it is – both why it exists and why it is what it is.
  • Principle of Causality: Everything that acts or changes has a reason or cause why it acts or changes.

Another good (and less intimidating) book than Kreeft’s college level textbook is D.Q. McInerny’s short Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, appropriate for younger grades. Travis Lambert recently wrote a short and nicely illustrated book explaining logical fallacies to very young children in fairy-tale fashion, entitled “The Fallacious Book of Fables”.

No Time

Author’s photo of Big Ben while on a layover in London in 2013.

“Time marches on” – Metallica;
“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin… into the future” – Steve Miller Band;
“Get busy like a schoolboy making an ‘A’ cause time my brother is tickin’ away” – dc Talk;
“Time, why you punish me?” – Hootie & the Blowfish.

The subject of time is a favorite topic of songwriters and poets from all different genres and eras.  I’ve been studying for a big engineering exam later this year, so time has been on my mind a lot lately, too. As I work practice problems, taking far longer than the average time I’ll have on the exam, I’m reminded of how quickly time can pass when you’re busy. As I look at the calendar and realize I only have 7 months left to study, I find myself echoing Dr. Seuss when he observed (in his classic style), “My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” And when I get to the exam, time management will be critical. The temptation in an open-book exam is to waste precious time searching for answers. However, you can’t afford to be looking for answers in all the wrong places; you have to know where to go. Another trap is not having studied the right material and being unprepared for the questions asked on the exam. Suppose I’m more comfortable with steel and concrete design, and only study those areas to the exclusion of wood and masonry. I’ll be in trouble when I don’t know how to work half the problems on the exam. Fortunately, while the actual questions are a surprise, applicants are provided a breakdown of what areas of knowledge are required. So I know in advance that of the four design problems in the afternoon session, there will be one each dealing with concrete, masonry, steel, and wood. Knowing that,  and acting on it, I can (and should) be prepared going into the exam.

But as important as my upcoming exam is for me as an engineer, it is insignificant in comparison to the question of where I will spend eternity. Like the exam, I can waste all my time looking for answers in the wrong references. I can go worship Progress at the altar of secular humanism, or tread the Buddha’s Eightfold Path,  or read the Qur’an and the Hadith of Muhammad, or seek “enlightenment” from the  most respected guru, all to no avail. There is only one way to God, and all these other attempts are only dead ends. Trying to get to God by any of the merely human attempts, rather than the way that He opened up for us, is about as useful as trying to design a masonry shear wall from tables in the Steel Manual. It’s simply the wrong book, no matter how much one believes it has the right answer.

I can also simply ignore my lack of planning in certain areas of life, and appear some day before Jesus Christ, the judge of all, woefully unprepared, with no recourse, no appeals, no “retests”, – no second chances. Maybe you’re too busy chasing money, fame, power, knowledge, success – or even admirable goals like family, or “leading a good life”, or “leaving the world a better place” – to think about God. As Jesus famously said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” [Mk 8:36] Don’t blow this divine exam by ignoring the very things that are actually going to be on “the test”. What will we be tested on come Judgement Day? None of those things we like to use to define a “successful” life. Rather, it all comes down to this: Did you accept God’s free gift of salvation [Ro  6:23] on His terms or did you try to demand it be on your terms? If not His terms, you’ve been preparing for the wrong exam.

Maybe you’d rather not think about death and what might occur afterward, and instead just “focus on the here and now”.  Hey, I prefer using structural steel to masonry, but the fact that I’m not as comfortable designing a masonry shear wall is why I need to study that. Whether I like it or not won’t change the fact that there will be a masonry design problem on the exam. I’ll have only myself to blame if stick my head in the sand and choose not to think about what’s coming. Life is pretty short, when you think about it, even if we die of old age. What’s a hundred years or so in comparison to human history? Tragic accidents, disease, or the acts of murderers and drunk drivers and terrorists and the like can make it considerably shorter.  Unfortunately, you never know exactly when that end will come. Don’t waste the time you have been given looking for answers in all the wrong places or simply avoiding thinking about the questions. The Bible is the master reference book that has the critical answers to life’s big questions: How did all this begin? Who am I? Why am I here? How will all this end? Origin, identity, purpose, and destiny are 4 words that drive much of our search for meaning in life, and they are all answered by our Creator in His book. And if you can read my rambling little blog, but haven’t invested in reading God’s Word, then what are still doing here?! Go buy, borrow, check out, or download a Bible and get to studying!*

*I hesitate to advocate stealing a Bible, although I don’t know any Christian that wouldn’t gladly give their Bible to a potential Scripture thief hungry for “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68].

No Extra Screws

Leftover screws… and washers… and dowels…

There’s a joke that when engineers put together objects with “some assembly required”, whether assembling a kid’s toy or rebuilding a car, they end up with extra screws left over at the end because they made the object “more efficient” by only using what was actually needed. Of course, if the original designer was careful, then there really was a purpose for those “extra” parts, and we just didn’t see it from our perspective (or didn’t bother reading the instructions…).  Why does Flap A have to go in Slot B before attaching Part C that I attached 3 steps ago? What is this extra screw I’m left with, and does that have anything to do with why my wife’s car won’t start now?

Seriously though, have you ever felt that your life was just one of those “extras” in the grand scheme of things, like the extra screws that come with a lot of boxed furniture? This useful, practical – maybe even beautiful – object is constructed, but there’s extra supplies left over that played no part in it. They either get thrown out or stuffed in a drawer somewhere on the off-chance there’s a use for them later. Sometimes, even Christians, who understand that the Creator of the universe loves us dearly, even though there are no works we could do to justify that love, can still feel disappointed by our ordinariness and our lack of “big” accomplishments. Sure, Paul talks about the goodness of living a “tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” [1Ti 2:1-2], but we still want to do big things.

Billy Graham, probably the most famous evangelist of the last century, died last week at the age of 99. It’s estimated that he preached the good news of Jesus Christ live to 200 million people all over the world, and reached many more via radio, TV, and print. That’s certainly an amazing accomplishment. Most of us will never do that, or even a millionth part of that. And yet, that’s OK.

That may not be God’s plan for us, but it may be part of His plan for us to reach the one who will go on to reach millions. Think about Billy Graham. He wasn’t born saved; nobody is. Someone preached the Gospel to him [Rom 10:13-15]. Do you know who that person was? I got curious about that several years ago and looked him up. That someone was one Mordecai Ham. He was descended from eight generations of Baptist preachers.[1] That’s quite the preaching pedigree, but even as famous as Ham was for a time in the American South, Billy Graham delivered the gospel to more people in more places than Mordecai and his previous 8 generations of preachers – combined! In that respect, one might be tempted to forget about people like old Mordecai (or people like you and I), and focus on who the next “superstar” might be. But Ham didn’t need to reach millions to fulfill his part in God’s plan; he just needed to reach the people God ordained for him to reach, like a teenager named Billy. And the same applies to each of us. 57 years after he died, Ham’s name is only a footnote in history, but it’s better to be a footnote in God’s story than the star of our own story.[2]

We can know God’s overall plans for world history, and often we see parts of those plans acted out by certain people who become famous in the process, but we don’t realize all the contingencies that God orchestrated in between to bring about His sovereign will. Just like with a race car, we can see the driver hit the gas and shift gears, and see the amazing results as the car accelerates out of sight, but we overlook the complex series of gears and pistons and belts and timing chains and whatnot hidden under the hood, all of which have to consistently do their small individual tasks to accomplish the driver’s intent. Likewise, the Christian can take comfort in knowing that we don’t have to have millions of Twitter followers, or run a “megachurch” with thousands attending every week, or have best-selling books on the store shelves to be successful before God. In fact, those who compromise God’s truth to achieve those things would actually be the failures, regardless of the worldly success they may have. Rather, all God asks is that we be obedient in the little things He has called us to do. Does God need you or me or Billy Graham to accomplish what He wills? No, of course not. I think another Mordecai, from the book of Esther, made it clear that if we refuse to do the task God offers us the privilege of performing, our refusal won’t stop Him from accomplishing it [Es 4:13-14]. But it will keep us from being part of His plan, and we’ll reap the consequences of that. Yet if we are faithful to obey in the little things, God will use that in ways we won’t even be able to understand until glory when we shall “know fully” [1Co 13:12]. For there are no extra screws or throwaway parts in God’s designs.

[1], accessed 2018-02-26.
[2] To borrow an expression from a 2013 sermon from one of my church’s teaching pastors, Ben Parkinson.

Miracles and Einstein, Part 2

Albert Einstein in 1947

Last week, I went over how Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity were a more comprehensive model of the universe than previous theories, and how a worldview that can acknowledge the possibility of miracles is likewise more comprehensive than the atheistic worldview. Apart from whether God exists or miracles do occur, the worldview that can handle those possibilities without breaking is, all else being equal, the more robust model. Today, I want to conclude that investigation with a look at one of Einstein’s more unique “thought experiments”.

Einstein was famous for his thought experiments, and for good reason. He worked as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, without access to laboratories and expensive equipment to conduct physical experiments. Moreover, some of his ideas were beyond the ability to experimentally verify for years. But throughout his life, Einstein carefully reasoned his way through the implications of different ideas via these thought experiments. He published 4 papers in 1905 (while still a clerk!) that revolutionized  science. Ten years later the world would get his general theory of relativity, and Einstein’s name would become synonymous with genius. Among his though experiments about lightning flashes and clocks and measuring rods on moving trains, he presented an interesting example in his book, Relativity, that I want to look at. To illustrate one implication of his theory of general relativity to the question of whether the universe is infinite or finite, he postulates a world of 2-dimensional “flat” beings living in a  2-dimensional “flat” world with “flat” tools for measuring their world. To the 2-D beings, depth is a foreign concept. Says Einstein, “For them nothing exists outside of this plane: that which they observe to happen to themselves and to their flat ‘things’ is the all-inclusive reality of their plane.” [1]  While he proceeds to build on this to look at the finitude of our universe,  what caught my eye was his point that only what happens in-plane is observable by the 2-D beings. This got me thinking of my own little thought experiment.

Suppose their flat universe is a region contained in a 3-dimensional universe. Maybe their entire existence is contained in a “tabletop universe” in your study. You, being a 3-D being, are able to look down on their universe and observe them in ways they cannot observe their own world.  For them, they might not be able to see past an obstacle in their path, but would have to go around it to see what was on the other side. You can simply see over the obstacle to know whether trouble awaits them on the other side or not. In some sense, you can see how their choices will play out before they can. But what if your relation with their world wasn’t simply limited to observation, but could also include interaction? While they could move and observe things in the x- and y-axes of their world, you would be able to approach them from the z-axis — “out of the blue”, so to speak. With their observations limited to a plane, your interactions with them would surely be mysterious. If you moved an obstacle out of their way, they would be able to see the effect of your interaction, certainly, but the origin of it? Probably not. It might, from their point of view, appear to defy their laws of physics.

Could you communicate with them? Possibly, though maybe not with the sound waves produced by your vocal chords. But you might be able to communicate with them in ways possible in their plane frame of reference. For instance, if they communicated with each other in flashes of colored light, and you wanted to give them a message, you could do so by translating your thoughts into flashing colored light instead of spoken or written words, in order to put your message in their terms. If you really wanted to interact with them in a way they could understand, though, entering their world would be the ultimate move. Of course, this is the stuff of sci-fi stories, but that’s why this is a though experiment, so let’s keep going. Suppose you could transform yourself to a 2-D being like the ones in the tabletop universe. Your interactions and communications with them would be more direct and personal in such a case. They would be able to relate to you better as one of them, rather than simply a mysterious source of messages and the occasional intrusions of solid geometry into their plane geometry world.  Even if you fully understood the limitations of living in a 2-D world beforehand, having endured those constraints yourself would make your interactions with them more meaningful for them.

Now, I’m not saying that spiritual reality is simply a higher physical dimension, or an alternate/parallel dimension, but I do think this analogy can show the plausibility of miracles. The skeptic often claims miracles are impossible, and yet we can think of scenarios where a completely naturalistic system could have events that would appear miraculous to one set of observers in the system. So to the skeptic, I would ask:

  • Is it really that much of a stretch to say that God exists in a way that transcends our observable universe such that He can be “outside” it, but still interact with it?
  • Would it be such a surprise that God might exist in a way that is like nothing else in our frame of reference? The idea of the Trinity, one Being with 3 personal centers of consciousness, is probably as different from our life experience as a 3-dimensional man would be to the 2-dimensional  creatures of Einstein’s thought experiment.
  • Should it be a shock that He could have knowledge of future events in ways we don’t understand? Some see omniscience as equating to deterministic control and negation of our free will, but knowledge of the future is not the same as causation of that future. Now the Bible does leave us with a tension between God’s sovereignty over us and our free will, but I would say this falls into the category of mystery rather than contradiction as some assume.
  • Is it so unbelievable that He would condescend to communicating with us in ways we could comprehend? The Bible records some of the different ways God has communicated with us: by direct speech to Adam and Eve [Ge 3:9], mediated speech through other humans (any of the prophets), inspired writing (like Paul’s epistles), angelic messengers [Lk 1:26-38], visions [Is 6:1-3], dreams [Mt 1:20-21], His Spirit indwelling us and speaking directly to our spirit [Ac 20:22-24], or even speaking through a burning bush [Ex 3:2-4:17] and a donkey [Nb 22:21-39].
  • Lastly, is it impossible that an omnipotent Creator could even enter His creation, taking on our limitations of physical existence and be one of us – “truly God and truly man” as the Creeds would say? That is the miracle of the Incarnation, and the most amazing demonstration of love for us. Some eschew this as arrogance on the part of us measly humans inhabiting this speck of dust in a vast cosmos, to think we are so important. But it’s not about some amazing worthiness on our part that warrants cosmic attention, but rather the amazing, mind-boggling extent of God’s love.

Perhaps, the skeptic’s problem is that they have too small a view of God. They are like the 2-D creature saying that the concept of “depth” is unintelligible and that there is nothing outside their plane. A world beyond their imagination breaks in to our world, and yet it doesn’t fit in their small, simplistic model of how the world works, and so they ignore it. Do you want to be open-minded, a real freethinker? Then free yourself from the constraints of atheism, and be open to the bigger view of reality. But I’ll warn you, when you do that, you’ll discover an added dimension to your world that Christianity best explains. Then you have a choice: do you turn your eyes back down to your flat world, or do you follow the evidence straight to Christ? Choose wisely, my friend.

[1] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special & The General Theory (NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004, original 1920), p. 93.

Miracles and Einstein, Part 1

Albert Einstein’s official portrait on award of the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Miracles are often mocked by skeptics as impossible, but I would like to suggest here that the skeptic is not seeing the big picture, and is, ironically, being somewhat close-minded.

Now, it’s always good to define our terms, so first, what is a miracle? Nelson’s Bible Dictionary defines it as “A sign, a special manifestation of God. Miracles set forth God’s character, and are used to accredit His messengers” [1]. C.S. Lewis, in his classic work, Miracles, gave a good working definition as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power” [2]. We can gather from this two key points: a) miracles are the exception to the norm, and b) miracles have specific purposes. Indeed, the rarity works to highlight their significance and the purpose behind them. But can miracles “fit” into any modern view of the world? We live in a science-loving society, and our world is often (but not always) made better by scientific advances. Yet science is the study of the natural world around us, and miracles are supernatural, by definition. So where can miracles fit in our model of reality? Let’s work through that today.

Albert Einstein actually made some comments in his 1920 book, Relativity, that can shed some light here.  In it, he attempted to explain to the layman his theories of special and general relativity. Classical, or Newtonian physics had been an excellent framework for scientific inquiry since the time of… Newton. But some phenomena appear to break the laws of physics in a purely Newtonian framework. They are rare, but when they are observed, accounting for those puzzling phenomena requires more and more complicated, ad-hoc theories. The beauty of Einstein’s special and general relativity were that they explained the cases where Newtonian physics was deficient, but then both  simplified to Newtonian mechanics under the vast majority of conditions (namely weak gravitational fields and travel speeds much slower than the speed of light) [3]. As the speed of an object approaches the speed of light, or gravitational fields get very strong,  observations framed in classical terms tend to make less sense and physics appears to “break down”. Not breaking down in those cases, Einstein’s theories therefore had more explanatory power than Newton’s. And in fact, we’d already seen this subsuming of previous theories by more comprehensive theories with an example Einstein himself used: the laws of electrostatics were thought to be the laws of electricity until electrodynamics was developed by Einstein’s hero, James Clerk Maxwell. Said Einstein:

“Should we be justified in saying that for this reason electrostatics is overthrown by the field-equations of Maxwell in electrodynamics? Not in the least. Electrostatics is contained in electrodynamics as a limiting case; the laws of the latter lead directly to those of the former for the case in which the fields are invariable with regard to time.  No fairer destiny could be allotted to any physical theory, than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.” [4]

What does any of this have to do with miracles? Well, a naturalistic methodology can explain our observations of the world the vast majority of the time. But we have to recognize that there are times it may not explain things. These cases of miracles, where we get intervention from outside the natural world for a specific purpose, won’t make sense to us until we enlarge our frame of reference to include the possibility of that. We are often reminded that methodological naturalism is the mandate of science, and there is no room for God in that. But then the skeptic making this response often proceeds not to a stance of methodological naturalism, but philosophical naturalism. The first is a method of investigation that assumes an event happened without supernatural intervention; the second assumes such intervention is not even possible. The distinction is significant. We cannot recognize effects from outside the system if we don’t recognize even the possibility of there being anything outside the system. It would be like coming home from work to find my grass wet, and puzzling over such an extremely isolated rain shower that didn’t get the house or driveway wet, and never acknowledging the neighbor’s sprinkler as a potential cause. An assumption of rain may be correct most of the time, but if don’t allow for the actions of free agents outside the “system” of my property lines, some explanations will forever elude me.

Despite the claims by atheists of being freethinkers, the Christian is actually in the more open-minded position here. The Christian acknowledges the validity of searching for natural causes to events (for God created an orderly and comprehensible universe governed by uniform, rational laws), but also acknowledges the possibility in rare situations (lest they become meaningless) of intervention by God when He deems appropriate and has a specific purpose in mind. In this way, the Christian actually has the more general theory of the world that can encompass the atheist’s smaller view of the world just as electrodynamics encompasses electrostatics, or relativity encompasses Newtonian physics. Maybe you’re a skeptic reading this right now. Understand, I’m not expecting you to instantly believe the miracles recorded in the Bible now, but in the final analysis, Christianity is a more comprehensive worldview than atheism. Now look at the big picture and follow the evidence where it leads. Till next week, S.D.G.

[1] “Miracle”, Nelson’s Foundational Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004).
[2] C.S. Lewis, Miracles: How God Intervenes in Nature and Human Affairs, (NY: Macmillan, 1978), p. 5.
[3] For those interested , the kinetic energy formula according to special relativity would be the series mc² + mv²/2 + 3/8mv^4/c²+… where v equals the velocity of the particle considered. At velocities << c, mv²/2 becomes the dominant velocity-dependent term, while mc² is a constant of the particle. Therefore, the relativistic kinetic energy reduces to the classical KE=½mv² formula. Regarding his general relativity, Einstein said, “If we confine the application of the theory to the case where the gravitational fields can be regarded as being weak, and in which all masses move… with velocities which are small compared with the velocity of light, we then obtain as a first approximation the Newtonian theory. ” –  Relativity, p.39, 87.
[4] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special & The General Theory (NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 65.

Dead Again?

“The Ascension”, by John Singleton Copley, 1775.

Was Jesus resurrected simply to die again a few weeks later? That’s what one former minister-turned-atheist tries telling people the Gospels are actually indicating. Yes, some atheist delusions are further out there than others. But, this particular author has made the claim, and atheist reviewers on Amazon keep commending his book, so let’s work through some of this silliness today.

As an introduction, David Madison claims to be a former minister of two churches before coming out as an atheist. In his book “Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch Your Faith”, he details at length his superficial “Christian” childhood in a very theologically-liberal family and his rejection of the vast majority of Christian doctrine in high school and college, jettisoning the last of it in seminary.  You might it think it odd, as I did, that he should continue pursuing his degree, and most especially ordination, and the solemn responsibility of pastoring a congregation, if he did not believe the tenets of Christianity at this point. But then he proceeds to demonstrate an abysmal knowledge of what Christianity teaches so that one can only pity his former congregations. But what does he actually say about the resurrection? Let’s hear from the man himself:

“My belief in the grand centerpiece of Christian theology, the Resurrection of Jesus, eroded as well during my seminary experience…. From a secular, scientific point of view, resurrection is silly and indefensible. A dead body walking around? Why not call it the Halloween Faith instead of the Easter Faith?”[1]

This, like many of his snarky objections, can be traced back to simple ignorance. The resurrection is not some dead body walking around like a zombie. Jesus was alive after the resurrection, talking with people [Mt 28:9-10], eating with them [Lk24:41-43, Jn 21:12-14], teaching [Lk 24:27], proving that He was not a ghost or hallucination but a real, live person [Lk 24:39-40, Jn 20:20,27, Ac 1:3]. Moreover, Jesus’ resurrection was more than just a temporary restoration of physical life like with Lazarus [Jn 11:43-45]. Instead, Jesus is the “firstfruits” of a resurrection to undying life, to life everlasting [1Co 15:20-22].

“But to die-hard Christians, Jesus’ resurrection is one of those articles of faith that must be taken on faith. It is a miracle in defiance of science, we were always told, which enhanced its value.”[1]

Madison may have been sadly misinformed that miracles are in “defiance of science”, and that faith was somehow enhanced by being contrary to reason, but he certainly doesn’t speak for Christians. Our God is God of logic and reason. And if there had been a scientist at the Wedding Feast in Cana [Jn 2:1-11], he could’ve confirmed the occurrence of the miracle of turning water into wine, even if unable to explain it.  A water sample from the water jugs would have tested as water beforehand, and a sample afterward would’ve had water + alcohol + the various organic compounds present in a fine wine.  Likewise, checking Jesus’ body for pulse, respiration, and brainwave activity  when He was placed in the tomb would’ve confirmed a state of death. Three days later, those hallmarks of life would be present. No defying science there, just naturalistic presuppositions.

“The New Testament reports that the resurrected body of Jesus ascended into heaven, literally, up through the clouds. According to the Book of Acts, this happened forty days after the resurrection. Now we know that heaven is not ‘up there,’ a few miles or even thousands of miles above the clouds. So there is no way that the resurrected body of Jesus left planet earth. In other words, he died again. And this most obvious of conclusions prompted one of my Bible professors to ask, ‘So what is the value of a forty-day resurrection?’ That comment wiped out resurrection as an article of faith worth believing, let alone defending.“[1, emphasis mine]

I’m not sure which is sadder: that a Bible professor would lead students astray like that, or that seminary students could be led astray by that. Jesus merely disappears from view of the disciples, and Madison (and his professor, apparently) concludes that He died again? Like far too many atheists, Madison has let one simple question derail him that never should have.

“It became crystal clear to me– again, acknowledging the obvious– that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection preserve a rumor that got out of hand, a cover-up, a lie, or– more innocently– simply a fantasy, a product of imagination. This meant, furthermore, that resurrection says nothing at all about the power of a god or the “triumph of Jesus over the grave.” From either the scientific or theological standpoint, resurrection was worthless. It became even more tempting for me to push the idea of God itself into the realm of fable.”[1]

The only fantastical product of imagination here is Madison’s book. It’s been pointed out repeatedly, but apparently still needs to be pointed out: people normally don’t go through extended, torturous deaths to preserve what they know to be a runaway rumor or a lie, and certainly not an innocent fantasy. The apostles were in a position to know what really happened, and they all paid dearly for holding on to their belief in the resurrected Jesus. And Paul was in the business of killing this supposed rumor/lie/fantasy when he gave up everything to be a part of it [Ga 1:23-24] and eventually die for it. And as for saying nothing about the triumph of Jesus over the grave, that is because Mr. Madison apparently thinks Jesus was still dead! If you deny what the Bible clearly says about the nature of the resurrection, and then try to shoehorn it into a box it never came out of, it’s not going to make much sense. But that’s not the fault of the message, but rather the fault of the one desperately trying to misread the message so he can dismiss it as nonsense instead of the convicting truth it is.

Did Jesus rise only to die again a few weeks later? No. That’s not what Christians believe, and there’s  no way to get that from the Bible, or any other historical document. It is pure fantasy; and while Mr. Madison may deceive himself with these flights of fancy, my hope for you, dear reader, is that you won’t follow him off that cliff.

[1] David Madison. Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), Kindle Edition p. 15.