# All posts by Jason

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

# Closed-Form Solutions & the Case for God

I was recently watching a series of classroom videos on Finite Element Analysis (FEA), and the professor mentioned that FEA is not a classical closed-form solution, but rather an iterative, open-form solution. What on earth does that mean, and how could it possibly relate to looking at the case for God? Let’s work through that this week.

First, let me give some background so you can maybe see why a nerd like me would make that connection. A closed-form solution, in this context, is where you can simply solve an equation  to find the unknown variable. For instance, in my practice of structural engineering, the deflection of a cantilever beam may be something I need to know as I’m sizing the beam. If the beam conforms to certain assumptions like a constant cross section, constant material stiffness, a uniform load, and so forth, I have a simple equation: $\Delta = \frac{wL^4} {8EI}$. If it’s a concentrated load at the end, there’s a slightly different equation. These equations are each derived from beam deflection theory for a specific boundary condition, like a cantilever, or a simple span beam, and they provide exact answers. We engineers like exact answers. It’s nice to be able to say “this beam will only deflect 1.21 inches under that load, which is still acceptable.” I like closed form solutions because they are directly solvable for the variable I’m looking for, but sometimes, even with tables of equations for dozens of different conditions, there are no closed-form solutions, or they are too complex to use, or it would take a while to derive the equation from scratch. An open-form solution like the approximation methods used in FEA is iterative and relies on the results of previous attempts. FEA models a component like a beam with lots of little pieces that can each respond differently, so I’m not quite as limited by simplifying assumptions. Think of a beam made out of lots of LEGO® bricks.  Each brick (a “finite element”) is connected to multiple other bricks, and the total strength of the beam depends on the behavior of all of those individual connections. In general, the smaller the bricks, the more accurately you can represent the beam. But as the number of LEGO® bricks increases, the time to calculate all of those interconnections increases exponentially. That type of solution gets complex pretty quickly, and requires a computer for any problem worth solving. But it also doesn’t produce an exact solution. It iterates, or repeats the calculations with different input values until the successive estimates begins to converge. In other words, it runs through the thousands of equations over and over until the results aren’t changing much with each pass, and are within a tolerance the user sets for what is “close enough”. And what is “close enough”? That’s going to vary with the user and the type of problem being solved. Also, another engineer could try solving the exact same problem with a different mesh size (i.e. bigger or smaller LEGOs) and arrive at different results since it’s not just the beam properties that determine the answer now, but the modeling choices like mesh sizes, convergence tolerances, and iteration method.  So why would I want to use a complicated, inexact, and sometimes difficult to verify process like that? FEA lets me solve things I couldn’t otherwise. Some problems get far outside the simplifying assumptions of our various formulas, and FEA (done correctly), is the best option for finding a solution, even if it isn’t exact.

# Movie Review: “Unplanned”

I don’t get out to the movie theater very often, but this past weekend was an unusually good reason to go. Instead of the more typical brain rot on the big screen, a rare message of life, redemption, love, and forgiveness was premiering. Unplanned is the story of Abby Johnson, a young rising star in the ranks of Planned Parenthood who had become their youngest clinic director and been selected as employee of the year. That all changed, however, when she was asked to help the abortionist in an actual procedure by holding the ultrasound transducer so he could see the fetus he was about to kill. Talking points about “reproductive health” and “women’s rights” with regard to abortion are unmasked as the lies they are when it comes to actually seeing another human’s body getting its limbs ripped off and sucked down a suction tube as a result of those “rights”. That critical scene in the movie highlights why ultrasound, and the knowledge it brings, are so useful to the pro-life side of the debate, and so devastating to the pro-abortion side. Hence, abortion supporters must make strange claims like the one in The Atlantic in 2017 (here) that tried to paint ultrasound as a bad thing used by male doctors to focus on the fetus and bypass their women patients. Rather than being a tool of some conspiratorial patriarchy, ultrasound is simply a valuable tool that dramatically increases our knowledge when we can’t directly see something, whether that’s a doctor looking at a human fetus, a veterinarian looking at a dog’s stomach, or a weld inspector using very similar equipment to find hidden flaws in welds (like I’ve personally done). Honestly, some of the defenses of abortion would be funny if they weren’t so sad.

Now, for the review. This movie has had an uphill struggle, from getting an R rating, to a very limited opening in only 1,059 theaters nationwide, to TV and radio networks refusing to air advertisements for the movie, to Twitter suspending their account on opening weekend (just a coincidence, nothing to see here people, keep moving), to Twitter mysteriously decimating their follower count the next day before restoring it again. And yet, the film doubled its expected opening weekend revenue of $3M with a final tally of$6.1 million. That was enough to put it at #4 in the nation for the weekend. Not bad for a low budget film (\$6M budget) opening in only a third to one quarter of the theaters of the next 3 films above it.

I thought the movie did a good job of not demonizing Planned Parenthood staff, but rather conveyed that they really did believe (even if wrongly) that they were helping women. The movie also explained that God offers forgiveness to those who repent of wrongdoing. His grace is freely available to all: the women who’ve had abortions like Abby; the men who’ve pressured women into getting an abortion; the doctors like Dr. Anthony Levantino, [1] who performed hundreds of abortions before becoming pro-life, forsaking killing to return to the doctor’s call to “do no harm”; and clinic directors like Abby, who realized the part she played in arranging the snuffing out of so many lives and asks at one point how God could forgive her.  The movie shows through Abby’s story how overwhelming that guilt and grief can be when someone realizes what they’ve done, but also how freeing and life-changing it can be when they bring that sin before God and ask His forgiveness.

The film also did a better job than Christian films have in the past,  I think, of showing the complexity of the people involved. Abby’s story is not a 1-dimensional caricature of the “evil abortion provider”. Rather, it shows her coming from a pro-life home, having considered herself pro-life growing up, getting involved with Planned Parenthood in college, and attending church services and having awkward dinner conversations with her family as she worked for the abortion chain. There is a lot of dissonance in her life as she tries to balance living in two different worlds, and Ashley Bratcher did a great job conveying the full spectrum of this story vividly. The supporting cast did exactly what they were supposed to do – support the story. No show-stealing or upstaging here like you sometimes get when there’s too many stars in a movie. In fact, if you’re looking for big names, you won’t find any here. However, to be honest, I’ve seen enough “star-studded” movies that were simply awful; I’ll take a good story over a big name any day.

While this movie delivers a good well-told story of redemption, it also delivers a very sobering reality check for a country that wants to yell at each other about abortion without really dealing with what abortion is. And just as seeing the grisly procedure up close and personal “changed everything” for her, it should for all of us as well. The movie ends with a number that viewers can text if they happen to work in the abortion industry and want out. Just as a clinic director like Abby was able to get out of Murder, Inc., so can others. I would just encourage everyone – pro-life, pro-abortion, and anyone on the fence – to go see this movie and think about it. If you’ve seen it, what did you think? And if you are one who doesn’t want to see it, I’d especially like to hear from you: why don’t you want to see it? Until next time, blessings, y’all!

[1] What would a movie review be without some trivia? Dr. Levantino actually plays the first doctor in the movie.

# A Second Look at Design

I recently heard a skeptic dismiss out of hand the idea that there is evidence of design in nature that supports the existence of God. He considered it an already-refuted argument that could be safely ignored. Can it? Let’s work through that today.

Despite the dismissals of skeptics, the argument for God’s existence based on evidence of design persists. Why is that? Perhaps it’s that detection of design is so intuitive. Design tends to stand out to us because we can recognize the twin hallmarks of design: choice and purpose. We can see that something is a certain way instead of an alternate way; and even when we can’t recognize the purpose of something, we can still often recognize that something has a purpose. If you’ve ever cleaned out an old storage shed and found some unidentified antique tool, you might have thought to yourself, “I can’t imagine what this was used for, but it clearly was made for some specific task.” We also see this in archaeology when people find artifacts and don’t assume they are natural formations. We see it in games of chance where we become suspicious when someone “happens” to make all the right choices and achieve the very beneficial purpose of winning lots of money. We begin to suspect a designed – or “rigged” – outcome. Crop circles were another instance of rightly suspecting design, whether you believe them to be of alien or human origin.

Recently, I was walking in the woods behind an old abandoned industrial facility, and came across the artifact in the picture above.  Although it was in a wooded area, half-buried amidst tree roots and rocks, and partially covered in moss, I recognized it as definitely not being a natural element. Like William Paley and his famous watch example, I recognized the large metal gear as being the product of intelligent human design. Why is that? It didn’t fit in with its surroundings, but it was more than that. A piece of lava rock or ocean coral would have both been out of place in those woods, but still natural. Rather, it conformed to an independent pattern (that of gears) that are the result of design.

But then what do you do when you find the same obviously designed structure (gear teeth) serving a similar function to what humans often use gears for (synchronizing motion), yet in something clearly not designed by humans? There’s a fair bit of precise design required to make gear teeth mesh well and not interfere, but how do you explain that amount of specified information content in something that predates any human invention of gears?

Here is a picture of the gearing used by the Issus coleoptratus nymph to synchronize its powerful hind legs when it jumps. In fact, Cambridge researcher Malcolm Burrows notes that the 10-12 gear teeth on each leg synchronize the 2 powerful legs more precisely than signals from the nervous system could. If one wasn’t told beforehand that it was part of a living insect, one would reasonably assume it was something man-made. Even if one noticed the 20 micron scale in the photo and realized how small the gears pictured were, one would be quite justified in thinking the photo was of some exciting development in human-designed nanotechnology. And yet it’s not. In fact, unlike biomimetics, where humans make useful inventions by copying nature, the human invention of gearing and this naturally-occurring gearing are completely independent. Yet man-made gears are assumed to involve careful design, while the planthopper’s gears are assumed to be the result of gradual development over many, many successive generations. However, gearing is something that is particularly difficult to imagine developing gradually. One gear is not only useless, but rather a hindrance. Poorly formed pairs of gears can lock up, which would hardly be a survival advantage. For these gears to really be useful, they need to function well as a system from the start, and that leads us back to those hallmarks of design: choice and purpose. There are a lot of wrong ways to make gears, but the right way seems to have been chosen. Moreover,  the gears on its exoskeleton are only used for one stage of the planthopper’s life cycle. Once it matures and develops wings, it no longer needs the precise coordination of intermeshing gears to control its jump trajectory. They have served their purpose and are discarded with the final molt.

We recognize design by intelligent free agents by its traits of choice and purpose. We look for these things when we search for the remains of ancient cultures buried in the sand, or when we sift through surveillance footage looking for cheating gamblers, or even when we analyze radio signals searching for aliens. And yes, we can apply the same tactic in searching for God. Rather than a safely-ignored argument, evidence for design in nature consistently and relentlessly points us to the Master Designer, who has left His calling cards everywhere for us to find, if we are open to follow the evidence where it leads.

See the original LiveScience article from Sept. 12, 2013 here:  https://www.livescience.com/39577-insects-with-leg-gears-discovered.html.

# Christianity: the Right Tool for the Job

I have a small book on my bookcase with one of the more unusual titles of any I own: “Jesus, Friend to Terrorists”. Yes, you read that right. The book was addressed to the terrorists, rebels, and revolutionaries around the world who want to change the world, albeit in very misguided and tragic ways. The book applauds their zeal and commitment to a cause, but encourages them to reconsider their brutal methods, consider what will happen if they succeed in overthrowing their oppressors only to become the oppressors the next generation seeks to overthrow, and instead commit themselves to the much better cause of Christ. In the end, it asks them to trade in the hate and envy of political revolutions, and the bloody violence of terrorism, for the love and hope brought by the most amazing revolution known: the divine transformation of a human soul. Last week, I offered some reasons why I think humanism, like so many other ideologies (including those of terrorists), is the wrong tool for solving the world’s problems. This week, I’d like to explain why I am persuaded that Christianity is the right tool for the job.

• “Out There” vs. “In Here” Problems. Last week I noted that some of the goals that humanists aspire to, like ending war and poverty, are admirable. Yet they are only looking for an external problem to fix, like an allergen “out there” in the world, when the problem is more like a disease “in here”, inside each of us. Too often, we want to lay the blame on an array of external factors like how we were raised by our parents, the culture we grew up in, and on and on. The Bible shows us that the problem is an internal one called sin. But the Bible doesn’t simply diagnose the real problem; it points us to Christ, who removes the hatred and selfishness and pride in me and you, which ultimately addresses the symptoms that manifest themselves in society as a whole. Transformation inside is what’s required to fix the problems we see outside.
• Collective vs. Individual Remedies. It’s far more comfortable to talk about “people” or “society” needing to change, but God commands us individually to change, and that can get uncomfortable quickly. But what is needed for a society to change? The individuals that form that society must change. And when numbers of individuals are radically transformed on the inside, their outside actions necessarily follow suit, and whole empires are changed.
• Love. Two things that were noticeably absent in the Humanist Manifestos I read were the love and forgiveness that the Bible emphasizes so much. There seems to be a significant difference between helping the poor because it will supposedly help society flourish and helping them because one genuinely loves the person being helped. But the term “love” has become rather diluted in our culture, so what do I even mean by love? And what shall we base it on? Christian love isn’t a mere feeling of affection, for we are called to love even our enemies [Mt 5:44]. And it’s not “reciprocal altruism”, for we are also called to love those who could never return the favor. Rather, it is the willing of good for another and the giving of oneself to realize that good. While it is thoughtful, love is not only thoughts – it is action. While it can be spontaneous, it is also committed and enduring. And above all, it is unconditional. After all, what condition could an enemy satisfy to warrant such love and still be an enemy? Yet there are many examples over the last 2,000 years of Christians asking God to forgive the very people brutally torturing and killing them. Why should we go to such extremes? Because we were each enemies of God, yet He loved us first [Rom 5:8-10, 1Jn 4:19]. So then Christian love is grounded not in the ever-changing state of our emotions, but in the very nature of God [1Jn 4:8-11]. In fact, while the law is normally seen as cold and unloving, Jesus said that all the Mosaic Law could be summed up in 2 commandments: to love God with all that you are, and to love others as yourself [Mk 12:28-31]. The revolutionary, transformative love of God can change the vilest sinners into saints.

Do you want to see the world changed for the better? Forget humanist panaceas, cultural paradigms, economic schemes, and political solutions. Instead, recognize the problem of sin in yourself first, freely take of the remedy graciously provided by your Creator, and then go live out that love you’ve received, bless others as you’ve been blessed, and share the good news you’ve learned so others can experience the same joy. Do that and see if you don’t “turn the world upside-down” like the Jesus’ apostles [Ac 17:6 ESV].

# Humanism: The Wrong Tool for the Job

This last weekend, I spent far more time than planned installing a new hot water heater at my house. But frustrating experiences can often be good teachers, and that project reinforced the importance of having the right tool for the job. Some tools are woefully inadequate for the task at hand, while the more appropriate tool makes quick work of it. The worldview we filter life through is similar in that the wrong worldview makes life less comprehensible and more difficult – or even impossible – to live out consistently; but with the right worldview, everything falls into place. Let’s work through an example of that today.

After finishing the home repairs, I read through the three Humanist Manifestos maintained on the American Humanist Association website. The first was published in 1933, with a second in 1973, and the latest in 2003. Other than the rejection of God, they have some admittedly admirable goals like the elimination of war and poverty, and the security of freedom. Some “freedoms” advocated aren’t so admirable, like unrestricted abortion and euthanasia. After all, killing another innocent human being is murder no matter what euphemism is attached to it. But the general intent seems to be one of sincerely wanting to improve the world they live in. Yet, you can sincerely wear yourself out trying to use a screwdriver on a 16 penny nail  and never accomplish anything. Might I suggest, that despite all their sincerity, humanists are trying to use the wrong tool for the job when it comes to building a better world?

Humanism, according to their manifestos, has some views and goals worth comparing to Christianity. Here are just a few:

• All 3 manifestos regard the universe as self-existing, in spite of the evidence pointing more and more over the last century to a beginning of the universe at a finite point in the past. Interestingly, the evidence that humanists are uncomfortable acknowledging points to what the Bible has said all along: “In the beginning, God created….”[Gen 1:1]
• Unguided evolution is supported in all 3 manifestos, even though genetics and information theory has been steadily chipping away at that as a viable option. Science is already confirming what the Bible has said all along: we are fearfully and wonderfully made”[Ps 139:14].
• But the idea that mankind can evolve socially and become better and better was evident in the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933, in spite of the horrors of the “war to end all wars” (World War I) that had destroyed that utopian idea for many already. With two world wars in its rear view mirror, the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II noted in its preface that the previous manifesto had been “far too optimistic”, and recognized “the depths of brutality of which humans are capable”, and that “science has sometimes brought evil as well as good.” Even so, the Manifesto still advocated the same optimism and blind faith in the power of humans to change themselves (to the point of being able to “alter the course of human evolution”).[2] For those who have read the Bible, the preponderance of evidence of human depravity, both historically and in the dark recesses of our own hearts, is no mystery. Humanists may not want to admit that they (and every other human) are sinners, but it certainly does explain the world around us better than the naive optimism of humanism. That we are created in the image of God, but marred by sin explains why we humans seem capable of so much good, and yet still do so much evil.
• Humanists want to “provide the purpose and inspiration that so many seek,” give “personal meaning and significance to human life,” and provide “abundant and meaningful life”. [2] This is to come about from a selfless commitment to the greater good of “broad-based cooperative efforts”[2], “participation in the service of humane ideas” and “working to benefit society”[3], with a goal of “a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good.”[1] But I have to ask, why should a person want to do this? Why, if this life is all I have (as the 3 manifestos clearly state), should I spend it working and sacrificing to improve the lives of others? Not that I disagree with their goal of cooperation and selfless service; rather, I question their foundation for it. Even if society as a whole benefits from my sacrifices, why should I care enough to forfeit any of my limited time on earth to enjoy life? After all, we must find our fulfillment in the “here and now” according to humanism. I don’t think they really have a good answer to that, but the Bible does. We love because He first loved us [1Jn 4:19]; we serve because Christ served those He came to save [Mk 10:45] and because in serving others, we serve Him [Mt 25:35-40]; we are blessed in order to be a blessing to others [2Co 9:11]; we value others because we recognize them as created by God [Ge 1:27, Ac 17:26], loved by God [Jn 3:16, Rm 5:8], and precious in His sight – so how could we not want to give of ourselves to show love to them, even if they be our enemies [Mt5:44]? And we really do get the abundant life humanist seek! [Jn 10:10]
• They want to “conquer poverty”, stating that “world poverty must cease.” Yet Christians, not humanists, have been the most generous force in human history by building hospitals, orphanages, schools, universities; donating food, clothing, services, money, and volunteer time to help those in need; translating languages and teaching native people reading and writing, basic hygiene, and life skills like improved farming;  and working to end barbaric practices like slavery and suttee. We do it not out of commitment to an ideal, but out of genuine love for those affected by poverty. In fact, maybe the conspicuous absence of love in humanism is why Christians have traditionally given more to alleviate poverty.
• The manifesto claims that “war is obsolete”[2]. Far from being “obsolete”, war has been made more efficient than ever. Now we have the power to destroy entire countries in an instant with nuclear weapons, or in an agonizing time frame of our choice with biological and chemical weapons. Or we can target down to the individual, remotely, from the other side of the world, as if we were simply playing a video game. Rather than naively saying war is obsolete because humans can learn to not be selfish and to cooperate instead, the Bible shows us that we are all selfish apart from the transforming work of God in our hearts, and as long as there are sinful humans on this planet, some people will hate others or covet what others possess. These are the root causes of any unjust war, and they both really come down to that most ancient of vices: pride. Christianity deals with the ultimate cause of war, and all other acts of aggression, and prevents war by preventing the pride that starts wars.
• Humanists claim to be “committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity”[3], yet their explicit support for abortion and euthanasia say otherwise. Some people’s lives apparently aren’t worth as much as others. The Bible is consistent in all human life having inherent worth because of our creation in the image of God [Gen 1:27, 9:6].
•  Supposedly, in spite of the vast weight of history, “humankind has the potential, intelligence, goodwill, and cooperative skill to implement this commitment in the decades to come.”[2] Sadly, but unsurprisingly, humankind has missed that goal by a mile. Maybe that’s why, 3 decades later, the 2003 Humanist Manifesto III was one-quarter the length of the 1973 version, and with less concrete statements. Humans have potential, but it is only realized in the regeneration wrought by God. Without that, our only potential is for continued decay.

I’ve taken excerpts from 3 manifestos written over a 70 year period. I’m not trying to mix and match to paint them in the worst light. Rather, I hope I’ve shown a few ways that humanism has consistently missed the mark in addressing what ails the world. In the end, the fatal flaw of humanism may be found in their statement in Manifesto II: “As nontheists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity.” And that, my friends, makes about as much sense as grabbing a saw when you need a screwdriver.

# Comfort Zones God Makes Uncomfortable

I can truly appreciate all the jokes and memes circulating these days about introverts; given the option, I’d gladly sit on a desert island with a small mountain of books. But while I may be content with that, God doesn’t appear to be. And there’s a good chance He’s not content to leave you in your comfort zone either, so let’s work through that today.

In reading the Bible and church history, it is always interesting the people used by God. Consider a few examples:

• Moses may have been raised in Pharaoh’s court, but he doesn’t seem to have ever been comfortable leading the Israelites. He asked “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” [Ex 3:11], and tried to get out of his call because of his apparent speech impediment [Ex 4:10-16]. And yet he did oppose Pharaoh, one of the most powerful men in the world at the time, and led an entire people group out of captivity.
• Gideon was afraid, threshing wheat in a winepress to hide it from the Midianites when God called him to lead the Israelites into battle against their oppressors [Jg 6:11]. The Lord called him valiant, but he responded by asking, “O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house.” [Jg 6:15] Even after God granted him signs to confirm His message, Gideon was still nervous about completing his first assignment in broad daylight [Jg 6:27].
• Peter was a fisherman who was often sticking his foot in his mouth [Mt 16:22-23, 17:4-5], and yet was used by God to preach to the crowd at Pentecost where 3000 people were convicted by his message [Ac 2:14,37-41]. Later, in testifying before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council), the council members “observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” [Ac 4:13].
• Paul may have been in his comfort zone discussing theology like in his letter to the Romans, but he was also a “Hebrew of the Hebrews”, zealous for the Mosaic Law, and a persecutor of Christians initially [Php 3:4-7]. Yet he was sent to the Gentiles of all people – the non-Jews – to witness to the power of Christ to bring people from all nations to God through Jesus Christ [Ro 11:13-14, 15:15-16, Eph 3:8]. And though he always longed to see his fellow Jews accept Jesus as Lord [Ro 9:2-5], he would spend most of his remaining life ministering primarily to non-Jews.
• John Calvin just wanted to lead a quiet life of study in little Strasbourg, but he couldn’t escape the call to minister in Geneva, a much larger, worldly metropolis. He was a systematic theologian extraordinaire, but he was compelled to also pastor the flock at St. Peter’s church in Geneva, Switzerland. And in looking at the call of Christ to His followers to take up their cross and follow Him, Calvin considered Geneva his cross to bear and obediently went. As much as he would’ve like to, he couldn’t live in his books when there were brothers and sisters in Christ facing all the messy problems of daily life, who needed guidance and equipping. [1]

Why does God seem to take us far outside of our comfort zones a lot? I see two primary reasons.

1. To establish Who gets the credit. Right before God thinned out Gideon’s army from 32,000 men to a scant 300, God told him, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’”[Jg 7:2] I’d be far more comfortable with 32,000 soldiers than 300, but I’d also be trusting in my own abilities rather than God. Paul reinforces this principle when he writes of how God uses our weakness to demonstrate His power and grace [1Co 1:26-30, 2Co 12:9-10]. Often we hear that the things we are good at, those things we gravitate towards and that tend to come easy to us, are an indication of our calling. And that’s understandable; God equips us for the tasks He gives us. But that doesn’t mean that the tasks He gives us will be achievable in our own strength. Indeed, if they always are, we may be confusing our goals for His. He is glorified most when the task is far beyond our natural talents, for when we are weak, He is strong.
2. To develop our character. This is part of sanctification. It’s easy for many to sit in church on Sunday and just see it as an item to be checked off the list. The message goes in one ear and out the other, and once it’s checked off the list, there’s no additional exposure to God’s Word the rest of the week. But apathy like that should be uncomfortable for a Christian. On the other hand, it’s easy for nerds like me to soak up knowledge like a sponge and yet never do anything with it. I could sit happily taking notes and absorbing information at a conference for hours on end, but applying that knowledge is nerve-wracking. Yet what do you do with a soapy sponge? You wring it out. It shouldn’t surprise me then if God expects me to actually take action, and step away from the books, and share the truth in love with others (even if it means talking to real live people…). Others have a zeal for action and just want to jump in and save the world, but buckling down to study and develop a good, deep, stable foundation is what makes them uncomfortable. Yet God calls us to “accurately handle the word of truth” [2Ti 2:15]. God’s goal is not our comfort or short-term success, but rather our holiness and our conformance to the image of His Son in all areas of our lives [1Pe 1:15-16, Ro 8:29].

I started out this week with some examples of people who needed to step outside of their comfort zones to change their world and advance God’s kingdom, before looking at the massive benefits that go along with that – glorifying God and maturing as Christians. This week, ask God to show you some areas you’ve grown comfortable in that probably shouldn’t be so comfortable, and the courage to follow Him wherever He leads.

[1] “Heroes of the Faith: John Calvin”, by R.C. Sproul, 2006.

# Is Christianity Just Wishful Thinking?

I was reading a book by an atheist author who claims to be a former minister yet seems to know very little about Christianity. While the book was heavy on sarcasm and light on reason, there was one point I’d like to address today. In one section, he proclaims that Christians merely “yearn for… an escape from death.” So what about that? Am I, as a Christian, just a victim of deluded, wishful thinking, only too eager to believe death isn’t really the end of me in spite of the cold, hard reality? Let’s work through that today.

Before the comment about Christians yearning for an escape from death, author David Madison proclaims, “There is no exit from death. Period. It is unbecoming to be so afraid of death, and it’s disgraceful that religions have specialized in marketing ways to get out of it.”[1] Let’s start by refreshing our former minister’s memory of some Scriptures that speak on this matter of death, and see if his charge against “religions” applies to Christianity.

• The author of Hebrews writes that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” [Heb 9:27] The Christian is under no delusions of either escaping death or death being an escape. Instead, we face it head-on, knowing it is coming.
• Jesus reminded His listeners, “I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” [Lk 12:4-5] We are not to fear death, but rather the wrath of God that justly lies on all of us until we are reconciled to Him.
• Jesus told His disciples that “an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.” [Jn 16:2] We are to not be surprised when death is a consequence of following Christ.
• The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians of his earnest hope that “Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” [Phil 1:20-21] Paul was prepared to serve God whether that involved a long hard life or imminent death, and every Christian is to be similarly prepared.
• John tells us of the martyrs he sees in his revelation who “did not love their life even when faced with death.” [Rev 12:11] In fact, almost every book in the New Testament mentions that Christians would experience persecution, with several explicitly stating that it could include death.

Indeed, Tertullian wasn’t exaggerating when he said that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the Church [1]: Christians were massacred for much of the first couple of centuries after Christ, and have continued to be killed in Communist and Muslim countries in particular. And these are the very places and times when Christianity has grown the most. If Christians were afraid of death and seeking an escape from it, choosing a life that often led directly to death – and cruel, torturous deaths at that – sure seems a strange way to go about it!

Historically, Christians have not been afraid of death. And why would we? We know this life, that can end in the blink of an eye, is not our home, and so we can hold on loosely to it. Madison’s comment about fear of death makes absolutely no sense when compared to the vast, consistent testimony of Christians over the last 2 millennia sacrificing their lives as they counted physical death a small price to pay in service to their Lord. That fear of death is antithetical to Christian trust in our risen Savior can be confirmed with even a brief reading of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, or the testimonies of the many Christians who suffered and were brutally killed in atheist countries like the USSR, Red China, and the Eastern Block countries of Europe after WWII, or watching videos of ISIS beheading or crucifying Christians.

With all this acceptance of death, then, is Christianity some kind of death-obsessed cult like the “Heaven’s Gate” group that all committed suicide back in 1997? Hardly. As Paul pointed out, going home would be good, but there was also still good work to be done here. So we can live joyfully for the Lord while also looking forward to being with the Lord someday. But are we really only seeking immortality when we become Christians? It’s not a matter of wishing for immortality, but rather recognizing the fact of our immortality, as testified to by the God who has proven Himself trustworthy throughout history, and then choosing wisely how we will spend eternity. If we had nothing on which to base this idea of life after death, then Mr. Madison might have a point. But we have the testimony of God, as recorded in His Word, as well as the evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus, the “first fruits” of those who have died. [1Cor 15:20] Death may be a closed door where we can’t see and measure what’s on the other side, but that is no reason for skeptics to assume that it is just an impassable brick wall when we have the testimony of our Creator that it is a doorway each of us can and will pass through. Will you be ready when the door opens for you?

[1] Although it’s certainly not a book I can recommend (in fact, it’s probably the worst atheist book I’ve read so far), for completeness, it’s “Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith”, by David Madison (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), p.145.
[2] Tertullian, Apologeticus pro Christianis, Chapter 50 (as commonly paraphrased).

# Genetic Identity & Chimeras

If you’ve followed this blog for long, you know I am pro-life, both on religious grounds and on scientific grounds. In a recent discussion on Twitter, I made a point I have made before, that the fetus cannot be a part of the mother’s body (as many pro-abortion advocates say), partly because the fetus has different DNA from the mother. Later in the discussion, an objection was raised to this point that I hadn’t heard before, so let’s work through that today.

For those who may have been living under a rock the last 60+ years, DNA is the complex molecule Deoxyribonucleic Acid found in every living cell that stores the “blueprint” for that person. First discovered in 1869, it’s structure was finally determined in 1953, and the staggering informational content fully mapped in 2003. After that slow start, our knowledge about DNA and uses for that knowledge have increased dramatically over the years. Some of the most common uses of DNA testing include determining parentage, convicting guilty criminals (or exonerating those wrongly convicted), and identifying partial or unrecognizable remains. Essentially, these examples use DNA to verify the unique identity of individual persons. Now combine that with the well-established fact that by the time fertilization is complete (within 24 hours of the joining of sperm and oocyte), and while still only a single cell, a developing baby has DNA distinct from either parent. The obvious conclusion, biologically, is that this rapidly developing organism is not the same organism as the mother.

Now, the objection raised was that unique DNA doesn’t determine how many lives are present because of the existence of chimeras. What’s that, you ask? A chimera, outside of the mythological monster from which the name is drawn, is an organism with two (or more) distinct sets of DNA. Though not “new” in terms of existence, the first confirmation of a natural human chimera was in 1953 when a woman in England donated blood and it was found to contain two different blood types in one sample. As our knowledge of genetics has grown and DNA testing has become more commonplace, so too has observance of this phenomenon. for instance, a woman needed a kidney transplant in 1998, but when her 3 sons were tested as potential donors, 2 of them were determined, based on DNA, not to be her biological sons, even though she had given birth to them. Then in 2003, a woman in Washington filed for welfare benefits for her children and was denied, with accusations of welfare fraud pending, because her 2 children were determined not to be hers. A 3rd child was born while this was being investigated, so that birth and an immediate DNA test of both mother and child were witnessed by an officer of the state. Again, the DNA test showed different parentage for the child just born. What happened in each of these cases? Each of these 3 women had been twins. The Englishwoman in 1953 had a twin brother who had died shortly after birth. Cells had been shared between the two early in the pregnancy. The other 2 women were both the result of fused embryos, or a “vanishing twin”. Two oocytes had been fertilized by two sperm, resulting in twin zygotes. Early in the pregnancy, however, the two zygotes merged into one. Because they were separate zygotes, they each had different DNA. However, because this occurs very early in development, the zygote is still a collection of totipotent cells (meaning each cell at this stage can still become any cell in the human body, i.e. they have not differentiated into their separate lines of specialized cells for organ generation). When the twin zygotes (call them A & B) fused together, some of the cell from twin A went on to form various body parts like the skin cells inside the cheek where DNA samples are often taken. Cells from twin B went on to form other body parts such as the ovaries that would be responsible for producing children “not her own”. A third scenario, Fetal Microchimerism, or FMc, is much more common and is when cells from the blood of the fetus and/or mother get through the placental barrier to reside in the other person. Cells from their children have been found in the bodies of autopsied women many years after their pregnancies.

Based on these observed cases, we know that a person can have multiple DNA. But does the existence of chimeras refute the idea that the developing baby is a unique individual distinct from the mother? I don’t think so. After all, when a patient receives an organ transplant, the donated organ will have the donor’s DNA rather than that of the recipient; but nobody considers the donor and recipient to be part of the same body. Furthermore, even though the person may have 2 sets of DNA in their body, the transplanted organ is only one organ, and cannot become anything more. A zygote, on the other hand, is capable of developing into a mature human, and is, in fact, directing much of the pregnancy. The case of cells passing between twins in utero, as in the 1953 English case, is really no different than the case of organ donation between adults. The case of fused zygotes is more extreme in that all of the “donor” has been passed to the recipient, but the concept of a donor providing some portion of a recipient’s organs still applies. Because the transfer of genetic information occurs at such an early stage, it’s impossible to know which organs formed from donor and which from recipient without some kind of comprehensive test that is not practical at this point, but it’s important to remember that neither zygote had the same DNA as the mother, so the resulting chimera is still not part of the mother’s body no matter how you look at it. As far as fetal microchimerism, we are only talking about a few individual cells from a genetically unique human (i.e. the baby) passing through the barrier that normally separates the baby’s blood from the mother’s, and residing in the body of another genetically unique human (i.e. the mother). The fact that a few of the baby’s cells migrate into the mother’s body (and vice versa) no more make the baby part of her body than an organ donor’s cells inside a recipient’s body makes the donor part of the recipient.

Does the chimeric objection succeed? No. Even with individual persons not necessarily being limited to only one DNA in their body, the baby is at all stages of development a separate, self-contained organism temporarily residing in the mother for nourishment and protective environment, and not a “part” of her that just has different DNA. All cases of chimerism, both natural and artificially induced, come about from the involvement to one degree or another of a second, genetically distinct organism. The different DNA confirms this and actually bolsters our understanding of a baby as a genetically unique individual from conception.

Further reading: “The Human Chimera: Legal Problems Arising From Individuals with Multiple Types of DNA“, by Robert Russell Granzen, Seton Hall Law School, 2014, was a thorough and interesting read on the matter.

# On Turning Arguments into Discussions

I had an interesting discussion with several people on Twitter last week regarding the topic of abortion,  and came away with a few observations I’d like to share today.

• The difference between monologue and dialogue. There were some initial insults and somewhat immature replies to my bringing science to bear on the subject of abortion, and my addressing biologically incorrect arguments seemed to be falling on deaf ears. Eventually, however, someone came forward willing to engage in serious dialogue. He wanted sources for what I was saying so he could verify them himself, so I gladly gave him quotes & references from different embryology textbooks. A civil, thoughtful discussion ensued – on Twitter of all places! Now, I’ve learned many things over the years from presentations that were essentially monologues, such as seminars without Q&A, or recorded webinars, and so forth; but dialogue is critical in discussing controversial topics. A person will only learn from a monologue if they go in willing to listen, and open to absorbing new knowledge (like a seminar I’ve paid to attend). But in a hostile situation, the other person is already defensive at having their views challenged, and dialogue with the person, instead of a monologue directed at them, is really the only hope for changing their mind.

Just a few observations this week about being good ambassadors, as I learn “on the job” to be a better one myself. So listen to what’s out there; it doesn’t help to answer the question nobody’s asking, and not deal with the issues shaping our world. Talk with people instead at them, and remember that they’re not just icons on screen, but real people, created in God’s image (even if they reject that truth). When it seems like you’re just talking past each other, step back and look for presuppositions (on both sides) that may be preventing you and them from understanding what the other is saying. And, as Greg Koukl, that master ambassador for Christ, would say, “Get out there, and give ’em Heaven!”

# An Alternative to the Emptiness of Skepticism

Have you ever had a friend that was overly-critical? No matter what you did, they had some negative assessment of how it could be done better?  That criticism may get wearisome after a while when you feel constantly beaten down, but sometimes that can still be bearable when they really are giving you better ways of doing things. Even if their manner is less than gracious, their knowledge may still be valid,  and you just have to try to separate the worthwhile message from the annoying messenger. But there is a worse case. Sometimes, you run into someone who is always cutting you down, but never suggesting any way to improve. Their criticism is destructive rather than constructive, negative rather than positive, crushing rather than edifying. At some point, you ask, “Well, what would you suggest?”, and are greeted by silence, or “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t do that….” Skepticism similarly cuts down everything it touches, but can never build anything up in the ruins it creates. But there is an alternative. Let’s work through that today.

Skepticism is highly encouraged today. In fact, you can subscribe to skeptic magazines, read skeptic websites, and even attend conventions with catchy names like “Skepticon”. But is the “question everything” philosophy actually consistently livable? For instance, do skeptics question their own skepticism? Do they ever ask, “Is there a point I stop questioning?” There is an old story, modified in various ways over the years, of a Hindu belief that the world was supported on the backs of several elephants, who were themselves supported by a giant turtle. When asked what supported that turtle, the answer was, another turtle. After a few iterations of this, the questioner was answered with “it’s turtles all the way down.” This is, of course, an infinite regress; but for the skeptics, I have to ask, is it “questions all the way down” for you as well?

Yet, questions – not answers – is all skepticism has to offer. Asking questions is surely a good thing when they are a means to the end of obtaining knowledge. However, in having no basis for trusting any answers produced by its questions, skepticism destroys any knowledge gained and is a slippery slope that leads to universal doubt. And yet, this doubt is inconsistent, for doubt presupposes true knowledge: to doubt the umpire’s call that the baseball player struck out presupposes that you know what a strike zone is. To doubt one proposition is to not doubt a competing proposition. But then, do you really know the dimensions of the strike zone? Did you really see the flight path of the ball correctly? Skepticism, applied consistently, undercuts itself as it goes, rendering itself unlivable.

But surely some skepticism is a good thing, isn’t it? We don’t want to be naive or gullible, but we don’t want to be the hyper-skeptic that will believe nothing regardless of the evidence presented. Probably most people reading this have gotten emails at some time promising instant riches if you only made a small “investment” first; while it’s always possible the email isn’t a scam, some well-deserved skepticism will most likely save you money. So where do you draw the line? This is where the forgotten virtue of prudence enters. To be prudent is to act wisely in the present situation to bring about true good in the future, based on sound reasoning and knowledge learned from the past. When Jesus warned His disciples that they would be persecuted for following Him, He told them to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” [Mt 10:16]. That is, be wise, but never for evil purposes or self-serving ends. In other words, be prudent. The book of Proverbs also has much to say about prudence, such as, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” [Pr 14:15 ESV]. Prudence was considered a necessary catalyst for all the other virtues since ancient times, for it applies wisdom to the other virtues to restrain them from becoming vices. Prudence moderates action to be courageous without being reckless, cautious without being cowardly, merciful without being weak, just without being cruel, devoted without being obsessive, open-minded without being vacillating. It is wisdom applied to the situation at hand. But where is one to get this wisdom to apply to our daily situations? Proverbs tells us that “the fear (i.e. reverence) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” [Pr 9:10], and James, the half-brother of Jesus, tells us, “if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all” [Jam 1:5-8].

While skeptics dig down and never find any foundation solid to build on, the Christian has a sure foundation that can never be shaken [Is 28:16, 1Co 3:11]. In God we have a grounding for knowledge. In revering Him, we develop wisdom. In applying that wisdom prudently, we have a stable platform to probe the world around us with questions without losing ourselves amidst the uncertainty of our questions. Unlike the skeptic undercutting his own foundations as he tries to build on them, we have a foundation we can build our lives on that can never be undermined. Have you worn yourself out trying to tear things down in the dark mines of skepticism? Would you like to find rest for your soul, rebuilding a new life on the sure foundation of God? Contact me, and let’s talk about it.