Divine Design (The Teleological Argument)

London Museum Roof SmallWe’ve been looking at different explanations for the existence of God, and this week we have one that resonates with me as an engineer: the teleological argument, or argument from design comes from the Greek word “telos” meaning end purpose or goal. The argument is as follows:
Premise 1: Every design has a designer.
Premise 2: The universe was designed.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe had a Designer.

Now let’s unpack those tidy little premises. Does every design have to have a designer? Design can be defined as: “a specification of an object (or process), manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.” Though a bit dry, this actually describes my daily tasks as an engineer pretty well. But notice that design is defined as being “manifested by an agent”. It appears that designs have designers by definition. But even without the word “agent” in there, we can see that design requires intent – an end purpose, a goal. But goals require consciousness to make choices between alternatives. Processes like natural selection, unguided by conscious agents, can only “choose” alternatives that confer immediate advantage. For example, chess moves that sacrifice an immediate advantage for a long-term gain are not possible without the foresight of design. Chance and physical necessity also can’t explain evidence of design such as intent. Therefore, the indication of long-range intent is confirmation of a designer.

The second premise is perhaps more controversial. But let’s follow the evidence along 3 lines: terrestrial, cosmic, and biological design. First, many parameters on earth appear to be fine-tuned for life to exist, and not just any life, but large, complex life. Things like atmospheric transparency, oxygen content, the polarity of the water molecule, and the temperature of max density of water, among a variety of other dispersed parameters, appear to all be set to values in very narrow ranges that allow for our level of life to exist (and flourish). Second, although these values all fall in narrow ranges, we find in the universe parameters that are even more precisely balanced in favor of life. But these parameters are fine-tuned not just for life anywhere in the universe, but specifically for life on earth. Properties such as the speed of light, the ratio of proton to electron mass, the mass density, expansion rate, homogeneity, and entropy level of the universe, the  uniformity of radiation, the values of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), and the location of earth both in our galaxy and the Milky Way’s location in the universe, are some of the roughly 100 interdependent parameters that have to be what they are for us to exist.[1] Interestingly, we also happen to be in a unique position in the universe to even be able to see the evidence of this design.

Third, the structure and information content of DNA points to extremely information-centric design. Four DNA bases are the optimum number for speed of replication.[2] From a data storage standpoint, the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” used by DNA for synthesizing proteins are the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking.[3] DNA exhibits nested encoding where the same stored data is used to convey meaningful information when read one way, and different meaningful information when read a different way.[4] To understand the significance of this coding accomplishment, try writing a book that tells one story when read in order, and a different, but still intelligible, story when reading only every third word. This increases the storage capacity of DNA immensely. Even so, DNA does not have all of the information needed to assemble an organism in it.[5] Some of the information is stored outside the DNA, which leads to a chicken-and-egg problem of how the cell is built by plans stored in the DNA, but with instructions stored in the cell that’s being built using the DNA plans. Our planet, our universe, and even our own bodies appear to all show signs of design, making the second premise true.

If these 2 premises are true, then the conclusion is true that the universe had to have a designer. What characteristics could we infer about this designer from the conclusion?

  • Intelligence – far beyond that of any human designer to understand complex and interdependent “systems of systems” comprising the universe.
  • Foreknowledge – far beyond any human ability to anticipate highly complex interactions and plan for those contingencies.
  • Power – far beyond any human capacity to alter our surroundings (we celebrate when we figure out how to copy something in nature successfully; making all of nature from scratch is in a whole other league of accomplishment).
  • Intemporality and immateriality – no design precedes it’s designer. If the universe (and therefore all of space and time) had a designer, then that designer had to precede the universe. Therefore the designer would have to exist outside of space and time.
  • Benevolence – It’s relatively easy to imagine many ways our universe could be organized that would result in life being a much harder, more miserable, existence for us. Also, the fact of our unique position in the universe to be able to see so much of it could be an example of a deliberately placed trail leading us back to this designer.

These correspond well with the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal, loving God of the Christian Bible. So then, how do we respond to this? We could a) accept the evidence left for us by this God, and seek after Him, b) deny the evidence having honest doubts, but attempt to offer an alternative that explains the evidence as well, or c) simply refuse to consider the evidence. Please, don’t be content with this last option.


[1] Hugh Ross, “Fine Tuning for Life in the Universe”, http://www.reasons.org/articles/fine-tuning-for-life-in-the-universe, accessed 2014/08/03.
[2] “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
[3] Werner Gitt, Without Excuse (Atlanta: Creation Book Publishers, 2011), p. 162-166.
[4] Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p. 466.
[5]  ibid., p. 473-474.

The Cosmological Argument

Spiral Galaxy NGC 1566, courtesy www.nasa.govThe Cosmological Argument is not one argument, but rather a group of several arguments for the existence of God proposed by different thinkers over the centuries. Here is one relatively simple form of it –  just 2 premises and the conclusion – but with a lot packed in those 2 premises, and a serious implication inferred by the seemingly modest conclusion. Whole books can be written on each point[1], but in a nutshell, it goes like this:

Premise 1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
Premise 2) The universe began to exist.
Conclusion) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Premise 1 is simply the law of causality, (i.e. cause and effect): the effect (beginning to exist) has a cause. This law is not only fundamental to science, but also verifiable by anyone through our everyday observations. Nobody walks into a room and, seeing a ball rolling across the room, assumes the ball has always been in motion. We instinctively look in the direction the ball rolled from to see who or what caused it to roll. Notice that this premise does not say that whatever exists has a cause, but that whatever begins to exist does. If either the theist’s God or the atheist’s universe is eternal, then neither would require a cause. Hence the atheist’s question of “Who made God?” is as irrelevant as asking them who made the universe in their view. No one needed to. That’s the nature of anything being eternal.

But Premise 2 then eliminates the option of an eternal universe through three independent lines of reasoning: one scientific and two philosophical. First, a host of scientific evidence points to the universe having a definite beginning. The Standard Cosmological Model (the “Big Bang”), whether you agree with the specifics of it or not, has withstood decades of attempted refutation and points to a unique beginning to all space and time at a single point in history, a singularity where space and time cease to exist prior to that point. Another insurmountable obstacle is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This is the most universally accepted physical law, so much so that it forms the basis of the US Patent Office refusing to grant patents for perpetual motion machines without a working model. As Sir Arthur Eddington said, “if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”[2] The universe is only winding down. But if it is only winding down, that means it had be wound up.

Attacking the possibility of an eternal universe philosophically, we have two more abstract, but nevertheless valid, approaches. First, an eternal universe would require an infinite regress, but there can be no actual infinite regress because an actually infinite number of things cannot exist. A beginningless series of events in time entails an actually infinite number of things (events in this case). Therefore, a beginningless series of events in time cannot actually exist.

The second philosophical rationale is that one cannot traverse an infinite series. The series of events in time is a collection formed by adding one member (or event) after another. A collection formed by adding one member after another cannot be actually infinite.  So then, the series of events in time cannot be actually infinite.

Therefore, the universe has a cause. If this argument seemed fairly noncontroversial to you right from the beginning, then you might be surprised at the resistance to it. That’s because of the implications the conclusion leads us to. This cause cannot be material or temporal as space and time both had a beginning, and this first uncaused cause would necessarily have to exist before the effect it caused (the universe). This cause must be extremely powerful to cause everything observable (and probably more that we haven’t observed). The incredibly detailed precision observed in the universe would require an intellect far beyond the greatest human minds to orchestrate the intimately interrelated web of cause and effect detected so far. For comparison, we routinely fail to predict the consequences of even simple actions over periods of days or weeks (i.e. weather prediction). This cause is necessarily a free agent capable of making choices. An impersonal force like gravity cannot choose to act at a particular time on an object. A ball does not simply float in the air until gravity decides to act on it and make it fall to the ground. If this cause were simply a force like gravity, acting from all eternity, then the effect (the universe) would be eternal as well, which contradicts the observed evidence and our reasoning. This cause is therefore a person, in the general sense of a being possessing rationality. This first cause, or uncaused cause, then appears to be, for all practical purposes: eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and personal. As with the Ontological Argument from last week, this correlates well with the description of God in the Bible and forces us to face the possibility of a sovereign Maker who might very well hold us accountable for our actions. Hence, the determined resistance to this line of reasoning.


[1] See “Reasonable Faith”, 3rd Ed., chapters 3 & 4, by William Lane Craig for a much more detailed treatment of this and other arguments for the existence of God.
[2] Sir Arthur Eddington, “The Nature of the Physical World”, 1927.

The Ontological Argument

The ThinkerLast week, I reviewed some key terms in logic as a prelude to looking at logical arguments for the existence of God. This first one is a philosophical rationale called the ontological argument. Ontology is simply the study of existence, or reality. And so the ontological argument is a line of reasoning based on the very nature of existence.

The first premise, or basis for this argument, is that it is at least possible that a maximally great being exists. This isn’t about what’s probable at this point – just what’s possible. It’s also not about whether we can know whether this being exists or not (epistemology), but simply about whether it could exist (ontology) . Now let’s define some terms. A “maximally great being” can be defined as a being possessing omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. Omniscience is knowing all truth and only truth. Omnipotence is the ability to cause any effect not logically impossible. It is necessary, or noncontingent, existence. Moral perfection is the highest degree of moral attributes such as love, mercy, justice, etc. Where attributes conflict (i.e. mercy vs. justice), this being possesses the greatest compatible degree of each, such that any more of either trait could be considered an introduction of imperfection (i.e. the best possible combination). There is nothing self-contradictory about this concept. It is not like a square circle or a married bachelor. It is simply the spectrum of characteristics we observe in human beings extrapolated to a maximum value.

Premise 2 is that if it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world. By “possible world”, we do not simply mean another planet, but rather any alternate reality with its own forms of matter & energy, laws of physics, existence or nonexistence of life, and even existence or nonexistence of space-time itself. The set of all possible worlds would be a set of all possible versions of reality; each with one, and only one, variable different from all others. For instance, one possible world may have a slightly different gravitational constant that results in the collapse of any conceivable universe, or the impossibility of the universe ever forming. Another might have every physical variable identical to the reality we are familiar with, but with a history where Hitler won WWII. This set of possible realities is necessarily immense (practically infinite) to address every possible physical and historical alternative.

Premise 3 proposes that if a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world. This one isn’t a very intuitive step, so let’s look at it a little closer. If a maximally great being in a possible world is indeed omnipotent, then all else in that possible world is contingent, or dependent on its existence. If it is morally perfect, then it is capable of making conscious decisions, of exercising free will. In that case, this being could’ve chosen not to create anything, but simply to exist, alone. So if a maximally great being exists, there is a possible world such that only that being exists. This would then be the minimum qualification for a possible world. This being is then the one variable in common to all, that cannot be negated without eliminating that world from the set of all possible worlds. Therefore, Premise 3 logically follows, and the maximally great being exists in all possible worlds.

Premise 4 states that if a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world. What applies to the set as a whole applies to all members of the set. In logic, this is called “dictum de omni”, or the law about all – whatever is universally true of a subject must be true of everything contained in that subject. The actual world is contained in the set of all possible worlds. Therefore, premise 4 logically follows.

Premise 5 simply adds that if a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists. Not too controversial. The actual world is what exists as opposed to possible worlds that only could exist. Anything shown to exist in this actual world therefore has actual existence.

From these 5 premises follows the conclusion that a maximally great being exists. At this point, we’ve simply concluded that some being with certain characteristics necessarily exists, but what do those characteristics tell us? A necessary or noncontingent being can exist outside of space and time and is therefore immaterial. An omnipotent being could create, or cause all contingent elements of reality to exist. An omniscient being would be capable of designing the incredibly complex and very interdependent “system of systems”  we recognize as our universe. A morally perfect being would have the authority to issue decrees, judge behavior, and reward or punish as appropriate. This description aligns remarkably well with the biblical description of God, which leaves the reader with the choice of trying to refute the argument or admitting the existence of God and dealing with the consequences. Choose wisely.


Resources:

Reasonable Faith, 3rd Ed., (Crossway Books, 2008), by William Lane Craig, Chapters 3 & 4. Craig’s interpretation of Alvin Plantinga’s refinement of St. Anselm’s ontological argument was a major part of my giving this argument another chance after discounting it for years. My only departure from Craig is that in premise 3, I’ve tried to justify the jump from existence in a possible world to existence in every world without resorting to the modal logic used by Plantinga and Craig.

Logic

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

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

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

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

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


Resources:

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

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

Walking Away?

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

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

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

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


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

“Hard Evidence”

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Theology Among the Weeds

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

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

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

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

Laughing at the Cliff’s Edge

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

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

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

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

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


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

“All roads lead to Rome”?

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

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

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

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


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

“Breadth and Depth”

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

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

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

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


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

At the intersection of faith and design