The Patience of God

The Deluge – Gustave Dore

Skeptics will often point to examples in the Old Testament of the Bible that they say show God to be a very malevolent, genocidal, vile Being. But what if some of these examples actually showed the patience and grace of God instead? Think that’s a tall order? Let’s dig into that this week with three examples.

  1. In Genesis 6-9, we read the account of The Flood, of which Noah and his family were the sole survivors. God wiped out the entire population of the earth at that time, except for 8 people. Was that an act of brutality or justice tempered with grace? Well, consider this: in Genesis 6:3, we are told that God started a 120 year countdown timer for mankind. Why? Continuing on, we read of how thorough man’s wickedness had become – that his every inclination was only toward evil, all the time [Gen 6:5, 11-12]. But Noah was “blameless among the people of his time” [Gen 6:9 NIV]. God could’ve just instantly started over from a clean slate, but He chose instead to redeem the mess we humans had made of everything, and rebuild the human race from a faithful servant. Not only that, He gave the corrupt people around Noah 120 years to repent. Peter reinforces this point when he tells the recipients of his first letter that “God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” [1 Pet 3:18-20 NIV]. In his second letter, he calls Noah a “preacher of righteousness” [2 Pet 2:5]. We don’t get a lot of details about this time frame, but we can infer that Noah was bearing witness of God’s impending judgement in word and deed, but nobody else saw fit to turn back to God. When they passed up the offer of grace, all that was left was the just punishment.
  2. In the book of Joshua, we read of the Israelite conquest of Canaan after the Exodus from Egypt. The slaughter of the various Canaanite peoples is often cited as divine genocide, but was it? For that answer, we need to turn back several books and several centuries earlier, to Genesis and the history of Abraham. There, God makes a covenant – a solemn binding agreement – with Abraham and tells him that his descendants will spend 400 years as slaves, but then will return to live in the land, but not until then, “for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit” [Gen 15:16 NET]. These people would continue their moral slide into complete depravity, and yet God would allow them over 400 years to turn from their sin. But finally, God would use Israel to punish the people of Canaan. First, however, He tells them, that the land they are about to  conquer is not theirs because of any merit on their part, but rather “it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you” [Dt 9:5]. What had they done to warrant this punishment? Leviticus 18 lists a variety of sexual sins such as incest, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality, as well as child sacrifice. This chapter begins and ends by saying that these were the practices of the people of Canaan that God was driving out before Israel, and they are not to follow the Canaanite example [Lev 18:3, 24-30]. Interestingly, verse 28 adds that if they do, Israel will be “vomitted” from the land just as the Canaanites were about to be [Lev 18:28 NIV]. And in fact, many of the times that Israel was invaded and taken into exile, it was described as punishment for their rebellion against God.  So was the Canaanite conquest divine genocide? No. Rather it was divine justice that God also used against His own people when they did the same evil the Canaanites did. And it was only done after an even longer forbearance than the pre-Flood world was given. It’s also interesting to note the language in Deuteronomy above: the Lord was “driving them out” before the Israelites. This was not an extermination order to hunt these people down and kill them wherever they went; they were “free to flee” that area and live.
  3. This last example marks the beginning of the overall conquest of Canaan above, and also comes from the book of Joshua. Starting at the end of chapter 5 through the end of chapter 6, we read of the fall of Jericho. The people of Jericho had already heard of the miraculous parting of the waters when the Israelites left Egypt 40 years before, and the defeat of 2 other kings east of the Jordan River on the way there [Jos 2:10]. They were scared [Jos 2:11], and maybe some of them fled as people often do in times of war, but some didn’t. This wasn’t some sudden appearance like an alien ship suddenly coming out of warp in a sci-fi movie; this was a long process with plenty of warning. But even then, after the Israelites crossed the Jordan River (again, miraculously), and were at Jericho, there was still opportunity for the people of Jericho to repent. Have you ever wondered why God had the Israelites march around the city once a day for 6 days, then march around 7 times on the 7th day before He caused the walls to come crashing down? Why not just do it immediately? Or why not use giant hailstones like He did later against the 5 kings of the Amorites (Jos 10:11)? Or fire and a surface-rupture earthquake like with Korah’s rebellion against Moses [Num 16:1-40]? Here, even for the rebellious people of Jericho that refused to flee the coming judgement, there was still grace – a final 6 days’  grace before the end.

The prophet Ezekiel said that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather desires that they turn from their ways and live! [Ezk 33:11] In all of these cases, there are actually delays of judgement to allow whosoever will the opportunity to repent, to turn to God while there’s still time. God is still extending grace to people today, an open invitation to lay down our rebel arms and surrender. Don’t sit behind your fortress walls of skepticism, thinking they will protect you. Death shreds all those defenses and will leave you exposed before the God of the universe, where, having rejected His grace, perfect justice will be the only option. There are no plea deals, no grading on a curve, no excuses accepted. But it doesn’t have to be that way – call on the name of the Lord Jesus while it is still called “today”! [Heb 3:15]

Misplaced Confidence

What do you get when structural steel connection design deadlines and blogging collide for a workaholic engineer and amateur blogger? Worldview analysis doesn’t pay the bills like engineering analysis, so you get… this week’s post.  But a couple of recent projects did get me thinking about the things we put our confidence in.

Engineers don’t like to reinvent the wheel, so once we get something laid out to our satisfaction, we reuse those details whenever we can. One typical detail I see over and over again from engineers all over the country is for column moment connections with stiffener plates but no web doublers. For this post, let me just say these are 2 different configurations of reinforcing that mostly address different conditions. These engineers  feel like they’re covered for their designs and can sleep well at night because they required the fabricator to reinforce that area. “When in doubt, make it stout”, right? But then they delegate the tedious part of actually designing the connection to the fabricator, who hires me. But I have to actually go beyond just the conceptual intent and make the connection actually withstand the specified loads and be buildable. And I have to provide calculations to the Engineer of Record (EOR) proving that what I came up with actually works. And that’s where problems begin to crop up. Too often, the stiffener the EOR showed in his typical detail is reinforcing for a failure mode that isn’t even close to governing. Panel Zone Shear is often the limiting condition, but those stiffener plates do nothing for that. The engineer telling the fabricator to install stiffener plates but not doubler plates has a misplaced confidence. He’s trusting one component to protect against a certain type of failure, when the column will fail in another way first. The extra work he’s creating for the fabricator (and me) actually isn’t helping because it’s not putting reinforcing where the critical load is. To borrow a military analogy, it’s like putting all your guards at the front gate while your enemy sneaks in the back. Well, too often, by the time the project gets to me, the columns and beams  are already ordered from the mill, and it’s too late to go changing sizes because of the connection design. While they are adequate for the overall building design, the framing  may be sorely undersized for addressing the bottleneck of load paths at the connections. To quote the maestro of connection design, Bill Thornton, “Many, if not most, collapses are caused by inadequate connections… Yet, connections are often an afterthought.” [1]

Do we do the same? Too often we put our confidence in things that will let us down. Sometimes, it’s because we really did try to investigate thoroughly and failed to see some significant problem. But often, we do it because we never even bothered checking; like those tedious connections, it was an afterthought. But in spiritual matters, finding out you were wrong after it’s too late has the most serious and eternal consequences. That’s why Pascal, in the 17th century, considered this such an important task: “The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter.”[2] Are you putting your faith in ungrounded atheist dogma that there is nothing to be concerned with after our physical bodies die? Or, as is a common error in our time, trusting in an almost magical “science” to solve everything, assigning to science properties it never has had, nor ever can have? Are you trusting that the human race is getting better and better, and that we’ll eventually evolve to ever higher forms of life?

Everything that depends on fallible humans can disappoint you and let you down. In the end, there is only One whom we can always be confident in. An encounter with that One led the Apostle Paul, a former opponent of Christians who did everything he could to stamp out Christianity, to become a Christian himself, and later say, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.” [2 Tim 1:12] Paul was able to go to his death for being a Christian, with no regrets, and no fear, because he knew he had placed his confidence in the one true God – the only infallible, perfect, sovereign Creator and Ruler.


[1] Bill Thornton, “Connections: Art, Science, and Information in the Quest for Economy and Safety”, Engineering Journal, 4th qtr, 1995.
[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensée # 427, from Peter Kreeft’s “Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained”

What’s Your Datum?

Image Credit: www.readthe plaque.com

I was talking to the steel fabricator recently on a multi-story project where I was designing the stairs for them, and their detailer told me, “Hold off on the stair calcs; there’s gonna be some changes coming.” What were the changes? The architect had used the wrong datum, or elevation reference, to match up the floors of this 3 story  expansion with the existing 5 story building it would be attaching to. In so doing, each of the floors, as well as the total height of the expansion, would be over 1 foot short. Fortunately, it was caught before steel was fabricated and shipped to the site. And as far as errors go, it could’ve been worse, in that most of the framing wouldn’t change. The floor plans would stay the same, the heights between floors weren’t affected – just the total column heights and the distance from the foundation to the first elevated floor. For me, the stairs would get longer on the first 2 flights, but otherwise a minimal impact at that stage. But if they’d tried erecting the steel with everything fabricated based on the wrong datum, none of the connections to the existing building would’ve lined up.  One simple assumption in their Revit building model would’ve been an expensive fix at that point.

This got me thinking. What datum do we build our lives on? Are we making assumptions that will cost us dearly later? Will we recognize those errors before it’s too late? One “reference datum” of special importance in our lives is our assumption of God’s existence or non-existence. This has dramatic ramifications in all areas of our lives because it is a foundational assumption. However, sometimes we don’t see those effects without careful investigation. For instance, in the project I had, the floor to floor heights on the upper levels were unaffected. If they had managed to finish building with that error incorporated, you wouldn’t notice it out in the middle of the 2nd or 3rd floor. Likewise, atheists often feel that they don’t need God to live a “good” life. In their day to day lives, they may feel there’s no real difference. The problem is that their worldview is missing some support. What would happen if we went down to the ground level of atheism and inspected its foundation? Under western atheism, we’d find some Bibles stuck under their “columns” as shims! Yes, to be livable (in a civilized manner), atheism has to be shimmed up by blocks of Christianity (or at the very least theism, but more typically Christianity).[1] Yet these are the very foundation blocks atheists try to demolish. For instance, an atheist can choose to ignore the fact that truly fair, objective judgement between humans requires a 3rd party outside of humanity (i.e. God). But when they succeed in removing that idea from the culture around them, they unintentionally undercut their own life structure. Atheists can try to ground their treatment of others in concepts like “human flourishing”, but only the God of the Bible gives us a reason for why we should treat others with dignity: we are made in God’s image – His unique creation – and we have intrinsic worth because of that. So even if I flat-out hated somebody, even if they were absolutely cruel to me, they are still a living soul made in God’s image, whom He considered worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross on their behalf. Then, whether or not they deserve my kindness, whether or not humanity flourishes because of my kindness to them, and whether or not it improves the situation any, there are grounds for treating that person with kindness, respect, and love. I’m not saying atheists can’t behave well, and do wonderful things, but at some point, in your personal relationships, where general abstract philosophizing becomes very real and messy, you could care less whether humanity flourishes if it means suffering some wrong you deem “too far.” Like with Corrie ten Boom forgiving her Nazi concentration camp guard, only God can provide a foundation capable of bearing all things and enduring all things [1 Cor 13:4-7].

What are you assuming as a “given” in your life? Have you investigated that to confirm what you’re building your life on? I’ve used terms like “assumption” and “given” today to describe our different worldviews, because that is how many people arrive at them. But don’t be content to stay there, living an unexamined life. Just like with the datum on the project I was working on, you too can investigate and determine whether the datum of your life is correct or not. I’ve highlighted several lines of reasoning on this site in the past to help show how God fulfills critical requirements for any valid reference datum in life. The moral argument shows God is necessary for objective morality. The cosmological argument shows how God is necessary to provide the singular beginning of all space and time that science predicts. The argument from design shows show God is necessary to explain the intelligent and purposeful contingency we see in our universe. And the ontological argument shows how God is necessary based on the very nature of existence. Dig deep, investigate, don’t be afraid to ask tough questions, and follow the evidence where it leads. In the end, you’ll find life makes a lot more sense with God as your absolute reference.


[1] Western atheists would do well to study the history of the USSR and communist China to see atheism carried closer to its conclusion, in grand scale, than perhaps anywhere else on earth. The tens of millions dead (some estimates say over 100 million) show that ideas like atheism can have very tragic and uncivilized consequences.

Of Movies and Church Corruption

Birkebeinerne Carrying Håkon Håkonsson – by Knud-Bergslien, 1868

I watched a Norwegian movie this past weekend called “the Last King” (that’s the English title, “Birkebeinerne” in Norway). The story takes place in the year 1206, and tells of 2 soldiers (Birkebeinerne) carrying the future king of Norway, Håkon Håkonsson, to safety when he was a baby. Because he and his mother were living in a village in territory controlled by an opposing faction in Norway’s civil war, the dangerous ski trek through a blizzard in the mountains, carrying a little baby, pursued by enemies wanting the baby (and any supporters) dead, makes for a great story. In fact, the epic true adventure is commemorated each year in Norway with the 54km (33.5mi) Birkebeinerrennet ski race, where participants carry a 3.5kg (8lb) backpack to pay tribute to the 2 soldiers carrying baby Håkon.

While I enjoyed the movie, there was a particular theme in the movie that caught my attention for its cynicism. Part of the plot of the movie is a villainous Catholic Bishop wanting to dominate all of Norway, who orders the hunting down and killing of the would-be heir to the throne. The audience is taken into the dark cathedral, where the Bishop gives his goons the following pep talk before dispatching them on their deadly mission:

“We have just received word from Nidaros. King Håkon is dead. The Birkebeinerne have lost their unifying force. The time of kings is past. But, the Church will always endure. When one man falls, another will take his place. And he answers only to God. We rule Eastern Norway. Western Norway is next. Soon the Church will have dominion over all of Norway. But one task remains. King Håkon is survived by a son. Today, an innocent boy. Tomorrow… our mightiest foe. The boy is being hidden on a farm in our territory. The man who finds the king’s son, shall enjoy great wealth all of his days. Show no mercy during your hunt for the child, for the Lord is eternally merciful, but He also requires sacrifices. Let law and order yield along the way… and bring me the boy’s head.”

Whether the Bishop in the movie is historically accurate or not, this evil Bishop is unfortunately how many people view the Church, and consequently Christianity. But is that an accurate portrayal? Reports of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, the marital infidelity of Protestant pastors, greedy televangelists, charlatans of the “Prosperity Gospel”, and corrupt “Christian” charities stealing donations only add to the impression of a corrupt and scandalous church no better than the rest of the world, and indeed, worse for the hypocrisy. But let’s compare our movie villain, the Bishop, to what the Bible teaches.

  • The Bishop desires a physical empire for the Church, yet  Jesus told Pilate at His trial that His kingdom is not of this world [Jn 18:36]. Rather, while foxes had holes, and birds had nests, He had no home [Mt 8:20]. The warnings of the moral dangers of chasing wealth and power are too many to mention here. However, our dear Bishop could’ve at least remember the model pointed to in Hebrews where the author talks of heroes of the faith who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them.” [He 11:37-38] This desire for earthly power is not an example of the Church’s calling, but rather of the universal fall (corruption) of mankind explained in Genesis 3.
  • The Bishop offers lifelong wealth as a reward to the one finding the king’s son for him. Yet riches were never a motivation of Jesus, His apostles, or any of the early Christians. Jesus said to store up for ourselves treasures in Heaven rather than on earth, and that man cannot have both God and money as his master [Mt 6:19-24].  He even warned how easily riches could get in the way of one getting to Heaven [Mt 19:23-24]. Instead, we are to seek His kingdom and His righteousness first, and God will provide what we actually need [Mt6:33].
  • The Bishop specifically said to “show no mercy” and to kill an admittedly “innocent boy” who might become his foe someday. Jesus disagrees. As He put it, “Blessed are the merciful” [Mt 5:7], “Love your enemies, and pray forthose who persecute you” [Mt 5:44], and do not simply refrain from murdering someone, but rather do not even be angry with them [Mt 5:21-22]. Paul likewise said to “overcome evil with good”  [Ro 12:21]. A far cry from the Bishop here.
  • The Bishop’s reference to God requiring “sacrifices” in this context is just an awful perversion of God’s Word [Mk 12:33].
  • The Bishop said to set aside law and order to accomplish his orders. Yet Paul and Peter both told all Christians to obey the civil government whenever possible. The only real biblical exception is when civil obedience would require disobedience to God [Ro 13:1-7, 1 Pe 2:13-16, Ac 4:18-22]. The Bishop was right that we answer to God, but God has also said that we must answer to the rulers He has allowed to preside over us.

Is the Bishop’s behavior an example of Christian practice? Hardly! On the contrary, it’s strongly opposed to what Jesus actually says. In fact, the Bishop’s attempt to kill a baby he fears will become his enemy someday is more reminiscent of King Herod trying to have Jesus killed as a baby [Mt 2:13,16]! While the Bishop was a fictionalized church leader, the examples I listed earlier are very real headlines. Nevertheless, each of them is also behavior that clearly goes against the Bible. Discounting all of Christianity because of some of these bad examples would actually be to commit the logical fallacy of composition: “arguing from the part to the whole, ignoring the fact that what is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole.”[1] Are these perpetrators corrupt? Absolutely. Do they invalidate Christianity? Absolutely not. Their behavior doesn’t flow from the Bible, and is, in fact, opposed to it.  So next time you’re tempted to cast a cynical look at Christianity because of disobedient Christians or people only claiming to be Christians [Jn 15:8,14,16], keep that cynicism focused on the person whose actions actually warrant it, and not the faith they are disgracing.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 87.

Crime & Punishment?

Image Credit: FreeImages.com/jenni w.

We often don’t make the best decisions under stress. Salespeople often count on that impulsiveness to make a sale. That’s why, when faced with a big decision like a major purchase, the old advice is to “sleep on it.” Don’t make an impulse buy, but take some time to deliberate on it first. Sometimes, though, major life decisions are forced on you without warning. Sometimes, you’ve done everything right, and despite your best efforts to avoid bad situations, you find yourself in a tough spot, having to make a life-altering decision. Although you can’t prepare for every conceivable scenario, it’s still a good idea to work through how you would respond to a tough situation before you get in that situation. For instance, you’re less likely to cheat on an exam or steal something, regardless of the circumstances, if you’ve made the conscious decision that you won’t in advance, away from the pressure of the moment. You’re less likely to cheat on your spouse if you’ve thought through the tragic consequences of an affair before you find yourself in a tempting situation, where hormones tend to push reason out the window. But what if you’re the victim of a crime? Not just any crime, but a rape, that most invasive of crimes? What if you’re now pregnant with the child of your rapist?

Abortion is a sensitive subject that arouses strong responses on both sides of the debate. One of the most sensitive points in that debate is the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape. While this actually accounts for a very small number of abortions, it is nonetheless an emotionally powerful example. But let’s step back from the heat of the fight, and look at that case calmly and reasonably, and perhaps see a flaw in assuming abortion is a good solution for the rape victim. While a rape is,  by definition, involuntary, how one responds is within one’s control. In the aftermath, it may be tempting to get rid of the most obvious effect of a rape-induced pregnancy: the baby. But here’s precisely where one needs reason to  avoid a very permanent mistake. Rape is often used as an “obvious” justification for abortion, yet who is being punished here? The guilty rapist, the perpetrator of the awful crime? Unfortunately, no. The innocent baby is getting the death sentence, not the deserving rapist. While the rape is certainly a traumatic experience for the mother, aborting the baby is  tragically misplaced retribution that won’t bring genuine healing to her and most likely won’t even affect the rapist. Surely, the baby should not be required to take the punishment for the rapist’s crime, and pay with her life? This only takes one wrong, and adds another to it. Yet, as they say, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” The abortion does not change the fact of the rape, and only adds to that wrong the death of one who had absolutely no say in how they were conceived. So how could one turn this wrong back to right?

The concept of redemption is a huge part of the Bible. Indeed, the Bible is the record of God’s redemption of humankind as it has played out through history and on into the future. He brings good out of the most vile situations. Likewise, the act of choosing life for the baby can redeem even that vile act and turn it to good. In fact, I saw a speaker recently, Monica Kelsey, who is a firefighter and medic. She was also the result of her mother’s rape, and almost the victim of an abortion. But because her mother chose life for her innocent baby at the last minute, that baby has grown up and is saving lives as well. As she says, “her life was saved so she can save others”. It’s easy to talk about abortion simply as an act of compassion for the mother that was attacked  before you meet people like that and realize there are 2 victims in those cases, and you don’t help the first victim by killing the second.

Lastly, I want to say, if you, dear reader, are already in this situation, and considering abortion, I ask you to hit “pause” for a moment, and reconsider. Call 1-800-848-LOVE, 24/7/365 or visit http://www.nrlc.org/help/ to learn about the life-giving options available. You and your baby don’t have to be defined by what happened to you.

Church: The Forward Operating Base of God’s Kingdom

African Church. Image credit: Freeimages.com/John Gardiner

Is church just a social club that meets on Sundays? Or is it more of what the US Army would call a Forward Operating Base (or FOB)? Let’s work through that idea today.

If you’re unfamiliar with the military concept, a FOB is a temporary stronghold in the theater of operations, forward of your main base, from which you can quickly deploy to fight the enemy. It’s a miniature version of your main base that strengthens your foothold in the area. It can be very basic or very elaborate. It is typically built up to resist attacks, but it’s main purpose is not simply defensive, but rather advancement: extending control into disputed areas. It provides a protected staging area to prepare you, the soldier, to defend friendly territory and go out into enemy territory. It’s also a place to return to for needed resupply, rest, training, and maybe medical attention if a mission doesn’t go so well. But ultimately, the mission is outside the wall and concertina wire of the FOB.

What is our main base? Heaven [Heb 11:13]. What is this world? Enemy-controlled territory [Eph 6:12]. What is our mission? To go make disciples [Mat 28:19-20, 9:36-38]. Are our churches to be little outposts of Heaven? Consider the following passages:

  • Paul explained to the Ephesian church that God established some as pastors and teachers for the equipping of God’s people, for them to grow in maturity and the knowledge of the Son of God… no longer blown around by every wind of false doctrine. [Eph 4:11-14] The whole purpose for a preacher getting up on Sunday morning in front of a congregation isn’t to help them feel good about themselves and give them warm fuzzy feelings. And attending shouldn’t be about checking an obligation off your list, trying to earn God’s approval (which is impossible). It’s about equipping you with the armor and weapons needed to survive the very real spiritual battles going on every day.
  • In describing the qualifications of church leaders to Titus, Paul said that an elder in the church must hold firmly to the trustworthy message he’d received, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. [Ti 1:9 NIV] You can’t hold firmly to what you don’t know. Your encouragement will ring hollow if you have no reason to back it up. And you certainly can’t refute an opponent if you don’t know what and why you believe as you do.
  • The pastor of the church should “preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” [2Tim 4:2 NIV] This is focused training with specific objectives. Take full advantage of this training “on-base” before you need it out in the fray. People don’t like correction and rebuking, but it’s better to sweat in training than to bleed on the battlefield.
  • Paul told Titus, whom he left in Crete to oversee the church there, to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine.” [Ti 2:1] Doctrine – simply what you believe, laid out formally – is immensely important. Being sincerely wrong won’t help you in physical or spiritual matters. How can you fight for the Kingdom of God if you don’t even know about the Kingdom?
  • Paul instructed Timothy, another young pastor, that “what you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching…” and again, “the things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others [2Tim 1:13, 2:2 NIV]. Teaching in the church is a serious responsibility [Jam 3:1], and woe to those that lead people astray [Mat 18:6]. But it can’t just be on the pastor; it needs to be passed on.
  • Deacons “must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.” [1Tim 3:9 NIV] Don’t stay at a shallow level. Dig deep. Grow in your knowledge of God.
  • Paul urged Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, and to teaching [1Tim 4:13 NIV]. A church needs to keep its priorities straight. If there’s very little Scripture in your services, that should be a red flag.
  • Paul said that he was writing the Colossian church so that no one would deceive them with fine-sounding rhetoric [Col 2:4]. There’s a lot of bad ideas out there disguised as clever memes and so forth. Learn the truth so you won’t fall for the lies.
  • The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews were warned that they should’ve been teachers already, but they needed to be taught the basics again before they would even be able to chew on meatier topics. Those deeper truths were for the mature, who because of practice had their senses trained to discern good and evil [Heb 5:12-14]. If you think it’s only the pastor’s job or a Sunday school teacher’s job to teach Bible truth, think again. We should all be working toward that so that we can disciple others just we were discipled. There’s a lot of people in this world that would never step foot in a church that you may be able to help. And the words “disciple” and “discipline” aren’t similar by coincidence; a mature Christian doesn’t get that way without disciplined training, and prayer, and putting the Word into practice daily.

Do you get the impression that church shouldn’t be about simply getting together, but rather about being prepared to go out? The Bible tells Christians in almost every book of the New Testament that they will be hated, persecuted, mocked, tortured, and killed on account of bearing the name of Christ. Would you go out into a fierce battle without body armor and lots of ammo? Has any soldier ever lamented being too prepared, or bringing too much ammo? And yet, too many Christians go about their daily tasks without the shield of faith and the sword that is God’s Word [Eph 6:10-17]. A base doesn’t do any good if everybody stays huddled inside. It’s only in the soldiers going outside the walls that they can engage the enemy, take ground, and rescue people trapped by the enemy. Likewise, a church that isn’t training and equipping Christians to go outside the walls has really forgotten (or shirked) its mission. So choose this day whom you will serve, and mount up, Christian. There’s a world dying right outside our gates, and we need to be about the King’s mission.

Purpose

Purpose. What is it, and does it matter? Dictionaries will define it as one’s objective, goal, intention, desired result, end, aim, or design. In fact, purpose and choice are the two pillars of design; when you design anything, you make certain choices to achieve a specified purpose. Purposes aren’t always apparent to bystanders. In my own branch of engineering, we assemble very detailed plans and instructions for fabricators and erectors so that a safe structure can be built correctly. Sometimes other trades ignore some aspect of our design because they couldn’t see the purpose in it and assumed it was a mistake. Of course, the safety of the public is always our ultimate purpose and is our first obligation in our code of ethics. But smaller purposes might include maximizing open space in an office building, maximizing resilience in a community tornado shelter, or minimizing cost or weight. But what about purpose in the “big picture” of life in general? Is there a purpose? Can we know it?

If there were a purpose for each of us in life, then not knowing it could certainly make for a frustrating life. Imagine trying to use a tool for a purpose it was never intended, like trying to make a screwdriver work as a hammer in an emergency, and you can see how a person trying to accomplish a purpose for which they are not intended might be frustrated. But how could they know their purpose? Is it just what their skills and attitudes point toward? Is my purpose just to be an engineer? That seems rather arbitrary. After all, people often change occupations throughout their life. Even when they stay in a field their entire career, they often retire at a certain point. Have they lost their purpose in life then? While some may feel that way at the time, I think not.

Does atheism offer any justification for purpose in life? Not really. Under atheism, there is no God to establish any kind of overarching purpose for humans. Under materialism, which typically goes along with atheism, there is nothing beyond the physical: you have no soul, you are simply a collection of atoms brought together by chance processes, only to disintegrate and return to the dust after a few decades on average. Maybe you live a hundred years or so, but death can come at any moment really.  If that’s all life is, why do we all seek purpose in our lives, and often despair without it? What ground is there for actually having purpose in an atheistic universe? I’ve heard atheists say people should be good “for goodness sake”, or for the “flourishing” of humankind. But that rings a bit hollow given atheism. We are insignificant blips in a thoughtless, uncaring universe if atheism is true. Why waste our short time here trying to better the world for present or future generations? Knowledge of your accomplishments beyond your lifetime is the closest thing to immortality that atheism can offer, so a person might find purpose in bringing glory to their name so that people hundreds of years from now would remember their deeds.  But even if you were one of the very small percentage of individuals in human history to be remembered for any length of time, it’s still all for naught, for it does you no good. You die all the same and become … nothing… if atheism is true. And call me cynical, but I’ve seen too many changes in command where someone with a different perspective specifically erases a predecessor’s accomplishments. So all my best efforts, whether done out of compassion or a desire for notoriety, can be rolled back by those who come after me.

Is there an alternative view that fills this seemingly universal desire for purpose in life? I think so. The Bible tells us that God made mankind in His image, or likeness. [Gen 1:26-27] This gives us all an intrinsic value regardless of our social status, intelligence, talents race, gender, or anything else. It also tells us that we were created for His glory. [Is 43:7] This is our purpose. Consequently, no matter what we do, we are to “do all to the glory of God.” [1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:23] God did not have to create humans (or anything else). But He chose to create us, and He lovingly put us in a very hospitable spot in a very hostile universe. God alone is worthy of all glory, or honor, and glorifying Him is our joyful duty. Duty? Yes, it’s our very purpose in life – “the chief end of man” as the Westminster Catechism puts it – but joyful duty! As Jesus said, His burden is light. [Matt 11:28-30] For when you fulfill what you were created for, you can be content and at peace – yes, even joyful – in the good times and the bad.

Whether you are a world leader or starving in a North Korean prison camp, whether on top of the world on Wall Street or down in the deepest, darkest mine, whether you live another 100 years or die tomorrow, you can know that your enjoyment of life doesn’t have to be shackled to your ever-changing circumstances. You can have a deeply satisfying purpose that transcends occupation, culture, fads, and the like. Fulfilling that purpose of honoring God permeates and gives beautiful meaning to everything in life from epic deeds down to the most mundane tasks. And who wouldn’t want that?

The Design Analogy

The DNA Structure – Illustration by Zephyris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15027555

There is a theory, known as Intelligent Design (ID), that postulates that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”[1] Many people reject this theory out of hand, and yet it just won’t go away. Why is ID so persistent? I would suggest it’s because analogy is so powerful. We tend to think analogically. We use analogies to work through difficult problems. When we have difficulty understanding a concept, a common first move is to try to find some way the new concept is analogous to something we already understand. Of course, all analogies break down at some point. Otherwise the 2 things being compared would be fully identical. But analogies help us to correlate known causes or effects with newly observed ones. Think back to when you had trouble understanding something new, and a friend or mentor who knew you well enough to know what kind of concepts you understood well, said “It’s like this…” and related it to something you were familiar with, and it suddenly clicked.

The problem for the atheist seeking a materialistic explanation for the universe and the existence of intelligent life is that we can’t seem to avoid analogies – comparisons – to design. Intelligent Design is such a persistent idea because so much of nature is analogous to human design. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe many things in nature without using design-centric terminology: we commonly speak of the “genetic code” and the “blueprints” of DNA; different “body plans” of the each species; the fine-tuning of the universe with its “clockwork precision”; cellular “pumps” and “motors”, and the “wiring” of our nervous system; and the “purpose” of different natural components. Even Richard Dawkins defined biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” and speaks of our bodies as consisting of trillions of cells “organized with intricate architecture and precision engineering into a working machine….”[2]  In fact, the human body has been compared to a “system of systems” similar to a building’s structural skeleton, architectural skin and functionality, and mechanical ventilation, plumbing, and electrical systems, except far more complex than anything any human has ever designed. The analogies between what we see in nature and the results of the human design process really do seem to flow rather readily, don’t they? Of course, the bacterial flagellum has become the poster-child for intelligent design, but why not? The analogy between it and an electric motor, both in function and even in individual parts really is uncanny. When searching for descriptions for natural processes and their results, all of these design-related terms keep rising to the surface as the most appropriate, fitting, terms to use. Why is that?

To answer why this whole debate between Intelligent Design and Naturalism even arises, let’s look at the what analogy really is. Peter Kreeft addresses this topic in his Socratic Logic textbook, where he makes several relevant points.

  • Analogies are often not meant as arguments to prove a case, but simply illustrations to better explain some part of it.
  • Arguments based on analogy do not prove anything with certainty, only varying degrees of probability.
  • Arguments from analogy are the most common kind of inductive argument and actually make up most of our daily inferences.
  • “Argument by analogy is an really an abbreviated form of induction and deduction together.”[3]

Now, I would say that ID isn’t simply attempting to make an illustration, but a proper argument, so let’s lay out some terms first. Induction is (typically) the process of drawing general conclusions based on observation of specific instances. The most basic form of induction is induction by simple enumeration. Think of statistics; you measure a certain part of a test population and induce some general conclusion from the sample you measured. The more you measure the more certain your conclusion. But generally, you cannot be certain except in the case that you measure every possible instance. Deduction is (typically) the process of reasoning that applies general principles to specific instances. Provided the premises are true and the conclusion logically follows from the premises, a deductive argument will provide certainty.

Now analogy is said to be a combination of the two because when we draw an analogy, we are thinking of multiple past instances of something, inferring a general conclusion from that previous track record, recognizing (perhaps unconsciously) the common essence tying those past instances together, as well as that common essence in a new instance, and applying that general principle to the new instance. Analogies provide us a shortcut for that thought process. The more cases we’ve seen, the more similarities between those cases and the new one under investigation and the more relevant they are, and the fewer the dissimilarities between them,  the more certainty we can have that the analogy is sound.

So why won’t Intelligent Design go away? Perhaps because we can recognize an intelligent mind behind all of our human designs, can infer that a mind is what’s required to generate any design, can recognize the twin pillars of design – choice and purpose – in many natural objects and processes we observe, and can therefore reasonably apply that concept of design to them even if we haven’t figured out the identity of the Designer yet. Of course, ID is just a scientific theory, and stops short of identifying the Designer, but we can apply what we know about the necessary attributes of this mystery guest to arrive at an identity. The question for my skeptical friends is this: if the evidence points to nature being the result of design, and the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, ontologically necessary, free agent known as God in the Bible is the best fit for the source of that design, will you follow the evidence where it leads?


[1] “Intelligent Design”, New World Encyclopedia. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Intelligent_design, accessed 2017-02-15.
[2] Both quotes are from Chapter 1 of Dawkins’ 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2010), pp.329-31.

Betting It All

FreeImages.com/Lance Palmer

Previously, I highlighted another brilliant, famous scientist that was a Christian – Blaise Pascal. I also sketched out his Anthropological argument for the existence of God, which is the overarching theme of his unfinished apologetic work collected posthumously as “Pensées”. However, there is a famous part of this work that is more often associated with his name: Pascal’s Wager. It is unfortunate that his “wager” has taken so much focus from his overall case, but such is life. Let’s look at this wager and perhaps answer some objections to it.

While Pensée #418[1] develops it, #387 gives the essence in one sentence: “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.” You might say he is concerned with avoiding the ultimate buyer’s remorse: “What if I buy the spiel that God doesn’t exist, but then meet Him when I die?” Pascal’s development of this in #418 can be arranged in a table of 4 options, based on 2 objective possibilities, and 2 subjective responses to those possible realities, as illustrated below.

Objective Reality
God Exists God does
not exist
Our Subjective Response “I believe” Gain all,
Lose nothing
Gain nothing,
Lose nothing
“I do not
believe”
Gain nothing,
Lose all
Gain nothing,
Lose nothing

If God doesn’t exist, any gains or losses in our life are minimal, and approach insignificance, with either belief or unbelief. But if God exists  – that’s what makes it a high-stakes gamble. The gaining of eternal life, of unending communion with our loving Creator, is at stake! Gain that, and gain what really matters; reject that and all the riches or pleasures of the world can’t compensate for eternal separation from God.

That’s basically his wager, but is his wager valid? Are those really our choices? Let me get one objection out of the way first: this is not an argument for the existence of God, but rather for the prudence of faith. Pascal is leaving aside the theoretical for the moment and getting very practical here to encourage the reader to look at what is prudent, or reasonable. Prudence isn’t a very common word anymore, but Thomas Aquinas defined it as “right reason applied to practice.”[2]Pascal is saying that belief is the wise choice not just in theory but in practice.

Now why is “betting on God” prudent? As he points out, we have to bet: those are, in fact, our only choices. God exists or He doesn’t – agnosticism is not on the table. Why? As Peter Kreeft says in his commentary on Pascal: “Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never’.”[3] To try to avoid betting is simply to delay it and then bet by default, to lose by forfeiting the game.

But why bet on God rather than atheism? Much has been made of Pascal’s statements in the Wager that “Reason cannot decide this question [of God’s existence],” and “Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either [theism or atheism] wrong.” Is he negating all of apologetics here? After all, apologetics is being able to “give a reason for the hope that we have”[1 Pet 3:15], is it not? Keep in mind that the Wager is found in Pascal’s notes for his unfinished defense of Christianity. His whole Anthropological Argument is abductive reasoning. Pascal’s hypothetical seeker in his case asks, “is there really no way of seeing what the cards are?” Pascal’s response: “Yes. Scripture and the rest, etc.” These are all reasons. While it’s true that reason alone cannot prove God’s existence beyond our capacity to deny it, the Cosmological, Teleological, Axiological, and Ontological arguments, as well as Pascal’s own Anthropological argument, stack the odds in favor of the existence of one and only one God – the God of the Bible. So why bet on God? General revelation (nature) and special revelation (Scripture) reasonably point us to Him. Far from a leap in the dark, Christianity “alone has reason” and “reason impels you to believe.”

Some would say that this idea of “betting on God” is a pragmatic or utilitarian religion, a selfish belief that must surely be repugnant to any good God. It’s true that God sees through any mask of belief, as well as condemns selfishness. But I think Peter Kreeft addresses this well when he responds, “To the objection that such ‘belief’ is not yet true faith, the reply is: Of course not, but it is a step on the road to it. Even if it is sheer fear of God’s justice in Hell, ‘ the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov1:7).”[4] I don’t think Pascal intended his audience (the sincere seeker) to simply stop at conceding that belief in God is prudent. He is rather driving the seeker inexorably onward to Christianity, with all that entails. The wager is simply removing one roadblock on the way there.

Lastly, Pascal reminds us at the end of his wager that it is not just a hope for some unknowable future: “I tell you that you will gain even in this life”. And again in Pensée #917,  “The Christian’s hope of possessing an infinite good is mingled with actual enjoyment….” Christians get a small foretaste of this blessing even in this life.

A “prudent bet” may sound a bit paradoxical, but as Pascal would say, here, “there is no room for hesitation, you must give everything. And thus, since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain.”[5] So, are you in?


[1] Note: I am using Krailsheimer’s translation and numbering for the Pensées. You may read Brunschvicg’s edition for free at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm. The numbering there would be: #387 = #241, #418 = #233, and #917 = #540.
[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2nd Part of the 2nd Part, Question 47, Article 2. Aquinas is condensing Aristotle’s definition of Prudence from Nichomachean Ethics Book VI, Part 5: “Practical wisdom, then, must be a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods.” Aristotle’s word φρόνησις (phronesis) is typically translated as “prudence” or “practical wisdom”.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 300.
[4] ibid., p.301.
[5] ibid., p.294.

Portraits of Christians – Blaise Pascal

For those keeping count, this is the 6th portrait of a great, world-renowned scientist who was also a Christian. This compatibility of science and Christianity may surprise some of you. Well, keep reading!

Blaise Pascal was born in 1623 and died in 1662 at the age of only 39. Yet in that time, he set a high bar. With his mother having died when he was 3, and himself being ill most of his life, his father homeschooled him.[1]  Publishing his first mathematical treatise (on conic sections) at only 16, and inventing a mechanical calculator at the age of 22, he went on to contribute much to our understanding of hydraulics and probability theory. In fact, his mechanical calculator, considered the first computer,  is the reason the first computer programming language I ever learned was named after him. If you’ve used hydraulic brakes in your car, or used a forklift, or a shop press, you’ve applied Pascal’s Law. What he discovered was that pressure increases are equal at all points in a confined fluid, so applying a small force to a small area of confined fluid (like pushing the brake pedal in your car) resulted in a multiplied force at a larger area (like the pistons clamping down on your brake rotors). And if you’ve ever given or been given a shot of any medicine, you’ve benefited from another invention of his: the syringe.[2]

But Pascal realized, like the apostle Paul, that all his accomplishments were rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] And so Pascal undertook composing a defense of Christianity against the attacks of the skeptics of his day. Though it was never finished, the fragments of his would-be magnum opus were collected posthumously into what has been titled “Pensées”, or “Thoughts”. Some are barely a sentence or two, while others are meticulously edited, rigorous examinations of deep philosophical ideas. The overarching theme of Pensées is what has been called Pascal’s Anthropological argument: that mankind exhibits a greatness and a wretchedness that is best explained by Christianity,[3] and this is just as powerful an argument today as it was then.

You see, while some will try to reduce humans to simply “talking apes”, most people do recognize that there is something different about us compared to all else. Socrates defined man as the “rational animal”, acknowledging that we have a fleshly, animal nature, but that we are different from animals in our reasoning and self-awareness. Humans hold a unique position in the scheme of life, and it is not arrogance to recognize there is a degree of “greatness” associated with that. Pascal would say that “man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed,” and so nobler than all the unthinking universe.[4] But our wretchedness, as Pascal calls it, is perhaps even more obvious to the casual observer than our greatness. For as long as we have had recorded history, we have recorded incessant war, brutality, murder, theft, poverty, greed, corruption – vice after vice. If we are the top of the line, the most advanced of all intelligent life, why do we find it so difficult to “act that way”? And it’s not just the obvious cases like the Hitlers and Stalins of the world that have failed to do the right thing; it’s each one of us. When we’re alone, away from all of the distractions and busyness of our modern lives, and can take a minute to look in the mirror of our minds, we recognize our wretched condition. In those times of self-reflection, we can truly commiserate with the apostle Paul,  “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate…. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want…. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good…. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”[Rom 7:15,19,21,24] Paul strikes a chord there that Pascal builds on to make his case for Christianity. For this sense of greatness is at odds with our clear observations of our baseness. And as Pascal points out, no other view of life makes sense of this dichotomy as well as the Bible, with its description of our creation in the image of God (our greatness), but also our fall into rebellion against our Creator and the attendant consequences (our wretchedness). To put it in terms of abductive reasoning, Christianity has superior explanatory power than the competing views (atheism, false religions).

Pascal also strove to show man the need for urgency. Perhaps his own chronic illness was a daily reminder of the frailty of our physical life, and a motivation to not delay the most important of decisions and to strongly encourage others to do likewise.  Apathy regarding the truth of Christianity is the worst course of action: “It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal.”[5] As Peter Kreeft points out in his analysis of Pascal’s Wager, “to every possible question life presents three possible answers: Yes, No and Evasion. Death removes the third answer…. Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never.’ ”[6]

In closing, Pascal’s life was a candle that burned quickly, but brightly. And his legacy as a prodigious scientist is only matched by his legacy as a profoundly insightful Christian. Rather than incompatible parts of his life, his faith and his science worked together. As Encyclopedia Britannica put it, “his religious writings are rigorous because of his scientific training”.[2] Think about that term “rigorous.” Synonyms include: extremely thorough, exhaustive, accurate, careful, diligent. Could your beliefs be described that way? Dig into Pascal and make yours a more rigorous faith that will withstand any assaults from false ideologies.[7]


[1] Clarke, Desmond, “Blaise Pascal”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/pascal/ , accessed 2016-12-14.
[2] “Blaise Pascal”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Blaise-Pascal, accessed 2016-12-15.
[3]Douglas Groothuis – Christian Apologetics 101, session 19 (audio course), published by Credo House, 2014.
[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensée #200, as found in Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, Edited, Outlined & Explained, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 55. Pensée numbers are Krailsheimer’s numbering scheme.
[5] ibid., Pensée #164.
[6] ibid., Pensée #418, footnote J.
[7] If you’ve ever started Pensées, struggled, and given up, I highly recommend Kreeft’s work, available here.

At the intersection of faith and design