The Bible & Slavery

The Cursed Field – The Place of Execution in Ancient Rome – Crucified Slaves, by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1878.

Skeptics often like to criticize the Bible for not addressing issues they think it should’ve addressed (and often for addressing issues they would prefer it didn’t). Typically, however, it is more of a case of the issue not being answered as plainly as they would like. I get it; we all like things to be spelled out simply so we can have our answer quickly and move on. I get frustrated at times with some of the codes I have to use in engineering when I read a page that is supposed to be addressing a particular issue I’m working through, and there’s no single bullet point that says “if this, do that.” With project deadlines and impatient clients, the last thing I want to do sometimes is wade through hundreds of pages of code provisions, find some nuanced recommendations and dire warnings in the commentary, correctly interpret everything, and try to implement a solution that is safe, justifiable, and not over the top (knowing that almost anything I come up with can or will be second-guessed by someone). But, do you know what? If structural design was just picking components out of a book without needing to understand the concepts behind those choices, engineering wouldn’t be needed. In fact, “engineering judgment” presupposes an understanding of the concepts involved so as to make a reasonable choice because the engineer can “connect the dots” and foresee the consequences of a certain choice even when there aren’t explicit guidelines. So what about the Bible and slavery? Is the Bible wrong for not clearly condemning it? Or are the concepts there if we take the time to investigate? Let’s work through that today.

Continue reading The Bible & Slavery

Grief, But Not Without Hope

“Return of the Peasants from a Funeral in the Winter”, by Vasily Perov, 1880.

I attended the funeral last week of a fellow engineer and longtime member of our state structural engineers association. I had known he was sick, and had meant to visit him, but somehow was always too distracted at the office to ever remember to visit him and follow through on those good intentions. Although I hadn’t known him personally, he had always been friendly at our monthly association meetings, and encouraging to me during my tenure as President. In the course of conversations at the funeral and the visitation the night before, I learned a lot I never knew about him. But something that surprised me was the dramatic contrast in my reaction to two pieces of information in the email that he had passed away over the weekend. There was initial shock at this unexpected reminder of the ever-present specter of death. Though it wasn’t a surprise for him, given his age and his diagnosis, it was like a bolt out of the blue for me amidst my flurry of workday activity. There was also regret as I realized the worthlessness of those good intentions to visit him in his illness. And yet, I suddenly experienced relief, and even joy, upon reading the last line of the email, which described him as “an exemplary Christian.” What difference does that make? Let’s work through that this week.

The apostle Paul wrote to his Christian readers at the church in Thessalonica that he didn’t want them to be uninformed about those who were “asleep” (i.e. had died), so that they “would not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” [1Th 4:13-18]. Of course, there is still grief at the loss of a person’s physical life, and the ensuing separation from the one who died, for those of us who remain here. But for Christians, that separation is only temporary, with an eternal reunion to follow. And that is something to rejoice in!

But what about those “who have no hope”? Paul expands on what he mentioned in the Thessalonian letter in his first letter to the Corinthian church. He notes that “if the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'”[1Co 15:32]. If this life is all we have, and it can end with our very next breath, in spite of all our best efforts to prolong it, then why not live to maximize the pleasure we can scrape out of it in the little time we might have? Why bother laboring and working your life away if you might die without ever getting to enjoy the fruits of your labors? And even if death doesn’t come “early”, the longer we live, the more inescapable our impending death becomes. If there is nothing after physical death but the cessation of existence and the permanent extinguishing of the flame that was “me”, then hedonism and nihilism seem the most reasonable result.

However, Paul prefaced his summary of hedonistic reasoning with “if the dead are not raised….” Thankfully, we can know that the dead are, in fact, raised; that this physical life is only a drop in the proverbial bucket of a life that will continue on eternally, and that our soul does continue to exist after our body dies. For, as Paul explains, Jesus’ resurrection was like the first fruits of a harvest – a signal of what what to come []1Co 15:20]. He goes on to describe the triumph of Jesus over death, and what that signifies for us:

For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1Co 15:53-57]

That said, we are also told that this victory is only through Christ [Jn 14:6]. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” [Heb 9:27], but through His atoning death for us, and our trust in Him alone, we are saved from the perfect justice of God. So you see, when I read that my colleague was a Christian, I could grieve his departure, while still having hope and joy. For I could know that he was with Jesus even now, and that I would see him again someday. What about you, friend? Do you know that, if you died right now, you would be spending eternity in the presence of God?

What About the Virgin Birth?

The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1753

It’s Christmas: the time set aside each year to celebrate the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Word taking on human flesh, the birth of our Lord and Savior – Jesus, the Christ. But the way He invaded our corrupt world has long been a sticking point for some people. So let’s work through an issue related to that today.

I am, of course, referring to the “Virgin Birth”. You’ll find it recounted in the gospels of Matthew [Mt 1:18-24] and Luke [Lk 1:26-38], and noted as a core belief in the earliest creeds. At Christmas time, you may even reference it in singing carols, like the traditional verses below:

“Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.”
– “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” verse 2

“Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
’round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.”
– “Silent Night! Holy Night!” verse 1

For many, singing such lyrics is more about tradition and nostalgia than singing their beliefs. Yet this has been a fundamental part of Christianity from early on. Why is that? First off, if the Bible really is God’s special revelation to us, inspired by the One who cannot lie [Heb 6:18], then we must take seriously the clear statements in the gospels that Mary was a virgin and Jesus was conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit, not having a human father. That said, one point of clarification is that while it is typically called the “virgin birth”, it is really the unique case of virgin conception that is at issue here. The birth was presumably like any other. But back to the the main issue: a virgin conception isn’t possible, right? Of course it’s not – naturally. A new human life requires 46 chromosomes, and the mother only provides half of those. But that is what makes it a miracle: it is an occurrence in nature that requires supernatural intervention to be accomplished. However, while God has created a very orderly machine-like universe, that does not preclude the machine’s Designer and Creator from bypassing the usual workings to produce a desired result. And from the record we have of such interventions, they are far from arbitrary interference, but rather special signs to a) draw our attention to the message behind the event, and b) prove the legitimacy of the message by the inexplicability of the event apart from divine intervention. The virgin conception was no different.  It was a sign that God was at work here to accomplish something big.

But this leads to that larger purpose served by it, and I think it is something that actually makes a virgin conception necessary if Jesus was to be “truly God and truly man”, as the Chalcedonian Creed would say. Jesus could not inherit a sinful nature if he was to be the perfect, sinless sacrifice that would satisfy the wrath of God. Yet ever since Adam and Eve first disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, humans have suffered from sin, and “there is none righteous, not even one” [Rom 3:10]. How then could God the Son be born as a human, live a perfect life, and offer Himself as an unblemished, atoning, redemptive sacrifice for each of us, if He was born into sin like the rest of us [Ps 51:5, 1Kin 8:46]?

This is where I think a look at two views of ensoulment is profitable. If we recognize the existence of an immaterial “self” that is a key part of who we are, commonly considered as the soul of a person, apart from their material body, then we must ponder how that comes to be. One view is special creation: each human being’s soul is specially created by God and implanted at some point between conception and birth. Another view is called the Traducian view, from the Latin word for a branch of a vine. This view holds that special creation was limited to Adam and Eve as the first humans, and that humans since then have the distinct privilege (and responsibility) of partaking in creation as instrumental causes not just of the physical life of their children, but also of their souls as well. In this way, while mankind was created “in the image of God” [Ge 1:27], a spiritual deadness and propensity to sin are passed down to subsequent generations as part of our very nature after Adam and Eve sinned. What was created good and reflective of God was polluted, marred, corrupted. Much like a genetic defect in our physical bodies, our nonphysical souls have inherited a sin nature from our parents that we are powerless to overcome without the regenerating call to life of the Holy Spirit. What I find particularly interesting about the Traducian idea is that this does explain why the Virgin Conception of Jesus was necessary – Jesus could take on human nature but without that inherited corruption that had been passed down from Adam. Now, whether the Traducian view of ensoulment is the correct one or not, God only knows, but it seems to have significant explanatory power in answering why the virgin conception of Christ was necessary in the first place. Just a little something to chew on this week as thoughts of our Savior take center stage during this season of the year. Blessings, y’all, and … MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Moral Benchmarks

U.S. prosecutor Robert Jackson & Russian assistant prosecutor General Uri Pokrovsky listen to testimony at Nurmeberg, 1946.

We needed to buy new computers at my office a while back. Some of our engineering software has specific requirements, so it was important to make sure the new hardware would work well with our software for the next several versions. But in looking at different platforms, each company had their own claim to be the fastest/most-powerful/best-overall, and so on. If there’s a way to split hairs over words to be able to say your product is the best, creative marketers will find that way. After all, if you define your class down small enough, anyone can claim they are “best in class” – especially once they’re the only one in some ridiculously narrow category! So what’s a person to do to cut through the ulterior motives of marketers and objectively rate competing claims? Wouldn’t it be great if somebody compared each company’s product to the same independent standard so you could see if that expensive video card actually renders 3D graphics better, or if it’s just hype? Well, while it’s not perfect, such a protocol is out there, and it’s called a benchmark. Benchmarking takes each computer and runs the same load test on it to try (as best we can) to get an objective measure of how powerful that processor really is, how good those graphics really are, and so on. But the key to a benchmark is that it’s independent of the competitors. If the standard changes from one product to the next, then it’s not really a standard, and we’re back to having to sift through the hype. What about when you’re confronted not with competing computer hardware, but with competing views of morality? Is there a benchmark you can appeal to for that as well? Let’s work through that today.

Like the competing computer companies, competing cultures or nations will try to justify their actions as being right. But can some of these competing claims be right at the same time? It seems like in order for some to right, others would have to be false. Consider an example. The American Declaration of Independence claims that every person is endowed by their Creator with an inalienable right to life. The Nazi regime of Germany in WWII had a different idea. They believed Jews did not have an inalienable right to life. In fact, they believed they were doing humanity a service by “purifying” humanity of people they considered undesirable.  Both of these views can’t be right. If the American view is right, then the lowest Jew in the Warsaw ghetto had a right to life just as much as the highest SS officer in Berlin. That same American protection applied equally to the mentally and physically handicapped that the Nazis also slaughtered (or experimented on).

Of course, whether we admit it or not, we all recognize that some things we do are wrong, or else we would never bother trying to think up excuses to justify our actions. The Nazis were no different. Their justification for murdering various groups of people  was one used throughout history: simply redefine your victim as inherently different from you so that a different standard applies to them. The Nazis did the same as some slave owners in the American South of the 1800’s, who rationalized their ownership and treatment of black people by declaring them subhuman. The Jews were likewise declared subhuman, and therefore killing a Jew wasn’t murder, and trying to kill them all wasn’t genocide. In fact, the Nazi term “untermenschen” – applied to Jews especially, but also to other groups – was taken from the German translation of a book published (sadly) by an American eugenicist named Lothrop Stoddard in 1922, which referred to non-white people as “under-men”. Defining people the Nazis didn’t like as “subhuman” meant there was no problem in the Nazi moral system with experimenting on them, starving them, gassing them, and generally murdering them in any way imaginable. Convenient for the Nazis – not so much for their victims.

But were the Nazis wrong or just different? Many could (and did) say that they were simply following orders. Many could point to the legality of what they did. Many could point to the fact that not only were their war crimes not punishable in their culture, but they were rewarded for what they did to rid the world of those subhuman untermenschen. They could argue that what they did was defined as good in their culture. Who are we to condemn them just because we don’t value racial purity like they did?, they would ask.  Can we just say that we have our morality and the Nazis had theirs, and we should tolerate it? To each his own? Can a relativist society that denies the existence of objective truth and objective morality say anything else? Thankfully, America’s Greatest Generation would have none of that nonsense. They recognized evil for what it was and did not tolerate it. And in the Nuremberg trials, Justice Robert Jackson appealed to that law above all national laws that would supersede any Nazi appeal to their own law, for even rulers are “under God and the law”.[1]  And what was Justice Jackson building on but that foundation of American jurisprudence, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England?[2] William Blackstone rightly observed that “That rule which natural reason has dictated to all men, is called the law of nations.” But what is this natural law? Blackstone answers that it is to do the will of our Maker. He wrote that what we call natural law that is applicable to all people regardless of place or time, is none other than our own perception of divine law, determined as best we can through our faulty and corrupted human reason. Yet we do not have to rely on that sometimes-distorted perception of divine law, for God has explicitly revealed it to humanity through the Bible. He further comments  that “human laws are only declaratory of, and act in subordination to, the former [divine law]. To instance in the case of murder; this is expressly forbidden by the divine, and demonstrably by the natural law; and from these prohibitions arise the true unlawfulness of this crime. … if any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it, we are bound to transgress that human law, or else we must offend both the natural and the divine.” [3] That line of reasoning will likely sound familiar to anyone that’s read of the apostles Peter and John telling the Sanhedrin that in a conflict between the Council’s laws and God’s laws, they must obey God [Ac 4:19-20].

So where do we turn to find an independent benchmark for comparing moral systems across the gaps of time and place and culture? How are we to judge between competing claims of morality? Might I suggest we turn to our Creator, who is above all cultures, all times, all places, all nations, and all philosophies and ideologies, and who is the source of all true law?


[1] Robert Jackson, Opening Statement at Nuremberg, “Second Day, Wednesday, 11/21/1945, Part 04”, in Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal. Volume II. Proceedings: 11/14/1945-11/30/1945. [Official text in the English language.] Nuremberg: IMT, 1947. pp. 98-102.
[2]Blackstone’s Commentaries are considered “second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions.” – William D. Bader, “Some Thoughts on Blackstone, Precedent and Originalism”. Vermont Law Review (1995), p. 8.
[3] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1769 (Kindle edition by Wallachia Books, 2015), Introduction, Section 2: Of the Nature of Laws in General.

 

In Defense of Apologetics

“If not you, who?”

What is apologetics, and how can it help the average Christian? Let’s work through that question today.

Apologetics is the reasoned defense of the truth of the Christian faith. The word apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which referred to a legal defense in court. It is used in this way by Luke in describing Paul’s defense before both the Roman Procurator Festus [Ac 25:8], and King Agrippa [Ac 26:1]. Paul himself uses the term when he asks the angry mob wanting to kill him to “hear my defense which I now offer to you” [Ac 22:1]. Festus used apologia to refer to the Roman custom of allowing the accused to defend himself against his accusers [Ac 25:16]. So, it is readily seen that this word has a legal sense of presenting compelling reasoning and/or evidence to persuade others (whether a judge or a mob).  Then Peter used that same term in his first letter to the church when he told Christians to always be “ready to make a defense [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” [1Pe 3:15]. This is the verse that led to the adoption of the term apologetics for this discipline of the faith.

But, that’s for preachers and seminary professors and professional speakers, right? It’s not something the average Christian needs to worry about, is it? Oh, but it is!Let’s look at how apologetics is a part of the Christian life.

  • Apologetics is part of your witness. You have to know what you believe if you want to share it with others, but you also have to know why you believe if you want to be able to answer their questions. While some may be blessed with the gift (and responsibility) of specific spiritual gifts, and some may be called to specific roles in the church, being ready to give an answer for the hope that is in you is a general duty that every Christian is expected to be able to perform.
  • Apologetics is part of both loving God “with all your mind” [Mk 12:30] and “watching your life and doctrine closely” [1Ti 4:16]. These are really two sides of the same coin: the first is filling oneself with true knowledge, while the second is protecting oneself from false knowledge. God does not ask us to check our mind at the door, but rather to use it to love Him. How do we do that? By studying what He has revealed to us in His word, contemplating it, and actively pursuing knowledge of Him. Objections often mischaracterize what Christians believe, and answering those objections has forced me to actively pursue that positive knowledge of God. But apologetics also helps protect us by discerning false doctrine, whether in the church, or sitting on some Christian bookstore shelves. That’s part of why Paul tells us to “examine everything and hold fast to that which is good” [1Th 5:21], and why Luke commended the Bereans for examining the Scriptures to check that what Paul was preaching was true [Ac 17:11].
  • Apologetics is a part of daily life. The questions that apologetics seeks to answer are questions that come up all around us. At a recent talk, some of the attendees mentioned objections or “alternative interpretations” raised when visiting family. Personally, I’ve heard objections in conversations with colleagues at work in the past. These aren’t simply abstract ivory tower questions for academics to ponder, but questions that arise in daily life for many of us as we interact with friends or family, or even deal with our own doubts.

Does it make any difference? Is it worth it?

  • Apologetics helps establish common ground between adversaries. If two people both recognize the same authority (such as the Bible), it’s easy to both agree on something because of that common ground. But where there is no common ground, there is a need to reason together & establish agreement piece by piece. Where Christianity is viewed by some as irrational or superstitious, the Bible is not even given a chance to be heard. Apologetics helps demonstrate the reasonableness of belief in God, thus putting Christianity back on the table as a viable worldview option.
  • Apologetics clears a path to the cross. While it’s true that you can’t argue people into the kingdom of God, you also can’t love someone into the kingdom either [1]. But you can remove barriers to belief, both by demonstrating deeds of love and by speaking the “truth in love” [Eph 4:15]. Sometimes, people put a lot of roadblocks across the path that leads to God, and then think they could never go down that road. While they still must choose to follow Christ, at least the path can be cleared for them.
  • Apologetics is often “pre-evangelism”. Sometimes we plant seeds to be watered by others later [1Co 3:5-9]. Other times we only till the hard soil of a stubborn friend’s heart for years on end, with seemingly nothing to show for a lifetime of loving investment. Yet this may be to make it receptive to gospel seeds that will be cast down by someone else in God’s good time. Greg Koukl likens many of his conversations with people in airports and restaurants to putting a “stone in their shoe” – asking questions about their views that will bug them and make them think about the shortcomings of their own position, arousing their own curiosity so that they are receptive to the gospel later [2].
  • Apologetics deepens your own trust in God. In working through your reasons to believe, and tackling objections to Christianity head-on, apologetics helps the Christian combat the doubts that are constantly thrown against them in today’s skeptical culture by confirming the sufficiency of our reasons to believe.
  • Apologetics is an inoculation against a virus. False religions, Christian cults, atheism, skepticism, relativism, indifference, and other views or attitudes can infect people like a virus. How do we prevent that? Before traveling to Africa several years ago, I had to get inoculated against several diseases such as typhoid and yellow fever, so that my body wouldn’t be susceptible if exposed to them during my visit. Those controlled exposures protected me far better than living in a completely sheltered, unexposed manner ever could. My body could develop antibodies against the pathogens because of that previous exposure. God is more than able to stand against the false options out there, so there is no need to isolate oneself from those false views. Rather, learn why they’re false so that you won’t fall prey to them when suddenly confronted by old, long-answered objections that are simply new to you.
  • Apologetics helps us worship God. We are called to worship God “in spirit and in truth” [Jn 4:24], and when we work through the tough questions to confirm the truth and understand it more clearly, our reverence for God is increased. Words of praise become more meaningful as we work through the implications of those words.

Is apologetics useful to the average Christian? Absolutely! But don’t think of it in isolation, as something only useful at certain times or by certain people. Rather, it is a tool to be integrated into each aspect of the Christian walk, from public evangelism to private worship.


[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p. 36.
[2] ibid. p. 38.

“Just Needs Some TLC”

“Great starter home for the motivated DIYer! Just needs a little TLC.” – Author’s personal photo.

You’ve seen the ads. You know when a realtor says a house needs a little “Tender Loving Care”, or that it’s a “good fit for the motivated Do-It-Yourselfer”, that it’s pretty bad. My wife’s comment is sometimes “That’s not a fixer-upper, that’s a tearer-downer!” Sometimes home sellers are a bit overly-optimistic.

There is a similar optimism when it comes to the condition of the human soul. People like to think that they are “pretty good”, all things considered. They may have made some mistakes over the years, but overall, the good outweighs the bad. If they even need religion at all, it’s just to give them some structure, some goals, maybe some accountability to finally break some bad habits. Just some minor repairs – you know, a little paint, maybe some new roof shingles, update the light fixtures, nothing serious – and we’ll be ready for whatever lies beyond the grave. But until we understand the extent of our need, we’ll never appreciate the value of the gift extended to us. That’s why learning of God’s amazing love is only half the story. If we think we’re pretty good already, or that God grades on a curve – we’ll be OK as long we’re better than so-and-so – then we might mistakenly think “Why wouldn’t God love me? I’m a pretty nice guy!”

Understand this, we are not a house in need of a little DIY – a little TLC, a little fixing-up. We are dead in our sins, completely helpless [Eph 2:1]. Like a house situated over a growing sinkhole, being devoured by termites, with a  Category 5 hurricane approaching, we are doomed. No amount of cosmetic enhancement is going to save that house, and in fact, the house’s appearance may only mask the real dangers. Being “more good than bad” won’t help. It’s like going to paint a room white and finding that some black paint has been spilt in the bucket of white paint. It’s many times more white than black, but it doesn’t matter; it’s tainted and isn’t getting used if you want pure white walls. And absolute, pure perfection is the only measure acceptable before God, our perfect judge who does not grade on a curve. Every human on Earth is in that condition and will die like that unless God draws them to Himself and awakens them to new life [Jn 6:44, Eph 2:4-5]. But it gets worse. Just like a judge would be unjust to let criminals go unpunished, there is a punishment awaiting every person who fails that standard of perfection. That punishment is eternal separation from God, from whom all good things derive [Jam 1:17]. People have sometimes been offended by the idea of God condemning people to “eternal conscious torment” in Hell, but what else could separation from God be? Christians do not carry on about the dangers of Hell to scare people into becoming Christians, but rather as loving friends concerned for the tragic end we see our unbelieving friends heading for. Could we call ourselves real friends if we didn’t try to warn others of impending disaster?

The prognosis seems very grim indeed. And yet, while God is perfectly just to not let any imperfect human into His presence, and to allow each and every person to suffer the torment that separation from Him would necessarily be, He does not desire that any should perish [Ezk 33:11]. But our best efforts are helpless to prevent the inevitable end that must result given an imperfect person standing before a perfect judge. That is the very, very bad news. But God, in a one-sided display of love and mercy, brought us very, very good news, in the form of a substitute who would take our place and bear the wrath of punishment rightly due each of us. But how? Wouldn’t any substitute be tainted like we are, doomed to score sub-perfect? Such is God’s love for us, that He sent His Son, the 2nd person of the Trinity, to be miraculously conceived and born in human flesh, truly God and truly man, to live a perfect life and offer Himself as the only possible acceptable sacrifice that could satisfy the perfect justice of God the Father, conquering death and proving the Father’s acceptance of His sacrifice by rising from the dead, allowing those who accept Him, who were once enemies of God,  to be reconciled to God, adopted, transformed, and given a sure hope of eternal life.

It seems to be good to be true (when we understand the natural state of our decrepitude and hopelessness) that God would step in to effect such a miraculous rescue. Sadly, not all will accept rescue. But that’s our only chance, for we aren’t just a simple “fixer-upper”.

New Page

New pages don’t show up in the feed of posts, so if you’re looking for this week’s post, it is a new page in the site menu called “Your Free Gift” (above and to the right, below the banner at the top of the page). Check it out and let me know what you think! Thanks 🙂

Quantity vs Quality

Man vs. Cosmos (Photo via Good Free Photos)

Is more always better? Well, we do like our “buy one, get one free” sales at the supermarket…. But what about when there’s a difference in quality? Can an increase in quantity or size make up for lower quality? If you went to a restaurant that offered you a tender, 8-ounce portion of a prime cut of steak perfectly cooked, and their competition across the street offered a tough, grisly, 48-ounce piece of shoe leather masquerading as a steak, half burnt and the other half still raw, for the same price, would it be much of a choice?* Short of a starvation scenario, most people would probably opt for the small, high-quality steak over the much larger nasty steak. But what if the difference is more significant? All the seawater in the ocean doesn’t take the place of 1 bottle of clean pure water for the man dying of thirst. Indeed, gulping down saltwater will only kill him faster. That small amount of pure water is worth more to him than all the quadrillions of gallons of saltwater in the world’s oceans.

Blaise Pascal highlighted this distinction between quantity and quality in his Pensées when he compared the seeming insignificance of man to the vastness of the universe. Skeptics often make the same comparison, but come to very different conclusions. Some have ridiculed Christians for thinking humans are special when we are less than a speck compared to the immensity of the uncaring universe. Some have thought us quite arrogant for considering humans to be special. But the immensity of the universe is really only a red herring that distracts us from the difference in quality. Consider Pascal’s insight:

“Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this…. Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it.”[1]

He’s right. Humans may live fragile lives on a “pale blue dot” circling one of billions of stars in one galaxy among billions in the universe, and yet… all the fiery stars and desolate planets can’t be aware of their own existence, can’t appreciate the beauty they are part of, can’t compose a love sonnet, can’t even ask why that is the case. For all the overwhelming size of the universe, it cannot do what even a child can. Even among life on Earth, when we find similar behavior between ourselves and animals, humans still seem to be not just a little ahead of the animals compared, but miles ahead. Some people like to try to reduce humans to mere animals, but the gap between humans and the nearest animal in terms of consciousness, rationality, understanding, judgment, and intentionality, is really quite staggering. Why is that? The Bible provides the answer: humans, unlike animals, or anything else in our universe, were created in the image of God [Gen 1:27]. We can think and reason like God [Is 1:18]; we are relational like our triune God; we are creative, in imitation of our Creator; we love, because He first loved us [1Jo 4:19].

Although skeptics will often point to the infinitesimal size of our whole world compared to the cosmos, as a strike against humanity being “by design”, it is interesting to note how finely balanced our universe is – on a razor’s edge, as it were – and how science is finding more and more that our world wouldn’t even be able to exist and support complex life except in such a massive universe. It is also worth considering that an immense universe that dwarfs us and fills us with awe and wonder might just be a reasonable calling card of an eternal, transcendent, all-powerful, all-knowing God. On that note, I leave you with the words of King David, who came to that very conclusion 3,000 years ago:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
  the sky displays his handiwork.
Day after day it speaks out;
  night after night it reveals his greatness.
Psalm 19:1-2, NET

 * For the vegetarians/vegans out there, substitute whatever would be a comparable delicacy for you 😉
[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées #347, 348, quoted in Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées –Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,1993), p. 55,57.

Stumbling Over the Basics

As I wait another 2 months for the results from my engineering exam I took in October, I have time to reflect on the test and the last year of preparation for it, and see some applications to my Christian walk that may be of help for some of you out there, too. So let’s work through that today.

There were some pretty obscure scenarios that showed up in both practice problems and the real exam, and it’s good to know where to go to find the needed information to solve those problems. But some of the problem types I was working were just about guaranteed to be on the exam. While some problems caught me off-guard, others were practically required questions because they were basic concepts that the practicing structural engineer needs to understand, even if he works in a smaller niche of the overall profession (like steel connection design for me). In fact, for a long, timed test like this, the more typical design problems need to be almost instinctive so that you can make up time on them, knowing the more complex or more obscure problems will eat up that gain.

What does any of that have to do with Christianity? Well, there are areas of Christian doctrine that need to be almost reflexive for us. We should be so prepared beforehand that a response is immediate, as thorough as it needs to be, and – most importantly – true. Christianity is not something where you can just “wing it”, making it up as you go. But while knowing those core doctrines is important, it also needs to go beyond just intellectual assent. After all, as James pointed out, the demons can recognize many of those truths, but they shudder rather than rejoice in them [Jam 2:19]. That’s why Peter told his readers facing persecution to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” [1Pe 3:15]. Of course, this presupposes that you a) have a hope in you, and b) that it shows forth enough for people to want to know why. But then Peter says to be “ready to make a defense”, i.e. to be able to lay out solid reasons. Out of a holy heart submitted to Christ flow actions that demonstrate the redemptive work of God and cause people to ask questions. And out of a prepared mind flow the ready answers to those questions. Then head and heart come together to demonstrate the truth of Christianity in word and deed more powerfully than either alone.

That word “defense” is the Greek legal term ἀπολογία (apologia), from which we get apologetics. In fact, 3 of the other 7 uses of apologia are related to Paul having to defend himself, either before an official tribunal or an angry mob ready to kill him on the spot [Acts 22:1, 25:16, 2Tim 4:16]. Now, you wouldn’t approach a court case (or an angry mob) without preparing, would you? That would be about as foolish as me going into that engineering exam without studying and working practice problems. But have you, dear Christian, thought about the reason for your hope? What happens when you find yourself “on the spot”? Will you ready to give an answer, or will you stare dumbfounded at your questioner?

Going back to the exam, I didn’t have to know everything (as if I even could). Most questions required some amount of consultation with my reference books just because you’re not going to have those kinds of things memorized unless the question happens to be in your specialty that you maybe deal with everyday.  So you need to know where to go for the answers ahead of time. But then there’s some questions that just come out of left field, and you find yourself having to learn the material fresh (and quickly) before even being able to attempt an answer. As a Christian ambassador [2Co 5:20], I don’t have to be able to answer everything on the spot, but  I shouldn’t stumble on the basics. When the people cried out to Peter “What must we do to be saved?” [Ac 2:37], he didn’t say “Let me do some research and get back to you on that….” But many questions or objections will require some digging. Do you know where to go for answers? Do you know your way around the Bible? Have you invested in some good references and figured out how they’re organized so you know where to start tracking down an answer when the need arises? Although outside help many not have been allowed in my exam, that resource is open to you! When you get those questions out of left field, do you have knowledgeable pastors, mentors, or friends you can consult with? Don’t forget that Christians are all members of the body of Christ, each equipped to supply what is missing in another [Ro 12:4-6, 1Co 12]. Thankfully, you don’t have to try to do it all yourself (nor should you).

In hindsight, it wasn’t being unable to answer the obscure exam problems that bothered me the most; and it wasn’t the in-depth questions that I ran out of time on. Rather, it was the simple questions that I knew I should know, but still stumbled on. Don’t let that be the case when granted the opportunity to share the truth revealed to us… the hope that anchors us… the assurance and peace we are blessed with… the “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68]. Instead, be ready!

A Ductile Faith

Hardcore seismic testing by Sideplate to prove the ductility of their connections (video here)

Engineers like ductility. When designing buildings for earthquakes, we impose harsh penalties on nonductile systems while allowing far more leeway for very ductile systems. What on earth does ductility have to do faith? Let’s work through that today.

Ductility is the ability to continue absorbing energy after yielding without breaking. This is especially important in earthquakes where it may not be possible to keep the structure from yielding. The opposite of ductility is brittleness. You can have a very strong material that is also very brittle. In fact, materials typically do get more brittle with increasing strength, and it often takes special processing or expensive alloys to maximize both strength and ductility. Brittleness, on the other hand, is something we try to avoid because of the suddenness of a failure. A brittle object may hold up an exceptional load, but the failure, when it finally occurs is catastrophic and without warning. Ductile components, even if not as strong, are preferred because they can take a lot of overloading without failing. In fact, steel has become such a dominant building material precisely because of its excellent balance of strength and ductility (a property called toughness). For situations that require resisting extreme events like earthquakes or large impacts (i.e. tornado or tsunami debris, accidental collisions, terrorist attacks), ductility is a primary tool in the engineer’s toolbox. Ductile components deform before they break, providing ample warning before they fail. This also allows a lot of time to repair the structure before it collapses. In the extreme case, it allows people time to get out of the building or off the bridge before it collapses. And since protecting people is the primary duty of engineers, we like ductile behavior.

I’ve read some stories of atheist “deconversions”, and I see some similarities between a well-designed structure and a well-designed faith. You see, our faith (or trust in God) can also be ductile or brittle. Dan Barker writes of his leaving Christianity in his book “godless”, and his story strikes me as an example of a brittle faith. Under good conditions, he appeared (according to him) to be a super-Christian. But under long-term pressure, his trust in God proved to have very little “reserve capacity”. Perhaps equally shocking was his story of his mother. After disclosing his apostasy to her, his mother – who’d been a Sunday school teacher in their church for years – saw a dead bird in the garden being eaten by ants, and decided that God’s eye was not really on the sparrow, as she had sung in church, and decided also to walk away from God. That is a prime example of brittle faith if ever there was one. Her love for her son, combined with his rejection of God, caused such a strain on her relatively shallow trust in God, that witnessing an everyday event like a bird dying, resulted in a sudden, catastrophic failure.

We trust in so many things that let us down, yet God is the only truly reliable one in this universe. Is your trust in Him able to be stretched without snapping? Or is it simply a blind faith with no capacity to resist any pushback? Here at A Well-Designed Faith, I’d like to see every Christian build a strong faith that can also stretch under stress, much like Job. While he is known for his patience in enduring suffering, it’s important to remember that Job could do that because of his trust in God, that was both strong and still able to be stretched unimaginably without breaking. Thus, after everything dear in life was taken from him, Job could still say “Though He {God} slay me, I will hope in Him.” [Job 13:15] That’s trust that understands the greater good of God’s plan, and acts on that sure hope. And our hope, like Job’s, is “a hope both sure and steadfast”, as the author of Hebrews reminds us [Heb 6:19], and not merely the wishful thinking we so often associate with the word “hope”. It is this certainty that we can have in God that enabled people like the apostle Paul, and so many martyrs since then, to undergo terrible persecution without breaking.

There are materials out there far, far stronger than the structural steel grades we use in buildings, but we typically don’t use them because we want toughness, that beautiful combination of good strength and massive ductility that keeps a building standing through an earthquake when stronger, brittle materials have failed. When structural engineers see what’s called “hysteresis curves” for a particular type of ductile seismic system that tell us it has undergone many cycles of  bending and stretching and buckling without failing, that is like beautiful art for us.  We can see buildings still standing and lives saved in those funny-looking graphs. And when I hear someone say with Paul that they “know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” [2Tim 1:12], I can see Christians who will persevere and remain standing through the most severe trials. May yours be a “ductile faith”.

At the intersection of faith and design