“What is Truth?”

“What is Truth? Christ and Pilate” – by Nikolai Ge, 1890

“What is Truth?” Pilate asked those words of Jesus almost 2 millennia ago. Johnny Cash had a song with that title back in 1970. Some questions never go away, I suppose. While there are actually several theories of what “truth” is, I want to focus today on the classical version that, I think, is still the best. Let’s dig in!

The classical view of truth is the correspondence theory of truth: a statement is true simply if it corresponds to reality. Aristotle expressed this well when he said that to speak truth is “to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.” This seems like simple common sense, but since our culture today seems to be struggling with the very notion of truth, let me provide an example.

In engineering, we know that when we idealize a joint, it doesn’t correspond perfectly to reality, and we accept some loss in fidelity in favor of simplification for analysis… to a point. But sometimes we have to say, “This has gone beyond simplification and is now misrepresenting the object being analyzed.” Our model doesn’t correspond to the real object anymore.

For instance, we tend to model truss joints as being “pinned” – i.e. not rigid. And for most trusses like the open web steel roof joists you might see in a retail store, that’s a relatively accurate model.

Now compare that “simple” pinned truss joint to a giant truss joint like the one pictured here. That’s a pretty beefy connection and probably more accurate to assume a high degree of stiffness in that joint. Somewhere in between those 2 extremes, our model passes a point of unacceptable noncorrespondance to real joint behavior. What about these in-between situations? Just because that point is in a gray area doesn’t mean we deny the idea of truth being what corresponds to reality. Sometimes, in critical applications, it’s warranted to invest the extra work in modeling the joint as a rotational spring to capture that behavior in between a rotating pin or a fully rigid joint. Likewise, in diaphragm design, we are allowed to assume flexible or rigid diaphragms for the obvious extremes like thin metal or wood decks versus thick concrete slabs. For those unclear areas in between, we use the more accurate method of a “semi-rigid” diaphragm using a finite element analysis to analyze our floors or roofs. Why? Because our profession recognizes that truth still exists, even in gray areas. It’s just more difficult to ascertain, and requires more thorough investigation to find it. So in real life, the existence of gray areas and difficult situations doesn’t preclude the existence of a “right”, or true, answer; rather, what we are recognizing when we classify something as a gray area is our uncertainty of the truth we are seeking in those situations.  But we stillrecognize that the truth is there, somewhere, or else we wouldn’t seek more accurate answers. And this recognition of a reality holding the right answer, outside of our own interpretations of reality, points to the premise that truth is objective and not subjective. In other words, the truth about an object is based on the object itself, not on our subjective perceptions of it.  If I’m colorblind, I might perceive an object’s color very differently from another person, but the object is absorbing and reflecting photons of light in a manner independent of either observer. Therefore, the true color of the object is based on the properties of the object itself, and I describe the object truthfully when I call it by the color it has rather than the color I think I see.

Gray areas in moral and ethical questions are often used to undermine the idea that there are objective moral truths as well as physical truths like my examples above. Yet this is a similar situation to those examples: just because we can recognize the right answer in the easy,  obvious cases doesn’t mean there isn’t a right answer for those less-obvious cases. It just means we might have to dig a little deeper, and possibly remain unsatisfied with potential answers until we find the right one.  But there’s a shortcut, of sorts. The one true God who created the physical universe with its objective physical truths also established the moral truths we seek.  In God, we have that independent “third-party” that can referee between competing truth claims from different people, cultures, times, or places. And who better than the very source of moral truth, for whom it is impossible to lie? [He 6:18, Ti 1:2] Until next time, never waver in the relentless pursuit of truth!

Rejecting Counterfeits

A fake Rolex bought in NYC.

I was listening to an old Everclear album the other day at work, which had the song “Why I Don’t Believe in God” on it. Instead of skipping over it, I thought, “That’s a rather significant thesis to fit in under 5 minutes. Let’s hear his reasons.” After all, philosophical heavyweights like Bertrand Russell took a fair bit more than 5 minutes to make that case, and didn’t have a repeating chorus to fit in. So I listened, looked up the lyrics, and came across some interesting things.

The song [1] is about singer Art Alexakis’ mentally troubled mother hearing voices and having a nervous breakdown. But what I found most interesting was his mention in the song of “strange talk of Edgar Cayce”, a supposedly Christian mystic that his mother apparently was influenced by. This reminds me of James Hetfield of Metallica writing the song “The God that Failed” [2] about his mother, who was a follower of the “Christian Science” movement. Due to that cult’s disapproval of any medical aid, his mother would not pursue medical treatment and died of cancer in 1979 when James was 16. One can see, with that childhood experience, where he got the name for that song. But both these songwriters’ tragic childhood experiences with the religion of their mothers have something in common: they both rejected true Christianity after being exposed to a parody of it.

Consider this analogy: You are walking down the street and a man is selling watches at the corner.  The watches are quite impressive, and you recognize the luxury name immediately. You decide to buy one because this is just “too good of a deal to pass up.” Sadly, after a few days, the watch breaks. Angrily, you decide that these Rolex watches are nothing but overpriced  junk. You tell all of your friends about your bad experience with Rolex, and try to save them the same frustration. You even write a nasty review on Rolex’s website. But… then they respond and ask you for some more information about the defective product that is reflecting so poorly on them. You describe it and their representative dutifully informs you that your “Rollex” is not a genuine “Rolex”. The representative compassionately explains that you’ve been scammed, and while there’s only one true Rolex watchmaker, there are many, many counterfeits [3].  Embarrassed, you realize the deal really was too good to be true, and you’ve maligned a company for a bad product they didn’t even make. You’ve rejected the real thing based on a counterfeit.

Saying you reject Rolex watches and will never buy one because of your experience with a counterfeit is like rejecting God because of your experience with false gods. With Everclear’s Alexakis, his mother’s problems do indeed reflect poorly on Edgar Cayce, but only provided good reason to reject Cayce, not God! While Edgar Cayce may have sincerely thought he was being guided by angels, a review of his story [4] sounds more like fallen angels (i.e. demons) would be a better explanation of any supernatural influence there might have been.  Sadly, for Hetfield’s parents, they had fallen into one of several cults started in the 1800’s. But the Bible never discourages medical efforts. In fact, Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles, 2 books of the New Testament, was himself a physician. Our concept of hospitals was birthed in the 4th century by the Christian church decreeing at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 that any city with a cathedral should have a place set aside for caring for the sick and poor, as well as sheltering travelers [5]. Of course, caring for the sick was a prominent part of Christian service from the beginning, often at the cost of one’s own life from contagious diseases. But before the 4th century, it had to done more secretively due to the intense persecution of Christians. So, you see, the sadly mistaken beliefs of James Hetfield’s parents run contrary to the entire history of Christianity, and really aren’t a reason for rejecting God.

Alexakis thought describing his mother’s sad condition was equivalent to providing actual reasons for not believing in God. Yet, this never even touches on the many good reasons why, like it or not, God is necessary, and therefore, should be accepted as existing. Hetfield thought that God had failed because his mother didn’t seek out those who try to use their God-given gifts of compassion, mercy, medical knowledge, and surgical skill to heal those who are sick, like his mother. Don’t let good reasons for rejecting counterfeits become your bad reasons for rejecting your Creator.


[1] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/everclear/whyidontbelieveingod.html
[2] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/metallica/thegodthatfailed.html
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterfeit_watch
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Cayce
[5] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p.155.

More than a Label

A couple of weeks ago, my church hosted J. Warner Wallace for a weekend of great presentations on the objective nature of truth and the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. If you’re not familiar with Jim, he was a cold-case homicide detective in California who has racked up an impressive number of convictions in long-unsolved murder cases. In fact, you might even recognize him from the TV show “Dateline”, as they’ve documented several of his cases. He was also an ardent atheist until he decided to investigate a really old “cold-case” of a different type: the case of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. To hear “the rest of the story”, as Paul Harvey would say, check out his links below [1]. But now on to what he said that got me thinking. In his closing prayer, he said something to the effect of Christianity being “more than a label” for us.

We identify ourselves with lots of labels – political ones, religious ones, cultural ones – but does that self-identification actually make us those things? Not necessarily. Of course, political partisans will often talk about someone in their party being one “in name only”, such as a RINO, or Republican In Name Only, for example. The idea is that though this person calls themselves a fill-in-the-blank, they aren’t actually; they’re a poser. It is, in effect, a charge of hypocrisy, that the person is saying one thing and doing another. A similar thing happens in engineering, although with potentially more life-threatening consequences.

All of the states I’m licensed in as a professional engineer put out newsletters that include summaries of disciplinary actions taken against individuals. Most of these are against practicing engineers who did things like practicing after their license had expired, maybe because they forgot to renew it. Some aren’t so justifiable, and are serious ethics violations. But occasionally, action is taken against a person who pretended to be an engineer when they weren’t. They’ve claimed the title, or label, but have never done the hard work to acquire the book-learning and mentored training, pass the long arduous tests, and get the license. Some even have enough familiarity with engineering to keep up that charade for several years. But are they professional engineers even when they achieve similar results to engineers? No. They haven’t been granted that title by one having authority to grant it.

What about calling myself a Christian? Can I take that label for myself just because? No. My actions need to match the claim or I’m a hypocrite. I can’t go stealing and lying and murdering and call myself a Christian. But even if I don’t do those things, does acting the part make me a Christian? No, actually. I can be an incredibly nice person, and do lots of wonderful deeds, and call myself a Christian, but even that doesn’t make it so. Consider that Jesus said that the way leading to life was narrow, and that few found it, while the path to destruction was broad and crowded [Matt 7:13-14]. Moreover, many would come to Him saying that they had done all kinds of good things in His name, even working miracles. His response? “Depart from Me, I never knew you.” [Matt 7:21-23] That should be a sobering warning. The apostle John told his audience that  there were those that had gone out from them that had never been part of them [1 Jn 2:19]. They played the Christian game for a while, but eventually moved on. Jesus also talked about letting the wheat and the tares (i.e. saints and sinners) grow together until the harvest, when they would be separated out [Matt 13:24-30]. As Matthew Henry commented on this passage, “It is not possible for any man infallibly to distinguish between tares and wheat,” and, “The tares, if continued under the means of grace, may become good corn; therefore have patience with them.”[2]

So who is a Christian? The Christian is that one whom God has saved. How? They have called out to Jesus Christ, for there is salvation in no one else [Acts 4:12]. How? They have repented of their sins [Acts 3:19, 17:30, Rom 2:4], acknowledged that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believed that God raised Him from the dead [Rom 10:9-10]. That title of “Lord” entails obedience to Him, not just lip service. As Wayne Grudem says in his Systematic Theology, it is “contrary to the New Testament to speak about the possibility of someone accepting Christ ‘as Savior’ but not ‘as Lord,’ if that means simply depending on Him for salvation but not committing oneself to forsake sin and to be obedient to Christ from that point on.” [3] God doesn’t command us to get our lives “straightened out” before He will accept us, for we could never meet His perfect standard in our own strength. But He does command repentance: that godly grief over our sin and the decision to turn away from it and toward Him that leads to salvation [2 Cor7:9-10]. And when we turn to Him, we put our trust in Jesus Christ, the only one who could meet that perfect standard of righteousness [2 Cor 5:21]. A changed life then is the fruit of that repentance.

Being a Christian is not simply a label we claim, or a title we earn, or degree we obtain, but rather an eternal relationship with our Creator. If you are a follower of Christ, may “Christian” be so much more than a mere label for you. And if you’re not a disciple of Christ yet, may you not be deceived and turned away by those for whom it is just a label. Til next time, may God richly bless you in your search to find truth, and in so seeking, find Him. “Seek and ye shall find.”

S.D.G.


[1] Find more of Jim’s work at www.coldcasechristianity.com, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/j.warnerwallace, or Twitter at @jwarnerwallace. Or find his books on Amazon (3rd one drops May 1st).
[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary in One Volume (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p.1272.
[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) p. 714.

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?

At the intersection of faith and design