Tag Archives: Bible

When Challenges Are Opportunities

Study Time!

Studying for the Structural Engineering exam is forcing me to tab and highlight and underline and make margin notes and explore and systematize my steel manual (and most of my other reference books) like I never have before. Why? Because I’m about to be challenged on my knowledge of it like I never have before. But that challenge is a good thing, because it’s forcing me to take the time to study hard and become a better engineer. I may not need to have have every bit of knowledge memorized, but I do need to know where to find what I need and how to correctly apply it when I find it. In the process, I’m learning about seldom-used tables and provisions that are outside of my normal practice. Yet, even in the areas I’m more familiar with, working through practice problems without the aid of the computer programs we engineers have, for better or worse, become reliant on, is helpful. And I think there’s a parallel here for Christians as well, so let’s work through that today.

I remember getting challenged about my Christian beliefs by a colleague several years ago. “How can you call yourself an engineer and a Christian at the same time? Aren’t those mutually exclusive?” I knew that Christianity and science weren’t incompatible in the least, but I’d never prepared for a challenge like that, and it took me by surprise. That challenge exposed a lot of “comfortable Christianity” in my life. What do I mean? I mean that it hadn’t been challenging to be a Christian for most of my life. I hadn’t had to really “count the cost” as Jesus had advised [Lk 14:27-28], like so many Christians around the world have had to do over the centuries, and still do today in around 50 restricted nations. I grew up in the church, and all of my friends were Christians (or at least claimed to be). My first job out of high school was working in an engineering office where many of the employees didn’t just go to church, but went to the same church. I pursued my engineering degree at a Christian college, and came back to that same Christian-friendly workplace every time school was out. It simply was not uncomfortable to be Christian (or at least to play the part), so there was little motivation to really know what I believed and why. It wasn’t like my life depended on it; my family wasn’t going to disown me for choosing that path; my employer wasn’t going to fire me over it; my professors in college weren’t going to fail me or ridicule me over it. It was easy to just float along in the stream of a predominately Christian culture.

But that challenge several years ago woke me up from my slumber, and helped me understand the importance of being able to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”[1Pet 3:15 NIV] So, for me, my Bible and a lot of my apologetics and theology books and commentaries look like my steel manual – highlights and underlines and margin notes everywhere. That’s how I learn, but regardless of how you process what you read, the main question is if your Bible is well-studied or just casually skimmed? Like the old Gatorade commercials asked, “Is it in you?” For a casual skimming won’t suffice when challenges come, whether that’s one’s own doubts, or sincere questioners, or cruel torturers. When the apostle Peter wrote to his readers that they should be able to give an answer – a reasoned defense – for their hope in Christ, he was writing to people for whom this wasn’t just an intellectual exercise; he reminds them in that same letter not to be surprised at the severe persecution they were experiencing.[1Pet 4:12-16] They needed to know that what they were getting tortured for was true, and be able to articulate why to those around them, maybe even to the very people persecuting them.

The subject matter in the Bible is simply too important to blow off, both for your own life, and the lives of those you may meet. This is why Paul encouraged Timothy to be diligent to show himself approved before God, rightly handling the word of truth. [2Tim 2:15] This is why King David would talk about meditating on the law of the Lord day and night [Ps 1:2, 63:6, 119:15,48,97,148]. So ask yourself, will I be prepared to answer those who ask before or after the opportunity has passed? And whether it’s a friendly question or a snarling challenge, it is always an opportunity to be an ambassador, so get started preparing. Familiarize yourself with the areas you’re weak in. If you like to hang out in the New Testament, study the Old Testament. If you’re a theology nerd, dig into some biblical history. Learn about the different genres, the historical settings, and the original recipients’ culture. Find a more mature Christian who can disciple you. Set aside time each week for uninterrupted study. And talk to the Author of the Book you’re studying: God. God gave us this amazing revelation of Himself in the form of the Bible, and He will honor the prayers of those sincerely seeking to understand His Word. There’s a thousand lifetimes worth of learning in there, so what are you waiting on? Dig in!

No Time

Author’s photo of Big Ben while on a layover in London in 2013.

“Time marches on” – Metallica;
“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin… into the future” – Steve Miller Band;
“Get busy like a schoolboy making an ‘A’ cause time my brother is tickin’ away” – dc Talk;
“Time, why you punish me?” – Hootie & the Blowfish.

The subject of time is a favorite topic of songwriters and poets from all different genres and eras.  I’ve been studying for a big engineering exam later this year, so time has been on my mind a lot lately, too. As I work practice problems, taking far longer than the average time I’ll have on the exam, I’m reminded of how quickly time can pass when you’re busy. As I look at the calendar and realize I only have 7 months left to study, I find myself echoing Dr. Seuss when he observed (in his classic style), “My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” And when I get to the exam, time management will be critical. The temptation in an open-book exam is to waste precious time searching for answers. However, you can’t afford to be looking for answers in all the wrong places; you have to know where to go. Another trap is not having studied the right material and being unprepared for the questions asked on the exam. Suppose I’m more comfortable with steel and concrete design, and only study those areas to the exclusion of wood and masonry. I’ll be in trouble when I don’t know how to work half the problems on the exam. Fortunately, while the actual questions are a surprise, applicants are provided a breakdown of what areas of knowledge are required. So I know in advance that of the four design problems in the afternoon session, there will be one each dealing with concrete, masonry, steel, and wood. Knowing that,  and acting on it, I can (and should) be prepared going into the exam.

But as important as my upcoming exam is for me as an engineer, it is insignificant in comparison to the question of where I will spend eternity. Like the exam, I can waste all my time looking for answers in the wrong references. I can go worship Progress at the altar of secular humanism, or tread the Buddha’s Eightfold Path,  or read the Qur’an and the Hadith of Muhammad, or seek “enlightenment” from the  most respected guru, all to no avail. There is only one way to God, and all these other attempts are only dead ends. Trying to get to God by any of the merely human attempts, rather than the way that He opened up for us, is about as useful as trying to design a masonry shear wall from tables in the Steel Manual. It’s simply the wrong book, no matter how much one believes it has the right answer.

I can also simply ignore my lack of planning in certain areas of life, and appear some day before Jesus Christ, the judge of all, woefully unprepared, with no recourse, no appeals, no “retests”, – no second chances. Maybe you’re too busy chasing money, fame, power, knowledge, success – or even admirable goals like family, or “leading a good life”, or “leaving the world a better place” – to think about God. As Jesus famously said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” [Mk 8:36] Don’t blow this divine exam by ignoring the very things that are actually going to be on “the test”. What will we be tested on come Judgement Day? None of those things we like to use to define a “successful” life. Rather, it all comes down to this: Did you accept God’s free gift of salvation [Ro  6:23] on His terms or did you try to demand it be on your terms? If not His terms, you’ve been preparing for the wrong exam.

Maybe you’d rather not think about death and what might occur afterward, and instead just “focus on the here and now”.  Hey, I prefer using structural steel to masonry, but the fact that I’m not as comfortable designing a masonry shear wall is why I need to study that. Whether I like it or not won’t change the fact that there will be a masonry design problem on the exam. I’ll have only myself to blame if stick my head in the sand and choose not to think about what’s coming. Life is pretty short, when you think about it, even if we die of old age. What’s a hundred years or so in comparison to human history? Tragic accidents, disease, or the acts of murderers and drunk drivers and terrorists and the like can make it considerably shorter.  Unfortunately, you never know exactly when that end will come. Don’t waste the time you have been given looking for answers in all the wrong places or simply avoiding thinking about the questions. The Bible is the master reference book that has the critical answers to life’s big questions: How did all this begin? Who am I? Why am I here? How will all this end? Origin, identity, purpose, and destiny are 4 words that drive much of our search for meaning in life, and they are all answered by our Creator in His book. And if you can read my rambling little blog, but haven’t invested in reading God’s Word, then what are still doing here?! Go buy, borrow, check out, or download a Bible and get to studying!*


*I hesitate to advocate stealing a Bible, although I don’t know any Christian that wouldn’t gladly give their Bible to a potential Scripture thief hungry for “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68].

Impatience & Arrogance

“Torah Scribe”, by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1876

“Patience is a virtue, and I want it now!” Or so goes a common joke. But seriously, it’s frustrating being patient, and especially learning patience, but have you ever considered how impatience is really driven by arrogance? When I’m impatient with someone, I essentially say that my desires are more important than theirs, that I take priority. And honestly, even if my desires actually are more critical than someone else’s in a particular situation, does getting impatient ever help the situation? Not that I’ve seen.

Yet, we tend, in our culture, to be very impatient with God when it comes to His revelation in Scripture. Too often, skeptics – and even Christians – dismiss parts of the Bible that aren’t immediately obvious to them. Christian theologians over the centuries have devoted their lives to studying the Bible, and the Jews studied the Torah for centuries before that; and yet we sometimes think that if it isn’t fully understandable in five minutes, it’s a waste of time. However, we don’t have the same opinion of things like learning music, or calculus, or art, or really anything else. Rather, we fully expect worthwhile subjects to take a long time to understand, and maybe a lifetime to master. So what does it say about us when we have so little patience for learning theology – the study of God? I suggest that it’s arrogance on our part based on how little we really value the Word of God. Of course, I don’t expect the skeptic to value it, but it is disappointing to see so many apathetic Christians willing to dismiss tough sayings in the Bible so casually. Then again, tough sayings are what Jesus used in John 6 to weed out the “fans” from the serious disciples [John 6:60, 66-67]. But woe to those He finds to be only fans.

Even if we do awake from our slumber and spend our lives in pursuing a deeper knowledge of God, will we figure out all those troublesome verses? Not necessarily, and I’m OK with that. Here’s why. Ever since Newton’s time, we have had a good, but very incomplete, understanding of two of the most basic things in the universe: gravity and light. Are they particles or waves? Scientists observed properties that fit both categories for both entities, and have had to just live with a paradox – a wave-particle duality.[1] For instance, regarding light, Albert Einstein stated: “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.” Recently, evidence was found that seems to have confirmed gravity is a wave [2], but several generations of scientists have had to live their entire lives not knowing the answer to that question. Newton could describe the effects of gravity on objects via his universal law of gravitation, but he couldn’t explain how those effects were actually accomplished. And neither could anyone else with certainty for the next 3 centuries. Even now, future evidence may be found that contradicts how we interpreted the “gravity wave” emanating from a distant black hole collision in 2016. And yet, those scientists, past and present, did not think there was no answer to paradoxical things like light and gravity, or that the answer wasn’t worth seeking. Rather, they sought it all the more diligently. Somehow, though, we have the audacity to think that a difficult biblical passage doesn’t warrant a little humility and extra effort on our part? It takes us centuries to figure out the details of some of the basic operations of the physical universe, and we expect the Creator of that universe to be simpler to figure out? I don’t see that as a reasonable assumption. On the contrary, it stands to reason that the One who created the universe is greater than His creation, and that an infinite being might be a little beyond the grasp of His finite creatures.

In closing, I would encourage you to work through the tough questions; study, research, wrestle with them, and seek the answers from the Author of both the easy and the difficult passages. But don’t ignore the obvious answers you do have in front of you because you haven’t found an agreeable answer to your particular question on a more obscure issue. Don’t focus, as too many do, on secondary issues as reasons to reject God, while conveniently ignoring the primary questions the Bible does answer clearly. Don’t reject the God who must necessarily exist simply because you can’t reconcile two seemingly contradictory passages in His message to us. For in the Bible, we have something that, taken as a whole, explains the human condition better than any other worldview, even if we don’t understand every part of it exhaustively. And that should temper our impatience and its underlying arrogance, and remind us of our finitude and the wisdom of humility.


[1] http://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/inquiring/questions/graviton.html
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/12/science/ligo-gravitational-waves-black-holes-einstein.html

General vs Special Revelation

I was listening to an atheist present his case a while back, and one of his complaints was Christian apologists wanting to start from scratch, trying to prove the existence of generic theism ad nauseam, rather than the Christian Trinitarian God we supposedly believe in. Since his talk was about why he was an atheist, addressing his rejection of theism didn’t seem that unreasonable of a place to start.  But regardless of where we start, there are two fundamental questions to deal with: does God exist? and is the biblical presentation of Him true? The claims of Jesus and the Bible are foolish at best and deceitful at worst if God doesn’t even exist. But these two questions take us into aspects of how God reveals Himself to humanity. Let’s work through that today.

Revelation is simply the revealing of something, and God reveals Himself to us in two ways: general and special revelation. General revelation is also called natural revelation, or natural theology, because it is God’s disclosure about Himself and His relation to His creation, made manifest in physical nature, human nature, and history.[1]  This is the primary focus of apologetics, because we are often talking to people who reject the authority of the Bible. But, of course, God does not leave Himself without a witness, and astronomy, biology, genetics, geology, archeology, history, and philosophy are some of the disciplines that all reveal calling cards of God, consistently pointing us back to Him. Special revelation, on the other hand, is His direct revelation as recorded in the 66 books of the Bible, written by human authors inspired for His purpose, to specific people or groups of people, but also for people of all times and places.

I think of general revelation like the title sheet of a set of contract drawings for a building, while special revelation is the drawings themselves:

  • The title sheet of the drawings tells you who’s responsible for the design of the project: the various architects, engineers, and specialty consultants. Each designer is responsible for their portion, but the architect over the project will have his stamp on there. It’s not his biography, just his stamp certifying that the drawing set is ready to be used for construction. Similarly, we only get a stamp of divine authority in the wonders of nature. You have to go to the Bible for the rest of the story.
  • There will often be a scaled map of the project site showing where the building is in relation to different streets and how it will be oriented. Nowadays, there is often a nicely rendered 3D view of the project, with cars and people to show the scale of the project.  I can tell a lot about the project just from a good title sheet. Is this from a qualified design team known for good work? Is the project in Miami, Florida or Valdez, Alaska? I would expect pretty different types of buildings depending on the location. The first would need to be designed for hurricanes, while the second would need to account for massive snow loads and earthquakes. Just seeing the project location on the title sheet can tell me about some of the design issues dealt with on that project. The 3D view of the building model might tell me that this is a narrow, 50-story office tower in a one-city-block parcel in a crowded downtown environment, or that it’s a sprawling 1-story retail store with acres of parking all around. Natural revelation tells us where we’re situated and gives us an idea of the scope of this “project” we are part of. Going from the smallest cellular machines up to the grandeur of the universe, we realize our own smallness, and God’s awesome majesty to have created everything encompassed by such extremes (and God’s love that He would care about us on this “pale blue dot” of earth).
  • Most importantly, I can’t build off of that title sheet. Sure, I do know a lot about the project from it. I know where to build, roughly how big to build, some of the loads the building will have to be able to handle. But it’s pretty obvious that that isn’t enough. I don’t know any of the internal layout of the building, or how it’s braced against those various loads like hurricane winds, or the critically-important foundations that will support it. That general overview of the project isn’t enough to actually build it. For that, I need to open up the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pages of detailed drawings and other contract documents. In the same way, I can observe the world around me and learn that God exists, and even that He is a conscious being, is powerful, intelligent, immaterial, and eternal. But that’s not enough. Just like I need detailed plans to go with that general knowledge of a proposed building if I want to build anything that will last, I need the detailed message of the gospel if I want to spend eternity with my Creator.

When it comes to your eternal fate, don’t stop at the title page and try building your life on insufficient information, when the Master Designer has made available to you the detailed plans needed to build a life that will endure forever. And don’t ignore the drawings and title sheet altogether, and say there is no Designer as you try building a life on your own. Atheists are fond of saying religion is only a crutch for weak people, but really, it’s simply that making a mess of our lives is usually what it takes to force many of us to reach out to our life’s Designer and ask for help. Sad but true. As an engineer, I put my contact info on any of my structural drawings or reports so that people will reach out to m before they build something wrong and cause a disaster. Likewise, God has left His contact info. Don’t wait until your life comes crashing down before you call your life’s Designer to figure out how it was supposed to go together.


[1] “Revelation, General”, Norm Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).

 

Why We Don’t Clean Up the Bible

A Depiction of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Vasily Polenov, 1888

Ever had junk accumulate around your house until you finally got so sick of seeing it every day that you did some major purging? Sell it, give it away, throw it away -who cares, as long as the mess goes away? What about the Bible? Is there accumulated junk in the Bible? And if there were, shouldn’t it be eliminated?

Well, there actually are some cases of questionable material in the Bible. That may come as a shock for some Christians, while some skeptics might be saying, “Tell me something I don’t know.” But not so fast. While skeptics like Bart Ehrman make much of the textual variants between different manuscripts, like copying errors, and scribal additions and deletions, the vast majority of these variants are typos and spelling differences.  Also, the enormous quantity (and quality) of manuscripts from different times and places  allows us to trace the development of these differences and have a high degree of confidence in what the originals said. For more on the fascinating field of textual criticism, I’d encourage you to check out Dr. Daniel Wallace’s work.[1] But what about cases like the Pericope Adulterae, the story of the woman caught in adultery found in John 7:53-8:12? This is a favorite story of many Christians, but the evidence weighs heavily against it being an authentic part of John’s gospel.  If that’s the case, and we really are concerned about truth – especially in our Holy Scriptures – why does it remain in the Bible?

To answer that, let me provide a more contemporary example. Four of the states I’m licensed in fall under new design provisions for tsunamis that are being introduced for the first time in the US later this year. In the course of researching the new provisions, I came across an interesting article on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s  website regarding their investigation and compilation of historical weather data [2].  While tsunamis and hurricanes can both generate large amounts of flooding, they have fundamentally different causes. Hurricanes are atmospheric events, while tsunamis are ground events (typically earthquake-induced, but also possible from landslides, like a 600′ high tsunami in Alaska in 2015 [3]). As it stands now, only the western coast of the US and Hawaii are considered in the new tsunami risk maps, due to two fault lines of the type that can cause tsunamis. But if a tsunami had been recorded on the east coast or gulf coast, then there would be obvious precedent for requiring us engineers to consider that risk in our designs in those areas as well. Well, there was a particular case in 1909 of a reported “tidal wave” sweeping over Grand Isle, Louisiana after a hurricane, killing hundreds. Was this tragic event tied to the hurricane, or was there an earthquake along an unmapped fault line in the gulf? Further investigation and computer simulation of the storm revealed the “tidal wave” to be part of the hurricane storm surge. While no less tragic for the families of those killed, establishing the true cause of past events like this helps us to design for them correctly and save lives in the future. Now, did NOAA delete this entry out of their Tsunami database? No, and here’s their reasoning:

So how does NOAA handle a spurious data record like this one? Do we delete the record? Oddly enough, we leave it in! We include notations that “debunk” the original tsunami designation, set the validity field to 0 (not a tsunami), and indicate that this event is of meteorological origin. If we removed the record entirely, it is likely that it would show up again in some future book or Web site, unopposed by the facts. Someone would email NOAA and say, “I found this great info about a tsunami in Louisiana in 1909. Why isn’t it listed it in your database?”

Can you see the application to biblical manuscripts? When copying manuscripts and confronted with questionable source material, scribes down through the centuries would typically err on the side of including the questionable material, just like NOAA did when they included the 1909 tidal wave in their database in 2002. But the scribes, like NOAA, would also add marginalia – margin notes and symbols – to denote concerns with the text of a passage. Now, if you’ve read almost any modern translation of the Bible, you’ve seen notes in the margin telling you things like, “Some early manuscripts do not contain this sentence”, or in the case of the adulterous woman passage, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:12.” You’ll find similar statements at John 5:3, Mark 16:9-20, and 1 John 5:7-8. The idea is that it’s better to include questionable data, duly noted as such, than to possibly eliminate divinely inspired teaching. Then, later, as more and more manuscripts are discovered and catalogued, if the passage is confirmed to be authentic, it hasn’t been lost due to overzealous “cleaning.” And if it’s confirmed as not genuine, then it is noted as such in each translation, so nobody has to be fooled by an appeal to some “shocking, scandalous, newly discovered Bible verses, hidden for centuries.” Like NOAA, we want to be able to oppose any future challenges with the facts.

Indeed, Bible translations are remarkable in their transparency, noting suspect passages, textual variants, and alternate translations quite openly rather than trying to hide them. But that’s because integrity to God’s Word is of utmost importance to the Christian, and most especially to the translator with the sacred duty of making God’s Word known to people in their own language. Despite the skeptic’s cynicism, we Christians understand that we are accountable before God for how we handle His Word [2 Tim 2:15].  And woe to the one who tries to corrupt it [Rev 22:18-19]. That’s one reason why we don’t translate from previous translations, as some uninformed skeptics like to think. Rather, we go back to the original languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic), and retranslate them into the current vernacular of English, Spanish, German, and so on. And contrary to skeptics’ claims of Bible translation being like the “telephone game”, as we find more (and earlier) manuscripts, our translations become more authentic, not less. In fact, check out Daniel Wallace’s site [4] to see their extremely high-resolution (50 megapixel) photographs of many of the world’s surviving Greek manuscripts (350,000 images and counting). You simply can’t beat that kind of transparency: you can judge the translators’ interpretation of the source material for yourself. So stop blindly accepting the allegations of skeptics about the Bible and start reading all those margin notes yourself! Study up, take Dr. Wallace’s Credo House course on textual criticism like I did, learn some Greek or Hebrew, look at ancient manuscripts – dig deep!  If you do, you’ll find the Bible to be reliable in both its transmission and its content. But then the question remains: what are you gonna do with that discovery? Our Creator, who gave us the message that is the Bible, doesn’t want to be your hobby, and He tells us as much in there. There’s something to think on next time you open up a Bible.


[1] http://www.credocourses.com/product/textual-criticism/
[2] https://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/magazine/tsunami_database/or_stormsurge.html
[3] https://www.adn.com/alaska-life/we-alaskans/2016/09/11/collapsing-alaska-mountains-southeast-alaska-landslides-and-tsunamis-on-the-rise/
[4] The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

Truth Revealed

“Still Life with Bible” – Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

One objection to arguments for the existence of God like the cosmolgical, teleological, or axiological arguments, is that these don’t necessarily show the existence of the Christian God (i.e. the Trinitarian God of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible). That’s true, they don’t. but these arguments do lead you to the necessary existence of a first cause, a supreme designer, and a moral lawgiver – roles all fulfilled by the Being described in the Bible as God. That is a huge step in the right direction. Once you’ve gotten over that big hurdle of admitting that God does (and must) exist, the journey to becoming a Christian can be as short or long as you make it. Sometimes we like to take the long way (just to satisfy ourselves, I suppose), but even if you investigate all the world religions first, a sincere pursuit of truth will lead you back to the God of the Bible.

Now, none of those arguments for God’s existence rely on the Bible. They are all separate lines of philosophical reasoning, pointing to the same conclusion, but they don’t use the most direct explanation of the origins of the universe, life, and morality – the testimony of the Bible. That’s because there are two different sides to God’s revealing of His truth: general revelation and special revelation. General revelation is what He reveals of Himself and His actions in the world around us. That’s why it’s also called “natural theology.” Special revelation is the record we have of God speaking directly to humankind through various chosen people throughout history, and most importantly, through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. These two approaches to revealed truth are like the difference between forensics and testimony. You might try to piece together who left some incredible surprise gift on your porch from the little bits of evidence you can scrape together. You may be able to narrow down the list of suspects from the large shoe size tracks leading up to the porch, or some other forensic clues. But if you received a letter in the mail the next day from your good friend explaining that it was from him and why he did it, wouldn’t that simplify things tremendously? The Bible is that letter explaining everything!

Or consider this example from my engineering job.  The American Institute of Steel Construction publishes a rather hefty little book every so often that’s commonly just known as “the steel manual”. It’s filled with all kinds of good information relating to steel design, and I reference it nearly every day for something or other. If I couldn’t remember the formula for deflection of a beam, for instance, would I have to have that book? No, I could do an experiment with a stick over 2 supports with different weights hanging in the middle, and eventually work out the relationship between loading and deflection of beams. But it would likely take me a while, and probably wouldn’t be very exact. Or I could look in Table 3-23 and quickly confirm that the deflection of a simply supported, uniformly-loaded beam is (5wL^4)/(384EI). Now, that’s an example of something that I can determine from actual experiment or from simply reading the book. However, there are other things that no amount of experiments will tell me. For example, in design, we use various safety factors to account for variability in real-life conditions, and to provide a somewhat consistent “cushion” in case of accidental (or deliberate) overloading. Can I ever determine that from any experiments? Not really. That’s because these are philosophical reasons. We generally prefer nice, slow, ductile yielding of building framing in the event of a failure rather than sudden, brittle, snapping without warning. The first warns the occupants of the building that something’s wrong, giving them time to evacuate; the latter can result in sudden collapse and many tragic deaths. Therefore, our design philosophy is to favor ductile limits over brittle ones.[1] But that philosophy, and the values of the safety factors we derive from that goal, can only be determined by going to the authoritative source, AISC’s book.

Similarly, there are some general things about Himself that God has revealed in nature, and that we can determine from rational thinking. But for the most part, you need to go to His book. I’ve heard friends say that they would believe if God did something like write “I made you. – God” across the sky, or arranged the stars to say something similar. Ironically, they say they would believe at a rather short, simplistic message, even though God has left a long, detailed message in the form of the Bible. I encourage you to use all the resources available to you; explore both God’s general revelation and special revelation. The world-famous atheist Antony Flew finally had to admit there was a God just from the general revelation of God in the clear design of DNA. Sadly though, it doesn’t appear that he was willing to take the next logical step before he died. Don’t complain of not having enough of a message from God when He has left you His own narrative. He has taken the stand, so to speak, and testified of Himself. Don’t dismiss Him without reading what He has to say.


[1] AISC Steel Construction Manual, 14th Ed (2010), Commentary on section J.4., p.16.1-413. Also, Commentary on section K2, p. 16.1-427.

Biblical Abortion?

Man w BiblePreviously, I detailed scientific reasons why abortion is, in fact, murder. In that post (here), I mentioned that these are reasons to support the Christian position on abortion. But what is the Christian position on abortion? In the past, I would’ve said it was a unanimous agreement that abortion is wrong. But in researching this, I found there are segments of Christianity that do support having the option to abort a baby under some conditions.[1] So it would seem that Christians aren’t unanimous on this question. For us, it always comes back to what the Bible says, and sure enough, Christians supporting abortion choice do try to justify their view with the Bible. Let’s dig into that today and see if there is a biblical case for abortion. Here are a few of those attempts to justify this practice.

  • One site I found actually stated that abortion is okay because that word isn’t mentioned in the Bible. True, it’s not; but murder is, and it’s clearly prohibited. Also, while the word “abortion” may not be mentioned, neither is the word “embezzlement”, yet it is clearly unacceptable by the prohibition on stealing. For that matter, the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible either, but that hasn’t stopped us from recognizing the concept there and formulating a word for it.
  • That same site also tried to say that abortion was an example of stewardship, and we are called to be good stewards of what God has given us. Now, this twisted logic is based on the mother being a “good steward” of her body and aborting her baby if it would cause her any negative effects like physical or emotional distress. If this version of “stewardship” seems a little self-centered, it is. Consider Merriam-Webster’s definition of stewardship: “The activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something.”[2] The very idea of stewardship is that you are taking care of something that is not yours. Regarding the mother taking care of her body (at the expense of her baby’s), I would suggest that this is similar to the idea that “your right to swing your fists ends where my nose begins.” The baby is clearly not part of the mother’s body, as evidenced by different DNA, duplicate organs, and often different blood type and even gender. Therefore, I would say the mother’s right to be a “steward” of her body ends where such activity harms the baby. In fact, taking care of her body such that it prevents harm to the baby is generally recognized as a mother’s obligation. Hence, the warnings to not drink or smoke during pregnancy. In reality, motherhood is a beautiful example of stewardship, but abortion is actually to reject being a steward of what is consistently described as a gift from God.
  • Genesis 2:7 is cited as biblical support for abortion in that Adam, the first man, did not become a living soul until God breathed the breath of life into him. This is taken to mean that babies do not become living souls until they take their first breath. Aside from the fact that babies are going through the motions of breathing amniotic fluid in and out of their lungs for months before they are born (as early as 10 weeks [3]), it should be pretty clear that Adam and Eve were unique in all of humanity. Neither went through through the birth process, and both appear to have been formed as fully adult humans, so applying their case to babies is to go beyond any reasonable support of the text.
  • Numbers 3:39-43 is used to justify abortion because God commanded a census to be taken, counting all the Levites over a month old. This is taken as an insinuation that their lives didn’t count prior to 1 month. Not being counted for a census is not the same as not being counted as a human life. The first is a pragmatic consideration while the second is ontological. The census was concerned with counting a large number of people in a time of high infant mortality. The first month is a dangerous time for any baby, but especially in primitive Bedouin-type conditions. Babies that survived the first month were much more likely to survive to adulthood, thus warranting their being counted in a census.
  • Ecclesiastes 6:3-5 is taken as meaning that a miscarriage is better than an unhappy life. Please note first that a natural miscarriage is a far cry from an intentional dismemberment. But even if this verse were an endorsement of abortion for “quality of life” concerns, Ecclesiastes is King Solomon’s search for the true meaning of life by investigating all the dead-end roads. One could come away with a lot of strange ideas if you read parts of Ecclesiastes, even extended parts, without reading the whole thing. The first and final chapter are the bookends that give the context for that experiment in folly, as Solomon finally concludes that the rest of his search for meaning apart from God was just that – folly. Don’t take a man’s depressed ramblings about the futility of life as endorsement for killing those yet to be born. Moreover, we have no way of knowing what the future holds for any of us as far as “quality of life”, so who are we to decide for an unborn baby that their future won’t measure up? I will tell you right now, there are physically deformed and/or mentally handicapped people out there with more joy in their lives than many millionaires with the world at their fingertips. Frankly, it’s rather arrogant for us to think we can correctly guess whether a baby with serious issues would grow up to consider his or her life “worth it” or not. That depends on their perspective, not ours. Nick Vujicic w FamilyLet’s face it, a lot of people supporting abortion for “quality of life” concerns would probably have chosen to abort evangelist, motivational speaker, husband, father, and author, Nick Vujicic if they had known he would be born without arms or legs. So let’s not pretend we can “see the end from the beginning”; only God can do that.

There’s 5 attempts to justify abortion using the Bible. Hopefully, you’ve seen that these simply aren’t good reasons. Have you come across other justifications for abortion that you believe are legitimate? Share them in a comment and let’s work through them together. 🙂


[1] The United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Episcopal Church, to varying degrees. See 2013 Pew Report at http://www.pewforum.org/2013/01/16/religious-groups-official-positions-on-abortion/.
[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stewardship, accessed 2016/08/24.
[3] https://www.ehd.org/prenatal-summary.php#fb34

Permanence

churchAs an engineer, most of the states I’m licensed in require that I take continuing education courses to keep up with new technology, new laws and codes, new analysis methods, and so forth. A recent email advertised a webinar on “Design Considerations for Wood Frame Construction for Permanence.” I admit, I work primarily with steel, and live in a part of the US with high humidity and termites, so I tend to not associate the words “wood” and “permanence”. But the picture in the email caught my eye because it was something I’ve had the opportunity to see for myself: a Norwegian Stave Church. These are wooden church buildings built in Norway in the Middle Ages, with the oldest surviving one being almost 900 years old. That’s about as permanent as you can get with wood construction! They are beautiful buildings to walk through, and a real testament to the craftsmanship of those early builders.

That reminder of permanence made me think of a project I played a small part in recently, at the opposite end of the spectrum, where I did some steel connection design for a new multipurpose community center being built in a nearby city. What was surprising about that project was that this new building was being built over an old airport. In fact, the swimming pool was going to be practically in the middle of where the runway had been. Now, an airport is usually a big infrastructure investment for a city. Yet that airport was being demolished to build a community athletic center. Soon there will be no evidence left of this significant land use other than a few oddly aviation-related street names, and a listing in outdated maps that will get replaced shortly. Eventually, streets will be renamed and/or rerouted, and there will be no physical evidence left that there was ever an airport there. So it is with much of what we design and build. Even when we design for an indefinite service life, most of our finished projects will likely be demolished at some point because their location is more valuable for some future enterprise than the building we invested so much time in designing.

What will archaeologists 1000 years from now find to tell them about our culture? With our culture’s emphasis on updating, recycling, “planned obsolescence”, and designing for defined product lifecycles instead of indefinite use, would future people be able to ascertain any specific details of our civilization? Especially in our digital age, there is surprisingly little durable evidence of much of what we do. That’s something to keep in mind when approaching the Bible. We don’t have physical evidence for everything described in the Bible, but it’s actually pretty amazing that we have any evidence from so long ago.  And what we have found matches up well with what the Bible describes. Rather than look at the absence of confirming evidence as a strike against the Bible as so many have, look at how much is confirmed. As the archeologist Sir William Ramsey found when he went to Asia Minor in the late 1800’s to investigate the historicity of the biblical book of Acts, the evidence speaks for itself. In fact, he tells us that “I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without any prejudice in favour of the conclusion which I shall now attempt to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavourable to it, …. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.”[1] You see, Ramsey approached the case regarding the authorship of Acts from the then-currently espoused view that Acts was written by an anonymous Christian centuries after the events described, motivated more by pushing an agenda than telling the truth. But he was open to other possibilities and willing to follow the evidence wherever it led him. And it led him to the conviction that Luke was the author of Acts and was an eyewitness and was, in fact, a historian of impeccable quality. In the 100+ years since Ramsay investigated the claims of the Bible, even more corroborating evidence has been discovered to support the book of Acts and many other accounts in the Bible (read more here).

We live in a constantly changing world where permanence is a very relative term. “Here today, gone tomorrow”, as the saying goes. Knowing that, a lack of evidence for historical events shouldn’t surprise us. Many ancient events took place in oral cultures where little was written down. Even when they were recorded, those records have often been lost forever due to wars, political purges, floods, fires, earthquakes, and other destructive events. But when we have a record like the Bible that continues to be confirmed over and over again,  we have to set aside whatever skepticism we approached it with, and be willing to admit when we’ve gone beyond “reasonable” doubt. As Ramsay would say, “We must face the facts boldly.”[2] When we do, we find that they lead straight to God.


[1] William Ramsay,  St Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen (Illustrated), Kindle Edition, Kindle Locations 304-309.
[2] ibid., Location 390.

Portraits of Christians – James Clerk Maxwell

James_Clerk_MaxwellAs we continue this series examining the Christian faith of the great men of science, I hope you enjoy today’s subject as much as I’ve enjoyed learning about this amazing man. Now, let’s look today at the scientist who paved the way for Einstein. In fact, Einstein summarized this man’s contributions by saying “One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell.”[1] A 1999 poll of 100 leading physicists ranked Maxwell as the 3rd greatest physicist of all time (behind Einstein and Newton). But while modern scientists ranked Newton ahead of Maxwell, Einstein himself, when asked if he stood on Newton’s shoulders, replied, “No, I stand on Maxwell’s shoulders.”[1] That’s pretty high praise coming from the man whose name is practically synonymous with revolutionary genius.

So what exactly did Maxwell do to earn this reputation? He crammed a lot into a short time considering he was only 48 when he died. Studying the nature of colors and color-blindness and producing the world’s first color photograph would’ve been noteworthy by itself. Astronomers would still remember him today just for settling 2 centuries of debate by proving through mathematics that the rings of Saturn couldn’t be solid as originally assumed. Astronomer George Biddell Airy called this “one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that I have ever seen.”[2] And while his engineering work was more obscure, it was enough to get him in the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame[3] and impress this engineer! But his truly world-changing work was in developing the equations of electromagnetism bearing his name. Einstein divided scientific history at Maxwell because Maxwell connected electricity with magnetism as different aspects of the same electromagnetic waves, and concluded that light was also this type of wave. This transitioned science from a particle-centric view of physics to a wave-centric view that then opened the door for nearly every modern technology we enjoy. There is little that is “high-tech” that is not affected by this paradigm shift in physics. Think of your X-rays and MRI’s at the hospital, your cell phones and GPS and coffee shop Wi-Fi, the radar at your airport, the microwave oven in your kitchen, and on and on. And these are just some of the common practical reminders of the impact of Maxwell’s equations.

Now that we’ve established Maxwell’s credentials as a giant of science, what did he think of God? Did he give the subject much thought? Did he apply his sharp mind to theology? Indeed! Although he was quieter about his faith than Robert Boyle and wrote no papers or books in defense of the faith like Boyle, Maxwell nonetheless showed himself to be a very devout – and thoughtful – Christian. Although he had grown up in a Christian home, he was a notoriously and insatiably curious boy, and he didn’t just apply this curiosity to the physical world around him. In a letter to his friend Lewis Campbell in 1852, written while pursuing a Fellowship at Cambridge, Maxwell wrote at length of his thoughtful investigation of Christianity (condensed here, believe it or not):

“Now, my great plan, … is to let nothing be wilfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative. …. The part of the rule which respects self-improvement by means of others is: —Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden …. Again I assert the Right of Trespass on any plot of Holy Ground …. Such places must be exorcised and desecrated till they become fruitful fields. Again, if the holder of such property refuse admission to the exorcist, he ipso facto admits that it is consecrated…. Now I am convinced that no one but a Christian can actually purge his land of these holy spots. Any one may profess that he has none, but something will sooner or later occur to every one to show him that part of his ground is not open to the public. Intrusions on this are resented, and so its existence is demonstrated. Now, I do not say that no Christians have enclosed places of this sort. Many have a great deal, and every one has some. No one can be sure of all being open till all has been examined by competent persons, which is the work … of eternity. But there are extensive and important tracts in the territory of the Scoffer, … and the rest, which are openly and solemnly Tabooed, … and are not to be spoken of without sacrilege.

Christianity—that is, the religion of the Bible—is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations. You may read all History and be compelled to wonder but not to doubt. …

The Old Testament and the Mosaic Law and Judaism are commonly supposed to be “Tabooed ” by the orthodox. Sceptics pretend to have read them, and have found certain witty objections … which too many of the orthodox unread admit, and shut up the subject as haunted. But a Candle is coming to drive out all Ghosts and Bugbears. Let us all follow the Light.”[4]

Moreover, his collected letters to his wife show a sincere faith as they read the Bible when together and apart. In his letters, though he professes to be no expert on interpretation of Scripture, he nevertheless expounds on their shared reading with sincerity and piety and the utmost respect for the passage.[5] In fact, his friend and biographer summed up this trait of Maxwell’s when he wrote, “a spirit of deep piety pervaded all he did, whether in the most private relations of life, or in his position as an appointed teacher and investigator, or in his philosophic contemplation of the universe. There is no attribute from which the thought of him is more inseparable.”[6]

After Maxwell’s death, Colin Mackenzie, his cousin and one of the executors of his will, said  that he remembered Maxwell saying in his latter years, “I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God.”[7]

At his painful death from stomach cancer, his doctor noted, “No man ever met death more consciously or more calmly.”[8] This is only fitting for a Christian, who, like the Apostle Paul, could 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.”[9] Yes, this giant of science gave Christianity a good deal of thought, and saw it to be quite reasonable, – indeed, the only reasonable way to live. Friend, do you have doubts of the truth of Christianity that you are content to leave as doubts? Follow Maxwell’s lead and leave nothing willfully unexamined, especially your doubts. Rather, let those doubts push you to seek the truth incessantly, and not rest in convenient answers. If you persist, you will find that they eventually lead you right back to God.


[1] http://www.famousscientists.org/james-clerk-maxwell, accessed 2016-06-21.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Clerk_Maxwell, accessed 2016-06-21.
[3] http://www.engineeringhalloffame.org/profile-maxwell.html, accessed 2016-06-21. Maxwell developing the “von Mises” yield criterion almost 50 years before Richard von Mises was particularly interesting to me.
[4] Lewis Campbell & William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (London: Macmillan, 1882), pp. 178-80.
[5] ibid, pp. 309-10, the letters of May 2nd & the 6th, written to her during their engagement, for example. Also the letter of May 16th (p.312) recounts his frustration at his inability to speak more clearly the truth of Christ to a mutual acquaintance.
[6] ibid, p. 429.
[7]ibid, p. 426.
[8] ibid, p. 412.
[9] 2 Timothy 1:12, NASB.

Tools Without Knowledge

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/tools-1417865A couple of months ago, I stopped to help a driver on the side of the highway. It turned out to be a lady who had a flat tire. Asking if she had a spare, she said that she did, along with the tools to change it, but she just didn’t know how.  A few minutes later, I had her on her way, having also explained each step so she would know what to do in the future. This got me thinking.

Christians in America have more “tools” available to them than any other generation of Christians in history. The average American Christian has multiple Bibles in their home, often in different translations.[1] Many American churches offer book and/or video libraries for their congregations. Most churches will offer some level of training/discipleship/Bible study. It is mind-boggling how many free references are available online. Early Christians who risked their very lives for a chance to read and quickly copy down a partial manuscript of one of Paul’s letters would’ve fainted to see what we have available at our fingertips. Current Christians in repressive countries who face being executed or sent to labor camps for owning Scriptures would cry at the sight of 8 or 10 different Bibles gathering dust on the shelves of an American Christian’s home. I’ve been able to download (for ridiculously little money) entire reference libraries of Bible commentaries, systematic theology books, and collections of classic writings from the early church fathers to the puritan writers, all the way to the present. A person can carry an entire pastor’s library on their cell phone now. If I want to see what a particular Bible passage says in the original Hebrew or Greek, that is easily accomplished.[2] If I want to learn Greek to dig deeper, a basic understanding is also well within reach of the average person.[3] But “from everyone who has been given much, much will be required.”[4] We as Christians in America are really without excuse.

And yet, this is also the most Biblically illiterate generation of Americans. It is, in effect, like driving around in a mechanic’s truck, with enough tools on hand to completely overhaul the truck, and saying we’ll need to call for help to change the flat tire. Why is that? I think for the most part, we don’t ever make the time to learn what we believe or why we should believe it. A few years ago, I was living in blissful ignorance, content to believe in Christ for my salvation, but that was really the extent of it. I had started digging deeper into the Scriptures in high school, but had been lulled to an apathetic sleep after that. Then I went on a jobsite visit with an atheist colleague a few years ago. On the 3 hour drive back, he asked me something that had been bugging him:

“How can you call yourself a Christian and an engineer at the same time? Aren’t those kind of mutually exclusive?”

The question caught me off guard and shocked me out of my slumber. I answered at the time that I didn’t see how I could be an engineer – seeing the design in nature that far exceeds anything I would ever think up – and not be a Christian. But that answer was more based on intuition then. Since then, I started digging into the Bible, into cosmology, into genetics, into information theory, into philosophy, into logic, into epistemology, and anything else that relates to how we understand the world around us, one that I would say is God’s world. And if it’s God’s world, then there is no contradiction between science and Christianity, because God is the same consistent Author of both. Not that one needs to get into all of that to come to a saving faith in Christ, mind you; but it does confirm that every tool in the toolbox of life points to God the Creator of life. Whether we use the tools of science, or philosophy, or history, or theology, we keep coming back to God.

It’s been hard work reading and studying a diverse number of fields; I do have a “day job” as an engineer (that sometimes bleeds into the night and weekends as well). There are the typical chores of life to squeeze in as well – changing the oil in the car, home maintenance, and so on. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, for it has brought me closer to my God, for Jesus’s command to “love the Lord your God… with all your mind”[5] is like sweet honey to me. And I dare say it can be for you, too.

As J. Warner Wallace, former atheist cold-case homicide detective turned Christian case-maker, is fond of pointing out, the Bible tells us that some are called to be teachers and evangelists and whatnot[6], but all of us Christians are supposed to be able to give a reason for the hope that we have.[7] Can you?  Maybe it’s time to do a little self-evaluation. Is church something to endure once a week to “pay your dues”, or is it a chance to get some training that you can hopefully put into practice in the upcoming week?   Is your faith a warm, fuzzy, vague, feel-good, emotional crutch, or something you believe because it’s true? Is being a Christian simply “fire insurance” to get out of hell, or an exciting chance to serve under the King of all creation? As Chuck Colson said, “the church does not draw people in; it sends them out.” So choose today to learn to use the tools that God has put in your hands, and go out prepared for the opportunities He brings you!


 

[1] According to the 2014 State of the Bible survey by Barna, almost 9in 10 Americans own a Bible, and Americans (overall) average almost 5 Bibles per household.
[2] Check out www.biblehub.com for handy interlinear translations where you can read the the English Scriptures with the Hebrew or Greek above each line (like this).
[3] I recommend Basic Greek in 30 minutes a Day, by James Found (Bethany House, 2012), for a surprisingly effective way for the average person to learn a fair bit of Greek easily.
[4] Luke 12:48.
[5] Matthew 22:37.
[6] Ephesians 4:11.
[7] 1 Peter 3:15.