Tag Archives: Death

A Dangerous Perception

The 9.1 magnitude Japan earthquake of 2011, as recorded at the Hokkaido Station seismograph.

A colleague and I were talking the other day about the difficulties in conveying the dangers of rare events to people. The site conditions for projects we were each working on had triggered some seismic provisions that can be very costly to design for, and to build. Unfortunately, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other relatively rare events are easy to blow off… until they happen to you.  Who wants to spend money or time preparing for something that is (in their mind) unlikely to happen in their lifetime?  Especially when it’s going to cost a lot? It doesn’t help that our part of the world has the potential for a high magnitude earthquake (M7.0+), but hasn’t had one in just over 200 hundred years. While it’s good that major earthquakes are rare here, one bad side effect is apathy and an unspoken rule of “out of sight, out of mind”. This tendency to not appreciate danger that is perceived as distant or unlikely to occur isn’t just an obstacle for engineers trying to justify their fees to clients. People often have the same mindset when it comes to spiritual matters, and that’s what I’d like to work through today.

We’ll wear helmets on our bikes and seat belts in our cars because of the dangers of vehicle accidents; we’ll put non-slip treads on stairs because of the potential for falls; we’ll put nets and cushions around trampolines because of accidents there; we’ll even stop eating things we like and start eating things we hate to stave off various diseases – we’ll take all sorts of precautions to protect our frail physical lives that are often here today and gone tomorrow despite our best efforts, but we won’t look to the safety of our eternal souls. Isn’t that an odd ordering of priorities? Small dangers can loom large in our view while much greater dangers are perceived as unimportant. And yet, none of us are guaranteed our next breath, much less the next day/month/year/decade. Death, that heavy curtain we just can’t see past, can close on us at any time. But that is actually just the short-term danger. For the Bible tells us some of what is beyond that black curtain: judgement, but not on our terms.

I’ve heard some people say that that if they died and found themselves in the presence of the God they had denied all these years, they would surely demand that He justify His actions throughout human history to them – as if they weren’t less than a speck of dust before His might that created the universe out of nothing, as if they weren’t a moral cesspool in comparison to His perfect goodness, as if they weren’t the intellectual equivalent of a bacterium in comparison to His omnipotence and wisdom [Ro 9:20, Ps 103:14, Isa 45:9, Dan 4:35]. I pray they realize the arrogance and folly of their statements before that hypothetical scenario becomes reality for them, because that trial scene will be very one-sided, and it won’t be them asking the questions. Indeed, we will all appear before God one day [Heb 9:27], on God’s terms. What does that mean?  It means that perfection is the standard to meet [Rom 3:23, Dt 32:4]. It means that we will answer for every word and deed and thought [Mt 12:36, Heb 4:12-13]. It means that if we can’t meet that standard, then we need a proxy – a substitute – who can, and is willing to, take our place and represent us before the judgement seat of God. That one is Jesus Christ [Jn 1:29, 2Co 5:21, 1Tim 2:5-6].

Don’t make the mistake of protecting yourself from the little things that can only affect this life, and neglect the real possibility of entering eternity without having reconciled with your Creator (and Judge) on His terms. Just as many of the earthquakes of the past came when people least expected, you could find yourself standing before God in the blink of an eye. Make the investment now that will make that meeting an occasion of joy rather than terror.

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].

Intellectual Sparring

“I Am Sir Lancelot” by N.C. Wyeth, 1922

Have you ever taken part in a debate, or watched one? A question is proposed. A champion comes forward from each side to show why their answer to the question is correct. In a formal debate, they’ve prepared well in advance. The debate may be oral or a written exchange. Some debates will have the audience vote on who “won” the debate. Hopefully, this isn’t just a popularity contest, with the winner decided based on their charisma or their pithy comebacks. Rather, it should be based on who has justified their view the best, who has defended their conclusion by supporting it with true premises using clear terms. Why? A conclusion that logically follows from true premises using unequivocal terms forms an airtight case. If one side can do that, they have won the debate. But is winning the debate the end goal? With our inherent competitiveness, that tends to be the case, but it shouldn’t be. As philosopher Peter Kreeft points out, the real goal should be for both sides to come to agree on the independent truth, regardless of which one found it first.[1] If you prove your point and win the debate, but nobody changes their mind, what have you actually won? What about the debate between atheists and Christians? Is it just about winning an intellectual battle? On the contrary, this issue, above all others, is far from simply an intellectual exercise or game. There are very serious implications. As Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, “It concerns all our life to know whether the soul be mortal or immortal.”[2]

One danger in debating the topics such as the existence of God, the deity of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, and so on, is that we can be lulled into seeing it as just a game – a sort of intellectual sparring, a competition to see who can win the argument and beat their rival. But these are not simply interesting questions to ponder, or tricky propositions to show off our reasoning prowess. These are truly life and death problems (greater even than life and death, if the warnings of the Bible are true). Luke tells us in Acts 24 of the apostle Paul’s journey through the Jewish/Roman legal system. There we read of Paul’s encounter with the Governor, Felix. After hearing from Paul’s accusers, then from Paul, Felix put them off and kept Paul under house arrest. Hoping to get a bribe from Paul, Felix would send for him often to converse with him.[Acts 24:26] But of course, Paul never offered the bribe Felix was hoping for, only frightening talk of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgement to come.”[Acts 24:25] Two years passed like this, and Felix was replaced by a new governor, while Paul continued to await a fair trial. Felix had at his disposal the author of almost half the books of the New Testament, and talked to him often. And yet, there was no repentance, no change. It was only a game to him.

Is that you today? Are topics like the existence of God and the historicity of Jesus Christ simply interesting topics to discuss, idle speculations, or maybe even amusing subjects of ridicule? Understand the seriousness of the stakes. Death is a certainty for every one of us, and it may take any of us at a moment’s notice. It behooves us then to do our due diligence when it comes to determining if there is another stage to life that we should be preparing for now, for we know not how soon we may be expected to pass through that door. It’d be good to learn what’s awaiting you on the other side. While strictly speaking, atheism only claims that God does not exist, it typically coincides with a materialistic view that there is nothing supernatural (i.e. beyond nature), and that there is therefore nothing of a person that survives physical death. Under Christianity, that point of physical death is simply a point on a person’s timeline that started shortly before and continues on afterward infinitely. It is only a transition and not an ending. It is a change in container (the material body), but not in content (the immaterial soul). That completely revolutionizes how we perceive difficulties, suffering and other unfairness in life, or the perceived unfairness of an unusually short life.

On the other hand, maybe you are not opposed to God, per se, like the atheist, but are simply indifferent. You see no reason to bother with the question. Consider another observation from Blaise Pascal:

“The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment, unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end. Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct.” [3]

Don’t make the mistake of neglecting that “first duty”. A temporary agnosticism on any subject while you are investigating it is commendable; careful considerations generally turn out better than rash decisions, after all. But prolonged agnosticism is only the trap of apathy and indifference in disguise. You may say that you refuse to choose – that you are agnostic – but as Peter Kreeft has so deftly stated, “to every possible question, life presents three possible answers: Yes, No and Evasion. Death removes the third answer… Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never’.”[4] You may not have tomorrow; hence the biblical warning “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”[Heb 4:7] Have you made the right choice? Not sure? Contact me and we can discuss any questions you have.

[1] Kreeft, Peter, Socratic Logic, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 346. “Socrates sees himself and ‘O’ [the opponent] not as a winner and a loser but as two scientists mutually seeking the truth by testing two alternative hypotheses. Whichever one finds the truth, both are winners.”
[2] Pascal, Blaise, Pascal’s Pensées, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1958),  p. 63. Kindle Edition.
[3] ibid., p. 55.
[4]Kreeft, Peter, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993), pp.299-300.

Breaking the Accident Chain

Me at the Airport
“A long time ago, in a Cessna far far away”

Several years ago, I invested the time and money to get my private pilot’s license. I can attest to the truth of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous quote “Once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” But our temporary habitation among the clouds is a fragile thing, maintained only through the pilot’s continual vigilance, and even then always uncertain. Storms, fuel limitations, pilot disorientation, mechanical failure, and migrating birds are among a host of factors that may bring a plane crashing back down to earth. That place we long to be is not a stable position, and there is more working to bring us back down than there is to keep us aloft.  And so pilots have made a habit of reviewing the final reports of NTSB accident investigations to (hopefully) learn from the often fatal mistakes of others rather than learning the same deadly lesson themselves. My aviation magazine had a regular feature each month titled “Never Again”, a somber warning written by pilots who had survived a near-accident, but realized how it could’ve easily turned out differently.

Now, every accident investigation and every personal story of survival reveals a series of cause and effect events – links in the so-called “accident chain” – that, if stopped prior to a point of no return, would have prevented the accident. What often happens is the pilot doesn’t realize the danger he’s in, and so continues down the causal path leading to the accident. Call it tunnel vision or target fixation, or “gotta-get-there-itis”, the pilot often ignores red flags pointing to a growing problem. Sometimes they see the warning signs, but underestimate their seriousness, maybe due to problems like hypoxia (low blood oxygen level, typically from flying too high in an unpressurized aircraft). Other times, they think they can make it through this event because they’ve managed to somehow pull a solution out of thin air before. This blind faith in their own “luck” or in their own abilities without any understanding of how they previously survived their bad choices is particularly dangerous.

Spiritually, many are not aware of the danger they are in. Whether through apathy (“I don’t want to think about that…”) or willful rejection (“How dare you tell me I’m a sinner!”), people continue down a causal path that can only result in God’s judgement and their condemnation. But just like the pilot flying into a storm, understanding the reality of the danger is the first step. Hence, the Christian focus on man’s sinfulness and God’s holiness. God’s supreme love for us, and His action to rescue us, falls on deaf ears until we understand our need to be rescued. Like the pilot suffering from hypoxia, we may feel everything’s going just fine, even as we unknowingly approach the time of our own crash. The Bible warns that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”[1] We can choose to ignore warnings like that; we can choose to ignore the “close calls” with death that should be wake-up calls; we can think this flight will never end, that this physical life is a stable thing that won’t plummet downward and be over before our next breath. Or we can face the seriousness of the situation and prepare accordingly.

I’ll leave you with a frequent memory from my flight training. My flight instructor was always fond of cutting the throttle on me when I was most preoccupied, sometimes with a statement like, “Uh-oh, your engine just died – now what?”, and sometimes more sneakily later in my training.  As I would trim for best glide speed and frantically try to remember the last suitable emergency landing spot I’d seen, Walt would remind me that I should already know where I’m going to try to land before the emergency. Do you know where you’ll be “landing” spiritually when you die? Have you made the needed preparations beforehand? The Bible gives another warning about the danger of delay when it says “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”[2] You don’t know when your time on this earth – this training flight, if you will – may come to an unexpected end. Don’t assume there’ll be time to “get right” before you die. That’s why the Bible says the right time is “today”. Plan well for eternity, and you’ll break the links in the spiritual “accident chain” that lead to an eternity separated from God.

[1] Hebrews 9:27, KJV.
[2] Hebrews 4:7 NASB.