Tag Archives: evidence

“Now I See”

Christ healing the blind man - Eustache le SuerThe last month, I’ve been looking at the evidential nature of faith shown in the Bible. Contrary to popular claims of Christianity being a “blind faith” Jesus routinely backed up his claims with proof. Let’s look at one person’s journey to belief as recorded in the Bible.

The apostle John describes a time that Jesus and his disciples passed a man begging who had been born blind. The Jews thought this must be punishment because of something his parents had done, or some sin he had somehow committed in the womb. So they asked Jesus which explanation for the man being born blind was correct. Jesus responded that it was neither, but rather “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” [John 9:3] He then healed the man, and John records that the neighbors who had previously seen this man begging debated whether this was the same beggar who had been blind, or someone who simply looked like him. John notes that the man had to keep insisting that it really was him. This always strikes me as a somewhat comical situation, though probably frustrating for the man. The people very reasonably asked him how he can see now, and he told them the man called Jesus healed him. They brought him to the Pharisees, the religious scholars of the time, and some of them decided that because Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath (the day of rest under the law), He must not be from God. And yet some of them appealed to the evidence at hand, saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” [9:16] When they asked the formerly blind man who he thought Jesus was, he said “a prophet.” They didn’t like this answer, so they called the man’s parents to testify whether this was really their son who had been born blind, and how he was able to see now. [9:19] His parents confirmed that the formerly blind man was indeed their son, and that he was born blind, but they didn’t know how he could see now. Out of fear of opposing the chief priests, they deferred to their son, saying “He is of age, ask him.” So the priests interrogated him again, saying, “Give glory to God, we know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” While it may have been a bit of a leading question, the beggar took it in stride and replied, “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” [9:25]

I encourage everyone to read the full passage, as the rest of the beggar’s exchange with the priests is actually pretty comical, but I want to focus here on the importance placed on evidence and reasoning throughout this story and many other biblical accounts. This whole proceeding is being conducted like a trial, with a panel of judges, witnesses being called, and testimony given and examined (if a bit hostilely). People on both sides of the issue are looking to determine the facts of what actually happened before they decide who to believe. And the beggar admits what he doesn’t know while being confident in what he does know. Moreover, as the interrogation of the beggar proceeds, he tells the priests, “Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.” [9:32-33] Although the priests didn’t take being lectured by a beggar very well (they threw him out of the synagogue), he rightly recognized the significance of the miracle Jesus performed on him. Afterwards, John tells us that Jesus heard they had thrown him out. He sought him out, and asked him if he believed in the Son of Man (the title Jesus most commonly used of Himself, referring back to the vision of the prophet Daniel). [Daniel 7:13-14] The beggar asked who this was, that he might believe in Him. When Jesus told him that “you have both seen Him, and He is the one talking with you,” the beggar’s response is both honest and reasonable. He said, “Lord, I believe,” and worshiped Jesus. [John 9:38] When John tells us that the beggar worshiped Jesus, that’s not spoken lightly. Even the lowliest Jewish beggar would grasp the serious consequences of worshiping anyone other than God. Yet, he did just that, because Jesus’ answer explained the evidence.  Jesus had done for him what no human could do, and when Jesus explained that He was no ordinary human, but none other than God Incarnate, the pieces fell into place, and the man believed. Like the beggar, we are all born spiritually blind. And like him, only Jesus can open our eyes. The question is, how will you respond to Him?

“See For Yourself”

Jesus & the Samaritan Woman – Gustav Dore

Last week, we looked at several passages in the gospel of John that deal with the evidential nature of biblical faith. Let’s look at a couple more instances today, along with a potential objection. The 4th chapter of John’s gospel tells the stories of Jesus meeting first a Samaritan woman at their local water well,[1] and then a Jewish nobleman on His return to Galilee.[2] Although the Samaritans were normally despised by the Jews, and it was frowned upon to talk to a woman (Samaritan or otherwise) in public in that culture (see v. 27), Jesus had a lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman, and we see several interesting statements made. The woman left her water pot at the well and went back into the city and told the people there, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ (i.e. the Messiah), is it?” She invited them to come see for themselves whether this man might be the promised Savior. Rather than simply dismissing her, they went out of the city to where Jesus was to investigate for themselves. Later in the passage, John says that “from that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things that I have done.'” They then asked Jesus to stay with them 2 more days, and John notes that “many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.'” This was not like a cursory glance or half-hearted listening. The Samaritans invested enough of their time in listening to Jesus for many of them to weigh His words and become convinced that Jesus was who He said He was.

After this encounter, Jesus left Samaria, and, coming to the region of Galilee, he went to Cana, where He had performed His first public miracle. Here, He met the desperate father of a deathly sick child. The man had traveled roughly 25 miles from Capernaum to ask Jesus to come to his home and cure his boy. Jesus seems to reprimand the people here for wanting evidence when He says, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” And yet, John records Jesus later telling the Jews in Jerusalem, “If I do not the works of My Father, believe Me not.”[3]

How do we reconcile these 2 different responses regarding belief based on evidence provided? It’s important to note at the beginning of this account (v. 46), that this was in Cana, where He had already demonstrated His power. It seems that His scolding here is due to their desire for continual demonstrations – for proof beyond proof. As John Gill says in his commentary on this passage, “they required signs and miracles to be wrought, in confirmation of Christ’s being the Messiah, and which indeed was but right; and Christ did perform them for that purpose: but their sin of unbelief lay in this, that they wanted still more and more signs; they could not be contented with what they had seen, but required more….”[4] Like a jury in court, at some point we have to recognize that we’ve seen and heard enough evidence to reach a reasonable decision even if we didn’t get every question answered exhaustively. Despite that rebuke, though, the man pleaded again for Jesus to come and heal his son. Jesus, not needing to travel to heal the son, told the father, “Go; your son lives.” It used to be said that “a man’s word is his bond”, and the father took Jesus at His word, trusting that the deed was done, though he might not understand how. Then he acted on that trust and left for his day-long journey home. When he was partway home, his servants met him to say the son had recovered. John then tells us that the father asked them for the time of the recovery, and they told him the fever left the boy “at the 7th hour”. John continues, “So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, ‘Your son lives’; and he himself believed and his whole household.”  As Matthew Henry commented on this verse, “The diligent comparison of the works of Christ with His word will be of great use to us for the confirming of our faith…. He had before believed the word of Christ; but now he believed in Christ.”[5]

In John 4, we see two different cases of people deciding to believe in the deity of Jesus. The Samaritans were convinced by His words, while the Jewish nobleman was convinced by His miraculous actions, but neither accepted Jesus’s claims blindly. The Samaritans came  to hear and decide for themselves based on what Jesus said and what they knew of the promised Christ, while the nobleman verified the boy’s recovery wasn’t natural by comparing the time of recovery with the time of Jesus’s pronouncement. As Paul later wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[6] But you must examine what you’re presented with before you can hold on to the good and discard the bad. Don’t bypass that critical step and throw out the evidence Jesus confronts you with before examining it and “seeing for yourself” the truth of it.

[1] John 4:39,41-42, in particular, NASB.
[2] John 4:45-53, NASB.
[3] John 10:37, NASB.
[4] John Gill D.D., Exposition of the Old and New Testaments – OSNOVA Kindle Edition, 2012 (1763 original), Location 276230 (John 4:48).
[5] Matthew Henry’s Commentary in One Volume, (Zondervan, 1961) pp. 1528-9.
[6] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.

“Look and See”

Sherlock HolmesOne thing I love about Christianity is the evidential nature of our faith. That may surprise some people to hear those terms used together, but Jesus didn’t ask people to believe on “blind faith” as some would like to assume. I’ve written before on how the very word translated from the Greek as “faith” in our Bibles speaks of being persuaded by evidence or proof. You can find that article here. Today, I want to look at a few more Scripture passages that deal with that evidential nature of faith for some of the first people to follow Jesus.

In the 1st and 2nd chapters of John’s gospel account, we see several instances of people deciding to believe that Jesus was the Messiah (or Anointed One). When Philip had decided to follow Jesus, he told his friend Nathanael that he had found the One foretold by Moses and the prophets, and that it was Jesus of Nazareth. When Nathanael asked skeptically (and maybe a bit sarcastically) if any good thing could come from the poor village of Nazareth, Philip’s  reply was “come and see.” When Jesus greeted Nathanael with “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”, this surprised him – “How do you know me?” Jesus answered that “before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Maybe this reference to the fig tree held some special significance to Nathanael to warrant the following response, for he replied with “Rabbi, You are the Son of God, You are the King of Israel.” Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t congratulate him for this quick assessment, but rather seemed to question his sudden jump: “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”[1] It seems that Jesus wasn’t looking for disciples who would follow just anybody that came along.

After that, Jesus performed His first miracle when He turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. Immediately after that account, John writes that “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.”[2] Their belief followed a sign. John tells about Jesus being in Jerusalem at the Passover, and says that “many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing.”[3] For those people also, belief followed a reason to believe. And again, in the same chapter, John talks about Jesus prophesying that He would die and rise from the dead, although they didn’t understand what He was saying at the time. But then John writes that “When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken.”[4] This was the ultimate proof.

After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples, but one of them wasn’t there – Thomas. Although the others told him that Jesus was alive and appeared to them, he was skeptical. His famous response that he wouldn’t believe until he could put his fingers in the nail holes in Jesus’s hands, and put his hand into the gaping spear wound in Jesus’s side, has earned him the nickname “Doubting Thomas”. But what was Jesus’s response when He came back and Thomas was present? Did He strike Thomas dead for his skepticism? Or for his wanting proof? On the contrary, He told Thomas “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.”[5] And what are the words used for believing and unbelieving? They are the words πιστός (pistos) and ἄπιστος (apistos), respectively. Pistos is the Greek word typically translated as “faith” and comes from the root πείθω (peitho), meaning “to be persuaded”. Apistos is the negation of that, and means one who is unconvinced. Jesus offered Thomas the chance to verify for himself that it really was Jesus, and then told him to let the evidence persuade him and not remain unpersuaded in spite of the evidence.

So did it persuade him? Yes! What was Thomas’s immediate response? He cried out, “My Lord and my God!” Though the rest of his story isn’t recorded in the Bible, church tradition records that “Doubting Thomas” took the gospel to Nineveh (near the modern day city of Mosul, Iraq), and then went on to India, where he was eventually run through with a stake after a confrontation with local Brahmin (Hindu priest caste) who were angry about his preaching and refusal to worship Kali.[6] And yet there are still Christians in India today that trace there spiritual heritage back to Thomas, just as there were in Mosul until ISIS ravaged the city 2014. From skeptic to martyr, Thomas’s journey speaks of a life-transforming persuasion just as strongly as Paul’s change from zealous persecutor of Christians to the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (i.e. non-Jews). But such a transformed life is the natural result of fully understanding how firmly grounded your trust in Christ really is. Borrowing from Philip and Jesus, “Come and see” the evidence for yourself, but then don’t stop there. Believe.

[1] John 1:45-51, NASB.
[2] John 2:11, NASB.
[3] John 2:23, NASB.
[4] John 2:22, NASB.
[5] John 20:24-28, NASB.
[6] Riley K Smith, Restricted Nations: India, Tales of Glory, (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Book Co, 2009), pp. 14-15.

Digging up Fairy Tales

Ruins in Ephesus, by Valeria RestucciaI’ve heard the Bible referred to as a collection of fairy tales, superstitions, myths, legends – fiction by whatever name you want to call it. But this got me thinking. Nobody goes looking for the ruins of Prince Charming’s castle or Captain Hook’s pirate ship. Nobody does this because they’re fairy tales. But, if someone did find the ruins of the lost city of Atlantis, or some other fairy tale/myth/legend, what would we decide? That it wasn’t just a story. Physical remains of the events of a story point to the story being actual history rather than make-believe. How then does the Bible compare? Is there actual evidence for the events recorded in it? Actually, there’s quite a bit, and the list is growing all the time. Let’s look at just a few examples.

At one time, people didn’t believe that Pontius Pilate really existed as the Bible was the earliest and most descriptive  source telling of him.[1] That was before archaeologists found the “Pilate Stone” in Caesarea Maritima in 1961. This stone’s inscription tells that “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea”, had dedicated a stadium to the Emperor. This is actual physical evidence from his lifetime corroborating the Bible narrative.[2]

Skeptics since the 1800’s have doubted the authenticity of Luke’s writings in the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts in the Bible. For example, skeptics doubted Luke’s use of different official titles when describing the different encounters with tetrarchs[3], politarchs[4], asiarchs[5], proconsuls[6], and other positions in different cities. In the case of the politarchs of Thessalonica, Luke’s was the only account to use that term, and so it was seen as a historical discrepancy. Now, we have found over 32 inscriptions bearing the name “politarch”, 19 from Thessalonica, and 3 of those 19 from the first century. This has led John McRay to say that it is now “incontrovertible” that politarchs existed before and during the time of Luke’s writing.[7] In fact, 84 different historical facts in the last 16 chapters of the book of Acts have been confirmed through various archaeological finds or historical literature corroborations.[8] For the skeptic who honestly investigates the subject, it is difficult to not arrive at the same conclusion that Sir William Ramsay, the British archaeologist of the 1800’s did: “I began with a mind unfavorable to it [Acts]…. It did not lie then in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself often brought into contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.”[9] His research led him from skepticism to placing Luke “among the historians of the first rank.”[10]

Looking further back, King David of Israel was believed to be a myth until the Tel Dan inscription was uncovered in 1993 that told of another king’s victory over a “son of Jehoram king of the House of David”. This was the first archaeological evidence found for King David.[11]

Christianity has always been unique in its appeal to evidence, both by Jesus and his first followers.[12] But that support has increased dramatically over the last century, and shows no signs of changing. Not only that, but the evidence that has been found consistently affirms the Biblical account. We aren’t being asked to believe in fairy tales, but rather in a reasonable account of God’s interaction with humanity as recorded through eyewitness testimony of actual historical events.

[1] John 18-19, among other references.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilate_Stone, accessed 8/30/2015.
[3] Luke 3:1, NASB.
[4] Acts 17:6, Greek-English Interlinear translation (πολιτάρχας = politarchus). Sometimes translated as “leaders of the city” in English.
[5] Acts 19:31, Greek-English Interlinear translation (Ἀσιαρχῶν = Asiarchon). Sometimes translated as “officials of the province in English.
[6] Acts 18:12, NASB.
[7] John McRay, Paul:His Life & Teaching, 2007, p. 152.
[8] Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, 1990, as quoted in chapter 10 of Geisler and Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, 2004, p. 256-9. The list is also reproduced online at  http://truthbomb.blogspot.com/2012/01/84-confirmed-facts-in-last-16-chapters.html, accessed 8/29/2015.
[9] Sir William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, 1896, Kindle Edition, Location 309.
[10] ibid, Location 254.
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tel_Dan_Stele, accessed 9/1/2015.
[12] Luke 7:18-23 (Jesus), 2 Peter 1:16-18 (Peter), 1 John 1:1-3 (John), NASB.

Get the Ump! (The Axiological Argument)

AP Photo by Butch Dill
AP Photo by Butch Dill

We’ve looked at several lines of reasoning justifying a warranted belief in God this last month. Today, we turn to what can be called the Moral Argument, or the Axiological Argument (axia = “value” in Greek).

Here is a common formulation of the argument[1]:
Premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

That first premise may seem like a big jump, so let’s dig into that  deeper by first defining our terms clearly.

  • “Values” are the moral worth of something; its goodness or badness. For example, helping the sick or the poor is generally recognized as “good”, while murdering them is generally recognized as “bad”.[2]
  • “Duties” are moral obligations or prohibitions; the rightness or wrongness of something. Something may be morally good without being an obligation. Moving to India to care for lepers may be a morally good action, but it’s not an obligation anyone has to do.
  • “Objective” means independent of opinion or perception of the subject, and is intrinsic to the object discussed. It’s the same for all subjects observing that object. Contrast this with subjective, which is based on a subject’s opinion or perception of an object and can vary between different subjects.
  • “Moral” refers to standards of right conduct.[3]

And therein lies the rub; standards are enforceable, while opinions aren’t. Morality is defined as a standard, but standards come from independent authorities. When two teams think the other one cheated, what do they do? They call for a decision from the umpire, the referee, the judge – whatever that sport calls their independent rule-enforcer. But the umpire has to be independent of either team, and he can’t make up the rules as he goes. He applies a defined standard impartially (we hope). What if each of the 2 teams comprised half the world? Who would be left to be an independent judge? The Axiological Argument highlights this need for a “third party”to define the standards we as humans abide by. Now, to clarify, this premise does not say that those who don’t believe in God can’t live ethical lives, understanding moral duties and making morally good decisions each day. Premise 1 is an ontological statement – a statement of existence; namely, that if God doesn’t exist, there would be no objective moral standards for us (atheist or theist) to recognize and live by. They would not exist without God, because He is the only one in the position to be truly independent and objective. Anything we come up with is just one person’s idea versus another’s.

Are there any reasons to accept premise 2’s claim that objective values and duties really do exist? J. Budziszewski has noted that “There is no land where murder is virtue and gratitude vice.”[4] Even in Nazi Germany, the Nazis dehumanized their victims (so it wasn’t murder) in an attempt to justify what they did. While extenuating circumstances can seem to relativize morality, the “fun test” confirms morality’s objectivity. “What’s that?”, you say? It’s a simple way to eliminate the effect of extenuating circumstances in justifying decisions. To see if circumstances would change the moral value of something, add “for fun” to the end of it. Lying to protect Jews from Nazis may be morally better than being an accomplice to their murder, but lying “for fun” is never considered morally good. Murdering Hitler to save millions may be justified, but murdering even Hitler “for fun” is not. Justifiable circumstances can be found for other deeds like stealing, arson, lying, etc, where the bad deed is the lesser of two evils. In dilemmas where the only options are all bad, a person may be justified in choosing the “least worst” choice. But murdering for fun, stealing for fun, etc, are never condoned or viewed as “good”. In an extreme example, the unacceptability of torturing innocent babies “for fun” would reveal that we really do consider there to be objective standards that shouldn’t be violated in any situation.

Therefore, God exists. Too simple? True premises and valid logic leave no other alternative but a true conclusion. We have defined our terms to avoid ambiguity and have provided support for the premises, and the syllogism that makes up this argument is logically valid (i.e. no logical fallacies present).  What characteristics about God can be inferred from this? First, His nature is intrinsic perfect goodness that is the standard for moral values. Second, His will establishes the standard for moral duties. What are some consequences of this conclusion? Simply this: we are accountable for our actions, but thankfully, it is a level playing field and we can know the game rules if we choose to learn them. We have an infallible Umpire who, unlike humans, will never make a bad call.

[1] See William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, (Colorado Springs, David C Cook, 2010), Ch. 6 for a much more detailed study of this argument.
[2] Evolutionary bioethicists like Peter Singer would disagree as this disrupts “survival of the fittest” by not killing off weak members of society. It’s more than a little disturbing that the New Yorker called Singer the planet’s “most influential living philosopher”. See why here.
[2] “Morality”, American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Ed., 2014.
[4]J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 208-20, as quoted in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, by Frank Turek, p. 171.

Divine Design (The Teleological Argument)

London Museum Roof SmallWe’ve been looking at different explanations for the existence of God, and this week we have one that resonates with me as an engineer: the teleological argument, or argument from design comes from the Greek word “telos” meaning end purpose or goal. The argument is as follows:
Premise 1: Every design has a designer.
Premise 2: The universe was designed.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe had a Designer.

Now let’s unpack those tidy little premises. Does every design have to have a designer? Design can be defined as: “a specification of an object (or process), manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.” Though a bit dry, this actually describes my daily tasks as an engineer pretty well. But notice that design is defined as being “manifested by an agent”. It appears that designs have designers by definition. But even without the word “agent” in there, we can see that design requires intent – an end purpose, a goal. But goals require consciousness to make choices between alternatives. Processes like natural selection, unguided by conscious agents, can only “choose” alternatives that confer immediate advantage. For example, chess moves that sacrifice an immediate advantage for a long-term gain are not possible without the foresight of design. Chance and physical necessity also can’t explain evidence of design such as intent. Therefore, the indication of long-range intent is confirmation of a designer.

The second premise is perhaps more controversial. But let’s follow the evidence along 3 lines: terrestrial, cosmic, and biological design. First, many parameters on earth appear to be fine-tuned for life to exist, and not just any life, but large, complex life. Things like atmospheric transparency, oxygen content, the polarity of the water molecule, and the temperature of max density of water, among a variety of other dispersed parameters, appear to all be set to values in very narrow ranges that allow for our level of life to exist (and flourish). Second, although these values all fall in narrow ranges, we find in the universe parameters that are even more precisely balanced in favor of life. But these parameters are fine-tuned not just for life anywhere in the universe, but specifically for life on earth. Properties such as the speed of light, the ratio of proton to electron mass, the mass density, expansion rate, homogeneity, and entropy level of the universe, the  uniformity of radiation, the values of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), and the location of earth both in our galaxy and the Milky Way’s location in the universe, are some of the roughly 100 interdependent parameters that have to be what they are for us to exist.[1] Interestingly, we also happen to be in a unique position in the universe to even be able to see the evidence of this design.

Third, the structure and information content of DNA points to extremely information-centric design. Four DNA bases are the optimum number for speed of replication.[2] From a data storage standpoint, the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” used by DNA for synthesizing proteins are the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking.[3] DNA exhibits nested encoding where the same stored data is used to convey meaningful information when read one way, and different meaningful information when read a different way.[4] To understand the significance of this coding accomplishment, try writing a book that tells one story when read in order, and a different, but still intelligible, story when reading only every third word. This increases the storage capacity of DNA immensely. Even so, DNA does not have all of the information needed to assemble an organism in it.[5] Some of the information is stored outside the DNA, which leads to a chicken-and-egg problem of how the cell is built by plans stored in the DNA, but with instructions stored in the cell that’s being built using the DNA plans. Our planet, our universe, and even our own bodies appear to all show signs of design, making the second premise true.

If these 2 premises are true, then the conclusion is true that the universe had to have a designer. What characteristics could we infer about this designer from the conclusion?

  • Intelligence – far beyond that of any human designer to understand complex and interdependent “systems of systems” comprising the universe.
  • Foreknowledge – far beyond any human ability to anticipate highly complex interactions and plan for those contingencies.
  • Power – far beyond any human capacity to alter our surroundings (we celebrate when we figure out how to copy something in nature successfully; making all of nature from scratch is in a whole other league of accomplishment).
  • Intemporality and immateriality – no design precedes it’s designer. If the universe (and therefore all of space and time) had a designer, then that designer had to precede the universe. Therefore the designer would have to exist outside of space and time.
  • Benevolence – It’s relatively easy to imagine many ways our universe could be organized that would result in life being a much harder, more miserable, existence for us. Also, the fact of our unique position in the universe to be able to see so much of it could be an example of a deliberately placed trail leading us back to this designer.

These correspond well with the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal, loving God of the Christian Bible. So then, how do we respond to this? We could a) accept the evidence left for us by this God, and seek after Him, b) deny the evidence having honest doubts, but attempt to offer an alternative that explains the evidence as well, or c) simply refuse to consider the evidence. Please, don’t be content with this last option.

[1] Hugh Ross, “Fine Tuning for Life in the Universe”, http://www.reasons.org/articles/fine-tuning-for-life-in-the-universe, accessed 2014/08/03.
[2] “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
[3] Werner Gitt, Without Excuse (Atlanta: Creation Book Publishers, 2011), p. 162-166.
[4] Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p. 466.
[5]  ibid., p. 473-474.

The Cosmological Argument

Spiral Galaxy NGC 1566, courtesy www.nasa.govThe Cosmological Argument is not one argument, but rather a group of several arguments for the existence of God proposed by different thinkers over the centuries. Here is one relatively simple form of it –  just 2 premises and the conclusion – but with a lot packed in those 2 premises, and a serious implication inferred by the seemingly modest conclusion. Whole books can be written on each point[1], but in a nutshell, it goes like this:

Premise 1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
Premise 2) The universe began to exist.
Conclusion) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Premise 1 is simply the law of causality, (i.e. cause and effect): the effect (beginning to exist) has a cause. This law is not only fundamental to science, but also verifiable by anyone through our everyday observations. Nobody walks into a room and, seeing a ball rolling across the room, assumes the ball has always been in motion. We instinctively look in the direction the ball rolled from to see who or what caused it to roll. Notice that this premise does not say that whatever exists has a cause, but that whatever begins to exist does. If either the theist’s God or the atheist’s universe is eternal, then neither would require a cause. Hence the atheist’s question of “Who made God?” is as irrelevant as asking them who made the universe in their view. No one needed to. That’s the nature of anything being eternal.

But Premise 2 then eliminates the option of an eternal universe through three independent lines of reasoning: one scientific and two philosophical. First, a host of scientific evidence points to the universe having a definite beginning. The Standard Cosmological Model (the “Big Bang”), whether you agree with the specifics of it or not, has withstood decades of attempted refutation and points to a unique beginning to all space and time at a single point in history, a singularity where space and time cease to exist prior to that point. Another insurmountable obstacle is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This is the most universally accepted physical law, so much so that it forms the basis of the US Patent Office refusing to grant patents for perpetual motion machines without a working model. As Sir Arthur Eddington said, “if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”[2] The universe is only winding down. But if it is only winding down, that means it had be wound up.

Attacking the possibility of an eternal universe philosophically, we have two more abstract, but nevertheless valid, approaches. First, an eternal universe would require an infinite regress, but there can be no actual infinite regress because an actually infinite number of things cannot exist. A beginningless series of events in time entails an actually infinite number of things (events in this case). Therefore, a beginningless series of events in time cannot actually exist.

The second philosophical rationale is that one cannot traverse an infinite series. The series of events in time is a collection formed by adding one member (or event) after another. A collection formed by adding one member after another cannot be actually infinite.  So then, the series of events in time cannot be actually infinite.

Therefore, the universe has a cause. If this argument seemed fairly noncontroversial to you right from the beginning, then you might be surprised at the resistance to it. That’s because of the implications the conclusion leads us to. This cause cannot be material or temporal as space and time both had a beginning, and this first uncaused cause would necessarily have to exist before the effect it caused (the universe). This cause must be extremely powerful to cause everything observable (and probably more that we haven’t observed). The incredibly detailed precision observed in the universe would require an intellect far beyond the greatest human minds to orchestrate the intimately interrelated web of cause and effect detected so far. For comparison, we routinely fail to predict the consequences of even simple actions over periods of days or weeks (i.e. weather prediction). This cause is necessarily a free agent capable of making choices. An impersonal force like gravity cannot choose to act at a particular time on an object. A ball does not simply float in the air until gravity decides to act on it and make it fall to the ground. If this cause were simply a force like gravity, acting from all eternity, then the effect (the universe) would be eternal as well, which contradicts the observed evidence and our reasoning. This cause is therefore a person, in the general sense of a being possessing rationality. This first cause, or uncaused cause, then appears to be, for all practical purposes: eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and personal. As with the Ontological Argument from last week, this correlates well with the description of God in the Bible and forces us to face the possibility of a sovereign Maker who might very well hold us accountable for our actions. Hence, the determined resistance to this line of reasoning.

[1] See “Reasonable Faith”, 3rd Ed., chapters 3 & 4, by William Lane Craig for a much more detailed treatment of this and other arguments for the existence of God.
[2] Sir Arthur Eddington, “The Nature of the Physical World”, 1927.

“Hard Evidence”

Lab Experiment“I don’t think there’s anything he could say that would convince me – I need hard evidence,” said an atheist friend when I invited him to come with me to  a presentation on the reliability of the Bible. That got me thinking about evidence and our desire for more of it. After all, “seeing is believing,” right?

This November marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein publishing his theory of general relativity. Only 10 years earlier, in 1905, Einstein had published not one, but four, paradigm-shifting papers, including his special theory of relativity and his proposal of mass-energy equivalence, from which we get the famous equation E=mc². Since then, his theories have been repeatedly confirmed. Special and general relativity did not simply provide a competing theory compared to classical Newtonian physics; they encompassed Newtonian physics. In relatively weak gravitational fields, special relativity reduced to Newtonian formulas at speeds much slower than the speed of light (our typical earthbound experience). General relativity expanded on that to provide an explanatory framework that could account for objects travelling at all speeds and through any gravitational field. It explained what Newtonian physics could and couldn’t explain. That’s powerful.

How did Einstein develop this powerful theory? Can you tour the lab where he huddled over a workbench full of special scientific equipment, or see the telescope he tirelessly spent long nights peering through, looking for evidence of gravitational lensing, or examine his lab journals of dutifully recorded experimental results? Not really. Einstein worked as a simple patent clerk in his “miracle year” of 1905, and was still doing “thought experiments” when he developed general relativity. He was short on evidence, but long on problems to think through. He proposed 3 scenarios unexplained by Newtonian physics that relativity would need to correctly explain for it to be true: 1) the slight changes in Mercury’s orbit around the sun already observed by others, 2) the deflection of light by the sun that Newtonian physics predicted, but not accurately, and 3) the color change (redshift) of light passing through a gravitational field that was completely unverifiable at that time.[1] While he could compare his theory’s predictions to  Mercury’s orbital changes measured by others, he had no way to confirm the other 2 tests. In fact, the evidence to support his theory only trickled in over many years, the most conclusive confirmations  of it after his death in 1955. Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed the deflection of light by the sun’s gravity in 1919 when he measured the slight curvature of starlight bending in the gravitational field of the sun during a solar eclipse. But it was decades before sufficiently precise measurements could confirm gravity’s miniscule color-shifting effect on light here on earth. In the years since, though, several other effects have verified Einstein’s unproven theory.

In fact, Einstein’s general theory of relativity touches most of our everyday lives  in one very real, but surprising way. Our cars, planes, cellphones, and even wristwatches now have the ability to tell us where we are because a of wonderful cold-war invention called GPS. But engineers designing the GPS satellites originally didn’t think they would need to account for gravitational redshift in the signal timing. This change in color of visible light is actually an effect of time dilation; time actually runs faster in a weaker gravitational field. And so the clock on a GPS satellite will run 38 microseconds faster, per day, than the same clock on earth, which is enough to produce invalid location results. This would also handicap our cell phones that use this precise timing to handle transferring calls to new cell towers seamlessly.

So did the lack of hard evidence in any way detract from the truthfulness of his theory? No, that’s because we don’t create truth, we only discover it. If something is true, it’s true whether we know it or not, and whether we understand it yet or not. The GPS clocks ran faster whether the original engineers admitted it or not, and whether you and I fully understand it or not. Can Christianity be true without measurable, scientific evidence? Absolutely.[2] But there’s a deeper question here. Is experimental observation the only way we come to know truth? No. In fact, the “thought experiments” Einstein relied on were simply exercises in sound reasoning that scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers have used for millennia. As Einstein understood, there are many times where it is impossible to obtain “hard evidence” for something. It may be a unique, non-repeatable event, or it may be something infeasible to test at the present time, but that doesn’t have to stop us from investigating. Albert Einstein didn’t limit himself to experimental evidence, but rather used his mind to go where science couldn’t yet, and he changed the world. Don’t let your desire for a certain type of evidence keep you from investigating the truth of Christianity and changing your world.

[1] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 87-88.
[2] Not that there isn’t a wealth of evidence for the truth of the Bible, but that’s a subject for another day.


Blind Faith?

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net“Blind faith”. I’ve heard atheists use the term as an insult to Christian opponents – “I believe in science and not blind faith like you.” Surprisingly, I’ve heard some Christians use it almost as a badge of honor  that they had such complete blind faith.  So what is the biblical perspective on faith? Is it really “believing something strongly in spite of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary” as atheists would claim? Is it a step into the unknown, taking God at His word, so to speak, with no reason whatsoever, as some Christians would claim? Or is there another option? What does the Bible itself say?

Hebrews 11:1 is the most famous definition of faith in the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here, and in most other places translated as “faith”, the Greek word used is πίστις (pistis) or one of its related forms. This word can be translated as faith, belief, trust, confidence, or proof. Looking at secular Greek sources, Herodotus used it to refer to a pledge or military oath[1].  Other secular authors such as Aeschylus, Democritus, and Appian used the word to denote evidence from the senses or from eyewitness testimony, or proof of intent deduced from observed actions [2].  The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo used the term pistis in his writings 156 times with the sense of evidence in over 50% of those instances [3]. Aristotle used the term to describe various “proofs” for convincing someone of your case through reason and logic [4]. This word for faith sounds like it was often used by secular sources as a justified belief based on observation, logical or philosophical reasoning, or testimony and solemn oaths. But we can dig a little deeper yet. The word pistis is derived from the Greek word πείθω (peitho), meaning “to persuade”. Are you persuaded blindly by any assertion you hear, or by evidence, by sound reasoning,and by common sense? It makes sense then that Aristotle would use pistis to describe the proofs of the art of rhetoric (persuasion).  It seems that Biblical faith is anything but blind. Rather, it is “God’s divine persuasion” [5]. It is also interesting that the word translated in Hebrew 11:1 as “conviction” in the NASB translation is ἔλεγχος (elegchos) which means proof, and is derived from ἐλέγχω (elegcho), a verb meaning “to convince with solid, compelling evidence; to expose, refute or prove wrong.” [6] Faith could be said to be God’s divine persuasion of the reality of the supernatural things we can’t observe with our natural senses.

So then, if our faith is more of an evidentially persuaded trust by definition, are there any supporting passages to confirm that is what biblical writers like Paul understood when using words like pistis and elegchos? Below is a partial list of supporting passages.

 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Matthew 22:37-38

“And because of His words, many more became believers. They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” John 4:41-42 (NIV)

 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.” Acts 1:3 (NASB)

 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good…” 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NASB)

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1 (NASB)

We are to love God with all that we are, including our mind. Jesus repeatedly appealed to the evidence He presented to people, not the least of which was Him being alive after being scourged, crucified, and having a spear run through His chest.  Paul tells us to  examine everything carefully, while John urges discernment specifically in spiritual matters. In the end, I have to say that we don’t check our brains at the church door, and if we do, we’re not following the example set before us in Scripture. For while blind faith in the truth may still benefit us, it is an accidental benefit that could just as easily be a blind faith in error (such as cults). Thorough, honest investigation only destroys faith in error; but it only builds faith in what is true.

[1] The Histories, Book 3, Chapter 8, Herodotus. Viewable in English or Greek at The Perseus Project.
[2] Pistis as “Ground for Faith” in Hellenized Judaism and Paul, David M. Hay, Journal of Biblical Literature, 1989, 3rd Quarter, p. 461.
[3] ibid. p.463.
[4] Rhetoric, Aristotle, Book 1, Chapter 1:3, 4th century BC, Kindle Edition. The word pistis or one of its forms is translated as “proof” here and throughout the rest of the 3 books.
[5] Biblehub.com word study of pistis (Strong’s #4102).
[6] ibid, word study of elegchos (Strong’s #1650).

Alphabet Soup


I explained a few weeks ago how any kind of observed design actually requires a designer, by definition. If we correctly observe design, we can reasonably infer the existence of a designer. But how do we know we’ve correctly observed intentional design?  We don’t want false positives or false negatives (while thinking you were healthy when you had cancer could be fatal, mistakenly thinking you had cancer when you don’t, and having an unnecessary amputation isn’t desirable either). And so the atheist is often concerned that we Christians are falsely attributing intentional design by God to naturalistic processes. Let me start by saying I appreciate those concerns. So today, let’s look at the evidence for intentional design in nature in the form of information.

The presence of information is a key part of confirming design because true information is always the result of intelligence. Waves makings ripples in the sand are an unguided process that may generate patterns, but not information. On the other hand, someone writing their name in the sand has guided the movement of the sand so as to convey data (their name) using symbols (letters) arranged in a non-random order (J-O-H-N) with a goal (for others to know that John was there).  If we walk down that beach later and find that name in the sand, we recognize this was not the work of the waves, but rather an intelligent agent, because codes (i.e. the English language) are not generated by physical-chemical processes alone. Meaning is conveyed by the willful choice of certain letters to form certain words in a certain order, but natural processes do not possess a will – only intelligent agents do. This then takes us back to the causal agent required of design.

If I hand you a piece of paper that has been moved at a constant speed under an eyedropper filled with ink, will the series of evenly spaced dots provide you any information? The repetitive pattern of dots are arranged as they are out of necessity. What if the ink drops were splattered randomly on the paper where there was no pattern whatsoever? The first is highly specified (identical spacing and size of dots) but repetitive and not complex. The 2nd is complex (in that it would be very difficult to intentionally reproduce it), but completely unspecified. Either way, no useful information is conveyed. But what if the ink drops were from an inkjet printer that was plotting a set of framing plans for a skyscraper? Has information been conveyed? Certainly, but how can we know that? The symbols on the paper exhibit specified complexity. They are a product of neither chance nor necessity. They also have a clear purpose: If you follow the instructions presented, with the materials specified, in the order prescribed, you will have successfully constructed a tall building. These characteristics can differentiate legitimate information from repetitive patterns and random noise.

Now let’s apply what we know about information to DNA.  Deoxyribonucleic acid is composed of 4 bases (Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine, and Thymine) attached to the famous double helix backbones of sugars and phosphates. These bases match up in pairs (G&C, A&T).  One DNA molecule can have 220 million of these base pairings. The entire human genome, the transcript of all the base pairings in all of human DNA, is 3.4 billion units.  Printed out in small font, this takes over 100 volumes of 1,000 pages each. While DNA is still mind-blowing 50+ years after it was discovered, and we’ve still only scratched the surface of understanding it, does assigning letters to these bases and filling books with them make this a language? Are these letter sequences conveying information? Actually, the ability of DNA to store and transmit information has not been lost on scientists. In 2012-13, 2 different groups managed to encode text, pictures, and audio data into DNA’s code, synthesize actual DNA from it, then sequence that DNA to get the original data back with 100% accuracy.  In fact, DNA makes for a far more stable data storage medium than our current typical magnetic disks. It’s also estimated that one cup of DNA could store 100 million hours of hi-def video[1].

Let’s compare this 4-letter “alphabet” to some other alphanumeric codes. Consider this: our common number system is called Base 10 because it uses the ten digits 0-9. Our computers use “binary”, a Base 2 system that only uses the numbers 0 and 1, because these can represent physical states of on and off. Hexadecimal (Base 16) has been used in computers to reduce storage requirements. It uses the digits 0-9, then adds the letters A-F. In this way, you can count to 15 with only 1 digit (F) compared to the 4 digits needed in binary (1111). The English alphabet that I’m using to communicate right now is a sort of Base 26 code. You have 26 symbols to use for each character, and if that’s not enough to convey an idea, then you need to keep adding characters to form words, stringing those into sentences, paragraphs, books, and rambling blogs…. Knowing how base systems work, what do we see when we look at DNA? We see a Base 4 code for conveying information. Interestingly, a 2006 paper in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology asked the question of why DNA is a Base 4 code and not a binary code, or Base 6, Base 8, etc, and concluded that Base 4 actually maximizes the rate of replication over every other option.[2] Dr. Werner Gitt looked at DNA from a data storage standpoint and concluded that the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” (codons) used by DNA for synthesizing proteins were the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking[3]. So the framework for efficiently storing and communicating information is there, but is there actually information there? Like the set of framing plans, if you follow the data found in human DNA you will end up with a human. In fact, this is carried out every time a baby is conceived as a new human is constructed from the plans found in its DNA.  The data found therein is extremely specific, highly complex, and has intent or end-purpose. Therefore, it does indeed seem to be true information, requiring an intelligent source, and providing an additional jigsaw piece in our design puzzle.

1. http://phys.org/news/2013-01-dna-storage-million-hours-hd.html
2. “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
3. “Without Excuse”, by Werner Gitt, PhD, 2011.