Tag Archives: Faith

A Ductile Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Apologetics Builds a Tougher Faith

Question: would you rather find out the roof over your head was ready to collapse before it actually happened, or after? Afterward doesn’t really help, does it? Now, a question for the Christians out there: would you rather find out where your trust in God is weak before it gets put to the test, or afterward? Maybe for some of you, if you were honest, you might say, “I claim I trust that God is good, and that He is sovereign… but if I ever got cancer, or my child died, or something bad happened on a massive scale (like a tsunami), my trust in God would be destroyed.” Honesty is good; it’s hard to fix a problem if we ignore it or gloss over it. But would your sudden distrust in God, or even a change to disbelief in His very existence, change anything about Him? If He exists and is truly good, and omnipotent, and omniscient, and sovereign, would your changing belief about Him change anything about Him, or just about you? Just you, obviously. Someone can not believe I’m an engineer all they want, and it does nothing to my credentials or occupation. Likewise, God is independent of our changing views of Him. So the issue here isn’t really about God, but rather the frailty of our trust in Him. How do you toughen up a frail faith? Let’s work through that today.

I used to work as an engineer at a company that made steel roof joists – like what you see when you look up in any of the big box stores like Wal-Mart. One of the things we did was destructively test a sampling of our joists to make sure they behaved the way they were supposed to. The picture at the top of this post was one such test. You don’t want to design a roof for 30 pounds per square foot of snow load, and cut things so close that an extra inch of snow one year collapses the building. With that in mind, the Steel Joist Institute required us to have a factor of safety of 1.65: each joist needed to be able to handle an overload of 65% of its design capacity.  However, we didn’t want to be right at that minimum where everything had to go perfectly in production to meet it. Everyone involved in designing and building the joist are fallible, after all. So we liked to see tested joists not failing until loaded to twice what they were designed for. And those overload conditions did happen over the years. I remember a case where a roof drain got plugged on one building during a bad storm, and the roof collapsed under the weight of an unplanned rooftop swimming pool. Thankfully, it failed when nobody was in the building. As it turned out, that was several times what the roof was designed for, and even in failure, the joists performed amazingly well.

We began to look for ways to make our joists tougher – that is, able to handle more permanent deformation (i.e. overloading) without breaking. We found that highly-optimized open-web trusses tend to have common failure locations, like the 2nd web from each end that is noted in the picture. Under normal loading, that web has the highest compression load of any of the webs. Why does that matter? Have you ever stood on an empty soda can? If you stand on it carefully and evenly, you can put your full weight on the can without it flattening. But if you wiggle a little (adding some eccentricity to your compressive load), the can immediately crushes without any warning. That sudden buckling is what we wanted to avoid happening in our joists. Instead, we wanted the long, drawn-out failure mode of tensile yielding that gives lots of warning first (like how silly putty or the cheese on pizza stretches a long ways before it finally pulls apart). Getting back to our joists, since that second web will tend to fail first, strengthening that one member on each end can significantly increase the failure load, and the chance for people to evacuate an overloaded building. I personally got to repair a joist that had failed in testing at that web, and then watch the amazing performance as it was retested. Not only did it pass the test, it maxed out the test equipment! Such a small change for such dramatic results. That test convinced me of the value of thinking about how my designs react when taken outside their design envelope.

Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with Christianity or apologetics? The Bible tells us that we are in a spiritual war, whether we realize it or not. Chances are good that at some point in the Christian journey, your trust in God will be severely challenged – overloaded, so to speak. How will you react? Are there weak links in your life that look solid until they’re actually put to the test? I’ve seen too many tragic cases of people claiming to be Christians and leaving the church after exposure to some event or some unforeseen objection “destroyed their faith”. Maybe they grew up insulated from any objections, or worse, were told that asking questions was bad. Their trust in God was just a house of cards waiting to collapse the minute someone brought up some of the objections of atheists like Richard Dawkins or Dan Barker (as answerable as those are). Or maybe they grew up thinking that Christian faith was some kind of charm against bad things happening to them (in spite of the overwhelming testimony of almost every book of the Bible, many of the early church fathers, and the long bloody history of martyrdom of Christians the world over up to the present day). That’s called being set up for failure. But apologetics helps us in the following ways:

  • It strengthens those weak links by forcing us to examine ourselves [2 Cor 13:5] and reinforce our areas of distrust with true biblical knowledge, supporting evidence, and sound reasoning rather than just gloss over them. For some, that self-examination may even make them aware that their faith is just a charade and that there is no actual relationship with Jesus as Lord supporting their “Christian” life. That’s an important oversight to correct!
  • In seeking to give an answer to those who ask for the reason for the hope that we have [1Pe 3:15], apologetics forces us to look at our beliefs from an outside perspective, anticipate questions, and actively search for answers so that we might be prepared. Knowing why you believe what you believe will strengthen your trust in God even if nobody ever asks you about your beliefs.
  • Apologetics reminds us that we don’t have a “blind faith” but rather a very well-grounded faith in God. Even when we don’t know the answer to every question, we are reminded that we can trust God based on the positive answers we do have. That is the very opposite of the “blind faith” skeptics like to assume Christians rely on.

May you be ever-growing in the knowledge of the truth of God, knowing with certainty in whom you have believed, understanding more each day how trustworthy God is, never failing to persevere through the trials that must surely come. Grace to you 🙂

What is a well-designed faith?

faith-constructionFor this 2nd anniversary of my blog here, I wanted to take some time to explain what a “well-designed faith” is. It is, of course, this blog: this exhausting labor of love dedicated to helping fellow Christians and skeptics alike to see the beautiful, reasonable truth of Christianity. It’s where I do my best to answer objections to Christian beliefs, explain misunderstood doctrines, encourage clear thinking through the application of logic and sound philosophy, give an engineer’s perspective on God and the Christian faith, and hopefully give those who have rejected Christianity in the past reason to take a second look. It is an endeavor that, if it were followed and read by millions, but nobody came to accept the truth of God’s Word through it, would amount to nothing but a supreme waste of time. But on the other hand, if I get to Heaven, and the one person that had read my ramblings says, “Thank you. God used your words to point me back to Him,” all the hours spent here will be justified. But beyond the blog itself, a “well-designed faith” is also the focus of the blog. For I do believe that “well-designed” aptly describes the Christian faith.

Hebrews 11 is often called the “faith chapter” or the “faith hall of fame” of the Bible because it defines faith, and gives many examples of it lived out in Jewish history. Verses 9-10 tell us about Abraham, and say that “by faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” That last description of God as an architect and builder has always caught my eye. Shortly after that, Hebrews 12:2 tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of faith“.

When the Bible tells us that Abraham was faithfully seeking that city “whose architect and builder is God”, it’s telling us about the long-term plan that God has held for all eternity, the goal that He both selected before the creation of the universe, and works to actualize across human history. When it states that Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith, it is saying that He perfects – completes – the trust, (or faith) birthed in us by God.[2] In fact, this word “perfecter” is the Greek word τελειωτὴν (teleiōtēn), meaning a consummator, one bringing a process to its finish. Digging deeper, this is based on the Greek root “telos”, which denotes the end goal of something. This is the root of our modern word teleological, meaning “to show evidence of design or purpose.”[1] That’s why the argument for God from observed design in nature is called the “teleological argument“. How does this perfecting of faith work? Maybe similarly to how we see design work in the building industry I’m a part of.

My profession of engineering is often lumped in with 2 other related fields to form the industry grouping AEC: Architecture, Engineering, & Construction. And these generally go together well as we’re constantly working together to complete a finished project. The architect is designing the building to meet certain goals of the client, whether it be a hospital, school, business, or a residence. The hospital needs to contain a certain number of beds, lab equipment, operating and exam rooms, and offices to accomplish their goal of caring for the sick. The school needs to have a certain mix of classrooms, teaching labs, music rooms, and sports areas,  to accomplish their goal of providing a well-rounded education. A business may need flexible floor plans that can be changed as the business changes and grows. Some businesses even have essential specialty equipment that the building has to be constructed around. Even a home is going to have very different needs to accommodate one family versus another. Different home designs might focus on things like handicapped access to all the rooms, natural ventilation in the tropics, heating efficiency in the far north, “safe rooms” in America’s Tornado Alley, and so on. But in all of these examples, there is one thing in common – an end goal, a purpose. That goal drives the design. It’s counterproductive for an architect to design an amazing sports stadium for a music school that doesn’t even have a sports program!

As engineers, we work to ensure the architect’s vision of the client’s goals is actually achievable. We complete, or perfect, that initial design, by putting bones to the flesh, so to speak. We execute specific selections to make the architect’s idea buildable.  The laws of physics can be brutally unforgiving, and sometimes we have to be creative to ensure the architect’s “bold vision” holds up in real life. There’s a lot of coordination there as architects and engineers work together to make choices that accomplish the client’s purpose while conforming to real-life constraints. But finally, the plan is complete and the builders come in and turn the client’s dream, the architect’s vision, and our calculations into an actual, usable building.

It seems like there is a similar spiritual workflow as:

  • God the Father initiates a plan for us, drawing us to Him,
  • God the Son completes the plan and accomplishes tasks (like the atonement) needed to make it happen, and
  • God the Holy Spirit develops it in us through His work of sanctification in our lives.

Initiation, execution, and development working seamlessly together in the perfect unity of the triune Godhead to conform us to His image, that we might fulfill our purpose and glorify God – that is a most well-designed faith, if you ask me!


[1] https://www.wordnik.com/words/teleological, accessed 2016/09/08.
[2] John 6:44, NASB. As Barnes says in his commentary on this verse: “In the conversion of the sinner God enlightens the mind (John 6:45), he inclines the will (Psalm 110:3), and he influences the soul by motives, by just views of his law, by his love, his commands, and his threatenings; by a desire of happiness, and a consciousness of danger; by the Holy Spirit applying truth to the mind, and urging him to yield himself to the Saviour. So that, while God inclines him, and will have all the glory, man yields without compulsion; the obstacles are removed, and he becomes a willing servant of God.”

S.D.G.

The Engineer’s Faith

Leonhard_Euler - portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.
Leonhard_Euler – portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.

Engineering and faith might not be two words you normally associate, but faith is nevertheless an integral part of our profession. What tends to obscure this relationship for many today is the rather antagonistic definition of faith promoted by atheists as “belief in spite of the evidence.” Certainly, that is the last characteristic you’d want in the engineer designing your new home/office/hospital/school/etc. But as I’ve written extensively on this site (here especially), that is not the biblical definition of faith. Biblical faith is rather a warranted trust, or looking at the Greek root for the word, a divine persuasion. Let’s look at a scenario that exemplifies the correlation between biblical faith and “engineering faith”.

Suppose I told a client that an existing column in a building being renovated would need to be reinforced or replaced, at significant cost, or else it would fail under the new loads the owner wanted to add. Now suppose the owner didn’t like this and wanted to argue about whether this was really necessary (yes, this does happen). He could ask whether I’d ever actually seen a column that big fail. Or, supposing that part of the issue was tied to increased seismic loads on the existing structure caused by this new addition, he might ask if I’d ever experienced an earthquake, because he had, and it wasn’t that bad… In both cases, I’d have to answer “no”. So what is my basis for saying he needs to perhaps double the cost of his renovation? My trusted engineering books. Here’s why:

  • I trust the authors. While I’ve never personally seen a large column fail, I don’t have to have personally seen it to know it can truly happen. Various people over the years have performed tests, witnessed the results, and applied reason and logic to sift through the noise and ascertain the essence of different phenomena. Then they distilled all of that down into some of the elegantly simple theories we still use today. They have demonstrated themselves to be trustworthy with their meticulous attention to detail, their investigative diligence, and their relentless pursuit of the truth about how structures behave.
  • I trust their records. These early pioneers and those coming after them have written down very detailed accounts of these tests, their results, and their reasoning for how far their theories can be expected to be applicable to similar conditions. These have been preserved (or at least copies have been) for future generations of inquisitive engineers like myself. Names like Euler and Timoshenko still cast their shadows on much of our work long after they died.
  • I trust the transmittal of their works. Our engineering textbooks and reference books faithfully transmit these principles to my generation of engineers, even though we are far removed from the original authors, and may not have the resources to reproduce their findings. Their theories are also reproduced in a variety of books. If one publisher made an error in Euler’s column buckling formula, for instance, it could be readily verified by comparing it against other reference books on the same topic.

So then, even though I have never personally witnessed a W14x90 column fail in an earthquake, I can trust that my various books have reliably passed down to me the true results of research by trustworthy men indicating that would be the outcome in my example. The end result being that I can put some amount of faith – or trust – in what I’ve learned and apply it to the current project. Of course, men are still fallible, and their theories might be mistaken, but these basic principles are have stood the test of time sufficiently to persuade me to trust them.

Now, how does that relate to my Christian faith?

  • I can trust the biblical authors. God used a unique mix of people to write the Bible. Just looking at the New Testament, the first apostles were simple fishermen, who brought a simple, down-to-earth, eyewitness testimony to their records. Theirs was a record that said, “whether you believe me or not, I cannot tell otherwise, for this is what I saw, and heard, and felt – no more, no less.” Luke was a doctor who sought to record “a more orderly account” of the life of Christ. His account is an extremely detailed, first-rate history that has proven itself accurate over and over again. Paul was a Pharisee, a teacher of the Jewish religious law, himself taught by one of the leading teachers of his day. He explained the deep richness of the simple gospel message, connecting it to the whole backstory of the Old Testament. But in each case, these men have shown themselves to be trustworthy instruments of the infallible God.
  • I can trust their findings. Luke’s geography and description of various cultures of the time are born out by archeology. When Paul describes the fallen nature of mankind, he describes the world I observe; the results of his examination match reality. But moreover, he holds up a mirror to my own heart. I need look no further than my own life to recognize the soundness of his words.
  • I can trust the transmission of their records to me. They wrote early after the events they described, these writings were copied carefully, and on a massive scale far exceeding any other historical manuscripts, such that the integrity of their writings are adequately preserved by comparison of the variances between dispersed copies.

We all place our faith (or trust) in people and things that may prove all too fallible: the pilot of the plane you’re about to board, the engineer who designed the school you send your kids to, the political leader that promised you the moon, or objects as simple as the new tires on your car that you trust to not have a blowout.  But there’s really only One who warrants our complete trust. Have you studied His textbook, the Bible?

The Fact Stands

St Peter and St John at the Beautiful Gate - Gustave Dore (small)Today I want to continue looking at the strong evidential nature of the Christian faith exemplified in the Bible. In Luke’s history called the Acts of the Apostles, he records that Peter and John went into the Temple one afternoon, when a beggar was being carried in to beg for money. [Acts 3] Seeing the two apostles, he asked them for money. But then he got something he never expected — healing. Peter said to him, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!”[3:6] Peter took his hand and pulled him up, “and immediately his feet and ankles were strengthened.” We are next told that the people saw the man walking, leaping, and praising God[3:8-9], and they took note that he was the lame beggar who used to beg for money there. They recognized the man and understood this was a big deal. So Luke records that the people came running up to Peter and John “full of amazement”.

At this point, Peter took the opportunity to preach an impromptu sermon. Not one to mince words, Peter explained that it wasn’t by their own power that they had healed the beggar, but only by the power of Jesus, whom the people had “disowned” and “put to death”, but whom God had raised from the dead, “a fact to which we are witnesses,” he says.[3:12-15] Peter balances his brutal honesty with grace though, and adds that he understands they acted in ignorance,  as did their rulers, and that this had to happen to fulfill God’s prophecies. Nevertheless, they should repent and return, for ignorance is still no excuse. The people responded to this clear evidence in front of them, coupled with the apostles’ eyewitness testimony as to the source of the miracle.[Acts 4:4] Their leaders, on the other hand, didn’t take so kindly to Peter’s chastisement: the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, had the temple guards come arrest Peter and John, and bring them to be interrogated the next day. When asked by the Jewish religious leaders by what power they had performed this apparent miracle, Peter again pulls no punches, and plainly tells them that it was in the name of Jesus, the one they had crucified, but God had raised up again. Luke goes on to write that “seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in reply” to Peter’s rebuke. The fact of the matter was actually standing before them.

What was their decision then? They reasoned, “What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it.”[4:16] Indeed, the man healed was over 40 years old [4:22] and had been lame from birth [3:2]. He was a regular sight at the temple and would’ve been known to any of the Jews there. And now he was walking, leaping, and praising God.[3:8-9] They certainly couldn’t deny that! But they still chose to reject the source of the miracle, ordering Peter and John to speak no more of this troublesome Jesus. But facts are indeed stubborn things, and Peter and John replied that, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” [4:19-20] Not some appeal to vague or subjective mysticism, this passage is filled with appeals to concrete observation, testimony, and good reasoning.

But there is another interesting part of this story. Our historian, Luke, records that as this tribunal observed the confidence of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and untrained men, they too were amazed, and “began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.”[4:13] Over this 3 month long series on evidential faith, we’ve looked at the biblical appeal to a well-founded faith based on evidence of observed miracles and eyewitness testimony and sound reasoning, but here we see another type of evidence – and a critical one at that: transformation. If you’re a Christian, does your life show the evidence of the Lord of all the universe living in you, renewing your mind, [Rom 12:2] sanctifying you[1 Cor 6:11], and transforming your life so that you may “like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior”[1 Pet 1:15]? The Pharisees’ recognition of the apostles’ closeness with Jesus is a sobering reminder for us that Christ calls us to be different from the world in a way that only He can accomplish. Long after those that were healed have died, and far from the scene of the miracles, where no direct witnesses were ever available to testify about them, our transformed lives should be an undeniable fact that stands up boldly to a skeptical world’s scrutiny.


Recommended reading: J.C. Ryle, “Holiness“.

 

 

“Now I Know”

"Jethro & Moses, as in Exodus 18" by James Tissot, 1902
“Jethro & Moses, as in Exodus 18” by James Tissot, 1902

The last couple of months, I’ve been going through the New Testament gospel of John highlighting examples of the evidential nature of faith that Jesus calls us to have. Rather than asking us to have “blind faith” as so many want to claim these days, He appealed to evidence and reason. Yet this is not limited to Jesus or even to the New Testament. Today, I want to take you back to the time of Moses, roughly 1446 BC. He was leading the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt to their current home in the Promised Land, when he had a visit from his father-in-law Jethro. While there visiting Moses, he sees that Moses is wearing himself out trying to micromanage everything, and proceeds to give him some very practical advice on leadership and delegation. He also gives some good advice on picking leaders that many would do well to heed in election years, but I digress.

However, prior to that is a narrative that I’ve read over before without noticing the significance of it. Exodus 18 starts by telling us that first “Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt.” After he found Moses and the people of Israel camped in the wilderness, we read this account of Jethro’s visit with Moses:

“Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had befallen them on the journey, and how the LORD had delivered them. Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians. So Jethro said, ‘Blessed be the LORD who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people.'”

We’ve looked at several examples of people in the New Testament believing in Christ after seeing miracles with their own eyes. But you might ask if this really helps most of us who have never seen – and likely never will see – the sick miraculously healed and the dead raised to life again. But here in this Old Testament example, we have a different case. Jethro heard a report about the miraculous events that had happened in Egypt. Hardly surprising – even if people didn’t know all of the details, the leader of one of the main powers of the region (Egypt) had released a large portion of his slave population (the Jews) to leave his country, then chased after them, and then suffered a mysterious defeat such that his entire force perished and the slave population survived and continued their mass migration. Armies colliding and one getting destroyed might be par for the course, but the regional superpower setting out after a bunch of slaves should only only end one way. This was a noteworthy news event on the surface, and even more so once the full story was told.

So here we see that Jethro hears about what had happened, knows the main person involved in leading this mass exodus (Moses), seeks him out, hears the whole story from the eyewitness perspective of Moses, and becomes convinced by this testimony. This is the same procedure we use when we seek out the eyewitness testimony recorded for us in the various books of the letters and narratives compiled in the Bible. While we can’t directly cross-examine these long-dead witnesses like Jethro could have with Moses, we can still compare and contrast the different accounts with each other, with the archeological record, with external written records, and with basic principles of logic (for internal consistency and plausibility). When we do that honestly, the result will be the same as Jethro’s: “Now I know….”

He Is Risen!

The Incredulity of St Thomas - Matthias Stom - 1621My wife and I went to see the movie Risen this past weekend, about a (fictional) skeptical Roman Tribune investigating the claims of Jesus being risen from the dead. So this seems like an appropriate time to finish up our look at the evidential nature of the apostle John’s gospel with a look at some of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances recorded there.

First off, we start John chapter 20 with Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s followers, reporting to John and Peter that the tomb is open and Jesus’s body has been taken. Peter and John ran to investigate for themselves. John got there first and looked in the tomb and could see the linen wrappings lying there. Peter rushed in and saw the wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth lying separately, rolled up in a place by itself. I like John’s attention to details in things like this. John then records that he entered the tomb, “and he saw and believed.” But he goes on to say that they “did not yet understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” And so they went back to their homes, perhaps to try to make sense of what was happening, while Mary lingered at the garden tomb, weeping. And so it is that she becomes the first witness of Jesus after the resurrection. She came back to the disciples, telling them “I have seen the Lord,” and gave them a message from Him. That evening, Jesus suddenly appears before them, in the locked room they were gathered in, where He showed them both His hands and His side. This miraculous entrance and presentation of His mortal wounds left no question as to whether this was Jesus or not. Yet Thomas was not with them, so they joyfully proclaimed to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he didn’t believe them.

Whether “Doubting Thomas” deserves all of the bad reputation he has or not, he nevertheless famously responded that unless he personally saw the nail imprints and put his finger in the nail holes and his hand into the spear wound, he would not believe. He had Mary, John, and Peter’s testimony of the empty tomb. Granted, that could simply mean grave-robbing, or relocation, as Mary had first assumed. But then he had Mary’s testimony of seeing and talking with Jesus. Perhaps she was hysterical in her grief. But then the rest of the disciples had now seen the evidence Thomas specifically wanted, and reported it to him, and it still wasn’t enough.

I sympathize with Thomas in his desire for personal verification, but we all have to understand that we can’t verify everything directly. In fact, most things in life are such that we can’t directly verify them and have to accept the testimony of others, whether they be historians, or scientists, or eyewitnesses and subject matter experts in court, or simply friends that have been places and seen things we haven’t. Therefore, when Jesus reappeared in the locked room a week later, when Thomas was there, He reprimanded him for his unbelief. But first, He offered Thomas the evidence he had asked for: “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.” John doesn’t record for us whether Thomas followed through on his earlier statement, but I suspect he didn’t feel the need to once he was face to face with Jesus. What John does record is Thomas’s quite sensible response to Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”

At this point John records a verse that often gets taken out of context to try to say that Jesus prefers a “blind faith” to an evidential faith. Let’s look at verse 29 now: “Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.'” Is that what Jesus means here? I don’t think so. Note that Mary thought the body had been taken until she saw Jesus herself. Note that John says he believed when he saw the scene in the empty tomb. Note that Jesus was now showing Thomas what He had shown the other disciples the week before that caused them to tell Thomas that they had unequivocally seen the Lord. I don’t think He was talking about the other disciples believing without seeing.

While the disciples were able to see the truth of Jesus’ claims directly, there are two groups of people prevented from believing on the basis of direct sight: those separated by space and time from the events. Everyone to whom the disciples were sent to testify, all over the world, could not directly see these things. All of us that have lived both before and after that time can not directly see them either. Yet the letter to the Hebrews, in the famous “faith chapter”, tells of saints like Abraham, living prior to Jesus, who trusted in God’s promises, “having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance.” [Heb. 11:13] And in Jesus’s “high priestly prayer” recorded in John 17, He prays to God the Father both for His disciples and “for those also who believe in Me through their word.” [John 17:20]

We use our minds every day to reason through competing possible explanations for events that we weren’t able to witness directly based on what we do know about them. We still have an evidential basis for our conclusions, just not complete enough to draw a conclusion without some reasoning. Just as a jury can become rationally convinced of the details of a crime without having seen it firsthand because of applying reason to the partial evidence they have, God can and does convince us through our minds as well as our senses.  And here in John 20:29, I would suggest that Jesus is simply stating the value of using the minds He has created us with to recognize His truth even when we don’t have all the answers yet.

“That You May Believe”

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles smallWorking our way through the apostle John’s testimony of the life of Christ the last few weeks, we’ve been seeing example after example of Jesus calling on people to believe in Him based on the evidence presented. He didn’t ask people to blindly accept this incredible story of God lovingly, mercifully reaching out to mankind in spite of our rejection of Him. Unlike the ravings of a lunatic claiming to be someone he’s clearly not, Jesus’ claims to be God were backed up with demonstrations of supernatural power.

Looking at the 13th through 15th chapters of John today, we read 3 more examples of Jesus appealing to evidence. John records Jesus telling His disciples that one of them would betray Him, and saying, “I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He.” [John 13:19] In the next chapter, He tells them of His eventual ascension and return to God the Father. Again he says, “now I have told you before it comes to pass, that when it comes to pass, you may believe.” [14:29] In both instances, He is telling them what will happen, and calling their attention to it, so that when it does come to pass, they will understand the significance of it. Another aspect here is that the Old Testament law had 2 tests regarding prophecy. If a prophet made specific prophecies that did not occur, then he was to be considered a false prophet and be put to death. [Deuteronomy 18:20-22] And if a prophet performed some sign or wonder to accompany his words, but his teaching was such as to lead the Israelites away from God to chase after other gods, then they were to not follow his teaching, even with the evidence of supernatural power accompanying it. In fact, they were to put him to death as well. [Deut. 13:1-4] False prophets were not taken lightly. Yet Jesus is effectively telling them, “Don’t believe me if I don’t pass the test. But when I do, believe.”

In chapter 15, Jesus is telling His disciples that the world will hate and persecute them because of Him, for the world hated Him first. Then He tells them, “If I had not done among them the works which no one did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” [John 15:24] Clearly, He is appealing to the nature of His miracles as condemning evidence against those who saw His works and rejected Him. These were not some parlor tricks or the cunning work of some traveling charlatan. These were genuine miracles – alterations of our material reality that are impossible without God, the author of this reality. But perhaps you might question the originality of His miracles. Doesn’t the Old Testament describe people like Moses and Elijah and other prophets also performing great signs? Didn’t Elijah even raise the dead?[1 Kings 17:17-24] How could Jesus say that no one else had done the works He did? Here’s the difference. The prophets were performing those miracles as agents of God, in His name, and only by His power. Jesus performed His miracles directly, not as appeals to God to act on His behalf, for He is God.

John wrote down for us another insight into the evidential nature of biblical faith when he recorded Jesus telling them, “you will bear witness also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” [John 15:27] Why did Jesus want the disciples to be His witnesses to the world? Was it their eloquence? Their charisma? Their political connections? Their respected positions in society? Their education? These might all be attractive and useful qualities for someone wanting to start a worldwide movement. What mattered to Jesus was the same thing that matters in court: that an eyewitness actually be at the scene that he testifies about. And this is why it was these men – these dirty, poor, “unlearned” men – that were to be His witnesses. They had been eyewitnesses from the beginning, and could truthfully report what had happened.

In the end, we believe Christ’s story, not because it is comforting (though Jesus is our comfort), but because it is true. This has always been the emphasis in Christianity, and with good reason. If it’s not true, then why believe it? If it’s not true, then, as the apostle Paul himself would say, “we are of all men most to be pitied.” [1 Cor. 15:19]

The Case of Lazarus

Raising of Lazarus - Bonnat 1857Let’s continue last month’s series looking at the evidential nature of faith presented in the Bible. What evidence did Jesus present to people to recognize the truth of His claims to be God? In the 11th and 12th chapters of John’s eyewitness testimony, we read of one Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, two sisters who had been following Jesus. The sisters sent word to Jesus that this close friend was sick [11:3], yet Jesus says that “this sickness is not unto death, … but that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” John then makes an interesting sequence of statements in the next few verses. He tells us specifically that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in verse 5, but that when Jesus heard Lazarus was sick, “He stayed then 2 days longer in the place where He was.” [11:6] That doesn’t seem very loving at first glance. Indeed, when He finally does arrive, Lazarus has already been dead and in the tomb for 4 days. Others have been there consoling the sisters, but not Jesus. Martha and Mary, in separate conversations with Jesus on His arrival, both tell Him that “if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” [11:21, 32] There was probably some frustration on their part, having seen what Jesus had done for others, and wondering what could possibly have kept Him from arriving in time to heal their dear brother. Others, too, were asking why this man who had healed the blind couldn’t also have healed Lazarus. Valid question. John records the reason Jesus gave to His disciples on the journey there: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” [11:15]

Healing Lazarus so he didn’t die at that time would’ve been a good result by human standards. But Jesus had in mind a far better result – raising Lazarus from the dead. He waited until there was no question about it. In fact, when he orders the stone to be removed from the entrance of the cave where Lazarus had been buried, Martha, ever the down-to-earth sister, points out that “there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” [11:39] Yet, when Jesus called Lazarus, he came out of the tomb, still bound in burial cloths. [11:45] Now, we need to stop and remember that this wasn’t an age of coroners and hospitals and funeral homes, and a whole chain of people that took care of the nitty-gritty reality of death for you. The family and friends gathered with Mary and Martha had likely helped prepare the body for burial, move the dead body to the tomb, and close up the tomb with this large stone. If you personally place a dead body in a tomb, or you watch it being placed in the tomb while there grieving with the family graveside, and then someone comes and  somehow makes that same, very dead man live again, you can’t deny that something incredible has just happened, and that He who brought your friend back to life is worth your undivided attention! John tells us that’s exactly what happened. “Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him.” [11:46] Those present saw the evidence, recognized the validity of the evidence, and hence, the validity of Jesus’ claim to be God, and accepted that claim to be true.

John chapter 12 then tells how Jesus came back to Bethany, where Lazarus was, and John mentions that “Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Jesus.” Interestingly, he records that “the great multitude therefore of the Jews learned that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus whom He raised from the dead. But the chief priests took counsel that they might put Lazarus to death also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away, and were believing in Jesus.” [12:9-11] Here again, we see the clear role of evidence. A living man that people saw die is tough to explain away. People had heard about Jesus healing people of different sicknesses, but this was a whole other level of miracle. And so they came to see for themselves this dead man now living. And now, people who hadn’t seen the actual event, but had talked to the once dead man, and the family members who had buried him, and the witnesses who had seen him raised up again – now these people were believing in Jesus as well. Hence, the chief priests’ idea to dispose of the evidence (i.e. Lazarus)  before this Jesus thing got out of hand. Yet trying to squash this or hush it up was like trying to unring a bell. As President John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”[1] The resurrection of Lazarus was an especially stubborn fact that unfortunately proved to be a stumbling block for the chief priests who despised Jesus. Don’t let it be a stumbling block for you.


[1] John Adams, “Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,” December 1770, from The Works of John Adams, Vol 1, (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1856).

“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?