Tag Archives: God

Armchair Engineers

I just got back from representing my state structural engineering association at the National Council of Structural Engineering Associations 2017 Summit. Besides the normal business side of being a representative in an organization, and getting to learn about new products from vendors at the accompanying trade show, there were also lots of great educational sessions on things like blast design, progressive collapse, wind and seismic design, and even design of wood skyscrapers. A little slice of “nerdvana”. We even got to hear a keynote presentation from 2 of the engineers involved in the repairs to the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument after a 2011 earthquake damaged those two masonry structures. It made for a very busy but fun week. But one thing I was reminded of repeatedly that is worth noting here is that there really is no perfect design. What do I mean by that? Let’s work through that today.

We can arrive at an optimum design, but as long as there are conflicting parameters, there can never be an actual design that maximizes everything we want to maximize (like strength or flexibility) and simultaneously minimizes everything we want to minimize (like weight or cost). We have to pick and choose, and so any designed item will always fall short of perfection in one aspect or another. And this isn’t just a structural engineering issue. The session that most brought this point home was an extended session looking at the recent publication of ASCE 7-16, the “Minimum Design Loads & Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures”. I know, we can’t even design a short name for our standards, but long names aside, that book is an integral part of most of our structural design. Changes there have major impacts on our daily work. A gripe from many engineers, myself included, has been the ever-increasing size and complexity of the overall building code, and this portion in particular. In fact, the growth from one volume into two this version was a particular incentive for a meeting to discuss on a national level the direction this was going. But as the committee chairman pointed out, we have 3 main goals – safety of structures designed to the standard, economy of structures so designed, and simplicity of applying the provisions of the standard – but you can only achieve two out those three! We certainly don’t want to  have a simple code that allows for cheap buildings at the expense of life safety. But do you make a standard that is simple and extremely conservative, that makes buildings too expensive to actually build? As it turns out, we engineers have tended to emphasize the third way: safety and economy at the expense of design simplicity. Hence, the now 800 page, 2-volume standard that is just one of an entire shelf of standards with which structural engineers are expected to be familiar. And let’s not forget all the revisions to each one of those each code cycle. So while information overload and lack of transparency are problematic, design simplicity is one of those competing parameters that just ends up having to take a lower priority.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Christianity? Well, there are some “armchair engineers” out there that like to try to say that nature testifies against the existence of God because it is evidence of “bad design” which an all-knowing and all-powerful Creator wouldn’t use. And just like the “armchair quarterbacks” out there, so insistent on what play the real quarterback should’ve executed, these skeptics are great at second-guessing God, but pretty bad at proposing better alternatives. Like armchair quarterbacks, they can criticize what’s currently in play, and sometimes throw out some quick, “obviously better” alternative, but they come up sorely lacking when the pros and cons of each option are subjected to a careful, rigorous analysis. Just like me, I could gripe about the new 2016 design standard, but sitting in a room with the chance to actually vote for how I would like to see the standard changed for the 2022 edition, I found myself reluctantly accepting of the current version. When it came to actually fleshing out what any proposed changes might entail, I found myself a lot more understanding of the ASCE 7 committee’s final version of the current standard that I had complained about before. Alternatives that seemed so much better couched in  vague terms like “less complicated”, “clearer”, and “more practical” ended up having unintended consequences that I liked less than the current book when it came to working out the real effects of those ill-defined wishes. It reminds me of what’s been said about God’s choices: “If God would concede me His omnipotence for 24 hours, you would see how many changes I would make in the world. But if He gave me His wisdom too, I would leave things as they are.”[1]

Can I always explain how God’s design is the best choice? No – I am all too aware of my limitations in knowledge. But I can easily see cases in daily life where, not seeing the big picture, I would make ultimately worse choices trying to fix what I initially perceived to be a bad choice. Then I am reminded all the more why we should always approach God with humility. It seems the drive-by allegations by skeptics of bad design in nature  are highly suspect given our very limited human perspective, especially when we do investigate certain cases and find them to be astonishingly well-designed. So I would encourage my skeptical readers to approach the possibility of design in nature pointing to God with at least as much humility and openness as we engineers (try to) give our colleagues when critiquing their designs. After all, we often don’t know all the reasons behind the decisions with which we disagree, and learning those reasons often puts our criticism to rest.


[1] J.M.L. Monsabre, source unknown.

On Suffering

“Job” by Jacob Jordaans, 1620

“Into each life some rain must fall.”  Those famous words come from the (somewhat) hopeful conclusion to the sad poem “The Rainy Day“,[1] penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow after his wife’s death.  Some lives seem to have a lot more “rain” than others. How do we explain the obvious presence of much suffering in our world? What purpose is there in it? As an engineer, I tend to think about the purposes behind things a lot because that is one of the key features of design, and one is likely to get better results if you understand something’s purpose. Using a screwdriver as a hammer may somewhat work in an emergency, but it will be more frustrating and not produce as good of results because that’s not its purpose for which it was designed. But can there be purpose to our suffering? I think so. Will we always be able to determine that purpose? Sadly, no. We are finite creatures and see things but dimly now, yet there there will come a time of clarity [1Cor 13:12] when we see things from God’s perspective and recognize His supreme wisdom. In the meantime, let’s see what we can see.

The Christian view of suffering is unique among worldviews. Suffering is real and expected, both generally because of the fallen nature of the world, and specifically for Christians because we are to be different from the rest of the world, and that often doesn’t go over well [1Pet 4:4]. In fact, most of the books of the New Testament specifically tell us as Christians to expect trials, persecution, suffering, tribulations — just a generally rough road! But the Bible also consistently tells us that we are not traveling that hard road alone, that we have a source of strength and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit who is with us through all of it. The Bible also tells us that suffering can have purpose in the following ways:

  • Suffering can have good results. As Romans 8:28-29 tell us, all things, even suffering – are ultimately for the good for those who “love God and are called according to His purpose”. What is “good”? Verse 29 tells us – it’s to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus. We tend to think of the “good” in that verse in very earthly terms, but God has a much larger plan. That may involve a lot of suffering as in the case of Joseph [Gen 50:20], Job [Job 1:13-22], or Paul (Acts 9:15-16), but remember how Paul considered all his trials nothing more than “light and momentary troubles” compared to an “eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” [2Cor 4:17]
  • Suffering can be for our moral development. [Rom 5:3-5, 1Pet 4:12-19] “Some people gotta learn the hard way” could describe all of humanity at some point or another. I used to think I did pretty well at learning from other people’s mistakes, so I didn’t have to learn the hard way, but I’ve since learned that I just hadn’t been confronted with my own pet vices at that point. I was just as difficult of a learner as anyone else when it came to letting go of the things I wanted to hold on to. Also, some virtues like courage, patience, and perseverance really can’t be developed without some kind of trial. The suffering is the process that develops the virtue, and there is no shortcut to those virtues.
  • Suffering can make us better able to comfort others. [2Cor 1:4] As much as I would like to be able to offer some meaningful words of wisdom to someone going through a particular type of problem, it just doesn’t mean as much if I haven’t gone through that problem. Even if I voice genuinely encouraging and insightful truth that is exactly what somebody in a tough time needs to hear, my words may still be seen as well-meaning but unhelpful, or as simply empty platitudes, because I don’t have first-hand experience of what they’re going through. There is a comfort in shared experience that reaches wounds in the human heart that intellectual knowledge alone can’t get to. What I say as an outsider may be very true, but if I’ve gone through that same type of situation and survived, my way of communicating that truth will likely be a lot more discerning, and will carry a lot more significance coming from a survivor.
  • Suffering can be a wake-up call. C.S. Lewis famously said that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [2] Sadly, there’s a lot of truth to that. When things are going well, we tend to feel very self-sufficient. We don’t think we need God. It’s often only when we hit rock-bottom that we finally are willing to admit that we need God.

We instinctively recoil at the idea of random or gratuitous pain and suffering. We hope for a design behind it, some reason to explain it. Hence that common question, “Why?” Only Christianity redeems suffering and points to a restorative purpose. Although we can see reasons for some suffering, there is still much that remains a mystery to us. But one thing I’ve learned (albeit imperfectly) is to trust God when I can’t see what He’s doing because of what I have seen Him do in the past. And I know that He can use whatever I’m going through to mold me into what I need to become in His plan rather than what I want to become in my plan. He can take the natural suffering resulting from storms and earthquakes, and the man-made suffering like when we reap the consequences of our own bad decisions or when we’re the innocent bystander affected by someone else’s bad decisions, and He can work that into His grand design that will simply astound us when we finally see the the completed work. In the end, even our suffering will lead us to worship God, and, as the Westminster Catechism says, that is the chief end (or purpose) of man.


[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Rainy Day, 1842 (http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=39).
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan ,1971) p.93.

Apologetics Leads to True Worship

Apologetics and worship? Aren’t those mutually exclusive? Christian apologetics, the reasoned defense of the faith, is often seen as rather dry and clinical – a very cold, sterile niche of Christianity set aside for those kinda weird nerds or those that are a little more quarrelsome than they should be. Meanwhile, worship is of the heart, not the head, right? Well, this nerd begs to differ. Worship is certainly more than feelings. I would dare say that many mistake the beat of a good tune for the moving of the Spirit of God, but I digress….

In studying the ontological argument the past few weeks, I have read through quite a few references on it. Most address the validity of it, the objections to it, responses to those objections, and so on. But Doug Groothuis was the only one to remind the reader that this argument for the existence of God was originally part of a prayer. Says Groothuis: “Anselm’s version of the argument was offered as part of a prayer. He earnestly sought to offer an argument to God that would convince “the fool” of Psalm 14 that God must exist. So, the chapel and the study become the same room. The existence of the greatest possible being should compel our worship, since no greater being is possible and we are far lesser beings than this being.”[1]

But is this joining of the study and the chapel unique to this one argument? Hardly. It’s difficult  to really think of the axiological argument (the moral argument), without thinking of the perfect justice of God. And as praiseworthy as that attribute of God is, that also reminds us of how far we fall short of His standard and are rightly condemned by that perfect justice [Rom 3:10,23]. But then we are reminded of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, “once for all” [Heb 7:27], that we may be reconciled to God [2Cor 5:18-21], not because of our own works [Ti 3:5], blind as we were on our own, but only because of God’s grace [Eph 2:8-9]. And we can joyously sing with that former slave-trader John Newton:

“Amazing grace! how sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.”

The teleological argument (the design argument) has always made such perfect sense to me as an engineer who designs things. How could I not recognize the handiwork of the Master Designer in everything from the grand scale of the finely-tuned cosmos [Ps19:1-2] to the layered mysteries of genetics [Ps 139:14]?  Surely, I recognize the signature of Him whose work astounds me afresh the closer I study it! And then, recognizing the staggering heights of power and knowledge we speak of when we bandy about words like omnipotence and omniscience, what could be more fitting than that beautiful hymn “How Great Thou Art”? ”

“O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works thy hand hath made,
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed;
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
how great thou art, how great thou art!”

The cosmological argument points us toward the necessity of a transcendent First Cause, existing beyond space and time [Col 1:17, 1Cor 2:7]. And when we work through the implications of this, words like “eternal” can’t be uttered quite so flippantly. And we join with that great hymn writer Isaac Watts in humbly approaching our Eternal God :

“Through every age, eternal God,
Thou art our rest, our safe abode;
High was thy throne ere heav’n was made,
Or earth thy humble footstool laid.

Long hadst thou reigned ere time began,
Or dust was fashioned to a man;
And long thy kingdom shall endure
When earth and time shall be no more.”

Of course, worship must be sincere, and cannot be manufactured, but worship flows out of a grateful heart convinced of who God is and what He’s done. A study of apologetics teaches us why we believe what we believe about God,  and the more we study God – His attributes, His past actions, His foretelling of future actions, His statements about Himself and what they mean – the more convinced we will be of His praiseworthiness. We tend to worship unsuitable things all too easily. It is so commonplace in our culture, that here in America, we’ve even named a common quest for fame “American Idol.” But a mind renewed and  informed by a steady diet of God’s truth can put the brakes on that idol factory of the heart, and redirect it toward the only worthy object of worship: God almighty. Yes, our minds must be involved in worship. Learning about God, if understood, necessarily leads to worship; it can do no other. So, as I get ready to leave in the morning for 3 very full days of classes and presentations from some great men of God, I encourage you to love the Lord with all your heart and soul and strength, and – yes – your mind. [Lk 10:27]


*  If you don’t see the humor in the intro graphic above, it may help to know the 2 men in the bottom of the photo are the Christian philosophers William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. Read my original post on the ontological argument here, to find out why they might worship God as “maximally great”. 😉

[1] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011), p. 186-7.

What I Found

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

Atheists will sometimes ask what it would take for a Christian to walk away from Christianity. I think Paul addressed that in his letter to the Corinthians when he stated that if Jesus was not raised from the dead (i.e. bodily, as an actual historical event occurring in space and time), then our faith is in vain, we are to be most pitied of all men, and we should abandon this then-false religion, for we would be false witnesses against God by saying God raised Jesus from the dead if He didn’t [1Cor 15:14-19]. This emphasis on actual, objective, historical events that could be investigated is a really bad way to start a false religion, but a great way to proclaim truth. Per the apostle Paul, Christianity stands or falls with the Resurrection.However, an atheist probably would not be content with a Christian leaving Christianity simply to turn to Judaism.  For, of course, refuting Christianity would still not eliminate the need for God. But the desire, nonetheless, is still for us to leave all religion and join their atheist ranks. So that got me thinking: what have I found in Christianity that I would be leaving if I were to oblige the atheist missionary? Well….

I have found Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover[1]; Aquinas’ First Cause[2]; the “Highest Good” that the ancient philosophers sought for; Anselm’s “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” [3]; the Necessary Being upon which all else depends for existence; the Fine-tuner of the universe that explains the Goldilocks dilemma we face when we examine the universe; the Enabler of abiogenesis, without whom life cannot come from non-life; the Source of all the information we find encoded in our own DNA; the Designer behind all the “apparent design” in biology that frustrates Richard Dawkins; the Mind that explains the consciousness of our minds that scientists can’t explain; the Truth that explains objective transcendent truth [Jn 14:6]; Love that explains how and why we love [1Jn 4:19]; the Grand Artist that explains aesthetics[4] in what should be a cold, cruel, survival-focused universe; and the Author of life [Acts 3:14-15 ESV]. It would be intellectual suicide for me to give up all that. But the atheist is asking me to do far more than just drop an intellectual stance.

I have also found the One who loved me from before the beginning of time [Rom 5:8, 2Tim 1:9, Eph 1:4, 1Jn 4:9-10]; a perfect Father [Rom 8:15-16]; the Savior of my soul [Lk 2:11, Jn 4:42]; my Redeemer who rescued me [Ps 19:14, Job 19:25]; the One who made me in His image and gives me intrinsic value [Gen 1:27, Gen 9:6, Matt 6:26]; my Mediator before a just and holy God whom I could never satisfy in my sinfulness [1Tim 2:5]; my Counselor, Advocate, and Intercessor [Jn 16:7-14, Rom 8:26-27]; my source of freedom – truly beautiful, joyous freedom! – [Jn 8:32,36]; my Comforter in times of trouble [2Cor 1:3-5]; the delight of my heart [Ps 35:9]; my Peace when all around me is turmoil [Jn 14:27, 2Thes 3:16]; my steadfast foundation in the tumultuous craziness of life [Lk 6:47-48]; my Hope of glory [Col 1:27];  and the Architect of my eternal home [Heb 11:10]. Yeah, I found all that, too.

Christianity is not simply a rational intellectual viewpoint, but a relationship with my Creator. It isn’t simply some sterile, isolated idea or opinion, but rather the very presence of my Creator. And you ask me to give up that relationship, and all those answers to life’s questions to boot, and be content with the loneliness and unanswered questions of atheism? Are you crazy?! Maybe, but I’m not!


[1] “Aristotle has an argument … which he makes in Book 8 of the Physics and uses again in Book 12 of the Metaphysics that there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.” Sachs, Joe. “Aristotle: Metaphysics”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[2] “It is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.”  See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Vol. I, Question 2, Article 3, 2nd way.
[3] See this previous post for a refresher of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument, based on Plantinga’s reformulation of it last century.
[4] Or, “that best and most systematic Artisan of all”, as Nicolas Copernicus would say in his preface to “On the Revolutions”. See Nicolas Copernicus, Complete Works: On the Revolutions, translation and commentary by Edward Rosen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 4.

In Defense of Logic

I received some surprising feedback lately from a fellow Christian pushing back against my emphasis on logic. The charge was even made that I “idolized” logic. Surprising (and saddening) as this is, I suppose it is worthwhile to review the role of logic in our lives. Now, I would never want to put anything, even logic, before God, but the simple fact of the matter is that we really can’t know God without logic. Don’t believe me? Let’s dig into that today by looking at 3 questions: What is logic? Is it necessary? And how does it apply to our understanding of God?

  1. First, what is logic? Is it some mysterious type of thought used by Vulcans, Mentats, and computers that is antithetical to Christianity?  Hardly. Logic is to thought as grammar is to language; it is the structure of thought. Logic is simply the organization of our thoughts into coherent structures that can have discernible meaning.  Without any further clarification, the statement “I am 5 feet tall and 6 feet tall”, would be nonsense to you. You might ask if I meant that my height was between those 2 numbers, or if I was talking about at different times of my life, or you might ask what the punchline was. Why would you not just accept that I existed in the form of 2 different body heights at the same time? Because it’s not possible. And we have a law in logic that puts that common sense notion into words. The law of non-contradiction states (in Aristotle’s formulation), that “the same property cannot both belong and not belong to the same subject at the same time in the same respect.” To have a body height of 5′ and 6′ at the same time, measured the same way, would necessarily be a contradiction and would be physically impossible. Because we cannot conceive any way something physical could be 2 different lengths at the same time in the same way, contradictions like that are truly nonsense. Now, it’s not like Aristotle (or anyone else) invented the laws of logic, anymore than Newton or Einstein invented gravity; these laws simply describe relationships that already exist. Logic is not a human invention, just a human discovery.
  2. Is logic really necessary? As Peter Kreeft points out in the preface to his logic textbook, “We all have used logic already, unconsciously, many times every day.” [1] He goes on to say, “One of the best remedies for bad reading and writing is good logic.” [2] Another professor laments that “logic is the very backbone of a true education, and yet it is seldom taught as such in American schools.”[3] While philosophy professors may bemoan the lack of logic instruction outside of their classrooms, that alone doesn’t make it actually necessary. In fact, you can certainly think without knowing logic, but only in the same way you can speak and write without knowing grammar – in both cases, the results will not be as coherent. Of course, the basics of logic, like the rather obvious law of non-contradiction,  are what we tend to call “common sense”, so even without knowing logic, it’s hard to not use it, even if used poorly at times. In fact, one typically has to resort to logic in any attempt to argue against it.
  3. So how does logic fit in with knowing God?  Classical logic systematizes our thoughts into three acts of the mind: understanding, judgement, and reasoning.
    • Understanding (or simple apprehension) is where we define our terms, where we understand what it is we are thinking about.  When we say that “God is good,” what do we mean by the terms “God” and “good”?  Many an unnecessary argument rages on because two opponents use the same terms but mean different things.
    • Judgement is that act of the mind where we make truth claims that must be accepted or rejected.Once we have our terms defined, judgement is what we say about those terms, those objects of our thoughts. We think about God, and judge that He is good. Our judgements are statements that are either true or false. There is no middle state between true and false, existence and non-existence, or any other condition and its negation (this is called the law of the excluded middle). If there is a middle option, then we have not been sufficiently specific in our initial statement.
    • Reasoning is where we establish why our judgements are true. This is the justification, warrant, or basis, for our statements or beliefs. Why do we think God is good? Think of valid reasoning as the foundation stones that support the structure made from true judgement of clear terms. Without valid reasoning, you can be accidentally correct about something, but your belief is just a house of cards waiting to be knocked over. Too many people rightly believe various truths about God, but for reasons like how it makes them feel, or that their parents told them these things. If they never dig any deeper to the real foundational reasons, then they are easy prey for the first skeptic that comes along and knocks these false supports out from under them.

Logic clarifies what is believed, deduces the necessary consequences of the belief, and applies it to difficult situations. [4]Let’s look at a prime example: the Trinity. This is core Christian doctrine. Indeed, it’s been said, “In the confession of the Trinity throbs the heart of the Christian religion: every error results from, or upon deeper reflection may be traced to, a wrong view of this doctrine.” [5] So why do we believe that God is triune? Because the church fathers had to wrestle with the tension between the clear teaching in the Bible regarding three divine Persons, and the equally clear teaching that the Lord our God is one God. But they very laboriously worked through precisely defining terms, judging what were true statements about those terms, reasoning through the serious implications of what they knew to be true, and applying that logic to discover this truth about the nature of God that we call the Trinity. The Trinitarian formulation is the result of resolving a paradox through logical reasoning.

As Professor Kreeft points out, the simplest and most important reason for studying logic is that “logic helps us to find truth”. [6] Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Any tool that draws us closer to truth can draw us closer to Him. And that’s worth defending.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 12.
[2] ibid. p140.
[3] D.Q. McInerny, Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, (New York: Random House, 2005), p. ix.
[4] Kreeft, p. 4.
[5] Herman Bavink, The Doctrine of God, p.285, as quoted in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 247.
[6] Kreeft, p.7.

An Uncomfortable God

“Christ with Thorns”, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1865-1879.

I was listening to an old teaching series by R.C. Sproul on “The Psychology of Atheism“, where he mentioned briefly that the God of Christianity was not a “comfortable god”, and I thought that insight worth pointing out here. Skeptics may like to believe that the Christian’s God is simply make-believe like the gods of ancient Greece or Rome, or the animistic gods of primitive cultures, but there’s a problem. God isn’t like any of the gods of every other religion. Look at any of those “gods” and you find very flawed, finite, humanesque creatures – “supermen” and “superwomen”, perhaps, but still no better than the humans they ruled over. One glaring example is that they could be bribed, but not so with God. While we might very much want justice against those who have harmed us, we tend to like a god that we can convince to “let us slide” when we are the guilty party. But the Bible is clear that there is no partiality with God [Deut 10:17, Rom 2:11, Eph 6:9], as much as we might prefer it at times.  Indeed, God will hold us accountable for every word and thought [Matt 12:36-37, Rom 14:12], even if we go through all the motions of fulfilling our obligations to Him [1Sam 15:22]. That’s a sobering thought for anyone. There’s no faking it with God, for He sees through our masks to the real us, the part of us we dare not reveal to our closest friend. That perfect, penetrating vision of us is what made philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre shudder, but that makes for an uncomfortably odd creation of our imagination if that’s all God is. But it gets stranger. Christianity alone teaches this concept of grace, that it is “by grace you have been saved,” that it is not because of anything we could do that we might be able to brag about [Eph 2:8-9]. As if God seeing through our facades and judging the ulterior motives of even our “good deeds” with perfect justice wasn’t frightening enough, there is no possibility of bribery or earning favor with God: it’s all on His discretion. Salvation is His free gift. Why make up a deity that puts us in the awkward position of being helpless to save ourselves, puts our best efforts to “be good” to shame, and holds us to a standard we could never meet? What would we gain from inventing a god like that?

On the other hand, what if the very existence of a physical universe required a first cause that existed outside of space and time in order for the effect of the universe to occur? This is simply applying the law of causality – that every effect requires an antecedent cause beyond itself. But if time and space had a beginning and are an effect, then their cause must exist beyond those dimensions. And that cause must be eternally self-existent. So then this cause would be eternal and ontologically necessary. But in that case, if there is ever to be a change in conditions, that first cause can’t be simply a physical force like gravity (note that there wouldn’t have been anything for a force to act on prior to anything existing…); rather, it has to be an agent that can choose to act, to create a beginning.  What if the design of our universe required an intelligent agent of power, genius, and foresight to the Nth degree? Would it not be appropriate to call that agent omnipotent and omniscient? What if that agent that brings everything into existence therefore has the rightful claim of ownership of everything He made? Would we not say He was “sovereign”? But then, what if this Supreme Being wasn’t simply some powerful universal tyrant, but was loving, the very source of love, in fact [1Jn 4:8,10,19, Rom 5:8]? And what if, in creating creatures “in His own image” who chose to rebel against Him and make a mess out of things, He still loved us? Could He not reach out to us, and communicate to us, and work to redeem us from our brokenness, and reconcile us to Him [2Cor 5:19-21]? But if He were perfectly just, as well, the crimes of mankind must still be paid for, no matter how much He loved us. We can easily see that granting a serial killer a pardon would be a great offense to the families of his victims desiring justice. But under God’s perfect standard, we are all guilty [Rom 3:10,23, 6:23]. How would He demonstrate perfect love and perfect justice without compromising either? What if He, out of His unfathomable love, paid the penalty for our transgressions, and offered us the reward: new life for the death row inmate!? [Rom 5:6,8-10]

I know that’s a lot of “what ifs” there, and covers a whole lot of ground in one paragraph, but if those are actually the way things are, then Christianity has unparalleled explanatory power for what we find when we try to investigate where we came from, where we’re going, and everything in between. And when we do start doing the serious digging, we do find those to be the case. We see philosophically the need for an uncaused first cause and that it has to be independent of the time-space framework. And so far as cosmologists have been able to verify with scientific observation, space and time really do appear to have a definite beginning, confirming what we deduce through philosophy. The more we learn of the workings of our universe, the more mind-bogglingly complex designs we discover – ones that put anything humans have ever invented to shame. And we see this from the macroscopic systems of our universe to the microscopic systems of our cells and every level in between. We have an innate sense that things are broken in our world; it seems like we were meant for more, but things have been twisted and corrupted, and that things are not as they should be. We feel a tension between humanity’s call to greatness on the one hand, and our abysmal wretchedness and inability to fulfill that purpose on our own on the other hand.

The Christian God would not be a very comfortable, soothing figment of our imagination if that’s all He were. Not only does He tower over us, but He also stoops to pick us up, yet not of any merit of ours, but only out of His own love, and mercy, and grace. He destroys all our pretensions, turns our world upside-down, and actually changes us from the inside out. And that’s the uncomfortable truth that we could never invent.

Rejecting Counterfeits

A fake Rolex bought in NYC.

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Patience of God

The Deluge – Gustave Dore

Skeptics will often point to examples in the Old Testament of the Bible that they say show God to be a very malevolent, genocidal, vile Being. But what if some of these examples actually showed the patience and grace of God instead? Think that’s a tall order? Let’s dig into that this week with three examples.

  1. In Genesis 6-9, we read the account of The Flood, of which Noah and his family were the sole survivors. God wiped out the entire population of the earth at that time, except for 8 people. Was that an act of brutality or justice tempered with grace? Well, consider this: in Genesis 6:3, we are told that God started a 120 year countdown timer for mankind. Why? Continuing on, we read of how thorough man’s wickedness had become – that his every inclination was only toward evil, all the time [Gen 6:5, 11-12]. But Noah was “blameless among the people of his time” [Gen 6:9 NIV]. God could’ve just instantly started over from a clean slate, but He chose instead to redeem the mess we humans had made of everything, and rebuild the human race from a faithful servant. Not only that, He gave the corrupt people around Noah 120 years to repent. Peter reinforces this point when he tells the recipients of his first letter that “God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” [1 Pet 3:18-20 NIV]. In his second letter, he calls Noah a “preacher of righteousness” [2 Pet 2:5]. We don’t get a lot of details about this time frame, but we can infer that Noah was bearing witness of God’s impending judgement in word and deed, but nobody else saw fit to turn back to God. When they passed up the offer of grace, all that was left was the just punishment.
  2. In the book of Joshua, we read of the Israelite conquest of Canaan after the Exodus from Egypt. The slaughter of the various Canaanite peoples is often cited as divine genocide, but was it? For that answer, we need to turn back several books and several centuries earlier, to Genesis and the history of Abraham. There, God makes a covenant – a solemn binding agreement – with Abraham and tells him that his descendants will spend 400 years as slaves, but then will return to live in the land, but not until then, “for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit” [Gen 15:16 NET]. These people would continue their moral slide into complete depravity, and yet God would allow them over 400 years to turn from their sin. But finally, God would use Israel to punish the people of Canaan. First, however, He tells them, that the land they are about to  conquer is not theirs because of any merit on their part, but rather “it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you” [Dt 9:5]. What had they done to warrant this punishment? Leviticus 18 lists a variety of sexual sins such as incest, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality, as well as child sacrifice. This chapter begins and ends by saying that these were the practices of the people of Canaan that God was driving out before Israel, and they are not to follow the Canaanite example [Lev 18:3, 24-30]. Interestingly, verse 28 adds that if they do, Israel will be “vomitted” from the land just as the Canaanites were about to be [Lev 18:28 NIV]. And in fact, many of the times that Israel was invaded and taken into exile, it was described as punishment for their rebellion against God.  So was the Canaanite conquest divine genocide? No. Rather it was divine justice that God also used against His own people when they did the same evil the Canaanites did. And it was only done after an even longer forbearance than the pre-Flood world was given. It’s also interesting to note the language in Deuteronomy above: the Lord was “driving them out” before the Israelites. This was not an extermination order to hunt these people down and kill them wherever they went; they were “free to flee” that area and live.
  3. This last example marks the beginning of the overall conquest of Canaan above, and also comes from the book of Joshua. Starting at the end of chapter 5 through the end of chapter 6, we read of the fall of Jericho. The people of Jericho had already heard of the miraculous parting of the waters when the Israelites left Egypt 40 years before, and the defeat of 2 other kings east of the Jordan River on the way there [Jos 2:10]. They were scared [Jos 2:11], and maybe some of them fled as people often do in times of war, but some didn’t. This wasn’t some sudden appearance like an alien ship suddenly coming out of warp in a sci-fi movie; this was a long process with plenty of warning. But even then, after the Israelites crossed the Jordan River (again, miraculously), and were at Jericho, there was still opportunity for the people of Jericho to repent. Have you ever wondered why God had the Israelites march around the city once a day for 6 days, then march around 7 times on the 7th day before He caused the walls to come crashing down? Why not just do it immediately? Or why not use giant hailstones like He did later against the 5 kings of the Amorites (Jos 10:11)? Or fire and a surface-rupture earthquake like with Korah’s rebellion against Moses [Num 16:1-40]? Here, even for the rebellious people of Jericho that refused to flee the coming judgement, there was still grace – a final 6 days’  grace before the end.

The prophet Ezekiel said that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather desires that they turn from their ways and live! [Ezk 33:11] In all of these cases, there are actually delays of judgement to allow whosoever will the opportunity to repent, to turn to God while there’s still time. God is still extending grace to people today, an open invitation to lay down our rebel arms and surrender. Don’t sit behind your fortress walls of skepticism, thinking they will protect you. Death shreds all those defenses and will leave you exposed before the God of the universe, where, having rejected His grace, perfect justice will be the only option. There are no plea deals, no grading on a curve, no excuses accepted. But it doesn’t have to be that way – call on the name of the Lord Jesus while it is still called “today”! [Heb 3:15]

Betting It All

FreeImages.com/Lance Palmer

Previously, I highlighted another brilliant, famous scientist that was a Christian – Blaise Pascal. I also sketched out his Anthropological argument for the existence of God, which is the overarching theme of his unfinished apologetic work collected posthumously as “Pensées”. However, there is a famous part of this work that is more often associated with his name: Pascal’s Wager. It is unfortunate that his “wager” has taken so much focus from his overall case, but such is life. Let’s look at this wager and perhaps answer some objections to it.

While Pensée #418[1] develops it, #387 gives the essence in one sentence: “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.” You might say he is concerned with avoiding the ultimate buyer’s remorse: “What if I buy the spiel that God doesn’t exist, but then meet Him when I die?” Pascal’s development of this in #418 can be arranged in a table of 4 options, based on 2 objective possibilities, and 2 subjective responses to those possible realities, as illustrated below.

Objective Reality
God Exists God does
not exist
Our Subjective Response “I believe” Gain all,
Lose nothing
Gain nothing,
Lose nothing
“I do not
believe”
Gain nothing,
Lose all
Gain nothing,
Lose nothing

If God doesn’t exist, any gains or losses in our life are minimal, and approach insignificance, with either belief or unbelief. But if God exists  – that’s what makes it a high-stakes gamble. The gaining of eternal life, of unending communion with our loving Creator, is at stake! Gain that, and gain what really matters; reject that and all the riches or pleasures of the world can’t compensate for eternal separation from God.

That’s basically his wager, but is his wager valid? Are those really our choices? Let me get one objection out of the way first: this is not an argument for the existence of God, but rather for the prudence of faith. Pascal is leaving aside the theoretical for the moment and getting very practical here to encourage the reader to look at what is prudent, or reasonable. Prudence isn’t a very common word anymore, but Thomas Aquinas defined it as “right reason applied to practice.”[2]Pascal is saying that belief is the wise choice not just in theory but in practice.

Now why is “betting on God” prudent? As he points out, we have to bet: those are, in fact, our only choices. God exists or He doesn’t – agnosticism is not on the table. Why? As Peter Kreeft says in his commentary on Pascal: “Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never’.”[3] To try to avoid betting is simply to delay it and then bet by default, to lose by forfeiting the game.

But why bet on God rather than atheism? Much has been made of Pascal’s statements in the Wager that “Reason cannot decide this question [of God’s existence],” and “Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either [theism or atheism] wrong.” Is he negating all of apologetics here? After all, apologetics is being able to “give a reason for the hope that we have”[1 Pet 3:15], is it not? Keep in mind that the Wager is found in Pascal’s notes for his unfinished defense of Christianity. His whole Anthropological Argument is abductive reasoning. Pascal’s hypothetical seeker in his case asks, “is there really no way of seeing what the cards are?” Pascal’s response: “Yes. Scripture and the rest, etc.” These are all reasons. While it’s true that reason alone cannot prove God’s existence beyond our capacity to deny it, the Cosmological, Teleological, Axiological, and Ontological arguments, as well as Pascal’s own Anthropological argument, stack the odds in favor of the existence of one and only one God – the God of the Bible. So why bet on God? General revelation (nature) and special revelation (Scripture) reasonably point us to Him. Far from a leap in the dark, Christianity “alone has reason” and “reason impels you to believe.”

Some would say that this idea of “betting on God” is a pragmatic or utilitarian religion, a selfish belief that must surely be repugnant to any good God. It’s true that God sees through any mask of belief, as well as condemns selfishness. But I think Peter Kreeft addresses this well when he responds, “To the objection that such ‘belief’ is not yet true faith, the reply is: Of course not, but it is a step on the road to it. Even if it is sheer fear of God’s justice in Hell, ‘ the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov1:7).”[4] I don’t think Pascal intended his audience (the sincere seeker) to simply stop at conceding that belief in God is prudent. He is rather driving the seeker inexorably onward to Christianity, with all that entails. The wager is simply removing one roadblock on the way there.

Lastly, Pascal reminds us at the end of his wager that it is not just a hope for some unknowable future: “I tell you that you will gain even in this life”. And again in Pensée #917,  “The Christian’s hope of possessing an infinite good is mingled with actual enjoyment….” Christians get a small foretaste of this blessing even in this life.

A “prudent bet” may sound a bit paradoxical, but as Pascal would say, here, “there is no room for hesitation, you must give everything. And thus, since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain.”[5] So, are you in?


[1] Note: I am using Krailsheimer’s translation and numbering for the Pensées. You may read Brunschvicg’s edition for free at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm. The numbering there would be: #387 = #241, #418 = #233, and #917 = #540.
[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2nd Part of the 2nd Part, Question 47, Article 2. Aquinas is condensing Aristotle’s definition of Prudence from Nichomachean Ethics Book VI, Part 5: “Practical wisdom, then, must be a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods.” Aristotle’s word φρόνησις (phronesis) is typically translated as “prudence” or “practical wisdom”.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 300.
[4] ibid., p.301.
[5] ibid., p.294.

The Effectiveness of Prayer – Part 2

Saying Grace - by Norman Rockwell, 1951
Saying Grace – by Norman Rockwell, 1951

Last week, we looked at some background of what prayer is (and is not), and what possible reasons God might have for not answering prayers the way we think they should be answered. This week, I’d like to continue with the 2nd and 3rd potential objections of skeptics that I mentioned last week: competing prayers and coincidence.

One might question how God can answer prayers when millions of people are praying for often-competing goals. For instance, what does God do when both sides of a battle are praying for victory? The issue there isn’t who’s side is God on, but who is on God’s side. God’s not going to violate His holiness to answer anyone’s prayers. James told the early church that they asked and did not receive because of their wrong motives [James 4:3] Matthew Henry expands on that in his commentary, saying, “When men ask of God prosperity, they often ask with wrong aims and intentions. If we thus seek the things of this world, it is just in God to deny them.”[1] Selfish motives are often a cause of unanswered prayer. But what about sincerely offered and purely-motivated prayers that nevertheless require contradictory answers, like a couple praying for good weather for their wedding day while a local farmer prays for rain for his crops? This comes back to God’s omniscience and His sovereignty. He is the only one with perfect foreknowledge of how an answer to prayers would play out in the long run for each party asking for opposing results, and is therefore uniquely qualified to judge truly fairly between competing requests. Also, it is within His right as Creator to answer in the way He sees best, maybe a “yes” for one, maybe a “no”, maybe a “not yet.”

But what about people from different religions praying for opposing things? Does God answer Christians on Sundays, Muslims on Mondays, and so on? Does He pick the most sincere prayers from each religious group to answer? As politically incorrect as it is to say these days, this comes down to whether they are praying to the true God or not. All religions simply are not equal. As Jesus said, nobody comes to the Father but through Him.[John 14:6] In this case, there aren’t actually conflicting prayers, because the Christian’s prayers are directed to the true God, while the prayers of a follower of a false religion, however sincere they may be, are not.

A final objection to the legitimacy of prayer is that the skeptic might say that prayer doesn’t actually “work”, and that any appearances to the contrary are only coincidence. It is true that God often orchestrates natural events in such a way as to accomplish His will. And part of our growth as Christians is aligning our will with His. So our prayers that are aligned with His purposes are often fulfilled in ways that could be explained solely via natural events, however unlikely the chain of events may become. So, are we Christians being biased toward God and seeing divine intervention when there was none? That’s a fair question to ask. But we should distinguish between different types of causes first. For instance, we could say my sipping coffee was the result of hot water percolating through finely ground coffee into a cup. Or, we could say that it’s the result of my choice to fill the coffeemaker with water, put a filter in, fill it with coffee grounds, choose a cup, turn the machine on, and push the button. The coffee ingredients coming together in a certain way may describe the physical causes necessary for my invigorating caffeine intake, but just as critical is the agent (me) involved to start those physical events occurring, guide them, and sometimes intervene if they go off-course. To ignore the agent behind the physical causes is to not really answer how the final result came to be.

In fact, all of us instinctively recognize what Bill Dembki calls the “design inference”: when a result didn’t have to happen of necessity, and there appears to be a goal-oriented nature to the result that defies explanation by chance. We are justified then in supposing there to be an agent behind the events. Consider a more familiar example: a staple of American western movies is to have a scene where a cheating gambler is called out because the other players recognize his winning streak is not just the luck of the draw. Why does a fight break out over his “random” card selections? His supposedly randomly-dealt cards have had a suspiciously contrived appearance and a very non-random effect: repeatedly taking all of the other players’ money! It’s that aspect of recognizing events working toward a predefined goal, or an independent pattern, that often leads us (in hindsight) to recognize a design behind the events. In fact, an end goal and the ability to select between alternatives to achieve that goal are the two primary characteristics of any design. And design always requires a designer.

Many Christians have witnessed extraordinary chains of events in their lives that led them to accept that design inference, and look for the Designer behind the events, and devote their lives to Him.[2] Whether it was in the form of answered prayers, or divine guidance and protection before they ever even knew enough to ask, they look back and recognize God’s hand in their lives. And through it all, regardless of whether our prayers are answered the way we wanted, we can trust that God’s way is ultimately the best way.


[1] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on James 4, http://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/james/4.htm, accessed, 2016-10-04.
[2] Like Bob McNichols, founder of McNichols Metals. Read his story here.