Tag Archives: God

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.

The Effectiveness of Prayer – Part 1

Hands of an Apostle - Albrecht Durer
Hands of an Apostle – Albrecht Durer – c. 1508

What do you say when a friend tells you of some struggle in their life like a troubling medical diagnosis, a bad car wreck, or a recent death in the family? Have you ever said “I’ll be thinking of you” or something similar? Most people take that as a sincere statement of sympathy. But what good does just thinking of somebody do? Maybe there’s the intent of follow-up action after that prerequisite thought, which is certainly good, but does just thinking of someone help them in any way? Not really. What about statements like “Could I pray with you now?” Skeptics would place that last statement in the same category as the first one, but I’d like to suggest why that isn’t the case.

First off, what is prayer? The atheist who says that God doesn’t exist would say that it is nothing more than us talking to ourselves. I’ve discussed the rational justification for God’s existence at length previously (here, here, and here among others…), but today, let’s take God’s existence as a given for the sake of argument. In that case, prayer is our personal communication with the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all there is. And that is precisely where the difference lies. Christians aren’t simply thinking well of another when they pray for them, or expressing their hope for a good outcome. We are asking the God who made all things in the first place to intervene in the course of human events. The power to change events rests not in our own limited powers of thought, but in the nature of the one and only omnipotent God. However, prayers are not magic spells or incantations that move God to act in a certain way; Christians don’t believe their prayers have any power in themselves. Our hope is in the One we pray to, not the prayer itself. Prayer also isn’t our way of letting God know what we want – He knew before we were even born! [Matt 6:8] Why bother praying then? I see four reasons:

  1. Prayer affirms our reliance on God as we seek His will and His sustenance. None of us would even exist without God, but that’s so easy to forget sometimes.  We live in a very self-centered culture, but prayer reminds us that the story is God’s, and it’s better to be a footnote in His story than the star of our own!
  2. It develops our character as we then conform our will to His. As Norm Geisler puts it, “Prayer is not a means by which we change God; it is a means by which God changes us.”[1] In prayer we learn submission to God’s perfect will, as Jesus modeled for us in Gethsemane when he prayed, “Yet not my will, but Yours be done.”[Luke 22:42] We learn patience and trust as we learn to wait on God rather than blindly rush into our own short-sighted plans. And trust is at the very core of biblical faith.
  3. Prayer draws us in to closer fellowship with God just as any conversation draws you closer to the other person you’re conversing with.
  4. Prayer allows us to participate, in some small way, in God’s work. God is sovereign, and knows all things, and yet He condescends to accomplish His goals in the world through the prayers of His people. [James 5:17]

So while positive thoughts may or may not make us feel better, prayer in accordance with God’s will can actually accomplish real change. But that brings up some legitimate questions, doesn’t it? I see three main questions: 1) what about unanswered prayers? 2) what about competing prayers, such as between opposing sides in a civil war, or between Christians and Muslims? and 3) how do we know our answered prayers aren’t just coincidence? Let’s take a look at that first question this week.

What about when God doesn’t seem to answer? What are we to make of it when we petition God to intervene and … nothing changes? Or it changes, but not the way we wanted? While I’ve never considered myself a country music fan, Garth Brooks was on to something when he sang that he thanked God for unanswered prayers and that “just because He doesn’t answer doesn’t mean He don’t care / Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”[2] Unfortunately, our limited perspective often keeps us from seeing what the best course of events would be until it’s too late. For us, only hindsight is 20/20, and even then, not always. Yet God’s omniscience means that He has better clarity regarding the future than we do even of the most straightforward events in the past. For even when we look at past events where we can clearly see causes and their effects, the butterfly effect still prevents us from ever really knowing how a different chain of events would’ve changed life as we know it.  But what about those tragic events like the death of a child, or intense suffering of a dear friend? These are often the unanswered prayers that hurt us the deepest, and cause some to give up on God. Things like “Why wouldn’t God heal my sick mother?” have led many a person to resentment and rejection of God. This is because we are intensely emotionally invested in that outcome, and with our finite perspective, we see no reason at the time for a good God to not grant that desire. But as noted earlier, we really can’t predict the future good that may derive from a painful situation now. For example, countless lives have been saved over the years because someone was driven into medical practice or disease research because of the impactful death of a loved one. But even if there is no future public good derived from one’s unanswered prayer,  the spiritual character development and closer fellowship with God mentioned above are immeasurably valuable. We were created by God for His glory [Isaiah 43:7], and whatever helps us to glorify God in our earthly lives, and prepares us for our eternal life, is of great value from an eternal perspective.

Do I understand the interaction of our free will to ask for something, and God’s sovereignty to accomplish whatever He chooses, and His omniscience regarding how the situation will turn out before it even developed? No, but I don’t have to either. I do know that He is trustworthy, and like a good soldier, I can be content with some need-to-know scenarios being “above my pay grade”.  If I’ve been willing to trust some all-too-human commanders in my time to overrule what I think they should do, based on my limited perspective from one small corner of the map, then why would I question the One who sees  the end from the beginning with perfect clarity, who does not make mistakes, and who has a grander plan than anything I could ever conceive? In the end, it’s really not that we have unanswered prayers, but that the answer wasn’t what we were looking for. Tune in next week for part 2, and share your thoughts in a comment in the meantime. Thanks!


[1] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011), p. 449.
[2] Find the lyrics here. Interestingly, that song is a true story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unanswered_Prayers, accessed 2016/09/25.

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.

Highway to Hell

Dante & Virgil in Hell - William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850
“Dante & Virgil in Hell”, witnessing the fierce brutality there – William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850

I met up with an old friend for dinner the other day, and we started talking about objections we’ve heard to God’s existence, or to Christianity specifically. He brought up one he’d been presented with: “If God would send my best friend (or parent/sibling/etc) to Hell, then I don’t want anything to do with that God. I’d rather go to Hell to be with my friend/family.” An implicit assumption there is that where your friends or loved ones are, friendship and love will continue to exist. However, there’s really no reason to think that would be the case. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s not going to be any parties in Hell, regardless of whatever songs, jokes, or movies you’ve heard or seen. Nevertheless, let’s examine the logic of this loyal, but misguided idea,  with 2 analogies related to loved ones still living and those already deceased.

Consider this: if your house is burning down, staying in to try to save your friend is commendable. But the idea is for you both to get out of the danger. Would you run through the burning home, find your friend, and then sit down next to him, a few feet away from an exit door, and wait for the burning roof to collapse on you both? No! If you love your friend, you’ll try to get him to come out of the inferno with you. Or if there is somehow only opportunity for one of you to get out, you might push him out ahead of you in heroic self-sacrifice. Indeed, Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”[1] But to join him in his eventual demise doesn’t help anyone. Instead, seek escape from the impending disaster together. In this case, go on a truth quest together. Or, if your friend refuses to investigate about God, then seek Him out on your own if you have to; save yourself, and then go back in like a firefighter, protected from the blaze and equipped to rescue your friend, if he’ll let you. He may not. After all, God gives us free will to accept or reject the offer of salvation.

But what if that friend or family member has already died in his or her sin, cut off from God? There is no trying to save them in that case; it’s too late for them. While that is truly heartbreaking, should the one who still has a chance to live forfeit it, and choose eternity in Hell with their friend over life with God? This is even more short-sighted than dying with your friend in the burning house, for this is like standing at the doorway, able to step through to safety, but seeing your friend’s charred corpse in the corner, and choosing to stay and burn as well. It only doubles the tragedy.

“But how could God be so cruel as to send my friend, who was a great upstanding guy, to a place of eternal torment?” That’s a fair question, but whether we agree with God’s motivations is really beside the point. It comes back to objective truth. If God exists, and if a realm called Hell exists, and God has provided a means to rescue us from it, then the choice is clear, whether we like it or not. For example, I was practically born with a lead foot, and I find speed limits very annoying. However, the limits still exist, and are still enforced with very real fines. So whether I agree with speed limits or not, obeying them is the only guaranteed way to not get a speeding ticket. Likewise, whether I agree with God’s plan or think He’s cruel, or anything else, obedience to His plan is the only alternative to Hell.

All that aside, what of God’s motivations? Is His plan actually cruel? It’s easy to think that when we judge behavior by our standards. But “nobody’s perfect,” as the old saying goes, and yet perfection is God’s standard. Even “great, upstanding guys” will fail that standard every time. That’s why, as hurtful as it may be to our pride, we need God to provide the solution. And He did, in the form of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross. Moreover, if God did “bend the rules” and “let them slide”, He would not be just. Also, what is “hell” anyway? It is, ironically, what many who resent the idea of eternal punishment most desire: separation from God (the source of all goodness) for all eternity. But that desired separation will be the eternal torment they resent.

In closing, I can’t help but notice that we tend to like it when someone in authority lets us go without our due punishment, like a cop giving me a warning instead of a speeding ticket, but we are outraged when others are let off the hook, like a corrupt politician getting away with embezzling. You might say those examples are comparing apples and oranges. But that’s the thing: we don’t like the idea of hell because we have an overly optimistic view of the goodness of mankind, and an inadequate view of what sin is to a perfectly just, holy God. But any sin is rebellion against God. When we calibrate our standards to the one perfect standard of God’s, then we recognize the justice of Hell, but also the amazing grace and love demonstrated at the cross.


[1] John 15:13.

Communications from the Creator

engineering-plans Today I want to offer a modest proposal: that God acting in human history is a reasonable possibility. What I offer here is by no means a “proof”, in even the loosest sense of the word, of the existence of the personal, relational, God of Christianity. But it is, I hope, something that opens the door to possibilities you might have dismissed out of hand in the past.

I’ve heard some very intelligent people through the years say they could agree to the need for a Creator or Supreme Being to “get things started”, but the idea of a personal, interacting God as Christianity describes is a bridge too far for them. This conviction may be due to the fine-tuning of the universe or the amazingly precise information management system of our DNA, or from the recognition of the implications of the law of causality and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This idea that God is a distant “Watchmaker” who wound up the universe and and walked away is typically known as deism, but this is not what the Bible advocates. In fact, the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes “And without faith it is impossible to please Him {God}, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”[1] There are two requirements listed here: 1) accept the fact that God does indeed exist, and 2) accept that God will respond to our seeking. In other words, God is not the uninterested, detached god of deism, but rather one who interacts in human history.

We see so much apparent design in our natural world, that we have to ask if there was a designer. And if there was, would that designer leave any kind of message to convey intent regarding his “product”? You can review some of the reasons for believing in a Creator/Designer based on the Teleological Argument (or the argument from design) here, but this really doesn’t take us past the the idea of basic theism, that some god exists. It may be one or more gods; it may be a god who did indeed get the universe started, but who no longer exists for some reason; or it may be that deadbeat god of deism who gets things started and walks away.

Seeing design aspects in nature, I tend to think of God’s designs in terms of engineering. As an engineer, when I design a building, I invest myself in that design. I care about what happens to it. And so I write instructions pertaining to various stages of its lifecycle. A project will typically have sheets of “general notes” on our drawings, and sometimes hundreds or thousands of pages of project specifications.  All of this is to detail what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of construction materials, building loads and uses, acceptable substitutions, and so on. I don’t just say, “Make it work,” and leave the contractor to guess how to meet the building requirements without any instructions. I’m not going to design a mezzanine and tell the client, “Here’s a mezzanine design for your warehouse, but I’m not going to tell you if it’s rated for a 300 psf load capacity or only 50 psf. Don’t worry – you’ll figure it out pretty quickly once you start stacking boxes on it. If it starts sagging, you’ve exceeded my design.” That would be crazy. When we go to the effort to design something, we try to leave instructions regarding our intent for its proper use. The more complex the design, the more important the instructions are. It seems reasonable to me that if God exists, and put so much incredible planning into this universe, this world, and us as humans, He would provide some “documentation,” so to speak. Now, we have a collection of documents – the Bible – that does, in fact, claim to be a message from this Creator, addressed to His creation.

But how could one know if such a book really is what it says it is? There are a couple of ways. One is to check the accuracy of statements made in it that we can confirm historically and archeologically. If we find its record of history confirmed independently, through other sources, then we are warranted in trusting it to some degree.  In this, the Bible has been confirmed repeatedly. Many things mentioned in the Bible aren’t recorded elsewhere, though. Or if they were, those corroborating sources have been destroyed or are yet to be found. However, when we find archeological evidence for the truth of the biblical records,  in the absence of outside sources, that is a powerful piece of evidence in favor of the Bible. For while we might say that biblical authors were simply copying from their contemporary authors (and so of course they matched up), finding an actual town or a monument to a king or ruler that no other sources besides the Bible ever mentioned is very hard to refute. This has also been been the case with the Bible on multiple occasions. So we have a collection of writings from multiple authors spanning well over a millennium that presents a coherent, historically accurate, archeologically-verified record of events. But it also claims that all of this is due to the divine inspiration of its writers by the all-knowing Creator of the universe, and that He used them to convey His message to humanity. That would explain the historical reliability of it in its accounts of natural history. So could it be telling the truth in its record of supernatural history as well? When Luke records the minutest details about people and places visited, and these are repeatedly confirmed, should we not at least entertain the possibility that he may be telling us the truth when he records miracles as well?

Secondly, there is the issue of prophecy. Anyone who has ever watched the weather forecast knows that it is extremely difficult for us humans to predict events even a few days in advance. Yet the Bible contains prophecies that were made hundreds of years in advance of their fulfillment. While some prophecies might be vague enough to be rationalized, I want to point out one I’ve always found particularly interesting in its specificity. Isaiah 44 and 45 record a prophecy that a specific king named Cyrus would set the captives free, restore Jerusalem, and rebuild the Temple there, without asking for payment or reward. This was fulfilled 150 years later when Cyrus, King of Medo-Persia, allowed the Jewish captives to return to Israel and rebuild their city and the Temple, and even provided them with money to purchase building materials. Predicting the name of a future foreign ruler generations in advance is beyond any natural human abilities and does speak to the supernatural inspiration of the Bible.

In summary, I think the corroborating historical records and archeological evidence, combined with fulfilled prophecy, point to the legitimacy of the Bible’s claim of divine inspiration. And if it is divine communication, then this is truly the most important message ever put into human language, and it is incumbent on all of us to study it relentlessly. For in so doing, we learn not only of a God powerful enough to create a perfectly-planned, finely-tuned universe out of nothing, but also of a God who loves each of us more than we can ever understand, enough that He entered into human history to offer reconciliation and redemption to a rebellious and ungrateful humanity. And that, my friend, is the God I serve.


[1] Hebrews 11:6.
[2] Isaiah 44:24-28 & 45:1-13.

Hypocrisy vs Ontology

The Pharissee & the Publican - James Tissot 1894
The Pharisee & the Publican – James Tissot 1894

This past Sunday, one of the kids in my Sunday school class mentioned that a girl in his class at school was an atheist, and that she didn’t believe in God because of the hypocrisy of Christians. Is that a good reason to believe God doesn’t exist? While it is sad to hear such life-altering views becoming entrenched in one so young, what’s worse is that she is basing her worldview on faulty reasoning. A little dose of logic could keep her from even going down that dead-end road! But since she and others have down this road, let’s dig into this objection.

First, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that her charge of hypocrisy is not simply true of some Christians, or even most Christians, but that all of us Christians were complete hypocrites. The question we have to answer is, would that have any impact on whether God exists or not? No, it wouldn’t, for the behavior of Christians is an ethical issue, while God’s existence is an ontological issue. Hypocrisy – saying one thing while doing something contradictory – is essentially “lying lived out”, hence a question of ethics. Ontology, on the other hand, studies the nature of being or existence itself, rather than behavior, so these really are unrelated categories.  What can we say about the question of existence? First and foremost, existence is objective. Something either exists or it doesn’t. If God doesn’t exist, then my saying that He does won’t change that fact. Likewise, if He does exist, the atheist saying He doesn’t won’t change that fact. For existence, like truth, is independent of our subjective observations. And ethical or unethical behavior on the part of either side won’t settle the ontological question. For instance, if Adolf Hitler looked at a lush green field of grass one day, and commented that the grass was green, we should recognize that  he would be speaking the truth in this case, regardless of how repellent the rest of his life may be to us. We should be able to separate the truth of that specific statement from his otherwise reprehensible behavior. Likewise, even if atheists find Christian behavior completely abhorrent, they are still stuck with the task of refuting the truth claim of God’s existence as a separate issue.

What does the hypocrisy of some Christians actually demonstrate? If becoming a Christian meant that God instantly transformed us into perfect people, then observed hypocrisy could prove that real Christians don’t actually exist, for then you would have a necessary condition unfulfilled. But even that still wouldn’t show that God doesn’t exist. However, that isn’t what the Bible says. In fact, the Bible explains that none of us are “righteous“[1], that we have all fallen short of the perfection that is God’s standard of judgement[2], that we are all in desperate need of intervention to fix a problem we can’t solve on our own[3], that accepting Christ as our Lord makes us “new creations”[4], that we are to be like Christ[5], but that this is only possible through Him and not of our own hard work[6], that this is a process that will continue as long as we live[7], and that some will claim to be followers of Christ who really aren’t.[8] So what does Christian hypocrisy prove? That all of us that are works in progress, and that some us have a lot farther to go than others; that despite being spiritually a new creation, we are still very much human; and that some are Christians “in name only”, and the skeptic must be careful to distinguish genuine from counterfeit when assessing the words and deeds of suspected Christians.

Now, lest I be misunderstood here, let me be clear that I am not excusing hypocrisy. God specifically tells Christians to not be hypocritical, repeatedly.[9] And when we are, we are not being Christlike, we are not being obedient, we are not being the good ambassadors He has called us to be. My case today is a modest one: simply that ungodly behavior does not negate the evidence for God. If you’ve been burned by the hypocrisy of Christians in the past, I can only say that we are but smudged reflections of our perfect Lord, hopefully pointing you to the One who never disappoints.


[1] Romans 3:10
[2] Romans 3:23
[3] Romans 5:6
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 12:2
[5] 1 Peter 1:15-16
[6] Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5, 2 Timothy 1:9
[7] Romans 7:14-25.
[8] Matthew 7:21-23
[9] Romans 12:9, 1 Peter 2:1, James 3:17, most of Matthew 23, and on and on….