Tag Archives: God

Steel Day 2018

Leslie Robertson

I’m always thinking about potential topics for future posts, but sometimes I don’t have to go looking for topics – the topics find me. Such was the case when I was watching the preview release of the AISC documentary “Leaning Out”. This was one of those rare situations where I could get continuing education credit for my engineering licensure while watching something that would be of general interest to non-engineers as well. Produced by the American Institute of Steel Construction to commemorate their 10th annual “Steel Day”, this excellent documentary combined a review of the history of the design and construction of the World Trade Center in NYC with a biography of its lead structural engineer, Leslie E. Robertson. Perhaps you’re wondering what this has to do with defending Christianity. Well… let’s work through that today.

In the documentary, Robertson shares that he enlisted in the Navy at age 16 to serve in WWII, where he saw 3 buddies killed. After the war, he became a pacifist, and campaigned against war and the proliferation of nuclear arms. But then he mentions that, after seeing his buddies killed, he could never believe in a benevolent God. That was a bit unexpected in an engineering documentary, but traumatic experiences can leave lasting impacts on us, as that experience did for him. Seeing your friends die is awful, whether in war (where it has to be at least somewhat expected given the fact that each side is actively trying to kill the other), or in the many ways lives are lost every day in the civilian world. What grieves me, though, is the lasting blinding effect on this otherwise brilliant designer, and knowing there are dire, eternal consequences for him that need not be. Spending the next 70+ years since WWII rejecting God, and facing an eternity separated from his Creator should have never resulted from the loss of his friends, thus making a tragic event much worse. But what of his reasoning, that a benevolent God would not let his friends die?

I don’t know if he’s really thought through what God “not letting his friends die” would entail. Should God alter the thoughts of enemy soldiers so they never target them? Should He miraculously alter the trajectory of incoming shells, or make bullets bounce off his friends? Not to be irreverent about the death of his friends, but saying a good God wouldn’t let your friends die, and acknowledging what that would entail, are two different things. I’m sure, like most engineers, Robertson has had a critic or two say he should’ve done things differently on a project. In fact, he did take some unwarranted criticisms after September 11th from people looking for anyone to blame for the deaths of their loved ones in the collapse of the towers. Yet he would be completely justified in saying that those people didn’t understand the extreme detail and care he poured into that design.  Could they have done any better if they were in the same situation? I think not. Yet, sadly, that is exactly what he is doing to God when he says God shouldn’t have let things happen the way they did. I have a lot of respect for him as a brilliant engineer, but he’s keeping a double standard when he defends his own designs, but doesn’t allow that God might have His own reasons as well.

Robertson’s very ability to reject God like he has is proof that the presence of evil or suffering is not an adequate reason to reject God. Free will, the ability to choose between alternative options, is a gift from God. He could’ve easily made us like robots, repeating “I love you, Lord” when programmed to do so, and singing His praises when He hit our “Play” button. But forced love isn’t really love, is it? Instead, God gave us the option to truly love Him, which also means the potential to truly reject Him. And, sadly, free will brings other consequences as well. We can freely love our fellow humans, or freely do them harm, even killing them, just as Robertson’s friends were killed. Nevertheless, the fact that He’s given us this capacity to choose between good and evil, and the all-too-observable fact that we often choose evil, does nothing to negate either God’s power, goodness, or ultimate existence. Tragedies like what Leslie Robertson witnessed don’t cause me to doubt the goodness of God, but rather the goodness of man.

Robertson’s rejection of God mirrors the old reasoning of Epicurus, which assumed God’s benevolence is in opposition to His power. For instance, “If He’s omni-benevolent, He isn’t omnipotent, because He didn’t prevent situation X from happening; or if He’s omnipotent, He isn’t omni-benevolent, because He still didn’t prevent situation X from happening.” God not acting the way we want Him to act is seen as either a sign of powerlessness to change the situation, or apathy regarding it. But this is to ignore the fact that God is a free agent. He’s not a force of nature, like gravity, which must act a certain way under certain circumstances. Just because God has the power to do something doesn’t mean He has to, or even that He should. It is entirely possible that God has other priorities than we do, and, given our very finite minds and His omniscience, it’s rather likely that His priorities are sorted out better than ours. If this has been a sticking point for you like it has for Mr. Robertson, I urge you – plead with you – to not let this issue keep you from being reconciled with your loving Creator.

“Who Made God?”, Part 2

Richard DawkinsLast week, we looked at how famed British atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell objected to God by asking the question “Who made God?” Then we saw why this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God, and actually does nothing to invalidate the concept of God. But Russell wasn’t the only one to get stuck on that question. So, this week, I’d like to review Richard Dawkins’ similar objection. Let’s work through that today by jumping straight into the relevant quotes from Richard’s book “The God Delusion”.

“The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us escape.”[1]

“Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/herself/itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe [a plant Dawkins was using as an example] (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance…. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer?” [2]

“In any case, even though genuinely irreducible complexity would wreck Darwin’s theory if it were ever found, who is to say that it wouldn’t wreck the intelligent design theory as well? Indeed, it already has wrecked the intelligent design theory, for, as I keep saying and will say again, however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!” [3]

Dawkins’ fundamental objection here is that he believes God would have to be “complex”, and that this would require a prior cause that leads to an infinite regress, like your kids asking “Why?” after every answer you give.  Now, I see two issues here.

First, he seems to be thinking of God as some kind of cosmic machine. For instance, even a simple plastic gadget might require a very complex, carefully controlled machine to manufacture it. That machine, itself composed of gears and pistons and electronics and whatnot, had to be produced by something prior. The machine’s complexity – i.e. it’s composition of multiple interrelated parts – requires explanation by a prior cause, like another machine that produced the gears, a designer, and so forth.  But the gadget and the machine that produced it are both contingent and not self-existent. Self-existence is what ends the infinite regress that Dawkins stumbles over. Of course, a materialist might opt for a self-existent universe, but even if that were possible, it can’t ever cause anything to change. You might as well wait for your pet rock to do some tricks. That need for a free agent to initiate anything drives us toward God, but that is the one place Dawkins can never let himself be taken.

A second issue is that he confuses the complexity of the brain with the simplicity (or unity) of mind. Hardly surprising for an materialist evolutionary biologist to only see the neurons of the brain at work during design, but this is an important distinction. While mind and brain are typically paired, it is mind that is essential to design. A dead brain perfectly preserved in a jar in the lab will never design anything, even though it is still quite complex. Why is that? Because design necessarily requires 2 things: purpose and choice. These two essential characteristics of design entail 1) a mind to plan out a purpose, and 2) agency to make a choice between competing alternatives so as to achieve that purpose. Therefore, rationality and consciousness are the key attributes of a mind that make design possible. God is immaterial mind, while the brain is a contingent, physical object; it is hardware that can form, develop during our lives, atrophy, and eventually cease to function. While the brain is a complex system of interconnected neurons, all of the aforementioned stages confirm that brains are also contingent; they begin to exist and cease existing at some point. Mind, however, is not complex, but simple. Now, what does it mean to speak of the simplicity of mind (not to be confused with being simple-minded)? Namely this: that mind cannot be subdivided. A mind is simple as opposed to complex; it is a unitary whole not composed of parts. In fact, if Dawkins were to open any of several systematic theology texts [4] and read the opposing side, he would find that “simplicity”, or “unity of being”, or “noncomposition”, or “indivisibility”, has been an attribute of God recognized by Christians for nearly 2000 years. If he were to argue his case for a “complex designer” because he objected to the traditional formulation of divine simplicity, I could be more sympathetic to his objection. But I’ve yet to see any indication that he has even engaged with that issue. So for him to object to God because of his complexity is to object to a god of his own making, and not to the God of Christianity.

 


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p.136.
[2] ibid, pp. 146-7.
[3] ibid. p. 151.
[4] For example:
Geisler (2011), Systematic Theology in One Volume, Chapter 30 – “God’s Pure Actuality and Simplicity”;
Grudem (2000), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Chapter 11 – “Incommunicable Attributes of God”;
Berkhof (1938), Systematic Theology, Part 1, Ch. VI., Section D – “The Unity of God”.
Boyce (1887), Abstract of Systematic Theology, Section 2 – “The Simplicity of God”;
Hodge (1872), Systematic Theology, Vol 2;  Ch. 5, Section 4 – “Spirituality of God”;
Thomas Aquinas, 1274, Summa Theologica, Vol. 1, Question 3 – “Of the Simplicity of God (in 8 Articles)”;

“Who Made God?”, Part 1

Bertrand Russell in 1924

Have you ever heard the objection, “Oh yeah? But who made God?” The answer, of course, is that nobody made God, but this has still been a stumbling block to a lot of people, so let’s work through that today.

Let’s start by looking at this question as famed atheist Bertrand Russell posed it in 1927 in his “Why I Am Not a Christian” speech. Next week, we’ll take a look at Richard Dawkins’ recycling of the question in 2006. First, let’s hear from Russell, considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, in his own words:

“I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography,  and I there found this sentence: ‘My father taught me that the  question, “Who made me?” cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, “Who made God?” ’ That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.”[1]

To speak of God (at least, in the Christian understanding of the title) as needing a cause, is to speak irrationally. That is like asking “Who moved this unmovable object?” Or ” When did this beginningless entity begin to exist?” If the terms are correctly understood, they are understood to be contradictory and the question invalid. For part of being “God” is being eternal and possessing necessary existence (i.e. He always existed, and He has to exist for anything else to exist). If you’re thinking of any entity that could be “made”, you’re simply not thinking of God.

Consider the following scenario. A clever young man gets an idea for a truly useful gadget that everyone will want. He starts making them in his garage, but quickly outgrows that, and soon he is forming a company and building a factory. More hiring, more expanding, and soon the company has grown and has to have several layers of management at multiple factories. Now several years after that humble beginning in a garage, Billy, a new worker at the newest factory is going through employee training. He learns who will be his Line Foreman, and Shift Supervisor, and Department Manager, on up the chain of command until finally, it stops at President and Owner. Now, young Billy raises his hand, and asks, “Who’s his boss?” Nobody… he’s the owner,” comes the answer. But Billy persists, “Yeah, but who appointed him owner?” The trainer responds, “Nobody appointed him owner; he’s the original owner… he founded the company. It wouldn’t even exist without him.”

Now, was the company trainer trying to trick Billy when he said nobody needed to appoint John as president because he founded the company? No, of course not. Founding a company necessarily means you exist before the company you found. But what if the “company” is, instead, all of reality? And the founder is God? His pre-existence means there can be no other entity around to appoint Him or “make” Him, and this stops the infinite regress of the causal chain that concerned Russell.

The fact that people ask “Who made God?” is actually a testament to the self-evident nature of the law of causality; we instinctively recognize the relation of cause and effect and look for it everywhere. But this also demonstrates the common misunderstanding of it that Russell also fell prey to: people tend to think that this principle states that every effect has a cause. If that really were the case, then “Who made God?” might be a legitimate question. But here’s the problem: it’s a sloppy sentence – a shortcut that doesn’t always work. While we can be intellectually sloppy like that in our day-to-day observations, applying any statement universally requires more intellectual rigor. To correct the statement, we need to say, “everything that begins to exist has a cause.” Something without beginning would not require a cause, nor could it have a cause. Russell does acknowledge this as a possibility in the last sentence quoted above, but then assumes that the eternality of the physical world (or universe) is just as adequate an explanation as God, which is his second mistake.

Most people can be excused for thinking “everything must have a cause” because everything we observe did begin to exist at some point, so the shorter wording appears to apply universally; but a philosopher of his stature should not be caught by such careless wording. Granted, he fell for this when he was young, learning it from an author he respected, but to continue to believe that confirms something observed elsewhere about the skeptic: though portrayed as intellectual rejection of God, their reasons are very often emotional or volitional instead [2]. The tragedy here is that John Stuart Mill would come to such a bad conclusion, not seek out a better explanation, promulgate his error, and that it would be picked up by someone like Russell and passed on to succeeding generations. Folks, I don’t mind if you question Christianity, and you’re certainly not going to come up with a question that’s going to stump God; so by all means, test everything and hold on to what’s good, as Paul would say [1Thes 5:21]. But don’t forget to question your skepticism too.


[1] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”, speech delivered 3/6/1927 at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[2] J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity, (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2013), p. 132.  Also online here.

Are You Certain About That?

The Discovery, by Norman Rockwell, 1956

Certainty about something brings a sense of security, but is certainty possible in matters of belief? Skeptics often recoil at the confidence Christians have in knowing that God exists, that the Bible is His message to us, and that His way is the only acceptable way to live. The nerve of those Christians! How arrogant to express such certainty about such things! Can we be “absolutely certain” of things like the existence of God, life after death, and so forth? Or are they like childhood beliefs in Santa Claus that will be seen through inevitably? Let’s work through that today.

To an extent I will grant the skeptic their case against absolute certainty, although probably not for the reason they might hope. True “absolute” certainty is only possible with exhaustive, comprehensive knowledge.[1] However, that is called omniscience, and only God possesses it. Therefore, technically, I would say absolute certainty exists but is impossible for us mere mortals, finite as we are. However, it’s “all in who you know”, as they say, and I would offer that the Christian doesn’t need to possess that ultimate level of certainty because he knows the One who does. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, said, “I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure'” [Is 46:9-10]. I know the Writer of this grand play, so whether or not I know how the next scene will unfold, I can be certain of how it ends (spoiler alert: God wins), and I can rest easy in that knowledge. As Dr. Douglas Groothuis said, “we can live wisely within ignorance if it is bracketed by knowledge.”[2]

Now, I said I would grant the skeptics their rejection of absolute human certainty, but does this mean that I don’t think Christians can be “certain” about the One whom they have staked their life on? Hardly. Absolute certainty comes with complete knowledge, which is God’s alone, but knowledge is something we may possess to varying degrees, just as we may be loving or merciful or holy to a degree, while God possesses all these attributes perfectly. Just because we aren’t perfectly loving like God, doesn’t mean we can’t understand and demonstrate love to a great degree. Likewise, we may have a more than sufficient confidence about various things in life, even if we can never attain absolute certainty. How certain can we be of things? I would suggest that our certainty is proportional to the authority from which we receive our information. For instance, if you were looking for information on finite element analysis for structural design (an interest of mine), and your choices were between me and Edward Wilson, you would hopefully go with Wilson, one of the key figures in the development of that analysis method. You could have far greater certainty in the veracity of his statements than mine given that he really did “write the book” on that now-common method of analysis. You could have more confidence in my statements on the subject the more I referenced legitimate authorities on the subject like him, or demonstrated that my statements matched up with cold, hard reality via testing or logical necessity. The closer we get to legitimate authority on a subject, the closer we get to certainty about it. The closest I can get to absolute certainty in life is when I rely on the all-knowing Author of life itself.

Of course, if it were just a matter of knowledge of data, I could misinterpret the data, just as 2 scientists can look at the same data and interpret it quite differently depending on the assumptions they bring to the table. However, it’s not data we have come to know, but rather a personal, relational Creator who knew us better than we know ourselves before we were even born. And He has set His Holy Spirit in us [Gal 4:6] as a testimony [Rom 8:16], a seal [2Co 1:22], and a pledge [2Co 5:5, Eph 1:14]. This is why the apostle Paul could speak so forcefully when he stated, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.” [2Ti 1:12] This is why John summed up his purpose in writing his first letter thusly: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” [1Jn 5:13] This assurance for the Christian comes not from turning a blind eye to evidence the skeptic thinks contradicts our beliefs, but rather from “Christ in you, the hope of glory” [Col 1:27], and that is a hope that does not disappoint [Rom 5:5] .

Am I absolutely certain that God exists and the Bible is His true revelation of Himself to us, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Due to my finitude, I would say I can’t be absolutely certain of that. But I would also say that I’m far more certain of those things than I am of my sitting here in front of a computer typing these words. I could be in a coma right now dreaming about blogs and office deadlines and commuting and all the other thousand little things in what I consider my daily life, living out my own little version of The Matrix. But even in that extreme case, when all of the external world around me is questionable, I still have the evidence of His Spirit in me, and I still know that God necessarily exists, that His Word endures forever, and that “my Redeemer lives”! And I’ll take that degree of certainty, absolute or not,  over anything else this world has to offer. Blessings, y’all.


[1] h/t to Bruce Waltke, in his lecture series on the Book of Proverbs, featured on www.biblicaltraining.org for this insight. See his lecture, “Hermeneutica Sacra“.
[2] Douglas Groothuis, Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness – A Philosopher’s Lament (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2017), p. 49.

Objections to Worship

Last week’s post was about worship of God “in spirit and truth” as Jesus phrased it. But there is an objection from skeptics to God desiring worship. They say the desire for worship on the part of God, and particularly the command for us to worship Him, is petulant, arrogant, needy, egotistical, and so on. Do they have a case? Let’s work through that today.

The main problem I see with this line of reasoning is that they seem to be objecting to a perceived lack of warrant, or justification, for worship. But this is because the god they object to is too little of a god, so to speak. Like the strawman fallacy, where one creates a caricature of your opponent’s view to pick apart and easily defeat, the skeptic has made a “straw god” to be disgusted with. It would, indeed, be the height of arrogance for a mere man to demand worship as God; no matter how amazing or powerful or smart he was, he would still be, without a doubt, unqualified for that role. But that’s not the God I serve.

  • The God of the Bible is distinctly and uniquely qualified to be worshiped. God is everything we consider to be praiseworthy. For example, we might praise the gracious and persistent love of a parent for their child even when the child rebels and hates the parent; yet God demonstrated His love for us in that He loved us before we could love Him [Rom 5:8,10, 1Jn 4:19]. We might praise the self-sacrifice of the soldier that gives his life to save his comrades; yet Christ gave His life as a sacrifice for all [Rom 5:6-8, 1Jn 4:10]. We might praise the judge who stands up against a corrupt system and refuses to be bought off with bribes, but rather punishes the guilty and releases the innocent that was unjustly charged; yet God is perfectly just [Deut 10:17, Ro 2:11]. He is all of these things and more, to the nth degree. Does this mean that God is subservient to independent behavioral standards then? On the contrary, we have these ideas of exemplary moral conduct because they are grounded in the unchanging nature of God.
  • All others are not qualified to receive worship. Some skeptics charge that demanding worship is indicative of the most unpraiseworthy of humans: megalomaniacs, malevolent dictators, psychopaths and so on. So why would we consider that behavior good when God demonstrates it? I would simply note that we are repulsed by humans craving worship because we recognize they are all unworthy of being worshiped, whether they desire it or not. They are not actually omnipotent, omniscient, or even the greatest thing since sliced bread. In attempting to lay claim to something they have no right to, they seek to steal glory from God.
  • God has the right to worship. If some stranger walked up to you and demanded that you salute them when they approached, you might reasonably take offense at that assumption of superiority on their part. But suppose you are a soldier in your nation’s military, in uniform, on duty at your base, and the stranger approaching you was the base commander. Even if you don’t know him personally or even recognize him, the symbols of far higher rank on his uniform mean that he has the right to your respect and your obedience. And if you do recognize him and just don’t like him, that doesn’t really matter. You are still obligated to salute because of his position of authority over you. Of course, you don’t have to salute; but you should probably expect to pay the consequences if you don’t. The skeptic objecting to God’s command to worship Him is treating God like the random stranger walking up and making the same demands – “How rude! Who do you think you are?” But God isn’t a random peer – He is our Creator, and He is sovereign over us, like it or not. You can object to His authority. You can refuse to respect, honor, glorify, and love Him – even though these would be the only reasonable responses if you understood who He was and what He’s done – but there are consequences to that choice.
  • Lastly, praising God and worshiping Him is simply acknowledging what is true. Truth is correspondence with reality, and if God really is loving, merciful, just, holy, sovereign – and if we desire to be truthful – then it is only right that we acknowledge those statements about God.

Gary Parrett described worship as our faithful response to God’s gracious revelation. His revealing of Himself to us warrants the response we call worship, whether that take the form of trembling, reverential awe, or exuberant, joyful praise, or deeply quiet gratitude, or simple, obedient service. If you’re a skeptic, don’t miss out on being reconciled with your Creator, the one and only King of all, because you objected to a little god that was only a pretender to the throne.

Worship in Truth

“Jesus and the Samaritan Woman”, by Gustav Dore, 19th c.

A woman inquired of Jesus about the proper place to worship: was it the temple in Jerusalem, or Mount Gerazim where her people worshiped? This raises the larger question of what’s actually important in this activity of worshiping God. Does location matter? Time? What about form of worship? In His reply to her one issue, Jesus answered the bigger issue when He told her to worship “in spirit and in truth”, for those are the worshipers God seeks [Jn 4:23-24].  But what does that mean? Let’s work through that today.

First, Nelson’s Bible Dictionary defines worship as “the supreme honor or veneration given either in thought or deed to a person or thing.”[1] However, while it can be directed to anything or anyone, only God is actually worthy of worship. Let’s look at 5 distinctives of Christian worship.

  • We must worship “in spirit” because God is spirit; that is, He is immaterial. And He has created us humans with a spirit as well. We are far more than the sum of our physical body components. Our worship can not be reduced to simply chemical reactions or physical responses to stimuli. There is a relational interaction between our spirit and the Spirit of God that transcends location or language or communication skills. Reverend Watkins writes in Ellicott’s Commentary that “The yearning of the human spirit is that of a child seeking the author of his being.”[2]  As Grudem points out, “genuine worship is not something that is self-generated or that can be worked up within ourselves. It must rather be the outpouring of our hearts in response to a realization of who God is.”[3]
  • While there is a mystical, spiritual component to our worship that may be expressed in a variety of ways, Christian worship is worship “in truth”. Therefore, it is also strongly propositional. It makes informative statements. It is not just some wishy-washy, make-it-up-as-you-go “spirituality” popular among many these days, but rather objective statements about God’s attributes, His actions in the world, and His work in the lives of His people. When we sing “Up from the grave He arose!”, we are making definite objective statements about Jesus’ actions in history. When we sing “Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!”, we are making objective statements about His nature. There’s no room for “true for you but not for me” relativism in Christian worship.
  • Worship “in truth” has real content. If your worship consists of making animal noises, I would argue that you’re not really worshiping.  Or if your worship is only an emotional high, barely distinguishable from the feelings at Saturday night’s concert other than it’s on Sunday morning, I would encourage you to look a little deeper. Emotions are good, but Christian worship grounds those emotions in solid truth. There’s a saying that “We sing our theology”, and that should give us pause. In light of that, the Christian should always examine the words they sing to verify that they are truthful and correspond to what we know of God.
  • Worship “in truth” will correspond to who God is, for truth is correspondence to reality. Ellicott’s commentary on those verses in John says, “Worship which is ‘in truth’ is in harmony with the nature of the God whom we worship.”[2] Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament likewise says of this passage, “To worship in truth is not merely to worship in sincerity, but with a worship corresponding to the nature of its object.”[4] The Expositor’s Greek Testament adds that worship “is to be ἐν ἀληθείᾳ {en aletheia} – in correspondence with reality.”[5] In other words, we worship God as all-knowing, all-powerful, sovereign, and holy because He actually possesses those attributes. We don’t worship God as the sum total of the universe (pantheism) or as the Force from Star Wars (panentheism), because those propositions – those truth claims – do not correspond to reality.
  • Lastly, worship “in truth” should be free from hypocrisy. After all, hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another, which is the total opposite of corresponding to reality.

In summary, Christian worship is honoring God with our heart, soul, strength and mind, recognizing who He is, and responding appropriately. It is not limited by time or place, or status of the worshiper, or style of worship. It must be offered honestly and sincerely, not by rote, as a spiritual service to God and not to please man. For that is what God desires of us, and only that will ultimately satisfy creatures created to glorify God.


[1] “Worship”, Nelson’s Foundational Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004).
[2] John 4:23, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, ed. Charles John Ellicott (London: Cassell & Co., 1905). Section on the Gospel of John authored by the Reverend H.W. Watkins.
[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 1011.
[4] Marvin Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (NY: Scribner, 1887).
[5] John 4:23, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. Rev. W. Robertson Nicoll (NY: George H. Doran Co, 1897). Section on the Gospel of John authored by Marcus Dods.

A Dangerous Perception

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

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

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

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

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

Sharpen Your Pencil

Photo Credit: freeimages.com/Beate W

“Let me sharpen my pencil and see if we can’t make that beam size work with the extra load the owner wants.” What does sharpening pencils have to do with designing beams? That’s simply an old expression in engineering regarding the need for greater accuracy in some particularly critical calculations. We tend to use a lot of approximations and rules of thumb that we know are not exact but will err on the side of caution. While a safe design is our duty to the public; a safe design produced in a timely manner makes for happy clients and keeps us in business. But sometimes, those typical procedures and quick approximations result in a design that doesn’t meet some project requirement. And while computers have replaced nomographs and graphical analysis methods – and the need to keep a sharp point on one’s pencil to get a more accurate result – we still use that expression to signify when the situation warrants a more detailed design. Back in the days of solving something by drawing similar triangles, the method – pencil and paper and straightedge – was often the limiting factor on our accuracy. Now, computerized methods allow us to be as accurate as we could ever need, so sharpening the pencil now is more about our assumptions. Did I assume a higher typical load than what is actually present on the current project? Did I use a simpler formula that doesn’t account for various load reductions or strength increases that actually could be applied to my current project? However, sometimes, in sharpening the pencil and wading into the details, we find that a particular situation isn’t quite as similar to past projects as we thought, and our assumptions we thought were conservative are actually overlooking critical factors. And that’s an issue I see outside of engineering as well.

One’s eternal fate is of critical importance. No one is promised their next breath, so where you’ll be a few minutes after your last breath, whenever it comes, is not something you want to miscalculate. What assumptions are you making that you need to revisit?

  • “The idea of God is outdated stone-age superstition and simply unnecessary now.”  Regardless of how old the idea of God is, that doesn’t make it unnecessary. We still need an explanation for the world around us, and scientific observation can only go so far. You can scientifically measure water boiling all day long and precisely explain how it’s boiling, and never explain why it’s boiling if you’re unwilling to admit that somebody put the kettle of water on the stove and turned it on.
  • “Science will answer everything someday.” The idea that science is the silver bullet to all our problems has a problem of its own: not all questions (and their answers) are scientific in nature. Metaphysical questions about the meaning of life and ethics are on the “ought” side of the ought-is dilemma, outside the scope of science, which can only observe what is, and not how it ought to be.
  • “Science has explained away God.” This idea that explaining the mechanics of our world does away with the need for God is a common assumption today, but this is akin to thinking one has explained the origin of a car by explaining how it works. The scientific method has allowed us to advance our knowledge of the mechanical workings of our world tremendously, but it is useless in a universe not governed by causality and logic. Our universe exhibits an organization that is best explained by a Master Designer. Indeed, modern science was based on the idea that the universe could be investigated and understood because God had created it in an orderly manner conducive to study.
  • “Religion just causes arguments and isn’t worth thinking about.” Maybe you’ve assumed that discussions about religion are just a waste of time and a needless source of feuding. But what’s the real problem there? Is it the subject matter, or the way we discuss it? Maybe civility and sound reasoning are the solution, and not indifference. Suppose you and I have gone for a flight in a mutual friend’s airplane. Beautiful, wide-open countryside passes below his Cessna 182 as we bask in the view. But then our friend passes out at the yoke. Now we are left with a very serious problem: what went up will eventually come down, one way or another. To make matters worse, we have very different ideas of how to fix the problem. But does our disagreement mean we should simply ignore the entire question of how to revive our pilot friend and/or land the plane? No! The problem remains even if we ignore it. In fact, it’s likely getting worse with each passing second. Likewise, the question of whether God exists, what we can know about Him, and what He may want of us are some of the biggest questions we can ask in life. No part of our lives are unaffected by the answers to this issue, and the urgency of finding the answer only grows the more we ignore it.

If any of those initial assumptions described your thoughts on the matter, I’d like to kindly suggest it’s time to sharpen your pencil and work through that problem again, my friend. But “time waits for no man”, and like the ground filling more and more of the Cessna’s windshield,  “the God question” can only be put off for so long before it’s too late.

Dangerous Assumptions

Ever assumed you knew something that turned out to be completely different? I know I have. It doesn’t take long to learn how embarrassing hasty assumptions can be. Yet we still have to make a lot of assumptions in life every day. I have to assume when I go to bed each night that my truck will start in the morning, and I don’t actually need to get up at 2 in the morning and run an ultra-marathon just to get to work on time. A dead truck is a possibility, but practically speaking, my assumption of reliable transportation is a fairly safe assumption given that truck’s history of dependability. In engineering, we have to make a lot of assumptions that can drastically change the results, and we’re expected to be able to judge whether those assumptions are justified or not. Assuming certain vibrational characteristics for a project, only to find out your structure’s resonant frequency actually matches the frequency of the average person’s walking gait, can change a client’s bold, cantilevered office building with a view into a nauseating life of trying to do office work on the end of a diving board. Assuming a connection to be rigid when it’s not, or assuming a high frictional resistance that may or may not be present can completely alter load paths, and divert force into components never designed for it. Assuming a beam is adequately braced when it’s not can change the mode of failure from a nice slow yielding to a sudden lateral-torsional buckling, drastically lowering the safe load on the beam, and possibly resulting in a structural failure. Just like assuming a snake isn’t poisonous, a lot of engineering assumptions can pack a deadly bite.

So what is it about assumptions that can be so disastrous? The issue is how close they are to, or how far they are from, reality. In essence, it’s a matter of how truthful the assumption is, for truth is simply correspondence to reality. If I assume the max unbraced length of a 30 foot long beam is 5 feet and it turns out to be 6 feet, then I’m fairly close to the truth of the matter , and I’ve erred on the side of caution, so my design should do well. If I assume it’s 30′ and I don’t need any bracing at all, then I’m working off a false premise, and I’m flirting with disaster. Sadly, a lot of people are making an even more dangerous assumption every day, many never realizing it until it’s too late.

What is this deadly assumption, you ask? Let’s work through some examples of it and find a common denominator:

  • “God is love, so that means everybody goes to heaven, right?” This assumes a very one-dimensional caricature of God, who is also just and righteous and holy. One could just as easily state, “God is just and we’re all sinners, so that means everybody goes to hell, right?” Or we could see Him as He has revealed Himself to us, and recognize that His love provided a way for us to be reconciled and justified before His perfect unbending justice, but only if we don’t reject it. Thus, some will be saved and some won’t.
  • “I’m a pretty good person, so God surely wouldn’t send me to hell.” This assumes that an absolutely perfect and holy God grades on a curve. We may lower our standards but why assume a perfectly just God would do the same?
  • “I don’t need God to be a good person, and that’s what counts, right? – Leaving the world a little better place than I found it?” This common misconception is based on a relativistic notion of “goodness”. But unless you happen to be the one perfect person in the whole world, good isn’t good enough to meet God’s perfect standard. And besides that, a lot of people throughout history have convinced themselves their heinous actions were actually for the “greater good.” So beware of subjective standards of “goodness”.
  • “I don’t like this God yours, so I’m going to just find one I like better.” My preference often has little to do with reality, and this dangerous assumption makes the mistake of thinking one’s dislike and rejection of God somehow circumvents the need to deal with God’s independent existence (and our potential obligations to Him) on His sovereign terms.
  • “I hadn’t really thought about what happens when I die, but I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end.” When has apathy and sticking one’s head in the sand ever been a good strategy for anything? The person saying this isn’t really sure of anything other than that they don’t want to think about anything that might require them to change course.

There’s a common assumption at the base of all of these statements – that we, as individuals with our finite comprehension, somehow know better than our omniscient Creator how He should’ve done things. It’s the notion that our way – our personal and very subjective way – is the right way, instead of God’s way. Ultimately, it comes back to pride, which, as the Bible wisely warns, “goes before destruction” [Prov 16:18]. So be wise and learn from the mistakes of others, and avoid the eternal consequences of these most dangerous assumptions.

Miracles and Einstein, Part 2

Albert Einstein in 1947

Last week, I went over how Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity were a more comprehensive model of the universe than previous theories, and how a worldview that can acknowledge the possibility of miracles is likewise more comprehensive than the atheistic worldview. Apart from whether God exists or miracles do occur, the worldview that can handle those possibilities without breaking is, all else being equal, the more robust model. Today, I want to conclude that investigation with a look at one of Einstein’s more unique “thought experiments”.

Einstein was famous for his thought experiments, and for good reason. He worked as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, without access to laboratories and expensive equipment to conduct physical experiments. Moreover, some of his ideas were beyond the ability to experimentally verify for years. But throughout his life, Einstein carefully reasoned his way through the implications of different ideas via these thought experiments. He published 4 papers in 1905 (while still a clerk!) that revolutionized  science. Ten years later the world would get his general theory of relativity, and Einstein’s name would become synonymous with genius. Among his though experiments about lightning flashes and clocks and measuring rods on moving trains, he presented an interesting example in his book, Relativity, that I want to look at. To illustrate one implication of his theory of general relativity to the question of whether the universe is infinite or finite, he postulates a world of 2-dimensional “flat” beings living in a  2-dimensional “flat” world with “flat” tools for measuring their world. To the 2-D beings, depth is a foreign concept. Says Einstein, “For them nothing exists outside of this plane: that which they observe to happen to themselves and to their flat ‘things’ is the all-inclusive reality of their plane.” [1]  While he proceeds to build on this to look at the finitude of our universe,  what caught my eye was his point that only what happens in-plane is observable by the 2-D beings. This got me thinking of my own little thought experiment.

Suppose their flat universe is a region contained in a 3-dimensional universe. Maybe their entire existence is contained in a “tabletop universe” in your study. You, being a 3-D being, are able to look down on their universe and observe them in ways they cannot observe their own world.  For them, they might not be able to see past an obstacle in their path, but would have to go around it to see what was on the other side. You can simply see over the obstacle to know whether trouble awaits them on the other side or not. In some sense, you can see how their choices will play out before they can. But what if your relation with their world wasn’t simply limited to observation, but could also include interaction? While they could move and observe things in the x- and y-axes of their world, you would be able to approach them from the z-axis — “out of the blue”, so to speak. With their observations limited to a plane, your interactions with them would surely be mysterious. If you moved an obstacle out of their way, they would be able to see the effect of your interaction, certainly, but the origin of it? Probably not. It might, from their point of view, appear to defy their laws of physics.

Could you communicate with them? Possibly, though maybe not with the sound waves produced by your vocal chords. But you might be able to communicate with them in ways possible in their plane frame of reference. For instance, if they communicated with each other in flashes of colored light, and you wanted to give them a message, you could do so by translating your thoughts into flashing colored light instead of spoken or written words, in order to put your message in their terms. If you really wanted to interact with them in a way they could understand, though, entering their world would be the ultimate move. Of course, this is the stuff of sci-fi stories, but that’s why this is a though experiment, so let’s keep going. Suppose you could transform yourself to a 2-D being like the ones in the tabletop universe. Your interactions and communications with them would be more direct and personal in such a case. They would be able to relate to you better as one of them, rather than simply a mysterious source of messages and the occasional intrusions of solid geometry into their plane geometry world.  Even if you fully understood the limitations of living in a 2-D world beforehand, having endured those constraints yourself would make your interactions with them more meaningful for them.

Now, I’m not saying that spiritual reality is simply a higher physical dimension, or an alternate/parallel dimension, but I do think this analogy can show the plausibility of miracles. The skeptic often claims miracles are impossible, and yet we can think of scenarios where a completely naturalistic system could have events that would appear miraculous to one set of observers in the system. So to the skeptic, I would ask:

  • Is it really that much of a stretch to say that God exists in a way that transcends our observable universe such that He can be “outside” it, but still interact with it?
  • Would it be such a surprise that God might exist in a way that is like nothing else in our frame of reference? The idea of the Trinity, one Being with 3 personal centers of consciousness, is probably as different from our life experience as a 3-dimensional man would be to the 2-dimensional  creatures of Einstein’s thought experiment.
  • Should it be a shock that He could have knowledge of future events in ways we don’t understand? Some see omniscience as equating to deterministic control and negation of our free will, but knowledge of the future is not the same as causation of that future. Now the Bible does leave us with a tension between God’s sovereignty over us and our free will, but I would say this falls into the category of mystery rather than contradiction as some assume.
  • Is it so unbelievable that He would condescend to communicating with us in ways we could comprehend? The Bible records some of the different ways God has communicated with us: by direct speech to Adam and Eve [Ge 3:9], mediated speech through other humans (any of the prophets), inspired writing (like Paul’s epistles), angelic messengers [Lk 1:26-38], visions [Is 6:1-3], dreams [Mt 1:20-21], His Spirit indwelling us and speaking directly to our spirit [Ac 20:22-24], or even speaking through a burning bush [Ex 3:2-4:17] and a donkey [Nb 22:21-39].
  • Lastly, is it impossible that an omnipotent Creator could even enter His creation, taking on our limitations of physical existence and be one of us – “truly God and truly man” as the Creeds would say? That is the miracle of the Incarnation, and the most amazing demonstration of love for us. Some eschew this as arrogance on the part of us measly humans inhabiting this speck of dust in a vast cosmos, to think we are so important. But it’s not about some amazing worthiness on our part that warrants cosmic attention, but rather the amazing, mind-boggling extent of God’s love.

Perhaps, the skeptic’s problem is that they have too small a view of God. They are like the 2-D creature saying that the concept of “depth” is unintelligible and that there is nothing outside their plane. A world beyond their imagination breaks in to our world, and yet it doesn’t fit in their small, simplistic model of how the world works, and so they ignore it. Do you want to be open-minded, a real freethinker? Then free yourself from the constraints of atheism, and be open to the bigger view of reality. But I’ll warn you, when you do that, you’ll discover an added dimension to your world that Christianity best explains. Then you have a choice: do you turn your eyes back down to your flat world, or do you follow the evidence straight to Christ? Choose wisely, my friend.


[1] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special & The General Theory (NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004, original 1920), p. 93.