Tag Archives: God

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 gone 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….

Ex Nihilo

Hubble Telescope - Cluster of massive stars in Tarantula Nebula
Hubble Telescope – Cluster of massive stars in Tarantula Nebula

When we speak of God’s act of creation, we speak of “ex nihilo” creation. If you’re Latin’s a little rusty, “ex nihilo” means “out of nothing”; so we are talking about God creating the universe out of nothing. But is that just nonsense? What about the idea that “out of nothing, nothing comes”? You might remember Julie Andrews singing something similar in The Sound of Music, (“…Nothing comes from nothing / Nothing ever could…”), but that’s actually a much older idea that dates back to the ancient Greeks, who believed in an eternal universe. Were they right? Let’s investigate that.

There are some prerequisite propositions that need to be understood. We propose first that God exists “necessarily”, and second, that nothing else does. This then requires creation out of nothing. What do these propositions mean, and what warrant do we have for them? Necessary existence means that God is not contingent, that there is no possible time or place, no “possible world” or alternate dimension, where God does not exist. Even in a scenario where there were no universe, God would still exist. You and I, however, are contingent. The world was moving along fine before we arrived and will keep right on going long after we’re gone. In fact, all of humanity – all of life – is contingent. On this, Christians and atheists can agree. While we claim to know how life first arose (based on the revelation from God, the author of life, in the Bible), atheists continue to search for a naturalistic mechanism to explain abiogenesis (life arising from nonlife). So we agree that life didn’t always exist. But matter, energy, space, and time are a different story.

That brings us to our second proposition: there can only be one necessary existence, whether that’s a being, or a force, or an object. Everything else is contingent on that one, whether directly or indirectly through a long chain of dependencies. If a second something could necessarily exist, then the first necessary existence wouldn’t really be… well, necessary. For both the Christian and the atheist, there is ultimately no escape from the Law of Causality. Cause and effect invariably has to lead back to a necessary, uncaused first cause – that is, something without beginning, or eternal. For everything that has a beginning must have a cause. For the Christian, that first cause is obviously God. God has power, knowledge, the ability to choose, and transcends space and time. God is therefore easily eligible to be considered a first cause.

For the atheist, however, there are some serious complications. If “out of nothing, nothing comes,” then something has to be eternal. Before the Big Bang was proposed, this was assumed to be the universe. But now we have roughly a century of scientific confirmation that the universe can’t fulfill that role.  Whatever your thoughts on the Big Bang theory and the age of the universe currently assigned to it, one thing it won’t let us say is that the universe is static, and therefore eternal. The universe is a material thing – planets, comets, asteroids, stars, interstellar dust, and so forth. These things exist in space and time. But now we understand that space and time are tied together and both had a definite beginning point. It’s not that matter came into existence in an eternal empty universe; it’s that there was no space for matter to occupy until that singularity called the Big Bang (or Creation).  It’s hard to have a materialistic origin of the universe when it’s impossible for material to exist. More recent attempts to postulate a “multiverse” of universes are ultimately only semantics that simply kick the proverbial can down the road. Likewise, appeals to matter coming into existence from “fluctuations in quantum vacuum fields” assume there is still some space for these fields to exist, but at the origin of the universe, space doesn’t exist yet.

Despite the varied confirmations that the universe had a beginning at some kind of singularity, scientists have struggled to postulate a purely materialistic origin scenario for that singularity. The laws of physics appear to break down at that point. Any potential traces of prior material existence (like a cyclical universe) are completely obliterated in the singularity. Even if a purely natural origin of the universe were true, it could never be scientifically proven because there’s no way to observe any evidence of what led up to that moment. This puts the atheist in the awkward position of having to trust in the hope that science will “someday” find evidence for what appears to be an untestable, unfalsifiable  gamble against God as Creator. This sounds like the “blind faith” that atheists often accuse Christians of having….

But what of the alternative? Does God, as described in the Bible, match what we see in nature? We see from science that time and space had to be caused by something outside of time and space. The Bible tells us that God is both immaterial and eternal.[1] Science tells us that time and space both had a beginning. The Bible tells us that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”[2] Why does it just say “in the beginning”? Because time did not exist prior to that; it really was the beginning of time. So, can something come from nothing? Yes, science points us to this conclusion as the time-space continuum comes into existence at the cosmic singularity commonly known as the Big Bang. The Bible tells us that God is He who “calls into being that which does not exist.“[3] The critical distinction here is that while something can come into existence from nothing, it can’t come into existence by nothing. Everything that has a beginning must have a cause, including the universe. And the only answer that makes sense of what we observe is God.


[1] John 4:24, NASB; Titus 1:2, NIV.
[2] Genesis 1:1, NASB.
[3] Romans 4:17, NASB.

The Problem of Earthquakes

1999 Earthquake in Izmit, Turkey.  Photo Credit: USGS
1999 Earthquake in Izmit, Turkey. Photo Credit: USGS

The problem of evil or suffering in the world has often been used by atheists to attack the idea of the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God. Yet, much of the suffering in our world can be traced back to causes related to our free choices as humans. Even natural effects like birth defects in an area might be tied to hazardous waste deliberately covered up in the community, drug use by the mother during pregnancy, or to the use of lead-based paints in an older house, for example. In the first 2 cases we see the suffering was the result of malicious (or at least irresponsible) human activity, while the last one highlights our woefully finite knowledge of the future effects of our actions.

But the skeptic can turn to natural disasters and say that if God exists, these can surely be blamed on Him. We even tend to call them “acts of God” in our insurance policies. If He is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and desires the good of His creation, then surely He has either directly caused these horrible disasters, or known they were going to happen and refused to stop them. The skeptical reasoning then goes that either God is not good, or He is unable to stop these events (and therefore not worthy of being called “God”), or He simply doesn’t exist. It’s hard to see the misery and suffering in the wake of something like the Haitian earthquake of 2010 (magnitude 7.0 – 220,000 dead), or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (caused by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake – 230,000 dead), and not ask “Why?” But while I would agree with the skeptic that this is a legitimate question to ask, I propose an alternative response: that even as awful as things like earthquakes can be, they are actually a necessary part of human existence. Allow me to explain.

I’ve seen occasional comments about the role of plate tectonics (the process that results in earthquakes) in making earth suitable for life for a few years now (like in the 2004 book “Origins of Life” by Dr. Fazale Rana & Dr. Hugh Ross, both Christians), but the always thought-provoking blogger Wintery Knight recently shared 2 non-Christian sources that had come to similar conclusions. One was a 2013 Forbes.com interview with atheist paleontologist Peter Ward regarding his and agnostic astronomer Donald Brownlee’s view on the potential for life on planets outside our solar system. They had written on this in their book Rare Earth back in 2000. In the interview, Ward is asked about the common appeal to the sheer number of extra-solar planets as statistical evidence for life having formed elsewhere in the universe. He responds that “Without plate tectonics, we might have microbes but we’d never get to animals.” Tilman Spohn, director of the German Space Research Centre Institute of Planetary Research, also views plate tectonics as likely being essential to the existence of complex life on any planet. In 2009, he pointed NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine readers to plate tectonics’ role in 1) the formation of granite, a necessary element in forming continents, 2) the replenishment of key elements essential for life chemistry as we know it, 3) the generation of the earth’s protective magnetic field through formation of convection currents in the molten core, and 4) the recycling of carbon to regulate temperature on the planet. On that last item, it’s worth mentioning, with all of the concern over the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and mankind’s “carbon footprint” over the last few years, that 80% of the natural capture of greenhouse gases is accomplished through plate tectonics as carbon is captured in freshly exposed silicates that are eroded and pushed under the tectonic plates to be recycled in the earth’s mantle. The other 20% is sequestered by plants and animals storing carbon in their bodies, dying, being buried, and eventually being turned into deposits of hydrocarbons (i.e. “fossil fuels”).[1]

Now what is interesting about these proposals is the significance plate tectonics is having in whether non-Christian scientists view a potential alien planet as even capable of supporting life. It seems that as we learn more about the role of tectonic activity in our own world, it becomes increasingly unlikely that simply being in a “habitable zone” of a distant star is enough. Thus, despite the odds put forward of “700 quintillion” exoplanets throughout the universe, and statistically, some other planet surely having evolved life of similar complexity to us, it simply can’t happen without the earthquakes we fear and despise. Instead of being an indication of a cruel, uncaring, or nonexistent god, we are beginning to see that these earthquakes that inflict so much suffering are actually a part of a very special (and so far, entirely unique) habitat that appears to be especially designed to allow our overall flourishing.  Rather than evolutionary chance causing life on earth and potentially other worlds, what we keep running into is very deliberate, precise, design of systems of complex interacting systems indicative of an omniscient and omnipotent Creator.

Lastly, as an engineer, I’d like to point out that the extreme loss of life in the 2 earthquakes cited above should be compared with that in some other significant quakes. Chile has endured earthquakes like few countries in the world, including the largest earthquake ever recorded. But they have also worked hard to develop seismic-resistant buildings. The magnitude 9.5 Valdivia earthquake of May 22, 1960, the largest magnitude ever recorded, killed less than 6,000 people. Chile’s magnitude 8.8  quake in 2010  occurred only a month after the Haitian quake, and was roughly 500 times more powerful, yet less than 600 people died in Chile. Less than 20 people died in the magnitude 8.3 quake in 2015. In the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, the 2nd largest ever recorded at magnitude 9.2, 139 people died. Even the devastating 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan in 2011 killed less than one-tenth of the people that the 7.0 Haitian quake did. While earthquakes are serious business anywhere, their effects can be mitigated. It is good to remember that while these appear to actually be essential to the existence of life on Earth, they are also something we can design for. The experience of the Chileans, the Japanese, and Americans has shown that these major components of our planet’s lifecycle don’t have to be an obstacle to belief in God, for He has also given us the minds to work around these events, and the resources to implement those plans and prevent the suffering so often cited as “evidence” against God’s goodness. In fact, maybe the suffering caused by earthquakes is not so much evidence of God’s inadequacy, as it is our own, in our lack of cooperative development of disaster-resistant construction around the world.


[1] Hugh Ross & Fazale Rana, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2004), p. 215.

You’re So Vain

freeimages.com/livingos“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you…”

Carly Simon may not have had in mind the exclusivity of truth claims when she wrote those lyrics back in the 70’s, but that charge of vanity is also sometimes leveled at anyone who claims to be “right” about something, especially in the realm of morality. I read an opinion online recently that any one religion feeling their beliefs are superior to another is “egocentric and self-centered”. But it’s only egocentric and self-centered if all views are equal. If, for instance, Jews were actually correct that Jesus was not God incarnate, but only a blasphemous rabbi, or if the Muslims were actually correct that Jesus was a prophet and nothing more, then I would not say they were egocentric for saying they were right and I was wrong. On the contrary, their statement would then be rooted not in themselves, but in the objective truth that Jesus wasn’t really God (assuming for the sake of argument that was correct). This is actually the opposite of egocentrism and self-centeredness because the nature of objective truth means that we can be genuinely right or wrong based on the object we make a statement about, not our subjective opinion of the object. This is really other-centered rather than self-centered.

In fact, it’s the relativist worldview that is egocentric, as it seeks to define truth relative to one’s own standard. But some things really are independent of any standard we invent. Think of it this way: suppose I were color-blind and about to eat poison fruit that looked identical to a certain edible fruit except for the critical detail that they are the 2 colors I can’t differentiate. Should you, coming up to me right before I take the fatal bite (not being color-blind and knowing the danger I was in), refrain from telling me the truth for fear of appearing self-centered? No! First off, that would be selfless of you to try to warn me of the danger I was in. But I also wouldn’t call you self-centered because your warning was not simply your own personal opinion, but rather your awareness of the objective toxicity of the fruit. It’s poisonous whether or not either of us are aware of it, and whether or not either of us do anything with that knowledge. Regardless of whether I think the poison fruit will kill me, I’d still be dead in the morning.

Likewise, there’s another poison called sin that is killing each and every person on this planet, and there’s only one cure: Jesus Christ. It’s not self-centeredness, but rather selfless love,  that motivates (or at least should motivate) Christians to try to warn people of the danger they’re in. “But”, you might ask, “don’t other religions think they are helping people just as much with their proselytizing, too?” Yes, I would say they probably do, and they are probably very sincere in those efforts. But that is precisely where objective truth comes into play. Being sincerely wrong doesn’t alter the consequences of our choices. And so it’s not vain or self-centered for the Christian to believe they’re right and others are wrong if their beliefs are grounded in the unchanging standard of God’s truth instead of their own opinions.

Some would accept that truth is conformance to reality, but then say that only applies to description, not prescription. In other words, moral values prescribing what is right and wrong are allegedly outside the scope of objective truth because these aren’t statements about “real” physical objects that can therefore conform to reality. Yet the same unchanging God who made all of our physical reality also prescribed certain behaviors as right and others as wrong, whether we agree with them or not. And if reality is that which exists, then if these laws have been decreed by God, and so exist, then morality is simply part of the non-physical portion of reality. Just as descriptions of the natural world will be truthful when they conform to physical (or natural) reality, behavioral prescriptions will also be true when they conform to that non-physical (or supernatural) reality.

In the general revelation of nature and the special revelation of the Bible, we have a unified message from the Author of all of reality. And our understanding of both nature and morality need to be rooted in God’s truth if we don’t want to be tossed about by every new wave of ideology that comes across the bow as we sail the seas of this life. Rather than self-centered vanity, this is a most humble reliance and focus on our Creator as the only transcendent source of Truth.

The Challenge of a False Dilemma, Part 2

Decisions_smallIn last week’s post (here), we looked at how to tell if a dilemma before you is legitimate or not. This week, let’s apply that training in logic to a classic case, the Epicurean Dilemma. This is a series of questions regarding the goodness of God allegedly proposed by Epicurus in the 3rd century BC to show that God could not be omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-good or all-loving) if evil exists.[1]

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

The 4 questions have 2 base assumptions: 1)  omnipotence and omnibenevolence are required attributes of God, and 2) Evil exists. The first, depending on the definition of the terms, is in accord with traditional lists of attributes of God accepted by theists.[2] The second is reasonable given our observations of the world around us – just look at the news headlines and you’ll find abundant evidence of the existence of evil.  The horns of the dilemma then form a choice between:

A) God, if He exists, does not meet the “minimum job qualifications”, or
B) evil doesn’t exist.

Since evil is so readily apparent, “Whence cometh evil?”is a rhetorical question attempting to make the simultaneous existence of a good God and a world of evil an absurdity, and to steer us to accepting choice A. How then should we respond?

Actually, once we clearly define the terms, we’ll see that 3 of the 4 questions fall away, and the remaining has a reasonable answer. Let’s start with clarifying what we mean by these terms:

  • Omnipotence means having unlimited power to do whatever is possible. God cannot make square circles or stones so heavy He couldn’t move them. These are logical contradictions, and God cannot do what is contradictory.[3]
  • Omnibenevolence refers to God’s “infinite or unlimited goodness”, or His love for all.[4]
  • To love is “to will the good of its object”.[4]
  • Evil may be defined as a deprivation of some good that ought to be there; not a substance in itself, or a mere negation of substance, but a corruption of the good substances God made; analogous to rust on a car or rot in a tree.[5]
  • Free will is simply the ability to choose between alternative possibilities.

With clearly defined terms, we can now examine the argument. Though not mentioned in the dilemma, God has free will, which governs the use of His omnipotence. So then, just because God can do something, doesn’t mean He must. While His power to do anything possible is unlimited, His use of that power is limited by His will and His love. He could overwhelm us, and force us to only do what is right, but He doesn’t because of His love for us. Instead, He desires our freely-given love in return, since forced love isn’t really love at all. And so we have been created  with free will, able to choose to love or hate, to obey or rebel, to build up or destroy. This is where we start to see the nature of the false dilemma: the “problem of evil” really isn’t a choice between either God’s omnipotence or His omnibenevolence. It must factor in free will, both of God and man, and this actually answers the question “Whence cometh evil?” As Norman Geisler has highlighted, “God is responsible for making evil possible, but free creatures are responsible for making it actual.”[6] Free will is that two-edged sword that allows moral good and evil.

People often ask why God couldn’t simply eliminate all the evil in the world. But how many of us stop to think that if He did that, He just might start with me? We like to think other people are always the problem, or that He would take out the Hitlers of the world (and, you know,  maybe the guy that cut me off in traffic last week), but not sweet little me! Yet none of us are perfect, and perfection is the standard. Then, if we got our wish that a perfectly just God eliminate all the evil in the world, would any of us survive?

So is He able to prevent evil? Yes. He could make us all robots without the ability to disobey (but also unable to obey out of love). He could potentially give us “free will” but take away any bad choice that we were about to choose. Is that really freedom when the game is rigged like that? Is it really love when there’s actually no other possible option? He could potentially make every bad choice somehow have only good results, but (if possible) this seems to eliminate any concept of moral responsibility for our actions. I could go out and kill people knowing that God would simply follow behind me resurrecting them on the fly (or some other compensatory act). Is He willing to prevent evil? Yes, but not at the expense of free will that makes a morally good world possible.

We can therefore “escape between the horns” by showing how free will allows a third option that reconciles God’s attributes and the presence of evil in the world, or we can “take the dilemma by the horns”, by showing that the premises are false because of an unclear definition of the term “omnipotent”. In the end, God is willing and able to prevent evil, but it’s for our own good that He restrains His power and grants us the freedom that so often sadly results in the evil we observe.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil#Epicurus, accessed 10/17/2015.
[2] See Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume, (Bethany House Publishers, Bloomington, MN, 2011), p. 410 for a longer list of attributes.
[3] ibid, p. 487-8 (see also Hebrews 6:18, 2 Timothy 2:13, & Titus 1:2, NASB).
[4] ibid, p. 585.
[5] “Evil, Problem of”, in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norman Geisler, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2000, 5th Printing), p. 220. Condensed for brevity.
[6] ibid, p. 219.

The Logic of God

God Separates the Light and the Darkness - Michaelangelo - 1512
God Separates the Light and the Darkness – Michelangelo – 1512

In previous posts (here and here), I’ve written about the need for a clear understanding of logic to separate good and bad thinking. I’ve highlighted the fundamental laws of logic: the Law of Identity (A is A), the Law of Non-contradiction (A is not non-A), and the Law of the Excluded Middle (either A or non-A). These are so fundamental to basic thought, it’s easy to not think about them. Yet remembering these basic, self-evident truths can keep you from falling victim to  some surprisingly common mistakes in this age of relativism. Sadly, some Christians have tried to distance themselves from logic, thinking that “God is above logic”. On the contrary, the Bible reveals in its descriptions of God a rich exposition of these truths that shows that logic is part of God’s very nature.

Consider the Law of Identity. Commonly formulated as A=A, this demonstrates why these are called “self-evident” truths – you recognize the truth of it as soon as you see it. There is no proof of this because this is one of your basic building blocks of thought that you can’t break down any lower. Something simply is what it is. How is this demonstrated in Scripture? In the book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses, telling him to go and rescue the Jews enslaved in Egypt. Moses worries that the Jews, who have lived in the polytheistic Egyptian culture for centuries by this point, won’t believe him when he tells them that “the God of your fathers has sent me to you.” He supposes they may ask “What is His name?”, and asks God how he is to answer. God responds with “I Am Who I Am. Tell them ‘I Am has sent me to you.'”[1] This expression of independent, self-existent being is the epitome of the Law of Identity. We can all be identified in relation to someone else. A man may be his father’s son, or his sibling’s brother. There may be hundreds of Johns in a city, tens of John Smiths, only 2 that live on the same street, but only one John Smith Jr on that street. But here, God shows that His name can only relate Him to Himself. He is truly in a category by Himself. And we understand this by the Law of Identity.

Let’s look at the Law of Non-contradiction now. There are several different ways of expressing this, but in general, something cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same manner. Similarly, something can’t both exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. How is this demonstrated in the Bible? The apostle John records Jesus saying that “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.  The book of Hebrews tells us that “it is impossible for God to lie”, and the apostle Paul tells Titus that God “does not lie” and Timothy that “He cannot deny Himself”.[2] Why is this important? Because logic seeks after the truth, and the opposite of truth is a lie. A lie can also be defined as a contradiction, for truth corresponds with reality, while a lie contradicts reality (a contradiction, from the Latin “contra” + “dictio” literally “speaks against itself”). So here we see that because God cannot lie, He cannot violate the Law of Non-contradiction.

The Law of Excluded Middle says that something either is or isn’t, true or false, on or off. There is no middle option between contradictory states. There are times when we may have a spectrum of choices, like when the gas tank is empty, or full, or somewhere in between. The Law of the Excluded Middle comes into play when the choice is between true opposites where one choice is the negation of the other, Instead of “empty” and “full”, the choice is between empty and not-empty, or between full and not-full. God either exists or He doesn’t. Our own belief, unbelief, or agnosticism does nothing to change that objective status. The apostle John tells us that “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.”[3] It’s either all or nothing.He either exists as morally perfect, without blemish, or not at all.

Now, is all of this to say that God is somehow limited by some man-made rules? Hardly. The laws of logic aren’t made, but discovered. Logic is the lens through which we look to make sense of reality, and it makes sense of reality because it is founded in the nature of the Creator of reality. Rather than limiting God, logic gives us a glimpse of His nature.


[1] Exodus 3:14, NASB.
[2] Hebrews 6:18, 2 Timothy 2:13, Titus 1:2, NASB.
[3] 1 John 1:5, NASB.
[4] D.Q. McInerny, Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, (Random House, 2005), p. 25-30. Though not quoted directly, this short, concise summary of basic logic provided much of the background on the laws of logic referenced here.