Tag Archives: Imago Dei

Purpose

Purpose. What is it, and does it matter? Dictionaries will define it as one’s objective, goal, intention, desired result, end, aim, or design. In fact, purpose and choice are the two pillars of design; when you design anything, you make certain choices to achieve a specified purpose. Purposes aren’t always apparent to bystanders. In my own branch of engineering, we assemble very detailed plans and instructions for fabricators and erectors so that a safe structure can be built correctly. Sometimes other trades ignore some aspect of our design because they couldn’t see the purpose in it and assumed it was a mistake. Of course, the safety of the public is always our ultimate purpose and is our first obligation in our code of ethics. But smaller purposes might include maximizing open space in an office building, maximizing resilience in a community tornado shelter, or minimizing cost or weight. But what about purpose in the “big picture” of life in general? Is there a purpose? Can we know it?

If there were a purpose for each of us in life, then not knowing it could certainly make for a frustrating life. Imagine trying to use a tool for a purpose it was never intended, like trying to make a screwdriver work as a hammer in an emergency, and you can see how a person trying to accomplish a purpose for which they are not intended might be frustrated. But how could they know their purpose? Is it just what their skills and attitudes point toward? Is my purpose just to be an engineer? That seems rather arbitrary. After all, people often change occupations throughout their life. Even when they stay in a field their entire career, they often retire at a certain point. Have they lost their purpose in life then? While some may feel that way at the time, I think not.

Does atheism offer any justification for purpose in life? Not really. Under atheism, there is no God to establish any kind of overarching purpose for humans. Under materialism, which typically goes along with atheism, there is nothing beyond the physical: you have no soul, you are simply a collection of atoms brought together by chance processes, only to disintegrate and return to the dust after a few decades on average. Maybe you live a hundred years or so, but death can come at any moment really.  If that’s all life is, why do we all seek purpose in our lives, and often despair without it? What ground is there for actually having purpose in an atheistic universe? I’ve heard atheists say people should be good “for goodness sake”, or for the “flourishing” of humankind. But that rings a bit hollow given atheism. We are insignificant blips in a thoughtless, uncaring universe if atheism is true. Why waste our short time here trying to better the world for present or future generations? Knowledge of your accomplishments beyond your lifetime is the closest thing to immortality that atheism can offer, so a person might find purpose in bringing glory to their name so that people hundreds of years from now would remember their deeds.  But even if you were one of the very small percentage of individuals in human history to be remembered for any length of time, it’s still all for naught, for it does you no good. You die all the same and become … nothing… if atheism is true. And call me cynical, but I’ve seen too many changes in command where someone with a different perspective specifically erases a predecessor’s accomplishments. So all my best efforts, whether done out of compassion or a desire for notoriety, can be rolled back by those who come after me.

Is there an alternative view that fills this seemingly universal desire for purpose in life? I think so. The Bible tells us that God made mankind in His image, or likeness. [Gen 1:26-27] This gives us all an intrinsic value regardless of our social status, intelligence, talents race, gender, or anything else. It also tells us that we were created for His glory. [Is 43:7] This is our purpose. Consequently, no matter what we do, we are to “do all to the glory of God.” [1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:23] God did not have to create humans (or anything else). But He chose to create us, and He lovingly put us in a very hospitable spot in a very hostile universe. God alone is worthy of all glory, or honor, and glorifying Him is our joyful duty. Duty? Yes, it’s our very purpose in life – “the chief end of man” as the Westminster Catechism puts it – but joyful duty! As Jesus said, His burden is light. [Matt 11:28-30] For when you fulfill what you were created for, you can be content and at peace – yes, even joyful – in the good times and the bad.

Whether you are a world leader or starving in a North Korean prison camp, whether on top of the world on Wall Street or down in the deepest, darkest mine, whether you live another 100 years or die tomorrow, you can know that your enjoyment of life doesn’t have to be shackled to your ever-changing circumstances. You can have a deeply satisfying purpose that transcends occupation, culture, fads, and the like. Fulfilling that purpose of honoring God permeates and gives beautiful meaning to everything in life from epic deeds down to the most mundane tasks. And who wouldn’t want that?

Portraits of Christians – Blaise Pascal

For those keeping count, this is the 6th portrait of a great, world-renowned scientist who was also a Christian. This compatibility of science and Christianity may surprise some of you. Well, keep reading!

Blaise Pascal was born in 1623 and died in 1662 at the age of only 39. Yet in that time, he set a high bar. With his mother having died when he was 3, and himself being ill most of his life, his father homeschooled him.[1]  Publishing his first mathematical treatise (on conic sections) at only 16, and inventing a mechanical calculator at the age of 22, he went on to contribute much to our understanding of hydraulics and probability theory. In fact, his mechanical calculator, considered the first computer,  is the reason the first computer programming language I ever learned was named after him. If you’ve used hydraulic brakes in your car, or used a forklift, or a shop press, you’ve applied Pascal’s Law. What he discovered was that pressure increases are equal at all points in a confined fluid, so applying a small force to a small area of confined fluid (like pushing the brake pedal in your car) resulted in a multiplied force at a larger area (like the pistons clamping down on your brake rotors). And if you’ve ever given or been given a shot of any medicine, you’ve benefited from another invention of his: the syringe.[2]

But Pascal realized, like the apostle Paul, that all his accomplishments were rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] And so Pascal undertook composing a defense of Christianity against the attacks of the skeptics of his day. Though it was never finished, the fragments of his would-be magnum opus were collected posthumously into what has been titled “Pensées”, or “Thoughts”. Some are barely a sentence or two, while others are meticulously edited, rigorous examinations of deep philosophical ideas. The overarching theme of Pensées is what has been called Pascal’s Anthropological argument: that mankind exhibits a greatness and a wretchedness that is best explained by Christianity,[3] and this is just as powerful an argument today as it was then.

You see, while some will try to reduce humans to simply “talking apes”, most people do recognize that there is something different about us compared to all else. Socrates defined man as the “rational animal”, acknowledging that we have a fleshly, animal nature, but that we are different from animals in our reasoning and self-awareness. Humans hold a unique position in the scheme of life, and it is not arrogance to recognize there is a degree of “greatness” associated with that. Pascal would say that “man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed,” and so nobler than all the unthinking universe.[4] But our wretchedness, as Pascal calls it, is perhaps even more obvious to the casual observer than our greatness. For as long as we have had recorded history, we have recorded incessant war, brutality, murder, theft, poverty, greed, corruption – vice after vice. If we are the top of the line, the most advanced of all intelligent life, why do we find it so difficult to “act that way”? And it’s not just the obvious cases like the Hitlers and Stalins of the world that have failed to do the right thing; it’s each one of us. When we’re alone, away from all of the distractions and busyness of our modern lives, and can take a minute to look in the mirror of our minds, we recognize our wretched condition. In those times of self-reflection, we can truly commiserate with the apostle Paul,  “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate…. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want…. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good…. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”[Rom 7:15,19,21,24] Paul strikes a chord there that Pascal builds on to make his case for Christianity. For this sense of greatness is at odds with our clear observations of our baseness. And as Pascal points out, no other view of life makes sense of this dichotomy as well as the Bible, with its description of our creation in the image of God (our greatness), but also our fall into rebellion against our Creator and the attendant consequences (our wretchedness). To put it in terms of abductive reasoning, Christianity has superior explanatory power than the competing views (atheism, false religions).

Pascal also strove to show man the need for urgency. Perhaps his own chronic illness was a daily reminder of the frailty of our physical life, and a motivation to not delay the most important of decisions and to strongly encourage others to do likewise.  Apathy regarding the truth of Christianity is the worst course of action: “It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal.”[5] As Peter Kreeft points out in his analysis of Pascal’s Wager, “to every possible question life presents three possible answers: Yes, No and Evasion. Death removes the third answer…. Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never.’ ”[6]

In closing, Pascal’s life was a candle that burned quickly, but brightly. And his legacy as a prodigious scientist is only matched by his legacy as a profoundly insightful Christian. Rather than incompatible parts of his life, his faith and his science worked together. As Encyclopedia Britannica put it, “his religious writings are rigorous because of his scientific training”.[2] Think about that term “rigorous.” Synonyms include: extremely thorough, exhaustive, accurate, careful, diligent. Could your beliefs be described that way? Dig into Pascal and make yours a more rigorous faith that will withstand any assaults from false ideologies.[7]


[1] Clarke, Desmond, “Blaise Pascal”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/pascal/ , accessed 2016-12-14.
[2] “Blaise Pascal”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Blaise-Pascal, accessed 2016-12-15.
[3]Douglas Groothuis – Christian Apologetics 101, session 19 (audio course), published by Credo House, 2014.
[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensée #200, as found in Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, Edited, Outlined & Explained, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 55. Pensée numbers are Krailsheimer’s numbering scheme.
[5] ibid., Pensée #164.
[6] ibid., Pensée #418, footnote J.
[7] If you’ve ever started Pensées, struggled, and given up, I highly recommend Kreeft’s work, available here.

The Down Low

The Good Samaritan - Vasily Surikov (1874)
The Good Samaritan – Vasily Surikov (1874)

In the Christian view, every person is made in the image of God and has intrinsic value.[Gen 1:27] This doctrine, sometimes referred to by the Latin term imago Dei, is serious enough that God gives it as the basis for capital punishment when someone murders another human.[Gen 9:6] That each person really does have such high value, as an essential characteristic of their humanity, is nice in theory, but how does that play out? Are the nobodies really as important as the bigwigs and high rollers? While God certainly can use both, it seems like He uses the low people and the “foolish things of the world” to accomplish His work more than the wise and powerful.[1 Cor 1:27-29, James 2:1-5] So, in treating the passed-over people with dignity and respect, we may be closer to working in God’s plans than we are when working with the great and mighty.

Consider that the first disciples called by Jesus were not religious teachers, law experts, or powerful princes. They were only simple fisherman, but notice how God used this fact, as people hearing Peter’s speech were amazed that these weren’t “learned men”.[Acts 4:13]  What they were was honest, humble men, able to report exactly what they saw and heard of the events of Jesus’ ministry on Earth.[Acts 4:19-20] And that’s exactly what was needed of those first disciples – honest eyewitnesses to tell the story. God later used the exact opposite of those rough and tumble fishermen when He selected Saul of Tarsus to be His ambassador. Saul was a Pharisee, the cream of the crop in devotion to the Jewish Law, with a familial and educational pedigree to match. [Acts 22:3, 26:4-5, Phil 3:4-6] Yet his stature and accomplishments blinded him to seeing God’s witness, and ironically, he persecuted the people (Christians) that had found the fulfillment of the Jewish Law he so zealously followed. God had to bring him low before He could build Saul the Pharisee into Paul the Apostle. Once that happened, however, God used Paul’s understanding of the Jewish Law and prophecies to explain His plan of salvation via rich, deep theological treatises like Paul’s letter to the Romans, among others. Paul counted all his previous accomplishments as insignificant compared to the knowledge of Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] Each type of person God called had their purpose, but all needed humility before they could be used to full effect. In fact, God’s entire plan of salvation for the human race wasn’t brought about via the juggernaut of the Roman empire (although He used them to enable the quick spread of His truth when the time came). Nor was it accomplished by Alexander the Great, or any other “great” rulers. Instead, His plan revolved around a small nation, a small tribe, and a nondescript family from a small town, all to bring forth a Savior who would change everything! Indeed, in God’s economy, He chooses to exhibit His power and accomplish His goals specifically through our weakness [2 Cor 12:9], that it may be evident to whom the credit is due.

This inherent value of all people, no matter their position in life, has had significant implications for every Christian. How God values people is how we should value people. Consider the long history of Christians reaching out to those neglected and rejected by the rest of society. Christians started (as in, originated) charitable hospitals in the 4th century to minister to any of the sick at a time when only certain rich or privileged citizens could get medical care.[1] They started asylums to at least try to care for the insane.[2] Christians, as a whole, have consistently opposed infanticide, child abandonment, and abortion from the beginning, recognizing the worth of these most defenseless members of society, and working at great cost to themselves to protect them.[3] They started schools to teach people to read and write wherever they went. In fact, Neil Postman points out that 17th century New England had “quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time.” Equally impressive was women’s literacy rates that far exceeded the best male literacy rates in England at the time. What caused this anomaly? Says Postman, “the religion of these Calvinist Puritans demanded that they be literate.” In addition, Postman also notes that almost all early New England towns passed laws requiring schools be established to teach reading, writing, and grammar, for the express purpose of combating the schemes of Satan.[4] The pilgrims believed that if God has graciously provided His plan in writing, it behooves us to be able to read and comprehend it. But when we read it comprehend it, we are confronted with challenges through the Bible to care for, defend, and help those who can’t take care of themselves. And I couldn’t even begin to list all the Christian charities dedicated to helping orphans, the poor, the starving, the sick, the illiterate, the refugees, the homeless, the handicapped, and on and on. But why? Are we simply “scorin’ points for the afterlife” as Weird Al Yankovich once sang?[5] On the contrary, “we love because He first loved us.”[1 John 4:19] We bless others because of how richly God has blessed us. And no, I’m not talking about that offensive, false, “prosperity gospel” that focuses on fleeting, fickle fortune.  If I lost everything in life, up to and including my life, God’s grace would still make me more blessed than all the riches of all the billionaires in the world. With that in mind, how can I not want to share whatever I do have with others, but especially the free – yet priceless! – good news of salvation through Jesus?

In the Bible, we see the gospel of Christ reaching out across all borders and divisions that typically separated people; gender, class, race, nationality, age, status, education – the invitation was open to all.[Gal 3:28, Col 3:9-11, Rom 10:11-13] In Christ, there are no castes, no untouchables, no one off-limits to reach out to. There is no minimum amount of wealth to “buy in” to heaven, no minimum (or maximum) IQ or educational knowledge to serve God, no minimum number of years invested or minimum number of good deeds required to be saved. He truly makes it so that whoever will can be saved, from the poorest beggar to the richest king, from the grade school dropout to the rocket scientist, from the sweetest child to the most hardened criminal. We all approach the cross of Christ on the same low footing. Without Christ, we are all equally guilty, and yet, all still intrinsically valuable and loved in God’s sight.


[1] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p.155.
[2] ibid., p. 160.
[3] ibid., pp. 48-60.
[4] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (Penguin Books, 1986), pp.31-33.
[5] Weird Al Yankovich, “Amish Paradise”, 1996, the nevertheless cleverly funny parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.

 

Implications

dominosI surprised an atheist colleague a while back when I asked to borrow all the atheist books he had. I was attending Frank Turek’s Cross-Examined Instructor’s Academy in Charlotte, NC for 3 days of intensive training in Christian apologetics (i.e. giving a rational defense for our beliefs).[1] Part of the requirements for attendance was a long reading list of Christian apologists, as well as being familiar with the works of prominent atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc. This desire to delve in to opposing views surprised my friend. But as physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne says, “The question of the existence of God is the single most important question we face about the nature of reality”.[2] That’s because of the far-reaching effects it has in our lives. Indeed, ideas have consequences, so let’s look at some consequences of Christian doctrine.

  • Work Ethic – I often hear the lament that people don’t want to work hard anymore, and I’ve seen plenty of examples myself. Work ethic seems to have suffered some major blows in our generation. But it’s good to remember that this trait used to be referred to as the “Puritan work ethic” or “Protestant work ethic”. Why? Because the Puritans brought to America the application of biblical principles that Protestant reformer Martin Luther had reminded Europe of the century before: that there can be honor in our work, regardless of what we do, because we do it for God. Other civilizations viewed physical work as demeaning and lowly, fit for slaves but not for citizens, and certainly not for nobility. Yet the Bible tells us that we are to do our work, whatever it is, as for God rather than men[3]; that masters should be fair to their slaves, for they too have a Master in heaven[4]; and slaves should not just work when their master is watching, but with integrity all the time; and that God had given Adam, the first man, work to do in the Garden of Eden before Adam sinned, and so work was not a curse to be avoided, but a way to serve and honor God.[5] While we may not live in a society with masters and slaves anymore, those exhortations to fair treatment of workers and doing one’s work with integrity apply equally well to our modern-day employer-employee relationships.
  • Ethics – That idea of fairness leads to another implication of Christianity. The Christian should not just work hard, but should also be ethical. The Bible tells us that false weights (i.e. for cheating in business transactions) are an abomination to the Lord.[6] And that he who formerly would steal should steal no more. [7] We are also told that it is better to be wronged than to do wrong. And that even when we do the right thing, it should be from pure motives and not from compulsion or fear of being caught.[8]
  • Stewardship – Under Christianity, all we have is given to us by God. He is the owner, and we are simply stewards. [9] This perspective naturally leads to a desire to care for and use wisely the resources we have. We do not value resources like the environment and animals above people, but we don’t want to neglect them or misuse them either.
  • Imago Dei – Speaking of the value of people, under Christianity, all people are created in the image of God, or “imago Dei” in Latin. Therefore, they each have intrinsic worth regardless of race, nationality, creed, gender, title, or any other differentiation.  In fact, the Bible tells us that there is really only one race – the human race – so racism simply must whither and die in the soil of Christianity.[10] Aside from our common origins, God has offered salvation and eternal life to all freely.[11] And if Jesus was willing to sacrifice Himself for people a little different from us, who are we to hate those whom He loved? Moreover, we recognize that “none are righteous,” and that apart from Jesus, we are no better than the lowest outcast or the most evil villain.[12] As the saying goes, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”
  • Dealing with Suffering – Life can be tough. And yet, in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul describes the various trials he has gone through, then proceeds to say that “momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.”[13] Paul was a man who had been imprisoned, beaten, shipwrecked, stoned, left for dead – and yet, he considered this difficult life to be “light” in comparison to the “heaviness” of eternity with Christ. In Paul’s view, no amount of earthly suffering could tip the scales. Christians have a bottomless reservoir of strength and hope in times of trial.

There are significant implications to belief in Christ. We can compartmentalize our beliefs, but only at the expense of our honesty. For if we are honest, our beliefs must express themselves throughout our lives. These are just a few of the ways those beliefs will surface. Can you think of others?


[1] In fact, this blog is the result of being challenged by J. Warner Wallace at that training class to become a “Christian casemaker”. 🙂
[2] John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, Ch. 3.
[3] Colossians 3:23, 1 Corinthians 10:31.
[4] Colossians 4:1, Job 31:13-15, Ephesians 6:5-9.
[5] Genesis 2:15.
[6] Proverbs 11:1, 20:10,23, Micah 6:11, Leviticus 19:36, Deuteronomy 25:13 to name a few.
[7] Ephesians 4:28.
[8] 1 Corinthians 6:7, Proverbs 16:2, 2 Chronicles 19:9.
[9] Deuteronomy 8:1-20, Matthew 24:42-51, 25:14-28,
[10] Genesis 1:27, Acts 17:26, Galatians 3:26-29.
[11] Romans 6:23, 1 Peter 3:18.
[12] Romans 3:10-12, 23.
[13] 2 Corinthians 4:17.

A Soul’s Worth

freeimages.com/Manual De La Pena
freeimages.com/Manual De La Pena

I attended a presentation by J. Warner Wallace a little while back, and took the opportunity to get another copy of his Cold-Case Christianity book to give to a friend of mine who’s an atheist. We discuss our opposing views at times, and my friend’s been kind enough to loan me quite a few of his atheist books. If you’re not familiar with J. Warner, he’s a cold-case homicide detective who was himself an atheist when he decided to investigate the whole Jesus incident like he would a cold-case (a really, really old cold-case…). What he found forced him to recognize the gospel accounts as the the most reasonable explanation for the historical evidence, and to consequently reject his prior materialistic worldview as untrue, and start following Jesus. He was nice enough to write a little note in the book to my friend encouraging him to not stop investigating, and to be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

My friend appreciated the gesture, but hoped I didn’t spend too much money on it. I told him that if Christianity is false, then I wasted a few bucks, but if Christianity is true, then was there any amount of money that would be a waste? He replied that he still hoped I hadn’t wasted too much money. Was it a waste? Will he read it? Maybe, maybe not. There’s no telling, but I do hope so. Will it make any difference even if he were to read the book? Maybe, maybe not, but I think a clearly presented, well-reasoned statement of why something should be believed is powerful, even if not immediately accepted. Nevertheless, the short exchange got me thinking. What is a friend’s eternal life worth? Is it worth more than a grande frappuccino at Starbucks? How about a steak dinner? I’ve spent more on 1 meal at a typical restaurant than I did on that book, and the results were all too temporary – just a few hours before I was hungry again. But if, in reading that book, he sees the truth of Christianity, and accepts God’s free gift of salvation, then the results are not only lifelong, but eternal!

How much are you worth? Jesus said,”For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”[1]  Your worth is more than all the treasure in the world, even if you don’t have a penny to your name. We have this  intrinsic worth because we are created in God’s image. If you want more background on that concept (sometimes called by its classical Latin term “imago Dei”), I’ve also posted about that here and here. To illustrate the value He places on each of us, Jesus tells the story of a shepherd that cared for each and every sheep in his flock. When one went missing, he left the 99 to find the 1 missing sheep.[2] He also tells us “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”[3] Not that buying a book is comparable to sacrificing one’s life for a friend, but the basic principle is that if you really care about someone, some level of sacrifice will be present, in whatever form and to whatever degree that takes. Jesus is telling us that actions speak louder than words.

Sometimes, it’s little things in life that remind us of bigger principles. As I look back, I can think of times when I might’ve said otherwise, but my actions loudly proclaimed that a few dollars or a few minutes of my time were more valuable to me than the eternal security of my friends. Maybe you are in the same place. Let me encourage you to join me in not remaining in that place of regret over past inaction, but rather seek out opportunities to humbly and graciously share the truth. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, “There is no greater act of charity one can do to his neighbor than to lead him to the truth.”[4]


[1] Mark 8:36, NASB.
[2] Luke 15:1-7, NASB.
[3] John 15:13, NASB.
[4] As quoted in Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 346.

Translating Christianese, Part 7

Trinity ShieldIn January & February, I posted a series of articles that (hopefully) defined some common “church talk” terms in non-jargon fashion: “sin”, “holiness”, “righteousness”, “atonement”, “grace”, “justification”, “sanctification”, “born again”, “saved”, and “repentance”. This week, I want to add to that list a distinctly Christian term, yet one you won’t find actually mentioned by that name in the Bible – the Trinity. Nevertheless, the concept is throughout the Bible, and “in the confession of the Trinity throbs the heart of the Christian religion”.[1] The Trinity is the name given to the completely unique three-in-one relationship demonstrated by God. The idea that God is one, and yet three (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) is at the core of Christianity, but what exactly does that mean? Are Muslims right when they say we are polytheists worshiping three gods? Are skeptics right when they say one of our core beliefs is self-contradictory?  No. Now let’s dig into why not.

Definition

  • The Trinity, or Tri-unity, is the idea of “plurality in unity”, that God is three distinct persons united in a Being having one nature or essence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity describes three “Whos” in one “What”.[2]
  • A being’s nature or essence is what it is at its core without incidentals. For example, having blond hair is not essential to a human being, but having human DNA is. Nick Vujicic, the man born without arms or legs (and pretty amazing guy), is still obviously human despite not having the limbs typical of most humans. That’s because these are not what makes us human.
  • “Personhood is traditionally understood as one who has intellect, feelings, and will.”[2] Alternatively, a person can be defined philosophically as “a self-conscious or rational being”.[3] William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland use the concept of “imago Dei” (that humans are created in the image of God),[4] to explain that when we use terms like “person” to describe God, it’s not that we are trying to say how God is like us, but rather how we derive our nature from God. They put it this way: “Human beings do not bear God’s image in virtue of their animal bodies, which they have in common with other members of the biosphere. Rather, in being persons they uniquely reflect God’s nature. God Himself is personal, and inasmuch as we are persons we reflect Him.“[5] Part of the difficulty in understanding the Trinity is that our uniform experience is that one person correlates to exactly one human being. We have no experience with how 3 persons would correlate to 1 being.

Though there have been many attempts to explain the concept with different analogies, it’s important to remember that every analogy breaks down when the object under study is truly like nothing else. In fact, several common analogies actually explain competing ideas about God that are definitely not the Christian view. We’ll look at some of those in with related objections.

Objections

  •  Muslims look at the Trinity and think we are polytheistic (believers in multiple gods). However, the Trinity is not 3 gods (this would be tritheism), but rather one God in three divine persons. The Godhead is 3 personalities operating in perfect union, but only 1 essence.
  • Another common misconception is that God is one Being taking on different roles (or modes),  as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at different times. This is actually an old heretical view called modalism that says that God took on different modes as our Father from eternity past, then as our Savior as Jesus, and then as the Holy Spirit  after Jesus ascended. A common illustration of the Trinity – that God is like water in that it can exist in solid (ice), liquid (water) and gas (steam) – is actually an example of modalism. While it’s still H2O in each case, it isn’t water, ice, and steam at the same time. It has to stop being one to change form to the others. Similarly, the example of how a man can be a son, a husband, and a father at the same time also falls victim to this error (the modes may be simultaneous in this case, but they are exhibited by only one person instead of three). However, each member of the Godhead is equal in being (i.e. fully God) at the same time, while differing relationally from each other.[6]
  • The law of noncontradiction explains that a statement can’t be true and false in the same sense at the same time. When skeptics claim the Trinity is a contradiction, they are forgetting the “same sense” part of that law of logic. To say that God was 1 person and 3 persons, or 1 essence and 3 essences at the same time would be a contradiction. The correct term would be that this is a paradox (a statement that appears contradictory at first, but proves not to be on closer examination), or a mystery (something we simply don’t understand fully yet, like the wave-particle duality of light).

In closing, in the Trinity, we find mystery and awe for One truly beyond our finite understanding, yet who reveals Himself sufficiently for us to grasp in small ways the scale of our Creator’s nature. We find a foundation for our own dignity as humans. Yet we also find a reason for humility in remembrance of our own limited understanding. The more we grasp this, the more we are driven to worship – to give God the honor, respect, and adoration only He deserves. I leave you with these words from theologian Wayne Grudem on the matter: “Because the existence of three persons in one God is something beyond our understanding, Christian theology has come  to use the word person to speak of these differences in relationship, not because we fully understand what is meant by the word person when referring to the Trinity, but rather so that we might say something rather than nothing.”[6]


[1] Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, p. 281, as quoted in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 247.
[2] Norm Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume (Bethany House, Minneapolis, 2011), p. 540-1.
[3] “Person”, www.dictionary.com, definition 5 (Philosophy), accessed 10/25/2015.
[4] Genesis 1:26-27, NASB.
[5] William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic, Downer’s Grove, 2003), p.609.
[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 254-5.

Chasing the Fountain of Youth

Surgeon Close-up SmallMy wife and I were talking about celebrities that have more or less ruined their appearance through plastic surgery. It seems crazy for people generally acknowledged as exceptionally beautiful to feel the need to undergo these cosmetic procedures that, honestly, can make them look a little freakish. You’ve seen the results: the “perpetually surprised” look, the “always squinting” look, the “I can’t stop smiling” look, and the “my face is a plastic shell incapable of emotion now” look. Granted, those are the cases we would say went badly, but why this obsession with erasing any signs of aging, real or imagined?

Maybe this surgical insanity has a spiritual root cause – a rejection of God. I say this a lot, but it bears repeating: ideas have consequences. When we reject God, there are very real consequences in our lives. One is a prioritization of holding on to this life for as long as possible. In particular, we want to stay in the “sweet spot” of the prime of life forever. After all, if this is all we have, then we better enjoy it to the fullest while we can. Those signs of aging are all reminders of the unstoppable march of time. Wrinkles and gray hair are seen not as a sign of experience and wisdom, but rather as the growing undeniability of our own approaching death. Each wrinkle is an insult to the one without God, each gray hair a reminder that in a short time, they will be no more; they will cease to exist but as a memory, soon to be forgotten. I have to wonder if this isn’t the root cause of a lot of the sometimes disturbing obsession with vainly trying to hold on to our youth forever. But many of these attempts to retain youthful beauty seem to backfire and steal what these celebrities already had. In recent years, this has taken a more radical turn as people seek to change ever more fundamental aspects of themselves, and remake themselves as they feel they should’ve been made.

Does the Bible offer any perspective on any of this? Actually, quite a bit, but here’s a sampling:

  • “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”[1]
  • A gray head is a crown of glory“[2]
  • “The glory of young men is their strength, and the honor of old men is their gray hair.”[3]
  • “Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.”[4]
  • “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well.”[5]
  • “Now the word of the LORD came to me {Jeremiah} saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.'”[6]
  • “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”[7]

We humans have intrinsic worth because we are created in the image of God. This doesn’t mean that we look like God, but rather that we are similar to Him and represent Him. We have intellect, creative free will, and moral capacity. We have an immaterial (spiritual) component of our being that is also immortal.[8] This reflection of God’s nature establishes a foundation for us and gives our lives perspective in 4 ways.

  1. It means that changes in our appearance, or social status, or skills, or anything else, don’t change our value. This allows for enormous emotional security and self-confidence as our worth as humans isn’t grounded in the ever-changing opinions of others.
  2. We can take comfort in the knowledge that we are not an accident. The God who sees the end from the beginning and knows each of us before we were even born, was not surprised by things like our race, our gender, our imperfections, or the time and place and culture we’re born into. They are all ways for us to live out His purpose for us if we only acknowledge Him.
  3. Understanding the inherent value of each person leads us to love every person, whether they are our family, friends, strangers, or even our enemies. This is a selfless love that seeks the good of others more than ourselves. When we take the focus off of ourselves, wrinkles and age spots don’t bother us anymore.
  4. Finally, we can face death with dignity, knowing that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”[9] Or as Shakespeare wrote, “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”[10] Death comes to us all, but it is only a doorway to eternity.

For the Christian, we can delight in the security of God’s perfect plan. The passing years are only the passing mile markers in our travels in the service of the King, and thoughts of approaching death are not fearsome, but rather a homecoming after a short (but seemingly long) journey. With our self-worth grounded in God, we need not chase after the fountain of youth.


[1] Proverbs 31:30 (NIV)
[2] Proverbs 16:31a (NASB)
[3] Proverbs 20:29 (NASB)
[4] 1 Peter 3:3-4 (NASB)
[5] Psalm 139:14 (NASB)
[6] Jeremiah 1:4-5 (NASB)
[7] Genesis 1:26-27 (NASB), see also James 3:9.
[8] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), pp 442-4. Grudem makes an interesting comparison between Gen 1:26 and Gen 5:3.
[9] Hebrews 9:27 (ESV)
[10] Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2.