Tag Archives: purpose

Ideas Have Consequences

The Desperate Man (self-portrait), by Gustave Courbet, 1845

Last week, we looked at some of the visible results of living out the Christian life, and how these are typically recognized as good things, despite the protests of atheists that “religion poisons everything”.  That was on a more pragmatic level of observable results. Today, though, I’d like to dig a little deeper into some philosophical foundations and how they work themselves out in practice.

How we see ourselves has real results in our lives. Being the product of random chemical reactions and natural selection will have different implications for how we live our lives compared to our being the result of deliberate creation by a loving Father. For example:

  • It will affect how you see others. Are you merely the result of a lot of unguided, directionless biological mutations added to a mixing bowl (Earth) that is itself only the blind chance result of a cosmic accident? This has led many over the years into the throes of apathy, depression, and nihilism, but worse than the self-destructive belief in a purposeless life devoid of any “big-picture” meaning, is the idea that those you meet are actually competitors in a brutal game of “survival of the fittest.” Yet in the atheistic worldview, that is the supreme law of the land; we are simply advanced animals who survived the “struggle for existence” by hook or by crook. After all, it’s “survival of the fittest”, not “survival of the kindest” or “survival of the most ethical”. Acts of benevolence often reduce one’s own odds of survival. Or… just maybe, are all the people you meet – friends and strangers alike – actually fellow creatures with eternal destinies, made in the image of God, valuable to Him, and loved by Him? Are they, as the Bible maintains, broken and flawed – but redeemable! – people that God so loved that He sent His only Son Jesus to give Himself as the sacrifice for their salvation? Do you think that last view would lead to more love, more compassion, more service for others? Could there be any other result for someone who understands the implications?
  • It will affect how you look at the environment. If we are cosmic accidents who have risen to the top by a ruthless struggle for existence, then why should anyone be environmentalists? Caring for weak and defenseless animals, and especially endangered animals, is to operate contrary to natural selection. The weak aren’t supposed to survive under natural selection. On the other hand, if our natural world is a stewardship entrusted to humanity to rule over well, then there is good reason to use it conscientiously, without abusing it. A biblical view seems to be that the environment is worthy of care as something God created a) “good” [Ge 1:25], and b) subservient to human needs [Ge 1:26], but not something more important than humans as some environmentalists proclaim. This leads to a more balanced approach to environmental care than what I’ve seen from much of the environmental movement.
  • It will affect how you look at the actual living of life. If this life is all you have (around 80 years on average in the US, around 120 at the upper limit), and there is nothing after death, then you need to get everything you want in now, while you still can. And you probably shouldn’t let anyone get in the way of you enjoying your brief moment of life. After all, a car accident, a heart attack, or a hundred other tragedies might befall you tomorrow and end your existence like a bug getting stepped on.  So “Carpe diem” and all that. Of course, that’s some bad luck if you’re the victim of a childhood disease, or a violent robbery, or some other untimely fatal event that takes you in what should be the prime of life. After all, even if the deadly disease is later cured, or the killer caught, it doesn’t do you much good, does it? Is life simply an unfair roll of the dice, where the scoundrel lives to a ripe old age enjoying the finest delicacies, while innocent children die every day from starvation, longing for a few grains of rice? Even the cynic that says “Life sucks and then you die – get over it” should be able to see that there are many things in life outside of our control that we instinctively recoil from as being not the way it ought to be. Why is that? Where do we get this notion of “ought”? We can’t ground it a secular worldview. Now, lest anyone think I’m a Christian simply from wishful thinking, I’m not saying that sense of “how things ought to be” justifies Christianity. Rather, I’m saying that Christianity justifies that innate sense we have. The Bible explains why we feel like that. What if your existence continues on beyond the death of your physical body? The Bible tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts [Ec 3:11], so it’s no surprise then that we feel like there’s more than this physical life. What if justice will be served after all, even if not in this life? The Bible tells us that there will be a final judgment, from which there is no escaping [Heb 9:27, Rev 20:12]. What if you were made for a bigger purpose? People sometimes get all they ever wanted in life, and yet are miserable. That’s because we were made to glorify God. As Augustine so aptly put it, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” But when we’ve found our rest in God, our life here on Earth – whether short or long, easy or hard, fair or unfair – takes on an eternal perspective that changes everything.

Can the atheist live differently from how I’ve described above? Of course, but I think he has to do it in contradiction to his underlying philosophy, just as a hateful, racist Christian would be undercutting his own philosophical foundations with his thoughts and actions. Our ideas have consequences – some pretty dramatic and obvious, while others only reveal themselves fully over many years or even generations. I urge you then, to examine the philosophy you are building your life on, and look for the logical consequences of it. Is it pointing you toward your Creator or away from Him? Choose wisely.

Reading License Plates

What a random group of letters & numbers….

Not all countries allow this, but here in America, we have the phenomenon of the “vanity plate” – the ability to pay a fee and get personalized license plates for your vehicle. Having a long commute to work each day, I get to see a lot of license plates, many of them personalized. What do personalized license plates have to do with apologetics? Let’s work through that today.

It’s always impressive how creatively people can convey a message with 7 characters. Some are quite amusing. Of course there’s sports cars with plates like “BAD BOY”, or “2FAST4U” and so on. There’s the pilot that gets the plate “LUV2FLY”, or the veterinarian that gets “PETDOC”. Others leave you scratching your head, thinking, “That must be an inside joke or something.” Some of the more creative tricks of personalized plates are the use of numbers that look like letters (i.e. 5 for S), or letters and numbers that look like other letters when viewed upside down or backwards (i.e. 3 for E, W for M, and so on). Those tactics can make it a little more challenging to figure out the significance of the plate. But then I have to ask myself when I see a personalized plate that I can’t decipher, what makes me think it means anything? I didn’t get the point of the characters they picked, but I assumed my comprehension was the issue, and not that there was no message to comprehend. Why is that? It’s because I know license plates in my state conform to a particular pattern of letters and numbers (3 numbers, a space, and 3 letters, sequentially assigned by the state), and when a particular plate doesn’t conform to that predefined pattern, that’s indicative of intent, or purpose, behind the arrangement. I don’t have to know the car owner’s intent in order to recognize that there was intent behind the characters picked, and that his personalized license plate is not the result of random assignment. Likewise, we don’t have to know God’s intent in creation to recognize the presence of purposeful choices that require an intelligent agent to make them. But while seeing a designed message in a customized license plate may seem intuitive, are we justified in applying that reasoning to things like nature? What about false positives – seeing design where there is none? Let’s look at how we eliminate chance and how we confirm design now.

An event conforming to an independent predefined pattern (like recognized words in English) is one way to eliminate randomness as a reasonable explanation for an event. Stephen Meyer, in his book, Signature in the Cell, uses the example of a gambler named Slick who keeps winning at the roulette wheel – 100 times in a row – by betting on Red 16.[1] Could his amazing winning streak simply be the result of chance? It’s possible, although to call it astronomical odds would be an understatement. But why would the casino, and any reasonable person, think this wasn’t simply chance, but either a cheating player or a mechanical malfunction? The consistently beneficial results make it less and less reasonable as the streak continues, and the pattern negates the chance hypothesis. While chance is eliminated, design isn’t confirmed yet; the pattern may match with physical necessity due to an unbalanced wheel that makes the ball always land in Red 16. Slick could just be just taking advantage of a pattern he noticed. Meyer then asks about a different case, where Slick bets on different numbers each time, but still wins 100 times in a row. The ball isn’t landing on Red 16 every time now, so physical necessity (like a defect in the roulette wheel) doesn’t seem to be the culprit. And yet we still instinctively reject that this is simply chance, and think Slick is cheating, or “designing” his winning streak. Why? Because the seemingly random pattern of results matches the independent pattern of Slick’s bets. These are “functionally significant” results that accomplish something – they advance the goal of him winning lots of money! And achieving a goal is the very heart of design. Both cases reject chance based on the events matching a pattern, but the second case reasonably infers intelligent design behind the pattern.

In that example, the predefined pattern (winning each spin of a roulette wheel) is framed positively. But the same applies as a negative association: when a result doesn’t conform to the known pattern that it should conform to, such as the “123 ABC” format of license plates in my state,  then we can know that something else is going on. Based on my knowledge that government-issued license plates conform to specific patterns of characters unless a person pays extra to make a non-random assignment, I can reasonably infer that a plate not conforming to those set patterns was intentional, at the least. The fact that someone paid extra for their non-random plate makes it unlikely that they then picked a combination of letters and numbers that had no meaning to them. Now, when I see things such as coded information in DNA, I can reasonably reject chance or physical necessity as an explanation. The arrangement of bases in a strand of DNA is highly contingent, yet arranged extremely specifically over a very long sequence to produce highly functional information. Now, if I’m justified in thinking 7 letters and numbers on a license plate have been deliberately arranged to convey a message, why would I not recognize the message conveyed by the information overload of over 3 billion bases carefully arranged like letters in words to store the massive amounts of information that make up our bodies? And where does that message point me? To the design hypothesis, which requires an intelligent agent beyond any human (or any physical entity, for that matter). It points me to God. Where do you look for the author of that message? Till next time, blessings on you.


[1] Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA & the Evidence for Intelligent Design, (NY: HarperOne, 2009), chapters 8 & 16.

No Extra Screws

Leftover screws… and washers… and dowels…

There’s a joke that when engineers put together objects with “some assembly required”, whether assembling a kid’s toy or rebuilding a car, they end up with extra screws left over at the end because they made the object “more efficient” by only using what was actually needed. Of course, if the original designer was careful, then there really was a purpose for those “extra” parts, and we just didn’t see it from our perspective (or didn’t bother reading the instructions…).  Why does Flap A have to go in Slot B before attaching Part C that I attached 3 steps ago? What is this extra screw I’m left with, and does that have anything to do with why my wife’s car won’t start now?

Seriously though, have you ever felt that your life was just one of those “extras” in the grand scheme of things, like the extra screws that come with a lot of boxed furniture? This useful, practical – maybe even beautiful – object is constructed, but there’s extra supplies left over that played no part in it. They either get thrown out or stuffed in a drawer somewhere on the off-chance there’s a use for them later. Sometimes, even Christians, who understand that the Creator of the universe loves us dearly, even though there are no works we could do to justify that love, can still feel disappointed by our ordinariness and our lack of “big” accomplishments. Sure, Paul talks about the goodness of living a “tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” [1Ti 2:1-2], but we still want to do big things.

Billy Graham, probably the most famous evangelist of the last century, died last week at the age of 99. It’s estimated that he preached the good news of Jesus Christ live to 200 million people all over the world, and reached many more via radio, TV, and print. That’s certainly an amazing accomplishment. Most of us will never do that, or even a millionth part of that. And yet, that’s OK.

That may not be God’s plan for us, but it may be part of His plan for us to reach the one who will go on to reach millions. Think about Billy Graham. He wasn’t born saved; nobody is. Someone preached the Gospel to him [Rom 10:13-15]. Do you know who that person was? I got curious about that several years ago and looked him up. That someone was one Mordecai Ham. He was descended from eight generations of Baptist preachers.[1] That’s quite the preaching pedigree, but even as famous as Ham was for a time in the American South, Billy Graham delivered the gospel to more people in more places than Mordecai and his previous 8 generations of preachers – combined! In that respect, one might be tempted to forget about people like old Mordecai (or people like you and I), and focus on who the next “superstar” might be. But Ham didn’t need to reach millions to fulfill his part in God’s plan; he just needed to reach the people God ordained for him to reach, like a teenager named Billy. And the same applies to each of us. 57 years after he died, Ham’s name is only a footnote in history, but it’s better to be a footnote in God’s story than the star of our own story.[2]

We can know God’s overall plans for world history, and often we see parts of those plans acted out by certain people who become famous in the process, but we don’t realize all the contingencies that God orchestrated in between to bring about His sovereign will. Just like with a race car, we can see the driver hit the gas and shift gears, and see the amazing results as the car accelerates out of sight, but we overlook the complex series of gears and pistons and belts and timing chains and whatnot hidden under the hood, all of which have to consistently do their small individual tasks to accomplish the driver’s intent. Likewise, the Christian can take comfort in knowing that we don’t have to have millions of Twitter followers, or run a “megachurch” with thousands attending every week, or have best-selling books on the store shelves to be successful before God. In fact, those who compromise God’s truth to achieve those things would actually be the failures, regardless of the worldly success they may have. Rather, all God asks is that we be obedient in the little things He has called us to do. Does God need you or me or Billy Graham to accomplish what He wills? No, of course not. I think another Mordecai, from the book of Esther, made it clear that if we refuse to do the task God offers us the privilege of performing, our refusal won’t stop Him from accomplishing it [Es 4:13-14]. But it will keep us from being part of His plan, and we’ll reap the consequences of that. Yet if we are faithful to obey in the little things, God will use that in ways we won’t even be able to understand until glory when we shall “know fully” [1Co 13:12]. For there are no extra screws or throwaway parts in God’s designs.


[1] https://www.preaching.com/articles/past-masters/past-masters-mordecai-ham-the-southern-revivalist, accessed 2018-02-26.
[2] To borrow an expression from a 2013 sermon from one of my church’s teaching pastors, Ben Parkinson.

On Suffering

“Job” by Jacob Jordaans, 1620

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

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

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

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


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

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?

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.

Deconstructing Dawkins 3 – Optimal Design Overview

Richard DawkinsRichard Dawkins has made much of the “appearance of design” in biology being a false positive, and the notion that living creatures actually exhibit bad design that negates the idea of an omniscient Creator. After all, why would God, if He existed, and if He was all-knowing, do things like wire the human eye “backwards”? This is, according to Dawkins, a sub-optimal design that any engineer would reject out of hand, or get fired if he submitted a design like this to his company. In fact, regarding the “backwards wiring” of the vertebrate eye, he admits that it doesn’t actually have much effect on vision, but “it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!”[1]

Oh really? Since he decided to drag us engineers into this, I’d like to ask one question: what exactly do you mean when you talk about an optimal design? I can tell you most engineering designs end up being sub-optimal, regardless of how “tidy-minded” we may be. That’s because we routinely have to make trade-offs between competing goals. I have a book on wood-framed shearwalls that humorously highlights this issue with a side-by-side photo of an “engineer’s dream wall” and an “architect’s dream wall”. The engineer’s wall is very stout and very solid. The architect’s  preference (and most owner’s) is one completely filled with beautiful expansive windows. Which one is the “optimal” wall? Neither one of us is getting what we would call the optimum. Us engineers need some minimum amount of strength that the windows aren’t providing, and the architect needs some minimum amount of holes in our solid wall so the owner doesn’t feel like he’s living in a dungeon! Factor in things like cost and meeting building code constraints and “optimal” becomes a very subjective term with different meaning to different stakeholders. But this is the way most design goes. You can’t maximize one parameter without minimizing another, and at some point, you’ll have 2 (or more) parameters that conflict. Do you focus entirely on the first, or the 2nd? Do you balance them equally? Maybe a weighted average based on your best guess as to which one will govern more often? Unfortunately, no matter which route you choose, someone will come along later, with the benefit of hindsight, and ask why you didn’t do it some other way. But God, being omniscient, has perfect foresight, so that shouldn’t be an issue for Him, right? True, He won’t make a mistake in design due to lack of knowledge or not anticipating future conditions, but the aspect of competing design parameters still applies.

Versatility and specialization are two such competing parameters. Specialized designs seek to maximize a positive parameter like speed or strength, or to minimize some negative parameter like weight or waste, at the expense of other factors. This is evident in animals like peregrine falcons whose hollow bones minimize weight, while their aerodynamics maximize speed. Versatile designs, on the other hand, seek to balance the most parameters at one time to achieve adequate performance over a wide range of conditions. This allows the object to fulfill many roles, or to survive in a variety of unpredictable conditions and possibly even excel over more specialized objects if conditions are constantly changing. Humans, for example, are extremely versatile. We may not thrive as well on our own as more specialized animals in arctic or desert or tropical environments, but unlike most of them, the same human can generally still survive in all of them. And, besides this highly versatile body design, we have the brains to make tools, and shelters, and transportation to overcome our bodily limitations, such that we can even survive in places like outer space where no animals, however optimized, can survive.

So is God required to maximize all parameters that go into a design? No. Some may fall into the category of “square circles” where the parameters are simply mutually exclusive. Is He required to maximize the particular parameter we favor over another that He deems more important? No. As professional engineers, we can seek the input of peers if desired, but nothing says we have to take their advice. The engineer signing off on the design and taking full responsibility decides the direction of the design. Is so-called “bad design” evidence against God? No. It simply means we likely aren’t seeing the whole picture. My own peer reviews of other engineers’ designs have raised questions as to why they chose a particular route, but then they proved quite reasonable after getting those questions answered. It was typically my lack of knowledge of the background of that particular project, or my unfamiliarity with some certain condition they’d been burned by before that made me think they’d missed something “obvious” when they had actually thought through their design better than I might have if I’d been in their position.

Engineers must approach peer reviews with an attitude of humility, but even more so if the design being reviewed is God’s. If I can overlook the good reason a fellow human engineer made the design choices he did, then I should be all the more open to the possibility that I’ve missed something an omniscient Designer did consider. And this is where I would encourage people like Dawkins not to arrogantly assume that there is no good reason for something just because they can’t see it. Tune in next week as we focus on a couple of specific examples where the atheist claims of “sub-optimal” and “bad” designs in nature have actually turned out to be engineering masterpieces.


[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin Books), p94.

Getting Fitted for Heaven

Tailor´s_shop_-_Werkstatt_2As we draw near to Christmas, you can hear various “Christmas” songs on the radio and in stores and whatnot. Many of them would perhaps be better described as “winter holiday” songs, as they seem to be be completely unrelated to the story of Christ’s birth, which is, after all, the whole point of the holiday, but I digress.  One classic Christmas song that many are familiar with (or at least the first stanza), is “Away in a Manger”.  But tucked away in the 3rd stanza is this little gem:

“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”
– Away in a Manger, 3rd Stanza

We sang this version of this classic Christmas carol from the late 1800’s at church a couple of years ago, and that last line just really struck me. “Fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” This life – the good times and the bad, the boundless joy and the heart-rending sorrow, the blessings and the trials – is a fitting process God uses to prepare us for our eternal life. And if you don’t know about that going on, this life can seem meaningless, chaotic, and tragic. One can see God’s blessings as simply good fortune/luck/serendipity, and the trials we are all subjected to ever since mankind’s initial rebellion against God as bad luck/cruel fate/karma. One can ask “Why me?” One can feel constantly blindsided by “life”. Or we can submit to the alterations of the Master Tailor, who takes our filthy rags[1] and clothes us with His righteousness[2,3,4]. He doesn’t alter the clothes to fit us (much as we might prefer in our pride), but instead alters us to fit the clothes. Like a child wearing his father’s 3-piece suit, His righteousness doesn’t fit us at all. But then He takes our deformities of pride, lust, anger, and selfishness, and straightens our crooked limbs and stretches us until we conform to His image[5]. Having been so fitted for heaven in this life, we really will feel “right at home” when we get there.


[1]  Isaiah 64:6 – “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
[2] Isaiah 61:10 – “…[H]e has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness…”
[3] Matthew 22:11-13 – part of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast, where the king (God) invites his chosen people (Israel) to a wedding feast, but they refuse. He then sends out the invitation to all. Verse  11 picks up with “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend’, he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” Our attempts at righteousness – our rags – can never earn us a seat at God’s banquet. Only Christ’s “new clothes” make us presentable to a holy, perfect God.
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This is called “imputed righteousness”, where our sin is imputed, or charged, to Christ’s account, and His righteousness is imputed to us, declaring us righteous (through Him and not of ourselves).
[5] Justification could be likened to this initial “fitting” where we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness, while sanctification would correspond to that life-long gradual molding and conforming to God’s intent for us.

Design Defined

Engineering_design_drawings smallI’ve heard a lot of criticism of “intelligent design” (ID), the idea that certain features of the universe and of living organisms are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided naturalistic processes. But I have to ask, regarding intelligent design, is there any other kind? If we see the appearance of design, is there any other explanation besides intelligence? Let’s first define design. Design is a very broad task, with lots of different types, but a good (if somewhat laborious) definition is:

A specification of an object (or process), manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.

That could really apply to things as diverse as engineering or developing a new soup recipe, but let’s break that down with an example.  I’m an engineer, so here’s an example from an actual job I worked on earlier this year that illustrates each of these criteria. I (the agent) designed a chevron brace connection (the object) to resist a 665,000# earthquake force (the goal) in Little Rock, AR (the environment) using steel tubes, gusset plates, bolts, & welds (the primitive components) to satisfy the 2006 International Building Code (the requirements) without obstructing a doorway (a constraint).

This example is representative of a typical design, but it’s simply not something we see occurring without intent. We don’t accidentally design things.  Water may erode the Grand Canyon, but wind and rain don’t hit the Black Hills of South Dakota with intent to sculpt giant faces into the cliffs. Erosion causing Mount Rushmore is not a reasonable theory! We recognize the design of Mount Rushmore and understand that someone designed it, even if we don’t know who (Gutzon Borglum in that case).  So back to the original question. Is there any other kind of design besides intelligent design? Not really, and here’s why.  Two things jump out from the above definition: an agent, and a goal.  The components, environment, requirements, and constraints add to the definition, but the heart of any design is a person with a purpose. And purpose is not a characteristic of chance or even “natural selection”. It is the result of choice, and choice requires intelligence. Rocks, trees, bacteria, the wind, a piece of steel – none of these can have goals or plans on their own. Only sentient beings can do that. So it seems that design requires intelligence by definition.

Interestingly, Richard Dawkins wrote that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Here the Christian and the atheist agree on the presence of appearance of design in nature. Basically, the atheist argument is that this evidence is a false positive, an indication of design when there isn’t any, while the Christian claims that our observations are accurate and the appearance of design is, in fact, indicative of actual design. So at what point do we say, “If it walks like a ducks and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck and not a time-traveling homicidal shape-changing cyborg disguising himself as a duck, or an advanced alien holographic projection of a duck”? Much like a duck simply being a duck, I think we can say that a powerful, knowledgeable, willful Master Designer being behind all the apparent design we see in nature is a simpler and less far-fetched explanation than what we have to derive in a strictly materialistic universe. Today I just wanted to address the necessity by definition for a designer in any true case of design, and the corequisite of purpose, both of which are absent in a world governed solely by natural selection. Stay tuned as we dig into the case for actual design in upcoming weeks.