Episode 2 – Pastor Brian Carlson

Hello! This week I spoke with my current pastor, Brian Carlson. It was a great conversation and in it Brian recommended the book, The Longest Bridge Across Water, which is about developing friendship with Jesus. Check it out at: https://www.amazon.com/Longest-Bridge-Across-Water-Encounters-ebook/dp/B00HKN18HO

Enjoy the show and subscribe to my podcast on Itunes or Stitcher:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-unfamiliar-name/id1118467057

http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=91391&refid=stpr

The Discipline of God

 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2)

The opening verse of Hebrews chapter 12 give a vision and a context for the writer’s discussion of God’s discipline. First, we must see that sin is the weight that keeps us from running the race to the fullest of our ability. Sin here is not addressed as shame to be hidden or fearful of. You can hear the heart of the writing: “put away your sin, it’s weighing you down, it’s holding you back from what God has for you.” Our call against sin is only Godly and effective if it is an invitation into God’s best and not a condemnation into God’s worst. This is mandated because, “There is now, therefore, no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)

The second highlight in the verses above is the communal aspect of our life in Christ. We are never alone, but are “surround by so great a cloud of witnesses” and “looking to Jesus” we are able to run this race. Not only are we called to be a part of the body of Christ on earth which practices the gifts of the spirit for the building up of the faithful, but we are also surrounded by a heavenly witness. I am reminded of the powerful story in the Old Testament when Elisha and his servant are surround by a great army who has come out against them. Elisha is as calm as Jesus sleeping in the bottom of the storm tossed boat, but his servant cries out, “What’re we gonna do?” with the echo of the same desperation from Jesus’ disciple, “Don’t you care that we are gonna die?” Elisha simply prays that God will open the servants eyes to see that, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (1 Kings 2:16) Do we really live our lives like this? Do we confront our personal mountains with confidence and faith that we are surrounded by a powerful heavenly host?

It’s in this context that God’s discipline is addressed. It is not addressed in a spirit of condemnation and it is in no way addressed as God punishing a lone individual who is expected to overcome sin on their own. The last major point I want to address in this verse is the image of Christ going to the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” Now here I find it necessary to make one very important distinction that will help us to understand God’s discipline in our own lives. I do not believe that the cross was God’s divine will in the sense that God orchestrated and caused the cross to occur so that we might be saved and Jesus might, “learn obedience through the things he suffered.” Rather, I believe that it was God’s divine will to allow our free choice of the rejection and crucifixion of his son. God sent Jesus to preach the way of peace, knowing full well that we would reject him and his teaching and crucify him by our own sin. “He took on him the sins of us all,” is more literal in this image as our sin literally condemned him to the cross. So we see the distinction here is that God can use our sin and the results of that sin to save the world and teach obedience in Christ. Now, Christ was perfect, and yet he was learning obedience. This is the mystery of incarnation and it is so good for us because we do not have a high priest who does not know our suffering and temptations. Jesus can teach us obedience in suffering because he learned the same way. The important point to remember throughout is that Jesus did all these things for the “joy that was set before him.” The key to growth through God’s discipline is to remember that it is for the joy that God has set before us. Discipline’s purpose is to remove that which keeps us from joy and fulfillment in Christ.

One last note on this seeming paradox about enduring suffering and giving up sin in exchange for joy… There is a parable Jesus tells that seems to sum up what is meant by these things: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44) This is what the discipline of God calls us into: joyful surrender of all that we have. “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.’” (Heb. 12:5-6)
This is so powerful. God is using the trials and tribulations in our life to train us in the way we should go as a father would for his children.

So what does this Godly discipline look like? It looks like bringing everything that we experience before God in humble submission to him. Are you experiencing financial difficulties? Bring it before God, get counsel from a wise brother in Christ. Maybe God desires to teach you to trust him, to steward your finances well, to rejoice in all things. Are you experiencing relational difficulties with your spouse? Bring it before God, get counsel from a wise father in the church. Maybe God is teaching you how to prefer others before yourself, maybe God is teaching you to build your house on the Rock instead of on your own ability to maintain yourself. Are you struggling with a sin pattern in your life? Bring it to the Lord, submit yourself to a leader in your church. Maybe God desires to teach you grace and humility and the life-saving power of the Holy Spirit.

God’s discipline is not an act of punishment that seeks to cause pain, rather, it is the transformation of the tribulations in this life into the life changing lessons of how to be like Jesus. God takes our earthly suffering and uses it like fire to forge us into people who can enjoy perfect freedom and communion with him. Simplest definition of the discipline of God is this: God’s miraculous ability to transform the suffering resultant in the effects of sin (our own sin and that of others) into the lessons that shape us into who he has called us to be. Even the effects of sin and a broken world are used by God to meet us and heal us and change us. Does this mean that you must look for sin whenever you experience tribulation? No, instead look for God and what he has provided you in this time for your benefit and sustenance. The ultimate result is the kingdom of God in your heart, a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The result of God’s discipline is “the removal of things that are shaken… in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:27-29) What then remains? “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)

The Problem of Evil

To conclude my series of blog posts with an apologetic theme, this post will wrestle with one of the classic objections to the Christian faith, the Problem of Evil. It can be stated as follows:

If God is all-powerful and all-good, there would not be evil and suffering in the world.

There is evil and suffering in the world; therefore, God is either not all-powerful, not all-good, or non-existent.

This argument is probably the most compelling argument I have heard and most people I have engaged with seem to find their biggest issues with Christianity here. I think this is because we are hurting and something in us knows that the world is not how it ought to be. Even if you believe in Christianity, you must answer this objection. First, I will layout the philosophical answer to the problem of evil and then I will give the uniquely Christian answer to this problem.

Imagine a perfect world where no-one ever does anything wrong… Did you come up with an image? If you did, it was probably grey, sterile or even boring and oddly futuristic. Maybe that’s not what you thought of, but because of our over-saturation of dystopian films and literature, we are often given a view of the issue that occurs when someone in power tries to eliminate all evil and suffering from the world. Equilibrium, Divergent, 1984, and even Avengers: Age of Ultron or Captain America: Winter Soldier are wrestling with the trade off between eliminating suffering and eliminating freedom. The focus of the debate on the problem of evil has always been whether God could, in His infinite power, create a world where evil did not exist but freedom of choice did exist. It truly seems impossible for such a world to exist. It seems that in order for human beings to have the ability to choose to live by love, they have to have the ability to reject the same. If God were to have created the world without that freedom, then we would be robots following our programming and functioning well, but we would not be humans loving well and creating community. While this is a much-repeated response, it seems to solve the philosophical dilemma. God is all-powerful and all-good. In his goodness and power, he created humans with an ability to choose freely (thus choosing to limit his power by his goodness) and God is constantly drawing humanity towards himself and towards love. This may seem like a sterile philosophical answer that does not go into the depths of suffering, but the next section of the blog will explore the uniquely Christian response that does not shy away from this tension.

Every worldview wrestles with the problem of evil. Some Buddhists claim that suffering is illusion, Hinduism claims that suffering is the result of Kharma, Muslims claim that God is ineffable and unquestionable in his absolute power but also balances his own scales of justice, Secular Humanists claim that innovation and progress will free us from incorrect thinking or the imbalance of power, Naturalists really have no grounding for what evil is but tend to cry out against injustice all the same. Amidst thousands of answers, Christianity tells the most compelling story in response to evil in the world.

God created the world and it was beautiful and good. He created humans and they were very good. Humans, in their freedom, chose pride and control over relationship with God. Since that point, God has been pursuing humanity throughout the ages. First he spoke to a small backwards tribe, the Hebrews, and constantly met them in their evolving understanding of God and the world. His message was communicated in poetry and power, in beauty and story and it was always an invitation to return to God. Instead, they chose to kill the prophets he sent and worship other gods (gods of power, money, and debauchery). The Hebrews were a microcosm of the problem with humanity in the entire world. We all needed healing from the cultural, systemic sin that demanded sacrifice and violence. Rene Girard spoke of the mimetic desire that describes human tribe’s need to find a scapegoat for their own guilt and difficulties in life. There is a famine, sacrifice a virgin. There is a murder, kill the murderer. A woman will not have you, take her anyways. There is a land dispute, go to war. Always moving towards violence instead of relationship with the Creator and the Created. Throughout all of this, God kept calling the Hebrews towards the beautiful and the good. He still saw the beauty that humanity could be and create. The world was broken but good and man would occasionally respond to challenges with singular acts of love and beauty. Yet still the cycle of violence and hatred remained.

Finally, at the time when his message could be heard and spread, Jesus came and entered into our suffering. God, the God of the universe, did not shun the world that was marked by suffering and evil. He dined with sinners and healed lepers. He lost loved ones to death and he experienced betrayal. God-as-man was tempted in every way as we are, but Jesus resisted and learned obedience through what he suffered. The uniquely Christian answer, and the one answer that truly gets to the core of the problem, is that God took upon himself the pain and suffering of us all. We demanded sacrifice, He provided the Lamb. All of our brokenness and systemic sin took Love personified and nailed him to the cross. God did not demand Jesus’ death, we did. God did not fear our darkness, he entered into it and the light overcame that darkness. Jesus entered into the depths of Hades and returned victorious over death.

He then returned to the close friends he had invested in (because it’s always a relational transformation) and empowered them with the knowledge and peace of the risen Christ. God’s answer to evil was submission to the effects of evil and victory through that submission. He then began with a small group of Hebrew fisherman and transformed the world by their lived message. Many of them were persecuted and killed, again conquering evil by giving themselves up in love. “Greater love has no man then he that lays down his life for his friends.” So when we consider the philosophical problem of evil and are faced with the reality of evil and suffering in our lives, God has an answer and it is Jesus. Because of Him we can be transformed into people who are free from systemic sin and healed from brokenness. A people transformed conquering the world through love and not violence. A people who do not have to fear injustice or even death, but can embrace all men through the power of the resurrection. The problem of evil has been answered, the challenge for Christians is to be a part of the solution.

The Historicity of the New Testament

The next step in the series on the evidences for the existence of a God will finally bring us to the arguments for a Judeo-Christian God. If you look at my previous post you will see an argument for the existence of a being who is outside of space and time who can begin material existence. Then the argument in the next post claims that from the complex and amazingly functional nature of the universe in general and life specifically it seems that we need an Intelligent Designer. The last post argues that without a God we are left with no adequate support for morality. This post will attempt to briefly address some of the chief evidences for the historicity of the New Testament.

First, when we are discussing historicity, we are merely trying to establish that the New Testament was written by first century Jewish individuals who believed that what they wrote actually happpened and that what we have today is extremely close to the texts that were originally written. So then, if we find that the writers were faithfully communicating their experiences and that our texts today match what was communicated originally we can move towards the questions of whether we should trust the testimony of these writers.

So, is the New Testament historically reliable? For this question, I will attempt to outline some of the main arguments without getting bogged down in citations and specific studies. I will humbly refer the reader to books like Evidence That Demands a Verdict and Evidence Revisited by Josh McDowell which are extensive works of historical investigation that engage this topic comprehensively. There are many questions that can help a historian determine whether a text is reliable. How many original manuscripts are there? If there are copies of these manuscripts, how similar are they to each other and how close are they to the original? Are the sources bridging to other sources or are they eyewitnesses? Are the events recorded independently corroborated? Is the setting accurate (the timeframe, who was in political power, reflective of the culture at that time)? What was the purpose of the text? Was it meant to be a historical document, a report to a governing body, or propaganda for a political figure? Would the author have gained from the distortion of truth?

All of these questions and more can be taken to our study of the Biblical texts. Beginning with the question of manuscripts, the New Testament has over 27,000 partial manuscripts to compare and study. While none of them are the original penned manuscripts, their remarkable similarity and consistency is a huge mark in favor of the NT’s reliability. To put these numbers in perspective, the closest other text from the ancient world is the Illiad which has around 500 surviving partial manuscripts. The New Testament, particularly the Gospels, are also written based largely on eyewitness testimony. This is not a story that has grown in the telling, the writers are writing about their own personal experiences. They are also writing to an audience of fellow eyewitnesses. When most of the texts in the NT began to be circulated, the people who lived and experienced the events recorded were still living. If these texts were deceiptful, the hundreds of people who were present at the sermon on the mount or the feeding of the 5000 or the crucifixion could have denounced the writings as false. Now maybe there were dissenting voices that have not survived 2000 years because they were not part of a text that quickly obtained sacred status in the original Christian community, but the movement grew in the midst of people who could have easily denounced many of its claims and would have had no reason to join if they thought the disciples were teaching falsehoods.

The events in the NT are also extremely consistent with other sources of that time and what we know of the timeframe politically, culturally, and historically. We have sources from the ancient world that confirm Jesus’ crucifixion, the census at the time of Jesus’ birth, all of the political figures and the timing of their reign/influence, and that confirm the growth of a small sect of Judaism in the midst of persecution from their fellow Jews and eventually the Romans as well. The Gospel of Luke is extremely helpful in this regard as Luke is careful to note the historical and political context and timing of his texts. Luke is helpful for another reason as he states the purpose of his texts at the beginning of his Gospel: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Here we see a classic introduction to a historical text that were often addressed to an individual in ancient times. We see that the purpose of the writer here and the writers throughout the NT were attempting to tell true stories that reflected their experiences.

If we look at these evidences and are able to accept that the NT was communicating what the authors believed to be the historical truth and was faithfully communicating their experiences, then we have to ask if we should trust these sources. I am fully aware that I am not addressing many of the nuances and fullnesses of the arguments summarized above, but this is merely a brief sketch of the main arguments. So why should we trust these people? First of all, none of the Gospels would have benefitted the authors. In fact, the authors and disciples of Jesus are often portrayed as stubborn and dense. If these authors were looking to invent a religion with themselves at the head, then why would they portray themselves as slow to understand, stubborn, and even deniers of Jesus throughout the stories? Also, and I believe this is the most powerful argument for the reliability of their testimonies, the disciples were imprisoned, beaten, and killed for what they preached. Unless you truly believe what you are saying, it does not seem possible that a man would die for a lie. What is gained if a man is killed for something that he knows never even happened? We have to remember here that the disciples were eyewitnesses to the events they spoke of. They were not convinced of the truth of these things second-hand. I think that we must accept that the disciples believed that what they were saying was true.

In following posts I will address the question of miracles and whether we can take the Bible seriously even though it makes claims that may seem impossible.

The Moral Argument for the Existence of God

This week, I am giving a summary of the Moral Argument. This is a difficult thing to do because the permutations and forms of this argument are vast and varied. I will attempt to stick to the core and address the most popular objections. The basic structure of the moral argument is as follows:

1. There is an objective moral law

2. There cannot be an objective moral law without an objective moral standard

3. The Judeo-Christian God is the best explanation for the objective moral law

Each of these points can be debated at length. The first and most hotly contested premise can be argued mainly from our experience and the way that we live in the world. Subjective or relative morality can sound convincing and, in an atheistic or materialist worldview, it is the only option available. However, when applied to how we actually live, we find that this view is untenable. If there is no objective standard, then there is no basis for condemning behavior. Anyone can commit atrocious crimes with impunity. We may have laws or rules that govern behavior and consequences for the dissenters, but something in us cries injustice when these dissenters are able to get away with their actions. The sex trade shows this. In some places, the sex trade is perfectly legal, but we all know there is something deeply wrong with the practice of selling human beings for sexual use. Someone will argue that the problem with the sex trade is that it causes others harm. Relative morality is the key as long as you don’t hurt anybody else. To that I say, what objective standard are you using to judge that hurting someone else is wrong?  They may argue for a cultural understanding of morality. In this view, the morality of a culture should govern all behavior within that culture and is generally developed in order that that culture may flourish. This is problematic because who decides what a cultural morality is and what a flourishing culture is? Also, who is contained within your culture and how do you condemn the practices of other cultures? These are particularly relevant questions in our current day and age. According to one particular society today, the destruction of the Western world and the submission of all people to Sharia Law is the ultimate goal. Terrorist attacks and economic sabotage and everything perpetuated by Isis is fueled by a cultural understanding of morality. According to a relative understanding of morality, there is no basis for condemning Isis.

Something in us, from the earliest age, knows that somethings are wrong and some things are right. This does not deny that there is a moral grey area, nor does it mean that anybody knows the full extent of the objective moral standard. In no way am I arguing that everything that has been justified by using the Judeo-Christian God has been good. The argument is only that there is an objective moral standard and that we all live and judge assuming that there is such a standard. Any cry for justice is an assertion of a moral standard. Why do Black Lives Matter? Because there is an objective moral standard that maintains the moral value of all humans.

If you have ever had a conversation with a child, you have probably experienced some of the difficulty that arises when we cannot ground our objective morality in anything. “James, you shouldn’t hit your sister.” “Why not?” “Because that hurts her.” “Why is that bad?” “Because the atoms in the universe colliding randomly have created humans by the power of random mutations guided by natural selection and we humans have somehow developed a conscious mind and cultures that have determined over time that hurting people is contrary to the flourishing of our communities.” The holes in this explanation are myriad. Matter and energy have no moral value, if all we are is matter and energy driven by random dance and chemical firings in our brain, then nothing we are and nothing we do can have moral weight. The alternate story is much more compelling and has the greater explanatory  power when we observe and experience the world: “You should not hurt your sister because there is a God who is love and created all people to be a reflection of that love. You should love your sister because she is valuable and hitting her does not honor her objective value.” Now, that may be a little difficult to explain to a four year old, so we instead say things like, “Because it is wrong to hurt people, and it is especially wrong to hurt those who are smaller than you.”

So if we have come to the point where we believe there is an objective moral standard that takes us from a “can or cannot” to a “should or should not,” then the question follows about where this moral standard comes from? I have been arguing that it is found in the Judeo-Christian God and the following story explains some part of why I think this is the best answer: Plato writes of a dialogue between Socrates and a man named Euthyphro. Socrates asked the man whether the moral law was given by the gods or whether it was above the gods. On the one hand, the moral law is subjective because the gods did not exemplify the laws they gave and there were many gods who gave different laws or commands that were contrary. One the other hand, if the law is above the gods, then the gods are not ultimate beings and we now need to figure out what this objective law is and where it comes from. The Judeo-Christian answer escapes both of these problems as it grounds objective moral law in the character of God. God is the standard against which we judge all of our actions. His commands come directly from His character. God is love and the standard for morality is God’s love.

One objection may be called the problem of evil. While I will address that objection in a future post, one basic element of this objection should be explored here. The basic idea is that if God is all-good and all-powerful then the world He created should be all-good. The list of terrible atrocities in the world lend power to this argument and it is the magnitude of the issues addressed that compels me to save a full engagement for a separate post. The one thing I will say is that the problem of evil assumes an objective standard of good and evil which is best explained by the Judeo-Christian God. Our cries of injustice find their fullest voice when they are fueled by an understanding of the immense value God has placed upon human life and human flourishing.

So why not an ephemeral standard that is apart from God and just exists in the universe? Because there is nothing to ground that standard. There is no reason we should know it and there is no support for following it. And what precisely would that standard be? A profound rightness and wrongness that is an abstract concept has very little weight in objective reality, but a standard that is grounded in the Creator of the universe is much more compelling. The narrative, “Love created the world and everything that is wrong in the world is a rejection of Love,” explains the world in a compelling and powerful way. Now, are all compelling narratives true? Not necessarily. The argument here is merely that a Judeo-Christian God is the “best” explanation for morality. This is one piece of the puzzle and, hopefully, combined with my previous posts on the beginning of the universe and the appearance of design in the universe add further depth to this image. We begin to see a God that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian God. In the next posts, I will be addressing the specifically “Judeo-Christian” elements of this God.

The Teleological Argument for God’s Existence

The next step in evidences that seem to support the existence of a God is the Teleological (try saying that five times fast) Argument. Most famously argued by Thomas Aquinas, this argument has become vast and the Intelligent Design movement puts a lot of focus on this argument. The name of the argument comes from the Greek “Telos” which means “reason” or “purpose.” The basic idea is that the universe appears to have a purposeful design that would be highly unlikely and even mathematically impossible to have come about by random chance. To illustrate the principals behind this arguement I will give an example that is my own telling of an story that has seen countless permutations in other apologetic works.

Imagine that an astronaut was stranded on Mars, but instead of the incredible journey depicted in the recent film, The Martian, the astronaut walks over one of the hills to find a space-house. He walks to this house and finds it fully stocked with his favorite foods and a special garden outback with apple trees, tomato plants, and all sorts of vegetables. He finds that in this building the O2 levels are exactly what is needed to sustain human life. He finds a bed that is tailor-made for a person of his height and a copy of his favorite novel, David Copperfield, on the nightstand. On the home stereo system he finds the entire U2 catalog and several other of his favorite bands. He then lives in great comfort until he is rescued by NASA.

One would never argue that this space house was built on Mars by random chance. One could argue from the evidence that somehow this space house was made for our astronaut. Another example comes from the real world work of archeologists. Archeologists are constantly looking for evidence of human intelligent design. There are rocks that are found to have been shaped very crudely and archeologists can find that the rocks were shaped for a purpose, that the shape of the rocks were intelligently designed. All of this is merely to show the persuasive power of such evidence. When we look at the teleological argument, we are looking for clues that the universe may have been “made for us.” None of the following evidences prove the existence of an Intelligent Designer, but it does make the argument that somehow random forces in nature caused the existence of the Universe, the Earth, and Life seem pretty far-fetched.

First, the fine-tuning argument takes an expansive look at the balance of forces and constants in the universe that make life possible. Everything from the strength of gravity (too little and no solar systems form, too great and the universe would collapse in on itself) to the specific combination of factors that create the conditions found on Earth are seen as combining to reduce the likelihood of a natural explanation. The mathematics of the fine-tuning argument are astonishing. It is simply amazing how many factors had to line up in order to create the stable universe and the fertile hot-bed of life that is Earth. You may understand some of what is meant by considering the work of some scientists that focuses on finding planets that meet the minimum requirements for life. There are no planets that come anywhere near the minimum requirements for any ecology that we have seen on earth. There are certain theorists who have considered non-carbon based life forms that may have an entirely different set of prerequisites for life and there are so many planets we have not gathered enough information on (including planets not known about at all) that there is still plenty of room for the possibility of another life-filled planet.

All told, when one takes the mathematical likelihood that all of these conditions come about by chance (and I have met a brilliant mathematician who has written books that center on this math) we find that the odds are mathematically impossible. One number showed that the odds were such that they were 1 in 10^10^123 (Penrose, 2005) That number is so vast that it greatly surpasses the number of atoms in the universe. The argument basically concludes that the universe is less likely to have occurred by random chance then by an intelligent designer.

The other most persuasive evidence comes from the amazing miracle of life, specifically DNA. The information contained within DNA is unbelievably complex and is effectively the blueprints of all life. The idea that the remarkable consistency and complexity expressed within a strand of DNA could have developed in absence of any design or intent seems extremely unlikely. The current scientific theory of evolution claims that all of this develops over a great amount of time by random chance acted upon by natural selection. There are a few issues that I feel have never been fully answered in anything I have read or heard.

First, how did life begin? This is an extremely difficult point because there is no way to “study” this beginning. Scientists have been able to synthesize protein in a lab, but they had to intelligently design the conditions and materials in order to make that happen. And even then, it has not created a living organism. There is no mechanism or system for the generation of life in nature aside from other life.

Second, when I have heard scientists defend evolution’s ability to create the marvelous, functioning diversity seen today they laud Natural Selection as the answer to all questions. It’s not random, it’s natural selection. Natural Selection is a contradiction in terms. Nature is not an entity that can select anything. Random mutations (even over billions of years) cannot make “progress” in any of the ways that word is traditionally used. Natural selection claims that the most successful mutations will succeed in procreating and those mutations will be passed on to an even more successful generation. The famous example that seems to defeat this theory asks us to imagine monkeys with a type writer. How long would it take for them to write Shakespeare? For the sake of the illustration, let us assume that they are actually pressing the keys (when tested in real life, this experiment seldom resulted in keys being pressed unless the monkey was taught to do so). Then let us assume that they are using a computer which will take the full words they type and lift it out of the endless stream of random letters. Even were these conditions met (two conditions that required intelligent intervention) the monkeys or a random letter generator would not type more than a single line of Shakespeare in the entire time the universe has existed. Again, I will say that there are books written on this subject that defend these claims mathematically. One such work is Understanding Intelligent Design and I would highly recommend it as a good entry point for all of the ideas in this post.

As an alternate proposal that may make sense of some of the problems raised in this post, let us imagine that there were a powerful force or being that intelligently designed the universe to match the criteria necessary for stability and life. Then that being or force also manufactured organisms with DNA that was programmed to mutate and develop successfully into greater and greater viable diversity. This seems a much more reasonable postulation than solely relying on random chance to develop the universe we see today. Mathematically, it seems improbable or even impossible for a purely physical “closed” (without the influence of any external force or being) universe to have developed to the place we live in today.

One other response to these arguments is the multi-world hypothesis that I addressed last post. Depending on which model of the multi-world hypothesis that is being used, this would undercut the argument by saying there are an infinite (or near infinite) number of universes in all variations and ours would have to be one of them because of the necessity of infinity. The problems I have with these hypotheses are two-fold: first, it seems to fail the test of Occam’s Razor. We have an infinitely complex answer that has limited explanatory power and raises more questions than it answers. The questions of the origin of the universe become multiplied in these models. It also seems to have no evidence beyond theoretical mathematics. Even in that realm, multi-world hypotheses only have limited success in mathematical models of the universe. Secondly, the logical problem with the idea of an actual infinite verses a theoretical infinite looms again. Even if you had a multi-world generator constantly generating an infinite number of universes, how would we have arrived at this point in history in this universe. Also, there would have to be a universe generated which encroached upon all other universes and we would have to see evidence of these infinite encroaching universes. Infinity cannot exist, but only be theorized (which is why we can have any success with infinite universes in “theoretical” mathematics).

These evidences seems to take us from a force that had the ability to generate the universe to an intelligent force that could design functioning systems and complexity and even create life. This does not necessarily lead to a Judeo-Christian God and these arguments do no necessitate such a force or being; the arguments exist solely as issues that seem to be most adequately explained by a force as I just described. Thanks for reading.

The Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

This post marks the beginning of a new series of posts about some of the more convincing evidences for the existence of God. Not all of the arguments lead directly to a Judeo-Christian God, but they will each support each other and paint a picture of what a “God” might be like. The principle of Occam’s Razor claims that the simplest explanation that has the most explanatory power is the best explanation. These posts will show that the Judeo-Christian God seems to have the most explanatory power for what we know of reality. These posts point to God, they do not prove God. I do not cover the breadth of philosophical thought about these arguments, but hope to give an introduction to the basic tenets of these arguments.

The cosmological argument has been articulated many ways for many years. My articulation in this post is meant to be an accessible summary of the argument as I understand it. None of these thoughts are wholly original, but I want to present this argument to you as it has encouraged my faith in a God who is the Logos, the grounding of logic and existence.

In the cosmological argument, you have a series of simple premises that lead you to some of the characteristics that may be attributed to a God. Aristotle’s “Immovable Mover” is a direct result of the cosmological argument in one of its earlier shapes. The first premise is that the physical universe (everything that physically exists) had a beginning. Scientists and philosophers have believed for a long time that the universe had a beginning. There are many, many reasons to believe that this is true. Below I will explore a few of these reasons very briefly.

First, if the universe is eternal, then we would never have arrived at what we call the “present.” If time did not have a finite beginning, then it would take an infinite amount of time to get to this point. The problem with an infinite universe is that you cannot have a real infinite in the time-matter-space bound universe. There is no possible way to traverse an infinite number of days. However, we can have a potential infinite. In the Christian worldview, the soul will continue to exist for eternity. That means that the soul has the potential to live from the point of its creation until infinity days. It will never “arrive” at infinity, because the very concept of infinity is endless. All of this suggests that time must have had a beginning. Now, in standard models of physics, you cannot have space without time, matter without space, or time without matter. There cannot be a material existence without the presence of these three things. Therefore, if time had a beginning, it seems to follow that space and matter also had a beginning.

Second, because the universe is expanding in all directions and there is only ever a fixed amount of matter and energy in the material universe, the universe had to have a beginning where time, matter, and space began to exist. This is a little more difficult to explain, but the basic ideas (as I understand them) are that there is only so much matter and energy in the universe. If the physical universe were eternal, then at some point in the infinite past we would have run out of energy. Because matter is neither created nor destroyed, there is no possibility of an ever-expanding or an ever-expanding and contracting universe. If you were to rewind time and watch the entire universe, it would all begin to shrink back into a single point where all the matter and energy in the universe began and exploded outward. This is the Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang is an unexplainable (scientifically speaking) event where all matter and energy began as a single point and exploded into existence. There are many ways of describing how this may have happened and theoretical physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene have a myriad of fascinating explanations, but none of them account for the necessity of a beginning. Each theory attempting to account for the beginning of our universe merely pushes the problem back to an early point at which their theoretical “mutli-world generators” must have begun. I will address that again later. So, while there may be objections to this first premise, “the universe had a beginning,” I cannot address them all here.

The next premise is, “Everything that had a beginning had a cause outside of itself.” This is more of a simple logical argument, if a thing had a time where it did not exist, it could not cause anything during its state of non-existence. If a thing came into existence, it could not have caused its own existence due to the fact that it did not exist before. This does not say that something that exist can cause itself to change into a new thing. So if matter, time, space, and physical energy had a beginning, then before that beginning (excuse the time-bound language here) there must have been a Beginner that was outside of matter, time, space, and physical energy. Here is where we find our Immovable Mover. This thing has to have certain characteristics. It is possible that numbers exist outside of matter, time, space, and energy (henceforth referred to as MTSE), but numbers cannot cause anything. I know that the existence of numbers as a thing outside of our social constructs is challenged, but that is unimportant to this point. The point that is being made is that a Thing outside of MTSE must have existed and that Thing must also be a causal force. This Thing must have the ability to cause something to exist, and it must also have the power (some non spacial-temporal energy) to generate MTSE. So if we are accepting the steps so far, there must be a Thing, an Immovable Mover, that can cause MTSE to exist while being separate from MTSE.

The Universe began.

Everything that has begun had a cause outside of itself.

The Universe was begun by something outside of itself.

This is the basic formula for the Cosmological argument. As you can see, we have not gone very far in describing this “Immovable Mover,” but we can draw some indirect descriptions from what we have so far. Whatever caused everything to exist is timeless, creative (having the ability to create something different from itself), powerful, and willful (having the ability to act as opposed to numbers or raw energy). Here I exclude raw energy, because impersonal energy would have no ability to create unless directed into creation.

The multi-world hypotheses presented by theoretical physicists as a way to explain the energy in this world and complex quantum phenomena can seem to explain away the beginning of the universe, but, in fact, they just push the beginning of the universe back to a point beyond our physical reality’s Big Bang. There are explanations for physical generators of the Big Bang,  but they are subjected to the same dilemmas listed above. They still cannot have existed for infinity and they still cannot have an infinite amount of energy. The multiplicity of dimensions does not seem to solve any of these issues, but just continue to push back the problem to some origin of everything.

Overall, this is just the first evidence for a “God” and it is really a very small step, but it should at least get us from a materialist worldview to a worldview that accepts some thing that exists outside of MTSE. This is not to say that these arguments are fool-proof, but that they are evidence for certain worldviews and against other worldviews. That is a crucial first step in the journey.

Children of the Promise

More than any other thing, the past 5 years since I left home for college has been a journey of learning about the promises of God. Our whole faith is based on the promises of God. The Bible is framed in the context of covenant (can be read as promise). God’s interaction with His people in the Bible is always framed in promises. If you look at our world, you will see that in our very nature is a need to worship. Bob Dylan sings, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody…” What is the basis for our worship? Our subservience? The basis is in promise. Money promises security, power, and freedom. Religion promises redemption, self-worth, and community. Sensuality promises escape, connection, or significance. Self-help gurus promise impact, effective change, a banishment of insecurity. Really, anything that we worship finds, at its root, a promise to fulfill something we seek. This is because we were made to be a people who live by promises. The ultimate promise, of course, is love. All of these things we seek are rooted in our desire to be known and loved by our Father.  This desire can often be twisted and is linked to our desire for significance, impact, security, etc. The problem comes when we are “looking for love in all the wrong places…”

In the first part of the Bible, which is titled “the Old Testament” (also translated Old Covenant), we see Israel attempting to obtain God’s promises through the Law. This leads to a truth that we are all very aware of: none of us are perfect. The promise is unattainable through the law. Throughout this Old Covenant, God is constantly promising a Messiah who will fulfill His promises towards the people of Israel. We see the out working of this in the life of Jesus and the theological out working in the writings of Paul. Paul begins with the story of Abraham, the original father of promise. He uses the story of Israel’s journey from Abraham to Jesus to show that all along God’s focus was on clinging to the promise and not on the power of the Law. “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” Galatians 3:18, 22 Paul has shifted the focus from the Law to the promise and shows that our inheritance is by faith in the promise of Jesus.  “This means that it is not the children of the flesh (or children of the Law) who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” ‭‭Romans‬ ‭9:8‬ ‭ “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.”‭‭Galatians‬ ‭4:28‬ ‭So we see that we are called to be children of the promise; the promise of God to Abraham, the promise of God through Jesus. In fact, when we face opposition or tribulation in our life, we are to come running to the promises of God. It is by the promise that mankind receives salvation.

To bring this concept to bear on our own life, the question arises, “How then shall we live?” How do we live as children of the promise? First, ask yourself, “What has God promised me?” If nothing comes to mind, then think on these promises made to all of His people. He has promised abundant life, adoption as His sons and daughters, eternal life, all the fruits of the spirit, power to fulfill every good work, power to perform miracles in His name, a provision for every need in your life. If any of these promises seem to big for you or too impossible for God, then there is room for growth. They are all found as promises in Scripture. How do we begin to believe these promises? First, knowing the promises of God is important and we have a whole book based on the promises of God and the story of His fulfillment of those promises: the Bible. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17 Further, God has specific promises for us. Ask him. Take a pen and some paper and write, “Father, what promises do you have for me?” Then write, “[Your name] I have promised you _______” and just let God speak to your life. Do not be afraid of Him not speaking, because we see throughout Scripture His longing to communicate with His sons and daughters. And do not be afraid of hearing Him wrong; if what you write comes from a place of love and encouragement and aligns with God’s heart in Scriptures, then it is probably God.

Next, have faith that the promise will be fulfilled. “And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.” Hebrews 6:15 God’s promises in Scripture are doubly guaranteed by the fact that anything God speaks is true and He swears by Himself (the greatest thing on which to swear). This is found in the following Scripture although Paul’s wording can be difficult to understand on the first reading, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain…” The key to holding on in the midst of difficulties in our life is to “hold fast to the hope set before us,” which is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” This is the key to Christian living. This is how the great saints and martyrs who have gone before us faced their trials and were “more than conquerors.” They held onto the promise and, as Jesus, “for the joy that was set before [them]  endured the cross despising shame…” And so we pray,  “Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise.” ‭‭Psalm‬ ‭119:41‬ ‭And, “Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” Psalm‬ ‭119:49-50‬ ‭

So, whoever you are, wherever you are at, remember that our faith is a faith of promise. It is not by our works (thank God) that we receive the salvation and joy of the Lord but by holding fast to the effective promise of God. This extends even to our identity as perfected coheirs with Christ. Read the word, journal with God and get the promises inside of you. Then let them change you as you cling to them in spite of all that you see and experience. By the power of God’s promise, we can participate in the redemption of the world as His kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven (the realm of the promise fulfilled).

“And all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well when the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire and the fire and the rose are one.” T.S. Eliot

How to Respond to Profound Evil

There are some things that we encounter in the world that are profoundly evil. Friday night, the world witnessed that evil in the attack on locations in Paris that resulted in 129 dead, 352 injured, and heartbreak beyond count. The slaughter of innocents in the name of fear is profoundly evil. Events like this leave us reeling, no response seems good enough and, for those who attempt to comfort the mourning, words ring hollow. How then do we respond to these acts of depravity and brokenness? How do we shine the light of Christ into such immense darkness?

Silence.

First, we are silent. Words ring hollow and there is a reason we observe moments of silence in the wake of tragedy. There is a power in shared silence, in a space created for the chasm of grief. It is not an inactive or passive silence, this is an empathetic connection that speaks loudly, “we are here for you.” This silence is modeled with Job’s friends after he has lost his sons and daughters. These friends lose their power of comfort as soon as they begin to speak. The power of silence cannot be overestimated. We use words to calm our own hearts, to ease our conscience, to quantify the unquantifiable, but there is an engagement with reality in silence that goes farther than any verbal formulation. That is why we are told to, “Be still and know that I am God.”

After silence, we should weep with those who weep. The Biblical practice of lamentation is an all too unfamiliar spiritual expression among Western Christians. “How long O Lord!” is the chief refrain of the lament. How long will you be silent, how long will you allow the wicked to flourish, how long until we are saved out the depths of the pit? We should cry out against injustice, we should join our voices to the mourning in our cries for healing and restoration. The Psalms are full of prayers prayed from the depth of despair and anger. We should not shy away from our feelings and we should not throw our feelings into accusation. Encounter God in those places through lament. There are probably many people who feel forsaken in the wake of tragedy: Jesus’s own lament began, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” The miracle of lament is found in the power of putting our everything before God; through that process we often find the strength to praise Him in the midst of our doubt and suffering.

As we lament and call out against the wickedness of these acts, we are called to a place that can only be reached by God’s grace. We are called to pray for those who persecute us. In the midst of the lament against injustice, we call out for the redemption of the attackers and not just the victims. We call out blessings on those who would curse us. Martin Luther King phrases it beautifully, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We must love our enemies, we must pray for them. This is not an abstract love with the support of forced prayers through gritted teeth. This is a love that would, and did, die for those who persecuted Him. This is not an easy thing (the praying for our enemies often precedes the loving of them), but through the power of the Holy Spirit we can change our vengeful hearts. The journey to Christ is long, but it ends in love’s embrace of us and our loving embrace of all men.

Finally, the love that is shown through the sharing of suffering in silence, the lamentation against injustice, and the prayers for our enemies and brethren alike will cast out fear. The attack on Paris was a “terror” attack and the purpose was to sew fear. The true enemy (i.e. the principalities and powers of this world) strives daily to cause fear and fear causes the most evil in our world. Fear of “other,” fear of insignificance, fear of weakness, fear of pain are all apart of the motivation for terrible evil. My uncle, Fr. Kenneth Tanner, writes, “The Christian is one who embraces suffering and is at war with fear.” Through our silence, lamentation, and prayer we embrace suffering and wage war with fear. The power of the image above is that people came together and in their love for their city, countrymen, fellow man, they rose up to defy terror in unity. It should never be easy to respond to profound evil, but we must respond. I hope these thoughts above can help you to respond to this terrible tragedy.