When the Earth Shook

When the Earth Shook

Versión Español pendiente

It’s been nearly three months since the earthquake hit.

Terra and I were in a Mega, which is a store kind of like a Superstore (in Canada) or a Walmart Super Center. My memories of the actual event are kind of chaotic: a feeling that something was a bit off, then realizing it was an earthquake; watching a pop bottle explode and fly over a shelf through the air; trying to pull Terra to move faster so we could get out while she paused to put down the groceries; attempting to step over a puddle from a broken bottle and being annoyed/amused because it wouldn’t stay still so I could step over it; looking up and seeing the lights sway and wondering if anything – like the roof! – was going to fall; and seeing two workers lead their coworker, who was crying and obviously terrified, out of the store. Then it was over, and we were standing outside trying to process what had just happened and what we should do next.

I don’t want to overdramatize the event. I can’t honestly say that I was afraid at the time – I simply knew we needed to get out and was focused on that. And the initial aftermath was pretty calm as well. We managed to get word from our kids’ schools fairly quickly (within about 10 minutes) that the boys were all fine and started heading that way to pick them up. We communicated with family that we were fine. There was no really obvious damage right where we were, and we didn’t see anything major on our way to get the kids, so it seemed like a good shake, but nothing too serious. It was more interesting and adrenaline-inducing than scary.

It was only after we arrived home that we began to understand the severity of it. A little over 30 buildings collapsed, about 3000-4000 were damaged, and over 350 people dead – although we wouldn’t know those numbers for a few weeks. To be honest, in a city of over 20 million, that’s not that much damage percentage-wise. What was more striking was the fact that there were three buildings just a few blocks from us that had collapsed, and some of our teammates whose houses had been so damaged that they had to move out (ours was fine). It was when we discovered that that things began to feel a little more surreal.

Over the following week, we got used to streets being blocked off, crowds of people working and digging through rubble, and constant sirens (the photo above is one of the buildings that collapsed a few blocks from us). The city seemed to be in a frantic trance for the first few weeks, and it has been in a slow recovery since then. For most people, things are back to normal – although definitely not for those who lost family, friends, possessions or homes. Or for those who lost the security of living each day without worrying when the ground will shake again, a mental and emotional loss that can be extremely long lasting. I know that it hits me at times. I notice it most when I’m out walking or driving and suddenly feel like I have to figure out the safest place to go if an earthquake were to hit – where is the shortest building that is least likely to collapse?

But for me, there has been one realization that has stood out above and beyond all the others:

Life is valuable – but it is also short.

This came home to me in two ways. First was the reaction of everyone to the collapsed buildings. In an impressive way that seems to be common in situations of disaster, everyone pulled together to do everything they could to help those in need. It was impressive to watch people jump in and help to save the lives of those trapped. Supplies poured in, helpers lined up for hours, and everyone’s attention focused on saving lives. Life is something that can be taken for granted – until it is threatened. Then it becomes incredibly valuable.

The second way was hearing about the people who were trapped, but who eventually died because nobody could reach them in time. There are few things that have made me reflect as deeply on the value and fragility of life as this thought: What do you do when you’re trapped and you know you might not make it out alive?

The thought, understandably, is a scary one for many. It was for me, and there is a limit to which one can reflect on it without feeling overwhelmed. We live in a relatively safe society where we can push death far to the margins of our thoughts, to be confronted only when disaster strikes, if at all. But living through an earthquake where people living near to you have suddenly and unexpectedly died forces one to reflect. On the one hand, it makes me grateful to still be alive, overwhelmed by how valuable and precious life is, and how much I want to hang on to it! On the other hand, it makes me wonder – am I ready to die?

This brings me back to the topic that I raised in my last post – what happens after death? This earthquake has made me once again profoundly aware of how much of a mystery that question is! We have no videos of life after death, no way to objectively study it or quantify it, and no reliable accounts of what happens after death. The accounts we do have vary widely and are highly suspect, to say the least. We are left to make the best decisions we can based on inferences and whatever circumstantial evidence we can find. Not exactly a comfortable place for many of us to be. And yet, I think it’s worthwhile to consider because eventually, we’re all going to face death, like it or not. So for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the matter.

As I see it, there are three major categories that our society holds to as options after death. These three are nihilism, reincarnation, and God (heaven or a similar afterlife). I think that each of these provides evidences for or against, as well as implications for our daily life that are important. But rather than just talk about them, I’d like to imagine them.

Nihilism

First Nihilism. Put yourself in the position of someone trapped in a collapsed building. Your cell phone has died. You can hear people, but you’re too tired and weak to respond. Your throat is parched, your stomach is grumbling. It’s been days – you think. Trapped in the darkness, it’s hard to tell. Nobody has come. Or better put, nobody has been able to get to you. You have reflected on your life, your family, your loved ones. Hope has faded, and you can feel yourself fading too. You close your eyes and slowly drift off and then… nothing. Not blackness. Not peace, not a light, not anything. You just disappear. Your body is there, but “you” are gone. And along with you, everything that was important to you. All that you’ve worked for and dreamed about – gone. Your family – gone. Your experiences that you’ve worked so hard to accumulate – gone. For all intents and purposes, it’s as if you never existed.

This view basically states that life has no meaning, purpose or value. It often finds itself paired with naturalism, which holds that this world arose through natural means only and is all there is . Nihilism has a number of things that make it interesting to people. First, it focuses exclusively on this world that we can see and touch, which for many people (especially in the western secular culture) is the sum total of our life. No need to worry about any of that spiritual stuff that can seem so elusive and uncertain. Second, at least in a way, it provides freedom from all of the requirements and expectations that religious/spiritual belief seems to put on us. For those wanting to control their own life and destiny, it seems ideal.

But from my perspective, it has a number of significant problems. First, it denies our desire to live. I have heard of atheists describing death as a time of peace and freedom from life’s troubles, but I think that’s kind of a fake way to describe it. It’s not peace – it’s nothing. You cease to exist. All of your experiences, all of your learning, all of your wisdom (if indeed you were wise!), is gone. Your longings, dreams, aspirations, love, family, friends – all gone. Which ultimately brings up the huge question: What’s the point of it all? This isn’t a new thought – many atheists will admit that the thought of not existing is uncomfortable or disappointing for them. And I have to wonder: If we are so attuned to life, if life is so incredibly valuable and the instinct to live is so strong, why would we choose to believe something that fights against that? Why do we care when loved ones die? Why do we try to save victims of an earthquake? Something inside us cries out for life, and implies that life is more than just what we can presently see. This seems to fit in the desire-fulfillment pattern we see elsewhere in life: We get hungry, and food exists to fulfill this desire. We grow thirsty, and water exists to satisfy this desire. We desire love, and there are people around us to meet that need. We long to live – does it not make sense that this longing shows that there is a reality that could fulfill this longing? This is an inference, not direct evidence (which we don’t have), but it is a strong one.

Second, the implications for our daily life are significant. If there’s nothing after this life, if we’re just a cosmic accident who is really no better or different than an animal, then we have no intrinsic value. We have no reason to live for anything other than what we can get in this world and to enjoy life as much as we can. Many have struggled in this world for this very reason – a lack of value and purpose. Others live completely focused on getting as much as they can. It might be nice if you’re in the “rich” western world, but not if you’re living in the slums in a two-thirds world country.

Third, if there’s no God, then there is no objective right and wrong, and we have no basis for justice. If society decides so, child sacrifice or eugenics is just as valid as any other belief. But whatever society decides, we have no reason to obey it and they have no right to punish us for disobeying, because it’s just a social construct. And yet western society is one that cries out for justice! We rail against the evils of this world, all the while claiming that right and wrong is purely subjective. It makes no sense, to be honest. It’s interesting to note that while our society claims to not believe in God, we’ve borrowed a lot of concepts that flow much more naturally from a theistic view of the world than a naturalistic view. Justice, love, the value of people, compassion – all of these are contrary to the naturalistic, survival-of-the-fittest view that goes naturally with nihilism and naturalism.

Finally, where is the hope and comfort in this belief? I’m not just referring to our own hope but also for those who have experienced loss. Can you imagine telling a parent who has just lost a child in the earthquake that their child has ceased to exist and they’ll never see them again? Or that their remains will help fertilize life for others on the planet? Or that the injustice that the poor and oppressed face is nothing more than bad luck, and that they will never experience anything better, and their oppressors may never face justice? Talk about cold (or no) comfort!

All told, I can’t fathom why anyone believes that this view is viable. It doesn’t conform to our inner feelings, it doesn’t offer us hope or comfort, and it doesn’t agree with all the things that we claim are valuable in our society. If you hold to this view, I would love to hear your comments on how it improves humanity and our experience, because I can’t see it at all. It might help justify an individual who wants to live their life without any restrictions or guidance, but I don’t see it helping society as a whole.

Reincarnation

How about reincarnation? Let’s jump back into our trapped scenario. Except this time, as you fade out, you suddenly awake again! Now you’re a bird, tapping your way out of an egg (who knows how much time has passed?). Finally you break free! You get your first meal – regurgitated worms! Everyone’s favourite! And finally, after weeks of feeding and growing, you get thrust out of the nest and take your first clumsy flight. Soon, you’re soaring over canyons and mountains (unless, of course, your first flight was unsuccessful and you got eaten or died right away). What exhilaration!! (The flying, not the getting eaten/dying).

Except… you’re a bird. You don’t really feel exhilaration. In fact, you don’t feel much of anything. Or reflect on how amazing it is to be a bird. Or have any deep thoughts at all. You eat. And sleep. Maybe, depending what kind of bird you are and where you live, you poop on people. Not that you get any joy out of that. You just sort of live. Then you die again. Maybe next time you’ll come back as another person – who doesn’t remember any of their previous life. Maybe all the good karma you earned in this life will be completely wasted by that next jerk of a person that you are, who doesn’t realize that they are earning bad karma and shoving you back to worm status (again, not that you’ll be aware that you’re a worm). Maybe – horror of horrors! – you’ll be a Christian or an atheist who doesn’t even believe in reincarnation and teaches others that it’s ridiculous! Would that be a step forward? Or backward? Doesn’t matter – you’ll neither know nor care, because you won’t know who you started as anyway. You, as a person, don’t actually exist anymore. You have disappeared.

There are variations on this idea of reincarnation, especially as regards the end purpose. Some hold that the goal is to eventually achieve oneness with an impersonal life force and be enveloped in it. Others hold that the end result is our annihilation – that we eventually escape from this world and cycle of rebirths. I’m sure others hold that it is a repeating thing, so that we keep reincarnating ad infinitum. Life just keeps going.

I can understand some of the appeal of this way of thinking. To imagine that after this life we get to live another one is vastly better than just disappearing altogether. It also provides at least some motivation to lead a good life, or at least it is open to be used that way. If I live a good life, then I’ll reincarnate as something (someone?) better and be closer to freedom/perfection/escape or whatever goal we’re pursuing. And let’s be honest, who hasn’t wanted to be an eagle flying over the Grand Canyon, or a dolphin, or some sort of other animal or person?

But again, I struggle with this view for a variety of reasons. First, I just can’t find any objective support for it. Yes, there are a few people who claim to have been a person in a previous life, but really, how credible is that? There are tons of other explanations for these “memories” – from making them up, to psychological disorders, to spiritual forces. But the lack of empirical evidence could apply to any of these post-death ideas, so that’s not particularly notable.

Second, I, as an individual, still end up disappearing. As I sit here writing, I have absolutely no memory (providing reincarnation is actually true) of what I was before. Whatever person, or animal, or thing that I used to be has disappeared. Which means that all that I am right now will also disappear. I will still cease to exist, and everything and everyone that I love will mean nothing to me in my next life. Now, some might argue that our lives are all meaningful in the “in-between” life, but, aside from not even knowing if that exists, that is small comfort. Can you imagine the type of identity complex we would have after being multiple different people in multiple different times? But more seriously, the goal of reincarnation is either to become part of the impersonal life force (in which case I cease to exist as an individual) or to escape the cycle of life entirely (in which case I cease to exist as an individual), or, in some more modern variations, to just keep being reborn (in which case all my previous existences don’t matter, and this one doesn’t either). In any case, the person that I am now doesn’t matter, or won’t matter after I die.

Thirdly, like nihilism, it has negative implications for our life at present. If my goal is to obtain a better reincarnation, then my life becomes inherently selfish. Sure, I might do good things, but only because they benefit me in the long run. And who decides what is a good thing? We see right now that we are scorning the ideas and customs of previous generations, even though they (in many cases) thought that they were improving the world. Surely in future years people will look back at us and mock many of our ideas about what was right and wrong.

But I think those seeking a better reincarnation is the minority of cases. The reality is that most people, believing they will be reincarnated, can live however they want because they know what I just explained – whatever reincarnation they obtain, they won’t remember this life anyway, and so it’s essentially somebody else who is paying for whatever negative reincarnation they’ve earned. I’m free to do whatever I want! And there are other variations. Look at the society that developed in India with the caste system – a society based primarily on this idea of karma and reincarnation. As I understand it (its been a while since I’ve studied it in depth), the reincarnation system in India led to a belief that those who were suffering or in lower castes were simply experiencing the results of their previous lives. In their belief, to help someone was to interfere with the punishment that they were experiencing and with their ability to earn a better reincarnation in their next life! This is why Mother Theresa stood out so much when she actually tried to help people. A belief in reincarnation ends up being self-focused, releasing us from accountability for our actions. From another angle, I have actually had people tell me that people who commit evil acts (from abuse to murder) are simply acting the way the had to act because of their previous lives, and that they were neither to blame, nor wrong in their actions. That’s kind of scary to me.

So again, I struggle to believe that reincarnation is a net positive for me as an individual (I cease to exist) or for our society (it is selfish, except for those who want to earn a better reincarnation, who still have purely selfish motives). The possibility of being something or someone else sounds cool, but with nothing to back it up, it’s just wishful thinking.

God

So what about a belief in God? Again, let’s go back to our scenario. You are trapped. You have had no food or water for days. You slowly fade away and awake to find yourself in the presence of the most amazing, incomprehensible, glorious being you’ve ever seen! What is your reaction?

I think your reaction varies a lot depending on your life and how you’ve lived it. There will be a lot of people who will be surprised, and mainly in a negative way. Perhaps angry or belligerent, even. On the other hand, there will be many who breathe a deep sigh of relief and collapse into the arms (if we can use that term) of this divine being that they have long desired to know. I know that the concept of God (especially and specifically in the Christian sense, which is the most common in both my Latin American and Canadian contexts) is ridiculous or disturbing to many people. Yet it is the option that I believe best explains both our longings and our reality as living beings, as well as being the best guide for our daily lives.

For me, the foundation that drives my belief in God is scientific. It is now pretty much universally accepted that the universe had a beginning. I cannot bring myself to believe that the universe sprang into existence from nothing, and all the arguments trying to proclaim that that is what actually happened (including those of the renowned Stephen Hawking) seem to fall desperately short of being believable or making any sense. Nothing simply cannot produce everything. On the other side of the equation, Buddhists (the strongest example of the reincarnation religions) view the origins of the universe as meaningless, and posit that the universe itself is part of the cyclical nature of life – one universe ends and another begins. In their view, this question has no relevance. However, this is pure philosophical speculation. The fact is, we know is that this universe had a beginning. A beginning implies that something or someone began it. Add to this beginning the incredibly complex realities of life on earth (design, which implies a designer), as well as the existence of humans as rational, reflective beings, and I think that there is solid reason to believe that the notion of God is not only credible, but a very real possibility that has dramatic relevance to our lives and how we live.

If, then, we face a very real possibility of standing face to face with God after our death, I think it makes ample sense to try to understand who this God is that we would be facing. I have already tipped my hand by saying that I would focus on the Christian God, but I think we don’t necessarily have to dip deeply into Christian theology to come to some conclusions about who this God might be. To try to fully explain God would be huge and far beyond the scope of this post. Instead, I want to focus on three aspects of God that I think are fairly obvious even outside of Christian theology. These are his greatness, his smallness, and his personality.

Although listed last, I want to focus on the idea of God as a person, or his personality, because I believe that it brings life to the other ideas.

The very idea of God implicitly carries with it the idea of personality. There may be many debates about the character of God, whether he is distant or close, kind or cruel, etc. But it is particularly difficult to divorce “God” from the concept of personality. And I think that this has been fairly obvious throughout time. While various cultures have developed concepts of an impersonal life force (such as buddhism), they would not consider this force to be “God”. It is impersonal. God (or, in many cultures, gods) always contain the concept of a personality. I think we can see the reason for this supported from a few different angles.

I previously mentioned the concepts of creation and the design of the universe. Both of these acts – creation and design – are associated with the mind, planning, creativity. These are acts of people or personalities, not impersonal forces. Similarly, the presence of a rational, reasoning race of people within this creation strongly implies the presence of a rational, reasoning God. Although it is all the rage at present to point out the many similarities between primates and humans, we must recognize that the differences between us and them are far more striking than the similarities. Indeed, while one might be able to make an argument stating that biologically we have developed from apes (an argument for another time), there is a huge gap in terms of reasoning, self-awareness, and morality. While much of the present scientific community tries to argue that these traits developed slowly and naturally, most of the rest of the world has viewed these as transcendent gifts, whether from a God or the gods. Humans are seen as similar to animals, yes, but still completely different. It is true that our skills and knowledge of the world have developed over time, but I am hard-pressed to believe that human nature has changed much at all. As I understand it, the ancient written records that we have show humanity then as being similar to humanity today. And the extrapolations from pre-written records (“early man”) often seem to suffer from an assumption that a lack of technology indicates a lack of intelligence, an assumption that can be logically shown false on many levels. Be that as it may, I think it far more logical to believe that our intelligence, morals, and self-awareness come from another source, one that shares all of these characteristics, but in a much fuller, more perfect form. To use biblical language, that we are created “in his image”, that our own personhood comes from the top down, not from the bottom up.

Now, some may argue that we are falling into the age-old pattern of creating God in our own image – that as humanity has evolved we have created gods that look like us, and there is no reality behind them. Certainly, looking at history, this is one possible conclusion. Many of the ancient gods (Greek, Roman, others) look very much like glorified humans, and often just as depraved. And although the Christian God has pushed many of these traits to a higher level and perfected them in their concept of God (all the good concepts, anyway), there is no denying that the God revealed in the Bible is very “human” like – He is a person in the best sense. He is just, loving, wrathful, powerful, caring, merciful, etc. It would be very difficult to show one way or another whether we have made God in our image, or whether he has made us in his. Except… except for what I mentioned at the beginning – that the earth began. We cannot have created God if he is the one who began everything. Given this, it is far more likely that we, as creatures superior to the rest of the animal kingdom, were created in his image, and that throughout time, however imperfectly, we have sensed and tried to explain who this

Being is by reference to gods or a God who is above and beyond us.

I feel that one other explanation is necessary, and that is why, if God exists, he is so hidden from us. In my mind, the core of the answer is actually quite simple, and it centres around his personhood. There are really only three possibilities for how God relates to us. The first is that God would completely hide himself. But the only way that he could do that is to make us completely blind to the possibility that he exists, and to do that, he would have to eliminate much (or all) of our ability to think rationally – a significant part of what makes us in his image. If he doesn’t, there will always be people asking the questions of where everything came from, and why we are different than the animals, and why we hate injustice so much, and why love is so important, and so on. The fact that we ask those questions shows that we are aware of something beyond us, and implies that God might be found. But once he takes away our ability to reason, we would essentially be back to the level of animals, unable to relate to him as anything but an obedient pet. On the other side, God could reveal himself completely. But again, this destroys our freedom and choices. We would be either terrified of making a wrong choice (because we know the consequences and would be completely unable to hide) or forced to do what God wanted. Either way, the concept of love or a relationship is completely obliviated. If God is a “person” or a personality, then it implies that he values relationships, and relationship is not possible when it is completely controlled by one party. And so we are left with our present reality – the ability to conclude that God exists, the possibility of having a relationship with him, but also the possibility to reject and ignore that. While we might not totally love that answer, it seems to be the only way to allow both genuine freedom and love to flourish.

If, then, we accept that God exists and that he is a “person”, then we turn to the second aspect of God that I believe is very obvious – His bigness. The concept of God, as understood by the Christian and various other cultures or religions includes the idea of God as the creator of the universe. It can be very easy to affirm that concept without really thinking about what it means. It means that God is big. Not just “He can move a mountain” big, but “form an entire universe plus make all the laws that govern it and keep it in existence at every moment” kind of big. Not just “be in all places at once” big, but “be at every moment in history throughout the course of at least thousands if not billions of years” big. Even in our most contemplative moments, we cannot grasp the bigness of God. To accept this – which is the only conclusion possible if we accept the concept of God – brings to the forefront two realities that we try to ignore.

The first is worship. We simply cannot compare to God. In this sense, we are dramatically behind virtually every other society that has ever existed. In our mad rush to pat ourselves on the back for our tremendous technological improvements, we have failed to recognize that at best we are making poor copies of what God long ago made good. Human DNA makes a supercomputer look like an Etch-a-Sketch. The flight ability of a butterfly or bird puts our best planes to shame. Simple motions like bending an elbow or going for a walk make our robotics look incredibly clumsy. And while it’s true that some of our innovations look like improvements on nature, a close look shows the reality to be false. For example, it’s true that a bird has never made it to mach 2, but it’s also true that a plane has never reproduced naturally. For free. And survived on an (also free) diet of worms and bugs. Nor does a jet look that fast when compared to other “natural” items, such as comets (between 10-70 km/s, compared to mach 2, which is approximately 0.7 km/s). Not to mention that even our best accomplishments begin with the material we have received, not the creation of the material itself. I dare say that if we believe that God exists, worship – or at least some form of reverence or awe for his power – is the only adequate response.

The second reality is that God is in charge. We have built an entire society based on the concept of independence and the ability to make it on our own, without recognizing how little we can actually control. None of us chose the time, family or location of our birth. None of us knows the moment of our death. Most of us struggle regularly with our temper, how much we eat, our sexual desires and our emotions. We can choose our career, but not whether we get laid off. We can “control” our health, yet fail miserably to avoid even a common cold. We can choose to have a family, but we have little control over our reproductive system, and limited control over our kids once they are born. We strive for control, and yet the very arena where we should see the most control – “self-control” – eludes us more often than we care to admit. And yet we set ourselves up as these little kingdoms, confident in our ability to control our lives and our surroundings, without recognizing that our very lives are gifts from a much higher source. I do not mean to say that God controls us, as a puppet-master controls his puppets, but rather that all that we are is not from us. All that we have, we have received. We are stewards rather than owners, responsible to the one who made us. If we believe in God, it is inevitable that he is in charge, not us.

So far, the picture we have of God is of a powerful being, possibly even a tyrant. So we turn from the bigness of God to his smallness. By this, I don’t mean to contradict myself by arguing that God is not big. What I mean is that just as looking at the expanse of the sky reveals God’s greatness, so looking at a blade of grass, a ladybug, or our very DNA reveals that God is a God who cares about the details, about the small stuff. While looking at the big stuff shows us God’s power and greatness and the characteristics that are associated with that side of him, so looking at the small stuff reveals his care, his compassion, his love. When we look at the whole of nature and the world around us, we are humbled by his greatness. When we pause and examine the minute details of this world, we are overwhelmed by a sense of care that would arrange something so intricate and beautiful. Sadly, this aspect of God has been less often inferred than God’s greatness. One reason, at least in the present, is that we have a skewed notion of what God’s love should look like. In particular, we tend to think that he should take care of all of our problems or eliminate all the evil in the world. We see the bad around us and blame him, using it as an excuse to deny that he exists, instead of taking the blame ourselves and living in the freedom and responsibility he’s given us. We beat each other up, then blame God for not stopping us. We ignore his provision of life, his daily sustenance, the ability to enjoy this world, and the guidance he’s willing to give us, then claim he doesn’t care because our life isn’t going perfectly. His smallness shows that he cares, down to the most minute detail, even if he doesn’t interfere the way we sometimes want him to.

When we put these three concepts together, we find a an all-powerful God who created and sustains the universe, yet who is personally involved with and cares about the world – and us. In his smallness, we discover a God who loves us and every detail of our life and who desires a relationship with us. In his greatness, we are reminded that his love does not negate his role as King. Just as there are laws that govern the natural world, so God has expectations (morals) that are intended to guide our lives. As such, we are called to love others, to avoid some things and to do others, not so that we might please an angry God, but so that our world and our lives as individuals are fulfilling and meaningful. I believe that this God we can infer from the world around us is best and most completely revealed in the Bible and the person of Jesus, and that this belief strikes the balance of giving us hope for the future, while still giving us guidance (and often correction) for the present. And most significantly for this discussion, he is revealed as the creator and sustainer of life who offers that life to us.

.

And so, with the options of nihilism, reincarnation and God before us, I choose to believe in God. To me, God provides a better answer for our existence, our desire for life, and stronger implications for how to live than either of the other two options. If I am trapped in a building facing death, I will still, with everything in me, long to live and fight to live. There is an uncertainty about what comes next that will never be fully answered unless God personally reveals himself to me at some point. But the circumstantial evidence around me leads me to believe that this life is not all there is, and that God does indeed exist.

Which brings me back to the reality revealed through the earthquake – the value and shortness of life. It is a problem that we must all face, but it is a problem with a solution (and here my Christianity shows clearly). We long for life and eternity, and we find that in Christ. We fear death, yet Christ has conquered death. It was not his miracles and his teaching that changed the world, as impressive as they were. It was his resurrection. Don’t get me wrong! I still don’t want to die. The thought of another earthquake can still get my heart racing. But at the end of the day, I believe my life – now and for eternity – is held firmly in the hands of God, and that no matter what happens, I will be okay.

I’m Losing My Son…

I’m Losing My Son…

Versión Español

I’m losing my son.

That’s what my thought was as I woke up in the middle of the night last night. No, it’s not that he’s dying (thank goodness). Nor is he being taken from me by anyone, or being rebellious and running away from us in any way. He is, after all, only 12. No, I’m afraid the problem is much worse than that.

He’s growing up.

Now before you accuse me of using “clickbait” to get you to read this, when you wake up at 4 in the morning, this thought can be (and was) nearly crushing. After years of anticipating being a dad, after 4 kids and 12 years of building a family, of sharing times together, of watching them grow and learn and struggle and mature, to suddenly realize that in 5 short years he’ll be gone and our family that we have invested so much love and effort into will begin to dismantle is a hard thought to swallow. And it’s not just him. I know that every two years after that, another one will graduate and be ready to head out. Yes, I know that they may move in and out for a while, and that they’ll still be around, but still… they’ll be going. And then they’ll be gone.

And right now, that thought kills me.

I know I’m not discovering anything new. Parents throughout history have been dealing with this reality. Maybe the situations or the feelings are different now, or stronger than they used to be because of our culture or something, but I’m not convinced about that. Maybe I’m just a super sentimental guy who’s overthinking the situation. There’s probably a lot of truth to that one. But still, the reality is, losing your kids – losing anybody! – whether it’s through death, or rebellion or just them leaving, sucks. We grieve the loss. I very much recognize that I’m getting hit with a wave of what they call “anticipatory grief”. The thought of losing him, or any of my sons, is deeply sorrowful for me, and might be amplified because we expect to be in Mexico when he graduates, and it’s entirely possible that he’ll head back to Canada for school or to work. So when he leaves, he could really leave. And I grieve how that will change the dynamics of our family, especially since right now, our four boys are each others’ best friends.

So what do to with this grief? I can suck it up, because it’s still 5 years away, but that doesn’t change that it will happen and that 5 years will fly by. I can be grateful that I still have him around, and that even after he moves out we anticipate being able to see him regularly, at least for a few years. And I am grateful for that. Or I can accept that this is just part of life, and I have to deal with it. Definitely some truth in that. But for me, this brings up a bigger question.

What happens when he, or I, or another of my sons, or Terra, leave permanently? What happens when one of us dies?

Ay, there’s the rub! All this loss, all this grieving, just anticipates the day when that loss becomes permanent, and these relationships that we’ve spent so much time investing in come to an end. How can that be? How can something so precious, so valuable, just end? Am I wrong for feeling gypped, for feeling like that answer (that it all just ends) doesn’t match with what we sense? Why, despite our culture’s claims that we believe in pure evolution and that man has to make his own fate and that there is no transcendent meaning, do we end up looking at a child asking about God and say, “One way or another we all end up back together in the end. That’s what you’re asking, right?” (quote from the movie Gifted, starring Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace – go see it!) While that particular one is a made up interaction, it highlights our desire to continue, to keep going, to not lose what we love and who we have become.

And so when I wake up in the middle of the night, grieving my loss-that-will-be, I turn to God – more specifically, to Jesus – believing that he exists, believing that life transcends this world, that all that we experience and the relationships we long to see continue will actually do so.

It’s true that I have many questions about what happens after death. We have no eyewitness accounts, after all (other than Jesus, who really didn’t give us many details about what comes next). But our options are rather limited – we either cease to exist, keep existing as the people we are, or somehow reincarnate/merge into some form of oneness. Sure, there are variations, but those are the three main ones. I hope to examine that concept next week.

It’s also true that I have lots of questions about Jesus and God, but I’m coming to realize that many of them come not from evidence or lack thereof, but rather from presuppositions that make it hard to believe. Hopefully I can get to that topic in a few weeks.

But in the meantime, I’ve got a son (or 4) to put to bed. 5 years are going to go by really fast, and I want to take advantage of them.

Biblical Creation – Not What We Think It Is

Biblical Creation – Not What We Think It Is

Versión español

When I started this blog, one of the first things I said that I would write about was what the things are that have helped me continue as a Christian despite the challenges that Christianity faces. One of those items was the unanswered questions in the field of science, a post that I made a while ago. While this post doesn’t add anything to the scientific discussion there, it does look at the Biblical side of things, and why I think that the biblical account of creation is misread and is in no danger of being irrelevant, regardless of what scientific discoveries might arise in the future. 

When I was a kid, the first chapter of Genesis was amazing. That God would create the world in seven days just by speaking was completely believable and a fascinating story. I see the same fascination with it in my kids’ Sunday School classes. It gives a simple, clear explanation for how the world (including us) came to be and even explains why we have a seven day week.

Of course, growing up has a tendency to altar our understanding of life, making it far less simple, but often far more interesting. This has been the case for my understanding of the first chapter of Genesis. Although I spent many years studying young earth creationism (and I still find many of their arguments interesting), I eventually began to feel like there was something missing from all their discussions and theories of creation. In particular, especially as I studied more about how to interpret the Bible, I began to wonder if we were reading it correctly. We are far removed from the original writers and audience of Scripture, and I began to wonder how they would have understood this passage, and what point it was trying to make. As I have worked through these types of questions, I have begun to understand and interpret the first chapter of Genesis much differently than I did as a child. To be honest, it is a view that has very little to say about the age of the earth or the method of it’s creation. Instead, I believe Genesis 1 was presenting an alternative worldview for the ancient Israelites, one that is still relevant to us today, and one that lays aside the arguments about the age of the earth to focus on some concepts that are much more important to our life.

While there have been a variety of influences in this journey, I must especially highlight the influence of John C. Lennox1 and John H. Walton. In particular, many of the ideas below come from Walton’s commentary on Genesis.2 If you want a much more detailed explanation of some of these concepts, I highly encourage you to read it.

Audience and Author

To start with, we ask the simple questions of who wrote this account and to whom were they writing? Tradition (and the books themselves) has it that Moses wrote the majority of the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Old Testament) and completed it before the Israelites entered the Promised Land (by 1200 BCE3 at the latest). Others argue, based on internal manuscript details and language, that it wasn’t written until later, some even saying as late as the Persian period when the Israelites returned from exile. I struggle to believe that it was that late, personally. Since we have virtually no clear evidence one way or the other, I lean toward it being primarily an account that came from Moses, although the exact timing of when it was committed to writing and how various accounts may have been blended into one are certainly up for discussion.4 Regardless, though, there are some characteristics that we need to take into account as we read Genesis:

  1. It was written in the Ancient Near East (ANE) in a broader cultural setting that had a way of explaining the creation of the world, as evidenced by works such as the Enuma Elish, an ancient Babylonian creation myth. While nobody has convincingly showed that the creation story in Genesis directly derived from other ancient works from Babylon, Egypt or other places, it is reasonable to assume that the Israelites were aware of how other cultures explained the world, just as we are aware of the culture around us. It is also evident that a variety of common ANE concepts are present in the book of Genesis, although with a significant twist that differentiates them from their contemporaries.
  2. It was written with the Israelite’s context in mind – their recent departure from Egypt, their slavery there, and all the Gods and beliefs that they had known in that context, as well as the broader ANE context I just mentioned.
  3. Obviously, no person was present during the actual creation, except for the very last few verses when Adam and Eve were created.5 This means that this story is only available through the revelation of God. Whether He revealed it to Adam and Eve and it was passed down from there, or whether it was revealed to Moses, there’s no way to tell. That means that God could have revealed the act of creation precisely (what we view as scientifically), or literarily (in a story form that would capture the main concepts in a way the people would understand given their context and culture). While either one is possible, I lean towards the second for a variety of reasons that will be explained as we go.

Genre

As mentioned in that last point, we must decide what type of literature Genesis 1 is to be able to understand it properly. Like many, my default while growing up was to read it as history. It’s a story, so it must be historical. However, it doesn’t take much to realize that there’s more to this story than just a simple account of history. Days 1-3 are mirrored by days 4-6. Either God was very poetic in his creation act (which is definitely possible), or it was deliberately arranged to make it flow smoothly and sound very poetic. Add to that the repetition of various expressions (“It was good”, “there was evening and morning the nth day”, etc,) and we suddenly are faced with a very poetic creation account. After having a brief exchange with a creation scientist who swore up and down that it was pure history, I called up my seminary’s linguistic professor, and he calmly and quickly defined Genesis 1 as poetic narrative, similar (although much shorter) to other creation accounts such as the aforementioned Enuma Elish. That makes sense to me and seems to fit well with the poetic elements present.6 That means that it is moved out of the category of “pure” history. While obviously not everyone will agree with me, I have yet to find an argument that convinces me that it has to be history and can’t possibly be poetic.

Purpose

Unfortunately, it is impossible to get inside the author’s mind to determine exactly what his intended purpose was. The best we can do is try to understand the general flow of what he was communicating and understand the literary and cultural purposes of the time when he was writing. While we might not get it perfectly right, it’s probably going to be a lot closer than if we start from our own culture and literary understanding, which is a minimum of 2500 years removed from the original context.

With that caveat in mind, I am persuaded by Walton’s argument that the focus of Genesis 1 is not on structure (the parts and material), but rather on function (the purpose and role) of the cosmos. In particular, he points out that the Hebrew term used for “create” in Genesis 1 brings out more of the concept of “arrange and organize” rather than “manufacture”. In saying this, neither he nor I is trying to claim that God did not, at some point in some way, create the universe from nothing – rather, that is not the focus of Genesis 1. It appears, both in the broader culture and the Israelite context, that the question on everybody’s mind was not “How did God make this all?” (which is what we ask), but rather, “What is it’s purpose, and how does it work?” They wanted to know how it was organized, not how it came to exist. As we shall see, this impacts our understanding of the passage considerably.

Genesis 1

I could spend forever detailing all the complexities of the passage, but instead I refer you again to Walton’s commentary on the matter for an in-depth explanation. Here, I just want to highlight some of the key factors that stand out to me.

  1. Have you ever noticed the description of the state of the world in verse 2? That it was “formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”? The description is one of a lack of order, not lack of existence. This fits in well with the ancient concept of darkness and water as conveying chaos and lack of purpose much better than our concept of nothing existing and God calling it into being from nothing.
  2. There is a distinct lack of personification here that stands in marked contrast to other ancient worldviews. In other words, the water, the darkness and chaos are not gods and goddesses (such as Tiamat, the goddess of water who was cut in two to form the seas and the sky in the Enuma Elish). This continues throughout the whole account. The greater and lesser lights (sun and moon) are just lights, not gods or goddesses. They’re not even named directly! The entire account shifts the focus from a group of gods who gave function to the earth (and thereby needed to be given sacrifices to control these areas) to a single God who was in charge of everything.
  3. Related to that, the concept of chaos is different than what is seen in other ancient accounts. Instead of being evil, it simply is. As Walton says, “There is nothing sinister or menacing about this chaos in Genesis; it is simply the indication that God has not yet done his work.”7 In these two points, we see that the author is using familiar concepts, but changing them to develop a new, different worldview.
  4. Day one of creation is what I find most fascinating and sets the tone for the rest of the passage. There have been many attempted scientific explanations of how God created light on day one, but waited until day 4 to create what we accept and view as the sources of light. However, Walton argues that the focus is not on the creation of waves and particles, but on establishing the function of the world. In other words, when God separated the night from the day, the focus is on the fact that night would follow day, then day would follow night, and so on. In other words, he was establishing a pattern of time – day, night, day, night, day, night, etc. This is the foundational concept for how we measure time – the passage of days. Interestingly, when we read the definitions from verse five (God called the light “day” and the darkness “night”) back into verses 3 and 4, we get a totally different feel for this: “And God said, ‘Let there be day!’ And there was day. God saw that the day was good, and he separated the day from the night.” I don’t know if that’s legitimate linguistically in the original language, but I think it helps us get a good grasp on God’s focus here. He established time as the basis of our life on earth.
    One other note worth making here before moving on is how God calls it all good. This again seems to contradict the worldview of that time, which seemed to view darkness as one of the sources of chaos and something to be feared. Instead, God says time is good – both day and night. We see a similar reality in some of the other days, in particular day 2 (the expanse of water was also seen at that time as chaotic and sinister) and days 5 and 6 where both wild animals and sea monsters are seen as good, not as evil.
  5. Day 2 sees God dividing the water above from the water below. I remember studying creationist literature in high school that argued, based on this verse, that the earth used to be surrounded by a canopy of water that created a greenhouse effect, causing things to grow bigger (dinosaurs), live longer (accounts in the Bible and other ancient cultures) and be generally warmer. I haven’t seen that argument for a while… At any rate, in the ancient world, they did not share our understanding of the sky, space, stars, etc. They literally thought the sky was a hard dome. And that the water in its various forms (hail, snow, rain) was somehow let into the dome by God (or gods), and that the stars were somehow in or above the dome, but certainly not way off into space like we understand them. Their understanding was completely logical given the observational evidence that they had. What’s more, the purpose of the firmament was to regulate the weather system. When we read day 2 in light of this, it makes far more sense. God made a firmament (or vault or dome) that he called the sky. He left some water below and put some above (rain, snow, etc.). Basically, he set up the weather system.
  6. On day 3, we see God gathering the water into one place (which matches with their understanding of one land mass surrounded by water) to create dry ground. He then causes plants to grow and reproduce after their own kind. Once again, rather than focusing on the specific items that God created (plants, ocean, dry ground), it is helpful to view this as organizing the chaos into a working system – in this case, the agricultural system. At the end of day 3, rather than unorganized chaos, we have a functioning world: time has been established and called good, and the world is ready for its inhabitants – what Walton refers to as the functionaries, or those things/beings that govern and fill these different spaces.
  7. On day 4, returning to the concept or sphere outlined in day 1, we see the arrival and purpose of the lights – to govern the day and night, to separate night from day, to serve as signs for sacred times, and to mark days and years. It is an explanation of their function, not their fabrication.
  8. Day 5 also mirrors day 2, this time filling the firmament and waters with their respective functionaries – birds, fish, etc. These are not creatures that are enemies (in particular since the word used seems to indicate the large sea animals, i.e. chaos monsters) – they serve a function and were put there by God.
  9. Finally day 6 mirrors day 3, presenting the various animals (domesticated, wild herds and wild predators) as the functionaries (inhabitants) of this sphere.
  10. Most notable on day 6, of course, are the humans, who are created in God’s image and given the role of ruling the world God has created. The focus is on the image of humanity – that they in some way carry the essence of God and his character – as well as their role of acting as God’s representatives to rule and subdue the earth. Once again, this role and concept of humanity differs notably from the worldviews of the day, where humans were usually created out of some sort of conflict or sexual relationship between the gods, where they could be an annoyance to the gods (too noisy), and where they served the role of providing food for the gods through their myriad sacrifices. To once again quote Walton, “Whereas Mesopotamian literature is concerned about the jurisdiction of the various gods in the cosmos with humankind at the bottom of the heap, the Genesis account is interested in the jurisdiction of humankind over the rest of creation as a result of the image of God in which people were created.”8

So where does all this leave us? (I won’t get into day 7, since most of the disagreement about interpretation focuses on the creation part, not the resting part.) I think that there are a few things that Genesis 1 is not, and a few things that it teaches us that we have often lost sight of.

First, it is not a straight history text as we often have considered it. Second, it is not concerned primarily with structural creation (things), but rather with a focus on function – how the universe works. As such, it really has almost nothing to say about scientific matters or the creation method and timeline. It is not focused on teaching the age of the earth and the physical steps in creation. In this sense, we are free to follow wherever science leads – a discussion that is far from settled.

What this account does still teach us is a variety of truths that are important for our lives. First, it was created (made to function) by God. In our time, this contradicts the purely naturalistic view that says everything happened without God, just as it contradicted the ancient worldview that a bunch of different Gods were the source of this world. We can debate long and hard about the details of how God created the world (structurally), but those disagreements and debates should not derail our conviction that God created it.

Second, it proclaims that the world is good and functions the way it is supposed to. This was a huge message in a time when there were so many chaotic forces of nature (wild animals, darkness, the ocean) that were to be feared rather than celebrated. In our day, most of these things do not hold the same element of fear that they once did. Instead, our culture is more likely to view the world either as a resource to be used and abused or as an entity to be worshiped. The creation story charts a middle course. The world is good and to be understood and appreciated, but not to be worshiped. The cosmos is to be subdued and ruled by humanity, but not abused. It is good, and we should treat it with the respect and care it deserves. What’s more, it teaches us that even time was a creation of God, and the passage of time is a natural and good reality. We struggle with this as we strive to halt the hands of time (or at least our own aging!), but time itself is a creation of God for this world.

Finally, the value of humanity as created in the image of God is upheld, with all its ramifications. We are valuable and separate from the animals, who were not created in God’s image. We have a purpose in this world, and it is a significant and, dare I even say it, noble purpose – to steward the world that God has made. This has huge implications for how we view ourselves, our work, and our place in this world.

Genesis 1 is a beautiful passage of Scripture. I love it. I think it does a lot for setting the tone of Scripture, for who God is, for who we are, and for how amazing this world is. And I think that we do a serious injustice to both this passage and to our understanding of our role in this world when we spend all of our time focusing primarily on a debate about scientific ideas that most of us don’t fully understand and that detract from the primary messages of the chapter. While I don’t insist that everyone has to convert to my (and Walton’s) interpretation of this passage, I do think that we need to set aside the debate about how creation happened and work together to proclaim the presence of God, the value and purpose of humanity, and the wonder of this world that God has given us.

1 Especially his book Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science. Zondervan, 2011.

2 NIV Application Commentary: Genesis. Zondervan, 2001. I have found this commentary fascinating. It is one of the few commentaries that I have read like a book.

3 I’m going to use BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) as my dating abbreviations. Don’t read anything into it one way or another. Some Christians will get annoyed at the removal of Jesus by changing Before Christ (BC) and Anno Domini (AD – Year of our Lord). Non-Christians can get annoyed at leaving Jesus in the terms. Since someone is going to be mad no matter what, I’m trusting in the grace and maturity of Christians to not make this a big deal. Prove me right.

4 It is entirely possible that the accounts found in the first five books were passed on orally or in written form from Moses, and even prior to Moses, before being collected and synthesized into one account. It is even possible that there were multiple different times of collation, done at different times. This does not have to negate the primacy of Moses as the “author”. As Christians who believe God’s word was inspired, it is possible to extend that inspiration to the subsequent editors as well as to Moses. Paul said that all Scripture is inspired, not that one particular person or method of writing it down was inspired. It was a human-divine partnership, and I think too often we needlessly restrict that partnership to a specific belief about how it happened.

5 For the sake of this post, we won’t get into the debate about whether Adam and Eve were real people or are literary figures to convey a truth about humanity.

6 Some argue that Genesis 1 does not fit into traditional Hebrew poetry such as that found in the Psalms or prophets, that uses parallelism, chiasm, etc. I would argue that while it might not match exactly a lot of the poetry found in other parts of Scripture, I hardly think it makes sense to ignore the poetic elements of this passage because they aren’t exactly the same as other poetry, especially if we consider that Genesis may have been written hundreds of years before much of the other poetry.

7 Walton. Genesis. p. 74.

8 Walton. Genesis. p. 134.

7 Ways to Interpret the Bible

7 Ways to Interpret the Bible

Versión español

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. But it’s also probably the most argued-about book of all time as well. It doesn’t take much for a disagreement to start about what a specific passage is describing and how to interpret it. That doesn’t mean that the basic storyline of the Bible is hard to understand – it isn’t. It just means that people bring a lot of assumptions to the Bible, assumptions that influence how they understand different passages or even the whole thing.

Why does this matter? Well, the assumptions and approach we bring to the Bible drastically affects what we take from it. It’s like reading the Bible with different types of glasses that reveal different things. Different approaches have different advantages and disadvantages, and we need to be honest about them. It’s also helpful to understand (especially within Christian circles) where others are coming from, because often we argue and accuse each other of not taking the Bible seriously, which is rather unfortunate and causes a lot of division that is often not really necessary. In some ways, I am writing this post so I can share my approach to Scripture and to ask for honesty and understanding from those who might not share that approach. I hope that in the end you can see some value in some of the other ways to approach Scripture, even if you don’t fully agree with every aspect. As a Christian, some approaches definitely don’t hold much value. But some (more than one) do.

Below are 7 ways to interpret the Bible. It’s not an exhaustive list – there are probably variations on each of those, and maybe categories I haven’t thought of. But it’s a helpful place to start. Where would you fit?

  1. Hearsay – okay, this isn’t really a way to read the Bible, but it is the approach that many people use. People in this category will usually quote someone else and what they have said about the Bible without actually reading it themselves. Obviously, people in this category don’t take the Bible too seriously, and can be frustrating to deal with when they clearly don’t really know what they’re talking about. Like any of us who try to pretend we know more about something than we really do, right?
  2. Mythically – People in this category usually treat the Bible as an ancient document that may or may not have some truth in it, but is largely on the same level as any other ancient religious teaching, such as the gods of Rome or Greece. The stories are mostly considered mythical, especially if there is anything supernatural. They may take the Bible “seriously” as an ancient document, but certainly not as the Word of God.
  3. Casually – many would fall into this category, although for many different reasons. Some believe the Bible has some good teachings, but it’s no more authoritative than any other moral teaching. Others believe the Bible to be the Word of God (they take it seriously), but never really engage with it much. The reasons can be many (too busy, don’t like reading, not disciplined, find it boring), but they often come across as just excuses. It would be fair to ask how “seriously” people in this category take the Bible, but I also don’t want to be unduly harsh to the many who do take the Bible seriously, but don’t read it much.
  4. Historically-Critically – the people in this category may take the Bible seriously – some of them, anyway. They may even consider it to be the Word of God. But they have a tendency to be very critical and/or skeptical of what it says and to put themselves above the text, trying to judge what is really true and not true. I have in mind here people like the German textual critics who divide the Bible into many different sources, as well as approaches such as the Jesus Seminar. The first group will often take the Bible seriously (and can have some very important and helpful insights), but their tendency to carve up the Bible – and their extensive disagreements on how it should be divided – tend to undercut faith in the Scripture. A group like the Jesus Seminar, who divided the teachings of Jesus into various categories from “accurate” to “completely fabricated” (and only affirmed a few small phrases as actually being from Jesus) come across as arrogant and, to be honest, completely clueless. While I am all for studying the history of the Bible, this group has placed themselves so far above the Scripture that they claim they can know far better than the eyewitnesses what Jesus really said, and they have placed themselves in the position of saying that they are the deciders of truth, not the Bible.
  5. Literally (or traditionally) – okay, technically, literally should mean that they read the Bible according to the style of literature it is – read the poetry as poetry, parables as parables, history as history, etc. And most in this category do that. But this term has also been extended to mean, to quote a song I heard often growing up,  “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me.” In other words, whatever the Bible “clearly” says is what they hold to, even though many of the “clear” teachings (particularly on non-core doctrines) are very culturally interpreted. They hold to “traditional” teachings, which are not always as obvious or traditional as they think they are, and which may not be what the original audience would have understood from them. I don’t want to sound too disparaging to this group, because a) I was in it for most of my life, and b) they take the Bible very seriously. In fact, I have known so many deeply godly and wonderful people in this category that I heartily encourage people to take the Bible as seriously as these! However, I have also seen a lot of anger and dogmatism from this group, and a refusal to allow that anyone interpreting a passage differently than them could have a point. For some, the Bible has become their god instead of a means to know God. As well, I have seen a lot of fighting between members of this group who disagree theologically on various topics (pick one – the return of Christ, free-will/predestination, status of women, etc.) and point to their own verses that “clearly” show that they are right, even though others point to verses that “clearly” show that they are wrong! So while there is a lot of good in this group, there is a lot of potential – too often realized – for stubbornness and insistence on being right.
  6. Historically-Culturally – people in this group view the Bible as a document written by humans under the direction (inspiration) of God. To be fair, many (most?) in these last four categories would agree with that. The difference is that those in this group (who also take the Bible very seriously) place a high value on understanding the influence of culture, history, and our humanity on the text, as well as trying to understand how our own culture and context influences how we read and understand the text. This group tends to raise a lot of questions – how does our understanding of the Ancient Near East culture influence our understanding of the creation account? How did Paul’s cultural reality and upbringing influence his comments and actions regarding the role of women? How do we understand the conquest of the Promised Land and some of God’s commands to kill everyone? They also tend to be a lot less firm on many secondary doctrines, because they see uncertainty in the text. The benefit of this approach is that it digs deep to try to understand the message of what God was really trying to communicate in their culture and context and how we can appropriately convey this message to our current culture and context. The challenge is that it can be easy to move subtly into group 4 that I mentioned above (they are very similar, after all), standing critically over the text, or becoming so skeptical about what is accurate that they end up sliding into a belief that the Bible is not really God’s Word. Another challenge is that of becoming arrogant due to the amount of learning about different topics that is required, and becoming just as dogmatic about secondary topics as those in the literal group. But let’s be honest – arrogance and dogmatism are common traits for anyone in categories 4, 5, and 6. It doesn’t take much for us to think that we’re right and everyone else is wrong!
  7. The Bible as narrative – The basic idea here is that we should understand the Bible as a story (not meaning fiction, just story) that reveals how God was working in a particular time and place. The focus is less on developing theology and doctrines, and more on relationship and how people listened and related to God in a specific time and from there, how we can listen and relate to God in our time. The concept is used rather broadly and in a variety of different ways. The focus on relationship with God can be very beneficial and can both bring alive our relationship with God and assist us to see how He might relate to us in our present situation. On the other hand, some have used this method to move away from key and traditional church beliefs as well as the original author’s intent. It can use a self-centred approach, ignoring theology and church history and using humanity and our feelings and society as a starting point to make the stories (and God) fit into our beliefs. Most proponents would probably argue that they take the Bible seriously; however, depending on their approach and assumptions the results can be wildly different. I believe that adding an understanding of the Bible as narrative or story can be very helpful, but I don’t think we can ignore 2000 years of theology to do so.

So those are the 7 categories that I see. With that in mind, I want to pull out two key concepts.

First, except for categories 1 and 2, there are people in each category who take the Bible seriously – often very seriously. However, their approach to Scripture varies for different reasons. I would encourage us not to assume that someone holds a low (“not God’s Word”) view of Scripture simply because they don’t approach Scripture the same as us – or hold to all the same interpretations as us.

Second, as someone who gets tired of all the fighting, I would like to ask us all to show tremendous grace to people in other categories. This is especially true for those who find themselves in the last four categories, which is where most of the intense disagreements in the church seem to come from. I find myself presently in category 6, and it can be very frustrating to hear people who view the Bible “literally” say, directly or implicitly, that I don’t take the Bible seriously because I differ in my interpretation of a verse or doctrine. I take the Bible very seriously. And I know you do, too (assuming you’re a Christian). But my serious study of the Bible may lead me to a different conclusion than your serious study of the Bible. It’s okay for us to disagree, assuming that we maintain orthodoxy (if we start to ignore Christ and reject primary beliefs and creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed or the resurrection of Christ, then it’s a whole other issue).

My next post will (hopefully) address the creation account, my interpretation of it, and why it is something that has helped me to continue in my faith rather than losing it. But I felt that it was important to challenge us all to be honest about how we interpret the Bible, and to strive for grace and understanding when others interpret some parts differently.

The Resurrection

The Resurrection

To all my skeptical (unbelieving) friends and family,

I get it. As we celebrate Easter today, I just wanted to let you know – I stand with you. This whole resurrection thing (Jesus coming back to life) is hard to believe. I like things that I can see and touch and feel, things that fit into what is normal. God, a spiritual world, and especially the resurrection don’t fit into those nice categories. The idea of the resurrection is incredible, even ludicrous. And yet, even though I stand with you in being skeptical and incredulous, at the end of the day, I stand on the side of faith and belief. Here are a few of the reasons why:

  • Something happened. I can’t get away from the fact that something happened those many years ago – something so momentous that 11 out of 12 of his disciples were willing to die for it, and it eventually upended the Roman world.

    Some say it was a lie – a fabrication of the disciples. But 12 people willing to die for something they know is a lie is hard to believe. Basing a tremendous moral teaching on a lie makes them deceitful, not great. Casting yourself as the dunce (as the disciples did in the gospels) goes contrary to the normal trend of someone looking for a following, where you try to show off how smart you are and why people should believe you. The usual motives of sex, money and power are all contrary to what they taught (sexual morality and restraint, poverty or at least sacrificing material well-being for others, and serving others/suffering was the teaching and lifestyle of the disciples). And crafting such a wild story in the place where it can best be proven false is also a ridiculous idea. In sum, it’s hard to believe it was a made-up story, or that they disciples were gaining anything by this belief.

    Some say the disciples were just wrong, that they only thought Jesus rose again, or that it was just a spiritual resurrection. But that assumes a level of stupidity on their part that is just insulting. They knew what death looked like – they were likely far more familiar with it than us. They also knew that people didn’t rise from the dead, and were just as skeptical as us. Yet that’s what they proclaimed – a physical resurrection. Thomas didn’t believe at first (John 20:24-29), and even as Jesus was going up to heaven, Matthew tells us some doubted (28:17). The people of Israel were not simpletons or religious, fanatical fools. They were people like you and me, who were just as likely to scoff as believe. And yet, in the heart of Jerusalem, a mere 50 days after the resurrection, the church exploded. Among the people who had seen Jesus, heard his teaching, and had access to all the disciples, to all the people who knew him, to the tomb, and to all of his enemies. It was these people, who were best able to verify (or not) the truthfulness of the story of his resurrection, who first accepted his resurrection as true – even many of the priests. It seems unlikely that a “made up” resurrection would have gone anywhere.

  • Science doesn’t explain miracles. The resurrection is a miracle – something out of the ordinary. Science does it’s work in the natural world, observing and explaining normal patterns and events. (See here for a scientists views on the matter.) Yes, science clears up many mysteries that seemed miraculous. But by definition, miracles are one-time, unrepeatable events. Science doesn’t explain them, nor can it prove that they didn’t happen. Science is limited in it’s explanatory power – it doesn’t explain the meaning of life, the mystery of our souls (that most people believe we have) or the existence of anything beyond this observable world (metaphysics, spiritual realities, etc.). Heck, there are still a lot of gaps in what we can study – why would we think that science can “explain away” the resurrection? That’s where we turn to history, as I briefly outlined above.
  • I believe in God. When I look at humanity around me, I see something pretty common – people long for justice, beauty, love, and life. Our longing for these things doesn’t prove that God exists, but as many others have said, thirst indicates that water exists. Our longing for all of these things indicates that there is something (someone) who can fulfill that longing. Science can’t disprove God any more than it can prove His existence, and once we open that door to the possibility of God, miracles and even the resurrection are not so implausible. On the other hand, if God is removed from the equation, then our death is the end – we simply cease to exist. And there is no justice for those who experience a life of injustice, no beauty to look forward to, no love that carries on beyond this life. My longings (echoed by what I would say is the vast majority of people) for all of these things causes me to believe that there is fulfillment somewhere. Then you add in a story (incredible, yet credible) that Jesus defeated death and promises eternal life, justice, love and beauty (what we all long for), why are we so hesitant to believe?
  • The person of Jesus. It’s hard to look at the life of Jesus and not be impressed by him. His love and compassion were off the charts, his moral teachings are considered among the best ever, and his miracles were incredible. Then he kept claiming that he was God (ability to forgive sins, claims that he would judge the world, saying he and the Father were one, etc.). Finally, you add to that his resurrection, and suddenly him being God is not so far fetched, even if it is hard to believe for us materialistic, “prove it!” types.

Look, I know that Christians and the church have a bad reputation in many circles right now. Sometimes even for good reasons. Certainly the church has not always been right and definitely has not always been a reflection of Jesus. But I also think that much of the bad reputation is undeserved. Think about it – it’s pretty significant that science, hospitals, universities, democracy, and things like free speech/freedom of worship have all developed primarily in the western, “Christian” world. I know that not all – maybe not even most – individuals were christians, but our western society did have as its base Christian concepts such as mercy, freedom, compassion, justice, and a belief that we could learn about our world (since God made it and it would be logical). For all its missteps, I believe the church has been very positive for society as a whole, and I believe that the teachings – and the resurrection! – of Jesus is the basis for that, regardless of how that has been twisted or forgotten at times.

If you’re skeptical and you’re reading this, I don’t expect you to drop everything and suddenly follow Jesus. But I don’t think it would hurt to pick up the Bible and start reading the stories of Jesus and who he was (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament). If you’re really interested, you could search for some Christian sources who explain why the resurrection is actually a realistic idea (Ravi Zacharias and Lee Strobel would be two sources to get you started). You might be surprised to realize that as crazy as it sounds, perhaps it’s not so crazy after all.

So happy Easter. And with many other Christians around the world, I proclaim (as incredulous as it sometimes is to me), “He is risen. He is risen indeed.”

To Believe or Not to Believe: The Challenge of Evolution

To Believe or Not to Believe: The Challenge of Evolution

Spanish Version

For this first posts in this series, The Struggle of Faith, click here, here and here.

One of the subjects that has been of the most interest to me – and also most challenging to my faith as a Christian – is that of the origin of the world and the creation or evolution of humanity. When I was in Grade 12, I was just about ready to throw in the towel on my faith. After hearing so much about evolution, I figured that if God wasn’t necessary to explain our existence, why would I continue to believe in Him? I began to study the topic as deeply as possible, and I realized that there were still many things that evolution didn’t seem to explain adequately to me. Since then, I have continued to study this debate, doing my best to understand the beginnings of our existence. At different times, the arguments by one side or the other have struck me as convincing. Each side of the debate has some interesting points, as well as some really weak ones. I found that trying to follow the discussion and make a decision about the truth caused me a lot of confusion. In fact, for a number of years, I gave up studying the subject, because the lack of certainty, the illogical arguments, and the disdain and arrogance shown by each side drove me nuts. What’s more, I despaired of ever arriving at a concrete conclusion, something that really frustrated me.

In the last 3-4 years, I have returned to this topic, once again trying to understand the answers to this question. I still don’t have concrete answers, but at least I have come to peace with the situation. I have arrived at some conclusions – not about how, exactly, the world began to exist, but about the nature of the debate, my ability to understand the science, and some problems with the theory of evolution that still don’t have scientific answers that seem credible to me. I will give my conclusion about the nature of the debate between creation and evolution at the end of this post. As for my ability to participate in the debate, I explained my position in my previous post. So, the purpose of this post is to lay out some things that still don’t make sense to me about the theory of evolution.

I am certainly not claiming to have the final answer to this debate, and I’m not even aiming to give a firm conclusion. As I said in my last post, even the scientists don’t agree about this topic, despite the oft-heard declaration that “the science is clear” in favour of evolution. It isn’t. I’m not speaking as an expert, but as an ordinary person who has questions and is searching for answers. As such, I’m going to present the issues that most leave me feeling unsatisfied. My questions and doubts are mainly about the theory of evolution, but that isn’t the full story. Please read to the end of the post before drawing any firm conclusions, especially if you are an evolutionist of whatever stripe.

One note: for my most recent research into these themes, I have used many different web sites from non-Christian sources to try to understand and appropriately present the humanistic/naturalistic perspective that is considered the “scientific consensus”. For a Christian perspective, I have primarily used the sites of the Institute for Creation Research (icr.org), The Discovery Institute and their related site, evolutionnews.org, and Biólogos (biologos.org). The first gives a perspective of Young Earth Creationists, the second is based on the theory of Intelligent Design, and the final one is from the point of view of some evolutionary theists.

So, without further ado, here are the dilemmas from the theory of evolution that most catch my attention and have left me wanting:

  1. The uncertainty about the steps of evolution. It’s difficult to hear over and over the mantra that evolution is a fact and proved beyond a shadow of doubt when the scientific articles are littered with ambiguity. When reading an article about the steps of evolution for a particular species of animal or anything else, the article is full of “maybe”, “perhaps”, “probably”, “we’re not sure”, “possibly”, etc. I understand that there’s still a lot to learn and a lot of gaps to fill in, but it doesn’t fill me with confidence when all the articles are like that. Even in the cases where they say that it is certain, a closer look reveals the same problem. I don’t expect  perfection, but I’d like a lot more certainty and evidence about how something happened before I accept it as gospel truth (pun intended).
  2. The concept of Infinity. A common argument from those who don’t believe in God is that God couldn’t exist because, “Who created God?” But I’ve never understood this argument, because evolution (without God) ends up with essentially the same problem. Either the universe always existed and is itself eternal (so who created the universe? And why is an eternal universe more acceptable than an eternal God?) or there was nothing until about 14 billion years ago, then suddenly matter, and thus time, burst into existence (where did everything come from? And how can “nothing” suddenly create everything, including time?), or there was some other eternal force (e.g. gravity, as Stephen Hawking apparently suggests) that always existed, which again leaves us with the question of how gravity could always exist or why it’s okay for that to be eternal, but not God. In every case, we have to deal with the concept of infinity/eternity, and the beginning of all things. I think the concept of an eternal God makes just as much sense as any other answer. Maybe more, because at least with the concept of God there is intelligence and power capable of creating everything, something that the other ideas don’t appear to provide. I know that it’s difficult to believe in God when He can’t be measured or experienced in quite the same way as the physical world around us, but I don’t think it’s fair to exclude the possibility just because of that.
  3. The creation (or rise) of life from non-life. At least everybody is in agreement about this point: we don’t have the slightest clue exactly how life began on earth. There are many sites that give explanations or theories as if it were certain, such as this one from Berkeley, but the reality is that we don’t know how the ability to replicate or reproduce began. Some sites, such as this one or this one from Live Science, state that we know exactly when life began, but not how. Biologos agrees, and give their opinion here. They are optimistic that further investigations are going to bring new evidence and explanations about how life began. On the other hand, evolutionnews and ICR (here, here, and here) don’t believe that it is (or was) posible for live to arise from non-life.
    In my opinion, at this point the reasons and complications against the spontaneous creation of life appear more valid. The evolution of life, which appears so certain when one reads a basic explanation from an evolutionary source, appears much less certain upon reading an article that outlines how difficult and apparently impossible it is to combine basic elements and begin a process of reproduction. In my view, there is at present a total lack of evidence that this can happen. There are just a lot of hypothetical ideas of what might have happened.
    On the other hand, Biologos has a very good article that reminds us that a lack of answers does not necessarily indicate the presence of God. The answers often arrive with more experiments and investigation. But at the moment, this is a crucial barrier that the theory of evolution has not been able to satisfactorily cross.
  4. The tendency of mutations towards destruction and neutrality. Humanistic evolution says that each organism has arisen due to gradual changes throughout the course of millions of years. The most common mechanism held responsible for these changes is mutation. A mutation (says the theory) brings certain benefits to the organism that helps it to survive and copy itself better than its competitors, thus allowing it to become dominant. Over time, the compilation of mutations leads to the rise of new organisms, until we have the variety and diversity that we see today. Everything sounds nice and simple.
    But the reality (and once again, everyone is in agreement with this part) is that the vast majority – nearly all – of mutations are negative, or at best, neutral. And the few examples of beneficial mutations, such as “superbugs”, never bring a change in species, which makes suspect that they are not really evolutionary changes, merely adaptations of an organism that allow it to survive in a different situation.
    A relatively recent example of this comes from Harvard Medical School, where a long-running experiment produced a “significant” change in the bacteria being investigated – a mutation that  could be seen as a step, say the researchers, towards the beginning of a new species. (A bacteria began to use an element in the presence of oxygen when it had not been able to do so previously.) But others say that this investigation doesn’t demonstrate evolution, and it definitely doesn’t show the creation of a new species, or even steps in that direction. In fact, the rebuttal points to another scientist who made the same bacteria do the same thing much more quickly, but did not believe that the change was anything significant.
    Another discussion about mutations, but on the genetic level, speaks about the belief that there are many “pseudogenes” (false or inactive genes that remained in our DNA after the mutation of new ones that made them unnecessary). This idea is being challenged by new research (and here) that show that at least some of these “pseudogenes” have active and important roles, and that maybe they are not indications of previous mutations. To me, this case appears very similar to the argument about vestigial organs (organs left over from evolution that no longer have use). In the many years since these organs were first proposed as “proof” of evolution, we have discovered that almost all of them – and some would say every single one – serve a useful purpose. In fact, Francis Collins, who directed the Human Genome Project which mapped out the human genome, declared that the extra pseudogenes (junk DNA) in our bodies was evidence of evolution. But in 2015, he retracted this statement, saying that the majority of the things that appeared extra, are not.
    So despite the beliefs and proclamations of the evolutionists and the constant reports of the evolution of new superbugs, positive mutations are not very common, and up until now, as far as I know, scientists have not been able to force variations that create new species, but rather only variations within the same type of organism. And if millions of beneficial mutations are necessary for a new species to arise, it’s difficult to believe that it’s possible. I know that that last statement is an expression of belief, not fact – the so-called “argument of incredulity” – but I just don’t see sufficient evidence to be convinced that mutations can create new creatures.
  5. The creation of biological information. The last two problems mentioned have as their root the problem of the creation of information. Despite all of the discussion about mutations, these mutations do not appear to result in the creation of new information. The theory of evolution says that the complexity of organisms has increase bit by bit until the present day, when we have extremely complex organisms. But it appears that mutations only result in organisms that are weaker or have modified their form, and never in the creation of new information or in an organism that is different and more complex.
    For example: One theory proposes that multicellular organisms began when a single-cell organism entered into another single-cell organism and the two began a symbiotic relationship that gave them (together and individually) a competitive advantage. Again, this sounds good. The problem is that for this organism to copy itself as a complete organism (new organisms that include both parts), there has to be a mixing of the genetic information of the two (their DNA) in order to make a copy, something that doesn’t appear overly common or easy to do. And if that wasn’t enough, there also needs to be the creation of new genetic information to guide the new organism and the new DNA in how to work together and replicate itself. DNA doesn’t just include the basic information for the parts. It also contains the information necessary for all the different parts to work together – information that simply didn’t exist when they were separate organisms. It needs to define which part of the new gene will reproduce first, how they will interact, etc.
    Maybe that’s not the best example, or not explained the best – remember, I’m not a scientist, I’m just someone trying to explain what doesn’t make sense to me. And the creation of new information at a genetic level isn’t simple, and it doesn’t appear that there is a natural mechanism that helps the process to work. Yet many times, when an article is talking about organisms and the “evolutionary advantage” that a mutation confers on them, it speaks as if the organisms had some sort of intelligence or guiding principle. But they don’t. A unicellular organism just makes copies of itself and does it’s job (if it has a job). If it lives in a good environment, it can make many copies. If it enters into a less hospitable place, it dies or cannot make many copies. It doesn’t have the ability to think, “Aha! Here’s a good spot! I’m going to stay here for a while. And if I join with this or that other organism or cell, then we can survive longer and grow stronger. And even better, if we mix our genes, we could become something incredible!” Unicellular organisms simply carry out automatic processes. So if they’re going to mix with another cell to form a new organism, they have to be able to do it automatically – it’s either an inevitable process or something external (environment, etc.) forces this combination to happen. There is no guidance, intelligence, or deliberate help.
    If you want to study the concept of the beginning of multicellular organisms more in depth, you can go here to gain an evolutionary explanation. Stephen Meyer and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute are those who best explain the problem of the creation of biological information, and you can find more information here or here (the first article has a link that connects to a book on this topic by Stephen Meyer). As well, both ICR (here) and evolutionnews (here) mention an article by two non-Christian scientists that says that chemical reactions do not appear to be sufficient for the evolution of life, and speaks about the possibility of information and networks, instead of chemistry, as the key for the formation of life. However, they don’t really give a clear explanation about how this works. The original article is available here, although you have to pay for it.

So, those are the points that most catch my attention regarding the origins of life. It is a huge topic, and there are many things that I have not mentioned. As always with this topic, I have more questions than answers. If I had to choose my own position, I would probably align most closely with those who argue for Intelligent Design, but my position has changed various times in my life, and could very possibly change again in the future. As Denis Venema said in the article that I mentioned before, the lack of answers does not necessarily mean that there aren’t answers, just that we don’t have them right now. But right now there appear to be some significant barriers for science to show that evolution without God isn’t possible.

But – and this but is very important – this doesn’t mean that I’m completely against the concept of evolution without the direct intervention of God and through completely natural means, even though it presently seems incredibly hard to believe. It is possible that we will find answers to all of the problems that I have mentioned, and many others that I haven’t. Maybe we will someday be able to fill in the holes of our understanding with knowledge. And that would be fine. Even if we discover that it was not necessary for God to intervene to create new species and form life from non-life, I would still continue with my faith. Why? Because it still seems that our universe needs something (or someone) outside of itself to start it. Because even though science might be able to explain the “how” of life, it’s terrible at explaining the “why”. Because there are still various other lines of reasoning that point to God. And more than anything because our faith isn’t centred on how God created the world, but on the person, death and resurrection of Jesus.

But apart from all that, the conclusion that I’ve come to about the whole debate between creation and evolution is that we are wasting a lot of time discussing a secondary matter. I don’t believe that the Bible, and the first chapter of Genesis in particular, was written to give a scientific explanation of the creation of the world. I’m not a scientist, but I am a theologian, at least to some degree. I study the Bible a lot, and I don’t think this creation/evolution debate captures the point of what the Bible is saying. I will do a post soon about this (well, as soon as possible with 4 kids, work, and taking classes), but first I have to deal with the question of what it means to “take the Bible seriously”, a discussion very important (at least within Christian circles) to be able to discuss the significance of a lot of Biblical passages – especially Genesis 1.

If you have a comment or question, please put drop me a note below. God bless.

The Evolution/Creation debate: Necessary Foundations

The Evolution/Creation debate: Necessary Foundations

Versión español

Over my first few posts, I’ve looked at how faith has been a struggle for me, but how I’ve ultimately come down strongly on the side of believing in the truth of Christianity and some of the reasons for that decision, as well as explaining the concept of faith. Over the next few weeks, I want to examine some of the reasons for faith that I listed in my initial post, and give a little more detail about them.

The first topic I want to address is the topic of science and faith, although to be precise, I am referring far more to the debate about the origins of humanity – evolution and creation. I dare say that virtually all of us are fine with science when we’re talking about repeatable events and technology in our life (as in, we all agree that science has a method and it produces results that we can acknowledge as valid). But the matter of origins is a different one, because it can’t be repeated and most of the evidence is circumstantial or based on speculation. This has been a topic of significant interest to me for years, and one that gets a lot of attention in our North American society. But before I even touch on anything remotely scientific, I think that there are a few details we need to examine so that we can approach this topic reasonably instead of fanatically. So, here are a few things I want you to think about before we dive into the scientific (and later, Biblical) details.

How qualified are you?

The obvious first question for us to ask is, how qualified are we to deal with scientific matters? Let’s be honest, the field of science is a vast and hugely technical one, and most of us aren’t qualified to weigh and assess the different arguments. For example, where would you rate yourself on the following scale?

  1. Virtually no scientific knowledge. Don’t know, don’t care.
  2. I can answer basic questions, don’t mind science
  3. I enjoy science and research questions that I have
  4. I love science, study it hard, and (likely) have a science degree and job
  5. I am an expert in at least one scientific field and informed in others

I would put myself firmly in group 3, and have been tempted at times to pursue a degree or career in science, but life has taken me other directions. I would guess that the vast majority of people fit into groups 1-3, and only a small percentage make it to group 5. This makes it very difficult to have a strong, studied opinion. It’s not impossible to be informed, but we run the risk of holding strong opinions that are, quite simply, wrong.

Quantity of Information

Another challenge facing us “average” people is the sheer quantity of information available to us in our society. There is a reason that this is called the information age. The amount of research that is available to us at any given moment is staggering. A quick Google search on “ human origins” came up with 18 million articles! While obviously a lot of those results would go in completely different directions than just scientific knowledge, and much of the information would be repeated, it still highlights the fact that there is too much information for any one person to know it all. The average person is bombarded with conflicting viewpoints and has very little ability to discern which are credible, and which are pure nonsense. Which leads to another problem:

Disagreement in the Research

There are a lot of very smart people in this world. Many of them are scientists who have devoted their lives to research and study scientific issues, and in particular, issues related to the origins of the world and humanity. But the reality is, they don’t agree with each other. If you have ever watched a debate between scientists with differing points of views, it becomes evident very quickly that there is significant disagreement about which studies or science is accurate and valid, which sources are credible, and even the definitions of many of the concepts that are being debated. The so-called average person is left struggling to know what is most significant and who is performing a slight-of-hand.

Another source of confusion is the shifting of scientists from one school of thought to another. While there are many variations of beliefs regarding origins, as a Christian I notice four different groups that jump out. There are the atheists and/or naturalists who believe that everything has a natural cause and that God doesn’t exist or at least doesn’t participate in creation and our world at all. Then there are Christians that fit into three different categories: Those who believe in God but believe that he created the world through natural means (theistic evolution, such as that espoused by BioLogos); those who believe that he interceded supernaturally and directed the evolutionary process (Intelligent Design such as the Discovery Institute); and those who believe that God created the world in six literal days as laid out in the Bible (Young-Earth Creationists such as the Institute for Creation Research). Note: I point to these organizations and web pages only as examples of each view. Explore them or others at your leisure to get an idea of the different views.

Each of these different viewpoints can claim scientists who are considered experts in their fields (doctorates, professors, researchers, etc.). And each group holds people who were “led by the evidence” to move from one set of beliefs to another. There are atheists who used to be Christians but scientific study led them to abandon their belief in God. But there are also atheists who have become Christians and joined one of the Christian camps and who were led that way by the science that they were studying. And there are Young Earth Creationists who have become Intelligent Designers, who have become Evolutionary Theists, and so on. Who knows how many people have moved from one camp to another, or if one is more common than another? So ultimately, we’re left with a bunch of different scientists, usually very intelligent people dedicated to their science, who can’t agree on how things got started. And if they can’t agree or even make up their own mind, why do we think that we can provide all the answers to the questions of our origins?

The lie of objectivity

This brings up a point that many mention regarding Christians who are scientists. The argument is that because the Christian believes in God and the Bible “by faith”, this means that they are reading their own beliefs into their research and are not objective. First off, I would just like to remind you of what I just pointed out – that many scientists have become Christians because of the science that they are studying, not in spite of it. Science influenced and led them to change their beliefs, not the other way around.

But more importantly, the reality is that it is very hard, if not impossible, for anyone to be truly objective. Everyone brings a whole lot of previous experiences and a set of beliefs to their life. Every atheist, every Christian, every person has a million different things that have shaped their lives, their presuppositions, and the lens that they use to interpret their findings. We are not truly objective, no matter how hard we might try. The best we can do is try to be aware of the influences in our life and the worldview or beliefs we are bringing to our work and life. Any scientist, whether Christian or not, is approaching his or her work with a specific worldview and history which influences how they do their work, and in particular, how they interpret their data. Obviously, some data is more open to interpretation than other, but the point remains the same. The atheist and naturalist who has already written off the possibility of God and supernatural intervention, for whatever reason, is no less guilty of interpreting according to their worldview than the Christian. Which leads me to the next point…

The role of faith

This is a tricky one to explain. Basically, the thought or accusation is that Christians “live by faith”, while science is based on facts. What people often mean by this is that Christians don’t care about facts, or that there is nothing provable in Christianity, while science is all about proof and demonstrable facts. The idea is that one is based on belief or faith (implying lack of evidence), while the other is based on study and proof.

I want to push back against this on a few levels. First of all, as I explained in my last post, faith is based on knowledge. So I have faith in Christianity because I have studied the historical records and analyzed it from many different angles, and have come to believe (have faith) that Jesus is the Son of God. Similarly, I have studied the origins of the earth and humanity from many angles, as best as I am able, and I have come to believe (have faith) that the evidence points to the existence of God. Many other people far more intelligent than me have come to the same conclusion. So we have faith in God’s existence and his creation because of evidence, not in spite of it.

But the reality is that other people have investigated the same issues and come to a different conclusion. They have decided that the evidence is against Jesus being the Son of God and God being the creator of the world. We all look at the same evidence, and arrive at different conclusions. So why is one side (Christians) accused of being irrational or against evidence? If the evidence was so clear that (virtually) everyone agreed, then there would be no faith involved. But if significant numbers of people disagree on an issue, then both sides are exercising faith when they choose to believe something, because the evidence is not strong enough for it to be conclusive. In other words, both sides live by faith.

To expand this point, think about how we analyze the information we receive. We are bombarded by news reports and studies that talk about the advances or changes in our understanding of human origins. Depending what you read or who you listen to, the investigations point one way or another. Even the same study can be proclaimed as evidence for evolution (or creation), then ripped apart by opponents for various reasons, or turned to demonstrate the opposite of what it was originally claimed to show. Each person has to analyze the information and make a decision about what reports are valid and accurate. Since many of us don’t have the critical abilities to verify the accuracy of a scientific study, we base our choice of who to believe on any number of things: how does this match up with other studies? Do I trust the person that authored this study? Does it match up with my already decided worldview? Does the author, or his opponent, sound more credible? Not even scientists rigorously review every single study that comes out, though they are more likely to review and critique at least some of them. What I’m saying is that the study of our origins is loaded with faith choices that we all make. There is simply too much information for us to weigh, and most of it is far too technical for us to understand, so we trust (have faith in) the people that we’ve chosen to believe and listen to. And often times, the reason we’ve chosen to believe them has nothing to do with the actual evidence, and much more to do with other factors. So both sides “live by faith” – that is, everyone chooses to believe something they cannot absolutely prove, but which has some evidence to support it. And both sides think that the evidence supporting their beliefs is overwhelming. But if it was, we wouldn’t be having this debate, would we?

Just one further note related to this. At present, the “majority opinion” in the scientific community comes down on the side of evolution with no need for God. I think it’s fair to ask whether the majority opinion is always right. Many of the people who hold this view were brought up in a society with an aggressive anti-supernatural view and taught with the assumption that either God didn’t exist or that science was proving He wasn’t necessary. God was an old-fashioned belief from a primitive or uncivilized time. It is natural, given this base assumption, that most people will assume that evolution is true without even examining it closely. I am curious how many of the people raised within this belief system have ever pushed back against this assumption and tested to see if it is valid. I don’t have an answer for that, but I suspect that there are a lot of unrecognized assumptions in the beliefs of many scientists, and that these assumptions influence their work.

Conclusion

So, what do I want you to take from this? Just a few things.

  1. Humility – be honest about your own scientific knowledge, even if you’re a scientific expert. When it comes to the question of origins, a lot of very smart people hold to a lot of very different views. And while many (most?) of them hold those views because they believe that’s where the evidence points, many (on both sides) probably hold them because of underlying assumptions and beliefs. And those of us who are not experts especially need to hold our scientific views loosely.
  2. Faith – acknowledge where you are exercising faith, or better said, that you are choosing to believe many things that you have not personally examined closely. How many experts and opinions do you believe that you have never actually studied? How many tests have you done yourself as opposed to simply accepting the conclusions of others? What are the assumptions or motives underlying the different experiments and how they are reported and interpreted? How well do you know the character and the credibility of the people you are choosing to believe?  Why do you choose to believe them over other people that you have also not studied? I suspect that you will discover you know very little about most of these people and experiments, including the assumptions that have gone into them. The reality is, in order to do our job and live our life, we need to believe in a lot of people and things that we simply can’t study – we don’t have the time, knowledge or energy to personally validate everything. But we do need to be honest about the amount of untested faith we are demonstrating.

This post pushes us hard towards skepticism, and I don’t apologize for that. No matter where you are personally in your view regarding the origins of humanity, I think we need to examine our position closely. There is a lot of arrogance in this debate, from both sides, and the vast majority of it is misplaced. I think it is crucial for all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, to acknowledge that there is still far more that we don’t know about the scientific details of our origins than we do know. And quite frankly, many of us waste a lot of time arguing about details that we’re not really qualified to argue about.

Over the next few posts, I will lay out where I stand on the scientific evidence, and then what I think the Bible points us to in regards to creation. My next post in particular, about the scientific evidence, is certainly not intended to answer all the questions or prove one thing or another. I will simply be explaining the items that stand out the most to me and which have led me to a stronger faith in the Bible and in Jesus, as opposed to throwing Christianity out altogether. You, of course, will have to do your own research, examine your own biases, and draw your own conclusions.

As always, feel free to drop any comments below. I won’t always respond to them in timely fashion (my life is busy like anyone else’s), but I will definitely read them. Until next time, then, God bless.