Earth viewed from space

Is a young earth necessary?

Preemptive apology – Trump shall be mentioned.

In some of the circles I found myself in these days, I have found just as much contempt for newly elected Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, than for the new President himself, Donald J. Trump. One American colleague went as far as to say that a Trump assassination wouldn’t do America any good because then “a pro-life, homophobic, evolution-denying evangelical” would ascend the throne.

To avoid contributing to the countless words already spent and spilt on this latest election, I am only going to focus on the last part of this blanket statement. Are evangelicals – those who trust and share the Good News of God saving sinners through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – fairly criticised as the science-haters that so many people seem to think they are? To put the question differently – are Christians required to read the first three chapters of Genesis in a literal sense?

Some readers may be shocked that I am not “taking the Bible seriously” in rejecting a literal interpretation of this passage. Others may be relieved that I have broken the chains of orthodoxy, freeing myself from absolute meaning altogether. These are those who declare “Ask not what this text means, but what this text means to you.” Sorry to disappoint both of you.

What does literal even mean?

Literally

The word literal and its derivatives are having a rough time at the moment. Modern English speakers use the word all the time, ridding it of all meaning in the process. The word means literally nothing right now. In fact, Justin Taylor has recently called for a moratorium on the use of this word in biblical interpretation, due to the varying meanings this word can take.

My experience with literal in a biblical interpretive setting is that of the ‘plain interpretation’ of any given text. In other words, interpreting something in a basic or common sense way, without metaphor or exaggeration. A plain sense reading of Genesis 1-3 seems to suggest a six 24 hour days view with the varying genealogies of Genesis adding up to a rather youthful 6,000 years old.

We could go at it for hours over exegesis and hermeneutics and be no closer to unlocking the meaning of Genesis’ beginning. While I personally think that the text itself does provide strong arguments for particular positions, a much simpler point of view provides some much needed clarity:

What is the purpose of the Bible?

Two Books

In a previous post, I mentioned the distinction between the two books that God has written – creation (God’s general revelation) and salvation (God’s special revelation). Theological concept becomes reality when we approach the creation account with this distinction in mind. God’s intent in Genesis, as with all other parts of the Bible, is to communicate his great plan of salvation for all of those who would trust in Christ. This means that he is not primarily (or even at all) concerned with teaching his people the age of the earth or the precise processes by which it came into existence.

Any serious student of Scripture knows that the plot of the biblical drama is the salvation of sinners by a gracious God, who has cast Jesus Christ in the leading role of Saviour. This story of salvation is only found in the pages of special revelation – nothing in nature contains words this sweet. If God’s book of salvation (the Bible) has the story of salvation as its content, then what does nature contain? A whole lot of juicy content for sure, but nothing salvific, nothing of utmost importance to beggars like us.

So what about the age of the earth? God may well have had a different intent in these chapters of Genesis 1-3, but can we still discern anything concrete via exegesis? I believe so. Study. Read. Discuss. THINK. But if you miss the forest for the trees, as so many “defenders of the faith” have done in advancing a young-earth-or-go-home ideology, you will end up doing an injustice not only to yourself, but to the world at large. 

A sin-sick world doesn’t need to hear the evils of evolution. It needs the gospel.

Foetus in the womb

The Ethics of Abortion: A Pro-life Perspective (Pt 2)

Welcome back for Part 2 of this series, in which I’m presenting a pro-life case against abortion. In Part 1 we examined the controversy surrounding abortion, and I argued that the rightness or wrongness of abortion rests predominantly on the nature of the unborn. This was expressed with the question “what is the unborn?”. The objective of this week’s post is to examine the scientific data relevant to the question, and to demonstrate that the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being.


Defining the Pro-life Position

Before delving into the question of the nature of the unborn, let’s define two key terms: “abortion”, and “human being”. Abortion is the intentional killing of a human foetus[i], while a human being is a distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens. Typically, ethicists who argue in favour of abortion contend that the unborn, though a human being in the biological sense, lacks some further property or capacity which grants them personhood. Such arguments will be considered in future posts; this post will deal solely with scientific evidence.

The pro-life position can be clearly and concisely laid out as follows:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
  2. Abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

Over the course of this series we’ll examine the premises of this argument, and I’ll offer a defence of each by appealing to science and philosophy.


The Scientific Case[ii]

Now we come to the question outlined in Part 1: what is the unborn? Upon reflection, there seem to be two options. Firstly, the unborn could be a distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens from the moment of conception; that is, a human being. Alternatively, it could be some other kind of entity that becomes a human being at birth or at some other stage during pregnancy. Obvious candidates for this kind of entity include (1) a mere clump of cells that do not function in a coordinated manner, (2) a living but non-human being, or (3) a part of the woman’s body. The following paragraphs will outline several scientific facts that undermine these three options and demonstrate that the unborn is a human being.

  • The unborn is alive

A common misconception regarding abortion is that no one knows when life begins. Insofar as one uses “life” in the biological sense, this is demonstrably false. Although there is some debate among biologists as to how to define life precisely, there exist several criteria which, if fulfilled, most scientists agree indicate that an organism is living. Intriguingly, the unborn entity fulfils those criteria from the moment of conception, and thus we can infer that human life begins at conception. These criteria are, minimally, threefold: an entity must be able to convert food to energy (metabolism), react to stimuli, and must be capable of cellular reproduction (growth)[iii]. The unborn, from the moment of conception, performs all three of these functions. Therefore, the unborn is alive.   

An additional consideration which lends support to the view that the unborn is alive is this: abortion kills something. Of course, everyone knows that an organism that has been killed must have been alive prior to its death. In other words, it’s impossible to kill something that isn’t alive. With these considerations in mind, it’s evident that the unborn is a living entity.

  • The unborn is biologically unique

When sperm and egg unite during fertilisation, each contribute twenty-three chromosomes to the formation of the new being. These chromosomes contain the genetic material that guides and directs its development over the course of its life, and they are relevant because they distinguish the unborn from every other cell in the mother’s body. While all the mother’s cells contain the forty-six chromosomes that she received at fertilisation, the cells of the unborn contain forty-six of its own distinct chromosomes. The unborn’s chromosomes consist of a unique combination of the mother’s and father’s chromosomal sequences. Since every cell in the mother’s body contains her unique chromosomal structure, and every cell in the unborn child’s body contains its unique chromosomal structure, the unborn is a distinct being; it is not merely a part of the woman’s body.

  • The unborn has the genetic constitution of a human being

In addition to having its own chromosomal makeup, the unborn has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings. Each of the unborn’s chromosomes contains a DNA molecule, which includes sequences called genes. These sequences make up the genome, which is a set of instructions for constructing an organism. Different types of organisms have different genomes, and thus it is possible to determine the type of being an organism is by examining its genome. Upon examination, it becomes clear that “the conceptus [unborn] is a new, although tiny, individual with a human genetic code”[iv].

  • The unborn functions as a whole

Another relevant fact is that the unborn, from conception, is a whole organism that directs its own internal growth and maturation. Unlike a dead body, which contains living cells but is unable to function as a coordinated whole, the unborn “is a whole organism, with certain capacities, powers, and properties, whose parts work in concert to bring the whole to maturity… the early embryo… behaves like a single organism with an intrinsic goal-directedness for which its cellular parts interact and communicate”[v]. There are several reasons to think this is the case, one of which is the fact that the embryo forms a natural protective coating for its own benefit and use prior to implantation. This coating, known as a zona pellucida, is not the mother’s organ, nor is it a tumour or some third organism[vi]. Rather, it is an organ of the embryo. Activities such as this, in which cells coordinate to produce organs for the benefit of the whole, are characteristic of whole organisms.


Drawing Conclusions

Now that the relevant facts have been outlined, all that remains is to see how they support or undermine the various answers offered as to the nature of the unborn. To recap, the unborn could be:

  1. A part of the woman’s body.
  2. A mere clump of cells that lacks the ability to function as a whole.
  3. A living non-human being, e.g. canine, bovine.
  4. A distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens.

This list is meant only to include the most common suggestions; it is not exhaustive.

Let’s begin by considering whether the unborn could be a part of the woman’s body. Upon first impression, the fact that the unborn is located within the woman’s body does provide some reason to think that it could be her body, or, rather, a part of it. Just as other internal organs, such as her heart and lungs, are both within and part of her body, the unborn could also be part of her body.

However, the fact that the unborn has a unique chromosomal structure from the moment of conception rules this option out. We know that if a cell is part of a woman’s body, then it will have the same chromosomes as every other cell in her body. Since the unborn does not have the same chromosomes, we can conclude that it’s not part of her body.

Alternatively, could the unborn be a mere clump of cells that lack the ability to function as a whole? A shaving of skin cells contains living human cells, but it would be a mistake to think that therefore those cells are a living human being. Similarly, it could be the case that the unborn is a clump of cells that doesn’t qualify as a human being.

Once again there are good grounds for rejecting this suggestion; namely the observation that the unborn, from conception, directs its own internal growth and maturation. In the words of Christopher Kaczor, “the human embryo is a whole, complete organism, a living individual human being whose cells work together in a coordinated effort of self-development towards maturity”[vii]. This observation demonstrates that the unborn is utterly unlike a shaving of skin cells.

Thirdly, it could be the case that the unborn is a living non-human being. There are innumerable other living organisms besides Homo sapiens, and given this, it may at face value seem reasonable to take this position. However, the genetic constitution of the unborn is conclusive evidence against this. If an entity has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings, then it is a human being. The unborn has said genetic constitution, and therefore the unborn is not only a living being, but a living human being.

Of the offered alternatives, this leaves only one: the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being. We know the unborn is alive, as it fulfils the biological criteria for life. We know the unborn is a distinct entity because it has a unique chromosomal makeup. We know the unborn is human because it has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings, and we know the unborn is a whole entity, as it directs its own internal growth and maturation. Hence, pro-choice advocate Peter Singer writes “there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being”[viii].

What is the unborn? It is a distinct, living, and whole human being. 

For further reading, please see Part 3, as well as my follow up series which addresses pro-choice objections (Part 1 and Part 2).


 

Citations:

[i] The Clarkson Academy. (2015, November 27). The ethics of abortion part 1 – Scott Klusendorf at The Clarkson Academy (session 1). [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mG6zulqxzlw&t=645s

[ii] I’m indebted to Zachary Arden for his help in writing this section; many thanks!

[iii] Klusendorf, S. (2009). The case for life: Equipping Christians to engage the culture, p. 37. Wheaton Illinois: Crossway.

[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice, p. 67. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Benedict, A. & Moraczewski, A. (n.d.). Is the biological subject of human rights present from conception. The Fetal Tissue Issue: 33-60. As cited in Beckwith, F. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice, p. 80.

[vii] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge p. 113.

[viii] Singer, P. (2000). Writings on an ethical life. New York: Ecco Press, p. 127, as cited in Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge p. 7.

UFO landing - newspaper article

Fake News versus Good News

The best way to start this article is probably with an astonishing claim somehow related to political figures currently popular with the media – perhaps a new Russian edition of The Apprentice involving selling off former Soviet military, hosted by a Trump lookalike … But we’re all used to fake news and clickbait, and we actually need something better.

In a world with climate change, homelessness, disaster, politics, and the seemingly endless deaths of celebrities – and normal people – many are looking for good news. Some will go to the internet looking for it, and most will then, eventually, discover that a lot of the ‘news’ available is fake.

Followers of Jesus claim that he offers good news. But the internet, and the world around us, offer a multitude of claims, and many are false. Perhaps the majority of claims on the internet are false, or at least misleading. Living in an information age, we need a good filter to find the reliable information, and we either learn to be sceptical quickly or start believing a lot of nonsense. The central claims of the Christian faith are bits of information in a huge biosphere of alternatives. How to find the golden thread of truth amidst the blonde toupees of falsehood?

Two key steps in practice, I think, are to find sources we can generally trust, and set aside sources that are not trustworthy. So, tackling the challenge head on, what kind of news can we not trust? The main thing here is perhaps to try to weed out sources that are heavily motivated by something other than truth. They might still be true, but sources not typically directed towards the truth undercut the rational basis for holding what they say to be true. Fake news has a motivation of some kind, in our era often to do with money or political control. Sources that are never self-critical or open about their flaws are also suspect. Sources that limit the important claims to things that can’t be checked also raise questions. But, doesn’t everyone have selfish motives in some sense? Who can we trust? The scientific community, CNN, and the New York Times, are popular sources for many of the educated and thoughtful in our society. The feeling is that they’re rational, progressive, and open to new ideas, while also solid and reliable. Whatever you think of these particular sources, these organisations have huge communication power because they are trusted by hundreds of millions.

How does the Christian claim to be offering good news stand up in light of the two key steps? Christian claims are centrally claims about Jesus, a historical figure, so to make sense of it we need to zoom back to the early Church. I’ll leave you to do the research, you can check out many of the facts on this site. I believe that the early Christians were not motivated by money or power, as they gained neither, and exchanged what they had, including secure conservative religious beliefs (they weren’t motivated by, say,  fear of death), for risk and discomfort. They also make claims open to public examination, and the accounts are down to earth and honest about suffering and human failure. The central claims, unlike most worldviews, are about public reality, not private inner experience or an idealised future state. Jesus lived a human life, died a shockingly human death, and rose from the dead publicly. The claims lack features which fake news tends to have. Christian faith is also open to new information – the Spirit is still active, and, while it’s 500 years since the remarkable Protestant Reformation ‘officially’ began, the community of Jesus followers should be always reforming. Christianity, unlike ethically arid secular worldviews, provides a moral imperative for social progress, but the desire is grounded in an unchanging reality and a realism about human wilful brokenness and fallibility.

We’ve touched on two key steps, but there’s a third that probably should be added too. This is what I’ll grandly call the wisdom criterion. It goes something like this: “how important is this topic, anyway?” Most of the news swirling around crying out for attention can safely be set aside because it simply doesn’t matter whether it’s true or false. Time is limited, and the opportunities in life are great for those who will take them. Jesus, as recounted by the redeemed formerly broken tax collector Matthew told a confronting story about ‘talents’, silver coins, left behind by their owner to be invested. We’ve all been given some.

New information will pop up on your Facebook feed or homepage any minute now. Is it important? Is it well-motivated? Is it up for public scrutiny or an implausible claim to secret knowledge? No matter how cynical, I think we’re all looking for good news – Jesus offers it, reliably.