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Seven Questions that Define Your World, Part 3: Deism

The first step away from Christian theism was the belief system we call Deism. This was motivated largely by the change in authority for knowledge about the divine from Scripture to reason and intuition. Platonic theories of knowledge that had held sway during the middle ages argued that a person becomes what they study. Because God is good and holy and the material world was considered irrational and less than good, scholars rejected the study of the natural world in favor of God. However, biblically minded scholars started to recognize that everything is part of God’s creation and though corrupted, is of value. They also recognized that because God is a rational being his creation must be orderly. Armed with these assumptions, scientists subsequently found that the world operated like a giant machine where all the parts work together. Scholars, however, began believing that God’s nature could be discovered through studying nature. They rejected the notion that God could reveal himself through Divine Revelation and special acts in history. God could only be known through Nature which, because it functioned as a giant clock, made God the clockmaker. This also elevated the place of reason from a necessary condition to a sufficient condition for knowing God. As we begin to answer the worldview questions, we will also see how Deism served as a natural transition to naturalism, and learn some helpful approaches to those who might not realize they are Deists.

 

1. What is prime reality – the really real?

God, under Deism, is reduced to an impersonal, distant, uninvolved creator who created the universe and then left it to run on its own. He does not care for what he made and does not involve himself in any way in the affairs of humanity. He is simply reduced to being the first cause, the explanation for why things exist and work the way they do. Mankind is left floating through an indifferent universe. A God who is distant and uncaring is practically the same as one who is not there at all! Not only is God distant, but according to Deism is ultimately unknowable. Because the Deists denied God could reveal himself through divine revelation, the only information they could gather about him was from creation. This meant that they were unable to form prior expectations about what he was like or what he would do. Not knowing what he would do, however, makes it impossible to draw conclusions from what he actually did. God could have created the universe because he was lonely, or because he enjoys seeing people suffer. Either way, it is impossible to decide what is true.

 

2. What is the nature of external reality?

The cosmos is a closed system where everything is determined and no miracles are possible. God is not interested in what happens to his creation and even if he was would never interfere with it. If he did, it would suggest he had not set up the clockwork-like universe correctly in the first place. If the universe is like a determined clock, events within it are a part of a network of causes and effects. To introduce real change one would have to transcend this network, an act which is impossible for finite humans. Is it still possible to have freedom if everything around us is determined?

 

3. What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?

Humans are personal beings locked into the clockwork of the universe. They do not have any special relationship with God and are not made in his image. Hence, humans have no free will. If God had created mankind with the capacity for meaningful self-determination then they would also be able to choose to sin and deviate from the perfect plan. Humans, under Deism, are puppets, dancing to their DNA and environment, incapable of making meaningful choices and lacking anything that can be meaningfully called personality.

 

4. What happens to a person at death?

Deism, by denying the possibility of Divine revelation, precludes the knowledge of anything that happens after death since the supernatural by definition is beyond the natural. Besides, why would a God who does not care at all about what happens inside his universe concern himself with the eternal destiny of those living in it? Humans have no special relationship to God but are merely parts of a giant mechanical system ticking away. The logical conclusion of this is despair; if I am going to die and have no reason to believe in an afterlife, then anything I do now does not matter. The result is the same.

 

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

Because the universe operates according to how it was designed, we can learn what God is like by studying it. However, as mentioned previously, any other source of knowledge that is not based on our study of the external world is rejected. Here we see beginning hints of the “scientism” of our modern era. So many people today, especially those who study empirical subjects, believe that unless something can be demonstrated by science or logic, it cannot exist. Take the Deist David Hume’s famous quote:

    If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Unfortunately for Hume, this statement is not based on conclusions made using logic or experience and thus, by its own definition, ought to be committed unto the flames. According to their reasoning, the Deists ought to have rejected the notion that only knowledge obtained through the natural world is legitimate. However, to do so would have been to destroy the very foundation upon which their entire system was based.

 

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

Not only does the Deistic worldview pose problems for the idea of knowledge, but also morality. If God as the creator is revealed through the external world, then his creation must reflect what he is like. This leads to the destruction of ethics since the universe itself says nothing about what is right and wrong. Whatever exists is right and there is no difference between good and evil. Though one may make subjective distinctions between good and bad, there is no real difference. Because deism denies that man was special (neither created in the image of God nor loved by him) the original deists had no reason to trust any of their moral beliefs. In spite of this, many of them still affirmed Judeo-Christian values, directly contradicting their belief in a distant indifferent God. Their failure to live consistently with what they espoused also demonstrates the difficulty of living out a belief system that directly contradicts reality.

 

7. What is the meaning of history?

The course of the universe was set at creation and follows a linear path implying that all events occurring after the beginning are determined. For this reason, history, to the Deist, is not important since God is discovered through nature, not revelation or divine intervention. The Deist God acts using general rules and the universe is closed to external interference.

Deism as the dominant worldview was short-lived but briefly powerful, dominating the intellectual world of France and England from the late seventeenth through to the mid-eighteenth centuries and serving as the transition between Theism and Naturalism. We have already seen some of the naturally arising objections above like the inability to affirm human value and freedom or to ground morality in objective reality. Even so, many people today present themselves as Deists unknowingly. When asked about the nature of God they will describe him as an energy or force, who explains the existence of the universe but who is also distant and not involved. How many people do you know who believe in a God like this? Useful approaches to “modern-day Deists” could be to touch on some of the points above by asking questions like: “Does God love you? Where do right and wrong come from?” You may find they have never really thought it through. Ask questions, and be curious. Don’t be too aggressive. If you ask these sorts of questions long enough, you may just find an opening to be able to share with them why they ought to consider Christianity.

While Deism as a worldview is no longer very popular, it helps us to understand the roots of Naturalism, the worldview which argues all that exists is matter and energy. A universe with a God who created it and then disappeared is no different, practically, from one where there is no God at all. If God could be replaced by some natural phenomena that did not require an explanation, then he would no longer be necessary and could be dispensed with. Naturalism, as we shall see, was the natural next step for all those who became unsatisfied with Deism.

 

Photo Caption

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake killed between 10 and 30 thousand people and significantly damaged the Portuguese economy. The French enlightenment philosopher and deist Voltaire used it as evidence that there could not exist a deity who cared about and intervened in the affairs of mankind. The painting is Allegory of the 1755 Earthquake, by João Glama Strobërle.

Is Scientism Fundamentally Flawed? Part 1

 Introduction

You may not have heard of the word ‘scientism’ and even if you have, you may not know what it means, but I can guarantee that you will have been exposed to strong views and opinions that have the worldview of scientism at their core. Statements such as “the only truth we can know is discovered through science” or that “science has proven God doesn’t exist” have scientism at their heart. This three-part article series will explain what scientism is and how it is all prevailing in much of what we see and read. Its influence is everywhere in our media and culture, usually implicitly and not explicitly, it is just assumed. This article series will also show just how deeply flawed scientism is as a worldview.       

The nature of reality and how we know it

Scientism says that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality. Everything else – especially ethics, theology, and philosophy – is, at least according to scientism, based on private emotions, blind faith, or cultural upbringing…[they] offer no truth at all.[1]    

Apologetics is essentially defending the Christian view of the nature of reality and how we know it, past, present and future. Scientism is also a view on the nature of reality and how we know it. Scientism claims that all that exists is matter/energy in space and time, there is nothing more than the natural/physical/material, hence Scientism is essentially the same as naturalism, physicalism and materialism as a view of reality. Scientism also claims that the only way we can know anything about that natural/physical/material reality is through science. This usually assumes the application of the scientific method of empirical observation, measurement, hypothesis formation and then testing, to see whether the hypothesis was correct. This is called inductive reasoning.  In that process it also assumes and applies logic and reason, i.e. deductive reasoning. This is what usually comes to mind when people think of ‘science’. Often, they will unthinkingly say that an untestable belief is untrustworthy.

However, science doesn’t just apply the classic laboratory-style inductive reasoning method. It also often applies what is called abductive reasoning (also known as inference to the best explanation). In this method, a person would take all the evidence and attempt to infer the best explanation. The best explanation is the most plausible, and has the most explanatory power and scope for all the evidence. Abductive inferences are often not as testable, verifiable or falsifiable as inductive hypotheses. Historical sciences, such as geology or forensic science, look at evidence from the past,  and often employ abductive reasoning, producing hypotheses that are not observable or reproducible in a laboratory, but which still infer the best explanation for the evidence. Much evolutionary science is conducted in this manner, inferring explanations that simply cannot be tested in the more classic inductive manner.

This application of abductive reasoning is often conveniently forgotten by strident supporters of scientism when they are speaking against the Christian worldview, such as arguments for the historicity of the resurrection, which infers the truth of the resurrection as the best explanation for all the historical evidence. This opinion is summed up by John Lennox:

I know now that the only sort of knowledge of reality is that which can be and has been quantified and tested in the laboratory. If you can measure and test it scientifically, you can know it. If not, the topic is nothing but private opinion and idle speculation.[2] 

The issue here isn’t the abductive method, since science legitimately employs it all the time in the historical sciences, it’s that scientism simply will not allow any explanations that are not natural/physical/ material. If abductive reasoning was unscientific per se, an invalid method of seeking truth, then for example, all non-repeatable knowledge from the past would be deemed “nothing but private opinion and idle speculation,” since you can’t put the past non repeatable events in a laboratory, ruling out among many things, the whole criminal justice system (and forensic science), as well as any historical investigation as legitimate pursuits of truth, including much evolutionary and geological science.

For scientism all that is in existence, has ever been in existence, or ever will be in existence, is natural/physical/material and the only explanations for anything observed in the universe must be natural/physical/material. The only causes and effects allowed in this view of reality are natural/physical/material. But is this true? That’s the key question addressed here.

Science vs Scientism – The Difference

However, before we look at whether scientism is true, we first need to clarify the difference between scientism and science. This is not a Christianity versus science debate, it is a Christianity versus scientism one. So, what’s the difference? Science is the application of a scientific methodology to understand the natural world. Science is a wonderful source of knowledge about the natural world. There is no Christianity versus science war, since Christians believe that God created the universe! In understanding how it works we are discovering how God has worked. Many of the greatest scientists in history were strong Christians; Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday and Clerk-Maxwell, motivated in their scientific work by the knowledge that in nature they were discovering how God has worked.[3]

The difference between the Christian worldview and Scientism is that Christianity believes that there are also non-physical, non-material realities and that we can know them in other ways than just the classic scientific method. Scientism is limited in that it assumes there can only be a natural world with natural explanations, and as such, all evidence must be fitted to that conclusion. This is anything but open-minded curiosity, this is narrow mindedness! Christianity accepts that we can also know non-physical realities; truths that traditional science will not be able to reveal. To assume science can tell us anything about non-physical realities is like standing on a weighing machine and expecting it to tell you how tall you are. The methods of science will not tell us much about the truths revealed by philosophy, theology, ethics, the arts, history, direct human perception and Divine revelation. Scientism is science without humility. It lacks the ability to see that there is more to reality than the material world and that we can know this through methods other than science. As J. P. Moreland says “I love science. My issues are with scientism.” [4]

Refuting Scientism

To refute Scientism and to show its fundamental flaws as a worldview is easier than you may think! There are three main types of refutation available. First, there are the assumptions made by Scientism that cannot be proven by science, refuting their own claim that the only source of knowledge is science. Second, since according to Scientism all causes of any phenomena must be natural, physical, or material causes, if we can identify any other cause—such as an agent cause—then Scientism is refuted. Third, if we can identify one thing, just one entity, one reality, that is immaterial and is not able to be known through science, then Scientism is refuted. Just one will do, but in fact there are many. 

The next two parts of this three-part article series will look at these refutations of Scientism. You may not find all these refutations equally convincing and Scientism may try and posit natural explanations, but the question must be asked; are the explanations of scientism the most plausible? What is the best explanation, with the most explanatory power and scope? A possibility does not equal a probability, just because it is labelled ‘scientific’.

Either Scientism is true or it isn’t, either everything is physical/material, or it isn’t, and if it isn’t, we must be open to asking just what these non-physical realities are. Can we know them through science alone? If not, how we can know them?

 

Bibliography: 

Austin L. Hughes, ‘The Folly of Scientism’, The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, 2012.

John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything? London: The Good Book Company, 2019. 

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York: Macmillan, 1955S.

McDowell & J. Morrow. Is God Just a Human Invention – And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010.

J. P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology. Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway, 2018.

A Christian Response to Eco-anxiety

When I started my Master’s degree in Conservation biology at Victoria University of Wellington, I had nothing but hope.  When I finished it I felt weighed down by the many in my community who seemed to be politely reversing my efforts.  In time I began experiencing an ongoing sense of debilitating grief at our environmental crisis.        

The sensation described above is termed ‘Eco-anxiety’.  Eco-anxiety is defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”[2]  This type of anxiety can lead to insomnia, exhaustion, and depression.[3]  In extreme cases it has been cited as the reason for substance abuse and suicide.  Indeed, on a recent visit to British Columbia, a student approached me after my talk on ‘Going Green’ and told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to live anymore because of the oppressive eco-anxiety that had become a daily part of his human experience.  This student’s story sounded like so many others I have heard on university campuses across the globe.  A recent study revealed that, of the 26 countries surveyed, half of the population on average considered climate change as a “major threat to their nation” with some countries labeling it as the top threat.[4]

The Bible teaches us that God commanded humanity to multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28).  Similarly, Isaiah 45:18 says, “God did not create the Earth empty, He formed it to be inhabited!”  Yet God also clearly charged us with the care and stewardship of the earth.  Thus, how should Christians respond to our ecological crisis, and the eco-anxiety it often causes?  We will have to make an analysis of the eco-crisis phenomenon, which I like to picture as a mixed bag of lollies containing bad things, good things, and that one rolling around at the bottom, cemented to the wrapper, that you might be better off not even identifying.

THE CONS

On one hand, discussions about ecological crises often sift down into catastrophising rhetoric and misinformation.  Climate scientists are pulling their hair out as false facts continue pervading the media sphere.[5]   These falsities do anything but help their cause and research.  Eco-anxiety is a valid phenomenon that affects people all over the globe, and while putting words to our feelings is important, catastrophising language is never helpful.  A study in Great Britain shows that this rhetoric is having a particularly damaging effect on children.[6]  One adage to remember: Facts first, feelings second.  Many ideas are floating around the sea of media, some of these ideas are fact-based and some are plastic nets of emotionalism ready to entangle any passer-by.  For instance, I recently read that koalas are now functionally extinct due to the fires in Australia caused by climate change.[7]  Claiming that koalas are functionally extinct is simply false.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List labels the koala as vulnerable, three levels less threatened than extinct in the wild.  Many species are presently on the verge of extinction, and almost all of them due to two immediately ameliorable factors: habitat loss and pollution.  Furthermore, apocalyptic statements such as “The world is going to end in 12 years”[9] are not only inaccurate but they cause a lot of anxiety. We have yet to see any credible scientific research showing that humanity is on the verge of extinction due to environmental destruction.[10]

THE PROS

On the other side of the eco-crisis coin we find many beneficial points.  For one thing, societies are bravely looking into the haggard face of environmental damage.  People are finding creative ways to cut down on waste and reuse materials.  For example, Mexican company Biofase has created single-use cutlery from avocado seeds.  Volunteers have removed a reported 5.3 million kilograms of rubbish from beaches in Mumbai.  People all over the planet are taking action.  It is good that we are grieved!  

God himself is grieved at abuse and corruption of the natural world, often correlated with human wickedness.  For instance, in Joel 1 we read a call to repentance: “All the trees of the field are dried up and gladness dries up from the children of man…Even the beasts of the field pant for You because the water has dried up.”  We also see this connection between humanity and nature in the positive vein.  Psalm 104:30 reads, “When you send forth your Spirit…you renew the face of the ground.”  Biblically speaking, rebellion and wickedness led to a corruption of the natural world (Genesis 3:17) and repentance or ‘turning back’ to God leads to a restoration that also affects the natural sphere (Romans 8:19-23).

While it is good to be grieved at the destruction of our natural world, it is never good to be anxious.  The Scriptures are replete with passages exhorting us to stand firm and not succumb to fear.  Eco-anxiety may be a term coined in 2017, but anxiety is nothing new.  The wrapper is different but it’s the same bitter lolly.  In my childhood we were afraid of school shootings.  In my mother’s childhood it was fear that an atomic bomb would fall out of the sky at any moment.  In my grandmother’s childhood it was fear of want due to the Great Depression.  There will always be troubles in this world that need fixing.  But we are not meant to operate out of a spirit of fear.  2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”  Christians are equipped with a top-of-the-line spiritual panoply.  The peace of God protects our minds and our hearts in Christ Jesus and allows us to transcend our limited understanding (Philippians 4:7).  We have access to Jesus Himself, on whom we cast our anxieties, because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).  These facts do not provide us with the means of ignoring a crisis.  We are not burying our head in the sand.  On the contrary, it allows us to march with confidence into any storm.  When we cast our fear on Jesus we are dressing ourselves in His perfect love.  Thus we are equipped to face any problem with confidence and faith instead of debilitating fear and timidity.

Our concerns about ecological destruction are valid.  Perhaps some of the fear we feel around a broken landscape stems from anxiety about our own impermanence and brokenness.  Even if the natural world was perfect, it could never be a source of our ultimate security.  Only the person of Jesus offers us that foundation.  Therefore, let us face our ecological crisis head-on, knowing how deeply loved we are by the Creator of all.  His heart is surely grieved by the destruction of our natural world, and it grieves us also because we share His heart.  Praise God that we can face this crisis without the anxiety that catastrophises, and without the ignorance that perpetuates the problem.  We can march into our generation’s hardships with truth, love, and confidence in Christ.

?

[1] Larger animals such as deer, elk, and coyotes; or if you happen to be in Africa perhaps an elephant or ostrich

[2] The American Psychological Association first defined this term in 2017

[3] Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (May 01, 2011). The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change

[4] Fagan, M., Huang, C. A look at how people around the world view climate change

[5] Shellenberger, M. Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change are Wrong

[6] Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Van, H. J. The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. 

[7] As suggested by activist Bill McKibben

[8] International Union for the Conservation of Nature

[9] As stated by representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

[10] Shellenberger

 

Works Cited

Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Van, H. J. (May 01, 2018). The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. Current Psychiatry Reports, 20, 5, 1-8.

Cummings, W. (22 January 2019) ‘The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change,’ Ocasio-Cortez says.  USA Today.  Retrieved from: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2019/01/22/ocasio-cortez-climate-change-alarm/2642481002/

Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (May 01, 2011). The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 265-276.

Fagan, M., Huang, C.  (18 April 2019) A look at how people around the world view climate change. Fact Tank. 2018 Pew Research Center.  Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/18/a-look-at-how-people-around-the-world-view-climate-change/

McKibben, B. “A thousand koalas were killed in Australia’s bushfires, and 80% of their habitat is gone. One expert says they are ‘functionally extinct.’ And yet big banks lend big money to big oil–more every year” 23 November 2019. Tweet.

Shellenberger, M. (25 November 2019) Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change are Wrong.  Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/11/25/why-everything-they-say-about-climate-change-is-wrong/#5d9bfa4312d6

Seven Questions that Define Your World, Part 2

Imagine arriving in a foreign city without knowing anyone, speaking the language, or even having a map. You would be lost, forced to ask for help by waving your hands and wander around hoping to gain a sense of direction. The same is true of this life. To be able to navigate life one needs a guide or map which explains where you are, why you are here and where you need to get to. This is a worldview, the set of answers to the big questions of life like ‘why we are here’, ‘what is real’, ‘what happens after death’. Everyone, whether or not they have given much thought to the topic, has a worldview through which they see the world and form their opinions. In addition, it is not possible to jettison one’s framework of beliefs in order to become objective. Rather, the goal is to make sure that the assumed worldview corresponds with reality since the closer a worldview is to reality, the more it enhances one’s ability to find the truth.

In my first article, I introduced seven questions that help us to identify and define a worldview. By defining the Christian worldview in this article using these questions, my hope is that before progressing further, we will understand what we believe. Before we can make a defense of Christianity, we must first know it. Using these seven questions, let’s have a deeper look at the Christian faith.

1. What is prime reality?

God, the only being that exists by the necessity of its own nature, is prime reality. He is an infinite, personal (triune), transcendent yet immanent, omniscient being who is sovereign over all and perfectly good. God is infinite and beyond all measure in His qualities and attributes. He is the only self-existent being (Exodus 3:14, Psalm 90:2). God is also a personal being capable of both self-reflection and self-determination, able both to think and know Himself and take action. 

The key to understanding the personal nature of God is the fact that He is tri-personal, one being who exists in three persons. This means that each member of the Trinity stands in an eternal relationship with the other members. Furthermore, because human beings are personal like God, we are also able to have a relationship with Him (as first demonstrated by Adam and Eve in the garden). As a personal being, God is also capable of choice; He chose to create the universe and to send Christ to this earth to die for our sins. 

God as the Creator of the cosmos is both beyond and set apart from it. This is known as the transcendence of God. Yet at the same time, He is present and causally active at all places within it. These are the attributes of immanence and omnipresence. It is possible for God to be immanent and omnipresent in the universe because He is Spirit. This is not possible for us because we are physical beings, confined to finite points in time and space.

In addition to being omnipresent, God is also omniscient. He knows everything, the beginning from the end (Revelation 22:13), and is wise above all things (Job 38:1-18, Psalm 139). Because God is the creator of the universe, He is fully sovereign over all that happens within His creation. Nothing exists outside of His interest or beyond His control and authority. Finally, God is not an evil creator who made His creation to torture for His own pleasure. He is good, and His goodness is expressed through his holiness and love. He is holy since there is no evil in Him and loving because He seeks the good of His people.

2. What is the nature of external reality?

God created the universe from nothing (Genesis 1) to operate as a finite open system with uniformity of cause and effect. The universe is finite since it has a beginning and is made up of a limited number of atoms, and open in that it is possible for God to reach in and change things. A closed system cannot be externally changed or re-ordered. The universe is not an illusion but is real and operates in a structured orderly way (Isaiah 45:18-19). This regular operation makes it possible to discover laws that describe how many things work and which allow us to predict what will generally happen. Every time you put a mug on your desk you do not expect it to float up to the ceiling! Finally, because the universe is an open system it is not determined. Both God and people (to a lesser extent of course) can interact with and re-order it. 

3. What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?

Humans are beings created in the image of God (Genesis 1) and inherit from Him personality, self-transcendence, intelligence, morality, gregariousness, and creativity. Humans are personal because God is personal, and thus we are able to know ourselves (self-consciousness) and are able to make decisions without coercion (also known as self-determination). In a limited way, we can transcend the world around us. We are aware of our own existence and are able to shape our environment to a degree that other animals in the world cannot. The difference between our transcendence and God’s is that God is transcendent to the ultimate degree. In addition, we are able to reason and possess knowledge, distinguish between good and evil, form social connections and networks, and act in creative and novel ways. God also created the capacity in humans to know both Himself and the world around them.

Humans were created good but when they rejected God, fell into corruption. They became limited in freedom and ability and were alienated from themselves, each other, and God. However, through Christ, God made a free offer of redemption. Because people were created with self-determination, they were able to reject God at the beginning by choosing to live separately from Him. The offer of redemption Christ makes to each human today is also something we can either receive or reject. See Romans chapters 1-6 for more.

4. What happens to a person at death?

Death is either the way to eternal life with God (John 3:15-16) or eternal separation from Him (Matthew 25:31-46). Heaven is the fulfillment of the desire of those who wish to be with God, while hell is God respecting the decision of those who do not wish to be with Him. God will not force those who reject Him to spend the rest of eternity with Him.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

As we saw previously, God created man with the ability to transcend their surroundings and with the ability to reason. Because man possesses the capacity for self-determination, it is possible for him to gain real knowledge. Man is not a biological machine that is pre-programmed to arrive at a given conclusion. In addition, it is possible to gain an actual understanding of how things work using the five senses (sight, touch, taste, sound, smell) because the external world is real and follows laws.

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

Right and wrong are absolute and transcendent values, based on the character of God. We are made in God’s image and have no choice but to live under moral categories of good and bad, right and wrong (Romans 1-2). Any time we get angry at injustice or praise kindness, we show that by our actions we affirm their existence (see the moral argument for God’s existence here). Moreover, we just know some things are “right” and others are “wrong”. One challenge to the existence of objective moral standards could be that what we think we “know” to be right is just what our culture believes—what was considered moral a century ago may no longer be. For example, slavery was legal until as recently as 1833 in the United Kingdom, yet today purchasing and owning slaves is not only illegal but also universally condemned. This cultural shift, however, does not show that there is no right and wrong, but that cultural perception of right and wrong changes.

However, because morality is grounded in the being of God who is eternal, morality is absolute. God has revealed the moral law not only through the conscience but also through His revealed word.

7. What is the meaning of history?

History is a linear, meaningful sequence of events that leads to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity and through which He has revealed Himself. God does so most obviously by acting directly on our world. For example, He stepped into history in the person of Jesus Christ by taking on human nature, and by performing miracles when he judged the Egyptians and parted the Red Sea (see Exodus 14). God does not only act through direct interventions however but also on a larger scale. He chooses from the almost infinite collection of possible events the set that will bring about his purposes. Right from when Adam and Eve fell, God set a chain of events in motion that would culminate in the birth of Jesus Christ. From the call of Abraham to the exile of the nation of Israel and even the Roman domination of Palestine, everything was preparing the way for Christ. From this, we can also see the past has meaning because it is a record of how God works to accomplish his purposes. God reminded the Israelites never to forget what he had done for them so that they would never turn away. By remembering what God has done, we affirm what he has done and are filled with confidence about what He will do.

There is much more that can be said here, but this article should serve as a brief overview. By answering these questions according to the Christian worldview, I hope to have shown that Christian beliefs not only fit together as a logical and coherent system but also correspond with how the world actually is. If a belief system is internally consistent and empirically accurate, there are strong reasons to believe that it is actually true. 

In my next article, I will be taking a look at a Non-Christian worldview which I hope will give you a chance to gain a deeper understanding of these seven questions as well as practice at identifying worldviews that are not true.

coronavirus_world_map

Coronavirus, Show-Stopper or Conversation Starter?

It turns out plenty of things get cancelled in a pandemic. Fortunately, my flights home were not among them. Anyway, flights are a small issue in the big picture. Much graver is the cancellation that brings our term on earth to a halt: death. Mortality will be in many people’s thoughts and feelings due to COVID-19. While death is universal, the way different people think of it is worldviews apart.

God’s revelation in the Bible does not address every curious question, but it accurately covers what is important for us about death, and how death is related to other matters. Death is an enemy and a consequence of sin: ‘sin … gives birth to death.’ (James 1:15) This is a truly integrated worldview, because it connects morality with death—and thus affirms the importance and reality of morality. Christ defeated death (Hebrews 2:14), rising so that we might rise, too. Knowing that Christ came to solve our sin problem (and our related death problem) is the ultimate reassurance that God cares about us: ‘[God] who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32). Christ’s resurrection is his major confirmation of his authority and deity. So many aspects of the Christian hope—goodness (morality), God’s love, Christ’s identity, and salvation—are linked to a Christian understanding of what death is and means.

As always, doctrine has applications. To briefly cover one application: a Christian view of death, and a Christian hope, grounds an attitude of holding ambitions loosely and putting treasure in heaven. The daily life of faith and obedience can content us—in fact, it is hugely important in God’s sight. When fear distracts us, God lovingly reminds us that he is in control. C. S. Lewis put it well: ‘All schemes of happiness that are centered in this world were always doomed to a final frustration… If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered.’ On the other hand, there is great value in the simple daily walk of a life ‘humbly offered to God.’

This is from Lewis’ sermon “Learning in War-Time”. In it, he talks about the fear of death and sense of crisis arising from the onset of World War II. He emphasised that the crisis did not change the fundamental realities of death (or of resurrection either). If this wisdom holds for Lewis’ World War II environment, then it holds for other widely-experienced crises, especially a comparatively smaller one like COVID-19. But how is this wisdom, or its Christian foundation, to come out in our speech? (Within the restrictions of whatever alert level is current, of course).

When it comes to speaking about crises, Jesus’ example in Luke 13 sheds some light on the subject. In verses 1 to 5, Jesus spoke of some bone-chilling recent events (“Pilate’s Gruesome Executions in Galilee”, “Tower of Siloam Disaster”). It is worth noting that Jesus had already earned a reputation for compassion. That gave him the mana to make a point about the events without seeming to do so gleefully or sensationally.

The point Jesus made was, ‘Unless you repent, you will perish, too.’ (just like the victims of Pilate etc.) (Luke 13:5). He did not make this point out of the blue, but led up to it:

  1. First was a grounding in the here-and-now: people were presenting him with a recent event. Jesus often based his teaching in concrete experiences to make them memorable.
  2. Jesus identified the issue that this event raised: Were these victims ‘worse sinners than all [their neighbours] because they suffered this way?’
  3. Jesus addressed the issue with the truth and a call to action: ‘Unless you repent, you will perish, too.’ That is to say, the victims are not necessarily extra bad sinners, and we should remember our own vulnerability and state in front of God.

The audience’s attention to the victims in Galilee and Siloam made them more ready to think about the issue in (2). It brought up their current way of understanding the issue. More than that, it put their understanding to the test. Here were disasters—raw, recent, and vivid. Would it be satisfactory to trot out a current view—say, that God must have singled out these people as extra bad, and one should pat oneself on the back for being safe? Or would that fall flat? The time was ripe for Jesus to present the wisdom that ‘you will perish, too.’ It was—and is—a truth that is more comfortable to ignore. And yet, if the topic of death is raised, so can the other parts of the Christian story mentioned above: goodness, God’s love, Christ, resurrection, and salvation. Apologetics comes in along with that. Once we are talking about the Christian hope, we can ‘give a reason’ for it (1 Peter 3:15) when that is helpful.

What does it look like to have a conversation involving the coronavirus, death, and the gospel? It depends on who is having the conversation. God provides us with a range of friendships and opportunities with people at various points on their journeys. However, Jesus’ comments on the Galilee and Siloam disasters can illustrate some general principles, illustrated in the below stages.

1. Be Grounded in the Here and Now

It is fascinating and comforting to swap stories about a massive shared experience like a lock down. You have opinions that you itch to share, and feelings which require comfort. Give others the kindness of being a good listener. My conversations about the virus in Thailand recently covered points like, ‘My son’s school closed!,’ ‘In my home area they’re still more worried about malaria,’ ‘I wonder if my Mum in China will get the virus?’ In New Zealand, there will also be other angles; for example, ‘masks feel like a sinister sign that the public square has turned into a hospital’.

2. Identify Relevant Issues

This article has focused on mortality. The sense of crisis will make people more open to talk about it, or even bring it up themselves. (That is merely a general observation—still try to speak with sensitivity, as always). Here are three possible routes from the topic of COVID-19 to the topic of mortality:

  1. The elderly are vulnerable, and that is relevant to everyone, whether it means us or our parents/grandparents. What is the hope of an elderly believer?
  2. No age group is invincible, and ‘Death as an equaliser’ is another classic theme. Kiwis might take to it, since equality in general is a Kiwi value!
  3. Coping mechanisms, or what you do to help you get through, are the stuff of many conversations (‘I like to do x’ … ‘you should reward yourself with some x’). Cultivate Christ-based ways to cope with things, and then they can come up in conversation.

3. Address the Issues

Hope, for the elderly and for all, is based on God’s promises. The foundation that helps a Christian to cope with life relates to the above-mentioned attitudes like placing a high value on simple daily faith and obedience and recognising God’s control. Those, in turn, are founded on the incarnate Son of God’s victory over sin and death.

Remember that everyone’s current understandings of the issue of mortality could come up in stage two ‘Identify relevant issues’. Worldviews surface … and so do the unsatisfactory points of a worldview that does not fit God’s world. Consider Biblical truth on mortality (or whatever the issue is), and that will give clues for Addressing the Issue (stage 3).

There are many shapes and sizes of crises in the headlines or in our lives, whether in Galilee, Siloam, the UK, or NZ. The God who is able to ultimately heal this world is also able to bring truth to our lives. This truth is meaningful both here and now and also forever. We can learn from Jesus’ example of engaging with a current crisis and pointing to deeper things.

Luke Williamson is studying a Master in Linguistics at Payap University in Chiang Mai. When in his hometown of Hamilton, he helped run Thinking Matters events there (Mining for Truth). He combines his passion for apologetics with elements from his background including linguistics, literature, children’s ministry and evangelism.

Know Doubt

Why don’t we hear more about doubt? Could it be that we don’t talk about our doubts because some well-meaning people we looked up to told us that doubt was the opposite of faith and should be avoided? Maybe we believe that if we have enough faith, we will no longer struggle with doubt.

I don’t see evidence for that in the Bible. Doubt seems to be a common occurrence, even among those closest to Jesus.

John the Baptist is the prophet who boldly proclaimed upon seeing Jesus “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  He is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘A man is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me’”[i]. However, in the seventh chapter of Luke, while John the Baptist was in prison, he began to doubt. He sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah they had been waiting for. How does Jesus respond? Does he condemn him for doubting? He certainly could have.

No! Instead of condemning John, Jesus reminds him of the evidence: “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.[ii]” Jesus offers two lines of evidence. Firstly, that these demonstrations of power are proof that Jesus speaks with God’s authority, and secondly that they are consistent with what Isaiah the prophet said about the future Messiah. After John’s disciples left, he speaks of John to those around him, “I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John.”[iii] Jesus affirms that John is even now a great man.

Doubting Thomas is another well-known instance of doubt in Jesus’s inner circle. Have you considered how Jesus responded when Thomas said he would not believe that Jesus was alive unless certain conditions were met? “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” [iv] Jesus shows us that the response to doubt is to examine the evidence and determine for yourself what it means. Thomas responds with one of the powerful statements recorded about  Jesus’s identity. 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” [v] Doubt is not a sign of weak faith. Doubt is part of the normal experience of being human.

As humans we experience two kinds of doubt: emotional doubt and intellectual doubt. We pride ourselves on being Enlightenment driven “rational thinkers” and believe that the majority of our doubt is intellectual, but the scientific literature paints a far different story. The reality is that about 80% of our doubts are emotionally driven.

Emotional doubt occurs when we experience painful feelings of loss, or confusion. Maybe we don’t feel close to God, or we don’t feel loved by Him. Maybe we feel like our prayers are unheard because they aren’t answered in the timing and the manner that we want. As people well aware of some of the arguments for our faith, we can often respond to someone who is experiencing emotional doubt with intellectual arguments. As Mary Jo Sharp shared with us two years ago, we would be better off asking “Do you need answers right now, or do you just need a hug?”. When we don’t feel comfortable expressing our inner emotions, it can present as an intellectual argument. Are we willing to take the time to discover what’s really going on beneath the surface?

I remember having many vigorous debates with an atheist friend of mine around the Problem of Evil and Suffering. It felt like we never got anywhere because we both returned to the same arguments and at times, we both grew frustrated. Then one evening, an infrequent attendee of our meetings asked him why he had left the Christian faith.

He shared how his grandfather had suffered with a terrible cancer before he finally died. He admitted that he couldn’t believe in a God who allowed that kind of suffering.  All of my arguments had missed the mark because I hadn’t taken the time to learn his story and find the root cause of his pain.

When you doubt, don’t be afraid to explore the doubt more deeply, and to be honest with yourself about the kind of doubt you are experiencing. Find trustworthy people to talk to. Ask thoughtful questions. Engage with the evidence and see where it leads. A warning: if you only seek support for what you are feeling, you will find it and it might lead you away from faith if you don’t hear both sides. However, I am confident that if we genuinely seek answers, if we listen humbly to those who have gone before, God will lead us to a stronger, more vibrant life of trust in Him and His goodness.

If I hadn’t doubted the existence of God or my reason for believing, I wouldn’t have discovered the vast world of historical, philosophical and scientific evidence for the Christian worldview. My faith would have remained superficial, if it survived at all. Instead, I have faith that withstands the staunchest skeptical arguments because I made many of the same questions and then looked for answers. This enables me to also walk alongside others who are working through their own doubt. This doesn’t mean I no longer struggle with these questions. Sometimes they come back in new forms. But I have learned that although I have doubts about my faith, I have greater doubts about all of the alternatives.

Sean McDowell in his recent trip to New Zealand with his father Josh told a story that when he began to experience doubt, he was concerned about his father’s reaction. When he finally told his father, Josh responded with “Great! Now you can discover for yourself what you believe and why you believe it”. (I’m paraphrasing). Josh demonstrated a great way to engage with the doubts of his children. If we follow his example, perhaps the next generation will grow up with a robust faith that can last a lifetime.

Bruce Fraser is a Software Architect, lay Pastor, husband, father. He spent several years learning apologetics from good friends Mike Licona, Nabeel Qureshi, David Wood and Mary Jo Sharp, while living in the U. S. There he learned much about the arguments and demeanour that best communicate the Great News of Jesus to those hostile to Christianity, presenting the truth of Jesus in a way that is gentle and respects their intellect.


[i] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Jn 1:29–30). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[ii] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Lk 7:22). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[iii] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Lk 7:28). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[iv] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 20:26–27). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[v] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 20:28). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Money

A Spiritual View of Wealth and Poverty

A recent fluff piece in my local paper carried the headline: Newest Millionaires Say 16 Million Dollar Win Has Changed Their Lives. No one, I think, will find this very astonishing. But reading the article that followed I realised something important. I realised that I no longer envy winners of lotteries. On the contrary, they fill me with a sort of spiritual unease.

Analysing that unease, I find myself thinking of Leo Tolstoy. In 1901, the first Nobel Prize for Literature went to the French poet Sully Prudhomme. History seems to have forgotten Prudhomme and the “lofty idealism” which the Nobel committee declared itself to be recognising in awarding him the prize. Tolstoy was also nominated for the award but was passed over because of his radical religious and political views. That did not sit well with everyone. Following the decision, Tolstoy received a letter from a group of Swedish artists and critics who were scandalised that he had not won. But critical opinion had no discernible influence on the committee. The very next year, 1902, Tolstoy was passed over again.

Tolstoy’s feelings about all this are well-known: He was relieved not to have received the award because of the hundred thousand dollars that came with it. “It has saved me the predicament of managing so much money,” he wrote of the second snub. “Such money, in my opinion, only brings evil.” [1] In fact, the prospect of winning troubled Tolstoy so much that upon his third nomination—and aware that this time he was favoured to win—he wrote a letter to his friend Arvid Jarnefelt, a Finnish writer, entreating him to do everything in his power to ensure that he did not win.

Why did Tolstoy think money might bring evil? I think he was afraid that by gaining money he would risk losing something of immeasurably greater value than money—aware, as I think he no doubt was, of the complicated relationship between material and spiritual goods.

Few people today will immediately appreciate the point. There is a widespread assumption that material goods are always good and the lack of them is always bad. Surveying the distribution of wealth in our world, for instance, we observe what appears to be a notorious injustice. There are good people who are poor and bad people who are rich. And what is more: The bad people are often rich because they are bad—having gained wealth through greed, dishonesty and exploitation. For theists this seems to pose a riddle. If an all-powerful and all-good God superintends the universe, why does he permit this obvious injustice?

Aquinas, who considers the question, cautions us to identify and avoid the operating assumption. Neither poverty nor wealth are good or bad in themselves. Everything depends on the associated circumstances. God, suggests Aquinas, can punish with poverty and reward with wealth as is commonly supposed. But Aquinas suggests that God can also punish us with wealth and reward us with poverty. And the idea, while counterintuitive, is easily reasoned out.

Consider two parallel cases,

A. John is greedy by nature and succeeds in amassing enormous wealth. Thereafter, all his energy goes into guarding and increasing that wealth. Perhaps he also finds himself surrounded by flatterers and gold-diggers. He accordingly becomes suspicious of everyone and trusts no one and does not have any true friends. Plausibly, too, all manner of hedonistic indulgences tempt him—drugs and alcohol, promiscuous sex and prostitutes, extravagant but vacuous parties. It does not occur to him to give to the poor, or else it does occur to him and by consistently ignoring the deliverances of his conscience he grows morally callous. His wealth, moreover, blinds him to spiritual truths—to the good of humility, virtue, compassion, chastity, prayer. He develops an exaggerated notion of his own importance and agency. He does not have occasion to reflect on his finitude and mortality but it remains a fundamental truth about him that he is finite and mortal. He dies and, like everyone else, stands empty-handed before God to face judgment.

B. David is greedy by nature but fails to amass any wealth; he lives, in fact, a life of poverty. Flatterers and gold-diggers see right away that they have nothing to gain from him and so have nothing to do with him. Anyone who does continue to associate with him perceives some intrinsic good in him and the association brings this good to his attention and provides him with an opportunity to cultivate it. If there is pleasure in his life it is of a simple sort and obtained through having a grateful, frugal heart—a tasty walnut, a visit to the sea, a beautiful bird on his lawn. His plight, moreover, primes him to develop compassion for his fellow human beings and fosters in him a spirit of stoicism, forbearance and patience. He does not develop an exaggerated notion of his own importance and agency. On the contrary, he is acutely conscious of his finitude and mortality. At some point his suffering may even goad him into wondering at the ultimate purpose of his existence—which in turn may lead him to God. He dies and, like everyone else, stands empty-handed before God to face judgment. 

There may be a third scenario in which poverty is either man’s downfall because it leads him into a life of crime. And there may be a forth in which wealth is either man’s salvation because he eventually discovers the good of philanthropic generosity. But recall: Aquinas is not arguing that wealth and poverty are good or bad ipso facto. That is precisely the point he is arguing against. Everything depends on the associated circumstances.

Why, if that is so, did Tolstoy abhor the prospect of sudden wealth? I think it is because when we think carefully about poverty and wealth it is clear that wealth entails a more serious moral and spiritual risk than poverty. If we are wealthy we have a moral obligation to be generous. “If you have two coats in your wardrobe,” Saint Ambrose of Milan admonished his Christian reader, “one belongs to you and one belongs to the man with no coat.” [2] But human nature is corruptible and there is every chance that we will ignore the plight of the poor and grow morally callous as a result. We will also need to resist the indulgences and distractions which wealth brings in order to obtain spiritual goods. And again, there is every chance that we will fail. The point was made by Jesus himself. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said, “than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” [3]

And there can be no doubt that Tolstoy had already reached the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy [4] and discovered a truth about spiritual goods that the modern world seems to have forgotten. God does not enjoin us to seek them because he is a puritanical miser who begrudges us worldly pleasure. He enjoins us to seek spiritual goods out of generosity: Because they are intrinsically and infinitely better than worldly goods. And God, being perfectly good, wants to give us the very best things he has to give. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus said. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” [5]

Ben Mines is a Christian Apologist and author based in Auckland, New Zealand.

—————————————————————————

[1] Quoted here on the website for the Intercultural Institute of Languages.

[2] Quoted in The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path by Robert E. Barron.

[3] See Matthew 19:24.

[4] See here. Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist, organized human needs into a now-famous hierarchy where basic bodily needs sit at the bottom, social and intellectual needs sit in the middle, and spiritual needs—self-actualization, transcendence—sit at the top. Each need is built on the one below but true human fulfillment is realized only when one reaches the top of the hierarchy where spiritual goods are obtained. Interestingly, near the end of his life, Tolstoy went far beyond refusing literary prizes. He sought to renounce his own wealth, both inherited and earned, as well as the copyrights to his own works.

[5] See John 10:10

Destroying and Annoying: Why would God create mosquitos, viruses, and bacteria?

“Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12:7-10)

As a Christian biologist I’m often asked: “Why would God make creatures that only destroy and annoy?” I myself have struggled with this question, especially just after being nipped by a particularly mouthy horsefly. I once asked this question to a Christian medical doctor and her response was simply, “I guess God gave Satan his own paintbrush.” Her response grieved me even more than my question had. Surely the Prince of Darkness was not co-Creator of our world, but the Prince of Peace. Yet the death and suffering we observe due to a myriad of seemingly evil micro-critters bids us seek an answer. This article will explore the trifecta of organisms most well-known for their destruction and annoyance of the human race; namely, mosquitos, viruses, and bacteria.

MOSQUITOS

Mosquitos are positively ubiquitous. They live 8,000 feet high in the Himalayan mountains, and deep below sea level in the California desert. As recently as 1870, the idea that a mosquito could kill was considered preposterous. Today we understand that a million people die each year from malaria alone. Dengue fever (which I have personally enjoyed, along with malaria), Zika virus, Chikunguya, and others have resulted in countless lives lost. If God chose to make mosquitos, why on earth? Our answer lies in the mosquito’s natural history.

Females perch daintily on the surface of the water and lay eggs in two long rows. The eggs bow upwards at the ends, giving it the appearance of a tiny canoe made of pearls. When the eggs hatch, mosquito larvae serve to clean the water of their aqueous habitat because they eat detritus (waste material). Larvae also feed on fallen bug carcasses, thus cleaning the surface of the water. While larvae benefit aqueous ecosystems, most of our qualms with mosquitos have to do with this stage: the successful production of offspring.

Interestingly, most mosquitos will never bother you. There are more than 3,000 species of mosquitos, but only 200 bite humans. It’s important to realize that, as a rule of thumb, only the females bite, and only when they are reproducing. It is estimated that only one in a million mosquitos at a given time will bite. Females need protein to make eggs, and without a blood meal they will be unable to reproduce. Male mosquitos are usually purely nectarivorous. Females also stick to nectar when they are not trying to produce eggs. This drinking of nectar is very important ecologically, as mosquitos are major plant pollinators. In fact, some plants are only pollinated by mosquitos! Also, mosquitos are basically little buzzing candies. Birds, frogs and fish enjoy eating those sugar-packed insects.

Mosquitos have benefited science in many ways, the most major being the design of their proboscis. This has inspired scientists to design less-painful hypodermic needles. Work is also being done on insertion guides for placing electrodes into the brain, and a study of mosquito saliva to determine its special properties.

VIRUSES

Everywhere we find life, we find viruses, and in staggering abundance. 1 mL of ocean water contains about 100 million virus particles. Estimates indicate there are 1031 viruses on Earth. If we could weigh all the viruses on Earth, they would equal the weight of 75 million blue whales. At the offset, this sounds like a major concern. Indeed, viruses like influenza, herpes and measles kill 10 people every hour globally . Yet virologist AJ Roberts writes: “The vast majority of viruses on planet Earth are not associated with disease or suffering. In fact, they are critical for sustaining balance in Earth’s ecological webs.”

But just how do viruses provide this delicate balance of Earth’s ecology? At every level, it would seem. Bacteriophage, for instance, help keep our bodies’ microbiomes in balance so that we don’t become overrun by bacteria.

Also, the next time you enjoy a gentle rainstorm, thank a virus. We would not have the same precipitation cycle without them!

Aerosoled viruses hang out in the upper atmosphere and help create nucleation (clustering) to initiate precipitation. Viruses are also essential for our ocean ecology. Viruses split open 40-50 percent of the bacteria in Earth’s oceans on a daily basis, releasing gobs of organic molecules into the food chain for other organisms to survive on.

The vast majority of virus activity has a symbiotic effect . These viruses help plants, insects, and many other organisms to survive under otherwise impossible environmental conditions. Certain viruses even protect plants from the infection of detrimental viruses.

Viruses have enabled us to make leaps and bounds in science. At least 15 Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research based on virus-dependent work. Viruses were used to discover the triplet base codon nature of the genetic code, RNA splicing, and tumor suppressor genes. The virus used in the polio vaccine helped lessen global cases from over 350,000/yr in 1988 to less than 500/yr in 2013. Today viruses are used to fight cancers, genetic illnesses, and chronic infectious diseases.

As AJ Roberts said: “Although a few viruses are remarkably bad, we dare not put all viruses in that category. In fact, life as we know it would not be possible…without the vast array of viruses that fill the planet.”

BACTERIA

Similar to the viruses and mozzies, we are often only aware of the detrimental ramifications of bacteria. ‘Bad’ bacteria are extremely bad, especially when they are resistant to antibiotics. According to the CDC, at least 2 million people in the U.S. are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, leading to the death of at least 23,000 people.

Yet, on the whole, bacteria are key organisms in biogeochemical and metabolic processes. They play an essential role in the earth’s biodiversity, both on terra firma and in aqueous environs.

We have found extensive populations in the Arctic and the Antarctic, and everywhere in between. Bacteria appear wherever other organisms are, and they are sometimes found where there is no other evidence of life. Bacteria are essential for human existence. In fact, there are 10 times more microbial cells than human cells inside a human being. So in a sense, you are more bacteria than you are human! But don’t think about that too much or it might make your stomach hurt. And speaking of your stomach, the highest numbers of microbial species in a human are found in your gut. Helpful strains of E.coli and Streptococcus aid in digestion, stave off harmful pathogens, and help develop the immune system. The disruption of gut bacteria has been linked to many disease conditions. We are dependent on the services of commensal bacteria for not just digestion, but for many aspects of our health.

CONCLUSION

We have much to learn about mosquitos, viruses, and bacteria. The hand of God crafted each of these creatures with a lovely purpose. We can solidly say of this trifecta, as God said, “It is good”. Yet we can also see the destruction they cause and say, “It is fallen”. This sinful, broken world is not as it should be. But if we look close enough, we still see God’s fingerprints on the gently buzzing mosquito, the wandering virus, and the fastidious little bacterium.

WORKS CITED

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Variants Attain Temporal Advantages During Systemic Infections and in Turn Resist other Variants of the Same Virus. Scientific Reports, 5.

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rzim_academy_logo

Review: The RZIM Academy Core Module

The RZIM Academy Core Module, developed by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, is equipping people from more than 135 countries to confidently engage with the tougher questions directed at the Christian faith. Nearly 12,000 students have taken this course, which is entirely online and uses a learning structure designed by Oxford University. Students are encouraged to interact with each other through a moderated online discussion forum. Here they are challenged to respectfully engage with those outside and inside the Christian faith. In this review I have given an overview of what this course will equip you with, and what I have personally learnt through completing the course myself.

Course Overview

The Academy Core Module comprises of 2-3 lectures every week, a weekly quiz, forum posts and assignments. Each week new subjects are released to the online learning platform. The lecturers are world class theologians and apologists, (Ravi Zacharias, Amy Orr-Ewing, Vince Vitale, John Lennox, and Alister McGrath to name a few) who teach on many topics. These include: The problem of evil, the resurrection, morality, worldview, other religions, and the new atheists.

Ravi Zacharias explains the need for bridging a questioner’s head to their heart. To do this one must first understand the questioner behind their question. One must understand their worldview. This means a large percentage of the module is dedicated to teaching the Christian worldview. It teaches that the Christian worldview, rationally provides answers to humanity’s four major questions: Where do we come from? (Origin), What does life really mean? (Meaning), How do I differentiate between good and evil? (Morality), and What happens when we die? (Destiny). Students also learn how to understand and compare the Christian worldview with differing worldviews.

If the solid course content isn’t enough to challenge you to equip yourself with this resource, here are two more great incentives for taking this course. These are, once finished you will be invited into RZIM Connect, a global online home for the RZIM family. Here you can join the Core Module alumni group which gives you continual access to all of the learning material. And for the avid student, the RZIM Academy also offers topic specific courses upon completion of the Core Module. At the time of writing these, they were: Why Suffering, Islam, Bible, Science, Engaging the Modern World, and What Does it Mean to be Human?

What I’ve Learnt Personally

As a mother of two young children, I found the course time manageable and extremely rewarding.  We learnt early on that the most important part of apologetics is the apologist themselves. The first section of 1 Peter 3:15, a verse used widely in apologetics, tells us to, “set apart your heart as holy unto the Lord”. This taught me that you can have all the answers but if Jesus is not placed first in your heart, your defense for Him will be shallow and meaningless. Our ultimate goal is to point people to the person of Christ. We need to be ready to defend Christ and share our hope and faith in Him; however, who we are in Christ is our strongest witness to the world. As Ravi Zacharias has said, “I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been it’s inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out”.

Final Word

The RZIM Academy Core Module will provide you with plenty of answers. It also may challenge you to step outside your comfort zone, to rise up and be a powerful witness for the Kingdom of God. Most importantly, I believe it will deepen and strengthen your faith in Christ as it has done for me. I highly recommend taking some time out of the sometimes constant busyness of life to focus on equipping yourself to engage with a culture that is drawing further and further from our wonderful saviour Jesus.

This course has monthly intakes. Click here for more details, course start dates, or to sign up.

A Christian Response to Christchurch, III: The Problem of Evil

Part I | Part II

In this trilogy of articles I highlighted the key features of an appropriate Christian response to the shooting in Christchurch. My first article focused on the victims; my second article focused on the perpetrator; and my third and final article focuses on the problem of evil. Overall my concern has been to show that Christianity provides a map to understanding and preventing human evil and is also able to meet the philosophical challenge presented by its occurrence. 

1. The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil is one of the oldest and most notorious objections to the existence of God. Its proponent claims that if God exists we should not experience any evil in the world—for if God is all-good, He would want to prevent evil; and if He is all-powerful, He would be able to do so. [1] The fact that evil obviously does exist proves that there is no God. In the aftermath of a tragedy like the shooting in Christchurch, even those with a strong belief in God may feel the force of this argument.

2. The Higher-Order Goods Solution

The most persuasive response to the Problem of Evil begins by exposing and rejecting its hidden assumption: That human beings are God’s pets and the universe a playground created for their unmitigated comfort and pleasure—a surmise which a single toothache suffices to falsify. Pleasure and comfort, to be clear, are good. And our world contains a generous quantity of both. But a world that contained nothing but pleasure and comfort would of necessity lack something of immeasurably greater value: What philosophers call “Higher Order Goods.”

Love, virtue, compassion, forgiveness, patience, courage, heroism and moral self-determination are among the Higher Order Goods that would be unattainable if the possibility of moral evil were removed. For, as I have argued elsewhere, all these goods are attained through the exercise of free will; and God cannot create agents with free will and prevent them from doing evil. [2] It follows that any world of free agents in which the Higher Order Goods are attainable is a world in which moral evil is a distinct possibility. [3]

In responding to the Problem of Evil a theist need not deny that the creation of a world in which humans experience unmitigated pleasure and comfort would be a morally good act. But he suggests that a divine mind may view the creation of a world like ours as a morally better act. It is good to be a contented animal free of suffering and devoid of moral significance; but it is better to be a saint. And God, being perfectly good, gives to the crown of his creation the very best He has to give: He gives us the opportunity to become saints.

The response gains additional force when we remember that suffering is a temporary feature of the created order and the goods it makes possible will endure forever. Those who develop moral and spiritual virtue during this brief period of suffering and probation will be fit for eternal communion with God at the end of time. We do not view the pain of childbirth as a senseless misfortune—it leads to the life-long bliss of motherly love. And nor should the suffering of human beings be viewed as a senseless misfortune if it leads to the eternal bliss of divine love.

3. The Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils

A skeptic who grants the general form of this argument need not completely abandon his objection. He can recognise that the Higher Order Goods are greater than pleasure. He can accept that any world in which these goods are obtainable is one in which suffering will be an unavoidable possibility. But he can nevertheless object that there is too much suffering. In its most formidable formulation, this objection confronts us with a particular horrendous evil. The American metaphysician Peter van Inwagen offers the following example. Unfortunately, this is something that really happened:

A man came upon a young woman in an isolated place. He overpowered her, chopped off her arms at the elbows with an axe, raped her, and left her to die. Somehow she managed to drag herself on the stumps of her arms to the side of a road where she was discovered. She lived, but she experienced indescribable suffering, and although she is alive, she must live the rest of her life without arms and with the memory of what had been done to her.

Inwagen calls this attack “The Mutilation” and asks: Are God’s ultimate purposes dependent on the occurrence of The Mutilation? It would seem not. Then could God have prevented The Mutilation and still achieved his ultimate purposes? It would seem so. It follows, the skeptic continues, that the Mutilation is unnecessary. And since God is all-good, He will want to prevent unnecessary horrors; and since God is all-powerful, He will be able to do so. The Mutilation proves that God does not exist.

4. The Impossibility of a Non-arbitrary Limit

Inwagen, himself a theist, responds to this objection by noting that there are situations in which the imposition of a non-arbitrary limit is logically impossible. And God seems to be in this situation with respect to the number of evils He allows.

After all, subtracting The Mutilation from history does not de-fang the objection from Particular Horrendous Evils. The skeptic could just point to another evil—perhaps the shooting in Christchurch—and ask all the same questions. But nor is a proponent of the Objection from Particular Horrendous Evils denying that the occurrence of some horrors is consistent with the existence of God. The specific assumption underlying the objection is therefore as follows: There is some minimum number of horrors n consistent with God’s plan such that the addition of a single horror (n+1) will represent unnecessary suffering that God, if He existed, would prevent.

In his article on the subject [4] Inwagen shows that this assumption is false. For any n, where the existence of n horrors is consistent with God’s plan, n-1 will be equally consistent. To ask What is the minimum number of horrors consistent with God’s plan? is therefore like asking, What is the minimum number of raindrops that could have fallen on England that is consistent with England’s having been a fertile country? Obviously, if God had stopped one or one hundred or one million raindrops from falling, England would still be a fertile country. And just as obviously, if God had allowed only one or one hundred or one million raindrops to fall, England would be an arid country. The point is this: It cannot be coherently postulated that there is some minimum number of raindrops n such that the subtraction of one raindrop (n-1) results in England being arid and the addition of one raindrop (n+1) wastefully exceeds what is required to ensure that England is fertile. But that is more or less what the Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils does postulate.

Evil is an emotional subject and Inwagen’s talk of arbitrariness may make some uneasy. It needs to be emphasised strongly, therefore, that while there is no non-arbitrary limit to the quantity of evil in our world the fact of evil is not arbitrary. We must remember that evil is an unavoidable consequence of free will and free will confers the profoundest imaginable benefits upon humankind.

5. The Conversion of the Hard-hearted

Inwagen shows us why Particular Horrendous Evils are unavoidable. But this leaves us to speculate on whether there is any positive reason why God permits them to occur. In Providence and the Problem of Evil, Richard Swinburne suggests one such a reason.

God loves evildoers and wishes for them to repent and be reconciled to Him—as discussed in my previous article. This fact, as Swinburne notes, provides a positive reason for God to allow particular horrendous evils: They make possible serious moral choices for people normally too timid or too hardhearted to make them.

This is a principle we see operating on a small scale in our everyday experience. A man too timid to defend a coworker from verbal abuse may be moved to defend him against physical abuse; a man too lazy to help an elderly neighbour struggling up the stairs with her shopping may be moved to rush to her aid if she takes a bad fall. But there exist people who, through the exercise of their own free will, have become hardhearted. And they may view physical conflict or an old lady falling down the stairs as an entertaining spectacle. To such people Particular Horrendous Evils offer the possibility of redemption.

Here Swinburne has in mind a prison guard who is moved to disobey orders by the terrible suffering of his captives; or a citizen who helps his neighbours to escape a death squad by hiding them in his basement—something which both men do at great personal risk despite being people who, in the normal course of life, were unmoved by the more moderate suffering of others. Some, while having no direct exposure to a horrendous evil, may be moved to make sacrifices in support of the victims or to campaign for reform; many others may be moved to discover and abandon their own subtle prejudices. And it is certainly plausible that some people of each type were caught up in the public outpouring of sympathy and solidarity that followed the Christchurch shooting.

6. Conclusion

This, I repeat, is an emotional subject and Swinburne’s argument needs to be read in its proper context. It is not here being claimed, simpliciter, that God is pleased to allow horrendous evils so that hardhearted people might be moved to compassion. My concern in this post has been to show that free will makes possible Higher-Order Goods which are more valuable than pleasure; that evil is an unavoidable consequence of free will; and that there is no non-arbitrary limit to the amount of evil God permits. Particular horrendous evils are therefore consistent with the existence of God. And when we think carefully about what further reason God may have for not preventing them, we find that they may also offer the last hope of moral redemption for the hardhearted.

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[1] The objection goes back as far as the Greek philosopher Epicurus who asked: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

[2] As I argue here, omnipotence needs to be carefully formulated to allow for the constraints of logical possibility.

[3] In this post, for the sake of brevity, I am ignoring natural evil. However, I think that there is also a coherent solution to this problem which I discuss here.

[4] Inwagen’s fascinating article is available here: The Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils.

A Christian Response to Christchurch, II: The Perpetrator

In my previous article, I spelled out the Christian teaching on hatred and violence. Jesus taught that we are to love others self-sacrificially and irrespective of their nationality, religion or creed. In fact, we should love even our enemies. This has two implications for a Christian response to the massacre in Christchurch. The first, already discussed, is not controversial. We are to condemn the massacre in the strongest possible terms. The second, which is the subject of the present article, is rather more problematic. We are to show the same self-sacrificial love to the man who carried out the massacre.