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Why Did God Allow the Tragedy in Newtown?

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

In the aftermath of the recent tragedy in Connecticut, the haunting question on everyone’s mind is, “Why?”   I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to that question because I have no way of knowing, nor does anyone else.  Even if we could determine why this took place, I’m not sure that it would do any good.  Knowing why it happened cannot and would not assuage our pain or the gut-wrenching agony felt by those closest to the victims.  The real anguish lies in the fact that it happened at all, regardless of any reasons why.  Even if someone could explain it to us, it would never bring back the victims-  that’s the problem.  Nevertheless, we continue to seek answers, so perhaps we do so for other reasons.

 

When people ask this question in the wake of such tragedy, it seems that they usually do so for one of two reasons:  1) to question God’s existence, or  2) to question God’s fairness or His reasons for allowing it.  With regard to the first, I have explored this question in previous posts, so I will not do so at this time.  With regard to the second question, our limited understanding would not be able to fully grasp the complexity of the reasons why an all-knowing God allowed the kind of evil we witnessed at Sandy Hook.  At best, we can only attempt to understand in a general sense some of the reasons why God permits evil and suffering in our world.  Ever since the tragedy on December 14th, several thought-provoking articles have been written that attempt to explain some of the reasons why God allows suffering in our lives.  Most of the writers have correctly pointed out the ways in which God not only can, but does bring about tremendous good, even out of something so unspeakably evil.  In fact, over the past several days since the Sandy Hook shootings, we have already seen a response of love and compassion so powerful and so far-reaching that countries from around the world have expressed their deepest sympathy and support for the small, otherwise obscure town of Newtown, Connecticut.  While it is true that God will always find a way to bring triumph out of tragedy, I want to offer a slightly different perspective as to why God allows evil and suffering in our world.  The answer may surprise you.

 

Several years ago, a student said to me, “Right now, somewhere in the Children’s Hospital, there is a child dying of cancer.  If God can do something about it, why doesn’t He?”  I explained to him that I have no way of knowing why God is allowing that child to go through so much suffering.  I then asked him to stop and consider what would happen if God did do something about it.  What if God intervened, resulting in this child being healed and released from the hospital?  Even though this child and those closest to this child would be spared that particular experience of pain and suffering, would the overall problem of evil and suffering in our world go away?  Would our question finally be resolved?  Not at all.  While God’s intervention in that particular case may solve one problem, there would always be other examples of evil and suffering that we could point to and ask why God is not willing to do the same thing for that person as well.  If we follow through with the logic of it, the question that we eventually arrive at is this:  Why doesn’t God eliminate ALL evil from our world?  Why should He allow ANY evil at all?

 

It sounds simple enough, but here’s the problem- and it’s a big problem.  While we may say that we want God to remove evil from our world, the truth of the matter is that we really don’t-  at least not all of itIn reality, the moment we submit our request for God to rid the world of evil, we immediately begin to pick and choose which evils God should prohibit and which ones He should allow.  On the one hand, we demand that God do away with the evil that offends us.  On the other hand, we somehow expect God to ignore and overlook the evil that we enjoy- the ones that bring us pleasure, that we participate in, and that we try to justify.  We insist that God should stop the evil things that others do, but not the evil things that we do, personally.

 

When it comes to this whole matter of which evils God should judge and which ones He should leave alone, it should come as no surprise that most of us assume that God’s judgment will pass over us.  We assume that anything we’ve done wrong is not really all that serious.  We certainly wouldn’t characterize anything we’ve done as “evil”.   But lest anyone think that they haven’t done anything worthy of God’s judgment, please keep in mind that the offenses you and I commit are not just against other people- ultimately, they are offenses against God.  It’s equally important to understand that in order to know whether or not an offense is serious, it doesn’t do any good to ask the one who committed the offense (us), we must ask the one who has been offended (God). Above all else, God is absolutely holy, righteous and just.  The offenses we’ve committed against Him that we would consider “trivial” are not trivial to God.  Just as the tiniest speck of blood on a white shirt is noticeable to everyone, all of our offenses become obvious against the background of God’s holiness and absolute perfection.

 

That being the case, if God were to grant our request to remove all evil from our world right here and right now, He would not do so according to our flawed, arbitrary, ever-changing opinions, it would be according to HIS standard of justice.  If so, then no one-  not me, not you-  no one would be left standing.  Once we understand what it means to say that God is holy, we begin to realize just how serious our state of affairs really is.  Instead of demanding that God rid the world of evil right now, we should be grateful for the fact that He has chosen to do otherwise.  Even though we may not understand the reasons why God allowed the events to unfold at Sandy Hook, we can at least understand in a general sense that God temporarily allows evil in our world because He is restraining His justice for now, thereby demonstrating His incredible patience, mercy and forbearance toward guilty people like you and me that deserve otherwise.

 

In the end, God will deal with evil once and for all.  Until then, He has done something about the problem of evil by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, into this world.  Through Jesus’ death on the Cross and His resurrection from the dead, God has provided a way for us to be pardoned and acquitted of our offenses against Him if we surrender to Him.  In addition to this, because God was able to bring about tremendous good (resurrection) out of the greatest evil in history (the crucifixion of His Son), we know that we can trust Him to do the same with the tragedy in Newtown.

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Posted in Evil | 3 Comments »

The Evolution of Design?

Monday, July 16th, 2012

(This month, Renewed Thoughts has the pleasure of featuring an article by my good friend and Christian apologist, James Umber).
As one who practices architecture (though I am not yet a licensed architect), I have often thought about the purpose of architects. And you can be certain that anyone who has had to pay an architect’s fee has asked, “Why do we need an architect anyway?” While architects bring to a project a technical knowledge about building codes, materials, systems, construction methods and environmental factors, the fact of the matter is that many general contractors have very much the same knowledge. Fortunately for the future of my discipline, there is an additional skill that architects uniquely bring to the table. Namely, it is art.
The architect is supposed to create art with the building materials. While a painter may use a knowledge and experience of water colors and a sculptor may use a knowledge and experience of marble, the architect uses the knowledge and experience discussed above to create beautiful and meaningful forms that, simultaneously, have a practical purpose. This is why many architecture schools devote much of the instruction time to helping students cultivate a sense of beauty, or in philosophical terms, an aesthetic sense. And this is the unique skill that the architect brings to a client. But this skill is quickly losing its value in our culture. While our society increasingly rejects a theistic worldview, we are eroding the very foundation of aesthetics.
This cannot be illustrated any better than by simply pointing to the cumbersome attempts by many modern scholars to explain aesthetics without any reference to a transcendent creator. One such example is the following short video lecture by the late Dr. Denis Dutton:
http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/01/beauty_explaine055681.html
Dr. Dutton’s aesthetically captivating presentation correctly identifies that many aspects of aesthetics are universal. How does he explain this universality? Does he give any credibility to the idea that objective aesthetics might be grounded in an author of aesthetics (i.e. a Creator as the locus of certain aesthetic “laws,” if you will)? Does he even mention the idea? No. Instead, he laboriously tries to take the long way around the obvious answer, to explain aesthetics as a byproduct of evolution, all the while assuring us that this is the best explanation. The only other alternatives he gives are relative aesthetics.
But, here is the real irony. Even a Darwinian aesthetic is a relative aesthetic. It is relative to “that which helps us pass our genes on more efficiently.” If cheap, ugly buildings (like the ones linked, below) help people save money, which helps them survive better, which helps them pass their genes on more efficiently; then, such buildings are (by definition) beautiful.
Yet another problem with Darwinian aesthetics is that it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It is intended to explain (in retrospect) why we found something to be aesthetically pleasing. It does not explain why we ought to see things as aesthetically pleasing that we don’t already see as such. It is a variation on the “is / ought” fallacy (i.e. You can’t get an “ought” from an “is”). A Darwinian theory starts with what “is” aesthetically pleasing and posits what “is” causing it. A theistic theory of objective aesthetics starts with a ground or locus of aesthetics that has the authority to prescribe what we “ought” to find aesthetic.
You see, under a theistic theory of aesthetics architects can discover aesthetic principles, go to school to learn aesthetic principles, hone their aesthetic sense, and they can even make recommendations to their clients about what will be beautiful and what will not. Put simply, aesthetics is a legitimate discipline in which architects specialize. Under a Darwinian theory, each person’s aesthetic sensibilities are what they are for evolutionary reasons. There is no need for training and there is no need for guidance from anyone else. Each person’s sense of beauty is just as valid as anyone else’s. Aesthetics is not a discipline, but a matter of personal preference. So, save yourself some money and have the contractor build what seems beautiful to him. It might even help you survive better.

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Posted in Philosophy | 2 Comments »

The Birth of Jesus- Myth or History?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

It looks like American Atheists is at it again.  Just in time for the holidays, the organization has sponsored billboards all over the country to wage war on Christianity.  The orange and black billboard displays four images:   a statue of the Roman god Neptune, Santa Claus, a guy wearing a suit and a devil mask, and a classical portrait of Jesus Christ.  The sign is punctuated by the words, “37 million Americans know MYTHS when they see them-  What do YOU see?”  All of this comes as no surprise since the same organization held a similar campaign last year in which they put up billboards depicting The Nativity with the accompanying message, “You KNOW it’s a myth-  this season, celebrate REASON.”  The obvious common denominator between the two signs is the message that Jesus is nothing more than a myth.

If given the opportunity to speak to those who designed the billboard, here are a few questions that I would like to ask them:  “Just for clarification, when you make the claim that Jesus is just a myth, do you mean that the entire story of Jesus is a myth?  Are you saying that Jesus was not a real person in terms of history, or are you specifically referring to the miracles attributed to him?  That is, are you saying that Jesus was a real, historical figure, but any details referring to his virgin birth and miraculous acts are mere fabrications that were added to the historical account?”   All of these questions are very important, so I want to take a moment to address them separately.

For starters, let’s investigate the claim that the entire story of Jesus is a work of fiction.  Is it true that Jesus was not a real person in terms of history?  The fact of the matter is that you would be hard-pressed these days to find a respectable scholar, even among critics of the Bible, who is willing to make such a bold claim.  Nevertheless, there are a few people in academia who continue to insist that the Jesus of the New Testament never actually existed.  Those who hold such a view will oftentimes state it this way;  “Outside of the New Testament, we’ve never found any other ancient writings that acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as a real, historical figure.”

In response to such a statement, the first thing we need to ask the critic is why is it necessary to find a source outside of the New Testament?  In other words, even if it was the case that the New Testament documents were the only historical records that mention Jesus, why isn’t that sufficient?  Why must we accept the terms set by the critic who demands that the New Testament documents are unacceptable unless they are supported by other, additional writings?  This raises another related question:  Why is it that the New Testament documents are assumed to be “guilty until proven innocent” when nearly every other ancient historical document is approached on the basis that it is trustworthy until proven otherwise?  There is no reason why the New Testament writings should be treated any differently or with any less respect than we give to any other historical documents, especially in light of the fact that the New Testament documents are better attested to than any other ancient documents in terms of manuscript evidence alone.  In addition to this, the New Testament surpasses most other ancient documents in terms of confirmation through archaeological discoveries.

Take, for example, the book of Acts which is a historical record of the early Christian church immediately following the resurrection of Jesus.  If the book of Acts is merely a work of fiction by the author (Luke), then one could easily expose it as such.  It leaves itself open and vulnerable to careful scrutiny by virtue of the fact that it is filled with very specific details in terms of naming exactly who, what, when, where, why, and how the alleged events took place.   In his scholarly work, “The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History”, historian Colin Hemer painstakingly verifies Luke’s accuracy in the book of Acts by identifying in precise detail 84 facts recorded by Luke that have been confirmed by archaeological and historical research.  Luke’s careful attention to detail in recording historical events led British archaeologist Sir William Ramsay to conclude after thirty years of study, “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…..this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”  (“The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament”, p.222).

So, what does all of this have to do with the question of whether or not Jesus was a real person in history?  The author of the book of Acts is the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke in which he carefully records a detailed account of the birth of Jesus, as well as his life, ministry, miracles, trial, execution and resurrection.  The point is, since Luke has proven himself to be an accurate historian in the book of Acts, we have good reason to think that he was just as careful in meticulously gathering and recording the historical facts surrounding the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospel of Luke.  Furthermore, this affirms the historical accuracy of the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) where the events they record correspond to the details given in Luke’s Gospel.  The abundance of historical and archaeological evidence in support of the New Testament should be enough to convince any honest, open-minded person that the Gospels give us an accurate, reliable, historical record of the life and words of Jesus.  The New Testament documents stand on their own merits according to the generally-accepted methods of historical investigation.  But for the sake of the hard-core skeptic who insists on citing ancient sources outside the Bible, there are several non-Biblical sources from the ancient world which affirm the historical certainty of the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Such sources would include the writings of Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Phlegon, Thallus, Seutonius, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, Tacitus, Celsus, and the Jewish Talmud.  (It’s worth noting that the last three in this list are not only non-Biblical sources, they could be considered anti-Biblical sources).

This brings us back to the initial claim by American Atheists that Jesus is just a myth.  As we’ve seen, they certainly cannot mean that he never existed.  They can only mean that they believe that the miracles recorded in the New Testament, such as his virgin birth, are nothing more than fanciful additions to the story of Jesus.  However, this, too, is an assumption that is not based on evidence or good scholarship.  It is a misguided conclusion based on an atheist bias.  That is to say, before they even look at the evidence, they already have their minds made up that God does not exist.  Therefore, miracles (being an act of God) cannot and do not occur.  Their bias demands a naturalistic explanation.

However, such a false conclusion about the “impossibility” of miracles is not only unnecessary, it is irrational, especially in light of the cumulative evidence for God’s existence.  The latest discoveries in cosmology, physics, biology, genetics, etc. all point unmistakably to a Divine Architect.  That being the case, it logically follows that if God has the authority and power to bring the universe and everything in it into being at His command, then it is not beyond His power to send His Son into this world in an extraordinary way, born of a young virgin, in fulfillment of a prophecy given by Isaiah almost 700 years earlier.  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’-  which means, ‘God with us’.”  (Matthew 1:22,23)

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Posted in Bible | 8 Comments »

Will The Real God Please Stand Up! (Part 3)

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

I began this series by exploring some of the reasons why beliefs about God cannot all be true. I then asked if there was any way to test the various beliefs that we have about God in order to determine which of those beliefs are more likely to be true.  What followed from that was a summary of the evidence that we find in various areas of philosophy and science that strongly support the idea that God exists.  In addition to that, we found that this same evidence provides clues that can give us some insight as to the nature and character of God.  Using that criteria to test the validity of various beliefs about God, I pointed out that only Judaism, Islam, and Christianity had passed the test thus far.  The only question that remains is this:  Is there any way to determine which of those three is most likely to give us the truth about God?  At this point, it all comes down to a question of authority.

In order to explain what I mean, we need to return to the example that I gave in part one of this series.  (If you haven’t read part one, it would be helpful to do so before reading further).  We imagined a table upon which I had collected papers that you sent in to me that expressed the various and contradictory beliefs that you have about my dad whom you’ve never met.  Now imagine that I write down a detailed description of my dad and add it to the pile.  Out of all of the descriptions, which description carries the most authority in giving us the truth about my dad?  Obviously it would be my description in this particular case.  When it comes to the truth about my dad, I can speak with authority on that topic, only because I have “inside information” about him as a result of having a privileged, unique, personal relationship with him.  The point is, on any given issue, it is always the case that some people are going to be in a better position than others when it comes to having access to the truth about that issue or topic-  it’s unavoidable.  It’s important for us to note that there is nothing “arrogant”, “intolerant”, or “narrow-minded” about someone claiming to have the truth about something, so long as they have the credentials to speak authoritatively on that topic.

Now let’s apply that same principle in our attempt to find the truth about God.  The question that we all need to ask is this:  Is there anyone in history whose life and words were so unique, so extraordinary, so different, and whose credentials are so obvious that if anyone has access to the truth about God, it would have to be that person?  May I suggest that the most likely candidate is Jesus of Nazareth.  Let’s consider his credentials.  He was born of a virgin.  (It’s worth noting that this detail about Jesus is even acknowledged in the Qur’an).  Those who knew him admitted that they could find no fault in him.  He fulfilled the Old Testament Messianic prophecies down to the finest detail. He was seen by eye-witnesses to demonstrate power over nature, to heal the sick and to raise the dead.  Finally, as the ultimate proof of his authority, he raised himself from the dead, as verified by numerous eye-witnesses including his enemies (Saul, for example).  In short, Jesus’ qualifications put him in such a unique category that if anyone has the “inside track” when it comes to the truth about God, if anyone can speak with authority on this topic, it has to be him.  If Jesus doesn’t know, then no one does.  The only way we will ever know the truth about God is to take Jesus’ testimony seriously.

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Posted in Theology | 2 Comments »

Will The Real God Please Stand Up! (Part 2)

Saturday, October 15th, 2011

In part one of this post, I was taking a look at some of the clichés that have become popular in our culture when it comes to religion-  namely, the idea that “all beliefs about God are equally true.”  In the process, we discovered that slogans of that kind often make the mistake of treating belief and truth as if they are the same thing when, if fact, they are not at all the same thing.  Furthermore, we established that all beliefs about God cannot be true because they are making contradictory claims about God.  This eventually led to the question:  Is there any way that we can verify which beliefs about God actually correspond to the truth about God?  Before proceeding to that question, I think that it would be best to begin by addressing those who would insist that it’s rather pointless for us to even ask such a question since we cannot know anything about God.  In response to that, let me quickly say that if God has chosen to remain anonymous by leaving it entirely up to us to figure it out for ourselves, then they are correct-  we cannot know.  However, if God has chosen to reveal himself to us by some means, then this gives us the ability to sort out which beliefs about God are more likely to be true about God.

There are many compelling reasons why I think that God has, in fact, intentionally revealed himself to us.  Both time and space in this post do not allow for a thorough presentation of the various evidences from philosophy and science for the existence of God.  That alone is such a huge topic that it deserves and requires a series of posts that I plan to address in the future.  For now, let it suffice to say that the list includes such evidence as the origin, immensity, and fine-tuning of the universe, the information content of DNA, the countless examples of obvious design that we observe in nature, and our shared moral intuitions that transcend time and culture.  When all of the evidence is combined, it requires an intelligent Cause of the universe and everything in it, who is greater than the universe itself.  In order to best explain the evidence, this First Cause must be self-existent, eternal and all-powerful (to explain the universe), all-knowing (to explain the complexity and variety of living things), moral (to explain our shared moral intuitions), and personal (to explain conscious, creative human persons).

This information alone begins the process of narrowing down the options in our attempt to determine which beliefs about God are more likely to be true.  If we begin with the evidence, as well as the characteristics that God must possess in order to best explain that evidence, it serves as a “filter” through which we can process various beliefs about God.  For example, if the combined evidence points favorably in the direction of God’s existence, then it is highly unlikely that belief systems such as atheism, agnosticism, or Buddhism are true, because they either deny God’s existence or imply that God doesn’t exist.  They disqualify themselves on the basis that they do not fit the observable evidence.  If conscious, self-aware, creative human beings (persons) are best explained by a personal Creator, then any belief system which claims that God is an impersonal force or energy immediately loses traction.  Again, they disqualify themselves because they do not comport with the observable evidence.

Once we’ve processed all of the world’s beliefs about God through this “filter”, the only three belief systems which remain are Judaism, Islam and Christianity.  Is there any way to narrow down our search any further?  Is there any way to determine which of the three “finalists” is most likely to give us the truth about God?  That will be my topic in the third and final part of this series.

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Posted in Theology | 1 Comment »

Will The Real God Please Stand Up! (Part 1)

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

“All religions are equally true.”

No religion is the ‘right’ one or the ‘only’ one.”

“It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.

It’s not uncommon these days to hear such catchphrases whenever the topic of religion or God is being discussed.  In fact, our culture today places such a premium on tolerance and diversity that if someone even suggests that all religions are not true, that person is going to be labeled as everything from “naïve” to “hateful”.  It certainly seems to be the case that over time, more and more people have come to accept the idea that all religions are true.  But is that really the case?  Is it possible for all religions to be equally true?  If not, then why have so many people bought into the idea that all religions are true?

The more I encounter this question, the more convinced I am that one of the biggest reasons that there’s so much confusion and disagreement on this is the failure of most people to understand the difference between belief and truth.  In conversation, I have found that it’s quite common for people to use those two words interchangeably as if they were the same thing, but they are not the same thing.  As we are about to see, there is a significant difference between belief and truth.

To illustrate, suppose that I asked those of you who never met my dad to write down what you sincerely believe to be an accurate description of my dad.  Write down what you believe about his physical appearance, as well as a description of his character and his personality.  Suppose that I asked all of you to submit your descriptions to me, and then imagine all of your papers spread out on a table in front of me for review.  What we now have represented on that table are various beliefs that people have about my dad.  Obviously, there will be a great deal of diversity among those beliefs because they are contradicting one another in their descriptions of my dad’s eye color, hair color, weight, height, personality, etc.

Even though this is a simple illustration, it contrasts the stark differences between belief and truth.  It tells us that:

1)  All beliefs cannot be true because they are oftentimes making contradictory claims. (My dad cannot be five feet, ten inches tall AND six feet, two inches tall!)

2)  No matter how sincere a belief may be, if it doesn’t agree with the truth, it is a false belief.

3)  The truth is not going to change in order to conform to one’s beliefs. His beliefs must change in order to conform to the truth.

Since it is reasonable to think that these unchanging, fundamental principles regarding the nature of truth apply to other truth claims as well, we have every reason to think that these same principles apply to truth claims about God.  Even though we recognize and respect the fact that there is a diversity of different cultural beliefs about God, that is a very different thing from saying that all of those beliefs are equally true!  In fact, as we’ve just seen, it is impossible for all of them to be true because in most cases they are making contradictory claims.  The atheist believes that there is no God.  Most religions believe that there is a God-  both claims cannot be true. Some religions believe that God is a vague, impersonal force whereas others believe that God is a specific, personal, moral, intelligent Being-  it cannot be the case that they are both correct.  Just as with the illustration about my dad, all beliefs about God cannot be true, and any belief about God that does not correspond to the truth about God is a false belief.

I’m not sure why we are so shocked or offended by that.  After all, entire cultures have been shown to hold false beliefs about much simpler truths.  For example, throughout history there has been a diversity of cultural beliefs about the earth with regard to its shape, its composition, and the means by which it travels.  But regardless how long or how sincerely those cultural traditions were held, their beliefs turned out to be false.  The point is, if entire cultures have been wrong in their beliefs about something that is much more accessible to them, it should come as no surprise to us that they may also be wrong when it comes to something that is much more difficult to grasp- that is, the truth about who God is and what He is like.

So, where does this leave us?  Is there any way to verify which beliefs about God correspond to the truth about God?  Can we know the truth about God?  If so, what is it?  In my next post, we will examine these questions and more.

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Posted in Theology | Comments Off

Is Morality Determined By Society?

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

In my previous post, I was taking a look at a popular approach to morality known as “moral relativism”, specifically the kind of relativism which says that right and wrong are up to the individual to decide.  I had pointed out that most relativists are not consistent when it comes to actually applying their relativistic view to real life.  In the end, they attempt to relativize any values that they don’t like, while absolutizing the values that they do like.  For example, they will often tell us that modesty, sexual purity, and abstinence before marriage are only “right” for some people (it’s “relative”).  Yet, when it comes to anything that they personally find offensive such as hate, discrimination, intolerance, or homophobia, they push their morality on others by insisting that such things are wrong for everyone-  absolutely.  As I said, this is hardly in keeping with their claim that right and wrong are “up to the individual”.   When faced with the fact that they are not living consistently within their own view, the diehard relativist will often seek refuge in another brand of relativism which says that right and wrong are determined by society.  As it turns out, this approach to morality is plagued with many problems as well and it raises a number of questions.

For example, when someone says that morality is “determined by society”, the first question we need to ask is, “Which part of society?”  This is an important question for several reasons.  Before World War II, the Jews were certainly a part of German society.  So, if society determines what’s right, then how did the Jews ( being part of that society) end up in the prison camps?  Right now, even within American society, we are split almost 50/50 on everything from same-sex marriage to abortion.  As a side-note, this “split” within American culture is the reason why it’s no longer reasonable nor meaningful for a politician to claim that he or she wants to represent “the people”, because the question could always be asked, “Which people?  Those for abortion, or those against it?  Those for same-sex marriage, or those against it?”  The point is, how can a society that is so sharply divided over moral issues be said to “determine” what’s right or wrong?

There are other problems with the notion that morality is based on whatever society says.  If something is right or wrong based solely on whatever society says, then moral reformers, by definition, would be “immoral” because they are defying that which society says is “right”.  Based on that sort of reasoning, we would have to condemn German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer for standing up against Hitler and the Nazi party when he spoke out against their crimes against the Jews.  We must also condemn Corrie ten Boom for going against society’s wishes by hiding and protecting Jews from the Nazis.  William Wilberforce would have been a “criminal” for defying society and fighting against the slave trade.  In our own country, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been considered “immoral” by that definition because he disobeyed racial segregation that was put into place by a society that had already determined what was “right”.  By the way, this is why I often ask the relativist if they believe that racism was wrong before the Civil Rights Movement.  If right and wrong are simply determined by a majority vote, then we lose the only foundation on which to say that racism is objectively wrong or truly wrong.  At best, we would be forced by our own twisted logic to say that racism is only “wrong” for now, but that may change in the future as society changes.  Now that is a frightening thought.

If there is a lesson to be learned in all of this, it is best learned by looking back in history at the Nuremberg trials in 1945 where the leaders of the Nazi party were put on trial for war crimes.  Throughout the proceedings, the defendants insisted that the Allies had no business trying them for war crimes because they (the Nazis) were operating according to the laws of their country-  they were doing what was “right” for their society.  If that’s true, if right and wrong are determined by society, then the International Military Tribunal would have never been in a position to bring charges against those who masterminded the Holocaust.  The only way that any society can be judged as “immoral” is on the basis of an external standard of what is right-  a Moral Law that transcends culture.

I am convinced that a Moral Law of such supreme authority and power can only come from God as the Supreme Lawgiver.  Undoubtedly, there are many people who will stridently disagree with me.  I would only remind them that in disagreeing with me, they are also disagreeing with Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, ten Boom, and Dr. King, all of whom shared my conviction.  One thing is for sure, justice would have never been served if the Nazis had succeeded in convincing the Tribunal and the rest of the world that right and wrong are determined by society.

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Posted in Christianity and Culture | 6 Comments »

An Inconvenient Truth About Morality

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

If you’ve ever listened in on a discussion involving a controversial issue where someone is perceived as promoting “traditional” or “Christian” values, chances are, you’ve heard one or more of the following responses:

“That’s not wrong for everyone, it’s only wrong for you.”

“That’s just your opinion.”

“What’s right for you may not be right for me.”

“Stop pushing your morality on everyone else.”

Whether they realize it or not, those who give such responses are expressing a particular view of morality known as “moral relativism”.  More specifically, they are referring to that view of morality which says that right and wrong are up to the individual to decide for himself or herself.

This concept of moral relativism has been accepted by so many people today that we hear it on a regular basis from the average person on the street (as we’ve just seen in the examples above).  Even though relativism has its share of problems as a moral view, I’m more interested in focusing at this time on the people who have adopted that view of morality-  that is, the moral relativist.  As we will see, those who say that morality is “relative” tend to be very inconsistent when it comes to how, when, and where they apply that principle.  Generally speaking, they will only play by that rule when it’s convenient for them to do so-  when it suits their own self-interests.  This explains why they claim to be a “relativist” when it comes to justifying their own lifestyle or behavior.   Yet, the moment someone does or says anything that offends the relativist, they will react as if they believe in a real, objective standard of morality. All of a sudden, they believe that right and wrong are not up to the individual to decide.

This double standard of the relativist is most noticeable when you listen carefully to the things they say.  For example, consider the following statements that are commonly expressed by the moral relativist:

“I was here first.

“That’s just wrong.

“Christians are such hypocrites.”

“You’re being intolerant.

“People who don’t support gay rights are spreading hate.

“Not allowing same-sex marriage is discrimination.

“She lied to me.”

“Someone stole my iPod.”

It’s important to understand that in all of these statements, the relativist is making a moral judgment-  they are condemning someone else’s behavior as “morally wrong” .  Here’s my point: as a relativist, it would make sense if they meant that such things are only wrong for them, but that’s not what they’re saying.  They’re saying that it’s wrong for others. To put it another way, they’re deciding what’s right or wrong for others, yet they claim to believe that it’s up to each person to decide for himself!

All of this reminds me of a conversation that I had a few years ago with a young lady named “Denise” (not her real name).  It was a few months before the 2008 elections and there was a proposition on the ballot in Arizona that was intended to preserve and protect the institution of marriage as one man and one woman by a “yes” vote.  Denise had been going around the neighborhood putting up posters and signs encouraging people to vote against the proposition because, as she put it, “Such a proposition is discriminating against same-sex couples.”  As I engaged her in conversation I pointed out that if we were going to get anywhere in our discussion, we must ultimately get down to the foundational question of every political, social, and moral issue:  by what standard does one determine what’s right or wrong?  The conversation at that point went as follows:

(Denise)-  “Well, you want to base it on God.”

(me)-         “I think that’s the most reasonable basis for morality.”

(Denise)-   “I don’t believe in God.”

(me)-          “It’s not a question of whether or not you ‘believe’ in God.  It’s a matter of whether or not he really exists.  There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence from both science and philosophy that God really does exist.  But just for the sake of discussion, let’s pretend that he doesn’t exist.  Let’s suppose you’re right.  So, if there is no God, then on what basis are you going to decide what’s right and what’s wrong?”

(Denise)-     “That’s easy.  It’s up to each person to decide for himself.  I can’t say what’s right or wrong for you and you can’t say what’s right or wrong for me.  I can’t push my morality on you and you can’t push your morality on me.  Like I said, it’s up to each person to decide for himself.”

(me)-        “It’s easy for you to say that, but I don’t think you can live by that.”

(Denise)-       “Why not?”

(me)-              “Because a moment ago, you said that not allowing same-sex couples to marry would be discrimination.”

(Denise)-        “It would be discrimination.”

(me)-               “So, are you saying that discrimination is wrong?”

(Denise)-         “ABSOLUTELY.  Discrimination is absolutely wrong!”

(me)-               “That’s what I don’t understand.  How can you say that discrimination, or anything else for that matter, is ‘absolutely wrong’ if you believe that it’s up to each person to decide for himself whether or NOT such things are wrong?  After all, to say that it’s ‘up to the individual to decide’ is to say that it’s up to each person to decide whether or not discrimination is wrong, whether or not intolerance is wrong, whether or not racism is wrong, etc.  Do you really want to live in a world where each person is deciding for himself or herself what’s right?”

She had no response.

Denise, just like every other relativist, finds herself in the unenviable position of trying to make moral judgments, yet lacking a foundation on which to do so.  No doubt, the late Francis Schaeffer had people such as Denise in mind when he described the relativist as having “both feet firmly planted in mid-air.”

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Proteins: Taking Origami To A Whole New Level

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a pack rat, but there are some things that I just can’t bring myself to throw away. Unlike some of my friends, I’ve never collected coins, stamps, or baseball cards. The truth of the matter is that the items that I tend to hang onto would not be considered valuable by most people, but to me they are priceless. One of those items is sitting on top of my bookcase. It’s a small swan that was given to me by a friend’s daughter who had carefully folded it for me out of a piece of blue paper. Given that I find it challenging enough to re-fold a roadmap, I have a real appreciation for anyone who has the patience and the skill to do origami. Taking a sheet of paper and transforming it into a work of art is hard enough. Yet there is something else that requires folding in order to make it, and the precision with which it is folded is so critical that life would be impossible without it. This “something” that I’m referring to is a protein.

All living things are made up of proteins, and proteins are made up of “building blocks” known as amino acids. More specifically, those proteins must be made up almost exclusively of left-handed amino acids. Amino acids exist in what has come to be known as “left-handed” and “right-handed” forms. In other words, if you were to look at a three-dimensional model representing each type, you would notice that they exist as mirror-images of each other, similar to placing your hands together, touching fingertips. Again, even though amino acids exist in both forms, living things are made up almost exclusively of the left-handed kind. So, even if you have a long chain of left-handed amino acids linked together, if just one right-handed amino acid finds its way into that chain, the protein’s ability to function is diminished greatly, if not entirely. To make life even more improbable, all of the “letters” of the “genetic alphabet” in that chain must be in exactly the right sequence in order to be meaningful, much like the proper arrangement of letters in a book or a set of instructions. How improbable is it? Just ask the co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix design, (evolutionist) Francis Crick:

“If a particular amino acid sequence was selected by chance, how rare an event would this be?….The great majority of sequences can never have been synthesized at all, at any time.”

Francis Crick, “Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature”, 1981, pp.51-52

We’re not finished yet. Not only do all of the correct amino acids have to be in proper order in the chain, not only do they have to be exclusively left-handed amino acids, in addition to this, the protein must be folded into a three-dimensional configuration to exact specifications. This is a critical step because the folded protein must have the proper “lock and key” fit in order to function and to interact with the other components within the cell that require an exact match to it. To say that the protein must be “precisely folded” is an understatement. In an outstanding presentation titled, “The Origin of Life”, Mike Riddle of the Institute for Creation Research draws our attention to two different studies in order to help us understand how improbable it is to properly fold a protein. He begins with the following statement by H.J.C. Berendsen:

“Scientists have been attempting to be able to determine a protein’s native conformation (or folding) by examining the amino acid sequence. Despite years of study, the ability to do this using even the fastest computers is beyond our reach…”

“…Using a super fast computer (one quadrillion computations per second) it would take 1080 seconds, which exceed the age of the universe by a factor of 60 orders of magnitude! This fact alone may give you a better perspective on the mind of God.”

H.J.C. Berendsen, “Perspectives: Protein Folding, a Glimpse of the Holy Grail?”

-Science, 1998

Or consider another study in Los Alamos, N.M. in October 14th, 2002, where researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of California, San Diego, used some of the fastest computers available to simulate the folding of a “simple” protein consisting of only 18,000 atoms. (Again, this is after getting all of the right atoms, arranged in the right order- all it has to do is fold the protein properly). How long did it take the computers? It took 6 months on 82 parallel processors, which amounts to 34 years of CPU time! Riddle goes on to point out that by comparison, a living cell folds this particular protein in about 10 microseconds (millionths of a second), which is 100 trillion times as fast as our fastest computers. As it turns out, the fastest “computer” in the world is a cell!

All of this leads one to ask the question:  if there is so much evidence for a Creator, why do so many people, especially in the sciences, continue to deny His existence?  It all comes down to one word- accountability. That is, it’s not a problem with the evidence, it’s a problem with the heart of man. We rebel against the idea that there is anyone who has ultimate authority over us, to whom we will be accountable at the end of our lives. In our attempt to flee from God, we are willing to deny the obvious.

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”         (Romans 1:21)

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Absolutely Relative

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Over Memorial Day weekend, some friends of mine brought to my attention an interesting exchange that was taking place between a few college students on Facebook. It all began with a discussion surrounding a movie that had just recently come out.  The first student had rightly pointed out that many things about the movie, including the language, was in very poor taste.  Other comments followed as a few more students joined the conversation.  Most of the students agreed with the first guy and some of them went on to point out that movies which promote such obscene humor not only have a compromising effect on Christians who view them, they have a subtle, yet corrosive effect on our culture in general.

            As expected, not everyone agreed and it wasn’t long before some students began to challenge this idea.  One of those students was “Dave” (not his real name).  Dave, as a non-Christian, identified himself as “Ignostic”, which he said is “not to be confused with ‘agnostic’.”  In any case, Dave made it clear that he was a relativist and he made several comments to try and convince the other students that it’s pointless for them to make moral judgments about such movies because “morality is relative.”  I have no doubt that Dave is a very intelligent guy and he was very persuasive in pointing out several examples from various cultural and historical traditions which, on the surface, give the appearance that morality is “relative to cultures”.  There was one statement in particular that caught my attention as he attempted to summarize his comments by saying, “You cannot escape the context you are born into.” 

            This is not the first time I’ve heard that view expressed.  In fact, I just recently spoke to a woman who teaches political science at one of our universities who stated that this “context” view is quite common within higher education.  While it may be tempting to accept such a view purely on the basis that it’s “generally accepted” today in our colleges and universities, that should not stop us from calling it into question.  In fact, the ability to examine the strengths and weaknesses of an idea is what a good education is all about.  One thing that we often forget is that despite a great education, even a person of great intellect is capable of making egregious errors in reasoning because, just like the rest of us, they’re not perfect.  I believe that this story is an example of that.   

            There is something fundamentally wrong with this relativistic notion that “you cannot escape your context.”  To illustrate, suppose that I’m a Christian student in a college classroom and my professor has just said, “You cannot escape the context that you’re born into.”  If that really is the case, then what would be the point in teaching that to me?  As a Christian, I do not share that view.  So, in order for me to change my way of thinking and to embrace this “context” idea, I can only do so if I have the ability to step out of (“escape the context” of) my Christian worldview.  Yet, my professor has just told me that it’s impossible for anyone to escape their context!  Or suppose that someone was raised in a community that is very racist.  If he cannot escape the context that he was born into, then what would be the point in trying to persuade him that racism is wrong?   It only gets worse at this point.  What about the person who initially came up with this “context” theory?  Isn’t his theory, itself, really nothing more than a result of his or her own cultural context?  Did he come to his conclusions simply because he was raised that way?  If his theory is nothing more than a product of his context, why should the rest of us accept it, even if we could accept it? 

            This “context” view runs into the same problem that undermines all relativistic views-  they can’t live up to their own expectations.  Right from the start, they begin to lose traction because the person promoting the idea is attempting to apply his view or theory to everyone except himself (“the self-excepting fallacy”).  It’s one more example of an idea that has been allowed to take root in our culture, not because it is reasonable, but because we are either unwilling or unable to question the foundation on which the idea was built.  “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…”  (Romans 1:22)

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  • In today's world, there is a great deal of confusion when it comes to matters of truth, meaning, morality, our origin, and our destiny. The purpose of Renewed Thoughts is to bring clarity to such issues by examining them in light of a Biblical worldview, using the tools of science, philosophy, and critical thinking.